Friday 19 April 2024


Some years ago, the UK government completed a study on the food people bought and ate, and came up with a sobering result: in a time when global hunger is increasing, one-third of food in the UK is thrown away uneaten. That is about three billion pounds a year wasted – a part of the estimated one metric tonne of waste per household per year.

Of course, everyone will have some kitchen waste – no one wants to eat the potato peelings or woody stems – but throwing it in with the rest of the rubbish isn’t the best solution either. There are different kinds of decay, and when organic material is trapped away from oxygen and insects it decomposes slowly and anaerobically, releasing methane – which smells foul and contributes to climate change.

Many people would like to grow their own food, but need help with the earth, which in many yards is builders’ waste covered in a thin veneer or topsoil and turf. To grow things properly, many people need to build up their soil with organic waste.

Fortunately, all three of these problems can solve each other, and there are already volunteers ready to help in your neighbourhood. They will work hard for you 24 hours a day without complaint, they are experts at turning kitchen waste into great soil and they work for free. They are worms.

We got a wormery for Christmas this year, and it came in an easy-to-assemble kit – the bin, a stand, an interior tray and – snug in a plastic bag with air holes – the worms. We lay them gently in the tray inside the bin, spread a bit of peaty earth, shredded newspaper and a bit of kitchen waste around them, and then let them settle in.

A medium-sized wormery can process several pounds of organic waste a day – that’s several pounds you don’t have to put in bins, wrap in plastic and put outside in the cold; that won’t take up space in the landfill; and that won’t worsen climate change.

When it’s cold my daughter and I wrap insulation around the bin and placed cardboard over the top to keep them warm, and they keep going. According to worm experts, they slow down below eight degrees Centigrade (46 Fahrenheit) and stop altogether below five degrees (41 Fahrenheit). The outside temperature can go five or ten degrees below that, however, and they can still be all right if the wormery is sufficiently insulated. If you live where it regularly goes below freezing in the winter, you can bring it inside or into the shed – a well-maintained wormery should not smell foul.

A few things are not suitable for the worms. They don’t like high-protein dishes like meat, cheese or beans, acidic waste like citrus peels, too much grass, or pet poo. A little bit of these things can be okay, but not much. Most wormeries also come with an alkali powder of some kind in case the compost gets too acidic, and I'm told that seaweed, crushed eggshells or fireplace ash will also help. You can tell if it starts to smell or if you see tiny, threadlike worms. The worms – called potworms in Britain – are harmless themselves, but an indication of a problem.

One nice thing about a wormery bin is that most have a valve at the base for draining excess water. The liquid is called “worm tea,” and is about the colour of tea – dilute it and use it to water your plants.

Ordinary composting, however, has some disadvantages that every gardener knows well. One can’t simply add bones or meat – and some gardeners even avoid eggshells – for fear of attracting vermin. Also, plants that have gone to seed cannot be added, or the resulting soil will be peppered with the beginning of next year’s weeds. You can’t add diseased plants, or the diseases might remain in the resulting soil, ready to infect next year’s crops. Also, it takes a long time, and one loses much of the kitchen waste volume in the process of rotting down.

If you have enough waste, you might also try a different kind of composting, enough to heat all the hot water of your house. Called the “Berkeley Method,” it involves adding the right combination of carbon-rich and nitrogen-rich materials, and flipping it occasionally to give it enough oxygen – which grows kinds of bacteria that generate heat. This “hot composting,” generates too much heat for worms. That’s for another column, but something you should look into.

Saturday 6 April 2024

Living with animals


Virtually all our ancestors had a working relationship with animals of some kind, in any era and culture, until historically yesterday. Before we began using machines for everything, animals were the literal horsepower that carried us, the teeth that guarded us, the wings and legs that helped us hunt and fish, the oldest and most faithful of companions, lovingly nursed to life and to health. They were also, without contradiction, meat and milk and eggs and blood and life for oursleves and our children.

Many modern people treat cats and dogs as the babies they will never have, and I see first-time riders try to control horses as they do dead machines. Animals, though, are beings with their own personalities and goals, if not the words to express them.

Animals will not be measured by us,” wrote Henry Beston in his memoir The  Outermost House. “They move through a world older and more complete than ours, as finished products, gifted with extensions of the senses we have lost or have never attained, living by voices we shall never hear. They are not brethren or underlings, they are other nations, caught with us in the net of life and time, fellow creations of God and bound to the exalted Earth.”

Farmers had to be midwives, to monitor when their lamb or calf was due, help deliver, coax milk from the mother and stay with her all night -- and until electricity came in, to do all this by touch in darkness. Boland remembers sitting with his pig all night helping it give birth – which he looked forward to, as he got to skip school. Farmers trusted a man who knew animals; when he was stringing electicity cables across Ireland, John Fitzpatrick got a farmer to agree to let them cross his land when Fitzpatrick rolled up his sleeves and helped deliver a calf.

Even in the middle of the city, people had their own farmyard animals. Christy Conville said that across Dublin many back gardens housed a pig, and many had cows and hens. “I wish to stress again the ‘farm’ atmosphere of our whole district,” wrote Paddy Crosbie. “The only unusual things about the farmyard which joined onto the house in which I was born are that it was in ... Dublin, and there was no farm to go with it,” wrote Patrick Boland. Cattle were driven to market in Dublin “by cowboys on bicycles, men with overcoats and hats, furiously pedalling this way and that, whacking the cattle with their sticks and shouting at them,” Gene Kerrigan said.

Backyard animals not only gave each household meat for the year and money for selling the extra meat, but also rid the community of rubbish; “float cars were a common sight in the streets as boys or young men went from house to house looking for slop for the pigs,” Crosbie said.

With food waste, we have two sane choices; to pile it up in a compost bin and let micro-organisms decompose it naturally into soil, which we can then use to grow new crops in a garden. The even better option is to feed it to animals that will eat it and convert it into meat and animal waste; Britons did this in World War II as a national duty, and we could do so again. 

There is also one insane choice: We could transform precious sources of fuel like coal and oil into plastic, wrap the food waste in plastic to cut off all oxygen, and throw it into a pit. The chemicals in the plastic will break down over thousands of years, gradually poisoning the groundwater, and the food waste cannot decompose in the normal way, by oxygen-breathing micro-organisms. Instead, it will gradually be eaten by micro-organisms called methanogens, which release methane, one of the worst greenhouse gases. You won’t be surprised to find that this is exactly what our modern culture does; again, we split an elegant cycle into multiple problems.

Modern suburbanites might be alarmed at the idea of having livestock in their yards, but that’s what yards were for originally, when people expected to provide for themselves. As Ireland modernised, Conville said, new laws forced urban families to get rid of their animals, citing public hygiene. Yet when they had animals, Conville said, “they were getting organic meat, and you were getting it fresh. You knew the pig and where it came from; it wasn’t from Argentina or anything like that, it was from your own neighbourhood.”

Friday 29 March 2024

The Hidden Potential of Bicycles


In perhaps one of the great ironies of human civilisation, mechanical devices to truly magnify human power came along as soon as we didn’t need them.  Pedal-powered devices like bicycles only appeared after coal had already begun to transform the landscape, however – mass production was necessary for the standardised metal parts -- and around the same time that gasoline was first being introduced as a fuel for automobiles.

We tend to forget, then, three important things about the bicycle. First, it remains the most efficient method of using our bodies, allowing us to attain higher machine speeds for longer than we would on muscle power alone – and without using any more fuel or causing any more weather to go haywire.

The average modern person, by one calculation, spends more than 1,600 hours a year to pay for their cars, their insurance, fuel and repairs. We go to jobs partly to pay for the cars, and we need the cars mostly to get to jobs. We spend four of our sixteen waking hours on the road or gathering the resources for the car. Since the average modern American, by one estimate, travels 7,500 miles a year, and put in 1,600 hours a year to do that, they are travelling five miles per hour. Before people had cars, however, people managed to do the same – by walking.

By contrast, a person on a bicycle can go three or four times faster than a pedestrian, but uses five times less energy in the process. He carries one gram of his weight over a kilometer of flat road at an expense of only 0.15 calories. The bicycle is the perfect transducer to match man’s metabolic energy to the impedance of locomotion. Equipped with this tool, a person outstrips the efficiency of not only all machines but all other animals as well.

Bicycles have been used for so long as children’s toys and exercise equipment that we forget what useful technology they represent. They multiply our bodies’ speed and efficiency many times over, allowing us to travel miles without strain. Their widespread adoption in the late 19th century created a ripple of under-appreciated effects in society; for example, they allowed women to commute to jobs away from home and paved the way for the universal sufferage movement.  

Second, bicycles have seen many improvements in the last hundred years, most of which have escaped the notice of anyone but enthusiasts. Many of the bicycles we use today function mainly as toys, and racing bikes are built for speed; sturdier bicycles – often going under the name of “military bicycles” can still be ordered.

Most importantly, though, bicycles are only one of many possible pedal-powered machines that were not used for transportation. Beginning in the 19th century, factories began to make and stores to market treadles for manufacturing everything from cigars to brooms to hats. Farms used foot-powered harvesters, tractors, threshers, milking machines and vegetable bundlers, and machinists used pedal-powered drills.  

“…no matter how simple it seems to us today, pedal power could not have appeared earlier in history,” wrote Kris DeDecker in LowTech Magazine. “Pedals and cranks are products of the industrial revolution, made possible by the combination of cheap steel (itself a product of fossil fuels) and mass production techniques, resulting in strong yet compact sprockets, chains, ball bearings and other metal parts.”

Today, we have built a world that runs on fossil fuels, which won’t last forever;  eventually many of us will not be able to depend on familiar machines like cars and electronics - - either because we won’t be able to afford them, or to afford continually fixing them, or because fuel prices will be out of reach. One way or another, we will have to go back to muscle power, and the best way to do that is to revive the lost technologies of pedal-powered tools. The irony, though, is that we need to build them while we still have fossil fuels.

Perhaps more people around here will take to bicycles again, as I will now that there is enough light to get to the bus and back. Older people here remember when the bicycle was the most popular method for getting from one village to another, and the roads were safer then with so few cars. It’s possible that the schoolchildren of today will see those days again.


Friday 22 March 2024

Working in teams


According to my elderly neighbours, just as men formed meithals to bring in the hay or build a house, women to turn pigs into sausage and flax into linen, so did they form teams to lay rail tracks or carve stones or unload ships. “There was no need for leaders or bosses back then,” John McArt said of the men stringing the first electric lines across the country. “Every man was a leader and if one man was flagging there was always a colleague at hand to pick up the pieces and not let the side down.”

Most jobs were not done in isolated offices as they might be today, but in company and often in public, with the work and the results visible to all. Even in Dublin, each neighbourhood was like its own village, and elders remembered passing dozens of shops every day. “I was born in Blackhall Place and this part of Dublin, to me, always had a sort of ‘villagey’ atmosphere,” O’Donnell said. “In this area I remember saddlers, wheelwrights, blacksmiths, bootmakers, tobacconists, and bakers, and they all did a great business.” Friends gathered around  the barbers’ or the smithy to chat and watch the work. “There was something very special about the forge,” Ann Gardinier said. “It was a place people were reluctant to leave.”

Even ringing church bells required surprising training and precision. “The most complicated are sequences that have long and tricky gamuts of changes requiring a difficult and lengthy pattern to be retained in the brain as a route map and consulted all the time in the mind’s eye,” Taylor said. “The tolerance of error is a tiny percentage. Mis-timing will have a devastating effect on change-ringing, one person’s error running like a cancer through the ringing. It can only take one person to cause bad ringing, the ripple of defect running through the whole thing, a domino effect and a catastrophe…”

While corporations today might call their employees a team, they are not responsible for them, nor are the workers loyal to each other; everyone just puts in their time and leaves to their far-flung addresses at night, while their children are mostly raised by strangers and neighbourhoods evaporate into mere collections of houses. In today’s workplace one can build up many relationships, but they amount to a pile of threads, not a tapestry. Many of these craftsmen, though, had grown up in the same neighbourhood, sat together in church and were destined for the same churchyard, and had an interest in seeing each other do well. There was a great feeling of comradeship,” O’Donnell said of the 300-or-so coopers in Dublin, and the same was true for most crafts.

Photo: Jules Adolphe Aimé Louis Breton, The Gleaners, 1854. National Gallery of Ireland