Friday, 13 January 2017

Green roofs

To appear in the Kildare Nationalist next week. 

As a child I remember going to the city and looking out the window of a tall building for the first time, looking at the vast urban landscape spread out before me, and realising it was the ugliest thing ever made. The roofs, invisible to people driving down the streets, lay covered in bare gravel or nothing, with puddles gathering on them. It all seemed so unnecessary – why not plant grass there?

Others must have thought the same thing, for today people around the world are finding ways to take the wasted space on top of their buildings and turn it into greenery. Cultivating plants on your roof creates a patch of natural habitat, partially replacing what was destroyed to create the building in the first place, provides food for bees and other miniature helpers who will fertilise your garden, and helps insulate your home.

Green roofs come in many forms, the most ambitious of which are called intensive green roofs and allow for heavier weights and deeper roots of shrubs and annuals. These can combine water management systems that process waste water from the building and store surplus rainwater, and can allow the inhabitants of a building to grow anything but trees above their homes. Understandably, they generally appear in buildings made for this purpose.

The most popular and widely applicable type, though, is the so-called extensive green roof. To create one people generally cover an ordinary roof with some kind of lightweight plastic, like pool liner, and spread thin but fertile soil on top of that. The soil should be laced with grass and other seeds, and over the soil should stretch something to stop erosion until the plants grow – garden fleece, straw or some similar inhibitor.

We created a roof like this when we built a cob house in County Clare. Cob is a mixture of clay subsoil, sand and straw, and it makes a surprisingly good building material. After building the stone foundation, cob walls and wood roof, we unrolled layers of pond liner over the roof and rolled strips of grass right on. It’s still there today, and still works.

The plants should be drought-tolerant, as water will drain from them quickly, and should be hardy, as they will feel the full brunt of most weather. If the layers are lightweight, they can be added to many existing roofs without any additional structural support. Larger plants could be even better, of course, but most residential roofs will not support trees.

These roofs do not have to just carry grass, which is one of the hardiest of plants. They could carry wildflowers as well, which would create a striking cover for your home as well as fodder for insects. If you grew hanging plants like nasturtiums, you could even have the plants hang over the sides of your roof, creating awnings and shaded walkways in the seasons you need them most. The only disadvantage of wildflowers is that the flowers themselves might be short-lived, but the plants might be beautiful or advantageous in themselves.

Of course, even the thinnest green roof carries some weight, and not all roofs will be suitable. Most people aren't prepared to do this with their already-built house, so try it with your shed or chicken coop first, and decide if you want to do more; their roofs are also likely to be lower to the ground and less dangerous to work with.

Finally, even if you don’t grow anything on your roof, you could do other things with it. In hotter climates like Europe or the USA people often have dark roofs as they do here, which absorb heat and increase their cooling bill – many would do well to paint their roofs white. Other tenants of urban buildings are using their roofs for beehives, allowing the bees to pollinate urban gardens while steering clear of passing humans.

Sunday, 8 January 2017

Home schooling

Every night, for many years, my daughter and I have done home-schooling lessons together; I write them during my three hours on the bus, and we go over them when I get home. She goes to a regular Catholic school in the village, but the lessons were meant to pass on the things I wish every child learnt, and that schools no longer teach, or never did.  

Some nights we read ancient stories: Baucis and Philemon, Samson and the lion, Horatius on the bridge. Some nights we talked about ecology: what soil needs and where things hibernate, indicator species and seres, convergent evolution and niches. Some nights we talked about logic: attacking straw men and moving the goalposts, ad hominem and post hoc ergo propter hoc. Some nights we just talked, and I listened. Then we read books together, as we have every night since she was a toddler.

Now that she is an adolescent she has more schoolwork and hobbies, wants her own space, so we have been shedding layers of this ritual like snakeskin, leaving them behind as she grows. First she no longer wanted me to read to her, then she asked to no longer do the sing-a-longs of Irish folk music, and finally we cut the lessons down to week-ends. We have no plans to abandon them altogether, however, as there is much more to teach, and I’m adapting them to her new maturity. 

And some nights I just quiz her on what she’s learned, and our conversations start meandering. The other night we started talking about the Trojan War.

The Iliad and the Odyssey, I said, took place in an Age of Heroes, with lots of little warring city-states that would fish, farm, trade, raid, and colonise all over the Mediterranean. Some of them lived in what we now call Greece, some on the other side of the Aegean Sea in what’s now Turkey, in a land they called Ilium around the city of Troy –

“So Troy was the city, and Ilium the state,” she said. “like Ireland and Dublin.”

Correct, I said – hence the war against Ilium was the Iliad. And the Phoenicians were a similarly seafaring people with colonies – in Tyre, the impregnable city Alexander the Great would later …

“Impregnate?” she asked. Well, you could put it that way, I said.

“That was the offshore island, wasn’t it?” she continued. “And he had his men build a peninsula?”

Yes, it’s still a peninsula to this day, I said. The Phoenicians also founded Carthage in North Africa – at the time of the Trojan War, was ruled by Queen Dido, the one who fell in love with Aeneas.

"Who set herself on fire," The Girl said. “That’s where Hannibal was from, right?”

Right, I said – about a thousand years after the era we’re talking about, he fought Rome and almost beat them. Latin for Phoenician is Punica, so they were the Punic Wars.

Around the time of the Trojan War, though, in this barbaric Dark Age for Greece, a lot of these city-states would band together in alliances and raid the wealthier empires to the east, and the Egyptians were called the Sea Peoples.

“They were vicious,” she said.

Yes, I said – they took down the Assyrian Empire, and they took down the Hittites.

“And you do not take down the high tights,” she said.

I know, right? I responded. Otherwise they’d all be like those baggy-pants teenagers today.

Who were the original Laconic people? I asked.

“SPARTANS!” she said, pumping a fist in the air. She likes Spartans.

Excellent, I said – why is it called being laconic?

“Because Sparta was in Laconia?”

Excellent, I told her. Can you give me some examples of what it means to be laconic?

"Sure, like that author who sent the telegram to his publisher, and it was just a question mark?"

Victor Hugo, I said. After he wrote Les Miserables, he went on holiday and didn’t want to write anything anymore, because he’d just written a book the size of the Bible. But he was curious how it was selling, so he sent a telegram to his publisher “?” The publisher responded “!”
Anything else? I asked. Any instances of the actual Laconians being Laconic?

“If,” she said.

Excellent, I said – to whom?

“Um… that I don’t know,” she admitted.

Phillip of Macedon, father of Alexander the Great – before battle with the Spartans, he sent them a message saying that they should surrender, because if he won, he would not just burn their city, but take all their belongings, kill their families, and so on. They sent him back a one-word message – “if.”

“They did that a lot to the Persians,” she said.

That’s right – you know that before the battle of the Hot Gates – Thermopylae – the Persians sent a spy to check out the Spartan camp, and he returned saying that the Spartans were a bunch of nancies – they were all getting their hair trimmed and styled before battle. They didn’t realise that when a Spartan cut his hair, it meant he was preparing to die.

 “If you’re going to die, you might as well look good,” she said.

Can you think of any other examples? I asked.

“Sure,” she said. “In that same battle, the Persians told the Spartans they would send so many arrows they would block out the sun. The Spartans said, ‘We will fight you in the shade.’”

And when the Persians ordered the Spartans to give up their arms, I told her, the Spartans said, ‘Come over here and take them.’

“You don’t mess with the Spartans,” she said, smiling.


After a while, our talked meandered over to Greek mythology, and The Girl asked, “One thing I wondered – was Narcissus the guy from Pygmalion?”

The George Bernard Shaw play or the legend? I asked – we had seen the play last year. The guy from the Pygmalion legend was Pygmalion – he fell in love with his statue.

“So Narcissus was the guy who was in love with himself?” she asked. That’s him, I said.

“How did Narcissus die?”

He wasted away into nothing staring at his own reflection, I said.

“Well, at least he died happy,” she said.

You’re good at finding the bright side, I responded.

“I would think that after starving for a while, when your face loses its colour and you can see the bones under the skin,” she asked. “wouldn’t you reach a point of negative feedback? Or you’d have to go away and nurse yourself back to health, and return to the reflection – it would be an endless loop, or until he naturally died.”

I think if you’re obsessed with yourself, you don’t care, I said. Love is blind.

Monday, 2 January 2017

A difficult year, part 2

This probably should have been Part 1.

Many of my acquaintances declare this to be “the worst year ever,” which seems a bit melodramatic to me – I might have picked, I don’t know, 1940 or 1666 or 1348 or any number of other possibilities. Nonetheless, I understand that a lot of friends of mine in the USA, UK and Ireland have all seen particularly contentious political debates, Europe continues to see a flood of refugees from the Middle East, and the Middle East … their tragedies dwarf anything we have seen in generations.

Interestingly, though, few people I know mention Syria, or the shrinking Arctic ice, or the increasingly dubious quality of tap water in US towns, or all the other things that affect their lives. What they usually name are celebrities – singers and actors – who died this year, from Prince to Alan Rickman to Carrie Fisher. And they don’t just feel disappointed, they feel betrayed.

With no disrespect to their genuine grief, I keep in mind that these celebrities were not people who spent their lives feeding Third-World orphans or facing down authoritarian death squads. They were show-business performers who made it big – at best, nice people who used their fame and wealth generously. I know no one who knew them personally, yet I know many people who mourned them as though they were family.

 A few reasons for this stand out. Most modern people have their first crushes and obsessions for celebrities who were famous when they were teenagers, say, 10 to 20. Since most of those teen idols will be a decade or two older than their fans, and many actors and singers have a decade or so at their peak, modern people go through life idolising people two to three decades older than themselves.

 People who were famous outside that generational window don't bother us when they die. Most people my age were hit hard by the death of Carrie Fisher or George Michael, but not by Maureen O'Hara or Stan Freberg last year, as people my age were not likely to know or care who those people were. Likewise, most of my daughter’s teenaged peers wouldn't know who Carrie Fisher or George Michael are, so those deaths wouldn't affect them.

In other words, I told people my age, we're getting to the middle-aged window when celebrity deaths tend to hit us. It’s a normal part of a cycle, and not an unprecedented catastrophe – but most of my peers had never experienced this, as they’ve never been this age before.

Another factor in our common grief is that these days, popular singers and actors fill our media screens, talk to us out of our televisions and phones, and we hear their songs and words on grocery-store loudspeakers. A modern Westerner might hear George Michael several times a day, but their grandmother a few times a year. Thus, celebrities become far more familiar than cousins or neighbours, and we feel their loss.

Celebrity deaths seems like a minor issue compared to so many others in the world, but I think it helps illuminate why other world events caused people such grief this year. Take the US election; whatever you think of Mr. Trump, we’ve had far worse elections than this, just outside of the tiny window of pop-culture memory. Yet most of my peers have never experienced a more contentious election, so this one seems like The Worst in Human History.

In the same way, our modern media spends an inordinate amount of time talking about one office (president) in one branch (executive) of one level of government (federal) in one country (USA). So many news stories focus on the individual in that one office that we see them more often than we see our neighbours, and our hopes and fears cling to that individual’s persona.

Either way, 2017 is likely to be the new Worst Year Ever, as all the trends of 2016 are likely to keep happening. I have, however, noted one group that were not devastated by the events of 2016 – those people who didn’t follow most pop culture at all.

Those people – some elderly neighbours of mine, some homesteading friends in the USA or Europe -- lived in a world with real consequences and victories, and their life was moored to people they knew. They wouldn’t feel grief at the loss of someone on a screen, but the loss of a neighbour or friend. I’ve learned a lot from my neighbours, and will feel genuine grief when they are gone – and with luck, someone like them will miss me someday.

Wednesday, 28 December 2016

A difficult year

 Published this week in the Kildare Nationalist. 

A lot of my acquaintances have found this a difficult year. Many of them are far removed from loved ones, and feel lonely over the holidays. A number of my friends have been made redundant this year – the crash affected mostly the working-class majority, but the “recovery” has mostly gone elsewhere. Politically, many of their countries have been torn by bitter elections – Ireland, the UK, and the USA. Even the weather feels strange to many of my neighbours, who have worked outside for generations and know such things in their bones.

I listen and sometimes offer encouragement, but I don’t have what people usually want to hear, as the coming years could get a lot worse. Fewer resources, burning more, disrupted weather, political turmoil, civil wars, millions of refugees – you know all this. Most of all, modern Westerners lack the skills to handle a crisis, or to sustain themselves for a while during a shortage, or the community and family bonds to support each other.

Thing is, we can’t change any of these things, just our reaction to them. We can get healthier – I include myself in this. We can meet more neighbours. We can learn to live more self-sufficiently on our own patch of ground, until each patch is its own lifeboat and no one need drown. We can keep knowledge, skills and resources with us until millions of families and homes are arks in the flood.

I am concerned for my friends who are having difficulties, of course. But I also think of my grandparents or neighbours, who lived on a fraction of the energy Westerners live on today, and lived long and happy lives. They were delighted to get an orange for Christmas or walk miles to the village to call on friends, and did not consider themselves miserable. When things get bad in Hollywood movies, people start ripping each other apart; in real life, they often help each other out.

Remember that you are not alone; your area teems with people who are lonely, or can’t find someone to help, or who want to make a difference. I know an old lady who is house-bound, and I know a woman who has been made redundant and has nothing to do but sit in her garden. Both of them have things around the house that need fixing, and I know a handy young man who can’t find work. I know a man who needs help on his farm, a teenager who would love to earn some extra cash and learn some skills.

Most of these people’s problems would be solved if they learned to do things for each other. The woman could garden and grow food, enjoying a hobby while providing for her family. She could also garden the yard of her elderly neighbour, doubling her growing space while she and the old woman give each other company. The handyman who needs work could fix their houses in exchange for good home-cooked meals and the produce of their garden. My farmer friend could employ the teenager, teaching him skills.

You live in a place where the garbage cans are filled every day with machines that can be reused, furniture that could be restored, and food that could be composted to make soil again. You live with libraries, internet cafes and a surfeit of cheap stuff. It means there is much that can be reused, and that it is easy to live cheaply while using up few resources. It means you have power that most people in the world will never know, and that you are too important to lose.

Most people I know feel troubled about the future, and keep it to themselves. Today we diagnose such compassion, and prescribe medicines to remove it. But if people were irredeemable – if we really didn’t deserve to be saved – you wouldn’t feel this way.

You see, people who care about their future have two big problems – what to do with all that despair, and where they get the energy to do all that activism. And the two problems solve each other – that feeling of powerlessness can be a most powerful fuel, if you put it to work for you. We could get all those lonely people together to find a solution – but if they got together, they wouldn’t need one.