Sunday, 11 March 2018

The Lives of Others

Thanks to everyone for your well-wishes during our snowbound days; everything is melting now, and the first daffodils are signalling the beginning of spring. This post originally appeared in 2013. 

If you could boil our global problems down to seven words, they might be these: we don’t see where stuff comes from. Most of us spend grew up staring at glowing rectangles without ever seeing a coal-powered turbine. We blithely speed down motorways without ever visiting an oil derrick. Most of all, we eat mountains of meat a year without having to grab a live animal or smell blood. Like most things in our lives, meat just magically appears, brought by strangers.

That last example hit home for people in Europe recently, after the Irish government tested frozen burgers from a major supplier and found that some of the alleged beef was actually horsemeat. Irish and British discovered their top groceries and restaurants had been feeding them horse for a long time -- probably unknowingly, but shoppers and investors dropped them all the same. The day after the story made headlines the top grocery chain here lost half a billion dollars. Within a few more days food companies took ten million burgers off their shelves -- although the papers don’t say what happened to the meat afterward – and the next few months saw a reporter’s dream of press conferences, apologies, arrests, pledges and retests.

The scandal quickly spread across Europe, as country after country tested meat sold in its own shops and cafes and found they were not eating what they thought they were. The latest tests announced this week finally cleared Ireland, the epicentre of the scandal, but mislabelled meat is still showing up across Europe – and as far afield as South Africa.

The irony, of course, is that horsemeat is not harmful, and little different than cow, as evidenced by the fact that no one can tell which one they ate. Aside from a veterinary medicine showing up in minute amounts, no one has suggested that eating it had any ill effects, nor is it illegal; my daughter and I happily bought horse-kebab from a street vendor in Dublin the other day. (At least, he said they were horse, but you never know …)

Rather, the emotional punch – and inevitable punch-lines – that came from the idea of eating Black Beauty obscured more important details. If up to 30 per cent of some samples were horse, up to 80 per cent of others were pork. “Meat-filled” pastries in Iceland turned out to have no real meat at all, while South African meats had an interesting menagerie of buffalo, goat and donkey. Other samples allegedly had green mould on them. The horses might have been slaughtered up to two years ago, dead flesh just sitting in freezers.

Most importantly, though, was that governments and stores had such difficulty sourcing the meat. This detail proved especially unpopular with people here, who had already seen UK outbreaks of hoof-and-mouth in 2007 and 2001, as well as mad cow disease in the 1980s and 90s. Restaurants and stores here proudly advertise their “Irish beef,” not only to support local farmers but to distance themselves from such disasters. Now, it turns out, we just don’t know where some of it came from; it just magically appeared.

We accept buying meat from strangers for the same reasons we buy everything else in our lives from strangers these days; because we trust that someone, somewhere, knows what they are doing. On the rare occasions we associate the food on our plates with actual animals, we tend to assume they must have come from some kind of farm, like the overall-and-pitchfork images of preschool toys. We don’t picture supply chains so long and cobwebby that we can’t find out what kind of animal it used to be, or in what country, or how it lived.

Consider how strange this would seem to most of our ancestors, for thousands of generations back. For most of them meat was life; while most foods could be grown or picked, meat was the Leibig’s Minimum that forced people to be predators. Their craving for meat transformed the landscape, wiping out the planet’s large animals as thoroughly as an asteroid impact did the dinosaurs, and we now know Neanderthals or Clovis people by their meat-getting technologies. It was the main reason we domesticated animals, and that spurred empires and conquests – the Sanskrit word for “war,” I’m told, means “a desire for cows,” and the ancient Irish epic the Tain Bo Cuailnge involves a nationwide war over a single breeding bull. The very word “meat” meant “food” in Old English, so inextricable were the two.

Such concentrated nutrition comes with risks. Until recently we lived much closer to animals than we might like to imagine --- often in the same house – and pigs ran openly through streets in Europe and the USA even into the 20th century. Many of our human diseases come from domesticated animals -- influenza from ducks, for example – and for thousands of years our bodies have been at war with the germs they send us. When Europeans first encountered the Americas and Australia, the millennia of accumulated pathogens in their bodies – to which they had built up immunity -- wiped out 95 per cent of the native population, leaving the wilderness the pioneers found. Our desire for meat, in short, is the reason Americans and Australians will read this in English, rather than Parisians reading it in Aztec.

This dealing of life and death might be the reason so many of our religions bind us in meat taboos -- Jews and Muslims ban pig meat, Hindus cow meat, and Catholics all meat on Fridays and through Lent. Many of our rituals do the same, invoking the body and blood of the Word made flesh.

Because meat was so precious, most human societies were less finicky than we are today about what kind of animals they ate. People throughout world history have eaten insects, snails and other invertebrates, as well as birds, reptiles, amphibians and mammals of all kinds; something as mountainous as a cow or stag might be stretched into months of food. Even today, most subcultures eat both less meat than we do and more variety, as anyone knows who visits Chinese or Caribbean stores. I recently saw a letter from a bishop in largely Catholic Louisiana, USA, assuring his congregations that alligator could be eaten during Lent.

When we keep animals for food, they don't always stay put; the snails so common on these islands were snacks brought by Romans, as rabbits were a thousand years later by Normans. Polynesians carried rats on voyages for meat, and their escape helped scour island after island of their native bird species.

Most Americans I know eat two birds, chicken and turkey, and have never held one alive – but most of our ancestors ate many more, both for meat and to protect crops. Elderly Irish, who grew up in agrarian days when money and meat were rare, caught songbirds in wicker traps called “cradle-birds,” and one elderly couple told me that blackbirds were sold as food in wartime London --all to eagerly pluck and stew.

Fishing, likewise, supported many communities, but fewer all the time these days. To take one example from Mark Kurlansky’s book Cod: A Biography of the Fish that Changed the World, early explorers to places like Newfoundland simply dropped baskets into the sea and came up with them full of fish, so plentiful were the cod. By 1960 fishermen in the North Atlantic were catching 1.6 million tonnes a year, and thirty years later that number had dropped by almost 99 per cent. We are fishing the sea clean.

In my native USA, where people eat more meat per capita per year than anywhere else in the world, we have not yet overhunted the land, but that’s mainly because we get most of our protein from the hog or beef “factories” described in Eric Schlosser’s excellent book Fast Food Nation. I have talked to many Midwestern farmers whose lives have been shaped by these nearby places they can never see but always smell. Towns in my native Missouri, locals tell me, are now filled with two kinds of people: the elderly and the Hispanics that work the meat factories, and neither are expected to be around long.

Of course, such unpleasantness drives some to a vegetarian diet, and they are right to think that most Westerners would be healthier if they ate less meat. In abandoning all meat, however, vegetarians show the same maximalist thinking, and the same disconnection from the source of their food. Calves usually die to get milk or cheese, chicks to get eggs, and the animals will die eventually anyway, more slowly and painfully than they would have by predators or considerate butchers. A vegan diet requires using vast areas of land that were once forests to grow high-protein crops like soybeans, and making our society’s soy milk and designer soy-products requires our society to gobble fossil fuels in a way that will not continue forever.

Where we live, the landscape is still divided up into small family farms, and most people are related to a farmer – I’m friends with several around our land, and we see their cows every day. Most villages also have a butcher, and ours now features a sign about how he buys only from the local farmers. He actually gives us more meat than we ask for, knowing that we like the bones and cast-off meats for soups.

Everyone here used to get their meat from people like him, if they didn’t slaughter it themselves; it was only recently that the globalised supermarkets, with their shelves of cheap frozen meat and opportunities for fraud, began to proliferate. In my native USA, though, one would have to rebuild the entire infrastructure – local farmers to local shops within walking distance to homes – from scratch.

But we need to. If we want to know where our stuff comes from, and yet keep eating meat, then we need groups of neighbourhood boys raising pigs in the vacant lot, as wartime Londoners had, with neighbours buying shares of the bodies. We need to start sourcing food further down the food chain, to species that are still plentiful and that we will not risk exterminating. We need to expand the number of species we will eat a hundredfold, while reducing our meat dishes to a fraction of their current quantity. We need to relearn how to make eel traps and cradlebirds, to grow snails in the closet and chickens in the shed.

And we need to know people like my farmer friend, who I meet in the morning bleary-eyed from staying up all night with a calf. He gives his animals a better life than any they would have seen in the wild, infinitely better than on a factory farm, before making sure their life ends quickly and painlessly. It’s not easy for him, and his small scale makes the butcher more expensive, but that’s as it should be. Rather than wolfing mystery meat or snubbing it altogether, we could respect it again. Meat needs to become hard work to get and precious to eat, so that we again put some sacral value in the lives we take.


Timeline of the horsemeat scandal, to February:

Announcement of original results:

Tesco lost 360 million euros in a day:

One meat product had no meat at all:

Buffalo, goat and donkey in South Africa:

“The meat is believed to have been supplied between January 2011 and February 2013 across Europe.”

In my native USA, where people eat more meat per capita per year than anywhere else: Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations, 

Photo: Our neighbours, seen from the back fence.

Saturday, 3 March 2018

Still snowbound

Seeking a change of atmosphere, I walked a few kilometres to the village this afternoon – not a difficult walk ordinarily, but more so in deep snow. Along the way I met my neighbour Caoihme (pronounced Queeva), walking down the bog roads to call on her neighbour, while her daughters were laughing and throwing snowballs with other neighbourhood teenagers a respectful distance behind.

“How’re you fixed for supplies?” I asked. We were well stocked for dried and tinned goods, and had enough vegetables to see us through these days when everyone was snowed in and the store shelves empty.

“We’re grand,” she said. “We have all kinds of supplies in the shed, chickens for eggs and neighbours to trade with – but not a drop of milk to be had for tea.”

“That’s what I’m going to see about in town,” I said. “Perhaps they’ve cleared the roads a bit.”

“Ah, I doubt it,” she laughed. “I sent Seamus (her husband) to the shop the other day to find anything that hadn’t been picked clean. He came back with a piece of cake and a potato.”

“Well, if they don’t have milk,” I ventured, “I wonder about Tommy’s cows? Do you think he milks them?” We have enough neighbours who raise cows, I thought, it seems a shame to let such a resource go to waste.

“Ah, I think he raises them for meat,” she said. “And none would have calves that had been weaned recently. You can try, but I wouldn’t go rooting around down there myself.”

We walked on a bit, saying hello to neighbours along the way and admiring their giant snowmen or other sculptures, and she checked on the horses along the way to make sure they looked healthy and fed. We talked about getting our families outdoors, and that drew us into talk of footing turf this year in the bog.

Turf, also called peat, is the remains of centuries of moss and other vegetation that built up in the bogs, which built up over the millennia when the submerged lower strata did not fully decompose. Draining the bog and pulling back the top layer of vegetation reveals black and spongy bio-mass that turns reddish-brown and hard when it dries, and creates a slow-burning, smoky fire when lit. For hundreds – probably thousands – of years it has been the main way people in this cold country kept warm. The smell of burning turf is one of the most distinctive things about this land, and in country homes and pubs alike here neighbours gather around turf fires in the winter evenings.

Most farmers who lived anywhere near a bog had a ready source of fuel for the winter, once they pulled away the top layer of vegetation and exposed the peat underneath. Farmers here – everyone was a farmer of course, whatever else they did – carried special shovels shaped like one corner of a square, made for sinking into sides of a ditch and scooping out long rectangles of peat.

These days, the cutting is done by tractor, leaving long ropes of black and moist turf like liquorice, partly cut at intervals of a foot or two. While machines can cut the turf, though, humans still need to dry it by hand, “footing” it by cracking apart the liquorice into bricks and stacking them like cross-hatching, four or five bricks high.

“Will you all be footing soon?” I asked. “We’ve skipped the last few years, as we’ve relied on firewood, but I’d really like to get a new load for next winter, and it’s already March.” I knew the man who owned that part of the bog, who sold the turf from it, saw a death in his family last year when his son drowned in the canal, and was in no state to do business.

“We surely will,” she said. “I’ll tell Tommy you’re interested, and you can come out with us. We’ll be putting our daughters to hard labour for the day, with their young muscles.”

“I might conscript my girl,” I said. “As of about six months ago she suddenly became a grumpy teenager and less enthusiastic about helping, but the air will be good for her.”

When I got to town there was no milk or any other staples, just as Caoimhe said – but it seemed like everyone in town had gone to the shop as well, not just to pick clean the few remaining items on the shelves but to chat and break the cabin fever. Some people had managed to get there by car, others by driving ATVs, tractors or even their horses – or just walked, as I had. At the shop I met my neighbour Jack, and talked about the strange weather.

“We’ve had cold snaps a few times before in the last century,” he said, “but in the last few years we’ve had the floods of 2009, the freeze of 2010, the floods of 2015 and now this,” he said. “It’s not anything we’re prepared for.” Nonetheless, he said, they were all well-stocked and used to living on very little, so they were able to take such crises in stride – richer or more modern people would be harder hit.

On the way I stopped at the pub, and many of the neighbours were crowding in there as well; one came in with his father-in-law, who insisted on buying me a pint, and I returned the favour. Many of us stop at the pub every so often, but are not regulars, so a gathering like this reunites people who see each other in passing but don’t get a chance to talk anymore.

Friday, 2 March 2018


Ordinarily Ireland gets no more than a light dusting of snow once a winter, as the Atlantic currents keep us temperate. This past week, though, was the weirdest weather my neighbours have ever seen. We've gotten up to a metre of snow in places, according to news reports, with winds of up to 100 kilometres an hour. Our car can't get out of our driveway, most buses and businesses have shut down, and the local stations have given over to weather reports.

The west of Ireland hasn't been hit as badly as this, but the east of the country got the worst of it; local news stations showed a map of the most-affected areas, and we're right in the middle of it. I'm told the temperature got lower a few times in the last century, but my elderly neighbours say they've never seen this much snow where we are.

I walked a few kilometres to the store yesterday, to pick up a few essentials, and found that about a hundred people had the same idea; no milk, eggs or many other staples. No matter; we're well stocked for food and wood for the fire, and we still have electricity.

I checked on the neighbours to make sure they had enough - many of them are quite elderly -- and not only are they doing well, the snow brings everyone out to play.

Actually, it's quite pleasant; I have a few days off work, and after a dark Irish winter we have bright sunshine -- and since it's snowed, the light is from above and below. The Girl made a snowman, and we had a snowball fight -- she's a teenager now, and usually too cool for such things, so I treasure these moments when I can.

The fact that our gas keeps freezing gives me a chance to experiment with cooking over the fire, where temperature is no longer a matter of a button or dial but the amount of wood and the curve and sound of the flames. I made egg drop soup today, and might try my hand at popcorn tonight.

I've been curling up by the fireplace with a couple of books by the amazing Anthony Esolen, and I'm taking calculus courses online. In the evenings we've been watching movies. A few nights ago I showed my daughter Charade, with Cary Grant and Audrey Hepburn, one of my perennial favourites -- a delightful mix of comedy, romance and intrigue. Last night we watched Captain Blood -- a film under-remembered now, but every bit as good as the famous Adventures of Robin Hood, and with many of the same actors -- Errol Flynn, Olivia deHavilland, and my daughter's favourite, Basil Rathbone.

With a fireplace roaring next to us, we agreed: if you're stocked up on the basics and mentally prepared for disruption, an emergency can be a chance to remember how lucky you are.

Sunday, 25 February 2018

Walks in the woods

My apologies for the lack of posting -- I've had computer problems. 

My four-year-old bounded joyfully down the path, her dress flapping behind her, into the deep forests of the Wicklow Mountains of Ireland. She stopped between the giant trees, put her arms out and twirled around, spinning through shafts of green sunlight from the canopy above. She ran her fingers through the shaggy moss, lifted pieces of wood from the ground and inspected the tiny nightmares underneath, and peeked in the crevices as eagerly as if they were Christmas stockings.

Almost every weekend I brought her to one of these old woods, remnants of the cold rainforest that once covered this island. Here we found mushrooms big as saucers to bring home and cook with dinner from our garden. Here we sat on giant roots that extend like jetties over the river, and watched the fish and tadpoles gather under our toes. Here we fed the greedy mobs of ducks, sparing bits for the shy coots and moorhens hiding in the reeds, and silently watched kingfishers flash like jewels in the trees or grey herons lurk like gargoyles over the water.

In a hollow of these mountains, fifteen centuries ago, Christian monks escaped the collapsing Roman Empire and the savagery of pagan barbarians, and built self-reliant communities of believers that outlasted wave after wave of warlords and empires. In this redoubt generations of unsung heroes copied book after book by hand, saving Western Civilisation -- history, science, law, philosophy, theatre, mathematics, architecture, democracy and the Gospel.

In later days, when foreign soldiers invaded this island, felled its forests and tortured or starved its people, rebels gathered in these mountains to organise a resistance. Most were hunted down and killed, but farmers across the country sang their stories in secret -- until a new generation took up the cause, and another, and another. Each rebellion built on the memory of the ones before, until the final one saw a nation of dirt-poor farmers defeat the world’s greatest empire.    

As my daughter plays at being a pirate or Viking, I wonder if any real pirates or Vikings, not to mention monks and Druids, walked these same paths before us, sat with legs dangling over the water, and watched the ancestors of these herons. In every civilized age we humans left the pressures of civilization for time alone in nature, and “whenever it is a damp, drizzly November in my soul,” as Ishmael says in Moby Dick, we return to nature to restore us – even in this already damp and drizzly country.  

Such places have always made men feel closer to God; no wonder Jesus and John wandered in the wilderness, and the monks sought these valleys to build their refuge. Even now a local priest occasionally says a special Mass under these trees, the congregants gathering in this first and greatest of cathedrals.

In the woods around us our neighbours keep alive other very old rituals. Once a year, the day after Christmas, local men dress up in woodland gear and gather around a statue of a wren, the little songbird that is so frequently heard here and so rarely seen. Then other local men covered in straw costumes --- “straw boys” -- sneak up and steal the wren, running away as all the local children scream in frightened delight. The children chase the straw-boys through the woods, parents trudging up behind them until the wren is retrieved.

It’s a tradition much older than Santa Claus, dating back thousands of years in one form or another to Druid times and rich with ancient symbolism. Ireland has become a modern country now, with televisions replacing sing-a-longs in most pubs and the younger generations learning more from their smart phones than from their elders’ lore -- but a few fragments of its ancient culture survive, like the woodlands themselves. 

For a child these woodland paths are also treacherous, and not just from straw-boys. Stinging nettles line the sides of every Irish path, waving their stalks at passers-by. Their touch leaves a painful welt on the skin, and modern suburbanites now spray poisons to suppress them. The old country men and women around here, though, explained that a bit of dock-leaf cures the sting, and from the time my child was a toddler she knew how to treat a nettle encounter. 

My old neighbours also explained that cooked nettles have no sting, and are both healthy and delicious. A bit of research, online and in the kitchen, proved them right, and soon my daughter and I were making them into soup, tea and wine, and I tried pickling them, adding them to beer, and using their compost in the garden. Instead of trying to spray them with poison, we began to look forward to harvesting them every spring – wearing gloves, of course – and kept secret our favourite nettle patches.

My girl stopped to smell and pet every flower along the path -- oxlips and primroses, meadowsweet and clover. At first I ignored them, but here too my elderly neighbours opened my eyes and showed me I was looking at a salad bar, an herbal tea shop, an emergency medicine chest and the makings of a wine collection. Again I confirmed their folk wisdom with research and personal testing, and soon I was planting some of the same weeds I had once uprooted, making them into tea, dinner and drinks. 

Once everyone here grew up with such knowledge, as did every Druid and caveman before them, going back as long as there have been humans. Only in recent generations, when most humans have lived in cities far from the natural world, has the thread been broken, leaving hungry people surrounded by food.

In these woods my daughter learns that everything has value in its proper place; even as she cringes from spiders, she knows they eat flying insects that pester us. If we didn’t have the spiders, we would be tormented by clouds of pests, so we can thank them for their service. We decided we would name the spiders; this one became Harvey, this one Floyd, and then they weren’t as scary anymore.

We also see that death is not the end, even in this world; a fallen tree feeds a billion creeping things, which feed birds and hedgehogs. Next time we pass here the tree has erupted with mushrooms, and eventually we learned to recognise which ones were edible and poisonous. The fallen tree leaves a gap in the forest, a flood of daylight reaching the forest floor, activating the seeds of thousands of flowers, so a death in the forest brings an explosion of colour.

In a few years a sapling will fill the space, its young leaves sheltered from the winds by its aunts and uncles until it comes of age. On autumn evenings its turning leaves will bathe the woods in an orange light, like a candle against the darkness.  

We see the same pattern with people; here in a small community a death leaves a vacancy in the church pews, an empty stool in the pub, and a tender place in the minds of friends and family. In a community, though, no one dies unremembered. Here funerals are preceded by a wake, a party for the deceased, where all the friends and family drink, tell stories, and share tears of laughter and mourning. The family and friends then carry the coffin to church for the funeral -- sometimes for miles down dark country roads, with the people in front lighting the way. It’s a proper way to go, making your death a celebration of your life.

“Papa, what does it feel like to die?” she asked me once.

I don’t know first-hand, honey, I told her -- I’ve never died.

“Why do we have to die?”

If we didn’t, I said, no new babies could be born.

“I wish it didn’t have to end, though.”

I know. But that’s what gives it value.

Each moment with my daughter flickers by like cars on the road, too swift to observe closely. I want to halt these days -- the walks in the woods and over mountains, the sing-a-longs and adventures, the moments of her sleeping in my lap at the end of a long day-- to trap them as golden moments in amber, a Still Life with Four-year-old. I want to throw a hook into the blur and reel in the moments, pore over them, plead with each of them to stay a little longer: please don’t go. Linger with me. 

But they won’t. I started writing this ten years ago, and my daughter has since become six, and ten, and thirteen, each age with its own heartaches and its own moments of comfort and joy. I was lucky to be able to raise her in this countryside, but the challenges of raising a child are the same anywhere these days -- to help them grow straight in a bent and twisted world. Each year, as she becomes more her own creation and less mine, I can only light the path and hope she takes it, even as the world grows darker around us.

In exchange for my service, she has given me far more than I imagined I could have. I cannot extend my life’s length in this world, but my time with her extends its depth.

Saturday, 10 February 2018

A man who knows his business

The road to our house runs along a 300-year-old canal, originally dug to transport turf -- dried peat moss, our main fuel here -- on horse-drawn barges to the damp and chilly homes of Dublin. The road is only a single lane wide, so even a short trip to the village and back involves a lot of pulling into driveways and letting other cars go past. 

On the other hand, it makes a lovely path to jog back and forth on weekend mornings, past rusted boat-hulls on the shore and neighbours with their dogs and children. It harbours many distractions for the aspiring jogger, like hedgerows filled with fruits and berries in season, the sweeping grandeur of our local herons in flight, or the darting brilliance of kingfishers and bullfinches.

As I jogged along the canal this weekend, my neighbour Liam waved to me, and I stopped to say hello.

How you keeping, I asked.

“Not a bother, Brian,” he said in his amiable rasp. “A little unsteady this morning -- I was up calving all last night.”

One of your cows gave birth? I asked. As long as I’ve lived here next to neighbours and friends who raise cattle and sheep, and even helped out a bit, I’ve never been with them during birth. Yet this is central to a farmer’s life -- one of my favourite television programmes on these islands is an annual event called Lambing -- Live!, where talk show hosts interview farmers in spring and talk about how the lambing is going.

“Sure, usually they’re just fine by themselves, but sometimes they need a hand, and it can keep you up until dawn,” he said.

Do they tend to all give birth around the same time, in spring? I asked -- it seemed a little early for that.

“Left to their own devices, they’d all give birth around spring, but I encourage them to spread it out a bit,” he said. “Makes it easier on me.”

Do you, um, bring the bull around at certain times, or what? I asked. Sorry, I’ve lived here long enough that I feel like I should know this.  

“Frederick,” Liam said -- “you’ve seen him in that field down along the canal banks - you know the one? He’s a good lad, and he’s been with me a while now.”
I’ve seen you with the bull, I said -- I’m impressed at how calm he is.

“Everyone’s terrified of bulls, but I’ve never been hurt by one -- I raised him, and he trusts me,” Liam said. “Occasionally he’s lifted me in the air with his head -- gently, just playing -- and set me down again. I’ve tried to pull him in the tractor, and he can just pull the other way and turn the tractor around -- so if he wanted to get me, I’d be gone. But he’s never wanted to do anything other than play a bit. It’s cows you have to be afraid of.”

Really? I said. You think of bulls as much more dangerous.

“Ah, bulls warn you when you’re getting on their bad side -- they stamp, they snort. They give you fair notice, and only fools ignore them. But cows can come at you out suddenly, just because the spirit took them.”

Liam has been handling cows since he was a boy -- in some cases, the great-great-grandparents of these cows -- so I trust his judgement on these things.

Saturday, 3 February 2018

Garden in winter


Today I had a chance to step out in the garden and get a few things out of the way. We are tearing down the garden beds in our greenhouse, as the wooden beds are almost rotted through and we have used the soil for tomatoes over and over, so we need to get new beds and new soil.

If you don’t have a greenhouse yourself, think about making cloches, clear containers to protect your plants from frost and give them a head start. To make a cloche you can take a scissors and cut across the middle of a plastic fizzy-drink bottle, leaving a bell-shaped dome for your seedling. The resulting plastic will be quite floppy, so you might want to support it with a criss-cross of sticks poked through the plastic and taped together where they cross.  You can place the bottle over seedlings in the garden – preferably with the bottle-top screwed on at night to keep out frost, and left open during the day to allow the plant to breathe.

also drained water through our fireplace ashes, in the hopes of creating enough lye -- the alkaline water that drained out the bottom -- to make soap later this year. I spread the soaked ash over the margins of our property, piling cardboard and mulch over it, in the hopes of keeping brambles from invading and taking root in the margins. I checked the beehive, to make sure the bees are snuggled up cosy and have plenty to eat, and will be preparing some more sugar-water to get them through the next few weeks before the first flowers.

Finally, this is the right time of year to prune most fruit trees, so that they will put more energy into growing buds, flowers and fruit this summer. It’s also the time to coppice or pollard trees like willow and hazel, so that you can have firewood for next winter and the tree will send up new growth this summer. It’s not much fun to work outside when it’s this dreary, but the work has to be done now if the land is to be lovely and productive when it’s warmer.

This is the right time to cut willow, either to build a hedge, weave a basket or just spread the willow around. If you want to take a row of willows and make them into a hedge, cut the willow partway through the stem at whatever height you need. Cut only partway so that you leave some of the xylum, the inner bark that transports water and nutrients from the roots to the leaves, and energy from the leaves to the roots. Then fold the stem above the cut, and weave it around the trees and branches around it so it stays in place. If this is done properly, the tree will remain alive and continue to grow above the cut, and will create a living fence.

To spread willow over your property, cut stems off the tree and plant them in a bucket of water. Wait a few weeks until they grow a shock of white roots in the water, and then dig a hole where you want them to grow. Cut off the roots around the stem, plant them in the hole and refill it.

The days are getting longer again, so it’s a good time to think about what to put in the garden next year. When you plan your garden, try to think in three dimensions, using not just fields or garden beds, but hedgerows and woods. Our hazel trees produce nuts, and under them we planted blueberries and other shade-loving plants, and we will have sorrel and other ground crops lower still – multiple levels of crops going upwards.

This is not an easy month to get out in the garden – the days remain short and chilly. Everything remains wet, meaning that a shovelful of earth is much heavier than it should be. The more you are on top of things now, however, the less you have to wait later, and gardeners do enough waiting as is.
Most of the crops left in the garden at this time of year are root vegetables or cabbages -- for us, that means beetroot, parsnips, celeriac and kale. I’ve written before about how to make them into soup or other vegetarian dishes, but they are especially nice as crisps, and while not extremely healthy, they are probably a bit healthier than the store-bought potato crisps.

Take several parsnips, beetroot and a bulb of celeriac, and some kale leaves. Wash everything well and peel the vegetables -- with the celeriac you might have to peel a lot.

Slice the roots with a mandolin, thinly enough that, when held to the light, they are a bit translucent.
Heat a pan of oil to 180 degrees Centigrade. Fry them in batches -- about two minutes for each batch, or until they look crisp but not burnt -- making sure they are covered with oil and turning them frequently. Be prepared to withdraw them quickly, as they keep cooking and turning colour even after you remove them from the oil -- don’t let them get close to burning.

Let them cool and let the oil drain, dash some lemon juice over the lot, and sprinkle some salt and pepper. Some people like to fry up garlic cloves, or herbs like rosemary or sage, for some extra flavour; if you do this, best to cook them first and let the oil impart their flavour to the other vegetables.

You can also turn the kale into crisps. To do so pre-heat an oven to 150 degrees C. Put the kale in a dry bowl, drizzle a bit of olive oil over it and toss the kale until a thin layer of oil is coating everything. Line a baking tray with tinfoil and spread the kale over it, no more than one leaf thick. Cook for seven to ten minutes until crisp – they burn quickly too, so keep checking on them.

Introduce snacks like this to your kids or your junk-food-eating friends. It won’t turn them into home-farming health nuts overnight, but it does introduce them to the idea that, instead of simply buying fatty, expensive food from a company, they could make it themselves to their own taste, learn a bit of cooking skill, and have fun. It could be a first step to more adventurous experiments down the road.

Saturday, 20 January 2018


This article will appear in the Kildare Nationalist in County Kildare, Ireland next week. 

Supporting yourself generally requires land, tools, weeding, composting, practice, and finally the months of waiting for things to finish growing. There is one kind of food, however, that can be grown by anyone, indoors, in any time of year, in a few days – sprouts.

I don’t mean Brussels Sprouts – nutritious as they are -- which are the buds of a certain type of cabbage. I mean seeds or beans – mung beans, broccoli seeds, radish seeds, alfalfa seeds -- that have been soaked and kept moist for a few days and have begun to turn into green shoots, as they would in soil.

The Chinese have sprouted for at least 5,000 years, and many Westerners have found growing sprouts an easy source of nutrition in lean times. Captain Cook used sprouting as a source of Vitamin C to avoid scurvy on long ocean voyages, as did soldiers in World War I and Indians during the famine of the 1930s. Sprouts are also high in protein – seven cups have an average person’s daily recommended allowance.

You can sprout the beans or seeds of most edible plants – the only common ones to avoid altogether are nightshade plants like tomatoes or potatoes, whose sprouts are as poisonous as the leaves of the grown plants. Mung beans -- for sale in most health-food stores for a euro or two a bag -- are a common and easy way to begin. School-children are often told to let them lie on a wet paper towel, but I get fine results just from letting them sit in a bowl-sized plastic tub or (unsealed) Ziploc bag.

Rinse the beans first, and then let them sit in a tub of water for about six hours or so. Then drain the water and let the beans sit in the damp tub for the next few days, rinsing them every eight hours or so -- the beans need to be kept moist but not swimming in standing water. Every morning before work, every day when you come home, and every night before bed, fill the tub with water again and then let it drain out.

Take care that the damp seeds do not grow mouldy – I found this to be a hazard with broccoli and alfalfa seeds, but never with beans. In three days or so the beans should have sprouted into white-and-green shoots, at their height of nutritional value. Sprouts can be eaten in salads – I include a couple of recipes below -- and many people eat broccoli, alfalfa or radish sprouts on sandwiches instead of lettuce. Soybean sprouts, popular in Chinese cooking, are the only ones that are better cooked.

Personally, I found that the smaller sprouting seeds, like alfalfa, gave me too little finished sprouts to make them worth my while, and had far too great a risk of mould. The larger beans, like lima or adzuki, tended to sprout more slowly and can often go bad before fully sprouting. Mung beans, on the other hand, tend to work perfectly.

As mung beans cost very little and keep for years, you can get all your protein and many of your vitamins for only a couple of euros a week. You might love them, you might not, but you should have them handy for emergencies.

You can make a sprout salad in a couple of different ways. My favourite is to mix 50g of yogurt, 10g of Sriracha or other hot sauce, 5 ml of lemon juice, 5g of powdered vegetable stock and pinches of turmeric, cayenne and pepper. Mix all these together into a sauce and add 20 grams of finely chopped scallions. Finally, wash, drain and dry 300g of mung bean sprouts, and slowly mix it in with the sauce.

Alternately, you can mix 30g of olive oil, 10g of cider vinegar or lemon juice and mix them well. Add 10 ml of dark soy sauce and add a pinch of salt -- I put in a bit of wasabi for a spicy kick, or you can leave it out. Coarsely grate 100g of peeled carrots, 50g of apples and 20g of chopped scallions, and mix them into the sauce. Finally, wash, drain and dry 300 grams of mung bean sprouts, and mix them in as well.

Monday, 15 January 2018


Several years ago a study commissioned by the United Nations found that, at a time when the world has more hungry people than ever before, one-third of all food is wasted. Consumers in rich countries waste almost as much food, 222 million tonnes, as the entire net food production of sub-Saharan Africa. A previous study had found that British households threw away an estimated one metric tonne of food per year.

Of course, everyone will have some kitchen waste – no one wants to eat the potato peelings or woody stems – but Nature recycles everything. Dropped in the woods those peelings quickly become food for birds or rodents, which fertilise the ground. If these animals are not around, they become food for insects, which in turn feed the larger animals. Whatever insects don’t eat becomes food for moulds and other fungi, and what they don’t eat goes to aerobic bacteria.

In our modern society, though, we have managed to take Nature’s cycles and slice them into several crises. We use vast amounts of fertilisers, pesticides and water to grow food, ship it around the world, often throw it away uneaten -- and when we throw it away, we often put in in plastic bags.

This bizarre habit has the effect of sealing the food away from the animals -- furry, feathered or creeping - that would eat it, and cutting off the oxygen that would allow fungi and aerobic bacteria to breathe. That leaves only anaerobic bacteria, Nature’s emergency backup workers, who work slowly and create a bit of an odour. You might think that decomposition smells foul anyway, but a well-turned compost actually doesn’t generate much of a smell.

Moreover, anaerobic bacteria create large quantities of methane, which is a serious greenhouse gas -- about 35 times worse than carbon dioxide, and accounts for about 20 per cent of the greenhouse effect.

Meanwhile, many people would like to grow their own food, but have typical suburban soil -- clay, builders’ rubble from decades before, and in some cases, unsafe levels of petrochemicals or heavy metals. They need good soil in raised beds, just like the kind you can create by composting kitchen 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.

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.

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.

I wax eloquent (well, wax anyway) about a simpler life, and we're taking baby steps to get there, but let's be honest -- it will be a lot of work, and none of us are getting any younger. Let's get some free labour where we can.

Photo: Some seeds must have gotten into the compost, and now it's growing nasturtiums. 

Sunday, 7 January 2018

Scenes from the village

We had a great Christmas; The Girl got a new bow and arrows, to keep up with the passion that occupies most of her free time. She’s been going to archery events across Ireland -- and soon, in other countries -- and coming home with trophies, so I’m satisfied to shell out the money to keep her going. She got me a book that she knew I’d love, and we also got some Hitchcock DVDs -- we watched Rope the other night, and as jaded a 21st century teenager as she is these days, afterwards she said, “That was intense!”
This is always a difficult time of year; the heating never works as well as it should, so we’re relying on the fireplace to keep the house warm. Of course it got colder in parts of the USA where I lived, but somehow it feels colder here; perhaps it’s the fact that it’s damp, or that we live in the giant heat sink of the bog.
Also, as I’ve mentioned, we’re at the same latitude as Alaska, so the winter nights are long and dark. I don’t leave the house unless I have to, and have spent most of the time curled by the fire writing what I hope will be a book.
Still, my elderly neighbours are hardier than I, and grew up in this area before it had electricity, much less under-floor heating. After Mass today I saw my neighbour Liam, haler at 75 than I am now, and he exclaimed, “’Tis a fine frosty morning, isn’t it Brian?”
“’Tis lovely,” I said, “But I’m not suited to it - I’ve spent a lot of time by the fire.”
“I just lit my first fire this morning,” he said.
We talked some more, and I promised I’d stop by for tea, thinking to myself, Remember to bundle up before you go.
I went back to my usual schedule this week, returning to my day job in Dublin. Every morning I wait in the darkness for the double-decker bus to come barrelling down the country roads, and stop and pick us up. Also returning to work were my neighbours; Cahil, who works at the hardware store down the road; Sean, a local handyman and construction worker; Betty and her grand-daughters.
Me: How was your Christmas dinner?
Betty: Sure it was lovely, Brian; now that I have daughters to do my cooking, so suddenly I enjoy Christmas dinner a lot more than I used to.
Me: Seeing your children to adulthood should have some rewards. Speaking of, I see your grandchildren around, Lauren and Shannon. I can't tell them apart, but then they're usually well bundled this time of year.
Betty:  Ah, go on - they could be in beach clothes and still look the same, sure they could.
Me: Does everyone in your family look alike?

Betty: Not too different -- I have four daughters and six grand-daughters, and none of the apples fell far from the tree.

Me: In appearance or where they live?

Betty: Aw sure, two live in our village, and two in the next village down. Not a one that can't bicycle to the others' house.

Me: That's great -- and they all get along?

Betty: Completely -- my youngest granddaughter is still in the school here, Rosin.

Me: I know Rosin! If you don't mind my asking, is Martina -- the woman who works at the shop in the village -- her other grandmother?

Betty: (laughs) yes, her son married one of my daughters. We're co-grandmothers.

I suppose it was not too unusual here, but would be most places -- every morning Betty and I wait by the bus stop, while across the road in the village shop she sees her grandchild's other grandmother in the window.

Me: Is Rosin in secondary school yet?

Betty: No, she's a year behind yours, but will be going to the same school later this year. How's your little one finding secondary school?

Me: She's not so little anymore -- we used to do things together all the time, but now she wants to do her own thing. She spends a lot of time doing archery and choir, and I don't mind -- kids can get into a lot worse these days.

Betty: Sure, we all do that for a while. In the end, though, we come back home to our family.

Me: I’ll be counting the days.

Thursday, 4 January 2018

Hay-boxes and tea cozies

Whether you grew up in Texas or Tasmania, Manitoba or Macedonia, you were probably raised in a modernised Western culture like me, with electricity and motorcars and other modern infrastructure. If so, you probably grew up blithely spending massive quantities of energy to do the simplest of tasks.

Instead of boiling water by lighting a fire and putting a kettle on the stove, for example, we might blow up the oldest mountains in the world to mine the remains of forests older than dinosaurs, set those old forests on fire to boil water, and then use the steam to turn turbines to send electricity through miles of cable to an outlet on your wall to power a kettle to boil water. The details might change depending on where you are, but most of us live this way – and so does my family, to an extent. It’s not easy to live any other way these days; one must deliberately and daily choose, on abstract grounds, a life of greater inconvenience, and slowly learn an older set of skills.  

We do this, of course, because we have so much energy at our disposal – the equivalent of 300 slaves by one common estimate, making each of us richer than medieval kings. Of course, we can’t keep doing this forever – there were only so many ancient forests to burn, and doing so has played with the knobs and dials of the world’s weather control panel. Thus, most discussions of the future focus on producing enough energy to meet our escalating needs -- escalating because each generation grows up with more comfort and convenience, and because there are more of us. 

The same is true in our personal lives; most of us fantasize about making more money, not about spending less, even though it amounts to the same thing, and even though your current spending might not be making you happy. Adverts and articles tout new and more fuel-efficient cars, not buying fewer or older cars and driving them more slowly.  A major magazine a few years back showed their concern for the future with an “eco-issue;” I showed mine by refusing to buy the magazine. Most discussions of energy, similarly, ignores the central and necessary factor of making do with less, often by reviving now-forgotten skills.

Take, for example, the old technique of hay-box cooking, done by people here a few generations ago and by the British during the lean times of the Second World War. A hay box is just what it says, a box lined with hay or some other insulating material that will keep heated food hot and cooking for hours. Manufactured hay-boxes were built in the early part of the 20th century, and stores used to sell elegant and decorated models, but to make one at home all you need is a box – or in my case, two smaller boxes, one flipped upside-down and placed over the other – with blankets stuffed around the sides.

To use this method I started by making a few litres of lentil soup with vegetables from our garden, and brought it to a rolling boil. On the stove I would have to cook it for an hour or more until the lentils were soft, but here I only needed to bring it to the boil, take the pot off the stove and place it in the hay-box. I surrounded the pot with blankets in lieu of dry hay – people here make hay while the sun shines, so there hasn’t been much in Ireland this year – covered it over with more blankets, and went to bed. In the morning I took the cool pot of soup out of the box and found it had cooked perfectly, after using a fraction of the fuel.

Another example of using what you have comes in an even more unassuming package, the tea cozie. The Irish are among the most prolific tea-drinkers on Earth, and a “cuppa” is the standard greeting offered to family, friends and just passers-by. Boiling tea cools quickly, and if you like your tea strong – sitting in the pot a while – or want a second cup, you want to conserve the heat. The tea-cozie solves that by insulating the pot like the hay-box insulates tomorrow’s dinner, keeping it hot longer. A thermos does the same thing for a drink on the go.

The same logic applies to our houses; most of us in the modern world live in homes far larger than we need, and if many people heat their entire homes in winter while wearing summer clothes indoors.  BBC science advisor David MacKay, in his book “Without Hot Air,” writes that British homes in 1970 had an average temperature of 13 degrees in winter – 55 degrees Fahrenheit – and I’m betting that in poorer and more traditional Ireland it was colder still. Yet people got by; they were more psychologically accustomed to colder temperatures, , they gathered in rooms together and allowed their body heat to raise the temperature, they remained physically active, they wore heavy clothes indoors, and they heated certain central rooms and let unused rooms provide insulation

As Kris De Decker notes in Low-Tech Magazine, “the reduction in energy use for space heating thanks to more efficient homes was less than 20 per cent from 1993 to 2005. Lowering the thermostat by 2° C (or 4°F) would thus result in energy reduction comparable to that. Turning down the thermostat from 22° to 18° C would initiate an energy savings of at least 35 per cent.”
DeDecker notes that insulating the body itself is the most efficient option, as there is so much less space to cover. Using American “clo” units, where one clo equals the thermal insulation required to keep one person comfortable at 21 degrees centigrade, he notes that briefs provide 0.05 clo, light socks 0.10 clo, a heavy shirt with long sleeves .25 clo, a sweater .30 clo, and long pants .30.

Someone wearing the ensemble described above would feel comfortable in a home heated to 21 degrees Centigrade – the level assumed for the modern USA by the standards company ASHRAE -- but in just a t-shirt would need 24 degrees. With long underwear they would only need the house to be heated to 17 degrees to feel the same comfort, and since lowering the thermostat just 1 degree C yields an energy savings of nine to ten per cent, such a change saves 50 to 70 per cent on heating costs compared to the t-shirt.

All of these are things we could change quickly in theory, but realistically, they will take time to grow used to – I hail from a hotter climate and am used to blasts of central heating in winter, and shifting away from that was slow and sometimes uncomfortable. In this, as in so many other areas, though, it helps to take the first steps in a different direction and keep going, and then one day you look behind you and realise how far you’ve traveled.