Saturday, 18 August 2018


Again, sorry about the light posting.

Every August the boglands and canal-banks of County Kildare erupt in yellowish tufts of meadowsweet, filling the breeze with their sweet scent. For centuries it was used as a painkiller, as it contains salicylic acid, the basis of aspirin – in fact, its Latin name Spiraea is how we got the word “aspirin.” Irish also used its strong aroma to freshen their houses, as well as to flavour mead – the name means “mead sweet.”

To use meadowsweet you have to pick it first, taking the tufty flower off the top. Unlike some wildflowers, meadowsweet are in no danger of going extinct, and have only multiplied with human activity. It grows along roadsides, but don’t pick it from there – you don’t want the chemicals from the car exhaust.

Meadowsweet makes a good tea, slightly astringent and very aromatic. You can also pick 20 or so meadowsweet flowers to make a sweet cordial, which can be kept for years and used to flavour drinks or in cooking. Heat 750 ml of water and stir in 400g of sugar and 20 ml of lemon juice. Bring to a boil and add the meadowsweet, then turn off the heat and wait about 10 minutes before straining the liquid. Let it cool and store in the refrigerator.

Most of all, meadowsweet makes a delicious dry wine. These days, for many Westerners, “wine” refers only to grape wine, but you can make wine and beer from almost any edible plant and some inedible ones.  Turning water into wine – literally – could be a matter of life and death for most of human history. Water could be contaminated with any number of diseases, but adding vegetable matter and yeast allowed the yeast to multiply and take over, releasing enough alcohol to discourage any other life in the water.

Making the wine is similar to making the cordial, with the addition of yeast and time. Pour six litres of water into a large pot, and bring it to a boil. Then dump in two litres of meadowsweet tufts. Squeeze in the juice of two lemons, boil it again, and turn the heat off – I also put in the zest of the lemons to make it a bit tarter. 

Stir in a kilogram of sugar slowly until it dissolves, and waited for the liquid to cool to blood temperature. Then pour it into a cleaned and sterilised bucket and add wine yeast – although bread yeast will do in a pinch -- and cover the bucket and set it in the closet. 

Over the next week check the bucket periodically; it should be bubbling away slowly as the yeast turns sugar into alcohol and carbon dioxide. After a week or so, sterilise a carboy – a large jug with an S-shaped valve on the top – and strain the wine into it; I use a paper coffee filter to strain it into a large glass, and then pour it through a funnel into the carboy. Carboys let you store wine during the weeks or months that it still might build up some air pressure, before you pour it into conventional wine bottles.

After pouring the wine into the carboy, you will have some leftover vegetable matter, and you could compost them, feed them to chickens or – as I did – combine them with apple peelings and make them into jam.

No home-made wine will taste like store-bought wine, but most people think it tastes better. Try mixing them with juice and water at first, or store-bought white wine, to make a punch, to acclimatise yourself to the taste of home-made. If it doesn’t turn out, you can do what I did and make the bad wine into vinegar.

Some medical authorities caution against women taking meadowsweet when they are pregnant, thinking that its aspirin-like properties could be harmful in large doses – but you should avoid drinking wine then anyway.

Monday, 6 August 2018

Building with straw bales

Straw-bale building under construction. Courtesy of Wikicommons. 

This article appeared in the Kildare Nationalist newspaper. 

These days, the old straw bales that a human could lift have been replaced by mammoth cylinders that require farm equipment. If you can find some of the old rectangular, metre-long bales, however, they can be put to many uses.

On the Great Plains of North America, people stacked them inside a frame to create walls, which were then covered in mud plaster. This technique, pioneered by 19th-century settlers to the Great Plains, is seeing a comeback as people discover the value of energy-efficient buildings. 

Straw is plentiful, does not require the clearing of forests, can form load-bearing walls or can simply insulate. It is easy to work with, and can be stacked and plastered by amateurs. Gathering and baling it does no damage to the environment, and the building waste can be composted. 

It is also one of the most perfect insulating materials around. Insulation is measured in “R-values,” and the higher the R-value, the less heat escapes the home. Most conventional homes are estimated to be R-12 to R-20; most bale homes, R-30 to R-50. 

Isn’t straw flammable, you ask? Loose straw is, but bales are tightly compressed, and are no more flammable than wood. The National Research Council of Canada, for example, found that a straw bale wall withstood temperatures of up to 1,850 degrees for two hours.

Nor can the big bad wolf cannot blow the house down – the Building Research Center of the University of New South Wales, Australia found in 1998 that bale walls withstood winds up to 134 miles per hour – equivalent to a Category 3 hurricane.

The disadvantage to building with it is that it is quite sensitive to moisture, so here in Ireland it might be best to try it out with temporary structures – barns and sheds, for example. To find out if bale building is for you, consult books like “Serious Straw Bale” by Paul Lacinski and Michel Bergeron, or “More Straw Bale Building” by Chris Magwood.

If you don’t have the ambition for experimental architecture, however, you could plant a garden directly inside straw bales. I have heard from a number of gardeners who have tried this and swear by the result, and while they each used a slightly different method, the details were the same.

First line up bales, long side to long side, to create a garden bed, and water them as you would the rest of your garden for a few days. For a week or so after that, keep watering but add nitrogen and phosphorous -- stir some chicken manure in your watering can, leave it for a few days and pour the resulting liquid over the bales. Urine is also great to add, applied however you think appropriate.

After doing this for two weeks – just water for a few days, then water-with-fertilizer for a week and a half – punch a row of holes in the bales. Set a handful of rich compost into the hole, and plant a seedling in the earth. Sprinkle some earth on top across the entire top of the bale, and water as you would any other garden plants. The straw bale decays as the plant grows, until the plant can stretch more roots directly through the composting straw.

An approach like this can allow elderly and people with back problems to garden a raised bed without having to bend over all the time, and without having to build garden beds from wood. It helps make the garden unreachable by rabbits and many pests.

It helps cut down on the amount of soil you have to use, and since all soil contains weed seeds, it reduces the amount of weeding – although some of the grass seed will inevitably sprout. And, again, when the bales are disintegrating, they become compost, and nothing is wasted.

Wednesday, 1 August 2018


Undated photo of children on an Irish train, courtesy of

Living on an island, the Irish have always been a nation of travellers, and some of my co-workers now fly to Majorca and Cyprus as frequently and casually as their grandparents travelled to Dublin. Now that money has become lean again, however, many are finding travel far too expensive to do frequently.

Strangely, there are several ways to travel cheaply that few people practice. One of them is the business trip -- my job paid for me to go to London three times in the last year, and each time I stayed on extra days to see the sights. My employer had to pay for a return ticket anyway so it made no difference to them, and I got to see London for several days.  

If your job doesn’t send you abroad, however, some airlines offer standby tickets, which allow you to take a flight as soon as a passenger misses their flight. If you don’t work full-time, you might try being hired as a courier, to accompany a package to a destination, and see if a company will pay for most of your plane service.

When you want to stay in another country, hostels are usually the best place to sleep. Most of them are as comfortable and clean as any hotel, but a hotel room might cost you a few hundred euros a night, while a hostel can cost you ten to fifty. They differ from conventional hotels in that they often do not offer single rooms, with the private showers, televisions and maids that most hotel-goers have come to expect. Instead, most hostels require visitors to sleep in rooms with several other people, but this is not as difficult as it might sound; most hostel guests respect the privacy and sleeping habits of others and, as they are spending the day working or having fun, use their rooms only for sleeping.

Hostels also offer the chance to mingle with other guests in a way that hotel s do not. Since most people in hostels use their rooms only for sleeping, and spend their time at the hostel sitting in common rooms, hostel guests have the opportunity to chat with others if they choose. Hostel guests also tend to be young and adventurous, often backpackers or other casual travellers, and come from all over the world. When I stay at a hostel, I soon have enjoyable conversations with people from Russia, Australia, Africa and many other parts of the world – all with stories to tell.

You might think that seeing a foreign city would be expensive, and every city is different. In many cities, though, the most amazing sites are the statues, buildings, rivers, bridges and public parks, and those are almost always free. London has dozens of museums, many of them open to the public every day for free; each time I go I see a few more. 

Many other great entertainments, however, are surprisingly inexpensive. Musical plays are in great demand right now, so their tickets run into the hundreds of euros, but amazing plays starring world-famous actors can have very cheap seats. I saw a play starring Keira Knightley and other well-known movie stars for about 30 euros, little more than a movie ticket with popcorn these days.

Travelling around a strange city can often be part of the adventure, and while most cities charge more than they should for public transportation, most also offer the opportunity to pay one charge for a whole day or week. The London Underground, for example, charges the equivalent of 8.50 euros to ride all day, but that takes one anywhere in the city for half the price of a short taxi ride.  

Finally, eating in another city or country doesn’t have to be expensive either. We tend to pay more for food when we are hungry, intuitively enough, and take less time to enjoy the food. If you want to eat cheaply and enjoy your food as much as possible, therefore, buy cheap, healthy snacks at a grocery store. Snack on fennel or apples as you walk or ride from one attraction to the next, and keep yourself from getting too hungry and impulsively buying food, and you will truly be able to enjoy the restaurants you do visit.
Tips like these can help you visit other parts of the world even on a tight budget – or, if you’re that kind of person, to save all your money for drinking.

Thursday, 26 July 2018

Making charcoal

Growing up I knew charcoal as the square, chemical-soaked briquettes people bought in bags and poured into the barbecue grill once a summer. Like so much else in our lives it came from a store, wrapped in plastic and pre-treated for shelf life, with no sense that it shared a name with something amazingly useful, which hundreds of generations had made themselves.

Charcoal is simply wood that has been burned without oxygen, either by being heated but sealed away from oxygen or, more commonly, setting it on fire and then cutting it off from the air, keeping the wood from burning completely into ash. Most other substances in the wood are driven off, leaving a porous shape of almost pure carbon, lightweight and easy to transport.

It can purify water by soaking up impurities, as in many kitchen sink filters, and treat poison victims when crushed and drunk in a fluid. It allows people to burn fires hotter than wood, enabling people to smelt iron or shape glass in a way that wood fires cannot. It can be added to soap for abrasion, crushed to make ink or paint or mixed with minerals to make gunpowder.

Perhaps the most surprising use, one that gained a burst of attention in recent years, involves trapping carbon from the atmosphere. Frequent readers of this blog might have already heard of this and can feel free to skip ahead a few paragraphs – but for the unfamiliar, I will recap the basics.

Farmers in Brazil have long known about the “black earth,” or terra preta, found over vast areas of the Amazon. In the last decade or two archaeologists have begun to realise that the terra preta was not a naturally occurring phenomenon, but had been cultivated over centuries, if not millennia. What’s more, they began to realise that much of the sparsely inhabited Amazon rainforest was once densely populated with humans, continually enriching the soil as they farmed.

Like many Stone Age societies, they burned land to clear it for farming or hunting, but unlike many others they turned some of the wood into charcoal and then worked it back into the soil, creating an unusually rich and fertile ground; according to a 2006 article in Nature, bio-char – the charcoal folded into the earth to make terra preta -- is three times richer in nitrogen and phosphorous than ordinary soil and 20 times richer in carbon.

This information might have remained a curiosity, part of the amazing new research in pre-Columbian natives, except for one thing: the same technique could work for us to offset carbon emissions. Burning plants may seem like a strange way to combat climate change, but merely charring wood into charcoal, rather than letting it burn away into ash, locks much of the wood’s carbon away in a stable form. 

According to researcher Bruno Glaser at the University of Bayreuth, Germany, a hectare of meter-deep terra preta can hold 250 tonnes of carbon, as opposed to 100 tonnes of carbon in unimproved soils. In addition, the bio-char itself increases soil fertility, which allows farmers to grow more plants, which allows more bio-char to be added to the soil. Johannes Lehman, author of Amazonian Dark Earths, claims that combining bio-char and bio-fuels could draw down 9.5 billion tones per year, equal to all our current fossil fuel emissions.

Whether or not such people are correct, the technique has drawn admirers like climate scientists James Lovelock and Tim Flannery. As I mentioned last week, climate change is hitting us in a variety of ways, yet we struggle to reduce our pollution even a little, and our goal of a zero-carbon world seems ever more hopeless. Bio-char, however, offers everyone a way to be, not just carbon-neutral, but carbon-negative, with almost no technology.   The redoubtable Albert Bates is gathering research on the merits of bio-char, and gave us a presentation on making it at the permaculture course I took in County Tipperary. Before I started his more sophisticated techniques, however, I needed to learn how to make charcoal, and some years ago I tried my hand at doing so. 

I tried three ways of doing so, with varying degrees of success. Since charcoal can be created when wood is inside a heated and sealed container, I put two metal buckets together, one upside-down and atop the other, and inside I placed one or more pieces of wood. The crack of space between the two buckets I plastered with clay, and around them I started a fire of some of our rotting lumber. (Never burn lumber for charcoal or even in a fireplace; it has been treated with chemicals that can be poisonous when inhaled, and I would not want to filter water through its charcoal.)

I tried to make small amounts of charcoal, one at a time, but it never worked. If the clay plaster held, the logs inside were merely signed, and if part of the plaster fell off – as happened more frequently – the fire caught inside until I was left with only a few small pieces of charcoal and a lot of ash.

For the second method I took a page from Waterford farmer and author John Seymour and dug a trench, lit a fire in it, tossed in some logs and covered it with corrugated iron sheeting. Then I packed the cracks tightly with clay and plants to seal in the oxygen, and uncovered it a few days later. This worked better, as I did get some charcoal out of it, but the amount was still tiny.

The best method, I found, was the one used by the charcoal burners that worked Irish woodlands until just the last century. Before the discovery of smelting with fossil fuels, charcoal was needed to make metal from ore, and once the metal was broken or warped charcoal was needed again by the blacksmith. Any glass that existed came ultimately from their craft, as did gunpowder and any sword or ploughshare, yet historians say they tended to be independent and reclusive, with few surnames referring to their craft as with other crafts – wright, miller, tailor – and their own jargon and trade secrets.

Mimicking the historical accounts of the burners, I stacked logs in a triangular pattern and leaned more upright pieces of wood around them, until I had a small and dense ring of wood about a metre high. Then I filled the interior of the triangle with tinder and kindling – sawdust, mulch, twigs, anything that would light easily.

Then I covered the logs with our recently-cleared weeds, plastered clay over them and shovelled on more earth.  When done I had a mound of earth open at the very top, and the top hole—the “chimney” -- looked down into the hollow space between the logs, filled with tinder and kindling. 

Next came the big moment – I lit a fire-starter and dropped it down the middle, and within moments had a raging fire inside the mound. I covered the top of the mound with more plants, in this case strips of weeds with earth still attached to the roots, and lay them upside-down over the top. I shovelled earth onto the top of the mound – the weeds and roots served to block the entrance, so that I wasn’t simply shovelling loose earth into the hole and putting out the fire.
The result was a strangely smoking hill, and when it smoked too much I knew to look for a crack where oxygen was getting in.  When I found it, I plastered more mud and earth over that part – carefully, for the escaping steam can get quite hot – until the leak was stopped.

Two days later, I broke it open, and began fishing out the charcoal, and got enough to easily make water filters or distil spirits. As an aside, I had hoped that these experiments would be useful for killing weeds as well as making charcoal; after all, they would be in there with the burning wood for two days. No such luck; an amazing proportion of the weeds in there remained alive, green and uncooked, apparently protected by mud or moisture.

One thing I neglected to do, which must wait until the next round of experiments, was take careful measurements of exactly how much wood was put in vs. how much charcoal we got out. I do know that we burned 15 small logs of about two kilos each, and got about 5.5 kilos out of it, so an average of 18 per cent of the wood became charcoal. Most experts say that the charcoal should be 50 to 60 per cent of the original wood by volume and 25 per cent by weight, so that’s not far off – and of course the smallest charcoal pieces I just left in the ashes and burned clay in the centre, and scattered those over the recently-harvested and newly bare sections of our garden.

With more careful measurements, I or others could see if we could use these techniques on some kind of fast-growing wood, like willow, and see if we could do with terra preta in temperate climates what Amazonian tribes did in the rainforest. On paper, it looks like it should work: willow can yield ten tonnes to the acre, and the wood does not need to be dried for a year or more before burning into charcoal as it would for firewood. The charcoal would retain as much as 25 per cent of the mass of the wood, in theory, and should remain stable in the soil for decades.

There’s a lot more to learn about this, and I’ve barely scratched the surface. In the meantime, though, we have fun experimenting, and now I want to learn to use the charcoal to filter toxins out of drinking water. More on that in future posts.

Saturday, 21 July 2018

Back from the USA

Photo: The Girl in Iceland at 3 am. Notice the well-lit outdoors. 

We’re back in Ireland after spending some weeks in my native Missouri. I have been truly blessed by the friends I have there, who have stayed with me for so many years, and missed them something fierce. I got to celebrate the 50th anniversary of my parents, who are also my heroes, and to catch up with brothers, aunts, uncles, and heaps of cousins. The Girl and I went to a Cardinals baseball game, she saw Independence Day fireworks for the first time, and I got to bask in the Missouri heat for a short time before returning home.

To any friends and family reading this: thank you for everything in my life. 


The Teenager and I also saw a bit of Iceland on the way home, and took photos at three in the morning – of course the sun doesn’t set this time of year. I didn’t find any phone books, as no one uses them much anymore; I had hoped to bring one home as a souvenir, as they were the only phone books in the world arranged by first name. Icelanders still use the old Viking system of surnames – your surname is whatever your father’s name was, plus “-son” if you’re male and “Dottir” if you’re female. The eccentric Icelandic singer Bjork’s full name is “Bjork Guthmundsdottir,” except with a special letter denoting the “th” sound.

I was also interested to see the political centre of Iceland, the world’s oldest functioning democracy, governed now as for the last thousand years by their parliament, the Althing – a rather literal cognate of “all thing,” the place where all things are debated. Honestly, though, I would never want to live there – I have enough trouble with the winter darkness here in Ireland, which is the same latitude as the southern tip of Alaska. In Iceland, you’d have an entire season of darkness; I suspect that this is why everything I’ve seen come out of Iceland – Lazy Town, the Sugarcubes – looks like it was made by people whose brains work a bit differently. 

Some of my American friends wanted to know what the USA looks like now that Mr. Trump is in power -- it's a big question, one that deserves a lot more space than I can devote here. I'll say a few paragraphs for now, then get off the soap box and get back to writing about sustainable living for a while. 

I told them that honestly, everything I saw looked much the same as the USA has for years -- the panic was on the news, not on the streets. That doesn't mean that many Americans aren’t suffering right now -- they are, even beyond the distress the news is causing them. In fact, large swaths of the USA are filled with once-prosperous communities that have become almost ghost towns, with all the downtown businesses boarded up. More and more people I know are working heroic hours at multiple jobs to get by, and making all kinds of creative arrangements to give their families a competent education or basic health care. My country has some serious problems, no doubt about it.

But here’s the thing: all those economic and social trends have been going on for decades, no matter which of the USA’s two parties were in power, no matter what man ran the Executive branch, and no matter what scandal the mainstream media were covering. In fact, the more I see people focus on the evening news, the more helpless they feel, and the less they actually do in their real lives.

In my case, home isn't just "America," it's where I grew up, near Ferguson, Missouri -- a place that was in the news a lot a few years ago. For a few weeks the global news was filled with images of angry rioters and angry police, of burning buildings and tear gas. Yet I was in contact with friends and family from around there, black and white, some of whom witnessed the protests -- and what they saw was less sensational and more hopeful than what they saw on the news. When I went back to visit myself, almost everything looked the same -- if not for a small stretch of one street, you'd never know anything had happened. 

I want to be clear about this: I'm not dismissing the injustice that was taking place in Ferguson or the concerns of protesters. In a democracy, when the government does something you believe to be wrong, protesting is part of your duty. I'm also aware that most of my friends and family were white, and that black residents live with things I don't. 

I am saying that the news coverage took complicated issues in the community that had been simmering for decades, with many sides and points of view, and squeezed all that down into a few shocking images from a few nights. They created a simple story of two sides, police and protesters, when 99.9 per cent of the population belonged to neither group. For most people, life went on -- they were part of the community's real story, but never become part of the viral-media story.

And then the protests ended and the reporters left, leaving the issues still there, property values dropping because of the negative press, and most people worse off than before. Across my country I've seen friends from the left and right, city and country, upper-class and lower-class, all engage in camera-grabbing behaviour, trade apocalyptic hyperbole and nurse fantasies of consequence-free violence, and I'm weary of it. Rather, I encourage people to start working on tangible problems on the ground -- this blackout, that tainted water supply, this storefront, that child. 

For me, the entire country has become Ferguson, with everyone focusing on the infuriating and scandalous, and ignoring the quiet heroism that's keeping the country going when no one's looking. Many people believe my country to be on the verge of collapse, but if it does so, it will be a self-fulfilling prophecy. As I said last month in my piece on science fiction, "the more people are convinced that we face a violent and despairing future, the more likely such a future becomes."

There’s a lot of infrastructure to be rebuilt or regrown -- not just physical infrastructure but moral, economic, social and cultural. I'd like to see people rebuild starting at the individual level and then working upwards, to the family, the neighbourhood, the community, the county, the region and the state. Many areas of life need to be reformed– where we get our food, how we travel around, what we do with our waste, how we teach our children, and how we look out for the interests of our cousins and neighbours.

But the problems aren't  all because of one man, in one office, at one level of government, in one area of life. As much as you can criticise the current president – and please, be my guest -- he didn’t do all this single-handedly, any more than the last president did, or the one before that. I understand that people are frustrated, but there’s a lot more happening than the latest sensational story, and a lot more at stake than your feelings. 

There’s a world out there that needs some fixing. Fix something in it. Don’t them distract you.  

Thursday, 21 June 2018

What science fiction ought to be

One simpler world: 2009's The Road, based on the Pulitzer-Prize-winning novel of the same name. 

Sorry for the light posting lately -- I'll be on holiday in the USA for the next two weeks. If any readers live in the St. Louis area and want to meet, e-mail me. 

Science fiction has become the dominant genre of the last four decades – the biggest film of the year has been sci-fi almost every year in my lifetime. Of those, some are simply swashbuckler fantasies set in space, like Star Wars, while others are the very entertaining superhero fantasies that have become as ubiquitous as Westerns or musicals once were. Each year, however, brings a new wave of dystopian post-apocalyptic films – in the last year we’ve had Blade Runner 2049, Ready Player One, War for the Planet of the Apes, Geostorm, and later this year we can expect Alita and Mortal Engines.

Another simpler world: All Creatures Great and Small
I say “dystopian,” because science fiction used to be creating utopian futures in which mankind had solved most of its problems – Star Trek being one of the only survivors of that age. In the time that science fiction has dominated our culture, though, it has been about something else: telling us how hopeless our future is, and how we’re all doomed.

They have a point; we have created a society that runs on coal and oil, which won’t last forever. Even the amount we’ve burned so far has changed the air so much that it is literally changing the weather around the world, creating more intense storms, harsher droughts, and greater extremes of heat and cold. Anyone who walks along the Irish shoreline can see the other main product of our civilisation, the plastic and other rubbish that now clutters the world’s seas, or piles up in landfills that have become the largest man-made structures on Earth.

Yet apocalyptic stories assume that our modern car-driving, computer-using culture will collapse overnight in some catastrophe, whether a robot Armageddon, climate disaster or Rapture – and the fact that we make entertainment about such horrors means that they are not really our fears, but our fantasies. And they offer the worst possible model for how to handle the realistic difficulties we might face in the future. Paranoid survivalists do not help build a delicate web of trust among neighbours, and millenarians will not help build lasting infrastructure for the next stage of history. The more people are convinced that we face a violent and despairing future, the more likely such a future becomes.

In the decades to come, as we have to cope with more difficult economic times, energy crunches and unexpected weather, more of us will have to grow more food ourselves, learn to use less energy from different sources, and buy more products made to be fixed and re-used rather than thrown away. It might be a reduction of our energy wealth by 10 percent, or 50 percent, or 90 percent – depending on your time and place -- but it’s literally not the end of the world, and we shouldn’t confuse the two.
And it will require more of us to form carpools, shopping co-ops, allotment clubs, medical co-ops, home-schooling networks and other such ad hoc organisations, and to cheerfully work with our neighbours to create new relationships – something people can and often do in a crisis, and exactly the opposite of what most science fiction depicts. 

Movies and television programmes could easily help people imagine a more realistic future, and there are many models they could use. 1950s America, Irish village life, post-war Britain, modern-day Mexico or India – since people in every time and place used and wasted less than we do today, almost any such model would probably look more like our future than the latest Zombie Apocalypse movie.

For example, picture a gentle television comedy series set in a modern suburban housing estate, but with the lawns turned into gardens, and bean vines crawling up the sides of every house. Most homes hold extended families of mothers, grandparents and children, some of whom had to move in with cousins and in-laws from what used to be the coast. Picture each home having masonry stoves for the cold and Arab ventilation shafts for the heat, coops and hutches outside for animals, and neighbours pooling their money to help each other out.    

I can picture storylines involving elderly people, who grew up during the boom years, having arguments with their more practical children and grandchildren, or feuding with other elders over culture-war issues that have long been rendered moot. Other storylines might involve the young men of the community taking turns patrolling the homes against local gangs, making life difficult for secret cigarette addicts and covert teenage lovers and leading to all manner of comic misunderstandings and hijinks.

Some episodes might involve the same sort of bucolic charm one might find in All Creatures Great and Small, Last of the Sumer Wine or other British series, or in Irish films like War of the Buttons. Perhaps residents gear up for the annual vegetable awards, and get a little carried away with the competition, spying on each other with binoculars and sending children to spy on their neighbours for pocket change.

Perhaps other stories involve the neighbours learning old-fashioned ways – when the water turns out to have heavy metals, they learn how to create a slow sand filter and charcoal filter. Or the creek is flooding the neighbourhood, and everyone has to pitch in to dig a channel or an overflow field full of willow trees. I could see it being like one of my favourite films, 1934’s Our Daily Bread, in which a group of down-and-out people during the Depression have to learn to run a farm together.

Other storylines might be more dramatic; perhaps one of the residents gets an eviction notice, and the neighbourhood bands together to stand against the police. The matter is resolved without violence when the police fall in love with Granny Madison’s blueberry pies, and agree not to evict in exchange for a pie once a week.

I could see a story involving an elderly resident keeps to himself, and is the subject of much gossip among the neighbourhood children, who peek in his windows and frighten each other with stories about him. When one boy sneaks into the house on a dare, however, he finds the old man has a fascinating history, and the two become friends. The episode ends with the boy leading the old man out to meet his neighbours for the first time.

Another episode, perhaps, could revolve around a group of unemployed men struggling with family stress and poverty, who decide to pool their money and skills and build a small wind farm together out of boards and car alternators. They hope to generate enough electricity to get the Internet coming to their homes again, enabling them to keep in touch look for jobs, download self-sufficiency courses and – closest to their hearts – play video games with old buddies on the other side of the world.

Make up your own examples of what your neighbourhood or family might look like if weather and the economy became more difficult, and yet life went on. Write a short story, a comic book, or a
fairy tale for your children. The point is that few people read scientific papers or specialist web sites, but we all watch or read stories. If you think there is hope for a decent future -- and I do -- then make that future come alive for your family and friends. I ask only two things: it show a realistic future, and that it be fun.

Friday, 8 June 2018

The Future of Pavement

Originally published in 2011. 

One of Ireland’s most iconic images, seen in many postcards and calendar panoramas, is the mosaic of green fields divided by stone walls. Those walls, so common in the west of our island, look even more interesting up close, for the stones are loose, irregular and often lain without mortar. They look as unstable as a card pyramid, yet many have lasted centuries. They demonstrate how insoluble problems can be combined into simple solutions, as farmers here turned an obstacle – the stones that broke their ploughs – into a barrier that would protect their livestock.

Such bucolic scenes seem a world away from, say, suburban USA, where rivers of asphalt and concrete flow through landscapes of strip-malls and housing estates. But there people actually have a similar problem as those farmers, and might learn from their solutions.

For hundreds if not thousands of years, most farmers had some knowledge of how to make walls out of the soil’s round stones, but I’m told specialists went from farm to farm to help with repairs. To build such walls you must select stones of the right size and shapes to fill the spaces formed by the ones around it, like a three-dimensional jigsaw puzzle. When laid properly, the gravity of the stones keep each other in place, like the segments of an archway.

Crafters made their walls in straight lines by hammering posts into the ground some metres apart along the path the wall was to follow, and stretching a rope tautly between them. They did not need to transport materials, as the stones were pulled from the fields around the wall itself – and stones have always been Ireland’s biggest crop.

The resulting walls seemed to grow organically out of the land, and with their crevices could be scaled by humans but made an effective barrier for livestock. Their crevices, meanwhile, provide a home for many forms of smaller wildlife we need for the larger ones to stay alive – the base of the food pyramid, as it were. Seeds eventually make their way to the crevices and sprout, and plants wind their roots and woody stems through the interstices until they become part of the structure, and the wall can barely be seen under the greenery. Eventually some of them become, effectively, hedgerows, and in some hedgerows you can still see their rocky foundation.

Smooth stones fill the earth here because a slow flood of ice scoured this land only ten millennia ago, ripping rock from mountain ranges and suspending it, up to a kilometre above the ground, for perhaps tens of thousands of years. When the ice melted, all the rubble suspended for a kilometre above any patch of land would have slowly tumbled to earth, some of it smoothed by millennia in an icy rock tumbler. Each new ice age would have added a new layer of till, until the soil was thick with it.

One other, more tragic factor might have accelerated the spread of stone walls, especially in the west where they take over from the hedgerows you see in our area. Humans began felling trees as soon as they reached this cold rainforest, but Ireland still had vast forested areas when it was conquered. Then the remaining trees fell to become much of Britain’s navy, until the land was the most deforested in Europe, as Ugo Bardi notes in his 2008 essay “A Distant Mirror.” 

Trees hold soil in place; without them it washes away quickly, especially in a rainy country. Bardi notes that erosion seems to have been most severe in the west, and that the thinning soil exposed stones that were brought to the surface; even today, the further west you go, the more barren the land appears, and the more stone walls replace the hedgerows of our region. The diminishing soil, single-crop agriculture, high population and political oppression created an extremely unstable situation, which came, of course, in the form of the potato blight. Over the next few decades, the resulting Famine cut the population in half. 

I study old crafts and traditions here to understand how people could live, and sometimes live well, in a truly durable way – and where they did not, to avoid their mistakes. In the modern West – and especially in my native USA – we have thousands of times the wealth that the Irish of 150 years ago, as well as devices they would consider miraculous. Our countries, however, face some of the same problems they did. Many of the forests have been felled, especially around populated areas. We rely heavily on single crops – much of the American diet now consists of corn, in the form of starch, sweetener and meat. More and more people are feeling an economic pinch, and while they have nowhere near the poverty of Ireland 150 or even 50 years ago, neither do they have any experience with the basic self-reliant skills that allowed many people then to survive.

Most of all, Americans specifically and Westerners in general have a problem very like that of the early Irish farmers – their topsoil is blocked by rock. Much of our land been locked away under cement and asphalt, and the more people live in an area, the more of their land is paved. Nor is the problem exclusively urban; suburban and rural Americans, for example, must live with mega-mall moonscapes of concrete and asphalt lining hundreds of thousands of miles of highway.

Such materials require a massive infusion of cheap energy to function, and as energy prices rose in the last decade, the cost of road surfaces soared. Such materials only last a couple of decades, and many roads are reaching the end of their lives. Rural governments in my native USA struggle to cover even rudimentary costs, and several localities are tearing up their roads for more cost-effective gravel. As other areas follow suit, they might find it advantageous to tear down berms, bridges, sidewalks, parking lots and strip malls. That would, however, leave those communities with thousands of tonnes of rubble.

Even residents who have scraps of land they could use for crops – say, suburban homeowners – often dig through their lawn and find thin, depleted soil filled with the debris from the original construction of the neighbourhood. One way or another, they will have to find some use for irregular chunks of concrete and asphalt.

At the same time, many American homes and businesses have chain-link fences for boundaries, which were only invented in the last century and whose cost will increase in the years ahead. How, then, do you discourage intruders or enclose livestock?

In an earlier article I mentioned hedgerows, which provide a thick barrier, a home for wildlife and a seasonal resource of shoots and berries. Many people with sufficient soil, a temperate climate and a bit of space could grow a hedgerow to surround and eventually supplant their existing fences. Hedgerows, however, have a few limitations. For one thing, they take time; even in a moist climate a row of willow saplings would take a few years to become a proper hedge. For another, they must have enough soil to put down roots – a problem for people with concrete or thin soil.

For many people, then, the best solution might be the same ones the Irish farmers used, to let these two problems solve each other. Chunks of rubble can be stacked into walls, and more easily than glacial till, as former pieces of road or parking lot are likely to have at least one flat side. They can keep livestock enclosed, perhaps in a single suburban block whose residents decided to tear down their chain-link fences and keep pigs together. They can break up the wind, shade lambs and piglets from strong sun, provide a home for the miniature wildlife that larger animals eat, and for the flowers that often grow in crevices.

If you think chunks of concrete and asphalt would look ugly, you could try finely chopping moss and mixing it with yogurt and beer, and painting the resulting smoothie on your rocks – I haven’t tried it myself, but I’m told it rapidly creates a moss covering. Alternately, you could plant ivy-leaved toadflax or some other flowers in the crevices, providing food for bees.

Given enough time, plants might wind their roots or stems through the gaps and you might get a proper hedgerow growing out of your wall, their fallen leaves and the animals’ waste slowly building back the soil.

Given enough time, that moonscape of parking lots could look like that green mosaic of our postcards.

Sunday, 27 May 2018

Wild food in spring

Originally published in the Kildare Nationalist newspaper. 

All food was wild once, and all the vegetables in rows at the grocers were bred over centuries from what we now call weeds. In many cases, they were bred to have more flesh, like the giant carrots over their smaller root of the Queen Anne’s Lace, or for their orange colours over the white originals.

Yet colour and tastes go in and out of fashion with each generation; look at the white eggs that were fashionable a few decades ago, and how completely they were all replaced by otherwise identical brown ones, simply because brown eggs carried an image of being more “natural.” Since carrots have been bred there have been white, orange, yellow and even purple varieties, breeds suited for different tastes, climates, times of year or for fashion –to match what consumers imagine to be nice-looking. 

Most importantly, the varieties we get at the store were selected for bland flavours, giant sizes and their ability to sit in a box or on a shelf for weeks while being transported across an ocean to your neighbourhood store. Fresh vegetables, typically, are nothing of the kind.

The wild food still exists all around us, though, all over our fields, and our hedgerows create a vertical salad bar filled with food for the taking. Some of these are wilder versions of familiar vegetables, like wild parsnip or sea beet, while others have no domesticated equivalent, like fat hen or jack-by-the-hedge.

Hawthorn trees still have a few shoots in the shaded areas, and the shoots – leaves just coming out -- make an excellent addition to salad. Later this year their berries – haws – will cover the hedgerows, and a single tree can yield thousands of berries. They make a colourful wine and jam, and are easy pickings, and while they are not the most strongly-flavoured berry, they can be mixed with other ingredients – try hawthorn-and-ginger jam, or hawthorn-and-crab-apple wine.

Every spring we use the youngest leaves of the linden tree as a salad (also called the lime – no relation to the fruit) and it gives us two weeks of free and edible greens. Dandelions are still flowering now, and their younger and less bitter leaves can be put into salad, while their flowers can be battered and fried, or made into an excellent wine. Come autumn the roots will be at their fullest; try pulling them out, dry-roasting them, grinding them into powder, and using them to make coffee.

I’ve mentioned the amazing properties of nettles many times – sautéed they make a great vegetable, added to soup they flavour the stock, dried they make a great tea or can flavour beer, they can be made into wine, and their fibres can be made into cloth.

Bistort’s long columns of lavender flower clusters appear all over our bogs and wastelands, and people in centuries past often ate its leaves on Easter. It makes a good dish sautéed with leeks. Fat Hen was apparently much more widely eaten in ancient times than today, and its pale green leaves are quite nutritious. 

The garlic –flavoured leaves of Jack-by-the-hedge first emerge in spring, but often a new crop appears this month, so this is a good time to go looking for it. Its large, deeply green, heart-shaped leaves and small white flowers make a great ingredient in salads, and can be sauteed like spinach and used as a vegetable, doubling as both the vegetable and the sprinkling of garlic in one.

The flowers of chamomile, seen above, make an excellent evening tea, and can be added to salads. Cowslips, oxlips and primroses, all in the same family, can also be eaten raw or made into some of the richest and sweetest wine I've ever had. 

Finally, the shamrock-like leaves of wild sorrel carpet forest floors beginning in spring, and can still be seen this time of year. Its lemony leaves make a perfect addition to salads, taking the place of some of the vinegar in dressing. They can also be cooked, but be warned that they wilt almost instantly, and in an herbal mix should be added lastly.

If you are not sure what these plants look like, of course you can look them up online or get a book on foraging -- I recommend Food for Free, although it is written mainly for the British Isles. Do remember not to remove plants from the roadside, where they could have been bathing in toxic fumes, or from anywhere you think might have been sprayed with pesticides. When you do find one of these plants, try not to strip them of all their edible parts – leave some leaves for them to continue to grow, seeds for them to continue, and so on.

Thursday, 24 May 2018

Life with Teenaged Girl

Not a recent photo, but one I still love, and taken near the opera house; The Girl camouflauged in Dublin. 

This is close to the tenth anniversary of this blog, and I feel like I should write something more momentous to mark the occasion. This year, however, has been a frantic one for us, filled with the burning usual of life.

For ten years I have filled these pages with The Girl, who toddled along unsteady legs when we first moved here, pointed with awe at the creeping mini-beasts, fluttering birds and distant cows that we adults have learned to ignore, and like Adam she gave them all names. I have written about our walks through the woods, our bedtime stories and conversations, and our folk songs and old movies that passed the long winter nights.

As she grew older I shared our homeschooling lessons about Homer and Hesiod, our experiences getting chickens and bees, and her taking up of horseback riding and archery. We travelled all over these islands, from  the ruined monsteries of the far islands of Scotland, where we stood inside the roar of Fingal's Cave, to the Blasket Islands off the Dingle coast, where we saw humpback whales breach out of the sea around us, and dolphins leap out alongside our boat. Finally, I took her to my native Missouri, where we both saw our birth country with new eyes.

These days she is now The Teenaged Girl -- she rides horses every weekend, brings home many archery trophies, and sings in the school choir. Our relationship went through a rough patch last year with the onset of adolescence and high school, but seems to be relaxing now; most evenings we hug and recap her day, and she tells me about the latest melodrama among her friends or whatever's bothering her.

Occasionally we gently argue over politics and religion, and I welcome that too -- I accept that she won't always agree with me, but if she continues to ask probing questions about the world, listen politely to other people's point of view, and argue logically for her own, she'll be ahead of 99 per cent of people I meet these days.


One interesting feature of her upbringing: the school's music teacher warms up the class by leading them in songs from musicals, often Disney movies from the 1990s. The Girl was the only one, she said, who had to learn the Disney songs, as she was the only one who had not grown up with Disney movies.

"I'm not mad about it," she said to reassure me. "On the other hand, I was the only one in the school who didn't have to learn the words to "Puttin' On the Ritz."


The other evening her choir went to Dublin for a concert, and before the concert she and her group of teenaged girls -- a gaggle of girls? A giggle? -- went into some of the stores in Dublin, and they lost a few of their friends and were briefly concerned. Finally, she said, her friends emerged from Top Shop, which is apparently where all the cool kids go these days.

"You have to watch out for Top Shops," she said. "Their clothes draw teenagers in, and the store just swallows them whole for a while."

Do they spit them out again eventually, like a catch-and-release rule? I asked

"Well, this was a particularly aggressive Top Shop," she said. "It held onto my friends like a dog with a bone, and didn't want to let go."

I'll remember to spray our fields for Top Shops this season, I said, to make sure they don't spring up around us like triffids.


Even if The Girl wants to mostly do her own things these days, she still watches things with me occasionally. The other night we watched Duck Soup -- coincidentally, a few nights later I would kill my neighbour's ducks for her, and we had duck soup ourselves. Last year I took her to see Citizen Kane and The Shawshank Redemption,  as she is old enough to see them now. And a few weeks ago she let me take her to a live opera, where we saw The Marriage of Figaro.

I'd taken her to Gilbert and Sullivan operettas, and to The Magic Flute a few years ago; here in Ireland cinemas often live-stream performances from the Dublin or London stage, so we can see things like that for the price of a movie ticket. This was our first time seeing a live opera, though, as well as one with such mature themes -- which I described to her, knowing her adolescent taste for the adult and formerly forbidden, and sure enough, she was excited to see it. 

For those who don't know, Marriage of Figaro revolves around servants in a wealth household -- Figaro and Susanna -- who are about to be married. Their employer, the Count, has an eye for the ladies and an unwholesome attraction to Susanna, however -- which appalls her, Figaro, and the Count's wife. The three of them conspire to serve a bit of revenge on the Count -- a story far ahead of it's time and surprisingly relevant today.

One snag came up when we left the house and got in the car to drive to Dublin, though -- the latch on our car door stuck, and the door wouldn't close. We could only drive while The Girl was holding the door shut so it wouldn't swing open -- which was fine on our country roads, but not on the motorway to the city. Instead, I drove to the nearest bus stop, we parked the car in an out-of-the-way place, and hoped no one would notice that the door was open.

We caught the bus into town, but then we realised we had a second problem: the last bus came home at 11 pm, right when the opera ended. To catch it we'd have to race from the Opera House to the bus stop on the quays of the River Liffey, and we'd be cutting it close.

The opera was lovely, and both of us had a great time --- but as the last song died down, I checked my watch, and it was exactly 11 pm. I whispered to The Girl, "Time to go," and we tip-toed out of the crowd toward the door.

Once we were at the door I shouted, "GO! GO! GO!" and we sprinted flat out, in our Sunday best, down the streets of Dublin to the river -- about half a mile at least -- until we made it to the bus stop, noting with relief that no bus had come yet.

Then came the third problem: No bus came after that either. They had cancelled the last bus, and we were standing in the drunkard section of Dublin on a Saturday night with no way to get home. Finally I had us take the last bus, which took us vaguely in the direction we were going, until we got to the town of Kilcock, where we ordered a country taxi to our car, and drove home. 

We didn't get home until around 2 am, but it was worth every penny, and every second. She's growing up so fast, and I want to take every second I can while she lets me.

Sunday, 13 May 2018

How not to become a beekeeper

This is a reprint from a few years ago; sorry for the re-runs, but I've been quite busy this year. We're re-doing our garden, my now-teenaged daughter is competing in archery competitions across Ireland, I helped my neighbour dispatch her ducks, and we're preparing to visit my native USA for the first time in years. I'll write more about these things later. 

If you're thinking of becoming a beekeeper, there are a few things to remember. First of all, everything you do will be wrong, at least according to someone, and that’s okay.

Take, for example, when you choose what kind of hive to get – by “hive,” I just mean the wooden box and the pieces inside, as you have to set that up before you put the bees in. All of those modern square hives come in two models, one smaller and one larger, and since every piece is made for a hive of one size or the other, beekeepers stick religiously stick with one model and swear by it. I picked the smaller version, thinking it would be easier to lift when laden with wax and honey – but when I told a local beekeeper, he talked to me about my decision in the delicate but grieving tones usually reserved for a terminal illness.

Then you need to decide where to put this wrong hive, and your spot will also be, according to someone, wrong. Most books, for example, recommend placing your hive where it will be warm and dry, protected from wind and rain. Those books were not written for people in Ireland. Who live in a bog in Ireland.

Thus, we make do -- I chose a place in a corner of our woodland, facing the bog-land and its fields of wildflowers, but wove trimmed stalks of elder between tree stumps to form a wattle-fence around part of it, sheltering it from our fierce winds.

Next you need to fill the hive with wooden frames, those rectangular slices of honeycomb that beekeepers remove to get the honey. Most hives come with slides of wax to help get the bees started, and you have to slip the wax into each wooden frame and secure them in place with wire or nails. When you have done this for all ten slides and put them into the hive one by one, you lift the hive off the shelf, set it down gently. Then you listen to the sound of several wax slides come crashing down, and do it right the second time.

You will also need a smoker – basically a cross between a watering can and an accordion -- to slow the bees down before you open up their home. Despite being the smallest animal we’ve domesticated, they are the only ones we have to sedate before approaching.

The bees will need sugar-water to get them started, before they figure out where all the flowers are in relation to their new home. This is easy to make on the kitchen stove – a kilogram of sugar per litre of water – and most hives, like ours, have a feeder attached. You don’t need to feed them continually – that would rather take away from the point of getting honey – but it does help them through the early days and again through the winter months.

You also need a bee suit, a one-piece outfit which will seem to consist mostly of zippers. Do try to seal all the zippers completely, or the neighbourhood children will see a strange, white-clad figure flailing and dancing the hokey-pokey out of the forest.

Now comes the intimidating bit: you need to buy bees and put them into your new home. You will probably do this by buying a swarm nucleus, or “nuc,” a mini-hive filled with a queen and skeleton crew of her staff to get a hive started. Whereas a full hive will have ten to twenty frames of honeycomb, a nuc will have four or five, which you remove and place in your hive. The rest of your hive will be filled with empty frames – empty but for those wax slides you put in – ready for the bees to use as they expand their population.

 Remember those two basic models of hive I mentioned earlier? Since the honeycombed frames of the nuc have to be removed and placed in your hive, the nuc’s frames must be cut the same size as your hive’s. This is why beekeepers stick with only one model – I had to find someone else with the same kind of hives, who was also ready to sell nucs.

Eventually I found an old beekeeper in the Wicklow Mountains of Ireland, and drove out to his farm. He cheerfully plopped into my arms a wooden box, secured all around with duct tape and with a wire mesh at the top, and right under the mesh, a swarm of bees writhing like a single organism.

 “How long will they be safe in there?” I asked, looking up at the threatening sky.

“Oh, they’ll be okay for a few days,” he said, “Just make sure they don’t get cold and are kept out of the wind and rain.”

The freezing sideways rain began on my way home over the mountains, each bump further shaking the box in the back seat, which buzzed ever more irritably with each bounce. If you must drive over mountain passes in near-zero visibility, I learned, it’s better not to hear an angry swarm of bees behind you, box or no box.

When I got home it was still lashing rain, and I learned that most bee suits are not waterproof. Nonetheless, I did set up the nuc next to the hive, their entrances parallel. Bees have amazing sense of direction, but they don’t use landmarks like we or most mammals do; they use the position of the sun and moon to create a kind of GPS. With it they can track and find the positions of hundreds of thousands of flowers each day and communicate them to the other bees – an amazing skill far beyond our abilities – but everything hinges on having the right starting point. Move the hive twenty metres to the left, and they are like cars following Google directions from a slightly wrong street – everything will turn out very badly.

Through the next few days of rain I sprayed sugar-water through their mesh to keep them fed, until the sun came out and I was ready to don the bee suit, smoke the bees and put their honeycombs in the proper hive. That was Plan A. After smoking the nuc well and removing the duct tape, I realised that the box was actually held together with screws that would require some tools and tugging to remove – Plan B.

Through all this the box was wobbled around a lot more, causing the bees to get quite agitated when the smoke wore off. Plan C was to smoke them again, until the burning material in the smoker suddenly ran out; Plan D, to stuff more in and re-light it, failed when the lighter jammed.

Plan E, finally, worked -- for my daughter to run in, get matches, run to a nearby stone, leave the matches and run the other direction while I, trailing a cloud of bees, retrieved the matches, ran back, lit the smoker, and finally calmed the bees down while I moved them. Last I checked, they were settling in fine.

Perhaps the most important thing to learn, though, goes beyond beekeeping. Many of us are trying to learn a lot of new skills, often with little proper training and limited supplies. Everything you do will be wrong, at least compared to the ideal scenarios of how-to books and videos. Don't worry about it: you'll learn as you go, and most of the time, you'll come out okay in the end.