Monday, 1 September 2014

Over the cliffs of Staffa

Right above Fingal's Cave off the coast of Scotland. When going out to see it in a small boat, we met a French family on holiday doing the same. My Girl spoke no French and theirs spoke no English, but they became fast friends as they explored the cliffs and caves together, with two anxious fathers trailing behind.

Sunday, 31 August 2014

End of summer

My daughter is growing up fast – ten going on sixteen, which means we are in an age of difficult conversations. It also means, though, that she can be a lot more help with the chores; today she picked nettles while I watered in the greenhouse. 

Picking nettles is a tricky business – cooked they are tasty and nutritious, and great for tea, soup, and many other dishes. Raw, however, they sting to the touch, and require gloves or a swift hand to pick. Since she was two years old The Girl knew the traditional remedy for nettle stings – to chew dock-leaf and rub it on the skin. Now she’s come up with what she says works as a sort of vaccine, to stuff dock-leaves inside the fingers of her gloves, covering them on the inside. The nettles will make tea for me in the evenings this week, and the flesh will make part of my lunches.

She also cleaned out the chicken coop while I mowed some of the grass, and helped carry some straw bales behind the house to make into an archery target. The target we’ve been meaning to set up since her birthday, when I gave her a bow and arrow set. I didn’t want to lose any arrows, though, or see any strays sail onto a neighbour’s property, so we wanted to set up our own targets. The bales were donated by our neighbour, who raises cows and drives the local school bus.

Her new maturity means that our reading material is gradually graduating from childhood to young adult. Every Friday night I show her a film, usually something in black-and-white from the classic era. In the past that meant things like Going My Way or Boys’ Town, but recently I’ve allowed her to see darker and more serious fare – film noir like The Big Clock, or dramas like Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. I also introduced her to her first opera, The Mikado – she was sceptical at first, but I sold her on the fact that it was in English, and it was very funny.

As she returns to school and the days get shorter and wetter again, we are saying goodbye to the swallows that take up residence in our shed every summer. The Girl and I stand on chairs and peek into the nest here and there, watching the eggs appear, turn to blind chicks, then little birds and finally to adolescent swallows fluttering around the place. While they are busy growing up, however, it means that we have to tiptoe and stoop to get into our shed, as we might get smacked in the face by Mr. or Mrs. Swallow coming in the opposite direction.

Finally, I used these last weeks of summer to try some new experiments, continue some successful ones and to conclude one from last year. Last year’s experiment was beets in sand, and I’m seeing how long they will keep and still be nutritious and edible. I’ve fished out some after a year in the sand, and they seem fine so far.

The new projects are to pickle some more apples, which are my new favourite thing to make; last year’s batch turned out fantastic, marinating in the parsnip vinegar with cloves, chiles, ginger and cardamom, and this season’s new batch of apples gives me a chance to tinker with the recipe.

Same thing goes for the eggs I kept in limewater, preserving their valuable protein through the lean winter months without the need for refrigeration. Old books show a surprising diversity of recipes – just lime and water, some adding salt, some requiring the mixture be boiled first. I tried the simplest one of equal parts lime and water last year, and the eggs lasted eight months. This year I’ll be trying some of the other recipes, and seeing how long they last.

Finally, I spent Saturday morning making kim chee for the first time – I’ll let you know how that goes.

Saturday, 30 August 2014

Reasons for hope

Looking through old correspondence recently, I came across a remarkable letter I received about five years ago, and in light of all that has happened in Ferguson, Missouri, lately, it seemed appropriate to display. A young lady wrote to me on behalf of her friend, who was concerned about the state of the world today -- she had read some of my writings predicting a difficult future ahead, and was losing hope for the future.

The young lady asked me what gives me hope. This is what I wrote:

If you often feel troubled about the world’s future, then I feel like we are kindred spirits. Every day I wonder about the future of my little girl during the long emergency ahead. And I suck it up and continue with my day job or volunteer group or bedtime story, knowing I can rarely tell anyone who would understand. Today we diagnose such compassion, and prescribe medicines to remove it.

But we should feel troubled, to a point, because the troubles exist, no matter how many people ignore them. It is what the medieval monk Isaac of Stella called the hell of mercy, what all dangerous saints feel to be inspired to do good things.

You see, people who care about the world’s future have two big problems – what to do with all that despair, and where they get the energy to do all that activism. And the two problems solve each other – that feeling of powerlessness can be a most powerful fuel, if you put it to work for you. Because if people were irredeemable – if we really didn’t deserve to be saved – you wouldn’t feel this way, and millions of others wouldn’t either.

And I remind myself of a few things. I remind myself that we are not destroying the Earth – she has been through worse than us, and will heal. I remember that, when human societies collapsed before, Nature grew back fast. For us it may take 50 years or 5 million, depending on how much we destroy now – and that is what we are fighting for, for the damage to be only superficial, and Nature to return in profusion for our grandchildren. But however long it takes, it will happen.

I am concerned for the many people who might die in the coming decades, if we don’t learn to live differently. But I also think of my grandparents, or the elderly Irish around where I live now, or most people in most eras, all of whom lived on a fraction of the energy Westerners live on today, and sometimes lived long and happy lives. They were delighted to get an orange for Christmas or walk miles to the village to call on neighbors, and if they were healthy and loved, they did not consider themselves to be living terrible lives. When things get bad people are often wiser and more neighborly in real life than they are in action movies.

Remember that you are not alone. The world is teeming with people who care as you do. They might be homesteading, or forming unsung community groups, or meeting in church basements, or learning how to turn compost into electricity. They might look like everyone else, and you have likely passed them on the street without knowing. But they are all around you, and they are on your side.

Also, remember that all movements were pathetic and hopeless until they won. The idea that women might vote was considered a ridiculous idea almost until it became law. No one thought race laws in the South could be repealed, until they were. Revolutions and sweeping changes seem to happen suddenly because the people in power, who write the histories, ignored all the previous steps – decades of patient work from forgotten heroes, many of whom must have despaired and given up hope. And there is much that is wrong with the world that was never righted, because too many people gave up.

Keep in mind that you are important, because you are very fortunate. Unlike most people on Earth, you live where we can make tens of thousands of dollars a year rather than a few hundred, as in Africa. You have access to colleges and free community courses. You have community-access television whose cameras can be rented for a small fee. You have restaurants whose owners throw away tonnes of food each night – some of which could be eaten by people, some by household chickens or other animals.

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

Remember – and I’m sorry if this sounds cheesy, but it’s true – that there is no one else in the world like you, no one who sees everything you see, and the world would be a worse place if you gave up.

Keep in mind that we already know how to cope with the years of trouble ahead – and many people are already learning to grow their own food, repair their own belongings and preserve an older set of values. If things ever do become desperate, each person who is learning such skills can become a teacher. Every such shelter can be a headquarters. Every homestead that can sustain itself and its neighbours can be an ark during the flood – and if we have enough of them, no one ever need drown.

Finally, be good to yourself – don’t beat yourself up over things for which you are not responsible.

Photo: Our strawberries.

Friday, 29 August 2014

Highland cows

They know they're cool. You don't need to tell them.

Wednesday, 27 August 2014

Men of the island

"There was a hat which was left on some kind of post or other. At the time, the men of Achill would have worn a cap, but when going into town … he would put on this formal hat and then leave it again when he returned"

"Paul Henry, who visited the island in 1912, said that 'the habitations of the islanders are very singular. Their houses were of rude stones rounded by the tide, procured from the beach, un-cemented.'"

"They are rounded at the gables and roofed with fern, heath and shingles, fastened with straw bands. In the village of Dua, consisting of about 40 cabins, there is not a single chimney. Some of the wealthier graziers, however, have an odd custom of residing in such houses, or in houses of a still more simple construction, only in the summer months, when the season for fishing is on, and their cattle are brought down to the coast to feed on the young herbage. These hovels they call Booley houses."

"At one point Henry reported watching a race of two men around the island, for the right to be the first to ask a certain woman to marry them, 'which was by no means uncommon.'"

-- From interviews on the Radio Telefis Eireann documentary "Leave Your Hat at the Sound," broadcast 1974. Photo of the men of Aran island, courtesy of 

Tuesday, 26 August 2014

What not to do with chickens

Chickens used to be a ubiquitous a part of any household, taken for granted as electricity or a car might be today. Now, homeowners are re-discovering the value of backyard chickens; they offer pest control, lawn-mowing services, fertilizer, comedy relief, and their business end doles out concentrated protein like a Pez dispenser.

New chicken-owners can get frustrated, however, when they expect more than chickens can deliver, either in food, companionship or general co-operation. If you are considering keeping chickens yourself, try to learn and avoid the most common mistakes, so that you can instead make an entirely different set of mistakes.

You might think, for example, that your chickens might see you as dogs do, as a god who drops manna from above. You would be mistaken: Chickens don’t think you are the same person who wore that different shirt yesterday. Chickens don’t think that your moving parts are part of a single life-form. Let’s put it this way: Chickens don’t think. What I’m getting at here is, don’t walk into a chicken run barefoot, or the birds will see your toes and give you what we in the business call “the full Hitchcock.”

To use another example, you might think that when you open the enclosure door and the rooster runs out between your legs, he would realize his mistake and go back where the food and sex are. In fact, you would be wrong. Instead, be prepared for the cockerel to run frantically in all directions until exhausted, occasionally banging his head on the fence as he repeatedly tries to go through it like a moth at a window.

When you successfully retrieve your cockerel, you might think you can lift him over the fence and gently let go, since a bird — with wings and feathers and all — will flutter delicately to the ground. If your rooster is like mine, however, be prepared for it to drop like a bowling ball out of your hands and into the mud, and complain at you the rest of the day.

If you have both chickens and children, is that your rooster will go up to the hens and … um …. raise questions. A lot. Not consensually. Emphasize to your pre-teen daughter that any teenaged humans engaging in similar behaviours should get a good talking-to — using the language of ninjitsu, followed by the language of police reports and indictments.

After you built them a home and yard and gave them food, water and soft bedding, you might think they will snuggle in and obediently lay eggs in your hen box, realizing their good fortune. You probably will not expect them to try to tunnel out like Charles Bronson in “The Great Escape.” In fact, you would be wrong — we found one of ours apparently spent hours burrowing several feet under the coop, only to panic at the realization that she was a bird now deep underground.

Remember that chickens are social animals and need to cuddle together as a family, where “family” is defined as “one of those daytime talk-show guests that throw chairs at each other.” If one of the chickens begins to look a little ragged, as one of ours did, remember that the others will not gather round and cluck sympathetically out of sisterly concern, but look at it like hyenas do a wounded gazelle on the Serengeti.

Finally, it might be best not to treat chickens as pets; they are made of meat, and secretly long to return to their natural state of being dinner. As such they will constantly prowl their territory searching for new and more creative ways to die, and you will not be able to keep them from it forever.

Monday, 25 August 2014

My article on Ferguson published at American Conservative

Check it out. 

I admit it's unusual for me to write something about current events; this blog, and most of my writings for Grit and Mother Earth News, deals broadly with traditional ways of life. That still covers a lot of ground, so on any given day this blog might cover things like:
  • Interviews with elderly people here, who remember life before electricity or cars; 
  • Archived stories on everyday life in Ireland from several decades ago; 
  • Our attempts to grow and make more things ourselves; 
  • Articles I write for popular magazines, like Grit and Mother Earth News;
  • My not-quite-homeschooling lessons with my daughter; 
  • Recipes I come up with with traditional life, and 
  • Pretty pictures.
I usually stay away from anything overtly political, as I want to stick to subjects I know well. Since I grew up next door to Ferguson, Missouri and have friends and family in the area, this is something that --- literally -- hits home for me.

I'm pleased The American Conservative wanted to run my piece. Even if you're of a more left-of-center bent, as at least a few of my readers are, I recommend you read TAC; they represent a thoughtful, principled kind of conservatism that contrasts sharply with some of the sneering and taunting I used to hear, from both sides, in the mainstream US media. They've run other pieces of mine in the past --  this about peak oil, and this about the collapse of the Irish economy.

More tomorrow.

Friday, 22 August 2014

.....and we're back.

Scotland was fantastic -- more on that later.

For now, I will just say that when we returned to the world of phones and internet, I found that the place near where I grew up, in Ferguson, Missouri, was a war zone. My family and friends are okay, and my sympathies go out to everyone caught in the middle of the tragedy.

I wrote a piece about it, and expect it to be published in the next few days -- more on that this week.

Tuesday, 12 August 2014

Off for the week

The Girl and I are on holiday in Glasgow; don't be offended if I take a few days to answer correspondence. More next week.