Wednesday, 15 June 2022

Older than Ireland


"Sometimes when you are asked a question, it puts your mind back to something you had forgotten about for years. For example, when you asked that I remembered when we used to say the rosary at night"

"There was eight of us, and we’d all say the rosary. And when we were done Daddy would say to us, 'that’s the end of that now –say your own little prayers, like good children.' Well all you’d hear was the tick of the clock, the all-weather clock on the wall. And that was all you’d hear was the quiet, but these days everything is buzz, buzz – noise everywhere, and people in a hurry all the time."

"I remember well my young days, particularly Black ’47. When I was born, the treaty had been signed but not ratified – I always call myself a child of the state, for I was born on Christmas Day 1921, and. I made my First Communion on Trinity Sunday 1928. There’s a lady here who was born in ’28, and I think I’m doing better than she is, I’m holding myself better. "

- interview with Patty Trabears, 2018. Photo taken in Ireland around the time of Patty's birth.

Tuesday, 14 June 2022

Still Life with Four-Year-Old

I wrote this 13 years ago. My girl is turning 18, and I think the things I wrote then -- especially the part about a risk of "civil war and public breakdown before she is grown" have held up pretty well. 

Tonight as I put my daughter to bed, she looked out her window and whispered, “Papa – look! There is a boy robin in the garden, on the rocks.”

I see him! I said, as our faces gazed out the window together. I think his missus is in the trees back there.

"Why doesn’t she come out?"

She takes care of the eggs, while he looks for food. He’s bright red so predators will see him instead of the missus.

"And there is our neighbour – he is smoking! That is bad for you," she said, pulling out the lung page of her children’s book about the body and showing me.

Yes, you should never do that, I agreed.

"And what are these?" she asked, pointing to the book’s pictures of red and white blood cells.

Well, the red blood cells carry oxygen to the … um … let me start over, I said. The red blood cells are lorry (truck) drivers, I said, and they take air from your lungs and deliver it door-to-door in your body like postmen. The white blood cells are gardai (police), and if a germ tries to sneak in, they pounce on it.

She asked to play red blood cells for a little while -– I swear I don’t make these things up -- knocking on each cell door and announcing they had an air delivery. Then she wanted to play white blood cell, creeping up on a naughty germ and saying, "I’ve got you now!"

After a while of this she asked, "Papa, what would happen if there weren’t trees?"

That would be very bad, I said. Trees make the air that lets us breathe – they are why the sky is blue. The sky is made by life.

"And they grow fruit," she said.

Yes, and nuts, and many other things to eat. What else can you eat that comes from a tree?

"Linden leaves!" she said.

Yes, and you could even eat sap and some bark, I said.

"Wow!" she said in delighted disgust.

It doesn’t taste good, but you could eat it if you were hungry in an emergency, I said. What else can you eat in an emergency? She cheerfully rattled off the list she knows from songs, and we talked and read a bit more before I kissed her good night and came downstairs.

I have often written here about my four-year-old, and the responses have allowed me to meet many kindred spirits far beyond my circle here in County Kildare. The moments with her are what give my life meaning; every day it tears me up inside to leave her with her grandmother, and go to a day job, and no amount of promotion or rewards will change that. A part of me dreams of being able to let go of my job, spending time with her all day, every day, and post daily four-year-old stories for years to come. But she will not wait for me, and today, already, she is five.

Of course a yearly marker does not make her a different person. But time will, and too quickly for me to do anything but run behind it, calling for it to stop. Perhaps it is because I am in my thirties now, and my clock was set long ago – like most middle-aged people, I feel a year go by when two or three have passed. Perhaps it is because the world events that I study have accelerated with harlequin abandon in the last few years; already we have seen so much of the world unravel, and might see civil wars or public breakdown before she is grown.

I only know that each moment flickers by like passing traffic out the window, too swift to observe as it happens, but only to remember dimly after it has gone. Part of me wants to live in a painting – Still Life with Four-Year-Old, a golden moment in amber. A part of me winces to see my toddler grow lanky and coltish, tapping newfound reservoirs of defiance and negotiation, her once-giant eyes occasionally rolling in the first fetal signs of adolescent ennui. I want to throw a hook into the blur and reel in the moments, pore over them, plead with each of them … stay. Please, don’t go. Linger.

But they won’t. She will be six soon enough, and ten, and fifteen, each age attended by its own moments of comfort and joy, its own arguments. I can try to be a good escort into her future and linger over the moments, knowing their blurred passage is all I will ever have. I cannot extend my life’s length, but you, my girl, allow me to extend its depth.

Thank you.


Tuesday, 7 June 2022

Interview with Scott Johnson of the Low-Tech Institute

A while back I had the pleasure to do a podcast with Scott Johnson of the Low-Tech Institute of Wisconsin, about the work we were both doing in our respective countries; we chatted about the Irish elders I’ve talked to, and how their close communities and traditional culture allowed them to survive crises like the bank strikes of the 1960s and 70s. He allowed me to put it on Youtube, and here's part 1.

The Low Technology Institute, in Wisconsin, USA, researches ways of adapting to the difficult future we see ahead --- they do a blog, podcast, and videos, and offer regular workshops and memberships, and they’re well worth your time. Read more about the instutute here:


Thursday, 19 May 2022

Open Letter to Amtrak

Originally written in 2009.

Dear Sir or Madam:

When I visited my native USA this summer, I needed to take my daughter from Minnesota to Missouri, a thousand-mile trek across the Heartland. I decided to use Amtrak, and wanted to share with you my perceptions of the journey.

I wanted to avoid driving for several reasons. I didn’t want to strap a five-year-old into a car seat for 12 hours, or be forced to stop at numerous roadside franchises designed to sell movie promotional toys and congealed pseudo-food. I remembered the last time we made the journey, when a kamikaze deer smashed our rental car and left us stranded on the Iowa highway. Most of all, though, I wanted to see how easily one could journey halfway down the length of America without a car.

Let me start by noting that everyone I dealt with at Amtrak was courteous and helpful, even funny. As superior as the European trains are, their staff would be less likely to make friendly conversation as they processed our ticket, or smile as they gave us directions. A European conductor might be less likely to stop by especially to check on my daughter, or to announce after an empty small-town night stop, “Folks, that was Dwight, Illinois, and we hope that was as exciting for you as it was for us.”

The staff’s best efforts could not make the train ride a pleasant experience, though. We showed up at 7 am for our 7:45 train – the only train going to our destination that day -- which showed up at 8:30. The delays only increased as the day progressed, and we finally arrived in Chicago two hours late, missing our connecting train. We finally reached Alton, Illinois in the small hours of the morning, long after we were supposed to arrive.

As my daughter played in the seats, she poked her leg on a metal corner, and I considered whether I needed to bring her to the emergency room for a tetanus shot. The toilets were miniscule and poorly ventilated. The only food available on the first, nine-hour leg was six cars up, I was not inclined to leave either a sleeping child or my belongings. The dining car on the second leg opened two hours late. The food that I could find was of vending-machine quality but three times as expensive.

It was a pleasant summer evening travelling from Chicago to St. Louis, but the cars were kept sufficiently frigid that the Russian immigrants in front of us complained loudly. Whether because of the food, the temperature or the stress, my daughter spent most of the next day vomiting.

A sixteen-hour plane trip, by contrast, would probably involve a few full meals, many snacks and a selection of movies. I don’t require an on-board masseuse or French waiters, but some accessible juice or pretzels would go a long way.

A more fundamental problem, which I know is out of your control, can be shown by a brief glance at the map on your web site: Amtrak has only a small number of lines that must stretch between two oceans and serve 300 million people.

Nearby towns that do have Amtrak lines are often inaccessible to each other, as the lines run parallel for hundreds of miles without meeting. For example, Denver, CO and La Junta, CO both have Amtrak lines and are 176 miles apart. But to get from one to the other by train, one must travel from Denver, Colorado to Galesburg, Illinois (!), 889 miles away, and then travel another 896 miles back to La Junta – a 1,785-mile trip in all.

Alternately, one could travel from Denver to San Francisco (1,266 miles), San Francisco to Los Angeles (381 miles) and Los Angeles to La Junta (1,115 miles) for a 2,762-mile journey – again, to travel 176 miles.

To use an example closer to my birthplace, Poplar Bluff, MO and Fulton, Kentucky are 117 miles apart, but to travel from one to the other would require an 858-mile trip to Chicago and back. Oklahoma City and Dodge City are 263 miles apart, but a train would have to take a 1,548-mile journey through Fort Worth and St. Louis to get from one to the other.

I estimated these figures by looking at the stops on your web site and Google-mapping the distances between cities, so the mileage may not be exact -- for Google’s directions, like everything else in America, assumes that you will drive. But you get the idea.

To understand how strange this is, consider my own home of Ireland. The Irish are not the most crisply efficient people on Earth, but their trains usually arrive once every half hour, and if they are five minutes late an outraged grumble ripples through the assembled commuters.

Cross-country trips – only the distance of a cross-state trip for us, of course – have fairly good food served in your car, comfortable seats, wireless service for laptops, and so on – and it is no more expensive than Amtrak per unit of distance, even though everything else in the country is two or three times more expensive.

Other European countries have even better service. When visiting Germany, I could tour major cities with a toddler, limited German and no car, through a series of national rail lines, urban trams, buses, subways, and sub-subways under the first set of subways.

A common response is that America is a much vaster country, so compare Ireland’s dozens of lines and stations with a US state about twice the size – say, Wisconsin, with one Amtrak line and two stops. Or compare vast to vast: Russia is larger than the United States, yet Russians travel 1,220 kilometres per person per year by train, while Americans have only 80 kilometres – behind Pakistan, Kazakhstan and Egypt.

You could argue that this indicates our prosperity, as more people can afford their own cars. But far fewer Americans had their own cars when there were more trains, indicating the opposite: that more people need to pay for cars because they have no rail service. Europeans often travel 10,000 percent more by trains than Americans do, and they are not necessarily less prosperous nations.

We used to be better. The golden spike in the transcontinental railroad looms large in our history books, and my country was once covered by a capillary network of lines that reached hundreds, if not thousands, of small towns. Visit or live in Missouri or Kansas towns, as I have, and you will often see a long-abandoned train station in the old town centre, tracks still visible under the grass. We deserve better, as a civilised nation and alleged superpower, than to live with so many new ruins.

Trains or streetcar networks once branched out inside cities as well – my grandparents met and fell in love on the St. Louis trolleys, around the time Judy Garland was singing an ode to them in the film Meet Me in St. Louis. The film was set in 1904 and made in 1944, so the trolleys had been around for decades at that point – but tragically, not for much longer. They and other streetcar lines were bought and destroyed by a coalition of oil, car and tire companies long ago – the companies were later found guilty of criminal conspiracy in federal court, and fined $5,000 each.

Recent rail lines in St. Louis and Minneapolis were built only after decades of fierce opposition, and critics unfavourably compared existing light rail lines to road use – without comparing it to a road that goes from point A to point B without meeting any other roads. I will also hear people claim that the trains are largely empty, without noting that the cars on the road are also largely empty. And if the stations in Minneapolis and Chicago were any indication, there are far more people clamouring to use even Amtrak than the stations can handle.

I realize I’m conflating the apples and oranges of heavy and light rail, Amtrak and streetcars. I realize I’m ranting about decisions that were made far above you or long ago. But I bring it up to show that I am sympathetic to your situation. I suspect your likeable and highly professional staff works very hard under difficult conditions and an insufficient budget – paid, I understand, not by taxes as roads and electric lines are, or as your counterparts would be in sane countries, but on fares alone. I suspect you are considered, like the Postal Service, a vestigial bit of infrastructure in this era of frequent flyers and broadband, relegated to the poor, the elderly, nuns and the Amish, left to die of natural causes.

I think this is seriously misguided. Rail worked for us for decades, and today Third-World peasants can count on transportation freedoms that most Americans cannot. Every surge in the price of fuel, every dire warning about the climate's transformation, every new plunge in the economy makes Americans’ constant driving more difficult and rails more necessary.

But if more of us are to travel by rail, we should be able to widely, with trains running many times a day to many destinations. Riding the train should be an experience people will seek out, and to which we will return.

I have used Amtrak before, and I expect I will again, so let me know who I can write to help change this. Feel free to pass it on to your head of projects, your CEO, the Secretary of Transportation, whoever you think appropriate.

And get that metal corner sanded off.

Sunday, 15 May 2022

Making things that last again


Photo: A forge we created from old fertiliser bags, mud and horse manure.


Walk into any store, here in Ireland or anywhere in the modern world, and you are quickly overwhelmed by thousands of products screaming for attention. Almost all these products, though -- shoes, CDs, deodorants, toys -- have one thing in common: they break quickly and are meant to be thrown away and replaced. All of them will become less replaceable as they cost more to make in Third-World factories and transport around a planet. Yet for most of human history people didn’t have mountains of throwaway goods; rather, they made what they needed, and invested in things that lasted.

What we all need to invest in, then, is durable goods that require little technology to make or repair, and the knowledge to use them. Ironically, this often means re-adopting "obsolete" technology that was more common fifty or a hundred years ago.

Take the straight razor. It costs much more initially than a plastic disposable razor, and using it requires some practice, but properly maintained it can last indefinitely; a razor bought today could be passed to children decades from now.  Or take slide rules, which can calculate almost as fast as a person with a calculator; some of the calculations for the first space launches were done with slide rules. Less than fifty years ago the dictionary entry for “computer” was a person who computed with a slide rule, yet most people now have not only never used one, they have often never heard that such things existed. Washboards and wringers would allow clothes to be cleaned without electricity and dried quickly, yet I have yet to find any, as they are too old for stores and too mundane for antiques dealers.

Other things like bicycles, clocks or acoustic instruments can run on no electricity or fossil fuels, but they do need to be maintained, and often require at least a bit of functioning industry to create. Bicycles, especially, require rubber tyres and paved roads – it was mostly for bicycles that roads were paved, even before cars. Clockwork mechanisms, also, can be used for all kinds of things beyond telling time, but there are no industries to sustain it yet.

Even foil solar ovens require some industrial energy. We forget how recently aluminium foil was an exotic and rare commodity – well into the industrial age, the U.S. government almost covered the newly-built Washington Monument with shiny foil to show what a wealthy country they were. Even with devices that require electricity, simpler is often better. A vinyl album can be played with a cactus needle if the real one breaks, and even if there is no electricity, one might be able to hook it up to pedals or a clockwork mechanism.

In some cases -- musical instruments, pottery wheels - the knowledge and techniques are more important than the items themselves. Take, for example, knitting. The first references to knitting were in the Middle Ages, but there is no reason to believe that Stone Age people could not have knitted. As far as we know, they did not – the technique had not been invented.

The same is true of recent inventions that were never widely publicised, like hot composting. By getting the right mix of carbon-rich and nitrogen-rich material and aerating your compost, you can cultivate the types of bacteria that generate lots of heat – I’ve taken hot showers in the middle of a cold Irish morning, connected to no burners and no electricity, just a compost heap. We could use this to heat our homes, if only more people knew it existed.

I don’t anticipate the industry to create these things vanishing in my lifetime -- and hopefully not ever -- but the energy and political stability to create these things will continue to decline around the world, and in the USA particularly as it loses its superpower status, and the sooner we rebuild the local industry to make needed things, the better.

Thankfully, most of the infrastructure for this already exists; when I was a newspaper reporter covering small towns in Missouri and Kansas, I noticed many towns had an abandoned factory, train station and rail tracks, now covered with graffiti. Rather than everyone becoming individual survivalists, we would be better served by restoring some of this basic infrastructure to once more create things that last.  

The knife I created on the forge, with a book for size reference. It used to be an old car part.