Sunday, 19 February 2017

The changing face of college

Most of my readers know that I count John Michael Greer, author of "The Archdruid Report" and many books, as one of my main influences, and I often comment on his posts. Some time ago he wrote about the changing face of college in the Western World -- especially the USA, and I added my own thoughts. 

College, he pointed out, has evolved from being an advanced institution for elite specialists to a prerequisite for a good job, and a massive machine for keeping young Americans indebted through their best years. I commented: 

This was before my time, but when I read accounts of college in the late 19th to the late 20th century, a few things stand out:

1. Massachusetts in 1850 was estimated to have a 98% literacy rate, and you could probably find similar rates for most of what is now the USA – far higher than the USA’s literacy today.

2. At the same time, people took for granted that college was not for most people. Clarence Hall Robison’s “Agricultural Instruction in the Public Schools of the United States,” published in 1911, wrote that public schools “have a duty to the majority of its students who will not go to college.” They didn’t mean that students would miss out on college because they were poor – although there was some of that – but that most would become normal farmers, printers, builders, carpenters, and so on. Being a professor isn’t everyone’s speciality in life, and they knew that.

3. College sports involved students showing up to support their fellow students, not millions going into a money-making machine of television contracts, bidding, scholarships and sponsorships. Look at a picture of fans at a sports game circa, say, 1950, and you’ll see no screaming or painted faces, no obese people, no beer-cap cans – just rows of healthy-looking teenagers in suits and ties. It was a social, formal event, like a dance, and people dressed up for the occasion.

4. Most students took courses to specialise in their field, but then, in their final year, took a “capstone” course, taught by the dean or some venerated professor, to tie together everything they had learned. The idea was to bring the disparate strands of education together into a common cause, as they would all be members of the same society.

5. By the time I got to college in the 1990s, of course, some courses existed solely to teach grade-school-level remedial reading, and the fashion was for literature and film teachers to ignore things like plot and characters and focus instead on the lurid sexual subtext they imagined to be there. It was all very postmodern and useless.

Photo: 1943-44 Michigan Wolverines basketball team.

Saturday, 11 February 2017

Rise and fall

I’ve been giving these lessons to you a really long time, since you were little, and I haven’t just taught you anything – it’s been to fill the gaps, to teach what you won’t learn in any school. Sometimes we focus on the classics, on Greek and Roman mythology, ancient history, literature and philosophy – stories like the Iliad and Odyssey, the histories of Solon and Socrates. I wanted to teach you these things because they tell you how people worked out how to first do democracy or science, so that people can do them again.

Now, I said, I want to see how you can tie this all together. I drew a bell curve on paper and asked her what the shape represented.

“It’s a rise and fall,” she said with adolescent impatience. “I learned that when I was seven – it’s second nature to me now.”

Rise and fall of what? I asked.

“Well, if a species gets out of control, and grows exponentially, then it has a die-off, and the carrying capacity of the area goes down for a while.”

What does it look like for humans?

“Well, civilisations,” she said, “they rise and fall like that, which is kind of the same thing – populations go up when a civilisation rises, and go down when they fall.”

Where do you think we are on this curve? I asked.

“I think we’re near the top,” she said, “And things will start declining, if they haven’t already.” She said this casually, unperturbed by this. I’ve never told her these things; I just brought her up with a lot of lessons about how living systems work. She knew about resource use, carrying capacity and overshoot when she was still little, and those natural rhythms are as familiar to her as the change of the seasons.

What sorts of things often happen during a decline? I asked.

“Well, more people die, or fewer people are born, or both,” she said, “People get stupider than usual -- they do a lot of misguided things. You get a lot of political disruption, and sometimes anarchy.” Is anarchy the worst option? I asked.

“No -- well, it’s mixed,” she said, “Because it has disadvantages, but so does civilisation. I mean, it depends on what kind of anarchy or civilisation we’re talking about.”

I think you’re right, I said. In movies, when things get rough, people turn on each other – but in real life, they often get better. Old people around here tell me that Irish people got worse when people got more money – back when everyone had very little, you could count on people more. On the other hand, less civilisation means you can only count on your tribe – you can’t turn to higher authorities, because there aren’t any. Both can be very fulfilling, or deeply unfair.

“Right now I think we’re at a height of civilisation,” she said.

Possibly, I said – pointing at the bell curve line -- but what do you think this line represents?

“Population?” she asked.

It could be, or it could be energy use, or carbon dioxide emissions – they’ve all gone up together, and they’ll probably all go down together, along with other things like science and art. But I teach you these things in the hopes that you can disentangle the good things about civilisation and pass them on to your own children.

So, for example, the germ theory of disease – we now know that diseases are caused by germs and boiling water and antiseptic chemicals kill germs, and that knowledge saves a lot of lives. We only found that out recently, in the foothills of this curve, but it’s not tied to our annual energy waste – we could keep that knowledge even as things go down, and keep everyone healthy.

The same is true of vaccinations, or double-blind testing, or the rules of town-hall democracy; no matter what else gets shaky in the years ahead, we can keep alive the knowledge of how these things are supposed to work. If we disentangle the good from the bad, I told her, people could stay quite civilised during a decline and fall.

And just as a rising civilisation makes some things better and worse, a decline could also make things better and worse – we’re using words like “rise” and “decline,” but every rise in something is a decline in something else. The rise and fall could look like this, I said, turning the curve upside down. “In some ways, people’s humanity went down, and it will go up again,” she said.

Maybe, I said – the modern world takes some of our humanity away, but humanity isn’t all good either. Remember what Aristotle said? Goodness isn’t the opposite of evil, but a delicate balance between evils.

“I wish we could just keep the good things and keep society in one straight line indefinitely,” she said. That would be the ultimate K culture, I said, referring to our many lessons about R and K species. I think of something like The Shire from Lord of the Rings as a K culture.

“Isn’t that a good thing?” she said.

I would say mostly, I said – if I moved to the Shire, there are a few things I’d miss, but that’s a pretty civilised life. You can try to create that kind of world yourself, I told her, in a homestead or Benedict Option community, and set an example for others.

“The bad thing about a civilisation going downhill might not be the downhill part, but the going part,” she said. “Dark Ages aren’t that bad, but getting there is painful. If I could, I’d start working on a civilisation at its height, and make sure that everything went down as slowly as possible, so that no one could feel a change. Everyone would be like, ‘Oh, it’s always been this way,’ and the downhill slope would be too gentle to hurt anyone. That’s what I wish.”

That’s a noble ambition, I said – and if you’re right, and we’re at the height of a civilisation now, then you’re in a perfect position to try to make it happen.

“Oh, I don’t think anyone will listen to me,” she said diffidently.

Not everyone, I said – but if a few people do, that’s a few more than no one.

Tuesday, 7 February 2017

Working with straw

These days, human-scale straw bales have been largely replaced by mammoth cylinders that require mammoth farm equipment; another way we have used the cheap energy of recent decades to burn our bridges. 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 best 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 C for two hours. 

Nor can any wolf 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 it must be either kept dry until sealed with plaster or used for temporary structures like barns and sheds, for example. I would also like to hear from more people who experimented with simply stacking straw bales around a house for insulation during the winter, and removed them as need be.

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 your ambitions don’t run towards experimental architecture, however, you could plant a garden directly inside straw bales. 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 in whatever way does not violate local ordinances.

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 create a temporary raised bed, allowing the elderly and people with back problems to garden a raised bed without having to bend over all the time, until they can afford the lumber to create more permanent structures. 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. 

Tuesday, 31 January 2017

More homeschooling

For our lessons the other night, we talked about Claudius, one of the only good emperors of Rome. 

Like most of the good rulers of history, I told her, he had not been raised to be a ruler, but was widely mocked for having a limp, a stutter and a bookish nature.

“He was the nerd of the family,” she said.

Exactly, I told her – but after the Praetorian guards turned on the mad emperor Caligula and killed everyone around him, Claudius was found hiding behind a curtain and proclaimed the new emperor.

“That day certainly ended differently than he expected,” she said.

And he turned out to be a pretty reasonable, I told her. He expanded Roman rule into Britain with relatively little bloodshed – they did fight the Celtic warlord Caractacus, but they also reached out to other tribes in an alliance, inviting the
m to join the empire. Boudica’s tribe was one of these – in exchange for pledging allegiance to the emperor, they gained imperial protection and trade. By all accounts they were treated respectfully, and unlike most emperors, Claudius went there to meet with the Celtic lords himself.

So Britons like Boudica and her tribe became willing members of the Roman Empire, learned to read and write, and ended up corresponding with other Romans, like the philosopher Seneca.

“She and Seneca were pen pals?” The Girl asked.

Absolutely, I said – I believe Seneca even loaned her family money.

“So what happened to make her rebel?” she asked.

Well, the good times under Claudius didn’t last, I said. He died – some say poisoned – and was replaced by Nero.

“Uh-oh,” she said.

Exactly, I told her. Once in power, Nero killed Seneca, began demanding money from the Britons, and his troops attacked many Britons, including Boudica’s family.

She remembered what happened next – an enraged Boudica leading an army of Celtic warriors that rampaged across Britain for years, sacking their fortress in Londinium. Even now, I told her, when people dig in London – which is of course what Londinium became – they sometimes come across a black charcoal layer where Boudica burned everything to the ground.

“You do not mess with the Celts,” she said. “Especially the women.” 


 “Is it because of all that infighting that the barbarians could take over?” she asked. 

That was probably a factor, I said – and Rome’s terrible rulers made barbarians or rebels more attractive to most people than the emperors. Still, all things decline eventually, and no one ever admits they’re declining, so no one ever plans for it to happen in an orderly fashion. Do you remember our lesson on Attila the Hun, I asked her? What was his story?

“I’m sure he had more than one,” she said.

Well, who were the Huns?

“Well, the Huns were a lot of different tribes put together.”

Exactly, I said – his people were basically gangsters, and they would beat up the tribes around them. And then they would tell the men they’d beaten up – who were probably forced to fight for their local tribal leader – ‘You know, you don’t really want to die for that guy; he’s a loser. Fight for us, and you can not only live, but get rich taking other people’s stuff.’

Like most gangsters, I said, he found that while he could kill people, it was easier to just intimidate them or get them to join him. To quote The Godfather, blood’s expensive. It worked really well – the more tribes went to his side, the bigger his army grew, and the more he could conquer.

“A positive feedback loop,” she said.

Exactly, I told her, but we don’t actually know that much about him – even ‘Attila’ is a nickname, meaning ‘Big Daddy.’ Do you remember what happened between him and the Romans?

“Sure,” she said. “The emperor’s sister was supposed to marry someone she didn’t like, so she sent her ring to Attila, asking her to rescue her. And he thought it was a marriage proposal.”

That’s right – the emperor had hired the Huns to help them fight off the Visigoths, but once Attila got Honoria’s ring, he had to hire the Visigoths to fight off the Huns. Do you remember who finally stopped Attila?

“The Pope?”

Yep, I said – he rode out to Attila’s camp unarmed and talked to him, and we don’t know what they talked about, but Attila left.

“By that time he must have had a huge army,” she said.

Well, there were a lot of tribes migrating around Europe at this time, I said, as the Roman Empire crumbled, and they took turns taking pieces of it. Visigoths, Ostrogoths, Vandals, Alans --

“The Alans?” she said. “They were all named Alan? That kept everything simple.”

Yes, I said, it was a barbarian tribe made up of Alan Cummings, Alan Davies, Alan Bennett, Alan Parsons and others.

“Now I’m picturing these men in black eyeliner and fishnet hose – goths – and vandals as these gang members with mohawks, and an army of nerds named Alan,” she said. “I’m picturing all these armies teaming up to fight a common enemy, like something out of Lord of the Rings mixed with The Breakfast Club.”

How do you know about The Breakfast Club? I asked. You’ve never seen it.

“It’s a famous movie, Daddy,” she said. “Can I see it?”

You’re 12 and I’m taking you to Hamlet, so I think you’re old enough, I said. Why are the Alans nerds?

“It just sounds like a nerdy name,” she said. “Like Nigel.”

She continued with her vision. “And Attila riding in front of his assembled armies, like Aragorn in Lord of the Rings ..."

"'GOTHS! Are you with me!'" she continued in her best Aragorn. "And they all are like ‘Uh-Huh,” in this sullen voice."

"VANDALS! Are you with me? he would shout. ‘Yeeah!’ they shout, pumping their fists."

“ALANS! Are you with me!?”

’Yes, Mr. Attila,’” they say, in a squeaky voice."

A day may come when the cliques of adolescence fail, I said, but it is not this day.

Thursday, 26 January 2017

Wattle and daub

These days, you spend your life paying off a house, and even building a shed or animal shelter can be expensive, as timber, brick or any other modern building material requires a heavy investment of money, time and skilled labour. For thousands of years, though, people used a simpler technique that used nothing but natural, local materials.

“Wattle and daub,” as it’s called, takes its name from its two components; a “wattle” was a wicker fence or wall made of a pliable wood like willow or hazel, woven around upright posts like a horizontal basket. Farmers sometimes surrounded their fields with wattle fences, which could be made in modular, lightweight pieces a metre or two high and a metre or two across – hurdles -- and then uprooted, carried to a new location, and stamped into the ground where needed.

The farmer usually created a wattle by putting the upright posts (sometimes called zales or sails on these islands) into a wooden frame (sometimes called a gallows) to hold them in place. Then withies – slim cuttings of willow or hazel – were wound back and forth around the uprights. At the end of the hurdle the withy would be twisted for greater flexibility, wound around the last zale, and woven back in the other direction. Usually a gap would be left in the middle of the hurdle, called a twilly hole, which allowed a shepherd or farmer to carry a few hurdles as a time on his back.

According to author Una McGovern, hurdle fences were vital to medieval agriculture; by keeping sheep confined without the need for permanent infrastructure, they allowed tenant farmers to graze sheep on a patch of land, letting them manure the fields one by one and deposit the fertilisers necessary for cereal crops.

The same technique could form the walls of a building, once a log or timber frame was built and the wattle filled in with a “daub” plaster for insulation and privacy. The daub often contained clay, human or animal hair and cow dung, and hardened around the wattle like concrete around rebar. The technique proved popular throughout the ancient world, among Sumerians, Chinese and Mayans alike. If kept dry the walls would last for centuries, and even now restoring or demolishing old buildings in Europe sometimes reveals wattle inside the walls.

Not all ancient builders loved it; the Roman architect Vetruvius, in the first century BC, moaned about its hazards in his Ten Books on Architecture:

“As for ‘wattle and daub’ I could wish that it had never been invented,” Vetruvius wrote testily. “…But since some are obliged to use it either to save time or money, or for partitions on an unsupported span, the proper method of construction is as follows. Give it a high foundation so that it may nowhere come in contact with the broken stone-work composing the floor; for if it is sunk in this, it rots in course of time, then settles and sags forward, and so breaks through the surface of the stucco covering.”

Vetruvius’ disdain notwithstanding, however, clearly many of his contemporaries loved it, and it’s easy to see why; it allowed people to build a structure cheaply and easily. The main disadvantage, as the Roman mentioned, is that it cannot get damp; like cob, straw bales or other natural building methods, it works best when you build the foundation and walls of rock for the first metre or so.

The technique is similar to building in cob, that mixture of sand, straw and clay, mixed with water and squeezed together – usually by humans walking on it.  Handfuls of the mixture – the word “cob” comes from an Old English word for “lump” – are stacked them on top of each other in a row, stomped solid by people’s feet, and then another layer of cob added, until people have a wall.

The straw binds the clay and sand together; instead of a wall’s mass hanging on a few large structures like girders or beams, it hangs on the many tiny structures of the straw. Once the cob dries it can be almost as durable as stone. Daub needs to be thinner than cob, like stucco or plaster – to be spread across the wattle rather than creating a self-supporting wall – but is can be made from quite similar materials.  

Of course, wattle and daub is probably not suitable for modern homeowners unaccustomed to mud walls. That doesn’t mean, however, that it has no relevance to today’s homesteader; animals don’t tend to mind such all-natural surroundings, as long as the interior remains warm and dry, and neither do garden tools.

Building techniques like cob or wattle-and-daub fell out of favour in the modern era because they are more labour-intensive than our modern building techniques that rely on fossil fuels. We should not let such skills disappear entirely, however, for these methods still have advantages. They are completely ecological, requiring no machines, and generating no pollution. They can last for centuries, as evidenced by homes built this way in Europe – and might still stand when our reinforced concrete has collapsed to ruin. And when a wattle-and-daub home is finally torn down, it merely adds fertiliser to the soil, rather than toxic waste – and another one can be built, literally dirt cheap.

Una McGovern, Lost Crafts, published by Chambers, 2009.
Vetruvius, Ten Books on Architecture, Chapter 8, Section 20.
Photo: Cottage in Heimbach, Germany.