Tuesday, 26 July 2016

American fantasies

Most of you know that I follow, and often comment on, John Michael Greer's blog The Archdruid Report. This past week the subject of civil war came up.


One of the reasons why I’ve tried to ignore most of the political news coming from my native USA these days is that I dislike hearing many of my friends – some of whom support Sanders, some Clinton, some Trump, and so on – chat blithely about a “revolution” or a “civil war.” Most say they fear such a thing happening in the USA, but most don’t think about how they are contributing to the fear. Moreover, most have never seen a war and with little idea of what hardship might be like outside of images from glowing rectangles.

I’m not dismissing the many conflicts that US soldiers have been sent to, of course – Iraq, Vietnam and so on – just that they were smaller, localised, far away, unpopular and too easily ignored. The last time the entire nation – home front and all -- took part in a war was World War II, and we have seen no battles on our home soil since the days of the telegraph.

People on this side of the Atlantic seem to have fewer romantic fantasies about violence; British and Continentals saw unprecedented horrors right at home, and even neutral Ireland saw a revolution, civil war and 30-year terrorism campaign within living memory. Such unpleasant memories seemed to stamp out Europeans’ more 19th-century martial impulses, at least for now.

In my native USA, by contrast, people grow up surrounded by depictions of violence; our fiction tends to revolve around rebels taking down an orderly state through violence, whether Star Wars or Hunger Games, Ayn Rand or Left Behind. Increasingly people live not in the physical world of gardens and neighbours, bus stops and sidewalks, but in a world of video games, television and other such images of romanticised combat, while their non-fictional world of social media and “news” stokes a slowly growing sense of anger and imminent danger. Lashing out violently, for many people I know, is no longer a fear – it is a fantasy.

When I lived back in the USA, I knew a few elderly hippies who boasted of their glory days in the 1960s, when they play-acted at revolution and pointed guns at police officers, and couldn’t understand why I was repelled by their “war stories.” Back then they were unusual; today, however, many Americans – from many political and culture-war factions -- engage in the same kind of live-action role-playing, carrying heavy weapons in public or threatening each other with violence from a redoubt of safety.

The interesting thing is that it all seems so unnecessary; as I wrote in my piece on Ferguson, Americans remain quite wealthy compared to most of the world, and there’s no external reason why we should fall apart, except that we feel we must. Many people are struggling, of course, but most still have a standard of living far better than most eras, or most countries in this era.

Most of my countrymen have toys that their grandparents would consider magical, live in homes larger than the Biblical Temple of Solomon, and enjoy relative safety and long life. People perceive themselves, however, as being in imminent danger and deeply impoverished – and the more people believe those things, the more they will be true.

I mentioned in my comment last week that my daughter and I play “Fact vs. Truth” as a game, where facts are provable or tangible realities, and truths are the beliefs, values and perceptions that shape how we interpret facts. With that in mind, my own country is in a strange situation: prosperous in fact, increasingly desperate in truth.

Photo: Irish families undergoing actual hardship. 

Tuesday, 19 July 2016

A Short History of Woven Boats

Under the green and rolling hills of Scotland, a dozen kilometres from the seaside, several people lay buried for four thousand years. Around them lay what we guess to be their keepsakes; beads, a bronze knife, tools and a battle-axe. Most interesting, though, was that at least one of them – a teenager when he died, curled up like a baby – lay in what was guessed to be a wicker coracle, like those used on these islands into the 20th century. He was buried in his boat.

Stop and consider a few things about this. First its antiquity: Before the Ancient Greeks or the Hebrew prophets, before all but the earliest pyramids, there were Scots, or at least people of Scotland. Also, you don’t see boat-burials every day; perhaps it was the youth’s most prized possession, like someone today might be buried in their Rolls-Royce. Finally, consider this was a giant basket, woven together by hand, and that it carried people safely across vast stretches of cold water. (1)

That’s not as strange as it sounds; humans around the world, whether jungle tribes or Eskimos, whether in the Stone Age or the Industrial Revolution, used similar woven boats. Who first thought of it we don’t know; the first basket fragments we have were about 13,000 years old, but we have circumstantial evidence that humans might have been weaving baskets the size of boats almost four hundred centuries earlier. Not four hundred years, by the way – four hundred centuries.

You see, early humans first appeared in Australia about 50,000 years ago, and even with the ice age lowering sea levels, you still can’t walk there. To get there from Asia (presumably, because anything else would be even stranger) they would have had to set out on the ocean -- whole families in boats, not knowing if there was land out there. Obviously they floated on something, and we know of no other kind of boat-making technology for tens of thousands of years to come. Even if they only lashed logs together to make rafts, as you see in so many castaway films, they would have had to use the similar technology of weaving fibres together to make knots.

In the centuries since, cultures around the world wove boats: Tibetans floated in Ku-Drus of woven wood and yak-skin, Eskimos lashed sealskin around their long umiaks, Arabs traversed the Tigris and Euphrates in quffahs, and the Celts of the British Isles – Irish, Scots and Welsh -- had an amazing variety of coracles for fresh waters and curraghs for the sea.

Most were woven from some local pliable wood – although Eskimos used sometimes used bones -- then covered with some kind of skin, and finally waterproofed in some way. They were often rounder in flat water, like the Irish coracles, and more oval or pointed in running or sea waters, like the Irish curraghs or Eskimo kayaks. They also tended to be alarmingly tiny crafts, often just big enough for one – although a traveller to Iraq in the 1930s reported seeing woven boats large enough to carry several human passengers and a few horses. (2)

Coracles in particular had the basic shape of a bowl, and its users needed substantial practice to avoid tipping over. The advantage, however, was that once the user reached shore, the small and lightweight craft could be lifted and carried on one’s back. An English poet in the 1600s described “salmon-fishers moist, their leather boats begin to hoist,” looking like turtles as they walked away from the water carrying their boats upside-down across the countryside. (3)

On these islands coracles and curraghs were used from ancient times – the ancient Welsh myth cycle the Mabinogion mentions them, as did Julius Caesar on his trip to Britain. Irish monks like St. Columba in the sixth century travelled around isolated islands in a hide-bound boat, and Hector Boece’s 1527 history of Scotland describes their frequent use of coracles:

How be it, the Highlanders have both the writings and language they had before, more ingenious than any other people. How may there be any greater ingenuity than to make any boat of any bull-hide, bound with nothing but wands? This boat is called a curragh, and with it they fish salmon … and when they have done their fishing they bear it to another place on their back as they please. 

Fishing was not just a pastime for such people, but a matter of survival; the protein they brought in was precious, especially in Catholic countries where meat was forbidden part of the year. Another common use was to gather fish and eel traps from rivers and lobster pots from the sea – also, of course, woven of wood like baskets. The traps operated on a simple principle; a bit of bait could lure an animal into the trap but, if it were shaped properly, they would be unable to escape.

Coracles also proved useful in other ways; when shepherds washed their sheep, for example, coracle-men positioned themselves downstream to catch any sheep that might be carried away. And, of course, they offered simple transportation across a landscape lined with lakes, rivers and canals, and among many islands separated by the sea.

Each region had its own design – not just region as in “Europe,” but as in each local village or stream; small Welsh rivers like the Teifi, the Taf, the Wye, the Monnow, the Lugg, the Usk, the Dee and the Severn each had their own styles of coracles, each apparently made for the conditions of that place. (4)

Irish coracles and curraghs were woven from willow or hazel, and typically built upside-down. Locals here began by planting a row of hazel rods straight into the ground, continuing in a wide curve until the row came back to where it began. Then, when the rods looked like the bars of a large cage, they wove withies – thin strips of wood – back and forth between the rods along the ground. This would be the gunwale – the “rim” of the boat – when it was flipped over.

Then the hazel rods --- the bars of the cage, as it were -- were bent down across the oval to make a wicker dome, until the whole structure formed a large, solid basket. Then a covering was lashed to the frame – cow-hide was typical, although horse-hide and seal-skin were also used. Finally, the cover was waterproofed – in recent years with tar or some other petroleum derivative, but originally with tallow or butter.

Such ingenious craft opened up new industries, crafts and food sources for ordinary hunters or farmers, allowing them to traverse lakes and rivers easily and travel between islands. They allowed people on islands or in remote areas communicate and trade with the rest of the world. They let people create their own craft for the unique conditions of their place, with nothing more than local resources, knives and skill. In short, for tens of thousands of years human survival depended on such small and unlikely-looking creations.

Originally published in Mother Earth News.  Photo: Men on coracles in a Welsh River. Courtesy of Wikicommons.


1) T. Watkins, International Journal of Nautical Archaeology and Underwater Exploration, 1980
T. Watkins, The excavation of an Early Bronze Age cemetery at Barns Farm, Dalgety, Fife, Proceedings of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland, 112 (1984) p. 48 – 114
2) James Hornell, “Coracles of the Tigris and Euphrates,” The Mariner's Mirror, Volume 24, Issue 2, 1938
3) Andrew Marvell, “Upon Appleton House,” 1651.
4) James Hornell, Water Transport Origins & Early Evolution, 1936.

Wednesday, 13 July 2016

Eating Snails

Originally published in the Kildare Nationalist. 

Food that is shunned in one era might be highly prized in another, and vice versa. Early European colonists in America almost starved before eating the lobsters all around them, and even then they were considered disgusting, used only for feeding prisoners and servants and baiting fishhooks. Only about a hundred years ago did lobster become prized as a delicacy, until today it drives an industry worth $280 million in America alone.

People today have similarly strange attitudes towards snails. They command a high price in expensive restaurants, where they are shipped in from France at great cost – yet we might have hundreds of identical snails in our own garden, and try to get rid of them.

The common snails seen in Irish gardens are the same species as restaurant snails, and are perfectly edible – you are not likely to see the few bad-tasting or endangered species. In fact, that's how they came to be on the islands -- they are not native to Britain or Ireland, and were brought to England by Romans specifically for breeding and eating, only to get loose -- as rabbits would do under the Normans a thousand years later, and grey squirrels a thousand years after that.

To this day, a few people here raise them in their homes or gardens for profit or food, and they are about the lowest-maintenance livestock – if that’s the word – that you can keep.

Snails love to crawl up wet walls and can often be seen in large numbers after a rain – in the day, or when it’s drier, they wedge themselves in crevices and hide in their shells. Take some children with you, and gathering them will be as fun as finding Easter eggs.

Even snails raised in the safest environments would need to be starved for at least two or three days, and these days there is a particular danger they may have eaten poison or pesticides, so keep them at home and feed them for a while until anything bad has passed out of their system. I keep mine in a plastic tub with air holes for a few weeks, and each day I clean out the tub and give them slices of organic carrot until their poo turns orange. Don’t give them any food in the last few days before cooking them.

To cook snails, wash them and place them to one side and boil some water. Snails don’t have much of a brain stem, but if you are concerned about their feeling pain you can place them in the refrigerator while the water boils, and they will go to sleep.

I toss them in the boiling water for about ten minutes, pour them into a strainer, run them under cold water, and with a skewer, fish them out of the shell. Cut away the gall, the last piece to come out of the shell.

The traditional way to cook snails is in butter, and garlic is a common way to spice up the recipe. One popular approach is to prepare 60g of butter, two crushed cloves of garlic, seven ml of lemon juice, 100g of snails, 10 ml of chopped parsley and 10 ml of finely grated cheese.

Melt the butter in a small pan, add the garlic and lemon and simmer for about three minutes. Add the de-shelled and washed snails, and heat slowly for five minutes. Dump the contents in a bowl, sprinkle the parsley and cheese on top, and place the bowl in the oven until the cheese starts to turn brown.

Alternately, I like to fry a few slivers of finely-sliced rashers (bacon) in a pan and fry for a few minutes until they are lightly done. Then I toss in a heap of de-shelled snails, stir and cook for about ten more minutes. I add some spices and finely-chopped scallions about five minutes in, a big colander of washed parsley right before the end and sautee the lot for a minute or so, stirring. 

Finally, I glaze the pan with lemon juice. I then serve them over finely diced salad with avocados. You, of course, can experiment with whatever way you like best.

Tuesday, 5 July 2016

Ripples in a community

For the same reason that I don’t show my daughter’s face, I almost never show pictures of our neighbours here in rural Ireland. Many of our older neighbours grew up in a different world, growing up without electricity or cars, and talking to them is like meeting a different era. Out of curiosity, I’ve looked up a few of them online and can’t find them – possibly some of the last Westerners for whom that would be true. Certainly they don’t need to be plunged into the world of facial-recognition software and phone marketing.

Even out here, we are no longer feel community as people once did, for we no longer need each other -- we can all drive to the supermarket, order online and distract ourselves with endless forms of media. We don’t need to talk to our neighbours anymore, and often don’t want to, as a Youtube presenter will usually be more wackily entertaining than they are.

Of course, I can't judge too harshly, for I'm writing this on a computer, and you're reading it on one; they have their uses. Nor do I have the deep ties from childhood that most people have here; I'm an immigrant to this place myself.

It's obvious, though, that people here still feel the bonds of community more than most modern people I know. Sometimes I'm walking to church, for example, and a neighbour slows down in his car and asks if I need a lift, and I gratefully pile in back with his kids. In most modern societies -- my own USA in particular - people are too scared to pick up hitchhikers, until no one can hitchhike but the genuinely scary.

We see that web of reciprocity when someone dies. A young man who lived near us died a few weeks ago, and people have been talking about it ever since -- at Mass, at the pub, kids at the school, and at the shop. I didn't know him well myself -- I'd merely see him at the pub sometimes -- and of course I didn't grow up with most of the people here. Yet I could get a sense of how, in a more traditional community, everyone's actions affect everyone else, and a death most of all.

Shortly after the death, I'm told, his family held a wake, where everyone comes to pay their respects to the man and celebrate his life. The next day they had a funeral, which here usually means the family carrying the coffin from the house to the church, perhaps miles away, while all the friends march behind. Within a short time various people around us had erected a cross at the site of his death, and the flowers around it have been kept fresh ever since. We have other crosses like that near us, some from decades ago, and people still place mementoes around it.

I talked about the man's death with the teller at my credit union -- we know each other by name, and she knew his family -- and I realised how different such an experience must be from visiting a regular bank these days. I keep a separate account in a modern bank in Dublin, and they refuse to even use tellers anymore -- they rely only on ATMs, which they presumably don’t have to pay. Here, at the local credit union, I know the name of the lady that greets me, and we can talk about all the local news, good or ill.

Likewise, I talked to our neighbour down the road -- we'll call him Bill -- about buying some turf this year. Turf is the fuel we use, centuries of compacted sphagnum peat moss that has become a spongy maroon ground under your feet as you walk through the bog. Where locals have drained the bog and cleared away the brush, they then slice grooves over the landscape, so that strips of turf lie in rows like ropes of liquorice. Then we break them into chunks about the size and shape of bricks, and “foot” them, or stack them in a cross-hatching pattern so they can dry in the air during the summer months. Finally we gather them and bring them home, and for most local people that’s their winter heat.

Bill owns part of the bog near us, and it was he who cut our turf before and helped us cart it home. This time, though, he said he wasn’t sure he could.

“Your man with the tractor cuts it for me,” he said, “and he’s going out of business now. He was going to leave it to his son, but his son was the young man who died.”

In his mammoth work Bowling Alone, Robert Putnam uses surveys, time diaries and membership rolls to track the history of American social life, and the results were staggering. Social clubs like Oddfellows or Kiwanis, bowling and softball leagues, family dinners and neighbourhood poker games, political caucuses and gardening clubs – all these staples of life for decades, which had supported their members through Great Depressions and World Wars, had all diminished to a near-vanishing point.

Life in rural Ireland was less dynamic than mid-20th-century America, but you could see the same social bonds, centred around families, pubs and the Church. In fact, you could find equivalents in almost every society that has ever existed. As far as we can tell, for most hunter-gatherers, peasants, villagers or urban neighbours through history, community did not exist as an aspiration or buzzword, it was the medium in which human life took place. Most writers and philosophers in history did not even have to talk about its value, for it was the one resource no one lacked.

These days, we try to re-create community with support groups and fan clubs of various kinds, but they are Astroturf, planted to simulate the real thing where it won’t grow. Putnam quotes sociologist Robert Wuthnow in saying that “the kind of community these small groups create is quite different from the communities in which people have lived in the past. These communities are more fluid and more concerned with the emotional states of the individual … the social contract binding members together asserts only the weakest of obligations. Never criticize. Leave quietly if you become dissatisfied. We can imagine that those small groups really substitute for families, neighbourhoods and broader community attachments that may demand lifelong commitments, when, in fact, they do not.”

In a more traditional world, community isn't a hobby or cause; people need each other. When you stand in line at the shop, the person in front of you might have made the winning play for the local football team ten years ago, might coach your daughter's school, might be repairing your car next week or checking your horses, might be needed to give you a jump start on a cold morning or might make the best jam around. That's the case everywhere, of course, but in the modern world, filled with crowds and distractions, it's easy to forget.

A more old-fashioned community, though, you can see the bonds of support and obligation all around you. They temper your reactions, help you back down from conflict, encourage you to make deposits in the local bank of personal favours, and keep you from sinking too low when things go wrong. They do not free you to indulge any impulse or float unmoored through a sea of strangers, to invent and reinvent yourself endlessly according to your whims. Rather, they constrain you in all the best ways, anchor you in a cultural harbour, and limit your life to a single road taken. Enough such threads of obligation, layer upon layer, weave a civilisation.

When someone dies, everyone feels it. There's a seat empty at the pub, a pew with a space at Mass, local daughters without a father. One of our neighbours is selling his business, another might have to support himself with his cows rather than his turf, and we will have to rely on firewood rather than turf this winter. In a community like this you can see the ripples people make when they come and go, and no one goes through life alone -- alive or departed, they remain part of something larger and older than themselves.

Tuesday, 28 June 2016


This photo was taken at 11 pm outside our land, and that tells you a lot of what you need to know about life in Ireland. 

In the Missouri of my childhood, summer could bring 40-degree heat and winter heavy snow, and the days in between swung wildly through all kinds of weather fronts. There’s a reason it’s called Tornado Alley.

Here in Ireland, though, a cool and rainy day could be July or January; the weather remains remarkably constant through the year. It’s the light that varies from one extreme to another, from seven hours of dim December day submerged in seventeen hours of total night, to seven hours of  June night surrounded by long brightness. We are, after all, a thousand miles from the Arctic Circle.

Winters here hit us hard, not because of the cold -- it rarely dips below freezing -- but because of the lack of light. Going to work when it's dark and coming home when it's dark, you feel like a mine worker that never comes up to surface. I began to understand why northern European cultures had special names for the long stretches of total darkness, what inhabitants of these islands a thousand years ago called the Mother Night.

This time of year, though, we feel an energy that December saps from us; I can ride my bicycle to town and back to catch the bus to work, and when I return my daughter and I can pull weeds or chop wood as we do our home-schooling lessons. Still, I must cover my windows with foil this time of year, or I wouldn’t sleep. 


In what has become our yearly ritual on Midsummer Night, my daughter and I watched A Midsummer Night's Dream. We love the 1999 version with so many great actors and soon-to-be-stars --  Kevin Kline, Sam Rockwell, Dominic West, Christian Bale, Sophie Marceau, Roger Rees and David Strahairn. 

The Girl loved the film the first time we saw it -- she was eight then, and loved the touches of broad comedy that more jaded viewers ignore. She laughed at Bottom flubbing his lines, referring to the “odourous” queen as “odious,” or saying that his friends would “make an ass of me.” I pictured Elizabethans at the Globe Theatre laughing at the same lowbrow moments.

She also gets some references that I think a lot of modern audiences might miss. We have foraged through woods together since she was small, so she knows "where the oxlip and nodding violet grows" in a way that many children these days do not.

A few things still bother me about the film; Rupert Everett gave a strangely lethargic and horizontal performance as Oberon, and– while he’s an excellent actor – the bald and fiftyish Stanley Tucci was not an intuitive choice for Puck. Calista Flockheart was famous at the time from the television programme Ally McBeal, but her whiny petulance is a distraction from the delightful performances around her.
Now that I live here certain references make a new kind of sense to me; for example, Shakespeare’s Midsummer Night’s Dream. Now that I know how short Midsummer Night is here, I realise that all the quarrels, reconciliations and musical-chair relationships took place in only a few hours. The very name of the play was a joke in itself, to emphasize how quickly love can change or disappear -- one that you have to live here to get.


For those who don't already know, The American Conservative  -- one of the best political magazines around -- has published my piece on the UK’s departure from the European Union. Check it out.