Sunday, 27 December 2009


I'm about a week late in announcing this, but the Dallas Morning News published an article of mine recently -- it was a condensed version of the one that apppeared in Front Porch Republic a few weeks ago. My sincere thanks to the DMN editors and to the departing Rod Dreher, whose blog is one of the few I check daily.

I'm taking a break for a few days while we try to get proper Internet out here. See you in the new year. Have good holidays.

Saturday, 26 December 2009

White Christmas

Snow and ice are rare in Ireland -- the winter hovers just a few degrees above freezing -- so no one we know here can remember a white Christmas.

But today, temperatures dropped to several degrees below, the lowest I've ever heard of here. There was a brief moment of real snow on Christmas Day, and everything around us is frosted.

Photo: Our elderberries in ice.

Thursday, 24 December 2009

The Moment of Darkness

I am re-publishing this piece from last Christmas, and then will take a few days off. Have a blessed holiday.

Almost vibrating with excitement, my four-year-old carefully carried ornaments to the pine sapling in our living room last night, cradling each one like they were diamonds. We have decked our halls with literal holly from our land, bought a Christmas goose, and are planning a quiet and intimate family Christmas here in rural Ireland.

Holiday cheer, though, struggles against the long winter darkness in this place – we are less than a thousand miles from the Arctic Circle, and today there will be seven hours of dull daylight -- and this year, more than most, it also struggles against the world news.

“Papa, Father Christmas lives at the North Pole!” my daughter announced with the confidence of a four-year-old.

Yes he does, I said, wanting her to experience this magic while she can. What is the North Pole like?

“Well, it is covered with ice and ... snow ... all white and cold ...and …”

But what will it be like by the time she stops believing in a few years? Last year's summer shocked everyone, bringing the sea close to the North Pole for the first time in millions of years. That year the IPCC had predicted a new ocean there by 2070. Two months later a new projection said 2030. Two months later someone else predicted five years. I'm already talking about Santa Claus; what else should I pretend?

What animals would Santa see at the North Pole? I ask.

“Well,” she begins, “there are polar bears, and seals, and ...”

Perhaps not for long, I think. The polar bears eat the seals that eat the fish that eat the plankton, and the plankton are dying – 73 percent down since 1960. Half the plankton – much of the world’s animal mass – have disappeared since the Simpsons’ first episode. Maybe it’s because the oceans are growing warmer, maybe because they are getting more acidic, maybe it's the plastic and chemicals we've poured into them in my short lifetime. We just don't know.

Reality intrudes into other arenas of childhood. I consider showing her Bugs Bunny cartoons with the Tasmanian Devil, and think: the real animal is almost extinct. I introduced her to clips of Groucho Marx as Rufus T. Firefly, and she asked, “What is a firefly?”

Fireflies, I explained, are little bugs back where Papa grew up in America, and they light up the night ...

Lit. They seemed to be everywhere when I was a child, but I went back there last year and saw only a few flickers, and then deep in the Ozark woods.

We put together her jigsaw puzzles of the continents, and I am surprised to see Asia depicted, accurately, without Lake Aral. My childhood maps of Asia are now wrong – that massive lake, the fourth-largest in the world, disappeared in a few decades. Her map of Africa does not show Lake Chad, either – maybe the toymakers are thinking ahead.

We live a strange life, those of us who follow closely the breaking of the world. We look at our kitchens and offices and bus stops and see products of petroleum-powered machines on the other side of the world, transported here with petroleum engines. We flick past the mainstream media every morning and go straight to BBC Science, the Oil Drum and Energy Bulletin, scroll through the allied blogs and listen to podcasts on the bus – all while working regular jobs, paying mortgages and caring for children and elderly, each week filled with the burning usual.

In my case, I am also a father, and I want my daughter to have a decent life in a strange time. I am in my 30s now, but I knew five of my great-grandparents, all born in the 19th century, and my daughter, if she is lucky, may live to see the 22nd. Her life might span humanity's most important decades, and if things go as we fear she could see energy shortages, food shortages, economic collapses and a Malthusian crush. I want her to be able to realize what is happening, and not to be bewildered by a domino line of solitary unthinkables: You can't drink the water here. That's when the power went out for the last time. It's not safe to go there anymore.

As a journalist, I know this is how the mainstream media usually show the world, as a series of inexplicable, unconnected troubles. Civil unrest broke out. Congressional leaders said. Troops encountered heavy fire. Our history books show us where we came from in the same tedious way – Black Tuesday followed by the Smoot-Hawley Tarriff followed by the CCC followed by Lend-Lease. In both cases, the story told is the story of federal policies, generals and brokers, far removed from the details of life, from the millions of activists who pushed change through, and from the ebb and flow of resources that drove the national engines.

As news events unfold in her life, I want her to see that the price spikes in oil are connected to food riots in Haiti, that the plastic wrapper on the celery might join the Texas-sized floating garbage patch in the Pacific.

And – while no father wishes grief for his daughter – I want her to be able to grieve for the vanished pieces of our world, not because it is fun or useful, but because it is the right thing to do. Older people are sometimes shocked at what is no longer common knowledge – to high school graduates today, the world before September 11 or Google is as remote and theoretical as Vietnam was to me, or as Pearl Harbour was to my parents. I’m not sure how I feel about the disappearance of two of the world’s largest lakes from the jigsaw puzzle – I want her to learn, when she is older, that they used to be there.

At the same time, I don’t want her to be overtaken by grief. At a peak oil conference in Cork last year I met a man who had journeyed there from Australia on behalf of his teenaged son. His son, Tasman McKee, learned about peak oil in 2005, read the works of the most dire peak oil prophets, joined list-serves that pore over details of a coming die-off, and became more and more convinced that nothing lay before him but a desperate and despairing future in which he would see his friends and family die. After a year of this, he vanished, and only after reading his computer files did his parents learn of his obsession. His body was found on a remote mountain two months after his suicide.

I have been getting back in touch with old friends from environmental campaigns, and many have also fallen off the map. Few went as far as Tasman, or as far as a friend of ours -- a church pastor and Green -- who killed himself a few years ago. But many feel defeated. They had warned of peak oil, climate change and economic collapse for decades – now, some say, it’s started. It’s too late.

I want to spare my daughter this. I want to instil, to whatever extent a father can, the high and driving Spirit, the sanguine craving to restore. Of course it is too late to change everything, and always has been. Everything is too big. But each of us can do something where we are, and we are millions.

We could look at the world's troubles and sink into grief, as we could when a fire sweeps through a forest or a flood wipes away a city. But forests and populations generally come back, sometimes better. We can mourn for the already extinct species, lakes and forests as we mourn our dead, but as long as we remain alive we are greater than grief. Nature will return, and with our help can return in time for our species to appreciate.

And for most of the world, it is not too late. Just a few years ago peak oil and climate change were obscure ideas, and they rapidly spread until they broke into the mainstream. We are trying to return to a simpler life, and so are millions of others – the largest movement ever, happening in every part of the world. I want her to know that we are not trying to turn the tide, for tides are natural. What is happening to the world was done by men, and will be undone. I want her to know, as Tasman McKee did not, that she is not alone.

So I try to teach her, in small and playful ways, how the outside world works, and the basic skills she might need someday. The lullabies I sing to her are old folk songs, because unlike pop songs today, they are meant to be sung by ordinary people together, and we might need such things again. When we pick weeds for soup I tell her what little I know of the plants that can be eaten and plants to avoid. I am proud that, when she was only two and was stung by a nettle, she immediately found the nearest dock-leaf in the grass and rubbed it on the sting – she had absorbed that one heals the other.

She loves animals as much as any child, and we talk in detail about where they live, what makes them mammals or birds or bugs, what they eat and what they do for us and each other. For now, it is just a game, but over time, perhaps, she will make connections.

She knows, in recited pieces of theory at least, how to cook, how to make yogurt and sourdough starter, how to compost. In time, I want her to learn how to ride and handle animals, speak different languages, hunt, be sceptical, think logically and organize people. I can’t completely predict what she will face, nor can I plan her life, but I can show her a beginning.

But right now she is four, and is waiting for Santa. She patiently takes a single treat out of her Advent calendar each day, she helps make supper and she will fall asleep listening for reindeer hooves on the roof. Christmas is at this time of year for a reason, and not because we know when Jesus was born. It is just after the bleakest day and the longest night, when the world prepares to be born again, when we take our first steps away from the darkness and ready ourselves for the arduous season ahead.

Wednesday, 23 December 2009


I'm riding the bus to my day job from our new home, trying to remember the points when the gaps in wireless Internet service appear.

Every morning I will bicycle out of our land, ride along the canal for a few miles to the main road, and cross an old stone arch bridge. There I will park the bike at a bus stop -- just a red pole and small sign along a country road -- and pick up the bus to Dublin. To American eyes it appears incongruous to see this giant, double-decker bus barrel across the countryside, but luckily buses are one of the main sources of traansportation here, and make regular capillary stops even in remote places.

Not so with Internet service -- our signal is spotty at best in our new home. I'm riding the bus to my day job from our new location, and trying to memorise the stretches where wireless service cuts out. Posting might be sporadic.

Tuesday, 22 December 2009

First night in new home

Even after we moved to rural Ireland, we lived in a village where cars drove by our window every night, and streetlights shone from the storefronts. Here the nights are jet blacck except for a faint glow on the distant horizon -- Dublin -- and thousands of brilliant stars overhead.

Monday, 21 December 2009

Trees by our house

The Girl

The Girl has not had an easy time of it these last few days. Two wobbly teeth are aching to come out. She caught her finger in a door, and we spent five hours in the emergency room yesterday. And she is watching all her belongings packed into boxes and brought to our new home.

So today I brought her to the first place we rented in Ireland, which she barely remembers. We knocked on the door, and a very obliging woman allowed us to walk into the house and look around.

"I remember this!" She said, looking around. "I used to play there with Diarmuid," a friend's child I babysat when they were toddlers.

Yes, this was your home, I said. And moving from it was scary at the time -- but soon you got used to your new home.

On the way back, we talked about moving -- we won't move far, I said. Just to our land -- that's why we've been staying in a rented house while we built. There you can feed chickens, and we can fish in the canal, and work on the garden. We have all your toys, the same as before - they are just packed away, and we will unpack them in the new house.

"And you'll be there," she said.

Yes, I will. I'm not going anywhere.

"I love you, Papa."

Photo: The Girl learning to use a spinning wheel.

Friday, 18 December 2009

We move in Monday

... to our new house, on our land by the canal. It has been more than two years of work, but the house is almost complete. This weekend we need to spend all our time oiling floors, finishing up details, cleaning everything in the new house, packing our things in the old house, and after that, moving all our belongings.

I might not be blogging a lot. Stay tuned.

Monday, 14 December 2009

Eating snails

Attitudes toward food change constantly, and perfectly edible food that is shunned in one era might be highly prized in another. 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. Some recommend only a week or two to clean out the toxins, but I like to be on the safe side. 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.

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

Sunday, 13 December 2009

Bard Fiction

When I took The Girl to America in 2008, an old friend of mine showed me his writing project -- he and his online collaborators were rewriting the film “Pulp Fiction” as a Shakespearean play.

If you’re familiar with the movie, you probably remember the early scene where two hit men, played by Samuel Jackson and John Travolta, discuss one character’s recent trip to Europe.

VINCENT: You know what they call a Quarter Pounder with Cheese in Paris?

JULES: They don't call it a Quarter Pounder with Cheese?

VINCENT: No, they got the metric system there, they wouldn't know what a Quarter Pounder is.

JULES: So what did they call it?

VINCENT: Royale with Cheese.

JULES: Royale with Cheese. What'd they call a Big Mac?

VINCENT: Well, a Big Mac's a Big Mac, but over there it’s Le Big Mac.

JULES: What do they call a Whopper?

VINCENT: I dunno, I didn't go into a Burger King.

Now this is the Shakespearean version they created:

VINCENT: And know'st thou what the French name cottage pie?

JULIUS: Say they not cottage pie, in their own tongue?

VINCENT: But nay, their tongues, for speech and taste alike
Are strange to ours, with their own history:
Gaul knoweth not a cottage from a house.

JULIUS: What say they then, pray?

VINCENT: Hachis Parmentier.

JULIUS: Hachis Parmentier! What name they cream?

VINCENT: Cream is but cream, only they say la crème.

JULIUS: What do they name black pudding?

VINCENT: I know not;
I visited no inn where't could be bought.

This past summer, I revisited Minnesota to spend time with friends, conduct interviews and give some lectures at a university and a church. I saw my friend again, and found that he and his collaborators had turned the project into a full stage play – Bard Fiction. They submitted it to the Minnesota Fringe Festival, were accepted, and performed it for thousands of people.

I got one of the last tickets of the last show, and while the Girl was happily ensconced with my friends’ children, and rushed to the theatre and managed to get a front-row seat.

They were the hit of the festival, made the cover of the local weekly paper City Pages and the Arts section of the Minneapolis Star-Tribune, and were called back for an encore performance. I told him they should try to take it to Broadway.

P.S.: Any nominations for other current works that could be made "classical?"

Wednesday, 9 December 2009


These are white-knuckled days. We are almost done with our house, and plan to move in in two weeks, to be moved in by Christmas -- if they can finish in time. At my day job, we are dealing with the end of the year stress. The days are full, and every day brings much to do.

Posting might be light.

Sunday, 6 December 2009

I'm also appearing

... over at the admirable web site Front Port Republic, which has run this article of mine.

If you are not familiar with FPR, it is a haven for "crunchy cons," old-fashioned conservatives, distributists, conservationists, agrarians, Luddites and a diversity of other thinkers. They tend to be genuinely conservative in a way that modern neocons are absolutely not, but lie as far outside the US media's left-right spectrum as Duluth and Biloxi lie outside the St. Louis/Kansas City spectrum.

Friday, 4 December 2009


People have worked out relationships with all kinds of animals – cows and other grazers for milk, chickens and other birds for eggs – and we care for them in exchange for a share of what they produce naturally. We have very few relationships, though, with the vast majority of animals, the insects. Except for silk caterpillars, raised by specialists, there is only one insect that most of us can cultivate – bees.

People have probably been keeping bees for thousands of years, giving them a place to live in exchange for a share of their honey. For most of that time, though, they were kept in simple containers like skeps – essentially baskets – which had to be broken and the hive destroyed any time the honey was harvested. In 1852, a Pennsylvania vicar invented the beehive that is still used today – a wooden box with several frames inside that the bees can use to make honeycombs, without sealing the frames together. Each frame can be pulled out and checked, the bees inspected for disease and progress, and the honey extracted, all with only a brief disruption to the hive.

Bee hives can be kept easily on a small plot of land, and some people keep them in their back gardens. Most bees will forage for pollen in a radius of several miles, so it doesn’t matter much if a hive is located near homes. All the same, most bee experts recommend keeping the beehive inconspicuous and pointing away from neighbour’s driveways, so the bees’ runway flight is not likely to get in people’s personal space.

Honey is the most obvious advantage to keeping bees, and the honey can also be made into mead, or honey wine. But bees also produce wax that can be used for everything from candles to skin creams – some people chew it like bubblegum. Also, bees of course have the natural function of pollinating plants, and most beekeepers say their garden yields increase dramatically once they have a hive nearby.

What would ordinarily be a diverting hobby takes on a special urgency, of course, because so many bees around the world -- the source of so many of our crops -- are dying from obscure causes.

Most beekeepers recommend placing the hive on the north-facing side of a windbreak, open to the southeast sun so the bees get warm as early as possible in the morning. The hive should be level on dry land, and water should be set nearby so they can get a drink – one beekeeper recommends putting a small bucket of water nearby with a piece of Styrofoam floating on top, so the bees can have a place to stand while they drink.

To get started, you need a few basic materials. Of course you need a hive, and you also need a bee suit, gloves and a smoker – the smoke keeps the bees calm while the beekeeper does their work. Most of these materials can be purchased for a few hundred euros from any one of a dozen or so companies.

I can’t speak about beekeeping from firsthand experience, but I plan for that to change this spring. By March or so, I hope to give a step-by-step account of how to set up one’s own hive – and perhaps what not to do.

Wednesday, 2 December 2009

Churchyard in fog

Along with the high waters our area saw dense fog the other night, here billowing around the Madonna.