Monday, 27 December 2010

Day out with six-year-old


With the clock ticking, The Girl and I raced to the theatre from the train stop, me holding her hand tightly as we hurried across the Dublin streets amid the heavily falling snow. We slipped and slid across the bridge over the River Liffey, then through old doorways in stone walls, and down a maze of alleyways to finally arrive just in time to see the panto.

Let me back up a minute. When we first moved here our neighbours talked excitedly about talking their children to this year’s panto, and I discovered you can only smile and nod for so long before admitting you don’t know what anyone’s talking about. Pantomimes, I discovered, are vaudevillian children’s plays, part of the ritual of growing up in Britain and Ireland and especially popular around Christmas time.

A typical panto tells a loosely adapted fairy tale – Jack and the Beanstalk, Cinderella, Robin Hood and, in our case, Aladdin -- and contains the following vital ingredients:
1.) A boyish leading man;
2.) The princess he falls for;
3.) A hammy villain, usually with black clothes and facial hair;
4.) One or more middle-aged men in drag;
5.) A backup group of singers and dancers.

Famous actors and pop stars here often take a break from their regular career to ham it up in pantos – BBC actor John Barrowman was in a panto last year, and another this year starred “Jedward,” the Irish singing duo enjoying their fifteen minutes of adoration among prepubescent girls here. This panto’s villain was played by a former member of Ireland’s boy band Boyzone, which had a similar bout of fame several years ago.

While pantos cater to children, with broad acting, bright costumes and clown comedy, the lines are inevitably loaded with lines thrown over the children’s heads at the parents – racy double entendres, pop-culture references and political humour.

This was my first panto, but I suspect this year they threw in many more political jabs than usual. In the last several weeks, of course, Ireland has seen a national bankruptcy, a bailout, a split government, a new election, an emergency budget and a nation of furious voters, and the performers dropped more than one reference to unpopular Taoiseach (TEE-shak, or Prime Minister) Brian Cowan.

Aladdin: Mother, we can take this money and move to someplace like .... Ireland!
Aladdin’s mother: Well, we’ll be the only people with money there.

Or:

Aladdin: Look princess - the treasure’s gone! Brian Cowen must have been here!

Back to The Girl and I. I’d booked tickets for the panto, knowing she was six already and would not be a little girl for many more Christmases. Getting to Dublin, though, posed some problems. On top of so much financial and political turmoil, Ireland -- which ordinarily receives only a light dusting of snow once or twice a winter -- has been hit by weeks of snowstorms. Sometimes roads have been completely impassable; we have all missed days of work, and at times the whole country seemed to stop.

You see, we can only leave our property via a narrow one-lane road that runs, with no shoulder or railing, along the edge of a canal, and when covered with ice it is treacherous indeed. One of our neighbours plunged their car straight into the water, and had to be fished out with our neighbour’s tractor. We must drive very slowly, so the nearest village has become much further away.

We started out for Dublin around 10:30 am, three hours before the play was to begin --- the trip ordinarily takes an hour and a half. We drove slowly and carefully to the bus stop, and so missed the bus. We drove fifteen miles to a village with a train station –no train would make it in time. Finally we drove to another village to catch the electric tram, which could take us into the city ... as it turned out, very slowly.

We ran through the streets and made it just in time for the panto, sliding into the box office like it was home plate, and because the weather kept so many people away, we could ignore our tickets for the nosebleed section and sit in the middle of the front row. Panto actors ask children in the audience for advice, and they spoke right to The Girl, to her amazement.

Good things we weren’t a few minutes later; one family was, and all the stage-lights turned on them as they walked down the aisle. All the actors stopped onstage to make fun of the latecomers, and everyone turned out to sing the “You’re Very Very Late” song.

The play had singing, dancing, costumes, a “flying” carpet, puffs of smoke, showers of sparks and, at times, a complete absence of a fourth wall. The children went wild, and as we left she talked about the play excitedly to herself and anyone who would listen.

It turned out the night wasn’t over yet. First we walked down Grafton Street, Dublin’s shopping district, its fairy-tale decorations and light displays peeking through the heavy snowfall. We ran into one of the panto actors quite by chance, and thanked her. The Girl found a mobile phone in the snow, left, it later turned out, by a French immigrant, and we had to track them down -- I called a random contact in France, found someone who spoke English, asked them who had just called them, asked for someone who would be accompanying that person in Ireland, and so on. We eventually got them their phone back.

Then we had to wait for buses that never came, until we got one whose destination was close enough. The normally hour-long ride took four and a half hours, and amid the long wait and stranger conversations, The Girl found a large audience who would hear about her day.

Friday, 24 December 2010

The Moment of Darkness




Originally posted in 2008.


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 someday it might not be. The 2007 ice shocked everyone, shrinking so much that the sea drew near the Pole. That year the IPCC had predicted a new ocean there by 2070. Two months later a new projection said 2030. Two months later they said 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. 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 have disappeared since the Simpsons’ first episode. Maybe it’s because the oceans are growing warmer, maybe because they are getting more acid, maybe it's the plastic and chemicals we've poured into the oceans 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 one 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 ...

Except not any more. They flickered yellow-green across the grass in my Missouri hometown – you could find your way in the dark by their light. I went back there last year and the nights were black – 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 in 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 before she is even an adult, the world could grow much more difficult – 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, the power went out, it's not safe there anymore.

As a journalist, I know this is how the mainstream media usually show the world. 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 don't want her to accept them as a string of disconnected troubles – I want her to see that the price spike in oil is connected to the food riots in Haiti, that the plastic wrapper on the celery is tied to 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 he became more and more convinced that nothing lay before him but a desperate and despairing future. After a year of this, he vanished, and only after reading his computer files did his parents learn the extent 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 church pastor and Green activist I knew 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 there are millions of us.

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 bridle, 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 weakest 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, 22 December 2010

Father Christmas, homesteader


This time of year, my daughter has one favourite story: Raymond Briggs’ Father Christmas, the story of Santa’s rounds on Christmas night. It’s one of my favourites as well, if for different reasons.

In this graphic novel, silent but for a few grumbles and greetings, there is no Ms. Claus, elves or secret toy-industrial complex. Father Christmas, here, is an old man living in apparently contented solitude, dutifully venturing out yearly to make his deliveries. He endures storms, fog, sleet and high winds across the world, complaining the entire way and occasionally strengthening his resolve with a drop of liquor.

Such an unsentimental portrait might sound depressing, but it makes Santa more human, and more comprehensible to my daughter, than the usual laughing caricature. Briggs makes him a hard-working man performing a service we value; Briggs could easily be showing the daily routine of a miner, a fisherman or a farmer. At one point Santa passes a milkman also making deliveries, and they exchange pleasantries without stopping – and even on Christmas morning, the milkman must make his rounds as well.

What I particularly like, though, is that Santa seems to live on a homestead. He starts his morning by using the outhouse – at least, it’s a toilet outside in the shed -- and gathers hay for the animals. He is pleased to find two winter eggs from the chickens, and has breakfast with tea. He puts coal in the small stove, similar to the one we use to burn our bog turf. You wouldn’t be surprised to see a vegetable garden or greenhouses out back.

The book doesn’t say where he lives, although children here say Santa lives in Lapland – northern Finland --- rather than the North Pole. From the tea to the Christmas pudding, though, it looks like working-class Britain in the mid-20th century, the “deeply conservative land” that David Kynaston pieces together from diaries in his impressive Austerity Britain. It’s the Britain G.K. Chesterton or C.S. Lewis might have recognised, the life an old man might have lived in Britain when the book was written in 1973.

Father Christmas and Austerity Britain would seem two very different books, but they both focus on the similar cultures, eras and intimate details of living – supper, chores, schedule. Minutiae like this bring earlier eras to life in a way most histories miss, and offer a casual vision of an austere but civilised world that we would do well to revive.

In a small room Father Christmas sleeps under quilts, in long johns, with a hot-water bottle, for heat was precious. The bed-stand looks of rough wood, as though he carved it himself, and on it he keeps his teeth and a wind-up alarm clock. He puts talc powder under his arms instead of modern deodorant. The concept of a carbon footprint was decades away when the book was written, but without adding anything for flying reindeer, Santa’s would be close to zero.

As he makes his rounds, we see English farmhouses by moonlight, and my six-year-old points out the details she recognises --- bicycles, water barrels to catch rain from gutters, sticks crossed in the garden for peas to climb. Sometimes Santa has to crawl out of the stove, for people cooked with wood or coal and the oven went to the chimney.

That world was already fading when Father Christmas was published in 1973, and the encroaching modern world seems to confuse Santa. He struggles to find entry into a caravan – a trailer or mobile home to Americans – and he gets tangled in someone’s television antenna. We wondered about things like this as children -- how many of us had ever seen a home with a chimney, much less a sleigh?

The whole story, of course, made more sense when it was gaining popularity in the 19th and early 20th centuries; most children were familiar with sleighs or lumps of coal, and hung their stockings by the chimney anyway, to dry. The oranges we received in our stockings were meaningless to us in the 1970s but precious to our forebears; they were from exotic lands. In “A Visit From St. Nicholas,” Mama was in her kerchief and I in my cap because the houses were cold. Children a century ago would not have found such details cryptic, any more than they would stables and mangers.

Today it might seem like that world has been completely forgotten. As we inched up the energy needle, our mainstream culture abandoned most of its traditional holidays -- Midsummer, Candlemas, Twelfth Night, May Day and many more – and swelled Christmas from a night to a shopping “season.” Christmas movies and television increasingly portrays Santa’s “workshop” as an assembly line, while news pundits annually track the spending numbers like telethon hosts.

Yet people can’t completely forget a more traditional world this time of year, not amid so many traditions. It is at this time of year that modern people are most likely to visit family, cook food, meet their neighbours, go to church, bring greenery inside, go from house to house singing, or even watch black-and-white movies from the simpler foothills of the energy needle.

When we take pleasure in these things, we peek through cracks in the wall of stress and excess and see another, older world on the other side, and realise that it too can bring comfort and joy.

Friday, 17 December 2010

Light at the end



Posting to resume soon. Promise.

Photo: Winter sun over our land.

Monday, 6 December 2010

Still here



Stuck at home for a few days with no internet, but now the roads are passable. Last year's Christmas snow was heavy for Ireland, but this has been bizarre -- nothing like it in living memory, say the farmers around us.

We've enjoyed ourselves immensely. I was afraid The Girl would never have a childhood snowman or snowball fight, as Ireland usually receives so little snow most years, but we've had plenty in the last week. Time to enjoy this while we can.

Will post more soon.

Tuesday, 30 November 2010

Snowbound


On top of everything else, Ireland has been hit with heavy snowfall -- rare in any month, unheard of in November. We could not go to Dublin for work today, and I'm writing this from the car, to see if I can get a wisp of an internet connection. On the good side, The Girl and I had perhaps her first snowball fight ever.

Monday, 29 November 2010

The Girl


Best compliment ever.

"You are one humdinger of a Papa!"

Photo: The Girl in the woods in warmer months.

Friday, 26 November 2010

Like a storm overhead


Thursday morning it began. In the wet darkness before dawn I rode from our rural home to my day job in Dublin, listening to news on the bus speakers – a team of international financial experts had flown in to meet government leaders, and reporters demanded to know why. Six days of revelations later we have a bankrupt economy, a bailout that could top a hundred billion euros, a broken government coalition, a new planned election and a severe emergency budget. And yet everything looks the same.

That morning I felt worn out from the previous day’s work. I had taken a day off work to borrow a friends’ trailer and pick up straw bales from farmer near Maynooth, as he was the only farmer I could find that still makes the human-sized bales, now that everything is done with machinery. I wanted to stack the bales into a night soil composter, seeing if I could get the right carbon and nitrogen ratios to create the high temperatures needed to kill off pathogens.

I also took our old refrigerator to the dump – I wanted to make it into an underground cold-box, but couldn’t find someone to drain the Freon from the tubes in back, and didn’t want the chemicals seeping into the groundwater. Finally, I loaded up the trailer with mulch from the pile where the county shreds its Christmas trees, and spread it between our garden beds.

On Friday our bank admitted that its value had dropped from a high of 22 billion down to 300 million – a decline of 98.4 percent. We are withdrawing most of our money until this passes, and stocking up on more food and propane than usual. I absorbed the news riding home in the darkness, writing a letter to a local teacher – my non-profit is working with a local school to get teenagers to interview elderly residents, collecting information on the skills and resources people here had a few decades ago.

Saturday marked an emergency meeting of the government, we heard as we went to the Farmers’ Market. Later that day my Girl rode her horse around the pen under a grey winter sky, with our neighbour’s daughter the same age. The Girl took her first bad fall off a horse a few weeks ago, and I told her how proud I was that she was riding again. Today, her friend fell the same way, and while I ran in and carried her to her car, she was also shaken but unharmed.

Sunday we all listened to news pundits speculate on the IMF loan, and all agreed it would mean higher taxes and less money for health and education. But no one really knew.

For me, though, Sunday was the day I ringed the row of lilandia evergreens that border our property. My father-in-law planted them twenty years ago, and while I have taken some down with a chainsaw, we realised that the barbed-wire fence behind the trees – the only thing separating our garden from dozens of hungry cows in winter – is getting old and easily broken. We think the cows recognise the rows of trees as a barrier, and that cutting them down now would encourage them to push through the barbed wire. At the same time, we need their roots to stop taking nutrients from the soil so we can plant native fruit and nut trees. My solution was to chop the bark off all the way around the base of the tree, killing it without felling it, and we can fell them at our leisure later this winter.

Sunday my wife and mother-in-law also placed cloches over our raised garden beds, and draped fleece over them to keep the frost out. Finally, The Girl and I planted a rowan sapling in the hedgerow by the canal, filling a gap behind our rows of loganberries and raspberries.

Monday morning my mother-in-law woke me even earlier than usual, so I could kill a mouse. He crept in the warm house one day, hopefully when we left the door open, and for weeks had left our mousetraps devoid of their peanut butter but unsprung. Finally my mother-in-law reached to get the cat’s food and the mouse jumped up at her. It was very considerate of him to wait for me in the plastic bag, and I made sure the cat was fed.

That day the government split apart. For a few years now the Green Party had ruled in uneasy coalition with Fianna Fail (rhymes with tall, but looks like a bad pun), perhaps Ireland’s equivalent of the Republican Party, and with a few independents they form a ruling coalition. Since the Greens had to concede a great deal of their platform to compromise, they have been a few years of continual controversy. With the onset of the bailout they announced they were washing their hands of the coalition, effectively a vote of no confidence in their senior partner. Their actions force a general election early next year, and everyone takes for granted that this is the end of Fianna Fail’s long dominance.

That night The Girl and I watched one of her favourite programmes, the documentaries of David Attenborough. We read about trilobites and velvet worms, and then I let her watch the Marx Brothers make jokes about the Depression.

On Tuesday, the offices of at least two TDs – like MPs in Britain, or Congress members in the USA – were vandalised. After centuries of being among the world’s most famous victims of poverty, the Irish had experienced one of the world’s most remarkable economic booms, the Celtic Tiger. For a magical few years, the population of some villages quadrupled, and land values increased more than that. Hundreds of thousands of Irish built new homes, including us. The natives here were intensely proud of becoming an economic powerhouse, and while most expected that it would end, few expected it to implode so spectacularly.

On Wednesday the government announced its new budget, increasing taxes and tariffs and cutting social services. That day I met The Girl’s teacher for the annual parent-teacher conference, and bought new socks for the winter – Ireland saw an unusual cold snap last winter, and climate change experts say we could get more in the coming years.

We took off work for Thanksgiving – of course it is an ordinary day for everyone else here, but I am an American and wanted to honour it. I am grateful for the life we have, and for our great fortune.

This is what the Long Emergency feels like. It feels like screaming headlines and breaking-news interruptions and haggard pedestrians and foul moods at the office. It feels, for a while, like the end of the world. But while it happens there is still birdsong and rustling leaves, frost across the fields and fog at twilight. It feels like a storm overhead and far away, thrilling and mournful and dangerous, and we scramble to take shelter from it. It can kill many people and destroy our plans, but then it passes, and the landscape looks much the same.

It will happen to you too sometime. Maybe your money will be worthless one day, having gone from work to wealth to metal to paper to stocks to derivatives, into a realm of such abstraction that it blows away on the next breeze. Maybe all the jobs in your city will disappear one by one, the young people migrating in caravans to rumours of work far away. Maybe the electricity will go off more and more often, or the store shelves will slowly go empty. Maybe people around you, fed stories of apocalypse for two generations, will think it the end of the world.

But we can’t do anything about it. That’s something that many of us, raised on fictional stories in which people change the world, cannot accept – real things are slow, last longer than our lives, and are out of our control. People have immense power – we have scoured the surface of the planet like a forest fire, created cities that rise like mountains from the shore, and set events rolling that will not dissipate for millions of years. But as a person, each of us has very little ability to change anything.

And this is the good news about the day the world ends -- it never comes, or if it does it's like any other day. It looks like a day thick with things to do – animals to be fed, bedtime stories to read and chores that don’t wait for the next news report. For those eagerly anticipating the Rapture or the Singularity or the 2012 whatever, this is the bad news – nothing will reboot your life and take away your problems.

And after the storm passes, a few things that are forever changed, and we become accustomed to them. Soon we joke casually about the events that we feared -- the terrorist attack, devaluation, election, outage or shortage – and accept it, and forget that anything else was ever normal.

Until the next end of the world.

Wednesday, 24 November 2010

Pub by the woods


Across from where The Girl rides her horse, in Newtownmoneenaluggagh. No, that is not a misprint, and no, I don't know how to pronounce it either.

It's been an interesting week here in Ireland -- more on that later. In the meantime, Happy Thanksgiving to all Americans.

Friday, 19 November 2010

Public transportation 3: Horse Power


Horses and carriages clop past my Dublin office every day, and while they are mostly for tourists, a few country folk still drive them around our land. They are almost unknown across much of the Western World these days; even here they are rare enough that children point and wave when a horse goes by. A hundred years ago they might have shrugged at the ubiquitous presence of horses and run shrieking towards an automobile, and it’s possible their great-grandchildren might do the same a century from now.

When I mention the possibility of using horses in the future, mainstream folk tend to burst into … well, horse laughter. That will never be necessary, they tell me – we will just invent fusion, build electric cars, use bio-fuels as easily as we do petrol now, or create something new. Doomer blogs and forums, on the other hand, sometimes mention a return to horses, as does the odd post-apocalyptic film or novel – but too often as a defeated post-collapse fate, like moving back with your parents. Too often people in both camps treat horses as abstractions, with no sense of the work or limits involved.

Horses would be difficult to introduce into today’s traffic in most Western nations; although town and suburban drivers could get used to them as Dublin drivers do, and eventually there might be more need for horses and fewer cars. Certainly they wouldn’t be our first choice for transport of any kind; rather, governments and communities should invest in trains and streetcars, preferably electrified and powered by miles of solar panels and windmills. They could keep buses running through several methods I have mentioned – using unwanted vehicles, packing them tightly with passengers, driving more slowly, growing bio-fuels and so on. Together we could continue to move people to jobs, families, hospitals and allotments, and move dry goods across the world. All these things could happen, and we should push for them.

But let’s say, just for a moment, that they don’t. Let’s say your city doesn’t build a streetcar, that your county doesn’t double or treble the number of buses, that your national government doesn’t build new train tracks. Or let’s say these things don’t last; at some point fossil fuels will be gone, the materials and machines they created broken or corroded. If that happens we will still possess the original horse-power we had for 6,000 years – but we would need to re-learn what they can and cannot do.

The good news is that horse-drawn cars worked, not just for ancient chariots or Conestogas but for mass urban transit into the 20th century. For a hundred years, from the early 1800s to the early 1900s, Europe and America had cities of at least a million people that ran on a massive, sophisticated network of carriages and streetcars. By 1880, according to historian John H. White, Jr., US cities had 415 horse-drawn railways running, with 18,000 cars on 3,000 miles of track, carrying 1.2 billion passengers a year. Most of these lines continued decades into the age of electricity and coal, simply because the horses worked better than any other option.

Horses have several obvious advantages over cars; they require no fossil fuel imports and contribute nothing to climate change beyond the occasional burst of methane. They are not the fastest transportation option, but neither are cars in city traffic – and in a crisis, slow movement is better than none. They can mow lawns and parks for us, although they need far more food than what our urban areas could offer.

They generate rich organic fertilizer for suburban homeowners who want to grow their own food but have thin, housing-development soil. They build more of themselves in a way that diesel engines, when left together, do not, and their children can be trained and ready to work in a few years.

Of course, horses bring massive problems with them, and if we ever consider bringing them back for transportation use, we need to become familiar with their limits again. For one thing, they have the same problems we do with extreme temperatures, and refuse to work in heat waves or blizzards. Disease can also lay them up – during an epidemic of horse flu in 1872, White wrote, “American commerce nearly came to a halt,” and companies resorted to teams of oxen or humans to pull streetcars through cities. He noted that some cities used mules, which worked better in hot weather, but of course could not produce offspring.

For another, horses required a great deal of feeding; according to historian J.R. McNeil, each horse required two hectares, enough to feed eight people, so that in 1920 a quarter of American farmland used for oats to feed horses.

Horses also required massive stables in the middle of city neighbourhoods, for they could not walk long distances into town and then walk all day. Nineteenth-century stables, White wrote, had to be two or three stories high to make room for the horses, hay and grain storage, shoeing, harness repair and manure. Food and maintenance of the horses consumed up to 50 percent of the revenues from the business, not even including the cost of paying human workers.

Horses produced 10 to 20 kilos of manure per day, and as tens of thousands walked through any major city every day, the manure was thick on the street, turning into fetid swamps in the rain and noxious dust in dry spells. Historians Joel Tarr and Clay McShane write that the omnipresent manure caused widespread typhus and other diseases.

Of course, that age had many hygiene problems aside from horses. Pigs were often herded through city streets – almost half a million in Cincinnati alone, according to historian Otto Bettmann – and rubbish piled so high in the streets that old photographs show it in traffic-blocking mounds. Future urban residents might hold their streets to higher standards of hygiene. Manure can be collected in bags under horses, and residents of an area can hire workers to keep streets clean. White even relates the claim of 19th-century city officials that mules could be toilet-trained.

Certainly a horse-and-carriage future would not allow us to live with the conveniences we have become accustomed to today. In a serious crisis, though, even a slow and old-fashioned method of moving people and goods from place to place could save lives.

All this is academic, however, unless at least some small percentage of the populace learns to drive horses. Television action heroes can jump on a horse or wagon, shake the reins and gallop away, but in this world it takes years of training, and there are few teachers. The horses require training for their jobs as well, and few today are.

Such a system would require the return of several professions, in fact, most of them newly rare: smiths to make horseshoes, farriers to put them on the horse, leather-makers and leather-workers to make straps, and horse veterinarians. We would need carpenters who can build vehicles sturdy enough to hold passengers and freight and lightweight enough to be pulled. We would need iron-workers, wheel-wrights, coopers and livery workers. You might not picture call-centre supervisors and telemarketers leaping forward to become farriers and smiths, but as time goes on it might become steadier employment, and there might be fewer of the positions we have now.

Most of all, we would need to increase the number of horses. The USA, for example, has a little more than six million horses not used for racing. At the dawn of the horseless-carriage era, there were 21 million horses in the USA, for a nation with a third of today’s population. To provide services for today’s cities, then, we would need to increase the number of horses at least tenfold – probably many times more than that, for few of the existing horses are the muscular draught breeds.

This, then, is my modest proposal: if you believe that fossil fuels are running short, if you are not certain whether fusion power or a hundred new nuclear plants are around the corner, if your government is not investing in trains or trolleys, if you are sceptical that we can grow enough bio-fuels for a bus system, then I would ask what kinds of transportation you see us using in a few decades, and what you are doing to create that system.

If you have no better ideas, then I would encourage you to learn some of these skills that were so widespread and fundamental for so long, so that at least a few people in your area have such knowledge and can teach others should it become necessary. I’ll be doing the same – let me know how it goes.

Sources:

“The Centrality of the Horse to the Nineteenth-Century American City,” Joel Tarr and Clay McShane, The Making of Urban America, NY: SR Publishers, 1997.

“From Horse Power to Horsepower,” Eric Morris, Access, No. 30, Spring 2007.

Something New Under the Sun: An Environmental History of the Twentieth-Century World, J.R. McNeil, W. W. Norton & Company, 2001.

The Good Old Days--They Were Terrible!, Otto Bettmann, Random House,1974

“Horsecars: City Transit Before the Age of Electricity,” John H. White, Jr., Walter Havighurst Special Collections.

“Horse Power,” John H. White, Jr., American Heritage Volume 8, issue I, Summer 1992.

Thursday, 11 November 2010

Public transportation 2: Hummers and booze


As mentioned last month, public transportation makes cities healthier -- US cities were healthier when they had streetcars, and light rail systems make many European cities more liveable today. America’s streetcars were ripped up decades ago, though, and light rail requires massive investments in infrastructure – money few cities have to throw around. Communities can still organise public transit, though, by using buses.

In my native country, the USA, buses are often associated with the poor, but they shouldn’t be. A recent HNTB Corporation survey found that 90 percent of Americans who live near public transportation use it at least some of the time, and 70 percent thought it a better choice than driving -- indicating that more people would use public transit if there was more of it. (Just assume I’m writing this for the most countries in general but my native USA in particular.)

For that matter, don’t assume that “the poor” are someone else. Forty-five million Americans, for example, lived below the poverty line last year– one in seven – and those are only the individuals making less than $10,800 or families making less than $22,000. Many if not most of us are struggling in some way, with too little savings and too much debt, and even many apparently prosperous families live only a few pay-checks from default.

Everyone needs to travel to the store, work or relatives’ houses, but many of us live in the country or in suburbs – especially Americans again, who can travel 20, 50, even 100 kilometres to work. Such journeys will grow more difficult in a time of less money and more expensive fuel, yet most residential areas have no factories or businesses to furnish jobs. Cars also break down, and in a crunch many will have less money to fix them or buy new ones. Nor can we indefinitely repair modern cars, with their plastic and micro-chips, as Cubans do their 1959 models.

People here in rural Ireland have long depended on taxis, and they can help carry people in an emergency. Taxis might less efficient than most cars on the road, however, for they usually take only one passenger at a time, and spend a lot of their time driving to and from pickup points. They certainly cannot substitute for vehicles that carry multiple passengers on regular routes.

In short, we will need buses of some kind, in small towns and inner cities, along country roads and motorways alike. Lots of them.

Unfortunately, many cities are cutting back their bus lines; a brief Google News search on the day I write this came up with five examples in the last month alone. Local officials could feel compelled to eliminate such services altogether as the tough times continue, in an attempt to cut costs. As someone who spends three hours a day on the bus, I have a particular concern for making sure they continue to exist, and could be made even more comfortable and reliable.

I used to cover city and county governments as a reporter in Missouri and Kansas, and while my articles made life difficult for certain politicians, I also know they are often harried, pressured, and unappreciated. I’ve tried to put myself in the place of officials and residents who want to keep public transit alive in the case of financial or fuel emergencies, and have a few projects that city or town residents might want to consider.
As city governments become increasingly cash-strapped, they will be less able to buy new buses or replacement parts. Many buses are already obviously old and in need of repairs, and officials probably put off paying for new ones until the boom times come again.

At the same time, almost 100 million Americans own SUVs or Hummers for some reason. In some years these suburban assault vehicles actually outsold cars, even though they are only half as efficient in miles-per-hour as 1920 Model Ts. Most people do not use their suburban assault vehicles for fording rapids or scaling Alaskan mountains, as in commercials, but rather for inching in and out of parking spaces. These vehicles typically have enough room for at least six people, plus enough cargo space, as Dave Barry put it, “to pick up something else, such as a herd of bison.”

Between the spike in fuel prices a few years ago and the recession today, many SUV owners are trying to rid themselves of these white elephants; look in any Buy-and-Sell section of any newspaper and you will see an explosion of such vehicles for sale, at plummeting prices.

These two problems could solve each other. the infamous mileage of SUVs and Hummers only results from the empty space in the back; fill it up with passengers and it becomes a very green choice. Local officials could buy them cheaply, or rent them to use to ferry passengers in lieu of bus lines.

If neither the city government nor the populace has money, enterprising officials could make more creative arrangements – say, giving the SUV owner use of a foreclosed property in exchange for the use of the vehicle, rather than forcing the homeless owner to sleep in it. They could agree to speak to the housing association keeping the SUV owner from putting up a chicken coop. They could agree to co-sign a residents’ mortgage in exchange for permission to use the vehicle. Ward council members and mayors might not officially have jurisdiction in these areas, but they might have some influence in their community, and as time goes on the world will become less official.

SUVs have several advantages over regular buses; for one thing, they would be more comfortable. Their ability to handle rough terrain might turn out a blessing after all, as they can continue to drive over roads in disrepair.
More importantly, since they only take eight or nine passengers at a time, they can be economical in small towns and in the country, driving routes that cannot afford 80-seat buses. Bus routes could actually be expanded in places, allowing otherwise marooned residents easy access to jobs, hospitals and food markets.
They can also vary their routes slightly to pick up passengers at home or a short walk away if needed, responding to phone calls for assistance. If a country-dweller needs to get to town and has the SUV driver’s mobile number, for example, they could ask the driver to vary their route slightly rather than walking miles to the nearest pickup point, without unduly inconveniencing other waiting passengers – an important detail for elderly and the handicapped. Pat Murphy of Community Solutions has proposed a plan similar to this, which he calls a “Smart Jitney” system.

Cash-strapped cities could also require drivers to supply their own SUV and fuel, compensating them by letting them keep riders’ fares, and freeing the local government from financial burden. If this sounds suspiciously like a taxi, it is – just a taxi that runs regular routes. Put another way, it could combine the security of bus lines with the flexibility of taxis and the fun of carpooling.

What if fuel becomes expensive even for an SUV bus service? Even then, communities can still keep their far-flung homes connected by going into the moonshine business.
Moonshine, or what the Irish call poitin (pa-CHEEN), is high-grade alcohol – ethanol -- made from grains, potatoes or some other plant. Typically the plants are brewed into beer or wine, and the brew is then heated in a vat to boil off the alcohol without boiling the water. At the top of the vat runs a thin tube, through which the alcohol vapour can escape and cool, dripping into a second container to become, hopefully, near-pure.

Many petroleum vehicles can run on alcohol instead of petrol or diesel, although it may require the engine to be adjusted. Many countries have kept their buses running with alcohol, from India in the 1930s to Brazil today, and with less money and technology than most modern Westerners. Some European nations have also had a good track record with them -- one Swedish study found that buses that switched to alcohol increased their fuel efficiency and reduced their pollution.

Alcohol remains a controversial remedy. Its fans tout its zero-carbon potential, since the emissions put into the air last season can be taken out of the air by growing the bio-fuel crops this season. This cycle of crops to fuel to crops can theoretically be sustained indefinitely, making alcohol seem a permanent solution to the fossil fuel crisis.

The down side, of course, is that making the alcohol fuel --- growing the crops, harvesting them, processing them into mush and distilling the result -- takes almost as much energy as you get from burning the alcohol, if not more. We will never run our current society on alcohol, for the same reasons we will never have a perpetual-motion machine.

If alcohol cannot do everything, however, that does not mean it cannot do anything. Five million urban residents might not find enough farmers around to power five million cars, but they might find enough to power 5,000 buses, each carrying 100 passengers over several trips a day. Crucially, though, alcohol crops can be grown and distilled locally, almost anywhere.

Many towns have unused land nearby -- vacant lots, abandoned fields and foreclosed farms – which can be used to grow fuel crops as well as food. Many areas also have large numbers of unemployed people who need something to do and could benefit from retraining, junk that can be refitted into stills, and educated people who need jobs.

Just as neighbourhoods full of unemployed people could set to work turning unused fields into kitchen gardens, so they could also grow fuel -- and since alcohol can be made from the discarded or inedible parts of plants, the two are not incompatible. Finally, leftover mash from the distilling process can be used to feed pigs or as compost – either way, the methane from decomposition can generate both heat and electricity.

Alcohol is just one example of a bio-fuel; diesel oil can be made from a variety of crops, from jatropha, sunflowers, corn, palm trees and many others – including something where you live. Distilling the alcohol or squeezing out the oil does not require the vast acreage of breweries, like the Guinness plant I work next to in Dublin; stills have been constructed out of discarded junk by prisoners, encamped GIs and mountain bootleggers, and a town or neighbourhood that includes some mechanics and engineers could do as well --- and without needing to make it drinkable.

Of course, few things are simple, and projects like this will require the cooperation of many local people. It will require neighbours to meet each other and work together regardless of their political or religious beliefs. It will require many man-hours of work, experimentation and patience, all things that have atrophied in the online era. It does, however, need to happen, and no one will do it for us.

Tuesday, 9 November 2010

Ruins


Seen from the Rock of Cashel.

Monday, 8 November 2010

Rebuttal to the Spectator

The Spectator ranks as one of the world’s oldest and most prominent political magazines, so I was pleased to see their web site featured a commentary on my “O’Sterity” article – and I recognised the writer, Alex Massie, from the National Review and the American Conservative. Unfortunately, Massie not only criticised my piece -- which I can handle -- but misunderstood it.

Part of the problem might be the kind of Irish we are thinking of: early on, Massie refers to a “brasher kind of Dublin 4 swell (UCD, naturally) who thought himself the business when buying a glass shoebox by the Docks for half a million or so only to find himself undone by events.” I think he’s referring to the skyscrapers built by the Dublin docks, and I work a few miles from UCD (University College of Dublin) and the wealthy Dublin 4 neighbourhood. But I’m didn’t talk to any investors in skyscrapers: I talked to rural neighbours and people who ride the bus with me – the kind of people who form the majority of the country.

None of the people I talked to expected the boom to last forever. For them the boom meant a decent job and new home, but they knew they were not receiving most of the bubble wealth, and the change from poverty to boom and back was more muted for them than for most market speculators.

Massie particularly cited the part where I said, “few people here saw the boom as normal or permanent. No leaders announced grandiose plans for a 21st-century Irish Age, or invested their new wealth in forming a global empire. As religious as Ireland has been, no one decided that Ireland was now the chosen nation of God.”

The Spectator columnist called this “just wrong” -- investors, he said, “did think the world had changed forever and so, more importantly, did Ireland's political class.” As evidence he quotes former Taoiseach (prime minister) Bertie Ahern that “the boom times are getting boomier.”

Booster quotes like this, though, are found in every market in every era. Of course some investors misjudged when the boom would end. Of course politicians reassured their constituents that happy days were here to stay. Of course the recession meant offices that will never be filled and homes that will never be finished. That’s pretty much the definition of a recession. No, my point is something else entirely.

Show me the Irish government’s hundreds of military bases around the world. Show me one. Show me the list of nations Ireland has invaded since the boom, or the massive military build-up. Show me the Irish who believe that Ireland represents the culmination of human history, and that all other nations in the world revolve around Ireland as side-kicks, enemies or recipients of aid. Show me the Irish politicos who wrote, as presidential advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski did of the USA, that Ireland must extend control over its “vassal states.” Show me the Irish who believe that God had destined their nation to rule the world, to be the focus of the battle between Good and Evil in the End Times.

For a human lifetime, since the 1930s, the US government has kept a wartime economy, spending more money on the military than the other 194 countries combined. A powerful military, of course, can be a good thing – I’m pleased my native government won against the Nazis in the 1940s, and outlasted the Soviet Union in the Cold War. But the US government continues to funnel much of its enormous native wealth into controlling foreign wealth, sending our people into conflict after conflict even as the home front gets poorer.

For a while, in the mid-20th century, this plan worked: the USA remained the world’s greatest power, its per capita wealth and consumption rising ever higher. The national infrastructure, building methods, urban design, agricultural systems and everyday culture of Americans were created for a world in which the public was safe, electricity and fuel were cheap and money was plentiful. Many Americans have a deeply rooted belief both in their nation’s role as the world’s centre and protector, and in the upward march of progress. A rapidly growing minority have adopted a new kind of nationalistic Christianity that sees American politics as a mystical battleground, and looks for scapegoats when reality does not match their role-playing game.

Massie misunderstood most of all when he wrote that “Kaller's conclusion, alas, is typical of a certain Anglo-American view of Ireland: our poverty is grim but Irish poverty is charming and somehow noble…”

No, no, no. I’m not saying that the Irish are somehow destined to be poor, or that poverty is cute when practiced here. The point of the article was that we all face an age of austerity now, and the Irish are better prepared than Americans because they practiced austerity recently. Much of the everyday life and culture around here is similar to any Midwest town, but subtle differences in attitude and infrastructure make the communities more resilient against a crash. The point was that Americans could adopt some of these same practices and stand more chance of weathering the coming decades.

I think I made clear that pre-boom Ireland had deep poverty and staggering repression – I would much rather have lived in the USA than in Ireland in 1960, and Ireland did well by bringing its country into the modern world. But now the lessons should go the other way: few Americans have experience with the austerity that older Irish people grew up with, and must rediscover from scratch the attitudes and personal habits that helped people here weather the harsh economic times.

My countrymen would do well to remember that the electricity, tap water, working toilets and plentiful food they have taken for granted for four generations are gifts, which require money and energy to maintain. They should learn from people in the Third World or in older eras who have lived without such things, and as Ireland is an educated, English-speaking, culturally similar land that was a Third-World country until recently, we find this country a convenient place to learn.

Sunday, 7 November 2010

A road through the woods



Some weeks ago -- they will have turned many colours by now.

Friday, 5 November 2010

O'Sterity

For those who didn't see it on Big Questions Online, my piece on Ireland and the recession is now available on Energy Bulletin.

Wednesday, 3 November 2010

The Girl


Every night I read a story to The Girl before bedtime, and while some nights it can be Alice in Wonderland or Dr. Seuss, other nights we read about the world. Not just the human world, but the real one – what plants we can eat in the woods, how food chains work, why we need bugs and frogs.

We often talk about fossils and what they used to be, and she has a particular fondness for ammonites, those spiralled animals found throughout the oceans for hundreds of millions of years. She saw an ammonite fossil at the Ailwee caves as large as a coffee table, and gasped when I told her that these rocks of the mountain once lay beneath the ocean.

Today she picked an encyclopaedia to read, and as we looked at early life under the sea, she spotted one.

“An anomite!” she said, delighted, and began to do a cheerleader-style song-and-dance about her new favourite thing.

“Ammonites, ammonites, you can play like Mighty Mites,*

You never act mean or bite,

You never wear pink dancing tights,

I love you, you ammonites.”


* Mighty Mites -- a kid's programme on CBeebees, the BBC children's station.
Photo: The Girl on the Burren. Dolmen in the background.

Monday, 1 November 2010

Elections


Most Americans would be shocked to discover how other peoples regard them – not with admiration, or envy, or hatred, but with embarrassment. The news media here and across Europe tend to regard US elections as a comedy programme, endlessly replaying the most egregious flubs of my country’s most dubious political characters.

Yet the American election still dominates the headlines here, either because people fondly remember the America that was or simply because U.S. military and economic disasters cause trouble for everyone else. As the resident American accent in the pub, I have to field a lot of questions about the latest election news. I disappoint people by telling them that not only am I not following the campaign trail, but I've also done everything I can do avoid it.

It's not that I don't care. It's that my vote takes a few days of research, not a year of hearing gossip. Before I mail the absentee ballot, I make a list of the issues I care about and compared them to candidates’ campaign contribution and voting records — not the coverage, the records themselves — calculate my choice and move on.

I want to see the United States restore its rail system, for example, so any candidate that made some meager noises in that direction gets some meager points on my list. Period. I don't care about their race, their reproductive plumbing, their flamboyant piety or from what wacky character they are six degrees removed. I don't care about the teacup scandals that crawl across the bottom-screen news feed or the hall-of-mirrors news coverage of the coverage of the coverage. I don't want to know.

Many Americans seem to believe that democracy looks like the Super Bowl, a New Top Model, an American Idol, the Oscars or an apocalyptic smackdown. In reality, it simply should be a job interview, and you are the employer.

Forget this idea that your candidates represent two opposite ideologies. The two major parties represent slightly different alliances of investors, smashed together by the accidents of history. There is no other reason that evangelicals, for example, should be in the same camp with libertarians, or neoliberals with conservationists.

Finally, remember that change mostly happens between elections in a hundred thousand living rooms and library basements and county halls and percolates into the halls of power under sustained pressure.

No election let women vote, or created the civil rights movement, or laws to protect our air and water. These things happened because neighbors met, organized, protested, ran local candidates, went to prison — and moved and moved and moved until they were a movement. America gets better when Americans get it into their heads that they should be the ones running the country, and cajole and intimidate elites until the elites back down.

This Tuesday, pick the guy you think will back down first.

This piece was adapted from an Opinion piece I wrote for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch in 2008.

Photo: "Elect Casey," courtesy of the Norman Rockwell estate.

Thursday, 28 October 2010

Dolmen


You can see many Stonehenge-like structures like this across Ireland, this one taller than a person. It rests on the Burren, that stark land in County Clare where the grass grows only in patches between the bare limestone. The stone itself forms jigsaw patterns all around the monument, bizarre designes etched not by humans but by water and time.

I wonder if it was the inspiration for the Stone Table in C.S. Lewis' The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe.

Monday, 25 October 2010

Working before the wind and darkness arrive

We just finished one of the last three-day-weekends of the year here in Ireland, and one of the last days we can spend the weekend working outside. Soon it will be raining much of the time – it began as soon as we finished today -- and the darkness will spread across the day until, at Christmas, we will have almost eighteen hours of country night.

So we had much to do. On Saturday I took The Girl to a birthday party at a child’s play centre that opened up in an old warehouse nearby. Then the power went out for a couple of hours, and while the sun from the skylights allowed the kids to keep playing, it meant no food or drinks – for they were all made by electric machine, and no one could make food any other way.

I also filled the last garden bed of the year – each one is about five metres by one metre, so filling it with three tonnes of earth takes at least a day. We also planted a chestnut tree at the back corner of our land, in front off where the beehives are to go, and we hope the tree will bless us or some future resident with its protein.

On Sunday we planted another tree, a plum, near our house – but when we started digging for it we hit a mass of builders’ rubble left over from our house construction. We fished out about twenty bricks, blocks and stones, and under it all was a broad concrete slab we could not fish out. I finally took a sledgehammer to it, and it came out in pieces.

Today was Chainsaw Day, the day to take down the lilandia evergreens that ring our property. My late father-in-law planted them when he moved here 20 years ago, and they grew quickly and gave him the privacy he wanted. For us, though, they make the sun-facing side of our property a thick four-metre-high wall of dark green, and yield no fruit, nuts or other productive material -- except, now, firewood.

Lilandia put out many side branches that must be removed one by one to even see the trunk, much less tie it in rope or begin cutting it, so it was slow going. But we got several trees down, with several more to go – and then to replace them, one by one, with apples, hazels and other productive natives. It will mean suddenly being exposed to the winter winds that sweep across the Bog of Allen, but we hope the extra sun will make up for that, and our new trees will grow in time.

We only cleared enough today for a small gap in the dark evergreens, but it was enough space to plant our little rowan. As we retired for the evening, we left the sapling, its autumn leaves a glittering orange and gold, with the sunset flooding in behind it through the gap. It looked like a burning candle, keeping the darkness at bay.

Saturday, 23 October 2010

Safety First


Now that she is six, I've introduced The Girl to a few proper movies, now that she has the patience to sit through them -- mostly the movies I grew up loving, from the 1930s and 40s. Today we watched 1938's The Adventures of Robin Hood.

As only a child can, she belly-laughed at the comedy, was charmed by the romance and thrilled to the action -- until at the climax, when Errol Flynn and Basil Rathbone are fencing on the spiral stairs, she looked at me, horrified.

"Papa!," she said, "Those people should not be sword-fighting on the stairs like that -- there is no railing! They are being quite dangerous."

Thursday, 21 October 2010

Fields of Conemara



With lake and islands in the distance.

Sunday, 17 October 2010

Sheep on the Curragh


A few days ago, I talked about the village markets people used to have here, and thought I would explain where the animals came from. This is a sheep next to, I think, a meeting-house on the Curragh, used since Roman Times for communal grazing. Sheep, pigs and cows do not belong to massive agribusiness factories here; they often belong to smallholders, and you will see them in the space of a backyard. We drive past our neighbours -- some of whom own several acres, some small plots of perhaps half an acre -- and most have animals of some kind,

This used to be even more common a few decades ago, in the more traditional country that my wife remembers. A reporter on RTE, Ireland's main news programme, recently remarked that the large amount of green space in Dublin resulted from the large number of people who had cows or goats in their back gardens, and cattle drives from our county to theirs were being held into the 1950s.

Council estates, built by the new revolutionary government after the revolution, were the size they were so that every family could have their own cow. Indeed, that's how American suburbs began -- that's the point of having a grassy lawn in front.

Note the size of the smallholdings -- the postcards of Ireland show picturesque and empty fields, but some of these fields are less than an acre. My backyard in Missouri covered perhaps a quarter of an (only slightly different) American acre, and our next door neighbour's was larger still. Most American backyards I have seen could hold animals easily, and remove the need for a lawnmower.

My mother-in-law, who grew up amid the postwar ruins of bombed Frankfurt, said many families in her neighbourhood had goats, even though they didn't have the space to feed all of them. So the children walked the goats on leashes in the evenings, like you walk your dog around your streets, and it would graze the side of the road, the parks or vacant lots, or any number of other grassy spaces.

Neighbourhoods in wartime Britain kept pigs in a lot near their homes, and employed boys -- who might not have been able to find food or shelter otherwise -- to look after them. The kitchen waste from all the homes went straight to the pigs, who turned them to meat.

As more and more suburbanites struggle to pay the mortgages, animals might be a good way to keep the lawns mowed and meat on the table, if only people could get used to the idea again.

Such projects might require some cooperation among neighbours, if only in not protesting when you get your chickens, or in understanding that animal poo is actually a good resource. To keep animals together, as people did in wartime Britain, would also be a great benefit to many people in, say, my native Missouri.

Unfortunately, propose such a project and many people would look at you like you stepped off the mothership. There are no models for such neighbourly behaviour in any of our fashion magazines, our nightly television dramas, or any of our pop culture.

Furthermore, many in my country have a religious belief that neighbours can never work together; it's a theory called the Tragedy of the Commons, which states that, if farmers try to graze sheep in a field, each farmer will try to gain the upper hand, resulting in conflict and control by a few.

I grew up thinking the idea was from Aristotle or Marcus Aurelius, so widely did it permate pop culture, and so reverently was it invoked. I was shocked to find that it dates back two years before I was born, to 1968.

To the author of the Tragedy of the Commons, I present Exhibit A: The Curragh. Used for community grazing continuously for 2,000 years.

Friday, 15 October 2010

Village markets


We just finished watching 1960s footage of the animal markets in Irish villages. It was a world many older people here remember -- even my wife, for such markets were still going on in County Clare in the 1970s when she was a girl -- but has almost vanished today.

At the markets, all the local farmers brought their animals -- pigs, cows and sheep -- to the village for buying and selling. Often the haggling was not done between simply two people -- a respected local man would act as intermediary, helping them reach an agreement -- sometimes even taking the hands of the two local men and touching them together repeatedly, encouraging them to shake hands.

More interesting were the faces of the farmers at the auction -- many would simply twitch, wink or briefly gesture with a finger, and the auctioneer would understand that they had bid.

The highlight, though, was watching the farmers load the animals into their cars -- of course no one had much money and few people had the animal trailers seen today. Instead, they would simply push them into their cars -- into the back of a station wagon with straw scattered around the bottom, or into the back seats. Most amazingly, one farmer managed to get a cow into the boot (trunk) of his car -- seemingly cruel, but perhaps more calming for the animal than riding in an open trailer.

We also saw footage of Aran islanders, still wearing their traditional hand-sewn leather moccasins and knitted wool jumpers, hauling a cow out to sea in a canoe. They were paddling out to meet a ferry that could haul the cow up by a rope and straps, but since there were no docks there, the cow had to meet them in the water.

It was obviously rough work, but it kept everyone in meat and milk for the year, and with little money or fuel to go around. Many struggling people today could benefit from sheep and pigs, to turning their grass and kitchen waste into wool and meat -- even city-dwellers could do so, as wartime Londoners did. Scenes like this could play out in suburbs today, or in the near future.

Photo: The village of Cong in County Clare. Villages around here seemed a lot more lively before everyone got cars and televisions.

Wednesday, 13 October 2010

Riding the rails

My day job sent me to the Book Fair in Frankfurt, Germany last week, and amid the frantic schmoozing that such events require I was able to steal away for a bit and enjoy the city again. Frankfurt, my wife and mother-in-law’s hometown, remains a pleasure to visit, with museums, parks, great restaurants, shops and the kind of tree-lined neighbourhoods that movies use as shorthand for innocent beginnings and happy endings.

One reason it’s great to visit, though, was that you can actually get to the museums, shops and neighbourhoods quickly and easily, using buses, trams, trains, subways, and sub-subways that run under the first set of subways. Even a visitor with limited German and no car has the freedom to go almost anywhere they fancy; imagine, by contrast, speaking no English and trying to navigate Phoenix or Des Moines.

Of course wasn’t all museums and parks; certainly there were industrial and warehouse districts too, necessary but less of an attraction, and for all I know there may have been slums somewhere. In any area I visited, though, the streets were lovely, the traffic was light and the sidewalks thick with walkers, bicycles, cafĂ© tables and vendors. Most importantly, they felt like neighbourhoods threaded with capillary streets, rather than buildings built alongside highways. In short, Frankfurt looks like American cities used to.

It’s difficult to imagine many of the cities in my native Midwest –rivers and lakes of asphalt that fall out of sight only with the curvature of the Earth – as they were a lifetime ago. For more than a hundred years, from the 1830s to as late as the 1950s, most US cities were networked with a web of streetcars – first powered by horse teams, then electric cables – that acted as a circulatory system from one end of a city to the other, and across the generations.

Read accounts of day-to-day life in streetcar-era America – or just a city that still has them, in Europe or the Third World today -- and you see how subtly such transport changes the feel of cities. Homes in old neighbourhoods appear remarkably cosy and close together – not just slums, but upscale houses as well – because they didn’t need garages or an oil-soaked car park. People left their homes and entered the world, not their SUVs. Cities could be compact, keeping food production close to food consumption and limiting, for each resident, what would later be called an “ecological footprint.”

Streetcars seem slow to modern eyes only because we compare them to a car on the motorway; compare them to a car in the city and they may have been faster. One of the Dublin lines ran out to the suburb of Lucan a hundred years ago, and passed through town at 25 miles an hour -- a goodly speed in Lucan's daily traffic jams today.

Children could play in the street, for there were few cars. Streets in old photos appear clean and graffiti-free, not because people were necessarily more angelic in 1840 or 1940, but because thousands of people walked on them every day, so vandals had little privacy – and once graffiti was there, someone was more likely to clean it up or complain to city officials.

My grandparents met and fell in love while riding the St. Louis streetcar together, shortly before Judy Garland would sing a love song to that city’s public transportation system in the 1944 film Meet Me in St. Louis. At that point the system had been running for almost a century, and similar systems, according to Randal O’Toole of the Cato Institute, ran in every American city with more than 10,000 people. According to historian Bradford Snell, 90 percent of all trips in the 1920s were by rail; only 10 percent of Americans needed a car. It echoes what my grandmother used to say, that no one she knew needed to drive.

After World War II, however, my country’s cities were transformed; most of the streetcar lines were reduced, sold, cancelled and destroyed, many by a coalition of car, tire, oil and truck companies. Those companies -- Standard Oil, Phillips Petroleum, General Motors, Firestone Tire and Rubber, Federal Engineering Corp, Mack Manufacturing (of Mack Trucks) and the streetcar companies they bought up -- were found guilty of criminal conspiracy in 1951, and fined $5,000 each.

Snell believes the corporations were not just trying to monopolise streetcar lines – the actual charge – but consciously conspiring to transform America to a car-dependent society, and of course succeeded. Backing him up is Noam Chomsky, who accuses the corporations of committing “the largest social engineering experiment in human history.” On the other hand, writers like O’Toole maintain that rails were a “disaster,” and that market forces made them obsolete.

Certainly cars and highways were expanding during the cheap-oil window, and many rail systems were ripped up in Europe as well – Dublin used to have a network of streetcars as well that vanished around the same time. At the same time, it seems doubtful that oil, car and tire companies were buying up their competition in the hopes of expanding it. When they bought out the streetcars they didn’t just tighten belts – they destroyed the infrastructure, ripping the rails out of the streets and paving over their grooves, effectively salting the earth.

Today, unless you live in New York or some other pocket of public transport, getting around a US city presents a genuine challenge. Light rail is rare, and even bus lines can be limited, unreliable and expensive. Finding a job, getting clothes for an interview, getting to a temp assignment – all are extremely difficult without a car. Car payments, insurance and petrol can take up a sizable chunk of one’s paycheck, locking many people into an unending cycle.

Most older Americans I know used to walk everywhere, or at least to the bus or streetcar and back, getting exercise and meeting their neighbours. Today, Americans are infamous for their unwillingness to walk – I have talked to more than one European who said they tried to walk along an American street and drew rubberneckers, or were stopped by police.

Our cities are now built around the fact that there is about one car for every American. Half of all urban space exists for cars, the other half for people. Many newer suburbs don’t have sidewalks, since the expectation is that people will leave their homes mainly to get inside cars. Many new minivans have televisions, a feature that assumes children will spend a hefty chunk of their childhood in the back seat.

In my own country, a few cities have tried to restore pieces of the old transportation system, with light rail instead of streetcars – Minneapolis has the Hiawatha Line, St. Louis the MetroLink. But most of these are, or were until recently, single lines. They were a blessed relief for thousands who wanted to use them, but they ran from point A to point B without any other rail lines around. No one, when building the highway system, thought of building a highway that would run only from point A to point B without connecting to any other roads.

Even these lines only came about after decades of bickering in city councils and planning boards. Minneapolis’ Hiawatha line, for example, lingered for years in legal limbo, and while it has been wildly popular with most residents in its first six years of use, it retains the hatred of a few. Anti-rail activists paid for billboards across the city featuring the train line against a red star – perhaps implying that having freedom from traffic was like being in Soviet Russia – and even now the occasional candidate runs on a platform of ripping the rails out.

The few accidents – about one a year, when a driver foolishly tries to drive in front of an oncoming train -- have made screaming headlines and memorials from anti-rail groups, while the thousands of car-on-car accidents in the same city are not used as an argument against more roads.

Critics of such public transportation lines claim that the trains are mostly empty, a claim easily disproved by anyone who’s ever tried to squeeze onto one. Even if that were true, for example, no one ever points out that the cars on the highway are also mostly empty.

Another charge made against streetcars and light rail, and the usual excuse for the post-war destruction, is that they don’t make money. But how much money did the road in front of your house make last year? How much money does our asphalt make, or our electric wires, or our sewage pipes? The questions are ridiculous because these are not moneymaking enterprises; they are basic infrastructure, one of the legitimate reasons for paying taxes or having a government.

One problem is that recent light rail projects – again, take Minneapolis for example – committed to an ambitious plan involving house demolitions, rerouted streets, and earth berms and walls to protect nearby homeowners from having to see a colourful train go by or hear its electric hum. As impressive as the Hiawatha line is, other cash-strapped cities might look at that project’s $700-million bill and write off the idea of light rail altogether. But other cities don’t need to buy real estate and tear a path through neighbourhoods to build public rail. Your city, and every city, already has hundreds of light rail paths already cleared for rails, running like arteries to all the major population and business centres --- they’re called roads.

Take Dublin, whose Luas line runs right through the city’s crowded shopping district. Like Minneapolis or St. Louis, Dublin built back its rail system recently, a small but happy fraction of the network it once had. Here, though, officials here set rails right into the asphalt like streetcar rails, and the train runs down the city streets – which are also narrower than most American streets and turn tight corners.

Conservative activists Paul Weyrich and William S. Lind, in their 2002 paper Bring Back the Streetcars!, said looking at old photos of streetcar cities “is almost painful. It reminds us of a world we had, and have lost. But it does more than that. From the standpoint of public transportation, it points not only to the past, but also to a possible future.”

Almost two dozen US cities are considering streetcar systems, according to recent news reports, and such projects could be a godsend for restoring the urban communities, low carbon emissions and easy transportation that we used to have. They could pull together political groups that never imagined having common cause; urban activists who want to revive urban neighbourhoods, suburbanites hit by waves of recession and fuel prices, environmentalists who like the potential for zero emissions. To lobby city and county hall, however, these groups would have to accept a responsibility from which many Americans have fled; to work with people who believe different things than you do.

Unfortunately, streetcar or light rail projects grow more difficult each year; unless the world discovers a surprising new source of energy or a new bubble propels the US economy aloft again, cities are unlikely to build new subways or Els, and new ground-level transport will have to endure a volatile market, lack of funding and spotty delivery of supplies and replacement equipment.

Buses, of course, service every major city, and in abundance can fill the streetcar gap. Anyone who rode buses in a variety of cities, however, can tell you that many bus systems struggle as well. As mentioned, some bus lines habitually run late or not at all. They can be expensive for the financially-strapped people most likely to need them. In many places they carry a stigma of poverty. Many cities lack bus lanes to allow buses to bypass traffic, meaning that bus rides are no faster than driving one’s own car.

Of course, most US states will struggle even to maintain the existing bus or light rail lines, even as the need for them grows. Most state and local governments are desperately scrambling for new ways to cut corners – turning out streetlights at night, shortening the public school week, shutting down services. Cities across the Western world are shaving off their basic transportation services as well, and they will be the first to go in a crisis.

Which is a perfect reason for anyone reading this, whatever your party or position on the political map, to learn to be an activist. City and regional governments are often harried, unappreciated and malleable in a way that the federal government is not. This is an issue that anarchist Noam Chomsky and Moral Majority founder Paul Weyrich can both get behind, and so could Tea Parties, Green Parties and many other parties in your area. All of you deserve to have at least as much freedom and mobility as American city-dwellers enjoyed in pioneer days.

Otherwise, what little we have will disappear while we fight over other things, until the next economic dip or fuel crisis turns every neighbourhood into an island.
Next week: tips for keeping the public transportation system alive in a bankrupt city.

Resources:

Documents of court case UNITED STATES, v. NATIONAL CITY LINES, Inc., et al.
http://bulk.resource.org/courts.gov/c/F2/186/186.F2d.562.9943-9953.html

Bring Back the Streetcars! A Conservative Vision of Tomorrow’s Transportation, by Paul Weyrich and William Lind, 2002
http://www.apta.com/resources/reportsandpublications/Documents/weyrich4.pdf

“The StreetCar Conspiracy: How General Motors Deliberately Destroyed Public Transit,” by Bradford Snell, The New Electric Railway Journal, Autumn 1995.
http://www.lovearth.net/gmdeliberatelydestroyed.htm

O'Toole, Randal (2006). "A Desire Named Streetcar How Federal Subsidies Encourage Wasteful Local Transit Systems" (pdf). Cato Institute. (559): 1–16. http://www.cato.org/pubs/pas/pa559.pdf.

Span, Guy "Paving the Way for Buses-The Great GM Streetcar Conspiracy" Part 1 || Part 2, San Francisco Bay Crosssings.

“22 Cities that May Have New Streetcar Lines Within 2 Years,” Scientific American, 18 April 2010:
http://www.scientificamerican.com/article.cfm?id=22-cities-that-may-have-new-streetc-2010-04

Photos, top to bottom:
The Frankfurt S-Bahn. Photo courtesy of WikiCommons.
St. Louis circa 1925 - photo courtesy of skyscraperpage.com.
Map of the St. Louis streetcar system circa 1940 -- the distance from north to south is about 25 miles. Public Domain.
Map of the Dublin streetcar system, circa 1920 - map covers a similar area. Public Domain.
Los Angeles today. Photo courtesy of the U.S. Dept. of Commerce.
1950s streetcar in Howth, outside Dublin, in the 1950s. Public Domain.
The Hiawatha light rail in Minneapolis. Photo courtesy of WikiCommons.