Saturday, 27 February 2010


A UK study found that people throw away seven times their own body weight each year, except none of it ever goes away. Some of it builds up in landfills, creating methane that worsens climate change. Some of it washes into the sea and kills ocean life, or collects at the centre of currents, like the Texas-sized patch of floating rubbish in the Pacific. Almost all of it is unnecessary.

Of course, waste is hard to avoid – we all buy things from the store, and most of them have packaging or wrapping that must be disposed of. You can cut your rubbish fees and environmental damage, though, by turning your rubbish a new life as something else. For example:

Paper: This accounts for 33 percent of our rubbish, and all of it is unnecessary. Use it again by giving it to children to draw on, and when they are done with it, you can tear it up and mix it in your compost. Newspaper or cardboard can be spread over an area where you plan to plant to keep weeds away; just cut holes in it to plant seedlings, and weight it down with stones if necessary.

Food waste: Edible leftovers can be made into quiche, mixed with eggs and milk and baked as a pie. Overripe but not rotten fruit can be juiced, frozen or made into jam. Make a compost bin in your back garden or on your land, or buy worms and put them in a box with your raw food waste – vegetable trimmings, old fruit and so on. Raw or cooked food can be given to chickens or pigs.

Plastic containers: If they are small and transparent, make them into sprouting containers. An Indian restaurant near us gives out its food in clear tubs, and once the box is empty, I clean it and punch two holes on each side near the top. Then I fill them with 50 grams of mung beans, which over the next few days turns into 200 grams of nutritious sprout salad that I can eat for lunch. Since a 500g bag of mung beans costs 1.80 euros at the health food store, that is ten lunches for 18 cents each.

If they are large and transparent, turn them upside down and make them into coldframes for seedlings. You might want to raise them slightly so that just a crack of air can get underneath, enough for the plants to breathe but not enough to let frost in.

Bottles: The top of a plastic soda bottle – say, a two-litre Pepsi bottle -- can be cut off and used as a funnel, if you are changing your oil or pouring liquid into containers. The bottom can be turned upside-down and put over seedlings, as with the plastic boxes. You could cut the funnel off, turn it upside down and place it pointing into the bottom half, and create a rainwater collector. Or you can leave the bottle intact, punch a few holes in the bottom and stick it in the soil next to your vegetables, and pour water into it – the water will soak more slowly into the earth, go straight to the roots and not evaporate as quickly.

Ashes: Excellent for soil, and you can make washing liquid or soap out of it. I have not done this myself, but hope to try in the next few weeks.

Clothes: Old socks are ideal cleaning rags, pants with tears can be made into patches, and most old clothes can be stuffed into attics or walls for insulation.

Furniture: Can usually be repaired or re-used, or donated to people who can use it. When I lived in a college town, May 15 and August 15 were Scavenging Day, the day to upgrade one's belongings by digging through dumpsters -- Sorority Row had the best stock. Old refrigerators can become coldframes or sunken cold boxes, wooden furniture can become firewood, mattresses can be insulation. Use your imagination.

Of course, even better than not throwing things away is not buying them. More on that later.

Photo: Eight tubs of takeout food from last year, now four days of lunches.

Friday, 26 February 2010

The Girl

In a TED talk I heard recently – which I can only paraphrase from memory right now -- about cultivating the distinctive intelligence of each child, the lecturer told a story about seeing the family of a problem student. Our daughter can’t sit still, the parents said – we think she might have learning disabilities.

The lecturer asked to see the child alone, and talked to her a while, put music on and told her to do whatever she felt like. After seeing the child move about the room, he called the parents back in.

“Your daughter’s not sick,” he said. “She’s a dancer.”

I wonder if The Girl is the same way, or if this is just a phase. After getting her to read part of “Horton Hears a Who” tonight, but she still reads slowly and is often frustrated. After she had enough practice I asked her if she could explain the story to me, and she did – through five-year-old mime and interpretive dance.

Saturday, 20 February 2010

The Girl

Yesterday The Girl got a new stuffed animal, a badger, and tonight she was helping it give birth.

Lately she’s been playing doctor – yes, I mean re-enacting things doctors might do – and one by one, most of her toys have dropped offspring. She asks a lot of questions about birth, and I ration out bits of information – tummy, grow, doctor, you know.

“I’ve taken the babies out, so now I’m going to put a plaster (band-aid) over where she was cut open,” The Girl said.

What can you do for a cut if there are no plasters? I said.

“Well, you can search across the mountains until you find rocks with metal in them, and then you can get the metal out, and then you can take a hammer and forge the metal into pipe cleaners, and then you can wrap enough pipe cleaners around her to make like a plaster,” she said,

That’s a great idea, I said. I'm told honey works, too.


Today I was taking apart some of the builders’ pallets with a pickaxe while The Girl played on her swings nearby. I called her over for a moment.

You see these little holes here, I said? I think some insects may have laid their eggs in the wood.

“Wow!” The Girl whispered slowly, as we both hunched over the planks. “When will they hatch?”

I don’t know what kind of bugs these are, I said. With some it could be a few days, but cicadas where Papa grew up in Missouri stayed underground for 17 years.

After talking about this for a while, she returned to swinging, and I picked up the pickaxe and prepared to resume. As I started to swing down at the wood The Girl looked over and shouted, “NO, Papa – don’t hurt the eggs!”

I didn't get any more chopping done.

Thursday, 18 February 2010


My apologies for the sporadic posts lately, but my days are filled. I get up before dawn and wait on a dark country road for the bus, and spend three hours a day riding to and from nine hours at a day job. I time it so I can see The Girl for a few hours each night, and that leaves little time for writing – and I am trying to write a book in the meantime. We are finishing the last bit of work on the hours, and we have gardens and trees to plant. There is much to do.

We have made a compost bin out of the pallets used by the builders, and hope to use the rest to make a chicken coop. Last weekend we put up curtains that will help with insulation as well as decoration, and lay pruned boughs of lilandia as paths across the muddy land. We drilled holes in the oaken logs and inserted bullets of mycelium, which we hope will yield mushrooms later this year. We have been picking the builders’ rubble out of the mud, readying the land for planting.

We decided not to lay lilandia branches under the earth, as the turpentine in them would not be good for the plants. My mother-in-law, however, knows a technique from when she was a girl in Germany of laying sticks under the earth to create raised beds. In theory, the sticks should provide a solid layer under the soil and allow drainage while composting down. We’ll find out.

For Valentine’s Day --- and Candlemas, which also passed recently – The Girl and I made a fairy candle: you stand an ordinary candle in a cardboard tube like a Pringle’s can, fill the can with ice cubes around the candle, and pour hot wax over everything. The wax freezes, the ice melts and the result is a delicate, crystalline structure, and when the inner candle burns light shines through all the crevices.

FADA is working on getting an office and more volunteers, and our projects continue. We have officially registered as a Transition Town, part of a global network of towns preparing for the future – something of a formality in our case, as our group began around the same time Transition Towns began to the south in Kinsale, and we have been something of an unofficial Transition Town almost from the beginning.

With all this, there has been a great deal I want to write about, and not been enough time to blog every day, and I’m sorry if I take a few days to respond to comments. Keep checking in.

Monday, 15 February 2010

Day of Love

Nine years ago I was working at a Missouri newspaper, and was asked to interview some people around town for one of those standard feature stories on Valentine's Day. I've never been a fan of Valentine's Day myself; I don't think it's a coincidence that it, and many other holidays, became gift-giving rituals in the last few decades, when everyone was urged to spend.

So I tried to be a little more balanced than the usual articles I saw. I observed that there were actually three saints named Valentine, and sources disagree on which one supposedly inspired the holiday. I not only interviewed local people who were making elaborate plans -- one man was buying his girlfriend a bouquet of flowers whose names began with the first letter of the girlfriend's name -- but also a man who said he didn't observe it.

"I try to be nice to her every day, not just on this one day," [he] said.

Finally, I called Kalle Lasn of Adbusters magazine to talk about why Valentine's Day has become so massive in recent years -- the biggest card holiday of the year, passing Mother's Day and Christmas. We talked about how people used to observe holidays in a much more personal and modest way before the energy window, and how even our idea of romantic love is a product of the consumerist age.

Unfortunately, that last part was probably pushing it, and was cut for publication.

Wednesday, 10 February 2010

Monument in Dublin

The Girl and I passed this during our expedition to Dublin, sitting in someone's front yard on a busy street. I wondered what "deaging" was -- thinking DEE-ging -- until it occured to me it probably reads "de-aging."

Ireland is full of little mysteries like this. If someone in this ordinary brick house discovered eternal life, shouldn't I have heard about it? And if it's a secret, why put up a monument?

Tuesday, 9 February 2010

From the pulpit

I delivered three homilies this weekend – Saturday night Mass and two Sunday morning – on climate change, and priests and parishioners alike seemed pleased with them.

I was there because Catholic leaders are donating some of their still-considerable weight to the fight against climate change. Pope Benedict gave an address on the environment on New Year’s Day, and late last year the Irish Catholic Bishops’ Conference released a statement called “The Cry of the Earth” calling for each parish to host speakers on climate change.

Our group, FADA, have had a strong relationship to local churches since we formed four years ago -- our members have spoken during Masses, addressed church groups and Catholic schools, and written articles on the Long Emergency for the church bulletins. We even have a nun among our core members, and it was she, Sister Maureen, who approached the churches. While another FADA member spoke at another church nearby, I spoke in in Ballymaney, at the church of Chill Mhuire (pronounced Kill Weera – no, seriously).

I had to try to cram into seven minutes a course in climatology, a response to climate sceptics, examples of how we can cut our usage, and some inspirational words at the end – but in the end it was as good as it would get, and many in the congregation spoke approvingly on the way out. We passed out fliers for more information, and perhaps we can draw more people into our various projects – gardens, elder interviews, food-sharing clubs and so on.

The longer I work at this, the more I see the advantages of working through existing institutions. When we simply advertise a talk on, say, climate change, perhaps five people show up. When we have spoken to schools, clubs or churches, we reach hundreds of people at once.

Friday, 5 February 2010


If anyone lives in County Kildare and is interested, I will be giving a talk from the pulpit of the Chill Muire church, tomorrow evening at 7 pm and Sunday morning at 10 am and 11:30 am.