Thursday, 29 July 2010

New article

For those interested, my article on Ireland in the recession is now on Big Questions Online -- go check it out here.

Sunday, 25 July 2010


Again, sorry for the sporadic blogging. I can only use the Internet when on the bus to my day job in Dublin or coming home, for we are still not getting Internet access at home. We aren’t getting mobile phone reception, and now there are problems with our land line. A fellow FADA member and I were talking about this last night, and we decided it’s good practice for the future. Actually, one reason we moved to rural Ireland was to get practice for the future, but I was hoping to do so in less frustrating ways.

In other news, I contributed a piece to the Templeton Foundation’s new and excellent internet publication Big Questions Online. The piece hasn’t appeared yet, but the publication is here.

More to follow.

Thursday, 22 July 2010

Falling Apart

Originally published June 17, 2001

FULTON, MISSOURI — A dusty Super Bowl trophy sits behind glass in the hallway of George Washington Carver School — a gift from New York Giants star Tony Galbreath, who once sat in the school’s tiny desks.The school’s halls are lined with faded photographs, trophies and mementos of generations of black residents - and many of the white residents who attended the school during the 14 years it was desegregated.

But near the trophy case, the plaster has fallen in wet chunks onto the floor and the light fixtures hang at odd angles. Many of the windows are broken. The paint is peeling. The plumbing doesn’t work. The school has fallen on hard times.

Several prominent members of the community - black and white - formed a board, which bought the building from the Fulton school district in 1989 and tried to raise money to restore it. But while the board of the renamed George Washington Carver Memorial and Culture Center has made some repairs, set up a museum about Carver inside and sometimes leads tours of the building, the restoration has a long way to go. Last spring, the not-for-profit Missouri Alliance for Historic Preservation placed the school on its list of the 10 most endangered historic sites in Missouri.

"We had all this set up as a black history room, and then the ceiling collapsed in here because of water damage," said board president James Galbreath, an alumnus of the school and Tony Galbreath’s half brother. "We had kids that broke some of the windows and hailstorms that broke some of the others."

Board member Henry Logan points to a faded brown baseball uniform on the lower shelf, his jersey in the Negro Baseball Leagues. Alongside the Vince Lombardi trophy, other awards mark the names of Cardinals baseball star Arnold "Bake" McBride and other sports stars and community leaders who graduated from the school.

Community volunteers have made many repairs over the past several years, always striving for historical accuracy - Logan said he even used the 1930s mortar recipe of sand and quicklime to patch the bricks. The roof was repaired three weeks ago, a measure that should stop further water damage. But the school still needs numerous repairs, and Galbreath estimates it will cost $400,000 to finish the job.

Former board member Warren Hollrah said the building has been saved so far because it does not sit on coveted land like the recently demolished Fulton City Hall, but condemnation has always been a possibility.

The board has had numerous fund-raisers to help pay for repairs. Members have had bake sales and asked alumni for donations, for which their names are engraved on bricks. But bricks and bake sales are only small steps to a big goal. And while board members have volunteered hundreds of hours of time and labor to the restoration, most are in their 60s, 70s and 80s.

Sixteen-year-old Erica Long, who lives across from the school, said she remembers performing inside the school but that people active in the restoration are "mostly older people in the neighborhood." She said many of the young people in the neighborhood don’t even know there’s a museum inside; older residents tour the building during the day, but "at night kids come out and throw rocks at the windows."

While some only remember him during Black History Month, George Washington Carver was one of America’s true geniuses. Born a slave in Diamond Grove near the Oklahoma border and raised in poverty, he became a scientist, inventor, businessman, painter and author.

His botanical research developed more than 500 patents for products such as glue, synthetic rubber, shoe polish, shaving cream, linoleum and ink from common plants like soybeans and peanuts, - the source of his best-known invention, peanut butter.

"He would go to conventions, and because of the racial laws of the time, he would have to eat in the kitchen while everyone was dining in the convention hall," Hollrah said. "But then he would come out to speak and would hold the audience spellbound."

In 1937, the city tore down the Old North School that had served the black area for decades and used some of the bricks to make a new school. Westminster College president and Fulton school board member Franc McCluer invited the 78-year-old Carver to come and dedicate the new school in his name.

Some of the older members of the community remember Carver’s visit. Board member Jean Davis said she was in eighth grade when Carver arrived. She sat in the front row when he spoke to students at the opening. Fulton NAACP president Jack McBride said he not only saw Carver speak that day, but also helped him pick local hedge apples.

"He looked a long time at the hedge trees on the school grounds, and our local coal and fire clay, and thought he could make something interesting out of it," Logan said. "But he died shortly afterwards."

Hollrah ranks Carver’s visit with that of Winston Churchill in Fulton history.

"He was renowned not just in the African-American community, but around the world," he said. "The Soviet Union tried to recruit him to come over there; that’s how influential he was."

Hollrah and others envision the Carver school as a major tourist attraction to complement the nearby Churchill Memorial, the Callaway Historical Society, the Missouri School for the Deaf museum and the Auto World Museum.

"As someone involved in museums and tourism, I see great potential for this site," Hollrah said. "People in the tourism industry have often found that African-Americans travel more than whites, for family reunions and things like that. And this could be a major draw. Carver only came here for a week, but Winston Churchill only came here for a day, and look what that has done for the town," he said. With the right marketing, he said half-jokingly, "we could be bigger than Branson."

The Carver school was the black grade school for decades, and black students who attended high school took the bus 30 miles to Jefferson City. When Fulton grade schools desegregated in 1968, the school became the citywide fifth grade, then the sixth grade. The last classes there were in 1982, after which it was used it for storage.

The community push to restore the aging building began in the late 1980s, founding board president Steve Moore said. He said early banquets and fund-raisers drew notable figures, including East St. Louis mayor Carl Officer and then-state Rep. Jet Banks, D-St. Louis. The school district sold the school to the board for $11,000 - a generous deal for a structure appraised at $56,000, Moore said.

"We was on a good roll at one time," Moore said.

But as constant repairs and maintenance became an ongoing headache, he said, board members "got burnt out."

"I don’t sense the enthusiasm that was there at the beginning," Callaway prosecuting attorney and former Carver board member Robert Sterner said. "It’s languished."
Moore is disappointed that younger people, black and white, don’t appreciate the history of their area.

"In school we used to learn a censored version of history, but at least we learned history," he said. "Some of these kids are shocked to find out about George Washington Carver; they don’t know who he was."

Some also blame internal conflicts over issues such as whether to make the school a black history museum, a community center or a tourist attraction. Early members like Moore, Hollrah and Sterner have left the board and say groups within the black community and the larger community do not always work together as they should. Sterner, who is white, notes that he is the only veteran of both the Carver board and the NAACP.

"I think when a group has some funds, people are motivated to sit down and work together to decide what to do with those funds," Sterner said. "But when you have to make a choice between whether the roof will leak or the heat will work, people can get bogged down in the minutiae; it puts a strain on people."

But board members have not been idle, and they say the building’s future looks brighter. The roof was fixed with a grant from the Missouri Department of Natural Resources, a grant written by Logan’s daughter Marian and son Angelo.

Board treasurer Arneda Logan, Henry’s wife, said the brick-donation program has been successful, raising $5,000 in five months. Callaway County officials donated two furnaces for the building last year, so the building has heat again for the first time in years. The school also drew attention when it was placed on the list of endangered historic sites - the only such site in Central Missouri and the only black history site.

On May 14, Marian Logan spoke about the Carver school before an audience of about 600 people at the state Capitol, Arneda Logan said.

The state’s first lady, Lori Hauser Holden, introduced Marian as part of the state’s ceremony to kick off National Historic Preservation Week.

Hollrah, a tourism entrepreneur who is also on the board of the Missouri Alliance of Historic Preservation, and Angelo Logan, who works for the state historical society, pushed for the school to be placed on the endangered list.

For the restoration volunteers, the school represents many things. It is a storehouse of childhood memories that, Henry Logan said, are "something you can’t buy for all the money in the world." It is one of the remaining historic buildings in a neighborhood where, residents complain, other such sites have been torn down. It is the only black history site in a town with a history of racial tensions.
Finally, the school was the heart of this neighborhood, which has increasingly been hit by unemployment and crime.

"Everybody who could really help the neighborhood gets out, and everybody else stays," Logan said. "Nobody stays if they go to college or anything, they can’t get the work here."

Logan hopes a restored school cannot only draw tourism, but also be a foundation on which the community can be repaired, a place that would bring the generations and the school’s scattered graduates together.

"If we could only get together everybody who went through this school, we’d have a tremendous group of people," he said.

Thursday, 15 July 2010

My astronaut

The Girl and I were reading about the planets.

"What would be the best planet to visit, Daddy?" she asked.

They are lovely to look at, I said, but people couldn't live on any of them. It's too hot, or to cold, or there's no air or surface. This is the only one we have.

"Could people live there someday?"

Maybe on Mars, I said -- its warm days are room temperature for us, and it has a little bit of air. It might be possible to make it a place where people could live.

"Can you take me there someday, Daddy?"

I wish we could, love, I said. We've sent robots to check it out, but no people have been.

"But astronauts could go there."

Possibly, I said, but it's very far away, further than anything you imagine.

"Have there been any children astronauts?"

No, only grownups have been astronauts, I said, and she looked devastated. But you'll be a grownup someday.

"But by the time I'm a grownup, you'll be dead!" she said.

You might be stuck with me for a little longer than that, I said, smiling.

"Do you think we could still go there?"

I hope so, I said. But we might only ever have this one planet, so we have to take care of our part of it.

She nodded. "I will."

Monday, 12 July 2010


As I mentioned, when we finished our home and moved in last Christmas, the fields in front of our home were mud and builders’ rubble. Now we have four garden beds in, built only in the last eight weeks, we have planted a number of trees for fruit, nuts and firewood, but have not yet begun building our greenhouse and chicken run.

Having these things does not make a family completely self-sufficient, for there is no such thing, nor would it be desirable. We hope they might allow us to provide for themselves and their neighbours if the economy erodes further, or if petrol becomes more expensive, or if stores run out of goods, or if any one of a hundred crises come to pass at some point in the next few decades.

There are two problems about such projects: first, they cost money and/or time to build, which people are reluctant to give. This garden has taken us two months to build so far, working on weekends and after work, and has cost a few hundred euros. Wood for beds must be bought, beds must be assembled, trees must be bought and planted. Crops must be watered regularly and maintained, and perhaps for an hour or more a day.

The other is that very little of this will yield any goods anytime soon. A planted willow shoot might yield firewood-sized branches in a few years, and every year thereafter – but you still have to wait a few years, and then a few more to dry the wood. You can make kitchen waste into great topsoil, but it takes a year. You can plant asparagus, but it will take two years to come to crop.

This might be the biggest challenge we face as we prepare for the leaner years ahead: not knowledge or will, but infrastructure. The word is usually used to mean highway overpasses and broadband nodes, but beds, tools, sheds, firewood stoves, saplings, paths, coops, hutches, vines and ditches are infrastructure too, and they multiply ten or twenty times the amount of food you can get – but they take an initial outlay of time and effort. But this is the time to start building it, when many of us have money, cars, goods in nearby stores and a way to get them home.

So think of how you can get the most productivity out of every square centimetre of your property, or whatever property you can use. Think of what people might need during years of depression ahead, and start building it now.

Start now because most such tasks are difficult at first and get easier with repetition; our first garden bed took us a whole weekend to build slowly, while the fourth one took an hour. Start now because even the simplest of processes take time – you can start composting vegetable waste tomorrow, but it will be at least a year before you see it turn to earth.

Start now because many of us are unaccustomed to physical labour and must build our strength. Start now even if that garden bed stays empty for the first year, or even if you need practice with those tools, or even if the trees are still saplings. Start now because the more people are doing it, the more normal these actions will become. Start now because we have to take our opportunities when they come.

Wednesday, 7 July 2010

The Girl

Gathering strawberries under our netting.

Monday, 5 July 2010

I'm back.

Thanks to everyone for being patient during the month of June – I’ve been preoccupied with other projects.

The Girl turned six last week, and we had a birthday party on our land – thirteen six-year-old girls, mostly from her school in the next village over, along with a few neighbours. We introduced the Irish girls to the concept of a piƱata, and they went wild with the stick.

We now have two new members of the household, rabbits for my daughter, and we hope to start on the chickens soon.

We’ve built five large garden beds now, with nine beds for herbs and medicinal plants and four beds for berries. For weeks now we’ve had salad and radishes, have been devouring kohlrabi and fennel bulbs raw like apples, and we are munching through rows upon rows of kale, bok choi and beets. We are trying chicory for the first time, letting it grow through and then covering it for winter.

This is an unusual year for growing; Ireland saw its coldest winter in decades and we started late because we had to build the garden, so everything has been off this year – our peas have only just begun to flower but our fennel and parsley have bolted. Tomatoes, peppers and corn, all staples in my native Missouri, grow only with difficulty here, and we have not been able to get much out of them.

We have been going door to door along the canal meeting our neighbours, and it is clear that most people who live here grew up here -- most houses are in clusters of families, with cousins living side by side. People from a different part of County Kildare are still very much outsiders, and I come from much farther than that. Everyone has been friendly, though, and slowly we feel ourselves joining a community. Children make neighbours of us all.

Photo: Red mist clouds the Hill of Allen, as the dry weather has apparently stirred dust from the bog.

Independence Day

Just an ordinary day in this country, but for all the Americans reading this, I'm thinking of you all.

Regular blogging resumes tomorrow.