Monday, 31 October 2011

Hallows Eve

The more we learn to live with the seasons, the more old holidays make new sense. Halloween is the midpoint between the equinox and the winter solstice, or Christmas; it marked New Year's Eve in traditional Ireland, when the nights grow truly long and dark, when the skies grow dim, and when we first feel the bite of winter. It is the day when it seems most appropriate to remember loved ones that have died, as we do in our house, a bit of gravitas to go with the trick-or-treating of children and the blithe gore of the media.

Six weeks after Christmas, the midpoint between the Christmas and the spring equinox, is Bridget’s Day here,  Groundhog Day or Candlemas elsewhere. Six weeks later is the equinox, and the first Sunday after the first full moon after the equinox is Easter. Six weeks after the equinox, halfway to the summer solstice, comes May Day, once widely celebrated in the USA.

My more devout friends back in the USA resent hearing the astronomy behind, say, Christmas or Easter, believing it distracts us from “the reason for the season.” I understand – they are flooded by a culture that exploits holy days to sell people more things they don’t need, and they want to protect their children’s innocence and preserve the day's meaning. I get it.

In purging their lives of the shopping-mall culture, though, they inadvertently throw out some of their oldest traditions. The holidays celebrate the cycle of creation, and the religious commemorations were placed there because of the season, not the other way around – the birth at the turn of the year, the Resurrection at the season of new life. The seasonal markers do not supercede the holy days, but precede them, forming the architecture of our years.

In the same way, I know many sects who worship in bare rooms and plain churches, and I’m glad it works for them. But the best religious service I have ever seen took place in an old forest near us, by candlelight. A crowd gathered under the canopy of trees whose lives stretch far beyond their own, in a tiny patch of what was once first and greatest of cathedrals, one that covered much of the world.

I’m not the most pious person in the world, but when my Girl and I walk through those woods, every visit feels like a Sabbath.

Thursday, 27 October 2011

Jefferson sloth

My Girl in Dublin's Natural History Museum, nicknamed "The Dead Zoo."
The Girl was enjoying her swivel chair. “These chairs are a great idea!” she said.

Do you know who got the idea for a chair that swivels around? I said. “Who?” she asked.

It was a man named Thomas Jefferson, I said. He was an inventor, and was one of the founders of the country I come from. He wrote the letter that declared us to be a new country, and he wrote it in a chair like that, that he built himself.

“I’m his biggest fan!” The Girl said.

Because of the chair? I asked.

“That, and because he must have been named after the Jefferson sloth!” she said. She loves sloths, and loves hearing about the big ones that were common in North America until humans arrived, the ones that could look in your upstairs window. We draw pictures together of the world as it was until recently – the sloths and the thylacines, the moas and the great eagles.

It’s even better than that, I said – he was a scientist, and the Jefferson sloth was named after him. She looked awestruck.

“He must have been amazing,” she said.

Wednesday, 26 October 2011

Here Comes the Rain Again


I took this photo of the River Liffey two years ago, when it was twice as wide as usual. Ireland saw unprecedented flooding that winter, and some homes had to be abandoned.

Yesterday we feared the same thing again, as a month of rain came down in a single day. It took one of my co-workers five hours to get home, and apartment buildings and a shopping mall in Dublin were knee-deep in water. Luckily, the rain seems to have abated for now.

Monday, 24 October 2011

Around the corner from my office...

... they were shooting a movie about the making of the Titanic, to be called Blood and Steel. The men on bicycles were apparently extras who rode around between takes.

While the cars and coats obviously date from a century ago, many men still wear the same caps and ride bicycles down the same cobblestone alleyways. Other parts of Dublin sport 21st-century glass buildings or 1970s slums, but these streets have changed little.

Friday, 21 October 2011

The Girl


The Girl had the sniffles.

“Why do I have to get sick?” she said.

Because some germ or virus made your body sick, and your body hasn’t kicked it out yet. Which do you think it is? I asked. “Virus,” she said.

I suspect so, I said – when you get sniffles, a cold or flu, it’s usually a virus. That’s good news because your body can usually get rid of them on its own over the next few days. The bad news is that’s all you can do – there’s no medicine that gets rid of a virus for you. Which one do you think is smaller? I asked.

“Viruses?” she ventured.

Right – they’re so much tinier than germs.

“Are they alive?” she asked

That’s a fantastic question, I said, and it doesn’t have an easy answer. They’re so tiny they barely qualify as alive, but they cause a lot of trouble.

“How do they get into my body?” she asked.

They sneak in, I whispered. Remember how your red blood cells are lorry drivers, carrying oxygen to your cells? They’re all queuing up in your blood like cars in traffic, and a virus barges into the queue.

“They’re quite naughty,” she said.

Luckily, I said, you have white blood cells too – you know what they do?

“They’re Gardai! (police)” she said

Right, I said, and they pull up alongside a virus and tell it to pull over, and arrest it.

For the next half hour her sniffles were forgotten: We took turns pretending to be white blood cells (police), waiting on the shoulder of the blood vessel (road) watching for viruses (speeders) who’ve slipped into traffic, and pulling them over and checking their license, complete with sirens and bullhorn effects.

Tuesday, 18 October 2011

Vendors

Twice a week vendors line up on the sidewalks of Dublin near my office, their tables stocked with anything from beef to makeup to laundry detergent. Every so often they call to passers-by, something like “Fresh bread for saaaaaaale” or “Everything is two euuuuuro,” using the same C-to-A-sharp singsong that Americans use to sing “Air baaaaall” at a basketball game, or that Nelson Munz uses to taunt “Ha-Ha” on The Simpsons.

I don’t see the Dublin vendors enough to know them, but the Farmers' Market near our home is very different. We go there every Saturday morning, and while we don't know everyone's names, we know their faces and they know ours. They know what kind of sausage The Girl likes for breakfast, they give us their spare meat trimmings, knowing we can make use of them, and occasionally they collude with me in creating a surprise for my wife.

Last Friday my wife and I saw the play Juno and the Paycock at Dublin’s Abbey Theatre the night before, and I described it to a vendor while buying sardines. The vendor, who I had seen regularly for years, turned out to be a theatre buff, and told me about the play's history, and how its then-controversial treatment of the Church and the IRA caused riots when it was released.

We pass and smile at the same people each day, only occasionally learning their private passions, or realising how much they can teach us.

Sunday, 16 October 2011

Gleaning, wine and jelly

Five metres of hedgerow outside our home, with crabapples
Twelve years ago, when I was a newspaper editor in St. Louis, I used to stop at the local bagel shop before closing time and rescue all the bagels they were throwing out. Then I would ride my bicycle home through the city streets, with my bag of bagels slung over my shoulder like Santa Claus. The shop had a bit less of a rubbish bill, and my friends and I saved money on bread -- I hadn’t learned to bake yet. Despite what people imagine, as a newspaper editor I made about the same money as a fast-food worker, and valued the extra three dollars or so not spent on bread.   

Also, I have a healthy aversion to seeing things thrown away --we use discarded plastic tubs for sprouting, old pickle jars for storage, and the tops of old soda bottles for funnels. If I could have found enough people to share the gleanings with, I would have preferred to go to the bagel shop every day, just to make sure no food went to waste. In my 20 years in the workforce I have often collected the coffee grounds and banana peels from my office rubbish bin when no one is looking, and brought them home to compost. 

Haws from hedgerow
We don’t live near restaurants or city rubbish bins anymore, but we do have rows of hedges, all of which are sagging with fruit and berries this time of year. Most of them rot on the vines or are eaten by birds, and since we feed the birds through the winter, we can take our share in the autumn. A few weeks ago I decided to see how much I could glean from a five-metre stretch of hedgerow, along with some orange peels a co-worker discarded at the office. To preserve them over the winter, I wanted to make them into wine and jelly.

Most humans in history made wine and beer, not as hobbies or micro-brew startups but for survival.  Before every home acquired the sterilised waterfalls of our taps, many people often had only lake or river water to drink, which carried serious diseases at a time when there were no doctors and the average lifespan was about 30. Letting yeast ferment vegetable matter drove out most other microscopic life, making water relatively pure without the cords of firewood needed to boil everything. 


Thus, alcohol was a major part of life in earlier eras, offering water, calories and vitamins. Medieval Britons, for example, were estimated to drink four litres of beer a day; I am told that the teetotal movement of the 19th century, which encouraged people to drink tea instead, actually caused malnutrition in rural Britain. 

Boiling haws
This explains why ancient religious texts have an otherwise head-scratching preoccupation with booze; Sumerians had prayers to remember beer recipes, characters in the Mabinogion drank bowls of mead and even the Koran offers believers wine in Paradise. It also explains why so many forms of alcohol had names that translate as “water of life” or some equivalent – “whiskey” is “water” in the Irish language, from that very phrase. Jesus turned water to wine, used wine containers as metaphors for human life, and promised his followers they would drink with him in heaven. St. Paul actively urged Timothy not to give up wine altogether, but to mix a little with his water. None of this sounds strange to Irish Catholics, but has caused no amount of interpretive calisthenics for the teetotaller sects.   

These days, for many Westerners, “wine” refers only to grape wine and “beer” only to brew from barley and hops - yellow in the USA, often black in Ireland – but you can make wine and beer from almost any edible plant and some inedible ones.  I have seen recipes for wines from oak leaves, squash, parsley, and all manner of common plants. In the past year I have made wine from nettles, the stinging weed that grows profusely here; from elderflowers in June, and from our August crop of meadowsweet, a weed that grows along the canal banks. 

This time of year hawthorn leaves fall to expose the bright red berries – haws -- covering the bare branches. Haws taste mealy and unpleasant raw, but they make an excellent wine like sangria, and as they were the most abundant fruit in the hedgerow, that’s how I used them. 

First I poured six litres of water into a large pot, and brought it to a boil. I dumped in two litres of haws and two halved lemons, waited for it to boil again, and turned the heat off. I stirred in a kilogram of sugar slowly until it dissolved, and waited for the liquid to cool to blood temperature. Then I poured it into a cleaned and sterilised bucket and added red wine yeast, and when the liquid had cooled all the way I set the bucket in the larder. 

Fermenting in bucket
Over the next week I checked the bucket periodically; it was bubbling away slowly as the yeast turned sugar into alcohol and carbon dioxide. After a week or so I sterilised a carboy – a large jug with an S-shaped valve on the top – and strained the wine into it, mostly so I could get my bucket back. If you are making wine, you should consider buying a carboy for storing your wine during the weeks or months that it still might build up air pressure, before you pour it into conventional wine bottles. 

After pouring the wine into the carboy, I was left with about two litres of sweetened and slightly alcoholic haws. I combined these with several other hedgerow fruits I had not bothered to use in the wine -- rose hips, elderberries, blackberries, sloes and crab-apples – along with orange peelings rescued from the office rubbish bin, and made compost jelly. 

Just as wine allowed people to preserve water before fossil fuels, so jelly allowed them to preserve vitamin. I have written about how older people around here gave people home-made wine or jelly as gifts, a custom that seems a twee bit of etiquette today but once constituted deposits in an unspoken community bank. Like wine, it keeps for years or decades; we just opened a jar several years old, and it was still good. Unlike wine, jelly seems not to have been widespread until a few hundred years ago, until the slave trade made sugar affordable enough – all the more reason to stock up now. 

To define our terms for a moment: Jam, jelly, marmalade and syrup are juices and possibly bits of plant matter mixed with enough sugar that they become unpalatable to bacteria, and sealed to avoid being eaten by anything else. Jam retains the crushed fruit, while jelly has its fruit bits strained out. Marmalade is made from citrus, and its taste has bitter notes from the pith. All of these require pectin as well as sugar, a naturally-occurring compound that solidifies the liquid. You can make jam or jelly from most edible fruits and berries, along with vegetables – any vegetables in theory, but I have only seen it done with rhubarb, turnips and beets. 
Other ingredients: Orange peel, crab-apples, elderberries, blackberries, sloes and rose hips
You can preserve fruit juice and sugar without pectin, as a liquid syrup in bottles – we did that last year with elderberries, and mixed small amounts of syrup with water to make juice in winter, or with sparkling water to make elderberry soda. 

Most fruits don’t have enough pectin themselves to set jelly, but apples do – one reason jellies are often made of apples mixed with some other fruit, and why the crab-apples made an important ingredient. My mixture was about 40 per cent used haws, 40 per cent crab-apples, and about 20 per cent assorted other fruit and berries – the office-bin orange peels, the used lemons from the wine mix, and rose hips, elderberries, blackberries and sloes from the bushes. Some fruit you need to use sparingly; sloes, for example, have quite a sour and astringent taste, and I mainly soak them in distilled spirits to make sloe gin, but I had a few left over. 

I chopped the peelings roughly, and chopped the apples in half; you don’t need to slice out seeds or pith, as it will all be strained out before the end. I then piled the fruit – hips, peels, sloes, rinds, zest, berries, whatever – into a large pot, poured enough water over it to slightly cover the fruit, and boiled it for about 45 minutes. 

When it was done boiling, I let it cool and poured the mixture into a smaller pot through a strainer – some people like to strain it through muslin or cloth to make sure they get rid of all the tiny bits, but I’m not worried about that. Then I put the smaller pot, filled with strained liquid, onto the stove and turned on low heat. 

As the liquid warmed, I slowly added sugar, stirring until it was dissolved. Following various recipes I added 400g of sugar per 650 ml of liquid, and waited for the frothy bubbles to subside in the predicted 10 minutes or so. In practice, I probably used more sugar than I needed, as the haws were already sweetened, and the froth never fully went away after 45 minutes, but the jelly seemed ready anyway. 

To see when the jelly was done – again, following recipe instructions – I dribbled a bit of it with a spoon onto a cool plate, and waited for it to harden. My initial mistake was holding it too near the hot stove, so that it never hardened completely – once I realised that, I could measure it properly. Once it seemed to have hardened, I pushed the drops with my finger, and when it wrinkled, I knew it was done. 

The total cost of this was about two euros for 1.5 kilos of sugar – a kilo for the wine, plus about half a kilo for the jelly -- plus the minimal cost of heating the stove for a short time, and not counting the initial investment of the carboy or yeast. The experiment resulted in about six bottles of good wine and two jars of jelly, vitamins suspended for an emergency. 

When we do things like this, we act as modern gleaners, the subculture of people who gathered the waste left behind after the harvest. Gleaners held an accepted place in most cultures, and Leviticus 19: 9-10 ordered people to leave part of their crops behind for them. One of the most famous paintings in the world, Millet’s “The Gleaners,” depicts them at work in rural France, and Agnes Varda’s documentary The Gleaners and I show such scroungers working in old ways and new, gathering grains in fields or rubbish in cities. Today we live with mountains of waste no other peoples imagined, and many people could live well learning to glean. 

Stand behind a restaurant or supermarket at night, or look at berry bushes or weed fringes in season, and you might see our gleaners at work – freegans, greens, preppers and itinerants of all kinds. They wear your old clothes, fix your old toaster, and eat the pre-sliced carrots that the supermarket keeps under plastic and argon. If we have resource shortages and mountains of rubbish outside our cities, it is because we don’t have more of them.

Monday, 10 October 2011

The ongoing stumble

Houseboats on the canal in a nearby town
When I moved here several years ago, Ireland seemed a charming mash-up of a landscape: medieval towers, straw roofs and horse-carts alongside modern suburbs, shopping malls and traffic jams. It had also just won a survey of best places to live in the world, an island boom town.

My wife, however, was returning to a home she did not recognise. The Ireland she grew up in, in the 1970s and 80s, had been one of the poorest countries in Europe, with a lower per-capita GDP than some African nations. Not all her neighbours had electricity or indoor plumbing, and many had a self-sufficiency that Americans associate with their 19th-century frontier.

Fifteen years ago, however, an influx of computer companies made this island nation -- with half the population of the Chicago metro area -- the planet’s top exporter of software, and it jumped from being one of the poorest nations in Europe to one of the richest. Everyone sunk their money into houses, and villages dating from medieval times suddenly acquired vast tumours of modern development. Immigrants flooded into the country following the jobs – mostly former Soviets – until one out of every ten people in Ireland were foreigners.

About 100 metres from the houseboats.
Three years ago, the global economy “crashed,” although that sounded too absolute and final for me, like a doomer fantasy; I preferred “stumbled,” implying that after the stumble,  might stabilise for a while, but we could still fall further.

Fifteen months ago I wrote an article for Big Questions Online, describing why my neighbours here in Ireland might be better prepared for recession than many other Westerners. I mentioned that people had strong ties of family and community, that public transportation was widespread, that some homes and even schools and hospitals had kitchen gardens. Few here imagined that the boom would last forever, or felt devastated when it ended. Most importantly –unlike in my native USA -- two generations still alive remember how to live comfortably in Third World poverty.

Eleven months ago Ireland’s government effectively went bust, and asked the European Union and International Monetary Fund to bail them out. During those tense weeks everyone went about their regular routine as usual, but everyone checked the new updates and talked about whether they would have a job, a bank or even a government the following week. For better or worse, however, the country received its bailout, the banks were saved, the mass protests in Dublin remained peaceful and the basic infrastructure – hospitals, police, buses, electricity -- continued running. Local stores ran out of milk and other staples as everyone stocked up, but there was no crime wave and no panic.

Ten months ago an angry populace punished Ireland’s main political party – in power for most of the history of the country, including the boom and bust – by turning it into a third party overnight. What had been the country’s second-and-third-largest parties took power in a coalition, and previously fringe groups like the IRA-linked Sinn Fein surged in votes and power.

Abandoned car in the Wicklow Mountains
The new leaders have been able to do little, however, except greet US President Obama and Britain’s Queen during their historic visits; the country remains locked into its bailout agreements, and continues to muddle along in a recessional limbo. Watching this drama, close-up but with foreign eyes, brings home several lessons, which might be useful for other Westerners facing their own crash.

First of all, almost all change looks slow when it’s happening. Ireland’s boom seemed sudden to my wife, who was living abroad, but for my neighbours every day was normal, and only looking back did the changes hit them. Younger generations, meanwhile, find it difficult to believe that middle-aged Irish walked miles to school barefoot in all weather, or wove their chicken coops out of straw.

The same principle works all the way down, which will be a threat and a mercy for all of us going that direction. The world around us seems as constant as the faces of your loved ones, until an old photograph brings home how much has changed. Middle-aged people might recall flying thousands of miles on holiday or going to the doctor for every minor illness, but children will not feel the loss of things they never had. Such is mercy.

This also carries danger, when young people forget, or refuse to accept, that people once lived happily with little money, or that neighbours in the USA and UK once kept pigs in their common yard, or greeted each other with ritual politeness on the road. If young people forget those things, they might forget many more things in a continued crash; that women once had the rights of men, or that humans stepped on the moon, or that violent death was once shocking.

Secondly, all crashes are relative. My acquaintances back in the USA tell me that they struggle every day in this economy of high unemployment and fuel prices; I believe them, but I also mention that our unemployment is 50 per cent higher, and we pay the litre-and-euro equivalent of $8.00 a gallon. Today’s Irish, meanwhile, remain wealthy compared to the Irish of 20 years ago, who might, in turn, have been in the wealthiest half of the world. To use another comparison, the average American still makes twice the annual salary today as in the 1930s, even adjusting for inflation, and unemployment was three to four times higher then. Many Americans suffer, but their suffering comes not just from a lack of money, but from a lack of experience.
My neighbour's shed.

Thirdly, a post-boom community can return to how they lived before a boom, but only if they remember how and set themselves to the task. Many local towns here had rows of small stores and pubs, driven out by the high prices and more fashionable stores of the boom. Now that the boom has gone bust those neighbourhood businesses don’t magically re-appear; rather, some spaces remain empty and vandalised, like a ten-metre slice of East St. Louis or Detroit were dropped into a bucolic village. Those storefronts could be restored, but only if neighbours organise and resolve to restore them; if owners or zoning boards waste years waiting for the next boom, for example, people might get used to having a graffiti-covered space and lose the will to change it.

In the USA, I lived in Missouri and Kansas towns that were healthy in the 1950s; today the townspeople drive a day’s horse ride to Wal-Mart, and forgot the days when men walked the streets in suits and ties. When such megastores shut down locals could turn it into a cattle barn or stud stables, but how many people would think of doing so, and how many officials would accept such a use?

Finally, the more traditional your family, the less you stumble when the world does. More than one of my neighbours here said they knew the boom and bust mainly through the news; they continued harvesting turf, planting crops and raising chickens, as always. We Americans think such people would be survivalist loners, hoarding well-stocked shelters, but I find the opposite is true; the ones I have met tend to have extended families and few possessions, but were skilled at using whatever was around. Their lack of unneeded possessions means they never have far to fall, and the presence of loved ones cushions the weight of the world.

Friday, 7 October 2011

Legions

A great captain of industry, someone who transformed the landscape, died recently, too young, of cancer.

I’m speaking, of course, of Wangari Maathai.

The mainstream media offered little coverage of the death of the Catholic, ecologist and leader in her native Kenya, who passed away last week. In a land that human use and climate change are slowly turning to desert, her Green Belt Movement trained women – 30,000 according to web sites – to plant and nurture trees, like a green wall against the storm. It taught women to earn money by gardening, bee-keeping and other crafts. According to a eulogy by Archbishop Desmond Tutu, the movement has now planted more than 40 million trees.

Opposed by central African governments, she led hunger strikes and was forced into hiding, but eventually was elected to office working with the people who had persecuted her. She won the Right Livelihood Award more than a quarter-century ago, and won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2004.

Of course the eulogies do fill the local headlines, the television news and my internet inboxes today, but not one has been for Maathai – all of them, rather, are for former Apple Computer CEO Steve Jobs . Social media sites, talk shows, radio DJs and internet forums compare Jobs to Leonardo da Vinci or Thomas Edison, a genius who touched all our lives and transformed the world.

Bless people for mourning the dead, and no disrespect to Mr. Jobs. It must be asked though: did you know him? Was he worthy of such hagiography?

Perhaps he gave billions to charity, as his rival Bill Gates did – although my brief Google search indicates the opposite. When I ask, acquaintances of mine retort that he had every right to keep his own money, and they are right -- but that does not make him more worthy of mourning than the estimated 150,000 children, parents, grandparents and others who died yesterday.

Even if Jobs did give billions away, though … he had billions to give. Jesus told parables about rich men giving away armfuls of gold and poor widows giving their last penny – but his point was not that we should admire the rich person more.

As a separate issue, was he a genius who changed the world, or did he head one of the companies left standing after the computer-company rivalries of the late 20th century? Did Steve Jobs create all these devices, or was it the people who worked for him? If Apple hadn't invented iTunes or the MacIntosh, wouldn't come other company's similar product have been just as successful, and we would be mourning someone else's death – say, the former CEO of Coleco?

The next time you listen to the mainstream media, consider how often they present every business, country, war or movement as though it were an individual with the apparent powers of a superhero. Business articles praise celebrity CEOs for “building a company from scratch,” not the temps or factory workers. A few years back the US president was said to be at war with Saddam Hussein and Osama bin Laden, as though individuals can wage war.

Even the most iconic examples of genius turn out to be people, not cartoons. In science, most people think of Albert Einstein as the textbook-example genius, often without understanding why. It is no insult to that intelligent and conscientious man, though, to point out that the world accepted relativity because the world was ready -- previous theories had become out-dated, and scientists had found the technology needed to soon prove the theories. Any other combination of events, any other time and place, and Einstein would have remained a very nice clerk, and some now-forgotten technician would have statues in his name.

Pop-culture histories show Churchill winning the war against the Nazis, and museum exhibits describe how the pharaohs built the Pyramids – as though they did physical labour, or placed themselves in the line of fire. Even when the individuals themselves seemed to be admirable, like Martin Luther King or Mohandas Gandhi, histories ignore the legions of forgotten people who did most of the actual work.

When one of these alleged superheroes dies, people mourn more than they would for a family member, hailing their bravery, their brilliance, and their hard work. Certainly many people are treating the death of Steve Jobs that way, as others did all the celebrities before him.

So take a moment to remember Ms. Maathai, and try to keep in mind how our culture ignores people like you in favour of the occasional hero. Notice, for example, that I’ve just done the same thing to Wangari Maathai.

Thirty thousand women.

Photo of Green Belt project, used under Creative Commons by skasuga.