Monday, 31 December 2012

The end of a chapter

Four Christmases ago, I wrote a piece about watching my four-year-old prepare for Santa Claus at a time when the world seemed to be falling apart. Now, at the age of eight, my daughter found out the truth about Santa.   

“I heard you on Christmas Eve, Daddy,” she said gently, as though wondering if I would be angry. “You were putting things in my stocking. I closed my eyes so you would think I was asleep.”

We knew this day would come, I thought. I had waited until two in the morning to fill the stockings, but in vain.

What do you think about that? I asked her softly, putting my arm around her.

“Daddy,” she said. “Is Santa Claus real?”

I thought for a moment about doing the “Yes, Virginia” speech, but neither I nor anyone else remembers anything but the one sentence, and she deserves better than some pat recitation.

There’s not just a single Santa, I said, trying to delicately skirt the issue and give her time to digest this. People over the world act as Santa.

Tears welled up in her eyes. “So the stories aren’t real?”

Not exactly, I said – not the best answer ever, but the best I could do in a second, and she sobbed quietly in my chest for a moment.

“What about all the other stories we talk about?” she said after a while. That covers a lot of ground, I thought; on any single night I might talk to her about mycelium, the Nativity, the First World War, Buster Keaton and The Borrowers. Her world, like yours and mine, is made of stories fastened together like Legos. 

Honey, I said, every story has some truth to it. Remember The Hobbit?

“What about it?” she asked.

You understand that the Hobbit was made up, I said? There aren’t real dragons or dwarves, right?

“Right,” she said.

But there were things like that, I said. Dinosaurs were big things like dragons, and there really were little people that we call hobbits.

It might seem strange to have jumped from Santa to J.R.R. Tolkien, but it redirected her thoughts and acknowledged her new maturity; she loved reading The Hobbit, and looks forward to reading Lord of the Rings when she is old enough. 

“I remember,” she said. “The men were smaller than I am. But they weren’t real hobbits like Bilbo.”
The man who wrote The Hobbit based people like Bilbo on people who lived on these islands, I said. 

He didn’t know that on a different island, on the other side of the world, there were real little people. So hobbits are real from both ends, just not at the same time and place.

“And there were Haast’s Eagles in the book,” she said. “And dire wolves, and Irish elk.” That’s right, I said. All those things were real, and there were things like dwarves and elves too.

These are inside references for my daughter and I, so let me give a bit of background: Since she was a baby, almost every night, I told her stories about the natural world that existed until recently – trees so large many men could not form a chain around them, sloths that could look in her second-story window, beavers the size of cars and dire wolves like fairy-tale villains.

All those were in the now-USA, but these islands used to have the Irish elk, whose four-metre antlers negotiated the great forests here. In Australia she knows there were kangaroos taller than men and thylacines – giant marsupial predators – like wolves with baby pouches and tiger stripes. In New Zealand, she knows – the one place where birds took over from dinosaurs rather than mammals – birds the size of cattle ran from Haast’s Eagles that hunted like airborne tigers. I tell her, at bedtime, how Scotland and Missouri and China all looked like the Serengeti or the Amazon – and except for some people, they still would.  

I caution her not to bring this up with the other children at school, so she is not ostracised. Few people I know have even heard of such animals, or associate them somehow with dinosaurs. But they existed only a short time ago – the last mammoths coexisted with the first pyramids, and the last thylacine with the first televisions.

I brought her up with those stories so that she would be one of the few who saw the army of clamouring ghosts around us, who recognise the missing pieces of the world. This is a lot to weigh on a child, of course, so I introduced this slowly, as you do when talking about death and sex, and balanced those stories with that of the little victories – for example, the one man who brought the black robin back to life from the edge, or the few who saved what she calls “parrot-bunnies” in New Zealand.  I’ve told her stories of people around the world who are rescuing pieces of the World Gone By, and she wants to be one of them – for Christmas, she asked to adopt an Amur leopard.

So we incorporate that knowledge into what we read – I explain that the oldest story, Gilgamesh, began with the felling of the great trees, and that the land turned to desert.  When she heard the story of Noah, she understood that floods happen in lands where the trees are cleared away, as happened here in Ireland. When we read the story of Samson, she instantly saw what most children would not – that he lived in the desert left by Gilgamesh’s people, and fought an animal that was endangered even then, and extinct in that part of the world now.  

In the case of the Mabinogi or Genesis, the writers might have remembered a time when the landscape looked very different, but recent writers like Tolkien, and the vast shelves of fantasy he inspired, rejuvenated the elements of those myths for later generations.

When we read The Hobbit, she instantly recognised dire wolves and Haast’s Eagles, even though Tolkien didn’t call them that. She understands that elves and dwarves and orcs were not exactly real, but there were many different kinds of humans once; Neanderthals were not as small as Tolkien’s dwarves but shorter and tougher than we are. There were humans who seem to have been faster than we are, or had bigger brains, or tiny bodies. I want her to know enough about the World Gone By to see its traces in folk memories around the world.

I suspect this is the reason such stories resonate with us, because they tap into a folk memory, or a sense that something is missing, in the same way that we recognise the missing pieces of a jigsaw. Fantasies about office jobs and high-rise buildings are called dystopias; the stories we fall in love with – old myths and the modern fantasy they inspired-- begin with “Once upon a time” or “A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away” or about a time “before the coming of men.”

They have forests of giant trees and people who have watched them for ages, whether Enkidu or Elves or Naavi. They have wizards who remember the world before it became strangely empty, and the characters often comment on ruins, giant bones, and bloody events in ages past. Many show the first men cast out of a paradise, or behaving so wickedly that God sends a flood to destroy the world, from which a single good man must save as many animals as he can.    

Santa’s story, though, fit less comfortably in this pantheon, and I knew he was running his final lap – the more you talk about the Haast’s Eagles wingspan and hollow bones, the less plausible flying reindeer seem.

“Even if those things in The Hobbit were real,” she said sadly, “Santa is just made up.”
I took her face in my hands. No, no, no, I said. I’ll tell you a secret, something not even all grownups understand, and if you understand it, it will change everything. 

She looked almost frightened. “What is it?” she asked.

Nothing is ever just a story, I said. Every story is part-real – every single one that’s ever been told, because we spin them all out of threads of this world. Some are just mud-common real, but some are a lot more than that. People that would never help a hungry man will live and die for a story they can believe in.

“But they’d believe in something that’s not there,” she said.

People all over the world give up things they want so they can give things to others, I said, and they are all being Santa. You adopted a leopard, and you’re doing the same thing. Having millions of people doing that – isn’t that better than having just one? They believe in the story because it’s true, even if it’s not a fact -- even if there’s not a single old man on an ice cap. 

As time goes on, though, I thought, Santa might be able to join these other legends. We love stories of great forests and wolves without realising they were real; children generations from now might do the same with the North Pole. They might not realise that Santa’s improbably solid landscape was the real part of the story, and that there was once a time you could walk to the North Pole. They might simply accept such details even when there is nothing in their lives to relate them to, as I once accepted references to chimneys and mangers.

“When stories are partly true, is it like Kate the Royal Wedding Fairy?” she said, smiling. She loves a book series about fairies, and one was written to capitalise on the royal wedding that was such ubiquitous news here this year.

Um … yes, I said, it’s like that. There was a real Kate in a real Royal Wedding, but the goblins in the book were….

“I’m just messing with you, Daddy,” she said smiling, her eyes dry now.

Okay, I said.

I think she’ll be all right.

Saturday, 22 December 2012

Why were we hearing about Mayans at all?

Due to technical problems, this post is appearing a few days later than planned. 

You don’t need to hear that the world didn’t end yesterday. You don’t need to hear that misrepresentations of the calendar of human-sacrifice enthusiasts a thousand years ago did not trump experts at NASA. None of us need another Facebook meme sneering at the now-disappointed believers, always easy to do when it’s someone else’s beliefs.

Scares like this, however, can be serious business; Britain’s Telegraph newspaper reported a few weeks ago that “panic buying of candles and essentials has been reported in China and Russia, along with an explosion in sales of survival shelters in America. In France believers were preparing to converge on a mountain where they believe aliens will rescue them.” China might seem a strange place for the apocalypse idea to crop up, but the Telegraph said that “In China … a wave of paranoia about the apocalypse can be traced to the 2009 Hollywood blockbuster ‘2012.’ The film … was a smash hit in China, as viewers were seduced by a plot that saw the Chinese military building arks to save humanity.”

That callous $200 million steaming pile of emotional manipulation also seemed to popularise the 2012 myth here, and I suspect in most places. AsI wrote a couple of years ago, we might be able to forgive filmmakers for creating an overpriced package of ridiculous escapism like The Core or Volcano. Unlike those films, however, and like the fundamentalist Left Behind series, the film predicted horrifying tragedies happening to the real world shortly, invoking Albert Einstein for artificial legitimacy.

The filmmakers also drops the “Rapture” name for extra points among the mega-church crowd, both in the script and in the callous poster tag “Will You Be Left Behind?” The only difference is that the Left Behind authors seem to truly believe their dubious theology, whereas the filmmakers seem to be transparently capitalizing on people’s fears to make money.

Even if only one person in a thousand takes them seriously, scares like this cost real people their lives. David Morrison, an astronomer at NASA, told the Telegraph that “at least once a week I get a message from a young person, as young as 11, who says they are ill and/or contemplating suicide because of the coming doomsday. I think it's evil for people to propagate rumours on the internet to frighten children.”

Of course, apocalypse ideas crop up every so often, and for a highly readable history of their rises and disappointments, let me again recommend the prolific John Michael Greer. His book Apocalypse Not: Everything You Know About 2012, Nostradamus and theRapture is Wrong will likely lose some sales after today, but it deserves to be read and publicised as immunisation against the next 2012. He even delves into the origins of this particular myth in the New Age circles after the “Harmonic Convergence” of the 1980s.

One area Greer could have focused on more, perhaps, is “Why Mayans?” Why not Bavarians or Vietnamese, or any other group? The answer seems to be twofold; first, it’s easier to project any beliefs or ideology you like on a now-extinct group that can’t protest. There are some Mayans still left, who have rightly objected to their pop-culture co-opting, but poor Third-Worlders do not generally have the media influence of California New Age gurus.

The other reason has to do with the exalted place Native Americans hold in popular culture. No one denies that Native Americans were subjected to genocide by various European groups over a few hundred years, and that popular media in 19th and early 20th century USA portrayed them as inferior savages. The response of the Sixties counterculture, though, was insulting in a different direction, projecting onto Native tribes whatever ancient wisdom they wanted to hear. This was done mainly through the use of Italians and other Europeans pretending to be Natives, making up New Age teachings and passing them off as authentic.

As John Miller wrote in the National Review, “Between 1960 and 2000, the number of Americans claiming Indian ancestry on their census forms jumped by a factor of six. Neither birthrates nor counting methodologies can account for this explosive growth. Instead, the phenomenon arises in large part from the increasingly idealistic place Indians occupy in the popular imagination. Much of it is based on harmless sentiment mixed into a hash of unverifiable family legends and wishful thinking among folks who hang dreamcatchers from their rearview mirrors. But for a distinct subset, it’s all about personal profit. They’re professional imposters who have built entire careers by putting the sham into shaman.”

In some cases people just claim to be Native when they are not: author and provocateur Ward Churchill, actor “Iron Eyes” Cody, and so on. In others Europeans claim special insight into Native culture: Carlos Castaneda, for example, wrote his entire Don Juan series with supposed interviews based on a reclusive Yaqui Indian no one else had met, while Lynn Andrews did the same with her Medicine Woman series, based on supposed interviews with reclusive sages in Manitoba.

Some of these teachings are useful in their own right; “Grey Owl” was an admirable man who lived in the Canadian woods, wrote beautifully and became an early advocated for protecting nature from human exploitation, whether or not he was actually an Englishman named Archie Blayney. “The Education of Little Tree” is a lovely story, even if it turned out to be fiction written by a white segregationist.

Decades of such romanticising, though, means that followers of the Sixties counterculture treat Native teachings with a special reverence – even fake ones, and they usually are. I know a number of people who sneered at Harold Camping’s numerous Rapture predictions who seemed to take the Mayan claims seriously – at least, as seriously as anyone takes anything these days, forwarding Facebook memes while filtering any convictions through layers of hip irony.

The 2012 books I have leafed through also yank science-sounding terms into the discussion whenever possible, describing a “quantum leap” forward in human “evolutionary levels.” In invoking these scientific phrases the film-makers are being completely dishonest, using them for ideas that have nothing to do with science. Like the religious cult “scientology,” they steal bits of words from actual scientific research and using them to imbue their vague hokum with a bogus legitimacy.
These things tell us how the myth was formed, but to deal with how it spread –why people in China, Russia and Ireland are all talking about the same thing – we have to look at  modern technology. 

Throughout the 20th century, science and technology were supposed to make us less superstitious – from H.G. Wells’ Things to Come to the Star Trek series, decades of science fiction posited a future where we had outgrown such primitive traits. Instead, however, it has made us more susceptible to superstition.

Rather, I want to ask why this belief caught on in every globalised corner of the world at once, and what that says about us. As I wrote this, you see, I was sitting in the pub a few kilometres from my home in rural Ireland, surrounded by my neighbours at other tables, and some of these same people or their relatives might have been gathering here fifty or a hundred years ago – in other words, several apocalypse scares ago. When enthusiasts predicted the end of the world in the 1920s or 1980s, though, I doubt anyone around here noticed – at least, I have seen no evidence of it in interviews or records.

Ireland was affected by the world wars in Europe, of course, but even into the 1970s some of my wife’s neighbours lacked electricity, more lacked television, and most people knew more about their neighbours than about celebrities. Today, though, I’m listening to my neighbours talking about the Mayan apocalypse, the USA grade-school shootings, and the end of the world. We all get hundreds of television stations, and the news channel playing on the wall plays the same USA school-shooting clip that people might be watching in Singapore and South Africa.

Men and women fell for apocalyptic scares easily enough before the fossil-fuel era, but at least the slow speed of information filtered out such time-sensitive panics as this. Today, though, when we spend most of our time staring at glowing rectangles rather than living in the real world, it becomes easy to become isolated, paranoid, or trapped in a bubble of misinformation. When we spend most of our time moving pixels on a screen for a paycheque, it’s easy to fantasise about fighting zombies or some other more meaningful life.

And when people around the world spend much of their time online, a meme can appear and spread almost instantly. Instead of a dubious notion having to infect a critical mass of people in a town before spreading to the next town, a con or conspiracy theory can appear everywhere in the world – to a teenager in Saskatchewan, an old lady in Turkmenistan and an Irish farmer – simultaneously.

As fossil fuels decline and extreme weather events increase, I expect more people to grow poor and feel helpless, but I would also expect more people to spend more time online. I would expect there to be many more scares like this one in our lifetime, and there will be nowhere to go to escape them.

Saturday, 8 December 2012

The Girl

I slept in until 8 am, when The Girl tiptoed over to her Advent calendar and began looking longingly at the tiny unopened doors.

“No peeking,” I mumbled from half-sleep as she whirled around, her hand covering her mouth. “I wasn’t,” she said. “I just wanted to look at the days we’ve had so far.”

That morning we threw coats over our bedclothes and padded outside as I chopped wood for the fire, The Girl holding the chopped wood and advising me on my technique. The last two years we faced an unusually cold winter, and this year we had no summer -- as I mentioned here earlier, the average temperature for June was 12 degrees, in the 50s Fahrenheit.  We have turf – peat from the bog near our home – that I “footed” two years ago, a year’s worth that we’ve stretched into three years. But it’s running low, and we need more wood.

Unfortunately, by the time I get home from work at 7 pm it’s been completely dark here for three hours, so on weekends I have to chop as much as I can. As I worked, The Girl and I talked about how long wood needs to dry, what mushrooms might grow on it, and why smaller bits of wood burn faster.

Later I got a ride to my weekend of basketry; you might recall I have been learning to make baskets, and have found it a far broaderand more fascinating subject than you might imagine. Basket-weaving techniques have been and can be used to make buildings, boats, vehicles, armour, animal and fish traps, weirs, hedges, and shelters. Skills like basketry take time, though -- especially if you're a regular working person learning in bits and pieces -- so I spent most of today with the amazing Beth Murphy at her homestead in County Kildare, learning a little more each time I visit.

When I came home we had no water, something that has happened more lately. After a boom, a bust and a bailout the Irish economy continues to struggle, and yesterday’s budget will see higher taxes and less money for social services, even as a significant fraction of homeowners struggle to pay the mortgage and basic utilities seem to fail more often. Still, Ireland is hardly alone, and people here seem far better able to handle austerity than in many countries.

That night The Girl and I read more of The Borrowers, and she put on a Buster Keaton-style silent performance to go with the song “Donald Where’s Your Trousers.” We watched David Attenborough’s Blue Planet series, where we watched baby lobsters being born and tiny jellyfish paddle for the first time.

We sang “Greensleeves” and “The Water is Wide,” folk songs perhaps a thousand years old, and talked about the birth of Jesus and the Golden Rule.  And we discussed the tiny dinosaurs recently discovered in China, including a tiny early bird no bigger than a wren.

By the end of the day she was ready to sleep, and I kissed her goodnight. The days we've had so far, as she put it this morning, are the days of Advent, which leads up to Christmas in the Catholic calendar as Lent does to Easter. It is a time of austerity and preparation before the catharsis of a holy day, when we celebrate before the year and seasons turn and a new stage begins.

Tuesday, 4 December 2012

Forest hug

We're getting into the dark months now; as I've mentioned here before, we're less than a thousand miles from the Arctic Circle, and while the surrounding sea and Caribbean current keep Ireland above freezing, the winter months hover a few degrees above, wet and cold and very dark. Even the daylight hours bring only dim light, as though hesitating through several hours of twilight before plunging back into a night that consumes three quarters of the day.

This time of year Ireland's lush landscape grows denuded and stark, skeletal branches rattling in the fierce winds and everything turned grey, "like some cold glaucoma settling over the world," in the words of Cormac McCarthy's The Road. The winter is made far worse by our bizarre summer -- one of the wettest on record, when almost none of the familiar fruits or berries could be pollinated. Older people here, who grew up making jam and wine every fall, are at a loss this year.

In a few months, we'll be out of the darkness. This week, though, I will be using up my summer forest pictures.

Saturday, 1 December 2012

Hayboxes and houses

Whether you grew up in Texas or Tasmania, Manitoba or Macedonia, you were probably raised in a modernised Western culture like me, with electricity and motorcars and other modern infrastructure. If so, you probably grew up blithely spending massive quantities of energy to do the simplest of tasks.

Instead of boiling water by lighting a fire and putting a kettle on the stove, for example, we might blow up the oldest mountains in the world to mine the remains of forests older than dinosaurs, set those old forests on fire to boil water, and then use the steam to turn turbines to send electricity through miles of cable to an outlet on your wall to power a kettle to boil water. The details might change depending on where you are, but most of us live this way – and so does my family, to an extent. It’s not easy to live any other way these days; one must deliberately and daily choose, on abstract grounds, a life of greater inconvenience, and slowly learn a different set of skills.  

We do this, of course, because we have so much energy at our disposal – the equivalent of 300 slaves by one common estimate, making each of us richer than medieval kings. Of course, we can’t keep doing this forever – there were only so many ancient forests to burn, and doing so has played with the knobs and dials of the world’s weather control panel. Thus, most discussions of the future focus on producing enough energy to meet our escalating needs -- escalating because each generation grows up with more comfort and convenience, and because there are more of us. 

The same is true in our personal lives; most of us fantasize about making more money, not about spending less, even though it amounts to the same thing, and even though your current spending might not be making you happy. Adverts and articles tout new and more fuel-efficient cars, not buying fewer or older cars and driving them more slowly.  A major magazine a few years back showed their concern for the future with an “eco-issue;” I showed mine by refusing to buy the magazine. Most discussions of energy, similarly, ignore the central and salient factor of how much we don't need.

Take, for example, the old technique of hay-box cooking, done by people here a few generations ago and by the British during the lean times of the Second World War. A hay box is just what it says, a box lined with hay or some other insulating material that will keep heated food hot and cooking for hours. Manufactured hay-boxes were built in the early part of the 20th century, and stores used to sell elegant and decorated models, but to make one at home all you need is a box – or in my case, two smaller boxes, one flipped upside-down and placed over the other – with blankets stuffed around the sides.

To use this method I started by making a few litres of lentil soup with vegetables from our garden, and brought it to a rolling boil. On the stove I would have to cook it for an hour or more until the lentils were soft, but here I only needed to bring it to the boil, take the pot off the stove and place it in the hay-box. I surrounded the pot with blankets in lieu of dry hay – people here make hay while the sun shines, so there hasn’t been much of either in Ireland this year – covered it over with more blankets, and went to bed. In the morning I took the cool pot of soup out of the box and found it had cooked perfectly, after using a fraction of the fuel.

Another example of using what you have comes in an even more unassuming package, the tea cozie. The Irish are among the most prolific tea-drinkers on Earth, and a “cuppa” is the standard greeting offered to family, friends and just passers-by. Boiling tea cools quickly, and if you like your tea strong – sitting in the pot a while – or want a second cup, you want to conserve the heat. The tea-cozie solves that by insulating the pot like the hay-box insulates tomorrow’s dinner, keeping it hot longer. A thermos does the same thing for a drink on the go.

The same logic applies to our houses; most of us in the modern world live in homes far larger than we need, and if many people heat their entire homes in winter while wearing summer clothes indoors. The UK-based Building Research Establishment reports that British homes in 1970 had an average temperature of 12 degrees in winter – 55 degrees – and I’m betting that in poorer and more traditional Ireland it was colder still. Yet people got by; they were more psychologically accustomed to colder temperatures, , they gathered in rooms together and allowed their body heat to raise the temperature, they remained physically active, they wore heavy clothes indoors, and they heated certain central rooms and let unused rooms provide insulation

As Kris De Decker notes in Low-Tech Magazine, “the reduction in energy use for space heating thanks to more efficient homes was less than 20 per cent from 1993 to 2005. Lowering the thermostat by 2° C (or 4°F) would thus result in energy reduction comparable to that. Turning down the thermostat from 22° to 18° C would initiate an energy savings of at least 35 per cent.”

DeDecker notes that insulating the body itself is the most efficient option, as there is so much less space to cover. Using American “clo” units, where one clo equals the thermal insulation required to keep one person comfortable at 21 degrees centigrade, he notes that briefs provide 0.05 clo, light socks 0.10 clo, a heavy shirt with long sleeves .25 clo, a sweater .30 clo, and long pants .30.
Someone wearing the ensemble described above would feel comfortable in a home heated to 21 degrees Centigrade – the level assumed for the modern USA by the standards company ASHRAE -- but in just a t-shirt would need 24 degrees. With long underwear they would only need the house to be heated to 17 degrees to feel the same comfort, which DeDecker reckons saves 50 to 70 per cent on heating costs compared to the t-shirt.

All of these are things we could change quickly in theory, but realistically, they will take time to grow used to – I hail from a hotter climate and am used to blasts of central heating in winter, and shifting away from that was slow and sometimes uncomfortable. In this, as in so many other areas, though, it helps to take the first steps in a different direction and keep going, and then one day you look behind you and realise how far you’ve travelled, and how little you needed after all. 

Saturday, 24 November 2012

Not crossing that thing

.. said the horse to the rider across from our house. If you want to cross it, get off.

The laptop has been in the shop again, so posting has been more sporadic than usual.

Saturday, 17 November 2012

Point of view

The Girl and I were singing "Whiskey in the Jar," an Irish folk song about a bandit who is captured and must face punishment.

Do you like the man singing the song, the bandit in the story? I asked.

"He's not a nice man," The Girl said, and I agreed. It's first-person, I said, and he's telling the story, so he's called the narrator, I said. But we don't necessarily believe what he says, so he's an unreliable narrator.

We talked a bit about how to tell a story first-person vs. third-person, and past and present tense. "What about telling a story second-person?" The Girl asked. "Or future tense?"

I explained that was nigh-impossible; if the first person is "I crossed the river," and the third person is "She crossed the river," then the second person would be "You crossed." But you didn't, and if you did you don't need to be told the story. The same is true of future tense; you can say something happened, or is happening now, but it's difficult to tell a story about what will happen.

The Girl thought a moment. "I own a story," she said, "written in the second person, and in the future tense."

What is it? I asked.

It's called "Instruction Manual," she said.

Photo: The Girl with her basket of mushrooms. 

Tuesday, 13 November 2012


Since she was little, I have shown The Girl the BBC's treasurehouse of nature documentaries, and Sir David Attenborough has long been one of our heroes. I usually had to watch them in advance, however, to know when she could see the lovely and comical flamingos, and to scroll past the baboon attack.

"Why are you fast-forwarding it, Daddy?" Oh, just a part you won't be interested in, I say. Oh look, we're to the cute hedgehogs now.

I slowly let in more and more as she seems ready to accept it; I don't want her growing up eating chicken legs unless she knows where they come from and be able to harvest them herself, even if I prefer that she eat les messily than the baboons. As time goes on I also expurgate less of the animal courtship; I feel we will need to talk about the human equivalent soon, and I would rather she understand early that we are animals too, whatever else we are.

The one thing I played for her unattended, though, was Attenborough's The Private Life of Plants, which held her spellbound, and which -- I assumed -- there would be no violent deaths. In reality, though, there were some scenes which disturbed her four-year-old self, but which she has quickly embraced with the gruesome glee of childhood; she now makes clay models of predatory plants, and got me a Venus flytrap for my birthday.

We've been feeding it the spiders that come in with the firewood, and while she has a little girl's fear of spiders, she feels much better after feeding them to the houseplants.

Photo: Her plasticine model of a pitcher plant.