Sunday, 26 February 2012

Friday, 24 February 2012

Article at Low-Tech magazine

For anyone who's interested, I wrote an article on basketry for Low-Tech Magazine, now on their web site here.

If you're not familiar with Low-Tech Magazine, it specialises in a deceptively deep question: What if high-tech solutions don't work? What if such solutions can't overcome fuel shortages, reduce climate emissions or feed tens of billions of mouths, or what if such solutions can't be sustained forever?

The magazine rescues dusty information on once-commonplace skills, and criticises conventional environmental wisdom regarding wind and solar power, and virtual commerce. It publishes detailed accounts of forgotten technologies, many from the 18th and 19th centuries when sciences like engineering were rapidly advancing but energy was still precious: floating windmills, optical telegraphs, sailing ships, timbrel vaulting, masonry ovens and so on. In short, it has proven one of the most thought-provoking and under-appreciated publications out there.

Wednesday, 22 February 2012

And into dust

For fifteen centuries monks worshipped at this site in the Wicklow Mountains, and some rest in the graveyard under slabs as large as tables.

Like every graveyard here, it lies in the shadow of yew trees, whose remarkable age make them symbols of life and death. I assumed that when people founded a church here, they planted yews. Yews can stand for many centuries, though, and recently I heard speculation that it was the other way around: the churches and monasteries were built where the yews already stood.

Monday, 13 February 2012

The Girl

The hardest thing is striking a balance. I want The Girl to learn the things that are truly important, not what her peers think are important. I want to encourage values not commonly taught to girls today. I want to prepare for the future I genuinely expect, and not what we are all told to expect.

On the other hand, a child learns from family, teachers, classmates, television and books, and those influences can complement mine and allow her a more normal childhood. Moreover, she is her own person – having a child is like getting married, in that you can influence the person you love, but cannot write them like an article. I bring my own lessons, and everyone else in her life brings theirs.

Now, going on eight years old, she shows a diverse set of influences. She plays with Barbies and ponies, watches CBeebees and Thundercats, and wants to marry Justin Bieber --- yes, he’s here too. She seems to get on with her classmates at the village Catholic school, and be a normal girl. At the same time …


She asked for a stay-up-late movie night, and when I asked what she wanted to watch, she said “Buster Keaton!” She particularly loves 1923’s The Balloonatic, in which Keaton fails in his attempts to impress the lovely Phyllis Haver. I think she likes the fact that Haver is a woman but competent at fishing, chopping wood and fending for herself, traits not common in female characters even today.


The Girl wanted to play school before bedtime, so I pretended to be the teacher, and she asked that I teach her more about the first animals, in what we call the Second Age. In the First Age of the world, I explain, there were only germs -- the Second Age came when the germs organised into the first germ cities – bodies, including ours. She loves the bizarre and oddly cute beings preserved in the Burgess Shale-- trilobites, wiwaxia and opabina – whose whimsical forms speak of God’s youthful experimentation.

“I’d like a cuddly Wiwaxia sometime,” she said. Maybe we’ll make one, I said. And is there such a thing? I thought. Of course there is. We’re not alone.


She also wanted to know more about how to keep valuables safe. Where do you think the best place to hide something would be? I asked.

“In a cow magnet!” she said. She knows that farmers here feed cows magnets, which are designed to sit in the cows’ stomachs and gather up all the bits of scrap and barbed wire that the cows unintentionally suck up with the grass. The resulting clump of metal sits in the cow’s rumen as long as the cow lives, and my checking this informs me that it’s called a pseudobezoar.

That’s brilliant, I said. Nobody would think of looking inside a cow. Of course, you wouldn’t get it back for a while.

“That’s okay – when I get it back, I’ll get supper out of it too.” She said.


She had reading to do for school, but she wanted to do it while pretending, and right now she’s into Victorian times. We talked about Mary Anning, the girl only a little older than she, who was the most skilled fossil-hunter of her age, and who meticulously uncovered the archosaurs embedded like bas-relief sculptures in the cliffs of the British Isles.

Then she pretended to be Princess Alice, daughter of Queen Victoria, arriving to inspect an Irish school in the days when Britain still controlled this land.

“You be the schoolmaster, Mr. Bogbroth,” she said. A very Dickensian name, I said, and explained who Dickens was and that it was his 200th birthday today. Could I get a more appetising name? I asked.

“Okay, the teacher can be Mr. … um …. Muntor,” she said, using the Irish word for teacher.

Okay, I said. As Schoolmaster Muntor, I introduced Princess Alice, and she read her school assignment to the invisible class before us. She then spun a story in which Princess Alice had gone lame, and Mr. Muntor, using pieces of his student’s desks and bicycle wheels, invents the first wheelchair.

What began as a stage aside during our in-character dialogue grew into a full tale, as she was carried by the momentum of her story. I put my role aside and observed her attentively, as I will one day do with her life: no longer the main character, but the audience.

Wednesday, 8 February 2012

Sunlit path

The apse of my favourite cathedral.

Saturday, 4 February 2012

Time Machine

“I have a time machine,” said The Girl, holding up her tent.

We talk a lot about the way people lived in earlier eras, as we walk together and talk about the plants we see. I’ve casually explained that, whether in Denmark or Australia, a million years ago or a few thousand, people lived mainly by gathering wild foods, hunting, fishing, and – lately – planting and herding. We look at books to see how Egyptians built their houses or what kind of meals Romans ate.

What ages have you visited? I asked.

“A Long Time Ago,” she said, capitalising the words with her voice. “Back to the Way Things Were, in the Time of Our Ancestors.”

How long ago? I asked.

Three years ago,” she said dramatically. “When I was four.”

Life was simpler then, wasn’t it? I said.

Photo: The Girl on a street in Dublin, on one of our weekend outings.