Sunday, 30 September 2012

Future careers

On the way home she asked about the soil, and said it sounded like the world was an animal.
In a way it is, I said. You know how everything started out as just germs? I said.

Yes, we’ve talked about that many times, she said – back when the germs were first making the rocks and ores of the world, when the sky was pink with carbon dioxide and the oceans purple with halobacteria, before the first germs ever organised into bodies. I’ve told her how germs are still around with us, an ocean through which we move, and that most of the cells even in our own bodies are not our own.

Are we like the cells in our bodies? She asked.

I said we were part of something much greater than ourselves, and as we talked we decided that the rivers were the blood, the rocks were the bones, soil the flesh, and animals were the nerves.

“What kind of germs are we?”

It depends what kind of person you are, I said. Some people have been like the bad germs, making the world sicker.

“Can we be like the white blood cells?” she asked, knowing that they patrol the body and heal it.  

We’re not born that way, I said, but we can learn to be.

“I’d like to be a white blood cell when I grow up,” she said.

You’re well on your way, I said. 

Photo: The Girl in a ruined dovecote -- a place where pigeons were raised for messages and food -- near our house. 

Saturday, 29 September 2012


“I think there are at least three hundred roots for any tree,” she said, coming back to the original subject.

You might be right, I said -- I bet they do, and many roots go further than that, because they go down to threads, and mix with other threads – what do you think the other threads are?

“Fungi!” she said. We’ve talked about this, how we stand on a fabric of fungi threads like a big mattress in the soil. Sometimes threads go between the trees, I said, and they let things flow between the trees like blood vessels.

“The fungi are the trees’ teacher,” The Girl said. “They are how they talk to each other.”
Interesting way of putting it, I said, but I won’t disagree. They give the trees life, and the trees give us life. And when the trees die the fungi change them back into soil again.

“So baby trees can grow.”

Yes, the soil gives the trees life, and one day it brings them home.

“Is that like what happens to us?”  

We have a home too, I said. We all go there one day. 

Friday, 28 September 2012

By the lake

The other day, as we walked through the forest, she asked me why she needed to know maths -- “math” to Americans. “Why do I need to know maths?” She asked.

Everything is made of maths, I said; people would look at the world differently if they understood more. How many roots do you think this tree has?

“You’d have to uproot it to count them all,” she said.

Maybe, I said, but let’s say the trunk splits two ways below our feet, and each of them splits two ways, how many roots do you have?

“Four,” she said.

What comes next? I asked.

“Six!” she said, and then paused, realising that wasn’t right. We slowly counted through the sequence:  eight. Sixteen. Thirty-two. Sixty-four.

She wrestled with the alien world of exponential growth, and stared into the forest digesting this, taking her first inchoate steps toward a world of interest rates and hockey-stick graphs, and the runaway numbers she will inherit. Eventually, I hope, she will see tendrils of connection between them and the plastic we pick off the ground.

Thursday, 27 September 2012

Raising the Girl

The Girl was a toddler when I began this weblog, and her tiny milestones marked the passing of days. Now she is eight – a different child, who curls up and reads books silently to herself, retains increasing control over her temper and exuberance, and asks difficult questions that demand carefully worded answers. Mistakes made with a small child can generally be rewritten, but the memories we create in older children will last long after we are gone.

As we walk the white and empty roads together, we pick up the bottles and cans like they were Easter eggs. We talk about our neighbours, and occasionally check on them. We sing folk songs that people sang for hundreds of years until recently, and talk about whatever is blooming or fruiting by the roadside and what you can do with it.

Part of me would like to raise her entirely apart from the world, sheltered from the deformities of modern culture. But the world seeps in everywhere, and while I can mind what she hears from television, advertisements and her friends, I also accept that she will learn valuable things from them that I cannot teach.

All I can do is filter the strange world our species has made, explain its foolishness and prepare her for it, so that she can one day live in the world and yet stand apart from it. I hope she can represent a different set of values, so that as more people are forced to return to older ways again, she will be there to welcome them.  

Saturday, 22 September 2012


Some families split over political parties or religious faith. Mine split over beets. Some relations insisted on having bowls of boiled beetroot at every major meal, while the beet-haters complained all the while. I joined the anti-beetroot faction in childhood after finding them bland and mealy, until in adulthood I discovered the many other things you could do with the vegetable.

Beets – or beetroots as they call them here – does very well in most temperate climates, growing large over the summer and often remaining intact and quite edible even through the winter. Every part of it is edible -- leaves, stalks and roots -- and it comes in many varieties beyond the familiar red: yellow, pink, even striped.  It makes good animal feed, sugar, wine, and a variety of dishes, including:

Savoury beetroot salad: In a large salad bowl, mix 20 ml of sesame oil and 20 ml of lemon juice, and add dashes of powdered ginger, cayenne pepper and light soy sauce. Chop up a fistful of chives, although scallions would also do – about 50g. Clean and grate a few medium-sized beetroots (500g) and add 100g of diced feta cheese. Mix the beetroot and cheese well and toss them with the sauce.

Beetroot leaves: Drizzle a bit of oil into a pan over medium heat, throw in a pat of butter and let it melt. Dice a large onion and stir it in. While the onion is sautéing, wash the leaves and chop them. 

When the onion pieces have turned golden brown, put the chopped leaves in the pan, pour in a cup of vegetable stock, and place a lid over the pan. Let it sautee for about five minutes or so and then check to see if it’s done. Add a sprinkling of lemon juice and a dash of paprika, or experiment with the spices you like. You could serve the leaves like spinach, as a side dish, or use it to fill a crepe or an omelette, or mix it with scrambled eggs.

Borscht: In this vegetarian version, first heat the oven to 250 degrees Centigrade. First peel about 500g of beetroots, slice them into cubes, drizzle a little olive oil over the cubes and toss them around until they are lightly coated in oil. Stretch aluminium foil over an oven tray, spread the cubed beetroot over the tray and put it in the oven for an hour.

While that is roasting, take a large pot and drizzle the bottom with oil and butter. Dice two large onions, put them in the pan and stir them around, and then do the same with about 100g of cabbage, three stalks of celery, two large carrots, and – just before the end – some garlic. Let them sautee until they are soft and lightly golden. Then pour in a litre of vegetable stock and add 10 ml of lemon juice, 10 ml of dark soy sauce and stir in. Finally, take the beetroots out of the oven and add them to the pot. 

I blitzed the soup with a mixer, but if you don’t have one you can just mash up the chunky bits. Then pour the borscht into bowls and put a dollop of sour cream in the middle, and sprinkle a bit of dill and chervil over the top.

There are all kinds of other possibilities. Try making beetroot chips instead of potato chips. Slice them thinly with a mandolin, cover them in oil, and set them on an oven pan until they become crisp, and then sprinkle them with seasoning and salt to make beetroot crisps.

You can make pink mashers by mixing beetroot mash with potatoes. You can cut your beetroots into cubes, put them around a chicken in a pan, and roast them in the oven. You can dry them in a dehydrator or solar oven, and keep in jars on the shelf until you need to make soup. Come up with your own possibilities and share them; beetroot makes a great crop for winter nights, and we should start using it to make things most people actually like.

Photo courtesy of Wikicommons,