Sunday, 30 June 2013

Blog on hiatus for month of July

I started out with newspapers -- maybe you’ve seen such things in the store, stacks of zombie publications running on inertia. I boarded a sinking ship, for when I was working at my first jobs in the 1990s the internet came in and took over.

I made a bad shipmate anyway. I was too impatient with covering local events. I wanted to go beyond stereotypes of left and right. I wanted to write about things like peak oil or climate change. And when I tried to practice what I preached – moving to rural Ireland and studying traditional ways of life – I began writing a column about it for a newspaper here, and I began this blog.

The blog has been going for five years this week - this is the 700th post -- and the column for seven years.  Besides reprinting the column, this blog features:

• Interviews with elderly neighbours here in rural Ireland.

• Articles about traditional ways of life, here or in my native Missouri.

 • Articles I wrote for the American Conservative, the Dallas Morning News, the Columbia Daily Tribune, the St. Louis Post Dispatch, Front Porch Republic or Energy Bulletin.

• Photos of landscapes and buildings around us, preserved from an earlier era.

• Vintage photos of ways of life most of us have forgotten, and might have to rediscover.

All these threads, I hope, weave around a common idea: Let’s say our modern world of consumerism and mass media has not been entirely beneficial. Let’s say we have lost the self-reliant skills, classical education and common values that were once ubiquitous. Let’s say our consumption grows exponentially, but fossil fuels and carbon sinks turn out to be finite.

Let’s posit a long emergency ahead – not an action-movie apocalypse, but a slow conversion into a more traditional world. And let’s say you have a daughter. What happens next?

My column and this blog set out to answer that question, and I treated it as a daily publication about this project, a different facet each day. Writing for the internet is not, however, as our journalism gurus initially predicted, like a newspaper in fast-forward, for the internet does not have a publication’s sense of forward motion. It is like a trillion rooms that appear and disappear, or a library of books that sit unopened for years and suddenly “go viral” for no apparent reason. It is like shouting into a dark room that may or may not be crowded, filled with readers sympathetic or hostile. You just don’t know.

For many months now I’ve tried to have a new article or photo each day, but in the last week I’ve had technical problems, and I’ve been swamped with my daughter – “The Girl,” I call her here – and our lessons. In a few days we leave for London on holiday.

Thus, I’m putting this blog on hiatus until August 1. Whoever’s reading, set a reminder and I will see you then. In the meantime, The Girl turns nine today – wish her a good one, from wherever you are in the world.

Top photo: The Girl and I around the time I started the blog. 
Bottom photo: The Girl today.

Tuesday, 25 June 2013


I'm experiencing technical problems again, so posting will be light this week. Apologies.

Thursday, 20 June 2013

The Butterfly

Every night before The Girl goes to bed, we have a ritual. I draw the curtains, I close the door, I light a candle, we sit quietly for a moment, and then we do another lesson. Each lesson so far has been an idea: Ockham’s Razor, the Anthropic Principle, and so on. At first I picked the lessons, but more and more they pick themselves.

Could you tell me what the Anthropic Principle is? I asked.

“Um … things are the way things are because … if they were any other way, we wouldn’t be here,” The Girl said.

Example, I said. I don’t want her to just recite things. 

“But you know, I don’t think that’s true,” The Girl said, changing the subject. How do you mean? I asked.

“Well, we could live in a world where all our houses were fun houses and all our looking-glasses were carnival glasses, but we’d still be the same people we are now,” she said.

Interesting point, I said. But what would have to happen to change all our houses into fun houses, and how would that affect everything else?

The Girl thought for a moment. “Well,” she said, “It would make everything else different.”

I think it would, I said, and that would mean that all the things you remember wouldn’t be the same, so you wouldn’t be the same person. The things that made up you wouldn’t be the same, so you wouldn’t be you.

As an example, I told The Girl about her great-grammy and great-grandpa, who rode the trolley together in St. Louis before he was called to war -- if one of them had worked different jobs, they might not have been on the same trolley, and they might not have ever met. I talked about her friend Abby – I met her mother when we were teenagers, and if I hadn’t, she and Abby wouldn’t be friends.

“That would be terrible!” she said.

I’ll give you one more example, I said. You know Richard III was killed in battle, right? Well, the story goes that his horse lost a nail in his shoe. Because of the nail, the horse lost its shoe. Because the horse couldn’t run, the king lost his horse. Because the horse was lost, the king fell and was slain. Because of the king, the battle was lost, and because of the battle, England was lost.

“And he lost the Wars of the Roses!” The Girl said – she’s a fan of Richard III, ever since his bones were found under that car park last winter, and she thinks him terribly misjudged by history.

That's right, I said -- so little things have big result. Mathematicians call this the Butterfly Effect – tiny things change huge equations. They say a butterfly flaps its wings in Brazil and the weather in Ireland changes.

“I’m going to be jealous of butterflies now,” she said.

Why? I asked.

 “Because they have so much power,” she said. “I can’t change part of the world like that.”

I took her face in my hands. You don’t think so? I asked. You’re doing it now.

Photo: The Girl in an unharvested field in the bog. 

Wednesday, 19 June 2013

Footing turf

My daughter and I spent Sunday footing turf in the bog near our home – a phrase that made no sense when we first moved out here, now an important day in our calendar.

Turf, also called peat, is the remains of centuries of moss and other vegetation that built up in the bogs, which built up over the millennia when the submerged lower strata did not fully decompose. Draining the bog and pulling back the top layer of vegetation reveals black and spongy bio-mass that turns reddish-brown and hard when it dries, and creates a slow-burning, smoky fire when lit.

For hundreds – probably thousands – of years it has been the main way people in this cold country kept warm. The smell of burning turf is one of the most distinctive things about this land, and in country homes and pubs alike here neighbours gather around turf fires in the winter evenings.

Most farmers who lived anywhere near a bog had a ready source of fuel for the winter, once they pulled away the top layer of vegetation and exposed the peat underneath. Farmers here – everyone was a farmer of course, whatever else they did – carried special shovels shaped like one corner of a square, made for sinking into sides of a ditch and scooping out long rectangles of peat.

Today a walk through bog less than a kilometre from our house reveals fields of flowers, never-cut or grown-over, as well as ditches used to drain away the groundwater, and finally a maroon peat landscape, with the underfoot consistency of a firm mattress.

It has become a decidedly uneven landscape by now, with hollows a few metres deep in the red land, quarried where generations have scooped out the turf, interrupting it on its way to becoming coal. The canals in front of our house were built in the 1700s to go through this area, with railway tracks running from the canal banks deep into the bog-lands. Spanning the canal sits a rusted trestle and crane, about three metres tall, and perpendicular to the canal, heading off into the bog, are rail lines now buried under grass.

These days, the cutting is done by tractor, leaving long ropes of black and moist turf like liquorice, partly cut at intervals of a foot or two. While machines can cut the turf, though, humans still need to dry it by hand, “footing” it by cracking apart the liquorice into bricks and stacking them like cross-hatching, four or five bricks high.

Burning turf makes a strange conundrum for fans of independent, sustainable living. On one hand it is the only fuel, apart from wood, that you can gather yourself near your home, using ordinary tools. Peat bogs around the world present an opportunity for people to keep warm in winter without being dependent on the grid, unless governments clamp down on the activity or the bogs are tapped out.

On the other hand, “while peat is classified by the IPCC as a renewable fuel,” wrote Kris De Decker in Low-Tech Magazine, this is highly debatable. Peat is renewed at a rate of about one millimetre per year at most, and so it takes about 3,000 years for a peat layer of three metres to return to its original size – and only if the land is not disturbed in that time. In addition, mining the peat has a very large impact on the landscape, as we shall see, while the burning of turf produces slightly more CO2 emissions than coal for the same energy content. The only advantage it has over coal is that it produces less smoke and has a lower sulphur content, and thus produces less air pollution than coal.”

Right now the Irish government is forbidding hand-harvesting of turf, one bog at a time, ostensibly to protect it as a wetland -- which sounds good, except that the national energy company already mines the boglands on an industrial scale to produce most of the country's electricity. In the meantime, my daughter and I dried enough to last us for the next few years, by which time this old tradition might be only a memory, or performed in secret.

 Top photo: Loading turf into a boat for transport, circa 1900. 
Middle photo: Cut turf and stacks of footed turf. 
Bottom photo: My daugher climbing one of the quarries in the bog.

Tuesday, 18 June 2013

Time Lords

This morning I wanted to make cheese, and tested the rennet we bought far too long ago; rennet loses its curdling abilities over time, and I wanted to see if it could still do the job. I discovered that it was useless at the recommended amounts, but worked if you used it at ten or twenty times the concentration.

So here’s my question for any cheese-makers out there: can you simply increase the dose tenfold or so? Would there be any ill effects?

We also meant to whitewash the chicken coop, but we had to spend all day in the bog, footing our turf to dry it over the summer months and burn in our stove for heat over the next three winters – more on that soon. By the time we returned, our stretch of great weather had broken, and we had to run back over the squishy bogfields in the rain.

When we got home I wrapped The Girl in blankets, put on Going My Way with Bing Crosby and Barry Fitzgerald, made soup and noodles and we curled up together.

“We got a lot done today,” she said. Yes, we did, I said.


“Daddy, why did Judas give Jesus a kiss when the soldiers were coming?”

That was an interesting detail, wasn’t it? I said. I suppose to single him out to the soldiers while not making it look obvious that he was betraying him.

“Why did he betray him?” The story goes that it was for money, I said.

“But that’s terrible! Money’s not worth that!” she said, genuinely indignant.

Well, in fairness to him, maybe the soldiers threatened to kill him if he didn’t co-operate, I said. That would still be wrong, but more understandable.

“If we had Doctor Who’s time machine, we could go back and ask him,” she said. As with Facebook the other day,

I didn’t ask how she knew about Doctor Who – it’s a cult show in the USA, but a major cultural institution over here. I suspect there’s a reason why that story -- the story of a pacifist who saves people, who is killed and returns in a new form -- has acquired such religious devotion in an increasingly irreligious land.

What would you do with a time machine? I asked.

“I’d like to do what Doctor Who does,” she said. “See different parts of history, and I’d like to save the world.”

You know, I said, you’re in a time machine right now.


Well, you’re time-travelling into the future right now, and you’ll see a lot of history – more than I will, I expect. And you can change a lot of things in the world.

She sighed. “I know what you mean – but I’m going through time really slowly.”

That's the blessing, I said. You want to hear a secret? When you’re your age, time moves in slow motion, but soon it will begin moving very quickly indeed.

Sunday, 16 June 2013

Fallen tree in the woods

Week with The Girl, Part III


Reading a great story to a child allows you to see it twice, through your own eyes and through theirs. They see moments of comedy or suspense that we have become invisible to us out of familiarity or adult sensibilities.

We were just getting to the part of Treasure Island where Jim, the boy narrator, has discovered the treasure map left by the pirates, and brought it to the two learned men of the region, Doctor Livesey and Squire Trelawney. They all planned to search for the treasure, Jim staying with the doctor while the squire acquired a ship for them at the nearest port. The problem, The Girl and I agreed, was that the squire was a well-intentioned blabbermouth. So when the squire wrote Jim a letter describing how he had found a ship and crew, and that the crew were excited to be looking for treasure, The Girl smacked her forehead.

“FACEPALM!” she said, the word as well as the gesture. “Squire, what did you do?”

I agree, I said – if the sailors know they have a treasure map, I wouldn’t trust any of them once they’re at sea. They should have said they were on a science expedition, like Darwin was with Fitzroy.

“They should just leave the squire behind for this!” The Girl said. “He might as well have put this all over Facebook!”

After a moment’s pause, something occurred to me. Wait a minute, I said – you're eight years old in the country, and you don’t use much internet or see much television. How do you know what Facebook is?

“I guess I just know somehow,” she said.

I bet there are Amazon tribes that know what Facebook is, I thought, smiling, and none of us chose to. We don’t have the right not to know things anymore.


For movie night I picked College, a Buster Keaton film that she had never seen before, and as per most of his plots, it involved his character trying to win the love of a sweet, gamine brunette who initially spurns him. In the case of The General, he has to prove himself a hero in war, but in this he wants to prove himself an athlete in college, and his bookworm character – who knows not the first rule of any sport – must try out for baseball, rowing, running, javelin, hammer, discus and hurdles, all with the results you might expect. Unexpectedly, it caused a long talk about relationships.

“Why is he doing all these things for just one girl?” The Girl said. “She’s not even nice! She’s laughing at him!”

I know, I said, it’s quite unfair to Buster. He should just find someone good, but unfortunately all he can think about is her. You remember “twitter-pated” from Bambi, how all the animals went funny? He’s twitter-pated.

"Will that happen to me?" She asked. When you’re a few years older, you will probably feel lots of strange things, I said – crushes, they’re called. As a teenager you’ll feel like doing stupid things. The trick, I told her, is to keep on doing what you know is right even when you feel like doing something else.

Later in the film, as the love interest sees Buster Keaton’s character try and fail over and over, she begins to feel sorry for him, and then to admire his spirit.

“She’s starting to see who he really is,” The Girl said. Yes, I said, she’s realising she shouldn’t be with the most popular guys, or the richest, but the guys who keep trying to do the right thing even when they fail.

“When she goes back to him, he should dump her!” she said. “He deserves better than her – she’s been mean to him all this time!”

Is she like Randolph Scott in Follow the Fleet? I asked. I showed her that a few weeks ago, and she was struck by the subplot of the smart girl with glasses falling for Randolph Scott, and how he suddenly likes her after she transforms her appearance. Whatever the original audience was supposed to feel, for us it was a teaching moment: if he likes her for her beauty, she should dump him.

“Yes! Buster deserves somebody better than this.”

She sees the error of her ways by the end, I said, but you’re on to something. Films and television show you the heroes and heroines getting together with the one they love. I’d like to see more of them, at the end of these stories, put together with the one they should love.

Friday, 14 June 2013

Week with the Girl, Part II


As usual, after I came home from work, ate and showered, and The Girl and I prepared to go upstairs for lessons and reading before bed. Oh wait, I said – we need to put the chickens to bed first.

We close up the coop every night to protect them against predators and the cold, and every night they are sitting on the perch like a row of fat songbirds. Tonight, of course, four new arrivals were settling in.

We counted birds and stopped at six. Counted again. Again, the other way. Rechecked the number we should have – two hens from before, one cockerel, four new additions ….

When you checked the chickens this afternoon, did you count them? I asked.

“There were seven of them, Daddy,” she said. “I’m absolutely sure.”

I looked around the run. Looked up into the trees, wondering how ambitious chickens could get. Lifted The Girl on my shoulders to check the roof. Walked all around the area.

“She’s gone, Daddy!” The Girl said, sounding as panicked as I felt.

Could a fox have – let’s see – climbed onto the shed, leapt down into their area and grabbed a bird? In broad daylight, with no one hearing anything? And how did it get out?

Could some of the itinerants – the ones our neighbours said killed and ate their ducks – have grabbed her? But why take only one?  

We had just given up and were going inside when, just to say we had tried everything – I grabbed a long stick and, as The Girl and I kneeled, we ran it through the sliver of open space underneath the coop.

“BWAAAAK!” came the sound from deep inside.

She had burrowed several feet under the floorboards of the coop itself.

After much poking from different sides, we got her out, and The Girl cuddled her and gently set her back with the others.

“We’ve discovered a new species of chicken!” The Girl said. “The world’s first burrowing chicken!”

Thursday, 13 June 2013

Week with the Girl, Part 1


The Girl has developed a child’s love of the macabre, and pores over the images in her history books; the beheading of the French queen, the canopic jars of Egyptian mummies and the human sacrifices the Druids left in bogs like ours.  I keep an eye on her to make sure she is not reading anything too graphic, or oversharing with her Catholic school peers, but I like the fact that an eight-year-old remembers the disgusting cures of the misguided Pliny the Elder.

When she asked to see her first horror film, though, I discouraged her; she is media-sheltered by the standards of modern children, and our weekly movie nights lean towards Buster Keaton and Fred Astaire. 

After she handled Shakespeare well, however, and a mystery like The Thin Man, I felt she was ready, and showed her the 1932 version of The Mummy. The film seems tepid by today’s standards, and she was not overly frightened – but she did feel sorry for Boris Karloff as the titular villain.

“He was just trying to get his loved one back,” The Girl said. “I almost wish he had won – I liked him better than that other guy.”

Villains are almost always more attractive than heroes, I said – you’ll find that in real life too, especially as you become a teenger. But they’re still wrong. That’s why you don’t always do what you feel like doing.

“I know,” she sighed. “I just felt sorry for him.”

Those villains make the most interesting characters, I said – much more than simple cartoon villains, and sometimes more interesting than heroes. They’re called “anti-villains,” villains that aren’t really so bad.

“Are anti-villains real?” she said.

In real life, any villain is an anti-villain, I said. No one is just a cartoon, and everyone is complicated -- most of us are villains sometimes, or in someone else's eyes.

“Is almost everyone a hero too?” she asked.

Everyone you meet is the hero of their own story, I said – that’s just normal. If you want to be special, though, you should try to become a hero in other people's stories.


As The Girl and I prepared for bed at the end of a long day, I took Treasure Island from the shelf and opened it to where we left off last night.  

“Before we read the next chapter, can I read to you from my scary insect book?” she asked. I agreed, and she curled up on the bed next to me and began reading excitedly about hawk moths and bombardier beetles.

I’m not sure what slowed first – her reading or my listening – but eight hours later we woke up in the same positions, the book sprawled across her, her sleeping head on  my chest.


Our poultry, I’m sorry to say, have seen a high attrition rate. We got a duck and drake in the hopes of doing what our neighbours did -- training them to walk to the canal and return to the house at night – but the experiment failed, and the ducks remain in the canal. One hen died, while another turned out to be a late-blooming cockerel, so we were down to one adolescent rooster and two harried hens.

Thus I took the day off work, picked up The Girl from school and set off to buy four more hens from a farmer friend. We gently boxed them in cardboard and made our way home, The Girl pressing her ear gently against them to make sure the hens were not too agitated.

When we arrived home, she proudly carried the boxes into the chicken run. “Look, Cloudy!” The Girl said to the cockerel, “We got you new girlfriends!”


“Daddy, I love reading about death,” The Girl said.

What sort of things about death, I asked?

“Well, I used to not like scary things, but I’m okay with them now,” she said. “That’s why I wanted to see the scary movie.”

You did just fine with it, I said, silently thinking that most children these days see things far worse than that. I’m glad she has reached these limits at this age, and no further.

“I just like reading about death,” she said. Are you turning into a goth? I asked.

“What’s a goth?”

Originally, German tribes that fought the Romans, like in your Asterix comics, I said. Later, though, it came to mean intense and melodramatic, like that version of Faust they tried to put on in The Band Wagon.

“Oh right!” she said, brightening – Jack Buchannan’s hammy turn was her favourite part of the film, and she was imitating him for weeks afterwards. “Can I be a goth?”

Life is melodramatic enough for a child, I said. Why this interest in scary things?

“Well, I wasn’t scared when we saw the man die in the traffic accident, and I want to keep on being brave.”

I get it, I thought. Listen sweetie, I said, I’m proud of you for wanting to be brave, but watching someone get hurt in a book or on the telly doesn’t take any bravery. You have to be able to do the right thing in real life even though it hurts, or might hurt – that’s brave. And that man wasn’t just a body lying on the road, he had a name and a life that ended that day.

“I know, Daddy,” she said more softly.

Okay, I said. If you want to learn more about death, I asked gently, do you think you could kill an animal -- like one of the chickens if we needed the meat? If you want to keep eating meat, you might have to do that.

She tried to look as cheerful as she could muster about this. “Maybe …”

You won’t have to today or tomorrow, but eventually, and I’ll try to be there to help you. Okay?

“Okay,” she said, accepting this quietly. 

In the meantime, what did you want to see for the next movie night?

"Can I see Dracula?" she asked.  

Wednesday, 12 June 2013

The Train to the World

"People, they don't realise what they lost," said Dan, an old man who remembered the Bundoran Express, the train that carried families to the sea and pligrims to Lough Derg. "People were so happy then."

"Back then, going to the seaside would be like kids going to America today," said Selwyn Johnson of Eniskillen. "Just to get to the seaside was a very special event."

"The other thing about a railway station like Eniskillen -- it was the last place people would say goodbye before leaving the country," Johnson said. "It was the place they made before going on honeymoon, or to war, to make a life elsewhere."

-- From the RTE radio documentary "The Bundoran Express," broadcast 04 August 2010.

Tuesday, 11 June 2013

Keeping food

Wherever they lived in the world, people faced the same dilemma: they need food every day of the year, but most foods are only available for a brief season.

Around us, for example, hawthorns bear shoots for a few weeks in spring, sorrel emerges in the summer, and berries appear for a few weeks in autumn – but none of those provides a great deal of nutrition, and a diet of just a few species of plants in any week would grow quite monotonous. Then, of course, there are long months of winter where little grows, and if you get a year like we had in 2012, you get the equivalent of eighteen months of winter. And Ireland, of course, has one of the most temperate of climates; most regions of the world dry up, freeze, bake, swelter or flood for long stretches of the year.

If you are like many animals, the lean times are simply when you live or die, and your numbers reduce. Humans, on the other hand, came up with ways to preserve the harvest through the lean months, through generations of trial and error, allowing us to spread to almost every climate in the world.   

The specific methods changed with culture and climate, but people knew how to dry, pickle, salt, bury, smoke and ferment, just as people used to know how to raise food, build shelters, birth babies, raise children and bury their dead. It is only in the last couple of generations, here in the West, that we have forgotten all these things, and expect to be taken care of.

Today, a shocking percentage of people -- a majority in America - don't cook at all. Seventy per cent of Americans are overweight, and a recent poll in England found that a third of food was thrown away uneaten. That constant stream of cheap and unhealthy food, though, depends entirely on a flood of fossil fuels, a stable climate, a healthy economy and many other factors that will fade as the years pass. More and more modern people are taking up backyard gardens, allotments and other ways of growing food, but these hobbies will be of only limited value unless they also relearn to stretch most of the harvest into the rest of the year.  

Preserving food against decay generally follows a simple principle: make it unpalatable for the things that would decay it, by making it too dry (dehydrating), too cold (freezing), too salty (salt pickling), too sweet (jams and cordials), too acid (vinegar pickling) or sterilised and removed from oxygen (canning).

Drying food is such a commonplace technique that it has become invisible to us; say “dehydrated” and most people think of Army rations, but of course our flour, corn, rice, barley, oats, beans, tea, coffee, herbs and spices all sit dried in our kitchens, and begin to go bad if touched by moisture. Most of us could not dry grains at home, or would need to, but you can certainly dry herbs from your garden; we hang our sage, rosemary and oregano upside-down in the kitchen pantry, along with nettles (for tea) and onions from the garden.

All manner of edible plants, moreover, can be dried for teas – dandelions, mint, clover, bramble shoots, nettle, chamomile, Echinacea, fennel, dill, anise, thyme, linden or St. John’s Wort. Fruit of all kinds can be dried: raisins, sultanas, sun-dried tomatoes (technically a fruit), apple rings, fruit rolls and any number of processed foods. Some of these tend to come from warmer climates and can be shipped here; raisins were a commonplace ingredient in Irish dishes for generations, a precious bit of fruit during the dark months, but native dried fruit could have done as well.
Drying meat into jerky is an old method of storing protein, and other people dehydrate chopped vegetables as soup starters. The Japanese dry seaweed to use in soups, and we here in Ireland pay high prices for it at sushi restaurants, yet ignore the thousands of tonnes of edible seaweed on our own shores.

Of course, the most familiar kind of indefinite food storage for many people is freezing, which still requires electricity but is a good place to start. Rather than eating out, ordering in or making individual meals one by one, you can make a large quantity of a dish in season and freeze it in a dozen meal-sized portions for later. It costs much less than making many individual meals, you can mix-and-match dishes, and the food retains most of its vitamins and flavour from the time it was picked.

Your climate will make some kinds of preservation easier or more difficult -- our damp climate in Ireland means we have to watch out for mould when drying, and you may need the help of your radiator or oven. On the other hand, we have very little snow or even frost here, and this is a good climate to simply leave things like parsnips, celeriac or other root vegetables in the ground through the winter, and yank them out as you need them. Some people put straw or bags over them to protect from frost, or pull them from the earth and store them in sand.

Finally, you can preserve some foods by changing them into other foods; we turn our milk into yogurt and soft cheese, and my first hard cheese experiment created some very nice Parmesan. More on how to make cheese soon.