Monday, 30 September 2013

Published at Low-Tech Magazine

For those who don't know about it, Low-Tech Magazine has carved out a unique and desperately needed niche on the internet -- well-researched papers, often historical, dealing with old and largely forgotten technologies that allowed societies to do more with less.From aerial ropeways to optical telegraphs, modular hardware to timbrel vaults, Low-Tech gives you the esoteric craftsmanship of the world that existed before everything became cheap, short-lived and easily discarded.

I was honoured to write a piece for them last year, on basketry, and I'm delighted to do so again. My article on lime-burning kilns, "Burning the Bones of the Earth," will appear here eventually.

Photo: Lime kiln near our home.

Sunday, 29 September 2013


We boiled the ink cap ink to reduce it, and have tested it on paper:
... and now we'll see how well it stands up to sunlight and time.

Other projects we have running right now include:

We dried all the peas for sowing next year, and I'm preserving eggs in limewater. We'll be cracking them open soon to see how well they lasted.

Thursday, 26 September 2013

Making ink

In other news, The Girl fell behind us in the bog to look at the occasional mushroom, and I didn’t mind – when we and several adults went into a forest to find mushrooms, she found more than everyone else combined. It must come from being so close to the ground.

Mushrooms are supposed to be quite scarce in bogs, but The Girl found a lactarius, a boletus and a puffball, the latter two of which were edible. We also found, in our own yard, an Ink Cap mushroom -- edible when young, although they become toxic when drunk with alcohol.

These were a bit too old to eat, but I remembered that monks in the abbeys around us used to soak and boil them to create ink for their writings. Thus, The Girl and I have tried to do the same.

I let the mushrooms soak with cloves for a few days, and then simmered to reduce the liquid. We've been able to use the resulting ink, but we don't know yet how long it will last.

Wednesday, 25 September 2013

Gathering the turf

The Girl and I spent Saturday walking to the bog and gathering our turf for the winter, with the help of our neighbour and his tractor. For those who don’t know, we live in a dry patch along a canal in one of Europe’s largest peat bogs, the Bog of Allen.

“Turf” is the peat that lay submerged for centuries, now exposed like red earth after the bog was drained relatively dry. It is cut – by tractor these days, but until recently by hand – into strips that lie like giant ribbons of liquorice. Across vast areas of land around us the turf is still mined on an industrial scale, and packed into bricks sold for winter fuel at every petrol station and hardware store.

More importantly, however, it is burned in giant plants that furnish much of Ireland’s electricity. At the same time, turf-cutting is being restricted by the government to protect the bogs as wildlife habitats. Between the turf industry on one side and the cutting bans on the other, the local farmers who cut their own turf are growing rarer, squeezed in the middle.

For now, though, most of our neighbours spend autumn weekends driving their tractors into the bog, the fathers at the helm and the wife and children sitting in the trailer. You see them driving home at the end of the day, their trailers loaded deep with turf and the wife and children hanging onto the sides as they drive down the road.

We bought a modest strip of turf from our farmer friend last spring and had to “foot” it – break up the liquorice and stack the pieces cross-ways – several months ago. Now, as the days grow shorter and the rainy season sets in, it was time for The Girl and I to load up the now-dried bricks – if you can picture bricks being maroon, shaggy and misshapen – and cart them back to our land. Our neighbour drove his tractor on a winding path out of the bog, through clumps of forest and cow pasture, with me running behind in the distance and The Girl behind me. We dumped the turf – which we should be able to stretch out at least three winters – into a giant pile in front of our very bemused chickens.

Tuesday, 24 September 2013

The Red Queen

Every night my nine-year-old and I light a candle, turn off the lights before bed and have another lesson. They are not the lessons she learns at Catholic school, important as those are, but rather the kind of principles I wish I, and every child, were taught -- the anthropic principle, R and K species, positive feedback loops, game theory, and exponential growth. Tonight’s lesson was the Red Queen.

We began the night by singing “Scarborough Fair” together, as I helped her clean her room.
Tell her to buy me an acre of land – 
parsley, sage, rosemary and thyme, 
Between the salt water and the sea strand – 
then she’ll be a true love of mine. 
If you know the song, you remember the verses run through a series of impossible commands, as part of the most sarcastic love spell ever:
Tell her to plough it with the horn of a lamb… 
Tell her to reap it with a sickle of leather …. 
Tell her to make me a cambric shirt, without any seams or needlework… 
Fetch me some water from yonder dry well…
then she’ll be a true love of mine. 
You remember why all the jobs are impossible? I asked – she had asked me about this before, and remembers my answer. “Because you can’t make somebody love you?” she said.

Right, I said, and that goes for a lot of other things we want. Fantasies rarely work out the way you plan.

Once we cleaned the room, we lit the candle, and I read to her from Through the Looking Glass.
Alice never could quite make out, in thinking it over afterwards, how it was that they began: all she remembers is, that they were running hand in hand, and the Queen went so fast that it was all she could do to keep up with her: and still the Queen kept crying `Faster! Faster!' but Alice felt she could not go faster, thought she had not breath left to say so. 

The most curious part of the thing was, that the trees and the other things round them never changed their places at all: however fast they went, they never seemed to pass anything … till suddenly, just as Alice was getting quite exhausted, they stopped, and she found herself sitting on the ground, breathless and giddy. 

Alice looked round her in great surprise. `Why, I do believe we've been under this tree the whole time! Everything's just as it was!' `Of course it is,' said the Queen, `what would you have it?' 

'Well, in our country,' said Alice, still panting a little, `you'd generally get to somewhere else -- if you ran very fast for a long time, as we've been doing.' 

'A slow sort of country!' said the Queen. `Now, here, you see, it takes all the running you can do, to keep in the same place. If you want to get somewhere else, you must run at least twice as fast as that!' 

Whenever things like that happen in life, I told her – when you have to work harder and harder to stay in the same place –that’s called a Red Queen. Can you think of any examples? I asked.

“Sure -- an escalator,” she said. “If you tried to walk up an escalator the wrong way, you wouldn’t get anywhere. And a small animal – like a hedgehog – if a hedgehog were at the grocer’s and – this would probably never happen, but let’s say – he climbed on that moving cloth they put the groceries on …” The treadmill? I asked. “Yes, that.”

You’re right, I said, but those are very literal examples – I’m looking for something a bit broader. What about an animal like a gazelle?

She looked hesitant. “The gazelle has to run faster and faster to …” To outrun the cheetah, I said. They keep evolving to be faster to stay one step ahead of the cheetah, but the cheetah is evolving too, so a thousand generations later the gazelle is still just barely ahead.

Her face brightened. “I get it!” she said. “And the cheetah – the same thing is true for him?” Yes, I said.

Her expression sobered, and she was silent for a moment. “They’ll never get out of it,” she said.

Not unless one of them goes extinct, I said. That happened with the pronghorn –the dire wolves and running bears were killed off when humans arrived, so it’s now the fastest animal in the Americas, because there’s nothing left for it to outrun. She nodded slowly, as though sad that the pronghorn’s purpose was gone.

Another example is driving, I said. Remember how everyone used to drive horses everywhere in Dublin? People thought cars would change everything, and that they would just speed through the city like lightning.

She smiled in recognition. “Nobody can drive in Dublin now -- there are too many cars!” Right, I said, and they don’t move any faster than horses did.

“I wonder if we could bring back some horses,” she said. “Of course, we’d have to have somewhere to put the poo again, like have those people you see in old movies.”

The street sweepers, I said? Yes, and the poo was a major problem back then, and they needed stables three stories high in cities. It’s called infrastructure – we’ve invested in one kind of infrastructure, and can’t go back easily. But that’s a different lesson.

“What else is a Red Queen?” she said. Well, I said, do you think computers count?

She thought about it. “Video games look more real, but people aren’t having more fun.” She said.

Good, I told her. Another example is in offices – people used to write everything out on pieces of paper, or type with typewriters. Now people use computers, but we work just as hard, and use just as much paper as before.

“There are more things you can do with computers,” she countered.

There are, I said, but you also have to buy them, and buy programmes, and update virus protection to protect the programmes – viruses are a really good example of a Red Queen, in animals or computers. And if everyone else is using computers, you can’t be left behind, so you have to get them too. But you’re not working any less, is my point.

So, I asked, how do you think things will change in the future? In your lifetime?

"Maybe it’ll be just like the olden days,” she said. “And we’ll have to learn how to things for ourselves again. Or maybe it’ll be like in the cartoons, and we’ll all have robots who will do everything for us.”

People have been predicting robot servants for a century and a half, I told her, and they never seem to happen. But if we do get them, do you think they will be worth it?

She thought about it for a few moments. “No,” she said. “We’ll have to do more work to get robots to clean our room than we would have spent cleaning the room.”

 I’m proud of you, I said. I agree – even if we all had robots to do our jobs, we might end up back where we started.

“It’s like in Scarborough Fair,” she said. Exactly, I said, and kissed her goodnight, and walked out into the garden to lock up the chickens for the night. There are more chores to do every night, I thought, and I never quite catch up.

Sunday, 22 September 2013

Friday, 20 September 2013

Now to be published at Grit Magazine

Good news, everyone -- I've been invited to be a regular contributor to Grit magazine, so my articles will start showing up there soon.

Grit magazine deals with rural life; gardening, raising animals, preserving food, cooking and all kinds of traditional crafts. It's owned by the same people who create Mother Earth News and the Utne Reader, so if you like those publications, you'll probably like this. My first articles should show up in a few weeks -- I'll keep you posted.

Wednesday, 18 September 2013

The wisdom of sheep

"I realised these animals were not unreasoning, brute beasts, but had a reasoning power of their own, and whatever they did was done for a reason, a reason they knew even if we didn't."

"The old Donegal hill farmers tell beautiful stories that illustrate the intelligence, the 'cuteness' as they put it, of sheep, and if you listen to these stories carefully enough you begin to understand the intelligence of sheep and the way their minds work.

I remember Jimmy Burke told me about an old ewe he had ("yo") who would spend the night at the top of the hill and come down at the break of day, and she wanted to get into his cornfield, which he had fenced off. To teach his corn she had to swim around the fence, and she would actually go into the river and swim around the fence and eat some of the corn, and when she had had enough she would swim back, upstream, before he got out of bed.

I learned that the older sheep are smarter than the younger ones -- they definitely learn -- and that they know the hours I keep. If they have any thieving to do they know when to do it."

-- excerpts from a 1978 national radio interview of Robert Bernen, classical scholar turned sheep farmer. Photo: Taken on the Curragh, the plains near our house used for communal grazing since Roman times.

County Clare

You should see this too sometime.

Tuesday, 17 September 2013

Our new favourite restaurant

If you're ever in Killaloe, County Clare, check it out.

Monday, 16 September 2013


The Girl and I spent two days camping in the far west of Ireland, on the shores of Lough Derg.

“But what will we eat?” she asked. We brought boiled eggs and bread, but for everything else we scoured the mountain bushes for blackberries and the trees for apples. We climbed green mountains and waded in rushing streams. We examined water-skaters and ruined fortresses. We toured the grounds of Seed Savers, and their greenhouses of onions and carrots tall as people.

We camped on the shore and woke to high winds at twilight, whipping the lake-waters into white and oceanic breakers.  

We stopped for coffee (me) and hot chocolate (her) at the Wooden Spoon in Killaloe, now officially our favourite restaurant in the world. We sat back in the wooden chairs and leafed through their cookbooks, my burgeoning foodie and I, finding foods we love (smoked rashers), things I encouraged her to try  someday (gravlax) and the things we solemnly shook hands and agreed never to eat (octopus in aspic).

She pleaded with me to tell her more of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe – which was a problem, as I was reciting from memory a book I hadn’t read in three decades. Her great-grandfather had mailed her a copy as a birthday present months ago, and the Irish postal system has still not delivered it.

Most of all, though, we went mushroom hunting on a course with a mycologist and several other adults, and The Girl found patches where the ground was covered in mushrooms thick as trees -- puffballs and sulfur tufts, ear fungi and anethyst deceivers. She found a rare Inocybe that the mycologist said he would show off to his friends, and by the end of the day, with the mycologist’s help, she was identifying Russula and Lactorius like a pro. Later we – The Girl and I, the other adults in the course, and the mycologist – sat around eating a meal of chanterelles and porcini, sautéed in garlic butter and parsley. 

We drove home through the rain singing Schoolhouse Rock and listening to Kind of Blue, and after a while she said, softly, “I could spend every day like this.”  

Top photo: Not the sea, but Lough (Lake) Derg at twilight before dawn. 

Friday, 13 September 2013

Off for the weekend

The Girl and I finished watching Jimmy Stewart in Harvey, she kissed me goodnight, and tomorrow morning we head out to the mountains to camp. I'll be back Sunday.

Wednesday, 11 September 2013

Going to market

Every elderly person I talk to now, who grew up in the Irish countryside, grew up with the sound of carts on the way to market. Supermarkets only reached many parts of Ireland in the 1970s, and only now are US-sized shopping centers springing up outside of each town. When local elders were growing up, however, farmers drove their donkeys or horses to town, and there they sold their goods directly.

“Different people would specialise – milk, turf, vegetables,” said one farmer in a 1975 national radio documentary. “They used to bring out messages to town for people, like postmen, or transport devices to repair shops. Family members would sleep in the carts on the way there and back.”

In the documentary, horticultural economist Peter Bobrick said food was actually more expensive in rural parts of Ireland after grocery stores appeared. “The farmer might have to drive long distances to the market, and drive further distances to get back home again, all to buy the same vegetables that they grew in the first place for not much more money than he sold it,” he said.

William Cobbett had made the same observation in rural Britain a century and a half earlier, in his book Rural Rides.

“After quitting Soberton Down, we came up a hill leading to Hambledon, and turned off to our left to bring us down to Mr. Goldsmith's at West End, where we now are, at about a mile from the village of Hambledon.

A village it now is; but it was formerly a considerable market-town, and it had three fairs in the year. Wens [large overcrowded cities] have devoured market-towns and villages; and shops have devoured markets and fairs; and this, too, to the infinite injury of the most numerous classes of the people.

Shop-keeping, merely as shop-keeping, is injurious to any community. What are the shop and the shop-keeper for? To receive and distribute the produce of the land. There are other articles, certainly; but the main part is the produce of the land. The shop must be paid for; the shop-keeper must be kept.

When fairs were frequent, shops were not needed. A manufacturer of shoes, of stockings, of hats; of almost anything that man wants, could manufacture at home in an obscure hamlet, with cheap house-rent, good air, and plenty of room. He need pay no heavy rent for shop; and no disadvantages from confined situation; and then, by attending three or four or five or six fairs in a year, he sold the work of his hands, unloaded with a heavy expense attending the keeping of a shop.”

Tuesday, 10 September 2013


For last night’s lesson, The Girl and I were talking about the Ancient Greeks.

“Is it true that all the athletes in the original Olympics were naked?” she asked.

It’s true, I said – they did all their exercising naked. “Gymnos” means nude, so a gymnasium was a place to be nude. A pine tree is a “gymnosperm,” because the seeds are not clothed by any fruit.

The Girl had a distant look on her face.  

You’re not really concentrating tonight, honey, I said.

“I just can’t tonight, Daddy,” she said. “I’ve been worrying.”

What do you worry about? I asked, and she talked about her fears a bit. I assured her that none of her fears are likely happen. If – and this is a very small chance – some tragedy ever did happen, you won’t be any more prepared because you worried. Worrying doesn’t help.

“So how do I stop?” she said.

Well, I said, you remind yourself that no tragedy is making you worry, because the tragedy will probably never happen, and it certainly hasn’t happened yet. It’s you that’s making yourself worry, and it’s only you that can make yourself stop.You can know that the best that can happen is that you’ll be okay, and if something very bad happens, you’ll probably still be okay.

“I know,” she said. “But I still feel it.”

And when all those things fail, I said, just think about all the athletes competing in the Olympics, and then picture them all naked.

She laughed. “The pole vaults would be interesting,” she said.

Just think of the figure skating, I said. Or the luge.

Photo: The Girl at the National Gallery in Dublin.

Monday, 9 September 2013

Sunday, 8 September 2013

Signs you are in Ireland

1.) A notice in the newspaper that a local woman has been brought before the magistrate for driving a car toward town very slowly with the boot (trunk) open, while her husband sat in the boot holding a rope pulling a horse trotting behind.

2.) Signs on the road announcing that Jedward -- the two teenaged identical twins who occupy a role similar to Justin Bieber among tweens here -- will be the starring attraction at this year's local sheep-shearing festival.

3.) You see on the map that you can get to the village of Cloonboo by going through the village of Cong, after you've crossed the River Suck.

Saturday, 7 September 2013

Girl in the mirror

“I’m quite thin,” The Girl said, looking in the glass.

How do you feel about that? I asked.

I’m keeping an eye on The Girl, knowing how quickly she is moving towards adolescence, and knowing what mainstream culture does to girls. We grow up surrounded by fantasy images of men and women, large as Godzilla on the side of the road and splattered across a hundred magazines at every petrol stop. We grow up dealing more with glowing screens than we do with people, and on those screens we see, over and over, warped cartoons of what it means to be a man or woman.

When my nine-year-old looks in the mirror, then, I want to know what she sees.

“I wish I weren’t so thin,” she said. “I’d like to be bigger.”

I relaxed. You’re getting big quickly, I told her, and you’re just the right size for a nine-year-old – tall for your age, and fit, but those are good things.

“You know some girls want to be thinner?” she said.

That happens sometimes, I said. What do you think?

“It’s not good to be too thin,” she said. “But some people are too thin and can't tell.”

You're right, I said – very few people are a healthy weight these days. A lot of the girls you’ll see in movies and magazines are too thin; what do you think?

“I hadn’t noticed,” she said. “Then again, all the movies I see are old, in black and white. All the women in them look fine.”

Yes, I said – they often did.   

Photo: Louise Brooks, circa 1925.