Thursday, 31 October 2013


Sorry for the delay -- we've had technical difficulties. Standby, and Happy Celtic New Year. 

Monday, 28 October 2013

Half of us

The Girl and I have been talking about genetics, and it raises some questions for her.
“Daddy, when I have children, will I have to give up some of my playing music?” she asked. 

Not at all, I said – people can enjoy playing music while they’re taking care of children. If they get paid, they can even be paid for it. As long as the children are your first priority, your husband should mind the children at times while you do other things you love. Why do you ask?

“Well,” she said. “I know babies’ DNA comes half from the mother and half from the father, and I don’t want to give up half my musical talent, but I don’t want to deprive my child either.”

I understood. Honey, I told her, when you have children, your genes will be copied; you won’t lose half of what you already have.

“Oh, that’s a relief.”

Sunday, 27 October 2013

Savoury squash

Savoury squash: On the rare occasions that people here cook squash, they usually accentuate its already sweet flesh into a dessert. Personally, I find that to be going too far, and prefer to offset the sweetness with other notes – tart, spicy and especially savoury. This baked dish combines all of these.

200g butternut squash, peeled and diced
200g onions
1 clove garlic, finely grated
30g gruyere cheese
2 eggs
10g chopped parsley
10 ml vegetable stock
10 ml lemon juice
10 ml Dijon mustard
1 dash cayenne pepper

Peel the butternut squash, and scoop out the seeds in the middle. Dice the remaining flesh into squares about a centimeter across. Place a pat of butter and a teaspoon of oil in a pan and sautee the remaining squash flesh for 10 minutes. Add the onions and sautee 10 more minutes, and add some garlic a minute before the end.

In a bowl, mix the lemon juice, the vegetable stock, the mustard, the cayenne, the parsley and the eggs. Turn off the stove and transfer the squash-onion mix into a small baking dish, and mix in everything from the bowl. Shred the gruyere cheese and sprinkle it over the top.

Bake it in the oven at 200 degrees Centigrade for 20 minutes, or until done.

Thursday, 24 October 2013

Printed at Grit again

My article "Wild Food All Around" has been printed at Grit Magazine -- check it out.

Tuesday, 22 October 2013

Worlds within her

Last night, speaking over the lashing of the rain at the window, The Girl and I lit a candle and began another lesson.

Tell me what R and K species are, I said.

“Well, R animals have lots of babies, and they don’t take care of them,” The Girl said. “And K animals … are the opposite.”

Excellent. Which one do you think tends to be small and which one large? “R is small, and K is big,” she said.

Which one includes most amphibians and reptiles? “Definitely R,” said The Girl. “But there are a few frogs that take good care of their babies.” Yes, I said, and some mammals lean more to the R side – these aren’t absolute categories, just general tendencies. There’s a spectrum in-between, and a lot of living things that don’t fit either one. Which one tends to include animals lower down on the food chain, and which one further up?

“Most things lower down would be R,” she said. Right, and apex predators like polar bears tend to be K. What about stable and unstable environments, places where the climate or temperature stays the same or changes a lot?

She wasn’t sure, but I explained that R animals tend to do better in unstable or extreme environments – when a new habitat opens up, like an island volcano appearing out of the water, the R species populate it first.

“Are we the K-est of Ks?” The Girl asked. Just about, I said – we have a very long childhood, as there’s so much we need to learn to take proper care of the world. Even with us, though, some people are a bit more R than others.

“They’re more like fish?” The Girl asked. “I mean, they can’t be completely like fish, for fish have thousands of babies.”

Yes, and thankfully human females can’t, I said, but people used to have a lot more – five, seven, even fifteen children in a family, because so many would die in childhood. Some people still do have big families. 

She nodded – in a land where recorded history goes back more than two thousand years, you can imagine there are lots of headstones around.

“How far are we from fish?” she asked, changing the subject. “Cause you know that our ear bones are the same bones that used to hold the gills up in fish?”

You’re right, I said. I’d guess about 400 million years – that’s when different kinds of fish were branching out and filling the seas. But that brings us to an interesting point – one of the most famous biologists who ever lived, the scientist Stephen Jay Gould, once said that there is no such thing as a fish.

“Is it because fish aren’t really mostly fish?” she asked.

I wasn’t sure what she meant. Not quite, I said – he meant that there’s no family of animals called “fish” – they branched out into many families, and a few of them became amphibians and so on, but the others are separated by 400 million years or so. A coelacanth might be more closely related to a gorilla than it is to a tuna or a shark, and of course many of the other things we call fish, like shellfish, aren’t even vertebrates. We just call all these things fish because they swim, like taking all the things that fly – bats, dragonflies, robins – and calling them birds.

“Is that just fish, or is that the same with other things too?” she asked.

The same goes for other things, I said – in terms of genetic families, you could say there’s no such thing as a tree, or a reptile. They’re not all related – they’re just handy labels for types of bodies.

“I thought it might be because … you know how none of us are mostly us? How most of the cells in our body aren’t really the ‘us’ cells?” she asked.

Suddenly I understood. This had been a previous lesson – we contain more bacteria in our body than we do “our own” cells, the cells with our own DNA. I heard a biologist once say that if our own cells were packed together in our body, they would fill one of our legs below the knee.

If that sounds alarming, keep in mind that the bacteria are not only benign, but mostly necessary – they fill your innards and digest your food, for example. They are left over from the earliest ages of the Earth, made for the unrecognisable planet that existed before the sky turned blue with oxygen, and are many times older than bones or shells. Now they survive by hiding inside us, keeping us alive.

This information seems to unsettle many adults, but as I had hoped, it fascinated The Girl, and she has brought it up proudly many times since. She was delighted to find that her child’s ribs contain the mengerie of an alien world, and that beneath her baby skin lie a multitude of ancient beings. 

Monday, 21 October 2013

Ground in the Burren

The stark karst ground of the Burren, County Clare. You have to watch where you step.

Sunday, 20 October 2013

The oldest story

The Girl and I have been going over the Decalogue, so as background I talked about the Noahide Laws, supposedly given to Noah after the Flood.

She’s familiar with the Noah story -- she knows it appeared in Gilgamesh, perhaps the oldest story we have, only there he was called Utnapishtim. She knows that the basic story is the same – a flood covered the world, and the gods warned one man, he built a giant wooden boat, and he saved as many people and animals as he could. The raven, the dove, the ship settling atop a mountain … you know it. 

Could a flood have covered the whole world? I asked.

“There’s not enough water on the planet,” she said. “But it might have covered their world.”

Excellent, I said – do you know why people there might have been seeing floods?

She wasn’t sure, and I told her no one else was – but it might have happened after they cut down the forests. Gilgamesh takes place in the area where the first humans sowed seed and built cities, and to do that they destroyed the forests that used to be there – Gilgamesh begins with the felling of the great trees of the World Gone By. Much of the land washed away – just like when they felled the forests of Ireland – and the land gradually became the desert it is now.

“Would destroying the forests make it flood more?” she asked. It wouldn’t make it rain more, I said, but there would be nothing to hold the soil, and the weight of the soil washing away would dislodge more soil, which could dislodge even more soil

“Is that a positive feedback loop?” she asked. Yes, that’s exactly right, I said – and floods like that could wash away whole towns. I was a reporter in Missouri during the flood of ’93, and whole towns had to be rebuilt somewhere else. If you were a farmer who had never travelled more than a few kilometres, it would have certainly been the end of the world.

After the flood, though, the story goes that God gave Noah seven laws to follow -- five of them were later five of the commandments.

“What are the other two?” she said.   

Well, I said, one was that if you had a conflict with someone, you had to take them to court rather than hitting them over the head…

The Girl laughed. It sounds funny, I said, but that was a big step forward – saying everyone has to follow the rules and settle arguments peacefully. Not everyone does that even now.

“And the last one?” she asked.

Hesitating a moment, I said: You weren’t allowed to eat an animal while it’s still alive.

She politely tried to hold back a giggle, and failed. “They needed a rule for that?”

It was a big deal, I said. If you don’t cook meat, disease can transfer from their bodies to ours. At one point, humans ate meat raw, as chimpanzees do now. Being able to make fire and cook food was a big leap for all of us.

“It was better for the animals too, I imagine,” she said more seriously. Right, I said – we’re judged by how well we treat the least among us. People who can be cruel to animals aren’t very good people.

“What about just being good to other people?” She said. Yes, these laws aren’t comprehensive, I said – they don’t tell you everything you need to do. They were a place to start. And the most basic rule should be the Golden Rule --- but that had to wait for someone else down the road.

Friday, 18 October 2013

One more shortage

This article will appear in the Kildare Nationalist next week.

If you’re reading this right now, your body is using up phosphorous; your cells depend on it to function. All life on Earth uses the double-helix of DNA, or something like it, as its blueprint – and the sides of the helix are held together by phosphorous bonds. No phosphorous, no life.

That’s not usually a problem, as small amounts of phosphorous circulate through the natural world the same way so many other elements do – it starts out as some chemical ingredient in rocks, and as the rocks are broken into smaller and smaller pieces by the elements, plants absorb the phosphorous through their roots. Herbivores eat the plants, carnivores eat the herbivores, they all generate waste, which goes back into the soil and brings the phosphorous back to the roots again.

Eventually, of course, erosion washes away the phosphorous, and a good rain washes it into streams, rivers, and finally the sea, where it fertilises plant life there. Finally it settles on the sea floor, where – in the very long term,  over tens of millions of years -- continents move slowly over it, lava melts the rocks, volcanos send them back to the surface again, and the exposed rocks become soil again. So far, so normal.

The thing to remember, though, is that there’s only so much phosphorous in the soil-plants-animals cycle, at this moment, like money in a paycheque, if you don’t get paid again for tens of millions of years.

Farmers long discovered that a bit more phosphorous in the soil boosts crop production, and for thousands of years this was done by adding human and animal manure back to the soil --- think of this as using one’s money well.

In the last couple of centuries, though, humans discovered that we could mine phosphorous and scatter it over soil to boost crop production. At first people mined guano – giant piles of bird droppings on isolated islands, or bat droppings in caves. Nations prized the resource so highly they fought wars over guano in the 19th century, and the USA still claims the right to annex islands with a store of guano.

Nowadays, we generally get phosphorous from mining rocks – using a credit card, in this analogy -- and it forms a major component of most fertilisers – many are labelled NPK, for Nitrogen (N) – Phosphorous (P) – Potassium (K, apparently because P was already taken). Phosphorous use rose six-fold between 1950 and 2000, and modern agriculture is now quite dependent on phosphorous mining.

One problem, though, is that rain continues to wash away the phosphorous, creating ocean dead-zones from excess phosphorous. Another problem is that number of phosphorous-rich rocks in the world is limited, and the supply has been shrinking.

None of this will be a problem if the supply of phosphorous-rich rocks never runs out, but according to a 2007 paper by Bart Anderson and Patrick Dery, we could be running out of such resources by 2027.

According to a recent article in Chemosphere, “we’ve now been forced to start mining the rocks that have lower quality phosphorus with higher rates of contaminants and are more difficult to access. We’re down to the tar sands equivalent of minable phosphorus, most of which is found in only five countries; Morocco, China, the USA, Jordan and South Africa. Maybe they can be the next OPEC cartel for phosphorus?”

To prevent this kind of crisis, the authors recommend keeping more phosphorous around – most of the phosphorous we use now, they say, is wasted. By preventing runoff and re-using animal and even human waste, they say, we could avoid this resource shortage hitting us around the same time that climate change kicks in and we have a billion or so more mouths to feed.

For more information: “A brief history of phosphorus use by humans and ideas on how we can prevent the global food security risk of ‘Peak Phosphorus’” 8 April 2011 Chemosphere Vol. 84 (2011) 737–746