Wednesday, 27 March 2013

Bicycles

In perhaps one of the great ironies of human civilisation, mechanical devices to truly magnify human power came along as soon as we didn’t need them. Pedal-powered devices like bicycles only appeared after coal had already begun to transform the landscape, however – mass production was necessary for the standardised metal parts -- and around the same time that gasoline was first being introduced as a fuel for automobiles.

We tend to forget, then, three important things about the bicycle. First, it remains the most efficient method of using our bodies, allowing us to attain higher machine speeds for longer than we would on muscle power alone – and without using any more fuel or causing any more weather to go haywire.

Bicycles have been used for so long as children’s toys and exercise equipment that we forget what useful technology they represent. They multiply our bodies’ speed and efficiency many times over, allowing us to travel miles without strain. Their widespread adoption in the late 19th century created a ripple of under-appreciated effects in society; for example, they allowed women to commute to jobs away from home and paved the way for the universal sufferage movement.

Second, bicycles have seen many improvements in the last hundred years, most of which have escaped the notice of anyone but enthusiasts. Many of the bicycles we use today function mainly as toys, and racing bikes are built for speed; sturdier bicycles – often going under the name of “military bicycles” can still be ordered.

Most importantly, though, bicycles are only one of many possible pedal-powered machines that were not used for transportation. Beginning in the 19th century, factories began to make and stores to market treadles for manufacturing everything from cigars to brooms to hats. Farms saw foot-powered harvesters, tractors, threshers, milking machines and vegetable bundlers. Machinists saw pedal-powered drills.

“…no matter how simple it seems to us today, pedal power could not have appeared earlier in history,” wrote Kris DeDecker in LowTech Magazine. “Pedals and cranks are products of the industrial revolution, made possible by the combination of cheap steel (itself a product of fossil fuels) and mass production techniques, resulting in strong yet compact sprockets, chains, ball bearings and other metal parts.”

Today, we have built a world that runs on fossil fuels – mostly oil, and global oil production seems to have hit a limit in 2005 and has been stuck there ever since. We have an economy that depends on continual growth, and when the oil supply could not grow anymore the global economy began to fail – not the only reason for the crash, but a major one. Many geologists have predicted that the supply will begin to decline soon, which will cause more disruption over the coming decades.

Right now we are seeing fuel and electricity prices continue to increase, and eventually many of us will not be able to depend on familiar machines like cars and electronics - - either because we won’t be able to afford them, or to afford continually fixing them, or because fuel prices will be out of reach. One way or another, we will have to go back to muscle power, and the best way to do that is to revive the lost technologies of pedal-powered tools. Most of these devices exist today only as a few rare museum specimens, but we could build more. The irony, though, is that we need to build them while we still have fossil fuels.

“It is important to realise that pedal powered machines (and bicycles) require fossil fuels,” DeDecker writes “If we burn up all fossil fuels driving cars, we won't be able to revert to bicycles, we will have to walk. If we burn up all fossil fuels making electricity to drive our appliances, we won't be able to revert to pedal powered machines, but to the drudgery that went before them.”

Perhaps more people around here will take to bicycles again, as I will now that there is enough light to get to the bus and back. Older people here remember when the bicycle was the most popular method for getting from one village to another, and the roads were safer then with so few cars. I expect the schoolchildren of today will see those days again.

Photo: Bicyclists in Dublin in the 1960s, courtesy of Irishhistorylinks.com

Monday, 25 March 2013

Faith in the future




This year Catholics enter the most important week of their religious calendar with a new pope, and if you’re like many of my colleagues, this doesn’t mean much to you. I don’t see much writing about religion among the ecologically-minded, perhaps because many are not very religious themselves, or perhaps they are avoiding that most delicate of subjects. I want to make a case, though, that you should care – perhaps about the new pope, and definitely about religion in general – as you make plans for the future.

As a bit of background, you might have heard that the last pope took the unusual step of resigning a few weeks ago; popes usually hold the office until they die, and the last one to willingly step down was more than 700 years ago. The new pope, Francis I, is all kinds of other firsts – the first from the Western Hemisphere, the first from the Southern Hemisphere, the first from outside Europe in 1,300 years, the first from the church’s 500-year-old Jesuit order, and the first to be visited on their inauguration by the head of the Eastern Orthodox Church for almost a thousand years. Unlike some of his predecessors he has been deeply critical of the global financial system that has left so many Third-World countries poor and indebted, and he has impressed observers with many small gestures toward simplicity. 

He now heads a church devastated by massive sexual abuse scandals in several countries, and will have little credibility unless he starts sacking people left and right for covering up those horrific crimes. They were just the most recent blows, however, to an already weakened religious empire.
Most people know something about our clergy and rituals from mass media, for when Central Casting needs someone to be demonically possessed or Whoopi Goldberg to wear a disguise, the Hawaiian shirts of feel-good mega-church pastors just don’t cut it. We represent all things arcane and traditional in Hollywood pop culture, yet that same culture has made those traditions difficult to maintain. Our deliberately paced rituals were not made for a world of ubiquitous iDistractions, or our austere teachings for a world with the comforts and sexual freedom of Egyptian pharaohs.

Recent popes made some small concessions to a rapidly changing world – allowing the Mass to be said in local languages rather than in Latin, for example – but they often just alienated traditionalists, while not making the meaty concessions that many modern Catholics want. If anything the Church has responded to the modern world by forbidding more and more of it; formally opposing abortion in 1869, and contraception from 1930. Pulled and pushed from many directions, a growing number of the world’s billion-or-so Catholics silently question how many catechism points they can disagree with before they need to start calling themselves something else.

Today the world’s largest denomination of the world’s largest religion is undergoing its own kind of slow collapse – not vanishing, but shrinking rapidly in the First World. To use one small but typical statistic, the seminary (school for future priests) near where we live in Ireland ordained 558 priests in 1963 -- a mere 12 entered last year. Catholics in the USA are melting away from the Church en masse, their numbers only partly obscured by a flood of Hispanic immigrants. When I returned to my hometown last year, where I attended junior seminary myself once, I discovered almost all the Catholic schools had closed, and my old church had taken out its cry room for mothers with babies – there hadn’t been any in a long time.  

Some former Catholics I know have become militant atheists of the new breed, who embrace nihilism not with mourning, as Nietzsche or Camus did, but with glee. Others have been caught in the gravitational pull of the USA’s fundamentalist movement, which has spent the last few decades building an extraordinary media empire and absorbing more and more American Christians into its cultural bubble.

Perhaps the oldest surviving organisation on the planet, one that survived the rise and fall of several empires and centuries of hardship, is failing in an age of overabundance, most in the most abundant parts of the world. It needs to decide what kind of church it wants to be as we pass into the next and particularly difficult era ahead. So for Catholics, this is kind of a big deal.

I know, the Church has a lot of shameful history – so does my native USA, or Britain, or France, any other country or organization with a bit of history behind it. Point to the Inquisition and I’ll point to one of your group’s original sins, because there will be some. In each case, though, the past doesn’t necessarily represent the present, nor do the shameful parts negate the brilliant parts, nor do some decisions by a government represent all actions of a people.  I’m embarrassed by some of my countrymen but not ashamed of my country; it’s home to me, and I’m proud of its better angels. Perhaps you have your own example.   

To extend the metaphor, Francis is being greeted by Catholics as Obama was in the USA. He’s a demographic first that seems to reconcile a painful history, made in a time of crisis and potential. As with Obama, however, people are projecting all kinds of hopes and fantasies upon him, and some will inevitably be disappointed when he does not walk on water.

As I said, if you’re not religious, none of this seems very important compared to the years of global crisis we anticipate. We all know that our species is burning away the world’s supply of fossil fuels upon which our economy depends, and disrupting the weather in the process. We know that the living systems that keep the Earth running are seeing one of their periodic mass extinctions – not an asteroid or super-volcano this time, but a single ape species – and we know that past crises didn’t heal on a human timescale. I’m right there with you.

Think about this, though: What if you are trying to work against these trends, and rally others to your cause? What if you are trying to build communities, or change the way people vote, or organise protests? What if you want to assemble communities in the country to become self-sufficient? And what if, hypothetically, your allies hail disproportionately from specific subcultures – tech-savvy, 
 upper-class, coastal, countercultural, socially libertine and irreligious?

We tend to live in bubbles of people like us, and while social media has made it easy for people to have geographically disparate “communities,” I find that most people still communicate mainly with others of the same generation, education, religious and political attitudes. If no one you know goes to church, for example, you might forget that 40 per cent of Americans do, and forget to factor that into your community-building.

Not all people who don’t talk about their faith are nihilists, of course – some just walk rather than talk, and I wish more people did. I’m not a fan of the current fashion in the USA, where oversharing about faith became popular around the same time as oversharing about sex and other private matters. If you want to deal with others in creating a future, however, you must be prepared to deal with the fact that most people believe in something, and that it will not and should not remain tucked away under a basket.

For one thing, religion often deals with the most basic assumptions of one’s life -- the visceral and magical attitudes that underlie our political and religious affiliations. Since we so often refuse to even examine, much less talk about, such attitudes, we often engage in culture wars without talking about the thing we’re really talking about. When an acquaintance of mine said he disagreed with evolution, for example, I politely asked probing questions, and with each answer I was more confused than before. He was intelligent and well-educated, and each sentence was cogent and eloquent – but I didn’t see their relationship to the subject or each other.

The problem was that he began from the assumption that evolution was what some atheists think it is, an anti-religion religion that evangelises a meaningless existence. I, however, was referring to the evolution that scientists study -- the way that living things change over time. (I know Richard Dawkins falls into both camps, but most scientists I know don’t.) You could replace the word “evolution” with “existentialism” and his answers would be much the same: Evolution can’t explain everything. Evolution doesn’t comfort you in grief. Evolution won’t save you when you die.

You could replace “evolution” with “digestion” or “precipitation,” however, and they would have made about as much sense to me. Does digestion explain everything? Does precipitation comfort us in grief? Or, if we’re talking more about the history than the process, replace the word with any historical event: does the Moon landing address the problem of evil? Can the Civil War explain everything?

Religious beliefs include, or are influenced by, such baseline assumptions, and much of their jargon exists to separate people inside the group from outside. When someone asks me if I’ve accepted Jesus as my “personal saviour,” or insists they are “just Christian” of no particular type, it gives me a clear idea what type of Christian they are.

Neglecting such a powerful force in our lives, or its absence, prevents us from seeing their effect on the political and social landscape – and how they are affected by it. Take, as an example, the early 20th-century debate between pre-millennials and post-millennials – which has nothing to do with people born around the year 2000, and everything to do with how we think of the future. To oversimplify, post-millennials believe humans could and should make the world suitable for Christ before he returns, whether it be the Puritans’ idea of suitable or Martin Luther King’s. Either way they tend to be optimistic and ambitious in creating social change – in King’s words, “the arc of the universe … bends toward justice.”

Pre-millennials, on the other hand, believe that the world will get worse and worse before the Second Coming, and their visions lean toward fatalistic, Zombie Apocalypse territory – when you hear about “The Tribulation” and “The Rapture,” it’s probably from a pre-millennial.

It might not be a coincidence that the two seem to rise and fall with the fortunes of a country. In the early 19th century, as the USA headed closer to civil war, pre-millennial movements like the Millerites spread across the then-frontier, hailing the end of the world until the “Great Disappointment” of 1844. As the Millerites fragmented into many other groups – that’s where Seventh-Day Adventists and Jehovah’s Witnesses come from – post-millennialism seemed to gain steam, and their idealistic movements helped abolish slavery, invent labour rights and give women the vote.

As the USA became the dominant global power, post-millennial churches remained powerful through the civil rights movement. Then, as the country passed its domestic oil peak and the public grew aware of ecological dangers ahead, an ecological-sounding book called The Late Great Planet Earth became a runaway hit – it’s often claimed to be the best-selling book of the decade. That book inspired a growing pre-millennial movement among the young and countercultural, which evolved into the nationalistic and somewhat paranoid fundamentalism so influential in the USA now. 

You’ll notice, though, that both of these strains of Christianity pretty well parallel the two visions of the future popular in the fossil-fuel era. In the mid-20th century, when Westerners saw rapid technological and social progress, the gospel of progress affected not just religion, but politics and science. Evolution was reframed as the ascent of Man, my country’s expansion reframed as Manifest Destiny, history as the March of Progress. When my country’s tables turned in the 1970s, not only did the religion get apocalyptic, but politics and popular culture did too.

Whether the religion led or followed the other trends is difficult to say, and of course not everything falls into these neat categories – apocalyptic thinking was around long before the first oil well – but their popularity does seem to rise and fall with energy inputs. If this pattern holds, we might expect to see pre-millennialism – what I’m calling “fundamentalism” - continue to be one of the few things that boom as fossil fuels decline.

That could be very bad news for the rest of us if they persist in attacking basic science education in my own country, because of their aforementioned ideas about evolution. People can have their own opinions about gay marriage or abortion – there are good people on all sides of these issues, and we can sort out our differences democratically. We can also have respectful differences about our faith in the unproven. We do not, however, have to respect someone’s faith in the disproven, and a generation without science education is the last thing we need as we enter an ecological crisis.

On the other hand, I’m throwing around terms like fundamentalist, evangelical and mega-church as though they were interchangeable, and of course there are many divisions and nuances. I know many fundamentalists who would make bitter flame-war enemies online but great neighbours in a real-world crisis. I also know others whose faith has inspired them to adopt a more traditional way of life – and in doing so pave the way for the rest of us. Also, many groups settle down over time, or we soften toward them; we don’t think of the “Salvation Army” as being a genuine army, say, getting into shooting wars with gangs, but once they were and did.

None of those religious groups, though, completely abandoned their belief in progress, and these days most people across the political and religious map tend to celebrate progress in some area – whether it be newly broken cultural taboos or newly vaulted Dow numbers. Most people I know, of any political or religious group, feel perfectly comfortable questioning their opponents’ version of progress, but respond indignantly to any questioning of their own version.

Of course we have progressed -- few humans have experienced our level of comfort and freedom, our health or literacy. We live in an age when humans live eight decades, and with a few touches of a finger can connect to the wisdom of the world. Yet most of those changes exist because of fossil fuels and the technology they allow; that cheap-energy window appears like a needle along the timeline of humanity, and as we pass over one peak after another we need to think about what parts of progress are objectively right and necessary for our descendants. Nor has the freedom to choose every aspect of our lives necessarily made us happier, as far as such things can be measured, than people who did not have such choices.

The myth of progress also doesn’t allow us to say no. It assumes that if a little of something was a relief to oppressed or impoverished ancestors -- wealth, choices, entertainment, anything – that we have to keep following that trend forever. It doesn’t allow us to stand astride history yelling “Stop!” It doesn’t let us say when we’ve had enough, even when the enough we have is temporary. That’s what religions are supposed to do.  

Religions done rightly – which usually means traditions that pre-date the cheap energy window –go against today’s left and right alike, and violate every value we learned from generations of stump speeches, motivational seminars and Disney movies. They don’t tell you that you should always follow your heart, or that you are destined for greatness, or have a right to choose whatever path you 
want, or that everything will work out all right in the end.

It tells you that you are frail and flawed, here only briefly, that your problems are not very different than everyone else’s, and that we are all in this together. They give our mayfly lives an umbilical cord to eternity – and even if you don’t believe that happens on a spiritual level, the tradition does in this world. There aren’t many institutions that allow us to cite the centuries of the second paragraph, or whose still-standing monasteries kept learning alive through the end of the Roman Empire.  

Now another empire is declining – the USA specifically, and the globalised consumer culture in general. In Walter Miller’s novel A Canticle for Liebowitz, a group of Catholic monks preserve the bits of Western Civilisation after a nuclear war, sometimes without understanding it, until the world is ready for it again. The real collapse will probably not be as dramatic as a thermonuclear exchange that seemed so imminent when it was written five decades ago, of course. It will likely be more of the small crashes and crises we have seen in the last decade, giving us a bit of space to do something like the monks of the novel – or the real ones fifteen centuries ago, whose ruins dot the fields around us.

So let’s say you want to help your descendants transition into as humane and civilised an existence as possible, even though you won’t be around to see it. You want to teach children to live a more sustainable life of less consumption and energy use, even when a million distractions around them tell them to do otherwise. To live out this vow of poverty you might need to encourage them to withdraw from the world, as St. Benedict did long ago, and build a community of people who believe the same. You will need to inculcate strict code of restraint in your congregation, and teach a set of rituals that will help people succeed at this new life.

There – you’ve just become religious. Whatever your opinions about the supernatural, you have a set of traditions, rituals and values that sustain you through hardship. There are many traditions you can draw from, of course – I have mine.

Perhaps you have your own example.   

























Top photo: Window of Chartres, courtesy of Wikicommons. 
Second photo: Priests emerging from the seminary at Maynooth near our home.
Third photo: Priest blessing a gardai (policeman) in Ireland. Both these photos seem to be from around the 1930s and are used with permission from Irishhistorylinks.com.
Fourth photo: The graveyard at Glendalough, a monastery built in the 500s. 
Final photo: The stream at Glendalough.

Saturday, 23 March 2013

Woodland in County Clare


The Girl and I occasionally go visit a particular woods in County Clare, owned by an old woodsman named Del Harding. Harding has lived an almost Paleolithic life there for more than four decades, and gives periodic classes about bushcraft and wilderness survival.

The reason his forest grows so lushly is that, while he sells or burns a bit of the wood, he buries much of it back in the soil again, feeding mycellium that grow mushroms, gradually replenishing the soil, assissting drainage and preventing eroision. In doing so, he said, he is duplicating the way forests were supposed to work before the coming of humans, and the forest responds.

Friday, 22 March 2013

Toadflax

Last night The Girl and I were talking about invasive species.

“Is toadflax invasive?” she asked, referring to the delicate flowers that ambitiously climb the walls of castles here.

No, I say, not that I know of – why do you ask?

“It invades places the other plants can’t go,” she said. “Right up bare walls.”

Ah, but that’s not an invasion, I said – that’s called a niche. That’s a job it already has in our system. Toadflax works with the plants and animals that live here, and doesn’t wipe them out.

 “Do you know why I think they call it toadflax?” she asked. Why? I asked.

“Well, princesses back then would have worn something elegant, like linens made from flax. And they would have known about the flowers – they would have been growing on their walls. And what do they kiss?”

Toads? I suggested.

“YES!” she said. “See what I mean?”

It’s all coming together, I said.

Wednesday, 20 March 2013

Cob


Originally posted in 2010. 

A few years ago, at Seed Savers in County Clare, I helped sculpt, pound and pat a house together.

Seed Savers, by the way, is an Irish group that cultivates heirloom varieties of vegetables, which is a lot more important and interesting than it sounds – if any disease or climate problem wipes out the few varieties we use for industrial agriculture, volunteer organizations like Seed Savers will be your Noah’s Ark for food. They also give courses in other crafts, though, and this time it was working in cob.

Cob is a mixture of sand, straw and clay – the subsoil under most topsoil will do fine. To make a cob mixture, you combine the elements in a certain ratio and mix them together wet, usually by treading on them with your feet. Then you pick up handfuls of the mixture – the word “cob” comes from an Old English word for “lump” – and stack them on top of each other in a row. Finally, you stand on the row and tread it in, and you get a wall.

The effect is one of sculpting your own building. The straw binds the clay and sand together; instead of a wall’s mass hanging on a few large structures like girders or beams, it hangs on the many tiny structures of the straw. Once the cob dries it can be almost as durable as stone. Bricks are basically cob that has been baked in an oven, and concrete uses a similar principle with gypsum powder, sand and gravel.

With a little training, anyone can mix cob together from most local soils. After the walls are given a plaster finish, the house can look just like any other, but made at a fraction of the cost. For hundreds of years, people built their own homes in Ireland, and some of these were built using the most common, simple and inexpensive building material on Earth -- earth itself. A few “cob homes” are still standing after hundreds of years, as are similar homes in the Middle East and China.

Cob’s main disadvantage is that it cannot get damp; for example, a cob wall needs a stone base, as high as the damp rises. In snowy country the stone base would have to be higher to protect against snowdrifts; in this area the problem is moisture. At the ASPO conference in Cork a few years ago I spoke with a man who built a cob house in the west of Ireland, and said he needed to put wood cladding on the walls to protect against the area’s driving rain.

Another problem is the lack of understanding from local officials, building inspectors and insurance companies -- it is for this reason, we didn't build in cob ourselves, as well as the fact that we are building in an Irish bog. Because of this, some people use cob to build an "undocumented" house.

One advantage of building with cob is that its thick walls absorb heat in the daytime, releasing it slowly over the night; with southern windows to catch the sun, a cob house can have dramatically reduced heating bills. Still another advantage is that the home can be literally sculpted into a wide range of shapes, with curved walls, bas-relief designs or arched doorways.

Cob can last as long as it is kept dry; the home of Sir Walter Raleigh in England is still standing, as are many other medieval cob homes. It can be built high: seven-story cob towers in the Middle East are still used after hundreds of years.

Even if a cob house does nto suit for every situation, I recommend learning how to build this way. You might need it someday, you might use it to build a shed or oven, you might just pass it on to people who can use it. Or you might like the idea of a cob home: it's completely ecological, requiring no chemicals, no pollution, no machines and no toxic waste. Insects don’t eat it, it doesn’t decompose and it doesn’t burn. And, of course, it’s dirt cheap.

Photos courtesy of Wikicommons. 

Tuesday, 19 March 2013

Path through the bog

A photo from a few years ago, of The Girl running along a path of wooden boards across the soggy heath.

Thursday, 14 March 2013

Country children

"I pity the country children of today. The journeys to and from school were an education as valuable as any we managed to imbibe at school. We had to trudge about three miles over little white limestone roads and through what was known as ‘mass paths’ through the fields to reach our school."

"… Setting out from home on sun-filled mornings with the nip in the air. I don’t remember any rainy September days, only the hazy light on the changing leaves. In my mind’s eye I can still see the jewelled cobwebs steteched between the blackberry fronds."

"I can remember the taste of ripe damsons and blackberries and hazelnuts which we cropped on our long journey homeward on autumn evenings. Cobwebs with dew, distant sounds of threshers, blackberries and hazelnuts gathered on the way. There were hazards too, like the eve of fair day when dealers’ wild horses were on the road."

-- Nancy Power, Redestown, County Kilkenny, 1920s 

“…we didn’t walk through fields to school, but travelled the then rugged and stony way which was uphill and down dales … no (paved) roads in those days of sparse cash but healthy living. Making ourselves happy with very little was the norm for us all."

"Those times were known as the ‘hungry thirties,’ which I think is a misnomer because there was plenty of home-produced natural food available everywhere and those that hadn’t it shared it with their neighbours."

"Walking to school, we stopped to look in birds’ nests, picked wildflowers to bring for the altar, pass herons, frogs, water-hens and a millwheel then in use, a maid putting out their cows after milking and a ploughman urging on his horses. At school we learned arithmetic by counting snails. We remembered a rat and his mate having a row, a white-horn in full bloom."

--  Bessie Byrne Sheridan, Askamore, County Wexford, 1930s

Both quotes from the compilation No Shoes in Summer, Wolfhound Press. Photo from Irishhistorylinks.com. 

Wednesday, 13 March 2013

The latest Francis

“What are they cheering for?” asked my daughter, overhearing the news.

We have a new pope, I said – and he’s the first ever from the Americas.

 “YAY! Go America!” The Girl said, raising a fist like her football team won. When we visited my native USA last year, she regarded that land of giant stores and vast roads with a sense of awe, like Alice visiting Wonderland.

Not the USA itself, I said, but South America. He had a name as an ordinary man, but as pope he has taken the name Francis I.

“He can’t be, Daddy – he has to be Francis III,” she said. Why the third? “Because before him there was Francis Assisi and Francis A-Bacon,” she said.

 Francis Assisi was a great man – he spent his life helping the poor – but he was a monk, not a pope. And Francis Bacon was a knight, and one of the first scientists.

“And what will the pope be?” she asked.

I'd like him to be all those things, I said, privately not raising my hopes too high. We need more people like that in the world.

Photo: The Girl, some time ago, at the Rock of Cashel, in a church built in the 1100s.

Friday, 8 March 2013

Woodland Trail

That's The Girl on her bicycle in the distance.

Thursday, 7 March 2013

Movies with The Girl



Every night, as long as my daughter can remember, I read to her. Now that she is almost nine, however, and is eagerly reading in her own spare time, we can fill more of our time together with lessons and games -- and beginning this year, if she has been good all week, Friday night is Movie Night.

We don’t have many cinemas around us, but we have a telly and a DVD player, and while the local libraries and video stores don’t have many of the old films I want to show her, I can scrounge something somewhere. The point for me is to expose her to the vast library of classic films that I grew up with, and that few people see anymore.  I also get to make her watch a documentary of some kind – on music, science, or the natural world – and she learns from them as well.

Singing in the Rain, which quickly became her favourite, especially the flashback montage of Gene Kelly’s start in show business and, of course Donald O’Connor’s “Make ‘Em Laugh” routine. In the weeks since then, she has been trying to lie on the floor and run in circles as he did, keeping her elbow in the centre of the circle and her legs running around the perimeter. “It’s not as easy as he made it look,” she concluded. That’s a lot of what art is, I said: making something difficult look easy.

The Court Jester showed Danny Kaye at his best, especially the surreal opening musical number. Perhaps the closest a film has ever come to the pantos children watch here every Christmas, Jester is packed with great actors and memorable comic bits.

I let her watch the first two Harry Potter films – the only recent additions in the mix -- because she read the books and loved them. I told her that I want her to stop after the second one, and only pick up the third after we have read some other large book – Heidi, The Wind in the Willows, Jungle Book – as the Harry Potter books get sadder and more adult as they continue.

Bringing Up Baby offered her a perfect introduction to the screwball comedy, with an incorrigible Katherine Hepburn and a continually flustered Cary Grant driving a plot that piles on one misunderstanding after another.  

Duck Soup was already one of her favourite films, but she asked to see it again; the Marx Brothers in all their chaotic glory, with none of the dull bits or romantic subplots shoehorned into other films.

We had read the book The Wizard of Oz, and loved it, but she had never seen the film and was eager to do so, especially when I told her how much it differed from the book. She felt even more excited when I told her Dorothy was played by Judy Garland, whom she remembered from Meet Me in St. Louis and Easter Parade.   

When she was five I introduced her to Buster Keaton, and he quickly became her favourite – she occasionally asks that we “play” Buster Keaton, re-enacting the kind of scenarios he had in his films. Last night I introduced her to four short films by Buster Keaton, her favourite. The Electric House was fun, but not as satisfying as we had imagined, while The Boat had too many misfortunes with too little comic payoffs. Neighbours was much funnier, with Buster and a his standard leading lady playing young lovers whose slum-neighbourhood backyards are back to back, and who conspire to get married against their families’ wishes.


The last and unexpected best of the lot, though, was One Week, in which Buster and his new wife inherit a plot of land and a build-your-own-house kit. A jilted rival sabotages their plans, leaving them with a crooked, zigzag house that can only be entered through a window and whose front door opens onto a second-floor drop.

I have a copy of Arsenic and Old Lace stored away for next week, as both she and I think she is old enough to start seeing some slightly scary films. I have been very slow to introduce her to such things; just as we find it difficult to judge how shocking certain films were to audiences of many decades ago, we forget as adults how frightening films can be to children. Most of us in the modern West are accustomed to seeing people tortured or murdered as entertainment, and I know many people who cheerfully let their children watch such things, unmindful of the long-term effects.  Films from the 1930s and 40s, on the other hand, are not only safer than most “children’s” programmes today, but demonstrate a world in which most normal people functioned on fewer goods and less energy. 

Finally, I played for her a special request, a few selected parts of Julie Taymor’s recent version of the Tempest, with Helen Mirren playing a female version of Prospero. She was delighted by Djimon Honsou’s flamboyant performance of Caliban -- imitating him long afterwards -- 
and by the comedy relief of Russell Brand and Alfred Molina. I only showed her a few excerpts --- much of it she would find dull or frightening -- but what she saw fascinated her, and drew many questions:


“How do we know she’s a good witch? Because she’s pretty grumpy.”

“Why does Caliban hate Prospera if she let him live?”

“Why does Caliban pretend to serve those two buffoons?” (Yes, that was the word she used.)

“Why does Prospera want her daughter to be married so quickly?”

“Why would Prospera want to break her staff at the end?”

And finally, when Prospera breaks her staff and renounces her power and safety,  

“Is this a happy ending, Daddy? Because it doesn’t feel like it.”

She has done right by other people, though it pains her to do so, I said. That’s how you know she’s good.


Wednesday, 6 March 2013

Urban animals


Every day I walk through Dublin, from the Quays on the River Liffey where the bus drops me off to my office near the Guinness Brewery, and every day I pass rows of horses. These days almost everyone gets around by car, bus or the Luas light rail, of course, and the horses are mainly for tourists.

Even into the 1980s or 90s, however, they regularly pulled milk, coal and rubbish carts around the city. Even now they are a normal part of the daily scene, and when I walk down an alley on my lunch break, I often pass a horse or two that’s been tied up and given a bag of oats.

When I hear people casually discuss a future in the Long Emergency, they often swing between two possibilities, assumed to be mutually exclusive – either a dystopian urban existence, surrounded by an aging moonscape of concrete, or a pastoral life of agrarian subsistence. Occasionally someone mentions gardening in the city, but rarely does anyone bring up animals.

Livestock can do surprisingly well in the city, given the right circumstances. Some areas of a city, inevitably, have nothing but asphalt, but most areas have yards, parks, roadsides, greens, and other plants for grazers to eat. One reason Dublin has so much green space, I’m told, is that so much land was put aside for family cows. When horses pulled carts along the city streets here, they grazed yard after yard while the human made their deliveries.

One window in our building looked onto a block of flats – an apartment complex to Americans – surrounded by the usual blank lawn of grass. In some places I they might hire someone to mow the grass, using precious fuel or electricity and creating waste that many people would dump into the rubbish system. Here, they just let the horses graze there, and neatly allow two problems to become one solution.

Nor are all livestock as massive as cows or horses. My mother-in-law grew up in the post-war ruins of Frankfurt, Germany, and her family kept a goat for milk. They didn’t have much room, but the children took the goat for a walk every night like a dog, and it kept the weeds down along the road.

 In London during World War II, neighbours living under rationing pooled their resources to keep pigs in a communal pen, and paid neighbourhood boys to mind them. The pigs eliminated much of the rubbish problem, and supplemented Londoners’ diet with protein. Chickens, ducks and rabbits could live on roofs or balconies, as well as in most urban yards.

Think of it this way: we think it completely normal to keep small predators like dogs and cats, who compete with us for food, but think it bizarre to keep sheep or goats that can eat the biomass we cannot.

Top photo: Horses outside my window in Dublin. 
Bottom photo: Horse in a Dublin alley, perhaps in the 1960s. Courtesy of Irishhistorylinks.com

Tuesday, 5 March 2013

Nettles


Every place has its own kind of spring. In my native Midwest it comes fitfully -- apple blossoms open warmly only to freeze over in a late frost, like flies in amber, and greenery strains in stages over a vacillating land.

Here in rural Ireland the winter is a different kind of harsh – rarely snowy or below freezing, but always chilly, damp and dark. We live at the same latitude where polar bears are native in the Western Hemisphere, and while the Gulf Stream keeps us temperate, the light changes are still subarctic and the winter landscape bleak and gothic. So our Lenten fast brings a literal ray of sunshine and blue skies, when Ireland stops looking like something out of Cormac McCarthy’s novel The Road and actually begins to look like those inspirational calendars of Ireland. The hedgerows flush with green again, wildflowers cover the fields and, best of all for me, it is nettle season.

The month or two of nettle shoots means I can take a short daily walk and gather massive bushels of extremely healthy food with little effort. Almost as numerous and well-known as grass or clover, they flourish in massive clusters on roadsides and riverbanks, lining field edges and sprouting through pavement cracks.

Brushing against them leaves painful welts, and every child here learns early to give nettles a wide berth – they are covered in hairs that are actually tiny hypodermic needles, which inject the same formic acid as in fire ants’ stings.

The traditional remedy for the sting is dock-leaf, whose broad leaves always grow next to nettles and are its cure – my daughter knew when she was still a toddler to find it in the grass, crush it and rub it on stings. Perhaps its astringent nature cancels out the inflammation – I haven’t found any scientific research to “prove” that it helps – but it has worked for generations, and works for us.

This may not make nettles sound very appetizing, but cooking them destroys the stingers, and the plants themselves are amazingly nutritious – a hundred grams of them are only 36 calories but carry six grams of protein and are high in Vitamins A, C, and K. Europeans used them as a tonic, an infusion of vitamins at the end of winter, as well as for arthritis, prostate problems, heart conditions and a multitude of other ailments.

Crushing the stingers also eliminates the stingers, so you can seize them quickly and not get stung -- hence the expression “to grab the nettle.” I am told that some practiced souls even crush the leaves quickly and eat them raw with no ill effects to fingers or mouth. Me, I find gloves simpler.

I would not try to eat them as a salad, but they can be made into tea, soup, sautéed as a vegetable side dish, mixed with scrambled eggs or pancakes, and I have heard of people making nettle lasagna, nettle pesto and nettle kim chi. The plant’s grassy and slightly fishy flavour goes well with seafood – say, nettle soup with prawns (or shrimp, if you live in America). I have juiced nettles into a drink very like wheatgrass – not my taste, but there are many wheatgrass fans out there.

Farmers here used to soak the cooked plant with sourdough starter to make nettle beer, and I see no reason it could not be mixed into bread as herbs are. I know farmers in County Wicklow who make an excellent nettle cheese by mixing the plant into the curds before ageing, creating a green spiderweb latticework in every slice.

They have other uses: Their fibrous stalks can be stripped of leaves, squeezed of juice and wound together to make a makeshift rope in the woods. The stalks can be soaked in water until the fleshy parts decay, as people soak flax to make linen, and combed into thread – I have seen whole dresses sewn of nettle fiber.

Ireland might be the ideal home for nettles, as they love moist, rich soil, cool conditions and cleared land. They exist but are less ubiquitous in Southern Europe and North America, and you can probably plant them in pots. If they don’t already grow around your home I don’t recommend planting them in the ground – in an Irish climate like Oregon they might run rampant, and in a drier one they might never grow – but they might thrive under control in a pot, as mint does. Some gardeners recommend them for attracting early aphids -- not because they like aphids, but because the pests draw early ladybirds (ladybugs to Americans) that, hopefully, stay to help through the summer.

When you collect nettles, of course, don’t take them from near a road, or from land you think might have been sprayed with pesticides. Most nettle-pickers select only the delicate shoots in early spring, and if you snap them off more shoots grow back – but the whole plant is edible, and I continue to pick leaves into late summer. Rinse them using a spoon or some other tool to stir them in the water, so as not to be stung or get your gloves wet. Once you have rinsed and drained them, cook them well – say, boiling for at least 10 minutes -- or the stingers won’t completely dissolve.

A common approach to nettle soup is to sauté one large, white diced onion in butter over low heat for a few minutes, and as it turns golden stir in a clove of garlic, shredded through the fine holes in your grater. Peel and dice a medium potato – about a centimetre on a side – and stir that in too. Then add about 100 grams of nettle shoots and pour stock over the whole thing. Let it boil, bring it down to a simmer and let it cook until the potatoes are soft. Then you can blitz the whole thing with a food processor, if you like, add a 100 ml or so of cream and serve.

Sometimes I take the more direct route of dumping them into boiling stock – beef, vegetable, whatever – cooking them a few minutes, blitzing them and pouring them into a fine strainer over a bowl. The result is a drink -- savoury nettle broth -- and a thick soup that I can eat, mix or freeze for lunch.

I’m not a purist – we grow much of our food or buy it from local farmers, but we also go to the supermarket or eat out once in a while, and I don’t ask the waitress to trace my food back to the Third World. I’m also not a survivalist or a bushcraft master – I work at a computer in an office, I’ve ever tried to eat exclusively off the land, and I doubt I know even a tenth of the local plants. But even my meager knowledge allows me to look at a field and see a cornucopia of resources.

Why is this important, you ask? Because most of us put food in our mouths at least a few times a day, and it is usually food that was created in ways that cannot and should not last. The corn may well have been sown, watered, and plucked from the earth without ever touching a human hand, using machines that run on liquefied dinosaur biomass. The vegetables may have been uprooted by a migrant worker who will die young. The chicken patty probably came from an animal that lived a short life mutilated in darkness.

Yet you are surrounded by food. You probably have nettles in your area, but even if you don’t, maybe you have daisies, dandelions, clover, sorrel, brambles, berries, goosefoot, cowslips and dozens of other plants. Maybe you have local hazels, cobnuts and walnuts – even acorns can be made edible. There are local animals to eat, local sources of water, ways to warm up or keep cool. How do I know this? Because people lived for the first 99 percent of humanity’s history, almost everywhere on Earth – in deserts, on tundra, and certainly in the forests and fields that are now America and Europe -- when all food, all water, all shelter, was wild.

That knowledge was passed through the generations, held not just by every Irish farmer, but perhaps by every Druid and Cro-Magnon before them. Today, in a single lifetime, the chain has been broken – only older people tend to remember the uses of nettles, and in America such knowledge has often vanished altogether. If we get smacked down by a fuel shortage, a disease that keeps us home, a climate catastrophe that hits agribusiness, or some other crisis to our society’s bloodstream of tankers and trucks, the metric tones of healthy food all around us may not be recognized, and might lay unused even as families go hungry.

Photo from Geograph.ie. Originally published in April 2009.