Thursday, 31 July 2014



The Girl and I have been working our way through the human story – first hunting and foraging, then breeding edible plants to make crops and taming animals to herd them, then tribes coagulating into larger and larger groups. Tonight, I told The Girl, we’re up to the last several thousand years, and we’re going to talk about empires.

“Yay!” she shouted – “which ones?” She has a tween’s affection for the outrageous, and eagerly consumes stories of Egyptian mummies, Aztec sacrifices and mad Roman emperors.

We’ll start with the earliest and work our way up, I said, but first I want to show you something about every empire ever. Can you draw a timeline, a long line with little marks to represent centuries?

She did so, and said, “What are the years?”

They can be any years, I said – the same thing happened several thousand years ago as happens now. First, do you remember the yeast in the bottle?

She remembered the example well – a single yeast cell was dropped into the bottle at noon, double every minute, and the bottle was full at midnight. She had learned that the bottle was half full not at 6 pm, as seems intuitive, but at one minute to midnight. The bottle was about one per cent full at seven minutes to midnight, and so on.

Do you remember why they multiplied that way? I asked. “Well, they could eat the sugar,” she said.

Right, I said – they found a new resource, and it made them multiply. Do you remember how to draw their growth? I asked.

“Sure,” she said – “It’s exponential.”

Can you draw that kind of curve over the timeline? I asked, and she did, starting with a low straight line right over the timeline and then sweeping upwards.

Good, I said – that’s also what happens when a certain group of humans finds a new resource. Why won’t the exponential growth curve go on forever? I asked.

She looked at me like I was crazy. “Because exponential growth always ends in a die-off,” she said, looking bored; we’ve done that lesson many times.

Well, it has to end somehow, anyway, I said. Can you draw that? I asked, and she drew the rising curve peaking and plunging down again.

Excellent, I said. What you’ve just drawn is an empire. That’s what an empire is.

“What, they multiply like yeast?” she asked.

Maybe not quite so dramatically, I said, but some group of humans finds a new resource, or a way to get an old one, and it lets them grow and conquer everyone else until they can’t grow anymore. Maybe they bred a certain kind of plant into a crop, or tamed a certain animal, or found a new land where the animals never learned to be scared of humans and didn’t run away. It can be a new technology, like the Romans put iron shields together into a phalanx, or like the Vikings developed ships that could brave the far seas. It could be a new religion.

“Wait – what?” she said. “Even if everyone turned to a new religion, they’d use the same energy as before.” Yes, I said, but a religion can change the way people live, and encourage some people to give their lives to a cause, so they’re directing their energy elsewhere.

Thing is, I said, look at the timeline below it – what do you notice?

“It doesn’t take long,” she said, “just a few hundred years.”

It can take longer or shorter, I said, but even if it’s just a hundred years, that’s slow by human standards. Most people who live through the rise or the decline don’t really know it – they see the details of life around them, and not the big picture of what’s happening. Does that make sense?

She nodded thoughtfully, and then asked, “Can we pretend to be people in one of the empires? Like can I be the queen of the Persians, and you be one of the Spartans?”

You can absolutely be queen of the Persians, I said – you don’t want to be a Spartan?

“Not a Spartan woman!” she said. “I don’t want to be kidnapped on my wedding day and shave my head.”

Fair point, I said. Okay, you’re queen of the Persians. We spent the next five minutes sword-fighting with cardboard rolls, until she curled up with a book and was ready for bed. After we had read some more of the Narnia books, I When you’re older, I told her, I want to talk about where we are on that curve.

“Okay,” she said, smiling. “Love you.” 

Photo: The Girl helping me pick up rubbish from the roadside. 

Monday, 28 July 2014


The Girl asked if we could play a game one night, and when I asked what kind, she said, “Historical charades.”  

I don’t think I’ve ever heard of historical charades, I said. “Well, you wouldn’t; I made it up just now,” she said.

The rules were that we had to enact something from the medieval period, and the results were fantastic:

  • I started out by pretending to ride a horse, and getting something in the eye, and she guessed it – Harold at Hastings.
  • She made shoving, chopping and falling over gestures, and then shoving away and chopping again, but I never guessed the answer: Henry VIII’s wives.
  • I acted like I was putting on robes and writing, and she easily guessed monks. For her turn she replicated my gestures and then acted like she was screaming and swinging a sword, and I laughed and guessed Viking raiders.
  • For my last turn, I acted like we were rocking to and fro, and sending birds away, and she pondered over it for a while. Soldiers sending carrier pigeons? Barons training falcons? All good guesses, I said, but it’s Norsemen sending ravens from their boats, seeing if they would return.

“Oh, right!” she said. “They let a raven loose because they’re smart and will try to find land, but they can’t land on the sea, so if they don’t find anything, they would have to come back to the boat.”

Right. In fact, I told her, reading history like that gives me new insight into some old stories. As a child, I was taught that Noah let one raven after the other from his ark, and they never returned – my Sunday school teachers said that he almost lost hope until the dove showed up.

Now that I’m reading history with The Girl, I realise they were reading the story all wrongly. When the ravens never returned, they knew some of the world had survived. No matter what happened to the world, there was still life somewhere, and with life there was hope. Hope didn’t come from the doves, the angelic symbol we all love. It came from the scroungers, but it came all the same. 

Sunday, 27 July 2014

New article at Mother Earth News

"Under the green and rolling hills of Scotland, several people lay buried for four thousand years. Around them lay what we guess to be their keepsakes; beads, a bronze knife, tools and a battle-axe. Most interesting, though, was that at least one of them – a teenager when he died, curled up like a baby – lay in what was guessed to be a wicker coracle, like those used on these islands into the 20th century. He was buried in his boat.

Stop and consider a few things about this. First, its antiquity: Before the Ancient Greeks or the Hebrew prophets, before all but the earliest pyramids, there were Scots. Also, you don’t see boat-burials every day; perhaps it was the youth’s most prized possession, the Stone-Age equivalent of being buried in your Rolls-Royce. Finally, consider this was a giant basket, woven together by hand, and that it carried people safely across the cold waters."

My latest article, "A Short History of Woven Boats," is live at Mother Earth News: check it out. 

Saturday, 26 July 2014

Waking our loved ones

When someone dies – as my great-aunt did a few days ago – the world burdens us with certain expectations; we are expected to sombrely mourn for a matter of days or weeks, and then move on and go back to normal. For most of us, though, grief has its own timetable and logic, and will be no more ignored than any other aspect of love.

Sometimes you feel relief that someone’s suffering has ended, or satisfaction at their life well lived. Sometimes you feel nothing most of the time, but once in a while, for the rest of your life, sharply feel their absence. Quite often we need celebration and catharsis, even when we feel obliged to conform to long faces and whispers. For that reason, I’ve always admired the Irish wake.

Wakes give you a certain license to do all the things that people actually need to do when they feel loss, and which might be frowned upon at your conventional funeral – to tell jokes, laugh, kiss, drink, and even behave a bit inappropriately, surrounded by your community in an upwelling of comfort and joy. Most of all, you celebrate the person that was, and it is their presence, rather than Death’s, that hangs in the air around you.  


A few years ago, after a friend of ours died – the husband of a woman I just hugged an hour ago at a friend’s farm, in fact – The Girl had many questions.

“Papa, what does it feel like to die?”

I don’t know first-hand, honey, I told her – I’ve never died.

“Why do we have to die?”

If we didn’t, I told her, no new babies could be born.

“I wish it didn’t have to end, though.”

I know, I said. But that’s what gives it value.

Photo: The Girl, around the time of the conversation.