Sunday, 31 August 2014

End of summer

My daughter is growing up fast – ten going on sixteen, which means we are in an age of difficult conversations. It also means, though, that she can be a lot more help with the chores; today she picked nettles while I watered in the greenhouse. 

Picking nettles is a tricky business – cooked they are tasty and nutritious, and great for tea, soup, and many other dishes. Raw, however, they sting to the touch, and require gloves or a swift hand to pick. Since she was two years old The Girl knew the traditional remedy for nettle stings – to chew dock-leaf and rub it on the skin. Now she’s come up with what she says works as a sort of vaccine, to stuff dock-leaves inside the fingers of her gloves, covering them on the inside. The nettles will make tea for me in the evenings this week, and the flesh will make part of my lunches.

She also cleaned out the chicken coop while I mowed some of the grass, and helped carry some straw bales behind the house to make into an archery target. The target we’ve been meaning to set up since her birthday, when I gave her a bow and arrow set. I didn’t want to lose any arrows, though, or see any strays sail onto a neighbour’s property, so we wanted to set up our own targets. The bales were donated by our neighbour, who raises cows and drives the local school bus.

Her new maturity means that our reading material is gradually graduating from childhood to young adult. Every Friday night I show her a film, usually something in black-and-white from the classic era. In the past that meant things like Going My Way or Boys’ Town, but recently I’ve allowed her to see darker and more serious fare – film noir like The Big Clock, or dramas like Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. I also introduced her to her first opera, The Mikado – she was sceptical at first, but I sold her on the fact that it was in English, and it was very funny.

As she returns to school and the days get shorter and wetter again, we are saying goodbye to the swallows that take up residence in our shed every summer. The Girl and I stand on chairs and peek into the nest here and there, watching the eggs appear, turn to blind chicks, then little birds and finally to adolescent swallows fluttering around the place. While they are busy growing up, however, it means that we have to tiptoe and stoop to get into our shed, as we might get smacked in the face by Mr. or Mrs. Swallow coming in the opposite direction.

Finally, I used these last weeks of summer to try some new experiments, continue some successful ones and to conclude one from last year. Last year’s experiment was beets in sand, and I’m seeing how long they will keep and still be nutritious and edible. I’ve fished out some after a year in the sand, and they seem fine so far.

The new projects are to pickle some more apples, which are my new favourite thing to make; last year’s batch turned out fantastic, marinating in the parsnip vinegar with cloves, chiles, ginger and cardamom, and this season’s new batch of apples gives me a chance to tinker with the recipe.

Same thing goes for the eggs I kept in limewater, preserving their valuable protein through the lean winter months without the need for refrigeration. Old books show a surprising diversity of recipes – just lime and water, some adding salt, some requiring the mixture be boiled first. I tried the simplest one of equal parts lime and water last year, and the eggs lasted eight months. This year I’ll be trying some of the other recipes, and seeing how long they last.

Finally, I spent Saturday morning making kim chee for the first time – I’ll let you know how that goes.

Saturday, 30 August 2014

Reasons for hope

Looking through old correspondence recently, I came across a remarkable letter I received about five years ago, and in light of all that has happened in Ferguson, Missouri, lately, it seemed appropriate to display. A young lady wrote to me on behalf of her friend, who was concerned about the state of the world today -- she had read some of my writings predicting a difficult future ahead, and was losing hope for the future.

The young lady asked me what gives me hope. This is what I wrote:

If you often feel troubled about the world’s future, then I feel like we are kindred spirits. Every day I wonder about the future of my little girl during the long emergency ahead. And I suck it up and continue with my day job or volunteer group or bedtime story, knowing I can rarely tell anyone who would understand. Today we diagnose such compassion, and prescribe medicines to remove it.

But we should feel troubled, to a point, because the troubles exist, no matter how many people ignore them. It is what the medieval monk Isaac of Stella called the hell of mercy, what all dangerous saints feel to be inspired to do good things.

You see, people who care about the world’s future have two big problems – what to do with all that despair, and where they get the energy to do all that activism. And the two problems solve each other – that feeling of powerlessness can be a most powerful fuel, if you put it to work for you. Because if people were irredeemable – if we really didn’t deserve to be saved – you wouldn’t feel this way, and millions of others wouldn’t either.

And I remind myself of a few things. I remind myself that we are not destroying the Earth – she has been through worse than us, and will heal. I remember that, when human societies collapsed before, Nature grew back fast. For us it may take 50 years or 5 million, depending on how much we destroy now – and that is what we are fighting for, for the damage to be only superficial, and Nature to return in profusion for our grandchildren. But however long it takes, it will happen.

I am concerned for the many people who might die in the coming decades, if we don’t learn to live differently. But I also think of my grandparents, or the elderly Irish around where I live now, or most people in most eras, all of whom lived on a fraction of the energy Westerners live on today, and sometimes lived long and happy lives. They were delighted to get an orange for Christmas or walk miles to the village to call on neighbors, and if they were healthy and loved, they did not consider themselves to be living terrible lives. When things get bad people are often wiser and more neighborly in real life than they are in action movies.

Remember that you are not alone. The world is teeming with people who care as you do. They might be homesteading, or forming unsung community groups, or meeting in church basements, or learning how to turn compost into electricity. They might look like everyone else, and you have likely passed them on the street without knowing. But they are all around you, and they are on your side.

Also, remember that all movements were pathetic and hopeless until they won. The idea that women might vote was considered a ridiculous idea almost until it became law. No one thought race laws in the South could be repealed, until they were. Revolutions and sweeping changes seem to happen suddenly because the people in power, who write the histories, ignored all the previous steps – decades of patient work from forgotten heroes, many of whom must have despaired and given up hope. And there is much that is wrong with the world that was never righted, because too many people gave up.

Keep in mind that you are important, because you are very fortunate. Unlike most people on Earth, you live where we can make tens of thousands of dollars a year rather than a few hundred, as in Africa. You have access to colleges and free community courses. You have community-access television whose cameras can be rented for a small fee. You have restaurants whose owners throw away tonnes of food each night – some of which could be eaten by people, some by household chickens or other animals.

You live in a place where the garbage cans are filled with things that can be reused. You live with libraries, internet cafes and a surfeit of cheap stuff. It means there is much that can be reused, and that it is easy to live cheaply while using up few resources. It means you have power that most people in the world will never know, and that you are too important to lose.

Remember – and I’m sorry if this sounds cheesy, but it’s true – that there is no one else in the world like you, no one who sees everything you see, and the world would be a worse place if you gave up.

Keep in mind that we already know how to cope with the years of trouble ahead – and many people are already learning to grow their own food, repair their own belongings and preserve an older set of values. If things ever do become desperate, each person who is learning such skills can become a teacher. Every such shelter can be a headquarters. Every homestead that can sustain itself and its neighbours can be an ark during the flood – and if we have enough of them, no one ever need drown.

Finally, be good to yourself – don’t beat yourself up over things for which you are not responsible.

Photo: Our strawberries.

Friday, 29 August 2014

Highland cows

They know they're cool. You don't need to tell them.

Wednesday, 27 August 2014

Men of the island

"There was a hat which was left on some kind of post or other. At the time, the men of Achill would have worn a cap, but when going into town … he would put on this formal hat and then leave it again when he returned"

"Paul Henry, who visited the island in 1912, said that 'the habitations of the islanders are very singular. Their houses were of rude stones rounded by the tide, procured from the beach, un-cemented.'"

"They are rounded at the gables and roofed with fern, heath and shingles, fastened with straw bands. In the village of Dua, consisting of about 40 cabins, there is not a single chimney. Some of the wealthier graziers, however, have an odd custom of residing in such houses, or in houses of a still more simple construction, only in the summer months, when the season for fishing is on, and their cattle are brought down to the coast to feed on the young herbage. These hovels they call Booley houses."

"At one point Henry reported watching a race of two men around the island, for the right to be the first to ask a certain woman to marry them, 'which was by no means uncommon.'"

-- From interviews on the Radio Telefis Eireann documentary "Leave Your Hat at the Sound," broadcast 1974. Photo of the men of Aran island, courtesy of 

Tuesday, 26 August 2014

What not to do with chickens

Chickens used to be a ubiquitous a part of any household, taken for granted as electricity or a car might be today. Now, homeowners are re-discovering the value of backyard chickens; they offer pest control, lawn-mowing services, fertilizer, comedy relief, and their business end doles out concentrated protein like a Pez dispenser.

New chicken-owners can get frustrated, however, when they expect more than chickens can deliver, either in food, companionship or general co-operation. If you are considering keeping chickens yourself, try to learn and avoid the most common mistakes, so that you can instead make an entirely different set of mistakes.

You might think, for example, that your chickens might see you as dogs do, as a god who drops manna from above. You would be mistaken: Chickens don’t think you are the same person who wore that different shirt yesterday. Chickens don’t think that your moving parts are part of a single life-form. Let’s put it this way: Chickens don’t think. What I’m getting at here is, don’t walk into a chicken run barefoot, or the birds will see your toes and give you what we in the business call “the full Hitchcock.”

To use another example, you might think that when you open the enclosure door and the rooster runs out between your legs, he would realize his mistake and go back where the food and sex are. In fact, you would be wrong. Instead, be prepared for the cockerel to run frantically in all directions until exhausted, occasionally banging his head on the fence as he repeatedly tries to go through it like a moth at a window.

When you successfully retrieve your cockerel, you might think you can lift him over the fence and gently let go, since a bird — with wings and feathers and all — will flutter delicately to the ground. If your rooster is like mine, however, be prepared for it to drop like a bowling ball out of your hands and into the mud, and complain at you the rest of the day.

If you have both chickens and children, is that your rooster will go up to the hens and … um …. raise questions. A lot. Not consensually. Emphasize to your pre-teen daughter that any teenaged humans engaging in similar behaviours should get a good talking-to — using the language of ninjitsu, followed by the language of police reports and indictments.

After you built them a home and yard and gave them food, water and soft bedding, you might think they will snuggle in and obediently lay eggs in your hen box, realizing their good fortune. You probably will not expect them to try to tunnel out like Charles Bronson in “The Great Escape.” In fact, you would be wrong — we found one of ours apparently spent hours burrowing several feet under the coop, only to panic at the realization that she was a bird now deep underground.

Remember that chickens are social animals and need to cuddle together as a family, where “family” is defined as “one of those daytime talk-show guests that throw chairs at each other.” If one of the chickens begins to look a little ragged, as one of ours did, remember that the others will not gather round and cluck sympathetically out of sisterly concern, but look at it like hyenas do a wounded gazelle on the Serengeti.

Finally, it might be best not to treat chickens as pets; they are made of meat, and secretly long to return to their natural state of being dinner. As such they will constantly prowl their territory searching for new and more creative ways to die, and you will not be able to keep them from it forever.

Monday, 25 August 2014

My article on Ferguson published at American Conservative

Check it out. 

I admit it's unusual for me to write something about current events; this blog, and most of my writings for Grit and Mother Earth News, deals broadly with traditional ways of life. That still covers a lot of ground, so on any given day this blog might cover things like:
  • Interviews with elderly people here, who remember life before electricity or cars; 
  • Archived stories on everyday life in Ireland from several decades ago; 
  • Our attempts to grow and make more things ourselves; 
  • Articles I write for popular magazines, like Grit and Mother Earth News;
  • My not-quite-homeschooling lessons with my daughter; 
  • Recipes I come up with with traditional life, and 
  • Pretty pictures.
I usually stay away from anything overtly political, as I want to stick to subjects I know well. Since I grew up next door to Ferguson, Missouri and have friends and family in the area, this is something that --- literally -- hits home for me.

I'm pleased The American Conservative wanted to run my piece. Even if you're of a more left-of-center bent, as at least a few of my readers are, I recommend you read TAC; they represent a thoughtful, principled kind of conservatism that contrasts sharply with some of the sneering and taunting I used to hear, from both sides, in the mainstream US media. They've run other pieces of mine in the past --  this about peak oil, and this about the collapse of the Irish economy.

More tomorrow.

Friday, 22 August 2014

.....and we're back.

Scotland was fantastic -- more on that later.

For now, I will just say that when we returned to the world of phones and internet, I found that the place near where I grew up, in Ferguson, Missouri, was a war zone. My family and friends are okay, and my sympathies go out to everyone caught in the middle of the tragedy.

I wrote a piece about it, and expect it to be published in the next few days -- more on that this week.

Tuesday, 12 August 2014

Off for the week

The Girl and I are on holiday in Glasgow; don't be offended if I take a few days to answer correspondence. More next week.

Sunday, 10 August 2014

New at Grit magazine: Using plants to clean contaminated soil

New article here.

In the last couple of centuries humans have done a strange thing: we’ve dug the biggest pits, the deepest holes, and the longest tunnels the world has ever seen, all to find the most insidious and subtle poisons known to our mammalian bodies, remove them from deep inside rocks where they had lain sequestered for eons, and concentrate them in the places where most of us live. We’re starting to think this maybe wasn’t a good idea.

Take lead, which last- century humans put into containers, car parts, pipes, paints and many other products -- and even in petroleum, spreading lead-tainted exhaust across a world. Lead causes brain damage and erratic behaviour if absorbed into the human body, and its rise and fall correlates with the US crime rate in the 20th century – the more lead was around children, the more crime appeared a generation later. It’s been banned from paints and auto fuel, of course, but it lingers on old buildings and in soil.

Or take mercury: burning coal releases it into air and water, and thence into animals like fish – a  2009 study by the US Geological Survey tested 300 streams across the USA and found that every fish tested contained mercury, a quarter at unsafe levels.

You could go on with a list of such heavy metals – cadmium, zinc, copper – right down the periodic table. Most of all, we have pulled out coal and oil and used it not just to fuel up the car and turn on the lights, but to generate hundreds of thousands of petrochemicals with unpronounceable names as long as sentences and often-unpleasant effects.

I say “we,” of course, but this isn’t a guilt trip; most of this was before your time, and you didn’t vote for it anyway. You and I use small amounts of heavy metals and fossil fuels in our own lives – driving, flying, heating, buying plastic products, just looking at this on a computer – but it’s very difficult to avoid doing so and still living in the modern world.

The consequence of so many people doing so many of these things, though, is that any urban area --- and many rural ones – will have splotches on the map with large quantities of toxic materials in the ground. If you live where a gasoline station used to be, or a factory, a garbage dump, or any number of other things, you might have things in your soil you don’t want in your stroganoff.

If you think you just won’t live in places, or just move away from them, congratulations: you’re thinking the same thing as everyone else. That presents a problem, as everyone who can live somewhere else will do so, and everyone who can’t live somewhere else will live on contaminated sites. Realistically, this means the poor, the elderly and other vulnerable people have to live with everyone else’s toxic waste – which is often the case already.

Other methods, like removing tonnes of contaminated soil, involve years of work and vast sums of money we don’t have anymore. If you could remove all the affected soil, moreover, where would you put it, aside from somewhere else that would then be contaminated?

What we need is a device that can suck toxins out of the soil and either turn them into something harmless, or concentrate them in something lightweight and removable. No one has much money lying around to invent such a device, though, much less to manufacture millions of them and send them to sites around the world for free. Thus, these hypothetical devices would be even better if they already appeared around the world, or were lightweight and easily transportable.

It would be best, in fact, if these machines cost nothing to create, and once created could make more of themselves, at an exponential rate. While we’re at it, it would also be nice if the devices also prevented soil erosion, fed bees and other pollinators, and provided shade, beauty, a home for wildlife, and possibly firewood.

Thankfully, we have these machines now. Certain plants, it turns out, have a particular gift for sucking up specific chemicals, either as a quirk of their biology or as a way to make themselves poisonous and avoid being eaten. When these plants are sown on contaminated ground, they absorb the contaminants into their tissues, gradually reducing the amount in the soil until it is safe for humans.

Called phyto-remediation, this process has become one of the newest and most promising fields of biology. Similar methods use mushrooms in what is called myco-remediation, or use bacteria and have unfortunate names like bio-sparging, bio-slurping and bio-venting, but we’ll restrict ourselves here to plants.

The basic method is straightforward: find out what toxins lurk in your patch of ground, and come up with a regimen of plants appropriate for the climate that hyper-accumulate those particular toxins.
“Toxins,” of course, covers a lot of ground, and the vagueness of the word allows it to be used in all kinds of unproductive ways – for example, every fake New Age cure that claims to rid your body of unspecified “toxins.” So to get more specific, let’s separate toxins into two of the most common categories: metals and petrochemicals.

Petrochemicals generally have familiar atoms like carbon, hydrogen and oxygen, the same things that make up chocolate sundaes, flower gardens, testosterone, newspaper, and most of the world around us. Those same elements in different combinations, however, make common but un-tasty compounds like gasoline, or lethal poisons like Agent Orange -- it’s all in how many atoms are put together in what arrangement.

If a plant can absorb, let’s say, the cancer-causing benzo-pyrene – C20H12, found in coal tar – with some oxygen (O) and then separate it into C12H22O11 and H2O, the petroleum-based poison would become sugar water. I’m not saying this is the actual chemical process, by the way – just an example of how chemical combinations can make something deadly or delicious.

When the toxins are metals, of course, they cannot be broken down into other elements any more than lead could be changed to gold. Some plants can absorb the metal and metabolise it into some kind of molecule, however, making it less easy to be absorbed by the human body and thus safer to be around. Sometimes the metals can even help us; some biologists have even proposed using certain edible plants to accumulate zinc from contaminated soils and feeding the plants to people with a zinc deficiency.

After the plants are harvested with the metals concentrated in their tissues, they can be burned, and the metal stays in the ash – a small amount of space and weight to dispose of, compared to the tonnes of contaminated earth. The ash might even be able to be mined for the metals, for complete recycling.

One example comes from Brazil, where abandoned gold mines are leaking mercury and other heavy metals into the soil and water. Mercury is one of the most toxic of heavy metals, and once in the soil it is soaked up by grass, which is eaten by cows, which are eaten by … you get the idea. Farmers are now growing maize and canola plants in the area, though, which soak up heavy metals quite nicely – gold as well as mercury. One scientists overseeing the project estimated farmers could get a kilogram of gold per hectare from doing this, which would help pay for the clean-up.

Mustard greens were used to remove 45% of the excess lead from a yard in Boston to ensure the safety of children who play there. Pumpkin vines were used to clean up an old Magic Marker factory site in Trenton, New Jersey, while Alpine pennycress helped clean up abandoned mines in Britain. Hydroponically grown sunflowers were used to absorb radioactive metals near the Chernobyl nuclear site in the Ukraine as well as a uranium plant in Ohio.

Blue Sheep fescue helps clean up lead, as do water ferns and members of the cabbage family. Smooth water hyssop takes up copper and mercury, while water hyacinths suck up mercury, lead, cadmium, zinc, cesium, strontium-90, uranium and various pesticides. Sunflowers slurp a wide range of compounds – not just the uranium and strontium-90 from radioactive sites, but also cesium, methyl bromide and many more. Bladder campion accumulates zinc and copper, while Indian mustard greens concentrate selenium, sulphur, lead, chromium, cadmium, nickel, zinc, and copper.

Perhaps the most magnificent hyperaccumulator, though, is the simple willow tree, Salix viminalis; it slurps up copper, zinc, cadmium, selenium, silver, chromium, uranium, petrochemicals and many others. Also, once its bio-mass has concentrated the heavy metals, it can be harvested and used for many practical things.

Of course, phytoremediation operates under certain limitations; the plants have to be able to grow in that climate, and should not be an invasive species that will take over the landscape, as kudzu did in the American South. The plants can only remove toxins as deep as their roots, so the technique might not solve groundwater contamination.

Most importantly, plants move at a different speed than we do, and even after the plants are harvested they are not likely to have eliminated the toxin. Reducing a toxin to safe levels takes time, and phytoremediation doesn’t remove a problem overnight.

Perhaps the most appealing aspect of this new field, though, is its scale, that the work to clean up toxic-waste sites could be done with no massive government project or corporate funding, with no bulldozers or construction equipment, without advanced and delicate technology beyond that to measure the toxin levels. The principles could be taught to every schoolchild or practiced by every land-owner, so that if anyone detects a certain toxin on their property, they will know what to plant to gradually remove it. The seeds and plants could be sold by any gardening or farm-supply store, so that some of our society’s most grandiose mistakes can be fixed by ordinary people, using natural means, using home-made experiments, hard work and patience, to restore our land to what it once was.

Thanks to Dr. David Leung of the University of Canterbury, New Zealand for his assistance in checking this article.      

Survey of US streams: “Mercury Found in Every Fish Tested, Scientists Say,” New York Times, August 19, 2009.
Effects of lead on crime: “America's Real Criminal Element: Lead,” Mother Jones magazine, January 2013
Effects of lead on crime: “How Lead Exposure Relates to Temporal Changes in IQ, Violent Crime, and Unwed Pregnancy,” Rick Nevin, Environmental Research, Volume 83, Issue 1, May 2000, Pages 1-22.
Effects of lead on crime: “Hazards of heavy metal contamination,” British Medical Bulletin, Volume 68, Issue 1, p. 167-182
Phytoremedation: Recent Advances Toward Improved Phytoremediation of Heavy Metal Pollution, Bentham Books, 2013.
Gold mines and mercury: Phytoremediation of Mercury-Contaminated Mine Wastes, Fabio Netto Moreno, Massey University 2004.
Playground in Boston: “New Jersey company cultivates pollution-eating plants Mustard greens, alfalfa help to clean up ravages of industry,” Baltimore Sun, March 30. 1997.
Playground in Boston: Blaylock, M.J., S. Dushenkov, D. Page, G. Montes, D. Vasudev, and Y. Kapulnik. Phytoremediation of a Pb-contaminated brownfield site in New Jersey. (1996), pp. 497-498. In Emerging Technologies in Hazardous Waste Management VIII, 1996 Extended Abstracts for the Special Symposium, Birmingham, Alabama, Industrial & Engineering Chemistry Division, American Chemical Society, September 9-11, 1996.
Blue Sheep Fescue: Phytoremediation: A Green Technology to Remove Environmental Pollutants, p. 71 – 86, American Journal of Climate Change 2013.
“Metal armour protects plants from disease,” Planet Earth Online, 10 September 2010.
“Improving Plants for Zinc Acquisition,” Prachy Dixit and Susan Eapen, Bioremediation Technology: Recent Advances, M. H. Fulekar, Springer, 2010.
Bio-remediation and Bio-fortification: Two Sides of One Coin, by X. Yin and L. Yuan, Springer 2012.

Thursday, 7 August 2014

Rural pub

In County Meath, a fair bit from anywhere.

Tuesday, 5 August 2014

Days of the farmer child

 "The first time they sent me off with a scythe, I was only half its height, and I was so proud --- I thought I was doing a great job. When children lined up for the village hiring fairs ... the farmer would ask whether he could plough and milk, and might refer to wet milking and dry milking. Some farmers felt the boys' muscles, and if they were like duck eggs they were in business, or would look at the boys' legs or hands to see if they were hairy.

The girls used to buy red tea bags for days off when everyone gathered for a dance, and kept it with them to dye their cheeks over and over, until they looked like the setting sun. They'd also leave a stick in the fire before they came, and rub the blackened stick on their eyebrows. Sometimes they did it before they left, and if it rained they looked like Indian war paint."

-- memories of elderly people interviewed for Radio Telefis Eireann in 1997, remembering their childhoods when they were hired to work on farms. Photo used with permission of