Saturday, 20 June 2015

More Plutarch

I’m ready, I told my ten-year-old – can you come in for tonight’s lesson?

She slid into the room in socks. “Most awesome entry ever!” she said.

It is, I said, as I opened up Plutarch. Now, remember how we talked about Solon? I want to tell you how he established democracy, and how other people tried to take it away. We had discussed how almost all human group, in almost every time and place, was run by the most powerful males, and how they'd kill or enslave anyone who objected.

“Do you think some of them could have been good rulers?” she asked. “Like in Lord of the Rings?”

Those characters were more than human, I said – but even they were often corrupted by power. In this world, even more so, power corrupts, and attracts the corruptible. And for most of history, it wasn’t just that rulers didn’t respect individual rights or collective decisions – it’s that they had no concept of these things. These principles came from one time and place.

 “Ancient Greece?” she asked. Yes, I said, and what city?

“Sparta?” she started, and then stopped – “No, wait, they were just the opposite. Athens?”

 Athens it was, I said – but even they didn’t start out that way. All Greeks used to have kings, and everyone served them, but even back in the Iliad there were signs the people were unhappy with that. Remember when Agamemnon wanted everyone to keep on fighting, and one man speaks up against the king? And Odysseus beats him up?

“I was with that guy,” she said. “I didn’t feel the least bit sorry for Odysseus when he got lost on his way home.” I’d agree with you, I said – but look on the good side. There were already people who would stand up to kings. A few hundred years later, they got so powerful they couldn’t be stopped.

“Why was it there?” she said. “Why didn’t it happen anywhere else?”

That’s a great question, I said – part of it was probably that a lot of Greeks could read and write, and were well educated. Everyone had to pitch in to defend the country, so a leader needed the people on their side.

They had lots of small, close-knit communities that could compete against each other, to test and share ideas, without everyone getting their information from the same sources. The United States, where I came from, used to be the same way, and democracy flourished there for a while too. Most of all, Ancient Greek cities were small enough that everyone knew each other, so it was hard for one of them to claim to be a god.

“I remember you read me that gospel story where the Egyptian priests were pretending to be the voice of a god from inside a hollow statue,” * she said. “In a Greek city people would hear that voice and say, ‘Hey, isn’t that Bob?”

I laughed – exactly, I told her.

“So in Athens,” she asked, “they could kick out the king and rule themselves?”

Well, that’s how movies go, I said – the rebels blow up the Death Star or crash the enemy spaceship, destroy the evil empire, and everyone lives happily ever after. In real life, though, violence puts the wrong kinds of people in power, and what follows a revolution is usually worse. Real democracies grow gradually from the bottom up.

 For example, I said, when the leaders of Athens kept killing each other to be the boss, they finally decided they would take turns each year. Term limits were invented, and that was Step One. “So one person would be the total dictator of everything, but just for a year?” she asked. Yep, I said – they were called archons. Arch in Ancient Greek means ruler, so you have a monarch (one ruler), anarchism (no rulers), arch-angels and so on.

“Why didn’t the first boss make a new rule that said that he’d be boss forever?”

 I’d think that would be too obvious, I said – like your first wish to a genie can’t be for a million more wishes. Step Two, I told her, was deciding that more than one person should be boss at a time, I said, so you had a small group.

 “What was Step Three?” she asked.

 Well, that’s where it gets interesting, I said. You know how sports stars get famous, and everyone takes them seriously as a hero because they scored lots of goals? Well, people were like that then too – a man named Cylon won the Olympics, and everyone said, “He’s so awesome, he should be our leader!”

Cylon and his people tried to take over the city by force, and they were killed, I said – which was a big deal, because in those days a lot of punishment was by revenge. If someone killed your father, you became like Inigo Montoya in The Princess Bride – forever seeking their death.

So the Athenians realised this wouldn’t do, and they took another step toward democracy – laws. Not just the law that everyone had to obey the boss, but laws that everyone, even the boss, had to follow. That was Step Three. Of course, you remember who made the laws?

“Draco!” she said with a gasp. “And the punishment for everything was death.” Right, I said – so it had some flaws.

Step Four happened when the poor Athenians had to go deeply into debt to support themselves, like Americans do today. So the rich Athenians feared the poor would revolt, and they called on one person that both rich and poor trusted – Solon.

 My daughter knew Solon, remembering him from our earlier lessons. “Solon got to be in charge? He was made king?”

 Leader, at least, I said – and he eliminated the practice of enslaving people who were in debt. He came up with a system where a large group of people were gathered to represent the community, and they would debate what the city should do – and for big decisions, every citizen of Athens thousands of them could gather and help decide. Then the number of people in favour of each thing would be written down, and a majority would get their way.

“They were voting!” she said.

It gets better, I said -- if people were accused of crimes, a group of people would gather to vote on whether they were guilty – the first juries, like we still have today.

And the person who would decide their sentence would be a judge – but unlike today, judges were chosen by a roll of the dice, so no one could predict who would be judging them next year. It meant someone could have power over you next time, so you had to be nice to everyone. “So with everyone ruling themselves, what did he do as the leader?” she asked.

Well, that’s the best part, I said – with his absolute power, he made everyone promise to obey these new rules, to vote and do their part and so on. In fact, he made everyone swear an oath – this is back when oaths meant something. Everyone had to raise their hand and say, I swear I will follow all these laws, and no one can change them except Solon … for ten years. 

“I swear I will follow all these laws, and no one can change them except Solon … for ten years,” my daughter repeated. Good! I said, playing Solon. Now that I’ve changed everything, I’m going on vacation … … for ten years. 

We laughed at Solon’s trickery, but then something occurred to her. “Daddy, had they made Solon the … um … leader what-do-you-call-it?” The archon? I said. Yes, he was the dictator, so everyone had to do what he said.

 Her eyes grew wide, as the implications of this sank in. “He gave up the Ring, Daddy!”

The ring? I asked. “Like in Lord of the Rings!” she said. “The Ring was power, so no one could bear to give it up – but he did! He was like Gandalf, or Galadriel – only real.”

Well done, I said. Yes, in this world too, the Ring tempts everyone – but in this world, too, you can walk away. And once in a while, someone does.


* A while back, I had read to her from some of the Gnostic Gospels, one of the many that didn’t make the cut into the New Testament. This one, the Arabic Gospel of the Infancy of the Saviour, is a set of adventures that happened to Mary and Joseph as they carried the baby Jesus around the Sinai, helping people as they go. If it’s not too irreverent a comparison, it reminded me of 70s television shows like Kung Fu or The Incredible Hulk, shows where the homeless protagonists wander from town to town across an arid landscape, encountering people facing some localised oppression, seeking non-violent ways to help, until at the climax they finally use their power to terrify and destroy the oppressors.

Saturday, 13 June 2015

Things I learned from my first week as a beekeeper

First of all, everything you do will be wrong, at least according to someone, and that’s okay.

Take, for example, when you choose what kind of hive to get – by “hive,” I just mean the wooden box and the pieces inside, as you have to set that up before you put the bees in. All of those modern square hives come in two models, one smaller and one larger, and since every piece is made for a hive of one size or the other, beekeepers stick religiously stick with one model and swear by it. I picked the smaller version, thinking it would be easier to lift when laden with wax and honey – but when I told a local beekeeper, he talked to me about my decision in the delicate but grieving tones usually reserved for a terminal illness.

Then you need to decide where to put this wrong hive, and your spot will also be, according to someone, wrong. Most books, for example, recommend placing your hive where it will be warm and dry, protected from wind and rain. Those books were not written for people in Ireland. Who live in a bog in Ireland.

Thus, we make do -- I chose a place in a corner of our woodland, facing the bog-land and its fields of wildflowers, but wove trimmed stalks of elder between tree stumps to form a wattle-fence around part of it, sheltering it from our fierce winds.

Next you need to fill the hive with wooden frames, those rectangular slices of honeycomb that beekeepers remove to get the honey. Most hives come with slides of wax to help get the bees started, and you have to slip the wax into each wooden frame and secure them in place with wire or nails. When you have done this for all ten slides and put them into the hive one by one, you lift the hive off the shelf, set it down gently. Then you listen to the sound of several wax slides come crashing down, and do it right the second time.

You will also need a smoker – basically a cross between a watering can and an accordion -- to slow the bees down before you open up their home. Despite being the smallest animal we’ve domesticated, they are the only ones we have to sedate before approaching.

The bees will need sugar-water to get them started, before they figure out where all the flowers are in relation to their new home. This is easy to make on the kitchen stove – a kilogram of sugar per litre of water – and most hives, like ours, have a feeder attached. You don’t need to feed them continually – that would rather take away from the point of getting honey – but it does help them through the early days and again through the winter months.

You also need a bee suit, a one-piece outfit which will seem to consist mostly of zippers. Do try to seal all the zippers completely, or the neighbourhood children will see a strange, white-clad figure flailing and dancing the hokey-pokey out of the forest.

Now comes the intimidating bit: you need to buy bees and put them into your new home. You will probably do this by buying a swarm nucleus, or “nuc,” a mini-hive filled with a queen and skeleton crew of her staff to get a hive started. Whereas a full hive will have ten to twenty frames of honeycomb, a nuc will have four or five, which you remove and place in your hive. The rest of your hive will be filled with empty frames – empty but for those wax slides you put in – ready for the bees to use as they expand their population.

 Remember those two basic models of hive I mentioned earlier? Since the honeycombed frames of the nuc have to be removed and placed in your hive, the nuc’s frames must be cut the same size as your hive’s. This is why beekeepers stick with only one model – I had to find someone else with the same kind of hives, who was also ready to sell nucs.

Eventually I found an old beekeeper in the Wicklow Mountains of Ireland, and drove out to his farm. He cheerfully plopped into my arms a wooden box, secured all around with duct tape and with a wire mesh at the top, and right under the mesh, a swarm of bees writhing like a single organism.

 “How long will they be safe in there?” I asked, looking up at the threatening sky.

“Oh, they’ll be okay for a few days,” he said, “Just make sure they don’t get cold and are kept out of the wind and rain.”

The freezing sideways rain began on my way home over the mountains, each bump further shaking the box in the back seat, which buzzed ever more irritably with each bounce. If you must drive over mountain passes in near-zero visibility, I learned, it’s better not to hear an angry swarm of bees behind you, box or no box.

When I got home it was still lashing rain, and I learned that most bee suits are not waterproof. Nonetheless, I did set up the nuc next to the hive, their entrances parallel. Bees have amazing sense of direction, but they don’t use landmarks like we or most mammals do; they use the position of the sun and moon to create a kind of GPS. With it they can track and find the positions of hundreds of thousands of flowers each day and communicate them to the other bees – an amazing skill far beyond our abilities – but everything hinges on having the right starting point. Move the hive twenty metres to the left, and they are like cars following Google directions from a slightly wrong street – everything will turn out very badly.

Through the next few days of rain I sprayed sugar-water through their mesh to keep them fed, until the sun came out and I was ready to don the bee suit, smoke the bees and put their honeycombs in the proper hive. That was Plan A. After smoking the nuc well and removing the duct tape, I realised that the box was actually held together with screws that would require some tools and tugging to remove – Plan B.

Through all this the box was wobbled around a lot more, causing the bees to get quite agitated when the smoke wore off. Plan C was to smoke them again, until the burning material in the smoker suddenly ran out; Plan D, to stuff more in and re-light it, failed when the lighter jammed.

Plan E, finally, worked -- for my daughter to run in, get matches, run to a nearby stone, leave the matches and run the other direction while I, trailing a cloud of bees, retrieved the matches, ran back, lit the smoker, and finally calmed the bees down while I moved them. Last I checked, they were settling in fine.

Perhaps the most important thing to learn, though, goes beyond beekeeping. Many of us are trying to learn a lot of new skills, often with little proper training and limited supplies. Everything you do will be wrong, at least compared to the ideal scenarios of how-to books and videos. Don't worry about it: you'll learn as you go, and most of the time, you'll come out okay in the end.

Photo courtesy of Wikicommons.

Wednesday, 10 June 2015


Even in the time we've lived here, Ireland has become a very different country, but a few families here still maintain old habits; to sing old or play cards in the evenings rather than watch television, fish or garden rather than take out fast food, and take a cart to the next town rather than an auto.


Mother Earth News has just published my piece on forging your own machete. Check it out.


The great online magazine Front Porch Republic, which features writings from people like Wendell Berry, Patrick Deneen and Bill Kaufmann, has just published my piece on reading the Ancient Greeks. It's an adapted and expanded version of my recent blog post about reading with The Girl -- check it out.

Saturday, 6 June 2015

Making Charcoal

Growing up I knew charcoal as the square briquettes people bought in bags and poured into the barbecue grill once a summer. Like everything else in our lives it came from a store, chemically treated and wrapped in plastic, with no sense that it could be made naturally at home.

Charcoal is simply wood that has been burned with little oxygen, either by being heated but sealed away from oxygen or, more commonly, setting it on fire and then cutting it off from the air, keeping the wood from burning completely into ash. Most other substances in the wood are driven off, leaving a porous shape of almost pure carbon, lightweight and easy to transport.

It can purify water by soaking up impurities, as in many kitchen sink filters, and treat poison victims when crushed and drunk in a fluid. It can be added to soap for abrasion, crushed to make ink or paint or mixed with minerals to make gunpowder. It allows people to burn fires hotter than wood, enabling people to melt quartz into glass or make iron malleable. It was charcoal that allowed Rennaissance craftsmen to grind glass into lenses, allowing elderly people to continue reading and writing, and doubling humans' intellectual lifetime. It was charcoal that allowed people to work iron into swords and ploughshares, buildings and infrastructure; other metals can be hammered by hand, but only with charcoal fires could the Bronze Age become the Iron Age.

Perhaps charcoal's most surprising use, one that gained a burst of attention in recent years, involves trapping carbon from the atmosphere. Vast regions of the Amazon have a distinctive and fertile soil called “black earth,” or terra preta, and recently archaeologists realised that this soil was not a naturally occurring phenomenon, but had been cultivated over millennia. What’s more, they began to realise that much of the sparsely inhabited Amazon rainforest was once densely populated with humans, continually enriching the soil as they farmed.

Like many primitive societies, they burned land to clear it for farming or hunting, but unlike many others they turned some of the wood into charcoal and then worked it back into the soil, creating an unusually rich and fertile ground; according to a 2006 article in Nature, bio-char – the charcoal folded into the earth to make terra preta -- is three times richer in nitrogen and phosphorous than ordinary soil and 20 times richer in carbon.

According to researcher Bruno Glaser at the University of Bayreuth, Germany, a hectare of meter-deep terra preta can hold 250 tonnes of carbon, as opposed to 100 tonnes of carbon in unimproved soils. In addition, the bio-char itself increases soil fertility, which allows farmers to grow more plants, which allows more bio-char to be added to the soil. Johannes Lehman, author of Amazonian Dark Earths, claims that combining bio-char and bio-fuels could draw down 9.5 billion tones per year, equal to all our current fossil fuel emissions.

Whether or not such people are correct, the technique has drawn admirers like climate scientists James Lovelock and Tim Flannery. As I mentioned last week, climate change is hitting people around the world, yet we struggle to reduce our pollution even a little, and our goal of a zero-carbon world seems ever more hopeless. If such techniques would work in more temperate climates -- that is, if the carbon trapped by charcoal far exceeds the carbon expended to grow it, and can be trapped on a human timescale -- then everyone in the world would possess the skills to become, not just carbon-neutral, but carbon-negative.

To  do any of these things, however, we first need to gain experience making charcoal at home. My daughter and I tried three ways of making charcoal, with varying degrees of success. Since charcoal can be created when wood is inside a heated and sealed container, I put two metal buckets together, one upside-down and atop the other, and inside I placed one or more pieces of wood. The crack of space between the two buckets I plastered with clay, and around them I started a fire of some of our rotting lumber. (Never burn treated lumber for charcoal or even in a fireplace; it has chemicals that can be poisonous when inhaled, and I would not want to drink water that has been filtered through its charcoal.)

I tried to make small amounts of charcoal, one at a time, but it never worked. If the clay plaster held, the logs inside were merely singed, and if part of the plaster fell off – as happened more frequently – the fire caught inside until I was left with only a few small pieces of charcoal and a lot of ash.

For the second method I took a page from County Waterford farmer and author John Seymour and dug a trench, lit a fire in it, tossed in some logs and covered it with corrugated iron sheeting. Then I packed the cracks tightly with clay and plants to seal in the oxygen, and uncovered it a few days later. This worked better, as I did get some charcoal out of it, but the amount was still tiny.

The best method, I found, was the one charcoal burners used from ancient times until just the last century. I stacked logs in a triangular pattern and leaned more upright pieces of wood around them, until I had a small and dense ring of wood about a metre high. Then I filled the interior of the triangle with tinder and kindling – sawdust, mulch, twigs, anything that would light easily and create an intense heat that would burn the rest of the wood.

Then I covered the wood with recently-cleared weeds, spread clay over the weeds, and shovelled earth over those, until I had a mound open at the very top, with a “chimney” that looked down into the tinder-filled space between the logs. 

Next came the big moment – I lit a fire-starter and dropped it down the middle, and within moments had a raging fire inside the mound. I covered the top of the mound with strips of weeds and shovelled more earth on top – the weeds and roots served to block the entrance, so that I wasn’t simply shovelling loose earth into the hole and putting out the fire.

The result was a strangely smoking hill, and when it smoked too much when it cracked and too much oxygen got in. When a hole or crack formed, I plastered more mud and earth over that part – carefully, for the escaping steam can get quite hot – until the leak was stopped.

Two days later, I broke it open, and began fishing out the charcoal, and got about five kilos from an estimated 36 kilos of wood. Most text say the charcoal can be as much as 60 per cent of the wood by volume and 25 per cent by weight. I probably got less charcoal because I let it burn through the night; I had to spend part of the day building it and light it in the evening, as the constant threat of rain here meant I couldn’t leave it overnight. Charcoal-burners, though, were said to watch their mound for hours until the smoke turned from white to blue, indicating they were beginning to burn charcoal, before putting the fire out to maximise the amount of charcoal from a single burn.

With more careful measurements, amateur scientists around the world could try such techniques on some kind of fast-growing wood, like willow, and see if we could do with terra preta in temperate climates what Amazonian tribes did in the rainforest. On paper, it looks like it should work: willow can yield ten tonnes to the acre, the charcoal would retain a quarter of that mass of the wood, and should remain stable in the soil for decades while new tonnes are grown. All this, though, is theory, and we won’t know unless we experiment.

Whether terra preta turns out to help the climate or not, however, charcoal helped create everything in the modern world, from glass (eyeglasses, greenhouses, microscopes and telescopes) to steel (ploughshares, swords and most modern structures) to any number of other useful innovations. Whatever happens in the future, this is one skill we want to preserve. 

Originally published in 2012. 
Top photo: A piece of the charcoal we made. 
Second photo: Our pile of wood. 
Third photo: That same pile of wood covered in weeds and earth, with a fire lit down the chimney. 
Fourth photo: The pile entirely covered in earth, with the fire still going inside. 
Bottom photo: our inventory of charcoal, with a lemon for scale.

Wednesday, 3 June 2015


First of all, we have bees; I got a swarm nucleus over the weekend, and put them into the proper hive last night. This morning, before I caught the bus to work in the city, I walked back into our woodlands, put my ear against the hive, and they were humming away peacefully.


Grit magazine has published my piece on the edible calendar -- check it out.