Sunday, 31 January 2016

Welcoming night

Recently an acquaintance of mine back in the USA posted some of the past election bumper stickers for a certain political official -- apparently an official who wanted to grant asylum to some refugees --  with the caption, "Anyone with one of THESE on their car gets a Syrian refugee to take care of!"

I don't get into electoral politics much on this blog, and I'm not naming or defending the official in question. Still, I felt I ought to respond. I wrote back:

Actually, I'm already volunteering with Syrian refugees -- I've been asking everyone in our church to donate their old clothes and toys, and the refugees are quite grateful for them -- they've been homeless and on the run from ISIS for two years, so they've reached rural Ireland with nothing but the clothes on their back.

The refugees I've met have been fantastic, and their kids are adorable. I brought up the possibility of having some of them stay at our house, but the Irish government is wisely putting them up in a motel that went belly-up during the crash.

So, way ahead of you.
Several of us from the area volunteered to spend time making the acquaintance of the refugees, and help them get used to their new country and culture; it's not much, but it's a start. This week, in the village the refugees are staying in, the local school-children put on a show for them -- Irish dancing and singing, and the refugees demonstrated their own music and moves. Everyone had a chance to mingle, kids played together, and we had a great time.

I won't say any more about it for now, as we agreed to give the refugees privacy; also for that reason, I'm not showing any photos. I don't show photos of people's faces very often on this blog anyway, wary of putting people online without their permission. I will, though, enclose a photo of the kids doing Irish dancing for the crowd, partly because their faces are blurred.

This blog doesn't usually deal with issues like this, but I expect to see more such refugee situations in the coming decades, and we'd better get used to it now. So far this is one of the greatest human catastrophes since World War II -- six million people have been forced to flee for their lives.  Most countries here have agreed to take in some refugees, but more are coming to our shores every day, and many mornings bring new reports of the bodies of drowned children washed up in the Mediterranean.

These are people who found a tiny and overcrowded raft, floating on the open ocean, safer than their homes. See what you can do where you live -- you probably can't do much, but you might be able to do a little.

Monday, 25 January 2016


Originally published in the Kildare Nationalist newspaper. 

Brassicas – the cruciferous vegetables of the cabbage family – made a long and fruitful journey from the scraggly sea kale of their ancestors; today they provide us with some of our healthiest, easiest and most versatile crops, bred for their leaves (cabbage, kale, bok choi), roots (kohlrabi), flowers (broccoli, cauliflower) seeds (mustard) and buds (Brussels sprouts).

Such crops particularly suit Ireland, as they like lots of sun and water but not too much warmth – our summers, in other words. Moreover, many of them continue to produce throughout the year, as our kale does. Thus, in our garden cabbages comprise about a third of our crop, and we’ve been gathering them in and using or preserving them for the last month.

One of the easiest ways of making cabbage, of course, is in colcannon: all you need is a cabbage, an onion, and a potato. Boil some potatoes until soft in the middle, and while they’re boiling dice some onions and chop up a cabbage – I dice my onions about a centimetre on the side and my cabbage about three centimetre chunks, so that the onions will cook faster, but it’s up to you.

Once the potatoes are boiled and out of the water you take a pan, coat the bottom with a thin layer of oil, put on medium heat and throw in the onions. Cook about a minute and then throw in the cabbage, and cook for a few minutes or until the onions are golden-brown and the cabbages cooked through. In the few minutes that they will take to cook, mash the potatoes.

Next, chop up about 20 grams of parsley, wash and chop finely, and throw into the pan to cook for a moment. Finally, add the mash and mix it all together for a meal rich in vitamins, mostly vegetables but with some potato to hold it together.

One of the best brassicas this time of year, of course, are Brussels sprouts, which in our garden have been less vulnerable to pests than other cabbages -- perhaps because they are raised above mud-level. We are just harvesting the last of ours, but you can harvest them any time from autumn to spring, making them ideal for keeping your family in fresh vegetables during the winter months.

Many people boil the goodness out of Brussels sprouts, so one of the best ways to cook them is to cut the larger ones in half, boil some water, set them in for exactly three minutes, and then add to the rest of the meal separately.

If you want a new way to cook Brussels sprouts that allows the best flavour and avoids overcooking, try this recipe I used on my own. You will need:
300g Brussels sprouts
200g leeks
50g beetroot
One strip of bacon
Five cloves of garlic
10g butter
Chinese five-spice powder
Vegetable stock cube

Boil some water, cut the large Brussels sprouts in half, and put them in for three minutes – you want to flash-boil them, take the boiling water out and put in a bit of cold water to stop the cooking process. Then you take a strip of rashers (bacon), cut it into pieces about a centimetre across, and fry them in a pan.

While that is frying, chop the leeks into one-centimetre pieces (make sure to wash them well first!) and slice some mushrooms half a centimetre across. Take 20g of beetroot and cut into cubes half a centimetre across. Finally, mince some garlic or chop it very finely. When the rasher pieces are cooked just enough to be edible but not yet firm, put in the mushrooms, leeks and beetroot. Sautee these together for a few minutes, then add the minced garlic and sautee for another minute or so.

Dissolve a vegetable stock cube in about 20 ml of boiling water, and mix well. Add that to the mix with about 10 ml of lemon juice, so the mixture begins to sautee for a minute. Add a dash of five-spice powder; it’s available at most supermarkets, a mix of star anise, cloves, cinnamon, pepper and fennel seeds. Finally, add the Brussels sprouts and mix it all together. The result should be savoury, garlicky, tangy and just a bit spicy.

The cabbage you don’t use, of course, you should preserve through the winter, and the classic way of preserving cabbage, though, is by pickling it, either through the European method of sauerkraut, or through its spicier Asian version of kim chee.

To make sauerkraut, find a cylindrical container and a lid slightly smaller across than the container, to that it can slide down the interior with little air in-between – the cabbage has to be squashed down in salt water away from oxygen, but air still has to escape. Alternately, you could use a mayonnaise or other glass jar, stuff with sauerkraut to the rim and leave the lid on, securely but not tightly. Finely shred a cabbage and put a few handfuls of the shredded cabbage in the container, and pound it down with something heavy like a rolling pin.

Then sprinkle some salt onto the cabbage – about 50 g to the kilo – and repeat the process with another few handfuls until your container is full. Then fill the container with water until it just covers the top of the cabbage/salt mix. Put the lid on and place the container someplace warm to ferment. The cabbage should begin to ferment right away, and gradually fill with water that escapes from the cabbage. It will gradually turn from cabbage to sauerkraut over about a month, but you can dig in at any point, eat some and put the rest back. Just make sure to keep the cabbage away from oxygen.

Kim chee works in much the same way, but soaking the cabbage overnight in a salt brine – I use 50g of salt per kilo of cabbage – and the next morning draining it.

Then you rinse it and mix in a spicy paste, often with slivers of carrots or radishes, before pounding it into jars and leaving a lid on loosely.
My paste contained 10g ginger, 50g garlic, 20g hot pepper flakes, and 20g fish sauce for two kilos of cabbage.

With no electricity or technology, sauerkraut and kim chee allow you to have vitamin-rich vegetables all through the winter, straight from the pantry, until next year’s garden comes alive again.

Top photo: Red cabbage from our garden

Bottom photo: My kim chee.

Sunday, 17 January 2016

Fumbling Toward Independence

Some blogs focus on single-word subjects like knitting or superheroes. This one wanders a bit; one week I might write about our neighbours here in rural Ireland, the next about our garden, then about old black-and-white movies or reading with my daughter. All of it, though, deals with our attempts to discover an older and better way of living, and learn the values and skills that were normal before everything became cheap, fast and easily discarded.

I’m not saying the modern world doesn’t have its advantages – obviously, I keep a blog, and you’re somewhere far away reading it. I can also buy armfuls of inexpensive food, speed down the road in a metal box and download more cat pictures in an hour than I could look through in a lifetime. It comes with a price, however: having these things means burning through resources at jaw-dropping speed, using the world’s land, sea and air as an open sewer into which we can flush all the wastes. A different kind of waste comes out of the mass media, which loudspeakers and ubiquitous screens make increasingly difficult to escape.

Nor can the pros and cons of our society be easily separated. The glowing screens that allow us to talk across a planet also distract us from talking to each other, and the easy commuting means more jobs moved to places you have to commute to. The cheap food allows more Westerners to die from obesity rather than hunger, and people in poorer countries to multiply until there are now many more hungry people than a century ago. I’m not saying the technological and social benefits aren’t important, or debating whether they are “worth it;” I simply don’t assume that fixing our problems automatically means doing more of what we’re already doing.

Thus, I study the past to see what worked better. Our elderly neighbours grew up without electricity, cars or mass media, and I see how different their village culture was from our own frantic and lonely society. I read diaries and letters from a century of two ago, and see a complexity of thought and language that gives college students trouble today. The writers – in colonial America, Victorian Britain or 20th-century Ireland -- might have been farmers, but they often grew up reading the same classics as their forebears -- Hesiod and Sophocles, Livy and Marcus Aurelius, Aquinas and Dante. Now I’m reading these works one by one, and teaching what bits I can to my daughter. For that matter, I’m learning how to genuinely read again, and not just scan text on a screen.

We try to learn the ways people used to provide for their own basic needs rather than relying entirely on companies and governments, so we built a chicken coop, got bees, grow a garden, and learned to forage wild plants and mushrooms. We have make our own pickles, sauerkraut, beer, bread, wine and jam, and have taken courses in tree grafting, oven building, blacksmithing, wood carving, and so on. We fail a lot, but we have fun learning.

Sometimes, though, I hear from someone who doesn’t just want to gain ideas for their own cooking or home-schooling, but wants to escape to a new life. They tell me about their meaningless office job, their tedious commute, the destruction of the landscape and the horrors of the news feed. They have read my blog, seen the pictures, and they want to find a place just like this. I sympathise and write back, but that usually means disillusioning them.

See, everyone starts with some common misapprehensions. Firstly, many people seem to crave a sudden and absolute abandonment of the daily grind, the way others fantasise about the Zombie Apocalypse or the Rapture. Their descriptions seem to resemble what we usually see in advertisements, where someone runs joyfully out of their cubicle throwing papers, their old life falls away like petals, and they stage-dive into The Environment. In reality, almost no one simply moves to the country and starts over, or if they do, succeeds for very long.

People generally need homes, food, sterilised water, heat and other necessities, and will sooner or later need medical assistance. Most of us these days are used to driving a car, having electricity, broadband, and mobile phone reception, and many other amenities we never think about, because we have never been without them. Every new convenience has a price, not just for the machine itself, but for maintenance, power, and the infrastructure to make it work for you.

As I write this, our heat pump is out again, and we’re stoking the fireplace in a cold house – things usually pick the depth of winter to break down, and so far the electricity, plumbing, boiler and septic tank have also had problems. It sounds self-evident, but the more of the modern world you take with you, the less you will be getting away from the modern world, and the more you get away from everything, the more you have to do without.

Me, I work one of those office jobs in Dublin, and my wife works another. Our daily commute on the bus is worse than most – three hours a day – but that’s where I write for newspapers and magazines, something that doesn’t pay a living wage anymore. I have four hours a day when I’m not at my job, on the bus or asleep, and that’s my time to do all the chores, give lessons to my daughter, take care of a garden and animals, and practice all those crafts I named a few paragraphs ago. We live more independently each year, but it takes time and work, and it’s a life lived inside the cracks of a boring normal one.

It also involved some chance, something we rarely take into account when judging the choices of others. It so happened that my wife’s family had land here, so we moved, accepting the cost of living far from friends and family, along with the benefits of owning land and having neighbours to learn from. Other people ask me how they can do the same as we did, but their life comes with a different set of fortunes and hazards that we didn't face.

Secondly, many want to wash their hands of the world’s idiots and go it alone -- the “self” in self-sufficient. We like growing and making more of our own belongings, but we would like to be less isolated, if anything – modern people live lonely enough lives as it is. Look at a city and you see millions of people alone in their cars, absorbed in screens and cocooned in a bubble of smart-phones and earbuds, unaccustomed to making mental or physical space for anyone else. In such isolated states we grow ever-more self-absorbed, and fantasise about being even freer from the oppressive proximity of our fellow man.

I say we are “learning to be more self-sufficient” or some such phrase, in the same way that one can learn to be healthier or kinder, but total self-sufficiency is barely possible and not necessarily desirable. Hermits were historically rare and willing to tolerate hardship, and while we read inspiring accounts of their lives, we don’t hear from all the ones who weren’t inspired or didn’t survive.

Humans are social animals, and tend to need company – and many tasks require a group of people cooperating anyway. Even Thoreau, who wrote so beautifully about living in the woods, lived near town and had a mother to do cooking and laundry. The mythology of the self-sufficient man came about in our own era by people who lived with the surplus of fossil fuels.

In our case, we built a house for our extended family, three generations under a roof, and that means more compromises – I’d love to raise a daughter without a television, for example, but it’s not just my house, so we just limit her time and monitor what she sees. I’d love to home-school her here, instead of just after-school lessons, but she needs kids her own age and I have to pay bills. People who try for this kind of life must not be too infatuated with the purity of their vision – the more ambitious it is, the less it can be done alone. Conversely, the more people you have with you – assuming you’re not a dictator -- the more everyone has to compromise.

Thirdly, I find, people’s yearning to get away from it all rarely comes with a map or plan to get there, for “there” is often not a place but an imagined state. In this world, though, everywhere is somewhere, and in this day of internet and airports no place is very far from anywhere else.

The rural Ireland many Americans picture was disappearing even when I first visited 16 years ago, and the country has changed far more in the time we’ve lived here. It lives on in the elderly people around us, but they are disappearing one by one. I take photos of the thatched homes and horse carriages because they are beautiful and represent the focus of the blog, but I don’t show photos of other things that are also near us: McDonalds and malls, pornography and tabloids. Our local area includes people who are said to deal drugs, drivers who cut you off and teens who spray graffiti on 300-year-old bridges. Wherever you go, people will be human, and some will be unpleasant.

Even out here, my daughter absorbs celebrity gossip and pop fads by adolescent osmosis, and we have to negotiate like any middle-aged father and tween daughter: You can listen to Adele, but not Nicki Minaj (how do you even know who that is?) and you have to sing old songs with me later. You can watch a television programme, but read part of a book after that, and then we’ll play cards. She doesn’t need to grow up innocent of the internet and pop culture, but she can know how to live without them.

I hear from people who embrace a new and harder life mainly as a big rude gesture to their old one. Some seem to imagine themselves sitting on a mountain of tin cans and guns waiting for The Big One, and will one day stand on the rubble above the pleading hands of the sheeple who wouldn’t listen. Other, more empathetic souls seem to mourn our species’ path of destruction, and want to do penance for the sins of others. Either way, they seek a new life not for its own sake, but out of an imagined revenge on the people around them, and I don’t see such impulses cultivating a healthy community. Moreover, if that kind of enforced austerity really worked, dieters would lose weight, and they don’t.

A more independent life need not be a distant redoubt to purchase but a state to accomplish, and getting there should ideally be done in small steps, with the support of friends, and be reasonably fun and not overly complicated. Take food, for example: when my 11-year-old makes herself egg drop soup, grabbing eggs from the coop and herbs from the garden, she is saving money that might have gone to buy pre-packaged meals, and saving the energy that would have gone to grow, ship and process them. She learns to do things herself, bonds with other kids who cook, and can use this as a stepping stone to learn other things. To make egg drop soup yourself, you don’t need to move to another country, or start a farm, or stock up on cilantro and balsamic vinegar, and your creations don’t need to look like those of those television chefs who trained for decades and don’t display all their mistakes.

Or take growing a garden: Growing your own garden won’t provide all your food, but it doesn’t have to – just the vitamin-rich vegetables that are costly to ship and expensive to buy, while cheap grain and staples can be purchased. Other skills are the same way, whether they involve growing a hedgerow, weaving baskets, nailing a shed together, making jam, fermenting kim chee, playing chess, singing, or keeping animals in the shed. To actually live a somewhat self-sufficient life you need a lifetime of skills, and learning them takes a lifetime. Luckily, you have one, or at least part of one left.

Such activities can be fun, allow your family to eat when someone loses their job, gives you barter material in case something happens to money, offers an opportunity to talk to neighbours, cost little to learn, and have almost no disadvantages. What they won’t do is change everything … because nothing will.

You see, almost no one ever genuinely starts a new life; they might try, but they are bringing themselves along for the ride, and they remain who they are. The life you want will not be a location to which you can drive, but a state you can work to attain. You will not be able to change anything but yourself and your surroundings, and then only in tiny increments, and often nothing seems to change ... until one day, you look behind you at the path you've taken, and you see how strange the rest of the world appears in the distance.