Tuesday, 28 June 2016

Midsummer



This photo was taken at 11 pm outside our land, and that tells you a lot of what you need to know about life in Ireland. 

In the Missouri of my childhood, summer could bring 40-degree heat and winter heavy snow, and the days in between swung wildly through all kinds of weather fronts. There’s a reason it’s called Tornado Alley.

Here in Ireland, though, a cool and rainy day could be July or January; the weather remains remarkably constant through the year. It’s the light that varies from one extreme to another, from seven hours of dim December day submerged in seventeen hours of total night, to seven hours of  June night surrounded by long brightness. We are, after all, a thousand miles from the Arctic Circle.

Winters here hit us hard, not because of the cold -- it rarely dips below freezing -- but because of the lack of light. Going to work when it's dark and coming home when it's dark, you feel like a mine worker that never comes up to surface. I began to understand why northern European cultures had special names for the long stretches of total darkness, what inhabitants of these islands a thousand years ago called the Mother Night.

This time of year, though, we feel an energy that December saps from us; I can ride my bicycle to town and back to catch the bus to work, and when I return my daughter and I can pull weeds or chop wood as we do our home-schooling lessons. Still, I must cover my windows with foil this time of year, or I wouldn’t sleep. 

***

In what has become our yearly ritual on Midsummer Night, my daughter and I watched A Midsummer Night's Dream. We love the 1999 version with so many great actors and soon-to-be-stars --  Kevin Kline, Sam Rockwell, Dominic West, Christian Bale, Sophie Marceau, Roger Rees and David Strahairn. 

The Girl loved the film the first time we saw it -- she was eight then, and loved the touches of broad comedy that more jaded viewers ignore. She laughed at Bottom flubbing his lines, referring to the “odourous” queen as “odious,” or saying that his friends would “make an ass of me.” I pictured Elizabethans at the Globe Theatre laughing at the same lowbrow moments.

She also gets some references that I think a lot of modern audiences might miss. We have foraged through woods together since she was small, so she knows "where the oxlip and nodding violet grows" in a way that many children these days do not.

A few things still bother me about the film; Rupert Everett gave a strangely lethargic and horizontal performance as Oberon, and– while he’s an excellent actor – the bald and fiftyish Stanley Tucci was not an intuitive choice for Puck. Calista Flockheart was famous at the time from the television programme Ally McBeal, but her whiny petulance is a distraction from the delightful performances around her.
Now that I live here certain references make a new kind of sense to me; for example, Shakespeare’s Midsummer Night’s Dream. Now that I know how short Midsummer Night is here, I realise that all the quarrels, reconciliations and musical-chair relationships took place in only a few hours. The very name of the play was a joke in itself, to emphasize how quickly love can change or disappear -- one that you have to live here to get.

***

For those who don't already know, The American Conservative  -- one of the best political magazines around -- has published my piece on the UK’s departure from the European Union. Check it out.

Friday, 24 June 2016

The Breakup



This morning in Ireland, we got the same screaming-headline news as everyone else – the pound crashing, the UK prime minister resigning and so on. To my acquaintances here, though -- bus drivers, clerks and farmers – the news is not an abstraction. They wonder how this will affect their visas, their UK relatives, their pensions, banks, next car, and all the burning minutiae of daily life.

My friends in London, Italy and France are all doing the same; the economies are so deeply intertwined that untangling them will take years. Imagine how Louisianans would be affected by a “Texit,” and you have some idea how it feels. As an American here, I also wonder if it makes Donald Trump’s election look more likely.

It wouldn’t cause a Trump victory, of course, but perhaps presage it. The UK has always been just a little ahead of the USA; Thatcher preceded Reagan, Blair preceded Clinton, and Corbyn preceded Sanders. Moreover, Brexit supporters shared a lot in common with Trump supporters, in both demographics and frustrations.  

The UK and USA are global powers somewhat in decline, with the UK obviously some decades ahead of us. Both powers saw a flood of Third-World immigrants in recent decades – in Europe especially, with millions of refugees escaping the war-torn Middle East --- competing for jobs and causing tension among working-class natives. Both countries took part in the same Mid-East wars and suffered the same Great Recession – both supposedly over, but with loved ones still dead and many working people still unemployed.

Both populist movements promised to make their country great again, toss aside foreign entanglements, reduce immigration, and bring back local industry. Both movements were called “far-right,” but were more about class -- and in both countries the elites of both major parties, along with the media, opposed and underestimated them until the last moment. In both countries the debate turned venomous, even violent, with protesters clashing with Trump supporters in the USA, and a pro-EU minister of Parliament shot and stabbed to death last week in the UK.

Now that the vote is over, as Daniel Larison pointed out,much will depend on how bitter the divorce settlement will be, but this decision could trigger a lot of other dominoes.  

For one thing, this could well be the end of Britain after 300 years. The BBC’s county vote map shows the divide; English counties almost entirely voted to leave the EU, Scottish counties to stay. 

The scheduling of the Scottish independence vote two years ago could not have been accidental, as Euro-advocates must have hoped the Scottish vote would anchor Britain -- it didn’t. As the leader of the Scottish separatist movement put it a few months ago, if the UK leaves Europe, Scotland is likely to leave the UK. (Britain is England plus Scotland, Wales and a few islands. The UK is all those plus Northern Ireland.)

Here in Ireland we have the same questions as the rest of Europe, only more so – the UK is our main trading partner. And we have a unique reason to be wary; we fought a thousand-year conflict with our neighbour, which came to an end only in the 1990s. Since that time, along a border once patrolled by paramilitary units, a generation of Irish have grown up travelling between North and South without even flashing a passport. Now, though, Northern Ireland voted much as Scotland did, with a majority wanting to remain European; if Scotland goes, they might want to leave as well.

In Ireland, meanwhile, voters had their own populist moment earlier this year, and elected a near-majority of third parties and independents.  Chief among them is Sinn Fein, the political arm of the Irish Republican Army, and if this anti-establishment trend continues they could lead the next government. That doesn’t mean they would resume their old ways – they have spent decades working hard to be a respectable political party, and their younger members are too young to even remember the terrorism of the 70s and 80s – but within hours of the vote, they did renew their call for Irish reunification.

How the rest of Europe will handle this remains to be seen – they are left holding several unenviable crises, including sky-high Mediterranean unemployment and a million refugees a year flooding into the continent. Right now, the rest of the world is shaking its head at Britons’ apparent foolishness, and half the UK is doing the same. For the other half, though, this is their independence day, the moment they can remake their country in their image.

This November 9, we’ll see if my native USA looks the same.  
 


Saturday, 11 June 2016

What to do with weeds



Our internet is down this week -- I'm posting this from a public place -- and The Girl and I will be away all tomorrow at the Waterford County Fair, where her Medieval Camp will be showing off their archery skills, and I will be showing off medieval armour. Anyone wants to reach me, I can respond Monday.

Gardening, more than anything else, involves weeding – long hours of it sometimes, for the particularly weed-infested. All gardeners must constantly uproot their weeds or make peace with them, or they can take over your crops and your life.

In weeds’ defence, though, remember that they are simply the plants we don’t think we can use, and they can tell us a lot about our soil. If our soil is poor, acidic, chalky or has some other quality, we can tell in part by the weeds that come up.

Remember also that they are part of the natural cycle of succession; Nature abhors like a vacuum, and any bare earth exposed in the wild is quickly covered with waves of opportunists that protect the soil from the elements and prepare the way for trees and other permanent residents. We plant our crops on bare soil, and any soil contains dozens of weed seeds waiting for decades for the opportunity you have given them.

These days, of course, many people simply spray poisons on weeds -- poisons that could make their way into your food later on. Instead, try some of these other ways of handling your enthusiastic guests:

1.)    Eat them. Nettles, dandelions, clover, daisies, fat hen, and many other plants are delicious and full of vitamins – and free. In the spring the fields are covered with free food; you could get all your greens this way, for months, until the rest of your crops come up.  Even if you don’t like them, maybe you have chickens or other animals that will. 

2.)    Compost them, but only if they are not going to reproduce in your compost mound. Nothing that has gone to seed, and nothing with roots that can keep growing, and nothing toxic like potato or tomato plants. 

3.)    Soak them. Put all the weeds in a bucket of water, and keep stuffing more in until it is full. After a few weeks the weeds and seeds should have rotted, and the liquid should be a nutritious “tea” that you can use to water the garden. The rotted plants will be pungent, but you can throw them on the compost pile and cover them with earth to cut the smell.

If you keep weeding every day or week, you can line up several buckets according to week, and keep using the latest as fertiliser. 

4.)    Feed them to your animals; anything that we can’t eat, animals might be able to. Our chickens eat most of our weeds and turn them into fertiliser, and trod the rest into the ground. 

5.)    Burn them. If you throw weeds on the compost after they have seeded, the earth you get from that compost will keep on sprouting weeds for years to come. You can eliminate weeds and seeds alike, though, by burning them, and the resulting ash is good for the soil.

Some gardeners eliminate the weeds and sterilise the soil by creating a burn mound, starting with a circle of straw and laying a terra cotta pipe from the middle of the circle, like the hand of a clock. Then they lay pruned branches and other wood in a pile on the straw, and cover those with all the weeds gathered from the gardens. Finally they cover the whole thing with earth, reach inside the terra cotta pipe, and light the straw. This method was supposed to kill off all the weeds and sterilise the soil of weed seeds all in one go, and create potash that could be used to fertilise tomatoes and other hungry plants. 

6.)    Make peace with them. If the weeds are right next to your crops, you can certainly keep them from overrunning your beds. But if they are on your lawn, save yourself some work and pick only the least desirable weeds, leaving the lovely and useful ones to colonise your property. If you have children, for example, pick the nettles but leave the dandelions, which provide them so much entertainment. Pick the thistles but leave the chamomile, whose flowers you can pick for tea. Eventually you will have, not a lawn, but a very useful flower meadow, which looks nicer and is better for the soil. 

Photo: Our garden overrun with wildflower weeds -- chamomile, catmint, poppies, comfrey and daisies.