Tuesday, 31 January 2017

More homeschooling

For our lessons the other night, we talked about Claudius, one of the only good emperors of Rome. 

Like most of the good rulers of history, I told her, he had not been raised to be a ruler, but was widely mocked for having a limp, a stutter and a bookish nature.

“He was the nerd of the family,” she said.

Exactly, I told her – but after the Praetorian guards turned on the mad emperor Caligula and killed everyone around him, Claudius was found hiding behind a curtain and proclaimed the new emperor.

“That day certainly ended differently than he expected,” she said.

And he turned out to be a pretty reasonable, I told her. He expanded Roman rule into Britain with relatively little bloodshed – they did fight the Celtic warlord Caractacus, but they also reached out to other tribes in an alliance, inviting the
m to join the empire. Boudica’s tribe was one of these – in exchange for pledging allegiance to the emperor, they gained imperial protection and trade. By all accounts they were treated respectfully, and unlike most emperors, Claudius went there to meet with the Celtic lords himself.

So Britons like Boudica and her tribe became willing members of the Roman Empire, learned to read and write, and ended up corresponding with other Romans, like the philosopher Seneca.

“She and Seneca were pen pals?” The Girl asked.

Absolutely, I said – I believe Seneca even loaned her family money.

“So what happened to make her rebel?” she asked.

Well, the good times under Claudius didn’t last, I said. He died – some say poisoned – and was replaced by Nero.

“Uh-oh,” she said.

Exactly, I told her. Once in power, Nero killed Seneca, began demanding money from the Britons, and his troops attacked many Britons, including Boudica’s family.

She remembered what happened next – an enraged Boudica leading an army of Celtic warriors that rampaged across Britain for years, sacking their fortress in Londinium. Even now, I told her, when people dig in London – which is of course what Londinium became – they sometimes come across a black charcoal layer where Boudica burned everything to the ground.

“You do not mess with the Celts,” she said. “Especially the women.” 


 “Is it because of all that infighting that the barbarians could take over?” she asked. 

That was probably a factor, I said – and Rome’s terrible rulers made barbarians or rebels more attractive to most people than the emperors. Still, all things decline eventually, and no one ever admits they’re declining, so no one ever plans for it to happen in an orderly fashion. Do you remember our lesson on Attila the Hun, I asked her? What was his story?

“I’m sure he had more than one,” she said.

Well, who were the Huns?

“Well, the Huns were a lot of different tribes put together.”

Exactly, I said – his people were basically gangsters, and they would beat up the tribes around them. And then they would tell the men they’d beaten up – who were probably forced to fight for their local tribal leader – ‘You know, you don’t really want to die for that guy; he’s a loser. Fight for us, and you can not only live, but get rich taking other people’s stuff.’

Like most gangsters, I said, he found that while he could kill people, it was easier to just intimidate them or get them to join him. To quote The Godfather, blood’s expensive. It worked really well – the more tribes went to his side, the bigger his army grew, and the more he could conquer.

“A positive feedback loop,” she said.

Exactly, I told her, but we don’t actually know that much about him – even ‘Attila’ is a nickname, meaning ‘Big Daddy.’ Do you remember what happened between him and the Romans?

“Sure,” she said. “The emperor’s sister was supposed to marry someone she didn’t like, so she sent her ring to Attila, asking her to rescue her. And he thought it was a marriage proposal.”

That’s right – the emperor had hired the Huns to help them fight off the Visigoths, but once Attila got Honoria’s ring, he had to hire the Visigoths to fight off the Huns. Do you remember who finally stopped Attila?

“The Pope?”

Yep, I said – he rode out to Attila’s camp unarmed and talked to him, and we don’t know what they talked about, but Attila left.

“By that time he must have had a huge army,” she said.

Well, there were a lot of tribes migrating around Europe at this time, I said, as the Roman Empire crumbled, and they took turns taking pieces of it. Visigoths, Ostrogoths, Vandals, Alans --

“The Alans?” she said. “They were all named Alan? That kept everything simple.”

Yes, I said, it was a barbarian tribe made up of Alan Cummings, Alan Davies, Alan Bennett, Alan Parsons and others.

“Now I’m picturing these men in black eyeliner and fishnet hose – goths – and vandals as these gang members with mohawks, and an army of nerds named Alan,” she said. “I’m picturing all these armies teaming up to fight a common enemy, like something out of Lord of the Rings mixed with The Breakfast Club.”

How do you know about The Breakfast Club? I asked. You’ve never seen it.

“It’s a famous movie, Daddy,” she said. “Can I see it?”

You’re 12 and I’m taking you to Hamlet, so I think you’re old enough, I said. Why are the Alans nerds?

“It just sounds like a nerdy name,” she said. “Like Nigel.”

She continued with her vision. “And Attila riding in front of his assembled armies, like Aragorn in Lord of the Rings ..."

"'GOTHS! Are you with me!'" she continued in her best Aragorn. "And they all are like ‘Uh-Huh,” in this sullen voice."

"VANDALS! Are you with me? he would shout. ‘Yeeah!’ they shout, pumping their fists."

“ALANS! Are you with me!?”

’Yes, Mr. Attila,’” they say, in a squeaky voice."

A day may come when the cliques of adolescence fail, I said, but it is not this day.

Thursday, 26 January 2017

Wattle and daub

These days, you spend your life paying off a house, and even building a shed or animal shelter can be expensive, as timber, brick or any other modern building material requires a heavy investment of money, time and skilled labour. For thousands of years, though, people used a simpler technique that used nothing but natural, local materials.

“Wattle and daub,” as it’s called, takes its name from its two components; a “wattle” was a wicker fence or wall made of a pliable wood like willow or hazel, woven around upright posts like a horizontal basket. Farmers sometimes surrounded their fields with wattle fences, which could be made in modular, lightweight pieces a metre or two high and a metre or two across – hurdles -- and then uprooted, carried to a new location, and stamped into the ground where needed.

The farmer usually created a wattle by putting the upright posts (sometimes called zales or sails on these islands) into a wooden frame (sometimes called a gallows) to hold them in place. Then withies – slim cuttings of willow or hazel – were wound back and forth around the uprights. At the end of the hurdle the withy would be twisted for greater flexibility, wound around the last zale, and woven back in the other direction. Usually a gap would be left in the middle of the hurdle, called a twilly hole, which allowed a shepherd or farmer to carry a few hurdles as a time on his back.

According to author Una McGovern, hurdle fences were vital to medieval agriculture; by keeping sheep confined without the need for permanent infrastructure, they allowed tenant farmers to graze sheep on a patch of land, letting them manure the fields one by one and deposit the fertilisers necessary for cereal crops.

The same technique could form the walls of a building, once a log or timber frame was built and the wattle filled in with a “daub” plaster for insulation and privacy. The daub often contained clay, human or animal hair and cow dung, and hardened around the wattle like concrete around rebar. The technique proved popular throughout the ancient world, among Sumerians, Chinese and Mayans alike. If kept dry the walls would last for centuries, and even now restoring or demolishing old buildings in Europe sometimes reveals wattle inside the walls.

Not all ancient builders loved it; the Roman architect Vetruvius, in the first century BC, moaned about its hazards in his Ten Books on Architecture:

“As for ‘wattle and daub’ I could wish that it had never been invented,” Vetruvius wrote testily. “…But since some are obliged to use it either to save time or money, or for partitions on an unsupported span, the proper method of construction is as follows. Give it a high foundation so that it may nowhere come in contact with the broken stone-work composing the floor; for if it is sunk in this, it rots in course of time, then settles and sags forward, and so breaks through the surface of the stucco covering.”

Vetruvius’ disdain notwithstanding, however, clearly many of his contemporaries loved it, and it’s easy to see why; it allowed people to build a structure cheaply and easily. The main disadvantage, as the Roman mentioned, is that it cannot get damp; like cob, straw bales or other natural building methods, it works best when you build the foundation and walls of rock for the first metre or so.

The technique is similar to building in cob, that mixture of sand, straw and clay, mixed with water and squeezed together – usually by humans walking on it.  Handfuls of the mixture – the word “cob” comes from an Old English word for “lump” – are stacked them on top of each other in a row, stomped solid by people’s feet, and then another layer of cob added, until people have a wall.

The straw binds the clay and sand together; instead of a wall’s mass hanging on a few large structures like girders or beams, it hangs on the many tiny structures of the straw. Once the cob dries it can be almost as durable as stone. Daub needs to be thinner than cob, like stucco or plaster – to be spread across the wattle rather than creating a self-supporting wall – but is can be made from quite similar materials.  

Of course, wattle and daub is probably not suitable for modern homeowners unaccustomed to mud walls. That doesn’t mean, however, that it has no relevance to today’s homesteader; animals don’t tend to mind such all-natural surroundings, as long as the interior remains warm and dry, and neither do garden tools.

Building techniques like cob or wattle-and-daub fell out of favour in the modern era because they are more labour-intensive than our modern building techniques that rely on fossil fuels. We should not let such skills disappear entirely, however, for these methods still have advantages. They are completely ecological, requiring no machines, and generating no pollution. They can last for centuries, as evidenced by homes built this way in Europe – and might still stand when our reinforced concrete has collapsed to ruin. And when a wattle-and-daub home is finally torn down, it merely adds fertiliser to the soil, rather than toxic waste – and another one can be built, literally dirt cheap.

Una McGovern, Lost Crafts, published by Chambers, 2009.
Vetruvius, Ten Books on Architecture, Chapter 8, Section 20.
Photo: Cottage in Heimbach, Germany.

Wednesday, 18 January 2017

Taking part

Not many of my readers here will be able to see it, but I'll be on Irish television Friday to talk about the state of US politics. If you're in Ireland, feel free to look me up around 4 pm Dublin time.


Every morning I journey to the nearest village and wait for the bus to bring me to work in Dublin– usually in rainy darkness this time of year – and chat with my neighbours doing the same. A flimsy shelter of two plastic walls and an awning provides the only protection from blasts of wind and cold rain; when the county took it down for a few months of road repair, we felt its absence each morning.  
Unfortunately, teenagers with too little supervision and too few manners have etched words in the plastic that I used to shield from my daughter, before she became a jaded teen herself. Also, a single Irish winter can coat anything with layers of grime and algae – by spring most road signs are illegible.  So I was pleased to come out of Mass the other day and find some neighbours I knew busy scrubbing the shelter clean.

“That’s good of you, Bridget,” I said – she works at the village shop and is grandmother to two of my daughter’s school-mates, so we know each other well. I hadn’t realised, though, that she spent her weekends cleaning up the town.  

“Ah, we’re only after doing this once in a while,” Bridget said, as cars moved down the road in one direction and horses clopped down the other. “Youngsters can scratch it up faster than we can fix it. Other days we walk the roads picking up rubbish.”

I told them people dump rubbish on the side of the road along the canal where we live, and my daughter and I go pick it up sometimes. I gather that many rural Irish used to throw their rubbish away in hedgerows, which was fine when it was broken stones or cinders – but once the age of plastic arrived, the rubbish never disappeared.

“Sure you’re very good,” she said, sounding pleased. She handed me one of those hand-held devices that allow you to pick up trash without stooping over. “Here – take this,” she said. “You’re part of the clean-up crew now.”

I feel like I’ve been deputised, I said.  

“Well, if you’re going to do it anyway, you might as well be part of something,” she said. I couldn’t argue.