Thursday, 30 November 2017

Thoughts as everyone puts up decorations

I was writing something about how most of our Christmas imagery -- Christmas trees, snow, carolers, mistletoe, holly, Christmas cards, Santa and so on -- come from Victorian Britain, especially Dickens' A Christmas Carol. The strange thing is, he was talking about London, and London never gets white Christmases anymore.

The reason, of course, is that Dickens grew up at the tail end of the Little Ice Age, that cold period that took place during the 1600s and 1700s. When Dickens was little London saw the last of the Frost Fairs, times when the weather was so cold that the Thames froze thick with ice, and people held public carnivals in the middle of the river without fear.

Why was there a little Ice Age? The leading theory is that when native Americans filled North and South America, they had cleared much of the land for farms. When the Spaniards invaded, they spread ten thousand years' worth of diseases for which the natives had no immunity, and perhaps 99 percent of the population died. The farms lay vacant, and within a century the forests had grown back, two continents of trees suddenly sucking millions of tonnes of carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere.

As you would expect, the global temperature dropped, and Europe began seeing harsher winters -- the Dutch masters painted scenes of men and women ice skating on the canals, which the Dutch could never do today. And in Britain, generations grew up associating the Christmas season with deep snow.

Hence, Dickens portrayed a snow-bound London with all the accoutrements that we now associate with Christmas. We still use such images even when few of us live in places that have white Christmases anymore -- even London itself. One wonders, as the climate continues to change in the decades ahead, what old imagery we will cling to long after the world has shifted and the imagery no longer makes sense.

But those can be melancholy thoughts, so I'll just end with recipes. This will appear in the Kildare Nationalist next week:

Everyone makes their own Christmas supper --- some with ham, some with turkey, some with Chinese they ordered out at the last minute. There’s no definitive Christmas recipe list, but this might give you some ideas for the big day. 

Turkey – We won’t go into all the details of roasting turkey, which are in many cookbooks and which vary according to the size of bird you have. I have found, though, that you can improve any recipe you have by finely grating 10g of ginger, 20g of garlic, 5ml each of salt, pepper, vegetable stock powder and lemon zest, and mix it in a bowl with 50g of butter. Then mix it all together and rub it under the skin of the turkey before roasting.

When I roasted a turkey, I made sure to take out the organs on the inside and stuff the cavity with the lemon halves I had recently zested. Then I laid it in a deep pan with the breast down -- that is, upside-down from the way it’s usually pictured, so that the breast didn’t dry out. I then packed skinned and quartered onions and chopped carrots, celery and potatoes -- each cut into about two-centimetre pieces -- and filled the space around the turkey with them. I then poured two cups of my mead -- honey wine from my beehive, but white wine would also do -- over the vegetables, and paid tinfoil over the whole thing.

Mine was a small turkey, so I roasted it for an hour this way, and then took it out, uncovered the bird, and mixed up the vegetables. Then I turned it over so that the breast part browned as well, and roasted for another 30 minutes. Generally you roast a turkey 10 to 12 minutes per pound (21 to 25 per kilo) if it is not stuffed, or until a thermometer inserted into the thickest part of the thigh reads at least 83 Celsius. Let the turkey sit at least 15 minutes before carving.

Cranberry sauce – put 200g of cranberries, in a pan with 100g of brown sugar, 50 ml of white wine in a pan, and simmer it for five minutes, stirring until the sugar is dissolved and the cranberries start to soften and burst. You can try to mix it into a finer consistency, or serve as is.
Potato salad: Rather than making a traditionally heavy potato salad to go with a heavy meal, make a light one with a small pot – say, 500ml -- of boiled waxy potatoes, and similarly-sized volumes of diced apples, diced hard-boiled eggs, and thinly-sliced celery. Mix together about 300 ml of dressing – for example, yogurt and lemon juice, mixed with lemon zest, sesame oil, cayenne powder and pepper, along with chopped mint, dill and chives.
As soon as the potatoes are boiled, drained and chopped – when they are still hot – mix them into the dressing, and they will absorb the liquid as they cool. Then mix in the cold apples, eggs and celery for an all-in-one meal. This is a general recipe; experiment until you get it right for you.

Kale: First lightly oil a pan and peel and dice a large onion. Toss the onion bits in and sautee them until they are yellow. Wash and chop about as much kale as will fit in a small pot – it will cook down, and the amounts don’t have to be precise --- and toss it in as well. Add a pinch of salt and stir frequently to make sure nothing sticks to the metal.

After the kale has shrunk and gone soft, drizzle it with several tablespoons of cider vinegar and one tablespoon of honey, and stir it in. I like to add a bit of concentrated stock and cayenne pepper, or you can use balsamic vinegar to make it sweeter.

Butternut squash: Cut up a butternut squash – just the flesh, not the skin or innards --- into cubes about 1 cm across. Take about 50 ml of stock – or perhaps hot water mixed with stock powder – and mix in 10 ml each of finely-chopped herbs like oregano, sage, parsley and basil, along with 3 – 5 ml of spices like cumin and coriander, 10 ml of soy sauce, 5 ml of salt, and a pinch of cayenne. Add a few dashes of lemon juice.

Line a baking dish with butter, and put in the squash. Pour the mixture over it, cover it with foil and place in the oven. Bake at 200 degrees for about 60 minutes, or until the squash is … well, squashable.

Finally, take it out of the oven and take the foil off. Grate some cheese – gruyere works well – and sprinkle it over the top of the squash. Put it back in, uncovered, for a few more minutes until the cheese is melted.

Thursday, 23 November 2017

Children and Nature

I talked last week about how children used to roam widely, and now tend to stay at home -- a trend that probably contributes to the rise in obesity and mental illnesses among young people. The fact that children stay home so much also means that they have little contact with Nature, that connection that keeps us grounded and healthy, and allows us to care about the world around us.

In his book “Last Child in the Woods” and “The Nature Principle,” US author Richard Louv coined the phrase “Nature-deficit disorder,” which comes from children no longer exploring woods or bogs and having adventures. Children who are obsessed with computer games or driven from sport to sport, Louv maintains, miss the restorative effects that come with the nimbler bodies and sharper senses that are developed during random running-around in wild places.

A University of Illinois study found that children with the symptoms of attention-deficit disorder were brought into the woods for a short time, and showed a marked decrease in their symptoms.
Drug companies will no doubt make billions prescribing medicines for problems that could be fixed by a walk in the woods.

“If when we were young, we tramped through forests of Nebraska cottonwoods, or raised pigeons on a rooftop in Queens, or fished for Ozark bluegills, or felt the swell of a wave that travelled a thousand miles before lifting our boat, then we were bound to the natural world and remain so today,” Louv wrote in The Nature Principle. “Nature still informs our years, lifts us, carries us. For children Nature comes in many forms – a newborn calf, a pet that lives and dies, a worn path through the woods, a fort nested in stinging nettles, a damp mysterious edge of a vacant lot. Whatever form Nature takes it offers each child a taste of an older, larger world, separate from parents. Unlike television, Nature does not steal time, but amplifies it.”

In a recent talk, Louv pointed out that we’re all still hunters and gatherers biologically, and there is something in us that needs to see Nature and be around it -- but many of us deal with it no more than we have to. He tells the story of going to a Nature preserve near where he lives with gang members from San Diego; they were big tough guys, he said, but they were scared – one said that there were two or three sounds in his neighbourhood and he knew what all the sounds meant. Here in the woods, he said, there were dozens of sounds, and he didn’t know what any meant.

Louv says that while Nature can be dangerous, we have to let kids experiment with that danger -- within reason -- and learn from it. A child who grows up never experiencing any danger is a child that doesn’t feel boundaries in the world, save those set by authorities.

When a child experiences Nature, they grow up to care more about protecting the environment, according to a new Cornell University study. The study published in the journal Children, Youth and Environment, found that while gardening helps kids care about the natural world, it doesn’t have as strong an impact as camping, playing in the woods, hiking, walking and fishing.

In such places, children create their own adventures, from toddlers pulling up rocks and seeing the creeping things underneath to the boys jumping over creeks, telling ghost stories and searching the lake for pirates. In the minds of children the most meagre and scruffy of woodlands can become a place of adventure, a chance to test their bravery and skills, a secret and dangerous place to gather with other children. A patch of land that most developers would consider useless and unproductive, will instead produce the best memories of childhood, if we let it.  

In this age, people are more separated from the natural world than ever, and transforming it more than any society before us. Of course we can work to conserve energy, use less and defend our lands and the things on them, but there is one, more fundamental thing we need: to understand why these things are valuable, and worth preserving.

Friday, 10 November 2017

Letting children roam

Published this week in the Kildare Nationalist.

When I talk to my elderly neighbours, or read interviews with people from earlier eras, one of the things that most comes through about their childhoods, and seems dramatically different than the way children are raised today, is how far and freely they roamed. Unlike most modern children, they did not spend most of their time indoors watching television or playing video games, or following one adult-led activity after another.

Rather, most described roaming several miles from home in a day, exploring the far corners of their world. They ambled over fields and mountains, woods and bogs, climbing trees, swimming in streams and ponds, and drying their clothes on branches. They searched in the hedges for birds’ nests, through the underbrush for mushrooms and snails, let millipedes and ladybirds crawl on their hands, and peered in the holes of hedgehogs and badgers. By their recollections, they spend nearly all day in some vital physical activity, and learned to be creative, solve problems and find our way out of trouble.

Of course, some children in earlier eras inevitably got into mischief; I have on my shelf a 19th-century garden book that lists among the many garden pests, between boll weevils and butterflies, “boys.” If your garden has an infestation of boys, it notes drily, some aggressive dogs might be just the thing.

 “The only rule was to be home by dinner time,” Tracy Gillett wrote of her father’s upbringing. “My Grandma rarely knew exactly where her kids were. They were off building forts, making bows and arrows, collecting bruises and bloody knees and having the time of their lives. They were immersed in childhood.”

Writer Tom Purcell remembers that when he was growing up in Pittsburgh, they “collected scrap wood and built shacks. We damned up the creek and caught minnows and crayfish. One summer, we built a motorized go-cart with some scrap items from a junked riding mower and a couple of two-by-fours. It was one of the great engineering feats in my neighbourhood's history. Occasionally, we'd fib to our mothers and ride our bikes 20 miles farther than we said we would … There was only one major rule a kid had to abide by: you'd better be home in time for supper.”

Until now. A recent UK study chronicled the loss of childhood freedom over four generations -- from children in the 1920s who roamed an estimated radius of six miles from home, to their great-grandchildren who rarely see the outdoors. The report's author said that keeping children indoors and away from Nature injures their long term mental health in ways we can’t always foresee.

According to one study in the U.K., while 80% of third-graders were allowed to walk to school in 1971, that number had dropped to just 9% in 1990, and is even lower today. Parents started prohibiting their children from walking or riding their bike to and from school by themselves out of the fear that they might be kidnapped along the way.

Yet abductions are exceedingly rare, and no more common now than they were several decades ago. Further, a child has a 40-times greater risk of dying as a passenger in a car than being kidnapped or killed by a stranger.

I see this with my own daughter, who rode her bicycle to school – about three kilometres away – for years. Now that she is in secondary school, she still sometimes goes to the bus stop herself – the same distance – and then to school, or to somewhere else on weekends. To our surprise, though, almost no other children did this. I understand the concern about traffic -- Irish roads rarely have bike lanes and often have sharp bends – but I never saw any children on the empty side roads either.

Right now, we’re seeing an unprecedented number of mental disabilities and neuroses in modern children, and obesity is becoming a major health concern. If we are to raise our children to be as confident, self-sufficient and capable, we have to let them roam a bit. If you understand that free-range chickens live happier and healthier than those in a tiny cage, and that free-range cows are better off than those that spend their lives in a pen, then let’s consider treating our own species with the same respect, and raising a generation of free-range humans.
Photo of my daughter on the Burren some years ago; she doesn't often let me take pictures of her anymore.