Saturday, 6 October 2018

Pedal power

Originally published in 2013. 

In perhaps one of the great ironies of human civilisation, mechanical devices to truly magnify human power came along as soon as we didn’t need them.  Pedal-powered devices like bicycles only appeared after coal had already begun to transform the landscape, however – mass production was necessary for the standardised metal parts -- and around the same time that gasoline was first being introduced as a fuel for automobiles.

We tend to forget, then, three important things about the bicycle. First, it remains the most efficient method of using our bodies, allowing us to attain higher machine speeds for longer than we would on muscle power alone – and without using any more fuel or causing any more weather to go haywire.

Bicycles have been used for so long as children’s toys and exercise equipment that we forget what useful technology they represent. They multiply our bodies’ speed and efficiency many times over, allowing us to travel miles without strain. Their widespread adoption in the late 19th century created a ripple of under-appreciated effects in society; for example, they allowed women to commute to jobs away from home and paved the way for the universal sufferage movement.  

Second, bicycles have seen many improvements in the last hundred years, most of which have escaped the notice of anyone but enthusiasts. Many of the bicycles we use today function mainly as toys, and racing bikes are built for speed; sturdier bicycles – often going under the name of “military bicycles” can still be ordered.

Most importantly, though, bicycles are only one of many possible pedal-powered machines that were not used for transportation. Beginning in the 19th century, factories began to make and stores to market treadles for manufacturing everything from cigars to brooms to hats. Farms saw foot-powered harvesters, tractors, threshers, milking machines and vegetable bundlers. Machinists saw pedal-powered drills.  

“…no matter how simple it seems to us today, pedal power could not have appeared earlier in history,” wrote Kris DeDecker in LowTech Magazine. “Pedals and cranks are products of the industrial revolution, made possible by the combination of cheap steel (itself a product of fossil fuels) and mass production techniques, resulting in strong yet compact sprockets, chains, ball bearings and other metal parts.”

Today, we have built a world that runs on fossil fuels, which will not last forever. Eventually we will not be able to depend on familiar machines like cars and electronics - - either because we won’t be able to afford them, or to afford continually fixing them, or because fuel prices will be out of reach.

One way or another, we will have to go back to muscle power, and the best way to do that is to revive the lost technologies of pedal-powered tools. Most of these devices exist today only as a few rare museum specimens, but we should easily be able to build more. The irony, though, is that we need to build them while we still have fossil fuels.

 “It is important to realise that pedal powered machines (and bicycles) require fossil fuels,” DeDecker writes “If we burn up all fossil fuels driving cars, we won't be able to revert to bicycles, we will have to walk. If we burn up all fossil fuels making electricity to drive our appliances, we won't be able to revert to pedal powered machines, but to the drudgery that went before them.”

Perhaps more people around here will take to bicycles again, as I will now that I have a headlamp to light my way during the winter nights. Older people here remember when the bicycle was the most popular method for getting from one village to another, and the roads were safer then with so few cars. It’s possible that the schoolchildren of today will see those days again.

Sunday, 30 September 2018

Interview with a neighbour

Sorry for the light posting. I've been taking night classes in Dublin, so on school nights I've been getting up around 6 am, bicycling a few miles to the bus stop, leaving my bike in my neighbour's barn, and taking it to my day job. I work my day job, go to night classes, and ride back around 11 pm. Even on nights when I don't have classes, I've been riding home around 9 pm. It hasn't left a lot of time for writing outside of my weekly column.

I would have done this earlier in life, but was spending all my spare time with my daughter. These days, my now-teenager mainly wants to spend time with her friends. Occasionally she's willing to go to a movie or concert with me -- we went to see Charlie Chaplin's City Lights a few months ago, and is willing to see Verdi's Aida on stage with me in November -- and I'm satisfied with that. Most teenaged girls wouldn't want to go with their father to such things at all these days, so I count my blessings. Most of the time I reluctantly play the villain of her story, the Strictest Parent among all her friends.

With all this going on, it was relaxing to sleep late today, fetch some vegetables right from the garden, sautee them with blood pudding and coffee on a chilly Irish morning, and tend to the garden. Tomorrow I'll be extracting the honey from my hive for the year, which should last us through next year and make some Chrsitmas gifts for the neighbours.

Speaking of the neighbours, I've been spending almost every weekend visiting with one of my local elders, and sometimes travelling with them while they show me around. I walked with one elderly friend around the ruins of Carbury Castle last weekend, and I'll have much more to write about that. For now, here is a snippet of our interview -- I've left his name out and changed the local names for privacy.

Me: I remember when a friend of mine visited from America, and she was interested in the River Boyne knew that the head was around here. We found it on the map and looked for it on the ground, came onto the old estate there in Carbury, and met the old landowner …

Neighbour: Mr. Robison.

Me: That’s right – and he pointed out where the head of the Boyne was, and that’s where the whole river starts. I’d never seen the head of a river before – it’s just a pool. You associate the Boyne and its history with the North, but that’s where it starts. 

Neighbour: There’s also a holy well there; we hold an open-air Mass once a year, on Trinity Sunday. The family that built that estate moved out of Carbury Castle in the 1600s, the time of Cromwell, but they wanted to live where they could still see the Castle in the distance, and you can. 

The other thing I wanted to say to you is that the local burial ground is up there too, for hundreds of years but not always in the same place … When they were building the canal – according to the local history, this is what we were told -- with the route the canal was taking, there was a graveyard in the way, so they moved it all to one side. 

Me: The caskets?

Neighbour: Ah, this was a long time ago, I’d say there were only bones. I was told they moved it with horse and cart, and there were only clay and bones. When you see the local burial ground it’s much higher on one end, because a lot more bones were put there. That was the local burial ground for people of this area, their forebears going back several hundred years or more. They were the old names of this locality -- they intermarried, and it was their hands that ploughed these fields and cut this turf going back several hundred years or more.

Me: So each of the old families here owned plots of land along the canal when it was built? How big were the plots?

Neighbour: Anything between seven and ten acres.

Me: Was that enough to live on?

Neighbour: It had to be. And when the estates were broken up, they were given an additional 15 an 20 acres to go with that from the Land Commission.

Me: Because their families were always expanding?

Neighbour: Yes, and the English landlord of this area left each family seven to ten acres to live on, and in each generation some of the children just had to leave. That was supposed to feed them with the help of whatever money they made working for the landlord.

Me: But the landowners would own huge chunks of a county, wouldn’t they?

Neighbour: The local landlord here owned perhaps 20,000 acres. Often the local farmers paid rent to the landlord – that’s why there were evictions during the Famine. 

That wasn’t the case in this area – most farmers' ancestors had helped build the canal, and were rewarded with ownership of their little plots. They might have starved, but none were evicted. 

Sunday, 16 September 2018

A throwaway society in a finite space

 This article appeared this week in the Kildare Nationalist newspaper. Illustration by Ken Avidor.

We remember civilisations by what they leave behind, from arrowheads to pyramids, then our age will be known as the Age of Rubbish. Nothing else dominates our landscape, our oceans, our air and soil, and our lives like the things we buy, use quickly, and casually toss away.

Humans have been leaving things behind since we came down from the trees and stood upright, but garbage is a new invention, most of it dating from after the Second World War – and decades later here in Ireland. Most humans, in most times and places, had no garbage in the sense that we do; there were no tips, no roadside littering, no need for Tidy Town volunteer clean-up crews. Everything around us came from the natural world, was part of it, and went back to it as soon as it was discarded.

You might point to the broken pottery and arrowheads dug up by enthusiastic archaeologists, but those exceptions prove the point: they are precious because they are so rare and unusual. For 99.9 per cent of the time humans have been around, what few belongings we had were used over and over, and repaired until they broke.

Your grand-father’s cart, or saddle, or shovel, or newspaper, or any other possession, were made of organic and natural materials. They could be repaired and re-used over and over, and at the end of its life it could be made into firewood or composted into soil again, metal parts re-forged into something new.

I’m using horse-carts as an example, but you could say this about almost any item possessed by your grandparents, or any of their ancestors. A steel shovel would be hammered back into shape, its wooden handle replaced. A newspaper could be re-purposed in several ways around the house before being composted. Virtually every item that humans used could be re-used, repaired, re-forged, re-set, or simply turned into ashes or soil again.

Even when our civilisation industrialised – even during the eras of movies and cars, airplanes and Einstein – almost all our waste was organic and compostable. Writer Chris Agee mentions that in the industrial mega-polis of early 1900s London, about 85% of waste was cinders and charcoal, easily returned to the soil cycle, and much of the rest was bio-degradable, like wood, paper and compost.

Of course, some of these things could be buried where there is no oxygen, as many newspapers were in the early 20th century, and they will take a long time to decompose. Left out in the open, though, a newspaper quickly turns into damp mush, its bits pulled down below earth by worms. A newspaper discarded on someone’s lawn in the 1960s will certainly not still be sitting there today in its original form. A piece of plastic, however, will be.  

In the last few decades, the world of durable tools and elegant machines has slowly disappeared, replaced by one in which our food, clothes, tools, toys and electronic devices are all made of plastic or come wrapped in plastic-- made to be bought, used quickly, discarded and then sit as harmful junk for tens of thousands of years. Plastic does not appear in Nature, so no insect, fungus or bacteria has evolved to eat it. When I compost our kitchen scraps, the orange peels and egg cartons all break down over a year or so into rich black soil. The few bits of plastic wrapper that fall in, though, remain plastic wrappers, and will remain so for millennia. 

Some of this rubbish goes into landfills that have now become the most gigantic structures every built by humankind – the one outside New York, for example, is hundreds of times larger than the pyramids of Egypt. Some gets washed to the sea and floats there, forming patches of ocean the size of small continents where one is rarely out of sight of some kind of floating garbage.

In his amazing book “The World Without Us,” Alan Weisman tells the story of University of Plymouth marine biologist Richard Thompson, who began studying plastics in the ocean in the 1980s helping to clean up the beaches near his home. As he compiled the team’s  annual reports, he noticed more and more garbage that was smaller and smaller, and he and his colleague began collecting samples, sieving beach sand and realising that more and more of the sand was plastic.

In fact, many of the tiny plastic bits – called nurdles – had never been part of any larger food wrapper, laptop or Barbie doll. Some were simply raw materials from which larger plastic is made, flushed out of some factory before being used, while others are exfoliants from beauty products. Many facial scrubs, body scrubs and hand cleaners on the market today have a grainy texture because they are filled with tiny bits of plastic, and as soon as they are washed down the sink they go to the nearest river, to the nearest ocean, to fill up the water with bits of plastic and choke or poison multitudes of sea creatures.

Plastics are a new substance on Earth; before World War II, virtually none had been invented, and the oceans and rivers were plastic-free. Of course humans had created other kinds of pollution; we filled some cities with coal smog and some rivers with chemicals, and had already started pumping the carbon dioxide that would build up in the atmosphere until the weather itself began to change.

All those things, however, are temporary and easily fixable. Take smog; Seventy years ago London was notorious for its smog, factory coal smoke plus Britain’s usual fog to create a noxious air that killed many people. Over the next few decades, however, environmental laws forced factories to clean up their emissions somewhat, while plane trees planted along London’s streets helped pull toxins out of the air. Most of all, some factories moved out of the city, and while that is not all good news – some of them just moved to the Third World – it also reduced London’s noxious air, until “smog” went from being a daily fear to a historical curiosity.

The same is true of most environmental threats. Even the wild storms and temperature swings of climate change could be reduced dramatically for future generations – quickly and easily, by us today. All we would have to do would be to plant a lot more trees – say, across the American Central Asian prairies, stopping the spread of deserts and pulling more carbon out of the atmosphere.

Humans have done this before, albeit inadvertently; when Europeans reached the Americas, they unknowingly brought ten thousand years’ worth of diseases that wiped out most of the native populations. Much of North and South America had been fields and farms, or woodland periodically cleared for game; when the native populations died off, millions of acres grew back billions of trees, each sucking carbon out of the atmosphere. Carbon dioxide traps the sun’s heat, so the effect was the opposite of today’s climate change; by lowering the carbon dioxide levels, they lowered the global temperature, and the result was the “Little Ice Age” of the 1600s and 1700s, when Londoners could hold public fairs on the then-thick ice of the Thames.

Most of our environmental threats, then, could be fixed if we had the will to fix them, and we can estimate how long they would take to heal. Plastics, however, are another matter. While we have built a throwaway society around them, and have flooded the oceans and landscape with them, we know little about how long they would take to decompose, or what toxic chemicals they will unleash as they do so. No plastic has ever died a natural death yet.

When Thompson looked at sieved ocean samples from  World War II to the present, he saw almost no plastic until the 1950s. In the 1960s, though, any casual sieving of ocean water began to bring up bits of plastic, and then that amount of plastic grew exponentially in the decades that followed. Moreover, he said, since they were only straining the surface, they were probably severely underestimating the amount of plastic in the sea.

Our use and discarding of plastic has several effects on the sea. First, it destroys sea life – endangered sea turtles that have survived since the days of the dinosaurs are now choking on grocery bags, and sea otters get tangled in the plastic ring-holders for beer cans. It’s not just a case of animals being stupid; floating shopping bags, often coated in algae, can look identical to the jellyfish that turtles naturally eat.

The other rubbish we generate can bio-degrade eventually, if they are exposed to the elements; leather and newspaper, wood and metal, all rot or rust and return to the natural world from whence they came. Plastic, though, will always be with us, on any meaningful time frame.

Getting rid of the plastic in our lives sounds unthinkable -- a testament to how much of our lives has been taken over by this material – but it helps to remember that almost everything we do today we did fifty years ago, just without plastics. The problem is that so few products are made without plastics anymore – I admit that I’m writing this on a laptop that’s partly plastic, because there aren’t any laptops encased in wood or leather.

Of course we can cut back on our plastic use in a thousand small ways in our lives; re-using the same coffee mugs and shopping bags, asking the butcher to put our meat in a sealable container rather than a throwaway bag, buying individual cans of beer – or just brewing your own – rather than getting the six-pack. We can get wooden toys for our children rather than plastic toys, and use twine ropes to secure things on our car instead of vinyl ropes, and leave fish alone altogether, as the fishing industry is one of the most destructive sources of ocean plastic. Most of all, we can weigh our rubbish every week to see how much we use – if you forgo plastic and compost your food, you should reduce your rubbish to almost nothing.

This saves you a lot of money, in addition to the amount you save by not buying things and throwing them away. You might not care about sea turtles and otters, but you might realise that using plastics is costing you a great deal in the long run, and that abandoning them lightens your life.

Ultimately, though, personal and individual choices will not put more than a dent in our plastic use; the real action has to come from governments restricting what companies can manufacture and throw away. And before we can persuade governments, we need to persuade people. 

Check out documentaries like “A Plastic Tide” or “Trashed,” read books like “The World Without Us” or “Plastic: A Toxic Love Story,” and look at web sites from zero-waste groups. Give speeches about them to your local school students, Rotary Clubs, Toastmasters or 4-H Clubs, and to local church groups. Contact organisations and set up a network of people in your area who are interested in the same issues.

Get everyone in your area to understand that they can use very little plastic in their own lives and still live a normal life, and that our civilisation could function on zero plastics and still go on. It has before, in the memory of people still living.

Wednesday, 5 September 2018

A swiftly tilting land

I take the bus to my day job in Dublin every morning, and most days that means I study, read or write articles. On the days when Liam is driving, though, I stand at the front – unlike most bus drivers, he’s chatty, and I know I can talk to him and hear everything that’s happening around the neighbourhood.

He knows that I like to interview elderly people in our area, people who grew up here in Ireland before it became modernised, and ask about the details of everyday life. I’ve told him that they represent a vast and unappreciated resource – among the last people who grew up living a low-energy life, keeping to an older set of values, and part of an organic community rather than as atomised individuals staring at screens.

That culture is disappearing quickly here in Ireland – the last few years have seen one tectonic political shift after another, mostly funded by the technology corporations that have come to dominate the economy. Pope Francis visited the island last weekend, and while he got a sizable crowd, it was much reduced from previous visits – and disproportionately elderly.

I’m seeing fewer and fewer of the old men and women who still garden their own plot, repair their own tools, bicycle to church and can join in old songs at the pub. The younger generations here, I find, have no country but social media, and their grandparents feel like aliens in their own birth-village.

“Have you talked to the local historical societies?” the bus driver asked.

I have, I said, and they have been of some help – but their interviews often asked about family genealogies or big historical events, and I’m more interested in the minutiae of life. My elderly neighbours usually insist there’s nothing interesting to say about their lives, or they try to turn the conversation to whatever was in the newspapers at the time. I’m more interested in how often they ate, what dinner was like, how they courted, what they wore to swim in the river, and how long the washing took. 

I want to hear how they kept silence as they walked past a bend in the path where a man had died a hundred years’ prior, how they and their school-mates walked across the fields in deep night to a school dance, and how they pricked their fingers and wiped their cheeks with blood to give them a flush.

 “You know who would have been great to talk to is my Auntie,” Liam said. “When she was a young Irish girl she somehow became the hand-maiden of a French duchess, and met all the nobility of Europe.”

That would be a great story, I said – but she’s gone now?

“Yes, we took care of her in her final years, and the doctors told us she was getting senile. ‘She seems to be delusional,’ the doctor said, ‘She's telling wild stories that she used to be hand-maiden to a French duchess.’”


If my neighbours don’t recognise their country’s culture anymore, neither do they recognise the weather. This past spring we got a metre of snow, in a country where we never get more than a light dusting of snow once a year. Thankfully our bees survived, but many other beekeepers in the area say their hives did not.

A hard winter alone doesn’t doom the crops or animals here, but then we got one of the hottest, driest summers in recent memory. The result was lovely and comfortable for me, but not great for our neighbours; the lack of rain meant far less grass for the cows to eat, and far less grain to harvest for humans. As a farmer friend of mine told me the other day, they won’t have silage for the winter either.

Here in the bog, moreover, a hot, dry summer brings dangerous fires – not of trees or other above-ground vegetation, but of the ground itself. The very land below our feet is made of peat, which we and other Irish use for fuel, and which burns slow and hot like coal. I was talking with one of my neighbours about local history when our neighbour Jack drove by on his tractor, shouting, “The bog’s on fire again!” and sure enough, we saw the column of smoke in the distance. Thankfully, the bog was still damp enough that no fire spread very much, but any drier summers ahead could bring genuine catastrophe.  

Even now, in September, we have felt an unseasonal warmth, and everything is delayed. Butterflies cover our mint plants, and my bees are as busy as they were in May. I haven’t harvested any honey from them yet, instead letting them have their fill while they can.

The swallows have still not left the rich feeding grounds for their usual winter holidays in Africa. On the other hand, I am seeing more of the predatory birds that almost disappeared from Ireland, which I take as a good sign for the local ecology. The other day I was walking to the woodland when an explosion of small birds burst out of the trees, followed by a goshawk, expertly weaving through trees in pursuit.

Sunday, 26 August 2018

The potential of willow

A living chair we made. 

This appeared in the Kildare Nationalist, last week. 

Every few years the owner of the land next to us clears away the brush, giving us a front-row seat to what biologists call succession. Bare ground is quickly covered with an army of sprouting weeds, the first being the fastest to grow, seed and die, and each new entry grows more slowly and lasts longer. A year or so into the succession the first trees appear, and pioneer trees in Ireland are willows.

Because they are the tree closest to a weed in behaviour, willows – also called sallies, silver-sticks or osiers -- make an amazing resource everywhere they occur, but such thirsty plants do especially well in our wet climate. They can survive an amazing range of conditions, grow so quickly that a new crop of branches up to two to three metres long can be harvested each year – and few trees have as many uses.

The bark of the white willow (Salix alba) can be boiled to form acetecylic acid, or aspirin. Their fast growth makes an excellent windbreak, and makes them particularly useful for pulling carbon from the atmosphere, repairing some of the damage of climate change. Their wood has multiple uses, and can clean up toxic waste. 

Basket-weavers preferred willow over all other plants – the word for willows, “vikker” in Old Norse, became our word “wicker." Its shoots are highly pliable when wet, lightweight and tough when dry, and grows so quickly that shoots two or three metres long can be harvested every year. Willow groves here were coppiced (cut at the base) or pollarded (cut higher up) from stumps that grew wider every year, growing new foliage and branches that kept the tree alive. The shoots --"withies" they were called in Ireland -- were harvested each spring around St. Bridget's Day, Feb 2, before the spring, from giant stumps that had never been full trees. 

Their roots spread rapidly under the surface of the soil, making them an ideal crop to halt erosion – an important issue in Ireland, where the dramatic felling of the island’s forests over two hundred years washed away much of the soil. Widespread planting of willows back then might have halted some of the erosion that so devastated areas like the Burren.

In addition, the most common willow variety in Ireland, Salix viminalis or “basket willow,” has been shown to be a hyper-accumulator of heavy metals. Many plants help “clean” the soil by soaking up disproportionate levels of normally toxic materials, either as a quirk of their metabolism or as a way of protecting themselves against predators by making themselves poisonous. Many plants soak up only a single toxin, others only a few; Viminalis, it turned out, soaked up a broad range, including lead, cadmium, mercury, chromium, zinc, fossil-fuel hydrocarbons, uranium, selenium, potassium ferro-cyanide and silver.

Willow can also be used for more mundane forms of waste: researcher Alastair McCracken of the Agri-Food and Biosciences Institute of Northern Ireland is conducting trials to see how willow can help clean up effluents like sewage sludge and farm manure.

Perhaps most importantly for us in Ireland, however, willow wood makes an excellent fuel, and since the trees can quickly be regrown, the fuel can be 100 per cent sustainable and zero-carbon. Basket weavers in Ireland harvested ten tonnes per acre per year here in wet Ireland, and in the dry Midwest 19th-century farmers still got nine tonnes per acre. If the wood is for fuel, though, McCracken recommends a three-year rotation, however, for the maximum yield.

Ireland stands out among European nations: no other country has more potential for biomass production, and no other uses it less. Ireland has the highest potential annual yield of wood in Europe according to the SEI. Yet Sweden, Germany, Finland, Austria, the UK and even dry Spain manufacture more than ten times the amount of biomass as we do in numbers, and while some of those countries have more area than we do, many also have more population; Britain is many times more crowded than Ireland, yet devotes more of its land to growing energy. Finland gets 18 per cent of its energy from biomass, according to a study by Sustainable Energy Ireland, in contrast with our 1.3 per cent.

In short, one of our commonest and most easily overlooked trees could be the key to solving many of our problems at once. 

A few baskets I made.
Sustainable Energy Ireland, fact sheet: “What is Biomass?”
“Growing Willow for Energy,” by Alastair McCracken, Local Planet, 30 October 2006.
Phytoremediation. By McCutcheon & Schnoor. 2003, New Jersey, John Wiley & Sons, page 19.
“Enhancing Phytoextraction: The Effect of Chemical Soil Manipulation on Mobility, Plant Accumulation, and Leaching of Heavy Metals,” by Ulrich Schmidt. Journal of Environmental Quality 32:1939-1954 (2003).
“The potential for phytoremediation of iron cyanide complex by Willows,” by X.Z. Yu, P.H. Zhou and Y.M. Yang. Ecotoxicology 2006.

Saturday, 18 August 2018


Again, sorry about the light posting.

Every August the boglands and canal-banks of County Kildare erupt in yellowish tufts of meadowsweet, filling the breeze with their sweet scent. For centuries it was used as a painkiller, as it contains salicylic acid, the basis of aspirin – in fact, its Latin name Spiraea is how we got the word “aspirin.” Irish also used its strong aroma to freshen their houses, as well as to flavour mead – the name means “mead sweet.”

To use meadowsweet you have to pick it first, taking the tufty flower off the top. Unlike some wildflowers, meadowsweet are in no danger of going extinct, and have only multiplied with human activity. It grows along roadsides, but don’t pick it from there – you don’t want the chemicals from the car exhaust.

Meadowsweet makes a good tea, slightly astringent and very aromatic. You can also pick 20 or so meadowsweet flowers to make a sweet cordial, which can be kept for years and used to flavour drinks or in cooking. Heat 750 ml of water and stir in 400g of sugar and 20 ml of lemon juice. Bring to a boil and add the meadowsweet, then turn off the heat and wait about 10 minutes before straining the liquid. Let it cool and store in the refrigerator.

Most of all, meadowsweet makes a delicious dry wine. These days, for many Westerners, “wine” refers only to grape wine, but you can make wine and beer from almost any edible plant and some inedible ones.  Turning water into wine – literally – could be a matter of life and death for most of human history. Water could be contaminated with any number of diseases, but adding vegetable matter and yeast allowed the yeast to multiply and take over, releasing enough alcohol to discourage any other life in the water.

Making the wine is similar to making the cordial, with the addition of yeast and time. Pour six litres of water into a large pot, and bring it to a boil. Then dump in two litres of meadowsweet tufts. Squeeze in the juice of two lemons, boil it again, and turn the heat off – I also put in the zest of the lemons to make it a bit tarter. 

Stir in a kilogram of sugar slowly until it dissolves, and waited for the liquid to cool to blood temperature. Then pour it into a cleaned and sterilised bucket and add wine yeast – although bread yeast will do in a pinch -- and cover the bucket and set it in the closet. 

Over the next week check the bucket periodically; it should be bubbling away slowly as the yeast turns sugar into alcohol and carbon dioxide. After a week or so, sterilise a carboy – a large jug with an S-shaped valve on the top – and strain the wine into it; I use a paper coffee filter to strain it into a large glass, and then pour it through a funnel into the carboy. Carboys let you store wine during the weeks or months that it still might build up some air pressure, before you pour it into conventional wine bottles.

After pouring the wine into the carboy, you will have some leftover vegetable matter, and you could compost them, feed them to chickens or – as I did – combine them with apple peelings and make them into jam.

No home-made wine will taste like store-bought wine, but most people think it tastes better. Try mixing them with juice and water at first, or store-bought white wine, to make a punch, to acclimatise yourself to the taste of home-made. If it doesn’t turn out, you can do what I did and make the bad wine into vinegar.

Some medical authorities caution against women taking meadowsweet when they are pregnant, thinking that its aspirin-like properties could be harmful in large doses – but you should avoid drinking wine then anyway.

Monday, 6 August 2018

Building with straw bales

Straw-bale building under construction. Courtesy of Wikicommons. 

This article appeared in the Kildare Nationalist newspaper. 

These days, the old straw bales that a human could lift have been replaced by mammoth cylinders that require farm equipment. If you can find some of the old rectangular, metre-long bales, however, they can be put to many uses.

On the Great Plains of North America, people stacked them inside a frame to create walls, which were then covered in mud plaster. This technique, pioneered by 19th-century settlers to the Great Plains, is seeing a comeback as people discover the value of energy-efficient buildings. 

Straw is plentiful, does not require the clearing of forests, can form load-bearing walls or can simply insulate. It is easy to work with, and can be stacked and plastered by amateurs. Gathering and baling it does no damage to the environment, and the building waste can be composted. 

It is also one of the most perfect insulating materials around. Insulation is measured in “R-values,” and the higher the R-value, the less heat escapes the home. Most conventional homes are estimated to be R-12 to R-20; most bale homes, R-30 to R-50. 

Isn’t straw flammable, you ask? Loose straw is, but bales are tightly compressed, and are no more flammable than wood. The National Research Council of Canada, for example, found that a straw bale wall withstood temperatures of up to 1,850 degrees for two hours.

Nor can the big bad wolf cannot blow the house down – the Building Research Center of the University of New South Wales, Australia found in 1998 that bale walls withstood winds up to 134 miles per hour – equivalent to a Category 3 hurricane.

The disadvantage to building with it is that it is quite sensitive to moisture, so here in Ireland it might be best to try it out with temporary structures – barns and sheds, for example. To find out if bale building is for you, consult books like “Serious Straw Bale” by Paul Lacinski and Michel Bergeron, or “More Straw Bale Building” by Chris Magwood.

If you don’t have the ambition for experimental architecture, however, you could plant a garden directly inside straw bales. I have heard from a number of gardeners who have tried this and swear by the result, and while they each used a slightly different method, the details were the same.

First line up bales, long side to long side, to create a garden bed, and water them as you would the rest of your garden for a few days. For a week or so after that, keep watering but add nitrogen and phosphorous -- stir some chicken manure in your watering can, leave it for a few days and pour the resulting liquid over the bales. Urine is also great to add, applied however you think appropriate.

After doing this for two weeks – just water for a few days, then water-with-fertilizer for a week and a half – punch a row of holes in the bales. Set a handful of rich compost into the hole, and plant a seedling in the earth. Sprinkle some earth on top across the entire top of the bale, and water as you would any other garden plants. The straw bale decays as the plant grows, until the plant can stretch more roots directly through the composting straw.

An approach like this can allow elderly and people with back problems to garden a raised bed without having to bend over all the time, and without having to build garden beds from wood. It helps make the garden unreachable by rabbits and many pests.

It helps cut down on the amount of soil you have to use, and since all soil contains weed seeds, it reduces the amount of weeding – although some of the grass seed will inevitably sprout. And, again, when the bales are disintegrating, they become compost, and nothing is wasted.

Wednesday, 1 August 2018


Undated photo of children on an Irish train, courtesy of

Living on an island, the Irish have always been a nation of travellers, and some of my co-workers now fly to Majorca and Cyprus as frequently and casually as their grandparents travelled to Dublin. Now that money has become lean again, however, many are finding travel far too expensive to do frequently.

Strangely, there are several ways to travel cheaply that few people practice. One of them is the business trip -- my job paid for me to go to London three times in the last year, and each time I stayed on extra days to see the sights. My employer had to pay for a return ticket anyway so it made no difference to them, and I got to see London for several days.  

If your job doesn’t send you abroad, however, some airlines offer standby tickets, which allow you to take a flight as soon as a passenger misses their flight. If you don’t work full-time, you might try being hired as a courier, to accompany a package to a destination, and see if a company will pay for most of your plane service.

When you want to stay in another country, hostels are usually the best place to sleep. Most of them are as comfortable and clean as any hotel, but a hotel room might cost you a few hundred euros a night, while a hostel can cost you ten to fifty. They differ from conventional hotels in that they often do not offer single rooms, with the private showers, televisions and maids that most hotel-goers have come to expect. Instead, most hostels require visitors to sleep in rooms with several other people, but this is not as difficult as it might sound; most hostel guests respect the privacy and sleeping habits of others and, as they are spending the day working or having fun, use their rooms only for sleeping.

Hostels also offer the chance to mingle with other guests in a way that hotel s do not. Since most people in hostels use their rooms only for sleeping, and spend their time at the hostel sitting in common rooms, hostel guests have the opportunity to chat with others if they choose. Hostel guests also tend to be young and adventurous, often backpackers or other casual travellers, and come from all over the world. When I stay at a hostel, I soon have enjoyable conversations with people from Russia, Australia, Africa and many other parts of the world – all with stories to tell.

You might think that seeing a foreign city would be expensive, and every city is different. In many cities, though, the most amazing sites are the statues, buildings, rivers, bridges and public parks, and those are almost always free. London has dozens of museums, many of them open to the public every day for free; each time I go I see a few more. 

Many other great entertainments, however, are surprisingly inexpensive. Musical plays are in great demand right now, so their tickets run into the hundreds of euros, but amazing plays starring world-famous actors can have very cheap seats. I saw a play starring Keira Knightley and other well-known movie stars for about 30 euros, little more than a movie ticket with popcorn these days.

Travelling around a strange city can often be part of the adventure, and while most cities charge more than they should for public transportation, most also offer the opportunity to pay one charge for a whole day or week. The London Underground, for example, charges the equivalent of 8.50 euros to ride all day, but that takes one anywhere in the city for half the price of a short taxi ride.  

Finally, eating in another city or country doesn’t have to be expensive either. We tend to pay more for food when we are hungry, intuitively enough, and take less time to enjoy the food. If you want to eat cheaply and enjoy your food as much as possible, therefore, buy cheap, healthy snacks at a grocery store. Snack on fennel or apples as you walk or ride from one attraction to the next, and keep yourself from getting too hungry and impulsively buying food, and you will truly be able to enjoy the restaurants you do visit.
Tips like these can help you visit other parts of the world even on a tight budget – or, if you’re that kind of person, to save all your money for drinking.

Thursday, 26 July 2018

Making charcoal

Growing up I knew charcoal as the square, chemical-soaked briquettes people bought in bags and poured into the barbecue grill once a summer. Like so much else in our lives it came from a store, wrapped in plastic and pre-treated for shelf life, with no sense that it shared a name with something amazingly useful, which hundreds of generations had made themselves.

Charcoal is simply wood that has been burned without 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 allows people to burn fires hotter than wood, enabling people to smelt iron or shape glass in a way that wood fires cannot. It can be added to soap for abrasion, crushed to make ink or paint or mixed with minerals to make gunpowder.

Perhaps the most surprising use, one that gained a burst of attention in recent years, involves trapping carbon from the atmosphere. Frequent readers of this blog might have already heard of this and can feel free to skip ahead a few paragraphs – but for the unfamiliar, I will recap the basics.

Farmers in Brazil have long known about the “black earth,” or terra preta, found over vast areas of the Amazon. In the last decade or two archaeologists have begun to realise that the terra preta was not a naturally occurring phenomenon, but had been cultivated over centuries, if not 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 Stone Age 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.

This information might have remained a curiosity, part of the amazing new research in pre-Columbian natives, except for one thing: the same technique could work for us to offset carbon emissions. Burning plants may seem like a strange way to combat climate change, but merely charring wood into charcoal, rather than letting it burn away into ash, locks much of the wood’s carbon away in a stable form. 

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 us in a variety of ways, yet we struggle to reduce our pollution even a little, and our goal of a zero-carbon world seems ever more hopeless. Bio-char, however, offers everyone a way to be, not just carbon-neutral, but carbon-negative, with almost no technology.   The redoubtable Albert Bates is gathering research on the merits of bio-char, and gave us a presentation on making it at the permaculture course I took in County Tipperary. Before I started his more sophisticated techniques, however, I needed to learn how to make charcoal, and some years ago I tried my hand at doing so. 

I tried three ways of doing so, 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 lumber for charcoal or even in a fireplace; it has been treated with chemicals that can be poisonous when inhaled, and I would not want to filter water 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 signed, 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 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 used by the charcoal burners that worked Irish woodlands until just the last century. Before the discovery of smelting with fossil fuels, charcoal was needed to make metal from ore, and once the metal was broken or warped charcoal was needed again by the blacksmith. Any glass that existed came ultimately from their craft, as did gunpowder and any sword or ploughshare, yet historians say they tended to be independent and reclusive, with few surnames referring to their craft as with other crafts – wright, miller, tailor – and their own jargon and trade secrets.

Mimicking the historical accounts of the burners, 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.

Then I covered the logs with our recently-cleared weeds, plastered clay over them and shovelled on more earth.  When done I had a mound of earth open at the very top, and the top hole—the “chimney” -- looked down into the hollow space between the logs, filled with tinder and kindling. 

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 more plants, in this case strips of weeds with earth still attached to the roots, and lay them upside-down over the top. I shovelled earth onto the top of the mound – 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 I knew to look for a crack where oxygen was getting in.  When I found it, 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 enough to easily make water filters or distil spirits. As an aside, I had hoped that these experiments would be useful for killing weeds as well as making charcoal; after all, they would be in there with the burning wood for two days. No such luck; an amazing proportion of the weeds in there remained alive, green and uncooked, apparently protected by mud or moisture.

One thing I neglected to do, which must wait until the next round of experiments, was take careful measurements of exactly how much wood was put in vs. how much charcoal we got out. I do know that we burned 15 small logs of about two kilos each, and got about 5.5 kilos out of it, so an average of 18 per cent of the wood became charcoal. Most experts say that the charcoal should be 50 to 60 per cent of the original wood by volume and 25 per cent by weight, so that’s not far off – and of course the smallest charcoal pieces I just left in the ashes and burned clay in the centre, and scattered those over the recently-harvested and newly bare sections of our garden.

With more careful measurements, I or others could see if we could use these 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, and the wood does not need to be dried for a year or more before burning into charcoal as it would for firewood. The charcoal would retain as much as 25 per cent of the mass of the wood, in theory, and should remain stable in the soil for decades.

There’s a lot more to learn about this, and I’ve barely scratched the surface. In the meantime, though, we have fun experimenting, and now I want to learn to use the charcoal to filter toxins out of drinking water. More on that in future posts.

Saturday, 21 July 2018

Back from the USA

Photo: The Girl in Iceland at 3 am. Notice the well-lit outdoors. 

We’re back in Ireland after spending some weeks in my native Missouri. I have been truly blessed by the friends I have there, who have stayed with me for so many years, and missed them something fierce. I got to celebrate the 50th anniversary of my parents, who are also my heroes, and to catch up with brothers, aunts, uncles, and heaps of cousins. The Girl and I went to a Cardinals baseball game, she saw Independence Day fireworks for the first time, and I got to bask in the Missouri heat for a short time before returning home.

To any friends and family reading this: thank you for everything in my life. 


The Teenager and I also saw a bit of Iceland on the way home, and took photos at three in the morning – of course the sun doesn’t set this time of year. I didn’t find any phone books, as no one uses them much anymore; I had hoped to bring one home as a souvenir, as they were the only phone books in the world arranged by first name. Icelanders still use the old Viking system of surnames – your surname is whatever your father’s name was, plus “-son” if you’re male and “Dottir” if you’re female. The eccentric Icelandic singer Bjork’s full name is “Bjork Guthmundsdottir,” except with a special letter denoting the “th” sound.

I was also interested to see the political centre of Iceland, the world’s oldest functioning democracy, governed now as for the last thousand years by their parliament, the Althing – a rather literal cognate of “all thing,” the place where all things are debated. Honestly, though, I would never want to live there – I have enough trouble with the winter darkness here in Ireland, which is the same latitude as the southern tip of Alaska. In Iceland, you’d have an entire season of darkness; I suspect that this is why everything I’ve seen come out of Iceland – Lazy Town, the Sugarcubes – looks like it was made by people whose brains work a bit differently. 

Some of my American friends wanted to know what the USA looks like now that Mr. Trump is in power -- it's a big question, one that deserves a lot more space than I can devote here. I'll say a few paragraphs for now, then get off the soap box and get back to writing about sustainable living for a while. 

I told them that honestly, everything I saw looked much the same as the USA has for years -- the panic was on the news, not on the streets. That doesn't mean that many Americans aren’t suffering right now -- they are, even beyond the distress the news is causing them. In fact, large swaths of the USA are filled with once-prosperous communities that have become almost ghost towns, with all the downtown businesses boarded up. More and more people I know are working heroic hours at multiple jobs to get by, and making all kinds of creative arrangements to give their families a competent education or basic health care. My country has some serious problems, no doubt about it.

But here’s the thing: all those economic and social trends have been going on for decades, no matter which of the USA’s two parties were in power, no matter what man ran the Executive branch, and no matter what scandal the mainstream media were covering. In fact, the more I see people focus on the evening news, the more helpless they feel, and the less they actually do in their real lives.

In my case, home isn't just "America," it's where I grew up, near Ferguson, Missouri -- a place that was in the news a lot a few years ago. For a few weeks the global news was filled with images of angry rioters and angry police, of burning buildings and tear gas. Yet I was in contact with friends and family from around there, black and white, some of whom witnessed the protests -- and what they saw was less sensational and more hopeful than what they saw on the news. When I went back to visit myself, almost everything looked the same -- if not for a small stretch of one street, you'd never know anything had happened. 

I want to be clear about this: I'm not dismissing the injustice that was taking place in Ferguson or the concerns of protesters. In a democracy, when the government does something you believe to be wrong, protesting is part of your duty. I'm also aware that most of my friends and family were white, and that black residents live with things I don't. 

I am saying that the news coverage took complicated issues in the community that had been simmering for decades, with many sides and points of view, and squeezed all that down into a few shocking images from a few nights. They created a simple story of two sides, police and protesters, when 99.9 per cent of the population belonged to neither group. For most people, life went on -- they were part of the community's real story, but never become part of the viral-media story.

And then the protests ended and the reporters left, leaving the issues still there, property values dropping because of the negative press, and most people worse off than before. Across my country I've seen friends from the left and right, city and country, upper-class and lower-class, all engage in camera-grabbing behaviour, trade apocalyptic hyperbole and nurse fantasies of consequence-free violence, and I'm weary of it. Rather, I encourage people to start working on tangible problems on the ground -- this blackout, that tainted water supply, this storefront, that child. 

For me, the entire country has become Ferguson, with everyone focusing on the infuriating and scandalous, and ignoring the quiet heroism that's keeping the country going when no one's looking. Many people believe my country to be on the verge of collapse, but if it does so, it will be a self-fulfilling prophecy. As I said last month in my piece on science fiction, "the more people are convinced that we face a violent and despairing future, the more likely such a future becomes."

There’s a lot of infrastructure to be rebuilt or regrown -- not just physical infrastructure but moral, economic, social and cultural. I'd like to see people rebuild starting at the individual level and then working upwards, to the family, the neighbourhood, the community, the county, the region and the state. Many areas of life need to be reformed– where we get our food, how we travel around, what we do with our waste, how we teach our children, and how we look out for the interests of our cousins and neighbours.

But the problems aren't  all because of one man, in one office, at one level of government, in one area of life. As much as you can criticise the current president – and please, be my guest -- he didn’t do all this single-handedly, any more than the last president did, or the one before that. I understand that people are frustrated, but there’s a lot more happening than the latest sensational story, and a lot more at stake than your feelings. 

There’s a world out there that needs some fixing. Fix something in it. Don’t them distract you.  

Thursday, 21 June 2018

What science fiction ought to be

One simpler world: 2009's The Road, based on the Pulitzer-Prize-winning novel of the same name. 

Sorry for the light posting lately -- I'll be on holiday in the USA for the next two weeks. If any readers live in the St. Louis area and want to meet, e-mail me. 

Science fiction has become the dominant genre of the last four decades – the biggest film of the year has been sci-fi almost every year in my lifetime. Of those, some are simply swashbuckler fantasies set in space, like Star Wars, while others are the very entertaining superhero fantasies that have become as ubiquitous as Westerns or musicals once were. Each year, however, brings a new wave of dystopian post-apocalyptic films – in the last year we’ve had Blade Runner 2049, Ready Player One, War for the Planet of the Apes, Geostorm, and later this year we can expect Alita and Mortal Engines.

Another simpler world: All Creatures Great and Small
I say “dystopian,” because science fiction used to be creating utopian futures in which mankind had solved most of its problems – Star Trek being one of the only survivors of that age. In the time that science fiction has dominated our culture, though, it has been about something else: telling us how hopeless our future is, and how we’re all doomed.

They have a point; we have created a society that runs on coal and oil, which won’t last forever. Even the amount we’ve burned so far has changed the air so much that it is literally changing the weather around the world, creating more intense storms, harsher droughts, and greater extremes of heat and cold. Anyone who walks along the Irish shoreline can see the other main product of our civilisation, the plastic and other rubbish that now clutters the world’s seas, or piles up in landfills that have become the largest man-made structures on Earth.

Yet apocalyptic stories assume that our modern car-driving, computer-using culture will collapse overnight in some catastrophe, whether a robot Armageddon, climate disaster or Rapture – and the fact that we make entertainment about such horrors means that they are not really our fears, but our fantasies. And they offer the worst possible model for how to handle the realistic difficulties we might face in the future. Paranoid survivalists do not help build a delicate web of trust among neighbours, and millenarians will not help build lasting infrastructure for the next stage of history. The more people are convinced that we face a violent and despairing future, the more likely such a future becomes.

In the decades to come, as we have to cope with more difficult economic times, energy crunches and unexpected weather, more of us will have to grow more food ourselves, learn to use less energy from different sources, and buy more products made to be fixed and re-used rather than thrown away. It might be a reduction of our energy wealth by 10 percent, or 50 percent, or 90 percent – depending on your time and place -- but it’s literally not the end of the world, and we shouldn’t confuse the two.
And it will require more of us to form carpools, shopping co-ops, allotment clubs, medical co-ops, home-schooling networks and other such ad hoc organisations, and to cheerfully work with our neighbours to create new relationships – something people can and often do in a crisis, and exactly the opposite of what most science fiction depicts. 

Movies and television programmes could easily help people imagine a more realistic future, and there are many models they could use. 1950s America, Irish village life, post-war Britain, modern-day Mexico or India – since people in every time and place used and wasted less than we do today, almost any such model would probably look more like our future than the latest Zombie Apocalypse movie.

For example, picture a gentle television comedy series set in a modern suburban housing estate, but with the lawns turned into gardens, and bean vines crawling up the sides of every house. Most homes hold extended families of mothers, grandparents and children, some of whom had to move in with cousins and in-laws from what used to be the coast. Picture each home having masonry stoves for the cold and Arab ventilation shafts for the heat, coops and hutches outside for animals, and neighbours pooling their money to help each other out.    

I can picture storylines involving elderly people, who grew up during the boom years, having arguments with their more practical children and grandchildren, or feuding with other elders over culture-war issues that have long been rendered moot. Other storylines might involve the young men of the community taking turns patrolling the homes against local gangs, making life difficult for secret cigarette addicts and covert teenage lovers and leading to all manner of comic misunderstandings and hijinks.

Some episodes might involve the same sort of bucolic charm one might find in All Creatures Great and Small, Last of the Sumer Wine or other British series, or in Irish films like War of the Buttons. Perhaps residents gear up for the annual vegetable awards, and get a little carried away with the competition, spying on each other with binoculars and sending children to spy on their neighbours for pocket change.

Perhaps other stories involve the neighbours learning old-fashioned ways – when the water turns out to have heavy metals, they learn how to create a slow sand filter and charcoal filter. Or the creek is flooding the neighbourhood, and everyone has to pitch in to dig a channel or an overflow field full of willow trees. I could see it being like one of my favourite films, 1934’s Our Daily Bread, in which a group of down-and-out people during the Depression have to learn to run a farm together.

Other storylines might be more dramatic; perhaps one of the residents gets an eviction notice, and the neighbourhood bands together to stand against the police. The matter is resolved without violence when the police fall in love with Granny Madison’s blueberry pies, and agree not to evict in exchange for a pie once a week.

I could see a story involving an elderly resident keeps to himself, and is the subject of much gossip among the neighbourhood children, who peek in his windows and frighten each other with stories about him. When one boy sneaks into the house on a dare, however, he finds the old man has a fascinating history, and the two become friends. The episode ends with the boy leading the old man out to meet his neighbours for the first time.

Another episode, perhaps, could revolve around a group of unemployed men struggling with family stress and poverty, who decide to pool their money and skills and build a small wind farm together out of boards and car alternators. They hope to generate enough electricity to get the Internet coming to their homes again, enabling them to keep in touch look for jobs, download self-sufficiency courses and – closest to their hearts – play video games with old buddies on the other side of the world.

Make up your own examples of what your neighbourhood or family might look like if weather and the economy became more difficult, and yet life went on. Write a short story, a comic book, or a
fairy tale for your children. The point is that few people read scientific papers or specialist web sites, but we all watch or read stories. If you think there is hope for a decent future -- and I do -- then make that future come alive for your family and friends. I ask only two things: it show a realistic future, and that it be fun.

Friday, 8 June 2018

The Future of Pavement

Originally published in 2011. 

One of Ireland’s most iconic images, seen in many postcards and calendar panoramas, is the mosaic of green fields divided by stone walls. Those walls, so common in the west of our island, look even more interesting up close, for the stones are loose, irregular and often lain without mortar. They look as unstable as a card pyramid, yet many have lasted centuries. They demonstrate how insoluble problems can be combined into simple solutions, as farmers here turned an obstacle – the stones that broke their ploughs – into a barrier that would protect their livestock.

Such bucolic scenes seem a world away from, say, suburban USA, where rivers of asphalt and concrete flow through landscapes of strip-malls and housing estates. But there people actually have a similar problem as those farmers, and might learn from their solutions.

For hundreds if not thousands of years, most farmers had some knowledge of how to make walls out of the soil’s round stones, but I’m told specialists went from farm to farm to help with repairs. To build such walls you must select stones of the right size and shapes to fill the spaces formed by the ones around it, like a three-dimensional jigsaw puzzle. When laid properly, the gravity of the stones keep each other in place, like the segments of an archway.

Crafters made their walls in straight lines by hammering posts into the ground some metres apart along the path the wall was to follow, and stretching a rope tautly between them. They did not need to transport materials, as the stones were pulled from the fields around the wall itself – and stones have always been Ireland’s biggest crop.

The resulting walls seemed to grow organically out of the land, and with their crevices could be scaled by humans but made an effective barrier for livestock. Their crevices, meanwhile, provide a home for many forms of smaller wildlife we need for the larger ones to stay alive – the base of the food pyramid, as it were. Seeds eventually make their way to the crevices and sprout, and plants wind their roots and woody stems through the interstices until they become part of the structure, and the wall can barely be seen under the greenery. Eventually some of them become, effectively, hedgerows, and in some hedgerows you can still see their rocky foundation.

Smooth stones fill the earth here because a slow flood of ice scoured this land only ten millennia ago, ripping rock from mountain ranges and suspending it, up to a kilometre above the ground, for perhaps tens of thousands of years. When the ice melted, all the rubble suspended for a kilometre above any patch of land would have slowly tumbled to earth, some of it smoothed by millennia in an icy rock tumbler. Each new ice age would have added a new layer of till, until the soil was thick with it.

One other, more tragic factor might have accelerated the spread of stone walls, especially in the west where they take over from the hedgerows you see in our area. Humans began felling trees as soon as they reached this cold rainforest, but Ireland still had vast forested areas when it was conquered. Then the remaining trees fell to become much of Britain’s navy, until the land was the most deforested in Europe, as Ugo Bardi notes in his 2008 essay “A Distant Mirror.” 

Trees hold soil in place; without them it washes away quickly, especially in a rainy country. Bardi notes that erosion seems to have been most severe in the west, and that the thinning soil exposed stones that were brought to the surface; even today, the further west you go, the more barren the land appears, and the more stone walls replace the hedgerows of our region. The diminishing soil, single-crop agriculture, high population and political oppression created an extremely unstable situation, which came, of course, in the form of the potato blight. Over the next few decades, the resulting Famine cut the population in half. 

I study old crafts and traditions here to understand how people could live, and sometimes live well, in a truly durable way – and where they did not, to avoid their mistakes. In the modern West – and especially in my native USA – we have thousands of times the wealth that the Irish of 150 years ago, as well as devices they would consider miraculous. Our countries, however, face some of the same problems they did. Many of the forests have been felled, especially around populated areas. We rely heavily on single crops – much of the American diet now consists of corn, in the form of starch, sweetener and meat. More and more people are feeling an economic pinch, and while they have nowhere near the poverty of Ireland 150 or even 50 years ago, neither do they have any experience with the basic self-reliant skills that allowed many people then to survive.

Most of all, Americans specifically and Westerners in general have a problem very like that of the early Irish farmers – their topsoil is blocked by rock. Much of our land been locked away under cement and asphalt, and the more people live in an area, the more of their land is paved. Nor is the problem exclusively urban; suburban and rural Americans, for example, must live with mega-mall moonscapes of concrete and asphalt lining hundreds of thousands of miles of highway.

Such materials require a massive infusion of cheap energy to function, and as energy prices rose in the last decade, the cost of road surfaces soared. Such materials only last a couple of decades, and many roads are reaching the end of their lives. Rural governments in my native USA struggle to cover even rudimentary costs, and several localities are tearing up their roads for more cost-effective gravel. As other areas follow suit, they might find it advantageous to tear down berms, bridges, sidewalks, parking lots and strip malls. That would, however, leave those communities with thousands of tonnes of rubble.

Even residents who have scraps of land they could use for crops – say, suburban homeowners – often dig through their lawn and find thin, depleted soil filled with the debris from the original construction of the neighbourhood. One way or another, they will have to find some use for irregular chunks of concrete and asphalt.

At the same time, many American homes and businesses have chain-link fences for boundaries, which were only invented in the last century and whose cost will increase in the years ahead. How, then, do you discourage intruders or enclose livestock?

In an earlier article I mentioned hedgerows, which provide a thick barrier, a home for wildlife and a seasonal resource of shoots and berries. Many people with sufficient soil, a temperate climate and a bit of space could grow a hedgerow to surround and eventually supplant their existing fences. Hedgerows, however, have a few limitations. For one thing, they take time; even in a moist climate a row of willow saplings would take a few years to become a proper hedge. For another, they must have enough soil to put down roots – a problem for people with concrete or thin soil.

For many people, then, the best solution might be the same ones the Irish farmers used, to let these two problems solve each other. Chunks of rubble can be stacked into walls, and more easily than glacial till, as former pieces of road or parking lot are likely to have at least one flat side. They can keep livestock enclosed, perhaps in a single suburban block whose residents decided to tear down their chain-link fences and keep pigs together. They can break up the wind, shade lambs and piglets from strong sun, provide a home for the miniature wildlife that larger animals eat, and for the flowers that often grow in crevices.

If you think chunks of concrete and asphalt would look ugly, you could try finely chopping moss and mixing it with yogurt and beer, and painting the resulting smoothie on your rocks – I haven’t tried it myself, but I’m told it rapidly creates a moss covering. Alternately, you could plant ivy-leaved toadflax or some other flowers in the crevices, providing food for bees.

Given enough time, plants might wind their roots or stems through the gaps and you might get a proper hedgerow growing out of your wall, their fallen leaves and the animals’ waste slowly building back the soil.

Given enough time, that moonscape of parking lots could look like that green mosaic of our postcards.