Sunday, 2 December 2018


Thanks to everyone for continuing to check in, and sorry for the reruns; I'm taking night classes and am studying for exams. This was originally published August 2010. 

Across my native USA, I whenever neighbours or townspeople lobby for more bus and rail services, pundits and politicians usually sputter something like this:

Trains and buses are a waste of taxpayers’ money. There’s no reason for them to exist. Look at the ones we have now – they’re mostly empty.

Anyone who’s ridden a bus or train recently knows that’s not even remotely true. Buses and trains are often filled to capacity, here and in America – I’m writing this from a tight squeeze in a packed double-decker. Even if those critics were right, however, they never apply that same logic to cars, for they never say:

Asphalt is a waste of taxpayers’ money, and so are highway overpasses, parking garages, car parks, traffic signals, streetlights, traffic cops and auto company bailouts. Look at the cars we have now – they’re mostly empty. 

Passengers might be the most under-appreciated factor in how much fuel and money you waste. As I write this, for example, a business headline boasts of Toyota’s multi-million-dollar plan to boost fuel efficiency by 25 percent, with the usual discussion of what this will mean for the economy and the climate. Any of us, however, can boost the efficiency of our cars by several hundred percent instantly, with no additional expense or technology, simply by getting more people in the car.

This fact is also forgotten when we judge car owners by the wastefulness of their vehicles. An SUV is a spectacularly inefficient machine compared to a Prius, for example, but pack that Dodge Durango full of people and suddenly it is greener than the electric hybrid driven alone.

To use another example, your bus could be less efficient than an SUV in kilometers-per-litre, yet all of you bus passengers are making one of the greenest transportation choices around, thanks to the fact that so many seats are filled.

One of the easiest ways of cutting your expenses, fuel and carbon footprint, then, is simply to share rides with other people. Since most of us travel similar routes from clusters of houses to clusters of offices, there is no reason why carpooling should not work for most of us.

According to the website, the average car in Ireland, driven 10,000 kilometers a year, will cost 1,750 euros in petrol. Divide that by four people, however, and you each save 1,300 a year. Carpooling could even pay for itself, if you propose to friends and co-workers that they pay you slightly more than the cost of fuel, as compensation for driving a little out of your way.

Some people might think they want to listen to music or a podcast on the way rather than talk to other people, and there’s no reason you can’t do even if the car is crowded. Most people, however, could do with more company. A June 2006 study in the American Sociological Review found that the number of close friends people say they have fell by a third in the previous 20 years.

Most people don’t go to poker nights or Kiwanis meetings anymore, and the number of people who know their neighbours has also fallen, but the number of hours spent commuting has more than doubled in the last few decades. Most studies show us lonelier and more stressed than people of previous generations, probably because we spend less and less of our lives being the social animals we evolved to be, and more and more staring at glowing rectangles.

Perhaps this paranoia about human company is one reason so few of us have taken up carpooling, no matter how much money they would save. A brief internet search shows that while more web sites encourage people to carpool, many people seem fearful of meeting strangers. “How could I possibly trust that the people … I’d travel with are honest guys and not awful criminals?” asked one blogger – sentiments typical of many comments on the subject, even though criminals are unlikely to use a morning carpooling route as their cover for a nefarious plan.

Contrast this with the 1930s or 40s, when regular people carpooled, hitchhiked and picked up hitchhikers, and movies and other media showed this as normal. In wartime USA and Britain carpooling, like many other self-sufficient activities, was declared a patriotic duty – propaganda posters warned against people who selfishly took up a whole car to themselves, or who let the troops down by wasting energy. Hollywood movies showed stars carpooling, Dr. Seuss drew cartoons about how many people you could pack in a car, scoutmasters gave speeches about saving fuel and money.

Nor did the posters approach carpooling as a nice way to enjoy the morning or as a hip new part of eco-fashion; rather, they could be stern in a way that few advertisements are today. “Hitler rides in the empty seat,” said one typical poster. People need this. We are counting on you. 

Today many people, in many countries, are struggling again. It’s not exactly war, and not like any previous Depression. It does have a home front, though, and could benefit from some of the same solutions that were understood to be so sensible, for so long. 

Saturday, 17 November 2018

The uses of basketry

My daughter in the middle of helping me with a basket.

Hey everyone - sorry for not posting much lately. As I've mentioned, I'm working the day job, going to night classes, and only occasionally getting a few hours here and there to get my honey from the hive, visit friends or do other chores. This will be temporary, but in the meantime keep checking in. This piece originally appeared in Low-Tech Magazine several years ago. 

We tend to think of technology as rock and metal – from the Stone Age to the Iron Age, from pyramids and statues to Viking swords and pirate cannons. We think of the things that survive to be placed in museums, in other words, and tend to neglect the early and important inventions that ordinary people used every day but whose materials did not survive centuries of exposure. 

Baskets, for example, have been replaced by plastic and other kinds of factory-made containers in almost every area of life, appearing today mainly as twee Easter decorations. Making them has become synonymous with wasting time – “basket-weaving” in the USA is slang for an easy lesson for slow students. The craft of basketry, however, might be one of our species’ most important and diverse technologies, creating homes, boats, animal traps, armour, tools, cages, hats, chariots, weirs, beehives, chicken coops and furniture, as well as all manner of containers. 

Virtually all human cultures have made baskets, and have apparently done so since we co-existed with ground sloths and sabre-toothed cats; for tens of thousands of years humans may have slept in basket-frame huts, kept predators out with basket fences, and caught fish in basket traps gathered while paddling along a river in a basket-frame boat. They might have carried their babies in basket papooses and gone to their graves in basket coffins. 

The earliest piece of ancient basketry we have comes from 13,000 years ago, but impressions on ceramics from Central Europe indicate woven fibres -- textiles or baskets – up to 29,000 years ago. (1) We have clues that the technology might be far older than that; in theory, Neanderthals or some early hominid could have woven baskets.    

 “The technology of basketry was central to daily living in every aboriginal society,” wrote ecologist Neil Sugihara, and baskets “were the single most essential possession in every family.” (2) Early humans must have regularly cropped basketry plants as they would edible plants, and burned woodlands to encourage their growth, according to anthropologist M. K. Anderson. Anderson even proposes that some of the first agriculture might have been to grow basketry crops, not food crops. (3)

Eel trap, courtesy of Wikicommons

Baskets come in several main types. Coiled baskets appeared early, created by winding flexible plant fibres from a centre outward in a spiral and then sewing the structure together. Their spiral nature, however, limits them to circular objects like bowls or hats. Beehive containers, called skeps, were built this way for hundreds of years, and straw hats still are today. 

The earliest American baskets were twined; fibre was wound around a row of rigid elements like sticks – wrapped around a stick, twisted, wrapped around the next one and twisted again. The sticks would seem to limit this approach to flat surfaces like mats, but bending and shaping the sticks allows twining to create a variety of containers and shapes. 

Still others were plaited, with flexible materials criss-crossed like threads through cloth. The Irish flattened and plaited bulrushes for hundreds of years into mats and curtains. Here too, the approach would seem to limit plaiting to flat surfaces, but as the rushes must be woven while green and flexible and harden as they dry, they can be plaited around a mould to create boxes, bags or many other shapes.  

Wicker, however, probably remains the most versatile technique, weaving flexible but sturdy material like tree shoots around upright sticks that provide support. Wicker is the form used for fences, walls, furniture, animal traps and many other advanced shapes, and when you picture a basket, you’re probably picturing wicker too. (4) 


Once early humans mastered the technique of fashioning wicker, they began using it for a variety of purposes beyond carrying and preparing food, and shelter probably came next. Wattle fences were made with a row of upright poles with flexible wood cuttings woven between them, a basket wall. Unusually, they 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 uprights, sometimes called zales or sails in Britain, were typically rounded at the end and placed in 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. (5)

The same technique could form the walls of a house, 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 resulting structure could last for centuries, and even now restoring or demolishing old buildings sometimes reveals wattle inside the walls.

Similar techniques were used by cultures around the world, from Vikings to Chinese to Mayans. While their cheap and easily available materials made them an obviously popular and practical building method, not all builders loved it as a building material. The Roman architect Vetruvius, in the first century AD, moaned about the hazards of such cheap material in his Ten Books on Architecture:

“As for ‘wattle and daub’ I could wish that it had never been invented,” Veruvius wrote. “The more it saves in time and gains in space, the greater and the more general is the disaster that it may cause; for it is made to catch fire, like torches. It seems better, therefore, to spend on walls of burnt brick, and be at expense, than to save with ‘wattle and daub,’ and be in danger. And, in the stucco covering, too, it makes cracks from the inside by the arrangement of its studs and girts. For these swell with moisture as they are daubed, and then contract as they dry, and, by their shrinking, cause the solid stucco to split.
 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.” (6)

Coracles in Wales, courtesy of Wikicommons. 
Improbable as it sounds, basketry has long been used to make boats. How long we don’t know, but humans appeared in Australia 40,000 years ago, even though it was separated from Asia even in the Ice Age. They might have built wicker boats covered in animal skins, but even if they merely tied logs together into rafts, they must have had the related technology of making fibre and tying it into knots.

The Irish used woven boats, or coracles, for hundreds – and probably thousands -- of years; they are mentioned in medieval Irish literature and are still made by aficionados today. All were woven from willow or hazel and covered with a hide – usually cow hide, but horse-hide and sealskin were also used – and supposedly waterproofed with butter. All of them were alarmingly tiny crafts in which a person sat cross-legged and sat carefully upright to avoid tipping over, like a bowl-shaped kayak. The coracle’s small size and lightweight construction ensured that, after the occupant had paddled across rivers, lakes or marshes, he could pick up his boat and walk across country with ease.

To take to the sea, the Irish wove curraghs -- larger and oval-shaped to navigate across choppy waters, but still no larger than a rowboat. Documentary footage from 1937 showed men constructing a Boyne curragh; first planting hazel rods in the ground in the desired shape, and weaving a tight frame between them along the ground – what would become the gunwale, or rim, when the frame was flipped over. Then the hazel rods were twisted together to make a wicker dome, and the frame was uprooted and turned upright and a hide placed around the frame and oiled. (7)

One common use of such craft was to set and gather fish and eel traps from rivers and lobster pots from the sea – also made, of course, from wicker. Such foods were an important source of protein, especially in Catholic countries where meat was sometimes forbidden. The traps operated on a simple principle; a bit of bait could lure an animal into the trap but, if it were shaped properly, they would be unable to escape.


Baskets can be woven with any one of hundreds of plant species, depending on whatever was available. In more tropical climates people used cane or raffia, while other peoples used straw or some other grass or reed. In temperate areas like Europe a wide variety of branches and plants were available: dogwood, privet, larch, blackthorn and chestnut branches; broom, jasmine and periwinkle twigs; elm, and linden shoots; ivy, clematis, honeysuckle and rose vines; rushes and other reeds, and straw.

Perhaps the most popular, however, was willow -- sallies or silver-sticks here in Ireland, osiers in Britain, vikker in Old Norse, the last of which became our word “wicker.” highly pliable when young or wet, lightweight and tough when dried, and growing so quickly that a new crop of branches up to two to three metres long can be harvested each year. 

They are one of the earliest trees to grow back appear after an old tree falls and leaves a gap of sunlight in the forest, or after a forest fire razes an area, they are perhaps the tree closest to a weed in behaviour. Their roots spread rapidly under the surface of the soil, making them an ideal crop to halt erosion. Their fast growth makes an excellent windbreak, the basis of most hedgerows, and makes them particularly useful in our era for sequestering carbon and combating climate change. The bark of the white willow (Salix alba) can be boiled to form acetecylic acid, or aspirin. 

In addition, the common variety 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. (8) (9) (10)

Many hardwood trees can be coppiced, cut through at the base, or pollarded, cut at head-height , and regrow shoots on a five-to-twenty-year time scale. Willows, however, do not need to grow to maturity, and continue to thicken at the base and grow a fresh crop of shoots each year. Basket-weavers here harvested willow as a winter ritual – ten tonnes to the acre – from fields of large century-old stumps that had never been mature trees. (11)

Once the willow is cut it could be dried with the bark on, or the bark could be stripped off. Stripping was a tedious task but it made the willow easier to quickly prepare and use, reduced the risk of decay, and it gave the willow a valued white colour. To strip the bark a large willow branch was cut partway down its length, with metal strips attached to the inside of the cut; the weaver could hold the branch between their legs and use it as we would use a wire-stripping tool to remove insulation. When cuttings were too thick to manipulate, a special tool called a cleve was used to cut them three ways down their length.

Withies were typically dried for several months and kept indefinitely before soaking again for use. Willow can be woven straight from the tree, but as it dries it loosens and the weave shifts and rattles, which is seldom desirable. To a novice, preparing the materials presents as much of a challenge as the actual weaving, as the willow must be dried but re-soaked, kept wet without rotting, and used before becoming dry and brittle again.

Today a small but growing movement of people around the world tries to rediscover and re-cultivate traditional crafts and technologies. Many such techniques deserve to be revived; but some require substantial experimentation, skill, training, infrastructure or community participation. Not all low-tech solutions can be adopted casually by modern urbanites taking their first steps toward a more traditional life.

Basket-weaving, however, requires no money other than that needed for training and possibly materials. It uses materials easily found in almost every biome on Earth, requires few if any tools. Highly skilled weavers can create works of art, but simple and practical weaves can be done by almost anyone. Out of hundreds of traditional crafts, none has so many everyday applications.

(1)    Archeologick√© rozhledy, 2007, Baskets in Western America 8600 BP: American Antiquity 60(2), 1995, pp. 309-318.
(2)    Fire in California's ecosystems, By Neil G. Sugihara, p. 421
(3)    Anderson, M.K. – The fire, pruning and coppice management of temperate ecosystems for basketry material by Californian Indian tribes. Human Ecology 27(I) 79-113. 1999.
(4)    The Complete Book of Basketry Techniques, Sue Gabriel and Sally Goyner, David and Charles 1999.
(5)    Lost Crafts, Una McGovern, Chambers 2009
(6)    Ten Books on Architecture, Vetruvius, Chapter 8, Section 20. Circa 20 BCE
(7)    Hands, RTE documentary by Sally Shaw Smith, episode 29, “Curraghs.”
(8)    Phytoremediation. By McCutcheon & Schnoor. 2003, New Jersey, John Wiley & Sons, page 19.
(10) The potential for phytoremediation of iron cyanide complex by Willows. By X.Z. Yu, P.H. Zhou and Y.M. Yang. In Ecotoxicology 2006.
(11) Bulletin of the Bussey Institution, Vol. II, Part VIII. p. 430. Published 1899.
C. D. Mell’s 1908 book Basket Willow Culture urged farmers to grow willows as a cash crop to feed the continual demand of weaving material, maintaining that “the demand for basket willow rods is very great and every year many thousands of bundles of rods … are imported from France, Germany and Holland.” Incredibly, it seemed that as highly valued as baskets were in the USA, the then-sparsely-inhabited country was still importing willow from comparatively small and crowded Old World countries.  (12)
Basket Willow Culture, C. D. Mell, Report Publishing Company 1908

Friday, 2 November 2018

Listening to the land

Spider-webs along my neighbour's hedge

On these last brilliant autumn days, the hedgerows are giving up the last of their fruits to the birds and local foragers. Red haws cluster so thickly on the branches now that that they droop over the fields, on branches so thin that they wobble even when tiny birds like hawfinches and thrushes land to fatten up for winter.

When they pick one, other more overripe haws dropped from the branches to the grass below, which rustled in response – mice or voles, I supposed, waiting for treats like dogs under the table.

Sloes still cling tightly to their thorny branches, and the final rose-hips dot the vines that wind their way up the trunks. Ours are tiny, wild rose-hips, evolved to suit birds and not human foragers, but on my way to work I pass a community garden with rose-hips the size of figs. I’d love to find out what variety it is and plant some around us for making jam next autumn – roses are pretty and all, but my tastes run to the practical.

I wondered why a garden in the grimy brewery district of Dublin was doing so well, and then I realised – it’s around the corner from where rows of horse-drawn carriages line up to take tourists around Dublin. Some afternoons I see locals eagerly scooping up the manure and bringing it back to their plot, sometimes in two giant bags hanging from their bicycle handles.

Recently I visited my neighbour down the road, an old man who has lived in the area all his life, and who shows me the local castles and graveyards here and talks about the history of all the local families. On the day of our first frost, I knocked on his door to return a book, and I asked him what kind of winter he expected.

“A harsh one, I think,” he said. “We’ve had a hot summer, and we often get a harsh winter after that – as we did last year, with a metre of snow. You can’t really say anymore these days,” he added, noting that the weather was less predictable than it used to be.  

We talked a bit about the hedgerows, and I noted how many Americans didn’t have them – we all divided our properties with chain-link fences that rusted, didn’t cut the wind, and didn’t offer privacy or food.

“People are tearing them down here too,” my neighbour said. “It’s a shame – when we plant fields, we need the border to make the field work.” He explained how their fruit brings birds that fertilise the fields, they keep soil from escaping the field after a rain, and their hardy trees and wild plants soak up whatever farmers spray on the crops.

Hedges along the hills in summer
That’s interesting, I said – that the wild borders were necessary for the field to thrive. The Old Testament repeats over and over that people are not to cut the edges of their land, and were always to leave some of the crops left over – in Leviticus 19:9, for example. It was supposed to be for gleaners and people who were poor, but I wonder if part of the reason, consciously or unconsciously, was to also give some of it back to Nature. How do most farmers here feel about these things?

“It depends on the farmer,” he said. “I was talking to a neighbour here who decided to go organic. He had spread pesticides over the fields every year, but he would come out and see it covered in dead worms afterwards. He decided it wasn’t worth it anymore.”

I’ll be interested to hear how he gets on, I said. Although pesticides aren’t exactly new here -- are the dead worms a new phenomenon? I wonder if his pesticide changed. I had read a study last year that found that tillage agriculture was harming worm populations, but I’m not sure if changing to organic would help that.  

I also find it interesting that no birds had snapped up the dead worms – I was hearing someone the other day say that they remember as a child seeing flocks of birds follow their tractor around after ploughing, but now they don’t.

“That’s interesting,” he said. “I’ve noticed that birds used to follow the cows around less than they used to.”

All this is anecdotal evidence, I said, but I’d like to see some real data on this. I know that the number of insects around Europe has plummeted, but no one’s sure why -- and they’re close to the base of the food chain.

“What everyone used to do whenever they could was to let ground rest for a while after growing things on it, or let cows graze on it,” he told me. “That did the same thing the hedgerows do. The local landowner here, around a hundred years ago, used to grow the best potatoes of anyone, as he would grow them only on land that had been fallow the previous year. Of course, that was because he had the extra land to do that.”

I often see that today, I said – upper-class people will do well, and think it was all their own hard work. They might indeed have worked hard, but people don’t see their own advantages.

Our hedge in winter
It made sense to me that that letting land “rest” would help rejuvenate it; in the wild, a plot of barren land will quickly be covered by a profusion of different species, which cover the ground, protect it from erosion by rain, bloom with many different flowers, bring many different pollinators, which feed different birds. They each bear different fruit or seeds, and many bring in their own fungus or bacteria colonies with their roots. As the plants and small critters spread across the surface of the soil, much more is growing under it – from mushroom colonies to worms to tens of thousands of species of tiny beasts, from miniature to microscopic – and once living things have done their job, they turn them into soil again. In other words, the living system takes the depleted funds of the soil and rebuilds a rich credit account of nutrients, before we make a withdrawal and turn it into another round of crops for ourselves.

I suppose most people just had a small plot, and only grew potatoes? I asked.

“They had to,” he said. “Each person had so little land for themselves, and nothing else would feed them all the time but potatoes. But it meant you had to grow the same crops on the same land, over and over, and never gave the land a rest. Nothing but the same plants tires out the land, taking the same minerals from it year after year, and tires ground makes the plants sickly. I know the blight was the main reason for the Famine, but I can’t help but think that tiring out the land didn’t help.”

Tree along the canal near our house
That’s an interesting point, I said. I told him about the essay by Ugo Bardi some years ago, determining that soil erosion made the Famine worse: After Britain conquered Ireland, its trees went to make up London’s buildings and Britain’s fleet, and soil erosion took its toll on the deforested land. I also told him that in America, there are vast areas where people only grow corn, or wheat, year after year.

“I think we had the Famine because we pushed our land to its limit,” my neighbour said. “And I think we’re doing it again.”

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.