Sunday, 25 February 2018

Walks in the woods

My apologies for the lack of posting -- I've had computer problems. 

My four-year-old bounded joyfully down the path, her dress flapping behind her, into the deep forests of the Wicklow Mountains of Ireland. She stopped between the giant trees, put her arms out and twirled around, spinning through shafts of green sunlight from the canopy above. She ran her fingers through the shaggy moss, lifted pieces of wood from the ground and inspected the tiny nightmares underneath, and peeked in the crevices as eagerly as if they were Christmas stockings.

Almost every weekend I brought her to one of these old woods, remnants of the cold rainforest that once covered this island. Here we found mushrooms big as saucers to bring home and cook with dinner from our garden. Here we sat on giant roots that extend like jetties over the river, and watched the fish and tadpoles gather under our toes. Here we fed the greedy mobs of ducks, sparing bits for the shy coots and moorhens hiding in the reeds, and silently watched kingfishers flash like jewels in the trees or grey herons lurk like gargoyles over the water.

In a hollow of these mountains, fifteen centuries ago, Christian monks escaped the collapsing Roman Empire and the savagery of pagan barbarians, and built self-reliant communities of believers that outlasted wave after wave of warlords and empires. In this redoubt generations of unsung heroes copied book after book by hand, saving Western Civilisation -- history, science, law, philosophy, theatre, mathematics, architecture, democracy and the Gospel.

In later days, when foreign soldiers invaded this island, felled its forests and tortured or starved its people, rebels gathered in these mountains to organise a resistance. Most were hunted down and killed, but farmers across the country sang their stories in secret -- until a new generation took up the cause, and another, and another. Each rebellion built on the memory of the ones before, until the final one saw a nation of dirt-poor farmers defeat the world’s greatest empire.    

As my daughter plays at being a pirate or Viking, I wonder if any real pirates or Vikings, not to mention monks and Druids, walked these same paths before us, sat with legs dangling over the water, and watched the ancestors of these herons. In every civilized age we humans left the pressures of civilization for time alone in nature, and “whenever it is a damp, drizzly November in my soul,” as Ishmael says in Moby Dick, we return to nature to restore us – even in this already damp and drizzly country.  

Such places have always made men feel closer to God; no wonder Jesus and John wandered in the wilderness, and the monks sought these valleys to build their refuge. Even now a local priest occasionally says a special Mass under these trees, the congregants gathering in this first and greatest of cathedrals.

In the woods around us our neighbours keep alive other very old rituals. Once a year, the day after Christmas, local men dress up in woodland gear and gather around a statue of a wren, the little songbird that is so frequently heard here and so rarely seen. Then other local men covered in straw costumes --- “straw boys” -- sneak up and steal the wren, running away as all the local children scream in frightened delight. The children chase the straw-boys through the woods, parents trudging up behind them until the wren is retrieved.

It’s a tradition much older than Santa Claus, dating back thousands of years in one form or another to Druid times and rich with ancient symbolism. Ireland has become a modern country now, with televisions replacing sing-a-longs in most pubs and the younger generations learning more from their smart phones than from their elders’ lore -- but a few fragments of its ancient culture survive, like the woodlands themselves. 

For a child these woodland paths are also treacherous, and not just from straw-boys. Stinging nettles line the sides of every Irish path, waving their stalks at passers-by. Their touch leaves a painful welt on the skin, and modern suburbanites now spray poisons to suppress them. The old country men and women around here, though, explained that a bit of dock-leaf cures the sting, and from the time my child was a toddler she knew how to treat a nettle encounter. 

My old neighbours also explained that cooked nettles have no sting, and are both healthy and delicious. A bit of research, online and in the kitchen, proved them right, and soon my daughter and I were making them into soup, tea and wine, and I tried pickling them, adding them to beer, and using their compost in the garden. Instead of trying to spray them with poison, we began to look forward to harvesting them every spring – wearing gloves, of course – and kept secret our favourite nettle patches.

My girl stopped to smell and pet every flower along the path -- oxlips and primroses, meadowsweet and clover. At first I ignored them, but here too my elderly neighbours opened my eyes and showed me I was looking at a salad bar, an herbal tea shop, an emergency medicine chest and the makings of a wine collection. Again I confirmed their folk wisdom with research and personal testing, and soon I was planting some of the same weeds I had once uprooted, making them into tea, dinner and drinks. 

Once everyone here grew up with such knowledge, as did every Druid and caveman before them, going back as long as there have been humans. Only in recent generations, when most humans have lived in cities far from the natural world, has the thread been broken, leaving hungry people surrounded by food.

In these woods my daughter learns that everything has value in its proper place; even as she cringes from spiders, she knows they eat flying insects that pester us. If we didn’t have the spiders, we would be tormented by clouds of pests, so we can thank them for their service. We decided we would name the spiders; this one became Harvey, this one Floyd, and then they weren’t as scary anymore.

We also see that death is not the end, even in this world; a fallen tree feeds a billion creeping things, which feed birds and hedgehogs. Next time we pass here the tree has erupted with mushrooms, and eventually we learned to recognise which ones were edible and poisonous. The fallen tree leaves a gap in the forest, a flood of daylight reaching the forest floor, activating the seeds of thousands of flowers, so a death in the forest brings an explosion of colour.

In a few years a sapling will fill the space, its young leaves sheltered from the winds by its aunts and uncles until it comes of age. On autumn evenings its turning leaves will bathe the woods in an orange light, like a candle against the darkness.  

We see the same pattern with people; here in a small community a death leaves a vacancy in the church pews, an empty stool in the pub, and a tender place in the minds of friends and family. In a community, though, no one dies unremembered. Here funerals are preceded by a wake, a party for the deceased, where all the friends and family drink, tell stories, and share tears of laughter and mourning. The family and friends then carry the coffin to church for the funeral -- sometimes for miles down dark country roads, with the people in front lighting the way. It’s a proper way to go, making your death a celebration of your life.

“Papa, what does it feel like to die?” she asked me once.

I don’t know first-hand, honey, I told her -- I’ve never died.

“Why do we have to die?”

If we didn’t, I said, no new babies could be born.

“I wish it didn’t have to end, though.”

I know. But that’s what gives it value.

Each moment with my daughter flickers by like cars on the road, too swift to observe closely. I want to halt these days -- the walks in the woods and over mountains, the sing-a-longs and adventures, the moments of her sleeping in my lap at the end of a long day-- to trap them as golden moments in amber, a Still Life with Four-year-old. I want to throw a hook into the blur and reel in the moments, pore over them, plead with each of them to stay a little longer: please don’t go. Linger with me. 

But they won’t. I started writing this ten years ago, and my daughter has since become six, and ten, and thirteen, each age with its own heartaches and its own moments of comfort and joy. I was lucky to be able to raise her in this countryside, but the challenges of raising a child are the same anywhere these days -- to help them grow straight in a bent and twisted world. Each year, as she becomes more her own creation and less mine, I can only light the path and hope she takes it, even as the world grows darker around us.

In exchange for my service, she has given me far more than I imagined I could have. I cannot extend my life’s length in this world, but my time with her extends its depth.

Saturday, 10 February 2018

A man who knows his business

The road to our house runs along a 300-year-old canal, originally dug to transport turf -- dried peat moss, our main fuel here -- on horse-drawn barges to the damp and chilly homes of Dublin. The road is only a single lane wide, so even a short trip to the village and back involves a lot of pulling into driveways and letting other cars go past. 

On the other hand, it makes a lovely path to jog back and forth on weekend mornings, past rusted boat-hulls on the shore and neighbours with their dogs and children. It harbours many distractions for the aspiring jogger, like hedgerows filled with fruits and berries in season, the sweeping grandeur of our local herons in flight, or the darting brilliance of kingfishers and bullfinches.

As I jogged along the canal this weekend, my neighbour Liam waved to me, and I stopped to say hello.

How you keeping, I asked.

“Not a bother, Brian,” he said in his amiable rasp. “A little unsteady this morning -- I was up calving all last night.”

One of your cows gave birth? I asked. As long as I’ve lived here next to neighbours and friends who raise cattle and sheep, and even helped out a bit, I’ve never been with them during birth. Yet this is central to a farmer’s life -- one of my favourite television programmes on these islands is an annual event called Lambing -- Live!, where talk show hosts interview farmers in spring and talk about how the lambing is going.

“Sure, usually they’re just fine by themselves, but sometimes they need a hand, and it can keep you up until dawn,” he said.

Do they tend to all give birth around the same time, in spring? I asked -- it seemed a little early for that.

“Left to their own devices, they’d all give birth around spring, but I encourage them to spread it out a bit,” he said. “Makes it easier on me.”

Do you, um, bring the bull around at certain times, or what? I asked. Sorry, I’ve lived here long enough that I feel like I should know this.  

“Frederick,” Liam said -- “you’ve seen him in that field down along the canal banks - you know the one? He’s a good lad, and he’s been with me a while now.”
I’ve seen you with the bull, I said -- I’m impressed at how calm he is.

“Everyone’s terrified of bulls, but I’ve never been hurt by one -- I raised him, and he trusts me,” Liam said. “Occasionally he’s lifted me in the air with his head -- gently, just playing -- and set me down again. I’ve tried to pull him in the tractor, and he can just pull the other way and turn the tractor around -- so if he wanted to get me, I’d be gone. But he’s never wanted to do anything other than play a bit. It’s cows you have to be afraid of.”

Really? I said. You think of bulls as much more dangerous.

“Ah, bulls warn you when you’re getting on their bad side -- they stamp, they snort. They give you fair notice, and only fools ignore them. But cows can come at you out suddenly, just because the spirit took them.”

Liam has been handling cows since he was a boy -- in some cases, the great-great-grandparents of these cows -- so I trust his judgement on these things.

Saturday, 3 February 2018

Garden in winter


Today I had a chance to step out in the garden and get a few things out of the way. We are tearing down the garden beds in our greenhouse, as the wooden beds are almost rotted through and we have used the soil for tomatoes over and over, so we need to get new beds and new soil.

If you don’t have a greenhouse yourself, think about making cloches, clear containers to protect your plants from frost and give them a head start. To make a cloche you can take a scissors and cut across the middle of a plastic fizzy-drink bottle, leaving a bell-shaped dome for your seedling. The resulting plastic will be quite floppy, so you might want to support it with a criss-cross of sticks poked through the plastic and taped together where they cross.  You can place the bottle over seedlings in the garden – preferably with the bottle-top screwed on at night to keep out frost, and left open during the day to allow the plant to breathe.

also drained water through our fireplace ashes, in the hopes of creating enough lye -- the alkaline water that drained out the bottom -- to make soap later this year. I spread the soaked ash over the margins of our property, piling cardboard and mulch over it, in the hopes of keeping brambles from invading and taking root in the margins. I checked the beehive, to make sure the bees are snuggled up cosy and have plenty to eat, and will be preparing some more sugar-water to get them through the next few weeks before the first flowers.

Finally, this is the right time of year to prune most fruit trees, so that they will put more energy into growing buds, flowers and fruit this summer. It’s also the time to coppice or pollard trees like willow and hazel, so that you can have firewood for next winter and the tree will send up new growth this summer. It’s not much fun to work outside when it’s this dreary, but the work has to be done now if the land is to be lovely and productive when it’s warmer.

This is the right time to cut willow, either to build a hedge, weave a basket or just spread the willow around. If you want to take a row of willows and make them into a hedge, cut the willow partway through the stem at whatever height you need. Cut only partway so that you leave some of the xylum, the inner bark that transports water and nutrients from the roots to the leaves, and energy from the leaves to the roots. Then fold the stem above the cut, and weave it around the trees and branches around it so it stays in place. If this is done properly, the tree will remain alive and continue to grow above the cut, and will create a living fence.

To spread willow over your property, cut stems off the tree and plant them in a bucket of water. Wait a few weeks until they grow a shock of white roots in the water, and then dig a hole where you want them to grow. Cut off the roots around the stem, plant them in the hole and refill it.

The days are getting longer again, so it’s a good time to think about what to put in the garden next year. When you plan your garden, try to think in three dimensions, using not just fields or garden beds, but hedgerows and woods. Our hazel trees produce nuts, and under them we planted blueberries and other shade-loving plants, and we will have sorrel and other ground crops lower still – multiple levels of crops going upwards.

This is not an easy month to get out in the garden – the days remain short and chilly. Everything remains wet, meaning that a shovelful of earth is much heavier than it should be. The more you are on top of things now, however, the less you have to wait later, and gardeners do enough waiting as is.
Most of the crops left in the garden at this time of year are root vegetables or cabbages -- for us, that means beetroot, parsnips, celeriac and kale. I’ve written before about how to make them into soup or other vegetarian dishes, but they are especially nice as crisps, and while not extremely healthy, they are probably a bit healthier than the store-bought potato crisps.

Take several parsnips, beetroot and a bulb of celeriac, and some kale leaves. Wash everything well and peel the vegetables -- with the celeriac you might have to peel a lot.

Slice the roots with a mandolin, thinly enough that, when held to the light, they are a bit translucent.
Heat a pan of oil to 180 degrees Centigrade. Fry them in batches -- about two minutes for each batch, or until they look crisp but not burnt -- making sure they are covered with oil and turning them frequently. Be prepared to withdraw them quickly, as they keep cooking and turning colour even after you remove them from the oil -- don’t let them get close to burning.

Let them cool and let the oil drain, dash some lemon juice over the lot, and sprinkle some salt and pepper. Some people like to fry up garlic cloves, or herbs like rosemary or sage, for some extra flavour; if you do this, best to cook them first and let the oil impart their flavour to the other vegetables.

You can also turn the kale into crisps. To do so pre-heat an oven to 150 degrees C. Put the kale in a dry bowl, drizzle a bit of olive oil over it and toss the kale until a thin layer of oil is coating everything. Line a baking tray with tinfoil and spread the kale over it, no more than one leaf thick. Cook for seven to ten minutes until crisp – they burn quickly too, so keep checking on them.

Introduce snacks like this to your kids or your junk-food-eating friends. It won’t turn them into home-farming health nuts overnight, but it does introduce them to the idea that, instead of simply buying fatty, expensive food from a company, they could make it themselves to their own taste, learn a bit of cooking skill, and have fun. It could be a first step to more adventurous experiments down the road.