Wednesday, 28 March 2018

Splitting wood rightly


When we first moved into a house with a wood-burning fire, I needed to get and prepare the wood, but knew only what I had seen in movies. Through reading and consulting neighbours, I learned the basics of felling trees – either invasive species on our property, or wood that could be coppiced or pollarded and would grow back – and then to dry the logs and saw them into blocks. Finally, I tried chopping the wood the way I’d seen people do it on television, taking an axe and swinging it down full force, but it took a lot of work, and the thin blade often got stuck. Pulling it out seemed like getting Excalibur out of the anvil, and most of my attempts yielded slapstick results that I’m glad were not being filmed.

Eventually, though, an elderly neighbour stopped by and gave me a bit of advice: you don’t chop wood with an axe, as you see in movies. You split wood, with a maul.

The thin, sharp blade of an axe, I discovered, is designed to chop across the wood fibres, as when you’re chopping down a tree. Hitting a tree trunk over and over in the same place cuts the lignin fibres above and below, knocking out chips and creating the familiar V-shaped incision. Axes are also lighter, about two kilograms, as you have to put all your muscle into the swing and don’t have gravity to help you.  

A maul looks similar to an axe, but has a longer handle and a wider, heavier metal blade – wider so it doesn’t get stuck, and heavier so it comes down with more force. A maul’s wide, blunt blade is made to cut in the same direction as wood fibres, as when splitting logs for firewood; trying to cut down a tree with a maul is about as effective as doing so with a sledgehammer. Mauls usually weigh about four kilograms to carry more momentum in the swing; you’re swinging in the direction of gravity, so the weight becomes an advantage and not a liability.

Once you realise their purposes, their handles also make sense. An axe’s handle is great for swinging sideways, but swing it down and you risk hitting your legs. A maul’s longer handle hits the log with more force than an axe can, and if you miss, you just hit the ground.

To split wood, wear safety goggles if you can, although I’ve worn just my glasses in a pinch. Do wear something, though, as splinters can fly everywhere. Wear gloves that fit and can grip the handle.

Take a log of about 20-to-50 centimetres long – any longer than that and you want to cut it again with a saw before you try to split it. Check for knots – you can have some, but position the log so your blows avoid them as much as possible. If it already has small cracks, try to cut in the direction of those.

Put the wood you want to split onto a stump, or onto the ground – but not onto stone or pavement, lest you miss and get shards of stone and metal flying everywhere. Stand with your legs apart slightly, with one farther back than the other, like you’re taking a step forward.  If the maul won’t split a stubborn piece of wood, you can get a few wedges, inserting them into the log in the cuts your maul made, and then hitting them with a sledgehammer. 

I wait until my logs are dried before splitting them, but ours are lilandia trees in the pine family – other types of wood, I’m told, are easier to split green. Most woods need to be dried at least six months before they can be burned in the fireplace, and preferably nine. By the way, we only cut our lilandia trees, which were numerous and overgrown on our property and are an invasive species, or woods that we can coppice or pollard and that grow back quickly, like willow. I find that wood seems to split more easily in cold weather, although it might just be in winter that I’m especially motivated to get it cut fast.

In any case, splitting wood this way on cold days keeps you warm twice; once from the exercise you get, and then in the evenings when you curl up by the fireplace with a good book.

 


Saturday, 17 March 2018

You left the doors open


This is from an interview I did several years ago with a Mr. and Mrs. Hedemann of Dublin, part of my project of interviewing elderly people here. 

Me: One thing I wondered was that, in areas that were very poor, what kind of crime took place? These days, when times are getting leaner in my own country, a lot of small towns that used to be very prosperous are now destitute, many people are paranoid about security. 

Mrs. Hedemann: In Ireland you left the doors open. I remember as a child, going to Mass in the country when I was a small child, no one locked their doors.

Mr. Hedemann: And the churches themselves were open 24 hours a day. No one would ever think of pinching anything from a church. The doors were open all the time.

Me: Why do you think there was so little crime?

Mr. Hedemann: We’re an honest people, and everybody knew everybody anyway, particularly in the country.

Mrs. Hedemann: It wasn’t something you did; it would be a very strange occurrence.

Me: I mean, was it more that children were raised with a different set of values, or that everyone knew each other, or that no one had anything to take?

Mr. Hedemann: I think the last two, everybody knew everybody and nobody had anything.

Mrs. Hedemann: Nobody had much, but no matter how little you had, everybody had something of some value, even if only kitchen utensils.

Mrs. Hedemann: There was just an ethos; people just weren’t that way. But Ireland was virtually crime-free around 1900; I remember seeing the statistics. Virtually crime-free. It would be absolutely astonishing to people today. You had the odd murder coming up, but these were all crimes of passion. Certainly there were no drugs, which is the bane nowadays.

Me: You would have drinking, of course.

Mrs. Hedemann: Oh yes, they’d hold up the bar at the pub as long as they could till closing, or whatever. We couldn’t imagine I locking the door, or being afraid – you just couldn’t imagine it. Even in Dublin.

Me: Do you feel that if communities that are wealthy today became poorer, that crime would go down again?

Mrs. Hedemann: I think it might; it’s a good point. There is a thing that happens when people are together in privation. A community spirit grows, as grew in England during the war. People really pulled together; the traditional English reserve disappeared, and people talked to each other buses, perfect strangers helping each other. It digs into some deep human thing. Whereas once there is wealth, there is automatically separation and gradation.

The conversation turned to the social life they once had. Mrs. Hedemann: [Irish winters] are long, and depressing if you allow yourself to be depressed. The Irish would gather in the farmhouse and tell stories. The Irish are quite good at telling stories, whether they’re true or not is another matter.

Mr. Hedemann: Article 27 of the Irish constitution says that you shouldn’t spoil a good story for the sake of the truth.

Mrs. Hedemann: It was huge in the country; there was an institution called cortorach, Irish for visiting, and the people would visit each other’s houses and have dances and do the reels and the Irish dancing. and the women would drink tea and the men would drink porter. And they would have a seannachai (pronounced shanakee) – a storyteller – and he’d be spinning great yarns and tales, some of them the old, old stories. Some of them might be two thousand years old, really stories from prehistory -- stories of Kilcullen and Meave, stories from long long ago. Seana is the Irish word for old, so seannachai was telling the old stories....

Me: Would these storytelling events be regular? Would they be, say, once a month, once a week?

Mrs. Hedemann: Oh, good Lord -- at least once a week at least, and nearly every night at times. You can imagine it, the kitchen and the big open fire and the kettle on the crane – they called it a crane, the thing that brought over the kettle or the pot for the potatoes across the fire. Blackened, with a fire under it.

Me: A turf fire?

Mrs. Hedemann: A turf fire, and very warm, and the people gathered around listening to the seannachai telling his story. A lot of ghost stories, as the Irish are really into ghost stories. And the children were supposed to go to bed but were allowed to stay up, and would listen to the seannachai, their eyes wide like saucers. ... There would be poetry in English and Irish, and you’d have song, and a fiddle and perhaps a piper. Of course pipes were very expensive, and the English cut the hands off the pipers and hanged the harpists during the 18th century. Piping nearly died out here. It was Leo Rowsome was responsible for bringing it back. You always had a fiddler; you nearly had one in every family.

Mr. Hedemann: There was a great sense of community, of warmth, of laughter, of fun. There still is, I think, if you strip back the layers.

Mr. Hedemann: One thing I love about Ireland is the craic. You say something absurd, and other people see if they can say something more absurd to top you. If you do that in, say, Germany, people would be worried for your mental health.

Mrs. Hedemann: The funny thing is people were happier, in a way because the human connection was so heartfelt and so strong. This is a secret thing of the human psyche; we need real relationships, with other people.
 

Sunday, 11 March 2018

The Lives of Others


















Thanks to everyone for your well-wishes during our snowbound days; everything is melting now, and the first daffodils are signalling the beginning of spring. This post originally appeared in 2013. 

If you could boil our global problems down to seven words, they might be these: we don’t see where stuff comes from. Most of us spend grew up staring at glowing rectangles without ever seeing a coal-powered turbine. We blithely speed down motorways without ever visiting an oil derrick. Most of all, we eat mountains of meat a year without having to grab a live animal or smell blood. Like most things in our lives, meat just magically appears, brought by strangers.

That last example hit home for people in Europe recently, after the Irish government tested frozen burgers from a major supplier and found that some of the alleged beef was actually horsemeat. Irish and British discovered their top groceries and restaurants had been feeding them horse for a long time -- probably unknowingly, but shoppers and investors dropped them all the same. The day after the story made headlines the top grocery chain here lost half a billion dollars. Within a few more days food companies took ten million burgers off their shelves -- although the papers don’t say what happened to the meat afterward – and the next few months saw a reporter’s dream of press conferences, apologies, arrests, pledges and retests.

The scandal quickly spread across Europe, as country after country tested meat sold in its own shops and cafes and found they were not eating what they thought they were. The latest tests announced this week finally cleared Ireland, the epicentre of the scandal, but mislabelled meat is still showing up across Europe – and as far afield as South Africa.

The irony, of course, is that horsemeat is not harmful, and little different than cow, as evidenced by the fact that no one can tell which one they ate. Aside from a veterinary medicine showing up in minute amounts, no one has suggested that eating it had any ill effects, nor is it illegal; my daughter and I happily bought horse-kebab from a street vendor in Dublin the other day. (At least, he said they were horse, but you never know …)

Rather, the emotional punch – and inevitable punch-lines – that came from the idea of eating Black Beauty obscured more important details. If up to 30 per cent of some samples were horse, up to 80 per cent of others were pork. “Meat-filled” pastries in Iceland turned out to have no real meat at all, while South African meats had an interesting menagerie of buffalo, goat and donkey. Other samples allegedly had green mould on them. The horses might have been slaughtered up to two years ago, dead flesh just sitting in freezers.

Most importantly, though, was that governments and stores had such difficulty sourcing the meat. This detail proved especially unpopular with people here, who had already seen UK outbreaks of hoof-and-mouth in 2007 and 2001, as well as mad cow disease in the 1980s and 90s. Restaurants and stores here proudly advertise their “Irish beef,” not only to support local farmers but to distance themselves from such disasters. Now, it turns out, we just don’t know where some of it came from; it just magically appeared.

We accept buying meat from strangers for the same reasons we buy everything else in our lives from strangers these days; because we trust that someone, somewhere, knows what they are doing. On the rare occasions we associate the food on our plates with actual animals, we tend to assume they must have come from some kind of farm, like the overall-and-pitchfork images of preschool toys. We don’t picture supply chains so long and cobwebby that we can’t find out what kind of animal it used to be, or in what country, or how it lived.

Consider how strange this would seem to most of our ancestors, for thousands of generations back. For most of them meat was life; while most foods could be grown or picked, meat was the Leibig’s Minimum that forced people to be predators. Their craving for meat transformed the landscape, wiping out the planet’s large animals as thoroughly as an asteroid impact did the dinosaurs, and we now know Neanderthals or Clovis people by their meat-getting technologies. It was the main reason we domesticated animals, and that spurred empires and conquests – the Sanskrit word for “war,” I’m told, means “a desire for cows,” and the ancient Irish epic the Tain Bo Cuailnge involves a nationwide war over a single breeding bull. The very word “meat” meant “food” in Old English, so inextricable were the two.

Such concentrated nutrition comes with risks. Until recently we lived much closer to animals than we might like to imagine --- often in the same house – and pigs ran openly through streets in Europe and the USA even into the 20th century. Many of our human diseases come from domesticated animals -- influenza from ducks, for example – and for thousands of years our bodies have been at war with the germs they send us. When Europeans first encountered the Americas and Australia, the millennia of accumulated pathogens in their bodies – to which they had built up immunity -- wiped out 95 per cent of the native population, leaving the wilderness the pioneers found. Our desire for meat, in short, is the reason Americans and Australians will read this in English, rather than Parisians reading it in Aztec.

This dealing of life and death might be the reason so many of our religions bind us in meat taboos -- Jews and Muslims ban pig meat, Hindus cow meat, and Catholics all meat on Fridays and through Lent. Many of our rituals do the same, invoking the body and blood of the Word made flesh.

Because meat was so precious, most human societies were less finicky than we are today about what kind of animals they ate. People throughout world history have eaten insects, snails and other invertebrates, as well as birds, reptiles, amphibians and mammals of all kinds; something as mountainous as a cow or stag might be stretched into months of food. Even today, most subcultures eat both less meat than we do and more variety, as anyone knows who visits Chinese or Caribbean stores. I recently saw a letter from a bishop in largely Catholic Louisiana, USA, assuring his congregations that alligator could be eaten during Lent.

When we keep animals for food, they don't always stay put; the snails so common on these islands were snacks brought by Romans, as rabbits were a thousand years later by Normans. Polynesians carried rats on voyages for meat, and their escape helped scour island after island of their native bird species.

Most Americans I know eat two birds, chicken and turkey, and have never held one alive – but most of our ancestors ate many more, both for meat and to protect crops. Elderly Irish, who grew up in agrarian days when money and meat were rare, caught songbirds in wicker traps called “cradle-birds,” and one elderly couple told me that blackbirds were sold as food in wartime London --all to eagerly pluck and stew.

Fishing, likewise, supported many communities, but fewer all the time these days. To take one example from Mark Kurlansky’s book Cod: A Biography of the Fish that Changed the World, early explorers to places like Newfoundland simply dropped baskets into the sea and came up with them full of fish, so plentiful were the cod. By 1960 fishermen in the North Atlantic were catching 1.6 million tonnes a year, and thirty years later that number had dropped by almost 99 per cent. We are fishing the sea clean.

In my native USA, where people eat more meat per capita per year than anywhere else in the world, we have not yet overhunted the land, but that’s mainly because we get most of our protein from the hog or beef “factories” described in Eric Schlosser’s excellent book Fast Food Nation. I have talked to many Midwestern farmers whose lives have been shaped by these nearby places they can never see but always smell. Towns in my native Missouri, locals tell me, are now filled with two kinds of people: the elderly and the Hispanics that work the meat factories, and neither are expected to be around long.

Of course, such unpleasantness drives some to a vegetarian diet, and they are right to think that most Westerners would be healthier if they ate less meat. In abandoning all meat, however, vegetarians show the same maximalist thinking, and the same disconnection from the source of their food. Calves usually die to get milk or cheese, chicks to get eggs, and the animals will die eventually anyway, more slowly and painfully than they would have by predators or considerate butchers. A vegan diet requires using vast areas of land that were once forests to grow high-protein crops like soybeans, and making our society’s soy milk and designer soy-products requires our society to gobble fossil fuels in a way that will not continue forever.

Where we live, the landscape is still divided up into small family farms, and most people are related to a farmer – I’m friends with several around our land, and we see their cows every day. Most villages also have a butcher, and ours now features a sign about how he buys only from the local farmers. He actually gives us more meat than we ask for, knowing that we like the bones and cast-off meats for soups.

Everyone here used to get their meat from people like him, if they didn’t slaughter it themselves; it was only recently that the globalised supermarkets, with their shelves of cheap frozen meat and opportunities for fraud, began to proliferate. In my native USA, though, one would have to rebuild the entire infrastructure – local farmers to local shops within walking distance to homes – from scratch.

But we need to. If we want to know where our stuff comes from, and yet keep eating meat, then we need groups of neighbourhood boys raising pigs in the vacant lot, as wartime Londoners had, with neighbours buying shares of the bodies. We need to start sourcing food further down the food chain, to species that are still plentiful and that we will not risk exterminating. We need to expand the number of species we will eat a hundredfold, while reducing our meat dishes to a fraction of their current quantity. We need to relearn how to make eel traps and cradlebirds, to grow snails in the closet and chickens in the shed.

And we need to know people like my farmer friend, who I meet in the morning bleary-eyed from staying up all night with a calf. He gives his animals a better life than any they would have seen in the wild, infinitely better than on a factory farm, before making sure their life ends quickly and painlessly. It’s not easy for him, and his small scale makes the butcher more expensive, but that’s as it should be. Rather than wolfing mystery meat or snubbing it altogether, we could respect it again. Meat needs to become hard work to get and precious to eat, so that we again put some sacral value in the lives we take.

Sources:

Timeline of the horsemeat scandal, to February: http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2013/feb/08/how-horsemeat-scandal-unfolded-timeline

Announcement of original results: http://www.fsai.ie/news_centre/press_releases/horseDNA15012013.html

Tesco lost 360 million euros in a day: http://www.independent.ie/sport/other-sports/horse-meat-discovery-knocks-300m-off-the-value-of-tesco-shares-28959295.html

One meat product had no meat at all: http://www.grapevine.is/News/ReadArticle/Surprising-Twist-in-Horse-Meat-Scandal

Buffalo, goat and donkey in South Africa: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-africa-21588575

“The meat is believed to have been supplied between January 2011 and February 2013 across Europe.” http://www.thejournal.ie/european-commission-horsemeat-report-871583-Apr2013/

In my native USA, where people eat more meat per capita per year than anywhere else: Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations, http://faostat.fao.org/site/610/DesktopDefault.aspx?PageID=610#ancor 

Photo: Our neighbours, seen from the back fence.

Saturday, 3 March 2018

Still snowbound


Seeking a change of atmosphere, I walked a few kilometres to the village this afternoon – not a difficult walk ordinarily, but more so in deep snow. Along the way I met my neighbour Caoihme (pronounced Queeva), walking down the bog roads to call on her neighbour, while her daughters were laughing and throwing snowballs with other neighbourhood teenagers a respectful distance behind.

“How’re you fixed for supplies?” I asked. We were well stocked for dried and tinned goods, and had enough vegetables to see us through these days when everyone was snowed in and the store shelves empty.

“We’re grand,” she said. “We have all kinds of supplies in the shed, chickens for eggs and neighbours to trade with – but not a drop of milk to be had for tea.”

“That’s what I’m going to see about in town,” I said. “Perhaps they’ve cleared the roads a bit.”

“Ah, I doubt it,” she laughed. “I sent Seamus (her husband) to the shop the other day to find anything that hadn’t been picked clean. He came back with a piece of cake and a potato.”

“Well, if they don’t have milk,” I ventured, “I wonder about Tommy’s cows? Do you think he milks them?” We have enough neighbours who raise cows, I thought, it seems a shame to let such a resource go to waste.

“Ah, I think he raises them for meat,” she said. “And none would have calves that had been weaned recently. You can try, but I wouldn’t go rooting around down there myself.”

We walked on a bit, saying hello to neighbours along the way and admiring their giant snowmen or other sculptures, and she checked on the horses along the way to make sure they looked healthy and fed. We talked about getting our families outdoors, and that drew us into talk of footing turf this year in the bog.

Turf, also called peat, is the remains of centuries of moss and other vegetation that built up in the bogs, which built up over the millennia when the submerged lower strata did not fully decompose. Draining the bog and pulling back the top layer of vegetation reveals black and spongy bio-mass that turns reddish-brown and hard when it dries, and creates a slow-burning, smoky fire when lit. For hundreds – probably thousands – of years it has been the main way people in this cold country kept warm. The smell of burning turf is one of the most distinctive things about this land, and in country homes and pubs alike here neighbours gather around turf fires in the winter evenings.

Most farmers who lived anywhere near a bog had a ready source of fuel for the winter, once they pulled away the top layer of vegetation and exposed the peat underneath. Farmers here – everyone was a farmer of course, whatever else they did – carried special shovels shaped like one corner of a square, made for sinking into sides of a ditch and scooping out long rectangles of peat.

These days, the cutting is done by tractor, leaving long ropes of black and moist turf like liquorice, partly cut at intervals of a foot or two. While machines can cut the turf, though, humans still need to dry it by hand, “footing” it by cracking apart the liquorice into bricks and stacking them like cross-hatching, four or five bricks high.

“Will you all be footing soon?” I asked. “We’ve skipped the last few years, as we’ve relied on firewood, but I’d really like to get a new load for next winter, and it’s already March.” I knew the man who owned that part of the bog, who sold the turf from it, saw a death in his family last year when his son drowned in the canal, and was in no state to do business.

“We surely will,” she said. “I’ll tell Tommy you’re interested, and you can come out with us. We’ll be putting our daughters to hard labour for the day, with their young muscles.”

“I might conscript my girl,” I said. “As of about six months ago she suddenly became a grumpy teenager and less enthusiastic about helping, but the air will be good for her.”

When I got to town there was no milk or any other staples, just as Caoimhe said – but it seemed like everyone in town had gone to the shop as well, not just to pick clean the few remaining items on the shelves but to chat and break the cabin fever. Some people had managed to get there by car, others by driving ATVs, tractors or even their horses – or just walked, as I had. At the shop I met my neighbour Jack, and talked about the strange weather.

“We’ve had cold snaps a few times before in the last century,” he said, “but in the last few years we’ve had the floods of 2009, the freeze of 2010, the floods of 2015 and now this,” he said. “It’s not anything we’re prepared for.” Nonetheless, he said, they were all well-stocked and used to living on very little, so they were able to take such crises in stride – richer or more modern people would be harder hit.

On the way I stopped at the pub, and many of the neighbours were crowding in there as well; one came in with his father-in-law, who insisted on buying me a pint, and I returned the favour. Many of us stop at the pub every so often, but are not regulars, so a gathering like this reunites people who see each other in passing but don’t get a chance to talk anymore.

Friday, 2 March 2018

Buried


Ordinarily Ireland gets no more than a light dusting of snow once a winter, as the Atlantic currents keep us temperate. This past week, though, was the weirdest weather my neighbours have ever seen. We've gotten up to a metre of snow in places, according to news reports, with winds of up to 100 kilometres an hour. Our car can't get out of our driveway, most buses and businesses have shut down, and the local stations have given over to weather reports.

The west of Ireland hasn't been hit as badly as this, but the east of the country got the worst of it; local news stations showed a map of the most-affected areas, and we're right in the middle of it. I'm told the temperature got lower a few times in the last century, but my elderly neighbours say they've never seen this much snow where we are.

I walked a few kilometres to the store yesterday, to pick up a few essentials, and found that about a hundred people had the same idea; no milk, eggs or many other staples. No matter; we're well stocked for food and wood for the fire, and we still have electricity.

I checked on the neighbours to make sure they had enough - many of them are quite elderly -- and not only are they doing well, the snow brings everyone out to play.

Actually, it's quite pleasant; I have a few days off work, and after a dark Irish winter we have bright sunshine -- and since it's snowed, the light is from above and below. The Girl made a snowman, and we had a snowball fight -- she's a teenager now, and usually too cool for such things, so I treasure these moments when I can.

The fact that our gas keeps freezing gives me a chance to experiment with cooking over the fire, where temperature is no longer a matter of a button or dial but the amount of wood and the curve and sound of the flames. I made egg drop soup today, and might try my hand at popcorn tonight.

I've been curling up by the fireplace with a couple of books by the amazing Anthony Esolen, and I'm taking calculus courses online. In the evenings we've been watching movies. A few nights ago I showed my daughter Charade, with Cary Grant and Audrey Hepburn, one of my perennial favourites -- a delightful mix of comedy, romance and intrigue. Last night we watched Captain Blood -- a film under-remembered now, but every bit as good as the famous Adventures of Robin Hood, and with many of the same actors -- Errol Flynn, Olivia deHavilland, and my daughter's favourite, Basil Rathbone.

With a fireplace roaring next to us, we agreed: if you're stocked up on the basics and mentally prepared for disruption, an emergency can be a chance to remember how lucky you are.