Monday, 17 June 2019

Ireland during the Emergency

Some time ago I was able to sit down with a gentleman named Jack who lives near me, and he let me record him and publish the conversation, although he asked that his last name not be used.

Me: So you were born in 1922?

Jack: Yes, that’s right – I was born the year the Irish State was formed, and the way things are going, I might be around after it’s fallen apart.

Me: Do you remember the early years of the country? Did that time affect your family?

Jack: No, we were a mixed family – my father was Scottish, and my mother was from this locality. She had worked in Scotland for a number of years, prior to the First World War, and had married him. But after the war there was wholesale unemployment in England and Scotland – all the factories had closed. So they decided to take their chances here, but there were no jobs here either, because there was a civil war on.
The only thing you could get a job in was you could apply for the police force or the army. My father applied for both and the army called him in. So he was a soldier.

Me: He was Scottish and fighting in the Irish Civil War?

Jack: Yes, but that didn’t last too long. The incoming government was stronger than the rebels. But he was 1922 to 1947 in the Irish Army.

Me: When you were growing up, did you have a garden? Did most people?

Jack: Everyone depended on their gardens. Everyone around here, most of the men spent their days hunting, and if they got a rabbit, they had meat for dinner, and if they didn’t get a rabbit, there was no meat. 

Me: Were there enough rabbits?

Jack: There are usually enough rabbits to go around.
Once in 1922, there were men on the dole looking for work. I often saw three men with a packet of Woodbines – and they would stand in a row and each take a puff of the cigarette. Then a rope factory started in 1932 – this English company, Rigby Jones. Now they were very successful for a time – have since gone out of business, of course. But then things picked up.

Me: How did people get by if the men were out hunting?

Jack: Most people had a garden. The standard of living was very low, but the same was true in Scotland and England.

Me: How much land did most people have?

Jack: About half an acre each.

Me: And what did they grow?

Jack: They grew potatoes and cabbages, and most people kept pigs.

Me: So how did people get things like shoes or clothes?

Jack: Well, you look at school photos, and half the children were in their bare feet. They trotted in bare feet for about three months. But there was no broken glass on the roads then. 
There was no transport. We would take bicycles to Rathangan or so – younger people wouldn’t dream of doing that now. That’s 20 miles.

Me: How long did it take to ride 20 miles?

Jack: You left here at half seven, and got there at half eight.

Me: What proportion of the people had bicycles?

Jack: Nearly everyone went around on a bicycle, everywhere -- you had to. But life went on just as it does now. 

Monday, 10 June 2019

Pronounced HOO-gul-kul-tur

Originally appeared in the KIldare Nationalist newspaper. Photo courtesy of Mark at 

A while back I wrote about how we built raised beds for our garden, and when they rotted, rebuilt them in brick. Many permaculture gardeners, however, build a different kind of raised bed, one that involves using no walls at all.

The technique, called hugelkultur (HOO-gul-kul-tur), has the advantage of being simple to understand and easy to make, and lasting a long time. Hugelkultur beds basically involve piling wood – usually dried logs of various sizes – into a single ridge, piling vegetation, cardboard or newspaper over that, and finally a layer of soil on top. 

As the wood at the centre is slowly consumed by fungi, it absorbs and holds dozens of times its weight in water, creating a reservoir for the plant roots around it. As it decomposes it releases heat, extending the growing season. The decomposing wood, looking like a fine Swiss cheese under the soil, helps aerate the ground as well. Finally, as the wood breaks down into nutrients, its slow decay feeds the soil and anything growing on it.

Since the soil and garden plants are draped over logs, they also greatly increase the surface area for a garden, allowing gardeners to grow many more plants on the same ground. They also greatly increase the types of plants that can be grown near each other, as the top of the ridges will better suit sun-loving plants, while thirsty plants that can tolerate flooding will be more suited to the hollows between ridges. Such ridges are also an excellent way to stave off erosion and flooding, if you build them on a slope parallel to the side of the hill.

One risk in a hugelkultur is that the rotting wood might lock up nitrogen, so many gardeners prefer using large logs, buried deeply, so that the decay and nitrogen loss will be more gradual. Some also add high-nitrogen crops like nettles or comfrey over the logs and below the soil to offset the loss, or plant legumes or other nitrogen-fixing plants. Permaculture gardeners say that large ridges built over sizeable logs, or several logs, can offer a constant supply of nutrients for two decades. 

Be careful what woods you plant; if it is aggressive coppice tree, like willow, make sure it is well dead and dried, or you’ll get willow sprouting from your ridge. Also, most texts on the subject warn against using woods loaded with natural pesticides, anti-fungal chemicals and the like – cedar, black walnut, black locust – but you’re not likely to find those in Ireland anyway.

Creating hugelkultur takes carbon out of the atmosphere in a few ways; it takes trees that are mostly carbon sucked out of the atmosphere, and sequesters them underground; and it encourages the growth of many plants that will, themselves, suck more carbon out of the air. In other words, it’s a win-win for the climate.

Hugelkultur beds can be built quite high, and some gardeners said they built theirs more than two metres tall, piling up the wood almost vertically and draping vegetation and soil over it. Some bolster the sides with pallets to keep them in place, but I wouldn’t recommend using them as the basis for the ridge, tempting as that might be – pallet wood is often sprayed with chemicals that you don’t want in your food.

Raised beds like this are more work at the beginning, but a lot less as time goes on, and can largely be left alone for years. Some gardeners recommend planting mostly perennials, which can keep producing crops year after year – and can keep building up the ridge as parts of the plants die off and become soil again. The plants’ roots also keep the soil in place, so rain doesn’t collapse the ridge.

Best of all, this garden uses scrap material that many people already have on their property, and are often trying to get rid of. Many of us clear brush or have to cut down trees or branches on our property, weeds and grass clippings they want to use, and spare soil not good enough for the regular garden. Hugelkultur uses all these things and combines them into something useful that can benefit your garden for years to come.

Monday, 3 June 2019


All futuristic fiction is really about the present; during the technological boom years of the early 20th century, writers extrapolated those trends into a space-faring techno-utopia, and when the social and ecological costs of that boom caught up with us in the late 20th century, dystopian fiction took over our collective imagination with increasingly horrific futures. I’m in my 40s, and almost no science fiction in my lifetime has ever predicted anything good for my future grandchildren.

Doomer porn, however, has limited appeal and shelf life; you can only get so miserable before there’s nowhere to go and no point. One of the most appealing subsets of speculative fiction, then, is what we might call the “good old future,” where our descendants have come through a crisis and created a better world that looks a lot like the past. I can personally recommend James Howard Kunstler’s World Made By Hand and John Michael Greer’s Retropia and Star’s Reach, and I have on my reading list similar works like John Seymour’s Retrieved from the Future, Per Fagereng’s Jack Moloney’s Century, and Ursula Le Guin’s Always Coming Home.  

All these stories depict a home-town, human-sized, largely healthy future, and that’s exactly what we need to see right now. Most activism these days, on the left and right alike, warn that we only have a short time to stop collapse, and scream that “we” must do “something” or it will be “too late” – a message that is frustratingly vague, and leaves open the question of what happens when it’s too late. 

What we desperately need are stories of people who roll up their sleeves and use their hands-on skills to fix problems. What we need is a wholesome depiction of sustainable, healthy communities that are able to do most of what our towns do now, just relying on the craftsmanship of their local working people rather than trucks shipping in supplies from Third-World factories. We need to meet characters going through their daily lives in a world that do things the old-fashioned way, and see that their lives are not very different than ours.

Oh, and to portray their urban landscapes and machines in vivid detail, this fictional future should ideally be drawn as a comic book.

Thankfully, we have just the man to do this in Ken Avidor, who has been drawing comics and illustrations about a sustainable future for decades, as well as covering the politics of his native Minnesota. Avidor illustrated the first article I ever wrote on fossil fuels some 15 years ago, as well as James Howard Kunstler’s web site. His comic strip Roadkill Bill lampooned our modern consumer culture, taking on subjects like obesity, rubbish, traffic and government spending – which doesn’t sound like the most obvious subject for a talking-animal cartoon, but Avidor made it entertaining.

Nothing he has done thus far, however, matches the ambition of Bicyclopolis, which uses the basic Back-to-the-Future premise of a young point-of-view character, an old and wacky inventor, and a time travel machine as a plot device to show off his design of a small-town, pedal-powered future in the Midwest USA.

In this future, fossil fuels have become more difficult to obtain – meaning not just less driving and flying, but fewer imported products, less infrastructure repair and intermittent electricity. Climate change has turned much of the American West into desert, and most people live in isolated settlements in oases. Bicyclopolis, founded by Civil War re-enactors and bike mechanics who had the skills to build a new world, is a plausible model of a self-sufficient community, and Avidor has fun planning the details of how such a town would operate.

In contrast to many writers who imagine a future devoid of technology, Avidor recognises that many modern inventions – pedal-powered gears and chains, for example – could be used to create windmills, water pumps, irrigation systems, vehicles and machines. Junk from the nearby rubbish dump furnishes them with metal that can be re-forged or melted and re-shaped into useful things, while plants like dandelions and milkweed can be made into rubber substitutes. His fictional village even has sports stadiums, bands and pubs, all using locally-made products.

Avidor’s creations have always been idealistic and instructional but never unrealistic or perfect; in the course of the novel Bicyclopolis endures a war with a neighbouring tribe,  sabotage by domestic dissidents and a crackdown on dissent. Many of his characters are limited or misguided, but always recognisably human; as strange as it sounds when describing a graphic novel, none of these characters are mere cartoons. 

His fictional community also must deal with a future in which climate change has turned much of the American West into desert, and human garbage has continued to accumulate in dangerous floating junk in the oceans. The plastic rubbish on land gets swept up in the winds that whip across the now-desert landscape, so that travellers are hit by “bag storms,” whirling masses of bits of shopping bags and other bits of decades-old plastic.

Avidor inserts his own idols into his future, with writers like Kunstler, Dmitri Orlov, Jane Jacobs and Ivan Illich getting statues along the streets of his sustainable community. He does the same with his longtime nemesis and former Minnesota Congresswoman Michele Bachmann; he had written an entire graphic novel, “False Witness,” about her career, and here he depicts the villains as “Bachmannite militias,” and a “Bachmannite priesthood.” Some of his other villains look suspiciously specific as well, and I suspect would look familiar to anyone who knows Minnesota politics.

At a time when the media flood us with messages of despair, works like Bicyclopolis provide an antidote; a simple, earnest story of a believably sustainable town. It would make a good companion to World Made By Hand or Retropia for adults, or a good introduction to the issues for teens – some of the scenes of collapse or warfare would be a bit much for children. And while Avidor’s environmental concerns would cause most people to place his work on “the left,” he, like Kunstler or Orlov, does not fit easily into political boxes, and his depiction of an armed small town defending itself against imposed progress would resonate with many conservatives as well.

To see some of the artwork or order the book, go to


Sunday, 26 May 2019

I'm back

Bluebells on the forest floor in County Clare. 
I've been blogging only very occasionally for the last few months, as I've been finishing a graduate degree at the Dublin Institute of Technology. Thankfully,  I finished this week, and hope to resume my writing schedule as before. 

The Girl, my daughter, will be 15 in a few weeks. She sang and danced in her secondary school play (high school to Americans), is still shooting archery once a week, and is making friends. She's taken part in many s still teaching horseback riding to children on the weekends, and has taken part in several hunter trials in the last year -- trials in which teams of riders gallop through an obstacle course on the Irish countryside. 

We voted last Friday here in Ireland, and thankfully we have a brilliant voting system that, unlike the US system, allows third parties to easily exist. I'll write about that more in the next few weeks. 

This is the lovely time of year here, when we start to enjoy the lukewarm summer before we plunge back into the nine months of winter. 

As I mentioned back in January, I had the honour to spend the day with Rod Dreher of the American Conservative, who urged me to start pulling my writings into a book, and now that my teenager is self-sufficient and my graduate degree is ended, that's exactly what I plan to do. I'll start posting things regularly here and other places, and will send more details as I finish them. 

The Girl some ten years ago. 

Friday, 19 April 2019


Sorry the posting has been so sparse -- I've been caught up in exams for my college courses, and hope to post more often -- and more original material -- beginning next month. 

If there is one thing that distinguishes the place I grew up from the place I live now, it would be not the yards and fields themselves, but the boundaries. If you grew up in the USA as I did, you were likely surrounded by chain-link fences -- waist-high around our back yards and two or three times higher around our institutions, giving every kindergarten and churchyard a distinctive penal look.

Of course the steel chains were not edible, nor did they grow thicker and stronger over time. The fences did not spread shade over your land in the summer sun, nor thin out in winter to let in precious light. The chain mail did not make the soil more fertile, nor protect it from being washed away by the rain. The wires did not offer a home to wildlife, and their manufacture burned more carbon into the atmosphere rather than removing it. Here in Ireland, surrounded by hedgerows that stretch to the horizon on all sides, we see how unnecessary it all was.

By hedgerows, I don’t mean the decorative evergreen sculptures I see in front of banks and businesses, often a monoculture of invasive species. Hedgerows here are lines of densely-planted trees – fast-growing breeds like willow, elder, hazel, birch, chestnut, pine, hawthorn, blackthorn and rowan. Their branches intertwine so thickly that they weave like threads in rope – I recently tried to cut a tree down here recently and even when the base was cut through, the trunk continued to hang in the air, supported by the branches around it. Blackberry brambles and ivy help fill the spaces above, and useful weeds below.

They add variety to fields that would otherwise go sterile. Each plant adds its own chemicals and removes its own nutrients from the soil, so fields of monoculture need to be continually fertilised. Single crops provide our bodies, too, with a single set of nutrients, and only at certain times of year. They also encourage a glut of certain animals, like pests that eat our crops, and offer no homes to the birds and insectivores who would eat the pests.

Hedgerows offer fields a needed balance, a wild river through human land that can soak up our excesses and give us a reservoir of food and fuel for lean times. They give your garden a third dimension, a vertical salad bar that middle-aged and elderly can reach with a minimum of back pain.

Unlike field crops, they provide for much of the year; right now they have hawthorn shoots and dandelions for salads and nettle and bramble shoots for tea. By the end of this month we will get linden leaves and daisies, rose hips and elderflowers later still, sloes and blackberries in the autumn.

The principle of a hedgerow is simple, but hedge-laying was an art form in traditional Ireland and England. Every year farmers would take a few days out to maintain their hundreds of metres of hedge, re-weaving or pruning the new growth, and each area had its own style and tricks. Ireland has hedge-laying associations, and I know farmers who take pride in maintaining the same hedges that have existed for decades or centuries.

Typically the hedge-layer takes each upward-pointing sapling, holds it at whatever height he wants the hedge to be, and cuts diagonally downward through the wood – but only partway. He then lays everything above the cut down horizontally, often weaving it through the other saplings and beating the woven branches down with a club until they were densely matted. A bit of bark and wood still connects the top and bottom of the tree, so the top remains alive and growing even as it lies flat amid many other branches. In this way, the weave itself gets thicker over time, until it is an impenetrable barrier of living wood.

You might have noticed that this is beginning to sound more and more like a wall, and so it is – walls of buildings were made the same way, in a technique called wattle-and-daub. The main difference was that the saplings were cut through and dead when they were woven into a wall – the “wattle” -- and covered in a daub plaster of clay, straw and perhaps manure. You might also notice that the basic idea is not very different than weaving a basket – there you simply take cut willow or some other sapling, partly dried, and knit them into a tight circle.

You don’t need acres of land in rural Ireland to have hedgerows; if you have a fence, you could try planting willows or some other hardy saplings underneath, weave them through the fence like thread, and see how they grow.

Vertical gardening could be done with many of our human-made structures. Your house or apartment building has sides, as do your sheds, shops, schools, churches and highway overpasses. Not far away you likely have telephone poles, fences, walls, signs, gates and, of course, trees, any of which might be covered in productive garden plants.

Beans and peas might make a good start – they grow easily in many temperate regions, make beautiful flowers, add nitrogen to the soil, and offer a high-protein, easily stored crop. Brambles, roses other thorny plants not only provide shoots, flowers and fruits, but a natural security fence against human or animal intruders.

If you want to give this a go, first pay attention to what kind of climber you have. Ivy sinks its roots into bark or masonry, and should probably have a trellis if you are putting it on the side of your house. Roses and other scramblers, which have hooks or thorns that latch onto other plants and allow them to pull themselves upwards, would also require support. Twiners like wisterias twist their tendrils around trees and other structures, while beans whip their shoots around looking for something to latch onto.

Everyone lives in a different situation – a farm, a flat in town, a suburban house – but most of us have some opportunity to experiment with three-dimensional farming. Look around your neighbourhood, and try to imagine what it could be.

Sunday, 31 March 2019

Harvest timber without destroying forests

A prehistoric squirrel, it is said, could have scampered from Norway to Singapore without touching the ground, so dense was the carpet of trees that stretched across the world. Similar forests stretched across North America and many other parts of the world – all of them providing a home to thousands of living things, all of them vacuuming the carbon dioxide from the air and keeping the climate stable.

Most of that landscape was felled for timber and paper long ago, the land given over to crops and suburbia – or to wasteland. Of course, humans need food and houses, but we also need timber and wildlife, and our ancestors would have been wiser to preserve some of those forests for future generations. And sometimes, they did – for at least six thousand years, some humans have used an old technique to continually harvest timber from a forest while keeping it alive indefinitely.

When the evergreen trees around here are cut at the base, their roots die. But many broad-leaved, deciduous trees continue to soak up water and nutrients through their roots. The roots put their energy into creating shoots, which grow into new saplings – and soon you will have several smaller trees where you had one before. In a matter of years or decades – how long depends on the type of tree – you can harvest those smaller trees, called “underwood,” and the process begins again. You can keep doing this as long as the original base continues to live, which can be more than a hundred years.

Commonly coppiced species included ash, chestnut, oak, hazel, sycamore and alder, and most of these created shoot from the cut stump, called a stool. The new trunks usually curved outward from the original stool, and so their naturally bowed wood was often prized for ship-building. Other species, like cherry, would send suckers upward from the roots surrounding the stump. Either way, the new shoots grow quickly, fed by a root system made to support an entire tree.

Woodsmen coppiced areas where they could keep out cattle and horses, as animals might eat the shoots. In places where animals might roam the woodland they would pollard – or cut branches higher up on the tree out of their reach.

Willow stands in a class by itself in coppicing, as it does not need to mature before being cut, nor does it require a decade or two of waiting. Its flexible shoots – withies – are perfect for weaving into shapes, which provided early humans with homes, boats, chariots, armour, fences, barns, sheds, coops, weirs, animal traps, and baskets.

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. He even proposes that some of the first agriculture might have been to grow basketry crops, not food crops. (1)

Here in Ireland, willows – sometimes called sallies or silver-sticks – were pollarded each winter from century-old trunks that had never been mature trees, often looking like fields of spiky sea urchins. Weavers here were said to harvest the willow on St. Bridget’s Day – Feb. 1 – and with large machete-like tools called bill-hooks, and collected ten tonnes to the acre.

Waterford farmer and self-sufficiency expert John Seymour called coppicing and pollarding “the most fundamental of woodland crafts.” (2) The earliest stumps that look coppiced to archaeologists date from around 2500 BC, but the craft seems to have been perfected in medieval Europe where vast stretches of woodland were coppiced or pollarded regularly for charcoal, firewood, timber and other uses. (3)

In a copse – a forest of regularly coppiced trees – each tree is marked with the year it was last felled, and only a fraction of them are felled again each year. If the forester is coppicing them every ten years, he or she will fell ten percent of them each year, and the forest will be maintained.

Seymour describes a coppice-with-standards system in which coppiced trees – harvested every several years or so – are interspersed with trees allowed to grow to maturity and felled for large pieces of timber. The latter group – called “standards” – are harvested at a rotation time of about 10 times the coppice; for a coppice cut once a decade, for example, the standards will be cut once a century.

If more forward-looking souls were to turn their fields into copses, they could have a regular harvest of wood for many generations to come. Enough copses around the world could supply the world with paper and timber, warmth and wildlife without the need to ever fell another forest.

Top photo: Wood for the winter.
Bottom photo: 
Living chair on our land made from coppiced willow. 

(1) 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.
(2) Seymour, John – The Forgotten Arts and Crafts, DK Adult 2001.
(3) Coles, J M -- "Man and landscape in the Somerset Levels". Limbrey, Susan and J G Evans. The effect of man on the landscape: the Lowland Zone (London): 86–89. 1978.

Friday, 15 March 2019

Rediscovering the classics

My daughter at the art museum, some years ago

Take anything that makes us civilised rather than barbaric-- human rights, science, democracy, libraries, comedy, tragedy, a justice system, education, philosophy, history – and it mostly began in one time and place, Ancient Greece. And for more than a hundred human generations since then, across much of the world and from the Bronze Age until the 20th century, becoming an educated adult meant starting where the human race started, with the Greek and Roman classics.

Dark Age monks and American revolutionaries, pioneer farm-girls and Victorian schoolboys, all grew up with Hesiod and Herodotus, Sophocles and Socrates, Plato and Plutarch, part of a common cultural heritage. Thus Homer could inspire Aeschylus could inspire Shakespeare, and Socrates could teach Aristotle who inspired Aquinas -- each generation adding to the Great Conversation through the ages, each making the world better than it was. Only our modern culture thinks it can re-invent everything from scratch.  

To do that, though, people had to know and care who the ancients were, and for centuries they did. When Shakespeare wrote his plays he could assume his working-class audiences were familiar with Ovid and Plutarch, because they were. Now that I read the writings of Jefferson or Lincoln, I realise how much of their writings drew from the Greek and Romans of their education – Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, for example, seems inspired by Pericles’ funeral oration in Thucydides.

Nor were such references exclusively for the rich, either: Jonathan Rose’s excellent book The Intellectual life of the British Working Class describes how labourers formed their own reading and debate societies, often tied to their unions, to make sure everyone could read such books. The speeches of Lincoln and his contemporaries, moreover, swell with classical references, and were delivered to barefoot farmers. According to de Tocqueville, every pioneer cabin, no matter how rustic, had books to read.

Teacher’s journals or education guides from 19th-century America demonstrate an amazing breadth of learning, with even poor farm children learning Shakespeare or Plutarch at young ages. Of course we can’t know how much was absorbed, but it’s telling that children’s guides from that era are often beyond that of college students today. In teaching my daughter the Iliad I tried to use Rev. Alfred Church’s 1892 children’s version (“for Boys and Girls … in Simple Language.”), but its language would be quite advanced for even adults these days.  

Black-and-white films, old newspapers and novels from the 19th and 20th centuries made casual references to references from Cicero or Caesar, assuming everyone would understand what they meant. The 1948 memoir Cheaper by the Dozen, for example, begins with the line, “My father, like Gaul, was divided into three parts.” To readers in the 1940s the joke was obvious, for most people had read the journals of Julius Caesar, who famously began by saying that “All Gaul is divided into three parts.” Now, a few generations later, you would not find one person in a thousand who would get it.

Likewise, the famous sculpture of George Washington in a toga looks bizarre to us, since the Founding Fathers didn’t dress like that. To Americans at the time, however, the meaning was immediately clear; George Washington was Cincinnatus, someone who walked away from total power – or as my daughter once put it after reading Tolkien, “he put down the Ring and walked away.”

In the last few generations, however, our culture has abruptly, shockingly abandoned these most basic parts of education, making most of our cultural heritage opaque to young people today. Occasionally a home-schooler embraces the classics for their child, or I find a young person whose life was changed by discovering the Stoics. Such people, however, are specks of light in a new dark age, in which few people are familiar with works of art older than themselves, or can join the conversation of the ages.  

I took a few years of Latin and read a few classics, but not much – so when I wanted to introduce

them to my daughter, I first had to open them. The stories were intensely readable, filled with characters who were lusty, scheming, flirtatious, noble, self-destructive and dryly comic. The writing styles take some getting used to, granted, and the turgid translations often don’t help — so when I taught them to my daughter, I edited the text down, Reader’s Digest-style, and we acted out the characters.

When we read about Solon, for example — the man most credited for inventing democracy in Athens – we pretended to be Athenians in that time, when the city was ruled by dictators. With sticks for swords we re-enacted the Athenians’ battle for the island of Salamis, and their humiliating defeat by the Megarians. After that, I explained, the lords of Athens created an information blackout, forbidding any Athenian from mentioning Salamis – they didn’t want to be embarrassed anymore.

“What, so everyone pretended like nothing was wrong?” my daughter said indignantly. “When everyone knew otherwise?” Yes, I said – just like today.

“Couldn’t they complain to the rulers if they didn’t like the laws?” she said. No, I told her, lords and emperors didn’t need to take responsibility for anything. They had taken a step toward democracy a generation before, I told her, when a man named Draco created their first set of laws – but they were the original draconian laws, where the penalty for everything was death. To make the point we created a one-act play: Mr. Average Athenian litters on the street, meets Draco.

“Hey! That’s against the law!” she said as Draco. Oh, shoot, I said as the Athenian – can I pay a fine?

“No!” she said, as Draco. “The penalty is DEATH.”

That’s ridiculous! I said. “Complaining about it is DEATH,” she said.

Who hired you, buddy? I asked. “Asking who hired me is DEATH.”

As much fun as this was, the gravity of it began to sink in – Solon was ready to die. “What did he do?” my daughter asked.

He sat down and wrote an epic poem about the defeat at Salamis, I explained. He put on his hat, walked to the market, stood on a pedestal in front of everyone, and recited the entire story of the defeat. He might have even sung it, opera style.

“What happened to him?”

Pelopidas, from Plutarch
He persuaded a lot of Athenians that they should take back the island, I explained, and they pressured the rulers, who gave in — and Solon came up with a cunning plan to win this time. It was …umm … I hesitated.

“Yes?” she asked.

Well, I told her, you remember that part in Bugs Bunny where he dresses up like a woman, and his antagonist drops everything to come over and flirt with Bugs?

“Right?” she asked.

Well, I said, the Athenians did that.

There was a quiet pause. “You’re joking,” she said.

No, really, I said – according to Plutarch, they had their youngest, beardless soldiers dress up as girls and flirt with the Megarians, and when the Megarians jumped off their ships and ran onto the beach after them, the other Athenians leaped out with swords and yelled, “A-HA!” Or something to that effect.


After talking about the zaniness of these strategies for a while, I explained that Solon’s reputation continued to spread; he became so famous for his wisdom that he began attracting other great minds from nearby places. He became friends with Thales of Miletus, one of the first Greeks to come up with theories about how the world worked. He became friends with Aesop, who wrote the fables, and with Periander of Corinth – a group of them came to be known as the Seven Sages.

He even attracted the attention of a Scythian — Scythia included what we now call Russia, a world away in those days. The Scythian was Anacharsis, I told my daughter, who wanted to meet Solon so badly that he travelled all the way from Russia to Greece to meet him.

We acted out the scene: Solon hears a knock at the door, and opens it to find a strange foreigner greeting him. Solon! I said in a fake Russian accent. I have travelled all the way from Russia to meet you! You are famous there as great thinker – I am great thinker too! We should be friends!

“You know,” my daughter said, playing Solon, “around here we have a saying – if you want to make friends, you should start at home.”

Anacharsis slowly looked around. Is this your home? He asked.

“Um … yes,” Solon replied.

Then you can be friends with me! Anacharsis said exuberantly, hugging Solon.


Finally we got to how he created democracy. When the working-class people of Athens were suffering, and getting ready to revolt, the elites – unlike our elites today – decided they had to give up something to keep the peace. They turned to the one person everyone trusted – Solon – and made him dictator. What did he do once he came to power? I asked. Did he make himself king?

“No!” said my daughter emphatically, “He said everyone had to vote, create juries, and so on, and made everyone swear an oath to follow the rules of a democracy; no one could change them except him for ten years.

Then, after everyone had sworn, Solon said, ‘Good! Now I’m going on vacation – for ten years!’” Excellent, I said. And it worked – everyone was forced to work together, and no one could call on him to override the rules.


Before long there was trouble, though, I told her -- they almost lost their democracy when it had barely begun. Some Athenians wanted a local gangster named Peisistratus to be their ruler – remember that everyone was used to having a ruler, and not having to rule themselves.

“Piece-a-stratus?” my daughter repeated. “Did a Mr. Stratus have several kids, and he was one piece?”

Well, he was certainly a little piece-of-something, I said, and he came up with a cunning plan to take over Athens by force – three times.

My daughter looked perplexed. “You mean he came up with three plans, in case one didn’t work?”

No, I said – I mean he came up with a scheme to take over the city, and it worked, and he became dictator. Then the Athenians came up with their own plan to bring democracy back, and they kicked him out. Then Peisistratus came up with a second plan to take over, took over a second time, and they Athenians kicked him out a second time. Then he came up with a third plan …

“Um. Hang on,” she said. “He took over the city and became dictator three times in a row? And he
was never put in prison or anything?”

Prisons only became common recently, I said, and even now in most of the world they’re rarely used – the United States is an exception. Athens used to exile people if they got to be too much trouble, and everyone would vote on who to kick out of town. Except with Peisistratus it didn’t work – he kept coming back.

“Why did so many people let him take over?” she asked in disbelief.

The same reason people want strong leaders now, I said; if you just put your hero in charge, everyone can rally around the hero, and you can all just beat up the people you don’t like. Democracies, on the other hand, aren’t much fun – you have to listen to people you disagree with, and everyone has to make compromises that nobody likes.

“But if most Athenians wanted democracy, how did Peisistratus take over?” she asked.

By trickery, I said. First, he showed up with a shallow wound – Herodotus says he wounded himself – and said, “Oh, no! I’ve been attacked by my enemies! What kind of a people are we who let gangs with knives roam the streets!” I put the back of my hand to my forehead in a diva gesture.

“Why would he wound himself?” she asked.

Coriolanus, from a 19th-century children's version of Plutarch
It wasn’t a serious wound, I said, and it made everyone sympathise with him, so the Athenians let him walk around with bodyguards. Then Peisistratus hired fifty of his supporters, armed with clubs, to follow him around like an army.

“Fifty men!?” She said.

Yes, it was a bit excessive, wasn’t it? I said. Then Peisistratus showed up at the government building with his fifty armed men, and everybody let them in because they were his bodyguards. Then they took over the government office and made Peisistratus the ruler.

“They weren’t the brightest, were they, Athenians?” she said.

Well, they were a bit new at this, I said. Thankfully, they raised an army to defeat his bodyguards and kick him out.


“But he left the country and came back again?” she asked.

Well, he went off and made money somewhere else, doing basic gangster things, I said. Eventually he saved up enough for a chariot — covered in real gold, like gangster might have today – and started driving it back to Athens.

Again she looked dubious. “A gold chariot?!”

That’s right, I said. Then he hired a beautiful woman and dressed her up like Athena – patroness of Athens – and drove back on the road to Athens in the gleaming chariot, with the woman in front saying, I am Athena, your goddess – you should all have Peisistratus be your leader.

There was a pause. “You’re joking,” she said.

Seriously, I said, that’s what he did. It wouldn’t be the first time a politician said they had God on their side. And he took over again, and the Athenians kicked him out again.


“What about the last time?” she asked.

Well, I said, that time he and his supporters only had the power to take over the temple at the top of the hill, so they did that. The Athenians raised an army to stop him again, and they gathered around the hill, with Peisistratus and his men outnumbered at the top. Then Peisistratus came out to the front of the temple and said he had an announcement for everyone.

He stood at the steps of the temple, looking down the hill at the Athenian army gathered outside the temple grounds, raised his arms impressively, and shouted something that the Athenians couldn’t make out, I explained. So the Athenian army all shouted back, WHAAAAT? I always pictured it like the villagers in the film Young Frankenstein, talking to the police inspector.

I said, Peisistratus said, MUMBLE-MUMBLE-MUMBLE.

WHAAAAT? the Athenians all said. WE CAN’T HEAR YOU.

You’ll have to all come a little closer, Peisistratus said, so you can hear me. Come inside the temple grounds, and listen. I’ll have my men back off.

So Peisistratus’ men left, and the Athenians all left their weapons in a pile at the gate – they couldn’t carry weapons onto sacred ground – and all shuffled in and gathered around Peisistratus. Okay, they said, we’re here. What did you want to tell us?

What I was saying before, Peisistratus said, Is that we’re taking over the city. My men have just circled ‘round to the gate and taken all your weapons.

My daughter smacked her forehead. “D’OH!” she shouted, Homer Simpson style. “What a bunch of muppets! Please tell me they got smarter as they went.”

Everyone thinks they’re smarter, I said — wise people understand how little they really know.

We found these stories to offer comedy, intrigue and swashbuckling action, of course, but they offer something else. They show us a world where democracy, science and individual liberties had never existed even as ideas, and they show how difficult they were to create. They remind us that such things are not slogans, but acts, always fragile and often courageous.

By reading these stories, which inspired emperors and saints, soldiers and scholars through the ages, we create a lifeline between our troubled culture and theirs. We see them not as statues but as human characters in the great story, at least as foolish as we, and wrestling with some of the same dilemmas. When they find a way through their troubles, we realise that there is hope for us.