Saturday, 23 September 2023

Thatched roofs

Most of us take for granted that we will spend most of our lives paying off other people that we paid to build our homes, yet until historically yesterday people made their own homes. They built with wattle-and-daub, cob, with squares of turf, with stones, bricks or planks of wood, using whatever they had; everyone knew a carpenter or mason, John Curran remembered, and they pooled their resources, and houses, farm buildings, and stonewalls were constructed when required.”

Some of those building materials could be superior to what we use today. In rural Ireland I once helped sculpt a house out of cob, a wet mix of sand, clay and straw that holds together like concrete, and can be far more durable. The house began with stone walls that went up to waist height, as cob needs to be raised above the damp. Then we heaped the wet cob mix on top of the stone walls one lump at a time – “cob” is from an Old English word for “lump” – and then trod them down in our bare feet. Bit by bit, the walls got higher, until we could lay a roof on top. After the walls are given a plaster finish, the house can look just like any other, but made at a fraction of the cost, as it uses the simplest and cheapest material on Earth -- earth itself. Despite this, they can last hundreds of years; Sir Walter Raleigh’s palatial mansion was built of cob, and still stands after 500 years.

Many farmers in my native USA make homes out of straw bales, which are as fire-resistant as wood and which are superb insulators. Here, though, straw was put to other uses.

“Ninety-five percent of the houses at that time were thatched, and I can tell you they were warm comfortable houses,” John Lydon remembered. “The fireplace was almost as wide as the house, and there was always a huge turf-fire blazing in the centre, which drove heat all over the kitchen. 

The straw from a thatched roof was free from the fields; some roofs even had scarecrows to keep birds from stealing bits for their nests. Local saplings were cut, bent and tucked into place to secure the straw so tightly that the fiercest winds couldn’t dislodge it. Nor, in this damp climate, was it a fire hazard. The roofs lasted several years until moss started growing over the straw, staining the rain green as it streaked down the white sides of the cottages.

Thatchers were “usually lithe and agile to facilitate climbing on roofs that were often fragile,” Joe Keane said. “He chose his materials with great care to ensure durability against harsh winters. The thatched roofs of Irish cottages were aesthetically pleasing and ecologically sustainable.”

“The old-time thatchers could turn their skills with straw to other areas, and one of these was apparently the weaving of mattresses which were said to be of such quality that they would last for years: some of them had even mastered the difficult art of making conical ‘bee skeps’ out of straw,” Maurice McAleese said. “When a thatcher succeeded in weaving a skep he could consider himself as being at the head of his trade.”

Even if you don’t want a thatched roof, you could make a green roof. Cultivating plants on your roof creates a patch of natural habitat, partially replacing what was destroyed to create the building in the first place. They provide food for bees and other miniature helpers who will fertilise your garden. They help insulate your home, which can spare you heating and cooling costs. Finally, they look brilliant.

To create one people generally cover an ordinary roof with some kind of lightweight plastic, like pool liner, and spread thin but fertile soil on top of that. The soil should be laced with grass and other seeds, and over the soil should stretch fleece to stop erosion until the plants grow.

These roofs do not have to just carry grass, which is one of the hardiest of plants. They could carry wildflowers as well, which would create a striking cover for your home as well as fodder for insects. I urban tenants who are even using their roofs for beehives, allowing the bees to pollinate urban gardens while allowing them to steer clear of passing humans. If you grow hanging plants like nasturtiums, you could even have the plants hang over the sides of your roof, creating awnings and shaded walkways in the seasons you need them most.

Friday, 15 September 2023


 Hear the word “farmland,” and you think of rows of crops on tilled flat land, a foot or two high, sown every spring and harvested every fall. This is what most farms look like today – tractors, straight lines, production maximized for efficiency.

It’s a system that has worked well for many cultures for thousands of years, but it has limitations. Every year seeds must be saved, land tilled, weeds pulled and pests eradicated, so farming has been a laborious business. Each harvest yields a glut of food that must be preserved or processed to last the rest of the year. Farmland tends to be monoculture, scoured of trees and the cornucopia of plants and animals found in the wild.

Producing food this way works best on a grand scale, so farms have become ever larger, further removed from the experience of most people. Such methods require fossil fuels to run the tractors, make the pesticides and process the harvest into Cheesy Poofs. Farmers have been forced to find more and more creative ways to fend off the pests and diseases that evolve past our defences.

There is another approach, however: permaculture, developed in the 1970s by Australians Bill Mollison and David Holmgren to replicate some of Nature’s diversity, but using plants and animals people can eat. Permaculturists generally prefer perennials, plants that do not need to be sown and harvested over and over, and strive to create a self-sustaining landscape that generates a maximum of food but requires a minimum of maintenance.

Permaculture uses many different species together, treating them not as individual products but as components of a living system; for example, one plant might gain from nutrients its neighbour produces, or one plant might produce a scent that wards pests off the others.

The details depend on the climate and natural flora, but a good example is the forest garden. A permaculture grower might plant trees that produce nuts – according to Holmgren, a forest of walnut trees can produce as much food as the same acreage of wheat. Under the trees one can grow shade-loving plants, to create another layer of crops in the understory. Vines that produce berries can be trained to run up trunks and fences. With many varieties of plants close together, moreover, you can harvest throughout the year, gathering leaves or buds in spring, summer crops, fruit and nuts in autumn.

The various plants help each other, taking different nutrients so do not compete. They also help keep different pests away, as the smell of one plant not only repels insects from it, but from the plants around it. By planting them alongside each other we let Nature do some of our heavy lifting.

One of permaculture’s most basic principles is that gardens should require a minimum of input and generate no waste – vitals like water and nutrients should be used and re-used within the system. For example, Holmgren recommends keeping chickens inside a greenhouse if the weather is not too hot: the chickens keep warm inside, and in turn help keep the greenhouse warm with their body heat. They scratch through the soil, eat the young weeds and pests and their manure fertilizes the ground.

Mollison uses another example from his own land, when he needed more fertilizer: he planted berries across his roof, which not only provided food, beauty, shade and insulation, but attracted birds – which promptly fertilized everything in sight.

Thursday, 7 September 2023

Published at Quillette

I'm delighted to report that the fantastic magazine Quillette has published my piece on classical education -- check it out.

Wednesday, 30 August 2023



Every late summer the boglands and canal-banks of County Kildare erupt in creamy-yellow 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.”

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 meadowsweet jam.

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.

Meadowsweet grows across Europe and has been introduced to North America, so look around for it if you live in those places. Perhaps nowhere, though, does it grow so profusely as in Ireland, where these last days of summer are the final chance to pick some.


Tuesday, 22 August 2023

The Shifting Baseline of our Memories

One of my first memories – I couldn’t have been more than four – was of fishing with my grandfather in a rowboat on a warm summer lake. We were catching bluegill, and I remember his calloused hands delicately removing the hook from their heads, and feeling them squirm in my hands before we threw them back.

Then we were caught in a surprise shower, and I remember watching with alarm as the shores in the distance were replaced by grey curtains of rain. To my child’s eyes we seemed to be adrift and blind, unable to see the way home, and with water collecting around my boots. My grandfather calmly rowed us back to shore; he was a man, and capable.

Most of us who love Nature today can trace it back to some transcendent experience like this; feeling the tingle of distant lightning, or the smell of rain, or the cries of animals in the darkness, or the sight of a breeze rippling an ocean of green barley, or helping a sheep give bloody birth.

Today, however, few children run with magnifying glasses through the woods; in one generation British children went from half its children playing in wild places to one in ten, and in the USA kids with outdoor hobbies fell by half. We also struggle to get kids interested in the sciences, and the usual explanation is that the children don’t have enough “information,” which we think comes through screens. But children today already spend most of their lives in front of screens; they grow up gorging on images and data with no meaning to them, creating a kind of mental obesity that should not be mistaken for education.

As British naturalist and television presenter Chris Packham said, “I’ve lived in a house for eight years, and have walked my dogs in the woods every day, and I’ve never seen a child in those woods, not one in eight years – not one with an air rifle, not one building camps, starting fires, collecting birds’ eggs, climbing trees or all the things kids did when I was younger. If they can’t get stung, slimed and bitten by it, they’ll never love it enough to want to look after it.”

Ironically, we now push for children to become eco-conscious at the same time that we shut them away from any real experience with the natural world. I know many young environmental activists who care deeply about the environment, but know it mostly through screens. Richard Louv, author of Last Child in the Woods, describes ecologists who have never seen the communities they model, which is like a heart surgeon never having seen an actual heart. (Last Child in the Woods, 225)

If few of us know the animals and plants around us, fewer still could say how much they have declined, as we don’t realise how much there used to be. This isn’t simply speculation; Lizzie Jones at the University of London compared the population records of various bird species back several decades, and then asked more than 900 people of all ages to estimate the populations now versus when they were teenagers. Since the younger you are, the fewer years have passed, you’d think the youngest participants would have the best estimates. In fact, the opposite was true – perhaps because older people used to know the natural world better than we do today, or perhaps because they could see more of a change in their longer lifetimes.

Many elders complained that they can no longer hear the sounds of their childhood around them, like the birds whose calls marked the passage of seasons. Recalling the larks that rose from her neighbour’s house, Francie Murray said that “the experience that I describe is a privilege that is denied to the youth of today. The skylark is long since extinct, his demise brought on by modern technology on the farm. The lark built his nest on the open ground in the meadows of the countryside there there is little or no protection from big machinery, fertilisers and sprays which are a feature of present-day farming.”

Daniel Pauly at the University of British Columbia called this “shifting baseline syndrome,” where everyone thinks of the “normal” baseline as whatever they grew up with; he cites photos of fishermen in Florida over decades, who posed equally proudly with ever-shrinking catches. 

(“Young people can't remember how much more wildlife there used to be,” Environment 11 December 2019)


Tuesday, 15 August 2023

Sunday, 13 August 2023

Homeschooling with the Classics


Every night I read the classics of Ancient Greece to my daughter, which you might think will be dull for a child. On the contrary: The Greeks were funny. The other night, we read Plutarch’s biography of Solon, for example — the man most credited for inventing democracy in Athens – and acted out his defiance of the Athenian 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. 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. That news delighted my daughter, and soon we acted out a new scene of our impromptu 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, or rapped it.

“What happened to him?”

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 …

“Yes?” she asked.

I paused, not sure how to proceed. 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 then the other Athenians leaped out with swords and yelled, “A-HA!”

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 when the city was about to erupt in civil war, the people and the leaders turned to him. He was the one person everyone trusted.

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!’”

Once many students read stories like this, from Roman scholars to Victorian schoolboys to American pioneers; these days I have to introduce them to my daughter through home-schooling. Reading the Ancient Greeks presents no great chore, though, as many of their stories are as melodramatic as any soap opera, and with the occasional screwball turn into pure comedy.

Reading these installments of their true-life melodrama, I wonder why we stopped teaching the classics. These stories link us culturally to the hundreds of generations who read them before, so that when everyone from Roman scholars to Victorian schoolboys to American pioneers quote Pericles or Thucydides, we understand the reference.

These stories take the things we would see in any small town or neighbourhood today — elections, libraries, theatre – and tell us how they began, on rocky outcroppings 26 centuries ago. It cures us of the notion that we are special or superior to our forebears; rather, it helps us know the people on whose shoulders we stand.


Tuesday, 11 July 2023

Building Homes from Straw


Interior of a straw-bale home. Photo by Sean Maxwell.   


One of the most energy-intensive human activities is building – and for most of us, that means building houses. BBC programmes like “Grand Designs” feature all manner of energy-efficient homes, some of them very creative and high-tech – but one of the most promising building methods comes straight out of the 19th-century American frontier. Despite what you might remember from the Three Little Pigs nursery rhymes, one of the best building materials is ... straw. 

Typically the house has a frame of wooden beams, and then straw bales are used to create the walls, and the straw plastered over to create an adobe effect. Americans in the Old West used this technique to build homes, barns, and even churches, and while the approach was abandoned for decades, builders have realized how sturdy, cheap and ecological most of these homes were.

Straw is plentiful; Ireland alone could probably produce enough straw to meet most of its building needs, without importing any more materials or clearing any more forests. It can form load-bearing walls or can simply insulate. It is lightweight and easy to transport to a building site, unlike steel or stone.

It is easy to work with, and – if you use the old-fashioned, human-sized straw bales -- can be stacked and plastered by amateurs. Unlike most building materials, it contains no toxins that seep out over time. Gathering and baling it does no damage to the environment, and the building waste can be made into mulch. The building material can be cut and shaped with a simple chainsaw or even a regular saw, allowing virtually any shape of house.

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. The material has a natural trombe effect, allowing it to store heat or coolness and release it to keep your home’s temperature comfortable.

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.

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.

In addition, they are beautiful. Since the walls are thick, they create deep niches for plant-boxes or window seats, and the plastered exteriors look rustic and natural but clean and satisfying.

Straw-bale homes are not perfect; the walls must be kept free of moisture, so most such homes would need decks in rainy Ireland. Pests and rodents might also be tempted to take up residence – although that has been the case in most homes here, straw or not.

I’m told by people who have tried this in Ireland – off-grid, so I won’t name them – that bales should not be used as load-bearing walls, which in retrospect was not a good idea. It’s better to have a strong frame and let the bales form the walls, as bales themselves can warp out of shape or shift over time. It also means that a wall damaged by moisture can be taken out and a new wall installed quite easily.

I visited a couple in rural Wales, two scientists who had worked on climate change for many years and wanted to build a sustainable community. They and three other families bought some land and built gardens, raised animals and, most importantly, built four straw-bale homes quite quickly and easily – all themselves, while never having worked on such a project before and with no professional building experience. The homes cost them a miniscule amount compared to most homes, and as their insulation is so thick, their heating costs are also tiny. Now, several years after their homes were built, they are all in great shape, and they had no expensive mortgages to pay off.

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.




Sunday, 11 June 2023

The Lives of Others

If you could boil our global problems down to seven words, they might be these: we don’t see where stuff comes from. We grow up staring at screens without ever seeing the coal plants that power them,  speed down motorways without ever visiting the oil derricks that fuel them, and eat the equivalent of several animals a year without having to wrestle them or smell blood. Like most things in our lives, our food just magically appears, brought by strangers.

That last example hit home for modern Irish several years ago, after the government tested frozen burgers from a major supplier and found that some of the alleged beef was actually horsemeat. The day after the story made headlines the top grocery chain here lost half a billion dollars in stock, and the next few months saw a reporter’s dream of press conferences, apologies, arrests, pledges and retests.

Of course, horsemeat is not harmful, and little different than cow, as evidenced by the fact that no one can tell which one they ate. Nor is it illegal; rather, the emotional punch – and inevitable punch-lines – that came from the idea of eating Black Beauty obscured more important details, like the fact that governments and stores can’t tell where much of the meat came from -- an especially sore point in the UK, which had already dealt with outbreaks of hoof-and-mouth and  mad cow disease. 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, it might not have been. (“How the horsemeat scandal unfolded – timeline,” Guardian newspaper, 15 Feb 2013.)

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 the vast mechanised factories of reality, or supply chains so long and cobwebby that we can’t find out what kind of animal it used to be, or in what part of the world.

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 our primate ancestors to become 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.

Yet such concentrated nutrition comes with risks; many of our human diseases come from domesticated animals, from the Stone Age up to (perhaps) the COVID-19 pandemic. When Europeans first encountered the Americas and Australia, they inadvertently brought ten thousand years of accumulated diseases to which they had built up immunity but the natives had not; wiping out 95 per cent of the native population in the largest mass death in human history.

Meat means life and death, so many of our religions bind us with meat taboos -- Jews and Muslims ban pig meat, Hindus cow meat, and Catholics all meat on Fridays and through Lent. Our rituals invoke the body and blood of the Word made flesh.

Because meat was so precious, most of our ancestors appreciated a lot more variety than we do: frogs and snails, pigeons and ducks, liver and heart. Old women in Dublin talked about making the cheapest meats – sheep’s heads and cow’s heads – into stew, or buying rabbits for pennies, or giving the children the heart and liver as a treat, or munching on pig’s feet in the cinema. On farms men killed one of their pigs every fall to feed them over winter, all the local wives gathered to turn it into sausage and bacon,
Francis Quinn said, and “there was none of the pig went to waste.”

Most people today could never endure such honesty about what we are eating. “The implications of having a pig in the window, head and all, could not be done nowadays,” said butcher Eugene Kierans. “People cannot tolerate the idea of what they are eating, yet they can turn on the telly and watch people getting blown up... I find it most peculiar.” (DocArchive: A Butcher's Tale – 2009)

In rural Ireland, most villages also have a butcher, and mine now features a sign about how he buys only from the local farmers. He actually gives me more meat than I ask for, knowing that I 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 if we want to know where our meat comes from, we will need to backyard chickens, vacant-lot pigs and cows, and people who know how to make the most of them. And we need more people like my farmer friend, who I met 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. His small scale makes the butcher more expensive, but that’s as it should be. 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.