Sunday, 22 March 2020

Relaxing during a pandemic

This covers some of the same ground as the article, but I'm hoping people find it useful. Stay safe everyone!

Saturday, 14 March 2020

What to do when you're cooped up at home

Girls wearing masks in Helena, Montana during the 1918 flu, courtesy of "Helena As She Was" web site,
For the next few weeks, many of us here in Ireland – and possibly where you are -- will feel like we are in a permanent state of house arrest, working from home and looking after children kept home from school. Most of us are, rightly, staying away from crowds of people and making food at home, so most of us need to stock up on the basics durable foods that will keep over time – beans, lentils, rice, flour, salt, sugar and other staples.

Once, shopping meant shopping for these basic ingredients, which any home-maker knew to make into bread, soup, cakes and other goods. Vegetables came from the garden, and everyone had one of those just outside the kitchen door, fed every year with compost from the kitchen that had been allowed to rot into soil again. This basic cycle meant that every home was – to some extent --- a self-sufficient homestead, a self-contained Ark during any of life’s floods.

Floods come more often than we realise; since I moved to Ireland 15 years ago, we have seen fuel prices skyrocket, the crash of 2008, the country go bankrupt in 2010, and the housing crisis of recent years. We have seen scares around Ebola, SARS and now Coronavirus. We have seen planes grounded temporarily during the Icelandic volcano of 2010, and of course many individuals have seen their own personal crises. We will see many more crises in the years to come, as climate change increases and weather grows more extreme. Yet we think of preparedness as a fringe activity for people preparing for the End of the World – and, in fairness, there are people who do that.

Most of the crises we will encounter in life, though, are not the Big One – there probably never will be a Big One, in climate change, disease or any other area. We are entering an era of increased problems – what James Howard Kunstler called “The Long Emergency” – but  like the “Fall of Rome” or “The Industrial Revolution,” it will not be an event, but an era in which, most of the time, everything is normal, and life is only occasionally be punctuated by severe events. Only later will historians look back and see the overall trends.

In the meantime, don’t panic. New diseases crop up every year, as old strains mutate or jump from one species to another. Most are not serious. Most of the serious ones are contained quickly, and do not become pandemics. Even in the middle of a pandemic, most people do not get sick, and most people who get sick get better. There’s a small chance you might die from this, but only a very small one. Your chance of dying in the long run, of course, is 100 percent.
Of course wash your hands frequently, consume lots of vitamins, get a mask and keep a few months’ worth of stored food in the pantry. What foods you stock up will depend on your situation, but stock up on a mix of proteins (beans, meat, fish), starches (dried pasta, rice or flour) and vitamins (fruit, vegetables). We have vitamin pills, frozen veg in the freezer, along with root vegetables in the garden. Always keep your food in vermin-proof containers.  Stock up on medicine, soap, toothpaste, bandages and blankets, and have stores of potable water, just in case. If something happens to the water supply, you can make water filters using sand or charcoal, or with ultraviolet light – look up how to do that if you’re interested.

Collect information on what to do if hospitals are full, either for the flu or for anything else that might happen – one very good book on the subject is Where There Is No Doctor: A Village Health Care Handbook by Jane Maxwell, Carol Thuman and David Werner. It is used by WHO and UNICEF for their workers in the Third World, and deals with everything from injuries to childbirth. Brush up on traditional treatments – comfrey for headaches, plasters to aid breathing. They won’t cure the flu, but neither will antibiotics.

If all this sounds extreme, keep in mind that most of it will probably not be necessary, but there’s no harm in learning a bit more about these things just in case, for this outbreak or the next one that comes along. Modern medicine has blessed us with a lifespan and health far beyond most people in most places, but we are still mortal, and our modern lifestyles are likely to create new diseases faster. The world’s population has increased from two billion to seven billion in a single lifetime. Air travel has increased exponentially, so diseases that took centuries to travel across the medieval world now spread around the world in hours.
For the time being, we can use this opportunity; this is a good time to spend with family, play board games rather than video games, and catch up on reading books – including, preferably, some written more than a century ago. Right now I’m reading The Intellectual Life of the British Working Classes by Jonathan Rose, an academic work that is nonetheless fascinating for showing how extremely poor people created their own schools, libraries and debate societies that transformed their lives, offered a way out of poverty, and gave them something to live for even in the most extreme poverty.

I’m also catching up on old black-and-white movies, many of which have a lot better dialogue and characterisation than today’s blockbusters. Tonight I saw No Highway in the Sky, with Jimmy Stewart and Glynis Johns, and recently watched And Then There Were None, the excellent 1945 version of the Agatha Christie mystery.  

 If you have some staples to hand, you might want to try these filling and nutritious recipes.

Lentil soup
500g dried lentils
One large onion
Three cloves of garlic
Three large potatoes
One carrot
One leek
One stalk of celery
One litre of meat or vegetable stock
Salt and pepper to taste
Two teaspoons of marjoram
One-fourth of a teaspoon of thyme
One tablespoon of soy sauce
Two tablespoons of cider vinegar
Olive oil

Cut the leeks lengthwise and wash them out well, as grit tends to collect between their layers. Peel and dice the potatoes into bits two centimetres across Chop the onions, leeks, carrots, and celery about a centimetre across.
Pour some olive oil in a pot, and sautee the vegetables until they are soft, and add the potatoes. Add the lentils and stock, and add seasoning. Cook for 30 to 45 minutes until they are tender.
I sometimes add bits of fried meat to the soup for flavour, and serve with crusty bread.

Buttermilk pancakes
1.5 cups of flour
3 tablespoons sugar
1.5 teaspoons of baking powder
0.5 teaspoons of soda
0.5 teaspoons of salt
1.5 cups of buttermilk
Three tablespoons of melted butter
Two large eggs
0.5 teaspoons vanilla

First mix the dry ingredients in a bowl, then the wet ingredients in another bowl. Mix the two bowls together gently – it’s okay if the batter is a bit lumpy.
Melt a pat of butter in a cast iron pan with a few tablespoons of oil, and heat it on high heat – about 180 Centigrade. Pour the batter in from a height of five centimetres and turn the heat to low. Depending on the consistency of the batter it will either spread round by itself of need a little nudge with a spoon.
The first side is done when you see the bubbles rising all over the pancake, and then flip over the pancake. Cook it until the second side is lightly browned.
Pancakes can be kept for a half an hour or so before serving in a preheated oven at 90 degrees centigrade – for extra tenderness, brush them with melted butter.
Leftover pancakes can be allowed to cool, then sealed in an airtight container and frozen for up to one month. When removed they can be reheated by putting them into a microwave, although they tend to toughen a bit; they can also be put into a regular toaster.

Tuesday, 25 February 2020

Article published in American Conservative

For those who haven't yet been informed, most of my articles are not moving to the new web site and host of my ongoing projects, Old School School. I'll continue to update this site periodically.

Also, the American Conservative published my breakdown of the Irish election and the rise of Sinn Fein as our newest political force - read all about it here.

I'm continuing to interview elderly Irish about traditional ways of life: you can read the latest part of my interview with Jack here, talking about keeping cows and horses. 

I've also published my interview with my neighbour Angela, talking about a traditional childhood -- you can watch it here.

Finally, Mother Earth News has published my piece on preserving butter in an Irish bog - you can read the article here, watch the video here, and see the piece about it on British television here. It's an hour long, but my piece is mentioned around the 5:45 mark.

Thursday, 16 January 2020


Winter sky over Dublin. 
I'm focusing on the new web site, Old School School, for now, but I wanted to let everyone know that I will have some new articles at The American Conservative shortly.

My bog butter article will also be featured on the BBC show QI tomorrow; for those not in the UK area, it will probably be on Youtube soon.

I also have a number of videos up on the Youtube channel, including some excellent interviews with elderly neighbours. Check it out.

Sunday, 22 December 2019

The Mother Night

I hope everyone is doing well. I'm gradually adding to the new web site, Old School School, as well as the video channel, so check those out. I'll be publishing a lot more pieces in magazines in the near future, so I hope to reprint them here. In the meantime, Merry Christmas -- or whatever holiday this is for you -- to all.

Whether you grew up in Arizona or Australia, Florida or Johannesburg, you probably celebrated Christmas by displaying plants from Northern Europe – hanging holly, ivy and mistletoe in the house, and decorating an evergreen tree – whether they are appropriate for your climate or not. I used to wonder why these plants, and why Christmas was this time of year when we don’t actually know when Christ was born. Once I moved to rural Ireland, though, these things began to make sense.    

You see, I’ve mentioned that we are less than a thousand miles from the Arctic Circle, the same latitude as part of Alaska. We don’t think of Ireland as being so far north; it rarely snows or freezes here, because it’s an island surrounded by a current from the Caribbean, which keeps the temperature from getting too cold. But it never gets that warm either, and the seasonal light changes are extreme.

At Midsummer – the longest day of the year – you can walk around in twilight after 11 pm and before 4 am. Until we moved here, I never understood the title of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, his play in which lovers change their allegiances several times in a night. The longest day is the shortest night, so the title emphasizes how quickly love can turn – in a “Midsummer Night,” the equivalent of a “New York Minute.” 

Winter brings the opposite, with nights that can last for seventeen hours at a stretch, punctuated by not-quite-days of dim, low light, with the bare trees casting long shadows across a grey landscape. And those are the few hours of daylight before the long night comes again.

Where I live there are no streetlights, and until a few decades ago, no electricity at all, no light but candles and flames. As one Irish writer put it, “the nights were treacle-black, they haunted little children and big men alike. Outdoors was for spectres and hooved creatures with strange powers. Children of the long-legged day would look out petrified at the wild sea.”

In most of the Western world generations now have grown up with streetlights outside and houselights a flick away, and can little comprehend the unsettling power of long and absolute darkness.

No wonder people here used to spend the winters going from house to house, lantern or torch in hand, spending time with neighbours and singing songs, sharing dishes and telling stories. Even further back people here built some of the oldest monuments by humans – Newgrange just north of us, five thousand years old, and Stonehenge in England, built around the same time, and both aligned to mark the solstice of maximum darkness, what the Saxons would later call the Mother Night.

No wonder, then, that people here devoted the longest night to celebration, reminding each other that this too would pass. No wonder people brought indoors the plants that remained green and cheerful – holly, ivy, evergreens -- a reminder that the green world around us would return as the world was remade. No wonder it became the celebration day for the birth of Christ.

Christian holidays, like the faith itself, came to Europe from a very different culture and landscape, the desert lands to the far south and east. Once adopted by peoples of the long darkness, though, they were transformed. 

Whenever Christ was actually born, the obvious time to celebrate his birth was when -- after a long and harrowing plunge into the abyss -- the world seems to exhale, the days are born and grow again, and another year of life, with all its possibilities, appears before us.

Thursday, 31 October 2019


I have posted less often here lately for a couple of reasons: first, we've been having a lot of problems with our internet at home, so I can only publish when I'm at lunch from work or on the bus. Also, I've been pre-occupied with a lot of personal things; details aren't neccessary.

The most important reason, however, is quite a positive development; after writing for newspapers for more than two decades, a weekly column for 12 years and this blog for 11 years, I am trying a new venture to talk about traditional and self-reliant ways of life, called Old School School. The goal is to pull together not only my own writings from the last 20 years, but to publish interviews with a variety of other people who have embraced a simpler and more minimalist life.

The web site is still a work in progress, but I plan to have links to a wide variety of resources for people who see a difficult future ahead and want to prepare for it. I am deliberately reaching out to a variety of people: right and left, religious and secular, from many different countries, and I know that right there will drive a lot of people away these days. I hope it will attract some people as well, however, and even in these tense and polarised times, some people still want to put aside their differences and learn from each other.

I've also learned to create videos, and will be uploading some of the footage of my own family, as well as elderly Irish I've interviewed over the years, at the corresponding Youtube channel.

I'll still be updating this blog periodically, but I hope you'll check out the new ventures.

As for the rest of our lives, The Girl is almost an adult now, still doing archery and riding horses, and living the life of a teenager. If you've read this blog for a while, you've watched her grow up with me, as she finds her own life I'm slowly learning to let go.

Happy Irish New Year's Eve to everyone.

Saturday, 28 September 2019

Bog butter

I have a new project I'll be announcing soon, but first: I mentioned a while ago that the BBC programme QI, former hosted by Stephen Fry and now by Sandi Toksvig, will be featuring my bog butter experiment on the show. With that in mind, I thought I'd rewrite and extend this piece a bit. 

When most people picture Ireland, they picture green fields and old stone walls, and that’s true of some places. Ireland also has lots of bog, though – the Bog of Allen, where we live, stretches almost a thousand square kilometres across several counties. Bogs are difficult to get through – they have few roads or villages even today – so they could be isolated, mysterious places, where characters in folktales met giants and fairies, a place where a starving and subjugated people could hide, or hide things.

A bog is a natural wetland, like a swamp or marsh – the difference is that the water is very acidic, so most kinds of plants can’t grow there – but peat moss does very well. Vast areas get covered in peat moss, and as layers of moss die off new layers grow over them, so you get gradually thickening layers of organic matter. In most circumstances it would just decay and become soil, like most things that die – but it’s soaking in dark, acidic water where fungi, insects, even most bacteria can’t survive, so it doesn’t decompose.

Over thousands of years it gets squeezed into a dark red solid called peat, or “turf” here in Ireland. For centuries this was the main fuel here, and kept many a potato farmer warm on a chill evening. That’s why this canal was built in the 1700s – turf was strip-mined from the bog, dried, loaded on carts, pulled by donkeys on these rails, and loaded here on barges to be brought to warm the houses of Dublin. The history and future of turf as a source of energy deserves its own video, but the point here is: Dead things buried in the bog don’t rot, so it’s an ideal place to store things.

People around here still fish out trees that fell in centuries ago and carve their wood into ornaments; the bog-water stained the wood almost black, but it’s still wood. Turf-cutters here find human bodies sacrificed by Druids thousands of years ago, their skins blackened and cured like leather but with their faces still recognisable. This might have been the inspiration for the dead marshes in Lord of the Rings, where you could still see the bodies of the dead under the water.

So people dig up many things from the past in the bog and meant to come back for -- necklaces, coins, tools, swords, 1,200-year-old prayer-books. And sometimes they find stores of food, up to 3,000 years old and not only intact, but edible. Specifically, they find butter.

Bizarre as that sounds, more than 430 caches of butter have been found in the bog, some small as fists, some big as barrels. The aforementioned 3,000-year-old butter weighed more than 35 kilos, the size of a child. And many of the apparently very adventurers discoverers any such discoveries have been eaten, and were reported to be delicious.

This doesn’t even count all the buried gastronomic treasure still waiting out there. Since we can suppose that people buried their butter to unearth and eat it later, and usually did so, these hundreds of finds must represent the small proportion of times that their owners died or the locations forgotten. This must have been a rather commonplace activity.

So why butter, you ask? A surprising number of foods around the world are preserved by being buried in the ground, but they are usually dried foods in arid climates (cheese in Italy), or sub-Arctic countries where the ground is freezing (salmon in Sweden), or where the food is meant to ferment in some way (eggs in China). In this case it’s waterlogged ground, it would probably disintegrate in the water over time unless it’s naturally waterproof, like fat.

This might have been done with meat as well; Archaeologist Daniel C. Fisher buried various meats in a frozen pond and a peat bog for comparison, and found that after a year, the meat buried in the bog had no more bacteria than the frozen meat. If this sounds gross, keep in mind that fast-food burger you last ate might have been more than a year old.  

Also, butter makes a valuable and high-calorie food for poor agrarian people; with it you can fry food or preserve things like potted meats. It was also taxed in medieval times, so burying it could have been a kind of tax evasion.

The constantly-cold Irish bog would keep the butter solid, and it would only age like cheese; in fact, the one taste-tested by Irish schoolchildren was said to taste like well-aged cheese. Some people might simply have liked the taste.

I like to experiment with old ways of preserving food; I learned how to preserve fruit over winter, how to preserve eggs in lime-water or isinglass, how to pickle vegetables or learn which mushrooms are edible. But in all those things I had people around to show me; lots of my older neighbours still make their own jam or wine. I don’t know of anyone who’s ever tried this who could show me how. Thankfully, it’s pretty straightforward – all you need is to access to one of the world’s peat bogs, and I happen to live in the middle of one.  

My daughter and I made some butter at home, which anyone can do; you just pour milk and cream into a jar, put on some music and start shaking. We couldn’t fill it more than a quarter full or we would just get whipped cream, so we had to do this many times to get the three pounds . At some point the sound of the sloshing changes, and you get a solid clump of butter in the middle of the liquid. Traditionally Irish housewives would pat the butter dry of its remaining liquids, but we simply clarified it. 

Then we froze it to keep it solid, wrapped it in cheesecloth and a rope, walked about ten minutes from our house into the bog. I paced the steps first in one direction and then another to make sure I would remember the spot, and tied the rope to a nearby tree to I could find it again.

Seventeen months later we dug up the butter, and while the picture looks pretty disgusting, once we washed it off and unwrapped it the butter looked much the same – a little darker yellow and with an earthy smell, but not rancid.  

The taste was similar – recognizably butter, with a slightly earthy, cheesy flavour a bit like parmesan; it was particularly good over popcorn. It wasn’t something most modern people would choose to eat regularly, but for people who faced periodic famines, it was an ideal store for lean times.

Of course, this butter was only in the bog for 17 months, and the effects are probably very different over 3,000 years. So I’m burying more butter for a longer period of time – dozens of kilos -- and planning to unearth it in about three to five years, some further down the road. If anyone wants to buy some in advance, you can be one of the few people in the world who can say they had this ancient food.

Thursday, 5 September 2019

The last of his generation

It’s been an eventful few weeks, but before I wrote about anything else, I wanted to note the passing of my grandfather. A few years ago I wrote a piece commemorating my great-aunt Imy, leaving my grandfather the last of his generation. As much as I will miss him, I’m blessed to be one of the few men in their 40s who had a living grandfather – many of my peers don’t have living parents – and that he stayed with us into his mid-90s and passed quickly, surrounded by a large and loving family.

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, catching bluegill and throwing them back. Then we were caught in a surprise shower, and I remember watching with alarm the water collecting around our boots, and the view of the distant shore disappearing around us, replaced on all sides by grey sheets of rain. My grandfather calmly rowed us to safety, and we trudged home.  

I remember staying at my grandparents’ house, watching him staying up late reading or laying out blueprints; I remember his voice carrying over the crowd as he played cards with cousins and neighbours; griping at recalcitrant vegetables that he grew in the backyard; taking part in his local library board or Kiwanis; meeting and becoming friends with his neighbours wherever he lived. He was the kind of civic American that Robert Putnam wrote about in Bowling Alone, the kind we don't have enough of anymore. 

He grew up during the Great Depression, entered the Army in World War II, trained as a mechanic and repaired airplanes during the war. When the war ended he studied to be an engineer on the GI Bill, met my grandmother, married her and had my father, all in what must have been a whirlwind few years. 

They didn’t start out with much; he used to tell me how their low-rent neighbourhood flooded one summer, and their apartment was knee-deep in water. He had to keep the furniture raised on blocks and store his clothes on upper shelves, he said, and a neighbour with a boat came along every morning and took him to work, but he went to work all the same.

Eventually he founded his own surveying and engineering company, and surveyed the foundations for what would become Busch Stadium and the St. Louis Arch. He and my late grandmother had three more children -- my amazing aunts -- and the family eventually swelled with children and grandchildren.  

I came back to Ireland with a stack of things he left me – his slide rule, his pipe, his book of Gilbert and Sullivan lyrics, his Carl Sandburg biography of Lincoln. And a lot of memories. I couldn’t make it to America for the wake, but apparently hundreds of people came, including people who hadn’t seen him in many decades. He left quite an impression in this world, and his passing is the end of an era.  

Tuesday, 6 August 2019

Traveling in the UK

My friends' homestead in the Welsh mountains. 

I traveled through the UK a few weeks ago visiting friends, all of whom were living remarkable lives and making the world better in their own way. One couple in rural Wales, for example, have a background in studying climate change, and wanted to live a more sustainable life; to do this, they turned a secluded hollow of the Welsh mountains into self-reliant homesteads.

They bought land with several friends of theirs, divided it among them, and each grow their own food, raise animals, keep bees, and created ties with the local Welsh community. They built homes out of timber frames and straw-bale walls. Straw sounds like a strange building material, but actually has tremendous potential for the future; when compressed into bales it is as strong as wood, and is no more or less flammable. It is also cheap, does not require cutting trees, and is an excellent insulator. My friends built a timber frame -- although similar structures could be made from other materials – and the straw bales formed the walls. Once a waterproof plaster coated the outside, no one could tell that the house was made of straw, and the bales were protected from moisture.

The very friendly pub in Pembroke, Wales
While in London I met with a group of people who met through John Michael Greer's blog, and who meet occasionally to share their experiences and ideas. They were all from the UK, mostly London -- I was the only one coming from Ireland -- and were working through different community groups and political parties to prepare their communities for the difficult times ahead. On this occasion we also listened to an interesting journalist, who had spent a great deal of time in the jungles of Guyana reporting on the tribal/gang warfare taking place there.

I was only able to visit them because I was taking a ferry and train to London, which pollutes a lot less than flying in a plane. Air travel has become so quick and convenient that many people treat it as driving a car, but all that flying is catching up with us, as it’s a major contributor to climate change. Taking a train uses a lot less fuel, even  if it takes longer, and it allows you to stop along the way, visit friends, and actually see the beaches and green cliffs of the country you’re visiting.

Many people go to other countries and stay at hotels, but I prefer hostels, which this weekend offered me a bunk and locker for only 12 pounds a night. Most hostels require visitors to sleep in rooms with several other people, but this is not as difficult as it might sound; most hostel guests respect the privacy and sleeping habits of others and, as they are spending the day working or having fun, use their rooms only for sleeping.

Hostels also offer the chance to mingle with other guests in a way that hotels do not. Since most people in hostels use their rooms only for sleeping, and spend their time at the hostel sitting in common rooms, hostel guests have the opportunity to chat with young or otherwise adventurous visitors from many countries, many of whom have great stories to tell.

You might think that seeing a foreign city would be expensive, and every city is different. In many cities, though, the most amazing sites are the statues, buildings, rivers, bridges and public parks, and those are almost always free. Touring them, also, does not have to be expensive; I rented a bicycle in London for two pounds a day, and got to see a lot of neighbourhoods with more ease than I would with a car, and with more freedom than I would with a bus tour.

On earlier trips I made a point of seeing Shakespeare at the Globe -- I got to see the infamous version of Titus Andronicus where audience members fainted and had to be carted away in ambulances. Another time I got very inexpensive tickets to Lillian Hellman's The Children's Hour, with Kiera Knightly and Elizabeth Moss. Still other times I toured the Natural History Museum, like a cathedral to the natural wonders of the world, or the many exhibits at the Victoria and Albert Museum. This time I wasn't seeking out tourist attractions, but looking to enjoy the varying neighbourhoods of London up close. 

The only tourist attraction I really saw -- almost by accident, stumbling across it -- was Abbey Road, the crossing of the famous Beatles album cover -- which is not much to see, honestly, and misguided visitors have defaced the surrounding area with graffiti. You wouldn't want to live anywhere near it. 
One of the plaques you see everywhere in London.
There's history on every corner. 

Eating out in London is quite an expensive proposition, so I bought nuts and fruit to tide me along through the day, and was able to keep myself full with healthy snacks for only a few pounds a day. We tend to pay more for food when we are hungry, intuitively enough, and take less time to enjoy the food. By doing that, I was able to savour the restaurants I did visit, and neither overeat there nor pay too much.  

Travel won't always be as convenient as it is now, so I’m enjoying it while I can, in the greenest way possible. Holidays abroad tend to be stressful times for many families, but life is too short not to take it easy and enjoy them.