Sunday 27 December 2009


I'm about a week late in announcing this, but the Dallas Morning News published an article of mine recently -- it was a condensed version of the one that apppeared in Front Porch Republic a few weeks ago. My sincere thanks to the DMN editors and to the departing Rod Dreher, whose blog is one of the few I check daily.

I'm taking a break for a few days while we try to get proper Internet out here. See you in the new year. Have good holidays.

Saturday 26 December 2009

White Christmas

Snow and ice are rare in Ireland -- the winter hovers just a few degrees above freezing -- so no one we know here can remember a white Christmas.

But today, temperatures dropped to several degrees below, the lowest I've ever heard of here. There was a brief moment of real snow on Christmas Day, and everything around us is frosted.

Photo: Our elderberries in ice.

Monday 21 December 2009

Friday 18 December 2009

We move in Monday

... to our new house, on our land by the canal. It has been more than two years of work, but the house is almost complete. This weekend we need to spend all our time oiling floors, finishing up details, cleaning everything in the new house, packing our things in the old house, and after that, moving all our belongings.

I might not be blogging a lot. Stay tuned.

Monday 14 December 2009

Eating snails

Attitudes toward food change constantly, and perfectly edible food that is shunned in one era might be highly prized in another. Early European colonists in America almost starved before eating the lobsters all around them, and even then they were considered disgusting, used only for feeding prisoners and servants and baiting fishhooks. Only about a hundred years ago did lobster become prized as a delicacy, until today it drives an industry worth $280 million in America alone.

People today have similarly strange attitudes towards snails. They command a high price in expensive restaurants, where they are shipped in from France at great cost – yet we might have hundreds of identical snails in our own garden, and try to get rid of them.

The common snails seen in Irish gardens are the same species as restaurant snails, and are perfectly edible – you are not likely to see the few bad-tasting or endangered species. In fact, that's how they came to be on the islands -- they are not native to Britain or Ireland, and were brought to England by Romans specifically for breeding and eating, only to get loose -- as rabbits would do under the Normans a thousand years later, and grey squirrels a thousand years after that.

To this day, a few people here raise them in their homes or gardens for profit or food, and they are about the lowest-maintenance livestock – if that’s the word – that you can keep.

Snails love to crawl up wet walls and can often be seen in large numbers after a rain – in the day, or when it’s drier, they wedge themselves in crevices and hide in their shells. Take some children with you, and gathering them will be as fun as finding Easter eggs.

Even snails raised in the safest environments would need to be starved for at least two or three days, and these days there is a particular danger they may have eaten poison or pesticides, so keep them at home and feed them for a while until anything bad has passed out of their system. I keep mine in a plastic tub with air holes for a few weeks, and each day I clean out the tub and give them slices of organic carrot. Some recommend only a week or two to clean out the toxins, but I like to be on the safe side. Don’t give them any food in the last few days before cooking them.

To cook snails, wash them and place them to one side and boil some water. Snails don’t have much of a brain stem, but if you are concerned about their feeling pain you can place them in the refrigerator while the water boils, and they will go to sleep.

I toss them in the boiling water for about ten minutes, pour them into a strainer, run them under cold water, and with a skewer fish them out of the shell. Cut away the gall, the last piece to come out of the shell.

I like to fry a few slivers of finely-sliced rashers (bacon) in a pan and fry for a few minutes until they are lightly done. Then I toss in a heap of de-shelled snails, stir and cook for about ten more minutes.

I add some spices and finely-chopped scallions about five minutes in, a big colander of washed parsley right before the end and sautee the lot for a minute or so. Finally, I glaze the pan with lemon juice. I then serve them over diced salad with avocados. You, of course, can experiment with whatever way you like best.

Saturday 12 December 2009

Sunday 6 December 2009

I'm also appearing

... over at the admirable web site Front Port Republic, which has run this article of mine.

If you are not familiar with FPR, it is a haven for "crunchy cons," old-fashioned conservatives, distributists, conservationists, agrarians, Luddites and a diversity of other thinkers. They tend to be genuinely conservative in a way that modern neocons are absolutely not, but lie as far outside the US media's left-right spectrum as Duluth and Biloxi lie outside the St. Louis/Kansas City spectrum.

Friday 4 December 2009


People have worked out relationships with all kinds of animals – cows and other grazers for milk, chickens and other birds for eggs – and we care for them in exchange for a share of what they produce naturally. We have very few relationships, though, with the vast majority of animals, the insects. Except for silk caterpillars, raised by specialists, there is only one insect that most of us can cultivate – bees.

People have probably been keeping bees for thousands of years, giving them a place to live in exchange for a share of their honey. For most of that time, though, they were kept in simple containers like skeps – essentially baskets – which had to be broken and the hive destroyed any time the honey was harvested. In 1852, a Pennsylvania vicar invented the beehive that is still used today – a wooden box with several frames inside that the bees can use to make honeycombs, without sealing the frames together. Each frame can be pulled out and checked, the bees inspected for disease and progress, and the honey extracted, all with only a brief disruption to the hive.

Bee hives can be kept easily on a small plot of land, and some people keep them in their back gardens. Most bees will forage for pollen in a radius of several miles, so it doesn’t matter much if a hive is located near homes. All the same, most bee experts recommend keeping the beehive inconspicuous and pointing away from neighbour’s driveways, so the bees’ runway flight is not likely to get in people’s personal space.

Honey is the most obvious advantage to keeping bees, and the honey can also be made into mead, or honey wine. But bees also produce wax that can be used for everything from candles to skin creams – some people chew it like bubblegum. Also, bees of course have the natural function of pollinating plants, and most beekeepers say their garden yields increase dramatically once they have a hive nearby.

What would ordinarily be a diverting hobby takes on a special urgency, of course, because so many bees around the world -- the source of so many of our crops -- are dying from obscure causes.

Most beekeepers recommend placing the hive on the north-facing side of a windbreak, open to the southeast sun so the bees get warm as early as possible in the morning. The hive should be level on dry land, and water should be set nearby so they can get a drink – one beekeeper recommends putting a small bucket of water nearby with a piece of Styrofoam floating on top, so the bees can have a place to stand while they drink.

To get started, you need a few basic materials. Of course you need a hive, and you also need a bee suit, gloves and a smoker – the smoke keeps the bees calm while the beekeeper does their work. Most of these materials can be purchased for a few hundred euros from any one of a dozen or so companies.

I can’t speak about beekeeping from firsthand experience, but I plan for that to change this spring. By March or so, I hope to give a step-by-step account of how to set up one’s own hive – and perhaps what not to do.

Wednesday 2 December 2009

Churchyard in fog

Along with the high waters our area saw dense fog the other night, here billowing around the Madonna.

Monday 30 November 2009

And the waters prevailed

I might be repeating myself with so many water images, but that's what we're getting right now. Rivers that ordinarily creep gently under towns are now crawling the high stone walls that bind them. This is another photo of the River Liffey running through a nearby town, and you see how far the river has climbed up the trees.

Last week the floods were still something on the news, from the West Country and from England. Now some people have been evacuated in our own village, and we called friends of ours in the next village over to see if they are okay.

In one town, the river demolished a 300-year-old bridge, the only connection between the town's two sides. Rescue crews had to thread an emergency pipe across where the bridge used to be -- ironically a water pipe, so the villagers on the other side can drink safely.

I remember well living in Missouri during the Flood of '93, when hundreds of people worked to build a wall of sandbags between the river and Jefferson City. I remember driving with a friend through wooded country and having to stop the car suddenly when the trees ended -- there was water almost to the horizon, with telephone poles and electrical towers poking through here and there. I visited my old state in 2008, when highways across the floodplain were closed, covered either by the second 500-year flood in 15 years or by animals driven out of their habitat by the waters.

This is said to be Ireland's worst flood in 800 years, and while the country is much smaller in scale, this might be proportionately greater than those Midwest floods were.

In Missouri the river settlements and levees may only have been a few decades old, and people could chalk up a flood like that of '93 to the chaotic river's cycle. Here, though, towns date to the Middle Ages, if not to Roman or Celtic times, and the walls lining the rivers were set at their heights long ago and for a reason.

This is not just a rainy day. This is not normal.

I don't mean that this is a 2012-style deluge. Too many people, when writing about climate change, peak oil or other aspects of the Long Emergency, reflexively invoking Hollywood versions of the apocalypse.

The reality might look more like what we are seeing -- a few houses flooded that were never before. Towns slowly retreating from some rivers and most seashores. Christmas season a bit "worse" and more traditional than they used to be. I would venture that the Long Emergency might take lifetimes, long stretches of normal life punctuated by moments of crisis.

Perhaps next week the 800-year flood will recede, and people will return to their homes. And we will forget, and dream that we are in control.

Sunday 29 November 2009


A Republican friend of mine sent me a Youtube link a while ago – one that I can’t find at the moment, but that has been making the rounds in conservative circles. In it, a climate denier makes an impassioned speech against an unnamed upcoming treaty, which he said would force the USA to submit to a one-world government, signalling the end of America as a sovereign nation.

My friend, a good and intelligent man who was sceptical of these claims, wanted to hear my take on it. Here is what I wrote back:

He seems to be referring to the Copenhagen Conference on Climate Change, which starts Dec. 7. This is a big deal, because it could be the first treaty that really makes an impact on the worsening crisis.

First, a little bit about the climate situation. People have known for a hundred years that carbon dioxide from our civilization would cause carbon dioxide levels to rise and the Earth would get hotter. Arrhenius first predicted this in the late 19th century, and I have on my shelf a childhood science book, "The World We Live In," from 1955, which states that CO2 from cars and factories would make the Earth hotter in the 21st century. It was not considered a controversial statement.

In the last several years, though, three things have changed: first, scientific findings have begun predicting much worse changes ahead because of "feedback loops" -- for example, that scientists discovered that melting permafrost in Siberia would release massive amounts of greenhouse gas. Second, recent events have made scientists think they underestimated the speed of the change -- for example, the so-called Larsen B part of the West Antarctic ice sheet was not supposed to disappear for 100 years, and it took 30 days in 2002 to fall apart. Third, this has broken into public consciousness as a major issue.

Up until now, many people have criticised the USA as being not only one of the major contributors to climate change, but the big foot-dragger in signing treaties to control it. Now, with climate experts getting seriously worried, climate activism at an all-time high, and a new president ostensibly sympathetic to a climate treaty, many people are excited about what could be accomplished at Copenhagen.

As for the charges that this could infringe on US freedom -- well, I've skimmed over the treaty, and I'm not too worried. Here is a copy of it:

It’s hypothetically possible, but that would be true of any international treaty, and it never works that way. There are few specifics in the treaty, and what there is doesn't seem enforceable. The US government has generally gone its own way, even against world opinion, and as the US government has more military than the rest of the world combined, it would be difficult for anyone to force it to do anything it doesn't want to do. Most climatologists are more concerned that any Copenhagen agreement will be toothless and have no effect. Likewise, I would be more worried about things like the Patriot Act -- the US government having too much power, not too little.

Finally, if the US were obliged to cut back on climate emissions, or to give more aid to the poorest nations where hundreds of millions of people are starving -- well, those would be good outcomes. It wouldn’t mean that the USA need become a poorer nation -- European countries get by polluting half as much as America per person, and they are not necessarily less prosperous.

Photo: Clonlara in County Clare, underwater as Ireland suffers the worst floods, we are told, in 800 years. Photo:

Saturday 28 November 2009

Two things to read

I don't link much to other blogs, but here are two articles I recommend. The first is from Michael Bomford of Energy Farms, comparing the energy use and future self-reliance of Ireland vs. the similarly-sized state of Kentucky. Via Energy Bulletin.

The second is from Sharon Astyk, who distills everything I wanted to say about the anniversary of Sesame Street, and got there first. My daughter and I adore our downloaded clips of old Sesame Street -- with Joe Raposo's songs and Jim Henson's Muppets, they remain simple, wildly creative and thoughtful, instilling knowledge with an easy grace.

Thursday 26 November 2009

Wednesday 25 November 2009

FADA update

In the last week I have been very busy and preoccupied with unexpected health issues, and I appreciate your patience during the break – I try to put something on the blog once a day and a substantial article once a week, but sometimes need a week or so off.

We had our annual election for FADA last night. I’m still vice-chair, and the admirable Triona Muldoon is our new chair. We each talked about the projects that engage us, and we need to do that more often: it reminds us how much we are doing, and how much this dozen volunteers have accomplished in three years. In the last six months, for example:

• Thanks to one of our members, local people who recently lost their jobs are now earning educational credits by working on some local land, turning a bankrupt blueberry farm into crops. More on that as it develops.

• The community garden, Bia Linn, has been going strong for five months now, and we are continuing to have courses there and elsewhere in Newbridge.

• Our group created a new web site at

• We are hosting a course in herbalism over the next few weeks, showing people how they can use local herbs for everything from medicine to cosmetics.

• One of the heads of the local beekeeping organisation gave a presentation at Bia Linn on how to keep a hive of one’s own.

• We are hosting a course in organic gardening over the next few weekends, demonstrating how people can grow their own food.

• Our group is hosting a DIY seminar next month on making your own hot-water solar panels out of recycled materials.

• We have begun a food club to order food in bulk, so people here can pool their resources and buy high-quality, local and organic food without spending much money.

• Some of our members have enlisted local students to create an energy audit of the area, to see where we are wasting the most energy and how we can cut back.

• We are trying to compile information from area elders about how people here used to live, back when people lived on less.

• Our members have done several radio interviews with local and national stations, have continued to run a weekly newspaper column on living in the Long Emergency, and we have published articles in local magazines and church bulletins.

• We have continued to give talks to local organisations, schools and churches.

• The Feile na Samhna (Halloween Festival), which drew hundreds of people from the community. My end of it – the talks on local currency, local agriculture and peak oil – did not draw the numbers of people I had hoped, but other aspects of the festival went well and drew substantial crowds.

• Luka Bloom performed a benefit concert for us, which drew several hundred people.

• We have forged relationships with local Fair Trade organisations, local community groups and churches.

Most of this was not me personally, but all the same, I’m quite proud of what this small group has done in a short time.

I know many people around the world transforming their lives, restoring the old traditional communities and building a new, underground economy in their local chrysalis. It probably seems as tedious for you as it does for us, the accomplishments miniscule compared to the magnitude of what needs to be done. But then we stop, every so often, and look back, and see the road stretch to the horizon behind us.

Friday 13 November 2009


Re-run from last year.

Supporting yourself generally requires land, tools, weeding, composting, practice, and finally the months of waiting for things to finish growing. There is one kind of food, however, that can be grown by anyone, indoors, in any time of year, in a few days – sprouts.

I don’t mean Brussels Sprouts – nutritious as they are -- which are the buds of a certain type of cabbage. I mean seeds or beans – mung beans, broccoli seeds, radish seeds, alfalfa seeds -- that have been soaked and kept moist for a few days and have begun to turn into green shoots, as they would in soil.

The Chinese have sprouted for at least 5,000 years, and many Westerners have found growing sprouts an easy source of nutrition in lean times. Captain Cook used sprouting as a source of Vitamin C to avoid scurvy on long ocean voyages, as did soldiers in World War I and Indians during the famine of the 1930s. Sprouts are also high in protein – seven cups have an average person’s daily recommended allowance.

You can sprout the beans or seeds of most edible plants – the only common ones to avoid altogether are nightshade plants like tomatoes or potatoes, whose sprouts are as poisonous as the leaves of the grown plants. Mung beans -- for sale in most health-food stores for a euro or two a bag -- are a common and easy way to begin. School-children are often told to let them lie on a wet paper towel, but I get fine results just from letting them sit in a bowl-sized plastic tub or (unsealed) Ziploc bag.

Rinse the beans first, and then let them sit in a tub of water for about six hours or so. Then drain the water and let the beans sit in the damp tub for the next few days, rinsing them every eight hours or so -- the beans need to be kept moist but not swimming in standing water. Every morning before work, every day when you come home, and every night before bed, fill the tub with water again and then let it drain out. Take care that the damp seeds do not grow moldy – I found this to be a hazard with broccoli and alfalfa seeds, but never with beans. In three days or so the beans should have sprouted into white-and-green shoots, at their height of nutritional value.

Sprouts can be eaten in salads – I like to mix mine with shredded carrots and beets in a lemon-and-wasabi sauce. Many people eat broccoli, alfalfa or radish sprouts on sandwiches instead of lettuce. Soybean sprouts, popular in Chinese cooking, are the only ones that are better cooked.

As mung beans cost very little and keep for years, you can get all your protein and many of your vitamins for only a couple of euros a week. You might love them, you might not, but you should have them handy for emergencies.

Wednesday 4 November 2009

Wednesday 28 October 2009

Mystery in the Wilderness part 2

A mist floats between the hills, gray-brown with evergreen patches, where Highway 19 winds north of Eminence. A gravel road veers off to the right — there is not a single paved road in Shannon County that is not federal or state-maintained. The road, graveled five years ago to give visitors easier access to the wild horses, cuts a narrow path down a thickly wooded slope to a pasture in the hollow of the hills.

Eight wild horses graze in Broadfoot Field, long-haired and muscular, mostly white or gray dappled.

They are bigger than most horses and appear more powerful. Their ribs do not show. Their tails have never been cut and almost touch the ground. Their manes are long and matted, peppered with burs from the brush.

The horses rest with their hind legs together, never straying far from the sanctuary of the wooded slopes that rise like walls around the valley. The filly, only 3 days old, clings to her mother’s side.

The horses spend much of their time in thick woods, one reason that finding the missing animals has been so difficult.

The Broadfoot Bunch is one of four loose and shifting herds in the wild horse population. Others include the Cornfield, Grassy and Shawnee Creek groups, plus "a few stragglers," Smith says.

The horses killed or missing were all from the Cornfield Bunch; its numbers have been reduced from 13 to five.

No one knows how long the herds have roamed the hills around Eminence. The most common theory holds that they are descendants of farm horses that escaped during the Depression. Others, however, say the herds date back much further.

"You ask the oldest person in Shannon County, and they’ll tell you there have been wild horses here as long as anyone can remember," says Shannon County sheriff Butter Reeves.

Smith says the horses seem to be descendants from Appaloosas and Arabians, "but there’s no pedigree on them."

The horses had free reign over much of the county when farmers held open range in common. Shannon County was the last in the state to fence its open range, but when it did so in the 1960s, the herds still had more than 100 square miles of wilderness to roam. Almost half of Shannon County is national forest, scenic waterways or other government-protected land.

The Broadfoot Bunch takes notice of two local men photographing them from 100 yards away; the stallion immediately positions himself between the intruders and the foal. The mares form a tight circle around the newborn. Though locals talk of getting within 20 feet of the herd, the animals are skittish these days.

Made nervous by the visitors, they break into a gallop, their manes and tails flowing behind them. One by one, they vanish into the brush, the lead mare in front and the stallion defending the rear.


The National Park Service in 1989 pushed to remove the horses from the area, fearing the wild animals would damage the park and noting they were not native to the area.

"They put a notice in the newspaper, asking for bids for rounding up the horses," says Roger Dillon, editor of the town newspaper, the Shannon County Current Wave. "That’s what got people’s attention and got the ball rolling."

"They considered them feral animals," says Richard Wilkins, one of the two area residents who sued to block removal of the horses. "They said horses cause bank erosion, when they cross streams and such. But tourists cause a lot more damage than that — horses don’t leave beer cans lying around."

Wilkins and his neighbor Rolland Smotherman, who often rode together to see the horses, filed an injunction to stop the department. They also charged the parks department with using traps to catch the horses, a charge the agency denied in court.

"At first, we didn’t think we could do anything," Wilkins says. "Even when we realized we could fight the government, we didn’t think we could win. We were the two guys who started it, but got support from all over the country."

Wilkins and Smotherman won their court case but lost on appeal in federal court.

"It kept rolling around in the courts like the presidential election," Smotherman says. Finally, the U.S. Supreme Court refused to hear the case.

But the wild horse supporters would not succumb. Smotherman says he and Wilkins wrote to "every government official they thought could help" and found an ally in their U.S. representative, the late Bill Emerson.

"We also gave it a lot of coverage, along with the West Plains Quill and others," Dillon says. "Once it was all over the papers, the thing kind of snowballed."

On Oct. 6, 1993, hundreds of wild horse supporters drove in a caravan from Smith’s trail to the office of the parks department in Van Buren, 32 miles away.

"We headed out from here bumper-to-bumper from Eminence to Winona," Smith says. "When the first people were getting to Winona, the last people were leaving here. That’s 11 long miles of cars and trucks."

The riders drove to Van Buren with their horses in tow, Thompson says, then rode on horseback into town, where thousands of supporters had gathered.

"When we got to Van Buren, there was a gob of folks from everywheres," Smith says. "It was a pretty good deal. They said we couldn’t block the highway, but we did. We blocked the whole damn town. There was more people on horseback than the town could hold."

The day after the protest, department superintendent Art Sullivan postponed the horses’ removal.

In 1995, Emerson sponsored legislation in Congress to save the herds, winning support from U.S. Sens. Kit Bond and John Ashcroft. The bill capped the herd at 50 — there have never been more than 40 — and commissioned the Wild Horse League to maintain them. Congress passed the bill overwhelmingly, and President Bill Clinton made it law in 1995.


On Nov. 16, a camper in the Ozark Scenic Riverways told the sheriff he had passed two deer hunters who said they had seen dead horses. A mare and stallion from the Cornfield Bunch had been shot in the gut.

Two sheriff’s deputies and a state conservation agent inspected the scene that day but found no evidence of the killer. Two days later, someone returned and shot the mare’s colt as it lingered around its mother.

As law enforcement agencies and locals searched, the news grew worse. In early December tourists who got lost riding Smith’s trail found the bodies of three more mares near Colley Lake, half a mile from the first three. The horses were so badly decomposed that Reeves believes they were probably shot around the same time as the others.

At Reeves behest, the Missouri Highway Patrol flew a helicopter over the area twice with a local farmer who knows the horses well. They found nothing and probably will not fly again, he says.

"The terrain out there is so rugged and brushy, and the canopy in areas so heavy, that they could be laying a short distance from you and you could overlook them," Reeves says.

Four slugs from a high-power rifle were found, Reeves says, and they are being examined at a ballistics lab.

While the horses were shot during deer season, Reeves is certain the killings were intentional.

"Some of the horses were brown, some were white," he says. "They were shot from a close range. There’s no way anyone mistook them for deer."

"Whoever it was, they knew animals — they knew the colt would come back to its mother," says one trail rider who would not give her name. "It almost seems like whoever it was had at least a little bit of a conscience, not wanting the colt to starve."

But Reeves says shooting the colt "was just cruelty. I don’t think it was out of kindness — the colt was old enough to make it on its own."

Reeves believes the colt ran from the gunshots and that the killer came back to the spot again and again until the colt returned.

Bond calls the killings "a despicable tragedy, absolutely senseless. The people in the region have worked to protect the horses, and to just slaughter them makes no sense."

Chris Ward, acting superintendent of the parks service, says at the league meeting that he hopes to solve the case within a week. Reeves says his office has been "swamped with calls" about the killings, from local families to bounty hunters offering their services.

The morning after the meeting, Reeves met with agents of the Department of Conservation and the National Parks Service. "We have some leads that are coinciding," he says.

"These horses have become a part of Shannon County’s heritage, part of our culture," Reeves says. "Not just for Shannon County people, but for the million and a half people who float the rivers and get to see them every year. We have several thousand people who come here a year camping, hiking, bicycling or whatever. They get to see these horses also. So these are their horses, your horses, everybody’s horses."


There are few strangers in Eminence, a town of 614 people where friends and enemies see each other every day. The vast open space that surrounds the community somehow creates closer quarters.

At the T&T Diner, local folks sit with their children or neighbors, most in jeans or hunting fatigues, and talk about everything from Florida ballots and environmental issues to hunting season and local gossip: Tonight’s best tidbit is about the two teenagers who got into a fist-fight down on Main Street the day before.

No topic, however, is more popular than the wild horses. Many residents say they see the horses almost every day, but the experience never grows old. An hour’s conversation yields a dozen or more rumors about the killings, with fingers pointing in all directions. Some residents blame hunters, others blame farmers, city-dwellers, drunks or local teenage troublemakers.

Dillon calls these theories "an insult to locals, city folks, deer hunters, kids and drunks." The killer’s actions, he says, demonstrate "a certain slime-ball mentality that will not be forgiven nor forgotten in these parts."

It’s true the wild horses are an important attraction in a county where the average income is $11,000 a year and tourism is the primary industry. The major industries that once supported the county have dried up, Reeves says.

"The mining is gone now, the timber is gone, the railroad is gone," he says. "But we still have the horses."

Still, the herds are much more than an economic asset. They are a symbol, to locals and to tourists alike.

When advocates won federal protection for the horses in 1995, U.S. Rep. JoAnn Emerson, who succeeded her husband in Congress, praised the victory. The horses, she said, are "a living symbol of the people’s wishes vs. the federal bureaucracy."

The residents’ love for the horses is rooted in a deep current of regional pride. Dillon says the animals, and the pursuit of whomever is killing them, have become a focal point of this Ozark community.

"People in this town are divided on a lot of things," he says, "but they are united in this."

Tuesday 27 October 2009

Mystery in the Wilderness

The shooting deaths of six federally protected wild horses in southern Missouri have stirred advocates to action and prompted an unprecedented investigation by local, state and federal agents.
By BRIAN C. KALLER of the Tribune's staff

EMINENCE — On a stark winter night, about 120 horse riders gather at the meeting hall, their worn cowboy hats brushing the paper snowflakes that hang from the ceiling. Most monthly meetings of the Missouri Wild Horse League draw a dozen or so people, but tonight the hall is packed.

The folks who have gathered are among the thousands who come every year to see the herds of wild horses that roam the Ozark hills. Now, in the wooded wilderness outside the hall, someone is shooting the horses and leaving them to die.

Cowboys and tourists listen attentively at the meeting. Tears stain at least two weathered faces. Some of these people had fought for years to get the horses federally protected, had marched in protest to keep them safe and had successfully taken their case from Shannon County to the U.S. Capitol and the White House.

"I know what everyone’s thinking," says Elmo Thompson, the 83-year-old president of the Missouri Wild Horse League. "Do we know who killed the wild horses? If we did they’d be in jail, and you’d know about it."

Jim Smith, owner of the Cross-Country Trail Ride and longtime league member, recounts the grim details. Of the fewer than 35 horses that remain in the hills, six have been killed, probably within two days. Two horses remain missing, and hope of finding them alive grows slim.

Federal and state agencies are working with the sheriff, Smith tells the group, and the Missouri Highway Patrol scoured the area twice by helicopter, to no avail.
The reward for the arrest and conviction of the killer already stands at $1,000, and the league collected another $1,700 in donations at the meeting.

The evening is not without good news for the league. Smith announces that a foal had been born two days earlier to the "Broadfoot bunch," the herd often seen in nearby Broadfoot Field. And a 3-year-old stallion is ready for adoption — herds have only one male at a time, and the league gives the others away.

Local residents formed the Wild Horse League about 10 years ago to protect the only wild horses in the Midwest. The group now has more than 1,000 members representing all 50 states and five foreign countries, Smith says. Donations are pouring in, with people sending checks "from five to 1,500 dollars," he says.

"We all love the wild horses. We all miss them," Thompson says. "All the local people here cherish the wild horses, like I do mine at home."

That same night, visitors from across the country surround a campfire. There is only one topic of conversation. Voices crack as the visitors — men and women, elderly and children — talk about the killer and the appropriate punishment.

"How can someone hurt an animal that’s wild and free like that?" asks Melissa Page of Kentucky. "To a horse person, that’s the lowest form of life."

Some people travel thousands of miles several times a year to ride the trails here. Smith bills his land as the site of the largest riding trail in the world in one of the largest and most sparsely populated counties in the state.

"We haven’t got much left that is free in this country," Tony Merrick of Kentucky says. "The horses have been here longer than any of us."

"Civilization’s running out, the population’s increasing so fast," Page says. "This is the last freedom we’ll ever see. It’s one of the incentives to keep some things pure."

The herds lure Paula Fivecoat of Arbyrd to Shannon County about a half-dozen times a year.

"It’s not a ride unless you’ve seen the wild horses twice" within a week, she says.
But Merrick’s wife, Mary, says the killings have darkened the mood of recent rides. Many of the riders that day heard faraway gunshots on the trail and feared the killers had returned.

"Seven years I’ve been coming here," Page says. "I’m afraid next year we’ll come back and there will be none left."

Continued tomorrow. Originally published Dec. 17, 2000.

Saturday 24 October 2009


We have all been busy preparing for our second annual Feile na Samhna (FAY-la na SAU-na), the Halloween Festival, where I and several other people will be giving talks about .... well, the situation we're in.

What do you call it anyway? It's not just peak oil, the fact that oil supplies are reaching a global limit and will decline. It's not just climate change, the fact that the atmosphere has been transformed into something that has not existed since Earth was an alien world. It's not just that this world that had trouble handling one billion people now must support seven billion. It's not just the economy, as defined by news reports and Wall Street numbers. All these are part of something larger.

I have been interested in these issues since I was my daughter's now-age, as long as I have understood what happens when you pour several cups into one cup. When I first saw the hundred-year-old elm in our backyard fall, and realized it was older than anyone alive -- and that once it was gone, the yard felt different. When I tasted the difference between our tomatoes and ones from a supermarket. When I realized that I was the last kid at school to walk everywhere.

Some people refer to the crash or the collapse, but I have tried to avoid these --- they are rousing and get the Michael Ruppert crowd, but they avoid the main point, that this is not a sudden danger we can swerve and avoid. We must not wait for it to hit -- "it," the thing that happens, when we suddenly become characters in an action movie.

Others refer to the Transition, and that captures the idea that it will be gradual and may result in something better. I personally like "Restoration," as in the title of this blog, although it might sound too much like Charles II's reign. Also, nostalgia for an earlier era works with Americans, as does describing the picturesque life of Irish villagers -- when you are speaking to actual Irish villagers, as I often do, it doesn't work. What is traditional is not exotic to them, and the memories of pre-Celtic-Tiger poverty are not appealing.

So here it is: How to present the image of this situation to hundreds of festival-going families in an Irish town, in a way that is family-friendly, upbeat, and will not drive people away. Ideas?

Friday 23 October 2009

Thursday 22 October 2009


When people start their own business venture, they usually prefer finding investors to relying solely on a bank loan – many other people can share in your risk and rewards, and it is in their business if you succeed. Now, many farmers are using this model, finding selling shares of their farm to the people who will eat the crops.

The model, called Community-Supported Agriculture (CSA), is spreading rapidly across North America and coming to Europe. In a CSA model, residents of the local community invest in a farm at the beginning of the year, before the crops have been planted. Typically each family buys a standard share of the farm’s produce, and in exchange they receive a box of crops each week for the rest of the season. What they receive will depend on the time of year, but if a farmer plants enough variety, any weeks’ box will likely have several different kinds of crops, whether delivered in May or October.

Such projects make a farm particularly resilient in the face of global financial crises. A CSA farm does not depend on loans from major banks to continue from year to year, nor do its crop sales depend on the vagaries of faraway markets. A CSA pays the farmer early in the year, so that the farm does not have to go deeply in debt each year, and it allows the farmer to market their food before their 16-hour days begin.

Sometimes a CSA plan finds a use for plots near towns that otherwise might go unused. They provide work for farmers in an age when their numbers are diminishing – and if the community hires young people as hands, they give wages and rural skills to local youths.

In addition, CSAs allow neighbours to form a personal relationship with the person who is growing their food, and allows the farmer to hear and respond to consumer demand quickly, without the need for commissioning survey groups. Since people must invest in the farm, they usually must come to the farm at least once a year, and get to meet the farmer and see where their food comes from. They must accept a variety of vegetables and learn to cook them.

Finally, food transported from Athy or Allenwood to somewhere else in County Kildare uses very little fuel, compared to the majority of our food that is transported from across an ocean. Local food creates very few of the carbon emissions that create the greenhouse effect, and so do not worsen climate change.

CSAs can go beyond vegetables as well, to include grains, meat, home-made bread, eggs, cheese, flowers or fruit. Several farmers could join forces to create a regional CSA, coordinating their efforts – one supplying chickens, for example, and another supplying vegetables.

CSA have mostly spread through the USA and Canada, where the group Local Harvest lists 2,500 CSA farms, almost all of which appeared in the last 20 years – but a few CSAs have begun here in Ireland. My group is keen to start one in our area --- I know you readers are from all over, but if you have experience with starting a CSA, please send it to me. If you are in the County Kildare area, e-mail me and let's work together.

(Photo: cows across the River Liffey from us.)

Monday 19 October 2009

Root cellars

Look over any town in the USA and you will see many garages, tool sheds, storage units and even swimming pools, but you are unlikely to find a single backyard root cellar, or even many people who are familiar with the term. Yet root cellaring seems to have been practiced in most times and places, and even, in a sense, by animals who bury their food. It is a zero-carbon, zero-electricity, low-cost way to keep roots and other foods over the winter, simply by using the planet as your refrigerator.

Root cellars can take many forms, but they all work on the basic principle that vegetables in the right conditions stay alive, so they do not spoil, but also do not continue to grow, ferment, seed, bolt or any other plant activity. Since the temperature underground changes little throughout the year, this usually means keeping them partially underground and well-insulated.

Perhaps the easiest things to root cellar are the roots the name implies – carrots, potatoes, parsnips, beetroot, celeriac, turnips and so on. Many vegetables and fruits can be stored, however -- krauts like cabbage, broccoli, cauliflower and kale; onions and their relatives leeks and garlic; fruit like apples and pears; herbs and even salad greens. Most of the vegetables come from late-season plantings, when the crops are ripening at the latest possible moment before they must be stored for winter.

You can keep potatoes or carrots in boxes of earth, sand or sawdust. You can make a fort out of straw bales, as a child might do with pillows, and keep food cool inside. You can poke two pegs in the ground at either end of a crop row, pull string taut between them, and wrap plastic over the rope to make a long small tent. Some people have buried broken refrigerators and used them to store food.

Many potatoes and other vegetables can be piled into mounds and covered with earth and straw. Mounds should not be dug where water puddles, and while some gardeners dig out a mound first, we who live in the Bog of Allen might fine it safer to simply start on the ground level. The triangular pile should probably not be more than a metre high, to avoid the weight of the higher vegetables squashing the lower ones. Some kind of ventilation – a column of straw, a pipe -- needs to be put through the middle of the stack. The pile of potatoes are covered first with a layer of straw – 15 to 30 centimetres -- and then a layer of earth about half as thick.

Other people have built more elaborate structures. One could, for example, dig a pit about a metre deep and a few metres across, lean two wooden walls against each other in the pit to make a triangle, nail them together, and cover the top with a thin layer of earth. The result is a root cellar with an insulating earth and grass roof that can be a walk-in refrigerator during the winter months.

Friday 16 October 2009

Thursday 15 October 2009

Preparing for winter

As the nights grow longer and winter approaches, this is a good time to plan your garden for next year – clear out the old plants, order seed and map our the property. When you plan your property, think in three dimensions, using not just fields or garden beds, but hedgerows and woods.

We have a small copse of trees in the back of our property, and while it is no bigger than an average back garden, it has room for hazel trees that produce nuts this time of year. We planted blueberries and other shade-loving plants under the hazels, so they too can produce food, and we will have sorrel, radishes and other ground crops lower still.

You might want to check into polytunnels – greenhouses of sheeted plastic – and consider whether one might be useful for you. If you are to get one, best to put it up before it gets too dark and rainy, and so you can use it over the winter.

This is also a good time to start thinking about keeping animals like chickens, rabbits and bees, and whether you could keep them on your property. Many people find spring the best time to get new animals, so best to start planning their new environment now.

You might be unpacking all the winter clothes around now, but this is also a good time to start buying extra blankets and old clothes from the charity shops and boot sales, in case you need them. Those blankets and old clothes are not only good for people, but for home insulation as well.

Talk to some neighbours about meeting at each others’ houses for dinner once a month or so. As people become busier each year, they have less and less time for the basic socializing out of which a community is built. Consider volunteering for a charity or neighbourhood group during the winter, when you have less chance to be outdoors.

Spend as much time outdoors as possible while there is still some sunlight in Ireland – we all need Vitamin D, which we synthesize from the sun, and there is too little of it here for much of the year.

Photo: The road in front of our land.

Tuesday 13 October 2009

Hope Project

I had the honour to participate in an inspiring story recently. A young lady named Jennifer wrote me last month, saying she was concerned for her friend. Her friend was active in ecological issues, Jennifer said, but knowledge of peak oil, climate change and other problems brought her down, and she was losing hope for the future. For her birthday, Jennifer asked, would I write something about what gives me hope, and could she publish them online?

I was honoured and wrote something as best I could and sent it off to Jennifer, thinking it would just be my writing and maybe a few others.

When the birthday came around and I checked the link I received, I was amazed. Jennifer had written dozens of people across the world – scientists, activists, authors and bloggers, all working in some way on the Long Emergency, all explaining to an (apparently) young woman why we need to keep going. It is, hands down, the best birthday present I’ve ever heard of.

The list includes many names I knew well, and whose books fill my shelves: rural America chronicler Richard Manning, “Long Emergency” author James Howard Kunstler, climatologist Mark Lynas, anthropologist Joseph Tainter, permaculturist Su Dennett, writer Dmitri Orlov. There were people who organized towns around the world, people who saved vst areas of rainforest, people who inspired their own small movements. In fact, there are a few people here who might have won the Nobel Peace Prize.

This is what I wrote:

If you often feel troubled about the world’s future, then I feel like we are kindred spirits. Every day I wonder about the future of my little girl during the long emergency ahead. And I suck it up and continue with my day job or volunteer group or bedtime story, knowing I can rarely tell anyone who would understand.

Today we diagnose such compassion, and prescribe medicines to remove it. But we should feel troubled, to a point, because the troubles exist, no matter how many people ignore them. It is what the medieval monk Isaac of Stella called the hell of mercy, what all dangerous saints feel to be inspired to do good things.

You see, people who care about the world’s future have two big problems – what to do with all that despair, and where they get the energy to do all that activism. And the two problems solve each other – that feeling of powerlessness can be a most powerful fuel, if you put it to work for you.

Because if people were irredeemable – if we really didn’t deserve to be saved – you wouldn’t feel this way, and millions of others wouldn’t either.

And I remind myself of a few things. I remind myself that we are not destroying the Earth – she has been through worse than us, and will heal. I remember that, when human societies collapsed before, Nature grew back fast. For us it may take 50 years or 5 million, depending on how much we destroy now – and that is what we are fighting for, for the damage to be only superficial, and Nature to return in profusion for our grandchildren. But however long it takes, it will happen.

I am concerned for the many people who might die in the coming decades, if we don’t live on less. But I also think of my grandparents, or the elderly Irish around where I live now, or most people in most eras, all of whom lived on a fraction of the energy Westerners live on today, and sometimes lived long and happy lives. They were delighted to get an orange for Christmas or walk miles to the village to call on neighbors, and if they were healthy and loved, they did not consider themselves to be living terrible lives. When things get bad people are often wiser and more neighborly in real life than they are in action movies.

Remember that you are not alone. The world is teeming with people who care as you do. They might be homesteading, or forming unsung community groups, or meeting in church basements, or learning how to turn compost into electricity. They might look like everyone else, and you have likely passed them on the street without knowing. But they are all around you, and they are on your side.

Also, remember that all movements were pathetic and hopeless until they won. The idea that women might vote was considered a ridiculous idea almost until it became law. No one thought race laws in the South could be repealed, until they were. Revolutions seem to happen suddenly because the people in power, who write the histories, ignored all the previous steps – decades of patient work from forgotten heroes, many of whom must have despaired and given up hope. And there is much that is wrong with the world that was never righted, because too many people gave up.

Realize that the numbers required to make these sweeping changes were tiny. Only a few thousand people at any time were active in getting women the right to vote, or repealing race laws, among a population of tens of millions. I once compared the budget of anti-environmental corporations and groups to the small number of truly active environmentalists, and found they must be spending tens of thousands of dollars to fight each activist – more money than those activists probably made in a year in their day jobs. It costs powerful people a great deal to fight you. You have more power than you realize.

Keep in mind that you are important. Unlike most people on Earth, you live where we can make tens of thousands of dollars a year rather than a few hundred, as in Africa. You have medical care – expensive, but available. You have access to colleges and free community courses. You have community-access television whose cameras can be rented for a small fee. You have restaurants whose owners throw away tonnes of food each night – some of which could be eaten by people, some by household chickens or other animals. You live in a place where the garbage cans are filled with things that can be reused. You live with libraries, internet cafes and a surfeit of cheap stuff. It means there is much that can be reused, and that it is easy to live cheaply while using up few resources. It means you have power that most people in the world will never know, and that you are too important to lose.

Remember – and I’m sorry if this sounds cheesy, but it’s true – that there is no one else in the world like you, no one who sees everything you see, and the world would be a worse place if you gave up.

Keep in mind that we already know how to cope with the Long Emergency – and many people are already growing their own food, re-using other people’s cast-offs, learning to build and heat in ways that do not waste. If things ever do become desperate, each person who is learning such skills can become a teacher. Every such shelter can be a headquarters. Every homestead that saves its heirloom seeds and saves a surplus for the neighbor can be an ark during the flood – and if we have enough of them, no one ever need drown.

Finally, be good to yourself – don’t beat yourself up over things for which you are not responsible.

Thank you, Jennifer, and to your friend, Happy Belated Birthday.

Friday 9 October 2009

We now pause our usual blog to get political

Folks, I don’t usually get political on this blog, except in the sense that everything from education to sex to race to religion to food is now considered political. My politics do not fall into categories defined by FOX and CBS, and I believe we show our religion in what we do, not what team we claim to be on. Before forming opinions, I like to read the source material first – the legislation itself, the actual Hirsch Report, the real scientific papers from climatologists – rather than simply repeating an anagram of whatever commentary I’ve sought out.

I will comment on Obama’s receiving the Nobel Peace Prize, though, because I feel strongly about this -- and if you disagree, tell me respectfully and you can return to enjoying my future posts about how to cook snails.

This is the most respected award in the world, one that transcends nationality and religion to focus solely on heroic accomplishment. It bequeaths global attention to men and women most people had never heard of – Aung San Yuu Ki, Carlos Filipe Ximenez Belo, Mairead Corrigan, Wangaari Maathai – who spent years facing the constant threat of violent death, despised by the powerful and embarrassing the comfortable.

But too often the Prize has been given to their opposite – someone who is both powerful and popular, riding a wave of sentiment on the issue of the moment. In some cases it has been political gangsters who finally gave in to their people’s demands for peace, say, in Israel or Northern Ireland. In other cases it has been inner-circle Machiavellis, at the stopped-clock moments when they found peace advantageous.

I don’t mean to be harsh to politicians who get the prize – they probably did do more for peace than any activist, in the same way that the rich man in Jesus’ parable gave much more to the church than the old widow. I am willing to express some admiration for Al Gore or Mikhail Gorbachev, as they risked their political careers. But let’s not confuse them with people who blocked tanks with their bodies, or were beaten with clubs and went back for more, or who sat in prison for thirty years without giving in.

But this is stranger than the usual undeserved awards. This Nobel Peace Prize goes not only to the most powerful man in the world, but a man who has had few accomplishments in his life other than rising quickly to power and winning the White House, and who has only been there nine months. And since nominations must be submitted by January 31, according to the Nobel Academy’s web site, Mr. Obama had been president for a week and four days when his name was submitted.

Understand that I am not trying to personally insult Mr. Obama. I don’t think he walks on water, but I was relieved to be rid of the previous administration, and I liked many things about him -- for example, his talk of expanding clean energy and restoring passenger rail.

I like his more realistic discussion of climate change, but I also know that just yesterday the Senate Judiciary Committee decided to keep most of the Patriot Act intact. I had a fantasy that the White House lawn could be turned into a Victory Garden, and was pleasantly surprised when it came true – but his administration has not ended the so-called “rendition” flights, in which citizens of other countries are kidnapped and flown to dictatorships to have their toenails pulled off slowly.

He has taken steps toward closing my country’s concentration camp, moved slowly toward ending the federal government’s occupation of Iraq, meeting about nuclear disarmament, taking steps toward reforming health care. But those are all intentions and preliminaries, not actual accomplishments – nor did anyone expect him and his staff to turn the world upside-down in a few months.

The Academy’s intentions were probably noble, and the recipient is a widely beloved man. But an undeserved award reduces the Nobel Prize's power to aid the next Third-World peasant who organise medical care for impoverished millions, or who chains herself to the last remaining rainforest trees. They hear the parable and honour the wrong party.

Wednesday 30 September 2009

Wicklow Mountains

The stark landscape that lies between us and the sea.

Tuesday 29 September 2009

Local currency

Wealth used to mean something you could directly use – food, tools, land. Later gold came to symbolise that wealth, paper notes came to symbolise gold, computer digits came to represent notes … until we get to Wall Street credit-default-swap derivatives, in which hundreds of billions of theoretical dollars can evaporate overnight without ever really existing.

As time goes on and the arcane world of globalised finance breaks down, we might have to rein in our wealth and return it to some tangible form. One way of doing this is to create a local currency, used only in your town or county.

Local currencies can be based on anything, just like national money. If we in County Kildare agreed to begin a local currency – say, the “Dara” – it could stand for one sack of potatoes, one kilo of wheat, one hour of labour, or whatever we choose. Such currencies were common in the 1700s and 1800s, and towns like Cloughjordan in County Tipperary are now considering returning to a local currency like they had 150 years ago.

Such currencies can be a way of keeping the wealth circulating locally, by putting it in a form that cannot be used outside of the local area. If all businesses in town are using the euro, then an international corporate chain could be sucking money out of the local area – by definition, if it is making a profit here, it is taking more money out than it is putting in.

If local businesses agree to use the local currency, though, they are encouraged to patrionise each other’s shops, and keep the money jumping from one person to another without ever leaving town. Money can enter the area through residents’ salaries or wages, but far less of it goes out again. This is one reason certain immigrant groups have thrived -- one study I read showed that Chinese-Americans used each others' small businesses so much that money circulated six times in their community before leaving.

Once currencies are established, local communities could extend the financial infrastructure with local banks or stock exchanges. The latter could be stock markets in the traditional sense – opportunities for local people to share the risks and rewards of their local businesses.

These ideas may seem exotic, but they were done before in Ireland, and can be again. Such local resilience would help in situations like the bank collapses last fall, and ensure that if anything happened to the global money supply, we would have a local back-up.

Photo courtesy of

Sunday 27 September 2009


This is one of three. Personally, I think we have enough. What do you, the viewers at home, think?

Tuesday 22 September 2009

More music

From the Bia Linn opening back in July. Just a snippet, used with permission.

Sunday 20 September 2009

Stone bridge

Between the twin towns of Ballina and Killalloo, County Clare. It's a one-lane bridge for cars -- a traffic light lets lines of cars through in turns.

Saturday 19 September 2009

Preparing for autumn

This past weekend was amazingly sunny and pleasant for this time of year, but we are approaching the official end of summer, time to harvest the year’s abundance.

Most gardeners will be flush with certain crops right now, you probably want to preserve them as much as possible. Can, freeze or dry your tomatoes, ferment or pickle your cucumbers, Freeze or dry your courgettes and marrow (zucchini to Americans). Beans and peas can be dried, salted or frozen for food during the winter. All over the hedgerows here the brambles are erupting with blackberries, which can be made into jam to provide Vitamin C during the winter months.

Some plants can be left in the ground all winter – parsnips, for example, can merely be left in and collected as they are needed. Cruciferous vegetables like kale or mangold can be left all winter, its outermost leaves collected a few at a time.

Most gardeners dig up their potatoes for winter, but they can be kept in root cellars. Farmers used to pile up potatoes and cover the pile with earth and straw, with only a short, wide tube poking through at the top to allow the potatoes to breathe. You can keep most root vegetables in boxes of sand in the basement – carrots, beetroot, turnips – and they will usually keep all winter, longer than they would in the refrigerator.

This is also a good time of year to stock up for emergencies or lean times. You can fill shelves in your basement with dried pasta, beans, peas, lentils and other staples, as well as non-edible things like toilet paper. Calculate how much you and the others in your family might eat in a day -- using the trinity of starch (pasta, rice, bread), protein (beans, peas, lentils) and vegetables -- and then plan your meals accordingly.

Finally, if you don’t already cook, this is the best time to learn, to know what to do with all that surplus. You don’t need to do what the celebrity chefs do on television – just know how to assemble starch, protein and vegetables into a meal everyone will eat.

Wednesday 16 September 2009

Come on then John

This is one of the local folk musicians who played at the opening of Bia Linn garden back in July. The guitarist, Rubber Keogh, began his set just as the rain began, and you can see it in the background.

The song, by the way, is for young people about to leave childhood behind and work in the mines:

Schooldays over, come on then John,
time to be gettin' your pit boots on
On with your sark and moleskin trousers,
time you were on your way
Time you were learning the pitman's job and
earning the pitman's pay

Come on then Jim, it’s time to go,
time you were working down below
Time to be handling a pick and a shovel you
start at the pits today
Time you were learning the collier’s job and
earning the collier’s pay

Come on then Dai, it’s almost light,
time you were off to the anthracite
The morning mist is on the valley, it’s
time you were on your way
Time you were learning the miner’s job and
earning the miner’s pay

Schooldays over, come on then John,
time to be gettin’ your pit boots on
On with your sark and moleskin trousers, it’s
time you were on your way
Time you were learning the pitman’s job and
earning the pitman’s pay

Tuesday 15 September 2009


Streams pour over the glacial boulders of the Wicklow Mountains.

Friday 4 September 2009

An Open Letter to Amtrak

Dear Sir or Madam:

When I visited my native USA this summer, I needed to take my daughter from Minnesota to Missouri, a thousand-mile trek across the Heartland. I decided to use Amtrak, and wanted to share with you my perceptions of the journey.

I wanted to avoid driving for several reasons. I didn’t want to strap a five-year-old into a car seat for 12 hours, or be forced to stop at numerous roadside franchises designed to sell movie promotional toys and congealed pseudo-food. I remembered the last time we made the journey, when a kamikaze deer smashed our rental car and left us stranded on the Iowa highway. Most of all, though, I wanted to see how easily one could journey halfway down the length of America without a car.

Let me start by noting that everyone I dealt with at Amtrak was courteous and helpful, even funny. As superior as the European trains are, their staff would be less likely to make friendly conversation as they processed our ticket, or smile as they gave us directions. A European conductor might be less likely to stop by especially to check on my daughter, or to announce after an empty small-town night stop, “Folks, that was Dwight, Illinois, and we hope that was as exciting for you as it was for us.”

The staff’s best efforts could not make the train ride a pleasant experience, though. We showed up at 7 am for our 7:45 train – the only train going to our destination that day -- which showed up at 8:30. The delays only increased as the day progressed, and we finally arrived in Chicago two hours late, missing our connecting train. We finally reached Alton, Illinois in the small hours of the morning, long after we were supposed to arrive.

As my daughter played in the seats, she poked her leg on a metal corner, and I considered whether I needed to bring her to the emergency room for a tetanus shot. The toilets were miniscule and poorly ventilated. The only food available on the first, nine-hour leg was six cars up, I was not inclined to leave either a sleeping child or my belongings. The dining car on the second leg opened two hours late. The food that I could find was of vending-machine quality but three times as expensive.

It was a pleasant summer evening travelling from Chicago to St. Louis, but the cars were kept sufficiently frigid that the Russian immigrants in front of us complained loudly. Whether because of the food, the temperature or the stress, my daughter spent most of the next day vomiting.

A sixteen-hour plane trip, by contrast, would probably involve a few full meals, many snacks and a selection of movies. I don’t require an on-board masseuse or French waiters, but some accessible juice or pretzels would go a long way.

A more fundamental problem, which I know is out of your control, can be shown by a brief glance at the map on your web site: Amtrak has only a small number of lines that must stretch between two oceans and serve 300 million people.

Nearby towns that do have Amtrak lines are often inaccessible to each other, as the lines run parallel for hundreds of miles without meeting. For example, Denver, CO and La Junta, CO both have Amtrak lines and are 176 miles apart. But to get from one to the other by train, one must travel from Denver, Colorado to Galesburg, Illinois (!), 889 miles away, and then travel another 896 miles back to La Junta – a 1,785-mile trip in all.

Alternately, one could travel from Denver to San Francisco (1,266 miles), San Francisco to Los Angeles (381 miles) and Los Angeles to La Junta (1,115 miles) for a 2,762-mile journey – again, to travel 176 miles.

To use an example closer to my birthplace, Poplar Bluff, MO and Fulton, Kentucky are 117 miles apart, but to travel from one to the other would require an 858-mile trip to Chicago and back. Oklahoma City and Dodge City are 263 miles apart, but a train would have to take a 1,548-mile journey through Fort Worth and St. Louis to get from one to the other.

I estimated these figures by looking at the stops on your web site and Google-mapping the distances between cities, so the mileage may not be exact -- for Google’s directions, like everything else in America, assumes that you will drive. But you get the idea.

To understand how strange this is, consider my own home of Ireland. The Irish are not the most crisply efficient people on Earth, but their trains usually arrive once every half hour, and if they are five minutes late an outraged grumble ripples through the assembled commuters.

Cross-country trips – only the distance of a cross-state trip for us, of course – have fairly good food served in your car, comfortable seats, wireless service for laptops, and so on – and it is no more expensive than Amtrak per unit of distance, even though everything else in the country is two or three times more expensive.

Other European countries have even better service. When visiting Germany, I could tour major cities with a toddler, limited German and no car, through a series of national rail lines, urban trams, buses, subways, and sub-subways under the first set of subways.

A common response is that America is a much vaster country, so compare Ireland’s dozens of lines and stations with a US state about twice the size – say, Wisconsin, with one Amtrak line and two stops. Or compare vast to vast: Russia is larger than the United States, yet Russians travel 1,220 kilometres per person per year by train, while Americans have only 80 kilometres – behind Pakistan, Kazakhstan and Egypt.

You could argue that this indicates our prosperity, as more people can afford their own cars. But far fewer Americans had their own cars when there were more trains, indicating the opposite: that more people need to pay for cars because they have no rail service. Europeans often travel 10,000 percent more by trains than Americans do, and they are not necessarily less prosperous nations.

We used to be better. The golden spike in the transcontinental railroad looms large in our history books, and my country was once covered by a capillary network of lines that reached hundreds, if not thousands, of small towns. Visit or live in Missouri or Kansas towns, as I have, and you will often see a long-abandoned train station in the old town centre, tracks still visible under the grass. We deserve better, as a civilised nation and alleged superpower, than to live with so many new ruins.

Trains or streetcar networks once branched out inside cities as well – my grandparents met and fell in love on the St. Louis trolleys, around the time Judy Garland was singing an ode to them in the film Meet Me in St. Louis. The film was set in 1904 and made in 1944, so the trolleys had been around for decades at that point – but tragically, not for much longer. They and other streetcar lines were bought and destroyed by a coalition of oil, car and tire companies long ago – the companies were later found guilty of criminal conspiracy in federal court, and fined $5,000 each.

Recent rail lines in St. Louis and Minneapolis were built only after decades of fierce opposition, and critics unfavourably compared existing light rail lines to road use – without comparing it to a road that goes from point A to point B without meeting any other roads. I will also hear people claim that the trains are largely empty, without noting that the cars on the road are also largely empty. And if the stations in Minneapolis and Chicago were any indication, there are far more people clamouring to use even Amtrak than the stations can handle.

I realize I’m conflating the apples and oranges of heavy and light rail, Amtrak and streetcars. I realize I’m ranting about decisions that were made far above you or long ago. But I bring it up to show that I am sympathetic to your situation. I suspect your likeable and highly professional staff works very hard under difficult conditions and an insufficient budget – paid, I understand, not by taxes as roads and electric lines are, but on fares alone. I suspect you are considered, like the Postal Service, a vestigial bit of infrastructure in this era of frequent flyers and broadband, relegated to the poor, the elderly, nuns and the Amish, left to die of natural causes.

I think this is seriously misguided. Rail worked for us for decades, and today Third-World peasants can count on transportation freedoms that most Americans cannot. Every surge in the price of fuel, every dire warning about the climate's transformation, every new plunge in the economy makes Americans’ constant driving more difficult and rails more viable.

But if more of us are to travel by rail, we should be able to widely, with trains running many times a day to many destinations. Riding the train should be an experience people will seek out, and to which we will return.

I have used Amtrak before, and I expect I will again, so let me know who I can write to help change this. Feel free to pass it on to your head of projects, your CEO, the Secretary of Transportation, whoever you think appropriate.

And get that metal corner sanded off.

Top photo: Amtrak train (public domain)
Middle photo: Amtrak lines (each dot represents a station)
Bottom photo: Ireland, smaller than Wisconsin. Each dot represents a major city; individual stops not shown.

Thursday 30 July 2009

The Sally Gap

View from the pass through the Wicklow Mountains.

Tuesday 28 July 2009

Chris Vernon of The Oil Drum, in Dublin

I'm posting selected talks from the FEASTA conference one by one -- apologies to all those who don't have broadband.

Chris Vernon – Net Energy, Energy Scenarios & Climate Change from Feasta on Vimeo.

Monday 27 July 2009

Bia Linn

FADA held the grand opening of our community garden last Saturday, and everything went well. I had done a radio show, press releases and a lot of phone calls to spread the word about this, and I think it paid off – crowds of people came, our network of interested people increased, and everyone seemed to have a great time.

Local poet Des Egan unveiled the wooden sign saying “Bia Linn” (“Our Food”), hand-carved by one of our members. One of our members, a mushroom farmer, gave a presentation on growing your own mushrooms, while another, a nun who has worked in Africa, spoke about Fair Trade. Still another spoke about edible flowers, and I spoke about permaculture. Photographers came from the local newspapers, and The Girl got her picture in the paper.

I was especially pleased with The Girl – as soon as other children started arriving, she led them around the garden in a hand-held chain, telling them, “These are peas – I’ll show you how to take them out of the pods. These are tomatoes – don’t eat the leaves.”

Finally, two musicians set up in the middle of the garden and began playing a mix of traditional and modern folk music and couples danced in the middle of the garden. Picture a young woman singing an Irish-sounding version of Tracy Chapman’s “Talkin’ About a Revolution,” surrounded by greenery, as children laughed and chased each other between the garden beds. That was our day, and it was good.