Tuesday 30 March 2010

More white stuff

It's snowing again. If you are living in Minnesota, as I once did, this will not be astonishing, but we are in Ireland, where it hardly ever snows -- maybe a light dusting once or twice a January, but no more. But this year we have seen some of the strangest six months this island has ever seen -- record floods in late autumn, the first White Christmas and New Year's in most people's memory, and several more heavy snows through the winter.

And it's almost April. Lord knows when we'll get that garden started.

Monday 29 March 2010

Growing your own mushrooms

We tend to think of the natural world as consisting of plants and animals, part of a life cycle dimly remembered from old textbooks: one inhaling oxygen and the other exhaling it, one creating food and the other eating it. But there is a third partner at least as vital, without which the other two could hardly survive, repairing the world quietly from under our feet.

The ground you walk on is actually woven like a mattress, infused with millions of tiny threads of fungi -- eating wood, dead matter and even rock and turning it back into plant food again. We only notice them when it comes time for them to reproduce, and their “fruit,” sticking out of the ground, are mushrooms.

Some fungi forge an alliance with the aboveground trees, living on their roots and absorbing the nutrients they need. Others prey on tiny animals, luring them into traps and consuming them. In humid areas they form nets like spider webs, catching leaves before they hit the ground. They include the largest and oldest organisms on earth – one in Oregon covers 2,200 acres of land and is thousands of years old, but you can walk around on it and see nothing.

According to mycologist – mushroom scientist – Paul Stamets, mushrooms were the first living things on land, breaking down rocks like lichens do today and making way for plants – and after extinctions like the meteor that killed off the dinosaurs, “mushrooms inherited the Earth.” In his astonishing TED talk, “Six Ways Mushrooms Can Save the World,” Stamets also describes how mushrooms can be used to fight invasive insects, create cures for various diseases, create ethanol for fuel, clean up toxic waste sites and rebuild sterile land.

Mushrooms grow in most parts of the world, so people everywhere have harvested them for food, with knowledge passed through the generations: which ones are poisonous, where they can be found and in what seasons.

Our ancestors probably ate mushrooms extensively, and may have had far more of them. Most of the forests we see today are second- or third-generation after being clear-cut, and many of the “old-growth” forests are managed, their dead wood cleared from the forest floor. In the time of early humans, of course, old-growth forests stretched from Ireland to Japan and across the Americas, their trees sustaining many generations of fungi even before they fell.

Mushrooms add minerals to the diet and flavour to meals, and can be roasted, boiled in soups, sautéed, pickled or dried. We are not experienced in harvesting wild mushrooms and will not do so without being certain of their safety, but there are many other ways to gather them without buying the individual plastic packages at the supermarket.

Our family bought a giant box of mushrooms at a reduced price the last couple of autumns, when mushrooms are most common. Then we dried them and saved them through the year, using them again and again in soups and stews.

If you have a mushroom farm nearby, you can ask for some of the spent soil for your garden –it is often not completely spent, and yields some mushrooms along with your garden plants. Even if it does not, it is extremely fertile.

You can also order packets of mycelium – the fungi that yields mushrooms –to grow your own mushroom logs. We had oaken logs from a tree we had to cut down, and ordered three varieties – shiitake, oyster and lion’s mane – to implant in them.
The mycelium came to us through the post, three packets with several bullets of fungi in each. The first step for us was drilling holes in each log, a few inches apart. Then we had to hammer the mycelium bullets into the holes – hard enough to get them firmly inside the wood without smashing them.

Finally, the packets came with a block of wax and a wire daub – a short stick with a cotton ball at the end, like a Q-tip – to seal the mycelium in the holes. We had to melt the wax in a pot and carry it outside to the logs, and rush to dab the wax on the mycelium before it hardens. Fungi need the wood to be somewhat wet to grow, but if the mycelium is bathed in water too quickly, the spores may wash away before they can take hold.

Finally, the logs must be soaked in water for a few weeks so the fungi can more easily munch on them. I dug a trench behind the shed, about two metres across and 50 centimetres deep. I lined the trench with plastic, dragged the oak logs across the property to the trench, dropped the logs in the trench and filled it with water. Once the logs have soaked for a month or so we can lay them to one side and come back later.

It will take anything from six to eighteen months for us to get mushrooms out of this, and of course there is a chance they may never come at all – it is an experiment that demands some patience. On the other hand, it required only an afternoon of work, and if successful will yield home-grown mushrooms for years to come.

Photos: Won't upload for some reason. See them at Energy Bulletin.

Sunday 28 March 2010


Last week was the first day of spring equinox, but the season itself comes when it wants to, and this year it’s coming late to Ireland. We have had six months of strange weather – unprecedented flooding last fall followed by an unusually cold and snowy winter, and the spring is up to four weeks late.

That’s just as well for us – we must rebuild our garden from scratch this year; we scrounged old scaffolding for the bed walls and yesterday got a tonne or two of old horse manure from a farmer friend, but before we put the beds together we must heft a lot of stones out of the ground. Irish soil is filled with glacial till anyway – people here joke that rocks are their main crop – and after the house construction our soil is also filled with builders’ rubble. Right now we have carted off about twelve wheelbarrows of rocks just from our front field, and we have the beginnings of a stone wall lining our driveway.

The good news is that Ireland has such mild winters – the last one notwithstanding – that some things grow here year-round. Salads and legumes are summer crops, but many root vegetables can simply be left in the earth here and picked whenever needed, and cruciferous vegetables like kale can be picked through the winter.

If your part of the world is still coming out of a harsh winter, you can still start your plants as seedlings, either inside, in a greenhouse or polytunnel or in cold-frames. Coldframes are simply boxes with clear plastic on top – often with one side higher than the other, so the top can slant towards the sun.

If you haven’t ordered seeds yet, get some heirloom varieties adapted for your climate – here in Ireland, we have Seed Savers in County Clare, and there are similar organisations in America and around the world. Buy seeds for more than one year to be on the safe side.

Look around for larger areas to garden beyond your own property. In all seasons, you can look for a legal community garden and jump through the appropriate hoops – advertising, door-knocking, meetings with local officials – but keep in mind places that can be used in case things go south quickly. Fields, backyards, vacant lots -- even parking lots could be filled with raised beds, as my group, FADA, did with our garden behind the Newbridge Town Hall. If you have an elderly neighbour, ask if you can garden their yard, and in exchange they don’t have to mow a lawn anymore and get a cut of the crop.

If you create raised garden beds, you can fill the bottom half with sticks to save on topsoil. If you or your neighbours get a newspaper, remember to recycle it or compost it into the earth – you can lay it over soil like mulch, with holes to let seedlings poke through. Ask your neighbours if they’d like to donate their lawn clippings for your compost – if it’s from their back garden, and not the roadside -- or check into last years’ hay. Offer to mow their lawn in exchange for the clippings.

This is the perfect time of year to pick bags of nettles, dandelion shoots, cowslip and scallions. We have bottles of cowslip wine, and I make nettle soup and freeze some for later in the year.

Everyone is spring cleaning and throwing things out --- in the UK and Ireland, check charity shops, boot sales and the Buy and Sell. In America, the Salvation Army, thrift stores, pawnshops, garage sales, Craigslist and Freecycle. I used to live in a college town, and every May 15 and August 15 was Free Stuff Day. Dumpster dive near college fraternities for the best material.

Finally, if your weather is getting nicer, get some exercise: Take a walk, bicycle or bring kids to the playground. As soon as I get these rocks out, I look forward to doing more of that myself.

Photo: The five-year-old, walking across wooden paths over the Wicklow Mountains.

Friday 19 March 2010

Garden beds

We used to have garden beds here, but local ordinance said we had to build the house where the gardens were. So the beds came down, the house went up, and now the old boards are rotten.

Thankfully, we worked out a deal with someone for their old scaffolding, and tomorrow we start building the new beds.

And shoveling horse manure into them.

Wednesday 17 March 2010

The five best things about Ireland

Literacy. I have a long bus commute from the country to Dublin every day, and every sleepy morning I am refreshed to see so many people of all classes on the bus, many reading books. One person the other day was reading Bill Bryson, one person Noam Chomsky, a few reading romance novels, but to each their own – they are reading.

Absence of fundamentalism. Ireland remains a religious country: all public schools are Catholic schools, and abortion is illegal. But religion has a distinctly different flavour here. Some people are pious Catholics, some pious Protestants or minority religions, many are not religious, but everyone seems to casually accept the presence of the churches as part of the community. Religion is not Amway here; there are no sales pitches, no opposition to teaching children science, and no one knocks on your door to convert you.

The voting system. In the USA there are two very similar parties that leave most voters dissatisfied. Presidential votes are filtered through the ridiculous Electoral College system, but even if Americans chose their president via popular vote, candidates would still campaign in a few swing states, and as much as 90 percent of the population does not count.

Ireland’s system allows for multiple choices – there are two major parties, four minor parties and many independent candidates. First, Irish voters rank their top choices for office, and if no candidates has enough first-choice votes, people’s second choices are taken into account. Secondly, more than one candidate wins in each area – if a county sends three representatives to the government, it sends the candidates who received the first-, second- and third-most votes out of, say, six choices.

There is one statistic that says it all: in Ireland, most people vote, believing that their vote makes a difference. In the USA, most people don’t vote, responding in polls that their vote makes no difference.

The news. In my native United States, the nightly news is a bizarre ritual that counts down the day’s brutal crimes and sensational tabloid fodder, followed by celebrity marriages and sports. Political news can be delivered in different flavours – comically dull or in-your-face screaming – but always within the same narrow range defined by the two similar parties. There is very little news of the other 94 percent of the world – just the occasional scene of violence, a message that “fighting broke out,” and a general or think-tank expert telling us what we should think.

Irish news is far from ideal, but its domestic news often focuses on basic stuff that American news never talks about: How the sewers are working, or how the farmers’ crops are doing this year. Political commentary often offers several opinions: the two major parties, the Greens, their version of Libertarians, and people affected by the issue. Much of the news focuses on the rest of the world, and when there is a newsworthy event in a Third-World country, commentators here are likely to talk to the actual Third-Worlders themselves. News programmes here also get by just fine without any CGI-graphics or Wagnerian Super-Bowl soundtrack.

The presence of the past. Ruins are everywhere here, from medieval churches to Roman-era towers to ancient monoliths. Older ways of life are still practiced here in some circles, and while most people’s lives are not very different than Americans, I pass thatched houses, cob walls and horse-drawn carriages almost every day.

I could name many smaller advantages. The price of something is what you pay – sales tax is included in the listed price. ATM fees are illegal here – you take 20 euros out of the machine, you are charged 20 euros and no more. Fields are separated not by chain-link fences but by natural hedgerows that yield many wild foods and maintain themselves.

There are, of course, many disadvantages to living in Ireland: the constant chill and drizzle, the eighteen-hour winter nights, the ubiquitous smoking, the high tolerance for alcoholism, the casual approval of gambling, the inveterate littering, and the lack of public concern for petty teenaged crime.

If there is one thing I could take from America and import, though, it would be this: A sense that someone else’s problems are also yours. Americans are more likely to smile at you from behind the counter, give you directions, and talk to strangers. Here people mind their own business – a bit more than I wish they would.

Tuesday 16 March 2010

Glendalough in summer

One of my favourite photographs of Ireland.

Sunday 14 March 2010


I have just heard that a cousin of mine is celebrating Pi Day today (March 14, or 03-14 to Americans) with, of course, pizza pie. I asked her husband if they celebrated it at 4 pm (1600 hours) – he said technically it should be at 1:59 in the morning, but they’re not following it that closely.

I had never heard of this until now, but it’s a charming idea. I don’t imagine it could exist here, where the day is placed before the month, since there is no April 31 – unless it is celebrated Jan. 3 at 4:15.

I asked whether they would have a Fibonnacci Day next January 12 at 3:58 – maybe they could serve Fibonnachos.

Wednesday 10 March 2010


My group, FADA, is still going well, although we’ve slowed down during this busy time of year.

We have begun hosting meetings of local families who are interested in growing their own, from town-dwellers with a small garden to professional pig and chicken farmers. The group is called GIY (for Grow It Yourself) Newbridge, part of a network of GIY clubs begun by former journalist Michael Kelly. GIY patrons include an array of Irish chefs, gardeners and media personalities -- Diarmuid Gavin and author/chefs Darina Allen, Clodagh McKenna and Joy Larkcom.

We drew about 30 people at the first meeting and about 30 at the second one – including new people, which is a good sign.

Also, some FADA members have also become Transition Town Newbridge, after the town in County Kildare where we meet.

For those who don’t know, the Transition Towns is a global movement that began in Kinsale, Ireland a few years ago. Geologist Colin Campbell, godfather of the peak oil movement and local resident, spoke in 2005 to a group of Kinsale students, and the class resolved to transition their region away from fossil fuels. The name and idea has spread rapidly -- there are now 274 Transition Towns across the world, in countries like Japan, the USA, Chile, Germany, the UK, Australia, New Zealand, Canada and Finland.

For many people, forming a Transition Town might be a bold first step, often taken by people who have recently heard about issues like peak oil and then found each other. In our case, it is a bit of an anticlimax -- FADA started here in County Kildare around the same time that the first Transition Town, with a similar idea and approach, was forming to the south of us in Kinsale, County Cork. They and we weren’t aware of each other when we started, but we soon learned of them, and our members and Transition Town activists have met and worked together ever since, as the Transition Town name spread rapidly.

In other words, we’ve always been a sort of unofficial Transition Town, and we’ve already spun off into two Transition Towns. Now we’re making it official and joining the global network.

Tuesday 9 March 2010


Most of us take libraries for granted, without appreciating what amazing things they are. Imagine having to buy even a fraction of the books, CDs and movies we can borrow freely from even the most meager local branch, whose total inventory might be worth millions.

They also serve you and your neighbours in other, less appreciated ways. Many offer free internet access to everyone, including the 20 percent of Americans who are not online. They often act as a community centre, hosting meetings and events of everything from the Boy Scouts to the PTA to the local Tidy Town volunteers.

Your branch might offer weekly storytelling for children or night courses for adults. I knew one library that featured the art of local painters, perhaps their only recognition, and another that published short-run collections of local students’ fiction, giving aspiring teen writers like myself a start. A library might offer bound volumes of now-extinct local newspapers, records and other information forgotten in an age of Google.

Even more useful than the books or activities, though, is the principle behind libraries, that we and our neighbours can pool our resources and hold things in common that all of us occasionally need. Most of the Western World, however, adopted this principle for books and then stopped, never extending it to other obvious areas of life.

In fact, the trend of the last few decades has been the opposite – people bought more and more of their own private stocks of anything, no matter how expensive or little-used: a row of ten family homes might have ten rakes, ten chainsaws, ten barbecue pits and ten Dora the Explorer videos, each of which is used for only a few hours a year.

Those same neighbours could save a lot of money, though, if they pitch in and buy a shed full of tools together – a rake, shovels, saws, hammers and so on. Most of the tools would be there when needed, but each contributor would spend only a tenth of the price on them. There might be more wear on the tools, but there might also be more people taking care of them and making them last longer.

Any small community could also keep a library of seeds. Many garden megacenters carry only a few varieties of anything, often shipped from around the world, sometimes genetically engineered to yield only a single year’s crop. A seed library would be inexpensive insurance against unforeseen events – drought, fuel shortage, worsening economy -- that might make seeds might be harder to come by and more urgently needed.

Everyone needs medical care sooner or later, and while prescription medicines should not be casually traded or used past their sell-by dates, many other first aid items could be kept together in a neighbourhood or apartment building – bandages and plasters of various sizes, surgical spirits (rubbing alcohol to Americans), hydrogen peroxide and painkillers, as well as thermometers, blood pressure wraps, swabs and other basics.

Food doesn’t exactly lend itself to re-use, but cooking supplies do, and many people have things like steamers, pressure cookers, woks, fryers and other expensive equipment that they use rarely and that could be kept in a common stock.

Any parent knows that children love new toys but are quickly bored with them, and they gradually accumulate in a child’s room until digging through them becomes an archaeological project. If each family were to frequently clean out the toys their children don’t use, however, they could create a toy library for the community, whose toys could be used and re-used.

Finally, to come full circle, you could keep books that might be useful in times to come – gardening, home health care, water filtration – and books to tell future generations what was happening to us. You can recommend such publications to public libraries, and perhaps consider joining your local library board – I used to cover the library board as a reporter, and they are usually a small group of elderly people whose hard work and subtle power goes unappreciated. They will need more volunteers as state and county funds grow scarce, and by joining the board yourself, you make sure they do not fill up with people trying to use public funds to push a single religious movement or political party.

One easy way to start would be for you and your colleagues to engage in a spring cleaning together – books you finally admit you aren’t going to read, clothes that might come back in style in ten years and rarely-used tools from the garage. People have more than they realise, and find less clutter a relief – and since many might fear abuse of the system, it’s often best to start with things people won’t miss anyway.

Such abuse – members not giving back what they borrow – can happen, but it happens in public book libraries too, and it is rarely fatal. Things like power tools, of course, are more expensive than books, so members might have to keep them secure and enforce membership fees, security deposits or late charges to make sure everyone plays by the rules.

The details will depend on your group, of course, and “group” here could be almost anything. It could be you and a few neighbours sharing a shed, your congregation storing some common goods at the church, the Girl Scouts asking to store a cabinet of seeds at City Hall, or the town’s 4-H Club keeping a shed of equipment for members to check out. It could be poker buddies going in on a chainsaw, or people in a college dormitory time-sharing their textbooks. The principle is the same – most of us have more than we need, and not enough.

Whatever the circumstance, though, try to gradually open it up to more and more people, even at a greater risk. A few scattered libraries create tiny pockets of assistance in a troubled culture, but an overlapping network of such collaborations would help restore something the culture has lost.

Sunday 7 March 2010

The land

Just as my weekdays are filled with a nine-hour day job, a three-hour bus ride and a precious few hours spent with The Girl, so our weekends are filled with the long list of chores needed to turn a muddy bog-field into vegetables and an orchard.

Today I got up early and began working in the garden, and we had a productive day, planting four apple trees and a damson tree. The quince will have to wait until we have the back area dug. I also uprooted some of the brambles that invade our property from the hedgerows along the canal, leaving only the thorny dead stems as a (hopefully) animal-proof wall.

The vegetable gardens, however, are more complicated. Soil in Ireland is thick with stones anyway, deposited by the Ice Age and ground smooth by hundreds of thousands of years of glaciers spreading over and land and withdrawing again. Such a proliferation of rocks is one of the main reasons for the famous rock walls that line the fields – they are stacked so as to support their own weight without falling into a pile, and hedge plants eventually grow up through the crannies between the rocks until the result is a solid wall of rocks and vegetation. We are doing a bit of that ourselves, lining the driveway with out smaller stones, but it is a long process, and we need to plant soon.

In our case, the soil is also strewn with builders’ rubble and other residue of history. When I dug in the damson, for example, I hit a vein of thick white paste under the soil, apparently lime abandoned by builders and covered over. I also encountered the roots of the invasive evergreens that we cut down two years ago, a piece of the car my late father-in-law abandoned on the land when he first moved here many years ago, and chunks of the gray clay that line the canal – the last apparently left by the canal-builders in the 1750s. In short, there’s a lot of junk under that boggy earth, and digging is slow going.

Sometimes, however, we find something more interesting – today it was a roughly circular flint stone, flat and apparently knapped, with a sharp blade all around and a notch at one end. Such things could occur by chance, but we might be looking at a Stone Age tool – not an arrowhead, perhaps, but a knife of some kind. I’m not sure how it could be verified, but I will run it by local experts.

All this rubble, though, means that we are going to have to use raised beds in places, nailing together boards and filling the bottom with pollarded willow croppings for drainage. It will be more work in the next few weeks, but less work in seasons to come.

Tuesday 2 March 2010


Some years back laundry soap makers started putting their product in large plastic jugs with a cup on the lid – and like many people, I simply measured the amount by filling the cup. It wasn’t long before I realized, though, that cup was many times larger than the recommended amount on the label, which itself was many times the amount I needed to get my clothes clean. I had been using up laundry soap about ten times faster than I needed to, and it didn’t make my clothes any cleaner.

The same is true for many of the products we use – the amount of toothpaste used in commercials, or the amount of shampoo the instructions say to use, is often designed to make you use more than you need and buy more quickly.

Each of these things seem like small examples – it’s my shampoo, you think, it cost a few euros, and it only takes a small amount of space in landfills, and it only puts a few drops of toxic material into the soil or oceans. And you’d be right – it’s just that a billion other people in the world are all also thinking the same thing right now.

Cutting down is the simplest way we can deal with a number of problems at once – fuel use, climate change, pollution, money management – even, often, our health. It lacks the drama of the grand solutions that fill the business magazines and political debates. But since most of the world’s problems stem from people using too much stuff, cutting back will almost always be an improvement, and is something we can all do rather than feeling powerless. As Sharon Astyk recently wrote, “the reality is all those dollars operate like votes - they say ‘make another one, and make more packaging for it, and run the factory a little longer.’ Not buying stuff is one of the most powerful tools we've got.”