Tuesday 31 August 2010


Across my native USA, I whenever neighbours or townspeople lobby for more bus and rail services, pundits and politicians usually sputter something like this:

Trains and buses are a waste of taxpayers’ money. There’s no reason for them to exist. Look at the ones we have now – they’re mostly empty.

Anyone who’s ridden a bus or train recently knows that’s not even remotely true. Buses and trains are often filled to capacity, here and in America – I’m writing this from a tight squeeze in a packed double-decker. Even if those critics were right, however, they never apply that same logic to cars, for they never say:

Asphalt is a waste of taxpayers’ money, and so are highway overpasses, parking garages, car parks, traffic signals, streetlights, traffic cops and auto company bailouts. Look at the cars we have now – they’re mostly empty.

Passengers might be the most under-appreciated factor in how much fuel and money you waste. As I write this, for example, a business headline boasts of Toyota’s multi-million-dollar plan to boost fuel efficiency by 25 percent, with the usual discussion of what this will mean for the economy and the climate. Any of us, however, can boost the efficiency of our cars by several hundred percent instantly, with no additional expense or technology, simply by getting more people in the car.

This fact is also forgotten when we judge car owners by the wastefulness of their vehicles. An SUV is a spectacularly inefficient machine compared to a Prius, for example, but pack that Dodge Durango full of people and suddenly it is greener than the electric hybrid driven alone.

To use another example, your bus could be less efficient than an SUV in kilometers-per-litre, yet all of you bus passengers are making one of the greenest transportation choices around, thanks to the fact that so many seats are filled.

One of the easiest ways of cutting your expenses, fuel and carbon footprint, then, is simply to share rides with other people. Since most of us travel similar routes from clusters of houses to clusters of offices, there is no reason why carpooling should not work for most of us.

According to the website carfinance.ie, the average car in Ireland, driven 10,000 kilometers a year, will cost 1,750 euros in petrol. Divide that by four people, however, and you each save 1,300 a year. Carpooling could even pay for itself, if you propose to friends and co-workers that they pay you slightly more than the cost of fuel, as compensation for driving a little out of your way.

Some people might think they want to listen to music or a podcast on the way rather than talk to other people, and there’s no reason you can’t do even if the car is crowded. Most people, however, could do with more company. A June 2006 study in the American Sociological Review found that the number of close friends people say they have fell by a third in the previous 20 years. Most people don’t go to poker nights or Kiwanis meetings anymore, and the number of people who know their neighbours has also fallen, but the number of hours spent commuting has more than doubled in the last few decades. Most studies show us lonelier and more stressed than people of previous generations, probably because we spend less and less of our lives being the social animals we evolved to be, and more and more staring at glowing rectangles.

Perhaps this paranoia about human company is one reason so few of us have taken up carpooling, no matter how much money they would save. A brief internet search shows that while more web sites encourage people to carpool, many people seem fearful of meeting strangers. “How could I possibly trust that the people … I’d travel with are honest guys and not awful criminals?” asked one blogger – sentiments typical of many comments on the subject, even though criminals are unlikely to use a morning carpooling route as their cover for a nefarious plan.

I suspect those glowing rectangles are keeping us from each other in more ways than one. To some extent in Europe, but especially in my own USA, news shows focus on lurid murders rather than the state of local water or this year’s crops, until people forgot that news could be anything else. Nightly television dramas tell stories of cops and lawyers, serial killers and torturers, until we accept that this is what drama should be. Europeans watch American shows and think of my country as a violent and dangerous place – and Americans think of their own country that way. The crime rate has been declining for decades, and yet we have become more and more afraid.

Contrast this with the 1930s or 40s, when regular people carpooled, hitchhiked and picked up hitchhikers, and movies and other media showed this as normal. In wartime USA and Britain carpooling, like many other self-sufficient activities, was declared a patriotic duty – propaganda posters warned against people who selfishly took up a whole car to themselves, or who let the troops down by wasting energy. Hollywood movies showed stars carpooling, Dr. Seuss drew cartoons about how many people you could pack in a car, scoutmasters gave speeches about saving fuel and money.

Nor did the posters approach carpooling as a nice way to enjoy the morning or as a hip new part of eco-fashion; rather, they could be stern in a way that few advertisements are today. “Hitler rides in the empty seat,” said one typical poster. People need this. We are counting on you.

Today we face another emergency. It’s not exactly war, and not like any previous Depression. It does have a home front, though, and could benefit from some of the same solutions that were understood to be so sensible, for so long.

Sunday 29 August 2010

Great Irish names

Best place names we saw on our journey:

The village of Cong (Pronounced like the Eighth Wonder of the World.)

The village of Cloonboo (pronounced just like it's spelled)

The town of Lisdoonvarna

… and finally,
The River Suck.

Wednesday 25 August 2010

The Journey West

Last weekend we went to the West of Ireland, where The Girl and I spent a full day driving through Conemara, the pastoral land to the north of Galway Bay. We meandered over the rugged countryside, stopping often to picnic, run around, take pictures, feed birds or climb hills.

We then went south through Galway to the stark and windswept moonscape of the Burren, where the one of Cromwell’s generals once complained there was not enough soil to bury a man there, enough water to drown him or enough rope to hang him. The advance and retreat of ice ages and the tapping of meltwater carved the limestone rock into ripples, eddies or strange marbled designs, or eaten vast caves through the bellies of the mountains.

At Ailwee we saw a bird show at the Raptor Center, which delighted The Girl. The organisation takes in birds that have been injured or captured in the underground animal market, breeds them and trains them to perform in the shows that fund the place.

A bit up the trail is the entrance to Ailwee Cave, which trails for kilometres under the rock – an Irish farmer discovered it in the 1940s and kept it secret for the next thirty years, finally selling it to people who made it a tourist attraction. The Girl found the cave itself a bit scary -- underground cliffs, dripping ceilings, claustrophobic walkways – and, for one moment when the lights went out, total blackness. She put on a brave face, but held me tightly, and I didn’t mind --- she won’t do that forever.

Near the caves we saw the Poulambrone Dolmen, one of the many stone tables built by Celts long ago, like a piece of Stonehenge. The Girl absorbed the stories I told her about the people long ago, but was more interested in playing hopscotch across the jigsaw patterns in the ground.

I wanted to see the Cliffs of Moher for the first time, but The Girl was tired and rain had begun, so we headed back. I visited the Cliffs of Moher ten years ago when I first came to Ireland, but never saw them – it was so foggy that I couldn’t see three metres in front of me, and I wasn’t walking too close to the Cliffs. The Irish have a different sense of public safety than most Americans – in front of a sheer drop of fatal height, I recall only a small sign saying, “Warning: Cliff is dangerous. Stay back.” No fence, no railing – not walking off the cliff is considered your responsibility. Giving the driving winds there, I wasn’t bringing The Girl too close either.

The next day we saw Ireland’s national Museum of Country Life, dedicated to preserving the images and crafts of the old ways of Irish life. It’s a fascinating place, and I recommend it to anyone passing through that area of Ireland, with one caveat: for a museum devoted to preserving the customs and crafts of country people here, perhaps they could have created a building that looks less like something by I.M. Pei.

One advantage to living in Ireland is that a more traditional way of life was preserved longer than in other places, simply because people couldn’t afford anything else, so museums like this have clothing, tools, shoes, chicken coops, ropes, fishing nets and dozens of other items made entirely by hand, but from only a few generations ago. The last people to live with almost no technology here when Jimmy Stewart was making movies, so places like this have recordings, interviews, and film footage. Such places become even more interesting if you, like us, believe that we need to keep such knowledge alive.

Friday 20 August 2010


When I and several others were helping build the cob house in County Clare a few years ago, we paused for a cup of tea -- the Irish are the biggest tea drinkers in the world per capita, and a “cuppa” is the standard break from work or polite invitation.

As we headed back to the shelter for tea, though, some of the Irish workers did something curious -- they gathered wild plants from the meadow as they walked and chatted, arriving at the shelter with arms full. They quickly rinsed the plants, dropped them into a pitcher and poured boiling water over them, and in a few minutes had instant herbal tea.

Teas can be made from almost any edible leaf, flower or fruit, but a few are particularly well-suited:

• Mint grows wild in forests and hedgerows, and is one of the easiest crops for amateurs – as the saying goes, you drop the seeds in soil and jump back. Its cooling tea is much used in warmer climates like Morocco, helping people without air conditioning stay as cool as possible. If you live somewhere like the Deep South or Missouri, as I used to, you might want to try this – it won’t be the same as central air, but it might help as you cut back – or someday lose it suddenly.

• Clover: The white and purple flowers are ubiquitous across the summer fields of Europe and America, and the flowers and leaves can be gathered for a delicious tea.

• Dandelion makes a good, nutritious tea without the bitter flavor of dandelion leaves. It also acts as a diuretic, as you can tell from “piss-a-bed” and other folk names for the herb. I’m told the roots can also be roasted, ground and made into something like coffee – feel free to write me if you try it.

• Bramble: Our hedgerows and fences are covered in thorny brambles, and not only do they offer natural barbed-wire security all year long and blackberries in autumn, but the spring shoots make a blackberry-scented tea loaded with vitamin C.

• Nettles: I have several plastic bins filled with nettle tea, which I make by picking nettle shoots and drying them – you can do it the old-fashioned way, over a stove or fire, or the modern lazy way with a microwave. Nettle tea’s strong flavor works well for me, as my modern American palate likes stronger flavours, and it can be used for vitamins all winter long. It has many purported medical properties as well, often prescribed in older times for asthma and other ailments.

• Chamomile flowers create a famously relaxing tea, as does valerian.

• Fennel, dill and anise – all licorice-flavoured plants – make teas that help upset stomachs.

• Sage, oregano, thyme and many other herbs can all be made into strongly-flavoured teas.

• Echinacea flowers, which grow in Ireland, are reputed to help stave off colds, although the effects are disputed. If they do turn out to work, though, the flowers are probably better than store-bought pills – they are free and, as it turns out, Echinacea pills often have no Echinacea at all.

• Linden or lime leaves make great tea in spring, when they are shoots.

• St. John’s Wort is said to work as an anti-depressant, although its effects are as disputed as Echinacea.

You don’t need to make just one kind of tea – take a variety of herbs and mix them together, perhaps with a bit of honey or fruit juice. Remember that you generally need a lot of leaves to give boiling water taste and colour – black tea comes from a particularly strong-tasting plant, further strengthened by being smoked, dried and powdered. With living leaves fresh off the vine or stalk, pack them into a jar or container almost to the rim before pouring boiling water over them.

Most of these, of course, make a slightly green tea that tastes very different than black tea, and would not take milk. One exception is rooibos or redbush, which tastes and looks very like black tea, takes milk and is naturally caffeine-free. It’s available in most stores in tea bags, so try it if you feel like tea in the evenings.

You can make your own tea blends out of conventional black tea, of course. Earl Grey, for example, is black tea with a bit of bergamot oil. If you feel experimentitive, add different kinds of juice or plants to regular tea and see what you like. Whatever you make, it will probably be nearly free and better for you than soda or any of the varieties of fake juice on the market.

Photo: The field next to our house -- chamomile, poppies, comfrey, borrage, mint, catmint and sorrel.

P.S. Still have only sporadic internet. Will post when can. Thanks for patience.

Sunday 1 August 2010

The Leaning Pub of the Bog

This is what we had to guard against in building our house. It is a normal country pub, a gathering-place for locals -- but like our land, it sits in the Bog of Allen, and the ground under it has shifted. None of the locals care, of course -- if anything, more people come just to see it. Just watch out when you set your drink on the bar.