Friday, 26 November 2010

Like a storm overhead

Thursday morning it began. In the wet darkness before dawn I rode from our rural home to my day job in Dublin, listening to news on the bus speakers – a team of international financial experts had flown in to meet government leaders, and reporters demanded to know why. Six days of revelations later we have a bankrupt economy, a bailout that could top a hundred billion euros, a broken government coalition, a new planned election and a severe emergency budget. And yet everything looks the same.

That morning I felt worn out from the previous day’s work. I had taken a day off work to borrow a friends’ trailer and pick up straw bales from farmer near Maynooth, as he was the only farmer I could find that still makes the human-sized bales, now that everything is done with machinery. I wanted to stack the bales into a night soil composter, seeing if I could get the right carbon and nitrogen ratios to create the high temperatures needed to kill off pathogens.

I also took our old refrigerator to the dump – I wanted to make it into an underground cold-box, but couldn’t find someone to drain the Freon from the tubes in back, and didn’t want the chemicals seeping into the groundwater. Finally, I loaded up the trailer with mulch from the pile where the county shreds its Christmas trees, and spread it between our garden beds.

On Friday our bank admitted that its value had dropped from a high of 22 billion down to 300 million – a decline of 98.4 percent. We are withdrawing most of our money until this passes, and stocking up on more food and propane than usual. I absorbed the news riding home in the darkness, writing a letter to a local teacher – my non-profit is working with a local school to get teenagers to interview elderly residents, collecting information on the skills and resources people here had a few decades ago.

Saturday marked an emergency meeting of the government, we heard as we went to the Farmers’ Market. Later that day my Girl rode her horse around the pen under a grey winter sky, with our neighbour’s daughter the same age. The Girl took her first bad fall off a horse a few weeks ago, and I told her how proud I was that she was riding again. Today, her friend fell the same way, and while I ran in and carried her to her car, she was also shaken but unharmed.

Sunday we all listened to news pundits speculate on the IMF loan, and all agreed it would mean higher taxes and less money for health and education. But no one really knew.

For me, though, Sunday was the day I ringed the row of lilandia evergreens that border our property. My father-in-law planted them twenty years ago, and while I have taken some down with a chainsaw, we realised that the barbed-wire fence behind the trees – the only thing separating our garden from dozens of hungry cows in winter – is getting old and easily broken. We think the cows recognise the rows of trees as a barrier, and that cutting them down now would encourage them to push through the barbed wire. At the same time, we need their roots to stop taking nutrients from the soil so we can plant native fruit and nut trees. My solution was to chop the bark off all the way around the base of the tree, killing it without felling it, and we can fell them at our leisure later this winter.

Sunday my wife and mother-in-law also placed cloches over our raised garden beds, and draped fleece over them to keep the frost out. Finally, The Girl and I planted a rowan sapling in the hedgerow by the canal, filling a gap behind our rows of loganberries and raspberries.

Monday morning my mother-in-law woke me even earlier than usual, so I could kill a mouse. He crept in the warm house one day, hopefully when we left the door open, and for weeks had left our mousetraps devoid of their peanut butter but unsprung. Finally my mother-in-law reached to get the cat’s food and the mouse jumped up at her. It was very considerate of him to wait for me in the plastic bag, and I made sure the cat was fed.

That day the government split apart. For a few years now the Green Party had ruled in uneasy coalition with Fianna Fail (rhymes with tall, but looks like a bad pun), perhaps Ireland’s equivalent of the Republican Party, and with a few independents they form a ruling coalition. Since the Greens had to concede a great deal of their platform to compromise, they have been a few years of continual controversy. With the onset of the bailout they announced they were washing their hands of the coalition, effectively a vote of no confidence in their senior partner. Their actions force a general election early next year, and everyone takes for granted that this is the end of Fianna Fail’s long dominance.

That night The Girl and I watched one of her favourite programmes, the documentaries of David Attenborough. We read about trilobites and velvet worms, and then I let her watch the Marx Brothers make jokes about the Depression.

On Tuesday, the offices of at least two TDs – like MPs in Britain, or Congress members in the USA – were vandalised. After centuries of being among the world’s most famous victims of poverty, the Irish had experienced one of the world’s most remarkable economic booms, the Celtic Tiger. For a magical few years, the population of some villages quadrupled, and land values increased more than that. Hundreds of thousands of Irish built new homes, including us. The natives here were intensely proud of becoming an economic powerhouse, and while most expected that it would end, few expected it to implode so spectacularly.

On Wednesday the government announced its new budget, increasing taxes and tariffs and cutting social services. That day I met The Girl’s teacher for the annual parent-teacher conference, and bought new socks for the winter – Ireland saw an unusual cold snap last winter, and climate change experts say we could get more in the coming years.

We took off work for Thanksgiving – of course it is an ordinary day for everyone else here, but I am an American and wanted to honour it. I am grateful for the life we have, and for our great fortune.

This is what the Long Emergency feels like. It feels like screaming headlines and breaking-news interruptions and haggard pedestrians and foul moods at the office. It feels, for a while, like the end of the world. But while it happens there is still birdsong and rustling leaves, frost across the fields and fog at twilight. It feels like a storm overhead and far away, thrilling and mournful and dangerous, and we scramble to take shelter from it. It can kill many people and destroy our plans, but then it passes, and the landscape looks much the same.

It will happen to you too sometime. Maybe your money will be worthless one day, having gone from work to wealth to metal to paper to stocks to derivatives, into a realm of such abstraction that it blows away on the next breeze. Maybe all the jobs in your city will disappear one by one, the young people migrating in caravans to rumours of work far away. Maybe the electricity will go off more and more often, or the store shelves will slowly go empty. Maybe people around you, fed stories of apocalypse for two generations, will think it the end of the world.

But we can’t do anything about it. That’s something that many of us, raised on fictional stories in which people change the world, cannot accept – real things are slow, last longer than our lives, and are out of our control. People have immense power – we have scoured the surface of the planet like a forest fire, created cities that rise like mountains from the shore, and set events rolling that will not dissipate for millions of years. But as a person, each of us has very little ability to change anything.

And this is the good news about the day the world ends -- it never comes, or if it does it's like any other day. It looks like a day thick with things to do – animals to be fed, bedtime stories to read and chores that don’t wait for the next news report. For those eagerly anticipating the Rapture or the Singularity or the 2012 whatever, this is the bad news – nothing will reboot your life and take away your problems.

And after the storm passes, a few things that are forever changed, and we become accustomed to them. Soon we joke casually about the events that we feared -- the terrorist attack, devaluation, election, outage or shortage – and accept it, and forget that anything else was ever normal.

Until the next end of the world.


bridget said...

Thank you for the ground level view of the economic crisis in Ireland. I have been thinking about you as I hear the news on NPR in the U.S. I hope you weather the storm well. And on a shorter term, Happy Thanksgiving from Missouri.

I feel much uncertainty about where we are going in the States. Unemployment is still so high, real estate is lower. The only good financial news we have had is personal - my in-laws finally found work and our major home repair is estimated to cost less than I feared. I guess we just keep going the best we can in the mean time.

Anonymous said...

Hope all goes well for you and your family, Brian. These things will come to us all eventually.

(A regular Aussie reader)

Brian Kaller said...


It's great to be thought of -- thank you. Glad some things in your life are going well .... keep in touch.

Anonymous, thank you! Good luck to you too.

Robert C. Guy said...

I sincerely appreciate your expounding on the situation there. I work in an office in the states (a position I would never have imagined myself in younger years and do not suspect I will continue indefinitely in) and it is refreshing to see your perspective. I have acquaintances here who will debate over whether they believe the new Hummer is cute enough to buy or what to do while they are on their cruise liner vacation while those very same person just lost their old compact car that was barely running for years and have just enough resources to keep food on the table from one month to the next. Their regularly exercised foresight rarely glances past next week since that's when the next episode of x, y, or z comes on the cable television to watch on their brand new wall-sized internet ready ipod compatible surround sound home theater but those crazy bills somehow come due again every month and the credit cards are maxed out. Not to concern their heads over, besides, they just bought that new smart-phone because everyone else has one, and golly those commercials were neat, and now they can see FaceBook no matter where they are.

Sal from SRF said...

Good luck to you and your family. I believe most of us are adjusting to new "normals" all of the time, whether we know it or not. It may come suddenly as in Ireland with the monetary collapse, or more subtly as an increased military presence that somehow becomes acceptable (in Canada, where I live).

Anyway, enjoy your writing. Take care.

sv koho said...

Good post Brian. I also loved the pic of the pub. Ireland is the most compelling economic story at the moment and I am enjoying posting on it, hopefully accurately. Your blog gives us amuricans boots on the ground perspective.

michael Irving said...


Thanks for your post.

I had not found you before today and so you came as a new voice. I was so taken with that voice that I had to read most of it to my wife. I noticed immediately that your voice, coming through me, suddenly developed a mysterious catch, a strange loss of control. I thought for a moment your voice, coming through me, would not be able to continue.

Again, thanks.

Michael Irving

Brian Kaller said...


Thank you. I agree that the world seems filled with the shortsighted, but to be charitable, they have been conditioned all their lives to believe as they do, surrounded by advertisements, pop culture and peers who believe the same things. We’ve all made foolish choices in our lives, and sometimes people learn. Maybe they will.

I haven’t heard much about the military change in Canada – could you tell me more?

Thank you – I’m enjoying your blog as well.

I will be keeping your compliment with me and looking at it in difficult times. Thank you very much.

Sal from SRF said...


Briefly,the change in Canada has been a result of the Harper government that has been in power for several years. Called "The Northern Bush", he has presided over the largest mass arrest in Canadian history this last summer at the G-8 summit in Toronto. And there is also the war in Afghanistan, in which Canada has changed in the eyes of the world from "peacekeeper" to... something else. Funding to the military and the RCMP has vastly increased in the last several years; a person may be held in jail for up to 72 hours without being charged with anything, and much longer (I don't know how long exactly) if you are under "suspicion" of being a terrorist.

At the local level, our municipal government threatened to shut down first our farmers market for selling local, ungraded eggs, and a craft fair for selling cookies not baked in a commercial kitchen.

Maybe I am just paranoid, but it seems that all levels of government in Canada are more willing to flex their muscle these days, and people in general here are pretty apathetic. (Although I am proud to say that people are still selling eggs at the market.)

I guess that is all.

Tom Cleland said...

Thanks for the update. I hope the economic crisis isn't too bad.