Monday 19 December 2011

Classic Cinema and Our Future

Invited to a Halloween party a few years ago and at a loss for a last-minute costume, I put on my most raggedy suit, bought a cigar, applied three strips of greasepaint, and walked in the door as Groucho Marx. If you think you know where this is going, don’t worry – everyone else dressed in costume too. Unfortunately, I thought Groucho would be as iconic and recognisable as Elvis or Dracula, and not one of my educated, middle-aged neighbours had heard of him.

Of course we were in Ireland, where cultural touchstones can be different, but more and more North Americans, I find, have no familiarity with classic movies either. I rarely see them in my local DVD stores or libraries, with a few predictable exceptions: a John Wayne movie or two for elderly men, a now-colourised musical for women, and the inevitable Three Stooges. Exceptions like It’s a Wonderful Life loop endlessly in holiday marathons until they become white noise, no matter how relevant in this time of bank failures.

Perhaps this is understandable; most people these days find the conventions of black-and-white movies as alien as Kabuki theatre, familiar only from decades of countercultural spoofing. Many times I have eagerly attended the rare revival, from Dark Victory as a teenager to Metropolis last year, only to cringe when the dramatic scenes reduced the audience to horse laughter. Young people might do well to explore old movies, though, for as we enter a time of austerity they might turn out more relevant and prophetic than anyone realises.

I don’t mean science fiction films from that era, with their now-hilarious predictions of flying cars and domed cities. Nor do I mean recent science fiction, which in the 1970s took the same apocalyptic turn as our religion and our politics, until by now most rental stores have a single section for “science fiction/horror.”

In defence of Zombie Apocalypse movies, our society is facing some serious problems. We have built a world where almost everything depends on fossil fuels — cars, air travel, trucking, shipping, heat, electricity, plastics, and fertiliser. We use more fossil fuels every decade, yet their supply is limited, and many experts, including the U.S. Army, predict a crunch in the next several years. The coming decades will probably bring more outages and shortages, along with weirder weather and economic shocks, problems that will all feed on each other. Energy alternatives like bio-fuels, nuclear, wind and solar might allow us to live with the per capita energy of 80 years ago rather than 180 years ago, but nothing will spare us from having to make do with less.

Post-apocalyptic fiction, though, assumes everything will disappear, overnight, ridding the world of the people we don’t like and leaving us with all the world’s toys. The reality will probably be less horrific and cinematic; fossil fuels will probably abate over decades, and the greatest danger will be enforced simplicity for millions of people mentally unprepared for it.

That’s where movies come in – and television and other media, but I’m focusing on movies. Most of us spend most of our waking lives staring at glowing rectangles, and we weave our mental landscape of the world from media images like birds building a nest from scraps. When I read accounts of Thermopylae I still see 300, and even when I read Gandhi’s original writings I still picture Ben Kingsley.

For movies to help us prepare for our real future, though, it has to show us what such a world could look like, and neither Star Trek nor Zombie Apocalypse fiction help us show people struggling to pay the mortgage, irrigate the crops and hitch a ride to town. We do have thousands of movies that do show us this more limited future, though, because they were made in a more limited past.

Some films of the 1930s and 40s included Busby Berkeley-style fantasies, of course, but most had to show people a world they recognised, and in the details of backgrounds and dialogue we can glimpse a very different America. For one small example, take 1932’s Grand Hotel: Joan Crawford’s character eats only one meal a day, the most she can afford, while Lionel Barrymore’s dying character wants to treat himself to the finest luxuries the hotel can offer, “my own bathroom, like rich people.”

Or take the scene in 1943’s Tender Comrade where Ginger Rogers describes to Robert Ryan the kind of normal life they would have when he returns from the war: a garden where they could grow their own food, with chickens in the yard. It’s not the kind of dialogue we’re likely to see in a war movie today, but it should be. And when our soldiers return, they will have to rebuild their old lives, reboot their marriages and rediscover their children – a story Hollywood told well in 1946’s The Best Years of our Lives.

As another example, take King Vidor’s 1934 film Our Daily Bread: a young couple can’t pay their rent, and neither can most of their friends. They have inherited some land but can’t pay the taxes, for no one is around to cultivate the property. Someone realises the two problems could solve each other; they and their friends can move to the land, build a new life and split the profits from the farm.

I haven’t seen many films about working people trying to get health care — unless I watch 1938’s The Citadel. More people must care for elderly parents, but I don’t see many films dealing with the problems that causes, outside of 1937’s Make Way for Tomorrow. And has any recent film showed the down-and-out as heroes, as in Meet John Doe, The Grapes of Wrath or I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang?

To most people I talk to these days, old movies seem hopelessly corny and unrealistic – and obviously some had dated references, poor dialogue, or simply have not aged well. Their depictions of African-Americans appropriately offend modern sensibilities, as does the sight of white actors playing ethnic roles. I don’t recommend them if you’re trying to quit smoking, either; even in The Citadel, one surgeon hands another some cigarettes, saying “they’ll calm your nerves.”

Classic films also treated courtship and language with a gentleness that seems strange to us today, now that our mass media have spent four decades celebrating every new broken taboo as a victory against The Man. Are films with graphic sex and gore, however, more realistic? Is that what your life is like?

In fact, movies of the 1930s and 40s, despite their innocent image, show a grimmer world than we are used to seeing. Frank Capra’s movies have become synonymous with Norman Rockwell Americana, but their bright moments were powerful because they were surrounded by darkness, their decent characters – John Doe, George Bailey — framed, harassed and pushed to suicide and madness.

Ironically, I grew up with old movies because of this misconception; for conservative Christians in the 1970s and 80s, classic movies made safe entertainment, so my brothers and I grew up knowing Humphrey Bogart and Jimmy Stewart the way other children know rappers or wrestlers. We passed every supper with trivia contests, with games our parents and grandparents had created. In one game we were given two actors – say, Charlie Chaplin and John Wayne – and had to link them with the shortest possible number of co-stars. These days I’m sure someone has a web site and algorithm to tell you instantly, but we had to calculate on the spot that the answer was one: Paulette Goddard.

Yes, it’s the Kevin Bacon game; years later a bunch of college students patented it, marketed the idea and gained fame and fortune. No, I’m not bitter.

In another game, which we called Rotunda, we started with a film and two co-stars – say, Claude Rains and Jimmy Stewart – and then each of us took turns bouncing through co-stars, from Jimmy Stewart/Cary Grant in The Philadelphia Story to Cary Grant/Mae West in She Done Him Wrong and so on. The goal of the game was to make your way back to the first actor you named, but to anticipate several moves ahead, so that only you, and no one else, would reach the crucial link to Claude Rains.

This love of movies stayed with me over the years; I worked as a film critic for a newspaper chain for a while in my twenties, which sounds like a dream job until you realise how many bad movies you need to sit through. Depressingly, I found that the quality of movies has deteriorated over time; take the best films of any year, and they do not outweigh the products of even a single month of, say, 1941.

Of course such a sweeping and subjective statement will not match everyone’s tastes, and of course film technology keeps improving, each decade bringing a new kind of animation, CGI, 3-D or some other way to wow us. Few films today, though, seem to rely on great stories; they have become spectacles, as silent movies were, rather than well-written plays. Moreover, any one of them cost enough to make a hundred films like The Thin Man or The Maltese Falcon, even accounting for inflation. Few filmmakers today, rolling in wealth and with the godlike power to create whole worlds onscreen, do as much as John Huston or Woody Van Dyke did with a cardboard set.

And this brings us back to living on less. When the Great Depression hit, movies shifted away from the big-budget fantasy spectacles of the 1920s into more modest and realistic fare. In part they were responding to the demands of newly invented talkies, but also to the desires of an increasingly desperate and politically radical America. Hollywood saw an intellectual movement – imagine! – of writers and directors determined to tell useful stories by and for ordinary people. American films have never been more well-written or resonant than in the 1930s and 40s, because they have never been more gently and consciously populist.

Such ideals drew accusations of Communism even then, and some of those writers and directors did become entangled in the misguided intellectual causes of the 1930s. “A surprising number,” though, write authors Paul Buhle and Dave Wagner in their book Radical Hollywood, “came straight out of Middle America and made their choice on old-fashioned moral grounds.” There is a reason old movies are so sentimentally cited by Glenn Beck and Pat Robertson as symbols of a better America, and why the growing neo-conservative movement in the 1970s asked an old B-movie star to be their figurehead.

Movies and other media have become spectacles again, and as we move into something far greater and deeper than a Depression, I long to see well-written, idealistic stories about regular people coping with the long emergency.

I want to see films for all ages, devoid of hip countercultural irony. I want to see low-budget teleplays in which today’s equivalent of Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland put on a show to raise money to build allotments in the old park, a new series of Dead End Kids movies in which modern versions of Tommy and Milty cajole the neighbourhood association to allow pigs in the vacant lot.

With a future this severe bearing down on us, movies might seem like small potatoes; if we do face a future of widespread poverty, of course, we should all attend to fundamental human needs, and save the old lady rather than the Mona Lisa. But few things can stick in the thoughts of masses of people as well as movies and television; when I referred to a “Star Trek future” or a “Zombie Apocalypse,” you knew just what I meant.

And they are one of the last things we do in community. I took my seven-year-old to see Buster Keaton’s The General at a rare showing yesterday, and while she chuckled when I showed her clips on YouTube, we had tears in our eyes laughing with an auditorium of people. It felt like a good football game or a revival tent, with waves of emotion rippling over a crowd, and for a brief moment in the darkness you are reminded that we’re all in this together.

Originally published at Front Porch Republic.

Sunday 18 December 2011

Sunday 11 December 2011

Father Christmas, homesteader

This time of year, my daughter has one favourite story: Raymond Briggs’ Father Christmas, the story of Santa’s rounds on Christmas night. It’s one of my favourites as well, if for different reasons.

In this graphic novel, silent but for a few grumbles and greetings, there is no Ms. Claus, elves or secret toy-industrial complex. Father Christmas, here, is an old man living in apparently contented solitude, dutifully venturing out yearly to make his deliveries. He endures storms, fog, sleet and high winds across the world, complaining the entire way and occasionally strengthening his resolve with a drop of liquor.

Such an unsentimental portrait might sound depressing, but it makes Santa more human, and more comprehensible to my daughter, than the usual laughing caricature. Briggs makes him a hard-working man performing a service we value; Briggs could easily be showing the daily routine of a miner, a fisherman or a farmer. At one point Santa passes a milkman also making deliveries, and they exchange pleasantries without stopping – and even on Christmas morning, the milkman must make his rounds as well.

What I particularly like, though, is that Santa seems to live on a homestead. He starts his morning by using the outhouse – at least, it’s a toilet outside in the shed -- and gathers hay for the animals. He is pleased to find two winter eggs from the chickens, and has breakfast with tea. He puts coal in the small stove, similar to the one we use to burn our bog turf. You wouldn’t be surprised to see a vegetable garden or greenhouses out back.

The book doesn’t say where he lives, although children here believe Santa lives in Lapland, in Finland, rather than at the North Pole as American children do. From the tea to the Christmas pudding, though, it looks like working-class Britain in the mid-20th century, the “deeply conservative land” that David Kynaston pieces together from diaries in his impressive Austerity Britain. It’s the Britain G.K. Chesterton or C.S. Lewis might have recognised, the life an old man might have lived in Britain when the book was written in 1973.

Father Christmas and Austerity Britain would seem two very different books, but they both focus on the similar cultures, eras and intimate details of living – supper, chores, schedule. Minutiae like this bring earlier eras to life in a way most histories miss, and offer a casual vision of an austere but civilised world that we would do well to revive.

In a small room Father Christmas sleeps under quilts, in long johns, with a hot-water bottle, for heat was precious. The bed-stand looks of rough wood, as though he carved it himself, and on it he keeps his teeth and a wind-up alarm clock. He puts talc powder under his arms instead of modern deodorant. The concept of a carbon footprint was decades away when the book was written, but without adding anything for flying reindeer, Santa’s would be close to zero.

As he makes his rounds, we see English farmhouses by moonlight, and my six-year-old points out the details she recognises --- bicycles, water barrels to catch rain from gutters, sticks crossed in the garden for peas to climb. Sometimes Santa has to crawl out of the stove, for people cooked with wood or coal and the oven went to the chimney.

That world was already fading when Father Christmas was published in 1973, and the encroaching modern world seems to confuse Santa. He struggles to find entry into a caravan – a trailer or mobile home to Americans – and he gets tangled in someone’s television antenna. We wondered about things like this as children -- how many of us had ever seen a home with a chimney, much less a sleigh?

The whole story, of course, made more sense when it was gaining popularity in the 19th and early 20th centuries; most children were familiar with sleighs or lumps of coal, and hung their stockings by the chimney anyway, to dry. The oranges we received in our stockings were meaningless to us in the 1970s but precious to our forebears; they were from exotic lands. In “A Visit From St. Nicholas,” Mama was in her kerchief and I in my cap because the houses were cold. Children a century ago would not have found such details cryptic, any more than they would stables and mangers.

Today it might seem like that world has been completely forgotten. As we inched up the energy needle, our mainstream culture abandoned most of its traditional holidays -- Midsummer, Candlemas, Twelfth Night, May Day and many more – and swelled Christmas from a night to a shopping “season.” Christmas movies and television increasingly portrays Santa’s “workshop” as an assembly line, while news pundits annually track the spending numbers like telethon hosts.

Yet people can’t completely forget a more traditional world this time of year, not amid so many traditions. It is at this time of year that modern people are most likely to attend a church, visit otherwise distant family, cook their own food, knock on the doors of their neighbours and other once-commonplace actions. It is the time of year when people are most likely to sing, and sing songs meant to be sung by ordinary voices together. Even the black-and-white movies often replayed this time of year, while not as old as Christmas trees or "Greensleeves," hail from the simpler foothills of the energy needle.

When we take pleasure in these things, we peek through cracks in the wall of stress and excess and see another, older world on the other side, and realise there is another source of comfort and joy.

Monday 5 December 2011

Back from London

Attended a conference for my day job.

Saw The Mousetrap. 

Stayed in the Hostel of the Surly Russians.

Ate an amazing coconut soup from a Malaysian restaurant in the West End.

Had coffee and blood pudding in Soho.

... and most importantly, fulfilled a lifelong dream: visited the Natural History Museum.

More soon.

Top photo: Back street in Kensington. Bottom photo:Underground station.

Monday 28 November 2011


Say “dehydrated food” and people think of army rations or those little pills people eat in science fiction, but you probably have many dehydrated foods at home already. All grains are dehydrated, for example – rice, oats, popcorn – along with powdered grains like flour or cornmeal, and grain products like pasta. Most beans and lentils come dried, as do staples like salt and sugar. Most people also are familiar with raisins, sultanas, sun-dried tomatoes, dried herbs and, of course, tea. You can dry all kinds of food outside of these, however, and it remains one of the most effective and efficient ways of preserving food through the winter.

Vegetables can be dried, even those parts we don’t ordinarily eat fresh. Broccoli, cabbage, carrots, parsnips, kale – all these can be dehydrated and saved indefinitely as ready-to-go soup ingredients. The dried vegetables can also be ground into powder and mixed into soup or bread, adding to its nutrition. Meat is difficult to dry in this climate without a dehydrator, but if you have one you can make jerky, a source of protein that can last for months at room temperature without spoiling.

Dehydrating food saves money, allowing you to spend cents on what would ordinarily cost several euros (or whatever currency you use). A can of soup, for example, has more salt than you need in your entire day, is exorbitantly expensive for the amount of nutrition you receive, and costs perhaps three euros. On the other hand, you could keep enough dried vegetables in your pantry for months of soup, all for no money and a little effort, with no salt, no chemicals and plenty of nutrition.

Herbs can be dried, of course – basil, oregano, thyme and dozens of others. Other plants can be dried for teas – nettles, dandelions, mint, and chamomile. To dry them be sure to pick them when they are fresh and already somewhat dry – that is, not after it’s been raining, which is not easy in this country. Then shake off any moisture, pat them off with a towel, tie a string around the stalks and hang them in a cool dry place like your pantry. Don’t hang too many at once or the herbs will just go yellow without drying properly, as parsley did with me this year. If you can get your hand around the thickest part of it, you should be fine.

Teas can be made from almost any dried edible leaf, flower or fruit, but a few are particularly well-suited: clover, dandelion, bramble shoots, nettles and sage all make good teas. Mint, fennel, dill and anise are good for stomach problems, while chamomile flowers are good for relaxing before bedtime. 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, compared to black tea.

Every autumn most people will have a glut of excess fruits and berries around them, most of which will go to waste. Dehydrated, however, and they can last the rest of the year – apple rings, blueberry raisins or whatever you like. If you have a dehydrator, you can also dry mashed fruit into fruit roll-ups. All these make nutritious sources of vitamins through the winter, and a dessert-like snack for children.

To dry apples, cut out the core and then slice the fruit half a centimetre thick. To slow the oxidation that turns the fruit brown, you can dip them in lemon juice first or place the slices with a candle in an upside-down jar – the candle will go out, but all the oxygen in the jar will have been removed. Then you can hang the apples or set them on a lightly oiled tray in a ventilated area if it’s warm and dry, or – more likely here in Ireland --- over a fire or in an oven set on low, with the door open slightly.

If you need a dehydrator, there are some available online for around 50 euros and up, and if you use it regularly it should pay for itself in short order. To use a food dehydrator to dry fruit and vegetables you want to select produce of good quality, as overripe produce might not work well. Cut them into similarly-sized pieces, as this will ensure that everything dries evenly. Some people find it better to blanch vegetables in boiling water for a few minutes first – check what your dehydrator recommends, and then experiment.

People have been preserving food as long as they have been eating – drying, fermenting, pickling, smoking – but in the last few decades people have abandoned all these in favour of one device: the refrigerator. Fridges and freezers remain handy, of course, but they have limited space, require constant electricity and cost money, so we might find it worth our while to remember how to preserve food in other ways if necessary.

Note: My job is sending me to London on business later this week. Will post more when I return. 

Monday 7 November 2011

Able Hands

When my neighbour brought his horse to the farrier – horseshoe-fitter, pronounced like “carrier” – I sat in to watch and learn, and the farrier seemed happy to answer my many questions. He looked like a teenager, with a face you’d expect to see in a drive-through window, but he wrestled the stallion’s legs and shaped the hot iron like a man who knew his business.

His van folded out like a tackle box, with rows of hanging tools and a miniature forge like a barbecue, and when the shoe was ready he kept the stallion calm even when the hot iron caught its fetlock on fire. He told me he apprenticed for four years to learn his trade, and when I asked how quickly someone could learn the basics, he said, “Four years.” No shortcuts.

Once young men like him were normal; crafts and craftsmen whose callings – smiths, wrights, thatchers, tanners, millers and coopers -- survive only in surnames. Each town had its own set of craftsmen, known to everyone and identifiable at a distance by their clothing.

Nor would the farrier’s age seem unusual decades ago; children apprenticed from an early age, learned a skill for several years, and entered the world as craftsmen at an age when teens today are looking sullen in a corner of a mall. Only today do we assume that everyone must spend their prime years bored, warehoused and indebted.

Of course, most people did not attain such rank, but most people of any rank had a palette of survival skills unknown to almost any modern person. Farmers with little money or formal education would have known how to deliver a calf, weave a basket, butcher a pig, keep bees, shear sheep, turn autumn fruit into wine or spirits, make hay and silage, forage for wild plants, dig the peat bog for winter fuel and coppice trees on a timetable that stretched across the generations.

You can see such casual knowledge on display in, for example, cookbooks from a century ago, which began recipes with instructions to “pluck, draw and wash” birds before cooking, or to first “prepare the sheep’s head in the usual way,” assuming this was something any idiot could do.

A world of craftsmen creates an economy alien to modern Westerners; instead of cheap belongings meant to be thrown away quickly, goods had to be made durable, to be fixed, recast, re-forged or re-sewn over and over. The mountains of trash that rise outside our cities did not exist then, nor did the Texas-sized garbage patch in the Pacific, for few goods were thrown away.

Such an economy had few corporations or anonymous transactions. Writers from a century or two ago described recognizing particular barrels, nails or saddles as we would recognize someone’s handwriting, and the craftsman’s reputation hung on the quality of their work. When everyone knew where products came from and could identify the makers of the superior and inferior work, they could reward the hardest-working and most skilled craftsmen with their business – what used to be called capitalism, before the word came to mean the system we have today.

Today, of course, we drive long distances to buy underwear and palm pilots made to last a matter of months and be thrown away. We never meet the Third-World workers – possibly slaves -- who make such products, nor the crew that shipped them across a planet, nor the truckers who delivered them to a store larger than the Hebrew Temple. Few craftsmen remain in this world, and those that remain are often elderly hobbyists. Our modern system won’t last forever, though, and we know a world of craftsmen can be sustainable for centuries -- because it was.

I asked what work there was for a farrier these days, and the young man said he had more work than he could handle. Few people in Ireland or the USA can say that these days, as the people have less need of marketing managers and web designers. But horses, he pointed out, will always need shoes.

Photo of US farrier Pete Cote at work, by William D. Weisenburger Jr., EdD. Used with permission from 

Friday 4 November 2011

Published at Front Porch Republic

Front Porch Republic is one of my favourite online publications: both agrarian and intellectual, both ecological and conservative, both worldly and spiritual. It reminds me of a more Republican version of The Sun or Orion magazine, the kind of magazine Wendell Berry would write for.

Now it's pubished an article of mine, found here.

Wednesday 26 October 2011

Here Comes the Rain Again

I took this photo of the River Liffey two years ago, when it was twice as wide as usual. Ireland saw unprecedented flooding that winter, and some homes had to be abandoned.

Yesterday we feared the same thing again, as a month of rain came down in a single day. It took one of my co-workers five hours to get home, and apartment buildings and a shopping mall in Dublin were knee-deep in water. Luckily, the rain seems to have abated for now.

Monday 24 October 2011

Around the corner from my office...

... they were shooting a movie about the making of the Titanic, to be called Blood and Steel. The men on bicycles were apparently extras who rode around between takes.

While the cars and coats obviously date from a century ago, many men still wear the same caps and ride bicycles down the same cobblestone alleyways. Other parts of Dublin sport 21st-century glass buildings or 1970s slums, but these streets have changed little.

Tuesday 18 October 2011


Twice a week vendors line up on the sidewalks of Dublin near my office, their tables stocked with anything from beef to makeup to laundry detergent. Every so often they call to passers-by, something like “Fresh bread for saaaaaaale” or “Everything is two euuuuuro,” using the same C-to-A-sharp singsong that Americans use to sing “Air baaaaall” at a basketball game, or that Nelson Munz uses to taunt “Ha-Ha” on The Simpsons.

I don’t see the Dublin vendors enough to know them, but the Farmers' Market near our home is very different. We go there every Saturday morning, and while we don't know everyone's names, we know their faces and they know ours. They know what kind of sausage The Girl likes for breakfast, they give us their spare meat trimmings, knowing we can make use of them, and occasionally they collude with me in creating a surprise for my wife.

Last Friday my wife and I saw the play Juno and the Paycock at Dublin’s Abbey Theatre the night before, and I described it to a vendor while buying sardines. The vendor, who I had seen regularly for years, turned out to be a theatre buff, and told me about the play's history, and how its then-controversial treatment of the Church and the IRA caused riots when it was released.

We pass and smile at the same people each day, only occasionally learning their private passions, or realising how much they can teach us.

Sunday 16 October 2011

Gleaning, wine and jelly

Five metres of hedgerow outside our home, with crabapples
Twelve years ago, when I was a newspaper editor in St. Louis, I used to stop at the local bagel shop before closing time and rescue all the bagels they were throwing out. Then I would ride my bicycle home through the city streets, with my bag of bagels slung over my shoulder like Santa Claus. The shop had a bit less of a rubbish bill, and my friends and I saved money on bread -- I hadn’t learned to bake yet. Despite what people imagine, as a newspaper editor I made about the same money as a fast-food worker, and valued the extra three dollars or so not spent on bread.   

Also, I have a healthy aversion to seeing things thrown away --we use discarded plastic tubs for sprouting, old pickle jars for storage, and the tops of old soda bottles for funnels. If I could have found enough people to share the gleanings with, I would have preferred to go to the bagel shop every day, just to make sure no food went to waste. In my 20 years in the workforce I have often collected the coffee grounds and banana peels from my office rubbish bin when no one is looking, and brought them home to compost. 

Haws from hedgerow
We don’t live near restaurants or city rubbish bins anymore, but we do have rows of hedges, all of which are sagging with fruit and berries this time of year. Most of them rot on the vines or are eaten by birds, and since we feed the birds through the winter, we can take our share in the autumn. A few weeks ago I decided to see how much I could glean from a five-metre stretch of hedgerow, along with some orange peels a co-worker discarded at the office. To preserve them over the winter, I wanted to make them into wine and jelly.

Most humans in history made wine and beer, not as hobbies or micro-brew startups but for survival.  Before every home acquired the sterilised waterfalls of our taps, many people often had only lake or river water to drink, which carried serious diseases at a time when there were no doctors and the average lifespan was about 30. Letting yeast ferment vegetable matter drove out most other microscopic life, making water relatively pure without the cords of firewood needed to boil everything. 

Thus, alcohol was a major part of life in earlier eras, offering water, calories and vitamins. Medieval Britons, for example, were estimated to drink four litres of beer a day; I am told that the teetotal movement of the 19th century, which encouraged people to drink tea instead, actually caused malnutrition in rural Britain. 

Boiling haws
This explains why ancient religious texts have an otherwise head-scratching preoccupation with booze; Sumerians had prayers to remember beer recipes, characters in the Mabinogion drank bowls of mead and even the Koran offers believers wine in Paradise. It also explains why so many forms of alcohol had names that translate as “water of life” or some equivalent – “whiskey” is “water” in the Irish language, from that very phrase. Jesus turned water to wine, used wine containers as metaphors for human life, and promised his followers they would drink with him in heaven. St. Paul actively urged Timothy not to give up wine altogether, but to mix a little with his water. None of this sounds strange to Irish Catholics, but has caused no amount of interpretive calisthenics for the teetotaller sects.   

These days, for many Westerners, “wine” refers only to grape wine and “beer” only to brew from barley and hops - yellow in the USA, often black in Ireland – but you can make wine and beer from almost any edible plant and some inedible ones.  I have seen recipes for wines from oak leaves, squash, parsley, and all manner of common plants. In the past year I have made wine from nettles, the stinging weed that grows profusely here; from elderflowers in June, and from our August crop of meadowsweet, a weed that grows along the canal banks. 

This time of year hawthorn leaves fall to expose the bright red berries – haws -- covering the bare branches. Haws taste mealy and unpleasant raw, but they make an excellent wine like sangria, and as they were the most abundant fruit in the hedgerow, that’s how I used them. 

First I poured six litres of water into a large pot, and brought it to a boil. I dumped in two litres of haws and two halved lemons, waited for it to boil again, and turned the heat off. I stirred in a kilogram of sugar slowly until it dissolved, and waited for the liquid to cool to blood temperature. Then I poured it into a cleaned and sterilised bucket and added red wine yeast, and when the liquid had cooled all the way I set the bucket in the larder. 

Fermenting in bucket
Over the next week I checked the bucket periodically; it was bubbling away slowly as the yeast turned sugar into alcohol and carbon dioxide. After a week or so I sterilised a carboy – a large jug with an S-shaped valve on the top – and strained the wine into it, mostly so I could get my bucket back. If you are making wine, you should consider buying a carboy for storing your wine during the weeks or months that it still might build up air pressure, before you pour it into conventional wine bottles. 

After pouring the wine into the carboy, I was left with about two litres of sweetened and slightly alcoholic haws. I combined these with several other hedgerow fruits I had not bothered to use in the wine -- rose hips, elderberries, blackberries, sloes and crab-apples – along with orange peelings rescued from the office rubbish bin, and made compost jelly. 

Just as wine allowed people to preserve water before fossil fuels, so jelly allowed them to preserve vitamin. I have written about how older people around here gave people home-made wine or jelly as gifts, a custom that seems a twee bit of etiquette today but once constituted deposits in an unspoken community bank. Like wine, it keeps for years or decades; we just opened a jar several years old, and it was still good. Unlike wine, jelly seems not to have been widespread until a few hundred years ago, until the slave trade made sugar affordable enough – all the more reason to stock up now. 

To define our terms for a moment: Jam, jelly, marmalade and syrup are juices and possibly bits of plant matter mixed with enough sugar that they become unpalatable to bacteria, and sealed to avoid being eaten by anything else. Jam retains the crushed fruit, while jelly has its fruit bits strained out. Marmalade is made from citrus, and its taste has bitter notes from the pith. All of these require pectin as well as sugar, a naturally-occurring compound that solidifies the liquid. You can make jam or jelly from most edible fruits and berries, along with vegetables – any vegetables in theory, but I have only seen it done with rhubarb, turnips and beets. 
Other ingredients: Orange peel, crab-apples, elderberries, blackberries, sloes and rose hips
You can preserve fruit juice and sugar without pectin, as a liquid syrup in bottles – we did that last year with elderberries, and mixed small amounts of syrup with water to make juice in winter, or with sparkling water to make elderberry soda. 

Most fruits don’t have enough pectin themselves to set jelly, but apples do – one reason jellies are often made of apples mixed with some other fruit, and why the crab-apples made an important ingredient. My mixture was about 40 per cent used haws, 40 per cent crab-apples, and about 20 per cent assorted other fruit and berries – the office-bin orange peels, the used lemons from the wine mix, and rose hips, elderberries, blackberries and sloes from the bushes. Some fruit you need to use sparingly; sloes, for example, have quite a sour and astringent taste, and I mainly soak them in distilled spirits to make sloe gin, but I had a few left over. 

I chopped the peelings roughly, and chopped the apples in half; you don’t need to slice out seeds or pith, as it will all be strained out before the end. I then piled the fruit – hips, peels, sloes, rinds, zest, berries, whatever – into a large pot, poured enough water over it to slightly cover the fruit, and boiled it for about 45 minutes. 

When it was done boiling, I let it cool and poured the mixture into a smaller pot through a strainer – some people like to strain it through muslin or cloth to make sure they get rid of all the tiny bits, but I’m not worried about that. Then I put the smaller pot, filled with strained liquid, onto the stove and turned on low heat. 

As the liquid warmed, I slowly added sugar, stirring until it was dissolved. Following various recipes I added 400g of sugar per 650 ml of liquid, and waited for the frothy bubbles to subside in the predicted 10 minutes or so. In practice, I probably used more sugar than I needed, as the haws were already sweetened, and the froth never fully went away after 45 minutes, but the jelly seemed ready anyway. 

To see when the jelly was done – again, following recipe instructions – I dribbled a bit of it with a spoon onto a cool plate, and waited for it to harden. My initial mistake was holding it too near the hot stove, so that it never hardened completely – once I realised that, I could measure it properly. Once it seemed to have hardened, I pushed the drops with my finger, and when it wrinkled, I knew it was done. 

The total cost of this was about two euros for 1.5 kilos of sugar – a kilo for the wine, plus about half a kilo for the jelly -- plus the minimal cost of heating the stove for a short time, and not counting the initial investment of the carboy or yeast. The experiment resulted in about six bottles of good wine and two jars of jelly, vitamins suspended for an emergency. 

When we do things like this, we act as modern gleaners, the subculture of people who gathered the waste left behind after the harvest. Gleaners held an accepted place in most cultures, and Leviticus 19: 9-10 ordered people to leave part of their crops behind for them. One of the most famous paintings in the world, Millet’s “The Gleaners,” depicts them at work in rural France, and Agnes Varda’s documentary The Gleaners and I show such scroungers working in old ways and new, gathering grains in fields or rubbish in cities. Today we live with mountains of waste no other peoples imagined, and many people could live well learning to glean. 

Stand behind a restaurant or supermarket at night, or look at berry bushes or weed fringes in season, and you might see our gleaners at work – freegans, greens, preppers and itinerants of all kinds. They wear your old clothes, fix your old toaster, and eat the pre-sliced carrots that the supermarket keeps under plastic and argon. If we have resource shortages and mountains of rubbish outside our cities, it is because we don’t have more of them.

Friday 7 October 2011


A great captain of industry, someone who transformed the landscape, died recently, too young, of cancer.

I’m speaking, of course, of Wangari Maathai.

The mainstream media offered little coverage of the death of the Catholic, ecologist and leader in her native Kenya, who passed away last week. In a land that human use and climate change are slowly turning to desert, her Green Belt Movement trained women – 30,000 according to web sites – to plant and nurture trees, like a green wall against the storm. It taught women to earn money by gardening, bee-keeping and other crafts. According to a eulogy by Archbishop Desmond Tutu, the movement has now planted more than 40 million trees.

Opposed by central African governments, she led hunger strikes and was forced into hiding, but eventually was elected to office working with the people who had persecuted her. She won the Right Livelihood Award more than a quarter-century ago, and won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2004.

Of course the eulogies do fill the local headlines, the television news and my internet inboxes today, but not one has been for Maathai – all of them, rather, are for former Apple Computer CEO Steve Jobs . Social media sites, talk shows, radio DJs and internet forums compare Jobs to Leonardo da Vinci or Thomas Edison, a genius who touched all our lives and transformed the world.

Bless people for mourning the dead, and no disrespect to Mr. Jobs. It must be asked though: did you know him? Was he worthy of such hagiography?

Perhaps he gave billions to charity, as his rival Bill Gates did – although my brief Google search indicates the opposite. When I ask, acquaintances of mine retort that he had every right to keep his own money, and they are right -- but that does not make him more worthy of mourning than the estimated 150,000 children, parents, grandparents and others who died yesterday.

Even if Jobs did give billions away, though … he had billions to give. Jesus told parables about rich men giving away armfuls of gold and poor widows giving their last penny – but his point was not that we should admire the rich person more.

As a separate issue, was he a genius who changed the world, or did he head one of the companies left standing after the computer-company rivalries of the late 20th century? Did Steve Jobs create all these devices, or was it the people who worked for him? If Apple hadn't invented iTunes or the MacIntosh, wouldn't come other company's similar product have been just as successful, and we would be mourning someone else's death – say, the former CEO of Coleco?

The next time you listen to the mainstream media, consider how often they present every business, country, war or movement as though it were an individual with the apparent powers of a superhero. Business articles praise celebrity CEOs for “building a company from scratch,” not the temps or factory workers. A few years back the US president was said to be at war with Saddam Hussein and Osama bin Laden, as though individuals can wage war.

Even the most iconic examples of genius turn out to be people, not cartoons. In science, most people think of Albert Einstein as the textbook-example genius, often without understanding why. It is no insult to that intelligent and conscientious man, though, to point out that the world accepted relativity because the world was ready -- previous theories had become out-dated, and scientists had found the technology needed to soon prove the theories. Any other combination of events, any other time and place, and Einstein would have remained a very nice clerk, and some now-forgotten technician would have statues in his name.

Pop-culture histories show Churchill winning the war against the Nazis, and museum exhibits describe how the pharaohs built the Pyramids – as though they did physical labour, or placed themselves in the line of fire. Even when the individuals themselves seemed to be admirable, like Martin Luther King or Mohandas Gandhi, histories ignore the legions of forgotten people who did most of the actual work.

When one of these alleged superheroes dies, people mourn more than they would for a family member, hailing their bravery, their brilliance, and their hard work. Certainly many people are treating the death of Steve Jobs that way, as others did all the celebrities before him.

So take a moment to remember Ms. Maathai, and try to keep in mind how our culture ignores people like you in favour of the occasional hero. Notice, for example, that I’ve just done the same thing to Wangari Maathai.

Thirty thousand women.

Photo of Green Belt project, used under Creative Commons by skasuga.

Monday 19 September 2011

Monday 29 August 2011

Review: Hand Made in Tasmania

Many people I know gravitate to antiques – tools or toys, decorations or devices -- for their beauty and durability. Why, however, must these qualities be antique? Age alone does not improve most items; on the contrary, antique buyers must accept deterioration as part of the item’s already high price.

What draws most antique lovers is not antiquity itself, I suspect, but craftsmanship, the hours of care and lifetime of skill imbued in the final product. A chair, a knife, or even a toy made before the energy needle often meant an investment of many hours of work by someone who had trained for years to master their craft. Such handiwork might last centuries – we have a desk two hundred years old, for example – and if it breaks it can be repaired or the pieces replaced.

While I was writing this, as it happens, my family was watching old film footage of a shoe shop in Naas, a short bicycle ride from us. The film, taken in the 1980s, showed the cobblers wrapping the leather to the shape of their client’s feet, adding layer upon layer, polishing, sewing and adding hundreds of tiny marks solely for decoration. I remarked on the hours and attention devoted to a single shoe, and my mother-in-law, who restored antiques here for decades, said, “Yes, but a pair lasted me thirty years – in six months your sneakers must be thrown away.”

Decades from now, our store-bought goods will not be antiques. Most of them are made of plastic or have some small plastic part, designed to break quickly and require a new purchase -- so most cannot be repaired, and those made of plastic and chemically-treated wood cannot even be safely burned.

Hand Made in Tasmania, edited by Steven French, features 39 crafters who adopted the opposite values, who eschewed normal careers in favour of a vocation. From luthiers to saddlers, felters to binders, each of them embraces, revives and sustains trades that we almost lost when everything became lightly acquired and discarded.

Each chapter, two to four pages long, offers a concise portrait of a single artist; how they came to their esoteric field, and why they have devoted their lives to it. Each explains the quirks and benefits of their passion -- whiskey distiller Patrick Maguire points out that his product, unlike beer or wine, can last virtually forever, or whip-maker Simon Martin explain that kangaroo leather is the strongest leather in the world.

Some of the crafts threaten to disappear altogether; saddler Rick Allen said that his profession was taken off the apprentice list in 1938, and that the last saddler in his city of Hobart died forty years later, the day he opened his shop. Martin said that only 12 whip-makers are left in the world, and that their average age is 68.

Other featured artists revive old techniques; glassblower James Dodson said he uses the same approach as Syrian craftsmen 2,000 years ago. Still others find new methods unique to their region; Joanna Gair makes paper using native plants and kangaroo dung. Some turn modern rubbish into art, like Debbie Reynolds’ baskets of found rope, driftwood and shells.

While the majority of the artists are native Tasmanians, many came from elsewhere; shoemaker Luna Newbie from the UK, knife-maker John Hounslow from New Zealand and beekeeper Yves Ginat from France. In some cases they began in a different field that led them, unexpectedly, to their craft; Hounslow came to knives through cooking, Ginat to beekeeping from farming.

French quotes author Mark Thomson that “… our civilisation, created by technology, is simply an unstable veneer that could snuff out as suddenly as a blown light bulb, leaving us with nothing to fall back on.” Some of these artists will be the people we will turn to in such circumstances – beekeepers, cheese-makers, boat-builders and basket-weavers.

Many of the subjects, admittedly, lean in more purely artistic directions: Rebecca Coote’s glass installations, Ben Kurczok’s hand-crafted kaleidoscopes, Susie McMahon’s sculpted dolls and Emma Colbeck’s refashioned buttons. But the world needs beauty as well, and the same hands that can shape the glass of a bauble could one day do the same, or teach others to do the same, for spectacles, sextant and Sterling engines.

Tasmania might be a particularly fertile ground for artisans, but you likely have people in your area keeping traditions and crafts alive. Wherever you live, there is likely a similar book waiting to be written, filled with allies waiting to be found.

Monday 22 August 2011

The turn of the year

The Girl looking at the neighbours' horses
The seasons turn differently for all of us. My family in Missouri are seeing the last 40-degree (100F) days of an unusually harsh summer, while acquaintances Down Under are seeing the close of a winter. Here, we saw our breath for the first time yesterday, and the leaves are beginning to turn.

These days feel like a countdown; we are drying herbs for tea and seasonings, pickling vegetables, brewing wine, and checking the miles of hedgerow elderberries inching closer to ripeness. The increasingly rainy weather means time is running out to get peat for fuel from the bog; we have enough, but tractor pull wagons past our front gate laden three metres tall with peat sometimes, the father driving and the rest of the family standing and holding the sides. Even though it is still summer, we all feel the oncoming darkness.

I have mentioned how strange it feels -- for one unaccustomed to it -- to live on an island less than a thousand miles from the Arctic Circle, kept mild by a Caribbean current but at latitudes that elsewhere see polar bears. Summers for us mean light in the sky as early as 3 am and as late as 10 pm, long stretches of sun that cause our crops and weeds to grow so rapidly we can’t keep up. Unfortunately, it means that winter brings months of brief, dim light over a Gothic landscape.

Yet the temperature never ranges widely, from a median fifteen (60F) in the summer down to five degrees (40F) in the winter, and the weather only gets rainier. The Irish are well used to the damp and chill; old people tell me they walked to school barefoot in all seasons, which sounds like a standard exaggeration until I see it borne out by historical accounts and photos. Even now the Irish keep their rooms and offices at temperatures far below what most Americans would tolerate.

When the temperature hits 25 degrees, though, (70 F) some of my co-workers turn red, sweat profusely and lunge for the air conditioner – they actually have air conditioners here -- to turn the ambient temperature back down to 15 (50 F) or so. To someone who grew up in 40-degree summers, this seems ridiculous, but we were simply acclimatised to heat as the Irish are to the chill. Even in Missouri or the Deep South, moreover, everyone once lived without air conditioning, and society did not collapse.

Window in a pub near our home
Older homes in St. Louis don’t look ideal for the heat – they look like brick kilns – but they could be sealed off from the sun as Mediterranean homes are today, and instead of verandas they had porches. American homes built in the last few decades have tiny vestigial porches, but on homes built before cheap energy, they served a vital function, allowing people to work and live in shade and a breeze tunnel.

Before World War II, in fact, St. Louisans sometimes slept on their porches in the summer, or on balconies, or in rows of blankets on the grass of Forest Park. You can see a bit of this in the film Rear Window; during the heat wave, a couple sleeps on the fire escape, and the plot hinges on the fact that everyone keeps their windows open. You might think that nothing could be more dangerous than sleeping outside in St. Louis, but crime rates were lower then than now – and that in the middle of the Great Depression, when some people faced genuine starvation. Criminals find it difficult to raid a neighbourhood in which someone is always outside, and everyone knows everyone else.

Similarly, old neighbourhoods in almost any warm city had a range of features to cut down on heat. Some Arab countries feature lattices, which create shade themselves and could host climbing plants that shade further. Awnings draw attention to a window or door and offer protection from the sun, rain and snow, as do street-side trees. Southern homes had jalousie windows allowed air to pass while still offering shade, while Mediterranean homes have shutters that can be closed in mid-day, and many such buildings were white to reflect heat.

Almost all men and women once wore hats, statements not just of fashion but of profession and, most importantly, protection from the sun; hence the wide brims of European sun hats, cowboy hats, Asian bamboo hats and Mexican sombreros. Hats disappeared quickly in the 1960s, however – perhaps victims of changing fashion or the counterculture, or perhaps of the newly widespread office jobs and air conditioning.

Walk through endless miles of strip malls and asphalt in the USA today, and you notice a stunning absence of any basic features to make heat bearable using any method except air conditioning -- no awnings or trellises, no whitewashed roofs, few shutters or trees, and few hats or kerchiefs.

Nor do most modern cities feature amenities for winter; those same awnings would do wonders for keeping snow off the walkways, and those same trees and lattices would break up the wind. Insulated buildings, straw bales or firewood piles around walls, blankets in the attic, close quarters, sealed-off rooms, rows of black bottles in the southern windows – all of these and many more would reduce our winter expenses.

Just as importantly, we could adapt to far less heat in winter, even if we don’t have to walk barefoot in all seasons. A US organisation recommends an indoor winter temperature of around 22 degrees C (around 72F), but the British keep their homes at 17 degrees C (62F), and a few decades ago kept them at 12 degrees (53F), according to the UK’s Building Research Establishment. I don’t have statistics for this country, but I would guess it to be colder still. I’m getting used to it.

Most importantly, just as we can wear sun hats in summer, we can wear thermal undergarments in winter. Growing up I knew long johns mainly from old movies and cartoons, the favoured campfire dress of cowboys and prospectors, or what Mickey Mouse or Tom and Jerry always fell into on a washing line. As Kris deDecker of Low-Tech magazine pointed out recently, thermal underwear is an amazing heating resource, and recently developed fabrics allow us far better insulation than people had a few decades ago. A single layer of thermal underwear, he calculated, equates to four degrees of thermostat heat, letting you save you up to 40 per cent in heat energy.

The elderly people here remind me how little heat we need, just as other places remind me how much we can tolerate, both goals far beyond my current limits. My family lives with more heat than we truly need, I admit, but we live with about ten degrees less room heat now than when we first arrived in Ireland, and several years from now, one way or another, will live with less still. As with so many of our projects, we never feel like we are truly adapting, so slowly do the changes come. Then we look back several years, and realise how much we’ve changed.

Tuesday 9 August 2011

Still runnning

While most cars on the roads here average several years old, as it would be across most of the West, a surprising number of our neighbours maintain cars from the early-to-mid-20th century -- these were parked at a gathering in a nearby town.

Our neighbour down the canal raises cows and his farm seems perpetually muddy, but after he got to know me he brought me to his barn where, two metres from the calves, he lifted a tarpaulin and revealed a row of mint-condition cars from the Prohibition Era, like a secret treasure.

Sunday 31 July 2011

The future of pavement

One of Ireland’s most iconic images, seen in many postcards and calendar panoramas, is the mosaic of green fields divided by stone walls. Those walls, so common in the west of our island, look even more interesting up close, for the stones are loose, irregular and often lain without mortar. They look as unstable as a card pyramid, yet many have lasted centuries. They demonstrate how insoluble problems can be combined into simple solutions, as farmers here turned an obstacle – the stones that broke their ploughs – into a barrier that would protect their livestock.

Such bucolic scenes seem a world away from, say, suburban USA, where rivers of asphalt and concrete flow through landscapes of strip-malls and housing estates. But there people actually have a similar problem as those farmers, and might learn from their solutions.

For hundreds if not thousands of years, most farmers had some knowledge of how to make walls out of the soil’s round stones, but I’m told specialists went from farm to farm to help with repairs. To build such walls you must select stones of the right size and shapes to fill the spaces formed by the ones around it, like a three-dimensional jigsaw puzzle. When laid properly, the gravity of the stones keep each other in place, like the segments of an archway.

Crafters made their walls in straight lines by hammering posts into the ground some metres apart along the path the wall was to follow, and stretching a rope tautly between them. They did not need to transport materials, as the stones were pulled from the fields around the wall itself – and stones have always been Ireland’s biggest crop.

The resulting walls seemed to grow organically out of the land, and with their crevices could be scaled by humans but made an effective barrier for livestock. Their crevices, meanwhile, provide a home for many forms of smaller wildlife we need for the larger ones to stay alive – the base of the food pyramid, as it were. Seeds eventually make their way to the crevices and sprout, and plants wind their roots and woody stems through the interstices until they become part of the structure, and the wall can barely be seen under the greenery. Eventually some of them become, effectively, hedgerows, and in some hedgerows you can still see their rocky foundation.

Smooth stones fill the earth here because a slow flood of ice scoured this land only ten millennia ago, ripping rock from mountain ranges and suspending it, up to a kilometre above the ground, for perhaps tens of thousands of years. When the ice melted, all the rubble suspended for a kilometre above any patch of land would have slowly tumbled to earth, some of it smoothed by millennia in an icy rock tumbler. Each new ice age would have added a new layer of till, until the soil was thick with it.

One other, more tragic factor might have accelerated the spread of stone walls, especially in the west where they take over from the hedgerows you see in our area. Humans began felling trees as soon as they reached this cold rainforest, but Ireland still had vast forested areas when it was conquered. Then the remaining trees fell to become much of Britain’s navy, until the land was the most deforested in Europe, as Ugo Bardi notes in his 2008 essay “A Distant Mirror.”

Trees hold soil in place; without them it washes away quickly, especially in a rainy country. Bardi notes that erosion seems to have been most severe in the west, and that the thinning soil exposed stones that were brought to the surface; even today, the further west you go, the more barren the land appears, and the more stone walls replace the hedgerows of our region. The diminishing soil, single-crop agriculture, high population and political oppression created an extremely unstable situation, which came, of course, in the form of the potato blight. Over the next few decades, the resulting Famine cut the population in half.

I study old crafts and traditions here to understand how people could live, and sometimes live well, in a truly durable way – and where they did not, to avoid their mistakes. In the modern West – and especially in my native USA – we have thousands of times the wealth that the Irish of 150 years ago, as well as devices they would consider miraculous. Our countries, however, face some of the same problems they did. Many of the forests have been felled, especially around populated areas. We rely heavily on single crops – much of the American diet now consists of corn, in the form of starch, sweetener and meat. More and more people are feeling an economic pinch, and while they have nowhere near the poverty of Ireland 150 or even 50 years ago, neither do they have any experience with the basic self-reliant skills that allowed many people then to survive.

Most of all, Americans specifically and Westerners in general have a problem very like that of the early Irish farmers – their topsoil is blocked by rock. Much of our land been locked away under cement and asphalt, and the more people live in an area, the more of their land is paved. Nor is the problem exclusively urban; suburban and rural Americans, for example, must live with mega-mall moonscapes of concrete and asphalt lining hundreds of thousands of miles of highway.

Such materials require a massive infusion of cheap energy to function, and as energy prices rose in the last decade, the cost of road surfaces soared. Such materials only last a couple of decades, and many roads are reaching the end of their lives. Rural governments in my native USA struggle to cover even rudimentary costs, and several localities are tearing up their roads for more cost-effective gravel. As other areas follow suit, they might find it advantageous to tear down berms, bridges, sidewalks, parking lots and strip malls. That would, however, leave those communities with thousands of tonnes of rubble.

Even residents who have scraps of land they could use for crops – say, suburban homeowners – often dig through their lawn and find thin, depleted soil filled with the debris from the original construction of the neighbourhood. One way or another, they will have to find some use for irregular chunks of concrete and asphalt.

At the same time, many American homes and businesses have chain-link fences for boundaries, which were only invented in the last century and whose cost will increase in the years ahead. How, then, do you discourage intruders or enclose livestock?

In an earlier article I mentioned hedgerows, which provide a thick barrier, a home for wildlife and a seasonal resource of shoots and berries. Many people with sufficient soil, a temperate climate and a bit of space could grow a hedgerow to surround and eventually supplant their existing fences. Hedgerows, however, have a few limitations. For one thing, they take time; even in a moist climate a row of willow saplings would take a few years to become a proper hedge. For another, they must have enough soil to put down roots – a problem for people with concrete or thin soil.

For many people, then, the best solution might be the same ones the Irish farmers used, to let these two problems solve each other. Chunks of rubble can be stacked into walls, and more easily than glacial till, as former pieces of road or parking lot are likely to have at least one flat side. They can keep livestock enclosed, perhaps in a single suburban block whose residents decided to tear down their chain-link fences and keep pigs together. They can break up the wind, shade lambs and piglets from strong sun, provide a home for the miniature wildlife that larger animals eat, and for the flowers that often grow in crevices.

If you think chunks of concrete and asphalt would look ugly, you could try finely chopping moss and mixing it with yogurt and beer, and painting the resulting smoothie on your rocks – I haven’t tried it myself, but I’m told it rapidly creates a moss covering. Alternately, you could plant ivy-leaved toadflax or some other flowers in the crevices, providing food for bees.

Given enough time, plants might wind their roots or stems through the gaps and you might get a proper hedgerow growing out of your wall, their fallen leaves and the animals’ waste slowly building back the soil.

Given enough time, that moonscape of parking lots could look like that green mosaic of our postcards.

Top photo: Landscape of walls and fields in Conemara. 
Second photo: Dry stone wall in Conemara.
Third photo: Overgrown wall in Tuamgraney, County Clare.
Fourth photo: Wall in The Burren, County Galway. Note the eroded landscape in the background. 
Fifth photo: Fields in County Clare.

Sunday 24 July 2011

Our salad days

As children my brothers and I loved our rare family outings to a salad bar; foods like artichokes, water chestnuts and sprouts were exotic to us, and we set upon them like locusts. As we piled mountains of garnishes onto our plates, we realised we loved salad – we just hated lettuce.

For some reason, “salad” in the modern Anglo world has come to mean iceberg lettuce, one of the few vegetables with almost no taste or nutritional value; it’s no wonder that so many people think of eating fresh vegetables as they would going to the dentist.

Romans must have eaten salad, for the word comes from the salt they added for flavour, and the old US motto “E Pluribus Unum” allegedly comes from a line describing salad dressing, in Virgil’s Poem “Moretus.” I don't see many references to them in recent centuries, however; Irish historian Olive Sharkey says salad was never part of the traditional Irish diet, and Ms. Beeton’s 1861 cookbook includes only one recipe for it out of hundreds. Perhaps food historians can tell me differently; if salads were rare, there must be a compelling reason, because wood or peat to cook food was often expensive.

Perhaps many people ate salad but thought it too commonplace to mention; old writings tend to leave out the details of everyday life. We often have to imagine what was commonplace from gaps in information; for example, a 19th-century cookbook begins a recipe or sheep’s head stew by noting, “First prepare the sheep’s head in the usual way,” implying no housewife needed to be told. Alternately, perhaps salad was looked down on as food for slaves and peasants, like lobsters and other forms of seafood used to be in Britain and the USA.

Or perhaps salad only caught on slowly because, until recently, almost no one had the sterilised tap water we take for granted. Leaves can carry parasites and must be washed, but if the water, too, is contaminated, the risks of salads might outweigh the health benefits. Also, perhaps the diners did not have the teeth we take for granted; dental care was almost nonexistent until recently, people lost teeth early, and even a century ago women sometimes had their teeth pre-emptively removed at 21 years of age, so as not to incur dental costs later in life. Overcooking food makes more sense when no one can chew.

Whatever the reason, modern Westerners were slow to embrace salad and its potential; as late as World War II in Britain, for example, salad was often a small bowl of plain lettuce before the meal, dipped in a side of mayonnaise. Even when wartime made fuel scarce and malnutrition rise, people seemed to have an unspoken taboo about raw vegetables, according to accounts of the time. Finally the government aimed propaganda campaigns at the nation’s female majority that promoted greens as the secret to beautiful skin, in the same way that advertisers in the US promoted yogurt first as a diet aid and then as a cure for constipation. Wartime housekeeping manuals told housewives how to boil and liquefy potatoes into a mayonnaise substitute; perhaps salad dressing was still too alien an idea.

Those of us with clean water and teeth can embrace salads as substantial meals, partly because “salad” can mean any raw food – and many cooked ones – held together with sauce. Like soup or quiche, salads can re-use leftovers -- meat, fruit, herbs, dried bread, seeds, sprouts, eggs, beans, nuts, berries, pasta or pickles – and mix them with whatever edible parts are flowering, budding, leafing, bulging or shooting in the nearest field, garden or woodland.

Here in Ireland, for example, March brought the first hawthorn shoots, along with the first dandelions, cowslips and primroses. A month later linden leaves could be taken right off the tree and chopped for salad, along with daisies, sorrel, parsley, bernard and clover. Then the red lettuces, green lettuces, mizuna and rocket came up, along with herbs like chives, borrage and coriander, and weeds like fat hen and Good King Henry. By June the kohlrabi, carrots and fennel could be uprooted, cleaned and grated. Right now the nasturtium, spinach and cabbages are ready and the dandelions and clover are still coming, and in winter we will turn to chicory and roots, while still growing other vegetables in the greenhouse.

Many people think root crops must be cooked, but I enjoy shredding them into salads. Beetroot makes a great mix with feta cheese in a sauce of soy sauce, spices, olive oil and vinegar. Celeriac, a celery relative bred for its bulbous roots, can be finely grated and mixed in a tangy sauce with lemon, sesame oil and cayenne pepper. 

Many people buy bottles of salad dressing from the store, but you can make your own dressings at home for a fraction of the price, and they are likely to be healthier and taste better. We make ours from home-made yogurt, which we make by putting a bit of plain natural yogurt as a starter into warmed milk and leaving it overnight in hot water. Or you can make your own mayonnaise by whipping 2 egg yolks, 20ml of lemon juice and a pinch of salt together in a bowl, and whisking the mix as you slowly pour in a cup of vegetable oil.

Many foods that do not taste great by themselves are rescued by the other ingredients in a salad; bitter dandelion leaves in spring, for example, and tart elderberries in the autumn. Other foods change their flavour when treated; we slice cucumbers and salt them to extract the astringent taste, soak the slices in water to wash off the salt, squeeze the water out of them, and mix them in a dill-and-yogurt dressing.

Traditionally heavy dishes like potato salad can be made surprisingly light for health or hot weather. My mother-in-law makes a very light summer potato salad with a small pot – say, 500ml -- of boiled waxy potatoes, and similarly-sized volumes of diced apples, diced hard-boiled eggs, and thinly-sliced celery. Mix together about 300 ml of dressing – for example, yogurt and lemon juice, mixed with lemon zest, sesame oil, cayenne powder and pepper, along with chopped mint, dill and chives. As soon as the potatoes are boiled, drained and chopped – when they are still hot – mix them into the dressing, and they will absorb the liquid as they cool. Then mix in the cold apples, eggs and celery for an all-in-one meal. This is a general recipe; experiment until you get it right for you.

Winter brings a dearth of light here, but some salads grow in darkness. Chicory grows outside in the summer and fall, and when winter comes you can chop off the leaves and place the roots in boxes of earth in the shed. The plants shoot up white heads of crunchy leaves, high in vitamins that would otherwise be scarce in the dark months. Bean sprouts also grow in darkness; mung beans work best, but I have sprouted seeds as small as broccoli and as large as adzuki beans. Growing darkness crops like these will be useful skills if climate change drives populations northward, and more of the world shares our long subarctic nights.

As fuel and electricity become more sporadic or expensive, we might want to get our hands used to preparing, and our bellies used to digesting, more foods that don’t require them. It makes a convenient way to slowly introduce a wider variety of species, flavours and techniques, and to discover the joys of finding food for free.

Photo: Salad of borrage, nasturtiums, dandelions, clover, daisies, lettuce, spinach, cornsalad and sorrel.