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. 

Thursday 7 July 2011

Summer Bounty

For a single blessed week, it was warm and dry here, and I could bicycle across the countryside wearing shorts. The climate remains so consistently chilly here that people do a Don Knotts double-take when they see someone wearing shorts. Nor do they have any tolerance for warmth; the first day the climate rose above 20 degrees -- say, 60 degrees Fahrenheit -- everyone in my office turned red, panted and dripped sweat, and lunged for the air conditioning.

Still, the garden has overflowed with riches; strawberries and kohlrabi, rocket and broad beans. Our weekends have filled with sowing, digging, pruning, trimming, pickling, weeding and other projects. Our pantry is filling with flower heads and herbs drying from the ceiling, elderflowers brewing and jars of radishes pickling.

Enjoy your midsummer.

Sunday 3 July 2011

The canals

Built 250 years ago by armies of barrel-chested Irishmen fed on meat and beer, they became one of the country's great natural resources. Within sight of my front gate lies the rusted husk of a barge station, where teams of horses drawing carts of peat - dug from the bog all around us -- on rails from the bog up to the canal. From there the peat could be pulled by horses, in boats this time, to provide the urban centres of Dublin with heat in winter. 

Today, as I ride my bicycle along the canal, I pass the derelicts of old canal boats, some with literal trees growing through them. In the coming years, this is a resource the Irish will have to remember that they have.

I wish more governments would begin such projects now. Employing armies of otherwise struggling young males could substantially reduce the crime rate, as happened during World War II. It would provide wildlife with a haven and families with sources of fresh water and fish, as it does for us. It would create infrastructure that could continue to serve Iowa or Alabama a millennia from now.