Tuesday 29 January 2013

Against breakfast cereal

Since few things are more basic than food, it is heartening to see adjectives, like local, slow, organic and free-range creep into mainstream vocabulary. They don’t always come with a full understanding of the issues behind them – I have yet to hear a celebrity chef discuss Ghawar or methane clathrates – but at least the media culture seems to be moving in the right direction. There is one meal, however, that rarely comes up, in which most people continue to eat highly processed and unsustainable food – breakfast.

Here in Ireland, we eat more breakfast cereal per person than any other people in the world, and 95 percent of us buy breakfast cereal each year. According to Kellogg’s web site, the Irish eat more than eight kilos of breakfast cereal per year, two kilos more than in the UK or the USA, making the cereal aisle one of the most visited in the supermarket.

Cereal is the supermarket’s third most popular product in dollars, just behind soda and milk and just above cigarettes. The few corporations that make almost all cereal brands spend more money on advertising than does any other industry except cars.

Most of us grew up eating cereal every morning, possibly featuring one of the more than 1,000 cartoon characters designed solely to sell breakfast products. As adults, many of us continue to eat cereal, told that it is necessary to get vitamins or lose weight.
In fact, breakfast cereals are rarely healthy and never necessary. Most children’s cereal have far more sugar than any child needs – Smacks, for example, are more than half sugar. Even the less saccharine adult cereals are exorbitantly expensive for the amount of nutrition they contain.

When you think about it, a breakfast cereal is a bizarre product -- there is nothing natural or normal about eating manufactured flakes and puffs created by giant machines in factories, shipped around the world and sealed in plastic for months.

It’s probably not a coincidence that they were invented as the world was beginning to use fossil fuels in the 19th century. Fossil fuels allowed more food and a population explosion, fewer jobs on increasingly mechanised farms, and more jobs in increasingly polluted and overcrowded cities. Much of the new mass-produced food for urban workers was of low quality and questionable origin – according to author Otto Bettman, the New York Council of Hygiene reported in 1869 that the meat and poultry hung raw in stores “undergo spontaneous deterioration...becoming absolutely poisonous.” To use another example, city inspectors in 1902 found the majority of milk sold in New York was unsafe to drink.

Understandably, this combination of pollution, overcrowding, stress and near—poisonous food created many stomach problems, and the early industrial era also created a new moneyed middle class that could pay for cures. The first health food movement sprang up in response, with a mixture of common-sense advice, ridiculous junk science and competitive marketing familiar to most of us today. Health gurus touted the 19th-century equivalents of Echinacea or Goji berries, and one solution – made possible by the new industry and mass production – was breakfast cereal.

It wasn’t the only such solution – on this side of the Atlantic, it was cookies that were touted as indigestion cures, and they are still called “digestive biscuits” today. In America, though, health companies touted wheat flakes, and after decades of advertising they became normal and spread across the Western World.

It should be fairly easy to see that cereal cannot continue to be a part of people’s lives much longer: as energy and money grow tight, we will not be able to continue transporting wheat around the world and sending it through energy-intensive factories to be crushed, soaked, pressed and heated. We will have to do more traditional things with grain -- grinding into flour, sprouting, boiling – that served people before the energy window.

Finding out whether cereal is actually “part of a nutritious breakfast” is actually a simple process: Take the nutrition and price of a box of cereal, and compare it to a vegetable like kale.

Take as an example a common adult cereal I chose from the store. One serving of it is 31 grams for some reason, and contains 117 calories, but only 15 percent of your recommended daily dose of Vitamin A and 35 percent of Vitamin C. At my local grocery store, it is 5.49 euros, or 34 cents per serving.

A serving of kale is a lot more food – 130 grams – but has less than a third as many calories, at 36, and has 354 percent of your needed Vitamin A, 89 percent of Vitamin C, plus Calcium and iron, all for seven cents a serving. In other words, kale costs 79 percent less than breakfast cereal and 66 percent fewer calories, but has 2.5 times more Vitamin C and 24 times more Vitamin A.

Of course, that’s just one example: You can’t live on kale alone, nor would it be filling by itself, so scramble it with eggs and eat it with toast. Put it in bean soup. You use your imagination, and you get to practice cooking. If cooking is too much work first thing in the morning, you could make a nutritious meal the night before, and put it in the refrigerator along with your lunch. If you feel like being very organized, you could cook earlier in the week and make enough for breakfast and lunches all day. Finally, you could grow or raise all the ingredients yourself, in your garden, and get your food virtually free.

This seems a small thing, but all that cereal purchased means that it is part of the daily ritual for hundreds of millions of people, and we love our rituals – especially in the morning. Changing them creates stress, and the more changes we have to make at once, the more overwhelmed we will feel. We will be better off eliminating such unnecessary habits now, so that when major changes are forced upon us, our lives can continue as smoothly as possible.

Monday 28 January 2013

Tuesday 15 January 2013

Grace in place

Scott Russell Sanders has written books for almost every corner of the library, including children’s books (Warm as Wool), science fiction (Terrarium), fantasy (Bad Man Ballad) and historical fiction (A Place Called Freedom). But he is perhaps most renowned for his personal essays about the natural world, which have appeared in publications like The Sun, Orion and the Utne Reader.

In an ironic, fast-paced culture, Sanders is the opposite of hip. His thoughtful essays celebrate the joys of not going anywhere, of getting to know the nearby creek or the old lady across the street, of family and community. Gently radical, deeply spiritual and passionately conservationist, Sanders harkens back to the American traditions of Henry David Thoreau and Aldo Leopold.

KALLER: You write intimately about places—this valley, this brook, this land—and celebrate the virtues of “staying put” in your community. Why do you think people lost that familiarity with a place, and what did we lose?

Many of us have been uprooted from places by our obsession with mobility. Since the era of frontier settlement, Americans have been stirred into constant motion—changing addresses, changing fashions, changing jobs, changing mates—as though to sit still were a kind of death. Of course, some moves are made necessary by the need to find work, by marriage or romance, by the pursuit of education. But many moves are driven by boredom, a lack of imagination or a refusal of commitment.

Even those of us who do dwell over time in a given place are often cut off from our home ground by technology—year-round air conditioning that keeps the windows shut; electronic entertainments that keep us indoors; speed-of-light communications that lure us into living within disembodied networks.

KALLER: Your articles about the loss of community reminded me of a story I heard, about a small-town parade in which marchers started singing “Jingle Bells,” even though it wasn’t Christmas. When asked why, they said it was the only group song everyone knew — most rock songs don’t lend themselves to sing-a-longs.

SANDERS: We’re told that the songs and shows beamed at us over television, radio, and other electronic media represent “popular culture.” Actually, they represent corporate culture: entertainment manufactured by talented and cynical specialists with the express purpose of seizing our attention and selling that attention to advertisers. Truly popular culture, as the term implies, arises from the people themselves, expressing something of their lives, their needs, their joys and fears, and their home places.

“Folk” songs are created by the folk, by people who sing in an effort to record memorable events, deal with losses, celebrate community and tell stories. Folk culture survives because it speaks to people’s condition, because it is passed on from neighbor to neighbor, from parents to children. Corporate culture, by contrast, is like any other consumer item: ephemeral, disposable, forgettable.

KALLER: I want people to be excited about the natural world, but so much of the news is depressing these days. You wrote that your son once said the same thing to you, which led you to write the book “Hunting for Hope: A Father’s Journey.” What are some ways people can retain hope for the future?

SANDERS: When my son was seventeen, he and I had a fierce quarrel that culminated in his telling me he had grown up with an overwhelming sense of the world’s troubles but with little sense of how we might address those troubles. He had in mind not only the devastation of Earth’s natural systems but also the myriad sources of human suffering. He wasn’t asking me for simple solutions; he was asking me where I thought we might find the sources of healing and renewal. Along with many other conversations I’d had in recent years with my son and daughter and students, that quarrel inspired me to write “Hunting for Hope.” The only adequate answer I can give to your question is to point to that book.

Briefly, however, I can say that we can tap into many sources of hope—the human capacities for learning, skillful work, and compassion; our inheritance of wisdom from the world’s spiritual traditions; the power of community; the resilience and creative energy of nature itself; and, ultimately, the beauty and fecundity and elegance of the Way of things.

KALLER: You’ve described people who grow their own food, buy cheaply and live with nature as a kind of Noah’s Ark; that they are saving basic values and skills for when they will be needed again. Do you see a flood coming?

SANDERS: The flood is already here. I don’t mean merely the literal rising of sea level brought on by the melting of icecaps and glaciers. I mean the spread of exotic species, the expansion of deserts, the clear-cutting of forests, the paving of arable land, the build-up of manufactured poisons in air and soil and water, the extinction of species, and the many other assaults on the biosphere, all driven by the ever-expanding human population and our ever-increasing levels of consumption.

This wholesale disturbance of the planet’s natural systems is as threatening to the future of life as any mythical or literal flood. Indeed, around the globe, far more people die every day from the results of environmental degradation than from all wars, crimes, and terrorist acts combined. In the biblical story, Noah was instructed to build an ark in order to carry Earth’s species through the cataclysm—not just the species useful or attractive to human beings, but all species.

In our own time, any effort to preserve wild land, endangered species, knowledge, skills, values, or stories might be thought of as a kind of ark. An organic farm, a land trust, a book, a peace group, a group devoted to planting trees or restoring a prairie or cleaning up a river, the building of windmills or photoelectric cells, a co-op for sharing food or childcare or tools, a simple-living collective: any such effort is a vessel carrying something essential that we need now and that our descendants will need even more.

KALLER: Who are some writers who inspire you? Who are some little-known writers you would recommend to most readers?

SANDERS: Some of my writing heroes are classic figures whom everyone concerned with the search for a sane and meaningful life will already know, or should know: Emerson, Thoreau, Whitman, Orwell. Others of my writing heroes are more recent or contemporary figures: Aldo Leopold, Rachel Carson, Thomas Merton, Ed Abbey, Wendell Berry, Gary Snyder, Annie Dillard, Wallace Stegner, Peter Matthiessen, Barbara Kingsolver, Ursula K. LeGuin, Barry Lopez, Bill McKibben, Leslie Marmon Silko, and Terry Tempest Williams. I admire the work of Minnesota’s own Carol Bly, Patricia Hampl, and the late Paul Gruchow.

Among the wonderful contemporary writers whom readers might not know, I’ll mention Kathleen Dean Moore, John Elder, Gary Nabhan, Janisse Ray, Chet Raymo and Ann Zwinger. You’ll notice that these are mostly writers of nonfiction, and nearly all of them are searching for ways to reconcile our way of life with the way of nature. They’re essentially moral writers, in that they are concerned with the questions: How should we live? What is a good life? What greater purpose might we serve? What are the enduring sources of meaning and joy?

Originally published in Pulse magazine in February 2005.

Saturday 12 January 2013

Local pub

Note the small print, "Established 1759."

Tuesday 8 January 2013


If there is one thing that distinguishes the place I grew up from the place I live now, it would be not the yards and fields themselves, but the boundaries. If you grew up in the USA as I did, you were likely surrounded by chain-link fences -- waist-high around our back yards and two or three times higher around our institutions, giving every kindergarten and churchyard a distinctive penal look.

Of course the steel chains were not edible, nor did they grow thicker and stronger over time. The fences did not spread shade over your land in the summer sun, nor thin out in winter to let in precious light. The chain mail did not make the soil more fertile, nor protect it from being washed away by the rain. The wires did not offer a home to wildlife, and their manufacture burned more carbon into the atmosphere rather than removing it. Here in Ireland, surrounded by hedgerows that stretch to the horizon on all sides, we see how unnecessary it all was.

By hedgerows, I don’t mean the decorative evergreen sculptures I see in front of banks and businesses, often a monoculture of invasive species. Hedgerows here are lines of densely-planted trees – fast-growing breeds like willow, elder, hazel, birch, chestnut, pine, hawthorn, blackthorn and rowan. Their branches intertwine so thickly that they weave like threads in rope – I recently tried to cut a tree down here recently and even when the base was cut through, the trunk continued to hang in the air, supported by the branches around it. Blackberry brambles and ivy help fill the spaces above, and useful weeds below.

They add variety to fields that would otherwise go sterile. Each plant adds its own chemicals and removes its own nutrients from the soil, so fields of monoculture need to be continually fertilised. Single crops provide our bodies, too, with a single set of nutrients, and only at certain times of year. They also encourage a glut of certain animals, like pests that eat our crops, and offer no homes to the birds and insectivores who would eat the pests.

Hedgerows offer fields a needed balance, a wild river through human land that can soak up our excesses and give us a reservoir of food and fuel for lean times. They give your garden a third dimension, a vertical salad bar that middle-aged and elderly can reach with a minimum of back pain.

Unlike field crops, they provide for much of the year; right now they have hawthorn shoots and dandelions for salads and nettle and bramble shoots for tea. Next month we will get linden leaves and daisies, rose hips and elderflowers later still, sloes and blackberries in the autumn.

The principle of a hedgerow is simple, but hedge-laying was an art form in traditional Ireland and England. Every year farmers would take a few days out to maintain their hundreds of metres of hedge, re-weaving or pruning the new growth, and each area had its own style and tricks. Ireland has hedge-laying associations, and I know farmers who take pride in maintaining the same hedges that have existed for decades or centuries.

Typically the hedge-layer takes each upward-pointing sapling, holds it at whatever height he wants the hedge to be, and cuts diagonally downward through the wood – but only partway. He then lays everything above the cut down horizontally, often weaving it through the other saplings and beating the woven branches down with a club until they were densely matted. A bit of bark and wood still connects the top and bottom of the tree, so the top remains alive and growing even as it lies flat amid many other branches. In this way, the weave itself gets thicker over time, until it is an impenetrable barrier of living wood.

You might have noticed that this is beginning to sound more and more like a wall, and so it is – walls of buildings were made the same way, in a technique called wattle-and-daub. The main difference was that the saplings were cut through and dead when they were woven into a wall – the “wattle” -- and covered in a daub plaster of clay, straw and perhaps manure. You might also notice that the basic idea is not very different than weaving a basket – there you simply take cut willow or some other sapling, partly dried, and knit them into a tight circle.

You don’t need acres of land in rural Ireland to have hedgerows; if you have a fence, you could try planting willows or some other hardy saplings underneath, weave them through the fence like thread, and see how they grow.

Vertical gardening could be done with many of our human-made structures. Your house or apartment building has sides, as do your sheds, shops, schools, churches and highway overpasses. Not far away you likely have telephone poles, fences, walls, signs, gates and, of course, trees, any of which might be covered in productive garden plants.

Beans and peas might make a good start – they grow easily in many temperate regions, make beautiful flowers, add nitrogen to the soil, and offer a high-protein, easily stored crop. Brambles, roses other thorny plants not only provide shoots, flowers and fruits, but a natural security fence against human or animal intruders.

If you want to give this a go, first pay attention to what kind of climber you have. Ivy sinks its roots into bark or masonry, and should probably have a trellis if you are putting it on the side of your house. Roses and other scramblers, which have hooks or thorns that latch onto other plants and allow them to pull themselves upwards, would also require support. Twiners like wisterias twist their tendrils around trees and other structures, while beans whip their shoots around looking for something to latch onto.

Everyone lives in a different situation – a farm, a flat in town, a suburban house – but most of us have some opportunity to experiment with three-dimensional farming. Look around your neighbourhood, and try to imagine what it could be.

Originally published in Energy Bulletin in April 2011. 

Friday 4 January 2013

Wednesday 2 January 2013

Stile in the wall

To paraphrase Waterford farmer John Seymour, other animals outweigh us or can outrun us, or have sharper teeth or more resistance to pain. Our advantage is that we can build a wall that we can pass through and they cannot.