Monday, 25 February 2013

Old mill

The Girl and I, with some friends from my non-profit, journeyed south to Kilkenny some time ago tour places that were using sustainable energy. We looked at a community for the mentally handicapped that used a bio-digester to make heat and electricity, as well as a factory that used a waterwheel.

Along the way, though, we also saw this old mill, now an ivy-covered skeleton. It reminded us that sustainable power is not a hip new fashion. Virtually all energy used was once sustainable, whether it be from the muscles we replenish by eating or the wood we can regrow, from sailing ships to waterwheels. Almost all the energy we used to fashion our lives came from our world's daily energy salary, before we discovered a trust fund under our feet.

I expect we will restore a world of water mills world one day, but I would like to see us do it comfortably, while resources are plentiful, rather than in haphazard desperation.

Friday, 22 February 2013


Many local gardeners had their worst year ever in 2012, with the near-constant rain washing away soil, waterlogging roots and washing the pollen from the flowers that should have become berries and fruits. We had high garden beds that drained our soil, but we still saw an explosion of enthusiastic slugs that ate most of our celery and cabbage. The kale, however, did fine.
Last weekend I took last year’s compost, now rotted to earth again, and spread it over the garden beds, so I had to take out all the vegetables. Most of them are at the end of their lives, anyway – we had some beetroots that were ready to become borscht, leeks that needed to become soup, and onions crying to be uprooted before they became goo. I left the kale, though – it was doing just fine.
Kale remains one of our hardiest crops, perhaps closest to the original seaside crop that gave rise to the whole cabbage family, from which gardeners bred cruciferous vegetables for their bus (Brussels sprouts), their heads (cabbage and bok choi), their roots (kohlrabi) and their flowers (broccoli, cauliflower).
One of the most nutritious of vegetables overall, 100 grams carries 50 calories but has 308 per cent of the day’s needed Vitamin A, 200 per cent of the needed Vitamin C and 1021 per cent of one’s daily needs of Vitamin K. It has high levels of calcium, iron, manganese and potassium.
Kale is also useful for when it appears; it can be grown and eaten year-round in our climate, but is especially productive when greens are needed, in the fall and winter. It’s even good fodder for the animals, too;  the Irish Farmers’ Journal reported last year that more growers turned to kale as a feed crop, one that could be grazed from October until March and yields eight to 12 tonnes of dry matter per acre.
Kale can be sown from April to June – we put ours in small seed trays and keep them inside, and put them in the ground four to six weeks after they germinate. They need well-fertilised soil with a great deal of manure or compost added, but also need it to drain well. They are less prone to disease than the more heavily inbred cabbage varieties, but still shouldn’t be put in a bed where you have had cruciferous vegetables in the previous few years.
You can cook kale in many ways – as a simply boiled vegetable, sautéed like spinach, and even kale crisps instead of potato crisps. We often put it in bean soup – first we take dried beans and leave them in water for a day or two, and then boil them in water for an hour until the liquid is thick and reduced and the beans soft all the way through. While that’s boiling I dice and sautee a few onions in a pot, stir in other vegetables in season like celery, carrots, turnips, swedes, potatoes – all diced and then sautéed until slightly soft – and then add heaping quantities of washed and chopped kale. Finally, I add the beans and let them all cook together, until they are soft without being overcooked.
My favourite is probably the sweet-and-sour kale we make in our house. First lightly oil a pan and peel and dice a large onion. Toss the onion bits in and sautee them until they are yellow. Wash and chop about as much kale as will fit in a small pot – it will cook down, and the amounts don’t have to be precise --- and toss it in as well. Add a pinch of salt and stir frequently to make sure nothing sticks to the metal.
After the kale has shrunk and gone soft, drizzle it with several tablespoons of cider vinegar, and a tablespoon of honey, and stir it in. I like to add a bit of concentrated stock and cayenne pepper, or you can use balsamic vinegar to make it sweeter. These are general recipe outlines, of course -- see what formula you like best.

Wednesday, 20 February 2013


I interviewed an elderly couple some months ago, and they described they way they and their neighbours passed the long evenings.

"... people would visit each other’s houses and have dances, and do the reels and the Irish dancing. and the women would drink tea and the men would drink porter. And they would have a seanchai – a storyteller – and he’d be spinning great yarns and tales, some of them the old, old stories. 

Some of them might be two thousand years old, really stories from prehistory -- stories of Kilcullen and Meave, stories from long long ago. Seanchas is the Irish word for old, so a seanchai (shawn-a-kee, they pronounced it) was telling the old stories.

[We had a] turf fire, very warm, and the people gathered around listening to the seanchai telling his story. A lot of ghost stories, as the Irish are really into ghost stories. And the children were supposed to go to bed but were allowed to stay up, and would listen to the seanchai, their eyes wide like saucers."  

Photo: a storyteller on fair day. Courtesy  of

Tuesday, 19 February 2013


Originally posted in 2009.

If you want to spend a few days surrounded by scenic landscape, you could do worse than Bealkelly Wood in County Clare, Ireland. There, decades ago, an old survivalist bought land at the edge of Lough Derg, planted trees and maintained the forest, and still lives off the land today – and occasionally greets a hundred or so guests.

The land is now the site where the non-profit CELT– Centre for Environmental Living and Training – hosts courses in fishing, smithing, carving, stone building and many other traditional crafts. This past weekend, our whole family journeyed across the island to one of these events, and everyone took a different course -- my wife took copper-smithing, my mother-in-law wood carving, The Girl played with other children in a central area in view of all of us – and I tried my hand at blacksmithing.

You don’t become an expert blacksmith in a couple of days, of course, but the class bestowed the basic information and a little experience. Two very patient smiths worked with myself and three other students, walking us through the basics, correcting us and stepping in when we went wrong, until we each came away with some hand-crafted work.

In movies blacksmiths look like WWF wrestlers, dramatically slamming white-hot metal with sledgehammers. Our experience was different – a plate-sized fire, small tools and frantic tapping. The forge was an old metal hubcap, with small holes drilled in the middle, standing on a metal pipe. At the other end of the pipe was a hand-cranked blower – I don’t know what it was originally, but the smith said you could substitute the metal fan from an old Electrolux vacuum.

Our elderly teacher began each day by lighting a small fire in the middle of the hubcap, right over the holes. Once the fire was going, he placed charcoal delicately over it, and then a ring of coal around the charcoal, and the crank fan blew air through the middle to keep the fire hot. Iron-working only appeared in the last 5,000 years or so – the final 0.3 percent of the time humans have had fire – because ordinary wood fire does not heat iron enough to work, and large amounts of charcoal and air are needed. The coal, I was told, helps the fire continue but is not necessary.

The four of us quickly learned that you need to spend a great deal of time standing over the fire, with the metal part in just the right place – in the middle, above the blower and slightly buried in charcoal – to get the right temperature. Too little heat, of course, and the metal cannot be worked, but too much and it begins to “burn,” liquefying and deforming. A lot depends on the size of the metal piece – the tractor axel we put in took ages to heat, but I accidentally burned off the tines of my fork in short order.

Once the metal was glowing orange, we had to rapidly move it to the anvil without yanking it out and sending hot coals everywhere, and without burning the people standing shoulder-to-shoulder with you. Once at the anvil you had only several seconds of BAMBAMBAMBAMBAMBAM ... until it was black and solid again.

Also useful are steel vices (vises to Americans) and hefty pliers, which allowed us to grip metal while turning it – hence the twist in the fork handle. None of us wore gloves, but leather aprons and goggles were recommended against flying sparks and coals.

In the end we came away with two roasting forks – one made by me, the other won in a raffle – and a horseshoe that I’m not including in a picture. I was supposed to shape it into the head of a horse, but mine looks more like a praying mantis.:-)

Blacksmithing is one of the dozens of professions that were widespread until just the last century, now is kept alive only by a few aficionados. For thousands of years in metalworking cultures, smiths were a vital and respected role – look how common it is as a surname today. They might become vital again if the coming decades bring the turmoil we anticipate. With charcoal and tools, a smith could turn landfill scrap and old car parts into useful tools again – and as far as I know, there is no end to the number of times metal can be recycled.

When the world is no longer able to mass-produce new materials at its former rate, when there is no new plastic and fewer forests, we will have billions of tons of landfill waste. Movies like WALL-E posit garbage covering the Earth, but in real life much of that garbage would not only be reusable, but precious. Some of it will be metal – the U.S. alone will have a car for every person, and a few decades from now few of those cars will be driving. The Chinese are doing their best to buy up all this precious resource from U.S. junk dealers, along with the plastic we might need again, but hopefully enough landfills will remain to become mines.

Some of my favourite books as a teenager were Frank Herbert’s Dune novels, about human cultures scattered across space in the far future. In the pivotal novel of the series the prescient leader gradually transforms the titular desert planet into lush greenery, its Bedouin-style inhabitants, called “Fremen,” into farmers. He bids a small minority of them, however, to live in the one remaining desert as Museum Fremen, keeping the old traditions alive. He is the only one who knows that the planetary transformation is only temporary, that someday the land will become desert again, and the Museum Fremen can teach the others how to live. Weekends like this allow us to become museum people, accumulating the knowledge that our children might need.

Top photo: The fire, with a tractor axel in it. Bottom photo: the forks.

Monday, 18 February 2013

Friday, 15 February 2013

First daffodils

February in Ireland does feel like slowly emerging from a tunnel, as the deep darkness of the long subarctic nights slowly recedes, and our early morning and late evening bus rides see sunlight again.

The gothic landscape slowly takes on a slightly less grim appearance in the cold grey light, and in the bogfields around us, great ponds slowly retreat into greenery.

Here and there below the trees, the squishy underfloor breaks open like an egg, and the first flowers appear, racing to build a bulb beneath them before the trees above them bud and the ground grows dark again.

Wednesday, 13 February 2013

Ash Wednesday

Catholic or not, we all need something like Ash Wednesday in our lives, something to remind us that we are not gods of infinite potential, but flawed and funny creatures in our brief days in this world.

Tuesday, 12 February 2013


Making food – gardening, preserving, cooking – is generally time-consuming work, and very few foods leap out of the air and volunteer to make themselves. Fortunately, sourdough does just that, cultivating the natural yeast from its surroundings rather than using the dried yeast powder from the store.

First take a tablespoon (about 10 millilitres) of flour and a tablespoon of milk and mix them together – exact quantities aren’t that important. Then you leave it sit out – say, on your kitchen shelf – and stir it every morning and evening for about a week.

When this gooey, pale mix begins to bubble and smell sour and tangy, it has become sourdough starter. If it smells pongy, it pulled the wrong kind of bacteria out of the air, and needs to be thrown out -- there’s really no way to ensure either result or predict ahead of time.

We added a roughly-crushed organic grape to the mix and took it out later. The grape’s sugar is food for the yeast, and grapes are often covered in yeast themselves – that is the powdery coating you see on the surface of grapes, one reason ancient people so easily discovered they could make the juice into wine.

Once you have a good batch of starter going, you keep feeding it a little bit every day. Keep it at room temperature – say, 20-25 degrees -- and take out a portion every week or so to make the bread. Some people keep their starter in their refrigerator, where it ferments more slowly and only needs to be fed once a week.

To make the bread itself, you bake it as you would bread in general, except that instead of a packet of yeast you use some of the starter – don’t use it all, of course. A friend of mine uses about half a cup of starter to about 800 ml lukewarm water, and then adds as much flour as is needed to make a soft dough – about two pounds. She uses about 20 per cent rye flour to about 80 per cent wheat. You need to let the dough rise longer than you would for conventional bread – sometimes several hours.

These figures and this recipe are meant to be approximations; people have different tastes, different kinds of bacteria and yeast in their homes, different room temperatures, and different luck. Some bread-makers advise novices to get someone else’s sourdough starter first, in order to see what one should taste and smell like. Some “proof” the starter before making bread dough; that is, mixing it with three parts flour to two parts starter, letting it rise about an hour, and then mixing in the rest of the dough.

One friend of mine made a great sourdough starter on her first try, kept it by the kitchen window in a plastic bowl, and made bread every few days. That might work for you, or you might have to adjust the recipe over several tries until you find something that does.

Image courtesy of

Monday, 11 February 2013

Thursday, 7 February 2013

The old butcher

The village near our house is basically an intersection, with little besides a pub, a church and a petrol station -- but it does have a butcher, as does almost every village here. As expensive as meat can be, it was all the more prized when people were poor and communities were more self-reliant.

Village butchers were highly valued for centuries. In their 1816 book "The Experienced Butcher," James Plumptre and Thomas Lantaffe wrote that " want to seek cleanliness and civility, the greatest recommendations of a tradesman, and no more than butchers. The real nature of their business and the prejudices of the world make these qualities more particularly requisite in them."

I was listening to one of Radio Televis Eireann's archives the other day, hearing an interview from a quarter-century ago with butcher Thomas Kieron, then-owner of a shop in a small town in rural Ireland. He complained that they could no longer put pigs-heads in the windows, as it would frighten customers -- "People cannot tolerate the idea of what they are eating," he said, "yet they can turn on the telly and watch people getting blown up... I find it most peculiar."

When asked about the then-new trend for health foods, though, the local butcher really got his dander up.

"And now people have the audacity to start talking this rubbish about other foods being better," Kieron said. "Where could you get a simpler, more straightforward meal than a bit of meat, potatoes and vegetables from the farm, cooked perfectly for your children. What about all the people who are said to be so beautiful today, slipping into Christian Dior dresses? Not all their own weight, but a fraction, so they can wear underwear. And you have this lady, nice and slim, but what happens if she gets a little dose of pleurisy or pneumonia? How can she lose a few pounds weight? She'd be in a shroud. You have to have a bit of meat on you."

Photo of a Dublin butcher in 1946. Courtesy of