Wednesday 30 April 2014

Beetroots in sand

We are just getting the last of the beetroots -- just beets to Americans -- our of our garden, and I'm experimenting with keeping them in sand to see how long they will last.

You might think it more obvious to do this in the autumn and preserve food over winter, rather than wait until the land is bursting with food. Here, though, root crops can be left in the soil for long periods, and eaten when necessary. For our agrarian forebears, moreover, spring, not winter, was often the lean season,  after the winter's salted meat and dried food ran out, but before the hens began laying and the harvests began coming in. Lent often forbade people meat and indulgences just when they were unavailable anyway. Food stores that can be stretched over spring would be much needed.

I'll be checking on them about once a week, and will report how long they last.

Tuesday 29 April 2014


Our homes might be made of brick and plaster, our cars of metal and plastic, and our sheds and coops of lumber, but their surfaces – the part we see – are usually paint. Those flashy colours, though, often contain an alarming stew of ingredients – benzene, tricholoroethylene, formaldehyde, and many others – all of which flake off over time but never, of course, truly leave us. That’s not even counting the lead, now long banned, but which lingers in soil for generations.

So when our chicken coop needed some brightening, we took the old-fashioned route and whitewashed. Whitewashing was used on buildings here in Ireland into the late 20th century, only recently replaced by more dubious alternatives. Whitewash can consist of as little as two short ingredients – lime and water – that can be mixed and prepared with almost no energy in a few minutes. It is non-toxic enough that animals can actually lick it off with few or no ill effects, but antiseptic enough to discourage bacteria in the coop or dairy.

Lime refers not to the fruit or unrelated tree, but to a product made from burning limestone in a kiln. Limestone is mainly coral and shells of long-extinct sea creatures, squeezed over aeons into a solid mass of calcium carbonate, or CaCO3. When burned it vents carbon dioxide (CO2), leaving behind the volatile calcium oxide (CaO) or “quicklime.” When combined with water – hydrated or “slaked” – it becomes calcium hydroxide or Ca(OH)2, or simply called “lime.”

Humans have been creating lime this way for several thousand years, putting it to many uses; as a mortar for building, as an early form of cement, as an antiseptic ointment for animals or an anti-fungal coating for trees. A bit of lime could help remove hair from hides, sterilise water, bleach paper, deter slugs from a garden, or preserve eggs for months. It could be worked into boggy and acid soils to increase the fertility many times over. Also, it colours walls.

Its brilliant whiteness was valued here in Ireland, an island a thousand miles from the Arctic Circle where the winters grow very dark indeed. Cottages here were traditionally whitewashed in spring, as the rainy season gave way to the slightly less-rainy season, and again as part of the ritual leading up to Christmas.

The whitewash also showed too plainly when straw roofs needed to be re-thatched. After a decade or so, moss and algae build up on a straw roof, and when it rains the water runs off the roof and leaves green streaks down the whitewash. When a family had such visible stains, they were said to be “selling laces” – having money troubles, too poor to re-thatch.

Some old houses here were made with cob (sand, clay and straw mixed into something like cement) or wattle-and-daub (a mesh of flexible wood with a clay plaster coating), and as both were susceptible to moisture, the whitewash might have provided an early-warning system, showing where the owner needed to watch for erosion.
Lime and water mix

After experimenting a bit, we settled on a rather simple recipe: 2 cups of water for every cup of lime, with a 1/4 cup of salt thrown in. It was a particularly thick ratio and flaked off a bit when drying, so next time we might try a thinner combination. Once mixed, the wash can be applied with regular paintbrush strokes – or with my 9-year-old’s more Jackson-Pollock-inspired approach. It looks thin and transparent at first, but whitens as it dries. Wear gloves and goggles – lime is only a mildly caustic alkalai, but work with it all day and you’ll get raw hands. 

We also tried mixing milk in as well, recommended by many old books, but found the effect no different, so the extra expense of milk was not justified. Milk powder, however, comes much more cheaply, and could hold some promise. Farmers here sometimes added oils – linseed was most popular – to make it more waterproof, or strengthened it with animal hair or cereal husks.

To be sure, whitewash has disadvantages; it is water-soluble, for one thing, so rain washes it away. This presents little problem when the sides are under a slight overhang, like the sides of our coop or most houses, but when it showers, our hen-boxes receive a gusher of water from the roof, and we had to divert the water with a plastic awning or the white coating wouldn’t have lasted long. Even in dry weather, however, whitewash flakes off over time, and powders your clothes when you rub against it. The good news is that it leaves no permanent stains.

It is also, almost inevitably, white – although in the west of Ireland, I’m told, some farmers painted their houses pink by mixing pig’s blood with the wash. The fact that lime was cheap and easy, while coloured paints were expensive, probably accounts for the classic look of Irish homes – clean white exteriors accented by brilliantly coloured doors and windows.

Locals here seemed familiar with many vegetable dyes or fabrics – elderberries for lavender; red cabbage or brambleberries for blue; nettles for green; St. John’s Wort for magenta; and marigolds, calendula, dock root and onion skins for yellow. Many of these colours are also water-soluble and fade quickly – which modern people think of as a disadvantage, although some valued the muted colours.

Some traditional peoples did create natural pigments, however, by boiling various clays and minerals – yellow and red ochre, sienna, umber, cinnabar and iron oxide for reds and browns, copper ore for green paints, urine for yellow, lampblack or charcoal created blacks and greys. Wherever you live, your plants and soil probably have their own palette of colours, which you can use at least as well as the Neanderthals who painted long-extinct animals on cave walls.

Saturday 26 April 2014

Pollarding the trees

Our internet is still down at home, so posting will be sporadic; thanks for being patient.

We had a good Easter weekend, and I used the opportunity to trim the hedgerow willows with the help of The Girl and two of her friends. I wish I had trimmed them more and earlier, cutting them in the old style -- halfway through the base and folding them down, so that the trees are woven together like baskets but continue to live and thicken.

Such horizontal trees, still attached to their roots, could develop into a thick and even hedgerow, impenetrable to all but the smallest animals, and provides privacy, a home for small creatures, a source of wild rejuvenation for the soil, and a vertical salad bar of fruits and berries.

It would also cover a bit of annoyance to me, a section of hedgerow in which nothing taller than weeds will grow. My guess is that the navvies who dug the canal 250 years ago also sealed its banks with a cement-like clay, and dumped or spilled some on that spot. I occasionally find Buick-sized lumps of the grey “slag,” as locals call it – including one while digging the trench for our chicken run, which took 10 per cent of the trench’s distance but more time and effort than the rest of it combined. 

I planted rows of willow shoots across the hedge’s thin patch last year, but only a few of them survived. If I could fold down the large and healthy willows on its edge, however, they could remain attached to their old roots but extend their barrier, shade and privacy many metres over the space where roots struggle to gain hold.

Most springs I was too busy to do this, but the willows will wait no longer; winds howl across the Bog of Allen in winter, and the trees sway and groan that they need trimming. One did more than groan; its trunk twisted and half-broke, its upper branches hanging on sideways like a flip-top lid.

Even what remained was too tall to cut without possibly falling into the road and hitting a passing neighbour, so I had to shimmy up the trunk, hatchet on belt, to the point where the tree’s upper branches were twisted down, and hack away at the joint while I and my hatchet swayed in the spring breeze. I eventually got it down with the help of the three girls – I had tied a rope to the dangling branches and the girls, a safe distance from underneath, pulled the other end like a tug of war. 

There was another reason we wanted to trim the willows this spring; we need to build a fence. My mother-in-law, who is home during the day and who minds both the garden and the chickens, has found that we can’t allow both in the same place. Come spring we have been letting the chickens roam the yard, and are happy we did so; they look healthier, and our grass is both nicely trimmed and presumably freer from pests. Their favourite foods, however, are our herbs, and if we want any for ourselves we have to fence them off.

Thus, The Girl and I are trying to build a wattle fence. I wrote about wattle recently for Mother Earth News; a “wattle” was a wicker fence or wall made of a pliable wood like willow or hazel, woven around upright posts like a horizontal basket. Farmers sometimes surrounded their fields with wattle fences, which could be made in modular, lightweight pieces a metre or two high and a metre or two across – hurdles -- and then uprooted, carried to a new location, and stamped into the ground where needed.
The farmer usually created a wattle by putting the upright posts, sometimes called zales or sails, into a wooden frame, sometimes called a gallows, to hold them in place. Then withies – slim cuttings of willow or hazel – were wound back and forth around the uprights. At the end of the hurdle the withy would be twisted for greater flexibility, wound around the last zale, and woven back in the other direction. Usually a gap would be left in the middle of the hurdle, called a twilly hole, which allowed a shepherd or farmer to carry a few hurdles as a time on his back.

According to author Una McGovern, hurdle fences were vital to medieval agriculture; by keeping sheep confined without the need for permanent infrastructure, they allowed tenant farmers to graze sheep on a patch of land, letting them manure the fields one by one and deposit the fertilisers necessary for cereal crops.

The Girl and I started the fence using the old method of marking where we wanted it to start and end, and tying a string taut along the path. We spent the day gathering armfuls of willow from the hedge and hacking away at the ones thick enough to be posts, and hopefully, next weekend, we can make more progress on the fence itself. As with most of our projects, this is an experiment – as I told The Girl, we’ll either find out what works, or we’ll find out what doesn’t.

I'll be able to post more when our internet is up again. Also, feel free to check out my latest article at Grit magazine.

Saturday 19 April 2014

Learning to live with less

Sorry for not posting more lately; we’ve had a few technical problems, as our internet connection fades in and out according to the day and time of day. Also, I’ve been writing some larger articles for a couple of magazines, and will tell you more about which ones and when as they become solid. Finally, I’ve been working a lot at my day job in Dublin, leaving me a few hours to spend with The Girl in the evenings, but not much else.

Easter Sunday is tomorrow, which means a great deal to us for many reasons – but for purely selfish ones, as I’m looking forward to having my first cup of coffee in weeks. The Girl and I shook hands on a Lenten deal: she would give up television if I gave up coffee.

Most readers are probably not Catholic and some might not be religious, but some variant of Lent would be useful to us all. This blog, my writings and The Girl’s training all focus on living a more traditional life, and that means making do with less. Learning to do without – going for some weeks without driving, or using electricity, or some other modern convenience, gives our soul a workout. It forces us to learn different habits, until by the end of the period using less feels normal. It helps us understand the ancestors – and billions in the world today – not as fortunate as ourselves.

It helps us prepare for a future where modern comforts might be even less evenly distributed, and we stop being the lucky ones. It gives us the strength to teach others to do the same. It reminds us that what feeds our habits leaves our soul empty, and vice versa.

Happy Easter.

Tuesday 15 April 2014

Saturday 12 April 2014

Signs of spring

Ireland is finally entering a proper spring, with daylight stretching across the hours and the hillsides erupting with daffodils. We have to use the last of our beetroot and celeriac that lasted us through the winter, so when I take the bus to Dublin for my day job, I’m bringing plastic containers of borscht or whatever dish I made the night before.

We are also getting the first salads and herbs of the year, although the chickens like them as much as we do. We are also seeing the first of Ireland’s spring crop of nettles and dandelions, and when we have a spare hour or two, in the evenings or on weekends, The Girl helps me gather them – nettles for soup and beer, dandelions for fritters and wine.  We also found the first edible mushrooms of the year, which also became my lunch the next day.

The hawthorn trees’ confused tangles are sprouting green shoots, perfect for salads. The blackthorns are usually difficult to pick out in the hedgerow amid all the other trees, but now – for a couple of spectacular weeks – a confetti of small white flowers marks them clearly amid the largely bare trees around them. The Girl and I need to travel a few miles down the canal this weekend and mark each blossoming tree – how far it is from a landmark and in which direction – in order to remember their location and gather their sloes this autumn. 

Top photo: Bluebell woods. 
Bottom photo: Borscht with celeriac, carrot, dill, sour cream and chorizo sausage.