Monday 30 June 2014

The neighbour's car

When we first moved here, he showed me around his lovely fields and the old barn where he kept his cows. Without offense to him, it looked and smelled like a lot of cows lived there. Then he lifted an old tarpaulin and showed me his prizes -- a set of old cars, well maintained and passed down from owner to owner. Once in a while he takes it for a drive, and I get a picture.

For generations of people around here -- until relatively recently -- cars were something for emergencies or show. Yet people got around just fine, and the roads were safe for walkers, bicyclers and horses. One old person said that two people in town had motorbikes -- the doctor and the priest -- and they knew by the sound in the distance which one it was, and so which neighbour had fallen ill and how serious it was.

Sunday 29 June 2014

The Modern Soundtrack

I spend eight hours a day in an office in Dublin, three hours a day on the bus there and back, and an hour or so sipping coffee and talking with friends at lunch, and I just figured out how much of that time I spend without a radio blaring loudly in the background.

It’s zero. Virtually every public and corporate space I visit -- lift, office lobby, grocery store, doctor’s office or petrol station, every space -- has overhead speakers and a piped-in sound system, which has no reason to exist but seems to grow louder each year. Most places play the same songs over and over, but the choice of music is not the main issue. The problem is that most people I know have ceased to notice this background and talk over it --- again, more loudly each year.

When I ask if they could turn it off, most people look at me befuddled; they are unaware the noise exists. They are obviously not enjoying something they are unaware of, so you might ask why they play the speakers at all. Yet when I ask bus drivers and store managers to turn the noise off, or even down, they look offended.

My co-workers moved into a new office recently, and the first thing they did was to turn on the radio; I asked why, and one said, surprised, “Well – we need to have something on.” When the radio was off and he heard only the hum of computers, the click of keyboards, the whirr of printers, the chatter of co-workers and the distant murmur of cars and horses outside, he felt unnerved.

We live with a great deal of background noise – a city bus idles at 90 decibels, and as the decibel scale is logarithmic that level is 10 times louder than 80 decibels. Many people today, who grew up with rock concerts and background construction, can expect to lose their hearing at a much earlier age than earlier generations -- a 1997 study of the elderly found that hearing loss doubled in the 30 years between 1964 and 1994, and we are almost 20 years further on from that. The constant noise of speakers might be an attempt to drown out the increasingly loud background, but it stacks the mountain of cacophony ever higher.

Most of us can only choose to buy our own headphones and MP3 players, meaning that I and all my fellow bus passengers spend the hours locked in our private reveries. Everyone has their own musical tastes, of course, and at six in the morning most people do not feel the mood for conversation. The problem is that everyone around me feels compelled to isolate themselves inside headphones; even worse than everyone being forced to listen to the same electronic media, everyone is forced to listen to their own.

I do get to hear some of what others are listening to, though, as their music is turned up louder than their earpieces can contain. In what Atlantic magazine writer Brian Eha called “bleed-over, collateral aggravation from the personal consumer choices of others,” living in the presence of ubiquitous noise creates a kind of arms race between eardrums. We turn up the volume on our MP3 players or IPods to drown out the loud bus speakers or office radio, and then have to turn it up ever more loudly as everyone else does the same thing.

More than that, though, this ubiquitous noise brings a psychological toll. We all live in a kind of enforced solitude now, yet cannot enjoy the tranquillity that made solitude desirable. Eha cites studies by developmental psychologist Lorraine Maxwell, who found that excessive noise warps children’s attention and memory, and makes them withdraw from talking with peers. Yet she also found that, when they are accustomed to working with noise, they cannot work without it; the quality of their work deteriorates. Finally, she found that when children learn to passively accept “uncontrollable noise” in the background, they show a “learned helplessness” to changing the world around them.

No other society has ever performed this kind of giant experiment on themselves over generations, so no one has ever measured the long-term effects. I do know, though, that between the earphones, the MP3 player and the earplugs, a normal life is getting expensive.

Originally published in 2012.

“An Increasing Prevalence of Hearing Impairment and Associated Risk Factors over Three Decades of the Alameda County Study, by Margaret Wallhagen, PhD, RN, CS, William J. Strawbridge, PhD, Richard D. Cohen, MA, and George A. Kaplan, PhD, American Journal of Public Health, March 1997, Vol. 87, No. 3.
“The Effects of Noise on Pre-school Children’s Pre-Reading Skills,” by Lorraine Maxwell and Gary Evans, The Journal of Environmental Psychology (2000) 20, 91-97.
“The Sound of Solitude,” Brian Eha, The Atlantic Monthly, April 2012.

Saturday 28 June 2014

Grafted apple trees

Learning to graft saplings of different species together almost cost me my thumb, and cost The Girl and I a night in the hospital, but I'm getting two fine trees out of the deal. I'll be taking cuttings of various trees of ours in the coming months, and seeing how well I can do this on my own. More on grafting in future posts.

Monday 23 June 2014


"Most young people today have no real skills -- adults can't do even the things kids small children used to do, building and making things with their hands -- isn't done anymore, so the hand-eye coordination is gone."

-- from "The Many Lives of Steve Manary," interview on RTE radio.

Saturday 21 June 2014

Midsummer Night

When people ask what it’s like to live in Ireland, I always start by talking about light. People find it strange – they think the most remarkable thing to an American would be the accents, or the culture, or the scenery.

The accents are lovely, but they vanish when you get used to a place; you no longer hear people speaking a foreign accent, and you simply hear the words. Within a year of moving here American accents started sounding a bit foreign  -- although of course I don’t hear myself having an accent, for one never does. In a sense, I miss Irish accents now, since it’s been so long since I’ve heard them.

I also love Irish culture, but it's not like the Far East; it's not radically different than American culture, especially to an Irish-American. Moreover, it’s mostly the older people who remember gathering to listen to a seannachai or used to dance sean-nos style; younger people are buying lattes and talking about the series finale of Mad Men. It’s not exactly like living in US suburbs – as I picked The Girl up from horse riding today, we passed a few castles and pulled up alongside two pony-wagons at the convenience store. Nonetheless, once television and other media become widespread, local culture begins to dissolve into the same Hollywood culture as everywhere else.

The scenery is great, but I must confess that those are the really good bits of scenery on sunny days. I select my subjects to be in keeping with the theme of the blog, so will take a photo of an old kitchen garden or forest, but not of the office building abandoned after the crash, with graffiti on its dismal concrete front.

No, the most dramatic change for me – the part that immigrants never get used to – is the latitude. We are a thousand miles from the Arctic Circle; at this latitude in North America there are polar bears. The Caribbean current bathes Europe in general and Ireland in particular, so we rarely go below freezing in winter, but still experience the subarctic light changes. I begin to understand why northern European cultures had special names for the eighteen-hour stretches of total darkness, what inhabitants of these islands a thousand years ago called the Mother Night.

This time of year disrupts our sleeping schedule for a different reason; daylight begins in the wee hours of the morning, and stretches late into the night. Now that I live here certain references make a new kind of sense to me; for example, Shakespeare’s Midsummer Night’s Dream. Midsummer Night – tonight – is the shortest night of the year, so all the quarrels, reconciliations and musical-chair relationships took place in only a few hours. The very name of the play was a joke in itself, to emphasize how quickly love can change or disappear.

Today was Midsummer, and the countryside almost glowed under the brilliant warmth of the day that never seemed to end. This is a photo taken of our property at 11:30 pm – it’s still twilight with a bit of sunset behind the trees. Now the wheel turns again, and we head slowly into the Mother Night once more.

Sunday 15 June 2014

How to be a cheapskate traveller -- in Grit Magazine

The extremely frugal traveler still has the old standbys of riding the rails or hitchhiking, although the first is illegal, and both are dismissed today as unconscionably dangerous. They used to be staples of rural life, though, and most country folk remember when young people casually hitched a ride to the farm or the next town. People still hitch in Ireland, where communities are stronger and people are less fearful, and I suspect the attitudes feed on themselves – when everyone is too frightened to hitch or pick up hitchers, the custom is abandoned by everyone but the genuinely frightening.

The same could be said of many of these options; they have become less popular because they require people to give up the normal and convenient, to mingle with many different types of people, to exercise patience, to accept uncertainty. They make us engage with the landscape and travel through it. They exercise muscles, in body and mind, that our forebears knew well, and that we forgot we had.

-- from my latest article in Grit. Read the whole thing.

Saturday 14 June 2014

Pickled apples a success

I tried it as an experiment last autumn when we were harvesting our apples -- I used the peels for pectin in making jam, and needed something to do with the chunks of apple flesh.

I took the vinegar I made from my failed parsnip wine, mixed in brown sugar, and poured it over a mix of apple chunks, ginger slices, cayenne, lemon, cloves, peppercorns and star anise. After a few weeks it tasted reasonably good, and I chalked it up as a success.

This spring, I found an uneated jar in the back of the pantry, which had been fermenting for about eight months. I took a bite, and it tasted nothing like what it had last fall -- the intensity of the flavour blows your socks off. I highly recommend the experience.

Sunday 8 June 2014

Greer, others speak at London School of Economic Science

If you, too, think that modern civilisation has become increasingly dependent on complicated government and corporate entities whose exponentially growing use of natural resources render us vulnerable to cascading systemic crisis…

(deep breath)

… then you too might look back at the sentence you just wrote and think, “We need some shorthand for this.” You too might find it gratifying to talk to a group of people who already understand what you’re talking about -- as dozens of us did last week at the Economics, Energy and Environment Conference in London.

Many who attended, it seemed, were trying to prepare for a difficult future – growing food, learning old-fashioned skills, or organising intentional communities – and had similar trouble explaining their reasons to the larger society. We have words for various pieces – “recession,” “peak oil,” climate change” and “collapse” -- but each comes with its own baggage, and words that attract one political or cultural group drive away another.

“Recession,” for example, implies a temporary dip that ends with a step back up, rather than a stumble near the top of a very high pyramid, with normal far below. “Collapse” implies something sudden and irrevocable, after which it’s broken – not a gradual transformation that could restore things our culture has lost. I like James Howard Kunstler’s haunting phrase “The Long Emergency,” but it’s not familiar to most people, and I’m probably picturing something longer, slower and less dire than he is.

The problem is not in convincing people they are poorer and more stressed than they used to be; they already know that in their bones. The problem is explaining that the issues they care about are part of a larger system, one whose wheels are slowly and inexorably grinding toward a general destination. That the problems won’t be fixed tomorrow, but that the world probably won’t end tomorrow either. That some problems will never be fixed – the world won’t change, but we can. And that, in some ways, the result could be better than what we have now. 

If all this sounds quite vague, it’s because these issues are too big to summarise in three paragraphs, or even in a one-hour talk or five-week course. Judging from their talk at the conference last weekend, however, the presenters at London’s School of Economic Science did about as good a job as anyone could.

The conference began with a talk by Matthew and Hugh McNeill, briefly summarizing the course they gave, each week dealing with a different aspect of the Long Emergency. The first week they dealt with the economic models of E.F. Schumacher and Greer --- the natural world supporting the human-made economy, which in turn supports the financial economy. The second week dealt with energy and thermodynamics, the third with human societies; week four dealt with human creations like finance, and week five with practical responses.

After the McNeills came John Michael Greer, whose many books and “Archdruid Report" blog are already familiar to many people reading this -- as were, inevitably, portions of his talk. Some of it was entirely new, however, even to the avid follower.

Among other things, Greer pointed out that we've created a world in which we use the financial industry for every need; we buy food, buy our belongings, and buy entertainment, and the finance industry takes a cut out of all our interactions. In a time of growth, the cut is small -- but as energy declines, the cut will take up a greater and greater portion. The more of our food we can grow or raise ourselves, the more tools we can make or fix, the more we can entertain ourselves, the less the financial world can act as an intermediary between ourselves and our lives. "Disintermediation,” as he put it, would put more and more of our lives back under our own power.

Greer reminded listeners that no one else can or should dictate one solution for everyone, and he cautioned against democratic models that rely on consensus, finding them to gravitate to the lowest common denominator. Instead, he said, we should strive for “dis-sensus,” as scholar Ewa Zierek described it -- many individuals and groups trying many different approaches, allowing people to see what works and what doesn’t.

Most of all, he said, we need to start the change inside our own heads, abandoning the belief in progress that has served so long as an excuse for putting off problems. Most human societies, he said, have not had a belief in progress and got along just fine; the Romans believed that things were worse before their own empire, but they didn’t believe that path had to continue forever. The religion of progress, however, demands that we continue on the same course, and world leaders will likely try many ways to do so even as resources run short. We are now entering a time when, as anthropologist Joseph Tainter put it, their solutions will be a major cause of new problems.

The last speaker was Robin de Carteret, a specialist in teaching complex and non-linear systems, giving a brief explanation followed by a series of exercises. In one of the more interesting examples, he asked a dozen or so people to gather in a circle, and that each person silently picked two other people in the group. Everyone was told to move until they were equidistant from the two people they had selected; they could be closer or farther away, as long as they kept the same distance from each. Of course, while each person moved to keep pace with their unwitting “partners,” they had been selected by someone else trying to keep pace with them, so everyone in the circle spent a minute or so jostling about – until at once everyone stopped, having reached a steady state.

Carteret pointed out that this kind of complexity is very difficult to organise in some kind of top-down command structure, but appears organically in complex systems. This also makes the system hard to predict, of course, as a small change in one component can ripple through the entire system. If the people in the group represented causes of climate change, he pointed out, moving one person – say, carbon dioxide – forces other components to move, which create still other changes until the entire structure settles on a new steady state.

Whether people came to the event from the conference or from following Mr. Greer, we all had some shared understanding of the problems, and that was a rare and precious thing, allowing everyone to relax and get down to business – over lunch, coffee, or beers at the pub down the street. We separated that night and returned to our different lives and countries, with new acquaintances made and inspirations shared, wondering if any ripples began here that would be felt later and far away.

Saturday 7 June 2014

Back from London

I’m back from my holiday in London, and the conference at the School of Economics turned out well. It’s gratifying to gather with people with the same obscure interests, and all the more so when your interest is the world’s future.

I’ll tell more about the conference tomorrow, but for now I’ll stick to the rest of the holiday. I stayed, as I always do, at a hostel – a different one each time, to see which ones I should recommend. Hostels seem like a strange idea to many people, who are unfamiliar with sharing their room with strangers. It brings the price down from hundreds of pounds a night down to 10-50 pounds, though, and most people are quite courteous of one another. If you’re looking to stay in London, you could do worse than St. James – inexpensive but clean, with helpful staff, and right in the middle of the city.

My first night there I fell to chatting with two young men, a Danish hotelier and an Italian chef, working in London and figuring out what they wanted to do with their lives. After getting to know each other for only a short time, the chef was soon cooking us pasta Carbonara as an evening meal, and we talked late into the night.

London has far too much to see in a single trip, and each visit I check a few things off my bucket list. Thankfully, most of the sights of London can be enjoyed cheaply or for free. Take, for example, London’s plethora of museums. This time I went back to the Natural History Museum, which looks like a cathedral and feels the same – a church of the world. I also recommend the Gardening Museum, tucked away on the south bank of the Thames, with its collection of self-sufficiency tools and skills that most of the world has forgotten.

The Imperial War Museum also makes a fascinating experience – to its credit it shows not just the tools and toys of war, but the experiences of everyday survivors. In its depths English rooms from the 1940s are recreated – books, music, utensils – just as it would have been in the Blitz. In the middle of the living room was one of the cages families would hide inside, and along the wall are the stories of the children – native Londoners and refugees – who were evacuated and who stayed. I appreciate learning about war through the eyes of most people who see it, rather than through political speeches or generals’ memoirs.

I cannot highly enough recommend London’s transportation system; between the Underground, the buses and the very walkable streets, you can go anywhere quickly and easily. Locals complain about the Tube and the crowds, but I think they forget how lucky they are to have such a system at all.

As the West End is as famous as Broadway on the world stage, you might think that the plays would be prohibitively expensive, only for the wealthy. In fact, however, my first time in London I saw a great play with a star cast – Kiera Knightley and Elisabeth Moss in Lillian Hellman’s 1934 play The Children’s Hour – for about the same sum as a trip to the cinema.

This time I got tickets to the Globe Theatre – the re-creation of Shakespeare’s original home – for just 15 pounds. I had shown my daughter a television recording of As You Like It performed at the Globe, and now she wants to go there herself – and I told her I would happily take her to A Midsummer Night’s Dream or some other light comedy. This was not one of those plays. This was Titus Andronicus, and let me tell you, it was hard core.

Aside from the conference – more of which tomorrow – I didn’t plan out much of a schedule this time. Travel too often involves rushing to get somewhere, or trying hard to enjoy something before the time runs out. It too rarely involves sitting in a cafĂ© in the middle of London, on a lovely summer day, reading a good book and watching the world go by. This time, for me, it did.