Sunday 29 March 2015

New article in Grit magazine

Good news! My latest piece on fruit tree grafting has been published in Grit Magazine; check it out here.

Saturday 21 March 2015


Every place has its own kind of spring. In my native Midwest it comes fitfully -- apple blossoms open warmly only to freeze over in a late frost, like flies in amber, and greenery strains in stages over a vacillating land. Here in rural Ireland the winter is a different kind of harsh – rarely snowy or below freezing, but always chilly, damp and dark. We live at the same latitude where polar bears are native in the Western Hemisphere, and while the Gulf Stream keeps us temperate, the light changes are still subarctic and the winter landscape bleak and gothic.

So our Lenten fast brings a literal ray of sunshine and blue skies, when Ireland stops looking like something out of Cormac McCarthy’s novel The Road and actually begins to look like those inspirational calendars of Ireland. The hedgerows flush with green again, wildflowers cover the fields and, best of all for me, it is nettle season.

The month or two of nettle shoots means I can take a short daily walk and gather massive bushels of extremely healthy food with little effort. Almost as numerous and well-known as grass or clover, they flourish in massive clusters on roadsides and riverbanks, lining field edges and sprouting through pavement cracks.

Brushing against them leaves painful welts, and every child here learns early to give nettles a wide berth – they are covered in hairs that are actually tiny hypodermic needles, which inject the same formic acid as in fire ants’ stings. The traditional remedy for the sting is dock-leaf, whose broad leaves always grow next to nettles and are its cure – my daughter knew when she was still a toddler to find it in the grass, crush it and rub it on stings. Perhaps its astringent nature cancels out the inflammation – I haven’t found any scientific research to “prove” that it helps – but it has worked for generations, and works for us.

 This may not make nettles sound very appetizing, but cooking them destroys the stingers, and the plants themselves are amazingly nutritious – a hundred grams of them are only 36 calories but carry six grams of protein and are high in Vitamins A, C, and K. Europeans used them as a tonic, an infusion of vitamins at the end of winter, as well as for arthritis, prostate problems, heart conditions and a multitude of other ailments. Crushing the stingers also eliminates the stingers, so you can seize them quickly and not get stung -- hence the expression “to grab the nettle.” I am told that some practiced souls even crush the leaves quickly and eat them raw with no ill effects to fingers or mouth. Me, I find gloves simpler.

 I would not try to eat them as a salad, but they can be made into tea, soup, sautéed as a vegetable side dish, mixed with scrambled eggs or pancakes, and I have heard of people making nettle lasagna, nettle pesto and nettle kim chi. The plant’s grassy and slightly fishy flavour goes well with seafood – say, nettle soup with prawns (or shrimp, if you live in America). I have juiced nettles into a drink very like wheatgrass – not my taste, but there are many wheatgrass fans out there.

 Farmers here used to soak the cooked plant with sourdough starter to make nettle beer, and I see no reason it could not be mixed into bread as herbs are. I know farmers in County Wicklow who make an excellent nettle cheese by mixing the plant into the curds before ageing, creating a green spiderweb latticework in every slice.

 They have other uses: Their fibrous stalks can be stripped of leaves, squeezed of juice and wound together to make a makeshift rope in the woods. The stalks can be soaked in water until the fleshy parts decay, as people soak flax to make linen, and combed into thread – I have seen whole dresses sewn of nettle fiber.

Ireland might be the ideal home for nettles, as they love moist, rich soil, cool conditions and cleared land. They exist but are less ubiquitous in Southern Europe and North America, and you can probably plant them in pots. If they don’t already grow around your home I don’t recommend planting them in the ground – in an Irish climate like Oregon they might run rampant, and in a drier one they might never grow – but they might thrive under control in a pot, as mint does. Some gardeners recommend them for attracting early aphids -- not because they like aphids, but because the pests draw early ladybirds (ladybugs to Americans) that, hopefully, stay to help through the summer.

When you collect nettles, of course, don’t take them from near a road, or from land you think might have been sprayed with pesticides. Most nettle-pickers select only the delicate shoots in early spring, and if you snap them off more shoots grow back – but the whole plant is edible, and I continue to pick leaves into late summer. Rinse them using a spoon or some other tool to stir them in the water, so as not to be stung or get your gloves wet. Once you have rinsed and drained them, cook them well – say, boiling for at least 10 minutes -- or the stingers won’t completely dissolve.

A common approach to nettle soup is to saut̩ one large, white diced onion in butter over low heat for a few minutes, and as it turns golden stir in a clove of garlic, shredded through the fine holes in your grater. Peel and dice a medium potato Рabout a centimetre on a side Рand stir that in too. Then add about 100 grams of nettle shoots and pour stock over the whole thing. Let it boil, bring it down to a simmer and let it cook until the potatoes are soft. Then you can blitz the whole thing with a food processor, if you like, add a 100 ml or so of cream and serve.

 Sometimes I take the more direct route of dumping them into boiling stock – beef, vegetable, whatever – cooking them a few minutes, blitzing them and pouring them into a fine strainer over a bowl. The result is a drink -- savoury nettle broth -- and a thick soup that I can eat, mix or freeze for lunch.

 I’m not a purist – we grow much of our food or buy it from local farmers, but we also go to the supermarket or eat out once in a while, and I don’t ask the waitress to trace my food back to the Third World. I’m also not a survivalist or a bushcraft master – I work at a computer in an office, I’ve ever tried to eat exclusively off the land, and I doubt I know even a tenth of the local plants. But even my meager knowledge allows me to look at a field and see a cornucopia of resources.

Why is this important, you ask? Because most of us put food in our mouths at least a few times a day, and it is usually food that was created in ways that cannot and should not last. The corn may well have been sown, watered, and plucked from the earth without ever touching a human hand, using machines that run on liquefied dinosaur biomass. The vegetables may have been uprooted by a migrant worker who will die young. The chicken patty probably came from an animal that lived a short life mutilated in darkness.

Yet you are surrounded by food. You probably have nettles in your area, but even if you don’t, maybe you have daisies, dandelions, clover, sorrel, brambles, berries, goosefoot, cowslips and dozens of other plants. Maybe you have local hazels, cobnuts and walnuts – even acorns can be made edible. There are local animals to eat, local sources of water, ways to warm up or keep cool.

How do I know this? Because people lived for the first 99 percent of humanity’s history, almost everywhere on Earth – in deserts, on tundra, and certainly in the forests and fields that are now America and Europe -- when all food, all water, all shelter, was wild. That knowledge was passed through the generations, held not just by every Irish farmer, but perhaps by every Druid and Cro-Magnon before them.

Today, in a single lifetime, the chain has been broken – only older people tend to remember the uses of nettles, and in America such knowledge has often vanished altogether. If we get smacked down by a fuel shortage, a disease that keeps us home, a climate catastrophe that hits agribusiness, or some other crisis to our society’s bloodstream of tankers and trucks, the metric tones of healthy food all around us may not be recognized, and might lay unused even as families go hungry.

Photo from Originally published in April 2009.

Wednesday 18 March 2015

Walking across the bog

“Doctor Ceitinn and I walked right across the bog, with Poll na Cailli west of us and Poll na Chapaill to the east, as far as Mocklers where we had baker’s bread with butter and a strong drop of whiskey.

We walked over the bog collecting wild plants: water-mint, bog-cotton, common self-heal (a small coarse plant with a purple head or flower), common milfoil, which has a thousand petals and a brown stalk.

We saw a lovely girl kneading wet turf. She had slender feet, calves and knees white as bog-cotton. Her father was once a well-off farmer, but the difficulties of life caught up with him; he lost everything, and the landlord took his crops. The tithe-collector took away the table, the pot and bed with him, and they all drove him out to wander the roads – himself, his wife and his handsome young children. That is why he was in a small cabin at the foot of the mountain, and why his beautiful young daughter was kneading turf.

A thousand young boys and girls danced to music nearby, on top of Moinn Rua, a high platform in the middle of Poll na Chapaill. The reddish-brown hillock was shaking under their nimble feet. They are having a fine life here, if it doesn’t end in beggary.

I can see how turf grows. There is a kind of moss called susan, growing in bog-holes, which when it withers turns to pulp. The pulp fills the bog-holes in time, and thus builds new banks of turf. If the susan has not completely withered it is cut with a breast turf-spade, but if it has, is cut with a winged turf-spade. It is spread on the banks to dry. But this is not the best kind of turf. The best is that which, after it has been shovelled up out of the hole onto the bank, is kneaded by the hands of women.”

-- From the diary of Tomas de Bhaldraithe, County Kilkenny, 12 July, 1827. 

Tuesday 17 March 2015

St. Patrick's Day in Ireland

Growing up in an Irish family in Missouri, St. Patrick’s Day combined all the things I loved most about holidays, without any of the negatives. Big-league holidays like Christmas, Thanksgiving and Halloween only arrived after weeks of television commercials and yard decorations, until the day itself could be a serious anti-climax.

St. Patrick’s Day, though, meant gathering with cousins, marching in a parade, waving to crowds, eating great food and just socialising. It was a genuine family holiday.

Here, St. Patrick’s is the day for an annual town parade, and The Girl and I went to the same one we do every year. It's a lot of fun, and I'm pleased my soon-to-be teenager is not too old for a parade. The local girls’ Irish dancing club Riverdanced down the lane, the annual bagpipers marched behind them, the rugby and boxing clubs demonstrated their techniques before the Lord Mayor and other village dignitaries. A local girl sang a genuinely good version of a Taylor Swift song in a Bog-Irish accent, mumbling the less family-friendly words.

When you think about it, though, the global St. Patrick's Day celebrations feel a bit strange; people of many backgrounds, around the world, celebrate an ethnic group most don’t belong to, a foreign country most have never visited, and a Catholic saint who probably would be flummoxed by the whole shebang. Of course, many Americans are Irish, but a lot more are English, German or Mexican, and they don’t get such unanimous celebrations. And while most descendants of the Irish diaspora have embraced and laugh along with the stereotypes, it’s hard to imagine most ethnic minorities doing the same.

 Perhaps we Irish have that right balance: our past is sufficiently tragic to ground the celebrations in something substantial, while our Ireland has always been neutral enough that we don't have the historical baggage of, say, British or Germans. And the Irish -- both residents of this island and their cousins around the world -- are comfortable and mainstream enough to laugh along with once-malevolent stereotypes.

When I moved to Ireland ten years ago, I discovered that St. Patrick’s Day celebrations were new here; American parades had begun in the 1700s, while Ireland held its first in the 1970s. Like Halloween, it began as a Celtic festival, left with emigrants to North America, changed into a massive party, and has been recently re-imported to this country.

 The image of Ireland as a mystical Brigadoon of thatch roofs and village pubs holds a unique grip on the hearts of many Americans. The Irish even have a word for it --- "Oirish," which is to Irish as "Americana" is to American. The recent protests over water charges were Irish. The Quiet Man was Oirish.

Some modern Irish chafe at the leprechaun stereotypes, of course – we get the same internet and media here as many Americans, and young people's culture here is becoming as Hollywoodised as that of Americans. They feel about other countries’ St. Patrick’s Day celebrations as Americans might feel if Albanians honoured our country with an annual “America Day” procession of cowboy hats, machine guns and surfboards.

Seeing it from both sides, though, I can defend the American image of Ireland to my neighbours here; that sense of common heritage kept Irish-American families together through difficult times, and gave them an ideal of community to aspire to -- one that might be very useful to us in the years ahead

The bucolic image carried a lot of truth; as recently as the 1970s many areas here lacked electricity or central water, and people got about by horses and carts. Ireland has bits and pieces of the modern world stuck on to the old; modern trucks rolling over medieval stone bridges, a modern grocery next to a ruined medieval abbey, our neighbours drive horse-carts past our house, and a thatched-roof pub near our house with a sattelite dish.

That's the biggest difference: In my native USA, most of the people you see driving around and watching television have been doing it all their lives. Here, older people live in the modern world but grew up in a much more traditional and self-sufficient one, and some still carry that world around inside them. I'm slowly learning that way of life as an adult, and just like my forbears decades ago, when I leave this island, I'll carry a bit of that world around with me.

Wednesday 11 March 2015

Dublin wall

I work across from the Guinness brewery in Dublin, a cluster of massive 19th-century brick buildings with a maze of narrow cobblestone streets, massive wooden gates, alleys -- and many horse-drawn carts for the tourists. It is perhaps not the cheeriest neighbourhood -- damp, pungent, with sunlight falling in thin shafts between the barrelhouses. It will, however, have for one week each March, a man in a giant leprechaun costume.

It does, however, have character -- and if I turn an unexpected corner, I come upon something like this picture. If you can't read it, it says, in giant letters four metres up the wall, "STONE UPON STONE UPON FALLEN STONE," and then in the Irish language, "CLOCH OS CLON CLOICHE OS CLON CLOICHE LEATHA."

I'm not certain what it means, but I like that such a thing exists for its own sake.

Thursday 5 March 2015

Pickled Apples now on Mother Earth News

Good news! My article on making pickled apples is now up at Mother Earth News. Check it out.

Wednesday 4 March 2015

The Lake Isle of Inisfree

I will arise and go now, and go to Inisfree,

And a small cabin build there, of clay and wattles made;

Nine bean rows will I have there, a hive for the honeybee,

And live alone in the bee-loud glade.

And I shall have some peace there, for peace comes dropping slow,

Dropping from the veils of the morning to where the cricket sings;

There midnight's all a-glimmer, and noon a purple glow,

And evening full of the linnet's wings.

I will arise and go now, for always night and day

I hear lake water lapping with low sounds by the shore;

While I stand on the roadway, or on the pavements gray,

I hear it in the deep heart's core.

-- William Butler Yeats.