Monday 29 May 2017


Originally published in 2009. 

For most of the year, elders are little more than weeds in tree form. They grow as fast as willows but have none of the advantages – they cannot be woven into baskets, they create a noxious stink in spring, and they cannot even be burned in fireplaces, as their smoke is mildly toxic. For a few short weeks in June, though, they burst into elderflowers, and clusters of the large white blossoms line our roads and fields can be put to many uses in the kitchen.

The flowers can be made into “champagne,” a mildly alcoholic drink, with the addition of lemons, yeast, bottles, and two weeks. To do this just peel the rinds off four lemons, squeeze their juice into the bucket and throw the lemons in with several elderflowers. Pour in a kilogram of sugar and two tablespoons of white wine vinegar. Then pour in eight litres of water, stir until the sugar is completely dissolved, cover with a cloth and let stand for 24 hours.

The next day or so, strain the mixture and pour it into bottles – large plastic jugs do fine for us. Set them in a cool place for about two weeks, and test the result. You can also make elderflower cordial, by packing elderflowers tightly into a jar and pouring vodka over them, and letting the container sit for at least a few months.

Also, you can preserve the taste of elderflower all year by making syrup. Gather a basket of elderflowers, and for every four cups of elderflowers take two cups of water and one cup of sugar. Boil the water, dump the elderflowers in and turn the heat off. Let the elderflowers soak for a few hours uncovered, strain the mixture and then stir in the sugar. Many people recommend adding citric acid to preserve the syrup for longer periods, as well as to add some tang. Some people soak the elderflowers in room-temperature water for a few days rather than placing them in boiling water and letting them soak for a few hours; that seems to work as well.

Either way, you can preserve the elderflower taste in a concentrated liquid, and then use a small amount of that liquid in a glass of water whenever you like. Elderflower syrup will also come in handy for baking, as one would use rosewater, or can be stirred into mixed drinks. You can also do the same thing to make elderflower jelly, by adding pectin with the sugar to make it set.

Another easy use for elderflowers is in pancakes. Clip some elderflowers right where it divides from the stem and brush them lightly to make sure no insects are on it. To make the batter, just crack two eggs into a large bowl and stir until smooth, then mix in about 120g of flour – the result should be so thick it is difficult to stir. Then slowly add 200 ml milk until the mixture is runny but not watery. Put small pan with a little oil under medium-high heat, pour in the batter so that it covers the whole pan in a thin layer, and set one full elderflower into the batter face-down.

After a minute or so – whenever the underside of the pancake gets golden-brown – flip it over and fry the other side for another minute or so. The flowers add a fruity taste to the pancakes, as blueberries would. Elderflower syrup is also used to make pancakes, but using the flowers themselves is simpler and more direct. Do make sure you don’t pick elderflowers from the side of the road or where exhaust could contaminate the plants.

Also, make sure you have actual elderflowers and not poisonous Queen Anne’s Lace or some other broad white flower. Elderflowers grow on trees and bushes; if it’s growing off the ground, it’s probably something else. Always pick flowers on a sunny day, pick the freshest-looking flowers, and use them as soon as you pick them.

Saturday 27 May 2017

A different kind of childhood

When I ask most modern people to remember a particular decade, they usually remember the television shows and video games that took up much of their young life, or the clothes and hairstyles that were fashionable. They remember what Hollywood celebrities were doing at the time more than their own lives. They don’t typically remember what my elderly neighbours do, like the wildflowers that grew in a particular meadow, or peeking as children into the nests of herons and listening to the eggs. They don’t remember playing children’s games, or exploring the woods, or swimming to an island in the middle of the pond, or declaring themselves kings and princesses of their newfound lands. Most of them never had the friendships to even have such adventures – people moved around too much, or were always playing video games -- even if they had been allowed to roam, and even if there were any woods to explore.

Most people my age spent 20,000 hours of their best years warehoused in a school that looked like a prison, but few remember anything they learned. Most remember spending many more hours in the backseats of cars, but never rode a horse or sailed a boat as children, or did anything that depended on skill and subtlety. Most modern people grew up with enough toys to fill an orphanage, but remember few of them, no more than their own children can remember the fifteenth toy they received last Christmas.

Perhaps most importantly, most people my age don’t remember ever having done anything useful. As children they might have been indulged or ignored, but when I ask if they ever contributed to the family, most are confused even by the question. A few cleaned their room or raked leaves outside. But few people my age grew up feeling necessary, or learning any skills, or feeling alive.

As working adults, most people I know spend their waking hours moving electrons around a screen, but they are still not necessary, and they feel it. Most depend entirely on electricity, but have no idea where my electricity comes from. They depend on pressing a button to keep warm, but don’t know what the button does. They need purified water from the tap, but have no idea where it comes from, or how pure it really is, or how it could be cleaned.

They know the president, but not their mayor or councilman, and know more about their favourite movie star than the old lady down the road. Most, I expect, have spent far more time watching others make love than they have making love themselves, and have spent thousands of hours watching actors feign death but have never bathed a body for burial.

Many Americans these days see family only on uncomfortable holidays, have no traditions to pass down, and little knowledge of songs or stories older than their parents. Most have spent their lives drifting across an ocean of strangers, committed to nothing and no one. No wonder suicide, which was once rare, has become a common cause of death. Most people don’t kill themselves in any identifiable way, of course – but when I return to my native country, I see many people who have ballooned in size, or require drugs of one kind or another to get through another day.

Even those who are nominally successful – who live in houses the size of barns, drive trucks the size of school-buses and have enough toys to stuff an orphanage – remain deeply unhappy. One way or another, they grow angrier every year; they know in their bones that something has gone terribly wrong.

Most of them know they’ve lost something, and search for it in different ways. Some of my friends build things in their shed, or cook, or in some way find pleasure in creating something. Some read books about people who lived more traditional lives, anything from Amish romances to medieval fantasy. Some drive off on weekends to hunt or fish, something to get them back to nature, and draw far more from their surroundings than from the animal. Some understand how much of the natural world has already been lost, and march in the streets to shout about it, or buy “eco-friendly” products with pandas and dolphins on them. Some of these approaches do more good than others, but I don’t mock any of them; all these people, I think, are trying to fill the same void.

The rural Irish around the same time offer an even more extreme contrast, with almost no money and what we would consider desperate poverty, but with an even lower crime rate than Americans had at the time, and with a literate, healthy society. Talking to people from these eras, I realised, could help us identify what the world has lost, and could restore. 

Friday 19 May 2017

A healthy society

I've been interviewing my Irish neighbours, and the vanishing world they grew up in -- and while that wasn't the world I knew, it wasn’t completely alien to me. I grew up with a lot of older relatives, some born as far back as the 19th century, and listened to them describe their early lives, and while they usually grew up with more money and technology than their Irish cousins -- the USA in the 1950s was prosperous, Ireland in the 1950s was not -- they had many elements in common that differ greatly from our lives today.

It was not uncommon for children to play safely in the streets, or wander far from home, know all the neighbours, and see their second cousins more often than most people today see their brothers. By the time they were teenagers they were men and women; they found work and began a family, joined their unions and local groups like Kiwanis, the VFW, the American Legion. They showed up to city council meetings, took part in their school and parish, and occasionally ran for office. Clothes and toys were passed down through long lines of relatives, child to child, and glass jars and bottles were used over and over again for decades. My family grew vegetables in a garden, composted the kitchen scraps, canned and pickled, and shared what we had.

As a young journalist I reported from small towns across the Midwest, and in every town I could – even if it wasn’t relevant to the story I was reporting – I looked at its old newspapers. In town after town they told the same story, of clean, healthy towns with farms and factories, whose citizens endured depressions and droughts and whose young men dreamed of home when they went to Verdun or Iwo Jima. School records described students learning Marcus Aurelius, building windmills or performing Shakespeare, in towns where few people today seem to have much education anymore.

City halls boasted photos of the city band gathered around the gazebo in the town square back when townspeople took part in a city band – and old newspaper photos showed local chapters of Kiwanis or Oddfellows celebrating some now-forgotten milestone. Most of these men spent their days in crop fields or factory floors, yet they dressed up for their meetings as they did for church – back when people dressed up for church -- and the suits were as clean as the buildings.

By the time I reported from those towns, in the 1990s, they already looked like the Zombie Apocalypse had come through; boarded-up storefronts, giant holes in the roads, and walls covered with graffiti that no one bothers to clean up. Few businesses remained in town centres; the remaining companies often stayed far outside of towns, sometimes displaying signs in Spanish for their low-paid immigrant workforce, and fenced off with increasingly savage-looking barbed wire. Many of the people I met seemed functionally illiterate, surly and suspicious. Most quickly turned any conversation to conspiracy theories they seemed to have picked up from talk radio and other media, their link to the world.

That was in the middle of what the media called an “economic boom,” although it didn’t affect the red states I grew up in -- and since then, life has only grown worse. When I visit my native country, much of it is functionally the Third World; in many small towns a large segment of the population survives solely on disability payments or Social Security of some kind, and drugs and despair eat away the generations. Deaths from legal and illegal drugs have increased more than 500 per cent since these old photos, killing more than half a million Americans since 2000. Among middle-aged men – the people who would once have been pillars of the community – the suicide rate has doubled in the last ten years.

You could see the same thing in the big city; I saw black-and-white photos of my grandparents in urban St. Louis in the 30s and 40s, smiling young people smartly dressed, standing in a neighbourhood of clean houses and front lawns, ready to take the trolley to a school dance or first job. You don’t want to go through those neighbourhoods today; many of the houses are windowless shells, with pieces cut out as from explosions, and graffiti covering every reachable surface.

By the time I grew up, the healthy days of a vibrant civic life, close neighbourhoods and self-reliant, literate men and women seemed like an alien universe, even for a relatively old-fashioned family like mine. I read more books and explored more land as a child more than most of my peers, but even I can look back and see how different my own life was from that of my grandparents, and even more from that of my Irish neighbours. Young people today grow up hungry for something, feeling the absence of something they've never experienced and can't recognise. Next week I'll talk about how we might be able to regain some of what we lost.

Monday 15 May 2017

Forest gardens

Appearing in Kildare Nationalist this week.

All down the canal from our house, neighbours are planting potatoes, onions and carrots, and there’s nothing wrong with that. A few gardeners here and there might use facilities like Irish Seed Savers to experiment with the hundreds of varieties we never see – blue potatoes, purple carrots – some more suited for their clay hill, cold bog or some other microclimate. A few might plant still more adventurous crops that might do well in this climate but remain little-known; yacon, daikon, oca, and others.

Creative or lazy gardeners with a bit of extra land might decide to leave it, deciding they get more mileage from the nettles and dandelions than they would from lettuces.  If you want to build a garden that truly looks to the future, though, you could plant a forest.

It might seem like that growing a forest contradicts the idea of growing a garden, that one means low, edible and annual plants in rows, while the other means a landscape of tall trees and few edible plants. When you plant a permaculture-style forest garden, though, you are combining the best of both worlds – perennial crops, vines, shrubs and trees that produce food every year but do not need to be re-sown every spring.

A forest garden also has a vertical dimension that many kitchen gardens do not; low trees and shrubs that bear fruit, berries and nuts; vines that bear similar fruit and berries, and ground-cover plants that can be harvested anew each year. With many varieties of plants close together, moreover, you can harvest throughout the year, gathering leaves or buds in spring, summer crops, fruit and nuts in autumn.

The various plants help each other, as different plants require different nutrients from the soil and so do not starve each other. They also help keep different pests away, as the smell of one plant not only repels insects from it, but from the plants around it. In this way, plants in the wild help each other, and by planting them alongside each other we let Nature do some of our heavy lifting.

To make a forest garden, you should first look at your landscape and see what could grow there –in the case of our land, a relatively dry patch of earth surrounded by bog. Then, according to permaculture theory, you plan a system that will yield the seven Fs: food, fuel, fibre, fodder, fertiliser, “farmaceuticals” and fun.

You might put the highest plants on the north, to cut down on the colder winds, and the lowest in the south to catch the maximum sun. You also want to pay attention to the rising and sloping of the property, to make sure you know what plants are getting the most sunshine and water runoff.

Plan a forest garden in vertical layers, starting with the pieces that reach the highest and around which the rest of the garden will turn: the trees. Make sure you allow a circle of sufficient breadth for each tree to grow; until it grows out, and find out ahead of time how large they tend to grow. If you plan a certain circle of space for them, and they grow slightly beyond it, you can prune them, but you should let them have a certain minimum of space.

You could plant fruit and berry trees like apples, plums and cherries; nut trees like walnut, hazel and oak also would prove valuable over time. Such trees aren’t going to yield vast quantities of food right away, of course, but in the meantime you can plant food-producing vines to climb up the trees – blackberries and kiwifruit, for example – as well as shrubs under them, like blueberries and lingonberries. Further down still – for a forest garden has food at every level – you can plant edible weeds like Good King Henry and Fat Hen, as well as herbs that return every year.

It is true that a forest garden requires some patience, and if you buy small trees from the nursery rather than growing apple trees from seed, it could be several times more expensive than a conventional garden. With the right species, however, you only have to plant them once; you are investing in infrastructure like a house or fence, only a forest garden could last for centuries longer.