Tuesday 31 October 2017

Cleaning up after storms

As usual on a Sunday, I came back from Mass and dropped The Girl off at her weekly medieval camp training. A few years ago I found a local expert in medieval martial arts -- an occasional advisor and extra for shows like Vikings and Game of Thrones, both of which are filmed here in Ireland -- and he trains kids and adults to become expert sword-fighters, archers and riders. It’s become The Girl’s big passion, and she now goes to historical shows and medieval fairs across Ireland displaying what she can do.

I’m pleased to see my teenager spend her spare time working hard at developing skills, especially ones that, in her words, make her really prepared for a Zombie Apocalypse situation. Lord knows enough of her peers are involved in far more destructive activities.

Occasionally, though, we still share a movie together. Last Friday night it was Strangers on a Train, and we were reminded of all the deliciously creepy scenes -- of Robert Walker staring malevolently forward at a tennis match, when all the people around him were turning back and forth; of watching a murder reflected in a fallen pair of glasses; and of Farley Granger’s hero and Robert Walker’s villain locked in a final battle on an out-of-control merry-go-round, as children laugh and scream around them.

“Hitchcock is so dark,” she said in awe. “I love him.”


On the way back from dropping The Girl off, I saw my neighbour Seamus, who has lived along the canal for 86 years and knows every tree and bush of this part of the bog.

“How is your land after Ophelia?” he asked, as we hadn’t talked in the fortnight since the hurricane.

Not bad, I said -- a few willows down, but they’ll come back quickly.

“I lost one of my great apples,” he said sadly. “I planted it 37 years ago, and it had grown giant and was laden with cookers.”

Sorry to hear it, I said -- the entire tree, and not nothing salvageable?

“Uprooted,” he said. “It was one of three, but the other two survived, thank the Lord. I’ve been cleaning up the apples all over the property before they go bad.”

Our trees survived, but they were also quite small and sheltered, I said -- I’ve been gathering our apples as well. What do you do with yours?

“I always keep them in a steel barrow in the shed,” he said, “and then put hay above and below. The steel keeps it cool, and the hay makes the apples sweeter.”

It took a beat for me to follow. The hay makes the apples sweeter? I asked. Why?

“Because hay is sweet,” he said with a puzzled smile, like this were obvious “That’s why cows love it.”

He tells me things like this every time -- what plants to plant together, what to keep away from each other, and how to keep food from spoiling. He could be pulling my leg for all I know, but sometimes I'm able to test his folk wisdom, and darned if he isn't right.


We finally got our chainsaw fixed, so The Girl and I spent the afternoon trimming the trees that broken or strained by the hurricane. A fallen tree anywhere else on our land is no big problem, but along the front of our property any downed tree a.) blocks the only, single-lane road, b.) falls the other way and destroys our greenhouse, and c.) takes down the phone lines in which they are all tangled.

Because of the overhead lines, I can’t cut some of the trees myself, so I’ve been fighting the county for months to trim the trees, and they said they would months ago. They still haven’t done, though, and I expect more will be brought down by the winter winds.

Thus, we set off to judiciously cut what we could, with me cutting the trees one by one and The Girl pulling on them with a rope and watching for cars. One by one we took down four willows and a dead elder, and when they crashed down into the road we set upon them with the chainsaw, axes and secateurs like lions on a gazelle before any cars came along.

On the fifth tree the chainsaw broke again, but by then we had cleared the worst of it. I’m never pleased to take down a tree, nor am I happy with the gap in the hedge, but none of these trees had been around very long, nor did their irregular plantings make a proper hedge. Rather, they were all about 20 years old and still healthy, and they will send up shoots next year, and we will bend them down and weave them into a proper, near-solid hedgerow that should provide shelter and privacy.


I gathered the last of the apples from our trees, along with rose hips from our hedgerows, and I decided I would pickle apples again and use the peelings and hips to make compost jelly -- jelly from whatever you have.

For the pickling, I mixed about 500 ml of cider vinegar with 200 ml of water, mixed in 100 ml of sugar and added five cardamom pods, one clove, six peppercorns, about 5 ml of cinnamon and 10 ml of chili flakes. I diced the white interiors of six apples and stuffed them into a Kilner jar, with peeled and shaved ginger mixed in, and packed them as tightly as I could.

Once the liquid had boiled I simply poured it over the apples and ginger until the jar was full to the rim. I then tapped it gently to release some of the bubbles, and as it cooled the vacuum lid sealed shut, so no hot-water bath was needed.

I took the peelings and apple cores -- 766 grams of them -- and mixed them with 100 grams of rose hips from our hedgerows and a chopped-up lemon. I put them in a pot with 1.5 litres of water, and boiled them for an hour while we played Civilisation. After an hour I strained the remaining liquid -- 600 millilitres -- mixed it with 450g of sugar, and boiled it on high heat for about 15 minutes until it set as jelly.

I had tried this a few days ago, but the jelly never set properly, only gradually going from liquid syrup to soft candy without ever reaching the magic stage in-between. I realised I needed a higher heat than most recipes recommend -- perhaps because Ireland is so damp and humid, or perhaps our stove is just slightly off. The second time was the charm.

As a result, apples that would have gone to waste were preserved for the winter, and should remain good for at least a year.

Top photo: Rainbow over Dublin. Middle photo: Fallen tree. Bottom photo: Salvaged orange peels with various hedgerow fruits -- going clockwise, crabapples, elderberries, blackberries, sloe and rose hips.

Sunday 22 October 2017

After the hurricane

I haven’t posted much lately, as I’ve been busy with my day job, family duties and writing longer pieces that I hope to publish separately. That, and this week we had a hurricane.

A bit of background: Ireland almost never gets hurricanes, or even many powerful storms. A typical summer rain in my native Missouri gushed down suddenly, hot as a shower, for a few minutes and turning the baking land into a floodplain before swiftly disappearing. Here in Ireland, however rain is usually a cold drizzle that can continue for an hour or a week -- or in 2012, a summer.  

I recently checked the average rainfall in Missouri and Ireland and was surprised to find that Missouri actually receives 53 per cent more rain per year than Ireland does. It certainly doesn’t seem like it -- Missouri might go months without rain and then make up for it in a few minutes, while here it rains more than half the days of the year.

On the other hand, the Irish countryside has two settings: 1.) cool and raining, and 2.) cool and not raining just yet. We almost never get genuine warmth - say, 30 degrees Centigrade or higher -- we almost never get snow, we never get tornadoes, or any of the more intense weather that hits most of the world. When my daughter was little I took her to visit family back home and she heard a low rumble in the distance, she turned to me excitedly and asked, “Daddy, is that thunder?” She had heard of it from books, but had never heard thunder before -- it happens here, but not often.

We also rarely get the erratic floods that hit my native state; I grew up where two of the world’s largest and most wilful rivers meet, and their floods have removed whole towns from the map. Here, though, the towns are often built at the top of walled river banks that have been repaired and rebuilt for hundreds of years, as the rivers rise and fall predictably beneath them.

Hurricanes creep up the Atlantic, but rarely as far north as this -- as I’ve mentioned, we are at the same latitude as the southern tip of Alaska. The rare exceptions make our history books, and stories of them were passed down through the generations. I’ve been reading Then There Was Light, the oral history of the gradual electrification of Ireland between the 1930s and the 2000s, and in one chapter Eileen Casey describes her home after a fuse-box was installed in her kitchen:

… Cooking was still done on gas and it was always a great back-up in case a storm might hit and knock out the whole shebang.

Which is what happened in 1961 when Hurricane Debbie decided to wreak destruction. A branch of a big oak tree fell on the transformer pole and plunged the row of cottages into darkness …This tropical “hussy” intensified to Category 3, passing over Ireland, bringing record winds of 114 mph. Tens of thousands of trees and power lines were knocked out there were few telephones in those days. 

The men who lived in the cottages tried lifting the tree of the transformer pole, causing a great whoosh which could have signalled their end. Then they left well enough alone and waited for the ESB men to come out and restore their home comforts.

Until now, such events were rare, but in the last ten years or so, the old farmers tell me, the weather has gotten progressively stranger -- a heavy snow one winter, an unusual span of weeks without rain, a summer of nothing but rain, and floods that breach the usual limits and stretch over fields and towns. 

Thankfully, this last hurricane did little damage -- homes here are usually made of stone or cement, and no one’s house gets blown away. The power was out for tens of thousands of people, and we had no internet for a while -- but the government got everyone’s power back on within a few days.

In any case, some people here lived without electricity even into this century, and we only got internet at our house in the last few years. If the phones went down or the power went out, I suspect, many older people here would shrug and get on with their business.

It’s going to be a healthy attitude in the years to come, as I suspect we’ll be seeing a lot more of this. Less than a week after the hurricane, Ireland is being hit by Storm Brian, the latest in a summer of storms. I was talking with locals at the village pub Friday night, and while none of them are what you’d call eco-activists, they all accept that this will probably be the new normal.

After every such event, there’s always a week or so of clean-up; the government getting the houses back on one village at a time, the tractors clearing the trees out of the road, and repairing the broken windows and car windshields. I was out jogging this morning, and hastily turned around and jogged home when I rounded a corner and came face to face with a cow in the road. I rang Liam, the local farmer, just as he was coming out of church.

“Brian, how you keeping?” he asked.

I’m good, Liam, I said -- say, is that your pasture across from the old barracks?

“It is that - why?”

Well, I said, one of your cows has gotten loose.

“I’ve been doing nothing but mending fences after Ophelia,” he said. “Which one is it?”

She’s cream-coloured with an ear tag, I said. I didn’t inspect her too closely.

“Sure, she’s a regular Houdini, that one,” he said. “I’ll be right down,” and he was.

 Photo has been making the rounds here; I'm not sure who originally took it. If it was you, let me know.

Tuesday 10 October 2017

Foraging for mushrooms

Hey everyone! Sorry blogging's been so slow; I've been having computer problems.

Just as a few of our elderly neighbours here in Ireland still scour the hedgerows for fruit and other treats, so some still quietly gather their own mushrooms. In parts of France and Italy it’s not so quiet; families there, I’m told, regard mushroom-hunting season as a sacred annual tradition, like deer season in my native Missouri.

Tell most people you forage for fungi, though, and they say the same thing: That sounds too dangerous for me. Even people I know who gather wild plants or hunt game fear mushrooms – the wrong one can kill you, they tell me, so why not avoid them all?

It’s a fair argument; there’s no getting around the fact that some mushrooms are deadly, and that a few people die each year from eating them. To put that in perspective, though, remember that 450,000 Americans – we’ll use the USA as an example – die each year from smoking, 80,000 from drinking, and 32,000 from car accidents. Food poisoning sickened a whopping 48 million Americans last year, and killed 3,000 – including people who had done nothing more dangerous than eat the wrong fast-food burger. How many of those were from eating mushrooms, on average per year in that country?

Seventeen. Not 17,000 – just 17, or one-half of one per cent of all food-related deaths. Most of us, moreover, eat wild mushrooms all the time, from restaurants or jars at the store, so we obviously believe that someone is picking them safely. Most of us simply trust food sent from strangers more than we trust our own ability to learn.

To put the risk in perspective another way: Ireland has about 3,000 species of mushroom -- continents like North America have many more – and 25 are deadly poisonous, according to local mushroom expert Bill O’Dea. Only about 50, however, are deemed “edible,” while the other 2,925 are not usually lethal but are unsuitable for other reasons; they taste bitter, smell bad, give you indigestion – one “inedible” mushroom is even spicy like a hot pepper, and in Italy is dried and ground like cayenne. A few are edible under certain circumstances: the ink-caps that we pick on our property, interestingly, are perfectly edible unless you’ve drunk alcohol recently, in which case a chemical in them reacts with the alcohol and gives you stomach cramps.

You need not learn 3,000 types of mushroom, though, or however many exist around you; rather, learn a few common, safe and unmistakable species and stick to those. Italian mycologist (mushroom scientist) Jonathan Spazzi, who grew up in one of those mushroom-hunting families, said this was how they learned as boys; first one common edible with absolute certainty, then two, and so on.

My daughter and I have followed the same method, and while we still don’t know most of the mushrooms we see, we know enough to occasionally return with a basket of food. Even then, we began deliberately, first taking a couple of courses under trained mushroom experts, buying a few books with great detail and large pictures, consulting elderly neighbours who know what they’re doing, and sticking to our small but gradually expanding repertoire.

Even if you know a mushroom is edible, you should still avoid it if it grows by the roadside, where it could absorb toxic fumes, or if it grows out of wood that is itself toxic, like the theoretically edible ear fungi that grow on poisonous elder. Just a few days ago I found some amazing oyster mushrooms growing in the one place that was worse than useless to us – feeding on the timber of our garden beds. We would have been fine if they had grown on a nearby tree, or on an old log – but the timber might have been chemically treated, so we have to consider the mushrooms inedible … and they continue to eat our garden beds.

When I first took us on a mushroom-hunting course with the aforementioned Mr. O’Dea, I did not walk into the woods with expectations; I had looked for mushrooms before and found nothing. Once we began, though, we saw them everywhere – partly because we were in the kind of lush old forest they like, and partly because we learned to notice them. When everyone in our group returned, we had all found several basketfuls; edible puffballs, that we had to break open to test – if they were black on the inside, they were inedible “earth-balls.” We found chanterelles, that most edible mushroom that makes an amazing combination with steak. We found inedible sulphur caps, the hot-pepper mushroom I mentioned – and most memorably the infamous stinkhorn, its powerful smell detectable from a distance. A bit of experience, and suddenly we saw a world of mushrooms all around us.

Spazzi, who led us on our second course, created a very useful chart to help amateurs like ourselves. It places dozens of mushroom varieties in a flow chart, and you as you count characteristics you narrow down the possibilities. If it’s a “mushroom-shaped” mushroom – you know what I mean -- see if it has gills. If it has gills and the stem snaps, it’s Russula or Lactarius, and if it breaks into fibers, it’s something else. Then you look at the spore colour, the shape, whether it has a ring, and so on, and you see what kind of something else it is. By learning this basic chart my nine-year-old can find a large and unidentified mushroom in the Bog of Allen, casually snap the stem, pinch the cap, declare it an inedible Lactarius and move on. Neither of us knows the exact species, but we don’t need to.

Learning even something about the various kinds of fungi around us, though, lets us see the world around us from an entirely new angle. We tend to think of the world as consisting of plants and animals, part of a life cycle dimly remembered from old textbooks: one inhaling oxygen and the other exhaling it, one creating food and the other eating it. Fungi are the forgotten member of the Trinity, quietly recycling the world under our feet and forming the bottom half of the cycle. Threads of mycelium fungi weave through the ground under our feet like fibres in a mattress, turning wood, dead matter and even rock into soil. Only a few gain our notice, and then only when they poke their reproductive “fruit” out of the ground -- mushrooms.

We often group them with plants, but they are genetically closer to animals, breathing oxygen and eating plant and animal matter as we do. Some fungi actually prey on living animals, fishing for tiny worms in the soil or erupting mushrooms out of insects like aliens in a horror film. In humid areas they form nets like spider webs, catching leaves before they hit the ground. They include the largest and oldest organisms on earth – one in Oregon, genetically all the same living being, covers 2,200 acres of land and is thousands of years old. Visit it, though, and you see nothing but a forest – it has no presence but threads in the ground.

According to mycologist Paul Stamets, mushrooms were the first living things on land, breaking down rocks like lichens do today and making way for plants – and after extinctions like the meteor that killed off the dinosaurs, “mushrooms inherited the Earth.” In his talk “Six Ways Mushrooms Can Save the World,” Stamets also describes how mushrooms can be used to fight invasive insects, create cures for various diseases, create ethanol for fuel, clean up toxic waste sites and rebuild sterile land. Some fungi forge an alliance with the aboveground trees, living on their roots and absorbing the nutrients they need, to the point that many trees cannot survive without their partners. Many mushrooms appear around certain trees, and experienced mushroom hunters look at the trees above as often as the ground below.

Our ancestors probably ate mushrooms extensively, and probably saw far more of them. Even our “wilderness” tends to be managed, with humans clearing away the old trees and fallen wood that once sustained centuries of mycelium. In the time of early humans, of course, unbroken trees stretched from Ireland to Japan, the ground covered layers of decomposing wood. In his book “The World Without Us,” Alan Weismann describes one of the last patches of original forest in Europe, and seeing giant trees host mushrooms the size of dinner plates.

 Humans can rebuild that kind of healthy relationship with mushrooms; I know an old man who owns acres of deep woods in County Clare, and I asked him why his land is so lush. He told me that he pollards his trees – trims and prunes them, in other words – and buries a portion of the wood, so the mycelium thrive and the soil stays healthy. His land management system depends on his relationship to fungi, and like all the other living things on his land, he treats them with respect.

If you want to use mushrooms yourself and have neither an expert nor personal woodland, you can still use them without having to buy a plastic package each week. Try buying them in bulk, as we did once, and preserve them by pickling or drying them. You can also order little bullets of mycelium to implant in logs, which develop into mushrooms in a year or two. If you have a mushroom farm nearby, you can ask for some of the spent soil for your garden –it is often not completely spent, and yields some mushrooms along with your garden plants. If you can encourage mycelium in your soil, you could get the same patch of ground yielding mushrooms year after year.

We have several species growing under our land, and we keep an eye out for signs of their gift to us. While getting a beetroot from the garden the other day, I pulled away the leaves and found that under them, between the familiar roots, were ink caps sprouting everywhere. Our garden has been growing double crops this year, edible plants that turn the soil into food and mushrooms that turn the plants back into soil again.

Deaths from smoking: http://www.cdc.gov/tobacco/data_statistics/tables/health/attrdeaths/ 
Deaths from drinking: http://www.cdc.gov/alcohol/fact-sheets/alcohol-use.htm 
Traffic accident fatalities: http://www-nrd.nhtsa.dot.gov/Pubs/811630.pdf 

Originally published in 2013.