Thursday 30 November 2017

Thoughts as everyone puts up decorations

I was writing something about how most of our Christmas imagery -- Christmas trees, snow, carolers, mistletoe, holly, Christmas cards, Santa and so on -- come from Victorian Britain, especially Dickens' A Christmas Carol. The strange thing is, he was talking about London, and London never gets white Christmases anymore.

The reason, of course, is that Dickens grew up at the tail end of the Little Ice Age, that cold period that took place during the 1600s and 1700s. When Dickens was little London saw the last of the Frost Fairs, times when the weather was so cold that the Thames froze thick with ice, and people held public carnivals in the middle of the river without fear.

Why was there a little Ice Age? The leading theory is that when native Americans filled North and South America, they had cleared much of the land for farms. When the Spaniards invaded, they spread ten thousand years' worth of diseases for which the natives had no immunity, and perhaps 99 percent of the population died. The farms lay vacant, and within a century the forests had grown back, two continents of trees suddenly sucking millions of tonnes of carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere.

As you would expect, the global temperature dropped, and Europe began seeing harsher winters -- the Dutch masters painted scenes of men and women ice skating on the canals, which the Dutch could never do today. And in Britain, generations grew up associating the Christmas season with deep snow.

Hence, Dickens portrayed a snow-bound London with all the accoutrements that we now associate with Christmas. We still use such images even when few of us live in places that have white Christmases anymore -- even London itself. One wonders, as the climate continues to change in the decades ahead, what old imagery we will cling to long after the world has shifted and the imagery no longer makes sense.

But those can be melancholy thoughts, so I'll just end with recipes. This will appear in the Kildare Nationalist next week:

Everyone makes their own Christmas supper --- some with ham, some with turkey, some with Chinese they ordered out at the last minute. There’s no definitive Christmas recipe list, but this might give you some ideas for the big day. 

Turkey – We won’t go into all the details of roasting turkey, which are in many cookbooks and which vary according to the size of bird you have. I have found, though, that you can improve any recipe you have by finely grating 10g of ginger, 20g of garlic, 5ml each of salt, pepper, vegetable stock powder and lemon zest, and mix it in a bowl with 50g of butter. Then mix it all together and rub it under the skin of the turkey before roasting.

When I roasted a turkey, I made sure to take out the organs on the inside and stuff the cavity with the lemon halves I had recently zested. Then I laid it in a deep pan with the breast down -- that is, upside-down from the way it’s usually pictured, so that the breast didn’t dry out. I then packed skinned and quartered onions and chopped carrots, celery and potatoes -- each cut into about two-centimetre pieces -- and filled the space around the turkey with them. I then poured two cups of my mead -- honey wine from my beehive, but white wine would also do -- over the vegetables, and paid tinfoil over the whole thing.

Mine was a small turkey, so I roasted it for an hour this way, and then took it out, uncovered the bird, and mixed up the vegetables. Then I turned it over so that the breast part browned as well, and roasted for another 30 minutes. Generally you roast a turkey 10 to 12 minutes per pound (21 to 25 per kilo) if it is not stuffed, or until a thermometer inserted into the thickest part of the thigh reads at least 83 Celsius. Let the turkey sit at least 15 minutes before carving.

Cranberry sauce – put 200g of cranberries, in a pan with 100g of brown sugar, 50 ml of white wine in a pan, and simmer it for five minutes, stirring until the sugar is dissolved and the cranberries start to soften and burst. You can try to mix it into a finer consistency, or serve as is.
Potato salad: Rather than making a traditionally heavy potato salad to go with a heavy meal, make a light one with a small pot – say, 500ml -- of boiled waxy potatoes, and similarly-sized volumes of diced apples, diced hard-boiled eggs, and thinly-sliced celery. Mix together about 300 ml of dressing – for example, yogurt and lemon juice, mixed with lemon zest, sesame oil, cayenne powder and pepper, along with chopped mint, dill and chives.
As soon as the potatoes are boiled, drained and chopped – when they are still hot – mix them into the dressing, and they will absorb the liquid as they cool. Then mix in the cold apples, eggs and celery for an all-in-one meal. This is a general recipe; experiment until you get it right for you.

Kale: First lightly oil a pan and peel and dice a large onion. Toss the onion bits in and sautee them until they are yellow. Wash and chop about as much kale as will fit in a small pot – it will cook down, and the amounts don’t have to be precise --- and toss it in as well. Add a pinch of salt and stir frequently to make sure nothing sticks to the metal.

After the kale has shrunk and gone soft, drizzle it with several tablespoons of cider vinegar and one tablespoon of honey, and stir it in. I like to add a bit of concentrated stock and cayenne pepper, or you can use balsamic vinegar to make it sweeter.

Butternut squash: Cut up a butternut squash – just the flesh, not the skin or innards --- into cubes about 1 cm across. Take about 50 ml of stock – or perhaps hot water mixed with stock powder – and mix in 10 ml each of finely-chopped herbs like oregano, sage, parsley and basil, along with 3 – 5 ml of spices like cumin and coriander, 10 ml of soy sauce, 5 ml of salt, and a pinch of cayenne. Add a few dashes of lemon juice.

Line a baking dish with butter, and put in the squash. Pour the mixture over it, cover it with foil and place in the oven. Bake at 200 degrees for about 60 minutes, or until the squash is … well, squashable.

Finally, take it out of the oven and take the foil off. Grate some cheese – gruyere works well – and sprinkle it over the top of the squash. Put it back in, uncovered, for a few more minutes until the cheese is melted.

Thursday 23 November 2017

Children and Nature

I talked last week about how children used to roam widely, and now tend to stay at home -- a trend that probably contributes to the rise in obesity and mental illnesses among young people. The fact that children stay home so much also means that they have little contact with Nature, that connection that keeps us grounded and healthy, and allows us to care about the world around us.

In his book “Last Child in the Woods” and “The Nature Principle,” US author Richard Louv coined the phrase “Nature-deficit disorder,” which comes from children no longer exploring woods or bogs and having adventures. Children who are obsessed with computer games or driven from sport to sport, Louv maintains, miss the restorative effects that come with the nimbler bodies and sharper senses that are developed during random running-around in wild places.

A University of Illinois study found that children with the symptoms of attention-deficit disorder were brought into the woods for a short time, and showed a marked decrease in their symptoms.
Drug companies will no doubt make billions prescribing medicines for problems that could be fixed by a walk in the woods.

“If when we were young, we tramped through forests of Nebraska cottonwoods, or raised pigeons on a rooftop in Queens, or fished for Ozark bluegills, or felt the swell of a wave that travelled a thousand miles before lifting our boat, then we were bound to the natural world and remain so today,” Louv wrote in The Nature Principle. “Nature still informs our years, lifts us, carries us. For children Nature comes in many forms – a newborn calf, a pet that lives and dies, a worn path through the woods, a fort nested in stinging nettles, a damp mysterious edge of a vacant lot. Whatever form Nature takes it offers each child a taste of an older, larger world, separate from parents. Unlike television, Nature does not steal time, but amplifies it.”

In a recent talk, Louv pointed out that we’re all still hunters and gatherers biologically, and there is something in us that needs to see Nature and be around it -- but many of us deal with it no more than we have to. He tells the story of going to a Nature preserve near where he lives with gang members from San Diego; they were big tough guys, he said, but they were scared – one said that there were two or three sounds in his neighbourhood and he knew what all the sounds meant. Here in the woods, he said, there were dozens of sounds, and he didn’t know what any meant.

Louv says that while Nature can be dangerous, we have to let kids experiment with that danger -- within reason -- and learn from it. A child who grows up never experiencing any danger is a child that doesn’t feel boundaries in the world, save those set by authorities.

When a child experiences Nature, they grow up to care more about protecting the environment, according to a new Cornell University study. The study published in the journal Children, Youth and Environment, found that while gardening helps kids care about the natural world, it doesn’t have as strong an impact as camping, playing in the woods, hiking, walking and fishing.

In such places, children create their own adventures, from toddlers pulling up rocks and seeing the creeping things underneath to the boys jumping over creeks, telling ghost stories and searching the lake for pirates. In the minds of children the most meagre and scruffy of woodlands can become a place of adventure, a chance to test their bravery and skills, a secret and dangerous place to gather with other children. A patch of land that most developers would consider useless and unproductive, will instead produce the best memories of childhood, if we let it.  

In this age, people are more separated from the natural world than ever, and transforming it more than any society before us. Of course we can work to conserve energy, use less and defend our lands and the things on them, but there is one, more fundamental thing we need: to understand why these things are valuable, and worth preserving.

Wednesday 1 November 2017

Happy Celtic New Year

The Irish celebrate Halloween with fireworks, as Americans would Independence Day -- as I found out when I first moved here a few days before Halloween with a new baby. And on distant country hilltops and outside Dublin tenements, people build giant bonfires.  

Originally it was the day when the veil between this world and the next grew ragged, and things could pass through. It’s the midpoint between the equinox and the winter solstice, or Christmas; it marked New Year's Eve in traditional Ireland, when the nights grow truly long and dark, when the skies grow dim, and when we first feel the bite of winter. It is the day when it seems most appropriate to remember loved ones that have died, as we do in our house, a bit of gravitas to go with the trick-or-treating of children and the heedless bloodletting on the television.

The more we learn to live with the seasons, the more I see the logical pattern of old holidays. Six weeks after Christmas, the midpoint between the Christmas and the spring equinox, is Bridget’s Day here, Groundhog Day or Candlemas elsewhere. Six weeks later is the equinox, and the first Sunday after the first full moon after the equinox is Easter. Six weeks after the equinox, halfway to the summer solstice, comes May Day, once widely celebrated in the USA and now not even a memory.

My more devout friends back in the USA resent hearing the astronomy behind, say, Christmas or Easter, believing it distracts us from “the reason for the season.” I understand – they are flooded by a culture that exploits holy days to sell people more things they don’t need, and they want to protect their children’s innocence and preserve the day's meaning. I get it.

In purging their lives of the shopping-mall culture, though, they inadvertently throw out some of their oldest traditions. The holidays celebrate the cycle of creation, and the religious commemorations were placed there because of the season, not the other way around – the birth at the turn of the year, the Resurrection at the season of new life. The pagan seasonal markers do not supersede the holy days, but ante-cede them, marking another turn on our journey from this world to the next.

In the same way, I know many sects who worship in bare rooms and plain churches, and I’m glad it works for them. My second-favourite churches have the rich colours and flamboyant architecture of Catholic churches, an explosion of praise frozen in stone. But the best religious service I have ever attended took place in an old forest near us, by candlelight. There, a crowd gathered around the priest under a green canopy, amid living pillars whose lives stretch so far beyond our own, in a tiny remnant of what was once the first and greatest of cathedrals.

I used to walk through those woods every week with my daughter, and now that she is a teenager I walk alone. I hope I can walk through them with her again soon, for while I don’t always go on a Sunday, every visit feels like a Sabbath.