Saturday 22 December 2018

Christmas during the Forgetting

Winter sunset over the Bog of Allen

Every year my daughter was growing up, I brought her to the Wren Day at the local forest, and was pleased to be part of a ritual that dates back hundreds, if not thousands, of years. Now that my daughter is a teenager, we haven’t been back in a few years, but I returned last year to visit it again. I was crestfallen, then, to find that the festival was cancelled … they couldn’t get enough people to come, they told me, in order to pay for the insurance they now need to pay.

I should explain that wrens are little songbirds that remain here through the winter, and their ritual here comes the day after Christmas. On that day we and hundreds of our neighbours would gather in the local woods, and in a clearing with park benches and a tea shop, musicians played traditional Irish music while locals gathered with hot drinks around fires or danced to the music, and children gathered around for the “Hunting of the Wren.”

In the ritual, local men dressed up as “wren boys” -- which for our group meant looking like Robin Hood’s Merry Men – gathered around a statue of the songbird. The wren, the men explained to all the gathered children, was sacred to the Celts – the old Irish name for it, dreoilin, means “the Druid bird.” One day a year, local “straw boys” – dressed like haystacks, their identities concealed -- hunted the wren as a prize, and the Wren Boys swore to protect the bird.

As the musicians played in the background, however, and as the children listened wide-eyed to the Wren Boys tell their stories, a group of Straw Boys snuck up behind them, hitting sticks together menacingly, grabbed the wren and ran off. The children erupted in delighted outrage, and the Wren Boys led hundreds of local children in a chase through the woods until they retrieved the bird. Eventually, the two sides came to an understanding, shook hands, and placed a small crown on the statue’s head, declaring the wren the King of Birds.
Straw boys approaching.

A friend of mine who specialised in folklore said the slaying of the wren meant the slaying of winter, and the pact to accept and cherish it meant the acceptance that winter would return – an important detail where we live, a thousand miles from the Arctic Circle where the winter nights are long and dark. In some eras, when Irish customs were being stamped out, the ritual had to be carried out in secret, but they did so anyway, so devoted were they to keeping it alive. Now, our local Wren Day is gone.

Of course, other communities will likely still celebrate it, but I suspect fewer every year. This is one of hundreds of ways in which the traditional, local and national cultures have been gradually steamrolled away by the mass pop culture of Hollywood.

I realise that I’m complaining about the loss of a tradition I didn’t grow up with myself, but the same is true of local culture in my native USA. Songs of the Appalachians and Ozarks, the rituals of towns and clans, are more and more preserved in amber by aficionados or tourist boards rather than lived by children, while family traditions grow more homogenized and dictated by the mainstream media, more focused on buying things quickly and discarding them. The same process has happened across Europe and, I’m told, non-Western countries where children are raised now by screens rather than blood.  

In each of those places – in every place we have been human – mothers and fathers, aunts and uncles, teenagers and children gathered around campfires and hearths, around tables and altars, and shared the songs and stories that made them who they were. They passed down skills and dishes, rituals and holidays. In more and more places around the world now, only the older people remember such things, while the kids play video games or watch Youtube memes, their bodies sitting next to their grandparents but with an interior world that would be alien to their forebears.  

Of course, we’ve done this with holidays as well, so that all the festivals people here used to celebrate to mark the passing of the year have disappeared in the last few generations. Mention May Day, Lughnasa, Midsummer, Twelfth Night or to people these days and you get blank expressions – except the last two as titles of Shakespeare plays, among the few who know Shakespeare anymore.
Musicians at Wren Day
A few generations ago, a neighbour tells me, local children used to gather and dance around the May Pole in a field near us; today, I doubt any of the local children would know what May Day was, and the same could soon be true of Wren Day. A half century of Hollywood has done for this country what centuries of starvation and imprisonment could not.

Nowhere is this more true than around Christmas, which has metastasized from a holy day into a shopping season. For only a few weeks lamp-posts and cubicles grow plastic boughs and wreaths, and normally functional roofs sport enough lights to be seen from space. Radio stations put aside their normal playlists to endlessly repeat a handful of Christmas-related rock ballads over and over. Haggard faces jam the malls and shopping districts, news announcers track the spending numbers like a telethon host, and grim office ladies start aggressive campaigns to cover every surface with coloured cardboard and festive glitter.  If you’re like me, you want to boycott this seasonal magic as much as possible.

Don’t misunderstand; I cherish my own memories of Christmas, love the seasonal spirit and can carol with gusto. For that reason, though, I ration my exposure to the season; the decorations become a backdrop after the first time you see them, inspiring songs quickly grow annoying, and enforced spending leeches the joy from giving.  

The radio and television floods us with images of how our holiday is supposed to be: we are supposed to eat too much, drink too much, spend too much and listen to the endlessly repeated holiday songs, whether we actually enjoy these things or not, in the name of tradition.

But most of these customs are not the real Christmas traditions, and many were just created as marketing gimmicks by corporations. Only in the 1930s, for example, did a Coca-Cola advertising campaign cement our modern version of Santa Claus in the public mind, with a red-and-white colour scheme to match their product. Some version of Father Christmas has existed before then in other forms, of course, but even in the early 20th century ago people depicted him in a variety of outfits, often a green robe. He was often shown as thinner as well – perhaps it’s not a coincidence that his obesity began when he started advertising soda pop.  

Some of the Christmas songs we treat with reverence are not particularly old either, and some of them were also marketing campaigns: "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer," for example, was invented as an advertising gimmick for Montgomery Ward stores in 1939. Families on this side of the Atlantic tell their children that Santa lives in Lapland, rather than the North Pole, but that seems to have been a similarly late addition to the Christmas legend, developed mainly by the Finnish government in the 1960s to boost tourism.

No one is saying that all modern creations are bad, of course, and you can like whatever you like. I’m simply saying that the actual customs that our forebears kept for hundreds or thousands of years disappeared quickly and recently during the Great Forgetting of modern times, replaced by less wholesome and healthy customs manufactured by people with agendas.

In fairness, this is the only time of year many Americans are exposed to classic movies like It’s a Wonderful Life; repetition has turned them into white noise, and they were of course mass media products of their own time, but they remain a window into a less wasteful past. Likewise, if people are going to read novelists like Dickens, recite poetry, visit family members or sing songs in a group, it will probably be around this time of year.

But here’s the thing: many of those things used to happen every day. People used to spend every day with loved ones, and singing and storytelling used to be normal, and while not everyone in every era read books or saw plays, they used to be far more common a century or two ago than now. Every day used to be more like the best parts of Christmas today.

Take wassailing as an example. Today a few people here and there still sing carols around the neighbourhood around Christmas, or even wassail -- like carolling, except that the carollers were invited in for drinks. Only several decades ago – in the time of motor-cars and electricity, and within the memory of people still living – it was much more normal, even in America. Here in Ireland, though, people didn’t just do it at Christmas, but all through the winter, in a union of drunken party, social gathering and prayer that has no modern equivalent.

Such customs broke up the long darkness of winter, kept families from getting cabin fever, and let them check on each other. It allowed each family share with their neighbours – food drinks and stories -- in a pooling of resources. It strengthened the feeling of community, so that burdens were lessened because they were shared, and joys were heightened because they were shared.

The other thing to remember is that there’s nothing stopping us from bringing back many of these older rituals, which we might find still serve their old purpose. Wassailing would be a great thing for many older people --- or young people, for that matter – who don’t get out much. Give it a try, offering snacks or cider as you go along – if one in a hundred houses lets you in, that’s one house that might join you next year. Most importantly, you’ve planted a seed for everyone who heard you, and made it seem more normal. It doesn’t have to stop at Christmas either – remember that the twelve days of Christmas ends January 6 – or just make plans for next year.

Try singing some of the older songs; if you are tired of hearing “Fairytale of New York” or “Santa Baby” for the thousandth time this month, try looking up the music or words for “Angelus Ad Virginem,” “Tomorrow Will Be My Dancing Day,” or other neglected carols from ages past. Alternately, try looking up different versions of familiar carols; “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen” came in many regional forms, from mournful to jaunty, before settling on our current version. For my part, I’ll talk to people about reviving Wren Day here, and see who’s interested.

Wherever you are, your climate, neighbourhood and family will have your own customs – but look at what your grandparents, or their grandparents, did and what could be revived. Many of those customs, field-tested over generations, were more fun, and healthier for body and mind, than whatever the television’s telling you to do.

Sunday 16 December 2018

The White Christmases of our forebears

This was originally published in the Kildare Nationalist newspaper. 

Across the world people celebrate Christmas – or some related Western holiday that has been caught in Christmas’ cultural orbit – with a set of familiar symbols. In California and Calais alike stores sell cards of snowy landscapes, and paint frosted evergreens on their windows in Florida and Florence. We all listen to carols about snowmen and reindeer, holly and mistletoe, stocking-caps and logs blazing on a fire. We watch White Christmas, and feel disappointed when we don’t get one. 

Yet few people question why we embrace such relentlessly Nordic imagery. Most of us are not Saami and have never seen a real sleigh or reindeer, nor do holly and mistletoe grow in most of our regions.  

Generations of Hollywood films have conditioned us to expect snowbound Christmases, even though they are no longer the norm for Missouri (Meet Me in St. Louis), modern London (Love, Actually), or most of the other cities where such movies are set. 

I realised I did the same thing yesterday; when I wanted to post a photo on Christmas Eve, I took one from a few years ago, when we had an unusual snowfall. It was the photo that looked “Christmasy” – the others would look a bit unseasonal to our eyes.

Nor, of course, do any Nordic images have anything to do with the Middle East where Jesus lived, even though most of us grew up putting stable-and-manger figurines in a little snow-bound setting.

In fact, many of our White Christmas images seem to come from one original source, the story that has been repeated so often over the years – A Christmas Carol. Almost every inhabitant of the First World knows the name Ebenezer Scrooge, of course, but few of us realise how many of our holiday customs – Santa and Christmas trees, carolling and family gatherings – were influenced, if not necessarily invented, by that book. 

When The Girl and I read the story, however, I was impressed by how much attention Dickens paid to the weather. On almost every page, it seems, he has a new description of chilled bones, nipped noses, frosted fields, iced-over pools and paths trodden through snow. Characters see their own breath indoors, and when Scrooge looks outside, he must scrub away the layers of frost on the window – inside.

Early on Dickens writes:

Meanwhile the fog and darkness thickened so, that people ran about with flaring links, proffering their services to go before horses in carriages and conduct them on their way. The ancient tower of a church … struck the hours and quarters in the clouds with tremulous vibrations afterwards, as if its teeth were chattering in its frozen head up there. The cold became intense. 

In the main street, at the corner of the court, some labourers were repairing the gas-pipes, and had lighted a great fire in a brazier, round which a party of ragged men and boys were gathered, warming their hands and winking their eyes before the blaze in rapture. The water-plug, being left in solitude, its overflowings silently congealed, and turned to misanthropic ice. 

Dickens wasn’t making up such scenes; he was a child when London saw the last of the Frost Fairs, markets and gatherings held on the frozen surface of the Thames River. His writings came at the end of the Little Ice Age, a period of two or three centuries when the global climate dipped. During this time Dutch artists painted images of skating on canals in April, invading armies easily crossed from Sweden to Denmark across their oceanic straits, and famine was common across Europe. Our Christmas images come from a time and place when the climate was genuinely different.

Since then, in the late 19th century to the early 21st, places like London have seen far less snow and ice at Christmas, and Ireland less still. As the climate grows hotter in the decades ahead, we are likely to see ever-warmer winters and fewer White Christmases still, unless the melting Arctic ice disrupts the Atlantic current that keeps Europe mild.

Most interesting, though, is a possible reason why the climate dipped in the few hundred years after 1600; Europeans colonizing the Americas. Columbus and other Spaniards brought disease that wiped out 90 per cent of the local population, the theory goes, which meant millions of farmers no longer farming. Billions of trees grew up from what had once been crop fields, and each of those trees contained tonnes of carbon that were sucked out of the atmosphere.

The rise and fall of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is the main factor that controls the climate; when more carbon dioxide gets pumped into the air, as we are doing now, the world gets hotter, and when more gets sucked out of the air, as happened in the 1500s and 1600s, the world sees colder winters that lasted into Dickens’ time.

Among other things, this tells us what we need to do to stop the runaway climate change scientists predict for the rest of the century. Turning more fields into trees again – something simple and within the power of most of us – would not risk even a little Ice Age at this point, and it could help our descendants one day see White Christmases again.

Sunday 2 December 2018


Thanks to everyone for continuing to check in, and sorry for the reruns; I'm taking night classes and am studying for exams. This was originally published August 2010. 

Across my native USA, I whenever neighbours or townspeople lobby for more bus and rail services, pundits and politicians usually sputter something like this:

Trains and buses are a waste of taxpayers’ money. There’s no reason for them to exist. Look at the ones we have now – they’re mostly empty.

Anyone who’s ridden a bus or train recently knows that’s not even remotely true. Buses and trains are often filled to capacity, here and in America – I’m writing this from a tight squeeze in a packed double-decker. Even if those critics were right, however, they never apply that same logic to cars, for they never say:

Asphalt is a waste of taxpayers’ money, and so are highway overpasses, parking garages, car parks, traffic signals, streetlights, traffic cops and auto company bailouts. Look at the cars we have now – they’re mostly empty. 

Passengers might be the most under-appreciated factor in how much fuel and money you waste. As I write this, for example, a business headline boasts of Toyota’s multi-million-dollar plan to boost fuel efficiency by 25 percent, with the usual discussion of what this will mean for the economy and the climate. Any of us, however, can boost the efficiency of our cars by several hundred percent instantly, with no additional expense or technology, simply by getting more people in the car.

This fact is also forgotten when we judge car owners by the wastefulness of their vehicles. An SUV is a spectacularly inefficient machine compared to a Prius, for example, but pack that Dodge Durango full of people and suddenly it is greener than the electric hybrid driven alone.

To use another example, your bus could be less efficient than an SUV in kilometers-per-litre, yet all of you bus passengers are making one of the greenest transportation choices around, thanks to the fact that so many seats are filled.

One of the easiest ways of cutting your expenses, fuel and carbon footprint, then, is simply to share rides with other people. Since most of us travel similar routes from clusters of houses to clusters of offices, there is no reason why carpooling should not work for most of us.

According to the website, the average car in Ireland, driven 10,000 kilometers a year, will cost 1,750 euros in petrol. Divide that by four people, however, and you each save 1,300 a year. Carpooling could even pay for itself, if you propose to friends and co-workers that they pay you slightly more than the cost of fuel, as compensation for driving a little out of your way.

Some people might think they want to listen to music or a podcast on the way rather than talk to other people, and there’s no reason you can’t do even if the car is crowded. Most people, however, could do with more company. A June 2006 study in the American Sociological Review found that the number of close friends people say they have fell by a third in the previous 20 years.

Most people don’t go to poker nights or Kiwanis meetings anymore, and the number of people who know their neighbours has also fallen, but the number of hours spent commuting has more than doubled in the last few decades. Most studies show us lonelier and more stressed than people of previous generations, probably because we spend less and less of our lives being the social animals we evolved to be, and more and more staring at glowing rectangles.

Perhaps this paranoia about human company is one reason so few of us have taken up carpooling, no matter how much money they would save. A brief internet search shows that while more web sites encourage people to carpool, many people seem fearful of meeting strangers. “How could I possibly trust that the people … I’d travel with are honest guys and not awful criminals?” asked one blogger – sentiments typical of many comments on the subject, even though criminals are unlikely to use a morning carpooling route as their cover for a nefarious plan.

Contrast this with the 1930s or 40s, when regular people carpooled, hitchhiked and picked up hitchhikers, and movies and other media showed this as normal. In wartime USA and Britain carpooling, like many other self-sufficient activities, was declared a patriotic duty – propaganda posters warned against people who selfishly took up a whole car to themselves, or who let the troops down by wasting energy. Hollywood movies showed stars carpooling, Dr. Seuss drew cartoons about how many people you could pack in a car, scoutmasters gave speeches about saving fuel and money.

Nor did the posters approach carpooling as a nice way to enjoy the morning or as a hip new part of eco-fashion; rather, they could be stern in a way that few advertisements are today. “Hitler rides in the empty seat,” said one typical poster. People need this. We are counting on you. 

Today many people, in many countries, are struggling again. It’s not exactly war, and not like any previous Depression. It does have a home front, though, and could benefit from some of the same solutions that were understood to be so sensible, for so long. 

Saturday 17 November 2018

The uses of basketry

My daughter in the middle of helping me with a basket.

Hey everyone - sorry for not posting much lately. As I've mentioned, I'm working the day job, going to night classes, and only occasionally getting a few hours here and there to get my honey from the hive, visit friends or do other chores. This will be temporary, but in the meantime keep checking in. This piece originally appeared in Low-Tech Magazine several years ago. 

We tend to think of technology as rock and metal – from the Stone Age to the Iron Age, from pyramids and statues to Viking swords and pirate cannons. We think of the things that survive to be placed in museums, in other words, and tend to neglect the early and important inventions that ordinary people used every day but whose materials did not survive centuries of exposure. 

Baskets, for example, have been replaced by plastic and other kinds of factory-made containers in almost every area of life, appearing today mainly as twee Easter decorations. Making them has become synonymous with wasting time – “basket-weaving” in the USA is slang for an easy lesson for slow students. The craft of basketry, however, might be one of our species’ most important and diverse technologies, creating homes, boats, animal traps, armour, tools, cages, hats, chariots, weirs, beehives, chicken coops and furniture, as well as all manner of containers. 

Virtually all human cultures have made baskets, and have apparently done so since we co-existed with ground sloths and sabre-toothed cats; for tens of thousands of years humans may have slept in basket-frame huts, kept predators out with basket fences, and caught fish in basket traps gathered while paddling along a river in a basket-frame boat. They might have carried their babies in basket papooses and gone to their graves in basket coffins. 

The earliest piece of ancient basketry we have comes from 13,000 years ago, but impressions on ceramics from Central Europe indicate woven fibres -- textiles or baskets – up to 29,000 years ago. (1) We have clues that the technology might be far older than that; in theory, Neanderthals or some early hominid could have woven baskets.    

 “The technology of basketry was central to daily living in every aboriginal society,” wrote ecologist Neil Sugihara, and baskets “were the single most essential possession in every family.” (2) Early humans must have regularly cropped basketry plants as they would edible plants, and burned woodlands to encourage their growth, according to anthropologist M. K. Anderson. Anderson even proposes that some of the first agriculture might have been to grow basketry crops, not food crops. (3)

Eel trap, courtesy of Wikicommons

Baskets come in several main types. Coiled baskets appeared early, created by winding flexible plant fibres from a centre outward in a spiral and then sewing the structure together. Their spiral nature, however, limits them to circular objects like bowls or hats. Beehive containers, called skeps, were built this way for hundreds of years, and straw hats still are today. 

The earliest American baskets were twined; fibre was wound around a row of rigid elements like sticks – wrapped around a stick, twisted, wrapped around the next one and twisted again. The sticks would seem to limit this approach to flat surfaces like mats, but bending and shaping the sticks allows twining to create a variety of containers and shapes. 

Still others were plaited, with flexible materials criss-crossed like threads through cloth. The Irish flattened and plaited bulrushes for hundreds of years into mats and curtains. Here too, the approach would seem to limit plaiting to flat surfaces, but as the rushes must be woven while green and flexible and harden as they dry, they can be plaited around a mould to create boxes, bags or many other shapes.  

Wicker, however, probably remains the most versatile technique, weaving flexible but sturdy material like tree shoots around upright sticks that provide support. Wicker is the form used for fences, walls, furniture, animal traps and many other advanced shapes, and when you picture a basket, you’re probably picturing wicker too. (4) 


Once early humans mastered the technique of fashioning wicker, they began using it for a variety of purposes beyond carrying and preparing food, and shelter probably came next. Wattle fences were made with a row of upright poles with flexible wood cuttings woven between them, a basket wall. Unusually, they could be made in modular, lightweight pieces a metre or two high and a metre or two across – hurdles -- and then uprooted, carried to a new location, and stamped into the ground where needed.

The uprights, sometimes called zales or sails in Britain, were typically rounded at the end and placed in a wooden frame, sometimes called a gallows, to hold them in place. Then withies – slim cuttings of willow or hazel – were wound back and forth around the uprights. At the end of the hurdle the withy would be twisted for greater flexibility, wound around the last zale, and woven back in the other direction. Usually a gap would be left in the middle of the hurdle, called a twilly hole, which allowed a shepherd or farmer to carry a few hurdles as a time on his back.

According to author Una McGovern, hurdle fences were vital to medieval agriculture; by keeping sheep confined without the need for permanent infrastructure, they allowed tenant farmers to graze sheep on a patch of land, letting them manure the fields one by one and deposit the fertilisers necessary for cereal crops. (5)

The same technique could form the walls of a house, once a log or timber frame was built and the wattle filled in with a “daub” plaster for insulation and privacy. The daub often contained clay, human or animal hair and cow dung, and hardened around the wattle like concrete around rebar. The resulting structure could last for centuries, and even now restoring or demolishing old buildings sometimes reveals wattle inside the walls.

Similar techniques were used by cultures around the world, from Vikings to Chinese to Mayans. While their cheap and easily available materials made them an obviously popular and practical building method, not all builders loved it as a building material. The Roman architect Vetruvius, in the first century AD, moaned about the hazards of such cheap material in his Ten Books on Architecture:

“As for ‘wattle and daub’ I could wish that it had never been invented,” Veruvius wrote. “The more it saves in time and gains in space, the greater and the more general is the disaster that it may cause; for it is made to catch fire, like torches. It seems better, therefore, to spend on walls of burnt brick, and be at expense, than to save with ‘wattle and daub,’ and be in danger. And, in the stucco covering, too, it makes cracks from the inside by the arrangement of its studs and girts. For these swell with moisture as they are daubed, and then contract as they dry, and, by their shrinking, cause the solid stucco to split.
 But since some are obliged to use it either to save time or money, or for partitions on an unsupported span, the proper method of construction is as follows. Give it a high foundation so that it may nowhere come in contact with the broken stone-work composing the floor; for if it is sunk in this, it rots in course of time, then settles and sags forward, and so breaks through the surface of the stucco covering.” (6)

Coracles in Wales, courtesy of Wikicommons. 
Improbable as it sounds, basketry has long been used to make boats. How long we don’t know, but humans appeared in Australia 40,000 years ago, even though it was separated from Asia even in the Ice Age. They might have built wicker boats covered in animal skins, but even if they merely tied logs together into rafts, they must have had the related technology of making fibre and tying it into knots.

The Irish used woven boats, or coracles, for hundreds – and probably thousands -- of years; they are mentioned in medieval Irish literature and are still made by aficionados today. All were woven from willow or hazel and covered with a hide – usually cow hide, but horse-hide and sealskin were also used – and supposedly waterproofed with butter. All of them were alarmingly tiny crafts in which a person sat cross-legged and sat carefully upright to avoid tipping over, like a bowl-shaped kayak. The coracle’s small size and lightweight construction ensured that, after the occupant had paddled across rivers, lakes or marshes, he could pick up his boat and walk across country with ease.

To take to the sea, the Irish wove curraghs -- larger and oval-shaped to navigate across choppy waters, but still no larger than a rowboat. Documentary footage from 1937 showed men constructing a Boyne curragh; first planting hazel rods in the ground in the desired shape, and weaving a tight frame between them along the ground – what would become the gunwale, or rim, when the frame was flipped over. Then the hazel rods were twisted together to make a wicker dome, and the frame was uprooted and turned upright and a hide placed around the frame and oiled. (7)

One common use of such craft was to set and gather fish and eel traps from rivers and lobster pots from the sea – also made, of course, from wicker. Such foods were an important source of protein, especially in Catholic countries where meat was sometimes forbidden. The traps operated on a simple principle; a bit of bait could lure an animal into the trap but, if it were shaped properly, they would be unable to escape.


Baskets can be woven with any one of hundreds of plant species, depending on whatever was available. In more tropical climates people used cane or raffia, while other peoples used straw or some other grass or reed. In temperate areas like Europe a wide variety of branches and plants were available: dogwood, privet, larch, blackthorn and chestnut branches; broom, jasmine and periwinkle twigs; elm, and linden shoots; ivy, clematis, honeysuckle and rose vines; rushes and other reeds, and straw.

Perhaps the most popular, however, was willow -- sallies or silver-sticks here in Ireland, osiers in Britain, vikker in Old Norse, the last of which became our word “wicker.” highly pliable when young or wet, lightweight and tough when dried, and growing so quickly that a new crop of branches up to two to three metres long can be harvested each year. 

They are one of the earliest trees to grow back appear after an old tree falls and leaves a gap of sunlight in the forest, or after a forest fire razes an area, they are perhaps the tree closest to a weed in behaviour. Their roots spread rapidly under the surface of the soil, making them an ideal crop to halt erosion. Their fast growth makes an excellent windbreak, the basis of most hedgerows, and makes them particularly useful in our era for sequestering carbon and combating climate change. The bark of the white willow (Salix alba) can be boiled to form acetecylic acid, or aspirin. 

In addition, the common variety Salix viminalis or “basket willow,” has been shown to be a hyper-accumulator of heavy metals. Many plants help “clean” the soil by soaking up disproportionate levels of normally toxic materials, either as a quirk of their metabolism or as a way of protecting themselves against predators by making themselves poisonous. Many plants soak up only a single toxin, others only a few; Viminalis, it turned out, soaked up a broad range, including lead, cadmium, mercury, chromium, zinc, fossil-fuel hydrocarbons, uranium, selenium, potassium ferro-cyanide and silver. (8) (9) (10)

Many hardwood trees can be coppiced, cut through at the base, or pollarded, cut at head-height , and regrow shoots on a five-to-twenty-year time scale. Willows, however, do not need to grow to maturity, and continue to thicken at the base and grow a fresh crop of shoots each year. Basket-weavers here harvested willow as a winter ritual – ten tonnes to the acre – from fields of large century-old stumps that had never been mature trees. (11)

Once the willow is cut it could be dried with the bark on, or the bark could be stripped off. Stripping was a tedious task but it made the willow easier to quickly prepare and use, reduced the risk of decay, and it gave the willow a valued white colour. To strip the bark a large willow branch was cut partway down its length, with metal strips attached to the inside of the cut; the weaver could hold the branch between their legs and use it as we would use a wire-stripping tool to remove insulation. When cuttings were too thick to manipulate, a special tool called a cleve was used to cut them three ways down their length.

Withies were typically dried for several months and kept indefinitely before soaking again for use. Willow can be woven straight from the tree, but as it dries it loosens and the weave shifts and rattles, which is seldom desirable. To a novice, preparing the materials presents as much of a challenge as the actual weaving, as the willow must be dried but re-soaked, kept wet without rotting, and used before becoming dry and brittle again.

Today a small but growing movement of people around the world tries to rediscover and re-cultivate traditional crafts and technologies. Many such techniques deserve to be revived; but some require substantial experimentation, skill, training, infrastructure or community participation. Not all low-tech solutions can be adopted casually by modern urbanites taking their first steps toward a more traditional life.

Basket-weaving, however, requires no money other than that needed for training and possibly materials. It uses materials easily found in almost every biome on Earth, requires few if any tools. Highly skilled weavers can create works of art, but simple and practical weaves can be done by almost anyone. Out of hundreds of traditional crafts, none has so many everyday applications.

(1)    Archeologick√© rozhledy, 2007, Baskets in Western America 8600 BP: American Antiquity 60(2), 1995, pp. 309-318.
(2)    Fire in California's ecosystems, By Neil G. Sugihara, p. 421
(3)    Anderson, M.K. – The fire, pruning and coppice management of temperate ecosystems for basketry material by Californian Indian tribes. Human Ecology 27(I) 79-113. 1999.
(4)    The Complete Book of Basketry Techniques, Sue Gabriel and Sally Goyner, David and Charles 1999.
(5)    Lost Crafts, Una McGovern, Chambers 2009
(6)    Ten Books on Architecture, Vetruvius, Chapter 8, Section 20. Circa 20 BCE
(7)    Hands, RTE documentary by Sally Shaw Smith, episode 29, “Curraghs.”
(8)    Phytoremediation. By McCutcheon & Schnoor. 2003, New Jersey, John Wiley & Sons, page 19.
(10) The potential for phytoremediation of iron cyanide complex by Willows. By X.Z. Yu, P.H. Zhou and Y.M. Yang. In Ecotoxicology 2006.
(11) Bulletin of the Bussey Institution, Vol. II, Part VIII. p. 430. Published 1899.
C. D. Mell’s 1908 book Basket Willow Culture urged farmers to grow willows as a cash crop to feed the continual demand of weaving material, maintaining that “the demand for basket willow rods is very great and every year many thousands of bundles of rods … are imported from France, Germany and Holland.” Incredibly, it seemed that as highly valued as baskets were in the USA, the then-sparsely-inhabited country was still importing willow from comparatively small and crowded Old World countries.  (12)
Basket Willow Culture, C. D. Mell, Report Publishing Company 1908

Friday 2 November 2018

Listening to the land

Spider-webs along my neighbour's hedge

On these last brilliant autumn days, the hedgerows are giving up the last of their fruits to the birds and local foragers. Red haws cluster so thickly on the branches now that that they droop over the fields, on branches so thin that they wobble even when tiny birds like hawfinches and thrushes land to fatten up for winter.

When they pick one, other more overripe haws dropped from the branches to the grass below, which rustled in response – mice or voles, I supposed, waiting for treats like dogs under the table.

Sloes still cling tightly to their thorny branches, and the final rose-hips dot the vines that wind their way up the trunks. Ours are tiny, wild rose-hips, evolved to suit birds and not human foragers, but on my way to work I pass a community garden with rose-hips the size of figs. I’d love to find out what variety it is and plant some around us for making jam next autumn – roses are pretty and all, but my tastes run to the practical.

I wondered why a garden in the grimy brewery district of Dublin was doing so well, and then I realised – it’s around the corner from where rows of horse-drawn carriages line up to take tourists around Dublin. Some afternoons I see locals eagerly scooping up the manure and bringing it back to their plot, sometimes in two giant bags hanging from their bicycle handles.

Recently I visited my neighbour down the road, an old man who has lived in the area all his life, and who shows me the local castles and graveyards here and talks about the history of all the local families. On the day of our first frost, I knocked on his door to return a book, and I asked him what kind of winter he expected.

“A harsh one, I think,” he said. “We’ve had a hot summer, and we often get a harsh winter after that – as we did last year, with a metre of snow. You can’t really say anymore these days,” he added, noting that the weather was less predictable than it used to be.  

We talked a bit about the hedgerows, and I noted how many Americans didn’t have them – we all divided our properties with chain-link fences that rusted, didn’t cut the wind, and didn’t offer privacy or food.

“People are tearing them down here too,” my neighbour said. “It’s a shame – when we plant fields, we need the border to make the field work.” He explained how their fruit brings birds that fertilise the fields, they keep soil from escaping the field after a rain, and their hardy trees and wild plants soak up whatever farmers spray on the crops.

Hedges along the hills in summer
That’s interesting, I said – that the wild borders were necessary for the field to thrive. The Old Testament repeats over and over that people are not to cut the edges of their land, and were always to leave some of the crops left over – in Leviticus 19:9, for example. It was supposed to be for gleaners and people who were poor, but I wonder if part of the reason, consciously or unconsciously, was to also give some of it back to Nature. How do most farmers here feel about these things?

“It depends on the farmer,” he said. “I was talking to a neighbour here who decided to go organic. He had spread pesticides over the fields every year, but he would come out and see it covered in dead worms afterwards. He decided it wasn’t worth it anymore.”

I’ll be interested to hear how he gets on, I said. Although pesticides aren’t exactly new here -- are the dead worms a new phenomenon? I wonder if his pesticide changed. I had read a study last year that found that tillage agriculture was harming worm populations, but I’m not sure if changing to organic would help that.  

I also find it interesting that no birds had snapped up the dead worms – I was hearing someone the other day say that they remember as a child seeing flocks of birds follow their tractor around after ploughing, but now they don’t.

“That’s interesting,” he said. “I’ve noticed that birds used to follow the cows around less than they used to.”

All this is anecdotal evidence, I said, but I’d like to see some real data on this. I know that the number of insects around Europe has plummeted, but no one’s sure why -- and they’re close to the base of the food chain.

“What everyone used to do whenever they could was to let ground rest for a while after growing things on it, or let cows graze on it,” he told me. “That did the same thing the hedgerows do. The local landowner here, around a hundred years ago, used to grow the best potatoes of anyone, as he would grow them only on land that had been fallow the previous year. Of course, that was because he had the extra land to do that.”

I often see that today, I said – upper-class people will do well, and think it was all their own hard work. They might indeed have worked hard, but people don’t see their own advantages.

Our hedge in winter
It made sense to me that that letting land “rest” would help rejuvenate it; in the wild, a plot of barren land will quickly be covered by a profusion of different species, which cover the ground, protect it from erosion by rain, bloom with many different flowers, bring many different pollinators, which feed different birds. They each bear different fruit or seeds, and many bring in their own fungus or bacteria colonies with their roots. As the plants and small critters spread across the surface of the soil, much more is growing under it – from mushroom colonies to worms to tens of thousands of species of tiny beasts, from miniature to microscopic – and once living things have done their job, they turn them into soil again. In other words, the living system takes the depleted funds of the soil and rebuilds a rich credit account of nutrients, before we make a withdrawal and turn it into another round of crops for ourselves.

I suppose most people just had a small plot, and only grew potatoes? I asked.

“They had to,” he said. “Each person had so little land for themselves, and nothing else would feed them all the time but potatoes. But it meant you had to grow the same crops on the same land, over and over, and never gave the land a rest. Nothing but the same plants tires out the land, taking the same minerals from it year after year, and tires ground makes the plants sickly. I know the blight was the main reason for the Famine, but I can’t help but think that tiring out the land didn’t help.”

Tree along the canal near our house
That’s an interesting point, I said. I told him about the essay by Ugo Bardi some years ago, determining that soil erosion made the Famine worse: After Britain conquered Ireland, its trees went to make up London’s buildings and Britain’s fleet, and soil erosion took its toll on the deforested land. I also told him that in America, there are vast areas where people only grow corn, or wheat, year after year.

“I think we had the Famine because we pushed our land to its limit,” my neighbour said. “And I think we’re doing it again.”

Saturday 6 October 2018

Pedal power

Originally published in 2013. 

In perhaps one of the great ironies of human civilisation, mechanical devices to truly magnify human power came along as soon as we didn’t need them.  Pedal-powered devices like bicycles only appeared after coal had already begun to transform the landscape, however – mass production was necessary for the standardised metal parts -- and around the same time that gasoline was first being introduced as a fuel for automobiles.

We tend to forget, then, three important things about the bicycle. First, it remains the most efficient method of using our bodies, allowing us to attain higher machine speeds for longer than we would on muscle power alone – and without using any more fuel or causing any more weather to go haywire.

Bicycles have been used for so long as children’s toys and exercise equipment that we forget what useful technology they represent. They multiply our bodies’ speed and efficiency many times over, allowing us to travel miles without strain. Their widespread adoption in the late 19th century created a ripple of under-appreciated effects in society; for example, they allowed women to commute to jobs away from home and paved the way for the universal sufferage movement.  

Second, bicycles have seen many improvements in the last hundred years, most of which have escaped the notice of anyone but enthusiasts. Many of the bicycles we use today function mainly as toys, and racing bikes are built for speed; sturdier bicycles – often going under the name of “military bicycles” can still be ordered.

Most importantly, though, bicycles are only one of many possible pedal-powered machines that were not used for transportation. Beginning in the 19th century, factories began to make and stores to market treadles for manufacturing everything from cigars to brooms to hats. Farms saw foot-powered harvesters, tractors, threshers, milking machines and vegetable bundlers. Machinists saw pedal-powered drills.  

“…no matter how simple it seems to us today, pedal power could not have appeared earlier in history,” wrote Kris DeDecker in LowTech Magazine. “Pedals and cranks are products of the industrial revolution, made possible by the combination of cheap steel (itself a product of fossil fuels) and mass production techniques, resulting in strong yet compact sprockets, chains, ball bearings and other metal parts.”

Today, we have built a world that runs on fossil fuels, which will not last forever. Eventually we will not be able to depend on familiar machines like cars and electronics - - either because we won’t be able to afford them, or to afford continually fixing them, or because fuel prices will be out of reach.

One way or another, we will have to go back to muscle power, and the best way to do that is to revive the lost technologies of pedal-powered tools. Most of these devices exist today only as a few rare museum specimens, but we should easily be able to build more. The irony, though, is that we need to build them while we still have fossil fuels.

 “It is important to realise that pedal powered machines (and bicycles) require fossil fuels,” DeDecker writes “If we burn up all fossil fuels driving cars, we won't be able to revert to bicycles, we will have to walk. If we burn up all fossil fuels making electricity to drive our appliances, we won't be able to revert to pedal powered machines, but to the drudgery that went before them.”

Perhaps more people around here will take to bicycles again, as I will now that I have a headlamp to light my way during the winter nights. Older people here remember when the bicycle was the most popular method for getting from one village to another, and the roads were safer then with so few cars. It’s possible that the schoolchildren of today will see those days again.

Sunday 30 September 2018

Interview with a neighbour

Sorry for the light posting. I've been taking night classes in Dublin, so on school nights I've been getting up around 6 am, bicycling a few miles to the bus stop, leaving my bike in my neighbour's barn, and taking it to my day job. I work my day job, go to night classes, and ride back around 11 pm. Even on nights when I don't have classes, I've been riding home around 9 pm. It hasn't left a lot of time for writing outside of my weekly column.

I would have done this earlier in life, but was spending all my spare time with my daughter. These days, my now-teenager mainly wants to spend time with her friends. Occasionally she's willing to go to a movie or concert with me -- we went to see Charlie Chaplin's City Lights a few months ago, and is willing to see Verdi's Aida on stage with me in November -- and I'm satisfied with that. Most teenaged girls wouldn't want to go with their father to such things at all these days, so I count my blessings. Most of the time I reluctantly play the villain of her story, the Strictest Parent among all her friends.

With all this going on, it was relaxing to sleep late today, fetch some vegetables right from the garden, sautee them with blood pudding and coffee on a chilly Irish morning, and tend to the garden. Tomorrow I'll be extracting the honey from my hive for the year, which should last us through next year and make some Chrsitmas gifts for the neighbours.

Speaking of the neighbours, I've been spending almost every weekend visiting with one of my local elders, and sometimes travelling with them while they show me around. I walked with one elderly friend around the ruins of Carbury Castle last weekend, and I'll have much more to write about that. For now, here is a snippet of our interview -- I've left his name out and changed the local names for privacy.

Me: I remember when a friend of mine visited from America, and she was interested in the River Boyne knew that the head was around here. We found it on the map and looked for it on the ground, came onto the old estate there in Carbury, and met the old landowner …

Neighbour: Mr. Robison.

Me: That’s right – and he pointed out where the head of the Boyne was, and that’s where the whole river starts. I’d never seen the head of a river before – it’s just a pool. You associate the Boyne and its history with the North, but that’s where it starts. 

Neighbour: There’s also a holy well there; we hold an open-air Mass once a year, on Trinity Sunday. The family that built that estate moved out of Carbury Castle in the 1600s, the time of Cromwell, but they wanted to live where they could still see the Castle in the distance, and you can. 

The other thing I wanted to say to you is that the local burial ground is up there too, for hundreds of years but not always in the same place … When they were building the canal – according to the local history, this is what we were told -- with the route the canal was taking, there was a graveyard in the way, so they moved it all to one side. 

Me: The caskets?

Neighbour: Ah, this was a long time ago, I’d say there were only bones. I was told they moved it with horse and cart, and there were only clay and bones. When you see the local burial ground it’s much higher on one end, because a lot more bones were put there. That was the local burial ground for people of this area, their forebears going back several hundred years or more. They were the old names of this locality -- they intermarried, and it was their hands that ploughed these fields and cut this turf going back several hundred years or more.

Me: So each of the old families here owned plots of land along the canal when it was built? How big were the plots?

Neighbour: Anything between seven and ten acres.

Me: Was that enough to live on?

Neighbour: It had to be. And when the estates were broken up, they were given an additional 15 an 20 acres to go with that from the Land Commission.

Me: Because their families were always expanding?

Neighbour: Yes, and the English landlord of this area left each family seven to ten acres to live on, and in each generation some of the children just had to leave. That was supposed to feed them with the help of whatever money they made working for the landlord.

Me: But the landowners would own huge chunks of a county, wouldn’t they?

Neighbour: The local landlord here owned perhaps 20,000 acres. Often the local farmers paid rent to the landlord – that’s why there were evictions during the Famine. 

That wasn’t the case in this area – most farmers' ancestors had helped build the canal, and were rewarded with ownership of their little plots. They might have starved, but none were evicted.