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. 

Sunday 16 September 2018

A throwaway society in a finite space

 This article appeared this week in the Kildare Nationalist newspaper. Illustration by Ken Avidor.

We remember civilisations by what they leave behind, from arrowheads to pyramids, then our age will be known as the Age of Rubbish. Nothing else dominates our landscape, our oceans, our air and soil, and our lives like the things we buy, use quickly, and casually toss away.

Humans have been leaving things behind since we came down from the trees and stood upright, but garbage is a new invention, most of it dating from after the Second World War – and decades later here in Ireland. Most humans, in most times and places, had no garbage in the sense that we do; there were no tips, no roadside littering, no need for Tidy Town volunteer clean-up crews. Everything around us came from the natural world, was part of it, and went back to it as soon as it was discarded.

You might point to the broken pottery and arrowheads dug up by enthusiastic archaeologists, but those exceptions prove the point: they are precious because they are so rare and unusual. For 99.9 per cent of the time humans have been around, what few belongings we had were used over and over, and repaired until they broke.

Your grand-father’s cart, or saddle, or shovel, or newspaper, or any other possession, were made of organic and natural materials. They could be repaired and re-used over and over, and at the end of its life it could be made into firewood or composted into soil again, metal parts re-forged into something new.

I’m using horse-carts as an example, but you could say this about almost any item possessed by your grandparents, or any of their ancestors. A steel shovel would be hammered back into shape, its wooden handle replaced. A newspaper could be re-purposed in several ways around the house before being composted. Virtually every item that humans used could be re-used, repaired, re-forged, re-set, or simply turned into ashes or soil again.

Even when our civilisation industrialised – even during the eras of movies and cars, airplanes and Einstein – almost all our waste was organic and compostable. Writer Chris Agee mentions that in the industrial mega-polis of early 1900s London, about 85% of waste was cinders and charcoal, easily returned to the soil cycle, and much of the rest was bio-degradable, like wood, paper and compost.

Of course, some of these things could be buried where there is no oxygen, as many newspapers were in the early 20th century, and they will take a long time to decompose. Left out in the open, though, a newspaper quickly turns into damp mush, its bits pulled down below earth by worms. A newspaper discarded on someone’s lawn in the 1960s will certainly not still be sitting there today in its original form. A piece of plastic, however, will be.  

In the last few decades, the world of durable tools and elegant machines has slowly disappeared, replaced by one in which our food, clothes, tools, toys and electronic devices are all made of plastic or come wrapped in plastic-- made to be bought, used quickly, discarded and then sit as harmful junk for tens of thousands of years. Plastic does not appear in Nature, so no insect, fungus or bacteria has evolved to eat it. When I compost our kitchen scraps, the orange peels and egg cartons all break down over a year or so into rich black soil. The few bits of plastic wrapper that fall in, though, remain plastic wrappers, and will remain so for millennia. 

Some of this rubbish goes into landfills that have now become the most gigantic structures every built by humankind – the one outside New York, for example, is hundreds of times larger than the pyramids of Egypt. Some gets washed to the sea and floats there, forming patches of ocean the size of small continents where one is rarely out of sight of some kind of floating garbage.

In his amazing book “The World Without Us,” Alan Weisman tells the story of University of Plymouth marine biologist Richard Thompson, who began studying plastics in the ocean in the 1980s helping to clean up the beaches near his home. As he compiled the team’s  annual reports, he noticed more and more garbage that was smaller and smaller, and he and his colleague began collecting samples, sieving beach sand and realising that more and more of the sand was plastic.

In fact, many of the tiny plastic bits – called nurdles – had never been part of any larger food wrapper, laptop or Barbie doll. Some were simply raw materials from which larger plastic is made, flushed out of some factory before being used, while others are exfoliants from beauty products. Many facial scrubs, body scrubs and hand cleaners on the market today have a grainy texture because they are filled with tiny bits of plastic, and as soon as they are washed down the sink they go to the nearest river, to the nearest ocean, to fill up the water with bits of plastic and choke or poison multitudes of sea creatures.

Plastics are a new substance on Earth; before World War II, virtually none had been invented, and the oceans and rivers were plastic-free. Of course humans had created other kinds of pollution; we filled some cities with coal smog and some rivers with chemicals, and had already started pumping the carbon dioxide that would build up in the atmosphere until the weather itself began to change.

All those things, however, are temporary and easily fixable. Take smog; Seventy years ago London was notorious for its smog, factory coal smoke plus Britain’s usual fog to create a noxious air that killed many people. Over the next few decades, however, environmental laws forced factories to clean up their emissions somewhat, while plane trees planted along London’s streets helped pull toxins out of the air. Most of all, some factories moved out of the city, and while that is not all good news – some of them just moved to the Third World – it also reduced London’s noxious air, until “smog” went from being a daily fear to a historical curiosity.

The same is true of most environmental threats. Even the wild storms and temperature swings of climate change could be reduced dramatically for future generations – quickly and easily, by us today. All we would have to do would be to plant a lot more trees – say, across the American Central Asian prairies, stopping the spread of deserts and pulling more carbon out of the atmosphere.

Humans have done this before, albeit inadvertently; when Europeans reached the Americas, they unknowingly brought ten thousand years’ worth of diseases that wiped out most of the native populations. Much of North and South America had been fields and farms, or woodland periodically cleared for game; when the native populations died off, millions of acres grew back billions of trees, each sucking carbon out of the atmosphere. Carbon dioxide traps the sun’s heat, so the effect was the opposite of today’s climate change; by lowering the carbon dioxide levels, they lowered the global temperature, and the result was the “Little Ice Age” of the 1600s and 1700s, when Londoners could hold public fairs on the then-thick ice of the Thames.

Most of our environmental threats, then, could be fixed if we had the will to fix them, and we can estimate how long they would take to heal. Plastics, however, are another matter. While we have built a throwaway society around them, and have flooded the oceans and landscape with them, we know little about how long they would take to decompose, or what toxic chemicals they will unleash as they do so. No plastic has ever died a natural death yet.

When Thompson looked at sieved ocean samples from  World War II to the present, he saw almost no plastic until the 1950s. In the 1960s, though, any casual sieving of ocean water began to bring up bits of plastic, and then that amount of plastic grew exponentially in the decades that followed. Moreover, he said, since they were only straining the surface, they were probably severely underestimating the amount of plastic in the sea.

Our use and discarding of plastic has several effects on the sea. First, it destroys sea life – endangered sea turtles that have survived since the days of the dinosaurs are now choking on grocery bags, and sea otters get tangled in the plastic ring-holders for beer cans. It’s not just a case of animals being stupid; floating shopping bags, often coated in algae, can look identical to the jellyfish that turtles naturally eat.

The other rubbish we generate can bio-degrade eventually, if they are exposed to the elements; leather and newspaper, wood and metal, all rot or rust and return to the natural world from whence they came. Plastic, though, will always be with us, on any meaningful time frame.

Getting rid of the plastic in our lives sounds unthinkable -- a testament to how much of our lives has been taken over by this material – but it helps to remember that almost everything we do today we did fifty years ago, just without plastics. The problem is that so few products are made without plastics anymore – I admit that I’m writing this on a laptop that’s partly plastic, because there aren’t any laptops encased in wood or leather.

Of course we can cut back on our plastic use in a thousand small ways in our lives; re-using the same coffee mugs and shopping bags, asking the butcher to put our meat in a sealable container rather than a throwaway bag, buying individual cans of beer – or just brewing your own – rather than getting the six-pack. We can get wooden toys for our children rather than plastic toys, and use twine ropes to secure things on our car instead of vinyl ropes, and leave fish alone altogether, as the fishing industry is one of the most destructive sources of ocean plastic. Most of all, we can weigh our rubbish every week to see how much we use – if you forgo plastic and compost your food, you should reduce your rubbish to almost nothing.

This saves you a lot of money, in addition to the amount you save by not buying things and throwing them away. You might not care about sea turtles and otters, but you might realise that using plastics is costing you a great deal in the long run, and that abandoning them lightens your life.

Ultimately, though, personal and individual choices will not put more than a dent in our plastic use; the real action has to come from governments restricting what companies can manufacture and throw away. And before we can persuade governments, we need to persuade people. 

Check out documentaries like “A Plastic Tide” or “Trashed,” read books like “The World Without Us” or “Plastic: A Toxic Love Story,” and look at web sites from zero-waste groups. Give speeches about them to your local school students, Rotary Clubs, Toastmasters or 4-H Clubs, and to local church groups. Contact organisations and set up a network of people in your area who are interested in the same issues.

Get everyone in your area to understand that they can use very little plastic in their own lives and still live a normal life, and that our civilisation could function on zero plastics and still go on. It has before, in the memory of people still living.

Wednesday 5 September 2018

A swiftly tilting land

I take the bus to my day job in Dublin every morning, and most days that means I study, read or write articles. On the days when Liam is driving, though, I stand at the front – unlike most bus drivers, he’s chatty, and I know I can talk to him and hear everything that’s happening around the neighbourhood.

He knows that I like to interview elderly people in our area, people who grew up here in Ireland before it became modernised, and ask about the details of everyday life. I’ve told him that they represent a vast and unappreciated resource – among the last people who grew up living a low-energy life, keeping to an older set of values, and part of an organic community rather than as atomised individuals staring at screens.

That culture is disappearing quickly here in Ireland – the last few years have seen one tectonic political shift after another, mostly funded by the technology corporations that have come to dominate the economy. Pope Francis visited the island last weekend, and while he got a sizable crowd, it was much reduced from previous visits – and disproportionately elderly.

I’m seeing fewer and fewer of the old men and women who still garden their own plot, repair their own tools, bicycle to church and can join in old songs at the pub. The younger generations here, I find, have no country but social media, and their grandparents feel like aliens in their own birth-village.

“Have you talked to the local historical societies?” the bus driver asked.

I have, I said, and they have been of some help – but their interviews often asked about family genealogies or big historical events, and I’m more interested in the minutiae of life. My elderly neighbours usually insist there’s nothing interesting to say about their lives, or they try to turn the conversation to whatever was in the newspapers at the time. I’m more interested in how often they ate, what dinner was like, how they courted, what they wore to swim in the river, and how long the washing took. 

I want to hear how they kept silence as they walked past a bend in the path where a man had died a hundred years’ prior, how they and their school-mates walked across the fields in deep night to a school dance, and how they pricked their fingers and wiped their cheeks with blood to give them a flush.

 “You know who would have been great to talk to is my Auntie,” Liam said. “When she was a young Irish girl she somehow became the hand-maiden of a French duchess, and met all the nobility of Europe.”

That would be a great story, I said – but she’s gone now?

“Yes, we took care of her in her final years, and the doctors told us she was getting senile. ‘She seems to be delusional,’ the doctor said, ‘She's telling wild stories that she used to be hand-maiden to a French duchess.’”


If my neighbours don’t recognise their country’s culture anymore, neither do they recognise the weather. This past spring we got a metre of snow, in a country where we never get more than a light dusting of snow once a year. Thankfully our bees survived, but many other beekeepers in the area say their hives did not.

A hard winter alone doesn’t doom the crops or animals here, but then we got one of the hottest, driest summers in recent memory. The result was lovely and comfortable for me, but not great for our neighbours; the lack of rain meant far less grass for the cows to eat, and far less grain to harvest for humans. As a farmer friend of mine told me the other day, they won’t have silage for the winter either.

Here in the bog, moreover, a hot, dry summer brings dangerous fires – not of trees or other above-ground vegetation, but of the ground itself. The very land below our feet is made of peat, which we and other Irish use for fuel, and which burns slow and hot like coal. I was talking with one of my neighbours about local history when our neighbour Jack drove by on his tractor, shouting, “The bog’s on fire again!” and sure enough, we saw the column of smoke in the distance. Thankfully, the bog was still damp enough that no fire spread very much, but any drier summers ahead could bring genuine catastrophe.  

Even now, in September, we have felt an unseasonal warmth, and everything is delayed. Butterflies cover our mint plants, and my bees are as busy as they were in May. I haven’t harvested any honey from them yet, instead letting them have their fill while they can.

The swallows have still not left the rich feeding grounds for their usual winter holidays in Africa. On the other hand, I am seeing more of the predatory birds that almost disappeared from Ireland, which I take as a good sign for the local ecology. The other day I was walking to the woodland when an explosion of small birds burst out of the trees, followed by a goshawk, expertly weaving through trees in pursuit.