Thursday 31 October 2019


I have posted less often here lately for a couple of reasons: first, we've been having a lot of problems with our internet at home, so I can only publish when I'm at lunch from work or on the bus. Also, I've been pre-occupied with a lot of personal things; details aren't neccessary.

The most important reason, however, is quite a positive development; after writing for newspapers for more than two decades, a weekly column for 12 years and this blog for 11 years, I am trying a new venture to talk about traditional and self-reliant ways of life, called Old School School. The goal is to pull together not only my own writings from the last 20 years, but to publish interviews with a variety of other people who have embraced a simpler and more minimalist life.

The web site is still a work in progress, but I plan to have links to a wide variety of resources for people who see a difficult future ahead and want to prepare for it. I am deliberately reaching out to a variety of people: right and left, religious and secular, from many different countries, and I know that right there will drive a lot of people away these days. I hope it will attract some people as well, however, and even in these tense and polarised times, some people still want to put aside their differences and learn from each other.

I've also learned to create videos, and will be uploading some of the footage of my own family, as well as elderly Irish I've interviewed over the years, at the corresponding Youtube channel.

I'll still be updating this blog periodically, but I hope you'll check out the new ventures.

As for the rest of our lives, The Girl is almost an adult now, still doing archery and riding horses, and living the life of a teenager. If you've read this blog for a while, you've watched her grow up with me, as she finds her own life I'm slowly learning to let go.

Happy Irish New Year's Eve to everyone.

Saturday 28 September 2019

Bog butter

I have a new project I'll be announcing soon, but first: I mentioned a while ago that the BBC programme QI, former hosted by Stephen Fry and now by Sandi Toksvig, will be featuring my bog butter experiment on the show. With that in mind, I thought I'd rewrite and extend this piece a bit. 

When most people picture Ireland, they picture green fields and old stone walls, and that’s true of some places. Ireland also has lots of bog, though – the Bog of Allen, where we live, stretches almost a thousand square kilometres across several counties. Bogs are difficult to get through – they have few roads or villages even today – so they could be isolated, mysterious places, where characters in folktales met giants and fairies, a place where a starving and subjugated people could hide, or hide things.

A bog is a natural wetland, like a swamp or marsh – the difference is that the water is very acidic, so most kinds of plants can’t grow there – but peat moss does very well. Vast areas get covered in peat moss, and as layers of moss die off new layers grow over them, so you get gradually thickening layers of organic matter. In most circumstances it would just decay and become soil, like most things that die – but it’s soaking in dark, acidic water where fungi, insects, even most bacteria can’t survive, so it doesn’t decompose.

Over thousands of years it gets squeezed into a dark red solid called peat, or “turf” here in Ireland. For centuries this was the main fuel here, and kept many a potato farmer warm on a chill evening. That’s why this canal was built in the 1700s – turf was strip-mined from the bog, dried, loaded on carts, pulled by donkeys on these rails, and loaded here on barges to be brought to warm the houses of Dublin. The history and future of turf as a source of energy deserves its own video, but the point here is: Dead things buried in the bog don’t rot, so it’s an ideal place to store things.

People around here still fish out trees that fell in centuries ago and carve their wood into ornaments; the bog-water stained the wood almost black, but it’s still wood. Turf-cutters here find human bodies sacrificed by Druids thousands of years ago, their skins blackened and cured like leather but with their faces still recognisable. This might have been the inspiration for the dead marshes in Lord of the Rings, where you could still see the bodies of the dead under the water.

So people dig up many things from the past in the bog and meant to come back for -- necklaces, coins, tools, swords, 1,200-year-old prayer-books. And sometimes they find stores of food, up to 3,000 years old and not only intact, but edible. Specifically, they find butter.

Bizarre as that sounds, more than 430 caches of butter have been found in the bog, some small as fists, some big as barrels. The aforementioned 3,000-year-old butter weighed more than 35 kilos, the size of a child. And many of the apparently very adventurers discoverers any such discoveries have been eaten, and were reported to be delicious.

This doesn’t even count all the buried gastronomic treasure still waiting out there. Since we can suppose that people buried their butter to unearth and eat it later, and usually did so, these hundreds of finds must represent the small proportion of times that their owners died or the locations forgotten. This must have been a rather commonplace activity.

So why butter, you ask? A surprising number of foods around the world are preserved by being buried in the ground, but they are usually dried foods in arid climates (cheese in Italy), or sub-Arctic countries where the ground is freezing (salmon in Sweden), or where the food is meant to ferment in some way (eggs in China). In this case it’s waterlogged ground, it would probably disintegrate in the water over time unless it’s naturally waterproof, like fat.

This might have been done with meat as well; Archaeologist Daniel C. Fisher buried various meats in a frozen pond and a peat bog for comparison, and found that after a year, the meat buried in the bog had no more bacteria than the frozen meat. If this sounds gross, keep in mind that fast-food burger you last ate might have been more than a year old.  

Also, butter makes a valuable and high-calorie food for poor agrarian people; with it you can fry food or preserve things like potted meats. It was also taxed in medieval times, so burying it could have been a kind of tax evasion.

The constantly-cold Irish bog would keep the butter solid, and it would only age like cheese; in fact, the one taste-tested by Irish schoolchildren was said to taste like well-aged cheese. Some people might simply have liked the taste.

I like to experiment with old ways of preserving food; I learned how to preserve fruit over winter, how to preserve eggs in lime-water or isinglass, how to pickle vegetables or learn which mushrooms are edible. But in all those things I had people around to show me; lots of my older neighbours still make their own jam or wine. I don’t know of anyone who’s ever tried this who could show me how. Thankfully, it’s pretty straightforward – all you need is to access to one of the world’s peat bogs, and I happen to live in the middle of one.  

My daughter and I made some butter at home, which anyone can do; you just pour milk and cream into a jar, put on some music and start shaking. We couldn’t fill it more than a quarter full or we would just get whipped cream, so we had to do this many times to get the three pounds . At some point the sound of the sloshing changes, and you get a solid clump of butter in the middle of the liquid. Traditionally Irish housewives would pat the butter dry of its remaining liquids, but we simply clarified it. 

Then we froze it to keep it solid, wrapped it in cheesecloth and a rope, walked about ten minutes from our house into the bog. I paced the steps first in one direction and then another to make sure I would remember the spot, and tied the rope to a nearby tree to I could find it again.

Seventeen months later we dug up the butter, and while the picture looks pretty disgusting, once we washed it off and unwrapped it the butter looked much the same – a little darker yellow and with an earthy smell, but not rancid.  

The taste was similar – recognizably butter, with a slightly earthy, cheesy flavour a bit like parmesan; it was particularly good over popcorn. It wasn’t something most modern people would choose to eat regularly, but for people who faced periodic famines, it was an ideal store for lean times.

Of course, this butter was only in the bog for 17 months, and the effects are probably very different over 3,000 years. So I’m burying more butter for a longer period of time – dozens of kilos -- and planning to unearth it in about three to five years, some further down the road. If anyone wants to buy some in advance, you can be one of the few people in the world who can say they had this ancient food.

Thursday 5 September 2019

The last of his generation

It’s been an eventful few weeks, but before I wrote about anything else, I wanted to note the passing of my grandfather. A few years ago I wrote a piece commemorating my great-aunt Imy, leaving my grandfather the last of his generation. As much as I will miss him, I’m blessed to be one of the few men in their 40s who had a living grandfather – many of my peers don’t have living parents – and that he stayed with us into his mid-90s and passed quickly, surrounded by a large and loving family.

One of my first memories – I couldn’t have been more than four – was of fishing with my grandfather in a rowboat on a warm summer lake, catching bluegill and throwing them back. Then we were caught in a surprise shower, and I remember watching with alarm the water collecting around our boots, and the view of the distant shore disappearing around us, replaced on all sides by grey sheets of rain. My grandfather calmly rowed us to safety, and we trudged home.  

I remember staying at my grandparents’ house, watching him staying up late reading or laying out blueprints; I remember his voice carrying over the crowd as he played cards with cousins and neighbours; griping at recalcitrant vegetables that he grew in the backyard; taking part in his local library board or Kiwanis; meeting and becoming friends with his neighbours wherever he lived. He was the kind of civic American that Robert Putnam wrote about in Bowling Alone, the kind we don't have enough of anymore. 

He grew up during the Great Depression, entered the Army in World War II, trained as a mechanic and repaired airplanes during the war. When the war ended he studied to be an engineer on the GI Bill, met my grandmother, married her and had my father, all in what must have been a whirlwind few years. 

They didn’t start out with much; he used to tell me how their low-rent neighbourhood flooded one summer, and their apartment was knee-deep in water. He had to keep the furniture raised on blocks and store his clothes on upper shelves, he said, and a neighbour with a boat came along every morning and took him to work, but he went to work all the same.

Eventually he founded his own surveying and engineering company, and surveyed the foundations for what would become Busch Stadium and the St. Louis Arch. He and my late grandmother had three more children -- my amazing aunts -- and the family eventually swelled with children and grandchildren.  

I came back to Ireland with a stack of things he left me – his slide rule, his pipe, his book of Gilbert and Sullivan lyrics, his Carl Sandburg biography of Lincoln. And a lot of memories. I couldn’t make it to America for the wake, but apparently hundreds of people came, including people who hadn’t seen him in many decades. He left quite an impression in this world, and his passing is the end of an era.  

Tuesday 6 August 2019

Traveling in the UK

My friends' homestead in the Welsh mountains. 

I traveled through the UK a few weeks ago visiting friends, all of whom were living remarkable lives and making the world better in their own way. One couple in rural Wales, for example, have a background in studying climate change, and wanted to live a more sustainable life; to do this, they turned a secluded hollow of the Welsh mountains into self-reliant homesteads.

They bought land with several friends of theirs, divided it among them, and each grow their own food, raise animals, keep bees, and created ties with the local Welsh community. They built homes out of timber frames and straw-bale walls. Straw sounds like a strange building material, but actually has tremendous potential for the future; when compressed into bales it is as strong as wood, and is no more or less flammable. It is also cheap, does not require cutting trees, and is an excellent insulator. My friends built a timber frame -- although similar structures could be made from other materials – and the straw bales formed the walls. Once a waterproof plaster coated the outside, no one could tell that the house was made of straw, and the bales were protected from moisture.

The very friendly pub in Pembroke, Wales
While in London I met with a group of people who met through John Michael Greer's blog, and who meet occasionally to share their experiences and ideas. They were all from the UK, mostly London -- I was the only one coming from Ireland -- and were working through different community groups and political parties to prepare their communities for the difficult times ahead. On this occasion we also listened to an interesting journalist, who had spent a great deal of time in the jungles of Guyana reporting on the tribal/gang warfare taking place there.

I was only able to visit them because I was taking a ferry and train to London, which pollutes a lot less than flying in a plane. Air travel has become so quick and convenient that many people treat it as driving a car, but all that flying is catching up with us, as it’s a major contributor to climate change. Taking a train uses a lot less fuel, even  if it takes longer, and it allows you to stop along the way, visit friends, and actually see the beaches and green cliffs of the country you’re visiting.

Many people go to other countries and stay at hotels, but I prefer hostels, which this weekend offered me a bunk and locker for only 12 pounds a night. Most hostels require visitors to sleep in rooms with several other people, but this is not as difficult as it might sound; most hostel guests respect the privacy and sleeping habits of others and, as they are spending the day working or having fun, use their rooms only for sleeping.

Hostels also offer the chance to mingle with other guests in a way that hotels do not. Since most people in hostels use their rooms only for sleeping, and spend their time at the hostel sitting in common rooms, hostel guests have the opportunity to chat with young or otherwise adventurous visitors from many countries, many of whom have great stories to tell.

You might think that seeing a foreign city would be expensive, and every city is different. In many cities, though, the most amazing sites are the statues, buildings, rivers, bridges and public parks, and those are almost always free. Touring them, also, does not have to be expensive; I rented a bicycle in London for two pounds a day, and got to see a lot of neighbourhoods with more ease than I would with a car, and with more freedom than I would with a bus tour.

On earlier trips I made a point of seeing Shakespeare at the Globe -- I got to see the infamous version of Titus Andronicus where audience members fainted and had to be carted away in ambulances. Another time I got very inexpensive tickets to Lillian Hellman's The Children's Hour, with Kiera Knightly and Elizabeth Moss. Still other times I toured the Natural History Museum, like a cathedral to the natural wonders of the world, or the many exhibits at the Victoria and Albert Museum. This time I wasn't seeking out tourist attractions, but looking to enjoy the varying neighbourhoods of London up close. 

The only tourist attraction I really saw -- almost by accident, stumbling across it -- was Abbey Road, the crossing of the famous Beatles album cover -- which is not much to see, honestly, and misguided visitors have defaced the surrounding area with graffiti. You wouldn't want to live anywhere near it. 
One of the plaques you see everywhere in London.
There's history on every corner. 

Eating out in London is quite an expensive proposition, so I bought nuts and fruit to tide me along through the day, and was able to keep myself full with healthy snacks for only a few pounds a day. We tend to pay more for food when we are hungry, intuitively enough, and take less time to enjoy the food. By doing that, I was able to savour the restaurants I did visit, and neither overeat there nor pay too much.  

Travel won't always be as convenient as it is now, so I’m enjoying it while I can, in the greenest way possible. Holidays abroad tend to be stressful times for many families, but life is too short not to take it easy and enjoy them.

Saturday 20 July 2019

The lost chances of the Greens, part III

This is a bit delayed -- I've been travelling to Wales and London, and will write more about that shortly 

Kaller: I’ve been to a lot of rallies, both before and after I became a journalist, and it always amazed me that so many people there considered themselves to be, because they were fighting the takeover of big corporations, anti-capitalist. I’d read The Wealth of Nations, and

Gilman: Written before corporations existed …

Kaller: Yes, and I believed that, by opposing things like corporate monopolies, I am being extremely capitalist.

"Smith came out of a very Christian society, where the moral rules of how you did things were never questioned ... And that was the framework within which he saw the market operating. When you hit the limit of those rules, the free market no longer applies."

Gilman: I would agree with you on that. Yes, it’s totally oversimplified by people who don’t know the history. I have an economics major, so I know a little bit about the emergence of economic theory, and it is a far cry from what neoconservatives today talk about. The whole nature of the world has changed, and the rise of corporations – one of the big inventions of industrialism, equal to the internal-combustion engine, or perhaps more fundamental. That is a much bigger picture than just Marxism vs. capitalism, or capitalism vs. socialism.

If we were living in Adam Smith’s world, we wouldn’t be doing badly at all; the Greens would be right at home.

Smith came out of a very Christian society, where the moral rules of how you did things were never questioned. That was God’s Word, and I don’t think even Adam Smith questioned God’s Word. And that was the framework within which he saw the market operating. When you hit the limit of those rules, the free market no longer applies.

But nowadays, God is the free market. Instead of the divine hand, the invisible hand of the marketplace is the hand of God.

Kaller: People describe it the same way; people will dismiss any problem by saying “The Market will take care of it.”

Gilman: And a truly free market has almost never existed, if you mean the classic definition of a free market. And it certainly doesn’t exist today; the entire advertising industry is an effort to subvert the free market.

Kaller: Government gives huge subsidies to corporations to keep going, there is a tax structure that allows people to .. well, you know all this.

Gilman: Yes, and I think we’d be in very close agreement on this.

Kaller: What are some of the things the Greens predicted early on that are now happening?

Gilman: The limits to growth. Greens, along with all the rest of the world, have been very slow to move ahead with limiting population, because no one knows how to do it, except that it’s obvious that the more you educate women, the growth of population immediately slows down. The limits of the planet, I think, is the main thing.

Kaller: In the last few decades, have you ever seen anything happen – like, say, the energy crisis of the 1970s, the changes in American politics, the 9-11 attacks, or the Iraq War, and say, ‘That’s the kind of thing this person was talking about way back when.’?”

Gilman: I see it continually. The fact that we are running out of oil – there’s the limits to growth right there … The other thing that I have personally been involved with is the peace movement. And the Greens immediately picked up on the fact that we can’t have wars anymore. We’ll only destroy ourselves. And that was a fairly universal understanding among thinkers at that time. We had the atomic bomb; forget war from here on. And that is only one possibility right now. Weapons of mass destruction, if unleashed, will destroy everybody – they are not going to be controllable. And I think that’s been recognized pretty much since World War II among any forward-looking or fundamental thinkers.

"If we were living in Adam Smith’s world, we wouldn’t be doing badly at all; the Greens would be right at home."

Kaller: And yet, when I read things by the peace movement, I think how enthusiastically I agree, and yet I’m frustrated by a lack of practical implementation. How much of that did you see?

Gilman: An enormous amount. I guess I see this in a very big framework of science and where is the human species going, and I do see us as being in a crisis. I believe we are living in a collapsing civilization. And that makes it very hard to gain perspective, because it is happening so fast in so many areas of our lives, all around us, that to see exactly what is happening is very hard.

I think the fundamentalist movements throughout the world – Christian, Muslim, Jewish (and there are a lot of very fundamentalist Jews – I’m not aware of any really fundamentalist Buddhists, but they must exist, and certainly in Sri Lanka they are far from pacifist) – and the return to familiar beliefs is a panic reaction, something to hold on to, to give people a sense of security in a world that is collapsing, that they can’t understand and that seems completely out of control.

And of course that only precipitates more violence, because anyone who feels they have an exclusive lock on the truth is going to end up fighting somebody else who feels they have an exclusive lock on the truth. There is no possibility of a peaceful world as long as that is the prevailing type. I’m optimistic enough to think that eventually that will play itself out, but how exactly, I don’t know.

Tuesday 9 July 2019

The Lost Chances of the Greens, part II

Kaller: Would you say that Greens everywhere are in favour of a more localized economy?

Gilman: I don’t know about that. I would suspect that’s true, because it’s almost forced by the idea of a more Earth-friendly society. On the other hand, I don’t know what Green Parties in other countries are doing. Certainly in this country, that is true, and is something I’ve worked for in Minnesota, a more localized economy.

Kaller: When I looked at the early issues of the North Country Anvil [a 1970s publication Gilman edited in rural Minnesota], I found it interesting. How integral would you say that was to the early Green Movement?

Gilman: I’d say a good many of them were integral.

[Gilman went on to describe some of the early Greens, mostly farmers and homesteaders from various Christian denominations; I didn’t want to publicise their names without permission.]

They were Luddites; back-to-the-landers, and that particular aspect of the Anvil, carries over to the Green movement … [but] the Greens function on the Internet, and they are not Luddites in the sense of wanting to go back to the land; that was a function of the 1960s and 1970s, especially here in the Midwest. It may not have been as strong elsewhere, but I suspect it was – certainly in New England it was. That was one aspect of the Anvil.

Kaller: It felt like such a rural publication.

Gilman: One of the things that interested me was that it is a rural voice for the Green movement, whereas many others like Murray Bookchin were very much urban.

Kaller: When you were talking about these early ideas -- systems theory and the Club of Rome – how many people were paying attention? How big was this movement?

Gilman: It would be impossible for me to say; I was very much on the fringes of it. I was reading a lot of books, but I wasn’t involved; I was raising kids. I was not involved as an activist in any way.

Kaller: But you were interested early on.

Gilman:Yes, I became interested in the mid-1970s, and my reading went back before that. But through the 60s I was “nesting,” as they say, working full-time and raising a family, and that does keep one a little busy.

Kaller: I know (chuckle). I was trying to get a feel for how small the number of people were, and what kind of people.

Gilman: One key person whose work I read a good bit of, and went to several conferences with, was William Irwin Thompson – and I won’t blame you if you’ve never heard of him. I have a number of his books up there; he came out of the Sixties. His first and best-known book was The Time Falling Bodies Take to Light, the rest were less well-known and less interesting.

In any case, I joined his Lindisfarne Association, and went a number of seminars and conferences, where I met some very interesting people. Mary Catherine Bateson – I never met Gregory, but his daughter Mary Catherine was at many of these conferences – and people like Wendell Berry and his wife, and a number of very Green-leaning people. They were also anti-capitalist, also, but again it’s a much broader thing than capitalist vs. socialist.

Tuesday 2 July 2019

The lost chances of the Greens, part 1

In a nursing home in St. Paul, Minnesota last year, a 91-year-old Quaker named Rhoda Gilman died, and her death was barely noted -- which is a shame, because she led a fascinating life. She wrote several excellent books on American history, raised a family, ran for lieutenant governor of that state in 2002, and was one of the early leaders of the Green movement in America … and lived through one of the great and unappreciated lost chances of world history.

That’s a sweeping statement, I know, but let me explain.  

By “Green movement,” I don’t mean simply the Green Party – although she helped found that organisation – or the environmental movement. The word “environmentalist” has been applied to many things, from activist celebrities to the latest expensive eco-fad. The movement I’m thinking of has rarely been noticed by mainstream media, or else has been called many names: back-to-the-land-ism, bio-regionalism, deep ecology and many other labels. The best word for it, though, in the purely dictionary sense, would be “conservative.”

I’m referring to a diverse movement of people casting aside the stereotypes of left and right, who mostly live on homesteads and revive traditional ways of life. Most are private and stay under the radar of the internet for a reason, but I know many of them on homesteads across the USA, the UK and Ireland. Rather than take their inspirations from celebrity environmentalism, they embraced a radical traditionalism, following figures like economist  E. F. Schumacher, theologians like Ivan Illich or Father Thomas Berry, and do-it-yourselfers like John Seymour. Many were quite religious – sometimes conservative Catholics like Schumacher, Illich or Berry, some Lutheran or Mennonite, some Quakers like Gilman. And they began to appear just as the world was becoming aware, on a mass scale, of issues like pollution, climate change and consumerism. There was once a time, though, when Christians forming their own communities in the country talked to, and were sometimes the same people as, the ecologists and libertarians doing the same.

"I saw it as an alternative to the identity politics that were already springing up and dividing people. Women, blacks, gay people, American Indians, now Asians ... Identity politics is made to order to divide and conquer. I saw the Green Movement as bridging all of those, and responding to the basic problems ..."
-- Rhoda Gilman 

Unfortunately, all Greens were branded as “far-left,” and the growing evangelical movement of the time “far-right” – both simplistic and somewhat inaccurate labels. During a crucial window of history, when we had a chance to really avert any serious climate change and manage an orderly rearranging of civilisation  rather than a catastrophic decline, Green ideals failed to catch on among the larger and politically powerful Christian movements.

About 15 years ago,  I sat down with Gilman in her apartment to talk about the early years of the Greens, and of what could have been.  

Kaller: One of the reasons I wanted to do this is because, in the popular media when the name Green comes up, everyone in mainstream political ideology talks about them in very specific terms: ultra-leftists, split off from the Democrats, made Gore lose.

Gilman: And environmentalists.

Kaller: Yes, and I’ve heard that even from some people who joined the Greens recently, people who believed this stereotype and liked it. So I’d like to publicise the actual beliefs of the Greens and where they came from.

Gilman: I can’t speak for Europe, I only know this country. In 1970 there was the Club of Rome report from Donella Meadows, in 1973 the Catholic economist E.F. Schumacher wrote Small is Beautiful, in 1979 the scientist James Lovelock published Gaia, and people like Arne Naess and Murray Bookchin expanded on their ideas. Bookchin was part of the very early Green movement here, in social ecology, and was part of the left wing of the Green Movement when it was first founded in this country.

My own feeling is that ecology as we know it today is based on systems theory. Norbert Wiener wrote The Human Use of Human Beings in the 1950s, and then Gregory Bateson applied some of those same ideas to nature.

Kaller: Could you tell me more about them?

Gilman: Weiner was an early computer man, and is fairly well-known; if you look him up on the Internet you’ll get the whole story. Gregory Bateson was an anthropologist, and for a while the husband of Margaret Mead. He was also very interdisciplinary, applying systems theory to evolution. I have several of his books here – Steps To an Ecology of Mind and Mind and Nature are probably his best-known. The intellectual currents of the time were leading towards the Green movement, and Bateson was close to Schumacher …

The intellectual roots of the Green Movement are right there. Donella Meadows died just recently, but her work on the Club of Rome report in 1970 was the one that created the term “limits to growth.” I see that as much more integral to the Green movement than, say, the Sierra Club or Save the Whales.

Environmental organizations tackle a problem or group of problems. These seekers went to the basic problems with our industrial society that are going to have to change because the planet can’t support it. That is, to me, the essence of the Green Movement.

I joined the Green Party – or the Green Movement, before it was a party, early on – because it was the one umbrella group that faced the whole problem of the need for change, rather than joining the Left. The socialists and communists still worked within the framework of an industrial society. The Greens said, “We’ve got to question the whole thing.”

Also, in this country, politically, I saw it as an alternative to the identity politics that were already springing up and dividing people. Women, blacks, gay people, American Indians, now Asians – at that time Asians weren’t in the picture yet. Identity politics is made to order to divide and conquer. I saw the Green Movement as bridging all of those, and responding to the basic problems facing our industrial civilization.

That’s why it’s international. It’s facing the problems not of a country or even a system like capitalism, it’s facing the problems of the entire planet.

Tuesday 25 June 2019

Spinach straight from the garden

Our garden at 11 pm; we're the same latitude as the capital of Alaska. Happy Midsommer!

I don’t know about your garden, but ours is a victim of the vacillating weather; most of our leafy vegetables have bolted, and I have to quickly gather up our spinach and cook it quickly before it all goes bitter. Thankfully, I have a lot of spinach recipes I wanted to try.

Spinach is one of the fastest-growing leafy vegetables and one of the most nutritious, a great source of Vitamins A, C and K1, as well as Folic acid. It’s also packed with anti-oxidants, which might help reduce the risk of cancer. There’s a reason that the cartoon character Popeye ate spinach to basically gain super-powers before his fights.

The one nutrient spinach is most famous for – iron – is, sadly a bit of an urban myth; it has some, but not significantly more than most vegetables. In the early days of chemically analysing vegetables, when our understanding of vitamins and minerals was still forming, scientists mis-judged the amount of iron in spinach; scientist Ole Redkal goes through the entire history of the urban legend in his surprisingly funny paper “Academic Urban Legends.”

Spinach eggs
100g leeks
100g celery
Four cloves of garlic
300g spinach
Four eggs
Spices: nutmeg, pepper

Heat a pat of butter in a large saucepan, adding a bit of olive oil so the butter doesn’t burn. Then sautee the leeks and celery for about ten minutes, add the grated garlic, and continue for two more minutes. Finally, take the washed and finely chopped spinach, pile it up on the saucepan, cover with a lid and cook for another few minutes until the spinach has cooked down.

Take the spinach mix and pile it into a large bowl, leaving a hollow in the middle. Crack open four eggs and pour them into the hollow, so that they are surrounded by cooked vegetables on all sides. Grate some cheese on top – Parmesan would work well.

Set the bowl in the oven for 200 degrees C for about ten minutes or until the eggs are cooked through. Alternately, you can put the bowl in the microwave on high for about three minutes, but be sure to put a plate on top to keep it from exploding.

Zesty spinach soup
Sautee vegetables as in the above recipe, up to the point of cooking the spinach. Meanwhile, heat 500 ml of vegetable stock in a pot, and bring to a boil.
Gently scoop the vegetables from the pan into the pot, and turn off the heat. Get a blitzer and puree the vegetables.
Zest one lemon and mix the zest into the soup, and squeeze out the juice into the soup. When the soup has cooled to blood temperature, mix in 300g of plain yogurt.

Spinach/herb salad
200g spinach
20g sorrel
20g chives
100g carrots
20 ml soy sauce
10 ml sesame oil
50g Plain natural yogurt
Pinch of cumin, coriander, and cayenne to taste.

Wash and chop the spinach finely. Peel and grate the carrots. Wash and chop the sorrel and chives.
Mix the soy sauce, sesame oil and yogurt in a bowl, adding spices to taste; I find a slightly spicy mix of cumin, coriander and cayenne works well, but you might have your own taste. Mix in the herbs, then the carrots, and finally the spinach. The sorrel adds a lemony tang to the salad, and the soy sauce adds a salty, meaty element to the taste as well.

Friday 21 June 2019

A different kind of childhood

If you ever wanted to see what the world might look like after the Tribulation, you could do worse than visit the Burren land on the Atlantic coast of Ireland. Most of my adopted country still looks as lush and green as in the tourist guides, but the Burren has only rock, with thin soil in the cracks –a rippling moonscape of pale hills that stretches to the sea, with few trees to slow the screaming Atlantic winds.

It’s lovely to visit, but living here would seem to us like being marooned on an alien planet, and raising children unthinkable. It would not seem very thinkable now, in a house with heat and wi-fi; in the 1930s no one here had electricity or cars, no lights or radio, and people lived much the way they had in the 1830s, or for that matter the 1830s BC. Dersie Leonard, who grew up in the Burren then, later described how she and her childhood friends walked miles every day in all weather, barefoot and wearing clothes made from old flour sacks. Modern American kids, growing up in a cocoon of toys, clothes and Xboxes, would struggle to picture a more depressing existence.

Perhaps surprisingly, then, Leonard wrote joyfully about her early life, saying she and her friends had “lakes and rivers, good land and bad, bog and rocks, not to mention fairy rings and forts – in fact everything a person could wish for.” They spent their days exploring, playing games, singing and telling stories, immersed in the adventure of childhood, and she considered herself lucky to live as she had.

When I say that to modern people, they assume she must be an unusual case, but in the fifteen years I’ve lived in rural Ireland, I’ve talked to dozens of people who grew up in similar circumstances, and they all said the same thing. I’ve also spent years reading and listening to interviews with elderly people -- local library records, town archives, old radio archives, Irish television documentaries, books and history journals -- all told, about three hundred interviews with people who grew up in Ireland between 1900 and 1960. These were years when most Irish, even into the 60s and 70s, managed a life without cars and electricity, living on less money than we would pick up off the sidewalk today, and without any of the electronic devices that modern people carry around all day. In terms of their culture, it was like a different century.

When I say they lived in poverty, I don’t mean like American inner cities. I grew up a few miles from the highest-crime ghetto in America -- East St. Louis -- thick with gangs, drugs and gunfire, and even they had a median income of $33,000 a year. Irish people in the 1970s were making less than one one-hundredth that amount of money per year -- one year its GDP-per-capita was lower than Gabon in central Africa -- so you’d think they’d have a hundred times more problems. Yet Ireland then had so little crime that a single murder was a nationwide event, robbery and drugs almost unknown, and almost everyone kept their doors unlocked.

Relying only on local village schools, Ireland then had a literacy rate higher than the USA does now, and produced generations of celebrated novelists, poets and scholars. Even taking their poverty into account, and even without the advances of the last 50 years, their average health was still better than most Americans’ today. And they were much happier than modern people, both according to surveys at the time and the memories of people who lived through those days. They lived their lives and I didn’t, and I’m not going to tell them that they’re all wrong.

“What kind of upbringing did I have?” said Tom Shaw, who was born in a one-room hut in 1935. “Brilliant – you couldn't have wished for better.” Shaw, interviewed by Irish radio, said that he had “no electricity, no running water, no central heating, no indoor toilet,” but that “under any circumstances, it would be a great youth -- we got to spend a lot of time with my mother and father, and they were disciplinarians, yet we had total freedom to run around.”

“We were real happy children, never bored,” said Jenny Buckley, who grew up in County Offaly in the 1930s. Most of the elders I interviewed said the same – their early years were filled with picking wildflowers and finding birds’ nests, climbing trees and looking under logs, swimming to islands or rowing boats, declaring themselves kings and queens of their domain, swearing eternal friendship, and engaging in the feral joy of a hunter-gatherer childhood.

Mind you, they had plenty of chores on their family homesteads -- picking crops, caring for animals, all the other duties that kept their families fed. “Our farm kept us going; we bought nothing but tea, sugar, rice and sultanas,” she said. “Now our pocket money was that we had a hen each and collected her eggs and sold them.” I hear the same from many of my neighbours; by the time they hit the hormones of adolescence, they had already gained more business savvy and shouldered more responsibility than most 50-year-olds today.

Of course, most of them went to school – not a cement institution like most modern Americans had, but a one-room shack where all local children met. Despite this, however – or perhaps because of it – many children remember reading complex literature and philosophy at an age when many of my countrymen are still struggling to read.

Most of them described walking to school, but with a group of friends and siblings, and what they learned walking across the countryside proved as educational as what they learned at a desk. 
“...we didn’t walk through fields to school, but travelled the then-rugged and stony way which was up hill and down dales,” remembered Bessie Byrne Sheridan, who grew up in County Wexford in the 30s. “No tarmacadamed (paved) roads in those days of sparse cash but healthy living. Making ourselves happy with very little was the norm for us all. Those times were known as the ‘hungry thirties,’ which I think is a misnomer because there was plenty of home-produced natural food available everywhere,” and if anyone didn’t have enough of something, all the neighbours shared with them.

“…it was much more a children's world, for few people remember anyone who would harm a child, nor were there any media around that could corrupt them,” said Irish radio producer Tommy Ryan about Irish village life. “Children ran everywhere freely and safely. There was less hurry to get out of childhood and into adolescence.”

Most of my neighbours said they ran barefoot for months, but that wasn’t the hazard it would be today, for roadways were not lined with auto parts, broken glass or needles. “There a picture somewhere of my last school year, and half of the children were in their bare feet,” my neighbour Jack told me. “And it was quite usual at that stage that when the summer holidays were coming on, you’d get your shoes or boots taken away, and you trotted down in your bare feet for a few months.”

You might think of such children as deprived, but Jack said that everyone looked forward to the bare-footed seasons. “Shoes were something to get used to, and unwillingly,” and they stretched it out further than they were supposed to, Ryan said. “We took our boots as far as the stile, hid them there, went to school barefooted, and on the way home put them on again. Our parents didn't want us to go barefoot until May, but we had it going from March.”

Village children in those days rarely had to worry about strangers, for they knew everyone around, everyone saw everyone else, and gossip was a powerful tool for keeping people in line; if a stranger came to town, everyone knew. Nor could children get away with much either, not with so many eyes on them, connected to people who talked to their parents every day.

“Twenty years ago you could leave your bike on the footpath and nobody would touch it,” said Con Moloney, who grew up in County Laois. “Everybody had the time to talk, and you didn’t have to jump out of the way of lunatic drivers behind the wheel of fast cars.”

In fact, many people I talked to feel sorry for their grandchildren and great-grandchildren, whom they see at family gatherings buried in their electronic devices. I wouldn’t want to be a child these days, they tell me.

Top photo: My daughter several years ago on the Burren, County Clare. Middle photo: Children on a train in Ireland, courtesy of Bottom photo: Children at chores, courtesy of 

Monday 17 June 2019

Ireland during the Emergency

Some time ago I was able to sit down with a gentleman named Jack who lives near me, and he let me record him and publish the conversation, although he asked that his last name not be used.

Me: So you were born in 1922?

Jack: Yes, that’s right – I was born the year the Irish State was formed, and the way things are going, I might be around after it’s fallen apart.

Me: Do you remember the early years of the country? Did that time affect your family?

Jack: No, we were a mixed family – my father was Scottish, and my mother was from this locality. She had worked in Scotland for a number of years, prior to the First World War, and had married him. But after the war there was wholesale unemployment in England and Scotland – all the factories had closed. So they decided to take their chances here, but there were no jobs here either, because there was a civil war on.
The only thing you could get a job in was you could apply for the police force or the army. My father applied for both and the army called him in. So he was a soldier.

Me: He was Scottish and fighting in the Irish Civil War?

Jack: Yes, but that didn’t last too long. The incoming government was stronger than the rebels. But he was 1922 to 1947 in the Irish Army.

Me: When you were growing up, did you have a garden? Did most people?

Jack: Everyone depended on their gardens. Everyone around here, most of the men spent their days hunting, and if they got a rabbit, they had meat for dinner, and if they didn’t get a rabbit, there was no meat. 

Me: Were there enough rabbits?

Jack: There are usually enough rabbits to go around.
Once in 1922, there were men on the dole looking for work. I often saw three men with a packet of Woodbines – and they would stand in a row and each take a puff of the cigarette. Then a rope factory started in 1932 – this English company, Rigby Jones. Now they were very successful for a time – have since gone out of business, of course. But then things picked up.

Me: How did people get by if the men were out hunting?

Jack: Most people had a garden. The standard of living was very low, but the same was true in Scotland and England.

Me: How much land did most people have?

Jack: About half an acre each.

Me: And what did they grow?

Jack: They grew potatoes and cabbages, and most people kept pigs.

Me: So how did people get things like shoes or clothes?

Jack: Well, you look at school photos, and half the children were in their bare feet. They trotted in bare feet for about three months. But there was no broken glass on the roads then. 
There was no transport. We would take bicycles to Rathangan or so – younger people wouldn’t dream of doing that now. That’s 20 miles.

Me: How long did it take to ride 20 miles?

Jack: You left here at half seven, and got there at half eight.

Me: What proportion of the people had bicycles?

Jack: Nearly everyone went around on a bicycle, everywhere -- you had to. But life went on just as it does now. 

Monday 10 June 2019

Pronounced HOO-gul-kul-tur

Originally appeared in the KIldare Nationalist newspaper. Photo courtesy of Mark at 

A while back I wrote about how we built raised beds for our garden, and when they rotted, rebuilt them in brick. Many permaculture gardeners, however, build a different kind of raised bed, one that involves using no walls at all.

The technique, called hugelkultur (HOO-gul-kul-tur), has the advantage of being simple to understand and easy to make, and lasting a long time. Hugelkultur beds basically involve piling wood – usually dried logs of various sizes – into a single ridge, piling vegetation, cardboard or newspaper over that, and finally a layer of soil on top. 

As the wood at the centre is slowly consumed by fungi, it absorbs and holds dozens of times its weight in water, creating a reservoir for the plant roots around it. As it decomposes it releases heat, extending the growing season. The decomposing wood, looking like a fine Swiss cheese under the soil, helps aerate the ground as well. Finally, as the wood breaks down into nutrients, its slow decay feeds the soil and anything growing on it.

Since the soil and garden plants are draped over logs, they also greatly increase the surface area for a garden, allowing gardeners to grow many more plants on the same ground. They also greatly increase the types of plants that can be grown near each other, as the top of the ridges will better suit sun-loving plants, while thirsty plants that can tolerate flooding will be more suited to the hollows between ridges. Such ridges are also an excellent way to stave off erosion and flooding, if you build them on a slope parallel to the side of the hill.

One risk in a hugelkultur is that the rotting wood might lock up nitrogen, so many gardeners prefer using large logs, buried deeply, so that the decay and nitrogen loss will be more gradual. Some also add high-nitrogen crops like nettles or comfrey over the logs and below the soil to offset the loss, or plant legumes or other nitrogen-fixing plants. Permaculture gardeners say that large ridges built over sizeable logs, or several logs, can offer a constant supply of nutrients for two decades. 

Be careful what woods you plant; if it is aggressive coppice tree, like willow, make sure it is well dead and dried, or you’ll get willow sprouting from your ridge. Also, most texts on the subject warn against using woods loaded with natural pesticides, anti-fungal chemicals and the like – cedar, black walnut, black locust – but you’re not likely to find those in Ireland anyway.

Creating hugelkultur takes carbon out of the atmosphere in a few ways; it takes trees that are mostly carbon sucked out of the atmosphere, and sequesters them underground; and it encourages the growth of many plants that will, themselves, suck more carbon out of the air. In other words, it’s a win-win for the climate.

Hugelkultur beds can be built quite high, and some gardeners said they built theirs more than two metres tall, piling up the wood almost vertically and draping vegetation and soil over it. Some bolster the sides with pallets to keep them in place, but I wouldn’t recommend using them as the basis for the ridge, tempting as that might be – pallet wood is often sprayed with chemicals that you don’t want in your food.

Raised beds like this are more work at the beginning, but a lot less as time goes on, and can largely be left alone for years. Some gardeners recommend planting mostly perennials, which can keep producing crops year after year – and can keep building up the ridge as parts of the plants die off and become soil again. The plants’ roots also keep the soil in place, so rain doesn’t collapse the ridge.

Best of all, this garden uses scrap material that many people already have on their property, and are often trying to get rid of. Many of us clear brush or have to cut down trees or branches on our property, weeds and grass clippings they want to use, and spare soil not good enough for the regular garden. Hugelkultur uses all these things and combines them into something useful that can benefit your garden for years to come.

Monday 3 June 2019


All futuristic fiction is really about the present; during the technological boom years of the early 20th century, writers extrapolated those trends into a space-faring techno-utopia, and when the social and ecological costs of that boom caught up with us in the late 20th century, dystopian fiction took over our collective imagination with increasingly horrific futures. I’m in my 40s, and almost no science fiction in my lifetime has ever predicted anything good for my future grandchildren.

Doomer porn, however, has limited appeal and shelf life; you can only get so miserable before there’s nowhere to go and no point. One of the most appealing subsets of speculative fiction, then, is what we might call the “good old future,” where our descendants have come through a crisis and created a better world that looks a lot like the past. I can personally recommend James Howard Kunstler’s World Made By Hand and John Michael Greer’s Retropia and Star’s Reach, and I have on my reading list similar works like John Seymour’s Retrieved from the Future, Per Fagereng’s Jack Moloney’s Century, and Ursula Le Guin’s Always Coming Home.  

All these stories depict a home-town, human-sized, largely healthy future, and that’s exactly what we need to see right now. Most activism these days, on the left and right alike, warn that we only have a short time to stop collapse, and scream that “we” must do “something” or it will be “too late” – a message that is frustratingly vague, and leaves open the question of what happens when it’s too late. 

What we desperately need are stories of people who roll up their sleeves and use their hands-on skills to fix problems. What we need is a wholesome depiction of sustainable, healthy communities that are able to do most of what our towns do now, just relying on the craftsmanship of their local working people rather than trucks shipping in supplies from Third-World factories. We need to meet characters going through their daily lives in a world that do things the old-fashioned way, and see that their lives are not very different than ours.

Oh, and to portray their urban landscapes and machines in vivid detail, this fictional future should ideally be drawn as a comic book.

Thankfully, we have just the man to do this in Ken Avidor, who has been drawing comics and illustrations about a sustainable future for decades, as well as covering the politics of his native Minnesota. Avidor illustrated the first article I ever wrote on fossil fuels some 15 years ago, as well as James Howard Kunstler’s web site. His comic strip Roadkill Bill lampooned our modern consumer culture, taking on subjects like obesity, rubbish, traffic and government spending – which doesn’t sound like the most obvious subject for a talking-animal cartoon, but Avidor made it entertaining.

Nothing he has done thus far, however, matches the ambition of Bicyclopolis, which uses the basic Back-to-the-Future premise of a young point-of-view character, an old and wacky inventor, and a time travel machine as a plot device to show off his design of a small-town, pedal-powered future in the Midwest USA.

In this future, fossil fuels have become more difficult to obtain – meaning not just less driving and flying, but fewer imported products, less infrastructure repair and intermittent electricity. Climate change has turned much of the American West into desert, and most people live in isolated settlements in oases. Bicyclopolis, founded by Civil War re-enactors and bike mechanics who had the skills to build a new world, is a plausible model of a self-sufficient community, and Avidor has fun planning the details of how such a town would operate.

In contrast to many writers who imagine a future devoid of technology, Avidor recognises that many modern inventions – pedal-powered gears and chains, for example – could be used to create windmills, water pumps, irrigation systems, vehicles and machines. Junk from the nearby rubbish dump furnishes them with metal that can be re-forged or melted and re-shaped into useful things, while plants like dandelions and milkweed can be made into rubber substitutes. His fictional village even has sports stadiums, bands and pubs, all using locally-made products.

Avidor’s creations have always been idealistic and instructional but never unrealistic or perfect; in the course of the novel Bicyclopolis endures a war with a neighbouring tribe,  sabotage by domestic dissidents and a crackdown on dissent. Many of his characters are limited or misguided, but always recognisably human; as strange as it sounds when describing a graphic novel, none of these characters are mere cartoons. 

His fictional community also must deal with a future in which climate change has turned much of the American West into desert, and human garbage has continued to accumulate in dangerous floating junk in the oceans. The plastic rubbish on land gets swept up in the winds that whip across the now-desert landscape, so that travellers are hit by “bag storms,” whirling masses of bits of shopping bags and other bits of decades-old plastic.

Avidor inserts his own idols into his future, with writers like Kunstler, Dmitri Orlov, Jane Jacobs and Ivan Illich getting statues along the streets of his sustainable community. He does the same with his longtime nemesis and former Minnesota Congresswoman Michele Bachmann; he had written an entire graphic novel, “False Witness,” about her career, and here he depicts the villains as “Bachmannite militias,” and a “Bachmannite priesthood.” Some of his other villains look suspiciously specific as well, and I suspect would look familiar to anyone who knows Minnesota politics.

At a time when the media flood us with messages of despair, works like Bicyclopolis provide an antidote; a simple, earnest story of a believably sustainable town. It would make a good companion to World Made By Hand or Retropia for adults, or a good introduction to the issues for teens – some of the scenes of collapse or warfare would be a bit much for children. And while Avidor’s environmental concerns would cause most people to place his work on “the left,” he, like Kunstler or Orlov, does not fit easily into political boxes, and his depiction of an armed small town defending itself against imposed progress would resonate with many conservatives as well.

To see some of the artwork or order the book, go to