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 Irishhistorylinks.com. Bottom photo: Children at chores, courtesy of Irishhistorylinks.com. 

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 Permaculture.com.au. 

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 http://bicyclopolis.com.