Wednesday 21 December 2022

The Mother Night


Whether you grew up in Arizona or Australia, Florida or Johannesburg, you probably celebrated Christmas by displaying plants from Northern Europe – hanging holly, ivy and mistletoe in the house, and decorating an evergreen tree – whether they are appropriate for your climate or not. I used to wonder why these plants, and why Christmas was this time of year when we don’t actually know when Christ was born. Once I moved to rural Ireland, though, these things began to make sense.

You see, I’ve mentioned that we are less than a thousand miles from the Arctic Circle, the same latitude as part of Alaska. We don’t think of Ireland as being so far north; it rarely snows or freezes here, because it’s an island surrounded by a current from the Caribbean, which keeps the temperature from getting too cold. But it never gets that warm either, and the seasonal light changes are extreme.

At Midsummer – the longest day of the year – you can walk around in twilight after 11 pm and before 4 am. Until we moved here, I never understood the title of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, his play in which lovers change their allegiances several times in a night. The longest day is the shortest night, so the title emphasizes how quickly love can turn – in a “Midsummer Night,” the equivalent of a “New York Minute.” 

Winter brings the opposite, with nights that can last for seventeen hours at a stretch, punctuated by several hours of sunset; the sun crouches low in the bushes, casting long shadows across agrey landscape. And those are the few hours of daylight before the long night comes again.

Where I live there are no streetlights, and until a few decades ago, no electricity at all, no light but candles and flames. As one Irish writer put it, “the nights were treacle-black, they haunted little children and big men alike. Outdoors was for spectres and hooved creatures with strange powers. Children of the long-legged day would look out petrified at the wild sea.”

In most of the Western world generations now have grown up with streetlights outside and houselights a flick away, and can little comprehend the unsettling power of long and absolute darkness.

No wonder people here used to spend the winters going from house to house, lantern or torch in hand, spending time with neighbours and singing songs, sharing dishes and telling stories. Even further back people here built some of the oldest monuments by humans – Newgrange just north of us, five thousand years old, and Stonehenge in England, built around the same time, and both aligned to mark the solstice of maximum darkness, what the Saxons would later call the Mother Night.

No wonder, then, that people here devoted the longest night to celebration, reminding each other that this too would pass. No wonder people brought indoors the plants that remained green and cheerful – holly, ivy, evergreens -- a reminder that the green world around us would return as the world was remade. No wonder it became the celebration day for the birth of Christ.

Christian holidays, like the faith itself, came to Europe from a very different culture and landscape, the desert lands to the far south and east. Once adopted by peoples of the long darkness, though, they were transformed. 

Whenever Christ was actually born, the obvious time to celebrate his birth was when -- after a long and harrowing plunge into the abyss -- the world seems to exhale, the days are born and grow again, and another year of life, with all its possibilities, appears before us.


Tuesday 20 December 2022

Irish village in winter


"Santa only gave us perhaps an orange, a few little books, crayons and sweets, but the important thing was that Santa had come." -- Aine Aherne

"Christmas used to be very different than it is now; if my parents had what we spend on toys they would have been rich indeed. A few days before the grocery boy arrived with the dray (cart) and a Christmas box, the ingredients for cake and pudding with a large candle in the middle." -- Annie Dunne. Both from No Shoes in Summer.

Sunday 18 December 2022

The Sleep Fairy

When my daughter was four, she had trouble getting to sleep, and padded downstairs for more reading before finally succumbing. I often persuaded her to return peacefully by telling her about the Sleep Fairy, who sprinkles fairy dust on children's eyelids and makes them heavy.

It didn't always work, though -- one night she came down annoyed and gravely announced, "The Sleep Fairy has disappointed me."

Sunday 11 December 2022

St. Necklace Day

Myself and my daughter, some years ago.


One morning years ago, as I tried to sleep in, a metre-high blond person jumped up and down on me shouting, "Look what St. Necklace brought us!" I liked the "us" - she was as happy for me as for herself.

The sixth of December is St. Nicholas Day, when many families would leave presents in children’s shoes. That year my daughter got chocolate coins and a few other goodies. In my family -- and this part seems to be unique to us – St. Nicholas leaves tins of sardines and octopus. The Girl was calling him "St. Necklace" -- she got a necklace on this day a year or two ago, and the name stuck. In the Irish countryside our every Christmas was small and somewhat isolated, but these moments make them meaningful.

Meaning is something we often lack in modern Christmas celebrations, where we feel pressured to spend too much, eat too much, drink too much, listen to the same terrible rock songs, watch certain television specials, put up enough lights to make our house visible from space and pretend to be cheerful when we are not. There’s nothing sacred about these pop-culture traditions, though; Santa Claus and many of the carols we sing are of surprisingly recent invention, often less than a hundred years old, and often created as advertising campaigns.

I’m not trying to be a Grinch about this – by all means, enjoy the holiday. I simply don’t feel obliged to hear all the songs, over and over, for a few months. What’s more, the new ones are squeezing out many local and truly traditional family rituals that date back longer than we can measure.

Take Wren Day, when local families gathered in the nearby woods for a ritual called the Hunting of the Wren. Men dressed in straw – “straw boys” – stole a statue of a wren, and its defenders – “wren boys” – gave chase with all the local children. After all the children had been nicely exhausted – while their parents sat back sipping tea around the fire – the Wren Boys and children came back holding the Wren in triumph. The Wren Boys and Straw Boys shook hands, made peace, and the Wren served as King of Birds for another year.

I brought my daughter to this ceremony, but it is one of the last times it would be celebrated. A ritual that might date back to Druid times, two thousand years ago or more, will soon be another casualty of the Great Forgetting of our era; my daughter might be one of the last people who will remember it.

Take wassailing as another example: neighbours walked from house to house carolling and being invited inside, giving everyone a chance to meet their neighbours. I don’t know about you, but I haven’t seen anyone do this in a long time, nor do many people these days feel comfortable introducing themselves to their neighbours.

Many families do use Christmas to see loved ones, share meals, sing songs together, and tell old stories, and that’s wonderful. But here’s the thing: people used to do these things every day. Here in Ireland, for example, wassailing wasn’t just once a year, but all through the winter; neighbours gathered at each others’ homes, brought instruments, played music, sang songs, and told stories that broke up the long darkness. It allowed each family to share what they had, making deposits in a community favour bank. It strengthened the feeling of community, so that burdens were lessened because they were shared, and joys were heightened because they were shared. Every day used to be more like the best parts of Christmas today.

This year, when many of us are strapped for cash or will have an unusually quiet and empty Christmas, you have permission to ignore the usual spending, eating and drinking extravaganzas. Perhaps you can turn off the television, put away the phones, go for walks, read A Christmas Carol to your children, make gifts with them, and perhaps go carolling at the doors of your elderly neighbours. You’re not here for the holiday; it’s here for you, and you decide how to enjoy it.

When I was raising my daughter in the countryside, every Christmas became sacred. Those moments, with her climbing into bed with me and sharing her contagious awe, were my comfort and joy, and when I prayed, they were the engine of my gratitude. 



Sunday 6 November 2022

Building a forest garden


Here in Ireland, most gardeners will plant conventional annuals like potatoes, onions and carrots, and there’s nothing wrong with that. Most, however, neglect the myriad varieties of each of these crops, in myriad colours, and you could plant blue potatoes or purple carrots if you like. More neglect the more adventurous crops that might do well in this climate but remain little-known; yacon, daikon, oca, and others. Creative or lazy gardeners with a bit of extra land might decide to let it fallow, getting mileage from the nettles and dandelions for a while.  If you want to build a garden that truly looks to the future, though, you could plant a forest.

It might seem like that growing a forest contradicts the idea of growing a garden, that one means low, edible and annual plants in rows, while the other means a landscape of tall trees and few edible plants. When you plant a forest garden, though, you are combining the best of both worlds – perennial crops, vines, shrubs and trees that produce food every year but do not need to be re-sown every spring.

A forest garden also has a vertical dimension that many kitchen gardens do not; low trees and shrubs that bear fruit, berries and nuts; vines that bear similar fruit and berries, and ground-cover plants that can be harvested anew each year. With many varieties of plants close together, moreover, you can harvest throughout the year, gathering leaves or buds in spring, summer crops, fruit and nuts in autumn.

The various plants help each other, as different plants require different nutrients from the soil and so do not starve each other. They also help keep different pests away, as the smell of one plant not only repels insects from it, but from the plants around it. In this way, plants in the wild help each other, and by planting them alongside each other we let Nature do some of our heavy lifting.

To make a forest garden, you should first look at your landscape and see what could grow there –in the case of our land, a relatively dry patch of earth surrounded by bog. Then you begin planning a design of trees that will yield what permaculturists call the seven Fs: food, fuel, fibre, fodder, fertiliser, “farmaceuticals” and fun.

Take a compass and mark which direction is the south, and considering putting have the highest plants on the north, to cut down on the colder winds, and the lowest in the south to catch the maximum sun. You also want to pay attention to the rising and sloping of the property, to make sure you know what plants are getting the most sunshine and water runoff.

Plan a forest garden in vertical layers, starting with the pieces that reach the highest and around which the rest of the garden will turn: the trees. Make sure you allow a circle of sufficient breadth for each tree to grow; until it grows out, and find out ahead of time how large they tend to grow. If you plan a certain circle of space for them, and they grow slightly beyond it, you can prune them, but you should let them have a certain minimum of space.

You could plant fruit and berry trees like apples, plums and cherries, as well as lesser-known species like guomi; nut trees like walnut, hazel and oak also would prove valuable over time. Such trees aren’t going to yield vast quantities of food right away, of course, but in the meantime you can plant food-producing vines to climb up the trees – blackberries and kiwifruit, for example – as well as shrubs under them, like blueberries and lingonberries.

Further down still – for a forest garden has food at every level – you can plant edible weeds like Good King Henry and Fat Hen, as well as herbs that return every year. You can even plant some regular crops like carrots and onions around your trees and shrubs, and gradually segue from a regular garden into a forest garden over a course of years.

It is true that a forest garden requires some patience, and if you buy small trees from the nursery rather than growing apple trees from seed, it could be several times more expensive than a conventional garden. With the right species, however, you only have to plant them once; you are investing in infrastructure like a house, only a forest garden could last longer.


Wednesday 26 October 2022

Settling on Enough


To a poor man, more is better, and all humans throughout history were poor compared to the wealth we enjoy. Now that we have lived in the fossil-fuel window for longer than anyone can remember, we live in comfort our ancestors could not have imagined, yet we keep pursuing more.

Our cars are huge, our debts are huge, and even some of us are huge, yet we still believe that more is better. The entire religion of economics is devoted to this belief – a rapidly escalating economy is “robust,” not “out of control,” and as it slows down it is said to be “ailing,” not “stabilizing.”

But beyond a certain point, more is more of too much – with eating, drinking, or just about anything. A growing body of data shows that once our basic needs are met, money no longer makes us happy. After that, everyone – whether they make 20,000 euros a year or 200,000 – seems to think that they would be happy if only they made perhaps ten percent more.

Author John Michael Greer uses the analogy of sandwiches; if you are starving, one sandwich is priceless to you. Two sandwiches are even better. A pile of a thousand sandwiches, or a million, becomes a liability; you have to put energy into selling or preserving them, or just getting rid of them. They become a net loss to you, as many of our possessions have become to us.

In fact, even as our houses swell and possessions multiply, people's happiness has been going down. Some sociologists have suggested that discontent is related to economic growth, as our new wealth is used to build homes further away from each other, buy more electronic devices that occupy our time but offer only short-term pleasure, and spend more time commuting and less time with loved ones. As author Bill McKibben puts it, “Do the experiment yourself. Would you rather have a new, bigger television, or a new friend?”

The globalised production of all this booming wealth has created some severe consequences for the globe. All those factories to make our stuff, all those cars on the motorway, all that food shipped from Australia – it all burns oil, pollutes the atmosphere and changes the weather. Most of all, it erodes the infrastructure to do otherwise – local farms, organizations, and jobs – and will make a restoration of a simpler world more difficult.

We can and should try to shift the economy into arenas that destroy less of the world, but we can also remember that there is a world outside the global economy. Before we were consumers, we were citizens, less part of an economy than a community.

How can rebuilding community help with economic or environmental issues? Well, 30 percent of our energy is spent on food, and local food uses 10 times less energy than food shipped around the planet. But sociologists who followed shoppers found that those in farmers markets had 10 times as many conversations as those in supermarkets. The actions that harm the natural world do not increase happiness, but the actions that restore the natural world also restore happiness.

Here's more good news: a study by psychology professor Elizabeth Dunn has found that people are not happier when they have more income, but when they give more away. Those who responded as happiest to survey questions turned out to also be the ones who gave most to charity. 

Most interestingly, this runs counter to what we all have been taught; when Dunn asked the subjects of her experiment what made them happy, almost all said they'd be happier spending money on themselves. What they thought about themselves were wrong. We are better people than we realize we are.

None of this means that we should be poor – even if money doesn't make us happy, the lack of it can make us miserable. Most of these days have debts to pay off It does mean, though, that may of us are caught in a rat race that is not only making our own lives more miserable, but damaging the world we live in as well. And a simpler life is the solution not only to the world's problems, but to yours as well.

Photo by Brian Kaller.