Tuesday, 21 March 2023

The Grace of Invertebrates

We live by the grace of invertebrates. They work around the clock, collect and dispose of our waste, replenish the soil, feed animals above them on the food chain and allow plants to return each spring. Most importantly, perhaps, bees, butterflies and other insects deliver valentines between plants, which must procreate but cannot move, and so rely on couriers. Flowers grow for their benefit, not ours, and bloom in more colours than we can see – only insects’ superior eyes can see all their shades and patterns.

Now, of course, humans have changed the face of the world; we have levelled forests, eliminated thousands of species in a field in favour of a single crop, and sprayed those crops with a cocktail of exotic poisons never before seen on Earth. After several decades of this, bee populations are collapsing around the world, and while we do not know the specific causes, we know that areas that have been heavily hit with pesticides have also seen serious collapses. In a few areas of China, farmers have begun laboriously pollinating cash crops like pears by hand, taking brushes from flower to flower – a method that would not be feasible for most survival crops should the problem spread.

This time of year, as those of us in the northern hemisphere plan our gardens and sow our first seeds, we must remember to invest part of our garden to reimburse the armies that work for us. What sorts of armies you have, and what payment they accept, will vary depending on where you live: our forest here has bluebells and my Missouri hometown had mimosas, but the principles should remain the same.

You could bring pollinators in by the box-load if you keep bees, and you get honey and wax from the arrangement. Bee hives can be kept easily on a small plot of land, a backyard, a balcony or even a rooftop, so long as the bees’ flight path to and from their headquarters is located away from humans’ personal space. They tend to like simple flowers with an easy landing pad, like poached-egg flower, daisies or dandelions, and our local beekeepers recommend putting out water for them as well.

Honeybees, however, are only one of 20,000 species of bee in the world, and we can encourage the rest of them as well. They don’t give us honey or wax but they do pollinate our gardens, and many are stingless. Dozens of species are bumblebees, which live in small colonies, but most are solitary, often named according to where they make their hole – miners, carpenters, masons and plasterers.

Depending on the type of bees in your area, you might want to leave a rim of unmown weeds around your property, or plant or maintain a hedgerow that can give ground bees a place to shelter. Some gardeners give bees a pre-made home: boring holes in wood or stacking reeds or bamboo for carpenter or orchard bees, stacking adobe bricks for mason bees or building a small, cotton-lined box with a large entrance hole for bumblebees.

If you want to plant for bees and other pollinators, you need to plant foods that bloom in early spring and late autumn, the off-season months when bees struggle to find enough food. Snowdrops, crocuses and daffodils are emerging now in our gardens, giving bees their first taste of nectar for the year as honey stores run low. Ling heather, the plant used to make thick heather honey, does the opposite, blooming after everything else has gone. Ivy, similarly, grows up every tree and building here, and blooms as late as Halloween.

One of the champion bee flowers, in our experience, is borrage – our bees go nuts for it. It also makes a great herb to add to salad, with a tangy melony flavour. We find that verbena draws legions of bees and butterflies--- my wife and mother-in-law bought some from a garden store after seeing one covered with them last spring. Almost all herbs, in fact, make great bee fodder – thyme, rosemary, oregano, marjoram, sage and mint.

Hedgerows, the ubiquitous borders here, often provide the best source of bee flowers. Blackberry brambles, in hundreds of varieties, grow widely here and make another flower beloved of bees, and of course they grow in the margins where their thorns and the bees are out of your way. Sallies, or "pussy willows," seem to be a particular favourite of bumblebees in our observation – at times we have seen dozens of bumblebees on a single tree near our house. They also love hawthorn, which grows rampant here and usually starts flowering in May – it’s sometimes called the May bush.

Come summer, whole fields here erupt with red and white clover, which have many uses -- bees love them, we and animals can eat them, and they actually put nitrogen back into the soil. They like moist earth and warm days, and beekeepers say that, once the flowers emerge, their beehives start filling up with honey. Rapeseed, which Americans discreetly renamed canola, has been widely introduced as a biofuel crop here, and turns some fields a brilliant yellow every spring.

Bees and other bugs use many other flowers common to our area, and which our local beekeeping society recommends – poppies, cornflowers, forget-me-nots, zinnias, wallflowers, bellflowers, dahlias, hellebores and roses. In exchange they service many vegetables, including artichokes, lamb’s ears, asparagus, brassicas, broad beans, cucumbers, cherries, apples, currants, gooseberries and courgettes.

You can draw insects other than bees to your garden, of course, but you want to be choosy about which ones. We all love butterflies, but they spend most of their lives as the caterpillars that we spend picking off our crops, so you want to encourage only those species that eat the plants you don’t want anyway.

Few words sound less appealing than “parasite” and “wasp,” yet parasitic wasps can be very useful in the garden, preying on the bugs that would eat your plants and doing no harm to humans. Sally Jean Cunningham, author of Great Garden Companions, cite herbs like caraway, anise, mint, chamomile, dill, fennel, yarrow and cicely for drawing wasps, along with wildflowers like cornspurrey, lamb’s quarters, wild mustards, oxeyes, red sorrel and clover. Similarly, some gardeners buy ladybirds (ladybugs to Americans) to unleash on their aphids, or even recommend planting nettles to attract aphids to attract ladybirds.

Finally, you can plant species designed to repel certain insects you don’t want – many gardeners recommend hyssop and thyme for cabbage moths, or marigolds for nematodes. Such recommendations often carry a high folklore-to-evidence ratio, though, so experiment in your own garden and take notes on what seems to work.

As David Attenborough once pointed out, if we and other large animals were to disappear, the vast majority of the world that remained would get along just fine. But if they were to disappear, the soil would become sterile, the lands desert, and almost all life would perish. As you walk through your garden, thousands of them are labouring like elves around your feet, unthanked and occasionally swatted. As you plant your garden this year, make sure to give something back.

Friday, 17 March 2023

Happy St. Patrick's Day

Many parts of Ireland lacked electricity even into the 1970s, so many older Irish remember a world where people created their own entertainment during Ireland’s long winter nights, when neighbours walked to each others’ homes to play music, dance and tell stories. 
“It was huge in the country,” an elderly neighbour named Mary told me. “There was an institution called cortorach, Irish for visiting, and the people would visit each other’s houses.”
“... they’d have dances and do the reels and the Irish dancing. and the women would drink tea and the men would drink porter,” she said. “And they would have a sennachai [pronounced shanakee] – a storyteller – and he’d be spinning great yarns and tales, some of them the old, old stories. Some of them might be two thousand years old, really stories from prehistory -- stories of Cu Chucullen and Meave, stories from long, long ago. Shana is the Irish word for old, so the sennachai was telling the old stories.”
When I asked how often this happened, she said “Oh, good Lord -- at least once a week at least, and nearly every night at times. You can imagine it ... a turf fire, and very warm, and the people gathered around listening to the sennachai telling his story. A lot of ghost stories, as the Irish are really into ghost stories. And the children were supposed to go to bed but were allowed to stay up, and would listen to the sennachai, their eyes wide like saucers.”
Happy St. Patrick's Day, everyone.

Tuesday, 14 March 2023

The Deep Woods


Based on notes from 14 years ago. It goes by fast. 
My four-year-old runs joyfully through the deep woods, arms raised, her dress flapping behind her as I follow at a distance. She raises her arms and twirls through shafts of green sunlight that slant to the ground around us. She runs her fingers through the shaggy moss, peeks gingerly in the black hollows of the ancient trees, and rummages through the undergrowth for snails and mushrooms like Easter eggs.
We come here often to roam these patches of the cold rainforest that once covered Ireland. We found mushrooms like saucers that we take home for dinner. We sit on giant roots that stretched like jetties over the water, watch the tadpoles gather under our toes, the kingfishers flashing like jewels in the trees, the herons that lurk like gargoyles over the water. 
These woods teach that death is not the end, even in this world; a fallen tree erupts into mushrooms, and the sunlight falling through its empty space in the canopy wakes a carpet of flowers, so a death in the forest brings an explosion of colour. In a few years a sapling will fill the space, its young leaves sheltered from the winds, and on autumn evenings its turning leaves bathe the woods in an orange light, a candle against the coming darkness.

Monday, 6 March 2023

Boats woven from wood

Under the green and rolling hills of Scotland, a dozen kilometres from the seaside, several people lay buried for four thousand years. Around them lay what we guess to be their keepsakes; beads, a bronze knife, tools and a battle-axe. Most interesting, though, was that at least one of them – a teenager when he died, curled up like a baby – lay in what was guessed to be a wicker coracle, like those used on these islands into the 20th century. He was buried in his boat.

Stop and consider a few things about this. First its antiquity: Before the Ancient Greeks or the Hebrew prophets, before all but the earliest pyramids, there were Scots, or at least people of Scotland. Also, you don’t see boat-burials every day; perhaps it was the youth’s most prized possession, like someone today might be buried with their motorcycle. Finally, consider this was a giant basket, woven together by hand, and that it carried people safely across vast stretches of cold water.

That’s not as strange as it sounds; humans around the world, whether jungle tribes or Eskimos, whether in the Stone Age or the Industrial Revolution, used similar woven boats. Who first thought of it we don’t know; the first basket fragments we have were about 13,000 years old, but we have circumstantial evidence that humans might have been weaving baskets the size of boats almost four hundred centuries earlier. Not four hundred years, by the way – four hundred centuries.

You see, early humans first appeared in Australia about 50,000 years ago, and even with the ice age lowering sea levels, you still can’t walk there. To get there from Asia (presumably, because anything else would be even stranger) they would have had to set out on the ocean — whole families in boats, not knowing if there was land out there. Obviously they floated on something, and we know of no other kind of boat-making technology for tens of thousands of years to come. Even if they only lashed logs together to make rafts, as you see in so many castaway films, they would have had to use the similar technology of weaving fibres together to make knots.

In the centuries since, cultures around the world wove boats: Tibetans floated in Ku-Drus of woven wood and yak-skin, Eskimos lashed sealskin around their long umiaks, Arabs traversed the Tigris and Euphrates in quffahs, and the Celts of the British Isles – Irish, Scots and Welsh — had an amazing variety of coracles for fresh waters and curraghs for the sea.

Most were woven from some local pliable wood – although Eskimos used sometimes used bones — then covered with some kind of skin, and finally waterproofed in some way. They were often rounder in flat water, like the Irish coracles, and more oval or pointed in running or sea waters, like the Irish curraghs or Eskimo kayaks. They also tended to be alarmingly tiny crafts, often just big enough for one – although a traveller to Iraq in the 1930s reported seeing woven boats large enough to carry several human passengers and a few horses.

Coracles in particular had the basic shape of a bowl, and its users needed substantial practice to avoid tipping over. The advantage, however, was that once the user reached shore, the small and lightweight craft could be lifted and carried on one’s back. An English poet in the 1600s described “salmon-fishers moist, their leather boats begin to hoist,” looking like turtles as they walked away from the water carrying their boats upside-down across the countryside.

On these islands coracles and curraghs were used from ancient times – the ancient Welsh myth cycle the Mabinogion mentions them, as did Julius Caesar on his trip to Britain. Irish monks like St. Columba in the sixth century travelled around isolated islands in a hide-bound boat, and Hector Boece’s 1527 history of Scotland describes their frequent use of coracles:

How be it, the Highlanders have both the writings and language they had before, more ingenious than any other people. How may there be any greater ingenuity than to make any boat of any bull-hide, bound with nothing but wands? This boat is called a curragh, and with it they fish salmon … and when they have done their fishing they bear it to another place on their back as they please. 

Fishing was not just a pastime for such people, but a matter of survival; the protein they brought in was precious, especially in Catholic countries where meat was forbidden part of the year. Another common use was to gather fish and eel traps from rivers and lobster pots from the sea – also, of course, woven of wood like baskets. The traps operated on a simple principle; a bit of bait could lure an animal into the trap but, if it were shaped properly, they would be unable to escape.

Coracles also proved useful in other ways; when shepherds washed their sheep, for example, coracle-men positioned themselves downstream to catch any sheep that might be carried away. And, of course, they offered simple transportation across a landscape lined with lakes, rivers and canals, and among many islands separated by the sea.

Each region had its own design – not just region as in “Europe,” but as in each local village or stream; small Welsh rivers like the Teifi, the Taf, the Wye, the Monnow, the Lugg, the Usk, the Dee and the Severn each had their own styles of coracles, each apparently made for the conditions of that place.

Irish coracles and curraghs were woven from willow or hazel, and typically built upside-down. Locals here began by planting a row of hazel rods straight into the ground, continuing in a wide curve until the row came back to where it began. Then, when the rods looked like the bars of a large cage, they wove withies – thin strips of wood – back and forth between the rods along the ground. This would be the gunwale – the “rim” of the boat – when it was flipped over.

Then the hazel rods — the bars of the cage, as it were — were bent down across the oval to make a wicker dome, until the whole structure formed a large, solid basket. Then a covering was lashed to the frame – cow-hide was typical, although horse-hide and seal-skin were also used. Finally, the cover was waterproofed – in recent years with tar or some other petroleum derivative, but originally with tallow or butter.

Such ingenious craft opened up new industries, crafts and food sources for ordinary hunters or farmers, allowing them to traverse lakes and rivers easily and travel between islands. They allowed people on islands or in remote areas communicate and trade with the rest of the world. They let people create their own craft for the unique conditions of their place, with nothing more than local resources, knives and skill. In short, for tens of thousands of years human survival depended on such small and unlikely-looking creations.


Friday, 24 February 2023

What Used to Be

Excerpt of what I've been writing lately:


When I read writings from the Middle Ages, or letters from the 1700s, or novels from the 1800s, I'm struck by how rich they were with references to the Greek and Roman classics. Even when I casually read magazine articles or watch black-and-white movies made a mere few generations ago, created not for professors but for regular mailmen, farmhands or construction workers, I’m struck by how liberally they are peppered with references to the people who created democracy, theatre, history, philosophy, and most of what we value today.
Even if you only watched football, you were expected to know classical references; the Yale football cheer for decades was “Brek-ek-ex Ko-ax,” which is simply nonsense unless you’ve read Aristophanes’ "The Frogs."
Children across the Western world once began their Latin lessons by reading Julius Caesar’s account of the wars in Gaul, beginning with the line “Gallia est omnis divisa in partes tres,” or “All Gaul is divided into three parts.” As scholar Wes Calliahan pointed out, this was so well-known that when "Cheaper by the Dozen" authors Frank Gilbreth and Ernestine Gilbreth Carey could begin their 1948 memoir with, “My father, like Gaul, was divided into three parts,” confident their readers understood.
Similar jokes appeared in short stories, Broadway musicals, even cartoons. Charles Addams – creator of the Addams Family – drew a cartoon of a pig teaching a Latin class, writing on the chalkboard “Alligay estay nis-omay ivisaday in artespay restay.” The cartoon had no caption to explain, for Addams could safely assume everyone got the joke – it was a pig teaching Latin in Pig Latin. And in those days everyone would have understood, just as their ancestors might have for centuries. Today, just decades later, not one person in ten thousand would understand.

Wednesday, 22 February 2023

Wisdom of children

Tonight, after a long day at work and on the bus, I got home to a four-year-old that had, apparently, eaten a wheelbarrow of sugar-coated espresso beans. After being bounced on repeatedly, playing games and giving many piggyback rides, I said, "You’re bouncing like a rubber ball. Why is that, sweetie?"

"Because that what childs are supposed to do," she said earnestly.

- Originally published in 2009.

Tuesday, 21 February 2023

The Wake


Imagine, as Irish journalist Kevin Toolis put it, inviting all your neighbours to your home, only to reveal Grandma’s dead body lying on the kitchen table. Imagine, in our culture, offering everyone whiskey and sandwiches while everyone sat around the body and chatted. Imagine hundreds of people coming by, not just to sit in uncomfortable silence around the corpse but to tell stories, to laugh about good times past, to sob in each other’s arms. Imagine an entire party where people flirted and fought and played games around the body. Or carrying the body for miles to the graveyard by hand, or digging the grave yourself. 
Most people today, of course, would call the police; exposing a body near a public road is illegal in the UK, Toolis points out, and accident victims are shrouded or pixelated. Many of us go years or decades without ever seeing a body, and never one that has not been embalmed and covered in cosmetics to feign life.
Yet in traditional Ireland people laid out their loved ones just like this – and a few still do. Virtually every traditional culture has some similar ritual where the living gather around the dead and say farewell, whether jungle tribes, desert nomads or the Greeks of the Iliad feasting for nine days to mourn Hector. The wake could be our species’ oldest and most universal tradition – and one that has disappeared from many cultures in living memory, without anyone noticing.

Monday, 13 February 2023

The Lost Civilisation


More of my writing lately:

For many children, book-learning was not limited to school, but was a part of daily life, in-between farm chores. In the Irish countryside of the early 1900s, Mary Fogarty estimated she read five hundred books a year, waking with her mother and sisters at 5 am to read for two hours, and then again before bed. “We read Lorna Doone – I was in love with John Ridd for weeks – The Vicar of Wakefield, more Dickens, Thackeray, Kingsley, and the Brontes, returning now and then, for little Annie’s benefit, to the loved books of our first days – Little Women, Masterman Ready, Scottish Chiefs, Gulliver’s Travels, and Mayne Reid,” she wrote in her memoir. “Mother enjoyed Maria Edgeworth more than we did, also Jane Austen; we much preferred George Eliot.” (The Farm by Lough Gur, 172)
Alice Taylor said that her father loved poetry and recited it for his children. “His favourite poet was Goldsmith and The Deserted Village rolled off his tongue with such relish that you knew he approved of all the poet’s sentiments.”
Most said that everyone they knew read whenever they weren’t working. Sometimes they did both at the same time; one elder described ploughmen holding books in front of them – usually something we would consider a classic – as they ploughed, or craftsmen employing a boy to read to them from such a book as they made barrels or shaped leather.

Tuesday, 7 February 2023

Learning years ago

From an article I'm working on: 

Tens of thousands of children, often barefoot and dressed in clothes sewn from flour bags and worn by several other children before them, walked to schoolhouses each morning across Ireland. Their tiny hands often carried bricks of hand-hewn turf, or sticks that they picked up along the way, to keep their single rooms warm – or less bitterly cold – as they studied. School budgets effectively did not exist; children often carried a few coins here and there for the teacher when the parents could afford it. Nor did children go to school all year; they left whenever the parents needed an extra pair of hands on the farm, or to baby-sit their brothers and sisters, or to bring in the turf for winter, or to make some extra money at a job. Some children described going to school until they were 16, or 14, or 12, or 11, and then never again.

Now: Tell me what kind of education they got. 

Every modern person, without exception, assures me the results would be pathetic -- the “three Rs,” so named because we assume that backwoods hillbillies would have spelled the subjects “reading, ‘riting and ‘rithmatic.” We assume that the poorer you are, the worse your education, and these days that’s true – in the USA today, two-thirds of all adults cannot read at a proficient level, and a third cannot handle a basic level. They are adults and can’t read.

Also, some of these children lived a century ago, and since we assume knowledge only becomes vaster and more refined over time, our learning must soar far beyond anything they could have imagined, and our children’s learning farther still. This is why we spent 25,000 hours of our best years in giant cement warehouses – our parents wanted us to keep up with the competition in a race forward. It’s is why so many of us spent years in college, and decades paying off college, to join the future and not be left behind.

Not a bit of that belief, though, stands up to the simple test of listening to accounts of schools a century or two ago, or reading actual school papers on file in Irish historical societies, or reading newspapers from the time, or looking at the books everyday people read. Children then often read classics and sophisticated literature that few college students – or professors – attempt anymore. So did mechanics and farm-hands, house-wives and fishermen.

They did not read them to boast that they had done so, as a few college elites might today, but out of a passion for learning. They talked about these works with friends. They wrote about them in their diaries. All this, you’ll recall, in addition to their practical skills, their knowledge of local lore, of the natural world and the people around them – all of which are also rare today. 

... more on this later. 

Monday, 6 February 2023

Pub in the Bog of Allen

 Pub in the Bog of Allen, Ireland. The ground swells and shifts, so the pub leans. Nonetheless, it stays in one piece, and remains a great place for a drink around the fire.

Sunday, 22 January 2023

Making yogurt

Home-made yogurt going into my home-made borscht.


No matter how much “anti-bacterial” soap we use, we live surrounded by bacteria, flowing through a sea of them as we move through our lives. They fill our bodies as well, aside from our own cells; according to geneticist Steve Jones of University College London, you have ten times as many bacteria cells as you do your own. As he put it, “the proportion of your body … which consists of human cells is about one leg below the knee.” It’s their world, and we are the tenants.

Most, of course, are harmless, and some are deeply helpful; we couldn’t digest food very well unless our stomachs were filled with them, and some particularly beneficent types even prepare the food for us.

They turn cabbage into sauerkraut, wine into vinegar, cucumbers into pickles and flour and water into sourdough. Their most accomplished instrument in the orchestra, however, is milk. They turn cream into crème freche or sour cream, can turn the leftovers from butter-churning into buttermilk, make an amazing variety of soft and hard cheeses, and turn milk into yogurt.

One of a few types of bacteria eat lactose, the part of cow’s milk most ethnic groups find particularly difficult to digest, and turn this nutritious but problematic food to lactic acid, making it edible and giving yogurt its characteristic tang.

Middle Easterners made yogurt in ancient times, and Pliny the Elder mentioned it as used by the “barbarous nations” there, but Western Europeans were slow to adopt it, even though we treated bacteria with milk to make cheese. Even now, advertisements in my native USA long promoted it as a weight-loss product, and these days as a laxative, as though we need an excuse to eat it.

The easiest way to make your own yogurt is to simply buy some natural, live-culture yogurt as a starter. “Live-culture” means it has some of the living bacteria – the “culture” – that transforms the milk. It takes some yogurt to make yogurt, but you multiply your investment with each batch, and since the bacteria are always multiplying, you have a constantly regenerating supply.

Put 500 ml of milk in a pot on the stove, and turn the heat on very low. Don’t let the milk come close to boiling – monitor it with a clean candy thermometer. Bring the temperature up to around 80 degrees centigrade, and then let it cool to around 40.  

Then scoop in about 50 ml of natural, organic, live-culture yogurt as your starter and mix well – some people use only a few spoonfuls, but better to use too much than too little. You could stop here and get a runny batch, but we like to mix in a few scoops of powdered milk to thicken it. 

Put the mixture into a plastic bowl, cover it and let it sit in a warm place overnight – we put it with our towels over our water heater – and in the morning, you have yogurt. It will keep for a couple of days at room temperature or a couple more in the fridge. 

You can also purchase a yogurt pot, a simple container-within-a-container to make the process even more convenient. First you mix your ingredients together in the inner container, place it inside the outer container, and pour boiling water in between. Then you close and seal the outer container, and the heat keeps the ingredients warm through the night. In the morning, you can open the container and you have yogurt.   

We in Ireland, as in the UK and USA, tend to sweeten our yogurt with jam, but rather than pay extra money at the store for flavoured yogurt, try adding your own jam at home. Or, if you don’t want all that sugar, try mixing in whatever grows around you --- apples, pears, raspberries, blackberries or currants. 

You can also strain your yogurt though cheesecloth overnight – we make cheesecloth into a bag, tie the bag to a broom handle, prop the broom handle between two chairs, so that the cheesecloth bag dangles in mid-air between the chairs. Then we put a bucket underneath the cheesecloth bag, and pour the yogurt into the bag. The liquids strain out overnight, leaving a soft and creamy cheese for use the next day.

Finally, yogurt can still be made from milk that has gone sour but not rancid, so that if your fridge went out during the last power cut and the milk has gone off, it doesn’t have to go to waste.