Wednesday 29 March 2023

The feral joy of childhood

More of what I'm writing lately: 

If you ever wanted to see what the world might look like after a global Apocalypse, 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 centuries of erosion washed away the Burren’s thin soil and carved jigsaw patterns into the limestone. Half of County Clare is a rippling moonscape of pale hills that stretches to the sea, with few trees to slow the screaming Atlantic winds.

Its stark beauty brings many tourists these days, who take photos of stone monuments older than the Pyramids -- 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, surrounded by toys and screens, 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 ... 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 feral joy of childhood, and she considered herself lucky to grow up as she had.

To many modern people, this sounds insane. Many Americans my age have never walked a day in their lives, much less barefoot, and a life without smart phones or cars, much less electricity or tap water, would seem like the most pitiable kind of misery, the condition you donate money to charities to lift people out of. Clearly all these people must be pranking us, or delusional about their own past.

To be sure, my Irish neighbours did grow up with a financial deprivation that most Americans can’t imagine. When we think of poverty, though, we think of inner cities or rural trailer parks, neighbourhoods of graffiti and boarded-up windows, rife with illiteracy, ignorance, addiction, abuse and violence. Irish families then made less than inner-city families today, so you’d assume they’d be even more miserable. In the two decades I’ve lived in rural Ireland, though, I’ve talked to dozens of people who grew up this way, read dozens of memoirs and diaries of day-to-day life from those days, and almost everyone says the same. Their childhood memories were not of sitting in the back seats of cars looking at screens, but of picking wildflowers and finding birds’ nests, climbing trees and looking under logs, swimming to islands or rowing boats, swearing eternal friendship, and engaging in the feral joy of a tribal childhood.


Tuesday 28 March 2023

Memories of Belfast

 “… there were so many children in White City of the same age that a group very quickly formed when any were seen playing outside. Street play ranged very widely indeed, depending on the weather and numbers involved: making dens in the covered alleyways; playing hopscotch on the flagged streets ...

Hours would be spent bouncing tennis balls off walls, sometimes as many as three or four at a time, advanced levels of expertise commanding considerable respect from other children. Marbles were played by the girls and boys alike, the brightly coloured “bulldozers” the desirable prize.

The large space at the top of Portmore Hill lent itself to more organised play --- rounders, Pussy-in-the-Four-Corners and skipping, with the older girls able to manipulate two hefty ropes simultaneously and queues of children lining up to jump in while chanting the many colourful skipping rhymes. (Hearthlands. p. 82)

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.