Wednesday 26 April 2023

Sowing the fields

The farm year began
as the crisp winter days began to grow and warm, when Mark McGaugh remembered taking the horses from the stables to the local blacksmith – whose father and grandfather were the village smiths before him – to shoe the horses before putting them in front of the plough. “The aroma still lingers of the moment when the smithy first tested the red-hot steel to the horses’ hooves to ascertain if it was a correct fitting,” he said. “Those steel shoes were essential for the animals to get a grip in the earth as they trudged along turning the deep heavy soil onto its side.”

The plough needed to be painted, sharpened and oiled, and set at the right depth for the crop. “To the amateur onlooker the process of ploughing appeared to be simple, but there had to be some technical preparation beforehand, as the headland area needed to be measured out in order to give the turning space to the horses at the end of each furrow,” McGaugh said. “The positioning of the two wheels of the plough determined the depth of the furrrow, and the depth was influenced by the crops; sugar beet or potatoes both required deeper soil, while turnips could thrive on a comparatively shallow drill.” (Around the Farm Gate, 97)

When the plough and horse were ready and relatives had come by to help, he said, “the pristine lea field would be scored with the precision of a surgical knife. As the curlews [birds] soared in ever increasing numbers on the exposed subsoil, the very heavens seemed to cry and lament. The solitary figure of the farmer against the enormity of the cumulus sky presented an awesome spectacle. Presently the unspoiled green field would be transformed into a canvas of burnt umber.” (Around the Farm Gate, 135)

When Marrie Walsh’s family readied to sow their wheat and barley, her job as a child was to fill the bags her family would wear around their waist, reaching in and flinging seeds all around them to “where the fresh soil was waiting to receive and nurture it,” she said. Such actions were once so familiar that when new technology appeared, people explained them with farming metaphors. When radio was invented, the signals spread in all directions from a tower like seeds scattered by Walsh’s father, so people described it using the same word; they were “broadcast.”

“It was a joyful sight; a biblical scene,” she said.“Man sowing the seed, throwing hope into the air, hopiing that when it fell that the God-given Earth and combination of the elements would yield a good harvest in due course.” (Irish Country Childhood, 122)


Wednesday 19 April 2023

Having Children

 We devote much of our lives to our children, knowing they are what’s left after we’re gone. Men spend their lives seeking money and status, in order to woo women, in order to have children. Men who fail in the quest for children are the men most likely to turn to suicide, drugs, alcohol or some radical belief that gives life meaning.

People who do succeed in having children shape everything in their lives around them. We stay in unhappy marriages with abusive people for the sake of the children. We pay mortgages, not because adults need a house, but so the children can have a yard to play in. We pay high prices for certain neighbourhoods, not because it benefits them directly, but because they want to send their children to good schools. We plan holidays around our kids’ schedule. We keep ourselves healthy, resisting the temptations of the world, so that we remain with our children as long as possible.

We spend every evening reading to our children, taking walks with them, bringing them along as we check on the elderly neighbours or pick up roadside trash. We take them with us through our lives, but more than that, we change our lives for them. We aspire to become what our three-year-old sees when they look at us, and their gaze makes us better people.

For most of history, people also taught their children what they needed to know to live – hunting, farming, the family trade – expecting life in their children’s age to be much as theirs had been. For recent generations across much of the world, though, this has changed completely – as the fossil fuel boom transformed the landscape, parents assumed life in the future would be very, very different, and for a while they have been right. Old professions – farmer, cobbler, mason, miller, wright – became mere surnames and vanished from census records. The skills themselves disappeared almost completely, as parents did not pass on what they thought would be obsolete.

Our children might face a world moving in the opposite direction. We have a world powered by fossil fuels that will not last forever, financially dependent on global trade and debt that is becoming unsustainable, and accustomed to peace and cheap goods whose days are numbered. Technology may continue to develop, but there might be less industry to build it, less energy to run it and less money to pay for it.

Most people I talk to, on the right and left alike, understand that there is an ecological and economic crisis, even if they give it different labels. Most people also have children. Yet web sites and publications that discuss the environment or the economy rarely talk about children, and how to train them to deal with the world we anticipate, and most environmental activists I know have a strange absence of children.

It doesn’t help that we’re not sure what to prepare them for. Should we teach them how to write resumes and operate software to thrive in the businesses that exist today, or will they no longer exist a few decades from now? Should we teach them bushcraft skills to survive in the wild, or will those be useless standing in the unemployment line? We could teach them the old skills of farming and village crafts, but we don’t know for certain what crafts will make a comeback – and they would have to practice them while still making a living in the present-day world of suburbs and office complexes, which does not have a ready market for farriers and cobblers.

The best solution is probably to teach them the broad basics, and let them develop more specialized skills as interest and opportunities allow. We can’t second-guess the world, but we can give them the fundamental knowledge and attitude to react to a wide spectrum of unforeseen events. If you home-school, you can turn these into full courses – but even if you send them to a conventional school, you can continue to teach, talk and explore while making supper, driving or reading bedtime stories.

Take, for example, cooking. Amazingly, more than half of all Americans don’t cook anything that didn’t come out of a package, and I don’t imagine Ireland is vastly different these days. Show them how to put meals together with the basic trinity of vegetables, starch and protein. Show them how to sautee onions, blanch beans, sear meat and make salad dressing. They don’t have to become a master chef – they just have to cook healthy things they like.

Introduce them to growing things. Let them put beans on wet paper towels and watch them grow into sprouts. Have them plant seeds in a cup, and watch them check it day after day as it becomes cress. Take them into the garden as you check the plants for disease, prune the trees, weed the soil. Enlist their help; as John Seymour put it, there are few greater threats to caterpillars than a well-motivated three-year-old.

You could teach them to forage, to pick flowers and shoots from fields in spring and fruits and nuts from trees in the fall. Most kids are fascinated by animals, and even unbidden would hunt for crayfish or snails like Easter eggs.

Show them how to turn one food into another – milk becomes yogurt, fruit can be dried for snacks, vegetables can be pickled. To a child, there are few things more fun than pounding and playing with bread dough. To an adult, there are few things more entertaining than their look of astonishment when you uncover the hidden dough and it’s twice as large as before.

Remember that children find their own routine normal, no matter how we feel about it, and they learn things not because we think they are important, but because we repeat them over and over. Make the lessons into song lyrics, set to some catchy tune they like. Make lessons into a game or a contest.

Read to them. I’m astonished at the number of parents who give their children phones or tablets, or let them play video games, often without even checking what they watch. Children don’t need to learn computer games or the latest programmes, but they do need to read, and see you reading. Nor do they need to read books just for children, many of which were created just as consumer products and not as literature. A few centuries ago children grew up reading complex adult material at very young ages, and yours can too.

When they are old enough, show them how money works. Once parents taught their children how to manage money wisely; today, almost nothing is embarrassing or forbidden except money. Most people I know were never taught now to do their taxes, estimate an appropriate salary or choose the right products when shopping, but if you teach your child these things, they will have an edge over most of their peers.

Demonstrate that take-out food can be made more quickly at home, for a fraction of the price. Introduce them to compound interest – lend them money at five percent interest per day, and show them how their debt doubles in a fortnight. Later, when they are old enough to have credit cards and mortgages – if such things exist -- they might remember.

Introduce them cheerfully to the notion that accidents happen, things break and the centre does not hold. It probably won’t happen, and there’s no point worrying, but we’d best know what to do just in case. My four-year-old helped me pack an emergency bag, and we recited like a nursery rhyme the items we needed: If it rains we have ponchos, masks if there’s smoke. This filters the water if pipes ever broke. My daughter did not seem frightened by the thought of an emergency – on the contrary, she seemed more secure in the knowledge that we could handle it.

The older they get, the more they should learn how the world is connected. This new gadget all your friends have – where was it made? What is that country like? How much energy does it take to ship it here? How long does it last? You might not want to introduce them to too much global tragedy too early, of course, but older children might like the opportunity to solve a mystery, and would take more seriously a conclusion they’ve reached on their own. I used to be an investigative reporter, and think everyone should be one, just for a little while – it should be a year-long course for teenagers.

Let them be curious. If they ask you questions whose answer you don’t know, be careful not to dismiss them or make something up – no parent thinks they would ever do that, but we all get busy and distracted. Admit you don’t know and look it up, or teach them to do so. Don’t let them accept Wikipedia or Google’s first entry. Demonstrate that there’s nothing wrong with not knowing the answer, and there’s something very right about asking the question.

Bring them along. Let them see you shovel an elderly neighbour’s walkway of snow, help build a community garden at the local church, buy second-hand clothes, split a bulk-food order with co-op members, speak at City Council meetings. Know that these things, too, are part of being a good neighbour and good citizen, something that decent people do.

Finally, I try to remember that daughter is not a blog I fill with my own thoughts – she has her own interests and will, and her future is as uncertain as the world's. You can influence them as you influence your spouse, but you’re not going to make them into someone they’re not. Luckily, there are uses for every type of personality, and we will need everyone in the years ahead. Try to make your kids understand that too – we are entering a time when we’ll need each other, and we’re all in this together.


Thursday 13 April 2023

In stillness and storm

 A childhood running barefoot through fields and climbing trees meant that my elderly neighbours had a respect for the natural world, rather than seeing it as something to be stripped bare for money, or as the Edenic exhibit of so many environmentalists. “Growing up surrounded by trees coloured our lives,” she said. “My father was a planter of trees and gave nature free rein ... [he] instilled a deep respect for trees in us, telling us that it takes a tree many, many years to grow, but a fool can cut it down in five minutes. He also believed that a person who planted a tree was far less likely to chop one down.”

When a tree needed to be cut, Marrie Walsh remembered, “we would tell the tree the reason for cutting it down. Then we would run around to the other trees and tell them not to cry. My father and brothers would
mark the first cut with the hatchet, then rub soap on the cross-cut blade and start sawing. We would watch from a distance to see which way the tree would fall.” When her father  fastened the horse to the tree and set off dragging it home for wood, she said,
“some of us perched in the branches, swaying hither and thither as we tried to balance ... by this time we would have collected several children from houses along the way, all wanting a ride on our tree.”

Like all children until yesterday, they spent their formative years in the world and not seeing it out a window or through a screen. Just as Angela or Patty Bolger watched the birds’ nests, so Tony Carr fished the rivers, Taylor and her siblings watched the swallows come every spring to nest in the barns, and Rose Smith and her friends dammed the streams to create temporary swimming pools.

Walsh remembered watching with fascination as the summer sun dried the bog and exposed the skeletons of ancient trees buried in its depths, “like sentries with their jagged stumps bleached white and ghostly, as if trying to reveal the glory that was once theirs before they were indiscriminately burned down. Their roots resembled long, bony fingers reaching out to touch and console each other in remembrance of their majestic past. In the moonlight they looked like shrouded spectres rising from the bog, trying to convey their former greatness, when they covered the land and held in their arms the birds of the air and harboured the many wild animals which roamed without hindrance through the Ireland of old.”

City children might seem far removed from Nature, but in Ireland, at least, even inner cities had parks, woods, gardens and cow pastures, and every school and hospital used to be surrounded by gardens . Ellen Miller, who grew up in Dublin in an area now covered with motorways and high-rise buildings, remembered it was then only a short walk to fields where they gathered cowslips.  

In Belfast, “… many streams still oozed from the floor of the forest ... where we spent many summers climbing trees, making woodland dens and decking them with the bluebells, violets, primroses, forget-me-nots and sweet-smelling delicately pink wild roses that grew in abundance in the early summer,” Marianne Elliott recalled. “It made for a magical dell-like landscape ... ponds full of tadpoles and wild irises; rivulets to be bridged with driftwood and stones, marking out imaginary territories.”

Woods allow children places to create their own dens, tree-houses and forts, where they collect their own treasures and form secret societies. We’re all Stone  Age tribes under the surface, and something in us needs to live that way for a while as children. The most meagre “vacant” real estate can for children become a secret and dangerous place full of old gods and buried treasure, of canyons to be leapt across, a place to smell a campfire, feel a ladybird on one’s arm, feel the freezing water of a winter creek and a breeze ripple the green barley. Time can stand still for a child, and the primal moments we feel in stillness and storm are what stay with us when our bodies are old and everything else has faded.