Wednesday 30 August 2023



Every late summer the boglands and canal-banks of County Kildare erupt in creamy-yellow tufts of meadowsweet, filling the breeze with their sweet scent. For centuries it was used as a painkiller, as it contains salicylic acid, the basis of aspirin – in fact, its Latin name Spiraea is how we got the word “aspirin.” Irish also used its strong aroma to freshen their houses, as well as to flavour mead – the name means “mead sweet.”

Unlike some wildflowers, meadowsweet are in no danger of going extinct, and have only multiplied with human activity. It grows along roadsides, but don’t pick it from there – you don’t want the chemicals from the car exhaust.

Meadowsweet makes a good tea, slightly astringent and very aromatic. You can also pick 20 or so meadowsweet flowers to make a sweet cordial, which can be kept for years and used to flavour drinks or in cooking. Heat 750 ml of water and stir in 400g of sugar and 20 ml of lemon juice. Bring to a boil and add the meadowsweet, then turn off the heat and wait about 10 minutes before straining the liquid. Let it cool and store in the refrigerator.

Most of all, meadowsweet makes a delicious dry wine. These days, for many Westerners, “wine” refers only to grape wine, but you can make wine and beer from almost any edible plant and some inedible ones.  Turning water into wine – literally – could be a matter of life and death for most of human history. Water could be contaminated with any number of diseases, but adding vegetable matter and yeast allowed the yeast to multiply and take over, releasing enough alcohol to discourage any other life in the water.

Making the wine is similar to making the cordial, with the addition of yeast and time. Pour six litres of water into a large pot, and bring it to a boil. Then dump in two litres of meadowsweet tufts. Squeeze in the juice of two lemons, boil it again, and turn the heat off – I also put in the zest of the lemons to make it a bit tarter. 

Stir in a kilogram of sugar slowly until it dissolves, and waited for the liquid to cool to blood temperature. Then pour it into a cleaned and sterilised bucket and add wine yeast – although bread yeast will do in a pinch -- and cover the bucket and set it in the closet. 

Over the next week check the bucket periodically; it should be bubbling away slowly as the yeast turns sugar into alcohol and carbon dioxide. After a week or so, sterilise a carboy – a large jug with an S-shaped valve on the top – and strain the wine into it; I use a paper coffee filter to strain it into a large glass, and then pour it through a funnel into the carboy. Carboys let you store wine during the weeks or months that it still might build up some air pressure, before you pour it into conventional wine bottles.

After pouring the wine into the carboy, you will have some leftover vegetable matter, and you could compost them, feed them to chickens or – as I did – combine them with apple peelings and make them into meadowsweet jam.

Some medical authorities caution against women taking meadowsweet when they are pregnant, thinking that its aspirin-like properties could be harmful in large doses – but you should avoid drinking wine then anyway.

Meadowsweet grows across Europe and has been introduced to North America, so look around for it if you live in those places. Perhaps nowhere, though, does it grow so profusely as in Ireland, where these last days of summer are the final chance to pick some.


Tuesday 22 August 2023

The Shifting Baseline of our Memories

One of my first memories – I couldn’t have been more than four – was of fishing with my grandfather in a rowboat on a warm summer lake. We were catching bluegill, and I remember his calloused hands delicately removing the hook from their heads, and feeling them squirm in my hands before we threw them back.

Then we were caught in a surprise shower, and I remember watching with alarm as the shores in the distance were replaced by grey curtains of rain. To my child’s eyes we seemed to be adrift and blind, unable to see the way home, and with water collecting around my boots. My grandfather calmly rowed us back to shore; he was a man, and capable.

Most of us who love Nature today can trace it back to some transcendent experience like this; feeling the tingle of distant lightning, or the smell of rain, or the cries of animals in the darkness, or the sight of a breeze rippling an ocean of green barley, or helping a sheep give bloody birth.

Today, however, few children run with magnifying glasses through the woods; in one generation British children went from half its children playing in wild places to one in ten, and in the USA kids with outdoor hobbies fell by half. We also struggle to get kids interested in the sciences, and the usual explanation is that the children don’t have enough “information,” which we think comes through screens. But children today already spend most of their lives in front of screens; they grow up gorging on images and data with no meaning to them, creating a kind of mental obesity that should not be mistaken for education.

As British naturalist and television presenter Chris Packham said, “I’ve lived in a house for eight years, and have walked my dogs in the woods every day, and I’ve never seen a child in those woods, not one in eight years – not one with an air rifle, not one building camps, starting fires, collecting birds’ eggs, climbing trees or all the things kids did when I was younger. If they can’t get stung, slimed and bitten by it, they’ll never love it enough to want to look after it.”

Ironically, we now push for children to become eco-conscious at the same time that we shut them away from any real experience with the natural world. I know many young environmental activists who care deeply about the environment, but know it mostly through screens. Richard Louv, author of Last Child in the Woods, describes ecologists who have never seen the communities they model, which is like a heart surgeon never having seen an actual heart. (Last Child in the Woods, 225)

If few of us know the animals and plants around us, fewer still could say how much they have declined, as we don’t realise how much there used to be. This isn’t simply speculation; Lizzie Jones at the University of London compared the population records of various bird species back several decades, and then asked more than 900 people of all ages to estimate the populations now versus when they were teenagers. Since the younger you are, the fewer years have passed, you’d think the youngest participants would have the best estimates. In fact, the opposite was true – perhaps because older people used to know the natural world better than we do today, or perhaps because they could see more of a change in their longer lifetimes.

Many elders complained that they can no longer hear the sounds of their childhood around them, like the birds whose calls marked the passage of seasons. Recalling the larks that rose from her neighbour’s house, Francie Murray said that “the experience that I describe is a privilege that is denied to the youth of today. The skylark is long since extinct, his demise brought on by modern technology on the farm. The lark built his nest on the open ground in the meadows of the countryside there there is little or no protection from big machinery, fertilisers and sprays which are a feature of present-day farming.”

Daniel Pauly at the University of British Columbia called this “shifting baseline syndrome,” where everyone thinks of the “normal” baseline as whatever they grew up with; he cites photos of fishermen in Florida over decades, who posed equally proudly with ever-shrinking catches. 

(“Young people can't remember how much more wildlife there used to be,” Environment 11 December 2019)


Tuesday 15 August 2023

Sunday 13 August 2023

Homeschooling with the Classics


Every night I read the classics of Ancient Greece to my daughter, which you might think will be dull for a child. On the contrary: The Greeks were funny. The other night, we read Plutarch’s biography of Solon, for example — the man most credited for inventing democracy in Athens – and acted out his defiance of the Athenian dictators.

With sticks for swords, we re-enacted the Athenians’ battle for the island of Salamis, and their humiliating defeat by the Megarians. After that, I explained, the lords of Athens created an information blackout, forbidding any Athenian from mentioning Salamis – they didn’t want to be embarrassed anymore.

“What, so everyone pretended like nothing was wrong?” my daughter said indignantly. “When everyone knew otherwise?” Yes, I said – just like today.

“Couldn’t they complain to the rulers if they didn’t like the laws?” she said. No, I told her. They had taken a step toward democracy a generation before, I told her, when a man named Draco created their first set of laws – but they were the original draconian laws, where the penalty for everything was death. That news delighted my daughter, and soon we acted out a new scene of our impromptu play: Mr. Average Athenian litters on the street, meets Draco.

“Hey! That’s against the law!” she said as Draco. Oh, shoot, I said as the Athenian – can I pay a fine?

“No!” she said, as Draco. “The penalty is DEATH.”

That’s ridiculous! I said. “Complaining about it is DEATH,” she said.

Who hired you, buddy? I asked. “Asking who hired me is DEATH.”

As much fun as this was, the gravity of it began to sink in – Solon was ready to die. “What did he do?” my daughter asked.

He sat down and wrote an epic poem about the defeat at Salamis, I explained. He put on his hat, walked to the market, stood on a pedestal in front of everyone, and recited the entire story of the defeat. He might have even sung it, or rapped it.

“What happened to him?”

He persuaded a lot of Athenians that they should take back the island, I explained, and they pressured the rulers, who gave in — and Solon came up with a cunning plan to win this time. It was …

“Yes?” she asked.

I paused, not sure how to proceed. Well, I told her, you remember that part in Bugs Bunny where he dresses up like a woman, and his antagonist drops everything to come over and flirt with Bugs?

“Right?” she asked.

Well, I said, the Athenians did that.

There was a quiet pause. “You’re joking,” she said.

No, really, I said – according to Plutarch, they had their youngest, beardless soldiers dress up as girls and flirt with the Megarians, and then the other Athenians leaped out with swords and yelled, “A-HA!”

After talking about the zaniness of these strategies for a while, I explained that Solon’s reputation continued to spread; he became so famous for his wisdom that when the city was about to erupt in civil war, the people and the leaders turned to him. He was the one person everyone trusted.

What did he do once he came to power? I asked. Did he make himself king?

“No!” said my daughter emphatically, “He said everyone had to vote, create juries, and so on, and made everyone swear an oath to follow the rules of a democracy; no one could change them except him for ten years. Then, after everyone had sworn, Solon said, ‘Good! Now I’m going on vacation – for ten years!’”

Once many students read stories like this, from Roman scholars to Victorian schoolboys to American pioneers; these days I have to introduce them to my daughter through home-schooling. Reading the Ancient Greeks presents no great chore, though, as many of their stories are as melodramatic as any soap opera, and with the occasional screwball turn into pure comedy.

Reading these installments of their true-life melodrama, I wonder why we stopped teaching the classics. These stories link us culturally to the hundreds of generations who read them before, so that when everyone from Roman scholars to Victorian schoolboys to American pioneers quote Pericles or Thucydides, we understand the reference.

These stories take the things we would see in any small town or neighbourhood today — elections, libraries, theatre – and tell us how they began, on rocky outcroppings 26 centuries ago. It cures us of the notion that we are special or superior to our forebears; rather, it helps us know the people on whose shoulders we stand.