Saturday, 8 March 2014
Our conversation takes strange turns some nights, and this week we’ve been talking about natural selection. We talked about the bits of our body that are left over from our ancestors – the tailbone, the appendix, wisdom teeth and the nictating membranes of our eyes. We talked about how many of the emotions we feel, as right as they feel to us at the time, are really just responses left over from our ancestors, and not necessarily helpful anymore.
She was fascinated that each cell of her body contains a blueprint for her, and that it is the master-work of thousands of generations of survivors. Do you remember what the blueprint is called? I asked.
“Your haecceity!” She said, pronounced “hex-ay-ity.”
I’m impressed you remember that, I said – I just mentioned that in passing a long time ago. The Haecceity, though, is a term the Blackfriars used – Scotus, Ockham, Aquinas, those people . It was their word for your essence, the thing that makes you you.
What I was looking for, though, was your genotype -- your blueprint is written in DNA code, which make genes, which make chromosomes. All the genes together make your genotype, and the way they show up – all your qualities – is your phenotype.
“Isn’t that the same thing?” The Girl asked.
Well, the haecceity is a religious idea, and the genes are a scientific one. People shouldn’t treat religion as science or vice versa – they do that too much these days.
“Is the haecceity like the soul?” The Girl asked, pressing the issue.
Well, I said, I don’t know if the monks thought of the soul the same way modern people do. These days we talk about it like it’s a ghost that lives inside us and floats out when you die, like you see in movies. They seemed to think of us more as an image that God projects onto our flesh, like the Mona Lisa on canvas or a cinema projection onto a wall. The painting is just powdered clay, the wall is plaster and we’re meat, but it’s made into an image, and that image is what matters.
The Girl looked at me sceptically. Okay, I said – let’s back up and put it a different way. It’s like that Harry Potter book you’re reading, I said. It’s just ink on paper, except the ink forms letters, like DNA code. The words are the genes, the chapters are chromosomes, and the whole book of words is the genotype. But a book is just a book --- the actual story, though, is what scientists call the phenotype, and what the monks called your haecceity.
“So which one am I?” she asked.
All of those and more, I said. The story doesn’t really exist until someone reads it, and we don’t count for much unless we change the lives of other people.
“I’m going to try to have a great story,” she said.
I expect you will, I said. But it will surprise you, even as you’re writing it.
Friday, 7 March 2014
I mentioned a few months ago that one-third of the food in the UK is thrown away uneaten, not even counting the amount that goes to waste on the farm or the factory. Of course, everyone will have some kitchen waste – no one wants to eat the potato peelings or woody stems – but throwing it in with the rest of the rubbish is a ridiculous solution when there are so many allies happy to turn it back into soil.
At the same time, many people have another problem; they want to grow their own food, but have the thin, poor soil of many suburban housing estates -- builders’ waste covered in a thin veneer or topsoil and turf. To grow things properly, many people need to build up their soil with organic waste.
Fortunately, these problems can solve each other, and there are already volunteers ready to help in your neighbourhood. They will work hard for you 24 hours a day without complaint, they are experts at turning kitchen waste into great soil and they work for free. They are worms.
We got a wormery a few Christmases ago, when we were staying in a flat (apartment) while we built our home. Once we had finished and moved back to our land, a full compost bin made more sense, but wormeries still work well for urban and suburban residents. It came in an easy-to-assemble kit – the bin, a stand, an interior tray and – snug in a plastic bag with air holes – the worms. We lay them gently in the tray inside the bin, spread a bit of peaty earth, shredded newspaper and a bit of kitchen waste around them, and then let them settle in.
A medium-sized wormery can process several pounds of organic waste a day – that’s several pounds you don’t have to put in bins, wrap in plastic and put outside in the cold; that won’t take up space in the landfill; and that won’t worsen climate change.
When the temperature dropped, we wrapped insulation around the bin and placed cardboard over the top to keep them warm, and they seem to still be going. According to worm experts, they slow down below eight degrees Centigrade (46 Fahrenheit) and stop altogether below five degrees (41 Fahrenheit). The outside temperature can go five or ten degrees below that, however, and they can still be all right if the wormery is sufficiently insulated. If you live where it regularly goes below freezing in the winter, you can bring it inside or into the shed – a well-maintained wormery should not smell foul.
A few things are not suitable for the worms. They don’t like high-protein dishes like meat, cheese or beans, acidic waste like citrus peels, too much grass, or pet poo. A little bit of these things can be okay, but not much. Most wormeries also come with an alkali powder of some kind in case the compost gets too acidic, and seaweed or crushed eggshells will also help. Some people recommend fireplace ash, but I learned the hard way not to put more than a light dusting -- it kills everything. You can tell if it starts to smell or if you see tiny, threadlike worms. The worms – called potworms in Britain – are harmless themselves, but an indication of a problem.
One nice thing about a wormery bin is that most have a valve at the base for draining excess water -- “worm tea,” which is about the colour of tea and, diluted, is excellent for watering plants.
It's all well and good to talk about living more self-sufficiently, and we know many people fumbling towards it, ourselves included. Most people's idea of self-sufficiency, however -- off-the-grid living, organic farming, wind power and so on -- can involve radical lifestyle changes for most people, and ambitious projects requiring substantial labour. Many of the people we know who are trying to embrace such a life, meanwhile -- ourselves included -- were taught few practical skills in their youth, live in isolation or in small communities, and no longer have the stamina of teenagers.
We too readily undervalue the importance of small and intermediate steps that would allow us to get closer to where we're going -- things that could be adopted by all the people who don't live on acres in the country. We would also be well advised to accept free help wherever it’s given, and when a staff of small experts offers to do some work for us, we shouldn't refuse.
Wednesday, 5 March 2014
When cinema started in the early decades of the century, it wasn't just a church that was in opposition, it was also cutting across the idea of the national revival, and the Los Anglesation of Ireland was feared as much as the Anglicisation. So what might be called the culture of protectionism of the 1920s and 30s militated against media and jazz.
One of the ironies of the Gaeity Cinema in Carrick-on-Shannon was that it established against the backdrop of a movement to ban jazz in Ireland, founded by a parish priest in the adjoining district of Cloon, County Leitrim. And that led to marches of over 5,000 in Moyle against jazz - jazz was Beelzebub’s music. And the dance-halls can be seen as part of that as well, their libidinous energies cutting across the austerity and puritanism of the new state."
-- Unidentified interview subject in the RTE documentary, "Closing the Gaiety in Carrick-on-Shannon," August 2010, remembering the cinema's role in the town during the mid-20th century.
Photo: Still from the 1920 Irish film Come On Over.
Tuesday, 4 March 2014
When we first got chickens, we got a couple of ducks with the bargain, and enjoyed their antics as they settled in. The run and coop was too small for six chickens and two ducks, however, and The Girl and I looked forward to the day we could let them walk to the canal in front of our house.
Our neighbour – we’ll call her Moira -- had successfully trained her ducks to walk out to the canal each morning, enjoy the water through the day and walk back to their yard each night, so they required minimal feeding or supervision yet still produced retrievable eggs. The ducks stayed so close to that when we gave directions to our house, we said “turn 20 metres after the ducks.” It always worked.
Our own attempts to do this, though, failed rather completely; once we brought our ducks to the canal, they refused to come out. No amount of food could entice them back, and we could not catch them in the water.
Losing them wasn’t easy on The Girl, whose imagination filled with foxes and other hazards. “I so worry about them, Daddy,” she said solemnly -- and then, leaning in and lowering her voice in politeness, “They’re really dim. And that’s by duck standards.”
But she soon saw that the ducks were in no danger, and settling quite happily on the canal. They remain there still, occasionally mocking us from a distance, and for the next year we contented ourselves with our six chickens. Then, one night last month, there were seven -- one of Moira’s chickens apparently wandered off, found our flock, and settled in for the night.
Moira said she would retrieve the bird at some point, but never got around to it, and eventually The Girl and I carried it over, the bird under our arm. We chatted with Moira for a bit, consulted her on duck training, and eventually bid her goodbye.
The next day, I saw her walking down the road with a plastic shopping bag dangling from her fist, with a small bulge in it.
“I appreciated your bringing my hen by,” she said, “And you mentioned you lost your ducks. So I thought I’d help you replace them.”
I looked down at the bulge, smaller than a soccer ball.
There’s a duck in there? I asked.
“Nope,” she said, sounding surprised. “Two of them.”
Birds are surprisingly compressible, I said.
Photo: The Girl with the neighbour's ducks, some months ago.
Monday, 3 March 2014
Saturday, 1 March 2014
Friday, 28 February 2014
I want to ask your permission for something, I said to The Girl.
“What is it?” she asked curiously.
Do you know what a blog is? I asked.
“A blog?” she said. “No, what?”
It’s short for web-log, I said. A log is a journal – captains on sailing ships used to write down their coordinates on a timber, like a desk, and it was called the “captain’s log,” so eventually every day-to-day journal was called a log.
When people invented computers and connected them together in a network around the world – a web – people started keeping public journals, like their own magazines, and they were called ‘web-logs’ or ‘blogs’ for short. I write for a newspaper in Ireland and a couple of magazines in the USA, and I put the articles I write – plus some other bits and bobs – in a blog. And sometimes I mention you.
“Me?” The Girl looked flattered, then wary. “Do you tell people my name?”
I talk about the times we have together, and the conversations we have, I said. I show photos I took, and some of them have you in them. But I never tell people your name, or show your face, or say exactly where we live – that’s my deal with your privacy.
“If you’re already doing these things, why ask permission now?" she asked.
Because I started when you were a baby, and I’ve been doing it ever since. And it’s one thing to tell people the cute things your child said when they were two, or four, or six. But telling the world about a conversation you had with another grownup, without that person’s permission, would be a violation of their privacy. You’re nine now, and we’re starting to talk about some serious and personal things, and I wanted to ask your permission before writing about it.
She thought about that a moment. “Nobody will know who I am?”
You can decide that for yourself when you’re an adult, I said. Until then, no.
She smiled. “Yes, you can absolutely keep doing that.”
Photo: The Girl on the ferry to Wales last summer.