Tuesday, 25 November 2014

Ferguson: bubbles and bias

In this blog, I usually write about traditional crafts and ways of life, and I don’t usually delve into anything too political. Today, though, I’ve been watching my old neighbourhoods in flames on the global news. I thought an interview I did last month for the C-Realm podcast on events in Ferguson, Missouri would be quite timely right now.

The transcript has been made and published with the permission of KMO, who runs the C-Realm. It does not purport to be a perfect word-for-word transcript, but instead captures the gist of the conversation.

KMO: … I deliberately avoid any reference to the current news cycle, because I want to create things that will be of interest to people a few years down the line, people who avoid a rehash of what’s in the news.

So now it is the first of October, and I’m just now getting around to airing an episode that talks about events that got started on August 9, 2014, when, in Ferguson, Missouri – a suburb of St. Louis – a police officer named Darren Wilson shot and killed a young African-American man named Michael Brown. He shot Michael Brown six times, twice in the head.

All that is undisputed by anyone; what is disputed is what led up to the shooting. Nobody claims that Brown had a gun of his own, but some witnesses say that Brown kept advancing toward Wilson, other eyewitnesses say he had his hands in the air …

Something else that is not in dispute is that people responded very badly to the Ferguson Police Department’s behaviour after the shootings, so much so that the protests that followed might not just have been about a white police officer shooting a black man, but might have a lot to do with how the police had been very secretive and obstructionist with their documents, and very stingy in handling those documents to people who were trying to get a handle on the incident …

I have laid out a few facts that are not in dispute. What is in dispute is what is illustrated by the events of August and September in Ferguson, Missouri …

The conversation I have to play for you with Brian Kaller touches on a variety of aspects, and Brian is rather immune to forming a filter bubble and only associating with people who share his views. So he has heard from a lot of different people about what happened in Ferguson.

Brian, welcome to the C-Realm podcast. You write for a variety of magazines and other outlets, including Mother Earth News and Grit, and about the time things were getting crazy in the news cycle around Ferguson, Missouri you published a piece in American Conservative about the topic. You have a particular vantage point most journalists don’t enjoy – you grew up in the town right next to Ferguson, Missouri. I want to know what you think the media coverage of Ferguson indicates.

Brian: Sure. I grew up in Florissant, Missouri, about a kilometre from the edge of Ferguson – both of them started out as small Missouri towns that got enveloped by the post-war suburbs of St. Louis – and I had a big Irish-American family with lots of cousins, most of whom still live in the area. I rode my bicycle through there as a child, went to my first school dance there, and I had my first gig as a radio DJ at the community college, right across the road from a building that got burned to the ground by rioters in the last few weeks.

We’ve lived in rural Ireland for the last decade or so, and when everything started happening in Ferguson I was on holiday in Scotland with my daughter, taking a little boat around some rocky islands, without phone or internet service. It was only after I came back that I saw that my old neighbourhood was the leading story in Ireland, the UK, across much of the planet; for a while it was bigger than Gaza, bigger than Ukraine, and the images were hard to tell apart sometimes.

The media’s coverage was fascinating to me, because it was like the film Rashomon, a Japanese film by Akira Kurosawa where a court is trying to reconstruct a murder, but every witness tells a different story that makes themselves look good. In the same way, every blog and news outlet told a different version of what was going on, one that suited whatever their audience wanted to believe.

I’ve been a reporter for city newspapers -- I still write a weekly column for an Irish newspaper here, as well as articles for Mother Earth News, Grit, American Conservative, First Things, Resilience, and so on – so I knew what the media is like, and come away with a realistic picture of how it works. 

Most Americans I know believe very strongly that the media are biased, and when I said that different media outlets were publishing different versions, most people assumed I was talking about a conspiracy. But genuine conspiracy-theory situations are quite rare in the real world, while bias is unavoidable and not automatically bad.

People say the media are biased when it’s a bias different than their own. Anyone in the American media – talk radio hosts like Rush Limbaugh or television stars like Jon Stewart – all complain about the media, but the media are never themselves; the media is always someone else. And they can all say the media are biased, because bias is whatever you’re opinion isn’t. 

But when you write a news article, by definition you’re cramming a complicated situation into a few paragraphs, and by picking and choosing one detail over another you’re choosing what you think is the most vivid and realistic version of the truth. The problem is not that the report has a bias; the problem is that most Americans I talk to are getting only one perspective on any subject -- the one that suits their fancy -- rather than looking at a situation from many constructive angles.

Other writers made many important points about Ferguson -- that local police officers, in gear and attitude, more and more resemble soldiers occupying our cities; that the people of Ferguson were made prisoners in their own homes, that many black men in America say they experience constant harassment from police, and so on. I saw some articles writing about how this article from a net neutrality standpoint, saying that this article was downplayed on searches inside the USA – if that’s true, that’s extremely serious for democracy, because that’s how people get their information these days. All of those are important.

When I wrote about Ferguson, though, I didn’t write about any of those things – and I got some criticism from people who thought I was skipping over things like the difficulties of being black in America. But I’m not the person to write about that – I’m not black and I’m not in America. Others have written about it eloquently, and I don’t have anything to add. I could, however, see a few things because of my background that other reporters could not.

... to be continued tomorrow. 

Monday, 24 November 2014

Working on piece about Ferguson

Some of you know I grew up next to Ferguson, Missouri, which made the headlines this autumn after a tragic shooting led to protests and riots. Some of you might have seen the piece I wrote in the American Conservative, or that I did an interview on the subject for the C-Realm podcast a month later. I've been transcribing the interview to publish here.

It might seem a change of pace for the usual purview of this blog, but it's not really. If you could sum up this blog in a phrase, it deals with the gulf between the traditional world and the modern one, and how much we have to learn from the past. I try to show in the article and the interview how much my country has changed in recent years, and how that might have a great deal to do with events like those in Ferguson.

Unfortunately, the story's not over yet, and it's still relevant. As the US media focuses on everything that's terrible about the place I grew up, I will simply post a photo of Jimmy Doolittle, the aviator and World War II hero, who also came from the same town. I could have also picked baseball player Enos Slaughter or singer Michael McDonald, or photos of the park where I fed the ducks as a child, or of the old couples who lived along the tree-lined streets.

Whenever you see pictures of "unrest" on the news, just remember that, most of the time, these are normal places where families live. When you see pictures of protesters, police or frightened residents, from anywhere in the world, remember that these are not characters in a story, but people. They too could have been atheletes or soldiers in another life, and even if there is nothing outwardly remarkable about them, they might be displaying a quiet heroism we know nothing about. There is always more to the story.

Thursday, 20 November 2014

Published at Grit

Grit magazine has just published a compilation of some of its favourite articles from the past year in one volume, Grit's Complete Guide to the Woodlot. With articles on splitting wood, chainsaw, wood-burning stoves and much more.

It also has one of my articles, on coppicing and pollarding wood. Check it out, and maybe consider buying a copy.

Monday, 17 November 2014

Our favourite place to eat

Earlier this year, I took The Girl to camp out in the wilds of County Clare, and by day take a course in fruit tree grafting. It didn't work out so well -- we ended up camping in the Limerick City emergency room, waiting for my thumb to be sewn back together. For future reference: grafting knives are extremely sharp.

We spent a sleepless night socialising with other trauma victims and reading Prince Caspian, and finally fell asleep in the hospital bed, me with my thumb in a sling and The Girl curled up with me. The next morning, we fortified ourselves here, in the village of Killaloo, and the world looked brighter again.

Sunday, 16 November 2014

The future of pavement

Originally published in 2011. 

One of Ireland’s most iconic images, seen in many postcards and calendar panoramas, is the mosaic of green fields divided by stone walls. Those walls, so common in the west of our island, look even more interesting up close, for the stones are loose, irregular and often lain without mortar. They look as unstable as a card pyramid, yet many have lasted centuries. They demonstrate how insoluble problems can be combined into simple solutions, as farmers here turned an obstacle – the stones that broke their ploughs – into a barrier that would protect their livestock.

Such bucolic scenes seem a world away from, say, suburban USA, where rivers of asphalt and concrete flow through landscapes of strip-malls and housing estates. But there people actually have a similar problem as those farmers, and might learn from their solutions.

For hundreds if not thousands of years, most farmers had some knowledge of how to make walls out of the soil’s round stones, but I’m told specialists went from farm to farm to help with repairs. To build such walls you must select stones of the right size and shapes to fill the spaces formed by the ones around it, like a three-dimensional jigsaw puzzle. When laid properly, the gravity of the stones keep each other in place, like the segments of an archway.

Crafters made their walls in straight lines by hammering posts into the ground some metres apart along the path the wall was to follow, and stretching a rope tautly between them. They did not need to transport materials, as the stones were pulled from the fields around the wall itself – and stones have always been Ireland’s biggest crop.

The resulting walls seemed to grow organically out of the land, and with their crevices could be scaled by humans but made an effective barrier for livestock. Their crevices, meanwhile, provide a home for many forms of smaller wildlife we need for the larger ones to stay alive – the base of the food pyramid, as it were. Seeds eventually make their way to the crevices and sprout, and plants wind their roots and woody stems through the interstices until they become part of the structure, and the wall can barely be seen under the greenery. Eventually some of them become, effectively, hedgerows, and in some hedgerows you can still see their rocky foundation.

Smooth stones fill the earth here because a slow flood of ice scoured this land only ten millennia ago, ripping rock from mountain ranges and suspending it, up to a kilometre above the ground, for perhaps tens of thousands of years. When the ice melted, all the rubble suspended for a kilometre above any patch of land would have slowly tumbled to earth, some of it smoothed by millennia in an icy rock tumbler. Each new ice age would have added a new layer of till, until the soil was thick with it.

One other, more tragic factor might have accelerated the spread of stone walls, especially in the west where they take over from the hedgerows you see in our area. Humans began felling trees as soon as they reached this cold rainforest, but Ireland still had vast forested areas when it was conquered. Then the remaining trees fell to become much of Britain’s navy, until the land was the most deforested in Europe, as Ugo Bardi notes in his 2008 essay “A Distant Mirror.”

Trees hold soil in place; without them it washes away quickly, especially in a rainy country. Bardi notes that erosion seems to have been most severe in the west, and that the thinning soil exposed stones that were brought to the surface; even today, the further west you go, the more barren the land appears, and the more stone walls replace the hedgerows of our region. The diminishing soil, single-crop agriculture, high population and political oppression created an extremely unstable situation, which came, of course, in the form of the potato blight. Over the next few decades, the resulting Famine cut the population in half.

I study old crafts and traditions here to understand how people could live, and sometimes live well, in a truly durable way – and where they did not, to avoid their mistakes. In the modern West – and especially in my native USA – we have thousands of times the wealth that the Irish of 150 years ago, as well as devices they would consider miraculous. Our countries, however, face some of the same problems they did. Many of the forests have been felled, especially around populated areas. We rely heavily on single crops – much of the American diet now consists of corn, in the form of starch, sweetener and meat. More and more people are feeling an economic pinch, and while they have nowhere near the poverty of Ireland 150 or even 50 years ago, neither do they have any experience with the basic self-reliant skills that allowed many people then to survive.

Most of all, Americans specifically and Westerners in general have a problem very like that of the early Irish farmers – their topsoil is blocked by rock. Much of our land been locked away under cement and asphalt, and the more people live in an area, the more of their land is paved. Nor is the problem exclusively urban; suburban and rural Americans, for example, must live with mega-mall moonscapes of concrete and asphalt lining hundreds of thousands of miles of highway.

Such materials require a massive infusion of cheap energy to function, and as energy prices rose in the last decade, the cost of road surfaces soared. Such materials only last a couple of decades, and many roads are reaching the end of their lives. Rural governments in my native USA struggle to cover even rudimentary costs, and several localities are tearing up their roads for more cost-effective gravel. As other areas follow suit, they might find it advantageous to tear down berms, bridges, sidewalks, parking lots and strip malls. That would, however, leave those communities with thousands of tonnes of rubble.

Even residents who have scraps of land they could use for crops – say, suburban homeowners – often dig through their lawn and find thin, depleted soil filled with the debris from the original construction of the neighbourhood. One way or another, they will have to find some use for irregular chunks of concrete and asphalt.

At the same time, many American homes and businesses have chain-link fences for boundaries, which were only invented in the last century and whose cost will increase in the years ahead. How, then, do you discourage intruders or enclose livestock?

In an earlier article I mentioned hedgerows, which provide a thick barrier, a home for wildlife and a seasonal resource of shoots and berries. Many people with sufficient soil, a temperate climate and a bit of space could grow a hedgerow to surround and eventually supplant their existing fences. Hedgerows, however, have a few limitations. For one thing, they take time; even in a moist climate a row of willow saplings would take a few years to become a proper hedge. For another, they must have enough soil to put down roots – a problem for people with concrete or thin soil.

For many people, then, the best solution might be the same ones the Irish farmers used, to let these two problems solve each other. Chunks of rubble can be stacked into walls, and more easily than glacial till, as former pieces of road or parking lot are likely to have at least one flat side. They can keep livestock enclosed, perhaps in a single suburban block whose residents decided to tear down their chain-link fences and keep pigs together. They can break up the wind, shade lambs and piglets from strong sun, provide a home for the miniature wildlife that larger animals eat, and for the flowers that often grow in crevices.

If you think chunks of concrete and asphalt would look ugly, you could try finely chopping moss and mixing it with yogurt and beer, and painting the resulting smoothie on your rocks – I haven’t tried it myself, but I’m told it rapidly creates a moss covering. Alternately, you could plant ivy-leaved toadflax or some other flowers in the crevices, providing food for bees.

Given enough time, plants might wind their roots or stems through the gaps and you might get a proper hedgerow growing out of your wall, their fallen leaves and the animals’ waste slowly building back the soil.

Given enough time, that moonscape of parking lots could look like that green mosaic of our postcards.

Wednesday, 12 November 2014

Childhood in old Ireland

"We children all decided to go to church before hunting mushrooms and cycling home. It wasn’t our usual church, and we heard stories later on about strangers in the congregation – which turned out to be us."

"These days, children don’t have to think much about games given to them – we made up our own. We played spin the top, marbles, hoop the hoop, hop scotch, conkers, kick the can, scut the whip, jackstones, and box the fox. Hop scotch has survived to some extent, but only among girls."

"In springtime we went tree climbing and bird nesting. It was a great thrill to finally see a nest and the baby birds in it. In all my life I never remember a boy vandalising or destroying a nest."

"With games and occupations that spanned the four seasons, we never had a thought for such phrases as 'I’m bored.' We hadn’t enough hours in the day for all we wanted to do. Even when the dark evenings closed in we played 'Battle In, Battle Out,' and 'Jack jack show the light..'"

"People hadn’t much money but times were good. You could dress up and carry your handbag up O’Connell Street and not feel frightened. … There were no shutters, drunks or drugs. Everyone was out walking on every corner, and no one ever felt afraid. I would walk down the street coming from a dance at twelve. A few lads might fight but they never broke a window."

"When there was breaking news all the boys on street-corners rang bells shouting “Stop Press,” and everyone stopped to hear what the news was."

"We walked everywhere, and everyone was fit by today's standards -- no one had ever heard of dieting." 

-- Memories of elderly Irish about life in the mid-20th century, from No Shoes in Summer. 

Tuesday, 11 November 2014

Morning over the canal

This bridge is within a short walk of our home, and a railroad extends from it, perpendicular to the canal, deep into the bog. No train ever ran the track; it existed solely for horse-drawn carts that pulled turf -- the peat bog we use for fuel -- from the bog to the canal. Here, at this trestle, the carts were loaded onto barges, drawn by horses to the city of Dublin, and the turf under our feet furnished their heat in the cold winters.

These days, the trestle rusts in the mist, and the track is barely visible under the gravel of the road and the cow pasture. One day, though, we may have need of them again.

Monday, 10 November 2014

Evening reading

Every night, since she was a baby, The Girl and I have read a story together. Once we fell asleep to Dr. Seuss, Syd Hoff or Click Clack Moo, and a few years later read the Famous Five or the Phantom Tollbooth.

I made her pace herself when she began reading the Harry Potter series, knowing the series gets grimmer as it goes on and making her wait six months or so between books. I read or re-read all the books beforehand, and some were revelations to me; anyone who grew up with the broad and sentimental Disney versions of The Jungle Book, Mary Poppins or Peter Pan might be surprised at the relative depth and unsettling turns of the Edwardian originals. Some I read beforehand and decided not to read to her at all; the novel of The Princess Bride, it turns out, is purely for adults.

Now we’re reading The Lord of the Rings, and a few sections she found slow going at first; she did not share many readers’ enchantment at Tom Bombadil. “He just jumps up and starts singing loudly in the middle of a conversation?” she asks. “That must have been maddening for the poor hobbits.”

Well, remember, I said, people used to sing while they worked, or in the marketplace, or while they cooked, and they sang songs designed to be sung by ordinary people together. Now we just listen to machines sing to us, and it’s difficult to get away from their voices.

“Unless he was an amazing singer, though, I wouldn’t want to just sit and listen to him sing for hours, as the hobbits did,” she said.

It doesn’t play as well today, I said – I think you’ve hit upon why he was left out of the films.


We got to the section in Rivendell, where they debated what to do with the ring, and Boromir, the brave but headstrong warrior of Gondor, urges them to use it to fight back against their enemy.

“Boromir, you idiot!” she said to the pages of the open book. “Doesn’t he realise he can’t use the ring?”

Well, he and his people have been fighting a desperate battle for years, and he’s probably watched many friends die. Now he has the most powerful weapon in their world, so of course he wants to use it.

“He doesn’t understand that the ring is magic,” she said.

It’s not just that it’s magic, I said – it’s power. It gives you power over others, which is what the worst people want. It erodes your power over yourself, which is what the best people want.

“But what if you want goodness to have more power, and evil to have less?” she asked. “Without using the Ring?”

On the telly, I said, evil is just the other side, and you know which side is which because evil looks ugly. In the real world, though, lots of people think their side is good but terribly misunderstood, and the other groups are a conspiracy of crazy monsters. Everyone’s always surprised to see that everyone else feels the same way.

In real life, I said, evil isn’t the other side; evil is doing whatever it takes to beat the other side.

“In this book, though,” she said, “the heroes really are under attack, and they fight back.”

They fight when they have to, I said, but they refuse to use all the power they have, even if it means they will lose.

“But goodness has to be more powerful in the end,” she said, “Or there would be no point in reading the book.”

Many stories have tragic endings, I said – tragedy teaches us lessons, and it’s only in the modern era that we think all stories have to have happy endings. But I don’t want to spoil the ending for you.

“Just tell me – do they die at the end?” she said.

We all die in the end, I said, but they live well beforehand. That’s a happy ending.