Thursday, 21 May 2015

Reading Plutarch

First of all, Greeks were funny. We don’t usually think of them that way. We think of them as marbled patriarchs in togas, Important Men from the Dawn of Time, whom we are supposed to revere for some reason.

Admittedly, we don’t usually think of them at all; after being a cultural standard for most of the last 25 centuries, referenced by writers and thinkers ever since, they’ve almost disappeared from modern pop culture. Occasionally a television character name-drops an Aristotle or Plato, demonstrating that they are the Brainy Character and can rattle off exposition. Schoolbook blurbs on ancient poets or philosophers bounce off an overstimulated generation; suggest to young rappers that they could listen to poetry, or to anguished teens that they learn philosophy, and you are likely to get nothing but horse laughter. Our cultural allergies run deep.  

In fact, though, the ancients were fantastic; lusty, flirtatious, petty and noble, and often dryly comic, witnesses to a world as dramatic as any fantasy epic or crime thriller today. A modern adult needs to tune in to the writing style, admittedly – and the legalistic translations often don’t help – so when I teach them to my ten-year-old, I compress the text down, Reader’s Digest-style, and we act out the characters. 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 forbade any Athenian from mentioning Salamis – they didn’t want to be embarrassed anymore.

“What, so everyone had to pretend like nothing was wrong?” my daughter said indignantly. “When everyone secretly 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, lords and emperors didn’t need to take responsibility for anything. 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 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.

So you see, I said, that Solon was risking his life by defying the ban.

“What did he do?” my daughter asked.

He sat down and wrote an epic poem – a song, really – about the defeat at Salamis, put on his best hat, walked to the market, stood on a pedestal in front of the entire city, and sang the entire story of the defeat. He couldn’t say it, so he sang it.

“What happened to him?”

The rulers were pressured to take back the island, I said – and the people of Athens figured out a way 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 when the Megarians jumped off their ships and ran onto the beach after them, the other Athenians leaped out with swords and yelled, “A-HA!” Or something to that effect.

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 he began attracting other great minds from nearby places. He became friends with Thales of Miletus, one of the first Greeks to come up with theories about how the world worked. He became friends with Aesop, who wrote the fables, and with Periander of Corinth.

He even attracted the attention of a Scythian --- Scythia included what we now call Russia, on the far side of the Black Sea, so a world away in those days. The Scythian was Anacharsis, I told my daughter, who wanted to meet Solon so badly that he travelled all the way from Russia to Greece to meet him.  

We acted out the scene: Solon hears a knock at the door, and opens it to find a strange foreigner greeting him. We had just seen 1938’s You Can’t Take it With You, so she acted the part of Solon as played by Jimmy Stewart, and I played Anacharsis like Russian character actor Mischa Auer.

Solon! I said in my best Russian accent, playing Mischa Auer playing Anacharsis.  I have travelled all the way from Russia to meet you! You are famous there as great thinker – I am great thinker too! We should be friends!

“You know,” my daughter said, playing Jimmy Stewart playing Solon, “around here we have a saying – if you want  to make friends, you should start at home.”

Anacharsis slowly looked around. Is this your home? He asked.

“Um … yes,” Solon replied.

Then you can be friends with me! Anacharsis said exuberantly.

All this provides some bedtime fun for my ten-year-old, of course, but by doing this, we learn the stories that inspired later Greeks like Socrates and Aristotle, who inspired Romans, who inspired a thousand years of monastic traditions, and so on. We take the thread of civilisation that wound through so many centuries and spin it anew.

Sunday, 17 May 2015

Butter in the bog

Here in Ireland, we burn turf – dried peat from the bog – to generate our electricity, rather than coal or oil. Grid electricity arrived here later than most places, but arrived it did, and now travels from turf-burning plants through wires to our homes, to power refrigerators shipped from factories in the Far East. And that is how we keep butter cold, so it lasts for months instead of weeks.

Traditional Irish, however, had a simpler solution, which cut out several middle-men: they kept butter in the bog itself, sometimes for thousands of years.

Turf-diggers occasionally unearth packages of butter – small as fists or big as barrels, wrapped in bark, wood or baskets – in Ireland’s waterlogged soil. Butter and other foods would normally spoil through the actions of fungi, which breathe oxygen just as we do – but in the acidic and oxygen-free bog-waters, fungi cannot survive. One recent discovery, a barrel of butter weighing more than 35 kilos, dated from 3,000 years ago.

All the same, why butter, you ask? Probably because decomposers are slow to take apart fats anyway, and meat or vegetables would be more readily consumed. Also, butter makes a valuable and high-calorie food for poor agrarian people; it’s necessary to fry food or preserve things like potted meats. It was also taxed in medieval times, so burying it could have been a kind of tax evasion. Finally, some authors have pointed out that preserving it this way would give the butter an earthy taste that might have been desired; recently unearthed butter has actually been taste-tested by Irish schoolchildren and found to taste like well-aged cheese.

A surprising number of foods have been preserved by burying in one way or another; eggs in China, salmon in Scandanavia and cheese in Italy. Obviously it’s rarely as simple as burying the food; many of these take place in cold countries with permafrost, or the food is made to ferment in some way. More than 430 such finds have been recorded, and that does not count all the buried gastronomic treasure still waiting out there. Since we can suppose that people buried their butter to unearth and eat it later, and usually did so, these hundreds of finds must represent the small proportion of times that their owners died or the locations forgotten. Burying butter must have been a rather commonplace activity.

My daughter and I decided to do the same thing, burying some in the bog-lands behind our house. First we made some butter at home, through the simple application of shaking milk. In the old days this might have been done with a butter churn, but we were only doing small amounts, so we poured milk into a jar until it was half full and shook it – music is good for this part. At some point the sound of the sloshing changes, and you have a solid clump of butter in the middle of the liquid.

In olden days many people would pat the butter dry of any milk-liquids, but we clarified it – set it to low heat until the oil separated. Then we poured the butter-fat into a small jar – to the rim, to keep out oxygen – and set it in the fridge.

To bury the butter we found a place in the Bog of Allen, dug a hole half a metre deep. We wrapped the jar in cloth, tied a rope to it, and tied the other end of the rope to a nearby bush. In six months or so we’ll come back, and see how edible our experiment was.

Wednesday, 13 May 2015

Forging a knife

The Girl and I spent last weekend taking courses in traditional crafts, she making a pizza oven out of cob -- a mixture of clay, straw and sand -- with a group of other children.

For my part, I and the others in my class took similar materials -- with some horse manure involved -- to sculpt a forge that could be used to melt and shape metal. Then -- using larger and faster forges to save time -- I melted down a spring from an old piece of machinery and in turns heated it orange and hammered it into shape, until at the end of two days I had a proper machete. The handle was a piece of hazel I cut, and I fit the handle by heating it and pressing it into the handle, as the wood steamed, shrieked and occasionally burst into flame. At the end of it, though, I have a knife I can use to work the hedgerow.

I'll write more about the details later, but for now I wanted to praise the great organisation CELT, which has organised the event, the Slieve Aughty Center that hosted it -- and my tutor, the historical blacksmith Tony Vincent. Well done, everyone.

Photo: My knife, with the book I'm reading for scale.

Thursday, 7 May 2015

Interview with Resilience

We've had a busy week --- last Sunday The Girl and I were burying butter we made in the bog, as Irish used to do thousands of years ago, to see if it will keep. More on that later. Tuesday we all went to the ballet -- La Fille Mal Gardee. This weekend I won't be able to answer any e-mails, as we'll be out in County Galway -- she learning to work with cob, and me learning to smith knives.

In the meantime, though, I've written some interview questions for one of the best sites on the internet, Most people who read this blog know Resilience, and if you don't, do check it out -- it's worth a hundred mainstream news sites. They asked me to answer a few general questions, and I'm told they'll be appearing there soon.

1. Who/what has been your greatest inspiration? And why? 

Everyone names famous people as their inspirations, but the more famous someone is, the more I wonder if they should be. We remember the generals but not the soldiers, the CEOs but not the secretaries, the billionaire who contributed millions to a cause and not, as the parable goes, the widow who contributed her last penny.

Even for every activist leader we admire, there are usually a hundred more who washed the dishes or knocked on doors, and didn’t get the attention. Most of the inspirational people I’ve known aren’t in the public eye, and I don’t want to name them without permission: homesteaders in the Ozarks, nuns I knew growing up, elderly neighbours here in Ireland.

Well-known authors I admire would include John Seymour, John Michael Greer, John Gatto, J.R.R. Tolkien, Wendell Berry, Rod Dreher, and William Catton.

2. Knowing what you know now about sustainability and resilience building, what piece of advice would you give your younger self if you were starting out? 

Don’t worry too much about changing the world, because you won’t. You can, though, change a small patch of land, or a group of people’s lives, and that’s time well spent.
3. What keeps you awake at night? 

I’m not worried about our species surviving – we’ll go on until we don’t. I care how much we lose our intellectual traditions and culture.

A century or two ago most people had real-world skills– they sewed clothes, fixed tools, raised animals, grew crops, played instruments and organised neighbourhood lodges, rather than moving a cursor that simulated these things on a screen. Also importantly, though, school-children often read Plutarch or Shakespeare, logic and rhetoric, and it showed -- 19th-century oratory for rural American farmers showed a complexity that flummoxes college students today.

Most Westerners today, both on the left and on the right, have abandoned such cultural standards. Few people today know they were once commonplace or understand their value. I wonder how much more people will lose that by the time their screens go black for the last time. It will mean the difference between a sustainable civilisation or barbarism.

4. What gets you up in the morning or keeps you going? 

She’s ten.

5. What has been your biggest setback and how did you recover? 

I did what many people do; I joined groups and got tangled in the internal politics. Eventually I left them behind, and years later they’re still bickering over the same things. I wish I knew an easier way to recover than to salvage what you can and leave the rest.

6. For you resilience is...? 

Creating much more than you use up; not just in money, but in topsoil, or firewood, or neighbourhood goodwill. Slowly replacing each new thing in your life that breaks with either 1.) nothing, or 2.) something your grandchildren could leave behind.

7. What one social/political/cultural/policy change would most assist your work/hopes/dreams? 

If governments – and particularly my native USA, which imprison millions of its own citizens -- were to take prisoners or probationers and give them jobs in the countryside, teaching them agrarian skills, they could solve many problems at once.

They could plant trees to cut down wind and keep soil in place, or phytoremediation crops on toxic land. They could teach skills that are otherwise growing scarce.

They would make dangerous areas safer by removing aggressive and idle young males, many from broken families, while allowing those males the opportunity to become valuable. They could take people who know only cement and show them trees.

8. What gives you hope? 

 Most people sense something has gone terribly wrong with the world; they don’t agree on the specifics or the solutions, but they feel it in their bones.

Our culture diagnoses such feelings, prescribe medicine for them, and offers screens to distract you from them. Entire ecosystems spring up – talk radio, conspiracy groups, online subcultures and new churches – to explain the world, and most just direct everyone’s frustration at some other group. But if you look at the world’s situation right now and feel a measure of grief, it doesn’t mean you’re sick, it means you’re decent. That feeling is why our species deserves to be saved.

Another reason for hope: It took only small groups of people – suffragettes, civil-rights workers – to move mountains in the past, and you probably have far more wealth and privilege than they did. We possess greater fortune than any people in history, and have a responsibility to use it.

Top photo: Stile in old forest.
Bottom photo: Boys doing chores in school, Ireland 1950.

Monday, 4 May 2015

Interviewed on the C-Realm podcast

For seven years the C-Realm Podcast has taken fringe and fascinating ideas from all over the political, religious and ideological map. On any given week the topic might be organic farming, science-fiction futures, drugs, or any number of other things, always with some new point of view I don't hear in the mainstream. Most weeks its interviews are only of passing interest to me, but when it hits a subject that fascinates me - perhaps one time out of five -- the result is one of my favourite things to listen to.

For the second time in six months, I'm honoured to be a guest myself, talking about my piece on peak oil.

Wednesday, 29 April 2015

Published at Front Porch Republic

If you've never looked at the web site Front Porch Republic, you should -- it's one of the few online magazines where the traditionalist right meets the conservationist left, and find a lot in common. Both down-home and intellectual, earthy and spiritual, it fills a much-needed void in modern culture.

I'm pleased to say they've published a few pieces of mine over the years, on old movies, living together, Irish funerals, and the ethics of eating meat, and as of today, my piece on teaching the Trojan War.

Sunday, 26 April 2015

The Great Conversation

Pop quiz: What ancient Greek legend begins with the kidnapping of Helen of Troy, and ends with Greeks sneaking into Troy inside a hollow wooden horse?

If you said “The Iliad,” you’re wrong, as I discovered reading trying to read it to my daughter. I knew that the story didn’t begin with Helen; that was back-story, as familiar to Homer’s audience as the US Civil War might be to Americans. I also knew the story begins in the tenth and final year of the war.

Until I read ahead, though, I had assumed that the Trojan Horse was the climax of the story; instead, it ends with the death of Hector at the hands of Achilles, his body dragged around the battlements. The Trojan Horse part, I discovered, was mentioned in the Homer’s Odyssey and many other sources – most commonly Virgil’s Aeneid, written by Romans perhaps a thousand years later. Nor did the Iliad include the story of Achilles’ heel, or any of the other half-remembered bits of mythology I associated with the epic.   

The same is true of many other classic stories of Western culture, I’m discovering as I read some of them for the first time; not only did we not learn them as children, but we misremember what little we know.

By abandoning the classics, we break a line of culture that stretched through civilisation’s rises and falls, prosperity and Dark Ages. The same Greek classic that was once read by Alexander the Great as a child might also have been read by Marcus Aurelius several hundred years later, and by medieval monks several centuries after that, and by Victorian school-boys centuries still later. The canon gradually expanded – from Romans and Hebrews, French and British – but later works referred to the ones before them in a great conversation through the ages.

Teacher’s journals or education guides from 19th-century America demonstrate an amazing breadth of learning, with even poor farm children learning Shakespeare or Plutarch at young ages. Of course we can’t know how much was absorbed, but it’s telling that children’s guides from that era are often beyond that of college students today. In teaching my daughter the Iliad I tried to use Rev. Alfred Church’s 1892 children’s version (“for Boys and Girls … in Simple Language.”), but even I find it requires more concentration than the iGadget world allows us.  

Like most modern Americans, I never read such cultural standards as a child, and knew only Disney versions or other bits of hand-me-down pop-culture flotsam. I found a few ancient stories in my childhood – Pandora, Baucis and Philemon, and of course the Bible – and that’s a few more than my peers did. Most of the canon, though, I had to approach as an adult, and some I’m only reading now as I home-school – or “after-school” – my daughter. 

Even the versions I read, though, had strayed far from their original meaning. Take the story of Pandora’s Box, for example; in every simplified version you read, Pandora lifts the lid from the box – actually a jar, but we’ll let that slide – and accidentally releases all the troubles of mankind. When the curses scattered, however, one thing remained, that left the box last: Hope.

I had always assumed, as in the illustration of my children’s book, that hope was a tiny angel that came out after all the demons had gone to plague the world, and the lesson was clear: you might have all the troubles of the world, but at least you have hope, and that makes it all better.

I told my daughter that this was how people today saw the story, and she saw right through it. “That’s a terrible lesson!” she said. “Hope doesn’t make anything better – and if it’s false hope, it makes everything worse.”

Sure enough, that, I think, was Hesiod’s intent three thousand years ago. Accepting what you can change and what you can’t – “and the wisdom to tell the difference,” as the saying goes – is difficult for all of us, and misplaced hope can interfere with that. Hesiod’s intent, I believe, was that hope was the worst of all the troubles – if he had done his own illustrations, he might have drawn it as a monster with the others.

Even familiar Bible stories like Noah linger misunderstood in our cultural memory. When the world was flooded and he needed to see where land was, Noah let ravens loose and they never returned – sadly, our Sunday-school teachers told us. Only when he let the dove loose, and it returned with the olive branch, did he realise there was a place for them to land. 

It was only later, studying medieval history, that I realised I had misjudged the ravens; they bore the good news. Vikings and other seafarers commonly brought ravens with them, knowing they could not land on water and had to find solid ground; when they did not return, they knew land was near. 

More modern classics also become jumbled or misrepresented in pop culture, so Gulliver’s Travels becomes a children’s comedy, and Romeo and Juliet a love story. Modern audiences, I suspect, find ancient stories difficult because we look for what we think we’re supposed to see, when the real story is far more instructive.

Sometimes, of course, we must view the stories with different values than their creators intended; we are not, for example, Bronze Age warlords. At one point in the Iliad, Agamemnon boasted that his men wanted to keep fighting, weary as they were from ten years of brutal combat. He tested them by suggesting they get in their ships and return to their families, and the men cheered and ran for the ships, and we feel for the men, not the king.

Homer might have meant this as suspense, a moment when the heroes’ spirits falter. To my daughter, this scene played like a Bugs Bunny cartoon, and she acted it out like one -- Agamemnon running after his men, shouting “NO! NO! Bad warriors! Get back here!”

When Agamemnon stops the men from running away, moreover, one man – a lame hunchback and “man of the people” -- speaks against the king, and Odysseus silences him with a punch. Everything about the man – his underdog status, his handicaps, his populist defiance of power, cues us to take his side; you can see him played by John Qualen in a Frank Capra film, beaten down by the plutocrats and becoming a martyr for the people. In Homer, however, there’s not a trace of that – he clearly meant his audience to cheer for Odysseus. My daughter found it hard to sympathise with any of the Greek heroes after that.

Reading these classics to a pre-teen girl, moreover, brings another problem into focus. Almost all characters, in every ancient story, are male – and not just in epics engraved in cuneiform. From Gilgamesh and The Iliad up to Treasure Island and The Hobbit, hardly a story in history would pass the Bechdel Test.  

Even more seriously, such stories bring home how much of human existence has been sadly based on rape. The Trojan War began with the rape of Helen and ends with the rape of Cassandra, the Iliad opens with Agamemnon kidnapping the daughter of a priest of Apollo, other Greeks rape other women, and so on. The same thing is true of most ancient texts – just the first few chapters of Genesis alone have straight rape, gay rape, gang rape and many other things I've skipped over rather than talk about with my ten-year-old. I wonder about all the children who grew up reading the Good Book without someone to walk them through it. 

I only filter some of this for her, which means I discuss things with my daughter that would shock many people – she knows that much of history was brutal and selfish, and that humans return to that state easily. All the more reason, I say, to look at what these characters actually do and try to understand them – but don’t be afraid to judge them with our moral compass. 

She takes this and runs with it; when Paris kidnaps Helen, The Girl is appropriately outraged, and is pleased to see him finally meet his end. Instead of lingering, as Homer does, on the conflicts between Agamemnon and Achilles over possession of yet another kidnapped girl, I talk about how Cassandra reacted violently when Paris brought Helen into the city, outraged at her brother’s actions. My daughter naturally sees Cassandra as the heroine and moral compass of the story, a perception only enhanced by the fact that she is a.) a girl, b.) is right, and c.) no one believes her.

If Cassandra, in The Girl’s interpretation, is basically Hermione from Harry Potter, then Paris is Draco – Draco Malfoy, not the actual Draco from later in Greek history -- cruel on the surface, but cowardly underneath. When Agamemnon challenges Paris to a duel to end the war, she acts out the part of Paris, preening in front of his men, the ladies of the city sighing as he passes.

When he sees Agamemnon, however, Paris turns tail, and Hector, the brother who did not desire the war yet faithfully protected his city, beats Paris up in front of his men.

“Good for Hector!” she said. “Why didn’t Paris’ men rise up and kick him out, if he was such a bad leader?”

The same reason people don’t do that today, I said. If one person stands up, they can be punished or killed, like the hunchback who stood up to Agamemnon. It’s in everyone’s short-term interest to attack such a person, even if it’s in their long-term interest to stand with him against the leaders. It's called a collective action problem, like the Tragedy of the Commons.

“It’s like Spartacus, isn’t it?” she asked. “But he got some people to follow him, for a while.”

You’re right, I said – people can rise up against bad leaders, but it usually means following other leaders, rebels who can also be brutal, and aren’t usually successful.

“What if they all decided to create a democracy?” she asked.

There were none yet in the world, I said – but right here, among these people, is where it would start. And you look at all the times that people in this story are speaking against their leaders, like that hunchback. To me, I tell her, it feels like the seeds were already being planted.

I don’t know what a classicist would think of this, but I wouldn’t teach the canon any other way. My daughter finds the characters maddening, and the ends tragic, and she argues against everything they do. I encourage her to argue, and not just accept their actions passively -- but I also try to get her to put herself in their sandals, and learn from their mistakes. And so we gently argue, night after night … and we slowly find ourselves part of a great conversation that began long before us, and that we hope will continue for many to come.  

Photo: From our day at the seaside near Howth, County Dublin.