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.

Sunday, 9 November 2014

Masonry heaters

Almost no one enjoys the cold, yet most people in the world live where it is cold for part of the year – even subtropical or Mediterranean climates can get chilly in the winter, and burning deserts can get cold at night. Right now, we keep warm through burning fossil fuels, or from electricity – most of which comes from burning fossil fuels. In the future, however, we can expect billions more people in the world, and far less fossil fuels.

The simplest method of keeping warm, of course, is the oldest one -- fire. Restoring fireplaces to our homes and offices, however, would present a few problems. First, we destroyed most of the world’s forests when we only numbered in the millions, or hundreds of millions, and now there are seven thousand million of us. We could coppice trees (cut them off at the base) or pollard them (cut them at man-height) and let them grow back, and willow grows man-high shoots in a year, but they are suitable only for kindling. Also, fireplaces are spectacularly inefficient; according to author David Lyle, a fireplace and chimney send only 10 percent of its heat to the room, and the other 90 percent goes out into the sky.

There is, however, a little-remembered method that was used in Central and Eastern Europe from the Middle Ages until the beginning of the fossil fuel era – the masonry stove. It relies on a simple concept: it is a hearth surrounded by a thermal mass like cob, brick or tile, which heats up with the fire and slowly releases heat throughout the day. Instead of having a single vertical flue that takes the heat directly into the sky, masonry ovens have a flue that winds around several times before heading outside -- the smoke is typically cold by the time it reaches the outside. All the heat is transferred into the mass, and thence into the room.

Since the initial fire burns fast and hot, it does not generate a great deal of soot to build up inside, and does not need to be cleaned -- although cleaning one would be a much more dificult task, with the internal bends and turns. Fires in masonry ovens do not need to be tended and kept going, as it is not the fire itself that keeps the house warm; thus most oven owners simply set one fire in the morning, and then let the heat radiate through the day. As they release the heat slowly, so they tend to be warm but not hot to the touch – some old Russian ovens were made with spaces on top for people to sleep where it was warm.

Perhaps most importantly, since the ovens need only a brief and quickly-burning fire, they do not require chopped wood for fuel, but can use faster-growing and more common material like straw or the aforementiond willow shoots. The fast-burning fuel would create little soot to build up and block the flue, so their users say they rarely, if ever, require cleaning.

Masonry ovens, like thatched roofs, bale-building and cob, is an old method recently revived when more people began to realize its advantages. Barring any unforeseen complications, millions of people could build sustainable heating systems out of nothing more than clay and stone, and heat themselves with material that is renewable and almost free.

For more information check out David Lyle’s excellent Book of Masonry Stoves, or a recent article on the subject by Low-Tech Magazine. 

Article originally published in 2009. Photo of a German masonry heater, courtesy of Wikicommons.