Saturday, 21 January 2017

Hesiod was right

I appeared on RTE1 television yesterday, Ireland's national network, as colour commentary for the US inauguration. It was my second appearance there, my last one being on election night -- and this time I wasn't there until 5 am Irish time.

I commented on the parallels between this change-over in the USA and the Brexit in the UK, and how this was our Brexit, at least for now. I also talked about some of the economic hardship many Americans are going through, especially in rural areas -- something that's often a surprise to people in Ireland, who visit places like Times Square or Las Vegas and often think of the USA as a universally wealthy country.

I don't have any video links online, but I'll post them if I find them. Thanks, everyone, for all the well-wishes!


Do you remember some of the other writers around the time of Homer? I asked. 

“Sure, there was Hesiod,” said The Girl, remembering our lessons. 

Very good! I told her. 

“Don’t get too enthusiastic, because I can’t remember anything he wrote,” she added. 

Works and Days was his big one, I said. Do you remember any of the stories from it?

“Pandora’s Box?” She said apprehensively.

Great – you know this better than you think you do, I told her. He also wrote the story of the Golden Age, claiming that at first humans were incredible and golden, and then their civilisation rose and fell. Then the silver humans had a civilisation, and they rose and fell, and then bronze, and then iron – that’s where we get terms like Golden Age and Silver Age today.

“It’s the story of our lives, basically,” she said.

Why do you think he was picturing the world getting worse? I asked.

“Well, it usually is,” she said casually.

Maybe – some things have gotten better, some worse. These days, people think of the world as getting gradually bigger, faster and richer, because it has been for a few centuries, and we think it’s going to keep happening forever. But Hesiod was living in a Dark Age, when great empires were in the past – his world had been getting worse for a few centuries, so they thought it would keep going forever.

“He was basically emo before emo was cool,” she said. “Distressingly accurately so.”

Who else was that way, though? I asked. You gave me Beowulf for Christmas, and it talks about how much better things used to be. Gilgamesh sought ancient survivors of the first disasters. All these stories were written thousands of years apart, in different parts of the world, but they were all written – or sung, originally – in a Dark Age, an Age of Heroes after the fall of a great civilisation. That’s when heroes appear – before the civilisation falls, the way we are now, there’s not as much need or opportunity to be heroic.

So when you read medieval epics, it talks about ruins, ancient wisdom, buried treasure – all because they had those things left over from the Romans. Tolkien later distilled these epics into Lord of the Rings, where the good people “fought the long defeat” in a world that was slowly declining.

A thousand fantasy novels since, and games like Dungeons and Dragons or World of Warcraft, built on the kind of pseudo-medieval fantasy that Tolkien made popular. Now we think it normal to read books, see films and play games about barbarian heroes searching ruined dungeons for ancient scrolls with magical powers. But all that was real for the Venerable Bede or people in the Niebelung sagas, because most of the Roman battlements had collapsed, few people could read, a few books contained forgotten wisdom, and fleeing Romans had buried their gold. In that Age of Heroes, and in every previous Age of Heroes, that’s what the world looked like.

“In my mind, that’s the way it is,” she said. “I think they were right. I mean, there are ups and downs, but the general trend is downward. The things that have gotten better have only been small, and are outweighed by the worsenings.”

She pulled out a pen and drew what she meant; a slow downward line, and then an irregular oscillation through it, like a sound wave. “See?” she said. “Sometimes things are getting better, like lately, but most things will get worse overall.” She seemed not in the least disturbed by this, any more than people are disturbed by the knowledge that seasons will change or that children will grow up.

That’s the opposite of what most people think these days, I told her. Most people think the future will be faster, richer and better, because for the last few generations, the world has been getting better. 

“Only for humans!” she said. “And then only in certain places!”

Well, that’s a good point, I said – a lot of the forests have been cut, the seas fished out, and so on. Much of the natural world has gotten worse.

“The natural world is everything there is,” she said. “We’re selfish, so we think we’re the centre of everything, so we just ignore the rest of the living world around us. We were given the entire world as a gift, but we destroyed so much of it – people talk about how we’re “losing” the Arctic ice or rainforest, like people have nothing to do with it, but they’re just avoiding any … what’s the word … guilt?”

Culpability? I asked.

“That’s it,” she said.

How do you feel about that? I asked. So much of the natural world being destroyed?

“I just feel like it’s the truth,” she said.

I know, but does it make you sad?

“Sure it makes me sad, but I’m not naturally a sad person,” she said. “We only have a limited time on 
this Earth, so we have to make the most of it. We can’t worry about what we can’t change; we just have to pick ourselves up and fix what we can.”

I like your attitude, I said – I think that’s healthy. That’s a very Stoic attitude.

“I’m Stoic-ish,” she said. “I mean, they didn’t care about consequences, right?”

Stoics believed you just did what was right, I said, no matter the consequences. Fiat justa, ruat caelum -- let justice be done even if the sky falls.

“See, I care about the outcome too much to be truly Stoic,” she said.

That’s not a bad thing, I said. I’m Stoic-ish too.

Wednesday, 18 January 2017

Taking part

Not many of my readers here will be able to see it, but I'll be on Irish television Friday to talk about the state of US politics. If you're in Ireland, feel free to look me up around 4 pm Dublin time.


Every morning I journey to the nearest village and wait for the bus to bring me to work in Dublin– usually in rainy darkness this time of year – and chat with my neighbours doing the same. A flimsy shelter of two plastic walls and an awning provides the only protection from blasts of wind and cold rain; when the county took it down for a few months of road repair, we felt its absence each morning.  
Unfortunately, teenagers with too little supervision and too few manners have etched words in the plastic that I used to shield from my daughter, before she became a jaded teen herself. Also, a single Irish winter can coat anything with layers of grime and algae – by spring most road signs are illegible.  So I was pleased to come out of Mass the other day and find some neighbours I knew busy scrubbing the shelter clean.

“That’s good of you, Bridget,” I said – she works at the village shop and is grandmother to two of my daughter’s school-mates, so we know each other well. I hadn’t realised, though, that she spent her weekends cleaning up the town.  

“Ah, we’re only after doing this once in a while,” Bridget said, as cars moved down the road in one direction and horses clopped down the other. “Youngsters can scratch it up faster than we can fix it. Other days we walk the roads picking up rubbish.”

I told them people dump rubbish on the side of the road along the canal where we live, and my daughter and I go pick it up sometimes. I gather that many rural Irish used to throw their rubbish away in hedgerows, which was fine when it was broken stones or cinders – but once the age of plastic arrived, the rubbish never disappeared.

“Sure you’re very good,” she said, sounding pleased. She handed me one of those hand-held devices that allow you to pick up trash without stooping over. “Here – take this,” she said. “You’re part of the clean-up crew now.”

I feel like I’ve been deputised, I said.  

“Well, if you’re going to do it anyway, you might as well be part of something,” she said. I couldn’t argue.

Friday, 13 January 2017

Green roofs

To appear in the Kildare Nationalist next week. 

As a child I remember going to the city and looking out the window of a tall building for the first time, looking at the vast urban landscape spread out before me, and realising it was the ugliest thing ever made. The roofs, invisible to people driving down the streets, lay covered in bare gravel or nothing, with puddles gathering on them. It all seemed so unnecessary – why not plant grass there?

Others must have thought the same thing, for today people around the world are finding ways to take the wasted space on top of their buildings and turn it into greenery. Cultivating plants on your roof creates a patch of natural habitat, partially replacing what was destroyed to create the building in the first place, provides food for bees and other miniature helpers who will fertilise your garden, and helps insulate your home.

Green roofs come in many forms, the most ambitious of which are called intensive green roofs and allow for heavier weights and deeper roots of shrubs and annuals. These can combine water management systems that process waste water from the building and store surplus rainwater, and can allow the inhabitants of a building to grow anything but trees above their homes. Understandably, they generally appear in buildings made for this purpose.

The most popular and widely applicable type, though, is the so-called extensive green roof. To create one people generally cover an ordinary roof with some kind of lightweight plastic, like pool liner, and spread thin but fertile soil on top of that. The soil should be laced with grass and other seeds, and over the soil should stretch something to stop erosion until the plants grow – garden fleece, straw or some similar inhibitor.

We created a roof like this when we built a cob house in County Clare. Cob is a mixture of clay subsoil, sand and straw, and it makes a surprisingly good building material. After building the stone foundation, cob walls and wood roof, we unrolled layers of pond liner over the roof and rolled strips of grass right on. It’s still there today, and still works.

The plants should be drought-tolerant, as water will drain from them quickly, and should be hardy, as they will feel the full brunt of most weather. If the layers are lightweight, they can be added to many existing roofs without any additional structural support. Larger plants could be even better, of course, but most residential roofs will not support trees.

These roofs do not have to just carry grass, which is one of the hardiest of plants. They could carry wildflowers as well, which would create a striking cover for your home as well as fodder for insects. If you grew hanging plants like nasturtiums, you could even have the plants hang over the sides of your roof, creating awnings and shaded walkways in the seasons you need them most. The only disadvantage of wildflowers is that the flowers themselves might be short-lived, but the plants might be beautiful or advantageous in themselves.

Of course, even the thinnest green roof carries some weight, and not all roofs will be suitable. Most people aren't prepared to do this with their already-built house, so try it with your shed or chicken coop first, and decide if you want to do more; their roofs are also likely to be lower to the ground and less dangerous to work with.

Finally, even if you don’t grow anything on your roof, you could do other things with it. In hotter climates like Europe or the USA people often have dark roofs as they do here, which absorb heat and increase their cooling bill – many would do well to paint their roofs white. Other tenants of urban buildings are using their roofs for beehives, allowing the bees to pollinate urban gardens while steering clear of passing humans.

Sunday, 8 January 2017

Home schooling

Every night, for many years, my daughter and I have done home-schooling lessons together; I write them during my three hours on the bus, and we go over them when I get home. She goes to a regular Catholic school in the village, but the lessons were meant to pass on the things I wish every child learnt, and that schools no longer teach, or never did.  

Some nights we read ancient stories: Baucis and Philemon, Samson and the lion, Horatius on the bridge. Some nights we talked about ecology: what soil needs and where things hibernate, indicator species and seres, convergent evolution and niches. Some nights we talked about logic: attacking straw men and moving the goalposts, ad hominem and post hoc ergo propter hoc. Some nights we just talked, and I listened. Then we read books together, as we have every night since she was a toddler.

Now that she is an adolescent she has more schoolwork and hobbies, wants her own space, so we have been shedding layers of this ritual like snakeskin, leaving them behind as she grows. First she no longer wanted me to read to her, then she asked to no longer do the sing-a-longs of Irish folk music, and finally we cut the lessons down to week-ends. We have no plans to abandon them altogether, however, as there is much more to teach, and I’m adapting them to her new maturity. 

And some nights I just quiz her on what she’s learned, and our conversations start meandering. The other night we started talking about the Trojan War.

The Iliad and the Odyssey, I said, took place in an Age of Heroes, with lots of little warring city-states that would fish, farm, trade, raid, and colonise all over the Mediterranean. Some of them lived in what we now call Greece, some on the other side of the Aegean Sea in what’s now Turkey, in a land they called Ilium around the city of Troy –

“So Troy was the city, and Ilium the state,” she said. “like Ireland and Dublin.”

Correct, I said – hence the war against Ilium was the Iliad. And the Phoenicians were a similarly seafaring people with colonies – in Tyre, the impregnable city Alexander the Great would later …

“Impregnate?” she asked. Well, you could put it that way, I said.

“That was the offshore island, wasn’t it?” she continued. “And he had his men build a peninsula?”

Yes, it’s still a peninsula to this day, I said. The Phoenicians also founded Carthage in North Africa – at the time of the Trojan War, was ruled by Queen Dido, the one who fell in love with Aeneas.

"Who set herself on fire," The Girl said. “That’s where Hannibal was from, right?”

Right, I said – about a thousand years after the era we’re talking about, he fought Rome and almost beat them. Latin for Phoenician is Punica, so they were the Punic Wars.

Around the time of the Trojan War, though, in this barbaric Dark Age for Greece, a lot of these city-states would band together in alliances and raid the wealthier empires to the east, and the Egyptians were called the Sea Peoples.

“They were vicious,” she said.

Yes, I said – they took down the Assyrian Empire, and they took down the Hittites.

“And you do not take down the high tights,” she said.

I know, right? I responded. Otherwise they’d all be like those baggy-pants teenagers today.

Who were the original Laconic people? I asked.

“SPARTANS!” she said, pumping a fist in the air. She likes Spartans.

Excellent, I said – why is it called being laconic?

“Because Sparta was in Laconia?”

Excellent, I told her. Can you give me some examples of what it means to be laconic?

"Sure, like that author who sent the telegram to his publisher, and it was just a question mark?"

Victor Hugo, I said. After he wrote Les Miserables, he went on holiday and didn’t want to write anything anymore, because he’d just written a book the size of the Bible. But he was curious how it was selling, so he sent a telegram to his publisher “?” The publisher responded “!”
Anything else? I asked. Any instances of the actual Laconians being Laconic?

“If,” she said.

Excellent, I said – to whom?

“Um… that I don’t know,” she admitted.

Phillip of Macedon, father of Alexander the Great – before battle with the Spartans, he sent them a message saying that they should surrender, because if he won, he would not just burn their city, but take all their belongings, kill their families, and so on. They sent him back a one-word message – “if.”

“They did that a lot to the Persians,” she said.

That’s right – you know that before the battle of the Hot Gates – Thermopylae – the Persians sent a spy to check out the Spartan camp, and he returned saying that the Spartans were a bunch of nancies – they were all getting their hair trimmed and styled before battle. They didn’t realise that when a Spartan cut his hair, it meant he was preparing to die.

 “If you’re going to die, you might as well look good,” she said.

Can you think of any other examples? I asked.

“Sure,” she said. “In that same battle, the Persians told the Spartans they would send so many arrows they would block out the sun. The Spartans said, ‘We will fight you in the shade.’”

And when the Persians ordered the Spartans to give up their arms, I told her, the Spartans said, ‘Come over here and take them.’

“You don’t mess with the Spartans,” she said, smiling.


After a while, our talked meandered over to Greek mythology, and The Girl asked, “One thing I wondered – was Narcissus the guy from Pygmalion?”

The George Bernard Shaw play or the legend? I asked – we had seen the play last year. The guy from the Pygmalion legend was Pygmalion – he fell in love with his statue.

“So Narcissus was the guy who was in love with himself?” she asked. That’s him, I said.

“How did Narcissus die?”

He wasted away into nothing staring at his own reflection, I said.

“Well, at least he died happy,” she said.

You’re good at finding the bright side, I responded.

“I would think that after starving for a while, when your face loses its colour and you can see the bones under the skin,” she asked. “wouldn’t you reach a point of negative feedback? Or you’d have to go away and nurse yourself back to health, and return to the reflection – it would be an endless loop, or until he naturally died.”

I think if you’re obsessed with yourself, you don’t care, I said. Love is blind.