Saturday, 31 May 2014

In London for a few days

The Globe Theatre did a remarkable performance of Titus Andronicus today, and tomorrow I go to the Economics, Energy and Environment conference. Will post more when I return to Ireland.

Tuesday, 27 May 2014


We knew we wouldn't actually catch anything that day, of course. We were just walking through the places where our neighbours said they had seen the fox.

The one place everyone had seen it was by what locals called the turf bridge, the place where men once loaded bricks of bog peat onto donkey wagons and walked them on rail lines to the canal, and onto barges for the cold homes of Dublin. These days the rusted structure looms over the canal, and from it rail lines stretch, under the road and through a gap in the hedges, into the boglands.

And there, passing through barbed wire and looking around at the mud, we found the paw prints. Look at these, I told The Girl -- they make a path down into the marshes.

"Look out for the cow, Daddy," The Girl said, as a herd made its way toward us. Then it began to rain.

We'll step out for now, I said, but we'll come back when they're gone, and in wellies, and see if we can't find that den. 

Monday, 26 May 2014

Deaths in the family

I didn’t want to tell her, but eventually I had to.

There was a fox, I said to The Girl, and her horrified face showed she understood.

Our neighbour had seen it running around our yard; ordinarily someone is at home during the day, and we lock our chickens up safely at night, when the foxes come out. This fox must have hungry kits, we thought, to attack in the middle of the day – and waited until no one was around.

Our whole family got home at the same time, arriving at the crime scene. We searched all over the garden and found a few of our surviving hens, and locked them safely in the run. The Girl cried out, though, as she rounded a corner and saw a pile of white feathers.

After she calmed down a bit I kissed her teary face. When I get sad, do you know what I do? I asked.

“What?” she said without enthusiasm.

I get angry, I said. It’s a lot more productive than being sad. She found that good advice, and was soon coming up with creative uses for a fox pelt.

Thursday, 22 May 2014

Wednesday, 21 May 2014

Conversations with The Girl

Lessons with The Girl often start in one place and end up somewhere unexpected. For last night’s lesson, we talked about when humans first turned from being foragers to farmers, and how that changed everything. For one thing, I told her, they could get a lot more calories from fields of grains than from a forest, meaning they could have more babies and multiply, meaning they could cut down more forest and sow more grain, and multiply more. Do you know what that is?

“A Red Queen?” she asked.

Good, I said – why?

“Well, they would need to grow more crops to stay fed, and then more and more – all just to keep staying alive.”

That’s very good, I said – you’re right, it was a Red Queen. I hadn’t even thought about that, I said. That wasn’t the answer I was going for specifically, but you’re in the right area.

Exponential growth!” she moaned. “I hate it!

Their growth might well have been exponential, I said – ours is. I was specifically looking for ‘positive feedback loop,’ but your answers were also good. Another important thing was that the first and most important crops were grains, and what can you do with grains? “You can make bread,” The Girl said. “And beer…”

Good, I said – and you can store them, and some people can acquire a lot more than others. For the first time, you had wealth, with a small number of people being rich and most people being poor. It also meant that everyone’s life depended on the weather, so over time it became certain people’s jobs to please the gods or predict the future – priests. Eventually you start seeing statues and monuments.

“Did they think the statues were gods?” The Girl asked. “Because they carved them themselves, and it would be strange to think you could make a god.” Well, maybe they used them as symbols of their god, like the statues in our church. Or perhaps the priests made it look like they were moving and talking.

“Like in that one village Mary and Joseph visited!” she said, remembering a story we read from one of the lesser-known gospels.

Let me pause a moment to explain that last part. We often think of the Bible as a single document, but its stories and poems accumulated over many centuries, and its table of contents has changed many times. Many books that were once included in the Bible, at least by someone, were dropped for some reason, including most of the few dozen gospels. Certainly the gospel we read – the wonderfully-named Arabic Gospel of the Infancy of the Saviour – seems to have been first-century Jesus fan-fiction. They make for interesting stories, though, and I read them to The Girl in that spirit.

The story she mentioned featured Mary and Joseph after they fled from Herod, and were riding across the desert with the baby Jesus. Strangely like the 70s television show Kung Fu, they meet a new group of bizarre characters each episode, and usually ends with the baby Jesus making something supernatural happen. In one section they met the young thieves who would later be crucified on either side of Jesus; in another a man who had been magically changed into a donkey, and in another some dragons. No, seriously, they meet dragons.

In one episode, they come to a village where everyone serves the priests of an angry god, a giant statue that talks to them. The statue turns out to be the priests climbing inside the statue and shouting in a deep voice, terrifying the villagers like the Great and Powerful Oz. Of course, the baby Jesus makes the statue talk without them, and the priests flee in fear.

That’s absolutely right, I told The Girl. If people wrote that story, they probably knew of real examples like it. That kind of thing probably happened all the time.

“Are there people who still believe things like that?” The Girl asked. Like what? I asked. “Well, people who believe that the statues are talking to them,” she said, “and who do what the statues tell them to do.”

Sure, we have things like those statues today, I told her -- and many people in the world do whatever they say. They’re called televisions.

* My favourite book, for example, is the Book of Wisdom, which appears only in Catholic Bibles. The oft-cited “Ten Commandments” are usually the line-up for Protestants, not Catholics or Jews, and even then are only one of several contradictory lists from different sections. Even in last few centuries books have appeared and disappeared; when Mary Tudor burned two bishops alive in 1555 for following Martin Luther, they went to their deaths quoting from the book of Esdras -- which is not, ironically, in Protestant Bibles any more. Many of the dozens of gospels, likewise, tell some fascinating stories not included in the four Nicene ones -- whether or not you think they are "real."

Monday, 19 May 2014

Going to see John Michael Greer

I’ve just booked my tickets to leave for a few days in London, where I’ll be attending the Economics, Energy and Environment Conference at the School of Economic Science, and attending talks by, among other people, author John Michael Greer.

Some readers of this blog are familiar with Mr. Greer, but for those who aren’t, here’s a brief introduction. Some people blog by linking to other blogs that link to other blogs until they create a perfect bubble of opinions. While other bloggers writer their own original material, “original” must be used loosely – most articles I read on politics, religion, ecology or any other issue seem like anagrams of other people’s articles, until they form a muddled hash of rehashing.

An occasional writer, though, produces thousands of words of prose every week, zeroing in on the genuinely important changes around us and helping us see them in a fundamentally new way. And when I say “occasional,” I really mean “one.”

For eight years Greer has written enough material for several books – and I know, because he turned them into several books, and own most of those too. I first encountered him when he was nice enough to compliment an article I wrote, and found that he echoed many of the same thoughts I had: that while we were seeing more and more problems with our energy supply, climate and economy, we should not despair. We should not hunker down and wait for “the big one” to wipe away everyone we don’t like -- because in real life, that never actually happens. On the other hand, we should not expect the growth of the 20th century to continue forever -- because in real life, that never happens either.

What I realised, and Greer affirmed, was that the life people lived before cheap energy – growing food, knowing family and neighbours, living with the seasons – was normal. The life we live today – driving long distances at high speeds, sitting in chairs, and staring at glowing rectangles – is not normal, and sickens us. Neither Greer nor I oppose the use of technology – I am, after all, writing this on a blog, which you are reading – but people can live healthy, civilised lives on very little energy or money than most modern Americans use today. Neither a depression, nor a climate shift, nor an energy crunch has to be an apocalypse; it can be a transition back to a more traditional world.

One reason I can attest to this is that I interview elderly people who grew up here in Ireland in a time when it was deeply poor and agrarian – yet it was a society with high education, little crime, close communities and long lifespans. That’s why I study traditional Ireland here, and have learned traditional crafts to teach to my daughter. That’s why I named the blog “Restoring Mayberry,” after the fictional town that, to Americans, invokes a healthy vision of small-town life.

I’m sure the decades ahead will have many difficulties – outages and shortages, wars and rumours of wars – but I’ve devoted my spare time to re-learning the old skills that helped people get through lean times, and teaching them to my daughter. Mr. Greer’s writings have been a lighthouse to help us navigate, and I’m looking forward to seeing him in person.

I’m also looking forward to seeing London – but more on that in a few days.

Sunday, 18 May 2014

Carbury Castle

A friend of mine from America visited a few years ago, when we were still new to the area, and wanted to see the head of the River Boyne. We drove all over the tiny capillaries of Irish back roads, triangulating the source of the river, and along the way we came upon Carbury Castle.

Eventually we found a nearby manor, on whose grounds, we were told, the river began. We knocked on the giant door and were greeted by an elderly gentleman, who had lived there his entire life and was the last of his lineage. He was blind now, we realized, but could point in the right direction, and we stayed for a while to talk to him about the history of the place.

He told us about his boyhood there in the Edwardian era -- at 86, he was actually older than the independent nation of Ireland -- when he and other boys rolled hoops and held picnics on the hillsides. He told us about the Normans who first built Carbury Castle, and the warlords who ruled the area in medieval times -- one, he said, invited all the local lords to a feast and killed them in treachery, as in the opening of Braveheart.

We followed his finger to the place where the Boyne began -- a river named after the goddess Boyne, often depicted standing in water. My friend and I came upon it and she promptly fell in, standing knee-deep in the spring.

Friday, 16 May 2014

Wednesday, 14 May 2014

New article at Mother Earth News: Nine Things to Do with Dandelions

Mother Earth News prefers that I direct people to their site rather than reprinting them here, so please do check it out.

Tuesday, 13 May 2014


Most of us take libraries for granted, without appreciating what amazing things they are. Imagine having to buy even a fraction of the books, CDs and movies we can borrow freely from even the most meager local branch, whose total inventory might be worth millions.

They also serve you and your neighbours in other, less appreciated ways. Many offer free internet access to everyone, including the 20 percent of Americans who are not online. They often act as a community centre, hosting meetings and events of everything from the Boy Scouts to the PTA to the local Tidy Town volunteers.

Your branch might offer weekly storytelling for children or night courses for adults. I knew one library that featured the art of local painters, perhaps their only recognition, and another that published short-run collections of local students’ fiction, giving aspiring teen writers like myself a start. A library might offer bound volumes of now-extinct local newspapers, records and other information forgotten in an age of Google.

Even more useful than the books or activities, though, is the principle behind libraries, that we and our neighbours can pool our resources and hold things in common that all of us occasionally need. Most of the Western World, however, adopted this principle for books and then stopped, never extending it to other obvious areas of life.

In fact, the trend of the last few decades has been the opposite – people bought more and more of their own private stocks of anything, no matter how expensive or little-used: a row of ten family homes might have ten rakes, ten chainsaws, ten barbecue pits and ten Dora the Explorer videos, each of which is used for only a few hours a year.

Those same neighbours could save a lot of money, though, if they pitch in and buy a shed full of tools together – a rake, shovels, saws, hammers and so on. Most of the tools would be there when needed, but each contributor would spend only a tenth of the price on them. There might be more wear on the tools, but there might also be more people taking care of them and making them last longer.

Any small community could also keep a library of seeds. Many garden megacenters carry only a few varieties of anything, often shipped from around the world, sometimes genetically engineered to yield only a single year’s crop. A seed library would be inexpensive insurance against unforeseen events – drought, fuel shortage, worsening economy -- that might make seeds might be harder to come by and more urgently needed.

Everyone needs medical care sooner or later, and while prescription medicines should not be casually traded or used past their sell-by dates, many other first aid items could be kept together in a neighbourhood or apartment building – bandages and plasters of various sizes, surgical spirits (rubbing alcohol to Americans), hydrogen peroxide and painkillers, as well as thermometers, blood pressure wraps, swabs and other basics.

Food doesn’t exactly lend itself to re-use, but cooking supplies do, and many people have things like steamers, pressure cookers, woks, fryers and other expensive equipment that they use rarely and that could be kept in a common stock.

Any parent knows that children love new toys but are quickly bored with them, and they gradually accumulate in a child’s room until digging through them becomes an archaeological project. If each family were to frequently clean out the toys their children don’t use, however, they could create a toy library for the community, whose toys could be used and re-used.

Finally, to come full circle, you could keep books that might be useful in times to come – gardening, home health care, water filtration – and books to tell future generations what was happening to us. You can recommend such publications to public libraries, and perhaps consider joining your local library board – I used to cover the library board as a reporter, and they are usually a small group of elderly people whose hard work and subtle power goes unappreciated. They will need more volunteers as state and county funds grow scarce, and by joining the board yourself, you make sure they do not fill up with people trying to use public funds to push a single religious movement or political party.

One easy way to start would be for you and your colleagues to engage in a spring cleaning together – books you finally admit you aren’t going to read, clothes that might come back in style in ten years and rarely-used tools from the garage. People have more than they realise, and find less clutter a relief – and since many might fear abuse of the system, it’s often best to start with things people won’t miss anyway.

Such abuse – members not giving back what they borrow – can happen, but it happens in public book libraries too, and it is rarely fatal. Things like power tools, of course, are more expensive than books, so members might have to keep them secure and enforce membership fees, security deposits or late charges to make sure everyone plays by the rules.

The details will depend on your group, of course, and “group” here could be almost anything. It could be you and a few neighbours sharing a shed, your congregation storing some common goods at the church, the Girl Scouts asking to store a cabinet of seeds at City Hall, or the town’s 4-H Club keeping a shed of equipment for members to check out. It could be poker buddies going in on a chainsaw, or people in a college dormitory time-sharing their textbooks. The principle is the same – most of us have more than we need, and not enough.

Whatever the circumstance, though, try to gradually open it up to more and more people, even at a greater risk. A few scattered libraries create tiny pockets of assistance in a troubled culture, but an overlapping network of such collaborations would help restore something the culture has lost.

Originally appeared in March 2010.

Monday, 5 May 2014

Making vinegar

More than two years ago I was pulling the last of our parsnips, big as a man's legs, out of the muddy winter soil. I made some of them into wine, which didn’t turn out well; vegetable wine seems to be a much trickier business than flower wine, like dandelions or elderflowers.

The good news, though, is that I was able to take the wine and make it into vinegar, simply by buying organic, unfiltered, live-culture vinegar from a store in Dublin, mixing it with the undrinkable wine and letting it sit in a bucket, covered in the shed, for six months. The result has been a nice salad vinegar, similar to apple-cider vinegar and perfect for mixing into salad dressing.

Friday, 2 May 2014

Real cost

Every night The Girl and I light a candle and go over another lesson, something she might not learn in school. For tonight’s lesson, I said, let’s say I wanted to give you a Euro.

“Yay!” The Girl said. “Oh wait – what’s the catch?”

You know me well, I said. It will cost you one cent.

“Oh no,” The Girl said. “You’re trying to get me with exponential growth, and I hate exponential growth. That pence is cursed with black magic!”

I laughed. You’re right that exponential growth is something to watch out for, I said – that’s why interest gets you when you borrow money. If it cost you one per cent more per day, for example, that would be exponential growth. But this is just a flat amount – one cent.

“Whew,” The Girl said. “So what’s the catch?”

Well, I want to know how much money I’m really giving you.

“You’re giving me 99 cents,” she said.

Good, I said. What if I charge you 70 cents for every Euro?

She worked it out in her head. “I’d really be getting 30 cents,” she said.

Very good – what if I offered to give you a Euro but charged 99 cents?

“I’d only get a pence,” she said forlornly. “That’s not even worth it.”

Okay, I said – what if I gave you 100 Euros but charged you 99 Euros.

“I’d only get a blasted Euro!” she said, smiling.

And if I’m charging you more than a Euro for a Euro?

“You’re not actually giving me anything,” she said, rolling her eyes.  

Excellent, I said. What I’m demonstrating here is a principle called Energy-In-Over-Energy-Returned, or EIOER. You can remember it by thinking of Scooby-Doo asking a question, in his doggie voice – eioer?

“Do you even watch Scooby Doo?” she said sceptically. “He doesn’t sound like that.”

Of course – I’ve watched it with you. Okay then, make up your own mnemonic.

“I’ll do the nursery rhyme,” she said, and sang, “Old MacDonald didn’t-really-get-a-Euro, E-I-O-E-R.”

Excellent, I said – that’s the spirit. So where this comes in handy is this: let’s say you want to get some source of energy, like an oil field, and for every Euro it costs them to drill, they get 100 Euros out. They’ve made 99 Euros, right?

“Well, they’ll have a good life while it lasts,” The Girl said. “But it might be short.”

Um – why? I asked.

“Because they could poison the place where they live, and change the weather, and do all kinds of bad things that might make them not live as long,” she said.

Well, that’s a good point, I said, and that can happen in the long term. For the moment, though, just focus on more immediate effects. As you get more oil out of an oil field, though, you get less and less back, because it takes more and more effort to get it out. At first they could invest a Euro and get a hundred out, but soon they are only getting 90 Euros out, then 80, then 50, then 10.

“And then they don’t get anything,” The Girl said.

When they hit the break-even point – about one-to-one – it’s not worth it to get oil out no matter how much is there. It’s like when we pick sloes in the autumn – at first we pick the closest sloes that are the least effort, but the longer we pick the harder they get to pick, until it’s not worth it anymore, and we give up. That’s what happens with oil or anything else.

“And then they would be on the side of the roads begging for money,” she said.

Possibly, I said. So if someone tells you they have a new plan to get lots of money, or a new source of energy, or anything else, what should you say?

“Get lost, weirdo!” she said.

I laughed. Maybe, I said, but what I’m looking for is a more logical response, like: How much will it cost?

“Because if it costs me two Euros for every Euro, making a million Euros isn’t worth it,” she said. Right, I said – it would be even worse than if you had gone for some smaller amount, or made no money at all.

“If I could get just a bit of money, I wouldn’t keep going until everything was gone,” The Girl said. “I’d just take my bit of money and walk away.”

That’s the right attitude, I said – good for you. Problem is, everyone starts off wanting just a bit, and walking away is never easy.