Tuesday, 31 January 2017

More homeschooling

For our lessons the other night, we talked about Claudius, one of the only good emperors of Rome. 

Like most of the good rulers of history, I told her, he had not been raised to be a ruler, but was widely mocked for having a limp, a stutter and a bookish nature.

“He was the nerd of the family,” she said.

Exactly, I told her – but after the Praetorian guards turned on the mad emperor Caligula and killed everyone around him, Claudius was found hiding behind a curtain and proclaimed the new emperor.

“That day certainly ended differently than he expected,” she said.

And he turned out to be a pretty reasonable, I told her. He expanded Roman rule into Britain with relatively little bloodshed – they did fight the Celtic warlord Caractacus, but they also reached out to other tribes in an alliance, inviting the
m to join the empire. Boudica’s tribe was one of these – in exchange for pledging allegiance to the emperor, they gained imperial protection and trade. By all accounts they were treated respectfully, and unlike most emperors, Claudius went there to meet with the Celtic lords himself.

So Britons like Boudica and her tribe became willing members of the Roman Empire, learned to read and write, and ended up corresponding with other Romans, like the philosopher Seneca.

“She and Seneca were pen pals?” The Girl asked.

Absolutely, I said – I believe Seneca even loaned her family money.

“So what happened to make her rebel?” she asked.

Well, the good times under Claudius didn’t last, I said. He died – some say poisoned – and was replaced by Nero.

“Uh-oh,” she said.

Exactly, I told her. Once in power, Nero killed Seneca, began demanding money from the Britons, and his troops attacked many Britons, including Boudica’s family.

She remembered what happened next – an enraged Boudica leading an army of Celtic warriors that rampaged across Britain for years, sacking their fortress in Londinium. Even now, I told her, when people dig in London – which is of course what Londinium became – they sometimes come across a black charcoal layer where Boudica burned everything to the ground.

“You do not mess with the Celts,” she said. “Especially the women.” 


 “Is it because of all that infighting that the barbarians could take over?” she asked. 

That was probably a factor, I said – and Rome’s terrible rulers made barbarians or rebels more attractive to most people than the emperors. Still, all things decline eventually, and no one ever admits they’re declining, so no one ever plans for it to happen in an orderly fashion. Do you remember our lesson on Attila the Hun, I asked her? What was his story?

“I’m sure he had more than one,” she said.

Well, who were the Huns?

“Well, the Huns were a lot of different tribes put together.”

Exactly, I said – his people were basically gangsters, and they would beat up the tribes around them. And then they would tell the men they’d beaten up – who were probably forced to fight for their local tribal leader – ‘You know, you don’t really want to die for that guy; he’s a loser. Fight for us, and you can not only live, but get rich taking other people’s stuff.’

Like most gangsters, I said, he found that while he could kill people, it was easier to just intimidate them or get them to join him. To quote The Godfather, blood’s expensive. It worked really well – the more tribes went to his side, the bigger his army grew, and the more he could conquer.

“A positive feedback loop,” she said.

Exactly, I told her, but we don’t actually know that much about him – even ‘Attila’ is a nickname, meaning ‘Big Daddy.’ Do you remember what happened between him and the Romans?

“Sure,” she said. “The emperor’s sister was supposed to marry someone she didn’t like, so she sent her ring to Attila, asking her to rescue her. And he thought it was a marriage proposal.”

That’s right – the emperor had hired the Huns to help them fight off the Visigoths, but once Attila got Honoria’s ring, he had to hire the Visigoths to fight off the Huns. Do you remember who finally stopped Attila?

“The Pope?”

Yep, I said – he rode out to Attila’s camp unarmed and talked to him, and we don’t know what they talked about, but Attila left.

“By that time he must have had a huge army,” she said.

Well, there were a lot of tribes migrating around Europe at this time, I said, as the Roman Empire crumbled, and they took turns taking pieces of it. Visigoths, Ostrogoths, Vandals, Alans --

“The Alans?” she said. “They were all named Alan? That kept everything simple.”

Yes, I said, it was a barbarian tribe made up of Alan Cummings, Alan Davies, Alan Bennett, Alan Parsons and others.

“Now I’m picturing these men in black eyeliner and fishnet hose – goths – and vandals as these gang members with mohawks, and an army of nerds named Alan,” she said. “I’m picturing all these armies teaming up to fight a common enemy, like something out of Lord of the Rings mixed with The Breakfast Club.”

How do you know about The Breakfast Club? I asked. You’ve never seen it.

“It’s a famous movie, Daddy,” she said. “Can I see it?”

You’re 12 and I’m taking you to Hamlet, so I think you’re old enough, I said. Why are the Alans nerds?

“It just sounds like a nerdy name,” she said. “Like Nigel.”

She continued with her vision. “And Attila riding in front of his assembled armies, like Aragorn in Lord of the Rings ..."

"'GOTHS! Are you with me!'" she continued in her best Aragorn. "And they all are like ‘Uh-Huh,” in this sullen voice."

"VANDALS! Are you with me? he would shout. ‘Yeeah!’ they shout, pumping their fists."

“ALANS! Are you with me!?”

’Yes, Mr. Attila,’” they say, in a squeaky voice."

A day may come when the cliques of adolescence fail, I said, but it is not this day.

Thursday, 26 January 2017

Wattle and daub

These days, you spend your life paying off a house, and even building a shed or animal shelter can be expensive, as timber, brick or any other modern building material requires a heavy investment of money, time and skilled labour. For thousands of years, though, people used a simpler technique that used nothing but natural, local materials.

“Wattle and daub,” as it’s called, takes its name from its two components; a “wattle” was a wicker fence or wall made of a pliable wood like willow or hazel, woven around upright posts like a horizontal basket. Farmers sometimes surrounded their fields with wattle fences, which could be made in modular, lightweight pieces a metre or two high and a metre or two across – hurdles -- and then uprooted, carried to a new location, and stamped into the ground where needed.

The farmer usually created a wattle by putting the upright posts (sometimes called zales or sails on these islands) into a wooden frame (sometimes called a gallows) to hold them in place. Then withies – slim cuttings of willow or hazel – were wound back and forth around the uprights. At the end of the hurdle the withy would be twisted for greater flexibility, wound around the last zale, and woven back in the other direction. Usually a gap would be left in the middle of the hurdle, called a twilly hole, which allowed a shepherd or farmer to carry a few hurdles as a time on his back.

According to author Una McGovern, hurdle fences were vital to medieval agriculture; by keeping sheep confined without the need for permanent infrastructure, they allowed tenant farmers to graze sheep on a patch of land, letting them manure the fields one by one and deposit the fertilisers necessary for cereal crops.

The same technique could form the walls of a building, once a log or timber frame was built and the wattle filled in with a “daub” plaster for insulation and privacy. The daub often contained clay, human or animal hair and cow dung, and hardened around the wattle like concrete around rebar. The technique proved popular throughout the ancient world, among Sumerians, Chinese and Mayans alike. If kept dry the walls would last for centuries, and even now restoring or demolishing old buildings in Europe sometimes reveals wattle inside the walls.

Not all ancient builders loved it; the Roman architect Vetruvius, in the first century BC, moaned about its hazards in his Ten Books on Architecture:

“As for ‘wattle and daub’ I could wish that it had never been invented,” Vetruvius wrote testily. “…But since some are obliged to use it either to save time or money, or for partitions on an unsupported span, the proper method of construction is as follows. Give it a high foundation so that it may nowhere come in contact with the broken stone-work composing the floor; for if it is sunk in this, it rots in course of time, then settles and sags forward, and so breaks through the surface of the stucco covering.”

Vetruvius’ disdain notwithstanding, however, clearly many of his contemporaries loved it, and it’s easy to see why; it allowed people to build a structure cheaply and easily. The main disadvantage, as the Roman mentioned, is that it cannot get damp; like cob, straw bales or other natural building methods, it works best when you build the foundation and walls of rock for the first metre or so.

The technique is similar to building in cob, that mixture of sand, straw and clay, mixed with water and squeezed together – usually by humans walking on it.  Handfuls of the mixture – the word “cob” comes from an Old English word for “lump” – are stacked them on top of each other in a row, stomped solid by people’s feet, and then another layer of cob added, until people have a wall.

The straw binds the clay and sand together; instead of a wall’s mass hanging on a few large structures like girders or beams, it hangs on the many tiny structures of the straw. Once the cob dries it can be almost as durable as stone. Daub needs to be thinner than cob, like stucco or plaster – to be spread across the wattle rather than creating a self-supporting wall – but is can be made from quite similar materials.  

Of course, wattle and daub is probably not suitable for modern homeowners unaccustomed to mud walls. That doesn’t mean, however, that it has no relevance to today’s homesteader; animals don’t tend to mind such all-natural surroundings, as long as the interior remains warm and dry, and neither do garden tools.

Building techniques like cob or wattle-and-daub fell out of favour in the modern era because they are more labour-intensive than our modern building techniques that rely on fossil fuels. We should not let such skills disappear entirely, however, for these methods still have advantages. They are completely ecological, requiring no machines, and generating no pollution. They can last for centuries, as evidenced by homes built this way in Europe – and might still stand when our reinforced concrete has collapsed to ruin. And when a wattle-and-daub home is finally torn down, it merely adds fertiliser to the soil, rather than toxic waste – and another one can be built, literally dirt cheap.

Una McGovern, Lost Crafts, published by Chambers, 2009.
Vetruvius, Ten Books on Architecture, Chapter 8, Section 20.
Photo: Cottage in Heimbach, Germany.

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.