Thursday, 31 July 2014


The Girl and I have been working our way through the human story – mammoth-hunters and foragers, breeding edible plants to make crops, taming animals and herding them, with our tribes coagulating into larger groups. Tonight, I told The Girl, we’re up to the last several thousand years, and we’re going to talk about empires.

“Yay!” she shouted – “which ones?” She loves a long list of them, and eagerly consumes everything ridiculous and grotesque about them – Egyptian mummies, Aztec sacrifices and mad Roman emperors.

We’ll start with the earliest and work our way up, I said, but first I want to show you something about every empire ever. Can you draw a timeline, a long line with little marks to represent centuries?

She did so, and said, “What are the years?”

They can be any years, I said – the same thing happened several thousand years ago as happens now. First, do you remember the yeast in the bottle?

She remembered the example well – a single yeast cell was dropped into the bottle at noon, double every minute, and the bottle was full at midnight. She had learned that the bottle was half full not at 6 pm, as seems intuitive, but at one minute to midnight. The bottle was about one per cent full at seven minutes to midnight, and so on.

Do you remember why they multiplied that way? I asked. “Well, they could eat the sugar,” she said.

Right, I said – they found a new resource, and it made them multiply. Do you remember how to draw their growth? I asked.

“Sure,” she said – “It’s exponential.” Can you draw that kind of curve over the timeline? I asked, and she did, starting with a low straight line right over the timeline and then sweeping upwards.

Good, I said – that’s what happens when a certain group of humans finds a new resource. Why won’t the exponential growth curve go on forever? I asked.

She looked at me like I was crazy. “Because exponential growth always ends in a die-off,” she said, looking bored; we’ve done that lesson many times.

Well, it has to end somehow, anyway, I said. So how does the curve end? I asked, and she drew the rising curve peaking and plunging down again.

Excellent, I said. What you’ve just drawn is an empire. That’s what an empire is.

“What, they multiply like yeast?” she asked.

Maybe not quite so dramatically, I said, but it grows all the same, and then hits a peak and declines. It starts when a group of people can tap a resource that no one else could. Maybe they bred a certain kind of plant into a crop, or tamed a certain animal, or found a new land where the animals never learned to be scared of humans and didn’t run away. It can be a new technology, like the Romans put iron shields together into a wall, or like the Vikings developed ships that could brave the far seas. It could be a new religion.

“Wait – what?” she said. “Even if everyone turned to a new religion, they’d use the same energy as before.” Yes, I said, but a religion can change the way people live, and encourage some people to give their lives or go evangelising.

Thing is, look at the timeline below it – what do you notice?

“It doesn’t take long,” she said, “just a few hundred years.”

It can take longer or shorter, I said, but even if it’s just a hundred years, that’s slow by human standards. In the rearview mirror we can look and see that it was a rise and fall, but we don’t really see it happening, or understand while we’re seeing.

She nodded thoughtfully, and then asked, “Can we pretend to be people in one of the empires? Like can I be the queen of the Persians, and you be one of the Spartans?”

You can absolutely be queen of the Persians, I said – you don’t want to be a Spartan yourself?

“Not a Spartan woman!” she said. “I don’t want to be kidnapped on my wedding day and shave my head.”

Fair point, I said. Okay, you’re queen of the Persians. We spent the next five minutes sword-fighting with cardboard rolls, until she curled up with a book and was ready for bed.

Monday, 28 July 2014


The Girl asked if we could play a game one night, and when I asked what kind, she said, “Historical charades.”  

I don’t think I’ve ever heard of historical charades, I said. “Well, you wouldn’t; I made it up just now,” she said.

The rules were that we had to enact something from the medieval period, and the results were fantastic:

  • I started out by pretending to ride a horse, and getting something in the eye, and she guessed it – Harold at Hastings.
  • She made shoving, chopping and falling over gestures, and then shoving away and chopping again, but I never guessed the answer: Henry VIII’s wives.
  • I acted like I was putting on robes and writing, and she easily guessed monks. For her turn she replicated my gestures and then acted like she was screaming and swinging a sword, and I laughed and guessed Viking raiders.
  • For my last turn, I acted like we were rocking to and fro, and sending birds away, and she pondered over it for a while. Soldiers sending carrier pigeons? Barons training falcons? All good guesses, I said, but it’s Norsemen sending ravens from their boats, seeing if they would return.

“Oh, right!” she said. “They let a raven loose because they’re smart and will try to find land, but they can’t land on the sea, so if they don’t find anything, they would have to come back to the boat.”

Right. In fact, I told her, reading history like that gives me new insight into some old stories. As a child, I was taught that Noah let one raven after the other from his ark, and they never returned – my Sunday school teachers said that he almost lost hope until the dove showed up.

Now that I’m reading history with The Girl, I realise they were reading the story all wrongly. When the ravens never returned, they knew some of the world had survived. No matter what happened to the world, there was still life somewhere, and with life there was hope. Hope didn’t come from the doves, the angelic symbol we all love. It came from the scroungers, but it came all the same. 

Sunday, 27 July 2014

New article at Mother Earth News

"Under the green and rolling hills of Scotland, several people lay buried for four thousand years. Around them lay what we guess to be their keepsakes; beads, a bronze knife, tools and a battle-axe. Most interesting, though, was that at least one of them – a teenager when he died, curled up like a baby – lay in what was guessed to be a wicker coracle, like those used on these islands into the 20th century. He was buried in his boat.

Stop and consider a few things about this. First, its antiquity: Before the Ancient Greeks or the Hebrew prophets, before all but the earliest pyramids, there were Scots. Also, you don’t see boat-burials every day; perhaps it was the youth’s most prized possession, the Stone-Age equivalent of being buried in your Rolls-Royce. Finally, consider this was a giant basket, woven together by hand, and that it carried people safely across the cold waters."

My latest article, "A Short History of Woven Boats," is live at Mother Earth News: check it out. 

Saturday, 26 July 2014

Waking our loved ones

When someone dies – as my great-aunt did a few days ago – the world burdens us with certain expectations; we are expected to sombrely mourn for a matter of days or weeks, and then move on and go back to normal. For most of us, though, grief has its own timetable and logic, and will be no more ignored than any other aspect of love.

Sometimes you feel relief that someone’s suffering has ended, or satisfaction at their life well lived. Sometimes you feel nothing most of the time, but once in a while, for the rest of your life, sharply feel their absence. Quite often we need celebration and catharsis, even when we feel obliged to conform to long faces and whispers. For that reason, I’ve always admired the Irish wake.

Wakes give you a certain license to do all the things that people actually need to do when they feel loss, and which might be frowned upon at your conventional funeral – to tell jokes, laugh, kiss, drink, and even behave a bit inappropriately, surrounded by your community in an upwelling of comfort and joy. Most of all, you celebrate the person that was, and it is their presence, rather than Death’s, that hangs in the air around you.  


A few years ago, after a friend of ours died – the husband of a woman I just hugged an hour ago at a friend’s farm, in fact – The Girl had many questions.

“Papa, what does it feel like to die?”

I don’t know first-hand, honey, I told her – I’ve never died.

“Why do we have to die?”

If we didn’t, I told her, no new babies could be born.

“I wish it didn’t have to end, though.”

I know, I said. But that’s what gives it value.

Photo: The Girl, around the time of the conversation.

Thursday, 24 July 2014

The world is a little less

Outside of my conversations with The Girl, I don’t talk about our private lives much. I do, however, want to devote some space to a relative from America who died recently, both to explain why I've been distracted from writing this week and because she deserves as public a memorial as I can muster.

Lucky children have not just dutiful parents, but a trusted confidant – someone who will hold a crying toddler and quickly set them right again, who will listen to a seven-year-old talk about dinosaurs or a fourteen-year-old unload their existential burdens. They have someone who will not judge them, who will keep their secrets, who will make everything better. For hundreds of children over three generations – me, my cousins, my second cousins twice removed, and kids of people who used to live down the street -- that person was Imy. ­

Children pass through the valley of the shadow of death many times in a month; their lives have far more drama than ours, and its cuts them more deeply. On one such day, when no one else understood, Imy put her hand on my back and said, “You know, everyone tells you this is the best time in your life, but they’re wrong, aren’t they? It’s no fun being a child.”

On that day, and on many days before and since, only Imy understood.

In full name she was Imogene, twin sister of my grandmother Normagene – both named, I’m told, after 1920s boxer Gene Tunney. She never married and always stayed close to her twin, often living in the same home as my grandparents. A tiny grey wisp of a woman, possibly weighing less than some of the children she babysat, she was the rock around which the rest of the world revolved.

We laughed affectionately about her many quirks; singing old show tunes in her high warbling voice, sometimes misremembering the words and passing them down to us as mondegreens. One of the last children of the Depression, she hoarded everything, in case she might find some use for it later. She  she was allergic to everything, it seemed, although we suspected that included anything she just didn’t like. She loved birds, especially cardinals, and collected knick-knacks with pictures of them. She loved mystery novels and read the end first -- to find out who-dunnit before reading the rest -- and when we protested, she would only respond primly, “It’s my book.” We had to concede the point.

Other things we never found out until we were older, and then by accident. She tutored children at the local Catholic school, and did the same for girls in her neighbourhood. She volunteered for years at a local hospital on weekends – we think she delivered mail to patients, sat with them and kept them company. I say “we think,” because she never talked about these things with us; she just did them.

On our last trip to the USA, I made sure we stayed with them a few weeks, when The Girl was young enough to fully appreciate Imy and old enough that the memories would remain with her for the rest of her life, long after most of us have gone. Since then The Girl and I called them every weekend to chat, and when Imy took sick recently we called her hospital room.

“You called me in the hospital from all the way over there?” she asked, delighted. “Well, that does it – I’m just going to have to get better now.”

On her deathbed, she was still comforting us.  

Photo free to use courtesy of

Tuesday, 8 July 2014

Published in Grit magazine

How to make your bad wine into good vinegar:

There are three ways to do it yourself. First, you could buy mother of vinegar, a slimy glob of the bacteria that makes acetic acid, and mix it with your wine. Second, you could buy unfiltered, unpasteurised vinegar that still contains the bacteria – effectively, it has a bit of the Mother still in it – and mix that in. Third, you could take the long way around and leave your wine out like sourdough, hoping that the right bacterium floats by on a wisp of breeze, lands on your project and goes nuts.

Monday, 7 July 2014

Another milestone

The Girl turned ten last week. I have a tweenager on my hands.