Monday, 15 September 2014

Age of Heroes

Every night before bed, The Girl and I go over lessons that I prepare, trying to teach her some of the things she won’t learn in regular school. And as I’m at work most of the day, we have to squeeze in a lot in a little time. Sometimes we sing old folk songs, and then I start the lesson for the night.

I try to organise them by days of the week – Monday for history, Tuesday for biology and so on. I also try to organise them by week so the different types of lessons fit together; in other words, the history for that week ties in with the biology ties in with the theology and so on. Thus we have been studying the rise and fall of the Sumerian empires, one of which fell when the climate changed, another of which fell when they over-irrigated the land and accidentally salted the earth. At the same time, for biology we’ve been studying how plants need certain compounds and are poisoned by others, so she knows what salt does to plants. At the same time we’ve been reading mythology and the legend of Gilgamesh. At the same time we’ve been studying Genesis, and how Abraham fled Sumeria around that time, and so on.

That’s all in theory. Then we start talking, and the conversations and lessons take us where they will, and lessons that I planned to take a week stretch out into a month or more. That’s all right, though, as long as we get there and learn a lot of other things along the way.

A couple of weeks ago, I mentioned, we covered what happens when empires rise and fall – they discover some new resource and grow as they use it up. Eventually, all empires fall, and all fat years are replaced by lean years. I asked her to draw the Sumerian empires’ rises and falls on a timeline, and she did so – a gradual rise followed by a fall, and then a second rise followed by a fall, and finally the Babylonians and others. What do you think happened when the empires were falling? I asked.

“Well, a lot of people died,” she said. Yes, I said, and that’s where a lot of legends come from – when times were tough, people told stories about the good old days. The story of Gilgamesh seems to come from that first decline and fall – at least, that’s the earliest we know it was told. The second fall saw all kinds of warlords taking over, and making war on each other – do you remember the worst one?

“Oh, yeah …. The Iron Vulture?” she asked. You’re getting it a bit muddled, love, I said. It was Lagash the Terrible, and his legend was carved into the Stele of Vultures.

“That’s right,” she said – we had play-acted being Lagash vs. Sumerian peasants, like a re-enactment of the Magnificent Seven. When empires are rising and falling, I asked her, when do you think most of their works of art are created?

 “When they’re rising,” she said. Very good, I told her – why do you think so? “Well, because people can see that the good times aren’t going to last forever,” she said, “so they create music that will take them through the bad times.”

That’s a brilliant idea, I said – I’m sorry to say, though, that most people don’t have that foresight. Remember, this all happens so slowly in human time. No, it’s because when times are good, some people have the spare time and wealth to make music, or sculpt, or perform plays. When things are bad, some of that gets lost. All the great works of art, the great buildings, the roads - - they’re all built during the height of empires, not their fall.

 “Does anybody do anything during a fall?” she asked. “I mean, besides just trying to survive.”

Well, I said, when times get rough, it’s good to have a few people left who remember the secret knowledge from the old days. During many empires some people – usually aristocrats in the imperial cities – write down whatever science or proverbs they know, and students learn it in classes. When empires fall, the people who remember that sort of things seem to have special powers. Any idea who they would be?

“Librarians?” she asked. I was going to go with wizards, I laughed, but you can call them librarians.

Finally, I said, do you notice where a lot of our legends came from on this timeline? Gilgamesh came out of the first fall, Lagash out of the second. Abraham let his people out of Sumeria during that first fall, and Moses led the people out of Egypt around the time of the second. What do times like that create? “Leaders?” she asked. Right, I said, some who become vicious warlords, and some who become heroes. When things fall apart, the Age of Heroes returns.

“I’d love to see that,” she said. I hope you don’t see too much, I said, but I’m sure you’ll have a chance to be a hero in your life.

And with that, she curled up with me and we went back to reading Lord of the Rings.

Sunday, 14 September 2014

Soft woods

Where we hunted mushrooms in County Clare.

Thursday, 11 September 2014

Days of the forges

My first memory is of the forge; I don’t know what age. It’s a memory filled with sounds and smells, the sounds of men’s voices and the clatter of hooves coming down the street, another horse on its way, people warning me to stay out of the way and to watch the hind legs, of course. It was like a painting all crowded with people.

I remember as a child I turned the light on for my father -- I had to use a stick to reach the switch, I was so small. I must have been holding this iron for my father in the yard, and he struck before I removed my hand from the place, and he hit my thumb with the sledgehammer, and all that was troubling me was that I might curse – I remember the trouble he went to stop me cursing at the time.

You can imagine there were a lot of carts at the time, and those wheels had metal bands, so blacksmiths were kept in business until a few decades ago.

Every anvil must have its own musical tone when struck, and you could tell at a distance whose it was. I remember this anvil, and it was different than any before or since.

--  Remembrances of a blacksmithing apprentice on Radio Telefis Eireann, June 2013.

Wednesday, 10 September 2014

Kale crisps

If there’s one ubiquitous food for children these days, it’s potato crisps – grownups give them to kids at parties, as a treat, as a snack or sometimes just because. If you don’t want your children to eat the fat and other unhealthy ingredients of processed food, you can make try something straight from the garden, something light, crispy, salty, but packed with vitamins. Take, for example, kale crisps.

Kale remains one of our hardiest crops, perhaps closest to the original seaside crop that gave rise to the whole cabbage family, from which gardeners bred cruciferous vegetables for their bus (Brussels sprouts), their heads (cabbage and bok choi), their roots (kohlrabi) and their flowers (broccoli, cauliflower).

One of the most nutritious of vegetables overall, 100 grams carries 50 calories but has 308 per cent of the day’s needed Vitamin A, 200 per cent of the needed Vitamin C and 1021 per cent of one’s daily needs of Vitamin K. It has high levels of calcium, iron, manganese and potassium.

Kale is also useful for when it appears; it can be grown and eaten year-round in our climate, but is especially productive when greens are needed, in the fall and winter. It’s even good fodder for the animals;  the Irish Farmers’ Journal reported a couple of years ago that more growers turned to kale as a feed crop, one that could be grazed from October until March and yields eight to 12 tonnes of dry matter per acre.

Kale can be sown from April to June – we put ours in small seed trays and keep them inside, and put them in the ground four to six weeks after they germinate. They need well-fertilised soil with a great deal of manure or compost added, but also need it to drain well. They are less prone to disease than the more heavily inbred cabbage varieties, but still shouldn’t be put in a bed where you have had cruciferous vegetables in the previous few years.

To make kale into crisps, first snap some of the leaves off kale and bring it inside, remove the centre ribs and chop each leaf into several pieces. Wash them and let them dry – this will be the longest part, as they have to be completely dry to crisp up properly. I find it best to spin them and let them sit a few hours on a rack.

Pre-heat an oven to 150 degrees C. Put the kale in a dry bowl, drizzle a bit of olive oil over it and toss the kale until a thin layer of oil is coating everything. Line a baking tray with tinfoil and spread the kale over it in a layer one kale-piece deep.

The real trick is to let them bake for just the right amount of time – a minute too little and they come out limp and soggy, a minute too long and they blacken and burn. I put mine in for 15 minutes, but that will depend on your oven and the type of kale you use. Start checking at 10 minutes, and wing it from there.

When you take them out of the oven, sprinkle them with salt or – if you want to cut down on salt, as I did, with a spice mix of powdered vegetable stock, lemon zest, cayenne and pepper.

You can cook kale in many other ways. We often put it in bean soup – first we take dried beans and leave them in water for a day or two, and then boil them in water for an hour until the liquid is thick and reduced and the beans soft all the way through. While that’s boiling I dice and sautee a few onions in a pot, stir in other vegetables in season like celery, carrots, turnips, swedes, potatoes – all diced and then sautéed until slightly soft – and then add heaping quantities of washed and chopped kale. Finally, I add the beans and let them all cook together, until they are soft without being overcooked

My favourite is probably the sweet-and-sour kale we make in our house. First lightly oil a pan and peel and dice a large onion. Toss the onion bits in and sautee them until they are yellow. Wash and chop about as much kale as will fit in a small pot – it will cook down, and the amounts don’t have to be precise --- and toss it in as well. Add a pinch of salt and stir frequently to make sure nothing sticks to the metal.

After the kale has shrunk and gone soft, drizzle it with several tablespoons of cider vinegar, and a tablespoon of honey, and stir it in. I like to add a bit of concentrated stock and cayenne pepper, or you can use balsamic vinegar to make it sweeter. These are general recipe outlines, of course -- see what formula you like best.

Tuesday, 9 September 2014

Mushroom season

 We live surrounded by the Bog of Allen, and bogland is never more than a short walk in any direction. It's an interesting environment, bog -- when dry the ground is hard and maroon, sometimes barely covered by wildflowers or broken by patches of trees, yet when it rains it swells like dough and bounces under the feet like a mattress.

Most importantly for us, though, you get some mushrooms there, and on Sunday The Girl and I went hunting. I've written before about our love of mushrooms, and we found some great birch boletuses, which went into lunch for the next day.

Under our own soil we have a colony of ink-cap mycellium, and sometimes their mushrooms grow between our plants like a second crop. These were gathered the same day, squeezing between the kale.

Sunday, 7 September 2014

Saturday, 6 September 2014

Ten years on

An anniversary passed without my remembering; it’s been ten years since I wrote my first article on the phenomenon of peak oil, rather a turning point for me. The magazine I originally wrote it for died long ago, but it has been reprinted in several other places, including in

The article described the basic idea of “peak oil” – that oil in any field reaches a peak and then slowly declines, and by estimating the amount of oil you can predict when it would begin to decline.

It explained that geologist M. King Hubbert predicted in 1956 that the USA would peak around 1970, and it did – and has been declining ever since. In writing it I mentioned Hubbert’s next prediction, that the planet would peak around 2000 – I was writing the article in 2004, and it hadn’t peaked yet.

As far as we can tell, the world oil supply peaked the next year, in 2005 – but it’s basically in a plateau since 2004.

At the time, I wrote: 

It is difficult to overstate how a permanent oil crisis would change our lives. Such a change would have been profound in 1956, when Hubbert made his prediction and the oil economy had existed for almost a century. But that same year also saw the opening of the federal highway system. That same decade saw the destruction of most of our cities’ streetcar systems, and the explosion of suburban sprawl.

From 1960 to 1990, the United States’ population increased 40 percent, but the number of drivers doubled, fuel consumption doubled and the number of miles driven tripled, according to Jan Lundberg, whose Lundberg Letter was the top-rated oil industry publication in the late 1970s.

Like Deffeyes, Lundberg left the oil industry, taking the additional step of selling his car and founding the anti-car Alliance for a Paving Moratorium. He has not owned a car in years, and recently turned his driveway into a garden.

“Each decade in the U.S., approximately one and a half million people are killed by cars and their fumes, and millions more from diseases caused by the sedentary lifestyle of commuting,” he said. Nor, he added, has the flow of cheap oil made our lives much cheaper or faster. “The average speed of the U.S. motorist is only about five miles per hour when time is factored in to earn money to buy the car, maintain it, pay for gasoline, and insurance, etc.”

Even after decades of environmentalism, Americans are not conserving more than in Hubbert’s day; some cars then could get 40 miles to the gallon; now SUVs get about 18 miles to the gallon, and the Ford Excursion gets about 4.6 miles in the city.

There is now almost one car for every American, and our society is built around that fact. Having transportation is having a car, a crucial factor in getting a job. Half of all urban space exists for cars, the other half for people. Ten percent of all arable land in the United States has been paved over.

Many newer suburbs don’t have sidewalks, since the expectation is that people will leave their homes mainly to get inside cars. Many new minivans have televisions, a feature that assumes children will spend a hefty chunk of their childhood in the back seat.

Nor does the problem stop at vehicles, which consume only about half the oil produced. America, and to a lesser extent the rest of the world, has largely abandoned plant-based products for oil-based ones; polyester instead of cotton, GoreTex instead of canvas. Plastics are so ubiquitous – keyboards, gelcaps, furniture, business suits, the lid of a coffee-to-go — that they are largely invisible. But these, too, are oil, wealth from another era, a tapping into our trust fund of liquefied dinosaur biomass.
Finally, there is the underappreciated use of oil as the basis for fertilizer. Around the time of Hubbert’s prediction, almost all arable land had been taken and world grain yields had hit their limits in production, notes author Richard Manning in his book, “Against the Grain.” In the 50 years since, yields have tripled in a so-called “Green Revolution” that has allowed the world’s population to double; a revolution due almost entirely to oil.

“The common assumption these days is that we muster our weapons to secure oil, not food,” wrote Manning. “There’s a little joke in this. Every single calorie we eat is backed by at least a calorie of oil, more like ten. In 1940 the average farm in the United States produced 2.3 calories of food energy for every calorie of fossil fuel it used. By 1974 (the last year anybody looked closely at this issue), that ratio was 1:1.”

Aside from any issues surrounding chemicals in our food, these agricultural turbochargers add a new dimension to any potential oil crunch. Two hundred years ago, Thomas Malthus proposed a now-famous calculation: Food production increases mathematically (two, three, four …) but population increases geometrically (two, four, sixteen …). Thus, he said, if humans do not control their reproduction, there would be massive famine.

Today, Malthus is often held up as an early Chicken Little, for the years since then have seen humanity grow far beyond what he thought possible. But much of that increase is due oil-powered machines and oil-fertilized crops. Take out those, and Malthus is back in the game.
Of course, most predictions of peak oil I read at the time – and climate change, and economic crash, and anything else – assumed that everything would crash overnight, leaving survivors to crawl out of the rubble the next morning. Many unhappy souls seem to take refuge in that idea, perhaps thinking that one day everyone will see they were right all along.

I was pleased to find people to inject some temperance into the article, and their predictions have pretty much described the last decade. They didn’t deny that fossil fuels were limited, and that we have some difficult decades ahead -- but they understood that the world is not an eggshell that disintegrates at a touch.  

David Morris of the Minneapolis-based Institute for Local Self-Reliance said that, while oil will become more expensive in the coming years, it will be 50 to 100 years before the world actually runs out of fossil fuels, “and as the price of oil goes up, alternatives become cost competitive.”

“For example, oil shale is competitive at about $50 per barrel,” he said. “Bio-fuels are competitive at about $45 per barrel. Of course, improved efficiency is competitive at about $5 per barrel, but institutional restraints stop us from taking advantage of that.

And the United States will feel the crunch least, as we will have the money to pay for higher prices and be able to create alternative sources if necessary.”

In fact, analysts last year at the University of Uppsala in Sweden predicted that the oil crunch could be good news for the world, removing a major source of pollution soon enough to prevent the doomsday scenarios popularized in movies like Waterworld and The Day After Tomorrow.

“There is a ‘die-off’ crowd that takes a certain amount of delight in thinking that we are about to be punished for our sinful ways,” said Ken Avidor, who illustrated this story and whose comics often focus on the unsustainability of our car culture. “They are actually very similar to fundamentalist groups that believe we are living in the End Times and look forward to the Rapture. I sometimes find myself agreeing with their dire predictions, but their kind of thinking isn’t helpful.”

Actually, that’s precisely what happened – the USA turned to more difficult sources of oil that had been previously unprofitable, like shale and tar sands. That might keep us going, too – for a little while longer.
Looking back, though, neither I nor my interview subjects gave sufficient thought to the economy; we did not anticipate that skyrocketing oil prices would help crash the economy, plunge during the crash, and start to climb again.

At the end of the piece I mentioned that my daughter had just been born, and that I wondered what kind of world she would see. I said that I saw no reason to dismiss the opinions of so many experts who have been proven right before, but also no reason to assume that peak oil meant the world would collapse overnight. I offered that the future would be somewhere in the middle, with a crash slow enough to not be noticed – and which might even be beneficial, with a revival of an older set of traditions and values.

Ten years into the future, I’ve been right about the first part – people are struggling more than they used to be, and the world is more unstable, but the Apocalypse never happened, and will probably continue to not happen. That last part, about reviving old skills and learning to be self-reliant, has also happened – for us, and a few other people we know. 

The rest of the world, we’ll have to see.  

Thursday, 4 September 2014

The Girl in Scotland

At Glasgow University, walking around their Hogwarts-like halls.

My daughter saw the stained glass and said, "Daddy, was James II king in 1451?" I don't think so, I said -- he was king in the mid-1600s. It's very strange.

Looking it up at home, I found that Scotland had its own kings, including some Jameses with their own numbers. In fact, the numbering has caused some contention in the 300 years they've been united.

I'm told, a monarch has to take whatever number is higher, so if a James were to become king of England again, he would be James VII, after James VI of Scotland, and England would just have to skip over Jameses III - VI.

In two weeks, in theory, Scotland could have its own kings again.

Wednesday, 3 September 2014

Farm work

"My father was one man and ten men. He was the local vet here. He was the butcher. He was a storyteller. He was a farmer. And everything that was to be done in the village, he was involved in it. And he was the slaughterman.

There were many here who killed pigs, but my father was the best – every time he stuck a pig, the heart rent in two halves when you opened it. Then he’d go to Scotland in June, do the little bit of the harvest we had to do. Come home at Christmas with a few pounds. He might buy a few cows or pigs and sell them again in March for the price of going over again to Scotland. I began going there myself, to help with the harvest, when I was eleven. 

You got the boat on the north wall of Dublin – a boat full of cattle. Eighteen hours at sea, in a hold I cannot describe. When you got to Scotland the cattle were let off, and when the boat went to Clyde and we were let off, not much different than the cattle.

You had to keep a steady pace picking the potatoes; you put a 13-year-old out at this day and age at a 30-yards, you think they'd be able to?

At the end of the day, when you were done with the harvest, you had to make your own bed. I mean you actually built one – you got a tick, filled it with straw, and packed it between vegetable boxes."

- Remembrances of Irish growing up in the mid-20th century, as recorded in an interview by Radio Telefis Eireann documentary "Leaving Belmullet," 2005. Photo used with permission of Irish History Links