Sunday, 5 July 2015

Beets

Some families split over political parties or religious faith. Mine split over beetroot. Some relations insisted on having bowls of boiled beetroot at every major meal, while the beet-haters complained all the while. I joined the anti-beetroot faction in childhood after finding them bland and mealy, until in adulthood I discovered the many other things you could do with the vegetable.

 Now that the first beetroots are coming in our garden – and probably yours as well – we should revisit this long-maligned vegetable. It grows very well in most temperate climates, growing large over the summer and often remaining intact and quite edible even through the winter. Every part of it is edible -- leaves, stalks and roots -- and it comes in many varieties beyond the familiar red: yellow, pink, even striped. It makes good animal feed, sugar, wine, and a variety of dishes, including:

Savoury beetroot salad: In a large salad bowl, mix 20 ml of sesame oil and 20 ml of lemon juice, and add dashes of powdered ginger, cayenne pepper and light soy sauce. Chop up a fistful of chives, although scallions would also do – about 50g. Clean and grate a few medium-sized beetroots (500g) and add 100g of diced feta cheese. Mix the beetroot and cheese well and toss them with the sauce.

Beetroot leaves: Drizzle a bit of oil into a pan over medium heat, throw in a pat of butter and let it melt. Dice a large onion and stir it in. While the onion is sautéing, wash the leaves and chop them. When the onion pieces have turned golden brown, put the chopped leaves in the pan, pour in a cup of vegetable stock, and place a lid over the pan. Let it sautee for about five minutes or so and then check to see if it’s done. Add a sprinkling of lemon juice and a dash of paprika, or experiment with the spices you like. You could serve the leaves like spinach, as a side dish, or use it to fill a crepe or an omelette, or mix it with scrambled eggs.

Borscht: In this vegetarian version, first heat the oven to 250 degrees Centigrade. First peel about 500g of beetroots, slice them into cubes, drizzle a little olive oil over the cubes and toss them around until they are lightly coated in oil. Stretch aluminium foil over an oven tray, spread the cubed beetroot over the tray and put it in the oven for an hour. While that is roasting, take a large pot and drizzle the bottom with oil and butter.

Dice two large onions, put them in the pan and stir them around, and then do the same with about 100g of cabbage, three stalks of celery, two large carrots, and – just before the end – some garlic. Let them sautee until they are soft and lightly golden. Then pour in a litre of vegetable stock and add 10 ml of lemon juice, 10 ml of dark soy sauce and stir in. Finally, take the beetroots out of the oven and add them to the pot. I blitzed the soup with a mixer, but if you don’t have one you can just mash up the chunky bits. Then pour the borscht into bowls and put a dollop of sour cream in the middle, and sprinkle a bit of dill and chervil over the top.

There are all kinds of other possibilities. Try making beetroot chips instead of potato chips. Slice them thinly with a mandolin, cover them in oil, and set them on an oven pan until they become crisp, and then sprinkle them with seasoning and salt to make beetroot crisps.

 You can make pink mashers by mixing beetroot mash with potatoes. You can cut your beetroots into cubes, put them around a chicken in a pan, and roast them in the oven. You can dry them in a dehydrator or solar oven, and keep in jars on the shelf until you need to make soup. Come up with your own possibilities and share them; beetroot makes a great crop for winter nights, and we should start using it to make things most people actually like.

Sunday, 28 June 2015

Singing Lessons

Originally published in First Things, October 2014. Reprinted with permission.

As my daughter and I travelled home over the Wicklow Mountains, our voices echoed between the cliffs, turning the heads of passing sheep as we rolled into the wooded hollows below. She knows these songs by heart from years of lullabies and sing-alongs since, but doesn’t yet realize that children like her might have sung the same songs on the same paths hundreds of years ago.

The water is wide, I cannot cross over . . . 
Neither have I the wings to fly . . . 

We would turn the heads of most humans, too, these days; most people never sing aloud anymore, except meekly in church, and snicker at those who do.

Yet here in the Irish countryside, my older neighbors remember a very different world: As late as the 1970s many people lacked electricity or cars here, so television and Hollywood culture arrived much later than in most places. They grew up hearing people whistle as they swept the streets, farmers singing their vegetables to passers-by at the market, and neighbors gathering at each other’s homes in the evenings with fiddles to sing songs and tell stories that had been passed down through the generations.

Music holds immense power over us; babies who can’t yet speak will giggle and bounce to a familiar tune, and elders who can no longer remember their names will revive at the sound of an old standard.

According to Daniel J. Levitin’s book This Is Your Brain on Music: The Science of a Human Obsession, we form our musical tastes in youth and never abandon them; the teen anthems that played during your first kiss or last fist-fight remain with you forever, the intensity of feeling gone but the tastes frozen in amber.

Such inborn switches served us well for thousands of years, allowing children in Tipperary and Turkmenistan alike to hear songs over and over and pass them on as adults, letting traditions thrive and wisdom accumulate through the generations. Today we cannot choose to avoid the latest hits; even here they blast from loudspeakers in buses, restaurants, gas stations and from the earphones of the kid sitting next to you, cranked up so loudly you can recognize the song.

The problem is that after generations of this, we have lost touch with what music is for. For thousands of years, in every part of the world that I know of, songs were made to be sung by ordinary voices in communion, and they told the basic stories of the human condition. I’m told that families and towns around here had their own sets of carols diverse as languages, for any number of seasons or tasks.

They told children who their people were, and why this day was different. They kept the rhythms of churns and scythes, of tanneries and looms, and grew as they were passed through the generations. They were sung secretly about the days when earthly kings would be overthrown, by farmers who feared a rapping at the winter door.

The summertime has come, and the trees are sweetly blooming, I hear my daughter sing idly to herself, And the wild mountain thyme grows around the purple heather. . . . 

For many of us, Christmas was the one time of year we would sing carols or hear songs older than our parents, and so remains our sole umbilical reference to a universe of traditional songs. Many years ago, my relatives visited a rural pub here where everyone took turns singing local songs, and when they invited the American guests to take a turn, my relatives sat frozen for a moment. Finally they dredged up kindergarten memories of “She’ll Be Coming ’Round the Mountain,” and everyone joined in obligingly.

Many Irish folk songs lead to delicate father-daughter talks about when to obey the law, respect the Church, believe the authorities, and avoid violence. My daughter understands that the protagonist of “Whiskey in the Jar” is an unreliable narrator, a bandit who bemoans yet deserves his fate. She gets that “John Barleycorn” is a symbol of grain, so a gruesome song about his slow death becomes a story of where our food comes from.

Other songs lead to more difficult territory, but I’m glad to see her wrestle with her small understanding, in the hopes it will strengthen her moral immune system. She often asks for the “Digger Song,” that rousing cry of Evangelical farmers in the 1600s, and knows most of the words by heart. Each verse deals with a different group that tries to evict the farmers from their land: the Cavaliers, the gentry, the lawyers, and the clergy.

The club is all their law, stand up now, stand up now. 
The club is all their law, to keep all men in awe, 
That they no vision saw, to maintain such a law, Stand up now, Diggers all . . . 

“What was the club?” she asked.

The king’s men tried to force the farmers off their land, I explained, by hitting them. The farmers said the king had no right to rule, but only men with clubs. That’s all most leaders are.

“Did they fight back?” she asked.

No, I said, they didn’t want to become like the king’s men. They resolved to be better.

“You don’t always have to fight,” she said, and I agreed—I had just shown her Destry Rides Again, in which Jimmy Stewart’s pacifist deputy tamed a violent town. At some point, though, I will have to explain why there are no more Diggers.

At times we accidentally mix up verses from different songs; for example, bits of different songs with “The Water Is Wide,” yet it’s stuck in our heads that way now. But that happens in folk music all the time; the lyrics to “Water Is Wide” itself, I read, mixed verses from other songs in the 1700s, and Christmas songs like “Tomorrow Shall Be My Dancing Day” oddly mashed a light-hearted romantic ballad into the Nativity story. These songs have survived the centuries partly because they evolved and cross-pollinated over and over, back when every village and family had their own storytellers and musicians, and over time the most viable of them remained.

The older the song, though, the more questions my daughter has, and the more I’m reminded of why I teach them to her. I knew she would face a difficult future, and wanted to teach her an older set of skills and values, which most of my generation had either to learn painfully as adults or not at all.

Tell her to buy me an acre of land between the salt water and the sea strand . . . 
Tell her to harvest with a sickle of leather, and bind the crop with a rope of heather. 
Tell her to make me a cambric shirt without any seams or needlework . . . 
Tell her to wash it in yonder well, where water ne’er sprung nor rain ever fell . . . . . .
then she’ll be a true love of mine.

“Why are all those jobs impossible?” she asked, about the tasks given to the narrator.

How do you know they’re impossible? I answered.

“Well, you can’t really make a shirt without seams,” she said. Y

ou’re right, I said, and you can’t wash it in a dry well. You can get an acre of beach below the seaweed strand, but it disappears with the tide. The song is meant as a kind of joke, I explained—it’s a love spell, but it’s a sarcastic one.

 “Is it a potion?” she asked, “and the herbs are the other ingredients?”

Yes, I said, but the potion will never work, because you can never do those impossible things, or if you do they won’t be worth it. And you can’t get someone to love you if they don’t, and if you can, you shouldn’t. Most of your dreams will be like that, I tell her; they won’t be fun anymore up close.

That, I think, is what these songs were for—teaching lessons we abandoned when everything became cheap and fast and easily discarded. They do not tell us, as modern culture does, that we can accomplish anything if we believe in ourselves, or that we deserve to follow our hearts.

They tell us our lives are brief and sad and funny, subject to injustice and bound by duty. They pass down, in a way words cannot, our forbears’ grief and gratitude, their violence and remorse, their comfort and joy.

 Sometimes I try to explain these things to her in common language, and her spirit is willing to learn, but her flesh is ten. So we go back to singing the old songs, whose lessons she stores inside like seeds awaiting the spring.

Wednesday, 24 June 2015

Greenhouses

When people list history’s most world-changing inventions, they usually include fire, or guns, or computers. Rarely do people mention something so ubiquitous to us that it has become, literally, invisible – glass and transparent plastic.

Glass was known to the ancients but rare -- Job 28:17 lists it with gold among the most precious of materials. In the Renaissance, though, when glass began to be sheeted and shaped in quantity and with skill, it created a boom in civilisation; microscopes and telescopes opened up the breadth of the world to science, spectacles doubled men’s intellectual lifetime, and windows allowed for the creation of the first greenhouses.

We spend so much technology and energy -- electricity, oil and coal -- to heat homes against the weather, altering it to suit our needs. Properly-placed windows, however, allow the sun to do our work for us, allowing light in and slowing the passage of heat out. Even when the temperature outside dips below freezing they keep out frost, and allow the gardener to more easily control water, pests and wind-blown seeds. Nowhere, perhaps, is this more important than in a land like this, a nearly subarctic island kept mild by the Atlantic current, where the climate usually hovers just below the ideal range for many vegetables.

Here, greenhouses extend the growing season by months and create pockets of Italy or Illinois in, say, the cold bogs of County Kildare. Here and in Britain, greenhouses, cloches and coldframes allowed Victorian master gardeners to grow a range of seemingly impossible crops: not just tomatoes and aubergines but melons, lemons, limes, grapes, olives and peaches. Pineapples, for example, became a status symbol among the manor-born, and banquets sported them as a centrepiece.

 Greenhouses remain a worthwhile, albeit expensive, investment for most people in most climates. If you want to start small, though, you can create cloches, transparent coverings for one or a few plants each. Victorians, again, mass-produced glass bells to cover plants to create a microclimate inside. You can do the same thing, however, with soda bottles.

To make a cloche, cut the bottom off an old two-litre bottle and place it around a seedling in the garden. Once the bottom is off, the plastic becomes very flimsy, so you might want to bury the edges several centimetres deep to keep it stable. Alternately, you can place a ring or solid structure inside if you have one, something that will keep the bottle in place but allow the seedling to grow. Or you can place it around a flowerpot whose diameter is smaller than that of the bottle.

 Cloches, like greenhouses, allow you to regulate the amount of water a plant receives – here that means not getting waterlogged in the rainy winter. You might want to keep the caps of your soda bottles in a drawer, so you can put them back on at night if it gets too cold.

A step up from a cloche is a row cover, something to put over an entire bed. We clamped flexible plastic piping over our raised beds to make hoops, draped clear plastic over them and secured the plastic to the wood below the hoops with staples. Alternately, instead of plastic, you could put horticultural fleece over another raised bed, to keep in the warmth – we did both this year, and gave our plants such protection that our corn salad survived the month of snow and ice.

If you want to go sturdier still, you can build a coldframe, especially if you have old windows you can use. A coldframe is just a box with glass or transparent plastic on top, ideally with a top slanted toward the south. Fill the box with earth and plant seeds inside, and over the slanted top secure a sheet of glass or whatever you have. You could install the window frame with hinges at the top for maximum convenience, but just taking off the glass gently will do. If spring and autumn nights get very cold where you live, you could insulate the back and sides with anything from straw bales to foam.

People around here used to combine coldframes with manure composters; since manure gives off considerable heat as it matures into soil, they filled a coldframe partway with horse manure, put soil on top for the seedlings, and gave the baby plants warmth from above and below.

Polytunnels are an excellent means of creating a walk-in garden for a fraction of the cost of an old-style greenhouse. You can get one as small as a closet or as large as a warehouse, and most are guaranteed for a decade or two. We had to tear down our old one to build our house, but it had lasted almost 20 years, and we installed the new one two weeks ago.

If you have old windows, or sheets of glass or clear plastic, you could try building a greenhouse out of cob. To do this you would stack rocks to make a low wall – say, half a metre to a metre high, depending on how high the snow or moisture get – and then build upward with a well-mixed and kneaded blend of sand, clay and straw. The walls could be built upward with large holes on the south side, and the cob could be plastered around the glass to keep them in place.

Such a project would consume a lot more time and labour – we have day jobs, and didn’t take this route – and it would not in as much light as an all-clear home. It has the advantage, however, of being potentially free and using all-local materials. Since you put such care into creating a greenhouse of some kind, make sure you have good fertilised earth in it – many warm-weather plants, like tomatoes, also need a great deal of nutrition, and gardeners used to sprinkle potash and other supplements around them.

In years to come we might not be traveling as much as we used to, but with the help of a little store-bought or scavenged material, you can create, in your own land, a patch of somewhere else.

Originally published in 2011.

Saturday, 20 June 2015

More Plutarch

I’m ready, I told my ten-year-old – can you come in for tonight’s lesson?

She slid into the room in socks. “Most awesome entry ever!” she said.

It is, I said, as I opened up Plutarch. Now, remember how we talked about Solon? I want to tell you how he established democracy, and how other people tried to take it away. We had discussed how almost all human group, in almost every time and place, was run by the most powerful males, and how they'd kill or enslave anyone who objected.

“Do you think some of them could have been good rulers?” she asked. “Like in Lord of the Rings?”

Those characters were more than human, I said – but even they were often corrupted by power. In this world, even more so, power corrupts, and attracts the corruptible. And for most of history, it wasn’t just that rulers didn’t respect individual rights or collective decisions – it’s that they had no concept of these things. These principles came from one time and place.

 “Ancient Greece?” she asked. Yes, I said, and what city?

“Sparta?” she started, and then stopped – “No, wait, they were just the opposite. Athens?”

 Athens it was, I said – but even they didn’t start out that way. All Greeks used to have kings, and everyone served them, but even back in the Iliad there were signs the people were unhappy with that. Remember when Agamemnon wanted everyone to keep on fighting, and one man speaks up against the king? And Odysseus beats him up?

“I was with that guy,” she said. “I didn’t feel the least bit sorry for Odysseus when he got lost on his way home.” I’d agree with you, I said – but look on the good side. There were already people who would stand up to kings. A few hundred years later, they got so powerful they couldn’t be stopped.

“Why was it there?” she said. “Why didn’t it happen anywhere else?”

That’s a great question, I said – part of it was probably that a lot of Greeks could read and write, and were well educated. Everyone had to pitch in to defend the country, so a leader needed the people on their side.

They had lots of small, close-knit communities that could compete against each other, to test and share ideas, without everyone getting their information from the same sources. The United States, where I came from, used to be the same way, and democracy flourished there for a while too. Most of all, Ancient Greek cities were small enough that everyone knew each other, so it was hard for one of them to claim to be a god.

“I remember you read me that gospel story where the Egyptian priests were pretending to be the voice of a god from inside a hollow statue,” * she said. “In a Greek city people would hear that voice and say, ‘Hey, isn’t that Bob?”

I laughed – exactly, I told her.

“So in Athens,” she asked, “they could kick out the king and rule themselves?”

Well, that’s how movies go, I said – the rebels blow up the Death Star or crash the enemy spaceship, destroy the evil empire, and everyone lives happily ever after. In real life, though, violence puts the wrong kinds of people in power, and what follows a revolution is usually worse. Real democracies grow gradually from the bottom up.

 For example, I said, when the leaders of Athens kept killing each other to be the boss, they finally decided they would take turns each year. Term limits were invented, and that was Step One. “So one person would be the total dictator of everything, but just for a year?” she asked. Yep, I said – they were called archons. Arch in Ancient Greek means ruler, so you have a monarch (one ruler), anarchism (no rulers), arch-angels and so on.

“Why didn’t the first boss make a new rule that said that he’d be boss forever?”

 I’d think that would be too obvious, I said – like your first wish to a genie can’t be for a million more wishes. Step Two, I told her, was deciding that more than one person should be boss at a time, I said, so you had a small group.

 “What was Step Three?” she asked.

 Well, that’s where it gets interesting, I said. You know how sports stars get famous, and everyone takes them seriously as a hero because they scored lots of goals? Well, people were like that then too – a man named Cylon won the Olympics, and everyone said, “He’s so awesome, he should be our leader!”

Cylon and his people tried to take over the city by force, and they were killed, I said – which was a big deal, because in those days a lot of punishment was by revenge. If someone killed your father, you became like Inigo Montoya in The Princess Bride – forever seeking their death.

So the Athenians realised this wouldn’t do, and they took another step toward democracy – laws. Not just the law that everyone had to obey the boss, but laws that everyone, even the boss, had to follow. That was Step Three. Of course, you remember who made the laws?

“Draco!” she said with a gasp. “And the punishment for everything was death.” Right, I said – so it had some flaws.

Step Four happened when the poor Athenians had to go deeply into debt to support themselves, like Americans do today. So the rich Athenians feared the poor would revolt, and they called on one person that both rich and poor trusted – Solon.

 My daughter knew Solon, remembering him from our earlier lessons. “Solon got to be in charge? He was made king?”

 Leader, at least, I said – and he eliminated the practice of enslaving people who were in debt. He came up with a system where a large group of people were gathered to represent the community, and they would debate what the city should do – and for big decisions, every citizen of Athens thousands of them could gather and help decide. Then the number of people in favour of each thing would be written down, and a majority would get their way.

“They were voting!” she said.

It gets better, I said -- if people were accused of crimes, a group of people would gather to vote on whether they were guilty – the first juries, like we still have today.

And the person who would decide their sentence would be a judge – but unlike today, judges were chosen by a roll of the dice, so no one could predict who would be judging them next year. It meant someone could have power over you next time, so you had to be nice to everyone. “So with everyone ruling themselves, what did he do as the leader?” she asked.

Well, that’s the best part, I said – with his absolute power, he made everyone promise to obey these new rules, to vote and do their part and so on. In fact, he made everyone swear an oath – this is back when oaths meant something. Everyone had to raise their hand and say, I swear I will follow all these laws, and no one can change them except Solon … for ten years. 

“I swear I will follow all these laws, and no one can change them except Solon … for ten years,” my daughter repeated. Good! I said, playing Solon. Now that I’ve changed everything, I’m going on vacation … … for ten years. 

We laughed at Solon’s trickery, but then something occurred to her. “Daddy, had they made Solon the … um … leader what-do-you-call-it?” The archon? I said. Yes, he was the dictator, so everyone had to do what he said.

 Her eyes grew wide, as the implications of this sank in. “He gave up the Ring, Daddy!”

The ring? I asked. “Like in Lord of the Rings!” she said. “The Ring was power, so no one could bear to give it up – but he did! He was like Gandalf, or Galadriel – only real.”

Well done, I said. Yes, in this world too, the Ring tempts everyone – but in this world, too, you can walk away. And once in a while, someone does.

***


* A while back, I had read to her from some of the Gnostic Gospels, one of the many that didn’t make the cut into the New Testament. This one, the Arabic Gospel of the Infancy of the Saviour, is a set of adventures that happened to Mary and Joseph as they carried the baby Jesus around the Sinai, helping people as they go. If it’s not too irreverent a comparison, it reminded me of 70s television shows like Kung Fu or The Incredible Hulk, shows where the homeless protagonists wander from town to town across an arid landscape, encountering people facing some localised oppression, seeking non-violent ways to help, until at the climax they finally use their power to terrify and destroy the oppressors.

Saturday, 13 June 2015

Things I learned from my first week as a beekeeper

First of all, everything you do will be wrong, at least according to someone, and that’s okay.

Take, for example, when you choose what kind of hive to get – by “hive,” I just mean the wooden box and the pieces inside, as you have to set that up before you put the bees in. All of those modern square hives come in two models, one smaller and one larger, and since every piece is made for a hive of one size or the other, beekeepers stick religiously stick with one model and swear by it. I picked the smaller version, thinking it would be easier to lift when laden with wax and honey – but when I told a local beekeeper, he talked to me about my decision in the delicate but grieving tones usually reserved for a terminal illness.

Then you need to decide where to put this wrong hive, and your spot will also be, according to someone, wrong. Most books, for example, recommend placing your hive where it will be warm and dry, protected from wind and rain. Those books were not written for people in Ireland. Who live in a bog in Ireland.

Thus, we make do -- I chose a place in a corner of our woodland, facing the bog-land and its fields of wildflowers, but wove trimmed stalks of elder between tree stumps to form a wattle-fence around part of it, sheltering it from our fierce winds.

Next you need to fill the hive with wooden frames, those rectangular slices of honeycomb that beekeepers remove to get the honey. Most hives come with slides of wax to help get the bees started, and you have to slip the wax into each wooden frame and secure them in place with wire or nails. When you have done this for all ten slides and put them into the hive one by one, you lift the hive off the shelf, set it down gently. Then you listen to the sound of several wax slides come crashing down, and do it right the second time.

You will also need a smoker – basically a cross between a watering can and an accordion -- to slow the bees down before you open up their home. Despite being the smallest animal we’ve domesticated, they are the only ones we have to sedate before approaching.

The bees will need sugar-water to get them started, before they figure out where all the flowers are in relation to their new home. This is easy to make on the kitchen stove – a kilogram of sugar per litre of water – and most hives, like ours, have a feeder attached. You don’t need to feed them continually – that would rather take away from the point of getting honey – but it does help them through the early days and again through the winter months.

You also need a bee suit, a one-piece outfit which will seem to consist mostly of zippers. Do try to seal all the zippers completely, or the neighbourhood children will see a strange, white-clad figure flailing and dancing the hokey-pokey out of the forest.

Now comes the intimidating bit: you need to buy bees and put them into your new home. You will probably do this by buying a swarm nucleus, or “nuc,” a mini-hive filled with a queen and skeleton crew of her staff to get a hive started. Whereas a full hive will have ten to twenty frames of honeycomb, a nuc will have four or five, which you remove and place in your hive. The rest of your hive will be filled with empty frames – empty but for those wax slides you put in – ready for the bees to use as they expand their population.

 Remember those two basic models of hive I mentioned earlier? Since the honeycombed frames of the nuc have to be removed and placed in your hive, the nuc’s frames must be cut the same size as your hive’s. This is why beekeepers stick with only one model – I had to find someone else with the same kind of hives, who was also ready to sell nucs.

Eventually I found an old beekeeper in the Wicklow Mountains of Ireland, and drove out to his farm. He cheerfully plopped into my arms a wooden box, secured all around with duct tape and with a wire mesh at the top, and right under the mesh, a swarm of bees writhing like a single organism.

 “How long will they be safe in there?” I asked, looking up at the threatening sky.

“Oh, they’ll be okay for a few days,” he said, “Just make sure they don’t get cold and are kept out of the wind and rain.”

The freezing sideways rain began on my way home over the mountains, each bump further shaking the box in the back seat, which buzzed ever more irritably with each bounce. If you must drive over mountain passes in near-zero visibility, I learned, it’s better not to hear an angry swarm of bees behind you, box or no box.

When I got home it was still lashing rain, and I learned that most bee suits are not waterproof. Nonetheless, I did set up the nuc next to the hive, their entrances parallel. Bees have amazing sense of direction, but they don’t use landmarks like we or most mammals do; they use the position of the sun and moon to create a kind of GPS. With it they can track and find the positions of hundreds of thousands of flowers each day and communicate them to the other bees – an amazing skill far beyond our abilities – but everything hinges on having the right starting point. Move the hive twenty metres to the left, and they are like cars following Google directions from a slightly wrong street – everything will turn out very badly.

Through the next few days of rain I sprayed sugar-water through their mesh to keep them fed, until the sun came out and I was ready to don the bee suit, smoke the bees and put their honeycombs in the proper hive. That was Plan A. After smoking the nuc well and removing the duct tape, I realised that the box was actually held together with screws that would require some tools and tugging to remove – Plan B.

Through all this the box was wobbled around a lot more, causing the bees to get quite agitated when the smoke wore off. Plan C was to smoke them again, until the burning material in the smoker suddenly ran out; Plan D, to stuff more in and re-light it, failed when the lighter jammed.

Plan E, finally, worked -- for my daughter to run in, get matches, run to a nearby stone, leave the matches and run the other direction while I, trailing a cloud of bees, retrieved the matches, ran back, lit the smoker, and finally calmed the bees down while I moved them. Last I checked, they were settling in fine.

Perhaps the most important thing to learn, though, goes beyond beekeeping. Many of us are trying to learn a lot of new skills, often with little proper training and limited supplies. Everything you do will be wrong, at least compared to the ideal scenarios of how-to books and videos. Don't worry about it: you'll learn as you go, and most of the time, you'll come out okay in the end.

Photo courtesy of Wikicommons.

Wednesday, 10 June 2015

Update

Even in the time we've lived here, Ireland has become a very different country, but a few families here still maintain old habits; to sing old or play cards in the evenings rather than watch television, fish or garden rather than take out fast food, and take a cart to the next town rather than an auto.

***

Mother Earth News has just published my piece on forging your own machete. Check it out.

***

The great online magazine Front Porch Republic, which features writings from people like Wendell Berry, Patrick Deneen and Bill Kaufmann, has just published my piece on reading the Ancient Greeks. It's an adapted and expanded version of my recent blog post about reading with The Girl -- check it out.

Saturday, 6 June 2015

Making Charcoal



Growing up I knew charcoal as the square briquettes people bought in bags and poured into the barbecue grill once a summer. Like everything else in our lives it came from a store, chemically treated and wrapped in plastic, with no sense that it could be made naturally at home.

Charcoal is simply wood that has been burned with little oxygen, either by being heated but sealed away from oxygen or, more commonly, setting it on fire and then cutting it off from the air, keeping the wood from burning completely into ash. Most other substances in the wood are driven off, leaving a porous shape of almost pure carbon, lightweight and easy to transport.

It can purify water by soaking up impurities, as in many kitchen sink filters, and treat poison victims when crushed and drunk in a fluid. It can be added to soap for abrasion, crushed to make ink or paint or mixed with minerals to make gunpowder. It allows people to burn fires hotter than wood, enabling people to melt quartz into glass or make iron malleable. It was charcoal that allowed Rennaissance craftsmen to grind glass into lenses, allowing elderly people to continue reading and writing, and doubling humans' intellectual lifetime. It was charcoal that allowed people to work iron into swords and ploughshares, buildings and infrastructure; other metals can be hammered by hand, but only with charcoal fires could the Bronze Age become the Iron Age.

Perhaps charcoal's most surprising use, one that gained a burst of attention in recent years, involves trapping carbon from the atmosphere. Vast regions of the Amazon have a distinctive and fertile soil called “black earth,” or terra preta, and recently archaeologists realised that this soil was not a naturally occurring phenomenon, but had been cultivated over millennia. What’s more, they began to realise that much of the sparsely inhabited Amazon rainforest was once densely populated with humans, continually enriching the soil as they farmed.

Like many primitive societies, they burned land to clear it for farming or hunting, but unlike many others they turned some of the wood into charcoal and then worked it back into the soil, creating an unusually rich and fertile ground; according to a 2006 article in Nature, bio-char – the charcoal folded into the earth to make terra preta -- is three times richer in nitrogen and phosphorous than ordinary soil and 20 times richer in carbon.

According to researcher Bruno Glaser at the University of Bayreuth, Germany, a hectare of meter-deep terra preta can hold 250 tonnes of carbon, as opposed to 100 tonnes of carbon in unimproved soils. In addition, the bio-char itself increases soil fertility, which allows farmers to grow more plants, which allows more bio-char to be added to the soil. Johannes Lehman, author of Amazonian Dark Earths, claims that combining bio-char and bio-fuels could draw down 9.5 billion tones per year, equal to all our current fossil fuel emissions.

Whether or not such people are correct, the technique has drawn admirers like climate scientists James Lovelock and Tim Flannery. As I mentioned last week, climate change is hitting people around the world, yet we struggle to reduce our pollution even a little, and our goal of a zero-carbon world seems ever more hopeless. If such techniques would work in more temperate climates -- that is, if the carbon trapped by charcoal far exceeds the carbon expended to grow it, and can be trapped on a human timescale -- then everyone in the world would possess the skills to become, not just carbon-neutral, but carbon-negative.

To  do any of these things, however, we first need to gain experience making charcoal at home. My daughter and I tried three ways of making charcoal, with varying degrees of success. Since charcoal can be created when wood is inside a heated and sealed container, I put two metal buckets together, one upside-down and atop the other, and inside I placed one or more pieces of wood. The crack of space between the two buckets I plastered with clay, and around them I started a fire of some of our rotting lumber. (Never burn treated lumber for charcoal or even in a fireplace; it has chemicals that can be poisonous when inhaled, and I would not want to drink water that has been filtered through its charcoal.)

I tried to make small amounts of charcoal, one at a time, but it never worked. If the clay plaster held, the logs inside were merely singed, and if part of the plaster fell off – as happened more frequently – the fire caught inside until I was left with only a few small pieces of charcoal and a lot of ash.

For the second method I took a page from County Waterford farmer and author John Seymour and dug a trench, lit a fire in it, tossed in some logs and covered it with corrugated iron sheeting. Then I packed the cracks tightly with clay and plants to seal in the oxygen, and uncovered it a few days later. This worked better, as I did get some charcoal out of it, but the amount was still tiny.

The best method, I found, was the one charcoal burners used from ancient times until just the last century. I stacked logs in a triangular pattern and leaned more upright pieces of wood around them, until I had a small and dense ring of wood about a metre high. Then I filled the interior of the triangle with tinder and kindling – sawdust, mulch, twigs, anything that would light easily and create an intense heat that would burn the rest of the wood.

Then I covered the wood with recently-cleared weeds, spread clay over the weeds, and shovelled earth over those, until I had a mound open at the very top, with a “chimney” that looked down into the tinder-filled space between the logs. 

Next came the big moment – I lit a fire-starter and dropped it down the middle, and within moments had a raging fire inside the mound. I covered the top of the mound with strips of weeds and shovelled more earth on top – the weeds and roots served to block the entrance, so that I wasn’t simply shovelling loose earth into the hole and putting out the fire.

The result was a strangely smoking hill, and when it smoked too much when it cracked and too much oxygen got in. When a hole or crack formed, I plastered more mud and earth over that part – carefully, for the escaping steam can get quite hot – until the leak was stopped.

Two days later, I broke it open, and began fishing out the charcoal, and got about five kilos from an estimated 36 kilos of wood. Most text say the charcoal can be as much as 60 per cent of the wood by volume and 25 per cent by weight. I probably got less charcoal because I let it burn through the night; I had to spend part of the day building it and light it in the evening, as the constant threat of rain here meant I couldn’t leave it overnight. Charcoal-burners, though, were said to watch their mound for hours until the smoke turned from white to blue, indicating they were beginning to burn charcoal, before putting the fire out to maximise the amount of charcoal from a single burn.

With more careful measurements, amateur scientists around the world could try such techniques on some kind of fast-growing wood, like willow, and see if we could do with terra preta in temperate climates what Amazonian tribes did in the rainforest. On paper, it looks like it should work: willow can yield ten tonnes to the acre, the charcoal would retain a quarter of that mass of the wood, and should remain stable in the soil for decades while new tonnes are grown. All this, though, is theory, and we won’t know unless we experiment.

Whether terra preta turns out to help the climate or not, however, charcoal helped create everything in the modern world, from glass (eyeglasses, greenhouses, microscopes and telescopes) to steel (ploughshares, swords and most modern structures) to any number of other useful innovations. Whatever happens in the future, this is one skill we want to preserve. 

Originally published in 2012. 
Top photo: A piece of the charcoal we made. 
Second photo: Our pile of wood. 
Third photo: That same pile of wood covered in weeds and earth, with a fire lit down the chimney. 
Fourth photo: The pile entirely covered in earth, with the fire still going inside. 
Bottom photo: our inventory of charcoal, with a lemon for scale.

Wednesday, 3 June 2015

Update

First of all, we have bees; I got a swarm nucleus over the weekend, and put them into the proper hive last night. This morning, before I caught the bus to work in the city, I walked back into our woodlands, put my ear against the hive, and they were humming away peacefully.

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Grit magazine has published my piece on the edible calendar -- check it out.