Sunday, 23 July 2017

The wisdom around us

Sorry about the lack of posts; I've had some computer problems. 


If we want to learn from people in more traditional eras, we can do several things; we can read books and journals from that era, from before fossil fuels or electricity, before cars or internet, before everything became cheap and fast and thrown away. Some books from that era remain widely read; Mark Twain and Laura Ingalls Wilder from the USA, Jane Austen or Charles Dickens from England, and I would encourage readers to can go back farther in history to medieval writers or Ancient Greeks and Romans. We can also read historians who specialise in everyday life, or people today who still practice traditional crafts and write about it – I recommend John Seymour and Scott Savage, among others.

Many people today are forced by poverty to live simpler lives, as in the Third World, but their circumstances are often less healthy, literate or safe than those of 20th century Ireland. We in the West have too few first-person narratives from people who grew up in such poverty, and their cultures, climates and languages often pose a barrier to understanding.

We can talk to people closer to home who grew up with very little – say, people who grew up in trailer parks or slums – but again, they experienced a different kind of poverty. Most families I know in my native USA grew up with a lot of television, little freedom and the constant threat of violence; in many ways, they experienced the opposite of my Irish neighbours.

We can talk to people Western countries today who grew up living more simply than most Americans today – say, Amish, Mennonites or plain Quakers. Such groups, however, typically withdrew from the world because they have a rigid and insular culture, making them reluctant to share with outsiders and making their habits less relatable. I wasn’t just interested in sitting and watching television shows about people living simpler and more traditional lives; I wanted to learn how to do so myself.

We can talk to elderly Americans who remember the mid-20th century, and I have talked to quite a few over the years and learned a great deal. Their world, however, is not too unfamiliar; if you talk to a 70-year-old American, you are still talking to someone who grew up watching television and sitting in traffic.

That’s what makes my Irish neighbours so valuable; they are among the last Westerners on Earth, speaking English and now living in a familiar modern world -- to grow up in the pre-modern world, before electricity and modern media, before cars and modern devices. As late as the 1960s in Ireland, by contrast, fewer than one per cent of Irish owned a car, relying instead on feet and horses. As late as the 1970s many areas lacked electricity, meaning not just electric lights but radio and television.

Their lack of modern influences kept the culture parochial and traditional even into modern times; birth control was legalised only in 1978, and divorce only in 1995. My elderly neighbours grew up with different priorities from people today; they had skills, not career tracks, and lived not as individuals but as members of something greater. Their homes were filled with family members who pitched in with the work of getting food and water and warmth, and the ones who worked outside the home brought in the little money they needed for a few luxuries.

At gatherings they sang songs and told stories that were hundreds of years old, passed down like prayers from father to son, mother to daughter. They grew up knowing the histories of their cousins and neighbours, who were often the same people. When I ask them to remember a certain decade in their lives, they remember their childhood adventures and adult duties, the aging and passing of family, the passing down of traditions.  

Of course, the Ireland my neighbours talk about has mostly disappeared, replaced by a modern country not very different from the USA or Britain; drive along the major roads near our house and you sit in traffic jams, pass billboards and fast-food stops, see advertisements for Hollywood blockbusters, and hear wacky morning-zoo DJs on the radio. Cities are filled with young people constantly staring at little glowing rectangles, addicted to video-games or social media, increasingly dependent on touching a screen to get the basic needs of life. Raising a teenager here means talking about “sexting,” drugs, date rapes – the same uncomfortable parent-child discussions as you need to have anywhere these days. It’s difficult enough for older Americans who grew up with television and movies, albeit an older and gentler variety. Older Irish I talk to feel like they are living in a foreign country.

When I moved to rural Ireland 15 years ago, I admit, there was a lot to get used to. Ireland lies at the same latitude as southern Alaska, so the winter nights can be eighteen hours long, and the days quite dim. During the summer we have the opposite problem, and I have to cover the windows with tinfoil to get any sleep. It rains one day out of three – that’s the price you pay for the lush countryside – and even in summer it never gets very warm. 

Nonetheless, my family and I made a go of living here, building a house and garden and turning the land into a homestead. We grew some of our own food, kept chickens and bees, and learned as we went. I’d always loved traditional crafts, so I learned whatever I could about skills being kept alive by a few devoted aficionados. I tried my hand at blacksmithing, basketry, hedge-laying, natural building, bush-craft, leather-working, book-binding, brewing, pickling, cheese-making and wine-making, sometimes just dabbling, sometimes making it into a hobby.

I had to work in Dublin to pay the bills, which meant three hours a day on the bus and back each day. That meant devoting the few remaining waking hours each day to doing chores on the land, feeding possibly checking the bees, doing some traditional crafts, giving my daughter home-schooling lessons and having a writing career on the side.

Thankfully, I discovered that was much more feasible than you might imagine; a garden, animals and crafts can take up perhaps an hour or two a day, and you can learn a great deal while working around a regular life. It’s not being entirely self-sufficient or off the grid, in the manner of doomsday preppers or reality-television eccentrics, but I don’t need that kind of life, and you probably don’t either. Many people I know just want to be more self-reliant, or have fun learning skills, or to pollute less, or spend less money, or work with the land instead of against it – all things that go along with the old-fashioned skills I was learning.

Most of all, I talked with elderly people, and realised what a different world they had grown up in, and what an underappreciated resource they were. I struck up conversations with neighbours passing on the road, or having tea at their house, or sitting next to them on the long bus ride to Dublin, or visiting the local old folks’ home. Occasionally I asked them if I could sit down for formal interviews, and sat down with a camera and audio recorder.

I found that Irish radio had done occasional documentaries on traditional life, that school-children had collected the memories of their grandparents, that documentarians had filmed Irish villagers decades ago, and that historical societies and local experts had scrapbooks filled with the minutiae of day-to-day life. I listened to hundreds of hours of recordings and read thousands of pages of transcripts, collecting the details of their everyday lives.

Again, I’m not trying to romanticise their difficult lives, or claim that they didn’t have their own problems, or that the world hasn’t improved in certain ways – of course it has. I’m not saying that we could or should do exactly what they did, or that all traditional societies were as beneficial as the examples I use. Of course Ireland in the fifties was quite different from America in the 1950s, and from many other traditional times and places, and of course I’ll be cherry-picking good qualities from many times and places and ignoring the downsides of each era. There’s no perfect past that I’m demanding we emulate.

I am saying that certain peoples in history created societies that were healthy, educated, clean, happy – by their own testimony – and ran on little energy, generated little waste and needed little government. I want to look at how they did these things, and what we can learn from them.
 

Sunday, 9 July 2017

Living together



A couple I know lived in a century-old house in the middle of their town, a few miles from their jobs and surrounded by long-time neighbours. When the last of their children left home, they announced it was time they looked for a bigger house.

“Do you mean a smaller house?” I asked.

“No,” they said, surprised. “We mean a bigger house.” They had some extra money now that they were not raising children, and they wanted to invest it.

Their later years, however, did not turn out as relaxing as they had hoped. Both husband and wife had to work full-time to pay for their massive new house, and their few free hours were spent cleaning and maintaining it. They gave their old house to their son and his wife, who worked to pay for its mortgage and maintenance. The son’s child – my friends’ grandson — was put into day care while parents and grandparents worked long hours. I gathered that everyone ate on the run, often felt ill and depressed, and rarely saw their families.

It was not my business how they lived, and maybe there was more to the story. As far as I could tell, though, they had neatly divided an obvious solution into several problems.

If my friends had stayed in their old home with their son, they could have all pitched in to maintain and pay for it. If someone lost their job in this depression, others could fill the gap. They might have more time to spend with the grandchild, rather than pay exorbitant sums to see him raised by strangers.

I talk often with elderly relatives and neighbours from Missouri, Germany and Ireland. They all grew up in different worlds; a farm, an urban tenement, or the ruins of a bombed city. Ask them what has changed, though, and the answer is always the same: the ubiquitous presence of family and community.

Almost all these elders grew up with relatives in the home or nearby. Harvesting the garden, preserving food, praying in church – all these were done as a group, with children mimicking the adults. Even in urban families where most people worked, at least one relative stayed home to keep house, and families ate together, sang or played cards together, and shared beds or rooms. They may have made a fraction of the money as America’s desperately poor today, but did not feel poverty in the same way, for their lives were not spent drifting through a sea of strangers.

Inside the cheap energy window of the last few decades, however, family members were encouraged to live in isolation, first as a “nuclear family” and then as individual consumers. More households saw both parents working, more children warehoused in day cares and more families struggling to pay for escalating mortgages and expenses.

These days, of course, some of us are part of online “communities,” but there we often mistake breadth for depth. No amount of Twittering can build a relationship with the old lady down the road, and no amount of online eco-activism can substitute for pollarding one’s own trees.

Merging disparate relatives under a single roof, of course, is rarely simple – we all have different standards of cleanliness and privacy, different philosophies of child-rearing and cooking. Enough conflicts happen in the single dimension of marriage, and each new presence under one roof multiplies the complications.

But enough lines can also make a safety net, as more hands mean more people to fill in, more likelihood of a cook or gardener or mechanic in the family, someone who can tell stories or play music at the end of the day.

More of us will find ourselves doing this. Foreclosures and unemployment will force more people to move, as will a changing climate, and loved ones are generally preferable to a shantytown behind the Taco Bell parking lot. Smaller families and aging Baby Boomers mean more elderly relatives who need care. We should not wait for an emergency to throw us together, though – we are better off easing into the new grocery lists, new sleeping arrangements and schedules, and new boundaries of modesty and conversation.

This is likely to be the face of our future: a hundred million small and simple changes to reduce our debt and isolation, to cope with less money and weirder weather, to consolidate our possessions and needs. We might have to shed our load of rootless consumerism, but we might also rediscover what it means to be part of something. For some people, who have spent their lives searching for connection and meaning, it will be like coming home for the first time.

Originally published in the Dallas Morning News in 2009. 

Monday, 3 July 2017

Interview on Atlas Obscura

Good news! Atlas Obscura, an online magazine about interesting places around the world, just published an article about my bog butter experiment.Check it out here.

Monday, 26 June 2017

Building with cob

Originally posted in 2010. 

A few years ago, at Seed Savers in County Clare, I helped sculpt, pound and pat a house together.

Seed Savers, by the way, is an Irish group that cultivates heirloom varieties of vegetables, which is a lot more important and interesting than it sounds – if any disease or climate problem wipes out the few varieties we use for industrial agriculture, organizations like Seed Savers will be your Noah’s Ark for food. They also give courses in other crafts, though, and this time it was working in cob.

Cob is a mixture of sand, straw and clay – the subsoil under most topsoil will do fine. To make a cob mixture, you combine the elements in a certain ratio and mix them together wet, usually by treading on them with your feet. Then you pick up handfuls of the mixture – the word “cob” comes from an Old English word for “lump” – and stack them on top of each other in a row. Finally, you stand on the row and tread it in, and you get a wall.

The effect is one of sculpting your own building. 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. Bricks are basically cob that has been baked in an oven, and concrete uses a similar principle with gypsum powder, sand and gravel.

Cob’s main disadvantage is that it cannot get damp; for example, a cob wall needs a stone base, as high as the damp rises. In snowy country the stone base would have to be higher to protect against snowdrifts; in this area the problem is moisture. At a conference in Cork a few years ago I spoke with a man who built a cob house in the west of Ireland, and said he needed to put wood cladding on the walls to protect against the area’s driving rain.

Another problem is the lack of understanding from local officials, building inspectors and insurance companies -- it is for this reason, we didn't build in cob ourselves, as well as the fact that we are building in an Irish bog. Because of this, some people use cob to build an "undocumented" house.

One advantage of building with cob is that its thick walls absorb heat in the daytime, releasing it slowly over the night; with southern windows to catch the sun, a cob house can have dramatically reduced heating bills. Still another advantage is that the home can be literally sculpted into a wide range of shapes, with curved walls, bas-relief designs or arched doorways.

Cob can last as long as it is kept dry; the home of Sir Walter Raleigh in England is still standing, as are many other medieval cob homes. It can be built high: seven-story cob towers in the Middle East are still used after hundreds of years.

With a little training, anyone can mix cob together from most local soils. After the walls are given a plaster finish, the house can look just like any other, but made at a fraction of the cost. It's completely ecological, requiring no chemicals or machines, and generating no toxic waste. Insects don’t eat it, it doesn’t decompose and it doesn’t burn. And, of course, it’s dirt cheap.




Top photo: Hayes Barton, birthplace of Walter Raleigh. Bottom photo: cob house, courtesy of Wikicommons.

Wednesday, 21 June 2017

The past is a foreign country



In the last few months I've been writing a lot about how our modern society differs from any traditional one, and not necessarily for the better. The phrase “traditional societies” covers a lot of ground, of course; basically, I’m defining it as life before we began using energy at the breakneck pace we are today. I mean the cultures that existed before roads became jammed with cars travelling at high speeds, before Hollywood media took over and replaced local culture, and before people in the modernised West began to spend their lives sitting in cars or staring at screens.

Those things didn’t all happen at once, or all together – as I argued a few weeks ago, 1950s America presents a well-studied intermediate case of a somewhat modernised country whose traditional culture was still vibrant and functioning. Ireland in the 1950s, meanwhile, still relied mostly on human and animal labour.

Dividing human societies into the traditional and the modern means making sweeping statements; obviously cavemen lived differently than Ancient Greeks, who lived differently than American pioneers, who lived differently than 20th century Irish. Of course I’m not saying that all traditional peoples lived the same way, or that any of them were wonderful and without tragedy – and of course some were horrific.

I am saying that, despite the superficial differences in language and dress, my elderly neighbours share some commonalities with all the generations who came before them, and -- despite the similarity in accents and dress --  are now culturally separated from their grandchildren in the same village.

Until recently, for example, few humans spent their lives travelling long distances, except for the occasional sailor or nomad. Even most foraging tribes generally travelled over a limited area, and farming people not at all. Like most traditional people, my Irish neighbours grew up tied to a place, knowing it as they knew themselves, and having a responsibility to keep it healthy for their grandchildren. Of course archaeology shows evidence of times and places when humans destroyed the land, often out of ignorance of what they were doing, but more often people lived in the same places for centuries or millennia, which they could not have done if they had not practiced a sustainable kind of management.

Until the last few generations, few people were rootless – even nomadic tribes circulated around a certain area during the year, and were tied to their family. Most modern people tell only the songs and stories manufactured for them by a faraway industry, but traditional people belonged to a landscape and a way of life, to a clan and larger people with their own stories and songs that told of their history. Even if they were poor, most people did not feel poverty as we might today, for their lives were not spend drifting through a sea of strangers.

When my neighbours told me of the history of their place, they described all the local families and their histories, stories of local lords and landowners, rebellions and tragedies – and this despite the land being devastated so often by famine and exodus. Memories don’t reach back so far in the USA, but in small towns here, you meet people who take a similar pride in the place where they belong.

The children in Ireland today have some of these relationships, but you can see it fading as they relate more to Youtube or the latest global teen fad than they do to elders in the same town. In the USA, where this process has been going on the longest, we think of it as normal – we expect that teenagers will relate to the media and not with their families. But most humans in history did not make the same assumptions about young people, and I have heard people from many parts of the world report the same erosion of their local identity.

Until our era people rarely used money, or needed to. Of course money did not exist in prehistoric days, the first 99.9 per cent of human existence, yet those humans traded with other tribes all the same. Even after the ancient Sumerians invented the first coins, though, few people used or even saw a coin even there, and of course most people on Earth were not in Sumeria. A medieval peasant might never have seen money or needed to use it either, they worked, of course, but to grow food and raise animals, like most humans in any time and place. The giant detour that our work makes – to work for someone else, to get pay, to put in a bank, to withdraw, to spend at stores, with governments and companies taking a cut out of every transaction – didn’t exist.

I'm not claiming they lived in an idyllic Eden; of course they could be terrorised by war or disease, but so can many people today --- Westerners have simply been shielded from these realities for a few generations. Keep in mind, also, that medieval peasants might have worked far fewer hours every week than we do. Also, keep in mind that their work was necessary and meaningful, and often done together as a family – it was time spent with the family, not away from it.

Also, I’m not just comparing our modern world with prehistoric or medieval life, with no spectrum in between. My elderly neighbours here, growing up in Ireland in the 1930s, 40s and 50s, would have had money and used it, and even started their own business enterprises at young ages to get pocket money to spend. Those gave them treats, though; most of what they needed they knew how to produce for themselves. Some tell me they didn’t need to use money more than once a week, and that was small amounts from a hiding place.

To give you an idea of how little they needed money, Ireland in the 1970s saw a bank strike that lasted over a year – across the country, no one could withdraw money for more than a year. Of course, some people used a village credit union, or used the post office as a bank, as Irish people do today. Nonetheless, most people’s money was in banks, no one could withdraw for months, and yet life carried on as normal.

You can even see this to some extent in America in the 1950s and 60s – again, a world further along the spectrum to ours, but still less dependent than we are on a constant money stream. Banks then had tellers, not automatic cash machines, and most people visited them once or twice a week. People went shopping less, and instead of the dizzying number of products our stores carry, shops had staples that people used for cooking, or simple clothes that were more durable. ATMs didn’t exist, but people didn’t need them.

In every society that I know of – except our modern one -- children learned from parents and older relatives, and stayed close to their families until they came of age. In most of those children accompanied their parents as they hunted, ploughed, washed clothes, cooked food and all the other necessities of life, and learned the skills they needed to be adults. Children in more recent centuries went to schools, as my elderly neighbours did, but most countries children could walk to school, were taught by local people who were also part of the community. Most did not do what parents often do today, to send their children away to giant cement compounds to be raised by strangers.

In early America, for that matter, school took fewer hours of the day and fewer days of the year. They did not experience what modern children do, of being warehoused for 20,000 hours of their formative years. Yet many of those schools taught students far more, at earlier ages, than under our giant bureaucracies. If you want to see the level of education that many rural children received, read the letters of Civil War soldiers conscripted from homesteads. Or keep in mind that the Lincoln-Douglas debates, whose complex sentences often flummox college students today, were meant to be listened to, not read, and by simple farmers.

Until our modern society came along, no people shut their elders away in nursing homes, rarely seen by children and grandchildren and with only other dying people for company. In most traditional cultures elderly members of a family lived with their children or relatives, and most religions had some variation of the fourth commandment to honour one’s father and mother. Elders, though weakened in body, had a lifetime of experience that younger generations needed, whether in raising children, dealing with neighbours or handling emergencies. From a position of respect they could pass on the songs and stories of their people, giving children an umbilical link to the generations who came before.

We see the same pattern in other animals with some intelligence and family life; elephants, for example, need the elder members of the herd to keep the younger ones in line and show them how to deal with threats. When park rangers in South Africa introduced young elephants to a new preserve, after the older members of the herd had been killed, they found the young animals made unwise decisions for decades, only slowly learning, through trial and error, the right way to live. For generations many people in America today have grown up in the same situation, without elders to guide them through their lives, until we now have a population of children in adult bodies.

Just as most traditional peoples did not spend their work hours staring at a glowing rectangle, so they did not spend their leisure the same way. Children had games that were passed down for centuries – blind-man’s bluff and Johnny jump-up – that are only now disappearing in an age of video-games. Elders sang songs that told people who they were as a people, told stories of love and loss, of heroes and maidens, tragedy and humour and the human condition. My neighbours grew up with families visiting each other at night, gathering with the local storytellers and musicians, listening to the tales and singing along to folk songs they all knew, which had been passed down through the generations.

The modern era has changed our friendships as well; almost any humans in history, whether prehistoric tribes or medieval farmers, Hebrew herdsmen or American pioneers, dealt with a community of people outside their family who lived nearby, and had to maintain good relations with them. Small-town people, whether here or in the USA, retain some of this attitude even today; they have to know their neighbours and help out occasionally, as they might need help themselves.

You see the difference in the way my neighbours treat death with the way modern urban people do. When I lived in the modern city and a neighbour died, we found out when an ambulance parked outside, or a new couple moved in where the old lady used to live. Out here in rural Ireland, a neighbour’s death meant girls at the local school without a father, an empty chair at the pub, a voice missing from the hymns at church, a hole in people’s lives.

Such relationships soften our reactions to conflict; the person waiting in line ahead of us might have taken First Communion with us, and might have scored the winning goal in the school’s football match long ago, and might have a tractor we need in case a tree falls over the only road. Again, the details would change from one culture to the next, but every human society would have a web of debt and obligation like this, to temper our reactions to conflict and force us to see other people’s views. Enough threads like that, woven together, form a civilised society.

Only in the modern era, for most Westerners today, do “friends” largely mean icons on a screen, whose relationship with you consists of moving electrons around. Today we can “meet,” have “conversations,” “share” news, and even “date,” all without ever having to deal with the inhibiting presence of other humans. We can do these things under fake names and pictures, talking to people we will never meet in person, and say or do whatever we want without fear of consequences. People can appear and disappear from our lives, all without leaving any tangible presence, fading like ghosts when bored. 

The modern world has many advantages; until the last century food could be scarce, and even in good years it cost labour and sacrifice. At the same time, until the last century no humans ate food that had been flown across the world, packaged in chemical gases to preserve it and simulate a healthy colour. No humans ate food injected with other chemicals to make it more addictive. Instead, traditional people ate foods they knew, and had picked out of the ground or off a tree. Foods belonged to certain seasons, and tasted like a time and place. Meat came from an animal, hunted or herded, that had just been killed, unless it was salted and smoked. People recognised their food as precious and its sharing as sacred, the stuff of religious ritual.

Until ours came along, all human societies had rites of passage to mark when a girl became a woman, and when a boy had proven himself a man. Becoming a young man or maiden – what we today call a “teen” -- did not mean that they would spend more hours warehoused in an institution, or spend their time with gangs of other teenagers in places of maximum temptation; rather, it meant taking on more of the responsibilities of adulthood, preferably with older family and mentors to guide them.

Again, a childhood among the Bushmen or the Vikings would be very different from each other, and both would be very different than American pioneer children or mid-20th-century Irish. Each of these eras had injustice, disease and starvation, just as ours does. My point is that we are not sealed in a culture of driving and staring at screens, with all its advantages and disadvantages in a single package.

The past, with all its possibilities, is still there. We know what more traditional people did well that we do not. We can still grow, cook and preserve food without electricity, play the games and tell the stories that our forebears did, and sing the songs that told of their loves and tragedies. We can learn from the elders who remember these things, before the last of them disappear and the past becomes an utterly foreign country to us.