Friday, 19 May 2017

A healthy society

I've been interviewing my Irish neighbours, and the vanishing world they grew up in -- and while that wasn't the world I knew, it wasn’t completely alien to me. I grew up with a lot of older relatives, some born as far back as the 19th century, and listened to them describe their early lives, and while they usually grew up with more money and technology than their Irish cousins -- the USA in the 1950s was prosperous, Ireland in the 1950s was not -- they had many elements in common that differ greatly from our lives today.

It was not uncommon for children to play safely in the streets, or wander far from home, know all the neighbours, and see their second cousins more often than most people today see their brothers. By the time they were teenagers they were men and women; they found work and began a family, joined their unions and local groups like Kiwanis, the VFW, the American Legion. They showed up to city council meetings, took part in their school and parish, and occasionally ran for office. Clothes and toys were passed down through long lines of relatives, child to child, and glass jars and bottles were used over and over again for decades. My family grew vegetables in a garden, composted the kitchen scraps, canned and pickled, and shared what we had.

As a young journalist I reported from small towns across the Midwest, and in every town I could – even if it wasn’t relevant to the story I was reporting – I looked at its old newspapers. In town after town they told the same story, of clean, healthy towns with farms and factories, whose citizens endured depressions and droughts and whose young men dreamed of home when they went to Verdun or Iwo Jima. School records described students learning Marcus Aurelius, building windmills or performing Shakespeare, in towns where few people today seem to have much education anymore.

City halls boasted photos of the city band gathered around the gazebo in the town square back when townspeople took part in a city band – and old newspaper photos showed local chapters of Kiwanis or Oddfellows celebrating some now-forgotten milestone. Most of these men spent their days in crop fields or factory floors, yet they dressed up for their meetings as they did for church – back when people dressed up for church -- and the suits were as clean as the buildings.

By the time I reported from those towns, in the 1990s, they already looked like the Zombie Apocalypse had come through; boarded-up storefronts, giant holes in the roads, and walls covered with graffiti that no one bothers to clean up. Few businesses remained in town centres; the remaining companies often stayed far outside of towns, sometimes displaying signs in Spanish for their low-paid immigrant workforce, and fenced off with increasingly savage-looking barbed wire. Many of the people I met seemed functionally illiterate, surly and suspicious. Most quickly turned any conversation to conspiracy theories they seemed to have picked up from talk radio and other media, their link to the world.

That was in the middle of what the media called an “economic boom,” although it didn’t affect the red states I grew up in -- and since then, life has only grown worse. When I visit my native country, much of it is functionally the Third World; in many small towns a large segment of the population survives solely on disability payments or Social Security of some kind, and drugs and despair eat away the generations. Deaths from legal and illegal drugs have increased more than 500 per cent since these old photos, killing more than half a million Americans since 2000. Among middle-aged men – the people who would once have been pillars of the community – the suicide rate has doubled in the last ten years.

You could see the same thing in the big city; I saw black-and-white photos of my grandparents in urban St. Louis in the 30s and 40s, smiling young people smartly dressed, standing in a neighbourhood of clean houses and front lawns, ready to take the trolley to a school dance or first job. You don’t want to go through those neighbourhoods today; many of the houses are windowless shells, with pieces cut out as from explosions, and graffiti covering every reachable surface.

By the time I grew up, the healthy days of a vibrant civic life, close neighbourhoods and self-reliant, literate men and women seemed like an alien universe, even for a relatively old-fashioned family like mine. I read more books and explored more land as a child more than most of my peers, but even I can look back and see how different my own life was from that of my grandparents, and even more from that of my Irish neighbours. Young people today grow up hungry for something, feeling the absence of something they've never experienced and can't recognise. Next week I'll talk about how we might be able to regain some of what we lost.

Monday, 15 May 2017

Forest gardens

Appearing in Kildare Nationalist this week.

All down the canal from our house, neighbours are planting potatoes, onions and carrots, and there’s nothing wrong with that. A few gardeners here and there might use facilities like Irish Seed Savers to experiment with the hundreds of varieties we never see – blue potatoes, purple carrots – some more suited for their clay hill, cold bog or some other microclimate. A few might plant still more adventurous crops that might do well in this climate but remain little-known; yacon, daikon, oca, and others.

Creative or lazy gardeners with a bit of extra land might decide to leave it, deciding they get more mileage from the nettles and dandelions than they would from lettuces.  If you want to build a garden that truly looks to the future, though, you could plant a forest.

It might seem like that growing a forest contradicts the idea of growing a garden, that one means low, edible and annual plants in rows, while the other means a landscape of tall trees and few edible plants. When you plant a permaculture-style forest garden, though, you are combining the best of both worlds – perennial crops, vines, shrubs and trees that produce food every year but do not need to be re-sown every spring.

A forest garden also has a vertical dimension that many kitchen gardens do not; low trees and shrubs that bear fruit, berries and nuts; vines that bear similar fruit and berries, and ground-cover plants that can be harvested anew each year. With many varieties of plants close together, moreover, you can harvest throughout the year, gathering leaves or buds in spring, summer crops, fruit and nuts in autumn.

The various plants help each other, as different plants require different nutrients from the soil and so do not starve each other. They also help keep different pests away, as the smell of one plant not only repels insects from it, but from the plants around it. In this way, plants in the wild help each other, and by planting them alongside each other we let Nature do some of our heavy lifting.

To make a forest garden, you should first look at your landscape and see what could grow there –in the case of our land, a relatively dry patch of earth surrounded by bog. Then, according to permaculture theory, you plan a system that will yield the seven Fs: food, fuel, fibre, fodder, fertiliser, “farmaceuticals” and fun.

You might put the highest plants on the north, to cut down on the colder winds, and the lowest in the south to catch the maximum sun. You also want to pay attention to the rising and sloping of the property, to make sure you know what plants are getting the most sunshine and water runoff.

Plan a forest garden in vertical layers, starting with the pieces that reach the highest and around which the rest of the garden will turn: the trees. Make sure you allow a circle of sufficient breadth for each tree to grow; until it grows out, and find out ahead of time how large they tend to grow. If you plan a certain circle of space for them, and they grow slightly beyond it, you can prune them, but you should let them have a certain minimum of space.

You could plant fruit and berry trees like apples, plums and cherries; nut trees like walnut, hazel and oak also would prove valuable over time. Such trees aren’t going to yield vast quantities of food right away, of course, but in the meantime you can plant food-producing vines to climb up the trees – blackberries and kiwifruit, for example – as well as shrubs under them, like blueberries and lingonberries. Further down still – for a forest garden has food at every level – you can plant edible weeds like Good King Henry and Fat Hen, as well as herbs that return every year.

It is true that a forest garden requires some patience, and if you buy small trees from the nursery rather than growing apple trees from seed, it could be several times more expensive than a conventional garden. With the right species, however, you only have to plant them once; you are investing in infrastructure like a house or fence, only a forest garden could last for centuries longer.

Thursday, 11 May 2017

Remembering the past

I explained last week that when I talk about the advantages of previous eras or criticise our faith in eternal and universal progess, people often grow defensive – a sign that they had a lot of dreams invested in certain images of the future. They often say things like, At least our lives are an improvement over the past. In some ways, I tell them, but not in every way; compare modern Ireland to the traditional one, or the modern America to the America of a century ago, and you’ll find that suicide rates are higher today, crime has risen, and many things we value have declined, despite certain improvements.

Of course the Ireland that my neighbours remember had many problems, like any society before or since. Farms take a lot of physical work, and sometimes long hours, for little money. Their communities included the usual grudges and rivalries, boys who looked for trouble or girls who adored the wrong boys, men who loved their drink too much or their families too little. 

The pastoral Ireland of my neighbours’ memories also saw a lot of chaos, although you wouldn’t know it to listen to them. I talked with people born when the British Empire ruled Ireland, and they lived through the First World War, Ireland’s war for independence, an internal civil war, a Great Depression, the Second World War and decades of poverty, punctuated by the occasional terrorist attacks between Catholics and Protestants. I remember how terrified and panicked Americans were after the September 11 attacks; proportional to the size of the country, these must have been like a 9-11 every week or so. Earlier generations remembered worse; my neighbours might have known grandparents who survived the Famine, when half the country died or fled in the greatest genocide in modern Europe until the Holocaust. If you’ve ever listened to Irish folk songs, this is why they sound so sad.

I’m not saying they lived in a watercolour painting free of troubles; I’m arguing that they knew skills that could sustain their bodies, values that sustained their souls, and a social union that allowed them to be part of something larger and more important than themselves. Together, these things gave them a fulfilled and happy life, and a safer, more literate society than we have today – even when frightening things happened around them.

I’m not suggesting that we precisely copy their lives and culture; we couldn’t even if we wanted to. Many modern cubicle workers nurse fantasies of getting away from it all, going “off the grid” and living an all-natural, old-fashioned life, and I sympathise – to some extent, that’s what we did when we moved to rural Ireland. Yet few couch potatoes have developed the sinew and muscle for such a life, the toughness of mind and body, nor have the lifetime of skills to get fuel from a bog, meat from an animal or dinner from a field. On television we often see action heroes start a fire in the woods, hunt an animal or gallop away on a horse, but in reality those things take months or years of training, and most of us don’t need them.

Their lives demanded other, less obvious skills as well, which have also atrophied in recent generations – to play musical instruments and sing songs together, tell stories that will entertain people through the long winter nights. It required neighbours to make easy conversation, settle differences peaceably, and share with neighbours or face the consequences when you need their help later. We can’t join the communities they were part of, for they no longer exist; Ireland is a modern country now, and my neighbours a dying breed.

I am saying that the elderly people I’ve met here in rural Ireland grew up with less money than most modern panhandlers, and a lot less than most inner-city families, and endured hardships most of us can’t imagine – and yet lived as part of a healthy, happy, safe, civilised and highly literate culture. The same is true of older generations in many countries; while not all times and places were alike, many seemed to live better lives than we do, despite all our wealth and technology. I wanted to learn what I could from them, and see what they did right that we do not.