Sunday, 13 May 2018

How not to become a beekeeper


This is a reprint from a few years ago; sorry for the re-runs, but I've been quite busy this year. We're re-doing our garden, my now-teenaged daughter is competing in archery competitions across Ireland, I helped my neighbour dispatch her ducks, and we're preparing to visit my native USA for the first time in years. I'll write more about these things later. 

If you're thinking of becoming a beekeeper, there are a few things to remember. 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.




Sunday, 6 May 2018

Community-Supported Agriculture















We think of innovations in cars or computers, but rarely of innovations in farming and food. Yet a new type of farm has caught on rapidly in recent years, in both America and Europe – Community-Supported Agriculture, or CSA.


CSAs are small farms owned, jointly, by a nearby community, and that supplies food for people who live nearby. Sometimes townspeople will buy a plot of land close to town, hire a farmer to work it for them, and share all the crops. Other times the community can sell the surplus for a profit.

In some circumstances the farm is affiliated with a farmer’s market that sells the produce back to local people, giving the town a source of civic income; in other cases, townspeople simply own shares in the farm and get part of the harvest as profit. Still other times the farm is more like an allotment, with families owning their own sections. There are almost as many models as there are farms.

Such community ventures solve many problems at once. First, they find a use for plots near towns that otherwise might go unused. They provide work for farmers in an age when their numbers are diminishing – and if the community hires young people as hands, they give wages and rural skills to local youths.  

In an interview with Global Public Media, community farmer Jay Martin made the point that many farmers must go deeply into debt in order to begin or keep farming – and when they have a successful crop, he says, they must deal with transport and the uncertainties of the market. When he turned his farm into a CSA, on the other hand, the costs were covered by the community, and he had no transport costs and a built-in market.

Turning a local farm into a CSA also means giving one’s money to local people means that the money keeps circulating nearby, rather than going to faraway corporations. It means that your food comes from people you know and trust. It means that people near you are getting work and staying fed and housed, which benefits your local community.

But perhaps the most important use of such farms is keeping local areas self-sufficient. We are surrounded by fertile land here in Ireland, yet we import most of our food. If there were another oil crisis, or a war, or any other kind of emergency, we would have to rebuild a great deal from scratch.

Food transported from one kilometre away, rather than 10,000, eliminates a major source of climate chaos and pollution. At present, many foods must be sealed in plastic and foam packaging, sometimes preserved in chemical gases, to delay spoilage, and even the healthiest vegetables are less nutritious after sitting on a shelf for weeks. If the farm is next door, the food is always fresh, and no rubbish need be generated. In an age when fewer people feel part of a community, a CSA allows people to invest in a project together, with their neighbours, and share in the rewards.

When I worked at a magazine in America, our business bought shares of a CSA, and they grew a variety of crops for the shareholders. As one crop after another came into season, they sent us boxes of whatever vegetables we had earned by our share, so we got weekly deliveries of rutabaga, beans, corn, onions, rhubarb or whatever was ripening. This was in Minnesota, up near Canada, so the growing season was quite short, but we got plenty of food for our money, and the farm stayed in business when so many others went under.

Finally, it gave young urban people a chance to experience foods they might not have ordinarily, and to learn to cook things they could not, at first, identify. Many of the office workers, I suspected, had grown up on a diet of takeout and crisps, and didn’t know what to do when they first saw a kohlrabi. When I peeled the skin off and at it like an apple, though, they tried it as well and were hooked. I had to caution them not to try it with celeriac, however – not all roots are the same.

Of course, Ireland cannot import all its foods – we won’t be growing any bananas here for a while, climate change or no, and even local food is not always in season. But simply cutting our imports can make a big difference in many areas -- the difference for some people between having a job, or having enough food in a crisis, or having hope. 

Monday, 30 April 2018

Sauerkraut


Cabbage has come a long way from its origins as a little beach-weed called sea kale – over centuries, our species has bred it into an amazing variety of different vegetables. We’ve bred it for its head of leaves – green cabbage, red cabbage, Chinese cabbage, kale, bok choy, mustard, rocket, mizuna and others. We’ve bred it for its flowers – broccoli, cauliflower and romanesco. We’ve bred it for its buds -- Brussels sprouts – and we’ve bred it for its roots, kohlrabi.

In all its forms, it remains one of the best crops for the Irish climate, as for similar climates like the Pacific Northwest, but it grows in a wide variety of climates. It’s a famous staple here in many of its forms, the basic vegetable of many dishes. Amazingly, though, few people we know here make sauerkraut or kimchi, methods used in other parts of the world to preserve cabbage, make it easier to digest and to give it flavour. You can make sauerkraut very easily at home, and it will be much tastier and more nutritious than the canned variety.

The biggest trick is to find 1.) a cylindrical container, not made of metal or plastic, and 2.) a lid slightly smaller than the top of the container, so that it slides down the interior with little air in-between. The cabbage has to be pressed down in salt water away from oxygen, you see, but not sealed off completely. We have a ceramic pot and lid; you could hold it down with a plate slightly smaller than the pot and hold the sauerkraut down with a stone. Alternately, you could use a mayonnaise or other glass jar and use a glass or ceramic candle-holder as a stopper. Use your imagination, but of course wash and sterilise everything well beforehand. 

First cut a cabbage into quarters and chop it finely with a knife or through a mandolin. Mix up a few handfuls of the shredded cabbage, put it in the container, and pound it down for a few minutes with something heavy like a rolling pin. Then sprinkle some salt onto the cabbage – about three tablespoons of salt for every five pounds of cabbage – and repeat the process with another few handfuls until your container is full.

Then fill the container with water – from the cold tap, but heated on the stove until lukewarm – until it just covers the top of the cabbage/salt mix. Put the lid on and place the container someplace warm to ferment at room temperature – about 20 degrees Centigrade is ideal, so try near the heater or stove.

The cabbage should begin to ferment right away, and one of the great things about this recipe is that you don’t have to wait until it’s “done.” It will gradually turn from cabbage to sauerkraut over about a month, but you can dig in at any point, eat some and put the rest back. Just make sure to top it up with more salt water if you need to – about a tablespoon per litre of water – as you have to keep the cabbage away from oxygen.

Your sauerkraut might develop a slight scum on top as it ferments. Just skim it off and clean the plate when you take some out -- it’s just the result of contact with the air, and not very dangerous. Also, don’t worry if the kraut has a faint yeasty smell – it’s fermenting, after all. If it starts to go pink on top or smell genuinely bad, something has probably gone wrong.

After about a month, take out the sauerkraut and eat it straight, put it in the refrigerator or cook it, as you like. You can also add other vegetables into the mix, like onions, carrots, cauliflower and beetroot, or spices – juniper berries and bay leaf are the classics, but you can also experiment with ginger, chilli peppers or other things.

This is a great way to preserve cabbage through the winter without refrigeration, also, and to give vitamin C during the months when it’s most needed and least available.

Wednesday, 18 April 2018

How not to build a chicken coop

Originally published back when we had the chickens. 


This week’s entry in the How to Live Sustainably series: How to build a chicken coop in 157 easy steps. Note that everyone is different, and not every step might apply to your situation.

1.) Decide you want to keep chickens. Perhaps you want animals to provide you with companionship and entertainment until you get hungry. Perhaps you want to play tricks on animals that lack the wherewithal to be indignant, allowing you a certain freedom from guilt.  Perhaps you want free protein for when the Eurozone collapses, oil prices skyrocket again, another Icelandic volcano erupts or the Zombie Apocalypse takes place.

2.) Decide what kind of chicken you want to have; there are docile and aggressive breeds, white and brown egg layers, and breeds that look like they stuck their beak in an electrical socket. Many of the more bizarre-looking breeds are purely for show, by people who enjoy that sort of thing. Others were bred for fighting, by people who apparently love the mess of chicken slaughter without having to bother with the inconvenience of eating fried chicken afterwards.

3.) Decide what kind of chicken run you need. Some people build a mobile run, basically a cage whose one end rests on the ground and whose other end rests on wheels, and which can be picked up and dragged. With a mobile run, you don’t need much space, for the chickens strip the small area and poop all over it in short order, but the next day you can roll their cage to a different patch of ground as the first patch recovers.  The disadvantage, though, is that you need to move the run, and as it’s dark when I leave for work in the morning and dark when I get home, there’s no time to do so; I would kill myself wandering across the land in the dark even looking for a chicken run that didn’t keep moving around. 

4.) Dig your trench. As we plan to have as many as six chickens, we want to have at least 50 square meters, so I had to dig a perimeter of 30 meters (5 x 10 x 2) half a metre deep to keep out foxes. Try to remember that there is now a giant trench on your property, and try to make sure no one sees you when you tumble to the ground. Remember: how you got all muddy is a long story, and no one can prove anything.

5.) Take scrap wood and begin hammering it together. Take careful measurements of all your wood, calculate the length and depth of each piece, and plan your coop accordingly, so that no piece of wood is wasted.

6.) Realise that much of the wood has rotted. Start over, but mixing scrap wood and lumber purchased from the hardware store, costing more than a year’s worth of eggs.  

7.) Accidentally step on a nail and hop to the car on one foot to drive to the A&E, assuring your daughter that you are fine and no one can prove anything.

8.) Invite your mother-in-law, who knows some carpentry, to inspect your progress so far, and collect your dignity as she points and laughs at you.

9.) Start over.

10.) Bring your electric saw, electric drill and other power tools outside to piece the wood together into a workable coop, with hen boxes and door.

11.) Rush the tools inside as it starts to rain, frantically wiping them off so no water shorts out the electronics.

12.) Wait until it stops raining. Bring tools outside again.

13.) Feel  the first drops of Irish weather again; frantically gather up the power tools and run inside.

14. - 155.) Repeat steps 10 – 14, putting the coop together a few pieces of wood at a time over a period of several months.

156.) When coop is done, ask a very nice friend to help you pull a fence of chicken wire around the run, and fill in the gap on either side of the fence with stones, thus discouraging foxes and getting rid of the boulders that have been our most prolific garden crop.

157.) Write a blog post asking if anyone has chickens they’d like to sell.


Sunday, 8 April 2018

Spring


This is the time when the chilly rain and gray landscape of the Irish winter gives way to the cool beauty of summer, when the fields erupt in oxlips and daffodils, the hedgerows swell with delicious hawthorn shoots, and the riverbanks ripple with nutritious nettles. In these months the usually solitary herons flying in pairs over the canals, and while jogging along the banks I spot the occasional bullfinch and kingfisher. Yesterday I spotted something extraordinary -- a goshawk flew out of our hedgerow and into our woodlot, followed by an explosion of panicked swallows and other birds flying in all directions. 

This year, though, everything is late; after six months of Irish winter and a month of Scandanavian winter, the hawthorn shoots are only now timidly peeking out of the tips of branches, and the usually brilliant blackthorn trees have not yet even hinted at blooming. Bluebells would ordinarily be spreading across the forest floor, flooding the woods with a brilliant violet light. 

Ordinarily our linden tree would be sagging with bushels of tender leaves that make an excellent salad, but this year we will have to wait until May. Only now are the primroses peeking out of the slowly drying mud, and the fields slowly turning green with new shoots -- the newborn lambs wobbling across the fields are scrounging for good meals this year. 

I visited my neighbour Seamus today -- I feel the need to check on him, although he's spent a lifetime working the Irish countryside here, and at 86 he seems healthier than most 30-year-olds I know. Ordinarily he's over the moon this time of year, t's his time to plough and plant the fields, to pat the chitted potato shoots into his patch of dry soil in the Bog of Allen. 

"We've lost a month," he said. "The fields are still too wet from the winter snows to plant, and no one can take tractors into them -- they would get bogged down, or rip up the fields until you couldn't plant. We've never had a winter like this, and now I don't know if we'll have a hot summer, or a late one, or no summer at all -- you can't tell anymore." 

When the blackthorns do bloom, I will set out with The Girl to mark them again, either with ribbons around the trunks or simply by counting steps and remembering where they are. Their small plain leaves are not obtrusive most of the year, and their small black fruits hide easily in shadow, so we must mark them now to gather sloes in November. At the same time we'll gather comfrey from the canal banks, an excellent addition to our compost. 

Thankfully, we have seeds already saved for this year, we have raised beds and a greenhouse, and we have seedlings planted inside and ready to go. This year I'll be quite busy with work and studying, and trying to write more, and The Girl is now a teenager working on her own projects, so it was to be a light year for the garden anyway -- good timing for us. 

We cut our grass for the first time this past weekend, and will probably do so about once every month or two for the next six months. Many people cut their grass far too often, keeping it from developing healthy plants. When I could, I replaced grass with edible and attractive plants like cowslip, primrose, Good King Henry, fat hen and chamomile.


I'm hoping that the warm weather will give me the chance to see more people, in the same way that the snow did. The unseasonable weather, like any emergency, brought people together, reminded us how we’ve lost touch with each other – and gave us a chance to turn that trend around.

Top photo: The forest floor around now. Bottom photo: See those bluebells? We don't. 



Wednesday, 28 March 2018

Splitting wood rightly


When we first moved into a house with a wood-burning fire, I needed to get and prepare the wood, but knew only what I had seen in movies. Through reading and consulting neighbours, I learned the basics of felling trees – either invasive species on our property, or wood that could be coppiced or pollarded and would grow back – and then to dry the logs and saw them into blocks. Finally, I tried chopping the wood the way I’d seen people do it on television, taking an axe and swinging it down full force, but it took a lot of work, and the thin blade often got stuck. Pulling it out seemed like getting Excalibur out of the anvil, and most of my attempts yielded slapstick results that I’m glad were not being filmed.

Eventually, though, an elderly neighbour stopped by and gave me a bit of advice: you don’t chop wood with an axe, as you see in movies. You split wood, with a maul.

The thin, sharp blade of an axe, I discovered, is designed to chop across the wood fibres, as when you’re chopping down a tree. Hitting a tree trunk over and over in the same place cuts the lignin fibres above and below, knocking out chips and creating the familiar V-shaped incision. Axes are also lighter, about two kilograms, as you have to put all your muscle into the swing and don’t have gravity to help you.  

A maul looks similar to an axe, but has a longer handle and a wider, heavier metal blade – wider so it doesn’t get stuck, and heavier so it comes down with more force. A maul’s wide, blunt blade is made to cut in the same direction as wood fibres, as when splitting logs for firewood; trying to cut down a tree with a maul is about as effective as doing so with a sledgehammer. Mauls usually weigh about four kilograms to carry more momentum in the swing; you’re swinging in the direction of gravity, so the weight becomes an advantage and not a liability.

Once you realise their purposes, their handles also make sense. An axe’s handle is great for swinging sideways, but swing it down and you risk hitting your legs. A maul’s longer handle hits the log with more force than an axe can, and if you miss, you just hit the ground.

To split wood, wear safety goggles if you can, although I’ve worn just my glasses in a pinch. Do wear something, though, as splinters can fly everywhere. Wear gloves that fit and can grip the handle.

Take a log of about 20-to-50 centimetres long – any longer than that and you want to cut it again with a saw before you try to split it. Check for knots – you can have some, but position the log so your blows avoid them as much as possible. If it already has small cracks, try to cut in the direction of those.

Put the wood you want to split onto a stump, or onto the ground – but not onto stone or pavement, lest you miss and get shards of stone and metal flying everywhere. Stand with your legs apart slightly, with one farther back than the other, like you’re taking a step forward.  If the maul won’t split a stubborn piece of wood, you can get a few wedges, inserting them into the log in the cuts your maul made, and then hitting them with a sledgehammer. 

I wait until my logs are dried before splitting them, but ours are lilandia trees in the pine family – other types of wood, I’m told, are easier to split green. Most woods need to be dried at least six months before they can be burned in the fireplace, and preferably nine. By the way, we only cut our lilandia trees, which were numerous and overgrown on our property and are an invasive species, or woods that we can coppice or pollard and that grow back quickly, like willow. I find that wood seems to split more easily in cold weather, although it might just be in winter that I’m especially motivated to get it cut fast.

In any case, splitting wood this way on cold days keeps you warm twice; once from the exercise you get, and then in the evenings when you curl up by the fireplace with a good book.

 


Saturday, 17 March 2018

You left the doors open


This is from an interview I did several years ago with a Mr. and Mrs. Hedemann of Dublin, part of my project of interviewing elderly people here. 

Me: One thing I wondered was that, in areas that were very poor, what kind of crime took place? These days, when times are getting leaner in my own country, a lot of small towns that used to be very prosperous are now destitute, many people are paranoid about security. 

Mrs. Hedemann: In Ireland you left the doors open. I remember as a child, going to Mass in the country when I was a small child, no one locked their doors.

Mr. Hedemann: And the churches themselves were open 24 hours a day. No one would ever think of pinching anything from a church. The doors were open all the time.

Me: Why do you think there was so little crime?

Mr. Hedemann: We’re an honest people, and everybody knew everybody anyway, particularly in the country.

Mrs. Hedemann: It wasn’t something you did; it would be a very strange occurrence.

Me: I mean, was it more that children were raised with a different set of values, or that everyone knew each other, or that no one had anything to take?

Mr. Hedemann: I think the last two, everybody knew everybody and nobody had anything.

Mrs. Hedemann: Nobody had much, but no matter how little you had, everybody had something of some value, even if only kitchen utensils.

Mrs. Hedemann: There was just an ethos; people just weren’t that way. But Ireland was virtually crime-free around 1900; I remember seeing the statistics. Virtually crime-free. It would be absolutely astonishing to people today. You had the odd murder coming up, but these were all crimes of passion. Certainly there were no drugs, which is the bane nowadays.

Me: You would have drinking, of course.

Mrs. Hedemann: Oh yes, they’d hold up the bar at the pub as long as they could till closing, or whatever. We couldn’t imagine I locking the door, or being afraid – you just couldn’t imagine it. Even in Dublin.

Me: Do you feel that if communities that are wealthy today became poorer, that crime would go down again?

Mrs. Hedemann: I think it might; it’s a good point. There is a thing that happens when people are together in privation. A community spirit grows, as grew in England during the war. People really pulled together; the traditional English reserve disappeared, and people talked to each other buses, perfect strangers helping each other. It digs into some deep human thing. Whereas once there is wealth, there is automatically separation and gradation.

The conversation turned to the social life they once had. Mrs. Hedemann: [Irish winters] are long, and depressing if you allow yourself to be depressed. The Irish would gather in the farmhouse and tell stories. The Irish are quite good at telling stories, whether they’re true or not is another matter.

Mr. Hedemann: Article 27 of the Irish constitution says that you shouldn’t spoil a good story for the sake of the truth.

Mrs. Hedemann: It was huge in the country; there was an institution called cortorach, Irish for visiting, and the people would visit each other’s houses and have dances and do the reels and the Irish dancing. and the women would drink tea and the men would drink porter. And they would have a seannachai (pronounced shanakee) – a storyteller – and he’d be spinning great yarns and tales, some of them the old, old stories. Some of them might be two thousand years old, really stories from prehistory -- stories of Kilcullen and Meave, stories from long long ago. Seana is the Irish word for old, so seannachai was telling the old stories....

Me: Would these storytelling events be regular? Would they be, say, once a month, once a week?

Mrs. Hedemann: Oh, good Lord -- at least once a week at least, and nearly every night at times. You can imagine it, the kitchen and the big open fire and the kettle on the crane – they called it a crane, the thing that brought over the kettle or the pot for the potatoes across the fire. Blackened, with a fire under it.

Me: A turf fire?

Mrs. Hedemann: A turf fire, and very warm, and the people gathered around listening to the seannachai telling his story. A lot of ghost stories, as the Irish are really into ghost stories. And the children were supposed to go to bed but were allowed to stay up, and would listen to the seannachai, their eyes wide like saucers. ... There would be poetry in English and Irish, and you’d have song, and a fiddle and perhaps a piper. Of course pipes were very expensive, and the English cut the hands off the pipers and hanged the harpists during the 18th century. Piping nearly died out here. It was Leo Rowsome was responsible for bringing it back. You always had a fiddler; you nearly had one in every family.

Mr. Hedemann: There was a great sense of community, of warmth, of laughter, of fun. There still is, I think, if you strip back the layers.

Mr. Hedemann: One thing I love about Ireland is the craic. You say something absurd, and other people see if they can say something more absurd to top you. If you do that in, say, Germany, people would be worried for your mental health.

Mrs. Hedemann: The funny thing is people were happier, in a way because the human connection was so heartfelt and so strong. This is a secret thing of the human psyche; we need real relationships, with other people.
 

Sunday, 11 March 2018

The Lives of Others


















Thanks to everyone for your well-wishes during our snowbound days; everything is melting now, and the first daffodils are signalling the beginning of spring. This post originally appeared in 2013. 

If you could boil our global problems down to seven words, they might be these: we don’t see where stuff comes from. Most of us spend grew up staring at glowing rectangles without ever seeing a coal-powered turbine. We blithely speed down motorways without ever visiting an oil derrick. Most of all, we eat mountains of meat a year without having to grab a live animal or smell blood. Like most things in our lives, meat just magically appears, brought by strangers.

That last example hit home for people in Europe recently, after the Irish government tested frozen burgers from a major supplier and found that some of the alleged beef was actually horsemeat. Irish and British discovered their top groceries and restaurants had been feeding them horse for a long time -- probably unknowingly, but shoppers and investors dropped them all the same. The day after the story made headlines the top grocery chain here lost half a billion dollars. Within a few more days food companies took ten million burgers off their shelves -- although the papers don’t say what happened to the meat afterward – and the next few months saw a reporter’s dream of press conferences, apologies, arrests, pledges and retests.

The scandal quickly spread across Europe, as country after country tested meat sold in its own shops and cafes and found they were not eating what they thought they were. The latest tests announced this week finally cleared Ireland, the epicentre of the scandal, but mislabelled meat is still showing up across Europe – and as far afield as South Africa.

The irony, of course, is that horsemeat is not harmful, and little different than cow, as evidenced by the fact that no one can tell which one they ate. Aside from a veterinary medicine showing up in minute amounts, no one has suggested that eating it had any ill effects, nor is it illegal; my daughter and I happily bought horse-kebab from a street vendor in Dublin the other day. (At least, he said they were horse, but you never know …)

Rather, the emotional punch – and inevitable punch-lines – that came from the idea of eating Black Beauty obscured more important details. If up to 30 per cent of some samples were horse, up to 80 per cent of others were pork. “Meat-filled” pastries in Iceland turned out to have no real meat at all, while South African meats had an interesting menagerie of buffalo, goat and donkey. Other samples allegedly had green mould on them. The horses might have been slaughtered up to two years ago, dead flesh just sitting in freezers.

Most importantly, though, was that governments and stores had such difficulty sourcing the meat. This detail proved especially unpopular with people here, who had already seen UK outbreaks of hoof-and-mouth in 2007 and 2001, as well as mad cow disease in the 1980s and 90s. Restaurants and stores here proudly advertise their “Irish beef,” not only to support local farmers but to distance themselves from such disasters. Now, it turns out, we just don’t know where some of it came from; it just magically appeared.

We accept buying meat from strangers for the same reasons we buy everything else in our lives from strangers these days; because we trust that someone, somewhere, knows what they are doing. On the rare occasions we associate the food on our plates with actual animals, we tend to assume they must have come from some kind of farm, like the overall-and-pitchfork images of preschool toys. We don’t picture supply chains so long and cobwebby that we can’t find out what kind of animal it used to be, or in what country, or how it lived.

Consider how strange this would seem to most of our ancestors, for thousands of generations back. For most of them meat was life; while most foods could be grown or picked, meat was the Leibig’s Minimum that forced people to be predators. Their craving for meat transformed the landscape, wiping out the planet’s large animals as thoroughly as an asteroid impact did the dinosaurs, and we now know Neanderthals or Clovis people by their meat-getting technologies. It was the main reason we domesticated animals, and that spurred empires and conquests – the Sanskrit word for “war,” I’m told, means “a desire for cows,” and the ancient Irish epic the Tain Bo Cuailnge involves a nationwide war over a single breeding bull. The very word “meat” meant “food” in Old English, so inextricable were the two.

Such concentrated nutrition comes with risks. Until recently we lived much closer to animals than we might like to imagine --- often in the same house – and pigs ran openly through streets in Europe and the USA even into the 20th century. Many of our human diseases come from domesticated animals -- influenza from ducks, for example – and for thousands of years our bodies have been at war with the germs they send us. When Europeans first encountered the Americas and Australia, the millennia of accumulated pathogens in their bodies – to which they had built up immunity -- wiped out 95 per cent of the native population, leaving the wilderness the pioneers found. Our desire for meat, in short, is the reason Americans and Australians will read this in English, rather than Parisians reading it in Aztec.

This dealing of life and death might be the reason so many of our religions bind us in meat taboos -- Jews and Muslims ban pig meat, Hindus cow meat, and Catholics all meat on Fridays and through Lent. Many of our rituals do the same, invoking the body and blood of the Word made flesh.

Because meat was so precious, most human societies were less finicky than we are today about what kind of animals they ate. People throughout world history have eaten insects, snails and other invertebrates, as well as birds, reptiles, amphibians and mammals of all kinds; something as mountainous as a cow or stag might be stretched into months of food. Even today, most subcultures eat both less meat than we do and more variety, as anyone knows who visits Chinese or Caribbean stores. I recently saw a letter from a bishop in largely Catholic Louisiana, USA, assuring his congregations that alligator could be eaten during Lent.

When we keep animals for food, they don't always stay put; the snails so common on these islands were snacks brought by Romans, as rabbits were a thousand years later by Normans. Polynesians carried rats on voyages for meat, and their escape helped scour island after island of their native bird species.

Most Americans I know eat two birds, chicken and turkey, and have never held one alive – but most of our ancestors ate many more, both for meat and to protect crops. Elderly Irish, who grew up in agrarian days when money and meat were rare, caught songbirds in wicker traps called “cradle-birds,” and one elderly couple told me that blackbirds were sold as food in wartime London --all to eagerly pluck and stew.

Fishing, likewise, supported many communities, but fewer all the time these days. To take one example from Mark Kurlansky’s book Cod: A Biography of the Fish that Changed the World, early explorers to places like Newfoundland simply dropped baskets into the sea and came up with them full of fish, so plentiful were the cod. By 1960 fishermen in the North Atlantic were catching 1.6 million tonnes a year, and thirty years later that number had dropped by almost 99 per cent. We are fishing the sea clean.

In my native USA, where people eat more meat per capita per year than anywhere else in the world, we have not yet overhunted the land, but that’s mainly because we get most of our protein from the hog or beef “factories” described in Eric Schlosser’s excellent book Fast Food Nation. I have talked to many Midwestern farmers whose lives have been shaped by these nearby places they can never see but always smell. Towns in my native Missouri, locals tell me, are now filled with two kinds of people: the elderly and the Hispanics that work the meat factories, and neither are expected to be around long.

Of course, such unpleasantness drives some to a vegetarian diet, and they are right to think that most Westerners would be healthier if they ate less meat. In abandoning all meat, however, vegetarians show the same maximalist thinking, and the same disconnection from the source of their food. Calves usually die to get milk or cheese, chicks to get eggs, and the animals will die eventually anyway, more slowly and painfully than they would have by predators or considerate butchers. A vegan diet requires using vast areas of land that were once forests to grow high-protein crops like soybeans, and making our society’s soy milk and designer soy-products requires our society to gobble fossil fuels in a way that will not continue forever.

Where we live, the landscape is still divided up into small family farms, and most people are related to a farmer – I’m friends with several around our land, and we see their cows every day. Most villages also have a butcher, and ours now features a sign about how he buys only from the local farmers. He actually gives us more meat than we ask for, knowing that we like the bones and cast-off meats for soups.

Everyone here used to get their meat from people like him, if they didn’t slaughter it themselves; it was only recently that the globalised supermarkets, with their shelves of cheap frozen meat and opportunities for fraud, began to proliferate. In my native USA, though, one would have to rebuild the entire infrastructure – local farmers to local shops within walking distance to homes – from scratch.

But we need to. If we want to know where our stuff comes from, and yet keep eating meat, then we need groups of neighbourhood boys raising pigs in the vacant lot, as wartime Londoners had, with neighbours buying shares of the bodies. We need to start sourcing food further down the food chain, to species that are still plentiful and that we will not risk exterminating. We need to expand the number of species we will eat a hundredfold, while reducing our meat dishes to a fraction of their current quantity. We need to relearn how to make eel traps and cradlebirds, to grow snails in the closet and chickens in the shed.

And we need to know people like my farmer friend, who I meet in the morning bleary-eyed from staying up all night with a calf. He gives his animals a better life than any they would have seen in the wild, infinitely better than on a factory farm, before making sure their life ends quickly and painlessly. It’s not easy for him, and his small scale makes the butcher more expensive, but that’s as it should be. Rather than wolfing mystery meat or snubbing it altogether, we could respect it again. Meat needs to become hard work to get and precious to eat, so that we again put some sacral value in the lives we take.

Sources:

Timeline of the horsemeat scandal, to February: http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2013/feb/08/how-horsemeat-scandal-unfolded-timeline

Announcement of original results: http://www.fsai.ie/news_centre/press_releases/horseDNA15012013.html

Tesco lost 360 million euros in a day: http://www.independent.ie/sport/other-sports/horse-meat-discovery-knocks-300m-off-the-value-of-tesco-shares-28959295.html

One meat product had no meat at all: http://www.grapevine.is/News/ReadArticle/Surprising-Twist-in-Horse-Meat-Scandal

Buffalo, goat and donkey in South Africa: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-africa-21588575

“The meat is believed to have been supplied between January 2011 and February 2013 across Europe.” http://www.thejournal.ie/european-commission-horsemeat-report-871583-Apr2013/

In my native USA, where people eat more meat per capita per year than anywhere else: Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations, http://faostat.fao.org/site/610/DesktopDefault.aspx?PageID=610#ancor 

Photo: Our neighbours, seen from the back fence.

Saturday, 3 March 2018

Still snowbound


Seeking a change of atmosphere, I walked a few kilometres to the village this afternoon – not a difficult walk ordinarily, but more so in deep snow. Along the way I met my neighbour Caoihme (pronounced Queeva), walking down the bog roads to call on her neighbour, while her daughters were laughing and throwing snowballs with other neighbourhood teenagers a respectful distance behind.

“How’re you fixed for supplies?” I asked. We were well stocked for dried and tinned goods, and had enough vegetables to see us through these days when everyone was snowed in and the store shelves empty.

“We’re grand,” she said. “We have all kinds of supplies in the shed, chickens for eggs and neighbours to trade with – but not a drop of milk to be had for tea.”

“That’s what I’m going to see about in town,” I said. “Perhaps they’ve cleared the roads a bit.”

“Ah, I doubt it,” she laughed. “I sent Seamus (her husband) to the shop the other day to find anything that hadn’t been picked clean. He came back with a piece of cake and a potato.”

“Well, if they don’t have milk,” I ventured, “I wonder about Tommy’s cows? Do you think he milks them?” We have enough neighbours who raise cows, I thought, it seems a shame to let such a resource go to waste.

“Ah, I think he raises them for meat,” she said. “And none would have calves that had been weaned recently. You can try, but I wouldn’t go rooting around down there myself.”

We walked on a bit, saying hello to neighbours along the way and admiring their giant snowmen or other sculptures, and she checked on the horses along the way to make sure they looked healthy and fed. We talked about getting our families outdoors, and that drew us into talk of footing turf this year in the bog.

Turf, also called peat, is the remains of centuries of moss and other vegetation that built up in the bogs, which built up over the millennia when the submerged lower strata did not fully decompose. Draining the bog and pulling back the top layer of vegetation reveals black and spongy bio-mass that turns reddish-brown and hard when it dries, and creates a slow-burning, smoky fire when lit. For hundreds – probably thousands – of years it has been the main way people in this cold country kept warm. The smell of burning turf is one of the most distinctive things about this land, and in country homes and pubs alike here neighbours gather around turf fires in the winter evenings.

Most farmers who lived anywhere near a bog had a ready source of fuel for the winter, once they pulled away the top layer of vegetation and exposed the peat underneath. Farmers here – everyone was a farmer of course, whatever else they did – carried special shovels shaped like one corner of a square, made for sinking into sides of a ditch and scooping out long rectangles of peat.

These days, the cutting is done by tractor, leaving long ropes of black and moist turf like liquorice, partly cut at intervals of a foot or two. While machines can cut the turf, though, humans still need to dry it by hand, “footing” it by cracking apart the liquorice into bricks and stacking them like cross-hatching, four or five bricks high.

“Will you all be footing soon?” I asked. “We’ve skipped the last few years, as we’ve relied on firewood, but I’d really like to get a new load for next winter, and it’s already March.” I knew the man who owned that part of the bog, who sold the turf from it, saw a death in his family last year when his son drowned in the canal, and was in no state to do business.

“We surely will,” she said. “I’ll tell Tommy you’re interested, and you can come out with us. We’ll be putting our daughters to hard labour for the day, with their young muscles.”

“I might conscript my girl,” I said. “As of about six months ago she suddenly became a grumpy teenager and less enthusiastic about helping, but the air will be good for her.”

When I got to town there was no milk or any other staples, just as Caoimhe said – but it seemed like everyone in town had gone to the shop as well, not just to pick clean the few remaining items on the shelves but to chat and break the cabin fever. Some people had managed to get there by car, others by driving ATVs, tractors or even their horses – or just walked, as I had. At the shop I met my neighbour Jack, and talked about the strange weather.

“We’ve had cold snaps a few times before in the last century,” he said, “but in the last few years we’ve had the floods of 2009, the freeze of 2010, the floods of 2015 and now this,” he said. “It’s not anything we’re prepared for.” Nonetheless, he said, they were all well-stocked and used to living on very little, so they were able to take such crises in stride – richer or more modern people would be harder hit.

On the way I stopped at the pub, and many of the neighbours were crowding in there as well; one came in with his father-in-law, who insisted on buying me a pint, and I returned the favour. Many of us stop at the pub every so often, but are not regulars, so a gathering like this reunites people who see each other in passing but don’t get a chance to talk anymore.

Friday, 2 March 2018

Buried


Ordinarily Ireland gets no more than a light dusting of snow once a winter, as the Atlantic currents keep us temperate. This past week, though, was the weirdest weather my neighbours have ever seen. We've gotten up to a metre of snow in places, according to news reports, with winds of up to 100 kilometres an hour. Our car can't get out of our driveway, most buses and businesses have shut down, and the local stations have given over to weather reports.

The west of Ireland hasn't been hit as badly as this, but the east of the country got the worst of it; local news stations showed a map of the most-affected areas, and we're right in the middle of it. I'm told the temperature got lower a few times in the last century, but my elderly neighbours say they've never seen this much snow where we are.

I walked a few kilometres to the store yesterday, to pick up a few essentials, and found that about a hundred people had the same idea; no milk, eggs or many other staples. No matter; we're well stocked for food and wood for the fire, and we still have electricity.

I checked on the neighbours to make sure they had enough - many of them are quite elderly -- and not only are they doing well, the snow brings everyone out to play.

Actually, it's quite pleasant; I have a few days off work, and after a dark Irish winter we have bright sunshine -- and since it's snowed, the light is from above and below. The Girl made a snowman, and we had a snowball fight -- she's a teenager now, and usually too cool for such things, so I treasure these moments when I can.

The fact that our gas keeps freezing gives me a chance to experiment with cooking over the fire, where temperature is no longer a matter of a button or dial but the amount of wood and the curve and sound of the flames. I made egg drop soup today, and might try my hand at popcorn tonight.

I've been curling up by the fireplace with a couple of books by the amazing Anthony Esolen, and I'm taking calculus courses online. In the evenings we've been watching movies. A few nights ago I showed my daughter Charade, with Cary Grant and Audrey Hepburn, one of my perennial favourites -- a delightful mix of comedy, romance and intrigue. Last night we watched Captain Blood -- a film under-remembered now, but every bit as good as the famous Adventures of Robin Hood, and with many of the same actors -- Errol Flynn, Olivia deHavilland, and my daughter's favourite, Basil Rathbone.

With a fireplace roaring next to us, we agreed: if you're stocked up on the basics and mentally prepared for disruption, an emergency can be a chance to remember how lucky you are.