Sunday, 22 October 2017

After the hurricane

I haven’t posted much lately, as I’ve been busy with my day job, family duties and writing longer pieces that I hope to publish separately. That, and this week we had a hurricane.

A bit of background: Ireland almost never gets hurricanes, or even many powerful storms. A typical summer rain in my native Missouri gushed down suddenly, hot as a shower, for a few minutes and turning the baking land into a floodplain before swiftly disappearing. Here in Ireland, however rain is usually a cold drizzle that can continue for an hour or a week -- or in 2012, a summer.  

I recently checked the average rainfall in Missouri and Ireland and was surprised to find that Missouri actually receives 53 per cent more rain per year than Ireland does. It certainly doesn’t seem like it -- Missouri might go months without rain and then make up for it in a few minutes, while here it rains more than half the days of the year.

On the other hand, the Irish countryside has two settings: 1.) cool and raining, and 2.) cool and not raining just yet. We almost never get genuine warmth - say, 30 degrees Centigrade or higher -- we almost never get snow, we never get tornadoes, or any of the more intense weather that hits most of the world. When my daughter was little I took her to visit family back home and she heard a low rumble in the distance, she turned to me excitedly and asked, “Daddy, is that thunder?” She had heard of it from books, but had never heard thunder before -- it happens here, but not often.

We also rarely get the erratic floods that hit my native state; I grew up where two of the world’s largest and most wilful rivers meet, and their floods have removed whole towns from the map. Here, though, the towns are often built at the top of walled river banks that have been repaired and rebuilt for hundreds of years, as the rivers rise and fall predictably beneath them.

Hurricanes creep up the Atlantic, but rarely as far north as this -- as I’ve mentioned, we are at the same latitude as the southern tip of Alaska. The rare exceptions make our history books, and stories of them were passed down through the generations. I’ve been reading Then There Was Light, the oral history of the gradual electrification of Ireland between the 1930s and the 2000s, and in one chapter Eileen Casey describes her home after a fuse-box was installed in her kitchen:

… Cooking was still done on gas and it was always a great back-up in case a storm might hit and knock out the whole shebang.

Which is what happened in 1961 when Hurricane Debbie decided to wreak destruction. A branch of a big oak tree fell on the transformer pole and plunged the row of cottages into darkness …This tropical “hussy” intensified to Category 3, passing over Ireland, bringing record winds of 114 mph. Tens of thousands of trees and power lines were knocked out there were few telephones in those days. 

The men who lived in the cottages tried lifting the tree of the transformer pole, causing a great whoosh which could have signalled their end. Then they left well enough alone and waited for the ESB men to come out and restore their home comforts.

Until now, such events were rare, but in the last ten years or so, the old farmers tell me, the weather has gotten progressively stranger -- a heavy snow one winter, an unusual span of weeks without rain, a summer of nothing but rain, and floods that breach the usual limits and stretch over fields and towns. 

Thankfully, this last hurricane did little damage -- homes here are usually made of stone or cement, and no one’s house gets blown away. The power was out for tens of thousands of people, and we had no internet for a while -- but the government got everyone’s power back on within a few days.

In any case, some people here lived without electricity even into this century, and we only got internet at our house in the last few years. If the phones went down or the power went out, I suspect, many older people here would shrug and get on with their business.

It’s going to be a healthy attitude in the years to come, as I suspect we’ll be seeing a lot more of this. Less than a week after the hurricane, Ireland is being hit by Storm Brian, the latest in a summer of storms. I was talking with locals at the village pub Friday night, and while none of them are what you’d call eco-activists, they all accept that this will probably be the new normal.

After every such event, there’s always a week or so of clean-up; the government getting the houses back on one village at a time, the tractors clearing the trees out of the road, and repairing the broken windows and car windshields. I was out jogging this morning, and hastily turned around and jogged home when I rounded a corner and came face to face with a cow in the road. I rang Liam, the local farmer, just as he was coming out of church.

“Brian, how you keeping?” he asked.

I’m good, Liam, I said -- say, is that your pasture across from the old barracks?

“It is that - why?”

Well, I said, one of your cows has gotten loose.

“I’ve been doing nothing but mending fences after Ophelia,” he said. “Which one is it?”

She’s cream-coloured with an ear tag, I said. I didn’t inspect her too closely.

“Sure, she’s a regular Houdini, that one,” he said. “I’ll be right down,” and he was.

 Photo has been making the rounds here; I'm not sure who originally took it. If it was you, let me know.

Tuesday, 10 October 2017

Foraging for mushrooms

Hey everyone! Sorry blogging's been so slow; I've been having computer problems.

Just as a few of our elderly neighbours here in Ireland still scour the hedgerows for fruit and other treats, so some still quietly gather their own mushrooms. In parts of France and Italy it’s not so quiet; families there, I’m told, regard mushroom-hunting season as a sacred annual tradition, like deer season in my native Missouri.

Tell most people you forage for fungi, though, and they say the same thing: That sounds too dangerous for me. Even people I know who gather wild plants or hunt game fear mushrooms – the wrong one can kill you, they tell me, so why not avoid them all?

It’s a fair argument; there’s no getting around the fact that some mushrooms are deadly, and that a few people die each year from eating them. To put that in perspective, though, remember that 450,000 Americans – we’ll use the USA as an example – die each year from smoking, 80,000 from drinking, and 32,000 from car accidents. Food poisoning sickened a whopping 48 million Americans last year, and killed 3,000 – including people who had done nothing more dangerous than eat the wrong fast-food burger. How many of those were from eating mushrooms, on average per year in that country?

Seventeen. Not 17,000 – just 17, or one-half of one per cent of all food-related deaths. Most of us, moreover, eat wild mushrooms all the time, from restaurants or jars at the store, so we obviously believe that someone is picking them safely. Most of us simply trust food sent from strangers more than we trust our own ability to learn.

To put the risk in perspective another way: Ireland has about 3,000 species of mushroom -- continents like North America have many more – and 25 are deadly poisonous, according to local mushroom expert Bill O’Dea. Only about 50, however, are deemed “edible,” while the other 2,925 are not usually lethal but are unsuitable for other reasons; they taste bitter, smell bad, give you indigestion – one “inedible” mushroom is even spicy like a hot pepper, and in Italy is dried and ground like cayenne. A few are edible under certain circumstances: the ink-caps that we pick on our property, interestingly, are perfectly edible unless you’ve drunk alcohol recently, in which case a chemical in them reacts with the alcohol and gives you stomach cramps.

You need not learn 3,000 types of mushroom, though, or however many exist around you; rather, learn a few common, safe and unmistakable species and stick to those. Italian mycologist (mushroom scientist) Jonathan Spazzi, who grew up in one of those mushroom-hunting families, said this was how they learned as boys; first one common edible with absolute certainty, then two, and so on.

My daughter and I have followed the same method, and while we still don’t know most of the mushrooms we see, we know enough to occasionally return with a basket of food. Even then, we began deliberately, first taking a couple of courses under trained mushroom experts, buying a few books with great detail and large pictures, consulting elderly neighbours who know what they’re doing, and sticking to our small but gradually expanding repertoire.

Even if you know a mushroom is edible, you should still avoid it if it grows by the roadside, where it could absorb toxic fumes, or if it grows out of wood that is itself toxic, like the theoretically edible ear fungi that grow on poisonous elder. Just a few days ago I found some amazing oyster mushrooms growing in the one place that was worse than useless to us – feeding on the timber of our garden beds. We would have been fine if they had grown on a nearby tree, or on an old log – but the timber might have been chemically treated, so we have to consider the mushrooms inedible … and they continue to eat our garden beds.

When I first took us on a mushroom-hunting course with the aforementioned Mr. O’Dea, I did not walk into the woods with expectations; I had looked for mushrooms before and found nothing. Once we began, though, we saw them everywhere – partly because we were in the kind of lush old forest they like, and partly because we learned to notice them. When everyone in our group returned, we had all found several basketfuls; edible puffballs, that we had to break open to test – if they were black on the inside, they were inedible “earth-balls.” We found chanterelles, that most edible mushroom that makes an amazing combination with steak. We found inedible sulphur caps, the hot-pepper mushroom I mentioned – and most memorably the infamous stinkhorn, its powerful smell detectable from a distance. A bit of experience, and suddenly we saw a world of mushrooms all around us.

Spazzi, who led us on our second course, created a very useful chart to help amateurs like ourselves. It places dozens of mushroom varieties in a flow chart, and you as you count characteristics you narrow down the possibilities. If it’s a “mushroom-shaped” mushroom – you know what I mean -- see if it has gills. If it has gills and the stem snaps, it’s Russula or Lactarius, and if it breaks into fibers, it’s something else. Then you look at the spore colour, the shape, whether it has a ring, and so on, and you see what kind of something else it is. By learning this basic chart my nine-year-old can find a large and unidentified mushroom in the Bog of Allen, casually snap the stem, pinch the cap, declare it an inedible Lactarius and move on. Neither of us knows the exact species, but we don’t need to.

Learning even something about the various kinds of fungi around us, though, lets us see the world around us from an entirely new angle. We tend to think of the world as consisting of plants and animals, part of a life cycle dimly remembered from old textbooks: one inhaling oxygen and the other exhaling it, one creating food and the other eating it. Fungi are the forgotten member of the Trinity, quietly recycling the world under our feet and forming the bottom half of the cycle. Threads of mycelium fungi weave through the ground under our feet like fibres in a mattress, turning wood, dead matter and even rock into soil. Only a few gain our notice, and then only when they poke their reproductive “fruit” out of the ground -- mushrooms.

We often group them with plants, but they are genetically closer to animals, breathing oxygen and eating plant and animal matter as we do. Some fungi actually prey on living animals, fishing for tiny worms in the soil or erupting mushrooms out of insects like aliens in a horror film. In humid areas they form nets like spider webs, catching leaves before they hit the ground. They include the largest and oldest organisms on earth – one in Oregon, genetically all the same living being, covers 2,200 acres of land and is thousands of years old. Visit it, though, and you see nothing but a forest – it has no presence but threads in the ground.

According to mycologist Paul Stamets, mushrooms were the first living things on land, breaking down rocks like lichens do today and making way for plants – and after extinctions like the meteor that killed off the dinosaurs, “mushrooms inherited the Earth.” In his talk “Six Ways Mushrooms Can Save the World,” Stamets also describes how mushrooms can be used to fight invasive insects, create cures for various diseases, create ethanol for fuel, clean up toxic waste sites and rebuild sterile land. Some fungi forge an alliance with the aboveground trees, living on their roots and absorbing the nutrients they need, to the point that many trees cannot survive without their partners. Many mushrooms appear around certain trees, and experienced mushroom hunters look at the trees above as often as the ground below.

Our ancestors probably ate mushrooms extensively, and probably saw far more of them. Even our “wilderness” tends to be managed, with humans clearing away the old trees and fallen wood that once sustained centuries of mycelium. In the time of early humans, of course, unbroken trees stretched from Ireland to Japan, the ground covered layers of decomposing wood. In his book “The World Without Us,” Alan Weismann describes one of the last patches of original forest in Europe, and seeing giant trees host mushrooms the size of dinner plates.

 Humans can rebuild that kind of healthy relationship with mushrooms; I know an old man who owns acres of deep woods in County Clare, and I asked him why his land is so lush. He told me that he pollards his trees – trims and prunes them, in other words – and buries a portion of the wood, so the mycelium thrive and the soil stays healthy. His land management system depends on his relationship to fungi, and like all the other living things on his land, he treats them with respect.

If you want to use mushrooms yourself and have neither an expert nor personal woodland, you can still use them without having to buy a plastic package each week. Try buying them in bulk, as we did once, and preserve them by pickling or drying them. You can also order little bullets of mycelium to implant in logs, which develop into mushrooms in a year or two. If you have a mushroom farm nearby, you can ask for some of the spent soil for your garden –it is often not completely spent, and yields some mushrooms along with your garden plants. If you can encourage mycelium in your soil, you could get the same patch of ground yielding mushrooms year after year.

We have several species growing under our land, and we keep an eye out for signs of their gift to us. While getting a beetroot from the garden the other day, I pulled away the leaves and found that under them, between the familiar roots, were ink caps sprouting everywhere. Our garden has been growing double crops this year, edible plants that turn the soil into food and mushrooms that turn the plants back into soil again.

Deaths from smoking: 
Deaths from drinking: 
Traffic accident fatalities: 

Originally published in 2013. 

Sunday, 24 September 2017

An orchard from a single tree

At some point in your childhood, I hope, you ate an apple and hit upon the idea of planting the seeds. Most such experiments stop at the paper-cup stage, but if your tree survived long enough to bear fruit, you probably noticed something strange: the seeds from that Golden Delicious apple do not necessarily grow into a Golden Delicious apple tree.

Seeds, you see, come from pollinated flowers. Flowers exist to get animals to combine a plant’s DNA with that of another plant, just as fruit exist to persuade animals to eat them and drop the seeds and fertiliser somewhere else. An apple’s fruit, obviously, is determined by what kind of apple tree it is, but the seeds inside are shaped by whatever pollen came to the flower.

If the bee that pollinated that Golden Delicious tree, way back when, had been to a crab-apple tree just before, then that Golden Delicious apple contains seeds that are part crab-apple. And since there are so many wild and domesticated apples around us, and bees need to make their appointed rounds, it’s quite difficult to grow purebred apples – and many other fruits – from seeds.

Even if you succeed in growing the fruit you want, it doesn’t necessarily come on the tree you want. You want a certain size of tree, suited for your climate and resistant to disease. With fruits you want a certain size, variety and flavour, and the two don’t often come in the same package.

Each plant variety has strengths and limitations that other varieties do not, just as a golden retriever dog has advantages and limitations that their wild wolf cousins do not. Of course, you can’t simply cut off a dog’s head and plant it onto the body of a wolf, getting a healthy but friendly Franken-dog. With trees, though, you can do exactly that.

It’s called grafting, and it dates back to ancient times, and today is practiced on a vast commercial scale; when you eat fruit, it was almost certainly from a grafted tree.

If you want to graft a tree the wrong way, do what I did the first time: let the knife slip the wrong way, cut your thumb almost in half, and spend a night in the emergency room. Grafting knives are quite sharp, so be careful.

To graft a tree the right way, however, you take a root and stem of one kind of tree for your “stock,” the base of your Franken-tree. You could use a hardy wild variety of crab-apple, or more commonly these days, one of many varieties bred just to be root-stock for grafts. The stock determines what the size and shape of the tree will be – if you use the bottom of a dwarf tree sapling as your stock, you will end up with a dwarf-sized tree.

Then you take a 1-year-old cutting, from the previous year’s growth, for your “scion” – again, a Golden Delicious scion if you want Golden Delicious fruit. The best scions are straight, long, upright shoots, usually taken from young and vigorous trees; in old trees this type of growth is hard to find and usually near the top.

The tree that grows from a successful graft will have the best of both worlds; for example, as the size and shape of your root-stock variety, but yielding the fruit from your scion variety.

Apples are the fruit most commonly grafted, but you can graft pears, plums, cherries or many other fruit. Amazingly, you can even interchange certain species – stone fruit like plums, cherries and peaches are interchangeable, and you could, in theory, attach them all to one “fruit cocktail” tree. The good people at Seed Savers, County Clare, Ireland, even grow pears from their hawthorn tree.

Nor do the possibilities stop at trees; I am told you can even graft the top of a tomato plant onto the bottom of a potato plant – they are both in the nightshade family – and get both vegetables from the same organism.

Nor are you limited to one scion; in theory, you can attach as many scions as your root-stock tree has branches. You can even attach multiple kinds of apple; one man in Britain has grown a single tree, planted 25 years ago, and attached 250 separate scions onto it, making it the only tree in the world to yield that many kinds of fruit.

It’s best to graft in winter or spring, when the trees are as dormant as possible – the people at Seed Savers say they cut scions in December, store them in sand in cool dry place, and graft them in February or March. To try grafting you need the following things:

  • A scion, or a small branch from tree whose fruit you desire;
  • A root-stock, or sapling of the same fruit, but hardier and wilder – say, crab-apples if you’re grafting apples;
  • A very sharp knife (again, be careful);
  • Bandages or grafting tape;
  • A candle and matches (optional).
To graft a branch, you have to cut the scion off the desirable-fruit tree, and cut a branch of similar diameter off the hardy stock tree. If you’re trying this for the first time, the best thing might be to use a sapling, 6 months to 1 year old, as the stock, and the scion can be grafted onto its stem and become its top half.

Make a very slanted, diagonal cut at the top end of the stock, so that a long strip of bark is exposed. Then, rotate the sapling to the other side and cut it in the other direction, making an upside-down V shape. Finally, take the scion and make a similar cut the other way, so that the two dove-tail together. There are many other cuts that could be used, but this is one of the simplest.

The idea here is to expose as much of the cambium – the green layer under the bark – as possible, and to lay the stock’s and scion’s cambium touching each other. That’s the living part of the tree, where healing takes place, and that’s the part that will grow back together. The experts I talked to also recommend cutting off the tip of the scion after grafting, anything more than three buds up, so the tree will concentrate its growth into the most viable section.

Fit the two as tightly and perfectly as you can, and then make sure they stay together. Some people take sticks of wood and lay them against the dove-tailed branches to keep them in place. In any case, wrap the entire thing together in bandages or grafting tape. What you’ve done, effectively, is make a splint for the tree to grow back just as broken bones would.

Finally, light the candle – you were wondering what that was for, didn’t you? – and drip wax onto the wrapped bandages until the entire thing is sealed away from bacteria and fungus. This is an optional step, though – some grafters preferring to simply wrap the stems together or use sealing paste like Lac Balsam, which does not need to be heated. If you do use wax, use it sparingly, lest the heat damage the tissues.

If you want to try grafting yourself, it’s best to take a course or talk to an expert first, or at least look at a lot more detailed information in books and the Internet; gardening centres around you might have courses available. Once you get it right, though, you can start experimenting with turning a single tree into an orchard.

Sunday, 17 September 2017

A bridge to the technosphere

For half the Irish year I ride my bicycle along the canal in the morning to the village where I pick up the bus to my job in the city, and ride back again in the evenings. The morning ride gives me a chance to see the landscape when the sun is still drying the leaves of dew and shooing away the clouds of mist from the bog, when the fish are beginning to stir in the clear waters below and the herons are shaking off sleep on their perches.

Similar patterns stretch across the land, the water and the sky. The dendritic patters of the tree branches of the trees that line the road resemble the tributaries of the streams that flow below them, with tiny streams feeding larger ones and then joining others, feeding the fields of wildflowers. They resemble the veins of my hands, more visible now than they used to be as I grow older. They resemble the mycelium I see in our compost, which I tried to disturb as little as possible today when I spread it across our new garden bed.

As Albert Bates put it in the permaculture course, we see the same patterns across all scales – the shape raindrops take on leaves of grass are governed by the same laws that draw matter into stars and stars into galaxies. The tessellating pattern of water as it twists and curls around rocks in the stream, resemble the mist curling and twisting as it floats away, purged by the light of the dawn, or the patterns of clouds as they ripple over the Irish landscape.

The morning ride shows me the patterns of the farmers who live near me, before they are outside at work. I see that Liam mended the fence where the calf broke through, that last night’s wind blew some trees over the phone lines, and that Liam won’t be reachable by phone this week. I see that Mick’s family have laid flowers on the cross they placed along the canal, on the spot where his car went off the road last year, drowning him. His girls are only teenagers, and I suspect most people still leave his old space empty in church, his seat empty at the pub.

The ride home, likewise, gives me a chance to see my neighbours as they are busy on their plots of land. I usually see my neighbour Seamus, in his eighties and still planting his own field, and Martin, proudly showing his young cows and antique cars. I see other neighbours who never took to the car culture, and still ride bicycles or even horse-carts into the village and back.

You see, once I step on the bus to the city, the world changes. I spend three hours on a bus and nine more in an office, staring at screens, sitting in seats and dealing with the carrots and sticks of human hierarchies. I live, as most of us do out of necessity, in what Dmitri Orlov calls the Technosphere, the world of user names and passwords, computer screens and electronic noises, online profiles and digital icons.

I try to ignore the flash and flicker of advertising on the walls of cafes, office lobbies, buses, trains, cars, bicycle racks, bus stop shelters and toilets. I wear earbuds to muffle the piped-in soundtrack of advertisements, talk radio, and pop songs broadcasted into buses, restaurants, and offices. Out of necessity, I deal with the conceptual hierarchy that humans have created -- software programs, paycheque numbers and manager titles -- and pretend they represent reality.

I understand the need to visit the Technosphere, and it has its uses -- look at you, reading this on a blog. In living my life and raising a daughter, though, I always try to keep one foot in that artificial world and one foot in the real one, the one that has been here for uncounted lifetimes before us and will continue long after the Technosphere has passed into legend.