Thursday, 12 November 2015

The Girl and the Stoics

Thanks again to everyone who reads this blog for being patient while I get things in order; I just haven’t had any time to write lately. 

For our home-schooling lessons my daughter and I have been reading Greek and Roman philosophers, and she has taken a shine to the Stoics – not only reading them with me, but trying to incorporate their ideas into her life. Most people these days could use such wisdom in their lives, especially adolescents – so as my daughter grows up, I’m encouraging this phase as long as it lasts.

A quick explanation: The Stoics were one of the many philosophical “schools” inspired by Socrates and others in the Golden Age of Athens, each trying to answer basic questions like, “What is the meaning of life?” and “How should people act?” Each school came up with their own answers: Epicurus and his followers taught that people should strive to be happy, and make others happy; Cynics to live with radical honesty and simplicity, and Stoics to follow a moral code of honour and self-control. There is far more to these philosophies than these few words, obviously, but we’re talking about a child’s introduction.

Of course they are not incompatible with each other, nor with religions like Christianity. Following one school, then and now, doesn’t mean opposing the others – it just means one surmounts the others in a pinch, perhaps as Einstein’s physics become necessary when Newton’s are out of their league.

Unfortunately, there aren’t many resources to teach such things to modern kids, and most available versions come in archaic King-James language for some reason, as though to keep everyone else out of the philosophers’ club. Take this excerpt from the version I found of Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations: IV.

Spend not the remnant of thy days in thoughts and fancies concerning other men, when it is not in relation to some common good, when by it thou art hindered from some other better work. That is, spend not thy time in thinking, what such a man doth, and to what end: what he saith, and what he thinks, and what he is about, and such other things or curiosities, which make a man to rove and wander from the care and observation of that part of himself, which is rational, and overruling. 

I worked in newspapers. It’s better punchy.

Don’t nose into the private business of your neighbours, unless it’s out of some sincere desire to help them, and then only as much as you need to. Instead of wasting time gossiping about others’ lives, change your own; you can’t truly control what other people are like, but you can set an example for them to follow. 

She gets more out of the latter version, but even then their examples can be quite abstract, and the chariot-and-tunic references a bit dated. People learn more from hands-on examples – one reason Jesus used parables – and in our case, we watch the classic films of the 1930s and 40s. Thus, we’ve been looking for characters who seem to embody the Stoic -- not the common adjective of “show no emotion,” but characters who take a brave stand, for selfless reasons, simply because they think it’s the right thing to do. They don’t have to be pure, perfect or even likeable; they just need to take action for a principle.

You might think that’s basically every movie hero, but not really: many protagonists, especially men, start out amoral, only reluctantly doing the right thing at the end, from Clark Gable’s character in 1936’s San Francisco to Chris Pratt’s character in 2014’s Guardians of the Galaxy. As adults we understand this as entertainment, but generations of boys have grown up emulating such characters, only belatedly realising, in the hangover of maturity, that Ferris Bueller and Han Solo were actually terrible human beings. Other movie heroes – however brave or sympathetic -- seem less driven by principle than by a desire for adventure (Bilbo Baggins, Luke Skywalker), greed (Scarlett O’Hara), desperation (Tom Joad) or infatuation (any romantic lead).

The Girl and I think Frodo Baggins in Lord of the Rings passes the Stoic test – he took the Ring because someone had to – but Bilbo does not, heroic as he later became. The elves qualify but not the humans; both were heroic, but the humans were trying to stay alive, while the elves could have fled at any time, and some chose to stay and sacrifice themselves for strangers.

To use another example: As much as we liked Harry Potter, he would not pass the test; he fought for survival, revenge, and romance as well as principle. Errol Flynn’s Robin Hood, Basil Rathbone’s Sherlock Holmes, Mr. Spock, Doctor Who and the Lone Ranger would all qualify, although their fantastical adventures don’t always have the most applicable lessons to everyday life.

Perhaps surprisingly, many cynical films noir feature a Stoic hero; Sam Spade in The Maltese Falcon and Phillip Marlowe in The Big Sleep could have gotten the girl, their money and the credit for solving their cases, but they gave it all up – or risked doing so – to find the truth, for no reason other than it was the truth.

Hildy’s tough reporter in His Girl Friday would qualify, as would Carole Lombard’s brave resistance spy in To Be or Not to Be and Bette Davis’ prostitute in Marked Woman – an important point when teaching a daughter, for female protagonists are rare enough, and principled ones rarer still.

Recently I showed her 12 Angry Men, and we both agreed that Henry Fonda’s character was a Stoic – even when everyone was against him, he kept his cool and stuck to his arguments, and one by one persuaded everyone in the room. I’ve been pushing us to read To Kill a Mockingbird soon, and introduce her to Atticus Finch. To hit the jackpot for Stoic heroes, though, you have to turn to the now-extinct American Western, and a few nights ago, I showed her Shane.

Shane – perhaps the greatest Western ever – begins with the titular character wandering the West on horseback and chancing upon a pioneer homestead. A gentle, courteous man, he seems to be scarred by a violent past – when he hears a small sound behind him, he instinctively whirls around with his gun drawn. When the homesteaders – the Starretts -- offer him food and a place to stay the night, he stays on to help, and settles into a peaceful new life as a farmhand.

Soon, though, we see the local tensions – the local rancher, Ryker, wants the land for his cattle, and tries to bully the Starretts and their neighbours into leaving. Shane tries to stay out of the conflict as long as he can, but eventually he takes up his gun again, risking his life for the farmers but unable to remain with them.

I grew up with Shane, but as an adult I saw new depths. A lesser film might have shown Ryker as a cartoonish villain – yet the film gives him a tearful speech in which he begs the farmers to leave peacefully. For a moment we see the world as he does: he considers the farmers to be usurping his land and destroying his life’s work. He remains villainous – he burns a family’s house and hires an assassin to murder the farmers – but his imagined righteousness gives him a tragic depth.

Similarly, Ryker’s ranch-hand Calloway seems to be a simple thug, picking fights with the farmers that come to town. As the feud turns deadly, however, he secretly meets with Shane to warn the farmers of Ryker’s plans.

“He wasn’t all bad,” The Girl said. “He had a change of heart at the end.”

Well, the film takes the side of the farmers and he’s against them, I responded, so we cheer when he picks a fight with Shane and loses. But from his perspective the farmers are the enemy. It’s easy for us to cheer our side and to jeer at evil, because evil is always somebody else. It’s empathy that gives us trouble.

But most people have a limit too, I said -- a line that their conscience won’t let them cross. Fist-fights were one thing, but Calloway hadn’t signed on for treachery and murder.

“I think Shane is a Stoic,” The Girl said. “Do you think he studied philosophy?”

He seems a cultured man, I said – this would have been after the American Civil War, so perhaps he was an officer and gentleman who couldn’t go back to his old life. Still, you look through education guides from the late 19th and early 20th centuries, and children often read ancient Greeks or Shakespeare, even in poor rural areas.

Finally, I pointed out to my daughter the subtle way the film implies an attraction between Shane and Starrett’s wife Marian – for example, when she cautions her son not to grow too attached to Shane, and we gather that she is talking partly to herself. What’s refreshing, though – and so alien to pop culture today -- is the assumption that their attraction ought to remain unspoken and unfulfilled.

“What if they were to fall in love?” The Girl asked.

 These days, our culture uses the word “love” for attraction, I said – it’s not. And these days, every pop song, every movie, every television programme tells you the same thing about your life – that what matters most are your feelings, and that all feelings must be indulged.

But that’s the exact opposite of what the Stoics taught. Being free, they believed, meant not being ruled by your feelings, but being able to rule yourself. Feelings happen, I said, and they come and go quickly, never to your credit or your fault. Doing what’s right, though, usually means doing things you don’t feel like doing. That’s being a grown-up.

“I never thought of relationships that way,” she said. “I’m not sure I’m ready to be grown up yet.”

I’m not ready for you to be grown up yet either, I said, but don’t worry -- it’s a long way away for you.

“Not for you?” she asked.

For me, I said, it’s happening very quickly. I’m trying to be Stoic about it.

Tuesday, 20 October 2015

Settling back into normal life

That was more of a hiatus than I planned; thanks for being patient. Long story short, I’ve had one computer disaster after another, in addition to being swamped with other duties. Things seem to be settling now, and I hope to slowly get back into posting.

So, an update on what we’ve been doing. The Girl and I spent four weeks in my native USA this summer; it seems a long time, but we had many cousins and old friends to visit, and saw each one for too short a time. I visited friends I had not seen in many years, people who have shared the golden moments of my life, and for a few hours we laughed like no time had passed, the threads of our lives briefly touching again. I used to mind many of their children, and visited the fine young men and women those children have become. I heard about the new passions they have discovered now that their children have grown -- some embracing new charities and churches, others building new businesses or careers. Our lives have gone in many directions, but none of our futures worked out the way we imagined -- a symptom of our times.

The Girl and I stayed with my grandfather, now 91 and still mentally sharp and physically active. We had the privilege of going through the personal items left by my great-aunt Imy, who died last year and had been a second mother to three generations of family. Imy was famous – in our family, anyway – for never throwing anything away, but until my daughter and I began opening up her hatboxes (when was the last time you saw a milliner’s hatbox?) we had no idea how far her archives extended.

We found Imy’s girl scout essays and First Communion certificates from the 1930s, her rosary and Latin hymnals, her swimsuits (which fit my daughter quite well) and her photographs, all to be saved and passed on in her memory. Most of all, she saved papers relevant to her parents and grandparents, all born in the 19th century.

So it was that we saw commendation papers for my great-grandfather, a pious and kindly man, for courage under heavy machine gun fire in the trenches of World War I. No one ever knew this – he never mentioned it. We brought my great-grandfather’s doughboy helmet, with the dent where the bullet hit, and carried it in my backpack on the plane home. All these things sit on my shelf as I write this, voices from another era.


One of the small pleasures was taking my daughter around the area they used to live, where I played as a child – working-class but clean, with small brick homes on quiet streets, lined with weeping willows or clusters of birch, with swans paddling in nearby pools and children walking home from school.

“I like this place,” The Girl said.

So do I, I said – this is where your great-grandparents used to live, where Grandpa grew up, where my aunts lived, where I spent a lot of my childhood. Do you know what this place is called? I asked.

“No,” she said.

This is Ferguson, I said – do you remember the place where all the riots were? That was here.

“Here? This doesn’t look anything like what I imagined.”

Always remember, I said, that when the media show images of what they call news – protests, rioting, unrest, a civil war – they are trying to show you something dramatic, so you’ll keep watching until the advertisements. So they show you someone in a moment of rage or panic -- a teenager, a protester, a police officer -- and their face is frozen in that moment and shown on a million screens around the world.

But that’s not who they are most of the time, of course – usually they work a regular job, take care of their children, and have an ordinary life. They are never the cartoon you see on the screen, and neither is that place. There’s always more to their story than you know.


In other news, Ireland is taking in some thousands of Syrian refugees in the coming months, and we’ve put the word out to help; parents and teachers at our local Catholic school have gathered a roomful of buggies, baby clothes, toys, books, and other goods. I’ll be volunteering to “befriend” some of the refugees – take them shopping, show them around – and that will keep me busy the next few weekends. I won’t be able to say any more about it for now, as these are vulnerable people and our interactions are meant to be confidential, but I’ll let you know if it goes well.


We’re gathering crops in from the gardens, and giving all the scraps to the chickens, so they’re eating well. My mother-in-law is making her usual autumn batch of pickles and sauerkraut, we turned our elderberries into syrup, and I’m enjoying experimenting with kim chee and other dishes to keep in jars over the winter. We skipped the jam-making this year – we have enough jam to last us for years – and my carboys are already filled with wine.

The Girl has been taking on more chores as she goes into adolescence; helping me cut down a diseased tree and burn away the infected parts before they spread; making syrup for the bees and feeding them, taking care of the chickens. Every day I’m conscious of the clock counting down the days until she leaves for an adult life – perhaps two thousand left, and I want to get the most out of them all.

We’ll have to re-do our entire garden this winter; a fungus ate the timbers we used, and in places the rotten timber broke apart, spilling earth onto the walkways. We’ll be re-doing the raised beds in brick this time, but it will be a great deal of work over several weekends, and of course we still have to take the bus to Dublin during the day. It will be a very busy holiday season for us.

 Thanks for continuing to check in.

Monday, 31 August 2015

We're back.

The Girl and I had a great time visiting friends and family in Missouri -- including my aunt's garden, shown here -- and we're settling back in. We are experiencing some technical difficulties, however, so there will still be no blogging for a week or two while I get things sorted. Check back in every so often.

Thursday, 16 July 2015

More Ancient Greeks

For tonight’s lesson, I said to my ten-year-old, tell me how the first democracy was created.

“Sure,” she said, remembering our lessons past. “It was in Athens, about 2,500 years ago, and the poor people of Athens were unhappy and getting ready to revolt. So the leaders of the city put a philosopher named Solon in charge – he was the one person everyone trusted."

 She was right, at least according to Plutarch. Once many students read stories like this, from Roman scholars to Victorian schoolboys to American pioneers; these days I have to introduce them to my daughter through home-schooling. Reading the Ancient Greeks presents no great chore, though, as many of their stories are as melodramatic as any soap opera, and with the occasional screwball turn into pure comedy.

What did he do once he came to power? I asked. Did he make himself king?

 “No!” said my daughter emphatically “He said everyone had to vote, create juries, and so on, and made everyone swear an oath to follow the rules of a democracy; no one could change them except him for ten years. Then, after everyone had sworn, Solon said, ‘Good! Now I’m going on vacation – for ten years!’”

Excellent, I said. And it worked – but before long there was trouble, and they almost lost their democracy when it had barely begun. Some Athenians wanted a local gangster named Peisistratus to be their ruler – remember that everyone was used to having a ruler, and not having to rule themselves.

“Piece-a-stratus?” my daughter repeated. “Did a Mr. Stratus have several kids, and he was one piece?”

Well, he was certainly a little piece-of-something, I said, and he came up with a cunning plan to take over Athens by force – three times.

My daughter looked perplexed. “You mean he came up with three plans, in case one didn’t work?”

No, I said – I mean he came up with a scheme to take over the city, and it worked, and he became dictator. Then the Athenians came up with their own plan to bring democracy back, and they kicked him out. Then Peisistratus came up with a second plan to take over, took over a second time, and they Athenians kicked him out a second time. Then he came up with a third plan …

“Um. Hang on,” she said. “He took over the city and became dictator three times in a row? And he was never put in prison or anything?”

Prisons only became common recently, I said, and even now in most of the world they’re rarely used – the United States is an exception. Athens used to exile people if they got to be too much trouble, and everyone would vote on who to kick out of town. Except with Peisistratus it didn’t work – he kept coming back.

 “Why did so many people let him take over?” she asked in disbelief. The same reason people want strong leaders now, I said; if you just put your hero in charge, everyone can rally around the hero, and you can all just beat up the people you don’t like. Democracies, on the other hand, aren’t much fun – you have to listen to people you disagree with, and everyone has to make compromises that nobody likes.

“But if most Athenians wanted democracy, how did Peisistratus take over?” she asked.

By trickery, I said – first, he showed up with a shallow wound – Herodotus says he wounded himself – and said, “Oh, no! I’ve been attacked by Solon’s supporters! What kind of a people are we who let gangs with knives roam the streets!” I put the back of my hand to my forehead in a diva gesture.

“Why would he wound himself?” she asked. It wasn’t a serious wound, I said, and it made everyone sympathise with him, so the Athenians let him walk around with bodyguards. Then Peisistratus hired fifty of his supporters, armed with clubs, to follow him around like an army.

“Fifty men!?” She said.

 Yes, it was a bit excessive, wasn’t it? I said. Then Peisistratus showed up at the government building with his fifty armed men, and everybody let them in because they were his bodyguards. Then they took over the government office and made Peisistratus the ruler.

“They weren’t the brightest, were they, Athenians?” she said.

Well, they were a bit new at this, I said. Thankfully, they raised an army to defeat his bodyguards and kick him out.

“But he left the country and came back again?” she asked. Well, he went off and made money somewhere else, doing basic gangster things, I said. Eventually he saved up enough for a chariot -- covered in real gold, like gangster might have today – and started driving it back to Athens.

 Again she looked dubious. “A gold chariot?!”

That’s right, I said. Then he hired a beautiful woman and dressed her up like Athena – patroness of Athens – and drove back on the road to Athens in the gleaming chariot, with the woman in front saying, I am Athena, your goddess – you should all have Peisistratus be your leader.

There was a pause.

“You’re joking,” she said.

No really, I said, that’s what he did. It wouldn’t be the first time a politician said they had God on their side. And he took over again, and the Athenians kicked him out again.

“What about the last time?” she asked.

Well, I said, that time he and his supporters only had the power to take over the temple at the top of the hill, so they did that. The Athenians raised an army to stop him again, and they gathered around the hill, with Peisistratus and his men outnumbered at the top. Then Peisistratus came out to the front of the temple and said he had an announcement for everyone.

He stood at the steps of the temple, looking down the hill at the Athenian army gathered outside the temple grounds, raised his arms impressively, and shouted, MUMBLE-MUMBLE-MUMBLE.

Another pause. “What?” my daughter said, laughing.

He said something that the Athenians couldn’t make out, I explained. So the Athenian army all shouted back, WHAAAAT? I always pictured it like the villagers in the film Young Frankenstein, talking to the police inspector.

I said, Peisistratus said, MUMBLE-MUMBLE-MUMBLE. 

WHAAAAT? the Athenians all said. WE CAN’T HEAR YOU.

You’ll have to all come a little closer, Peisistratus said, so you can hear me. Come inside the temple grounds, and listen. I’ll have my men back off.

So Peisistratus’ men left, and the Athenians all left their weapons in a pile at the gate – they couldn’t carry weapons onto sacred ground – and all shuffled in and gathered around Peisistratus.  

Okay, they said, we’re here. What did you want to tell us?

What I was saying before, Peisistratus said, Is that we’re taking over the city. My men have just circled ‘round to the gate and taken all your weapons.

My daughter smacked her forehead. “D’OH!” she shouted, Homer Simpson style. “What a bunch of muppets! Please tell me they got smarter as they went.”

Everyone thinks they’re smarter, I said -- wise people understand how little they really know. Speaking of Socrates, I’ll introduce you to him next week.

Reading these instalments of their true-life melodrama, I wonder why we stopped teaching th classics. These stories link us culturally to the hundreds of generations who read them before, so that when a Roman scholars to Victorian schoolboys to American pioneer quotes Pericles or Thucydides, we understand th reference. These stories take the things we would see in any small town or neighbourhood today -- elections, libraries, theatre – and tell us how they began, on rocky outcroppings 26 centuries ago. It cures us of the notion that we are special or superior to our forebears; rather, it helps us know the people on whose shoulders we stand.

Sunday, 12 July 2015

The Broader Palette

As it becomes apparent that the Celtic Tiger will never return, more and more people are turning to gardening and other self-reliant hobbies; grow-it-yourself clubs are popping up all over Ireland, our local one hosted by my non-profit, gardening programmes seem to fill the television schedules, and a number of local farmers are leasing their fields to allotments.

As pleased as I am to see so many rows of cabbages and potatoes, though, I don’t want to see people rely too heavily on only a few crops. It’s understandable, of course, for gardeners to start with the easiest or most familiar plants, as well as the ones they know how to cook. Here that means cabbages and potatoes, in my Missouri hometown that means tomatoes and peppers, and where you live it might mean something else.

Relying too much on only a few varieties of a few plants, though, makes for a very fragile kind of self-reliance. Eat a surfeit of one food and your health declines; meet the wrong caterpillar or fungus, a summer too hot or a winter too long, and much of your food is gone. The Irish did that once with potatoes, with disastrous results, and Americans began eating mostly corn – corn-fed beef, high-fructose corn syrup and more -- around the time they gained a global reputation for obesity. Most of us, though, have little idea how many edible plants are all around us, and how many could fill our salad bowls or soups.

Even if we restrict ourselves to the minority of plants that have become domesticated crops, we typically recognize only a few varieties of each – the ones bred recently for fossil-fuel transport, not for taste, health or your climate. Take the colour, for example – most of us have never seen green oranges, purple carrots, striped beets or blue potatoes. Or look at breed names -- most of us have eaten Johnagold or Green Delicious apples, perhaps without knowing what they were called, but I have never had Seek-no-Furthers or Belle-de-Boskoops, and you probably haven’t either.

 Even many ordinary vegetables have become widely unrecognized. When I was in charge of a magazine in America, we made an arrangement with a local CSA to get a weekly box of whatever was in season. I waited until everyone else had their share and took the rest home – which meant I took most of it home every week, because my colleagues had no idea what to make of the vegetables or what to do with them. Some of these people were environmental activists or vegans, but they stared quizzically at the kohlrabi, fennel, mange tout, swedes, daikons, parsley root, beetroot or sunchokes as though they were specimens from an alien planet.

Still, I didn’t grow up knowing many of these crops either, and had to learn them over time. When we moved here, for example, my mother-in-law introduced me to celeriac, a celery relative bred not for its stalks -- which are edible but foul-tasting, I can assure you – but for its bulbous root. Ours can grow as large as a human head, and can be left in the ground until needed or transferred to boxes of sand in the shed. My mother-in-law usually cooked them like potatoes, but I find them great raw, finely grated like parmesan and mixed in a spicy lemon dressing.

As another example, we're growing scorzonera again this year, a yellow-flowered dandelion relative that seemed to fall out of favour after the Victorian era. Its black roots taste great peeled and either boiled, steamed or stir-fried. Its cousin salsify has blue flowers and white roots, but can be treated similarly. We also grew chicory, not to harvest at the time, but to transplant to earth boxes in the shed in winter and force its blanched leaves upwards.

Acquaintances of ours experiment with other roots and tubers: yacon and occa originated in the Andes Mountains alongside the potato, but spuds became the staple food for millions while the first two continued to be eaten mainly by Incas. Sometime soon, though, we really must experiment with yacons, which can be eaten raw and, we are told, taste like sweet radishes.

Even outside the garden beds, in the woodland and hedgerows, you can plant or foster hardy wild crops that most people pull out as weeds. Good King Henry grows naturally in the forest understory here, and tastes like spinach – it grows wild here but not enough, so we are sowing its seeds in our garden this year. Fat Hen runs rampant here and makes a good addition to any salad, as does jack-by-the-hedge, sorrel, oxlip, cowslip and primrose. Nettles can be cooked like spinach, fermented into kimchi, juiced like wheatgrass, dried and powdered like herbs. 

No matter how damp or chilly your climate, it might support more subtropical plants than you realise. When I first visited Ireland, I was shocked to see so many palm trees: the air rarely goes above room temperature, but it so rarely freezes (until recently) here that they survived along the coast. In the same way, olive trees, tea bushes and wine grapes grow in the south of England, and once the greenhouse was invented, gardeners here grew pineapples, peaches and melons.

Nor are all such fruits as exotic or tropical as many people believe. Most people think kiwis come from the South Pacific; in reality the name was a 1960s marketing ploy, a Cold War rebranding of the Chinese gooseberry. They too grow in this damp and windswept country, perhaps not as big as the ones in supermarkets but just as tasty --- and without using their own weight in fossil fuels to get here.

We will never approach resilience unless we wade into the vast pool of little-known and rarely used plants. This time of year, as those of you in the Northern Hemisphere are buying seeds for the spring, consider devoting a piece of your land for experimenting with new crops and new varieties. Not all your experiments will work, but some might prove easier, healthier, more pest-resistant, tastier, or more suited to your particular patch of the landscape that what you are planting now.

Originally published in Energy Bulletin January 2011.

Thursday, 9 July 2015

Coming to America

Just to let everyone know, The Girl and I will be travelling to the USA this month, and this blog will be on hiatus until we return.

I'm particularly interested in seeing some of my old neighbourhoods again, in light of everything that happened there last year.

Our schedule is as follows:
  • St. Louis, Missouri: July 27 to August 3 
  • Twin Cities, Minnesota: August 3 – 11 
  • St. Louis again: August 11 – 20.

If anyone wants to see me in that time, or wants me to speak to their group, drop me an e-mail and we’ll see what we can do.

Sunday, 5 July 2015


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, 28 June 2015

Singing Lessons

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What was the club?” she asked.

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

“Did they fight back?” she asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, 24 June 2015


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Originally published in 2011.