Monday, 25 May 2015

Neighbours



When I can in the evenings or weekends, I stop and visit with our elderly neighbours, most of whom grew up in this area -- surrounded by precisely the same landscape but a different universe.

A sixty-year-old in my native USA would have grown up with cars, highways, televisions and electronic devices of all kinds. Their generation – as pampered as any that will ever be -- knew childhood in a time of unprecedented prosperity, youth in a time of unprecedented decadence, and approaches dotage at a time of unprecedented power and comfort for seniors.

A sixty-year-old in rural Ireland might have grown up during the same years but a different era – growing their own food, repairing their own materials and getting to town on horse, bicycle or their feet. Yet their world was also highly prosperous in its own way; they might have made less money than Third-World workers today, but they provided for most of their own needs, and money was less central to their lives.

At least in the mid-20th century, though, most people here had lifespans as long as people's today, and were probably healthier. Crime was unimaginably low, both by their testimony and official statistics. People had high levels of education --- school tests and letters from the time attest to a literacy and eloquence that would be rare today.

Their lives involved long hours of physical labour, and people had far fewer choices in their lives than we have today, so I don’t want to romanticise the past too much. Nor do I claim that people are improved by paucity alone, merely that people can build a peaceful and decent world without much money, if they know how.

Since these people knew how, their skills and attitudes might be valuable to my countrymen, who are growing poorer again but with no ability to cope with that change. My new project, then, is to take a video camera along and interview as many of my neighbours as possible, in the hopes of passing on lessons of a world whose memories are disappearing.

***

I mentioned a few months ago how we had seen Christopher Wheeldon’s ballet Alice in Wonderland in the cinemas, under a great new system that films plays, operas and ballets live and broadcasts them to cinemas around the world. It’s been a godsend to us, allowing us in rural Ireland to see performances that would ordinarily have entailed a trip to another country and a few hundred euros.

A fortnight ago, then, we saw La Fille Mal Gardee, Frederick Ashton’s lovely 1960 ballet, based on the 1828 play The Wayward Daughter. While my own daughter is to some extent a normal ten-year-old and had just enjoyed the Avengers film, I was pleased to see that she was not only willing to see the ballet, but thoroughly enjoyed it.  

This past week we saw The Pirates of Penzance; I had introduced her to The Mikado on television last year, but this was her first time seeing such a thing in the theatre. She had been understandably apprehensive about sitting through an opera, but I sold her on the fact that it was 1.) in English, and 2.) funny.  Gilbert and Sullivan offer a very accessible entry to the art, even for modern kids, and now she feels ready to see something in another language.  

***

Some people have asked me to comment on Ireland’s referendum on gay marriage -- an astonishing development in a country that only legalised homosexuality in 1993, and divorce in 1995 – but I don’t have anything ready for publication. Besides, I’m less fascinated by the law itself – Ireland already had civil unions, so this change is literally ceremonial – than I am in the transformation it represents, and why this issue took center stage in people's lives so quickly. But that’s a lot to take on, and I want to write it properly.

Top photo: Glendalough, a monastery near us, founded as a retreat from the world in the 500s and continued for more than a thousand years.

Thursday, 21 May 2015

Reading Plutarch



First of all, Greeks were funny. We don’t usually think of them that way. We think of them as marbled patriarchs in togas, Important Men from the Dawn of Time, whom we are supposed to revere for some reason.

Admittedly, we don’t usually think of them at all; after being a cultural standard for most of the last 25 centuries, referenced by writers and thinkers ever since, they’ve almost disappeared from modern pop culture. Occasionally a television character name-drops an Aristotle or Plato, demonstrating that they are the Brainy Character and can rattle off exposition. Schoolbook blurbs on ancient poets or philosophers bounce off an overstimulated generation; suggest to young rappers that they could listen to poetry, or to anguished teens that they learn philosophy, and you are likely to get nothing but horse laughter. Our cultural allergies run deep.  

In fact, though, the ancients were fantastic; lusty, flirtatious, petty and noble, and often dryly comic, witnesses to a world as dramatic as any fantasy epic or crime thriller today. A modern adult needs to tune in to the writing style, admittedly – and the legalistic translations often don’t help – so when I teach them to my ten-year-old, I compress the text down, Reader’s Digest-style, and we act out the characters. The other night, we read Plutarch’s biography of Solon, for example -- the man most credited for inventing democracy in Athens – and acted out his defiance of the Athenian dictators.

With sticks for swords, we re-enacted the Athenians’ battle for the island of Salamis, and their humiliating defeat by the Megarians. After that, I explained, the lords of Athens forbade any Athenian from mentioning Salamis – they didn’t want to be embarrassed anymore.

“What, so everyone had to pretend like nothing was wrong?” my daughter said indignantly. “When everyone secretly knew otherwise?” Yes, I said – just like today.

“Couldn’t they complain to the rulers if they didn’t like the laws?” she said. No, I told her, lords and emperors didn’t need to take responsibility for anything. They had taken a step toward democracy a generation before, I told her, when a man named Draco created their first set of laws – but the penalty for everything was death. That news delighted my daughter, and soon we acted out a new scene of our impromptu play: Mr. Average Athenian litters on the street, meets Draco.

So you see, I said, that Solon was risking his life by defying the ban.

“What did he do?” my daughter asked.

He sat down and wrote an epic poem – a song, really – about the defeat at Salamis, put on his best hat, walked to the market, stood on a pedestal in front of the entire city, and sang the entire story of the defeat. He couldn’t say it, so he sang it.

“What happened to him?”

The rulers were pressured to take back the island, I said – and the people of Athens figured out a way to win this time. It was …

“Yes?” she asked.

I paused, not sure how to proceed. Well, I told her, you remember that part in Bugs Bunny where he dresses up like a woman, and his antagonist drops everything to come over and flirt with Bugs?

“Right?” she asked.

Well, I said, the Athenians did that.

There was a quiet pause. “You’re joking,” she said.

No, really, I said – according to Plutarch, they had their youngest, beardless soldiers dress up as girls and flirt with the Megarians, and when the Megarians jumped off their ships and ran onto the beach after them, the other Athenians leaped out with swords and yelled, “A-HA!” Or something to that effect.

After talking about the zaniness of these strategies for a while, I explained that Solon’s reputation continued to spread; he became so famous for his wisdom that he began attracting other great minds from nearby places. He became friends with Thales of Miletus, one of the first Greeks to come up with theories about how the world worked. He became friends with Aesop, who wrote the fables, and with Periander of Corinth.

He even attracted the attention of a Scythian --- Scythia included what we now call Russia, on the far side of the Black Sea, so a world away in those days. The Scythian was Anacharsis, I told my daughter, who wanted to meet Solon so badly that he travelled all the way from Russia to Greece to meet him.  

We acted out the scene: Solon hears a knock at the door, and opens it to find a strange foreigner greeting him. We had just seen 1938’s You Can’t Take it With You, so she acted the part of Solon as played by Jimmy Stewart, and I played Anacharsis like Russian character actor Mischa Auer.

Solon! I said in my best Russian accent, playing Mischa Auer playing Anacharsis.  I have travelled all the way from Russia to meet you! You are famous there as great thinker – I am great thinker too! We should be friends!

“You know,” my daughter said, playing Jimmy Stewart playing Solon, “around here we have a saying – if you want  to make friends, you should start at home.”

Anacharsis slowly looked around. Is this your home? He asked.

“Um … yes,” Solon replied.

Then you can be friends with me! Anacharsis said exuberantly.

All this provides some bedtime fun for my ten-year-old, of course, but by doing this, we learn the stories that inspired later Greeks like Socrates and Aristotle, who inspired Romans, who inspired a thousand years of monastic traditions, and so on. We take the thread of civilisation that wound through so many centuries and spin it anew.

Sunday, 17 May 2015

Butter in the bog

Here in Ireland, we burn turf – dried peat from the bog – to generate our electricity, rather than coal or oil. Grid electricity arrived here later than most places, but arrived it did, and now travels from turf-burning plants through wires to our homes, to power refrigerators shipped from factories in the Far East. And that is how we keep butter cold, so it lasts for months instead of weeks.

Traditional Irish, however, had a simpler solution, which cut out several middle-men: they kept butter in the bog itself, sometimes for thousands of years.

Turf-diggers occasionally unearth packages of butter – small as fists or big as barrels, wrapped in bark, wood or baskets – in Ireland’s waterlogged soil. Butter and other foods would normally spoil through the actions of fungi, which breathe oxygen just as we do – but in the acidic and oxygen-free bog-waters, fungi cannot survive. One recent discovery, a barrel of butter weighing more than 35 kilos, dated from 3,000 years ago.

All the same, why butter, you ask? Probably because decomposers are slow to take apart fats anyway, and meat or vegetables would be more readily consumed. Also, butter makes a valuable and high-calorie food for poor agrarian people; it’s necessary to fry food or preserve things like potted meats. It was also taxed in medieval times, so burying it could have been a kind of tax evasion. Finally, some authors have pointed out that preserving it this way would give the butter an earthy taste that might have been desired; recently unearthed butter has actually been taste-tested by Irish schoolchildren and found to taste like well-aged cheese.

A surprising number of foods have been preserved by burying in one way or another; eggs in China, salmon in Scandanavia and cheese in Italy. Obviously it’s rarely as simple as burying the food; many of these take place in cold countries with permafrost, or the food is made to ferment in some way. More than 430 such finds have been recorded, and that does not count all the buried gastronomic treasure still waiting out there. Since we can suppose that people buried their butter to unearth and eat it later, and usually did so, these hundreds of finds must represent the small proportion of times that their owners died or the locations forgotten. Burying butter must have been a rather commonplace activity.

My daughter and I decided to do the same thing, burying some in the bog-lands behind our house. First we made some butter at home, through the simple application of shaking milk. In the old days this might have been done with a butter churn, but we were only doing small amounts, so we poured milk into a jar until it was half full and shook it – music is good for this part. At some point the sound of the sloshing changes, and you have a solid clump of butter in the middle of the liquid.

In olden days many people would pat the butter dry of any milk-liquids, but we clarified it – set it to low heat until the oil separated. Then we poured the butter-fat into a small jar – to the rim, to keep out oxygen – and set it in the fridge.

To bury the butter we found a place in the Bog of Allen, dug a hole half a metre deep. We wrapped the jar in cloth, tied a rope to it, and tied the other end of the rope to a nearby bush. In six months or so we’ll come back, and see how edible our experiment was.

Wednesday, 13 May 2015

Forging a knife

The Girl and I spent last weekend taking courses in traditional crafts, she making a pizza oven out of cob -- a mixture of clay, straw and sand -- with a group of other children.

For my part, I and the others in my class took similar materials -- with some horse manure involved -- to sculpt a forge that could be used to melt and shape metal. Then -- using larger and faster forges to save time -- I melted down a spring from an old piece of machinery and in turns heated it orange and hammered it into shape, until at the end of two days I had a proper machete. The handle was a piece of hazel I cut, and I fit the handle by heating it and pressing it into the handle, as the wood steamed, shrieked and occasionally burst into flame. At the end of it, though, I have a knife I can use to work the hedgerow.

I'll write more about the details later, but for now I wanted to praise the great organisation CELT, which has organised the event, the Slieve Aughty Center that hosted it -- and my tutor, the historical blacksmith Tony Vincent. Well done, everyone.

Photo: My knife, with the book I'm reading for scale.

Thursday, 7 May 2015

Interview with Resilience

We've had a busy week --- last Sunday The Girl and I were burying butter we made in the bog, as Irish used to do thousands of years ago, to see if it will keep. More on that later. Tuesday we all went to the ballet -- La Fille Mal Gardee. This weekend I won't be able to answer any e-mails, as we'll be out in County Galway -- she learning to work with cob, and me learning to smith knives.

In the meantime, though, I've written some interview questions for one of the best sites on the internet, Resilience.org. Most people who read this blog know Resilience, and if you don't, do check it out -- it's worth a hundred mainstream news sites. They asked me to answer a few general questions, and I'm told they'll be appearing there soon.

1. Who/what has been your greatest inspiration? And why? 

Everyone names famous people as their inspirations, but the more famous someone is, the more I wonder if they should be. We remember the generals but not the soldiers, the CEOs but not the secretaries, the billionaire who contributed millions to a cause and not, as the parable goes, the widow who contributed her last penny.

Even for every activist leader we admire, there are usually a hundred more who washed the dishes or knocked on doors, and didn’t get the attention. Most of the inspirational people I’ve known aren’t in the public eye, and I don’t want to name them without permission: homesteaders in the Ozarks, nuns I knew growing up, elderly neighbours here in Ireland.

Well-known authors I admire would include John Seymour, John Michael Greer, John Gatto, J.R.R. Tolkien, Wendell Berry, Rod Dreher, and William Catton.

2. Knowing what you know now about sustainability and resilience building, what piece of advice would you give your younger self if you were starting out? 

Don’t worry too much about changing the world, because you won’t. You can, though, change a small patch of land, or a group of people’s lives, and that’s time well spent.
  
3. What keeps you awake at night? 

I’m not worried about our species surviving – we’ll go on until we don’t. I care how much we lose our intellectual traditions and culture.

A century or two ago most people had real-world skills– they sewed clothes, fixed tools, raised animals, grew crops, played instruments and organised neighbourhood lodges, rather than moving a cursor that simulated these things on a screen. Also importantly, though, school-children often read Plutarch or Shakespeare, logic and rhetoric, and it showed -- 19th-century oratory for rural American farmers showed a complexity that flummoxes college students today.

Most Westerners today, both on the left and on the right, have abandoned such cultural standards. Few people today know they were once commonplace or understand their value. I wonder how much more people will lose that by the time their screens go black for the last time. It will mean the difference between a sustainable civilisation or barbarism.

4. What gets you up in the morning or keeps you going? 

She’s ten.

5. What has been your biggest setback and how did you recover? 

I did what many people do; I joined groups and got tangled in the internal politics. Eventually I left them behind, and years later they’re still bickering over the same things. I wish I knew an easier way to recover than to salvage what you can and leave the rest.

6. For you resilience is...? 

Creating much more than you use up; not just in money, but in topsoil, or firewood, or neighbourhood goodwill. Slowly replacing each new thing in your life that breaks with either 1.) nothing, or 2.) something your grandchildren could leave behind.

7. What one social/political/cultural/policy change would most assist your work/hopes/dreams? 

If governments – and particularly my native USA, which imprison millions of its own citizens -- were to take prisoners or probationers and give them jobs in the countryside, teaching them agrarian skills, they could solve many problems at once.

They could plant trees to cut down wind and keep soil in place, or phytoremediation crops on toxic land. They could teach skills that are otherwise growing scarce.

They would make dangerous areas safer by removing aggressive and idle young males, many from broken families, while allowing those males the opportunity to become valuable. They could take people who know only cement and show them trees.


8. What gives you hope? 

 Most people sense something has gone terribly wrong with the world; they don’t agree on the specifics or the solutions, but they feel it in their bones.

Our culture diagnoses such feelings, prescribe medicine for them, and offers screens to distract you from them. Entire ecosystems spring up – talk radio, conspiracy groups, online subcultures and new churches – to explain the world, and most just direct everyone’s frustration at some other group. But if you look at the world’s situation right now and feel a measure of grief, it doesn’t mean you’re sick, it means you’re decent. That feeling is why our species deserves to be saved.

Another reason for hope: It took only small groups of people – suffragettes, civil-rights workers – to move mountains in the past, and you probably have far more wealth and privilege than they did. We possess greater fortune than any people in history, and have a responsibility to use it.

Top photo: Stile in old forest.
Bottom photo: Boys doing chores in school, Ireland 1950.