Friday, 11 August 2017

Conversations with locals



Not the specific pub, which I'm keeping anonymous, but one very like it.
I’m taking advantage of the summer months, and riding my bicycle to the village and back to take the bus to work. My job is an hour and a half away by bus, but I can use that time to read and get writing or studying done, and this time of year I hardly ever need a car. The problem in the winter is not the cold, but the darkness; for months it will be dark when I leave for work and dark when I come home, and there are no streetlights out here -- just total darkness and a very bumpy road.

I was riding home the other night when I stopped and talked with my neighbour Seamus, who is 86 and still grows most of his own food in the nearby field. He asked about our potatoes, and I told him they had fallen victim to bindweed.

“Bindweed …” he said, his face serious. “That’s tough to get rid of; the roots go deep through the soil, and they climb and choke everything, sure they do.”

Any idea how to get rid of it? I asked.

“You have to cover the ground for at least a year,” he said, “but three years would be best.”

That’s not great news for our potato aspirations, I told him.

“There is one way,” he said, pulling his chin as though summoning old knowledge. “A way we used to do it around here. You get mare’s tails -- the weed, that grows all along the banks of the canal here. You know mare’s tails?”

Sure, back home we called them horsetails, I said. They’re an old plant -- they used to grow tall as trees, a few hundred million years ago.

“They’re also quite poisonous,” he said. That made sense to me, as many plants that had survived so long had developed a cocktail of toxins to dissuade browsing animals; the fern is almost as old as the horsetail, and ferns like bracken are powerfully toxic.

“You boil some water, and put in the horsetails to make a tea -- don’t drink it, now -- and you spray that on your bindweed, sure you do. And that kills most things -- but don’t spray it on anything you plan to eat later.”

Good tip -- I’ll try that, I said. I later found that remedy was used by permaculturists as an all-natural pesticide. Almost every time I see some of my older neighbours, I have conversations like this. They can be about gardening or local history, animals or machines, but I always learn something.

***

I spent last night in a village in the west of Ireland, and went to the local pub, where conversation flowed easily between the regulars; sometimes it was difficult to decipher the language, not just because of the accents, but because they spoke in the shorthand of long-time neighbours. All the same, I heard several different accents; most people had grown up in the village, but others had moved in long ago from England or North America, or other parts of Ireland with different accents. Talk drifted between hurling -- Ireland’s most beloved sport, unique to this country -- and fireworks, varieties of potatoes and duck eggs, the post and the weather.  

Eventually, some of the regulars asked for “45,” and the publican brought out a deck of cards. As a group of locals gathered around the bar counter, he shuffled and dealt them each a hand. As they played -- “forty-five” is the name of the game -- I got a sense of the rules; it was a quick, lively game, with patrons slapping down their cards quickly in succession, one after the other.

You don’t see many people playing cards anymore, I said.

“You will in this pub,” one told me. “You go to other places, and everyone’s just looking down at their phone. Cards is time with your mates.”

***

I keep in touch with family back in Missouri, including my dad -- who not only takes care of my mom (a stroke victim) and my nephew (severely handicapped), but just about everyone else in the neighbourhood.

After the temperature hit 45 C in St. Louis recently, the power went out for 50,000 people -- something that’s happening more and more these days. Ordinarily my dad would rely on his generator, but it chose that moment to blow.

As soon as word went out among the neighbourhood that my dad was having trouble, as he put it, “it began to rain neighbors.” He had helped them time and time again, and now they came by with generators, a battery-powered fan, extension cords, coffee, vegetables and gasoline. He compared it to the end of It’s a Wonderful Life.

When people talk about society breaking down -- shortages, outages, government and civil crises, fossil fuels running low and weather going to extremes -- most people assume it will bring out the worst in people. Where I come from, people have seen some of that already, and it often brings out the best in us.  

Saturday, 5 August 2017

The Girl and movies



Sorry for the light posting; first I had computer problems and other urgent matters, and this week I start a permaculture course in the west of Ireland.

I used to write about The Girl almost every week, but in the last few years it’s been less and less. Part of that is because I am more protective of her privacy now that she is a teenager; I felt secure posting something adorable my two- or four- or even eight-year-old said, especially since I didn’t say her real name, show her face or say exactly where we lived.

As she approached adolescence, though, I’ve had many talks with her about online privacy, and she knows that I don’t post anything about her without her permission. Young people these days have never known a world that was not lived online, and they face threats previous generations never knew -- from cyberbullying to porn to the addictive nature of internet itself. Part of me wanted to keep her from modern media altogether, but that’s increasingly difficult, even here in rural Ireland. Instead, she’s getting a life on a homestead but is able to relate to her peers, and I can be satisfied with that.

No matter how different our lives might seem to some, we still go through the normal Dad-teenager conversations -- eat healthier food, turn off the telly and read more, do your chores, and so on. I’m not fond of most of the music she loves or the teenaged-girl culture that she swims in, but she stays away from anything genuinely objectionable. She also reads for pleasure, goes to the opera and sees Shakespeare plays with me, or watches old black-and-white movies - something foreign to many of her peers. She loves riding horses, and has acquired a passion for archery and other medieval martial arts, taking part in competitions against adults and occasionally bringing home trophies.

“You know, Dad, I think I’d be quite prepared for the Zombie Apocalypse,” she said. Yes, I’m pretty pleased about that, I said.

***

I’ve talked about my love of black-and-white films from the 30s and 40s -- not just because I grew up with them, but because their plots and dialogue seem much funnier, more suspenseful, and more realistic than most films today. They portray a world that lived on far less energy than we use today, generated far less waste and pollution. Finally, filmmakers like Frank Capra and King Vidor offered a compelling, relatable stories about regular working people facing moral dilemmas, organising with their neighbours and standing up to the greedy and powerful.

We used to watch lighter fare -- Danny Kaye in Hans Christian Andersen, or Burt Lancaster in The Crimson Pirate, or Errol Flynn in The Adventures of Robin Hood, or Cary Grant in Bringing Up Baby, or the Marx Brothers in anything. As she got older, though, we moved on to more substantial films -- Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, or Meet John Doe, or Our Daily Bread. We watched Preston Sturgess satires like Sullivan’s Travels or The Lady Eve, Howard Hawks comedy-dramas like His Girl Friday.

When she got older, we went through Hitchcock, from The 39 Steps through Rear Window (now her favourite film), The Trouble With Harry, North By Northwest, and so many others. She’s developed a taste for film noir, so I’ve been introducing her to Double Indemnity, Out of the Past, The Killers, The Maltese Falcon, The Glass Key, Gaslight and The Big Sleep.

Now, older still, she is often too busy with her own life to have a movie night with me, but sometimes she makes an exception. Last night she asked to see the one remaining film we hadn’t seen in my collection -- The Big Steal, with Robert Mitchum, Jane Greer and William Bendix. It turned out to be a delightful romp, perhaps too light in tone to properly be called a film noir, but just as suspenseful. 

The film wastes no time getting to its plot, starting the action in the first minute without explaining who the characters are -- it’s more fun to figure them out as we watch them chase, steal from, and bamboozle each other. Most films simply explains how smart their characters are; this one shows them doing clever things, with little explanation, and assumes you’re sharp enough to pay attention.

Sunday, 23 July 2017

The wisdom around us

Sorry about the lack of posts; I've had some computer problems. 


If we want to learn from people in more traditional eras, we can do several things; we can read books and journals from that era, from before fossil fuels or electricity, before cars or internet, before everything became cheap and fast and thrown away. Some books from that era remain widely read; Mark Twain and Laura Ingalls Wilder from the USA, Jane Austen or Charles Dickens from England, and I would encourage readers to can go back farther in history to medieval writers or Ancient Greeks and Romans. We can also read historians who specialise in everyday life, or people today who still practice traditional crafts and write about it – I recommend John Seymour and Scott Savage, among others.

Many people today are forced by poverty to live simpler lives, as in the Third World, but their circumstances are often less healthy, literate or safe than those of 20th century Ireland. We in the West have too few first-person narratives from people who grew up in such poverty, and their cultures, climates and languages often pose a barrier to understanding.

We can talk to people closer to home who grew up with very little – say, people who grew up in trailer parks or slums – but again, they experienced a different kind of poverty. Most families I know in my native USA grew up with a lot of television, little freedom and the constant threat of violence; in many ways, they experienced the opposite of my Irish neighbours.

We can talk to people Western countries today who grew up living more simply than most Americans today – say, Amish, Mennonites or plain Quakers. Such groups, however, typically withdrew from the world because they have a rigid and insular culture, making them reluctant to share with outsiders and making their habits less relatable. I wasn’t just interested in sitting and watching television shows about people living simpler and more traditional lives; I wanted to learn how to do so myself.

We can talk to elderly Americans who remember the mid-20th century, and I have talked to quite a few over the years and learned a great deal. Their world, however, is not too unfamiliar; if you talk to a 70-year-old American, you are still talking to someone who grew up watching television and sitting in traffic.

That’s what makes my Irish neighbours so valuable; they are among the last Westerners on Earth, speaking English and now living in a familiar modern world -- to grow up in the pre-modern world, before electricity and modern media, before cars and modern devices. As late as the 1960s in Ireland, by contrast, fewer than one per cent of Irish owned a car, relying instead on feet and horses. As late as the 1970s many areas lacked electricity, meaning not just electric lights but radio and television.

Their lack of modern influences kept the culture parochial and traditional even into modern times; birth control was legalised only in 1978, and divorce only in 1995. My elderly neighbours grew up with different priorities from people today; they had skills, not career tracks, and lived not as individuals but as members of something greater. Their homes were filled with family members who pitched in with the work of getting food and water and warmth, and the ones who worked outside the home brought in the little money they needed for a few luxuries.

At gatherings they sang songs and told stories that were hundreds of years old, passed down like prayers from father to son, mother to daughter. They grew up knowing the histories of their cousins and neighbours, who were often the same people. When I ask them to remember a certain decade in their lives, they remember their childhood adventures and adult duties, the aging and passing of family, the passing down of traditions.  

Of course, the Ireland my neighbours talk about has mostly disappeared, replaced by a modern country not very different from the USA or Britain; drive along the major roads near our house and you sit in traffic jams, pass billboards and fast-food stops, see advertisements for Hollywood blockbusters, and hear wacky morning-zoo DJs on the radio. Cities are filled with young people constantly staring at little glowing rectangles, addicted to video-games or social media, increasingly dependent on touching a screen to get the basic needs of life. Raising a teenager here means talking about “sexting,” drugs, date rapes – the same uncomfortable parent-child discussions as you need to have anywhere these days. It’s difficult enough for older Americans who grew up with television and movies, albeit an older and gentler variety. Older Irish I talk to feel like they are living in a foreign country.

When I moved to rural Ireland 15 years ago, I admit, there was a lot to get used to. Ireland lies at the same latitude as southern Alaska, so the winter nights can be eighteen hours long, and the days quite dim. During the summer we have the opposite problem, and I have to cover the windows with tinfoil to get any sleep. It rains one day out of three – that’s the price you pay for the lush countryside – and even in summer it never gets very warm. 

Nonetheless, my family and I made a go of living here, building a house and garden and turning the land into a homestead. We grew some of our own food, kept chickens and bees, and learned as we went. I’d always loved traditional crafts, so I learned whatever I could about skills being kept alive by a few devoted aficionados. I tried my hand at blacksmithing, basketry, hedge-laying, natural building, bush-craft, leather-working, book-binding, brewing, pickling, cheese-making and wine-making, sometimes just dabbling, sometimes making it into a hobby.

I had to work in Dublin to pay the bills, which meant three hours a day on the bus and back each day. That meant devoting the few remaining waking hours each day to doing chores on the land, feeding possibly checking the bees, doing some traditional crafts, giving my daughter home-schooling lessons and having a writing career on the side.

Thankfully, I discovered that was much more feasible than you might imagine; a garden, animals and crafts can take up perhaps an hour or two a day, and you can learn a great deal while working around a regular life. It’s not being entirely self-sufficient or off the grid, in the manner of doomsday preppers or reality-television eccentrics, but I don’t need that kind of life, and you probably don’t either. Many people I know just want to be more self-reliant, or have fun learning skills, or to pollute less, or spend less money, or work with the land instead of against it – all things that go along with the old-fashioned skills I was learning.

Most of all, I talked with elderly people, and realised what a different world they had grown up in, and what an underappreciated resource they were. I struck up conversations with neighbours passing on the road, or having tea at their house, or sitting next to them on the long bus ride to Dublin, or visiting the local old folks’ home. Occasionally I asked them if I could sit down for formal interviews, and sat down with a camera and audio recorder.

I found that Irish radio had done occasional documentaries on traditional life, that school-children had collected the memories of their grandparents, that documentarians had filmed Irish villagers decades ago, and that historical societies and local experts had scrapbooks filled with the minutiae of day-to-day life. I listened to hundreds of hours of recordings and read thousands of pages of transcripts, collecting the details of their everyday lives.

Again, I’m not trying to romanticise their difficult lives, or claim that they didn’t have their own problems, or that the world hasn’t improved in certain ways – of course it has. I’m not saying that we could or should do exactly what they did, or that all traditional societies were as beneficial as the examples I use. Of course Ireland in the fifties was quite different from America in the 1950s, and from many other traditional times and places, and of course I’ll be cherry-picking good qualities from many times and places and ignoring the downsides of each era. There’s no perfect past that I’m demanding we emulate.

I am saying that certain peoples in history created societies that were healthy, educated, clean, happy – by their own testimony – and ran on little energy, generated little waste and needed little government. I want to look at how they did these things, and what we can learn from them.