Friday, 10 November 2017

Letting children roam

Published this week in the Kildare Nationalist.

When I talk to my elderly neighbours, or read interviews with people from earlier eras, one of the things that most comes through about their childhoods, and seems dramatically different than the way children are raised today, is how far and freely they roamed. Unlike most modern children, they did not spend most of their time indoors watching television or playing video games, or following one adult-led activity after another.

Rather, most described roaming several miles from home in a day, exploring the far corners of their world. They ambled over fields and mountains, woods and bogs, climbing trees, swimming in streams and ponds, and drying their clothes on branches. They searched in the hedges for birds’ nests, through the underbrush for mushrooms and snails, let millipedes and ladybirds crawl on their hands, and peered in the holes of hedgehogs and badgers. By their recollections, they spend nearly all day in some vital physical activity, and learned to be creative, solve problems and find our way out of trouble.

Of course, some children in earlier eras inevitably got into mischief; I have on my shelf a 19th-century garden book that lists among the many garden pests, between boll weevils and butterflies, “boys.” If your garden has an infestation of boys, it notes drily, some aggressive dogs might be just the thing.

 “The only rule was to be home by dinner time,” Tracy Gillett wrote of her father’s upbringing. “My Grandma rarely knew exactly where her kids were. They were off building forts, making bows and arrows, collecting bruises and bloody knees and having the time of their lives. They were immersed in childhood.”

Writer Tom Purcell remembers that when he was growing up in Pittsburgh, they “collected scrap wood and built shacks. We damned up the creek and caught minnows and crayfish. One summer, we built a motorized go-cart with some scrap items from a junked riding mower and a couple of two-by-fours. It was one of the great engineering feats in my neighbourhood's history. Occasionally, we'd fib to our mothers and ride our bikes 20 miles farther than we said we would … There was only one major rule a kid had to abide by: you'd better be home in time for supper.”

Until now. A recent UK study chronicled the loss of childhood freedom over four generations -- from children in the 1920s who roamed an estimated radius of six miles from home, to their great-grandchildren who rarely see the outdoors. The report's author said that keeping children indoors and away from Nature injures their long term mental health in ways we can’t always foresee.

According to one study in the U.K., while 80% of third-graders were allowed to walk to school in 1971, that number had dropped to just 9% in 1990, and is even lower today. Parents started prohibiting their children from walking or riding their bike to and from school by themselves out of the fear that they might be kidnapped along the way.

Yet abductions are exceedingly rare, and no more common now than they were several decades ago. Further, a child has a 40-times greater risk of dying as a passenger in a car than being kidnapped or killed by a stranger.

I see this with my own daughter, who rode her bicycle to school – about three kilometres away – for years. Now that she is in secondary school, she still sometimes goes to the bus stop herself – the same distance – and then to school, or to somewhere else on weekends. To our surprise, though, almost no other children did this. I understand the concern about traffic -- Irish roads rarely have bike lanes and often have sharp bends – but I never saw any children on the empty side roads either.

Right now, we’re seeing an unprecedented number of mental disabilities and neuroses in modern children, and obesity is becoming a major health concern. If we are to raise our children to be as confident, self-sufficient and capable, we have to let them roam a bit. If you understand that free-range chickens live happier and healthier than those in a tiny cage, and that free-range cows are better off than those that spend their lives in a pen, then let’s consider treating our own species with the same respect, and raising a generation of free-range humans.
Photo of my daughter on the Burren some years ago; she doesn't often let me take pictures of her anymore.

Wednesday, 1 November 2017

Happy Celtic New Year

The Irish celebrate Halloween with fireworks, as Americans would Independence Day -- as I found out when I first moved here a few days before Halloween with a new baby. And on distant country hilltops and outside Dublin tenements, people build giant bonfires.  

Originally it was the day when the veil between this world and the next grew ragged, and things could pass through. It’s the midpoint between the equinox and the winter solstice, or Christmas; it marked New Year's Eve in traditional Ireland, when the nights grow truly long and dark, when the skies grow dim, and when we first feel the bite of winter. It is the day when it seems most appropriate to remember loved ones that have died, as we do in our house, a bit of gravitas to go with the trick-or-treating of children and the heedless bloodletting on the television.

The more we learn to live with the seasons, the more I see the logical pattern of old holidays. Six weeks after Christmas, the midpoint between the Christmas and the spring equinox, is Bridget’s Day here, Groundhog Day or Candlemas elsewhere. Six weeks later is the equinox, and the first Sunday after the first full moon after the equinox is Easter. Six weeks after the equinox, halfway to the summer solstice, comes May Day, once widely celebrated in the USA and now not even a memory.

My more devout friends back in the USA resent hearing the astronomy behind, say, Christmas or Easter, believing it distracts us from “the reason for the season.” I understand – they are flooded by a culture that exploits holy days to sell people more things they don’t need, and they want to protect their children’s innocence and preserve the day's meaning. I get it.

In purging their lives of the shopping-mall culture, though, they inadvertently throw out some of their oldest traditions. The holidays celebrate the cycle of creation, and the religious commemorations were placed there because of the season, not the other way around – the birth at the turn of the year, the Resurrection at the season of new life. The pagan seasonal markers do not supersede the holy days, but ante-cede them, marking another turn on our journey from this world to the next.

In the same way, I know many sects who worship in bare rooms and plain churches, and I’m glad it works for them. My second-favourite churches have the rich colours and flamboyant architecture of Catholic churches, an explosion of praise frozen in stone. But the best religious service I have ever attended took place in an old forest near us, by candlelight. There, a crowd gathered around the priest under a green canopy, amid living pillars whose lives stretch so far beyond our own, in a tiny remnant of what was once the first and greatest of cathedrals.

I used to walk through those woods every week with my daughter, and now that she is a teenager I walk alone. I hope I can walk through them with her again soon, for while I don’t always go on a Sunday, every visit feels like a Sabbath.

Tuesday, 31 October 2017

Cleaning up after storms

As usual on a Sunday, I came back from Mass and dropped The Girl off at her weekly medieval camp training. A few years ago I found a local expert in medieval martial arts -- an occasional advisor and extra for shows like Vikings and Game of Thrones, both of which are filmed here in Ireland -- and he trains kids and adults to become expert sword-fighters, archers and riders. It’s become The Girl’s big passion, and she now goes to historical shows and medieval fairs across Ireland displaying what she can do.

I’m pleased to see my teenager spend her spare time working hard at developing skills, especially ones that, in her words, make her really prepared for a Zombie Apocalypse situation. Lord knows enough of her peers are involved in far more destructive activities.

Occasionally, though, we still share a movie together. Last Friday night it was Strangers on a Train, and we were reminded of all the deliciously creepy scenes -- of Robert Walker staring malevolently forward at a tennis match, when all the people around him were turning back and forth; of watching a murder reflected in a fallen pair of glasses; and of Farley Granger’s hero and Robert Walker’s villain locked in a final battle on an out-of-control merry-go-round, as children laugh and scream around them.

“Hitchcock is so dark,” she said in awe. “I love him.”


On the way back from dropping The Girl off, I saw my neighbour Seamus, who has lived along the canal for 86 years and knows every tree and bush of this part of the bog.

“How is your land after Ophelia?” he asked, as we hadn’t talked in the fortnight since the hurricane.

Not bad, I said -- a few willows down, but they’ll come back quickly.

“I lost one of my great apples,” he said sadly. “I planted it 37 years ago, and it had grown giant and was laden with cookers.”

Sorry to hear it, I said -- the entire tree, and not nothing salvageable?

“Uprooted,” he said. “It was one of three, but the other two survived, thank the Lord. I’ve been cleaning up the apples all over the property before they go bad.”

Our trees survived, but they were also quite small and sheltered, I said -- I’ve been gathering our apples as well. What do you do with yours?

“I always keep them in a steel barrow in the shed,” he said, “and then put hay above and below. The steel keeps it cool, and the hay makes the apples sweeter.”

It took a beat for me to follow. The hay makes the apples sweeter? I asked. Why?

“Because hay is sweet,” he said with a puzzled smile, like this were obvious “That’s why cows love it.”

He tells me things like this every time -- what plants to plant together, what to keep away from each other, and how to keep food from spoiling. He could be pulling my leg for all I know, but sometimes I'm able to test his folk wisdom, and darned if he isn't right.


We finally got our chainsaw fixed, so The Girl and I spent the afternoon trimming the trees that broken or strained by the hurricane. A fallen tree anywhere else on our land is no big problem, but along the front of our property any downed tree a.) blocks the only, single-lane road, b.) falls the other way and destroys our greenhouse, and c.) takes down the phone lines in which they are all tangled.

Because of the overhead lines, I can’t cut some of the trees myself, so I’ve been fighting the county for months to trim the trees, and they said they would months ago. They still haven’t done, though, and I expect more will be brought down by the winter winds.

Thus, we set off to judiciously cut what we could, with me cutting the trees one by one and The Girl pulling on them with a rope and watching for cars. One by one we took down four willows and a dead elder, and when they crashed down into the road we set upon them with the chainsaw, axes and secateurs like lions on a gazelle before any cars came along.

On the fifth tree the chainsaw broke again, but by then we had cleared the worst of it. I’m never pleased to take down a tree, nor am I happy with the gap in the hedge, but none of these trees had been around very long, nor did their irregular plantings make a proper hedge. Rather, they were all about 20 years old and still healthy, and they will send up shoots next year, and we will bend them down and weave them into a proper, near-solid hedgerow that should provide shelter and privacy.


I gathered the last of the apples from our trees, along with rose hips from our hedgerows, and I decided I would pickle apples again and use the peelings and hips to make compost jelly -- jelly from whatever you have.

For the pickling, I mixed about 500 ml of cider vinegar with 200 ml of water, mixed in 100 ml of sugar and added five cardamom pods, one clove, six peppercorns, about 5 ml of cinnamon and 10 ml of chili flakes. I diced the white interiors of six apples and stuffed them into a Kilner jar, with peeled and shaved ginger mixed in, and packed them as tightly as I could.

Once the liquid had boiled I simply poured it over the apples and ginger until the jar was full to the rim. I then tapped it gently to release some of the bubbles, and as it cooled the vacuum lid sealed shut, so no hot-water bath was needed.

I took the peelings and apple cores -- 766 grams of them -- and mixed them with 100 grams of rose hips from our hedgerows and a chopped-up lemon. I put them in a pot with 1.5 litres of water, and boiled them for an hour while we played Civilisation. After an hour I strained the remaining liquid -- 600 millilitres -- mixed it with 450g of sugar, and boiled it on high heat for about 15 minutes until it set as jelly.

I had tried this a few days ago, but the jelly never set properly, only gradually going from liquid syrup to soft candy without ever reaching the magic stage in-between. I realised I needed a higher heat than most recipes recommend -- perhaps because Ireland is so damp and humid, or perhaps our stove is just slightly off. The second time was the charm.

As a result, apples that would have gone to waste were preserved for the winter, and should remain good for at least a year.

Top photo: Rainbow over Dublin. Middle photo: Fallen tree. Bottom photo: Salvaged orange peels with various hedgerow fruits -- going clockwise, crabapples, elderberries, blackberries, sloe and rose hips.