Restoring Mayberry


Winter Wassailing, Irish Wren Day and Preserving Local Tradition in Modern Times

Girl Overlooking Misty Valley

When my daughter was little, she used to jump into bed with me on cold December mornings and tell me all about Santa, or what “St. Necklace”, brought her or about a dream she had the night before. Where we live in the Irish countryside, Christmas was small and somewhat isolated, but that made them meaningful — I don’t remember the presents I bought, but I’ll remember those moments until I die.

This year, many people are upset that they will be celebrating an unusually small and isolated Christmas, without the usual shopping and giant gatherings. I understand being separated from family, as I’ve been separated from mine in America for many years. I will, however, point out that “normal” Christmases aren’t always healthy or relaxing for many people I know.

Every year, we feel like we have to spend too much, eat too much, drink too much, listen to the same terrible rock songs, watch certain television specials, put up enough lights to make our house visible from space and pretend to be cheerful when we are not. There’s nothing sacred about these pop culture traditions, though; Santa Claus and many of the carols we sing are of surprisingly recent invention, often less than a hundred years old, and often created as advertising campaigns.

I’m not trying to be a Grinch about this — I told my daughter about Santa, and I enjoy the occasional Christmas song. I simply don’t feel obliged to hear all the songs, over and over, for a few months. What’s more, the new ones are squeezing out many local and truly traditional family rituals that date back longer than we can measure.

Celebrating Irish Wren Day

Take one example here in Ireland: The day after Christmas was called Wren Day — like the bird — and local families used gather in the nearby woods for a ritual called the “hunting of the wren”. Local men dressed up in Robin Hood outfits, calling themselves “wren boys,” as they held a toy wren and told the children stories of the wren being the cleverest of all birds. They warned of the Straw Boys who wanted to hunt the wren, but how they were there to protect it.

As they told the story to the children, though, other local men dressed in straw costumes — the Straw Boys come to life — snuck up behind them, grabbed the wren and ran off, through the woods, with the Wren Boys and all the children giving chase. After all the children had been nicely exhausted, while their parents sat back sipping tea around the fire, the Wren Boys and children came back holding the wren in triumph. The Wren Boys and Straw Boys shook hands, made peace, and the wren served as King of Birds for another year.

Winter Wassailing

I used to bring my daughter to this ceremony when we first moved to rural Ireland, where it was still practiced. In the last few years, however, the local Wren Day was abandoned, as insurance costs for putting on an event no longer justified the dwindling number of people who showed up. A ritual that might date back to Druid times, 2,000 years ago or more, is another casualty of the Great Forgetting of our era. My daughter might be one of the last people who will remember it.

Take wassailing as another example: neighbours walked from house to house carolling and being invited inside, giving everyone a chance to meet their neighbours. I don’t know about you, but I haven’t seen anyone do this in a long time, nor do many people these days feel comfortable introducing themselves to their neighbours.

Many families do use Christmas to see loved ones, share meals, sing songs together, and tell old stories, and that’s wonderful. But here’s the thing: People used to do these things every day. Here in Ireland, for example, wassailing wasn’t just once a year, but all through the winter.

Neighbours gathered at each others’ homes, brought instruments, played music, sang songs, and told stories that broke up the long darkness. It allowed each family to share what they had, making deposits in a community favour bank. It strengthened the feeling of community, so that burdens were lessened because they were shared, and joys were heightened because they were shared. Every day used to be more like the best parts of Christmas today.

Preserving Tradition

This year, when many of us are strapped for cash or will have an unusually quiet and empty Christmas, you have permission to ignore the usual spending, eating and drinking extravaganzas. Perhaps you can turn off the television, put away the phones, go for walks, read A Christmas Carol to your children, make gifts with them, and perhaps go carolling at the doors of your elderly neighbours. You’re not here for the holiday; it’s here for you, and you decide how to enjoy it.

When I was raising my daughter in the countryside, every Christmas was small and cozy, yet we also made them sacred. The holiday was our time for comfort and joy, not pop songs and debt. Those moments, with her climbing into bed with me and sharing her contagious awe, were what was holy, and when I prayed, they were the engine of my gratitude.

Traditional Irish Wassail Punch Recipe

Ingredients:

  • 4 bottles red wine (I used Merlot)
  • 2 bottles water (refilled wine bottles)
  • 1 cup cherries (I used rose hips for taste and haws for colour, but cherries will do.)
  • 1 cinnamon stick
  • 2 tablespoons honey
  • 2 tablespoons lemon juice
  • 1 orange, zested and squeezed into the punch
  • 2 tablespoons grated ginger
  • 1 teaspoon cayenne pepper
  • 1/2 teaspoon powdered chocolate

Directions:

1. Empty the bottles of red wine into a pot. Refill two of the bottles with water and then empty the water from them into the pot. Set the pot on the stove and turn on low heat until the contents are hot but not boiling.

2. Place the cinnamon stick and cherries into the pot. When contents are hot, take a cup of the mixture out of the pot, mix in the ginger, cayenne, honey, lemon juice and chocolate, and when it is well mixed, pour that back into the pot.

3. Keep the wassail on low heat for serving.


Brian Kaller is a former U.S. newspaper editor who moved to rural Ireland years ago to study traditional ways of life and write about it. He has written for the American Conservative, the Dallas Morning News, Low-Tech Magazine and other publications. Connect with Brian on his blog, Restoring Mayberry, and read all of his GRIT posts here.

Keeping Eggs Over The Winter

Brian KallerNo matter what else you have in your kitchen, you probably have eggs. Whether you boil or fry them for breakfast, brush them over meat, whisk them into egg-drop soup, or bake them into pastries, eggs are one of the simplest and yet most versatile of foods, prized the world over as a rich source of protein.

If you raise your own chickens, moreover, you have a ready supply of eggs — as well as fertilizer and comic relief. Hens also convert your leftovers into your next breakfast, keep your garden free of pests, and mow your lawn for free. Other animals can do some of these things, but not many of us have the time, space, or will to manage a suburban herd of sheep or swine, or to slaughter them. Hens, however, require little space or maintenance, and they turn any home into a homestead.

Hens, however, lay eggs seasonally, speeding up in summer and slowing or stopping in winter. You could give them more indoor light or Vitamin D supplements to increase their egg production in colder months, but they cost money and interfere with the chickens’ natural cycle — saving money and being all-natural are two of the most popular reasons for keeping backyard chickens in the first place. 

Another way would be to collect the extra eggs in the summer and preserve them through the winter; one method — well-known to pub patrons here in Ireland — is to pickle them. A typical recipe involves hard-boiling eggs and removing the shells, then creating a pickling solution of cider vinegar, small amounts of salt, sugar, herbs, and spices. Bring the mixture to the boil, then simmer for five minutes and pour it over the eggs. They should keep for at least a few months.

You can also soak the eggs in a solution of sodium silicate, known as "isinglass" or "water-glass." One popular recipe from a century ago recommends dissolving sodium silicate in boiling water, making it about the consistency of syrup (or 1 part silicate to 3 parts water). The eggs — as fresh as possible, and thoroughly clean — should be immersed in the solution in such a manner that every part of each egg is covered with the liquid. Then remove the eggs and let them dry. If the solution is kept near the boiling temperature, the preservative effect is said to be much more certain and to last longer.

Perhaps the best and longest-lasting way, however, is to preserve eggs in limewater. No recipe could be simpler: take fresh, raw eggs in the shell, set them gently in a jar, and pour in a simple, lukewarm mix of tap water and lime powder. I’ve done this with our eggs, and they've lasted for up to a year and remained edible.

"Lime" here means neither the citrus fruit nor the tree, but refers to calcium hydroxide, a white powder derived from limestone. For at least 7,000 years, humans burned limestone in kilns to create the dangerous and caustic "quicklime" (calcium oxide), and hydrated that to create lime powder (calcium hydroxide). Sumerians and Romans used it as a cement, while farmers mixed it with water to create whitewash; tanners used it to remove hair from hides, gardeners to repel slugs and snails, printers to bleach paper.

Perhaps most importantly, farmers here in Ireland spread lime over their boggy fields to “sweeten” the acid soil and increase crop production as much as four-fold. For hundreds of years, until the mid-20th century, lime supported a vast and vital network of village industry in this part of the world — County Cork alone was said to contain an amazing 23,000 kilns. That's one every 80 acres.

In his 1915 monograph "Lime-water for the preservation of eggs," Frank Shutt describes a series of egg-preservation experiments at an experimental farm in Ottawa, which found lime-water to be "superior to all other methods" — how, he didn’t say.

When I first tried to preserve eggs in lime-water, I simply mixed equal parts lime and water, which did no harm, but most of the lime simply settled to the bottom. It turned out that a fraction as much lime would have sufficed; Shutt says that water saturates with lime at 700 parts water to one part lime, but adds that "owing to impurities in commercial lime, it is well to use more than is called for." In any case, if you use more lime than is necessary to saturate in water, the rest simply condenses out. 

Since exposure to air causes more lime to condense over time, some articles recommend keeping the container sealed either in a Kilner jar or by pouring a layer of oil over the top. I kept mine in an ordinary mayonnaise jar, sealed tightly, and they kept fine for a year.

Eggs kept this way do come out with their whites darkened slightly and with a faint, musty smell like old clothes. It does not, however, have the unpleasant smell of a rotten egg — believe me, you won’t mistake one for the other. The difference can perhaps be compared to that of rehydrated milk vs. fresh milk: not inedible, just slightly different than expected. As Shutt puts it, nothing "can entirely arrest that 'stale' flavour common in all but strictly fresh-laid eggs."

I’m not aware of an upper limit on how long eggs could be kept this way. I kept mine a year, with no ill effects beyond the stale smell, but I would not recommend going longer than several months to be on the safe side. Several months, however, still allows the homesteader to continue harvesting eggs through the winter.

Shutt recommends keeping the water at a cool temperature, 40-45 degrees Fahrenheit or five degrees Centigrade, to help the preservation. That’s the temperature of a refrigerator, but a cellar or underground storage container would probably be fine. I kept mine at room temperature during an Irish year, where the temperature ranges from freezing (32 F, 0 C) in winter to lukewarm (75 F, 25 C) in summer, with no ill effects. Some old texts say to boil the lime-water, dissolving as much of the lime as you can and letting it cool before immersing the eggs; that might be preferable simply to maximize the amount of lime dissolved or to sterilize the water, but I tried it both ways and noticed no difference in quality.

Some old recipes recommend adding salt to the eggs, but I tried it with and without salt and found that it didn’t make a difference, and neither did Shutt a century ago. Still other 19th-century recipes put small amounts of saltpeter and even borax in the lime, but I would not try those until I had confirmed their safety.

Cultures around the world have tried many other methods of egg preservation. During World War II, the USDA recommended dipping fresh and un-cracked eggs in mineral oil, which was said to stretch their life by a few months. Chinese cultures used to preserve them in an alkali mix of ash, salt, quicklime, and other ingredients to make the pungent "century eggs," which were, I gather, an acquired taste.

Techniques like this fell by the wayside in the last century, when people became accustomed to refrigerators, a constant supply of electricity, a convenience store down the road to re-stock it, and a car to get there. All these things, though, are less certain than they used to be; I have many friends who experienced layoffs, car problems, power outages, or any number of other disruptions, and who found themselves unable to find, keep, or make food for themselves. More and more of us are re-discovering what our grandparents knew: that there is a certain value in being able to provide and preserve some things for yourself, with simple ingredients, while spending a lot less money and having a lot more fun.

Preserved eggs
Eggs in limewater. I used more lime than was necessary, and it sank to the bottom.

Preserving Butter Medieval Style

Brian KallerMy daughter burying butter in the bog

Like most people these days, we have a refrigerator to keep food fresh, and it runs on electricity — and here in Ireland, we get that from burning peat, or “turf.” A short walk from our house in the Bog of Allen, the land has been strip-mined to remove, press and dry the turf, in order to burn it in furnaces to boil water to run turbines to spin magnets to generate electricity to run refrigerators to keep food fresh.

Or you could do what Irish people used to do for thousands of years, and just bury food in the bog without all the steps in between. And when I say “food,” I really mean butter. It sounds bizarre, but there were good reasons for it, and we’re experimenting with preserving food the same way ourselves.

Irish bogs are often misty and mysterious places, where local people would secretly speak their own forbidden language, teach children their faith, poach meat — and occasionally hide things. When farmers later drained areas of bog-land, they revealed the reddish ground under the water — thousands of years of compacted sphagnum peat moss, pressed into a solid mass. The farmers then scooped out the turf with special shovels, dried them at home, and burned them in the fireplace — and today, machines do the same thing on a vaster scale.

Occasionally they find more than turf. Archaeologists have found ancient necklaces, coins, tools, swords, 1,200-year-old prayer-books, the remains of Viking settlements, and apparent human sacrifices. Not much decomposes in the acidic, oxygen-free bog-water, so tough organic material simply cures in it like leather. Shops around us sell “bog-oak,” wood from ancient trees that fell in the bog long ago, cured and darkened but still solid, and some writers believe that the Irish used to bury wood there intentionally to make musical instruments with the right tone.

And sometimes turf-diggers unearth packages of butter — small as fists or big as barrels, wrapped in bark, wood or baskets. One recent discovery, a barrel of butter weighing more than 35 kilos, dated from 3,000 years ago — and many such discoveries have been eaten, and were reported to be delicious.

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. This must have been a rather commonplace activity.

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. A surprising number of foods around the world are preserved by being buried in the ground, but they are usually dried foods in arid climates (cheese in Italy), or sub-Arctic countries where the ground is freezing (salmon in Sweden), or where the food is meant to ferment in some way (eggs in China).

Also, butter makes a valuable and high-calorie food for poor agrarian people; with it you can 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.

As with the other organic matter, butter did not go rancid in the waterlogged soil, and could be perfectly preserved after thousands of years. Archaeologist Daniel C. Fisher buried various meats in a frozen pond and a peat bog for comparison, and found that after a year, the meat buried in the bog had no more bacteria than the frozen meat — and remember, some of that fast-food meat might be more than a year in the freezer.

Finally, some authors have pointed out that preserving it this way would give the butter an earthy taste that some might have liked; recently unearthed butter, taste-tested by Irish schoolchildren, was reported to taste like well-aged cheese.

My daughter and I decided to do the same thing, making some butter at home and burying some in the bog-lands behind our house. 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 heated the solids off, not-quite clarifying it. Then we solidified it, wrapped it in cloth, and set off from our house.

From our house it’s a short walk to the Bog of Allen, where we dug a hole half a metre deep. We tied a rope around the cloth wrapping, and tied the other end of the rope to a nearby tree, and counted the steps in each direction to the neighbouring field. In six months or so we’ll come back, and see how edible the results are. Such experiments combine home-schooling, home-cooking, and empirical science all in one, and help us re-discover the methods our forebears used to survive for generations.

Caroline Earwood, ‘Bog Butter: A Two Thousand Year History’, The Journal of Irish Archaeology, 8 (1997), 25-42.

James O’Laverty, ‘The True Reason Why the Irish Buried Their Butter in Bog Banks’, Journal of the Royal Society of Antiquities of Ireland, 2 (1892), 356-337.

'Wrapped and Stuffed: Proceedings of the Oxford Symposium on Food and Cookery 2012'.

Fumbling Toward Independence

Brian KallerFoggy road

Some blogs focus on single-word subjects like knitting or superheroes. This one wanders a bit; one week I might write about our neighbors here in rural Ireland, the next about our garden, then about old black-and-white movies or reading with my daughter. All of it, though, deals with our attempts to discover an older and better way of living, and learn the values and skills that were normal before everything became cheap, fast and easily discarded.

Thus, I study the past to see what worked better. Our elderly neighbors grew up without electricity, cars or mass media, and I see how different their village culture was from our own frantic and lonely society. I read diaries and letters from a century of two ago, and see a complexity of thought and language that gives college students trouble today. The writers — in colonial America, Victorian Britain or 20th-century Ireland — might have been farmers, but they often grew up reading the same classics as their forebears — Hesiod and Sophocles, Livy and Marcus Aurelius, Aquinas and Dante. Now I’m reading these works one by one, and teaching what bits I can to my daughter. For that matter, I’m learning how to genuinely read again, and not just scan text on a screen.

We try to learn the ways people used to provide for their own basic needs rather than relying entirely on companies and governments, so we built a chicken coop, got bees, grow a garden, and learned to forage wild plants and mushrooms. We have make our own pickles, sauerkraut, beer, bread, wine and jam, and have taken courses in tree grafting, oven building, black-smithing, wood carving, and so on. We fail a lot, but we have fun learning.

Sometimes, though, I hear from someone who doesn’t just want to gain ideas for their own cooking or home-schooling, but wants to escape to a new life. They tell me about their meaningless office job, their tedious commute, the destruction of the landscape and the horrors of the news feed. They have read my blog, seen the pictures, and they want to find a place just like this. I sympathize and write back, but that usually means disillusioning them.

See, everyone starts with some common misapprehensions. Firstly, many people seem to crave a sudden and absolute abandonment of the daily grind, the way others fantasize about the Zombie Apocalypse or the Rapture. Their descriptions seem to resemble what we usually see in advertisements, where someone runs joyfully out of their cubicle throwing papers, their old life falls away like petals, and they stage-dive into The Environment. In reality, almost no one simply moves to the country and starts over, or if they do, succeeds for very long.

People generally need homes, food, sterilized water, heat and other necessities, and will sooner or later need medical assistance. Most of us these days are used to driving a car, having electricity, broadband, and mobile phone reception, and many other amenities we never think about, because we have never been without them. Every new convenience has a price, not just for the machine itself, but for maintenance, power, and the infrastructure to make it work for you.

As I write this, our heat pump is out again, and we’re stoking the fireplace in a cold house – things usually pick the depth of winter to break down, and so far this winter we've had the electricity, plumbing, boiler and septic tank break down. It sounds self-evident, but the more of the modern world you take with you, the less you will be getting away from the modern world, and the more you get away from everything, the more you have to do without.

Me, I work one of those office jobs in Dublin, and my wife works another. Our daily commute on the bus is worse than most — three hours a day — but that’s where I write for newspapers and magazines, something that doesn’t pay a living wage anymore. I have four hours a day when I’m not at my job, on the bus or asleep, and that’s my time to do all the chores, give lessons to my daughter, take care of a garden and animals, and practice all those crafts I named a few paragraphs ago. We live more independently each year, but it takes time and work, and it’s a life lived inside the cracks of a boring normal one.

It also involved some chance, something we rarely take into account when judging the choices of others. It so happened that my wife’s family had land here, so we moved, accepting the cost of living far from friends and family, along with the benefits of owning land and having neighbors to learn from. Other people ask me how they can do the same as we did, but their life comes with a different set of fortunes and hazards that we didn't face.

Secondly, many want to wash their hands of the world’s idiots and go it alone — the “self” in self-sufficient. We like growing and making more of our own belongings, but we would like to be less isolated, if anything — modern people live lonely enough lives as it is. Look at a city and you see millions of people alone in their cars, absorbed in screens and cocooned in a bubble of smart-phones and earbuds, unaccustomed to making mental or physical space for anyone else. In such isolated states we grow ever-more self-absorbed, and fantasize about being even freer from the oppressive proximity of our fellow man.

I say we are “learning to be more self-sufficient” or some such phrase, in the same way that one can learn to be healthier or kinder, but total self-sufficiency is barely possible and not necessarily desirable. Hermits were historically rare and willing to tolerate hardship, and while we read inspiring accounts of their lives, we don’t hear from all the ones who weren’t inspired or didn’t survive.

Humans are social animals, and tend to need company — and many tasks require a group of people cooperating anyway. Even Thoreau, who wrote so beautifully about living in the woods, lived near town and had a mother to do cooking and laundry. The mythology of the self-sufficient man came about in our own era by people who lived with the surplus of fossil fuels.

In our case, we built a house for our extended family, three generations under a roof, and that means more compromises — I’d love to raise a daughter without a television, for example, but it’s not just my house, so we just limit her time and monitor what she sees. I’d love to home-school her here, instead of just after-school lessons, but she needs kids her own age and I have to pay bills. People who try for this kind of life must not be too infatuated with the purity of their vision — the more ambitious it is, the less it can be done alone. Conversely, the more people you have with you — assuming you’re not a dictator — the more everyone has to compromise.

Thirdly, I find, people’s yearning to get away from it all rarely comes with a map or plan to get there, for “there” is often not a place but an imagined state. In this world, though, everywhere is somewhere, and in this day of internet and airports no place is very far from anywhere else.

The rural Ireland many Americans picture was disappearing even when I first visited 16 years ago, and the country has changed far more in the time we’ve lived here. It lives on in the elderly people around us, but they are disappearing one by one. I take photos of the thatched homes and horse carriages because they are beautiful and represent the focus of the blog, but I don’t show photos of other things that are also near us: McDonalds and malls, pornography and tabloids. Our local area includes people who are said to deal drugs, drivers who cut you off and teens who spray graffiti on 300-year-old bridges. Wherever you go, people will be human, and some will be unpleasant.

Even out here, my daughter absorbs celebrity gossip and pop fads by adolescent osmosis, and we have to negotiate like any middle-aged father and tween daughter: You can listen to Adele, but not Nicki Minaj (how do you even know who that is?) and you have to sing old songs with me later. You can watch a television program, but read part of a book after that, and then we’ll play cards. She doesn’t need to grow up innocent of the internet and pop culture, but she can know how to live without them.

I hear from people who embrace a new and harder life mainly as a big rude gesture to their old one. Some seem to imagine themselves sitting on a mountain of tin cans and guns waiting for The Big One, and will one day stand on the rubble above the pleading hands of the sheeple who wouldn’t listen. Other, more empathetic souls seem to mourn our species’ path of destruction, and want to do penance for the sins of others. Either way, they seek a new life not for its own sake, but out of an imagined revenge on the people around them, and I don’t see such impulses cultivating a healthy community. Moreover, if that kind of enforced austerity really worked, dieters would lose weight, and they don’t.

A more independent life need not be a distant redoubt to purchase but an ideal to fumble toward — in small steps, with help, in ways that are fulfilling and not overly complicated. Take food, for example: when my 11-year-old makes herself egg drop soup, grabbing eggs from the coop and herbs from the garden, she is saving money that might have gone to buy pre-packaged meals, and saving the energy that would have gone to grow, ship and process them. She learns to do things herself, bonds with other kids who cook, and can use this as a stepping stone to learn other things. To make egg drop soup yourself, you don’t need to move to another country, or start a farm, or stock up on saffron and balsamic vinegar, and your creations don’t need to look like those of those television chefs who trained for decades and don’t display all their mistakes. It just doesn't have to be that complicated.

Other skills are the same way, whether they involve growing a hedgerow, weaving baskets, nailing a shed together, making jam, fermenting kim chee, home-schooling, singing, or keeping animals in the shed. To actually live a somewhat self-sufficient life you need a lifetime of skills, and learning them takes a lifetime. Luckily, you have one, or at least part of one left.

Such activities can be fun, allow your family to eat when someone loses their job, gives you barter material in case of future emergencies, offers an opportunity to talk to neighbors, cost little to learn, and have almost no disadvantages. What they won’t do is change everything … because nothing will.

You see, almost no one ever genuinely starts a new life; they might try, but they are bringing themselves along for the ride, and they remain who they are. The life you want will not be a location to which you can drive, but a state you can work to attain. You will not be able to change anything but yourself and your surroundings, and then only in tiny increments, and from day to day nothing seems to change ... until one day, you look behind you at the path you've taken, and you see how strange the rest of the world appears in the distance.

What Not to Do Your First Week as a Beekeeper

Brian KallerFirst of all, everything you do will be wrong, at least according to someone, and that’s OK.

Take, for example, when you choose what kind of hive to get – by “hive,” I just mean the wooden box and the pieces inside, as you have to set that up before you put the bees in. All of those modern square hives come in two models, one smaller and one larger, and since every piece is made for a hive of one size or the other, beekeepers stick religiously with one model and swear by it. I picked the smaller version, thinking it would be easier to lift when laden with wax and honey – but when I told a local beekeeper, he talked to me about my decision in the delicate but grieving tones usually reserved for a terminal illness.

Then you need to decide where to put this wrong hive, and your spot will also be, according to someone, wrong. Most books, for example, recommend placing your hive where it will be warm and dry, protected from wind and rain. Those books were not written for people in Ireland. Who live in a bog in Ireland.

Thus, we make do – I chose a place in a corner of our woodland, facing the bog-land and its fields of wildflowers, but wove trimmed stalks of elder between tree stumps to form a wattle-fence around part of it, sheltering it from our fierce winds.

bees | Fotolia/krmk

Photo: Fotolia/krmk

Next you need to fill the hive with wooden frames, those rectangular slices of honeycomb that beekeepers remove to get the honey. Most hives come with slides of wax to help get the bees started, and you have to delicately slip the wax into each wooden frame and secure them in place. When you have done this for all 10 slides, you set the hive down gently, listen to the sound of several wax slides come crashing down, and do it right the second time.

You will also need a smoker – basically a cross between a watering can and an accordion – to slow the bees down before you open up their home. Despite being the smallest animal we’ve domesticated, bees are the only ones we have to sedate before approaching.

The bees will need sugar-water to get them started, before they figure out where all the flowers are in relation to their new home. This is easy to make on the kitchen stove – a kilogram of sugar per litre of water – and most hives, like ours, have a feeder attached. You don’t need to feed them continually – that would rather take away from the point of getting honey – but it does help them through the early days and again through the winter months.

Brian's daughter in the bee suitYou also need a bee suit, a one-piece outfit that will seem to consist mostly of zippers. Do try to seal all the zippers completely, or the neighbourhood children will see a strange, white-clad figure flailing and dancing the hokey-pokey out of the forest.

Now comes the intimidating bit: You need to buy bees and put them into their new home. You will probably do this by buying a swarm nucleus, or “nuc,” a mini-hive filled with a queen and skeleton crew of her staff to get a hive started. Whereas a full hive will have 10 to 20 frames of honeycomb, a nuc will have four or five, which you remove and place in your hive. The rest of your hive will be filled with empty frames – empty but for those wax slides you put in – ready for the bees to use as they expand their population.

Remember those two basic models of hive I mentioned earlier? Since the honeycombed frames of the nuc have to be removed and placed in your hive, the nuc’s frames must be cut the same size as your hive’s. This is why beekeepers stick with only one model – I had to find someone else with the same kind of hives, who was also ready to sell nucs.

Eventually I found an old beekeeper in the Wicklow Mountains of Ireland, and drove out to his farm. He cheerfully plopped into my arms a wooden box, secured all around with duct tape and with a wire mesh at the top, and right under the mesh, a swarm of bees writhing like a single organism.

“How long will they be safe in there?” I asked, looking up at the threatening sky.

“Oh, they’ll be OK for a few days,” he said, “Just make sure they don’t get cold and are kept out of the wind and rain.”

The freezing sideways rain began on my way home over the mountains, the box in the back seat buzzing ever more irritably with each bounce. If you must drive over mountain passes in near-zero visibility, I learned, it’s better not to hear an angry swarm of bees behind your head the whole time, box or no box.

When I got home it was completely dark and still lashing rain, and I learned that most bee suits are not waterproof. Nonetheless, I set up the nuc next to the hive, their entrances parallel. Bees have amazing sense of direction, but they don’t use landmarks like we or most mammals do; they use the position of the sun and moon to create a kind of GPS. With it they can track and find the positions of hundreds of thousands of flowers each day and communicate them to the other bees – an amazing skill far beyond our abilities – but everything hinges on having the right starting point. Move the hive 20 metres to the left, and they are like cars following Google directions from a slightly wrong street – everything will turn out very badly.

Through the next few nights of lashing rain I sprayed sugar-water through their mesh to keep them fed and made sure that no rainwater was draining into their box, then giving the thumbs-up signal to my waiting family inside, to let them know that everything was OK. If you do this yourself, do remember that you are an unrecognisable figure in a bee-suit peering in the window at night, and it might take a few moments of screaming before they realise it’s you.

Finally, the sun came out and I was ready to put on the suit again, smoke the bees and put their honeycombs in the proper hive. That was Plan A. After smoking the nuc well and removing the duct tape, I realised that the box was actually held together with screws that would require some tools and tugging to remove – Plan B.

Through all this the box was wobbled around a lot more, causing the bees to get quite agitated when the smoke wore off. Plan C was to smoke them again, until the burning material in the smoker suddenly ran out; Plan D, to stuff more in and re-light it, failed when the lighter jammed.

Plan E, finally, worked – for my daughter to run in, get matches, run to a nearby stone, leave the matches and run the other direction while I, trailing a cloud of bees, retrieved the matches, ran back, lit the smoker, and finally calmed the bees down while I moved them. Last I checked, they were settling in fine, and my 10-year-old and I have taken turns putting on the suit and checking on them.

Perhaps the most important thing to learn, though, goes beyond beekeeping. Many of us are trying to learn a lot of new skills, often with little proper training and limited supplies. Everything you do will be wrong, at least compared to the ideal scenarios of how-to books and videos. Don't worry about it: you'll learn as you go, and most of the time, you'll come out OK in the end.

beekeeper | Fotolia/Steve Oehlenschlager

Photo: Fotolia/Steve Oehlenschlager

kbb-leaderboard

The Edible Calendar

Brian KallerGardening takes the natural bounty of roots and tubers, leaves and stems, fruits and nuts, and stretches and pulls them to meet our desires - to appear sooner, later, bigger and more. We start them early indoors as seedlings, prepare their beds, cover them in cloches, weed out their neighbours, pick their pests and prune their misguided growth. We pamper our kohlrabi and celeriac like breeders groom their horses – and they need it, for generations of breeding have made them more sumptuous and fragile than the sea kale and bitter celery-weeds from whence they came. We force our garden plants to our human needs, and we pay the price.

When we forage, however, we accede to Nature’s own tight schedule; those mushrooms that appeared today will likely be slimy tomorrow, and those edible leaves will likely be inedible next week. We picture Stone Age people living by a leisurely rhythm of the seasons, but in fact they needed superb time-management skills.

If summer and autumn supply most of the garden’s bounty, though, spring offers the best foraging, when The Girl and I rummage through the bog-country and return with bushels of foodstuffs, ready to be dried, pickled, frozen and made into wine for the coming year.

The beginning of April here sees the first hawthorn shoots, and for two weeks they remain tender enough to be eaten in salad, sautéed in vegetables, or chopped and thrown into soups. When the hawthorns are in leaf the blackthorns are in flower, and we use this brief window to mark their position among the other trees of the bog-lands; once the blackthorns are done flowering, the trees are unobtrusive and hard to spot among the other trees, and you must know where they are to get their prized autumn sloe fruits.

Shortly after the hawthorn shoots appear, though, the first nettles grow large enough to pick, and the last six weeks have been prime nettle season for us. I’ve written before how nutritious nettles are, and how they can be eaten as a vegetable in their own right, like spinach, or made into tea, beer, soup, kim chi, or put into any number of dishes. I’ve been freezing bags of them to eat this winter, and drying them into tubs of tea to consume through the rest of the year. They are also useful for fibre – I saw an entire wedding dress made of nettle fibre once – but not until later in the year.

Bluebells and other flowers in Irish woodlands. 

Shortly after we harvest the first nettles, the first cowslips appear, illuminating the woods like fireflies. These yellow flowers, hanging like tiny golden bells from short stalks, take advantage of the brief window when the weather is warm enough for pollinators but dappled sunlight still covers the forest floor. They are already fading now, as the trees regrow their canopy and the woods darken again.

We’ve filled great bags with cowslips, freezing them until we had enough for wine. Then, last weekend, I boiled several litres of water – enough for a carboy and several wine bottles down the road – and mixed in sugar and the juice and zest of two lemons, and finally mixed in the cowslips. I let them boil for five minutes, turned off the heat and mixed in a champagne yeast.

Also fleeting are daisies that peek out of the grass; sweet woodruff that can be dried and used to flavour wine; chamomile and bramble shoots for evening tea; and wood sorrel massing like disciples around the feet of the great trees. The dandelions spread across the fields in the last month of April, their yellow flowers ready to be made into wine or fritters and their leaves providing us with more salad greens.

By May the blackthorn flowers are long gone and the hawthorn leaves are getting tough, which means the hawthorns are ready for their turn to bloom. For this reason the hawthorn is also called the May plant; the lyric “here we go gathering nuts in May,” refers to the tree, not the month, as nothing grows nuts in May.

The best part of May, though, is the nightly linden salads. New linden leaves taste much like lettuce, and every night when I ride my bicycle home from the bus stop, I can stop outside my door and pick a salad from our tree.

Now that May is behind us, all the elders are preparing to bloom, their inchoate flowers still green and clenched. In a couple of weeks, though, they will stretch into hand-sized flowers, ready for elderflower champagne and pancakes. The first gooseberries are hiding amid the thorns of their bush, and we can gather them by summer.

By late summer the hedgerows around us will grow thick with the first currants and bramble-berries. The meadowsweet stalks will unfurl their tufts along the canal, which we will collect in August for next year’s wine. By autumn we will search the bog-lands for mushrooms and the hazel and beech trees for nuts, collect elderberries, rose-hips and haws for winter syrup, crab-apples for jelly.

By day I take the bus to work in the city; a dismal landscape of cement and glass where humans have conspired to shut out seasons and growing things, keep only their own timetable, and attend only to their own desires. When our human obligations are done, though, we cleave to Nature’s timetable, ticking off each new chore and reward as they appear. We care for her smaller living things and make their brief lives healthy and useful, and hope she will do the same for us.

An Orchard From a Single Tree

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

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

My grafted apple trees.

My own grafted apple saplings.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

  • A scion, or a small branch from tree whose fruit you desire;

  • A root-stock, or sapling of the same fruit, but hardier and wilder – say, crab-apples if you’re grafting apples;

  • A very sharp knife (again, be careful);

  • Bandages or grafting tape;

  • A candle and matches (optional).

To graft a branch, you have to cut the scion off the desirable-fruit tree, and cut a branch of similar diameter off the hardy stock tree. If you’re trying this for the first time, the best thing might be to use a sapling, 6 months to 1 year old, as the stock, and the scion can be grafted onto its stem and become its top half.

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

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

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

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

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

This article was written with generous advice from the grafting experts at Irish Seed Savers, County Clare, Ireland, which specialise in conserving heirloom varieties. Look them up here.







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