Reading, part I: Wonder

BloomKatie, nine-years old, is reading her first novel, Bloom by Nicola Skinner. She reads it aloud to me, a chapter a night before she goes to bed. We’re almost 90 pages into this delightful 350-page book about a play-by-the-rules girl who finds a packet of magic seeds that turn her world upside down.

A few nights ago, Katie stopped reading mid-sentence and turned to me with a look of wonder and bliss on her face. ‘I can really see all the people and places’, she proclaimed. ‘Can you?’

I got a lump in my throat. You’ve got it, I thought to myself. You’ve cracked the joy of reading, words creating entire worlds in your imagination of people and lives and places.

She’s read before, of course, but short books that can be read in one sitting and that don’t involve the immersion of the imagination that comes with reading a lengthy novel. She’s invested in the world of this book far more than she’s been invested in any story she’d read before.

What particularly made me emotional about this epiphany of Katie’s the other night is that she’s long held this misconception that she’s ‘bad at reading’ or ‘not very good at reading’. These are her own descriptions of her reading ability and, try as I might to dispel them, they have persisted. It’s probably younger sister syndrome (if such a thing exists). Lily, who is only 17 months older than Katie, was an early reader, and by the time she was the age that Katie is now, she had read all but two of the Harry Potter novels, most of the Narnia series, as well as a huge number of Jacqueline Wilson books (more on all of this next week). Lily is a voracious reader with very particular tastes and has been reading beyond her age level (if such a thing exists, which I doubt) for a long time. Katie, by her own comparison, is ‘not very good at reading’.

My past attempts to instill confidence in Katie’s reading ability have fallen short. She simply wasn’t ready. Her frequent mistakes, her slow reading pace and her lack of understanding frustrated her and deterred her from wanting to read more.

But something about this book has flicked a switch. She bought it herself, for one thing, choosing it and paying for it with her own money at Easons when we were passing through Cavan town earlier in the summer. Reading it every night, she has become highly invested in the characters and in the place. She is the one dragging me to her bedroom each night so she can read the next chapter.

At first, she read slowly, stumbling over words and ignoring punctuation. But chapter-by-chapter, her reading speed has increased, her word recognition has improved remarkably, her ability to understand new words based on context or pre-existing knowledge of similar words has improved, and she now reads with correct intonation and timing (most of the time). Her confidence has grown in leaps and bounds. Listening to her read is a joy. Her joy in reading is a joy.

She’s now got a pile of books on her desk, stacked in order of what she wants to read next. If this carries on, we’re in for a cozy winter ahead filled with adventures of the imagination.

Autumn

Autumn is in the air. Not in the middle of the day, when the sun beats down from a cloudless sky and the temperature hovers in the mid-30s (˚C). It doesn’t feel like autumn then. But early in the morning when I take the dog for her walk, there’s a discernible change in the air, a frisson of a new season, a hint of something different. It invigorates me and makes my skin tingle.

These mornings it’s cooler, the sun is lower in the sky and there’s a noticeable smell as autumn finds a chink in summer’s armour and stealthily, but inevitably, seeps through. The evenings are undergoing change too, the sky filling with massive billowy clouds in late afternoon, white, grey, ominously black. If we don’t get rain here – and often we don’t – we see it falling elsewhere, sheets of grey connecting sky to land, sweeping across the hills somewhere away in the distance. When it does rain here, it falls in huge fat drops, in showers that are fast, sudden, drenching, and over almost as soon as they’ve begun, filling the air with petrichor*, that heady fragrance of rain after a dry spell.

I get giddy with the turn of the seasons. Each offers new opportunities – seasonal foods to cook and eat, seasonal changes in the landscape to enjoy and wonder at, seasonal festivals and celebrations. I like the change of wardrobe that comes with the change of seasons. After a long hot summer of shorts, t-shirts, dresses and sandals, I’m looking forward to jeans, jumpers, boots and jackets.

Autumn, much more than spring or even New Year, has a feeling of renewal about it. Perhaps it’s because I have spent 37 of my 46 years in formal education, either as a student or an educator and because our year now revolves around my daughters’ school year. Autumn is a time for new books, new pens and pencils, fresh empty virginal notebooks, and the endless possibilities they present. It is a time for stepping up an academic level and the inherent possibilities for learning new things, making new discoveries, and growing intellectually and emotionally.

As I step out these mornings to take Lady on long walks through the countryside, the cool fragrant autumn air that fills my lungs also fills my mind with possibilities for how the remainder of the year will unfold, for jobs to be done and activities to participate in, for writing projects to start or complete, for classes to take and places to visit.

What’s my favourite season? The truth is, I don’t have one. I love them all. My favourite times of year are those in-between season times, when one gets sensory hints of the season to come. Those are the best times of year of all.

*Thank you, Jan, for teaching me a new word this week!

Watchful eyes

As I walk to the top of the hill, I see the unmistakable long ears and angular head of a hare. She is big, bigger than Lady, who chases her off into the undergrowth, her lithe brown body quickly blending into the land. A momentary glimpse of my totem animal and she’s gone. But that glimpse gives me a profound feeling of privilege and awe. The next morning I’m still thinking about her, about our brief encounter, about how my sense of awe and wonder was matched by her fear and flight instinct.

I am lucky to live in a spectacular part of the world. Our little village is remote. There are few cars on the roads, we’re generally off international flight paths, so the blue sky is clear of jet trails, and the vast landscape is, for the most part, devoid of human-made noises. To walk through the countryside, along trails made by humans, sheep, goats, deer, wild boar, is to be immersed in both the natural history and the human history of the landscape, although the human history is the more subtle of the two.

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Lady

In April, after years of begging, I finally succumbed to Lily’s and Katie’s wishes to get a dog. Lady was born in February, on a plot of land not far from our house. She was the only bitch in a litter of six puppies. I fell in love with her on sight, when she was three weeks old, and we brought her home at seven weeks. Her mother is a Spanish water dog and her father, we think, is either a fox terrier or an Andalucian bodega rat terrier. She’s a wonderful addition to our family, very playful and lovable and full of energy.

Walking in the countryside with Lady has opened the landscape up. Lady and I have been walking 10km each day this summer – we walk for 3km each morning, and about an hour before sunset each day we set out on a 7km walk.

The trails I have previously associated with bees, ants, lizards and birds, and the occasional snake, now turn out to be rich with mammals too. Of course, I’m used to seeing fewmets (deer droppings) along the trail, holes dug by snuffling boar, and the prints of many different animals. With Lady along for the walk, however, animals hidden at very close quarters have now become visible. Lady can smell them. Or she can hear them. Or she can, by some other means, sense they are there. She gallops off at top speed, up hills, over rocks, into bushes. Of course, the animals she chases are too fast, or have a head start, or are on their home turf, so Lady, thankfully, doesn’t stand a chance. But suddenly I realise that, in a landscape seemingly devoid of mammals, I’m walking past them all the time. I’m now conscious of hidden eyes on me, and that gives me a wonderful thrill to know the animals are there.

One day last week, we were walking along a dry river bed, when suddenly, Lady dashed off towards the hill that rises steeply from the northern bank of the river. I looked up the steep hillside to see three wildcats, dun coloured stripes and long tails, racing up the hill. The next day, along the same river, it was a doe among the bushes, and the day after that, up in the hills north of Sanlúcar, it was a stag with majestic antlers. And last night it was my beautiful totemic hare.

As I’ve written before, I feel such a sense of privilege and awe to live, and have formerly lived, in places where seeing animals in the wild is not just a possibility, but a surety. Indeed, I’ve had the great privilege of encountering many wild animals over the years, not seeking them out, but simply as I’ve been going about my daily business – deer, caribou, polar bears, seals, beluga whales, common dolphins, wild boar, hares, humpback whales, orcas, minke whales, and even a tundra grizzly bear once. I’ve seen snowy owls, falcons, eagles and hawks, and I’ve had the great privilege to scuba dive amongst incredible and beautiful fish and turtles.

At a time when every single one of these animals is threatened by habitat loss, climate change and pollution, encountering them in the wild is a rare and precious privilege that moves me to redouble my personal effort to not only not contribute to their demise, but to make a positive effort to undo the damage we (including me) have already caused. The former is the easier of the two. My challenge now is to figure out how to contribute to the latter.

Freelancing, foraging and feminist anthropology

A version of this article was, indeed, published by Green Parent magazine in October 2018.

Foraging: An immersive way to learn about nature

On the morning of the day my younger daughter, Katie, was born, I was out amongst the hedgerows with her big sister, Lily, gathering blackberries. We ate at least half of what we gathered, Lily’s seventeen-month-old face and hands stained purple with blackberry juice, and returned home with the rest in tubs. Two days later we were once again out amongst the hedgerows, blackberry juice staining the sling in which newborn Katie slept. At two days old, this was her introduction to foraging and she’s been at it ever since. By the time she was two-and-a-half, Katie could identify and gather wild carrot, fennel and mint, and recognised a handful of inedible plants.

Besides fantastic opportunities to put healthy, organic, wild and free food on the table, foraging is an active and productive immersion in the natural world. Through foraging, children come to understand ecology and local environments, to learn from and about nature, and to develop a sense of their place in, and obligations to, our planet.

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Foraging for clams in Brittany

As a nomadic family, we foraged for food in the middle of England, along the coasts of Devon, Cornwall, Ireland, Brittany and Galicia, and in southern Spain and Portugal. From trees growing in green city spaces to rural woodlands and open countryside, we have gathered almonds, apples, apricots, carobs, figs, hazelnuts, lemons, loquats, olives, oranges, plums and pomegranates. From seashores we have gathered clams, cockles and mussels, sea beet, rock samphire and wild carrot. We have gathered alexanders, asparagus, chard, fennel, lavender, mint, nettles and rosemary from woodlands, scrubland and walking trails, blackberries from hedgerows and camomile from fields. Lily and Katie have accompanied me as I’ve picked prickly pears and their dad as he’s gathered edible mushrooms.

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As humans, we are increasingly disengaged from the natural world. And the more disengaged we become, the less we appreciate the incredible world around us, or understand our place in it and our obligations to it. Providing our children with opportunities to be immersed in the world helps them to develop that sense of appreciation, understanding and obligation. Immersion helps us to become part of the world again as we learn about the seasons, ecological niches, how plants depend on each other, and the lives and behaviours of animals. When we engage with the world, when we come to know it intimately, we are in a greater position to care for it, and to recognise our obligations to it.

Among the most ancient of ways to engage with the natural world is through foraging for food. Our ancestors have been doing it since before we were human. Until the late 1960s paleo-anthropologists believed that language, tool use and group organisation – those cultural characteristics that make us human – were developed and honed through hunting. The earliest tools, it was believed, were those used to hunt, kill and process wild animals; the earliest forms of communication were in the organisation of hunting parties. But in the late 1960s, female anthropologists began to study the previously ignored lives of women in contemporary hunter-gatherer societies. And what they discovered radically altered our understanding of the development of human culture.

Rather than hunted meat being the mainstay of most hunter-gatherer diets, it is foraged foods – vegetables, tubers, fruit, nuts, eggs, honey, shellfish, grubs and insects – that are the staple and daily elements of the diet. From these observations of contemporary hunter-gatherers, a new theory of the development of human culture emerged. Rather than hunting tools being the first forms of material culture, it was foraging tools – bags for carrying foraged food, and slings and straps for carrying infants. (However, unlike stone tools, these leave almost no trace in the fossil or archaeological record.) Indeed, the organisation required to communally care for infants and young children while women foraged was most likely what necessitated the development of language and complex culture. Forget man the hunter. Human culture blossomed around woman the gatherer.

Our ancient ancestors were intimately acquainted with the world around them. They had to be. Subsisting on foraged food required a deep knowledge of edible and inedible plants, of where, when and how wild foods grew, of how their growth was influenced by the plants and animals sharing that ecosystem, of weather and seasons, and of how foraging practices protected or destroyed plants for future use.

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While we no longer rely on foraged food to survive, the practice of foraging draws us into the world around us. My family has discovered that the more time we spend in search of wild foods, the more intimately acquainted and attuned we become with the natural world. Not only do my children remember the location of the best patches of asparagus from previous years, for example, but they have learned, through experience, the environmental conditions best suited to this plant and, thus, where and when to look for it in new places. They have grown to know the seasonal changes that plants undergo and the other plants that share and are vital to the health of that habitat.

When we forage, our senses are caressed, challenged and enriched by the landscape. We walk up and down hills, through bright sunshine and dank shade, through woods and across fields, our hearts and breaths racing with exertion, feet slipping on damp rocks as we leap across streams or sinking into muddy tidal flats. Stopping to enjoy the sound of buzzing bees, our children learn from which plants bees forage at different times of year. They learn that other animals like the same foods as we do – wasps and birds on plums and pomegranates, the snuffling marks of a wild boar that got to the delicious asparagus tips before we did, the hollowed circles of grass made by a badger amongst the blackberry brambles, or our horse friend who makes short work of carob seed pods. And they can observe how wasps, ants, bees, birds and other small animals are linked to the life of each plant.

Such observations connect children to the natural world, allowing them to indirectly observe that the wild foods they collect are part of complex ecosystems. Further, they come to understand that they themselves are part of that ecosystem, just like the badger, the ant and the honey bee. They also learn that, to a far greater extent than any of these other animals, humans have the power to nurture or to destroy the environment. We teach our children, by example, to not take more than we need and to take only a little from each individual plant or area. Our children observe for themselves the destruction caused by wanton use and thoughtless disposal of plastics, metals and other industrial products, or by the needless felling of trees.

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Lily in long sleeves and long trousers for the thorny work of asparagus hunting

Foraging is a deeply rewarding activity. We spend quality time with our children, engaged in activity together towards a common goal. The wild foods we bring home are transformed into delicious meals for immediate consumption or preserved or dried for use at some later date. When we return home after a few hours of walking, talking and foraging, we are often tired and grass or mud-stained, but our spirits soar from all we have seen and done, our bodies and minds enriched and enlivened from our immersion in the landscape. And with that immersion comes a stronger sense of care, compassion and empathy for the natural world and its many and varied inhabitants.

Productive procrastination and the tug of memory

The editing assignment I’m working on at the moment is one of the most interesting, and biggest, I’ve had in the three years I’ve worked as an academic editor. Each new editing assignment, written by academics in China, Japan, Indonesia and elsewhere, is a new and fascinating learning experience for me. But the one I’m currently working on is particularly enjoyable because it is closest to my own research interests and the suggestions I have made to the authors come from my own specific background as an environmental anthropologist, rather than from my usually broader background as a social scientist at the interstices of culture and nature. This week’s assignment is about intangible cultural heritage, about the conservation and transmission of knowledge, skill and memory.

However, despite my enjoyment of this current assignment, I find myself procrastinating. Having done the washing up after lunch today I knew I should return to my office and sit down for an afternoon of editing. Instead, I decided on the spur of the moment to make a coffee cake. I’ve never made a coffee cake before, but I have a hand-written recipe in the little recipe book I’ve been adding to and baking from for years.

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My ‘not as good as Cissie’s’ coffee cake

I’ve been craving coffee cake for weeks, probably since the end of March and what would have been my father’s 78th birthday. You see, for me, coffee cake is intimately and indelibly tied up with memories of my father and my aunt Cissie, Daddy’s oldest sister. Coffee cake does not exist in my memory and my imagination independent of those two very important people in my life.

Until I was five years old, I was the only child in a small house in rural Ireland that was home to my mother and father, my paternal grandmother, and my paternal aunt, Cissie. My uncle Tom was there most days too and each weekend, my cousins Sean, Declan and Colette and my aunt Lillie were there too. I grew up in a house filled with love and jokes and an obsession with Gaelic football. I never once questioned my place in that wonderful setting. I was grounded and protected and loved. When I was five years old, my baby sister was added to the mix, and when I was six, my beloved aunt Cissie died of breast cancer.

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Cissie and me on the lawn in Ballygibbon, summer 1974.

Cissie was 18 or 19 years older than my father, who was the baby in a family of eight children that spanned a 22-year range. They all grew up in that house, as had my grandfather before them, who had died on my father’s first birthday. Cissie was the third oldest in the family, and the oldest girl. In what would be the final years of her life (although none of us could ever have imagined that someone so full of life could die so young), and her most important years from my young perspective, she worked as a housekeeper for a country doctor. Dr. Hill was herself an amazing woman, family doctor to all of us and a woman who had gone to medical school in Ireland in what must have been the 1930s. She and her husband, Ger, who was confined to a wheelchair, lived in a big bright orange farmhouse up a long avenue, a couple of miles from my house. Cissie worked in the kitchen, cooked the meals, baked, helped with Ger and slept in the house a couple of nights a week. I have very strong memories of sleeping in Cissie’s bed in her room at Dr. Hill’s house once and feeling simultaneously thrilled and terrified by the vastness of the house.

Back home in our little two-bedroom, five-person house, I shared a bed with Cissie and we, in turn, shared a room with my grandmother. When I go home to Ballygibbon now I can’t imagine how or where we fit two large old beds, a wardrobe and a chest of drawers in that room. But, somehow, we did (maybe the confined space prepared me for life on a boat).

Cissie’s baking was legendary. She baked all the time and everything was delicious. Cakes, tarts, desserts, she made them all. My father, despite hating coffee, loved his big sister’s coffee cake. And, despite being in his mid-30s in the mid-1970s, when I was a little girl, he was still Cissie’s adored baby brother, Cinn-bán Paddy, blond-headed Paddy, and she indulged and cultivated his sweet tooth at every opportunity.

It would be incorrect to say Daddy loved coffee cake. He loved Cissie’s coffee cake. After she died, in 1979, at a time when I was too young to appreciate the grief of those around me, he rarely ate coffee cake again. On those rare occasions when he conceded to try a slice of coffee cake, his response was always the same, ‘It’s not as good as Cissie’s’. Coffee cake never being as good as Cissie’s became, and still is, a running family joke.

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With my parents and sister at Dublin Zoo on the day of my First Communion, May 1980, less than a year after Cissie’s death.

My father died fourteen and a half years ago. Although my grief is triggered in often odd and unexpected ways, twice a year, on the anniversaries of his birth (March) and his death (September) I am usually guaranteed to feel his absence particularly acutely. This year I was less sad than usual, but was overcome by an almost madness-inducing craving not only to eat coffee cake, but to bake coffee cake. For weeks the stars have failed to align – not enough eggs in the house one day, not enough of the right type of flour the next, the gas bottle too close to empty to chance baking in the oven. But the craving to make and eat coffee cake never went away.

This morning, I took a mid-morning break from editing, as I had promised Katie I would play padel with her. Padel is a game that’s very similar to tennis, but played on a court that’s some way similar to both a squash and a real tennis court. Katie seems to be a natural at most sports and as we hit the ball back and forth across the padel net, I told her (not for the first time) how much Grandad Pat would have adored her and about all the sports they could have played together. Talking like that set me off and I had to take a little break from padel while my eight-year old daughter comforted me.

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Katie approved!

So, with my head full of ideas of intangible cultural heritage, of memory and skill and the transmission of knowledge, and with my heart full of my long-lost loved ones, my procrastination was inevitable, as I took my recipe book from its shelf. So, I’ve made a coffee cake for the first time for my blond-haired girls, and the cycle of intangible culture, love and belonging goes on.

Would Daddy like the coffee cake I’ve made? Although he would never say so, for fear of hurting my feelings, I’m sure inside he’d be thinking, ‘It’s not as good as Cissie’s’. And I would have to agree!

 

P.S. Apologies to my mother, sister and any other family members who I have made cry by bringing back these happy memories. We’re a sappy bunch.

 

 

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My Friday book review…on Saturday…..via 1491

These are a few of my favourite things

Minimalism is not about getting rid of the things you love. It’s about removing the clutter from your life, so you have more time and space for the things (and people) you love. If your collection of a thousand beer coasters brings you immeasurable joy, and the challenge to increase that collection to two thousand is what gets you out of bed on a Saturday morning, then embrace that. But if you have one hundred beer coasters that have been cluttering up a drawer in each home you’ve lived in since your student days, then it’s time to assess their importance to you and decide if you really need them taking up space in your life.

Of course, sometimes you discover that the things you thought you couldn’t live without are actually completely disposable and that life is, in fact, improved by their disposal.

From childhood I was a hoarder of books. I loved books. I loved reading them, I loved looking at them, I loved seeing them on my bookshelves. I never gave away a book. I only added to my collection. Books loaned and never returned were mourned and my opinion of the rogue borrower significantly diminished.

I lugged books to Japan, added to them, and lugged them back to Ireland again. I did the same in Nunavut, and in the UK, when I moved from house to house from Aberdeen to Cambridge over the space of nine years. Books require their own furniture, so the book cases we bought in Aberdeen were now added to the stuff we had to transport at every house move.

One of the things that attracted me to the house we eventually bought in Cambridgeshire was the potential for a massive built-in bookcase in the dining room, with wall-to-wall, floor-to-ceiling books. When Simon, the carpenter, came around to lay the downstairs floorboards I asked if he’d build the bookcase for me. We planned it together, sitting at my dining table, Simon sketching plans on a scrap of paper as I described what I had in mind. A few weeks later, the bookcases had been built, the dusty blue paint I’d covered it in had dried and I unpacked the many boxes of books onto their rightful home. The sight of it filled me with joy.

A little over a year later, when we made the rather sudden decision to quit our jobs, sell the house and buy a boat, it was obvious that extreme downsizing was called for. I had no problem parting with most of the excess in our lives, but the thought of getting rid of my books was heart-wrenching.

We spent the summer of 2011 drastically downsizing. Every Saturday or Sunday morning Julian drove to car boot sales all around Cambridgeshire, with our Ford Mondeo packed to the roof with all our excess stuff. He usually came home having sold more than half of what he’d packed, £100 in his pocket and the house a little less full of stuff. Each weekend the house grew a little emptier and as the decluttering bug took hold, I was willing to part with more and more stuff that I had previously thought we couldn’t live without.

The only fly in the ointment were the books. At first, I couldn’t bear to part with them. But we had three copies of Moby Dick, two copies of A Short History of Nearly Everything and quite a few books that I didn’t like and would never read again. Two Moby Dicks, one Short History and those books I disliked were the first to go. The next week I put a few more books in the car boot sale box, and then some more, and then some more.

And then I discovered something incredible. On a couple of Saturday mornings Julian stayed home and I went to the car boot sale. I set two boxes of books on the grass next to the collapsible garden table on which I displayed most of the household and garden stuff I was trying to sell. Hardbacks were priced at £1 and paperbacks at 50p. As people browsed at my stall, some stopped to look in my book boxes. Someone might ask if I had any Andy McNab or Cecilia Ahern books. I didn’t, but I would send them in the direction of my neighbour, whose book box I had browsed earlier. Other people were interested in my books and I started to have conversations. If someone showed an interest in Maya Angelou, I would recommend Alice Walker too. If someone liked the blurb on the back of an Isabel Allende, I would also recommend Gabriel Garcia Marquez. I met fellow bibliophiles who wanted to talk about the books I was reluctantly selling. And, because of those conversations, my reluctance evaporated. I now discovered that sending my books out into the world where new readers would potentially experience the same joy as I had brought me greater joy than hoarding them all to myself.

From that point on, I practically ripped books* from their shelves, so eager was I to pass them on to new readers. There were (and still are) books that I would never part with. Most of my academic books were expensive and hard to come by and most non-anthropologists wouldn’t be interested in them anyway, so I’ve kept most of those. I also kept the ones that bring me most joy and books that I have read over and over, and know I will probably read again some day – A Suitable Boy, The Bone People, Lord of the Rings, To Kill a Mockingbird, and a few others.

Since the summer of 2011, with only a few exceptions (Jay Griffith’s Wild, Barry Lopez’ Arctic Dreams)I have never again kept a book once I’ve finished reading it. I now pass books on. Sometimes I pass them on to someone in particular who I think will like the book as much as I do. But more often, I deposit them in book exchanges or charity shops. I still love books as much as always, but I am now a book sharer, rather than a book hoarder.

That one area of my life that I didn’t want minimalism to touch has, in fact, become one of the easier minimalist aspects of my life. And the reward, in conversations and shared thoughts about books, is worth far more than all the dust my books silently gathered on their shelves.

* I said ‘practically’. Clearly, I would never do anything so disrespectful to a book!