Thursday, 4 December 2014

The Wilderness

At the edge of our known world another begins. A dense and dark forest where you could easily become lost, never to return home. A boundless place where wild and dangerous animals roam. A realm of menace and mystery that unfolds beyond the apparently safe boundaries of what we know. This primitive wilderness is lodged deep in our memories: a place not to venture, a frontier not to cross.

At times we stray near to that edge. Drawn by the allure of the unknown, we sniff the air and sense the threat.  Perhaps we even tread at the margins, then return to safer ground with a thrill, feeling revitalised.

At times the edge comes near to us. An unexpected danger comes shrieking in to startle and disturb our relative calm. Threatened and vulnerable, we hear the wild animals baying for blood at our door.

I think of them as wolves. But I have never heard the howl of a wolf in the wild. Only virtual ones, like the wolves that call in the night when I’m waiting for test results at my six-monthly cancer reviews. Or when I have some strange symptoms, like the unexplained cough and breathing problems without a cold at the same time that I’ve had for the past few weeks. A chest X-ray was done yesterday and now I’m waiting for the report.

I have heard the guttural roar of a lion in the wild. I was camping in a game reserve in Botswana and woke in the small hours with my skin prickling. The guttural roar resounded. I knew it was a big, dangerous animal. I quickly clambered out of my tent. I was twitching, ready to run. But I couldn’t work out where the roar was coming from. It reverberated, sounding both faraway and near. My two companions got out of their tent as well. We listened intently, no-one spoke. The roaring stopped. My companions went back inside their tent. For ages I kept listening to the many sounds of the African night. Then I went back to my bed but found it hard to sleep.

Over breakfast at the campfire the guide asked us had we heard the lion last night. Yes, we smiled. He said he had been listening inside his tent, rifle at the ready. As we drove out in the morning he found the lion's tracks about 500 metres from the edge of our camp. Later we encountered the pride sleeping in the shade of a tree.


Tuesday, 25 November 2014

The Vikings: Pirates and Settlers

The Vikings have a bad press. The Norse raiders who pillaged and burned their way across Britain and Ireland over a thousand years ago are the stuff of legend. Their favourite destinations were monasteries, perhaps because of the relatively rich and easy pickings. But here the Vikings were robbing an educated Christian elite who went on to chronicle the barbarity and depravity of their pagan attackers in great detail - and the legend was made (from the victims point of view).

Viking is a Norse word meaning ‘expedition’, and the word came to specifically mean an expedition to plunder a foreign land. The people we call Vikings were in effect Norse pirates who went abroad to make money by looting valuables and taking captives who would be sold into slavery. But these pirates were a minority of Norse society, which was predominantly agrarian. Then as now you didn’t get rich quick by farming, and piracy was a dangerous occupation full of opportunity.

Norse society had three main classes: Jarls (earls) – the landed gentry who owned large estates and employed many; Karls (freemen) – the peasantry who owned land and livestock or who had a specialised skill and worked for a Jarl; Thralls – slaves who worked for both Karls and Jarls. There was limited social mobility, but with riches from piracy you had opportunity to better yourself.

Norse society also privileged male strength and bravery. The sagas tell of dynasties of Jarls and their great feats of valour in struggles for the dominance of particular lands. These were largely written during the 11th and 12th centuries by writers employed at the courts of the Jarls. They give richly detailed stories of great deeds by great men, but like the monastic chronicles cannot be seen as independent accounts.

Of particular interest are the ‘housecarls’, a troop of bodyguards or private army that was employed by each Jarl. It strikes me that these would be the most likely pirates. They were freemen and had both status and fighting skills; led by ambitious Jarls, these were soldiers of fortune like the conquistadores of later years. The Vikings were thus get-rich-quick types who were prepared to undertake the dangers of expeditions to inhospitable foreign lands for the rewards that would enable them to buy land and status back home.

So were these pagan Vikings any more violent than their Christian contemporaries? Well the standards of the day were pretty brutal, so they do not seem exceptional. For example, the Christian emperor Charlemagne executed four thousand five hundred Saxons after a battle in 782. Perhaps the Vikings primary mistake was to prey upon rather than to exempt the Christian Church from their piracy (thus making an articulate and influential enemy).

The Viking expeditionary raiding parties of the 8th and 9th centuries were very functional for the spread of Norse dominance in territory and trade. Foreign raids were followed up by the establishment of bases, then settlements, from which Norse trade and rule was spread within these territories. By the 10th century the Norse empire spread from Newfoundland to Central Asia, and Norse culture achieved great heights in wood, metal and stone-working. At the same time, the Norse were also converting to Christianity.

After dominating great swathes of Britain and Ireland for over a hundred years, the Vikings were defeated and displaced by local tribes in these islands. But in the 11th century the Norse invaded again from a territory they had established some time before in Northern France. This time the invasion was successful and lasting: we gave these Vikings a different name, we called them the Normans.

Sunday, 16 November 2014

The Irish and The Vikings

Anyone who has been to Dublin and seen tourists in a semi-submersible truck with plastic Norse helmets on probably realises that Dublin was at one time a Viking town. Following several decades of hit-and-run raids across Ireland, the Vikings established Dublin as a base in 842. Thence it developed into an important settlement that was the seat of a Viking King for over a hundred years. However, the first encounters between the Irish and the Vikings did not take place on this island or anywhere nearby.

These first encounters took place on islands in the North Atlantic where Irish monks had first travelled in small boats during the 6th, 7th and 8th Centuries to establish hermitages. These monks were followers of Brendan, Columba and Aidan, who voyaged increasingly far in search of wild places to practice their monasticism. Where better to find a life of solitude and spiritual dedication, akin to that of John the Baptist, than remote islands far to the North of the British Isles? Monastic records from the 9th Century describe the actual voyages of Irish hermits to the Outer Hebrides, Orkney, Shetland, Iceland and The Faeroes (which they reached in the late 8th Century).

On these wild and windswept islands the monks encountered the stone dwellings and ceremonial structures of Neolithic farmers, abandoned 3000 years earlier. It seems very likely that the hermits would have used these dwellings situated at the shore for shelter. Indeed the stone ‘beehive huts’ that monks constructed on Skellig Michael in the 8th Century bear a very strong resemblance to the Neolithic stone dwellings recently discovered under sand-dunes at Skara Brae in Orkney and Jarlshof in Shetland.

But the monks were not alone for very long. In the latter part of the 8th Century, Viking raiding parties travelled to these northerly islands in search of treasure and territory. They did not find rich pickings amongst the hermits and moved on to better targets, such as the monastic settlements at Lindisfarne and Iona and then the mainland of Britain and Ireland.

However, I imagine the Vikings were impressed by the seafaring abilities of the monks who had travelled far across stormy seas in primitive craft, much smaller and flimsier than their longboats, and by the sheer hardiness of the hermits. In the Norse language a hermit is papi and this place-name recurs across the many remote islands that the hermits inhabited: Papey near Iceland, Papa Stour in the Shetlands, Papa Westray in the Orkneys and Pabbey in the Outer Hebrides.

Their cohabitation didn’t last long; for the hermits chose to leave, or were driven out from, their wild islands. But the monks do appear to have had a lasting influence on the pagan Vikings, who shortly after began to convert to Christianity. Over the next hundred years, their trading empire spread from Greenland to Central Asia and Christianity became the established religion amongst the Norse. Viking Kings then took part in the First Crusade.


Wednesday, 5 November 2014

Papay and the Mainland

Last week I clambered into a 5000 year old burial chamber, visited an ornate chapel made by Italian prisoners of war and watched seals playing in pristine blue waters. Where was I? Orkney.

I had long intended to visit this archipelago of seventy islands to the north of John O Groats, and recently I found a special reason to go. A long lost pal got in touch, Patrick my best mate at primary school, who I last saw aged nine, was now living in Orkney. T and I took a plane to Glasgow and another to Kirkwall, then we took the inter-island plane to Papa Westray. This is the furthest North West of all the Orkney Islands and is known to the locals as Papay.

The inter-island plane seats just eight and you sit right behind the pilot. The twin propellers make a real row and you can see all the instruments flickering and twitching. We travelled low across the sea, moving from island to island (most small and uninhabited) until we reached Papay, which is six miles long and just one mile wide. We touched down on a strip in the middle of a field and rumbled to a halt. Collecting our bags from the side of the plane, we walked to the terminal building (the size of a garage) and out into a narrow stone-walled country lane. Some seventy people live on Papay, spread out in smallholdings, but there is a shop, post office, nurse, primary school and volunteer fire station.

I recognised Patrick straight away, his features hadn't changed at all. It was just great catching up with him. Despite the long absence, we found that we were still great pals. He has retired to a bungalow on seven acres of land with sheep, ducks and chickens. He took us on some fantastic walks, to see the oldest known house in Northern Europe (inhabited 5,500 years ago) a drystone igloo amidst sand-dunes, and some fantastic wildlife – seals, migratory geese and hen harriers. Throughout, the weather smiled on us.

With reluctance we got back on the little plane for the two minute flight to the adjoining island of Westray (the shortest scheduled flight in the world) and then back to Kirkwall. For two days we travelled around the Mainland, as the main island is called. The Italian Chapel was a real highlight, built by Italian prisoners of war, it is an ornate slice of Rome created from a Nissen Hut. A phenomenal work of devotion, the chapel was made by the prisoners in their time away from building the Churchill Barriers (a submarine defence between the islands to protect Scapa Flow).

My favourite place was the complex of Neolithic sites at Stenness, a small promontory between two lochs, that was very important 5000 years ago. It holds the great chambered cairn of Maes Howe, built to interr human remains in a central chamber down a passageway that is lit by the sun on the shortest day of the year. Nearby are the Stones of Stenness and the Ring of Brodgar, circles of huge standing stones, built 1000 years before Stonehenge. These are powerful spiritual places that have always held an attraction, this can be seen in the runic inscriptions made by Viking visitors to the many pictures taken by more recent travellers. They still stir the soul.  

Tuesday, 21 October 2014

Ebola, Concern and the Scare

On Saturday I met with a man who had recently returned from working in Sierra Leone and Liberia to counter the Ebola outbreak. The meeting was calm and we didn’t wear face masks. He was Dominic MacSorley, Head of Concern Worldwide, and he was reporting to the Board on the work that Concern was doing on the ground in the Ebola-hit region.

Dominic explained that it was safe to be in this area as long as you observed the strict protocols: face masks, no touching, frequent washing and regular monitoring of your own temperature. He told us of the vital work that Concern was doing - scaling up education and community health work in a country where there is only one doctor for every 30,000 people and supervising the safe burial of Ebola victims. This latter task being of great importance as the World Health Organisation estimates that two thirds of new Ebola cases can be traced to unsafe burial practices. In West Africa, as in many cultures, it is normal to touch the deceased as you pay your respects. Concern is now responsible for health education and the safe burial of Ebola victims in Freetown, the capital city of Sierra Leone.

Dominic also told us of the reactions he had received since he had returned from Freetown. As per usual after an overseas trip, he was undertaking media appearances in Ireland to publicise the work of Concern. During one radio phone in Kerry he was told he was a danger to the public and should leave the county immediately. The Make-up Department of RTE had also refused to prepare him for a television interview, being afraid to touch him with pad and brush.

These reactions returned me some twenty five years to the height of the AIDS crisis, when similar stigmatisation of victims occurred. Ebola like HIV is a virus transmitted only by body fluids, so safe practices are required to protect against this transmission. Ebola like HIV is an animal virus that has transmuted to humans. Ebola is apparently common in fruit bats and is believed to have travelled to humans via monkeys (the monkeys ate the infected bats and humans ate the infected monkeys).

But Dominic wasn’t an Ebola victim, he had merely travelled to the area to help plan and co-ordinate the response to the outbreak. And he had been checked thoroughly before he was allowed to leave Freetown. Although still within the 21 day incubation period, he had been taking his own temperature each day and had no symptoms. I left the Board meeting proud of the work that Concern has been doing in West Africa and concerned about how easily moral panics become aroused.  

Sunday, 12 October 2014

Scum-bag in Sri Lanka

I went on my first long-haul cycle tour in 2005. My destination was Sri Lanka and I joined a CTC group that toured this beautiful tropical island, the size of Ireland, for three weeks. Exploring a developing country by bicycle is a great experience, because travelling alongside local people as they go about their daily lives allows you to become really immersed in the culture.

Sri Lanka has lush tropical forests and fruit plantations on the coastal plains. The land then rises through rubber plantations, then tea plantations, to mountains of over 8,000 ft at the centre of the island where root vegetables are grown in terraces. We had plenty of long hilly days cycling in warm sunshine (25-30 degrees C) but these were interrupted by regular stops. I loved to drink green king coconuts, these were often piled up for sale at the side of the road by a child who would chop the top off one with a machete to reveal the nectar within. Or I would pause for my favourite dessert, buffalo yoghurt topped with coconut treacle (caramelised coconut milk mixed with cane sugar) - absolutely delicious.

On one particularly long ascent the group became split up. Cycling on my own, I was joined by a young boy on a large battered black bike. He was perhaps seven years old and could just about reach the sit-up-and-beg handlebars with his arms above his head. He was wearing school uniform, a white shirt and blue shorts, and was barefoot. Although I was on a modern touring bike with thirty gears, I was finding it hard going up the hill. He looked like he was on his mother's old bike, which was fixed gear and rickety, yet he didn't seem to be too troubled by the slope.

We cycled side by side for a short while. I smiled at the young lad.

He grinned at me. 'Scum-bag' he said.

Startled, I stared across at him. He was smiling at me. 'Scum-bag' he said earnestly.

After all the warmth I had thus far experienced on my trip, I was shocked to be insulted in this way. I put on a spurt to try and distance myself from him. Turning my head, I saw the young lad some fifteen yards behind. He was swaying hard on his bike, straining to catch up. I pedalled on.

'Scum-bag.' There he was at my side again, smiling. I shook my head. 'Scum-bag' he grinned, his bike swaying and rattling as he leant on the pedals.

I pedalled harder, panting as the slope increased. The rattling of his bike slowly receded. I turned around to see him some twenty five yards back. 'Scum-bag' he shouted, slowing to a stop with an air of resignation.

That's got rid of the little bastard, I thought and continued riding for an hour until I met the group at the next rest stop. I sat down and related my strange tale to the tour leader, Peter. He laughed.

'It wasn't funny', I said.

Peter shook his head, grinning. 'He was probably asking you for a school pen,' he said, 'pens and paper are expensive here'.

I felt sheepish and sad. I wished there could have been time for me to go back and say sorry.

With thanks to Eunice Yates and her story of Lenny Kravitz in Japan, which reminded me of this.

Saturday, 4 October 2014

Bumblebees and Jam-making

It's been a bumper year for fruit. A mild March meant that bumblebee queen's came out of hibernation early, made nests and began their colonies. The queen is the only bumblebee that survives the Winter, she has a sac of stored sperm from males that died last Autumn and when the warmth of Spring arrives she begins a new brood, determining the sex of each of her offspring. The new workers, mostly females, emerge to collect nectar from the blossoming plants, pollinating them too. Our good early Spring was followed by a long, warm Summer and hedgerows and trees became filled with ripe fruit. The bees had done their work well.

Early in September, T and I picked ten pounds of blackberries in around an hour and left many more still ripening. Back home we combined our spoils with the same quantity of apples from my garden (another good crop despite the heavy pruning I gave the tree in January) and made jam. The recipe called for the same weight of sugar as fruit, but we couldn't countenance putting so much in. We decided to try half the weight of the fruit and poured in five kilos of sugar with added pectin. Even then it seemed a lot.

We had some problems boiling this thirty pounds of mixture. I had a huge pot, but it became too full and the jam mixture splashed out across the cooker, up the wall and onto my hands. I didn't realise you could get nasty burns from hot jam. So we split the mixture and boiled each hard for over ten minutes, my hands in oven gloves this time. The jam seemed to set okay when we tried it on a saucer, so we bottled it. The next day we opened a jar and found the jam was only semi-set, but with a great rich fruit (rather than sugary) flavour. I've been eating our blackberry and apple jam every day since on my toast.

Another of the good things about foraging and jam-making is that it enables your entrance into the local exchange economy. You give a pot of jam or a bag of apples to a neighbour, and at some future point you will receive in kind. Yesterday a neighbour brought me a big bag of damsons. Today I'm going to combine these with the blackberries that T and I picked a week or so ago on our latest foraging trip (and froze) and have another go at jam-making. I'll still only put in half the sugar, but this time I'll add the juice of a couple of lemons to help the jam set. I wonder what damson and blackberry jam tastes like?