Cutting Edge Peasantry

I am sometimes envious of other people’s gadgetry. I look at their tractors or back-hoe diggers and think “I wish I had one of them“. However, we have eschewed buying many of these items as we have sound reasons to avoid them. Firstly, if I can do a task by simple ‘manpower‘ rather than by petrol, or electricity, I tend to imagine that I will have less of a carbon footprint. Secondly, some of our fields are so steep that operating a tractor on them would verge on the suicidal. It would be very easy to topple a tractor on their inclinations – I sometimes think I might need crampons to get to the top of our small sheep field. Thirdly, machinery makes me less self-reliant, I can only do the work if I have petrol or electricity, and fourthly I would miss the opportunity for exercise. Avoiding gadgets, and using brute force, means I can avoid the gym and all that goes on there. But above all of these I am aware just how much these items cost. We just can’t afford them, so much better to realise that those grapes would be sour anyway and persevere in our morally pure manner.

However, today we saw a giant leap in our technological solutions. My task for the day was to put 200kg of fertilizer (25-5-5) onto our central field. Obviously, I was going to do this in the time-honoured way with a bucket and a cup. I would walk the length and breadth of the field like a medieval peasant scattering the fertilizer granules in front of me. If this was good enough for them back in the middle ages it was going to be good enough for me too! Indeed, it was a lovely dry and sunny day, so I realised I was going to kill two birds with one stone. I would improve the nitrogen content of our field and at the same time I would get my exercise. I have a project I call “Running away from Death” and try to keep active, hoping that meeting a high step count daily as well as getting my heart to beat a bit faster I might not drop dead too young due to my previous years of sloth and gluttony.

Then I had a brainwave. The fertilizer granules are quite small and my eyesight is not great, it can be difficult to be sure that you cover the entire field evenly as you are scattering. It is difficult even when you mentally divide the field into sections to be sure you don’t double dose or miss patches. I knew that the new fancy tractors had GPS systems which took care of this, but it was just me, a bucket and a cup so this seemed an unlikely solution. Until I remembered I had been given a smartband for my birthday. It is a gadget which tracks where I go and how many steps I take and nags me if I don’t do enough during the day. If I was the tractor with the fertilizing attachment, then I did have the GPS module also. I switched on the band and was able to check that I did cover every area of the field and that there were no blind spots or areas of double dosing. Two hours and 6 kilometres later the job was done, and my envy of my better endowed neighbours had almost completely dissipated.

Doing Planks

Since I stopped working as a doctor there has been one aspect of my changed life which has kept me going; the ability to learn new skills and knowledge. Obviously, when I was working as a medic I was constantly in training and re-training, as is everybody in every line of work, but this training led to me being more and more specialised. It lead to me knowing more and more about a smaller and smaller area of knowledge. At the same time progressing in a large organization leads one into a deeper and deeper rut  where one’s room for development becomes increasingly restricted. In your twenties you can consider and change your career plan. After a mortgage and children, in your thirties, you can dream of changing but probably won’t do it. By your fifties you can think about your career but wouldn’t usually dream of changing it.

As I followed my deepening rut, personal circumstances, which I never anticipated, forced me to consider what I thought was important. They forced me to risk a change which looking back I don’t regret. True I have lost a lot of things, mainly status and wealth, but I think I have gained more in return. My change in life has necessitated that I learn how to meet new challenges and I have discovered that it is this learning that is the most enjoyable facet of my new circumstances.

This week we decided we needed planks for a minor construction project. Now we have woodland but I had not put the obvious two and two together to make four. Our woodlands are a source of fuel for us and forage for our animals but as my neighbour pointed out they are the obvious source of our needed planks. He informed me that we could borrow a mobile sawmill and create planks on our back door. So how do we make planks ? It is surprisingly straightforward..

Firstly collect your trees. We used someimg_20190327_1222326051720164084962884.jpg American Cedar as it is lovely wood with a wonderful colour and smell. It is important to try to cut these to the lengths of plank you want to create. We cut at 8ft and 12ft lengths and removed any branches with an axe or saw. Then arranged these at the edge of clearing where we were going to set up the mobile mill.

People are often worried about the safety of using chainsaws and sawmills and this is very correct. Forestry is one of the most dangerous occupations and you are more likely to die or be injured in this job than you would be were you to work as a soldier. However, the most dangerous thing is not the machines. These at least were designed with human safety in mind. The most dangerous thing is the timer. The trees have no concerns about human safety and the logs you see above each weigh about 2 tons. If these roll, or fall, on you the damage can be immense. For an idea of scale imagine a fly and an rolled up newspaper- this should prompt you to wear your safety helmet and boots. Don’t take any shortcuts and always think and plan every movement of timber deliberately. The cutting is going to be the easy bit; collecting the wood and getting it to the saw is the most difficult bit.

img_20190327_1231302217926684723653391.jpgHaving cut you log place it on the bed of the mill. You need now to check the entire surface of the log. You are looking for stones and rocks which may have been pushed into the surface when the tree was felled. If any of these small stones remain and hit the saw blade, as it works at speed, then sparks may fly. Sparks, however,  will be the least worrisome things. It is possible these smallstones can cause the band saw to break and the last thing you want is a fast moving, unpredictable band of highly sharpened steel flailing around you. So don’t skimp on this checking process.

The next step is to create a rectangular pieceimg_20190327_1225213822195427243105853.jpg of timber ready to be cut into planks. This means cutting off a face, quarter rotating the log, cutting a further face and repeating. This will not only create the shape you require it will also remove the sapwood. This is the lighter outer ring of soft new wood which we do not want for our planks.

This step is one which require planning and patience. Your logs will not be regular and it is important to try and see a way to create a rectangular block without much wastage. If may be necessary to jack up one end of the log if one can visualise a rectangular block running the length of the piece of timber.  The face of wood removed are not in themselves waste as these crude planks are useful for rough and ready work like stockades and shelters.

img_20190327_1243253319814703555371052.jpgOnce you have your rectangular piece of timber it is plain sailing to run the saw repeatedly through its length to create planks. Here we are making cuts at 1 inch depths for fairly robust planking. This final piece of work might, on average, constitute about ten percent of the work;  all the foregoing is more important.But once you have done this part you will start to see your collection of nice new, wonderfully smelling, planks mount up. You will also find that doing this type of plank will be a lot better for your health than any number of planks in the gym. You will sleep a lot more soundly because of the exercise but also because of knowing you have created something new and the materials you are now going to use have had a much lower carbon footprint than might otherwise have been the case. It is also likely that you will treat these planks with a bit more respect and be less wasteful of them. It is, as they say, a win-win situation.

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A sheep in wolves’ clothing.

We have had a bit of a problem over the last few days. One of the ewes who had healthy twins (a boy and a girl) was causing concern. She would not let the boy feed and would head butt him away quite vigorously whenever he came close. Sometimes she would toss him up into the air and over a meter away from her. It was quite distressing to see.

We were worried she might have mastitis and that pain, when the lamb suckled, contributed to the problem. Therefore we needed to get her to the vet for review and possible antibiotics. Now this is sometimes easier said than done. It is fairly easy to catch the ewes now that they are bucket trained, but it is a different matter to get 40kg of reluctant and annoyed ewe into the back of a pickup or into the vet’s surgery. Though goats may get all the praise for being nimble and quick I can assure you that a sheep that wants to escape to somewhere else is no slouch. They will wriggle, jump and run; it can be quite a task at times.

I wasn’t looking forward to this when my wife had an idea. We had recently invested in a macho harness for our German Shepherd – perhaps we could press this into use for the ewe. After a minor skirmish it was on and all of a sudden we had a ewe we could move at will without hurdles or a sheep dog – it was a sheep with a handle on it and it made life so much easier. It may look odd (see the picture below) but I can commend this strategy to any other smallholder with wily ewes and large fashion-conscious dogs.

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After the vet had reviewed her it seems unlikely that mastitis is at the root of our problems. Sometimes ewes will just take against a specific lamb, it seems that there is just something about the look of their face to which they take objection. We are assured that often this can be overcome by just ensuring the lamb does get to feed regularly whether the ewe wants to or not. So we have a period ahead when we have to immobilise the ewe every two hours while we let her son feed. Our other cunning plan is to smear some poo from the bum of the lamb she has accepted onto the bum of the lamb she rejects- apparently this sometimes fools the ewe back into acceptance.

Hopefully these strategies will work and will avoid us the need to start bottle feeding as I think I am too old to go back to night bottle feeds.

 

The perversity of ewes.

It seems only a short time ago that we had warm sunny days, dry days, pleasant days, in fact, ideal days for lambs to start their lives. However, our ewes eschewed starting lambing during this period ; “too easy” they said. They have waited until just after the hail and sleet of yesterday and the start of Storm Gareth  today and decided that this is the perfect time to start lambing. The pervesity of ewes knows no bounds.

We have our fingers firmly crossed and  our lambing box at the ready and I’ve made this short post just to explain that there will be little activity on this site for the next few weeks.

 

The 3 ‘R’s

The important triad that we need to consider, if we are to have any hope of tackling the problem we face with climate change and degradation of our environment, is the triad of:-

  • Reduce
  • Reuse
  • Recycle

Unfortunately, it is the most important of these that we tend to forget and ignore. The most important is “reduce“; indeed, the instruction to reuse and recycle are just other methods to avoid using new things and thus simple practical ways to reduce our consumption. If we recycle something, or use if for a different purpose, it saves us from buying or creating something new, it reduces our consumption. The key part of the triad remains reduce and it is the aspect which, unfortunately, the one to which we pay less attention. I can understand this, as it can quite easy to enjoy the other two instructions. There is indeed pleasure to be had from finding a new use for something you thought past its days. Recycling and reuse can save us money and certainly help us have a feeling of smugness, that we have done our bit, without any real cost to ourselves. In contrast “reducing” consumption has little fun associated with it, and any smugness is probably obliterated by a feeling of missing out on what other are having.

We are, in fact, exhorted to do the exact opposite of reducing our consumption. Although we all know that, if we want to reverse the damage we are doing to our environment, we must start to consume less and more wisely. But every day adverts tell us our lives are not complete without this, or that, product or service. Every day we are informed we will be happier if we just have something else; a new car, a foreign holiday, this year’s fashion in clothing or music. Increasingly advertisers try to urge us to become better people buy buying their products, suggesting that people who buy car X are obviously those who go against the herd, thinking individuals who understand the social and environmental threats we must tackle. The “greenwashing” that we see in the luxury market is particularly galling when we are urged to buy something new, because it is more efficient or green, while the much better option would be to not buy something and make our car, or washing machine, or fridge, or whatever, last that bit longer. The calculations to work out the better environmental option in these situations can be quite difficult to work out but it is generally safe to presume that not consuming something is the greenest option open to you.

At the social level this situation gets even worse. The mantra enthrals that all politicians is that “growth is good”. We are told that economic growth is the best marker for the health of our societies. It is suggested that if growth slackens then our future is grim, only ever increasing production and consumption can save us. While it is true that the spectacular growth we have seen has lifted most of the world’s population out of poverty but the problem is no longer inadequacy of wealth (there is more than enough for all) the problems are waste and faulty distribution. The wealth we have is not fairly spread and the creating of this wealth is at the expense of our future safety. It might be much better to be aiming, in the developed world, for what Adam Smith described as “stationarity” or the “steady-state economy” described by the ecological economist Herman Daly. Those of us living in the post-scarcity economies of the developed world need to try and find ways to alter our living and let us reflect on our problems.

This problem was brought home to me this week, on Tuesday to be precise. This week included Shrove Tuesday but most of our press and media were keen to remind me it was Pancake Day. It is clear that this is another ritual or celebration which is going through a metamorphosis to become more useful for our current times. Shrove Tuesday is so called because of the word shrive which means to absolve. This day marked the end of the period before lent. A day to use up, and so not waste, the foodstuff that would no be eaten during the fast to come. (Mardi Gras has the same origin, its meaning being Fat Tuesday). It was time to start reflecting on our failures and begin the period of Lent during which we would be expected to give up some of the pleasures of life and, instead, pay attention to our failings.

This aspect of the celebration does not fit with a modern consumer culture. A ritual that encourages reduced consumption and thoughtful introspection really doesn’t fit with our current world view. The last thing a consumer society wishes is for consumers to doubt or reduce their consumption. So as Breugel (See Picture) anticipated we have converted it into another excuse to consume, to carouse, to eat and drink to excess. Just as Easter has become the celebration of eating chocolate, Christmas the celebration of general excess, the remnants of Lent have become the celebration of eating sweet carbohydrate treats. They all join the new celebrations of consumption such as Black Friday and Amazon Prime Day.

At a time when the last thing in the world we need is encouragement to consume more it is sad to see a tradition promoting moderation and self-reflection dying. If anything we need to try and revive Lent and to encourage people that we need to think about our consumption and behaviour. We may think that we no longer need to think on our sins nor repent as we are modern and above such primitive things. However, greed, gluttony, lust and envy are factors that drive our overconsumption and promote the unequal distribution of our wealth and we need to think about these. If we do not, and we continue as we are, then the inequalities we see will worsen and we will fail to stop the global warming which we clearly know is starting to threaten our future as a species. At a time when our behaviour is such that it threatens our very survival it might be a wise time to salvage a period of reflection and repentance, and the exhortation from Ash Wednesday would seem a very good place to start :-

Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return

In praise of junk mail.

It is often the case that someone’s rubbish is someone else’s treasure. This sharing of rubbish is well  organised in our valley. The woman above us keep horses she need to get rid of large amounts of horse manure, we shift it and convert it into a valuable feed for the vegetable garden. The joiner who lives to the north creates lots of wood chipping and sawdust which he needs to move. We take it to augment our animal bedding. There are few things which don’t have a use to someone.

This week our neighbour down the valley was felling a large old oak to make a lintel for their new hearth. Prior to felling the tree they needed to clear the decades of ivy which had grown on it and, as a consequence of the2502-2019-0808183222008064419247413253524316527699.jpeg prevailing winds, was unbalancing the tree which would have made a simple felling awkward. They had trailer-fulls of ivy which they were considering taking to the dump. Fortunately, they discussed it with us first and we happily informed them that goats and sheep are extremely partial to ivy. At this time of the year there is little else green for the goats, as they are not keen on grass, and both they and the sheep find it an excellent supplement to their diet.

The pleasure of finding a new use for something discarded has even extended to junk mail.  I am not a very good consumer and don’t get very much of this unsolicited bumpf, but my wife daily receives leaflets and brochures urging and luring her to buy the new 2502-2019-0838372221709954908861409722766250977981.jpegfashions. I am not sure that the sheep and poultry will find the new styles in the Johnny Boden catalogue to their taste and, to be fair, my wife rarely does more than browse these booklets. But there brochures have their uses. After shredding they help bulk out the poultry bedding. Once they have been well soaked in bird poo they compost down well for further recycling. They can also be made into briquettes, if they are made into paper mache blocks, which are a good replacement for firelighters in starting a fire. For both of these purposes it would be better if they had less glossy pages, indeed newsprint would be better, and I will need to write to them to suggest they use less expensive paper and fewer inks (It could save them a few bob and me a bit of work;  a win-win situation).

However, the best thing about this junk mail is simply its delivery. When it appears on the mat it dilutes the other mail and reduces the obviousness of bills which is to be welcomed. It also ensures that nearly every day we have some mail rather than none. It also lets us know that the postman has been even on days when nobody in the real world had wanted to communicate with us. However, this is a double edged sword – is it better to know that the postman has been and nobody in the world wanted to talk with us ? Or is it better to look at the empty mat and think, he’s not been yet,  perhaps that important missive will arrive later on?

Buried Treasure

It has been an odd day today. Although still February it has felt spring like. No, correct that, it has been like a summer’s day today. All day it has been warm and sunny, in North Wales even in Summer this is unusual.

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Turkeys waiting for the Goldoni to start.

I decided to take the opportunity to start preparing the vegetable beds. I got the Goldoni fired-up and after 2 hours we had the first pass completed. The poultry also enjoy this task as they can follow the rotary plough and take their pick of the insect life that it reveals.

I was glad to have this task to do for two reasons. Firstly, I am due to restart the goat house bedding. We use a deep bedding system for the goats. This means we add to the straw bedding on a regular basis over the year and the bedding gets deeper and deeper. It also stays warm and dry, if topped up, which the goats like. But after a period there is the task of  mucking out a few tons of straw which has been liberally mixed with dung and urine. This is a hard, back breaking task, that must be done in one go (as otherwise the goats would have nowhere to sleep that night). I can’t avoid it for much longer but breaking the ground did give me an excuse for today.

The second reason was the Six Nations International Rugby competition. I knew, in my guts, Scotland was not going to perform well today and I could not really stand the stress of watching this. It was marginally less distressing to listen to it in the radio and being busy did distract and ease the pain. I could hear Scotland valiantly fighting, but losing, and this was rather less unpleasant than watching it happening in all its gory detail. Fortunately, I am now of two nationalities.  My Scottish persona felt the bitter disappointment of loosing to France but my Welsh persona had the great pleasure of watching Wales win again England an hour or so later. This was a wonderful antidote and lifted me enough that I thought I might tackle the goat house tomorrow – possibly.

To round off the day nicely, whilst rotavating I uncovered a small buried treasure. I thought that I had collected all of last years potatoes but I was mistaken. In the middle of a run there was a small cache of some img_20190223_141604220501442304030975.jpgPentland Javelin and Red Désirée potatoes. Not many but enough for a couple of meals. I had intended to be well behaved in my diet today and keep my carb count to a minimum. This, however, was obviously a sign, just like Wales’ win, to allow me to disregard my diet at least for tonight. I decided to have the potatoes fried in butter. These small delights had gone to all the bother of keeping themselves hidden until today just to cheer me up. I really had to eat them, despite my diet, it would have churlish not to.

I can, unfortunately, be pretty certain I’ll find no pleasant surprises when I shift the tons of dung and straw from the goat house later this week. Unless another comes along and takes priority.