We made our own presents.

We made some of our own presents this year. This was possibly unwise as neither of us could be described as artistic or skilled at craft. Rudimentary knitting is as far as we get, and the results of our endeavours with wool and needles would scarcely bring a smile to someone’s face over the festive season. However, as part of our endeavour to be self-sufficient, and due to our abomination of waste, we wanted to use the sheep skins of our lambs after slaughter. So we thought learning to tan hides would be a way to kill two birds with one stone.We would use the skins and have no need to buy Christmas presents as we could give rugs and jackets to our friends and family. This plan only half-worked. Therefore, if you decide to follow the instructions which follow, then stop half-way through.

The first stage of tanning is to salt the skins.

salting
Salted skin

This means covering the whole area of the skin in a layer of salt about 0.5cm thick. Don’ try and do this with a salt cellar you are going to need about 1kg of salt per skin. Table salt or, if it is cheaper to buy, then dishwasher salt will suffice. This stage starts the preservation by drawing the moisture out of the skins as it drops on the floor. It is best to leave the skins for up to a week under the salt. Check them daily and renew the salt at any areas where pools of water have formed. The area you are working in will become wet and damp as the salt draws out all the water from the skin.

The following stage is scraping. You need sharp knives and any metal implements which

scraping
Tools and a wet floor

will allow you to scrape off any bits of meat of fat which are adhering to the skin. There are fleshing knives available at a cost, but kitchens knives, paint scrapers and a bee-hive tool work jus as well. This is very slow work but you have to persevere until a smooth, thin, white skin is all you have left. It should be about 1-2mm thick. Your hands will probably dry out during this process as the salt and the work will pull out all the natural oils in your skin. I found that, when I was doing this, if I went out in the rain, my hands looked as if they had been in a long hot bath as my finger tips went white and wrinkly very quickly.

The following stage is the actual tanning stage. You need to soak the skins in acid for a few days. There are many traditional

chemicals
Chemistry

 

ways of getting an acid for this procedure. Originally the brains of the animal would be smeared on the skins for the syringomyelic acid they contained, and in the middle ages there was some poor unfortunate whose job was to collect dog poo (as dog poo and urine are slightly acidic) for the tanning process. We decided against these strategies and went for oxalic acid which is quite easy to obtain as it is a common cleaning preparation (often used as a decking cleaner). We sent up three bins and the skins went through these over the next weeks. The first 4 days in the acid solution, then a day in

mixing
Mixing

 

a bicarbonate of soda wash (to neutralize the acid and start the cleaning) then a few days in a solution of soap flakes for simple cleaning. During each of these steps it is important to stir the mixture once or twice a day with a wooden stick.

Once you have completed these stages you are into the home run. The next stage is to dry the skins by hanging them on a line somewhere. Then daily pull and stretch the skins to make them pliable. This must be done multiple times and which considerable force and vigour as it breaks down the fibres in the leather and makes the leather supple.

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Drying

This, I have to confess is where we

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Cadi thinks we’ve skipped a step

made our fatal mistake. While we dried the fleeces well and did try and bend and pull them, we did not do this adequately and when the skins finally dried the leather was too hard and rigid. It was tanned but not, by any stretch of the imagination, supple. This part of the job can’t be skimped unless you are going to be happy with wall hangings or rugs, where flexibility is less important.

This unfortunately did not deter us. We had set our mind on Christmas presents and were not going to be so flexible as to let some stiff leather put us off. After some deft work with leather thongs and a needle we constructed a jacket.

rpt
Merry Christmas

Now the leather outside is indeed waterproof, and the inner wool lining is very warm,  but is does lack a little in finesse and fashion. It looks a little too Neolithic, or Game of Thrones, for day to day wear. I fear if we both wore matching jacked to the supermarket we might even be viewed as a little eccentric. But as proof of purpose it has shown it is possible to tan the skins and next year, after much more diligent work at the drying stage, we hope to have flexible, supple leather. Version 2 might even be wearable in public.

 

The Ovine Death Wish

Farmers and smallholders often hold the view that sheep are born with a ‘death wish’. Much of sheep farming is less to with ways to breed, rear and grow them than to working to stop them killing themselves. You make fences to stop them hurling themselves in front of traffic. Once the fences are strong they manage to garrotte themselves in the wiring and resist all your attempt to pull them out. If there are no fences they’ll try  getting entangled in the branches of hedging. If there is anything poisonous they will find it and try it, and I am not convinced they don’t lure in the dogs, foxes and crows that cause so much trouble. If the Samaritans ever consider expanding to the animal kingdom their first new section should be for sheep and their suicidality.

As there is less forage at this time of year the sheep become more adventurous in their search for food. They climb higher,WhatsApp Image 2018-12-29 at 16.37.30 reach farther and jump deeper than they usually will consider. This was the problem behind today’s escapade. I had noticed when out walking that one of my neighbour’s ewes was standing knee deep in a bog. It was looking perplexed but un-distressed and I presumed just enjoying a new range of forage. In the return leg of my walk, a half an hour later, I found her in the same position but now sunk to her shoulders and clearly tired and fearful. As I went to see her she become more frightened, struggled a little (as she was tired), and due to her struggling sunk a bit lower into the bog.

I didn’t have much time, I needed to get a rope and to get her out. It was late afternoon and it would be dark in half an hour or less and at he rate of her sinking she could be fully under water in that amount of time. I ran home and retrieved my waders and a rope. I don’t like running at the best of times but I have discovered a new horror – running in waders ! This is almost an impossibility, although you try to make all the right running movements, the constriction of the waders holds you back so you make little more speed than brisk walking. You look as ungainly as it is possible to look and the noise of rustling waders is sure make certain that anyone in the vicinity will know to turn and look for a free laugh.

Fortunately when I got back it was still light and I was able to drag her out with the rope. WhatsApp Image 2018-12-29 at 16.31.15She was exhausted after her struggles and cold to the core. She couldn’t bear her own weight though (other than being cold and wet) she had no injuries. Fortunately I spotted  a local passing in a pick-up and managed to get his help. (He was driving slowly after a fit of laughter caused by seeing somebody trying to run while wearing waders). Between us we managed to get the ewe over the wall, into his pick-up and have her taken back to the farmstead to get dry and warm. I’m optimistic she’ll be fine after this. But I am also certain that this won’t be the last time this winter we will be dragging sheep away from their doom; they are drawn to it like moths to the flame. It is the way of things.

On the plus side I always find the week after Christmas a rather flat and sad time. The modern Christmas seems to have lost both its Christian and Pagan roots  and to have become something rather greedy and egotistical. So I welcomed this opportunity to help an animal in distress, and my neighbour, and the happy outcome brightened my day.

 

 

 

Lesson from an old brown hen

Lesson from an old brown hen

Today started dreadfully.  It was cold, but sunny, as I started my rounds to feed and water the animals. When I opened the door to the first henhouse I was stunned with what I saw. A brown hen was in the middle of the floor dead, her head bitten off and near her body. The partial corpses of three small chicks were scattered around the base of the hut more or less eaten completely. The turkeys were cowering in the corner as were some chickens and one solitary chick. Something had got in during the night and taken four of our birds in one attack.

Brownhen
Old Brown Hen

I took this badly as I was very fond of the old brown hen. In human terms she was clearly geriatric and would have been drawing her pension. But she battled on and this year, well after spring had ended, took it upon herself to go broody and hatch out two late chickens. She was an excellent mother to these two, she never left their side and she shepherded them through the day to make sure the turkeys didn’t bully them out of their share of the food. Her surviving chick has looked lonely and scared today as she hangs around the edge of the, now paltry, flock.

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Surviving Offspring

 

This type of attack is usually the result of a weasel and we were troubled by these last winter. Sometimes a fox will do the same pattern of removing the heads but there was no way for a fox to get access into the henhouse. I scoured round the area to find out how this had happened and found, once I moved some chicken droppings, that the wall of the henhouse had bowed. This had created a gap, just big enough to poke my little finger through, but big enough for weasels to gain access.

dav
1 cm gap – enough !

I spent today fixing this gap and checking all the other henhouses for similar problems. As I worked away I remembered the old phrase of locking stable doors after horses had bolted and felt bad that I had missed this and let it happen. We usually loose a proportion of our stock to predation by hawks, foxes and the like. I take it as a fact of life, they need to live also. Though I must say that I find the ways hawks eat their prey alive very cruel, and the way foxes and weasels will slaughter all in a hutch, but eat only a few, very wasteful. But what was making me feel bad about this was that I had missed the gap developing. I should have seen it and fixed it before the weasels found it, I am meant to be the more intelligent animal.

DSC07847
Pretty Boy lacking wives

This evening I have merged this small flock with another. We had one very pretty cockerel I didn’t feel we could send to the pot and he had hardly any wives. He would occasionally make unsuccessful forays into the other cockerels’ areas to try and lure hens away. Here, at least, was a solution to his problem. This evening he is tucked up with the turkeys and some new wives. Over the next few days they will have to spend their day in the hen-run associated with this house (rather than roam free) until we know that they see themselves as a family; as members of a small new flock.

This old hen has also done something very useful. She reminded me of a valuable lesson. Halloween is meant to be the time that we think of death and the departed but this has largely gone to be replaced by a another secular fun day for adults and children alike. A month after Halloween this old hen reminded me, because I felt ashamed,  to think about death. To think that once people have died it is too late to go back and fix things. We should look around and recognise that now is the time to do things, not later on or tomorrow. If I am not careful the regrets I could have in the future could make todays’ sadness seem very minor. There are lots of gaps that need fixing and things which need checking and I shouldn’t wait until a calamity makes me realise this. For this reminder I thank her.

 

Auld Claes an Parritch

Our visitors have left and life has returned to its usual boring pattern. It was great to see the family, and to hear all the news, but it does break all the usual rhythms. It is more than worth it but it is also welcome to turn back to the plainer life again. Although I enjoy eating out and discussing politics into the small hours I can only do it in short bursts so it was pleasant to get back to the normal chores and activities this week.

The winds last week had taken a couple of smaller treesimg_20181120_1132078543333336891314098.jpg down in our upper wood so it was a good time to consider cutting and collecting these. These were quite a distance from the house so I decided that I’d do this the slow manual way with the bow saw as we have a rule that if I’m using the chainsaw there must be somebody else about at the same time. This means if I come to grief there is somebody to call for help. So doing the work manually meant my wife could stay at base and get on with the tasks she’d organised.

      img_20181120_1152154132124722120551776.jpgHowever, I also have ulterior motives for avoiding the chainsaw. If I use the bow saw I feel that I can skip one of my exercise sessions for the day. It is much more fun to be deep in the woods working up a sweat than to be wearing trainers and plodding round the lanes. Further, while working I can listen to a podcast or two (The chainsaw makes it impossible to hear anything) I have gotten a little behind with my listening so it was an opportunity to catch up.

  There is little that can beat working in the woods for physical and mental relaxation. After a few hours of labour it felt as if life was back to normal again. After a period of fancy eating and dressing up it’s very nice to get back to wearing my usual working gear and having our regular simple fare – or to return to  auld claes an parritch as we used to say in Scotland.  
 

Ooh ! Look at the shiny baubles !

Advertisements, especially those on the television, are very revealing. They tell us soemthing about our culture and our psyche. The advertiser that wants us to buy their product will do and say whatever it takes to make their product attractive to us. Advertisers are not fools (usually) and earn a lot of money making sure they know our concerns and our desires.

They know we worry about deforestation and climate change so a frozen food company (Iceland) promotes itself through an advert about the damage caused by palm oil usage. This advert has been even more successful than they might have hoped because it has been banned and consequently gone viralon the internet.

Our views on homosexuality have changed and when couples are shown getting married, or rushing to the maternity ward to have babies delivered, it is almost as likely that they will be a same sex partnership as not.

Our concerns about racist perceptions has meant that most couples in UK adverts, doing normal, common-or-garden, domestic  things, are mixed race.

Advertisers like to position themselves, and their products, on the right side of public opinion for obvious resaons. They portray what they hope is our fantasy of how we  think the world should be rather than reflect how it actually is. They suggest by buying their product the fantasy will slowly become real.

This has a long history of causing problems. The portrayal of luxurious lifestyles and wealth, which was a previously popular strategy, was felt by some to cause resentment and alienation. They managed to increase greed, which was desired as it is a driver to purchase, but also increased envy which is a much more troublesome emotion. In 1957 Vance Packard’s “The Hidden Persuaders & The  Status Seekers”  tried to warn us of the effects of consumerism and the manipulative effects of adverising and the media. I sometimes fear that the biased portrayal of family life, currently shown,  feeds into the populist surges we have seen in Europe as people feel that their lives and cultures are being airbrushed out of sight.

I therefore have an ambivalent attitude to adverts. I can enjoy them when they are well crafted and find them useful when they inform me, but I always keep one eye open for the “hook” ; the lure that will drag you in and subtly alter your opinions without engaging you in debate or thought.

I was sure most of us watched adverts with this filter in place. I was therefore saddened to see this advert on TV for a new iphone. It seems to suggest we have dropped to a very basic and primitive way of thinking.

 

This is an advert for a phone which is  going to cost you about £1000. Notice that the advert tells you nothing about the phone other than it has a big screen. Nothing about its utility, nothing to compare it to other phones, no details on its specifications, nothing at all. Like many recent Apple adverts it is simply a series of shots of the product looking shiny and new, with the backing of some hip music. It seems that we are now willing to pay £1000 for no reason other than that something looks pretty.  Are we really this shallow now ?

Imagine what could be done with that money were it not spent on a shiny bauble. Are really so wealthy as a society that we can spend this amount on a trinket. Both for ourselves and for the sake of others, whether we follow a secular or a religious path, we need to be alert to this change  that consumerism encourages in us. By all means, buy the £1000 phone if all your family and friends are well and happy, if there are none of your neighbours in financial hardships, if the appeals for charitablle donations have stopped (as they are no longer needed), if you see no hardship or poverty in your communities. If there is nothing else better to spend your money on then this shiny bauble might just fit the bill.

How much of our lives could we buy back if we cherished our lives instead of our trinkets?

Gerry Spence

 

How many more cars, clothes, toys and trinkets do we really need before we wake up and realize that half the world goes to bed every night with empty stomachs and naked bodies?

K.P. Yohannan

Coming back home.

No one can say I didn’t try, almost a year I have tried to work with Windows 10 on my desktop machine. This has been, if nothing else, and interesting and valuable experience. In January of this year I decided to re-try windows after quite a considerable period of absence. Windows 10 looked robust and fairly secure and, at the time, there was a good deal for 1TB of cloud storage and Office 365.

Initially I found I was impressed. Windows 10 is the best version of windows I have seen and its security was fairly good. I enjoyed working with Office and particularly liked One-note, which I will miss now that I have left. However, after an initial pleasant surprise the problems started to show themselves again. To do many basic tasks you have to buy proprietary software and I found this a difficult step after years in the open source environment. This software often seemed determined to keep you stuck with it, your data locked into their programmes,  and not at all keen to encourage sharing with other systems.

But, the biggest problem I had, by far, was how opaque the system is. If there is any problem it is difficult to get into the innards of the system and correct it. It seems to actively discourage you from tinkering. While the hand-holding is nice when you have a simple issue it is an impediment when you want to do any real work. This feeling is compounded when you try and search for any solutions to problems. I was used to the linux community and it was shock to find that any query (e.g. find printer driver, how to handle ebooks, etc) lead to one facing a slew of sites trying to sell you services and products. Many of these sites are also very keen to  capture your personal details and seem to be a source for much malware. There is little active help. I was used to finding lots of “howto” articles or forum posts as to how to fix problems. I was also used to getting offers of assistance and help gratis from other users. I discovered that when I used linux I was part of an active cooperating community. When I had problems people would reach out to help rather than reach for your wallet.

The final straw came over the last two months.In October the annual upgrade by windows caused me problems and I lost some data. I had backed up most of my work but I did loose a little. There was quite a while until this upgrade was usable and safe.  Then yesterday Microsoft’s activating servers started to run awry and my machine glibly informed me that my copy of windows was not activated and inauthentic. Microsoft hopes to have these glitches sorted out soon but it hardly inspires confidence. It is further unsettling as there is no escape route from Windows. If Ubuntu gives me problems I can flit sideways to Fedora or Suse with no negative consequence (apart for the loss of some time), with Windows I feel a hostage to Microsoft’s plans.

Therefore, after yesterday’s problems I switched my machine back to Ubuntu. I was pleased to find a simple installation that took less than an hour, needed less than half a dozen mouse clicks on my part, and ran flawlessly. After setting up my cloud services and installing my basic programs (free naturally) I was back to a fully functioning, fast and responsive, system by the end of the evening.

I must admit that I will still miss One-note; while I can use it via the web client this is not full-featured. Also, although I find google drive better than one-drive in how it handles syncing and files (especially photos) I still have reservations on being tied to Google. I worry that Google makes its money through advertising, as opposed to hardware, and therefore is more likely to see my data as an asset for itself than might any other company (for example Microsoft). Google’s actions this last year have also not inspired me that they are still living up to their old motto of “Don’t be evil“, or even their new one of “Do the right thing“, as they have taken some very suspect steps in recent months. So my next step is to explore alternative cloud providers. Now that I am back in the open-source world I want to free myself, and my data,  as much as possible and not be caught up in proprietary chains.

I don’t want to give the impression that Windows 10 was a poor operating system, it is very good in many, many ways but it still falls short compared to a modern linux system for ease of use, speed,  usefulness and  intuitiveness. It also lacks a supportive and helpful community which should have grown up around it. I don’t think I’ll be drawn back.

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Hens and sheep pondering whether autumn has passed and winter is here

 

Away from it all.

Sometimes you only see something when you look at it through someone else’s eyes. We have got very  used to living in the backwoods and generally prefer it to the city life that we previously knew. We know that out entertainment options are different and the cutting edges of fashion tend to be very blunt by the time it makes it to us. But otherwise we feel we live the modern life without some of the irritations of living hugger-mugger in a more densely populated area.

One of the ways we manage to keep up with the twentieth century is to run a small holiday let. This brings in an income which is very valuable for the luxuries we enjoy. The smallholding just about makes us self-sufficient, but with the holiday let we can afford exciting things like telephony and the internet. Our visitors today arrived after very long journeys; one had come from the capital and the other had flown from America. About two hours before their arrival we had started to receive telephone calls from them as they were finding things were not quite as they had anticipated.

As they had flown and taken trains from the major urban centres everything had been fine. They then took the bus, which worked well, which deposited them at the side of the road a few miles from the  farm and three miles from the town. They started to realise that they were not in Kansas anymore. They had no mobile phone reception to make any calls. Even had they phone reception they would have found that they are in an Uber-free and virtually taxi-free area. They had planned to walk to the cottage but had not realized the walk would have been relentlessly uphill and their luggage would not have made the trek.

We had anticipated these problems and had gone to meet them at the bus stop. Their relief was tangible. Their first question was “where are the street lights ?”, they had just found themselves in the complete dark, miles from any houses or signs of habitation. I am used to walking in the dark but I think that they had seen, for the first time, what the dark is actually like. Living in the city you forget what pitch black is like. One of the strangest things I noticed when we moved here occurred when I lay in bed. It was so dark there was no appreciable difference whether I opened or closed my eyes. It was like being blind, there was no light whatsoever.

When we got them to the cottage they inquired about shops to be disappointed that they would now be shut as it was evening. No problem they thought, having wifi, they would be able to order food online. This lead the next discovery – that home deliveries don’t exist in this part of the world and that the one fish and chip shop in the town would be shut already. We had anticipated this in part and had ensured that they had enough basic staples to make a supper, and have a drink, until they found their bearings.

I never really think about these things now. I take it for granted that we don’t have them and I don’t feel that I miss them. I recall that when I lived in the city there were 24 hour supermarkets and I can also remember the feeling of ennui and alienation when I found myself trudging the aisles of these places late at night when I should have been at home in my bed. I now like walking outside in the night. Once your eyes have acclimatized it is amazing what you an see and the whole landscape looks different and slightly alien. Sometimes it is a little scary but it is always interesting. As we live in a dark skies area, if there is no cloud, it is fascinating to look up at the stars which had been hidden to me, by light pollution, when I lived in the city. I have grown used to my new rural life and didn’t see how different it is in many small ways to urban life until I saw it in the saucer-wide eyes of my visitors.

Our visitors want to have a time “away from it all” and I think we are going to be able to offer them that. Hopefully during their stay they will find that all the things that they think are missing are not that essential really. They may even start to think that some of the things they don’t have, such as mobile phone reception, may be a pleasant change. If they do then this may prove to be a very successful holiday. I must thank them for making me realize that I am already “away from it all”

rhdr