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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Whatever you call it – Autumn, Hydref, Herbst, Foghar, or Fall – it’s here!

I tend to agree with the Irish Meteorologial Office and think that Autumn (fómhar) has started. They follow the old gaelic tradition that Autumn is comprised of August, September and October. In Welsh the month of July is named Gorffennaf which is literally the end (gorffen) of summer (haf) and I have lived in Britain long enough to know that November is winter. So, however we dress it up, after July, and before November, is Autumn in my book. This, without any shadow of doubt, is my favourite season, the one which surpasses all the others. Summer is too hot, Winter is too cold and Spring is too busy. Autumn has that perfect mix of an ideal climate and productive nature. This is the season when rural life blossoms. Each village and small town will have its local Show where produce and craft can be displayed. Then, following these, the area’s social life will start to resume after the lull of the summer.

These last weeks have started to feel truly autumnal. The temperatures have dropped, the colours have started to change in IMG_20180816_111531.jpgthe trees and the produce following summer is everywhere. Nowhere is this more obvious than in the hedgerows. Dues to the long hot spell in summer the berries have done much better than usual and we will need to start collecting blackberries (Mwyar Duon). The hedges are heavy with berries and they have started to ripen. If we leave it too late we will lose out to the birds who always know when the berries are ready and get up earlier in the morning than we do.

We will have the grandchildren around to help us making the collection and this year there will be a larger educational component. Because of the hot summer the berries have done well. This also means that the honeysuckle berries are also prolific. The children will need to be taught IMG_20180816_112839.jpghow to tell them apart . Although they are not greatly poisonous, and one would have to eat heroic quantities to come to harm, they are toxic and can cause gastrointestinal upset if eaten. It will be a good lesson to explain that although things may be superficially similar that doesn’t mean they are equally good, or bad.

The blackberries are a welcome free crop and I anticipate a much larger store of jam this year than before. Our other free crop this year came in the form of honey. Our bait-hive attracted awp-1534427766814..jpg swarm of bees and after a relatively short sojourn there we found they had produced a reasonable stock of honey. This honey, though slightly cloudy, is very pleasant in taste and was a very welcome present from our new visitors. It is the season when the shelves in the pantry start filling up, getting ready for the start of winter.

One task that starts again at this time of year is the chipping of the goat yard. During the spring and summer the goats find plenty of material to eat while out browsing in the meadow.  On wet days, that we see during autumn and winter they are not keen on venturing far from the yard and the comfort of their sheds. Unlike sheep, goats do not have lanolin in their wool, and thus are much less tolerant of rainy weather. During this time when I have edging work to do on the fields I cut down the overhanging branches IMG_20180816_125755.jpgand feed them to the goats.  They then strip off every leaf, especially quickly when it is their favourite trees (oak, ash, willow and beech). I then cut the branches into staves or firewood depending on shape and size. The remainder is put through the chipper to create useful animal bedding. The bedding, once it has been mixed with animal urine and faeces and rotted down for a period, is then gradually added to the compost pile. Nothing is wasted if it can be avoided.

One other useful product of this process is the protection of my mental health. You can take all your “stress balls” and relaxation strategies and through them out of the window. If you have something on your mind, something or someone bugging you, or a problem you can’t solve then get out the Earthquake Woodchipper and fire her up. You will now be engulfed in a wall of angry woodchipping noise; if you want to mutter, grumble or swear no-one will hear a word you say. The pleasure there is in throwing branches down the chipper, to hear them splinter into a myriad of chippings, is difficult to describe. You can’t imagine who, and what, I have put through that chipper in my imagination! We are lucky we are still free to think what we like and there are no thought crimes (yet) or I’d be writing this from the computer in the prison library.

Even without its benefits for mental health I’d have to recommend this chipper. Electric chippers and shredders are always too weak and you end up spending more like clearing them than using them. As they say, if it hasn’t got the ability to take your arm off its not strong enough ! You need a petrol engined model. This one uses the four-stroke Briggs and Stratton engine and meets the most vital criterion for petrol driven appliances – it starts on the first pull! It is noisy but you could wear ear-protectors if this was an issue for you. The European version comes with some safety attachments absent on the American model (It is dangerous to put your arm down the cutting chute – who would have guessed?). I guess that Americans are recognised as being able to think unlike we Europeans who need to be protected from such dangerous activities.(*)

As is so often the case in life, the problems of physical and mental health sometimes have their solutions in the world of work and activity. In our steady march towards a world of leisure we might well be marching in the wrong direction.


Sorry about the quality of this video, it hard to work with a camera balanced in the rim of your hat.


 

 

(*) I have worries about these safety modifications. I found that the raised bin in the shredder, and other attachments, made the machine harder to use. Also as you spent time trying to bypass the difficulties caused by these safety additions you started to place yourself in danger while operating the machine. I am not sure that these modifications increase operator safety and fear they may even impair it.

 

 

 

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Milking again.

Milking again.

After a long hiatus we have started milking again this week. Last year we gave our two nannies a break from milking as we felt they deserved a rest. This meant, for the first time for us, we had to arrange to get the them in kid so we could restart the milking process. Thankfully this did not require a lot of skills natural impulses and the billy goat managed all of the basics without any real intervention on our part. This week we have started to wean the kids away from their mother and to restart the daily milking cycle. I had forgotten how important this was to me.

I always feel that milking is like the heartbeat of the farm. Every day, come hell or high water, at the same times we go milking. Every other part of our day is organised around these times. As we only have a few animals we cannot justify the cost  of a milking machine. Therefore all our milking is down by hand and thus it is very rarely that we can go away  for more than 10 hours.  When I worked we were world travellers, crisscrossing the globe for business and pleasure, this is but a dim memory now.  Very infrequently, when we have friend who have been trained how to milk, we venture away for our annual holiday.  For our most recent holiday we went to hotel 8 miles away (just in case we had to get back in an emergency) for “dinner, bed and breakfast” having come across vouchers on the web. I have to say that the holiday was as enjoyable as any we have had and a great deal less stressful.

My favourite is the morning milking. This occurs between 5 and 6 am in the spring and summer, and thankfully a bit later in winter and autumn. At this time of day the world truly is a peace. The only noises are the birds wakening  and the animals calling for their feed. The rest of the world doesn’t seem to have roused and it feels like there is only me and the goats. Very rarely I might catch sight of our neighbour who has cattle on the other side of the valley as he goes on his early morning run to attend to them. It is too peaceful to do anything more than wave and nod.

The morning milking is quite quick. Sitting with your head against the flank of a goat listening to the rhythmic “whoosh whoosh” of the milk as it is pumped into the bucket is very relaxing. Once the milk is safely gathered I need to filter and bottle it. For this part of the procedure I have a daily podcast to keep my attention and I listen to the Bwletin Amaeth which is the short morning farmers’ program that keeps me up to date with agricultural issues and the weather. This is just long enough to keep my attention while I prepare the milk.

The evening milking is done as late as I can so as to try and keep the nanny from feeling overfull the following morning. It is the last task on the farm and I see it as the closing up aspect for the day. After collecting and preparing the milk I do a round of all the animal houses and make a quick head-count of the sheep. It is a reassuring and pleasant feeling to know that everyone is well and  where they are meant to be.

Perhaps the best thing about milking is that it means we are again much more self-reliant. As we always have eggs and milk in the house there is never a pressing reason to go shopping. You can always prepare something to eat no matter  how badly organised you have been. It used to annoy me when, in my previous life, I’d find we had no milk and would then ‘pop out’ to the supermarket which was open 24 hours. I’d go for milk but always come back with a bag of groceries as I’d be tempted by the 2 for 1 offers  or I’d buy the end of date items which always seemed to be a bargain I could not forego. Latterly our supermarket became more of a department store so going out for milk could mean returning with  trousers or a short as well. I should have been able to go and spend £1 but invariably I was gullible and came back spending over £10.

Goat’s milk is very versatile and can be used in many recipes but I feel the best thing to use if for (other than as milk) is to make yoghurt. There are few recipes as healthy as that for  natural yoghurt. The ingredients are :-

  • milk

and that’s it. I don’t understand why more people don’t make their own. All that is required is to bring the milk up to 195F (the temperature that it starts to boil) and stir it for a few moments. Then let it cool down to 110F, when it feels hot rather than tepid, and stir in a tablespoon of your last batch of yoghurt. Leave it somewhere warm overnight and voila  you have yoghurt. I leave it in the bottom of the oven after it has been used and is still warm but switched off. Once it is ready transfer it to the fridge. It is possible to add sugars and flavours but natural goats milk yoghurt really doesn’t benefit from this.

The only downside of milking that I can currently see is that I now have two young billy goats I don’t need. We’ll see if anyone else has a desire for them,  but if not I have plans that mean will need to start working in earnest next week.

 

 

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Far too many Y chromosomes in this picture

 

 

Goat Willow

Goat Willow

I find it very difficult to express the differences that have occurred in my life over the last five years but this pick-up full of goat willow might help. It might not be obvious on first glance but bear with me.

About a decade ago I experienced a crisis of faith. I had progressed well in life. I had a well paid job as a consultant in the NHS, I had fairly good health (or so I thought), my children were grown and doing well for themselves, my marriage was sound and I had no debt. I enjoyed regular holidays and gained pleasure from the status of my work. I was a technophile and the Koreans could not invent gadgets and novelties quick enough for me and, fortunately, living in the centre of the town I could shop at any hour of the day or night. No appetite needed to wait to be sated.

However, despite this I found that I was often unhappy, frequently disgruntled and usually felt aimless and bored. I thought that my relative affluence was part of the problem as was the inauthentic nature of my life. I lived most things though the eyes of others. I had realised that many of the moral and political views I had were incorrect and unhelpful. I decided that I need to change; so I left my post, headed out of the town, and sought a new life. I often think it has worked and my current happiness seems to support me in that belief. However, it was my neighbour’s goat willow that let me know how much life had changed.Untitled picture

My neighbour has a great deal of what she calls pussy willow (salix caprea), but which is also known as goat willow. It has the latter name because in Heironymous Bock’s herbal it is shown in a drawing being eaten by goats, and I can confirm that goats are very partial to it.  Now my neighbour needed to clear her garden and saw the goat willow as garden waste destined for the bonfire. When she told me I felt my spirits jump.

With the very poor summer, with little sun and very few dry spells, we have not been able to take a crop of hay. As a small scale enterprise we can not use silage and big bales of hay, we require to  make small bales of hay by hand.  This has left us short of goat food and sheep food for the winter ahead, so the idea of all this forage going free was exciting. I was round within minutes to collect it and get it back to the goats. They, in turn, picked off every leaf of the first batch at their first sitting leaving me shafts which I can dry over the next year or two to create kindling (Willow needs seasoned for a long time before it burns satisfactorily). I was feeling very pleased with my discovery thinking, I’ve saved my neighbour work, reduced waste, fed the goats, saved some of our hay for the sheep and started to provide fuel for 2019.

Not a leaf left
Not a leaf left

Then it struck me. Five years ago I could never experienced such pleasure from such a simple days work. At that time, I would have been trying to convince myself I was happy while  unpacking a gadget I had bought following yet another shopping excursion.  I would have been trying to convince myself that the increased speed or memory size the thing had would improve my life, but would still be vaguely aware that it was simply another gewgaw that I’d replace with a newer version next year. Now finding simple pleasures in simple activities lets me lead a freer, more settled, life. It has allowed my appetites to shrink to more normal levels so that now I can gain as much pleasure from finding a supply of edible leaves as I did before at much greater expense. This may have been the insight that William Morris had when he wrote “Free men must live simple lives and have simple pleasures