I have hardly engaged with the broader outside world at all this week. I have hardly read a newspaper, watched a political show nor debates politics to any great degree. Indeed, apart from the annoyance of occasional tweets on my phone, I was out of the loop most of this time. Therefore, I have no erudite comments on the state of the world which, I imagine, is much as I left it last week.
The reason for this was very simple; I had too much to do in the real world on my doorstep. The first rush came because we had an unexpected dry spell and some unanticipated hot days. Our neighbours have a meadow, which we graze over the winter, and they thought this would be a good time to take a crop of hay from it.
After a quick cut, we then had three days of repeated turning by hand, before we gathered it in. We were working against the clock as there were thunderstorms and heavy rain predicted for the fourth day. For the gathering we used the pick-up, rather than our usual system with tarpaulins, as the field is a bit of a distance from our hay barn. Friends had arranged to visit us some time back, and they arrived in the middle of the work. I felt rather guilty that they were dragooned into the labour, but they reassured me that they enjoyed the experience. The meadow did prove to be productive giving us about 5 small bales of good value hay.
No sooner than had we finished this work than opportunity to have the assistance of an experienced forester to fell some of our trees came available. We have Ash-Dieback (a fungal disease) in a number of trees in our woods and need to fell these. One ash, about which we were uncertain if it had dieback disease, we found to be hollowed out for the bottom third of its length. Definite evidence of dieback and it would not have stood for another winter!
While I will happily fell smaller, straight-forward trees, some of these were large and complicated and beyond the level at which I can safely work. We also had a large fir tree which had become overgrown and bifurcated and was dangerously close to the house. This one was rather reluctant to fall and needed quite a bit if nudging by the wedges which you can hear being driven home in the video below.
I fear that this video does not give a good impression of the size of this tree and people might think that I am a wimp because I didn’t fell it unaided. Having heard of so many deaths and injuries locally due overconfidence, and people tackling unwise timber jobs, that I don’t really mind being considered a wimp. Forestry is the most dangerous occupation; you are safer as a soldier carrying a gun than as a forester with a chainsaw.
I may be a wimp, but I am an alive wimp and a wimp with my quota of all 4 limbs. Also, in my defence, it was a fairly large fir tree if you look at it from this angle :-
I can remember often uttering phrases such as “from what I can glean” or “I glean that the management had plans to close the unit“. All these times I spoke about gleaning I never actually did any gleaning, and was unaware of the origins of the verb, until recently. Today, however, I, and my wife, were mainly occupied in gleaning.
Gleaning is the action of collecting leftover crops from fields when either the form of collection, e.g. mechanization, or the quality of residual produce, make it uneconomic to collect 100% of the harvest.
Today we gleaned our neighbour’s field for some hay. His cutters and balers do not work into every corner of the field and there is plenty of good quality hay which goes to waste because it can not be gathered mechanically. When we collect it by hand we save on our feed bills for the goats and our neighbour benefits, marginally, by having a tidier field. By gleaning after the main harvest we increase the productivity of the field to closer to its maximum.
The practice of gleaning has a long history and is discussed in the Hebrew Bible where it was seen a right for the poor – only the poor were allowed to glean, not the rich landowner, when the crop was taken the remainder was to be left for the gleaners. It was in 1788 that the right to glean in England was removed (to secure property rights), prior to this often a church bell would toll morning and night to let the poor of a village know when it was right to glean the harvested fields.
As it increases the efficiency of the harvest by reducing waste we need to promote gleaning but it need not be as physically demanding as our day raking the loose hay in the fields. The developing action of giving unsold food in supermarkets to the poor is a modern form of gleaning, as are the trends to gather and use the “ugly” fruit and vegetables that can’t be sold in the normal trade. At its extreme “dumpster foraging” is a form of gleaning as it saves some of the harvest from being lost.
It is shameful that we waste up to 40% of the food we harvest. We need to try to tackle this problem. In America the Society of Saint Andrew is the largest gleaning organization, here in the UK it is The Gleaning Network. Excuse the dreadful pun, but I’d urge you to try and glean as much information as you can about this and see if there are opportunities for you to take part in this activity.
When you reap your harvest in your field and forget a sheaf in the field, you shall not go back to get it; it shall be left for the alien, the orphan, and the widow, so that the LORD your God may bless you in all your undertakings. Deuteronomy 24:19
We have just finished making hay. This is perhaps the busiest time of year for us and is certainly the most laborious task we have. We must spend three to four days in the fields cutting, turning and moving hay under a scorching sun – if there isn’t the heat the whole process is rather pointless. The power scythe largely held up after its repair though it did lose a few teeth on stones in the field which has left the main slope looking as if it is wearing a Mohican haircut.
We did manage to get all the hay in although we had a delay of a day because of an unexpected cloudy day which brought some showers. We kept the hay in wind rushes in the field during this day and resumed the turning and drying the following day. Although we feel we are not using much modern technology, and think our work looks like something a medieval peasant would recognize, during the rainy day I realized just how reliant we still are on modern technological developments.
We require at least three consecutive sunny, hot and preferably breezy days to make hay. Modern farms who take a lot of sillage can wrap the produce up in huge, black, polythene bales and allow anaerobic digestion get to work. The rain doesn’t worry them as much. We can’t do this and need to be able to predict the weather over the next few days. I just don’t have the skills for this, despite knowing many of the old rhymes which are meant to help, and rely on AccuWeather or the Norwegian meteorological site (yr.no) which is unnervingly accurate in our patch of North Wales. It is my opinion that our ability to make our own hay reliably, and hence feed our stock over the winter, without this aid would be severely compromised. I am going to have to look and see if there is any way I can learn some of these old skills and see if we can become a bit more self-reliant and independent.
In any event, we are still pretty primitive and manual in our hay making and by the last night I was dog tired and wanted to do nothing more than to eat some hearty but unhealthy food and sit and ache and throb in front of an undemanding film. The film channel that runs nostalgic material seemed a good bet and it was showing “The L-Shaped Room“. To tell the truth a number of British films from this decade blur into one in my memory. They all become a black-and-white, rags and riches, melodramatic morality tales. I knew this was not “Saturday Night, Sunday Morning” but half-remembered it as “Room at the Top“.
‘Room at the Top’ is a wonderful film and I initially thought I was going to be disappointed when I realized, after a few minutes, I was not going to watch a working-class anti-hero, fighting for power and philandering with an older woman. Instead I was settling down to watch the sad tale of a single French girl living in poverty in the seedier area of London and coming to terms with an unplanned pregnancy. I was thankfully very wrong. “The L- Shaped Room” is also a wonderful film. It too has excellent acting and in particular Leslie Carron shines and carries this film throughout; although it has to be said that all the actors warrant praise. The script is accurate and the moral and practical dilemmas facing the characters are well explored. All human life is here, the unmarried pregnant woman, the jobless men, the black immigrant, the old and lonely lesbian lady, the prostitutes working at the bottom of the house, the failed writer, they all play their parts. But interestingly they are not stereotypes, they are not there to be pitied as victims, but rather they are there to remind us that we all human and all have something to offer.
Though sad and downbeat in the main the thread which ties the film together is the ability of people to make connections with each other. These can be connections we would never anticipate, but they form the mesh which supports us in our day to day lives. Friendship, love and affection come from all sorts of people and when it is honest and true its source does not matter. I can not say much more about the film without risking giving away the ending (if it has an ending!) and can only say that it is a warm and enveloping film which you should consider watching if you have not already seen it. In theme and feeling it is akin to “Midnight Cowboy”, this might not seem likely but if you watch both you will understand what I mean.
Over the last few days I started to get ready to be able to take a crop of hay. The last time we did this we had major problems – when we were on the last small field the power scythe blade appeared to jam and stop working. We tried, with limited success, to get the remainder of the field by hand but this really didn’t work and I needed the power scythe working before the end of the month. The grass has been growing well and looks like a fair crop, we have to be ready should there be a dry sunny period long enough to do the work.
The power scythe is an implement which attaches to the front of our two wheeled Goldoni tractor. It is quite expensive so buying a new one is not a prospect I wanted to consider. The companies who sell these machines are keen to sell the kit but, I discovered, much less keen to get involved in repairs so it was down to me to get it working again. I had the instruction manual so what could go wrong ?
Firstly, the manual itself could throw an obstacle in my path. These machines are made in Italy (the small farms and olive groves make two-wheeled tractors popular there) and the manuals likewise. Thus my manual was written in Italian which made the first step an attempt to decode the booklet. It had few diagrams or schematics to ensure that there were no unnecessary visual clues.
Over two days I, with the help of a neighbour, stripped the machine down to all its constituent parts. We inspected and cleaned every piece and then reassembled the machine checking all the settings with feeler gauges to the millimeter. With new grease and oil the machine moved smoothly with no jamming or hesitation. We hooked it up to the tractor and proudly set forth into the field for a celebratory and confirmatory cut of some long grass. It cut smoothly and effortlessly through the sward for about a yard then jerked and the sickle blade seemed to seize. No further cutting was possible. No amount of rocking, shaking, cajoling or threatening, coaxed even an inch of movement from the machine’s teeth.
Back in the barn we disassembled the blade to see where we had gone wrong. This is not a fun job. The piece weighs about 80kg, is oily and slippery and has two rows of menacingly sharp iron teeth. I have seem those teeth slice effortlessly slice though the legs of an iron park bench – it is no fun to handle! After having looked everywhere there was no sign of any jam. No sign of anything that could block the transit of the blades. The problem had to lie in the connection between the power unit and the appliance but we had checked this twice. In additon we had checked with two other appliances to be doubly sure that the transmission linkage worked properly.
While we had the machine upside down we noticed a small hole and wondered what is that for. Peering in we could see nothing of note, just black think molybdenum grease. Five minutes later, after poking our fingers down the shaft and pulling out all the grease we could, we were able to see a small circlip around the drive shaft. As we rotated the drive shaft we saw that this was held in place by a small set screw – a small grub screwabout 3mm across with a hexagonal allan key head. We checked and this grub screw was loose so we tightened it up.
We realized that when slack this grub screw would not stop the driving spline from being pushed back just far enough to allow the connection between the power unit and the scythe to be lost – the two connecting faces would no longer be sufficiently close to carry the power down to the blade and instead they would just bump over each other. After tightening up the screw we powered up and returned to the field where the unit ran perfectly. We cut grass, tried on an area of brambles, and pushed over rocky ground and through dense scrub – it didn’t waver. It just ploughed on cutting as it went, it was well and truly fixed.
This episode taught me a two lessons. Firstly, be careful no to jump to conclusions. Had we spent more time at the beginning thinking about the problem we might have realized the problem lay further back in the chain from power unit to cutting blade. We might have saved ourselves a lot of work. However, I am glad I have dismantled and serviced the machine, it needed it anyway, and I feel much better knowing exactly how it is made and how it works. Even when we did realize the problem was to do with the power take off it would have taken us a while to find this small screw that appears no where in the manual.
The second lesson is perhaps more important. I often wonder if there is any point in trying to be green in my daily life as I try to reuse and recycle. I wonder if my attempts to reduce my consumption make any great difference. What does my level of consumption matter in the greater scale of things. On a wider basis I wonder if it makes any point that I, as a fairly insignificant and powerless individual, try to do my bit for a better society – can one person make a difference ?
This little grub screw was only about 0.0001% of the metal parts of the mowing machinery; of the parts it clearly was the “least of these“. Hidden down a shaft in the bowels of the machine, in the dark, covered in oil and grease this little screw had slackened off, stopped doing its job, and the whole hay making project shuddered to a halt. In the interconnected system it lived within it was as valuable as any other. And so it is with all of us. We might often feel small and powerless in comparison to our rulers, or the celebrities we see daily, but we all play our part and it may be our part which proves to be the vital step in how things change.
Over the last few days I read Ralph Waldo Emmerson’s essay “Self Reliance“. I was attracted to it by its title and also because, I am ashamed to say, I had never read any of his work. Although I enjoyed it greatly I have reservations about recommending this book to others as I must confess that it is now rather dated. The language to the modern reader is rather inaccessible and many aspects of the vocabulary seem rather archaic. This having been said, I still think that the essay is worthy of your time and effort.
It may seem a little counter-intuitive but I have found that reading classic works like this on an e-reading platform, such as the kindle, is very valuable. It may, at first, seem unusual to suggest using our modern gadgets to access the literature of the ancients but there are two reasons I would recommend this.
Firstly, many of these classics are no longer hampered by copyright issues and are therefore available either freely or at very low prices. While there are relatively cheap editions of the classics available in the traditional paper format (Dover Thrift Editions for example) but there is still an upfront cost however modest. This can be off-putting when taking a chance on literature which may prove dated and difficult to read. E-books of the classics are usually available free of charge and this makes it much easier to take the chance and try something we might otherwise have missed. (The Project Gutenberg site is an excellent place to start looking for the classics, in a variety of e-book formats, epub, kindle, html and plain text.) In this manner, there is a whole world of literature and thought available to us at very little expense. These works have already been filtered and selected as they have stood the test of time : these are the works which were not fickle, nor were they unimportant, and the works which still talk to us and our predicaments thousands of years after they were written.
Secondly, I have found that when I tackle these books I am much less cultured than were the original readers of these books. Though I consider myself well educated and fairly knowledgeable it is clear that a wider, better awareness of The Classics was presumed by these writers. Indeed, it was previously felt that a study of the classics, and the humanities, was one of the cornerstones of a well rounded education. I do not have this so many references are lost on me. For example, Emmerson bemoans that he has “no Lethe” to help him in this essay. This reference, like many others, initially meant nothing to me until, with the help of wikipedia on the e-reader, I discovered that the Lethe was the river of forgetfulness and oblivion which flowed in Hades. With this knowledge everything made sense.
Though I was drawn to this essay by its title; this is an essay on personal, mental or spiritual self-reliance, not self-reliance in the quotidian, material sense. This is an essay promoting individualism and self-reliance of the soul. In this he urges us to be true to our own thoughts and opinions, not to be shackled by unnecessary attempts to be consistent :-
A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds, adored by little statesmen and philosophers and divines. With consistency a great soul has simply nothing to do. He may as well concern himself with his shadow on the wall. Speak what you think now in hard words, and to-morrow speak what to-morrow thinks in hard words again, though it contradict every thing you said to-day. “Ah, so you shall be sure to be misunderstood.” Is it so bad, then, to be misunderstood? .. .. To be great is to be misunderstood.
He reminds us that institutions are the consequence of individual’s thoughts :-
An institution is the lengthened shadow of one man; as, Monachism, of the Hermit Antony; the Reformation, of Luther; Quakerism, of Fox; Methodism, of Wesley; Abolition, of Clarkson.
and that change likewise starts with the individual :-
Every revolution was first a thought in one man’s mind, and when the same thought occurs to another man, it is the key to that era. Every reform was once a private opinion, and when it shall be a private opinion again, it will solve the problem of the age.
He is clearly of the opinion that discontentment and unhappiness arise from failures in self-reliance and dishonesty with oneself. It is an interesting essay which, I’d venture, gives a useful other strand to aiming for autarky or self-sufficiency – a valuable mental self reliance which helps when one has to cope with adversity or hardship. Those looking for advice on how to be more self-contained and resilient will find much of value in this short essay.
Returning the more prosaic aspects of self-reliance; I found that I needed to deal with some poor hedges and trees this winter. These were heavy with ivy and I needed to co-opt the goats into the job. At this time of year there is little greenery for the sheep and goats to browse and they are therefore very grateful to see the leaves of the holly, ivy and brambles. I find when clearing ivy it is useful to let the goats at it first. They strip every green leaf and make the movement of the branches much lighter and easier. Also, at this time of year, it is useful winter fodder and saves on out hay usage (both for the goats and sheep). In this way we make a crop out of weed.
The Billy goat and nannies also provide pleasant company during what is an annoying job. I like to see them eating and enjoy knowing that I have saved some hay rations (especially as we had a poor hay harvest this year). I feel rather guilty that we don’t make more use of the ivy wood as it feels wasteful to throw it away. It does not burn green and is quite difficult to stack , because of the differing shapes, to dry well enough to make kindling. It also seems to take an age to dry properly.
I have looked for other uses for it but have had relatively little success. One option seems to be to make wreaths of ivy. According to folklore wearing wreaths of ivy protects against the effects of alcohol. This is the reason Bacchus, the Roman god of inebriation, wore ivy wreaths to prevent him getting drunk. Sprigs of ivy can also help with marital fidelity, hence ivy is often included in wedding bouquets. Unfortunately, neither of these two uses will consume the amount of wood that I have to deal with and now that Hogmanay is passed I have little need for either. So I remain on the lookout for other, probably more productive, uses for Hedera Helix wood though I think I will cut a very dashing impression next time I am in the pub.
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.
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.
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”
I think that Autumn is my favourite season; the hard work of summer is over, the fruits of the spring are ready to be collected and the harshness of winter is still a while away. This is particularly so this year, after what has been a disappointing summer. Mostly warm and wet, it has caused us problems with the sheep and meant we have been unable to take hay. Twice we have had sheep who have had fly strike. Though they have survived, by dint of debridement and Stockholm tar, this was a terrible experience for both them and us. And, barring a miraculous Indian summer (or Haf bach Mihangel as we say around here) in October we will have to buy hay this winter. So, I am keen to see October arrive and know that the damned flies, and risk of fly strike, will soon be gone.
However, perhaps the main reason for enjoying this season is because it is the time you can enjoy the fruits of your labours and sometimes fruits without any labour at all. This time of the year we usually get a good crop of chantrelle mushrooms in the wood and this year has been no exception. They provided us with a few meals which required nothing more than what we can make on our own plot of land. My favourite was the chantrelle soup the recipe for which is below. This is a luxurious soup, warm, smooth and filling and better than any mass produced soup you may buy. Wonderful when its cost is measured in pennies !
Large bag of chantrelle mushrooms
3 Cloves of garlic
Pint Chicken stock
3 tablespoons of butter
Soften the onions and garlic by frying gently for 5 minutes in the butter. Add the mushrooms and continue to fry gently for a further 8 minutes. Add the flour and mix to a smooth consistency. Add the milk and stock and simmer for 20 minutes. Salt and pepper to taste.