Saturday, January 21, 2017

Engineering and other girl hobbies

 A woman's place is playing with the Erector Set...

 ...or learning photography.

It's the middle of winter and a slow news day on the farm, thankfully. Elsewhere in the country, millions of women are out to protest the advent of a presidential administration seemingly hostile to them, as well as immigrants and people of color, all told more than two thirds of the people, so we know how this is going to end. You can't alienate that many in a democracy.

We applaud the marcher's actions, and are very happy to see them out there, far more of them in fact than attended the miserably divisive inauguration of said administration.

But we decided to concern ourselves with domestic events instead today.

Not that we had a choice. We have a toddler, and life with a toddler is not conducive to travel and protest, unless it's the kind of protest you get from a toddler.

So we swept the house and did the dishes, did the shopping and went to gymnastics class, bought in the firewood and changed the sheeps' water. While the speakers were speaking, we listened to the feed, but when the marchers were marching, we took a nap.

It's the end of the first week of the semester, and we were so tired from teaching other people's grown offspring on Friday night that it was hard to handle our own child. This may be the disadvantage of the college life, especially at a small friendly college like ours. We put our hearts and souls into our work, and sometimes, if we're not careful, there's not enough left. But we all got a good night's sleep, and today's nap helped.

Monday we'll be back at it.

Freedom depends on teachers. People have to think for themselves if they're to be truly free, and you don't learn to do that without books and ideas and teachers to help you understand them.

Saturday, December 31, 2016

Heavy wet snow






Arriving back from Christmas with family in Virginia late on Thursday morning, having left a day early because of the forecast, we had a couple hours to spare before the snow storm hit. It snowed for a few hours then rained, then snowed again. Then at 3am Friday morning, the power went out.

This combination of rain and snow was hard to shift, whether by Rover, tractor, or hand. But despite the block heater having stopped with the power supply, the Rover did start, as did the tractor. It took about four hours to make our dooryard and turning circle safe for civilization.

Then we ran the genny and waited for the power to come back on, making frequent excursions up the hill in the direction of the golf course, where the three phase distribution line for the entire town was down on the side of the road.

We wanted to know when the trucks came to fix it. It isn't much fun to leave a loud genny running outside your house all night, so we preferred not to do that, but when you have a toddler, you need to make different arrangements for sleeping when the power is off and you have no noise maker, baby monitor, or nursery heater. We were hoping the power would come back on before all this had to happen.

In the end, the power stayed out even after the downed line was fixed, there being some other fault closer to us, so we put her to bed with extra blankets, left her door open to get the heat of the wood stove, brought the dogs into the living room and locked them behind the baby gate so they wouldn't go into her room, and made sure to stoke the fire in the middle of the night. She slept fine all night without a noise maker.

It was during the excursion to stoke the fire that I realized it was getting too cold out there for propane. Our genny runs on twenty-pound bottles of propane, and doesn't like the cold at all. Even in moderately cool temperatures around freezing, it wants starter fluid. Propane boils at -43 F, but it doesn't boil easily as well as it does at higher temperatures, when it essentially flashes from liquid to gas as soon as the pressure is relieved. It was 15 F outside already.

So, after some thumping and struggling at 2am, things going bump in the night, the genny spent the rest of the night in the kitchen. It did occur to me to turn off its propane for safety's sake. It started easy this morning.

Now we hope to see some linesmen soon. Much of Maine has been without power, about a quarter of the state, and we are obviously in better shape than most, but it would be a relief to shut off that noisy genny, and, at only 3,500 watts, there are some things it just can't run or doesn't much like to run, including the electrical heating and the sheep's water heater.

Friday, December 16, 2016

End times

Don't worry. I just mean the semester.

Although we have relatives who are waiting it out for the real thing.

Me, I'm glad of an easy day today, just one exam and pick up some grading and home for the weekend with my kid. Classes ended Tuesday.

Today, we're hunkered down. The weather outside is frightful, very cold and a nasty north wind, one of those Yorkshire "lazy" winds, the kind that's too lazy to go around you. We have six baby chicks under a heat lamp in the barn with their mommy hen, and they are doing OK, but it would be good for all concerned if the wind dropped a bit. It seems to be doing so, but you never know. As night falls, and a storm coming in tomorrow, it could easily start up again.

Edana is snoozing nicely in the nursery. She kept waking up last night. The wind caused multiple short power cuts that continually reset her digital noisemaker, switching it from "rain" to "heartbeat", which wakes her up. If it doesn't, the heater resets too, and that always wakes her up. She doesn't much like the cold and without her heater that room is drafty.

Anyway, we had hot milk and a story at midnight or thereabouts, and then she slept for a bit, then the power went out again and she woke again. All in all she woke four times. The last time she didn't really get into it, and the heater was still on, so we left her and she went down again of her own accord. So now she's catching up. I caught up some too. It was good to nap.

Here in our winterwonderland, we've broken out the Roverplow once and look to do it again tomorrow. The pipes in the bathroom have frozen briefly twice, the result of too much cold but, paradoxically, not enough snow to seal the perimeter of the house from the wind. There's plastic "banking" in place, but the snow weighs it down and adds insulation.

I set a heat lamp on the pipes and left the bathtub tap to run. It's supposed to be 40F Sunday, classic La Nina Maine weather. We can leave the tap run until then.

Other than the lack of snow on our banking, we're ready for winter. All the cars are sorted with snow tires and all repairs done, the oil tank is filled, and the new wood stove is running very well. We have a nice Christmas tree, which Edana loves, and our Christmas cards are arriving, much to her delight. She loves to tear them open and hang them up on the string in the living room. "My card," she croons in delight, in total ignorance of whoever sent it.

Late last month I finally cracked the fault diagnosis on the VW, which had eluded me all fall. I pulled the engine again and stripped it down to the case again, looking for a fault. If I had a hundred dollars for every time I've stripped that old engine down like this, I'd be a rich man.

I found I'd left out the head gaskets. In the VW engine, these are just tiny aluminum circles that sit between each cylinder and the cylinder heads. Older motors don't have them. I originally rebuilt that engine last winter, and was rushed and not working in the best of conditions, and must have left them out accidentally. At least, that's my excuse. I have no memory of doing so, but the proof of the pudding was right there in front of my eyes. With the gaskets in, and a tune up, the engine starts and runs easy now.

Before that, late October or early November, I'd been working on the seized brakes, and eventually traced the difficulty to a brand new Brazilian VW master cylinder. Apparently a bad batch of these had made it onto the American parts chain, all with over-zealous check valves. I bought a new German unit, fitted it, and the difficulty went away. Then I still had trouble bleeding it, until Henry Thompson noticed the bleed valve was at the bottom of the caliper on the left side. They're supposed to be universal, but to be so, they need two bleed valves, not one. I switched out that caliper for one with two bleed valves that I'd had lying around since early attempts to diagnose the stuck brakes, and all as well.

It's a good thing that all this work delayed the serviceability of the VW, because if it had been usable earlier, it would have been sold, and I really don't want to sell it. In September we had to pay $4,500 for our new trailer and that set me back a bit, using up my savings. I had planned to sell the VW to pay some bills and rebuild our savings, but we're so close to tax refund time, I won't need to do that now. Besides, it has no heat so no-one will buy it in the winter.

So I can keep my lovely old bus after all. I have too many happy memories of this bus, and would really like to take my kid fishing or camping in it one day.

After all, we do live in Maine, and it is nice here at least six months of the year.

Just not these ones.

Monday, October 31, 2016

The Rover's Return


Fall is coming slowly to an end. It really is our longest season here in Maine, starting in August when the leaves of swamp maples first begin to show color, and ending in late November or even December with the first nor'easter that falls and stays. That's nearly five months, some years. Spring is long too, from mud season in late March or early April to the first hot, humid weather in late June, but that's only about two to three months. High summer, with all the heat and heavy humidity, is usually less than two months, and sometimes less than one. I personally measure summer by the presence or absence of fireflies after dark. Winter can be very long here, though, depending on when that first lasting snowfall occurs.

For which we're grateful. It keeps the riffraff away. But, considering that winter in Maine means snow, and lots of it, you have to have everything ready, or you'll be caught short.

I didn't mention either road repair or blackfly season, both of which overlap these other, more formal seasons, and both of which can hinder your movements more than the weather does, except, perhaps, for snow.

And then there's hunting season, the cusp of which is Maine's month-long rifle season for whitetail deer, now upon us.

The leaves are almost completely gone from all the trees except a few beeches, birches, alders, and tamarack. The tomato plants are black from frost, although there are still edible berries on some, trying desperately to ripen. I picked the last of the eggplant, tiny little things that Aimee says will be bitter, and a couple of blue Hubbard squash. I thought I'd make ratatouille with the eggplant.

We take nice walks with the dogs, but now we have to worry about deer hunters. Since our road is a dead end, and because the dogs bark whenever a truck comes, it's usually easy to know when there's a hunter in our woods. It is possible, although not likely, for a particularly motivated hunter to come in from the other side of the woods, nearly two miles away on the Bog or Village roads, but no-one ever does. Hunters are not usually that athletic. But even so, we all wear orange, including the dogs, and don't stray from the gravel roads as we might have done earlier.


Edana doesn't know much about hunter safety, so she's unaware of the reason she has to wear a bright orange vest. But she likes pumpkins and apples and the apple juice we get from the orchard, and enjoyed her first Hallow'een last night at the village library, so fall is a hit.

I've been reminding her that it will snow one day soon to prepare her mentally. She probably will be happy, not sad, to see the fluffy white snow, even if it will restrict her movements further. She likes to watch kids sledding on TV, and her favorite book is "The Snowy Day".


With the advent of the white stuff in mind, though, I have as always been working down a long to-do list of pre-winter chores, now nearing completion. This process has been slower than usual because the only time I have to do this work now I have a kid is four or five hours on Saturday morning, when Aimee takes Roo first to swim class and then to do the week's shopping.

Time and money, money and time. The hardest job to get done was the Land Rover's muffler, not so much because it was hard mechanically, but because our finances were strained by the purchase of the trailer and the annual property tax bill. I had to wait nearly two months before I could afford the replacement. But it's done, and, after the usual two hours messing with annoyingly intermittent defunct lights and horn, the Rover is over at the local repair shop, ready for inspection, with two Camry wheels and snow tires for fitting in the back to boot. Afterwards, I'll take her to the local short stop and top off the gas for the winter. When it's back we'll fit the snow plow.

There's still a little fence to take down, as well as the greenhouse frame to fix, and the trailer to winterize (a new chore, that I have to teach myself to do), but these amount to less than two hour's work for next Saturday, and once the Rover Returns (slight "Coronation Street" pun there for you British readers!) and the plow is fitted, it can snow if it wants to.

We're ready.

Monday, October 10, 2016

Leaf peepers






Aimee planned a leaf-viewing picnic -- on a train. This is the Belfast and Moosehead Lake Railroad, a volunteer-run local railway heritage preservation organization that offers rail tours a few times a year.

Edana, who has read about trains in books and seen them on TV and possibly from afar, was very excited to go on the train. She got so worked up that she became upset when we stopped to quickly pick up some groceries, and I had to placate her with a story or two while mommy did the shopping. But eventually the great moment arrived and our kid got to go on a train.

The day was gloomy and not the best of days for leaf-peepin', as Mainers say, but the train was full. There was one particularly loud extended Indian family with several kids, all speaking Hindi ten-to-the-dozen. This reminded me of Sheffield, of course, and even made me a little homesick, but I'm not sure the very middle class American retirees sat next to them enjoyed the spectacle quite as much.

The train rocked and rolled a few miles down the tracks. Being used to British trains, I was surprised at how much our coach car, a former Amtrak stalwart, rocked from side to side. I was glad that we didn't pick up speed. I expect it would have derailed.

We've considered using the train to get to Aimee's folks in VA, and indeed, we could go all the way from Portland to Staunton, VA, twenty miles from H-burg, on the train, but my experiences with Amtrak have not been that positive. I expect we'd get delayed, and then we'd be on a train with a kid and a bunch of luggage for two or three days. At least in a car you can go to a motel and rest.

Anyway, our picnic was very successful and our kid was very happy with her train ride.

In other news, the kitchen range has now been replaced with a fancy new one. I've dismantled the old one and determined the fault, a failed oven igniter unit, but the repair part may be more expensive than the value of the range, which has rusty feet from Mary-dog's unfortunate habit, when she grew geriatric, of piddling on the floor next to the stove.


Tuesday, October 4, 2016

Pork load






Here's the fruit of at least some of our labors. Three pigs, properly butchered, await delivery to various freezers belonging to Unity College faculty. Total hanging weight was 539 pounds. Average per pig 179 pounds. Spot on the 180 pound target.

And what a lot of very good food!

Saturday, September 24, 2016

Skunking around and other annoyances

There are several domestic annoyances happening right now, but the gravest is the skunk that has taken up residence in our barn. This is a mature female and incredibly tame, to the point were a person can come within a couple feet of her and she won't spray. She's nocturnal, of course, and if it wasn't for the fact that we put the chickens "to bed" in their coop late each evening, and that I feed them and the rest of the animals at four or five am, we probably wouldn't have noticed her. All the same, she's an annoyance, because sooner or later one or the other of our dogs will take too friendly an interest in her and get sprayed.

I borrowed a .22 rifle from our neighbors, all of our firearms being way too big to use on a skunk inside a building, and have had a couple of chances, but not the clear shot that I need to take care of her without her spraying. I also borrowed a live trap, but twice now she's taken the bait without springing the trap.

Next on the list in terms of importance is the well. There's been a great drought in Maine this summer, and all the rivers and ponds are lower than anyone can remember, while the leaves on the trees, especially the ash trees, are all crisp and brown long before they're due to fall.

Accordingly, our well is sucking air. Not all the time, but whenever we accidentally use too much water. The limit seems to be somewhere between 100 and 200 gallons. We can guess this from the time it takes running the water hose before the well sucks air and loses pressure. Thursday last, the well sucked air in the morning before work because I was watering the sheep while Aimee was doing laundry. Edana got into a fuss because of a big mess she made in her diaper. I was distracted and left the hose on about twice as long as was needed to fill the water tub, which probably takes around 50 gallons to fill (hence we know that we have only 100-200 gallons in the well). The well started sucking air, and didn't recover full pressure until the afternoon, when, quite worried, I finally turned the pump off, waited half an hour and turned it on again, at which point the pressure shot back up properly. At the time I was pleased, because I was getting ready to pull the well pipe and inspect and replace the foot valve. I suspect that low water caused the well to suck air, and debris in the foot valve stopped it from properly recovering. The debris must have washed out when the pump was turned off and the well pipe began to drain back.

If we just assume the recharge rate is so slow as to be negligible in the calculation, and use the formula for the volume of a cylinder to derive the height of water pumped before air is sucked, at 100 gallons in a six-inch well,  we get 21 feet of water above the foot valve, so we're nowhere near dry, and will almost certainly manage until fall rains replenish the water table. But we will have to be very careful with that hose.

Then our nice Jotul wood stove had to be taken out of service because of cracked interior heat baffles. I priced replacement baffles at around $400, which is far less than the price of a new Jotul. But this was too rich for my blood for the time being at least. I had a few other bills that I wanted to pay before parting with this amount of money directly, including the trailer. Instead I found a Scandia look-alike secondhand for $250, thinking that, even were I to eventually fix the Jotul, it would be fine to have a spare wood stove around in any case, considering that both this building and the Bale House use essentially the same size of stove. But on first use last night, the Scandia isn't properly airtight, runs away, and will need work on the door.

Finally, the oven in the kitchen range died last weekend while I was baking a cake. This range was installed brand new in 2007, and cost a fair amount at the time, so this is upsetting too. I can probably fix it, but the light and access is bad in that corner, and the stove is dirty, so I have to remove it and clean it. We decided to get a new stove instead. I'll probably try to fix this one, but then sell it on. I had to finish baking the cake in the tiny oven in the trailer.

Then there are all the other jobs we haven't had time to get to: the tomato canning, the new trailer's brakes and bearings that need to be serviced and checked, the Land Rover's muffler that needs to be replaced, and the VW's brake job that still is not finished.

All in all, this adds up to a stressful fall, domestically speaking, but there's nothing to be done but suck it up and do the work and spend the money on parts and equipment. We started by ordering a new kitchen stove last night. Today I will empty every last thing out of the barn, clear away all the bedding, and blast off the cobwebs wit the pressure washer, effectively evicting the skunk at the same time. I hope to get the wood stove fixed and the tomatoes at least picked too, this weekend. It would be nice to finish the VW too, because then I could sell it and have extra money for some of these bills.