Thursday, May 21, 2015


I needed to get the clutch release assembly out of my Land Rover for service, since according to Haynes, it's "false economy" to replace the engine without replacing the bearing. Ordinarily I'd beg to differ -- many's the time back in my VW van driving days that I'd pull the engine without replacing the bearing, but I do have a little less need for economy now than I did when I was a student.

In any case, Aimee stole my camera to take this picture of me wearing a Land Rover.

In other news, we have a strange new row crop in the garden: lots of containers with tomato plants underneath them. This because of a late frost warning last night, and again for tomorrow night.

I quite liked the effect.

Finally, if we now have a kid, then we need a swing set. Ours arrived by truck late Monday, but had to wait for the rain to stop before I could put it up. Quite the "assembly required"; it took about five hours to get it done, all told. She does like to swing, though.

Friday, May 15, 2015

In the clutch of desperation

Aimee went to work and left me alone with Roo yesterday, a normal occurrence. But what wasn't normal is I have a Land Rover with a bad clutch. Such things do not improve with age, so I very badly wanted to make progress on the repair, and the engine rebuild I decided must also happen -- if I'm to pull the transmission for a clutch, I might as well pull the engine for a clutch and a much needed full engine rebuild. All such things take time, and summer is short and I have a lot of other jobs to do.

Unfortunately Roo had other ideas, and woke right up from her morning nap after only half an hour, so I only made about an hour of total progress in the next seven hours until Aimee came home. I did lots of house cleaning, and all the shopping, grazed the sheep and fed the pigs and watered the plants and walked the dogs, but not the one important thing I'd planned to do. But then Aimee came home and I blitzed the rest, however yet again with my now-new-normal desperation to have something more substantial to show for a day's work.

I'm starting to really dislike this feeling.

This engine has been running fine for two years now on about a quart every thousand miles and 110 PSI compression, not to mention blue smoke each start-up from worn valve guides. As engine wear in old Land Rovers go, this is just about par for the course, and in the ordinary course, I would probably just put up with the oil usage and sluggish hill-climbing that results. But, if you're going to have to change a clutch, you may as well rebuild an engine.

I had decided to use the lift as a bridge crane to get this job done, tightly strapping blocks on each short front arm and a beam on top of the blocks, planning to roll the vehicle back once the engine was disconnected and lifted out of its engine bay. Although this worked well enough for the first part of the operation, it turned out to be a mistake for the second. Land Rover engines are deep. About thirty-eight inches deep, to be exact. I couldn't roll the vehicle back. You can see the problem in the next picture: the sump is still well below the top of the radiator housing.

In the end, I temporarily supported the engine on blocks inside the engine bay, dropped the hoist and beam, quickly turned the blocks under the beam the longer way around, replaced the beam and hoist, let some air out of the tires, and then was able to roll the Rover back with, however, not even an eighth of an inch to spare.

Even so, the operation was successful and the engine safely out. Satisfying, that. I had my supper and a beer and went to bed a happy man.

My next job will be to find some longer studs or blots to fit the motor to the engine stands. The ones that join the Rover's engine to the transmission are much too small. Then we'll blast the thing clean with degreaser and the pressure washer, then it will be time to strip down the engine and see what we've got.

Monday, May 11, 2015

The toad abolished -- for a few months

College is out for the summer -- graduation was Saturday -- and the pace of activity has shifted from frenetic to manageable. The last few days were transitional, as we finished up grading and attended meetings still, but no longer had to show up for classes. This week we have two "in-service" training days. So Friday is our first official day of summer, and my calendar is free and clear of commitments from then until late August, except for one monthly meeting. This summer I have no field research, and so my primary college remaining responsibility is scholarship, which, frankly is no hardship. I have a paper that needs to be revised for a different publisher, and a lot of fairly serious new books to read.

Work, or at least the kind that feels like work, being essentially banished from our lives until fall, what will I do with ourselves?

Well, we'll work, of course, but it will be the kind of work that doesn't feel like work. We have five new chickens, three piglets, and six lambs to raise and sell, the older sheep and chickens to tend, some of which sheep will also have to be sold, a Land Rover that may need a clutch and certainly needs an emergency brake job, three other vehicles and a tractor and several miscellaneous items of small equipment to service and maintain, a garden to plant and grow and harvest and put up, three acres of rough pasture to keep weed free, several hundred skeins of yarn to sell, two more cords of firewood to put up, three hundred bales of hay to find, buy, truck, and store in the barn...

... and last but by no means least, a very small child to help learn to walk and talk.

Friday, May 1, 2015

Not a great start to spring

The problem with trying to run a farm and raise a baby that isn't toddling or talking and so not really playing with other children yet is that there isn't much time, even with two parents. We're always watching her. As a result, I tend now to rush things a little around the farm, whenever I get the all-clear to run out and get some work done.

Case in point: She's sleeping now, which gives me chance to finish up this post which I started five days ago, but she'll wake up at any time, so we'll see if I finish it.

That was also the case last Saturday morning. Aimee took Roo to do some shopping, while I had a list of spring chores in my head. I began with putting the Nissan truck on the lift, pulling the wheels, and spraying the salt off the underside with the pressure washer. That done, I lowered it to the ground for safety, and left it to dry thoroughly. Then I went to till the garden with the Kubota tractor and tiller.

You can see next what ensued:

I tipped the tractor over on a very slight undulation in the ground with a bucket of particularly wet and heavy compost. I was reversing with the bucket too high, and turning to the left all at the same time. Had I lowered the bucket just slightly, or made a wider turn, this wouldn't have happened.

So, we had to resort to the Land Rover winch.

No worries, mate! The only damage was the loss of a couple quarts of engine oil, which I then had to scrape up off the ground with a shovel.

Here's the compost heap after I loaded out about four tons of very nice black muck. I think most of this was two-year old stuff.

I got right back to work and was able to finish up, just in time to plant peas with Aimee and Roo later that day. All's well that ends well.

In other news, we are learning to like pancakes! Yummy!

Finally, I laughed out loud when I saw what Aimee inadvertently did the other day:

Here's the FB caption I used:

"Headline News: British citizen tortured by American housewife! Is no-one safe? In a breaking story, once-famous British subject Bungo Womble may have been stripped naked and hung by the ears by an American woman. Upon arrest and interrogation by the Special Branch, the suspect is alleged to have cited racial theory. Apparently our British Wombles are "too dirty" for American children.

The shame, the pity...."

Monday, April 13, 2015

A walk in the woods

The jet stream managed to climb north of us for a few days, so we finally got some of the warm air the rest of the country has enjoyed for weeks. It climbed to 60 F yesterday, and was hot enough to work outdoors in a T-shirt, although except for the usual Sunday chores, I did no such thing.

Instead, Aimee and I took a drive with Roo and the dogs over to the Sebasticook Regional Land Trust's Great Farm Preserve. This is about fifty acres of forest and trout stream, of which Aimee is the official "Steward."

Most recently the land trust had a logger in to clear out some brushy lumber and let in more light. SLRT is a working land trust and doesn't believe in keeping land locked up from agricultural and forestry use, so some of their plots get logged.

Unfortunately, this particular logger did a miserable job. In particular, they blocked the trail for many yards with small trees and brush. It will have to be cleared, probably by hand. The land trust board is going to be pretty upset when they hear about it. Aimee took some pictures.

In the meantime, the good citizens of Jackson, Maine, will not be able to hike the whole length of their forest trail. That's going to put a damper on our local FrogWatch this year.

For the record, even when damage is done to trails, there's a big difference between this kind of logging where the intent is to grow the trees back, and the kind of clear-cutting for agriculture we've begun to see around here. Logging for lumber, pulp, or firewood can be sustainable, if the trees are left to grow back. Logging can even improve the carbon sequestration of soils and trees. In this case, part of the intent was to remove small brushy conifers and replace with hardwoods, which would have let in some light and improved the biodiversity of the forest floor habitats. This much was achieved, despite the trail mess.

Logging for agriculture on the other hand, whether for palm oil in Indonesia, beef in the Amazon, or farming in Maine, replaces what was a forest with an agricultural landscape that is no longer capable of sequestering carbon to the same degree.

Sunday, April 5, 2015

A slow start to spring

Photo: One of us at least isn't too bothered by mud season. Roo, delighted with a Big G's Deli eight-inch whoopie pie, the Maine state treat, no less. Don't worry, she was only allowed a little tiny taste of it!

It's April, and we still have a good foot of snow on the ground on most places. Everywhere else is mud. Frozen mud on the colder nights, or just plain mud. Or dooryard looks like a quieter section of the Battle of the Somme.

More snow fell yesterday morning, just a dusting, but to add insult to injury. Aimee's vegetable plant starts are growing like weeds under their UV lamps in the south facing window of the den, but there won't be anywhere to put them anytime soon. Normally they'd be able to go out to the greenhouse during the warmer April days. We'd carry them out every morning until risk of frost had passed. But we can't even walk over there without post-holing. I'm worried that by the time it all melts, the tomatoes and peppers will be taller than the shelves they sit on, all spindly and bent double.

School has but four weeks to go and we're well ready for it to end, mostly so we can get on with the job of raising baby Roo without interference from the toad work for a few months at least. It's been hard to juggle work and caring for a baby, even with two of us on flex-time, or the equivalent. We still put in well more than forty hours each, but until May, many of those hours will continue to be late at night, early in the morning, or on the weekends. I found myself editing a document at three am the other day, just because it had to be done and I couldn't sleep. Thursday night found me so tired after six or seven "contact hours" without a break, I felt as if I was catching the flu. It's been a grind, and we need it to end.

Neither of us has much elasticity left, work wise. If we lost another hour or two we'd easily fall behind. We have to do what we have to do. But we're determined to be there for her these crucial months, so she's our priority, and she gets the best of our attention. Neither of us wants to miss out on anything big, like first steps or first words. There are only a few hours a week when one or the other of us, or both, isn't with her, which is when she goes to our friend Eileen's house for a regular play-date/childcare session so Aimee and I both be at work at the same time.

When she naps during the day, though, we tend to collapse with her now.

In the fall, hopefully by then walking and talking, she'll be old enough for daycare. Life will be easier then, we hope.

Our vehicles are covered in mud and salt, and I long to get my automotive lift working and get rid of all that crud with the pressure washer. I hate vehicular rust with a vengeance and don't wish to see us waste thousands of dollars allowing it to take hold. But the weather isn't cooperating with that scheme. There's the remains of a sizable snowbank still on the lift pad, where all the snow came off the back roof, a good three-feet of it. Which admittedly is much less than the four or five it was, but still disheartening. I'll also be glad to get the plow off the Rover, so I can use it for regular driving again.

It won't be long now until spring really takes hold. There's a moment in the Maine climate year when the ground thaws out and all the meltwater starts to drain properly. Mud season ends and the grass starts to grow, a green show, first in the bottoms of ditches, and then fields and lawns. Dirt roads become more passable, and frost heaves on macadam roads begin to subside. Driving becomes much more pleasurable and garage sales begin to come to mind.

I would guess we'll experience that moment sometime in the next two to three weeks.

I can hardly wait. But in the meantime, our April showers are snow showers today.

By the time Memorial Day comes around and the first tourists begin to show, the braver ones who either haven't heard, or aren't afraid, of blackflies, they might be excused for imagining we never had a winter at all.

Monday, March 23, 2015

Cold again: only 5 F this morning

A taxonomy of cold weather clothing, by increments, while feeding the sheep and doing other farm work each morning:

At freezing (32 F), we can walk out in our comfy no-one's-coming-to-see-us-today clothes, sweat shirt and sweat pants and Crocs, without injury, except that we may get a little bit of hay or chickie-shit on us. The main thing to worry about is mud. Substitute wellies for Crocs, and you're all set.

At moderately cool temperatures (20-32 F), we need to put on a coat. I use a double-layered heavy fleece coat made by a Canadian company. I bought it years ago in Canada, and it has lasted well. But the mud is frozen, so you can wear your Crocs if you have thick socks. Except that your wife will yell at you because she worries your worn-out old Crocs will slip on the ice. I tend to think my smooth-soled Crocs stick to the ice better than my boots, but no-one believes me. Take your gloves and hat, but you may take them off later if you don't need them.

Between 10 and 20F, it's too cold for Crocs, and becoming too cold for sweats, even with a coat. I wear felt-lined thermal "Pac" boots, in this case made by LaCrosse, a Canadian company that knows how to keep feet warm. They're expensive, but there's really no adequate substitute. You'll also need to change to warmer clothes if you mean to stay out for more than five minutes. If it's just a night check, and the snow is plowed, I can run out in my sweats and Crocs and run back in without harm, but if it's a longer job, I first change to insulated bib overalls. Gloves and hat are also required for longer jobs. You can take your gloves off for a short length of time to do more delicate jobs, like fixing wiring on the trailer, or tightening a bolt. But not for long. Fingers will get cold fast.

Below 10 F, insulated overalls are a must for just about any length of time, especially if the wind is blowing. Warm socks too. We use thermal liners with thick wool oversocks in our felt-lined boots. Gloves stay on nearly all the time, as does the hat. Fingers will now stick to bare metal, so best keep your gloves on, even when handling tools. I have liner gloves I can wear under my main gloves, which allows me to take the main gloves off for a few minutes to do finer fingery types of work. But for the most part, if it's this cold, I just don't do those kinds of jobs outside until it warms up.

Between -10 F and  0 F, we wear our gloves and hat and insulated overalls and felt boots and double layer of socks. We may add a long sleeved, thicker undershirt, and switch to our warmer pair of gloves, which are made by Carhartt, another good brand name for cold weather stuff. All these clothes are cotton or cotton blend, except for the hat, which is wool, and the insulation in the overalls and gloves, which is usually a fiber-based product. In this kind of cold, cotton clothes are fine, if they're thick and strong and designed for the cold. The old outdoor activity adage not to wear cotton no longer applies.

Between -20 and -10 F, we may switch to a fur-lined "mad bomber" hat, as well as a pair of insulated coveralls instead of bib overalls. We keep our inside clothes -- sweat pants and sweat shirt -- on underneath.

Below -20 F it's best not to go out if you can help it, but the sheep will still need to be fed, so you must. I just wear all of the stuff above, but stay out for only as long as I need and come right back in. If I'm working and there's no wind, its fine. If I'm not moving much and there's a wind, you get cold fast. I have a pair of long bright red cotton "combination" underwear that I can add to stay out just a little longer. But it's very easy to freeze skin, especially your fingers, ear lobes, cheeks and nose. I've had frostbite and can recognize the feeling, so I try not to get it again.

It's always nice to come back in to a warm house when it's this cold outside. Our house has multiple and redundant heating systems for safety in case of power cuts, so we're never really cold inside. We usually use the wood stove and a little electrical heat and that's enough especially with good quality hardwood, but if it gets really cold, we can just crank up an oversized oil furnace, and be toasty in minutes.

Here's how to rock this kinda style: