Sunday, January 27, 2008

Embrace the haggis

The night before last was Burn's Nicht, the annual Scottish celebration of their master bard, and satirist, Robert Burns, on which we eat haggis and recite poetry by Burns. Being slightly scots myself, on my maternal side, where according to legend a great something grandfather (last name Watson) settled in Sheffield after being left behind by a retreating Highland army and eventually begat a tribe of scotto-yorkshiremen (a fearsome and hardy combination), I generally partake of both Burn's poetry, and the infamous sausage known as haggis. We also named a Womerlippi sheepdog after the dish.

Haggis has an undeservedly bad rap. It's a very good sausage, quite tasty, not particularly unhealthy, very constitutionally fortifying, and not unlike Pennsylvania Dutch scrapple or pan hoss in construction. Haggis uses the organ meats of a sheep, combined with seasoning and toasted oatmeal. Scrapple or pan hoss uses those of a pig, with corn.

The problem with haggis might be that it's presented in an intestine, not a casing, and so looks like a bloated football with indigestion. Visibly disturbing, I admit. But it's very thrifty. And the contents are no worse in origin or they way they're handled than those of any other sausage or processed lunch meat, and much more wholesome than some quite famous brands. The Womerlippis produce sheep, and thus have a supply of offal, and haggis is sometimes a by-product.

My favorite Burn's poem is an ode to a sheep. The basic translation from the raw scots dialect is that the farmer is sad because his favorite sheep, Mailie, died. This was a guy who knew that you could farm and care about your animals at the same time. It is not known whether Mailie became haggis.

Poor Mailie's Elegy

Robert Burns, 1783

Lament in rhyme, lament in prose,
Wi' saut tears trickling down your nose;
Our bardie's fate is at a close,
Past a' remead!
The last, sad cape-stane o' his woes;
Poor Mailie's dead!

It's no the loss o' warl's gear,
That could sae bitter draw the tear,
Or mak our bardie, dowie, wear
The mourning weed:
He's lost a friend an' neebor dear
In Mailie dead.

Thro' a' the town she trotted by him;
A lang half-mile she could descry him;
Wi' kindly bleat, when she did spy him,
She ran wi' speed:
A friend mair faithfu' ne'er cam nigh him,
Than Mailie dead.

I wat she was a sheep o' sense,
An' could behave hersel' wi' mense:
I'll say't, she never brak a fence,
Thro' thievish greed.
Our bardie, lanely, keeps the spence
Sin' Mailie's dead.

Or, if he wanders up the howe,
Her living image in her yowe
Comes bleating till him, owre the knowe,
For bits o' bread;
An' down the briny pearls rowe
For Mailie dead.

She was nae get o' moorland tips,
Wi' tauted ket, an' hairy hips;
For her forbears were brought in ships,
Frae 'yont the Tweed.
A bonier fleesh ne'er cross'd the clips
Than Mailie's dead.

Wae worth the man wha first did shape
That vile, wanchancie thing-a raip!
It maks guid fellows girn an' gape,
Wi' chokin dread;
An' Robin's bonnet wave wi' crape
For Mailie dead.

O, a' ye bards on bonie Doon!
An' wha on Ayr your chanters tune!
Come, join the melancholious croon
O' Robin's reed!
His heart will never get aboon-
His Mailie's dead!

Thursday, January 24, 2008

Back to school

The Womerlippis are back at work. Any second now, Aimee's alarm will go off, summoning her for another day. I've been awake for hours.

The college term has been going for a week and a half, and as always, farm activities take a back seat. It was a slow start to college, what with the weather and the MLK holiday. But it's picking up pace, and will keep on going until the day after graduation, when all the stress and labor will come shuddering to a halt, and we'll wonder what we were doing all those months. Like a bad war.

Being a college professor has its rewards. An annual schedule that permits farm activities is one. We could, and sometimes do, seek other employment during our long summer break. Most recently I became a college administrator for a couple of years. Aimee, whose research life is more scientifically formal than mine, has ongoing marine biology research, and so she tends to spend her summer littorally (bad scientist pun) turning over rocks on the coast of Maine. My reading and research is more regular. I tend to spend my weekday and weekend mornings reading news articles and policy documents, trying desperately to stay current in the world of sustainability and climate change mitigation. I do this whether I'm at work that day or not.

My approach, combined with my early-rising habits works well for farm work, since in winter and fall I can do my reading in the wee hours before the sun rises. If it's a teaching day, I then go to school and work for 7-8 hours, coming home in time to do chores in the daylight. If it's a home day, I go do farm projects for 6-7 hours. In summer, the sun has risen, so there's pressure to get out and get work done, but respect for our neighbor's sleep schedule usually restricts me to a 7am start, especially for jobs involving noisy power tools.

After my farm project work I often take a nap. For me, because I tend only to sleep for 6 hours a night, naps are essential top-up sleep. Aimee sleeps for 8-9 hours a night. She thinks naps are laziness.

Go figure.

Monday, January 21, 2008

Mr. McGinley made a prayer roads blocked up (sic)

Photo showing inside the hoophouse yesterday. The thermometer dial reads 85 degrees, when the outside temperature was 20 degrees!

Our title for today is the last sentence in Jonathan Henry Wright's Jackson, Maine, farm diary entry for January 19, 1888. The weather was reported as "fair 8 degrees." The next day it was 2 below, then 4 below, then 14 below, and so on. All in all, the highest temperature Jonathan Henry records for the month of January 1888 is 40 degrees on the 2nd. We may safely assume that these are the daily minimum temperatures that he recorded, since that would be the winter temperature measurement a farmer was most concerned about, and since the full entry on the weather for the 15th was "rain 26 degrees" which suggests that the maximum for that day must have been more than 32 degrees Fahrenheit, for it to rain at all. The warmest minimum temperature this January was around 40 degrees.

A quick spreadsheet exercise reveals that the average minimum for January 1888 was 5.5 degrees Fahrenheit. The webpage gives the 30 year monthly average for January in Brooks, Maine, 3.5 miles to the south, and a little lower in altitude, as 12 degrees.

Jonathan Henry Wrights's diary entries are fascinating. He farmed just a little up the road from here, and he and his son "broke roads" open for the Town of Jackson in winter. Their father, also Jonathan ("Captain" Jonathan -- most probably a sea captain), was one of the first settlers in the town, buying land from Israel Thorndike, the proprietor of the Great Farm. The elder Jonathan pioneered a homestead and helped found the Congregational Church.

According to Robert Lindsey in The Wrights of Jackson, Maine, Jonathan the younger lived with his son, Fred, whose wife, Ruth, was raised on the great farm, the daughter of Nathanial Carpenter, a copy of whose deed for this land we have.

So little Ruth Carpenter used to run around this farmyard.

Not if it was this cold. If Jonathan were still making weather records, today's would have to read

fair 10 below

Brrrrr. Better get my coat on and go get another big armful of firewood.

Sunday, January 20, 2008

Weekend Activities: Homebodying.

No one wants to go anywhere in the car today, so we're hanging out around here. Bliss.

Activities: Trying out the new knitting machine we got from eBay. (Very frustrating -- I gave up after a day and a half of trying to make this thing work.) Walking Haggis the dog in the snowy woods. Tending the sheep and chickens. This is Tilley and Molly, mother and daughter. Live-trapping a weasel. Baking bread. Listening to the Corries (the official Scottish folk music band of the RAF Mountain Rescue Service circa 1982), watching the football game on TV, hoping someone will revenge the Steelers by beating the Pats, either today or in the Superbowl. Probably drinking a beer while doing so.

High culture.

Peaceable Kingdom?

Another major ethical dilemma for the Womerlippi policy think tank: The critter that
has been heard rummaging about in the garage turns out to be a she-weasel in ermine.

I had caught a flash of white fur a few weeks ago, and had assumed a stray barn cat. We set out food one night in hopes of seeing the cat, but had no luck. Now we know why.

I finally saw it tonight, while putting a log in the wood furnace. Watched it for quite a while, spellbound. And I have a blurry, Area 51-type photo that proves absolutely nothing. You'll just have to take my word. The whitish flash above the cardboard roll towards the bottom is the weasel.

This little girl must have gotten used to having me go back and forth in her adoptive home, and so she decided she could safely stick her head out. Either that, or she's rabid.

I know it's a female because of the size. Most likely a long-tailed weasel (Mustela frenata). I remember from my mustelid biology that the females of this species are larger.

So, this will pose a dilemma, but one with which we are somewhat familiar.

Weasels are terrifying predators of chickens. The last time a weasel got into our chickens, it was a serial murder scene. And a very cruel one. Night after night, one-by-one, each chicken was bled while alive, for the nutrient value of its blood. All were eventually killed. We like our chickens, so this was an emotional disaster. And our ethical responsibility as livestock farmers is clearly to prevent this carnage, and if we knew that this weasel was a chicken predator, we'd trap it and kill it or remove it. But this one has been living peaceably in our shop now for at least three weeks, as far as we know. Living, no doubt, on the pellets of spilled dog food,the gleanings from inside the dog food can recycling, and hopefully, the mice.

Could we let it be safely? What if it has pups? Maybe it will get the squirrel that also inhabits both the shop and the attic system.

Maybe it will get our chickens.

The secret and inalienable ethical problem of livestock farming is, you're going to have to kill something, or something else will die. The herd itself must be culled for its own good, and for the pot. The predators must be deterred, trapped or killed, in that order of priority (deterrence is the cheapest in effort and the most stable strategy, which is why we like our dogs and cats) and you will very likely have to do all three.

What to do with the weasel? I expect that when the other member of the think tank wakes up, we'll have a summit meeting. And then go get a trap. Last time, when all the chickens were killed one-by-one, we trapped the weasel and took it to biology class, show and tell, then released it in the college woods. That worked out well for everyone, including the students, and the weasel got off lightly.

Although you may well say it was amnesty for a deranged murderer.

Don't worry. the chickens are safe. We learned our lesson from the last time, and made a completely weasel-proof coop, using hardware cloth instead of chicken wire.

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

The Good Life (not)

Watched another episode of the UK TV sitcom series "Good Neighbors" last night with her Aimee-ness. Deja vu all over again. Titled "The Good Life" when it first aired in 1973 Britain, this sitcom tells the story of a couple, two very down to earth "self-sufficiency" enthusiasts living in suburban England, complete with pigs, chickens, and goat. Most of the laughs come from their interaction with their stuffy, snobby neighbors, who have a "regular" life.

I hadn't seen this show for years, of course, although it was a family favorite when I was a kid. Here in the states, they had to change the title so as not to infringe on Helen and Scott Nearing's famous Good Life franchise of how-to sustainability books, some of which are set in Maine.

We don't need a TV sitcom to remind us we live a weird life. I get that feeling every time I find myself herding chickens, or medicating sheep. Or traipsing manure from my big boots all down the executive hallways of Unity College. Aimee, being the north east expert on sea squirt sex, probably has a completely different twist on things, even weirder.

But it does have it's compensations in humor. Or is that humour?

Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Moving snow

We had about 12 inches last night and yesterday, another nor'easter. Time to break out the Kubota.

This is a 12 HP, three cylinder compact tractor, 4wd, with Kubota loader and rototiller, all stock, circa 1975, plus a bunch of American-made implements that go with. These things were designed for Japan's tiny government-protected 4 hectare rice farms and truck farms. The soil is often heavy, so 4WD is necessary. the loader is light duty, but the tractor has a lot of push for a little guy. Rugged. Starts every time, first time, but when it's cold you have to hold the glow plug switch down for 90 seconds, one-one thousand, two-one thousand, etc.

Aimee is collecting photos of my tractor and other equipment driving disasters, such as the time I put this thing on it's side (the first day we had it!). She wants 12 such pictures for a calendar.

Oh joy.

Morning sickness

Tilley, Queen of the Sheep

Does a pregnant ewe get morning sickness? Tilley, the other senior Womerlippi ewe has been off her feed for a day or two, same symptoms and attitude that Tootsie had last week. If it follows the same course, after another day or so, possibly this afternoon, she'll start to show interest in grain again.

We're not sure at this point how many of our seven Corriedale ewes are pregnant, or "bred" in farmer-speak. The three two and three-year olds may or may not be, and if they are, they'll drop much later in the season because they were bred much later. But the three senior yows (as they say in Yorkshire) were bred in Late October/Early November and should lamb in March.

Saturday, January 12, 2008

The Egg Business

Our eight Golden Comet layer hens remained in full production so far this winter, which is unusual. Usually there's a drop-off during the longest nights. We give most of these eggs away. Not that they wouldn't be valuable if we sold them, but we get a kick out of just giving them away, and the costs are so small, we don't feel a big need to recoup them. Aimee has a loose schedule that will eventually provide eggs to most of our co-workers at Unity College, and other friends. We try not to play favorites, although we do tend to give more foodstuffs to folks who give us foodstuffs. The barter system, "lite."

Not exactly economic, I know. Aimee has a label she puts on the boxes that explains that we're trying to "subvert the capitalist system" by giving away "free, free range eggs." This is a sly joke, as well as a zen koan, but some folks take it seriously, which is even funnnier. The most ideological people around are always the ones that can never take a joke.

The truth is, we know pretty well we could never make a living from farming, and so just don't bother. We make a life instead, which is a very different thing.

Friday, January 11, 2008

The sky is falling, civilization is coming to an end, not...

Although I'm pretty worried about the consequences of climate change, I also get pretty tired of some of the folks who write about it in the most cataclysmic terms. George Monbiot, a British author whose opinion pieces I read regularly in the Guardian, is one example, although there are many, many others.

Here's the piece by Mr. Monbiot that got me going, right here. It's a new book by Cormac McCarthy, another climate change dystopia. Mad Max.

My problem with this kind of stuff is that I just don't think it makes sense to believe that modern humanity will just let things get worse and worse until there is no recovery. Do the authors really think that everyone who is in science and government is absolutely incompetent? Some are, I know, believe me. But many if not most are reasonable and professional. And by concentrating on the worst possible cases of social and economic upheaval, these new dystopias distract us from what is real and now, and quite straightforward, which is the workaday reduction of carbon emissions from household and industrial processes.

Because this is just work, folks. Boring old work. And I suspect that in the long run, most of it will NOT get done by people who read and write dystopian projections. It's a very banal, down-to-earth business, this reducing climate emissions.

You don't need to feel any earth-shaking worries to do it. You reduce emissions pretty much the same way you pay your bills every month. You say, ho-hum, oh well, better do this now, and set aside a little time, and go switch out a light bulb, or do some insulating, or make the calculations you need to make to decide whether or not it's time to switch out that furnace, or get that new hybrid car. And then you get done and go have dinner. Just like any other day.

You make a habit of reducing emissions, just like some people make a habit of paying bills. I actually enjoy paying my bills, because it gives me control over my life. I like saving energy for much the same reason. When will most people begin to think about reducing emissions? When they look at their bills, their heat bills and oil bills, and realize that they are wasting their money buying expensive energy they really don't need to use.

Corporations and smaller businesses have people who pay bills too. They will do much the same kind of thing. In their case, it will be some very disinteresting gray men and women poring over computers in back rooms who will save the planet.

And then it will be time for dinner.

Thursday, January 10, 2008

The thaw continues...

Much of the snow is now gone from the open fields, leaving just the bigger drifts and snow piles. If I had the time I could take a good leg-stretching walk. Those kinds of walks are a luxury for me in winter. I never quite got used to the North American winter in this respect. In Britain, you can almost always take a walk of the kind where you stretch your legs out to their fullest stride. That Yorkshire hillman's gait, which looks so funny, walking down the high street, is one of my genetic inheritances, perhaps from my paternal grandfather, who was one of the organizers of the Kinder Trespass, and a lifelong hiker and outdoorsman.

My sister has the same walk.

In winter, in Maine, even though we essentially live in the outdoors, those kinds of walks don't exist. There's snow, which requires you to pick your legs up more, or ice, where you progress more carefully. Or you're on snowshoes or skis, and not really walking.

I get to take these kinds of walks the rest of the year, and when we go to Virginia each holiday season to see Aimee's parents. But, in Maine for four or five months a year, my hill-walking muscles atrophy.

Instead, there are other kinds of exercise. Shoveling snow, cutting, loading, splitting and stacking firewood, getting cars out of ditches, hefting hay bales. A homestead or farm is a "green gym."

Everyone should have one. I hear you can get them mail-order. Only ten payments of $19.99.

Wednesday, January 9, 2008

Hoophouse Husbandry

Started building a hoophouse yesterday, taking advantage of the thaw. Chickens also taking advantage. They took dirt baths, scratched around for bugs, sunned themselves happily. So did I. At least, I did the sunning happily part. I don't eat bugs, unless they're lobsters.

When Aimee and I build something, we usually start with a rough drawing. Aimee has a hard time reading them, imagining the results, but I can use the drawing to figure out construction and logistics problems ahead of time, and to cost out construction. Here's the latest. I did the drawing Monday night, built the building Tuesday. This is a temporary hoophouse, built up against a south facing barn wall that is a natural sun trap, so it cost next to nothing. I used leftover lumber scraps, an old roof ladder, and some free pallets and cheap plastic from Paul's Hardware in Brooks. The hoops are Aimee's 1 inch PVC pipe left over from marine biology projects. For some reason, marine scientists like to use PVC for all their projects.

Come late spring, when Aimee's tomato and pepper sprouts are in the ground, we'll take this hoophouse down again to allow Aimee to shingle that wall.

Two cords of firewood arrived the day before, from our very reliable firewood guy Russell Mitchell of Troy, Me. We have four cords cut off our own land, from fall thinning and clearing activities, in which the UC Woodsmen Club played a a leading role. But it isn't dry, and won't be until next fall, and we were running low on dry firewood, down to our last two cords, so we got some more in.

Aimee seems to like the new hoophouse. Good. We aim to please.

Monday, January 7, 2008

Why we live this way...

I think most people who have life choices experience the phenomenon that, every once in a while, something comes that comes up that makes you question the life you're living. After all, if you have choices, you have to know about them, or you wouldn't have choices. And knowing about them makes you think about them.

One choice Aimee and I have is to live in Britain instead of the US. I never wanted to become an American citizen, some misplaced loyalty to my buddy Liz Windsor or some such thing, so I remain a resident alien, antennae and all. Actually, since I'm officially an EC citizen, we could choose to live in any EC country, but I doubt we'd want to live in any of them except Britain.

What brought this idea up for me recently was watching the Michael Moore movie Sicko, which we got from Netflix.

Like most American families, we have horror stories from family and friends about the American health care system. Unlike most Americans, we have a back door out of that system. If either of us had a chronic illness like cancer or Parkinson's (which my grandfather succumbed to), and the health care system here let us down the way it lets down our friends and family, we could just catch a plane.

I don't feel bad about not paying UK taxes for this benefit. After all, I was a British serviceman, an "erk," a "Tommy," a member of "the Mob," and put in seven years. I was underpaid and overworked for all of that seven years, and as an RAFMR troop, I risked my life frequently and was frequently injured too. I have two partially torn ACLs, chronic arthritis in both knees, and a frostbitten left pinky to prove it. (Sounds of extremely small violins, especially for the pinky!) Never mind the extreme efforts most ex-serviceman go through to find a life in civilian society, which for me meant four years bumming around in both the UK and the backwoods of America, before settling on a college career. Over here, in lawsuit-ridden America, I'd get VA medical care and a partial disability pension for my minor, but still service-related injuries. I'll settle for my British passport and National Insurance number. One day, that passport might save one of our lives.

Because this is of course, deadly serious at root. People die in this country for lack of health care. We have friends and relatives who cannot get the health care they need. A friend (who some readers will know) who just died of emphesema, was forced to work for very little money towards the end of her life, even though she was capable of earning much more, because to earn more would have put her outside the scope of the government Medicare system. No insurance company would have taken her on. Aimee's Dad is finally now getting the full attention and care he needs for his leukemia because he has been officially recognized as an Agent Orange casualty, and the VA now has him on their roster.

So why not go back to Britain right now? I surely get homesick enough, frequently enough. Last night being just the latest example. Last year when Mum was sick, I went home to look after Dad, and was right back in the amazing British health care system again. What astounded me most was not the dedication of the nurses, or the obviously brand new hospital, but the fact that no-one ever asked me for money, not even at the pharmacy, and that the health and social service visitors could, if mother would allow it, make up to five house calls a day to look after old folks in their own homes. For free. Moore's movie, of course, reminded me of this, which was why I was homesick last night. Something we Brits should be proud of is the NHS.

I think the main reason I stay in this country is not because of Aimee, because she likes Britain well enough and would live there, not because of my (I think) important job trying to make this country more sustainable (violins again), but because of the farm. We both have a very good idea how difficult it would be to get a homestead, or smallholding as they are known over there, in Britain.

A British smallholding is a small, very expensive plot of land surrounded by red tape. There are an extraordinary amount of rules governing what you can and can't build, and probably it's the same for farming. The prices are astronomical, of course, a million dollars couldn't buy a place like ours, because every city stockholder needs their country home for the weekends, and so the smallholder is competing with them for land and houses. And the supply of houses and land is extremely tight because the planning regulations are so strict.

The only way out of this, for most British smallholders, is to become a tenant farmer, or to take a tied house or croft, and thus subject yourself to the landlord. And not just any landlord. The aristocratic peer of the realm, whose duchy, lairdship, or other feudal estate, is the true owner of more than two thirds of British land.

Either the landlord or the government. The devilish aristocrat or the deep blue sea of regulations. The relative freedom we experience here in Jackson Maine, of being able to buy a homestead on an affordable mortgage, of being able to farm it as we want, cut a tree when we need to, build a building when we need one, remodel the house without planning permission, all this is impossible in the UK.

After reading my British history so well and realizing what centuries of oppression my ancestors must have endured; after realizing how all that history put all my grandad's and grandma's stories of WWI, the depression and WWII into context as the catastrophes they were, made far worse than they should have been by the class system, after realizing then for the first time the hardships they endured, and after growing up in the still-class ridden British system of the 1960s and 1970s, after serving in the class-ridden British RAF of the 1970s and 1980s, what would bother me most about going back to Britain would be the loss of our land.

An Englishman's home is his castle. Especially if it's in America. And even if the only safe health care scheme he has is in Britain.

Sunday, January 6, 2008

Sheep in the Snow

Mr. Haggis at Attention

Haggis is a dog, named for a Scottish sausage, which I occasionally make myself made from various odd bits of sheep and deer not normally eaten by Americans. This is appropriate naming because he's an Australian shepherd, so there's a kind of circularity of reasoning. We like circular reasoning at the Womerlippi Farm Enterprise.

He's about six years old, and was raised by the Amish. This, we suspect, made him a little pious. His main piety his his extreme diligence. Being a shepherd, he has to have a job. If shepherd dogs are not given a job, they'll make one up for themselves. Before Haggis had sheep, he would spend hours rounding up chickens, which is actually very counter productive, because chickens hardly ever need to be, and never want to be, rounded up. Chickens are well behaved without needing a sheepdog.

So we had to get him some sheep. Getting a sheepdog before getting sheep might be putting the cart before the horse, but we knew we wanted both, and had a vacancy for a dog before we had facilities for sheep, so it all made sense to us.

The are a lot of things that make sense to us that don't make sense to others.

Haggis's job now is actaully threefold, which makes him very happy, to be so important. He is hired to be 1) the somewhat boy-scoutish, over-eager leader of the Womerlippi dog pack, 2) to guard the house and land, 3) to ride to the hardware store in the pick-up truck (this is actually his favorite job, and he takes it very seriously, sitting to attention in the passenger seat the whole way) and finally, 4) to assist in rounding up sheep.

I say assist, because at six years old, and even with his extensive prior experience in chickens, Haggis has yet to get the full hang of being a sheepdog. He can move sheep, no problem, get them running with one quiet word. Very satisfying. He just doesn't know where to put them. Not so satisfying.

Most sheepdogs know instinctively that the sheep have to go through the gate. That's how they work. There's a big field, the farmer stands by an open gate, which goes to the pen, to the lane, to the next field, or to the barn. The farmer is actually just the helper. All he has to do is operate the gate. (If operating gates were hard, sheepdogs would have to do it.) The dog is the main worker. He runs out and around, gets the sheep going in a nice tight herd, moves them towards and through the gate. The farmer then does his part. He shuts the gate. That's really all there is to the sheepdog job. Sheep. Gate. Farmer close gate. Done. Time for dinner.

What Haggis tends to do is have the sheep circle the field a few times. After a while, they find the gate themselves. This can be really disconcerting right in front of the house, where the road makes a turn-around loop. Haggis will happily chase the sheep around this loop a couple of times before they make a break for the gate.

He's really pretty good at the important case of One Loose Sheep, a special and perennial case in the sheepdog portfolio. One loose sheep is easy, because the sheep really wants to be back with the herd. All Haggis has to do is go move the lone sheep, and the sheep will come back and go straight through the gate.

Very helpful, Mr. Haggis. Time for dinner.

Saturday, January 5, 2008

Warming up

The back of the cold broke this morning as the sun rose. Warm air came up from the south. They say we're heading for our annual January thaw. 40 degrees. Positively tropical. Here's our sunrise today. Still well to the south of east, of course, but that will change soon when the days begin to race. Here in Maine, "racing days" coincide with rising sap and syrup season. We don't make syrup, but other folks around here do, and the students make it at the college.

I went over to old Larry W's dairy farm to get a round bale for the sheep yesterday while it was still cold. He had a Holstein down with mastitis, old "Sag, he called her, was waiting for the vet, very sad she would have to be put down, keeping her comfortable until her time. I asked him why he didn't shoot them himself. (I shoot our fat lambs myself, with the 30-30.)

He can't stand to do it, he said, all rheumy-eyed. (He's had a stroke or something like it, there's a tremor there.) I said I could see why, I hate doing it myself, but for meat there's not much choice. You either shoot them yourself, or you must drive them this awful drive to the slaughterhouse. Aimee would rather I shot them. The drive is too stressful.

There's no keeping animals without death. The layer hens eventually fall off their perches, the old ewes pass on, dogs die or are put down. And there's no sensible farming in New England without animals to complete the fertility cycle and keep the forage from becoming rank brush. Without manures, fertilizer comes from a factory, and is made with fossil fuels, lots of natural gas goes into making nitrogen fertilizer. Farmers can, if they work at it, make enough fertility with rotation and non-animal input compost, but why, when there's so much forage land that can't really become arable land, and when animal manure is so good for fertilizer?

Larry is a nice guy, who loves farming. He asked about the sheep. He was sad about his cow. Larry composts his dead animals. There's no knackers yard around here anywhere, so no use for an dead Holstein milk cow except fertilizer.

Ashes to ashes. The sun keeps rising, though.

Stayin' Warm?

Zero degrees again. the goose egg.

Stayin' warm? That's what Mainers ask each other this time of year, when they meet neighbors and friends at the post office, the hardware store, or the Brooks "general." The standard greeting.

If you are not "stayin' warm" then that's a very big problem. Something went wrong with your efforts to ensure heat for the winter. You don't have enough firewood. You can't afford oil or propane or kerosene. The furnace is "out" and you can't get a furnace guy to come look at it. To some extent, this is definitely your problem, not your neighbors. Particularly if you are a responsible adult, you're the one that must make the plans, get in the firewood, buy the heat oil, put in the insulation. This is rock-ribbed, formerly Republican New England, after all. But if you're old, or sick, or just pathetic, and not "stayin' warm," someone will like as not take pity on you, and deliver a truckload of free wood scraps, or put plastic on your leaky windows, or loan you their back-up heaters and fuel. They'll do their best to shrug off the good deed. Charity is demeaning, we understand up here, even when it absolutely genuine and comes from the heart.

So no-one will make a big deal of any such good deed. Charity is not something you wear on your sleeve, like the millionaire who gives money to the church and is celebrated loudly. That was all over Georgia when I lived down there. Up here, charity is an underground phenomenon. But surprisingly widespread, especially among older men, the most competent and silver-backed (and modest) of whom often have three or four shut-ins they very secretly keep an eye on. Even their wives may not know that for years they've been helping some old lady out. When it gets cold.

Mainers also like to have "back-up for back-up" when it comes to heat. We like wood stoves because they keep going in power cuts, which always come with ice and wind storms. Power cuts are a norm, not an exception. We like to have back up generators and inverters, to run furnaces and well pumps and light bulbs. A big old oil or coal furnace, even if you don't use it much because you heat with wood, is never a bad thing to have. It's even worth having three or four of those 110 volt electric radiators, because having one for each room you actually use will keep you from the utter misery of not "stayin' warm." We also have elaborate back-up systems of heat tape and strategically placed light bulbs to keep pumps, well, and pipes from freezing if furnaces quit.

If all else fails, one of those stand-alone kerosene heaters, where the fumes go right into the house, will be a life-saver. All your liberal ideas about health and air pollution will go out the window. You'll happily breathe those foul fumes, pull your chair right up to the heat, suck it down, just to stay warm.

If, for some reason, you are defeated in this fight, and the quiet charity of your neighbors fails you, the cold will creep into your house like an icy blight. The walls will feel cold to the touch, the floor will hurt your feet, there won't be any place to get comfy. Reading a book, watching TV, eating dinner, sleeping, all these normal activities will become hard to do because you can't concentrate enough to do them, not even sleep, because the cold will nag you. You'll feel miserable. Your hands, feet, and nose will become numb. You'll find you have to keep moving. If you're old, you won't be able to, and your body core will cool down and you might die. If no-one comes to see you. But someone will.

If you leave, and go somewhere warm, like church, or the cinema, or work, you'll suddenly feel safe, and then happy, a little giddy with comfort, and then you'll begin to fall asleep.

Or, especially if you're younger, you'll become a little frantic, like a worried beaver or squirrel, and you'll run errands to the hardware store, perusing the heating appliances, counting your pennies, trying to find something that will make you warm again that you can afford. You'll troll through "Uncle Henry's" trying to find dry firewood. If you know your forest trees, your dendrology, and have land, you'll take your chainsaw, or even a bucksaw, and you'll cut down ash, and burn that, the only life-saving tree that will burn when green.

And our students say dendrology is silly, not useful. They've never been cold.

Don't worry about us. We're keepin' warm.

Friday, January 4, 2008

Brass Monkey Weather

Yorkshire folk have a saying "cold enough to freeze the balls off a brass monkey." This is one of those sayings whose origin is thankfully lost to history. It's pretty much "brass monkey weather" out there right now.

Kitchen wood stove went out overnight and so I had to get up and start it anew. In the meantime, to protect the pipes, I turned up the thermostat for the oil burner in the basement, from 55 to 61 degrees. So far this winter, we've used only 30 gallons of oil, and the beast in this photo is why. Not particularly efficient, but effective, this "Englander" forced air wood furnace drives away the chill with a vengeance. Together with the kitchen stove, it will consume about five cords of wood this year. It also heats my shop, which means I can work in the winter on carpentry and other projects.

Arguably, because we have 15.5 acres of combined woodland and pasture, growing roughly 10-15 cords of wood a year, this heating system is sustainable. Except for the 30 gallons of #2 heat oil.

Oh well.

Wednesday, January 2, 2008

Snow Daze

What a lot of snow we've had already! The climate deniers will be rampant. How few of them understand that additional precipitation accompanies global warming, though. Showing their ignorance. But our little tractor, and neighbor Hamilton's Dodge plow truck, have been busy. Would that real life was like Thomas the Tank Engine, where the machines happily do the work by themselves.

Yesterday, before the latest big storm, I cleaned out a bay in the barn and put a gate on it in preparation for piglets, who will come from a local supplier soon after lambs are born. Tootsie, who with Tilley is co-CEO of the Womerlippi sheep herd enterprise, was a little out of sorts, off her feed, and so if we'd had to isolate her, the new bay would have been good. (She seemed better last night.)

It will also be good come lambing time, as a lambing"jug." Mothers who don't want to, or don't know how to feed can be isolated with their offspring in a confined space, where the lambs have a better chance of starting the feeding process. Watch this space for lamb pictures in March and April.

Today, I guess I'll be moving snow again.