Thursday, December 24, 2009

Winter 2008 to winter 2009

These are our best farm photos of the year set up as a slideshow.


Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Days getting longer

Today is the "official" first day of winter, but also the first that will be longer than the one before. By a matter of minutes, but every little helps. I never understood that "official first day of winter thing" since everywhere I've ever lived was always at least four weeks into solid winter by the middle of December, this place no less than any other.

Everyplace except one: I spend a year in coast-side northern California, Half Moon Bay area, where this was the sunny season and very pleasant.

Where else have I lived? One of those in-your-head tottings-up:

South Yorkshire: Growing up. The hills above the west part of Sheffield.
Buckinghamshire, in the RAF at RAF College Halton. Studying to be an airplane engineer, marching to school in formation every day. Motorcycling on weekends.
North Yorkshire: Leeming, Leeming Bar, Bedale, Linton-on-Ouse, Skelton, York. Training Bases, rescue bases.
Fife: Darsie, by Cupar. Fixing Phantoms, "Spam Cans," climbing Highland mountains, flying in Sea Kings.
Morayshire: Findhorn village. With the New Agers. Nuts.
Half Moon Bay, as above. Emigrating, being a mechanic. Commuting to the big city to work in the Mission district and eat burritos everyday for lunch.
Trout "Crick" Montana, also Thompson Falls. Living in the woods, being a wilderness ranger and guide and trouble youth counselor.
Missoula. Biology student. "Gradual student" in the Forestry School.
Sandy Spring, Maryland. Going to UMD College Park's Policy School. Being a social scientist.
Garrett County, Maryland, where I began to get to know the Amish.
Tilghman Island: Studying Maryland fisher communities.
Royston, Georgia, and Athens, at the Institute for Ecology.
Unity. Maine, learning to teach.
Belfast, Monroe, and finally Jackson, Maine, living on the land. And building. And teaching.

I don't know what the point of this was. Sometimes I make other lists in my head too. Obsessive, I guess.

I notice, though, that of all these places, the only ones below 40 degrees latitude are very short term, and of those only one winter was spent not in a wintry place, the one in California.

Saturday, December 19, 2009

Cold skies are clear, deer and meteors

I woke up earlier than usual and took Haggis the dog outside to piddle, but had to bring him back in right away to wait for the deer to clear out of the area. Whitetail deer have invaded our clearing lately to dig up apples from the snow below the apple trees. They generally only have the temerity to do this in the wee hours.

This happens every year, but this is the first I can remember that we have had so much snow before Christmas, although I'm probably wrong on that. One thing I do know is that the snow was so deep it changed the noise the deer make. Usually the noise you hear when you disturb the deer in the night is the typical "buck snort" that a whitetail makes when confronted. These deer just kept on digging snow; their exertions making so much noise they couldn't hear me or Haggis.

I don't want Haggis chasing these critters, not because he would take off -- he won't -- but because this time of year dear have to conserve energy to survive. I put Haggis right back in again and waited for them to clear the area calmly, which they did.

We have polite deer. And they're welcome to the apples. The sheep had every chance to eat them.

Then I happened to look up and saw the biggest shooting star I've ever seen, a big red one that seemed almost to reach the ground before it burned out. The weather has been cold and skies very clear lately, and I remember Charlie, our college chef and resident amateur astronomer, sending out a bulletin to expect shooting stars. This one was particularly spectacular.

Orion is now well to the west before it sets. The Pleiades are even further so.

Orion is our winter constellation, and I always notice it more than any other this time of year.

They'll all get further west before the weather gets warm again. It's been fairly bitter recently, with nights well below zero degrees Farenheit, 20 below Celsius. It will get colder than that before Orion leaves us and before the deer get to eat green grass.

Winter is hard in Maine, truly harsh and hard to take. But beautiful.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Cyclone Mick?

I expect that this is the way some folks think about me. But unlike my namesake here, I do try not to hurt anyone.

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Snorri go home and Christmas tree time

Here's our Christmas tree this year, being admired by Charlie cat.

The Womerlippi family tradition is, one or two Saturdays before Christmas, I declare "I'm going to go get the tree now" or something like that.

Aimee groans.

I say "only a little one."

I march off, usually with Haggis the dog, into the woods where we have many balsam firs who are growing too close together. Growing like that, nine out of ten will die whatever happens. I find one I like. I cut it and carry it home.

It's always too big. (They always look so much bigger in the woods.)

I cut it down, but it always brushes the ceiling. Aimee groans again.

I spend the regulation 45 minutes to an hour unable to find the decorations. Aimee groans again. (But any chance she gets to visit Ten Thousand Villages or similar stores, she always buys more decorations.)

I decorate the tree. Something always breaks. This time it was one of those nice decorations, a white plaster hummingbird.

Rinse and repeat next Christmas season.

Another tradition is the return of Snorri the Rental Ram to his own home farm. That happened today.

Question: How do you load a 300 pound ram in a worn-out Japanese pick-em-up truck?

Answer: With difficulty.

And then you tie down the tailgate with not one but two rope lashings.

But he butts his head against it all the same, threatening to break out.

This picture is of His Snorriness in the isolation pen having his last meal here. For comparison, that's a one-foot wide feed dish that his head almost fills. Big dude.

I'm kind of glad to be done with rams for the year. They're such knuckleheads.

Now we sit back and hope for lots of healthy lambs in March and April.

Saturday, December 12, 2009

A whole free day, but cold and windy

Here's pictures of the aftermath of the first storm, last weekend. The next storm dumped a good bit more.

This is the first Saturday in quite a while that I haven't had a big job to do. Last Saturday and the one before was barn work at college. Before that there was car work: Aimee's truck to be precise, which took three consecutive Saturday trips to the auto shop. And before that we were still in harvest and sheep-grazing mode, so there were lots of things to do: get hay, get hay, get wood, put up food, cut meat.



I can think of some jobs I might like to do today, but I'm not going to think too hard. And I'm not going to do anything involving heavy work or outside work except to feed and water our critters.

There's been too much of that cold outside stuff lately, and I'm sore and tired from it.

Also because it's really quite cold, colder than the proverbial female sorcerer's breast out there, and still blowing a gale. Brass monkey weather. Bitter.

About 6 F, to be precise, right now. Minus 15 C. It gets a good bit colder around here, but this is the coldest I can remember before Christmas. The jet stream has bulged way to our south and we're in air that really belongs up over Hudson Bay right now, and is trying to get back there.

Hence the wind.

"A thin wind" or "lazy wind," because it goes right through you.

Blame Canada.

Today would be a good day to make a nice hot chili, which would make good eating next week. I might use up some of our Abraram-burger, getting my final vengeance on that mean old ram.

That's rotten of me.

He was a good ram most of the time. He was only mean in breeding season. But there is the small matter of Aimee's arm that he nearly broke. I don't mind eating him at all. Especially as he tastes quite good, it turns out. Not ram-tainted at all.

So, make hot ram-chili. Bring in firewood. Clean house. Fix up the electrical heater that was out in the greenhouse and got moldy (!). Keep the stoves going full blast.

And wait for this cold wind to subside.

Sounds like a plan to me.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

An easy storm

Plowed out now, by good neighbor Hamilton late last night, and it looks like the plow truck also came back and finally found our turn-around and could see where to go because of Hamilton's snowbanks. This time the town plow drove over our road, not our lawn, and spread gravel and salt as the snow turned to ice and then a little rain.

Glad that salt and grit isn't on the lawn. The salt washes out, it seems, because the grass always grows back, but it's hard to rake up all that grit...

...and just a little snow left to move myself with the tractor later today. No power outage, no roof blown off, nothing really bad. One down, several to go. Six or seven such storms usually, makes a Maine winter for us.

But I'm definitely sick with a cold. Sneezing, eyes running snotty, a bit achy. Aimee too. That's what a rest/snow day does for you!

We didn't get sick all semester, despite all the bugs we were exposed to, but it was because we didn't have time to get sick.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Snow day update

About 8 inches and drifty, but not done yet. Dark now. The plow truck just made it up our road, after being snowed in since about noon, but decided to plow our lawn and not our road. Second time he's done that. Must be a new driver. Then a neighbor drove right in the same tracks, bumping over the huge divots the plow truck had taken out of the lawn! Hopefully not losing a muffler in the process.

I tried to catch the plow truck driver to show him where the road is, but he drove right off. I'll have to plow it our myself before work tomorrow, and hopefully the snow banks will tell him where to go next time.

Tractor gassed up, animals water topped off, animals fed, enough wood carried in for two-three days, that last little bit of fence up on the snowmobile trail that needed to be taken down is taken down.

I guess we're ready for winter now.

We'd better be.

Snow day!

Checking my email before going in to work today, there was the following message which I was half-expecting. Not daring to hope, really.

"To employees and students,
Due to the hazardous weather outlook for later on today, the college will be closed Wednesday December 9.
Travel safely, if you travel,


Yea. Snow days are the best. And reasonable. A fairly substantial blizzard is bearing down on New England having dropped several inches to a foot of snow on the mid-west. There are some high winds associated with this thing. Not enough to cause a crisis in Maine, but enough to make you change your plans if you're a sensible person. No job of work you have to get to is worth dying on the side of the road in a snowbank, or getting hit by a plow truck.

It's almost the end of term here, less than a week of regular classes to go, and so the light at the end of the tunnel is visible. But still, we're bone weary and need rest and could also use an extra day or bit of one to catch up on farm projects and housework. The snow is not expected till the afternoon.

The barn is roofed, just in time, and we have a snow day, so time to do a few things around here before the snow actually hits.

An example; Our neighbors called yesterday to ask us to take down some stock fence that impedes snow removal. The only reason the fence is still up is because I've been exerting my remaining energy on the weekends getting the roof on the barn we're building at the college.

Another: The tractor is out of diesel. Can't move snow easily without that.

And then, I think I will wait out the blizzard lying on the couch and reading not a serious book, but a novel.

Sunday, December 6, 2009

Knitting projects

Our friends at Colour it Green Diary were asking to see our knitting projects, but I was embarrassed to show them. Since then we've made progress on our skills. Mostly, this has happened since the semester workload has peaked and so we now have a little free time.

Time to try to make some kind of productive and economic and householding sense from the mountain of our own yarn we have on hand.

This is probably none too soon, because word has gotten out at college that we have yarn, and I've sold quite a few skeins and given quite a few "free samples" away. I can't afford the time to sell too much yarn just yet because I'm required to pay sales tax on yarn and am not yet set up for that extra paperwork.

When we sell food, there's no sales tax.

Aimee's first project is the green hat. It was knitted on a circular knitting ring, and as you can see, came out perfectly. That's typical for my wee wifie, who if she cannot see her way clear to doing a thing 100% right first time, may very well not want to do it at all.

Makes me wonder what she thought she was doing when she married me. She must have realized at the time that perfection in family life would not likely be the result!

The blue hat on the right is my first successful project, knit up on the 80's model "Singer Chunky Knitter" in the other picture. It is not at all perfect, but wearable.

The "Singer Chunky Knitter" machine is the bee's knees, the third one we've tried, and the only one that works with this heavy pure woolen yarn. But it works very well, quite smooth and easy to run, not a lot of pushing effort needed, and very few dropped stitches.

It took quite a bit of effort to even locate this second hand machine, which I found gathering dust at a knitting club in Rockland. It cost $300 and has yet to get anywhere close to paying for itself. But it will. We're at the beginning of the production-organizing process here. I expect we'll turn out many of these hats before we're done.

Guess what everyones getting for Christmas!

In fact, if you were to cost out the economist's "marginal costs" of those two hats at this point, each cost around $500. But the next ones, and the ones after that, will divide and subdivide that number up quite quickly because at this point, with the amount of yarn we have saved, the machines and other equipment on hand, and lots of long winter evenings, each new item just costs its own labor.

Also visible in the picture of the machine is my first attempt at a sweater. This is indeed the project I've been working on since I got the machine, but it's a failure -- doesn't fit at all well, and will probably need to be unraveled. Maybe not. I'm trying to decide if I can afford to keep a sweater with six or seven skeins in it that I can only wear when I'm wearing bib overalls, because without the bibs overalls it looks stupid.

But it is warm, and I do wear bibs a lot, and it even covers my butt!

Oh well. Sweaters will need a bit more practice, I think.

My next project will be a hat for a family member in a different color, but almost identical to the blue one. I'll try not to have any dropped stitches in the next one, and try for tidier seams and nicer sewing.

After a few hats, I might have the courage to try again for a sweater!

Aimee's already knitting me a hat like her green one. Only trouble is, she says I'm not allowed to lose it. I always lose my hats, so I'm not sure if I can afford the trouble that will inevitably come if I wear it and then lose it!

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Carbon chemistry and honey-do's and computerized trucks

Here's our kitchen stove heating the house nicely and making my breakfast oatmeal today. Hot stoves make me happy.

After about three-four days of sog and fog, it's turned cooler out there, but another rainstorm is coming before the weekend, to be followed by snow. None of which has yet stuck, but it will, soon, and that will be all she wrote for several large categories of work until May.

All this inclement weather is turning my attention back to the woodpile. Despite a poor start because of a last minute community wind job out on the islands, I thought I'd checked the boxes on my honey-do list pretty well over the nine-day Thanksgiving break. Taking narry a day off, I caught up pretty well, including a none-too-soon resurrection of my mechanical training, a tune-up job which turned a somewhat recalcitrant wifely truck into a much better-behaved one.

I particularly impressed myself with the work on the truck. Normally that truck and indeed any up-to-date vehicle terrifies me. Vehicles have become far too computerized and complicated for backyard mechanics and the probability of a mistake turning a hundred-dollar backyard job into a two thousand-dollar dealer-only nightmare is very high. But with careful reading of the Chilton's manual and repeated "pulling" of electronic codes, I was able to run through the diagnostics, fix the rough running, and get it running a lot better.

This will become more of a necessity as this truck ages. We can't afford to throw good money after bad in any vehicle, and our 200,000 mile pick-up will have to be written off completely one day soon. Between now and then, it's best if I save some money by doing as much of the work as I can myself.

Still, I thought I was doing fairly good, as husbandry goes.

Probably I was, but if that pile of wood runs out before May, my husband name will be poop around here.

Firewood has been a problem for us every year on the Great Farm. Not availability: we're surrounded by wood: we own or lease about 14 acres of prime New England woodlot, capable, by the traditional estimate, of delivering the same number of cords of wood each year. Far more than we use. But finding the work time to cut, buck, split, stack and dry the four or five cords or more we should really have piled up each year, that has often defeated me. This year I gave up on making wood during the wet spring when the tractor couldn't move in the woodlot, and instead did a huge insulation project.

So now I have to buy in some more "outside" wood. This means money, which is tight, and work time, which is also tight. One place I know will deliver. I can just have wood delivered to the dooryard in a three-cord dump load for about $600, but that wood generally isn't dry enough. Most sellers also sell stuff that's way too green.

The one place I know of where the firewood sold is actually dry has a fair price too, but I have to pick it up myself in that same tired, woefully small-bed, rice-burner Nissan pick-em-up truck.

It requires three round trips to get a cord. Half a day.

Oy. But it has to be done.

It's right about this time that I realize why I should have had kids earlier in life. When I was a strapping teenager my old man took full advantage of my inherent capacity for labor, and I had any number of chores to perform, both for our house and for our family business (a chocolate shop in downtown Broomhill, Sheffield). I could really put my teenage self to good use around here. Or some newer model Womerlippi.

I could also use a pick-em-up truck that takes a full cord of wood. But not a thirty-thousand dollar new model nightmare. An old two-wheel drive three-quarter ton Ford in good nick would be ideal, circa 1972, no computer, all points and spark plugs and carbs. I could keep that baby running for forty years if I could keep the salt off it.

Or a nice long-wheely Land Rover pick-up. Still a short bed truck, but my, how you can keep those things running. And get a trailer to go with. A trailer that could take a full cord and carry three little piggies to market would be nice and save me some grief.

When we were in the UK service and Land Rovers were ten-a-penny we used to bowdlerize the old Irish folk song, The Wild Rover:

And it's no, nay, never,
No nay never no more,
Will I drive a Land Rover,
No never, no more.

But I wish I had one now.

And a new chainsaw. My two old ones, never the most powerful of saws in the first place, are getting tired and one quit on me last week, possibly for good. The two I have are identical, which was deliberate, so the dead one will become spares for the other, but they're only lightweight saws and so not very quick at making wood.

My favorite farm blogs are also wittering on about firewood. Colour it Green Diary in SW England wants a woodlot. She could borrow ours if she were closer. We'd share, or trade for knitted goods. Throwback at Trapper Creek in Oregon has one, but coniferous. I liked the picture of the deep Oregon woods and the easily split softwood logs because it reminded me of Montana. Although we have conifers in Maine and in fact our woodlot has huge spruces and hemlocks, we think of them as sawlogs, not firewood. We use oak, maple, cherry, beech and ash for firewood. Ash predominates in our own woodlot, one of the best New England firewood trees because it can be burned while still wet.

Our woodlot grows a thirty-foot tall, six inch DBH ash in about seven years. Takes a few of those to make a cord, but it makes for perfect stove wood.

Aberdeenshire's Stonehead and Paul on Raasay both have new snow.

Beautiful, but cold. And makes it hard to shift firewood, especially with a tiny Nipponese pick up. I'd better get moving this weekend, and get those extra two cords in.

Friday, November 27, 2009

And all the fixings

Here's the result of all our Thanksgiving cookery. Minus the pumpkin pie, which I forgot to put on the table for the photo.

Sprouts, carrots, potatoes, pumpkin, lamb sausage and sage for stuffing: ours.

Turkey: Raised by an young Amishman called James, who at the age of 15 or 16 essentially runs his own farm and can drive a three horse plow with ease. Three Belgiums too, mind, huge 18-hand mega-horses.

Cranberries, stuffing bread, onions: Commercial.

And here's a slide show by provocative NYT artist/commentator Maira Kalman, whose work I like.

I found it hard to read some of her comments. Apparently there are people who think that growing your own food is elitist.

Here's an example, the most egregious since it seeks to inject reverse racism:

"I’d rather the kids learned how to read, write and add rather than dig, clean up, and recite the elitist food cant of white people with too much money and time on their hands."

I may grow my own food on my own land that I struggled for years to be able to buy, and that may make me elitist, but I plan to do so until the day I die.

I tend to feel more like I'm reclaiming my birthright as a working class Englishman and a Yorkshireman from a rural area now swamped by suburbs, reclaiming in fact what my grandfather and grandmother tried to teach me, but were not able to succeed at, thanks to the distractions that engaged me as a teenager. I also tend to think that what we do here on this small farm is a natural consequence of the many years of thought my wife and I have put into our criticism of society, and represents our own effort to change that for the better.

We raise affordable, high quality meat, eggs, firewood, fleece (for yarn), and vegetables that we sell for a reasonable price, or often just give away.

How is that elitist? Somebody needs to get out of the city once in a while.

Never one to dodge an argument, I posted the above response on the NYT site.

I should have added that since of course we both also teach math, science, reading and writing to under-served American kids of all colors and races, we both also believe in education. But if that education is only fitting to secure the recipients a better-paid place in the machine, and not the fierce independence of thought Aimee and I value so highly, then it will be at least partially a wasted effort.

And who then will renew society and make it better each generation? A society too, that will always need to eat.

Thursday, November 26, 2009

Things to be thankful for...

...on this Thanksgiving.

The biggies:

My wife Aimee, who always amazes me with her capacity for hard work, serious thought, and ability to reconstruct our lives every few months or years. If I'm ever in a rut, Aimee will fire up her mind-tractor and pull me out.

My sister Carol, without whom Aimee and I would have had to pack up our entire lives here in the US, with all the hard-won benefits of our jobs, our PhDs, our sweat-equity in this house and land, and go home to Wales to look after my ailing, aged parents. But Carol does this every day, does almost all --99%-- of my share, and never complains.

Chemotherapy: Aimee's Dad, Dick, still kicking and making fun after, what?, 6-7 years of leukemia. Agent Orange is not a friendly citrus fruit-spy.

Our jobs at Unity College. Challenging, tiring, often infuriating, never dull, always relevant to the future of the natural and human worlds.

This old farmhouse, safe, handsome, sturdy, warm, efficient, cost-effective, situated among good neighbors and wild woodlands.

This old farmland and the surprisingly abundant food for man and beast that you can get off 3.5 acres of rock-strewn Maine and the ten acres of hayfield we rent (in the form of 400 finished bales) each year.

The 12 acre woodlot lease that keeps us warm each year, for less than zero carbon, and $50/acre. Each acre sequesters more than twice what we burn.

Oddments in my mind today:

Penicillin: we have a sick ewe-lamb, Polly, who has a good chance of recovery because of this wonder-drug now nearly 70 years old. Polly was my favorite lamb of this year's crop, and I will hate to have to put her down if she doesn't recover. Penicillin also saved my life as a kid -- scarlet fever at age 5 was a killer before Alex Fleming found this drug.

Amish: For three years I lived among them in Garret County, western Maryland,, now they've come to enrich our lives in northern Waldo County, Maine. I just bought 1,500 square feet of metal roof made by an Amishman for our college barn, enough to do a large house -- for under $1,000. We're having an Amish Turkey to go with our Quaker potatoes and pumpkin today. All the Peace Church and Plain people are high in esteem and value in my mind, our own Quakers and Brethren together with the Amish and Mennonites.

Haggis the dog. He's never been a very good sheepdog, but he's a very intelligent and loyal friend.

Apples. We have so many of so many kinds and sheep and humans love to eat them. Maybe I can get Aimee to make apple dumplings before the weekend is out.

The Pittsburgh Steelers and England's Rugby International Team. Roethlisburger and Palamalu, Wilkinson and Moody.

Farm blogs. Every day my life is enriched a little more to see what is going on in SW England, on Raasay, in Oregon, and how much we have in common with smallholders and farmers all over the north.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

T-day week: nine days off!

Well, we made it through to the second big break of the term, the Thanksgiving Holiday. All the students have packed off back to mom and dad, leaving us with a mountain of grading each to do, and nine days in which we might actually concentrate on one thing for more than fifty minutes.

You have no idea what a luxury that is. If I was ever introduced to the moron that invented the 50 minute class, I'd give him a piece of my mind! The notion that you can concentrate on studying anything that is important or difficult or college level at all in just fifty minutes is just nuts.

It takes me twenty minutes just to turn my mind on and warm it up! Some of my students take even longer, and never quite manage it, especially 8 to 8.50 am.

First off this vacation, I went right back to work! Call me a workaholic but the chance to do a few hours uninterrupted on our barn project was too good to pass up. I'm so tired of setting up for twenty minutes to do just fifty minutes of work and then breaking everything down again, taking another 15 minutes. I worked there from 9 to about 12.30 Saturday, and made sure of a few to-dos that will help us finish on time. I was joined by some students for two hours of the time, and they were pleased to actually finish a good sized part of the barn, the hay floor decking.

Today I have an anemometry project to look forward to, a rush job, but nothing difficult. I've been asked to provide an anemometer to a just-built wind development, to sit side by side with a logging decibel meter and record sound levels correlated with wind speed. Tricky, but not too tricky. Normally I'd like to include students on a job like this, but the call came early yesterday and so there were none to include. The job requires a boat trip out to an island, so there should be some fun pictures to post.

Other than that, I plan to keep farm, do some car servicing, do my grading, and be nice to my wife this holiday.

Oh, and eat turkey. I'm getting a nice one from our local Amish.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Falling activities

We both had to work yesterday, so Sunday was our only day off this week. For Aimee, the workaholic schoolma'am, that means grading, no doubt, albeit while watching the Steelers play the Bengals.

For me, who hates to do school work on weekends, a day off means cleaning, yard work, farm work, cooking for the work week ahead, and putting up food. Then I will too watch the Steelers. later, we'll have England vs, Argentina, always a grudge match, albeit more of a running bad joke these days than the shooting war it once was.

The Brits never really hated the Argentinians after 1982. More than anything we felt sorry for them. And hated their stupid arrogant leaders. We even let them beat us at rugby every so often.

So far today, I made pickled onions to use up the smallest ones from the garden. Like any good Englishman I like a lunch of pickled onions with cheese, bread, and beer or hard cider. This time I tried using apple cider vinegar, combining some of the cider vinegar I had inadvertently made earlier when a gallon of hard cider maturing in the fridge exploded and had to be taken out of said fridge. Never had onions with apple cider vinegar before, so am interested to see if they're as good as classic Yorkshire malt vinegar pickled onions.

I also made a Provençal- or Italian-style herbed pot roast with a blade of lamb, canned tomatoes (not our own because of the blight) and our own sage and onions, with garlic, thyme, and rosemary. Should make for a good dinner and last all week.

Then we let the sheep out to eat the apples that fell in the storm last night. We got five inches of rain in ten hours and there are temporary ponds here and there.

Sheep have a fun time trying to eat apples with only their bottom teeth.

Saturday, November 14, 2009

Remembrance Day

Photo: My maternal grandfather, Arthur Holden Watson, in what was probably the uniform of the East Yorkshire Regiment, prior to going to France, 1917. Click on the link above to read more.

I essentially missed Remembrance Day this year, which upset me a good deal. Unity College, like a lot of educational and civic organizations these days, does not really recognize the day with any special programming. And I had, perhaps foolishly, managed to volunteer myself for extra duty -- writing a grant that from my viewpoint needed badly to be written, so what time I had to reflect was lost to fund raising.

No matter really -- the money I'm trying to raise will go towards educating Maine schoolkids about renewable energy, which will go some small way towards reducing the burden our services carry securing the pipelines of fossil energy from the middle east. Which, if you think about it, is just the kind of thing I should be trying to do as a renewable energy and sustainability academic, were I to wish to properly use and honour the example of the service of men like my grandfather (pictured above in 1917).

In my perhaps oversimplified, un-deconstructed, non-postmodern, obviously mistakenly deontological world theory, I tend to feel like I'm doing my duty more or less the way I should, given the complications. And there's the small matter of my own six and a half years in uniform.

I also tend to find the college's, and much of society's, lack of formal remembrance sad, but it's a mark of the essential disconnection that exists between the white collar world which makes up much of that society, especially that of college professors, and the military.

Considering that a large number of my colleagues were protesters during the Vietnam War, this is understandable. Many of the boomer generation of intellectuals haven't updated their ethics or moral compass on war since they were protesting. But the implicit, but unconscious, white-collar boomer's notion that we can disconnect ourselves from soldiery and service in wartime permanently is a failure of elementary reasoning.

Obviously there will always come a time where, no matter how liberal you are, you will need to be protected.

To understand this, you only need to understand your 20th century history, be able to admit to the fact that there are bad people, and bad governments in the world, and be able to separate the just wars from the unjust ones you protested. And there are plenty of candidates.

A Jew in 1930s Germany, a Londoner in late 1940, a West German liberal in 1949, a South Korean in 1950, a British civilian in a Birmingham pub in 1974, a Falkland Islander in 1982, a Rwandan in 1994, a Bosnian Muslim or Kosovan Alabanian, and on and on, all these justly needed our protection against the likes of Hitler, Stalin, the Provisional IRA, or the Argentinian Junta.

The world is not necessarily safe, yet, not even for nice, liberal, democratic, peace-loving, intellectually-minded white collar middle class feminist-environmentalist-progressive people who have no connection to, or experience of, military service. Paradoxically, it therefore takes the service of much more pragmatic, down-to-earth, often conservative, soldiers and sailors and airmen to keep our woolly-minded brethren safe in their beds. Whether they are grateful or not.

"Freedom from fear," said FDR, is a human necessity of the first order and one of four reasons we fought and fight. I suppose I should be glad that so many of us are free of fear that we don't even know enough about whether or not others are protecting us to be grateful for it.

I tend to think, too, that today's efforts are much more just than many of my colleagues seem to believe, that for instance a young woman in Afghanistan who wishes to go to school or work, or indeed wishes anything better than the domestic and sexual slavery that many of her menfolk and especially the Taliban and their ilk see as natural, deserves our protection just as much as any of these listed above.

Which means that our soldiers are over there doing a job of work that needs to be done.

(I need to say, too, though, that I have nothing but distaste and distrust for the likes of Cheney, Limbaugh, Beck and the rest of the drumbeat idiocy of the right, none of whom served by the way. It doesn't hurt to say it one more time: Dick Cheney was a four-time draft-dodger.)

Not a few young soldiers, sailors, and airmen I know are, or have been, my own students. They deserve our support, praise, and respect for what they have done and are doing. And they deserve a more considered and considerate Remembrance for their sacrifices.

Sunday, November 8, 2009

A varied menu of jobs and food

The thing about the getting ready for winter jobs is, none of them are really so big as to take a full day.

Yesterday we did banking, placing plastic and insulation and hay bales up against the side of the house where the rubble foundation leaks a lot of cold air. This, and a hot air duct that plays down there, and pipe insulation, helps keep the kitchen pipes from freezing when it gets to 25 below.

It doesn't probably hurt that they are right up agaisnt the part of the kitchen floor where the wood stove sits.

Then we took care of the dry bean crop. Aimee planted six different kinds and they ere not easy to tell apart, and so I decided to thresh them all together for soup mix, rather than separate them. The result is an interesting mix of colors. This is my threshing set-up. It worked fine, but we still have to pick through the beans and wash them to removes stones and debris before we use them. We got around twelve pounds or so.

Then I made sausage out of one of the hindquarters of the ram I slaughtered last week, which has been aging well this last week, first in the freezer then the fridge, then hanging just for a few hours today. (It was too warm to hang for very long.). I wanted to taste it before I cut up the rest, just in case it had a ram taint. I made an Italian sausage mix with lots of garlic and herbs and pork belly fat from our pig. It tasted fine, no taint at all, quite good actually, and was certainly tender enough for other kinds of meat cuts, so maybe I'll make some chunks for curry and stews as well as the sausage and ground lamb for chili I was planning. I guess that all the spice and pork fat might have hid the taint, but you'd think I'd be able to tell.

I still have the other three quarters, and not enough time really to do them. I suppose I could get it done this evening, but I have England v. Australia on the DVR, although delayed and I know who won (the ex-pat perils of reading the British papers online before watching your Setanta rugby).

Friday, November 6, 2009

Snow deer and small wolves and shifting in the woods

Snow again, second late fall snowstorm we've had. It wasn't supposed to, except in the north of the state, but a nor-easter was running past Nova Scotia last night and I guess it veered west and we got clipped.

Two inches of wet sloppy stuff on the ground. The kind of stuff that sticks even to 12 gauge sheep fence. I went out with the dogs to let them piddle at 3.40 am and there it was, all the fences bright white in the moonlight. Christmassy. There had been a bit before bed, but not sticking to the ground or the fences.

The coyotes were howling loud and close too, within 200 yards. Maybe they don't like snow.

The old timers say they would always have a few inches on the ground and staying there before Thanksgiving. These days we get a little sloppy stuff, then another late fall heatwave drives the temperatures up to 55 or 60 degrees again and it melts (degrees F).

This would be the day to go hunting deer. Most hunters around here use the "still hunt" system, letting deer come to them on deer tracks and runways, often using tree stands, but a quiet hunter with a high degree of patience can stalk whitetail, and the fresh snow helps immeasurably. If you live in the kind of place that we do, with thousands of acres of forest all around, simply go out your back door at first light and into the woods and cut for sign, looking for a large enough, lone track in the snow, large enough that it could be a buck. As long as the track is only walking, not running or leaping, follow it closely and quietly and move only when you are sure you are not within fifty yards, and you will eventually see the deer, hopefully before it sees, smells or hears you. Deer tend to bed down soon after first light, and so if the animal has not been disturbed by you or another hunter, you won't usually have to track it far before you see it.

Of course, this makes it sound easy. Only a minority of hunters can more this quietly and observe this well.

Coyotes are worrying. Canis latrans is really a kind of dwarf wolf, same genus, different species as Canis lupus the grey wolf. I wonder what our sheep think when they hear the coyotes howl? Do they feel scared and huddle closer to one another?

These small wolves have never to our knowledge crossed our fence, but I bet they've patrolled every inch of it.

The sooner we get Snorri to do his tupping job and then all the sheep together in the barn each night the better. Once Snorri is gone, with Abe already gone, all the sheep can go in the barn early this winter.

Our neighbor Hamilton is a serious coyote hunter and very skilled, and will likely shoot more than one of these this fall, as long as they are silly enough to come this close to his house. If I were a coyote, I wouldn't go anywhere near Hamilton's house. It's a death warrant.

Which is good for us, since the coyotes are so thick this year. If they get scared off before lambing season, I'm happy about that.

I guess we live right on the edge of civilization here, and it's touch and go whether human activities like sheep farming win out, or whether these few remaining old Great Farm clearings get abandoned to coyote and deer and grow up to be thick forest again. Most of the woods behind our house are second growth, old field successional stands of about 30-40 years age at the most. There are few areas with the large trees, hummocking and rocks that would be present in old forest. The older locals refer to the massive ash grove that starts where our leased land sits as the "hundred acre hayfield," indicating that it was cleared and used during the Great Farm heyday and in fact long after.

But then it was abandoned, and now the coyotes and whitetail and white ash make use of it. The woods now stretch for miles unbroken behind our house. It's touch and go whether we will even maintain the human trails. Hamilton does most of that.

Without Hamilton's shooting and trail-clearing and my clearing of trees for firewood and forage, and the sheep eating the shoots of young trees, and our efforts to maintain our homes, the tiny clearings we live in around here would be greenwood in a few years too, our houses would fall into their cellar holes, and one tiny spot on the planet would go the reverse direction of every other spot, and actually become less civilized.

I'm not sure that would be such a bad thing, but neither Hamilton and I can really help ourselves. He's a hunter, I'm a farmer, and we do what we do. The coyotes and deer do what they do. If they let us, we will shoot them, eat the deer, cut the trees, grow the sheep, stay warm and fed. If we let them, they will make their home here where we make ours, and trees will grow up through the rubble of our homes.

We are all forces of nature: coyote, whitetail, white ash, hunter, farmer. Different traditions, different niches, different powers and weaknesses, all in tentative shifting balance on one small spot on a planet where most everywhere else humans have the upper hand.

It won't be the coyotes, deer or trees that will destroy our houses, though, if we don't look after them. It will be the snow and wind and rain.

That's the real force of nature around here that we all must contend with. I don't say do battle, because I don't like the analogy much. I don't fight it. It's not a war.

I just get up in the morning and scratch my head and go out to my shop and get some tools and do some carpentry, some painting, some firewood cutting.

It's just a job of work. Ho hum. Eight hours and then a nap, and admire what you did the next day. I am glad that I have a vocation that has a beginning, a middle and an end, and for which there is something to see when you are done.

And nothing to spin. Either done well or not. Or not done at all.

There are of course folk all around who do not or cannot work, and you see their houses and especially trailers slowly becoming rubble while they live in them. A trailer, I think, is in fact designed for someone who doesn't want to, or can't work. They will last for twenty years, thirty at the outside, and you just let them go, really. A minority are fixed up in time, but the materials used don't really make this easy.

Stone and wood don't rust or break off in the wind. Plastic and metal do.

A Yorkshireman, I think, does well in the Maine woods because we were taught by our fathers and grandfathers and all the foul-mouthed tradesmen we worked for as youth to shift. When I was a kid, and before I went in the service, I worked as a laborer for a couple of guys, a nurseryman and a stonemason, who had no compunction whatsoever about cursing me out if I rested on my shovel. I hated them, at the time, of course, but I wanted the pay packet too, the brass. And I learned that the way to independence of thought was to get skilled as a tradesman.

That old Yorkshire word shift, the root of the somewhat more commonly used word "shiftless."

I have to stop writing this now and go build on our barn with my students. Some of them definitely are shiftless. Most are not. But those who are, is it their fault, in these days of cell-phones, Twitter and mall-rat syndrome?

We do what we can to help them learn to shift.

If we don't help them learn to shift, of course, all kind of uncivilized elements will enter their lives and begin to break down the fabric, turning youth and energy into burnt-out rubble, and, in the collective, further reducing the value of civilization for the rest of us.

Sunday, November 1, 2009

Abraram gone

Pictures: The mountain where our firewood came from, and the woodpile.

Today started out with a spot of difficulty. Snorri had decided sometime during the night to exit his pen, where he's been no trouble for several days, and go over to see Lark (the too-stupid-to-breed ewe), who had come into heat.

Unfortunately, Abraram took offense, and as his pen was next to the one where Larkie and her mother and aunts were, he was able to at least try to do something about it. He battered into his own fence and got stuck, I guess, and then he and Snorri must have gone at it.

Rams will beat each other to death if you let them.

This morning Abe was obviously in bad shape, stupified, dazed, bloody, and caught in the fence. Even after I got him free, he just stood there reeling. Knuckleheads.

It was the last straw. After calling Aimee out of bed to witness that this was the right thing to do, I put Abe down with the rifle right there. He didn't feel much. I shot him right in the back of the head.

Two rams on one farm can only work, I think, if you have a Yorkshire-style stone byre with solid stone walls and separate rooms for each ram.

I hung Abe with the bucket loader and cut him up for ramburger, but only saved the four quarters. He was so old and stinky, I couldn't imagine how nasty his gralloch would be, and didn't want to find out. I froze the quarters whole, because the day was too warm to hang anything, and will eventually grind them up for burger, or more likely sausage, mixed with the fatback from our pig and enough sage and onion to cover the ram flavor.

We know some people, and know of more people, who keep animals as pets and would never think of putting them down like this, or eating them.

For us, this is a working farm, albeit a small one, and although we try to treat our animals well, we can't afford romanticism. It was the foolish promise to the folks who sold us the starter herd that kept Abe alive these last couple years since the only ewes we had that were not his daughters or granddaughters were, one by one, retired.

It was time for him to go. I was kind of glad to have the excuse.

Once all that was sorted, it was time to get on with the regular chores I had planned. I took off to Dixmont with the pick-em-up truck to get a cord of firewood from a fellow I met a few years ago that owns a mountain close by where I hike a lot.

This is a working forest and I found him cutting wood for firewood, but also as a tree release cut, improving the stand of oak, beech, and other good furniture saw logs.

Three loads with the six foot bed is a cord or a bit more. I need one more cord like this, I think, and I'll be done with fuel for the winter.

Saturday, October 31, 2009

Sheep calls

I finally got my pictures developed and picked up from my recent trip to Wales. A few of them are over on the Sustainability Blog

This one, of a sheep appearing to exit a traditional UK red phone booth, was one I just had to post, but not appropriate for the blog where I put professional material for students.

In home news, Snorri has settled down nicely to a Ménage à quatre with his three "wives."

I envy him not. One is plenty.

Today we got in the winter oats for the sheep: 1,000 lbs of feed in one go. Once the grass stops growing, we switch them to oats, with some coarse 16% protein sweet feed for the selenium. The oats come from Maine, relatively close by (Aroostook County), and so reduce the footprint of our sheep operation which would otherwise require lots of feed trucked in from the midwest.

They still have quite a few apples left to eat in two of the paddocks so with apples and oats and hay and what is left of the grass they are pretty fat and happy. All they need is brown sugar and cinnamon and I might join them.

The next job this weekend is a little more firewood, which we will get from a fellow in Dixmont, the next town to the north and locus of one of the state's controversial wind power project proposals. This neighbor wishes to add turbines to his mountaintop to supplement his retirement income, and it's a good site for it, but it remains to be seen if the voters will allow it. But he's also a good source of cut, split hardwood, which he takes from his own land with what I have to say is a pretty exemplary forestry operation.

We have to buy in wood this year because the spring was too wet to cut much from our own land. Our ground was waterlogged, too wet for the tractors, until July, by which time I had my hands full with insulation.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Snorri snogging

I forgot to mention that Snorri the Rental Ram arrived on Sunday. This is an old picture, from last year. Snorri is the big one with the white spot on his nose.

He has a very wrinkly nose too, which is kind of cute.

He got right down to business, licking around Nellie, a recently mature ewe. Nellie, for her part, was not impressed, and ran away.

Named for the first European child born in North America (around 1,000 AD to a woman who traveled with Lief Erikson), Snorri was the first-born lamb of the Beach family farm, over by Farmington, Maine. (His owners had visited Lief's former camp in Newfoundland.)

We like him because he's so mellow. His lambs are also very mellow, and add calm to our flock, which can be collectively scatterbrained at times. He's also quite large as Romney-cross studs go, adding around 10 lbs to the weight of a finished fat lamb after five months.

Which is good, because we pay his stud fee in meat. Depending on our luck with lambing and lambs, we will get from two to three, to five to six times the weight back at the end of the process, as we pay up front.

So the fat lamb we sold this year from Snorri weighed 45 dressed, while the three from Abraram weighed around 35.

While Abraram is also mean, and once almost broke Aimee's arm when she made the mistake of reaching through a gate to get a feed dish. He did manage to break the gate, which was made of seasoned hardwood, so she was lucky to get away with a bruise.

I suggested to her that we she make ram-burger of Abraram, and keep Snorri full-time.

(We are not supposed to do this, as we are bound by a promise we made to the former owners of our flock not to slaughter the original members, of which Abe is one. But that was before Abe was so mean. If he's going to hurt us and be mean, we shouldn't have to keep him, says I.)

She just gave me that look. But Abe is a useless mouth right now, and mean. Maybe I should post a Google-blogger poll and see what the blog visitors say?

Thumbs up or down for Abe? Vote to your left.

Ain't democracy wonderful?

Saturday, October 24, 2009

Wet weekend looms

Between one and two inches of rain is forecast for today.

Great. I need the rest. I've been crunching on my barn project, attending contentious extra wind turbine meetings that make me restive, and in general getting less sleep and rest than I need.

There's the small matter of new tires for Aimee's truck, and the bill-paying, to be taken care of.

I was going to separate the ewes into breeding and non-breeding herds. Snorri the rental ram arrives Sunday, and his girls must be ready.

Breeding ewes this year:

Mollie (4 year-old)
Maggie (3 year-old)
Nellie (2 year-old)

Non-breeding ewes:

Tootsie (who knows how-old)
Tillie (who knows how-old)
Jewel (not so old, but had a hard time last season)
Lark (too stupid)
Polly (baby)
Poppy (baby)
Penelope (baby)

Abraram, of course, will also not be breeding; All of the above except for the three older ewes are his daughters or granddaughters or great-granddaughters. That wouldn't stop him, the old goat, but it will stop us from letting him.

Poor Larkie, the too-stupid-to-breed ewe, was badly cared for as a baby (not by us) and had white muscle disease (a wholly avoidable mineral deficiency disease).

It would be nice if some humans realized that they, too, were too stupid to breed.

Sunday, October 18, 2009

First snow falls

It happened after it got dark, so there are no pictures. Right about the time we watch Robin Hood on the Beeb (we get BBC America via satellite), the white stuff started to fall out of the sky for the first time in about six months.

The flakes were huge, some of the biggest I've ever seem, each one about two inches across and slowly parachuting down. On inspection each big flake was made of hundreds if not thousands of regular sized small flakes.

This snowfall capped a productive day and a productive weekend in which we delivered boxes of pork to the folks who bought pigs earlier this year, thoroughly cleaned out both the barn and the pig-sty, manured the north half of the garden with the spoils from that project, and rebuilt the outside part of the pig-sty as a sheep pen for lambing season. At the end of all this, I was starting to feel like I was getting in control for winter.

At least, that list of jobs was what I did this weekend.

Aimee, school ma'am par excellence, graded (marked) papers and prepped for class. I had about three hours of grading to do, but Aimee graded or prepped all weekend, poor girl.

Knowing there was heavy snow falling gave me a nice thought, however, as I went to bed around 8.45. We could get a snow day tomorrow! As soon as I had this wonderful thought, envisioning a nice long afternoon nap on a Monday, I realized that my chances of snow actually sticking and deepening in October were pretty slim.

And I was right. Awake at 2.20 am, nocturnal Haggis and I went out to inspect snow quality and depth and we can report that it is now turning to slush and drizzle.

Which I suppose is all right since I never quite got around to banking the back part of the kitchen where the crawl space is open to the weather. Or getting in my last two cords of firewood. Or taking down all the temporary wire and hot wire sheep fences. Or putting away all my farm equipment from the summer, ready-use parking area around the driveway to the winter area out back where it can't be whacked by the snow plow.

And on, and on. We're nowhere near ready for winter. I guess that I congratulated myself too early on getting the barn job done.

Friday, October 16, 2009

Snow is on the way

Haggis the Australian Skunkherd and I couldn't sleep, so we got up and went out in the yard so Haggis could piddle.

Once sprayed, twice shy, I watched carefully for skunks while the dog did his business. It's been cold at night, around freezing, which is pleasant when the house is warm, especially when the stars are out.

By the time we had done that and put a log on the fire and made some coffee, it was three in the morning and nothing much to do, so I read my favorite British daily, the Guardian, and all my favorite blogs, and then for no good reason decided to look through my pictures for the year.

I found these shots that were particularly good but either not published on the blog yet, or interesting enough (to me at least) to put up again. Most are wintry shots, which reminds me of all the yard work and other crucial jobs I have yet to do before we're ready for that season.

I'd better get cracking because we can already see snow on the Maine mountains to our west.

Click on each photo to make it bigger, if you want.

From the top:

1) Icicles forming on the porch roof last winter. Ice is a major threat to Maine buildings and has to be fought vigorously. These formed because I somewhat carelessly installed a baseboard heater in the porch to keep the dogs warm and their water supply unfrozen on the coldest days when we're at work all day, but there's only R 11 fiberglass in the crawl space above the porch. I need to seal it up and blow in some cellulose. And yes, that is a five-foot snowdrift outside our garage door.

2) Our barn in midwinter. We get cold, clear Canadian air a lot in January and February. It's not so terribly unpleasant to be a winter Mainer when the snow is deep and the sun is out. You can get used to six months of winter.

3) Mud season, April 2009, on our driveway. This is a season that Maine has that few other regions of the US share. Mainers complain about mud, but I think we secretly like it. It means that spring is coming. It's also an interesting challenge to getting around.

4) Lambs get born in the barn in mud season. This would be one of Jewel the ewe-l's twins coming into the cold, harsh world. I'd get back in if I were him. We only tend to lose lambs if we fail to keep the ram away from the ewes in September and October, and they get born in January, like as not dropped in a snow bank where they can die of exposure. So we separate the ewes from the ram and any ram lambs each year in the first or second week of September, which means the lambs get born in March and April.

5) Lambs play king of the hill on their water trough. We kept it covered with a pallet to keep out the ducks, who would swim and shit in the water because, due to the stock tank heater we use, it was the only unfrozen water around. Never going to have ducks again, at least not in the barn with the sheep. Noisy quacky things that poop in all the other animals' water. But the eggs were nice.

6) Aimee with Polly-lamb, born to Molly, one of Snorri's kids. I have this picture framed and in my office at work.

7) Van (Gogh), the ear-less piglet soon after her rescue from one of Maine's many piglet mills. Quite a few Mainers keep a sow for piglets and sell the offspring on for feeder pigs, but conditions are not always ideal. We're not picky about heritage breeds in pigs or anything like that, and, with our more or less ideal pig-happiness set-up, we do well with litter runts, so we often buy them because we feel sorry for them. Van, a tiny runt who was bullied by the other pigs, had no ears and a nasty cut on her back when we bought her. Even so, she still dressed out at 162 pounds after having had a much better few months of life than otherwise would have been the case.

8) The three younger pigs on arrival. Trucking pigs at weaner age is no problem. Later, not so easy. Read the article below for details. Read it and weep (with laughter at my expense).

Saturday, October 10, 2009

Four-day weakened

Well, we made it one third of the way for the calendar year, one sixth for the work year. One down and five to go. The first third of the semester is over.

Next break is Thanksgiving.

You may think it ridiculous of me to complain of the two of us working so hard when we professors get all these breaks and our summers off, but I've worked all kinds of jobs and all kinds of shifts and this is definitely the hardest job I've ever had.

I've worked in factories, in a mine, in logging operations and a lumber mill. I've been a farm laborer and a builder, an equipment mechanic, a military medic and rescue specialist, a flight line crew chief, a troubled youth counselor, a caterer, and a coffee shop owner. Most recently I've been an applied science researcher and a writer and number-cruncher/computer modeler for a major university "think tank," and also a senior administrator at this same college. Even that job was easier, although at the time I didn't think so.

In all of these jobs, I had more time to think, more ability to control the workplace, and more protection from hazards, especially emotional ones, than I do as a professor.

Sometimes, when I have time, I try to figure out what is so difficult. I think it boils down to being paid to think, but not having enough time to do so. That's the worst of it. The second worst part is that some, often many students do not actually wish to learn what they are assigned to learn. You jump around from one class to the next, encountering learning problems constantly, and never having time to fix them.

My job, and Aimee's, is to help students learn to solve society's problems using science skills and science knowledge. These problems are fairly complex, and there are no easy answers. It can take weeks of lecture to just lay out the basics, so for instance, in my upcoming discussions of climate change with my general education class on human sustainability, I have to lay the groundwork for an understanding of climate policy by teaching the students what we know about how the planet's climate works. This layout will take about four-five weeks, and build like a pyramid of knowledge.

I can lecture fairly well on climate change by this point. I long ago memorized the basic knowledge and have at my fingertips all of the facts. I have collected a large collection of slides and graphs and I know exactly what they all mean and can explain them very well in layman's language, using analogies that most students grasp easily.

If all I had to do was lecture and then give a standardized test, it wouldn't be so very difficult.

But then I don't teach at that kind of college or university. I don't teach, for instance, in Britain, where at many universities one good, solid, written 5-6 hour long exam on climate change might be given at the end of a whole year of lecture, and any students who flunked, well, that would be their problem.

And I don't teach at a state-run university in America where I might have 400 students in a general education class on climate change, a small army of teaching assistants to hand out my tests, and a computer machine to grade the answers, which would be written by the students on computer-readable cards.

No, I teach at Unity College, which prides itself on serving under-served students.

Which means for instance, that the young man, an obvious and probably self-proclaimed "redneck," with a face right out of a casting crowd for a Civil War movie, who sat sullenly in class for the entire hour Thursday, glowering, and then ostentatiously slammed his book shut close to (but not quite) the end of class, looking around for approval from his buddies (a high-school trick, that one -- and I was glad to see that not much approval was forthcoming), well that guy is my problem.

I will have to try harder to teach him, but he doesn't want to be taught.

And the young woman, the one who ostentatiously buries her head in her hands and takes no notes most of the class, pretend-weeping like Job, possibly even gnashing her teeth.

She's my problem too.

Both of these students probably hail from backgrounds where the parents have few resources. The young man almost certainly does. Americans pride themselves on having a relatively class-free society, but a Brit who has been over here a while begins to decode it. This guy comes from a rural background. Many of my young men do. Their high schools were sub-standard to begin, their families don't necessarily value education, and they don't read well, so study is very hard for them. In Britain they would never even get a chance to go to the university-level. They would have flunked most of their GCSEs. The young woman, I can't tell there, but there is something wrong somewhere. Possibly she is spoiled, possibly just resistant.

Both probably feel that the college's standard, which requires them to demonstrate competence in knowledge of climate change before they graduate, is wrong, that they shouldn't have to learn this stuff. They are probably politically, if not also socially conservative, albeit in an unquestioned kind of a way.

Neither can likely articulate a reasoned argument why they shouldn't have to learn this stuff. For the most part, despite our best efforts the previous two years (this is a junior class), they probably haven't learned to reason well at all.

While I can, and so can the rest of our faculty. We definitely have them out-gunned in that department. We reasoned carefully, many years ago, that an environmental professional in today's society must understand the basic parameters of human sustainability. We set the standard, in writing, in our catalog and in the statement of goals for our degree programs. The outcome was assigned, or "mapped" in curriculum planning language to this third-year general education class. Each student was required to take the class and pass it before graduation. All of this was written down in contractual documents, such as the college catalog, that bind both students and faculty.

One of us, me, was assigned to teach this knowledge to this particular group in this particular section of his class. The most important issue at this point in sustainability is climate change. Therefore these two reluctant students must learn climate change at a decent level, or fail their degree courses. But they do not wish to do so, and are close to rebellion about it.

If my only problem were two students who didn't want to learn climate change (out of twenty-five or so in the class), that would be fine too. But I have another class, with about twenty students, where we are supposed to discuss and debate their duties as environmental citizens and trainee, soon-to-be degree-bearing, leaders for society. Less than half of that class wishes to do so.

Then I have two sections of very young youngsters who wish to be conservation wardens and who must therefore first learn to read a map and not get lost in the woods and mountains. It isn't so hard to learn to read a map, and the hiking around while students try to learn is relatively fun. But these guys are survivors of American high schools and therefore spoiled to death. Even after five weeks of my very best drill sergeant impersonation, they are still showing up without maps and compasses. For sure, if we were running either a military basic training, or an RAF Mountain Rescue trial, they'd have all been kicked off by now.

What they really need is a few long, foggy days on the hill with a good teacher like I had, say Sergeants Hammy Anderson or Dick Allen. Someone who would give them a hard time on hill days, but treat them as human beings in the breaks in between, drink a beer with them, tell stories, hang out. That much would be obvious to any MR troop. I probably had hundreds of hours of map reading practice in the worst possible conditions before I passed my badge test and won my Party Leader status.

But I have these students fifteen at a time, for two hours a week.

My last class is a boon. Out of about twenty-five students in Introduction to Economics, I am going to say about fifteen or possibly more actually want to learn the subject. They answer questions, make a good effort on assignments, and ask questions themselves. Even though the class is six till nine at night, I still come home feeling intellectually refreshed.

The others make me feel like I am beating my head against an intellectual wall.

Then the fact that each class is taught several times a week adds to the difficulties. I feel like I'm just getting somewhere, then it's time to quit. You jump around from one stressful class to another, never quite making headway anywhere. A little bit of practice at a time might be the best way to teach algebra or composition, but you can't teach climate change, or study the social contract that way. You certainly can't teach map reading that way.

The best way to teach climate change to the two very resistant young people in the sustainability class would be take them on a field trip to some place close by where climate change has already impacted the environment. A farm, for instance, where we might talk to a farm family about growing season, or the Atlantic shore where we could look at the various species migrating north along the coast. Particularly if we were able to get to know each other a bit on the drive, so they could see for themselves that I'm a human being, not a thing, which is what they seem to regard me as right now.

It would take at least a day of conversation, probably a week, to begin to figure out what their difficulty is with the education they're getting, and fix it. Most likely if we were rational, they would drop out of school, but at least we might get to the bottom of things.

As for the recalcitrant Environmental Citizens, the best way for them to decide if they have responsibilities to society or not would be for them to be out working in society for a while, and then have them come back later and think about it. At this point, having been in high school twelve years and in college two, society is still an abstract concept. How can they decide if they have leadership responsibilities, or what those responsibilities are, when they haven't even really had to be a follower yet, in any productive societal activity?

There I am trying something a little different, though. I am having them spend a couple hours a week each helping me build a barn for the college, a service project. There at least I get them in twos and threes, not twenty at a time, and we get to know one another better. I have them take responsibility for bits of the building. It's difficult work and requires some gumption and stick-to-it-ivness. And it gives us something real to talk about in class.

For the map readers I add a surreptitious extra hour. They are supposed to come from 12.30 to 2.30 pm, but they don't have another class until 3.30, so I keep them for an extra hour's practice. They don't complain.

Of course the many hours spent building subtract from the time I have available for my other classes and add to the stress load that results from jumping about from one difficult job to another.

I'm looking forward to today's job, the first job of this break. I will go over to our friends' house, Friends Anders and Alysa, and they and I will take our time sketching out an electrical system for a cabin he has on the property. If we encounter a problem, we'll have time to think. We will fix the problem rationally and deliberately and move on. We won't have to jump around from one hard thing to another every hour. And I doubt very much that we will feel stressed about it at all.

But we will get somewhere, and by the time we are done we will have something to show for it.

I suppose if I was a regular college teacher I wouldn't care about not being able to get anywhere with students. But I do care. And it upsets me greatly.

Which is why this job is the hardest I've ever done.

Sunday, October 4, 2009

Pig perambulations

I'm going to write this particular escapade up right away so I don't forget a thing.

Today was the day I had to take the three sold pigs to the butchers. Accordingly, I had a plan, kind of. I had decided to use the old pig crate, which fits into the truck bed, one more time. To get the pigs up there I would construct a sturdy pig-ramp, using the motorcycle ramp I had built this summer. The addition of high, pig-proof sides would do the trick.

And so I went and found a 4 by 8 of plywood and cut it into two 2 by 8's, then screwed them onto the sides of the ramp with a couple of studs for stiffness.

So far so good. Then I loaded the ramp in the truck and trucked it over to the barn and put in place in the doorway of the barn, ready for pigs. The truck now empty, I loaded up the pig crate and dropped its wooden tailgate and put the new pig ramp on this, carefully positioned in such a way as to make everything line up, and no gaps for hasty pigs to wiggle out. (So I thought.) I used the barn doors to fill some of these gaps, bits of plywood or pallet to fill others. I opened up the pig pen and let them out and tried to lure one onto the ramp with food in front and me pushing behind.

First up was Gus.

Gus took one look at the ramp, made a short run, and cleared the sides like a show jumper, heading for points west.

One pig out.

No matter, I thought. Gus is a troublemaker anyway, he won't go far and I can get the two girls loaded. The girls will go easy.

Two more show jumpers later and I was out looking for our three pigs. I was able to get them into the north paddock, where they began to grub up our nice recovered pasture. Not willing to stand for too much of this kind of vandalism, I tried to lure them into the barn through the side door, then through the back pen.

No dice. Grubbing and rooting much more fun, sorry.

To this point you shouldn't feel sorry for the poor pigs. Even though the story ends badly for all three, so far, they were having a fine old pig jest at my expense, and enjoying the relative freedom of a 1/2 acre pasture instead of a 15 by 30 foot pig sty and 15 by 30 foot outdoor pen.

I soon got tired of trying to lure these disrespectful creatures nicely, and instead got a rope. I caught Gus by the tail and got a noose around his neck, then after a couple of rugby moves, got another noose around his foot.

Hog-tied, I wrestled him into the barn. It wasn't easy. Aimee came out to see what all the screaming was about, which meant that I had help, but also that I would have a handy critic.

Then I hog-tied Vera. Aimee put her fingers in the ears to mask the pig squeals. By the time Vera was in the barn, Ruby came willingly. All three pigs took a nice cooling mud bath. Going after them, I lost a wellie twice.

Back to square one.

I decided first to secure the back door of the pig sty to reduce the amount of space for pig chasing and wrestling to a manageable amount, and to remove the possibility of losing a wellie again. This was achieved with three three-and-a-half inch deck screws.

Crude, but effective.

Then, with Aimee's "advice" ringing in my ears I tried to think.

Let it be understood, I was already shattered. My nerves were gone, my stress load sky high, pulse racing. The pigs, meanwhile, were taking a nap, girding their loins for round two.

For myself, I couldn't think straight, but on an off-chance called the butchers. Did they happen to have a trailer? Sure. They would loan me a 4 by 8 low-rider pig trailer, if I would just come get it.

Would I? You bet. In a pig's heartbeat.

I drove over and picked up the trailer, taking the nice safe half-hour or so of driving to gather my wits. It wasn't easy. So far, these pigs had me beat. I was nervous about how things would go later, but hopeful. The trailer proved study and well made. Just the kind of trailer I should have bought, or built, for myself, if I had any sense.

And an extra $800.

Back home, I set about getting the trailer in the barn, unhitching it from the truck and running it into the gate of the pig's pen, using the open gate to block the "loose head" side. I dropped the tailgate. Somebody had left apples in the trailer, and the pigs went right in.

Only trouble was, with the trailer dis-hooked from the truck, the thing tilted right over as soon as a pig was in it.

So I hooked it back up to the truck. But now the barn doors were open. I pushed them tight against the truck and trusted to the gate-block as before. But the pigs rushed the gate while I was fiddling with the other side. One pig went right out, the other two dallied. I screamed for Aimee, but no help came. I could only keep one barn door shut at once. The remaining two pigs waltzed their matildas right out.

One pig decided at this point to rummage about under the truck and got stuck, starting to scream. What's the procedure when a pig is stuck under a truck? Not having encountered this particular problem, I improvised, confidently, the way they taught us in NCO school. Noticing that if I backed up the truck more, into the barn, it would tilt up an inch or so, I tried that.

That only made the pig scream louder.

I went to get my floor jack.

Even when the truck was well clear of the pig, she still lay there, no doubt relieved not to be stuck anymore.

I went around to her butt end and gave it a gentle kick. She wiggled out.

With three pigs now loose again, and me getting my rope ready again, of course it was time for Aimee to show up. And Aimee was pretty mad at me not only for mistreating pigs, but also for not asking for help.

I thought I had screamed out loud for help. (And no help came.)

Go figure.

So with two of us to hold doors and tailgates and the weigh down the trailer tongue so it didn't have to be hooked up to the truck, so the barn doors could stay closed and pigs stay in, we were able to get Gus loaded easily enough.

But no other pig was willing to get on the trailer as long as Gus was on there screaming and angry because he was now finally caught. With Gus trying to climb out, unsuccessfully, thank heavens, I drove away.

The pig from hell.

But one pig, even one out of three, is better than none.

It was an hour to and from the butchers, with Gus only showing his head above the trailer sides once, but that was enough for me to tap the brakes.

Then back for the two sisters, who went in easily enough and didn't try to climb out.

Then I had to fix all the fences that pigs had broken while on their spree. All in all, my pig trucking day went from 10 am until 6pm. And I was shattered.

Of course the pigs were in far worse shape, although they didn't yet know it. But for some strange reason I don't feel nearly as bad as I normally do for them.

Here they are in happier days.