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 Proven├žal- 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.