Sunday, August 30, 2009

First pig gone

I decided to take Van, our ear-less gilt named for Van Gogh, to the butchers. She was plenty big enough, over 200 pounds, and had been bullying the three other pigs who weigh a good deal less, and hogging the food, so I got the pig crate readied and loaded her up and took her.

Poor pig.

She's always been a scrapper since we got her as a runt and she gave me a little trouble going in the crate and coming out. Even so, I still felt bad for her, since she obviously knew that this strange new place with all the smells and sounds was not a good place for a pig with no ears.

Aimee never comes with me on these trips. I hate the butcher run, and am usually pretty upset that day. Today was no exception.

It didn't help that as I was driving over there in the pick-em-up truck with the crate in the back, Garrison Keillor was going on, on the radio, telling some Lake Woebegon story about a pet pig that had to go to the butchers.

So, being the pragmatic guy I am, I took my last big piece of smoked shoulder out of the freezer and defrosted it and cooked it up with mashed potatoes from the garden and sliced tomatoes from Heald Farm (since ours have the blight and we don't have a single slicer yet). It was delicious.

There's nothing like home-grown ham. You just can't buy that quality and flavor in the supermarket.

And after all, there's no need to save it now. We'll soon have more.

I'll have to borrow a trailer the day I take the other three pigs. I'll never be able to get a crate with three 200-plus pigs on the truck by myself. It was bad enough with just one and I almost put my back out.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Put a hex on it!

Aimee is Pennsylvanian, and so the first thing she did when she had a house of her own, the first one she had which was the old Bale House, was to put a hex sign on it.

These are a Pennsylvanian tradition, and each symbol means something specific. In the case of our hex sign, we have a distelfink, or thistle-finch, which means good luck and happiness. The oak leaves are for strength. I'm not sure what the wheat is for. Maybe it's barley, for beer, for me!

I just rescued the sign from our old house. I had to go over there to make some repairs, and so I picked it up.

The other shot is of poor old Abraram, our ram, now separated from his harem, and not very happy about it. He's sequestered because tupping season is on us, and we don't want him impregnating his daughters and granddaughters and great-granddaughters, dirty old patriarch that he is.

He'll get no sex this year. After last spring's hard birthings for the older ewes, which are the only ones not related to Abe, they're in retirement.

We should make mutton out of them and Abe, but we promised their former owners that this first generation would die of old age, not of butchering. A little sentimental, but a promise is a promise.

No such sentiment will apply to the next generations, years N through P.

Sunday, August 23, 2009

Virago no go

Well, the Virago 700 I bought for a project is gone. It needed one more thing to get the safety inspection sticker, a set of seals for the front shocks, and I won't have time to get that done with work starting this coming week, so it was time to unload.

I put it on Craig's List for $800 and a nice bloke came around with a trailer and took it away for my asking price, no haggles, leaving me with about zero profit on the deal considering I spent $645 total in bike and parts and my time was worth a lot more than $155, but I had some nice Zen moments in the shop, and a nice ride or two.

It was Aimee's Birthday yesterday, and she got a nice stack of gifts, but I told her that selling the bike was one more. She agreed.


I still would like a smaller engined motorcycle, a single or two-cylinder with a bit more height to the seat and good gas mileage, for commuting and saving gas. The Virago was not that bike, I admit. But it made me smile every time I saw it sitting in the driveway. A pity my wife hated it so.

A mid-life crisis. I told Aimee my next mid-life crisis will be a helicopter.

I did see these great two-seater kit choppers online...

Saturday, August 22, 2009

Bill edges closer

I'm having fun watching Bill, I admit it. I'm a weather "anorak" of sorts (anorak, from the item of clothing, is the British term for a geeky amateur at some activity, like a birdwatcher or trainspotter). I measure the wind for community wind turbines in my academic job, and I like seeing what the weather here in Maine, which is often extreme, can do.

Anyway, Bill's prediction swathe once again shifted to the northwest, and the probability of storm force winds went up yet again.

Usually a strong, dry, cooler Canadian high is pulled in to this region after a hurricane passes. This will make for a pleasant start to next week, the first week of college work for Aimee and I, although we have both been hard at work on college stuff for quite a while.

I for one am looking forward to a dryer air mass, which will give me the energy I need to get through the hectic first days of term. Assuming I'm not still picking up the pieces, that is.

It looks like Nova Scotia will bear the real brunt. Nova Scotia's southern peninsula lies east of us, and comprises the eastern bounds of the northern arm of the Gulf of Maine. The Gulf itself will see the worst of it, and hopefully all mariners are already in port or getting there.

Of course, someone will have missed the warnings. I expect the Coastguards of both nations are running around pulling in the odd yachtsman and fisherman who lacks modern comms. Hopefully we get them all. I have several students and ex-students who are part-time or full-time coasties and marine patrol officers. With that and as an SAR team member in Maine, when there's a weather emergency, it's people I know that re risking their lives.

Even lapsed Anglicans, and likewise any former British ex-serviceman, "Soldiers of the Queen," will have a hymn for every occasion.

I expect the Nova Scotians know it well.

Eternal Father, strong to save,
Whose arm hath bound the restless wave,
Who bidd'st the mighty ocean deep
Its own appointed limits keep;
Oh, hear us when we cry to Thee,
For those in peril on the sea!

O Christ! Whose voice the waters heard
And hushed their raging at Thy word,
Who walkedst on the foaming deep,
And calm amidst its rage didst sleep;
Oh, hear us when we cry to Thee,
For those in peril on the sea!

Most Holy Spirit! Who didst brood
Upon the chaos dark and rude,
And bid its angry tumult cease,
And give, for wild confusion, peace;
Oh, hear us when we cry to Thee,
For those in peril on the sea!

O Trinity of love and power!
Our brethren shield in danger's hour;
From rock and tempest, fire and foe,
Protect them wheresoe'er they go;
Thus evermore shall rise to Thee
Glad hymns of praise from land and sea.

Friday, August 21, 2009


We're looking out for a Bill, but not the usual kind. Those are all paid.

This is a hurricane. Maine does get them from time to time, and this one has been barreling our way for several days, getting stronger all the while, and it's predicted course has been inching to the northwest a little more each day.

This graphic shows the likelihood of tropical storm strength winds for late this weekend. You can see we are in the 10-20 % likelihood range.

For most folks, this is not enough to batten down the hatches.

But I'm a little more prudent about storms than most folks.

Total boy scout: "be prepared" my middle name.

But since most of my loose stuff in the yard is picked up ready for the college term to start, there isn't much to do. I did go over to our straw bale house and try to patch a roof leak temporarily. The roof will need a larger repair, but that can wait.

I will also exercise our generator and check its fuel supply, check the trickle charger to the genny's battery, and gas up both vehicles.

Then I guess we'll sit back and see what happens.

For all our friends across the pond, this is something we can share! (He said, geekily.) Check out the map. A few days after it hits us, Bill will become an somewhat early but typical September equinoctal storm in the yUKe.

Since I'm supposed to be there for my parents 50th wedding anniversary September 5th, I might even get hit twice by the same storm!

Saturday, August 15, 2009

Green and pleasant

Sometimes, when life is complicated, it's good to look back on a success or two.

These pictures show one of our farming successes: A junkyard becomes a green pasture.

When Aimee and I took over this Great Farm haven, this particular 1/2 acre wood-encircled field, part of our leased land, was filled with weeds, trash and junk. There were no less than three Ford truck cabs circa 1947, a couple of truck beds and chassis, a pile of trashed furniture, and mountains of regular household trash dating back to the 1800s.

Most of it got picked up, with some help from Friends Alysa and Anders. Some of the rest was covered by slash piles, which will eventually rot and become soil and bury it. The ground was seeded with red clover and Maine conservation mix.

And this is the result. As you can see these sheep have just been rotated onto this pasture which features the perfect 8-inch growth of clover and grasses. There are a few weeds, but not many. Some trees need to be taken out: a dead elm which may infect others, and several ash which will become firewood and when gone allow light into the field.

But even so, as a work-in-progress I have to say, it's looking pretty good.

The lambs vote yes, with mouths too full to baa.

There are also several apple trees, and one butternut, bearing this year in this field. As well as black cherry, bird cherry, hawthorne, and oak.

Lambs vote yes to apples too.

I'm not sure how they feel about butternut. Apparently it makes a good dye, if you're a rebel.

That maybe why there are not too many of them here in the north. I'm not a rebel, but I do want to see a better society.

I find in life that if you try hard enough long enough, you will make progress and make a difference. It's important not to give up too easily.

Sometimes you can't afford to give up at all: The lesson of 1940 Britain that all us Brits learned at our grandparents' feet and now carry genetically, stubborn so-and-sos that we are.

My favorite poem about green pastures, and lambs (of God), and about striving for improvement, is also a hymn, beloved of Yorkshire choirs: Blake's Jerusalem:

JERUSALEM (from 'Milton')

by William Blake (1757-1827)

AND did those feet in ancient time
Walk upon England's mountains green?
And was the holy Lamb of God
On England's pleasant pastures seen?

And did the Countenance Divine
Shine forth upon our clouded hills?
And was Jerusalem builded here
Among these dark Satanic Mills?

Bring me my bow of burning gold!
Bring me my arrows of desire!
Bring me my spear! O clouds, unfold!
Bring me my chariot of fire!

I will not cease from mental fight,
Nor shall my sword sleep in my hand,
Till we have built Jerusalem
In England's green and pleasant land.


Saturday, August 8, 2009

Cool weather arrives, and with it, time to put up food

I'm glad for the 50 F temperature out there this morning. Feels like fall, by far the best of the seasons in New England. As a somewhat stout Old Englishman, I always get a burst of energy from the first cool weather of the fall. When you've been fighting heat and humidity to get farm and house repair jobs done, a nice cool day is like a shot of glucose. It never hurts that it comes a few days before college starts up again, and so you realize you have only a short while to get the last of those jobs done you wanted to do before your time is no longer your own.

Our tomato crop won't like it much, though. If so, I will miss them this fall.

Tomatoes don't grow much unless the nighttime temperatures are higher than this. We have very few tomato berries on the vines so far, and those that we have are small and hard and green. We had such a wet start to the summer that the plants were behind, and when the heat and humidity, and with it those warm nights, finally arrived, the plants put on green growth, not berries.

Some that had succumbed to the blight never recovered at all. They're down in the weeds somewhere. No doubt at the end of the cropping season we'll put the garden to be, and while pulling the others, we'll find these tiny plants with a few berries on them, but for all serious economic purposes, they're gone.

We don't pinch suckers, although we probably should, but it's too late now anyway, so that green growth instead of berries may hamper our final harvest. A pity, because we love our fresh tomatoes, and also use them as a storage crop and staple, by canning and freezing them seven different ways from Sunday.

Brits usually say "bottle" for the work Americans call "canning" although neither bottles nor cans are generally involved, but instead glass jars are used.

"Jarring" is its own word already, I guess.

Other storage crops are doing fine, so even if the grocery store were not just down the road, and even if the paychecks didn't arrive regularly, we would never starve down on this old farm. We have a large number of very large round cabbages, lots of carrots and beets, plenty of spuds, and storage onions, and the dry beans are coming on and should do fine. Obviously we will have pork, ham, and lamb in spades and more eggs than we can eat.

We do all right, Jack.

Canning, or jarring, season approacheth, tomatoes or not, and Aimee has ordered New Jersey peaches, so there will be some canning to do. Peter, our neighbor, provider of farm-lumber, and local apple-ladder mill owner, makes deliveries to the New York and New Jersey truck farm and orchard regions, taking truck-loads of apple ladders, and brings back truckloads of produce that we can't grow here in Maine.

I like to can peaches and tomatoes, which we always manage to eat, no problem, so the work is well worthwhile. I pretty much gave up canning cucumbers and other pickles when I realized we never eat them. Aimee like only crisp pickles, and mine are always soggy. Aimee, for her part, is experimenting with lacto-based canning, not for the faint of heart since it doesn't come with USDA-approved bomb-proof instructions like there are for peaches and tomatoes.

The picture above is of her projects: last year's cabbage, this year's broccoli.

Terrifying, aren't they? Especially to anyone who has ever read an account of the life history and effects of our ubiquitous friend and co-evolutionist, Clostridium botulinum.

I did say I would try the cabbage when she opens it. We'll see.

For my part, I'll can the peaches in halves, do up whatever tomatoes we might get if we're lucky, dry out and put the potatoes, beets and carrots in boxes in the root cellar, dry the onions and hang them, and wrap the cabbage in cling film and refrigerate it. The total of all this will be around 500-600 pounds of fruit and vegetables, and should see us healthily through the winter and well into spring.

No scurvy for this limey.

The only trick I want to add to this annual round is soft fruit: raspberries and strawberries, some of our own rhubarb, and something to do with all our apples.

We inherited a few dozen of Israel Thorndike's Great Farm heirloom apple trees in the overgrown pastures that we took over when we purchased this farm. Some are recognizable varieties: Golden Delicious, Macintosh, Spy. Others seem unknown to science. It's quite the legacy.

But how to get them back into production?

The first part of this proved easy: the first full year we were here, the sheep scoffed them up without any work whatsoever, and in this way they entered the food chain right away.

But it would be nice to have some for humans too.

Right now they are too small, hard, wormy, and scabby, and they don't keep or eat well as a result. I can usually get a bushel or two of the Golden Delicious, but that's about it. Most of these trees are 20-25 feet tall at this point, way beyond reach. I already have cut most of their neighboring, competing trees for firewood, so we have several apple trees now out in full sun for the first time, and they are responding well to that. I then experimented with "dehorning" one of the trees to see if they can be brought down to apple-ladder height without killing them. If all goes well, we will eventually have a pretty good orchard with lots of interesting varieties.

The only other thing we'll need is a cider press.

I love cold dry hard cider, scrumpy, as we say back home. I like it to have a nice bite. If I can get these apples producing, I may go into the scrumpy business in a big way.

What might be nice is to have students over to pick and press and split the harvest with them. You can make hard cider quite well in one-gallon plastic milk bottles, but I think what I'd really like are a collection of small barrels, 20-25 gallon ones, in the basement, with enough cider that I could stop buying beer and wine.

Then, I think, I would be a fairly "jolly" stout Old Englishman.

I am pretty sure both Aimee and I have a genetic predisposition for growing and putting up food. We both come from fairly hardy British and German peasant stock, and in both of our families the farming history is within living memory. My granny was born on a farm in Pennal, west Wales, in 1908. My grandad was a third-generation English master gardener, a real professional from the old school, and taught me not a little of what he knew, so I suppose that makes me a fourth generation English gardener. That one skipped a generation, because my parents were never great gardeners or putters-up of food. Aimee's parents were both raised on western Pennsylvanian farms, and her dad especially loves to put up food.

I can think of far worse ways to spend a life:

May the wealthy and Great, live in Splendour and State
I envy them not I declare it!
I eat my own Ham, my Chickens and Lamb,
I shear my own fleece and I wear it,
I have lawns, I have bow'rs
I have trees, I have flow'rs
The lark is my morning Alarmer,
So Jolly Boys now, here's God Speed the Plough,
Long Life and Good Health to the Farmer.

Amen to that.

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Butchering a lamb

Here's "butcher lady" from the previous post, demonstrating technique. A helpful clip. I don't understand how she can chat like this while working, though. I need to concentrate deeply if I ever have to demonstrate a skill and talk about it at the same time.

Maybe I just have too little RAM.

Sunday, August 2, 2009

Nature, and nurturing nature, and the nurturing of nature-nurturers

A well-nurtured, properly husbanded 2009 ewe-lamb called Poppy takes a safe nap. Who's going to get me clean water, fresh grass, a little oats, and a safe fence and guard dog to keep away coyotes today? Who will observe me to make sure I'm not sick or lame? Who will make sure I can get to the oats without the big sheep getting there first?

After a rare day off yesterday, in which Aimee and I had a nice jaunt to Belfast town to see Harry Potter and find me some new steel-toed work shoes for the fall, and a new coffee mug to replace the one that fell of my sawhorse Friday, I'm still in reflective mode.

My morning muse, apart from my fine new coffee cup, is nature, chewed in tooth and saw.

As it should be. (Some of the time at least.)

This is about being involved in and aware of nature and what it does for us, and about being aware of and involved in husbanding or stewarding the resource, and what kind of frame of mind that really takes.

Two articles in interesting contrast, the Observer's's science writer Robin McKie spouting off about how ridiculous organic farming is, and one of my favorite organic farm blogs reflecting on rotational grazing, are what got me going.

Then an article about how the removal of coppice management has changed British woodlands, reducing biodiversity, and another about one woman's foray into butchery, added to the muse.

This is probably tedious to the non-farmer/land managers who read this blog, and I should probably get to my day's work before the heat arrives, but this is actually terribly important, and for my own satisfaction at least I should work out what is irritating me and record it.

The main link between all these articles is involvement. Of humans. And awareness.

Are people aware and involved?

Aware of where their food and water and shelter and fuel come from, and involved in their production in some meaningful way?

Or are they the normal kind of post-industrial zombies, slavish consumers just hanging on until the next paycheck and the next fix: the next night out, vacation, shopping trip, fill-in-the-blank, consumer experience.

It seems to me that the big problem we have is that we have no clue about where any of these things comes from. Ignorance conspires not just in the routine ingratitude that we have for nature, as well as the dislocation and commodification of the primary human-natural connection, which is subsistence, but it is also implicated in the fake romanticization/Disneyfication of nature that pervades in the new students I see each year in my classes, fresh from Animal Planet, and it directs the willful destruction of biodiversity and ecosystem services that surround us, which I see primarily as a direct result of that romanticism.

Of which the last, willful destruction, is by far the worst, and the one that will eventually threaten human life, is threatening human lives, as this combination of an energy crisis and climate change and all the problems that result take hold.

(You're going to have to read all four articles to see where I'm going with this, or this post will just be confusing.)

Ordinarily I'd agree with the Observer guy, organic can be overblown and faddish, if not at times downright cruel to animals: there's a use for pesticides and herbicides and livestock medicines, but in the right place, at the right time.

Ordinarily, Throwback at Trapper Creek annoys me with posts about homeopathy, which I find unscientific and silly. But she's right on with this monologue about grazing, and you can see how closely she watches her animals and pastures.


Butcher lady is totally involved too. Fascinating. And the coppice article is likewise fascinating and resonating. On our farm we manage woodlands for firewood and light grazing, as well as rural and biodiversity conservation, and the difference we have seen in just a few short years of letting light into the lower stories is huge. We're not trying to make a "natural" woodland. This old farm hasn't been natural since Israel Thorndike, that old pirate and serial abuser of Englishmen, had it cleared up 203 years ago. We are instead trying our best to look after a self-seeding American elm colony, that seems to have developed some small imperfect immunity to the blight, as well as a collection of heirloom apple trees, a herd of sheep, while removing to landfill a collection of ancient household and farm trash, to reveal instead a woodlot/pastureland that produces both food and fuel with vigor and efficiency.

You can't maximize four variables at once but you can understand how they work in system, or try to, and optimize.

It takes involvement. And awareness.

Thesis: A serious person who is involved in and aware of their surroundings and their connection to their own life will find out where their food and shelter and water and energy comes from, and take a hand in their production, learn to manage food, water, shelter and energy systems practically and unromanticly, and help provide them for others who cannot or will not manage them themselves.

In doing so they will become more human, more humane, more authentic, more compassionate, and will contribute to helping save the planet and humanity. They will also lead more compelling and interesting lives, keep a little healthier and fitter from better, more wholesome food, and some regular hard work and exercise, and possibly even better appreciate the other workers, human and natural that support them.

I think this is what I am trying to achieve for my students with my education and public service and research work, as well as for myself with my farming activities.

This all seems now to me to be the real point of human community and sustainability praxis, or husbandry, or stewardship, or what-you-will, that we have these systems and they work well because we look after them, and that they can be made to work in the very long run, and that individuals, particularly my students, are engaged and involved in providing for this long run.

Energy and climate crisis notwithstanding. Hopefully we can avoid both, but if not, at least some of our youth will be prepared to try to continue the human story.

McKie is wrong and being a bit of a twit to boot. Organic farming is not the solution, and it never has been, but learning how to be involved with our farmland again, and in particular how to reduce the energy needed to produce food is vital. Organic farmers may at times be scientifically ignorant, but they are energy efficient, for the most part. And they are involved and aware, which I suspect he is not. The point that will last, that will add to the longevity of the human story is the low energy use.

(Not the avowal of pesticide use.)

This also seems why our local anti-wind nimbys are so annoying. (Card carrying romantic environmentalists all.) Do they have any clue where energy comes from and how we plan to provide for it in future years? They are just as bad, in their own way, as the big wind companies, who given a chance would plaster GE 1.5s on every hilltop and shoreline in Maine, turning us into an energy colony of the lower 47. A green energy colony, but a colony nonetheless. I enjoy all the local small scale community wind groups I'm working with because they take responsibility for both the energy and the obvious nuisance that can be caused by badly sited wind turbines. They are aware and involved in the development, management and stewardship of the resource.

That may be enough for now. This is turning into a rant.

I have a date with a shelter/energy efficiency-enhancing project, my almost-done R 36 walls, and I need to be aware and involved for that or I'll cut a finger off with the chop saw. But first I have to re-set the rotational grazing fence and feed and water and move the sheep, feed the sleepy pigs (pigs love to lie in in the morning and I like to see them sleep so happily. Even though we plan to eat them, they deserve good lives too, as long as it lasts. No-one lives forever.), and take the trash and recycling to the transfer station because that is what you do in Jackson on a Sunday when you're done drinking coffee and reading newspapers and posting on your blogs.

Saturday, August 1, 2009

On reflection...

Finally, we seem to be breaking out of the summer rain/thunder/muggy day cycle. It was a pleasant cool late summer morning this morning here at 527 feet above see level in Jackson Maine, around 55 degrees F instead of 70, and you could see all the stars last night. No sign of Orion yet, but I'm watching out. I did see a meteor.

Was it a Perseid?

I think of Perseid meteors as signs of approaching fall. Good. Fall is my favorite season in Maine. And I am ready for it.

It's been a long wet summer. Nothing has gone easily. Everything has been way harder than it should have been, and the weather never cooperated once. It either rained all my work time away, or it was muggy and hot and humid and I sweated buckets while slaving away.

Are we downhearted?


Fight them on the b****y beaches, is what I say.

Despite what it looks like in this old photo, which, characteristicly is Aimee's favorite photo of me, Aimee and I rallied and finished the straw bale house project that was giving me so much trouble back then, a previous muggy Maine summer I remember so well: 2003.

And I rallied late this week and despite the heat have broke the back of the massive household insulation project I started three-four weeks ago. I still have about two days work to do, but it's light work, and I am already looking forward now to the fall and beginning to plan my activities and down-wind.

Time to reflect and regroup and get a different kind of busy.

There's a lot of planning and prep work to do because I have decided to have a very hands-on fall at college, lots of hands-on teaching of barn-building carpentry, map reading, anemometry studies, and so on. With only three weeks to go, I need to get the prep work in hand, or I'll be working eighty-hour weeks in September.

The problem with my household construction projects is that I tend to do them alone. I like working alone, but it can make life difficult when a lot of equipment and materials are designed for a minimum of two men.

(You may think that's a sexist statement, but actually it's a statement of fact. A truckload of eighty pound bags of cement, or of 4 by 8's of plywood, is easiest handled by two guys who each weigh 200 pounds and are around five feet ten inches or more tall. They design the schtuff that way, and it's as bad for us lone wolf builders as it is for tiny women like my wife who like to build things.)

The worst of this is the forty-fifty-sixty trips up and down ladders with heavy loads that a day of siding or insulating or trimming a two-story house might entail for a guy who works alone a lot. Add 85-90 degree F heat and a dew point of 70, and you have a special kind of hell.

Still, it's good exercise. I imagine my muscles are in pretty good shape from all this practice of what Aimee calls "Mick-yoga."

Omne mane padme hum

But this fall I will have all the help I need and more. Students make good helpers, once you have them trained to work safely. I also enjoy the work of running a crew.

I ought to. I've been doing it long enough. I ran different kinds of crews for the RAF at the tender age of 19, younger than my students are now.

I especially like getting the heavy lifting done with ease. After this summer, I will be happy to have some students to work with me.

I'll be posting on our barn-building blog shortly as I get the prep work in hand.