Sunday, January 31, 2010

British thermal units

Americans, paradoxically, still use the BTU as the standard unit for quantity of heat energy. While Britons have shifted to the therm and the Joule and the watt, all pukka System Internationale units and much more decimal and scientific and reasoned.

Around here, I think the proper definition of a British thermal unit must be when the Englishman puts a good big log on the wood stove or the wood furnace! We use about 30 of these high value BTUs a day when it's this cold.

Actually, in terms of the real, ordinary kind of BTUs, we have a 20,000 BTU wood stove, an 80,000 BTU wood furnace, a 1,500 watt electric oil-filled space heater, and to cap it all a 175,000 BTU oil furnace, all working together right now.

And it's still cold.

OK. Admittedly, it won't stay that way for long. It's already getting better fast. I just upped the thermostat on the oil furnace to make up for the fact that the wood stove took a while to get going this morning. That furnace is a very powerful beast, and won't take long to make up the difference.

Oil. A fossil fuel. Bad man.

But it was only 59 F where I sit, and Mary, a very spoiled hound-dog, who hates the cold, was wimpering at me from the couch a few feet away, asking me to turn up the heat.

I couldn't very well refuse, could I?

I think I shall require a good cooked breakfast today. Some grease for the wheel. Sausage, or bacon, maybe, instead of my usual oatmeal.

Wish I had some black pudding. That would get the old gut-furnace rumbling, wouldn't it?

Now that's what I call a British thermal unit. Pork fat and pig's blood sausage. Americans won't touch it, but they don't know what they're missing.

Saturday, January 30, 2010

Eight below and all's well

The weatherman forecast a cold day with a strong wind, and we're not disappointed. More of that Canadian air from up around Hudson's Bay.

I went out with Haggis-dog at 5 am so he could piddle, and discovered a full moon so bright I could see color. Moonlight was reflecting all around in the recent snow, which, although it wasn't actually snowing, was making little mini-blizzards in the wind. Tiny whirlwinds of snow in our dooryard. The thermometer read only - 8 F (about -22 C) which is not so terribly cold -- it gets a lot colder around here. But the wind made it feel much worse.

Beautiful, but distinctly unwelcoming.

We hurried back indoors. My morning chore #1 around here is stoking fires. A few logs on each, and we quickly began to warm the house up.

We weren't so cold inside. The oil furnace had come on overnight -- a sign of cold temperatures outside. We set the oil-burner's thermostat to 60 F so that whenever the wood heat slacks off for any reason, the oil burner comes on. This prevents the house from getting that bone-achy kind of cold, and protects the water pipes, without using more than 50 or so gallons of oil a year. If you let a house drop below 55 F in Maine when it's below zero outside, then your basement and crawl spaces will of course be even colder and pipes may freeze. The house will also take a good while to heat back up, during which time you will be miserably uncomfortable.

Our kitchen wood stove, pictured here going full blast after being tended first thing this morning, soon got the kitchen up to 75 F, and a small fan we keep in the door between the kitchen and the rest of the house began to circulate the warm air around. The forced air wood furnace in the garage also soon picked up to full speed, blowing warm air into the upstairs where Aimee is still sleeping.

As far as she's concerned, the heat never dropped below 65F.

But I expect that is my job, to keep the wifie and the indoor critters warm, without them having to think about it.

Today is going to be a bad day for outdoor work. I will have to feed, of course, but I'm glad I changed the livestocks' water earlier in the week, because that means I don't have to do it today. I will have to bring in the wheelbarrow load of firewood we will easily burn through today. The shop is a mess and I have some car work to do, but that optional kind of chore will have to wait until it's a little more sensible kind of weather for that kind of thing.

Kind of.

Even going for a walk with the dogs is probably not such a smart thing to do either, unless you want a dog to lose an ear, or you wish to lose the end of your nose.

So that leaves cooking, cleaning, and knitting. I want to knit. Here's a shot of our knitting machine set-up, with two sweaters in process, one on the machine, another over the chair. Not exactly exercise, but I hope to finish the one on the machine this weekend, preferably by Sunday morning so Aimee can pop it in the wash to shrink a bit. (I made it oversize to allow for this shrinkage.)

I have to confess it took me a long while to get used to cold winters. Mostly, the relative inactivity is hard to get used to. As a fairly ordinary kind of Englishman with regard to my preferred outdoor activity, walking, I sort of naturally expect to be able to take a pleasant walk outside most days of the year, with the only weather inconvenience conspiring to prevent this being rain or mist, or at worst a few inches of temporary snow. And if it is a bit cold on your walk, well, the countryside should sort of naturally be arranged so that there's a nice warm pub with a nice crackling fireplace at the end of it.

But for twenty-two years this generally hasn't been possible for at least a third of each year. The walking part, I mean. The pub part is pretty much out of the question whatever the weather. American has not yet progressed to the level of civilisation (with an "s") where family-friendly pubs are strategically placed at the ends of countryside walking paths.

Now that's what I mean by rural planning.

But of course if you live where we do, you can always take a walk. We have thousands of acres of forest right up to our backyard. It's just that for quite a bit of the year you might not enjoy it very much.

Back in the day, when I was frequently an instructor on the RAF Mountain Rescue Service's famous winter mountaineering course, we would go each year, of course, to Coire an t'Shneachda and the other northern corries on the Cairngorm plateau, to access the easy, beginner's-level snow and ice climbs, to train our latest batch of young droogs in the lore of snow and ice climbing and associated rescue practices.

I swear, it was nearly always warmer there than it is in my dooryard today, and most of each winter.

Sunday, January 24, 2010

Lazy Sunday photos

Here's Poppy, a sheep pretending to be an old English sheepdog. I don't know how she sees to eat.

Today was warm, by the afternoon. This morning was frigid as usual, probably around zero, but we got a break from Canadian air. A storm passing up to our west is bringing a southerly breeze and a warm air mass. It was up to forty F by this afternoon, a very rapid increase. All the icicles on the roof started to drip and occasionally we hear one come crashing off.

Which means for once I don't have to mine the firewood pile every couple of hours. Here's the work face. We have about three-quarters left of what we had a couple weeks ago, but there's really only one truly frigid month left. As soon as it warms up enough to stop using the wood furnace in the garage, the firewood pile depletion rate drops to less than a quarter of what it was.

Chickens were enjoying the sun, as was head ewe Tillie.

A noble profile, there, Till.

Slow daze for Haggis and I

It's been a slow week, helped along by a bout with a cold, ongoing, a holiday on Monday, and a snow day on Wednesday. I've been trying to get those lingering vehicle projects finished -- Aimee's truck now has a state safety inspection sticker, the refurbished rear brakes and emergency brake having done the trick -- it passed first time. The Escort wagon, which is in the best shape by far, failed inspection the first time, and is waiting to return to the inspectors, having received the required new tie rod end. The old one refused to part company with the car, which required me to go buy a new tool -- not usually something to upset me, but this time the unexpected expense did tick me off a bit. The old tie rod end had a severely rusted nut, which required a new angle grinder, my 15-year old one having died a couple years ago, and not having yet been replaced.

So I trekked into town and got a new grinder, as well as a half a ton of oats for the sheep, and four bags of sweet feed. Then, having first shoveled the oats into the grain crib, not a fun job if you have a cold because oats can be dusty, I ground off the rusty nut, hammered out the old tie rod end, and fitted the new one. Twenty minutes with the proper tool. It had taken me thirty minutes of messing about earlier to completely round off that rusty nut. Messing about being the nice way of saying it. My supervising NCOs from the RAF would have used a different word, beginning with "f."

Despite my incompetent blundering early on, and the new tool, I expect we still saved money on the job. Fifteen bucks for the part and forty for the new tool probably compares well to the hundred or hundred-fifty we would have been charged by a shop to replace the tie rod end.

By the time all this was done I was feeling pretty knackered. My nose had itched and run and sneezed constantly the entire time I was working, despite the antihistamine tablet I had taken. Not even bothering to put my tools away, I ate a quick cheese sandwich for lunch and headed to the couch to sleep it all off, sneezing a bit as I went.

What a way to spend a Saturday.

So the lingering cold goes away only slowly, as do the lingering car jobs. Wifie of course has no sympathy for me. Colds are self-inflicted injuries, as far as husbands are concerned, and if you give an inch, they take a mile, so there'll be no whinging about here! Haggis the dog, recently returned from the vets where he was diagnosed with Lyme Disease, a nasty little fact o' life here in Maine, received far more solicitous care.

Oh well. Only another two weeks until the Rugby internationals. Saturdays around here will pick up then, as long as this bl**dy cold goes away. And Lyme Disease is objectively worse than any cold.

Poor dog. But he's already looking much better, and the swelling he developed in his paw has gone down. On Thursday he could hardly walk, and he actually fell out of the car in the vet's parking lot. Normally we protect the dogs and cats against this disease with applications of long-lasting insect repellent every spring and summer, into the late fall, but we pulled some ticks off of Haggis as late as Christmas time this year. They must have been the ones to carry the disease.

Where he could find a live tick to pick up when there was already snow on the ground and there had been a month of hard frost already is a mystery of the first order. But he did. And it made him sick.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

The way we get by

At Aimee's folks this Christmas, a young relative was looking at our pictures and said something like, "is there always snow in Maine?"

Good question.

The answer is, sometimes it seems that way.

Yesterday we had about six inches, by this morning another six. The dogs, especially Mary, were not impressed.

The snowbank outside the front door is taller than I am. The firewood pile looks like an igloo. The barn view from the road is obscured by another big snowbank.

It's the tiny Kubota tractor that makes these snowbanks, piling all the snow that falls out of the way. Life would be a good deal harder without a tractor.

In the winter I run the Kubota on kerosene (paraffin), instead of diesel. Kerosene has a lower flashpoint, and so the tractor starts better. Even so, it takes a good count of 60 or even 90 minutes on the glow-plug.

Chickens don't suffer much in the snow if they have a warm, dry barn to scratch around in. They like a little unfrozen water in the morning. They can get out, but they'll only go out if the sun comes out and it warms up. They amuse themselves scratching, perching on the gates, clucking mildly to one another.

Sheep on the other hand don't like to come into the barn much, except to eat and drink, and so they stay out in the snow and get covered, sitting there quite happily with several inches of snow on their backs.

When they could be in a nice warm barn.

I have no photo of the sheep. To get one, I'd have to wade through two feet of snow to the yard at the back of the barn where they hang out.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Flashy dressers

I've been struggling to master our "Singer Chunky Knit" knitting machine, using up quite a bit of "our" yarn in the process.

"Our" yarn comes of course from the Bartlett Yarns mill in Harmony, Maine, where our sheep's fleece is mixed up with every other sheep's fleece to make a standard blend every year. But in return for depositing fleece each spring, we get credit on yarn, which makes the yarn roughly 1/2 price.

I seem to have the basic stockinette stitch down, including increasing and decreasing, with elaborations such as doubled over, knitted-in hems, and chain-stitch bind-offs.

The result is I can now make sweaters with doubled over bottom hems and sleeve ends, and rolled or doubled-over collars. And after some trial and error, I'm beginning to make them fit. Although neither of these fits exactly, they fit after a fashion and can be worn, unlike my first effort, which is already unraveled.

The first shuftie is of one I made for Aimee, using a sweater she wears fairly frequently for sizing, and the plain undyed yarn, a light gray color.

"Hodden" gray?

The second, taken in the bathroom mirror using the flash, which came out funny, is the one I made for myself, following the traditional mountain and fell rescue pattern of striped chest and sleeves, using the Unity College colors of green and white.

I still haven't mastered the ribbing yet. I know I can do it, because twenty years ago when I had my first knitting machine (but no sheep and no yarn of my own), I managed to master it. All you do is unravel every second or third or fourth row of stockinette on the machine, and knit it up backwards by hand with the latch tool. I remember how, and even gave it a try last week, but this wool is so, well, woolly, it was hard to see the strands, even on the wide spacing of this large gauge machine.

But then I went to the optician, and he told me my eyesight was changing. I'm getting more far-sighted, although I'm still technically near-sighted, and my glasses no longer work close in. But I don't need bifocals. The optician showed me that if I just take my glasses off, I can see close work very well!

This was of course a major revelation. Go figure? How many years have I been struggling to read the fine print on labels and such and never realized I could just take the glasses off? How stupid am I?

Don't answer that question. Especially if your name begins with Aimee.

So I plan to make a fourth sweater now, using the traditional LL Bean Maine rag wool style with the deep scarf collar, and this time I will knit up the sleeve hems with ribbing if it kills me. But not the bottom hems. I haven't the patience yet. Doubled over is fine by me.

At the price we pay for the reduced price yarn the materials in these all-wool sweaters cost from 12 to 15 dollars. Off course, that doesn't count all the sheep-feeding and shearing and gas. As with our live lambs and meat, we might break even, if we actually needed all these sweaters and hats and gifts we knit.

The greatest financial benefit from owning a small flock of sheep still seems to come in reduced mowing costs.

Monday, January 18, 2010

Technology techniques

I've been working on the railroad, all the live-long day.

Or at least, I've been working on the cars that get us down the road to work each day. But that doesn't quite have the same rhythm.

One consequence of having the engineering background I mentioned yesterday is I have to fix my own stuff.

You might say, in response, "You don't have to. You can hire someone."

But I do have to. The biggest reason is the relative incompetence of the people you can find to hire. The other is the sheer expense.

So let's take the most important job just completed, the rear brakes on Aimee's truck. A rear brake job done properly is $120, more or less. But the emergency brake mechanism was rusted and frozen. Just the parts would have been $600, labor, well, who knows? Specialized Nissan emergency brakes are not the kind of thing our local mechanics do well, since they have to think hard to puzzle out any mechanism they haven't encountered before, and can easily get stuck, billing you for every minute. The dealership, on the other hand, might have charged us for six or seven hours, which is what the whole thing took me

Call it a cool $1,000. I managed to get it all working with new shoes for $22 and some new brake parts for about $100. There was another 99¢ for the bottle of Coca Cola I used for dissolving rust from the old parts. This is the only thing I like to use Coke for.

It certainly isn't good to drink, and it isn't good for you, but it does remove rust very well indeed. I'm not sure what this says about what it might do to your insides, but since I never use it for that, I don't particularly care.

So I have to fix our own cars, and in fact I fix all our own buildings and do all our own plumbing and wiring. And I have most necessary shop tools such as a full collection of spanners (wrenches) and screwdrivers, a trolley jack (floor jack), and a very decent arc welder thoughtfully given as a Christmas gift one year by the in-laws, and off course the impact driver needed to remove rear brake shoes, pictured.

And both cars are due for their great State O' Maine inspection soon. And so, to cut a long story short, I found myself under first the truck, then the car most of last weekend and most of this weekend.

The Escort wagon had developed a decided thunk in the rear after going over a bump, no doubt in protest at being made to carry all those construction tools to college last fall, where we built a barn for the college's animal programs. The Escort was a bit snotty about this. Her previous owner, a statistician, only made her carry a calculator to work, and he's a good 80 pounds lighter than me to boot.

I had actually taken this machine to a so-called professional, who had given it a very cursory glance and knowingly told me I needed a new sway bar link and new coil springs and shocks. Knowing this to be a small fortune in parts, if not in labor, I promptly and politely demurred. On personal investigation, I agreed with the sway bar link and allowed him to change that -- for just shy of $100, which I thought was still a tad high, it being a $20 part and a ten-minute job. But I decided to take the rest of the suspension apart myself to see of the shocks and springs were really needed. And of course, once I could see the whole works, all we needed was the strut mount, which is only a $50 part. So I did it myself.

Somewhere in there I found myself washing shit off the back end of a sick chicken over the kitchen sink. Don't ask. It's an interesting and varied life we lead.

Finally, to cap off a day in which I was feeling supremely confident of my technological prowess, wifie asked me to take a look at her exercise machine, whose electronics were on the blink. Hadn't worked since she began using it again after a hiatus involving a new work-out DVD, a new diet, and other strange things I never heard of called kettlebells. She'd even put in new batteries, to no avail.

I duly plodded up the stairs to her den, a strange small room into which I rarely venture, with a big carrier of tools and meters to troubleshoot the strange exerthingy, called an elliptical, I believe.

After a few minutes Aimee, obviously unable to restrain her curiosity and concern for the precious device, came up the stairs too, to see what how I was faring.

"Oooh, look at that!" she said. "It works."

"What was wrong with it?"

"The batteries were in upside down."

Another happy ending. However, wifie mine still does not accept that she put the new batteries in upside down.

I wonder how much we would have paid for a professional to tell us that the batteries were upside down? Or indeed, whether they would have been able to accurately figure it out?

Sunday, January 17, 2010

The British class system

A Guardian article on certain failures of the UK education system caught my eye, and then got me wondering.

Apparently a very large portion of top judges and doctors went to UK private schools. Still. In this day and age. So much for Maggie Thatcher and Tony Blair's classless society.

One of the reasons I was glad to escape the UK was because I was glad to escape the boundaries put on my potential achievements in life by my working class background; boundaries of which some were real, others imagined, some self-enforced, or enforced by society.

In any case they were all shed by the simple procedure of walking off an airplane in San Francisco one sunny evening in August 1986. Immediately on arrival in the US, my class became invisible. Even when my own self-enforced limitations held me back, only I could see the chains. Americans couldn't see them.

Perhaps If I were black, they might have. In America, social and economic class still exists, but is constructed out of other stuff, like race. And it isn't as difficult a barrier as it was in the British 1970s.

And so in America I "went to college," finally, by which I mean, in the British idiom, I went to university and got a baccalaureate degree and then a master's degree and then a PhD and then became a professor. Was this impossible for me to do in Britain?

No, but it was very much more difficult an outcome. The comprehensive school I went to, Tapton, in Sheffield, was the best or second-best in the city. It sent several pupils out of my year to Oxford and Cambridge. But they were mostly students from the better neighborhoods and the better primaries. They had parents who made them study.

My parents didn't make me do my homework.

They did make me work. I helped my dad rewire houses in his weekend electrical business at the age of 10 or 11. By the time I was 13 and we had a sweet shop, I was loading and unloading goods much of the weekend. By the time I was 14, I'd quit working for my dad, where the pay was low and irregular, and begun working for a nursery, where the pay was better, and more regular. It just made more sense. If I was to spend 15 or 20 hours of my spare time each week, and most of my summer holiday, working, I'd at least get paid well. My friends at school laughed at me for my weekend job at the nursery, "shoveling shit" as they called it.

And they were right to laugh. They went on to get degrees at age 21 or 22, and middle class jobs right away. Seven O-levels later, only one "A," I went into the RAF and became, instead of a shit-shoveler, a glorified grease monkey. And my parents and grandparents, all solidly uneducated working class folks, never questioned the move at all. While most of my friends at school went to Uni.

The term "grease monkey" is of course to belittle the superb engineering training system of the RAF in times past, of course. Attending Number 1 Technical Training School Halton provided a much better education in many ways than my friends got at the various top-flight and also-ran colleges they went to. We not only learned math, physics, English, and engineering, but also discipline, confidence, fitness, and a work ethic. And although we were worked hard, we also played too. I made a few friends who lasted a lifetime there and in the RAF camps where I later served, and especially in the RAF Mountain Rescue Service, which became the greatest and best part of my education.

But I still identified very closely with the lower rungs of the British class system, while the RAF officers at that time were very clearly from the upper ranks, especially the senior officers. This whole circus was reinforced by the arrival at RAF Leeming of Prince Andrew, then a naval midshipman, for his basic flight training. By then I was a lead engine JT in the Bulldog scheduled servicing line.

Sure, I got to fix the prince's plane. But I never talked to the guy and he never talked to me. Which, on reflection is probably a good thing.

If I had been in the American military I would have had encouragement and later funding to go to college.

So, despite the high standards of training and discipline, the RAF was still somewhat class-ridden. Probably not as bad as it had been in the past. But still bad.

With seven O-levels, even only one "A," of course, a borderline score, there was nothing in my grades at all to stop me staying on at Tapton for A-levels and going to a second or third-flight university. Nothing except the obvious and unstated requirement that I get a job. And by the time I left the RAF and did want to go to university, there was no way to get in without waiting another two years to get those A-levels, which was difficult because I had to work for a living while getting them. The only alternative was night school, and/or the Open University.

I emigrated instead.

A couple years later, after I had found my feet in the new country, the University of Montana accepted me easily on the basis of only five out of the seven O-levels, which was held to be the equivalent of an American high school graduation, the American government gave me a Pell Grant and Stafford loans and Work Study, and the class barrier was at last penetrated. The US government, and a Japanese philanthropist, found me worthy of more help towards my MS degree, and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration made me a Sea Grant Fellow so I could get the PhD. The Institute for Philosophy and Public Policy made me a research assistant, and when I got done with that after a few years, the Institute of Ecology allowed me to teach my first graduate-level class. Top flight stuff.

Not too bad for a grease monkey from Sheffield.

But why was the American response so very different from the British one, when I started from exactly the same point?

At Unity College, as a professor, most of the students I see are from the rural and suburban lower and middle classes of America. It's easy to spot the middle class kids, the ones whose parents made them study. They still do well enough without really trying, most of them, because they do their homework. The kids who have to work have to struggle a little harder and get worse grades as a result. And the solidly working class kids, especially the younger males, hold themselves back by adhering all too well to what they tend to see as their "redneck" anti-intellectual message. It isn't so very different.

But one difference is pretty clear: their high school performance does not necessarily impact on their later achievements. Although high school GPA and SAT scores are important for getting into college and are part of the way that entry into the best colleges is negotiated, these scores won't follow you around your whole life the way a bad set of GSCEs will. Even with a poor high school record, any American with a high school graduation or equivalent will be able, at pretty much any time in their life they choose, to get into a four-year baccalaureate-level program. From then on the only thing that matters is how well they do in the program.

The difficulty comes in paying for it. But you can usually find a way. Actually, one very secure way is to join the military, and then get GI Bill money for college.

In Britain, where these top doctors and top judges are so solidly from the upper socio-economic classes, hundreds of thousands of bright-but-lower class kids each year will not gain qualifications sufficient to get them into university because they went to poorer schools and had parents who didn't make them study.

And they'll be stuck with that for the rest of their lives. Without any better support system, they won't find a way out.

Which is very bad because those British doctors and judges who went to those top-flight private schools and Oxford or Cambridge and medical school or law school, and even Prince William, now joining the RAF Search and Rescue system...

....they're not that smart, you know. At this point I know. I've met enough of them. The emperor's clothes were shed long ago. Some of the stupidest, nastiest people I've ever met in my life are upper class Britons who have good degrees and nice lives.

They're just lucky. And we'd be better off as a whole with a few less of them and a few more of these working class kids who are being left behind right now, some of whom almost certainly are smarter.

Friday, January 15, 2010

January thaw (?) and poor Polly

The weather guy called it that, but really it didn't seem to be quite as much a thaw as a "warm up to around freezing and stay there for a day." No significant snow or ice disappeared. A very slow drip appeared from the porch roof, but that soon stopped.

But it was very pleasant to go out in air that didn't hurt.

We had to slaughter another sheep this week. Poor Polly, pictured, a very pleasant ewe-lamb from last year's P-series, had gotten the septic arthritis, and even though the antibiotic we treated her with killed the bacteria, the arthritis damage remained and she "failed to thrive," as the ag science wonks say.

In her case failure to thrive meant that she grew a little slower than her half-sister Poppy, couldn't stay clean, had many more than the usual dung tags, and ate while kneeling. In fact she spent a lot of additional time on her knees too: her usual rest position was kneeling, not standing as it is for the other sheep.

But this was enough for us to cull her. I couldn't see that we would get good lambs out of her, so off to the butchers she went. I was pretty sad about it because I liked her a good deal. But we intended when we began this farm to avoid the usual silliness that accompanies hobby farm livestock programs, wherein folks allow all kinds of bad and painful things to happen to animals because they decide to treat them like human friends instead of farm animals.

We simply can't afford that approach. We probably do a little better than break even on our livestock operations, now that most of the set-up costs are behind us, but we can't afford to begin paying to own animals again. And it's not good for a sheep to walk around on her knees. Something else bad will happen as a result. We don't cull ruthlessly, but we do cull.

We learned a good deal about the several likely pathogens from this experience, too. All possible bacteria that cause this disease symptom would happily live in the soil where our pigs spend the summer. This is a spot where we scrape up all the manure each fall to allow the sheep to use the same place as a winter yard. This year I left the gate open to the north paddock, and the sheep are yarding up there every night instead. We will likely give a bit more vitamin e and selenium paste each summer too, since this particular lamb had a brief spell of white muscle disease, and that may have contributed.

We tried to get our hands on a vaccine for one pathogen,
Erysipelothrix insidiosa, but it's only commonly available in Australia, where it is widely used. So we are left with management improvements as our sole way to avoid this particular pathogen, and we will need to be swifter in diagnosis and in use of the antibiotic. If we do both, we shouldn't see this again.

Monday, January 11, 2010

Canadian days

It's the first day of spring semester classes, a misnomer because we are obviously deep in the grasp of old man winter.

But I'm surprisingly happy about it, considering how exhausted I was by the end of the fall semester.

I went to bed early, anticipating a very much more stressful day than any we've for the last three weeks. But I woke early, around 3am, and within minutes my mind was happily running through the sequence of Socratic questions I plan to use to get my 8am Environmental Sustainability class into the swing of things.

I guess I must like my job, if my head still does it at 3am when lying in bed.

Tottering outside with Haggis the sheepdog, for him to piddle, we noticed the skies are clear and bright, and the air is so still the crunch of our steps on snow in the dooryard echoes off the buildings and trees.

It's supposed to be this way all week. Good. That means we have passed through the first stage of a Maine winter, and into the second.

The first stage, which really begins in late November with the dropping temperatures, is a series of increasingly snowier nor 'easter storms. They come over every week or two, starting as rain, but with colder and colder air to our north, the storms themselves eventually get colder and snowier, until we have a deep blanket of snow on the ground and all the water that doesn't run is frozen pretty well.

The second stage is when this stable, cold Canadian air mass, which brings very cold nights, but bright and sunny days, comes down to meet us. The storm track gets pushed to our south.

Because the northern hemisphere is beginning its six-month tilt back towards the sun, the days are getting longer too, although they're not "racing" yet. That will come in a month or so.

The combination of cold, clear air and longer days means that we get a lot of very bright, beautiful weather in January and February in Maine. And by the early afternoon it can be pleasant outside, even warm enough to shed a layer. As long as you keep that layer handy for when the sun drops below the treeline.

We still get nor'easters, but they're less frequent. Eventually, in April, or if we're lucky late March, the storms bring rain again, which washes the snow away. By then the night-time temperatures are up, so we plan lambing around here for later March-early April. The key to successful lambing in Maine is not to have ewes drop their babies in the middle of a ten-below F night in the middle of a snowbank. The lambs are born wet and their coat doesn't keep the cold out if it doesn't get chance to dry off.

We like our lambs born onto a nice dry pile of bedding, in a nice warm barn, at temperatures above 20 F or better. That doesn't regularly happen again around here until late March.

Sunday, January 10, 2010

Pictures of anything but snow

I'm not as tired of snow as I usually am this time of year. It's been a much easier winter for me because I'm in better physical shape. This is primarily because I had regular "green gym" workouts last fall while building a barn with students at the college. Normally, after a fall of office work and teaching, I'm much unhappier with the way I feel.

It also helps that the big insulation plan for the house is almost complete and we are reaping the benefits in terms of reduced fuel consumption and a more pleasant and even distribution of heat around the place.

Still, I felt we could all do with some photos of something other than snow. Aimee is a good animal photographer, and has some interesting photos I've never put on this blog.

These are raided from her webpage:

Saturday, January 9, 2010

England's pastures... white?

Here's a thing I've never known to happen before -- the entire island of Great Britain completely covered in snow. The image is quite beautiful. Definitely sceptred.

This was sent in by Colour it Green Diary.

"This royal throne of kings, this scepter'd isle, This earth of majesty, this seat of Mars ... This blessed plot, this earth, this realm, this England".

Thursday, January 7, 2010

Firewood fellers

I had been trying to find a couple extra cords of firewood. I had expected to get this from a local supplier, but the semester was too busy and I had no spare time, so I waited too long, and the supplier sold all he had.

The procedure for finding mid-winter firewood in Maine is to first peruse Uncle Henry's. Uncle Henry's classified ad booklet, published each Thursday and continuously updated online, is a Maine institution, beating Craig's List by far in popularity, and over the years Aimee and I have bought and sold cars, furniture, livestock, and a dozen other kinds of things I can't think of right now, using this publication.

Ordering Uncle Henry's firewood, however, is a sketchy business. There's a certain amount of trepidation. You never know quite what you going to get and when you will get it. The quantity and quality of firewood sold varies quite a bit. A cord of wood should be a stack 4 x 4 x 8 feet. And firewood should be hardwood, and from one of the better species, or a mix of good species, like oak, ash, maple, beech, or birch. It should be as labeled. If it's advertised as dry hardwood mix, it should be dry, and a hardwood mix, not green and 30% pine or hemlock.

But it rarely is.

So I was pleased when out of the woods two strangers came. The two fellers I had ordered wood from finally showed up. They were three day's late, but they gave good measure, and it was all nice hardwood, mostly maple and ash, two very good firewood species. The only way the quality of the wood could have been better is if it was all beech, but there's not that much beech to buy around here. My regular supplier provides a mix of about 70% beech, which is very nice.

They had advertised a trailer load 17 by 6 by 2 feet, which if you do the math is 204 cubic feet, while a cord is 128 cubic feet. The load when it came, was heaped up nicely. They helped me throw it into the crib, so it wasn't left cluttering up my dooryard, for me to move by myself at the weekend, a good two-hour job.

I was worried as to how dry it was, though. It didn't look so dry. None of the tell-tale cracks in the end. But the guys said that although it was felled this summer and stacked in log-length, it wasn't bucked up until yesterday.

Only one way to find out, then. I threw a couple logs on both stoves. It burned clean and brightly.

Victory! Ta da. Very happy with my load of wood.

When I was a kid, we read Robert Frost, but it didn't make much sense in 1970's Sheffield, heated by coal and natural gas.

But for some reason the first four stanzas of the second verse stuck in my mind, perhaps because I was lucky enough to have an outdoor job in a nursery as a teenager, and learned to split wood, feed a wood stove, and do a dozen highly other useful things there.


Out of the mud two strangers came
And caught me splitting wood in the yard,
And one of them put me off my aim
By hailing cheerily "Hit them hard!"
I knew pretty well why he had dropped behind
And let the other go on a way.
I knew pretty well what he had in mind:
He wanted to take my job for pay.

Good blocks of oak it was I split,
As large around as the chopping block;
And every piece I squarely hit
Fell splinterless as a cloven rock.
The blows that a life of self-control
Spares to strike for the common good,
That day, giving a loose my soul,
I spent on the unimportant wood.

The sun was warm but the wind was chill.
You know how it is with an April day
When the sun is out and the wind is still,
You're one month on in the middle of May.
But if you so much as dare to speak,
A cloud comes over the sunlit arch,
A wind comes off a frozen peak,
And you're two months back in the middle of March.

A bluebird comes tenderly up to alight
And turns to the wind to unruffle a plume,
His song so pitched as not to excite
A single flower as yet to bloom.
It is snowing a flake; and he half knew
Winter was only playing possum.
Except in color he isn't blue,
But he wouldn't advise a thing to blossom.

The water for which we may have to look
In summertime with a witching wand,
In every wheelrut's now a brook,
In every print of a hoof a pond.
Be glad of water, but don't forget
The lurking frost in the earth beneath
That will steal forth after the sun is set
And show on the water its crystal teeth.

The time when most I loved my task
The two must make me love it more
By coming with what they came to ask.
You'd think I never had felt before
The weight of an ax-head poised aloft,
The grip of earth on outspread feet,
The life of muscles rocking soft
And smooth and moist in vernal heat.

Out of the wood two hulking tramps
(From sleeping God knows where last night,
But not long since in the lumber camps).
They thought all chopping was theirs of right.
Men of the woods and lumberjacks,
The judged me by their appropriate tool.
Except as a fellow handled an ax
They had no way of knowing a fool.

Nothing on either side was said.
They knew they had but to stay their stay
And all their logic would fill my head:
As that I had no right to play
With what was another man's work for gain.
My right might be love but theirs was need.
And where the two exist in twain
Theirs was the better right--agreed.

But yield who will to their separation,
My object in living is to unite
My avocation and my vocation
As my two eyes make one in sight.
Only where love and need are one,
And the work is play for mortal stakes,
Is the deed ever really done
For Heaven and the future's sakes.

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Twelfth Night

It's Twelfth Night tonight, and in British folk tradition the Christmas decorations now have to come down or there will be bad luck for the household.

Aimee, of course, combining her uber-Protestant Church of the Brethren upbringing with her current scientific outlook on life, condemns all such folk-ways as superstitious and even secretly Catholic.

Technically she is of course correct on both counts. It is superstition, and it is also Catholic -- the feast of the Epiphany, to be exact.

Neither is going to stop me from taking down the tree. I don't need any bad luck, touchwood. And while I'm scientific enough to see that it's superstitious, old habits die hard. My Welsh grannie, a Jones from Macynlleth, would be proud of me; she who put milk at the bottom of the garden for the fairies and told me that King Arthur was waiting in a Welsh Mountain to save Britain again one day.

Maybe he is too. Right now he'd have to save the poor old "sceptred isle" from snow.

Life at the end of the Road on Raasay has a few difficulties getting to work.
Musings from a Stonehead is "up to his b******ks" in the white stuff.
Even Colour it Green Diary in the far southwest of the yUKe had a bit, but then got rain.

And the Guardian is running a picture-special-online-interactive-instant-snow update center.

A bit too much fuss over such a little snow if you ask me.

Sunday, January 3, 2010

Quite the mess

I got up quite late for me, expecting to have to plow and shovel out just a bit, but there was even more than I bargained for.

First, the smaller of the two town plow trucks was stuck on my lawn. The older driver knows where the road goes, but the younker driving this 3/4 ton Dodge didn't. As a result, he got mired trying to cross the lawn, where two feet of new wind-packed snow masked plow-banks of solid old snow.

I fired up the trusty Kubota and moved all the snow from in front of and behind the Dodge-beast and the big daddy plow came back and pulled out the little baby plow.

That was just the beginning of my labors, of course. Suffice it to say, we were all done by 1.30pm (after having started around 6am!).

A nice, very British cup of tea and a snooze were called for. And received. Toot sweet.

There's still the matter of ice on the porch roof, which will have to be chipped and shoveled off but I have a couple of sore muscles and so that will have to wait until tomorrow. We will have a big "green gym" day tomorrow, too, with the ice and two cords of new firewood to be delivered and stacked in the wood cribs.

Shepherd's pie for supper again. I made this yesterday. Comfort food. Yum.

Actually, this particular pie should be called "ram pie" since it's made of the mutton from Abe our old ram, recently demised.

Saturday, January 2, 2010

8 to 16 inches

That's the forecast for central Maine. Not such a big storm, then. But we'll see, no doubt. We're high here, 530 feet above sea level, while most of our region is lower than 200 feet.

Still, even eight inches is enough to keep us at home, coming on top of the five inches we got yesterday.

Aimee was planning to shop for a new bed, which she has wanted for a long, long while, but she'll have to wait until the roads are clear. I'm supposed to take delivery of two cords of dry firewood, but we'll see if the guy makes it over.

Craft and other indoor projects are in order. I've been working on my den -- some new shelves, a tidy-up, some new pictures on the wall, and reorganizing my books. Aimee has begun to knit a sweater. I've almost finished one -- on the machine, though, where it goes ten times faster.

I have some college work to do, and there's the small matter of a brochure for farmers thinking of a wind turbine, telling them how to study their land for wind power, but I still have that "dammit, I-need-a-vacation" feeling.

We worked hard this last fall, and a bit of R and R is definitely in order, even if it has to be declared and enforced by a nor'easter.

Friday, January 1, 2010

Big storm, but how big?

There's supposedly to be a fine big snowstorm this weekend, coming in two waves, one just passed, the other advancing today and Saturday. We're ready for a good two-footer. Get us all in the mood for winter, that would.

But none of the TV weathermen were willing to go out on a limb and say how big, or how much snow.

Neither was the NWS. This is all the enlightenment I got from them this morning:

I suppose as an applied scientist myself, I prefer that if they really don't know, they say they don't know.

But the suspense is killing me.