Sunday, August 29, 2010

Destabilizing the capitalist system

That's what Aimee and I say whenever people ask us why we give away food.

It's actually a Zen koan, with an edge of Forest Gump-type humor (like, would we really be dumb enough to think that if we gave stuff away for free, that would actually destabilize capitalism!) but you'd be amazed how many folks don't get it.

Anyway, once again we have grown more food than we can possibly eat now or use later, even if we did put it all up. One freezer is completely full, the other needs to hold a whole pig later.

We could try to sell these surplus toms, but really we don't have time. Our day jobs start tomorrow.

So we'll give away these three-pound bags of nice ripe tomatoes at work.

These are just the very best of the ones I picked a couple days ago. I have the same amount again already.

The ones with blemishes I made into that big white bowl of fresh salsa, which we already tucked into some. There's nothing quite like real fresh salsa.

Aimee's been preserving herbs. A work-mate told her that if instead of just hanging them (like I've always done) she would put them in plastic bags, they'd still dry, get no dust on them, and when the time came to use them there'd be some already loose in the bags.

Friday, August 27, 2010

Solar system failures

Here's my latest renewable energy project -- repairing the solar power "motherboard" at our Bale House. This is just one of many repair and restoration projects I have to do over there to make it all work again.

This was all set up because the house is too far from the nearest grid power lines. Originally we had provided the house with a small scale solar power system providing 110V and 12V, backed up by a fairly expensive propane generator and a dedicated wiring system.

But the house's occupants broke the generator in the first couple years, mostly by running it too much, which they had to do because they refused to take or didn't listen to our advice to downsize their TV from a 100 watt cathode ray tube TV to a 25 watt flat screen TV. When the generator quit on them, I was able to go over over and salvage the unit. I repaired it, and decided they couldn't have it back if they were going to treat it so badly. They would have to live off their solar "income" instead.

But I failed to make allowances for ignorance. Pretty soon the solar system was damaged in a lightning strike. It shouldn't have been damaged, and in fact had lived through dozens of storms in years past, but the ground wire had been disconnected, and so the excess voltage induced in the lines by the atmospheric electricity had nowhere to go. This most likely happened because the occupants had worn out the battery pack, but rather than tell me to have it changed (probably didn't want me over there to see their mess) they had hooked up a car battery. In doing so they had failed to connect the wire to the household ground rod. The inevitable power surge eventually came and a very expensive inverter and charge controller were fried.

But having started, this round of user-error induced failure couldn't end there. A car battery can't run one of these systems for more than a half hour or so, so when that didn't work for them, they'd tacked all these 12 foot extension cords everywhere, which they'd hooked up to a gas generator outside, no doubt using a veritable "Christmas tree" of double or triple adaptors.

And it was a very old gas generator to boot, and was probably producing pretty low voltage a lot of the time.

This burn is the result. Lucky the place didn't burn down.

And of course, no-one bothered to hook the generator to a ground rod either.

At some point the male occupant moved out and became an ex-husband. I took pity on the female occupant and went over and replaced the batteries and provided her with a safe new generator, properly grounded, but I for durn sure wasn't going to give her a new inverter to break. I used one her boyfriend had bodged up for her. I just wired it up more safely.

Now I have to get the whole system back to the original level of performance and safety.

Luckily the price of these components has come down, while the technology has improved, so the cost of repair is less than it would otherwise have been, and the results better overall.

I paid a lot of money for the old inverter, a Trace 600 W standby type, and Trace C 140 charge controller. These were standard equipment for small scale solar design for many years, and very robust.

I was able to replace the whole shebang with new, up-to-date gear for less than I paid for secondhand gear 8 years ago. I used a Cobra 1,000 RV-style inverter, which provided more wattage than the Trace but doesn't need a standby circuit because it draws very little power when on. The new inverter runs without a sound, and has a built-in input volt-meter and output wattage meter. The old inverter was slightly noisy, and the entire system had only a variably flashing LED (on the charge controller) for voltage, and not a very accurate LED at that.

Very nice. We'll see how long it lasts, though.

The white thing on the motherboard is the new charge controller, which is a Xantrex C35, basically the Trace C40 (with the same old LED!), but without a shunt for excess power, which experience shows is rarely produced by this system.

There were newer, fancier, and cheaper units, but the price of the C35 was much lower than before and they are very robust units despite being a 30 year old design. The black thing is the new inverter. I also went through and reconfigured the wires to make the connections more straightforward, and I put a smaller main breaker in to protect the inverter.

On reflection, I know and have always known that technological understanding evades some people. The level of complexity that is reflected in even a small scale solar power system is far more than a regular house with 200 amp supply, because the regular house doesn't run out of sunshine, while the breaker and grounding system is fail safe.

The solar house, especially the small scale, off-grid solar house, is always in danger of running out of power. You get a fixed maximum supply every day, and if the sun doesn't shine, you don't even get that. This house produces about 300-400 watts a day on average, about 1000 watts on a good day, and none at all on a bad day. That's enough for some light and music, a couple hours of a small TV, and to run the 12 V water pump, but no more. And it's only fail safe as long as you don't mess with it.

Here we provided the building with a breaker and grounding system that was initially fail safe, but we could never provide enough sunshine to run all the normal range of American lifestyle appliances that the occupants wanted to run. Instead of adapting to the new low power lifestyle, they tried to adapt the home to their original high power lifestyle. The result was a cascading system of failures, one after the other, each one adding another level of safety issues, and each one setting the system up for the next failure.

If we ever do have a major climate and energy crisis, one greater than the current chronic disruption, it will cascade like this too. The trick to avoid this is to call a time-out right at the beginning and work to get systems back to a safe and functional level before making things worse.

(And if the owner/designer says the house can't run a 100 watt TV, the house can't run a 100 watt TV. Even a secondhand 25 watt portable TV would have cost $50 and saved the whole system.)
Here's, too, the recycled metal roof I put on the Bale House kitchen last Saturday. We had a pretty good rainstorm Wednesday, and no water came in, so I'm happy with this job.

And here's another local numpty, a woodpecker that woke Aimee up, and surprised me, by drumming loudly on our house the other day.

In other GFD news, we have lots of tomatoes, so many that I am now canning only one variety: the miniature Roma-type called Juliets. We're going to make some fresh salsa, and then I guess we'll take them to college and give them away.

And the first day of the fall term is Monday. Global Change at 8am. Better get some coffee.

Sunday, August 22, 2010

A huge mess

Photo of the house, in happier times.

I've been over at our old house, the Bale House, a lot lately, trying to make sense of things.

It hasn't been easy. The Bale House never did make very much sense. It was always a very conditioned rationality that led to the house's existence in the first place.

We built this other house beginning in 2002, as a response to the high price of rental housing in Maine and our own inability, at the start of our teaching careers, to get a mortgage on anything worth owning. It was also an experiment in green building and self-reliance, and, I think, my own romanticism.

I have always wanted very badly, since I was a small boy in fact, to build my own cabin in the woods and live in it. With the Bale House I got to actually do this. That might be the biggest single reason it exists at all.

The second reason it exists is poverty. Before Aimee was working, before I had won a promotion, but after my student loans had kicked in, we could afford to choose between a home-built like the Bale House, a trailer, or a modest apartment in one of the more modest local towns like Waterville.

Aimee of course eventually began to earn too, but then her student loans kicked in. We were better off, but not by much.

We could have course had done what most other young professors would have done, which is give up on working at the modest, frugal institution that was paying us so little, and climb the socio-economic ladders (and chutes) of higher education.

But we decided to stick with Unity College.

In my case this isn't such a bad thing. I like Unity College. It may not pay so very well, but it's green and frugal itself, which suits, and I enjoy the students. Aimee is a much better scientist than I am, which career is not particularly being developed, but she's now an administrator, which she seems to like, and since she's also an expert husbander and developer of things, the sort of person that sorts things out, she's good at being an administrator.

And although I like to think have a very vibrant intellectual life, I'm such a very idiosyncratic thinker, so unorthodox and even just plain hornery, that I wouldn't fit in well at too many other programs. Part of this is my self-contradictory background. As an ex-serviceman, I'm too conservative and too disciplined and demanding for the liberal intellectuals. I hate all the pseudo-caring, the politically correct side of the green movement. I detest the weak science and non-science and New Age fakery and all that other mush which pervades liberal intellectualism. But as a former ex-environmental activist and a back-to-the-lander I'm way too green for the conservatives. I'm not American enough for Americans to be comfortable around me, and not European enough to go back to Europe and teach. I don't like to socialize or schmooze hardly at all. And, to be honest, neither does Aimee.

There are just a wealth of reasons that we couldn't easily work at, say Harvard, or even East Overshoe State.

So, perhaps not able at the time to realize all this, but certainly worried about money and wanting a rural lifestyle, we built a house for as little money as we possibly could and lived in it for three years while Aimee got hired first temporarily, then permanently, then was promoted. I was promoted too. Then we bought this house, which itself was an experiment in self-reliance and frugality, but one that looks more normal on the outside.

But when we began the Bale House we had only been dating for a few weeks, and the plans for it were all in my head. That was possibly my first and biggest mistake, because when we did eventually get married, Aimee wasn't willing for very long to put up with living in such a faulty dwelling. I had thought up (designed being too positive a word) a building that was heated primarily with wood, with only a seasonal well for water, at the end of a very long and very bad road, terribly isolated without grid power or Internet, without closets or properly finished walls on which to hang pictures, rough cut lumber and other rough surfaces everywhere, very hard to keep clean, etc, etc.

Aimee helped from the very first day, and in fact the beautiful shingled siding on the building is all her own work. But the design, if there was one, was all my own. And that was the problem.

I could go on and on and on about the dozens of ways that the Bale House as designed failed to pass muster as a dwelling, at least by normal American standards. I made my poor wife put up with this for a couple of years, but the minute the opportunity presented itself to buy a better house, or at least one that I could see was capable of being brought up to a normal standard, I grasped it.

That was a leap of faith for Aimee too. This Great Farm farmhouse was falling down when we bought it, and a lot of people didn't think it could be saved. But it could, although it took a couple years, and now it's a very nice house. Not your average American McMansion by any means, but by our standards, pleasant and quiet and definitely agriculturally productive.

But that left us with a second home, the Bale House, which we definitely didn't need and probably couldn't afford and couldn't sell because, well, it's not a very normal house.

But almost right away, we heard of some people we knew that were in a pretty poor fix, about to become homeless. They had a kid and animals. We have a soft spot for kids and animals. So we let them move in.

And so began the next passage in the history of the Bale House. Long story short, they trashed it. Just about every system that is needed to run the house is broken, while the previously tidy yard with gardens and a gravel driveway is a trash-strewn wasteland.

I would say that 90% or more of the responsibility for this was the guy. This is an individual who can't really look after anything. It's probably beyond him to even take his own beer cans to the redemption center. The girl was mostly just overwhelmed, another American mother about to be homeless with a husband who couldn't hold a job or keep a house working.

There's no point trying to sue or get any money from either. Their marriage is long gone at this point. I'm not sure the ex-husband even has a job, while the ex-wife still has a kid.

Whatever we might think, none of this is the kid's fault.

And there's another person we know that would like to live there. A much better-suited person, all round, for the place, an organic gardener and adjunct professor. Neither position pays well, so frugality is needed.

The Bale House is very, very frugal. Since we pay the taxes, land rent and insurance, whoever lives there must only pay for firewood, phone, and propane.

But first everything must be made to work and made decent again.

So, where to start, with such a bomb zone?

When Aimee saw, for the first time, the damage that had been done, she was speechless and close to tears.

First I took the downed popple tree off the driveway. That allowed me to get the farm truck in there. I cut the grass enough to be able to get in and out without tripping up on three-feet long weeds and grass. Then I picked up enough yard trash to get a load of tools and equipment up to the house. Than I moved all of the remaining stuff that was in the house into one corner and swept up the big bits of trash. I moved the filthy appliances out of the kitchen, or shifted them aside. I tore down the broken solar power systems and plumbing systems, taking non-functional parts, pumps, the charge controller, the inverter, home to my shop, to be stripped and repaired if possible.

I wrecked out the part of the kitchen's straw bale wall that had composted (because the former male occupant had made a hole in the roof which shoveling). I put on a new (recycled) metal roof on this part of the house to prevent further water incursion.

As I was doing this part, the former female occupant came by with her new boyfriend, a local businessman that I quite like, and with a little encouragement successfully removed the last of her stuff. The dead truck with four flat tires on the driveway was towed, apparently to be taken the house of the former male occupant, where no doubt it will rot for another three years. I took the opportunity to add some of the nastier pieces of garbage to the truck bed: The full compost bucket that was in the kitchen for months, all the glass that littered the yard, a filthy couch, the cans of food that had been frozen and thawed, frozen and thawed, etc, etc.

(Go on, sue me, make my day! Imagine the counter suit!)

I will go back today and put in new insulation to replace the straw, using recycled fiberglass because, funnily enough, that doesn't compost, and seal the wall up again.

(I'm no longer such a big fan of straw bale construction. Another New Age idea?)

I may try to cut some more grass too today.

There's lots more to do. More stuff in the yard to pick up, although not garbage, just piles of lumber and firewood scattered randomly. The kitchen floor will have to be refinished somehow. There's some drywall that needs to go on the living room ceiling. The appliances need to be cleaned and checked out. The chimneys need to be properly cleaned and checked for safety. The parts for the water and electrical systems are on order. The smoke alarms need new batteries, the phone line needs to be hooked up and tested.

And on and on. A lot of work.

But at least the trash is gone. And I don't mind construction work, or solar tinkering, or yard work. I never have minded work, which is I suppose how I come to have two houses, while the so-called husband that used to live here doesn't own his own pot to piss in.

The place is starting to look like someone cares about it. And it will be a nice quiet place to live again soon for someone that needs a place to live.

We'll make sense of this house again, after all the former senselessness.


An old fashioned ideal, but one that makes sense to me.

Saturday, August 21, 2010

Orion sighted

That's it, official: fall is here.

We have all the traditional signs:

1) Trees just starting to turn, mostly maples in bogs and swamps
2) Cooler nights. Tonight it dropped down to 42 F
3) Tomatoes up the wazoo
4) Aimee took me shopping and bought me "new" (mostly from Goodwill) clothes
5) Sheep are eating apples every day
6) Shooting stars in the sky
7) Kitchen is a mess with canning stuff, and the floor is sticky
8) I'm not soaking bandanas and t-shirts with sweat each time I exert myself even a bit
9) The house windows are closed more hours than they are open, except for the bedroom ones
10) We have flies in the house

... and of course, 11) the constellation Orion is seen for the first time.

Haggis and I went out for his morning constitution at about 3.30 am and there was Orion, way to the east, and lacking the bottom star, but it was Orion all the same.

An Old Friend.

And then there was a bright red Perseid to the south.


Mag dogs and Englishmen may go out in the midday sun like other Americans and get all farmer-tanned and sweat their labor in the heat and humidity with the best, but we like our cool weather.

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Maine made massively abundant

Here's a shot of our dining room table, which has accepted the overload from our kitchen counters.

The food preservation season is upon us, the garden is putting out tons of food, we're even busier than usual squirreling away our harvest, and most days the kitchen is just a big mess of food and food-related activity.

This is just one day's picking from the tomato patch. There's another bowl of cherry type tomatoes from an earlier effort not in this picture. We also have big bowls of onions taking up counter and table space in our kitchen, small ones, for pickled onions. The green ones aren't unripe -- they're Aunt Ruby's German Greens, my favorite salad tomato.

I suppose this is appropriate since I'm married to a German-American greenie.

In other food news, I took our last male lamb to the butchers, where he yielded 52 pounds dressed meat, a Womerlippi Farm record. There were two more males, but we sold them to some farmer friends, one of whom is a MOFGA worker, earlier. The three pigs will be late this year, but they're coming along at about 60 pounds. They'll yield another 600 pounds of meat, roughly.

I've also dug and root-cellared 3/4 of the spuds, yielding about 100 pounds so far, not counting about 30 pounds given away and 20 pounds or so already eaten. Usually I do this job all at once, but this is a tricky year for blight. The first batch of main crop spuds we harvested got a little blighted. This was about 50 pounds, and was dug by a work group of visiting first years from our college.

It's hard to supervise so many students. I wasn't around to stop them washing them with the hose, and they were left damp for too long. I had to throw about a third of them out, the rest I washed again, more thoroughly to remove spores, and gave away to people who would eat them quickly, or made potato salad of.

We've been eating a lot of potato salad lately.

After that I was a little circumspect about harvesting spuds and resolved to do them just a bit at a time and make sure the blight didn't spread. The obvious damage to plants is in the tomato patch, not the potatoes, but I suppose the spores are in the dirt from last year. Anyway, the first batch I put up properly, not washing them, stayed fine after a couple weeks in the cellar. So I dug about half the crop this weekend, and that seems fine too. I'll get the last this coming weekend.

Aimee, for her part, went out to the primary Amish food stand run by Caleb Stoll, and bought several bushels of sweetcorn which she shucked and put up frozen. The ratio was about 10/1, ten corn cobs to each one pound bag of frozen shucked corn, but the kernels were small since she bought culls. Caleb's hardware store and food stand is on the Thorndike Road just out of Unity, and recommended.

The process by which she got her twenty or so bags of (cream-style) corn was fun to watch. She sat on the porch and pulled the "covers" off, flicking the corn borer bugs for the chickens to eat. If the chickens didn't happen to be handy, she'd call them up. Eventually one enterprising bird, the one remaining Golden Comet from four years ago (the last of her race!) came right onto the porch and just hung around for the bugs.

Then she brought the bare cobs into the kitchen where the big canning kettle was boiling, and scalded them, then dipped them in cool water to cool off, ground off the kernels with the special kitchen tool we have for this job, bagged up the results, and froze them.

But wait, that's not the end of the fun.

Then she took the left-over corn covers and empty cobs to the sheep and pigs, who scoffed them up in great satisfaction. While Mary the dog, it turns out, likes to gnaw on shucked corn cobs.

So everyone got fed by this process.

Except me. And then I cleaned up the kitchen and porch. How that got to be my job is one of those wonders of human family life, but it did. Go figure.

Watching the BBC news most nights while surrounded by all this food is uncomfortable. I grew up with Pakistani people in the UK, went to school with them, served with them in the RAF, and I still love to eat their food whenever I get a chance, whenever I'm home in Britain. It's upsetting to see so many of them so hungry.

The aid seems to be beginning to get through, though.

Meanwhile, every bit of food we can grow for ourselves and friends is, I suppose, one bit less food we need to buy from the supermarket, and so a bit more food available for everyone else. Maine was always capable of growing lots of food, as Israel Thorndike's Great Farm experiment originally showed.

I was talking to the Amishman who grew the hay we got this year, originally from the south. He wanted to know more about the history of the area, since he'd noticed how much had been agricultural land and was then abandoned. I told him of Thorndike, the Waldo patent and the Great Farm. His land too was almost certainly Thorndike's at one time.

As the climate zones on the North American continent move north, this is one large area of former agricultural land that will become relevant again.

As for the Womerlippis few acres, it doesn't make sense to own so much land if we don't use it. I submit that we are in fact doing so, and being successful.

Just as Thorndike intended. Although as we're obvious Jeffersonians, and as I'm an Englishman, I expect he's rolling in his grave to see us making a modest homestead out of his federalist, neo-feudal mansion.

That'll teach him, the elitist old bugger.

I canned tomatoes on the weekend, and plan to do another batch later today. I'm having a bit of a day off first -- I've been in the office for three days solid writing a report and my butt is sore from sitting at my desk. I have to go see the doc, then shop for Aimee's birthday gift.

Aimee will be 35 years old on Sunday.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

More bale house correspondance

I'm posting this here mostly because I need a place to put this stuff. Apologies for this readers not interested in green building.

If on the other hand you want to see what the controversy is about, read the links in the email.

But here's another link that I omitted:
Sent: Monday, August 16, 2010 3:12 PM
To: Mick Womersley
Subject: straw bale house?

Hi Mick,
I saw your faculty profile page for Unity whilst searching the web for strawbale houses in Maine. I'm in Bangor for a few days visiting my Mum and she's been talking about building a strawbale house. I looked for places that we might be able to see an actual example and I saw some pictures of your place and it look awesome! Any chance we could swing by and take a look? I also saw you're into farming, so would love to see what you've got going on there. I'm from San Diego and my greywater system makes my tomatoes and fruit trees rock; it'd be interesting to see what challenges you've got out here; obviously not a water shortage!

XXXX, our bale house suffered quite badly the last few years when we let a family we knew that were close to homeless stay there and they turned out to be less than capable of taking care of themselves, let alone our former home.

I just got the house back this summer and have been waiting for the remaining parent to go clean up the trash they have laying around there and get the last of her stuff out. Sadly, she didn't do it, despite multiple promises, and now I have a major clean-up job to do, before we move in a friend who needs a place to live and who we hope is more responsible.

Understandably, I'm not happy about the extra work, and even if the place was fit to be seen, I don't have time to show it because my spare time for the next few weeks is going to be spent fixing the place up..

In addition, we've been counseling folk against building with straw in Maine for nearly six years now, since we carefully analyzed the problems, costs and benefits. I suppose we should take the older material down, or find a way to present it all in the same place and sequentially. You can read some of this newer material on our web sites at


Reading this material over before sending it to you, there are a few caveats, since this material too is now out of date. I continue to stand behind the comparative analysis of the bale versus recycled cellulose and foam board insulation. The recycled material remains much cheaper and likely has a lower or at least comparable ecological footprint to bale in this region. It also remains much easier to insure.

I have, however, become interested in woolen insulation since becoming a sheep farmer. This material is now more widely used in Britain than bale, and sheep are an under-utilized agricultural resource in the US, particularly in this region of Maine where we can use them to very good advantage to clear ground and mow grass and weeds instead of using power equipment. Wool can be protected against insects and housefire much better than bale can, and is far less difficult to insure if you use one of the commercial (tested) products now available.

To be frank, if you built a home using a contractor and conventional lumber with woolen insulation, I doubt the insurance company would even ask what kind of insulation you used. They don't go into it that deeply, although they generally won't insure a bale house. We had to get special insurance for the one we have. But the contractor would want to use a tested product before standing behind the house, and the wool is tested.

I no longer wish for a Skystream turbine, since my wind power research now shows that these can only be cost effective (ie: pay for themselves) on Class 5 wind sites in Maine, whereas our farm house is Class 2.

Bale is still a better material in other ecosystems, and might be just fine in southern California. I wouldn't know since I've never lived there.

Generally speaking, the best thing to do if you want a cheap, ecologically sensitive home is to use the locally available materials and mimic traditional architecture where it has evolved over generations with agriculture and other economic activity. Here in Maine timber, clay, stone and aggregate are traditional, massively abundant, and by-products of local agriculture and proper land management, while straw is not a byproduct of any agricultural system in our part of Maine. You have to drive almost 150 miles to get to where we have an abundant straw crop, whereas I can get abundant field stone, cheap hemlock lumber, and aggregate within three miles of my farmhouse. When we planned our bale house we used lots of local lumber and recycled lumber, but made the mistake of thinking bale would be more ecological. It turned out to be expensive and only distantly available, and hard to insure.

You might find that some other material is appropriate to SoCal, possibly adobe, but I'd be checking building codes and insurance standards in your area before I made a significant investment if I were you. Fireproofing might be an important issue there, too.

Here wildfire is less worrisome, but still important, but we find we can use sheep to keep the "defensible space" around our home clear without running the normal brush hogs and weed whackers. They clear all the weeds and smaller brush, while we take the bigger stuff for firewood. After a couple years of working this process, our farmhouse is now protected against wind drops and wildfire, thanks to sheep and renewable heat systems. Go figure. That was a surprise, but obvious when you think about it. The fleece is a by-product. We don't have an insulation mill making tested fleece insulation yet in Maine, but I think we should have one, given all the other benefits of sheep.

Above all, I'd say, step back, question assumptions, try to think about it objectively: what are the best materials and architectural style for your eco-region? Is bale attractive because it's the best material, or is it because there's a buzz about bale?



Sunday, August 15, 2010

You say tom- ae-toe, I say tom-ah-toe...

We started putting up tomatoes today. Aimee's been putting up pesto for some weeks now, but the canning tomatoes are ready, and that's my job so I spent a couple hours this morning making a start.

We'll want about thirty jars to last us. May not get that much, but we'll get a sight more than last year, when the blight robbed us of almost all our berries. The year before we did alright. There's still blight on the leaves, but it hasn't hurt the berries, nor has it spread to the spuds like it did last year.

I harvested about half those already, gave some away, put up the rest in boxes in the cellar. Today I may start on the last half of the potato patch. I also picked a few of each kind of apple for us. Not too many.

But I'm happy to have my tomatoes again, especially the canned Juliets and Aunt Ruby's German Greens, which we eat fresh.

In Maine, of course, we should say tom-aah-toe, as in Bah Haahbor.

It's really Bar Harbor, but that's the traditional pronunciation. Here's a great video for the real Maine accent. It was taken at the Cumberland Fair.

Our local fair, the Common Ground Fair, will happen soon. It will be interesting to see all our new Amish at the fair.

Duck, duck.... drake?

Aimee was just about to take her morning shower, when she said "uh-oh," in the way she does when she spies a problem.

But she hadn't seen a problem, she'd heard one. A real cock-a-doodle of a problem.


I've been telling her for weeks now that the rather strange, tall white bird that is supposed, per Paris Farmer's Union, to be an Ameruacuna hen, is actually an Ameruacuna rooster.

But it took hearing this rooster crow for her to actually believe me.

Hearing is believing, I guess.

Uh-oh is right, though.

We have two choices now this has happened: We can make chicken soup out of rooster-boy right away.

Or we can wait a short while to see how mean he is, and if he will breed our hens. Most likely he'll breed the Buff Orpingtons first since they're a year older and the new Ameruacunas and Golden Comets are not laying yet.

If we get any Orpington-Ameruacuna crossed chicks, and if he stays mild-mannered, he can live.

If he fails to do any one of the above, he'll be soup. I'm not having a badly-behaved or impotent rooster around here. It's a long story, but one of my many soft-tissue injuries that I feel from time to time is a torn rotator cuff, and it was caused by the last rooster I owned. I don't quite have all the movement I should have in my right arm as a result.

I much prefer to keep only hens. They're much calmer and happier without a rooster about. Roosters just get hens all clucked up. Chicks are cheap enough and easy enough to rear. And you don't get weird barnyard cross-breeds. As we undoubtedly will now. The Ameraucuna is itself a crossbreed, and so this rooster must be genetically messed up already, never mind what we will get when he's crossed with a Golden Comet or Buff.

Still, as long as they can live, eat, and lay, that will be fine. And we will eat any males of course.

Here's the inspection team at work yesterday at Aimee's job site. She passed inspection, but the chickens want her to get edible shingles next time. They said these ones don't taste good.

Saturday, August 14, 2010

Perseids and early morning routines

The Perseid meteor shower is again visible as it is every fall here on the Great Farm. I take Mr. Haggis the sorry sheepdog out every morning early and if the sky is clear we see meteors each time, sometimes really big long ones.

I was checking the blog record -- I like this aspect of keeping a blog, that it's also a diary, and a computer-searchable one at that -- and found that we were watching Perseids this time last year too. I was also reminded, although I didn't need the reminder since I've been watching for it, that by the end of the month I should see Orion in the early mornings.

I haven't been checking as assiduously as usual, though.

In fact, I've not been getting up as early as has been my habit for several years, because of some old man medication the doctor put me on (thanks for sharing, Mick), and this has had interesting repercussions all across my life, among them being that my habitual insomnia is markedly reduced. I now sleep until dawn most mornings, and am much more rested and even-tempered at the beginning of each day.

This is not as good a thing as it may sound. I'm in the habit of starting very slowly every day and doing things just the way I want to do them, completely unhurried, for several hours.

I'm particularly dreading the effect this will have on my teaching. It will probably be OK, but I almost always get assigned 8 am classes, and this coming semester I have them five days a week. That isn't such a bad time to start, but an 8 am class means really that you be there at 7.30 or earlier, because even if you are prepped for class, and I usually am, there's a computer to set up, and voice mail and email to check before class.

But it's the jobs at home that really take up the time:

First you have to get up, walk the dogs, feed the sheep, let the chickens out, feed and water the pigs, make coffee, have breakfast, take your morning constitutional, have a shower, get dressed, and get in the car, make sure it starts, and drive 20 minutes to work. That takes quite a bit of time, around two hours most days. Never mind the days when I have to move two feet of snow from our driveway just to get to the car.

So 7.30 is really 5.30.

Which was fine when I would wake up at 4. I could take my time, read the paper (on the computer) enjoy my coffee, have a completely unhurried shower and, of course, constitutional. I might even have enough time to move all the snow and still make it to class on time.

But now I'm waking up at dawn. Dawn is 5.30 right now, but it will be 5.45 by the time classes start. By December 21st, dawn in mid-Maine will be about 8.30 or 9am on a gloomy day.

You can see where this is going. I need an alarm clock, for the first time in decades. Aimee of course has one and uses it daily, but I'm always up and out of our bedroom long before it goes off. I can't start as late as she does because I do all the morning chores.

I need my own alarm clock. And I hate alarm clocks.

Saturday, August 7, 2010


It's only the end of the first week in August, but the hot, humid weather has broken and it's now feeling very much like fall. We had another bout of high humidity this last week, during which the slightest exertion would have you sweating, but this morning it was 41 degrees outside here at 527 feet above sea level in Jackson, Maine, and I for one was very glad of it.

Noel Coward was right: Mad dogs and expatriot Englishmen do go out in the midday sun, even in sultry North American summers, and I certainly can't avoid being out in the midday sun with all the fieldwork and farming we do each summer, but 40 degrees at a dew point of 50 degrees still feels an awful lot better than 80 degrees at a dew point of 75 degrees.

The pigs have been using their mud hole to cool off. They sleep a good part of the day anyway, so they don't mind the heat so much. And they like the mud. They even went in the mud today, too, although the weather had cooled off.

We got our hay in finally, not very much of it because we still have a good deal of last year's up in the barn attic, and because hay is plentiful and cheap in Maine ths summer with the dry weather, and so I don't feel particularly pressured to fill the barn. It's always had to figure out how much hay you're going to use, and last year we certainly wasted money on buying more than we needed. I'd like to hit the estimate spot on and use up all our hay this winter and spring, so I can clear out the barn attic of old hay and get in all new hay next year. If I do miscalculate slightly I expect I'll be able to get more easily enough this spring because there is so much hay for sale around here.

This year we got hay from one of our areas recent Amish immigrants, not because Amish hay is special -- hay is hay whether put up with horses or tractors -- but because the quality was good and the price right. Here Penelope is tucking in. The chickens decided to explore it too. Getting the hay in also gave me an excuse to clean out the lower part of the barn.

Aimee has been shingling the house after my efforts with additional insulation last year. She decided to dip the shingles in preservative before hanging them so they'd last longer, and this is the ingenious drying rack she fabricated for the job.

There was a moment last week when an errant sheep knocked over her bucket of preservative -- quite toxic, according to the label -- just feet from our well, but I was able to shovel it and the top layer of dirt up and prevent any contamination. I did express a certain frustration in ancient Anglo-Saxon four letter word, however, especially since the accident occurred after dinner, when I'm usually not that keen on unexpected physical activity.

Wifey was of course inside watching TV without a clue while all this was going on.But the shingles look great, so I didn't complain.


Finally, tomatoes are coming. The first varieties are Sungolds, always the first and most prolific, and Juliets, a small Roma-type fruit. Juliets are good for canning whole, but this first batch wasn't enough to can so I made fresh salsa with our own onions and peppers. We only had two jalapenos so far, but they were super hot, so that was enough to heat up this batch of sauce properly. I made the mistake of using malt vinegar instead of white or apple cider, though, so it tasted a little funky on first taste. Not unpleasant, just different.

Update on that last: After leaving the salsa out for the flavors to "bloom", the vinegar taste is gone.