Friday, September 24, 2010

Hoofing it

Students from the introductory class in captive wildlife care came to the farm Monday and Wednesday to learn how to handle sheep. These are first years, but they were intelligent and spirited and willing to get stuck in.

Each group got a sheep in need of dung tagging and hoof-trimming. The animals were checked for fly strike and anemia caused by barber pole worms, a nematode parasite. The groups that worked with the new ewe-lambs were able to see, or in one case learn to give, tetanus shots.

We had a few high jinks as students learned to handle animals competently. Animal handling takes practice. You have to move quickly but smoothly, with a good deal of confidence. Each move has to be with full, firm force, no half-measures. This takes a good deal of practice, and your first moves might seem very like the first blasts of a trainee bagpiper, or the first attempts to drive a stick-shift car.

On reflection, I'm reminded that this characteristic might be what makes animal handling training such a good thing for them at this age. Well over eighty percent of the students in this program are female.

Needless to say, this is not the normal kind of movement exhibited by teenage people in public. Students of both sexes at age eighteen, but especially female ones, routinely lack this kind of confidence in their movements and persona. Our society, with its emphasis on appearance and glamor, mitigates against development of other kinds of confidence and agility in young men and women. One of the ways it does this is by assigning them both unfairly them to certain kinds of roles, and by repeatedly providing the message, especially to women, that what matters is always looking good.

As any trainee sheep shearer will tell you, it's not actually possible to look good while learning how to catch, move, and "throw" a 150 pound woolly-minded animal for the first time in your life. You do not have a spare second to consider how your attempts look to any audience you may have. You just have to learn on your feet.

A couple of our class members hesitated a second or lacked the proper confidence or applied less firmness than was called for and their sheep were gone in milliseconds, off to the far corners of the home paddock, not to be caught again that day.

Oops. Oh dear, how sad, never mind. Try again with another one.

Get back on the horse that threw you.

There are lots of other good things that come out of animal handling training. We emphasize the responsibilities of any post involving animal care -- you're the one that has to get up and feed, water, and check your flock, whether it's Monday, Friday or Sunday, Christmas or your birthday, and while that duty can be delegated to a responsible person, you have to be absolutely sure that the person you delegate it to will do it and do it properly.

The animals won't understand if they have to go without clean water or feed or needed medical care for a day because you were derelict in your responsibilities.

We also emphasize the animal carer's role as a scientist. First year students' eyes tend to glaze over in Bio I and II, but once you learn how important it is to know your parasites, or plants, or diseases, and once you realize that biology is foundational to animal medicine, and that animal care is actually applied biology, then you might have a better reason to crack open that fat old biology book and learn some of those Latin names or some of those important cycles of respiration or those pathways of protein synthesis.

So the briefing for the sheep handling training gives us a chance to lay this all on again, and we lay it one pretty thick, with emphasis, because it's such a good teaching moment.

Who knew you could get so much out of learning to move, throw and tend sheep.

Sunday, September 19, 2010

A lousy tea-leaf

Other than the fact that fall is obviously here now, with leaves beginning to turn color and days getting quite short, there isn't really anything particularly new or noteworthy happening around the Great Farm, but I thought I'd better write something. or regular readers will think we've disappeared.

But mostly what has happened is that the pattern of getting stuff done at the old Bale House on the weekends, while working 45-50 hour weeks at Unity College, has set in and is proving hard to shake. The Bale House has to be finished, more or less, in time for the new occupant to move in in early October, and that's taking up much of my spare time. As a result, everything else on the farm is in a holding pattern.

This is alright actually, no problem, really. I enjoy the work at the Bale House. Aimee doesn't much mind having the Farm House to herself on weekends.

Of course, she's never alone. There's the small matter of our thirty different animals to keep her company.

The new Golden Comet layers are laying small dark brown eggs. The rooster is rampant. Aimee torments him by pretending to be some other rooster, faking cook-a-doodle-doos, and he goes nuts, looking around for the competitor. The pigs are in the fast-growing stage and need feed twice or thrice daily, but that only takes a minute or two. As we keep them on deep bedding they don't need mucked out. Instead they work over what was the sheep's winter bedding. Not exactly super-sanitary, but done by design and the pigs don't seem to mind. There is an outbreak of stable flies which is annoying but not a health hazard, and a frost should put an end to it any day now, so I don't plan to spray.

The sheep need some fall doctoring, hoof-trimming, dung tagging, booster shots, but we will do that with students on Monday and Wednesday afternoons. It's good practice for the introductory classes in animal care, and so they come over every fall.

The tomatoes are still producing, no frost yet to stop them, but we're all canned and frozen out, so I just pick what I can every few days and refrigerate them, hoping to eat fresh toms through the end of next month at least. The local market for free tomatoes appear to have been saturated too, we can't even give them away. There are some potatoes and peppers still to pick, and I may make some of the last of the tomatoes into salsa using the peppers, but I don't know when I'll find time right now.

The vehicles are all holding up well this fall, the large amount of vehicle work done in the late spring and early summer having paid off in spades. This is our biggest driving season. In summer we reduce our driving, and in winter you can't drive very far, so in fall there are extra trips here and there and I would guess we do twenty percent more driving during this period than at any other time of the year. There is usually some technical mishap or breakdown to contend with, but none so far this fall. The only bad thing going on with vehicles is that I can't get Aimee to wash the dust and mud off her "new" 13 year-old Camry, so I'll have to pinch it from her and wash it myself at some point. Again.

So the main thing is the Bale House. I'll go over there again today, soon, as soon as the Jackson Transfer Station is open so I can do the weekly trash and recycling run on the way.

I was a little upset, while over there working yesterday, to find that the place had been burgled. The small red generator we bought to keep over there had been stolen. Some lousy thief had clambered in through the open back windows and walked out the front door with it.

On the one hand this pisses me off because we can't afford to buy a new five-hundred dollar genny. On the other, it makes me want to laugh because no good-for-nothing tea-leaf is going to be able to make that generator run. It's just too tricky. Anyone so stupid they have to steal for a living will not be able to get it started. I doubt whoever took it will even be able to start it even once.

I'm not going to say here what the trick is to start it, but it sure isn't in the instructions, even if the thief could read them. And it's a very reliable snag. You have to use the trick every time or it just won't run.

And so it will likely appear in the secondhand market, and at real low dollar because it won't start. And it does have one or two unique recognizable features, so it may be possible to prove that it was ours.

At which point The Law will maybe be able to find it and sort the culprit, well and good, as they might say on some old seventies British cops-and-robbers show.

Anyway, the State Patrol will be over there today to investigate. It should be the Sheriff's Department, but apparently northern Waldo County doesn't have a Sheriff on Sundays, and we had guests at the Great Farm last night so I couldn't be at the Bale House for the Sheriff's deputy to meet me, so it will be the Boys in Blue.

Maine's finest, and several of them graduates of Unity College and my own students. As are quite a few Waldo County Sheriff's Deputies, for that matter.

It might be interesting to see what happens here.

So if you're reading this blog in Waldo County, Maine, or hereabouts, and your trailer trash neighbor who never had enough spare dough to even buy a pot to piss in has a new red Honeywell suitcase-type generator, 2,000W rated, do the right thing:

Call the cops.

Or email me the details and I'll call the cops.

Sunday, September 12, 2010

The real work

I don't know what I'd do if for some reason I couldn't do practical work anymore. I'd go crazy, for sure.

Ordinary white collar work -- and education is no different than any other in this respect -- is often so nebulous in so many ways that you have a very hard time knowing when you're succeeding.

I spent so much of my life making or fixing things, from F4s to solar power systems, that I have a very great need to be able to sit back at the end of the day and say, well, yes, I managed to accomplish something today.

Call me neurotic, but the satisfaction I get leads me to think that we'd all feel a little better if we had a little bit of what Gary Snyder has called "the real work" to do, every so often.

My most recent practical project is the straw bale house restoration. This is the building that Aimee and I built years ago as a way to avoid paying rent while we saved, and while Aimee finished grad school, so we could afford the mortgage on the Great Farm farmhouse.

The Bale House was also an experiment in building, using straw bale and recycled materials, which is why it looks so old-worldy, with hemlock posts and beams and clay cob and lime wash all major materials used in construction. It cost less than $20,000 to build, and costs less than $200/month to run, including taxes and insurance.

The Bale House was, however, never finished. We had to move in before it was finished, and once we moved out, another family moved in before we had chance to do any more work. There are also some mistakes and poor design features I'd like to correct.

So every weekend for several weeks now, I've been spending quite a few hours each day over there fixing things up. I've had a little help from the future occupant and her friends, but mostly I've been alone and it's been great.

The first project, once we cleaned up the mess left by the previous occupants, fixed the roof, and got the solar power system working again, was to add insulation to the kitchen roof. The old roof was only R10, a major design flaw. This was done of course to save money, but actually cost a lot of time, and now some money to correct. This led to several problems, not the least being ice dam formation. I fitted recycled metal roofing at the start of the latest retrofit, which will stop water getting in from ice dams, but I'd like to stop the ice dams completely, and make the kitchen more energy efficient. the answer is to fit R19 insulation and sealed drywall over the old rafters, bringing the R-level up to about R30.

The next job is to fit finished drywall to the ceiling of the main part of the house. This ceiling, originally R20, had already had the R19 treatment, plus another layer of 1/2 inch foam board leading to R44, and had ceased making ice dams. But I had never managed to get drywall over the last layer of foam board.

This is a cathedral ceiling and so needed a drywall lift. I also used the lift for the kitchen work. because I'm working alone, I need the lift even for a relatively low ceiling like the kitchen one. Often, on a drywall crew, three guys will do a low ceiling, two to hold each board, a third to drive home the screws. I have to do it all myself, mostly because no-one is available to help me on the days when I'm working.

The last shot is of the almost finished kitchen ceiling. Since I took this shot last week, I've already sanded the drywall mud and added a good coat of primer. The finished drywall looks a lot better than the old smoky rafters. Now all it needs is another coat of paint and a bit of trim.

In other GFD news, that unexpected rooster has matured and become a little rambunctious. He certainly is crowing a lot. Aimee, with her usual disregard for the feelings of the male of the species, has been baiting him, first by imitating him with her own voice, more recently by playing the recordings of another rooster back to him.

So I think we're going to have a fairly neurotic rooster. This might be unfair treatment, since he's already here on sufferance, and likely to be souped the first time he pecks one of us or a neighbor.

Saturday, September 4, 2010

Soggy sheep and Earl-y endeavors

Here's one of this year's poor ewe-lambs whose Q-name I can't remember because the names Aimee had to choose from this year were all so weird. Queira, maybe, or something like that?

I could find out from Aimee's Facebook page, but then I'd be exposed to the evil Facebook virus and when would that stop?

She's looking pretty soggy, heading for one of the small sheep shelters we have dotted around the place, photographed through a rain spattered window.

The rain is from the western edges of Tropical Storm Earl, formerly Hurricane Earl, which ground its way very slowly all the way off the east coast of the North American continent, and will hit land properly for the first time today just east of here in Nova Scotia.

So we dodged another one. Lucky. All those warnings weren't wrong, although a lot of people will say they were. This was a very big and powerful storm. It just happened to stay offshore.

Those Nova Scotians are pretty tough buggers, most of them ex-Highlanders or Acadians or Irish or Tories from the Revolution. This is now only a big storm, really, not a hurricane. I doubt it will cause very much difficulty. Volunteer fire departments will be out, as well as linesmen. There will likely be at least one old lady or old gentleman that wanders away from their home or nursing home because they forgot there was a storm and so the police and SAR will get some exercise in the rain.

That's my job, actually, in all of this, to sit by the phone for a few more hours in case we do get a similar call-out here. We did this time last year too, or was it the year before, driving to the Blue Hill peninsula in the pouring rain or a tropical storm to look for an older lady. We got lucky and she was found by another asset, search dogs, if I remember right, before we were directed to leave the SAR HQ on our first assignment.

But we got pretty damp just going from the van to the HQ, even wearing full rain gear, the rain was so heavy.

As for the Womerlippis, all my powers of reason were not enough to convince my lovely wife not to undertake her long-awaited last research trip of the season. Aimee loves her peace and quiet, and she loves the ocean, and she loves her research. She'd been looking forward to this for weeks. Luckily she works with some very good people at this particular site, many of whom are actually in Maine SAR, so while I thought that heading right towards the path of a predicted storm for the weekend was not exactly the best choice, I wasn't worried about her safety.

Not much, at least.

And now the storm has bypassed her, or will do so later today, she's going to have some very nice post-storm weather, cooler and clearer and a nice ocean breeze. Big swells, though, for a few days. That doesn't matter too much since she works at low tide in sheltered anchorages.

As for me, I'm bone tired today after the first week of class and expect to sleep some more. I slept pretty good through the most of the rain last night. I'm going to go to Newport town later and get a haircut and some gear I need for my work at the Bale House, I'm going to listen to my favorite Saturday radio shows, and then I'm going to take a nap on the couch. I may can some tomatoes later.

Small ambitions, easily achieved.

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Ancestral aspects

My sister Carol, who lives in Wales close to where our Mum is in hospital, just took a small vacation and went to our home town of Sheffield, Yorkshire, to see relatives and take her friend around the sights.

She took pictures, which pleased me to see.

The end terrace on the left is the home where our grandad Arthur was born in 1899, where his family had already lived for probably fifty years, and where they would continue to live for almost exactly another hundred years after that, until the death of grandad's sister Jessie.

One family living in the same home for 150 years is nothing in the UK. neither is it unusual that they never owned this home. It was always a rental, or as they say in the UK, a "let."

For most of the time my family lived there it was owned by a "gentle" family, not a knight or lord, but an ordinary kind of British upper-middle class property owner, who used it and other investments as a form of predictable annual income. When you read in Austin or Dickens that a landowner has so many hundred or thousand pounds a year, this is the kind of investment they are talking about.

And of course, my grandfather and his father and all my family would have been expected to show them deference.

Eventually the property fell into the hands of the Sheffield City Council and became publically owned. I'm not sure why. It might have been taken for back taxes. It might easily have been taken by eminent domain because of its location. The cottage is very nicely positioned on a trail head into one of Sheffield's many city parks and greenbelt open spaces, a place called Whitely Woods, and there has always been much public interest in it since it is in such an idyllic setting. There are even these great Edwardian postcards of the place. In fact you can hike on trails from the house right up to the moors without having to do much more than cross a couple roads.

There's a old waterwheel dam close by, called Wire Mill Dam, with a monument to master cutler Thomas Boulsover, who used the cottage at one point in the 1700s. Family tradition has it that the experiments leading to the creation of Sheffield Plate took place in the kitchen, but like a lot of family traditions, there's a formal historical version that denies this.

In any case, this house was home for my people for long enough that it's come to represent home to myself and my sister. This is the place where my great grandfather grew prize roses and hydrangeas, where my grandfather played as a kid with his brothers and sisters in the dam, the place he returned safely to after the First World War, the place where my mother lived for safety during the Second World War, the place where mother's cousin Ron, an RAF Bomber Command navigator, came home to between postings, and the place where my sister and I would be walked, alongside our mother who is now so very old and sick, but then could out-hike us any day, to see our older relatives.

In the 1960s and 1970s this house seemed like one permanent old folk's afternoon tea party to us kids, with all our great aunts and uncles hanging out there most days whether they lived there or not. It was home to Uncle Bert and Aunt Jane, as well as their unmarried sister Jessie. You could always rely on being teased by Jane, or that Uncle Tom would show you the place where his eye used to be (shot out in the war) or that there would be milk, or later when we were bigger, tea, ham, salad, cake, or if we were really lucky, trifle.

Of course they're all gone now, at least the old folks are. In fact there's a second generation of old folks that are now dying out. My mother is living out her days in her hospital bed full of memories of this place, while her cousin Barrie still lives a few hundred yards up the hill, very frail but still walking around the block each day with his two sticks.

And I live in a house in America that is nicely positioned on a historic site on a trail at the edge of the woods. I grow roses but not hydrangeas, and a lot of tomatoes.

But I own this house with my wife Aimee, and indeed we own another one at the other side of the forest ten miles away, one I built with my own hands.

And I am not expected to defer to any man or woman by reason of accident of birth.

I think the old folks would appreciate all that, even though I had to come to America to make it happen.