Sunday, May 30, 2010

Chick run

Here's photos of the chick's recent gala day, in which they were transferred from their brooder, which they had outgrown, to Aimee's five star chicken tractor.

This is the first time I've shown pictures of this device, which was made with the greatest of care.

No chick of ours is going to live in no stinking substandard chicken tractor.

Aimee has one in her hand, I'm following dutifully with the other six in a box. I think I do dutiful well, when it comes to wifely orders, don't you?

The peeps don't like being in a box and are complaining lustily, appealing to their chicken rights, but who am I to complain at the method. Just following orders, is my excuse.

This transfer process, which we'll call the "peep walk," was accomplished with a lot of peeping and flustered feathers, but by the time they'd been in their new home for a day or so, they'd settled down and were going up and down the ramp from their sleeping quarters to the grass as if born to it.

Haggis the miserable sheepdog, whose attention span for herding sheep is about two seconds, was all ears and tail for this poultrified process.

How annoying is that? When I need him to help me move sheep, he's barely on the job before he starts chewing on some sheep poop, or sniffing at some interesting smell.

The problem with Haggis is that as a young pup he had only chickens to herd, and so he's imprinted on them, not sheep.

Haggis, of course, is perfectly happy with this arrangement, and has no understanding at all of how shameful it is for a pedigree Australian Shepherd to be imprinted on chickens when he has a whole herd of sheep to look after.

They're even part Corriedale. Antipodean sheep, if you will. Like the dog breed.

Me, I'm disgusted. Not the least because as a result I have to behave like a sheepdog whenever I want to move sheep. While my otherwise perfectly operable sheepdog is sniffing the posies.

I'm a Yorkshireman, for heaven's sake. I'm supposed to be the sheepdog handler, controlling huge herds perfectly with a simple whistle and my trusty dog.

How humiliating is that? How am I ever going to be realized as a person?

I least I have the grace to be ashamed about it.

Chick run

Thursday, May 27, 2010

Camry on the road and a day out

So the Camry passed inspection yesterday and Aimee has a new car to drive. Not a brand new car, obviously, but the newest car we've had since we were married. Aimee's truck, now retired to be a farm truck, was bought new but that was in 1999.

Time for a road trip. Aimee is due to give a field class soon at the Humboldt Field Research Institute, down the coast in Washington County, and needed a recce. So off we went for a day's tourist-ing in our new Camry. Here's couple pictures of Aimee on the hike we had, and the view across from Schoodic to Mount Desert Island.

The car drove well and we had a nice hike and a pizza dinner. Haggis got to play in the ocean, which he likes. The only bad part was the old cigarette smell in the Camry, which Aimee is now trying to exorcise with some old folk remedy -- placing a bowl of vinegar in the car overnight. If that doesn't work she has two others to try.

You'd think that now the Camry was on the road that would be the end of my vehicular labors for the year, but both the other vehicles are rusty and I need to inhibit the dreaded oxidization progress somehow or we'll be shopping for another car long before we want to.

The salt that we use on the roads around here in winter makes for very bad rust problems on cars. It's a heartbreaking business, because it means the car bodies and frames fall apart long before the engines die. I hate rust.

In a few days I will get busy with the angle grinder and the tractor's loader and lift that old rusted-out bed off the truck, preparatory to fitting a wooden flatbed with angle-iron sides. I'll take the opportunity to blast, grind, or scrape off all of the rust I can see and spray the entire underside with red oxide paint. The result should be a truck that can take fifty or more bales of hay instead of the current thirty, and that can accept an entire sheet of plywood laid flat.

Why anyone would design a pick-em-up truck bed that wouldn't accept a four-by-eight of plywood is beyond me. Something to do with the increasing urbanization of global society and the alienation of folk from practical life.

The Ford wagon will get similar treatment with red oxide paint. I'm hoping not to have to buy a car for at least four years.

Except perhaps a Land Rover.

Monday, May 24, 2010

Jewel safe

Jewel the formerly sick ewe had a very good day, yesterday. If you'd not known that she was sick, you'd never have been able to tell. She ate fairly heartily, drank, walked around, and lay down in the shade and slept like a log.

I can commiserate. I once had one of these bacterial diseases that knock you around like this. I had Rocky Mountain spotted fever, and felt like I was at death's door. I slept solid for something like 48 hours.

Thank Sir Alexander Fleming for both recoveries.

Now we have to get these sheep sheared.

Saturday, May 22, 2010

Support Local Agriculture: Drive a Recycled Camry!

It's been great weather here in Maine lately. One of the paradoxes of living in "Vacationland" is that although millions every summer visit Maine, arriving after Memorial Day and disappearing after Labor Day, the best weather occurs outside of those times. Between Memorial Day and Labor Day this part of Maine is hot and muggy. And the coast, while cooler, tends to be foggy. But May often brings hot sunny days with a nice breeze, and cool clear nights, while the weather from later August to early November is usually superb.

The tourists lose, we win. Suits me. But I sometimes wish I could teach at least some of the time in the summer and have more time to work on our own projects in the fall. The fall is a great building season, although you're always racing the snow at the end. And it's good for fixing vehicles and farm equipment too. But summer is growing season and firewood drying season, and grow we must and dry firewood we must have, and all that takes work, so it does work out OK that our summers are freer than the rest of the year.

"Vacationland!" As an immigrant and thereby the owner of a different, if sacreligious, sense of perspective, these state license plate slogans always amused me. "Vacationland went well along with Idaho's "Famous Potatoes" and Wisconsin's "America's Dairyland" and similar tat. If the best thing you do for the world is provide butter, potatoes or vacations, well, that's certainly useful and probably a decent living, but why proclaim your single-mindedness to the world? Did Idaho really sell more potatoes that way?

Our new thirteen year old Camry has a license plate that states "Support Local Agriculture," which I find infinitely preferable to "Vacationland." This may represent a change of ideology for my wife, however, since she was the one who selected it. Every other car we have has "loon plates" that promote conservation. But who am I to complain? I certainly hope my local agriculture is supported.

"Support Local Agriculture" is fine by me.

On that front, here's Aimee with the lamb that needed a penicillin shot for Erysipelis. Notice the mucky knees, from all the kneeling that is typical of this disease. The sheep were all riled up that night, so I needed to use the shepherd's crook to catch him, and after that it was easiest to bring him into the kitchen for the shot and the dose of vitamin paste. He recovered the next day and hasn't been seen on his knees since.

Jewel the ewe-l is feeling a little better and may actually be recovering from Listeriosis. We confined her to the barn for a few days so that she would have less scope for staggering and wandering, and wouldn't be bullied by the rest of the sheep, who were not happy to have such a kultz in their midst and pushed her around a lot. It was easier too, to use the small confining pen in the barn to give her the nine mililiters of Penicillin that she required -- a massive dose, no less than three full syringes a day, given intramuscularly, in different muscle units each time -- and the huge horse syringe of glycerin down her gullet that helped slow the rate she converted fat and muscle to energy to stay alive while she was unable to eat.

Obviously she was never happy with the treatment, nor the confinement, and when not staggering or sleeping it off would look longingly out the window at the rest of her flock, grazing obliviously on the lush green grass of the new paddock.

Poor Jewel. Sheep really hate to be separated from their herds.

But yesterday the sun was so nice and I was due to be around all day working on the Camry's fuel tank so I opened the back door to the confinement/lambing pen and let her out. This door opens onto the North Paddock, from where she might eat a little grass, get a little sun and breeze, take nap in the shade and even communicate with the others over the fence. She was out like a shot, and while clearly still weak and dizzy, she never actually staggered or fell down all day, didn't "star-gaze" or circle, and even ate some grass and nibbled some sheep kibble.

So, we'll see, but she might be past the crisis. If she can stay on her feet and begin to eat in the next few days she'll be on the path to recovery and the land of the living. Luckily, like all our retired ewes, she's fat, so she has a reserve to fall back on. When we butchered Larkie a few weeks ago, we finished up with the greasiest chops and lamburger I've ever seen. It tastes great, but it's not your Atkins diet special.

In other news, Aimee has finished her chicken tractor masterpiece, which I have displayed on the lawn here alongside last year's masterpiece, the garden cart. Aimee's dad Dick, who no doubt will read this, is a master wood carver and furniture maker, and so wifie mine is a chip off the old block. These products are of such high quality you wouldn't even guess they were home-made.

Me, I'm a Sheffield lad, so I prefer hard steel to wood. I exercised my talents some yesterday switching out that leaky gas tank on Aimee's new Camry. I also tried to switch out the bad ABS sensors, to discover the parts house had sent me rear sensors instead of front ones, so that job didn't get done. But I did drive the car down, once the tank was changed, to our local inspection station, where I got confirmation that it will pass inspection once the ABS sensors are changed.

While I was changing the tank, I was amazed to discover that a previous owner had actually drilled the hole in the old one, seemingly on purpose, or at least for a reason, and that was why it was leaking. Recently, too. I discovered a neatly drilled hole with fresh swarf on the edges, right through the top of the gas tank, right under one of the drain plugs in the car body, right under the driver's side back seat.

Go figure.

Some foolish person had taken a 3/8 drill bit and drilled through the center of the plastic drain plug and then on through the gas tank. This had me scratching my head. I imagine that this was perhaps done to drain out water. There's a cover plate for the fuel pump right there, held on with some kind of black cement sealant, which may have been leaking, and the drain plug is at the bottom of a natural well in the body, so water would have collected there if the car was leaking. Enough water, and the seat foam would have been wet and even moldy. You'd want the water gone. And if you were totally ignorant of Camry geography and totally quick on the draw with the drill, you might choose to drill out the plug and inadvertently penetrate the gas tank.

Hah! What a prize numpty that was.

And so then, with the ABS light on and the gas tank holed, what else can you do but sell the car? Especially if you're that stupid?

But how well have we made out from this stupidity? Well, we now have a Toyota Camry that cost less than $5,000 to get on the road, but that has only 44,000 miles on it. According to Craig's List, we might expect to pay anything from $7,000 to $13,0000 for a Camry with so few miles. There are very few that are the right year, though, as old as 1997, and those that are have upwards of 200,000 miles.

I expect we'll find out how well we did if the thing lasts four or five years. that would be my goal. I'd like to get seven or eight, but I'd settle for four or five.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Busy bees and more sick sheep

Summer is in full swing now, with days that get well into the seventies (F), and nights that show no hint of frost. But we had frost just last week, and so all the tomato starts that Aimee grew in the greenhouse, now hardening off, must stay in their trays for the time being in case they need to be whisked back inside. All the cabbages, Brussels sprouts and broccoli are in, though. They can stand a small frost. Peas are about four inches and onions two.

Aimee has had her first day of marine biology field research, while I'm a couple days into my summer roughnecking trade of raising and lowering and moving anemometer towers from site to site. This is basic research for small scale wind power and wind mapping in then the good old State o' Maine. The results allow me to redraw the current wind map, which is based on a computer model and not especially accurate, given our tough topography of hills and dales and tall trees.

The wind does what it wants in this state, not what computer geeks who primarily sit in offices and tinker with algorithms think it does. You have to measure directly, at least for a year or two more until we get an algorithm that works. If we ever do. Which suits me. I'm a field site, ground-truthing, just the facts, ma'am, kind of dude.

I have a merry group of students on payroll, and we are going back today to clean up our first site and begin configuring a couple of 30 meter anemometer towers out of two 60 meter ones. These will go to a couple of farms that have nice high hilltops, where they'll tell us if a farm wind turbine is a good investment, and also fill in some blank spots on the map.

The Camry fuel tank has arrived, but I have to get some field work done first. Friday will be Camry day, weather permitting. And maybe this will be the weekend the tomato starts go in.

We have another sick sheep. Actually, we had two, but we seem to have cured one. First a male lamb, whose name Aimee could tell me but she's still fast asleep, got the same septic arthritis that sent Polly to the butchers last year. This time we were ready and a quick shot of penicillin and a dose of selenium/vitamin paste was administered and he was back on his feet the next day. The other is Jewel, who has gotten "circling disease," one of the several creative and inventive ailments sheep have in their vast toolbox of ways to die.

Diagnosis was difficult at first because she was just sad and off her feed for several days. If we had given her penicillin right away, we might have done better. But we were just scratching our heads, and worrying what essential sheep nutrient she might be missing, or whether she had a bad case of flystrike, or whatever. Sheep are often sad, it seems. I examined her over and over trying to figure it out. But after a while, encephalitis set in, she developed "star gazing" and one-sided paralysis, head-resting, and a tendency to go around in clockwise circles when bothered.

So now she's fighting it, with massive doses of penicillin. The encephalitis symptoms are somewhat reduced, and she's comfortable in the barn. But she still hasn't eaten for days. She is drinking, though, and I have given her glycerin for energy and will give her more. What she could really use is an IV drip with feed and fluids and penicillin, but she's still too mobile for that.

In any case, she's a working sheep, who lives on a farm in Maine, not a human, and definitely not a pet. If she was on some total vegetarian hobby farm, she might get that kind of treatment. But she's a retired ewe on a farm that slaughters and culls appropriately, and will have to take her chances. As long as the symptoms are less than they were, she will live, but if they get worse she will have to be culled right away.

But I feel bad for her and hope she gets better.

All of these diseases, the listeriosis, the arthritis, and the tetanus that Maggie had, are caused by critters that live in soil, and probably can't be helped much, but we have moved the rest of the flock from their home pasture, the Back Forty, to the nice clean New Paddock as a precaution. As soon as I can get the Kubota back from my wind power work, I'll rake up manure and waste hay in the security pen and we won't let them back in there until the fall, by which time sun and wind and rains should have reduced the bacteria load in the surface soil somewhat. Even this precaution is a trade off. The New Paddock is by no means as secure from coyotes and stray dogs.

All of the breeding flock, including the temporarily arthritic lamb, seems healthy and happy on the New Paddock, so I'm hoping this is the end of sheep disease for one year. Shearing time soon, so that's another danger point, when fresh wounds are made and so on. They've all had fresh tetanus shots, though, and the ewes have had two each, since the previous shot didn't seem to help Maggie much, so we suspect that batch of vaccine. If we can get through shearing, we'll be home free, I think, and we'll have saved all our breeders except Maggie and Polly.

Sunday, May 16, 2010

Camree, camra

So the Camry needs a new fuel tank, and a new driver side ABS speed sensor or wire or both. This last according to the on board diagnostic system. I already ordered the new tank -- cost $200 online -- and it will come before Friday. The speed sensor needs another diagnostic test, a basic logic-problem switcheroo where you switch the suspect one with what should be a working sensor from the other side and see if the fault code stays with the bad sensor, meaning it is the sensor and not the wire that connects the sensor to the ABS computer.

New speed sensors are $113 -- ridiculous for an item that is no more complicated, really, than a magnetic door switch you might find on a household alarm system. A ten-dollar item, at most. But there ought to be a '97 Camry in one of our local salvage yards, or another model year close enough, and if I can find said scrap Camry, I can probably get two for $20, since each car will have two easily accessible on the front end.

So the full price for the final complete Camry, on the road, not counting registration and tax which you'd have to pay for any car, will be less than $4,600, counting the $210 interest the credit union charges us on the $3,500, eighteen-month loan. Assuming I don't find anything else to fix.

That makes me fairly content with the deal. Turns out that Camry's are easy to work on, too. Lots of room, not so many tight places, simple organization of equipment. I should have known -- I had an '87 or '88 Toyota two-wheel drive truck years ago and it was easily the best vehicle, and most useful, I ever owned. I sold it to pay for my first year of college, which was a good trade, but I've never had a more reliable vehicle.

This car is in better condition than Aimee's truck was in when I first met her those 7 years ago. It even still has the manufacturers original double-electrode spark plugs. Not one but two electrodes per plug, to get a good quality spark for easy starting, redundancy, reliability.

Crafty, those Japanese.

I expect we'll get at least seven years out of it, then.

Ownership costs of less than $800 per year. Ridiculously cheap. I'm not quite ready to declare victory over the vehicle-industrial system yet, but it seems like we might be on the outskirts of Berlin at least.

Meanwhile, back at the ranch, the truck also needed some work. It had developed that grinding noise that front discs make when they're worn down beyond their safe wear point. Which surprised me because I had inspected these pads only last fall before the truck got its most recent state inspection, and they were still fat and good for many thousands of miles. But Aimee hates truck noises, and I hate replacing expensive rotors on old trucks that don't need expensive rotors, just to pass safety inspection.

So, after we finished tinkering with the Camry fuel tank (that would be the "royal we" -- herself doesn't deign to work with mechanical devices, even though she finds them incredibly frustrating and would therefore gain great psychological benefit from knowing, and being able to do, more), we tore down the front brakes on the truck.

Where we found a stuck spring-and-plunger device that had meant only one pad was doing most of the work of stopping the truck, and so that pad had worn out earlier. The cause, of course, was the rust that this truck has everywhere, on almost all equipment. And the rust, of course, is why it's not worth rebuilding that engine, which after all, just has a head gasket leak, not a particularly fatal engine problem.

This plunger will need to be drilled out and replaced, or I will need to get a whole plunger and caliper mounting assembly from a salvage yard. Problem is, this is not the kind of part that salvage yard guys have a name for, so I'll have to go myself.

Which is not really a problem, since salvage yards are fun for me. I think of them as great cheap outdoor parts warehouses, cornucopias of cost savings. And I still need a tire for the Ford, another item that will be cheaper at a scrapyard. And it would be good to have a spare set of rims for the Camry, to carry the steel-studded snow tires we use here in Maine in the winter.

Funny, isn't it, how most of us have to suffer so much to pay for the vehicles we drive, though. It's a permanent chicken-egg problem that comes with middle-class, white-collar work. You have to have the vehicle to drive to work, but you have to have work to pay for the vehicle. You're expected by the standards of your position in society to have a respectable vehicle. Show up in a grungy old Land Rover, or worse, a VW microbus, and people will judge you, even though either type is eminently repairable and can be kept running for generations. But most of us pay $200, $300, or $400 a month for the privilege of owing a nice $20,000, $25,000 or $30,000 middle-class car that will run for ten years at most without problems, and more likely just five or seven, plus the interest, plus the $600 of insurance and about the same in taxes a year. So a middle-class vehicle that won't shame you at your middle-class workplace might easily cost $6,000 or $7,000 a year, before you've put even a gallon of gas in it. Which is more than 10% of the average household income in the USA.

And many families have two or three such vehicles.

And no-one who holds down one of these normal middle class jobs has the time to learn how to fix their own vehicles, or has the time to fix it even if they know how, to get out of the trap. I only have the time because college professors get a lot of free time in the summer, and I only know how because I was a blue-collar, working-class mechanic long before I was a white-collar, middle-class college professor. But even we pay for this time in spades in the term time. If I started dismantling either of our other two vehicles on a Saturday morning during term time, and for some reason couldn't get it back together before Monday morning, there'd be hell to pay around here.

I wasn't joking when I referenced the vehicle-industrial system. It's actually a form of insidious low-grade slavery, whereby millions of human beings are laboring long hours at tedious paper-pushing jobs to make the money to pay for the stupid and gas-guzzling vehicles that get them to their tedious paper-pushing jobs.

I'm perfectly content to spend another day in the Great Farm sun today puttering with the ABS system on this Camry, if it means we have a chance, and a good one at that, to escape ten- or twenty-percent slavery for seven years, or at least reduce it to five per cent or less for eighteen months. That's not a hard trade at all. Just another contribution to my project to have all our debts and this house paid off before retirement.

Before early retirement, if I have my best druthers. I get a gratuity and a 1/3 RAF pension at age 60. That ought to allow me to reduce my workload at least, if not retire outright.

And if, by futzing here and there with the truck and the Ford too, rather than writing either of them off, I can keep each going for a few years yet, and have a third vehicle around here on standby for whenever we need it, I can probably use those facts too, to help keep us out of the system.

Being free and independent of the system, so we can chart our own course, grow our own food in the Great Farm soil, in the Great Farm sun, look after our own house and belongings, make our own decisions, when we want to make them, and not be slaves, ten- or twenty-percent, or otherwise, to the system, to The Man.

That's the goal here.

Saturday, May 15, 2010

How do you know how to do the right thing?

Well, yesterday was an almost perfectly difficult day, but those are common enough around here. What was different was that it was a day of almost complete moral ambiguity.

Only time will tell if we did the right thing.

This difficult day involved both sheep and cars, but both stories are long, so bear with me.

The first part of the day we spent car-shopping. I've mentioned before that our truck has developed a coolant leak into one of its cylinders, most likely a head gasket leak, but possibly a warped cylinder head. This truck is Aimee's daily driver and life is hell around here whenever it has to be taken out of service for repairs. Aimee and I never have matching teaching schedules, an administrative problem that costs us a small fortune since it means we have to keep and drive two vehicles constantly. One of us has to come home as early as possible to tend animals, the gardens, and in winter, the wood stove. The other, usually Aimee who has considerably more administrative duties, has to stay late. It buggers up all our house and farm systems terribly, and worst of all, animals get neglected, if I have to stay on campus to wait for Aimee to finish up.

So we drive two vehicles almost daily, all year. If we're going to do this, we really should get the most fuel efficient and cost-efficient vehicles we can. Aimee, who can't drive a stick-shift, drives the automatic truck, while I drive a manual Ford Escort wagon. If there's a snowstorm or other bad weather, we do drive together in the four wheel drive truck. We also need it for moving hay, grain, and other bulky farm inputs. But the rest of the time we drive separately unless for some strange reason that's a day we can both leave for work and come home at the same time.

So as mechanic-in-chief around here, and in consideration of the truck's essentiality and usefulness around here, my advice was for us to keep it and repair it and baby it along as long as we could, but only use it when we actually need a truck or four wheel drive, and instead get a smaller car with an automatic transmission for Aimee to drive to work. Actually, we probably made this decision last fall, or earlier, before the truck had even developed the head gasket leak. But the leak clinched it and added urgency, since a vehicle with such a deep, systemic engine problem can crap out any day, any time.

Which sent me to my budget spreadsheets and the classified ads for about the last two months, while I explored the possibilities for buying new or used small cars more or less exhaustively. We can't afford to throw money at vehicles, and while new cars are nice, they aren't necessarily the most cost-effective choices. As a fairly experienced mechanic, given enough time, I can repair almost anything on a car myself. I rarely have time for car repairs during term time, but in summer I can usually pull out several days and even weeks or work on vehicles. In fact last summer I reconditioned an old motorcycle just for fun. If I have lots of time, I even enjoy the work.

This gives us some options other folks don't have.

Long story short, we looked at new small Japanese cars, like the Fit, Yaris and Versa. We even looked at the Chevy Aveo, but Aimee, suspicious like many Americans of American car manufacturers, didn't like that much. I thought about it for a while, the appeal of a car and warranty for less than $11,000 being quite strong, but the Aveos don't hold their value at all, and I'm not sure they're good for much more than 120,000 miles, whereas the Japanese models get 200,000 or more. Aimee fell in love with the Fit. All that neat cargo room and secret compartments appealed to her organizing nature. But we couldn't imagine spending $18,000 for a tiny hatchback, even if it was likely to get 200,000 miles.

More cost-efficient in comparison were second-hand cars, but not so much the smaller Japanese ones. We actually saw secondhand Honda Fits priced for more than new ones at one or two dealers, less Fits being made than were demanded by buyers.

So after quite a bit of winnowing of ideas and back and forth, we settled on finding a small to mid-size Japanese car, preferably smaller, but not necessarily so, hopefully with less than 100,000 miles, but not necessarily so, and so on. The main criteria being overall value for money. I badly wanted to make a Prius fit this profile because of the fuel economy factor, but that rapidly showed itself to be almost impossible. There was one "little old lady" Prius that sold for $6,000 last week with only 59,200 miles on it, but after careful perusal of the ads and after looking hard and driving one car, I decided that if a Prius was priced for less than $10,000, it was either because it was approaching 200,000 miles, or because it had a dead or suspect main battery costing $3,000 to replace.

We weren't getting anywhere with all of this and we'd only looked at one car by the end of the semester.

Then Aimee spent an hour or two online one night and found a few cars she wanted to go see, and, probably because she picked them out herself, gave me absolutely no trouble in scheduling a day to go see cars. Usually she hates to go car shopping, and will avoid it like the plague, so this was progress, and hopeful.

So I made a list of cars, and planned out a route. We drove first to Lewiston, Maine, where we had scheduled a look at a '97 Toyota Camry. This car, otherwise ancient, somehow had only 44,000 miles on it, asking only $4,000 when the blue book value was $6,500, almost unbelievable, and I wanted to see if I could fault the theory somehow.

So I rolled under it, and prodded it here and there, and listened to the engine, and smelled the exhaust, and tried to find a reason not to buy it. Aimee drove it, I listened and felt with my butt for bad suspension noises. The damn thing was cherry, more or less. Original paint, bodywork, barely a scratch, and no worn seats or key-scratches or any other reason to suspect those 44,000 miles. Disbelieving, I got fixated for quite a while on the fact that there was new underseal on the frame, and I wanted to know why. There were some seams under the thickest coats of underseal on the main box members, and I wondered if it had been welded, or worse, packed with bondo. The guy who was selling the car had been a dealer but was now unemployed, and I was, I admit, a little more suspicious just because of his former occupation.

This suspicion on my part led to a ludicrous moment where we pulled into a Marden's parking lot while I rolled under someone's random Camry to compare the frame seams. Thank you for that, whoever you are, and I promise I never actually touched your car.

I was only looking, your honour, honest I was.

But the frame was sound, just like every other Camry frame, only cleaner and with more underseal. And so in the end we bought the car. The paperwork took half the day, what with a bank loan and insurance and transit plates. We eventually, very eventually, had all the legalities straightened out, and Aimee, by this time just seething with frustration at how long everything had taken, more or less grabbed the keys from me and finally drove the car off the former owner's driveway.

But we had to get gas. And I'd warned Aimee over and over how there was going to be something wrong, that this was too good to be true, and that old cars that don't get use much develop their own kinds of problems, like dried-out seals and so on.

Well, we were putting the gas in and I was wondering what size gas tank a Camry had, 13 gallons, I thought aloud. Aimee said no, the pump gauge was reading more than that, and then, oh no, we saw the gas trickling onto the floor. A leaking gas tank.

All of a sudden, I actually felt better. Finally, a reason why the car was priced so low. Aimee, on the other hand, was feeling pretty low. But I looked at the leak pretty hard, and decided it was coming from the filler neck, not the tank, and that if we just drove away some of the gas in the tank, and if we were lucky, it would stop leaking, and while we might cause some air pollution, the day was warm and dry and the leaking gas would be spread pretty thin across all of Maine and would evaporate. It helped my thinking that I'd earlier bought comprehensive insurance for the car. But common sense dictated that if anyone was going to die in a blazing vehicular inferno, it would have to be the male of the species, the disposable sperm deliverer, not the female egg carrier. Plus if anyone has experience driving dangerously defective vehicles by the seat of their pants, it's me.

So we drove home, slowly, but steadily and uneventfully. And at about one-third down the gas gauge, the tank stopped leaking. And nothing else seemed particularly wrong.

So did we do the right thing? Only time will tell. The only thing I know for sure is that we have a new, and fairly new-looking car in the driveway alongside our two existing beaters. And that there's a faint whiff of gas in the Great Farm neighborhood. I will be working on the gas leak today, and if I get that fixed in a timely fashion I will do some other things like pull the wheels and check the brakes and pull the plugs and so on, anything I can do to look for wear indicative of more than 44,000 miles.

But that's not the end of the day's ambiguities. About a half an hour after we'd settled down after all this excitement, the phone rang again. Another sheep call. I'm not sure I know how I became the go-to sheep "whisperer" in the area, but that sure seems to be what has happened.

So I pulled on me dungerees and wellies and went a mile or two up the road to another sheep farm, different than the last, where another Churro ewe had been in labor all evening with a tightly packed lamb.

Where I encountered the tightest ewe's vagina and uterus I've ever seen. I could bearly get a finger past the labia, let alone the cervix. The lamb was almost certainly past saving, its tongue bloated with asphyxiation. The ewe was healthy, but in a poor fix.

I struggled for about half an hour, first as gently as I could but eventually with more and more force. I was able to get one foreleg out, but not the other. I couldn't even find it, but then I couldn't get in past the head without tearing tissue. And I couldn't push the head back at all, to reposition the lamb's legs. It wouldn't go back, and as I tried I felt the lamb's teeth breaking and jaw tissues tearing. So I just pulled, while the owner pushed on the belly. There were no contractions, although the ewe would push a little. But the lamb wouldn't budge.

Eventually, I used so much force, I pulled the foreleg right off the dead lamb. That was gruesome. But even then, the remainder stayed put, not moving at all, the lamb's shoulders jammed tight in the womb. Normally, you could pull a lamb like this out easily enough, once you got a grip on a leg or two, but not this time.

I've never had a case like this. The only solution, and probably what we should have done as soon as we realized how tight the lamb was, would have been a cesarean section. But there was no way to succeed at that without a lot of pain and risk for the ewe. Even if there had been a vet willing and available to come out, which I strongly doubt, there would have been more pain and delay.

Which was a pitiful shame, since this ewe was bright and alert and well, just lying there with a lamb that wouldn't come out. We thought about cutting her open in case there was a second lamb, but that just seemed like throwing mortal insult after mortal injury.

So the man of the house went for his pistol and I shot the ewe in the head and she died. More slowly, too, than I would have liked, for the heart kept pumping for several minutes. But I'm sure she didn't feel anything by then, with most of her brain messed up.

So, more moral ambiguity. Did I do the right thing? Should I even have offered to help? I honestly don't know. I'm not a vet, and not even really a very experienced sheep midwife, just more experienced than other folks around here fell themselves to be. The owners were somewhat out of their depth, but so was I. I just felt more comfortable being out of my depth, is all, and for no particularly good reason except I seem to have found myself out of my depth fairly often in my life and have got more used to it than perhaps I should.

The only thing I know for sure is the ewe is now feeling no more pain.

In both cases, the car which is vital for our family, and the ewe's life, vital for her, the stakes were fairly high. These settings we encounter with our rural and self-reliant way of life come with this effect: the stakes are often higher than most folks, particularly most Americans, normally come across in the developed world.

In fact, when stakes do get to be that high, or more so, such as with my elderly parents, both now in hospital in Wales, the system we live with tends to take responsibility from us and give it to specialists.

I'm not sure this is such a good thing for society, not all of the time at least. I may not feel that good about yesterday's problems, or how we muddled through in dealing with them, but at least we did deal with them, all of them. And we even resolved them, in our own fashion, for better or for worse. And we'll deal with more problems today and resolve them too.

There are plenty of problems around the world that are not being dealt with and are not likely to get resolved at all, possibly because we fail to take responsibility or to act, both individually and collectively. And so problems pile up.

Until they get to be really big problems.

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Pregnancy toxemia

I got a call last night from a neighbor who keeps sheep, about another neighbor who needed help with theirs, and, long story short, finished up jumping in the car with the sheep kit and the 30-30 and going on a house call. Not that I'm a vet, but we are starting to get some experience with sheep and their numerous medieval diseases, or at the least learning to cope, the hard way, and anyway there is no vet for sheep that you can call, really, in Maine.

The rifle is the vet of last resort for most of us small sheep farmers in Maine.

This was a down ewe with what was most likely pregnancy toxemia, which, according to the online Merck's Vet Manual and a dozen other sites and the Storey's sheep "bible," is caused by either too much or too little nutrition in pregnancy. The sheep has a hard time supporting the growing lamb and begins to eat its own tissues. The toxemia comes from ketosis, as protein is broken down for energy. The cure is either glycol or glycerin, as an energy source, to stop the need to breakdown tissue, and then of course, better nutrition. In this case the animal hadn't been grained much, and there had been a transport too, recently, adding to the stress, which also fits the diagnosis.

And, miraculously, after the glycerin was administered (snagged from Aimee's soap-making supplies), and after about a twenty minute wait, the ewe was rolled onto its legs, whereby she then got up of her own accord and ambled, albeit somewhat shakily, off to join her sisters.

I wasn't that surprised. I've become familiar with the miracle cure aspect of some of these sheep problems from our own bouts with White Muscle Disease, where the sheep and lambs are up and back to normal within ten minutes of administering the shot of BOSE. Milk fever is supposed to be a quick recovery too.

Sheep really do spend half their lives figuring out how to die, but some of the time you can save them rather miraculously too.

Very gratifying, if you can keep your nerve and do the first aider thing.

Better yet, of course, to have good systems of prophylaxis and prevention in place. We grain our pregnant sheep twice daily, so we haven't had this one yet. But we had bad luck recently with Maggie's tetanus, Larkie's vaginal prolapse, Polly's septic arthritis, and the ram-fight last fall.

Three out of four of which, were we really that experienced and deadpan self-honest to boot, we would have to admit that we could have avoided. Only Maggie's tetanus was unavoidable and not the result of one of our own mistakes.

We can say this because we gave her the vaccine as we should have right on time. But each of the other cases was partly our fault. If we hadn't tried to have two rams on one small farm, Abe would still be alive; if we didn't keep pigs on the same ground as sheep, and if we hadn't allowed Polly to get WMD by being more careful with feed, she would never have gotten septic arthritis; and if I hadn't lacked experience and confidence in my midwifing of Larkie, I would never have had my hand in her uterus so long looking for that second lamb that wasn't there.

Still, I do think we are learning from all this. And not just the sheep vet stuff. We'll be better people as a result, calmer in any emergency.

Back in the day when I was in the RAFMRS, fellside emergencies were supposed to be my job. I handled quite a few human casualties over the years on the teams, but frankly my testosterone level was so high as a kid, I was always a little nervy.

I think I'd be better at it now, after all this practice on sheep. Just not fit enough. Too old and fat.

Sunday, May 9, 2010

Dirty little chick

Sometimes baby chicks get their bums plugged up. The cure is a little warm water and a gentle de-plugging.

Here Aimee is applying the treatment.

I heard the peep in the house and came into the kitchen to take a picture.

Later in the day, the lambs decided to break out through one of the cheap gates we make with lumber from our local apple ladder mill.

I guess this one needs an extra rung.

Friday, May 7, 2010

Peep panic

Here are all our peeps piled into the corner of their brooder, to avoid the camera as it appears from above, like some giant scary space alien.

It must be scary to be such a tiny little being, all full of peepy life and just wanting to survive, and then the big beings show up with feed and cameras, and yes, Aimee, cruelty incarnate, did lift the cat up to the brooder -- Shenzi the vicious hunter cat -- so the bloody-clawed feline monster could get a look.

Poor little peeps.

Aimee, who is In Charge of Peeps (ICP?), decided to branch out and try some Araucunas, in addition to the usual Golden Comets and Buff Orpingtons. She was funny to watch as I drove her back from the Farmer's Union, with her nose in the box, laughing at all the peepy antics.

I like the Buffs myself, such big fluffy, solid hens. And any hen named after an English village, even one that probably votes Tory and is now part of London's sprawl, is fine with me.

Araucunas lay blue eggs. Nice for a change.

Maybe I'll have some regular old brown eggs for breakfast, come to think of it. On toast. Doesn't look like the blue ones will be ready for a while.

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Hot buggy sheep

Sheep were trying hard to keep their noses away from the blackflies today. Maine blackflies are a hazard of life here and very buggy. The easily draw blood with their bites. I've grown used to them, but even so I prefer to avoid them when I can.

The sheep dislike them too. Especially when they get on and in their noses.

So they try to keep their noses as covered as they can. The flies can only really bite them there.

This little lamb was using the feed bowl, while the rest of the flock was using numbers and the picnic table.

Sometimes the sheep get in a circle with their noses all in the middle, other times they stand with their noses up to a tree.

Monday, May 3, 2010

Sunday jobs and early heat

I guess I'd better post some pictures soon, so readers can see what I'm talking about. But we've been too busy to take any. Getting lots done, though.

Yesterday started with a bit of school work, but I didn't mind it. Editing a report due tomorrow. The hour or so I spent entering changes from another faculty member will make for a less stressful day today. Aimee and I may not have classes to teach, but there'll still be reasons we have to go to work on and off all summer, and so today is the first day of the non-class based summer schedule, and my big thing is this report due by noon. The student poster session is the morning though, and my efforts Sunday will let me go enjoy that, free of nagging worry about the report.

Feed the sheep some grain, mostly for little orphan Quinn's sake. I think if it wasn't for her I'd have cut back on the grain by now. But she seems strong and sassy, no sign of starvation even without mother Maggie's milk. Then let the woollies out to graze on the Front Lawn.

Aimee woke early for her on a weekend and went right back to her chicken tractor project.

While I put up yesterday's elm-wood. Disappointing, not even a quarter cord. But the firewood pile has begun to grow again for the first time since last fall. It has to keep growing a load at a time until we have the requisite three-four cords. This pile of well-seasoned wood, which sits in more or less full sun all summer, is much more reliably dry than any we ever buy in.

Then it was the onions. Two hundred feet of red and yellow onions is more than we've ever planted, but we do use them and they do keep. I've been wanting to gravitate away from the designer crops like Arugula, and instead plant more old-timey storage crops like plain old onions. It may not make economic sense to grow spuds and onions, but by golly we do eat them, and it's nice to eat your own food in December or February. Worth much more than $1.99 a pound to me at least.

I never eat the arugula anyway. Aimee does, of course. I do sometimes eat salad, but usually right off the plant in the garden is when I like to eat it.

My Grandad the English master gardener would have been proud of me. I actually used a string for the onions to keep the row straight. But it does make for easy weeding.

Then I gave the rest of the garden the second tilling. The first tilling, with the Kubota tractor occurs after the compost is spread, to help it break down faster. The second tilling, with the rototiller, is to make a nice soil consistency with the compost now broken down, and to kill the weeds that have germinated since the first. The "new" recycled motor on the tiller worked fine except for dripping a little gas from the carb, a real slow drip, like a dewdrop on a cold nose. Gas, otherwise poisonous to plants, evaporates immediately especially when it's hot, so this small amount didn't bother me, but I would be smart to order a new carb for this thing. And if I ever see another nine horse motor that might be cannibalized, I should get it too. This one won't last forever.

I even used the tiller to do the uppermost patch of the terrace garden, where a second's delay with the controls would undoubtedly send the beast over the edge. But no worries. Tilling on the edge. The beast responds well to its controls. Better than a Toyota, and a lot cheaper.

Aimee came back from grocery shopping, and I cut some bits of plywood for her chicken-tractor masterpiece, which must surely end up in the Louvre. Then a short nap.

The afternoon was spent sealing leaky guttering, planting the flower bed in front of the house, fixing a fence around the same because the chickens have claimed it for dust bath central, and fixing the sheep fence down on the front lawn where some silly woolly knocked it down last year.

All in all a steady day's work. Enough to keep the wolf from the door. Warm, though, 75 degrees or more. More like late June than early May.

El Nino
at work.

It was warm and muggy out there still this morning, too. A nice fragrant warm night, as well. I doubt it dropped below 60 F. No need for the greenhouse heater.

If it's like this in May, what will it be like in July?

Sunday, May 2, 2010

Freedom Friday

Friday was the last day of class. What a relief.

Don't get me wrong. I love teaching and I love my job, although I know I complain a lot about some of its more stressful sides. But college teaching is stressful. You're in front of an audience trying to deal with something important, and you need to deliver. I imagine stage acting or giving political speeches is similar.

The other thing is, there's a place you have to be, several times each day, no ifs, ands, or buts. You can't easily take a week's vacation, or schedule a day for the dentist, or call in for a comp day if your car won't start. You have to be there, ready to go, with new material prepared and rehearsed. It's the only way to handle the job responsibly.

So when the last day of class rolls around and summer is here with the vastly greater freedom of schedule, and that three-and-a-half month vista of stress-free days ahead, there's a great feeling of relief. Saturday morning was like that. Like a birthday, or a vacation.

I think I got into the habit of summer when I was a college student myself, at the University of Montana. I was older, having been in the service, probably not unlike one of those mildly creepy, non-trad, older-guys-around-campus that these days make me routinely suspicious when I see them around our eighteen-year old girls. An escapee from normal wage labor, I had been used to working eight hours or more, five days or more a week, with the usual vacation time and so on, so when my first college summer rolled around, the summer of 1990, I was admittedly at a bit of a loss.

But I rose to the occasion. I grew a big garden on an allotment (community garden), put up a lot of veggies, did some fix-up work on my rental house, walked the dogz (Liza Jane, the world's best dog ever!), went fishing, climbed some mountains and otherwise spent time outdoors (oh, those Montana hot springs!), wrote some articles for an environmental paper, did some search and rescue training, and generally pleased myself. That summer set up a pattern that I keep up today, more or less, with the few minor differences being that I work on our own farm, not a community garden, and I do a lot of wind power work.

Aimee has her own pattern involving the greenhouse, gardening, raising chicks, doing marine research, guest lecturing, grading AP biology, occasional trips to the shore, and the like.

So what did I do on my first day of the summer vacation? I worked my butt off, of course. That's what we do. It's just a different pace, and a different kind of work, and a whole lot less stressful.

Mostly I think because you can see the difference right there.

So first I raked up some branches and twigs and trash where the chickens have been spreading stuff out of one of my brush piles that is on top of one of the old trash middens we have around here, some of which must date back to the Romans. (My hope is that brush rots and buries the trash naturally. It's illegal to bury trash in Maine, but it's not illegal to pile brush on top of someone else's fifty-year old trash.) Then I moved the creep feeder to the sheep's security pen from the North Paddock, so we could use it to make sure wee motherless Quinn gets her kibble.

That was a good start.

So then I cut more sumac out of the New Paddock. I've developed a severe dislike for this tree, because it has so few uses. This is probably short-sightedness on my part. Apparently this particular variety, staghorn sumac (not poison sumac), can be used for firewood, but I'm not bothering. It's supposed to burn fast. And it's not a normal firewood species in this part of the world. I don't want to risk it. Perhaps it's just the name, too much like the poison variety, which puts out a chemical weapon if you burn it, a substance that can sear your lungs. Guilt by association, I know. But firewood is too important to us for me to want to try something very new. I might save a couple of pieces and experiment, but not a whole bunch. So I'm piling it up as waste, just to get it out of the way.

I don't burn brush piles, although most folks do here in Maine. Brush piles eventually rot down, while burning is dangerous, smoky and can start forest fires. And they are always about half the size after the first winter, because the snow pushes them down. It's not like we don't have room for them. Small critters, squirrels and deer mice, use them for cover. After two sessions of sumac-cutting over two weekends, we have a much larger area of brush free-grass in this paddock, and Thorndike's grassy ruin is much more visible.

According to neighbor Hamilton, this is a collection of outbuildings, not the main mansion.

I have a bit more cutting to do in this area, but not much. And the power line to our neighbor's house is now much more free of brush, which helps us because when the trees short out their line, our power goes out too.

One big cherry tree is all wrapped around the power line, and I don't know what to do for the best, so I left it. When I get a chance, I'll talk to Ham. Best thing to do is probably to call the power company, but it's his land, or at least his mom's.

It's definitely his line.

So that took me up until 10am. Car Talk time. So I listened while cleaning up the shop, which needed to be done just because, but also since Aimee has a project to do, a new chicken tractor. Her exacting nature with these kinds of projects doesn't allow for the natural disorderliness of my shop, which is usually playing host to a half-dozen different jobs at once. I put tools away and made space for her and swept up.

I also exercised the generator. That's a funny phrase to use, since it sounds a bit like like walking a dog, but if you have a generator that you don't use regularly, you must exercise it. You check the oil, start it, run it, test the power output, shut it down. Only this time there was no power.

Cursing once more the feckless people who have occupied our spare house for nearly four years now and cost us thousands of dollars because they won't make any contribution to the costs, and because we're too nice to kick them out (there's a kid involved -- I won't be that guy who made a kid homeless), and who almost wrecked this and another generator we provided them with for free (the Bale House is off-grid), I began to take it apart, pushing wires around, looking for a loose connection. Something was loose, but I don't know what, since it powered back up during these efforts, and so I decided it was fixed and put it back together.

This family is supposed to be out of there this spring, in fact they no longer live there, just keep their stuff there. I will be able to get the place back, one way or another. I gave them until May to get their shit out. After that, it will be dumpster Sunday. Then I'll have to make repairs, fix all their damage, and find a more responsible tenant.

Or not. One option is to use it for guests and visitors, a family camp. For old students and family members and ex RAFMRS to use, for free, or a donation to the cause. Why not? It's in a nice woodsy setting, great for walks and deer-hunting, fifteen miles from the Maine coast, very rustic. There's even some fishing. But it sure is buggy. Mosquito city until August. One reason we moved out. And the folks who stay there would have to be self-reliant, 'cos I'm not going to blast over there every five minutes to empty the compost toilet or pump gravity-fed water. Those off-the-grid systems are not for the faint-hearted.

Those morons who borrowed (stole is more accurate) this house for so long kicked in a wardrobe door! An obvious boot-hole. Imagine that! How shitty is that? To borrow someone's house and kick in a door?

Anyway, back to the thread. After fixing up the generator, I sharpened my chainsaw, the nice new one. Then it was time to cut down the dead elm in the North Paddock, which had succumbed to the Dutch Elm, and so had to go or it might infect others. That made about a quarter of a cord. Elm makes "fair" firewood, according to the Forest Trees of Maine, our bible for such things and free online, but it's bloody murder to split. All twisted up inside, it used to be employed for wooden bowls and wagon-wheel hubs, because it makes good circular shapes and doesn't split easily. So I don't split it. Not needing any wagon wheels around here, it's better to leave it whole and use the biggest rounds in the wood furnace, where they'll burn all night. The door of that thing, The Beast in the Garage, will easily admit a foot-wide chunk of elm.

The elm quickly dulled my new saw blade. I will need to buy a couple extra blades so I can get them professionally sharpened and keep spare blades. But I do like having a more powerful saw.

So then I planted the potato patch, which took me up to dinner time. Too tired to plant the onions, so left those for today.

Some vacation, huh? But it felt good to get so much done after months of too much schoolwork on the weekends.

Aimee's chicken tractor looks pretty good. It will be picture perfect, of course. Everything she ever does is. How come she married a dodgy bodging geezer like me?

Photos of the world's prettiest chicken tractor to come. Something to look forward to.