Thursday, March 31, 2011


The best moment in the shepherding calendar arrived at about 8.15am this morning. I went out to feed the sheep as usual, a little late because today is not a teaching day. I heard them before I saw them, bleating away.

I couldn't help but laugh out loud in glee.

They were Nellie's. I wasn't expecting them for a couple-three more weeks, but sometimes they come early. These were fairly small lambs, and Nellie is on the skinny side right now. They probably popped out pretty easy, which is good for the mother. They'll catch up in weight soon enough.

Nellie was pretty hungry, and we expect snow tonight, so I grabbed both lambs and mom and put them in the indoor pen by themselves. Nellie got a good feed all to herself, and the lambs have a heat lamp to offset the nasty weather.

So it begins. Who's next? Molly here is lying down, just like Nellie was yesterday.

Molly is not, however, a skinny sheep. She always reminds me of Shirley, the fat one on Shaun the Sheep. She may need a little assistance to give birth.

Saturday, March 26, 2011

Spring begins -- indoors at least

The first item on our annual farm calendar in any given year is always the plant "starts" or seedlings. This is one of Aimee's jobs, although I'm put in charge of setting up the shelves and getting the grow lights to work.

Tomato and pepper starts need about 65 to 70 degrees F to germinate, and unless the night-time temperature is above 55 degrees F, they don't grow much at all even if they do germinate. Despite the fact that we heat primarily with wood, the house only occasionally drops below 60 F, so starting them indoors this time of year works out well.

There's a south-facing window in my den that is used for these baby plants. We could use the greenhouse, and just heat it, but with nights still easily capable of getting down to 20 F or so, that would use a lot more power or fuel. Later, when the risk of a hard frost is much less, we'll move the growing plants to the greenhouse, using either a small electrical heater, or, in extreme circumstances, the kerosene heater, on the coldest nights.

I'd love to get my hands on one of the slow burning kerosene heaters especially made for greenhouses that my grandfather always used, but I haven't ever seen one in the US.

We always grow at least six varieties of tomato and at least four peppers. Later we start a lot, and I mean hundreds, of basil plants for Aimee's pesto operation.

We can always sell off a large proportion of our seedling stock. Some we sell at our farm "stand" at the bottom of the road. Others are sold to colleagues at the college. Aimee is the "sales girl," and handles the entire process. She'll cycle several different sets of starts through these shelves and the greenhouse, starting with tomatoes and concluding with trays of densely sown basil. Late in the spring we give away what we can't sell. Our neighbors usually take what's left. We only bring in a hundred dollars or so of sales in seedlings, but that's a fair proportion, a little less than ten percent, of farm income.

Once our own seedlings get put out in our own garden, results are variable. Despite our high altitude, we generally do well with tomatoes here on the Great Farm, and we are able to put up a large supply of canned and frozen, enough to last all winter.

Peppers do less well here unless we have an exceptionally warm fall, and in fact our most reliable source of hot stuff in the winter is the hot pepper jelly put up by Aimee's dad in Virginia.

But we can grow both tomatoes and peppers out of doors, which you can't manage in most of Britain, so there are rewards for putting up with that horrendous winter weather we get.

I sometimes think we eat a version of the "Mediterranean Diet," with tomatoes, basil, other herbes de Provence, lamb, and so on.

Our plant starting system tends to produce "leggy" seedlings. There's just not enough light in that window. The grow lamps help, but not by much.

But once they get out in the greenhouse, they harden off fast. The cold early summer nights make sure of that. Night-time temperatures don't reliably exceed 55 F until July in Maine. Leggy tomato seedlings put into the greenhouse in late April will often lose "shade" leaves and grow sun leaves before they get going, but they usually thrive in the greenhouse.

Once in the garden, they seem to get yet sturdier, saving up growth potential until July and August, when they rocket upwards.

In other indoor activities Aimee has also been busy. She decided the cats needed a new cat "tree." We liked the one Dick had made for the Virginia cats, and Aimee decided to make her own version. She used cheap rugs from the iconic Maine surplus store Marden's, some two by fours and plywood, and a cedar post from one of our cedar mills. Here it is awaiting its final level.

The cats were quite exited by this new climbing frame, especially when some catnip was strewn around. They've been competing heavily recently for this particular spot on a cushion of the back of the sofa, and the new cat tree should give them some other options for a lounging spot in the living room.

So what has the husband been up to while Aimee's been doing all this work?

Not much.

I did repair the greenhouse, switching out some of the panes. Our greenhouse was built using all the left-over storm windows we had after renovating the house. We put in double-glazed windows throughout, which meant we had a stack of about forty storm window panes. Unfortunately, we break one or two panes every year in the greenhouse, usually from rocks thrown up by the lawn mower, and so our stack is dwindling. We will run out this year or next depending on how careful we are. Then we'll have the choice of building a new greenhouse to some better design using stronger glass, or perhaps buying a greenhouse kit, or we could kick the can down the road a bit and try to find more old storm window panes at yard sales.

I also dug the lawn tractor out of the snow bank in which it has resided all winter. I was amazed that it started first try, although two tires needed air. We mostly use this beast to pull a 4 by 8 trailer around, on which we can load, hay, firewood, fencing and other bulky loads. It's a kind of motorized wheelbarrow, and works well for that purpose, although I can never keep air in the tires and am always pumping them up.

I'll need the trailer for my first big job of the year, which is a major renovation of fencing. Our fences get destroyed by snow plowing each winter, and this year we have also a number of rotten wood posts and rails to fix. I decided to put in stronger fences in several key spots.

There's also the knotty matter of chicken fence. Our nearest neighbor has decided that free-range chickens are not her cup of tea. In particular she wants to grow flowers in unfenced flower beds, and our birds are always over on her land scratching around.

We fence the chickens out of our own flower gardens so they can patrol everywhere else. This keeps the slugs and ticks down, and gives more opportunities for the chickens to escape any loose dogs or predators, so we're quite happy with the situation. But the law is quite clear, as is neighborly practice. I could build a regular coop and chicken yard, but that would allow the slugs, which are otherwise rampant, to eat our garden. Plus, it would cost us considerably in chicken feed. The chicken feed consumption around here dwindles to almost nothing in high summer and fall, when they can find their own food.

So I have to find a way to fence the chickens in on our own property, or at least that portion of it which surrounds our main vegetable garden. This could be expensive, and it may not work that well, but we'll give it a try.

But first I have to fix the sheep fences. Lambs are coming soon. They need to be kept in, and predators kept out.

I've been spending time observing the sheep as lambing season is coming. Of the four ewes, Nellie, Molly and the two P-year two-year olds whose names I can never remember (Poppy and Penelope, I think), Nellie and Molly and the white P-ewe probably named Poppy are clearly showing.

Penelope, not so far. Durn it. Ewes that don't lamb in their second year often don't make good mothers later.

Nellie, my favorite, has a big bag and seems like she will lamb first.

But Tillie, the older "head" ewe, may also be showing. The ram broke out once, so this is possible. But not good, and may indeed be the end of Tillie, because she's a very old ewe. But we'll see. She's still sturdy and really shows no signs of old age. She may be able to pull off another year. If she is pregnant, then there's no choice.

We definitely need those studier fences. We couldn't afford good fences when we first started here. But we'll need to rectify things now.

Beside the worry over Tillie, all these activities are healthy signs of spring.

Now, if it would only stop snowing, maybe it would be spring!

Saturday, March 19, 2011

Mechanical nostalgia

Here's a few old friends of mine that I happened to run into recently at the RAF Cosford Museum.

The first old buddy is a small training aeroplane (American sp: "airplane") called the Scottish Aviation Bulldog. These were operated by RAF Leeming and RAF Church Fenton during the 1970s and 1980s, on behalf of the Royal Navy.

The reason for this strange inter-service organization was that it was considered necessary that Navy pilots, who were later expected to fly helicopters and SVTOL aircraft such as the Harrier "jump jet," be trained in lighter, more aerodynamically vulnerable, piston-engined trainers. The RAF at the time still operated a large number of other piston-engined aircraft, notably the Chipmunk and Ventura powered gliders used then for giving Air Cadets flight experience, and the Avro Shackleton fleet used for submarine hunting. The Navy had no other piston-engined requirements.

Therefore it was considered more cost-effective for the RAF to maintain the stable of piston-engine savvy flying instructors and aircraft technicians needed to run the training schemes for Navy pilots.

I was lucky enough to become one of the piston engine technicians, as part of Aircraft Servicing Flight at RAF Leeming. I say lucky, because it gave me a lot of useful training and experience working on piston engines. Jet engines are fun, and I worked on those too, including the Jet Provost trainer fleet and the F4 Phantom fast jet fighter/attack fleet. But there isn't a lot of useful purpose in civvy street for jet engine experience, unless you want to work in civilian aviation.

Piston engines, on the other hand, are ubiquitous, even on a small farm in Maine. Especially on a small farm in Maine. There's not a week goes by around this farm that I don't have to use my piston engine training for some purpose or another.

So, long story short, when I visited the museum on my recent trip home, I smiled to myself quite happily to turn a corner and see the Bulldog Fleet 3 sitting there. I may even have worked on this particular aircraft, because although the notes said it was from RAF Church Fenton, those kites were often flown up for the RAF Leeming ASF people to take care of. There was also a Chipmunk and even a Jet Provost Mk 3 cockpit set up for kids to scramble in and out of. (I didn't get in myself, but I thought about it.)

So the Navy, slanged (or slagged) as "matelots," were a part of the scene at RAF Leeming in the late '70s and early '80s. Famous Navy "middies" (midshipmen -- officer trainees) who came through this scheme included Princes Andrew and Edward. Andrew, of course, went on to do at least one useful thing in his life, in the battle of San Carlos.

I was chosen to be the fitter to give the middies a walk round of the engine. They'd troop a dozen or so pimpled middies into our hangar and, using whichever stripped-down aircraft was handy, I'd explain how the engine worked, and show them the different parts. They always listened pretty respectfully. I was about their age, but they'd been to university, whereas I'd been on my fitter's course. But I guess you should be respectful to the guy who's working on your aircraft. This went on for a couple of years, and was perhaps the start of my teaching career, this and instructing mountain rescue for the MRTs.

The best thing about working on small piston-engined trainers was the outdoor life. These aircraft were so easy to move around that two or three of us could push them in and out of the hangers easily. The first stage in a scheduled servicing was always a test run of the engines. We'd run them until they were hot, check the "mag drop" and for any rough running, then shut them down, strip off all the cowlings and drain the oil, checking the magnetic drain plug and oil filters for debris. Then we'd spray them clean with gas in spray bottles (today's health and safety rules would never permit this: spraying hot engines with leaded gasoline!), let them cool, and push them into the hangers for a scheduled service.

This was a time-honored routine and probably dated back to the World War I roots of the service in the Royal Flying Corps.

So my memories of the Bulldogs are of long sunny summer days at the edge of the airfield, the smell of 118 octane Avgas and hot oil, and long tea breaks waiting for engines to cool.

It was a nice life.

The servicing work included top-end rebuilds on the American-made Lycoming 360 engines, essentially a giant VW engine, a "flat four" configuration, as well as various routine filter checks and inspections. Everything was on a proper schedule. The engines were sent back to the factory before the bottom end bearings wore out. The variable pitch propellers were removed and replaced, the old ones sent back to the factory.

The cowlings were prone to cracking, and could be repaired using rivets and metal patches, or replaced. The starter motor bracket had to be dismantled and checked for cracks. The mag-drop routine, running the engine first on the left-hand, then the right-hand magneto, to see if the rpm rose or dropped, was a useful way to check the timing was right on. Timing was set using a static light and mechanical contact breaker points, just like an air-cooled VW.

The Chipmunks were also fun to work on, a tail-dragger airframe, with the famous Gypsy Major engine. This engine was an in-line six cylinder, but upside down, with the sump at the top. With this design, the engine was bound to use oil, and it did, draining a huge oil tank, but the engines lasted a long time. Some of the airframes and engines we worked on were already forty years old in the 1980s.

The "Chippie's" starting system was a wonder to behold. The Chipmunk used a cartridge starter, which was essentially a revolver's cylinder filled with giant shotgun shells (blanks). The pilot pulled a string in the cockpit to operate the hammer of the starter, the shell would fire with a crack and a puff of smoke, and the hot gasses from the shell would turn the engine over. You could also swing the prop to start the engine, another time-honored ritual.

I don't know which method was more dangerous!

RAF fighter pilots skipped the Bulldog stage and typically went straight to the BAC Jet Provost trainer, and on to the BAE Hawk. The small jet engine at the bottom is a Rolls-Royce Viper, the engine for the Jet Provost. I did a good deal of ASF work on these aircraft too, including deep strips on the Viper engines, usually for diagnostic purposes. The engines went back to the factory long before they wore out, and were refitted there, but we would occasionally tear one down after a bird strike, or to change a turbine shroud. These shrouds were prone to cracking. Later, after promotion, I became a supervisor of flight line mechanics ("flems") on the Jet Provost line at RAF Linton-on-Ouse, a satellite station for Leeming. That was fun work too, always outdoors, always walking the half-mile long flight line.

The RAF seemed to have an awful lot of Jet Provosts in those days. A lot of them were sold off to civvy enthusiasts and are still flying today as private jets. Expensive to operate, though, because those engines drank fuel. We'd put in a thousand pounds or more of Avtur each time, just for these short one- and two-hour training flights. At seven pounds to the gallon, I can't imagine the fuel bill just for one civvy-street jaunt in a JP.

One very big day while I was still on the piston crew at ASF Leeming, one of the famous Spitfires of the Battle of Britain Memorial Flight came to visit for some reason, and was entrusted to our particular crew for care because we were the piston engine guys. They taxied it over to our corner of the airfield, and I was given the task of doing the After Flight/Before Flight service and filling the gas tanks. It took me a good hour, using the manual, to do all the different checks because it was an unfamiliar aircraft, mechanically speaking.

But, I can now quite honestly say, "I once worked on a Spitfire!"

Friday, March 18, 2011

Breaking up is hard to do

The last three days have seen rapid snow melt. This is the season Mainers call "break up" or "ice out," as well as the previously mentioned "mud season."

These linked terms refer evocatively to the time of year when our very substantial winter snow and ice covering disappears in the space of a few weeks, turns our soils to mud, forms deep pools in every hollow, and turns every rivulet into a torrent.

Much of the snow in southern Maine has already gone, and at lower altitudes than ours in surrounding towns there are already open fields. Wet soggy ones, of packed flattened grasses and herbs, but fields nonetheless.

We're high, though (500 plus feet), and we have deeper snowpack. It will take a while.

The creek in the first photo is in fact the top road this afternoon. The thermometer got up to 60 F, and the wind blew warm and long, and snow melted very quickly. A similar stream exits our basement every time the sump pump turns itself on.

This melting means that some of our fence posts that were pushed over by the snowbanks made by the various plows have nothing very much holding them up now, and so will need to have their posts reset and their wire hung. Here's an example.

There was also quite a bit of firewood shrapnel to pick up, especially where I'd dumped snow from the firewood pile with the loader.

The weather has been healthy for sheep, though, lots of sun and wind, and so I decided to put out a round bale for them to go at, instead of the usual square bale in the barn. I ran up to Beem Farm in Newport to get one. It was a big treat for them: different hay to eat and eating in the sunny outdoors instead of in the barn.

They'll waste a lot of this fodder, but their wasting will put some bedding down in their outdoor loafing area, which will protect their fleece from the mud, and it may keep them from testing those weak fences.

Until the ground thaws and we can get them fixed, at least.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

A family legacy

I flew home to Britain last Tuesday. I didn't blog about it at the time because I didn't feel the need to tell the world that Aimee would be alone in the farmhouse. My wife is not exactly a defenseless woman, but there have been a number of home invasions around Maine this winter, and so I chose not to write about it.

Now that I'm home, I can catch up.

The main purpose of my visit was to visit old folks, my mum in her nursing home, and my uncle in Sheffield. Both are very frail, but my uncle, at 78, has all his "marbles" and can hold up his end of a conversation better than some of my students. My mother, who is the same age (they're cousins, not brother and sister), has lost nearly all of hers, and so my sister and I have had to come to terms with the fact that some of the time, an increasing amount of time, she doesn't know who we are.

This facet of senile memory loss is surprising, and when it first happened it was a terrible shock, but you can get used to it and learn to deal with it.

People do what they have to do.

Mother can still chat a little and smile and tell fragments of old family stories, and even occasionally crack a joke. But her frailty has increased dramatically these last few months, while her memory is a little worse each visit.

While I was visiting, I was able to do a few things for myself and for auld langs syne. Mother can only visit for forty minutes to an hour at most before she needs to nap, and so I had the rest of each day to myself more or less. I also did some traveling, to go from south Wales where mother and sister live, to the northern city of Sheffield, where we're all from, and where my uncle lives.

That trip gave me a chance to revisit the area around Burbage and the Longshaw Estate. Part of the Peak District National Park, but also part of the City of Sheffield, this is an important area for outdoor recreation.

I grew up on the edge of the city just five miles away, in the Mayfield Valley, the valley of the Porter Brook. The Burbage and Stanage Moors are the watershed for the Porter Brook.

When I was a kid, but old enough to wander free, I would hike and cycle all over this moorland country. Later, it was a training ground for RAF Mountain Rescue Teams. The teams would stay in a "bothy" behind the Fox House pub, right on the edge of the moor.

My family had a long association with these lands in other ways. My paternal grandfather George William Womersley was part of the movement for public access during the 1930s and took part in the famous Kinder Trespass which took place on Kinder Scout, a few miles to the west, and which secured my rights to roam over these moors. He was the organizer of the Sheffield contingent to the trespass, and a Labour activist. Thanks to my sister's research, I have some of his writings, written for the magazine of the Clarion Ramblers Club, a left-wing group that went on to provide intellectual leadership to the Sheffield area during the period of reconstruction after the war. The free access to moorland country enjoyed today by the British people is owed to activists like him.

The other branch was more conformist. My maternal grandfather Arthur Holden Watson was born in one of the Ivy Cottages, a famous local beauty spot right by the Wire Mill Dam on the Porter Brook, which drains the eastern side of the Burbage moors, and from that base he and his large number of siblings and their offspring survived the World Wars I and II and the Great Depression, providing much manpower for the defense of the realm, including several private soldiers, my grandfather (who served as a private in both wars), various NCOs, a brevet major, and a navigator for an RAF Mosquito squadron. Before, after, and between the wars, my grandfather and great-grandfather were master gardeners for the big Mayfield Valley houses that were then being built by Sheffield's industrial tycoons. In particular my grandfather served the Leigh family, whose head was at one point the Master Cutler of Sheffield.

When Arthur married my grandmother Lettie (Leticia) Jones (a housemaid from Pennal, near Macynlleth, Wales where the Centre for Alternative Technology today resides), his best man was "Uncle" Sid, Sidney Brammar, no blood relation but whom I called Uncle Sid nevertheless, because that's the usage in the Sheffield area.

Sid was also a Clarion Rambler.

The Clarions helped organize the purchase of the Longshaw Estate for recreation and conservation purposes by the City of Sheffield, and Sid became one of the forestry workers on the estate. They planted several hundreds of acres of trees, including the areas pictured. At that time, just before World War II, trees were being planted all around the country to provide pit props for coal mines. The worry was that a German blockade would cut off supply of pit props, and interrupt the coal supply.

So while I was there to visit my uncle, I took a number of good long hikes around the estate, exercising both my legs, and, incidentally, the access rights my family fought so hard for.

The pictures show, from the top, the view from Higger Tor to Carl Wark. Both are prominent gritstone outcrops on Burbage Moor. (A tor in old Celtic is an outcrop of rock.) Carl Wark has a stone wall just visible in the second picture, which seems designed to prevent access from the west, and so this particular tor may have been used as a hill fort at one time or another.

I've often wondered just how likely it is that some of my other relatives fought the Romans from the Carl Wark hill fort. The occupants would have been Celtic and pre-Celtic Bronze and Iron Age people. They retreated to mountain refugia in the west, what is now Wales, when first the Romans and then the Saxons invaded what is now England. So, if it's true, the most likely line of descent is through my Welsh grandmother.

The chances I share a mitochondrial genome with a former occupant of Carl Wark and the surrounding area two to three thousand years ago are modest but substantial.

Sid's woods are shown in the third picture, framing the eighteenth century packhorse bridge across the brook. The estate foresters planted Scot's pine and larch for the most part, but the trees grew only slowly by Maine standards. These trees are seventy-eighty years old, and none were over twenty-five feet yet. We have seven-year old ash trees that tall on this farm here in Maine.

The reason for the slow growth is visible in the shot below.

The soils on the moorland are peat soils, over millstone grit bedrock. The peat is of course an old forest soil and dates back to the time, when the hill fort was built, when a thick hardwood forest would have stood on this site. With the trees long ago cut down for fuel, the forest soil becomes waterlogged and then preserved as peat.

Peat is acid and that makes it infertile. You can plant trees on peat, but they won't grow well unless you disturb the rocky substrate underneath to release more basic rock to neutralize the acid, and to release other nutrients. But millstone is a sedimentary rock made from layers of sand, and so low in nutrients. Regeneration would have been less and less prolific as years went on. Heavy grazing by sheep would have made sure that the forest never grew back.

In this photograph you can also see the sooty layer from the time of the industrial revolution until air pollution control and the demise of heavy industry in Sheffield and Manchester allowed a more recent clean layer, also visible, to form. The soot would not have helped the trees much, either. Burbage Edge, in fact, hosted a grindstone quarry, still visible, using the millstone grit to make the grinding wheels that would have been used in the water-powered operations along the Porter Clough.

And so, long story short, Sid's trees grew only slowly. Even so, they have begun to transform the soils, the micro-climate, and thus the ecology of the Burbage valley. I heard woodpeckers and an owl, observed much finer grass species on the edge of the woods, replacing the coarse, acid-loving sedges of the moorland, and saw some natural regeneration occurring here and there within and on the edge of the woods.

There are also remnants of a more natural forest cover on the Longshaw Estate. Up high under parts of Burbage and Stanage Edges are small pockets of an indigenous oak forest, with holly, ash, birch and hawthorne. One day, perhaps, if the grazing pressure is reduced, the remnant woodland will grow to meet with the plantation and the forest will stretch across the valley again.

I'd like to see that.

Like the forest we have here in Maine, in other words. Sid never saw the Maine woods, but he did live and work in Australia for many years after the war (where he and Aunty Kath started a family: his children and grandchildren are Australians), and so he may have recognized late in life the value of the work he was doing earlier: the ecological restoration of the valley of Burbage Brook.

I would often meet him up here on the moors. Almost every weekend he and Kath and the Clarions would be up here hiking around. I'd be up by myself or with the Mountain Rescue and I'd run into Sid and Kath and we'd have a natter.

But that was before I got myself an ecological education, and so I never had the opportunity to talk over these trees with him.

But it's an interesting and a wonderful thing to me how the natural ecology of woodland and moorland is intertwined with the human ecology of family, of rather grand political drama like the World Wars, and with land use of different kinds.

Monday, March 7, 2011

And it begins...

Mud season.

That's what Mainers call the time of year when the air is above freezing, but the soil down below remains frozen and is therefore impervious to drainage.

Not that Maine drains particularly well any time of year. Maine is designed to drains slowly if at all, a big wetland sponge that soaks up millions of gallons of fresh water and releases it only slowly to the Gulf of Maine. Providing homes for all kinds of wetland critters in the process, including mosquitoes and blackflies (the Maine state bird) as well as frogs and fish.

But it doesn't drain much at all in mud season.

Our mud season began officially a couple days ago with our first rainstorm in several months. But that was just a taster. The couple inches of rain we've had in the last ten hours were the real thing.

In the middle of it all the rain turned briefly to ice and then back to rain. there were a couple inches of ice on power lines earlier today and we had one short outage sometime early this morning. But power is back on now.

This birch tree on our neighbor's lawn was suffering more than other trees. After a bending like this it may not spring back.

There's a birch in front of our house with a perfect ninety degree bend from a storm two years back. I keep asking Aimee if I can cut it down for firewood, since it will never grow straight again and will eventually fall over, but she likes it for some reason.

Aimee ran out of bleach and sent me to the grocery store to get some for the wash and her spring cleaning project which is ongoing (and terrorizing man and beast around here). So bravely Sir Mick went out in his trusty Ford Escort steed, sliding down through the muck on Great Farm Road and spinning back up it, skidding from one side of the road to the other.

I did wonder if wrecking a perfectly good car was a good trade for a gallon of bleach, but I soon put away such rebellious thoughts. And we didn't wreck.

Although the trip was more stressful than a trip to the store has any right to be.

Saturday, March 5, 2011

A pecker-head and an inevitable mess

Wikipedia photo of a pileated woodpecker.

I saw one of these big woodpeckers drumming on a big spruce while walking the dogs in our woods today. This makes one of only a handful I've seen since moving to Maine nearly twelve years ago. This isn't the one I saw, but it's more or less identical, and in the same kind of setting.

Later in the year the flickers and peckers will be drumming on trees to attract mates. We see a lot of the smaller hoary and downy woodpeckers too. Sometimes they drum on our house.

Other than seeing a woodpecker, the big news is that it's spring break already. We're in fairly good shape this semester, not too tired. In fact Aimee is doing a but of spring cleaning as I write this.

I can remember spring breaks when we just collapsed in dull, exhausted stupidity on the evening of the last day of class. But we both have lower teaching loads due to administrative duties, and while our hours are just as long, there's less stress if you teach less.

The rain has been spitting a little all day, but we're supposed to get a huge downpour tomorrow, and very warm temperatures of 45 or 47 degrees F.

This will make an interesting mess out of the snowbanks around our driveway. We've been living a strange, constricted kind of life in the spaces between these five and six-foot tall snowbanks for weeks now.

It was of course inevitable that the snow would melt eventually and it sounds like it's going to happen beginning tomorrow. Another two to four weeks will see the end of it.

The end of winter is always a little gross.

There's one particularly nasty day when I go around with a shovel and pick up all the dog's winter jobbies, dozens of them, and hoy them into the undergrowth. There's usually a large amount of splintered shrapnel left over from the firewood operation in the dooryard that must be picked up. Another job is to rake up the nasty sand and gravel left by the plow truck, for which I use the York rake on the tractor.

But after that, a little grass seed, and we'll be back soon enough to our long green lawns and lush pastures. Our front lawn catches the setting sun, and it's nice to have the lawn chairs out in late April and early May, and watch the grass grow back.