Sunday, December 30, 2012

How to wear out a young, energetic dog

1) Order up 18 inches of snow
2) Take dog for a walk

3) Enjoy

PS: Five foot snow bank behind our mail box:

Land Rover field trial and Bale House visit

Th main reason I went to such trouble to find, purchase, rebuild, and restore a forty-two year-old Land Rover truck this year was to have a bomb-proof yet basic farm utility vehicle that would last as long as I would into the twenty-first century. Four-wheel drive was part of the necessary package. Our Rover's transfer case is of course as ancient as the vehicle itself, as are the swivel joints and driveshafts, and the only servicing I gave them, while rebuilding the frame and restoring the engine tune and wiring this summer, was to grease the universal joints on the two drive-shafts and to check the brakes.

I admit, I did take a long hard look at the very complex maintenance manual detail on rebuilding the transfer case and servicing the swivel joints. My conclusion was that "if it ain't broke, don't fix it", and that this particular procedure could certainly wait for a year or two until bad symptoms showed themselves, or even be avoided entirely by simply replacing the whole shebang with bench-serviced, second-hand units bought expressly for the purpose.

So it was with a little trepidation that I took the Rover out Saturday for its first serious 4WD test. So far all we had was about eight inches of snow. Another nor'easter would arrive overnight. It was now or never, if I wanted to go check on our Bale House this winter, which is empty for the winter since the occupant, a work colleague, has moved to another regional town. The Bale House has a half-mile long driveway in the form of a forest access road, a public right-of-way that leads to three different residential properties including ours, but one that the town of Monroe leaves unplowed. The other two units are summer camps, and so there's only our building that is normally occupied through the winter.

The occupant generally pays privately for the road to be plowed, or snowshoes in.

It doesn't help that the road is steep and that there's a place where a seasonal seep actually comes out of the road and freezes solid, leaving a sheet of solid ice under the snow. We've had all kinds of adventures with this road. This would be an excellent way to make sure the Rover's 4WD system was up to snuff.

At the junction with the main road (itself a bad dirt road, but plowed), I pulled off, stopped, and put the car in neutral, then pulled backwards the classic Land Rover "red knob" gearshift lever that works both the 4WD and the low range. She snicked in beautifully. (That satisfying little snick as the transfer case shifter is worked is an aesthetic peculiar to Land Rovers -- you have to be there to appreciate it.) I gave her a little gas and we surged forward through the snow and up the steep, icy, snow-covered slope quite happily.

You don't race anywhere in a Land Rover in low range. It's more of a kind of slow grind. The vehicle will churn through mud, snow, rocks and even deep water. In this case we went up this very bad road with no trouble at all, making me more than happy with the Rover.

At the Bale House I was pleased to see that everything was in great shape and the house left cleaner than it probably was when the occupant took over. The only problem was that the water system hadn't been fully drained, and a window damaged by the previous (and very trashy) occupant family hadn't been sealed shut, indeed it couldn't be sealed shut because of the damage, and so the house had grown cold and the internal water reservoirs had frozen solid.

I'll have to go back with tools and seal that window shut, then in the spring we can drain the water and check for frozen pipes. I saw at least two that had been shattered by the frost -- these are just PVC pipes in this building and they will shatter very easily if left filled with water.

There's no furniture in this building now, and it may be time to finish the repairs and enhancements started a couple years ago, just before the most recent occupant moved in. These were cut short when the building was needed for use, and I didn't want to disturb our occupants privacy by finishing them with her living there.

We've been thinking about what improvements we might make that would allow us the rent the building out, even as a rustic summer camp. We've never charged any rent for this unit because of the poor facilities. Right now the very ad-hoc home-built composting toilet is simply too disgusting to operate -- you empty a reservoir tub onto a compost heap and mix it with straw and sawdust to make a decent compost. No-one really wants to be that familiar with their own effluent!

At the very least we'd need a proper commercially-produced composting toilet. It may be time, too, to rip out the water pipes and fall back to a basic two-galvanized bucket Jack-and Jill hand-well system. The solar system too could use either an upgrade, or perhaps a downgrade, to be replaced with propane lamps that never require batteries to be replaced. Those batteries never last long enough, and cost too much money. Propane would be more reliable, and there already is propane supply to the fridge and a small back-up heater. It would be an easy matter to plumb in a few lamps here and there.

Some paint and plaster wouldn't go amiss either, nor some "camp-style" furniture. At which point we'd have a decent vacation camp for friends and family, and possibly even paying guests in the summer and in hunting season.

It would make a great ski lodge too. As you can see from the photo, there's tons of snow and lots of forest tracks for cross-country skiing and snowshoeing, while the right-of-way is a listed snowmobile trail. The wood stove is quite efficient and heats the whole building. Perhaps skiers and snowmobilers would be willing to pay to stay there in the winter. We'll see.

Fo now, I'm just pleased that it's in such decent shape, and that the recent occupant did such a great job of cleaning.

I'm also pleased that the Land Rover did such a great job of driving up that bad road in so much snow. The second nor'easter has dumped another eight inches so far, so there's now about sixteen inches on the ground and I'll need to move snow again today.

I wonder if the Rover would make it up that road a second time?


Saturday, December 29, 2012

In the bleak midwinter...

We had a few days after the end of term and before our regular road trip to Virginia to see Aimee's parents, and during that time I went over and over my to-do list of pre trip preparations, so our house-sitter Marsha would have an easy time of things. I checked over all the household systems again and again, brought down feed for the sheep, filled all the water containers, and generally obsessed compulsively in order that we might have a good trip without worries. Aimee did much the same, and in the end we left poor Marsha with a veritable dissertation of instructions, running to three pages, single- spaced, with email addenda.

It was all for nothing. A storm blew up a day and a half after we left which cut power to the house. Marsha was asleep at the time and so didn't notice. When she awoke, the oil furnace was out and wouldn't re-start, leaving an eight-foot 115 V baseboard heater next to the living room windows as the only heat in the house. She emailed to us down in Virginia, and waited, the house getting colder, for us to respond.

Eventually we did of course check our email, by which time it was 55 degrees F in the house, and certainly cold enough outside to freeze pipes. We called right away and, after running through some furnace trouble-shooting procedures over the phone unsuccessfully, gave instead verbal instructions for using the wood stove.

Wood stoves are tricky, and unless you've used one before, indeed, unless you've had lots of practice in using one, you may not be able to make it work for you very easily, which is why we have our house-sitters use the oil furnace instead. It's one less thing for us to worry about while we're away.

But needs must. I walked Marsha through the lighting process, step-by-step, and gave tips on what to expect from each shape, size and type of log. There followed a few anxious hours during which we waited to make sure she was getting the hang of it. We were pleased to see that she managed quite well and when we next called back, the house was up to 65 degrees F. We breathed a big sigh of relief. The pipes at least were saved.

There was also the small matter of one or another of the ewes having somehow walked off with one of the two water tank heaters accidentally attached, cutting heat to one of the two water tubs. The tank heater was nowhere to be found, the sheep having hidden it carefully in the snow. This meant the sheep would run out of water in  a day or two.

Then we saw the weather reports: giant winter storm "Euclid" was barreling across the southern states with torrential rain and tornadoes and would become a nor'easter if it followed the predicted trajectory. (Apparently winter storms have names now, just like hurricanes. I'm not sure this is a necessary elaboration.)

That was enough for us, on top of the furnace and animal woes. Christmas would have to be cut short this year.

Aimee's family were good enough to reprogram their entire holiday, and so we had Christmas dinner and present-opening on Christmas Eve, and by 8.30 am on Christmas Day Aimee and I were back in the Camry heading for points north, Euclid thundering along about 24 hours behind us.

We had good weather for driving ahead of the storm, and slowed only by fog in Virginia, had our own Christmas dinner in a south Indian restaurant somewhere north of Hartford, Connecticut, and bedded down comfortably in a Baymont Inn for the night. By 1pm the next day we were home.

At home things were fine. Marsha had it up to a toasty 68 F in the house, and the stove was burning brightly. She gets the official 2012 Learned to Use a Wood Stove in the Shortest Time Award. But then being cold concentrates the mind, I find. You'll do anything to get warm again.

We quickly sorted the animals and a supply of firewood for the coming storm. The tank heater had resurfaced and Martha reconnected it, so all we had to do was top off the tubs. I then repeated the immediate fault diagnosis for the furnace, resetting the programmable thermostat, then pressing the red reset button on the primary control, all to no avail.

What was wrong with the furnace? This is admittedly an older unit, circa 1987, but it sees so little use that we assume it needs little maintenance. It hasn't been run for more than a few tens of hours a year since we got (mostly) done with our giant insulation and air sealing project a few years ago. In that time we've burned only about 70 gallons of oil. The house is now so well insulated, we can keep it nicely warm with the wood stove and a small electrical heater, and so the only time we use the oil furnace is when we have a house-sitter, or when the wood stove goes out while we're away for the day, and we want to rewarm the house quickly.

The next day, as so-called Euclid was raging all around us, I went online and pulled the various manuals and perused the DIY blogs and videos to get good information to run through a deeper inspection/fault diagnosis process. I'd never worked on a furnace before, and wanted to learn as much as I could from the experience.

I removed the whole burner unit and took it upstairs to my workbench to get a better look at things. Back in the basement with a flashlight, the first thing I noticed was that the small anteroom to the combustion chamber where the burner tube sits was filthy, full of soot and debris, so I vacuumed that out with the shop vac, recovering a good two pounds of soot and burned dust. I examined the main filter and fuel pump screen and found both to be dirty. I pulled the burner nozzle and decided to change that too.

That was as much as I could get done because the heating firm with the parts store is, of course, several miles away and the storm would hit overnight. Hoping to salvage a little Christmas spirit, I made mince pies and fed the wood stove and gave the sheep extra hay. Aimee started a jigsaw puzzle and we watched TV in the warm as the storm blew up.

The next day we had a winter wonderland in the dooryard.

Only about eight inches of snow, not such a large storm really, but some blowing and drifting had piled up larger drifts here and there. The sheep were nice and warm in the barn, but to judge by the layer of snow on their backs, some had even slept outside! Sheep don't really care too much about storms.

I did experience that signature Maine moment where you try to open your front door but can't because of a snow drift, but the town plow had been up the road and so we weren't by any stretch of the imagination "snowed in." I got busy with the Kubota tractor and soon had the driveway clear and the various vehicles shoveled off.

The firewood pile is getting low, and so we'll need to get a little more in, but what we have is nice and dry, good quality ash from our own land. There's another three rows behind this one, enough to take us through February. I'll find another cord of dry somewhere on Uncle Henry's or Maine Craig's List.

I used the Land Rover to get to the parts store, but even that wasn't really necessary. The roads were fairly clear by 10 am.

I bought a new filter, screen nozzle and main gasket and came back and fitted them and put the whole thing back together and bled the system, but it still wouldn't light. Back to the parts store again with the electrode/nozzle unit, to have the electrodes checked. They were fine, so I bought home a new primary control. That didn't do the trick either. Finally, after checking for spark across the springs, I realized the igniter transformer was fried. And of course, thinking back, that should perhaps have been the first thing I checked, because, well, there was a power cut, followed by (I found out later from the parts guy) a power surge as the power came back on. More than enough to fry a 25 year-old transformer that's been kept in a damp basement.

One last quick trip to the parts store, a last flurry of parts-fitting and wiring, and the machine fired up. It burned a little wild to begin, of course, because the combustion chamber was filled with unburned fuel, but soon settled down.

I don't mind that I bought all those extra parts. If you think about it, now we have a fully-serviced oil furnace, with brand new wiring and electronics. Not a moment too soon, because it's supposed to get down to - 10 degrees F next week at night (- 24 degrees Celsius).

The furnace should now be good for several more years of use. Indeed, I think the only thing that will kill this old system is the rust. the basement is damp and the sheet metal housing is rusting.

What would be nice now would be to get a secondhand unit from a retrofit job somewhere with a dryer basement and switch out all the rusty panels.

I think we dealt with all these emergencies rather well, even if I do say so myself. Thinking ahead, we had good back-up plans for home heat, and, of course, a sturdy and clever lass for a house sitter who could rise to the occasion. We kept up with the weather forecast and so were able to dodge the storm. And we had good skills to fall back on for fixing the furnace.

All's well that ends well.

Just another winter on the farm.

Chris­ti­na Ros­set­ti, 1872, 

In the Bleak Midwinter

In the bleak midwinter, frosty wind made moan,
Earth stood hard as iron, water like a stone;
Snow had fallen, snow on snow, snow on snow,
In the bleak midwinter, long ago.

Our God, Heaven cannot hold Him, nor earth sustain;
Heaven and earth shall flee away when He comes to reign.
In the bleak midwinter a stable place sufficed
The Lord God Almighty, Jesus Christ.

Enough for Him, whom cherubim, worship night and day,
Breastful of milk, and a mangerful of hay;
Enough for Him, whom angels fall before,
The ox and ass and camel which adore.

Angels and archangels may have gathered there,
Cherubim and seraphim thronged the air;
But His mother only, in her maiden bliss,
Worshipped the beloved with a kiss.

What can I give Him, poor as I am?
If I were a shepherd, I would bring a lamb;
If I were a Wise Man, I would do my part;
Yet what I can I give Him: give my heart.

Monday, December 24, 2012

American chestnut

Wikipedia photo: Castanea dentata, the American chestnut 

The venerable Manchester Guardian, a paper my family has been involved with as readers and writers for nearly a century (and yet of which I frequently dispair -- in much the way a middle-aged child may dispair of his own parents), has done itself proud with an exceptional photo essay on the recovery of American chestnut.

It's well worth a moment of your time, if you're even in the slightest tiny bit an American conservationist:

My favorite picture is the antique one of the old growth chestnut stand.

I think it's very hard for modern folk to truly appreciate what was lost when the chestnut blight struck. You have to have some farming or homesteading experience that has included the clearing of land, the building of fences and cabins, or the use of a wood fire or wood stove, to get the real feel of this ecological disaster.

Can you imagine what it meant to the European settlers of this country to find a tree so large and so abundant, that you could split and square easily with a simple broad ax, and that would resist rot for many years even when laid close to the ground? Nearly all the settler cabins of the original frontier backcountry -- the Appalachian foothills and mountains, including Waldo County, Maine -- would have been built with American chestnut. This was a huge contribution to the economic development of the country.

Only later, when water mills became widely available for sawn pine, spruce and hemlock lumber, did the classic American clapboard house become typical. Even then chestnut fence rails and firewood would have remained valuable.

Abraham Lincoln, when he was a log splitter, would have been splitting the American chestnut.

It should be obvious that the kind of sustainability science experience developed by these chestnut conservationists and breeders may again come in handy as we deal with ash die-back in the UK, and emerald ash borer and hemlock wooly algedid in the US, among other nasty invasives.

All of course are exacerbated by climate change.

Click here to find out about Unity College's work with these last two nasties, ash borers and algedids.

I can't under-emphasize the importance of these recent developments with new invasives. Both are potentially very damaging to Maine forests and woodlots, and there are billions of dollars of value at stake.

As a "settler" and farmer, I'm very fond of both trees and use them extensively. Ash firewood is our primary heating fuel at Womerlippi Farm, most of which is cut from our own land, essentially a second-growth ash grove, while locally-sourced hemlock from Gerald Fowler's Thorndike lumber mill is the primary building lumber we use for barns and other building projects.

Losing either tree would be a massive disaster for the state of Maine, and for the Womerlippis.

Monday, December 17, 2012

First "day off" of Winter Break

Readers jealous of our work schedule with its long breaks should consider that as academics we're never really off-duty. We're supposed to "keep up with our fields", which in my case means keeping up with the world of climate mitigation and associated renewable energy and energy efficiency ideas, and getting my wind research done. Aimee has to keep up with the world of evolutionary biology and do her marine biology research. And there are always administrative meetings to attend and reports to be written. 

So, when we get into one of our two "long breaks," work doesn't actually stop. 

But scheduling becomes a lot easier when classes end. 

And we certainly get more rest.

Last semester I had two mind-numbing long days each week. On Tuesday and Thursdays I had to wake up at my normal time, feed and water the animals, drive to work at the regular time, and then keep going until around 7.30 or 7.45 pm, or whenever the last student got done asking the last question after my Tues/Thurs section of Core III, Environmental Sustainability. I'm a patient and hard-working guy, and so I always had energy for the students' questions, but the drive home almost killed me more than once. I would get home and tell Aimee that I was "well-rested" because I'd "slept in the car on the way home" and I had. More than once I'd drift off at the wheel. 

On the very last night of this class I was especially tired. I'd given an exam with an extra half-hour, meaning my drive home didn't start until 8.20 or so, and after about five miles I realized I was seeing double. There were two white lines down each side of the road, and four yellow ones down the middle!  

If I closed just one eye the double and quadruple lines went away, but then so did my depth perception. Hobson's choice: Drive with both eyes open and see double, or drive with one eye shut and have no depth perception?

I alternated, opening both eyes for the corners and closing one for the straight bits. Funnily, I wasn't sleepy, just having trouble seeing. 

So I'm very glad to be at home, warm and safe and rested, and, although the snow is falling outside, I don't care because I don't have to go to work this Monday, nor for three Mondays after that. 

My first day off was actually Sunday, since Saturday was the day I finished up my grading. We had chores to do, but that was more of a pleasure than a pain. Although it was cold, the sun was out.

Flamey helped with the chore of taking the trash to the transfer station. This is just down the road, but the dogs get to ride there and back with me, and for some silly reason they always love this little trip even though they never leave the vehicle. This time we took the Land Rover, which needed to be warmed up for a minute while we loaded the trash. Flamey was so happy to get to ride in the Land Rover, she jumped right in and waited for me to load. 

Another job we had to do was to deal with a half-bushel of carrots I'd pulled the day before. These had accidentally frozen overnight when I forget to take them out of the back of the Rover. The temperature dropped down well below freezing Saturday night. We're not sure exactly how cold it got because our thermometer appears to be reading incorrectly. Ours read 17 degrees F (-8 C) , but our friends who live on a similar homestead five miles away and at the same altitude reported 11 F (-17 C). Anyway, the carrots, which were intended for said friends in exchange for eggs since our hens still aren't laying, were no longer trade-able, so they had to be processed instead. I peeled and blanched and froze them in quart Ziploc bags, while the carrot tops and peelings went to the sheep. 

Here's Nellie asking for more carrots through the fence. 

The sheep didn't seem to mind the cold at all. Their fleeces are nice and thick for the winter. 
I don't understand these people who shear their sheep in the fall. It doesn't seem right to make a Maine sheep go through winter with a thin fleece.

There was the small matter of a hen with about a quarter pound of frozen chicken poop on her butt. This had to be cut and sponged off over the kitchen sink. The hen was quite philosophical about it all, just clucking mildly to herself while Aimee held her butt first over the sink, while I trimmed and sponged. I think she even enjoyed the warm water.I didn't take any pictures of that operation. You don't want to see that gruesome job being done.

Aimee's Sunday routine includes the weekly laundry, but Charlie cat decided to sleep in the laundry basket. This cat is a champion sleeper -- this time he went into the basket around 1pm, no doubt taking advantage of a bunch of warm clothes just out of the dryer, and didn't move until late at night. 

Now that's what I call a cat-nap.

Finally, despite the counsel of the wifely Grinch, who despises all such frippery, it was time for a little Christmas cheer. I may not get a Christmas tree this year, but, gosh-durn it, I was going to have some Christmas decorations.

So that was Sunday. Now it's Monday morning, and I don't have to go to work.

Which is good because there's a snowstorm outside.

Friday, December 14, 2012

A big softy

One of our colleagues at Unity College (in violation of the "Pet Policy") bought his tiny new puppy (a miniature Schnauzer) to work. The (female) student workers in the mail room were all over it, of course, and decided to dress him up in a scarf borrowed from a stuffed toy. The scarf fit perfectly. I had my camera in my backpack, and so asked the students to take this picture. Of course, Gary, the dog's owner, then put it about on FaceBook that my "tough guy" image was all over.

But the puppy was pretty cute, and not at all yappy. I don't like small dogs if they are yappy. And I never was that tough.

Walking our own dogs this evening and last, we've seen huge shooting stars, from the Geminid meteor shower. They all seem to be big and slow and very orange. Beautiful.

The sheep don't seem to care about the shooting stars, but they do seem a little worried about the deer that are coming onto the various Great Farm lawns to eat neighbor Jean's apples that fell off her tree. I'm not sure why deer make sheep nervous, but they do. I go out at night to check on them, and the sheep are up, snuffling about nervously and staring into the dark, when usually they are lying quietly, chewing their cud.

Scary deer. But there have been coyotes about too, so maybe the sheep are not so paranoid after all.

On our dog walk yesterday we saw a big old owl down by the beaver ponds. We came upon it unexpectedly as it was perched on a branch, and it flew off with one massive fwuff of its wings.

Also quite beautiful.

We live in a lovely place.

Saturday, December 8, 2012

Bentley, our purebred Romney ram, has moved on to a new farm. We'd used him for the regulation two breeding seasons, and didn't want to start breeding him back to his daughters so he had to go. He was the fourth ram we've had on the farm, and probably the mildest and the largest.

Even so, I can't say I'm sorry to see him gone.

Rams will be rams and they like to ram. In particularly, they will charge and butt you if they think you're coming between them and the ewes, or between them and their food. Or, just because. 

Bentley never rammed anyone. 

Instead he took it out on fences and buildings. He could walk right over a normal four- or five foot field fence, using his massive weight to flatten the wire. He could batter a full-depth cedar fence post, or even one set in concrete, until it keeled over. Any ordinary wooden structure had to be built very heavily, with thick plywood and cross-bracing.

The only solution was to build fences of cattle panels made of 1/4 inch welded steel wire, to connect these to very sound fence posts, and to join the fence posts together at the top with rails and plumber's strapping. Even so, he would still batter away at the cattle panels until they were perfectly concave.

So, once we felt more or less certain that all six ewes were bred this fall, we put an ad on Craig's List and in Uncle Henry's. We needed to shift him fairly quickly because of the upcoming holidays, so the price was reduced. We paid $200, but asked only for $100. This seemed fair enough, considering we have Shawn, his offspring, and so we are still up a ram, even if we're down $100. We also felt that a lower price would make it easier to place him on a farm. There are guys who make a career out of buying up sheep and goats from small farms to take to halal butchers in the big cities, especially around the Eid holiday, the "festival of sacrifice", and we didn't want him to end up slaughtered before his time. He's such a nice, well proportioned, well bred animal. He needed to live out his useful life as a ram.

Still, this quick effort to move him on happened only one year and one month, almost to the day, that we got him. Just enough time to breed two generations, and not a day longer!

People called and emailed and before we were really quite ready, a very suitable farm responded and sent out a delegation. We were at little worried to begin, because the visit was scheduled for a weekday and the people were over an hour late without notification, while we had to get back to work. Disorganized people don't always make for the best farmers, and Bentley is a serious animal, not for the faint hearted or disorganized person. But after talking to them for a few minutes we both decided they knew what they were getting into, more or less.

Of course, even this sensible plan required him to be caught one last time and sequestered in the barn before the people arrived, and I had a little fun with that. Bentley rammed his gate as I was getting the crush ready to halter him, shattering the gatepost. And once in the barn he rammed the gatepost and side fence of the lambing pen in which he'd been placed, shattering all that pretty nicely too.

He'd make a good rugby prop forward or football linebacker.

In the end I used a solid hardwood gate that we have to make a pen in one corner, and that held him. Here he is (above) being distracted by a carrot from the garden while I fix up the damage he'd caused.

We were both surprised, however, that the buyers showed up in a family van. The back seats had been taken out to leave a big cargo space, and so there was a fair amount of room. But this meant that the young boy who showed up with the group, about 13 or 14 years old, would have to ride home with Bentley sticking his head over the seats. Aimee got a picture.

I wonder how that trip went? Did Bentley ram the back of the seats? Did he destroy the van? 

It takes all kinds to make a world. 

Still, I expect that Bentley is pretty happy on his new farm where he has ewes to breed, and isn't going to be slaughtered.

All's well that ends well.

Sunday, December 2, 2012

The final push

We were back to reality with a bump on Monday, after our nice long Thanksgiving Break, which was marred only by my struggles with the crashed computer. Monday marked the start of the last stretch of regular teaching before Final Exams. We have one more full week, then two days of wrap-up, three days of finals, a weekend of grading, and then home again for the Christmas break.

I'm looking forward to catching up on some much-needed rest. As usual, the tension is killing my sleep, and I've been up a lot at midnight and two and three in the morning getting work done so I can be free to spend time with students during the day.

Good teaching doesn't come without struggle. You need to be able to give each student your best efforts, and you shouldn't give up too easily when the student is being lazy or weak-minded about things. As a result, you wear yourself out not a little, butting heads with students that need to work harder, or struggling mightily to find a third or fourth way to explain something when the first and second methods didn't work. If you come home relaxed and refreshed, you're probably not doing it right. You should feel bruised and battered, at least a little.

I usually sleep a lot the first week of any of our two long breaks, as my body and mind repair themselves from all these bumps and hurts.

This weekend isn't helping any. For various reasons, some good, some not so good, the college decided to hold the biannual student conference on a Saturday instead of the first day of the final exam period. Student conference is a great event, and very good for student learning, since students are put on the spot by professors and made to defend their work verbally. But I was pretty battered at the start of it yesterday, and wasn't sure if I gave it my best by the end. I came home, did my farm chores, took about a half a cup of white wine, slept on the couch for two hours and felt better. Aimee, for her part, poor girl, had to do the weekly shopping before she could come home and take her nap.

I was in bed by eight-thirty.

Today is the Maine Association for Search and Rescue Quarterly Meeting, which I must attend if the Unity College SAR team wishes to continue to make a contribution to Maine SAR, and which takes several hours, and a couple hours of driving on either side.

Not a happy weekend pour moi. Aimee, for her part, cranky too but still good-hearted, will do the laundry and no doubt keep the wood stove stoked while I'm away. At least, I hope she will. It wouldn't be the first time she let the fire go out while I was on an errand, so I plan to leave the electric heater on too, as back-up. Nothing worse than coming home tired to a cold house.

Additionally, since we knew we were going to lose the great majority of our weekend, we were forced to take a risk with Bentley, our ram. His job for the year done, he needed to be separated again from his ewes. But this is an unhappy event for him, and so of course he batters fences and gates to make himself feel better. Normally. we'd do this job at the start of a weekend, so we would have time to monitor him as he settled down. Instead I was forced to do it Wednesday evening at dusk. That gave him Wednesday night and a little time before work Thursday morning to settle down, and of course he was still pretty mad, battering the fence as I drove away to work.

I'm reminded a little of the finale to Remarque's All Quiet on the Western Front, when the ecological and systems problems plaguing the German armies have piled up, so much the system begins to break down and they can no longer resist the western armies. All it takes is a straw, when the poor bloody camels are already so obviously overloaded.

But don't feel too bad for us. My comparison, except for the bit about straws, is obviously pure guff and hyperbole. And no-one said I had to run a farm as well as hold down an academic job. It's my own silly fault.

We'll be done with the semester soon enough, and recovery will happen. I'm looking forward to it. We've done our  pre-winter duty as Mainers and homesteaders particularly well this year. The house and farm are all set up for the coming winter, so we'll be able to relax. I have some minor energy efficiency projects to do around the house, mostly just for fun, a wild notion to try felt-making with our own fleece, as well as a nice tall stack of serious reading.

Since the weather turned bad and the farm and pre-winter workload has reduced itself, I've been reading some great books, including Anatol Lievin's Pakistan: A Hard Country, and Patrick French's India: A Portrait, and as a result I now feel I understand both countries a lot better than I did, even though I grew up around Indian and Pakistani people in Sheffield. Additionally, and not without a groan or two from Aimee, the History Book Club offered a special, all three volumes of Manchester's book on Churchill, The Last Lion, to add to my Churchill collection. All this I consider necessary to understanding how to fix climate change, and so I take credit for it as an academic. Even Churchill, whose "wilderness years" are an inspiration for many climate academics.

I also plan to eat well, rest well, and be nice to Aimee, although sometimes I think that doesn't get me very far, or not as far as it perhaps should.

Sunday, November 25, 2012

Hiking in the late autumn woods

I've been doing a good deal of walking this last week, and enjoying it enormously. The weather has been good, Aimee and I have both been off work, the pre-winter honey-do list has been whittled down to a rump of odd jobs that are low-worry, and the woods are free of bugs and heat. The trails behind our house have all been trimmed by our neighbor Hamiliton, with a brush cutter towed behind a four-wheeler motorcycle. I can't remember a better walking season on the Great Farm.

This is the usual destination for my daily walks, the beaver pond complex on Great Farm Brook, about a mile to the southeast of the house. It makes a good psychic turnaround, better than just an endless woods loop. The dogs love to sniff around the beaver trails and even to splash a little around the edges of the brook. They don't go in deep, though. Shepherd dogs are not water dogs.

If you look carefully in this photo here you can see both of them in among the meadow grass. The old beaver lodge is in the background, currently disused, so there must be a new lodge somewhere. There are certainly plenty of beaver trails, indicating a large family.

All this walking has been good for man and beast. I would bet that my blood pressure, which is generally quite low in any case, has been lowered yet by the exercise, and I've certainly hiked off a couple of pounds of flab. Our current routine is to do a couple or three hours of grading in the morning, and then get out and hike, making sure to check the entrance track for fresh tire tracks or parked cars and trucks, which would indicate a deer-hunting party has entered the woods.

Hiking in fall in Maine is not without risk. A hunter got shot to death by another hunter just the other day in south central Maine. I don't care to be shot or have my dogs shot, so I'm very careful.

There's really only one way in and out of this section, at least for our local hunters who seem thoroughly truck-bound. The fact that they don't like to hike much is good, because that makes it safer for us. I can usually tell immediately when there's a group of hunters in the woods, from the obvious tracks. Even so, we make the dogs wear orange bandanas. I would wear an orange vest if I had one handy, but all my vests are at work, waiting for a search and rescue call out. I haven't felt worried enough to drive all the way to work. I haven't really wanted to drive anywhere for days. I'm happy here.

Hunting season ended yesterday in any case, so I should be able to stop worrying. Today is the last day of our Thanksgiving break, and we'll be back to work for two more weeks of the regular term, and then a week of finals and grading, and then our Christmas break. This will be a busy time, this last three weeks, so I doubt I'll be able to walk much, but I would bet I can walk every day of the Christmas break.

By then it will be winter and we may be post-holing, snow shoeing or skiing, but we'll get out in the woods.

Monday, November 19, 2012

Computer cluster

No photos today. And possibly a slow month or so for blogging, depending on what happens next. My old 2008 MacBook computer, which I use for just about everything at work and at home, has died. There was a click and then the dreaded black screen, and then it was impossible to fire up -- you'd get the grey screen, and it would cycle through the first five percent of the start-up process exactly twice, and then you'd get the black screen.

I had some hopes for a while there, because it would start and run from a Mac start-up disc, and therefore the processor and disc drive were working fine, but none of the disc repair options, neither the ones from the original Mac start-up disc's Disc Utility software, nor a couple of commercial ones, would work. The hard drive was toast; most likely irreparable. And the file-saving disc imaging option in Disc Utility wouldn't work, either. Although i could hook up an external hard drive, I couldn't image the Mac hard drive to it.

I am, however, able to access and save all my files by ones and twos and by folders. This is because long ago I partitioned the drive and installed Windows on a small corner, in order to run a half-dozen or so software programs required in the energy industry that don't run on Macintosh systems. This option has been available to Mac geeks for many years -- in effect the best of both worlds. I could either shut down the system and start it up as a Windows computer, or using a virtual machine window, run the Windows partition as a desktop window on the Macintosh, and run programs like the Department of Energy's "eQuest" or NRG System's "Symphonie Data Explorer."

I never realized before that one other useful purpose for this second operating system would be to run the computer if the Mac system broke down. Now, with a corrupted portion in the Mac side of the hard drive partition, I can reverse the logic and access the Mac files from the functioning Windows partition. Using the start-up option window, I can access Windows, which starts up and runs just fine, and then by using a commercial file-reading software called MacDrive, I can use the Windows side of the computer to access the many thousands of useful or important files there are on the Mac. Accordingly, I'm copying them over to an external hard drive, several folders at a time. I've already saved the most important ones.

Luckily, long ago, I saved all the essential files to Google's cloud storage service. The only files I still had on the MacBook were more or less optional ones, that I could manage without if need be. But still, it's nice to have them. There's a lot of working history on that computer, a lot of documents and drafts of documents and spreadsheets and pictures, many of which items will come in useful one day.

This process may take a while. I don't really know what I have, nor what I need, until I need it. I'm thinking it would be a mistake to cut the file-saving process short until I'm sure I have it all. Until the college gets me a replacement for the old MacBook, I have a loaner from the college library, which is what I'm using now. But I can't do very much at all with it because I don't even have a basic computer entry password, let alone an administrator's password.

For someone as competent as I am with computers, especially Macs, this is not a happy state of mind to be in. And Aimee has been teasing me about having to resort to the hated Microsoft products to save my Mac's files, the implication being that the Windows software is more reliable, which nonsense I of course heartily dispute. After all, the Mac hard drive ran as much as fourteen hours a day for five years without a hint of a problem before.

But at least I can get my files, and at least I'm still online.

And the college says it will get me a new Mac soon, possibly even before Christmas.

As The BBC TV Test Card used to say whenever there was some kind of glitch, "Normal service will be resumed as soon as possible."

Sunday, November 11, 2012

Killing the fatted leek

Yesterday was a half-day at work, despite being a Saturday, and as a result I had to postpone the ongoing honey-do/pre-winter list work until the afternoon. The first problem was to deal with the rodent infestation in the basement. I had been working to keep them at bay, but after a busy week in which I didn't make time to get down to the basement, I was totally gutted to find a bunch of damaged tubers. This was very upsetting to me, because we don't grow all this lovely food to feed the bloody rats!

We've never had even so much as a mouse down there before, but now we seem to have invited the whole clan of barn rats down into the basement. Not fun. They'd damaged or half-eaten a lot of the spuds, and crapped or urinated on some of the rest. Our potato crop was at risk of being completely lost, unless we did something, and pronto.

I transferred the as-yet untouched spuds, about four-fifths of the total, to a hopefully rat-proof wooden bin, and added poison baits and a large kill-trap to the plastic baits that were already down there. I'll check daily until I know for sure that they're gone.

Then I wanted to use up the best of the potatoes that had already been nibbled, as well as cook up some of the other winter vegetables that are still available from the garden patch, primarily carrots and leeks at this point, although there should be some Brussels sprouts soon, perhaps in time for Thanksgiving. I washed and cleaned the nibbled spuds very carefully, of course. I had to throw out around ten pounds of completely written-off spuds. Aimee, for her part, assisted not at all by looking up Hanta virus on Wikipedia and reading the information aloud, between giggles at my expense! Very helpful.

(None of this stopped her eating the potatoes, once they were par-boiled and home-fried for today's breakfast.)

Despite this unasked for aid, while I was making par-boiled potatoes for the week, as well as some sautéed carrots, I still made leek-and-barley soup for Aimee, her favorite. This is the massive leek I used, just one of the ones we grew and not even the biggest.

Today, after a good breakfast of home fries, sausage and egg, it was back to the list. There was a place in the half-finished gable wall where the rain was getting in, the sheeps' water to sort with water heaters to protect against the frosty nights we are getting, the banking to do to prevent cold air getting into the kitchen, a crack in the hallway wall that has been leaking cold air into the conditioned part of the house from the cellar, the workshop to tidy and seep out, and a bunch of other smaller stuff.

It's already snowed once, thanks to the nor'easter that come by this week, adding to the misery of Hurricane Sandy's victims to the south of here. We had about three inches on the ground for a short while until it turned to rain. This of course gave me an excuse to drive the Land Rover to work Tuesday. The drive in to work was fine, with the plows having done their job well enough, but I ran into a hard-falling ice storm on the Dixmont/Jackson Route 7 pass on the way home, in the dark to boot (I teach night classes Tuesdays and Thursdays), and I was very glad of the four-wheel drive. I even used low range to descend the other side. With other vehicles in similar conditions, including the four-wheel drive Nissan truck, I've had to turn around on this pass before and go another route -- it goes up to 900 feet above sea level and also stops the breeze from the sea only fifteen miles away, and so gets some very nasty weather in a nor'easter. But there was no turning back this time -- the Rover did the job safely and gave me great confidence.

And so the Land Rover was used for what a Land Rover should be used for, and it worked just fine, considering it's nearly 42 years old. A veteran, but still fighting the good fight.

It's Remembrance Sunday in Britain and the Royal Air Force Mountain Rescue Association is of course marching with the other veterans at the Cenotaph in Whitehall as usual. I'll watch later on the BBC. Our college's services will be tomorrow, when the US Veteran's Day will be observed.

Just another week of work left until Thanksgiving, and only three weeks after that until Christmas. It will be a sadder Christmas for me and my sister, with my Mum and Dad both passed now. (Mum died last December 27th, and Dad the summer before.) But I'm sure we'll manage to be festive. I'm looking forward to it.

Aimee just turned on the Sunday football, so it might be time to end this post. Yea, Sunday!

Monday, November 5, 2012

Fall-back activities

After the skunk incident, which passed without too much lingering skunk smell, it was a good weekend for getting things done, cold air but relatively dry weather. 

I plugged away at the long "honey-do" list I've been listing and re-listing since fall began. The number of things that simply must get taken care of between now and the first serious snow seems staggering sometimes. The hurricane didn't help much, and neither are the various rodent tribes that are invading the house and barn to find nice places to spend the winter. But the list gets shorter each weekend, and I do believe we could have a couple feet fall and stay tomorrow and live to fight another day.

You can see the dogs, now allowed in the garden area, playing in the top left of this photo (click to enlarge). I began putting the garden to bed a few weeks ago when the onions were pulled. I harvest each section, then pull the stalks and till. Too much tilling is bad for soil nutrients, but we add so much in the way of soil amendments from our giant compost piles, I'm more interested in the quality of tilth and in killing weeds and weed seeds than I am worried about nitrate loss. My feeling is that the material we add contains such relative slow-release sources of nitrogen, it probably doesn't evaporate as fast as, say, anhydrous ammonia does.

Bentley was put in with the ewes and promptly went to work, with, however little seeming success. The ewes don't like to stand still for him, and why should they? He's such a stranger to them, living alone in his private pen/fortress most of the year.

Aimee did manage to catch a shot of this momentary engagement with young Ritzpah. (Where does she get these names?) Fleeting success, because the ewe promptly lay down after this, but fleeting is all it seems to take with sheep. Wham, bam, thank you ma'am.

Winter storage of farm equipment is a problem around here. We could use more storage sheds and so on, but I'm waiting for the time and money to build my big new four-season workshop, the one with the overhead crane and the two-post car/truck lift. The glass greenhouse is already full of truck and lumber for the winter, including the grain crib recently dismantled form the barn. I decided the Troy-Bilt tiller could go in the new greenhouse, once I pulled all the tomato plants. On my to-do list is to take the ad-hoc storm lashings used during Hurricane Sandy down, and replace them with purpose built proper lashings, with decent, deeply pounded re-bar tent pegs.

The small tiller needs a new fuel line, but when I can get one fitted, I'll till up the soil in here and put in some kale starts and seed, and some spinach seed for the spring. There will still be room for some equipment in the middle aisle, even if there are seeds in both beds (along the sides). On the right hand side, you can see all the wasted Juliet- and Green Zebra-variety tomatoes, this despite me picking at least two gallons a week for three-four weeks now, and roasting them down. That's a couple of rather leggy kale plants on the left that were growing among the tomatoes.

We had an awful lot of very nice tomatoes this year, which sort of makes up for the blight we've had in previous years. I think we know how to beat the blight now, at least in years when the weather cooperates.

Anyway, the extra hour of time I had to meself this morning, thanks to putting the clocks back Sunday, has now evaporated, and I must get up and go to work. At least I don't have to worry (much) about the pre-winter "to-do" list.

Saturday, November 3, 2012

Trouble at t'mill, redux, 5am version

I'm an early riser, especially when there's a science paper, history book, or news article I want to read. My life is very busy and I don't have the time or energy to read unless I get up early and make time.

So, it was with some satisfaction that I woke early, got up, and made coffee this morning, looking forward to catching up on all the hurricane and political news.

(I don't much like reading about the hardships people are facing with this hurricane, or about all the partisan attacks this election season, but I feel a responsibility to know it, and I was upset I hadn't time earlier this week to find out about it all.)

But then Ernie the Womerlippi sheepdog came downstairs too, and in the way of all dogs, had to be let out to piddle. I went out with him, and he went off into the shadows to do his thing. I was admiring the moon and stars as usual, when there came a short "wuff", and then, before I could stop it (because I knew instinctively that it was a skunk), the unmistakeable squeal of a dog getting a full facial dose of skunk spray, followed by the almost physical shock of the skunk odor permeating the dooryard.

Stupid bloody dog! Arrggghhh!

Clearly the skunk we'd evicted from the barn last weekend was still around and looking to wreak revenge for his eviction. Horrible, nasty, peevish little pole-cat.

But now what?

It was only around five am, and Aimee was fast asleep still. Not wanting to wake her, I put Ernie on the porch, and went back to my newspapers and coffee.

But the skunk smell began to creep into the house. And, of course, a husband that might be blamed for skunking up a dog and a porch is one thing, but a husband blamed for skunking up the inside of the house, on the first day of a nice weekend off, to boot, well, that's no husband at all.


So I duly got up and gently woke Aimee and told her what was up and what all the banging and noise and smell would be about and then told her to go back to sleep, which she did.

Then I carried multiple buckets of hot water out to the dooryard, where the dog's washtub sits. Ernie got a good scrubbing with the skunk shampoo. (Which was, indeed, right there under the sink, as per last weekend's wifely advice.) Flame also got a good scrub. The two dogs went into the garage to dry off, no ifs, ands or buts, while I pulled out the porch rug and hung it on a fence rail for the rain and wind to take care of. Then I sluiced out the porch with five gallons of the left-over skunk shampoo water. This was left for a while, hopefully for the remaining active chemical to do its work.

While I waited, I took a shower and threw my skunky clothes in the washer. Then I dried off the porch floor with the skunky dog towel, and threw all the cleaning and dog-scrubbing accoutrements out on the lawn to deal with later, once the daylight arrived.

It was during the final besoming of the porch floor, when I was sweating on my hands and knees, that our neighbor drove by. I'm not sure what he thought was going on, with the yard lit up like a Christmas tree and Mick on the porch floor scrubbing and sweating at five in the morning.

But, in mustelid emergencies like this, you can't be too worried about what the neighbors think.

Has the smell gone? So far, so good. I think we'll need to launder the futon cover on the porch futon, but the worst seems to be over. And that cover needs to be laundered every couple months, skunk or no.

Meanwhile, with almost full daylight, Aimee sleeps on still, completely blissfully, restfully unaware.

What a good husband. Do you think I'll get credit?

And don't you just hate skunks in the dooryard? I do.

Sunday, October 28, 2012

Trouble in the barn

I always enjoyed that old Yorkshire (and Monty Python) meme "there's trouble at t'mill."

Hard to believe that when I was younger I actually spoke like this.

In this case the trouble was in t'barn, and the picture above obvious to anyone American. Aimee surprisingly found it strange, however, that my sister couldn't identify this animal when shown the picture on FaceBook.

"Don't you have skunks in Britain?", she said.

Well, no, actually. No skunks in the entire British Isles. Really.

She still found it difficult to believe that someone might not be able to recognize this animal. Even if it were not endemic, it might be still obvious what it was, just because it's so common in the US, and features in movies and cartoons and the like.

I tried to explain that we have animals in Britain that she might not be able to recognize, too. But then I had a hard time coming up with one. I tried "water rat," but that was too easy. "Rat-like thing that goes in the water,"  she said, with a giggle at my expense.

Sigh. But yes, the humble British water Ratty, beloved of readers of The Wind in the Willows the world over, is indeed "a rat-like thing that goes in the water."

Actually, it turns out that the common or garden British water rat is actually a water vole.

Who knew? But still.

First prize of a free Maine wildlife t-shirt (size small -- and we only have one, an unwanted birthday gift), for the reader who can come up with an otherwise obvious British animal that my wife can't recognize.

As for Mr. Skunk, who'd been eating eggs and might decide to taste a little chicken next, well, he had to go. It was of course with some care and not a little trepidation that I approached this particular task.

Aimee, for her part, took off to do the week's shopping, saying, "it's good that I'm leaving, then," and "there's skunk shampoo under the kitchen sink."

So much for wifely loyalty and family togetherness in the face of danger. No Dunkirk Spirit in this household.

And the shampoo under the sink might have been skunk-ready, but it was meant for dogs.

Sigh, again.

But, I supposed, any port in a storm. Always good to have a Plan B.

I started by clearing the barn of all its truck and lumber in order to be able to remove this smelly wee mustelid's nest and give everything a good general besoming. All the banging and thumping would, I hoped, drive our friend away before any more, shall we say, "unfortunate" encounter occurred.

Plan A: Not to get sprayed in the first place.

The resident had, luckily for me, already fled. Big sigh o' relief. Then it was a fairly simple matter of sweeping and carting the soiled hay, which surprisingly, didn't smell at all. I guess skunks don't spray in their own bed.

I then dismantled the larger grain crib that had provided said skunk, and the rats before him, with rather too much cover and security, and stored it in sections, transferring the oats to the smaller crib, and in general making a much more open space in the barn.

The rats had been poisoned several weeks ago, for what I hoped was the last time, but getting rid of this big thing might seal the deal.

This very large and unwieldy crib can be put back together next May, before our piglets come, if I don't revise it altogether. We only store one kind of bulk grain in winter, the sheep's oats. Pig feed won't be needed again until next summer.

The smaller crib is much easier to use, takes up less space although it stores the same half-ton of grain, and provides less shelter for unwanted critters. I may just use the materials in the larger one to make a second smaller one, and be done with the larger eyesore once and for all.

I also re-worked the northeast wall, where rats and pigs had eaten away a fair amount of the supporting studs, creating some danger of collapse if not fixed. I'd managed to clip the weakened wall myself with the tractor loader blade the day I cleared out the pigs bedding, pushing the already weakened studs off the sill in two places, and causing a sag in the eaves of about a quarter inch. Using a trick I'd seen on "This Old House," new studs were made, three-eighths of an inch oversize, put in at an angle, and pounded in tight to take over and support the load. (I knew watching those old PBS shows would come in handy one day!)

The worrisome sag, although probably indiscernible to anyone not a builder, duly disappeared, and we were left with a sound, square building once more. Yay! Very satisfying, too.

Then my older chain saw was fitted with a sharp but ancient and disposable blade and fired up. Using this as a giant Sawzall, I cut out all the remaining rot, making a new door entrance about five feet wide. New cripples and a new door header were then also made a tad oversize, pounded in hard, and screwed in place with long deck screws.

I'll need to buy some lumber for doors, but the sheep seem to like their new entrance way. It's wider and lets in more light than the old one. They can now see a little better to eat their hay.

And the tractor will fit through it (as long as the tractor driver remembers to duck) making it a little easier to clear out the barn.

No photos of any of this. My camera is on the fritz again. Aimee took the skunky photo.

Sunday, October 21, 2012


I've been busy. I think Aimee has been too, but I've been so busy, I haven't seen enough of her to know for sure.

Too busy to post on here, that's for sure.

But all things come to an end. In about seven hours' time the new annual MASAR Search Team Leader Training will be complete, and perhaps even a success, and I can come home to rest, catch up with Aimee, and maybe even manage to stay awake for the Steelers-Pats game.

Wednesday, October 10, 2012


It's October in Maine and, as usual, quite beautiful and serene.

Aimee and I took the dogs for a walk in the woods to see the leaves up by Howe's Pond. We had a four-day weekend for Columbus Day. We both had a stack of grading and course prep to do, but we made time.

The pond and the woods thereabout are always glorious this time of year. This is private land, but the landowner allows hiking as long as you don't use motorized vehicles. No four-wheelers, no snowmobiles. Which is just how we like it.

Aimee took her camera, while to dogs took their noses. Both had a good time using their senses.

The beavers had been hard at work. You can see their dam has raised the water level by a foot or so, and they have built a new lodge (the pile of sticks in the background). I was impressed by the dam, which at one place was about three feet tall and a perfect curve, very steep, held up by sticks wedged perpendicularly in the rocks. These beavers must have engineering degrees.

The dogs didn't care about the beavers, or the leaves, but they were very interested in all the smells. Flame, who is much more of a water-lover, went in the pond.

Sunday, September 23, 2012

First "walk in the woods" of the season

It may come as a surprise to readers, especially British ones, that we don't take very many walks around here in the summer.

It just isn't very pleasant.

Maine summers are hot and humid.

And if the 80-plus degree F temperatures and 60-70 F degree dew points don't put you off, the bugs certainly will.

Our bug season starts with blackflies in May. Then in later May or early June, we get mosquitoes. Son after that the first no-see-ums, a kind of midge, show up. Then, while the mosquitoes and no-see-ums are still going strong, the deer-flies and horse-flies ("clegs" in Yorkshire) appear. Finally, we get the stable flies, which come in the late summer and last until First Frost. These I think I hate the most because they draw blood, but also because they come in the house, otherwise a refuge. They crowd the windows, which have to be open, and find a way in through the screens, or any door left open for even a second. Then, while you're quietly reading or watching TV, there's a moment of sharp pain and a drop of blood, and you know you've been bitten by a stable fly. I'm totally anal about screens and shutting doors, but they get in anyway.

All are aggressive, but particularly the stable flies and clegs.

If you're foolish enough to go for a walk, there's just no way to not get bitten. Badly.

You have to be covered up in clothing and wear some kind of nasty chemical to avoid the bugs. But then you'd be very hot indeed, and sweat buckets. With that kind of humidity, the heat is much more intense that anything you'd experience in Britain. Unless we get some drier Canadian air and a strong breeze, it's just not that much fun to walk in the summer around here.

So the Womerlippis pretty much give up walking in May, and don't start again until First Frost. This is hard on me, because I've walked for exercise and peace of mind my whole life, and there's nothing I like better than a good yomp in the woods or on the hill. There are, however, plenty of farm chores, and pulling weeds or firewood or throwing hay bales makes for perfectly good summer exercise, so I don't think we suffer too much on the health front.

But come First Frost, and I'm up and running -- or walking -- again, happily.

I can't remember which day of the week it was, probably Monday or Tuesday, when I went out at 4am or so to walk the dogs and saw the hard white stuff on Aimee's Camry. I was immediately pleased. I'd like to pull our potatoes and get them safely stashed in the cellar, and make a start on the other fall chores, especially "putting the garden to bed," but more than anything the dogs and I needed a good walk.

I'd been able to take a nice hike on Harris Mountain the week before with a search and rescue colleague, planning a training exercise, but the dogs weren't allowed.

Then our good neighbor Ham got out with his trail-mower. Every fall he runs this useful contraption, which drags behind his four-wheeler motorcycle, up and down the woods pathways to make it quiet for his hunting season, clearing out the brush on a couple miles of woods trails behind our house. I'm always grateful to Ham for this, although I know he does it for his own purposes.

Actually, it's the only useful purpose I can think of for a four-wheeler. You wouldn't catch me dead on one of those things. I can't imagine any way to more easily spoil a hike in the woods than to employ a four wheeler. Or snowmobile, for that matter.

But without this treatment, our walking trails would soon become choked by blackberry brush, golden rod, and tansy, and would eventually disappear into the forest. So I'm always happy to see the job done.

I found out that this chore had been done while checking our sheep fence on Friday, and knew I could now get a decent walk in.

Come Saturday, though, I had a honey-do list several yards long. Stuff piles up, when you work every day and two nights a week, my current schedule. I hate to say it, but I was pretty durn tired by the time I gave up on the list, around three-thirty pm. I didn't much feel like a walk.

But I set off and acted as if I did, and the dogs certainly felt like a walk. They took off for the start of the woods trail as if we'd been down there every day since May, and I followed on, distinctly plodding.

But the plod melded into a stride, and the stride soon had me puffing, and became a hike, and then a short yomp. We only went for our usual mile down to the brook and back, but it was the first walk of the official walking season. Hurrah!

And, although there was the slight matter of some unexplained (and unseen by humans) encounter with a porcupine that left them with a few quills each, not very deep (did they roll in a dead one?), the dogs thoroughly enjoyed their walk, and slept soundly all night.

As did I.

Mission accomplished.

I think I'll go again today.

Thursday, September 20, 2012

Going tankless

Aimee was upset the other morning to discover that the Womerlippi's propane hot water heater had gone out. Unable to take her pre-work shower, she retreated back to bed, having informed the husband, who was happily reading his morning paper online, of this most unsatisfactory situation. Doubtless she had faith that the husband would plod on down to the basement and relight the pilot, which blows out a lot in the drafty basement, and that she could then take her shower and go to work.

The husband did dutifully plod on down, and did indeed faithfully strike match after kitchen match, to no avail. The pilot wouldn't stay lit. Once the safety button was released, it went out, every time. Something was wrong, because although this pilot goes out often, and although there is a knack to relighting any pilot, I'd done this particular one so many times, I knew very well how to do it, and, well, it just wasn't working.

So the husband checked the date of manufacture and the warranty status of the tank. This unit was here in 2006 when we first bought the house, but it was a good quality, high efficiency item, and might indeed have the nine-year warranty, not six, that is routine for better-quality examples. But husband was shocked to discover that the machine had in fact been produced in 1996. You can replace the thermocouples and even the regulators on these things, but after a while this is no longer worth the effort because efficiency drops over time as a result of sedimentation, and in any case, we'd had an enormous amount of trouble with pilots in the drafty basement.

There wasn't going to be any way to avoid it. We needed a new hot water heater, and pronto. Wifey was duly informed of this fact, and grumped off to work, taking a towel and soap with her, to use the shower in the gym.

There was some urgency to the situation. In the middle of our busy work season, we just didn't have time to mess around taking showers at work and not doing laundry for a week while said husband researched heater prices and efficiency. But luckily, we'd already been thinking about replacing the hot tank, and I already knew more or less what I would do. Several times now I've collected the brochures from various outlets for on-demand propane hot water heaters, also known as "tankless" heaters. These are expensive, it's true, but I'd crunched the numbers and worked out that we probably would save money after the first couple of years. And we had the dreaded Home Depot card, and so could finance it. The college "owes" me some time for all the extra weekends and nights I've been putting in lately, so I wouldn't lose any sleep over taking the afternoon off for a household emergency.

So off to work I went, and when my first class was done at 10.20am, I checked my email one last time, then drove right to the store, quickly checked over the feasibility and cost of the various units, settled on the one I'd already picked out, a Rheem "Ecosense 180" LP gas model, checked for additional hardware needs, bought a few extra unions, connectors, and bits of pipe, came home, removed the old tank, fitted the new one, and hey presto, by 4.30 pm we had hot water again, and so I took a hot shower using the new heater, then went back to work and delivered my second class, a night class, with virtually no interruption for students and only a small pile of grading to catch up on.

It was that easy.


Actually, there is the small problem of a pressure release valve that is soldered in place the wrong way around. Duh. And there is the extra length of flue that is on back-order. And there was the strange programming trick in the small print that is needed to get the water temperature to heat above 120 degrees (F) that took half-an-hour to figure out. Go figure.

But other than that, it was that easy. Not bad, eh? That old RAF training paid off, again, the gift that keeps on giving. The flue will be here next Wednesday. Until then we are using the old chimney for the old hot tank. The re-soldering/reconfiguring of the pressure release valve can wait until Saturday.

After that the only thing left to do will be to audit the efficiency. Because of course the Womerlippi Farmers always keep data, on everything.

In this case, I run an online efficiency model using the US Department of Energy's Home Energy Saver program. I'll need to go in and switch out the base data for the old hot tank, and enter the new data for the tankless heater. I ought to be able to predict some savings here.

We'll see. The new heater cost about $700 more than a nine-year warranty replacement hot tank would have. So we need to save around $30/month to pay the additional cost of the unit off in two years, or $20/month to pay it off in three. I'm sure we'll get $20. We may even get $30. We buy around $60 a month total for gas, and the propane is only used for cooking and heating hot water. Either way, it's less than the seven years that is usually used as a profitable payback threshold.

And so we got what essentially will be a free, new hot water heater.

All's well that ends well.

Thursday, September 13, 2012

Calming Orion and the Perseids

It's the start of fall in Maine and as usual the silly season for our working lives. We are run ragged, and getting frayed around the edges. The porch hasn't been swept in days and seems knee-deep in dog hair, while we are barely keeping up with the continued harvest from the garden and as a result are losing some of our crops, particularly cabbage which peaked two weeks ago before being chowed on by rodents. But the tomatoes are still coming in - and going out to customers and friends. The potatoes can wait for First Frost. Carrots can wait forever - I don't plan to pull them this year, just cover them with hay and leave them in the ground.

Although they ate all the green and Savoy, the rodents left the red cabbage alone so far, so I hope to get that in this weekend and so save it. Three ewes surplus to our breeding program failed to sell as breeders and so went to the butchers instead, and are now ready to pick up - over 150 pounds of prime lamb packaged to sell. I hated to butcher such well-bred animals with so much breeding potential, but we don't have the land for them, and there aren't enough people around here wanting to get into the sheep business. Where's their sense of adventure?

The pigs are fattening quickly and must go too in the next three weeks. The boar in particular is one prime pig.

In amidst all the craziness there are some compensations. Our freezers, fridges, and canning shelves are filling rapidly. We're already well-stocked and can now sell more vegetables and meat than ever. I like having some extra pocket-money as a result.

And if I ever get too overwhelmed, well, I can just go look up at the night sky. A bright Perseid meteor zooms overhead at least every second or third time I go out with the dogs at night. Woosh, and it's gone, but I am delighted each time, like a little kid.

While in the very early morning, when I can't sleep or when the dogs are restless, like today, then we go out to look at Orion, rising proudly to the south, our winter constellation.

Orion is a helpful constellation, coming as it does as a harbinger of fall.

When you see Orion this time of year, you know that First Frost will soon come, and then everything will calm down after that.

Sunday, September 9, 2012

Hello. Welcome to your new career. Now catch your sheep.

Yesterday was the annual introductory animal handling workshop for the brand new, first-year, Captive Wildlife Care and Education class at Womerlippi Farm. We've a large entering class for this major this year and the workshop sessions were a little shorter because of that, but the basic format was the same as in previous years (examples here and here).

Students entering this major as first years fresh out of high school (there were some students present from other majors and some transfer students, but not many) may require a good solid dose of what the military would call "indoc." That would be the introductory briefings and attitude adjustments that are, in that service context, delivered through the first few days of "Basic" training.

What boot-camp briefings and attitude adjustments might be required for a brand new CWCE major?

We have multiple goals with this workshop, we being the major professors, Doctors Cheryl Frederick (AKA "Fred", and Sarah Cunningham) as well as the Womerlippi farmers. And surprisingly, but not unusual for anyone properly familiar with experiential education practice and theory, they aren't very much to do with animal handling. Animal handling theory and practice is probably only the fourth or fifth outcome on the priority list.

The first outcome is that these students must understand that they are now trainee scientists and engage with that career identity and goal?

Why would someone show up to a science major degree program and not identify with being a scientist? Good question. I jokingly blame "Animal Planet" as kind of a catch-all placeholder for the mentality that says that fuzzy animals are cute and meant to be cuddled like teddy bears, but there are probably multiple overlapping cultural factors at work, from the sheer raw power of commercial teenage culture, to the delinquency of science in many high schools, and the general collapse of civilization. Of course I'm being hyperbolic here. But the fact remains that a number of students show up to this particular degree program with a fairly unrealistic idea of what the kind of work is that they'll be getting into, what kind of skills and attitudes are required, and why. Science tops the list for remediation.

Of course these majors are scientists, when you think about it. Duh! The degree could be titled "Applied Biology," subtitled "Animal Care Concentration" and that would perhaps be more accurate.

Scientific practices are used to work out animal care routines, nutrition, animal behavioral protocols, and of course medical care. One reason zoos are in existence in the first place is educational and scientific. These majors are first and foremost applied scientists in the field of animal care, as well as science educators, and research scientists, once they get out into the workforce.

But. of course, science is considered "hard" and scary, especially, surveys show, by teenage American girls. This is truly tragic, and so we do our best to fix it. We do this by straightforwardly demonstrating to the students that it is purely vital to know your science in order to take proper care of an animal.

And there's nothing quite like being told to grab your sheep and check them for a parasite with a long scary Latin name, Hemiconchus contortus, or being asked to give an injection of a strange substance you are told is a special kind of medicine called a vaccine, to protect against another organism with a yet-more-difficult Latin name, Clostridium tetani, all the time hearing the instructor's words ringing in your ears, telling you, not for the first time but perhaps the first time that you actually listened, that you already are a scientist, if only a trainee.

The real power of experiential education is that it works better.

Even for what might seem like outcomes that could be delivered in the classroom.

The sheer scariness of the experience, and the adreneline rush of catching and holding your first "wild" animal (our sheep can be pretty wild), will drive the lesson home forever. I think it entirely possible and even likely that these young women and men will remember this into their old age as the day they became scientists.

I still remember some of the similar experiential educational experiences I had at the hands of military and outdoor activity and yes, science teachers.

The next outcome is that students identify with the proper level of professionalism and learn to employ a gutsy, can-do attitude. We want them to be "switched on," engaged, organized, thinking all the time, willing to get "stuck in", and above all, not distracted.

A new notion for this year's class was that they were told that anyone answering their cell phone would have it dropped in the deep sticky hole in the pig-pen. I doubt I would actually have dropped anyone's cell phone in pig poo, but I did get their attention.

They were given some quite strict warnings about paying attention, about proper workplace safety, about why they needed to be one hundred percent engaged, for their own, and for the animals' sakes.

And no-one dared to answer their cell phone or text another student.

Today it was sheep and lambs. Tomorrow it will be lions and tigers and bears, oh my, and safety must come first. Distraction is lethal.

One of the unfortunate aspects of today's commercial teenage culture has been the way that it has dis-empowered the high school teacher and infantalized the teenager. In ancient and even in more recent American societies, teenagers were trainee adults, and their culture was little different from that of adults. Actually, there was simply no such thing as a "teenager" as we know it today. There were just young adults. They had adult responsibilities and adult work to do, and distractions like cell phones, fashion, and video games simply didn't exist.

You'd think that at Unity College we wouldn't have too much anxiety over fashion and popularity and the hierarchy of teen society and that kind of stuff, but we do, especially among the first years. By the time they graduate, they've more or less discarded all that nonsense and are much more professional. But the process has to start somewhere, and if we hit it hard in the first few weeks, we can get them to begin to drop the habits of distraction, and become focused instead on learning, which is where we need them to be focused.

Again, there's nothing like having this brought home to you because the very nice outfit you assembled for your day out at the farm got spattered with sheep blood or manure. Hopefully you'll never forget the lesson and perhaps even develop the fortitude to pass it on to your own children.

Lets talk about that, too: Fortitude. Guts. Gumption, whatever you want to call it, today's is a competitive society and the CWCE field certainly no less competitive than any other and perhaps more so. Students can't be shrinking violets and expect to succeed. Animal care can also be a dangerous profession, where adversity and difficulty rein, and where it's entirely possible for you to go to work one day and do something stupid or have a workmate do something stupid and get hurt or killed, or have an animal get hurt or killed. Being switched on and engaged is part of safety, but being simply brave enough to actually grab your animal and get stuck in is also part of it.

And it can't be taught easily in the classroom, and certainly not by computer. You have to do it to learn it.

In particular, if you are half-hearted or shrink back, your animal will struggle and escape and likely hurt itself or you.

And if you shrink back from grabbing a sheep, or wilt at the thought of a dung tag, this might not be the career for you. Better to learn that sooner rather than later. There are plenty of less physically challenging careers.

It was a good day to be alive at Unity College. My faith in human nature is undiminished, and my basic and innate feeling that all young people can be good and brave and true, if they try, was of course proven once more, replenishing my own faith in the world. The kids got stuck in and did the work, and although many confessed to being scared of the sheep and particularly of "not doing it right," most realized that, as we said, again and again, "'s time to get over all that, isn't it?"

Here are some of the best "action" shots. Aimee has many more on her Facebook album which you can access here.

Here (above) is one of the CWCE young men catching his first sheep. Note the hesitant body language. This is where we say "'s time to get over it."

Here's Bentley the Womerlippi ram, our most dangerous animal, demonstrating the sheer effectiveness of the basic control position for sheep. Bentley probably weighs 250 pounds, and can be violent, especially with his head. Another good lesson. Animals are not your fuzzy friends.

This is what we like to see. Total concentration, total engagement. Everyone using the proper tools and procedure, everyone getting stuck in. Well done.

One aspect of professionalism is to listen whenever a briefing is being given. You don't want to miss anything, especially the safety instructions. We're all very seasoned teachers and so our built-in radar can pick up a distracted student at fifty paces by body language alone. Here students are being shown how to clip chicken wings to help keep the birds safe. if their wings are clipped, they have a much harder time getting out of their pen. Some, I'm sorry to say, are more focused on the birds they're holding or watching than the briefing, and may have to be told once more what to do.

Here's a little more concentration on the part of one particularly switched-on student, as well as a great photo of Aimee doing what she does best.

We had a good day out with the students and were pleased to have them over to the farm. We made sure, of course, to show them the other animals and the garden operation, and to show them a selection of farm products. There are lots of great lessons to be had at the farm. We touched on some of the sustainability lessons, including the nutrient cycling as well as the general human ecology of keeping several types of animals in combination with a truck farm or market garden operation. We were a bit rushed for this part because the vans of new students kept coming, but everyone got a little of everything, and the Unity College curriculum will drive home the goods later in their careers.