Sunday, January 29, 2012

A day off -- finally

I haven't been posting much lately for folks to read, and I haven't had time to take any pictures. Apologies for that, but I'm having a busy start to 2012 at work and at home -- that is, when I''m home.

We were all set for our regular trip down to see Aimee's folks in Harrisonburg, VA, before Christmas. That trip is normally plenty of travel for me, and once I get down with it, I'm usually happy enough to hunker down and not go anywhere except to work and back for the rest of the winter.

But this year I'd signed up to take students to a conference in DC. This is a great conference for students, the National Council for Science and Environment annual meeting, and for one reason or another no-one had wanted to do it this year, so muggins of course said he would, and I did and even enjoyed it.

But while we were still down in Harrisonburg I received the news from my sister that my mum's condition was worsening, and on the drive back home Carol called to say that she'd passed away. So then there was the flurry of activity, more or less routine at this point since we've done it so many times, that accompanies these emergency visits back to the UK, and then the visit itself and the funeral, all described in earlier posts, and then the trip home, which was pretty bad since I was delayed for twenty four hours in Dublin and then landed at Boston in an ice storm, and the worst one of the season so far to boot. The bus ride from Boston to Portland was delayed, and the two-hour drive from Portland to Jackson took four.

Five days later there was the conference.

So, having arrived back at work essentially a week late for the start of the semester, this last week has been one big catch-up, and about seventy hours work total. Luckily I get up early, and so there are usually an extra three or four hours available. Following a few of these early morning sessions, I'm now more or less back on track in all my classes.

This process of catching up is complicated by the fact that I've signed up to teach an extra class in renewable energy over the next three weekends, at our local community college, Kennebec Valley, or KVCC.

This class is part of a multi-class program that is itself part of the current federal government effort to provide "retooling" for mid-career professionals in the energy business, to enable them to make the transition from conventional energy management to renewable energy and energy efficiency, and I'm quite tickled to be invited to give what is essentially the overview class.

Yesterday, after a slight delay because of another ice storm, I taught the first eight-hour class, and thoroughly enjoyed the experience. My students are all established professionals, including two engineers, a manager for a large local HVAC contractor, and two more with experience in support tasks for the energy business, back-office and sales and so on. I also enjoy KVCC because of the tech school atmosphere. It reminds me of my first college, Number One School of Technical Training, RAF Halton.

It's a knowledgeable crowd, my favorite topic, and a great setting.

But I don't think I'll have much time for this blog these next few weeks!

Sunday, January 15, 2012

Some walks in Britain

Regular readers will know I've been away in Britain with my sister, burying my mother (see two posts back) and visiting with relatives.

(Click on any photo to enlarge.)

Even so, a man has to eat, sleep, and exercise, and the places where I was at were fine for country walks, so that's what I did when I wasn't with my sister or relatives.

Here are the pictures I took.

I stayed in the small market town of Cowbridge, in the Vale of Glamorgan, which is a service center close to my sister's house, with a good hotel, The Bear, a former coaching inn and recommended.

The first walk is an early morning wander around the town's trails and historic sites.

There's an eleventh century castle, much remodeled in Tudor times. What you see here is Tudor.

I really liked this small tarmac footpath crossing this small sheep field. It seemd eminently practical to have just a small ribbon of surfaced pathway so folk could use the shortcut without getting muddy feet or wearing out the field.

The town used to be walled, and there remains a remnant or two of the old fortifications.

Then there's the "Physic Garden," a medieval walled garden kept up by volunteers. These are trellised apple trees.

This late rose was still blooming in the courtyard at The Bear.

Then it was off to Sgeffield, where I visited Wire Mill Dam, Ivy Cottages where my family used to live, and hiked up Porter Clough to the edge of the moors.

My sister and I hope to get a memorial bench like the one shown for our parents and maternal grandparents.

Finally, there's the view from Symonds Yat, a beauty spot easily accessible from the M40 connector between South Wales and the Midlands.

I liked the tiny white dots of the sheep below.

The lumber being harvested is Eastern Hemlock and Western Red Cedar, which I thought was ironic. I went all the way to Britain to find a woodsman harvesting American trees at a British Forestry Commission reserve.

A good walk

Ernie and I left Aimee to the football warm-up show, and took ourselves for a good walk.

We went down to the beaver ponds on Great Farm Brook, but the dams had been washed out and the ponds drained. Probably the beaver have been trapped out. I wouldn't know when, since we'd have seen the trapper's own tracks in the snow, unless they came from the east side, which is much longer to hike and without a proper trail of any kind.

But they'll come back. There are plenty of beaver still in Maine.

It was cold. Today's high has only been about 8 F. I had rime ice all over my beard again, but Ernie was perfectly comfortable.

Strange to see the water level so low. Without the dams, this area is just a slow section of creek, and indeed you can see the water running under the ice. If the beaver don't come back, the trees will fill in from the edges, which would be a pity, since the one of the attractions of this hike is the nice open feeling of the pond area. In Maine we get used to hiking under the forest canopy, which is pleasant enough, but it's nice to be able to see a little further now and then.

The sheep are nonplussed by hiking. This time of year they tend to confine themselves to the one area of their pen closest to the barn door. They don't even hike across their small paddock.

Bentley will cross his paddock, but then it is vary small, barely fifty feet across. Yesterday he was running around in circles for some strange reason.

Today, he just tried to ram Ernie, who for his part just instigated more ramming, by barking at him.

Friday, January 13, 2012

Eulogy for Jean

Given by her son Michael at Coychurch Crematorium Chapel, January 10th, 2012

We are gathered here to bear Christian witness and to celebrate the memory of my mother, Mary Jean Womersley, born Mary Jean Watson.

Jean as most of us knew her, was only half Welsh, and the Welsh bit wasn’t even from this part of Wales, and she indeed grew up and lived the first sixty-odd years of her life in the Rivelin and Mayfield Vallies in Sheffield, a long way away, and so there aren’t very many of us here.

But as I said at Gordon’s funeral here just last year, I tend to think funerals are perhaps as much to cherish the living as the dead, and if this funeral is to celebrate Jean’s life, it is also for my sister Carol and Gordon’s brother Stan and Jean’s sister-in-law Rita, and Jean’s friends like Muriel, and for all of us who knew her and loved her and who have come here to see her off. My sister and I want to thank everyone deeply for coming, and especially David and Beverly for being our minister and funeral planner. It’s been a massive comfort to have someone who is family in charge.

A son must necessarily have some difficulty writing a eulogy for his own mother who gave birth to him and fed him and raised him from her own flesh, but it has to be done. And it’s not so hard to know what to do. David knows, through proper training and years of practice, and I know through instinct: We who are still living must try to make sense out of what has happened to the dead so that we can go on living, and living right, so that we do justice and honor to the dead.

So let us honour and celebrate Jean Womersley and all that she stood for, which was a lot.

Jean was a very kind, gentle and sweet woman, who loved her friends and especially her family and her home, and held onto them most fiercely, and most of us who knew her loved her for that. She was also a survivor, even a throwback, in some ways, to the practical English and Welsh farm-wives of old, who knew they had to keep family and home and hearth together, and that is what she did most of all and did best. It was in her blood and what she was raised to do and she did it well and did it right.

She was born to the Watsons of Whiteley Woods, an old Sheffield family, and her roots were in that small cottage that still stands today by Wire Mill Dam, where Thomas Boulsover worked on the first Sheffield Plate and where generations of Watsons lived out their lives, surviving the Industrial Revolution and two World Wars and the Great Depression and everything else fate could throw at them, which was a lot. They were a strong family physically, and all the men, bar none, served, and served well, in the British military, in both wars, some of them in two world wars, and in other places. They were the salt of the earth, but they were not fertile. While they lasted, Jean would visit them at the Woods and walk us kids down to the woods to visit them too. We were raised by this extended family, not just by our mother and father, but by Jean’s parents Lettie and Arthur, who watched over us while mother worked part-time as a young housewife.

There were times in her life when she was very adventurous for a young woman of her background and upbringing. I remember being inspired by the scrapbook of her teenage walking and youth hostelling holiday in the Lake District to try those same kinds of hiking and walking adventures myself. This was just after the war, and must have seemed a great event in her life after the bombs and rationing of wartime Sheffield.

It must have been that sense of outdoor adventure, and that vivacious smile, that attracted my father Gordon to her. Dad had two brothers and a sister, and came from a musical and political family, while Jean was an only child, from a family that mostly were good at growing gardens and being quiet together. It must have seemed noisy at times!

But most of all Jean wanted to settle down and raise a strong family. She would have been happiest if she could have done it in that same cottage.

My favorite picture of my mother is one of her working the obviously heavy clay soil of the bungalow close to Dronfield that was her first married home. She’s strong and young and wearing a headscarf to keep her hair tidy while she digs. She’s smiling but also obviously a little upset that she’s the one digging while someone else – guess who -- is idly snapping pictures.

She was tolerant of my father’s notions and ideas and enthusiasms such as photography and jazz, even to the point of tolerating and later valuing the idea to make their own chocolates and sell them. But in her quiet practical way, it was Jean that worked out much of the details of the most sustainable, final development of the chocolate business, after the most extensive of Dad’s ambitions had run their course. She, with Dad and Rita and Stan, put together a small but effective small business that supported two families.

How should I live the rest of my life the way my mother would want me to live it? That seems to be the important question that results from my mother’s death, and the answers I have are very clear to me, and very straightforward. From these answers, and from how practical and straightforward these answers are, we can then also see what kind of woman Jean Womersley was, and we can remember what she was like.

The first thing I must do, and the most important, to honour my mother is to look after my sister Carol. That is what mother would have wanted me to do. I’m the big brother. It’s up to me to watch out for Carol the way mother would have wanted me to. There aren’t many of us Womersley-Watsons left, a true rare breed like the Romney sheep I raise at home in the woods of Maine, and we have to stick together, even if we live far apart.

Because the most important thing to Jean was her family. Her husband Gordon, me and my sister, and her mother Lettie and father Arthur were the most important things in the world to her. After them came other family members like Stan and Rita and the old folk at the woods. It was important to work together, to visit together, to play cards together, to watch kids together, but most of all to stay together.

The other thing I must do, if I’m to be a good son to Jean Womersley is to look after my own wife Aimee, now at home in America looking after our farm animals. I need to love her and honor her and keep her, which is what I said I would do in my wedding vows. Because my mother’s marriage was very important to her. She was married for over fifty years. Grandma and Grandad Watson were married for almost as long.

Till death us do part. That’s what it says.

But I also need to pay the bills and keep a roof over Aimee’s head, which is what mother would have thought of, in her practical way, as the most important thing.

Few of us that knew Jean, know the whole story of everything she went through to keep a roof over our heads as kids, and later to keep a roof over her own and her husband Gordon’s heads, through the ups and downs of Dad’s employment and later the chocolate business. I think the person that probably had the most of the picture in the early years was Grandma Lettie, but after Gran died then it was probably Rita that Jean talked to the most about this problem.

And she succeeded, against all the odds, didn’t she? To the extent that she bequeathed to my sister and I a fully-paid off home here in South Wales.

And I know right away that what she would have wanted me to do with that resource is what I will do, to use my half share to pay off my own home, to keep a safe secure roof over Aimee’s head.

We shouldn’t underestimate just how much satisfaction it would give my mother if she could know that I would do just that with the resources she put away with her own hard work and practical love. She was, simply, a very loving, practical woman to whom family and home were the most important things in the world. And because of her, I am able to live in a cottage in the woods and dig in the dirt and raise a family, albeit in a different, wilder set of woods.

Those are the kinds of simple straightforward answers I get, then, when I ask myself what it is that I must do to honour my mother’s memory. That’s the kind of woman she was, a loving practical person who succeeded in raising a family and keeping a husband and keeping a roof over everyone’s heads, despite everything the world could throw at her. Just like the generations of Watson women of Whitley Woods, who survived two world wars and the Great Depression in much the same way, while their menfolk were away in the military.

And so the circle of life goes on.

Jean will be cremated here today. Eventually, in a few days or months but probably not years, my sister will scatter her and father’s ashes in Whitely Woods, Sheffield, close to the cottage the Watson family occupied from the mid 1800s until the late 1990s. Mum and Dad will be part of that landscape, part of the bluebells in spring and the holly in winter. We can go see them there. As a farmer and a forester I appreciate that deeply.

I was there just the other day to see mother’s cousin Barrie, who is too frail to be here but sends his love, and there’s a beautiful hundred and fifty year old English beech tree that came down in the recent gale, just up from the cottages, a strong, still young, large tree, four feet diameter at breast height. Beech is one of the strongest woods, and it has the most energy for heating homes. If I were back in Maine I would be cutting it up for firewood, although it would also make good furniture lumber. But there’s another young slender beech coming up in its place. I have no fear for the beech trees of Whiteley Woods. They are survivors.

In the case of death from Alzheimers Disease, the mourning begins early, as you begin to lose the person you love long before they are dead. My sister and I are now survivors of two parents’ deaths from Alzheimers Disease. We have had many years of grief, far more of it than we ever would have thought possible when we were younger. But we remain strong. Our parents and grandparents survived two world wars and the Great Depression. Our battles have been with Alzheimers Disease. But we will go on. We are, after all, part if not mostly Watson, from Whiteley Woods. To know this, just look at what my sister has done to look after her two sick parents all these years. I am very proud of my sister.

So have no fear for us. The circle of life will go on, because of Jean Watson, which is what she would have wanted. It’s what she would have wanted most of all.

So that’s all I have to say here, and I think it’s enough, except to say thank you all for coming to help us bear witness to the life of Jean Womersley, my mother.

Wednesday, January 4, 2012


The weather earlier this holiday week may have been warm enough that I could strip down our small tractor and weld part of the sub-frame on Sunday and get it all back together on Monday, but that situation changed with a vengeance yesterday, as an arctic front swept in.

This year's winter weather in Maine is controlled by a substantial La Nina episode in the Pacific, and it's interesting to follow the jet stream pattern that results. After several weeks of being on the safe, warm side of this atmospheric phenomenon, we've slipped to the other side, and the wicked witch of the north now has us firmly in her grasp. I tried to finish up a few small tasks on the tractor yesterday, but was quickly rewarded with frozen fingers, and had to abandon the last fiddliest job of fitting a split pin (AKA cotter pin in American) to the kingpin.

Instead I came indoors for a very welcome cup of hot coffee.

This morning it's zero degrees F out there, which is minus eighteen degrees C. That isn't too cold for Maine, but it is unpleasant to be outside, and has me worried about frozen pipes.

All proper Maine husbands need to worry about pipes.

In our case, the cellar and crawl spaces where all our pipes are located are heated by the exhaust vent from our propane hot water tank, and by the wood stove which radiates directly to the floor on the underside of which the pipes are attached. I used to heat both cellar and crawl space directly with a special vent tapped from the forced air oil furnace, but I disconnected this vent this fall when I sealed the furnace system and insulated all the ducts. The furnace went unused 95 percent of the time, and the leaky ducts, and especially that cellar vent, ensured that this system became the greatest source of cold air infiltration to the house. The wood stove would suck essentially suck cold combustion air up from the basement through the duct work, making the house feel drafty and uncomfortable. By discontinuing the cellar heating, and sealing and insulating the duct work, most of the remaining cold air infiltration was cut off, but I was worried that the pipes might not get enough heat.

It seems I shouldn't have worried.

The prime result is, we were able to quit using the large outside wood furnace. All we have heating this home right now, even while it's zero degrees F outside, is about 40,000 BTUs/hour of wood heat from an 80,000 BTU/hour Norwegian wood stove running at about half capacity, and a 1.5 KW oil-filled electric heater running at two thirds capacity. I doubt we'll use even three cords of wood this year, when we have about five on hand, and usually use about four.

That's only 43,000 BTUs/hour total, when the degree days needed are something like 100, and a massive victory for energy efficiency. In earlier posts, I was worried about the outside wood furnace, and how we would be able to afford to replace a faulty chimney, but it seems like I don't need to worry. We could even sell that furnace off.

Or, more likely, save it to use for heating the new workshop building we have planned.

Sunday, January 1, 2012

Broken sub-frame

Here's the front sub frame for our nearly 40-year old Kubota tractor.

Hint: It's not supposed to be in two pieces!

Just how long this important structural component has been broken is a mystery. This tractor has always had more up and down movement in the front end than it needed, contributing to a couple of nasty tips. I discovered the crack when the front right tire developed a slow leak and so I was spending more time than usual down around that part of the machine, putting air in the tire.

The weather here in Maine is unseasonably warm, and forecast to remain so through tomorrow, so it was feasible to tear the tractor down, remove the sub-frame, weld it, and perhaps have enough time tomorrow to put it all back together before it again gets too cold for such things. If I'm really lucky with weather, there'll be time to put a new tube in the right front tire too.

Here's the repaired unit. It was an easy weld, a classic butt-weld. It should hold, since there's more metal in that spot now than there was before.

Here's how much the tractor had to be stripped down to get at the part.

This, I suppose, is my idea of fun. I guess I probably need to get a life, but I was happy enough working out there in the sun.

The sheep don't care for the sun much. They hung out all day in the shade, the younger ones playing king of the hill on this frozen compost heap.

What was Mrs Womerlippi doing while I was working so had (and admittedly amusing myself)?

Playing with the new dog.