Sunday, December 24, 2006

“People love chopping wood. In this activity one immediately sees results.” So said Albert Einstein! In my blog of 3rd December, I introduced you to Monsieur Crespel (above) the local bucheron (woodcutter/lumberjack) who I asked to help me safely bring to earth a hanging tree in our woods, a tree felled, perhaps by the wind, which got entangled in other trees and is especially dangerous, at least to debutant treefeller like myself. We remade our rendez-vous for yesterday, which turned out to be particularly cold (-3ºC).

Monsieur Crespel, a short man but impressively wide, arrived in his impossibly small car with a very large chainsaw and a remarkable absence of safety wear. After the formalities of a French “hello” and a short walk into the woodland, he set about the tree and in less than five minutes had it safely horizontal and, wielding his chainsaw with the swashbuckling gay abandon of Errol Flynn handling a sword, chopped it up into 50cm lengths, ready for our stove and then left me to it. Wood needs to be seasoned, so it looses its inherent moisture before it’s ready to burn, else loads of energy is used to boil off the water before it burns, so defeating the object somewhat and the gases given off during combustion are more polluting. Apparently, ash is the one wood one can burn green but I’ve never discovered why that should be so. (If you know, please leave a comment and tell me!)

I had (still have) a heavy cold and my intention was to work until lunchtime, then come home and get a hearty fire going in time to settle down next to the radio and listen to the footy during the afternoon. Trying to be clever in a time-and-motion sort of way, I thought it a good idea to reverse the van up as close to the entrance of the woodland as possible as I was bring the logs out a wheelbarrow at a time. By the time my van was full, the front-wheel drive Renault wouldn’t budge an inch in the mud: time-and-motion calculations slightly wrong! Luckily for me, I had my mobile phone with me and, just as luckily, my pig-farming and tractor-driving neighbour Paul had his with him as well. He arrived within ten minutes to drag me back to the tarmac.

Over coffee and some mince pies that Gabrielle had made, he told me that he was trying to mend a new piece of agricultural equipment he’d bought second-hand. It was sprayer attached to the back of a tractor with huge folding arms that refused to fold up having been unfolded. I felt duty-bound to offer a coup de main (helping hand) which is how I ended up in a freezing French field in the middle of December with a stinking cold trying to work out the hydraulics and electrics of a huge farm folding thing with only a technical manual in French for guidance. Despite getting hypothermic, I felt I couldn’t leave before the problem was solved and it was six o’clock, some three and a half hours later, when we finished by torchlight and the arms swung closed on command. By the time I returned home, the footy was over but all was not lost, as my team (Arsenal) had won 6 – 2, hooray!

Saturday, December 23, 2006

Stop Press: we’re looking after our neighbours’ four young chickens for them while they’re away for Christmas. Happy Christmas, Alan and Carole: voila, your very first egg!!!
Now, should we eat it or do you want it put somewhere cool to attend your return?

Just in the nick of time, before winter had officially started on 21st, our wood stove has been installed. The only other heating available is some electric panel heaters, common in France, especially rural France where there is no piped gas supply. I call it chauffage nucleaire (nuclear central heating) as France is the country which generates the largest percentage of its electricity from nuclear energy, at 78.5%, in the world. Whether nuclear energy is “clean”, safe and the answer to our energy problems is open to debate but it’s clear that burning wood can be a very environmentally friendly way of heating and as we have our own woodland it’s free!

Have a look at Steve’s Chickenshack Blog of Tuesday September 26th for an explanation of how wood burns in a stove.

One thing that annoys me (many things annoy Stuart says Gabrielle!) is the claim by people who don’t wish to reduce their energy consumption that planting trees can “lock up carbon” and so, if they plant (or sponsor the planting of) a few extra trees, this somehow negates their energy profligacy. Burning fossil fuel is releasing CO2 locked up millions of years ago, when the carbon balance in the world was completely different. In comparison, burning wood is carbon neutral, which means that when a tree burns (or decays by rotting) it only gives up the same amount of CO2 that it has absorbed during its life.

There is certainly more effort involved in cleaning the window of the stove, lighting a fire and keeping it burning all evening than turning the thermostat a degree higher but this is very evocative for me of my grandfather’s daily routine when, enjoying his first cigarette of the day—no doubt a Woodbine or Embassy No.6—he’d emerge from the dark and mysterious cellar with a galvanised bucket containing coal, newspaper, kindling and Zip firelighters, a mesmerising process for a young grandson. Talking of him, I suppose he set a precedent for my coming to France: travelling with some mates aged 18 (in 1918) staying twenty days somewhere near the Somme, before being shot in the face for his trouble and repatriated via an Australian Army field hospital. He’d be pleased to know things are altogether better now in the French countryside!

Monday, December 18, 2006

Yet another blog where I tell you what we actually don’t know! It’s not all our fault: we often find that people who write instructions in books about things that they obviously know how to do, miss out vital joining bits or make assumptions about the existing knowledge of their poor readers; you’ll understand what I mean if you’ve ever tried to assemble some flat packed furniture. Our geese are in the rudest and noisiest of health and, all summer, have had a diet of grass supplemented by wheat grain when they return to their house each evening. As Christmas approaches, geese are to be “fattened up” so need some additions to their diet. Before I go on to that, something I learnt about grass this year: with a dry summer, the grass didn’t grow that much but as the autumn brought rain, so the grass greened up and started growing again. It looks really lush now but looks can be deceiving. Paul, our pig farming neighbour, told me that during the summer there might be slim pickings but what there is, is very rich in nutrients and the converse is true of the autumn grass. Val, a smallholder from Somerset, said the same thing when I emailed her for advice, “the grass has no feed value left at this time of year so just treat grass as a salad for them!”

So, back to a fattening up diet. After discussing “proprietary pellets”, Katie Thear, in her Starting with Geese, says that alternatives are barley meal mixed with rolled barley (p74). The French word is de l’orge and the only form I’ve found this in locally is as whole grain. The geese eat their wheat as whole grains and so we thought they could have their barley the same way. As we’ve discovered before though, our geese our fussy eaters and turned their noses, or rather beaks, up at the barley. We contacted Val to ask what barley meal was and ended up grinding the whole grain up, half a cup at a time, in our coffee grinder. Still no luck, so I made a porridge out of it, as they have previously eaten our leftover oats porridge: again no. More alternatives offered by Thear include cooked potatoes, vegetables, spare milk mixed with barley or maize meal. In his treatise on self-sufficiency, Cottage Economy, first published as a series of pamphlets in 1821-2, William Cobbett suggests oats, along with cabbage and lettuce … fattening up with lettuce?

Which neatly brings me back to Val, who said that the autumn grass should just be treated as salad. She also said that “the protein level needs to be very high to fatten and it should have been high from about late Oct!” Despite avidly reading cereal packets at breakfast time when I was a kid, I have no idea what comparative levels of protein there are in the different foods suggested, other than potato is a carbohydrate and I don’t reckon there’d be must protein in a lettuce. As I said, our geese are fussy eaters but they do love cooked potatoes and bread soaked in water or milk. Just up the road we have a dairy farmer, and I’ve arranged for him to give us two litres of unpasteurised full-cream milk each day and we get stale bread from the bakers. So, our geese get as much grass as they want during the day, along with milk-soaked bread, cooked potatoes and any other treats as they come up and their usual ration of wheat in the evening when they go back to their home.

Photo is of the geese supplementing their diet with iron, at least that's what I think they're doing, trying to eat the wheelbarrow!

Wednesday, December 13, 2006

In the last nine days, we’ve had 90mm of rain (the monthly average is 92mm) which means that 90 litres has fallen on every square metre of land leaving everything decidedly soggy! This does not seem the obvious introduction to some water saving measures we’ve taken this week but water conservation really is becoming a big issue environmentally and, as we pay for our metered supply, an economic one as well.

At the Saturday organic market at St Pern, between Plouasne and Becherel, a friend of ours, Béatrice Méra, has a stall selling natural cosmetics and essential oils; she also sells some water saving devices and water filters. Due to her snappy sales technique or perhaps we were feeling sorry for her on a cold autumnal day, we bought two devices to screw into the end of a tap (one each for the mixer taps in kitchen and bathroom) and an economising shower head. I’ve come across the tap fittings before but was wary about the showerhead, as I love the sensation of a getting really wet under power shower (both hot and cold water are mains pressure in France, so the effect is the same). She assured us the shower jet was strong and très agréable .

Fixing them all was easy. The mixer taps already have a diffuser screwed into them, easily removed with a pair of pliers, and there was an extra spacer ring that therefore gave two thread sizes to choose from and it was obvious what to do. Do be careful if your mixer head is plastic, as I almost cross-threaded the one in the bathroom, which would have made me very cross-headed! The showerhead was a direct replacement; thankfully all these plumbing fitting must be reasonably standard. The tap fittings aerate the flow, so you get the same sensation of getting wet, but using a lot less water. The shower was great, so much so that I was not at all convinced that with was saving any water and thought we might have wasted our 30€ (£20). Hence the measuring jug and watch experiment you can see in the photo above.

The taps changed from around 12 seconds a litre to 20 but the shower, of which I had my doubts, changed from 10 seconds to 28 seconds a litre. I haven’t worked out how long it would take to recoup our costs, which would depend on water usage and the price of water but Béatrice assures me that, on average, it would be well within the first year. What was interesting, apart from working out the savings, was how quickly a tap gets through a litre of water. Apart from water shortages, there is also the issue of how much energy and chemicals go into treating all water supplied to the house to drinking standard and makes the collection and use of rainwater for the garden and, e.g., car washing, such a good idea (see blog of Friday 4th August). You will find Béatrice most Saturdays at the St Pern market and you can email her at For everything you ever wanted to know about water, why not ask Santa for a copy of Judith Thornton’s The Water Book (pub. by The Centre of Alternative Technology)?

Sunday, December 10, 2006

Seasons Greetings to all visitors to our blog, regular or occasional! Gabrielle has been busy with bits of willow, holly, rosemary, bay, ivy, pinecones and other odds and ends to make some decorative wreaths and has also hung up some mistletoe outside the front door. The photo is of our neighbours, Alan and Carole, who, sighting the mistletoe, have been overcome with tradition, emotion or perhaps both!

The name “mistletoe” means “dung-on-a-twig” in Anglo-Saxon and comes from the ancient belief that mistletoe was propagated from bird droppings. We now know it is indeed spread by birds, either by seeds which had passed through their digestive tract or by birds wiping their bills on branches to displace the sticky berry seeds off their bills.

From the earliest times, it has been one of the most magical, mysterious, and sacred plants of European folklore: believed to bestow life and fertility, protect against poisons and an aphrodisiac. The mistletoe of the oak was especially sacred to the ancient Celtic Druids. Mistletoe was long regarded as both a sexual symbol and the “soul” of the oak. It was gathered at both mid-summer and winter solstices, and the custom of using mistletoe to decorate houses at Christmas derives from Druid and other pre-Christian traditions. Old traditions include hanging branches of mistletoe from ceilings to ward off evil spirits or over house and stable doors to prevent the entrance of witches. It was also believed that the oak mistletoe could extinguish fire. In parts of England and Wales farmers would give the Christmas bunch of mistletoe to the first cow that calved in the New Year to bring good luck to the herd.

Kissing under the mistletoe is first found associated with the Greek festival of Saturnalia and later with primitive marriage rites. In Scandinavia, mistletoe was considered a plant of peace, under which enemies could declare a truce or warring spouses kiss and make-up. If you want to do it properly, gents, the man should pluck a berry when he kisses a woman under the mistletoe, and when the last berry is gone, there should be no more kissing … and the mistletoe should then be burned on the twelfth night lest all the boys and girls who have kissed under it never marry!

Thanks to this site for the info.

Friday, December 08, 2006

Back in the Spring edition of Permaculture Magazine, I had an article published entitled “A Bedtime Story” on how we got to make our own duvet from organic sheep’s wool on a farm in the Sarthe region of France. In the latest edition of the magazine, I’ve had another article published, entitled “Far From Woolly Thinking” which describes how the first article lead directly to Val Grainger, a Somerset smallholder, finding a permaculture solution to her problem of what to do with wool that costs more to shear off a sheep than she can sell it for. Click on the links to download the articles in pdf format and here for Val’s own blog.

Thursday, December 07, 2006

Wing clipping – Part 2. Back on 8th Sept, I told you how we’d clipped the outer wing feathers of our white geese as they were managing to fly for a few metres, the odd one thus finding itself outside the confines of the protective electric fencing and not then knowing what to do. We’d left the grey geese as they seemed too heavy to fly … until now!

If I could liken the white geese to the slim grace of an F16 fighter plane, then our grey ones would be the four-engined B52 bombers of the avian airforce, which seem too heavy to ever get airborne and yet, defying all intuition and aerodynamic logic, they finally lift off, in black clouds of exhaust, at the very end of the runway. Our geese often have a “funny five minutes” for reasons known only to themselves and the famous animal behaviouralist who specialised in geese, Konrad Lorenz. When we come to put them away in the evening, once out of their enclosure, they often race off up the field with lots of flapping of wings and equal amount of noise, then stop and return to us in similar fashion. They also do this in their enclosure, doing it across the diagonal for extra distance. Like the aforementioned B52s, our grey geese were getting airborne and, after three occasions of finding a grey goose (the same goose, marked out from the others by a quiff on its head) on the outside of the fence in the same week, it was time to take action.

As we knew what we were doing now, the clipping took place in double-quick time and the whole lot were together on the field in less than ten minutes. They still have their funny-five-minutes of racing about and screaming but without leaving the floor!

Sunday, December 03, 2006

We’ve been down to our woods again to collect some mistletoe for seasonal decoration and to size up our heating supply for this winter. There is a huge fallen oak in the wood which looks as if it’s been down for years and is therefore well-seasoned (dry enough to burn) and needs just to be cut up into logs and carried home to feed our wood stove, which we hope will be installed this coming week. The problem with this particular tree is that it has fallen on top of some other trees which haven’t dropped completely, so it is hanging and therefore highly dangerous to try to bring to the ground and definitely a job for an expert. Lots of mushrooms were growing on this dead wood and we cut some off with my ever-present Opinel pocket knife and bought it home for identification. Worried of some painful death from liver and kidney failure (poisonous mushrooms are very bad news) and even after we’d positively identified them as oyster mushrooms, I spent several hours poring over Roger Phillips book, Mushrooms to make sure there were no poisonous ones that we could possibly have confused them with. Wild mushroom collecting is a national pastime here but, for me, it was a big step to take to cook and eat a wild mushroom. We had some as a starter last night, fried up with a mix of butter (for taste) and olive oil (to prevent the butter burning) garlic, salt and pepper … and they were delicious. We’ve just done the same this evening, adding parsley and white wine!

I’d asked round locally and had been recommended to someone living conveniently close to the wood, who is an expert wood cutter. We went to his house yesterday and met him as he was just driving out in his “sans permis”. Sans permis means “without licence” and describes the car one is confined to driving if one gets banned from driving: a 600cc diesel two-seater that is restricted to about 30 mph. They are often associated with men who like their drink as one can drive them after being banned from driving! Apparently one can ultimately get banned from driving a sans permis!! It is a small car and our expert tree feller is a huge man. He was on his way out to deal with some dangerous poplars but he had time to make an appointment for midday the following day (today).

I waited until half and hour after our agreed rendezvous and went to his house. There I found his micro car parked up and could see the TV on thought the glass door. Repeated knocking and ringing brought no response before I noticed a foot hanging over the edge of the sofa. The mystery thickened. Louder banging and more doorbell ringing got not so much as a twitch and I plucked up the courage to enter and possibly encounter a huge Frenchman the worse for wear from drinking too much Pastis (an aniseed-based aperitif) but it was locked. Should I call the police and ambulance? The foot hadn’t yet one blue so I decided to return home and try again after lunch. Once home, I found his name in the phone book and called him, finally rousing him. He had flu, apparently, and made a new appointment for the following Saturday. I’ll let you know how we get on.

Friday, December 01, 2006

In recent weeks, I haven’t been posting blogs so frequently as before and my excuse is that I’ve been busy finishing off the barn re-roofing project, which I’m proud to say is now done. I shall return to the subject of the roof in a couple of paragraphs ...

The word sustainability, used in a context to mean environmental sustainability, was first coined by Lester Brown 25 years ago in his book Building a Sustainable Society. In the same context, the term 'sustainable development' was popularised by the World Commission on Environment and Development (WCED) in its 1987 report entitled Our Common Future. (The WCED is also known as the Brundtland Commission, after the Chair of the Commission and former Prime Minister of Norway, Gro Harlem Brundtland and was the direct precursor of the 1992 Earth Summit in Rio). Sustainable development was defined as development that “meets the needs of the present generation without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs”. Ever since, and particularly after the Rio Earth Summit, politicians have neatly twisted their obligations and commitments towards environmental sustainability into working towards economic sustainability, something very much more interesting to them.

All of which is a very wordy introduction to me saying that although much of what Gabrielle and I are trying to achieve here is to live our lives in a low-impact, environmentally sustainable way, we need to be economically sustainable too. To anyone contemplating a move to the French countryside in search of a better life, I would urge them to first consider how they are going to earn their living. Particularly down in the Limousin region, where I started out, employment was the prime make or break factor to them staying or returning to the UK. And too many of them came out to what was perceived as one of the last places to pick up bargain properties in France apparently having done no research and with just an idea that they could turn outbuildings into holiday cottages – gîtes– and wait for hoards of paying guests. It’s an under-populated, very rural part of France with many charms but also poor employment prospects and is not well known as a holiday destination. In our estimation, starting and maintaining new small businesses here is very hard with the level of taxation and social charges one has to pay from the moment the business is registered.

An alternative to earning more is to spend less (nothing revolutionary there!) and we hope to reduce spending on heating and water and are already noticing a reduction in our food bill (perhaps not the drink bill though!). So, back to the roof: we could have paid a roofer to do it. I would then have to work, paying taxes, to pay said roofer, who would also pay taxes on what he charged me and that’s if I could have found a roofer who could start work before 2007. Our chosen alternative was for me to do it, paying a roofer, by the odd hour, for expert advice to guide me in my project. I started work on 27th August and finished this week. I have endured many sleepless nights and wondered, on more than one occasion, whether I had bitten off more than I could chew, but it’s all over now and I have learnt another skill, which will be useful for our straw-bale house build. Worries and doubts apart, it was often quite enjoyable, with a high vantage point to view the surrounding countryside, just the noise of birdsong and cockerels crowing and I found hanging the slates almost meditative. I’ve added up all the bills and reckon I’ve done it for between 1/3 and 1/2 of the price a roofer would have charged: thousands of euros I don’t have to go out and earn.