Tuesday, January 30, 2007

“A man’s errors are his portals of discovery.” James Joyce (Irish novelist 1882 – 1941)

We have decided to take down some pine trees to the north of our house as they are not suited to the location and not pretty as they have already been “topped” giving them an odd shape. In their place will go some false acacia, also called black locust, which is a beautiful tree, a fast-growing, durable hardwood, great for things like fence posts, it provides food for bees (from which they make a light, clear honey) is nitrogen fixing (so improving the soil) and produces a pea, which, when they fall to the ground, will provide free food for the chickens, whose house is next to where they’ll be planted.

So, I got out my chainsaw and, with safety always in mind, checked it over and then donned my protective trousers (they’re heavily padded and the fibres clog, and hence stop, the chain before it could cause injury), protective boots and gloves and helmet with visor. I’d taken two down trees already but was still safely systematic and methodical as I prepared to fell the third. I had cleared the ground around the base of the tree and had my escape path planned (45º either side, to the rear) and then cut a “felling notch”, an upward wedge in the face of the tree. I started the felling cut, which would leave a hinge which would control the direction in which the tree fell, breaking just as the tree hit the ground. Gently, the tree began to fall, leaving me ample time to withdraw the chainsaw and retire, taking up a position behind the adjacent tree.

What happened next was bloody spectacular! There was a loud twanging, whooshing sound and a huge blue flash of light as the falling tree tore down the power line, cutting off the electric supply to the whole hamlet. Interestingly, from a linguistic point of view, when under such extremes, I instinctively resorted to English expletives! Once I realised what I’d done, I knew I had to call the electricity board and decided that I should ask some French neighbours, Michel and Celine, to make the call to ensure that it was explained properly. Just twenty minutes later, two electricians in two blue vans turned up and, about an hour and a half later, by which time they were working by torchlight, electricity had been restored to us and all our neighbours. I feared a large bill or a heavy fine but all they wanted was my house insurance details, which is great as it’s been a bad month for bills.

The tree and its branches had been below the electricity line but as it fell in an arc, the branches on one side rose and hit the line. I’ll take even more care in the future and am currently celebrating (with a glass of red Bordeaux) the fact that I wasn’t electrocuted and neither were the chickens prematurely roasted as the line fell on their house!

Sunday, January 28, 2007

“A good plan today is better than a perfect plan tomorrow” (Proverb)

Back on 24th November I was telling you where we'd got to on our permaculture planning, which wasn't far and one of the reasons I stated was that it seemed so difficult and complicated added to which one has to make decisions too! We've got three plans on the go, one for the holiday gite garden, one for our woodland and one for the larger site our house sits on (which also contains the gite). We'd completed base maps (see my blogs of October 27th and November 12th) and needed to do a site survey and questionnaire before moving onto the actual designing bit.

The gite garden is a good starting point as it’s the smallest area. It’s practice and experience for us, and we hope that it will provide a working example of small-space permaculture to suggest possibilities to anyone holidaying in our gite who likes what we’re doing but is concerned that what we’re trying to do over 2 acres couldn’t apply to their terraced house city garden back home. We must also keep in mind that people staying with us aren’t necessarily going to be interested in permaculture at all and so it needs, first and foremost (as the income is important to us) to be a relaxing, aesthetic and aromatic place of leisure and rest. The site survey seemed to us to be a continuation of the base map and many of the questions that it poses were already on the map, especially as ours is such a small space. That said two things we haven’t done (and are covered in this stage) are monitor sun and shade (which will have an impact on choices of plants and their positioning) and a proper soil survey.

Impatiently (no change there, then!) we moved onto to the design questionnaire. As this is our own property, we’re both designer and client.
Our basic aims are as above and so to the “wants”: we first have to consider present outputs and divide what we want to get rid of from what we want to keep. Next is the list of produce for the home, produce for sale and other useful outputs, which would include such intangibles a beauty and leisure use. An order of priority is useful at this stage (invaluable in our experience) and then one has to honestly consider available resources in terms of time, skills and, of course, money.

Over the next few blogs, I’ll tell you how this relates to the gite garden and tell you what happened when we actually got the spades out.

Wednesday, January 24, 2007

“there is not effort without error and shortcomings” Theodore Roosevelt (26th president of the United States, writer and soldier,1858-1919)

Very often, I reflect on what we have here and I think that I already have everything I dream of and therefore how privileged in life I am. I don’t want a professional footballer’s wage and the ability to instantly purchase a luxury house, I’m completely happy that we’ve got a building plot and some ideas and enough cash to buy some wood and straw bales to build it ourselves. This is helpful as I was completely useless at football as a schoolboy in the 60s and was therefore always put in defence where I rarely saw the ball and could do the least damage possible. Anyway, away from my obsession with football and back to our lives in Brittany.

Despite the many moments when I stop working—maybe to regard the antics of our characterful and entertaining troupe of chickens—and think how lucky I am, I also have my down moments, for example, when overwhelmed by the way the list of things to do grows in inverse proportion to what I achieve: the more I do, the more there seems to be to do. In that grey space between Christmas Day and New Year’s celebrations, we travelled over to see our Somerset smallholding friend Val and family at their newly renovated French holiday home in central Brittany. We exchanged one of our oven ready geese for a beautiful brown lambskin rug. Over dinner, she told us about an interesting blog written by Neil, a friend of theirs. Neil, his wife and son, have moved to Somerset “to give the organic, green and simple life a go…” with a difference. Neil has become (the first?) organic producer of halal meat! I had a good look at his blog the following day and he seemed to have achieved so much and everything was working so well. Good on you Neil but, in contrast, this was showing up my own small achievements and large frustrations. While I was reading through the blog, Gabrielle was watching a TV programme on the famous free diver, Tanya Streeter: the superwoman with model good looks and the ability to swim to the bottom of the sea, hold her breath for 25 minutes, whilst swimming and conversing with dolphins and whales (maybe I’ve exaggerated that a little). Perhaps you get the picture, my morale had been completely crushed by these two superstars.

The following morning, Gabrielle had a look at Neil’s blog to see what had so upset me. She started with the recent entries and, on the blog for 14th November, read “I am finding these shorter days a bit of a pain in the bum. By the time I finish work it is pitch black and nothing ever gets done! At the weekends you have to juggle your family with what needs doing outside and most of the time the family wins. My list is getting huge now - on top of that the garden area outside is a neglected mess. I have no idea when I am going to have the time to do anything.” In my anally-retentive, ordered way, I’d started at the beginning of the blog, where there was perhaps more dreams than reality and Gabrielle had read the recent stuff, where there was plenty of the reality of the countryside dream. She counselled me, made me a cup of tea and we sat down to make a new, more realistic “to-do” list and relate it to the diary as well. Equilibrium and a smile has been restored, so thank you Neil!

Do have a look at Neil’s blog, he writes well and honestly, and has maybe a unique slant on the “green dream” with his organic halal business.

Friday, January 19, 2007

“You will never understand bureaucracies until you understand that for bureaucrats procedure is everything and outcomes are nothing.” Thomas Sowell, (American writer and economist, b. 1930)

Far below the heady creativity of permaculture planning, ordinary life is also taking place and in France, that must surely involve bureaucracy. We very much enjoy life here and I’m certainly not about to start gratuitously bad-mouthing our hosts but the French themselves have been complaining about their own bureaucracy as far back as 1764.

Once upon a time (last May) I submitted my French tax return on time. In about September, the health service wrote to me to ask me for my avis d’imposition (the form that advises how much tax one must pay for the year). It hadn’t arrived so I went to see the health people who suggested I went to the tax office to ask where it was…which I did: within the next month, allegedly! I received another letter from the health service so I wrote to them, explaining all and supplying all the figures on the tax return so they could do their own calculations, notwithstanding the lack of a real avis. Another letter, and another visit to the tax office and the health service and on it went. The last letter to the health service I sent recorded delivery, a trick a French friend told me: no reply but now a new letter, mentioning the fact that I live maritalment with Gabrielle—which, confusingly, is correct, notwithstanding that we’re not married—and asking for new documents regarding our relationship. Gabrielle’s already registered via a different system (which covers the first two years in France as a new resident who’d recently paid National Insurance contributions in England) so I worried how she had become embroiled in my mess.

This week, on the way to our latest visit to the health service and tax office, we stopped off at our friend Caroline’s house (where we rented a gîte for six months last winter) to collect a letter. This letter turned out to be a demand from the public treasury asking why I hadn’t yet paid my tax…aaaargh.

When I arrived at the health service offices, I found that my registration had expired because they hadn’t yet received the avis that I’m still waiting for. Just when I thought all was lost, they informed me that as we were living together as a couple—and I am apparently Gabrielle’s “concubine”(!) I am now re-registered on the system under her name, don’t therfore have to pay anything for this year and don’t need to send them that avis if and when it ever does turn up. The avis is now promised for the 19th February and the “demand for payment” wasn’t as such, just a letter to say that I will soon receive the avis and would I please tell them if I’ve already paid at another office…duh!

And another view of life in France: our neighbour Paulette, invited Alan and Carol, Gabrielle and I to a traditionally Breton lunch at her home (see photo above). She served up galettes—a savoury buckwheat pancake filled with ham and cheese and with an egg on top—with cider to drink and lait ribot to try, which is the fermented remains of the milk once it has been churned and all the fat removed to make butter…an acquired taste which I’ve yet to acquire! This was followed by a sweet eggy desert and coffee and chocolates. Thank you Paulette, just the remedy for all that bureaucratic confusion.

Wednesday, January 17, 2007

If you're a regular visitor to this blog, I must apologise for the lack of any postings over the last couple of weeks as we've been away to England to see family and friends, having spent Christmas here in Brittany. The photo above is of Gabrielle and her daughter Christina (who joined us for Christmas) raiding our neighbours vegetable patch for some Brussels sprouts. Looking back over the blog, whilst I've spoken lots about our chickens and geese recently, it's been some time since I wrote anything about the vegetable side of our diet. It doesn't seem the season, yet Alan and Carol have a couple of rows of the sprouts and some very tasty leeks. We hope to grow a lot more fruit and veg this year but, with the wind howling around outside and the clay soil heavy with rain, there doesn't seem much to do practically other than read books on how to grow them and plan.

In future blogs, I'll tell you about the permaculture planning process for the woodland and the gite garden. We've finished the design proposal for the garden and started work, and I've translated our management proposal for the woodland into French and it's currently with our young friend Marine to check before I email it to the two French expert forestiers in two different agencies to canvas their views before I get the chainsaw out. We've still a way to go with the design for the whole site, which we need to firm up soon so I can get some fencing done. I shall also be telling you about some other great blogs I've come across.

It's always good to hear your views, advice and encouragement and, if you haven't done so before, leaving a comment is easy:

1. click on the green “x comments” at the end of each post
2. type in your comment
3. below your comment, where it says “choose an identity” click “other” and in “name” write your name or alias
4. click “publish your post”
I get to check them first, so there will be a delay before your comments appear. And I've added another complication called word verification to avoid "comment spam". All you have to do is copy the squiggly word in a box, apparently a step to far for the automatic programs that generate the annoying spam!

Monday, January 01, 2007

“There never was such a goose. Bob [Cratchit] said he didn't believe there ever was such a goose cooked. Its tenderness and flavour, size and cheapness were the themes of universal admiration.” Charles Dickens, A Christmas Carol.

Way back in July, (see blog for11th) when we bought the geese, we always knew that we were raising them for meat and they were not pets, nevertheless, we’ve thoroughly enjoyed their company over the last few months and I must confess to a little trepidation as the moment approached. We considered the possibility of taking the geese up the road to a chicken farm to be humanely despatched and mechanically plucked but decided against it. We’ve found them to be creatures of habit and every departure from their routine unsettled them. As an example, we used to give them some wheat grain in their drinking water bath each evening and had been giving them some maize as well. Noticing their habit for gnawing at things during the day, I put in a couple of complete cobs, which then floated. There was so much pandemonium when they walked in to their house and saw them, you’d have thought I’d put in a hand grenade, not a food treat. We decided, therefore, that dealing with the culling ourselves at home would be far less distressing for them than transporting them to the farm.

A week before Christmas, some friends—Caroline and a young French couple, Julie and Samuel—joined us to help kill and pluck our remaining nine geese. The killing was quick and efficient but not something that I much like doing. After that though, the day was enjoyable, working together with friends, outside on a crisp winter’s day, finishing around 4pm for a very late lunch. We’re proud to have made such a success of this particular venture and to take direct responsibility for some of the meat we eat. We ate one on Christmas Day and it was delicious.

Permaculture principles include trying to get multiple outputs from every plant, animal, structure or other element of a designed system. In addition to grass cutting and manuring the field, so improving the quality of the pasture, and providing meat (and eggs—next year, we’ll keep a breeding pair or two over-winter) we can also list as outputs “happy” geese—content in being well looked after—and “very happy” owners as they’ve provided much entertainment over their time here.

So fascinated have we been by their behaviour, we’ve bought a couple of books to read more about the animals we keep: The Year of the Greylag Goose by Konrad Lorenz, the famous Austrian ethologist (animal behaviouralist) who spent much of his life studying geese; and The Pig Who Sang to the Moon by Jeffrey Masson, a book on the emotional lives of farm animals by the guy who wrote When Elephants Weep, which I have read and found to be excellent.