Wednesday, June 27, 2007

Philippe, our soon-to-be-moved in new neighbour, posted a comment on my blog of June 14th on Luddites. Luddites , you might remember, were a social movement of English textile artisans in the early nineteenth century who destroyed wool and cotton mills, in the belief that new labour-saving machinery would diminish employment, particularly for skilled workers. Philippe drew my attention to the Canuts: also textile artisans (silk workers using technically advanced looms) also 19th century, they too revolted (pic above) but against poor working conditions rather than modern technology, either way, a rather argumentative lot, these cloth-making chappies! Now the Jacquard loom, which the French workers were using, was technically advanced–the first machine to use punch cards to control a sequence of operations and therefore a precursor of the computer–exactly the sort of thing the Luddites would have kicked up a fuss about. Which is all a rather long-winded introduction to my tale as an Englishman in France, living in the age of the petrol-driven strimmer, trying to find a French man in our village who could show me how to sharpen a scythe.

I actually don’t think the strimmer a terribly efficient device and one has to wear ear-defenders and goggles which, along with the noise, tends to isolate one from the countryside. In contrast, an article by Simon Fairlie in Permaculture Magazine, and the The Scythe Book by David Tresemer and Peter Vido, romanced me with the idea of a sharper-than-a-very-sharp-thing Austrian-made blade supported by a wafer-light ash snath (handle) whispering through dawn-damp grass accompanied by birdsong, a smile and a bead of honest sweat on the brow (I did say “romanced”). They do sell scythes in garden shops here but, having purchased one, I immediately encountered problems. At a fraction under 6ft, it seems that I’m a giant in the land of the small people, and in a relaxed pose, the blade was a good four inches off the ground, necessitating a handle modification (see photo). And the blade was nowhere near sharp enough to start cutting grass. I began my search with Sylvère, an affûteur (literally a grinder) whose business is to sharpen all manner of saw blades and cutting tools. He had a go but advised me, as I’d read, that I needed to sharpen the blade by drawing the edge out with hammer and anvil, a process called peening; an abrasive stone is then used to whet the blade. Despite knowing what I had to do, he didn’t know how to himself and so I asked Danielle, in the boulangerie (bakery) / bar if she could ask around her older customers for anyone who’d be willing to show me how to do it.

Yves is a retired dairy farmer and it is he in the photo, sat on the floor with my scythe blade resting on his knees, lightly hammering the edge of the blade against a portable anvil nailed into the ground. He spent at least 40 minutes working it and advised me that I should use it and then continue working it with the hammer in similar fashion before the edge would be fully prepared. He reminisced about hearing the “ching, ching, ching” of his father peening his scythe at three in the morning, prior to going to the field to start cutting at dawn, when the grass was at its freshest. He’d then pause and whet the blade with a stone (carried in a water-filled sheath) every half hour or so. I’m not so sure about three o’clock starts: there’s a limit to the authenticity necessary to the tradition in my opinion and it doesn’t involve getting up at three in the morning.

I’ve now sold my strimmer and used the money to buy two ash snaths (one each for me and the shorter Gabrielle) and two Austrian blades from Simon at The Scythe Shop (American and Canadian readers, check out The Scythe Connection). I’ll let you know how we get on.

Tuesday, June 19, 2007

April showers bring forth May flowers. (mid-16th century proverb)

They may well do sometimes but in April we had around a third of the average predicted rainfall and in May we had well over double. June has continued in the same fashion and so we’ve already had the month’s rain and it’s only 19th. All this humidity has created plenty of problems, such as blight on potatoes, tomatoes, legions of slugs and snails, fruit skins bursting on the tree, and hay going rotten. It is a particularly British trait to be able to moan about the weather whatever’s going on: too wet or too dry, to cold or too warm, never just right. For our French neighbours, they tend to be very knowledgeable and much more pragmatic about it all. When I was up re-roofing our barn that overlooks Annike last year, she’d always follow the formalities of “bonjour, bonjour, ça va? ça va!” with a, usually accurate, weather predication for the day. I put it down to countryside wisdom, or an ability to forecast from a feeling in her old bones but no, she informed me (when asked) that her information was gleaned from the television: the week ahead would be discussed each Sunday and she wouldn’t miss the daily weather report on TF1 at 1pm each day.

Everyone I’ve spoken to in the village seems to be suffering from blight (well, their potatoes, at least) so it’s not just our perma-cultural methods of growing potatoes in raised beds, mulched with straw that’s to blame. We’ve two varieties sown and one is suffering much worse than the other and it looks like we’ll have to dig up all of that one. It's disappointing to say the least, as they were the one crop that had really taken off and not been devastated by the slugs. Gabrielle’s holding off planting out the tomatoes in the hope that the weather will change soon. Talking of slugs, we can report some successes and failures in our ongoing battle with the greedy, slimy fiends.

1. Nematodes, tiny creatures that one buys in a packet, waters onto the soil where they are then meant to live for up to six weeks, eating the critters from the inside. Verdict (having bought them three or four times overall and used them in different gardens and situations) : expensive and ineffective. 2. Slug collars, copied from the catalogue of the company who sold the nematodes and manufactured out of waste plastic water bottles saved for us by our neighbours: ineffective, and we’re glad we hadn’t bought them at the price in the catalogue. 3. Beer traps: caught loads of gastropods (should that be beeropods?) but didn’t totally protect neighbouring plants. Certainly useful in a multi-pronged attack. 4. Hunting by torchlight: same as (3) really, not sufficient on it’s own but really did seem to have an effect on the population and save some plants from certain doom. 5. Cultivating around affected plants, to break the slime trail that encourages them to return: same again. 6. Placing comfrey leaves around vulnerable plants: looks promising, we’ll need some more experience before we can give a better answer. 7. We finally crumbled and bought some slug pellets sold in our local bio (organic) store and labelled as acceptable for use in organic cultivation, not harmful to wildlife: expensive but effective. Having lost about half of everything Gabrielle planted, a lot of the plants are now up and away and strong enough to resist the odd slug attack.

We’re already thinking of changing our permaculture straw-mulching strategy next year, doing something like this: leave the mulch on over winter to reduce weeds and then, just before we’re about to plant out, strip all of the straw off–thereby denying slugs and snails an ideal habitat–then hit the empty beds with a multi-pronged attack to vastly reduce the gastropod population before we place our precious seedlings. When all the plants are sufficiently strong to survive, we’ll replace the mulch (perhaps with fresh straw) to keep in the humidity and reduce weeds.

And just to balance off all this talk of too much rain, these are Monica’s words from across the Atlantic, in a very (too) dry Chickamauga, Georgia, USA. May 23rd “we are still in a very very bad drought. We have had microscopic amounts of rain and about 1/2 of our pasture is now brown. Sorry to those who live on the coast but we are hoping to have a hurricane hit and bring us some rain! Unfortunately, hurricanes are one of the ways that we get quite a bit of our yearly rain. For two years now they have pretty much passed us by: last year we got a bit fat zero from any of them. June 5th “Dry here still. We did get a very quick (5 minutes--seriously) shower yesterday. Just enough to flare the allergies, make it sticky and tease everyone with the idea of rain. To top it off---it had the audacity to send us a rainbow! Hah!---we don't want beauty---we want rain!”

I suggest that a very long pipe between Brittany and Georgia might help and, in the meantime, here’s wishing you a wet one, Monica!

Thursday, June 14, 2007

As I have previously claimed, in all our efforts to be “right on” in a green sort of way–permaculture and organic–I’m not a Luddite. The Luddites were a group of British workers in the early nineteenth century who destroyed wool and cotton mills, in the belief that new labour-saving machinery would diminish employment, particularly for skilled workers. The term has come to describe anyone who opposes new technology. Things got serious and seventeen men were executed after a trial in 1913. Now, in the department of pneumatic wheelbarrow tyres, I’ve got equally serious: I might even sell my green soul to the devil to get hold of a wheelbarrow tyre that doesn’t get punctured at least twice a week. After repairing just one too many tyres (we have two wheelbarrows) I nursed one through a week or so of slow puncture until, when it finally called time and I pulled out the inner tube, I used up a whole bicycle tyre repair kit on one tyre…enough!

I’ve asked friends and neighbours and, although they suffer the odd puncture, it’s not on the same scale, so I’ve struggled to elicit much sympathy. I think what did for us was our permacultural efforts to recycle all the hedge trimmings last year when the electricity company arrived unannounced one day to cut the hedge along the side of our land which was getting high enough to bother the electricity lines. Plenty of blackthorn and hawthorn went through the chipper and plenty of puncturing thorns now litter our land. Gabrielle’s heard too much swearing when I’ve discovered a new puncture or when I’m trying to repair one. I’m suffering from carpal tunnel syndrome at the moment and am waiting for an operation on both wrists.
One of the symptoms is a lack of feeling and the other day I repaired and refitted a tyre four times, almost passing out with frustration, before Gabrielle, with her soft, sensitive, female hands, found the errant thorn, just a tiddler (which I couldn’t feel) which kept re-puncturing each repaired tube. It was then, at that absolute zenith (or rather, nadir) of frustration, when I was at my most deflated, Gabrielle asked whether anyone had invented the puncture-less wheelbarrow tyre and, if not, someone should invent it bloody quickly.

And how would one find such a thing, you might ask? While waiting for the kettle to boil to make me a soothing cup of tea (a custom none of my French friends have really come to terms with) she asked Google. And Google told her that in America (where would we be without them, it’s not all Big Macs and invasions of Iraq you know), someone has indeed invented the answer to my problems. Unable to source the device in France, I had to resort to the UK importers
of said wonder-tyre and Gabrielle's recent trip to England. It’s now here, fitted, and it’s sooooooo good. I positively look for sharp things to drive my wheelbarrow over now and laugh in the face of thorns and nails, barbed wire and anything else that’s halfway pointy.

But, just before we consign the Luddites to the rubbish bin of history’s losers, read my next blog to learn why I want to sell my petrol strimmer to buy an old-fashioned scythe, and why I think the hay fork just the most well-designed and simply effective device to perform its task and how I came to enjoy tossing a field full of hay, despite having hay fever!

Friday, June 08, 2007

Gabrielle has been complaining about a lack of support whilst she was driving the lawnmower round the bumpy field. “Well done Gabrielle, what a good job, keep it up, would you like a cup of tea?” No, not that sort of support but rather something to keep her chest comfortably under control while being bounced up and down in the seat like a mad thing. She’d tried on a couple of sports bras but they didn’t seem to offer what she needed, perhaps the rigours of playing tennis at the French Open or Wimbledon involve different requirements to mowing an uneven French field. Whilst in England recently, she went shopping with her mum, visiting a traditional ladies’ outfitters where she was recommended the “Triumph Doreen”. With such a formidable and imposing moniker, it is apparently the best selling bra in the UK and, from observation and Gabrielle's comments, I can report that it is indeed firming and controlling, in a rather 1950s upward pointy sort of way. So, we can now heartily endorse the Triumph Doreen as the perfect aid to feminine grass cutting. Permaculture? Yes, just file it under peoplecare, you’ve got to look after the staff, you know!

In fact, grass is an interesting one, permaculture-wise. Unlike many plants that grow from the tip, it grows from the base, which means that when you cut it, it keeps on growing. Lawns look nice and provide an area that you can walk on, sunbathe on, play games on and provides a flat contrast to planted up borders. Grass lawns also consume lots of water–when they get dry in the summer–and plenty of fuel to mow them and, of course, plenty of labour to maintain them. Have a read of this article to learn about water scarcity problems in Perth, Australia and the irony that, despite it being a desert climate, “Perth prides itself on being a garden city, boasting vast expanses of beautifully kept lawns and parks complete with water hungry plants and flowers.” Alternative permaculture approaches might involve reducing the size of the grassed area, planning grass-eating animals as part of your permaculture design or planting an alternative that performs similarly yet doesn’t need so many inputs as grass, for example, creeping thyme or chamomile.

In our gite garden, we’ve planted up a chamomile lawn, which we bought as tiny bare-rooted plants of a non-flowering variety. We could only afford half the number recommend-ed but they have already spread and started to join up. The lawn will stay green, even during dry periods (allegedly, time will tell!) will not require any mowing and, when the plants have closed the gaps and we can stop weeding the bare patches, little maintenance. We are also planning another section with creeping thyme, once we can get the seeds to grow, which is proving difficult. Having finally come to grips with stock fencing, we have three sheep keeping the grass under control in the back field and plan to put more of our grass under animals next year, once I’ve fenced in more of the land over the winter. But we have rather ignored other sections of our land and now have waist high grass and weeds,which are about to go to seed. In fairness to our neighbours, it was time to do something, and now that we have animals to feed during the winter, it’s time to make hay while the sun shines and, with all that talk of sexy 1950s-stylie bras, a roll in the hay perhaps!

Thursday, June 07, 2007

Esmi, our “mystery animal” on the last blog, created a lot of interest and many comments. Philippe, our new neighbour told me today that he’d seen the blog and asked whether it is a brebis (ewe) and I realised that, in all the talk of Berrichons, Avranchins and Cotentins (click on the green “comments” at the bottom of the blog) we hadn’t actually specified what she is: a sheep, owned by Renée. Seeing that our readers like a challenge or possibly the excitement of a competition, we’ve got another guessing game for you, a prize for the best name or most humorous comment on our latest mystery animal: see photo above.

I promised, a couple of blogs ago, to tell you more about our chickens’ behaviour. Back on Sunday, March 11th, stumbling around in the darkness of incomprehension (and being beginners in all this) we posed the question, “which came first, the broody chicken or a clutch of eggs?” We had many helpful comments, notably from Gia and Monica, but we can now report our own experiences. Adult hens lay eggs, perhaps as often as one a day but mostly show no sign of sitting on them. We collect them daily and the hens lay again, in the same place the following day. After laying, the hen makes a tremendous fuss and palaver, unsurprising, you might think, having just passed such a large object. In fact, descended from foraging jungle fowl, what she is doing is attempting to relocate the rest of the flock, having been away for anything up to an hour, and the other cockerel and hens answer, creating a right old din for a few minutes.

Our hens habitually use a nest box in the hen house where, following instructions in a book, I didn’t divide into individual boxes as the birds often favour sharing one place. It was when they chose to lay in a nest in our large roll of straw that we thought something was up. Different hens laid in the same place but none showed any sign of wanting to sit. We wondered if they were waiting for a “critical mass” before one of them sat but no, and we marked the existing eggs with a pencil and began collecting the new ones thereafter. Then Annike, a neighbour, arrived to tell us that one of her bantams had gone broody and did we want to put some eggs under her. The bird had begun sitting but on nothing and, when they go broody, hens stop laying. Whilst she made a bit of a fuss when Annike picked her up to place six of our larger hens eggs under her, she immediately settled down on top of them, where she sat patiently for the next twenty-one days, making brief forays out for food and water.

Then one of our black chickens went broody on just one egg, away from the henhouse, by the straw. We managed to relocate her into our nursery cage, which we placed close to where she was, to make her safe from nocturnal foxes. Each day she would call, much as they do when eggs are laid, and the cockerel would come by the cage. This seemed to be her way of just reconnecting with the flock. After many days, we took the wire run off the front of the nursery house to see if she would benefit from being able to nip out to say “Hi!” to her mates and feed and then return. What she did was to return, without her egg to the original nest and sit there, letting the egg go cold: seemingly a stronger drive to go back to the original nest than sit on her egg! Full of remorse, I picked up this struggling, squawking bird and put her back on her egg and reattached the wire cage. Several days later, when we were convinced she’d gone over time and the egg was a dud, I made my morning inspection of the animals to find her chick hatched. Our conclusion, from all of this, is that going broody is purely hormonal, rather than being a function of how many eggs are in the nest or other factors. Just as the bantams are noted for going broody, the standard farm egg layers seem to have had broodiness bred out of them; Annike has never known one of her large brown chickens go broody. When the bantam (which Annike gave to us) went broody again, we immediately knew what was happening. She sat where all the other hens lay their eggs each day, causing all manner of disruption, until I moved her into the aforementioned nursery cage, placing half a dozen eggs under her, where she remains, chicks to arrive soon.