Friday, July 27, 2007

We received a comment the other day from Melanie telling us she’d added a link to our blog on her own and would we return the favour. Our few links are to people we either know in person or have come to know through our blogs, so it seemed a bit like cold calling, which I have to say put me off a bit. When I clicked on her blog, I saw that she had a huge amount of links, seemingly a bit impersonal and so I was even less enamoured. HOWEVER, I read her blog and I’m very impressed. She’s a voracious blogger and so, although you might struggle to keep up with her output, if you scan through her blog, you’re bound to find something of interest, from recipes, through personal tales of successes and failures pursuing her family’s efforts to be “green”, to technical information on how to keep bees or flush your toilet with collected rainwater. And she writes well: sincere, with good style and amusing wit. We’re certainly going to keep an eye on her blog.

In an email back to me, to say “thank you” for adding a link to her blog, she introduced me to a new term, saying that she enjoys “being part of the self-sufficiency blogsophere”. While "Cyberspace" might be a real word, my spellchecker doesn’t like “blogosphere” but I’m sure it will end up in the English Oxford Dictionary eventually!

We look at several blogs regularly now, so I thought it time to install a web feed reader. My chosen one is called Shrook . This is specifically for Apple Mac users though there are many others about (type in RSS, Atom, feed reader, news reader, etc., into Google or another search engine to find them). I’ve loaded in the web addresses (URL) of all the blogs we monitor and it alerts us each time they post something new.

(This last bit is specifically for my parents, Keith and Liz, who’ve only recently become computer literate with the help of my sister, Ros, and use the blog and emails to keep up to date with our lives here in Brittany. Use the mouse (see photo!) to move the pointer until it’s over the word “Melanie”, highlighted in green above in the text of this blog. See that it changes into a white-gloved pointy finger thing. Left click on the mouse, and that should take you to her blog. You can use the same principle to look at all the links I put in my blogs! Use the back arrow in the top left hand corner of the screen to take you back to where you were.)

Next blog, I'll be telling you about the visit of a expert tree surgeon to our land, tidying up large pines and doctoring aged oaks.

Monday, July 23, 2007

Dear reader,
Don’t believe everything you read and that includes the pearls of wisdom that trickle from this blog! Back on April 28th, Gabrielle posted one of her rare blogs to tell you about our idea of using the middles of old toilet rolls in which to plant seeds for later easy planting out. It was inspired by her purchase of a paper potter (see photo) which makes up little pots from strips of newspaper. The idea is that one plants a seed in each pot and when the seedling is big enough to plant out, this can be done without disturbing the roots. It’s something that Gabrielle had had her eye on for some time and was excited to finally lay her hands on. She put loads of effort into fabricating huge amounts of the paper pots, filling them carefully with compost and then sowing individual seeds. The toilet roll middles seemed like a logical and innovative extension of this.

Robbyn, female farmer in Florida, posted a comment to say that she was now going to save her toilet roll middles. Closer to home, Miranda, a friend of ours who saw what we’d done, took the idea to heart and even posted a blog, with photo, on the subject, citing us! So, just when we seemed to be cardboard iconoclasts, leaders in the field of paper potting, we have to admit that it didn’t work for us.

Empirically, perhaps even heuristically (yeh, you go and look it up in the dictionary … I had to!) we found that seeds planted in open ground sprouted and grew more strongly, overtaking the paper-potted plants. When we dug up these plants to see what was going on, it was evident that the paper and cardboard pots had not rotted away quickly enough and were now constricting the roots. We have two other chemical observations: paper / cardboard are basically carbon, which requires nitrogen to break down, nitrogen that nourishes plants. Thus, the paper / cardboard pots might actually be reducing the levels of nitrogen in the soil that surrounds the nascent plant. Secondly, aluminium (or a compound of aluminium, Al(NH4)](SO4)2 to be exact) is used in the production of paper. Apparently, this can leach out of the paper (when in an acid soil) and reduce the amount of phosphorus (also necessary for plant growth) in the soil.

In his The Earth Care manual: A Permaculture Handbook for Britain and other Temperate Climates, Patrick Whitefield says, “Welcome to the experiment.” So don’t take our word for it: that either that you should use paper pots, as we originally suggested, or that they don’t work, as we are now saying; your soil conditions and other factors may be different. Please post a comment to tell us your experiences of planting in paper / cardboard pots or any other bright ideas you might have in germinating seeds and planting out seedlings.

Yours (stumbling around in the darkness of inexperience)
Stuart & Gabrielle.

Tuesday, July 17, 2007

Chasing Dreams! This is a favourite topic of mine when I’m chuntering on to Gabrielle about the Meaning of Life and other such imponderables. When posed the question, “what is it that one really wants from Life?” I think that most people would answer, “to be happy”. Do you remember Venn diagrams from school? Two (or more) circles that intersect on common ground: I like to imagine Dreams and Reality as two such circles. Consider these two circles in our Venn diagram of happiness far apart: huge dreams and no effort being made to attain them = unhappiness. By being satisfied with more humble aspirations and making more effort to reach for those dreams, I’m sure it’s possible to make those circles touch, even overlap a bit; and that, for me, defines happiness.

Television brings other peoples’ dreams and achievements into our lives, so that they become our dreams. In the past, I've been a bit too keen on watching lifestyle programs about house improvements, cooking or maybe upping sticks and moving abroad in search of a better life. I find it amusing, in a self-reflexive, ironic kind of way, that I still deliberately tune in to such programs even though I have moved abroad, am embarking on our own straw-bale house-build and enjoy the best food I’ve ever had in my life (a combination of living with Gabrielle and in France). I recently ordered a DVD by a TV hero of mine, Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall (of River Cottage
fame) called Pig in a Day. He recounts the delights of keeping pigs, tells you how to care for them and, with his butcher friend Ray, goes onto explain how to butcher a pig and create all manner of porky delights from roasting joints to cured hams and sausages. Hugh cares passionately about the welfare of his pigs and the quality and provenance of his food, which I think is very important if one is a meat-eater.

We now have our first two pigs, a pair of castrated male Kune Kunes, pint-sized porkers originating from New Zealand. There are many permaculture combinations possible with pigs including, for example, running pigs under willow pollards or under apple trees in an orchard. Pigs can act as a sort of living plough, their rooting behaviour turning over the ground and rendering it weed-less whilst manuring it at the same time. The Kune Kunes are meant to graze more—grass-eating animals being forever welcome on our permaculture smallholding—and root less, although ours don’t seem to be aware of that and have created all manner of holes and divots in our field. They are instantly endearing and are already giving us loads of pleasure.

I popped round to our neighbours the other day to find Carole’s mum, Bernie, and Alan, making sausages. Carole had made a herby, sage mix and a spicy mix and these were being fed, via a new attachment on her food processor, into washed lambs intestines, which you can buy in the supermarkets here. Alan then did a very impressive sleight-of-hand to loop the string of sausages into bunches of three. I returned home with samples of each.

Scratching the tummy of a contented pig and eating a couple of home-made sausages for breakfast: simple pleasures perhaps but the sort of thing I dreamt of and so, within the above definition I think I can admit to being happy!

Tuesday, July 10, 2007

Balthazar is the name given to a huge 12 litre bottle of wine (equivalent to 16 ordinary bottles) which would undoubtedly be capable of giving one an extremely sore head and most likely rendering one unconscious. Balthazar is also the name of the huge Jacob ram of a neighbour who is endowed with no less than four horns (see photo) which would also undoubtedly be capable of giving one an extremely sore head and most likely rendering one unconscious. There was a ring of the ship’s bell at the front door the other day and we leaned over the balcony (we live on the first floor of a converted barn) to peer down at Solange, a neighbour, who explained that “le bélier de l’avocat a échappé, which is to say that the lawyer’s ram had escaped, and could I help. I threw a few fencing tools into a wheelbarrow and followed her home. Thankfully, the ram had re-entered the field to rejoin his ewe and lamb and so all that was needed was a secure repair to the fence.

Solange had also phoned Paul’s (the pig farmer) house and spoken to Christiane, his wife who had turned up to help, along with her sister Cecile and nephew, Tristan. Seeing what was needed to effect the repair, I’d gone off to search for some posts and other tools and returned to find Paul had turned up as well: a right old community get-together in the corner of someone else’s field, with a bemused and (thankfully) benign Balthazar looking on. We bashed a couple of extra posts in and while the others were tacking the sheep netting on with fencing staples, I produced a Gripple! Now I have loads of respect for my farming (and other) neighbours and we’re very much the new kids on the block, debutants in almost all we set our minds to, so I find it particularly enjoyable when we raise an inquisitive French eyebrow (or several) as happened with the appearance of the Gripple. It’s the best of British engineering, a really simple idea that just works. You thread two ends of wire through the holes; apply a tensioning tool, squeeze and the job’s done. In this instance, I bashed in one post to act as an anchor and attached it to the loose post at the corner of the field with a single length of wire with a loop at the end, tensioned with the Gripple: Balthazar secure again and headaches, of all sorts, averted.

The ram and ewe had arrived courtesy of Marie-Laure’s brother (I think) as an answer to grass cutting. The lamb was a bit of a surprise for them when it arrived and, truth be told, the ram, with his four horns, is a bit of a handful and so is leaving soon—with partner and lamb—for pastures new: a nature park in Normandy, as M-L can’t bear to eat anything she’s known personally.

Thursday, July 05, 2007

“The thicker the hay; the easier mowed.” Alaric, King of the Visigoths from 395 to 410AD.

Perhaps Alaric was a bit of an expert on hay, which is more than can be said for me. Yet again, I found myself with a necessary task to do but with no experience or idea of what to do or how to do it. “Make hay while the sun shines” is a saying I do know, yet applying a mid 16th century proverb to a real field of grass is another thing altogether. What’s needed are a few successive sunny days, dry at the very least. Not, you might think, too much of a problem in June in France (I’m a bit behind with my recounting of our permaculture life here in Brittany) but you’d be mistaken as we’ve received over twice the average expected rainfall in June and we’ve already had a third of July’s in the first four days of the month.

Someone who is an expert on both the weather and making hay is the veritable Annike, seen in the photo advising me on the relative dryness, and thus suitability for baling, of a small field of cut grass. The field adjoins one of ours (where we’ve put our sheep) and belongs to a Parisian gentleman who has a holiday home in our hamlet. He’s only here a couple of times a year, so it’s helpful to him to have it cut for hay, hay that’s useful to us now that we have animals. Paul, the pig farmer, kindly offered to help me cut the hay with the smallest and oldest of his tractors, an aged Massey Ferguson. He’d arrived one evening, just as Gabrielle and I were winding down and thinking of cooking dinner, to suggest that there was a window of opportunity (i.e., the promise a few successive dry days) to cut the hay. Hungry, I wondered whether this was something I could do tomorrow but I have come to interpret the subtle variations of his noncommittal shrug of his shoulders and realised that he meant right then. And then there was a dent in the panel, which meant it bound on the rubber drive-belt and necessitated a repair: unbolting the cover and beating it with a hammer over an anvil and so it went on. I finally got to eat dinner around ten o’clock in the evening … hay waits for no man.

Once cut, the hay needs tossing, turning over to allow it to dry. Paul doesn’t have an attachment to do that, as he doesn’t actually use hay for his pigs. So, two days after it was cut, I went into the field, alone with an ordinary garden fork. The frustrations of the persuasive ideas of permaculture and the simple instructions which trip off the pages of the manual compared to the reality of standing in front of the field of hay with a garden fork and no bloody idea what I’m meant to do. It was back breaking stuff and not the time to discover that I still have the vestiges of hay fever. It was not so much that I ran out of paper hankies, which I did, but rather that the sneezes became ever more forceful and frequent that I just gave up and carried on regardless, roaring and snorting away in succession of life-threatening sneezes with spittle all over my face and strings of snot hanging from my nose.

Two days later, I was again in the field, this time armed with an old hay fork that I’d found and re-handled. It’s rounded shoulders, wider tines and longer handle meant that the job took half the time and was actually quite pleasant (it’s this tool that Annike is holding in the photo). I then asked Annike to come and look at the field to see if it was ready, then made a coup de fil (telephone call) to Paul who had arranged for the retired, 72 year old, Robert to turn up with his baling machine. Nowadays, hay and straw are usually baled in huge round bales, only moveable with a large tractor and the small bales are therefore much more useful to us. We now have eighteen bales of hay but I’ve no idea what our animals will consume over the winter months and will buy some in, if necessary.

As for Alaric (see pic) he wasn’t the farming expert I suggested but was merely using “The thicker the hay; the easier mowed” as a metaphor for the ease with which he would slay the emerging citizens he was trying to starve out of Rome: pleasant fellows, these Visigoths.

Sunday, July 01, 2007

I can (just) remember when I used to go to the barber’s shop about once a month for a haircut. When I developed a sort of personal “ozone hole” on the crown of my head (see photo) I decided for a close-trimmed style and eventually resorted to doing myself with a pair of electric clippers. The lack of hair on my head is compensated for by hair now growing out my ears and nose, perhaps the result of over forty years of gravity acting on my hair follicles. By contrast, shaving ever more infrequently by seemingly always having too much to do, I recently acquired a beard and, as Gabrielle approves, have decided to keep it for the time being. So you can see that hair-grooming paraphernalia won’t be high on my birthday present wish list. However, the same cannot be said of our sheep. Sheep are usually sheared once per year, usually in the spring before the onset of warm weather, making them more comfortable in the warmer months and reducing the likelihood of fly-strike.

Our ram, which we bought from Renée, came already sheared and the lamb doesn’t need doing this year, so that just left the ewe. Having neither the equipment nor know-how, Renée kindly offered to come over with her dog-grooming (she runs a kennels and pet care business) clippers and offer advice. The first task is to catch the sheep, not such an easy task in the absence of sheep hurdles with which to herd them into line and so my cunning plan was to rely on the element of surprise. I approached with some of sheep nuts and soon had them eating out of my hand. The ram is more confident and also has a convenient pair of handles (horns) to grab hold of but the ewe is quite flighty and so I needed to make my move both fast and certain as I wasn’t sure of a second go. I pounced and got two good handholds in her thick coat at which moment she took off, dragging me flat onto my face with a back-jarring jolt. It was an impressive moment, sadly not captured on camera but this photo of a rugby tackle serves as an adequate visual metaphor for what happened.

Courageously, you might think, I didn’t let go, and was soon able to stand up and tuck her between my legs and Gabrielle and I then set to shearing our very first sheep under the helpful guidance of Renée (seen holding the head of the ewe in the photos). A professional shearer can shear a sheep in less than 2 minutes and will remove the fleece in one piece; we wouldn’t have won any speed records but it did all come off in one piece and the ewe looks much smarter, with no straggly missed bits.

If speed is your thing, then stare open-mouthed at the following sheep-shearing records : the world record for shearing sheep is 839 lambs in 9 hours by Rodney Sutton of New Zealand (2000) and 720 ewes in 9 hours by Darin Forde of New Zealand (1997). The most sheep shorn in an 8 hour period manually using hand blades is 50 by Janos Marton of Hungary (2003).