Monday, September 24, 2007

We are all a little weird and life's a little weird, and when we find someone whose weirdness is compatible with ours, we join up with them and fall in mutual weirdness and call it love.

After months of preparation and piles of paperwork (it’s France, remember) we got hitched at the local mairie on Saturday. In a year of the weirdest, wettest weather, would it have been too much to ask for a dry day? Especially as we had invited the traditional Breton dance troupe (that Gabrielle plays violin with) to serenade us down the road, all in costume, during the quarter of an hour walk between our house and the mairie . Dry? We had blazing sunshine, as you can see in the photos.

We asked several friends to bring plates of canapés for the vin d’honneur, two hours of drinks to precede the wedding meal for family, close friends and neighbours. We had the archetypically French chef—huge beer belly, huge moustache, huge laugh—turn up with a refrigerated lorry and cooking trailer to roast a pig, along with a couple of helpers to keep everyone fed and watered all day and late into the evening. The wedding “cake” was the traditional pièce montée —a pyramid of filled profiteroles, glued together with a hard toffee (made at our local boulangerie) served with more fizz, during which time I delivered my speech in two languages (to laughter and several corrections by the French half of my audience).

We continued on into the evening, with many of the people who were at the mairie and vin d’honneur coming back and others joining us, including Les Gourganes —the other group Gabrielle plays violin with—to serenade us again, this time with bawdy French sea-shanties. We had bonfire (not strictly legal until the 1st October) and a few fireworks and stayed up ’till the early hours, sitting on straw bales in a circle around the fire, with friends Nick and Tab playing their guitars, leaving a few of us quite exhausted the following day (see pic of little Tilly below).

We’re off on the overnight train to Barcelona tomorrow for our honeymoon or lune de miel, where we intend to lose ourselves in great tapas, classy Rioja, Antonio Gaudi’s curvy architecture and lurve! Back soon …

Saturday, September 15, 2007

Weights and Measures: a note in the diary reminded us that we had to “worm” our two pigs, which is to say that we need to administer a medicine that will act against intestinal worms as preventative maintenance. We bought the wormer (vermifuge in French) and a graduated syringe with a brass end that they can chew without damaging it, from the vet. The instructions on the bottle said we should give 0.5 ml per kilogram of pig, so we needed to know how much our pigs weigh.

Some weeks before, vainly trying to save our potatoes and tomatoes from blight (called mildou [mildew] here) we decided to buy a fungicide (authorised for use in organic agriculture!) to protect them. The dosing instructions on the packet were immensely useless, advising me (in French) that I should apply 2 kilograms per hectare (2.5 acres) bearing in mind that it was only a one kg packet. There was not even a suggested rate of dilution. Imagine yourself standing in front of a half-hectare field, next to a convenient tap, with a watering can in one hand and the packet of blue powder in the other: where could one possible start making sense of it all?

For the poultry wormer, the 240g tub of powder proudly states that it will treat 200kg of feed. Now we only have ten chickens of different sizes who are not going to munch their way through 200kg of feed in the required week that they should eat the treated grain. I had to measure what they ate in a week, weigh it, and then calculate the equivalent in worming powder, and it’s not much. The necessary amount wouldn’t get our kitchen scales off zero. What would have been more useful is a volume measurement in millilitres or (fractions of) teaspoons, related to weight or volume of feed. In the end, I tipped the whole tub out and spooned it back using quarter-teaspoon measures to work out how much volume the 240g tub comprised, then calculate how many quarter-teaspoons I should add to 20 kg of feed, job done.

Back to the piggies: my problem here was not so much non-existent or unsuitable measures for the product, just that I needed to find out how much our porkers weighed. The only thing we have suitable for weighing something so heavy as a young Maori pig, were the bathroom scales. After several unsuccessful attempts to make our pigs stand with all four feet on the scales, I ended up having to pick them up and weigh us both, then subtract my own weight.

As you might imagine, holding 40 kg of squealing pig, unused to being this high up, while trying to keep steady and read the scales, was a whole lot of fun. (See top photo).

As a postscript to all this talk of giving the pigs and poultry their worming medicine, I recently came across the website of Huntstile Organic Farm, specifically the page on organic farming, where they explain that for organic farmers, “parasite problems in farm animals are controlled through regularly moving the animals to fresh pasture and other preventative methods rather than routinely dosing the animals with drugs.” It’s been our first year with pigs and sheep and so we’ve followed conventional wisdom. We shall find out more and see if we can organise our animals and their paddocks so that we can avoid unnecessary medication in the future.

Friday, September 14, 2007

Gabrielle’s won a prize! Melanie, the most enthusiastic and prolific eco-blogger we know, has been hosting a 3-day online quilt show on her Bean Sprouts blog and had been asking for submissions.

Gabrielle emailed the photo of her quilt, draped over her 21-year-old daughter Christina (see below). As I’d recounted back in April , the project was started when Christina was a babe in arms and completed just before Christmas last.

For this eeeeeelongated-enterprise, Gabrielle won the
“Slowest Quilter” prize—thanks Melanie. Have a look at her blog for other winning quilts.

Saturday, September 08, 2007

If you’ve ever looked at a struggling annual vegetable, compared it to a vigorous and healthy weed and pondered why weeds seem to be successful in inverse proportion to their usefulness, then let me introduce you to the wonder-weed, comfrey (la consoude, in French). Its deep taproots mine the subsoil for nutrients and so its leaves are rich in nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium, all great garden nutrients. It spreads like a weed but we cultivate a variety—Russian Bocking 14—selected due to its high productivity and the fact that it produces very little viable seed, so that it’s propagated by root cuttings. This means it grows where you want it too but, once planted, you’re always likely to have comfrey there, as it’ll regenerate from even a small section of root left behind if the plant is lifted, so choose your plot wisely.

Once establ-ished, you chop the leaves off 5 cm (2 inches) with a pair of garden shears and again, once it’s re-grown to 60 cm (2 ft) giving you four or five cuts in total. This was one of the lighter jobs we gave to our capable, willing and recently departed (from our smallholding, not this mortal coil) volunteer, Sam (pictured above, with the fruits of his labour). We’ve been distracted by other things, so this was our first proper cut and will be the last as well, as the plants now need to build up their reserves to over-winter.

The whole point of the exercise was to create a liquid plant feed. I drilled a hole in the bottom of a black plastic dustbin and fitted a water butt tap and Sam packed the cut leaves in and, with a little jumping around to compress the leaves, they just fitted under the clip-on lid. No water is added (that method gives a ready-to-use feed but which stinks to high Heaven!) and the leaves will eventually decompose to a black liquid: a concentrate that can be stored and then diluted at the point of use.

The third photo shows re-growth after just 6 days. Another thing that worthy of note is that the wide leaves naturally mulch the bed, so it was as weed free as you can see in the second picture, when Sam harvested the leaves. We bought our comfrey as root cuttings from Ragmans Lane Farm, in Gloucestershire and have gleaned most of our comfrey know-how from a 16-page booklet, sold by Garden Organic (previously known as the HDRA) which tells you all you need to know about growing, harvesting and using comfrey. And this link is a French site all about comfrey and its uses.

I’m very keen to get hold of another variety, Bocking 4, which was selected for its suitability as animal fodder. If you have some or know someone who has, either in France, the UK, or anywhere else in the EU, please get in contact.

Friday, September 07, 2007

Over the time I’ve been writing my permaculture blog, some 15 months now, the style has changed and I’m more likely to be writing light-hearted accounts of life in our little corner of Northern France than expounding theories of permaculture. There are many other better qualified sources if you need to know how to do something properly, permaculture-wise, but I hope our stumbling progress leaving a trail of errors behind helps in some way: a “Beginners’ Guide to Permaculture” written by beginners, rather than experts.

A writing friend of ours, Mark Sampson (who achieved fame when his straw-bale house build was featured on UK TV Channel 4’s Grand Designs Abroad programme) has written an article about us, “Tilling a Foreign Soil”, which has just been published in October’s edition of Country Smallholding. The article finishes with links to Marks new book, Essential Questions to Ask when Buying a House in France, our gite for rent and this blog. Thinking that this might attract some new smallholding or aspiring-smallholding readers to our blog, I thought I’d better write about permaculture.

Just raising chickens, growing vegetables and chopping wood for fuel, for example, doesn’t make us permaculturists. In fact, living as we do in the countryside, many of our neighbours are doing similar things without having heard of the term “permaculture” and, with years more experience, are often doing it better, at least more productively. Permaculture is a design system. When it was originally conceived, it was along the lines of producing an edible ecosystem. Compare a field of cultivated wheat that neighbours an established woodland. Particularly at the edge of the wood, there will be a great variety of plants, shrubs and variously-sized trees, adding a huge amount of biomass over the year, with not a finger lifted; the wheat field also produces a large amount of biomass but it is intensively worked: ploughed, harrowed, sown, sprayed with herbicides and pesticides and then harvested. With the wheat field, however, a large part of the biomass is edible, much more than the woodland. If we planted up a woodland with edible plants and shrubs, soft fruit, top fruit and nuts, then we could vastly increase the proportion of additional biomass that is edible and, after initial planting, with little management needed other than the harvesting. This “pure” form of permaculture is best illustrated by the concept of a forest garden.

Out of that has grown the concept of design permaculture, where the elements that make up an ecosystem such as beneficial relationships (think of bees pollinating plants while feeding, as an example) are used in the design of say a house, garden or even farm. Inputs and Outputs are evaluated so that the output of one system within the overall design becomes a useful input of another element, rather than just a waste product to be disposed of. Recently, we’ve been stretching this idea to combine with our neighbours. This year, the apple trees are heavy with fruit and our neighbours, Alan and Carole, are clearing up windfalls from their garden daily. These “outputs” are going straight into our greedy pigs (see photo above). We’ve recently had some trees pruned by Duncan the tree surgeon and hadn’t the time to deal with the prunings (due to my impending operation). Alan provided the labour and turned these “outputs” into free firewood and kindling for himself and Carole. Our task, over the coming months and years, is to design in as many networks of beneficial relationships as possible into our permaculture smallholding. Time will tell, as this is experimental and we’re very much beginners!

Tuesday, September 04, 2007

(we invited our volunteer, Sam, to write a guest blog … )

Self-Imposed Slavery: I knew as soon as I arrived that there was going to be a fair bit of work cut out for me. There was the list of jobs that had been prepared for my friend Emily—the volunteer that never materialised—with the additional task of restoring Stuart’s and Gabrielle’s faith in volunteers. Not being shy of a bit of hard graft, and having had plenty of voluntary experience during my adventures around Europe over the past 3 months, I was confident that I was up to the job.

Lugging big lumps of stone, heaving straw-bales, lobbing logs into the trailer, all of these I found bizarrely satisfying. Especially as I had just spent two weeks engaged in pleasurable, but not very productive activities in my home towns of Brighton and Rennes, partying myself into a state of mild ill-health. It was highly restorative to get my blood and body into action again, in the good Breton countryside air, surrounded by the therapeutic sights and sounds of a permaculture smallholding. It was doubly refreshing to be spending time in their little forest, as I am a woodsman at heart. Perhaps a little over-qualified for such slavery, I had the chance to rise above my station by providing Stu and Gab with some advice for their woodland management activities. The wood is small, relatively young, but with plenty of potential for coppice produce, forest gardening and amenity benefits, all three of which feed nicely into the preservation and promotion of woodland bio-diversity.

I also had the opportunity to engage in one of my favourite activities: tree planting. With a weeping willow sapling under my arm, we strolled through the wood, until I chose a spot by the riverbank, ideal for such a fine tree as, once it is well established, it can dangle its branches in the cool fresh water, and provide shade to happy picnickers. I always feel that the planting of a tree gives one a long-term connection with a place, and it’s also important for me because, after 5 years in the tree-surgery business, cutting bits off, I am keen to redress the balance!

My bird had less feathers, but more goo inside…

Another highlight for me, was the drawing of a goose. My dietary situation at the moment is a bit of a mixture. On one hand I am interested in ethical eating: feeling confident about the processes involved in food production from beginning to end. I saw the goose gabbling that very morning; then experienced very directly, the processes involved in getting it ready for the oven; finally getting to eat the delicious meal that I had a hand in (literally!) preparing. On the other hand, I also practice ‘Freeganism’, i.e. if it’s free, I’ll eat it! This meal fitted into both those categories. Freeganism has links to the traditional French practice of gleaning (collecting food from fields and orchards that has been missed by the harvesting process) the traditional west-country practice of scrumping, and the more contemporary phenomenon of ‘skip-diving’. All of which are a means of recycling the excessive and unnecessary ‘waste’ that our society produces in abundance.

The Wages of Benevolence Of course, the work I have been doing here can in no way be considered slavery. Firstly, I pride myself on my high degree of emancipation, and secondly, I received much in reward for my labours: fantastic, home-grown, local foods, expertly cooked by Gabrielle, kept me fuelled all week long (not to mention the beer and wine) good accommodation in the yurt (these dwellings are always a pleasure to sleep in, as well as being somewhat more luxurious than my 11/2 man tent) and great company, with plenty of stimulating discussion, tales of past experience and laughs shared by all.

On the Saturday evening, I had an unexpected taste of the local culture. My hosts were away having dinner with friends, giving me a chance to enjoy a peaceful evening of reading, writing, and relaxing. Or so I thought. As I went to bed down in the yurt at about 1am, I thought I heard a rather large car stereo pumping out beats and bass. On closer listening, it was the unmistakable boom of a sound-system, coming from not so very far away. Being always ready to sniff out a party, I decided it was a chance not to be missed, so I hopped on the bike and headed off down the country lanes into the night. After 15 minutes of cycling, stopping to prick up my ears, and adjusting my course, I arrived at a rave party. The locals were somewhat intrigued by my arrival (I was soon introduced to everyone as a pedal-powered version of Forest Gump) and seemed to rather enjoy the chance to blether away in thickly-accented but perfectly capable English. This was in between the moments when they suddenly became deeply mesmerised by a particular glowing light, or the back of their hands…

By far the greatest benefit of being a ‘Benevole’, is the education and learning that one receives. A whole wealth of little details, techniques, and solutions become apparent, simply by getting stuck in. It helps a lot when you are with people that do their best to pass on information and explanations, as well as being constantly prepared to learn themselves, Stuart and Gabrielle being fine examples of such folk. In particular, I noted how well they work with the community in which they live – exchanging their produce and their services with their neighbours, and thus cementing beneficial relationships and good friendships. These are ‘elegant solutions’ to problems, as Stuart calls them, as they work towards the equitable benefit of everyone concerned. I also took great heart from seeing a project like this in its early stages (which are often the very hardest times), that has already achieved a great deal despite the obstacles, and will only continue to improve. ©Sam Ansell 2007

Saturday, September 01, 2007

Volunteers: Part 3 (the sequel to the sequel). Look back at my blogs of 16th and 17th August for the first two parts of our experiences with (and without!) volunteers.

I’m pleased to report that the friend of Emily’s that she promised, whilst profusely apologising for her own no-show, turned up at the local railway station on Wednesday evening, looking appropriately scruffy in a studenty-hippy-cycling-around-Europe-on-a-shoestring way. During our get-to-know-each-other chat in the van on the way home, he revealed that he had a degree in forestry management: truly a volunteer with added extras—bells and rings on, even. This was particularly appropriate, as top of the list-of-things-to-do-with-a-volunteer (a newly created sub-list of our perpetual list of things to do) was to go to our woods and collect all the wood I’d chopped and stacked last winter.

His timing is particularly helpful, as I’m on a countdown to the first of the operations on my wrists (for carpal tunnel syndrome) next Tuesday when I’ll effectively become one-handed for a while. Thus, all the heavier jobs requiring two hands have risen in priority and collecting the logs was one of these. Many hands, some sort of machinery, or preferably both, would be useful, and Paul (our pig-farming neighbour) was generous yet again in lending us an old Massey Ferguson tractor and trailer. David (pronounced Dah-veed, as he's French) who lives at the entrance to the wood, was conscripted with the promise of a trailer-load of logs, so we were three.

How to get the tractor near to the woodpiles was also an issue, as the previous owner of the woods had not made any provision for access when planting, some 20-odd years ago, and had never managed the woodland since. Until we chose a route for such access and cut it this winter, wrists and necessary permissions allowing, we needed an alternative, which was to drive over adjacent fields to get to the edge nearest the new coppice. I’d previously spoken the one of the farmers, Monsieur Bazy and agreed in principle that I could drive over his field after the wheat was harvested and before he ploughed it up. When I went round to see him and confirm this, we sat down and looked at the map and realised that I also needed access to the next field, owned by a different farmer, Monsieur Collet. He phoned him there and then, explained the situation, and permission was granted. The final preparations involved Gabrielle and I cutting two wheelbarrow-wide access holes through the hedgerow and mowing a track for the wheelbarrows to service all the woodpiles.

On the day, David arrived in his immaculate WWII Willys Jeep, perfectly adapted for bouncing over a French field. As you can see from the photo at the top, Sam and David have enough hair for two people but—tant pis for David—Sam possesses all of it! We extracted six cords of wood (around 20 cubic metres) of which David had one for his labour and bought another, leaving us with plenty for the coming winter despite that some of the larger logs won’t be fully seasoned (dry enough for burning) for another year. Just as Sam and I were wearily chugging home at around half-past seven, we saw the maire Jean-Luc Lechevestrier, baling a field of straw into small bales. He beckoned me over (we’d ordered 50) and suggested that I collect them that night as rain was forecast. It might well have been a lucky coincidence that I had Paul’s tractor and trailer but it didn’t feel all that lucky at the time as I was exhausted. It wasn’t fair to ask Sam to help any further, so I dropped him of and returned to the field alone, finally getting to eat dinner at 10.30pm. (Photo below shows the end result.)