Tuesday, October 30, 2007

"Houston, we’ve had a problem."

With these immortal words, the astronaut Jack Swigert announced a catastrophic technical failure on the Apollo 13 spacecraft. Not quite the same magnitude of disaster but these are the words that came to mind when I opened the front door early one morning last week, to be confronted by a hungry pig. You might have read in my blog of 14th October of the great permaculture idea of letting our pigs out of their enclosure to forage for acorns. Now pigs, if they’re anything, are both intelligent and hungry, probably in equal measure … and pigs really like acorns!

They have spent months inside their large square of pasture, kept in by a barrier, which is visual, electric (painful) and psychological. I’d unwittingly removed the psychological barrier so the pigs were left to weigh up the pain / pleasure equation and work out whether it was worth the effort and suffering to get to an unlimited supply of tasty food. The smaller pig (they’re brothers from the same litter but one is notably larger than the other) is the braver, or more foolhardy, and it was he outside the front door!

Getting him back—having moved the electric fence bands—with a shaken bucket of pig nuts, was easy. I thought the lowest band low enough and spent over half an hour raising the upper band a peg and tightening the whole thing up, then turning the electricity up to the top of the scale. No sooner I had done this, than the little pig put his very bristly (perhaps therefore insulated?) nose under the lower band and ran for it. The large pig, seeing this, just ploughed through the central gap, now made bigger as I’d moved the top line up … “bo****ks!”

Gabrielle usually prepares breakfast for us both while I get the animals up each morning and breakfast was ready. We sat downstairs on the picnic table so as to keep an eye on the free-roaming pigs while we ate. I was considerably perturbed as we had to find a solution and it wasn’t yet obvious what that might be. So, after breakfast and over a coffee, still at the picnic table keeping an eye on the acorn-grazing porcine escapologists, we had a meeting to look at all our options, assess their relative strengths and weaknesses, settle on our vision of a pig-secure future and roll out a raft of changes. OK, I’m jesting, we haven’t turned into a pair of business consultants but we DID have a meeting and, when I realised what we were doing, it made me think of some grizzled, weather-beaten, old and wise Welsh sheep farmer faced with an escaped livestock problem and just fetching a roll of sheep netting, some fencing pliers and a rather large hammer and getting on with it, rather than holding a “meeting”.

Thankfully, we had a “and everyone lived happily ever after” end to our story as we tried one last time with the electric fence, lowering the first line and adding a third line, then turning the voltage (or amps?) up to maximum. The Status Quo (see photo for all you rockers!) has now returned and we are again on our hands and knees, manually collecting acorns to feed to our once-more obedient piggies.

Monday, October 29, 2007

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) wrote an article about us, “Tilling a Foreign Soil”, in October’s edition of Country Smallholding. The second part of his article, called “Making Hay on French Soil” has just been published in the November edition. Quite the media sluts we are; move over Posh & Becks!

Sunday, October 28, 2007

Eighteen months in and I still see us very much in the “start up” phase of our permaculture project here in Brittany. That means that we are relentlessly pushing forwards with an ever imposing list of “things to do”, seemingly leaving us next to no time to look over our shoulders. We’d like to find an equilibrium where we’d plan to have a day a week in our woods a day in the vegetable patch and so on but other stuff, the occasional emergency (see my next blog!) and the speed with which time rushes by, mean that this is still a great idea, rather than how we manage our weeks.

We’ve realised a few times that maintenance of existing elements is at least as important as starting new ones, the latest example being our vegetable patch. We’d been saying for over a week that we needed to spend a day there working together before we finally found time. While there was an impressive amount of produce, especially as this is its first year, most of the pathways were overgrown with grass and weeds and there was so much to do that I stood there with shoulders drooping, not knowing where to start. I started ranting to Gabrielle about how we clearly needed to do more work to knock the patch into the low-maintenance permaculture ideal we hoped for until she pointed out how long it was since we’d last done anything more than cut vegetables or salad to eat: with the wedding, honeymoon and an operation each, it was well over a month. Even low-maintenance systems need some maintenance!

And it’s not just maintenance; this time of year is harvest time for many crops. Tidying up the vegetable patch involved harvesting a fifth of a tonne of pumpkin, with the biggest weighing in at 40 kg (88 lbs). We also picked some later-planted sweet corn that we’d left as it hadn’t ripened but was now ready to eat. The perpetual spinach has won our own “permaculture plant of the year award” as being a summer-long cut-and-come-again crop of a really useful vegetable. Also known as spinach beet, it’s actually from a different species than spinach, related rather to chard and sea beet, but can be cooked and eaten in the same way, is easier to grow than spinach and probably has less oxalic acid. (Oxalic acid—if eaten in excess!—interferes with the body’s uptake of iron and calcium.)

To the other extreme, we’ve been harvesting thousands of tiny seeds from our Love-in-a-mist plants. Why? To save and use as a spice which often features in Indian food recipes. Hold the front page though. I’ve just been doing some research as I type this blog (I actually learn quite a bit as I check my details when blogging) and we’ve made a mistake. The Latin name of Love-in-a-mist is Nigella damascena but Wikipedia tells me that “the related Nigella sativa (and not N. damascena) is the source of the spice variously known as Nigella, Kalonji or Black Cumin” … oops! The Plants for a Future database and book reckon that the Love-in-a-mist seeds are also edible as a condiment, with the flavour of nutmeg. That said, it isn’t the same as the seeds we thought we were saving, also known as black cumin, which is the aromatic spice used in Mediterranean and Indian cooking. These seeds (sativa) can also be sprinkled in airing cupboards to repel moths and there is a belief that eating the seed will make a woman's breasts plumper. One last bit of info from PFAF, Love-in-a-mist plants are “said to be a poor companion in the garden, in particular it seems to inhibit the growth of legumes.” Oops again!

Thursday, October 18, 2007

Shocking News! … part 2. Thanks to Melanie and Val for their comments on Part 1; it seems I’m not the only one to accidentally shock myself with electric stock fencing. Melanie’s been advised by an electrician “that the physiological effects of a shock, a racing heart for example, are similar to the physiological effects of embarrassment and so a lot of people think they feel embarrassed when they've been shocked.” And Val has sat on an electric fence and says that also hurts! It’s probably happened to everyone who’s ever used electric fencing and so, perhaps I should run a competition for the “most stupid” shock, the “most volts” or even the “I didn’t learn last time and have just shocked myself again” award.

One of our near neighbours, an Englishman called Douglas, who has a holiday home just down the road, has previous smallholding experience and is never short of a word of advice. Urbane, is the perfect word to describe Douglas: courteous, suave, elegant and refined in manner. A perfect visual metaphor, in my opinion—and hoping rather to flatter than to offend Douglas—is the actor Leslie Phillips (see photo) … “well, hellooooo!” His advice to me, after I’d related being shocked when using the electric fence tester, was to use a blade of grass to touch the electric fence. The resistance in the grass is meant to reduce the current passed, so one can feel a tingle, APPARENTLY without the full shock, so verifying that the fence is working, without pain. ALLEGEDLY! I tried it, dtssssstdt, “OUCH!” thanks Douglas. Perhaps I’m just overly sensitive.

Last year, some friends of ours came to visit, with their lovely children. Max, aged about 9, was able to hold onto the goose fencing, pronouncing a “tingling feeling” that made him laugh. I thus assumed that, as a mere child and therefore softer, more vulnerable and sensitive to worldly stimuli, if he could touch it, then the voltage must be really low, not working properly to protect our geese and in imminent need of recharging, so I touched the fence to check myself: dtssssstdt, “OUCH!” thanks Max. As you can see from the photo, Max is just a normal boy, completely unaffected by the electricity.

Our intelligent pigs have shocked themselves several times, accompanied by a shrill piggy shriek, and learnt the limits of their domain. The blue tape carrying the charge, is supported by white plastic posts, and the first time I removed the tape, to mow underneath (the grass earths out the fence, running the battery down and reducing efficiency) the pigs refused to pass the line of white posts and needed a hefty shove from behind. I reckon they’ve shocked themselves less than I have and our pigs must therefore be more intelligent than me … whoah, spooky or what!

Stop Press!. Gabrielle has just received a loyalty card from the shop where she bought her make-up for our wedding. We howled with laughter when we saw it and thought of Gabrielle asking our neighbour for concessions: “well, hellooooo!”

Sunday, October 14, 2007

Permaculture Pigs. Permaculture is a design system and one of its main ideas, I think, is to use brain to reduce the necessity of brawn. We want to design systems, like natural ecosystems, that look after themselves, with very little effort to maintain them. So we look to create beneficial relationships between different aspects of our project. One theoretical idea (apparently, with few actual working examples) is a chicken forage system, a fenced in area which one plants up with edible vegetation and trees, which will drop fruit and seeds, for them to eat.

Two years ago, we went to visit the organic sheep farm of Catherine and Charles Guillot, in the Sarthe region, to learn how to make a sheep’s wool duvet (click on the link “Read our first article in Permaculture Magazine” on the right, to read all about it). We noticed all manner of chickens, cockerels and chicks roaming about the place. Catherine told us that they were completely free range and roosted wherever they wanted to, nested in some pretty unusual places, and generally got on with the business of being chickens without any human intervention. Not without its own problems—it made collecting fresh eggs to eat a bit of a task—it did illustrate how one can unnecessarily complicate the simplest of things, as they had their own chicken forage system without application of permaculture design.

The idea remains seductive though and I’ve been thinking about a pig forage system. Since we took delivery of our two Kune Kune pigs, the damsons have come into fruit, then the apple trees and now acorns are everywhere. I stripped the branches of the damsons and, when I pruned them (a summer job, to prevent silver leaf disease) I threw the fruit-laden branches in whole, which the pigs had great fun foraging through. As that crop came to an end, apples started falling and we’ve been all over the place with wheelbarrows and buckets, picking them up to bring to the pigs. They are coming to an end as well now, to be succeeded by a huge crop of acorns (we have several venerable oaks on our smallholding).

Harvesting them is a more tricky task. Plan A: I’ve tried sweeping and raking, without much success. Plan B: during our wedding weekend, I tried to get several small children involved in picking up acorns for the hungry cute pigs but their interest waned remarkably quickly. Plan C: take the piggies to the acorns. They are sufficiently docile and tame to turn out of their enclosure if we are in attendance, and with the grey damp start turning into warm autumn sun by early afternoon, we put a couple of chairs out and fetched a book each to read and then tried to get the piggies out.

Intelligent beasts are pigs and they’ve long learnt that the blue tape gives them an electric shock when they touch it. They even associate the white plastic poles (which support the blue tape) as boundary limits and wouldn’t cross it without a hefty shove when we once took the tape down. It’s a devil of a job to take down and replace, so I switched off the electricity, hooked the tape on the top rung of the support and tried to coax them out, towards the land of plenty. I put apples the other side of the fence to create a healthy interest, then got behind the smaller one and successfully pushed him squealing through his psychological barrier. The bigger pig was too strong for me and even the site of his brother contentedly munching on unlimited acorns wasn’t enough. In a “light-bulb” moment of inspiration, I fetched a huge sheet of cardboard (no permaculturalist should be without a store of corrugated cardboard) and created a tunnel. Unable to see the electric fence, and with Gabrielle rattling a bucket of pigs nuts, he popped out like a cork out of a champagne bottle.

We spent a very pleasant hour of so reading in the sun, with two greedy pigs grazing next to us. They never looked up, never stopped eating and it was an altogether different task to get them back through the fence, whilst walking away from the food! The idea of pig forage, would be to plant up a paddock with a variety of pig foodstuffs, to provide a succession of free food, vastly reducing, but not eliminating, the need to give them additional nourishment … watch this space.

Thursday, October 11, 2007

Shocking News! … part 1 Back in 1998, after 19 “gap years”, I went to Sussex University to study English Literature and Third World Development, which is where I met my good friend David, also studying English and something else. Since then, we have had an ongoing discussion about metaphors and similes— my, how the long winter evenings just fly by! My contention is that one should use one of these devices to describe to a reader something strange, unknown or previously not encountered in terms of something common or well known, so that the reader can than thus easily imagine the thing or situation better. I find a lot of modern fiction writing is sloppy: as if—with their creative writing teachers’ words ringing in their ears—authors feel the need to liken absolutely everything to something else … tedious.

When done badly, the effect is to read about something that one can easily bring to mind described as “like” something that you really have to work hard to imagine. The BBC TV comedy series of Blackadder are a lesson in simile / metaphor. There’s a scene where Baldrick, the servant, tries to describe something to his master, Blackadder. As I recall, it goes like this:

Baldrick, “The princess’s eyes are bluer than sapphires”.
Blackadder, “Baldrick, have you ever seen the princess?”
Baldrick, “No, milord.”
Blackadder, “Baldrick, have you ever seen a sapphire?”
Baldrick, “No, milord.”
Blackadder, “So, what you’re saying is, that something you’ve never seen, is slightly bluer than something else you’ve never seen?”
Baldrick, “Yes, milord.”

All this was brought to mind as I started typing this blog, as I wanted to tell you all about my shocking experiences with electric stock fencing. I’ve inadvertently shocked myself many times since we began using electric fencing to keep our various animals where we want them and foxes out; the first shock received when I was actually trying to use the testing device to see if both the fence and the testing device itself worked: “ouch! that’d be a ‘yes’ then!” I recently managed, for the first (and hopefully the last) time, to give myself a shock on the forehead. The pig fencing needed unhooking for me to mow beneath it (else it earths out on the grass) and I had the goose fencing right next to it and hadn’t switched that off. As I bent down (it’s low fencing as pigs don’t currently fly) to unhook it, concentrating on the job in hand, my forehead came into contact with he adjacent metre (3 feet) high goose fencing, which was live.

I can only describe the event as like being hit hard, square on the forehead, with a cricket bat. Now, if you’ve never received an electric shock through your forehead, neither been struck there with a cricket bat (American readers can imagine a baseball bat, the effect would largely be the same) you can see my problem. Please submit any better idea of how to describe to my blog readers what an electrical shock on the forehead feels like by posting a comment. In Part 2, I’ll tell you more about how I've managed to give myself numerous electric shocks!

Friday, October 05, 2007

We’re back from a very happy honeymoon in Barcelona. We took the overnight train between Paris and Barcelona because we thought it would be romantic and also because we’ve sort of made a no-fly pact due to all the atmospheric carbon produced by the aviation industry. I recently read a news article on the Web, which asked if flying had been unfairly demonised. Would you believe it, flying could actually be more efficient than using my diesel van. The point is the distances travelled: i.e., one wouldn’t drive the distances that one might consider flying for a summer holiday. It did make me smile though, at the thought of parking my private jet outside the village boulangerie and walk in, past startled locals to buy my baguette, all in the name of being super-eco-friendly (I’m not sure that there’d be enough distance to take off and land again though!) As English friends both drove and flew to come to our wedding, I do wonder who was most carbon-friendly over the same distance? Anyone who’s really up on carbon footprints and suchlike, please post a comment.

Anyway, back to the romance of Barcelona. The train was indeed romantic. It was no Orient Express: the cabin-ette allowed sleeping or standing but not both opportunities simultaneously and sitting on the toilet left an impression of the showerhead on one’s forehead but the restaurant car was fun and felt like real luxury. We realised the benefit of getting an early seat (photo shows the return journey, when the train hadn’t even left the station). And so to Barcelona and breakfast in the famous market off Las Ramblas: the French call breakfast le petit dejeuner but there was nothing small (petit) about ours. We picked up a (same day) English newspaper as a rare treat and then sat down in a colourful and delicious setting—a bar right in the middle of the most picturesque food market you could imagine—to a plate of Spanish fried tapas, looking greasily appetising and unhealthy in equal measures, and it would’ve been rude, as seemingly everyone else had an alcoholic drink, not to order two tall glasses of cold sparkling cava to wash it all down (see pic at top). On the first morning, while still laughing at what a treat all this was, a slim young Catalan businesswoman sat down next to us and ordered up a fish the size of a plate, without accompaniment, and a glass of rosé wine—for breakfast! I’ll never look at a bowl of muesli in quite the same way again.

And so to a gentle walking tour of the curvaceous architecture of Antonio Gaudi. We found Casa Batlló particularly inspirational: it’s pulled our thoughts round firmly towards getting on with the design of our proposed straw-bale house. The photos show a ceiling and internal window in that building. Park Guëll is also impressive, with palm trees and Gaudi’s mosaics looking down over a more prosaic modern city skyline. He claims to have been inspired by Nature’s forms but I couldn’t help wondering, when looking at the over-exaggerated fairytale rooftops at the entrance, whether consumption of LSD might not also have been involved (remember, just say “no” kids).