Sunday, July 27, 2008

The Bunyip, a home-made water level: People who know me will tell you that I have a penchant for books, courses and tools. My old, wise and bald friend David once generously bought me a laser level as a present. It was a spirit level with a built in laser, which came with its own tripod, all neatly packed in a plastic case. Once unwrapped, I set the level on its tripod and, by rotating the level on its tripod, did a tour of the walls of the living room with the red laser line. I made some faint pencil marks and then checked these (oh, how annoyingly anal I can be) to see how accurate it was. A laser might be accurate enough but it was stymied by the quality of the tripod, so the level changed as it revolved. Not being ungrateful, I promise, but it would be fair to say that this laser was in the DIY class of building equipment. The cheap tripod made it worthless. [I got my money back at the shop and converted it into beer: an even better present … cheers, David.]

More recently, I was helping out our neighbours Paul and Christiane with their renovation when Henri, the electrician, turned up with a top of the range, self-levelling, vertical and horizontal red lines laser, with which he was justly proud. It was a deal more accurate than the one I’ve just described and a whole lot more expensive. Even so, within the context of that building work, I couldn’t see anything that the laser could achieve that a Bunyip water level couldn’t and at a fraction of the price.

Water will find its own level and the Bunyip exploits this. You get hold of a transparent length of pipe and almost fill it up with water, so you can see the level of the water a little bit down from the end of the pipe. Wherever the ends of the pipe are, even out of site of each other, once the water level has settled, it’s at exactly the same level, both ends. You need somebody on the other end of the pipe. When you move the pipe, both of you clamp your thumbs over the end, to avoid spillages. When you’re in position, you need a little coordination to get approximately the right level. Release your thumbs—lots of shouting is in order—and if the level races in one direction, thumbs on quickly and one of you adjust up or down accordingly (try it and you’ll see, an error says a thousand words). With a little patience, you will get the hang of it … I did and I have minimal patience! The level wobbles up and down a bit, once it’s settled the level in front of you is at exactly the same level as that of your partner. If their level is on the datum line, then you can mark off where your level is and you’ve accurately, and very cheaply, transferred the level, which is what Gabrielle and I are doing in the photo at top.

And it works around corners … even a top of the range laser can’t do that, hee hee!

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Offices and Officialdom: I have only recently finished wrestling with a planning application to convert the upper level of our long barn into an eco-loft for a couple, to compliment our very successful holiday cottage. I finally handed in this huge dossier in quadruplicate to our local mairie on 11th July. The accepted time for processing is two months and not a day earlier. Imagine my dismay to receive a letter this morning, just a few days later, summoning me to the mairie for a retrait de dossier et décision d’urbanisme. There was no way that the dossier could have gone, by post, to the local planning office and returned with time for a decision in between. The maire or his secretary must have discovered a reason against our request and called us back to say “no”.

Despite my urgent curiosity, we couldn’t go to the mairie directly after it opened at 2pm (the end of French lunchtime) as we had a meeting with the Bureau de Gestion to see how we could get Gabrielle teaching English and violin as a registered business. We arrived on time at a modern, if unprepossessing, square office building, to be greeted outside by a tall, good-looking and confident in a graduate-studenty sort of way man. “Madame Anderson?” he enquired with a smile, then led us in, warning me against knocking my head on the low doorway. The bureau is based at the large town of St Brieuc but they offer a peripatetic service, so we met him in our local town, in temporary lodgings. It was a fair size room, with office-style windows, flooring, ceiling and open-plan layout. There was just one desk, giving an empty and unlived in feel and the photocopier was perched on a chair alongside, cables trailing, adding to the temporary feel. But, the very weirdest thing was, never mind about the doorway, the whole offcice was too low, so he and I walked along with our heads to one side (the shorter Gabrielle being unaffected). Sitting down, there was no further problem but when he stood up to go and get a reference book and had to walk the whole way with his head bent over, I was forcibly reminded of the half-floor, between two others, in the film Being John Malkovich (see photo at top).

We’d gone to see him about Gabrielle’s enterprise initiative but very quickly got stuck on why our gite business wasn’t attracting social charges. He didn’t know himself and so phoned the tax office (Centre des Impôts). Nobody there could answer the question, so he phoned the social charges office (URRSAF). They could neither find our dossier nor answer the question. “Typiquement français, he said; we nodded furiously. So we finished an hour-long and very pleasant meeting with him explaining that he needed to go away and research our peculiar case and then we stood up—almost—and walked out, bent over, to leave this very strange building behind. With gloom hanging around my shoulders, sure that our renovation plans had been turned down, I wondered, with some irony, how the office building with a ground floor suitable only for troglodytes, had ever passed muster with the planning department.

Back in our own village, we were beckoned into the maire’s office by a very smiley secretary who, as astonished as we were, gave us our official “yes” for our planning permission. Never had she seen an application processed so quickly. Relief rather than celebration was how I felt, as I’d psyched myself up for a disappointment. A strange day all round …

Next blog: how to measure levels really accurately with a home made Bunyip water level.

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Sun Path Charts / Diagrams: We have been beavering away behind the scenes on the design for our straw bale house for some considerable time. It seems to us now that having the “constraints” of the existing walls of a renovation project is, in some ways, an advantage. When you have a complete carte blanche, you increase the options and thereby multiply the decisions to be made … and coming to decisions slow things down! In the permaculture design process, the second stage is a site survey. Instead of having enough decisions to make based on limited knowledge, we have to go and measure stuff and so add loads more variables to the “things-to-be-considered-before-making-a-decision” pile. You might well imagine how taking off the planning cap and spending the day doing something physical like splitting and stacking logs is somehow very appealing.

In our ecological house built of straw, we’d like to maximise passive solar gain and also (pre-)heat our water by the sun … the jury’s still out on photovoltaic (PV) solar electricity for our situation (climate and available finances). Therefore, we need to know, by time and season, how much sun is going to fall, and where, on our proposed building site. We need a Sun Path Diagram. This sort of information is also very useful in planning a garden, so you can match plant sun / shade needs with available sun through the growing season.

A few years ago, I went on a Solar Energy course run by Damian Randle and Rob Gwillim (both, at the time, of the Centre for Alternative Technology). It was a very intense course, with lots of science but also very practical and we actually got to build two working solar water-heating systems: one gravity fed and one pressurised (see photos). It was there that I learnt about Sun Path Diagrams.

A sun path diagram is specific to your exact location (longitude and latitude). Thanks to the kind people of Oregon University, you can download a free sun path diagram. The chart will show the path the sun takes throughout its day by its horizontal (azimuth) and vertical (elevation) orientation. You then need a way of simultaneously measuring a compass bearing and elevation. You can buy ready-made devices, or fabricate one like I did (see photo). Once you’ve oriented the measuring device to directly face south, you begin to trace the top outline of all the obst-ructions, reading compass bearing and elevation off your device and noting that on the chart.

Once you have the complete silhouette drawn, you can read off the chart when, by date and time, you will be in shade (below) or sun (above) the line you’ve drawn. Remember that it's a diagram that shows about 270º on a flat piece of paper, so don't worry if the it doesn't look exactly like what you see. I hope that the various pictures make sense of what I’m saying. Important note: you are measuring what shade will fall on your measuring device, so you should ideally be measuring from the exact point you wish to install your solar panel. And if you’re doing this to learn where to put your vegetables, you need to be at vegetable height, i.e., flat on your belly!

Tuesday, July 08, 2008

Peas on Earth: I like peas. I like frozen peas, by preference Birds Eye, but I especially like peas fresh from the pod or, if their young enough and slim enough, peas, pod and all. It wasn’t always so. When I was a little boy (see photo below) I liked some peas but didn’t like others. My maternal grandparents had a large established garden. I can’t remember whether they actually grew vegetables but I do remember that if we were going to eat peas for dinner, then a metal colander came out and we sat outside and shelled them from their pods. A bit like pick-your-own strawberries: the sweetest ones are the ones you eat there and then and I ate plenty. Cooked, they weren’t so interesting.

It’s no secret that when vegetables are picked their sugar starts turning to starch. So, if you have the pan of water boiling before you pick a sweet corn, and then blanch it immediately after cutting, then do nothing more than scrape a large knife-ful of salty butter along it and grind some black pepper over it, you’ll understand why it’s called sweet-corn.

• If you don’t like peas then you tend to eat everything on the plate apart from the peas.
• If you have to eat the peas then smashing them up with potatoes and smothering the mix in gravy is helpful.
• If rule one applies then you can’t apply rule two.
• If you don’t like warm peas, sitting in front of a plateful of cold peas and being told that you can’t leave the table until they’re eaten up isn’t much fun at all. Look at the picture again and ask yourself if you’d make this boy eat cold cooked peas. (I hope my parents get to read this!)

This week was pea harvest time. Gabrielle had planted two varieties, Sugar Pea Norli (the true French green mange tout) and Alderman (a variety from 1891, one of the last tall peas available) both bought from Garden Organic. We’ve been picking the biggest for a while but, all of a sudden, they were ready to harvest and in danger of going over and becoming dry. Seeing her sat outside, shelling peas evoked some very happy memories for me. We’ve eaten plenty raw—either grazing in the vegetable patch or mixed into one of Gabrielle’s flower salads—and we’ve cooked some fresh ones but we’re not sure we’ve cracked how to blanch and freeze them yet.

There is a happy ending to this story: the boy doesn’t smoke and does eat his peas now (but he’s also 47 and has lost most of his hair). Next blog: I’ll begin explaining the long process of designing our straw bale house, starting with Sun Path Diagrams.
(peas picture credit)

Wednesday, July 02, 2008

Rain: Due to the time lag between stuff happening and me blogging about it, it was only on 14th June that I told you how we’d been drowning in excess rainfall in the first part of the year … I may have spoken too soon. In June, we should have had 42 mm (1.6 inches) of rain, we actually had 27 mm (just over an inch). Hey, you say, what’s the problem, the grounds already soggy, a little less rain might actually help. Well, the raw figures aren’t the whole story, by any means. If you’re using rainfall to work out such things as how big your rainwater catchment tanks should be, you’ll also need to know about rain gaps. We might have had 27 mm in a month but that included 20 mm during one shower on one day and a rain gap of 20 days. We’ve still got a bit left in the water cubes for the veggies but we’re now using tap water for the animals.

It rained today, hooray!

Kristen’s excellent blog entry for 16th June) introduced me to Geoff Lawton and his great little flash video on Greening the [Jordanian] Desert. It really speaks for itself, so I’ll let it do just that.

Another of our favourite blogs is that of Nick and Kirsten in Oz. They’d written nothing since March and we wondered what was happening. Lucky buggers (I think that’s an Australian term of endearment) they’ve been running courses at their Milkwood plot with Geoff himself and another water landscaping expert, Darren Doherty

So impressed were we by Geoff’s little video, that we ordered his DVD Harvesting Water – The Permaculture Way. It’s well made and really inspirational. After watching it this evening–with swales cut along the contour in mind–we went out to cast an eye over our field with the biggest slope. When I got back in, I emailed Darren to see if he was planning to run any courses in Europe anytime soon. He says he is thinking about doing a course in either Spain, England or Ireland next year. Please post a comment if you’re based in Europe and are interested in his course and I’ll let him know, to try and persuade him; flying one expert here from Australia is definitely more carbon-friendly than us all trouping over there!