Saturday, February 28, 2009

My last blog gave you one side of du bon voisinage (good neighbourliness) but living with people is not always so easy and pleasant. Our largest field is bordered by a hedge, which belongs to the neighbours. It’s a good, honest country hedge, full of blackthorn, hawthorn, dog rose, elder and plenty of brambles. Our side hasn’t been trimmed since we moved here over three years ago, apart from the top section which I cut back last year to install new stock fencing for our pig paddock. Riding round on the lawnmower, the sneakily advancing thorns and spikes pushed me ever wider and when we finally hacked back this tangle to the original fence line, we’d gained up to 3 metres (yards, plus a bit) of extra field. (The photo shows the "after", I'm sorry I didn't take a before pic to compare.)

In comparison to the jungle, what was left was shockingly nude and when the son of the neighbour (who owns that bit of land) came by the following weekend, there was plenty of walking up and down with his sister and mother, looking and muttering. Eventually the moment arrived when he felt obliged to get it off his chest and he came round for a “chat”. I was knocking chestnut fence posts in with a Drivall—a noisy activity, which requires a pair of ear-defenders—so it was a surprise, to say the least when I stopped thumping and turned around to find him on my shoulder. The bonjours were exchanged in unusually perfunctory manner before he launched himself into his tirade.

Apparently, what I had done was a catastrophe. I’m supposedly “ecological”, what did I think I was doing? The hedge works as a barrier to the wind, now his buildings were at risk. When I gently suggested that I had only cut back to the fence line and that, if he wanted a windbreak, he could let it grow thick on his own side of the fence (which was trimmed neatly to the line of the trunks) he brushed aside this persuasive logic and started ranting about surrounding farmers who cut down hedges. Now I could sympathise with that point of view but it’s not my fault. And then he had a go at me about cutting some large pine trees down on our land: these are the other side of our property from his hedge line and, frankly, non of his business. When he started on about the fact that the “wood” I’d cut down belonged to him, I started to fray at the edges and, in impressively calm manner, if a touch sarcastic, I gathered up some blackthorn and bramble offcuts and offered them to him. Another couple of laps around this pointless circular argument, and he left. There was no point in me getting too annoyed, as it was, as both the English and French say, a “fait accompli”. Which is to say, the hedge had already been trimmed back and the brash burnt, i.e., past arguing about or changing.

I continued about my fence post business and he continued simmering. His sister, who actually lives there along with her mother, began noisily planting as if to prove a point and a laurel appeared in one of the gaps. Its leaves, when it bushes out and penetrates the stock fencing, would be poisonous to our livestock. Was this nasty bloody-mindedness or an unknowing mistake? I told her the problem and was referred again to her brother, as it was his land and his hedge. Now the roles were reversed in that I was the aggrieved but as I went to go to speak to him, I walked past our willow plantation: Ding, Ding, An Idea Arrives! Does he realise that the laurel will upset our sheep? No! Will he ask his sister to remove it please? Yes! Would he like a load of willow cuttings, of several varieties to plant in the gaps? Yes. An accord. A handshake. Steps back, rueful smiles and the business is complete.

So, peace is once more restored to our happy hamlet. When the willow grows through the fence, our sheep will happily graze it. In fact, I will never have to concern myself again with this hedge, as the sheep will keep it trimmed. When I finally let our ewes into this new paddock yesterday, it was only five minutes before a heavily pregnant ewe was ignoring the luxuriant grass and balancing on her hind legs to nibbly-nibble at an overhanging morsel of hedge.

Friday, February 27, 2009

If you look in on our blog regularly, I apologise for lack of activity but we’ve been uncharacteristically absent. Why uncharacteristically? Because, with all our animals, it’s not easy to go away together—hence separate trips back to see family and friends post-Christmas. Thank you to neighbour Kysinia for caring for our charges. And why absent? We went to visit a couple, who are both architects, to get our straw-bale house build project on track again; more on that soon. I’d previously promised a woolly blog on felting our sheep’s wool but still need to coax the (not normally) hesitant Gabrielle in front of the video camera to show you how she “needle felts”; soon, I promise.

A permaculture principle is “the problem is the solution” but it’s not always so, and it’s sometimes not at all evident where the solution is to be found. The problem: we designed our potager as a series of raised beds—Emilia Hazelip stylie —which rise from the intervening paths in soft curves. i.e., without a solid edge. Despite our soil being heavy clay, i.e., having plenty of structure, the earth edges of our raised beds annoyingly crumble and blur with the pathways. There are some reasons against edges, one being that they create yet another haven for garden gastropods (snails and slugs by another name). Despite this, Gabrielle wanted me to install neat wooden edging. I explained how much would that wood require and the idea died on its feet.

A permaculture problem without an apparent permaculture solution or so it seemed until neighbour Serge arrived outside our house after a long, hard working day, announcing himself in a horn-beeping-flat-backed-Ford-Transit-builders’-van sort of way. Accustomed to, but not sharing, our strange English eco-aspirations, he’d seen some wood and stone heading straight to landfill on a house renovation job he was on and thought of us. He had some unfeasibly large flat pieces of dressed granite for our house-build project and a sample of a chestnut plank: inch-thick tongue-and-groove flooring. If it was any use, perhaps as firewood, he proffered, he could deliver us a lorry-load.

So what we needed was hundreds of feet of straight planks of a durable hardwood, like chestnut, for example … and then Serge turns up. (He's on the left in the photo below.) Although he refused payment, his resistantance buckled when I stuck a bottle of single-malt Laphroaig whisky under his nose. So there you have it: no philosophy, no easy answers, just a gloat about how amazingly fortunate we’ve been! Cheers, Serge!

Thursday, February 12, 2009

Personally prone to loquacity, I do however try to keep my blogs to a readable length, vigorously enforced by my in-house editor, Gabrielle. So, happily blogging away about sheepy things, muttony things and Price Charles’ penchant for shapely chests in uniform (Jan 19th blog), I ran out of space. I’m motivated to return to these topics (HRH Charles excepted) by wonderful cooking smells filling the room.

I hoped for (and coincidentally received) Dorothy Hartley’s Food in England for Christmas. It’s an English cooks’ bible, first published in 1954, that we thought would bring some Anglo-Saxon balance to our cookbook collection, which is otherwise full of instructions and advice from as far apart as India, Italy and, of course, France. There’s some patriotism at play here as we have, on more than one occasion, been complimented by French dinner guests on how good our food is, whilst strongly inferring “in spite of being English”. Tonight, we will sit down to a plate of boiled mutton with caper sauce accompanied with boiled potatoes, carrots and leeks. Never mind a curry, spag bol or ’aute cuisine, this is just the thing for a winter’s supper in front of a blazing wood stove.

It’s particularly appropriate fayre as we’ll sit down afterwards to the last episode of the BBC’s engrossing re-enactment of a year on a Victorian Farm. It's a fascinating epoch as it’s the beginning of mechanised farming. Yet many of the things the Victorians did would sit very happily under permaculture’s umbrella.

I started off by telling you that I have a propensity to verbosity and that I was going to blog about sheep. So, proving the former and keeping to the latter, I’ll quickly tell you some sheepy stuff and then stop. The photos show a new sheep shelter I’ve built in one of our fields (more substantial than the pallet-based ones I’ve built up to now). It’s made out of corrugated metal sheeting that was covering one side of the barn roof that I’m currently replacing and is large enough for me to stand up in. Our frost-covered sheep certainly seem to like it. It’ll be particularly useful if we get into any problems at lambing time.

And, eager not to waste any part of the sheep, we’ve sent the skull of the male hogget ("lamb" over a year old) we recently slaughtered to a budding talented new English artist, Miss Christina Sanders (Gabrielle’s daughter) who’s incorporated it into a sculpture or should that be “skullpture”? She’s in her final year of university and more-than-ready to listen to offers of fame and fortune from Mr Charles Saatchi.

Next blog baby booties and woolly chicks, both made by Gabrielle from felting our sheep’s wool.

Sunday, February 08, 2009

When I was recently in England—a trip to see my parents—I stopped over with some good friends Phil and Sid. With Phil in the garage painting some pieces of wood to have a carpentry job ready for the following morning and their three delightful children occupying themselves indoors, Sid and I took the opportunity to cross the road into the pub to quaff a beer and watch the second half of a football match. I was chatting to Sid about our lives here and explaining, whilst by no means complaining, that the pace seems, at times, relentless.

She advised me that we should programme some days off. Sunday might be the traditional day off but we’ll take it when we can: so, from now on, a day off will be referred to as a “Sid-day”. With her wise-words ringing in my ears and with Gabrielle away on a weekend’s violin course, I’m enjoying a Sid-day. I’m not completely idle, as I’ve spent most of the day writing. I’ve just sold an article to an English magazine (I’ll tell you who when it’s published) and I’ve also been asked to write an article for a French magazine, with a deadline of 16th. That’ll be my first in French and I’m dead chuffed, to say the least.

Absorbed in my writing this morning, I wanted to put on some music and delved into a file of music emailed to me by Mark, living in his straw bale house in the Lot region of France. Unfortunately, it wasn’t a format my Apple Mac iTunes recognised, so I clicked on the file and the music started automatically using some other player and I carried on typing.
I have to say, pleasant though it was, I did find it a touch repetitive. It was nearing 12.30 and I’d been invited around to our neighbours Paul and Christiane for lunch so I was shutting the computer down when I realised that the music player was on repeat: I’d been listening to a four-and-a-half minute jazz tune continuously for three quarters of an hour.
Q. What does that say about jazz? Or perhaps: what does that say about my level of musical appreciation?

If today is (sort of) a day of rest, yesterday certainly wasn’t. I opened the curtains to a fair blizzard of snowflakes, which almost encouraged me to cancel the day but in just a few miles (think of a number and add a couple more for kilometres) I found myself under blue skies and sun (if equally cold). I’d offered to give Julie, Samuel and their friends a free course in the renovation pruning of fruit trees. Effectively, I was relaying all that I’d learnt on one of my favourite courses of all time, run by Bryn Thomas, of the Brighton Permaculture Trust.

This was by way of exchange as Sam has already given me two days of help on our barn re-roofing project. Despite such early promise, the day varied wildly weather-wise.

They’ve bought an old stone and cob house to renovate, during which time they’re living in a genuine Mongolian yurt. I believe that the plains of Mongolia are a whole lot drier than Brittany, nevertheless we were very warm and cosy gathered inside for our lunch.

Bryn’s course was so good that I remember most of the important details and all I really needed to do was to translate it into my version of French. The day started well, with student / teacher roles well demarcated but after a substantive French lunch and the addition of extra “advisors” (Sam’s stepfather and the guy who used to own the property) and the subtraction of a couple of students it became somewhat chaotic. When those “advisors” had left and equilibrium was once more restored it was fun seeing Sam and Julie become ever more enthused by their newly-learnt skill, as I was on Bryn’s course. As the day drew to a close, I increasingly had to say, “Stop! C’est assez. Tu a déjà coupé le trente pour-cent maximum”, which is to say that you must only cut a maximum of 30% of living (including diseased and damaged but not dead) wood from a tree in a year, so that renovation pruning usually takes place over several years.

Sunday, February 01, 2009

Have you ever had that sinking feeling? That slow, dawning realisation that you’ve just made a rather large mistake that either cannot be rectified at all or cannot be rectified quickly and without spending large amounts of money. This uncomfortable feeling in the pit of your stomach is worsened as you reflect that if you had not just done that thing you wouldn’t have the problem you now have. Yes, we’ve been at home to Mr Cock-Up again.

We’d finished the mammoth task of chipping a huge pile of branches from the large macrocarpa pines that used to stand at the entrance to our property (nice trees, wrong place) and I thought I’d give the chipper a thorough clean before putting it away. Garden chippers are either good for woody material or leafy material; ours is an Alko Silent Power 5000 whose strength is dealing with woody material. A toothed cog churns round slowly, bearing against a nylon roller, so dragging material into it and cutting it off in 1 inch (2.54cm) chunks.

A proper clean involved taking off the inspection cover, then unbolting a metal plate to reveal nylon roller and cutting wheel. I’ve replaced the nylon roller before; so far I was on familiar ground. I decided it would be a good idea (does that phrase start your alarm bells ringing?) to remove the roller as well. The wise thing would be to look at the manual that comes with the machine … and that’s what I did. An unfortunate sign of the times, the thick “maintenance manual”, warning triangles strewn all over the text, tells you—in no less than eight European languages—how to switch it on and off and that’s about it. For anything else, we’re told to go to “an authorised professional” or “Customer Care Centre”. With only an exploded parts diagram to work with, I got my hands dirty.

To cut a long story short, I couldn’t lever the cog off so thought it would be a good idea to “tap” it with a small hammer. After several increasingly heavy “taps” and encouraged by some small movement, I put my shoulder into it. I got the cog off but not before I’d mushroomed over the end of the shaft, never again to fit perfectly into its brass bearing housing: cue sinking feeling.In just a few minutes, I’d reduced an expensive and fully working tool into a pile of second-hand spare parts. Gabrielle gave me a “there, there” smile, by way of support.

The happy ending is that the helpful people at Rochford Garden Machinery posted a not-too-pricey replacement part and a chap in their technical department took the time to tell me how to install it—thanks guys! Voluminous, they might be but it’s a shame that fear of litigation has reduced maintenance manuals to such inadequate nonsense. Had I the time and you the patience, I could tell you a similar story about a mate’s Triumph TR6, a gearbox, an overdrive unit, overconfidence and a failure to read the Haynes maintenance manual before we started work; when will I ever learn?