Sunday, June 27, 2010

Published again !

"Writing is like prostitution. First you do it for love, and then for a few close friends, and then for money.” Molière

While not enough to give up the day job and become a literary courtesan, so to speak, I have a couple of new articles to announce. One came out a while ago and another is about to role off the press.

With the knowledge and consent of both editors, I rehashed an article I’d written in French for La Maison Ecologique for a second airing in English in the Summer edition of Permaculture Magazine. It was a whole lot easier writing in English but it does suggest a lucrative future if I can publish everything I write twice! If you want to read how to survey the sun using free sun path diagrams, get yourself down to your local ecologically-minded newsagent and buy a copy before s/he replaces it with the Autumn edition.

Said newsagent won’t be able to help you with the next one, as the relatively new publication, Living Woods is still subscription only. In the soon-to-be-published July/August edition, you will find my three-page article on “Buying Woods in France”. It’s a right, riveting read and if you’re into any aspect of private ownership of woodland, sign up here.

Clearly seduced by celebrity and now quite the media sluts, we’ve just had a journalist and photographer from Habitat Naturel come and visit our beautiful grey water treatment system and accompanying wildlife pond. It’s actually an article about Eléonore and Christophe, who specified and installed it, so we stood discretely in the shadows. Not so a English chap working at a neighbours’ house who arrived to borrow a tool. Understanding that a certain politesse is required in France, he realised that he should say bonjour to everyone but he wasn’t so au fait with the subtle nuances. A bisous is a peck on both cheeks, the number of which varies according to local custom. For a lady one hasn't met before, a handshake is more than adequate. So Kevin, stripped to the waist and sporting a huge amount of tattoos, a sheen of honest sweat and a bright gold tooth, grabs the journalist by her shoulders and gives her a solid smacker on both sides of her face. She was clearly shocked! There you go, that’s the English for you.

Soon: details of our recently sown flower meadow and how we have inadvertently invented a new meat product called either “hork” or “pam”.

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

“And the winner of this year’s Wildlife Photographer of the Year Award is Mr Stuart …” and it’s at this precise moment that I wake from my dreams. It’s all to easy to take for granted the amazing wildlife images we see in magazines and on the telly. That is until one tries to take a photograph of something.

It seems to me that one needs either a very powerful telescopic lens, and/or bags of patience, neither of which I have. Or else that the beast-to-be-photographed isn’t inclined to move: dead in fact … cue the cat. So this broad-bodied chaser (libellula depressa) has passed on, is no more, has ceased to be, has expired and gone to meet 'is maker, helped on its way by one of our domestic cats in hunting mode.

Now I’m not going to make much of a career as a wildlife photographer if I have to kill all my subjects first. So the next opportunity I got was another dragonfly emerging from its nymph, rather than heading for its coffin. I found it stuck to the side of the pond that is at the end of our grey water treatment system the other morning while doing the rounds of the animals. I initially thought it was a pair of mayflies having a shag but when I checked the guidebooks, I realised that I was wrong and went back out with my camera. I assume that the newly-emerged beastie has to dry its wings and adapt psychologically to its new incarnation before taking flight. Whatever, it was conveniently static whilst being very much alive.

In the picture of the two together, the nymph is empty and unzipped down the back. It’s interesting to see that the dragonfly that has emerged is noticeably bigger than its previous suit, much like the contents of an overstuffed holiday suitcase once unpacked in the hotel room. Still immobile, I couldn’t resist testing out limits of the macro facility of my compact digital camera (a Panasonic Lumix TZ7). Newly “born” it might be, but this dragonfly (top photo) needs a shave !

Sunday, June 13, 2010

The 102nd thing you can do with sheep’s wool.

There are 101 things you can do with sheep’s wool, the first, and most important of course, is to keep a sheep warm during winter. Summer time though, and they’re pleased to be rid of it so we’re shearing at the moment, with the ram and the wether already done and the four ewes still to do.

The duvet on our bed is stuffed with sheep’s wool (see Magazine Articles link on the right) and our friend Val has made it her business and does many imaginative things with it, such as supplying natural insulating packaging for organic meat boxes.

During the re-construction of our shower room, to make way for a double-vault, urine separating dry compost toilet, I had to remove and rebuild two plasterboard walls. Despite being internal walls, we wanted to insulate this room as it’s a room to keep warm in winter but adjoins a guest bedroom, which is only heated when we have visitors. So, we ordered sheep’s wool insulation from Val, who delivered it personally on her next trip over to Brittany.

However, I unbuttoned the walls to find that they were already insulated with rock wool batts. A conundrum: what was the most ecological thing to do with this horrible stuff? It’s insulating, for sure, but is high in embodied energy and is noisome to use (and also, presumably, for the poor guys who work in the factories manufacturing it). We could take it down the local tip but then it just gets buried in a hole in the ground. It seemed to us that the most sensible thing to do was to put gloves and dust masks on and seal it back up in the new partition walls. Although we ended up using some of the sheep’s wool insulation—which is such a pleasure to use compared to the rock wool—we now find ourselves with a surplus.

The pond at the end of our grey water treatment system is the first that either of us has constructed, so there are, bien sûr, things that we’d have done differently.
The edges are like the sketch on the left, with stones placed around the edge on top of the EPDM pond liner, which slopes down into the water, leaving a band of black rubber on view. We thought that a solution might be to build the edges as in the sketch on the right, so that the capping stones would hide the liner completely. But then slopes are good for beasties and birdies to access the pond and get in and out safely and vertical sides are not. (Photo shows me placing the pump during construction and yes, the water was very cold.)

Which is how Gabrielle came up with the 102nd thing to do with sheep’s wool: trap it under the stone and lay it over the liner, then lay moss on top. So far, the wool seems to wick up the water and keep the moss moist, to the extent that something has seeded in it. That makes us think that this technique could be refined to, for example, soak the wool insulation in mud, then seed it with a special pond edge mix of wildflowers from a supplier such as Emorsgate Seeds. Now we have pretty pond edges that are also wildlife friendly.

Wednesday, June 02, 2010

Economising water and identifying plants

Naiad posted a comment on my blog of 13th May: “ [When speaking with guests] How do you broach the delicate issues of 1)being water-wise (i.e., not spending AGES in the shower twice a day) and 2) disposing of sanitary protection.”

Along with an advert in Permaculture Magazine, we advertise on a mainstream holiday rental website, through which we encounter the majority of our paying guests. So you can imagine that not all our holidaymakers have an ecological bent. And we’re not permacultural evangelists.

There’s a variety of things to inform our guests of when they arrive. One of which is to only put French-bought toilet paper down the toilet, important even for a conventional septic tank. Having then explained about the recycling box and compost bin, imagine the effect on our travel-weary arrivants were we to tell them not to switch on the electric heaters, to switch off the lights when they didn’t need them … oh, and don’t spend to long in the shower ? Have a nice stay !

The answer is in design (of course, this is permaculture). So, at great expense, we have installed an easy-to-light, super-efficient, Danish-built Jøtul woodstove and removed the electric panel heater downstairs. We offer to set a fire a couple of hours before they’re due home in the evening, if they want. Water-wise, we have been very impressed by our economising showerhead and tap aerators from Aqua-Techniques: see my blog of 13th December 2006. The showerhead is the more impressive, in that you get satisfactorily soaked, so much so that I found it difficult to believe that it was using less water, which it was, and to a surprising degree. So our holidaymakers can stay agreeably clean without using too much water and without being dictated to by eco-fascists!

Thanks to Sue and Val (aided by Pete) who’ve helped me identify the mystery yellow flower of my last blog. It is, without doubt, crosswort, (Cruciata laevipes), a member of the bedstraw (Rubiaceae) family of plants.

It’s not poisonous to our sheep, which is nice to know. In fact, the Plants for a Future database says that crosswort “was considered a very good wound herb for both external and internal use. A decoction of the leaves has also been used to treat obstructions of the stomach and bowels, to stimulate the appetite and as a remedy for rheumatism, rupture and dropsy.”

The problem is then that our sheep aren’t eating it, so it is spreading by seeds and stolons (horizontal runners). We must therefore assume that they’re in good health and not suffering from bowel obstructions, rheumatism or dropsy! So, I took my ash-handled Austrian scythe to it to teach it a lesson. Like a lot of weeds, if one keeps cutting them before they set seed, they weaken and (hopefully) die.

Next blog: how we used sheep’s wool insulation to make our pond edges prettier.