Monday, March 31, 2008

Take one freebie hot water heater

Under construction[Posted by risa]

The weather kept me indoors much of the last three days. I took Friday for vacation, and spent much of it touching up interior paint, including patching cracks in the trompe 'œil floor, which has stood up surprisingly well considering. This part of the house was constructed using very cheap materials and had when we got it, angels help us, a flat roof (in permanent monsoon country). The water got in -- still does, in spite of the sloped roof we cobbled on -- and got underneath the vinyl tiles, swelled the chipboard underlayment, breaking tiles left and right. Back in the early nineties, with no money to actually fix the floor, I had the bright idea to pull up the worst tiles, fill all the holes with driveway patch, paint the whole room white, then, using the edges of the remaining tiles as guidelines, hand-paint fake terracotta tiles over the white throughout, covering it all with polyurethane at the end. Visitors have often assumed that it was in fact terracotta, which has been kind of gratifying.

Saturday and Sunday, there were enough breaks in the weather for me to take my flats of tomatoes and pok choy out for a sun break, cut some bean poles, cover the future potato patch with black plastic to kill the sod, and start work on the solar hot water heater.

This is intended to be an almost-no-investment project.

Take one freebie hot water heater, peel back half the outer skin, remove the insulation from that half, paint the exposed tank surface black, lay it on a pallet in a sunny spot, attach a couple of garden hose spigots, frame the tank in with old recycled fence boards or whatever, insulate the frame box, and cover with a freebie window. I have yet to scrounge up the needed insulation, but the system is almost ready to put into service. A washing-machine hose will go from the wellhead valve (which is inside the little house in the picture) to the inlet bibb, then a hose from the outlet bibb will run twenty-five feet over to a bibb in an elbow underneath the second bathroom. Hot water will then run from both the electric tank and the solar tank in winter, or we can cut off the hot water tank and its valve in summer, using the solar system alone. To increase summer capacity, one simply runs the washing machine hose into more and more loops of sun-exposed black hose before tying into the tank.

Beloved, a bit tired from mucking out the barn, made appropriate noises about the project, but reserved her highest praise for the sheet of black plastic over the future potato patch. We like hot water, but food we really like.


Oh! And then I brought in the flats, just as a few snowflakes began to fall. And we had hot chocolate by the fire.


Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Running late

[posted by risa]

I'm sure we'd all like to be done with the chicken stories for awhile.

But I gotta tell you this.

Beloved and Grinin are off to SoCal to visit my in-laws, and so I am in charge of the home front.

But last night I had a committee, so it was, oh, about 9 pm as I left the meeting.

Tired. A bit addled, even.

So, I thought about the poor chickens wondering if they had been abandoned.

And, oh help me Hannah, I fer cryin' out loud actually reached for the cell phone ...

... had some idea I was gonna call home and tell the chickens I was running late ...

... the chickens ...


Monday, March 24, 2008

The best time to move fence

[posted by risa]

We had some more rain and wind ...

Beloved built up the fire a bit so we could venture out and help the poultry, who had (again) run out of fresh grass. We got into hooded rain jackets and rubber boots and previewed our campaign.

"I'd like to take off from this corner of the house where we already are, and go straight across. Except it's through the branches of the spruce."

"You could cut them back?"

"Ayah, or go at an angle, over to here by the fir tree."

"I could live with that."

"Are you sure? Catty-cornered seems to drive us both nuts."

"What else can we try?"

"Well, I could gate here and then corner here, along the walk, so that they can't get in the bed where we've put the lavendar, then go straight across."

"Is there enough fencing?"

"If I can piece it out with the hardware cloth." I looked at her inquiringly.

"OK, let's do it," she said. "They need this grass now."

She fed the critters, then temporarily blocked them out of their front yard with the hardware cloth, which is two feet high, while I separated all the fence posts from last year's 2X4" by 4' welded-wire fencing and pounded them in, in their new locations. It began to rain even harder. Water poured off the end of my nose.

We walked the fence, a fifty foot piece with a ten foot piece patched on, around to its new posts, and she stretched while I tied, using six-inch snips of light gauge wire. This would never do for cattle, of course, but it keeps chickens in and dogs out, or it has so far. I then worked along the boundary fence, attaching hardware cloth to the neighbor's sheep fence. One of their cedar fence posts had rotted off at the ground, so I found my last remaining tee post, which was badly bent, took it to the bench vise to straighten, brought it back, and pounded it in.

Ah, la niña winters! The best time to move fence.

I moved the gate, switching to open on the left instead of the right, to keep us from having to lean into the lilac bush by the house.

This gate has been through a lot. When we moved here, in 1993, there were heaps of trash on the "back forty," hidden in blackberry thickets, and most of the stuff we removed to the upper "barn" -- a stamping shed, where it remains to this day, while we keep hoping to get it all sorted and dumped/recycled and switch that area to pig raising. one of the piles was a burn pile, and unspeakable things had been thrown on the fire.... The gate had been burned, too, except it was all tubular steel and twisted wire, with a nice wrought-iron top, and not really any the worse for the fire and rust. I painted it green and it has had six different jobs since, including sheep pasture and chicken-house door.

"Can I let them out now?"

"You bet!"

Uh, nope. Turns out I wasn't as ready as I thought. The geese and ducks headed for new grass and snails respectively, but the chickens went straight to the scotch pine, the cherry tree, and a young bigleaf maple, and within sixty seconds had all but uprooted them. Woodland birds indeed! More like deforestation birds.

But we had a goodly pile of bricks left over from taking down the unsafe fireplace chimney a few years ago. The grass clippings were put back in place, then the bricks were quickly moved onto the clippings and arranged around the saplings' trunks as a "stone-mulch." Lets rain in, keeps chicken feet out. Not bad looking, either.

We bailed from farm work at that point in favor of hot chocolate by the woodstove, leaving the ducks to their slugs, the geese to their grass ...

... and the chickens pecking resolutely at the bricks.

Sunday, March 09, 2008

Chicken rodeo

Chicken rodeo[posted by risa]

The jury duty thing was a bit of a bust. Have a seat, watch the movie (about the constitution we once had) and get divided into four groups. The Bulldogs and Mutts were sent in for selection, and the Labs and Beagles (I was a Beagle) were let go. It took about four hours.

I got to know a Lab while we waited. She has a Finnish daughter-in-law and about half an hour into the conversation mentioned she has been reading to her grandchildren from the Moomin books.

"We used to read to the kids from those."

"Oh, I've never met anyone who knows a thing about them!" Suddenly we were bosom buddies and comparing notes on our descendants scattered across the earth.

I mentioned that my oldest would be forty on his next birthday.

"No! Well. Well, you must have been quite the child bride!"

Something like that.


Daughter (whom you may know as Grinin) came to our house, with Young Man, and Last Son, to celebrate her birthday. Last Son brought along his first batch of brew, which had turned out well -- I'm told. I wouldn't know -- I was away doing a Freedom Fund dinner and missed much of the party, including all of the beer. When I arrived, everyone was pretty much mellowed out, including Beloved.

While we all were visiting, I got out the breadmaker, cleaned it up as best I could, put in the spare paddle, the manual, the recipe book, and a yeast packet and gave them to Daughter. It might be a good introduction to breads for her, and a chance for me to get a piece of kitchen machinery out of the house. I had baked a loaf for them that turned out especially well, using just the big bowl and a wooden spatula for the mixing, and felt brave enough. This will turn out to have been a good idea if my arthritis doesn't advance on me any time soon.

Today it was 66 degrees Fahrenheit. Maybe not a a record but not what one expects this time of the year. Things were busting out all over. Snakes were sunning themselves, something we don't often see until June, and the mason bees went crazy in the pussy willows. I cut some wood, did repairs to the drains, cleaned up around the fruit trees where I had been pruning, and hauled about eight loads of grass clippings to the garden. I took the rake down to the garden to spread the clippings, then suddenly wished I could have the chickens level them out for me. I went looking for Beloved.

She had gone back to bed briefly and had been napping, some we're doing more and more of in the daytime, but waved me over.

"How about if we were to put just, say, two chickens in garden for the day, you know, just hand-carry them over? The ones that squat down when you go up to them and are easy to pick up?"

"Wouldn't that be a kind of a Chicken Rodeo getting them back up to the pen?"

"How so?"

"Well, we'd be chasing them around in the garden and compacting it."

"No, no, I thought maybe they'd, you know, do their submissive thingy just like they do in the pen and we could carry them back up there, no sweat. Whaddya think?"

"I think we might just try it. I was gonna do inside things next but I'll dress for the barnyard and be there in a bit."

I went out to the filbert, which needed its suckers removed (and made into pea brush), and wielded the loppers until Beloved showed up by the garden gate with a hen under each arm. I held it open for them and in they went.

There was some nervous clucking for about five seconds, and then one of them scratched tentatively at the winter mulch, tipped her head over to eyeball the results, and then it was like -- oh! Hey!! Come over here and check this out!!! They were sold.

Beloved watched them for about thirty seconds, and then went up to the barn for another pair.

The next time I went by the garden, every chicken on the place was in there.

What it's going to be like to round them up, I have no idea. Some, especially among the Araucanas, are not as into being transported as others.

But they are certainly very, very happy right now.


Wednesday, March 05, 2008

As much of it as we can

[posted by risa]

We sometimes think we haven't done much in the way of relocalization here at Stony Run, but thinking over the last fourteen years, as we recently were pointing out to each other, we could have done much worse.

There is a good well and we produce enough compost and mulch not to need to bring in any, though I used to truck home many loads of leaves, and Beloved buys straw bales to use in the barn (grass clippings would work for that but they are a hassle in there and finicky to dry right).

There's no woodlot worthy of the name, but we have three kinds of maples (the bracts of the Bigleaf maples are edible, in spring), Oregon oaks, black cherries, Oregon ash, Douglas fir, grand fir, blue spruce, Scotch pine, cottonwood, shore pine, and some kind of local willow that coppices nicely for pea brush. But we have bought in more firewood than we have cut.

At one time or another we have tried here Jerusalem artichokes, beets, bush and pole green, yellow or purple beans, lima beans, broad beans, scarlet runners, broccoli, brussels sprouts, bok choi, cabbage, red cabbage, carrots, cauliflower, celery, chard, chiles, corn, cucumbers, lemon cukes, garlic, eggplant, elephant garlic, kale, leeks, lettuces, melons, nasturtuims, onions, bunching onions, parsnips, edible pod peas, bush and pole, all kinds of peppers, potatoes, pumpkins, red and white radishes, rhubarb, sunflowers, many varieties of tomatoes, winter squash, and green and yellow zukes. Of these, the Jerusalem artichokes, beans, peas, corn, tomatoes, zukes, rhubarb, garlic, corn, eggplant, and squash have been consistent perennial favorites. It's not really warm enough for melons. And the soil is just too heavy for the carrots, though not for the beets, which do well enough.

We have, or have had, apples and crabapples, blackberries, blueberries, cherries, pears, plums, raspberries, rose hips, red and white grapes, and filberts. The filberts have a bug problem, for which we are reluctant to spray. And our blueberries failed us and we failed our raspberries. We'll try again. There's no getting rid of the blackberries, but they have earned their keep. And the apples have performed very well, and unsprayed at that. We did have one walnut tree that died before reaching nut size.

My dad made terrific wine from the grapes in 2000, when they were here for a year. About, I think, five gallons. It's all gone, not because we're lushes, but because Tallest Son is a long-swordsman who competes in tournaments of the Society for Creative Anachronism, which I gather can be thirsty work.

Not tried yet, though considered: peaches, kiwis.

There are also, or have been, balm, parsley, basil, bergamot, comfrey, lavendar, mint, and sage. And, since we don't poison the lawn, we also eat the dandelions and spring onions, and pasture as much of it as we can to the ducks, chickens, and geese (though the ducks prefer snails, of which there is an endless supply).

We have the Khaki Campbell ducks, weeder geese, and the Barred Rocks and Araucanas. We have had sheep here a couple of times, as well, and in a former lifetime, in the Coast Range, a steer, a weaner pig and a couple of goats. Not yet tried here, another weaner pig, or maybe a Dexter cow/calf unit.

We also co-exist with, and have seen here: wild ducks, wild geese, hawks, eagles, herons, California quail, pheasants, foxes, raccoons, possum (brought into Oregon by a homesick Southern restorateur -- sheer madness) deer, no end of squirrels, a wide variety of songbirds, banded pigeons, mourning doves, a meadowlark, and one -- so far, just one, once -- cougar.

We collect trout from about eight miles away, and get most of our entertainment and do much of our vacationing right here (watching the antics of a yard full of chickens beats Hollywood -- kind of an everlasting rodeo/reality show).

All the foods have been for our own use, except for most of the eggs, and we have been moderately successful in "putting by" for the winter, and winter harvesting as well.

And we built much of our own furniture, made candles, insulated, did our own roof (which is overdue to redo), and the barn and greenhouse, as well as a lot of the fencing, and have done greywater (though not at present). And endless repairs to the funky old house with our own chapped hands, often using curbside freebies.

Yet to try, but in the works: Solar hot water. Getting to the feed store for hay and feed, and to the grocery store and bus stop, without using gasoline.

So, yes, we think we could have done worse!

But we both have such absorbing jobs that we often think we're not really here.

And in the morning I report for jury duty.

Sunday, March 02, 2008

Can You Hear It?

[posted by grinin]

Can you hear Spring? A week or two ago while on a morning walk I heard the chirping of birds. The silence of Winter has been broken and the song birds are here. You never realize how much you've missed the serenade of nature until she picks up the tune where she left off. I walk by the same marsh everyday to work. At night I pass that same marsh listening to the cars whizz by.

Yesterday I heard a sound I had not heard before.

...Ribbit...roobot..rebert.. ...Ribbit...roobot..rebert.. I stopped. I turned. Were those frogs in that marsh? They had not been there the night before.Or if they had, they chose to keep silent for the time at hand. I stood and listened. I breathed that fresh Spring air that smells like green grass and dirt.

Saturday, March 01, 2008

Loading the transformer

A photo on Flickr[posted by risa]

Another storm front moved through. I had been home alone sick all day, trying to fight off an ear infection (these have a habit of being life threatening as I'm apparently the abode of a resistant form of strep). About four in the afternoon, the transformer out at the street went "bang," frightening the geese and plunging the house into interior darkness, just as the rains were at their wildest.

I was right in the middle of uploading A Journal of the Plague Year, so survival modes were very much on my mind. And with only about 5K to go, too (slow modem). Oh, well.

Beloved hasn't been feeling well, either, so, since I could not heat the bedroom for her return home, I thought I had better build a fire and put the kettle on, the old-fashioned way.

When these things happen, one's life is both simplified and made more complicated. Simplified because there isn't much to do: split wood, carry water, chop vegetables, trim the lamp, practice dulcimer, sleep. You can only read by lantern light for so long, and it's not enough to really see by for some chores, like mending. Splitting wood and carrying water, also, are predicated upon an economy that currently doesn't exist around here: nostalgia for the nineteenth-century ways of doing things can be a misleading exercise because, in fact, hardly anyone can afford to work for, say, five cents an hour anymore. Though we are in danger of getting back to that -- through a process of horrific attrition, thanks to a couple of hundred years of good sanitation and poor family planning policy.

Complicated because the world still thinks growth equals progress and while I'm sitting here in the dark, the cost of everything is rising fast and there's not much more my world expects from me in the way of productivity. I'm beginning to panic as I measure my remaining strength against how fast I'm supposed to run to keep up, in a direction I don't want to go. Out there somewhere are committees and a grand jury (I've been picked for duty next week) and a job that are becoming irrelevant fast, if we're not very very careful. And so far, we're not.

Most of you are maybe too young to have seen Soylent Green, yes?

I then put soup on, but Beloved would have eaten. It's symbolic more than anything. We do try to put something we have grown in every meal, and we do try to have at least one meal a day at home. OK, so I will just have a little bit....

When she came in, I was sitting in the dark with a candle and two lamps going. I had tired of practicing dulcimer, then eating, then practicing dulcimer, then eating. She put down her stuff on the counter.

"How long have we been out?"

"About an hour. They came and fixed it, and then it went bang again."

"Right, they're back, shining lights on it and scratching their heads."

"They have to be careful. A lot of wet volts can happen up there if they forget any steps."

"They won't. They're really good, getting here that fast. Our heroes."

"We seem to have them here more than anywhere. People are loading that transformer a lot."

"Well, the price of wood went up before the price of electricity. So people switched over."

"Switched, I love it." I hefted my bowl and spoon. "Soup?"

"No, I ate with the kid."

"How's he doing?"

"Really, not that bad. He wanted to go for a walk but then the rain hit and I told him I wasn't up for it with my throat, so we stayed in and watched some of his anime. He's not going to go to work in the Gardens tomorrow; too wet."

The lights came on, momentarily blinding us. The refrigerator clattered, and settled down to a hum. Civilization!

"I'll go get the mail, I still have on my coat," she said. "Are the birds in?"

"I had to chase them around in circles 'cuz it was still light out, but I think they're all Behind Closed Doors."

''Kay, thanks." She went down through the mudroom with that long farmer's gait she has.

I blew out the lamps and the candle.

Bang! went the transformer. The windows rattled.

I sighed, and lit the lamps again.

Beloved came in, dripping, with a handful of unsolicited catalogs. Her eyes were wide.

"I thought I was being shot."

"You were practically right under that thing, I shouldn't wonder."

"Tell you what, let's just go to bed."


I took the soup off, and the hot water, closed the damper, blew out the lamps, and followed her off into the darkness.

About as soon as we closed our eyes, the lights came back on. You could just hear the refrigerator cranking up, against the steady drumbeat of the last rains of February.

Country Living, brought to you by the fragile, expensive, and unpredictable twenty-first century.