A Gathering and Departure of Gray-striped Cats

I think it is the Christmas letters flying back and forth: I am nagged upon at this time of year, pushed, and urged and reminded that friends look for my blog posts, and complain that there have been no new ones and they are tired of the old ones. And I admit: it’s been a year, about, since the last one. An annual blog post does seem like fairly little effort.

But what to write about?

In the last, I spoke of the several cats that had come to us, an abundance, it seemed, of gray-striped cats. Cats are desired on a place. A place with a barn needs cats to keep the rodents down. A place with a garden needs cats to keep the gophers at bay. In the interim between cats, when our beloved, efficient Yellowcat 10mar_yellowcat1  had expended all of her 9 lives, and the new cats were not yet established in their art, I lost a well-grown Benjamin Britten rose, a young lilac, and lot of dahlias from the garden. I lost tulip bulbs, and daffodils. Strawberries. Daylilies. Carrots. A place needs cats.

We had meant to have Gollum’s Precious and two from her litter to stay with us. Yellowcat’s standard of performance was so great that we thought it would take more than one cat to match her. But Gollum’s Precious, who had come as a wanderer and had what I thought was an uncomfortably large territory, made a mistake one day in regard to the road. So she used up all her lives in a moment, and left us. The kittens were on their own by then, two had gone to another farm home. That left us two for ourselves: Cobweb and Moth, little brothers in mischief.


In the fullness of time, we took them to the doctor for their exams and alterations. The vet told us, with actual tears, that Cobweb had a pretty serious heart murmur and would not be with us long. Well, we thought philosophically, he’s with us now, and he’s a happy little barn cat, 14jan01_Cobweb1_cr so it didn’t seem like we needed to take any action in the matter. It wasn’t long, though, before I found him one day,  curled as if in sleep in the soft springtime sun beside the path. He wasn’t asleep really, but had gone on before, leaving Moth to take care of the gophers.


This one cracked me open a bit. I am, for the most part, stoical about farm losses. When we lost Gollum I was angry, because that was the fault of a careless veterinarian. I was resigned when we lost Gollum’s Precious on the road, but we knew she was a stray when she came, and she had found a good place to have her litter, and then strayed again. I was philosophical when we lost a ewe a while before; she got herself rolled down a little hill next to the fence and couldn’t get upright, and I didn’t find her in time. I was even able to be calm when a dog raided our rabbitry and we lost 2 bucks and a doe.

But now my sweet, happy Cobweb cat had died and, though forewarned, I was tearful.

But we have Moth, who is ready, curious, underfoot, and … hardworking.


So, at the end of this year of cats, I would like to offer an homage to the lineage of Moth as we know it:


Gollum, feral visitor.


Gollum’s Precious, lady traveler.    


Gollum’s Precious and her kittens, the issue of two wanderers.

So, friends afar, here is at least one little blog post from me. I think, a year ago, I promised to do better. It almost seems superfluous to do so again. But… all right. I’ll try to do better.



Published in: on January 2, 2016 at 3:07 pm  Comments (16)  

A Winter Day in the Greenhouse

14dec_treelights_cr_smChristmas mail has made it clear to me I am a very bad blogger. “We miss your blog.” “No updates on your blog.” “So sorry you’ve stopped blogging.” OK. Truth is, I haven’t stopped blogging. I just haven’t done it lately. (And I’ve blogged at least as often as I hear from my Christmas correspondents.)

It seemed after a while that the farm things must be getting a little boring to you, dear readers. After all, every year the same plants grow, or don’t. The animal procreate, or don’t. The rain falls, or sometimes doesn’t, and we complain either way.

All right: Here is what I am doing today: I am trimming up the over-wintering geraniums in the greenhouse.

The greenhouse turns out to have been useful for a number of things. Last fall (a year ago), I moved a number of my zonal geraniums into the greenhouse to hold them over. I usually start them from seed in the spring, but I thought I’d see how they did inside. I remember my mother wintering hers over in the garage with little light and hardly any water, so I thought the glassed-in beds would be good for this. It was:

15jan04_geraniums_sm They got a little out of hand. And I didn’t, actually, get them planted out into the garden in the spring. So we have had a forest of happy geraniums in the greenhouse, though there was room for other things until summer advanced and we noticed they had fairly taken over the world.

It was nice in there in the spring and summer with the blooms, the scent of geraniums, and the everlasting nosegay. In April we had a bottle lamb from the sheep flock, one whose mother did her best but died when the lamb was a bare 3 weeks old. So Folly, as we called her since she was born on April 1, moved into the greenhouse where it was more convenient for us to meet her feeding schedule.

14apr_greenhousefolly1_cr_smShe enjoyed the geraniums, too. Folly has since then returned to being a sheep and lives with the other ewes.

In summer we had another blessed event, one we would have avoided if we could’ve. But when you live in the country, Providence brings you cats, and it happened that She brought us both a feral tom and a sweet, fertile queen at the same time. In a longer story than I will tell here, Gollum the tom, is no longer with us. But he left a little bit of himself behind. That’s Gollum’s Precious and her 4 grey-striped kittens.

14jul_kittens1_cr_sm We found a good home for 2 of them, and 2 have stayed with us. For a short time, while their mother was recovering from her female surgery, they all  took up residence in the greenhouse, which had been vacated by Folly, and where they learned essential gardening skills.


So the greenhouse has been successful for animal husbandry as well as botanical experiments. But really, really, those geraniums need to be taken in hand. Hard as it is to whack something so thriving, if we intend any use of the greenhouse in the spring, we have to do it. So here I am today, whacking:

15jan04_geraniums3_smThe mask is for the clouds (clouds!) of old pollen falling from the dried blooms.


There are benefits to this exercise: I’ll recover planting space, the geraniums will be, I hope, in splendid condition for planting out in the spring when they will have put on new growth to their now compact limbs, and: I find things! (I knew that trowel was in there someplace!)


It’s raining outside, and I could complain about that, but this is nice way to spend a winter afternoon in the garden. I once had a university professor who said, in regard to plants, “You have to hurt them to make them thrive. Cut them back!”

Published in: on January 4, 2015 at 4:12 pm  Comments (7)  

Things To Be Done in Autumn

Good readers: Ahead of this post, let me say I am not very happy with the new WordPress image handling routine, and it’s been a struggle to get these into the post and oriented properly and not all skewed in aspect. If, when you load the page, the images on your monitor are tiny, tiny and stretched out, it seems that if you refresh the screen (F5 on a PC), they sort themselves and appear properly. I think if you click on the individual images, they will appear as well, but that seems like a bother and takes them out of context. Maybe everything will look good to you and you won’t have to do anything at all.

And so, we begin:

It’s Christmas tree time in these hills. The sky has been a-buzz with the sound of helicopters transporting cut trees to trucks, and the roads are heavy with the trucks moving trees to their destinations.


It starts in early October when the trees are going overseas, and continues into November, for the domestic market. Instantly after Thanksgiving dinner is off the tables, every open corner space becomes a Christmas tree lot.

In the orchard, it’s the best time. If there is any sound better than the snap! of an apple stem twisted from its branch on a fall day, then it’s the sound of the apple dropping into the bucket. The air smells like apples and leaves on the ground. My fingers are cold and damp, and the skins of the apples squeak when I handle them.


This little tree of Liberties filled 3 wheelbarrows. It never seems to take a year off. They’re tart and firm, and they make a wonderful cider.

While I pick, the ewes are ever-hopeful, ever-watchful. They have a pretty good idea treats are likely to come over the fence in their direction.


And they’re not the only ones hoping to share in the apple crop. I haven’t caught them at it, but here is the evidence of Visitors in the orchard:

.12nov_cidering5_smI’m thinking it’s the little brown rabbit I see hopping for cover when I pass through to feed the the llamas. I really can’t say I mind. Who can begrudge a little rabbit her taste of apple in the fall? But back to work … Here’s the last load on its way through the gate (see them there, down the path, in the wheelbarrow) …


… to sorting before washing …


… then loading into the crusher …

12nov_cidering2 … and the crushed result …12nov_cidering_crush_cr_sm

… ready for pressing: 12nov_cidering8_cr_sm

and then, oh! joy!

12nov_cidering7_sm Nothing sweeter!

That’s cidering. We freeze it now and have the freshest-tasting varietal cider all year.

Fall is spider time in the woods and field. 12nov_woodsspider_sm It’s a good time to get a faceful of web as you pass. But they’re beautiful on their houses of silk. This one,


clinging to grass and apples, is so pregnant she looks about to burst. I set her aside to safety. Spiders are beneficial in the landscape. Still and all, I like them out there, not inside with me.

Fall is time to divide dahlias in the garden. Here’s a nice hand, the offspring of the one, roundish one you can see beneath them. Dahlias can be a little expensive to buy in quantity. With patience, you can start with a single tuber and finish the season with… let’s see… more. I’ll plant them out again next spring.


Speaking of plant propagation, does anyone remember the rosemary cuttings I set last fall, in  in post Make More Plants? They were tiny little sticks with a couple of leaves on top. Here they are now, ready to go into the garden:


Of two dozen cuttings, I got 23 to strike. I don’t know what I did wrong on the other one.

Aside from that, it’s time to make holiday wreaths again. Here is my pile of stuff, ready for the genius of the season to arrive. They’ll look better in a week or so.


For a review of my wreath-making routine, here is an older post on the subject: Wreathery.

I always do enjoy this time of year when there’s not much to do. They say.

Published in: on December 2, 2012 at 4:13 pm  Comments (2)  

(Waves hand) Yes! I’m Here!

It has been made clear to me that I am a very bad blogger lately. Someone pointed out it was January when I last posted. Someone else actually asked me whether I am still alive!

I appreciate the concern. I am not yet pushing up late summer stubble.

In the meantime, spring has come and gone. Summer has come and is just now used up. Indeed, the faint signs of a change of season are here: mist in the mornings, fruit on the trees. Partly, you see, the things that happen on a farm and in the woods each season are pretty much the same things that happened the last round. I imagined everyone might have been tired of hearing about them. But when people begin asking if I’m still quick, it’s a good time to check in even if it means repeating myself.

You’ll be inquiring about the house project. It is so very, very close to completion.We received a nice write-up in the  PGE Customer News e-letter: Green dream farmhouse: 8 ideas. Many, many names of men and women who have worked on the house are inscribed onto the roof beam in the attic.

Everyone who has worked on the house has signed the roof beam in the attic.

When I look back at the lay-out of our early design work, I’m impressed at how much the house looks like our first vision of it. Here, for instance, is the SketchUp drawing of the kitchen as we imagined it then.

Kitchen plan

And here is much the same view, with workman mess still in the way (but you can get the idea):

Join us for breakfast at the kitchen counter!

We look with joy at the possibility we’ll be able to use the greenhouse this year. The construction scaffold came down a couple of weeks ago, the painters finished working inside it last week, the final windows are to be installed next week, the 10-foot  Big Ass Fan  is installed and running,

No kidding, it’s called a Big Ass Fan

and the soil is ready to be raked into place. This first time we will be experimenting. First plants in: basil. Let’s see how long we can extend its season. I will be starting some seeds here this weekend, I think: lettuces, cilantro, miner’s lettuce. I’d like to try some late-started broccoli and cauliflower, and Swiss chard. We’ll move some tender perennials inside for over-wintering. We’re hoping it can be a real season stretcher and that we’ll be eating vegetables from it long after the outdoor garden has given up. Besides that, this greenhouse will warm the house in winter. We have no conventional furnace.

Out in the garden, I’ve made some progress. The landscaping is still pitiful, showing all the signs of construction and wreckage. When winter comes it will be discouraging again, but by summer’s end this year, parts of it almost looked like a garden.

The terraces: a beginning

The blocks of stone you see in the photo above will become steps from the first terrace to the next. A great many things are held in pots this year: the herb garden, the dahlias, shrubs that need siting and perennial starts from seed or cuttings. It’s all a process, and I  imagine the garden will never be finished, and every year I will feel despair as to its progress and condition.

The cat over there in the walkway is not dead. She just has an odd sense of what a pillow should be.

Pillow time

It’s seed-taking time already. These marigolds are ready to have seeds plucked out for next spring’s sowing. They’re the tiny Signet type that bloom in clouds of deep and bright oranges: easy to start from seed, a favorite of the springtime flush of slugs here. Though losses to slugs were heavy early on, the plants rallied when drier weather came, and now are throwing themselves into reproductive efforts.

Signet marigold seed heads

This one, below, is Nicotiana. I’m relying on them to self-sow. Oh…, well, maybe I’ll collect a few, too.

In the woods the owls are hooting their autumn signal system from tree to tree. In the night you can hear them, one nearby, hoo-hoo! and then, farther into the dark, hoo-hoo, hoo in answer. Add your own hoo to the conversation and they fall indignantly silent for a few minutes. They’re shedding themselves now, too, of soft gray feathers left in the grass.


It’s a sign, we’re coming ’round to the changing time of year again. It’s the time of year when, if you want to give yourself a case of the creepies, you walk into the woods at dusk. And listen.

Published in: on September 22, 2012 at 9:50 am  Comments (9)  

It’s Here! (Spring, I Mean)

Nothing speaks of spring like this:

Meet Penny Rose, the first lamb of the year. Isn’t she the perkiest thing you ever saw?

This is busy time for ewes, what with bearing and feeding and keeping track of youngsters. It’s suddenly a big responsibility for an animal accustomed to spending her time eating, lounging, and growing wool.

Here is Ida with her new twins, who immediately demand  feeding. Childbirth converts a lazy sheep into an attentive, conscientious mother who knows, from the first moment, what her new job is. Her voice changes. Her manner changes. She has this important thing to do now, and that’s all she is about.

Someone noted to me that this ewe mother has a lot of fleece on. Yes. While some shepherds shear just before lambing, I have always felt it puts unneeded stress onto a heavily pregnant ewe to set her on her butt and shear her. I do go in and give them a little haircut around the relevant areas, called “crutching,” to make sure the path is clear and the teats are available. I will shear later, when everyone has gotten over the excitement of lambing and new duties.


the daffodils are emerging from their winter’s sleep. Other than the sound of a lamb bleating, what can so strongly fill you with Spring as the scent of a Narcissus on the breeze? This is the Double Campernelle daffodil, a quite old variety, known in gardens from 1601.

And the Hellebores still nod, heavy and sensual,

nearly indecent with their fulsomeness. What floozies.

And what else?

We have had the Spring Fiber Sale, the first of the year’s gatherings of spinners, knitters, weavers and shepherds, the market days where we greet and exchange goods and envy. It’s been a long winter and we show off our work to one another.

See what can become of that woolly sheep when her fleece is cleaned and spun into fine yarn, worked by skilled hands into a pattern of lace?

This lovely shawl, seen at the Spring Fiber Sale, is done in the classic Shetland pattern known as “Old Shale” or, if you were a speaker of Shetland English some time ago, more probably “Old Shell” in meaning.

Here’s some winter’s work of my own,

done from handspun wool and knitted into a simple, thickly warm wrap.

And, speaking of spring, Sock Madness is underway! Sock Madness is the annual, March, sock knitting eliminations game, run online, on Ravelry – a knit and crochet community.

Here, for your enjoyment, are my completed Round 1 socks:

And my Round 2 socks:

I’m still in it. I await the Round 3 challenge…

Published in: on April 4, 2011 at 12:29 pm  Comments (4)  

One Very Fine Bean

After meaning to for years, this spring I planted a patch of Fava beans in the garden.

It’s a bean with much in favor of its cultivation. A cool weather plant, it’s often used as a winter cover crop or green manure. They can also be sown in earliest spring for a summer harvest. In this, our wettest and coldest spring in decades, the Fava Beans sown in March seemed to be all happy all the time. Favas are an Old World bean, thought to have originated in North Africa or the Mediterranean region. All other beans come from Central and South America. When my New World bean seeds rotted in the ground this year (they are, at last, now in July, emerging from a third sowing), the Favas shot up early and fast. And tall!

I’m used to beans which, if they are not climbers, nestle at the level of ankles. These beans, perhaps the beans that carried Jack into the clouds, have become a breast-high jungle. (There’s a nice looking cabbage coming on, too, though with some perforations from the visitations of slugs; and I see some grass to pull.)

I’ve had Fava beans at their “horse bean” stage, that is, when they are mature and dried. They are flat and broad and pale brown. They’re known as Broad Beans in Britain where, as in much of the world, they are the common table bean. We New Worlders aren’t as savvy about this useful Old World bean.

To an eye accustomed to our usual beans, these plants are a surprise. Not only are they tall on a single stalk, the beans set upward on their stems

like erect little… hm… unlike the beans I have grown in the past.

Their leaves aren’t what I expect from a bean plant, either.  I am told the young leaves can be eaten like spinach, but we’re past the young leaf stage right now. It’s information I’ll save for next time.

They have a beautiful blossom of white and black,

which does look like a bean flower to me. They’re quite a lush and lovely plant, nearly a hedge in the vegetable garden.

Because they are rarely found fresh in the markets here, we haven’t enjoyed them in their youngster stage. But yesterday I brought in a mess of tender young pods, and we sliced them up and treated them like string beans (no strings here, by the way). Done in the sauté pan in a certain amount of butter, they cook very quickly. These are fast food, and they came out tender, sweet, and slightly nutty.

Why ever is this bean not used here in the States? It’s nutritious, and a good source of folic acid, potassium, and magnesium. They contain vitamins A, B, C, iron, and, that specialty of all beans, dietary fiber.

We have ahead of us beans at several steps toward maturity: to be used as freshly shelled ones, as dried, broad ones, and  as treat fodder for the sheep when the plants begin to fade. (They are not so good for chickens, however, for whom they can reduce egg production and enlarge livers. This is information of interest to a limited audience, I realize, but feeding the left-over plants to chickens is something I would have thought of doing. They are notably good for ruminants, though, and the sheep always line up at the garden fence when I’m working. Who says sheep are stupid? Mine know where a green treat comes from.)

I would suggest this bean is a worthy addition to any American garden where they haven’t yet grown. Admirable as a cover crop (like all beans, the tilled-in plants enrich the soil), they come happily to the table as well. My next crop will be sown in the cool days leading into winter, because in mild-winter areas like ours they will hold over in the ground for an early spring harvest. The Fava does not crave or enjoy hot weather. But it thrives in the chill and damp.

Here is Yellowcat, enjoying the feeble warmth of this summer’s beginning, with a view of Favas in the foreground.


Published in: on July 5, 2010 at 1:23 pm  Leave a Comment  

Mid-Winter Observances

Here we are, more or less  half-way through to spring, waiting to see whether a rodent peeks out and perceives its shadow, and pretending to believe in the rodent’s effect on the length of winter. As February swings into view, we find ourselves a little desperate for clues to life outside the drabs of winter.

I see a few signs of wakening in the world. Here is the youngest of leaves, not yet unfurled, the very first sign of life in the

gooseberry cuttings made in early winter.

And these are narcissus bulbs pushing bravely into the chill.

Yellowcat finds the odd moment in the sun, though the sun is fugitive and unreliable:

It has always seemed illogical to me that the groundhog curses us with a long cold season if the weather on February 2 is fair, and conversely, if the day were foul, we might rejoice in the assurance that mild days will follow. Recently, however, I read an account of Imbolc, the ancient Celtic festivity that takes place (how coincidentally) at the same time as our silly Groundhog Day. Scratch a most minor holiday and you will often find a seasonal ritual behind it.

February: the gloomiest of months, it seems. Not yet spring, yet not quite winter still, it is gray, damp, and hopeless. It is the least favored of the months. Note that the beginning of February falls at the midpoint between the Winter Solstice and the Spring Equinox. Such a position in the calendar must be observed in some way. Give us a cause for frivolling! Let’s light some candles! Let’s see what the weather has in mind.

Imbolc is a festival of northern hemisphere agrarian people. No matter what the weather on the day of Imbolc, the fact is, the sun has done its sitting still for winter and is edging toward spring. In the hope of a fruitful season coming on, folks look for indications of the farm year to come. At home by the hearth, if indications are right, bright fires are indulged, and lights in the home. Traditionally, snakes come from their  holes on this day, and badgers from their burrows. And, just so, they may tell us what to expect in the next weeks.

As with our bastard version, Groundhog Day, the rule is, should the badger see his shadow (as to the snakes, I cannot say; are they tall enough to have a shadow on a day in February?), the oracle says winter will be another six weeks longer.

Is there sense in this? Only if you also know that on this day the Hag Cailleach comes out from her hut and has a look around. She intends to gather her firewood for the rest of the winter. I suppose it depends on her mood whether she decides on a long miserable season or a brief, hopeful one. If she favors extended misery, she’ll arrange a good day for wood gathering: a sunny imbolc day gives her plenty of time to bring in her stores before sunset. On the other hand, if she looks favorably on farmers and spring days, she won’t need so much wood to get her through, and the day might as well be gloomy and chill.

There you have it, my children. The truth of prediction based on groundhogs.

May your Groundhog Day be clouded and drear.

Published in: on January 31, 2010 at 9:54 pm  Comments (4)  

Rites of Autumn

Aside from the retrieval of flannel sheets from the storage chest, we are seeing clear signs of the change of seasons. Some things that come along every year are pleasing just because they are such certain indications.

We separate the young ewes from their elders in preparation for breeding. Here is Ava on her way to her winter digs. She’ll join some half-sisters there.

Ava on her way to new digs

Some shepherds breed ewes their first year. We think of them as youngsters at that age, and still call them lambs. Just because a teenager can breed, it doesn’t mean she might not be better off growing up.

The pace of knitting for winter picks up in autumn.

A little winter cap

This little cap went home with one of the solar contractors working on the house.

The woods and fields are full of fungi. Among the pleasures of fall are these, Coprinus comatus, the Shaggy Mane mushroom. There are a scant 3, more or less, wild mushrooms I am comfortable to pick and eat. The Shaggy Mane is one of them.

Coprinus comatus

It will never be a commercial commodity; it famously turns to black ink within hours of emerging.

This is a clever mechanism for dispersal of the spores. As it “rots” its way to old age, the edges of the egg-shaped young mushroom flare out, leaving the spores exposed to the elements. Shaggy Manes are a mess at this stage. The black liquid gives this type of mushroom another common name, Inky Cap, and the ink migrates everywhere once you touch it. But the liquid must be an effective means of carrying spore, because Coprinus can dot entire fields with its ghost-white caps. This year we’ve been lucky and have found them young and firm.  When you are lucky, they make a fine seasonal treat sauteed and served on toast.

We were thinking about the possibility of propagating Coprinus in our own pastures. They like disturbed ground, grassy areas under tree litter, and manure-y areas. We have some of that. So this year we sacrificed a mushroom to an experiment. We let it age to a fine state of liquefaction, tossed in some stem cuttings that seemed likely to have mycelia attached, mushed it all together in the food processor, and poured it into a jar with water to fill.

Nice, isn’t it? The farmhouse laboratory at work.

Ink of Coprinus

I took it down to the orchard and sprinkled the black liquor along the fence line. We’ll see.

Meanwhile, most of the mushrooms and other fungi in the woods are strangers to me. Right now they are erupting in the hundreds, and some of them are beautiful beyond any expectation.

A woodland fungus...

The last of the apples wait to be collected.

The Liberty Apple

These are Liberty, which is a fine disease-resistant fall apple, good eaten fresh when it’s young, good cooked when it’s mature.

Another ritual of the season is the planting of shrubs, trees and bulbs in the garden. Our garden is still the workplace of too many heavy-footed men to permit much gardening. The plants chosen to fill the beds around the new house will be far too valuable and vulnerable to risk next to the continued battering of cast-offs and short-cuts. But one place seems completed enough to permit a hopeful gesture. I really could not stand it one more minute, and I drove off to town one raining Saturday and bought a load of red-leaved shrubs for the northwest corner of the house.

Truck of shrubberies

It was a dim, grim day, with rain in sheets blowing across the roads. The cab of the pickup was a steam-bath inside; its old heater groaning against the window fog was barely up to the job. But I was glad of heart as I drove home with an assortment of blueberries, a maple tree, and 4 Euonymous in brilliant red. I would plant something.

By coincidence, my order of heritage garden bulbs arrived the same week, and I was forced to buy some stoneware pots to house them.

Pots o' bulbs

These bulbs came from Old House Gardens where they sell bulbs collected from generations of gardens, tenderly cultured and closely held by gardeners who value the lineages old varieties. These are the bulbs of our grandmothers, and older still. Go there to meet the blue Hyacinth orientalis, the Roman hyacinth known in gardens since 1562, or the English bluebell Hyacinthoides non-scripta, whose honey-scented blooms were known to Shakespeare, but were ancient in gardens even then. Who can set such a bulb in the earth without knowing some sense of the long time from then to now?

I chose pots I thought would keep them well,  these old bulbs grown new.

Meanwhile, back to the season coming on… We had our first frost this morning.

First frosting

It makes me think again of those flannel sheets and of the down-filled comforter. It’s a fine season, this one, given to color and scent and temperature.

I like fall best.

Published in: on November 14, 2009 at 9:30 pm  Comments (1)  

Construction Update: Captive Electrons

PV ready to goFor some time progress on the house has been… invisible. Some things have been going on, but they’ve been difficult to present or to think of as progress.

There was a mishap in regard to the floor color that set things back for weeks while the concrete magician worked out an elixir that would fix it. This was nearly a tragedy. An assistant on the job passed the wrong stain color to the applicator, who conscientiously sprayed it on half the downstairs floor. It takes several minutes for the color to emerge in the applied acid etch stain. I can only imagine B.’s horror as he watched the colors change before his wondering eyes. In the end, after many  hours of “lab time” and  many samples and tests on floor spaces that will be concealed in the final house (under cabinets, in closets…), he came up with a treatment that has given us a lovely floor. It’s not exactly what we had in mind for the ground floor — we had wanted to reproduce something like the natural hues revealed in the soils in the excavation for the house: reddish clays, ochre layers, faint green smears… but it is a really beautiful floor. It looks like old leather. If you did not know where to look, you wouldn’t see the place where the disaster took place.

So, weeks later, the floors are finished and safely covered over so carpenters can come in and start on walls and windows.

We brought our color samples into the kitchen — It’s been a long time since we first made the selections for materials and colors, and, frankly, I had to be reminded. Oh, is that what the cabinets are to be? Good thing we still liked it! I wonder how often people change their  minds drastically after the months pass between choosing and finally seeing? Here is the color pallet, as much as you can tell from monitor pictures:

Stained concrete, cork on the kitchen floor, 'Ceaser Stone' counters in sage and slate green, coffee-colored powder-coat stair railing, stained 'Liptis' cabinet wood.

Stained concrete area floor, cork on the kitchen floor, 'Ceaser Stone' counters in sage and slate green, coffee-colored powder-coat stair railing, and stained 'Liptis' cabinet wood.

The guys took the black plastic off the window holes and replaced it with translucent plastic, and we are pleased to find that light pours into the rooms, and the colors are earth-like and good.

Two bold men spent a month applying what is called a parge coat to the exterior of the house.

Scaffold work

Ricardo on the scaffold, applying the parge coat.

Parge, or parget, is a coat of waterproofing, traditionally plaster but in this case a material more like mortar. It is the undercoat of the exterior treatment.

Some plumbing has wormed its way out of the building:


This looks to me like some kind of Borg bio-mech entity escaping from the foundation.

Meanwhile, electricity has happened. Here, the electricians are installing panels onto the racks on the roof. Note the careful use of safety lines. It’s a long way down.

Electricians on the edge

The ‘Phase One’ array of photo-voltaic panels is installed,  a little over 6 kW, and the attendant inverter is in the attic:

The inverter read-out

In the first test, on a cloudy day, the panels immediately began harvesting hurried electrons and providing them a way through the lines to the meter. The only problem with this was the meter. We still have the original meter in place, and it is not so smart as it thinks it is. All it knows is that electricity is flowing, not where it originated. Until PGE can replace it with a new, reversing, meter we won’t be running the PV system — no point paying the  utility company for electricity we generate. The change-out should happen next week.

On the passive side, we have a different kind of array on the north roof. These are solar tubes, small skylights with reflective tubes running from the underside of the lens into the attic. At its terminus, a tube is fitted with a Fresnel-type lens that distributes the light.

Solar tubes

Solar tubes gather light through a skylight lens and carry it through reflective tubes into dark areas of the interior.

The Fresnel lens, first developed in the 19th Century by Augustin-Jean Fresnel , was the lens that made lighthouse lights visible over distances of 20 miles. These days they are made affordably of plastic and used to magnify images in overhead projectors, and small CRT screens; they are the lenses of traffic lights, theater light instruments, and auto headlamps; they correct vision disorders; aircraft carriers use Fresnel lenses in their optical landing systems; and they concentrate sunlight into solar cookers and forges. Solar tubes with plastic Fresnel lenses are available at common home-improvement stores.

There are five solar tubes on the roof. Three will light the attic. Two will penetrate the ceiling of the main living floor and light the dining area and one bathroom.

Here’s the view up a tube:

Looking up the tube

and here’s the light underneath:

Lighted attic

In daytime, you don’t need electric lights in the attic! These are completely passive, clean, and… well, they are just so neat.

All the time excavation was going on for the house, we were laughing up our sleeves because just down the road from us the neighbors had had to blast boulders out of their backyard in order to install a septic system. Our hole had no rocks bigger than a melon, and not many of those. It hardly seemed fair, and the neighbors were unamused at our good fortune. But last week we found the boulder field. Just south of the house, where a drainage line is headed into the pasture, the excavator started pulling stones from the earth. In an entire day’s work he made about 20 feet of progress on a 2-foot wide ditch, and accumulated a nice pile of volcanic stones.


We’re hoping the field is short, because that drain line has a ways to go. It’s our punishment for glee.

On the other hand, those are fine landscape stones, and we’ll find a use for them.

Published in: on August 29, 2009 at 1:51 pm  Comments (1)  

Look on Back

In this International Year of Astronomy, it is said orbital telescopes and with new cameras will let us look so far into space we may see the origins of the universe. We can see the past now.

Galileo's 1610 watercolors of the moon, from his Sidereus Nuncius

These are Galileo's watercolor renderings of earth's moon as he saw it in 1610.

Naturally, I have a little trouble with this concept. No matter how hard I look, I have never been able to see past my memory, and sometimes even that does not serve as well as it might. It’s an intriguing notion, though.

How I would like a window looking onto the past of our farm.

I'm just wondering, is all...

The other day, the tax assessor came by. We are making a bit of a ruckus here, what with ripping the landscape apart and building a house. So we have the attention of the bureaucracy which, it turns out, is not always up-to-date on improvements.

The assessor had a sheaf of papers in hand showing what our farm ought to look like. For instance, he noted there was no demolition permit in the file for the barn. The barn? We look down the slope to our pole barn, which is standing and serving. Oh, the barn. You mean, perhaps, that rotting deck out there that supports beehives? That was once a barn. It wasn’t anymore when we came here. Even the pile of boards from its collapse had been cleared away, gone, perhaps, into someone’s upscale restaurant interior. Barn wood is much in demand for interiors.

He looked around some more and pointed out that, in 1937, there was a house in what is now our pasture. We shrug. What else can you do?  There is no house there now, and hasn’t been in recent times. 1937: Was that the last date an assessor came out? There is no humor in this man. He wants to know, what’s that shed down there?

The old loafing shed

They give the impression of a desperate quest for tax dollars around here. That loafing shed, in what might once have been the fore-yard of the old, gone barn, may have come from the 1930s. It’s been patched with later plywood on one end, and has a plastic gutter hanging off the front, and it teeters toward the promise of a collapse someday soon. It was teetering when we came here, propped up with plumbing pipe where its roof drooped toward the dirt floor. “Take a look at it,” we say, confident this shed will not add greatly to the value of our holdings.

But it puts a person in a wondering mind, to focus on 1937 for a moment. Who were they, and what they were doing, back then? We find traces, here and there, of those other folk. Walk in our pasture any day and you will find evidence coming up with the grass.

Everyday or Sunday dinnerware?

Why china and glass emerge from our pasture is open to speculation. Were they like Maggie and Jiggs, hurling dinnerware? Were they such slobs they tossed it out the window when it chipped or broke, or needed doing up? Or is the present pasture the site of an old dump still living somewhere underground?

Stuff gets left around on a farm, and vanishes for a time, and emerges again later on. I pick the small bits up and put them in jars. The archeologist in me (I was one once, and once thought I might be one, more) is less interested in the things they had than in what the people did with them. Some are obvious…

A house out there.

Some are mysterious…

A thing.

Some are small things:

A faucet valve.

Some are large:


They give us clues to who those people were, but they don’t put faces on them.

Let me think: 1937.

Franklin D. Roosevelt began his second term as President. The first issue of Detective Comics hit the stands (Batman was still a little way down the road). In May the Hindenburg exploded. By July of 1937, Japan and China were at war in events that are now thought to have been the first acts of WWII in Asia. Amelia Earhart disappeared in July. Ernest Hemingway, George Orwell and Martha Gellhorn were covering the Spanish Civil War. In December, Walt Disney‘s Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, the first feature-length animated movie, opened at theaters in the United States.

And down on the farm? The Great Depression was still underway. I wonder if those people on our farm, had the money for tickets to Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. I wonder, even, how they might have gotten to town to see it. Some folks had cars, certainly. But this little farm could not have given back much. In 1937,  horse power was still common for transportation in rural areas. It was a long way to town, a whole day or more to go and come back.

Maybe they had a radio; and I imagine them gathered around it in the evening, tired from a day of hard work,  listening, perhaps, to Bing Crosby sing The Moon Got in My Eyes.

Bing Crosby

Bing Crosby in the 1930s

What was the farm wife wearing in 1937? Maybe this, the pattern available for a hard-won 15¢ from Simplicity:


Just because she lived on a farm, it doesn’t mean she didn’t want to look pretty. There was church to go to, and The Grange, and the County Fair in August. Maybe she took her preserves, or her knitting, as exhibits (I still dream of the day I complete a pair of socks with no errors, suitable for entry in the Fair!). Or maybe it was her best rooster.

LoC_digitalID_n082119_Chicago History Museum

This photo of Miss Dorrie Livingston with her prize-winner is from the Chicago History Museum. Its Library of Congress Digital ID number is n082119.

You can be sure there was a flock of chickens on the place. It’s hard to imagine a country household in the Depression without chickens muttering around the yard.

Maybe they kept some bees, like I do.


Find this image of a beekeeper in the Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division.

Or it might be they raised pigs…

Nothing much about raising animals will have changed since 1937:

LoC_digitalID_fas 8a03377r

This photo of a farmer feeding his pigs is in the the Library of Congress, Farm Security Administration collection.

Because of the photo record we have, we forget the 1930s did take place in color.


In fact, it might be that not much has changed at all on a small farm. The weather is still unpredicatable, the return from your efforts is still uncertain, the rains fall, the garden grows, and the sun is hot in summer. Folks at the end of the day sit out in the evening this time of year, and look across the hills at the trees putting out their new set of growing ends. At the pace a tree grows, our little buzzing around from one year to another must seem trivial.

To the hog in the pen, what’s the difference from one decade to another? He’s here today. Maybe not next year. Some seasons are fat, some are slim.

Lib. of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division

Lib. of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division

Change? What are you people talking about?

Published in: on May 30, 2009 at 7:08 pm  Comments (3)