Punishing our old bodies

We have spent the last weekend extending the front fence to the south of the house along the road frontage, replacing the old wooden post and rail fence that was originally there a hundred and thirty years ago. We know that there was a post and rail fence, because the massive corner post on the northern boundary, with its 3 mortices in it, was still standing there in 1976 when we came here. I would have kept it there, as i saw it as a bit of heritage, but when the land next door was bought by the new neighbours, they dug it out one day without telling us and replaced it with piece of rusty steel pipe that was obtained from the local coal mine.

We spent the first day of the weekend digging the 17 post holes down to 600mm depth. I borrowed a ‘kanga’ machine with a post hole auger the make the job easier, but it still took all day, as we kept hitting big rocks and huge tree roots, so many of the holes had to be done by hand with a crow bar and fencing shovel.

Something quite amazing happened in the 2nd last hole. This is 100 metres from the site of the old wooden corner post. I lined up the position of the fence using a long builders tape and a string line. I really just relied on lining it up visually with the string line, however, I was pretty confident that it was more or less in the correct place. If anything, I was tending to err on the side of caution. maybe 100mm in from the border line?

When I tried the bore the 2nd last hole, I hit what appeared to be a tree root, but it was quite vertical. I had to dig it out by hand with the bar and shovel. When I got down to the 600 mm level that I needed, I found that the ‘root’ was a slightly loose, so I managed to pull it up and out. it was only then that I realised that I had found one of the original wooden posts, dating back 127 years. It had rotted off at ground level and down 300 mm below ground level, but was preserved intact between 600mm and 800mm deep in the airless conditions deep down.

What are the odds of keeping the fence line perfectly straight with the old non-existent fence, working down 100 metres from the original corner post. BUT, then to dig a fence post hole directly on top of the original one! I was amazed, staggered actually.

You can see in this image that although the forest around us is still burnt black, some of the trunks off the older eucalypts are starting to re-shoot from epicormic buds on the main trunk of the trees.

Janine mixed the cement and dry sand mix for me to ram into the fence post holes, so as to set the post straight. I did all the ramming and levelling. We even made our own hand made rubble from crushed building waste from the burnt out old pottery building.

After ramming in and concreting the 17 fence posts on the 2nd day with the ramming bar, my hands, wrists, elbows and shoulders were quite strained and sore. I needed to have 2 days off to recover! I’m not used to such heavy and punishing work like this on my body at this older age.

During the week, we lifted, scraped and cleaned 1000 old recycled roofing slates that we had stored along the fence line of the old stone fruit orchard. We are intending to build the new pottery on the stone fruit orchard site, so everything has t one shifted and cleaned up. we moved the slates to a new storage place under the verandah of the old Railway Station. We always intended to use these old roof slates as floor tiles in the old pottery, but as we didn’t have any concrete floors, just pavers set in sand, it was not possible to use them at that time. They will find a place in the new pottery.

That was two days of bending and and scraping, different from post hole ramming, but it still feels like work, just not as brutal on the joints.

Our next job this week was to dig up all the stone retaining wall along the old pottery site and stack the stones off sit, ready for re-use as a new stone retaining wall for the new pottery, once the site is cleared. We will need to raise the level at the back of the site about 500 to 600 mm high to get a reasonable level.

We need to find sufficient stones to build a wall 600 mm high and 25 metres long. We will be scrounging every stone on the block to get there.

Our last job today was to level out the 5 tonnes of rock dust that we had delivered to make a base for our new water tank. It needs to be 4.5 metres in diameter, solid, well compacted and reasonably level. We have had a couple of goes at it, over the week, in between bouts of rain, which was very good at settling it down and compacting it. This afternoon we got it just about right. One more shower of rain will do it good.

Self-reliance in this time of C19 isolation

With the recent rain and the last of the summer heat, the vegetable garden has grown like crazy. We came back from WOMAD and the Writers Week to find the garden was totally overgrown.

I had a couple of attempts to tame it with the strimmer, then Janine could get in with the mower. We spent a day pulling out weeds and clearing space for the new plantings. I should have been a lot busier in the garden a lot earlier, but have been distracted with fencing and other jobs around the place. Everything needs doing no! I still haven’t finished chopping up the last of the pine trees in the back of the house. My tractor broke down and needs some work, so it’s gone off to the tractor whisperer to be made good again. So until I get it back, I can’t move those last few huge logs.

I have finally got around to planting out the winter crops of brassicas, quite late, but better late than never. I’m also planting out the garlic, also a bit late, but OK.

we are practicing social distancing !

We have recently harvested our rather poor crop of red grapes, What with the drought, then the fire, now the very hungry wild life, and in particular, the bower birds, we were lucky to get any crop. Janine has been maintaining a wildlife feeding station down at the back of our land where there are a few possums and we don’t know what else eating the fruit and veg that we put out for them. She has created a an ‘apple’ tree out of a burnt out native tree and its charred branches.

She places the slices of apple there each afternoon and they are all gone in the morning. There isn’t much else to eat in the burnt out forest, but there are now some green shoot appearing from the trunks and root lignotubers of the blackened trees.

We made a small batch of summer wine from our tiny harvest. Best enjoyed straight from the keg as it ferments after a few days. A delightful combination of sweet grape juice, spritz bubbles and a little alcohol.

We may be burnt out. We may be unemployed. We may be in self imposed C19 isolation, but we are eating well as mostly vegetarian and gifted with an amazing group of tremendous friends that have given us so much support and assistance, up until lock-down.

We wouldn’t be be here now in this lucky position without you!

Thank you. You have been so wonderfull to us and helped us through this testing time.

Drought, fire, rain, flood, Greenery

The summer started with extremely dry weather, then the fire. closely followed by loads of rain, slight flooding and now cool autumn weather with a flush of green growth. This is our life. lurching from crisis to crisis, extreme to extreme, drought to flood, fire to rain, barron soil to flush greenery.

I have spent two days mowing to keep the new growth of grass down. I spent a day in the vegetable garden with the whipper-snipper shredding weeds and grass, clearing the fallow beds ready for the autumn planting. and clearing all the paths.

I should have got these winter veggies in a month or two back, but have been otherwise distracted by my close encounter with death and then the never-ending cleanup. I’m just starting to sleep through the whole night again. I have had two good nights now.

I put this down to our holiday escape to Adelaide for Writers week and WOMAD. We had booked and paid for this annual sojourn 6 months ago. If it hadn’t been prepaid, we wouldn’t have gone. There is just so much still to do here, just to get back to tors. Luckily we had paid for it all in advance, so we had to go. I’m very glad that we did. I really needed a break. My neck was so stiff with tension. However, after our time away, where we couldn’t do anything except engage with ideas and concepts, as well as walking several kilometres per day into the city and back. It did us a lot of good and I’ve come back relaxed and able to sleep better. I can now turn my head freely again.

So our time away was good for us, but the garden went to ruin, over-run with weeds after the rain and the last of the warm weather. Under all the over growth there is still a lot of food still to be picked. I hacked and slashed my way through the paths, then returned with the strimmer. Usually, not too much stops this machine, but this level of weed growth really slowed it down. I had to work very slowly, otherwise the cord just slowed down and didn’t work. The same applied to the ride-on mower. I had to drive very slowly to allow the mower to cope with the high level of wet grass. Consequently, the mowing took far longer than usual.

We mowed and whipper-shipped until we ran out of petrol and I ran out of plastic strimmer cord. I used to keep stock of all these consumables, strimmer cord in a big roll, spare chain saw chains and sharpening files, two-stroke mix, ear muffs, chain saw tool kit. They are all melted and burnt. I still don’t know all the things that we have lost. Not until I go to the shed to get something that I always have, but realise that I don’t have a shed anymore. All those small items and tools all gone. Still, all the mowing is now done for at least a week. Time to re-stock all the consumables. I have a long list for tomorrows expedition to the hardware shop.

The garden is starting to take shape – a little. It’ll look a lot better by the end of the week, when I have finished weeding all the beds and planting out new seedlings.

Once I could see what was still in there, I picked a load of vegetables and herbs for a mirepoix. A parsnip. some celery, a few carrots, the herbs, thyme parsley sage and bay leaves, plus a little salt and pepper corns to flavour it up. I bought a beef femur and a pigs trotter, which I boiled in an excess of water without roasting this time, as I usually roast the bones first to caramelised then a little, but this time, to save time, they went straight unto the pot. Another boiler had the herbs and veggies.

Last night we had the wood stove on for the first time this year, because of the sudden drop in temperature with the rain, so I was able to let them both boil down nicely over the evening and into the night. Today I separated the marrow from the cooled bones and drained the mirepoix, discarding the green matter. Then both liquors went back into the big boiler together with a bottle of good red wine and some tomato paste. Here I deviated from the normal script. We have run out of tomatoes, so I indulged myself in the use of a packet of bought concentrated tomato paste. Australian of course!

So this is our new life post fire. All the old standards have fallen. I didn’t roast the bones! I have bought tomato paste from a shop! where will this all end?

I finished reducing the stock down from the initial 9 litres to less than 1 litre. I must say that it is really delicious, savoury, sour, salty, and ever so slightly sweet – just a hint, and very viscous and creamy in the mouth.

You can’t buy stuff like this. its real food! This will be stored in the freezer and just a sliver of this frozen gel with be like a stock cube added to any wintery dish. Beautiful, and so rewarding.

Gabion Wall

In June 2018 Janine and I were in the UK to teach kiln building at the new ‘Clay College’ in Stoke on Trent. We were lucky to get to work with a great team of students, and one in particular stood out as being very energetic and game to take on all the difficult jobs with enthusiasm, Marius Patriotis asked if he could come and work with us after he finished his course. We take on one trainee or intern each year in January/February. They are invited to work with us in whatever we are doing at the time. Making pots firing kilns, cutting wood, collecting and crushing rocks to make glazes, but also working in the garden, pruning the orchard or building a kiln. It’s all part of our inclusive, self-reliant attempt at living a complete life. We don’t pay anything for their help, but we don’t charge them for the education. We do invite them into our home and feed and house them. It seems to work.
This year we have the energetic Marius from the Clay College in Stoke-on-Trent. When he arrived in Australia, before Xmas, we still had a pottery. By the time he arrived here with us, we only had a smoking ruin. He has been invaluable in assisting us with the clean-up. However, instead of learning to make rock glazes and hand made pots, he has learnt to weld, drive a tractor, use a chain saw and work around a saw mill. Most recently we have been building a front fence.
We have built a fire proof ‘ceramic’ front fence. Something that will offer radiation protection from a ground fire from the west. I decided to make it something like a ‘gabion’ wall, but instead of using the expensive wire baskets. I invented my own ‘poor-mans’ version out of rio steel and chook wire. So far we have completed the northern end and I’m very happy with it. I used crushed building rubble, tenmoku glaze stone and quartz pebbles. I decided not to mix in any crushed limestone, as if the next fire gets as hot as this last one – the fence may melt! Because limestone is a powerful flux. 

I made an undulating pattern with the various stones that reflect the ups and downs of my life, with the darker under-currents never far from the surface, but with optimism always on top. It also represents the hilly, undulating landscape of the Southern Highlands.
Over the two weeks it has taken for this job we have also had a lot of help from our son Geordie, also from our friends, Warren, Len and Andy,  my brother Nick plus his son Jeremy, and or course Marius.
It turns out that Marius makes sourdough bread, so with that and the produce from our veggie garden we have been able to eat pretty well.


Nothing quite like a very gelatinous stock to make a great risotto

First and Last

I filled our electric, plug-in, hybrid car with petrol for the first time this year. $40 worth, that should keep us going for another 3 months.

I spent the rest of the day cutting up the last burnt dead tree in the front yard. We almost got it all finished yesterday, but ran out of daylight. I also found out that the bobcat had to go home at the end of the day, so the pressure was on. I got stuck into it and managed to get it all cut up before the truck came to take the loader away. I have been so lucky that my friend Ross was not needing it until now.

Burnt stringy bark really takes the micky out of the chain saw chains. I had to sharpen the chain after every few cuts. Stringybark bark has the ability to blunten a chain in no time flat. perhaps because it is a permanent back that never drops off. It may collect mineral dust and sand grains blown by the wind, and keep the dust and grit embedded in the bark? This is just pure speculation. I really don’t know.

Whatever the reason, it isn’t nice to mill. Very slow and tedious.

I eventually got it all done and packed the saw away as the truck drove it to collect the bobcat. Great timing.

I must say, I was pretty tired by the end of the day.

All quiet on the northern front

The work is never ending. Now I’ve finished with the burnt and blackened dead trees. I still have to deal with the pines that were killed by the heat of the house fire, but not carbonised. Cleaner work, but still as tiring. Using a chain saw all day takes a lot of energy.

We had a working bee today to pull down the big wood kiln. It’s such a shame that kilns take so long to build but are so quick to dismantle. If wish it were the other way around. We got a lot done, but not quite finished the job. We should get it finished tomorrow. Today a friend Walter came to help and brought his chainsaw. Luckily for me he was keen to have a go at the big pine logs. and made a good start. He’ll be back tomorrow to help me get it all done- if we can. If not, there is alway the next day.

Back of the black

I think that we are seeing the last days of the blackened, burnt trees and foliage here. Since it started raining this last week, it has washed a lot of the carbon and ash into the ground and in some cases down into the dam. It has occurred to me that there will now be a record of this catastrophic event permanently laid down in the sedimentary strata of this black event on our land.

The rains have washed a lot of the ground clean. I must say that it won’t be soon enough for me to see the bare earth covered with a coating of green again. Over the past 6 or 7 weeks that we’ve been clearing up all this burnt rubbish that was once our garden and workshop. I have become acutely sensitive to the smell of black carbon, charcoal dust and black ash. I’ll be very pleased to see the back of the black and start to work on things that are not covered in charcoal.

Yesterday I had my friends Colin and Denis come over to help me do what I had hoped would be the last of the chainsawing of the blacked and dead trees from the fire. We didn’t quite finish the job, so there is still one more day in it for me to get it all cleared away.

It’s dirty work and I’m over it.

As a token gesture to the start of the cleaner phase of the clean-up. I bought 12 tonnes of crushed gravel for the driveway. the drive way in had become a dirty squishy, quagmire since the rains with all the heavy machinery and a few trucks coming and going over it, making it a slippery black mess. Two truck loads of gravel have started to fixed that.

Things are starting look better. Everything has started to have a more optimistic look about it. It’s certainly a lot less black.

The rain has finally come. We didn’t get the record levels of rainfall that other places got, thankfully! But it was quite enough for us. 190mm. It filled all 4 dams to overflowing and filled most of our rainwater tanks. The reason that the two biggest tanks didn’t fill, is because the two large roofs that used to feed them are now gone!

It’s nice to see the dams full again, pitty that the water is a rather black/brown colour. This will eventually be diluted and washed out, or settle into the sediment.

We got a surprise phone call from our friends Andy and Cintia last week, to say that they had 4 hours spare and could they give us a hand. We fixed up my blacksmiths vice, anvil and swage block, outside the garden shed. Then we pulled down the last two kiln chimneys . A great surprise and a lot of work achieved. Many hands etc.

Its not a real garden shed, now its a forgery!

Electric car review – 12 months

Janine and I have owned our Hyundai Ioniq hybred, plug-in electric car for one year now.We just got our latest owner statistics down-loaded from the onboard computer.We have driven almost exactly 12,000 kms. over the year.We managed to drive 503 km per litre of fuel used in the last month.500 km to the litre is pretty impressive fuel efficiency by anyones standards!I’m very pleased to see these results come through.The expected Hyundai official results for this model car, by the average driver should be around 22.4 km/litre
Dec. 2019

 My average503.16 km/ℓ
 Official22.4 km/ℓ
Results of this month’s 400 km trip, the results are shown below;
IONIQ plug-in official fuel consumption should have been; 17.857 litres
My fuel consumption   0.79 litres

Our CO2 emissions : We generated about 1 gram of CO2 per km.

* Driving standard per 1km
IONIQ plug-in Official CO2 emission 26 g.
My average emission CO2 this month1 g

Over the past year, we have filled the petrol tank 4 times, but the fuel tank is still almost half full.So we spent about $170 on petrol this year, to travel 12,000 kms. over the 12 months.We could only achieve these results because we are actively involved in living a ‘green’, low carbon, small foot print life.Up until last month, we could charge the car from our excess solar power. These last 30 days, since the fire, we dont have any more solar PV. So now we are using green power from the grid, and will have to continue to do so for the next few months, until we can get a new building approved by council and built, then have new PV installed. It’s going to take quite a while to get back our energy independance..But the car will still be driving us around very economically and cleanly.
Best wishes
Steve