16 tonnes and what do you get?

It’s been a busy week! Last Friday we spent the day digging two trenches to act as footings for our planned stone walls. The first will be to support a stone retaining wall to level out the new pottery site which is being built over the old orchard. With the trench dug, I ordered 9 tonnes of gravel to fill it back in. Crushed gravel cost $35 a tonne plus $50 delivery, the delivery charge works out to be $11 per tonne from Tahmoor, just 15 kms. away. I needed 2 truck loads. I spent the weekend shovelling and wheel borrowing the 9 tonnes of gravel back into the hole in 75mm. layers. Intermittently stomping, compacting and watering the layers, until I got back to ground level, to make sure that all the material was packed down very firmly. I finished that job on Monday. It seems that I’m OK with shovelling about 4 tonnes per day, before I run out of steam. I finished the last tonne on Monday. The soil that we removed went to ‘top-dress’ the old ruined pottery site, which was just a mess of rubble and broken pots and bricks.

Having considered all the options available to us and canvassed a few opinions, we have decided to raise the level at the back of the new pottery building site up 1 metre to bring it to level with the front driveway. I had originally thought that I could save money by lowering the front down and doing what is called ‘cut and fill’, where half of the site is dug down and lowered, and the soil that is removed is used to build up the back of the site. All very economical. However, this would make the front of the building below ground level and prone to flooding in extreme storms, unless we had very good perimeter drainage. I asked my friend Dave the engineer, he told me that such drainage eventually always fails.

The old pottery was built this way with the front of the building 600mm. below natural ground level. I made a contour drain out in front with a 200 mm embankment then an ‘agg’ drain below the stone retaining wall to deal with any seepage. The pottery flooded twice in its 36 years! There are rain storms big enough to override any drain and small embankment. Or so it seems.

The person that I trust most in these matters is Ross, the plant operator who is doing all the earth works for us here. He has been really helpful, fitting us in, in-between his other jobs. When I suggested the cheaper ‘cut-and-fill’ option, He shook his head and simply said to get it up above ground level. You won’t regret it.

That left me with a problem. Where would I get all the fill? I considered de-constructing the wall of the largest dam and using all that material, but I don’t really want to do that. My construction certificate says that if I bring in fill, it must be certified ‘clean’ natural material from a registered and certified quarry. So I was snookered.

I did a quick calculation that the site is 25m. x 15m. so to raise it up 1 metre at the back, would take around 300 to 400 tonnes of gravel fill. The unbelievably resourceful Ross rang around his contacts for me. Beyond belief, he managed to find a batch of 400 tonnes of ‘sub-prime’ road base, crushed gravel from a quarry. I could get the 3 to 400 tonnes for free, but I would need to pay for the cartage. Such amazing synchronicity! It’s a huge number of truck loads. The cartage will take around 4 to 5 days to complete. I’m being charged $16 per tonne delivery from the quarry, about 70 kms away. I can’t believe our luck. It’s a really good deal. I just paid $46 per tonne for the local gravel yard to bring in 2 loads of much the same thing last Saturday.

When we built the last pottery, we decided to make it out of mud bricks. The soil onsite here is very good for mud bricks, but we didn’t need or want a 100 tonne hole across our land. We hunted around and found a local small quarry that was mining sand and gravel, but there was an overburden of clay that they needed to get rid of. We could have it for free, but had to pay for the cartage. Same story, just separated 35 years in time.

So we are on our way and the site is being filled and compacted to a level just above the natural. So now I will not have to worry about flooding in extreme wet weather events. I even get a certificate from the quarry for the council inspector, guaranteeing that our fill is natural clean crushed stone as specified on our construction certificate.

Up until last week, I could never have imagined trucking 400 tonnes of anything onto this block. It still seems surreal. On Tuesday the trucks started arriving and the they are huge!

They keep on coming 3 to 4 per day over the week until on Friday, at the end of the week we have 370 tonnes in the ground and are almost there, up to ‘natural’ ground level across the site.

On Thursday, the 30 tonnes of stones arrived just after dawn. We spent all day Thursday and half of Friday lifting and lowering the huge 1.2 tonne stones into position to make the retaining wall. These stone blocks are 2 metres long by 500mm. sq. I have managed to find some ‘C’ grade seconds rejects for just over 100 dollars each. They work out to be the same cost as those huge concrete blocks that are cast using all the left-over concrete returned to the mixing plant. I tried to buy some of these, but there is a waiting list of 2 months, and then ,no guarantee that there will be any or enough of them available on the day, as it all depends on the amount of returned excess concrete that makes it’s way back to the mixing plant, and needs to be gotten rid of. By Friday afternoon the stone wall is almost complete and the ‘crushed granite fill’ that has been delivered at the rate of three x 30 tonne truck loads per day, the gravel was spread and compacted as it was delivered, in-between placing the load of large stones. Ross and I wrangle them into position over the compacted gravel trench footing. The site is almost full. We will need just another 60 tonnes to make the site completely level. That material is ordered for Monday morning.

In just one week we have completely changed the nature of our block of ground, from a sloping orchard site into a level building site with a substantial stone retaining wall.

So, after 16 tonnes, what do you get? Another day older and deeper in debt, or so the song goes. In this case it’s 400 tonnes and I get the satisfaction of seeing the site of the new pottery becoming a reality. Luckily I’m not in debt, but it has cost me about $12,000 to get back to our new elevated ground level, money well spent on this occasion.

A big thank you to Claudia Citton and Rochelle Johnson who organised the GoFundMe page that has allowed us to get going on this project while the insurance company sat on their hands.

And the good news is;

We have spent this Easter long weekend digging trenches and laying plastic ‘polypipe’ all around the perimeter of the property. We used to have a complete circumnavigation of the block, but it was largely destroyed in the recent fires. I laid about 1000 metres of polypipe in the 70’s, but having chosen to live here on a very low income, I buried all the pipe by hand using a mattock. I dug and buried about 6 metres every summer morning before breakfast over a few years.

My big mistake was that because the ground was very dry and hard, I only managed to bury the pipe just below the surface, possibly just 100 mm. deep. Over the years with mowing and soil disturbance, erosion, etc. some of the pipe was just visible in places. It wasn’t such a big deal for the first 40 years, it only turned out to be a mistake when the catastrophic fire roared through here.

When the fire came, it was so hot, that it melted the pipe where it was exposed, or even if it was close to the surface. After the fire we found 2 complete melt outs, and 15 leaks in the system. We spent a couple of days with our friends Warren and Trudie helping us, to locate and patch all the holes. Each day driving back into town to buy more joiners, junctions and piping. We were haemorrhaging a thousand dollars a day for the first few days. We knew where the holes were, because whenever I started up the pump, we could see a fountain appear out of the ground. So I would switch off the pump and dig out the wet soggy site, then cut out the damaged section of pipe and install a couple of joiners and a new length of pipe. It worked as a stop gap measure, it got us through a tough spot in the dangerous, hot, dry, summer. But now it has become the time to do the job properly.

I decided to re-route the new pipeline right around the extreme edges of the land, whereas previously, it had cut around the edges about 20 metres in from our boundary. Now I want to move the pottery up onto the orchard site and move the stone fruit orchard up to the front of our land close to the street. I don’t want to have to move the polypipe again. I need it to be out of the way, but accessible. This time I have dug the trench 300 to 400 mm deep. Not deep enough to have to worry about cutting through the electricity conduits where they criss-cross the block, 600mm. down, but deep enough not to melt in the next fire that will come through here in the coming decade.

Eventually, I got back to the old pipework and joined the old 44 year old imperial agricultural pipe into the new blueline metric piping. There have been 4 different ‘standard’ joints for this poly piping system and 3 different standards in pipe sizes and wall thicknesses over the years. My under-ground water system has elements of all 7 different parts. It’s a hotch-potch. Whenever I dig up a part of the system to add on a spur line, I have to try to match the parts and pipe sizes.

I used to have stock of all these different parts to get me out of trouble in 1inch, 25mm., 2 inch, and 50mm. sizes in both male and female formats. These days I have to drive down to Mittagong to buy each new part for the circumstances at hand. I usually buy one extra spare part to start to replace my parts in stock.

We will be safe for the next 4 years, as it takes 4 years for the leaf litter in the forest to build up to a level that will sustain a bad fire, somewhere from 5 to 10 years on, there will be another very dry, prolonged period, but global warming increases the likelihood that it could be worse than this last time. When the fire comes again we need to be better prepared. This is how we are thinking & planning, and how we are responding to this disaster. I need to make our property defendable in the next very bad fire.

While I was concentrating on digging and laying the 130 metres of new 50mm. dia piping, Dave the concreter turned up to start work on the concrete slab for the new metal framed car port. I thought that would give him a hand, but I soon realised that the best assistance I could give him was to keep out of his way. He has done this all his life and is very quick and efficient. One day to dig out the site and frame it up, the lay the steel rio mesh, and another day to cast the concrete and polish the surface. Straight after Easter, the builder turned up to start erecting the metal frame.

It’s all going so quickly now. We have finished excavating all the beautiful rich dark top soil from the orchard and spreading it on the new top site. We spent a day raking out the roots and stones from the top soil and loading the truck to take them to the burn pile.

I want to get this new orchard site ready for the arrival of the new dwarf fruit trees by June/July. The site has to be completed by then because these new fruit trees are going to be bare-rooted, and will need to be planted pretty quickly. They are already ordered and paid for. I won’t have time to be doing all this prep when they arrive. These little jobs have to be scheduled in all along the way as the opportunity arrises. I couldn’t bare to build the new pottery on top of all that hard earned, self created, beautiful rich top soil. I had to remove it and use it productively.

So now the site is prepared, we still have to lay in the irrigation. One of my new poly pipe spur lines terminates just inside where the orchard fence will be. I am still trying to figure out the cheapest way to build a fence and frame to support the bird netting. This is a work in progress. The next immediate job is to build a stone retaining wall to hold back the lovely deep bed of soil. Actually I need to build 2 stone retaining walls over the next few weeks to prepare for other stages of the new pottery build. The old orchard site that will house the new pottery will need to be levelled, what’s called ‘cut and fill’ and that soil will need to be retained. Whenever I can get around to that.

And the good news is…. Our Hyundai Ioniq electric plug-in hybrid car has returned the performance figures for the first quarter and we have raised our average fuel consumption from 500 km. to the litre of fuel up to 505 kms to the litre. It’s an amazing statistic that I find hard to comprehend, but I have only been to the service station one this year so far, and the fuel tank is still over 3/4 full. Very pleasing!

Lastly, we have been trying to find ways of using up our huge excess of capsicums. First they were roasted by the fire and lost their leaves, then recovered by the heavy rains that followed. Now we are having to deal with this huge harvest. Fortunately, capsicums are a favourite of ours, but everyone has a limit. We use them in every soup, salad, stew, and stock. I have roasted them and pickled them, this week I stuffed them and baked them. Last night I cut them into chunks and used them on kebabs with zucchini slices and some fresh tuna off the fish truck.

Janine made a baked pudding using 2 jars of our preserved berries from the summer.

As the weather has turned cooler now, this warming and very satisfying desert is very welcome and delicious .

I have made some sourdough bread. I rescued the sourdough starter from Geordie. Now that his restaurant has been forced to close. I thought that I might keep the sourdough ferment alive here for the duration.

A tough decision

It’s now 3 1/2 months since the fire cleaned us out. We have been working hard to clean everything up and bring our life back to some semblance of normality. Well, the sort of ‘normality’ that we chose as normal for us.

I keep thinking, well hoping is probably a more apt term, that I have finished with chainsawing blackened logs. But they are every where and I still find myself at it after all this time. I haven’t even started t think about clearing up the rear section of our land, down the slope behind where the pottery used to be. There is a lot of blackened sticks down there that will have to be tackled one day. For the time being, I’m concentrating on just the front half of our land. The part that will face the next fire in 5 or more years time after the forest grows back.

With global warming increasing at an increasing rate, and world leaders with their heads in the sand, its going to come around again in the next decade. A long dry spell with increasing temperatures, The east coast will burn again. I need to work now to set us up to be better prepared for the next episode. I thought that I was well prepared before, but you learn from experience, and I had never experienced anything like that before. I had no idea what a catastrophic fire event could be. I’m a bit wiser now. No-one should have to go through that.

So with this idea firmly fixed in my mind, we are back into it, cutting and stacking the last of the stumps, fallen branches and pruned dead limbs from the front garden. Of course it’s not a front garden any more. It’s now just a front yard of bare scorched earth. We will keep it as a meadow of wild flowers into the future. something that we can mow down when required to keep a clear space to the west, where the next fire will most likely come from.

Janine loads the smaller logs with the help of the chook formally known as ‘Ginger’.

These logs are so heavy that I can’t lift them onto the truck, so I use the tractor to do the lifting, but even then, the tractor has a load limit of just under 200 kgs. and one load was so heavy that I could only get it just 100mm. up off the ground. I learnt to limit the load to just one lump at a time.

So now it has become the time to make that really big decision. it’s one of the toughest decisions that I have had to make. We have decided to take out the stone fruit orchard and move the pottery up the slope a bit onto that site, farther away from the bush at the back of our land and closer to the centre. We will re-plant a new orchard in the front area, on the other side of the entrance driveway. This new ‘orchard’ location will be easier, and therefore cheaper, to build on.

We rented a weathboard pottery studio up in Dural to the north of Sydney when we first started out in the early 70’s. It burnt down in the bush fires of 1976. We moved to Balmoral and built a pottery out of galvanised iron, hoping that it would be more fire proof. It burnt down in 1983. The next pottery was build of mud bricks, I hoped that it would be more fire proof. but it still had a timber ceiling and roof framing. Now it has burnt, I’m slowly getting the message. This time I will build in steel. I’m a slow learner!

The first pottery we built here in 1976 was on 3 levels to accomodate the slope of the land. We build it over several years, one room at a time as we could afford it. When it burnt down in 1983, the next pottery was rebuilt on the same sloping site on the same 3 differing levels. We had no money, or any prospects of earning very much of it, so we worked with the lie of the land to save money.

As this will hopefully be my last pottery building. I need it to accomodate me in my zimmer frame and wheel chair in the future. This pottery needs to be all on one level. This also probably means building it on a concrete slab. I have strictly avoided using concrete in the first 3 potteries because of the huge carbon debt that cement incurs, but I need to be both practical and economical. a slab is looking like the smartest option. So I’m selling out my green credentials and going with concrete for the first time in my life, thinking of our old age.

So the orchard is gone. We planted all those trees as bare rooted whip sticks in 1976. That’s 44 years of nurturing, pruning, fertilising, watering and mowing. It’s all gone now!

We have engaged our friend Ross, to dig up all the top soil that we lovingly created over the past 4 decades. The top 200mm of soil has become a rich dark brown humus rich soil. Far too good to bury under a concrete slab. The original native soil here was an orange/yellow sandy loam when we started. I was delighted and surprised to see how deep the top soil had become over time. So good in fact that we couldn’t bear to waste it. I decided to ask Ross to dig it up and transport it to the front garden to fertilise and enrich the new orchard site.

We piled up all the best dark soil into a heap, not unlike a mini Mt. Everest in the garden. The chook formally known as ‘Ginger’ decided to climb the mountain of soil looking for bugs and worms. This top soil is extremely rich and alive with life.

I noticed that she attacked the problem from the North Face, the hard way, without ropes or carabinas. She will now be known as the chook called ‘Hillary’!

We will plant another orchard on the new front site, where we will plant all new trees that are mostly grown on dwarf grafted rootstocks. This will make the orchard easier to manage in the future as we grow older and less vigorous ourselves. The opposite of the fruit trees. We will grow the new orchard under a full netting cover, just like the vegetable garden has been now for 15 years. What we have learnt from the veggie garden experiment, is the kind and size of netting to keep out the fruit eating birds and rabbits, but let in the smaller insect eaters.

Once all the top soil has been moved to the new site, I will to start extending the poly pipe watering system all around the new orchard site to allow for access to plenty of irrigation water in the future.

So many jobs and so little time. I hardly notice that the rest of the world is in lock-down, we are happy being busy here on our own little piece of land and our self created world. We have been living ‘self-isolation’ voluntarily for decades.

In the afternoon I set fire to one of the many piles of dead trees and branches that we have stacked up, and in the evening after dinner, I roast, sweat, peel and pickle the huge crop of bell capsicums that the recent rains have brought on.

Nothing is perfect, nothing is ever finished and nothing lasts! I’m grateful to be still here doing this. I have to try and creative a positive outcome from the unmittigated disaster that this is. I take up the challenge that has presented itself to me. I could never have pulled down the old pottery to ‘improve’ it for my old age. I couldn’t have ever concieved of digging out our beautiful old orchard that we had worked on for so long. This is an oportunity to re-define ourselves here on this piece of land that we love. We have been offered this once in a lifetime opportunity to make our homestead age sensitive and apropriate to our coming frailties. Gone are the steps and in with the ramps.

We will be better prepared for both natures next holocaust and our old age.

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.