Every big project is composed of many small steps. This week we took a few more small steps on the way to the completion of the bigger picture.We got our 2nd semi-trailer load of stone blocks. We are now almost finished building the retaining wall, and back filling. Tomorrow, I’m expecting the the last few truck loads of crushed rock dust. While we wait. I have been digging down to re-expose the old 3 phase cables and conduits. It requires digging down where I think that the cables ought to be, sometimes it’s there and other times it isn’t. I have spent a lot of time digging in the wrong places. I eventually find them, it’s just a matter of time. I remember where they used to run. After-all. It was me who burried them, but it was 30 years ago and the landscape here on this block is now completely different since the fire, without buildings, fences, trees, and other reference points. I found this one;
And these two, where they crossed over. Once found, it is a matter of digging all along the edge of the conduit, exposing it on the side, so that it can be pulled out of the embedded soil and out into the open trench.
I want to expose and re-use all the old wiring. There are 3 lines down to the old pottery site. The original single phase line, the newer 3 phase line and the solar power line. Installing new wiring and conduit is very expensive. I just had to pay $400 for just 25 metres of 16mm copper cable to do a short extension. Copper is so expensive these days. That makes the original cabling that I have spent the week digging out, worth about $5,000, and that doesn’t include the value of the 40mm. conduit and the cost of digging the trenches. Then there is the electricians service fees/labour costs. As the site is about 70 metres from the power box up at the street, I estimate that I have saved myself $30,000 all up. I paid $5,000+ for the initial 3 phase line in 1998. Things have gone up since then!
Tragically, as I was just threading the new copper cables through the new conduit. I went to step over the trench, lost my footing , as the side wall collapsed. I went down with the cable. I fell in, twisting my leg as I went down. I ended up back to front, but my leg didn’t follow. I twisted my leg right around. I thought that I had broken my leg at first, just looking at it all the wrong way around, I went into shock. I couldn’t feel my foot, but slowly came to realise that I could still move it OK. It is just very painful to move it. I had to crawl, limp and shuffle back to the house with Janine’s help. I went to bed. I couldn’t do anything else. I didn’t have the energy or motivation to do anything else.Today I’m very sore, but can limp around, we had booked the excavator to come back, so had to be out there to organise things, but didn’t do very much at all. I can see that this will take some time to heal. it’ll slow me down somewhat.
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.
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.
We have spent this 5th week continuing on the long journey of cleaning up this tragic mess. Last week we had the 3 big dead pine trees felled professionally. This week we hired a portable ‘Lucas’ saw mill and started milling the biggest of the pine logs into boards, so that we can incorporate this home-grown and home-milled timber into the lining of our new pottery, when we build it.
We cut nine x 75mm. thick slabs in one day and 90 planks of 250mm. x 30mm. on the 2nd day. The big 75mm. thick slabs are 3 metres long, and 700mm. to 900mm. wide. They will make great work bench tops in one single slab. We will use one in the pottery as a work bench and another for a wedging table. Perhaps a third in the gallery room. I intend to use the planks vertically, as lining boards in the throwing room.
We also cleaned up the stone fruit orchard and took the dead peach trees away to the big burn pile. It’s going to be a huge job in the winter time to burn all this fire affected material. That is if we get a winter, that is safe to burn off these piles.
Our vegetable garden, although fire affected, is still just producing a few tomatoes, capsicums and zucchinis. The sweet basil, and chillies on the other hand are booming. They love the hot dry weather.Every meal at the moment is a variation on ratatouille.
At last we are starting to engage ourselves in jobs that have a positive element.
We celebrate a very tough couple of extremely hot days in the full sun, rolling logs and milling them through the whole of these blisteringly hot days. Lathered in sunblock and drinking copious bottles of water, we can’t afford to stop. The mill is expensive to hire at $800 to $1000 per day. Any time spent sitting down eats into our meagre budget. I will be a lot happier after we have heard from the insurance company, and find out what they intend to do. They have emailed us to say that they will payout for the lost equipment in the pottery and kiln shed. but we haven’t seen any money as yet. No mention of the building as yet. In the mean time, turning dead trees into useful lumber is a rewarding endeavour. I’m hoping that I will sleep better, simply from the effort expended and the exhaustion.
A month ago we had a hail storm. Not too bad as hail storms go, but bad enough. There wasn’t a lot of rain with it, – a pity.
A few weeks later we had a lot of rain in an hour. Quite a storm all told. We found to our surprise that we had a number of leaks appear in our old school classroom. We had to find buckets for the drips on the carpet, the computer table and other various places around the house. Having drips of water dropping onto the carpet in what is our lounge room, really concentrates your attention.
I’m fixing a hole where the rain gets in and stops my mind from wandering!
We don’t usually have leaks like this, so I had to investigate. However, I needed to wait for it to stop raining, then to stop blowing, waiting for a day when there was no gusty wind. I once went up on the roof on a windy day and the ladder blew away, leaving me stranded up there until Janine came looking for me, replaced the ladder and let me come down. She must love me!
I finally found a day that wasn’t too windy, glarey or wet and slippery. I got up onto the top roof of the old classroom of the school. I found that the hail storm had pummelled the 130 year old corrugated galvanised iron roofing. Where there was an over-lap of the old sheets the iron had rusted to a very thin state because of the condensation in the over-lap, creating a few quite large holes.
A hundred years ago, corrugated iron roofing could only be manufactured in short lengths, as it was rotary folded across the sheets to make the corrugations. This meant that to cover a long-span, a number of shorter sheets needed to be used and this required overlapping to stop leaks. All old iron roofs suffer from this same problem of rusting out on the overlaps. We are lucky to have a roof that has survived for so long without too much trouble. We live in quite a relatively dry environment with about 500mm of rain each year.
I worked across the roof systematically siliconing every split, crack and thin rusty patch. The overlaps needed special attention. In one place I had to cut a small piece of rustic, but structurally very sound, old roofing iron into a small square. I glued this patch over the worst section, that was too big to close with just silicon alone.
The big issue turned out to be the ridge capping. This is 130 year old lead! I wanted to replace it 35 years ago, when I was much younger, able-bodied and building the extensions on to the Old School Classroom. I didn’t want any lead on my roof. Unfortunately I struck one massive problem that stopped me in my tracks. The old lead was about 600 mm wide and the old wooden roofing battons were well spaced accordingly. Modern galvanised ridge capping is only about 460mm wide. Not wide enough to reach the old battons. This meant removing all the old sheets of iron and screwing on new battons, then replacing the roofing, then screwing down the new narrow ridge capping. A massive job. Not one that I could complete easily in a day.
Being basically lazy, I decided that I had enough to do with building the new extensions onto the Old School classroom to make it into a house, so I left the old flashing up there. It was just easier to ignore it and hope for the best. The old lead capping has developed cracks and splits here and there along its length over the years. I siliconed these splits and cracks 30 years ago, and 20 years ago and then 10 years ago, Now the cracks are just too big and too long for silicon.
Now my lead flashing chickens are coming home to roost. I will need to re-roof the whole school roof eventually. I hope that I can make it last long enough, so that it isn’t my job to do. I couldn’t do it by myself now. I’d need to employ someone to help me these days.
My creative solution was to lift the old lead flashing and slide in new sections of shiny galvanised ridge capping in underneath the old lead. Then I screwed the old lead down over the new galvanised ridge capping, through into the old galvanised roofing. A cunning plan!
From a distance, no-one can tell that I did anything at all. It looks exactly as it did before I fixed it, and that’s the way I like it.
If we are going to be saddled with extended drought into the future, we are ethically bound to respond in a creative and positive way. We try to avoid being a drain on anybody, any thing or any institution, including government. This is all part of our commitment to a philosophy of living an independent life. Possibly something akin to true philosophical anarchism. It’s not a matter of bringing down any government, but rather a case of being so independent that government atrophying due to lack of need.
So the drought continues and we have ordered 2 new water tanks. The first has already arrived and been installed on the smaller front section of the Old Railway Station roof a few weeks ago. The new, and slightly larger tank arrived today and we installed it on the back and slightly larger section of roof. With 4,500 and now 7,500 litres of added storage, the Old Railway Station building is now adding to our overall commitment to self-reliance in drinking water. Another one smites the dust.
The Old Station is not a very big building. In fact its tiny, but every bit of roof space is now important in the endeavour to catch drinking water when it rains, which isn’t very often these days. Funnily, it starts to shower as the delivery truck arrives, so Janine and I install in the rain. Tragically, it clears up just as we finish, but we are ever hopeful that it will continue over night and for the next few days.
The previous new tank is now half full from the occasional showers that we have managed to now capture. Every bit counts if we are to continue watering our garden plants with drinking water, while we wait for that big storm that must come someday and fill the dams again.
The new, larger grey tank is down the back on the right, under the bottle brush tree.
We bake vegetables fresh from the garden for dinner, finished with a bechamel sauce. It’s delicious and uses so little water to prepare.
It just occurred to me as we swept some sand into the cracks in our new/old shed floor, that is made up of a mix of fire bricks and house bricks, that this is very much a potters floor and very appropriate. As I look down at the bricks and admire the patina of age and use, with all the varying hues and textures, I start to see the brand names of the various manufacturers.
Here in front of me under my feet is a brief history of refractory brick making in Sydney in the post war period. It doesn’t escape my attention that everyone of these companies that made these firebricks all around the Sydney region are all now gone and defunct. Everything is made in China now. In fact, I believe that I am probably the last refractory fire brick maker left in the greater Sydney area, if not all of New South Wales. I can’t think of any others, and we only make fire bricks for our selves, for use in our own kilns.
All of the old brick makers were bought out by the big multinationals and closed down. The sites were sold off for re-development and all the new stock of bricks were then imported. We don’t manufacture anything here anymore. We only operate warehouses for foreign multinationals to distribute imported product.
As the last Australian refractory brickmaker, perhaps I can look forward to being bought out by a big corporation? This might provide the superannuation that I don’t otherwise have ?)
Some of the above bricks are; Newbold General Refractories, Dive (Matraville), Illawarra fire brick Company, Waterloo Fire Brick Company, Woodall Duckhams, Vulcan, Bulli, Darley, Grit’A’, Ordish and Booths Medium Refractories.
This is in no way an extensive list, it is just the ones that came out of that small kiln that we dismantled, and the ones where the logo was laid upwards, so that I could photograph them.
I am preparing for a new research exploration project, but while I plan and organise, we decide to take a week off from the pottery to catch up on a few outstanding jobs. The weather has been beautiful all this week. The best winter days are like this with frosty nights followed by sunny days with no wind. Glorious days for working out side. We breakfast on marmalade and toast with coffee, and then the Lovely spends couple of days burning off all the orchard fruit-tree prunings to make ash for glazes, while I start working on the new shed.
We decided to build an addition to the kiln shed to create some extra storage space, while at the same time it allows me to create some space for a new chicken coop. We raised chickens and ducks here for 25 years, but we had a rather traumatic event with a pack of local village dogs that killed almost all of our birds in one savage attack. The old chook shed was somewhat degraded over time and the wire somewhat rusted and frail. It offered no real protection from the frenzied pack of dogs. I decided that I wouldn’t get anymore chickens until I built a stronger, steel-reinforced chook run.
The time has come now and it is done. 25mm. square, welded wire mesh with 6mm dia steel weld mesh dug down into the ground 300 mm. We now have 3 brown chooks at point of lay and are looking forward to our own fresh organic eggs again. The chicken run is quite small, but we only want 3 hens. One or two chickens would be enough for us, but I’m told that a trio is a better number for their own comfort and companionship. Once they are settled in we will let them free range all day, just as we did in the past. Only locking them up at night to protect them from foxes. Chickens are very resourceful at finding their own living out in the orchards and paddocks. Only the vegetable garden is locked up and out of bounds to them. They can be very destructive in a garden, digging up seedlings and excavating large dust bath holes in the soft, moist composted soil.
The other two thirds of the shed is a storage space for all the stainless steel sheets and other kiln building paraphernalia that I have to keep in stock, plus a small space for garden tools and the wheel barrow. We decide to pave the floor with bricks. This wasn’t in the original plan, but it seems the right thing to do to make the shed floor moisture proof and flat, so that I can wheel my brick cutting bench in and out easily.
We dismantle a couple of old, early wood fired kilns that have been in the garden for over thirty five years and are no longer used. The used bricks have a lovely patina of use and age about them. We lay them over a sand and black builders-plastic membrane substrate to keep the shed dry. 500 bricks later, it all comes together rather well. A good days work to dismantle, clean, stack, transport and lay all these bricks in one day.
This shed is built from nearly all recycled materials. I only had to buy a few sticks of hardwood for the rafters, nearly all the green poles were recycled from vineyard trellises and the iron sheeting for the walls and roof were all given to us when friends re-roofed their house. To complete the build, Janine suggests that we use some french doors and a solid timber single door that a friend found on the side of the road at council clean-up day and delivered here to us thinking that we might be the kind of people that could find a use for them, and we have. We get stuck into it and don’t seem to be able to stop until it is really formally finished. We hadn’t planned for such a proper shed. It started out as just a lean-to roof to keep the rain off the mud brick wall and an excuse to re-build the chook shed.
5 days later we have a beautiful dry, flat, level and secure, well-lit shed. It’s a thrill and a novelty to be able to let an idea go for a walk and have it end up so beautifully. Just using what recycled ‘rubbish’ we have collected here from what others have thrown out. It is almost too good for just storage. I didn’t intend to do this project, this week. I have a lot of other things that I have to do, but here it is and I’m really pleased with how it has turned out.
We put a bit of effort into restoring the old doors. I need to replace a broken sheet of glass in one french door, which Janine organises and putties into place beautifully. There is one broken sheet of gold-red glass in the single door. We don’t even bother to get a quote on that. It will be too expensive to justify for a shed door, so I cut a small piece of perspex and we paint it with red poster colour – you can hardly tell. Once the doors are cleaned and painted, we end the week with a new/second-hand, recycled shed built for just a few hundred dollars and using a modern combination of old and new tools – because I can.
We dine on steamed kale from the garden with our own home dried tomatoes and mushrooms, all softened with a little ricotta and some diced feta for texture.
All suitably self-reliant for a hard-working couple of amateur builders.