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.

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

Boards, Not Bored

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.

Self-reliance in dry times

As the drought deepens and the climate crisis escalates unchecked, with our politicians heads firmly buried deep in the sand. Crisis, What crisis? We muddle on in our independent, self-reliant, way. With the dam water very low. Actually, extremely low. We are saving what water we have in it for use in the coming weeks with the imminent arrival of the massive bush fire that is ravaging a lot of Eastern New South Wales.

The fire closest to us has burned over 112,000 hectares, or half a million acres, in the last two weeks. It is now just 17 km for our Village. When the next hot, dry, North Westerly wind blows in it will bring it here. Currently, the wind is in our favour and mostly blowing from the west. Inevitably to will swing around at some point. Then our time will come to deal with it Nothing can put out a fire of this scale – only good heavy prolonged rain. That is unlikely in the next month or two. So we just sit and wait.

We have tested all the roof and wall mounted sprinkler systems on the house, pottery, barn and kiln shed. I have even set up temporary, ground mounted, sprinklers on hoses in front of the wood shed and Railway Station building. We have done everything that we can, so now we wait.

The sun is orange because there is so much smoke and fall out from the sky of charred leaves and fine ash, it slowly blankets every thing. The car is covered in fine dust. All the roofs are dusty. Today I had to wash the solar panels 3 times, with mop and squeegee and 3 changes of water in the bucket, in order to get the water to run almost clear. The output from the system jumped up almost 500 watts straight away as I was washing the panels. Not just because they were cleaner, but the washing would have cooled them and made them more efficient.

We have scaled back our summer vegetable garden to just about half its usual size to reduce our water usage and we are only watering the younger and most dependant fruit tress that are one and two years old. All the older trees with deeper and more established root systems are having to fend for themselves. Several garden plants and a couple of older native trees have just keeled over and snuffed it. The times they are a changing. We will emerge from this very dry period with a different garden. When the rains come, it will probably flood. We have been told to expect more extremes in the weather. We will find out which plants can cope with draught and flood.

We have been doleing out our drinking water from the water tanks to keep the blue berries and young berries alive and producing, as well as the early peaches. That will be the sum total of our fruit for this summer. It’s all we can manage to support. Other trees that are not being watered, like the quince trees, have shed all their small partially formed fruit in an effort to save them selves. Ditto, the apples and pears. All four of our fig trees appear to have died, dropped all their leaves, turned brown and lost any sign of green tips at the dried out buds. I spoke to our neighbour at the shopping centre yesterday, and she told me that her parents are buying two truck loads of water each week to keep their garden alive. That’s hundreds of dollars worth of water being trucked in. We have never had to buy water in the past 43 years of our life here. We are frugal and we have planned well in advance. I guess that we will have to learn to live without figs. A small price to ask. But I can’t help but think, which trees are next?

In the mean time we have peaches, youngberries and blue berries to pick and preserve. This last basket full of the early peaches smell divine, fresh off the tree and so warm and fragrant. They are such a treasure, we eat most of them raw for breakfast and deserts, but we also vacuum seal some of them for later.

Todays job was to pick the berries. Both Young and blue. This will be the last pick of young berries, the canes started producing on the 24th of November. A whole month earlier than when they were first planted in 1977. We remove the netting and let the chooks in to clean up. The birds will get all the other higher odds and ends. We roll up the net and dismantle the hoop frames. Stored away till this time next year.

This last pick is about 700 g, making a rather small harvest this year, but exceptional, given the difficult conditions. We harvested about 5 to 6 kilos altogether. We have youngberry ice-cream in the freezer and 5 jars of vacuum sealed fruit in the pantry. It’s a pleasing reward for our efforts.

Janine whips berry puree into our local, pure, Picton dairy cream to make ice-cream. Nothing could be more natural and flavoursome. This has to be the most delicious way to get plaque build up in your arteries. At least there are no colours, preservatives, chemicals or artificial substances in there. Not too much sugar either.

The blue berries haven’t looked back since we potted them and moved them into the netted vegetable garden as a border. This keeps the birds off and makes sure that they get a bit of water every time we water the veggies. They reward us with their fruit. 3 kgs so far this summer and the season has only just begun. The will continue fruiting for a couple of months, into February, as we have chosen early, medium and late varieties.

Blue berries ripen over time, with only just a few ripe blue ones every so often spread out over all the little bunches. They are quite time consuming to pick. But which fruit isn’t? We have to pluck each individual berry from its neighbour in the tight little clusters. Today we manage 700g in half an hour with both of us at it. I have no idea how they produce these things commercially for just a few dollars per punnet. Slave labour?

Its a beautiful and rewarding thing to share this wholesome activity together. We are managing to eat them all fresh for breakfast and desserts so far, but there comes a time when the novelty wears off and we start to freeze some for later. Janine has experimented and learnt to make a beautiful blueberry sauce with a little brandy and cream. We force our selves to eat it 🙂

Banana fritters with berry ice-cream as a second course for breakfast after the berry fruit salad. Someones got to do it!