Peak Cherry Season

In this last week of spring, we are in peak cherry season here. We made the effort to cover the trees with netting a few weeks ago, so now we are reaping the benefits. If we don’t cover the fruit trees as the crops come into season and ripens, then the birds will take it all. We have learnt that we need to get the nets over the trees before the fruit colours – about a month in advance. We move the nets from tree to tree as the season progresses. Now, this week, there are simply too many cherries for the two of us to eat fresh at this time.

We eat as many as we can straight from the trees each day, but at this time of year we can’t keep up. If this is the worst problem that I have to cope with in my life, I have nothing to complain about.

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These last few days we have been stoning the excess of cherries and cooking them to preserve them. We have tried a couple of different recipes. For the first batch we de-pipped them and then brought them to a low simmer and added a spoonful of honey, a dash of white wine and a little squeeze of lemon juice. By blanching like this we can preserve them by either freezing them or keep them in the fridge for some days. We also tried blanching them in a small amount of cheap supermarket moscato wine. It is sweet and slightly acidic and does much the same job. much of a muchness.

We sit and work together at this time-consuming but very rewarding job. If you don’t put the effort in, you can’t claim the reward. Although it isn’t at the fore-front of our thinking at all times, we are cognisant of this very important attitude to life in general every day as  we plan our days work. We work with our hands, but also with our minds engaged in this self-reliant, mundane, seasonal work, quite simply because we have a long-term philosophy. We will continue to enjoy this beautiful after-dinner desert treat several times over the coming months.

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Hard work is it’s own reward. The real hard work was put in 40 years ago, when we dug the dams and installed the irregation lines, then  fenced the orchards.
It was only then that we could plant the cherry trees. Now we can enjoy the litteral fruits of our labours.

Veggies and Flowers

When we came here 43 years ago. There was next to nothing here, Only the derelict shell of the old school classroom. We had to work 7 days a week for the first few years just to pay the 23% interest rate on our money-lender mortgage on the property. It was a huge impost, an exorbitant interest rate, but they were the only people who would lend us the money.

Because of this huge level of debt, In those first few years I had to work the equivalent of 8 working days in each week. Seven full days and two nights, that equaled an extra day. I got part time work at 4 different art schools, then on Saturdays and Sundays, I flew out into western New South Wales each weekend to different towns, all over the state to build pottery kilns on-site as weekend workshops. Janine worked a couple of days and one night at Liverpool TAFE college. It was a killing work load, but we managed to pay off the first of the two mortgages early and save a load of interest.

During the school holidays, we were able to establish an orchard and a vegetable garden around the house. We were complete novices in the vegetable garden, but learnt by doing. The gardens started out as a way of growing wholesome, fresh food cheaply on site.

A few years later, I got to see a few French period films set in the south of France. “My Father’s Glory and My Mother’s Castle”, based on books by Marcel Pagnol. These films and others like it, (Jean de Florette) opened my eyes to the possibility of growing both flowers, vegetables and fruit trees, all in the same garden. Our life is much more under control now, and we are finally solvent, with more time to relax and enjoy the fruits of our labours.

In the past few decades we have introduced a lot more flowers into the edges of the garden beds and these are now self seeding and well established year on year.

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So now we grow herbs, grape vines, fruit trees and vegetables all in the same space. It is all netted over now, mostly with hail proof, fine bird netting. However, we have incorporated side panels of 35 mm hexagonal, galvanised wire mesh in the walls that allows all the little insect feeding birds easy access. We get all maner of finches, fire-tails and wrens flittering through in waves thoughout the day. They do a great job of cleaning up all the little pests and grubs, without touching the food crops. It this way we don’t have to use any insecticides.

So here we are arriving at some sort of way station on the journey that we set out on together over 40 years ago.

It’s nice, but I keep in mind that nothing is ever finished, nothing is perfect and nothing lasts.

Chair bodger

One of my hand-made steamed and bent Windsor chairs has suffered a broken arm recently. I made this chair from the one piece of wood, cut from a Japanese cedar tree that died in the drought in our garden. It was probably about 80 years old. It was a fine tree and the wood was too good to waste. So I decided to make a chair out of it.

As this tree was only small. It was hard to find a good piece of straight grained timber. for the lang arm. There was a fault in the way that I made it. I couldn’t find a piece of straight-grained timber that was of the correct dimensions for the job, so I used what I had. There is only so much straight grained timber in one tree. My tree had quite wavy grain. I compensated a little by sawing it out along the grain on the band saw, instead of just in a straight line on the table saw, but there just wasn’t a long enough section for me to use without the grain running off along the grain.

I used this piece where the grain ran off on the bend. It worked really well for almost a decade, but finally split when someone put a bit too much pressure on it, possibly leaning back on the back two legs and stressing the bent back. (I wasn’t home at the time)

I glued the broken arm back together, but it started to part company on the bend and split again within a year, even with careful use. I re-glued it, clamped it securely for 24 hrs. until the glue was well and truly set, then decided to reinforce it with a brass strip behind, where the split had re-started.

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It’s a broken chair, no doubt about it, but its a well-loved and valued chair that I spent a lot of time building, all the way from cutting down the tree, seasoning, sawing, cutting out, carving the seat base and spindles then fabrecating and assembling the whole thing. This chair has an added history. It means something to me so I used brass to give the repair some added value. A bit like the way that I use gold to repair one of my beautiful, but damaged bowls. What I’ve done here is like kinsugi, but it isn’t kinsugi, because kinsugi means gold repair.

Maybe this is some kind of brass chair bodging variation on kinsugi. Perhaps I should call it brassugi?

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Garlic Harvest Time

It’s the first of November and it’s time to harvest the early garlic crop. We plant garlic from March through to June and it takes about 6 months for the crop to mature. Over the years, we have tried many different varieties of garlic as they became available to us, but a few have always done better than others for us here with our specific terroir. The large ‘Russian’ garlic does well here, but I don’t particularly like the flavour. I find that it has a somewhat metallic aftertaste, which I find unpleasant. So although it grows well here I don’t plant it. The large white ‘Melbourne market’ variety does well, but is a little bland. The smaller growing red skinned variety, which I was told came from China after the opening-up to the West in the 70’s, does well and although it is only small, it is quite intense in flavour. I like the taste, but it is so fiddley to peel. Last year was not a good year for garlic for us and this variety grew so poorly to be only just worth harvesting. I didn’t bother to even attempt to peel it. I just put it whole into the garlic press and expressed the pulp as best I could and used it straight like this, even mixed with a little of its paper coating. The Italian pink seems to grow quite well and its of medium size and medium flavour. I plant the mall each year and let them fight it out, to see which one does best in each years different climate and rainfall conditions.

We have lifted half of the crop and have about 70 good knobs to hang up to dry from this first plot. There are also another 20 or 30 smaller bulbs that aren’t worth plaiting or hanging. We put them in a small basket on the kitchen bench top for use straight away.

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From Side-stoking in Stoke to Wwoof-ing in Wales

Before we leave Stoke-on-Trent, we have to go to a local English restaurant and try the local fare. I have been told – and I don’t know if this is an urban myth or not – but the most popular dish in Britain is Chicken Tikka Marsala with mushy peas!

I haven’t even seen it on any menu, but I live in hope. We do try the local Indian and have a very nice meal. Shame about the mushy peas though!

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From Stoke we make the drive across country to Wales, which isn’t very far, half an hour and we are over the border. I read somewhere that there is no place in the UK that is more than 75 miles from the sea. That doesn’t seem very far, about 120 km. That is about as far as we live inland from the south coast beaches. We’ve been known to go to the beach for the day with Geordie when he was young. The difference is that we don’t have British traffic and narrow lanes.

The drive is uneventful and we are soon with our friends Annie and David. Annie is the daughter of Sally and John Seymour. The seymours were at the forefront of the post war self sufficiency movement in Britain. We met Sally Seymour when she called in to see us at our home here in the late seventies. She had our names from a common friend who she had known in the UK.

We didn’t know who she was, but welcomed her into our house as a guest. Only in conversation over the next day or so did it become apparent to us who she was and that we already owned a couple of her books, as we have always had an interest in Self-reliance. That is why we moved here, way out in the sticks, where we could afford a derelict ruin with acres to make our projected lifes ideals come to fruition.

Sally came and visited us a few times over the next decade and even stayed and worked in the pottery with Janine for a few months while I was away studying in Japan in the 80’s. Apart from all the hard physical work of pioneering self-sufficiency in Britain with her husband John Seymour, she also raised 4 children. Their life is a very inspiring story and can be read in a series of books, 3 of which we own.

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Sally is also an accomplished potter. She learnt from her mother who was largely self-taught, as I understand it. Sally did al the illustrations for their books.

There is a new edition of ‘Fat of the Land’

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These books are available from Carningli Press; <http://carninglipress.co.uk/index.php&gt;

Sally had a stroke a few years ago and now lives with her Daughter Annie and Annie’s  husband David on part of the original farm that Sally and John bought back in the 60’s.

Annie and David are continuing on with the family tradition of self-sufficiency. Annie makes pots and David makes furniture. Together they work a few acres with extensive vegetable gardens and fruit trees.

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We help Annie pick black currents. A very labour intensive job, as they are very tiny and are suck to the bush very tight. Each tiny little individual berry has to be individually pinched and picked off the cane. after picking, the currents are spread out in trays on the kitchen table and carefully sorted to remove any extraneous material that might have found its way into the bowls. Some of the currents are washed and frozen, others boiled for deserts and puddings and some are dried for storage.

We work in the sunshine in the garden while David goes about making the days batch of  a dozen sourdough loaves. The drought is all mixed by hand in small batches. The drought is left to ‘prove’ and rise in plastic bags to keep it humid and draught free, and from developing a hard, dry top which will prevent it from rising well.

David’s small organic bread-making business is just one of many small income streams that they survive on. All the bread is sold locally to people within just a few miles of their home. Mostly people come and collect directly, but David does make a few deliveries to a some customers a bit farther away, when he goes out to do other jobs.

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It’s a pleasure and an honour to be able to take part – in just a very brief way – in this wholesome and creative life experiment. it’s also great to be able to catch up with old friends like this, spending time doing the most menial of jobs while catching up on news and gossip.

We  have a day ‘out’ to visit a local archaeological site. An archaeologist has been working around here for the past 30 years, every summer, he brings his students from the University to do a dig locally. He has been looking for the site(s) where the Stone Henge capping stones came from 5,000 years ago. It is well-known that the capping lintels came from Wales and more specifically from the Preseli mountains around here near the Carningli peak.

This year he has finally found the exact site. They have unearthed a finished lintel stone ready for transport. It is all set up on wedges ready to have the wooden rollers inserted underneath. It is sitting on a flat stone-flagged path which leads directly down to the river at the bottom of the slope. Apparently, mineral analysis has proven that this is the exact same stone as is found on-site at Stone Henge. The rest of the excavation on site has been re-filled, but they left the stone uncovered.

To my mind, this answers two questions, where they came from and how they were moved. It’s pretty obvious to me that if they built a flat, paved, stone path down to the river, then they were floated away on a raft from here. Presumably to be shifted to a larger boat down near the coast and then sailed around to Wiltshire.

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Later we visit the standing stone ‘Dolman’ burial chamber. This grade stone triptych and capping stone would have originally been buried under a hill of soil.

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On the way home we call in to visit the local Community Hall, where archaeologists have excavated one of the oldest and best preserved roman era pottery kilns in Wales. it was covered by the stage in the hall for many years, now it’s all cleaned up and preserved behind glass. Back in the day, it seems that it was just too much work to pull it down, so they built the stage over it.

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Fond regards from Old South Wales.

Another One Smites the Dust

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.

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The new, larger grey tank is down the back on the right, under the bottle brush tree.

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We bake vegetables fresh from the garden for dinner, finished with a bechamel sauce. It’s delicious and uses so little water to prepare.

Thinking Differently, Solar Power and Clay Making

I usually spend a bit of time making clay over the summer when the humidity is low and the air temperature is high. It’s a good time for drying out the clay slip after it has been ball milled.

All my so-called ‘clay’, is actually ground up igneous stones. I crush the very hard ‘granitic’ rocks in the big jaw crusher first to reduce them down to 12mm. gravel size, then through the small jaw crusher to get it down to sand size and finally it goes into the big ball mill for a few hours to reduce it to a very fine slip with water and 3% of Australian white bentonite. It is the only ingredient that I buy in for this home-made, locally sourced, native porcelain body.

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After ball milling, I test the pH and adjust it if necessary, it usually needs to be reduced a little, as the ball milling breaks down the structure of some of the felspars and micas in the stone. This releases tiny amounts of alkali into solution in the slip. The effect of this is to constrain the plasticity of the porcelain and inhibit the ageing plasticisation. Once adjusted to the correct level, the slip is stirred and then put through a fine sieve to remove any oversized particles and any foreign matter that has crept in during unloading. Thick slip is very slow to pass through a very fine mesh, so I resort to using a sieve vibrating machine to shake the sieve while the slip pours through. It’s quite amazing just how fast this process becomes with a little vibrational energy to keep the larger particles moving and not sitting and blocking up the fine mesh. ‘Vibro energy’ a really great focussed use for very small amount of electrical power.

Without the rock crushers and ball mills, I couldn’t make this local ‘native’ porcelain. In the past I always used to feel a bit guilty about using electrically powered machinery, as I was brought up in a family where ‘green issues’ were openly discussed, long before the ‘greens’ were invented as a political movement and ‘green’ came into the environmental lexicon. I’m not too sure what my parents actually called their lifestyle back then. Possibly ‘environmentally conscious’? Anyway, I’m happy to be called a ‘Greeny’ now and all that early environmental awareness has stuck with me. Give me the boy till he is 7! Now I am getting used to thinking differently about electricity as we are slowly becoming a fully electrified solar-powered household.

Electricity was always made with coal here in Australia and most of it still is. You have to specifically request to be put on a green power contract, and then pay a premium tariff for the pleasure of not using coal. 25 years ago, you couldn’t buy green power. Everything was coal, coal, coal, so I decided to make an effort to use the absolute minimal amount of electricity and we were very successful. We learnt to run a very lean electrical household. We have a very modest ‘LED’ screen television. A very efficient fridge that runs on 1 kW per day and a front loader washing machine, also very efficient. All in all we average an electricity usage of around 3.5 kWh per day. Very modest. We have chosen not to buy home theatre,  a dish washer or air con.  We have had solar hot water for the past 30 years, Solar electricity for the past decade and a Tesla battery since the start of the year. To the best of my knowledge, we have completely removed ourselves from the coal economy now.

When we did buy power from the utility, up until last year, it was always a battle to buy ‘clean’ green energy. They just hadn’t thought about it and weren’t prepared for the transition. It was a dinosaur industry. People like us wanted to buy clean energy, but they hadn’t put any plans in place to create any. It was all about business as usual. As the requests grew louder, some clean energy was slowly introduced, such that you could buy just 10% of your electricity as so-called ‘green power’, but it turned out that it was only hydro power from the Snowy Mountains Scheme. This was electricity that was always being generated since the 50’s and sold into the grid as part of the usual mix. But then the bean counters and ‘The Men in Suits’ got involved and thought why don’t we sell Steve Harrison the electricity that he is already buying, but sell it to him at twice the price. If he is silly enough to pay for it!  I wasn’t, so I didn’t.

We waited a long time, until the first wind farm was built just South of here. Then there was an offer that you could buy 20% of your power bill as wind energy, so we did, and continued to increase the percentage every year or so as more clean energy was built and made available. I remember that we were early adopters and had to go on a waiting list to get a higher percentage of clean energy. However, the energy company kept sending us supposedly attractive offers to change back to a cheaper dirty black power contract. This just reinforced to me that the market for green power was stronger than that for coal power. Apparently they had too much coal power and couldn’t get rid of it all.

Then there was government intervention to support the coal industry and then privatisation that was supposed to make every thing more efficient and cheaper. And what happened? The price went up about 200% here. A complete failure of market forces and competition.

Today I check in on our power usage on my phone app. I see that we are making about 5kW of solar power, not too bad, seeing that we are just a month off the winter solstice. We are only using a few hundred watts intermittently, that’s the fridge compressor switching on and off. There is a spike at 8am. That’s the toaster and electric jug for breakfast. It’s probably hard to live any kind of normal life and use significantly less power then this on a regular basis.

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Back to my clay tests and I pour them out onto the drying bed to stiffen up. Again I’m using solar and wind energy in this very passive way now to remove the excess water from the slip and reduce it to a plastic state. The sun shines for free every day. The wind blows most days, slowly the water is evaporated from the slip and it becomes stiffer and plastic. It’s gentle, it’s energy neutral and it’s free!

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Nice.

I’m very lucky to be able to live this rewarding, creative life in carbon constrained times. We are preparing ourselves for a creative, energy passive future, but it’s funny that trying to live a simple life gets quite complicated at times.