Our New Intern from Korea

We have a new intern working with us this January. Our visitor is Ms. Kang from Korea. She has come here to experience our sustainable approach to life and our ceramic work.

We have been working together crushing and grinding porcelain clay body and glazes from local rocks, throwing pots, working in the vegetable garden growing our food, cooking the food that we harvest and doing a little bit of sightseeing as well. The three of us have been doing some tourist activities together, like a trip to Sydney with a ferry ride on the harbour, and a trip to the local National Park and the south coast beaches.

Ms. Kang has been learning to use our foot-powered ‘Leach-style’ kick wheels.  We have just finished making sufficient clay work today to fill the solar powered electric kiln for a bisque firing. Last week we calcined some local white granite rocks, to make our local blue celadon/guan glaze.

Pretty-much life as usual, but with a hard-working and dedicated student-guest.

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Electric Car Review – Ioniq PHEV

I’ve had the new Hyundai Ioniq PHEV Plug-in hybrid electric car for just over a week now. So I can give a better account of what it is like to drive and own. As with most modern cars, it has a heap of complex software options in the inbuilt computer which is capable of doing more things that I care to learn about in the short-term. A bit like my phone or my laptop, it can do much more than I will ever ask it too. It will take me a little more time to work through all the options and internalise them to a point that they are at my finger tips and therefore useful to me. At the current time most of it is still opaque to me, so I don’t attempt to use stuff that I don’t see any need for. Especially if it distracts me from my driving, I don’t go there. 

 

I am not a petrol head, so I don’t know anything about cars. I’ve always bought the cheapest, fuel-efficient car that I could afford. That was nearly always a 3 cylinder, 1 litre engine car. We had a Daihatsu Charade and then a Daihatsu Sirion. We had them for about 10 years each and about 250,000 kms. Being one of the cheapest cars on the road, they came with manual everything, totally no-frills driving. I really enjoyed driving a small manual car. That is what I’m used to. So the hardest thing to get used to in this new car is not the technology or the electric propulsion, but the fact that it is an automatic! I’ve never driven an automatic car before. I still feel the need to lift my left foot to de-clutch as I approach a stop sign!


The car has 3 modes of travel. Fully electric directly off the battery, Hybrid electric where it starts off in Electric mode and sometimes switches to petrol mode if you put your foot down. and then ‘Sports’ mode, which seems to engage both motors at once. This mode is pretty zippy – I’m impressed! Changing between these modes is done electronically with the press of a button.


I have spent the first week mostly driving in ‘eco’ mode in fully electric selection, because this is why I chose this car. I have lots of solar PV on my roof and a Tesla battery at home, so I’m completely ready for fully solar electric living and travel. I have found that I can do all my local driving on the battery in eco electric mode. Recharging is done using a bog standard 10 amp 3-pin household power point and takes 4 hrs if the battery is almost fully depleted.


Because I’m not a pushy or aggressive driver, driving as I normally do and am used to doing around here, the car stays in ‘eco’  fully electric mode 99% of the time. Just occasionally when I come to a steep hill and put my foot a little harder on the accelerator, the petrol engine cuts in when I’m in Hybrid mode and I can feel the surge of extra power propel the car forward. Because the car is electric (most of the time), there is no engine noise or vibration when you pull up at the lights. The car pulls away smoothly and silently from the lights. If it is in hybrid mode the engine cuts in after a hundred meters or so, or if/when you get up to 20 kms/hr or so. This is totally seamless and the only way that I know that it has happened is the little icon on the dash that changes from electric to hybrid.


Most of the time it is just steady as she goes, totally silent, comfortably plush and comfy driving. The most noise that I hear is the tyre noise on the bitumen, I’ve become quite aware of the differences in road surface and the various noises that they each create. Visibility is very good with the mirrors. I really dislike cars that have tiny back windows. The back hatch on this car has a metal bar across it as part of the design to strengthen the huge flowing lines of the sculptured, mostly glass hatch. but visibility is still very good. I’m used to driving with the 5 point visibility habit and this design works perfectly well for me. However, I can see that I will eventually start to loose this habit, as I become more accustomed to the reversing camera and the active side mirrors.


Even though this car is the base model it has a few bells and whistles. Like side mirrors that have an alarm built-in that beeps and flashes to let you know another car is very close on that side if you put your blinker on to change lanes. It makes a humming sound that is generated when driving slowly in pedestrian zones like shopping centre car parks, so that people car hear you approaching from behind. It has adaptive cruse control, so that if you are cruising along and another car pulls into your lane in front of you, this car automatically senses that car and slows down to the same speed as the car in front, keeping several car lengths distance. The car also beeps if you cross a marked lane without indication. When reversing, it beeps if there is a car coming from either side that you can’t see, as you attempt to reverse out of your parking spot. The media player/radio also cuts the volume to half when you put the car into reverse, so that you become more aware of your outside surroundings as you reverse. All these little gadgets are very common in all new cars these days I expect, But our last car purchase was 13 years ago and it was the very basic poverty model. So this is all new to me.


The car has an automatic, 6 speed, dual clutch, gear box, so that either motor can operate independently, but also at the same time in unison, when you choose to. It is powered by an Atkinson cycle 4 cylinder, 1.6 litre petrol engine, as well as the electric motor. Although it is still a small car hatch back, it is also the biggest car that I have owned. The Atkinson Cycle motor is a very interesting design and is particularly fuel-efficient. Try searching for it on the Wiki. To get the best fuel efficiency out of the car, many of the panels are made of aluminium and the rest of the body is made from super high strength, hot pressed, high tensile steel making it lighter, yet stronger. This saving in chassis weight is taken up by the battery. In stead of using the brakes, the car uses  standard regenerative braking that is basic to all hybrid cars. An idea that has been around since the 50’s. Over-all there are a lot of little efficiencies all combined together to make this an impressive piece of engineering.


Of course, most of these ideas are not new. The Toyota Prius has been around for 20+ years, but it can’t drive on sunshine, it is strictly a petrol powered car. Many of the initial concepts of both electric and hybrid cars were introduced to me by Meredith Thring in 1980 when I read his book. Professor M W Thring pioneered many of these innovations in Yorkshire at the University of Sheffield and later at Queen Mary College, at the University of London in the post war period. See regenerative braking above. I bought the book that he wrote after he retired in 1980, called ‘The Engineers Conscience’. Interestingly, he was an Australian who moved to the UK to work, so maybe we can lay some marginal claim to the intellectual property invested in this car. I can safely claim to have been intellectually engaged in watching the long, slow development of these cars since the 80’s.


I have driven 500 km so far and the fuel tank is still completely full, the indicator hasn’t left the full mark yet. I must say that it is a very rewarding feeling to be able to drive totally on sunshine. I know that this will annoy some people, but the development of cars like this has been in the back of my mind since 1980 and has now become manifest in the availability of this car in Australia now. I have to say that it is so important to me and very rewarding to be able to drive for the rest of my life on the sunshine that I collect off my own roof. 

That’s priceless.

The Glorious Weeks of High Summer

We have entered the glorious weeks of high summer, where it’s just too hot to do much physical activity in the middle of the day. Having both had skin cancers removed – fortunately at early stages, we are careful to wear long sleeves and a hat when we are out. We start early in the garden and orchards, as we want to be out of the sun before it gets too hot in the middle of the day. We work until lunch time and then stay inside until the heat has passed in the afternoon, then we get back out there and do some more.

The jobs vary, but they are never-ending. There is always something to be done, often needed in a hurry. The morning starts with picking fruit. We have passed peak young berry and although we are still getting some each day, we are no longer picking kilos a day. At the peak, our biggest day was 3 kg. We will continue to get less and less, picking only every second day now, up until Xmas day, or thereabouts.

We have reached peak blueberry season today with 2 x 200mm. plastic containers of blueberries. We have about 20 plants, some doing well and others not so well. They are high maintenance and very demanding.

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Blueberries won’t do well unless all their demanding criteria are met. They need to grow in a bog of fresh seeping, acid water, or at least watered every second day. They also need to grow in acid conditions, preferably a very well-drained situation. So here, where we are, up on top of this dry, stoney, drought ridden ridge, there is no natural place for them. We have tried them in the ground in a couple of places, even mulching with huge amounts of acidic leaf litter and the addition of a little sulphur powder to the soil, but they are not happy, even though we water them well, I suspect that they are not sufficiently well drained. They are growing, but not too well, hardly putting on any growth. They do flower and set fruit, but only in moderate amounts. They have only grown 700 mm. high in half a dozen years. Our second attempt, also in the ground in the vegetable garden, where we dug in copious quantities of acidic leaf litter and she-oak mulch, they did much the same, they didn’t thrive, but we do get some fruit from them.

Our best effort to date was to plant them in tubs filled only with naturally acidic leaf litter and detritus from the wood pile and from around the wood splitter, this being almost entirely made up of coarse, fibrous woody compost-like material. These 7 plants have grown 1.2 metres in one year and have flowered and set a great crop. They still need to be watered regularly, but boy are they productive. I’m still finding it hard to believe that a plant can grow so well in nothing but tree bark and saw dust! A medium that has no soil in it. It’s certainly well-drained and is naturally acidic. It seems to be just a matter of keeping up the water to them.

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We have just started to pick the first santarosa plums along with the last of the apricots. Now that the apricots are over for us, the net is no longer needed there and we have decided to move this big net off the apricot tree this morning and along with its poly-pipe hoops and have set it up over the second plum-tree. The elephant heart plum.  These plums are still green now, but will be turning red soon, and that red colour always attracts the birds. So far we have managed well with the birds this season.

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Once the poly hoops are set up and the netting transferred, I drag the last of the netting over and manage to trap one luscious Janine and two chooks under the net. Now we can relax a bit. All that is left to do is to move the DAK pots and fruit fly lures across from the other tree. I try and keep at least one fruit fly lure inside every net. I spend $50 each year on fruit fly trap re-fills and a bag of dynamic lifter. Even growing your own fruit isn’t free + the hundreds of hours spent in the maintenance and watering, but this isn’t really work. It’s better described as fun and recreation, otherwise you wouldn’t do it.

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The late peaches are ripening, I suspect that it won’t be long and we will have these on the menu too. The late peaches are luscious, dense, yellow fleshed and so flavorsome. They put the super early white peaches to shame for flavour, but the early peaches are always first, so we are so glad to get them and really appreciate them for their sweetness. We don’t realise how thin the flavour is because we are so looking forward to eating them after 12 months without peaches. Now in the midst of the high summer heat and ever so long days, the solstice is just a few days away, we are getting picky. For instance, we have stopped picking and eating the mulberries, there is always so much more and better fruit at this time of year. We let the birds have most of those, we just take the easy low hanging fruit these days.

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The strawberries are still continuing to produce regular pickings since spring, never too many, but just regular and steady, we have the strawberries mulched with pine needles that Janine sweeps up from under the big pine trees after every storm. We have a constant pile of it down where the truffle trees are growing. We use it for litter in the chook run and in their nesting boxes. After I rake it out of the chook rum every few weeks, along with a load of pooh all mixed in with it, it gets wheel-barrowed to the citrus grove and used for mulch around the trees in there. Nothing is wasted, everything has a use and a re-use.

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Looking back at our mornings work, I can see that there is a lot of grass grown up under where the netting has been. I get out the whipper-snipper thing and see to it, then think that I should also do all the paths in the veggie garden while I’m out here and into it. Couch grass never sleeps in this hot weather. I can’t afford to let it get a hold in the garden beds. One thing leads to another. There is no end to jobs. But the sun is right up there now and its almost 12-ish and time to put the mower away and go inside for lunch and then some inside work till it cools off. It’s a good thing that the days are so long right now, otherwise we wouldn’t be able to get it all done.

I get out there again and dig out a nasty patch of couch grass that has got a hold of part of the garden path. I set too with the mattock and dig it out roots and all. It’s hot sweaty work, but very rewarding when you look back after you’ve finished!

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This is a job that won’t need doing again for another year in this spot, but there are still 3 more patches just like it at the other ends of the pathways.

I must have been wicked!

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.

The Long Dry Continues

It has now been 1 1/4 years since the last significant rain here. Soaking rain that flowed across the ground and filled the dams. We have had only showers and light rain that we harvest on our tin roofs and then collect in our water tanks.

When is the best time to buy a new water tank?  – Last year!

We have just added a new water tank to the little railway station that we bought 40 years ago and moved here to sit next to The Old School building that we live in.

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The new water tank is made out of plastic. I’m not too keen on holding water in plastic, even if it is guaranteed to be virgin, food grade, plastic. All the old water tanks were made from galvanised steel and soldered at the joints with lead solder – not good! Then the later metal tanks were made from zincalume plated steel with silicon rubber sealed joints. I wasn’t too happy about that either. They rusted out very fast too. A complete waste of money. The last metal tank that we bought was made from galvanised steel sheet, but the metal surface had plastic sheeting melted onto it. A process called ‘aquaplate’ , and it was still sealed with silicon.  With these options all being less than perfect, we decided to try a plastic tank this time, as it’s no different to plastic lined steel – and the plastic tanks are half the price of the galvanised steel ones now.

I made a galvanised steel ring to hold the 100 mm. of coarse sand base in place. I cut up a small piece of 1m galvanised steel scrap sheetmetal and guillotine it into 6 long, thin strips. Then I welded them all together end to end, to make a 6 metre long strip and loop it around to join it back into a 2 metre diameter ring. It looks like it’s almost professional.

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I bodgie up a makeshift tap out of parts that I have in the shed. Within an hour of deleivery, the tank is installed, connected and half full of water pumped from another tank, to keep it from blowing away. Which is a distinct possibility it were to be left empty for any length of time.

If this is the future of our weather that we are experiencing. We need to get ourselves prepared. After the last long drought we installed a huge 120,000 litre water tank that collected water from the over-flows from the 3 big roofs. The pottery, the kiln shed and the barn. All that water used to just over-flow from the small tanks on each roof and was then lost onto the ground. We now collect all that excess and it is this water that we are now relying on for the house and also for watering the garden and orchard trees. This can’t last, we will eventually run out. We have so far used 1/4 of our water storage. Eventually we will have to buy drinking water, just like our neighbours on both sides are doing now. Every couple of weeks we hear the water truck grind up the dusty dirt road and then the petrol motor pump starts up and roars into life for the 30 minutes or so that it takes to discharge its precious load into their empty water tanks.

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Each time a car drives past our house along the dirt road these days, it stirs up the dust which rolls across the front of our land and settles on everything coating the whole of our land in a very fine airborne silicosis causing layer of fine dust. It’s in our hair and our lungs, you can’t filter it out. It creeps in under the doors and in through the cracks around the windows. Everything in the house slowly gets coated in it. We have to mop the floor every couple of days and wipe down the shelves. It also settles on all the leaves of the trees and particularly on the solar panels. I need to wash them down every week to keep up their performance.  I wipe the Blueberry leaves with a wet finger, and you can see the layer of dust become more apparent.

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After I finish washing the panels, the water in the bucket is black.

This road didn’t used to be this bad, but recently the local council graded the dirt road and applied a thick layer of what looks like steel-works slag. It has broken down to a very fine dusty substance – whatever it is. It’s horrible. I wrote to the council and complained, but after ten days I got a phone call to say that this road isn’t on their 10 year plan for re-surfacing, so we will have to live with it for the next decade at least. The council man suggested that it might be wise to expect a wait of 15 years! As there are many other country roads ahead of us on their list.

I’m not too sure that I’ll live that long, especially with all this dust in my lungs!

Two Days in the Garden

The days are getting a bit longer now and the sun is a little bit warmer in the daytime. We had 16 degrees today. However, we are still having frosts. This morning it was only very light.

We went to the local markets yesterday and bought a few early vegetable seedlings. I am always optimistic about when we can get in the early veggies. There is a sense of optimism in the air when the days start to get longer and warmer. We buy some tomatoes, zucchini, capsicum and a couple of cucumber plants. The lady on the seedling stall looks at us quizzically, “are you sure you want to buy these?” Our answer is “yes, we do.” We don’t live in Bowral where it takes month longer to get past the frosts. We live on the north side of The Big Hill at what used to be called “Lower Big Hill Siding”. It’s our little piece of Camelot here in the Southern Highlands. The big hill protects us from the worst of the southerly winds that blow off the snow at this time of year.

This year, I plan to make a temporary cloche for the first time. Many years ago, possibly 25 or 30 years ago? I made several light-weight steel frames, welded out of 10mm round bar. I strung wire mesh all around them, and we used them to place over the garden beds. This was our first attempt to stop the birds from eating all our vegetables. There weren’t very many birds around when we first came here, as there was nothing much here for them.

However, over the years, as we built up the soil organically with manures and compost, planted fruit trees and vegetables, mowed the weeds into some sort of lawn and built dams to hold the rain water run-off. We changed the local environment to be more beneficial for the local wildlife as well as for us. With permanent water, open spaces filled with fruit and greens, tall trees for roosting and lower bushes for cover and protection. We slowly found that we had created a big problem for ourselves as well.

Now there are hundreds of birds living here in all categories. This is wonderful. They are flourishing in our micro-environment. Our problem is that they want to eat most of the things that we do. So we had to come up with solutions to keep our food safe.

The small wire frames were my first attempt to protect each individual garden bed. I could just flip them on their side to get access for picking and weeding. This worked well enough for a few beds, but as I wanted to expand the garden, it became obvious that we needed a better, larger and more convenient and preferably permanent solution. So the large covered vegetable garden was eventually built and has been terrific. The now discarded wire frames were left sitting on top of the concrete water tank for the past 20 years. Up there weeds didn’t grow through them and they didn’t have to be continually moved.

Now, 3 of these frames are being reinvented as cloches. Frost and wind protectors. I cover them in a layer of shrink-wrap, using the big, industrial shrink-wrap dispenser gadget that I use to wrap kilns before delivery.

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We have spent one day weeding, mowing and generally cleaning up around the garden, as it was looking a bit neglected and un-loved. For me this is the hardest part and take a toll on my back, as it involves a lot of bending and getting up and down. Firstly, I go around all the edges with a garden fork and loosen all the weeds. Then I work my way to the centre. Next, it’s time to get down and pull all the weeds loose and shake off the soil. This is time-consuming, slow work, but needs to be done. Only the sub-clover is left to be dug in. It’s the invasive weeds like couch grass that really need to be dug out and removed. All this ‘plants-out-of-place’ material is either piled on the compost heap, or in the case of the couch is transferred to the dam bank, where we wish it a long and productive life binding the soil over there.

Today we have spread a load of charcoal and ashes sieved from the fire-place when extracting the finest particles of ash for glazemaking. Next we wheelbarrow in 20 loads of spent mushroom compost and spread it all over the empty beds, along with a few handfuls of dolomite to sweeten the soil a little where necessary and some chicken manure. Lastly I spent an hour or two rotary hoeing it all into a deep, homogenous, rich mix.

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We haven’t done a really big upgrade of the garden beds like this for a few years now. I usually just add the compost and manure on top of the soil and let the worms do the work. However, I have noticed that this minimal intervention method, over time, leaves the soil depleted of the fibrous compost. The soil remains crumbly with many worms, but somehow denser and heavier. After a total make-over like this, digging in massive amounts of compost. The soil becomes light, fibrous and very open.

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I know that the rotary-hoe kills worms, but there are plenty of them in there and after a treatment like this the numbers bounce back 10 fold in a very short time, because I don’t do every bit of the garden at one time, just patches. This allows worms from the nearby untouched areas in-between to invade the freshly dug ground and multiply very fast. I don’t know if there is a better way, but this has worked for us for many years. I can imagine that lightly forking it all through would be better for the worms, but my 65 year old back isn’t up to it any more.

The vegetable garden under netting is about 450 sq. metres. About the size of the modern block of land for suburban housing. Of this netted area, I have about 150 sq. metres, or a third, under intensive cultivation for vegetables, another third has permanent blueberries, grape vines and almond trees. The remainder being walkways and paths.

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We finish up the second day with planting out the seedlings. Planting seeds and finally watering everything in. A very productive weekend. The new re-invented cloches look a bit modern and space-age in our rustic garden, but as I clean everything up and the heat of the day drains away, my fingers start to feel the cold. I know that the plants will appreciate the plastic ‘dooner’.

Two days in the garden – six months of food!

Winter Weekend Workshop, Wood-fired Raku

We are smack in the middle of the winter weekend wood firing workshops. 5 down and 5 to go. We have to take the truck down into the bushy part of our land and collect a load of small dead dry branches for the next raku firing workshop. We get through a truck load in one day with 6 wood fired kilns going all day. Collecting all of our own fuel from our own land like this is just one more aspect of our attempt at self-reliance. It’s time consuming, but fit, active, healthy work, and it helps to keep the forest in good condition.

 

Amazingly, the chickens know the sound of the chainsaw and within minutes they appear, having covered the 100 metres across the block from the garden area where they spend most of their time, through the cherry orchard, the hazelnut grove, past the dam and the wood shed and they find us down the lane. The are motivated by food. They know that the chainsaw means termites, centipedes, under-bark beetles and cockroaches. We aren’t that happy to see them arrive here in this more remote part of our land. It means that they now know that this place exists and that they can roam here at other times. They learn their boundaries by following us. They don’t go where we don’t go. This place is the wild-wood for them and they will be very vulnerable to the fox if they come here alone.

 

We set about dragging the dead branches out of the forest. Once we have a good pile to get started with. Janine keeps on delivering more sticks and branches to me in the track. The closest place where I can reverse to truck to. I set up the saw horse and start to cut the branches into smaller sized pieces, suitable for use in the little Stefan Jakob style bin kilns. The chickens have no fear, they love to get in right under the saw to catch the falling bugs. I have to persuade them to look elsewhere in a rotten tree stump to excavate for termites. It works for a while but they are soon back in my wood pile, under my feet. They have decided that they love sugar ants and their larvae, that are falling out of some of the hollow rotten logs.

When we have loaded the truck, the chickens don’t want to leave this new exciting site that they hadn’t previously known about. We have to go back and entice them to follow us to safer ground, closer to the house. They wouldn’t last too long out in the bush.

We need to drive the truck up to the wood shed so that we can split the thicker section logs down to thin pieces suitable for the small fireboxes on these little kilns. As soon as the splitter engine starts up, they soon appear, ready to ‘help’ Janine with the wood splitting.

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I sharpen and service the chain saws, while Janine and her ‘helpers’ finish splitting the last of the wood.

The workshop is a success as they always are. Everyone getting a chance to fire their own work in their own kiln, usually working together in pairs or small groups.

 

 

The day ends with a little shower of rain, that sends us under cover for a few minutes, but it soon clears to a light sprinkle and we are all back out there cleaning up and washing the finished pots, raking the saw dust looking for lost pieces or little parts that have broken off.

At the end of the day, the truck is empty and there are just 6 pieces of wood left in the wheel barrow.

A good day.