Transhumance of water

The transhumance is usually applied to the seasonal movement of livestock in Europe following good the pasture from lowland to highland in the spring for example. Janine and I have been in Europe on two occasions and witnessed a small part of this seasonal, ancient, ritual passage of people and animals. It was a beautiful experience, to witness this event, watching the farmer, his family and their dogs walking the herd of cows down the mountain pass, back to the safety of the lowland farm and its barn with its stocks of hay and silage to sustain the animals through the cold winter.

For Janine and I here on our few acres, we ‘husband’ the passage of water back up hill from the lower dams, up to the higher ‘house’ dam for safe storage over the coming hot dry summer. Back when the weather was more reliable, the winter rains would flow into the upper dam and it would overflow down into the next dam, and then from there, when the 2nd dam filled, it would over flow down into the next dam, etc. etc. We have created what is known as a ‘keyline’ system of dames, so that nothing is wasted. That was of course when it used to rain.

These days it doesn’t rain enough to fill all the dams, but they do have a small amount in each of the 2 lower dams. The big top dam, ‘Max Like’, is totally dry. but it is worth harvesting the water from the two lower dams and collecting it all in one place to minimise evaporation. The surface area is essentially the same, but the water storage is 3 times deeper.

So today I started the water-transhumance for this year. The water is supposed to flow down in the winter and be pumped back in the summer. I don’t have much to work with, but in this way I can get the best out of what I have.

I pumped the bottom dam down to a level that gave me most of the water, but left a little bit for the locals.

My next job is to move the pump up to the 2nd dam and start shifting it up to the top dam. By the end of the day we should have moved most of the water. There is a big rock in the top dam, when we can see the rock, it means that we are almost out of water. By the time I’ve pumped all this water up to the top dam, the rock will disappear.

Mission accomplished. The home dam is filled sufficiently to cover the rock. That means that we now have over 600mm. deep storage, all in one spot, which minimises the evaporation in there coming hotter weather.

While the water was pumping up by itself. I only need to check it every 15 mins to make sure that all is going well. In the mean time I finish filling in the syphon guttering trench and I make new guttering for the western side of the barn. I was quoted $110 per meter for a professional guttering job. I manage to do it in 3 hours for $147! I just saved myself over $1,000! This is how we can manage to live here on such a small income. Independence through frugal self reliance.

I have spent this long week doing repair and maintenance jobs, from replacing the tin roof on the pottery, renewing the syphon gutter and digging trenches through hard packed dirt, making gutters and down spouts, now shifting water.

Every step I’ve taken this week was involved in water in some way. You never miss your water till your well runs dry!

I’m hoping that I won’t miss any water and that my tanks won’t run dry.

Rainwater catchment

As the weather has slowly dried out over the four and a bit decades that we have lived here, the dams that we dug when we arrived here in 1976, and worked so well for 20 years, are now all dried out. We haven’t had significant rain fall to saturate the ground and flow down the gutters and channels into those dams. So we find ourselves towards the end of spring now with virtually no water in the dams. This is the 3rd year with no significant flows into the dams and the 2nd decade where the dams don’t fill to overflowing. i can’t remember a time when they were all full.

It is quite shocking to me to have to start the year with just 500mm. of water in our main dam. That will only last a couple of hours in a fire situation – if it came today! But there won’t be this much water left in there in a month or twos time, at the height of summer – if any! Evaporation will see an end to that little bit of water that is left.

Our biggest dam, built specially to irrigate the vineyard, we called Max Lake! It is now bone dry since last week, the final little puddles evaporated away in the heat and the wind. No water flowed into it for at least 3 years. It was once a glorious swimming hole in years past. Particularly when our son was young, we had a lot of fun swimming in there over summer. 2 metres deep of serious fun filled water. Now home to just a few dried out reeds.

We used to rely on the dams for our irrigation water and fire fighting reserves. But no more. We have to think differently now. This is now the new normal. We have managed to get through the past few summers using our tank water storage. We have put a lot of effort into installing water tanks on every roof on our land. This has worked very well up until now, But this year we are not quite through spring and we have almost emptied one of our two large water tanks, mostly through watering the garden and orchards. With the global crisis deepening, I can see a time when we will run out of water before the end of summer in coming years.

The most pressing question on my mind right now is what will we use to fight bush fires in late summer and autumn. I guess that we will have to buy water and have it trucked in. Not a happy thought. In particular because when disaster strikes, every one will be wanting water delivered and only the regular customers will be getting service. I know how it works. We have never bought water for 40 years. We don’t even know who sells it these days. So we shouldn’t be relying on that to save us. In a funny quirk of fate, those of us in this village who are poorly prepared and always buy water, will get it, as they must, because they are the most needy. We, on the other hand, have spent our lives trying to be prepared as best that we can be, and are almost totally self-reliant, We will be the the ones to be left to fend for ourselves – as we always have.

Water storage is very finite and with every roof already having a water tank connected to it. Our options are limited. We have purchased a new, smaller sized, water tank every year now for the past 4 years. Installing those tanks on all the smaller tin roofs on the little sheds, and even the little railway station building has two. Just so that there isn’t any water allowed to be wasted. Once caught and held, then we can use it later at our discretion.

Having thought through the possibilities. We decided to up-grade to a much larger water tank on the barn. The barn has a huge roof, but only a relatively small 1,000 gallon/4,500 litre water tank that we put on there almost 20 years ago when we built the barn, to satisfy the local council building inspectors. We don’t use it for the garden at all. It is there with it’s own independent pump to supply the roof and wall sprinklers that I fitted to the building specifically for fire fighting. As it’s only been used twice in its life. It remains constantly full. However, when it rains and the tank overflows, I have the overflow connected into the plumbing system that delivers the water from all 3 big sheds into the 120,000 litre concrete water tank at the bottom of our block. This is the tank that is now almost empty. I can connect the new proposed tank in parallel with the old one. That way, I only need to do a bit of plumbing.

I realise that I can add a 7,500 gallon/35,000 litre water tank on the other side of the building. This is a significant exercise, cutting a 4.5 metre diameter level base through the top soil and placing 2 cubic metres of fine basalt dust, then spreading it and compacting it to make a solid base for the tank to sit on. I’ve been at this job since Friday last week. The base is done now, so I have turned my attention to the roof plumbing. I need to put in a syphon gutter system to take the water to the other side of the shed.

I wonder why it is that I seem to end up doing these jobs in such hot weather. Answer. every day is hot these days. Summer starts 3 months earlier and goes on for another 3 months longer. We are having 9 months of summer these past few years.

The old saying goes, When is the best time to plant a tree? The answer is, 20 years ago! That is also the answer to when I should have put in this larger tank, but I was already fully committed 20 years ago to installing the water tanks that we already do have now. So now is the best time for this new tank! When it rains again, as it most certainly will. We will fill this tank with rain water and be better off in the future. This is just forward planning!

So, today I’m digging this trench into rock hard dirt that is as tough as concrete. I end up having to use a crow bar and a pick to penetrate the soil. I give up pretty quickly and go and get the tractor to try ripping a groove into the hard packed, baked soil. I end up bending parts of the the tractor and need to go to the toy shop, formally known as the kiln factory, to put the bent and broken parts under the hydraulic press and bend them back into shape. If nothing else, I get to spend a few minutes out of the full sun, in the shade, in the shed, making good the repairs. I love the toy shop! I can fix almost anything in there – one way or another.

By the end of the day, I’m pretty rats, but the hole is dug and the pipes are laid and blue-glued together. The new lengths of guttering should be delivered tomorrow?! I should have it all back together by the day after. It can rain by the end of the week and I’ll be OK with that.

As for the new water tank, well, I haven’t even ordered that as yet. First things first. Watch this space !

At the end of this days tough work, I go to the garden and find that I can pick the first of this years crop of tomatoes. 3 red tomatoes, It’s the 26th of November. I can’t remember an earlier date for the first red tomato of the season. We can usually get a few before Xmas, but this is a whole month earlier than Xmas. If global warming is a communist plot to disrupt Western economies, as Donald Trump claimed, then, thank you to the Chinese Communist Party for these unseasonably early red tomatoes here in Australia. I wonder how they do it?

Maybe every dark cloud has a silver lining? I’d be happy just to see some clouds! Dark or otherwise.

First Peaches of the Season

Janine and I set up the plastic pipe hoops and installed the netting over the peach tress in the stone fruit orchard 3 weeks ago as the fruit started to appear. These early peach trees develop their fruit so quickly. They swell from buds in no time flat.

We knew that it was time to cover them when we saw parrots in the trees starting to eat the tiny young green fruit. It’s been so dry here as the drought drags on. Actually I don’t believe that it is a drought – an unusual event, that is just bad luck, as the politicians would have us believe. No! I believe that this is the new normal for us in this continuously developing global heating crisis. The rain fall pattern has been changing and our share of the rain has been steadily decreasing ever since we settled here 43 years ago.

We used to be able to get by here in this place with the water that we collected in our dams. We used to get terrific, short, intense rain storms, that would drop 20 to 25 mm. of water in an hour or two. This sudden flow of water had no time to soak into the soil and just flooded down the road in the gutters and then down the ditches that we had dug to harvest that flow, and into our dams. A good storm like that gave us sufficient water to get us through the best part of summer. We don’t get those storms any more, not for a decade or more now. In the 70’s we could get two or three of those storms in the summer months. Sadly no longer.

I have been a long-term subscriber to ‘NewScientist’ magazine, published out of the UK, but we now have our own branch here in Australia these days, with an Australian edition, so the Australian content has been increasing steadily. Over the 45 years that I have been a subscriber and reading the research published on our increasing emissions of carbon into the atmosphere. I’ve seen the steady increase in certainty in the science behind our understanding of the evolving crisis. I’ve also seen the strenuous denials from the carbon intensive industries lobby, building from straight out denial that the earth is warming at all, to now admitting that there is warming, but it is nothing to do with carbon in the atmosphere. All the denial and fake news claims, even the spurious pseudo scientific fake ‘research’ sponsored by the carbon lobby, is straight out of the cigarette industry playbook.

We are drying out here, slowly but surely. We have some peaches on the early peach trees, but there are no apples and just a few pears, as there wasn’t enough cold nights over winter to build up sufficient ‘winter chill hours’ that the fruit trees require to be able to ‘set’ fruit. We did get a ‘set’ of cherries on the trees, but with the exceptionally dry conditions, it has driven the kangaroos up out of the dense bush in the gullies up into our back yard and right up to the house in search of food. They have begun eating the cherry trees lower branches and the parrots have taken all the fruit while it was still green and hard. I’ve never seen that before. These wild animals are obviously very hungry.

In some ways it’s OK, as now we don’t have to worry about keeping the water up to the orchard, as we are very low in water storage. All 4 dams are close to empty. I need to get the portable petrol pump out and pump all the 3 other dams dry and locate all the remaining water into just one dam to minimise surface area and evaporation. We may need that water to fight fires over the coming summer.

At the moment we are OK, we are managing to water the vegetables and the few peaches from our rain water storage tanks, but this is a finite resource. We are already half way through our main large water tank, and we are still in spring! We still have one more large water tank full. That is our reserve supply. We’ll just have to wait and see how things pan out.

With almost every roof on our property already fitted up with guttering and a rain water tank, it’s hard to imagine how we can increase our storage in the short term. We can only double up on our storage tanks to catch the overflow from the original tanks, should there be a big storm – which there will be one day, bit that isn’t going to be any help just now.

For the time being, we have some early peaches to console us and reward us for our efforts.

A sudden cold spell

We have just emerged from a sudden cold spell. We were glad to find a few jobs to do inside for a while until the cold winds blew themselves out. Our good friend Annabelle Sloujé lives a little bit farther south of here and a lot higher up, she had a low of -9oC, I’m glad we live here in Camelot where it doesn’t get so cold. My friends in Korea report a range of -35 to + 38oC. They probably think that I’m a wimp for talking about a winters day of -1 oC. They possibly think that -1 is quite warm, in comparison.

However cold or hot it is, we found things to do out of the wind. I shelled nuts and Janine made a cake from the last of last years hazelnuts that she milled into flour. It’s one of those recipes with reduced flour and usually almond meal. The Lovely down loaded it from the internet, but as we didin’t have any almonds left to shell, she used all hazelnut meal instead. All recipes are just a guide. Living where we do, we have learnt to compromise and use what we have rather than drive for an hour to get something specific. We save all our jobs and shopping list for that weekly trip.

Glazed with melted 85% dark chocolate and a few chunks of chopped crystallised ginger. It was just right for cold weather and didn’t last too long.

For my part, I made a beef marrow bone and vegetable stock over a couple of nights, using the free heat from the wood fired kitchen stove after we cooked dinner.

I make stock like this a few times each year, especially during the colder months when the stove is always on. I have come accustomed to always having our own personal, giant, frozen stock cube in the freezer. We don’t own a dedicated freezer, so we only freeze what can’t be preserved by other means like vacuum sealing ‘Vacola’ jars. The special conditions required for safe preserving in vacuum jars is that the food must be boiled in the jar to seal it, so that counts out pesto. Also, it is best if the food is naturally acidic like fruits and vegetables like tomatoes. Meat can be preserved this way, but it is recommended that the vacuum sealing be done twice to make sure that it is perfectly safe. A bit of a bother.

After the cold spell blew itself out, we have had a few glorious cloudless sunny days with no wind. I took the opportunity to move my chair out into the sun and get a little vitamin D and finish decorating my last few pots doing scraffitto, carving into the surface with a sharp tool. This will show the pooling character of my local granite blue celadon style glaze when fired in the reduced solar fired electric kiln.

Spring is almost here

When the poppies arrive, spring is almost here!We still have 2 weeks before spring is officially here, but we have been enjoying a nice steady display of the red Flanders poppies for a few weeks now. The night time frosts are still continuing, but the poppies don’t seem to mind.

They brighten the kitchen breakfast table. The shaft of early morning light illuminates their semi-translucent fragility. They only last such a short time in the vase, but they make us happy while they are here.As it is still winter, we have been enjoying all the varied brassicas that are maturing in the garden. We picked a gigantic cauliflower and had to think up a variety of ways of eating it. Fresh picked, we like it best cut into small florets and dipped in a little mayonnaise and eaten raw. We also add it to stir fry and risottos, but the classic has to be cauliflower au gratin. I have to make it at least once each winter. 
I melt a little bit of butter and add in some flour, for us, that happens to be wholemeal. I make a roux using approximately equal parts of each, but I only cook it to thicken it, I don’t want it to colour up, so I only cook it off on a gentle heat and soon add some milk a little at a time. The first few drops instantly thickens it to a stiff paste. I have to work at dissolving the first few drops of milk into the mucilage, as it is adsorbed, and the mixture loosens, I continue to add the milk slowly while stirring to avoid lumps. I only want a pale sauce for the gratin. I think that it looks most appropriate with the pale cauliflower.

I’m a lazy cook, I don’t have any bread crumbs and I’m not about to start making some, and I certainly won’t ever be buying any ready-mades, so as soon as it comes to a slow, gentle bubbling boil, I add in my steamed cauliflower and I stir in a little grated cheese, with a little more added on top, and the whole lot then goes under the grill.

It’s a lovely warming veggie winter dinner.
We have been in to have dinner at our sons restaurant, Bistro Sociale in Bowral,  <http://www.bistrosociale.com.au>

Always a lovely time, good, interesting food and not too expensive. We almost never eat out in restaurants, but we make an exception for our son. He made a beautiful desert for Janine and our friend Annabelle Sloujé.
A prune creme brûlée with fruits and flowers.


Geordie managed to get me a fresh black French truffle recently. The weather has been so dry here. We are in drought, and this has affected the truffle harvest this year. It turns out that the Southern Highlands is a very good place to grow truffles, but not in a drought. Our own truffle trees have not shown any inclination to produce a truffle as yet, but we live in hope. Maybe in the future, if it ever rains?

We managed to get just one small truffle. Since Ted retired and sold his truffiere, we have been cut off from our supply. Geordie has contacts though! So we had truffled eggs for breakfast. You can’t be mean with a truffle. They may be expensive at $1.40 per gram, but it’s best not to think about the cost and just inhale deeply and enjoy. We made scrambled eggs with a little cream whipped in and some fresh grated pepper, and then grated the whole truffle over the top. No point in rationing it out over several meals, such that you never really get the full flavour experience. Just go for it and enjoy it to the max. You only live once.

We have had absolutely no mushrooms come up in our garden this winter. It is just so dry. There is still just enough time, if it rained in the next couple of weeks, we could get lucky.


After storing the truffle in the fridge for a few days with the eggs and rice. We used the rice to make a risotto for dinner. It’s amazing that when I opened the container and poured the rice into the big pan to roast it a little before adding the wine. There was a very noticeable smell of French truffle wafting up to me. Beautiful! It became a winter vegetable risotto.


I added a bottle of our preserved, concentrated, summer tomato, sugo as well. It really fills out the flavour like no other vegetable can.


We are lighting both the wood fired stove in the kitchen and the fire in the lounge room to keep the place moderately warm at night. As the kitchen stove also heats our hot water tank in the winter, it is a necessity. But most importantly, its carbon neutral, as we collect all our kitchen stove wood fuel off our own land, from our own forrest. However, it’s also a beautiful way to cook.

Vegan Wood Firing

It is a beautiful clear, sunny day here today. The air is cold and a little fragrant. I’m not too sure what with, but it is crisp and refreshing. We have been up to Sydney and back for the opening of the wood fired show, at Kerrie Lowe Gallery, where we have our work on show.

This is a small white tenmoku bowl with a lovely soft ash deposit on the fire face, showing grey some carbon inclusion on the body and rim.

A very delicate and beautiful object.

  

These are two of janine’s blossom vases. These two vessels are inspired by Korean ‘Moon’ jars. On this occasion, Janine has incised a sgrafitto, carved band illustrating the phases of the moon, as a way of linking these beautiful pots back to the origin of their inspiration in Korean, where we have spent a bit of time recently doing our research.

These pots were fired in just 4 hours in our small portable wood fired kiln. This little kiln is so environmentally friendly that I call this type of firing ‘Vegan Wood firing!

All the fuel for this kiln is collected from wind falls in our paddocks. Large old eucalypt trees are constantly dropping dead branches. We have to go around collecting these dead branches to keep the ground clear so that we can mow the dead grass. We have to mow, because in summer, high dead grass is a severe fire hazard. So part of out land management plan is to keep the ground around our house clear of fire hazards, as we live in a very bush fire prone area.

IMG_6127

Having picked up all these dead branches, it seems irresponsible not to use them productively. By firing our wood kiln with wind falls, we are not hurting the trees in any way. No tress were harmed in the making of these pots. Hence ‘Vegan Wood Firing’. As we only use what the tree has rejected and finished with. It is also worth noting that some of the carbon that we collected from the atmosphere through the trees that we have grown here over the past 40 or so years is now encased chemically in our pots, making it securely trapped, more or less forever. So we are doing our bit to reduce the carbon load in the atmosphere. Carbon sequestration and removal on a personal scale.

We each do what we can.

The 1 to 10 of Orchard Pruning

We have spent this winter weekend pruning the fruit trees in the orchards.

I had my good friend Warren over to help me. Warren is the man who a can do almost anything at all, and do it well — with a smile. He is so good to have around.
We started by shovelling up all the ash from the past burn piles of garden prunings over the recent season of garden clean-ups. These piles of vegetation grow during the hot months as we slowly accumulate material. Finally when the cool weather arrives and there are no more fire bans we are able to burn the accumulated bushy piles. The amount of ash is amazing. We are able to fill two wheel barrows to the brim. All this ash gets put back into the garden and orchards. Sprinkled around the fruit trees as fertiliser. Ash contains all the nutrients that a plant needs to grow. We don’t use commercial synthetic fertilisers in our gardens and orchards. We are fully committed to growing organically. We only use chicken manure and ashes from our fire place and stove, plus once a year like this, the ash from the burn piles.
The ash is spread around each of the trees at the drip line and will get watered in when it rains. Ash has sodium and potassium, calcium and magnesium, alumina and silica, plus iron and titanium, all in various proportions depending on the plant material that was burnt.
I also throw the beef marrow bones that are left over after making stock in the kitchen. After roasting and boiling the bones with a vegetable stock, the bones are given to the chooks for a day or two to pick over, then they end up on the burn pile. I fish the fragile, brittle, burnt, calcined bone remnants out of the ashes and crush them up to add back to the garden. Calcined bones contain phosphorous, which is severely lacking in our ancient, depleted, Australian soils. Bone ash is a great addition to an organic garden.
The winter pruning weekend has a kind of old English folk tale, come nursery rhyme sort of feel to the work. It’s a very ancient activity to get involved in at this time of year. It’s a must-do occupation if you want healthy trees and more fruit next year. It has to be done and it can’t be put off. It has to be done NOW! Janine and I have been doing this for over 40 years.
We gave it the old one-two. We started by putting on our work boots. Unfortunately no buckles involved on this occasion  just velcro, laughing sided elastic boots and lace-ups.
Then it was three four. Open the gate to the orchard. It doesn’t rhyme, like ‘door’ would  but it allowed us to come and go at will, while we pruned the fruit trees back into shape for the coming spring time flush of growth. The chooks take the opportunity of the open gate to come on in and help us work, by getting in under our feet. They come in here about every second day, but only stay for an hour or so before wandering off to look for something more interesting to do. Because we are in here working all day, they stay and work all day too! They just love a bit of human company.
Pruning takes a lot of effort and a lot of thinking and planning too. It’s not mindless. It isn’t just chopping off branches willy nilly. We are constantly conscious that neither willy gets chopped off. Especially since we are using a combination of mini chain saw, pole pruner, secateurs and various lengths of garden loppers. We both drew blood on several occasions from the large spikes on the branches of the yellow plum tree, and other spiky objects and sharpe tools. Luckily our willies and nillies survived intact. We have to treat each tree slightly differently depending on its shape and age, but also its individual habit. As well as considering that each variety of fruit tree fruits and flowers on different wood. Some only on old established fruiting spurs, like cherries, apples and pears, but others on 2nd year growth wood only, so old 3rd year wood is removed after fruiting, 2nd year wood is retained for this years crop and new growth is encouraged for next years fruit.
Probably the most important thing is to remove any dead and decayed wood to minimise disease and this all needs to be picked up, carted off and burnt.
Next it was five six, and we spent a lot of time picking up all our prunings and carting them all down to the burn pile at the back of our block. There are 30 trees in the stone-fruit orchard, a dozen cherry trees in the Chekov orchard, a dozen almonds in the veggie garden, a dozen citrus in the orange grove and a dozen hazel nuts in the old olive grove.  We have over 100 fruit, nut and food bearing trees in total. The picking up of sticks actually takes longer than the climbing up and down the ladder and into the branches of the trees to do the cutting and sawing.
The pruning went pretty well, we are getting better at it these days. However, we totally failed on the next part of seven and eight. Try as we might the burn pile of sticks wouldn’t stay straight. The off-cuts of fruit tree branches are just too forky and twisty to lay straight.
We did however have the constant help and supervision of the ’Spice Girls’ at all times. The big brown hens love a bit of garden activity and are keen to be right in the middle of it scratching and pecking, so nine ten was no problem.
Pruning is one of those jobs that it is really good to finish. See you again next year. Same place, Same time of year. I have a new trimming attachment for my whipper/snipper thing. It goes all the way up to 11!