Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Growing wild

At this time of year, everyone's mowing. I'm the only one still growing.

When I came here the place had a mix of native grasses I was determined to look after as best I could. Among other things, I let them flower each year, which means letting them grow to full height—some years, waist-high—and cutting them only once they've flowered, if not seeded.

This is red kangaroo grass and as you can see, it's very beautiful.

That's Beelzebub in the background. The goats love the native grasses. They eat the flower and seed heads first, then complain that there are only stalks left. 

Long grass harbours snakes and is an enormous fire hazard. I always make sure I have it mown by new year. But in the meantime, it feels a great indulgence to let the grass grow wild.

One of my favourite books is Capote's The Grass Harp, and it's true: the grasses make a lovely sound when the wind hits them. Among their nodding heads insects and small birds scavenge; their stalks gather in ribboned explosions of purple and blue.

To lie among the grasses on a hot day is heaven. The grass forms a cradle, a rustling screen above which stretches your very own piece of sky. Sun, pollen dust, and that green, green perfume: these are the makings of summer.

Saturday, December 13, 2014

Weekend intensive

Nature likes to put human plans awry. There I was, all set for a nice, quiet weekend in the country, but of course it was time for this season's fledgling Kookaburra to try flying.

Learning to fly entails learning to call. And a Kookaburra's call takes some practice. The young one, in the foreground here, was coached by its parents to fly, call, and catch food all at once—a weekend intensive of the noisiest sort.

To be fair, there were breaks, but basically the whole of the last two days have been undertaken to the throaty gurgling of this young bird. He's still only mastered the first part of the call. He's great at it, though, believe me. Really top notch. Can't wait till he moves onto the cackling ending.

Monday, December 8, 2014

Getting it right

Sometimes, the list of things I think I can't do seems endless.

On the weekend I assembled the chain sharpener I got for my birthday and sharpened the saw chain. The instructions were light-on and the box that holds the spare chain listed grinding angles and depths for a million chains, but gave no indication of which was right for the chain inside.

Eventually I told myself I'd have to check with a friend to make sure I had it right before I actually sharpened a chain. I decided it probably wasn't going to work.

That probably sounds negative, but I find going into these homely tasks you've never done before with low expectations really does minimise disappointment. And when I have no idea what I'm doing, it's reassuring to know there's no pressure. I don't have to get this right.

After all, there's no harm in checking that you've assembled an electric grinder correctly and set it the right way before you ruin your chains (or worse). Better, as they say, to be safe than sorry. Especially where chainsaws are concerned.

But as usually happens when I tell myself I don't need to succeed with something, I did. I wound up using the spare chain to set the gauges, and sharpening the old chain anyway, and I don't know, I think it worked. I'll find out for certain the next time I use the saw.

If there's a moral to this tale, it's probably something like: most of the time, the only way to learn is to do. Or: it's practice that makes perfect. Or: I really hope I got this right.

Wednesday, December 3, 2014

On tranquility

People talk about the tranquility of the country as if it's a thing you can visit, some kind of destination, the end of a certain road.

It's not, though. That kind of peace is mindset. You can't swing by and soak it up. You need to sit down and stay a while (more than a weekend; more than a week). You need to wait long enough for the city to fully ebb away.

Only then can something else take its place.

A growing sense of presence. A stillness. A point at which stopping to listen or look or touch or smell is no longer a question: it just is. To what else would you give your time?

A point at which you cease to be "in the country" or "on the land", and instead become part of the landscape itself. A place has its rhythms, and your footsteps, your voice are among them. Your swinging axe and your digging spade. Your laughter and your heartbeat.

At that point, you know the country and it knows you. Your pulses align. You're consumed and made whole.

You belong.

Sunday, November 30, 2014

On the plus side

People who love the cut and thrust of living in the city are quick to spot the disadvantages of living out of town.

Commuting. No delis. No good coffee, anywhere. Travelling long distances to get anything done. Isolation. The list goes on. But there are plus-sides to all those challenges and one of them is, of course, food.

My birds are laying between 3 and 5 eggs a day at the moment, which is far more than I can eat. So, as well as thrusting them onto as many friends as will take them (the eggs, not the birds), I've been looking for recipes to use them in.

I found a good one for ice cream by Nigel Slater. It uses 8 (8! This is my kind of recipe) egg yolks and 300mL of cream (I use the one from the local organic dairy I've been telling you about).

You can adapt it to pretty much any flavour, so this time I added some of last year's frozen loganberries. I'm trying to rush through them now, seeing as this year's crop looks to be such a good one. The vanilla is one of the precious Madagascan pods given to me for my birthday.

It's one thing to turn out a decent weekday meal and feel satisfied in your Speckles lettuces and waxy Kipflers, all grown from saved seed. It's another to make an indulgent delicacy with items you have in profusion—things that you literally can't give away fast enough.

It's this kind of cooking that I like best (mainly because it's easy). It's also the kind that gives the greatest sense of abundance.

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Q&A: What? You need to clean solar panels?

Yes. Yes, you do. Just recently I got my first power bill since I've been here at Farmette solo, and I knew The Time had come.

I looked online for advice on cleaning solar panels, but everyone kept talking about getting professionals in (getting on your roof is clearly deemed a suicide mission) and using soapy water.

But what if your guttering drains into water tanks? What if you don't want to contaminate your drinking water with soap? Here's what you do.
  1. Turn off your solar panels at the switchboard.
  2. Unscrew the end cap from the gutter drain outlet so that the water you'll use to wash the panels doesn't go into your tanks.
  3. Get on the roof with:
    • a spray bottle filled with bicarbonate of soda and vinegar mixed with water
    • a plastic (non-scratch) scourer
    • a window cleaner with a blade
    • the hose.
  4. Spray a panel with the hose.
  5. Spray it with cleaning mix.
  6. Scrub it with scrubber.
  7. Hose it down again.
  8. Wipe it down with the window cleaner blade.
  9. Hose it over once more.
  10. Repeat. (In my case, twenty-three times. Why do I have so many panels? I kept asking. God, why?)
  11. Get off the roof and turn your panels back on.
  12. Wait for a rainy day to rinse your gutters out.
  13. Screw end cap back onto gutter outlet.
As with all my exploits on the roof, this got boring pretty fast. On the other hand, the panels were putrid with black mould, lichen and moss, so as I climbed gingerly back down the ladder it was at least with some sense of accomplishment.

Unfortunately I need to get back up there post-haste, to clean the gutters themselves, but hopefully my next power bill will see me well and truly back in the black!

Sunday, November 23, 2014

Hatching hope

Hatching duck eggs is different from hatching hens' eggs. For one thing, the incubation period's 28 days, not 21. But that's not all.

At Farmette, duck eggs need more cleaning than hens' eggs before they hit the incubator.

The eggs need to be spotless, and no more than 5 days old, according to the incubator instructions. No blemishes or uneven patches on the shell, and no oversized or odd ones.

The incubator takes six hens' eggs, and five ducks' eggs, but I've started six here—three from each of my ducks—because I'll candle them at nine days to see how many are developing, and remove the ones that aren't live.

"Candling" is shining a light through the egg to see if it has veins and the oscillating speck of red that marks the forming heart.

Like hens' eggs, the duck eggs need to be turned a full 360 degrees every 24 hours. I mark them with Xs and Os 180 degrees apart, so I know when I've turned them last.

After 9 days in the incubator, the duck eggs need to be allowed to cool each day for 20 minutes, then sprayed with a mist of water to replicate the Official Real World, where a mother duck goes for a quick daily paddle before returning to the nest. This is one of the places where I came unstuck last year: I kept leaving the incubator open for too long. This year, I'll use a timer and alarm.

All this goes on until the last three days before hatching, when the incubator, like the duck, goes into pre-hatch lockdown. It's the proverbial pregnant pause. There's much waiting and pacing and looking and longing.

Having tended to the eggs twice a day, every day, and kept them moist and warm but not too warm, now the hatching's in the lap of the gods. All you can do is hope.