Monthly Archives: July 2013

Smoko #2

Whoever invented the whistling kettle was goddamn genius. Having had an electric kettle for the last 10 years I had forgotten how good the whistler is.  Not only does it whistle to let you know the things is boiling so you don’t boil the kettle dry, but it also whistles to let you know the thing is boiling so you remember you put it on in the first place and actually make your cup of tea.

So many times in the last decade I have put on the jug and then gone to do something while it boils and forgotten all about it, only to come back half an hour later and have to re-boil it…sometimes several times.  Not only is that a huge waste of power, it also means I’m not drinking enough tea.

I just googled it… Sholom Borgelman, a London sheetmetal worker invented the whistling kettle just after the first world war.  Presumably due to complaints from the trenches from soldiers who’d popped the kettle on and then gone off to do a bit of over-the-walling while they waited and forgotten all about it.

Sholom, I shalute you.

Your classic whistler

Garden envy and the beginnings of our own

I keep seeing people’s beautiful and productive gardens and getting garden envy.  Thursday and Friday were big gardening days for me and I am proud of the work that I’ve done (and all my good little plants) but I can’t help but want more, now. Still, one step at a time and, as it turns out, one heavy wheelbarrow of clay soil at a time.

Until now I’ve only ever created gardens in rental houses. These are always limited to what you can convince the owners to let you do or what you can take down when you inevitably move. This time however I have ample space and no landlord and I want to try and produce the majority of our vegetables each year. Fruit as well, although fruit trees are a much longer term investment.

So far the only thing stopping me is having the time (and money) to make the beds. We’ve managed so far to save heaps of money by constructing garden beds from the logs of trees we’ve felled. We scavanged  fencing materials from the tip and neighbours and I constructed a netted dome out of polypipe off cuts and old bird netting to keep out mice and rats (and hopefully cabbage moth in the spring). Eventually there will be many more beds and the whole lot will be fenced properly.

So far we’ve only spent money on soil improvement and seeds. To each wheel barrrow of  our very clayey soil I’ve added gypsum, lime and cow manure. The gypsum is to improve the soil structure and hopefully make certain elements more accessible to plants. The lime to reduce acidity and cow manure for nitrogen and to encourage beneficial soil microbes. That’s the plan anyway.   I dream of getting a professional soil test done to really know the limitations or important needed additions. Our worms are starting to churn out  castings which will be wonderful for improving our soil.

IMGP7091
Humble beginnings

IMGP7126

IMGP7234
Expansion
IMGP7233
Starting to produce food now

To help with  the goal of producing most of our veg all year round I’ve taken Asphyxia’s advice about construting a 12mth gardening plan based on the lunar calander. Asphyxia writes for grass roots magazine (and blogs here). She is ridicuously organised and manages to meet most of her family’s subsistence needs from a small suburban block in Melbourne.  Not only do I have garden envy – I have organisational skills envy.

I struggled initially to work out a structure that worked for me for a garden plan. As it stands I’ve grouped plants by type (i.e. root vegetable, fruiting plant, plants in which leaves are eaten) as this coincides with the categories for lunar planting. I’ve worked out what my core plantings will be for each category (i.e. plants that will be sown at least once every month of the year) and then just noted monthly additions for seasonal crops. I then picked a date that works with the moon to sow each category. Some things I’m sowing straight into the bed others into seedling trays. Sowing into trays saves garden space and means that seedlings can be coddled (shaded in summer, kept frost free in winter) and the growing season extended.  They also look awesome with coloured markers saying what they are and when they were sown!

July's planting

In which we go to PNG and decide to change our life plans

DSC00144
Our house in the village

Everything happens for a reason – or so I’m told. But some lessons are hard to learn even if the outcome turns out for the best. This is the story of why we decided to spend 12 months in a village in Papua New Guinea and then why, after making massive changes and spending lots of money to make it happen,  we decided we wouldn’t.

It’s also, inadvertently, the story of how we ended up here (both physically and mentally).

Me, J and Lil’ I would be packing our bags and heading off for 12 months in the Western Province of PNG right about now if all had gone according to plan. The decision to do that had been epic.  It meant taking a 2 year old to go live in a village where there was no doctor or guaranteed access to a hospital when needed. Access was by small plane only, and only during daylight hours weather permitting.

Where we were headed is one of the wettest places on earth with high rates of most tropical illnesses. In fact, PNG has the worst health record of any country in the western pacific and the Western Province the worst rates in PNG. There were safety concDSC00187erns as well, but being in a village, these were nowhere near as daunting for me as health risks for Lil’ I.

Needless to say we didn’t make the decision lightly. I worried whether it was worth it. Whether our reasons were sound. Whether we could forgive ourselves if anything happened. At the same time I didn’t want to be ruled by fear and I don’t believe that having children means adventures of this magnitude are out.

We were going so thDSC00321at I could complete a PhD in anthropology. The position had been advertised and was financially  supported. It was part of an Australian Research Council project held by the University of Melbourne. It was looking at the ways a group of people were redefining themselves in relation to a massive liquefied natural gas project  underway. My particular interest was in changes to ethnoecological understandings and the transmission of such knowledge. It was right up my alley. It also meant relocating to Melbourne for 12 months which I was excited about but which J was dreading (the man hates cities – what can I say).

I had a pretty good understanding of what Melanesian village life would be like from time spent doing research in the Solomon Islands. I knew it would be different to the Solomons but that there would be many similarities. I knew the food would be bland and starchy, protein sources few and far between and  privacy rare. I worried how J would cope. In fact, I worried about everything.

DSC00208
Sago grubs for breakfast!

DSC00201

In hindsight I can see why it all went wrong. I wanted it so bad though. Melanesia, ethnoecology, resource development, a chance at ‘real’ and long-term ethnographic research that was funded, a chance to further my career with my husband and child by my side. The last one especially appealed to me. I knew I could conduct research and still be a stay at home mum (if that makes sense). In fact I saw Lil’ I as an important part of my research and planned to observe how people showed him how to be a culturally situated person.DSC00169

I could see such benefits for us as a family – bringing Lil’ I up in a village, banding together during hard times, living simply without the distractions of technology. I would have learnt so much.

In January we went for 3 weeks. This was a scoping trip – for me to suss out the applicability of my methodology and for us to understand better what we were in for and what we would need to bring back . We were made very welcome. Our house was comfortable. Lil’ I was adored. The river was astonishing. We got a glimpse of the friends we would make, the skills we would be taught.

After only a few days in J decided it wouldn’t work. He was afraid for Lil’ I’s safety especially with the river so close (the river really was astonishing – super fast, cold, deep and murky) and afraid of what it really meant to live there. I had tried to prepare him for that  but I guess you can’t know until you see it for yourself.

I was gutted but I couldn’t really be angry. I couldn’t argue against his strong sense of unease. I had to trust that intuition as I hope he would mine. But man it was tough. Not least because it really messed up the project and my supervisors.

DSC00142I felt, and still feel, totally responsible. I should have known. Deep down I think I did know. and that’s a lesson I need to learn – to know when to say ‘ that would be so awesome but not at this point of my life’. That’s what being a family means. To be honest though, as soon as the decision was kind of made for me a whole heap of stress lifted from my shoulders. I realised just how worried I was about taking Lil’ I with us.

So,  after packing up our life in QLD, heading to Melbourne for the best part of  12 months and completing 10 months of a PhD, we pulled the pin on the lot….

…and the result is we ended up here!   Another reason why I can’t regret that we decided to do it and then decided not to. It’s as if we needed to hit rock bottom, to have our lives, and ideas about each other and ourselves, flattened to be able to critically assess our future – what we needed as individuals and as a family. It really nearly broke us.DSC00193

Maybe that is shaky ground on which to commence this new, also epic, adventure – owning and creating our little place in the world. Maybe. But I’m not the least bit worried about this decision. It feels more right than anything has for a long time.

It’s been a whirlwind 15 months. Since first seeing the PhD project advertised, applying to the University of Melbourne, resigning from work, moving to Melbourne, preparing for fieldwork with a small child, heading to the village, deciding not to return and what to do next, packing up our house in Melbourne, buying this place…

I’ve since enrolled in a different PhD at the University of Queensland. The project is one I was designing before the PNG option came up. In many ways I’m more excited about it than I was about the PNG project. It’s a project of my own design, it’s applied and I can see the value in it, and I can see post PhD employment opportunities that do not involve relocating to a city.

I still get sad thinking about the lost opportunity – especially the life that Lil’ I would have had in the village.  Everyone loved  him and he loved having endless kids and pigs to play with. But the future is bright. We just might have to get ourselves some pigs to fill the gap.

DSC00383

Smoko #1

Blogs and chainsaws

I find blogs a bit odd.  Everyone has opinions, ideas, stories and what have you, but does that make them worth reading?  The descendents of Narcissus gaze at their reflection in their monitors and fall in love with their own witticisms.  Stuff their friends took the piss out of for weeks last time they said it suddenly becomes immortalised, and to a lesser-informed reader may appear even wise, influencing an entire generation who get all their information via google towards who knows what madness.

Sounds right up my alley, don’t know why I haven’t started one before.

Of course, I’m not starting one now either.  But T said I should do a guest blog for her page, and it’s time for a cup of tea anyway.  And the kettle is on the potbelly which I only just lit, so I might be waiting a few minutes, so what the hell.

Let me tell you about my chainsaw.  Every man should use a chainsaw at least once.  It’s what makes you a man. That and chopping off chicken’s heads for dinner.

Okay, that’s not true, there’s probably more manly things out there, but there’s nothing for making you feel simultaneously tough as nails and utterly shit scared than working with something that can take your head off in the blink of an eye.  It gives you an adrenalin rush that’s second to none when the tree starts dropping, no joke.  When I turn the saw off all I can hear is my blood pumping.

So, I bought a chainsaw a few weeks ago, to start clearing all the trees that block our winter sun from our solar system (and us).  I have used a chainsaw before but only for chopping firewood and not for about 13 years, so taking down 15-to-25 meter high trees is a wee bit scary.  I read the manual cover to cover, looked up a few tutorials online on How To Cut Down Trees, drank a cup of tea and went chopping.

I started with a couple of small ones to get a feel for the saw, and the way trees want to fall.  There are a couple of tricks you can use to estimate where a tree will fall (or rather more importantly, land).  One is to stand at 90 degrees to the intended tree fall path and hold up a pencil.  Walk backwards or forwards until the pencil covers the tree in your line of sight, and then move the pencil to the horizontal, one end touching the tree, and where the other end is should be where your tree top ends up.  Another method is to stand in the path of where you want the tree to fall and hold up an axe at arm’s length.  Walk backwards or forwards until the axe covers the tree, and then where you are standing is where the tree should fall.

I couldn’t get a clean pencil shot, so I used the axe method.  Except my axe was all the way up at the shed, so I used an imaginary axe instead.   I sized up one of the sun-blockers, held up my “axe”, established the drop point, and declared myself satisfied.  Then I chopped the bastard down and nearly took out the house.  Verandah full of leaves.  Slightly bent gutter.  Broke the bird on the ‘hope’ sculpture.  Made Isaac cry.  Job well done!

Image
There’s no hope

In fairness, or at least defence, I have used an axe a lot more than a chainsaw and have a pretty good imagination!  4 foot out on a 60-odd foot tree – what’s that, about 3mm of an axe handle?! – not a bad estimate really.  But we’ve agreed to let a bulldozer take care of the other trees in the house vicinity all the same.  The one I took wasn’t the biggest and, much as it might make for a more interesting blog entry, we’ve not been here long enough to flatten the joint just yet.  Besides, there’s plenty more trees out there that need removing, I won’t be suffering adrenaline withdrawals just yet.

How much does a free potbelly stove really cost?

We have been blessed with great neighbours. One in particular has really helped us out.  After long hours spent on ebay and gumtree we had resigned ourselves to the fact that we would have to shell out about $800 to get a half decent wood heater installed. Then we scored one for free from one of our neighbours thanks to some detective work of ours. “Do you know who owns that old rusty potbelly in the shed behind the ‘white house’?”

It was very rusted and in three parts.

J spent a few weeks restoring it – and it looks so beautiful now. It’s an old Masport Oregon which has two burners on the top for cooking on (think big pots of soup and endless cups of tea).

IMGP7145

We also managed to scavenge some parts of the flue kit from another neighbour and bought some other parts 2nd hand (and some new).

All up we’ve spent:

  • $44 at a local engineering place getting a pin put in the door and cutting out some rusted joins that were preventing it from being put back together in one piece.
  • $125 on replacement Masport pieces (a baffle, drop in grate and ash pan) from Pivot Stove and Heating. This included postage.
  • $280 for half a flue kit which was made up of some new and some 2nd hand pieces.
  • $60ish on stove cement and polish.

All up about $500! Not so free after all….

But it’s in and we LOVE it. It warms our house and our selves in a way that no other type of heating can. Something about the glow of a wood heater can’t be beaten.  And with all the trees we need to clear and those that will remain we will never want for fire wood.

IMGP7188

The installation went smoothly enough (although there is a bit of an extra hole in the ceiling that needs to be patched (oops)) and the first pot of chicken soup off the range was delicious.

Chimney not quite straight yet in this photo...
Chimney not quite straight yet in this photo…

living in the rainy forest

So it’s supposed to be our dry season here but we’ve just come out of a few solid days of rain. I’m talking over 200ml in 3 days.

When you don’t have much roof space things get a little damp in weather like that and if you have very little lawn and very clayey soils things get a little muddy. If you live on solar (so no washing machine on cloudy days and absolutely no dryer, ever,) things stay damp and muddy.

IMGP7134

IMGP7133

Multiply this by 3 kids under 9 (we’ve had J’s brother visiting) in a very small house and you’ll know why i was soooo happy to see the sun (briefly) this afternoon.

But it was nice to see the creek pumping in full force and to get a good idea of how surface water behaves on our block.

IMGP7140

IMGP7138

It was also awesome to have J’s bro (and family) here. They brought many cuttings, much enthusiasm and about 2000 worms! The worms are currently living in an old polystyrene box until we get our hands on one of these retro kits and convert an old olive tub into a worm habitat.

You can see the worms in the white box in this photo as well as some of the olive tubs which we converted into compost tumblers (using only hand tools). The plantings in the front are comfrey and arrowroot. Oh, and check out the wattle and daub (minus the daub) fence J built for free with some privet (a weed) we took out.

IMGP7124

How not to set up a nature-loo composting toilet

When we first got here the toilet was full of poo.

Other people’s poo.

It didn’t smell or anything but we wanted to start afresh. Fill the thing with our own hard earned poo!

So, all gungho we swapped over the ‘in-use’ chamber to the one that was sitting there not in use. We did all this without needing to refer to the instruction manual once!

DSC00513

Everything was fine for a few weeks and then the smell started.

It wouldn’t have been so bad accept that the shower is in the same room as the toilet and the ammonia smell was so strong that you started to feel a bit faint if you were in the shower for too long. Not ideal.

About 2 weeks ago now we got serious and started again. This time we read the manual front to back, talked to the very helpful people at nature-loo (now eco flow) and we now have a completely different bathroom experience. It doesn’t smell at all.

IMG_0338

Things we did that made the difference:

–          Thoroughly cleaned out the chamber before we attached it,

–          Bought and installed a new fan for the system,

–          Bought and started using an enzyme spray,

–          Bought a packet of ‘kick starter’ – that apparently hastens the composting process.

I can’t say if it was all or just one of these things that made the difference. I’d like not to have to buy anything to put in there.  I guess we’ll trial it without these sprays as well. At the moment it’s a pleasure to use.

I learned something knew about J today – the man can handle a wheelchair like no able bodied person I’ve ever met. I, on the other hand, suck at it!

We picked up the wheelchair from the scrap metal pile at the local tip (my new favourite place in the world) with the idea that we will refashion the wheels into a clothesline pulley system.  Turns out there is nothing wrong with it (it steers beautifully- if you know what you are doing).

Whilst at the tip we also salvaged some old birdwire and netting which we’ll use for garden protection.