Darkness will fall quickly and there is much to be done.

Storm Ali brought down half a tree in my sister’s garden.  Soon after I appeared with a chainsaw and a trailer.  Now I must chop it all up and stack it to season.  It sounds like a chore, and it is, and it is not.  It is a delight to cut and chop in cool air and under a setting crescent moon.  Tonight I fitted a new chain to my saw.  The old chain had its teeth sharpened down to bits so small that they nearly crumbled away.  The new chain  tore through the wood effortlessly, and scarily. The chainsaw is dangerous.  Even more dangerous is the moment when I am cutting and I sense a grin on my face.  This should not be fun.  I quickly regain a sensible attitude and remind myself to be safe.

IMG_20181015_195055_134.jpg

After cutting and nailing a roof onto my makeshift pallet wood shelter; I begin chopping with the axe as the darkness falls.  Head torch on.  I keep chopping.

A while later the littlest man arrives to help with his own head torch illuminating his little window in the dark.  Chopping stops and the tidying begins.  We tidy up under a barrage of questions about every tool and what it does. After a while we wander into the garden and sit on the bench switching off our head torches.

“Can you see the stars?”

“Yes, and I see the moon.  There”

I quickly point out a moving star overhead. “Look, that’s a satellite way up in space.”

“Is it a shooting star?”

No.  I try to explain that we don’t see shooting stars very often. It fails to placate his disappointment and then I draw his attention to the stars of Cygnus.

“Those stars are in the shape of a giant swan flying across the whole sky.”

“Is there a Giraffe in the stars?”

I would love that to be the case.  More disappointment. We look at the stars and try to make out the colours.  Yellow, Orange, Red, Blue. His attention keeps being drawn to the bright ‘stars’ near the horizon close to the moon.  I really want to point out that they are both planets, but he is three years old and there is really no need to be pedantic.  Then with excitement he spots…

“Look at that blue star there!”

I’m sorry, I had to draw the line here;

“No, that’s a light at the end of the neighbour’s gate.”

“Is it bedtime now?”

“No, it’s just dark time.”

“No, daddy, it’s Autumn time. That’s why it is dark.”

I stand corrected.

 

 

 

 

 

Advertisements

IMG_20180907_192824_220

Picking apples is a difficult game to play.  Too early and they can be inedible.  Too late and they are left bruised on the ground with the wind laughing around you.  For weeks now I have been gently twisting them on their stalks to see how much they are stubbornly holding on, knowing that they can just decide to give up in the time of only a few days.  The other problem is that different trees are ripe at different times.  One tree, who’s name we do not know, drops its apples in late August.  I deliberately let the wind tell me when these are ready as it gives such a heavy crop.  Once I see a mess of windfalls on the ground I decide that in one week I will strip the tree. These are the apples of crumbles, chutneys and frozen puree cubes to be dropped into cooking porridge on cold winter mornings.  Some of these apples are simmering away in the cottage tonight in a tomato chutney.  I could say that the place smells of spiced vinegar, but that is not quite the truth; it screams of vinegar.  Monty Don’s book  tells me that it must simmer for an hour.  Our experience of getting a decent consistency with chutneys is to take whatever it says with a pinch of salt (or a tablespoon of salt).  Double the time in the book, then add another hour.

IMG_20180918_220448_565

Fork to Fork – By Monty and Sarah Don

It is to be windy soon.  Tonight, after homework was completed, I passed out colanders*  to the little people and we ventured out for the annual apple harvest.  The little man inevitably gravitated to the bold red apples of the ‘Discovery’ tree looking like it was straight out of a child’s drawing.  I headed for my favourite, the ‘Katy’ tree, with its small explosions of autumnal flavour.

*bugs fall through the holes.

The harvest from the Discovery was good, and this is a crucial tree.  The apples are sweet and red with a white flesh that is marbled with red anthocyanins that have migrated from the skin.  They look strange and taste fantastic if sliced thin with a drop of lemon juice  placed on each slice.  Hungry from a long day of school, the little man and the little lady will quickly disappear a plate of these slices if it is placed in front of them.  Sometimes I have to take my hand away quick if I am to keep my fingers.  Unfortunately the third hungry person, the littlest man, just looks at me and shakes his head; not a fan of apples.

It was hard to say no when she wanted a bunny rabbit. She wanted it for so long.  I carefully explained that having a pet is a big responsibility and a bit of work is involved.  Yes, yes, she knew. She still wanted a bunny.  Eventually she realised that I needed a bit of convincing and recruited the whole family to keep on at me that we really should get a bunny. I tried again to explain that it would need looked after; the nice jobs like feeding and brushing, and the less nice jobs like cleaning out the hutch and picking up little rabbit poos.  Once she got everyone pleading along with her, I gave in. We now have a rabbit.

His name is Thumper.  I wanted to call him stew and sometimes I remind him of this with a whisper from the other side of the room. I know his comically oversized ears can hear me.

For most of the time it has all been joy and everyone has helped look after Thumper.  It is a lot of fun for us all to have him as a new member of the household.  So, has she embraced looking after a pet?  Yes, but yesterday I had to sit her down and remind her about the responsibilities.  Remind her that it is not all joy and sometimes there can be frustrations with pets and the pets cannot be blamed.  This all came out when Thumper bit through her laptop cable that she uses for work. I reminded my wife that she really wanted a bunny and promised to look after it. I explained that we have to keep things out of his way and he is only following his instincts. I also pointed out that we should be grateful that he chewed through the low voltage and not the other, high voltage, end of the cable.

Here is a picture of Thumper the laptop slayer.

38784224_10157784869684488_2220870143574016000_n

I believe him to be a breed called the Dutch.  A few days ago I told him this in case he didn’t know.  I told him he was gentle and easy going and that I read it on the internet, including, “To sum up, the Dutch is a very versatile breed that is used for showing, pets, and even meat.”  Later that evening he hopped over to me in the living room, sniffed me on the leg, then bit me.  He then calmly hopped away as if he had much more important things to do.  After I yelped, I laughed.  I  like his style and I think me and Thumper are going to get along just fine.

A long time ago I was alone in the mountains, at least I thought I was. I strolled down and around a slope and stopped in my tracks. Perched on a rock was a Raven. A massive Raven so black it seemed like a hole in the world. It turned and looked at me unsurprised. The Raven knew I was coming and knew we would meet even if I didn’t know it. The look it gave me was that of irritation, and if I could hear its thoughts I imagine it muttered and sighed, “human” while rolling its eyes. Can ravens roll their eyes? Then it decided to unfold its three foot wingspan and lift off so gracefully it looked like it was swimming into the air.

I miss the mountains. I haven’t been there in a while. I also miss the calls of the ravens. The coarse language that fills the air and echoes against granite. Part of the joy of the wild places is to see the wild blackness that is a Raven. A very long time ago they were once common and then got pushed to the edges of the land, living in the places humans rarely went. Then, some years ago, they began to return. A bird that fills a similar ecological niche, the Red Kite, was in a worse position. The Red Kite got pushed to the edges then over into extinction in the UK. The Red Kite is back, with a little help from humans. The Ravens have been slowly returning on their own.

We took a short glamping (camping in a glamping pod) trip to Rathin island with the sea at our doorstep. It was not long after setting foot on the island that I was thinking about Red Kites as a huge raptor flew around our heads. For a brief moment I did think it was a Red Kite due to its size and careless attitude it took flying so close to humans. I was wrong, it was a buzzard and we would see it a few more times during our stay. It turns out that wildlife lives more obviously on Rathlin. We saw birds, lots of birds, and seals. We even saw a hare. Although, the hare was in the grim situation of being eaten by a gull after falling off a sea cliff.

IMG_20180814_232300_707

IMG_20180815_164345_442

IMG_20180815_101313_395

Returning home we found more wildlife. I walked over to the hens and I knew straight away that something was wrong. They were making their alarm calls and all bunched up in a corner with the rooster on the front line, standing proud, standing guard. Over the edge of a beech tree root a dark head, with a liquid black intelligent eye, looked directly at me and then ducked down out of sight. There was an injured crow in the chicken run, but what kind of crow?

I caught the crow and knew straight away that it was not a rook. Rooks are the most common crow we usually see, and make up most of the crows that sometimes fly in huge flocks returning to rookeries at dusk. It was too big for a rook and did not have the bit on its beak that looks like bone not covered by skin nor feather. It was a big bird. It could be a carrion crow or……… a Raven.

IMG_20180817_205504_093

My opinion kept oscillating between these options until I settled on a Raven. Too big for a Carrion and smaller than the Raven I encountered up close in the Mourne Mountains. A young Raven? It was black. Heavy black beak with deep black eyes. Black claws with black nails. Reinforcing my opinion that it was a young Raven; it had the beginnings of the rainbow sheen of oil on water. Then it would move in the light and return to inky black.

IMG_20180820_163927_126

The Raven?

20180819_205917

An image from ‘The Raven: A Natural History in Britain and Ireland’ by Derek Ratcliffe

I fed it wet cat food then took it to the vet. They don’t seem to get a lot of Ravens. It’s size and strangeness caused a bit of excitement amongst the veterinary staff; lots of Game of Thrones references. The vet diagnosed a broken wing and thought it had a reasonable chance of recovery. After treatment it would be handed over to a wildlife rehabilitation charity, then back to the wild.

Was it a really a Raven? In flight the Raven has large diamond shaped pointed tail feather and a Carrion crow has a tail feather with a straighter edge. Of course I never got to see it in flight. After leaving the vet I kept a more open mind and an open eye looking for crows. The Baader-Meinhof phenomenon kicked in swiftly. Only a mile from our home I spotted a overly large crow gliding down to some tree tops. As it closed in it flattened out and pulled out all its air breaks, its silhouette terminating in a large diamond shaped tail.

There is something in the woodshed; alive and mysterious.

I decided that this heatwave was an appropriate time to chop firewood. As I spent days living with the drone of the chainsaw, chopsaw, and the sweet smell of freshly cut wood, I had time to meditate on the extremes of things. The heat was just barely tolerable with regular breaks to drink pints of dilutable lemon juice and yet, as I stacked the wood I could see the frozen winter in my mind’s eye.

Every time the cutting tools were turned off and my ear protectors removed, the silence was shocking. Except for the drone of a housefly……and that wasp……that’s not a wasp…the penny is in the air.…it moves like a wasp…...penny in the air…..it sounds like a wasp…….but it’s too dark to be a wasp…the penny dropped. It was a honeybee. It’s been a couple of years since we had bees here. We do see them about in the spring on the apple blossom and this means that there must be hives within three kilometres. This would have surprised me prior to actually becoming a beekeeper before discovering, through beekeeping associations, how many beekeepers live and keep hives in the area. Yet this bee was not in the garden, it was in the woodshed. Then I saw another, and another, and another. About twenty bees were buzzing about in a confused way distributed all over the woodshed. All this was happening just after I realised I needed to stop cutting and go and get washed before heading out to dinner with the lovely Sharon. It was our annual date night in celebration of our wedding anniversary. I left the woodshed scanning every corner and wooden beam for a cluster of bees. Then outside I continued to look everywhere; nothing. Completely confused I washed and dressed into something more presentable than saw-dusted old clothes and ear defenders. Then I remembered where to look, the most obvious place, the old hive I left out as a bait hive in the garden. And there they were; bees. I glanced at the hive and then was off; we were late for dinner.

Later that night we returned home and the lovely Sharon and I found ourselves leaning down over the hive with our stethoscope. There are two easy ways to establish if a bee hive is occupied. The first option is to use a stethoscope pressed against the side of the hive to hear the air conditioning hum of the bees. The second way is to give the hive a good thump while loudly inquiring if anybody is home and holding an ‘about to sprint’ stance. I tried the stethoscope first; silence. I tentatively tapped the hive and whispered, “Anybody there?”. Nothing.

Were they just shy? Were they scouts for a swarm bivouacked on a tree half a mile away?

The next morning the hive was, well, a……hive of activity. Are they a big swarm? Small swarm? Are they friendly or nasty? Are they here to stay? All of these are mysteries at the moment. All I can say is that they are here. We have bees.

 

Things have begun at last. Buds are unfolding, colours are revealing and for a few hours today queen bumble bees zoomed about instead of sleeping.

IMG_20180310_181950_458

Seed potatoes have been watching the chilly spring from the window ledge for weeks now.  I enlisted the three little people in the process of planting them out.  This worked well as long as everybody got to do exactly the same thing.  If someone had a big potato in their pot, then everyone had to have one.  If someone had a tiny potato in their pot, then everyone had to have one. It even happened when one of them discovered a worm in their pot.  Everyone had to have a worm.  And it had to be exactly the same size.  All planting had to stop to go on a worm hunt.  After returning to the potatoes and thinking everything was going well, all hell broke loose when we discovered the new experimental purple potatoes had ten in the bag; not a multiple of three.  After the tears were dried and I delivered what I believe to have been an encouraging lesson on how life is never really fair, we carried on.  Twenty three pots and sixty seven potatoes later the little people decided the trampoline was a necessary compliment to gardening.

IMG_20180408_210805_667

When I was digging out compost for the potatoes I noticed some shoots trying to escape from deep down in the compost heap.  Had I accidentally thrown  in some bulbs from a pot? I carefully kept digging without finding them until I got to the bottom.  Daffodils! I must have built the compost heap right on top of a clump of them without realising. To be fair, this is an easy mistake.  The previous gardener here planted loads of daffodils. Lots of them!  Every spring they pop up all over the place and I wonder at the amount of time he spent planting daffodil bulbs. Where did he even get them all from? The bulbs under the compost heap had gone to so much trouble trying to grow up through the three foot of soil that I decided to try and give them a chance.  I delicately lifted them out and planted them somewhere with much more light.  Being long, weak and yellow, I tied them up to raspberry canes.  They might not make it, but I thought I would give them a bit of support.  Come on daffodils, you can do it.

IMG_20180408_201528_251

First thing in the morning it sometimes feels like I am tech support for the little people. During the holiday season we allow half an hour of screen time. It usually involves minecraft, but it all has to work first.  The devices are temperamental. One of them is old and requires the occasional reboot, or its certificate refreshed with the router (by turning it off and on again of course).  The other device behaves most of the time.  Although sometimes it refuses to see the shared minecraft worlds.  I don’t know why. All I do know is that when it doesn’t work the little lady throws a mini tantrum declaring, “Just give me the world! That’s all I want!”

 

Today I decided to try and fix two very annoying noises.  One was a bad belt in my car.  For weeks now a little high pitched whine has developed while idling the engine.  A dodgy alternator? A dying pulley bearing?  I hoped it was simply the belt.  Tightening it helped a bit, which is a good sign. I could call it a fan belt, however in most engines it is not connected to the fan at all. Calling it a fan belt is engineering nostalgia, a bit like windmills that no longer mill anything but electrons. The other annoying noise was something I did not want to face fixing.  So, I started by replacing the belt and the first noise went away.  Unfortunately this did not take very long, which meant I had to move on to the other noise.

 

For a very long time now our shower has been problematic.  It got stuck at a particular temperature; quite hot.  Not scalding hot, just bearable hot as long as I kept the thermostat low on the boiler that heats the water. I even tried to fix it once, a long time ago.  The direct cut off valves to the shower were nowhere to be found in the crawl spaces around the cottage.  Instead, I let the water tank drain and then tried to remove the “thermostat cartridge” from the shower.  It did not move.  I threw everything I had into it but it did not budge. I gave up, retreated to give the problem time and thought. That was many months ago. Then it began to call to me.  Drip. Drip. Drip.

 

The drips were slow at first, a small reminder that the problem would not go away.  Fix me……………………………….Fix me……………………………….Fix me ……………………………… Then, Fix me……….Fix me……….Fix me………. And for the last few weeks; FIX ME FIX ME FIX ME FIX ME FIX ME FIX ME.

 

The system was drained and I faced the stubborn shower. It was a showdown of brass and steel meets determination.  I gave it an ultimatum; today I will not give up.  You will be fixed, and if that fails, I might call a plumber. In the end it was all about having the wrong tools for the wrong job. I might have drawn some blood, maybe crushed a finger tip, but it did get fixed.  Instead of a spanner for the stuck cartridge I used a strange device I found at the bottom of my toolbox.  It looks like a handle attached to a bicycle chain and is used for removing oil filters from cars.  It is just the device I might use for a stuck filter out of futile politeness, right before I resort to stabbing a screwdriver into the filter and then unscrewing it with the screwdriver acting as a sort of chisel.  So, the cartridge unscrewed with this bicycle chain device, and a hammer.  I always find a hammer useful in plumbing jobs.

IMG_20171031_153632_757.jpg

The cartridge was stripped down and all the relevant washers were replaced.  Now there is silence.  To be fair, there was silence a few hours ago and no hot shower, only stone cold freezing water.  After draining the system, removing the cartridge again and a little tinkering, there is now a hot shower with controllable temperature, and silence.  No dripping water torture, just the delightful quiet of a house full of children running and yelling and generally behaving like children do.