January 2011



cat pancake by gin_e

Fresh and disturbingly warm eggs were lifted with cold hands this morning.  The pan was hot and ready for the yellowing pancakes.  Basic caturday pancakes, and not the nonsense of drop scones, are a tradition in the cottage.  We have missed this due to a run of hectic weekends that always seem to come in clusters.  When I say basic pancakes, I really mean that they were from a basic recipe until the lovely Sharon insisted I healthify (my own word) them with brownness.  This took some weeks of tampering with white, coarse wholemeal and medium wholemeal flour.  I think I have the blend perfected.  Just enough brownness and texture to fool her into thinking they are healthier and just enough white flour so that I am fooled into thinking that I am not eating limp cardboard.  When we have finished there is usually enough left over to give the chickens, who go mental for pancake scraps.  Please don’t dwell or think about that last sentence too much, as your revelations may not sit well in the mind.

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Last time I looked, it was the full moon; the wolf moon. This morning the moon was a quarter waning. In the blink of an eye it had rushed on through, oblivious to me, and I rushed oblivious to it. I need to force myself to stop and look.

A few nights ago the little man’s reading moved on from Hebridian archaeology and now we are onto the short, lyrical, stories from Michael Viney. Michael and his wife, Ethna, left the city life of Dublin and took up a self-sufficient-ish life in the west of Ireland. Two nights ago we read more about the misadventures and the strange other-world-ness between town and country. Last night we read his musings on the need for a slate and chalk. The need to write up the jobs on the slate, and how these jobs are not ambition but real needs and practical things. Things that are shoehorned into life and have the air of necessity, not leisure. We need such a slate. The night that I read this I was doing my pre-bedtime chores and took a few brief moments to look in the woodshed, to look at some of the previous occupants of the cottage had left in behind. Amongst the various bits and pieces of wood a lonely piece of slate lay waiting for us. Just one single monolith with two holes, perfect for stringing and hanging. There was no reason for it to be there as it is not a spare for the roof. It seems that we are to have a list after all, although we will have to work a little harder to find the chalk as it is an old relic of our jobs.

As I continued to potter I discovered the first things for the list. The garage has a cracked water pipe running along it, another water pipe has become dislodged at a joint, and the stop cock on the outside toilet seems to have given up its sole purpose in life.

The Ice moon will soon be upon us, then the moon of winds, then the growing moon. With the pulse of work this leaves little time to get ready for the spring. The outside water must be back in operation. The greenhouse must be cleared and cleaned. Old plants must have their carcases ripped up. The fruit trees must be pruned. The hedges must be cut back. And the soil must be turned and run through our hands to ready the ground, and ourselves, for the spring. I need chalk.

On January the 13th at a particular place in Greenland the sun rises above the horizon. It is the first time the sun rises at this place all winter, when the sun usually hides below the horizon and leaves this place in arctic darkness. On January the 13th the sun has done this for a long time, as regular as clockwork. This year the sun behaved unexpectedly. In defiance of our predictability of it, it rose 48 hours early on January 11th. But it was not the sun that was misbehaving, it was us. Our effect on the atmosphere is warming our small blue dot and it has lowered the level of the ice sheets in Greenland. The local horizon had changed and the sun was oblivious to us or our predicament.

Today I arrived home for a brief time. Enough to cuddle the teething little man, or as we now know him, Mr Dribbles. Then I was picked up by a friend and we headed for the hills to practice some more night navigation. When we stepped foot on the bog the darkness had already descended and the mist was joining it. Hill fog reduced the visibility to only a few meters. These were perfect conditions to follow bearings for nearly a kilometre and test our accuracy. The highlight of the trek was switching the head torches off and standing on the summit of the second highest point in the county of Antrim; Slievenenee, the ‘mountain of the warriors’. The wind whipped up around us and the land was a mere few meters in the foggy black, then beyond; only wild bog and the night. This was the highlight, but the low was that I have just discovered that there is a cairn on the summit and the wonders of technology, and the silent sentinel that is my GPS in my ruck, tells me that we stood only a few meters away from it. The mist robbed us of our pinnacle point. They say that when you summit mountains it is because they let you. The rain, bog, and thick fog were her friends tonight and she used them against us. At least she let us grace her slopes.

This morning the lovely Sharon stepped through the back door in her woolly hat and wellies and exclaimed; “the chickens have become unhinged”.  She often states that they are the least intelligent animals she has ever encountered and their behaviour is unfathomable to her.  Although her statement was weighted with extra meaning, the truth was that the chickens were literally unhinged.  The home-made run is attached to the coop with a set of sort of hinges and they are difficult to fasten when the run is welded to the ground with winter frost.

Today I wrote the last percentage on the last paper of this seasons marking.  I marked in the morning, I went to church and then I marked in the afternoon.  When I say that I went to church, the reality is that I attended for fifteen minutes before the little man protested and we both left.  We left the lovely Sharon to bang out hymns on the piano as we stood outside and admired the view of the fog hugging the fields and lying in the valley below us.  Then we retired inside to crèche for a little brunch, the anticipated source of his protestations.

Later, I marked the last half of the last set of papers with the little man on my knee.  To keep him happy I sang the mark scheme as I ticked.  I must admit that this is not the only time I have sung mark schemes.  When I am near the end of a marathon mark I begin to loose it a bit and become a little unhinged myself.  To be honest, I think the little man’s presence curtailed me and grounded me to reality.  At the end of it all the lovely Sharon came in from polishing the cars (we try not to conform to gender roles) and took over from me.  This freed me to pick up hammer and nails and finish the bee hives.  They now stand complete but empty of the buzz of life.  The beekeeping course begins in only a few weeks.

In a strange circle of circumstance the chapter that I read to the little man tonight was from an old Michael Viney book, and it was about bees.  He wrote of the swarming and the fear, and the irrational behaviour that is programmed into us all, and the need to respect the bees.  There will be strict rules about the areas around the cottage that will be off limits to the little man.  Just before I tucked him into bed I comforted him and whispered into his ear that he must be a brave wee boy and must not be afraid of the bees, but in truth I think I was talking to myself.

Tonight, with my legs cramping and my hands freezing, I leaned back on the rope. Just before my weight went onto it and it stretched a little under tension, I wondered if I was a candidate for the Darwin Awards.

It all began at break time, with a text message from the lovely Sharon. She informed me that the bracket had arrived. Let me begin to explain. For some time now we have been having problems with our Freesat dish. It has been moving about in any sort of strong breeze and this has meant several visits for me onto the roof, with a brush, to poke it and get it back on track. At the weekend I was on the roof again and the daylight meant I could see the problem; rust. The corrosion had finally got out of hand and the television was lost to us. We could not even revert to the old annalog aerial as we seem to be out of range. This is not much of a problem to me as I have the internerd and box sets of the mindless popcorn that is; human target and burn notice. However, I was informed that for someone on extended holiday maternity leave, the TV is a vital link to what is happening in the wider world. The new bracket had arrived and the sky was cloudless. This cleared the way for a little DIY if I got home in time before the light began to fade.

I put my climbing harness on and anchored a climbing rope to the garage. The rope went through the front door of the garage and then out the side door. The rope then went in a perfect line to meet the start of the roof and then up and over the other side. I may have put on a pound or two over the Christmas break but I believed it would hold. “Bomber!” as they would say in climbing jargon.

The hardest part was not the drilling of holes and fitting the new bracket. The hardest part was getting the old rust-welded bracket off. A little patience and knuckle blood helped ease it away from the chimney stack.

The light was fading, and I needed a little light to finish the job. It was not essential to see myself work, as I had a head torch. I needed the light for another purpose. I drilled the holes, screwed bolts in and mounted the satellite dish. This was the final critical act. Satellite dishes need to be perfectly aligned to point directly at the correct small window in the sky, and this is where a little homework helps. I had researched it, and found the name of the satellite I wanted to point to. Then I used a website to input my exact latitude and longitude (I knew that GPS would come in handy one day) and got the bearing for the satellite. This is were it gets very geeky:  I adjusted for magnetic varience and then plotted where the bearing would point to on the map; the feature on the landscape that hit the ruled line. It cut through a spur with the forest on it, and I took a mental picture of how far along the spur, and forest, it aimed through. I was glad of this nerdy exactness.

The light had nearly gone now. The full moon was out and the stars were splashed all around. As I worked I watched the enchanting morph of dusk’s colour, all cold and deep. I watched the moon move along its invisible rail as it edged through the branches. The light faded to nearly stone black, but there was just enough. Just the edge of dark blue and earth to make out the land. I saw the silhouette of the spur and the forest and I picked my line. I aimed and then called into the radio to the lovely Sharon. “Signal 100%” she radioed back. “Really?” Could geometry and the Ordinance Survey be that good? The lovely Sharon checked the picture on the channels and then re-checked the signal strength reading. It was all good, so I accepted the cold logic of bearings and tightened the bolts. I did not dismount the roof quickly though.  Instead, I switched off my head torch and  I sat in the cold and dark for a few minutes to absorb the moment and catch a falling star, the type that is rare and moves more slowly across the sky as it burns as a fire ball. Much better than TV.

Things had to be done tonight. I intended to do more marking than I actually got around to, as there were more chores than needed to be done than I expected. The chickens soaked up a lot of time this evening. I have come to realise that chickens are quite low maintenance. Maybe that is why they are so useful an animal? They merely require their food topped up and water in constant clean supply. Originally we kept them in their coop with an extra run attached to stretch their legs. Then we let them out occasionally to be truly free range. However, freedom has its problems; poo. They would poo everywhere and without a care in the world. At least the cats tidy the area of the crime up a little and do it in discreet locations, until you have to plant vegetables or do some weeding. After the chickens made their mark on the territory around our wee cottage, we decided that enough was enough and we put them back in their coop and run combo.

We are not all bad though. As part of their varied diet they like a little grass once in a while, or they like to scratch the turf for grubs. We let them work away at their ‘patch’ for three of four days at a time. Then we move the whole prison and fenced yard along about a foot. This means they get a fresh patch twice a week. I estimate that we can keep moving them along for about thirty five weeks. By that time their original patch should have recovered and have soaked up its topping of manure. Our grass looks like some strange swatch in shades of green with each rectangle a shade greener (or browner) than the last.

Tonight was the weekly complete clean of the coop, and a big move; the beginning of a whole new row of swatch. I took my time, as the sky was clear and the moon was hanging bright in the sky. While I cleaned and moved the chicken’s house they scuttled about the garden in their deranged freedom, drunk with moon light. They ran about, made strange noises at each other, and even had a few brief flights over the low hedges. They are not really pets for us, or livestock; they are items of constant amusement.

Then the cars needed looked at. I decided to check the oil and water levels and such things. I believe it is called marking avoidance, but I am glad I did it. It turns out that the lovely Sharon’s car had no oil in it! She is usually quite good at keeping a check on such things, and I think she is more annoyed with herself than anything else. She muttered something about pregnancy and having a baby, but there is no excuse for poor car maintenance.

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