October 2011

The time of year has come for the winter to officially begin in the Irish calendar.  It is Samhain, and I find it a very scary time of year.  I’m not afraid of the ghosts or witches even though I am currently watching Supernatural.  I also found an old copy of ‘The Witches of Islandmagee’ to curl up with in front of the fire these last couple of days.  I believe myself to be a rational person, and therefore these are not the things that frighten the wits out of me.  No, the thing that has me on edge with terror is the act of watching the lovely Sharon carve a pumpkin. After a minute or so I have to leave the room and ask her to scream if she needs me.

There is an argument around Halloween that goes along the lines that it is wrong to carve pumpkins…….they should be turnips.  It is said that the art of turnip carving originated here and travelled over to America where it became pumpkin carving before it came back to us.  I agree with the use of turnips in principle.  Although I would argue that pumpkins are easier to cut and therefore far less dangerous in some people’s hands.  The thought of the lovely Sharon let loose with a sharp knife and a turnip is a thought that could turn me into an insomniac.  There is one other rather interesting argument for pumpkins though. The goo that coats the seeds of a pumpkin is apparently very good at dislodging internal parasites in chickens.  We had three pumpkins this year.  One of the batches of seeds is in the oven being roasted as the other two batches are now inside the chicken’s stomachs.  It will be good for them in the end, but I imagine they might have wee upset tummies tonight.

source via in the dark

At last!  The Chickens are in their permanent residence under the beech tree.

The door to the run looks a little wonky, but it is actually the ground that is running up hill.  The shed was old and abandoned and needed a little care and attention.  We painted it, put a new roof on, cut a hole in it, put a tiny door over the hole, installed nest boxes and even a perch made out of a beech branch.  They are not using the perch.  They are using the space.  They are stretching themselves and scratching about so much that they seem to have forgotten the bullying and fighting.

There must be a certain age when this happens. Or maybe a tipping point in the cumulation of life’s  experiences. I can understand the slow appreciation of jazz, olives and radio 4. I can even understand, although my pupils cannot, the excitement at the arrival of a book I ordered on the subject of the natural history of hedges. My pupils still bring that up even though the event was over a year ago. But, what I am a little shocked at is the moment when the lovely Sharon and I decided it was a good idea to hang some wet clothes in front of the wood stove to dry. When we were a little less wise and when the earth was younger, we would have never dreamed of spoiling the view of the fire and the ambience of the room. We have become our parents now, and it sits a little too comfortably with us.

It is a game we play. Since I fitted out the old shed with a new floor (while the shed was being moved the old floor disintegrated only a few feet away from the shed’s new position) and new nest boxes and a new perch, I have had to play nightly games with the chickens. When it is dark enough I close the hatch and then physically lift the hens onto their perch. I worry that that the perch is too high but I console myself that it is only one foot off the floor and far from the two foot maximum. They simply need to learn something new.

It will take some time, but I need to place them all on their perch every night until they realise what they need to do. Some of the younger hens are a little more clueless and they hop down to the floor when I leave. Last night the lovely Sharon spotted one of these clueless birds and attempted to put her back on the perch. She came in from her nightly walk around the cottage and had an exasperated expression while she began to ask me, “see when one of them is not on its perch…” I interrupted her with a question dripping with inferred knowledge, “How many were down before you started try to fix the problem”. Having grown up with pet birds I would have thought she would be wiser to avian habits. Her head torch on full beam prompted them to all happily wake up and begin feeding instead of sleeping. I informed her of this as if I had years of knowledge. The reality was that I had learnt the hard way over several nights of what seemed like a comical sort of herding of cats. I will not reveal the truth to her of course. I am a teacher, and my art is that of bluff and overconfidence.

This afternoon we let the weather dictate to us how long it took to get home. We reached impassable back roads and turned around. We never even reached some of the more used roads as the queues told us that the journey ahead was impassable as well. After a couple more U-turns we used what was left of the possible paths home and our sketchy knowledge of the local topology to get us home. Eventually we found a way home taking us through two swollen burns that seemed not to care how much of the road they had adopted.

Driving through the torrents and puddles we noticed how our little car seemed to have a less power than normal. The moist air was the obvious culprit and then we contemplated how the modern car can cope with so much. We reminisced about how we used to have cars that would refuse to even start in such weather. They had to be coaxed with the throttle and choke until they reluctantly started. And then they had to be nurtured along the road in such damp weather. We remembered one car we used to own in our pre marriage years. The carburetor was in such a sorry state that a foot had to be kept ready on the accelerator pedal to keep it going. We even went through an MOT test with this car in its condition and explained that if we had to stop the engine we might not be able to get it started again. It passed.

While reminiscing about our cars the lovely Sharon brought up a recollection about having to start her mum and dad’s car with a starter handle. I have a vague memory of hearing the story before but this time it got me thinking; just how old is the lovely Sharon. I can say with certainty that she is older than me, as I have no recollection of starting cars with wind up handles. I know she caries more wisdom than her years but of course it is rude to ask about specifics, but I have my theories.

Today I got a message on my voicemail. It was one of those long messages accidentally left when a phone dials itself in a pocket. Only this recorded a conversation between two people talking, talking about me. I only listened to a few seconds but it was enough. The two people in the conversation were people very close to me. Imagine my surprise when I heard one of them telling the other how ‘chubby’ and ‘heavy’ I was. To be fair it was my mum telling my niece that I was a heavy little boy when I was one year old. And they had just discovered that the sturdy little man had just been measured to be in the 98th percentile in weight. This does not all make it forgivable. I was not chubby, I was just big boned.

While having toy time with the little man today I found myself a little limited by the amount of lego duplo bricks. I did just have enough to build a replica of a Neolithic passage tomb. I repeatedly tried to align it with the winter solstice but the little man kept moving it when it was just right, while shouting “bdDA, bdDA bdDA”.

I think the duplo bus driver is calling all the duplo sightseers in the background. I think it is time to go.

full moon rising over the beech tree tonight

Blood moon, or Hunter’s moon.  This is the moon when the excess animals are traditionally slaughtered as there is usually not enough fodder for the winter.  We are running low on feed for the chickens at the moment.  I am sure the local farm feed supplier will have plenty for the winter, and more.  I still think of killing though.  I think that if I find out which one of them is eating the some of the eggs then we will have a splendid chicken soup.

tonight’s work at downtools time

More holes were dug under the beech tree in the misty rain this evening.  I had to act fast as the rain was constantly threatening to become heavy and the darkness did not need to threaten, it would arrive anyway.  After tonight there are only three more posts to dig and set in.  Then a gate must be built, chicken wire must be buried and hung, lengths of wood must be nailed, and the shed needs to be moved.  The shed is in reasonable condition.  The walls are sound (ish) and I re-felted the roof in the summer.  The problem may be the floor, it is rotten and may not survive the move through the garden.  I have a few bits of wood to hammer together new perches and nest boxes, but not enough for a new floor.

 my beech dreams

The hens are eyeing up the new construction from across the lawn.  Maybe they see the vast space in which they can stretch their wings.  A nice thought, until the moment of the move when scissors will be clasped and they will have their wings clipped before entering their new home.

The morning seemed like a good time to dig myself a hole.  It was the first of several holes that will hopefully be dug over the next month or so.  Some time ago I had consulted some people on the topic of hole digging and the results were surprising.  A spade is apparently not the desired tool; a long and heavy iron bar is the ideal weapon to take on the earth.

Later that morning I had concreted in the first post for the chicken run.  It should be a large enclosure when it is finished.  It should give us the option of bringing up our own chicks next year.  Today I had only enough concrete and time for a single eight foot long fence post (now only six feet show above ground).  As I surveyed the area and mentally went over the plan for the umpteenth time, I spotted a very dangerous thing.  I was looking at the plants that will need to be transplanted to make room for the old shed.  On one of the plants I noticed some berries and I knew that I probably looking at the most dangerous thing in the garden.

There are lots of dangerous things in the garden.  The bee hives are the first thing that springs to mind as they contain tens of thousands of venomous insects.  This is why we built the apiary fence.  Not as a bee barrier of course.  It is a physiological barrier; a  reminder to not go near the scary bees.

The yew berries I discovered this morning are a beautiful red colour.  Yew trees are uncommon in Ireland and I never expected to find one in the garden.  The berries  are perfectly presented on an ornamental variety of the yew that has the berries at child picking height.  They contain the alkaloid taxine that causes havoc with the heart and then causes death.  This is the gardening equivalent of leaving the bleach cupboard open and putting the bleach in orange juice cartons.  The whole issue is compounded by the fact that the little man already sees his mum and dad picking berries off the hedges and then he sees us feed them to him, and then he goes “nom nom nom.” We believe he should see this.  Too often we have conversations with our students about food and where it comes from.  It is shocking that many will not trust any food unless it is wrapped in plastic of some sort.

Yesterday we took a walk along the roads and lanes and nibbled the blackberries.  I discovered that the lovely Sharon had never actually tasted a raw sloe.  I tentatively chewed one to remind myself of the sensation of having my mouth sucked dry of all moisture along with the sourness of a thousand lemons.  We also spotted the dangerous bright red berries of the ‘Lords and Ladies’ resting on their stalk close to the earth.  We re-found the mushrooms I had discovered earlier this week.  We are nearly certain that they are parasol mushrooms that the books tell us are edible, very tasty, and highly sought after.  It is curiosity for us as our foraging is nowhere near the stage of advancing to fungi.  We are simply not that bold.

edible and apparently very tasty – maybe?

Our hedgerow education to the little man will take time but we need not tempt fate.  The yew tree will need to go somewhere.  Maybe somewhere inside the scary apiary?

It’s national poetry day.   I have posted this at least twice before but, for me, it is magnetic.


The leaves are falling, falling as if from far up,
as if orchards were dying high in space.
Each leaf falls as if it were motioning “no.”

And tonight the heavy earth is falling
away from all other stars in the loneliness.

We’re all falling. This hand here is falling.
And look at the other one. It’s in them all.

And yet there is Someone, whose hands
infinitely calm, holding up all this falling.

Rainer Maria Rilke

and this is one I was sharing with my classes today….

A mosquito was heard to complain
 That a chemist had poisoned his brain
 The cause of his sorrow
 Was paradichloro

The stars are falling.  The sky is falling.  These October nights are dark and shiny.  This may also be the time of year to find the remains of fallen stars; to find pwdre ser (poo of the stars).  The clear (ish) jelly can be found seemingly randomly dropped from the sky.  Many years ago they believed it was the remains of stars that fell to earth.  The current thinking is that it is probably the packing material in a frog’s ovary that comes into contact with the stomach fluids within a raven or a heron.  This does not sound as romantic, or as poetic, but think how this is just a theory.  Think how this is an unproven hypothesis.  How can it be that in our era of science that we do not know for certain if it is true.

If you stumble upon some ‘star jelly’ on your autumn wanderings then pleaseadd a comment to this post and include your email address as there is a TV production company (Tigress Productions) in hot pursuit of some hard (of soft jelly) evidence.

Last night I found myself at the annual meeting of the Ulster Beekeepers Association. It was a fun and interesting evening chatting about everything and anything, and also chatting about bees. I also found out that I won 2nd place in the annual PowerPoint competition. Not only was I quite pleased with myself but I also received fifty pounds in prize money! It should be poetic that it should be spent on the bees but we are thinking of building a more permanent, and much larger, run for the chickens.

one of the powerpoint slides

I have and idea and a plan. The injection of some more money into the budget prompted me to buy the wood to get started. The three new arrivals are still being bullied by the three old hens, being hen-pecked I think. This means they are spending more time in the coop than on the grass in the run. Eggs must have been stepped on and consumed as they loafed about in the coop.  There were no eggs for a couple of days; a very bad habit to start, and difficult to stop. We are now policing this by lifting the eggs as soon as we can to prevent them being munched. We have also popped a few plastic eggs in the coup. The idea is that if they try and peck them they will begin to realise that they are inedible.  We intend to expand their space as soon as possible. This is part of a long term project that has been moved up the list. The idea is that we might raise our own hens next year, for the pot!

About a month ago I received word that I had won 3rd place in a different beekeeping competition; a photo competition.

the image that won the bees a new super

The competition was for customers of peak-hives.co.uk.  Peak-Hives build beautiful beehives from cedar wood. The wood is locally sourced, where possible, and look fantastic. I can still remember the amazing smell of the hives when they were delivered. The smell filled the garage on the cold winter nights when I pulled on a thick fleece and hammered and glued the hives together.

tonight’s autumn mushrooms in the gathering darkness

Tonight I made up more sugar syrup for the bees, but not before heading out for an autumn dander. I strapped the little man to my back and we headed out as the light began to fade. We nibbled blackberries and shouted “doyi, doyi, doyi” at the hedges. We watched the sheep and we looked for strange mushrooms along the way. Tonight we read about a boy who found a lost penguin. We rocked in the chair as we drank our milk (he drank his milk as I pretended to; to entertain) and we read our book by moonlight (a light shaped like the moon). The real moon is waxing now and will be full in just over a week. It is bringing with it the darkness and the long nights. But the little man and I have our moon shaped lamp and books about penguins and bears to hide in, on these gathering winter nights.

the rocking chair under the ‘moonlight’

our bedside reading material (two options for if he wants to read or if he wants to fall asleep in my arms)

It is easy to forget that there are people up there. It is easy to forget that they eat, sleep and dream on the edge of space.

After watching this I feel sobered by the brightness of our lights and the energy we consume, the energy we waste. It is not an endless supply.

We have a bounty of apples at the cottage at the moment.  I plucked a few that were on the verge of falling off and a friend also gave us a bag of apples from his own bountiful harvest.  Finding things to do with apples is not a problem for us as we eat a lot of them.  The iatrophobic lovely Sharon eats an apple a day and I usually have two a day.  It is also good that they keep well.  Apples can be kept for a year under the correct conditions.   There is even a variety that has been breed to be stored for two years! A few of the slightly bruised apples cannot be stored and it was these apples that I looked at and began to think about lamb’s wool.

Lamb’s wool is a drink that is sometimes called ‘wassail’ in England.  The word ‘wassail’  comes from the middle English ‘wæs hæil’ meaning ‘good health’ The Lamb’s Wool’s name is said to come from the Irish “lá maois úll” a “day gathering apples”.  I have read about this drink but never actually made it.  Tonight we baked the apples in the oven then ground some nutmeg and almonds.  We mixed some cream and egg yolks while a little home-made ale simmered with honey on the stove.

We sipped the drink tentatively and were both shocked; it tasted great.  It was not even close to tasting like any of our vague expectations.  It was terrific, calorific even, until half way through a glass.  When the glass was half empty (or half full, or the wrong size of glass (pessimist, optimist, engineer)) I began to suspect that it was far too sweet.  Then I eventually realised that I had made up an amount that was half the ingredients of the recipe apart from the honey.  I forgot to halve the honey.

The rest of the lamb’s wool is in a kilner in the fridge and will be tested on guests tomorrow.  It will be a small gathering to celebrate a space voyage.  It will be to celebrate the little man’s first orbit of the sun.  Wassail little man.