No time for this, no time for that. Time spent, time valued. Time flies, then it is time for change; time for spring.  It’s fair to say that the three little ones are my time now. Time playing lego, time feeding, time talking and answering questions. Time holding hands and learning to walk.

 

I took a little time out to order up some raspberry plants with the intention of investing some time in summer and autumn raspberries.  Ideally they should be planted, according to the literature, in November.  There was a day that I set aside for just such a task.  Then I was sick on that day and the window passed. The raspberry canes have been stored in damp soil in the greenhouse and I intend to plant them out soon.  Yet things happen. Fences get blown down in storms, chicken coop roofs get blown off and scattered around the garden.  These things need mended and fixed.

 

The first signs of spring are here and this is inspiring me to make time for growth. The snowdrops are out and the daffodils are beginning to flower.  One hive of bees is all that has survived from last year.  Their stores are desperately low.  They seem to be breaking their winter huddle every so often to feed on the fondant I left them.  If they hang on then the willow and dandelion will be out soon.  Hang on.

 
It’s at times like these that I turn to Monty.  I’m re-watching Monty Don’s Fork to Fork and getting inspired. No; I’m getting reminded that summer does actually happen if we choose to believe that it will. So, I will plant out those raspberries.  I will turn over the soil, and I will get those potatoes ready for chitting. I will make time for these things. Why?…  The littlest man may be only learning to walk now, but in time, I hope he will be walking through the garden eating all the raspberries with his brother and sister, and me only half-heartedly complaining that they are spending more time eating than picking.

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They have names now; these storms.  Maybe it will help.  If we personify them maybe then we can blame them, increase the distance between them and us. These storms are hitting us, it’s them; we didn’t make them.  We don’t make them.  Storms have been around in wilder and more powerful forms for far longer than we have been around.  The weather is like stone and the mountains; indifferent to us. Yet, we may have encouraged them somehow.  Climate change; can we deny it anymore.  It’s nothing new.  Five hundred generations ago we were plunged into the sudden climate change of the Younger Dryas. This is the climate change that has been occupying my thoughts at the moment, how it must have been, how we coped, how we did not.  It wasn’t our making then, but the echoes of it still hang about in our oldest stories.

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Storm Frank is slamming into the cottage tonight. Calm down Frank, please calm down.  I didn’t go near the chickens tonight.  We lifted the eggs earlier, when all was calm, and I know they have enough food and water from last night.  I suspect that if I had tried to check in on them their door would have been ripped off it’s hinges as that side of the cottage is a bit of a wind tunnel when the wind blows from the south. One benefit that Frank is bringing us is the effect on the wood stove.  Strong wind means that there is a good draw on the fire that seems to make it easier to regulate.  Although the air vents have to be closed down to nearly air tight to stop the fire getting too hot.  Like many people this Christmas; I am reading ‘Norwegian wood’.  Tonight I read the stove and fire chapters and experimented with the top down burn.  I am converted. Now every other way to light a wood stove is just wrong.  The stove is glowing, and Frank is making lots of noise outside; it’s time to sit down with a good book.

A last minute present was delivered by the postman this morning; fondant laced with pollen.  Under a full moon I slipped this package onto the bees tonight and whispered that they are not to eat it until tomorrow morning.  It’s said that you must always tell the bees the news.  The news is that we have made it past the solstice.  A few sleeps ago sunrise caught me after  I woke up. I have an image of it in my head, a vague echo; a memory imperfect yet feeling like perfection. I hadn’t seen the sunrise for weeks even though it had been hanging around on the edges of my mind. At this time of year there is always the thoughts of the local standing stones lining up with the winter sun, and thoughts of chambers like Maes Howe.  Why?  Why did they do it, and why does it haunt my winter thoughts.  Maybe it’s obvious when the nights are so long and the days are so short.  Maybe it’s obvious when I am dragged from my warm bed on a cold winter morning with the little lady screaming, “Daddy, I want to go to the toilet! Daddy, I want to go to the toilet! Daddy, I want to go to the toilet! Daddy, I want to go to the toilet! Daddy, I want to go to the toilet! Daddy, I want to go to the toilet!” The pancakes still need made and I am groggy with winter dreams.  It seems routine until I am walking the little lady down the stairs and I look out the window.  The hills, the sleeping bare trees, the stone grey sky, and then the sun creeping over the forest reminds me there is nothing routine in any of this.  The epiphany charges me with enthusiasm; time for solstice pancakes.  
There is no point reminding the bees about the solstice as they are far more tuned in to these things than I.  Instead, the news is that the house is bursting with excitement.  The little lady and the little man are dreaming of santa.  They are full of the hope of presents under the tree.  The littlest man is too small for such things and a bowl full of breakfast and the sight of the lovely Sharon will probably fill him with equal delight. Happy solstice. Merry Christmas.

As I poured in the sugar syrup and put the mouse guards on the hives tonight, I remembered the strange case of the mad mouse. It all began as I sat looking out the kitchen window and spotted something small running about on the roof of the wood shed. It was one of those strange moments when it is absurd enough to take a few seconds to sink in; a mouse running about on the roof in broad daylight.  Soon The little man and I were perched at the window with binoculars watching this mouse and its nonsense.  It ran over the roof as if looking for something, then ran to the apex and slipped under a bit of bent corrugated iron.  It might disappear for a few seconds only to reappear and carry on with its quest.  What this was, we were never sure. It never went into the gutter or near any moss, it just seemed to run about the roof.  The three seemingly overfed cats never put in an appearance as it ran about for a very long time. The little man asked mouse themed questions.  One of these was, “what do mouse bones look like? Are they like our bones?”  This might just prompt me to do a little experiment that I read about a long time ago.  Catch a mouse, kill it, then place it in a wire cage.  This can be left at the bottom of the garden.  As long as it is left long enough, and as long as the holes in the wire are small enough, no larger animals should steal the bones.  So, after a while the bones will be left and it ends up as a little mouse jigsaw puzzle of sorts. Is it bad that I think this is a fine father and son activity? At the very least we will have reduced the pest population by one.

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My old friend autumn has returned to me.  I felt it a few weeks ago as the air began to cool and the horse chestnuts began to put on their yellow and rust.  There are many things that mark out this season here. The tomatoes are harvested from the greenhouse as often as we can, before the exhausted golden plants drop them wearily.  Tomato soup, beetroot soup, tomato and beetroot soup. Then the bees need fed again, and some of their honey sits in the corner still to be extracted and destined for porridge on dark mornings.

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There are many things that add to the feeling of autumn, but tonight it felt closer than ever.  The darkening evenings and the ritualistic closing of the gate are two things that synchronized tonight.  As I walked down the lane the quarter moon hung low in the south west.  Earlier that evening we added the ‘see the moon’ game to the little people’s night time routine.  Bath time, milk, clean the teeth, hang out the window in the roof and find the moon, stories, prayers, then bed…..then IT’S TOO DARK!…then THAT WARDROBE LOOKS SCARY…..then the torrent of random questions that flow from a five year old mind unfolding: “Why do flies die in winter?”  “Is it possible to go to sleep and still count all the stars?”  “Who will look after all the baby flies in winter?”  Tonight the little man found the moon quickly and declared that he could see the hare in the moon; “just the beginning of it”.
With the little people filled with stories, I rumbled a bin down the lane and closed the gate.  The clouds left big holes for the moon and hints of autumn constellations to shine through. Sygnus migrating. The air was cool and the fields were filling with the thin fog that clings to everything gently and begins to make the moon and stars really feel like they are up there and you are down here; grounded.  The sights and smells of the night filled me and I could not shake the autumnal feeling and the thought of halloween not being far away.  To be honest that was probably because the lane runs beside a few acres of turnips.

The sudden need to harvest and make jams and jelly puts us under a certain strain this time of year…

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We noticed the redcurrants were ripe and needed picking.  I dragged out the our huge fruit net and tried to throw it over the redcurrants to give us time. I mistakenly tried to unfold it all in front of the little people who found the net to be a wonderful game.  The net gave us a few more days in the game we play with the birds.  Eventually we threw ourselves into the fruit plants with colanders and buckets in hand.

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The redcurrants surprised us as they seem to have taken over from the blackcurrants.  This must have happened over the autumn and spring by some sort of plant stealth.  Last year we harvested three kilograms of redcurrants; this year we have at least ten. Lots of redcurrant jelly and a bit of redcurrant wine is on the menu.

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Then there is the bees…. I marked the unproductive queen for death and waited for her replacement to arrive by post from a local breeder in Belfast. When he told me he was ready to post her it was the trigger for me to go in and kill the old queen. It is said that sometimes a hive roars when the queen is killed.  I had never noticed this and often put the queen aside in an empty box during inspections without any sign of loss or concern from the bees.  Yet, whenever I lifted her with the intention of killing her the hive roared. The sound of it caught me off guard and startled me.  It was as if I was under the bonnet of an engine and the driver dropped down a gear and floored it to overtake. The queen was dropped in some vodka (to become swarm lure) and the new queen arrived in the post, but the roar would come back to haunt me.

 

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The better queen, the good hive, filled two super boxes with honey. When the Mayflower (Hawthorn) was in full ‘flow’ I made a habit of going out to the hive in the evening.  From a few feet away the smell would hit me and then I could stand beside the hive and listen to the hum, like standing beside an unusually fragrant air conditioning system.  Then, as the tide of summer carried on, the good hive showed signs of swarming. I carried out the standard artificial swarm, yet took it a step too far. There was once wise advice that I heard and I try to live by with respect to beekeeping; If there is no decision or action to take based on a hive inspection then don’t do the inspection. Leave them alone. If is just about satisfying my curiosity and there is nothing actionable, then leave them alone.  I don’t know why I ignored this but I did.  I wanted to see that the queen was doing well and I carried out an inspection on her hive after the artificial swarm.  I also don’t think I was in a good state of mind during the inspection and rushed things, and got clumsy.  They roared. I heard the queenless roar that I had recently discovered.  I gently closed them up and naively hoped for the best.  A week later I went in to check the honey and they were very grumpy; flying off the comb and pinging my veil.  All this behaviour from a normally gentle hive just confirmed what I already knew; they were queenless. A few weeks ago I deliberately killed a queen and gone to great effort to achieve it, then I accidentally killed another queen in a fumbled moment. Now I really will follow the wisdom and leave them alone in the hope that they raise an emergency queen.

I lifted two super boxes (they are actually called supers) of honey. The only problem was that they were not fully capped. Capping is the bee’s way of sealing the honey for storage and it is a sign that the honey is ‘ripe’.  If a beekeeper just harvested the liquid in the combs there is a large risk that it is nectar that the bees have not removed the water from yet.  If nectar if put in jars it eventually ferments. From my regular evening visits I knew that the bees had stopped their ripening of the late spring flow.  My instinct was that the honey was ripe.  Geeky bit:  Using a refractometer confirmed my suspicions and I extracted 18 out of the 20 frames (two frames passed the ‘shake it does it drip test’ but failed the geeky refractometer test).

Last year we got no honey at all and I missed it. I can buy honey, I can even buy local honey. I missed the extraction. I missed the magic of it.  Previously I shared the experience with the little man as a two year old.  Now he is two years wiser and bursting with questions. How do they make the honey?  How does the extractor work? Why did you squash that dead bee?  And that one? And this year there was the addition of the two year old little lady perched near the honey tap and demanding that everyone feed her honey.  This year I had the little why man and the little diva lady and it was a celebration of spring, summer, boiling jelly, nectar and the harvest.

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(more…)

Tonight I walked around a corner and my eye caught the moon.  It pinned me to the spot, and for a moment I was startled and shocked.  The phase of it caught me off guard and shamed me.  Usually I keep a close eye on the moon and what it’s up to.  Yet it was nearly full and I didn’t remember how it got there.  Time had caught me and dragged me along for a week or two.  I had slipped out of the habit of moon watching and it feels like maybe spring has not been dragged along too.  The local beekeepers have noticed this; the paused spring.  They say, “ ...the spring plants are only starting to appear now hawthorn and sycamore as well as the horse chestnut are just starting so the spring flow will begin in earnest.”  Beekeepers talk in ‘flows’; nectar flow. The dandelion flow has stopped a couple of weeks ago and the bees do get noticeably sad, and a little grumpy.

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Today we took the little people for a walk in the woods.  While hunting for ogres I kept an eye out for the summer, and spotted the beginnings of foxgloves and willow herb.  They were only starting, but at least they knew the summer is around the corner

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A sense of the moon and plant watching are good habits if I can maintain them.  Another good habit I am trying to perfect is bread making.  Lately my experiments have settled on a recipe for the best bread I can make.  The key ingredient seems to be time.  If we need a loaf of bread we need to start at least twelve hours before we need it.  Before breakfast I add the yeast, water, butter, and half the flour.  Then much later in the day (usually ten hours later), I add the rest of the flour and the salt.  It is kneaded, allowed to rise for an hour, knocked back, then allowed to rise for another hour and a half.

 

A good habit that I am trying to begin is slug picking.  It takes a bit of self will, and I haven’t perfected it yet.  The idea is to put a head torch on and venture out into the garden in the late evening before bedtime.  When I have dragged myself towards doing this I collect about half a cup of slugs (assuming this is the accepted unit of volume of slugs).  I don’t want to put them in the bin as that would be too kind a fate, and I suspect they would escape and carry on eating.  Instead, I place them in an empty curry sauce container with a clip on lid.  Their fate is cruel.  I place the container in front of the coffee machine so that I do not forget their doom.  After breakfast I make the first espresso of the day and remember to take the curry pot out to the hungry chickens before heading off to work.  When I began this habit the lovely Sharon was shocked, “Leaving slugs in the kitchen is hardly hygienic?” I pointed out that if they were able to escape the curry sauce container then hygiene would be the least of our worries.  Logic and the unlikely prospect of supermollusc strength slugs moved her to acceptance.

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some more slug food to be planted

While out slug hunting my eye caught a dancing hair in the soil.  It looked other worldly and out of place.  I was mesmerised by its dance and wondered if that was the intention; to captivate and enchant some poor bird or small mammal.  I suspected it was a parasite.  I think I might have been wrong about the dancing, but my parasitic instincts were correct.

It is a horseshair worm; a parasite that people used to believe might be a horse’s hair coming to life.  Of course I kept this new found parasitic worm knowledge to myself and did not tell the lovely Sharon for fear that she might lay down the law on my new habit of keeping my slugs in the kitchen.