Winter is Coming

Posted by Nick  | 11 May 2015  | 0 comments

“Winter is coming.”

Whilst that ominous phrase may spell looming disaster for the characters of a popular television/book series, for us humble country folk it simply means making minor preparations around the farm for admittedly mild seasonal changes.

It’s significantly colder during winter in this part of the countryside, being farther south (and higher up) from the weather we’re accustomed to in Auckland. I’m sure those living in deeper parts of the South Island, such as Otago, will scoff at this, as might some of our readers in the Northern United States, such as Minnesota and Alaska, who are used to winter temperatures much lower than the Waikato’s feeble average. It barely drops below zero Celsius here (I think the lowest we personally experienced last winter was -2), but that’s still cold enough to make a draughty uninsulated cottage uncomfortable, despite a roaring wood burner.

So, Char recently set to work filling all the gaps between the windows of this old crooked abode. It’s a temporary fix until we renovate (hopefully next summer), but if it can make this single winter a little more bearable, then it’s worth it.

These window frames are almost beyond repair, but at least we can fill the spaces in between to stop the drafts. Notice the large gap before:

Holding our hands up to the gaps, we could definitively feel the draught. And then after a bit of foam seal:

You wouldn’t think it, but now that almost all of the windows have been sealed we can notice the difference. Doesn’t feel like as much heat is being sucked out of the house through these narrow crevasses.

Another task to prepare for winter was to sort out a filter for our barn’s gutter, which kept clogging with leaves and preventing our reserve tank from filling with rainwater. Since we were pretty scarce on water over summer and this reserve tank wasn’t filling properly because of the leaf litter blockage, it’s crucial that we catch enough rainwater over these wetter months to have a full tank for next summer.

Instead of implementing some kind of gutter guard, we opted for a “leaf beater”, which attaches to the top of a downpipe and sheds debris that washes through the gutter. There was a bit of back-and-forth with installing it, as we had to cut various lengths of pipe and adapters to fit everything together and angle it towards the tank. The bulky leaf beater component looks a little bit toilet-esque, but oh well, it does the trick.

Behind its cover is an angled mesh panel which allows water through but sheds debris. Genius. It’s a heck of a lot less maintenance than having to clear out a poorly filtered gutter, and less expensive than a lot of gutter guards on the market. We’ll definitely be attaching them to our cottage downpipes, too, when the time comes to re-do our drainage.

Our carport (if you can call it that) once had a couple of corrugated plastic sheets on the back to allow some light in. They were so old that a storm shattered them into hundreds of tiny pieces and strew them about a nearby paddock. We’d left the exposed hole open over summer, but we’ve since bought some new sheets and tacked them up in preparation for a rainy winter.

This farm is full of patchwork and will be for some time; these temporary (but necessary) structures demand it.

We’ve a hoard of firewood in a woodshed left by the previous owner, but our neighbours say it won’t last much past this winter. Luckily there’s plenty more where that came from. That’s one resource we’re in no short supply of. Slowly that massive stack of tree trunks has been hacked away at into chunks of firewood. There aren’t too many rounds left to split, but I’d better haul it all under cover soon before it weathers too much in the winter elements.

Finally, the biggest preparation for winter – and perhaps our very first renovation task – is to insulate under the floorboards. We had a whack at it last weekend and got about a fifth done, but it’s an awkward job and it’s only going to get harder the deeper we go as the space between the ground and the joists narrows. But that’s another post for another time.

Picking up the insulation was my first experience towing a trailer. It went smoothly. No jack-knifing, no jetsam flying off on the highway. But reversing a trailer… that is so much harder than I anticipated.

“It’ll be easy – just turn the wheel the opposite way you want the trailer to go.”

Yeah, right.

We’ve been told that we might see snow in the area every now and then. We welcome the novelty. The way we see it is if we’re going to be faced with sub-zero temperatures, we might as well be rewarded with a little dusting of the magical stuff. Bring it on, winter!

Around the Farm: Part II

Posted by Nick  | 29 Apr 2015  | 3 comments

It’s often the simple things, the little joys, which enrich life the most, don’t you think? That old piece of advice to “stop and smell the roses” has always been, for me, more than a mere suggestion to clear one’s head every now and then. Call me a dreamer. This place – where the skies are open and the hour hand bends like a loose rope in a river’s current – urges one, dreamer or not, to embody that advice as a part of everyday life.

What hidden delight might a flower impart if given the time and space to be truly appreciated?

Around the farm there are many small observations that don’t warrant a post of their own, but nonetheless remind us of the preciousness of little joys.

There are autumnal flowers, dahlias and others, which have bloomed radiantly for almost two months now. A last show of colour before the dormant grey settles in.

They emerge like heralds from another dimension.

Our neighbour kindly dropped by with a tub of mushrooms picked from her pastures. We’ve seen few on our own land for reasons unknown, but we do have plenty of useless toadstools popping up all over the place. I wonder if this Wonderland grows any psilocybe…

Our daily routine of visiting the ladies and watching their soap-opera dramas unfold brings us many smiles.

The shade is becoming a cold place, so we’ll often catch them basking in the sun when it peeks out from behind the clouds.

Someone else brings us many smiles and laughs. As a young teenager, Echo the duck was reluctant to be touched. Nowadays her growing maturity (or, perhaps, resignation) allows us to pick her up, stroke her, and even turn her upside-down…

She’s become a placid and friendly critter, but is also quite excitable. She loves the sound of gumboots squeaking together, and attempts to communicate with them. I don’t think she knows she’s a duck; she either identifies as a human… or a gumboot.

She still has yet to take to wing, but thoroughly enjoys bathing and flapping around in her (very green) bathtub.

We wish we had a larger pond for her nearby. We often take her down to our little waterfall which has a pond at the base.

It’s great having a growing family of animals with us on the farm. I didn’t realise how much verve animals could imbue a place with – and all we have is five birds and a cat!

Speaking of cat… Mica is on her way to becoming a seasoned mouser. We’ve found three dead already, and caught her toying with another two on different occasions. I felt obliged to put one of them out of its misery. It appeared noticeably distressed and Mica seemed intent on drawing out its inevitably violent demise as long as possible. I bashed its head in with a piece of wood – my first kill.

The darling doesn’t seem like a skilled predator… She’s just cute and cuddly. A devious disguise?

How can this oddball be so good at hunting? And they say you see only a tenth of what your cat kills…

As the weather begins to cool, Mica, like the chickens, is spotted seeking out the sunny spots.

“Ooo, I’m being photographed… Aaand POSE!”

There are other animals out and about, too. Wild ones. Many kereru (wood pigeon) are returning to the area at the moment, and we’ve spotted on numerous occasions hares as big as small border-collies. We’ll be needing a .22 rifle soon I imagine, with all the saplings we’ll be planting over winter. I haven’t photographed either of these creatures, but I did get pretty close to a large blue dragonfly down by the waterfall:

Another sizeable arthropod emerged from a log I was splitting. It gave me a bit of a fright since we don’t have many common large bugs in New Zealand.

Does this give you the shivers? Is something crawling up your neck right now? I’ve never encountered a spider this chunky in New Zealand. It gave me the creeps – and I grew up in Australia! This fine specimen is a type of tunnelweb spider native to New Zealand. Its bite is apparently quite painful due to its large fangs, but it doesn’t cause any lasting damage.

And then when my friend Dingus helped chop wood on his visit, he, too, discovered a different wood-dwelling mini-beast.

A huhu grub – the larvae of the largest beetle in New Zealand. The THUD of their metamorphosed forms colliding with the windows at night sound like the bodies of birds hitting the glass.

Larger rotund beasts roam the paddocks.

Soon we will arrange to have our own livestock on the farm, to make something more out of this rural paradise than just a pleasant vista.

The noisiest beast of all is the man-beast. Here he is making all sorts of racquet, doing multiple passes overhead in his flying machine:

One neighbour was having their pastures limed. For some reason this necessitated multiple days of flying a mere twenty metres above our house with an engine that sounded like a dozen grunty motorbikes at full throttle. I guess they were surveying the area before the lime drop? It’s not always peaceful in the middle of nowhere.

With the changing seasons comes the craving for carbohydrates. Char baked a simple white loaf which turned out really good.

We fried some of it with butter and dunked it in my cream of mushroom soup. Time to put on that “winter coat”.

Char also dried some basil and catnip in our dehydrator. A humble step towards preserving for self-sufficiency.

Living at least half an hour from anything, it has taken us a while to explore the local area, especially since there’s so much to do on the farm as it is, and we are admittedly homebodies. Recently, however, we did pay a visit to Sanctuary Mountain Maungatauri, which is an ecological “island” amidst a sea of pasture. The mountain, a volcano, has an impressive pest-proof fence surrounding its perimeter. It is a haven for native New Zealand bird life.

As soon as you enter you can tell it’s a special place. The greens are so rich and vibrant, there’s a noticeable difference in the colour between rainforest down here and of that back up in Auckland, which is much browner.

Ascending a platform, we were greeted by a friendly kaka (a species of parrot) who wasn’t the least bit camera-shy.

We will definitely be returning to Sanctuary Mountain; there are some decent hikes up to the peaks therein.

As with flowers, the stars out here deserve a mention. On a clear night the glowing band of the Milky Way is outstanding. In any place far from cities, one can get the feeling by staring at the night sky that they are in a deeper part of space, yet closer to it. It’s both a mind-blowing and deeply satisfying experience. And with any camera capable of long exposure, you’ll be able to see far more than you’d expect.

Even as far away as we are from any major city, a long exposure shot will still pick up the distant light pollution, such as the photograph below I took, whose orange glow might be mistaken for the residue of a sunset (that’s the Pleiades cluster top-left).

Stargazing one evening I aimed the camera at what looked like a small patch of cloud in an otherwise crystal-clear sky. I zoomed in, adjusted some settings, and took the shot. What emerged on the camera’s screen was stunning, and I recalled what it was immediately. I’d seen it before in Hubble images – the Large Magellanic Cloud, a satellite galaxy of our Milky Way.

Whether it’s something as small as a flower, or as grand and vast as a galaxy, the opportunities to appreciate the wonders of nature seem so abundant out here. Of course it’s all a matter of perspective, but it affirms to us each and every time that we’re precisely where we always wanted to be. You can’t help but stop and smell the roses, and that suits us just fine.

Stay tuned for part III of “Around the Farm” – there’s no end to the little treasures of country living!

Corpse in the Crawlspace

Posted by Nick  | 08 Apr 2015  | 6 comments

You may have read that we recently discovered dead bodies in the attic… Well, over the long weekend we braved the darkness under the cottage, too, and corpses became a recurring theme. You’ll see.

We’ve known since we moved here that we’d eventually have to subject ourselves to the horrific job of cleaning out under the house. There’s an assortment of junk scattered haphazardly throughout all corners. How does this even happen?

Winter is approaching and we want to insulate underneath the exposed floorboards, so the time has come to clear it out.

It’s so dry under there that the dusty ground is easily disturbed – checklist item number one: A proper respirator. Amidst the dry ground there is a gauntlet of glass shards and sharp metal – checklist item number two and three: Knee-pads and gloves. There are too many small objects to be picked up by hand – checklist item number four: A rake. This is obviously a job for a sucker – checklist item number five: Me. Put these all together and what to you get? Why, this fine character, of course:

I may have fallen a little too deeply into the role of crawlspace warrior…

I wasn’t the only poser…

The process was fairly straight-forward, just very awkward – especially up the front of the cottage where there’s barely twenty centimetres between the joists and the ground. The chore of breathing through a respirator in such a tight space beckoned the demons of claustrophobia more than once.

I gathered larger objects in a bucket, and raked out all the little bits.

Along with the bits and bobs I raked out came a lot of loose dirt and leaves, which poor Char was relegated to sifting through. Extracting glass shards was most important, since we were going to dump the organic waste under some trees.

For anyone who thought the respirator was overkill, here’s evidence to the contrary:

Would rather not have that in my lungs.

After a couple of days crawling on all fours, the ground beneath the cottage was clear of debris, at least on the surface (who knows what’s buried beneath).

Take a look at all the junk we pulled out, holy moly:

It was separated (thanks to Char’s diligence) into piles of dirt/leaves, wood (to be used as kindling), metal, and inorganics consisting of bricks, glass, piping, and a range of other odd things. Weird and wonderful little things, too, like this collection of old bottles:

And when I say old, I mean almost a century old!

This bottle is the property of the Auckland Bottle Company Limited, Auckland N.Z 1921” 1921! That’s 94 years old that bottle! And when was the last time you saw “property of” on a bottle? How very strange. Most of these bottles, in fact, bear the mark that they were the “property” of their respective makers, but the bottle pictured above was the only one with a manufacturing date.┬áMost of these old New Zealand bottle companies like A.B.C and G.L. Innes were absorbed by overseas giants like Schweppes in the 1950’s – 1960’s. It’s a shame the bottle is broken, as a quick search reveals that some of these “archaeological finds” go for a pretty penny. We’ll be holding on to these treasures nonetheless.

I wonder who drank from these bottles, what they had accomplished that day, what the area looked like back then, and what they yammered about with their companions as they took swigs of their refreshing beverage.

Another interesting find was a whole bunch of solitary shoes (and a mitten), each missing their partner. I have no idea how old these are, but a few have the soles nailed rather than glued, which is an indication of the era they were created in.

Some badly corroded batteries (likely laden with mercury), from a time when they came wrapped in cardboard:

A bouquet of rusted metal trinkets:

And a bunch a random… things:

One peculiar item dragged out from that tomb of a crawlspace is our very own mummified cat. Yep, I think this farm now qualifies as a museum.

The earth is so dry under the cottage that half of this poor moggy has been preserved. The skin is like tough leather and even some whiskers remain. I wonder how old she is, whether she was a beloved pet, or a feral seeking a dark shelter to pass away. Probably the latter seeing as no one reclaimed her for a send-off.

Well, I’m glad that task is done and dusted (excuse the pun). I had been dreading it. The “treasures” alone were worth the effort, and now we can return to the forsaken earth beneath the cottage with a lesser fear of being punctured by nasties such as these: