Corpse in the Crawlspace

Posted by Nick  | 08 Apr 2015  | 4 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:

Four Feathered Ladies

Posted by Nick  | 31 Mar 2015  | 3 comments

Our farm family grew by four over the weekend. What’s that in those boxes, peering out? Could it be…

There was a welcome party when we brought the mysterious arrivals out to the paddock. Mica and Echo were both equally curious about the strange whistles and scuffling coming from within.

What on earth…

You guessed it – four fancy fowl! Chickens! Finally! Downton Abbey fans rejoice; meet Lady Mary, Lady Rose, Lady Sybil, and Lady Edith.

Lady Mary is a silver laced Wyandotte (the one with white feathers edged in black). Lady Rose is a buff laced Wyandotte (the brown and white one). Lady Sybil is a Plymouth barred rock (the one that looks kind of like a zebra). Lady Edith is a blue Orpington (the big smoky grey one).

That blue stuff on them is a staining powder applied to areas that have been pecked by other chickens to apparently deter further pecking, and also disinfects wounds. Lady Sybil had been a victim of this pecking by another chicken at the breeder’s, and the powder had rubbed off on her sisters.

After unboxing, we gently picked each of the ladies up and introduced them to their new luxury accommodation. It may look rustic to us, but it’s five-star compared to the cramped cages they were bred in.

Both the cat and the duck were bugging us, so we let them in briefly to investigate the new arrivals.

What the duck?!

I don’t think Echo was particularly impressed to have a bunch of intruders desecrating what has been her private pad for the past month. Being the larger bird she’s already at the top of the pecking order, or rather above it. It’s because her regal duck-ness is vastly superior to their petty squabbling, you see.

Mica looked a little too predatory for our liking, and the chickens were offended at her presence, so hers was a one-time visit.

When the ladies are a little older they’ll be able to put this feline in her place.

When the chickens got a bit overwhelmed, both Echo and Mica were relegated to watching the commotion from high perches of their own.

Let me give you the grand tour of the ladies’ manor – we’ll call it Fowlton Abbey – which is an old coop that happened to be here when we bought the property. You might have read about how I built a self-sufficient watering system for them.

I also biffed together a set of nesting boxes and screwed on a bunch of roosting branches.

There was already a hole cut into the chicken coop, so I built a little wooden slider in case we needed to shut them in for any reason. We’re keeping them closed in overnight for a week to let them acclimate, but after that they’ll just be free ranging. This coop is temporary; we’d like to build a proper one someday.

The ladies’ food dispenser is designed to keep vermin out:

The idea is that chooks stand on a platform which opens a lid concealing the food. It’s built to only activate under a chicken’s weight, though I suppose a couple of really smart fat rats could work it out in tandem. It’s left open in “training mode” at the moment, so they don’t spook and can get accustomed to eating from it.

Already at their young age (eleven weeks) the ladies have quite distinct personalities, and it’s interesting watching them sort out their pecking order. Poultry politics begins.

Lady Mary is a bit of a bully, pecking everyone’s butt. Though Lady Rose won’t stand for that nonsense, so chases her off. Ladies Edith and Sybil seem close friends, both underdogs.

Lady Rose (probably at the top of the pecking order but not a snob about it) is the bravest. She even took to leaping up on Char’s shoulder a couple of times.

“I ain’t ‘fraid of no ape!”

We were concerned about getting them to drink from the chicken nipple watering system. We’ve heard it’s difficult to encourage them. We spent a while tapping the nipples, but part of the problem was that the ladies were still a bit timid in our presence. We tried coaxing them with a laser pointer, too, which caught their interest. But, alas, it wasn’t bright enough – and neither were they.

Char stayed a bit longer and eventually saw them all successfully drink from the nipples. Yay, the invention works!

We let them outside on their second day, where we sectioned off a small area with a temporary net, so as not to stun them with too much too soon.

They seemed to enjoy it out there, pecking around in what was their first taste of mud and grass, and basking in the sun. The four of us, Echo and Mica included, must have watched them for over an hour, just doing their thing.

It was a charming way to spend a Sunday afternoon.

Welcome to the farm, Ladies Edith, Sybil, Mary, and Rose! We look forward to eating your delicious free range bum-nuts in a couple of months or so!



Dead Bodies in the Attic

Posted by Nick  | 30 Mar 2015  | 1 comment

In one of our bedrooms we noticed part of the ceiling was crumbling. When we went to clean it up, a number of dead wasps tumbled down. How curious. An attic investigation was imminent.

When we crawled up there – holy crap. Monstrous wasp nests, the biggest we’ve ever found.

Okay, so that one is about the size of a golf ball. Not so big. Kind of cute. But turn around and – whoa!

That whopper is about the size of a rock melon. Luckily, the nests up here are dead – evidenced by the hundreds of wasp corpses littering the ceiling panels. Thankfully someone before us had the sense to exterminate them. A good sign for us attic explorers:

As if the above nest wasn’t unsettling enough, down the other end of the attic we spotted the source of the crumbly ceiling and falling dead bodies…

Yikes! We were more than relieved that these colonies had already been wiped out. I shuddered at the thought of making this discovery with a swarm of angry wasps attacking me in a confined space.

When I moved closer to remove the humongous hive with a knife, I heard buzzing… I immediately scampered out of there on all fours, terrified that the nest had been repopulated by some vagrant swarm. I had no choice but to investigate, so I fashioned myself a weapon (where’s a flame thrower when you need one?).

Okay, so a knife on a stick is a pretty useless defensive weapon against an army of wasps, but my main goal here was to prod the nest from afar and watch for any angry scouts that might emerge. I poked the monstrosity a couple of times. Nothing. Then I saw the source of the buzzing. A damn lone blowfly! Of course, my paranoia had got the better of me. I closed in and cut the huge nest free from the roof.

These nests are more fragile than you might expect. They look like hardened mud, but actually consist of wood fibre arranged in delicate paper-thin layers. I carefully extracted them and brought them out into the daylight for inspection and for Char to see.

Kind of looks like a large brain. If your sense of humour is as dry as mine, you might call it a hive mind.

They’re actually quite beautiful structures, don’t you think?

This one’s patterns remind me of planet Jupiter with its swirly orange storms:

This is the smallest, whose flaky exterior had fallen away to reveal the vacant larvae cells within:

I bisected the medium-sized one to see if there were cells to be found in it, too. Sure enough, a latticework of larvae incubators took up most of the interior.

Unfortunately the larger of the three had its interior missing, which disintegrated when I was removing it. I cut it open nonetheless out of curiosity. What once looked like a brain now looks like a pair of lungs.

Again, I can’t stress how relieved I was that these nests were unoccupied. It’s a mass grave up there, so when it comes time to renovate this place I’m sure we’ll have lots of fun taking down the ceiling beneath a shower of wasp carcasses.

With nothing to fear, this was actually a pretty cool find.

Shitty Plumbing & Murphy’s Law

Posted by Nick  | 18 Mar 2015  | 6 comments

There’s a particular time that rolls around, usually annually, where everything starts breaking. I’m sure it’s like this for everyone, right? Planned obsolescence aside, it appears that Murphy’s Law is abound this time of year. Our lawn mower (a hand-me-down from my grandmother) recently kicked the bucket, and because we do a lot of mowing here (read hundred-metre bush strip), it was urgent that we replace it. Thankfully, our new modern one works a treat; starts with a single pull and purrs like a kitten. When it comes to mowing, there’s nothing more frustrating than spending half the time getting the contraption to start.

Mowers are not cheap, especially ones with bigger engines to handle the amount of work we need one for. You know what else doesn’t come cheap? House pumps. Yep, our half-a-century-old one that came with this place recently sprang a leak.

Let me say this: I have very little experience with plumbing or pumps (I have minimal understanding of how they even work). This ignorance resulted in an amusing, but at the time frightening, mishap.

Deciding to take the old pump to a service centre to be inspected, I had to figure out how to decouple the pipes. Do you see that (very retro) mustard coloured tank on top of the pump? That’s where the water is pressurised to provide the house taps with, you guessed it, pressure. This contains about, oh I don’t know, ten litres of water. Pressurised water. Explosively pressurised water.

My mistake was not decompressing this tank first. I did turn off the inlet valve, thinking that would suffice, but I should have run a tap until the pressure tank had emptied. I did not, however, so when I went to decouple the outlet pipe from the pump – BOOM! I was instantly saturated from head to foot in an explosion of water. Ten litres of water evacuated a twenty millimetre hole instantaneously. The explosion was ear-ringing and blew me backwards.

Fright. Of. My. Life.

For more than a few moments I couldn’t understand why in the world all my clothes and even my shoes were wet. Where had all this water come from? When I understood what had happened and realised I was unharmed, just shaken, I burst out laughing. As soon as Char saw me she burst out laughing too.

In a fresh set of dry clothes, my visit to the local service centre revealed that it would cost half the price of a new pump to repair the old one. How about nope. I think forty years or so is a decent lifespan for a pump, and it would only end up causing us future strife, so we opted for getting a new one. Here’s that shiny new bad boy:

Figuring out how to hook it all up was actually pretty easy – there was no reason to be overwhelmed at the prospect, as I was. The old external laundry/tool shed where the pump lives will be taken down in the foreseeable future, so for now our new pump sits temporarily on a cinder block inside.

Less than a couple of days after installing the new pump, another plumbing mishap occurred which can only be described as horrifying to us green country-folk who are short on water. We lost an entire tank’s worth overnight – gone – emptied onto the lawn. The reason for this: Shitty plumbing.

It’s obvious this old cottage has likely never been scrutinised by a building inspector. Everything – the plumbing, wiring, even parts of the structure – seems retrofitted and thrown together with whatever was lying around. Take, for instance, this maze of plumbing under the house with all its superfluous joiners and odd shortcuts:

I’m a stickler for tidiness, so this really bothers me. The “that’ll do” attitude for permanent solutions makes me squirm. Also, these laundry taps… they’re just… wrong:

So because our sexy new pump is a bit stronger than its predecessor, the multitude of excessive joints in the plumbing began springing leaks of their own. Then one morning we were rudely awoken to find the entirety of our house water tank had been emptied onto the lawn, thanks solely to a poorly fitted pipe.

There’s the culprit. Someone hadn’t bothered to tighten the nut on the pipe properly because, I’m guessing, it was too annoying pressed up to the wood post like that. So yeah, without any secure mechanism to stop the flow, our new pump powered through fifteen thousand litres of rain water overnight, which we’d just recently caught in an unexpected, and much needed, downpour. Losing that much water in the middle of summer is, well… I won’t make an attempt at dry humour here.

Had Murphy not been running his errands this time of year, this might have happened during the daytime when we would have noticed it, rather than when we bloody slept!

I recall now that it wasn’t actually that long before that we had a similar incident happen with the laundry toilet. Luckily, Char noticed the plumbing had come loose before we lost any significant amount of water. That should have clued us on to checking other connections about the place. As you can see, this particular toilet’s plumbing includes a length of, yep, GARDEN HOSE:

Good job, mate. Ah well, in retrospect it’s all a bit of a laugh. Looking forward to redoing this forsaken plumbing – the whole lot. And mark my words, it’ll be a god-damn masterpiece.

Brass Nuts & Chicken Nipples

Posted by Nick  | 07 Mar 2015  | 6 comments

There comes a time in many a homesteader’s journey when they encounter the term “chicken nipple”. This term, you might have guessed, is not what it seems, but it nonetheless becomes a favourite phrase around the house for a week or so. Go – chant it aloud. Chicken nipple. Chicken nipple. Chicken nipple. Isn’t it glorious?

Anyway, you’ll find out a bit later what a chicken nipple actually is, but I’ll give you a hint: Soon we will be getting a handful of real nipple-less egg-layers, so in preparation for their arrival we set out to build a self-sufficient watering system for them. After a trip to the hardware store, this is what I came back with (plus a few items not pictured):

This stuff is like Lego for grown-ups (though what grown-up doesn’t still love Lego?). Finding all the right components to fit together felt like playtime. I probably went overboard on the stainless flexi-pipe, when an ordinary piece of hose would have done the job, and there may have been an easier way of arranging the set-up, but I’m a novice, okay?

A whole bunch of tools for putting it all together:

The first ingredient needed for a chicken watering system is a receptacle to hold an adequate amount of water. Too small and you’ll be filling it up with the garden hose over summer. Too big and it’ll sit there being overkill. A 120 litre plastic barrel seems to be what people have been using. We got a couple a while back from a guy in Auckland who sells food-grade 120 litre barrels that were used to transport olives or vinegar. Obviously you don’t want to use a barrel that had something toxic in it like pesticide or chicken poison.

Firstly, we drilled a hole for a basic tap, for the convenience of having running water down at the old tin chicken coop.

Once the hole was drilled, I had to climb in to fix the brass nut to the inside and seal it with silicone. Mica thought this strange human behaviour was absolutely fascinating, so took the opportunity to worsen my escalating claustrophobia by attacking my defenceless legs and, dare I say it, crotch.

The best part of this experience was coming back out. Not only because I was starting to imagine what it would be like to be trapped in a barrel, but because when I did come out the world looked like someone had applied a sepia filter to it.

We drilled a second hole and repeated the process on the opposite side, which would serve as the outlet for the chicken waterer.

By this stage the afternoon heat was blistering, so we called it quits and retreated inside for a thirst-quenching lemonade. The following day I sought shade from the still relentless sunshine in the barn, where I sourced some wood and constructed this platform for the rain barrel:

I placed it in a hole I had dug to stabilise it; the last thing you want is livestock rubbing up against it and knocking it over. Getting it level was a nightmare.

You’ll find odd knick-knacks digging holes on a century-old farm. In this small pit alone I discovered a broken dinner plate, a bunch of bricks, iron doodads, common razor-sharp shards of glass, and an old leather shoe. The style of shoe looks particularly colonial with its wooden sole and nails. Pretty cool.

Who knows what else is buried beneath this land. We’ve already found a random oven in the middle of the farm. Yes, an oven.

I compacted the earth around the platform with a post-hole ram and sat the barrel on top. The structure stood firm and the barrel was snug.

Then came the fun part of assembling the fittings. In the picture below the hose is facing out for ease of assembly; I’d later rotate the barrel so the hose went through a hole in the coop.

I added this valve as a precaution in case we needed to detach the waterer (for cleaning/maintenance) without having to empty the barrel.

Next up was cutting a hole in the corrugate wall of the coop. The idea being for the waterer to be inside the coop, fed by a pipe from the rain barrel on the outside.

The first part to this was adding a filter to the barrel, to exclude leaf matter as well as provide a barrier to breeding mosquitoes. I cut out a circle of stainless steel mesh and fastened it under the handy clip that came with the barrel (usually used to clamp its lid). As you can see, Echo the duck happily investigated the unusual commotion around his/her home (he/she has been sleeping in the coop).

I then added an overflow pipe, which would divert excess water away from the platform/coop.

Covered it, too, with mesh to deter any creepy-crawlies from making a home.

That’s the barrel complete – let’s move on to the how of filling it with rain water. Guttering!

Living on your own rain water supply is scary during dry summers like the one that’s just passed. At four hundred bucks we’re rather un-keen to get a tank-load brought in. This scarcity in H2O has made us value every roof, however small, because a roof is pretty much the only way you’re going to catch water, at least without investing a lot of money in a bore pump. Extending that philosophy to providing water for animals, we thought we might as well make use of the old chicken coop’s roof.

I screwed a wooden spacer onto the top of the frame and secured the gutter clips.

I cut the spouting to length and glued the end cap on with PVC cement. Man, that stuff is potent. Do not do what I did and give it a deep whiff upon opening the bottle. Goodbye braincells.

Once the gutter was clipped on, it started to look like it was all coming together. I love the juxtaposition of the brand new guttering on the decades-old corrugate. (This is all temporary for a while anyway, until we can afford to build a real sleek chook pad.)

The roof had a bit of overhang, so I climbed up and trimmed that mofo down to size. It was a hell of a job with insubstantial tin snips. That orange-coloured stuff isn’t rust, by the way, it’s lichen. Probably due for a clean…

After spending a while pan-frying my knees on the hot tin roof, I glued the downpipe elbows together and hooked the assemblage up to the guttering. Now we have a working rain water catchment system on our chicken coop!

Get ready, here comes the part with the chicken nipples.

That is a chicken nipple. Pretty disappointing, huh? It’s a device that dribbles water when pecked at by a chicken (and, hopefully, a duck). The idea is to have them protruding intermittently from a pipe filled with water connected to a water source – in our case a rain barrel.

I taped over the drilling points to prevent the PVC plastic from chipping, and I put an old rake handle inside the pipe to prevent the drill bit from busting out the other side.

Viola! A large flute:

Now to twist some chicken nipples!

Yay, they fit. I will have to go back and put some silicone around them to prevent any leaks. (Update: We did this, but when we got chickens they pecked it all off! So we unscrewed the nipples and added Teflon tape to the thread instead. Seems to be working fine, and the chickens have taken to the waterer – success!)

The last part of the project was to connect the pipe onto the rain barrel hose and clip it to the studs inside the coop.

Mission complete! After manually filling up the barrel with a few buckets of water to test the system, we were pleased to see everything worked as planned. Those chicken nipples dribbled at the slightest touch.

We’re ready and waiting, chickens.