Wednesday, December 24, 2008

A change in plans.

Our Christmas plans have been totally upset.  We were going to be traveling to Middle Child's home; they were going to be hosting our little family gathering for the first time.

What happened was a good dose of strep throat; both Spice and Smidgen got the formal diagnosis yesterday.  In the middle of last night, Smidgen had a fever of 103.2°F.  The tylenol eventually brought it down; but all parents know what it's like, holding a burning child in your arms.

Between the stress of travel, the work associated with shutting down the Little House so it could freeze without permanent damage; getting a local friend to feed the guineas and chickens, and the extremely high probability that the strep will jump to anybody nearby, it was mutually decided that we'd really better not make the trip.

So.  One day before Christmas, we've got to re-figure everything.

To a large extent, it's easier on us than on Middle Child.  We've got to do some fast shuffling, but they were planning on a full house- and now will have just two.  "We" includes oldest son Beelar, who is here with us in the Little House.

Christmas for us is a pretty big deal- more about family than anything else; and the change of the year.

 Smidgen was disappointed not to be seeing her other brother; she'd been talking about it for weeks.  But we're managing.

We've got beautiful Christmas snow here; both on the ground and falling, right now.  And strep, coughs, and fevers notwithstanding; we're cozy in the Little House, and Smidgen has refocused.  She's cheerfully humming and singing Christmas songs, between coughs.

It helps to be able to change directions with a minimum of drama.  Taking it all in stride is an important skill; and likely to be even more important in the coming years.

Hope your Solstice Celebration, in whatever form, is a good one.

We have each other.  That includes you.

Time to go make cookies.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Walking an Icy Path

This is a guest post by Spice, not the addition to the Shed parable (that's still coming).  This morning, in 3 minutes, she told me several nice stories about her shopping trip the day before.  Seemed relevant- so I said "you should write that up, I'll put it on the blog."  6 hours later...


Parking lots in the winter are minefields. Most of the time they’re relatively safe, with just the soot blackened slush that soaks the bottom of your jeans to worry about. It’s not a problem to hang your pants above the wood stove, listening to the drip and sizzle as the ice thaws and drops onto the the stove top. You prop your feet on the open oven door, cup of cocoa warming your hands, until the red spots on the bottoms of your calves warm up from the “frozen so cold that it burns” to a nice toasty pink.

You also have to worry a bit about the people driving too fast. You watch them with a weather eye, mentally shaking your head at their stupidity. Do they think they’re in the Indy 500 as they whip around the last car in line, or cut through a diagonal space to troll up the lane the wrong way? You send them a mental “go kill yourself away from me” and continue with your life.

However there are those rare winter days when walking from your parking space to the wooshing doors of a store is literally playing dice with fate.  

Yesterday was just such a day. We had two days in the 30’s and 40’s F and then it dropped to -10 F (ten below). Everything melted, then froze in a sheet of ice.

December here is usually mild as winter goes. Average temperature usually hangs around 20 F.  People who have never been here in the winter have images of a frozen wasteland where your eyeballs freeze in their sockets and every breath feels like knives in your throat.  That’s January (historical average temp of 4°below)... And February... sometimes March.

December snow is fluffy flakes that stick to your eyelashes and make you want to laugh out loud. Some nights Jack Frost is a busy boy, painting the trees with hoarfrost, so when the sun shines in an icy blue sky, for just a few moments you live in an enchanted forest and wouldn’t be surprised to see mythical creatures moving like shadows among the trees. Eat your heart out Currier and Ives.

With the “financial crisis” right now Greenpa and I have cut trips to the City to bare bones. It’s about fifty miles away, which means a day-long trip. We used to get there once a month to stock up on items we couldn’t get as easilly or cheaply locally. Now there has to be a major incentive to go that far. More so after the Sam’s Incident. A 99 cent day at Savers is such an incentive, especially when you have a 3 year-old (oops a 3 and 3/4 year old thank you very much!).

As I was getting out of the car, ready to tackle the shopping madness, I watched the march of shoppers. A march that was more like the waddle, slide of penguins than the usual purposeful stride. They gingerly held on to luggage racks and car fenders as they eased from the sheeted ice to the narrow lines of safety dug by snow tires.

I opened the car door and sat sideways on the seat so I could slip my YakTrax onto my boots. I buttoned up my coat, pulled a snow cap over my ears and slipped on my cow hide gloves with their faux lamb’s wool lining. I was off, trudging safely across the uneven ice.

I noticed a woman. With her red hat pulled low over her nordic blonde hair and a matching red scarf and man’s coat, she was a spot of color in the grey. Her belly bulged under the coat in those last weeks of pregnancy that make women, even ones who never had children, wince in sympathy and men feel the cold sweat of nerves on their spines. In one hand, she clutched the pink, sparkly mitten of a blonde girl not much older than Smidgen. The other gripped the fender of a station wagon.

“Do you need help?” I asked. “I’m not going to fall, and I can get you to the door.”
I proudly showed her my YakTrax.

“Thank you. I slipped in the Sam’s lot the other day and was scared to death of hurting the baby.” She answered, breathlessly.

“No problem. I’ve been there too.” I wrapped an arm around her waist and took her daughter’s hand in mine and we walked safely into Savers.  I slipped off the Trax inside the store, warning her that they will slip on linoleum.

She asked me if I could wait for her and help her back to her to her car after we were done shopping. I said sure, that it wouldn’t be a problem.

As I was leading her out across the lot I told her about Yak Trax and that she could pick up a simpler pair for street use for $20 at the outdoor store.   We’ve used them for several years and they’re tons better than anything else on the market.

“That’ll be my next stop,” she answered happily.

I stowed my bags and went into the dollar store next door to Savers, where the cashiers and some customers had noticed us through the plate-glass windows.

“A friend of yours?” The cashier asked.

She was a lovely woman with the blue-black skin of deep Africa and the speech patterns of Chicago. Her hair was woven into tight corn-rows with tiny bells at the ends, tinkling merrily.

“Nope. A complete stranger.” I smiled. “I didn’t want her to slip.”

She looked at me strangely as I slipped the Trax off my shoes again.

I picked up the few things Smidgeon needed for a school Christmas (We’re too rural to worry about PC) project and a toy for her gift exchange. And walked over to the cashier.

 Bells In Her Hair smiled at me as she started to ring up my purchase.

“I’m freezing,” she said cheerfully. It's a typical northern conversation starter.

I looked at her thin poly-cotton slacks and pullover. “Layers work miracles.”

“Whaddya mean?”

I was a little surprised at the question. It may be naive, but I was pretty sure layers had been pounded into the heads of every child born north of the Mason-Dixon line since the land bridge.  

“Do you have longies on?” I asked.


“You can get a good pair at the farm store.”

“I don’t have a car.”

“Oh. I’m pretty sure the bus goes out there. If not get a friend to take you, it’s important to stay warm.”

By this time most of the people in my line and the line next to us were listening to our conversation.

“Why do you have to stay warm?” Asked a woman with styled grey hair and a gorgeous London Fog coat that looked about as warm as a, let’s face it, a rain coat.

I was surprised once again. “Didn’t you ever hear about layering before you leave so you can retain heat? You put on thermals, two pairs of socks, thick jeans, a pull over and a sweater. It’s easier to stay warm than it is to get warm.”

Almost everyone listening shook their heads no. I was flabbergasted. Didn’t they know how to take care of themselves in cold weather? These are adults here.

“Well you lose 10% of your body heat from each of your head, hands and feet. So I’m wearing a cap, got some gloves and have two pairs of socks on. Plus I don’t take my coat off inside even if it’s seventy, because I know I’m going back out. I also run my house cooler than normal. Preserve heat with clothes and winter’s a breeze.”

“I’ve never heard that,” she admitted.

I was almost checked out, so I pulled my Trax out of my pocket and slipped them on my shoes.

“What are them things?” the cashier asked.

“YakTrax. They're like chains for your feet. So you don’t slip.”

“Really. I’ve never seen such a thing. I was walkin’ home the other day and was so cold and slipped so much that I called a cab.”

“Well there’s no cabs on a farm, so I’ve gotta know how to stay warm and in one piece,” I said with a laugh. “You can get these at the outdoor store.”

I pulled my gloves out of my pocket, and the London Fog lady goggled.
“Those are huge,” she breathed.

“And warm,” I answered cheerfully. “You can find them at the farm store. It’s worth the price not to have icicles instead of fingers. Farmers seem to know how chuck style for warmth.”

After getting geared back up, I took my bag and trudged back out to the car. As I was backing out, I saw London Fog get into her nice Mercedes with heated seats. She had no gloves on her hands.

She, and the other people I spoke to really started my brain whirling. Why didn’t they know how to stay warm? Has the knowledge really been lost? Every year people complain about the cold. They belly ache, but seem to feel smug and superior when talking to someone from another place and can drop “it got to -10 last night” into the conversation.

I know that many city dwellers go from a heated house to a heated garage, where their car is already warmed up. They spend a few minutes between buildings and cars facing the bite of winter and then are in blessed warmth again. But what happens when they need warmth and have no idea how to get it?

Have we really lost skills that are so vital for five months out of every year? In the current economic climate these skills are going to be more and more important as people choose to heat their house and feed their family instead of buying a car with heated seats or heating their garage.

Trust me Smidgen the aspiring nudist hears... Put on your mittens, hat, coat, snow pants, boots, sweater, etc on... You need to stay warm... Where are your slippers?... In stereo every day from Greenpa and myself.  And once a day- why.

Later I saw the Mercedes in the farm store parking lot. It made me smile.


Greenpa: ok, full disclosure, we do NOT own stock in YakTrax.  But I/we really do recommend them for frozen snow and ice- they're life savers, and vastly superior to the 4 or 5 other "shoe-chain" type things I've tried over the centuries.

One other point I wanted to make here- in fact, Spice passed on a lot of good information- to a bunch of people who needed and appreciated it- in a painless fashion; just by living it.

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

The Parable of The Shed: Why 30 years is not forever.

One useful aspect to all of us forcibly attending Camp TEOTWAWKI now, is that many people truly are starting to be more mindful of their choices.   Think before you invest.  Look before you leap off your burning bridges.  That sort of thing.

Guidance in making long term decisions though, is hard to come by, and harder to judge.  Does this expert advisor actually have a clue, or ...  have I wound up with Alfred E. Neuman,  yet again?

Not long after Spouse and I built the Little House, and actually started living here, it became quite clear that we needed more space.  15' x 20'; including a wood stove, piano, and kitchen sink, and dining room table, just does not leave a lot of room for projects, like building a set of shelves.  No place left to walk, while that is under way.

Virtually all farm type operations include outbuildings; a barn, a shed- a workshop.  So it wasn't too difficult to decide that we did, indeed, need a multipurpose shed, not too far from the house.  We figured it should serve as a: work shop, bad-weather wood shed, seasonal storage space (eg. storm windows and skis in summer), materials storage (eg. boards, plywood), tool storage, empty mason jar storage.  You know.  A shed.

So quickly, you get to "where, exactly"; "how big", and "how".  "Where" was pretty limited; by the need to be close; "how big", it turns out, was partly determined by "how".

Standard construction around here would be a "pole barn" - treated wood poles, gravel or concrete floor, pre-fab roof trusses, and sheet metal sides and roof.  You just go the lumber yard, and order the stuff.  And there are loads of experienced construction teams who can zip it up for you in a couple days.

It was very easy to decide not to go that route- we had no money whatsoever.  Which meant- materials out of our 40 acres of oak/maple woods, and/or scrounged materials, and a "barn-raising" party for labor.

Then, you have to work out the details.
Something you pretty quickly find out, when you're living this kind of do-it-yourself life; the details are NOT "important".  The details are EVERYTHING.

Oddly, we teach our children the opposite, these days.  "Sure, teacher, I got the answer to the question wrong, but you can tell I understood it!" - will often get you a pity-pass in schools, even in universities.  But not in real life.  My father pounded this one in when he was an engineering prof, and I was in High School; and I got to listen to him gripe about his students.

  "But Professor, yes, I got the math wrong, but it's just a decimal point!  You can tell I totally understood the problem!"  "I don't give a good goddam if you 'understood' the problem!  Your goddam building FELL DOWN; and 370 people died!!  The only thing that matters is the right answer.  The F stands. "  And he would shake his head in amazement at their incomprehension.

So, I was well trained to do my homework regarding construction, and I'd adsorbed quite a bit of information via osmosis- and from helping my father re-build most of the houses we'd lived in (many).  Looking around at the old homesteads here, I found quite a few old chicken coops and corn cribs that were made with just white oak posts for their basic support; planted in the ground; and easily 50 years old.  Obviously, white oak can last a long time in our soils; the stated lifespan for chemically treated poles in direct soil contact is usually 30-40 years.

Doing more homework- the expected lifespan for white oak fenceposts around here is less; 20-30 years.  The difference is attributed mostly to the roof- poles under a roof should spend more of their life dry.

Most of my available poles are not exactly "white oak" - Quercus alba; but burr oak; Q. macrocarpa.  The textbooks say, though, that in this case, they're pretty much the same in regard to rot resistance.

So, using my own oak poles, we should be able to put up a shed that will last 30 years; no sweat.  We had a good supply of 12"-8" diameter red pine poles for rafters and plates; pine boards and 2/4's for other structure- and we helped a friend tear down a local railroad station for windows and siding.  We did buy metal for the roof.

When you're 30 years old- 30 years into the future looks indistinguishable from "forever", or "until we die."  And, guess what?  It isn't.  Here I am- 30 odd years later-

And sure as heck; the time has run out on some of my burr oak poles.

This is the SW corner pole.  And, as you can see- it's entirely rotted off- the bottom of the pole is now a good 6" above the ground.  Hm.

We just discovered it, absurdly enough.  The shed had gone through a phase where it got increasingly cluttered and useless, to the point where I only referred to it as "The Dread Shed"; and it got to the point where Middle Child and his wife decided to totally overhaul it, bless them.  Unburying the corner- where we already knew a woodchuck had chewed through the outer wall (and wrought havoc inside for months); we discovered the rotted off pole.  Oh, so that's why the windows have been breaking.

The shed is not falling down.  One of the advantages of using big logs for plates and rafters- they're enormously strong, and well secured on the other poles- most of which are not rotted off.  This corner is the wettest one.  But- the building is sagging, putting stress on everything.  

So now what?  Fix it?  Tear the shed down and rebuild?  I don't want to.

Dammit, I'm 60 years old now, busy, and I want the bloody shed to be in usable shape; I don't want to be building, or fixing.

Why didn't I build it to last in the first place?


That turns out to be a complex, and highly significant question.  Lissen up; and maybe you can avoid my mistakes.

A)  I was young (30) and stupid.  I thought 30 years was forever.  It really really isn't.

B)  Everybody I asked thought 30 years was forever, too.  Or plenty long enough.

C)  The entire construction industry is built around the idea that structures should not last more than 50 years; even homes.  Then you should build a new one.  You want to benefit from the constant improvements in modern materials and design, don't you?  Well then.  They really like that- so if you read their text books, or go to them for advice- that's what they'll tell you.


D) Building structures with longer life-spans is quite a lot more expensive.  Like double.

E) Financial advice is always- that investments in durable structures are not sensible.  The reasoning there: if you put that money in the stock market instead, it would give you better returns (no laughing, now); and, they're quite sure you will move to a better, more expensive location later in life, as you become more successful; so you won't get the benefit of the more durable structure anyway; and whoever you sell your old place to will not pay you any premiums for the better buildings; people just don't.

F)  That's the way we build stuff in the States- always have.  Ever since Europeans arrived here- they've been sure they were going to move in the next 10-20 years, to someplace better. Why build for the long term?

See any holes in any of the logic here?


I'm cogitating, pondering, and kneading all this stuff right now for a couple of specific reasons; I've got to figure out what to do about this shed; and- about future construction here.  We're in the process of building space for animals (guineas! ) - and you can check out a recent rhapsody on barns by Sharon, here.


More in the next post.   Think about it!  And think about all the stone farmhouses in Europe... and how old they are...

Tuesday, December 2, 2008


Once again I find myself looking at way too many urgent things; both to write about here, and to do on the farm.  Winter really really has arrived; we've got 5 inches of snow, and the temperature dropped to -3°F last night (-20°C).

So, firewood probably being more urgent than theoretical discussions about Life, The Universe, and Everything, I'm going to just do a quickie here and try to get out and get in some fuel, before the snow gets deeper.  Back seems to be essentially functional, and not feeling fragile, usually a reliable indication.

I have two cartoons for you here, and hope I am not breaking any copyright laws.  These are from "Tom the Dancing Bug" by Reuben Bolling.

They are so exactly spot on as to be scary.  How is it our humorists have more solid understanding of economics than our economists?  Really?  Don't you think that should tell us something?

The first one here predated the announcement that the Federal Reserve Bank was going to start - buying US Treasury Bonds... to prop up the market- by a full week, I think.  (click on pic for full size, if it's working.)

And this second one is from this week, and illustrates what to me is an obvious truth; that "economics" is a religion; not a science.  Really- not kidding.

Just good stuff to chew on for a while.

Coming soon:  "The Walls of The Erlenmyer Flask", and "Why 30 years is not forever."


Update 12/3; just a little more quick fun; Stuart Carlson today.  Read the banner on the bottom...

Monday, December 1, 2008

Crunchy gave me a disease.

Scary, huh?  Diseases are evolving; and Crunchy Chicken obviously gave me her Outback Disease, via the internet.  Vibes are contagious!

My back went out on me on Friday.  No question in my mind but that it's Crunchy's fault.  That would make it one of the new ITDs; Internet Transmitted Diseases.  So far, it's only the back though, I haven't caught her astonishing taste in gross-out jokes.  Thank goodness.

And, because I'm someone who believes in being prepared- I actually managed to nip this episode in the bud.  Today I'm basically back to 90% functionality, because of my amazing breadth of experience and deep wisdom.

(that's humor, guys)

I was putting on a sock.  That's all.  And Crunchy's Outback Disorder hit.  Whammo- back spasm.  I am subject to them, and they can cost a week, or two, to get over.  Boy, do I ever not have the time for this.

Luckily- I was right near the bed.  So I was able to just get right back in, as quickly as possible, and do relaxation exercises to keep the spasm from spreading or getting worse.

That's been my experience, several times.  If I'm way out in the field somewhere when the spasm hits, and I have to keep walking/driving tractor or whatever for a while to get where I can lie down, the spasm will grow, intensify, and take much longer to heal.  This time, I recognized it, and immediately got off it.

It still took two days flat in bed to really counteract it, but that's hugely cheaper than a week, or two weeks, with all that pain.  The pain is also much less the sooner you can lie down.  Also used heavy ibuprofen to knock down inflammation, and a hot water bottle to help relax muscles on the second day.

Right now I owe a bunch of folks some good replies to their comments.  I'll get there, I think.  But I also have to go out and get some firewood right quick; in the 5" of snow that fell yesterday.  Lots of fun potential for little slips and jerks there!

So, Crunch- how's YOUR back doing?  And thanks, so much, for the suggestion!  :-P

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

So long, Sam's.

I turned in my Sam's Club card on Monday.

There could be many reasons to do that, of course, but the straw that broke this camel's back was pure business- I have lost faith in the management of Sam's Club.  They are doing business according to known failed practices.  Which, incidentally, are stupid on the face, and even stupider in today's business climate.

Is all the business world contracting at the moment?  Yes.  Then why, pray tell, would you want to actively insult and drive away customers who have a long record of always paying bills on time?  Hm?  

The answer to the obvious "What ARE they thinking??"  is: they're not thinking at all.

Here's the whole story.  I signed up as a Sam's Club member years ago, as soon as one opened where I could sensibly reach it.  It's a "Business Membership"- because, duh, I have a business, and we intended to actually use some of the price breaks that are possible there.

The whole fantasy that Sam's sells "wholesale" is a big fib, of course; they do sell some stuff aimed at small businesses, but mostly they make money by selling great big packages of stuff; at a slightly lower price per pound or whatever; but you have to buy four times as much- so they still come out ahead.  If you can buy carefully from them, and have storage space- you can save some pennies.  But you also have to keep your brain turned on- some things, like engine oil, are always much cheaper somewhere else.  Very hard to beat their prices on tires or car batteries, though- and we use golf-cart batteries for the power here.  Saved money there.

By and large, we managed to save a few pennies shopping there, and it was probably actually useful.  Though always a little marginal.  Lots of things could have been had cheaper through actual wholesalers, but it would have required more time and effort on our part; some of the benefit was just convenience.

After a couple of years, they expanded their enterprise, and got into providing business credit.  It was easy, though not cheap, and- convenient.  So we signed up for a $5k credit line, as soon as it was offered.  And have used it, over the years-probably ran it up to 4k once or twice; but always paid it back down in a month or two.

Our business here is plant based- which  means cash flow highly seasonal- some times there isn't any.  Which makes credit very useful.  And of course totally standard for any business; if you go to a bank or business advisor, and tell them you aren't using credit lines to even out cash availability, they will scream at you.  Not just shake a finger, naughty naughty- they'll say you're an incompetent manager.

It seemed to make sense (at the time...).  Never any problems with it; they were providing a service.  Credit.  We bought it, and paid for it.  On time, always.

Monday, we were in town celebrating a birthday, with a little lunch at the Chinese buffet, and stopped at Sam's to do a little stocking up.  Combine trips, of course.

As a matter of convenience, I said "leave it on the card", as we were checking out- and my Sam's Club business credit card was declined.  By Sam's.

Um.  What?

I knew, having paid the bill the week before, that the account was more than paid up, nowhere near the limit, and totally in good standing.

We also know that credit card companies are pulling in their credit lines- to cover their own sorry butts; even for customers who have nary a black mark against them.  We've bellyached about that here before.  Everyone in the community says this is a really, really bad idea; particularly right now.  Besides being dishonest.  But the credit companies are doing it anyway; bailouts or not.

I was - ok, incensed.  I'd expected this nonsense from Citi, and Chase.  But not from Sam's, whose business credit is handled internally.  They're really free to act as they choose.  And they're choosing stupid.

I gave them a chance to straighten it out.  Went to the "Membership Services" desk, and explained it (somewhat loudly, so everyone within 50 feet heard just fine).  They were well trained, and sympathetic.  The girl called up "the number", and actually tried to convince the poor woman answering the credit number to change it.  She, of course "doesn't have the authorization".  Eventually I talked to the credit person myself.  Laid it all out.

"Are you looking at my record there?"  
"Yes I am."  

"Ever late?"  


"Over limit?"


"I know this isn't YOUR doing- but part of your job is to pass on the customers' responses to your bosses; so I want you to really pass this on."

sigh "They really don't listen to us very much..."

"Tell them they need to remember.  This is a BUSINESS.  You are doing BUSINESS - with me.  And incidentally - I have been CHOOSING to DO BUSINESS - with you.  You can change the terms of our agreements without reason or notice?  Guess what.  So can I.  Business by definition has two participants- and the entire credit industry has forgotten that."

And I hung up; and handed my member's card to the Membership girl.  "Keep it.  I'm done here.  Cancel my membership."

I got nothing but understanding grim smiles from the other customers; and actual applause, from one.


In reality, I'm not giving up much- if anything.  Sam's is far from green, and as part of the Walmart empire, has some pretty questionable economic behavior, anyway.  I'm giving up some convenience, and cheap tortillas.  We have no similar stores here, no Costco, etc.  But now my dollars are going a little more locally, which is good.  And I have credit elsewhere.

So I'm not feeling all that noble.  But it did feel good.  And loud.

And I no longer have to feel slightly sleazy shopping there.


Oh, and.  Abbie's comment made me think of this little addition.

Abbie- yeah, the banks claim lots of "rights". Got a new one in my current American Express statement.  In extremely fine print:

"Your credit card agreement is hereby amended to include this sentence, in the section on "In the event of disagreements regarding payments" paragraph 3, after the last sentence: "You authorize us, or our agent, to access your bank account and withdraw the contested amount."

Oh, I do?

Hey, American Express; back atcha; our agreement is hereby amended to include; "YOU authorize me, the cardholder, to make any payment I want, whenever I want, and under no circumstances will any additional fees be charged for anything.  In the event of disagreement, I, or my agents, may access your bank account, and withdraw double the disputed amount."

I think that has exactly the same force of law, don't you?


Sunday, November 16, 2008


We just spent a couple hours dealing with a chimney fire.  Had a fair amount of time to think about stuff, while watching various portions of the stove, and stovepipe, glowing cherry-red.

Chimney fires are a fact of life.  If you burn wood- you will have fires, in your chimney, at some point.  

There are quite a few folks who will sell you stuff, and services, to "ensure" that you will never have to cope with a chimney fire.

The reality remains- if you burn wood- someday, you WILL have to cope with a fire in your chimney.  It's probably a good idea to know that- be ready for it, physically and mentally- so you're able to respond, when the time comes.

Metaphor alert.  

A whole bunch of this train of thought is applicable to - your entire life, and world.

I know plenty of people who are terrified of chimney fires, and go to great lengths to prevent them.  That's fine.  Maybe.  Maybe not.

I work on the other end of the spectrum- like most hillbillies from days gone by, I SET my chimney on fire, regularly.  So the fires are manageable, and non-catastrophic.

The one today was semi-planned; I knew the chimney needed a good burn, and when I dumped a whole pile of used nose-blowing tissue into it (we're still fighting the sinus bug from hell) - the chimney started to give the little warning signs that it was hot, starting to burn, and could go all the way if I encouraged it.  So I did, indeed, encourage the fire- gave it a little more heat from crumpled newspaper and old cardboard; opened up the flues to let the draft rip- and got a good fast burn going.

The problem with taking measures to "be sure" a fire never happens is:  some day - some day - you will have a fire anyway.  Either your measures will stop working.  Or you'll get old, and forget, just once, to have the chimney swept on time.  Or - something in the fire will be different, a little more creosote will form this cycle, or the fuel will burn a little hotter- and -

Presto.   Big fire in the chimney.  And you're not used to dealing with it.

Metaphor #1- gosh, it's called "California".

“It was a firestorm,” Captain Ruda said. “There were 50-foot-length flames streaking across the mobile home park. Fire hoses were melting into the cement and concrete. That’s how hot it was.”

For decades- we've suppressed fire in those areas.  Made them "fire proof", and "controllable".  Built houses, cities.  Sure, there was always a little fire danger, but hey, all you have to do is be careful, right?  And take proper precautions.

Turns out- not.  Nature's original answer for fires here?  Fires.  On a regular basis.  Stop them, and- eventually, all hell breaks loose.


Back to my own chimney fire.  It turned out to be more of a fire than I'd counted on.

No disasters; the Little House is intact.  But there could have been- if I hadn't been used to dealing with chimney fires.

First thing to know about chimney fires- if you've got one; you have to WATCH IT- every second- until it's out.  Really really out.  

Ok, some basics:  chimneys catch on fire because wood burns inconsistently (no matter what you do, or what you burn) and wood is a very complex material, with fractions that vaporize at wildly differing temperatures.  And condense again, at wildly differing temperatures.

The Owners Manual that comes with your spiffy new state of the art woodstove says: "When starting your fire, be sure to let the fire burn as hot as possible for the first half hour, to ensure that the chimney is properly heated, and to decrease creosote build-up.  Burning fires 'cool', with a cool stack, will greatly increase the risk of chimney fires."  Sure will.

The thing is- you are going to have SOME creosote deposited in your chimney, no matter how meticulous you are about getting the stack hot.  It will happen.  When you put a new piece of wood in- is it hot?  No.  Does it all start to burn at exactly the same time?  Nope.  One end of the log is a little further from the core of the fire- and rather than burning- "stuff" in the wood vaporizes, and blows up the stack- which, regardless of your efforts, is cooler than the firebox.  Some of those gasses will condense out of the smoke- bingo; creosote build up.  Guaranteed.

Lots of things influence how fast the gunk builds up- what kind of wood you burn; whether it was really "seasoned" before you burned it, or was "a little green" ; how cold the weather is (if it's not too cold, the tendency is to burn a cooler fire= more creosote); who in the family has been chief fire regulator recently (holding my tongue); etc.

The gunk will build up.  There is no way around it.

In the specific case of my present fire- gunk had built up in a place I'd never thought of before, inside the stove.  And this time- it caught fire.

I can't tell you the name of our wood stove- I can't remember it, and it isn't written all over it like most models.  We bought it through our Amish neighbors- it's made in Canada, by a Mennonite community.  A great stove, really; uses about 1/3 of the wood that our much older US made stove that was designed and built in the 1920's did.  This one is designed both to cook on, and heat with; the firebox is much bigger than kitchen stoves usually come with.

Not that it's perfect.  It's advertised as "airtight" - but that's a pretty big fib; there are a bunch of air-leaks connected to the oven doors; cannot be sealed, and make it impossible to truly operate it as an airtight stove.

The cause of this weird fire - there's a water reservoir built in; a 5 gallon tank with one side in the combustion gas stream.  Somebody - decided it would heat the water faster if they put a moveable baffle right next to the tank, so that you can direct the stack gases to run under the tank, as well as next to it.  Yup, it heats the water faster.  It also- very very slowly- accumulates creosote.

So I was pretty astonished when, as I was watching my chimney fire cool down, I started to see my water tank (with water in it, of course)  smoke, and see blue flames coming from underneath the water tank.

That was not cool.

But at least I was watching; and saw it start to happen.  And was not scared out my mind by this horrifying danger.  

If you burn your chimney on a regular basis, it's not too hard to control.  Fire needs- fuel, heat, and oxygen.  If you decrease the supply of any of those, the fire has to slow down.  If you cut one off completely, the fire will go out.  Closing all the dampers slows the air flow- if your stove is actually airtight, you can cut the air off completely.

Or you can add water.  Dumping water on your hot stove, or into the hot firebox- is NOT recommended; you can warp the iron, or crack the firebrick.  But- as a 2nd resort, a little water, sprayed onto the fire from a spray bottle- can cool and slow a fire.

Last resort?  Your fire extinguisher; sprayed right into the firebox, and up the chimney.  Makes a mess, but it will do the job.  You DO have a fire extinguisher, I know- right handy to the stove.  Of course you do.  You'd be a fool not to.

I had my spray bottle right there- but the weird location of the creosote made it impossible to get at.  Mostly I had to just spray near by, and keep the fire from getting too hot.

It worked.  Burned out- boy, it's nice and clean under there now.  I guess we have a "self cleaning oven" after all.

A normal, planned chimney fire is a half hour job.  One person stays at the stove, opening and closing drafts to keep the fire from getting too hot (or going out too soon; as long as this fire is going, we'd like it to clean out the chimney.)  One person stays upstairs, watching the stove pipe where it goes through the bedroom- it will usually get some red spots.  If the red starts to move to yellow- you need to cool the fire.  If it turns towards white- you've got trouble; that's when you can melt steel stove pipe- and set a fire that will burn the house down.  If closing the drafts and air on the stove doesn't cool a yellow spot to red quickly- start reaching for the fire extinguisher.

The house will get stinky from the extremely hot stove and pipe- open the windows.  In a half hour- it's over, the stove is drawing much better, burning much more efficiently, and you're safe from chimney fires for a couple weeks, at least; maybe a couple months.

This fire took us two hours- the gunk inside the stove caught, set on fire by burning chunks of creosote dropping down the chimney, and couldn't be extinguished.  It warped the inside of the oven a bit; and we just had to let it burn out.

Bad design, I'd have to say.  Basically, there is no way to clean that part of the stove- and no access to it in case of a problem, either.  The design needs to be changed, to make it safe.


Which leads me to the title for this post: "Foolproof".

We spend a lot of time making machines, and processes, foolproof, in our present society.  Safe.  Really, really safe.

I remember the startling realization when I was learning German that their word "idiotensicher" - does not, in fact, translate exactly as "fool proof".  Though that's what the dictionaries say.  It's not what they mean.

An idiot is NOT a fool; it's different.  And "secure" is not the same as "proof", either.

Both interesting, and related, concepts; but not identical.  Made me start thinking.  For one thing, it made it clear to me that German is not English with different words- there's a lot of stuff that just will never translate; the core cultures are different.

Another thing I know from my own business; as I have proven many times, in trying to develop "instructions" for customers.

If you make a process foolproof; Nature will quickly make a better fool.

You can see how well it's worked to make our economy "foolproof".  All the time and effort and legislation spent on making processes safe.


Looking ahead to our new world: one thing that worries me is our current supply of fools.

We're over-supplied; I think that's clear.

It might be useful to blame Ralph Nader.  

All of the efforts to make the world a little safer for those who are a little careless-  may not be turning out so well.  An awful lot of people who would have been self-eliminated, in the old days; have lived on; and reproduced.

My woodstove would have burned the house down today, if I hadn't been on guard.

If you are a real Laura Ingalls Wilder fan, you've read "The First Four Years" - the continued story of the first four years of married life for Laura and Almanzo.

He built her a house.  She burned it down.  Somehow- she hadn't learned well enough, not to allow flammable materials to build up around the stove.  One spark is all it takes.  You keep a pile of newspapers handy right by the stove for lighting it in the morning?  Bad idea.  No kidding.  No, really.  You must not do that.  Ever.  Don't.  Just this once, for a few minutes, is ok, though, right?  No.

The world is now full of people for whom "not ever" is an approximate statement, not an absolute.  The chimney fire that will burn them out of our stove pipe- is going to be very painful for all concerned.

Try to make sure the people you depend on have common sense.  Really.

There should be a Nobel Prize for Common Sense, don't you think?  And Depts. of Common Sense in the universities.  How is it they don't exist?  They would contribute far more to the well being of humanity than any Dept. of Economics.


Spice informs me that our stove is a "Gem Pac".  The closest thing to it listed is the 2020-W, though there are significant differences between current models and our 12 year old one.

In case anybody is interested; I'm convinced the evolution of the home wood cookstove is in a very primitive stage.  Most models out there have one or two nifty features- but then use the wrong materials- or skimp on construction, or something.  The wood stove that "has it all" - has not been made.  A business waiting to happen...

Monday, November 10, 2008

The ice has hit the fan.

I've been kind of quiet here - when that happens, you can pretty much count on it being due to some kind of distraction or other, generating new and improved emergencies for us.

It's an old emergency this time- called "Winter".  After living in a fool's paradise for weeks, with balmy 70°F days, and 50° nights, and record high temps last week; November has now started clearing its throat.

We were at 18°F last night.  Finding us short on firewood, short on housing for the poultry, and short on personal energy to cope.

Not really looking for sympathy here; all of this is pretty much "life", as usual.  No biggie, we'll muddle through.  Just explaining the quietness here.  I have energy to react- but it's harder to find the energy for initiative.

The reality of water- for poultry, in wintertime- without electric heaters- has arrived overnight.  Thirsty birds, water founts that could freeze and burst now (waste of permanent tools we can't afford), and a new chore- making sure the birds have water, morning and night.

We've had more than our share of illness recently, too.  Spice has been coping with a recurrence of her "walking pneumonia".  And we've all caught a cold that's gone to the sinuses; lots of fun having the little one blow gobs of green and brown gunk...  ew.

The decision to put time, money, and sweat into the guinea fowl has been confirmed as the right way to go.  In a pretty bad way.  The night before I took off for my trip, we found a tick in Smidgen's hair.  A deer tick.  Embedded, but not engorged.

Right after dropping me at the airport, Spice took the tick to the clinic for testing - and - it came back positive.  So Smidgen had to go on heavy antibiotics for Lyme disease.  She was infected, had a fever and lethargy for several days.

She's done with it now; and tested clear after the antibiotics.  But that was scary.

Lyme has been very uncommon here until recently; now it's exploding.

We've got 20 guineas left.  Owls took a few, Bruce took a few.  Haven't lost any for weeks now, and Delilah is doing well with them so far.  20 is too few to think they'll really control all the ticks here in Deer Heaven, but it's a good start, and quite likely we'd have more to cope with without them.  We've only had to pull 2 ticks total off Delilah so far, as opposed to 20/day for Bruce last summer.  Not really comparable, but still.

Busy busy.  My chores today- clean out the ash and creosote from the wood stove; it's starting to clog up the combustion.  Get some dry wood in.  That will be mostly American or rock elm, dried out on the stump; I know where it is.

Oh, yeah, and I was forgetting.  There's a deer hanging in the walnut tree out front.  Young doe, gift from the hunters we let hunt our farm.  Couldn't be more "Little House In The Big Woods".  Smidgen looked at it; "Why is that deer in the tree, Daddy?"  "It's for us to eat, Smidgen."  "Oh, goody!  Yum!  I love deer!"  

:-)  Just straight enthusiasm for everything there; I don't think she's actually had venison before.  Hadn't really planned on the work of butchering a deer; but can't pass it up, either.

Winter is a reality that you just can't ignore.  I kind of prefer my realities that way- it does make your decisions easier.

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

And now for something completely different...

Interesting times.

In case you haven't seen this, it's worth a look.  The NYT was running an "emotions" graphic, during the vote count last night, and up until 1 AM ET, I think.

You need to click on each of the three categories in the upper right; "Everyone" "McCain Supporters", and "Obama Supporters."

This was generated by votes.  Anyone coming onto the site was invited to pick a word- one already floating, or type in any new one.  And you could vote for another word once an hour.  I voted twice.

Kind of cool.  Flip through them- then flip back to the summary - "Everyone".

Who knows, maybe we'll make it.

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

Equal opportunity.

Amid all the discussions of tough times, inequity, and iniquity; in all the fault finding and divisive partisan finger pointing, all the edgy racial and cultural tension; I'm delighted to present you with..  this.

Ok, it's ghoulish, rotten, tasteless, and wrong of me, but this does have a bit of a funny side to it.

Just so everyone knows; solid, salt-of-the-earth, rural, Minnesota families; who share a long-time landscaping business- can get testy and go right off the deep end, just like any evildoers from your worst nightmare.


Embezzlement seems to be getting less popular.  Has to be frustration with Wall Street, don't you think?  Maybe you should email this to your favorite "financial sector" worker - help cheer them up.

Authorities are allegedly investigating the possibility that this entire family is descended from Nellie Oleson, of "Little House" infamy.


Meanwhile; working on a fridge post; but it'll be later, gotta harvest, then vote.

Thursday, October 30, 2008

Keeping up

Look, I know, it's really hard for boring ol' me to compete with Tasty Chicken's "All Sex, -  All the Time!" blog; or " Sharon Prepper And The Lists of Doom" - but- seriously, I'd like you guys to pay attention here, and do a little screaming and hollering, for the good of us all.

Yes, we all know the financial bailouts are and always were a scam, and are not going to work in the long run.  If you don't believe it, read the last several months of posts over at The Automatic Earth.  Ilargi there is blunt and biting; Stoneleigh is patient and thorough; and they've both been RIGHT about what was going to happen next - like 98.7% of the time.  Nobody else comes close for explaining the financial debacle.

But- as much as I am in favor of always always looking to the long run- in this case, the "short term" consequences of some totally unnecessary chicanery (ie. "theft") are going to just make everything worse- hurt good people, and enrich bad ones.  

And we might, actually, be able to put a crimp in their thieving plans.

Yes, I know the elections are days away; and everybody is distracted... even so; there's been a little flurry of press; which is a large part of what the politicos pay attention to.

Now is the time.

Take a look at the previous post; and- actually READ the articles linked to there.

That article from the New York Times- has been the #1 Most Emailed story from the Business section of the Times for about 24 hours; it's still #3.  That means- a whole lot of people are thinking about it- and care about it.

Here, from The Financial Post, is a nice clear story about why this stuff matters; immediately.

The credit crisis is spilling over into the grain industry as international buyers find themselves unable to come up with payment, forcing sellers to shoulder often substantial losses.

Before cargoes can be loaded at port, buyers typically must produce proof they are good for the money. But more deals are falling through as sellers decide they don't trust the financial institution named in the buyer's letter of credit, analysts said.

"There's all kinds of stuff stacked up on docks right now that can't be shipped because people can't get letters of credit," said Bill Gary, president of Commodity Information Systems in Oklahoma City. "The problem is not demand, and it's not supply because we have plenty of supply. It's finding anyone who can come up with the credit to buy."

This whole "letter of credit" thing is a little obtuse if you're not a financial freak; but basically both ends of the shipping business are now refusing to trust each other - as they always have- that the money for the ship, and the money for the cargo, is actually there.  And behind that lack of trust is - the goddamn, greedy, lazy, stupid, incompetent, screw everybody banks.

Then, there's this; from the Washington Post: Banks keep paying dividends...

U.S. banks getting more than $163 billion from the Treasury Department for new lending are on pace to pay more than half of that sum to their shareholders, with government permission, over the next three years.

The government said it was giving banks more money so they could make more loans. Dollars paid to shareholders don't serve that purpose, but Treasury officials say that suspending quarterly dividend payments would have deterred banks from participating in the voluntary program.

Critics, including economists and members of Congress, question why banks should get government money if they already have enough money to pay dividends -- or conversely, why banks that need government money are still spending so much on dividends.
Gosh.  Really.

And, today, this from our friends in the oil industry: All Time Record Profit from Exxon.

The Irving, Texas-based company has now reported back-to-back record quarters, following its $11.68 billion in profits for the April-June period.
The end of the third quarter coincided with a dramatic plunge in crude oil prices, but Exxon Mobil's revenue still climbed 35 percent to $137.7 billion, slightly higher than the gross domestic product of Algeria. When the third quarter ended on Sept. 30, benchmark crude prices were still about $100 a barrel, down 30 percent from summer highs. By the close of trading Thursday, a barrel of oil cost $65.96.
"Our integrated business portfolio, strong operational performance and financial discipline continued to allow us to capture the benefits of the commodity price environment," Exxon Mobil investor relations chief David Rosenthal said on a call with analysts. "Despite recent volatility in the financial, commodity and credit markets, the fundamentals of Exxon Mobil's business remain strong."
I have ranted about oil profits here before.  Something I said then: 

Big Oil is stealing money as fast as they can, before someone in Congress wakes up.

"Ooh, we're SO sorry our profits are creating ALL TIME records! It's really not our fault! It's the markets! That 40 Billion dollars we siphoned out of your pockets last year? We really couldn't help it! We also couldn't help that we did it again, and again, and again." 

Liar liar, pants on fire.

(Incidentally, if I turn up dead tomorrow, you'll know why. You think $40 Billion/yr isn't adequate motivation for killing? Many times?)

So, Exxon (and everyone else in Big Oil) you're telling me that-

a) nobody in your company NOTICED you were making record high profits, repeatedly?

b) nobody in your company thought- "hm, if we take an extra $20 BILLION out of the economy, some of our customers, and their businesses, might be hurt."? (one lucid example: fishing license purchases, and boat license purchases, in Minnesota are down- substantially- which means a bunch of related businesses will have profits- down.)

c) nobody in your company has the AUTHORITY to say "let's cut our prices just a tad- take a little less profit this quarter."?

I really don't believe it; though I suppose it's possible you're all really that stupid. Your actions certainly suggest that.

So. They're still at it.  I know; everybody in Big Biz is Bizy stealing everything not nailed down; but the oil money thefts are worse.  Because they are stealing REAL money- out of the "real" economy.  They're taking your, and my, earned dollars, the ones we used to pay off our credit cards and mortgages with; and putting them into their fat pockets, leaving ours empty.

And as wonderful as it is to have $2.00 gas- wouldn't it be even MORE wonderful to have $1.00 gas?  (from the personal budget standpoint, right now)  And know that EXXON would STILL be profitable if they were charging $1 a gallon?

A basic principle that has slipped into utter obscurity here is that "Business" is allowed to operate- profits are allowed to be made - for the public good.

The people running the Wall Street Casino have totally lost sight of that- they've utterly forgotten, if they ever knew.

They must be removed.  All of them.  Fast.

It really is tar, feathers, pitchforks and torches time.

I don't give a rat's ass about the banks.  What I care about is my Aunt Martha.  And yours.  The people who never hurt a fly, and never would; who are being dragged under- literally killed- by this huge scam.  And the little businesses, that have been using plain credit to even out cash flow.  Except now; regardless of perfect records- the banks refuse, just to continue what they've already been doing- and making money on- for years.  Morons.
Congress DOES have the ability to put a stop to it, if they wake up.

Please- call your congress people, or email.  Use the letter I wrote yesterday; cite these articles- add your own forceful words.

I think we can make a difference.  Or I wouldn't ask.

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Action time again-

I haven't been screaming for folks to call/email/write your congress people recently.  Because, there haven't been many points where we could make much difference- or any.  The great financial debacle is mostly beyond our control.

But.  Once again, I'm seriously ticked off- and just sent my congress-people this:

Here is yet another financial crisis issue that needs the IMMEDIATE attention of the US Congress.

Banks Cutting Credit Across The Board

Essentially, the very banks now being bailed out by the taxpayers, are daily responding by cutting credit to all their customers- including those with completely spotless records. They are raising interest rates, and canceling "inactive" accounts- ie. those the customer actually pays off, every month.

Blatantly- they are doing this with no concern whatsoever for the common good. The rescue was sold to us- we who are paying for it- as a way to stimulate the economy.

The US Congress needs to once again call these CEOs on the carpet- and, now that we are stockholders- FIRE THEM. Now.

And replace them with executives who actually give a damn about the United States, and those who live here.

More boiling anger folks- coming very fast-

Please feel free to copy that, and send it on.  The whole URL for that NYT article is


Here is another, from my neck of the woods, with personal stories: Banks pull squeeze play on credit cards.


Sigh.  I know.  It may not make a lot of difference in the long run.  But I have a lot of small business friends, who use their totally solid credit to manage their business flow.  Buy inventory, pay it off next month.  Easy with a good credit card- very hard without.  At least, if reasonable credit was maintained for reasonable customers- they could last longer.  For many, this kind of credit cut- and raise in interest rates- means instant ruin.  What a nice idea.

Who ARE these scumbags, and why do we tolerate them?

We - all of us- are now stockholders in those companies.  

Let's scream their house down.  Fast- to keep more people from going under, just because these scumbags are finally afraid of what they've done.  

Let me know what you do!  You know- I'm more than half convinced, even now, that our early screams here about food speculation did make some difference- and at the very least, got the subject up into the headlines.

Thursday, October 23, 2008

On the road

ok, knock off the Willie Nelson.

Lots of excuses for being pretty quiet here for a while- like, lack of sleep for a couple days while Delilah got used to being downstairs alone.  Wow, she was a howler for a while.

Harvest.  Still going on; still behind.

Sniffles.  Well, more than sniffles; Spice has been on antibiotics for hyper-sniffles for more than a week now; Smidgen has a gorgeous cough in the mornings, but the doctor says it's not the hyper-sniffles, just a yucky cold.

Then there's this trip I've got to go on; out of state for 4 days, and they want me to say something interesting and significant, at length.  Spice and Smidgen get to hold down the fort and milk the chickens, between coughs.

Kind of hard to focus on a new powerpoint while all the world's handbaskets are on greased, 60° inclined, straight railroad tracks to hell.

So, I've been preoccupied.  I'm out of time to ponder now; have to get on the plane in the morning.

ok, knock off the Mamas and Poppas thing.

Gon out, bisy, backson.

Saturday, October 11, 2008

Ok, so maybe I'm a slow learner...

When I got engaged to Spice, I announced that to a friend here, and he (married with children) shot back with the speed of a spinal reflex "Slow learner, huh?"

Spice was not there at the time, but has heard the story repeated on occasion.  I think she's forgiven him.

I've taken on another dog that amounts to something of a genetic crapshoot.  Maybe; I hope; less of one than Bruce was.  (I really recommend people read the story of Wully I linked to before- it doesn't turn out the way you expect.)

The new puppy is 10 weeks old; female instead of male; and a cross between a Catahoula Leopard Dog female and a Boxer male.

I'd never heard of a Catahoula Leopard before- but it's a herding dog, bred first for performance and temperament, not color or form- and probably the deciding factor in my jumbled calculations, bred for working hogs.  And cattle.  We almost acquired some hogs this fall- with the specific intention of pasturing them under some of our tree crops.  Controlling them is going to be work, and the lack of a fully trained dog was part of the reason we didn't.

So, this is Delilah; and Smidgen, of course.  As far as I can tell, other crosses of Boxers with longer muzzled breeds wind up with a normal long muzzle, not the short bulldog face Boxers have.

Reports on the web about Boxer crosses, and Catahoula crosses, tend to be good; there's actually a small industry for "Boxadors" and "Bullboxers".  Both breed are "wonderful with children" - and protective.  And there are several stories about people who actually own both Catahoulas AND chickens.  yay.

The fact is, of course, even with purebreds, each dog is a genetic lotto ticket.  I confess to having a soft spot (in my head) for hybrids.  You can lose the bet, either way.  If this one doesn't work out, we may well try some of the purebreds that are used commercially for chickens.  Yeah, they exist!  So far as I can tell, the top choices are Maremmas, or Anatolian Shepherds.   Both really really pricey, and at least as much of a handful to train and keep, so far as I can tell.

Delilah so far looks very promising -(at 24 hours...).  She loves being with us, she sticks close when we're outside; she behaves well on a leash.  

2 problems.  She howls if you leave her alone.  Which I'm expecting her to get over in a day or so, once she learns she's really home, and safe, and not about to have her life turned inside out again.

And- she climbs.  No, really- Catahoulas climb trees- straight up, like 15 feet; using their sharp claws.  Didn't know that one before we found her climbing up into places no dog has ever gone in the house before.  Fun.  Just means dog-proofing places that weren't before- and as soon as possible, she's supposed to be a 95% outside dog, anyway.

Many thanks folks for all the good wishes - and good advice.  In fact, we'll be taking some of it; we're going to try using the muzzle process.  Getting an older dog, already trained, wasn't really an option- it would take too long for us to find an appropriate one where we are; we did look into it.

And we'll be doing one other thing differently; in another month, we will be looking to add a second puppy.  Once Delilah is really bonded to us humans; adding a canine playmate might well help burn off excess energy, looking for trouble.

That's the idea, anyway.  The lady at the shelter agrees.  We'll see.

Thursday, October 9, 2008

Micro disasters

Somebody seems to have decided to run the world like a very fast paced bad TV advertisement.  

My attention keeps getting jerked from one desperately important perspective to another.

Iceland is bankrupt.  Pakistan may be next- with very unpleasant consequences.  Executives, and lawmakers, in the USA demonstrate conclusively that they are incapable of learning.  25% of all the mammals on earth are now considered to be at risk of- extinction.

Meanwhile, back at the ranch...  (For you youngsters, that's supposed to be a humorous cliché segue phrase.)

We've had our own serious and distracting disasters this past week.  Tiny, in the grand scheme of things; not going to make headlines in the New York Times; but - disasters.

Maybe it was just one disaster.  But it has two parts.  And in the light of the world handbasket epidemics, all the more disastrous for us personally- we lost a lot of resources, and replacing them is not easy, nor guaranteed.

As readers here know, we've been working on establishing a flock of guinea fowl- for multiple reasons, none of them trivial.  And; since at this latitude the general consensus is guineas are not reliable parents, we added 30 chickens to the mix- chosen from breeds known to be good "setters"- to help us increase our flock next year.  And, we'd been working on training our new farm dog/watch dog, since March.

Here's Bruce, behaving himself beautifully.  I introduced him to the birds very carefully, very intentionally, and with plenty of guidance as to the expected behavior.  No chasing, no harassing allowed.  At the time the chickens were added to the outdoor pen, the guineas were being trained that this was home, and to come back for the night time.  This was done by turning an increasing proportion of the guineas outside to range free, but keeping a few in the pen all day.  All the chicks were kept in at this point- they were just awfully small to be on their own.

In early September, everything was going perfectly, and we started just opening the door to the pen in the morning.  All the birds, guineas and chickens, would explode out; clearly enjoying the freedom to fly up into the trees (guineas only) and eat all the grass and bugs they could get (more grass than I expected).  But- we only gave them new "feed" at sundown- and they would cheerfully be back, and waiting for it.  At first we had to herd them into the pen; they couldn't figure out where the door was, and would just endlessly try to walk through whatever side they were on.  But in a week or two, they learned to know where the door was; now they all pile in entirely by themselves (except for one or two persistent dolts).  

Bruce was performing his chores beautifully; on watch outside all night, and happy to do it.  The occasional bouts of barking at 3 AM got to be a comforting sound, not disturbing- he was busy keeping the raccoons out of the supplies of feed and groceries.  And away from the poultry pen.  When I went to feed the birds at sundown, he was always along, and would without prompting lie down at some distance from the guinea racket and chicken hustle, and just casually watch it all.

However.  One day as Spice and Smidgen were walking back from work in the greenhouse, with Bruce along- the guineas appeared on the path- and apparently in a spirit of play, Bruce charged- grabbed one- and shook it.  Dead.

This is how farm kids learn about life and death- it's right there, in front of you.  By this time Smidgen had already seen a few guinea keets and chicks die; so it certainly wasn't any kind of trauma for her; more excitement.  Sad- but mostly she was angry at Bruce.  "Damn dog!"  Yep, kids repeat everything.

So; onto the chain, for Bruce.  We tried a trick recommended to us by a professional dog obedience trainer- we tied the dead guinea around his neck, where he couldn't reach it.  Sometimes, he said, that will teach them to leave the poultry alone.  And I spent more time, working with him and the birds.  

He went back to being perfectly well behaved around them.  Perfectly.

The chicks were all out and free-range now, and thriving.  They're so different from the guineas in their behavior, it's a huge amount of fun watching them, and watching the two species interact.   The guineas started out being afraid of the tiny chicks; but have changed now to bullying them over food and space.  The chickens, however, are going to eventually be much bigger than the guineas- so it'll be interesting to see where it all ends up.  They actually share space and food with little real fuss; once the guineas are full, they don't bother the chickens at the feeder.

Little by little, guineas and chickens were ranging farther and farther from home base- foraging over quite a few acres, and still faithfully coming home to roost at night.  The first time I went out at midday and couldn't find a guinea, or a chick, anywhere, it was kinda scary.  But there they all were come evening; 9 white guineas, 17 dark; 11 Buff Orpingtons; 12 Dominiques, and 9 bantam Brahmans.   Day after day.

Then- we started to lose one now and then.  One guinea- all we found was a pile of widely scattered feathers, 1/4 mile from the pen.  Beelar and Spice thought it looked like an eagle strike.  Then a Dominique didn't show up one night.  Then a week later, an Orp failed to show.  Then two days later, another Orp was missing.  I was afraid.  I looked at Bruce, and asked- "Bruce- do you know anything about the missing chickens?" - and he looked quite sneaky, in reply- would not meet my eyes.  That's something I'd noticed in plenty of other situations; he normally had no trouble looking me right in the eyes, for quite a long time.  No threat in it, on either side; just both of us looking at the other; connecting.  He was fine with it.  But not this time.

No proof anywhere; and of course I know the legend of Gelert.  You really don't want to assume anything.  

Last Sunday was Spice's and my 6th anniversary.  So we combined a little shopping in the big city with a treat at our favorite Chinese buffet for lunch; intending to be back on the farm in time to put the birds to bed- at sunset.  They really seem hardwired about sunset- if you get there 15 minutes late, the guineas will be up in a tree; and not coming down tonight, not even for food.  The chickens will be inside their shelter- and not coming out for food, either.

We got back in time, to be met by a cheerful- obsequious even- Bruce- and - no chickens, anywhere.  Guineas up in a tree, which is common enough.  Then Spice started to find them-  dead chickens; scattered all over.

I started picking them up.  We found 15 corpses- scattered over 2 acres.  Some of them very cold and stiff; some still warm.

There was no question who was to blame.  Bitten and ripped at the neck.  A few partially eaten- over the whole day.  It could only be Bruce- he wouldn't have allowed any other predator to be there.  Indeed, all I had to do was hold up a dead chicken, and look at him- and he slunk off into the thick firs.  Betrayal.

At first it looked like 100% of the chickens were gone.  Then I found one banty hen, hiding in the pen house.  Then one Orp came carefully, slowly, out of the woods.  15 minutes later, a Dominick.  Over the next two days, we had 7 left; but two more died later.   2 Orpington cockerels, 1 Orp hen; 1 Dominick and one banty hen.  I think; the Dominick sometimes acts a bit roosterish.  Not a lot of mothering capability there.  The chicks had been totally terrorized; they refused to come out of the pen for 2 days.

As much as I enjoy working with, and watching, these animals, none of them are pets, or a hobby.  They are part of our plans for future enterprises- doing critical pest control for us in our crops, and perhaps providing eggs and some meat.  And they're not free- birds, and dogs, cost real dollars and real hours; both irreplaceable.

All the dog people I talked to agreed.  This is not fixable; not trainable.  Bruce was killing for fun, and kept at it, for hours.

A sad and miserable experience, all the way around.  We'd started naming the chickens- there was one Spice called "Houdini" - because he would always sneak out of the pen, at any opportunity.  He's gone, though we didn't find him.

There was one guinea missing, too.  But only one.  Looks like the idea I had that the guineas are fairly well able to take care of themselves is working out, anyway.  The chickens could all fly- I'd seen them all do it; but they never spent time in the trees the way the guineas do.

So, Bruce is gone.  No real options there; this is a farm.  Recriminations galore, of course.  Did I fail to train him properly?  I'll always wonder, of course.  The other dog people I talk to say no, I did it right.  It's just sometimes- the dog can't be trained.

I'm partly thinking of E.T. Seton's "Wully, the Story of a Yaller Dog".  A true story.  And there are some significant parallels- Bruce was a mix of 4 breeds; not exactly a pure mongrel, but he certainly had the extraordinary "common sense" Seton attributes to them.  And there were signs of some other "wild" traits.  (note: in Seton's day, it was generally agreed that the jackal had provided the starting material for domestic dogs; now we know it was the wolf.)

It's all probably easiest on Smidgen.  She sees the dead birds- which she has helped raised, helped feed, and understands; no, Bruce cannot come back.

Tomorrow, I'm picking up another puppy.  We need a dog- farm dog/watch dog.  Right now.  That temporary poultry pen is toast, if some night soon a big coon, or a couple coyotes decide to tear into it.  Smidgen is looking forward to it.  The adults are thinking of weeks of poopy papers, and chewed electric cords.  Bruce was introduced to the birds when he was big, and they were small; this puppy will be introduced when it is small, and the birds adult sized, and feisty.  Maybe that'll help.

Total cost, so far- about $1,000 cash in purchases,  vet fees, feed- not including the hours.

And a lot of heartache.  I loved that damned dog.  And trusted him.