Saturday, August 29, 2009

El conuco, part I of many

Conuco is a Venezuelan word, derived no doubt from the Carib language, which translates to "vegetable garden." However, a conuco has many connotations that are usually not associated with a veggie garden. It implies rough and ready, rural, and not, perhaps, up to the latest agronomical standards. So I began to garden in 2006.

In another lifetime, in Maryland, I had tried gardening, but it was difficult. The rabbits, for example, ate most of my garden before I could do the same. My neighbor had no such problems and produced agricultural wonders from 50 meters away, but then, he had a green thumb, among many other talents. Fast forward to 2006. There was a place on my land where I could see beds through the weeds, so I took my trusty garden fork and dug up the weeds. It was a major workout.
At the time, I did not understand the meaaning of "sod" -- the collection of matted, snarled plant roots that underlies anything that hasn't been gardened for a while. I suspect my predecessors didn't garden, and that the rows date back to antiquity, or anyway back to 1985 when the house was built.

So I cleared out four meters of junk from the rows. As I say, it was hard work, but strangely satisfying. The result was conuco, v1.0. Four meters of garden.
Knowing I was going to have a garden, I had started some lettuce in containers previously. You see me above after I transplanted the lettuce. Four meters of lettuce is enough to feed the entire russian village, let alone me, but I didn't know that at the time. We learn from our mistakes. But at least I had some rows dug.

Do you know, stuff actually grew, not only in the garden but in the greenhouse.
All that lettuce. Wow. The greenhouse wasn't too tacky either:

I don't know what ws greener, me or the garden. But we had some good results in a few areas, for instance cucumbers.
I don't think we had ripe tomatoes in '06. But then, I can't remember having ripe tomatoes ever. Since then, we have swung over to the "cold cycle" of the North Pacific Oscillation (NPO) and without heating, I doubt that I will see ripe tomatoes at Chalupy. We keep trying, though. It is really hard to garden in Alaska, because the season is very short, basically Memorial to Labor day. I have seen frost two days after Memorial day. On the other hand, the long daylight hours mean some crops (cabbage, for instance) achieve gigantic proportions. At last year's State Fair, one cabbage weighed in at 83 lb, about 40 kilos. It is probably quite inedible.

So on the whole, it was progress. I had lettuce galore, some cukes -- I was happy, anyway.

Friday, August 28, 2009

A greenhouse grows at Chalupy

Still in 2006, come spring, it was time to build a greenhouse. Now in Alaska the classic way to build a greenhouse is with "PVC flex and visqueen", i.e. flexible PVC piping and trasparent, or at least translucent, plastic. This gives you what has come to be called a hoophouse. But my objective is always to buy the minimum, so for version 1.0 greenhouse this was the playpen that came with the house. Pole construction seemed the way to go, so my first step was to take a walk in the woods and collect some poles.

Onece I had some poles, came the task of peeling them. This is not a pleasant job. These poles are too long for the shaving horse. So I improvised with a forked stick.
The reason you peel is to avoid the wood rotting on you. The inner layer of the bark (the cambium layer) is basically bug food. Leave it there, feed the bugs, rot the poles.

As you see, the trusty drawknife works well for peeling poles. Note the snow on the ground, it was in April, I think. With some peeled poles, I blocked out a crude shed to fit the old playpen.
There were many frustrations which I won't detail. But slowly the greenhouse takes shape.
The structure you see there survives to this day, and cost $0.00, not, of course, counting labor, because I pay myself no salary.

The last task was to cover it with "visqueen" or translucent plastic. When you buy the stuff at Home Despot, er, Depot, or wherever, it says "transparent." Nonsense. But when you do it, you have a Greenhouse. It ain't heated, of course; it would be more properly called a "giant cold frame." So then it looks like this:
The cost has risen, of course, because I can't make the plastic. We are now into $5.00 for the plastic, a figure that is steadily rising with the price of oil.

So now you are wondering (and quite properly, I may add) whether this contraption works. Well, actually, yes.
Here we have zucchini and cabbages busily growing. I have since discovered that while zucchini belong in the greenhouse, cabbages do not. But that is another story. My life is a long struggle to optimize greenhouse crop allocation.

Greenhouse 1.0 had many faults, but the worse one is that in winter, the snow loads it down (we have a full meter of snow at Chalupy) and the roof collapses. We are now at v1.3, and all of the versions have been concerned with not having to rebuild the roof. So far the score is winter-3, JRC-0. Looks bad for the home team. But there is always v1.4. And we have plans for v2.0, but I will not reveal them because this is what we call in Venezuela pavoso, jinxing the outcome.

As I write, greenhouse 1.3 is full of tomato plants and some cucumbers. Will they ripen? We shall see. It is raining, and has been for two weeks. The tomatoes want more photons. Not so many photons, not when it rains.

Monday, August 24, 2009

Green Woodwork

We now go back in time, to AD 2006. In the spring, I discovered a wonderful book by Drew Langsner, who has a very nice web page, Welcome to Country Workshops, with many goodies. The book is called Country Woodcraft, ISBN 0-87857-201-5. Unfortunately it is out of print, but still available on the secondhand market. It goes a step further than Roy Underhill's books; Roy too has a website, The Woodwright's Shop.

Both these gentlemen work wood the old-fashioned way, with hand tools. While I have nothing against power tools, I enjoy the quiet, the lack of noxious sawdust, and the lack of noise that you get with hand tools. It seems much more appropriate for Chalupy than screaming table saws. I do have some power tools and use them when I have to, but I prefer the peace and quiet. Time? I have all the time in the world, so I take it.

Anyhow, Drew is big on green woodworking. You find some trees in the forest and use them before they are dry. (But they will warp! you say. Yes, but that is overcome by drying carefully after the wood is worked, and by putting on the finishing touches once it's dry.)

There are perhaps fifty or a hundred projects in Drew's book. Summer of ought-six I built several:

In the front is the birchbarrow, version 1.0. This is a wheelbarrow, of course; I used a bicycle wheel (which I got out of someone's trash) as the main ingredient and built the barrow around it. You may also see the sawhorses, in use to this day (alas --one leg on one of those broke the other day. Winter is hard on sawhorses. Fortunately, as with shaving horses, spares are no farther away than a walk). I am holding a very large mallet called a commander, useful for driving stakes and posts (and perhaps for some moral persuasion of obdurate characters). I have since changed the wheel arrangement to use the original bike fork (v1.1) and now must rebuild the whole front, because it is too tippy when you load it with firewood. This is not Drew's fault, but mine, when I converted absurd gringo inches to metric. I put the wheelbarrow to immediate use.

It hauls veggies (above), firewood, sacks of manure, and almost anything else. It started to turn black, so applied common household bleach and that took care of the black. Birchbarrow is due for a version release (1.3) but I don't think I'll have time for it this fall.

Funny about so much work with software; we have these absurd-looking version numbers, whatsis 2.1.4. Why bother? Because there's always room for improvement, that's why. Most things at Chalupy have version numbers. The British had the same thing going with Roman numeral "Marks," so we had Spitfires Mark VII, which were presumably better than Mark VIs.

Friday, August 21, 2009

Lysander IH tractor, the hero

Life at Chalupy was fine, but I decided I needed a tractor. It could pull wood out of the forest for the fireplace (which I didn't have at the time), it could help me garden, it could plow snow, in fact, it would be a very handy contraption, even if it is YAICE (Yet Another Internal Combustion Engine). This is a weighty subject. I wanted a small tractor -- a Ford 8N, say, or an International Harvester (IH) Farmall A, or a Farmall Cub. (To placate any irate brand-tractor fanatics, I would have taken a Deere, a Case, a Minneapolis-Moline, Oliver, Massey, Fordson Dexta, etc. ad infinitum ). What Craigslist turned up, at a price that I could afford, was Lysander.

Above, Lysander on a field in Palmer, Alaska, home of the Alaskan small farm. I should say something more about that, but not now. Short form: I bought Lysander abd some good friends helped me haul it 60 Km north to Willow. Then I had to drive the thing off the trailer.

Notice the expression of mixed delight and terror on my face. After all, I learned to drive on farm tractors. But that was a long, long time ago, at APISA, the Rivero (and others) owned farm in Venezuela. But I did it!

Lysander was promptly put to work. Here he is after plowing snow.

Since that day, Lysander has been a constant companion. He was built in 1947 and he has been working ever since. He starts immediately, runs like a champ, and has done all that I asked of him. he has a few glitches, for example he won't chage the battery. I am working on that. You say he's rusty. Not so, as you will see. It's not rust, just old paint. Just wait, you will see the paint saga. The only trouble is that he is too big for a lot of the work I do; the H was a mid-size tractor in its day. Amazingly, you can buy spare parts for him. Not at all bad for a 60-year(+) old tractor. A true hero.

Thursday, August 20, 2009

Shaving horse, Part II

You can't go to the hardware store and buy a shaving horse. You have to make it yourself. Some people use dimensioned lumber. This would be OK, say, in Juneau, where in spite of being in danger of getting a tree on your head, you can't cut any. I will not, at this time, go any further on that one. But at Chalupy, we have wood in the round, as in trees.

So I found a biggish birch near home. Much too heavy to move; I tied a rope to it and used the car to drag it home. Then I proceeded to split it.

Looks easy, huh? You use wedges, those steel black things at the top of the rightmost log. You drive the wedges with a maul, the yellow-handled monster in the picture. The steel wedges are helped out by big wooden gluts -- one is sticking out of the lefthand log. If you don't have any gluts, you must stop and make them. I didn't have any. Getting to this stage took at least two hours. The bigger the log, the harder it is to split.

Nest you take the better (right) half of your split and you split off the lower part, making a plank out of your log.

If you look really carefully, or maybe have a full-size picture, you can see a blue chalk line which is where I wanted to go. The log didn't cooperate. Tough. That was a nasty log. I am now at least four hours into this project. So now I have to hack the log to shape. Roy Underhill's book suggests you use an adze. My adze at that time was a Portuguese one-handed adze called an enxo', observable in the bottom middle of the picture, and with it I hacked the log to plank shape. All this is an excellent workout. Unlike a gym, you have something to show for it when it's done. Real logs are not straight-grained oak, which splits like a dream; they have knots, burls, twists, and all kinds of obstructions. Con estos bueyes hay que arar, as they say in Spanish -- with these oxen we must plow.

The next step is to put legs on it. This involves drilling some great big holes, then getting suitable legs in thiose great big holes. Unfortunately, drilling great big holes is my bugbear. I can't find a suitable auger. I should mention that for green woodworking, power tools are anathema. Any moron can build anything using power tools. (I will make some exceptions for chain saws, and a few other things. But basically Chalupy frowns on power tools.)

Then we hack out the riser and ramp from out leftover logs. I wish I had some pictures of this, but I didn't take any. Too busy hacking.

The current incarnation of the horse is below.

The top crossbar was hacked out this morning, 'cause the old one broke. One nice thing about a shaving horse is that you make your own repair parts. The strange object that looks like a giant demented comb is, in fact, my bull rake project (as if I didn't have enough projects). But that's for later. In the meantime, I am shaving out the tines of the rake on the horse -- a beautiful way to spend Thursday morning.

Moose in the yard

We interrupt our regularly scheduled woodworking discussion to notify you that there is a moose in the yard, at about 10AM. Usually they come earlier. This one is dubbed Blacktop, because she's, well, kind of dark for a moose. At least I think it's she. No horns at all; this is about time for racks on guys.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Making a shaving horse, part I

Time to start talking about woodworking at Chalupy. I do two kinds of woodworking: making things out of scrap or found wood, and making things out of "greenwood." The term green woodworking was coined by (as far as I know) John (now Jennie) Alexander to mean stuff that is hewn (hacked, perhaps) out of green wood. You may see his web page at greenwoodworking home page. Other excellent pages include Drew Langsner's pages at Country Workshops.

The first order of business for any green woodworker is to build a shaving horse. This contraption is hundreds, if not thousands, of years old. In german, for example, it is called a Schnitzelbank. The German-speaking Swiss (just to be different) call it a Zugstuhl. You may remember the Pennsylvania Dutch "ja, das ist ein schnitzelbank" song. Or you may have read the Firefox series by Eliot Wigginton.

All right, you say, what in the expletive-deleted is the expletive-deleted thing? I'm glad you asked.

The thing in the center of the picture is my shaving horse. It is basically a bench with a yoke to hold the work while you shave it with a drawknife, the blade with two handles hanging over the front of the bench, right before the riser. The yoke is an English-style, AKA bodger's yoke. I prefer it to the German/Swiss/PA Dutch/all experts/ etc. dumbhead yoke, and I don't know why, because as the experts all say, the dumbhead holds better. At least, Jennie Alexander is on my side. I now own three drawknives. The American Greenlee, shown in the picture, I bought seconhand in Juneau. I have also an Austrian Stubai , a superb knife, and a French 6-cm drawknife which I bought for the kids that cluster around in the summer.

Here is Maurice using my little drawknife:

This is a mini-shaving horse I built so that the kids had something their size, Notice the dumbhead holding the work. The kids need all the mechanical advantage they can get. (Also notice traditional Russian costume.) Anyone can use a shaving horse:

I can't remember what Neoni is shaving, The boy is (of course) shaving out a lethal weapon, no doubt a sword.

Well, today the crossbar on the yoke of the shaving horse broke. Now I must make a new one. Nice thing about shaving horeses: can't buy them. So make your own spare parts. Next installment: making of a horse.

Sunday, August 16, 2009

Little Lonely Lake

About 200 meters from my house, there is a lake. It is called Little Lonely Lake. It is not really very lonely, because it has several houses on the shore. Most of them are far ritzier than Chalupy acres. But no matter, because it is right next door. It is also stocked with trout by the beneficient Alaska Department of Fish and Game, known as F&G to all Alaskans. In summer one can go kayaking on it. One can always go fishing there, and always I have caught something, even if it was too small and I threw it back. One can even go fishing and kayaking, although a kayak is not the ideal fishing boat -- you are too cramped for fly-casting, the only way to fish. At least for trout. Not that I am an experienced, tournament-level caster, but anyone can catch fish on worms. Or even on spin rods.

In winter, LLL loks rather different. It is frozen solid, which means that while kayaks are out of the question, skis are not. So I go skiing on it in winter. It is perfectly flat, so you can ski forever. But wait, every Eden has a snake. The winter snake are thr unspeakably evil snow machines. This evil deserves a post all to itself. Come winter, I'll deal with it.

As a finale, there is a classic Alaska scene, with that heroic figure, the bush plane. One of my neighbors had the plane you see in the picture. I haven't seen it for a while; perhaps he sold it.

As you may have figured out, I am setting the stage; soon I'll get down to daily life. But you can't have drama without a stage set.

Friday, August 14, 2009

The Russian Village

Sometime ago -- perhaps around 1980 -- a number of families escaped from the Former Soviet Union and somehow wound up in bush Alaska. ("The bush," by the way, is how those of us who live at some distance from the urban centers refer to our environment.) These people, with names like Reutov, Polushkin, and others, are "the Russian Village," as the rest of the Willow inhabitants call it. They are very traditional and very polite. One of the houses appears in the picture, taken obviously in spring because you can see bare ground. Their kids come to me for woodworking instruction. They usually wear traditional Russian dress; I find it very appealing. As kids anywhere, they are obsessed with armaments. Observe, in the second picture, the formidable variety of weaponry. Neoni (in the required long skirts), looks innocent and oblivious of the boys fighting each other, but this is not so, as you can see in the next pic. No wonder Napoleon and Hitler retreated before Moscow. But sometimes I feel like an arms merchant, a "dog of war" as some would have it. However, slowly I fit into the village in spite of the fact that I don't speak Russian very well. Once I took a course in Scientific Russian (reading). So I can puzzle out the Cyrillic alphabet, at least. The kids are completely bilingual; they attend the local school, which has about 15 students. All of them are two years ahead of their contemporaries in the public jail, I mean public school, system. Strangely enough, Beryozova school is a public state school. Some days Alaska really shines. In Russian "beryozka" is birch; Beryozova would mean "of the birches" or possibly "in the birches," Russian is not big on prepositions. But it's a lovely place to live.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Intro II: Fall and Spring in Alaska

Some places have distinct seasons. Alaska is a bit different. The wags say we have two seasons: winter and construction. However, there is a spring and a fall, in spite of what some people say.

In fall, everything turns yellow, except for the spruces, which are (duh) evergreens, so astoundingly enough they stay green, while the birches and alders turn yellow.

There is, to be sure, a red-leaved tree in the photo, but it's cheating. It is, in fact, a Japanese Maple, and their normal color is red. Even in summer. So the maple hasn't caught up to the fact that fall is here.

Fall is also distinguished by rain. Sometimes, for variety, we get snow instead. Last year we had snow on the ground on October 2 and it didn't go away till spring.

Spring never seems to get here. The picture was taken April 20, 2007, and it is quite typical. You know it's spring when you can see a new color: brown, as in dirt. No snow on the roads.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

In the beginning...

Chalupy acres is my place in Bush Alaska. In the summer it looks like the image with the green grass.

In the winter, as is well known, we have a bit of snow in Alaska., and Chalupy looks somewhat whiter.

Having retired from the world of science, computers, and even a bit of engineering, I spend my summer days working in the garden, doing woodwork, and learning all sorts of useful bush skills, such as repairing small engines, cutting and splitting firewood, constructing things, and repairing things that broke last winter.

Winter brings out the skis. Indoors work is the order of the day. I do model-building, woodcarving, spooncarving, and read a lot.

Spring comes along, but slowly. Above, it's April 20 (1907). Still snow on the ground.

Now let me see if I can post this.