Saturday, July 30, 2011

The Tao of the scythe

Today I scythed out my "west pasture." I have run a couple of posts on this subject already, and have been wondering how to take pictures of myself mowing. It is very difficult to take a picture of oneself mowing, even with the camera on self-timer on a tripod. The pictures are perforce posed. If one has an assistant, that's a different story. But I don't. So what to do? As usual the Internet comes to the rescue. Let me point you to a Czech website. Here we see a very young lady mowing a meadow. If she can do it, you certainly can. It is no effort at all, really. Like Tai Chi. Very Zen. There are also lots of videos on YouTube, but I don't quote them for you, because they use Flash 10. That stuff is spyware. But if you don't object to that, then search on "scythe" and you will find lots of videos. The website above is worth your attention. If you don't speak Czech (and I don't) do not worry. There is a parallel English version for everything. And tune in to the scytherspace blog. Great stuff.

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Plan B at the woodshed, Episode I

I probably mentioned that my woodshed -- the original "lash-up" collapsed this winter. I really have to rebuild it, and this time let us try something a bit more permanent. So there was plan A. It is (was) a timber-framed structure. But it is already late July. There would be many, many mortises and tenons to cut. Tenons are no big deal, but mortises are a horse of another color. So I evolved plan B. There are six tall poles in front and three short ones in back. Over these go two long plates. A plate is the top beam in a sturcture (as opposed to the sill which is the lowest). The poles will go straight into the ground. I plan to set them in concrete. So I had to do six holes.
The extreme holes (should) form a rectangle 1.20 meters by 4 meters. This is about the dimension of the eye-built lashup. While toolroom precision is not the order of the day, the holes do need to be aligned and the same depth. For alignment, plain old string is your friend. At hardware stores all over Alaska, they sell a pink nylon string which is ideal for this purpose. For depth, observe my invaluable clamshell digger front and left. Mark it to the correct depth. In my case this is 60 cm which is probably below frost depth. I say probably because that depends a great deal on how harsh the winter is. You should go below frost depth because otherwise the structure will heave. The string is stretched between nails pounded into temporary stub posts.

Digging these holes is both easy and difficult. It is difficult because the upper 10 cm or so are a wild tangle of roots. Once you get past the roots, it is easy. I used a short pruning saw to cut out the roots. So I got five out of six holes dug. The sixth involves moving a whole lot of firewood. I left it for later. I don't want to deconstruct the ex-woodshed because it is protecting about a cord of wood. Do that later.

On to the next step. One could go to Lowe's and buy 4x4s, I suppose. Most people would. But not I, said the little red hen. There is enough dead spruce around Alaska to build a mansion, let alone a woodshed. So allowing for all the allowances, the front poles should be 2.5m x 10cm x 10cm. OK, a spruce log was bucked today to 2.5 meters. Easy. Then it was marked out. This is worth a post all by itself. Now we square the log. I am doing this log freehand. Many reasons. I'll try to explain in another post. First job is to run a guide groove down the log. Snap a chalk line and go.
Now make very sure your horizontal marks are level. For this you need a level! The bigger the level the more accurate. Spike the log to the stumps with homemade log dogs (which keep the chainsaw from hitting the ground, a disaster). Now start ripping. Hold the chainsaw absolutely vertical. One reason I did it this way is because I can use Parsifal the Stihl MS 170. It has a very thin bar and does a nice job of ripping without a ripping chain. Every meter or so drive a wedge into what you've ripped. Turn off the saw. Let it cool. Let your back recover. Drive a wedge in every meter or so. After some minutes...
you have done it. We have one flat side. And a slab that may be useful. The guide groove, of course, it to guide the saw. There are lots of practical details. But basically it comes down to being very careful and not expecting perfection. Keep the saw plumb to the cut. I think next time I will tape a small level to the saw.

The rest is a repetition. Level. plumb the log. Guide groove. Rip. And at the end of the day I had a very reasonable 10cm x 10cm.

A lot of stuff left out. But stay tuned. More is coming.

Saturday, July 23, 2011

The gardener's revenge

A while back I wrote about the devastation in my garden caused by Cassius, the dropout moose. At the time I vowed that if I caught him at it, I would put some birdshot in his trousers. Well, perhaps there is a Fairy Godmother after all. Today I emerged from my afternoon shower and looked out the window. There was Cassius, noshing on my garden. I yelled at him out the window. Cassius, startled, retreated to the edge of the pasture. But no more. I went out, armed with a ski pole. I yelled. I threw rocks. I threw sticks. Replied Cassius "what are you so upset about, human? Didn't you plant this garden just for me? Shut up and let me gobble up the rest of your veggies. Resistance is futile!" You could just see the wheels going around in what passes for a moose mind.

At this point, I saw red. Actually, in a crisis I never see red. I think quite coldly. Cassius needs to be taught a lesson. So I went inside. I broke open the box of #7 birdshot. I broke out my trusty double-barreled shotgun. As I recall, number sevens are BB-sized. Won't penetrate Cassius's thick hide, much less his skull. But he'll be stung. Out I went. The first thing to try is a wide shot. Usually this will do it. Even bears understand BOOM! But Cassius said, "Hey, human, why do you make so much noise?" Cassius, you are indeed a dropout. It may not even be your fault. Maybe mommy let you down. Or maybe, maybe, you are just retarded. However, I will not have my garden devastated. So I angled left. Cassius, meanwhile, was calmly eating some fireweed. Perfect. His size 100 stern was in clear view at about 50 meters. Put the bead on it (shotguns are not aimed, as a rifle is. You just point). Squeeze the other trigger. That fetched him! Cassius disappeared at the gallop. Perhaps he got the idea. Perhaps he didn't. If he didn't I have lots more birdshot. And next time I will get closer and hurt more. Of course Cassius prefers night-time feeding. Or should. But maybe he is, as I said, retarded.

At the end of the road there is the 30-30 Winchester and moose roasts. I hate to take that step. I prefer to live in harmony with the wildlife. Meanwhile there is the shotgun.
And there is my trusty double. It is on my bed, to remind me to clean it before I go to bed. I love doubles. If you can't do it in two shots you shouldn't be messing about with firearms. I did not take photographs of this episode in real time. That makes me an amateur blogger indeed. Sorry. I thought of the shotgun long before I remembered my camera.

Alaska law says that you may lawfully shoot any animal that is threatening your life or property. I suppose I could justify a fatal shot but I certainly hate to do so. Although it is a year's worth of meat. We will stick with birdshot. And, as a friend of mine said, the Russians might not be so scrupulous. You don't mess with Russians, as the Wehrmacht found out.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

When in doubt, go fish.

Last Sunday, I was at a loose end. So many things to do, such a short summer! In these circumstances there is only one thing to do: go fish. So on go the chest-high waders (they do leak, but they were cheap at a thrift store), and the overboots that go with them, put on the vest that holds all (well, most) of my flies, pluck the small fly rod off the rack, and set out in search of the wily trout in Little Lonely Lake. Sunday is not a good day to fish, because the entire population of Alaska is there with you. As usual in such occasions I did not overhaul my fly boxes. I regret it. I am not the world's most expert fly fisherman but I really, really love it. Most people in Alaska go salmon-fishing; but I hate crowded waters -- although I really, really, and really love fresh-caught salmon -- and on Sunday Willow creek is playing to capacity audience, if not SRO. So trout it is.

When I got there there was a couple there already. They were spin-casting, that is using spinning reels. From the distance they were casting, I suspected heavy weights and probably bait. They were shore-casting. Can't do that with a fly rod. The fly weighs very little. The leader weighs even less. This is why we put on the waders. We need room for the backcast. The Alaskan lakes are solid trees to the waterline. So you have to wade out to fly-cast. Fly casting is like cracking a whip. The whip goes out behind you. This is the backcast. Then you snap forward. Out goes fly, leader, and the realtively heavy line. If you did it right the whole thing lands where you want it. If you didn't you have an awful mess. If you are too close to the shore, you catch a tree, not a trout. In a wind -- and Sunday was windy -- it becomes very difficult, at least for a non-expert like myself. And that brings us to the burning question: what is on the trout menu that say? British and American authors have published whole books, not to say whole libraries, on the subject. But this is Alaska, not a British chalk stream (no Alaska trout has ever graduated from Oxford or Cambridge) or a New York Beaverkill stream (there are no known instances of trout graduating from Harvard). They never heard of mayfly hatches. So, for once, book learning is not much use. In practice I start trying different colors. Sunday was a yellow day. Any fly with yellow in it won the day.
So I might have caught more. Legal limit is four in possesion. But two was plenty for me. I had enough to eat. Ratty (in Wind in the Willows) says that there is nothing -- nothing like messing about in boats. I agree with Ratty, but will add that eating fresh-caught trout is just as good, if not better. Try the trout meuniere and you will see.

It is no doubt mean-spirited but the spin-casters (very nice people by the way) caught nothing, up to the time when I left. A spinning reel will cast a weight to an enormous distance. Far longer than I can do with a fly rod, and requires no backcast, so it won't catch any trees. Mazel tov. But will the trout be interested in what you cast out to one hundred meters? For the record, I was once a spin-caster. But no longer. If you do fly-fish, remember to remove the barb on the hook. This allows you to release the catch if he (or she) is too small. I consider barbed hooks erm, barbarous.

Sunday, July 17, 2011

Alder Subway II

"Alder Subway" is a term I coined a while back for the root network formed by these incredibly hardy trees. When I got this property a while back, I had a big area, maybe 200 by 50 meters, which was, I suspect, a pasture in distant times. No doubt goats grazed happily there. But by the time I got there the alders had the upper hand, with the assistance of odd willows and birch saplings. With the aid of Maximilian the scythe and the Japanese log saw, I got it cleared. I cut off all the alders -- but every single stump sprouted again. Hmmm. Well, this year we have Grappa the grape hoe. Really heavy duty; there is a post in here or two on Grappa. Coincidentally I acquired Achilles the garden tractor. My first thought was "could Achilles pull out these stumps?" The answer turned out to be NO. But stay with me.
Here you see some pulled stumps. Each stump has two (and only two) roots. Each is as thick as my arm or even thicker. The Swiss Army Knife gives you some scale. I have a big SAK, about 10 cm. Now the interesting part: one root runs east and the other west. The west root peters out much more quickly than the eastbound root. My record eastbound root is something like four meters! (Or 12 foots if you prefer, although why why anyone would prefer Gringo units is beyond me). If it were just one root, I would have not noticed. But I have now pulled eight or so stumps. Every single one of them has its roots going the same way! East much bigger and longer than west. What is going on here?

No scientist can resist a puzzle like this one. I must form an hypothesis, and my current hypothesis is the following: the purpose of roots is to collect water and nutrients. So the Alder has a moisture bias. In fact, the eastbound root is heading in the general direction of my well. The root follows, as we techies say, the moisture gradient. Looking for water, in fact. In all my extensive reading I have never found any reference to this phenomenon. The westbound root is relatively short because it found no water in that direction after a while. North and South were dry. No roots survived in those directions. I find this fascinating. The eastbound root is trying to get at my well!

Operationally, then, the stumping procedure is straightforward. With Grappa the grape hoe, unearth the westbound root -- the skinnier one. Cut it. Tie a rope to the fork of the root, start up Achilles the garden tractor, and pull away. Achilles can handle the single, long, eastbound root. Much easier than pulling by hand.

I am now wondering if people who wish to drill a shallow well in the bush should not bother with a "dowser" or "well-witch" as these people are called. I cannot comment on their effectiveness. But just look for the way the alder roots are growing. They point to water. Fascinating thesis for someone. Won't work for deep wells, of course. Not even alder can get down to fifty meters. But for shallow wells it might work. My well, for the record, is about 3 meters.

If you want a deep well, I think you should consult a hydrologist, a geologist, or both, or even a dowser. Deep wells are tricky. The Beyozova school has a deep well at about 30 meters. But perhaps 300 meters to the west, a neighbor had to go down about 65m to hit, presumably, the same aquifer. You pay by the meter of depth. So be warned.

Thursday, July 14, 2011

Taking Maximilian the Scythe for a walk, part I

Maximilian, as regular readers know, is my scythe. A wonderful tool. So I thought I would provide an introduction to the tool. First some anatomy. A scythe consists of a blade and a handle. The handle is called a snath. I assure you I did not coin this term, it comes, according to Webster's, from Old English Snaed, and who knows where before that. The snath may be straight (European pattern) or curved (Anglo-American pattern). I love the European pattern. The snath must be sized to the individual user. In order to be of any use, the scythe must be razor-sharp.

You can buy some very cheap scythes, even in today's motorized age. My favorite place to browse is Scythe Supply. It is not cheap but neither is it exorbitant. They sell Austrian blades. In Austria (and also various other countries in Central Europe) they still make decent (forged, not stamped) blades. I ordered a brush blade -- there are also grass blades, lighter and skinnier. But what I have is brush. So now that you have an overview, let us sharpen Maximilian.
The first task is to get the blade off the snath. Easy. Undo the square-allen-type screws with the handy key that is part of your outfit. Slide the collar, or ring, down.
And the blade is off the scythe. Now comes the interesting part. An Austrian scythe is sharpened unlike any other cutting tool. First it is peened, then it is honed.

The object of peening is to move metal from the thicker part of the blade over to the edge. There are two ways to do this. One is freehand with a cross-peen hammer. The other, the one I use, is with a peening jig.

The jig consists of (1) a log. You supply this. (2) an anvil. This is the big metal object at the top of the picture. (3) two caps. They are at the bottom of the pic, sitting in holes I drilled there ad hoc. You will also need a garden-variety hammer.
In the pocture you see said garden-variety hammer. I have put the cap with one groove on it, number one, on top of the anvil. My legs are holding the log up. Now, insert the blade between anvil and cap. Strike with hammer. Warning! The blade must be held just so. You know the blade is just so because when you hit it, it goes "ping!" If it goes "clunk!" -- you held it wrong. Adjust angle of blade and try again. Move the blade three or so mm. Repeat. Work down the length of the blade. Put on the other cap and repeat. Like so:
Here is the blade, already on cap number two, being peened. I work thick end to thin, right to left in the picture. Doesn't matter which way you go. But look at the lovely edge emerging to the right of the picture.

This edge may look sharp. But it isn't. Not enough. We need to hone it. At this point I haul out my diamond hone from Lee Valley (it lives in a pocket of my Carharrt's) and give ithe blade a dozen or so strokes. Then I put it back on the handle, and ... but that's a post for another day.

Meanwhile, for more scythe lore, I recommend the Scytherspace blog. Fascinating place.

And a scythe uses no gas, makes no noise, is wonderful exercise, and very Zen.

Thursday, July 7, 2011

Disaster strikes the garden

This morning I arose early as usual. I went out to the garden to water. It has been a rather dry summer so far. To my horror, my broccoli had been eaten. Only the stalks remained.
Oh no, I thought. A Wascally Wabbit, as Elmer Fudd would say. But I grew up with Sherlock Holmes. We investigated further, and even Dr. Bumbling Watson could spot the culprit: a moose. Either that, or a species hitherto unknown to Science, the moose-footed rabbit. Large hoofprints all over the place. No -- it's a moose. Not only that: the vandal cleaned out all my beets, all my cabbage, all my chard, trampled my snap beans, gnawed on cauliflower (it may yet recover), and I am only fortunate that it seems to abhor leeks. It did put its size 125 hoofprints in my leek bed, however. And in various other places too.

Now moose usually mind their own business. They forage in the forest, and do not come around in the summer eating gardens. I know that in the lower 48 states, deer are a problem for crops. But moose are a moose of another color. I think I have an aberrant moose. In fact, I have seen him (or her) before. He/she was cast loose by mommy prematurely. Why? I cannot say. I even have a picture somewhere in this blog. Since I can't sex moose very well at a distance, let us assume "he" is the applicable pronoun. Very well, I have named him Cassius. This is because he has a "lean and hungry look" according to the Bard of Avon (Julius Caesar). Cassius is a dropout. He never learned to forage. Shame on mommy, except that maybe mommy met with an accident. So he is eating our gardens. I say "our" because today the battalion of Russian kids came by for their daily woodwork lessons, and informed me that Cassius has been around their gardens too, with disastrous results.

Now I would hate to do Cassius in. It is not yet, in spite of our dire economic situation, a matter of life and death. But my garden is devastated. So if I can catch Cassius at it, what I will do is put a load of #7 birdshot in his a..., er, trousers. With my trusty double shotgun. This might teach him a salutary lesson. If not, I am sure the village will break out the Kalashnikovs and that will be the end of Cassius.

I have tried to keep this light. But I am very upset. A family tradition is the end-of harvest Borscht. This requires beets and cabbage. Both are gone. It is impossible now to re-seed and re-grow. I am mulling over various plan B things. But it looks bleak for beets and cabbage. Not to mention chard, broccoli, and beans.

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Lettuce and radishes to go

July 4 is, of course, Independence Day in the US. This particular day was also an independence day for me: it was the day the lettuce and radishes got big enough to eat.
Lettuce, red and green, in the center; radishes (seeded) far left. None of the radish transplants really worked; too late into the ground -- lost one gamble there. There is no comparison between homegrown lettuce and the stuff they sell at the grocery -- imported, of course, from the lower 48 -- a different veggie entirely. Likewise or double for store-bought radishes. I don't eat them. Might as well eat newspaper. Might even be more nutritious. So, for a while, I am independent of the grocery store. But I have run out of potatoes; I eat my own potatoes all winter but alas, I had to expend most of what was left as seed stock.

In the new Greenhouse 2.0 the tomatoes are doing well. We have more sunlight this year and less rain. Hose time! Water them plants. Also our zucchini appear to be progressing, after the usual shock of transplanting. GH 2.0 is a big improvement on 1.0, I must say.

In the background you can see the leeks, which, as I said before , survived the winter. If I can manage leeks in Alaska, I will be very proud of myself. My artichokes are doing nicely, but I think they may not mature. They have to be forced early, and maybe I wasn't early enough. But, as I have said, and so have many others, agriculture is one big gamble.

And as a final agricultural update, my lentils (planted from 100% grocery store lentils, cheap) have come up and are growing. I spent a couple hours weeding them and they look very nice. I actually grew lentils this winter in a yogurt container, using a trouble-light as a UV source. I know, wrong spectrum. But it worked. When the plant collapsed it produced six or so lentils. However, as an experiment it was a very worthwhile effort. I love lentils. High protein vegetable. Easy to cook, unlike beans.