Tuesday, 11 April 2017

Our dog pack

A lot of people have a dog or dogs; where we live most people have at least three. Many years ago I met a man who had a beautiful blue heeler, she was a young dog at the time and was very friendly. He told us we couldn't pat or talk to her as she was being trained, so we didn't. He used an authoritative manner with her and often spoke roughly to her, he never hit her in our presence and I don't believe he did out of our sight either. He was very proud of the tricks she could do (sit, lay down, roll over, climb a ladder, etc), but never praised her for them. She had to stay in the car when at our place because she attacked other dogs. That blue heeler was later put down (by her owner) because she bit a child. This was a lesson for me as I had watched her go from a social, friendly pup to an antisocial, insecure, watchful dog. I know heelers can be nippy and often have social issues, but I believe her problems were caused by lack of socialisation and not being secure in her place. I took this lesson to heart and changed the way we live with our dogs.
We don't 'own' our dogs, they belong to our pack (or we belong to theirs); we all live together and have our roles to play within the family. People are often surprised that our dogs don't fight with each other or cause trouble among the other beings that live in and around our humpy. They assume that we must have a training program and keep the dogs (who are after all predators at heart) under strict control. The truth is far stranger and less exhausting than that; we simply treat them as part of the family (because they are). They are supported by the other members of the family and have the same expectations placed on them, they have to contribute to the well being of our home and they have become used to cross species co-operation. The rules in our humpy apply to everyone and are fairly vague, in general boiling down to the simple phrase 'do what you want as long as it hurts no-one'. We don't make rules about dogs on furniture, they sleep where they want, but they are not allowed to chase any living thing with the intention of harming it. They are confined to the yard unless we are with them, which is a rule designed to keep them safe, however they do come for a wander through the bush when we go walking. They can socialise with anyone who visits the humpy (and I take special note of those they choose to avoid), whatever the species.

We have three full time dogs and a part time dog in our pack. They are part of our family and help us live busy and fulfilled lives (sometimes by creating the work that makes us busy). They each have interesting life stories (well, interesting to me) which I would like to share.

First we have Jessica,

Jess...our one obedient dog.

Jess is a rescue dog...with a twist. One morning, many years ago when my kids were small, my youngest daughter came to me and said she had dreamed we owned a dog who was black with white around the neck, short hair and a white tip on her tail, her name was Jess in the dream. The day after this one of my good friends text me and said that a dog had wandered up her driveway in a terrible state. This dog was very thin, had hair missing and a wound on the back of her head like she had been whacked with a pipe or something. She was looking for a home for this dog, when I told her about my daughter's dream she said that this dog matched the description. Of course we set off to meet her and see if my daughter somehow had the ability to dream things into reality (and if so to implore her to dream up a Lotto win).
When we got out of the car the dog, who was very timid, poked her head out from around a corner. My daughter called softly "Jess?" and Jess trotted over and sat on her feet. After this miracle we naturally took her home, fed her up a bit and treated her head wound. She came with some fairly serious neurosis though.
Jess is a compulsive eater, we think because she was starved at some point in her life (perhaps all of it); she can't go past food and will eat until she is sick, then come back for more. This has led to her becoming very over weight. Before she joined the family we fed our dogs from one central bowl which was kept full at all times. People would ask us why our dogs didn't fight with each other and I would point to countless David Attenborough documentaries about pack feeding habits; in the wild the alpha dogs will eat first followed by the betas then the pups. That's the way our dogs fed...all lined up to wait for their turn at the bowl. After Jess became dangerously overweight we had to change to individual feedings so we could limit her food intake. She also chews wire fences, gets obsessed with individual beings (a guinea fowl was the main one until last year) and is allergic to preservatives in her food (her hair falls out). We love her though and she is the most loyal and best behaved dog in our family.

Then we have Spot.

Spot...the dementia patient.

 He joined us 17 years ago when the people we sold our TV to said they would pay our asking price if we took the last puppy from their litter. We said yes and a tiny bundle of black and white shaking fur arrived the next day. He has been my elder daughter's closest friend for such a long time. In his long life he has been dressed in doll clothes, pushed around in a pram, made to complete obstacle courses and been the companion of many a long walk. Now he is old, he has lost most of his sight, can't hear much and mostly forgets to go out to pee. People sometimes ask me why we keep him in the house when he makes so much mess and needs to be led wherever he goes, which is a lot of extra work. My answer is always; "Would you make your grandfather live outside just because he's a lot of work?". Spot has given us his whole life and I believe he deserves to be loved and treated with respect for the rest of it. He is still always the first to eat and barks at random stuff just like the other dogs even though he has no idea what he is barking at.

Bandit is the final full time dog in our family.

Believe it or not his parents were both black.

 His family line has been with us since we became a family. My partner thought that buying me a $10 miniature poodle puppy who had been rejected by her mother and had to be fed every two hours with an eye dropper would be a romantic gesture, he was right. Gizmo (as that pup came to be named), grew up and got pregnant to a local Silky terrier named Ambrose and had Pucky who in turn grew up and got herself in trouble with a Chihuahua cross Pomeranian named Chopper (who dug under the laundry foundation to be with her). The result of Pucky and Chopper's union was Busy, who lived with us for 16 years and had one puppy with a friend's dog (after a proper wedding arranged by the kids), that puppy is Bandit. He is the smallest and the loudest of our dogs, he is very sweet about taking Spot out to the toilet; he walks in front of him and leads him out the door then waits for him to be finished and leads him back in.

Our part time dog is Val, the product of a marriage between Spot and Jess arranged by the kids.

Jess had 14 pups but we could only afford to keep one. It broke my heart to have to find homes for the other 13 pups, and I often wonder if they are OK. Val is my eldest daughter's dog and lives with her most of the time. She still visits now and then and lives with us when my daughter is working or away.

Out in the yard

These two are good friends.
 Our dog pack works like any pack; we have an alpha male (Spot) who thinks he's in charge and an alpha female (Jess) who is really in charge, we have two betas (Bandit and Val) who just try not to get in trouble. We have no fights and very few behaviour problems (aside from Jess' issues) despite not having a training program or being in total control. What are your dogs to you? family pet, or just plain family.

Monday, 10 April 2017

Dye wool with fungus

We have had a lot of rain recently (and our tanks are full) so of course all the fungal spores in the soil have taken advantage of this and popped up mushrooms and shelf fungus everywhere. There is a lot of information online about dying wool (and other protein fibres) with fungus, so I decided to have a wander around and see what I could find to experiment with.

In the bush around our humpy I found many kinds of fungus after just a cursory look; I haven't tried to identify them as I am mostly interested in using them for dye. It's not a great idea to eat mushrooms you aren't able to identify, and I won't do it. I will also be using gloves to process my collected bounty, just in case they prove to be toxic.

Below is a collection of photos of the fungal and lichen life I found in my little adventure.

The plan is to dry most of the current harvest for later experimenting. I couldn't resist trying one little experiment though.
I used a lovely brown shelf fungus I found on a dead tree with two tablespoons of washing soda to make an orange/ yellow dye pot. I simmered the pot of water, fungus and washing soda for an hour. Then I plonked in some merino home spun yarn and let it all cool overnight.
After rinsing and drying I ended up with a golden yellowish coloured yarn that my daughter has named 'You dirty sheep', the name doesn't do justice to the colour which is actually quite beautiful. I can't wait to do some more experiments to see what I will get.

The little shelf fungus on the left gave the muted golden yellow of this yarn.

Thursday, 12 January 2017

Matching the wine to the fibre

Recently while wandering about in Etsy (in a cyber sense), I found a shop that sell wine holders for spinning wheels. I immediately wanted one of course, given that I have recently learned to make wine and I love spinning it seemed a perfect match.

I know it's not a wine glass, but one would fit in the holder.

That started me thinking about matching wines to fibre types. We match wine to our meals, why not other sensory feasts? I thought about it for a while and came up with the following list. You may find it useful if you purchase one of those wine glass holder things for your spinning wheel.

Chardonnay- One of the most common white wines, chardonnay should taste oaky, fruity and have a velvety feel in the mouth. This sounds like good old merino to me. Match your chardonnay glass with some hand dyed merino tops for spinning and you have the perfect spinning binge.

Pinot noir- This is a light red wine which is fairly common, it should be high acid, low tannin and taste of fruits and roses. One of it's defining characteristics is it is hard to make and is very easy to get wrong. This one sounds like cotton to me; both are difficult to get right and require exacting concentration. Spin up some naturally coloured cotton with a glass of pinot noir and see if I'm right.

Shiraz- This is one of the strong flavoured red wines, it should taste of peppers, cherries and maybe chocolate. It is known as a very long lasting wine as it remains stable and drinkable in a wide variety of conditions. Because it is such a strong, opinionated wine I think it would go well with border Leicester wool as both are strong, hard wearing and lustrous.

Riesling- This light flavoured white wine should taste of fruit and be generally sweet. Riesling is a high acid white wine making it long lasting, meaning it can be aged for a long time and still be drinkable. This quality makes me think of flax which is spun into the long lasting linen yarn. Linen also improves with age and is both sweet and crisp. 

Cabernet Sauvignon- This strong flavoured, high alcohol wine is one of the most common reds around, it should taste of vanilla and red currants. It is a very long lived wine and can be aged for centuries. This wine pairs very well with Lincoln longwool fleece which can also last for centuries in the right conditions. Grab a bottle of cab' sav' and some lincoln longwool fleece and get spinning.

Merlot-  This (relatively) light flavoured red wine is said to have a plum and herb aftertaste. It's low tannin makes it easy and soft to drink. This softness makes me think of silks. Sit down to spin some silk tops with a nice glass of merlot.

This is not a complete list of course, there are so many wine types and so many fibre types it could turn into a book, don't even get me started on blends (both wine and fibre). Can you add a wine-fibre pairing to the list?

Tuesday, 3 January 2017

Keeping a happy cow

This is Reach; my house cow. She has been gone for many years now, but I still miss her.
It has been years since I had a house cow...and I still miss her. She was my friend and companion through many misty mornings and rainy afternoons. I have been seeing posts about the cruelty of the dairy industry lately on Facebook and other social media and while I agree wholeheartedly that the dairy industry is currently very cruel, I do not agree that we need to totally give up dairy foods (if you are lucky enough to be able to digest them). If you want to continue to eat dairy food but want to avoid the cruelty associated with it you have several options;

(Option A) If you have a few acres and an hour or so a day to spare, you can get your own cow (or goat, sheep or other lactating mammal) and have cruelty free milk, learn to make cheese and yogurt and enjoy the company of a truly amazing friend.

(Option B) Go dairy free...this is fairly easy, unless you are an avid cheese fan. I use plant milks a lot these days as I like the flavours and I have several friends who are vegan so having them on hand makes catering easier. There are dairy free cheeses and yogurts etc available too.

(Option C) See if you can source cruelty free dairy products in your local area. There are a few places which produce milk without taking the calves away from the mother or using other cruel practices such as artificial insemination or de-horning. Check out this Krishna dairy...

I unfortunately can't find my stash of photos showing my dairy cows. The cow in this photo was one I milked for a few years; her name was Beauty.

Many years ago I wrote an article for Grass Roots magazine about how to keep a happy house cow, I thought I would reproduce it here for your reference (just in case you want to try out option A). I have added a glossary at the bottom for those unfamiliar with farming jargon.

Bovine Motherhood
Keeping a milking cow is one of the most satisfying experiences in life in my humble opinion. Not only do they supply milk and keep the grass down, they also supply meat, in the form of calves, manure, food for guinea fowl (mine parade around a seated cow picking off ticks and lice), companionship and endless amusement.
Management of house cows is a tricky, much discussed subject (like climate change or the best way to peg out jeans) but surprisingly easy. All you need to do is keep in mind the needs of your cow. By needs I mean the  emotional or psychological needs rather than physical. There have been many wonderful books and articles written on the physical needs of cattle already; Keeping a house cow by Jim Wilson is one of my favorites.
Cows are motherly creatures; they live to fuss over a new calf, so don't deprive them of it. When your cow calves leave them alone for a week. This gives them the chance to get to know each other and gives the colostrum a chance to clear. Then bring them both in, she might be a bit reluctant to share her baby at first, food will help though. If your cow has been handled quietly and calmly  she will eventually allow you to handle her calf too.
 Most cows will have more than enough milk for you and the calf. Sometimes you can milk the cow while the calf runs around you both, I usually do this for the first two weeks, I just take out my bucket, stool and some hay, plonk them down by the cow and away I go. As the calf gets older you will have to lock it up for part of each day.
I have found that locking the calf up in the morning and milking in the afternoon works for me, but the other way around will work too, it just depends on whether you are a night owl or a morning person. Either way allow room for the calf to run and play and pasture for grazing in the calf pen. I leave our calf in the mesh lined cow paddock beside the house and turn the cow out to the larger part of the property to graze, that way I can keep an eye on the little...darling. I run a daycare center for my cows; they go off to graze while I watch the kids. Cattle in herds do this naturally, one or two cows can often be seen minding a mob of calves, sometimes an old bull will fill in too, while the mothers graze over the hill. Older daughters will help look after calves too, if you keep a heifer calf off your cow, she will take on some of the care of future calves.
While you milk, talk or sing to your cow. This may sound silly, but I've found it really does help to calm them, especially singing nursery rhythms. Maybe they are too busy giggling to worry about you playing with their udder, the rest of the family certainly are. Always remember to leave some milk for the calf after you milk, sucking of teats by the calf after you milk prevents mastitis and stimulates greater milk production.
 It also helps to have two cows in calf six months apart, so you can leave the cow to feed her calf at six months and still milk the other one. When your second cow is ready to milk you can simply swap them over, it is simplest to have them all running together. There is no need to fuss over weaning, most cows will wean their calves themselves about a month before they calve again, of course there is always the exception to the rule. Some cows like to keep their calves tied to their apron strings by feeding them into adulthood (they are so human) you may have to intervene here.
It seems to be a common misconception that you need to get 10-15 litres a day from your cow. Unless you have a huge family, or make cheese every day, you don't need that much, just take what you need. Cows will regulate their milk production to meet the demand, so the more you take the more she makes, but you will have to feed her more to keep her in good shape while she does it.
Using this method you can go away for a holiday or skip days, just leave the calf with the cow while you are away. I have left my cow out for a month, bought her back in and milked four litres off her the first day. Mostly the yield will drop, but it can be built back up within a few days with extra feeding and regular milking.
Cows also need company, of the bovine kind if possible. If you only have room for one cow and have no cow keeping neighbors, then maybe a goat would fit. Cows will make friends with almost anything and a goat is a good substitute as you can milk her while your cow is dried off. If the old girl is quiet you can go out and sit near her. Cows give off such a calm vibe they can soothe a troubled mind almost instantly. She will come to regard you as a kind of honorary calf, and as such as part of the herd.
This method probably sounds a bit erratic, but I assure you it has worked for me for eight years now. I have had no mastitis, fat calves and both I and my cows are happy. So good luck keeping a house cow, just remember; it's fun. 

Calves- Calving refers to the process of giving birth for a cow. Also the plural of calf.
Colostrum- Colostrum is the substances all mammals produce immediately after giving birth which conveys immunity to disease and concentrated sugars, minerals and vitamins to the young. If calves don't get colostrum they will be thin, sickly and not unlike famine victims for their entire life.
Bring them both in- A phrase meaning to bring the animals closer to the main base of operations in order to handle them. Not related to spy craft in any way.
Heifer- A juvenile female bovine, or a teenage cow. Often seen to be overly concerned with grooming and the activities of the bull in the next paddock.
Mastitis- A bacterial infection in the udder, causing pain, swelling, pus and general crankiness in the cow and any other mammal unlucky enough to suffer from it.
In calf- Sort of like 'with child'. Farmers refer to a cow as being 'in calf' when she is pregnant, even though the calf is in her.
Weaning- When the calf is persuaded it doesn't need to feed from the mother any more. Usually cows will begin to wean their babies by moving away when they try to feed, if the calf doesn't get the hint she may try gently butting her calf with her head when they try to feed. If the calf is particularly persistent (or dim witted) she may kick him/her in the head every time they try to feed. If nothing else works I have seen cows outright attack their teen offspring to get the idea across.

Wednesday, 26 October 2016

Learning to make wine

Over the last three months or so I have been learning to make wine. Several people have expressed the opinion that my timing is not great; given that I am learning to drive at the same time. You don't have to worry yet though...wine making is a long, slow process.

Having always been interested in the process of fermented foods (or transformation in any guise really) I began by learning to make sourdough bread. This led to thinking about how wine is really just rotten fruit water (that tastes good) and how amazing that is. After a lot of reading on the internet and a visit to the local library I was ready to get fermenting.

Wine makers seem to range from those who elevate the process to an art or a science to those who accidentally left some juice out and found it had miraculously become wine by the time they got around to cleaning the kitchen. I figured that since we have been making the stuff for the last 6000 years or so, you probably don't need to build a lab to do it.

My first batch was apple cider, made from store bought apple juice (so I could get an understanding of the process). A demijohn (big glass bottle), some yeast, Campden tablets and a bung/airlock were duly ordered from an online shop and when they arrived I began the learning journey.

I didn't photograph that first batch (or the honey mead and the blueberry wine that came after) so I thought I would show you the process with a new batch (and because putting a new batch together is just so exciting I will take any excuse to make more wine). This batch is made from store bought juice again, I used grape juice with a little bit of apple thrown in for flavour.

The only immutable law in wine making is that everything (and I mean everything) has to be clean and sterile. I made up a sink full of sterilizing fluid by crushing two Campden tablets and dissolving them in water. I was a little worried about using sodium metabisulfite (which is a sulfur based material) in our system as anything designed to kill yeasts and bacteria will affect the health of soil and water. However the risks are very low when using it as infrequently as I do.

I didn't take a photo of the sink (you all know what that looks like). This is my beaten up pack of Campden tablets.

After everything is sterilized (equipment, counter tops, hands, stray pets) it is time to activate the yeast. This is just a matter of mixing the yeast with warm water and fruit juice in a cup and putting it somewhere it won't get spilled. Wine yeast is sold in neat little sachets containing dehydrated powder. When the yeast is mixed with liquid it starts to wake up and look for food, just what you want in a yeast.

My neat little yeast sachet and a bowl of apple juice and water.

This is the yeast when it is first mixed into the juice.

This is the yeast after about half an hour. Some is missing because I forgot to take a photo before beginning to pour it into the juice.

Next the juice (or fruit mush) is mixed with sugar in a pot on the stove, I used five cups of sugar in this batch. I heated the juice gently and stirred (not so gently) to dissolve all the sugar. When all the sugar was dissolved I poured the lot into a sterilized demijohn, added a teaspoon of yeast nutrient (don't ask me what that is, the books said I needed it) and popped on an airlock and bung.

Speaks for itself really.

 Most web sites recommend taking a specific gravity reading with a hydrometer before you pour in the yeast. I bought a hydrometer to do just that, then forgot to use it. Next time I will definitely do this though as it apparently gives you a better idea of how alcoholic the final product is. I guess for now I will have to rely on the tipsy test (you know...how many glasses does it take to make you tipsy).

The airlock and bung are the funny bits at the top of the big bottle. Airlocks let gas escape but don't let gas in.

 The general idea is to wait until the bubbling stops (between days and weeks) then rack the wine into a clean, sterile demijohn with a new sterilized airlock leaving behind the dead yeast (called lees) which forms a sludge in the bottom. I use a food grade hose (sterilized of course) to siphon out the good wine but leave the lees behind. The wine is left in this demijohn for another month or two until it is clear (apparently you should be able to read through the bottle) then bottled and stored for a further few months or years. After all that you can open a bottle and have a taste.

This is the batch, bubbling away producing alcohol.

My first batch of apple cider. I started it three months ago and opened my first bottle with a friend a week or so ago.

As you can see, the process of making wine is long and slow. The fact that it has taken so long to make and involved so much sterilizing, washing and general fiddling makes every bottle special. If someone gives you a bottle of home made wine they must really like you.

Wednesday, 28 September 2016

Learning to drive - Uh oh

As I am on the brink of becoming a teacher, I have had to learn to drive. Teachers need to be able to come to school early and stay late. I have always been against learning to drive; I'm not good at it and not being good at it can kill people (you can see my point). However, as it is now a necessity I have bought myself a little car (after much scrimping and saving) and got my Learner's permit.

So far I have learned that I will probably never enjoy driving, cars cost a lot and partners should not be allowed to give driving advice;

Enjoying driving (or not); Surely the piloting of multiple tonnes of metal and glass powered by semi controlled explosions in unpredictable circumstances where the risk of injury or death is ever present is not a relaxing pursuit? In fact it may even qualify as an extreme sport, reserved for adrenaline junkies and those with a death wish. Many people have told me they find driving relaxing, but I'm not one of them. For the first three and a half weeks I had a constant head ache as I would drive to the local town to catch the bus to work (while my partner took my fuel efficient car to work). Driving in the morning resulted in sweaty palms and tense muscles (hence the head ache). Now I am slightly more relaxed and the head aches have passed but I am still very nervous and do not enjoy the responsibility.

Cars cost a lot; The little car I bought is twenty years old and had never been out of town. It must have been a surprise to have to go back to work in the retirement years. So far the shock absorbers (which were original) and two tires have had to be replaced. This is an expensive exercise. Having two cars also means we have two registrations, two insurances and more fuel. All so I can get to work, where I will need to earn more and work longer hours to afford the car that gets me to work (small pointless circles).

Partner/driving instructor; While my partner is a very patient man (well...he would have to be wouldn't he), he has some major flaws as a driving instructor. Firstly there is his non-verbal nature; he doesn't instruct much and uses body language instead, for example he indicates my closeness to the outside edge of the road by lifting his left leg slightly and leaning towards me. This has obvious disadvantages; I can't always be aware of his body language and piloting the car at the same time.

Secondly, he has a habit of fiddling with the buttons on my side of the car. It is very disconcerting to have the windscreen wipers flicked on while you are driving or the overdrive button pressed unexpectedly. I have now confined his area of influence to the stereo and the air conditioning while I am driving.

Thirdly, the car has become a cold war between us. Kev' likes my little car, it's good to drive, fuel efficient and reliable (mostly) so he wants to drive it all the time. His car is at the car hospital with undiagnosed pains in the fuel system and has been there for two months. Kev' shows no signs of picking it up any time soon. His work gear takes up the back seat of my car and the multitude of tools in the back is growing. He is staking his territory. To counteract this I have installed a square, dangly car scent that is so feminine it even smells pink, put on CWA and Wiccan bumper stickers and left the fairy sticker and little horns on the logo that the car came with. I am thinking of naming the car Io as my daughter says it should have a cow's name (being a Toyota) and suggested either Hathor or Daisy. Io is a much better choice as she was a Greek girl who found herself unexpectedly turned into a demi god and she traveled a lot.

I am glad to be learning a new skill, even one that I don't enjoy. I do wish that it wasn't a requirement of my working life though.

Wednesday, 21 September 2016

Making papercrete - Yet another way to use rubbish

Over this winter I have noticed a breeze blowing through the gap in our lounge room floor; the difference in height between the tyre floor and the pavers. This sneaky little breeze makes my feet cold while I spin (and I'm obviously metamorphosing into a cranky old lady) so I decided to try to block off this gap.
Enter the idea of papercrete; I have newspaper in abundance so it seemed a natural progression to mix up some papercrete and plug the gap with it. Papercrete is made by mixing newspaper soaked in water with concrete. The similarity between the recommended procedure and what I did ends there.

This is the gap I hope to fill. In addition to a sneaky breeze this gap also lets in antechinus, snakes and allows dropped cutlery to escape into the wild.

The recommended procedure says to soak the paper in a tow mixer designed to shred the softened paper and mix in the cement.

I shredded my paper...well ripped it up small, and soaked it in water in a bucket
 I was only doing a small test patch to see if it will work so I began by tearing up a bucket full of newspaper. The paper soaked for a week so it was good and soft.

I used a half bag of cement mix I had in the shed.

I added the whole half bag of cement...forgetting to pour off the extra water.

I mixed the lot into a sloppy slurry and began to pack it into the gap. The bucket full of goop went further than I thought it would, but it is still very rough and I think it will crack when it dries.

The filled up gap

As you can see it's rough.

While this was a very quick and dirty experiment I can see a lot of potential for this building material. If the papercrete holds in this gap I am thinking of using it to fill the gaps and cracks around doors and windows. I might even go as far as building a tow mixer to make HUGE batches as I am lucky enough to have access to almost unlimited newspaper.

 In other news...I went on a little field trip to the Museum of Contemporary Art in Brisbane last weekend and found this amazing piece there. It reminds me of the tumors that grow on really old gum trees.