Tempus Fugit

 

Some projects are harder than others.  It’s not just the materials needed, mess generated, or muscles overused.  More often, it is the collision of details which creates a seemingly impossible cause and effect situation.  A typical planning conversation between the two of us:  “If we move this, then we will need to move that.”  “Okay, but if we move that over there and then, oh wait, what about those wires?’  “Hang on, that will need to be moved over here before we do any of this work.”  “Haven’t we already made this decision?” “Is that a pipe running there?”  “Can we finish this in a few weeks before our friends are due for a visit?” Spoiler alert:  We’ve started another project.

When we moved to Crockern, our very first project was to install a wood burner.  It was a necessary undertaking as the chimney was open to the sky, inviting in the rain and cold, and letting out heat.  The room was chilly, damp and smelled of wet ash.  This improvement proved essential and for years we’ve had a cosy sitting area throughout the winter months.

Roll on a few years and several other projects, we returned to further improve this sitting area:  sanding the floors, removing the paint from the stone walls and scrubbing the dark soot off of the other stones around the  fireplace.  Repairing stairs, painting walls and ceilings nearby, changing the lighting, and taking the time to regularly enjoy the area.  But we aren’t finished.  There remains a window in desperate need of replacing as the frame is now rotten.  And above, there is the unaddressed wooden ceiling.

This ceiling is held up by some lovely beams which we’ve long wanted to sand to reveal the beauty of the wood.  There once were horrible particle boards hidding about 50% of the beams, but we ripped that out ages ago.  In doing so, we discovered how big the next step would become and stopped, learning to live with it as it was.  Somewhat. Neither of us liked the look or feel of the ceiling in this state.  Friends would say how they liked its “rustic” look, but that’s easy to say when you aren’t living with it and thinking about the full potential.

 

 

We spent an age deciding the next steps.   The confounding challenge is currently the ceiling sitting above the beams, is nothing more than the floor boards of the room above.  We didn’t want to install plaster board between the beams since they are wonky, bent and old.  The look would be sloppy and the plaster would quickly develop cracks.  The current set up allows for dirt to fall through from the floor boards above.

An additional inspiration for doing all this work is that we need a solid, insulated and straight wall to hang a clock.  As so many walls in the house are stone or roughly angled, our options for hanging the clock are few.  There is, however, a perfect  spot in the room above where we sit by the fire for this clock.  Too bad the wall is not finished, or rather, framing hasn’t begun.  And here is that nasty cause and effect.  We can’t frame the wall until the floor below has been sanded.  Can’t sand that floor unless we lift up the floor boards and address the beams below.  Because once that wall is built, we can no longer address the floor.  Every project begets more projects.  It’s positively biblical!

My Dad collected clocks and when he died, I brought one of his wall clocks from the USA to Crockern. It’s an old Viennese Wall Clock from the late 1800s.  Currently, it is being repaired.  I’m not certain when my Dad gave up his daily tinkering on all his clocks, but this one was an early casualty.  I found someone to repair the clock and someone else to restore the case.  I am looking forward to hearing the familiar ticking of a clock.  Growing up, our house was filled with clocks, noisily keeping time and occasionally chiming in unison on the hour.  While I can’t wait, neither can the project which will end in a wall to hang the clock. We’ve got about  4 weeks.

 

 

And yet time waits for no one.  While we’ve made our list, purchased our materials, and set about our plans we’ve had a few hiccups since starting this project.  I went to visit friends one recent morning.  During my short stay, a tree came down across their track, stranding me there until Roger could pick me up in a nearby car park.  A few days later, as we were making real progress (1/3 of the floor boards lifted and the beams sanded), Roger stepped on a 6 inch nail. He spent a night with his bandaged foot elevated.  The next morning he received a tetanus shot.

It matters little that we covered furniture, created dog barriers, numbered the boards, and were moving at a pace.  Sometimes, life – or trees and nails  — get in the way and slows us down.  Still, time’s ticking!

Beauty and The Beast

 

Snow descended upon most of the UK this past week.  The last icy blast of winter?  This season may feel like it will never end, but I know from experience the days will soon grow longer and beneath that blanket of snow, the snowdrops and daffodils will push up through the ground announcing the coming of spring.

After two months of rain and mud, I welcome the freezing temperatures carried by The Beast from The East (the name given to the arctic temperatures which recently came from Siberia).  Typically, English winters seem damp and temperate, but this unusually crisp, dry and cold atmosphere reminds me of winters in the States.  So cold it felt like my eyeballs might freeze.

The Beast surprised us on its first day:  We awoke to find no water due to a frozen pipe.  Armed with a hairdryer and determination, Roger made quick work to restore our water.   After that, we began leaving a tap on to prevent another pipe freeze.  We were somewhat loath to do this as the water pump working in the night might require the generator to start or drain our storage batteries.  However, we could not afford to have frozen pipes and their attendant problems.  Wisely, Roger started manually running our 30-year old Lister generator each evening to keep it from struggling to start in such cold conditions.  This simple act kept the batteries topped up through the night.

As we adjusted to hard ground, frozen sections of the river, and keeping everything ticking over, we found ourselves waiting for the arrival of Storm Emma.   We felt certain it would be as if we were collateral damage during a match-up of Marvel Comic characters.  And we were.  Emma’s arrival brought fifty-mile an hour wind gusts hurtling down the valley from the north and a dumping of snow.  Each walk with Millie felt like a polar expedition as we made our way through the growing drifts of snow.

Living in a rural area, Roger and I naturally worry about our supplies of food and fuel and the welfare of the hens.   Before Emma and The Beast coupled, we had wisely secured plenty of food, wine, firewood, books and went so far as to bring inside all the watering cans, and filling water bottles should we have another pipe freeze too big for our little hairdryer.  Battened down and ready:  Bring it on Winter!

Looking out the window to the blizzard and all too aware that we could be snow-bound for a few days, my thoughts drift to childhood memories of sledding, building snowmen and snow caves and hoping school would be closed.  The snow outside transforms the meaning of home inside, where we stoke the fire, listen more intensely to the radio, and remind one another of the various tasks to keep ourselves safe and Crockern operational.  We may be considered remote, but in truth we are generally self-sufficient and could easily manage a week or two of isolation.

But, not if we had an emergency!  With equal measurements of sensibility and adventure, Millie and I started up the Land Rover and drove down the track.  There were several large drifts across the track, but the snow was light and fluffy and I was in a four-wheel drive.  I drove through these with glee!   But at the end of our track, there was a drift about 4 feet high, blocking access through the gate.  I grabbed my shovel, and began to dig.  As this was Millie’s first snow, she realised she too could help rid the drift with her digging.  In no time, the two of us cleared a path.

We were lucky.  Some of our neighbours were stuck as there were no passable roads to their houses.  A friend’s generator wouldn’t start leaving him without electricity, which meant no heat or water.  Many friends and neighbours had no water as pipes were frozen; while nearby, a neighbour had leaking in the house from a ruptured pipe.

After the storm abated, most of the landscape was dressed in soft, virgin snow.  It’s magical appearance a reminder of the power of nature.  Across the country, traffic came to a standstill.  Trains were cancelled or delayed by several hours.  Plans to see friends aborted.  When my schedule is disrupted by the weather, I only pretend frustration. Mostly, I sigh with relief: the world has stopped.  When I look at our calendar and all the things I have had to cancel, suddenly many of them don’t seem so important.  Winter slows our pace, disrupts the business of schedules and appointments and reminds us to re-organize priorities.

It’s true, winter gets into our bones and at times can seem interminable, tedious and brutal.   But as the snow transforms the previously muddy landscape, this cold reminds me of the visceral comfort of a warm fire, a glass of wine, rest and a good book.  Hunkering down takes on greater joy!  So too, I am reminded of that sense of excitement and boundless energy to get outside and enjoy the snow.  Shovelling is not a chore, it’s playtime!  Tossing snowballs into drifts for Millie to locate becomes the height of mischief for both of us.

Shortly on the heels of the snow fall, arrived the freezing rain.  Our track was clear of snow drifts, but it was beginning to become ice.  The wind was gathering strength and generating a deafening sound, which all but muffled the moan of tree branches under the new weight of 3 centimetres of ice.

Soon, all the snow will melt, and it of course will mean the return of mud.  But this dreamy-blizzardy-back-drop, sandwiched between the rain and mud of winter, has helped restore a sense of what matters most.

 

A Small Gathering

Sometimes, you just need a holiday.  It’s not necessary that it be a great distance, an exotic location, or even an extended period.  A few nights away, visiting friends is enough to help relax and restore.  And that is just what we did.

With our chickens secured for the weekend, Roger and I packed our overnight bags, Sam and Millie’s belongings, and a few gifts of flowers, wine and snacks into the car and headed out for a two-night stay with friends.   Road Trip!

Ian and Carol have a wonderful set up, living and working on twelve acres in a lovely house.  We arrived in time for drinks, dinner and an evening of catching up and sharing laughs.  The following morning was cool and sunny so we set out with the dogs and walked along the old Roman wall of Silchester, which is near their home.  Often on walks in England, I will think of who travelled along that route before.  Was it Jane Austen in Bath imagining bumping into Mr. Darcy?  Or perhaps, was it an Edwardian farmer gathering gorse on the moors to feed to her horses?  In this instance, I found myself considering the Roman Centurion who protected the homes along these walls.

According to English Heritage, Silchester is considered one of the best preserved Roman towns in Britain.  Growing up in Ohio, we didn’t have such things, suffice it to say, I’m excited.  These ancient ruins were the centre of an Iron Age kingdom from the late 1st century BC where once there would have been a significant town with houses, public buildings and public baths.  There is an old Roman amphitheatre, too.  The wall we are walking along would have been part of the ancient town’s defences.  But now, along parts of the path are hedges bursting with blackberries, sloes, and rosehips.

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Last year on our visit, we gathered bags of wind fallen apples and plums, returning home to make jam.  This year, we filled our bags with perfectly ripe blackberries and barely ripe sloes.  There is something appealing about foraging.  The idea of gathering food from the hedges, while the dogs run up and down the path, helps to accelerate the relaxing effects of a get-away weekend.   It slows us down, it connects us with the abundance of food on offer for free.  And, being out and about, soaking up vitamin D and eating several juicy blackberries lifts our spirits.  Glancing up at Roger, who is tall and can pick the higher berries, I laugh to myself with the image of him in a Roman outfit and helmet.  “Now, conjugate the verb ‘to go’.”

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As the day unfolds, Roger and Ian head over to a local farm to see the recently hatched turkey chicks, soon to grow to size for Christmas tables across the region.  Meanwhile, Carol and I take to pruning some of the garden.  It is a massive garden, and our few hours of cutting back the shrubs and deadheading the roses worked wonders, but maintaining this garden will require several days a week.  Sensibly, we call it quits and head to the pub.

English pubs remain one of my favourite places.  They are filled with people sharing a drink, perhaps a bite of food, and conversation.  No loud music or multiple TV screens showing sports.  Dogs are welcome.  And if the weather suits, sitting outside in a garden nursing a drink.  Honestly, it doesn’t get better than this.

Before leaving, Carol and I pick beans (we cannot successfully grow them where we are as it is too windy) and then head to the chicken coop to select a cockerel.  Roger and I have never had a cockerel as they can sometimes be mean.  Besides, hens can organize themselves just fine.  But Carol and Ian have three cockerels, and that is too many.  We select a Bantam who appears confident and friendly.  He’s beautifully coloured with head feathers about the ears making him look like he’s wearing headphones.  I’ve named him Tommy.

It’s a three-hour drive home, if we don’t hit traffic.  Our bags and bounty are packed in the car:  beans, berries, sloes and Tommy are all in the car with Sam, Millie and the two of us.  We make our way back to Crockern and strategize just exactly how we are going to introduce this small cockerel to our rather large hens.  He was fine at Carol and Ian’s, where they have a crazy collection of large hens, Bantams, geese and something that looked to me like a cross between a chicken and a pheasant.  We are hoping Tommy respectfully asserts himself in his new setting in Dartmoor.  Meanwhile, we can get on with making a crumble, some sloe gin, and putting some beans on the table to go with the rest of our dinner.

Now well rested, tomorrow we’ll get back to work.

 

Teaching Millie to Swim

We don’t get many hot days on Dartmoor, but recently we had one.  Twenty-four degrees, no clouds and little to no breeze.  Sitting in the shade and reading a good book would be an ideal activity; but equally, it is a terrific day for doing some outside projects.  Unless wisely chosen, I risk melting in the heat.  Fortunately, we have a long list of possible projects:  filling potholes, jet-washing loose paint from the outside of the house, gardening, washing windows, mowing the lawn, or pointing the shed.  But a bonfire at high noon with no breeze was my choice.

The pile of rotten and useless old posts, left a few months ago from when Roger finished re-fencing the south side of the property, was calling to me.

I lathered on my sunscreen and covered most of my skin in bug spray.  Millie and I headed out to the lower field and commenced to building a fire.   Sam elected to exercise his old boy rights and snooze on the kitchen floor for the better part of the morning.  Meanwhile, Roger was tending to a leak in one of the pipes under the stairs.  This was not on the day’s to-do list, but when he went to grab a screw driver from his tool bag, it was swimming in water.  Yes, a slow and steady drip from the pipe above had filled the canvas bag below.  Roger’s plans were changed.

But not mine.  In our spot for bonfires, I piled some wood and cardboard and set it alight.  Those old fence posts – rotten and soggy from exposure – went up in flames as if they had been saturated in accelerant.  On went a few more post, and then a few more.  As the fire raged, I sacrificed the picnic table which was beyond repair.  After a few hot and sweaty hours, the pile of wood was nothing more than a circle of hot coals.  And my ankles, where I missed patches with the bug spray, were aflame with bug bites.  The itching was agonizing.  As the heat was growing both with the sun and the bonfire, I could feel the sweat trickle down my back.  Looking around, I found Millie near the stile which leads to our river access.   It was time to cool off and get refreshed.

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West Dart River, Dartmoor

With complete joy, Millie jumps from rock to rock.  She stoops low to the river and bites at the water as it passes.   She wants to jump in, but swimming is not her thing, preferring to paddle no deeper than her belly.  It’s not that she is afraid of the water, it’s more, she’s not comfortable with having her feet lose contact with the bottom.  That slimy, slippery, rocky, river bottom.  More than once, I have stepped too quickly and found a boot full of water.  But, Mille is sure footed and will happily skitter up and down the river on rocks.

While Millie is darting about, biting at the water and gathering her ball as it floats past on the current, I have carefully clambered out to the middle of the river.  The water is cool and refreshing.  Dragon flies skitter past.  They too manage to play in the water, but not swim.

Millie drops her beloved ball, and with a focused look, tells me to throw it.  I give it a high Federa-esc lob and it lands up river stalling in deep water where there is little current.  Millie waits and watches.  If it were bobbing down river, she would surely station herself atop a rock and wait for it to float nearby.  But this is something altogether different.  She must be thinking, What am I to do?  How do I get that ball? It’s not moving.  Surely, it should be moving.  There is no way I’m going to SWIM to it!

I issue encouraging words, but no amount of coaxing seems to get her to release the contact her paws have with these stones.  So, I slip off the rock where I’ve been sitting and begin to dog-paddle toward the ball, “C’mon Millie, you can do it.  This is how we swim.”   She barks with excitement.  Running up and down the reedy shore line, trying to get that ball before I do.  My hands and knees are sliding across the mossy rocks below as the water isn’t that deep.  “See Millie, this is called dog-paddling.  You can do it.”  She barks in response, sizing up her options.  Moved by her competitive nature, Millie takes a tentative step off her underwater perch and takes her first splashy strokes.  Catching the ball in her mouth, she quickly makes it to the other side of the river.  It’s true, dogs know how to swim.  Some, however, swim with grace.  It is safe to say, Millie does not.

On terra firma, Millie shakes the water from her coat and clutches the ball in her mouth. She is not giving it up anytime soon.  And, despite the heat of the day, this is enough wild swimming for this little collie.   The bonfire is burned down.  The leaky pipe is repaired.  Dinner awaits.  Millie has learned how to swim and Sam is taking an early evening stroll about the garden.  Roger is heating up the hot tub, and me, well, I’m sitting on the new bench on Gin and Tonic Hill.  Bliss.

Just Put One Foot in Front of The Other

Walking may be the most natural way of getting from A to B, but there must be more to it than that.  Are the dandy, the drifter, the dog walker, the peripatetic artist, tourists and their guide, barefoot pilgrims and sign carrying protest marchers all on the same footing?  Tomes have been written and TV shows produced about why we walk, who loves to walk, and where to find enjoyable walks.  A few famous and keen walkers are Wordsworth, Martin Luther King, Jr., Elizabeth Bennet, Nietzsche, Bob Dylan, and, of course, me.

But why do we do it?  What is behind this temptation to get out and put one foot in front of the other?  Nietzsche wrote, “It is only ideas gained from walking that have any worth.”  That certainly bodes well for this blog, as I thought a lot about it while walking.

In mid-May, I began a two-week stay in East Sussex.  Several years ago, a colleague from Rutgers University and I developed a summer class for students.  A simple concept with so many possibilities:  We would spend two weeks walking the South Downs and letting the rhythm and landscape, the people and events, provide a springboard for creative writing.  An opportunity for these students to develop a sense of place and express it through poetry and prose.

As I walk through a meadow smothered in wildflowers near Kipling’s home in Burwash, my heart expands seeing the abundance of daisies, buttercups, cow parsley, poppies, and soft brush tops of a variety of grasses.  A herd of cows eye me as I approach, all the while, slowly chewing, chewing, chewing, chewing the spring grass and clover.  During this brief staring contest with the cows, my mind drifts to home and the field outside our kitchen window where pointy reed bushes provide a backdrop to the wild foxgloves poking through for summer.  Together, both create a camouflage for the hidden-ankle-spraining granite boulders and rabbit holes that make walking through this field a challenge for all but the livestock.  An outcropping of gorse, heather and a slow-growing, but determined Rowan tree are reminders of the nutrient weak soil.

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Sussex!  Oh, lovely Sussex!  With its soft and forgiving walks, easily navigated with an OS map and a bit of intuition.  Even a downpour of rain results in nothing more than getting wet and muddy.  It’s rare to have a descending fog, relentless gale force winds and the cold weather that can spell curtains for a rambler gone astray on Dartmoor.  I confess, it is wonderful to have a few weeks of walks offering forgiveness under my feet and the freedom of simultaneously walking and looking out at the horizon.  While I strut along the South Downs Way, I watch birds soar above and the green undulation of the downs reaching out toward the sea.  I let my mind drift.  And drift it does.

In stark contrast is the country-side of our beloved Dartmoor, significant for its wild, untamed and elusive landscape.  Its jagged outcropping of tors, torrential rivers and hidden bogs require a constant vigilance to prevent a misstep or an ankle twist.   Remaining ever mindful to avoid stepping onto an unstable rock or into a boggy patch, drowning my boot and socks.  As Roger and I cultivate a quieter life, we find ourselves in a more demanding location.  In Sussex, I spy lovely cottage gardens – hollyhocks, gladiolas, forget-me-nots – and know none of this could ever survive our acidic soil, battering of rain and wind, cooler and cloudier days where nettle, moss, gorse, and lichen take their time to establish a tenacious existence.  The hills and moors of Dartmoor fold over themselves deep into the distance.  When one falls from sight, another appears.  The only limit upon them is the horizon.  Is loving this rugged and untamable landscape like lusting after a strong and silent cowboy?  Despite all effort, it may never reciprocate my affections.

On a recent walk with Roger and Millie — Sam electing to remain napping on the cool kitchen floor — we set out with a soft sun and puffy clouds above and a strong breeze from behind.  About an hour into the walk, a coolness descended and the light turned grey.  As we paused to note this, the wind kicked up and we were soon being pelted by hail.  The weather swirled around, causing us all to struggle with our steps as if we had been drugged.  Racing up the hill, we took brief shelter behind a tor and bemoaned the limitations of a weather app in this microclimate.  The wind eventually pulled back and the hail stopped, but not before we were wet, exfoliated and somewhat chilled.  Soon, the sun poked out between layers of grey and white clouds as if nothing had happened.

We walked home where Roger fixed us a medium-enormous gin and tonic and we moved into the living room and sank into the sofa.  Soon we would begin to prepare our dinner, discuss the news or our next project, watch the birds at the feeder, play endless games of fetch with Millie and massage Sam’s old and aging back legs.

So why do we stride out? In an ever auto-dependent world, it’s nice to see the country-side, get some exercise, take photos, learn about birds and plant life, catch up with friends, and even stimulate some creative juices unleashing a story or a song.  But, it’s more than that.  Whether in the company of others or not, there comes a time in every walk where we are alone with only our thoughts and observations, falling neatly to the rhythm of our pace and our breath.   And in that solitude, there emerges a sense of self and grounding.  Whether it is a familiar path walked daily, or a new trail yet to be discovered.   It may just be that no one can provide a sense of place for someone else.  We have no choice but to find it for ourselves and it is in doing that — taking it in our own strides, shuffles, struts, or lopes — that we cease to be alone.

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Millie and Mr. Badger

The chickens open their mouths in alarm and stand stock still as Millie shoots out the door, starting her day with a raucous round of barking.  While she busies herself behind the oil tank, Sam and I carry on with our usual daily chores before our pack of three head down the track for a walk and the chance to marvel at the dawn chorus.

During the day, people walk past and dogs come up to the gate.  Millie wags her tail, never making so much as a peep.  But at night time, when everything is done and we let the dogs out for one last “hurrah”, Sam sniffs the perimeter of the yard and Millie races over to the oil tank, closing her day with an encore of protective barking.

What is this all about?  For the past few days, she has been persistent in this behaviour.  Millie will not let you rake leaves or sweep a floor without the odd little yelp, but she is not a big barker.   She watches the rugby on TV.  She bites at your boots if you kick dirt, snow or leaves and she happily chases rabbits and squirrels out of the garden.  Unless we are out on a walk, she will run inside if the wind is too strong, but not before rounding up leaves as they soar past.  She’s a chaser, not a fighter.

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A quick investigation reveals her concern:  we have a resident badger.  Over the years, we have had neighbouring badgers and evidence of their nocturnal visits— track marks, holes with badger poo (yes, they dig little latrines and then shit in them).  About four years ago, I had a rare sighting late one late one night and watched the badger in all of its black and white splendour slowly pass through the yard.  They have killed some of our chickens, damaged our bird feeders, and caused us to make adjustments to the chicken coop, which now has the equivalent security of Fowl Knox.    But now, there is a tunnel opening in the hillside about twenty feet from our front door.

We don’t mind if they want to “sett” up their household and include us in their territory.  Badgers mostly eat earthworms, insects and grubs.  That’s agreeable to us, despite how pathetic the grass looks as a result.  Sometimes they dig up and eat roots and fruit, but with our efforts to protect the garden beds from the rabbits, the badgers are not a problem.  They will sometimes eat small mammals and birds, including chickens but our chickens are safe and secure at night behind multiple layers of  wire defence.  As to the other small mammals — rats and moles — we have no concern about this level of predation.

Badgers are notoriously shy and elusive and will scurry off if disturbed by us, so making a big noise as we open the front door should keep Millie safe.  But the fact that she runs over to the badger’s door, barking an invitation to come out and play or go away, might make the badger inside feel trapped.  And feeling trapped could make it lash out in a bid for freedom.  Millie frightening an animal with long claws and a jaw powerful enough to crush bones doesn’t bear contemplating.

Besides, we welcome critters to Crockern — the more the merrier — however, there are a few conditions for this happy republic:

  • Rabbits, you are to stay out of the vegetable beds.  To this, there are no if’s, and’s, or but’s.
  • Mice, rats, moles and squirrels are welcome, but you must stay outside and not chew anything of value.
  • Birds can nest where you like, but try to not shit on the cars or our heads.  Jackdaws please be warned, the chimney will be repaired in about a month’s time, so hanging out there won’t be easy with the new chimney pots.
  • Foxes and badgers we welcome you, but you must stay away from the chickens.  If you’re hungry, consider the abundance of rabbits, rats, mice, squirrels and such.
  • Bees, spiders and bugs are invited to the Crockern party.  We love how you help the flora and fauna.
  • Lichens and mosses, snakes, frogs and toads you are all welcome, too.
  • Bats, you are always encouraged.
  • But, unwanted solicitations from sales reps, religious organisations, etc. are not welcome.

Without seeming rude, how do we encourage the badger to move house to something more private and maybe a little further afield?  This door is just too close for comfort.  The hillside is located under tree roots which were exposed decades ago when this bit of the property was excavated.  Our oil tanks are located there.  The land is slowly eroding, and we need to build a retaining wall.  The badger is not helping our progress.

Our research reveals that badgers do not like the smell of urine near the opening to their home.  I couldn’t agree more.  Clearly, the logistics of dousing the full garden boundary in human urine are tricky, so we’ve gone for a focused approach:  Roger has taken to peeing near the badger’s tunnel door.

We think this may be just a brief badger visit.  After about a week, there is just the single hole and it is too close to our activities and front door for a relaxing badger lifestyle.   Still, Roger pees outside and Millie continues to announce her arrival outside to one and all with her barking song.  I encourage Sam and Millie to pee in various places to keep the foxes on alert.  Me?  I prefer to avail myself of the toilet.

Finding my Way

Recently I attended a navigation workshop for women offered by Two Blondes, a fabulous business run by two women dedicated to getting everyone outside exploring (check them out:  http://www.twoblondeswalking.com).  The idea of other like-minded women, interested in the outdoors and Dartmoor appealed to me.  But learning to properly use a compass, well that was the cherry on top!

How had I gotten to my fifties and not learned this skill?  Three of my four brothers were Eagle Scouts and my Dad was a Scout Master with the Boy Scouts.  As a family, we frequently went camping.  And yet, no one taught me this basic skill.

Is it possible I’ve never learned because I never needed to do so?  Years ago, friends and colleagues gave Roger a silver cup engraved with “The Navigator”.   When it comes to using a compass in the wild, I’ve obviously relied on Roger.  It’s easy to let him figure out our route, while I mind the dogs, look at the landscape and enjoy myself.  And given that engraved mug, who wouldn’t cede responsibility?

But it is not sustainable to take the back seat and rely on others to explore new areas.  The times I’ve gone out to explore on my own, map in hand, I’ve managed to get somewhat lost on Dartmoor.  Not so much lost, really, but haunted by an overriding awareness that I could get lost at any moment.  Then what?

Dartmoor is a tricky challenge, which is why the military train and orienteering activities like the Ten Tors or Duke of Edinburgh are held here.  The usual landmarks found in other national parks are often absent.  Forests change due to cutting.  Walls on the map aren’t always there as they may be historic and grassed over.  Pillow mounds and hut circles, easily identified by archaeologists or skilful navigators, often look like a pile of rocks to me.  Add to that, the weather can be like the ocean with shifting tides from clear, calm waters to rip tides putting an innocent swimmer in peril.  Knowing what you’re doing on Dartmoor is a good idea to say the least.

Thirteen of us gathered for our workshop by Two Blondes.  Armed with our OS maps, compasses, and enthusiasm, we chatted about why we were there:   “I want to get my skills and sense of direction back.”  “My partner always reads the map….what if he drops dead?”  “I just want to do something for myself and sometimes that means walking by myself.”  I was in good company.  All these women, ranging in ages and skills, backgrounds and interests, were crooning just like Annie Lenox and Aretha Franklin, we were doin’ it for ourselves.

Soon, the workshop begins and we open our maps to locate towns, pubs, buildings, footpaths, woods, and rivers and streams.  We calculate distances, times and read the contours of elevations.  All of this was familiar from the hours I’ve spent pouring over OS maps.  I love them for their detail and history.  These beautifully scaled representations of the land are the key to exploring, complete with the easy to use 4 or 6 figure grid reference system.  This part of the workshop was interesting, but when we were going to get to the compass?  That little magnetic mystery that somehow holds the key?  Every skilled navigator will say, “trust your compass.”   But mine, with its needle, orienting lines, directional arrow, declination line, magnifying round and compass scale sat there teasing me.  Then suddenly, one of the Two Blondes announced, “Okay, everyone pull out your compass.”   At last!  And within minutes, what had always seemed difficult and elusive, was made easy.

Roger has explained how to use a compass before, but often he assumes I know what he’s talking about.  Because it is familiar to him, he enthusiastically shows me all the cool things, without ever setting up the basics.  He tells me about true north, magnetic north, and how the map shifts out of north by 1 degree, 29 minutes every year.  My mind drifts.  Is this how Robert Scott and his men missed their South Pole destination only to die tragically close?   It is fair to say, Roger is operating from the notion that I surely must have some basic concepts about this simple, yet revolutionary, circular instrument.  But the Two Blondes knew that we few, we happy few, we band of sisters didn’t know and thus provided a simple, encouraging, and educational approach to using our compasses.   And it is so easy and fun!  I now see why Roger would make the assumption I had a basic understanding.

 

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After mastering our compasses inside, we set out on a walk.   Navigating is not just about the compass, it is also about timing and distance, so we learned our pacing.  We set a bearing and headed off to find a pool on the moor.  Why would anyone ever want to go off a path and find a pool/bog marked on the map?  Well, because it’s on the map and with a compass and a little know how you can.  And what a find!  This bog area was covered in all manner of wildflowers and dwarf shrubs of heather and billbery, along with sedges, cotton-grass, deer grass and purple moor grass, the likes of which I hadn’t noticed along the path.  And because of the boggy nature of the area, all the grazing animals stayed clear, so there was indeed a different wildness to the flora and fauna.  The path we left was still busy with other walkers, families, bike riders and the like.  But up by this pool, away from the path, we could only see the Dartmoor wilderness — that vast landscape rich with varied ecosystems.   We noticed small blue flowers, heard bird song, and spotted sundew, a small carnivorous plant with red spiked leaves to enable it to catch insects to supplement its diet due to the poor nutrient levels of the blanket bogs.  What we couldn’t see was the footpath, or anyone on it, and we were a mere 250 meters away.

Oh, I’m hooked alright.  I love the compass and the idea of being able to learn to orienteer with greater skill.  I love how ordinary it looks, but that it powerfully denotes direction.  I also prefer my little compass to the modern geospatial app on my phone, which is useful but not foolproof.  When I got home, I told Roger all about my day.  He shared my excitement and showed me another type of compass, a sighting compass.  I had no idea we had this little treasure.  He attempted to explain to me how it worked, and nearly failed until I explained how the Two Blondes taught us to use a compass at which point, he wound back his enthusiastic description so that I could see its potential.  Practice and patience will improve my skills as it isn’t exactly rocket science.  In the coming days, I plan to set out and make a few discoveries on my own so that all of us can safely get lost together.

Feel The Burn

I was in town when Roger called me to tell me about the fire raging across the hill on the other side of the river.  His voice sounded concerned as he described hearing fire engines in the distance while watching how the strong winds were rapidly spreading the fire.  Alarmingly, there appeared to be nobody bearing fire shovels in sight to control this burn.  The fire was moving swiftly down the valley toward our fields, but if the wind had shifted, it was entirely possible embers from the fires could easily jump across the river and burn Wistman’s Woods.

Roger is not one to exaggerate so I quickly finished what I was doing and high tailed it back home.  It seemed better to have both of us home in case we had to do anything to keep the fire from coming too close.

Driving back to Crockern, I kept a sharp eye out for smoke filling the sky and saw none.  But when I rounded the corner to make my way up our track, there were four fire engines parked.  The closer I got to home, the more I could smell the charred remains of burnt gorse and grass and see the smoke drifting up from the scorched earth.  What had been green and golden when I left in the morning was now black and smouldering.  Several acres were burned, but by the time I arrived, the fire had been contained.

Controlled Burn.  Prescribed Burn.  Hazard Reduction Burning.  Backfire.  Anglo Saxons called it Swælan.   Locally, it’s known as Swaling and has been carried out for centuries.  Swaling is the annual burning of gorse and scrub in order to clear the ground of dead and overgrown vegetation, allowing new growth to flourish.  Those green shoots which grazing livestock love to eat, not the ones economists like to talk about on the news.

On open moorland, overgrown vegetation can restrict some public access and in dryer, warmer months can present significant risk for wild fires.  The farmers who graze on the common land are allowed to conduct controlled burning of moorland vegetation, in other words swale, to clear the ground encouraging new growth.

Between 1 November and 31 March it is permissible for the Commoners to do controlled burns and all signs pointed to this being a planned burn.  But we suspect it might not have been.  The local farmer for that patch of land said he was not swaling that day.  Honestly, no one in their right mind would have set out to swale because it was such a windy day.  Could it have been a casually tossed cigarette?  We see enough litter lying about that it wouldn’t have surprise us.  A few years ago, a fire damaged over 600 acres of moorland when strong winds fanned the flames.  The cause of that fire was unknown and took more than 100 firefighters to bring it under control.

As the sun was getting low on the horizon, the firefighters returned to their engines after a job well done.  The sheep in the fields carried on nibbling grass and the horses and chickens seemed unfazed.  The songbirds at the feeders were out in full force, possibly discussing just what the hell happened.  Roger and I sat down to do the same.  The fires were out, but all of us at Crockern were left with the view of a blackened hillside and air heavy with the smell of charred vegetation.

Before we had a chance to recover, we received a phone call from the farmer who grazes livestock on our side of the river and he was planning to swale up our side of the valley the next day.  I know it is a technique to manage the landscape and is legally done this time of the year, but looking upon the burned remains on the other side of the river, I couldn’t help but feel a bit sad.

Around two in the afternoon, we saw the haze of smoke cloaking our usual view down the track.   We scanned the hillside to see the group of swalers assembled to oversee the burn.  After about ten minutes, the flames were licking over the tops of the yellow-flowering gorse bushes, marching forward across the hillside toward Crockern.  This is the very gorse which I had scratched my cornea on last year, and spent a good amount of time this winter cutting back to clear trenches.  Not certain I would have bothered with that miserable task if I knew this burn was going to happen.  Still, I was sorry to see the prickly gorse so easily go up in smoke.

With the air calm and a seasoned crew of swalers, Roger and I weren’t concerned about this fire, even as it made quick pace toward our house.  I took pictures and watched from the window, comfortable in the knowledge that this fire was under control.  Given the day before’s experience, I don’t wish to be too close to a fire outside of our trusty woodburner any time soon.

A January Snow

After weeks of rain, we awoke one morning to a covering of snow. By my mid-Western standards, it wasn’t a significant amount, but those three inches did a wonderful job of covering up the mud and layering the land with a fluffy white blanket.

We were both awake early and took the opportunity for a walk before the crowds of snow-crazed people arrive to go sledding, build snowmen, and generally leave behind a mess from their enjoyment. For us, the chance to be out first, looking for tracks of foxes, badgers and rabbits is exciting.

We found plenty of rabbit tracks surround the house and garden confirming the need for diligence as we plan our summer vegetable planting. Thankfully, there were no paw-prints from foxes anywhere near our chickens. No signs of badgers either. It seems our electric fencing is working to protect our hens.

Oblivious to any predatory risk, the chickens head out to greet their first snow of the season, clucking a mixture of confusion and delight: “This stuff is pretty and makes my feathers look so fetching but where is the mud and how am I to find worms here?” Or, something like that.

It’s still early and the morning sky emits shades of light suggesting more snow to come. We make our way up the path toward the woods and tors, knowing we are the first to lay our boot-tracks in this snow. Roger has a buoyant gate as if he is expecting something exciting to cross his path. Aromas buried beneath the white, flaky ground cover enchant Sam. And I’m taking a few photos to hold onto this moment where it feels as if Dartmoor is revealing her secrets to us only.

 

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In The Trenches

Sometimes, my body simply can’t move and I am incapable of lifting even my little finger.   Naps call to me when a reviving cup of coffee seems inadequate.  These moments of pure exhaustion usually stem from a day of physically demanding projects.   Lately though, my desire to slouch onto the sofa with a good book and a blanket is the result of enduring the tyranny of relentless rain, hail and wind these past weeks.  I’ve had enough.

In December, a beautiful autumn gave way to weeks of heavy rains and strong winds, taking much of the country hostage.  Floods and economic damage have affected thousands.  For the two of us, the consequences of all this wet weather have been relatively minor.  We have a chimney leak, indicating some flashing which needs attention, our winter vegetable garden is not growing, but it isn’t dying either, and our track is developing a number of pot holes.  The river is torrential and raging.  The yard is saturated making each step a potential slip and fall. The chickens haven’t had a good day out in weeks.  Sam’s walks, when not abbreviated, have tested the limits of our waterproof outerwear.   And my hiking boots leak.  Still, life goes on.

The first morning walk with Sam down the track includes a routine assessment of potholes.  Filling potholes is a regular spring activity and the quicker we stop them becoming craters, the better.   Left to grow,  larger potholes need a packing of bricks, which we hammer down before covering with road planings.  Heading into December, I was feeling smug about how fine the track was looking, even flirting with the idea that spring 2016 might mean a “miss” on track maintenance.   But this winter’s rains have undone our past summer’s efforts.  More than a few potholes have emerged.  Big, bold, deep, and growing each time anyone drives up the track.  With the ground so heavily saturated, the rainwater runs off the hillside and across the track, taking all the gravel with it and giving way not just to potholes, but to a relatively new aspect of Crockern maintenance:  clearing ditches.

As no one expected the war to last as long as it did, the first trenches in WWI were made quickly and often filled with water and subsequently collapsed.  Our trenches — ditches really — are designed to direct the water off the hills and into holes which run under the track.  In the distant past, some wise soul constructed this series of ditches, but years of neglect has left them overgrown, filled with grass, silt and low growing gorse branches.  In some areas, the network of sheep paths has flattened the lip of the ditch letting water run over the ditch’s banks.  With my shovel and clippers to hand, I’ve set about a wet, wintry madness of clearing this overgrowth so the water can resume its historic flow when it rains heavily.

This is not a quick job.  According to the British trench guidelines, it took nearly six hours for 450 men to construct 250 metres of trench.  The layout of the trenches was generally about two metres deep and two metres wide.  Our ditch is about 20 x 20 centimetres.   Considering the smaller size, I suppose it shouldn’t take too long for one woman, one shovel and a pair of garden shears to clear the overgrowth.

But, there are many reasons why this job is not quickly accomplished:

  1. It is futile to dig when it is pouring down with rain or the wind is too blowy.  I fall over more.  My hair is in my face and I can’t see.  I rapidly get fed up.
  2. There are only so many hours in a day the body and mind can do this sort of work.  I suspect prisoners and slaves made to smash rocks or build pyramids would agree.
  3. After about 2 hours, I’m happy to see I’ve accomplished about 30 feet of clearing.   I arch my back and stretch my shoulders only to see the remaining 2,000 feet left to clear.  My heart sinks and it takes time to recover motivation.
  4. Last year when I started this project, I scratched my cornea on a gorse bush.  I close my eyes half the time I’m doing this job now, which does slow things down considerably.
  5. The house is warm and dry.  My book is good.  The sofa is comfy.

While I’ve been outside covered in mud and rain, Roger has made incredible progress on removing the paint from the interior granite stones using a non-toxic paste and a lot of hard graft.  This is no easy undertaking either, as he must first apply the paste, then remove the softened paint with a scraper before using the power washer to get rid of the rest.  This clears the stones of paint while at the same time making a flooded mess inside the house, necessitating an hour or so of cleaning up.

While we toil away on our various projects, the rains continue.  Occasionally there is a brief interlude when thick cloud cover gives way to a watery sunlight.  The powerful winds die back and the birds return to our feeders.  When we eventually have a few days free of rain, the soggy, muddy, squidgy ground will once again find firmness.   For now, we alternate between ditch digging, paint stripping, drying wet clothing, and drying a wet dog before we answer the call of a book, a hot bath, a cold drink, a soft couch and the chance to drift off into a blissful sleep.

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A view from the trench as the clouds give way to a brief moment of blue sky.