And, I’m Still Waiting for Mandy Patinkin!

Recently, Roger cleared a plot of land where our soakaway flows.  It was overgrown and to breathe new life into it, he spent days cutting, hauling and digging.  He uncovered over 40 stones, each weighing about 150 pounds or more.

We’ve been repairing a significant old wall near the generator, trying to prepare the area for the new roof we must build.  The wall here will not be load bearing, but it still needs to be sturdy.  Those 40 stones are coming in handy, but they aren’t next to this project.

And so, we’re back to moving rocks.  As such, I’m reposting a piece I wrote during our first summer at Crockern.

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In the 1993 movie, The Music of Chance (based on the Paul Auster book of the same title), Jim Nashe (Mandy Patinkin) is an ex-fireman who sets off with a sizeable inheritance to explore the US in his new red BMW.  He is free of debt and responsibilities.  On route, he meets Jack Pozzi (James Spader), a feckless down on his luck gambler.  Pozzi cunningly manipulates Nashe to enter a high stakes poker game against two eccentric and wealthy bachelors.

Unfortunately, the poker prowess of Nashe and Pozzi is not up to snuff and after running out of money and using his car as collateral, Nashe risks everything on a last blind turn of a card.  As luck would have it, he loses and the two become indebted to the cunning bachelors.  To pay off the debt, they are indentured into building a “wailing wall” in the meadow behind the bachelors’ mansion, a wall that nobody will ever see.  This wall is to be made of stones from the ruins of a fifteenth-century Irish castle, each weighing more than sixty pounds.  There are ten thousand stones.

Wall Building in The Music of Chance

Things to know about granite:

  1. It is widely distributed in the Earth’s crust.
  2. It is igneous, slowly solidifying from magma.
  3. It can contain minerals, like feldspar and quartz, so it is the Superman of stones and is stronger than steel.
  4. Granite is everywhere in Dartmoor, including our property walls and most of our house.

One thing that Dartmoor is not short of is dry stonewalls and there are hundreds of miles of walls across the moor.  Early farmers enclosed their land by building these sturdy walls.  In the 1700’s, a right of any ancient tenement holder (farm) was that upon succession of the farm, the son could enclose a further 8 acres of land.  These areas were called “newtakes”.   Someone had to build these enclosures and building a wall by piling stones 4 or 5 feet tall without mortar was an invaluable skill.

I will attest, it still is.

When we met Jim, a local stonewaller, he was repairing the wall along our track for the local farmer.  He and his apprentice took the section that had fallen during a storm last year, and in a days work in the pouring rain, recreated a beautiful wall.  We asked Jim to take a look at some of our walls that needed repair in order to keep the sheep out.  This talented man, who earns a living building stonewalls, suggested installing stock proof fencing.  The major breaches are in soggy bits of field, and to bring a “digger” to lift the heavy stones into place might result in the digger sinking into the ground.  Alternatively, he suggested we keep stacking the stones up as best we can.

Stone wall along track to Crockern Farm

Jim’s repaired wall

We aren’t that interested in posts and barbed wire, preferring the stonewalls, so we pushed Jim a little harder about how to build back these walls.  He said, “Each stone has a face….find the face and have them all looking out in the same direction.”

Okay, find the face.

Bloody hard when we are lifting a 400 pound stone!  Marital discord aside, Roger and I have been unable to locate a face.

Crockern Farm wall

An example of our handiwork

Stones for building walls are everywhere and if the sheep or erosion have knocked them off, they are often buried nearby the remaining wall.  Historically, a wall builder wouldn’t break or shape stones, and instead would build the walls with the materials nearby.  If needed, some stones would be carried across a distance by sleds or ponies.

In later years, many wall builders started using only the large stones and roughly squared them.  We have some examples of these in our walls.   We also have some stones that have fallen and are sitting nearby, mocking us.  Some are impossibly large and heavy and it is difficult to imagine how they were ever lifted into place.  Consider The Great Wall in China, Hadrian’s Wall on the Scottish Border, the Irishman’s Wall in Dartmoor, and the walls to our house and fields and the mind begins to boggle.

Crockern Farm Wall

Thankfully, this wall isn’t in need of repair. Look at the size of these stones.

More things to know about Granite:

  1. It can range in colour and its texture is determined by the rate of cooling.
  2. It makes a beautiful countertop.
  3. Curling stones have been made of granite since 1750 and weigh between 38 and 44 pounds.
  4. Granite is heavy.  A cubic foot of granite weighs 168 pounds, compared to the same volume of water, which weighs only 62 pounds.
  5. The lintel above the door to the entrance of the house is up 6 feet and is 4’9” x 2’ x 10” (yes, those are imperial standard measurements).  I now have a rough idea that this stone could weigh at least 1,330 pounds .
  6. People have worked with granite for thousands of years.

There was one noted wall builder in Dartmoor, John Bishop (1821-1892), who was one of the first to use the shaped and squared building method in his walls.  He tightly fitted large blocks of granite in such a way that very little daylight could be seen through the wall.  Controversial, I know, but the walls Roger and I have repaired allow for lots of daylight.  When asked how he lifted such heavy stones, John Bishop is alleged to have replied, “Aw, ‘tis surprisin’ what ee can do with a laiver or two.”

We’ve used crowbars, gravity, fulcrums, the “one, two, three, lift,” swearing, “third time is a charm,” determination, perseverance, smaller stones, the end-of-the-day-cocktail-motivator, and still our walls are just okay.  No faces in the final formation.  Nor are there any larger-than-life-squared-off-boulders-not-to-be-moved-for-another-1,000-years back in their place.  Yet, we remain undeterred.

In constructing the Wailing Wall, Pozzi begins to view the work as an infringement of human rights and nothing short of being a slave.  Taking a more philosophical approach, Nashe tries to see it as fifty days of exercise.

While hefting our stones into place, I’ve had this exercise thought.  Singing Bob Dylan in my head: “They’ll stone you when you’re trying to make a buck.  They’ll stone you and then they’ll say good luck.  But I would not feel so all alone, Everybody must get stoned.” and still unable to locate a rock’s face, I will let my mind drift to those fabled biceps and shoulders of Linda Hamilton in Terminator 2.   Those arms could be mine if I just lifted five more stones before calling it quits.

Granite on Dartmoor is not just about walls and houses.  The earliest surviving granite structures are the ritualistic and ceremonial monuments from over 4,000 years ago.  These include Neolithic stone rows, stone circles, burial chambered tombs and standing stones.   Some standing stones may have been simple boundary markers, but when aligned in rows, they may have ceremonial or astronomical purposes.  Today’s modern standing stone is most often the memorial to fallen veterans.  Both Nelson’s Column and the New London Bridge incorporate Dartmoor granite.

Drizzlecombe Complex Standing Stone, Dartmoor

Drizzlecombe Complex consists of megalithic stone rows, longstones, over 20 cairns and hut circles.

More than a few Dartmoor stories have been inspired by certain natural rock formations, often involving witches.  These are not from the Glenda the Good Witch category, as Dartmoor enchantresses are not to be crossed.  There is one such story about a coven of witches who sought revenge on a hunter.  Bowerman was out with his dogs hunting rabbits when he chased a hare through a gathering of witches practicing magic.  Incensed by the interruption, one witch transformed herself into a rare white hare and led Bowerman on another chase across the moors.  He continued to pursue the white hare until he collapsed from exhaustion before the other witches.  With their collective powers, they gave him a granite coat for warmth while he rested.  It is said that the hunter remains entombed in the stone formation known as “Bowerman’s Nose”.  Notably, these rocks have a face.

Bowerman’s Nose

The Music of Chance takes a darker turn before it concludes, but eventually Nashe completes enough work on the wall to pay off his debt.  When I’m not deluding myself about the merits of heavy lifting exercises, I find myself hoping he’ll drive up our bumpy track in that red BMW and lend a hand.

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Put, put, put, put, put, put, put, put

Lately, the mellow January sunshine is struggling to reveal itself from behind thick wintery clouds.  And just like this sun, Roger and I have been busy and lazy in equal measure.   In addition to our daily projects, both new and old, we’ve added a twice weekly trip to the local pool for swimming.  Aches and pains be damned!  The first time we went, I realised I will never be able to better my time or endurance from when I was a kid.  At that time of my life, I never wanted to leave the water, sometimes holding my breath as long as I could for the shear joy of it!  I would swim fast and hard, challenging myself to go further while racing a friend.  Times have changed, and now my goal is to elongate my stroke, measure my breathing, and finish the number of laps I’ve set out for myself within a reasonable amount of time.  Oh, and not drown.

In addition to fitness, swimming is helping to change up our routine and add some relaxation into our lives.  In light of recent events, this is a good thing.  We are off the grid for electricity.  Our generator, inverter and battery bank run all our essential electoral loads.  We store the energy from our generator into two large battery packs, which can keep our lights and the water pump working for 3-4 days if the generator fails.

Imagine our surprise while watching a movie, all of the electricity went out.  “Surely, that’s not a good thing.” I remarked to Roger.  Calmly and in complete agreement Roger said, “No it’s not.”    We sat in total darkness for a few moments, coming to grips with the absence of any electricity or the chug-chug-chug sound of our Lister generator.  Like swimmers barely making a wave, we were calm and elegant in our response.  Either that, or we were in a state of shock as this could spell curtains if we don’t have a functioning generator.  A slow sinking to the bottom.

Lister

Our workhorse, the 30 year old Lister 4-stroke generator

Over the nearly five years at Crockern, we’ve become more sanguine about these sorts of challenges, and it’s not just because we’ve returned to the swimming pool.  We’ve grown used to unanticipated obstacles and adjusting our plans.  Living at Crockern has taught us both to be flexible, determined and patient.  We know we aren’t finished with our improvements and renovations.  And when we are, we will still be engaged with daily maintenance.  That’s just the deal of living in an old house.  This week, the weather turned decidedly colder on Dartmoor, but unlike our first winter, we aren’t cold and wet inside the house.  Our interventions of insulation, new roof and windows, and a new boiler have made a difference.  We’ve simplified electric and water systems and made our lives less stressful as a result.  With this healthy dose of perspective, the generator not turning over at 10 p.m. at night, in effect shutting everything down in the house, is just another problem to solve.

It’s cold outside and, except for the glow of the moon, completely dark.  Roger takes his head torch and heads out to investigate the generator.  I dash outside and bring in a few filled watering cans in case we need them for the toilets.  Next, I fumble around by the glow of the wood burner, locate candles and set about lighting a few.  Instantly, I’m struck that candle light is lovely, but not bright enough to read a book.  How did they do it in medieval times?  Cross stitching those tapestries must have been murder on the eyes.

I’m still deep in my thoughts comparing the frugal method of medieval rush lighting, tallow candles or the more exotic bees wax candles used by nobility, when Roger enters the house with a blast of cold air following.  He stretches his shoulder and washes the oil off his hands.  While I’m cozied up under a blanket and making a mental note to purchase more candles, Roger is down to a t-shirt and not feeling the cold as he has spent the past thirty minutes and a good deal of effort to manually crank over the generator. I can’t do this, as it requires a good amount of strength.   Perhaps after I double my number of laps at the pool, but at this stage, it is not a possibility.  Particularly in the dark.

With electricity back in order for the time being, I abandon my plans to make and stockpile my own rushes.  But, just in case, I leave the watering cans where they are for the time being.  The generator is happily chugging along to power up the batteries and we resume watching the movie.  Before we call it a night, I let the dogs out for their last constitutional.  We drift off to sleep, Sam and Millie chasing rabbits or eating butterflies, while Roger and I have equally busy brains calculating the cost and headaches as we consider replacing our generator.

And Hip Hip Hurrah for Roger!   He’s a hero!  Within no time the next day he has managed to determine the principle problem with the generator.   Our reliable old lister is still motoring along and instead the two small batteries, which are relatively new, have gone flat, probably because of the cold.  Then again, it may be the alternator, so we are still investigating.  Either way, we need to improve the space where the generator is housed.  The roof is falling down.  The walls need to be shored up.  And with that, we can always add some insulation which will benefit those fussy batteries.  The project list for this spring is growing longer, but is very clear.  We will continue our swimming, charging our own personal batteries, as we move forward on this rather large, and not so exciting, project.

Make Room For Millie

It’s no small matter to ready a home for the arrival of a new puppy.  We’ve brushed up on basic training information, readied dog crates, and set about removing chewing temptations such as shoes and wires.  We’re not looking forward to sleepless nights, but remain hopeful for quick house training.  Fingers crossed.

We’ve had it easy with Sam.  He came to us as a rescue dog with a few issues, but he has never damaged anything inside the house.  Suffice it to say, we’ve been spoiled.  With all the projects at Crockern, we’ve kept working on the kitchen at the bottom of the list as it seemed too disruptive.  Besides, two people and an old dog could live with our kitchen layout for years and not be all that fussed.  Sadly, the design of our kitchen did not lend itself to the arrival of a puppy.

Kitchens with fixed cabinets can be hard to rearrange without incurring significant disruption.  With our free standing cupboards, a design change is theoretically simple, but the required logistics to make a change are on par with landing on the moon.  To simply move this there, that needs to go there, and in order to do that, this will have to be emptied in order to move this there, and on it goes.  More than once, we’ve walked away, mulling over possible solutions.

Our first step was to empty the shelves under a fixed countertop and remove 50% of the shelves to make room for the washing machine.  Excellent plan if only the space below were bigger or the washing machine smaller.  But, the slim margin we were dealing with meant Roger had to completely dis-assemble the counter and its frame.  A day later when he finished, we squeezed the washing machine into its new location.  Feeling pleased with ourselves, we stood back and noticed a small leak.  Smugness was quickly replaced by panic!   Taking a few deep breaths, Roger climbed behind the washing machine and made some awkward adjustments to the plumbing.  We were back in business.

Or were we?  The kitchen table was buried beneath the items which were once stored under the counter.  And we hadn’t begun to move furniture.  I pride myself in being able to organise, but this situation was quickly testing our patience and skills.  We looked at everything from those shelves and around the kitchen and began to hatch a plan.

For the next phase, we must:

  1. Empty the refrigerator;
  2. Move the shoes, coats, and basket of hats, scarves and gloves;
  3. Empty the dresser next to the shoes;
  4. Move the dresser;
  5. Put the refrigerator where the dresser once sat, but occupying the space where the shoes where previously thrown; and then,
  6. Return items to the refrigerator.

Sounds simple enough, but everything in the dresser needed to be cleaned before being returned. The dresser needed a new location, so the cabinet holding all of our booze and cookbooks had to be emptied and moved too.  Rapidly we were running out of places to set all of our stuff!

Hours later, and nearly everything in its place, there remained one piece of furniture.  Our largest dresser, the very one we picked up at an auction when we first moved to Dartmoor.  We didn’t really need to move it, did we?  It looked good where it was and also was hiding all manner of ugly paint work.  But it was in the place which was perfect for the dog crate.  Considering the level of disruption we had sifted through, why stop now?  Because, if we moved this dresser, we could remove the paint from this wall.

Spices, canned and dried food, cups, and glasses had to come out of the dresser and moved out of the kitchen.  Having become an old hand at removing paint from stone walls, Roger began to apply peel away paint remover to this ugly wall which we had now exposed.   Removing this paint was not purely an aesthetic decision.  It was holding in moisture and we had a gross little problem that was only going to get worse until we let those stones have a chance to breathe again.

The paint on this wall was trickier than the previous stone wall we cleaned as it was oil based and did not want to come off in nice little flakes.  Instead, it clung on in a gummy, gooey sort of way.  Roger spent a day picking at it.  By the end of that day, he hung plastic sheeting to protect the kitchen, put on his waterproofs, and got the jet sprayer.  Yes, once again, we were using a power washer INSIDE the house to remove the final bits of paint.

What a mess!

After several hours of cleaning, we moved this last dresser into its new location and returned the contents.  We found homes for our boots and a good location for the crate.  We did all of this in five days.  Five days to transform a bit of the kitchen.  It feels bigger and brighter and the damp on the wall is already diminishing.  We still have big projects in this room:  blown plaster to repair, another wall covered in that tricky paint, and some significant plumbing to change, but for now, the small steps we took have made a big difference.

When we have deadlines like friends coming over for dinner or visiting for a few days we manage to complete projects swiftly.  Bring home a puppy and we throw it into another gear, shifting from idea to action.  Perhaps I’ll suggest a party sometime soon and we’ll see what we get done.  For now, we welcome Millie!

 

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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Blessed are the List Makers

As I have confessed many times before, I like lists.  Correction:  I adore them.

I’m not alone, either.  TopTenz provides top ten lists ranging from the bizarre to the mundane.  Paul Simon gave us possible ways to exit a failing relationship in “50 Ways to Leave Your Lover” (okay, in total he only provided 5).   And, there is now the popular Bucket List.   Long or short, lists simplify and organise.  They scratch an itch or tick a box.  And list making is good for the brain, helping us cope in an age of information overload.  Let’s face it, without lists we would feel muddled and purposeless.  Am I overstating it?  I think not.  To anyone who makes lists, there is a joy in crossing off completed tasks, overturning stones, packing suitcases, shopping for groceries, etc. etc.

Unlike a millennium ago when some lists were chiselled into stone, Roger and I opted for a three-page Excel spreadsheet of projects at Crockern.  Some items were all encompassing representing seven or eight steps in a single line.  Avoiding a fine level of detail permitted us to avoid the weight of a seemingly unending list of things to do.  Sanity preserved.  Enthusiasm easily ignited.  And our master project list remains a three pager, growing and contracting with each new renovation hurdle.

One of our first projects at Crockern was to install a wood burner and since accomplishing that undertaking, we left refinishing the wooden floor in that same room for a later date.  Despite the seeming ease of the project, the floor would have been trampled upon as we worked on other projects in further reaches of the house, so it was tabled for four years.  This is part of the wisdom behind list making:  Don’t do something to have to re-do it later.

With the back part of the house now completed, we’re investigating the centre of the house.  With all there is to do in this area of the house, we’ve turned our attention to the simple and inexpensive:  Project Floor Refinishing.  In October, I was in the US for a week and before I left, Roger and I examined this particular floor, which Roger felt like tackling in my absence.  Before heading for the airport, we moved furniture and looked at a few spots along the skirting board that were rotten.

Closer examination revealed the skirting board was “attached” with concrete along the interior stonewalls.  Never a great idea.  Over decades, moisture from the outside wicked through the stones and onto the wood.  Whole sections of floorboards were damaged.  After moving furniture, Roger and I pulled up the skirting board and removed each floorboard to assess the next steps.

List twitching alert!

As I was leaving Roger with floorboards to mend and concrete to chip off the walls, I said, “You know, we should really pull the ceiling down and repair that while the floors are up.”  It is in precisely this manner, with such casually tossed sentences, that our projects grow from manageable weekend efforts to full on disruptions that roll into months, giving birth to new project lists.

My own list making is well practiced and instinctive, kicking in whenever my mind becomes too crowded.  Since short-term working memory can only hold around seven items, lists are essential aides and this project is a good example.  Armed with a fresh piece of paper and a pen, I quickly write a title at the top of the page.  Then I underline it for emphasis.  Following are bulleted items that must be considered and acted upon.  For those of us possessing a certain disposition, this is a productive use of paper, pen and twenty minutes.  It is a soothing, no cost and anxiety-reducing step that prepares me for the project ahead.  Hanging on the refrigerator, a list becomes a reminder of what we need to do.  I will admit, too, sometimes I add an item, which has already been done, just in order to enhance the sense of accomplishment.  I am certain I am not alone in this behaviour.

With the finished floorboards in the barn (yes, this step was added to the list after it was done) and the ceiling pulled down (this step, too, was added ATF), we are pondering our best approach to replace the ceiling.  Naturally, a new ceiling gives us the opportunity to address lighting in this part of the house.  The removed floor also allows us tend to a much needed extra electrical outlet.  But before we can get started, there is a granite wall to address.  It was painted at some point in its history with exterior weather shield paint on the inside and outside.  Arguably, a way to use up left over paint.  Unfortunately, in the long run, this sort of paint traps moisture and creates some damp issues.  I suspect the painting culprit did not make a list or anticipate how challenging this paint removal would be on the inside of a house.

Getting the paint off the wall has now become a research project with a host of challenges.  To the list adverse, this particular hiccup may seem tragic, but to those of us who are ready to off-load all the ideas bouncing around inside our heads, making way for clarity of the next steps, I say hand over a pen, fresh paper and let me record the first item:  “Make List”.

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Floor boards up and the base is level and dry. Whew!

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The paint problem.

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This wall is about 12 square metres of painted stone and an endless list of options about our next step.

A Flight of Swallows

Mission bells ring as crowds gather, with all eyes turned toward the skies.  Mariachis play, a parade marches past and a huge fiesta kicks off to celebrate the annual return of the legendary Cliff Swallows at Mission Capistrano in California.  While Roger and I may not greet the ancestral migration of the equally loyal and remarkable Swallows of Crockern with a fete, we find their annual return and summer visit remarkable nonetheless.  (See also, https://crockernfarm.wordpress.com/2013/04/30/bird-song-dartmoor-cuckoos/).

Consider the distance they’ve traveled from Africa, managing to negotiate their way back to their birthplace, here at Crockern, just to raise their young at our house.  Admittedly, I could use some of their navigational skills as more than a few times I’ve found myself lost down a Dartmoor country lane.  Once here, the Swallows roost under the eaves of the house; inside the barn, chicken coop, and all the sheds; on top of some fencing we left propped up in a corner; and, among debris I was planning to take to the tip, but now must delay.

Swallow at Crockern Farm

Up on the roof

There is an old saying, “When the Swallows fly high, the weather will be dry.”  I remain skeptical as to whether or not one can accurately predict the weather by observing the flight pattern of a Swallow, but their busy nature does confirm a fine day in the making.  The warmer and dryer the weather, the more bugs and with them, more Swallows on the hunt.  We have had an extended run of clear days this summer and so have been outside addressing a number of projects.  In the past two weeks we have completed our track repairs, built a concrete base for a new oil tank, mended more of the stonewalls, and kept abreast with the growth in the vegetable garden.  Being outside for most of the day I am drawn to watching the zigzagging flight patterns of our Swallows.  I know we don’t own these Swallows, but I think of them as part of the gang of critters and creatures who consider Crockern their home and as such, they are part of our family.

Like any family member, they give great joy along with the occasional annoyance.  Take for instance their wonderful chirping calls as they dive bomb through the air feeding along the way.  Swallows have a number of songs to communicate excitement, attract a mate, or issue an alarm.  Typically, their delightful musical twitterings are comprised of a simple melody followed by clicking sounds.  But the call denoting “Feed Me!” by the young, that early morning demand and begging solicitation, is most uncivilized and wakes me up.  This is neither cute nor clever.

Despite this rude awakening, I find Swallows to be among the loveliest of birds with their graceful movements and bodies shining blue and black when the sun hits their glossy wings.  I like seeing their pale bellies, splashes of red at their throat, and those long tail feathers as they soar through the air.  Sometimes when the Swallows return up the valley, I watch their flying dance imaging if each were trailing long bits of fibre, how they could easily braid a rope.  Mostly, I find their flight agility as nothing short of miraculous.  It’s a noisy, busy, aerial display available daily confirming the most basic truth:  the smallest things make life wonderful.

There are few predators agile enough to catch a Swallow, but sometimes Sparrowhawks or Hobbies are able to do so in flight.  I love Sparrowhawks and cheer on their survival, but I do not want to be witness to the snatching of a Swallow.  Which side to choose?  While shoveling the umpteenth bucket of rocks (by the end of a single day, nearly two tones shoveled and moved) to make the concrete mixture, I looked up and saw a scene reminiscent of Hitchcock’s The Birds, with about thirty Swallows mobbing a Sparrowhawk near the trees by the river.  From the distance, I don’t know if the Sparrowhawk held a Swallow in its clutches, but I do know that the Flight of Swallows saw off this spectacular bird of prey.

I enjoy the aerial acrobatics of these elegant birds and happily benefit from their insect hawking expertise.  Mosquitoes, Midges and Aphids are among the Swallows’ food, captured and devoured almost constantly while in flight.  The Swallows may be helping our broad beans survival since our beans have a few aphids, despite the companion planting of nastursum (admittedly, planted too late) and leaving a patch of nettles nearby.  I recently learned that a Swallow consumes 60 insects per hour, based on a 14-hour day, that’s a whopping 840 per day!  At last count, we have twenty-three nests, with at least 2-6 Swallows per nest, so by my calculations, that is over 77,000 fewer insects, on average, when we are enjoying our bar-b-que.  How can you not love Swallows?

And so what if they are a bit piggish, aren’t they entitled?  These birds give new meaning to Puritan Work Ethic:  constantly catching food, repairing nests, singing songs, and coursing back and forth over 600 miles a day, at an average speed of 45 miles per hour, as they forage for bugs.  They spend most of their waking hours on the wing, more than any other songbirds in the world, and do this just to catch enough flying insects for their survival and that of their young.  When they aren’t swooping about, they rest briefly on tree branches or on our roof, the very one we had repaired in December.

Swallows at Crockern Farm

Swallows taking a short rest on the roof

When the Swallows returned in April, following our roof repair, they had some construction work of their own as some of their nests were damaged where we replaced guttering.   It took the parents about a week to build and restore their nests; working dawn to dusk with only brief rests.  Just outside our bedroom window is a cup nest tucked up under the rafters.  If I sit quietly, I can watch the Swallows zoom towards it, hover briefly and then shoot off in a new direction.  I can only view this nest from an odd angle as I hang out the window, so I am left to guessing the number of young living in it.  What I can see are thousands of small mud pellets used in its construction.  As Roger and I move onto the next round of projects, we may wish to observe how Swallows accomplish so much in the course of a day.  Whatever their secret, I draw the line at living off of bugs.

Swallows at Crockern Farm

A Swallow in the nest, one zooming in and I’m hanging out the window taking a not so great photo.

There is something comforting in the knowledge that each summer we can expect the Swallows’ return to Crockern.  And while they are here and I enjoy their beauty, their intrigue, and their bug-eating enthusiasm, I must also make a note — before they flock and begin their epic migratory journey away, crossing Europe, the Mediterranean, deserts and the equator — to locate some bells to ring in their return next year.

“When the Swallows come back to Capistrano

That’s the day you promised to come back to me.

When you whispered ‘Farewell’ in Capistrano

‘twas the day the Swallows flew out to sea.”

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VUSC37bLuuU