It Feels Like Butterflies In My Stomach

“Millie sit.”  “Good sit.”  Poised on her back haunches, her head drops and ears flatten as she focuses on my every move.  If I twitch a finger, she begins to stand. “No, sit!”  “That’s a good girl.”  I stay still as an old oak, slowly moving my palm out in a stop position towards Millie and give the command,  “Wait.”  Her head tilts.  I say it again before throwing her beloved toy about twenty feet away.  As I begin to turn and take a step in the direction of the lifeless tug toy, she lifts her rear and I quickly must utter  “Eh, Eh, Millie SIT.”  “WAIT!”  I take a deep breath.  “Good wait.”  Millie tightens the coil of her body’s spring.  Moments later, I release her from her wait with an enthusiastic “Okay!”  And off she runs, full pelt towards her toy.

Every day our training regime includes work on sits and waits.  As often as not, Millie does not want to abide by these commands, viewing them as optional.   Naturally, I disagree.  “What’s the point?” our little teenage puppy must be musing.  She is a party girl who is simply on the move and wants to have fun.  She loves to bound across the ground, run through tunnels, jump over obstacles, and return as quickly as possible with her toy for a good game of chase or tug-of-war.

When her toy is not to mouth, she’s happy to follow after and catch leaves, snowballs, or Sam’s tail.  Anything that moves is fair play.  It isn’t possible to sweep the floor or rake leaves without Millie pouncing on the broom or rake. Fortunately, her chase impulse does not apply to birds, rabbits, sheep, horses or cattle.  We don’t know about cats.

As a gentleman dog, Sam is happy in his senior years to have a nice slow walk, preferably without hills, followed by a meal and a snooze by the fire.  Even as a younger dog, he was never one to pursue anything, except cats.  So imagine the surprise to all of us when Millie started spinning and twirling around the kitchen channeling her inner Stevie Nicks singing “Just like a white winged dove” as she followed the latest discovery, a butterfly.  “Ooh Baby, Ooh, said ooh.”

It’s January and cold outside, so what’s this butterfly doing inside?  During this time of year, we daily light the wood burner in the morning and cover the veg beds at night to keep the frost off the plants.  This is not the time of year for a butterfly.  While Small Tortoiseshells can turn up almost anywhere, from city centres to remote wildernesses, they do like it where nettles grow.  We have nettles in abundance, but not in the kitchen.  So hibernating in the barn, the wood pile, or one of the outbuildings makes sense.  But our kitchen?

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It’s too cold to implement our usual catch and release approach which we utilise regularly with moths, bees, butterflies, bats and birds which find their way inside during warmer months.  Sadly, we don’t have any flowering plants inside for this butterfly to find nectar.   It’s lifespan is significantly reduced by choosing our kitchen as its launchpad. To calm and distract Millie, the dogs and I head to sit by the fire while Roger places a small ramekin filled with sugared water and a ball of tissue paper near the window where the butterfly has settled.  The least we can do is feed it while it makes its home inside our house.

Armed with glasses of wine, Roger joins me and the dogs by the fire.  Sam has found a comfortable spot and drifts into a deep sleep, perhaps dreaming of his younger days when his back legs had him jumping over stiles.  But Thoroughly Modern Millie has sneaked out of the room unnoticed until we hear a gentle clinking of ceramic on stone.  Getting up to investigate we find Madam in the window, drinking the homemade nectar.

The Small Tortoiseshell may be one of the most common butterflies in the UK, but it is also the national butterfly of Denmark.  Sure, it is mischievous and disobedient of Millie to be in the window, but more shocking, and perhaps treasonous, is that she ate the butterfly!

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!

 

It’s a Dog’s House

It’s well known that dogs are good, no great, for our mental and physical well being.  But can they benefit our home?  Sam seems to think so.  He loves bursting out the front door for a walk, sniffing all the goings-on outside and then returning for a treat, some water and a nap in front of the AGA.  Lucky boy.

As he gets older, slower, deafer and mellower, we’ve started thinking about getting a puppy.  WAIT!  WHAT?  For the past 30 years, I’ve only rescued adult dogs.  Scratch, Al, Jack and then Sam.  Scratch was actually a puppy when I rescued him from the pound, and he was a bundle of joy and hard work.  I swore then, “no more puppies.”  Somehow, Crockern tells me to ignore this broad brush stroke rule and start talking puppies.

“What kind of puppy would you want Roger, if we were to get a puppy?” begins my campaign about a year ago.  “Do you think Sam would like a puppy?”  “I wonder if a puppy would help Sam as he gets older?”

Roger, having never had a puppy joins in on my explorations.  While I dove right into websites and kennel club forums, Roger was happy to listen to all of my updates.  The pros and cons of crate training.  The 100 most popular names for dogs.  The top 10 smartest breeds.  Discovering the difference between intelligence and obedience.  Hours of you-tube videos on teaching your dog how to run agility courses, or play dead, or fetch your slippers.  I moved past the hard graft of training a puppy and right into the big payoff.

Roger brings me right back to earth with a concern:  “Will a puppy chew our furniture?”

If we were gone all day long, that might be a concern.  But one of us is usually home and Sam currently spends almost no time without one or both of us, so that would enable us to keep all our furniture safe I assured Roger.

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Having had dogs, we both know how they can leave their mark on the interior of our home.  Dirty paw prints, drifts of shredded hair under the furniture and in corners, and shaking muddy water across the room on a rainy day.   Roger and I may take care to remove our boots, but Sam doesn’t share this thinking.  He couldn’t care less about avoiding puddles or squelchy bogs before racing back inside the house.  Sometimes, Sam gets so excited for a walk he steps in his water bowl, spilling its contents all over the kitchen floor.   And lets be honest, what dog barfs in the loo or outside?  No, any carpet will do.   But who cares?

The truths are clear. Dogs are terrifically opinion-free.  While Roger and I may spend hours deciding and then working on a ceiling, or a wall, or even the type of tap for the bathroom sink, Sam is blissful in his lack of concern.  He could care less if we lived in home laid out by interior designers or a shack in the outback.  As long as he is loved, fed, walked, and loved some more, he’s happy.

Besides, who else is going to greet us at the front door, tail wagging and gazing lovingly up at us as we potter around the house.  Dogs!  Who else makes us laugh with their ways of getting us to do their bidding (really Sam?  Do you see how hard it’s raining?  You really want to go for a walk?) or chase bunnies in their dreams?  No one except a dog, that’s who.

And since nothing completes a home like a smelly, shedding, daft but delightful dog, we’ll be picking up a puppy in June.  Watch this space.

Let them eat bread!

For Roger’s birthday a few years ago, I gave him the gift that keeps giving:  an all day class on bread making.  Early one March morning, he headed off to an artisanal bakery to return that evening armed with an apron, recipes, a half dozen loaves of Roger-made-bread, and unbridled enthusiasm.  This last bit was essential as bread baking at home is very different from a commercial kitchen.  In the beginning, through trial and error, Roger turned out a few loaves that I affectionately referred to as “doorstops”.   A harsh assessment, perhaps, but true.  With time, he developed his signature bread that we all love.

We being Sam, the chickens and us.

When I head outside to do any of my daily chores, the chickens will come running pell-mell to see what’s on offer.  When it is a slice of Roger’s bread, they forget all their shyness and manners and start jumping up to take bread out of my hand.  They fight for it in ways that would make bargain shoppers at a clearance sale proud.  And in the midst of this feeding frenzy sits one proud dog suppressing his instincts to edge out the hens and gobble up the bread.  He waits, watches, and then takes a big helping torn off for him when the chickens aren’t looking.

It’s funny that Sam and I should conspire to keep his bread eating from the chickens.  Will they care?  Will they remember?  Will it make them feel badly?  Or, does Sam enjoy getting one over the chickens?

Sam sizing up his best options for getting some bread.

Sam sizing up his best options for getting some bread.

Sam's strategy of looking away to secure a bite or two of bread.

Sam’s strategy of looking away to secure a bite or two of bread.

This race for treats does not extend equally to worms.  Unlike the chickens, Sam shows no interest.  Recently, I created a scene of pure carnage when I decided to unearth an old stone walkway, delighting the chickens with newly found treasures.  This path was covered with grass, mud and years of neglect.  I can’t say what prompted me to start pulling up the muddy turfs, but once I got started, I could hardly stop.  Obsession and single mindedness had something to do with it, but there was also a joy observing the crazy behaviours of chickens on a worm-eating frenzy.

Meanwhile, Roger created his own overwhelmingly messy scene when he took down one of the ceilings in the house.  He removed awful painted interlocking pine planks, revealing sparse, inadequate and highly flammable sheets of polystyrene.   Polystyrene was a popular insulation from 40 years ago, but anyone who has packed a picnic lunch into a chill box made of this stuff, knows that the coolness has left the scene within hours.  When used to insulate a roof, it is incomparable to what’s available now.  The part of the roof above this ceiling did not need repair, leaving this insulation replacement to be done from the inside up toward the exterior slates.  As I was making a muddy mess cooking up a worm feast for the chickens, Roger was yanking down the last marginal barrier we had to the slates in preparation of installing something far more effective.

The polystyrene has been removed.

The polystyrene has been removed.

Insulation is not unfamiliar to me.  When I was in the ninth grade, I competed in the State of Ohio Science Fair with my project on Conduction, Convection and Radiation of Heat comparing different insulation materials.  My Dad built a small doghouse for me to conduct my experiments.  While this structure was awkward to carry to the science fair, it was a wonderful contraption with an interchangeable front panel allowing me to insert the different materials:  wood, fiberglass, glass, and polystyrene.   Using a fairly imprecise thermometer, a heat lamp and a timer, I measured the changes in temperature inside of this insulated doghouse, to compare the efficacy of the various materials.

At the tender age of fourteen, that science experiment was an equal mix of excitement and humility.  I thought I knew my stuff until I encountered several brainy kids who really did know their stuff.  It pains me to confess it in writing, but I was seriously outclassed in the State capital.   The ability of some of these kids to test their null hypothesis exceeded even the most logical, intuitive and cunning skills of Encyclopedia Brown or Nancy Drew to solve nefarious crimes. And, I was surrounded by these people!  After First Prize was awarded to the kid who did some sort of study of molecular structures, I have never forgotten the word “polymers”.    Some lessons are learned during big events.   I sat in the bleachers next to my Mother, feeling somewhat glum while looking at my “Thanks for Participating in the Ohio State Science Fair” certificate, and I privately committed, from that day forward, to pay more attention in all of my classes.  During the acceptance speech delivered that afternoon, I learned from the Fair’s anointed winner that polystyrene was a polymer.  How did I miss that in my own research?  What I did know – and secretly hoped that the newly exalted one had missed in her research – was that this lightweight and widely used foam had some degree of insulation powers.  If I hadn’t learned it at the tender age of 14, I have learned it living (and wearing many layers) in this old stone house:  it may work, but it isn’t great.

Sanding the exposed beams.

Sanding the exposed beams.

The finished beam.

The finished beam.

This is the walk I found.

This is the stone walk I found.

As we weigh all the options as to which heating system will be our best choice for economic, environmental and maintenance considerations, we are still charging ahead with increased insulation and draft elimination.  What use is a nifty new boiler if we don’t address these issues?   Insulation in a house is as basic as bread in a diet and, while good, no one can live on it alone.  The chickens need to both feed and forage for the ultimate in health and happiness.  Ours raid the bird feeders, scratch for worms, bugs, seeds, grit and they eat the layers pellets that we provide.   They also like a mixture of shredded carrots, cucumbers and Greek yoghurt.  If we aren’t careful, they would eat the Polystyrene.   But these chickens have picked up a thing or two from Sam:   There will be some bread coming for them each afternoon and it is definitely worth the wait!

The winning loaf!

The winning loaf!

Sam, The Great Houndini

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle wrote The Hound of The Baskervilles, set in Dartmoor.  Old Crockern keeps his Whist Hounds in Wistman’s Woods and there is a landmark in Dartmoor known as Hound Tor.  There are many tales of hounds in this part of the world, but one little known story is that of Sam, The Great Houndini.

I mention our dog Sam a lot, so it seems fitting to introduce him.  He is smart, handsome, and manipulative and if he had the desire, a leader in the dog uprising to rid the world of the cat.  He is unlikely to have success as a leader in The K-9 Spring, as he possesses a level of shyness, worry, and anxiety.

Sam is a Border collie mix.  He’s got long black fur, except for his little white tuxedo chest.  His eyes are a golden brown and can will you to open the treat jar.  Two and a half years ago, we rescued Sam when he was about the age of 4.  We don’t know his full history, but we were told a few inaccuracies, including that he does well with dog savvy cats.  Turns out, he HATES all cats with singular intensity.

Sam first came to the collie rescue centre when one of their volunteers found him in a dog pound scheduled to be put to sleep.  When we brought him home a month later, he was anxious and distracted but responded to a number of commands, especially when treats were on offer.  He has a 7-inch scar on his side, the cause of which is unknown, so early on we forgave him any of his worries.  He was, and continues to be, on constant cat alert.

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Sam (on left) with his best friend Jess

To meet him now is to notice that he is a pretty good dog.  He’s well behaved, polite to strangers, loyal beyond belief and an all around amazing athlete who is able to jump a five-foot fence rather than being lifted over it and negotiate rocks, water, and other tricky terrain with ease.   He wisely ignores the sheep and likes hanging out with the chickens.  He loves his walks and because he doesn’t play with toys (his choice), he must be walked.  He goes out a minimum of 3 hours a day.

When we were buying Crockern Farm, we spent a morning with the building surveyor.  Because another dog and a cat lived in the house, we kept Sam in the car.   After we had concluded our business (see the first blog about the chickens and new roof!), we went for a walk for a couple of hours.  On our return, the woman selling the house invited us in for some lunch before we headed back to our home.

Much to our surprise, Sam met her dog without any incident.  Her dog is an unneutered male Labrador.  Pick a combination that can put Sam ill at ease, and this is it.  But a quick assessing sniff between the two and all was fine.  We entered the house, Sam still on lead, when he spotted the cat.

All the times looking at Crockern, I never once saw this cat.  I knew it was here, but it kept hidden as cats often do.  Bring a new dog into the house and that cat came slinking down the stairs like Travis Bickle in Taxi Driver, “You talkin’ to me? You talkin’ to me? You talkin’ to me? Then who the hell else are you talkin’ to? You talkin’ to me? Well I’m the only one here. Who the fuck do you think you’re talking to?” The line was drawn in the sand, the red mist descended and Sam lunged.

Architectural details are important.  There are two doors to this kitchen.  One is a lovely pine door that leads to the rest of the house.  The other is a green door, with a cat flap, which leads to a boot room with another door and cat flap leading to the outside.  The woman took her hissing-puffed-up-tail-feline-fighter and put it outside.  Two doors, two cat flaps.  Cat outside.  Sam inside. We all sat down to lunch.

Slow, slinky, and all too aware of being a troublemaker, that she-wolf came back into the kitchen from the outside.   The next several moments were helter-skelter as we chased Sam who was chasing the cat.  Chairs upturned and a good deal of confusion all in the space of about 3 seconds.

To restore order, the woman put the cat into the house, closing the door without the cat flap.  Roger put Sam in the car.  We ate and talked, feeling excited about this becoming our home.

In the early 1900’s Houdini successfully performed in the US with escapes from jails, handcuffs, chains, and straitjackets, among other things.  He had to up the ante as imitators took on his act.   In 1912, Houdini introduced one of his most famous acts, The Chinese Water Torture Cell.  In this stunt, Houdini was suspended upside-down in a locked steel and glass cabinet full of water from which he had to escape.  He had to hold his breath for more than three minutes in this act.  The man had some magical talent and a few physical techniques (like dislocating his shoulder to get out of straight jackets), but may have met his match with Sam.

In the style of a Vaudeville performance, Sam inexplicably managed to get out of the car.  We only noticed this when his little black nose was poking through the cat flap from the boot room into the kitchen.  There are three possibilities:  a walker passing by let him out (unlikely); he opened the door with his paw and closed the door with an artful kick of his back legs once he was out of the car (more unlikely); he squeezed his body through the car window which was open a mere 4 inches (ouch!).  After making his way free from the car, he squeezed through the outside cat flap, and was planning to enter the kitchen.

Sam is a mid-size dog, weighing in at 15 kilos.  Bigger than a cat flap and 4 inches of car window!  He is loyal, but may also have some separation issues.  He is devoted to his humans and needed to protect us from THAT CAT.

From 1917 until his death in 1926, Houdini was the President of the Society of American Magicians (S.A.M.).  In 2012, our Sam started laying the plans to become a legend in his own time.