Home & Shop Companion #0047
letter from a small corner of far away
Dear Lynn, dear Everyone,
There was a red sky and just a touch of frost in the hollows as I made my way to the field this morning. On the way, there is a bend in the lane and then it dips down a little, with a tall hedge on one side, its leaves in summer partially hiding a copse of twenty-year-old willows. The willows now stand as silhouettes against the morning light, mirroring a row of oaks, perhaps seventy years old, on the other side of the road. It doesn’t look much at this time of the year, but it is one of my favourite places, the ivy-clad oaks and the thick hedges of thorn and hazel almost forming a tunnel in summer and providing good refuge for the birds all year round. Except in the summer, the dip in the road fills with water whenever it rains, a legacy from the previous owners of the high hedge, who raised the level of their pond to make it more ornamental, and of course, in so doing they raised the water table all around so the road now sits in water. Every few days in winter I run my boot along a grip I cut with a spade a few years ago, so some of the water runs away, but I didn’t do it this morning. I don’t mind the water much; it provides a good place to wash the horses’ feet on the way home and provides the necessary conditions for them to regularly face going through water. Continuing on my way, a blackbird flies out of the hedge as I get to the field. I thought perhaps I had startled it, or maybe it was Molly on the other side of the hedge, but then I see another declaring its territory, so the excitement was purely a blackbird thing.
With both horses standing expectantly near the gate, I go through, put the bucket down near Molly so she can eat the top, which is mostly the oil-rich micronized linseed, pick up a halter and put it on Lucy. I tie her to the gate post and put a third of the feed in the big bucket for Molly to eat and head towards the barn.
It’s a clear pleasant morning, a good time to be outside, so I make a tidying detour, walking along the row of electric fence posts, gathering them as I go. When I can no longer carry any more without dropping the ones I’ve already picked up, I cut across to the barn, put them undercover and get a good forkful of hay from the pile I pushed down from the mow a couple of days ago. This goes over the fence onto the track, I put the fork back under cover and pick up a couple of bricks to add to the muddy hole in the trackway. Dropping the bricks into the hole, I take out the shovel from the sledge and fill it with mud ready to take away another day, before heading back to the horses. These extra little jobs have taken me no more than ten minutes, but they have raised my breathing just a little, so besides keeping me a little better in shape, there is a bit less to do next time, and while I have been busy it has given Molly time to eat most of the feed. I divide the rest of the feed between two containers, though usually they share happily enough, and go to untie Lucy. She has got her front leg over the lead rope, a common scenario when she wants to be elsewhere, so at the barn and in the stable I usually tie her high to avoid the problem. In truth it isn’t much of a problem, she is used to having her head down with the rope between her front legs, but it is little harder for me to untie the bowline. Then I turn her around, tail to the food, back her up a couple of steps, undo the halter, then it is my turn to take two steps back as she swivels round and heads for the feed.
I have been doing some tidying up at home too, at the bottom of the garden where those useful bits of junk or treasure go. This is where I kept the roof tiles used on the forge, and until yesterday there were the remains of an old cart and a pile of firewood which has been there for too long. But today it looks better, now that the firewood is sawn up. I used my new chainsaw which I bought last summer. Unlike the old one which was hard to start, hard to stop and wouldn’t restart after refilling with fuel, this one is electric. The battery lasts about half an hour, which is enough for me, [or I could buy a spare one] and because I was watching the pennies, I got one which is a bit less powerful so the work takes fractionally longer, but the best bit is that it is so much quieter, when you put it down to move logs it makes no sound at all, and there is no vibration because there is no piston charging up and down.
The old cart is gone too; I sold it for the tyres after seeing a request on a Facebook group. The cart was already rotted through when I got it, but I thought I might build a new one using the axles, wheels and tyres, but since I have a perfectly serviceable cart which I don’t use much, the wheels might as well find a new home. The tyres don’t look very special, particularly when green with algal growth and the traces of the ivy which had grown up them, but they are a triumph of simple design. They were designed for horse drawn vehicles back in the 1930s, after some farmers had started to use old car axles and pneumatic tyres on carts, a cheap repair when the old wooden wheels were no longer serviceable, but the newly developed tyres were an improvement. They were introduced by the Dunlop company in 1932, the rubber being formulated to resist the action of the acidic manure and the shape of the tyre was designed for easy draught. Unlike a car tyre which has a flat profile to transfer the power of the engine to the road, the cart tyres are almost circular in cross section. They have some longitudinal grooves which help prevent the vehicle from slipping sideways but otherwise they are smooth so there is little friction. When on a hard surface there is only an inch or so in contact with the ground, also minimising the friction, but on soft ground, by the time the tyre has sunk in half an inch there is about four inches of ground contact, rapidly overcoming the tendency for the vehicle to sink further. The Dunlop company, I have been told, demonstrated the effectiveness of their product by running demonstrations where carts full of bricks were pulled over a ploughed field. Whereas the carts with iron-rimmed wheels required a trace horse in front of the shaft horse, the rubber-tyred cart could be pulled by a single horse.
Besides tidying up, the end of the year is also a time of re-evaluating, of looking back and looking forward, and for people around my age, many seem to be thinking about legacy, the process and possibilities of handing over, of passing on experience. It was a subject which came up a couple of years ago when I revisited a biodynamic farm where I worked for a few months nearly thirty years ago. The farmer moved to this 200 acre rented farm from a fifty acre holding two years before I went there and had put his life and soul into the place. He was a good man with cattle, an experienced vegetable grower and absolutely committed to biodynamic practises. On moving to the bigger farm, he had bought only the minimum of bigger equipment, had reinstated hedges and grass/clover leys, increased his cattle numbers and bought some sheep, but he also continued to grow vegetables, selling them to parents at the Steiner School the children attended, grew chicory in a shed as an out of season crop and increased his turkeys which gave us plenty of work at this time of the year and a boost to the farm income.
Nearing retiring age when I visited, he was wondering what would happen next; he has a son who works on a farm, but it is a big commercial chemically-intensive place, which didn’t sit very well with him, and as is often the case between generations, the two did not work well together. There was a sadness in his voice, just as there is a sadness about places, all too common in farming circles, when they are passed on to the next generation when the younger generation was never given any real choice, a dilemma whichever way round you look at it. Although it is great when parents and children do share a common interest, and I suppose we all would prefer if our children continue to uphold our own values, expecting them to have the same passions as we do is asking too much.
A different approach, which sits much better with me, was the response of a fellow violin maker when we were searching for an anvil for my son last summer. He had been getting more into blacksmithing and although we have a functional mobile forge, he really needed a proper anvil. So I mentioned it to my farming and mechanicking friends, and since he lives not too far away, to Marc the violin maker. The following week he rang to say he had found one belonging to a neighbour, an 80-year-old retired blacksmith, and on one of the hottest days of the year we went to fetch it, Marc following us home so he could see my latest project in the workshop. After lunch and despite the heat, Samuel fired up the forge, and an hour later came into my workshop, smiling, dirty and absolutely dripping in sweat, to show us what he had made on the new anvil. We made encouraging noises, but after Samuel went out, and with the broadest of grins, Marc clenched his fist and biceps, and let out a ‘YES,’ like a triumphant tennis player, and although he had no inclination towards blacksmithing himself, he was obviously just as happy as Samuel was.
Some of us, probably most of us, have had to work hard and learn difficult lessons to get to where we are now, and no matter where that is, how established we are, how competent we are, how successful we are, it is our enthusiasm and interest which makes that hard work possible and enjoyable. To put it the other way round, there is nothing more disheartening, demoralising and difficult than doing work which we find unpleasant, distasteful, pointless or uninteresting, or to put back round the first way again, there is nothing as enlivening and satisfying as engaging in work which kindles the spark within us. But if that spark, for growing things, for making things or whatever else, isn’t there, it just isn’t there; you can’t put it there. But if we recognise our own spark in a stranger, or a different spark in a friend or family member, what better thing can we do than add a bit of kindling, and then, as Marc did, stand back and bask in the warmth of the growing flame?
Take care, and Happy Christmas from a small corner of over here.
William Castle is a violin maker, farmer & SFJ contributor who lives in Shropshire, England.