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Saturday 2 August 2014

Luke's shark cloud

We’re nearing the end of the third week of a crazy step challenge issued by work. Bronte’s in a four-man team and I’m with the Finance Road Runners – four women over 40. The challenge is to do at least 10,000 steps/ day and metaphorically walk one’s way around Tasmania. I swear it’s nearly killing me! A pedometer doesn’t count any upper body exercise or the fact that when walking, I’m more often than not pushing a wheelbarrow or carrying buckets of heavy pig food. Chain-sawing and wood-chopping don’t register at all. Today, prompted both by the need to get in our steps and to see the recent snow at close quarters, we embarked on a long walk to visit our ‘neighbours’, who live at 700m altitude up 4WD tracks. We’re at 250m and had to go steeply down before going steeply up. I confess I turned around at 6,000 steps, mostly because I still had a piggy brew to do at home.

However, not overly to my surprise, I got a phone call just as I’d finished my lunch to say ‘can you come and pick us up?’ Apparently the neighbour had taken them on a trek along an overgrown track and Luke got sopping wet from snow falling down his neck. Even after a hot chocolate he felt too cold and miserable to walk home. I sighed, because the track to the neighbours is horrid to drive along at the best of times and we’d had 159mm of rain, sleet and snow in the past five days. The track has been hewn from the side of a steep hillside, such that one side drops away precipitously to the creek and the other side rises sharply upwards. I don’t wholly trust the current ute in difficult conditions and slipping and sliding through mud, over rocks and flowing water, I was literally panting with fear and stress! I hugged the inside edge so closely that the ute became adorned with swatches of tree fern, the tray filled with twigs and leaves and the flanks wiped clean of months of ingrained dirt.

The wind and rain has caused damage throughout Tasmania and the temperature on top of Mount Wellington remained under 0degC for days. We escaped any noticeable damage, but were without electric for 12 hours. The wind was gusting so powerfully on Tuesday evening that I felt the house shudder. Strong winds set up vibrations in the flue pipe which resonated with a ghostly hum. We fully expected to lose power at any time and were surprised to still have electric when we went to bed. It went off around 1am and we had to get ready for work and school in the morning without the benefit of a shower or cup of tea. Being on tank water we are reliant on the electric pump. I got up late thinking I would have to take carers’ leave because Huonville had been without power at 6am when Bronte phoned Aurora. Unfortunately power was restored and we had to get ready in record time. I took my breakfast cereal to work and ate at the computer.

Yesterday I was at home working outside in possibly the worst conditions I can recall here. It was 2.5degC, windy and sleeting hard. Unfortunately I am compelled to make three giant piggy brews each week, just to produce enough food for them. Thank goodness we did only get small litters – I should never have coped with the feeding requirements of double that amount. I’ve had to rebuild and reinforce the piggy brew furnace as it was collapsing under the strain.

 As well as cooking pig food, I’m regularly scrounging for apples and potatoes, because the piglets are getting through them so quickly. Currently the pigs are eating 28 10l buckets of cooked food a week, plus apples, and that’s not really enough for them. They are growing and coping with the dismal cold weather. Finding enough wood to fuel the piggy brews is another challenge.

One Friday Luke and I arrived at the potato farm to find that the reject potatoes were in an apple bin sandwiched between one above and one below both full of green potatoes. Luke spent his time making potato men and building rock cairns while I painstakingly filled 13 25kg bags of potatoes by reaching in and pulling them out one at a time. That’s dedication. The only good thing was that the potatoes were mostly huge. They reminded me of the King Edwards we used to have baked with lashings of butter when I was a kid. When three-quarters through the job I got into the ute and tried to nudge the top bin around in order to get more access to the ones in-between. Just as I was smacking into the corner of the bin (resulting in a cracked plank), the farmer’s son arrived. He was remarkably understanding under the circumstances. I took him a few cooked goodies and soap on the next visit and he saved me a great deal of time by tipping a bin-full into the back of the ute. I then only had to unload them into sacks when I got home.

I’ve advertised the piglets everywhere – local papers, Gumtree, The Mercury etc. I’ve had only three enquiries and thank goodness someone appeared this morning and gave me a deposit on two of them. He’d rung the night before, but took rather a risk just turning up on our doorstep. Half an hour later and he’d had missed us. He’s going to pick two up on Tuesday evening. That will be fun and games after work feeding piglets and trying to catch two of them. They are so sturdy that I hope I can carry them. They will have to start going into the freezer one by one, poor little vegemites, as I can’t keep up this feeding regime.

The alternative would be to feed them on pellets – but not only would that be costly I feel strongly about the protein content (soya) being grown on vast monocultures in South America, destroying rainforests and putting local farmers out of business. Uncontrolled amounts of herbicides and pesticides are used on these great acreages to the extent that rural people (eg in Argentina and Paraguay) are complaining of birth defects and illnesses in children that render them disabled. Whilst chemicals such as Glyphosate are considered harmless because it breaks down quickly in the environment, when used liberally and sprayed from the air, it can cause health problems. When injected into the embryos of lab rats, it causes very similar birth defects as those being recorded around these plantations.

I weaned the piglets at six weeks – two weeks’ earlier than normal. I was concerned that if I left them any longer I wouldn’t be able to lift them. Plus the sows were getting fed up with their constant demands. The sows have lost a lot of weight – not that they couldn’t do with losing some weight. I engaged Bronte and Luke’s help with the weaning. I got the goat float prepared and then put one bucket of food in a pen and one by one, grabbed each pig by the back legs and passed it over the fence to Bronte. Luke opened the door of the goat float and Bronte shoved it in. I’d put plenty of food in there, so once in the float they were quite happy. I left one piglet with each sow for company.

I’d spent a day mending the electric fence in the weaning pen, setting up a water tray and filling the huts with hay, but unfortunately you can’t get a vehicle right up to the entrance. So we did the operation in reverse, me in the float, passing pigs to Bronte. They were immensely wary at this stage. After exploring their new location (which at the time was beautifully green and dry) they fought for a while – to our concern and surprise – and then settled down companiably (with a couple of bloodied ears).

In order to keep up my step count, I suggested to Luke that we walk to the school bus stop on Thursday morning. It’s about 2.5km, so not a huge distance. Unfortunately we set off too late and had to walk and jog as fast as we could. I was carrying Luke’s bag (which is full of his rock collection from which he refuses to be parted) until we swapped so Luke could run. I watched his little figure receding into the distance and then saw the bus pull away from the stop without seeing him. Luke was quite upset and a bit cross with me because I was laughing. I offered him a choice – either hurry back and try to get him to school on time in the car, or take a day off sick. It didn’t sink in straightaway, then his face brightened up and he said ‘can I really Mum, can I really take a day off sick?’ I told him that he shouldn’t really, but he’d made a sterling effort to get the bus and we would struggle to get him to school on time. So we pottered back and admired all the new rivers and streams across the paddocks and along the roadside. The creeks were raging after 50mm of rain in 24 hours.

En route, we found a couple of road-kill pademelons. I asked Luke to drag one and put it with the other, so I could come and collect them by car and cook them for the dogs. As Luke was holding the paddy by the tail, a red SUV came up behind us and the occupants gave us a very peculiar look. Luke threw the carcass down and tried to look nonchalant while I sniggered. The same car has passed us on various occasions when we’ve been chopping crack-willow and blackwood out of the road reserve or pulling lumps of radiata pine out of the paddock alongside the road. On the latter occasion, Luke was hurling pine cones at the power lines across the road. They must think we are a couple of eccentric reprobates. We’d seen the same car earlier going down the road with three inches of snow on top. 

After we’d recovered from the walk, Luke helped me get the animal food together until he had to retire owing to injury. Somehow he managed to stab himself in the thumb muscle and leave a trail of blood from the garage to the house. I was relieved to see that although fairly deep, it wasn’t too serious. I’d had visions of having to whisk him to Accident & Emergency. I’d picked up a load of out-of-date scraps the day before and Luke had been happily spearing pot noodles and sharing crackers and seafood cocktail between pig buckets.

Feeding out hay in floods and mud

We got soaked and had to change twice. I ran out of time and energy to clip the goats’ hooves and by now they are quite bad. I must do them next week whatever the weather. The living room has been draped with wet clothes for days now and the hearth is constantly lined with wet gloves, hats, socks and shoes. Murphy-Cat has not ventured outside for a week or more. Even Bronte hasn’t had the heart to throw him out in the cold and wet.

Later in the afternoon, we drove to Huonville to take a look at the river, for which a flood warning had been issued. The esplanade was closed to traffic and we drove around the back and walked down to the flood. It was impressive, running across the road and inundating the water meadows beyond. One house was almost surrounded. The water was up to the top of the crash barrier on the river side of the road. Afterwards, so that Bronte didn’t have to come home to an empty house, we rang him and invited him to a Chinese meal (we decided it would be our modest 10-years-in-Tasmania celebration). We rarely eat out so it was a treat to be served pleasant food and sit and chat. 

I was embarking on making tanning liquids at the end of the last post. I filtered water through the ashes from the indoor wood heater, using hay as the filter medium. Then according to instructions gleaned from the internet, I boiled the lye (potassium hydroxide) with sawdust to apparently make oxalic acid. I wasn’t sure what I’d made but when I tried adding bicarbonate of soda to the resulting liquid, there was no reaction. So I reckoned I still had an alkaline solution. Not to be defeated I set about dismantling my old depleted energiser battery to extract the sulphuric acid. In big letters on the outside it said ‘do not dismantle – danger of explosion’. Luke and Bronte retreated from the garage while I put the battery in the vice and attacked it with a bolster chisel and hammer. It was surprisingly tough. Eventually I exposed the innards composed of eight compartments of alternate plates of lead and a white tissue-like substance presumably soaked in sulphuric acid.

Filtering the ashes to end up with lye

I extracted all the white squares and added them to some of my boiled liquid. To this witches’ brew I added a dozen egg yolks (apparently it helps to soften the leather), vinegar, juice of two lemons, flour and er, Henry the Sheep’s brains. Yes, I really did extract his brains. It was heck of a job dissecting his head trying to work out which bit was brains. Eventually I located a small cavity filled with pale grey goo, which was of a different consistency than the rest of the head. As you can imagine, after being killed by a shotgun blast this was not the most pleasant of jobs. According to the information I read about tanning with brains ‘each animal has enough brains to tan its own skin’. What a lot of rot. Henry’s brains were tiny – no way could they spread across an entire sheepskin. I used the paint mixer on the drill and whirred up the whole noisome mixture. It foamed up such that I thought it would overflow and fill the garage like The Blob.

Having eventually finished (as I thought) scraping the flesh and fat from the skin I liberally painted on my mixture, re-doing it most days for a week. I then washed the skin (in the washing machine) with large quantities of washing soda (sodium carbonate) to neutralise the acid and then a couple of times with wool washing liquid. I dried it over a railing on our little deck out of the rain, pulling and stretching it whenever I could (no easy task). Murphy got a terrible shock when he followed Bronte onto the deck one day. He saw the fleece and swelled into an instant puffball on tip-toes with arched back, before deciding discretion was the better part of valour and dashing back indoors. An awful shock for a 13-year old cat (his birthday was 28 June).

As the skin dried and started to go crusty, I realised that there was a further layer of membrane that needed to be removed. So I re-hydrated the skin with the acid mixture for several more days, then cleaned it off with rags and set about trying to complete the scraping. I used the wire brush, an old serrated knife (which broke under the strain) and a couple of paint scrapers. However the tool that worked best was an old serrated breadknife which I could curve to add pressure. I hadn’t realised just how rough one needed to be. It took me most of one Saturday to complete the scraping.

I repeated the washing cycles and this time brought the fleece inside to dry so I could more regularly stretch and rub it. I got Bronte’s help with stretching although he nearly pulled me across the dining room. Despite all this attention it still dried disappointingly hard, particularly where it was thinnest. A couple of creases formed in the middle where the leather had expanded more than the edges. Before applying oil I needed to brush out the fleece. This is easy to say, but in fact took many hours. I finally finished at gone 1am on the night before the Judbury Market at which I’d booked a stall. The fleece itself was lovely, so soft, thick and long. It was not the artificial white of the anaemic fleeces we’d seen in Hobart, but instead a rich cream with a darker streak along the backline.

Finally I applied neatsfoot oil to the leather side. By this time I really felt able to call it leather – it smelt and felt like leather and I was proud to have got this far. After wiping off the excess and applying more oil I stretched and worked the skin with all my strength. I eventually achieved suppleness somewhere between rock-hard and chamois. The creases in the middle remained, but I’d done all I could and as a rug it would be perfect. I’d also trimmed the ragged edges and it looked neat and professional.

Needless to say after all my efforts I failed to sell the skin at the following day’s market. Preparing for the market was a marathon. I had to apply for a food licence in order to sell my chutneys and jellies and pay $20 for the privilege. In order to comply with regulations all food items had to be labelled with ingredients, a use by date and name and address (not a PO Box number) of the producer. Luke helped me with this task and I also made stand-up labels for each item with my little Sedgefield logo on each. As well as the food items and the sheepskin, I took a range of crocheted items, soap, hand-wash, some of Bronte’s oaks (which looked like sticks it being middle of winter), breadboards, pepper-berries and peacock feathers. I’d painstakingly filled tiny pots with my rosemary lip balm and cut out round logos to stick on top.

My stall looked lovely but it was a disappointing day. I only took about $70 and the stall had cost $12 and we bought several scones and cream for lunch. I sold a lacy crocheted round tablecloth that had taken countless hours to make, for next to nothing. No-one bought my scarves or Bronte’s oaks or bread-boards. The things that sold best were the cordial, jelly and chutneys. As usual all the small girls wanted peacock feathers. It was a learning experience rather than a profitable one. On returning I wrapped the fleece, skin outermost, in plastic and stowed it in the store-room. Maybe one day I’ll have another go at softening it.

I’ve since purchased some litmus (universal indicator) paper off eBay and discovered that I’d made a potent lye solution (around pH13 on the 1-14 scale) but had singularly failed to make oxalic acid. However the sulphuric acid mixture that I’d applied to the skin was satisfyingly acidic – around pH3. I’ve since disposed of the left over lye and kept the remaining tanning or pickling mixture. From the research I did subsequently I learnt there are many more stages to tanning if one tackles it seriously. The acid treatment is really a ‘pickle’ which follows the salt ‘cure’. The ‘tanning’ mixture is different again and can use alum or other additives. Having said that I have no doubt that I’ve successfully preserved the skin and converted it to leather. A couple of visitors to my stall talked about using a mixture of kerosene and sodium bicarbonate (baking soda). I might try that on a smaller skin – rabbit maybe.

Talking of rabbits, we’ve had fun and games on that score. For a time we were awash with baby rabbits, black, grey and white, scooting about their large run. Luke, Rosie and I have managed successfully (if inadvertently) to significantly cull this number. Luke would catch and cuddle them when he took their food down and I was a little worried about them since they didn’t seem to be with any particular ‘Mum’. Rosie killed one that had somehow escaped from the pen. With Luke’s urging, I agree that we should catch those we could and transfer them to the garage. This was a big mistake. Several died of shock during the catching or transference. Others died afterwards when Bronte started up the compressor or when Luke tried to cuddle them. They would suddenly freeze and keel over sideways. In no time at all they were dead. Somewhat like fainting goats (they are a scream), but without the subsequent recovery. What a dreadful evolutionary tactic. We haven’t managed to kill them all however, we’ve still got a few diehards in the garage and at least one outside. I managed to take out the large brown adult still in the pen – it was a male that was bashing up the white buck from which I wanted to breed.

Bunny smorgasbord

Back on the subject of Henry the Sheep, we have now eaten some of the meat. The first roast was a disaster, a side of ribs. It smelt bad when cooking and tasted peculiar when cooked, although it didn’t seem to have any evil effects on our stomachs. The following day, I picked off the last of the meat and made a taco sauce with salad and wraps. It was a little better thus disguised. Disheartened I tried the mince, making a ‘lamb’ spaghetti bolognaise. That also smelt peculiar, but tasted OK and no-one complained. Lastly, I roasted a leg and to my surprise and pleasure, it was quite delicious. I’d cooked it early, thinking we may need to eat it with a strong sauce, but it was tender and tasty, just as I hadn’t dared to hope. It’s kept us going for a week, in wraps, sandwiches, carrot and lentil soup, and finally in a lamb and veggie curry. The bones have gone into the piggy potatoes today for flavour. On impulse, I pulled the other side of ribs out of the freezer and chucked that in the piggy brew as well.

Bronte and I had a week off earlier in July to coincide with the second week of Luke’s school holiday. I spent most of it cooking food for the pigs and catching up with jobs. I fixed the goat fence in a couple of places and set up hose junctions so I could get water to the hens and Blaize at the same time. I also finally got round to fixing my two broken hay dispensers. The corrugated iron on top had collapsed. I angle-ground some new iron to size and strengthened it with tek-screwed star pickets cut in half. These will stop the iron collapsing at the ends when the goats jump up.

I cut Luke’s hair and this time tackled it with scissors alone, instead of the usual electric clippers. I left it longer on top and he was horrified that he might look a bit fashionable. Bronte teased him that he looked like Justin Bieber and Luke was convinced everyone would laugh at him. He is horrendously self-conscious. 

Bronte and Luke went putting and 10-pin bowling and we all swam at the Aquatic Centre and went on a Hobart ghost tour. The last was entertaining but not as interesting as I’d hoped. I’d expected more historical information and anecdotes. Instead, the guy who led the group (in top hat and tails and full white pony tail) was a ghost enthusiast who encouraged us to take lots of pictures to reveal ectoplasm and hidden ghostly figures. We had no such luck with our photos. We did get to see inside a rather elegant hotel, the attic of which was a ship’s wheelhouse, and inside an old stone battery under Prince’s Park.

Luke and Bronte camped three nights in the tent Bronte had bought for Luke at Christmas. It was terribly cold but they were determined. They chose a position about 100m from the house, a little sheltered grassy plateau. Bronte was crippled after the first night so we had to squeeze a foam mattress into the tent. Luke got upset one night when Bronte stole the extra duvet and snored so loudly Luke couldn’t sleep. I took them tea and breakfast one morning but refused to do the same on Bronte’s extra day off when I had to work.

We went to Hartzview Vineyard last weekend because they had opened the owner’s model train sets to the public. It’s a beautiful spot, but we should have realised that lunch there was only for the well-to-do. Even with a voucher from the Entertainment Book in which Bronte had invested, we felt short-changed. The trains were rather fun as was peeking into the several pickers’ huts left from when the area was a fruit farm. They had Italian prisoners-of-war picking for them at one time, sleeping four to a tiny hut.

Scene from Hartzview Vineyard

I’ve made a momentous decision. The animals have always been a bone of contention between me and Bronte. Given the amount of work involved in feeding the pigs now, I’ve decided to compromise and sell and/ or eat the pigs. I’ll also try to sell the turkeys and a handful of the goats. I can’t sell many goats as most have become old friends. Plus they are such super weed-eaters. One turkey has gone into the freezer – poor Limpy, the last of the batch that were fed with dodgy crumbles as chicks. She’d managed OK for a long time, but had begun to limp. When I plucked and gutted the carcass, I could see the breastbone was deformed and part of the rib-cage was concave rather than convex. It’s distressing how much trouble that one bad batch of food caused. It has made me rather suspicious of commercial feeds. I plan to try and sell three of the goats now, including Rocky the buck, then slaughter another two for us later on when they’ve kidded and the kids have been weaned. These last two have got nice colouring so I plan to convert those to skins to sell. I’ve not been put off tanning yet!

Evil currawong caught in possum trap

The ducks are becoming very friendly and very naughty!

Collecting goat browse

Out walking in Hobart we discovered this old magazine on
Queens Domain

Dead wattle covered in lichen

Luke skiing down grass slope in feed bag!

Luke's little crop of self-set potatoes
(the wallabies ate all the potato tops)

Luke and Bronte brought these 'treasures' back from one of the
old tips along the creek and built this sculpture

Murphy intrigued by Luke's slot car set. Luke and Bronte fixed a
'tail' on the back of one car and drove Murphy crazy

Inspired by the model trains at the Hartzview Vineyard, Bronte
dug out his old train set from when he was a kid. The dining room is
either a table tennis table or host to train set or jigsaw