Thursday, November 20, 2014

The Hungry Stove

From now until April, the wood-stove will gobble up cord after cord of seasoned firewood. A cord measures 8' x 4' x 4' and we may well use FOUR of them this winter, if the cold endures as it did in 2013-14.  If I load it right, the stove will burn nearly all night and keeps the entire house warm. Last night was a cold one for November, and I came downstairs at about 3am and added logs. I was up anyway. When I woke again at 6, the fire was still burning a bit. Add more wood and the house responded.

All that burning brings to mind a few things, and that's not bad when one spends so much evening time by the hungry stove, sipping a good whisky and writing.  I think there is a time-suck called television, but ignoring it for the stove's show is one reason I get so many things done, including learning about what matters to me.

First, there is the notion of burning wood itself. I plan to do so until I am physically unable, but already I've outlasted a few contemporaries who find wood too much trouble. They want to come home flip a switch, and warm up by the simulacrum of a wood fire. That's their choice to make, but to me the entire point of a wood stove is to make you work for heat. The effort to split wood is great, even with a hydraulic-ram splitter such as the one I use for twisted or large logs. Increasingly I hand-split just to get some exercise, a trip to the gym being my idea of hell. Thus the old adage that wood warms you three times: splitting, toting, and burning. 

Gas logs do not add a thing to the garden, and between Dominic's market-garden and mine, we went through 100 gallons of wood ash to raise the PH of our acidic top soil. I will barely replenish that in a season of burning, but it is good to know that ash goes back into the cycle of planting and harvesting out here, not into the landfill. My gas-log acquaintances tend to go to gyms and gripe about the ash-removal part, as they do about raking (or for them, blowing) leaves. I take away leaves and actually bring them here to compost, to add leaf-mold to our garden.

The earth is as hungry like the stove, after all, as are our bellies. Now, after nearly two years of rural life, nearly every meal we fix includes a home-grown ingredient. Some meals are nearly all from the garden, a life-long goal of mine. All that ash and compost is doing the job well.

The biggest lesson of having a stove is spiritual. The second half of life should be a time of letting go, gently. Dylan Thomas was wrong: we should go gentle. So tending stove becomes a ritual of personal and even metaphysical import: I'm reminded of the Busk, a Native-American tradition that Thoreau discusses in Walden, after he encountered it in the travel narratives of William Bartram (a writer I wish we remembers more).  We refer to "busking" today as a way to sell things, but the old word was quite the opposite: it was an act of creative and cleansing destruction.  Tribes would burn old and broken possessions, worn-out furniture, and other items to make way for the new.

My stove is doing exactly that, by trading old wood and kindling (the latter from a hundred carpentry projects) for a Spring garden. The fire-pit outside burns other less seasoned and softer woods, but also outdated paperwork and such. It's a wonderful tradition we might revive in our consumerist present.

And thus, be a bit thankful about letting things go. Happy Thanksgiving and stay warm!

Monday, November 10, 2014

Mend It, Don't End It

I have been accused of being a Cheapass. Guilty as charged, but only if you mean my penchant for saving some stuff that might be of future use. There's a profound lesson in saving-and-mending for the next generation of tinkerers, hobby-farmers, and market gardeners.  In sum, a long way from the "ending is better than mending" in Huxley's Brave New World.

Long ago I dispensed with saving or trying to repair everything. It was a habit acquired from some Depression-Era friends and family members, and while it worked well for them in very hard times, today it induces madness when one cannot find a counter-top clear enough to do useful work. At times my urge to purge has gone too far: I once chucked, unknowingly, into a dumpster the air-cleaner for a '56 Chevy under restoration (this is my official confession). The damned thing looked like a flattened and filthy tin can, so "toss!" out it went.

Yet faced with an disposable present--who can recall returnable bottles?--I felt that I had to reuse things by upping my repair and restoration skills.

October 2014 was, most certainly, a month of successfully fixing stuff. The big project was disassembling, repairing, and repainting a John Deere M tractor, a piece of machinery that has given the family long and dutiful service since purchased new, in 1950. It saved my bacon in 2013, when our new John Deere had to go to the shop after a hydraulic line broke. The old M ran, but had some issues with the fuel system that I've repaired with replacement parts, learning how to flare a metal fuel line along the way.  It may still have a slow oil-leak around the engine, nothing fatal for a machine made to be serviced on the farm. Once I diagnose that, if anywhere leaks I even have extra (cork!) gaskets for the valve cover and oil pan, a dirty but rather simple job on such a simple engine.

Now I'm zeroing in on the final coats of paint for the cowl, nose, and fenders. The tractor will even get a shiny new gas cap and some factory-fresh decals. Along the way I taught myself how to use an auto-paint gun, including how to employ hardener and reducer in the paint. I've sanded out the blemishes using the same techniques I employ on 1/35 scale tanks, with Bondo in place of modeling putty. The results really "pop" and I'll feature the old machine in a future post.

Yet the tractor will be back next year, cutting grass along with its harder-working, younger stablemates who mow, skid logs, and dig ditches. That's typical for old gear, and I like that about the farm-equipment collectors. One rarely sees "trailer queens," as one does with show cars. Of course, getting the right finish on a tractor is far easier, after some paint chips, than on a Corvette. Keep it clean, put it up dry, and a machine or implement may be left to the next generation. I just pulled a rake-harrow out of the leaves after finding it. it will get a redo in the Spring, when I clean and repaint our plows and disk harrow.

As with cars, such old equipment teaches one the values that produced them. That's also true of an old GE electric fan I fixed. A machine from that time was meant to be mended and owners were considered to be smart enough to fill a small oil-cup containing a wick. When maintained, these things last down the eons. Newer technology is tricky, but help is usually a YouTube video away, as attested by helping with a starter motor in a friend's pickup and repairs to two left-for-dead lawnmowers.  It surprises me how simple and inexpensive many of these repairs can be.  In fact, these tasks bear some resemblance to growing one's own food, a task that many dream about yet do not attempt.

Yet why don't more of my peers do some of these DIY projects? I'd not be much of a Tractorpunk if I did not speculate.

First, there's a type of patience and intelligence that one must have, or acquire, when doing this work. Matthew Crawford, who is the husband of one of my colleagues, discusses it at length in his influential book Shop Class as Soulcraft. Everything in our 140-character culture, from our want-it-now, Huxleyan consumerism to broken political system appears to lead us to crave immediate gratification.  Yet the slow accumulation of mechanical and agricultural skills does not match any calendar but that of the seasons. This may be why so many young people I teach choose careers such as accounting and finance, chasing phantoms called money that are really no more than electrons dashing around the Internet and appearing as no more than glowing pixels on a computer display.

It may be that a new generations of farm-hacktivists, locovores, and old-gear fanatics can reverse the ethics of the Brave New World we're in. Matt Crawford's book helped show me that it would be possible again to recapture craft as meritorious, as or more meritorious than the more hands-off, but no less intellectual trades.

I like that idea; in the 70s we made progress against the tsunami of disposable culture and goods, fixed our motorcycles after reading Robert Pirsig. We slipped in the "Greed is Good" 80s, yet re-embarked on a quest for meaningful relationships to hard work, perhaps out of a half-acknowledged and almost spinal sense that our resources are either limited or come at an enormous cost to the biosphere. I still think there's time to prove Huxley wrong, and I'll be turning my wrenches and, I hope, teaching a few skills to a few young tractorpunks in the decades left to me.

And to Matt Crawford, I promise I've not tossed the three old motorcyles in a shipping container. We chatted about them LAST winter, but now that the snakes are hibernating again, they are ready, this winter, for you or your customers to mend.