Monday, 21 May 2018

Hillbilly Heights

A local farmer once jokingly remarked that the editor and I lived up in 'Hillbilly Heights'. He meant the remark in a good natured and amusing way, but I thought to myself: I can do that!

Long term readers will recall that a few months back we began dismantling a three seat 'leather' couch and re-purposing the underlying materials. At the time I described the 'leather' couch as a 'manufacturing abomination' because it is my belief that it should never have been made. Despite purchasing the couch from new, and paying a hefty sum of money for the thing, we discovered to our horror that the 'leather' appeared to be manufactured from some sort of welded chunks of leather which were glued to a synthetic backing. Technically the product is leather, but the welds crack after a short period of time and then chunks of leather fall off the backing which leaves the synthetic backing clearly visible. All up, after a few short years of use the couch looked like a bucket of poo. Nothing was left for us to do but burn the remains of that spawn of a demon!

The couch was replaced a while back with a locally made couch that the previous owners no longer wanted. It cost us about a tenth of the price of the 'leather' abomination, and the fabric covering on the replacement is so high quality that it is amazing.

Anyway, with the remains of the 'leather' abomination soon to be retired to the nearest bonfire, I thought that this would be a good photo opportunity! Here goes...
Welcome to Hillbilly Heights!
I left the story in last week's blog only half finished, so here is part two:

Despite wearing a Billy Joel tour t-shirt and the denim jacket that the cool kids gave me heaps of rubbish for wearing, I still look as though I'm enjoying a good sulk:
The author mucking around the high country when perhaps he should have been studying for his final exams
During that week, most of my contemporaries were busy studying for their final High School exams. I had other ideas, and my good mate was care free and well financed enough that we decided to tear off into the high country of Victoria for a few days of adventure.

The few days of adventure were so peaceful and quiet and there was even a bit of snow around the alpine areas. Even today, outside of public and school holidays the forests up in that part of the country are very quiet. My grandfather and his WWII drinking buddies used to take me up there with them camping from the time I was a young kid, and I knew the area tolerably well enough to get around.

Anyway, whilst my mate and I were skylarking up in the forests, my fellow school mates were apparently busy at home studying up for the final examinations.

Now very long term readers will recall that after a couple of years in a very hippy dippy High School, I was unceremoniously packed off to the other end of the educational spectrum and ended up at a more English than the English, High School. The contrast between the two schools was not lost on me.

The latter school was very good at teaching to the exams. As a contrast, the hippy dippy school was all about the 'experience' and they simply ignored exams. I can't but help think to myself that there must be some sort of middle ground between the two extremes. Maybe?

To cut a long story short, I felt entirely comfortable taking a week off to go camping and relax before the exams despite this being considered an unconventional approach to study. As I remarked above, it was clear to me at the time that the school taught to the exams. The exams were clearly an unknown, but the key objectives of each subject were made public knowledge and it doesn't take a rocket scientist to know that the exams were consistent with the key objectives - which is only fair.

To that end, the school relentlessly drilled us students as to how to answer possible exam questions. We were also taught how to manage our time in the exams because we were often made to write essays or perform other work under time constraints. I distinctly recall having written over fifty essays for the subject of Australian history over the course of the school year.

The homework was not quite endless, but it sure did take up a considerable number of hours each evening, as well as one of the days on the weekend. Homework was generally enforced by threat of detention for non-compliance. The other day on those weekends where I wasn't studying was consumed by competing in inter school sports. You could say that the experience was rather competitive, but it was also all consuming. And thinking back on the experience, I'd have to suggest that it would have prepared someone well for a career in the Army!

As a bit of a criticism of that educational approach, I'd have to suggest that such practices do not train a mind to think clearly - or even be creative. But then, those two outcomes aren't the ones that are examined...

Winter is gathering momentum and most days over the past week have been incredibly cloudy.
Winter is gathering momentum and thick clouds are a constant companion over the central highlands
The thick clouds are not good for the off grid solar power system. And even worse, 12 of the 30 photovoltaic (PV) panels have been off line due to an unknown fault. As a result, the household has been on electricity rations this week!

A couple of days ago I began the process of rewiring all of the cables between the 12 PV panels and the batteries. I suspected that something had gone wrong somewhere in the cables. I installed new fuses and linkages so that each PV panel is now individually fused. The other 18 panels in the system are wired with individual fuses, but these 12 faulty panels are the oldest part of the system. To begin that wiring process, I had to work on the apex of the roof for many long hours.
The author works on the very apex of the roof wiring the solar panels
Fortunately for this purpose I keep a very thick chunk of padded foam (technically called a 'sponge wub' - that is a long story about Old Fluffy the former boss dog). Believe me, working up there in the winter weather for hours on end is akin to having a 'super atomic wedgie'!
The author avoids the worst of the super atomic roof wedgie by using a 'sponge wub' to sit on
From time to time it rained and the steel corrugated roof became seriously slippery.
It has rained on and off again over the past week
Fortunately, the rain mostly held off. The new fuse box arrangements look pretty cool and I used a combination of connectors that can handle very large currents (that is another name for 'Amps'). It is worthwhile mentioning that the connectors used in grid tied systems (generally known as MC4 connectors) are not rated to the sort of currents that off grid systems can produce. If used in my sort of system, it is possible the standard connectors will eventually melt and/or fail. Off grid, you have to be a bit resourceful, as well as mindful that you don't do anything stupid which may produce what someone once described to me as the: "Magic Black Smoke". Not good.
The new fuse arrangement for the rear four PV panels
Then the existing cables in the roof which run to about 100ft had to be removed from inside the roof cavity and brought out into the light for a proper inspection. It is worthwhile noting that each positive and negative wire has a surface area of copper of about an inch (25mm2) and so the cables are really heavy.
The cables for the 12 faulty solar panels had to be removed from the roof and inspected in daylight
One possible explanation as to the failure of the 12 panels was the mysterious electrical gremlin known by the technical name of: Induction. I'm not actually sure what induction is, but I may have inadvertently caused the consequences of too much induction simply by not having the red and black cables close together for the entire cable run. Even in the photo above you can see that there is a bit of distance between the red and black cables at various points.

A roll of duct tape sorted that problem out and I have taped together the cables for the entire 30m / 100ft length at about every foot or so.
A roll of duct tape and the induction problem is resolved
It is worthwhile mentioning that the other 18 panels are unlikely to suffer this fate because they were purchased as 'twin wires', meaning that they are physically joined along their entire length. Nine years ago, purchasing such heavy duty wire was not as simple as it is today.

Before beginning the repairs, I went with my gut feeling and purchased a replacement regulator (the fancy name for the brains behind the solar power to battery charging process). It was a good thing that I did that too, because the old regulator had ceased to function, although it appeared as if it was still working. The regulators are manufactured in Melbourne so I can take it in to them to repair over the next week or so. Units sourced from overseas suppliers would not be so easy to repair.
I connected up the replacement regulator to the new wiring and it is all good!
After three days of work, the system is now working perfectly again. I just have to pray for some sun! By the end of the three days I was exhausted. After I checked the system was working properly, I decided to let the chickens out in the orchard. The editor caught me napping whilst I was meant to be supervising the chickens.
The editor caught me napping whilst I was meant to be supervising the chickens
The editor was not idle during this time and I am rather jealous that she took out the new self propelled mower / slasher for a spin. She managed to work her way across half the farm. The new second hand mower / slasher is awesome and it does the job somewhere between two and three times faster than the old Honda mower.
The new second hand mower/slasher does an awesome job
The birds have been delighted with the piles of cut mulch left for them to rummage through
The potatoes have revelled in the recent heavy rain:
The potatoes have revelled in the recent heavy rain
The orchard is now almost completely deciduous
The smoke bush is almost the last splash of colour in the orchard
How good are the Japanese maples?
 Onto the flower photos:
Feverfew growing among Rosemary
Chrysanthemum's still going strong
Aromatic geraniums are superb looking
I thought I might chuck in a blooper shot. Ollie is clearly camera shy or doesn't consider himself to be a hillbilly...
Ollie is clearly camera shy and refuses to participate

The temperature outside now at about 9.00am is 8’C (46’F). So far this year there has been 311.4mm (12.3 inches) which is higher than last week's total of 304.0mm (12.0 inches).

Monday, 14 May 2018

Antarctic mice

To this day, I still have no idea how it all came about. As a kid of a single mother, and being the youngest of three, I was put into school at the earliest age possible. My mother had to work full time in order to keep a roof over our heads and food on the table, so I was placed into school at that early time due to the purely pragmatic reason being that school was a free alternative to childcare. This meant that I was often the youngest child in any grade at school.

Being one of the youngest kids in any class was cool with me and I was OK with that situation. Being a child of a single mother meant that we were poor, and that was an entirely different experience. My jumpers were hand knitted, and I wore my jeans and shoes until they were so full of holes that they were probably not fit for public decency. Sometimes, I just wanted to wear what the cool kids were wearing - just to fit in.

As an interesting side story, as an adult I worked for a steel products wholesaler. One day I was asked to go to the bank with a young lady who also worked at the business. That day the clouds had really dumped a lot of rain, and I remarked to the young lady that the day was: "not good for discovering a hole in your shoe". To which she replied: "why would you have a hole in your shoe?" Of course it had not occurred to me that the young lady in question had never experienced what it meant to wear out a hole in the bottom of a pair of shoes!

In my final year at high school, my mother asked me what I would like as a gift for a birthday present. It was thoughtful of my mother to ask me, but it must be remembered that I gave her hell for the year that she forgot my birthday. Some wise person once remarked that the best way to recall a birthday is to forget one! Anyway, I asked for a particular denim jacket that I'd noticed some of the cool kids wearing. Back in those days, clothes were generally locally made and shops selling denim wear for teenagers were few.

My mother obviously felt some sort of guilt for forgetting an earlier birthday, because instead of purchasing the basic denim jacket that I wanted in order to identify myself as a cool kid (which I wasn't), she went out and purchased a designer made denim jacket. And the other kids in my year at school gave me heaps of crap for wearing that jacket.
The author at age 17, wearing the denim jacket and looking pensive
I sure didn't look like the cool kids in that designer denim jacket. For some strange reason the denim jacket had a cow logo on the front, and just in case anyone missed it, there was another cow logo on the back on a leather patch. Fortunately, I was able to unpick the leather logo patch on the back of the jacket. Unfortunately, the jacket didn't get cooler.

The Australian band, 'Eskimo Joe' wrote a song about this very circumstance. The song was titled, 'Sweater', and whilst the band had a long and illustrious career and produced some superb music, the fans still demanded the 'Sweater' song at gigs. Without further ado, I give you some lyrics from Eskimo Joe:

"My grandpa gave me hand-me-down
When I put it on I look like a clown
All the kids would beat me up at school
Made me itch cause it was made of wool
Leather bound buttons in a monkey shit brown
Everywhere i go people putting me down
When i go and do the little bottom buttons up
Makes me look like I got a big beer gut"

I was quite the fan of woollen jumpers because they kept me warm. On the other hand denim jackets rarely keep one warm, and so during the colder parts of the year, I wore the hand knitted woollen jumper with the designer denim jacket. The fashion combination was not cool. And just to make it even less cool, in the next photo below, I was wearing my Billy Joel tour merchandise t-shirt.
The author still looking pensive and uncertain due to the effect of the Billy Joel tour t-shirt on the overall look
Observant readers will even be able to spot the cow logo on the front of the denim jacket. The real joke about the story was that, many years later when I began dating the editor, she mentioned that my brand of denim jacket was a really cool item. In her corner of the city, the jacket would have had serious street cred - with the girls! Therein lies the problem of going to an all boys school! Little wonder I looked pensive.

"Coming home late on an afternoon
My lip was all bloody and my forehead all bruised
Singing all the blues like hoody led better
All because of that shitty brown sweater
Shitty little sweater causing too much pain
Hung it in the closet never wear it again
No disrespect to my grandpa
But this sweater incident has gone too far"

Alert readers may wonder what the heck I was doing in the top photo in the middle of Victorian alpine country in a flashy looking Toyota four wheel drive vehicle if I was poor. The simple answer to that question is that my mate was full of money, and I guess as such he must have been 'King of the dorks' in my social circle at that time. To be continued...

Clouds gathered over the Victorian central highlands as a pool of cold Antarctic air drifted ever closer
As the afternoon came to its natural conclusion on Thursday, clouds gathered over the farm. A rogue pool of cold air had detached itself from the usual Antarctic trade winds and began drifting north - only to land in this corner of the planet. The pool of cold air could have landed anywhere at this latitude, but it chose this corner of Australia. The island state of Tasmania to the south of the state that I live in (Victoria) was smashed by the storm. Cars were floating down the streets of the capital city of Hobart. Buildings were flooded. It was a real mess: Hobart weather: Record rain, flash flooding inundate CBD and parts of southern Tasmania

Fortunately, between only two thirds to three quarters of the rain that fell there, landed here - and at a much slower rate. The farm was covered in thick cloud, rain, and mist for four days as three inches or 75mm of rain fell.
The farm was covered in thick cloud, rain, and mist for four days as three inches of rain fell
The high level water tanks soon filled up!
The high level water tanks soon filled up due to the huge dump of rain
Then the large reserve water tank which was mostly empty began refilling:
The reserve water tank has begun refilling
Long term readers will recall the minor landslide incident which occurred over a year ago. Well, the rain again pooled at that location and began the process of repeating the landslide. It was fortunate that the editor and I had been undertaking work in that location to prevent a repeat of the disaster. Clearly still more work is required!
The heavy rain over the weekend produced a minor slippage of land above the house
The real drama during that period of time was the 12 of the 30 installed solar photovoltaic panels failed. On Saturday night, we discovered the failure because the power to the house was rather rudely cut off without warning, mid pizza cooking. The system decided to shut off the power to the house in order to protect the batteries from over discharging (which can permanently damage them). It was a bit of a shock for us (and the pizza) because over the past decade the off grid solar power system had never previously failed us without warning.

In the dark and drizzly evening that was Saturday night, we managed to connect up the small petrol (gas in US speak) powered generator and pump some extraordinarily expensive electrons into the batteries and get the system going again. The pizza enjoyed the toasty warmth of the gas oven.

Investigations the following day uncovered that during the past month, one of the three strings of solar panels had failed. We have set up the solar power system into three separate strings of solar panels for this very reason so that if one string fails the system could still limp along with the remaining two strings.

In this case, we lost 40% of the panels and still have no idea why. At first we suspected that mice had chewed through the cables, and after a physical examination of the entire length of cables for that string, I could see no rodent damage. Another possibility is that the local sulfur crested Cockatoos have chewed through the cables on the roof. Those birds can live as long as the oldest humans and they have extraordinarily strong beaks. The problem remains a mystery, and one that I am hoping to resolve over the next few days. The repair bill to correct this problem will, I estimate, reach almost a thousand dollars, just for the materials, and that is with me undertaking all of the work.

We have huge expanses of grass here at the farm. Ordinarily, the marsupials keep up with eating the grass, but at some stages of the year, the growth exceeds what they can eat. At those times of the year, I mow the grass, which is a very slow job involving days of walking around pushing the little red Honda mower.
Ollie cattle dog extraordinaire, frolics through the grass, wishing he could push the mower with his long legs
The little red Honda push mower is showing signs of wear and tear and over the past year has had to be re-welded in spots. Since that time I have been keeping an eye out for a Deutscher self propelled mower / slasher. Despite the German brand name, the machines are locally manufactured and the old timers that I have spoken too over the years, swear by them. Earlier in the week, I finally spotted a used example in honest condition - and so I purchased it.
The author shows off his new second hand Deutscher
It cost me about 20% of the price of a new model, and it is worthwhile noting that these machines and this model are apparently so good that they are still made today. It is a real beast of a machine and I can't wait to get into slashing the entire farm prior to the daffodils sprouting their heads come August. If I have the time for that task...

Despite the cold and rainy weather, there is still plenty going on at the farm. The bees look to have settled in for the winter, and I closed up the gap in their opening in order to reduce heat loss for the colony.
The bees look as though they are buckling down for the winter
Winter is the time for citrus and it looks as though the Lemonade variety will have a bumper crop. I tasted one of the fruits a few days ago and it was still a few weeks away from being fully ripe:
Lemonade citrus looks like it will have a bumper crop this winter
The mandarins are also looking as though they will produce a bumper crop towards the end of winter:
The mandarins look as though they will produce a bumper crop towards the end of winter
I noticed a few fruits on one of the fig trees. I have about six fig trees and all of them are too small to produce edible fruit, but this one is valiantly doing its best:
This small fig tree has produced a couple of figs which may over winter on the tree
I use figs in jam making and the fruit produces one of the tastiest jams that we make. At this stage, because the trees are so small, we have had to buy in all of our figs, but large trays of them are available in the Queen Victoria market in Melbourne for only $10, if you know who to ask!

Winter is fast approaching and the winter solstice is only six weeks away, and whilst plant growth slows at this time of year, there are still quite a few edible plants in the vegetable beds:
Broadbeans grow throughout the winter and produce beans during the spring
At this early stage of winter, nasturtium are plentiful. Soon they will die back leaving straw for the next generation
Green mustard's come into their own during the winter
Leeks happily grow here every season with no further assistance on my part
These gooseberries were begun last season as hardwood sticks poked into the soil
 And there are also plenty of flowers and colours in the garden:
How good are the Japanese maples?
The bush rose produces superb colour as it rambles through garden beds
Geraniums and lavender are a happy combination!
A lemon scented tea tree in flower - it makes a very tasty herbal tea
A smoke bush - our own private leaf change
The blueberries also put on a good leaf change display
The final words for the week should go to the band 'Eskimo Joe' and their excellent and amusing song 'Sweater':

"Late last June I was buying some slacks
From favourite Op shop named Aunty Jacks
Took them back to my abode
Had a good look through my big wardrobe
Then I spyed that certain sweater
But somehow it looks so much better
When I put it on no turning back
Even look good with my new brown slacks"

The temperature outside now at about 9.15pm is 6’C (42’F). So far this year there has been 304.0mm (12.0 inches) which is higher than last week's total of 229.0mm (9.0 inches).