The Roof, The Roof, The Roof is on Fire


img_20161102_144452712Fires on farms are catastrophic events. When the farm in question is your homestead, it has the potential to be catastrophic, since both work and home are in danger of being reduced to ash and charred bits of metal.

“Yah bahn’s on fiyha,” my neighbor’s New England accent emanated from the cell phone, muffled by wind and road noise on both ends of the call. I needed him to repeat what he said, while the meaning sank in.

There are some pieces of news that catch you flat-footed; a parent’s death, being laid off from a job, a positive pregnancy test, a Cunha graduating high school. The possibility was always understood, but never really expected.

Grandma fondly recalled the eighth grade as, “My senior year.”

Having grown up in California, I’m well acquainted with wildfires. However, contrary to the widespread rumor, none of them had anything to do with turkey frying mishaps.

img_20161102_144138867_hdrThe upshot of having a significant portion of your farm burnt is you get to meet all your neighbors. People I’ve only seen in passing, and several I didn’t know existed, came from all points of the compass to gawk and shake their heads. I briefly considered charging admission.

The embers smoldered for several days, giving off an ethereal show at night that is likely the closest I will ever get to seeing the Northern Lights in person.

Tallying up the damage was sobering. Half of the hay field was burned, along with burning the undergrowth and saplings in virtually all of the white oak stand at the back of the property. A bunch of fence was destroyed, both by the fire and the firefighting efforts. What really hurt was the loss of my hay barn packed with most of this year’s hay crop.

As it turns out, “flammable” and “inflammable” mean the same thing. Hay is both.

img_20161102_143910623_hdrI pride myself on being a gallows humorist, but make no mistake, there is little to find funny in the ashes. The insurance adjuster must have an appreciation for dark humor, as well, since he didn’t make any notes when I mentioned the barn also contained an original copy of the Declaration of Independence, the Ark of the Covenant, and several lost Picasso paintings.

With a nod to the sense of humor and understanding of my insurance adjuster, here are my best attempts.

  • Wasn’t there a scene in Bambi like this?
  • We won’t have to worry about deer freeloading from the field for a while.
  • I bet this is what Hell will look like.
  • Mrs. Cunha was disappointed the firefighters bore no resemblance to her calendar.
  • My daughter wanted to know why they didn’t bring a Dalmatian with them.
  • It was a barn-burner of an afternoon.
  • Feel the Bern!

If you ever find yourself on the wrong end of a fire (and I’m pretty sure there is not really a “right” end of a fire to be on), here are five things to keep in mind as you sift through the ashes.

Fire is hot

“No kidding, Fire Marshall Carlos,” you might be telling yourself. What I mean is things that get caught in a fire stay hot for a surprisingly long time. The heat was still noticeable through the soles of my boots when I walked around surveying the damage the next day, and there were still pockets of what I suspect were large roots that were still smoldering just below the surface.

Check buildings and equipment because the heat from a fire radiates a surprising distance. Turn on faucets to ensure the water flows and test underground power lines with a voltmeter. Plastic pipes, wire insulation, and even panes of glass will begin to melt and deform well before combustible items around them show evidence of heat and flame.

Gear up

The natural reaction to this type of catastrophe is to assess the damage. Mrs. Cunha and I were inspecting the losses while trees were still on fire and fence posts were still smoldering. It’s a natural reaction, and for most of us who are not part of the volunteer fire department, gives the property owner something to do besides standing around worrying. I won’t begrudge anyone taking what action they are able, just don’t get yourself in trouble. Take a battle-buddy, take some communication, and leave the damn dog at the house.

Wear your heavy boots, long pants, and gloves. If you’re a Safety Sally, I won’t fault you for taking a hardhat, eye protection, and long sleeves. Wear what you think is appropriate. Taking along a tool like a hoe or a metal rake is a good idea, since you will likely want to pick up or dig out something that I guarantee will be too hot to touch.

Inspect often

You’re first tour through the debris will be overwhelming. Not in the sense that it gives you PTSD (or it might, depending on what you’ve done in life), but fire changes the look of the landscape in such a significant way that the woods I was hunting a few days prior were near unrecognizable. The sights and smells and feel of everything will be alien. It takes a second to process what was a fourteen-foot tall barn when I walked by yesterday is now eight inches high.

The first month, I averaged walking the woods or the field every other day. After that, I poked around the trees a couple times a week for the next month. Each time, I found something new that made my heart sink; another break in the fence, another bulldozer gouge in the hillside, a marketable-size tree charred past use as lumber and now firewood, if I’m lucky. You’ll find something new each sortie for quite a while, so take all the pain now.

No touchy, touchy

Whatever you do while poking around the ruins, keep in mind that you are traipsing around in a crime scene. Well, not really, but kind of. It’s better to err on the side of caution than to do something that jams you up later. Let me explain.

Several different people were inspecting the damage in the course of this whole thing. There was a report from the fire department that included input from the forestry service, three visits by insurance adjusters, contractors for building estimates, and a survey by a certified forester. Starting the clean-up process too soon might very well have affected an accurate calculation of the loss sustained. Do yourself and your pocketbook a favor by suppressing the urge get everything back to normal until everyone who needs to take a look has done so.

Not all is lost

At some point in this process, you will have a solid grasp of the losses. We were lucky. There was no loss of life, people or animals. We lost a structure, some agricultural products, and a bit of future profit. Losing livestock would have been terrible, but losing humans would have been devastating. I have nothing to offer that will help fill the void left by loss of a loved one, but short of that, everything is replaceable. We will amend the field and crops will grow again. Burning out the undergrowth will likely help the trees in the long run.

img_20161225_170713399Heck, seven weeks after the fire, the grass had begun to poke through the charred earth enough to lure a couple of does into the open. I filled my freezer with one of them Christmas afternoon, so maybe there is something good to pluck from this entire mess.

In a spurt of optimism in my prowess as an apex predator and putting aside her pique at me for delaying Christmas dinner for butchering a deer, Mrs. Cunha purchase a stand-up freezer for all the wild game she expected to be dragged back to the house. We didn’t see another deer the rest of the season.

That’s about how life goes.

3Thank you to every one of my readers for coming back week after week. The content on this website is free to access, but does take resources to produce. Please visit my Patreon account to see what I have in the works for the homestead and consider becoming a supporter, which gets you additional content, behind the scenes access, goodies not available on the main site, and unique Thank You gifts for support.

L'homme Theroux CoverIf you’d prefer something more tangible in return for supporting my work, please preview my novel L’homme Theroux and consider purchasing it, if you enjoy the sample chapters.

Rest When You’re Dead


0619161702bMy neighbor says he’s worked harder in retirement than at any time in his life. I have no reason to disagree, if this summer is any indication. The past two months have been filled with backbreaking labor that is quite possibly the hardest I’ve worked in my life, as well. And we are not anywhere near finished, as I seem to be very poor at estimating time requirements to build our dreams. I am likely the world’s worst construction foreman.

The barn is not as squared away as I would like, the orchard will have to wait until spring for planting, and the house still looks like a construction zone. However, hay has been put up, the chickens and rabbits are reasonably well housed, the vineyard installed, and all the rough carpentry in the house is complete.

Considering much of the house was stripped to the studs to fulfill Mrs. Cunha’s desire to make the house “hers,” despite her name being on the deed right next to mine, the two solid months of sunrise-to-sunset projects worked in between farm chores was really a labor of love.

It’s amazing the amount of energy you can muster when it’s your project, your farm, and your neck on the block. The kids would be happy to live in a dank cave, if they never again had to break a sweat.

Thank God for YouTube and helpful electrician types who are generous with their knowledge because I had to re-learn some of the trickier aspects of electricity I had forgotten in two decades.

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Note to self: Hot and common really should be capped off separately.

Actually, I learned that lesson all on my own, and frightened Mrs. Cunha quite badly in the process. Being the religious sort, it seems she associates sparks and the smell of burning insulation with demonic forces. It was a big enough flash to make anyone believe in the devil.

Somewhere between “Hey, I have an idea” and “Maybe we should just set the place on fire and sell the scavenged scrap metal,” I decided to give Mrs. Cunha a thrill by incorporating a curved wall on the walk-in closet we were framing in one of the rooms.

Yeah, it's a round wall. Don't try this at home, kids.
Yeah, it’s a round wall. Don’t try this at home, kids.

I had seen it done before and the math didn’t seem too difficult. What I didn’t count on was the men I watched create this magnificent arced wall were far more skilled carpenters than I. That plus I’m terrible at math. Well, it’s not so much that I’m bad at math. My house is bad at math.

The first rule of construction is there is no such thing as a plumb wall or a square room.

Don’t believe for a second that a measurement at one end bears any relationship to the middle or bottom. And on the rare, lucky occasion everything measures out perfectly, it will invariably look catawampus compared to everything around it. Luckily, there aren’t many construction problems that can’t be fixed with a hammer.

Speaking of beating lumber into submission, the barn is constructed of white oak, which I prefer to call by its Indian name, “Can’t drive a God-Damn Nail into It.”

The Amish who milled this lumber must have reinforced it with steel because I cannot think of any other reason a sixteen-penny nail won’t make it through two of the boards. The barn is pretty old, so maybe I need those old-fashioned rectangular nails instead of the modern, round ones.

Anyone with insight into this problem is welcome to enlighten me in the comments because I’ve run out of men in my family who can.

0602161706The upshot is my kids have been provided material for several anecdotes to pass on to their children about Grandpa Carlos bending and cursing nails, Amish, and oak trees. The only thing that has kept me from hurling my hammer into the hay field is the knowledge that I would only have to find the son-of-a-bitch when I calmed down, lest it break a mower blade.

As it stands now, there is still a ton of work to accomplish. At least, we got the Japanese beetles under control. The house is a wreck, the farm is still very much in the start-up phase, and I’m not sure where I’m going to store all the hay from the next couple of cuts.

I’ve never been more exhausted and I’ve never been happier. It will probably get worse when I retire.

 

3Thank you to every one of my readers for coming back week after week. The content on this website is free to access, but does take resources to produce. Please visit my Patreon account to see what I have in the works for the homestead and consider becoming a supporter, which gets you content, behind the scenes access, and goodies not available on the main site.

Tractors…For Rabbits


photo12Wire cages are the standard way to house rabbits, but a rabbit tractor is a simple homestead DIY project within the skills of most people. We typically use rabbit tractors both as grow-out pens and for when the kits begin to crowd their mom’s cage.

A secondary purpose, during spring and summer when the grass is lush, is as a mobile enclosure. Rather than break out the lawnmower, I let my little bundles of fur take on some of the yard maintenance responsibilities. The lushness of what’s growing, the size of the tractor, how many rabbits , and their ages will dictate how often the tractor needs to be moved. We average moving it every other day.

It was glorious. All last summer, the rabbits kept the backyard nibbled down sufficiently that only a few strips and patches in the corners had to be mowed.

An added benefit was reducing feed costs. Every dandelion, blade of grass, and bit of clover the rabbits munch from the turf is that much less feed I have to provide. It’s not much when they are young, but as butchering time nears, it gets to be quite a bit less alfalfa pellets and hay that I have to buy.

photo13I’m still not entirely sure about putting them on forage alone because I want to make sure their diet is nutritionally complete, so we give them a reduced daily ration of the all-purpose rabbit feed and some Timothy hay. We estimate the amounts, so there is just a touch of each left over each day. That rule of thumb may not be terribly scientific or as economically efficient as it could be, but we figure they are getting the nutrition they need that way.

Based on the way the rabbits go after the fresh forage growing from the ground, I suspect they wouldn’t put up much of a fuss, if we withdrew the hay and pellets entirely.

Where we do have a real concern is plants that may make the rabbits ill. While rabbit breeders may not have bred every bit of self-preservation instinct out the meat bricks we enjoy so much, a part of me suspects domestic rabbits don’t have enough sense not to eat something that will kill them.

Having said that, I have yet to see any of my rabbits eat something that kills them or makes them ill. I figure give it some time. I’ll kill one of them by accident sooner or later.

What concerned us more at the start was the possibility of pesticide or fertilizer residue that might present a problem. Perhaps, we were being overly cautious, but we waited an entire rainy season before letting the rabbits forage on the ground. Even then, as heartless as it sounds, we picked one to be the Crash Test Dummy for a week or ten days before letting the rest join in.

The perk to being the guinea pig was that he got to the grass first and had the entire enclosure to himself. Not a bad trade-off when you consider their purpose and ultimate fate.

photo8The rabbit tractor I put together isn’t anything revolutionary. A tractor isn’t just for rabbits. The same principle of a mobile confinement device works equally well for chickens or other small livestock.

It’s two square frames separated by upright supports and a cover. The whole project is far from rocket surgery, and I would feel like a turd explaining how to screw boards together. Rather than give a how-to on basic carpentry, I’m going to give some tips and lessons learned.

Size

The first rabbit tractor we constructed was 4×8 feet. We did that not realizing just how heavy it would be when finished. It can by moved by one person, but it’s a whole lot easier with a friend.

Another downside to the eight foot length is the long sides make placement a little more difficult. The earth underneath the bottom rail should be as level as possible. Otherwise, you wind up plugging the chinks with bricks, logs, rocks, scrap lumber…you get the idea.

The lid is also a little cumbersome to raise and lower. It really benefited from a lid stop. A piece of 1/4″ cable run through eye-bolts and secured to itself with crush locks keep the lid falling all the way open and tearing the hinges off. I couldn’t figure out a simple enough hinge arrangement to let the lid open more than ninety degrees.

Were I to build it again, I would have also hinged the other side of the lid because sometimes rabbits don’t feel like being caught and retreat under the side that does not open. You really lose the advantages of being human when down on all fours chasing a rabbit through what is essentially a two-foot-tall tunnel.

It’s enough to induce Vietnam flashbacks.

photo9On the up-side, you can divide it in half pretty easily and segregate your rabbits by sex or whatever criteria you like. That’s the only real advantage to the eight foot length. We scaled back on subsequent versions to 4×4 feet, and every problem associated with the eight foot length disappeared. I think I found the size I want to stick with.

Height

Separate the top and bottom frame by slightly more than two feet. We thought ahead and went with twenty-six inches. That way, a two-foot wide roll of chicken wire had an inch of leeway at the top and bottom. It gave us room to work pulling the wire tight as we unrolled it and didn’t leave any hanging over the edges to snag.

Top material

Use whatever you like for a top. We discovered a product called Tuftex panels. They are a corrugated poly-carbonate sheeting material that blocks UV rays. Think of corrugated tin on the roof of a barn or shed, but nowhere near as hot. We went with opaque, and it keeps everything beneath quite cool. I guess those UV rays are the ones that make the sunshine hot.

The Tuftex is a little pricey, but easy to work with and has held up well. I also used it for the top and sides of the rabbit condo. It will likely outlast the wooden frame and be re-purposed onto another rabbit tractor.

Lumber

I went with untreated lumber, suspecting the rabbits might chew it. Whatever turns treated lumber green probably isn’t good for them. I haven’t seen them chew very much in the year we have been using the tractors, so I don’t see the trouble I would have to go to in order to prevent a few chew marks as worth the effort. These rabbit tractors were intended to be quick and dirty projects without the expectation of them lasting forever. I have been thrilled to get this long out of them and expect another couple of years use, at least.

photoTo make the corners more stiff, I wanted something a little less flexible than a 2×4. Not having any 4x4s on hand and possessed of no desire to make a special trip to the Home Depot, I improvised and used what my wife affectionately calls a Portuguese 4×4. Just remember that a 2×4 is not two inches by four inches. Two put together are only 3 1/2 inches, so select your screws accordingly.

ToolsIMG_0482

Unless you’ve got the hands of a gorilla, any money you spend on a powered stapler will be money well spent. After stapling twenty-four feet of chicken wire for the first rabbit tractor with the old style, ka-thunk version we’ve had for years, my wife was more than willing to spend $30 on an electric stapler. Save yourself the nerve damage in your hand and just get one.

Fasteners

I don’t screw around with nails much anymore. Screws are my fasteners of choice. Just be sure to drill a pilot hole, so you don’t crack the end of the board. Especially, when you have to inevitably screw into the end grain of one them. Take this advice, if nothing else, to avoid a lot of wasted wood, aggravation, and embarrassment from shoddy joinery.

Allow me to pass on another tip I learned years ago that will result in the tightest joints you have ever seen. Measure the shank length of the screw and make sure it passes all the way through the first board. If the threads ride on both pieces of wood, they advance at the same rate and leave gaps in the joint. Alternately, drill a clearance hole. It will allow the screw to spin free in one board, while the threads bite into the other.

A picture explains this better than words.

clearance hole cheat

 

 

 

 

 

 

That’s about all I know on what to avoid doing when you build your own tractor. Oh, and have a good helper. They are invaluable when you need a third hand. So, get out there on a sunny day and build one. Your rabbits will be happier, and so will you from the reduced feed bill.

 

3Thank you to every one of my readers for coming back week after week. The content on this website is free to access, but does take resources to produce. Please visit my Patreon account to see what I have in the works for the homestead and consider becoming a supporter, which gets you content, behind the scenes access, and goodies not available on the main site.

Premature Release


Order L'homme Theroux
Order L’homme Theroux

I will admit the release of L’homme Theroux was premature.  It was due partly to impatience to unleash my first novel upon the world.  A big factor was the desire to challenge myself.  I like tight schedules and pressure, since I firmly believe that any project will take up however much time it is allotted.  My wife says I procrastinate.  I say I do my best work in a crunch.

We have all had moments (for some, entire decades) that are sources of regret in retrospect.  Much like my mistake of publishing #MooseKnuckleChallenge, I look back on L’homme Theroux as it currently is published and see missed opportunities.

By the way, how in the name of Bullwinkle J Moose did I become the “Moose Knuckle Guy”?  Seriously.  Google out “Moose Knuckle Challenge” right now, and you will see I am the first return.  It has by far the most views of any of my posts. This is not what I wanted to be known for.

Instead of a finished novel, I wound up with a solid first draft.  And for that, I apologize to everyone who has downloaded the sample chapters.  I am sincerely sorry to have mistaken what you saw for my best effort.

I’m a history nerd at heart, and I made the mistake of believing the entire world is like me.  They are not.  Most people hate history.  And historians.  And especially, historians that try to slip history lessons into their entertainment.  There’s a reason the History Channel has shifted into reality shows and historically based soap operas.Nerd

That is something I should have understood before.  It is something I keenly understand now that I see posts about “Me & Jake,” screeds about ISIS, and stories of Nazi Home Owners Associations see far more traffic than nerdy posts about archetypes and the Hero’s Journey.

They might be interesting to other writers, but we’re generally a surly, hateful lot who are not above stealing ideas from each other, calling it “research,” making a few changes, and posting it as something completely original.  Then we deny doing it.

We also pretty much only care about book sales.  It gladdens a writer’s heart to hear from a reader, but at the core, writers are literary dope pushers.  We want to get you hooked on our product.  We’ll work together and cross-promote to a limited degree with writers from different genres.  That’s because of limited overlap.  Bring together a group of aspiring authors from the same genre (and let’s face it, the vast majority of us are aspiring), if you want to see fireworks.  We play nice in front of company to avoid looking like assholes, but that’s just to avoid losing potential sales.  Few authors are compelling enough to overcome a bad public image.

Part of a public image is a social media presence.  Hidden in the “widgets” section at the top of this blog, you can find my various social media sites.  I try to vary the content on each one somewhat since I figure different platforms cater to different tastes and styles.  You’re free to follow whichever ones suit your fancy.  However, my sincere wish is for everyone to follow all of them (but so does everybody else on social media).  You’re an adult.  Do what you want.

Come Follow Me!
Come Follow Me!

My current favorite is Tsu.  Think of it as Facebook that does not extort you for money to have all your posts reach all the people who asked to receive them.  The site opened in October 2014, but since then has become the second largest social media platform.  I think it will overtake Facebook in pretty short order.

Did I mention you get a cut from the ad revenue generated from your posts?  Hell, I post everything from my blog to Facebook for free as it is.  Why shouldn’t I make a couple of bucks off the content I create?

I’m going to take a little time off from the blog.  Nothing significant.  Just through the New Year.  I have vacation time I want to spend with the family.  Fear not gentle reader, I shan’t be completely idle.  I will be revising L’homme Theroux for a re-release in early 2015.  If you follow me in any fashion, you will hear about it.  That’s part of my job as an author.  I don’t have a marketing team other than my six or seven fans, and that’s not enough to justify quitting my day job.

Until then, Feliz Natal e um próspero Ano Novo.  Please consider making a resolution to read L’homme Theroux and to introduce my work to a couple of your friends.  All the fine retailers who carry it offer a free sample and I’ve got the first few chapters here.

But don’t do it, just yet!  Let me finish the revisions first.

 

But wait!  There’s more.

As an added bonus, here is the roundup of my most popular posts for 2014, in case you missed them.  I have no clue if these are good numbers or not:

The Moose Knuckle Challenge (1,290 views)

The #SteelTrapChallenge (336 views)

Just Make the Fucking Donation so the Stupidity Can End (130 views)

According to ISIS My Wife and Daughters are Worth $368.05 (120 views)

Keep Your Damn Umbrella (54)

Social Media Might Kill L’homme Theroux (47 views)

8 Ways to Guarantee a Very Cold Christmas (46)

Ice Bucket Bullies (43 views)

My Neighbor Wants Me in Prison Because I Hate Coons (43 views)

Thrilled Beyond Words (43 views)