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Hibernation

Been conspicuous by our absence recently and we have to say that  the recent weather has been more than partly to blame.

We had to move out to the cabin for ten days during the big freeze and have since been feeling a bit more vulnerable to the vagaries of the weather. With a baby due in August the pressure seems to be on this year to get our fingers out and start building. As for next winter (the chances of having anoher frost-proof home by then are slim) we are weighing our options, but to be spending it here in the mobiles again does not seem to be on the cards.

We have listed ourselves as Wwoof hosts now (interested Wwoofers please contact us through the Wwoof website only) and maybe a few extra pairs of hands will help to speed things along.

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House Plans

For the last week or so that Sandra was here we saw very little of her. Partly it was the miserable weather, partly poor health that had her confined so much to the cabin, but she was also being very busy with a creative little project.

She had been looking at various plans of possible house designs that I had been drawing up over the last couple of years and took them with her over to the cabin along with a pot of glue and a lot of cardboard.

The basic idea is of a cob-walled house that is a storey and a half and has velux windows on the first floor. Most of the building techniques and methods of putting the house together I have ideas for in principle and the drawings I’ve done are drawn to scale. This has given us some idea of what the house might be like to live in but a scaled model is one step further and this is the project that Sandra undertook.

        

ground floor

1st floor

She made some adjustments to my original plans which include a reshaping of the 1st floor rooms and opening out of the ground floor into more open plan. I particularly like the stair design. She also really pushed for the curving shape of the exterior walls, which I have resisted – not for aesthetics, as I think it looks good, but more because of the complications that a design like this might cause in the actual building. But we’ll see…

All the furniture and even the walls are built to scale and we think it is a great and very helpful achievement. Thanks again to Sandra for all her help and the best of luck on your journeys.

Hello World!

Hi, I am Sandra. Siobhan and Alex invited me to write a guest- post in their blog… I met the two when I was wwoofing all over Ireland 4 years ago and since then I keep coming back every time I am in Ireland – kind of every year for some weeks. This time it will be the longest though that I stayed, like over 1 ½ months. Although I have to admit that I really enjoy the cabin. It’s such a nice and cosy place, totally independent with its own stove & cooker. And now Alex and I even installed a shower out there. 🙂 For sure I really enjoyed building the shower with the little house around and continuing the decking going to the shower, like I really enjoy carpentry work , but also in general I find they have really nice and interesting projects, like building a hot tub for example, but also meaning the whole idea: living of the grid, putting up mobile homes and then build all the necessities around it, like getting a well for example and a water tower and then mainly use the height for the water pressure for the house. Another example having a compost toilet and therefore not having to flush and wasting tons of water, and even use the compost later for feeding trees for example. I think there are so many simple principles, like using the raising of hot water for radiators for example, but you have to know them first place and I think it’s really cool to see Siobhan and Alex using a lot of these principles and so getting a chance to learn about them… Yeah, I guess I am just really excited about all of this and I would totally do the same thing if I would have a piece of land and I definitely want to build a natural house for myself maybe not even so far in the future…

Cabin Update

decking

Shower house and decking

As I mentioned in an earlier post, Sandra has been making great improvements to the cabin while she’s been living there. First she finished off the decking which I had started with the use of pallets. This was quite laborious as it involved taking planks off the pallets, de-nailing them and putting them back down onto other levelled pallets on the ground. She did a great, sturdy and tidy job.

Then we both set about making a shower house a the back of the cabin which is fed with hot water from the Stanley No8 stove that is heating the cabin. The water feeding the cabin comes directly from the water tower and we were gratified to find that no extra pump is required for a good flow of water to come out of the shower.

Sandra is finding the cabin very easy to heat and seems to be able to make a bale of briquettes (turf) last three days. Admittedly, it isn’t very cold yet but this still seems very efficient to me and she reportedly has abundant hot water for her shower every day. We have put a standard insulated (direct flow) hot water cylinder into the cabin which would hold more than sufficient supplies for the needs of a single person.

It has been great to have such an enthusiastic occupant for the cabin so soon after we had it habitable. Apart from all the improvements and lived-in feel that it is getting, it is giving us an experience of what it is like having someone living in such close proximity yet separate. We have been considering putting ourselves on the WWOOF list and getting regular volunteers here and our experience so far can only serve to propel us further in this direction.

Humanure Harvest

Last week we opened up our first humanure compost bin. It had been sitting for about a year since we last added any material to it and I had been itching to see how well it had performed. I was going to leave it a bit longer – perhaps until the new year – but I thought that Sandra, our German Woofer since the last month, would enjoy the experience!

Sandra has been occupying our wooden cabin and has been putting a lot of fine tuning into it. As a long term visitor she is obviously aware of our composting system for all organic waste (including human poo) and is a regular (i hope) contributor. She agreed that she would be curious to see what will become of the contents of compost bin number two if number one is anything to go by.

The contents had shrunk to about one third of what was there when I closed it up and apart from quite a few avocado stones (some of which were beginning to sprout) there was very little evidence of what the original contents had held.

We beheld a pile of uniformly dark (almost black) crumbly soil-like material which had no offensive odour. We shovelled it into wheelbarrows and emptied it around the fruit trees (apple, pear, cherry and hazel nut).

sandra

sandra feeding the fruit trees

Towards the bottom of the heap the texture became a bit less crumbly and although there was nothing obviously uncomposted the breakdown did not seem to have been as thorough. This might have been because when we started the pile I had not yet secured a source of straw and we were just adding grass clippings as filler to the pile. High carbon is what is required as filling for compost, such as wood chip, straw or sawdust and grass clippings are probably more nitrogen-based than is helpful.

Actually, last week Sandra and I got a round bale of straw from a neighbouring farm. It only cost €15 and should last a while. The last one sufficed for two years.

When I saw how thoroughly the compost had broken down I was tempted to put it onto the garden overwinter instead of on the fruit trees as I had planned. I only have a small amount of rotted cow manure for the garden next spring and the temptation was strong.

However, the fruit trees will be glad of it too and while any doubts remain I’ll err on the side of caution. This was, after all, only our first harvest.

On Saturday, I attended the annual conference of the Irish Home Birth Association. I have been going to HBA conferences since I moved back to Ireland from the UK with my then four-month-old first baby, who will be six years old in May. I also attended some conferences as a child, when my mother was having her home births. Many of my friends have been or are still on the HBA committee, or have written their birth stories for the HBA newsletter. Home birth has always seemed as natural to me as breathing. I feel lucky to have been brought up with this attitude. I also feel lucky that home births were a legal, viable choice for me when I had both my children, that I had access to home birth services, and that the experiences themselves were absolutely amazing. Access to choices in childbirth and unbiased information should be a basic right for women. In many cases, the full spectrum of choices is simply not available for a woman to give birth as she wishes, or even to inform herself fully about the experience. I am aware of the prevailing attitudes in this culture-that birth is painful and dangerous, and that you must be “selfish” (compromising your child’s safety or life), peculiar (for wanting to remain fully awake and aware through such an excruciating event) or “brave” (read a bit naive, foolishly lucky or simply ill-informed) to actually want to have a home birth “in this day and age”. I have encountered all these attitudes and more. Of course not everyone “should” have a home birth if they do not want one, and of course not all births are suited to a home setting, some carrying higher risk factors than others for the participants involved. In a culture where the right to all the facts before making a decision is viewed as so important, however, there seems to me to be some imbalance with regard to how two different sets of “risks” are represented in the field of birth.

The risks involved to a mother and baby as a direct result of certain birth interventions are glossed over in damning popular media articles like this one. They are vaguely, fleetingly referred to here, as opposed to the fully researched account of the early “development of the mother and baby bond” explored in this article by French obstetrician Michel Odent. The targets of the first author’s negativity and rage – female advocates of natural childbirth – are described as “smug, sanctimonious harpies”. Attitudes like this are so culturally sanctioned that the facts are in danger of being totally lost in irrationality. Homebirth, on the other hand, widely regarded as being unsafe and irresponsible, associated here with angels, crystals and bongos, has been proven to be at least as safe for most women as hospital birth – and for the women cited in the next paragraph, a hell of a lot more enjoyable than hospital birth and the episiotomies and abdominal surgeries which often go hand in hand with it. As for the risk factors, almost all high-risk women who would not be suited to home birth can be identified during pregnancy by the skilled midwives who provide them with personalised care. Oh, and good healthcare and nutrition can prevent many of these factors from arising in the first place – but let’s not get into that. Why bother analysing the fact that companies make money out of all medical interventions and drugs, as well as vitamins, iron tablets and other “necessary” pregnancy paraphenalia. Who cares that vested interests may have some part to play in the fact that our healthcare services, in the main, necessitate the use of such products, since they concentrate on what so do when something goes wrong, rather than how to prevent it from going wrong in the first place. I suppose I’m a killjoy harpy for mentioning the fact that we are at least partly responsible for our own health and wellbeing, and can empower and inform ourselves by taking control of these things. Whew, now I’m getting angry too.

Ina May Gaskin, a highly experienced, pioneering and skilled midwife in the US has statistically and practically proven the effect of the mother’s emotional state and the attitude of any birth attendants toward the mother on the experience of birth. She has proven beyond doubt that a healthy lifestyle, good relationship with a knowledgeable, respectful midwife and continuity of pre- and post-natal and labour care all add up to a safe and – shock, horror, here it comes – often an ENJOYABLE, birth. Her reasearch and wisdom are available in the “Guide to Childbirth” and “Spiritual Midwifery”, as well as in medical journals and elsewhere. These evidence-based facts have obviously not gotten through to mainstream cultural understanding or to the popular press. Sadly, the common assumption is that natural birth is awful and you’d hate it, trust us, and that medically managed birth is “progress” and the best way for everyone. Such attitudes prevent real education on how positive birth can be, as well as propagating the devastating trauma which can result from unnecessary intervention and disrespectful attitudes of some medical professionals toward labouring women. Once again, vested interests and who profits from birth medication should be considered before any attempt at an objective conclusion can be reached. While we’re on the subject of who profits, I’d like to respond to the statement in the first article linked to above that breast feeding is “not a make or break issue for the planet either way”. Hmm. Do you really think so? We’re struggling for resources on the aforementioned planet. Of course it may not be any big deal to us here in the cushy, cosy developed world, but some people are already short of water and food. They have been for years, in case you’re interested. It might really open your eyes to investigate a bit of world history, and how nations which are now powerful and rich achieved their power and riches. And where does formula milk come from? How are the animals which produce the milk fed and managed? How is the formula processed, contained and transported, and what are the pollution rates, and energy and resource requirements of these activities? Do you know what the developing-world marketing strategies of the same companies who produce baby formula for the developed world might be? I challenge anyone to read Gabrielle Palmer’s Politics of Breastfeeding or facts provided by Baby Milk Action and ever look at these issues in the same way again.

I was also excited to hear that Ricki Lake would be speaking at the conference, the fact of which means that the HBA conference got its first ever (very brief) mention on the Late Late Show where Ricki was a guest last Friday. I enjoyed hearing Ricki speak, and I’d love to think that her high profile as a talk show host and film star might raise the profile of home birth. The fact that a high profile showbiz woman can have the same powerful, positive experience of birth as me, some of my friends or the women in Ina May’s book might actually make people sit up and take note that this is possible, rather than dismissing home birthers as hippies, earth mothers etc. Ina May is, unbelievably, still not exactly a household name – maybe because of her quiet, low-key working life in an intentional community in Tennessee. Since she is a more “mainstream” celebrity, I admire Ricki very much for her wonderful film, the Business of Being Born, and having the courage to speak up for natural childbirth in this hostile culture. I know the puzzling, hurtful accusations and the dumping of issues which this can leave one open to. I am saddened every time I read another ill-informed, stereotyping, negative article about birth. I look forward to when the facts about birth and all the different ways of doing it will be freely available, without (will this ever happen?) the distortion of facts by company interests. Hopefully one day, birth as a normal, natural event will become just as much a part of the public consciousness as the current assumption that it is an occasion of pain, danger and fear.

Future Fuel

For the first couple of years that we were here we couldn’t decide what to do with the three acres of land that we had available. The neighbours grazed it and took silage while we deliberated. Eventually we decided that we didn’t want to keep livestock and that we’d like to plant trees, mainly for the purpose of firewood.

trees

some sweet chetsnut trees

Two years ago we purchased 600 ash, 250 sweet chestnut, 75 wild cherry and 75 oak with the intention of turning about 90% of them to coppice. They cost us about €900 and it took most of the winter to get them planted.

 Coppicing involves cutting a tree at a height of about 6 inches above the ground and allowing the stump to send out several branches the following spring. When these branches have sufficiently matured to be useful for firewood (2-3 inches in diameter) the tree is again cut back to a stump and the process is allowed to begin again.

Periods between harvests vary but are generally around 7-10 years and we won’t begin coppicing until the trees are big enough to be useful for firewood (7-10 years from planting). We planted 1000 trees. 10% we plan to leave to mature fully and the rest we will coppice. If we harvest one seventh of them every year then we should always have one winter’s supply of firewood standing in the field.

Although it isn’t quite that simple. Only the ash can be burnt immediately after harvest; the others will probably need to be left to dry for one or two years first. They will also grow at different rates and there will be some losses due to disease and pests.

I have read though that a household needs an acre of coppice for the purpose of firewood. We have planted about two acres so hopefully what we have will suffice. Just watch this space and see how we get on in about seven years…..