Saturday, May 12, 2012

Flogging a dead (Troy-Bilt) horse and other human ecological activities

The Womerlippi's ancient Troy-Bilt "Horse" tiller
(This post cross-listed with

Yesterday was the first rain-free day in a while, and it was also my first Official Non-Work Day of the summer. There had been Weekends and even half- or partial Days Off earlier in the year, but those had been before the End of Classes.

There's something very different about the first day that a teacher gets off each summer that is after the end of classes. That's the day in which there is no stress, for the first time in a long time.

Teaching is a stressful occupation, or at least it should be, if you're doing it right.

It takes some level of stress or tension to change a mind, either your own or the student's. A teachable moment is a natural moment of stress or tension in which the student and teacher together encounter some new fact (new to the student and sometimes to the teacher too) that both student and teacher care about a lot. At that point, a mind can be changed, either the student's or the teacher's or both. If there isn't some level of stress for the teacher and the student in any teachable encounter, it's unlikely that anyone's mind is being changed.

And you have to leave open the opportunity that the mind that can be changed is yours. if you don't allow for this, then you can't be much of a teacher, at least in my book.

The stress builds up as the semester goes along, as minds are being changed left right and center, including, one hopes, the professor's, until it reaches a maximum point right before final exams. Then it begins to bleed off, as the workload and the number of stressful encounters with students and classes of students diminishes. Eventually, after the last final exam which for me this semester was Wednesday evening around 7.00 pm, all stressful encounters come to an end.

What does a fat, over-educated, slightly grumpy English professor of Human Ecology do during the summer?

(I'm slightly grumpy only because I'm fond of the truth, of facts, and there isn't always enough of either around to keep me pleased.)

Well, when I'm not measuring the wind or the sun or some other meteorological phenomenon in support of renewable energy planning, and not planning curriculum with my fellow Unity College faculty members, I'm growing food with my wife Aimee, also a Unity College professor, on our small farm,, in Jackson, Maine.

I find food-growing to be a relaxing and occasionally profitable summer occupation. It's also usually less stressful than teaching. And it's, very obviously, the highest form of applied human ecology.

My job title is, after all, Professor of Human Ecology. I'd better have some human ecology that I actually do, hadn't I?

What does a Womerlippi Farm day in the early summer look and feel like?

"Long and varied", is a good answer.

Friday's farm activities began with feeding sheep and chickens at about five in the morning, followed by a dog (+ human) walk of about a mile. Dog walks, including humans, are applied human ecology. We then moved the sheep to fresh pasture. We have about five or six rotational paddocks, which we graze on about a three-week rotation using an adaptation of the New Zealand system. Here's a photo of two of our young lambs in one of our paddocks. You can see the mobile electrical fence in the background. The system depends on the use of these fences to establish small paddocks that can be grazed for a few days by the herd, then given a rest period. We like to grow our paddocks out to about eight inches of length, then graze them back to a sheep's regular bite, then rest them for as long as it takes to get them to eight inches again. This system works well, due to the excellent application of human and ovine ecological knowledge.

I then spent an interesting half-hour stripping, cleaning and lubricating a set of sheep shears, and then "crotched" a young ewe, a first-time mother, who's experiencing loss of fleece due to protein stripping.

Energy flow, in this case ovine nutrition, is of course the basis of ecology. Ewes have to use up a lot of energy and protein to feed lambs, and this can sometimes create a break in the cycle of fleece-growing, meaning the fleece actually falls out, usually in the area of the udder and crotch. Which makes sense if you think about it, since that's the area closest to the mammary glands. Our ewes get extra protein in the form of oats and some bagged feed, but in this case it just wasn't enough. I sheared off the offending loose wool to prevent parasite infection, and made a mental and very human ecological note to increase the ration.

The next activity was rototiller maintenance. The first picture above is our very ancient Troy-Bilt "Horse" tiller, a venerable machine that has already had a motor replacement, among other major surgery.

The Womerlippis are a three-tiller family, having a classic 1973 Kubota B6000 tractor with original tiller attachment (the daddy tiller), the Troy-Bilt (mommy tiller), and a tiny new 50 cc light tiller (baby tiller). We use our tillers to kill weeds and maintain soil quality in our extensive vegetable garden. I'm an expert general mechanic, and our tillers are kept up as well as our cars, if not better. Tiller mechanics is an advanced branch of human ecology. The tiller is used to ensure efficient energy flow, and is itself a machine that uses energy and must be kept efficient and safe.

I had noticed that the lower pulley on the Troy-Bilt's clutch was loose, or appeared so. I wanted to get access to the pulley to inspect it, and so stripped the tiller down to that purpose. Unfortunately, the clutch mechanism's guide rods were rusted in place after years of use, and couldn't be removed without major surgery. I contented myself with inspecting the pulley attachment, a circlip, by flashlight, deciding that it was impossible to get to and wouldn't actually fall off for at least another ten years, and with changing the gearbox oil which my work had exposed to view and which at that point could be very easily changed, thus achieving some human ecological (energy efficiency) gain for my several hours of greasy labor.

By which time the garden had dried out for the first time after a week or so of rain. It was time to plant.

We've been planting steadily now for about four weeks, and only the warmest outdoor crops are as yet un-planted. Knowing when, and when not, to plant is a high human ecological art around here, given our extreme but rapidly changing climate. Yesterday I put in a long row of dry beans, the variety Vermont Cranberry, as well as a row of mixed types of cucumbers, and a partial row of good old Scots kale. The first two are considered post-last frost day crops around here. The statistical last frost is not until Tuesday (May 15th), but the NOAA weather service is reporting warm nights until at least Tuesday and so it was a good human ecological gamble that last frost had already passed, and even if it hadn't, the more tender crops could be covered with "floating" row cover to prevent damage.

I also weeded our herb garden.

Those activities took me up through suppertime.

After supper it was time to move the sheep back to the largest paddock where they usually stay the night. That job called for a sheepdog.

The sheep had been out happily grazing thick grass all day. Usually after a nice day, they just run straight back to the paddock, but not last night. They were enjoying the evening sunshine and a last little bite of graze. Like playful children, they didn't want to go to bed yet.

The Womerlippis keep two sheepdogs for times like this, but only one of the two, Ernie, is any good at his job. Leaving the recalcitrant sheep milling around in the dooryard, I went back to the house and got Ernie. The sheep gave up almost immediately after they saw the dog. Ernie followed them through the gate, and then, as his instinct should tell him to, came back to allow me to shut the gate. Ernie is an English Shepherd dog, and his excellent herding instinct is the result of around 2,500 years of selective breeding by (human) English shepherds, and before that Roman shepherds, expert applied human ecologists all, of which I'm only the most recent, and, when it comes to sheepdogs, the least expert. But, like Ernie, I can at least claim a good and long lineage as an English shepherd, as well as fair to middling human ecological instincts.

The last farm job before going to bed was to feed the chicks. We have a small brood of chicks incubating to replace some older laying hens.

Here they are in the brooder....

And here they are earlier, with Ernie and Flame (our other sheepdog, an Australian Shepherd) looking on.

That final chore of the day took me through to about nine in the evening, and time for bed. My first official "Day Off" started at five in the morning and went until nine at night and was nothing but work. Today started at much the same hour.

But it was also a lot of fun, and very satisfying. 

A less stressful application of human ecology, but human ecology nevertheless.

No comments: