Sunday, October 28, 2007

Stepping Out

I was 77, couldn’t find my way to the more distant parts of the Creewah labyrinth like a year or two before and couldn’t easily keep up with the demands of the raspberry patch because the weeds were growing twice as fast and the days were half as long. Years before I had picked out a suitable high cliff to jump off when my body started complaining unnecessarily. Sadly, the cliff was at the end of a stiff walk which I now couldn’t reach by walking. If I had thought it through properly, I could have made it wheelchair accessible and built a nice tipping ramp at the top. I could have then hired it out and made lots of money. But it’s a bit late for that. I had to think of a plan B.

‘I’m thinking of going to live in Bega’, I said. ‘That’s a good idea‘, she replied. ‘Then I can come and visit. I like Bega’. ‘OK that’s settled’, I said. ‘Somebody else can come and live here. There’s a bit of enjoyment left that we haven’t used up’.

78 Walking the labyrinth

Many people go to Chartres Cathedral to walk the labyrinth and thereby calm their soul. It’s quite strange that some travel half way around the world at great cost just to walk around in circles on a marked out Cathedral floor. We all walk around in circles but generally that’s free and a necessary part of life. At Chartres you enter the path and just follow it left and right and back and forth until you get to the middle. There you rest and take stock and then walk out reversing your way in. There are some rules like in every game. You aren’t allowed to talk while en route. Laughing is frowned on but frowning is allowed. You can smile at other travellers as long as the smile is not lascivious intimating that you will meet at the coffee shop just around the corner or in the cathedral gifts area when you get out. You must take off your shoes and if your socks are smelly or likely to leave wet imprints on the floor as you stride, they must be left behind too. You are in effect on a pilgrimage to your holy land wherever that may be.

I know this stuff because I heard an ABC radio program about it with a noisy background of wooden floorboards creaking and groaning under the weight of many feet walking the twists and turns. Some people in Adelaide had marked out a copy of the Chartres labyrinth on a big piece of canvas that they laid out in a big hall. After the walkers finished walking the canvas, somebody rolled it up and stored it in their garage until next week when it was rolled out again.

This seemed to me pretty funny until she told me she had walked the labyrinth, which made it pretty serious, but she did it in a tennis court which made it funny again. The tennis court was marked out using pebbles. What was it like, I asked? She thought for a while. ‘It was really surprising that it made me feel really calm though I had to focus to keep on the path, and more surprising was the sense of achievement when I walked out about 20 minutes after starting. It was like getting to the end of a long trip’. This was more or less what the ABC people had said; the slow walk focussed the mind on the inner self, putting external sometimes difficult issues into a diminished and manageable context. Everyone interviewed said the walk was relaxing mentally and physically. How weird.

We had to do some analysis here. She said ‘Yoga has the same sort of effect (she does yoga). You focus your mind on something simple and repetitive like your breathing in and out. This sort of shuts out the world and its complexities become less relevant. Maybe the slow rhythmical walk of the labyrinth works the same’. I added that perhaps walking with other people saves you from feeling like an idiot.

This all made me think a bit about Creewah; not that we should mark out a labyrinth at Creewah on the tennis court because that would be stepping backwards, as we would have to make the tennis court first, but about my daily bush walks in Creewah. I wondered if perhaps my walks were the original labyrinth, predating those like at Chartres Cathedral designed for city folk with people-crowded minds who had foolishly cleared their bush and planted something boring like wheat. Certainly the main effects of relaxation and mind washing as described for the Chartres walk were the same for me in my Creewah walks. Some said I had a vacuous mind to start with.

I have walked in many places around the world without getting the Chartres results. In Old Delhi we walked in the narrow twisting maze of streets near the JamaMasjid, sardined against other sweating bodies buying their food and wares. I thought about people and how claustrophobic it all was, and didn’t feel relaxed and better. In Rome, also walking a circuitous route in the early morning chill, I checked out the Trevi Fountain, the Pantheon, walked by the tiny Smart cars parking sideways between bigger vehicles, bought a banana at a pavement stall for lunch and thought about people and the city. I enjoyed it but didn’t feel mentally uplifted.

In New York I looked up at the Chrysler Building, tramped through the suburbs, was gobsmacked by the amazing museums, Central Park with its children and youths doing clever things on wheeled skates and people playing games with bats and balls. I was walking in a park amongst trees but I still thought about people and didn’t feel calm.

In Tunisia, we walked through the narrow ancient streets of the extensive Roman ruins at Dougga. The town was perched on a small hill in peaceful farmland with not a soul in sight. It was a breadbasket for the then world almost 2000 years ago. I thought about people and their achievements and abilities to dramatically change the world in very little time. Remarkably, it did have a sense of calm, maybe because the bustling throngs had long since been spirited away.

In Canberra I walked around the suburbs and saw the big and small houses and their various gardens and wondered how many used a Hill’s Hoist and how many electric tumbling clothes driers. I thought about people and was comfortable with the thoughts but felt no sense of uplift.
There are few places where we can walk that aren’t in some way dominated by the vibes of human activities, human worries, human struggles, human achievements. At least, as humans, that’s the way we perceive the world. Rosellas maybe see it differently, that is, as a landscape full of competing rosellas with humans as a subordinate species created by the Great Rosella for the benefit of rosellas.

In the bush humans don’t dominate and control and don’t even feature in the really wild parts; there the bush is preeminent. It’s messy. It drops sticks and debris of all shapes and sizes all over the ground and doesn’t clear them neatly aside, it makes holes that may be ankle breaking shape or simply large pits that must be climbed through, it locates its trees and shrubs entirely randomly to our eyes but always in the way and insists on putting large rocks up to obscure the view. It makes everything slippery, thorny and generally uncomfortable. It’s awkward and antisocial. Bush is a nuisance to humans. But maybe it’s because it is so foreign to most of us, it enables us to reassess our existence as we struggle through it, where we are in the scheme of things, what might be important and what might be trivial in the bigger picture. It puts us in a different perspective, and sometimes we seem very small.

Maybe it’s the same with the Labyrinth, and with yoga and religions we don’t know anything about. They separate us from our natural comfort zone. They make us step outside ourselves and look back at the construction we have made and are making. They help us to assess ourselves a little impartially.

I enjoy being lost in my Creewah labyrinth trying to get to the breathing space in the middle. It costs nothing in airfares to get there. I don’t have to pay to get in. It is overflowing with interest that’s entirely free and it even smells OK. Best of all, there are lots of floating ideas eager to be caught and they are free too.

One day I will step out.

Friday, October 26, 2007

77 Paying for power

She got her first electricity bill after adding her lovely solar panels. To this stage it had all been a very positive experience because it included boasting rights on the local Canberra TV news and looking very green standing in front of her solar array. She was carbon neutral to envious watchers.

The bill was interesting. Naturally the first thing she looked for was the graph of greenhouse gas production which she had expected to now be negative. It had risen more than 2-fold since pumping her power into the grid. This didn’t seem logical but was carefully explained by the local electricity authority spokesperson. It’s based on total electricity at your house, uploaded and downloaded and then that number is converted into greenhouse gas equivalents. We don’t differentiate between green and non-green power in the calculation. Really quite simple.

She hadn’t looked at the charges at this stage which should have declined. After all she was now generating more electricity than she used. They had gone up quite substantially. Again this was carefully explained. You have to pay to upload power to the grid the spokesperson said. It’s a fixed amount every bill. Unfortunately, this charge is greater than the value of the power you are uploading.

At that rate, she would never ever pay off her bright sparkling solar panels. And she was apparently a much bigger polluter than before. The feel-good feeling didn’t now seem quite as warm.

76 More feel-good power

That bit of rain was to remind us how nice the past had been to us. The present and future was back to dry. Surprisingly the price of electricity started to rise and the blame was placed squarely on the drought. Apparently conventional coal-fired and gas power stations need lots of water for cooling purposes and steam generation. Nuclear power stations are very hungry for water too but not as hungry as our green Snowy Mountains Hydro Electric scheme. It was pretty clear that as well as the price of power rising, it was going to become increasingly scarce in proportion to rainfall.

We decided to do something that we had talked about for years, we would go solar. Solar power generation is a dry operation so should remain reliable despite the drought. What stimulated us was that the government, operating through the Australian National Greenhouse Office, would provide $8000 towards a solar electricity installation at any property occupied by the owner. In effect this grant would be half the price of a 1 kW grid-connect system. A 1 kw system at our latitude provides about 1800 kwh per year, so averaging 5 kwh per day. This would be half requirements when all the freezers were running, but that applied for only two months, and cover all our use allowing for one freezer. Grid-connect means you take power out of the grid when you don’t have enough and feed back when you have too much. You don’t need batteries.
We worked out that we would pay off the system through savings on electricity use in about nine years, but if electricity prices doubled in the short term as forecast, payback time would be under five years. There were also rumours that uploads to the grid were soon to be paid out at twice downloads, making payback time only 3 years. Everything was working in the right direction. The feel good issue about being greenhouse neutral was additional. According to the suppliers, the panels themselves became greenhouse neutral after just three months of electricity generation.

She decided to do the same at her house in Canberra, using a different contractor so we could compare approaches, but the overall cost should be about the same. In Canberra they put the panels on the house roof because there they were not shaded by trees. Roof installation was cheaper than my free-standing system so for our decided price they could use different and more panels. The consequence was that she won the solar grid-connect competition because her system generated 22% more than mine and more than covered all her use. Together for the two dwellings we were producing all our electricity by solar. Theoretically we wouldn’t have any electricity bills for the rest of our lives.

75 More raspberries

A remarkable 10 inches of rain splashed down on us in just three weeks washing debris accumulated over several seasons down the river and dropping trees that had expired during the dry period. All around, the forest was full of the tympani of crashing trees. But the younger, stronger saplings were bursting upwards with quieter sounds.

Our raspberries joined the party and flourished. They couldn’t really complain because the water had always been provided right through the drought. Maybe they had been embarrassed showing off their wares when less fortunate native plants nearby were struggling, but whatever the reason, they had performed poorly in the drought. They now produced 600 kg of excellent fruit which in picking terms means 150,000 individuals had to be held, removed, and placed in a container hanging around the picker’s neck; that neck was mine. RSI is an understatement. The old freezers were cranked up after removing the Huntsman spiders, the round parcels left by Cunningham skinks that lived in the walls of the freezer shed, and the dried up rusty stains of ancient water. A new freezer was also bought and we were into business again.

74 The stepping Backwards law

We started to worry about our availability of drinking water. Nimmitabel and Cooma both had to truck water in from the Murrumbidgee for general use and Goulburn had run out altogether, but we had no option but to look after ourselves and not depend on any authorities. There was still some water in stagnant pools in the river which the platypus could almost walk on, that we could tap off. Also, we had about 4000 litres of rainwater stored, and that’s a lot of drinks, but we didn’t know how many more years might pass before the next rains. Others had many more tanks than us in all sorts of shapes and sizes. Some even collected tanks to store their firewood in, out of the rain.

We ordered a new tank. It was 18,000 litres capacity and about 2.8 metres high, but would unfortunately be delivered empty. I calculated the rainfall needed to fill it. It went something like this: one mm rain on 1 square meter of roof is 1 litre of water. The roof I was going to collect from was around 10 m by 10 m, so 100 square meters and a second slightly higher roof 30 metres from the tank would give me another 80 m², totalling 180 m². I was going to need 100 mm rain to fill the tank, just 4 inches. In a normal year we might get that in 2 months but this period was not normal. Still we would be able to collect any dew that formed on the corrugated iron rooves and that would be worthwhile.

I had to work out how to move the water from the distant roof to the tank. John suggested taking it to ground level in a down pipe and running it in a trench the 30 metres to the tank and then raising it back in an up pipe. This would work well as long as there were no very low temperatures to freeze the residual columns of water in the up and down pipes that would be 2.8 metres high when the tank was full. I decided to keep the pipes above ground and falling all the way to the tank. If it really rained hard and the 30 m long 100 mm plastic sewer pipe was full, it would be carrying over 200 kg water; that’s a pi (22/7)*radius squared(5*5)*length (3000) thing, all in cm remembering a 1000 cubic centimetres is a litre and that weighs 1 kg. With so much weight the pipe would bend and break in the first downpour. This meant it had to be strongly supported by a bridge along its length.

I followed my principle of don’t buy new if you can adapt old so started the bridge project by looking through my piles of rubbish for adaptables. Up came a good number of steel star posts that I had recycled when I dismantled a fence. I could fasten three end to end but overlapped together, using bolts through the holes that normally take fence wires. Putting two of these three-long droppers side by side and attaching them 30 cm apart with bolts and some bits of recycled dexion angle iron would give me one upright for a bridge structure to carry the pipe. I made two of these paired uprights in about 20 minutes and erected them first hammering each bottom single dropper into the ground. Using the sheds as end supports the overhead pipe looked pretty stable on its four props joined by a couple of lengths of fencing wire. Of course it wouldn’t have passed any regulation. I decided to sit back and wait for the rain.

Close in importance to ‘Sod’s Law’ which says that anything that can go wrong will, is the ‘Stepping Backwards’ Law. The stepping backwards law says that if you start a job, you won’t be able to complete it until you have fixed something else that is needed for the job. Gordon had the lost-tool-problem that prevented completion of many jobs. He had to go to Bombala to buy a replacement. He might run out of petrol on the way or have a flat tyre and someone had borrowed the spare. The primary job might have ten other jobs stacked under it.

My amazing water collecting system followed the stepping backwards principle. First the gutters on both sheds needed significant attention as they ran the wrong way and leaked as quickly as they filled. I had to rebuild the roof on one of the sheds and the wall that carried the guttering because the timbers had rotted in places. Step backwards one square. When I started on the guttering on the second shed I found it was full of fine white fibres. These were from the eight full-width fibreglass skylights or windows that were no longer letting much light through. From ground level they just looked dirty, but at eye level they were so deteriorated that I could push my finger through. Step backwards one square.

I quite like eating foods that have a little crunch, except green beans, but rainwater with crunch had no appeal. The skylights had to be replaced with clear polycarbonate. This meant a trip to Canberra but at least I also learnt that the only way to fasten polycarbonate sheets to the top of the car is in a tight lengthwise roll; then they don’t buckle and blow away but act like a strong pipe. There is so much to know.

The standard lengths of polycarbonate were 20 cm short, a consequence of going from imperial measurements to metric so that required some adaptations to the plan and a further step backwards.

Once all the skylights were replaced it seemed I had stepped backwards far enough and forward movement was suddenly meteoric as I fell off the ladder. But there were no consequent problems. In fact it started to rain. It rained just gently to test and savour the feeling, more like a mist than rain. Apparently it liked softly touching the dry crackly grass and after a while it decided to search out more dramatic sensations. It poured. Three inches were delivered then it became bored. I have no idea why it always rains in inches here, but it really does. It stops at half an inch, or an inch, or multiples of an inch, but never at millimetres unless it is being coy when maybe 2 mm might fall.

I tapped on the tank to see whether my calculations were correct. It should be three quarters full. At three quarters it sounded deeply hollow, at half it sounded slightly less deeply hollow but at a third it sounded dead. It was one third full and my calculations were way out. Still who cares, we had 1000 gallons of captive pristine rainwater, worth $4000 if we could sell it in those tiny plastic bottles that are in the supermarket. Better still the river was starting to flow and the platypus no longer had to walk on water. The drought is over some said very quietly to themselves.

Friday, October 12, 2007

73 Double Decker Buses

In the drought rusting seems to go more slowly. The old cars that country dwellers like to accumulate in neat rows or untidy piles take a breather from their slow browning process during drought. The bush applauds this by folding back its green curtains just a little to display the proud wrecks a little more clearly. The pinnacle of wreck collection must be a Double Decker bus and in the case of Richard Branson it was a fleet of buses that started him off. Now he collects planes that hopefully aren’t wrecks, at least when I fly on them.

It is a strong conversation mover to have a Double Decker in the home paddock. You can only talk about the weather for an hour or so but when it gets to a bus the rules are different. By the time you have admired the outside, checked out the tiny engine, sat on the top deck to take in the expansive view with a coffee and then a beer or two, the hours have flown.
We had one that we could see from the bedroom window. It had been parked for years on a small hill completely devoid of trees so it could be seen in all its glory. It never blew over in the strong winds or sank into the ground when it rained. It just stood patiently waiting for passengers who wanted to go to Coogee Beach, the destination advertised on the front wind-over display. It must have eventually got bored or found a passenger because it disappeared. Maybe the owner had run out of people to share a beer with.

The bus had only been gone for about two years when new owners moved into the Chook Shed about a kilometre further down the valley. It wasn’t really a chook shed but with its fairly basic grey corrugated iron front and roof it could have been. They brought the usual collection of outside display items that invariably accompany newcomers, and amongst their wrecked cars and ancient trucks, there was a Double Decker bus. It was a different colour from the first one and hadn’t been painted for centuries so had to be a different bus. It was also without signed destination. Somehow without a sign it wasn’t worth a second look and could just crumble away quietly. Its terminus was Creewah. I don’t need a bus because I have my tractor.

Hanging Valley