Monday, April 18, 2011

The joys of José's ways: Campesino complexity at 8

There is no doubt that on some days I moan too much -- in a way you might otherwise associate with a spoiled brat. But, no question, on some days I count myself among one of the most fortunate people on earth, and today was one of them.

We've been moving rock fill from one area to another for building paths, as well as doing brick and block laying work on the well. José Alberto has been pitching in, carrying buckets of water and rocks, filling wheelbarrows and buckets with materials to be moved. And in between times he created his own tiny garden by transplanting his own selection of plants growing elsewhere into a round bed bordered by stones.

His carrying and gardening activities illustrated in what, for me at least, is a truly delightful manner, some of the complexities of an 8 year old peasant boy's identity.

As a carrier of materials, like rock fill, he is a younger version of David, his father. He uses his shoulder for carrying the bucket, raising the bucket to his shoulder in exactly the way his father does. In the process he is building up the muscles and movements that are absolutely integral to campesino life and work. He presses the bucket up and gets his left hand underneath it, to support the bucket on his shoulder. And when the bucket is up there he walks straight and tall. Just like his father.

At the same time, his ways of doing things regularly enact the conceptions and imaginings and dreams of the 8 year old child he is. Having built his garden, as we see it, he immediately invested it with the status of a "ranchito" -- the ideal so many young campesino children dream of having. Every ranchito needs more than mere plants. Animals are fundamental. No animals, no ranchito, no proper life.

So it was hardly surprising when we arrived earlier today to find that overnight the ranchito had acquired a sheep.

And later in the day the sheep was joined by a horse, which meant adding a corral.

For me these are precious moments beyond price -- a very special kind of access to ways and worlds I can no longer imagine not having access to. They are the very spice of life and so much of the reason for being here.

Friday, April 15, 2011

Refurbishing the well: design and execution

When we bought our coffee land, the real estate man, Gabriel, from whom we bought it, had dug a "well" on the common land shared by the three lots. He'd simply dug a hole on the line of a spring and it filled with water -- enough for watering plants, mixing concrete, etc. However, the walls would cave in from time to time, and the well would silt up. It would have leaves and twigs and small bits of branch from nearby trees floating on the surface. It served well for 5 years, but now that we are putting proper gardens in and wanting to get some turf down and make a nice outdoor living space, it was time to refurbish the well -- to find a way of keeping it clean, to give it proper walls and a cover, and to make something that was easy to clean.

We thought long and hard about how to do it, and eventually came up with the idea of using one of the large plastic water tanks that are on top of almost every house here: invert the tank, sit it on a bed of clean stones, drill holes in the sides and the bottom of the plastic (which was really the tapered top of the original water tank), and fill all around the outside of the tank with clean rock, providing a filter between the earth sides of the well shaft and the outside of the plastic tank.

Basically, the job would involved emptying the existing well and digging it much deeper, so we could have a relatively narrow and deep well interior. A couple of days ago we began the work, assisted by our neighbour, David, who we pay to do a fair bit of work with us, especially in the seasons where there is not a lot of other work available for day labourers. David had never dug a well before, and neither had we. And no matter how much we'd tried to explain the concept of the inverted tank he just didn't get it.

After all, no one builds a well like that.

David suggested to Michele that he had no idea whether it would work or not, but he was prepared to dig on, in faith that it might. Good faith, because it was a hot day.

The hardest part was always going to be digging out -- clay -- as fast as possible to keep ahead of the incoming water. There was so much silt in the well we would sink almost to the top of our  long rubber boots and then need to get help from the other to get free. Eventually, I figured we could use some timber to stand on, and we had a few lengths of stout timber around a meter or so long, and they proved to be excellent static surf boards from which to excavate.

So we got started by draining the original well.

And then we got digging.

Eventually, but nowhere as soon as we'd have preferred, we had gone down far enough.

At that point, David went home for lunch, and Michele, who had started drilling the holes in the tank with the cordless drill, had to head back to the house (4 kms away), where there is electricity, to recharge it. Meanwhile, I fell back on a hand operated brace and bit, equipped with a sharp auger. Much slower than the drill, but invaluable. The recharged drill got us to within a hundred holes of so, and a second round with the brace and bit finished the job.

It was then time to start loading the clean rock into the base in readiness for loading in the tank -- upside down. Jose Alberto had finished school for the day and came to lend a hand with the rock filling.

With the tank in place and the rock filled around the sides, the well looked like this.

It was time to cut out the original base of the tank, which is now the top of the well, after which we would know if the design had worked. That was a job for a simple fine-toothed hand saw.

It was fantastic to see the water there, much cleaner than previously, and ready for using.
This was the first phase of the well completed. The next job, just begun, will involve putting a concrete block rim reaching above the top of the plastic walls of the well, removing the remainder of the plastic base, and building a nice strong cover for the top of the well. It will also involve concrete blocking the earth walls above the level of the well, and putting some simple steps in for getting comfortably down to the well from the surrounding ground. That will take a few days, but it  is already clear that the end result will be worth it. And once the well has been drained a couple of times the water should start coming through even cleaner.

Sunday, April 03, 2011

A memorable weekend in the wonderful Annapolis Valley

This was our second weekend of work in the Annapolis Valley in Nova Scotia. But this time there was no blizzard, and there was also more free time on account of a Sunday off between gigs. So we got to spend 4 days here, with Saturday afternoon and all day Sunday free. And we got to be able to drive and hang out. The visit has been "an unmitigated joy", as Joe Kincheloe used to say.

While there is still a bit of snow about, the local wisdom has the place in daylight saving time already, so after finishing class around 2pm yesterday there was ample time to set off to Yarmouth in the south. "Make sure you go to Digby", some of the students had said. We did. We followed the Evangeline Trail west from Middleton, where we had been teaching, and spent a nice time in Digby, looking at the harbour and the boats and some of the old houses and buildings before moving on. It was quiet and slow and easy. No lobster yet, but nice empty streets and good sunshine. We walked a bit, ate potato wedges, and talked about how nice it was to be in the open sea air and feel the sun portending Spring.

We took the main highway to Yarmouth, saving time but feeling sleepy with the lack of visual stimulation as the winter pines on either side of a flat straight road kept on mile after mile. But once in Yarmouth we made a beeline for the Cape Forchu Lighthouse, and had a good wander in the downtown, saving the walk around the Old Sea Captains' Houses for next time. The sea and the Fundy tidescape were spectacular, as were the old fishing harbours and boats and lobster industry buildings. Plenty of colour and so much of the past all bearing down on us as we soaked up the atmosphere and thought about earlier times.

The real treat lay ahead, however, and we headed back a couple of hours before dark, this time taking the Evangeline Trail. This took us through the Arcadian Shore in County Clare -- following the shoreline through one French settlement after another, revelling in the beauty of traditional farm vistas with barns still attached to the houses, and churches of spectacular grandeur bespeaking 400 years of religious and agrarian foundations, while everything else reeked of Britain. Next time the re-enacted Arcadian Museum Village will be open for the warm season and we'll take ample time to visit and take pix and dream.

We spent Sunday hanging around Wolfville, home of Arcadia University, which ranks well year after year in McLean Magazine's ratings of predominantly undergraduate institutions in Canada. With class sizes averaging 26, we imagine student life  at Arcadia to retain much of the kind of closeness and tranquility of tertiary study in earlier decades. Wolfville has a main street -- with three classic pubs, some wonderful architecture, and everything one needs for living well as a student or academic. The place is surrounded by exquisite farms and orchards, beautifully maintained and wearing a glow of prosperity and all round wellbeing. A few kilometres down the road the small town of New Minas has the "big shops" -- from Winners Outlet store to Walmart, via Staples, the Future Shop, Canadian Tire and Dollarama. What more could one need?

Except, perhaps, an Irish pub with brilliant food at student-friendly prices, beer brewed on the premises -- upstairs -- and a dozen Irish traditional musicians playing jigs and reels and folk ballads on mandolins, skin drums, flutes, guitars and, of course, fiddles. An appreciative audience was clearly enjoying eating their dinner and supping their ales to the gathering of musicians, who played unobtrusively and unselfconsciously in the traditional manner. One person on some instrument or other would take up a tune at the end of the previous one and the others would come in one by one until all were on board. Polished, but with a spontaneous and unrehearsed feel.

With so much internecine craziness afoot most everywhere else around the globe one could, perhaps, be forgiven for thinking -- if only for a while -- that here, at least, everything seemed well with the world.

I like to think of it as a merited small moment of luxury. It has been a weekend I'll never forget. For once the time between flights actually seems a little long -- a feeling I haven't had since I don't know when.

Annapolis Valley region, Nova Scotia (Canada) marked in red on map.
Map source

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