Archive for the ‘history’ Category

2016 pruning, remembering Poppy

March 12, 2016

Today was the day for the annual spring pruning, and it was a great occasion to remember my grandfather, who died peacefully earlier this week at the age of 95.  William F. Herman (‘Bill’ around town, ‘Poppy’ in the family) was a big part of my life as a kid, and his love of growing things inspired me to plant the orchard when we moved back east over 10 years ago.

Pops and my grandmother, ‘Ummy’ grew up and lived their professional lives in eastern Massachusetts, but spent a lot of time in Maine – her father was an avid rod-and-gun sportsman. In the sixties they bought a slice of land on a remote island in the midcoast, two miles beyond the end of the electric power lines near the village of Five Islands.  When my parents decided to settle down after some years of teaching mountain-climbing in the mountains out west, Um and Pops invited them to homestead on the land in Five Islands, and I grew up off the grid, surrounded by the natural wonders of the Maine coast.

In 1983, Pops retired from a 25-year career at Polaroid, and my grandparents joined us in Maine.  By then electricity had come to the North End, and my father built them a passive solar home.  Though rocky and overgrown, the land had been a farm until early in the 20th century, with stone walls, foundation holes, and odd bits of pottery and rusted iron in evidence. Over the years the family cleared land and planted gardens, berries, and apple trees, and some of my earliest memories of my grandfather relate to agriculture.  He kept a very neat vegetable garden, which he would weed in khaki pants and a button-up shirt (he’d shower and put on a jacket and tie for dinner every night until he was far along in years). He grew masses of vegetables – great sweet corn, bowls and bowls of shell peas, and so many cucumbers and tomatoes that he put a wooden box at the end of the driveway and wrote ‘Help Yourself’, to the joy of the neighbors.

The garden was surrounded by semi-dwarf apples – Cortland, Winesap, Rhode Island Greening, Red Delicious, and he showed me how to prune the trees.  There was also a big wild tree behind their house that was saved in the construction, and it gave great green apples that were my favorite kind when I was a kid. In the fall we would collect the fruit in bags, and Poppy, Ummy, Joanna, and I would press them using a hand-crank cast iron press that had belonged to my great grandfather – the same press that Alexis, Holly, Becky, and I used back in Cider Year 1.  I think he tried to ferment some a couple times, but it was a casual attempt in a plastic milk jug and I don’t remember anyone thinking it tasted good.

In all the years of living and romping around as a kid, I can’t remember Poppy ever raising his voice.  He became a respected character around town, serving as selectman and sometimes as moderator at the old-fashioned town meeting. An engineer by training, he loved to keep careful records – of the amount of firewood he burned each month of each winter down to the tenth of a cord, of the number of quarts of blueberries his waterfront bushes produced, and of gallons of maple sap we collected each spring.  He taught himself to play ragtime piano by ear, and made some pretty nice oil paintings in an engineer’s realistic style – I think he said Norman Rockwell was his favorite artist.

If I drank another pint of this 2014 cider I could probably go on all night, remembering Poppy teaching me how to build kites and drive a tractor, and ‘messing about in boats’, fishing for mackerel in the Sheepscot river out of a 13′ Boston Whaler – he loved the water though he famously would never swim no matter how hot the summer. As the years went by, Poppy’s world gradually compressed; the boat trips shorter and the garden smaller and weedier, but he stubbornly kept at it. I remember a couple years ago when I was working in the orchard, I looked back toward the house and saw him at the edge of the field, using his old-fashioned scythe instead of a cane – he’d take a couple of swipes at the overgrown brush, then lean on the tool to catch his breath.

As Poppy slowed down my parents increasingly picked up the slack, mulching and pruning the berries, planting the corn, and splitting the firewood. And in 2006 I asked him if I could clear some land off to the the south to start a new orchard for cider apples, and he was happy to let me get started. For as long as he could walk, he’d totter up the woods road to the orchard gate to see what I was up to, and we’d talk about trees and plans.  I’m grateful to my grandparents for the opportunity to grow up in a unique and beautiful part of the world, and for the sense that tending and caring for the land is a project that can last more than a lifetime, and build connections across generations.




19th century clean energy technology in Maine

November 10, 2013

As some readers know, we are fortunate to inhabit a beautiful spot on a small river in southern Maine, which was long ago the site of a water-powered mill.  One of the enigmatic relics of the ruined works was a 3″ diameter steel shaft sticking out of the muck in the riverbed, with a Lovejoy coupling on the upper end the size of a dinner plate.  Soon after we arrived, we made a preliminary effort to unbury it one spring afternoon, but if I remember it was hot and buggy, and we ran out of steam after digging down and finding the runner pinned under some chunks of broken metal.

runner in hole

18 months intervened, and I had basically given up the thought of finishing the job before winter, but Saturday dawned pleasant for working, so I took some buckets, a shovel, and a digging bar down to the site and was soon hip-deep in a mucky hole.  By a combination of bailing, digging, and pitching out rocks, I was soon able to get back to where we had previously stopped, and was able to rock the runner. With a bit more excavation I could see what I was up against – about half the circumference was trapped under a semi-circular cast iron ring, which had clearly been some sort of inflow nozzle that directed the flow downward onto the axial-flow runner.  The cast iron parts were not going to move, since they were bolted down to some structure buried even deeper in the mud, but I was pretty sure if I could pull the one main chunk off (to the right in the photo above), I could lift the runner clear.

At this point I was pretty confident of victory, so I texted Tony and invited him to join the fun.  Together we toted our light oxy-acetylene cutting rig down into the riverbed, and without too much effort we were able to burn off 3 nuts (or bolt heads; hard to tell with that much rust):

torching off nutsfire in the hole

The old metal was wet and covered with mud, so the cutting was pretty mangy, but I got them burned off and then knocked the slag away with the digging bar.  I lifted off the iron chunk, and then we had a pretty good view of the runner.  it appeared to be about 3′ in diameter, with 10 graceful sweeping vanes.

The runner was free, but it was way too heavy to lift.  However, we were fortunate to have two good-sized forked trees in line with it on either side; an ash on the manmade island between the main watercourse and the ruined spillway, and a pine on the high ground,directly beyond a steep  cliff that rose about 15′ above the riverbed.  We rigged a chain in the ash, a snatch block on the runner, and a second snatch block in the pine, and used our trusty orange worm-drive hand winch to take up the strain, with the red Ford as an anchor.  Once we levered it clear of the remaining bits of metal in the hole, it rose smartly thanks to Tony’s efforts on the winch:

starting to rise

coming out of the hole2013-11-09 14.51.14

We were about out of winch by the time the runner was clear of the hole, so I guided it over onto the riverbed and Tony set it down.  We lowered the attachment sling to just above the balance point, re-rigged to pull directly with the truck, and tied on a rope-a-long that was hitched to the south shore.  Then with the truck we quickly raised it until it was even with the cliff edge above:

runner suspended

We then winched it south with the rope-a-long while gently lowering it with the truck, to arrive at its new resting place on high ground:

closeup of runner up top

All in all a fun project, and a neat piece of Maine renewable energy history – I’m curious now to learn more about the mill that was at this site, and more generally about this type of small water mill.  My first impression is that this runner seems much bigger than appropriate for the flow of the river (which can be judged from the photo above, which shows the outlet of the millpond, roughly at the location of the ruined dam) – at least during typical summer and early fall flows.  Of course there are times in November and early spring when the entire valley fills with a raging torrent (see canoeing pictures from earlier this year) but I wouldn’t think you would build a larger-than-needed mill just to run on those few days or weeks of the year.  Maybe the process (sawing wood or what-have-you) had a relatively low duty cycle, and they’d let the millpond fill up between cuts, then open the floodgates to get more power when they needed it.

Pika Energy: Home wind and solar power

April 17, 2012

Posting has been light and progress limited, but there’s a good reason: my colleagues and I have launched a startup, Pika Energy, to develop affordable, high-performance home wind power systems. When I was a kid growing up in Five Islands, we lived off the grid, since the power company hadn’t yet brought lines out the North End Road, so naturally I was fascinated by electricity. On a cross-country trip to California I saw tons of water-pumping windmills, and when I got home I started experimenting with wind turbines to make DC power. Here are some pictures of a turbine I built and mounted on the roof of our barn:


If 2008:1929::2011:1937,

August 5, 2011

Does that mean that time moves 267% faster now? Apple trees still grow at the same speed. I’m going to try to sneak up to 5isl this evening and bud graft the peaches…

Midsummer orchard progress

August 7, 2010

One full day on the North End. It’s getting time to mow the fields, but when last I was there, the old Kubota was out of commission with some issue in the ignition, and the small walk-behind bush hog was refusing to start, seemingly due to an over-sensitive tilt sensor. In the intervening time, Jake got the tractor running, so I focused on the walk-behind mower. It had gotten progressively more and more sensitive to slope, to the point where it would only work on dead-flat ground, and then finally not at all. The manual was silent on the presence of a separate tilt shutoff sensor, considering the engine a single part. I had a theory that the low oil sensor might double as the tilt shutoff, so first I disconnected it (no luck), then grounded it (in case it was active-high). Neither had any effect, so I dug a little deeper; removed the spark plug and held it against the frame; no spark. I removed the plastic cover between the head and the gas tank, where the throttle and the stop switch reside, and found a nondescript metal module about the size of an ice cube. It was wired to the ‘on’ side of the stop switch, while the other side was wired to ground. The common terminal of the stop switch disappeared inside the housing around the recoil start; presumably the stop switch functioned by shorting the magneto. So I pulled the spade terminal connecting the stop switch to the mystery module, and lo and behold, spark! So I left it disconnected, taped it up out of the way, and reassembled. The mower fired on the first pull.

I wanted to mow in the orchard, but the grass was still wet from a light shower the night before, so I switched gears, and spent a couple hours on dry stonework where the pond outlet runs under the orchard road in a culvert. The crazy rain of a few weeks back had sent a torrent through the culvert, threatening to erode the field below, so I laid the first couple courses of a stone wall to bear the brunt of the outfall where it takes a sharp jog to the south. It was not the best job ever done, as my dry stone skills are strictly beginner level, and the stones that came out of the field were mostly roundish glacial stuff. But I think it will be sound enough to hold, and in any case it’s better than it was before:

The freshly planted field below was remarkably unharmed by the flood, probably because it’s not too sloped, and also I had left a couple of feet of heavy sod between the cultivated region and the drainage. One interesting note was that in cultivating the field we turned up a rusty 12″ smooth harrow disk, the sort that would likely have been used on a horse-drawn implement a hundred years ago. We had known that virtually all of the island was cleared of trees by that time, but most of the rocky land would presumably have been in pasture. This was a pretty solid indication that somebody was tilling that very spot before my grandfather was born – the relatively flat south-facing slope with better-than-average soil would have been considered prime farmland in the years before they discovered Iowa. These days I seem to repair at least one piece of aging farm equipment every time I do some work on the orchard, and I feel a distant sort of kinship to the farmer who must have stood in that very field cursing his broken implement – only they didn’t have ebay and craigslist to go looking for replacement parts.

That’s a closer view of the cover crop I planted. In the foreground is Tartary Buckwheat, in the middle is the Japanese Buckwheat. The seeding rate was the same, so it appears that the Japanese Buckwheat is better suited to the conditions we have. In the background and to the right I planted Fedco pasture mix, which is actually putting up a fine stand, as can be seen in the previous picture, it’s just not nearly as fast as the buckwheat – so the reputation of buckwheat for making a rapid cover is not overstated. I’m going to let it flower, and at that point the usual move would be to mow and incorporate it; I don’t even know how to hand harvest buckwheat, so that’s probably the right move to make. Then, if the clover looks good I’ll just go with that, or if it looks sparse I’ll overseed it with rye for the winter.

By the time I was out of rocks, the grass was dry, so I mowed around the trees in the orchard – not the whole orchard, just strips for each row. I’m going to let the grass grow up a bit higher in the center rows; maybe it will make enough to be worth raking and composting. Really we need something with a sickle-bar on it, as the rotary mowers leave the cuttings in a sorry state. The trees are for the most part looking good, and there were apples on the Roxbury Russet and one on the Yarlington Mill:

I also weeded around the new trees, and checked the grafted apples that I made at the MOFGA class this spring. They’re all still going strong, and the whip-and-tongue grafts look really cool as they heal, like a Harry Potter lightning bolt scar:

I really like grafting, for a bunch of reasons – it’s a craft that seems magical and difficult, but it’s actually pretty easy; the tools of the trade are dirt simple and can be carried in the pants pockets, it involves reuse of materials (trimmings from pruning) that would otherwise be considered waste, and it allows for a dramatic economization relative to buying regular orchard stock. At the end of the day, once the sun was behind the trees I tried my hand at a different kind of grafting, bud grafting, which is done mid-summer. A t-shaped slit is cut in the bark of a rootstock (in this case seedling plums) which we interplanted between the apple trees this spring, and a live leaf with next summer’s bud is cut from fresh growth on a donor tree (in this case peaches, closely-enough related to plums), slipped into the t-shaped slit between the bark and the wood of the rootstock, and taped up. The leaf is trimmed off, and the bud lies dormant over the winter, grows into the bark of the tree, and then comes alive in the spring, whereupon the rootstock above the bud graft is pruned off, and all the energy of the root is channeled into the rapid growth of the bud. Most of the rootstocks I planted were less than a quarter inch and the bark didn’t seem to separate very well, so I only ended up grafting three larger ones – two to Reliance, one to Garnet Beauty, from trees we already had growing on the orchard. The two smaller ones I had tried I taped back up to try again next year. I had it in mind to try budding pie cherries to the wild cherry seedlings that keep popping up in the stone wall on the east side, but I didn’t get to it in time – will try this next visit. Looking at the results I was skeptical that it could possibly work, but I felt the same about the whip-and-tongue grafting, so we’ll see come next spring.

Where we have been, and where are we going?

July 31, 2010

I was just looking back through early entries here on this blog, thinking about what we’ve accomplished and what comes next. The origins of the orchard seem forever ago at this point, but the first batch of trees went in to the nursery bed just a bit over 3 years ago in the spring of 2007, and it was 2008 before we planted them out in the orchard proper. We added a fifth row in 2009, and two more rows of expansion this spring. At this point the orchard has grown to about 32 trees and a bit over half an acre, and we should get our first (five) apples this fall, hail and bugs willing. At its current size the orchard should produce over 10,000 pounds of apples a year when it’s fully mature. And as much as the pursuit of growth is as American as, well, apple pie, it seems a good time to pause and think about what comes next.


Extreme Weather: Flash floods in Georgetown (and a tornado?)

July 27, 2010

An unusually large and fierce mass of thunderstorms passed through midcoast Maine last Wednesday. My grandfather recorded 4.75 inches of rain in less than two hours, and small roads washed severely all over town. The stream that flows out of the small pond to the north of the orchard overtopped the road above the middle field, where it passes under the orchard road in a culvert, and a bunch of freshly placed coarse crushed stone washed downstream. Miraculously, the freshly planted middle field adjacent to the stream did not seem to suffer any visible erosion; perhaps it’s the soil, which is still springy with freshly composted sod, or perhaps the young roots of the buckwheat, less than 2 weeks old at the time, were enough to hold it together. The old part of the orchard has a bombproof sod by now, and the younger part is pretty well established with red clover under the pumpkins and this spring’s orchardgrass/timothy/clover treatment at the periphery, so the worst it saw was the windrow of wood chip mulch washed away in a couple of places. The freshly planted maples along the stone wall were more battered, as a sheet of water carrying leaves and small branches appeared to have swept broadly down the hillside, but the small fences we placed around them seemed to have borne the brunt of the assault, and though the young trees were in many cases buried in leaf matter, none seemed irredeemably tattered.

The most dramatic effect occurred where the pond outlet stream passed under the shore road in a 16″ steel culvert; directly after the storm there was no visible effect, but with the passage of a few vehicles over the weekend a yawning sinkhole a foot in diameter and three feet deep opened up right in the roadbed – it’s a wonder it didn’t swallow up somebody’s axle. The subterranean excavation extended most of the way across the road around and above the culvert, which was largely exposed as seen through the sinkhole – the bottom of the culvert must have rusted out, and this allowed water to run underneath it and undermine it. This was confirmed by the discovery of some rusty chunks of corrugated metal in the outwash below the road – a few more inches of rain and it would have been washed out entirely. My father and grandfather arranged to have the old culvert replaced with a larger 20″ plastic one – we determined that the old one had lasted over forty years.

More dramatic still, we got word that a small tornado or microburst had touched down on the opposite end of the island, and on my way out of town I poked down Bay Point road to check it out. Indeed, just past Don Wilson’s former chicken barn on the west side of the road, a swath of destruction lay down the side of a hill, with great stout oak trees uprooted or broken off rudely halfway up the trunk. Nearby some trees had been knocked over onto somebody’s trailer. Not being from tornado country, I have never seen the destructive aftermath of such a wild piece of weather.

As I understand it, climate scientists predict that global warming will lead to more frequent and more destructive extremes of weather, and while it’s of course impossible to attribute any one event to climate change, I can’t help but feel a bit under siege. I can take some measures of prudence – staking out the young apples and peaches, clearing trees away from the fence lines, keeping sod on the fields as much as possible; girding the streambanks and crossings with stonework – but all of this may be easily overcome, if it decides to rain 10 inches in one crazy storm, or if a ridiculous warm spell causes the buds to break in February. Perhaps we’ll gain some protection from our proximity to the ocean’s moderating influence, but for the most part our little farm faces in microcosm the same looming danger as the planet as a whole.

Rumination on changing the oil

February 28, 2010

This morning I took advantage of a break in the weather to change the oil in our car. [05 Corolla, “hairshirt edition”.  I think I’m the only person left without power windows or locks.  Despite all the recent Toyota acrimony, I’m still a fan – great mileage, great reliability, brakes and gas pedal work fine. ]  I confess that I relish the funny looks I get from passersby on the brick sidewalks of Harvard street in Cambridge, who are not  accustomed to seeing guys in coveralls grubbing around under cars in their neighborhood.  But it’s honestly cheaper, faster, and more convenient than driving over to some shop and getting it done.  The whole project takes less than half an hour, costs around $15 ($4 for the filter and $11 or so for the oil), and I can do it whenever I feel like, without making an appointment or wondering whether there will be a line at the Jiffy franchise.  Despite the low clearance, there’s plenty of room to get a socket wrench on the drain plug without jacks or ramps, and the filter is accessible from above.  I buy the oil and filters several at a time when I happen to be passing by an auto parts store, and the used oil goes back to the same place.  All in all an entirely satisfactory solution.

I got to thinking as I was working on the car about how central the availability of effortless travel is to our sense of possibility.  Obviously, from “go West young man” to Rt. 66, the ability to hit the road, visit new places, and maybe make a fresh start there is part of the American mythology.  But even without the frontier mentality, I wonder what sort of subtle changes to the modern psyche will result if it becomes significantly more expensive and less convenient to get around.



January 1, 2010

Ten years ago this weekend my wife and I went on our first date – only we didn’t know it at the time.  We thought we were going backpacking in the White Mountains with some friends.  But as it turned out, we were the only ones crazy enough to spend the millenium camping out in a snow cave.  Seven years ago this weekend we got married, when we were living out in Flagstaff, Arizona.  As my grandfather, married sixty-some years likes to say, “not a day too many!”  Life is good.

Crosby tide mill in Arrowsic

November 22, 2009

There’s a lot more detail on the technology of a ca. 1900 tide mill on pps 6-7 of the following newsletter: