I’m still here. I haven’t blogged in three months, which means autumn has been and gone. Here is what’s happening at the Mustard Yellow House and the Paddock World it occupies.
The frosts, when they’ve hit, have iced the paddock, stiffened the frost cloth that I drape over the ambitiously chosen plants in our yard (papaya, passionfruit etc), but not yet frozen the pipes as they did once last winter.
But those frosty mornings grow into glorious middays when I can open the french doors on the north side and the dogs can spread out on the warmed-up carpet.
The house can hold a lot of that heat after the sun goes down (currently 5pm) so long as I drop the thermal blinds straight away.
That’s the fine days. But let’s be honest, the weather is more often, to borrow from Bic Runga, a case of rain falling from concrete-coloured skies. And a day of concretey dimness means the solar panels won’t charge the battery, and the generator must be started.
Without passive solar heating the fire must be lit. Which is no problem, now that we have a shed full of pine cones and 20cm logs gathered or sawed over the warm months. And now that a chimney sweep has visited us for the first time, scrubbed away the soot and declared our little burner and flue safe and fit for purpose.
Which is a relief because the flue did give Tom and me a little scare a few weeks ago. It seemed to be changing shape, slightly. Dimples were visible where previously, we thought, the surface had been smooth.
We wondered if the flue was of unsuitable metal, or if a flue fire had softened it.
But really, we should have trusted the evidence of our thumbs, which fitted the indentations perfectly. The dimples were of inadvertent human origin!
There is mud
This is the gruesomely muddiest time of year in New Zealand generally, on farmland especially so. Traipsing cattle, horses and fowl keep things soft underfoot.
When the Makahuri project was started two-and-a-half years ago on this abandoned school campus, there were a few paved parking areas and some gravelled driveways.
But the access lanes that we villagers have formed — to our homes, to the cow shed, through the vegetable garden and so on — are just foot-compacted turf. In July this turf turns nearly to surf.
Areas where brambles were cleared have turned to mud flats awaiting grass seeding.
Which all makes up for an environment where boots, scrape-mats and careful treading are needed.
And did I say we have dogs? Imagine what that means!
Anyway, to look on the bright side, the land of Makahuri is basically sand dune with a few inches of topsoil, so the water drains away and the mud dries pretty quickly. Until the next fall of rain.
There are unicorns
The animal welfare group that leases part of Makahuri to graze its rescue horses had a recent coup in saving a dozen miniature horses from a hoarder’s estate in the deep south of New Zealand.
The little horses were shipped to Makahuri to live till their longer-term fate was settled. Their home, till today, was the paddock next to ours.
They’ve been magical company. Not because they’re super-friendly — they’re shy, having lacked proper socialisation. But because of their other-worldly beauty.
After sunset, they walk free of their allotted space and wander around our house, garden and access lane. Which means when we look outside in the moonlight, or return to the house with our head-mounted torches on, it’s like seeing a world of Patronuses — or is that Patroni?
By night they quietly circle our house, nibbling the grass to a golf-course smoothness and leaving little garlands of unicorn poo which no doubt have extraordinary botanical potency.
Sometimes they get closer. The other night we felt a bump. Tom looked out the bedroom window to see one of the unicorns backing up and rubbing its ghostly arse on the corner of the house.
What weird magic does a unicorn’s arse possess? Will our house’s encounter with that uncanny botty bring us good luck? I hope so.
But today it’s farewell to the unicorns. The rescuers are returning to gather them up and take them to their next home.
Go well, unicorns.
I have become a Cheesemaster
Last October I had my first go at making cheese from the milk of George, the Makahuri cow. After a few scratchy efforts I got into a routine of making a cheese every Monday, alternating with two other village cheese-makers.
But for various reasons I’ve sometimes been left as the only cheesemaker on duty. This has meant spending many more hours measuring, timing, cutting, stirring and moulding to make sure George’s milk doesn’t go to waste.
Right now I have 22kg of cheese ripening or awaiting a taste, either in a cheese fridge or in a vermin-proof cupboard in one of the old school buildings. Jack, gruyere, gouda, edam, leicester, manchego, montasio, colby, tomme, romano, caerphilly, cheddar, blue. (I’ve also made ricotta, haloumi and paneer but hard cheeses have won my heart.)
As I’ve got more careful and my routine has improved, the cheeses have got better. I can now confidently present cheese boards at village gatherings; cheese is my go-to dish for potluck occasions.
It’s a skill I would never have thought was for me. But the opportunity — the milk, the kitchen, the encouragement — came along and I’m glad I took it. Learning and making something of value should always be part of life.