Saturday, 30 April 2011

Second, Third and Fourth Dimensions

I'm not a sci-fi fan, but I guess for those who are there's an idea of the fourth dimension that immediately conjures something from Star Trek or somesuch. For me, though, the fourth dimension is something much more real, albeit perhaps equally intangible.

But, as they say in the classics, second dimensions first... It is a remarkable process to visit an architect, explain the ideas that're in your head, then to see those ideas transformed into plans complete with measurements, angles, spaces.

It is even more remarkable to see those plans become - literally in my case - concrete.

The day that the slab was poured (I originally planned to call this post "Betty's Worry" - one for H&C fans...) I was supposed to go to the dentist. But once they started there was no way I could leave, even though it was the coldest I've ever been 'pon my hill. The foreman was a bloke called Bruce and his crew was pretty rough and ready, but when it came time to work they were amazing.

A couple of days before the pour they turned up with a bobcat and a little excavator and prepared the footings. While they were doing that my uncle (and favourite plumber) laid all the pipes that we'd need for the kitchen, bathroom, laundry and toilet once the house was built. So much of building the house was like following a recipe: the right processes with the right ingredients at the right time and all in the right order. So, it wasn't just a matter of getting the concreters, it was also vital to be able to get my uncle there on the same day at the right time... Organising tradies and materials was constantly like this...

Looking at these photos now it is astounding to think that it was only three and a half years ago... The transformation has been extraordinary. As I sit here tap-tap-tapping away at the keyboard my feet rest on the warmth of the slab. The concrete being pumped into place in the photos is the same concrete I mopped yesterday...

The slab was never going to be simply the foundation of the house, the anchor. It was always intended to be the aesthetic constant within the house, just as the mulch is in the garden. It was also designed to be the house's 'air-conditioner'... The angle and depth of the verhandah is designed to maximise sunlight on the slab throughout winter - thus heating the concrete - and minimise it during summer - keeping it cool... Thermal mass. It works terrifically. In fact there've been many winter days when all the windows have been open to cool the house...

To bring an element of the Northern Territory to South Gippsland I asked Bruce if he could colour the slab prior to polishing, something akin to ochre... Iron oxide was what he used, the result was perfect. Not cold like some grey concrete floors can be, the earthyness of the ochre gives the house a visual warmth literally from the ground up.

Once the slab was 'helicoptered' it was sprayed with polyurethane to seal it. The final seal has a couple of my sock prints in it, where I inadvertently stepped into an area I'd already sprayed... Oops! In a way, though, I'm sheepishly glad that I did; a reminder of my very first walk on the slab that was to become my home...

So, from my mind to paper, to concrete. From concept to two dimensions and then to three... The fourth? Yesterday my dad and my son helped me to strip an olive tree of its crop. 

This on the back of a fortnight when I hung the last of my tomato crop, harvested my Jerusalem artichokes, made tomato sauce, bottled ginger beer and baked a couple of batches of sourdough bread and some hot atheist buns. I also pruned the fruit trees, transferred some vigorous strawberry runners and planted winter vegies. 

It was yesterday in particular, though, that conjured the idea of the fourth dimension. Three generations picking olives, chatting, the sun shining. No doubt it was exciting to see the house plans in two dimensions, even more so to see it start to take shape in three. But none of it compares to what it has taken on as the place for me to experience this fourth dimension: life.

Wednesday, 13 April 2011

Bono, Conchita & Juan Valdez

This week - before the seemingly interminable rain began - I was collecting rocks from the front paddocks and bringing them up to the top of the hill for edging and other garden-y things. On one trip I passed Murphy's tree crew lopping and chipping tree limbs that were growing too close to the powerlines. I stopped the tractor and asked if I could have the wood chips. It turned out that indeed I could - for a small contribution to their xmas party fund.

So, a couple of hours later I had a huge pile of mulch to spread around my fruit trees. I love this sort of work; I love the physicality of it, the shoveling, the barrowing, the raking. I also love that once the work is done there is a visual uniformity to the base of the garden that allows the plants to be the focus of the vista. But what I love most of all is that the repetitiveness of the work affords much time for quiet contemplation.

Bizarrely, when I'm immersed in this sort of garden work - planting hundreds of trees, weeding large garden beds, cutting out thistles in the re-foresting areas, digging drains, mowing, mulching - I almost invariably end up thinking about Bono.

It goes something like this: I begin by wondering if Bono ever has to mow, or weed, or... I then wonder if Bono ever touches soil, dirt. If he ever has dirty fingernails, ever needs to scrub his hands after planting strawberry runners with his kids. Then I wonder about the nature of success, about whether an apt description of success in our modern, Western, capitalist world would be "success: never having to touch the earth"... The digging, planting, weeding, building, nurturing is all done by others, those well down on the pecking order. Success begets money (or is that vice versa...?) and money buys time, time for ourselves, but also the time of others. In my own small way I was successful enough to buy the time of my staff at the cafe, but I don't think I ever bought someone's time to get them to do things I thought beneath me (I was always the one who cleaned the toilet...), just to help me do those things I was too busy to do myself. But success buys underlings and in the hierarchies that then eventuate the successful person, in this case Bono, becomes so far removed from anything manual, anything dirty, anything real that it makes me wonder - as I mow and weed and mulch - whether that is success at all...

The other thing that happened this week is that my mum brought up her last kilo of Calima coffee beans. She thought I should have them as a final taste of #9. Given that I've been out of the cafe for about ten weeks they must be well past their best, but I put some in the hopper of the Mazzer this morning, got the grind settings right and pulled two lovely shots on the Wega. I was surprised at the depth of colour of the crema and the general aroma of the coffee - it was one of those moments when your senses take your consciousness somewhere else... This coffee is so familiar, so ingrained... I made thousands of coffees over the almost six years at the cafe, the vast majority of them with Calima beans. Recently though, as third wave coffee roasters and sellers have pushed their specialty beans at the expense of the larger roasters I'd begun to doubt the quality of Calima: I needn't have worried. 

Calima is the only retailer of FederaciĆ³n Nacional de Cafeteros de Colombia (Colombian Coffee Federation) coffee. Founded in 1927, the Federation was fair trade three generations before Fair Trade. My brother and his partner found Calima coffee at a little cafe outside Ballarat and arranged for it to be our house coffee while I was still in Darwin. I trusted them and I'm glad I did. It fitted in with our ideals given its mode of production and profit-distribution, it was small enough that we could deal with the owner of Calima directly, and by the time we opened the Ballarat cafe had closed and no other cafe in Victoria was using their beans.

Making and drinking my first Calima coffee in a couple of months this morning was revelatory. It was at once so familiar and quite novel. It was exciting the same way that getting out my woollen jumpers and scarves has been this week: comfortingly familiar and pleasantly sensual.

And so we come to Conchita and Juan Valdez. The logo of the FederaciĆ³n Nacional de Cafeteros de Colombia is a coffee farmer - Juan  - and his mule - Conchita. And I bet that Juan Valdez touched the earth. That is success...

Monday, 4 April 2011

The (think) tank

Once upon a time, a long, long time ago, on a series of dark and stormy nights in a place far, far from here my mate Leaveski and I put on a show as part of the Melbourne Fringe Festival. That show was called The Rant. It was fabulous. It was held in the back bar of the Tramways Hotel in North Fitzroy (my local at the time). There was no cover charge, the audience members were instead encouraged to buy us beer. In return we'd entertain them. The audience members that is, not the beers. The basic concept (the only concept really, and yes, it was pretty basic...) was that the two of us would drink the beer and rant about whatever came to mind. Current affairs mostly. We were funny. But the funniest thing about The Rant was it was almost exactly the same as all of the converstaions he and I share but this time other people were buying the beer and laughing at (or, I like to hope, with) us...

I've always fancied that I'd love to be what is sometimes called a 'social commentator'. I could just sit on my hill and pontificate about whatever came to mind. When Fran Kelly needed to fill ten minutes on Radio National Breakfast (oh, Fran, call me...) she'd ring me and I'd give the nation a piece of my mind on whatever topic she chose... Or if the PM (John, Kev, Julia - happy to talk to whoever's wearing the hat at the time the music stops) wanted to know my opinion on the politcal zeitgeist (obviously if Tony ends up with the hat he won't use such a difficult word, Rhodes scholar or not...) he or she would give me a call. I toyed with the idea of starting a think tank. Then I realised that I already had a tank. And not just any tank, but a tank that had borne witness to quite a bit of thinking...

The tank was the first thing to be built on the hill. I wanted to get it built first because it's on the far side of the house and to get to the site after the construction started would be more difficult. The other advantage of getting it done first was that once the roof went on we'd be able to start collecting water immediately.

When Andy had cleared the house site he'd also prepared the tank foundation. Then Colin Watt from Watt-A-Tank (geddit?!) and his crew arrived with the form work, a series of metal plates that were craned into place and then bolted together. There was an external form and an internal: concrete was poured into the space between them to create the tank walls.

The crane held aloft a concrete funnel that fed into a gutter. The gutter was fixed on an axis at the centre of the tank at one end and had runners at the other that fitted onto the rim of the internal form. It was ingenious, making a difficult job look simple (as all the best tradies do I guess). Once the wall was poured and vibrated into place then the work began on the floor of the tank.

Once the concrete was finished it was left for a few days with the form work in place. One of the disappointing things about having to work full time while building the house was that I missed some things I'd liked to have seen. That was the case with the removal of the forms. I got to the hill after work to find that it was all done - including the placement of the lid which had been poured in sections in molds at Colin's shed.

The tank was done. It was the first structure on the hill. The first sign that this would be a place to live. 90,000 litres it holds. And the thing I'm most sheepish to admit? I didn't have any money so I paid for it with my Visa card. Yes, I was about to build a house with no money. Just faith that I could pull it off...