New Internationalist

Epiblog

Though I’ve signed off from a regular blog from the barge, there are a few loose ends to tie up.

Darren the solar-panels expert tells me that I have failed to emit some six kilos of carbon since they were installed. Most of the figures about carbon emissions come in tonnes - hundreds, thousands, millions of them - so there’s little cause for celebration. It is less than Darren expected, and I may have to look more carefully at how the system is working. But it’s autumn, and it’s something.

I know already that the panels have made my whole electrical system more convenient and efficient. My guess is that I’ve saved, at the very least, one refuelling of the diesel generator, which is 50 litres (about 50 kilos) of the horrible stuff. In fact, as I write this on my laptop, and thanks to the panels, I’m running off the batteries, when previously I’d have had to use the generator. Next winter, budget permitting, I shall explore wind and water turbines.

Shortly I shall start to cultivate an organic garden - which will also give me somewhere to put my organic waste. This needs discussing, to get the location right and agreeable to everyone else - most of them, too, cultivate organic gardens. By another happy coincidence with my work (I’m currently editing an issue of the NI magazine on the state of the world ocean, about which the experience of life afloat has informed me at least a little), my next magazine is due to be on permaculture. Yet more new stuff for me to learn…

One problem with the garden will be the chickens, who roam the woodland but prefer cultivated vegetables to eat. I’m afraid these rather splendid beasts have just endured another trauma. Regularly herded by the young sheepdog from the lock-keeper’s house, or disciplined by a querrulous terrier, they were the other day chased by a cocker spaniel. They headed for the river - a false move. One dived straight in to the water, never to be seen again.

There are dark rumblings about ‘dog wars’ on the mooring. The sheep dog, which follows anyone it finds, can only be retrieved by its owners bringing their car and reversing, dog inside, all the way back to the lock. The terrier Bob the Bitch (it’s a she) is oblivious to discipline when it comes to caged canaries or burrowing after phantom rodents. The cocker spaniel, which hurtles around with its nose to the ground, may have to be kept on a lead.

As for the barge, it now sports some new steel plating after being ‘out of the water’ in the centre of the nearby city, her orange bottom exposed to the citizenry. The work, due to take three days, lasted two weeks - ‘boat time’. Berthed in a tomb-like dock, waiting for my home to be lifted out of the water the following morning, I consumed an entire bottle of wine and thankfully lost consciousness.

The boat builder doesn’t usually do this sort of humble repair work. He’s currently constructing armour-plated aluminium launches - together with an ambulance boat, just in case - for Nigeria. Standing against the office wall, beneath pictures of mighty vessels constructed in the yard, were experimental plates of armour with bullet holes in them.

Periodic panics followed. The heat of the welding might set my boat on fire - could I please check with the insurance company. The hull was so thin that the welding had gone straight through it - a potentially disastrous eventuality, which turned out to have been the mischievous fantasy of an apprentice.

Eventually the work was complete, the barge returned to the water, duly renamed after the banner of the peoples of the Andes. On a bright sunny Sunday we set off across the harbour and back up river, amply lubricated by Scotch. In time I may find the words to put to the peculiar exhileration of it all.

Now autumn turns, more slowly than usual, to winter; damp and darkness displace light and warmth; flood and ice threaten. Things start to get solemn. I think - though I am not certain - that the initial thrill of playing with a giant toy, or following childhood dreams, has faded. I have endured enough aggravation to know that I have not been unduly spoiled. The list of essential tasks still to be done has grown shorter, the pottering less persistent. The first dark night of the soul, the first pang of futile regret, has yet to strike. Only from time to time do I catch myself watching some other aging gent on a boat, before remembering that it’s me, too.

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