Keeping Warm – Part 1

When we moved into the not so rocky Rock Farm, we knew that we had a lot of work ahead of us.  From bringing fences and paddocks back into order, managing the weeds and maintaining the water supplies – there is no end of projects to keep me amused.

To keep from being overwhelmed, we developed a master plan.  On one branch of the master plan was two words….  Renovate House.

We gave ourselves twelve months to live in the new house before touching anything.  And a good thing too.  Updating the kitchen and bathrooms moved down the list as the cool weather came and we decided that making the house warmer was essential.

The main heating for the house came from a slow combustion stove that had been installed into a brick wall.  The small fire struggled with the large space it was trying to heat, especially as there is no insulation in the house whatsoever.  Pulling the old fireplace out revealed a full brick hearth from an earlier open fireplace and chimney.  We couldn’t imagine how cold the house would have been with an open fireplace in the lounge room!

We recruited a couple of helpers to remove the old hearth – that had been extended when the slow combustion stove had been fitted.  Demolition was good fun – and created an abundance of mess.

Then came the tedious part of setting up for a new fireplace.  We elected to brick up the old fireplace entirely and render the wall.  A brick layer I am not, but I found it easier to do than rendering.  It took me three coats to get a finish we were happy with.

We tinted the render with a blue-stone oxide that matched some stone paving stones.  We carefully measured the size of the base to ensure it met the required clearances.  Jo found an old shearing shed frame that we used to make the timber surround.  We trialed the fit many times to try and get it right.

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At this point it was time to get the professionals in.  We were lucky to get Phil, the same installer who fitted a similar fireplace at the original Rock Farm.  Phil worked hard to ensure the fireplace sat perfectly in the hearth – and we were lucky that the flue missed all important structures in the ceiling cavity.

We had also fitted and oiled the timber – and were thrilled with the result.  The best part was it only took a day or two before we had a cold snap – just the excuse to light it up and set the paint.

There is still a long way to go to make the house warm and we have a few plans we will look at soon.  Meanwhile if the pooch is anything to go by, the fire is a roaring success. 🙂

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The last of the Weeding Tools

Many years ago, when we still lived in town, we bought a weeding tool from the local hardware shop.  Recommended to us by a friend, it was elegant in its simplicity, and fantastic for digging out weeds.  As a bonus, it also makes preparing garden beds a breeze.

The tool was a patented Australian design, but after years of use, we were unable to tell its make.  The local hardware shop has long since been replaced by Bunnings, and the cheap weeding hoes they stock are next to useless in comparison.

We are reluctant to use chemicals for weed control on the Rock Farm. There are times when selective use of chemical is the most effective method to bring certain weeds under control, however we prefer mechanical removal of weeds if possible.

Our original tool is still in good service, we decided that in order to make weeding the paddocks a whole family affair it would be better if we all had access to a proper weeding tool.  Thankfully Jo tracked down the type of weeder we owned, and the company’s website after some diligent searching.

The tool is a McAtool, made just a couple of hours down the road at Robertson.  It is simply the best tool we have for chipping out thistles, serrated tussock and even sweet briar.

The website is here: https://www.mcatool.com.au  And the good news is, it lists other pruning and gardening tools as well.

We quickly ordered three new McAtool Maxis, and somehow also a McAtool Mini.  And it was lucky we did, as we found out that the company is in the process of shutting down. I am not sure everyone shared my enthusiasm when the new weeders arrived though!

 

The tool is remarkably effective at chipping out thistles and serrated tussock.  It can be used either way up, with a narrow chipping wedge handy at cutting thistles off below the root ball, or a wedge to lever out tussock.

I wouldn’t say it makes chipping a breeze – it is still a good workout.  I figure it is a good substitute for gym membership!

The real challenge is still finding the opportunity to get the whole family down in the paddock for some cooperative weeding efforts.  It seems something else always pops up… Perhaps I need to find some new motivation now we all have a McAtool available for use!

Ripping Lines for Soil Health

With the tractor repaired, I was keen to press on and continue our journey along the path of improved soil health.  My next project was to test the effectiveness or ripping lines in one of our flat paddocks.  I have previously experimented with ripping lines on some of the slopes late last year, and the initial results are promising.  Moisture is remaining in these contours for longer than other areas, and we are starting to see green bands along those rip-lines.  See story here: https://rockfarming.com/2019/01/13/school-holidays-on-the-rock-farm/

The paddock for this experiment is a 1.8 hectare flat alluvial plain, with deep soil.  This flat area is the best soil on the Rock Farm – but in a short cloud burst we had before Christmas (35mm rain in 30 minutes), water sheeted across this paddocks. Barely any of the water soaked in before it made its way  into the creek.  (https://rockfarming.com/2018/12/17/of-droughts-and-flooding-rains/)

The paddock was heavily grazed for a week.  Then I spent an hour or so chipping out thistles and the odd serrated tussock to get the paddock ready for ripping.

A couple of hours with the tractor pulling hard in 2nd gear low range, and the rippers had opened up the soil in the 1.8 hectare flat.  I ran the lines about 5 metres apart, in a concentric spiral.   In areas where the soil was compacted, the rippers barely scratched the surface, however in other areas they penetrated a good 30cm or more into the soil.

The purpose of this is two-fold.  It aims to aerate the soil, increasing the microbial activity within the soil, thereby improving the availability of nutrients for grass.  It also allows moisture to penetrate deep into the soil, reducing run off and storing moisture in the soil for longer.  Pat Coleby is one of the many authors who recommend ripping lines along contours and I thought it was worth the experiment.  The main difference is she recommends ripping after rain… but with barely any rain falling this month, I figured I was best to see if we could open some of the soil up and ensure if any rain does fall, we could capture it.

Interestingly another technique to aerate the soil relies on grazing management.  As cattle eat the longer grass, the plant’s roots die off, and as they rot, the soil is opened up allowing earthworms to do the hard work.

It was interesting to rip a section of a much smaller paddock that the cattle had been in a couple of weeks earlier.  Whilst they had compacted the soil around the water trough, in the areas where the grass had been tallest (and since eaten), the rippers penetrated deepest, and didn’t turn the soil over.  This is a sign of deep friable soil – the best kind.  This encourages me that we are doing good things for our soil health, and that our soil rotation is working.

Now I just have to keep my fingers crossed for rain!

Tractor Repairs on The Rock Farm

One of the things I love about living on the Rock Farm is the constant series of problems that require solving.  There is so much to learn over so many diverse subjects that I find myself constantly seeking new knowledge.  The best part of living at this time in history is the easy access to the collective wisdom of mankind.  It is all held in a small device that fits into my hand.

But there is also a lot of stuff I learn from giving things a go – and one of the recent jobs was to repair the front swivel on the tractor.  Years of hard work had stripped the threads out of the casing and the steering arm kept falling off the bottom of the axle.

The problem with having the collective wisdom of mankind in your hand is it sometimes takes a while to know what to ask it.  I eventually determined that the best repair would be a helicoil, or threaded insert, and promptly ordered the parts.

Unfortunately there are also some skills you can’t learn by reading a book or watching YouTube…  and in my haste to prepare the tractor, I drilled out the stripped bolt holes too far.  Thankfully a local engineering workshop was able to rebuild the casing and re-thread the holes back to original specification.

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Drilled out too far, the holes needed to be refilled and re-tapped. 

Once the repair was complete, I was able to re-assemble the front axle, and get straight into the test drive.

The test drive involved ripping lines in a couple of paddocks to capture any run-off and allow it to soak into the ground.  The old International 674 passed the test with flying colours.  Test completed, the tractor was put back into the shed for a well earned rest.

I (re-)learnt there is some wisdom you can’t find on the internet or in a book.  In the absence of having an expert on hand, some things you have to learn by giving a go.

It might go against one of my favourite quotes, but that is okay with me.  I think Douglas Adams got it mostly right 🙂

Human beings, who are almost unique in having the ability to learn from the experience of others, are also remarkable for their apparent disinclination to do so.
Douglas Adams

 

 

Around the farm

With the little helpers both now in High School, we are finding ourselves spending more time in town.  Between before school music practice and after school sports training, our days are very full and busy.  As they should be.  Whilst part of me hankers for the simpler times when the boys went to our local primary school just down the road, they are growing up and are relishing in the new experiences and opportunities that a large school provides.

As we have now lived at the new Rock Farm for over 12 months, we have also started (albeit slowly) renovating the house.  The first priority is the installation of a large efficient slow combustion fireplace.  There is nothing like a cool morning to focus the mind and allow you to recall how cold the house was last year.

This means the farm part of the Rock Farm is not getting as much time for my attention as I would like to give it.  There has still been plenty to keep us busy, checking the stock water daily and moving the cattle and sheep into other paddocks.  Of course there are some gorgeous horses nearby that also demand attention – and somehow I always find time for a pat.

The cattle have been eating the remaining grass, and giving some of the weeds a good nibble in their quest for food.  They remain in good condition, which they will need heading into winter.  The skies, whilst looking promising have only yielded 2.5mm in the past two weeks.  The unseasonably hot days have burnt away any remaining moisture.

The sunsets though have been spectacular – and make me pinch myself every time.

The dry weather has put a lot of the trees under stress.  The native gum trees have a very effective method to cope with droughts.  They shed branches.  Unfortunately most of our trees are along fence-lines, requiring a bit of work to clear the branches.

Thankfully most of the branches were relatively small – and I was able to make some handy little piles of firewood for collection in a year or two once they’re seasoned.

I even was lucky enough to have a helper for a couple of hours – but he got distracted talking to the girls!

And then the helper wandered over and poured a bucket of oats on the ground for the other girls (and nearly ready) boys.

The sheep are managing to find some good grass among the weeds, and are all in healthy condition.  We have a few of our neighbour’s dorpers running with our sheep which are wiltipolls.  Both types naturally shed their wool and are bred for their meat.  The dorper tends to be a stockier animal, and tend to look more shaggy.

We sold most of the female ewe lambs, but are growing out the boys.  I will fast have to make a decision as to whether we send the boys to the sale yards, our put them in our freezer.  With two teenage boys in the family – I think that keeping the food miles to an absolute minimum will be time well spent.

I just have to find that time….

Every woman needs a She-Shed

A couple of months ago we started a project on the Rock Farm to make a Potting Shed, to store Jo’s gardening bits and pieces.  In order to build Jo’s She-Shed, Jo had been collecting second hand iron, fence palings, doors and windows for a while.  With the other shed getting cluttered, the timely visit of Jo’s parents and my brother made the time was right to turn her plan into reality.

Whilst the shed was to be clad and finished with recycled (upcycled?) materials,  for ease of construction I requested new material be used to build the frame.  Jo was keen to get stuck in and do most of the construction herself, which was fantastic.  Although I must admit she did seem a little too comfortable with the nail gun!

The frames were fabricated in sections on the floor of the shed, and brought down on the back of Myrtle, the big red truck.  Jo’s dad, a retired engineer, ensured that everything was braced and square.  As more and more bracing was added, I felt confident that the whole structure was extremely solid.

We wrapped the frame in some excess sarking we found in the shed.  This should reduce the drafts.  We haven’t insulated the she-shed, but we did later line the shed with plywood sheeting.

We sourced the windows from the local recycling yard for $20 each.  Our original design was modified as the windows we initially chose didn’t fit in the horse float.  These old timber windows were extremely heavy, and I appreciated my brother’s help to lift them into position.

The cladding was a combination of old Lysaght Corrugated Iron, and old hardwood timber palings.  The timber was rather easy to split, but mostly held up to to being attached with galvanised nails.

We found a couple of old posts for the front lean to in a paddock.  Unfortunately they were too short to reach the ground, so we improvised with a couple of old 44 gallon drums filled with old broken bricks.  The end result is an extremely solid structure I am confident won’t go anywhere for a long time.

The doors were out of an old office block.  Again, they are extremely heavy solid timber doors that cost a pittance at auction.  We bought some new door furniture as none of the original mechanisms worked.

We have since put some flashing on the roof and installed a gutter.  The last job is to pave the front area and build a step into the shed.

The internal fit out was left to Jo.  We found an old table lying in the paddock under an Elm tree.  The timbers of this ancient table were protected somewhat by a galvanised sheet placed over the top.  After removing the resident Huntsman and Redback spiders, we brought the table into the shed.

I am glad we saved this table from the elements.  I often wonder with old pieces such as this what their history was.  It is a little wobbly, but we were able to prop it up and make it reasonably flat.

It didn’t take long though and the she-shed was rearranged.  Old bookshelves and dressers that had been cluttering up my shed were relocated and set up in the newly lined she-shed.  Jo has since slowly set it up with a place for everything, and I am happy that I have space back in my shed too.  It has been a great little project that we both have enjoyed working on.

Which means that now I’ll have to start work on the next project… the carport.

Doing nothing often leads to the very best of something

The Summer Holidays are a magical time for most kids (big and little).  The pace of life slows and you can enjoy lazy days without the guilt that normally comes with an afternoon of idleness.

As Winnie the Pooh said “Doing nothing often leads to the very best of something”.

The run of fiercely hot 40 degree days over January, often led to us doing nothing.  Well not quite nothing.  We enjoyed a few afternoons inside the air-conditioning watching family movies or the Cricket.  And it was time well spent – well except for the Cricket perhaps…

In between the hot days, we got the occasional summer storms. These kept the grass (and the weeds) growing.  I took the opportunity to spend a couple of hours slashing thistles with the trusty mower.  This paddock was all thistles 12 months ago when we moved in.  I slashed the paddock twice last summer, before the majority of the heads had gone to seed (https://rockfarming.com/2018/01/04/managing-thistles-on-the-new-farm/).  This year there was a remarkable reduction in thistles, and I am hoping to continue the downward trend on thistle numbers. A special thanks also to my old man who sweltered through a few hours chipping out thistles in the next paddock. I fear this will be a continuing challenge on the Rock Farm.

The sheep and the cattle continue to turn grass into manure.  Before Christmas, we put some of the larger lambs in the freezer.   The combination of no stress for the animal and good grass made for some delicious dinners.  We slow roasted a couple of legs in a camp oven over some hot coals and shared the meal with friends – a most enjoyable way to appreciate some of the harvest from the Rock Farm.

Lucie the Tractor has been hard at work over the summer – but finally something had to give.  The steering arm bolts finally stripped the tread from the casing on the left front pivot.  Pulling the front axle apart revealed the extent of the damage.  Some new thread repair inserts have been ordered, and I hope will make a permanent repair.

The summer storms have caused a welcome distraction.  Providing relief from the scorching summer, they have also come often enough to keep the grass alive and growing.  The creek has risen a couple of times, necessitating repair to our electric fence ‘floodgate’, but that has been part of the adventure.  The boys love testing the depth of the creek against the height of their gum-boots, and the dogs love just being part of the fun.

In between, there is plenty of time to get on with the most important part of the holidays.  Having fun. 

The boys have tinkered in the shed, turned petrol into noise on their motorbikes, and relaxed in our hillbilly pool. One day they disappeared and made the most amazing tree house / fort in a dry creek bed. Good job they get hungry, so they return home for meals!

 

A couple of the storms even had the creek flowing, after being dry for almost 12 months. We took time to teach the dogs a variant of Pooh Sticks. I think they love splashing in the creek as much as the kids do!

We even managed to escape for a couple of nights camping at Blowering Reservoir.  It is hard to find an excuse to leave the Rock Farm, however sometimes it is nice to get away where you can’t be looking at jobs you need to do, or projects to start.  It was fantastic to set up camp and have nothing to do. We were able to read, play board games and simply hang out, which was just wonderful.

Three glorious nights swimming and kayaking in the reservoir, just a few hours from home was what we needed to complete the school holidays and bring our focus onto 2019.  This year marks the beginning of high school for the youngest helper – and it was lovely to celebrate the commencement of this phase in his (and our) lives with some time away with just the four of us.

As enjoyable as it was to go away, it was even better to come back home and sit back and watch the sun set over the Rock Farm.  We have some exciting changes planned for the Rock Farm this year and we look forward to sharing them with you. 

The girls come home

You may recall that a few weeks ago we took up the kind offer of John, our heifer’s breeder, to join our girls with one of his young bulls.  Getting the girls there proved to be a bit of a challenge, especially for one of our heifers now known as Miss Steak. She didn’t travel with her friends after getting stuck and injuring herself – see previous blog:  https://rockfarming.com/2018/11/16/a-terrible-miss-steak/. After training her to enter the horse-float, she travelled without any complaints at all.  When we arrived, I drove straight into the paddock, and she had a welcoming committee come down and greet her.

We had also been keeping a close eye on one of the heifers.  Over the previous month or two, it became apparent that she was pregnant. This can be a big problem for young heifers, especially if they have large calves.  We weren’t sure what to expect, and were worried we would lose the heifer.  Renamed “The Unchaste One”, she gave birth without incident to a  handsome bull calf.

The cattle continued to grow and put on condition at John’s place.  The Crookwell area seems to have escaped the worst of the drought conditions that have caused so much devastation elsewhere.

Thankfully the rest of their time at John’s proved to be without incident, and we went to bring them home the other day..

The heifers first came to our place on Jimmy’s truck as weaners.  On their first trip, they easily fitted in the front two pens.  Now they are much closer to 400kg each, several overflowed into the rear pen.

I was pleased to see how quickly they settled back at home.  I kept them in the yards for just a few minutes, letting them find the water trough.  When I let them out, they barely moved half a dozen metres before they stuck their heads down and happily commenced grazing.

We have all missed having the cattle on the place, and love having them back.  We have since moved them into a paddock with more shade – helping them through the worst of the current heatwave.

In other parts of life on the Rock Farm, the run of 40 degree days has been pretty hard on our newly planted oaks.  Some of our seedlings have clearly struggled, but others look like they are doing alright.  I think they all appreciated a drink.  Hopefully we can nurse them through the summer and give them a fighting chance at survival.

School Holidays on the Rock Farm

School holidays are in full swing on the Rock Farm.  The boys have been turning petrol into noise on their motorbikes, building tree houses in the gum trees, and playing in the dirt.  They have also been learning a few other skills such as fencing, planting trees, repairing said motorbikes and fixing broken water pipes.

The holidays have also been a wonderful opportunity to catch up with friends and family.  This, in conjunction with a series of extremely hot days, has slowed the normal rate of progress on the Rock Farm, and that isn’t a bad thing.  We have enjoyed the opportunity to slow down and enjoy good company, and the odd quiet afternoon, with the air conditioner on, in front of a movie with the family.

The ongoing requirement to repair our fences continues.  On one of the cooler mornings, The youngest helper and I replaced a small section of fence.  A few days later the whole family helped run hinge joint around a small 2 acre triangle paddock near the house.  This will allow us to bring the sheep into this paddock and hopefully contain them!  It was pretty hot work, and it times tempers flared due to Hangry boys.  The result will be a handy little paddock allowing us to keep a closer eye on the sheep.

We have been lucky to experience a couple of summer storms this season.  With a bit of moisture in the soil, I thought we would get away with planting out some acorns that had germinated.  These oaks are Daimyo Oaks (Quercus dentata), also known as Japanese Emperor Oak or Korean Oak.  These trees have large leaves, and are part of our plan that should see the Rock Farm renamed “Oak Park” one day.  The oaks draw nutrient from deep in the ground, provide shade thus retaining moisture, and the leaves return the nutrient and organic matter to the soil when they fall and mulch.

Then it was back onto the serious business of making tree houses in some existing trees!

The summer storms often provide short bursts of heavy rain that mostly runs off.  Any technique that increases the amount of rainfall captured into the soil is to be tried.  One technique, pioneered by P.A. Yeomans and recommended by Pat Coleby is to rip lines along contours, opening up the soil allowing moisture to penetrate deep into the ground.

Our last property (the original Rock Farm) had deep rip lines put in by the previous owner.  These lines trapped moisture and were clearly the greenest part of the property on satellite images.  Trees benefited from being planted in the rip lines, as their roots could seek out the moisture stored in the cracks of the rocks.

Unfortunately the old single tyne ripper wasn’t up to the tough Ordovician Shale that underlies our fragile slopes.  Only a few lines into it, a large rock twisted the tyne worse than before.  Despite several attempts to gain leverage, I was unable to straighten the tyne.

The good news was that leaning against a tree, forgotten by owners previous, a double tyne ripper was leaning against a tree.  It had been there so long, a tree root had grown over a tyne, vastly complicating my efforts to put the ripper on the tractor.  It took my wife and I a good hour to eventually get the ripper fitted… but it was worth the effort!

And the result was success!  Using a piece of clear pipe filled with water and threaded on the ROPS, I was able to get a reasonably accurate contour ripped across the slope of the paddock.  It took a little while for me to get the draft and raise response where I was happy with it, but the old tractor performed flawlessly.  The rip line was only 150mm deep – but that was deeper than the soil and into the rock layer.   Now I just need it to rain to test the theory.

The school holidays have also had the boys learning some other important lessons.  They are still young enough to play in the dirt – and were enthusiastically making tracks for matchbox cars when they received last call to come in and have a shower before bed.

The final throw of the digger resulted in an unmistakable gurgle and their construction rapidly filled with water.  After years of observing me, they correctly recognised that they hadn’t found a fresh water aquifer just below the surface, but rather a poly pipe.  I took some solace from the fact that the rapidly appearing water was our non-potable water supply to our garden and toilets… not our precious house supply that runs under the ground only a couple of metres away.

The good news was that it wasn’t my fault.  So I had if not enthusiastic, then certainly guilty helpers to:

  • run to the dam and isolate the pump (long way down hill)
  • run to the tank and isolate the tank (long way up hill)
  • dig a much larger hole to expose the pipe
  • measure the diameter to check if we had the right fittings (which we did – good planning Dad)
  • carefully cut the damaged section of pipe out with a hacksaw
  • replace damaged section with a joiner fitting
  • run back to pump and turn it on
  • run back to tank and turn it on
  • watch and check for leaks

It was the quickest I had ever replaced a pipe – and I barely raised a sweat… In fact I did a lot of not much except pointing, and asking for tools, most of which live in my pipe repair tub.

As the sun set and the light faded, we turned the water on and held our breath.  It worked!  All in all it was a pretty good outcome – the kids learned some important skills, and I realised how grown up they are becoming.

Of droughts and flooding rains.

Over the past few days, we have enjoyed a welcome change in the weather.  With the warm moist air in the upper atmosphere from Tropical Cyclone Owen combining with a cool low pressure system, much of the south east received heavy falls over a couple of days.

The Rock Farm was no exception.

Over the first day, we received a steady soaking 28mm.  This beautiful rain seemed to bring out the colours of the Brittle Gum (Eucalyptus Mannifera) as the mottled grey is replaced by pinks as the old bark is shed.

The rain was also a welcome opportunity to catch up on a few shed jobs.  The little buggy, now my spray rig, was overdue an oil change, and The Little Fisherman found an old alternator to pull apart.  He is on a mission at the moment to harvest as much copper as he can, which he hopes to melt down…

Before I knew it, he had done some research online, found the crucible he wanted and raided his piggy bank to give me the cash for it…  I don’t know of many 13 year old boys who are so keen to put their money into melting metal, but I am happy to support his desire to learn.  Of course we will have a few discussions about safe techniques and PPE when the time comes…

Unfortunately our enthusiasm for the rain wasn’t shared by our hound.  She disappeared, and I found her curled up on the back seat of the car in the shed…

Down it comes!

The following day we were underneath a cloud burst.  35mm of rain fell in around half an hour, turning our garden into a raging torrent.  On this occasion I was at work, but my wife was at home, and took a series of photos showing something of the water coming down the hillsides.

Our creek quickly rose to impassible.  The water was deep and quickly flowing.  Whilst the water level also fell quickly, there was a lot of debris and mud washed onto the crossing.  The next morning revealed the true extent of the damage.  The concrete base was still place, but had been covered by large rocks.  The approaches had been covered in a thick layer of mud.

It took a bit of work, but I soon cleared the approaches to the creek of most of the mud.  It made me appreciate again how having the right tool for the job is so important with the tractor and its grader blade making a reasonably neat job.

The Not-So-Little Helpers were put to work clearing some of the debris from the dam overflows.  The sheer volume of water meant a lot of the dams over-topped their walls – greatly increasing the chance of failure.  There is a lot of work still to do around the place ensuring drainage lines are cleared.

But the best part was comparing the change that had happened.  Dams that had been dry were now full.  And the creek was a whole new wonderland to explore… especially if all you want to test is how long it takes to find a hole deeper than your gumboot!

It reminds me of the immortal words of Dorothea Mackellar, in her poem My Country

Core of my heart, my country!
Her pitiless blue sky,
When sick at heart, around us,
We see the cattle die – 
But then the grey clouds gather,
And we can bless again
The drumming of an army,
The steady, soaking rain.