Thursday 25 September 2014

5 video games that make you want to go back to nature... and why they probably shouldn't

5. The Elder Scrolls: Skyrim

Skyrim: a land of majestic forests, breathtaking vistas and untrammelled wildlife. As you wander through the land hunting, picking ingredients and waylaying passing legionnaries to steal their boots, it's almost impossible not to wish for a simpler, purer existence.

Yeah, but no. Skyrim is no place for subsistence agriculture. Between dragons, bastard adventurers with an interest in burning beehives and an ongoing conflict between a bunch of racists and some equally hateful expansionist fascists, the average smallholder's odds of surviving the harvest, let alone getting in a decent crop, seem vanishingly small.

See this? That's your farm, mate. (Source: Wikia)
Essentially, you'd be better off packing in the farming and going into the second-hand, slightly-bloodstained armour business. Assuming you enjoy staring down the business end of a Nordic sword.

4. Plants vs Zombies

"Oh, hey, look at those happy little sunflowers! They're adorable! Oh, and check out those peashooters. Heh, those little guys are pretty potent. OH GODS! NO! What IS that rider thing? WHY IS THAT BUNGEE ZOMBIE STEALING MY SNOW PEAS!?!?!"

Gardening is exactly like this. (Screenshot credit: Robin Burkinshaw)

What the game doesn't tell you is that, as well as having to deal with horrible, slimy monsters, your long-suffering plants will have to cope with the cannibalistic attentions of their own kind. Mulch early, mulch often.

3. SimFarm

Before Maxis' Sim franchise jumped the shark with its virtual person torturing simulator, The Sims, one the many surprisingly detailed simulation-cum-strategy games it trotted out was SimFarm. Now only available as abandonware, this 1993 DOS-era game put you in charge of  a small farm with the potential to grow into an agricultural empire.

It really is remarkably detailed, with different ideal growing seasons, irrigation levels and even a bit of animal husbandry thrown in for good measure. As well as keeping an eye on your growing cycle, you have to build an infrastructure of irrigation ditches, roads and fences, and even nurture the growth of a local agricultural village.

It's okay. My farm vacillates between floodplain and arid wasteland, too
What isn't immediately apparent is that SimFarm is a mercilessly growth-oriented look at agro-business at its worst. You've no choice but to intensively use pesticides, herbicides and industrial-grade fertilisers to combat the consequences of keeping your fields in constant use. And if you don't? The ever-present shadow of the bank looms large as your withered crops and dying cattle send you spiralling further and further into debt.

Sure, it might look like an easy-going proto-casual game, but SimFarm is really a harsh insight into a world of profit-at-all-costs agriculture. Just be glad they opted not to include factory farmed chickens.

2. Goat Simulator

No look at the world of back-to-the-earth gaming would be complete without the award-winning Goat Simulator. Experience the joy of hand-rearing a playful, friendly creature that will reward you with affection, milk, and, if you're that way inclined, its tasty (ethically reared) flesh. Oh, wait, hang on... I mean that other thing.

Be a goat. Fuck shit up.
Unmitigated destruction and mayhem. That one.

1. Minecraft

While mining is the headline activity in Minecraft, every right-thinking person will doubtless agree that the heart of the gameplay is in painstaking growing crops, luring animals into fenced-off caves in the hope that they pop out a minature animal, and running around beating pigs to death with a pork chop. (We once ran an entirely vegetarian Minecraft server. That's what happens when a Steve snaps. Pork chop death.)

Oh hell, no. Source: Gamepedia
The only downside to this agrarian utopia of waterways and papyrus fields? Creepers, hell-bent on detroying all your hard work. "But surely," you ask, "Creepers are nothing you have to worry about in the real world?" Yeah, right.

This used to be a wall.

Monday 22 September 2014

Equinoctial planting*

As the dark point of the year begins with the autumnal equinox at 4:29 CEST on tomorrow, the 23rd of September, we are at last in a position to carry out some tentative planting. Much of the land that is destined to become our kitchen garden has been neglected for the past few years: some left lifeless and deoxygenated beneath heavy black plastic mulching material, some allowed to grow wild with nettles, brambles and bindweed.

Today, we uncovered a mulched section and dug out a seemingly endless legion of squirming white tendrils of bindweed, still living despite their years away from sunlight. In another area of the same unmasked soil, we found remains of a fire, likely to have given the soil around it an alkaline taint. This failed to suppress the bindweed's virulent growth.

For every part of the plant we uprooted, still more was left behind

Bindweed, despite the prettiness of its white, convex flowers, is a lethal, choking plant, which burrows its way through soil and winds a fatal net of tendrils about other vegetation, smothering the life from them. Its creeping roots are capable of regrowing from even the tiniest fragment. Its brittle, suffocating tendrils grow at alarming speed from a central rhizome up to five metres deep. We already anticipate that much of the year to follow will be spent cutting the filthy stuff away.

Our intention for this September equinox is to plant out a handful of plants for the coming spring: hardy winter varieties of radish, turnip and spinach, as well as garlic and and golden California poppies. We have only the faintest optimistic expectation of the survival of this first planting, although we have opted to make the attempt in two areas of ground, lest one prove to be hopelessly poisoned.

*The management would like to apologise for any lapse into a pseudo-Lovecraftian prose style, but is sadly finding it difficult to muster any genuine contrition.

Wednesday 17 September 2014

Things about nettles – part one of infinity

We’ve got an orchard here, replete with fruit and nut trees. However, standing between us and those trees is a massive sea of nettles. At several points, the things are almost at head height, and they're evil bastards when it comes to stinging.

While decried as weeds and unpleasantly agressive, nettles are actually rather useful plants. They’re a rough indicator of soil type, telling you that you’ve got plenty of nutrients for anything else you may want to grow; an outstanding habitat for insects including stunning butterflies and parasite devouring ladybirds; a great starting ingredient for both DIY plant feed and compost, and a vitamin-rich foodstuff.

You'll definitely want to keep a couple of nettle patches around if you have the space. Just... away from humans. To this end, we've grubbed up many nettles by their long, trailing, but not particulrly firmly anchored roots. We unfortunately got here rather late in the year, so they've already had an opportunity to seed in a few places that'll be hopelessly inconvenient. Roll on next growth. At least you'll be sweet and tender 

We also had a stab at steaming some for greens to have with dinner. Sadly, these specimens were rather mature, so we had to make up for their lack of tenderness with seasoning them to death. Sadly, there's little that can be done about the gritty quality of mature, flower-bearing nettles (caused by calcium carbonate deposits callled cystoliths, according to Wikipedia) but enough cream and garlic hide many sins. They're still packed with nutrients, although you'll want to limit quantity if you have a sensitive urinary tract, apparently. Or just in general. So really, learn from my hopeless optimism and try this recipe with young nettles instead.

Creamed, sautéed nettles

200g nettle leaves 
1 large clove of garlic
100g goat’s fromage blanc

Steam your nettle leaves for 5 minutes – throw them into a pan and pour about a centimetre of boiling water over them, then cook until they’re soft and wilted. You want to avoid cooking any large stalks or flowers. Drain, keeping the water for tea if you like, and set aside the cooked nettles to cool for a while.

Finely chop a clove of garlic. Melt a knob of butter in a pan over a medium head and chuck in the garlic to gently fry off. While this is going on, squeeze out and chop your nettles, before tossing them in with the butter and garlic.

Fry the lot off for another minute or so, then turn the heat right down and spoon in the fromage blanc, stirring it in thoroughly. You can substitute goats’ cream if you want a richer dish – cow’s milk fromage frais should also work, but I don’t get along with the stuff, so can’t confirm.

Cook gently until the fromage blanc is warm, and you’re ready to serve. It goes will with a fried egg and mashed or buttery chopped potatoes. Do yourself a favour and break open the egg yolk right over your nettles. 

Monday 15 September 2014

WHY DO YOU HATE US? - Moving Cats Long Distances by Car

We recently moved two humans and four cats 800km by car from London in the UK to west France. Despite a few moments of stress, particularly with our oldest cat, who was very recently diagnosed with hyperthyroidism and hasn’t begun receiving treatment yet, the whole process went surprisingly smoothly. Here’s a run-down of the process.


Get rabies shots and pet passports for the cats a good couple of months before you travel. The rabies shots MUST be done at least 21 days before travelling for them to be valid – both the rabies shot and the passport are most important for domestic mammals that you plan on bringing back to the UK, rather than taking out, but they’re also important for the safety of your cat if you’re moving to continental Europe. The shot and passport aren’t particularly cheap, so if you have multiple cats, your finances will thank you for doing only one or two a month.

We also got all the cats’ other vaccines updated, as this is the usual point in the year when they go for their annual boosters, but the rabies vaccine and annual vaccine are contra-indicated, so you’ll have to leave two weeks between the two. Note that across the UK and most of Europe, each year’s shots boost different vaccines, so you’ll want to make sure that your new vet obtains records from your old one. We had our cats registered with the Royal Veterinary College’s Beaumont Sainsbury Clinic in London, and I can’t speak highly enough of their treatment of and rapport with the animals.


As the moving date approaches, you should prepare your travel supplies. As this is a long journey and three of our felines are particularly tall, standard cat carriers weren’t even an option. We bought four Ferplast Atlas 40 dog crates, which gave the cats enough room to stand and move around in. These carriers are also rated for air travel, incidentally.

Into each carrier, we first laid down newspaper and then put in a Pets at Home dog bed designed for lining crates. We picked a bed that was a little smaller than the carrier’s floor area, leaving space at the back for a very small litter tray – actually a repurposed plastic takeaway carton. I’d have ideally liked have to have used an Atlas 50 carrier, as that would have left room for a small standard litter tray, but that would have made it impossible for us to fit all four cats into the back of our 2002 Fiat Doblo van. As it is, we had to resort to a bit of bodge-artist engineering to turn four cat boxes into two pairs of stacked carriers.

As bungee cords were too flexible and the van’s hook points weren’t well located for roping or ratchet strapping the cat crates, we secured these in the van by carefully wedging them. We used a combination of sturdy cardboard boxes and pillowcases stuffed with soft materials to wedge the carriers. MAKE SURE that all the carriers have sufficient airflow and that you can access their doors (even if somewhat awkwardly). We had them facing forwards so we could reassure the cats from the front passenger seat.


The floor area of our van isn’t large enough for all four cat boxes – in fact, that’s only space for two to sit comfortably side-by-side and still be visible and accessible from the front passenger seat. It wouldn’t be ideal, but we needed to stack the boxes, and we needed to keep them secure while in this two-box stack. Fortuantely, the Ferplast carriers have eight extra holes where the top and bottom sections meet. These come with nuts and bolts to reinforce the very sturdy clips if you’ve got a particularly strong dog, but the clips alone are more than powerful enough to hold the carrier together against even a determined cat.

For this make, you’ll need two cat boxes, a Dremel with a metal-cutting disc, and four 1m lengths of M8 threaded bar. You’ll be re-using the nuts supplied with the boxes. Because I have no faith in the universe, I made sure the bar thread matched the nuts supplied with the cat boxes by taking a nut with me to my local DIY shop and I strongly suggest that you do the same.

Use a Dremel with an ablative cutting disc to cut the bar into 50cm pieces. Do yourself a favour and use a sanding wheel to smooth off the cut ends afterwards. Make sure the thread hasn’t been crushed and the nut still screws on smoothly. If you have a crushed thread, grind it away.

Place two of your fully assembled Atlas 40 boxes on top of each other and thread the bar through each pair of holes. Put a screw at the top and a screw at the bottom and tighten well. The structure won’t be fully stable and secure until you have all eight bars in place. Practice doing this with empty boxes in the vehicle you’re going to be putting them in – you want to be sure of this step going smoothly.

Note that although the boxes can be moved as a stack in an absolute emergency, you shouldn’t do this. Put the cats in the boxes, stack the boxes in the car, then screw them together. Make sure both top and bottom boxes have proper ventilation. If you have nervous cats, bring along a cloth which you can use to cover the top boxes if they get spooked by traffic. Properly tightened, your nuts shouldn’t vibrate loose, but you can use some thread sealant if you’re particularly worried.


Two hours before departure, take away the cats’ food dishes. Leave their litter trays down and leave water out. Hope and pray to any deities you may happen to believe in that they all go to the tray before you go. They won’t, because ours is a cruel and unjust universe.

Remember to bring bottled water to top up the cats’ water bowls – Ferplast Atlas boxes come with spill-resistant bowls that clip to the cage doors. On a long journey, you should bring dry food, small bowls to put it in and the cats’ favourite dry treats. Avoid giving them a proper meal too early in the trip, as cats really don’t appreciate being stuck in a box with their own fecal matter.

Make sure you have food, water, toys, medication and anything else the cats will need at the other end. Douse the inside of the cat boxes and the car with liberal quantities of Feliway spray. Because our boxes aren’t very portable at the best of times and in this instance were secured into pairs using metal struts, we also brought cat harnesses and leads with us in case we needed to quickly remove the cats from the vehicle in an emergency. Remember: never open the cat boxes if any of the car doors or windows are open.

Our cats weren’t acclimatised to harnesses when young, so become a bit irate about the entire process, but Mynwood Cat Jackets are by far the best harnesses we’ve found for them. We ordered ours with a pocket for a GPS tracking module, as one of our household is entirely too paranoid about our eminently sensible cats getting lost. It’s actually not a bad idea.


Because we didn’t want to leave the cats alone for an extended period of time, we opted to take them to France via Eurotunnel from Folkstone to Calais, rather than via ferry or plane. In retrospect, they may have preferred the shorter driving time involved in taking a ferry from Portsmouth to Caen, but I wasn’t comfortable leaving them unattended for a six hour crossing. They’d have probably slept, mind you.

Most of the cats actually got to grips with the tiny litter trays, but the one that got her positioning wrong did so within the first 20 minutes of the trip. Remember that thing I said about a cruel and unjust universe? Right.

We weren’t practically able to stop to clean her up until we got to the Eurotunnel terminus, which was a bit unpleasant for us and very unpleasant for her. She was also massively upset by the rough quality of the roads (North Circular and M20 for most of the trip), and showed visible signs of stress – panting and yowling. Fortunately, after we stopped driving, let her out for a brief wander around the car while got her and her box cleaned, and fed her some treats (Whiskas Temptations/Irresitables), she calmed down sufficiently that we felt she’d be able to manage the rest of the journey.

There were no notable checks at customs and we didn’t have to present the cats’ passports. This is something of a pity, as we’re certain that any border control official would have melted at the cuteness of their passport photos (see above). I gather that checks are far more rigorous when coming into the UK from Europe, but we’re unlikely to find out, as this is a one-way trip for these cats.

All the cats were entirely happy with the Eurotunnel car shipment trains, far preferring the gentle movement of the carriages to grinding along on Britain’s roadways. We still had a ten hour road trip on the other side, including regular stops to reassure and – towards the end of the journey - feed the cats, but French roads as a rule have a different surface to those in the UK, which seemed to upset Stressed Cat much less. After a short while, she’d calmed down and was casually observing the countryside as it flew by. We kept to around 100km/h to further reduce vibrations.

Having set off in the UK at around 10:30 in the morning, it was a little after midnight when we finally got home, thanks to some unexpectedly closed roads just 20km from our place. We unloaded the car, de-stacked the cat boxes and took them into our almost entirely unfurnished new home. Once free, three of the felines, including Stressed Cat, immediately started cheerfully exploring. Shy Cat, in keeping with his nature, found a shelving unit with a drawer he could hide behind and promptly climbed into it.