The Last Straw

As the mother of three, I have dealt with my share of poop.  The Bearded One’s nose is less sensitive although his poop credentials are just as impressive from caring for 150 Iditarod sled dogs years ago in the wilds of Alaska.  He says the chicken coop smell isn’t that bad, yet.  But for me, she of the delicate olfactory, the fall rains heightening all the farm smells are the last straw.  Something must be done.


We have just 8 chickens — Kimber the banty hen and her Seven Chicks rescued from a defunct farm five weeks ago.  They live in an 8×8 foot coop inside a large 30×30 foot covered chicken aviary.  We’ll let them out into the pasture when the chicks are 2 months old.  In the meantime, the poultry palace is their environment and they are thriving, even as it gets stinkier.

Kimber is a good mom, and the chicks are growing as fast as the potholes on the road, gorging on sweet, homegrown corn.  They flock to it and us, but we still haven’t picked one up.  Kimber is very leery and apparently psychic; she calls the chicks to her when I even think about picking one up.

Clockwise from Kimber: Dusty, Marilyn, Blackie, Steve, Tux, Steve, Spot

I’ve been processing our corn harvest of 35 cobs this week.  Not much summer this year.  Last year I froze the cobs, but neither of us was crazy about the mushy texture of them defrosted.  And they took up valuable freezer space.

Nifty new corn scraper takes muscle. I blanch the corn in boiling water for 5 minutes first, so it's easier to scrap off, then put it on the dehydrator trays.

So this year I’m drying the kernels and grinding it into cornmeal, which smells so deeply and wonderfully corny I wonder what they do to the store-bought cornmeal to make it so cardboardy.

Through the open kitchen window, as I process the corn, I can smell the sawdust from the two hemlock trees we had cut down this week.

Hemlocks are bad about going down in high winds, and the valley we live in can funnel Puget Sound winds to high force. One was aimed right at the house, and the Bearded One called the tree guys when he saw it bouncing in light winds.

Hemlock’s not as pungent as cedar, but the moisture in the air swells the wood smell to the point that I want to snort it.

The Bearded One comes in from cutting up the branches and I snuffle his shirt and hair.  He spots the pile of freshly cut basil in the fridge and is happy to hear I’m making pesto later.  One of the richest parts of our lives is the food we get to eat. 

Pesto recipe: Puree in blender 4 cups basil and 1/2 cup olive oil (you can also add 1/4 cup pine nuts, walnuts or almonds; garlic and parsley). Remove from blender and add 1/2 cup grated Parmesan or Romano cheese, then toss with hot pasta.

What I like about farm people, including our neighbor Momma Goose who gave us the chickens, is that no one acts like they know it all.  Instead they smile and say I do this, I used to do that, try this or, like at the farm store this week, “I read in Mother Earth magazine over there (points to book stand) to use peat moss.  Straw doesn’t absorb.  It’s great for warmth in the nests, but you need something absorbent on the ground.  Use wood shavings or pellets in the bottom of the nests.”

Peat moss is the Deep Litter Method of chicken poop management in an earthen floor coop.  You spread a very thick layer of “browns” like in a compost pile — pine shavings or peat moss — and then the high-nitrogen chicken poop is the “green.”  The chickens do the aeration with their scratching, and theoretically, there is way less smell.  You clean the coop out once or twice a year, end up with compost, and the lucky chickens get to scratch through the beneficial microbes.  It’s good for them.

We come home and I open the poultry palace gate and push the wheelbarrow into the chamber.  Kimber cackles and eyeballs me.  I rake the smelly old straw into piles.  “It doesn’t absorb worth a hoot,” I explain to her.  This is the last straw we’ll need around here except for the nests, where it will get changed frequently.

She isn’t interested.  She herds the chicks to the waterer, which is gone because we’re cleaning it.  Instead she finds the Bearded One shoveling gravel into a low plateau to help keep the water area cleaner.  “Brr -kk!”  She swoops onto the straw piled in the wheelbarrow and the chicks follow.  “Brr-k!  Where in the hell are we supposed to be?” she complains to me.

How much can one chicken take?

I rake the old straw from the corner of the coop and the chicks all flutter over to peck at a teeny little bit of exposed styrofoam, which they lovelovelove.  Kimber calls them back — Brrrr–kkk! — and they all respond, except Marilyn, whose head is deep in the hole.  I don’t even think, bend over and with both hands pick her up.  She freezes, lets me nestle her light little body against my palms.  I call for the Bearded One.  “I’m holding Marilyn!”  But he has gone back down the tractor trail and can’t hear me.

“Brrrr –KK!”  Kimber rushes in, ruffled and flapping.  “Enough excitement for one day!” she caws.  “This is the last straw!  Put her down!”

I open my hands to let Marilyn fly.  I’m sure she hesitates leaving my own maternal embrace, just for a moment.  Pretty sweet.


4 responses to “The Last Straw

  1. You are such a fine story teller–I can see and hear it all and love what you said about farm people–suggesting, learning, never sounding as if they think they know it all.

  2. Christine Widman

    Hooray! Your first chicken cuddle. I’m sure that now there will be more to come.
    A very Northwest kind of day. Snow is predicted in Flagstaff. We’re hoping for much needed rain.
    I am taking into every particle of my being the overcast sky, the cloud-covered Catalina Mountains, the autumn in the air.
    Thinking of you today in your hemlock scented forest.

  3. When I saw the picture of the chickens on the wheel barrow I was loving it! So dang sweet! The last stick girl’s face is blank…I guess the “heart” says it all!

  4. Oh…I felt I was right there with you when you picked up Marilyn! I’m sure it was incredible! I love your story telling abilities. It makes your life come alive to me. I wish I knew what hemlock smelled like, all we have in my neighborhood are oaks, maples, and a few dogwood trees, oh and weeping willows and evergreens. The temperature today was 80! I thought it was autumn already, and then Wham…heat wave. I’m sending all my love and many smiles to you today! It’s a beautiful day! ❤ 🙂

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