Tag Archives: farm life

The ICU (Intensive Chicken Unit)

Our daughter the nurse lies on the couch, it’s her day off and she’s visiting, reading tour books of France, and pondering her future.  Travel, moving in with her boyfriend, horseback riding lessons.  She is exhausted.  No kids for her, she says.  And I am understanding.  It’s me who wants babies, but baby chicks will do.  Chicks grow so fast and are so cute.

IMG_NEW

The Bearded One is with me on this.  I want to go through the cycles, the birth and life and death.

I rest my almost fifty-seven-year-old feet on the foot massager next to my rocker.  I’m reading a pile of chicken magazines from 2009.  The Bearded One’s folks bought us a Backyard Poultry subscription.  All of a sudden they are full of gold.

I tell my daughter the story of Leah, our 2-year-old Rhode Island Red hen who survived raccoon wounds to her head and neck two weeks ago.  She spent one day in the cat carrier here in our small, dark, warm living room —

Leah in hospital 002

— the ICU (Intensive Chicken Unit), we laugh — and almost two weeks in the hoophouse and backyard away from Stevie and Maybelline who were prone to peck her scabs.  On Saturday morning, the day of the big wind storm, she insisted on returning to the flock.

“She stood by the gate and looked at me,” I say.  “She was going back up there, whether I took her or not.”

“AMA,” says the nurse.  “Leaving Against Medical Advice.”

IMG_NEW

We listen to the Bearded One on the other side of the door hammering the last strips of hardware cloth onto the surface of the new deck.

IMG_NEW

The post-Halloween storm blew all the leaves out of the trees and everything is covered in inches of cedar needles.

Zucchini and cedar needles 006

I’m researching dual-purpose chicken farming — raising chickens that are both good layers and fryers, like Rhode Island Reds, and eating the meat as well as the eggs.  No more helpless, hyper-bred Cornish, which were literally sitting ducks for the weasels this year.

“We’ll get a rooster!” I say. “The new neighbors have one, so it’s okay with them.  We’ll actually hatch baby chicks and we’ll harvest the young roosters and the weak layers.”

“More of a real farm life,” she says, looking up from a map of France and reaching for her tea cup on the rug beside the couch.

IMG_NEW

“I guess so,” I say.  I like the sound of that.  Feels good.  “We’ll get a big scalding pot and a make a killing cone.”  We’ve done this so many times at the neighbors with the rented equipment and big flocks of Cornish as well as turkeys.  We’re at ease with the killing and butchering.  I know we can handle one or two birds at a time.

“Would you have eaten Leah if she’d died?”

It’s a good question, I say.  No.  But just because of the psychology.  She’s named for one of His Majesty’s ex-girlfriends, one who has actually come out and visited the farmlet.  I won’t attach to the next chickens like pets.  I believe I can do this.

“What is this in my tea?” the nurse says suddenly.  “Oh, look, I see it.  It tastes like a tree.  It’s a piece of cedar needle.”

IMG_NEW

We’re both laughing when the Bearded One blows in.  “Hello,” I shiver and say to him, as he crosses the living room toward the front door, “Could we have a fire tonight?”  I ham it up a bit.  I rub my arms and huddle into my scarf.  “It will be in the low 40s,” I say.  “And it’s soooo dark and wet.”

“You don’t need to sell me,” he says, and warms me with his smile.  “You had me at hello.”

IMG_NEW

Look What the Cat Dragged In

Onion seeds and Garfield 004

“What is going on?”  Garfield freezes and looks at me from the far end of the living room.  It’s early evening.  He is in mid-stride, and has just come in for the night of his own accord without me calling.  Something feels off.  This is not normal.

“I’m thinking,” responds the Bearded One, who studies his cards across from me at the kitchen table and assumes I am talking to him.  We are playing ritual evening card games.

IMG_NEW

“Garfield just came in,” I say and put my cards down.  I get up and close the front door.

“Hm.”  The Bearded One never looks up from his puzzling hand of cards.

IMG_NEW

It’s just 7pm, but it’s dark and rainy.  Of course that is why the cat came in so early, I think.  I sit back down, pick up my cards, and look into the living room.  Garfield is gone.

“Any day now, Honey Darlin’,” I say to the Bearded One who is taking too long to play.  This faux grumpiness does nothing to hurry him along, of course.  This time of year is all about slowing down some.  And being indoors more.  And being nice.

I cross and uncross my legs, which are tired from harvesting raised straw bed potatoes.

Potato harvest 003

My fingernails, which I examine at length, are stained yellow from the wet leather gardening gloves.

IMG_NEW

The table and kitchen counters are cluttered with seed jars from my seed collecting operation,

Onion seeds and Garfield 006

bowls of apples and pears and zucchini, and a pile of peach leathers I just took from the dehydrator.  It’s over.  The harvest is over.  Settle down, I tell myself.  Shift gears.  Be sweet.

Finally the Bearded One discards and I immediately draw a card and am studying my options when — THUNK!

The Bearded One looks beyond me to the living room and says, “What is the cat doing?”

“Sounds like he’s in the bathroom,” I say.  Garfield sometimes explores the lower bathroom cabinet, and he’s adjusting to autumn, too.

IMG_NEW

We continue to play.  The Bearded One with an ice pack on his sore lower back, me feeling like the hens that are molting — prickly feathers sticking out, bald spots, ragged and not laying.  We raced for days to beat the weather and are beat up.

WHOMP!  WHOMP!

“What in the Sam Hill?” I snap and turn around.  I don’t see Garfield, but there are several more whomps and I get up.

It’s dark and I’m tiptoeing in my socks and calling the cat when I see his cute little face under the stairs where Ruby’s hidey-hole bed used to be, behind the little liquor cabinet I moved from the kitchen.

“You silly kitty,” I say.  “What are –”

And then I see the foot-long rat tail and the rat ears and waves of horror roll across my every nerve-ending, sparking a soul fibrillation and forcing a ghastly, unworldly shriek, “YEEEE-IKES!!”  I run into the kitchen.

IMG_NEW

I can handle spiders, no problem.  But rats, especially big forest rats that grow fat in the aviary and move about on rafters in the barn, these are the creatures of my nightmares.  This one is quite a fine trophy for Garfield, but he has never before brought one into the house.

The Bearded One pulls out the cabinet and reports that the rat, and it is indeed a big rat, is dead.  “Garfield’s eating the head,” he says, completely nonplussed.

Was the rat dead or alive when Garfield brought it in?  We ponder this briefly — surely it was dead — but mainly I want it out of the house, and I want to be the one to do it.  I’m not so afraid of dead rats, and it’s my rat somehow.  “Out of my way, Sweetie,” I say, with love.  “I’ve got it.”

I grab one of my yellow rubber dishwashing gloves, and stand before Garfield.  “Thank you very much,” I say as I take the headless corpse and march out the door and into the dark, wet, cold night.  I look into the even darker forest, which is solid black under the full harvest moon.

“Ah-woooooooooo!” I howl.  I throw the rat as far as I can, deep into the woods.  I hear it fall into the leaves.  Whew.  It’s over.

IMG_NEW

Autumn has arrived.  Time for me to come indoors.  I think we’ll start shutting that front door from now on.

IMG_NEW

It’s All About the Tree

Fifteen minutes and I have to leave for the courthouse.  I have on my purple hippy skirt and the turquoise necklace and earrings that The Bride, our older daughter, gave me to wear at her wedding last month.  And I’m trying to keep hay off of my sweater.

I’ve already opened the aviary and fed the hens oatmeal leftovers and bread crumbs.  I’ve removed the broody Kimber from a nest box, raked the poop under the roost into the peat moss, and added some cracked corn to the feeder, and I’m still relatively pristine.

IMG_NEW

Now I pour one cup of dry cob grain into each of the three goats’ bowls, and stuff handfuls of orchard hay, at arms’ length, into the two feeders.  Morning chores.

IMG_NEW

The early morning sky is mottled gray and looks swollen to the south.  The grass is wet as I cross the backyard in my waterproof boots.  I pull up my skirt as I stomp up the new deck steps.  The four-foot diameter cedar tree, which is just five feet off of our house, is encircled by new deck, designed by His Majesty who is back in college in Colorado where torrential rain and floods are making national news.

circle of deck 002

I let Garfield out of the hut.  He stretches and trots off to the bean, zucchini and cucumber garden, which I must harvest this week.

Deck and garden 011

Autumn has arrived.  We had thunder and lightning yesterday, alder leaves rained down, and the Bearded One is in a mad dash to get this new deck finished.

IMG_NEW

Today he’s staying home and working on the railings, including a cut-out to allow for easy tree hugging.  Friday he went with me to Port Orchard and Bremerton where we figured out the truth — our marriage certificate isn’t the proper official one and is too old to quality for name changing purposes anyway — so we got the forms and the court date instructions.  I’m off to Port Orchard, fifteen minutes northwest, for a real deal hearing before a judge.

IMG_NEW

*  *  *

George Washington’s face peeks out from the draping Washington State flag in the front right corner of the windowless courtroom where I sit waiting.

This is a room of judgment.  It is white and solemn, serious and formal.  There are forms and strategy and winners and losers, good and evil, love and power.  I think of Adam and Eve and the Bearded One and me, and the judge walks in.  “All rise!” the bailiff shouts.

A middle-aged woman named Cindy enters in a black robe.  She has shoulder-length brownish graying hair, parted on the side.  She is tall, and she doesn’t wear glasses.  “Good morning,” she says and smiles briefly.  “Thank you.  Please sit.”  She is Athena, Goddess of Wisdom and Judgment, and I am called first.  I walk to the podium, which is beside the state flag with the cherry-tree chopping George, here to remind us that we are not supposed to lie.

IMG_NEW

The judge asks me to raise my right hand and promise to tell the truth.  I do this, and am aware that no Bible is involved.  Not that I want one, actually, but I’m struck that she is willing to take my word without involving any gods.

She asks me about Item Number Three on the name-change petition.  A double negative involving fraud that instantly scrambles in my brain, I don’t know if my answer is yes or no, so I dig deep for words.  It seems to be asking if I’m a con artist.

“I. Have. ”  I gesture.  She looks at me, actually takes my measure, and I think of two more words.  “I. Have. No. Ill…” Then I’m chasing the last word out of the depths — “Intent.”

The judge laughs out loud, as does the whole room.  I am asked to state my case, which I do at length, and then I am dismissed to the clerk for paperwork.

*   *   *

The Bearded One greets me on the new deck with a long kiss.  He smells good.  He calls me Christi Glover, and we kiss again.

IMG_NEW

And then he tells me that His Majesty called.  “He’s fine,” says the Bearded One.  “He says they’re calling it a 100-year-flood, and that Boulder Creek, which runs through campus, is a river.”  The cross-walk bridges that normally rise 15 feet over the water are now completely submerged.  Classes are cancelled.

“He wanted to talk about the deck and the pictures we sent.  He really likes the railings.  All the weird joints we rigged.”

Deck and garden 008

“I do, too.”  I’m walking up the steps now to the top level.  Whale-bone sized cedar branches curve down low, and shelter the deck from the rain.  I turn onto the top walkway, which is narrow like a ship’s bow.  The railing is cut to accommodate the ancient tree, home to birds and raccoons and chipmunks.

My sandals are sticky with sap, and I look back down at my sweetheart.  I feel like we’re brand new, starting in Eden.  The first man and the first woman.

The Bearded One smiles back and says, “It’s all about the tree.”

Tree in deck 005

Something Else For Her Basket

“It’s noon and the sun is shining,” I whisper from our daughter’s doorway.  I hate to wake her but she announced when she went to bed last night at 9 that she wanted to leave by noon.

She actually smiles at me from her bed.  “I’ll get up soon,” she says, all groggy and warm.

I smile back.  “I’m glad I didn’t wake you,” I say, and then I attempt to lure her into the delights of the day. Since she got her own perfect little apartment in Seattle, she doesn’t come here as often. “LaLa can spit a plum pit five feet,” I tell her excitedly.

IMG_NEW

“Hmmm,” she says and rolls over.  “I’ll leave by two.”

There’s no guarantee that LaLa will perform for her, of course, and she knows that.  If I were a nurse and worked the night shift, I’d pick sleep, too.  Still, LaLa is devastatingly cute.  And our daughter loves animals.

I rotate and fold the laundry she’s brought, and start to collect a food basket for her to take back to the city.

IMG_NEW

Plum jam, three zucchini, and five ripe plums — leaving just six plums in the bowl.  Which is fine.  We’ve eaten plums galore all month, and I made 27 pints of jam.

Plums and 4th step 001

We’ve got to go shopping soon, I keep saying to myself and the Bearded One.  We have just 2 cups of sugar left!  But we have brown sugar and honey and I’m just not ready to go yet.  Heck, we try not to even start the truck more than five or six times a month.

IMG_NEW

Plus using up everything is a big part of how we live cheaply.  Plus the Bearded One would rather thin the backyard slug herd than go shopping.

IMG_NEW

The other stuff to go in the basket is either in the fridge — eggs — or freezer — two homemade burritos, two hunks of casserole, four pieces of cornbread, and five zucchini muffins, items I’ll add when she is stepping out the door.  At two, or seven, or midnight.  I love to do this for her.  And it also helps to justify my extreme homebodiness.

The nurse rises at one o’clock and I make her an omelet with kale and roasted potatoes.  She eats hungrily and then briefly considers checking out the goats — actually she says, “I’ve seen the goats” — before night shift fatigue overtakes her again.  “Nap,” she says.

“If you’re not up by seven, should I wake you?” I ask.

“No,” she says.  She’s already asleep in her head, but she mumbles that she can leave in the middle of the night, that she has to stay up tonight because she has to work tomorrow at seven-thirty, and I nod like I understand, and she floats up the stairs to bed.

It’s obvious to me that she won’t get to see the pit spit.  Unless.  Hm.  Unless I can figure out the camera’s video function.  Should only take me a day or two.

IMG_NEW

The next day, long after our daughter has gone, the Bearded One is sawing on the deck railing again.  I explain what I’m up to, that I’m making a video with our little camera.  The plot is that he, the Bearded One, will feed the goats plums and they will chew hilariously and then LaLa will do a super spit.  I will catch it all on film or digits for our daughter’s amusement!  I smile big.

“Just let me finish this part real quick.”

IMG_NEW

“No hurry,” I say as I pace the former cabbage patch which I’ve just this morning covered with barn hay.  I’m nervous.  We can only do this once, we have just two plums per goat left.

Soon, the Bearded One opens the lower pasture gate, and the goats stampede down to greet us.  We gather at the goat gig where we always hand out the goodies, and which is currently covered in cabbage leaves, which the goats seem to be sick and tired of.

“Action!” I say and press the little shutter button.

The Bearded One orchestrates the plum delivery perfectly to each goat.  They are chewing lustily. He circles them around and calls them his Sweetnesses, and then he gives the last delicious plum to LaLa, who turns to the camera and grinds the plum up close, and I whisper prayers to the gods that he will do a big-time pit spit.

“Lala,” says the Bearded One, “spit it out.  Come on.”  He is dry-spitting furiously to demonstrate.

And he does!  A dribbly, sloppy spit of a whopping 5 inches — no Olympic records here — but I catch it all on video for our daughter to make her laugh.  The perfect addition to her farmlet basket.

IMG_NEW

Down and Dirty

Chicken dust bath and hoophouse 004

All nine hens flap holes into the dry, talcum-fine dirt in the lower pasture.  I’m on the other side of the fence, digging in the equally dry soil of the neglected garden, and the Bearded One screws in step boards on the new deck thirty feet away.

Two steps in deck 001

“You’re really getting after it,” he says to me.

“It feels so good,” I say.  I’m trying to feel normal again after the big wedding week, which was great fun and a huge success, but I don’t feel like myself yet.

Garfield stretches out on the deck, enjoying the sunshine and the company.  I was gone for three days, and I stayed indoors and clean just about the whole time.

The soil in these gardens needs more humus, I think.  Water penetrates just an eighth of an inch and then rolls off.  But this dirt feels surprisingly smooth and good on my skin.  It even smells good.   Wild weed scents — pepper, onion, mint.

Chicken dust bath and hoophouse 003

The snap peas and sweet peas are far enough gone now, too, that I pull them to let the seeds dry out in the hoophouse.

IMG_NEW

I clean weeds out from under a cabbage I’m going to cut for the goats, who have come down the hill, rubbing hard against the fence.  Lala paws the dirt, then plops down into his comfy spa hole.

Goats dust baths 004

Pearl’s white Pygora cashmere fleece is about two inches long now, and she kneels in the dirt, then rolls on her side and the dust puffs out around her in a cloud.

Goats dust baths 011

Sage spits out a plum pit, sinks into the dirt, and extends his right hoof just like Pearl has, as if to dry a manicure.

IMG_NEW

With my bare hands, I claw a dust bowl around a three-foot tall clump of prairie grass and yank it out in a small explosion of dirt.  Then I brush my cheek with the tan dust as I swat a wild hair that has come loose.  And then, making them match, I brush the other cheek.  Now my nose is starting to itch…

*   *   *

I am the oldest person in the downtown Seattle salon where the entire bridal gang is “done”.  I am also the Mother of the Bride (MOB), so they make a fuss and work extra hard.

IMG_NEW

Neesha — the make-up artist — blots talcum-fine brown liquid around my eyes and then down each cheek. It feels cool and thick and it dries fast.  She is to work for a natural-with-polish look, my daughters say to her.  Light lipstick, light eyeshadow, and eyeliner to make my eyes “pop”.   Chantelle — the hair stylist — uses just five bobby pins to knot my hair in what I used to call a half-pony.  She teases the top into a feathery nest, then smooths it over to match my sweeping bangs.

IMG_NEW

“I look beautiful!” I tell Garfield when I get home from the wedding late Saturday night.  He doesn’t recognize me, and runs for his life.

*   *   *

Sage stomps and kicks up a dust tornado that floats slowly into the forest.  He clacks his horns with Pearl.

Sweet Tart dirt-splashes the side-stroke, literally propped up on one wing.  She sifts the dust through and between her feathers, which especially because of the Diatomaceous Earth (organic fossil flour) we add to this area, is very clean and healthy.

Chicken dust bath and hoophouse 008

“Goats and chickens both really need dust baths,” says the Bearded One.

I sift the dust through my own fingers, admiring my black fingernails, and relax into my bone-dry garden. “Me too.”

Goldilocks and the Three Goats

The stroller has a duo-cab, thick rubber all-terrain 10-inch diameter double wheels, and a cup holder.  Our new neighbor pushes it and its two precious children through the cedar arches of our front gate and down to the cabbage patch.  The little 3-year-old girl has crystal blue eyes and a glittery barrette in her curly blonde hair and I think of her as Goldilocks.

IMG_NEW

Goldilocks sits directly under her mother with a view of her new 4-week-old brother and sucks her pacifier.  She doesn’t get to see much except Baby, who sucks his own pacifier.  I’ve heard her outside playing, so I know she has a voice.

The Bearded One and the dad linger at the new deck construction,

flowers, deck and garden 008

and the mom and I stand next to the stroller by the onions gone to seed and the cabbages

flowers, deck and garden 007

and talk about childbirth, the stress of moving, and eating healthier.  I can’t keep my eyes off of the glorious Goldilocks, and she never takes her eyes off of her brother.

Then, quick as lightning, Baby loses his pacifier and Goldie crams it back into his mouth.  He winces.  “Gently!” says the mom.

IMG_NEW

I bend down and chop a big green cabbage at the ground so there’s a long stem left.  I snap off the outer leaves and, “Voila!” I say, “A cabbage balloon!”  Goldie watches quietly.  She is not impressed.  Or the pacifier is really really good.   So I lop off the stem, the mom thanks me and tucks the whole thing into a lower back compartment in the SUV stroller and we head up to the goats.

IMG_NEW

The men follow us up the hill, and I hear the Bearded One telling about how weasels got all of our Cornish Rock meat birds four weeks ago.  The new neighbors have chickens, too, they say.

“Would you like to pet a chicken?” I ask Goldilocks.  She casts her sea blue eyes upon me and sucks, uninterested.

“She’s been around chickens all her life,” the dad explains.

Still, I go and fetch Leah, our Rhode Island Red and one of our best acts.  She is such a beautiful red color and always up for a petting.  “Ta-da!” I say, as Leah dutifully crouches down to be picked up, and I pet her like a cat.  The dad is smitten, but not Goldie.  She turns her head away and studies the inside of the stroller before resting her eyes back on Baby.

The goats are scared to death of strangers and hightailed it across the upper pasture when we first crested the hill.

IMG_NEW

Now Pearl stands atop Goat Mountain, a four-foot high cement hill the Bearded One made.

IMG_NEW

The neighbor mom is charmed by the goats, and, behold, Goldie has noticed the goats and is interested!

“They are wild animals,” the mom says to Goldilocks, as she peers around the high padded side of the stroller.  All three goats stare back at her.

“Let’s see if we can get one to come over to the fence, though,” I say, and Goldie looks me in the eye — Hop to it.

In the barn we keep a jar of almonds, the most delicious treat to our goats.

IMG_NEW

I fetch it and shake it and all goats freeze.  I walk back outside the fence, stand next to the stroller and shake the jar again.  I open the jar and all three tremble with desire.

IMG_NEW

Sage is the biggest and the leader only because Pearl hasn’t had a baby.  Mama goats are supreme, but in our herd it’s Sage, then Pearl a close second, then LaLa comes in last.  Sage ventures straight over but stops halfway.  Pearl steps off of Goat Mountain, and then stops.  LaLa moves laterally, behind a group of cedars, and then zooms in ahead of Sage.

Goldie watches as I hold a nut through the wires.

IMG_NEW

LaLa’s soft lips quiver around one nut and then another, and then, glory be, Goldilocks cracks a huge “just right” smile out the sides of her pacifier.  Her eyes crinkle and I hear a wee little giggle.

“Oh, LaLa!” I say, “You have such big lips!”  He nibbles as many more as he can before Sage arrives and plows in for his due share.

It’s getting dark, we say our good-byes, and the new neighbors are almost to the easement, when I decide to give it one more try.  “Good-Bye, Goldilocks!” I sing out.

“Bye!”  I see a flash of blonde hair as she looks back over the side of the distant stroller.

IMG_NEW

Strawdust in my Eyes

IMG_NEW

There’s a bale of hay and a 50-pound sack of dry cob goat food under a tarp on the driveway that need moving up to the barn. The Bearded One usually does this sort of job, but I’m craving an outdoor break between all the jamming and summer cooking, some little task where the beginning, middle and end all fit nicely into twenty minutes.  I open the junk drawer under the bread-dough counter and grab the tractor key.

It’s a lovely 75 degree afternoon, the sky is blue, and when I pull back the camouflage tarp, the sweet hay smells warm and summery.  When I march down the trail to the tractor, bright light filters through the cedars and firs and birds chirp and tweet.  The breeze is from Puget Sound, which is just up the road.  Farm livin’ is the life for me, I hum to myself.

I lift the hitch on the trailer with one hand and pull the pin out of the back of the tractor with the other, and then I force the two together.

IMG_NEW

And crunch the knuckle on my left middle finger so hard it turns purple as a squashed berry.  But the tractor starts right up and I shift into Gear 4, ease off the choke button, lift my left foot and the tractor lurches forward.

I crank the steering wheel left and make the sharp turn out of the covered parking spot onto the trail, zoom around the tool shed, past the storage shed and out onto the driveway.

IMG_NEW

I can’t back up with the trailer — I can never make it work — so I circle out to the easement and get it all lined up just right.  Then I turn the noisy machine off.  I fetch the dolly from beside the garbage cans and recycling bins.

IMG_NEW

My knuckle is hardly throbbing at all.

Hay is baled with baling twine so tight it snaps like a whip when you cut it with a knife.  I try to move the bale by wedging a finger — not the hurt one — under the baling twine and can’t, so I tilt the sofa-sized block of dried grass onto the foot of the dolly and then rock the dolly back on its wheels and push.

Flecks of hay poke into my clothes and whittle on my skin as I plop the bale next to the trailer.  I slip the dolly out and away and then crouch down, grab the hay bale’s huge bottom and heave it over and into the trailer.

IMG_NEW

No problemo.  I don’t seem to have hurt myself.  The dry cob will be nothing compared to the bale, I think.  Just a few moments of dead-weight lifting.  We move a lot of 50-pound sacks around here.

And then — so what if I pull my gluteus maximus a wee bit — I get the sack into the trailer.  A small price to pay for victory.

IMG_NEW

I pile the dolly onto the top of everything hillbilly-style and limp around to the driver’s seat.

It’s a heavy load and I have to shift into Gear 5 to make it up the hill.

IMG_NEW

The dolly falls off halfway there, when I’m going downhill before I go uphill, so after I park the rig at the upper gate, where all three goats and most of the chickens watch, I hobble back down the trail to fetch it. And then I unload the hay.

Only now I’m also watching the gate and Leah, the Rhode Island Red hen who is fast, curious and persistent.  I angle the monstrosity, I mean the hay bale, on the dolly through the gate and then through the barn door and then through the interior gate until I finally wrestle it onto the platform.  The goats press in as close as possible every step of the way.

IMG_NEW

With sweat dripping down my face, I cut the twine, and the hay bale explodes and sprinkles me with strawdust  flecks which will swim laps in my eyes for the rest of the day.

IMG_NEW

Back to the jam.  Break’s over.

Always On My Mind

IMG_NEW

The goats bask in the lower pasture, the sun gleaming off their silvery new fleece, and I think — Pearl looks dead.  I turn away from the window and see Ruby flat-out on the wood floor as only an old Golden Retriever can be, and wait, and wait, and wait, to finally see her breathe.

Ruby on floor 003

I wait for Garfield to come in at night.  I hear a cackle up the hill and I race to the window, saying, “Did you hear that?”  Surely the weasels are back for the ten layers they left untouched a little over a week ago, when they killed our 58 Cornish meat chicks.  I’m thinking about critters dying a lot.

“How many animals have died here?” I ask the Bearded One when he walks into the kitchen and starts to say something.

He stops, and I can see his face soften as he decides to indulge my need to process.  Again.  “Since we moved here in 2007 and started this farmlet,” I say, “and not counting rats, moles, birds and bunnies, which are legion thanks to Garfield.”

IMG_NEW

“One dog,” says the Bearded One.  Jake, our 8-year-old Golden Retriever, three-and-a-half years ago.  I found him on the morning of November 17 here in the kitchen, over where the chest freezer is now.  Dead, in his bed with his sister Ruby looking on.

“One cat,” I say.  Tex, a 10-year-old, other-cat-aggressive Maine Coon we adopted, went missing in mid-July after living here almost a year.  He couldn’t climb very well.  He was huge.  We got Garfield the next month on Craigslist.  He climbs like a squirrel.

IMG_NEW

The chest freezer is now empty of last year’s chicken harvest, and it doesn’t look like it will be refilled any time soon.

IMG_NEW

If and when we do it again, we’ll fortify a new kind of enclosure with 1/2″ fencing or hardware cloth, but that’s expensive and down the road.  Right now, we’ll eat a lot less chicken, which is okay.  We ate a lot of it last year.  We went grocery shopping yesterday and I couldn’t bring myself to buy any of that chicken.

“A raccoon got Blackie.”  The Bearded One gets a cookie from the cookie box.

I have to think carefully to recall the names of the other two banty hens that we lost.  These are all laying hens, so we keep them for years and they get names.  “Dusty and Marilyn,” I finally remember.  “Eagles took them.”  I remember crying about Blackie, but not for Dusty or Marilyn.  Maybe because Blackie was the first.

“Then there were the 55 Cornish chickens we raised last year,” I say, “but we harvested them up the road.”

The Bearded One and I have offered each other various thoughts regarding the weasels.  In nature, everything eats and is eaten, we say.

IMG_NEW

Cornish meat birds are purposely bred to grow fast and big and we accept that as a good thing as long as they have plenty of room and sunlight and fresh air.  The weasels haven’t gone up the road to our neighbor’s yet.  All our layers are alive.  Still, I need something more.  Some symbolic closure.  Anything will do.

“I’ve got an idea…” says the Bearded One.

“Does it have to do with animals dying?” I ask, suspicious that he might be trying to change the subject.  I’m not finished with all this just yet.  I wish I was.

“Maybe it’ll help you shut this down in your head,” he says, and smiles.  “Maybe we can mark the meat bird grave with the avocado trees.”

Two brown avocado pits the size of golf balls sprout in jam jars in the window sill by the empty freezer.  One has a sprout a foot high, another about four inches, both split open with roots and stems.  “They’ll grow, but never make fruit,” I say.  “It’s perfect.”

I feel the closure I need, draining the water into the sink, whisking the tiny trees outside and up the hill, as I gently remove the toothpicks and press the huge seeds into the mass grave.

Goodbye Meatbirds.

IMG_NEW

Weasel Wipeout

The dead Cornish chick lies wedged at the bottom of the gate, the bite on its neck as deep and bloody as the cut I was planning to make in just five weeks.  Weasels only want the blood.

Weasel Massacre 002

Three more dead chicks lay against the  fencing to my right, forty more are scattered here and there, a hillside of horror.

Weasel Massacre 003

It’s late Saturday morning.  I let 57 healthy 2-1/2 week old chicks out of their overnight coops several hours ago.  And then the Bearded One returned from his morning walk and found me here in the kitchen frying our next-to-last chicken from last year.  “Oh my darling, you know that meat birds are not pets,” the Bearded One says, catching and holding my eyes with his.  And then, “Because weasels got ’em all.”

IMG_NEW

Blood drains from my face and then my whole head as I register the massacre.  I must make meaning of this, but I’m racing up the hill.  My soul is already searching, but the event is still happening.  I can’t make meaning on the fly, though I keep trying.

We find four survivors huddled in the far corner of the pen, and a fifth shows up later, while I silently dig the mass grave and the Bearded One gathers the little corpses in a wheelbarrow.

“We didn’t keep them safe,” I say.  The Bearded One parks the loaded wheelbarrow near the three-foot deep pit and says, “Sorry, Meat Birds.”

IMG_NEW

“Let’s count them as we go,” I say.  I’m surprised and comforted by the simple ceremony, how the enormity builds until I cry.  One…TwoThree…FourFiveSix….Fifteen….Twenty-ThreeTwenty-Four Twenty-Five…Thirty-Six…Thirty-SevenThirty-Eight…Forty-OneForty-TwoForty-Three…and finally, Fifty-Two.  We fill the grave in and resolve to do better.

The Bearded One calls Momma Goose and Brooklyn Man, our neighbors and poultry mentors.  We ordered the Cornish chicks with them last month.  They have 59 identical birds in their non-weasel-proof coop.  Brooklyn Man is horrified.  Another neighbor got wiped out precisely this way a few weeks ago.  He says that they’ve never lost any birds to weasels.  He knows that weasels can not only climb and dig and get through a one-inch hole, but they can also cross the road to his place.  His chicks are doomed.

IMG_NEW

So we make plans to move his chicks to our aviary that evening.  We’ll do the work and split the birds with him.  The aviary isn’t Fort Knox, but it’s dig-proof (cement trench all the way around), there’s doubled chicken wire on super tall walls, plus goats patrol the perimeter.  Our layers have been safe in there for almost two years.

Cornish fryers and grown layers would fight if they were housed together.  So for now, the layers will be fine shut out of the aviary until we harvest the meat birds on August 2.

As he backs out the tractor and trailer to move Brooklyn Man’s chicks, in broad daylight, the Bearded One sees one of the supposedly nocturnal weasels loping across the tractor trail — long and dark and about the size of a stretched-out squirrel.  We see them on the road once in a while.

It’s the hottest weekend of the summer so far, up to 90F, and sweat drips into my glasses as I move Brooklyn Man’s feeders and waterers into the aviary.  The Bearded One catches dozens of chicks and then hauls them to our place.

IMG_NEW

The transfer takes a couple of hours and we are exhausted when it’s all over.  “I’ve reached full kaput,” says the Bearded One.  The house is an inferno, and before I go to bed, I look outside and ask the wounded Barred Owl I removed from the aviary last week to please eat the weasels.

Sunday is blissfully uneventful.  Only Maybelline and Kimber, two of our bossiest layers, are out of sorts, furious about not having access to the aviary and their old nest boxes.  They pace the aviary perimeter while the meat birds mock them, dust bathing and stretching their drumsticks in the sunray.

Meat birds in aviary 001

All is relatively well for two nights and half of Monday.

And then the Bearded One hurries back to the kitchen after just finishing lunch — “Six or seven meat chicks are dead,” he says. “Weasels again.  I think it just happened.  I heard a loud squawk.  I left Ruby up top guarding the place.”

We move fast, I’m in the lead, and I see a dead chick by the aviary door, a deja vu of Saturday at the meat bird pen on the other side of the property.  There are five more dead, but all the rest are still alive.

IMG_NEW

“You caught them in the act,” I say, and the Bearded One agrees.  He gathers the bodies.  “They’re still warm and loose,” he says.

I look up and around.  “You know the weasels are watching us,” I say.

“There’s no safe place on this property,” he says, “except inside the house.”

“I’m entering the anger stage,” I say.

IMG_NEW

We decide that we have to move the chicks back to Brooklyn Man’s.  At least they’ll make it through the afternoon.  The weasels haven’t discovered his place yet.  They’ll be back here the minute we leave.

I babysit the chicks while the Bearded One calls Brooklyn Man at work, and then we spend the afternoon catching and transporting 58 chicks back to the hopefully weasel-free zone.

At least for now.  Any place is safer than here.  We quarantine the aviary to clean it up for the layers, all of which we now wonder if we’ll lose.  That’s how weasels are.

IMG_NEW

A Midsummer Night’s Owl

What is wrong with that chicken?  Hens run clucking from all corners of the aviary for their breakfast oatmeal, all except one that is.  It’s off to my right, by itself.  Frozen on the ground.  I look closer and see freakishly huge eyes, a shockingly wide head.

IMG_NEW

I gasp.  This is impossible.  It’s a foot tall owl standing there calm as Yoda, a young Barred Owl with closed eyes and a bloody spot on its beak.  I hold my breath to hear any tiny noise it might be making.  The hens behind me cackle over the oatmeal and find their way out the chicken hatch I opened in the tall aviary door.  We built this 30’x30′ enclosure two years ago to keep the predators out.  This is the first owl that ever made it in, and the hens couldn’t care less at the moment.

The owl flexes its talons and I notice the soft furriness of the feathers on his toes.  I could pick him up, he’s that still, but I know I shouldn’t.  He’s wild and wounded.  That beak is quite a hook up this close.

Owl in the aviary 012

Maybe he’s young enough to have a mama nearby, I don’t know.  I watch him for a few minutes and wonder what happened.  I remember hearing quite a ruckus out here shortly after daybreak.

Owls love to eat chickens.  They hang around a lot.  There are several different kinds, and all have enormous wing spans.  Barred owls fill these woods with their distinctive “Who-Cooks-For-You?” hoot.  I’ve seen many smaller birds, sparrows and chickadees and nuthatches and towhees, all fly in and out of the aviary through a six-inch gap at the top.  Being young and crazy, this owl must have thought that he, too, could enter at night and eat his fill right off the roost.

IMG_NEW

But last night was the super-full moon, and with the Solstice and 16-hour-long days, the nocturnal types among us are bone tired.  I think of the Bearded One and His Majesty, our 22-year-old son, still in bed, cherishing their sleep.  This young owl was tired and his judgment was off.  He obviously crashed into something, whacking his beak so hard it sent him tumbling down into a chicken’s dust bath.  Now he’s trapped inside with a bloody nose.

I talk to the owl in soothing tones.  He rotates his thick head and rolls his eyes, like he has a bad headache.  I see that his eyes are blue and look like the Earth.

IMG_NEW

The hens must have discussed this intruder at the top of their lungs — I remember hearing them at daybreak through our open bedroom window.  Here was an arch-enemy, a predator, not to be trusted.  They decided, however, that he seemed harmless enough sitting there with his eyes closed.  Let the humans figure it out.

I race down the hill through the morning mist to offer this amazing once-in-a-lifetime-opportunity to the males in my life.  I slip off my boots and my hands are shaking I’m so excited.  His Majesty’s room is first, at the top of the stairs.

“You won’t believe it,” I whisper loudly from his doorway.  “There is an OWL in the aviary!  Who knows how it got in?  But it’s still there, not moving, its eyes closed.”

As are His Majesty’s.  He groans and barely lifts one eyelid.  He is not coming to see the spectacle.  He rolls over.

I have hope that I can stir the nascent wild man in the sleeping Bearded One.  “Sweetheart?” I say, quietly, tenderly, “There is an OWL in the aviary.”  He hears, but he does not hear danger.

IMG_NEW

He doesn’t even open his eyes although I can see the pupils quivering under the lids.  I don’t press.  “I’ll take a picture,” I say and tiptoe out.  I grab the camera and the broom.

Back in the aviary, the owl hasn’t moved.  I take his picture.  Then I set the broom down by his toes.  Just like that, he climbs aboard and I carry him outside the aviary and lift him up to the sky.

IMG_NEW

Here I am with an owl on my broom.  Just another day in the country.

And with that, the owl stretches his magnificent 5-foot-wide wings and sails thirty feet up into the cedar tree by the trampoline.  Where he stays for 3 hours, long enough for both men to finally get up and have a look.

Owl and turtle 010