Tag Archives: Nature

Always On My Mind

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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.

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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.”

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“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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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

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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.”

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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.”

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“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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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“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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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Something in the Woods

Ruby is doing that growling thing again.  It’s not her normal grumble at all.  She’s all frizzed up as she stands on the deck with an aggressive posture.  She lifts her nose to sniff the air with a purpose.  Something is in the woods.  Something new.

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All ten hens are screaming bloody murder at once.  They usually freeze and go silent.  This is different.

The goats are in the same alert place.  All three run in wild circles and stop on some cue to stare in the same direction for long seconds.  Pearl, the head goat, leaps up onto our concrete goat mountain and stamps her foot repeatedly.  Wait a second — has anyone seen the cat?  Where is Garfield?

MamaRed, an oversized and rusty-colored coyote we spot occasionally on the road, is always suspect, because she’s always around.  We worked on coyote-proofing the fencing for years because of the coyotes.  The cougar that killed a goat about a mile from here is heavy on our mind.  That’s been a couple of weeks ago.  We don’t really worry about the bears.

But it makes us wonder about Hansel, Gretel and Batman.  They’re out in the woods.

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The kids are 9, 7 and 5-years-old, they have a fort in the forest between our neighboring houses and they like to spy on us.  We see their bright red shirts darting from bush to bush, and hear them giggling as they watch our 22-year-old son build a new back deck.  They know they are welcome on our trails.

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“They’re just now getting into the woods and we’re moving,” their mom told me this week, when I told her about the mysterious noises around here and how Sage the goat had actually growled.  Then I stopped in my tracks.  “Moving?”

“At the end of the month.  To save money.  It’s not our first choice, believe me.”

I am stricken.  We love these kids.

The next day, Hansel and Gretel appear at our front door to return an egg carton.  They are here saying goodbye, or at least one of many goodbyes, and I get them all to myself since the Bearded One and His Majesty have gone to Home Depot for lumber and cement.

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I give the kids another dozen eggs and a jar of jam.  Then we walk around to the deck building site and I show them where the former deck stairs gouged the 150-year-old cedar tree next to the house.  Gretel bends down and runs her hand gently along the scar.  She says they don’t know anyone in their new neighborhood.  Hansel says he goes to work on the new rental house with his dad, and Gretel says, ah, excuse me, she goes to the new house and works, too.

“Tell her what happened last night,” Gretel says excitedly.

“OH, BOY,” Hansel says and rolls his big brown eyes.  He tells how the whole family went to Godfather’s Pizza for dinner, and there was an old lady, maybe 70 years old, who had fallen on the floor with blood on her face!  They had come to her aid and called 911.

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Gretel nods enthusiastically.  Then she tells me that before that they went to a ton of garage sales and got a 1000-piece Lego set.  Hansel even knows the price.  Ten dollars.  A very very very good deal.

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Finally we talk about the fort and the woods.  They’ve heard the coyotes, and seen the deer and the owls.  But have I seen the bees???  “I’ve been stung at the fort TWICE,” Gretel says grimly, lisping between her missing teeth.  “Want to see?”

She means see the fort, she says, and I squeee with happiness.  I have just been invited to see their inner sanctum.  The fort!

“I’ll follow you,” I say, and Gretel heads for the gate.  Hansel brought his bike, so he’ll ride around and meet us at the fort.

Gretel carries the eggs and jam and leads the way across our backyard, past the potato garden, and I open the gate for her.  She marches ahead of me up our trail, chatting away but I can’t really understand her.

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Finally we turn off onto the fort trail and I see it.  A huge old stump.

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Their sanctuary, complete with its own bee colony.  Gretel turns and smiles big, showing it off, but then they start to swarm.

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Something in the woods, indeed.  Bees.

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The Goat Gig

He’s watching me.  I’m brushing Sage (He-Who-Reared-Up-At-Me-Again-This-Week) and the Bearded One keeps coming in and out of the barn, making sure Sage behaves.

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I’m so new to this goat gig, I know nothing.  I accept the Bearded One’s protector personality and I accept the responsibility of monitoring my own cavalier-tending attitude toward capricious wild animals and I am uber-careful and will not keep brushing Sage after he turns and looks at me.  And in exchange the Bearded One will not mention getting rid of Sage again.

Earlier this week, I was brushing our biggest Pygora goat Sage in the upper pasture when he gave me the eyeball and body language that he didn’t like where I was brushing anymore, but I didn’t quit soon enough because he carefully backed up, then stood on his hind legs and challenged me to a whacking of horns.  It was affectionate and playful, despite the situation.

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Still, among goats, that rearing up is a very short-term prelude to charging ahead and ramming something.  Other goats, barn walls, people.  They can do it way gently or way hard.  I yelled at him to get down, which he did, but the Bearded One saw the whole thing and said, “We might have to get rid of Sage.  Gotta put a stop to that.”

I agree that a solution must be found, but I also know that I was more in control of the situation than the Bearded One credits me for.  And I was untouched.  Still, in a love relationship you take care of yourself at least partly because of and for the other, and my other is concerned.  His own mother was rammed hard by her own billy-goat when she was 80.

He keeps checking on us.  At least that’s what it seems like he’s doing.  There he goes again.  Probably making a crate to transport Sage back to Vashon Island, I think.

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I’m using the new tail-and-mane brush we bought at the feed store.  Sage’s creamy fleece floats above his thick brown guard hairs like foam, and my job is to brush it out so we don’t have to shear him.

Shearing would require buying or renting equipment and restraining the goats, or hiring someone to do it, and since the goats shed their fleece anyway, and since it’s still freezing some nights, we’ve elected to just brush it out.  Then wash it and maybe stuff pillows with it.  Or learn to card and spin.

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We have a good bunch of it this year.  We started daily brushings when we saw them rubbing it off on the fencing.

I pull another inch-thick patty size chunk of Sage fleece from the brush tines and add it to the pile.  And continue brushing.  And pondering my relationship to the goats, how to embrace them without embracing them.

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Both the Bearded One and I brush all three goats now, but Pearl is partial to the Bearded One.  Sage can’t stand to see Pearl being brushed — he can’t stand to see LaLa brushed either — he charges over and butts them out of the way.

So the Bearded One carries a walking stick with him when he brushes Pearl.  He’s never struck Sage with it, he just holds this 5-foot pole in one hand and Sage doesn’t approach.  “He respects the stick,” says the Bearded One.  Which amazes me, but it works.

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Sage’s eyelashes are so lovely and long.  I think of him as my buddy and companion.

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As I brush, I want to show affection to him like to a dog or cat.  Not kissing, though.  I haven’t kissed LaLa since I promised I wouldn’t — over a month now.  Sage turns and stares at me with his square pupils.  That’s enough, he’s saying.

I follow him out of the barn, carrying the pile of feather-soft fleece in a plastic bag to take to the house and clean.

And that’s when I see what the Bearded One’s been doing when I thought he was checking on me.

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Setting up to pour concrete as a finishing cap on his latest goat toy, the four-ramped Goat Gig.  There’s not much chance of Sage leaving any time soon.

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A Chicken in the House

Garfield stares down at me from the balcony, his meow abrasive and cutting.  He can’t relax, he says.  Have I lost my mind?  Do I not see that there is a chicken in the living room?

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“I see it,” I say, and gesture toward the cat carrier on the coffee table in the window containing the new Ameraucana hen a neighbor’s dog delivered squawking and flapping to her backyard two days ago.  “I smell it, too.”

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The neighbor, a young mother who came from maybe a mile away, had been checking with any neighbor she could find.  She was wracked with guilt that her dog had gotten out and snatched someone’s chicken.  “It’s not ours,” I told her, but I offered to take it off her hands just so she could get back home to her kids.  It looked spry enough, and it clucked and chortled charmingly, despite a nasty wound.

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The cat doesn’t blink.  His eyes are wide and accusing.  His objection is absolute.  He’s stunned that the Bearded One is going along with this outrage (frankly, so am I).  He sends a message to my brain — It’s a chicken, for God’s sake, get some perspective here, Woman.

“Don’t use that tone with me,” I say to the cat.

Our nurse daughter smiles from where she sits in my rocker.  She’s been sleeping all day after her night shift and has just gotten up for dinner.  I show her the hen’s wound, which the Bearded One and I cleaned thoroughly with hydrogen peroxide and then coated with Neosporin.  She says, “Look at the proportion of exposed flesh.  That has got to be a terminal chicken wound.”

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“I’m a death-with-dignity person ,” I argue to the nurse and the cat.  “You know that.  I’d be the first person to pull the plug.  She just doesn’t seem like she’s dying.  Listen to her.”  We listen to her brrrk brrrk brrrk from the cat carrier.  I wonder, though, what kind of a lonely life I have saved this chicken for, separated from her own kind.  Other chickens target any obvious wounds unmercifully.  She’d have to be part of a whole separate flock to really have much chance.

“Do you think I’m drawing out the inevitable here?”

“I don’t know,” says the nurse.

“It’s been two days,” I say.  “If there’s no real progress in the morning, I’ll get the ax.”

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The nurse nods, and Garfield gives me the stink eye.

In the morning, the dog-bite gash in the hen’s left thigh, which fortunately is well-hidden by her wing, is covered by a solid membrane, a kind of scab but very thin.  She has no tail feathers left at all.  She is standing and clucking softly.  This is clear progress.

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We name her Sweet Tart because the word “Tart” is written on the cardboard box she came in, and we move her out to the hoop house, but I know she can’t stay there forever.  She’ll scratch up the plants.  Somehow we must acclimate the other chickens to her.  As a single new bird, that can be rough.

Then on Monday, Sweet Tart’s second day in the hoop house, the Bearded One and I are filling potholes on the road when a neighbor stops and offers us a chicken.  Just like that.  “We’re down to one,” she says, blaming coyotes for stealing an Ameraucana three weeks ago.  “And now Maybelline is alone.”

“You’re missing an Ameraucana?” I ask, dazzled.  Could it be Sweet Tart?

I tell the story, we trek back to the house, but no, Sweet Tart is not hers.

The Bearded One and I take Maybelline, though, and Maybelline accepts Sweet Tart with a single peck to her head.  The balance is struck, and all the humans cheer.  They’re a flock.  Two will be a lot easier to introduce to the original flock, plus Maybelline is huge.  Not even Leah will mess with her.

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Garfield sits in a sunray on the deck and stares hard.  He still hasn’t quite forgiven me.

“Do you think we’re in for an early spring?” our neighbor asks as she’s leaving.  It’s cold but the sun is out.

“Well, it sure is pretty today,” I say, and we both are smiling wide.  “There’s a chance.”

“I think so, too,” the neighbor says, rubbing her arms with the chill. “I can feel it in my bones.”

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Bonfire of the Zombies

Today is the bonfire, and I’m excited.  My dreams have been bizarre lately, including one nightmare this week where no one remembered me.  I remember a sort of reverse dementia, a living-death zombie world where I was a stranger to everyone. I have a sense the fire will heal me.

The Bearded One has installed a water sprinkler atop the aviary, to keep any embers from burning holes in the tarp roof.

The goats and chickens are locked down in the lower pasture, and the goats are not happy about the sprinkler as it is keeping them from the best view of the fire.  They stand and stare.  Like cats, they are endlessly curious.

I lay my nightmare at least partly onto cleaning the bookshelves for weeks, touching all those other worlds, all those stories.  Now the fire is all the reality there is.  Heat sears my face.  I am glad the Bearded One made me put these goggles on.  “It’ll roast your eyeballs up close,” he said.  Sap pops.  Sparks shoot straight up.

It’s a full moon, the week of Halloween.  Our root cellar — a four-foot deep hole in the hillside with an adobe rim and a wooden cover — is empty, but I’m filling it with cabbages tomorrow.

Cabbages go into the big root cellar.  Apples go into the little one.  Carrots just stay in the ground.

For now I rake debris and feed the coals.  I throw a pile of sticks into the neon orange glow.  It’s hard to breathe.  A huge black stump burns in the middle of the inferno.

Yesterday, we had a visitor, a lovely thirty-something massage therapist, a long-time friend of the kids, who is bored at work and fascinated with farm life and wants to know other realities.  At least for a couple of hours.  We talked and toured and ate burritos and cabbage and berry pie.  The cabbage was a bit bitter, not the best.  I hope the head I sent her home with is better.

During lunch, the Bearded One, who I have been married to for fifteen years but met in 1975, told our guest that he went to a naturopath back in the 1980s.

“I didn’t know that about you,” I said and put down my fork.

My shock was as much that I didn’t know something about this man as that this former insurance defense litigator — in his own words, Evil Incarnate — would seek out alternative medicine.  His neck really hurt for a while after getting rear-ended by, as he says, “a nice lady in a big station wagon holding a tiny poodle in her lap.”

Our visitor told us about an alpaca farm she visited.  She verbally built that whole world for us, the peaches and apricots, the broad middle-of-the-state valley, the river, the sunny sky, and the family including a thirty-something daughter who is a naturopath.  I make a note to research their remarkable method for calming the alpacas for shearing — a lavender-based potion that makes them woozy and cooperative.  Genius!

The fire roars now.  The Bearded One hoses it down periodically so that the flames don’t soar 30 feet up into the cedar trees.  He joins me, then draws me back to look at the cedar circle hanging 16-18 feet up a tree, mystical in the smoke.

He marvels at the long dead branches that stretch out in the summer, and still actually curl back up 4 or 5 feet in the winter rain.  “What is it in those cells that still operates?” he asks.

“Zombie branches,” I say, feeling like myself again. “It’s Halloween.”

Raccoon Road

Our neighbor stops in his bumpersticker’d Ford pickup truck.  He’s coming home after planting signs for his local political candidate.  He’s in his late 60s, he laughs a lot, he likes to talk about critters, and he is a Minuteman, guarding the border.  “Howdy, Neighbor,” he says.

“How’s it goin’?” the Bearded One says.

“Oh, you know,” says Minuteman, looking wistfully down our dirt road — itself once the subject of politics and majority rule (pavers vs. non-pavers). “Politics these days is a Rat Race.”

“I completely agree,” I say.  Minuteman and I are in opposite political camps, but we often agree, and when it comes to local issues, we’re both non-pavers.  A dirt road is good for the rural soul.

There are no cars coming, so Ruby, aka Elder Dog, decides once again that she is retired from commands.  She’s well into her 70s in human years.  She stands up out of the required sit (a transition to going mobile…) and the Bearded One makes her sit again.

Talk turns to the raccoon invasion.  “I got that newspaper article you emailed me,” I say, referring to the raccoon story of the week where a local woman was attacked by a pack of raccoons as she walked her dog.  She was hospitalized briefly.  A crazy, rare occurrence.  Scary.

Minuteman shakes his head.  “We’ve trapped and released 6 or 7 of them,” he says.  “They’re after the hens’ eggs.”

The Bearded One and I both picture our flock of 5-week-old meat birds, which any raccoon would love to eat.  We’ve lost just one this week, to the standard mystery sickness.  All the rest — 26 — are still spry.  They are big and heavy like grown egg layers already.

5-week-old Cornish Rock meat chickens.

I say,”I saw the picture on your Facebook wall,” and Minuteman laughs, “Yeah, last night we trapped somebody’s cat.”

A car is coming, so he waves good-bye.  Then we talk to the neighbor in the oncoming car about her 5 feral cats and how she fears that she is feeding the raccoons more than the cats these days.  This local raccoon story has caught everyone’s eye.  Soon we are walking again.  Ruby has just about had it with all the road talk.

I want to talk about politics and the voting coming up.

“The goats vote,” the Bearded One says, “and LaLa always loses.”  It’s true.  In their herd of three, Pearl might be the only female and thus the technical boss according to goat lore, even though she has had no babies, but it appears to us that she has power because she teams up with a her sibling, Sage, who is the biggest.  They are definitely all for democracy.

We head home and the Bearded One goes straight to the tool shed area where he has been splitting wood and making winter kindling packets all week.  Bumble bees have taken over the nearby woodpile he’s been working on.  The Bearded One has been trying to convince them to leave, raking out their piles of moss, cussing at them.  He’s not having any luck.

Tractor trail and the covered woodpile where the bees live.

“I think their queen died when I tore up the colony,” he says.  “The drones and workers don’t have a clue without her.  They refuse to leave.”

I scan the area.  “I don’t see any bees,” I say.

The Bearded One is stunned and walks over.  Before my very eyes, he points and speaks in bee language.  “CDB?” he says, and sure enough, there is a bee, then another, and another.  They’re everywhere, just at ground level.

Later that afternoon, I’m at the computer when the Bearded One comes in rubbing a hurt spot on his leg.  “Four raccoons just walked up on me bold as you please,” he says.  “A mama and 3 babies.  I yelled at them, but they just kept coming.  Right down the middle of the tractor trail.  No particular fear at all.”

“Are you okay?”  I look for blood.

He nods and continues.  “I had to act super aggressive just to get them to stop and climb a tree.  I ran up on them hissing and yelling and waving a rake.  I stood there reading them the riot act, trying to imprint on the babies to fear people.  Until suddenly I realized their strategy in one hell of a hurry.”

“Strategy?”

“I was standing right in the middle of the bees.”

*   *  *  *  *

NEWS FLASH:  Here’s a new west coast review on one of my recent books, a novella called A BEAR TALE. http://brianrushwriter.wordpress.com/2012/07/18/a-bear-tale/

Wild Thing

Fortunately, the Bearded One is downstairs and hears the knock.  He calls my name several times, and I stop Stevie Ray Vaughan’s Pride and Joy, which is cranked on my computer speakers.

I peek over the railing and the Bearded Rocker smiles and whisper screams “turn that sh*t down!”  I hoot with laughter, and he answers the door.  I am not a rocker.  I don’t listen to much music — I like quiet — but I need to get wild sometimes, especially after lunch when my tummy is full.

When I find out that it’s our 8-year-old neighbor Hansel and his father come over to borrow a ladder, I’m a bit mortified and hope Hansel isn’t scared of us now.  The Bearded One assures me that our neighbor was amused and that Hansel just wanted to help carry the ladder.

Several hours later, we are up feeding the goats when the whole neighbor family returns the ladder.  The 3 kids — Hansel, Gretel, and Batman — farmsat for us last month when we went to Texas, so they are familiar with everything and, after their parents release them, they come racing up the trail toward the aviary.

“There are 6 eggs in the nests,” I shout to them, “two for each of you!”  They veer onto the aviary path and Hansel, who is tall for his age and plays first base on his baseball team, opens the gates.  They rush to the nest boxes and shriek.  Batman, age 4, manages to get the two green eggs, which he quickly deposits with his mother, before he is off to the next attraction.  Root cellars!

Batman stands beside the root cellar lid.  He wants desperately to see inside it.  Again.  It is the very essence of darkness and mystery, this 4-foot-deep hole in the hillside with a plywood lid and a rope-pull handle.  Its spell draws in Hansel and Gretel as well, and the three request a viewing.  The parents roll their eyes, but of course they want to see, too.

I pull back the lid and Batman clasps his hands to his chest in awe.  Everyone leans in to see the earthen hole, empty as Jesus’s tomb, except for some old seed potatoes that I should compost.  I bought new seed potatoes this year, and I just covered the 4-5 inch sprouts this week — to build up the soil around the plant as it grows to prevent sunlight on the growing potatoes.  Which need dark.  A hole is a sacred mystery, I think, truly awe-inspiring.

Just then, our three 4-year-old Pygora goats stampede out of the barn, bellies full of grain.  Clops of matted, butter-soft light brown fleece hang from Sage’s neck and chest.

He has rubbed off great patches of the cashmere from his shoulders so you see the shorter, coarser dark brown guard hairs.  LaLa looks just as shaggy and wild and unkempt.  They deposit the fleece on the fence and trees, about 2-3 feet up.  The fleece-line, we call it, from their endless habit of leaning heavily, forcefully, into a fence or tree as they pass by.

The crows love it.  These goats have never been sheared and aren’t “tame”; I’ve read that taming wild goats is a dubious prospect.

The Bearded One, it turns out, though, speaks goat.  He is incredibly patient and now Sage, after being here 4 months, lets him scratch his whole head and chest.  LaLa and Pearl watch closely.  We’re thinking that this year instead of tying them to a post and hiring a shearer, we might just comb the fleece out as it is shed.  If we can.  That’s actually the preferred way for cashmere since the cashmere sheds first and very little guard hair comes off in the comb.  We’re in no hurry.

“Yee-haw!” I sing out.  The goats kick up dust as they begin a Wild West show for our neighbors.  Sage rears up and then Pearl rears up and then they come down and clack horns.  LaLa jumps onto Goat Mountain, and Sage butts him off.  It’s incredibly exciting.

The kids can’t just stand and watch forever.  They are propelled by their own wild excitement to the grand finale of every visit — the trampoline.  They jump and run widdershins (counterclockwise) and hoot and holler until their parents rein them in.  Wild is good, I think.  Probably it’s necessary in order to be fully human, to feel deeply.

“Christi!” six-year-old Gretel calls to me as she steps down from the trampoline, “Look!  I lost my first tooth!”

Sure enough.  Her cheeks glow and her bottom front tooth is missing.  She is dazzled as she tells me the Tooth Fairy came, and guess what?  She left glitter on Gretel’s pillow!

I am enchanted.  They leave and the Bearded One and I walk back into the quiet house in a daze of…there’s no other word for it…love.  The wildest thing of all.

Extra Crunchy Granola Types

My brother described me this week as an extra crunchy granola type.  We don’t even have any granola in the house, I told him and laughed.  I’m not sure why I qualify as EXTRA crunchy, though.

Our Twenty-Something nurse daughter, who happily had a much better week (because, she says, she just refused to allow another horrible one), agrees that the Bearded One and I are extra crunchy, laying the extreme crunchiness onto our removal from mainstream reality.  I am curious to hear her thoughts.  We are sipping coffee at the kitchen table.  I’ll make breakfast soon.

“You don’t work to make money,” she says.  “You don’t get out.  You’re like the Amish.”

I laugh hysterically, accept my crunchiness for the incredible luck that it is (I’ve been out…), and then tell her about the really troublesome granola types around here — the rats in the chicken coop.  Six huge holes, both inside and outside the covered aviary, have opened up sequentially after we blocked the first one with rocks and dirt.

Rat hole in chicken aviary.

A couple of weeks ago, outside the aviary, the Bearded One even tried a poison D-CON packet down a hole, something he hates to do, and it didn’t work anyway.  It wasn’t even nibbled on.  Why should the rats bother when we keep the ground plied with cracked corn for the chickens?  A female rat can produce 12 litters of 20 baby rats a year.  They grow up super fast.  New holes keep coming.

“I thought rats were only in the city,” says our sweet daughter, and this astonishes the Bearded One.

He explains that rats were invented in the country, that they live in fields and hillsides and build rat cities with large and small chambers and multiple outlets and levels and even ventilation shafts.  He’s seen charts.  He describes seeing packs of 7 and 8 good-sized rats down in the wetlands at our old house in Suquamish.

“We haven’t actually seen a rat here,” I point out, and get up for more coffee.

“Except the ones Garfield has delivered,” says the Bearded One.

“Do you two want eggs for breakfast?” I ask.  “Aren’t real granolas also supposed to be vegans?”

“Not if they raise their own hens,” says our daughter.

I pour her more coffee.  “If you’ll recall,” I say, “in the children’s book Charlotte’s Web, which was set in the country, there was a rat named Templeton.  He was key to the plot, rescuing Charlotte’s egg sack.  I don’t hate rats.  I just want them to leave.”

This week the Bearded One tried turning the water hose down each hole for a few hours, where it ran without ever overflowing the labyrinthine tunnel system under the hillside forest.  We never found a single puddle.  Even soggy granola rats are smart and they can work together.

The current plan is to remove both water and chicken feed from overnight access, and to smoke them out with charcoal.  This means hanging one feeder high off the ground and covering the opening of the standing feeder with a plastic bag.

We’ve heard that roosters will fight rats and even kill them, and we’re also considering setting up Garfield’s carrier in the aviary overnight.  He is a great hunter, but I worry he could be overwhelmed.  The Bearded One says that the cat will always win this contest.

Snow is coming down again this March morning.  I consider conducting a ceremony, inviting the appropriate Nature Intelligences — Devas of Rats and Chickens — and asking the rats to move on, but I don’t share this Extreme Granola idea out loud.  The Bearded One will rolls his eyes so high they’ll get stuck up inside his head.

Our daughter listens to all of this rat talk as I make her very crunchy granola-ish breakfast using eggs from Kimber and Stevie and Dusty.  “I wonder why Kimber’s eggs are always a bit bigger even though she’s no bigger than her daughters?” I say.

Our daughter shrugs.

The Bearded One looks over and says, “Eggsperience.”

To which our daughter says, speaking with the confidence of a nurse with a hell week behind her,”Eggzactly.”