Tag Archives: Neighbors

Fresh Apple Bark

The Bearded One has been troubled this week by the prospect of pruning the top off of our Spartan Apple tree, which is full of little green and pink buds.

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I’ve watched from the window as he’s studied it, taking pictures from every angle with plans to send them to tree specialists on-line.

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“All I want is to walk around the tree and pick the apples,” he says.  He is very serious.  “I could really mess it up, stunt its growth.”

I can’t believe the big deal he’s making over this.  There are two 6-8 foot branches sticking straight up beyond the reach of Goliath, and every intuitive cell in my body says to just cut them off, the tree will be fine.  “Just cut ’em off,” I say.

He then explains the octopus shape he envisions, that it’s just a 4-year-old tree, that he’s not ready to cut yet.  It doesn’t get enough sun here to be super hardy.

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I am a natural cutter and trimmer.  When I head into the yard, I grab the hand pruners to cut some huckleberry or salal for the goats.  I am the one who usually mows.  I trim my fingernails regularly and I use my kitchen scissors almost as much as my knives.

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The Bearded One is a digger, and goes for a shovel or pick every time.  He likes to dig and plant and build and is a whiz with the hose, lassoing it down calmly into the grass.  He doesn’t like to cut anything, though.  He wants it all wild.  He needs lots of reassurance.

If I even mention the possibility of cutting my long hair, he says he will cry in the night.  Likewise for perms.

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He himself hasn’t had a haircut since we got together in 1996, and he hadn’t cut his dark brown hair for a couple of years before that, when he left the law practice for good.  The kids, who were ages 6, 10, and 13 when we married have known him only as a long-haired hippy.

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And now he’s a goat-whisperer, gray-haired hippy, the only person on the planet who can actually pet and brush the wild goat Pearl.

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All three of the goats’ fleece is as long and thick as it will get, but it’s still freezing some nights and they need those coats for another couple of months.

The Bearded One patiently brushes each goat every day with hopes that we never have to sheer them, that we can just pull the fleece out with a brush as it sheds.  I like that idea, too, but mainly because I don’t want to restrain them.  I’ve read that it’s possible to pluck Angora cashmere and mohair fleece.  We’ll see.

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If we do nothing, they’ll just rub it completely off by endless scratching and shoving against the fence.

Before I have a chance to download the apple tree photos, I look out the window again and see two long apple tree branches displayed on the grass.  The Bearded One waves happily for me to come and see.

“What happened?” I ask, and step out on the deck.

The Bearded One is so pleased he doesn’t seem to even remember the tree consultant idea.  “I saw Lou on the road and he said to just cut ’em off.”  Lou has a nice orchard.  He knows stuff.

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“Yay!” I say, relieved that he is relieved.  And then I notice all three goats peering down the chute to the lower pasture, watching the Bearded One carrying around fresh-cut apple tree trimmings.

He holds them up and waves them at the goats.

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They have superb eyesight, and it’s the Kentucky Derby in an instant.  Down the chute they race for all they’re worth.  Anything for fresh apple bark.

Dog Towels and Silky Tops

“We need these plumbing disasters to reacquaint us with the fine splendor of normalcy,” says the Bearded One from the slate hearth where he stands and strokes his beard.

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We are getting a slow start today after a plumbing crisis this week.  It’s morning and I sit in my rocker with Garfield in my lap, both of us looking out at the frosty bare gardens and further up the hill to Pearl the Goat.

We are so rich — we have hot and cold running water, for God’s sake.  And Buzz the Plumber charged just $120.  The laundry room floor is now super clean, even under the magnificent washer and dryer, which are the true miracle inventions of our age, far beyond car and computer.  We even instituted a new and improved recycling system of bags hung from a shelf above the appliances since so much got soaked during the deluge.

Four days ago, the hot water pipe behind the upstairs shower blew a joint.  It was Niagara Falls in the laundry room below and we were without water for 36 hours.

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At least we were home and inside and had enough raggedy old dog towels to mop the water up.  Dozens of these dog towels have hung out over our deck railing for 3 days and nights, frozen into rigid boards suitable as building material.

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Now I’m luxuriating.  I have flushing toilets without having to run out to the hot tub with a 5-gallon bucket.  I have hot water to wash my hands.  I’ve had a shower.  All this, and no job to have to go to, which we both continue to appreciate deeply.  I live like a queen, no doubt about it.

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The Bearded One is walking out the door when Ruby starts barking, which is unusual since she is practically deaf.  “It’s Edeltraut,” says the Bearded One, and Garfield leaps from my lap at the sight of our neighbor dressed all in red — red slacks, red ski jacket, red stocking hat — and large black sunglasses (she is recovering from glaucoma surgery).  Her husband Mustang Man escorts her through the front door.

“Vee hate to intrude,” she says.  She smiles nervously.  Something is on her mind.

I direct her to one of our old, mismatched chairs and Mustang Man sits on the rumpled couch and jokes with the Bearded One.

“I don’t vant you to take offense,” she says and takes off her sunglasses.  Her cheeks, hat, and lips are matching red, and her small brown eyes are open wide.  She is whispering as loud as she can to be heard over the men.

“I can’t imagine I will,” I reassure her.

“It’s about some clothes.”  She leans closer.

I smooth my lovely long brown linen skirt which makes me feel pretty in a pioneer woman sort of way, and which my sister found for me at Goodwill.  I stop rocking and move toward the secret.

“Clothes,” I say and nod.

“Beeeee-u-ti-ful clothes,” says Edeltraut, and falls back into her seat again.  The men hush and listen:  Edeltraut’s daughter has a pile of clothes from the daughter of a co-worker who used to work for the governor.

“She had to get dressed up every day, you know,” continues Edeltraut.  “Silky tops!  Suits!  Even high heels, you know, 5-inch spikes!”  She grins and might have even licked her lips.  “Ooooo, I luffed my heels, but I had to giff them up.”

I have never seen this side of Edeltraut, and am enjoying it.

“They are used clothes,” Edeltraut says apologetically, “but I vas thinking you or your daughters might like them.  Please don’t take offense.”

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“Edeltraut!” I say, “we may appear to be filthy rich, but let me assure you, I’d love to check out those clothes.  And so will the girls.  They love heels, and we all love good used clothes!”

The Bearded One assures her that half  the clothes he currently has on came from Goodwill.  Hipsters, he says, won’t shop anywhere else.  Mustang Man then tells of a pair of shoes he got there specifically for working on the ’65 Mustang he is refurbishing.  He assumes they belonged to a deceased man since they had hardly been worn, so he calls them his Dead Man Shoes.

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We all laugh and Edeltraut visibly relaxes in her chair.  “Vell then,” she says and puts her glasses back on, “vee von’t intrude any longer, but I’ll call you ven I haff all the clothes and ve’ll go from there.”

Feeling even richer now, I wave a royal good-bye from the deck and start hauling in frozen dog towels.

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Seasoned

I can still hear the rifle shot even though I had my fingers in my ears.  I’ve just walked home alone from our neighbor Momma Goose’s pig harvest.

Twelve of us — 5 women and 7 men, including my brother and 16-year-old niece — turned out at 9am on Sunday morning, the day after the neighborhood turkey harvest, to help Momma Goose’s husband, Brooklyn Man, slaughter and butcher a 900-pound boar.  Even though it’s only three years old, he’s just too heavy to mate with the female pigs.  The pig farmer gives him away and is glad to find a taker.

I was the only one who cried out when the huge pig slowly lumbered out of the trailer sniffing the trail of raisin bread and was shot in the head so hard it fell over like a bowling pin.

I wailed and sobbed, and my niece hugged me.  But I couldn’t breathe, so I excused myself to walk home and…what?

Stand at the kitchen sink.  I thought I’d be fine.  I’m a veteran of four poultry harvests.  Just yesterday I helped slaughter 22 turkeys!

I stroked the necks and held back the gobbly flesh so Momma Goose could make a clean hard cut.

Mainly I rotate between butchering and wrapping the plucked birds…

… although I’ve worked the scalder and plucking table a lot, too.  I’m seasoned.  Or thought I was.

I’ve been staring at the rain for just fifteen minutes when my niece comes walking in the back door.  She is my youngest niece and lives in San Diego, California and I haven’t seen her in years.

“How are you, Aunt Christi?” she says and I burst out crying again.  She holds me for a long time, letting me press my heart into hers, this niece I haven’t seen for years, hugging the tears out of me.

“I don’t know why I’m so upset,” I say finally.

“I do.”  My niece’s dimples are her mother’s as are her Asian eyes.  Her hair is long and dark and thick and she asked me to braid it before we went to Momma Goose’s this morning.  We had laughed at how thin my ponytail is compared to her mane, which she now flips over her shoulder.  “It’s the cycle of life,” she says.  “A farm thing.”

“Yes, but it’s still a violent act, no matter how much you thank the animal and treat it compassionately and humanely.”  I grab a paper towel and blow my nose.  “You don’t have to stay here, Sweetie, but thank you so much for coming back to comfort me.  I’m okay now.”

“I want to be with you,” she says, and a few more tears leak out of my eyes.  “Let’s do something therapeutic.”

“I told Brooklyn Man I’d make him an apple cake,” I say and point to the recipe hanging from the light fixture over the kitchen sink, the pot of Braeburn apples from our neighbor Lou, and the cream cheese on the counter for the frosting.  She reads the recipe and says, “Two eggs!” and heads for the fridge.  Then she peels and chops apples while I line the cake pan with parchment paper and gather the other ingredients.

As the cake bakes and fills the house with a caramel apple scent, I get my personality type books.  “Let’s do your numbers and letters now,” I say and give her Enneagram (numbers) and Myers-Briggs (letters) tests to read and fill out while I heat some defrosted homemade chili for lunch.  I told her earlier about these tools to help figure out who you are, which I’ve given to our kids, and she is very interested.  But she clearly already knows a lot more about who she is than I did at age 16.

I’m getting out onions when she comes in with her results.  “You know,” she says, “if you chew gum when you chop onions you won’t cry.”

I laugh.  “Maybe I should have had some Juicy Fruit this morning at the pig harvest,” I say.  I feel much better.

Then the men come home.  My brother says he took almost 300 pictures and puts his huge camera case in the living room.  He is a professional-grade photographer with a foot-long lens, and he worked all the night before editing the 600 photos he took of the turkey harvest making an exquisite 97 image slide show.

Momma Goose is going to offer it to the Pierce County Conservation District, where we rent the equipment, as instructional promotion.  In an odd bit of good timing, they had asked her if she’d take a few pictures.

The four of us eat chili and cheese and onions and salad, then we frost the cake and my niece decorates it with pecans shaped into a heart.  She takes half of it to Momma Goose’s and stays there all afternoon to help make sausage.

I’m upstairs sitting at the computer when she returns.  She kneels beside me.  “Smell,” she says and holds up her palm.

I smell something sharp and raw and fleshy.

“Meat,” she says and smiles.

“Something else, too,” I say, “not just meat.”

“Oh, yeah…that’s the seasoning.”

Indiana Jones and the Monster Pothole Weasels

Hansel, age 8, hangs out the back window of his family’s idling car while we old people talk.  He still has an Indiana Jones scar face-painted on his cheek from his Halloween costume.  Gretel, age 6, waves from the other side of Batman, age 4, who sits in the middle in his car seat.

Our neighbor family is returning home after gathering fallen maple leaves for turkey art, and we — our dog Ruby, the Bearded One, and I — are on a walk.  We meet on the road.  We meet everyone on the road, and, more often than not these days, we talk about the road.

Hansel studies the HUNDREDS of potholes, each full of murky brown water.

“We found a hubcap next to that one,” I say and point.  “That’s the granddaddy pothole.”

“Hey, there’s a car down there!” the Bearded One says as he leans over the monster pothole.

Hansel and his father laugh.  Batman listens from his car seat, and thinks about the word hubcap.  Gretel adjusts her golden headband and smiles at me.

Then the father gets serious and says, “Any idea when the road’s going to be fixed?”

“Didn’t Edeltraut call you?” I say.  “She left a message on our phone machine a week ago.”  Edeltraut and her husband are the new road managers.

Hansel’s mother leans over her husband and says, “We got rid of our landline, Christi.”  I remember our conversation about both of us being maxed out with solicitors and political calls.  She’d told me about a new cell phone tower close enough that we can all get more bars, and I’m considering following her lead.

The Bearded One takes back the conversation.  “They got 18 checks out of 25 households, a new record.  The road company’s scheduled.  Should be just a few days now.”

“We’ve never seen it so bad,” the Bearded One says, still talking about the road.

“Turned out the hubcap came off of Honey Girl’s little Geo,” I say, referring to another neighbor.

“Hubcap,” says Batman.

“Honey Girl not only lost a hubcap,” the Bearded One says.  “She lost half her laying chickens to weasels.  I just talked with her yesterday, and they dug under her pens and killed fifty more hens.  That makes 70 out of a hundred gone.  The weasels went wild up there.”

Hansel’s father shakes his head, and I make a sad face.  I’m glad that the Bearded One doesn’t elaborate on the grisly pictures of scalped layers that Honey Girl showed him on her phone.  Weasels tear into the heads and suck the blood.

“Honey Girl sells eggs,” I say, “or she used to.”

Hansel has never seen a weasel, but he imagines he knows where they live: in the potholes!   You can see it plain as day on his face as he leans farther out the car window.  If only he had brought his Indiana Jones bullwhip, he’d stir that brown monster pothole water up good, force the monster weasels to the surface, chicken feathers still stuck to their lips, their razor-sharp teeth glistening with fresh chicken blood, and whack their heads off, one after another.  He fairly glows at the sheer glory of it all.  I remember our grown son at this age.

“Speaking of eggs,” Hansel’s mother says leaning over her husband again, “we’ve got some egg cartons for you.”

Gretel is out of her seat now and crowding Batman and Hansel, who suddenly snaps out of his daydream.  “I’ll bring them over!” she says, and then elbows Hansel aside so she can see Ruby.  “I’ll do it, Mom, I’ll do it!”

“Thanks,” I say.  “Bring them any time.”

Batman cries for Gretel to get off of him, and it’s time for us all to say good-bye.

Hansel smiles and sinks back into his seat, having defeated the Weasels of Doom.  He waves to us and chews a piece of well-deserved Halloween candy as his reward.

Rooster Chasing

I’m at the butchering table and five men run by chasing a little rooster.  There are thirteen of us altogether, down the road from our farmlet at Honey Girl’s farmlet, doing the five-hour circle dance that is chicken harvesting.  This rooster got loose in transport from the pens.

“Get the net!” shouts Honey Girl, who works across the table from me and is nick-named here after her beloved Akita dog who died.  Honey Girl is a forty-something marine machinist at the naval shipyard in Bremerton and good friends with Momma Goose, the neighbor who got us all started on this chicken stuff.  Momma Goose is currently taking a break, huddling by the fire and watching the chase, too.  The fire whips around her legs.

One of the runners peels off to get the net.  It’s the younger one of Honey Girl’s two teenaged nephews, the one who’s in charge of the fire.  His brother has been steadfastly hauling each gutted chicken from us four butchers to the coolers full of ice water.  We’ve got to cool them down fast.  The Bearded One watches from the killing cones where he’s been working all morning as the posse races across the driveway toward the orchard.  “No way,” he says.  “There’s not a prayer of them catching that chicken.”

The rooster is one of the little banties Honey Girl tried to give away with no luck.  She wants them gone.  “They create chaos,” she says, and I laugh.  Honey Girl does not.  “I’m serious,” she says.  “They fight with each other.  They beat up and peck the hens.”

The other two butchers, currently, besides Honey Girl and me are Momma Goose’s husband, Brooklyn Man, and a woman from Spanaway who called the Pierce County Conservation Society where Momma Goose rents the chicken processing equipment.  She asked for a friendly person to learn from.  That would be Momma Goose.  She and Brooklyn Man and the Bearded One and I are the oldest ones here.  They are all introverts.  I’m the only talker.

And I am enjoying the chance to get to know Honey Girl better.  We’ve been friendly — waving — strangers for years.  I have feared she’s been mad at me over road politics.  There’s been disagreement on the road about paving, and I’ve been active in that, but it’s pretty much history now.  Our senses of humor just aren’t in sync yet.  I thought she was referring to the current chaos, shouting and whooping and the flying net.  Turns out she means the roosters create chaos all the time.

The gang cornered the rascal rooster once, but it got away.  That’s when the call for the net went out.  Now the action is over in the orchard, which Honey Girl says, as we resume our butchering, has apple and quince trees.

We talk briefly of what a quince is — a pearish applish fruit that makes good jam.

We talk about chicken feed routines and regimens, how crazy big our Cornish are, and I tell about how two of them rolled over on their backs this week and couldn’t get back up.  Turtled.  One we found dead, so we don’t know if it died because it turtled or if it turtled after it died.  The other we eventually turned over and it was fine.

We talk of the layers Honey Girl has, and how many dozen eggs a day she gets.

“I’m trying to do a really good job for you, Christi,” Honey Girl says suddenly.

I look up from my cutting.  “Thank you,” I say.

None of us wants to stay divided, I think.  We are in the trenches here.  We avoid politics.

The closest I came to politics was when I was introduced to three of the chicken chasers, two exquisite young twenty-something sailors from the Ronald Reagan ship, S and J, and S’s wife K who works with Momma Goose.  This is their first chicken harvest.  They watched the YouTube video last night.  Their respectfulness and eye-contact and beauty reminded me of my personal military loss, and I cried a little as we all talked.  My adopted brother hung himself in the Navy back in 1986.  Someone mentions the current daunting suicide rate in our military.  “I don’t think we are using our military wisely these days,” I said, and they all nodded.  Now, though, they are leading the rooster chase, laughing their asses off, recuperating out here in all this nature.

I accidentally poke the bile sack next to the liver and green fluid spills out onto the butchering table.  Honey Girl calls for the hose — bile and poop must be washed off the table immediately — but all the helpers are still chasing the chicken.

“Let it go!” Honey Girl hollers.  “For God’s Sake!  See what I mean?  Chaos!”  The lesson is clear:  Some chickens you chase, most you don’t.

The Bearded One walks up rubbing his aching neck and says, “Why on earth do those cones hang so low?  You’ve got to put your head a foot off the ground to see what you’re doing.”  I am exhausted and lean into him.

We process 50 Cornish fryers, 10 little roosters, and 6 turkeys.  Dark clouds have formed to the south, and when we leave, the wind is starting to whip around.  The rooster appears in the middle of the road as we honk our goodbyes, and runs furiously off into the wild.

A Corny Joke

More than anything in his entire life our neighbor, third-grader Hansel wants to remember how the joke goes.  It’s about a corn field, and here he is standing next to our corn, pumpkin, and bean garden with a rapt audience — his first-grade sister Gretel, 4-year-old brother Batman, his mom, the Bearded One, and me.

I’ve just pointed out, in an educational first-week-of-school voice, that each corn stalk has just two ears of corn, and only two, just like humans.  “Oh!” Hansel’s eyes lit up like a Jack-o-lantern.  “Secrets…uh….”

Gretel smiles and claps her hands to her mouth.  She remembers the joke, but graciously defers since Hansel clearly thought of it first.  And he is big enough to clobber her.

Hansel tries again.  “When you are in a corn field…”  He flaps his hands.  The opening question of the joke isn’t coming together in his mind.  We wait.  Even Batman stops examining the biggest pumpkin in the patch to listen and hopefully laugh.

It’s hard to say which is growing faster, the 3 kids, the pumpkins —

— or the 2-week-old fryer chicks —

— that we just visited and where the Bearded One impressed Hansel with the power of a good joke.  Someone remarked how clean the chick’s tushes were compared to the last batch, and the Bearded One said, “They have little toilet paper rolls over in that corner,” which sent all the children and their good-natured, home-schooling mother into hysterics.

Now if only Hansel could remember how to start the corn joke.

Gretel leans over and whispers to Hansel…while we adults chat casually about letting the young meat chicks out of the brooder, but not until we sprinkle lots of Diatomaceous Earth over the chicken yard to handle parasites from the last birds’ poop.

And then we notice Hansel is bursting with the joke.

“Why shouldn’t you tell secrets in a corn field?” he says, grinning.  Gretel giggles in anticipation.

“Why not?” says Batman.

“Because the corn has ears!”  Hansel delivers the punch line beautifully, we all laugh heartily, and I swear Hansel grows another inch before our eyes.

Even though Batman isn’t completely convinced this is funny, he smiles, and then leads the way back up to the house to the promised fruit chips.

It’s Hansel’s idea to see the freezer full of harvested chickens.  He’s not sure they are okay to eat.  Heck — he came over and played with these guys while they were tiny chicks.

We show them the biggest one, which weighs almost 9 pounds.  He agrees that they look okay to eat, and their mom accepts a medium-sized one to take home.

The Bearded One hands out baggies of strawberry and peach fruit chips.  Hansel says, “Who likes peach best, raise your hand.”

Batman and Gretel like the strawberry best, so Hansel stands there with his hand raised.  They are so ready for school to start, I think.

We all troop out the back door and as they are leaving, I ask when their classes will be starting.

“Soon,” the mom says.  “We’re going to be studying the Middle Ages and the Egyptians.”

Hansel says, “I love history.”

“Me, too,” I say.  “Especially the Egyptians.”

“I hope we can go to the King Tut exhibit in Seattle,” the mom says, “if we can afford the tickets.”

“Oh, yes, you must go,” I say.

And then the Bearded One says, “The Egyptians?”

He is going to tell a joke, I can tell.  The kids can, too.  They stop moving.  They almost stop breathing.

“The Egyptians were great,” he says with a huge grin.  “They even invented…toilet paper.”

Remembering how we had just discussed the chicks and toilet paper, a riot of laughter breaks out. Hansel lifts his eyes to the heavens and says, “OH THANK YOU EGYPTIANS!” Gretel, who attended cheerleading camp this summer, jumps high and sings out, “YAY EGYPTIANS!”  Batman races around his mother who claps happily.

Here at the start of third grade, Hansel has noticed something important.  Few things are more powerful than being funny.

Meat Bird Harvest

I can hear it breathe — the yellow beak is wide open.  I coo, smooth the glossy white wings, and hold the plump breast to my chest until it calms, which happens surprisingly fast. I ignore the ever-present dried poop that clings to each fluffy tush. “Good chicken,” I say — no names, no separate identities — and place it, long yellow toes first, gently into the trailer.

It takes both of us to catch all 26 grown Cornish Rock chickens, the Bearded One herding them with a broom and me snatching them, even though it’s late afternoon and they’ve been fasting all day. Momma Goose called and said let’s do it this evening. It’s cool, her husband wants to help and he has to work tomorrow. We were ready for this possibility, since they were getting the rental equipment today.

One of the last chickens poops on me as I carry it to the trailer. Poor thing, it’s so scared.

“You’ll feel better if you change,” says the Bearded One as he closes the wire top of the trailer and climbs into the tractor seat.

I agree, although these are my cutest pants, dang. I walk down the hill scolding myself for my shallow vanity in the face of impending death. I focus once again on the life and death power I have over these animals.

“Goats,” I stop and say to Sage, Pearl, and LaLa. “You laying chickens over there,” I call out toward the aviary. “You animals are not leaving. This is good-bye to the meat birds only.” They all are quiet and listening.

And then I drive the truck with the rest of the supplies — plastic wrap, Pam cooking spray, firewood, leather gloves, rubber gloves, ziplock baggies, the big white knife and two paring knives — down the road to Momma Goose’s farm.

I see their green open pasture, the busy house with feral kittens and small dogs and many objects d’art up on the left, the row of poultry houses and pens on the right, and two enormous old-growth stumps in a fire pit at the very back of the property.

Beyond the last pen but still thirty feet from the fire I see the Bearded One, our chicken trailer, and Momma Goose’s husband, Brooklyn Man. He’s from Brooklyn, New York and told Momma Goose when they met that he didn’t “do” dogs, as in live with them.  Now they have four in the house. He’s a big man with a big laugh and a big heart.

Momma Goose herself waves to me from her bright red Adirondack chair perched on the hill below the house.  “Hey!” she calls out and points with her cigarette.  “Just drive right on down!”

Jonah, their Twenty-Something son, unloads the rental equipment and listens to the radio of his small pick-up truck.  Led Zeppelin. The only other music I remember from the day was Marvin Gaye’s “Heard It Through The Grapevine,” and that was halfway through the job when I was jogging from the butchering table with a finished bird, rinsed and ready for the cold water chest.  I sang along.

I park the truck, and as I approach I hear Brooklyn Man marveling at the size and health of our chickens.  We used expensive feed. They plan to shift to it. “The feathers are thick and shiny,” he says.  “They’re HUGE,” says Momma Goose, who’s got an apron on like I do. “They’ll be four to six pounds dressed.”

Each bird cost us about $10 to raise, counting the initial cost and eleven 50-pound sacks of feed.

Momma Goose says that it was either the food we bought or our large pen or both, but we done good. I feel proud, but the chickens are thirsty, I can tell. Their mouths are all open.  Time to get to work.

The Bearded One and I watched two YouTube videos the night before of a very cute, very gentle and respectful Amish country farmer demonstrating his company Featherman’s three machines — killing cones, scalder, and plucker. The set costs around $6,500 retail, so small farmers just rent it from counties for $20 per day.

Jonah attaches a propane tank to the square metal scalder and the Bearded One and Brooklyn Man fill it with water through a garden hose attached to their home’s hot water heater. Much faster. I unload firewood from the truck and haul it to the pit in order to burn the intestines, heads, feet, and feathers. Then I spray Pam over every inch of the killing cones — metal megaphones on a turnstile — to make cleanup of the blood easier.

The Bearded One attaches another hose to the plucker, which is a big whirling tub with rubber fingers. Momma Goose fills two coolers with icy water and sets up the tables for butchering and wrapping. At the end, everything has to be super clean.

Five stations ready. Set.

I fetch the first bird, and it honks and flaps wildly. I hold it close until it calms, whisper my gratitude for its sacrifice, then carry it to the cone.  Head first, down it goes, its head sticking out the bottom, its yellow feet sticking up.  It is surprisingly quiet. Not all of them will be. There are 8 cones and Momma Goose and I fill them all.

Jonah pulls the first head down as far as it can go, cuts the throat and artery and dark red blood begins to drain. The bird’s mouth stays open as it dies, which takes a few minutes, although its eyes cloud in seconds.  The Bearded One watches carefully because he is to dispatch all the rest of the birds. One of the great advantages of doing this with a group of friends is that you don’t have to do every job yourself.

When there is no more movement or blood draining, I take that first bird out by its legs and dunk it in the 150 degree water of the scalder.  Swish, swish, back and forth, feathers begin to loosen, but unbelievably the poop on the derriere remains. The bird is heavy to handle after this point.

Too long in the scalder and the skin can tear or even cook some of the flesh. Too short a time and the feathers stay in.  The test is whether the feathers under the wing pull out easily or not. Two 10-second dunks usually does it.

Then to the plucker, where the dead chicken starts to look like a gag rubber chicken. The poopy feathers finally come out and flow out the bottom of the plucker into a bucket for the fire.

I carry the first plucked bird to the butchering table.  With a big sharp knife, I find the leg/foot joint and cut off the feet.  Then I cut off the head, keeping the neck.  Now it looks like a store-bought bird except for gutting, which I do with a smaller knife. I cut a semi-circle at the rear end, then cut below the anus as Jonah gently shows me.  I reach into the warm carcass and pull out the innards, saving aside the smooth dark liver and nut of a heart for stock.  Jonah approves my work, I rinse the cavity and skin of blood with the nearby hose, and then carry the bird to the ice water where it must completely cool before I wrap it with plastic.

The five of us process 24 birds in just under an hour and a half. It is constant movement. We leave two back to see how big they get in the next two weeks, when we’ll harvest them with Momma Goose’s birds on August 25.

We help clean up (a large chore…) and are home with a cooler full of chickens by 8:30pm when it’s getting dark.  I carry buckets of birds into the freezer while the Bearded One parks the tractor and puts the lone two live meat birds back in their coop.

“We did it,” I say, as we both strip and head for a hot shower, hoping to wash off at least one layer of exhaustion.

“I’ve never raised and processed meat birds with anyone else,” the Bearded One says and smiles.

“I’m still processing.”

“Me, too.”

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/

Into the Woods

It is gloriously sunny — one of the first times this year for us here in the Pacific Northwest — and our forest chicken pen sparkles with 27 healthy, happy white Cornish Rock meat birds.  Not one of our ten laying hens is in the broody box, and Pearl, LaLa and Sage, our three Pygora goats, prance and wag their little tails.

I’m leading a farmlet tour of extended family and friends down the trail and out of the woods when I mention that we lost two meat chicks last week.  One of my relatives stops in her tracks and groans.

“Something dies here every day,” I say.  Everyone laughs nervously, and I scramble to explain.  “Besides the chicks, yesterday’s deaths included a baby rabbit and several mice courtesy of Garfield.”

I don’t say that I actually sat with one of the chicks as it died.  It flapped its wings, and then its beak yawned in death.  Probably some bacteria got it.  This is a normal loss.

The group appears to understand just fine as my commentary on death this week continues.

“Raccoons got all of our neighbor’s ducks two nights ago.  Pulled them right through the fence. That was the same day that Nora Ephron died, but I’m not saying that’s the same thing.”

Everyone nods, acknowledging human deaths are somehow greater but that animal deaths are hard, too, and that you can’t have an abundance of life without death.

Hundreds of ripe red huckleberries hang from giant indigenous bushes.

Our 3-year-old fruit trees — Italian plum, sour cherry, and two kinds of apples — are laden with growing green babies, and the rhubarb leaves are big as umbrellas on thick scarlet stalks.

Six-year-old Red Riding Hood, the only child of the tour, finds an egg in one of the nests.  She giggles and hands it off to her grandfather, jumps on the trampoline, and then she and her mother settle into picking ripe red huckleberries.

Three days later it’s still in the 70s and beautiful.  The Bearded One and I walk the road and a friend stops in her truck.  “Neighbor caught a coyote pup in her trap last night,” she says and shows us the photo on her camera.  “Was trying to catch raccoons.  Had to shoot him.”

“Oh, no!” I say, looking at the cute little carnivore.

“I know,”says the neighbor, “but we gotta let Mama Red know she’s not welcome here.”

The Bearded One saw the big red coyote everyone calls Mama Red crossing the road from our property recently, no doubt scouting our meat birds.  I think of Mama Red discovering her pup’s body.  I see a mental image of a raccoon yanking a duck through a wire fence.

Farm life is raw some days.  We’re used to it.  And so, it seems, we are a good place for comfort.  Our Twenty-Something son calls, and I know something is wrong.  “Mom?” he says.

“What happened?” I ask.

“Monty Carter, remember him?  The music director at Northwest?  He died yesterday.”

I remember a gifted young man, a virtuoso on the piano and a good friend to his students, including our son who played Rapunzel’s Prince in his school’s production of “Into the Woods” five years ago.  He sang the song, “Agony,” with the hilarious punch line, “So much greater than yours!” in his rich baritone voice.

“How did he die?”

“An accident in the Wenatchee River,” he says.  “Drowned.”

We talk about the tragedy of it, his young age of 43, what a loss to the world.  Our son needs me to talk, I can tell this, but I don’t know what to say.

“What’s going on there?” he asks.

“No more chick deaths,” I say.  He is very quiet.

“Your sister called from Spokane this weekend,” I say.  “She’s on vacation, you know.  She was laughing about a conversation she had with her boyfriend’s parents regarding her own parents back in the western part of the state.  Us.  Me.  She said, ‘I told them you were unconventional — a hippie — and were probably this minute running around without a bra making jam.'”

Our son hoots.  I love to make him laugh.

“And you know what?” I say, “she was exactly right!  She’s psychic.  I was making 10 pints of StrawBlue Hucklecherry Jam.  Can I send you some, Sweetie?”

“No,” he says, chuckling, “but I appreciate the offer.”

“Is there another kid from school that you can call?  To talk about Monty, I mean?  Someone from ‘Into the Woods’?  What about the Witch?”

“Yeah,” he says, “Danielle.”

“Call her.  Share your memories.  Keep him alive.”

We hang up and the Bearded One and I head back up the hill once again, stepping over yet another mole Garfield has proudly left for us on the back deck.

What Does Chirp Mean?

“There’s a dead one right there.”  The Bearded One jokes as he points to a sprawled-out, week-old Cornish Broiler chick, its head beak-down in the pine litter.  Another chick plows into the dead chick, who wakes instantly and staggers to the waterer.

“Nope, I say.  “Still 32.”  In these past six days we’ve seen countless resurrections.  We’ve also been warned that we’d lose some.  So far all are still happily alive.

Our nurse twenty-something daughter giggles as she cuddles a fluffy yellow chick in her palms, letting the long legs hang down. “This is so relaxing,” she says. The three of us have just finished dinner and are now out in the hut huddled around the brooder.

One week old chicks

“Just another 10 second nap,” says the Bearded One.  The chicks have probably tripled in size since they arrived last Thursday morning.

They were two days old, and the biggest were the size of tennis balls.  Identical fluffy yellow balls. One had been pecked a bit, but was totally viable. They’d been shipped, and they felt it.  They drank and ate and napped as fast as their little essences could cycle through their life’s activities.  Alive!  So much to do.

Over the weekend, we filled their feed tray several times a day and changed the small quart waterers to a single big one.  A couple of chicks had wet poop stuck to their butts, which they were pecking at, so I wiped them with a warm paper towel and rubbed on a little Neosporin where it was pink and sore.  Which Momma Goose told me to do.

“Your sister asked me a good question,” I say.  “If all the chicks were born on June 12, was there a different mother for each egg?”

The nurse coos at the fluff ball in her hands as I jabber egg facts:  a hen can have just one egg a day; fertilized eggs incubate for 21 days, but the start date need not be the laying date if the egg is kept cool but not refrigerated for up to 10 days.  It takes a few days to fill your incubator, or for a hen to collect a clutch before she starts sitting. “Probably since these chicks came from a hatchery, they have different mothers,” I conclude.

“Hansel and Gretel have got to see this,” she says, referring to our neighbor kids.

“I already invited them over,” I say.  “Batman is still recovering from his tonsillectomy, but they’ll come over as soon as possible.”

“Do they know they’re meat birds?” she asks.

“Yes, I told them we would top them in a couple of months when they were fully grown adult chickens.  I told them that these are not pets.  They seemed to understand completely, although I think their mom is right to protect them from the actual killing.  Hansel just turned 8.  He’s very tall for his age, so it’s easy to think he’s older than he actually is.”

The Bearded One is in and out of the hut, now, setting up the raccoon trap again, loading it with vanilla wafers and almonds.

Word is out in the forest that fryers are on the premises.  We already caught one raccoon prowling around the hut.  We released it 3 miles away in the forest.

Our friendly crow — dropper of the chicken wishbone in the goats’ water — has been pacing the backyard like a chicken and flying in low over the farmlet several times a day to deliver sinews and cartilage and worms into the water troughs.  I’ve watched it.  We also found the smallest egg ever in one of the nests.

Lettuce and strawberries from the hoop house, and the day’s eggs, including the mystery teeney tiny egg.

I think it’s a crow’s egg, but the Bearded One says no way.  He’s probably right, but I still wonder.

As our daughter leaves the next morning, she marvels at how all the animals are used to her now.  Ruby the dog; the 42 combined fryers and layers; and the three goats, who she says look positively groomed since shedding nearly all their fleece naturally.

Three little goats who have lost their fleece…

That is — by rubbing it off on the horse fencing.

“All except Garfield,” she says.  The cat peers at her from the deck.

“He’s holding his breath until you leave,” says the Bearded One.  We laugh and wave good-bye.

Two hours later, Hansel, Gretel and Batman, along with their mom, knock on the door.  Batman’s voice is scratchy, but he says he’s feeling better and wants to see the chicks.

The Bearded One hands a chick to Gretel and she freezes, holding it so carefully.  He teaches Hansel to pretend that he’s after one chick, then to switch at the last second and snatch an unsuspecting one nearby.

“Ha!” says Hansel, but then the chick poops in his hand.  He handles it maturely and sets the chick back down carefully.  His siblings are wide-eyed.

“What does chirp mean?” asks Gretel, smiling at me.  “Like, what are they saying?”

“Life is good,” I say.  Then I run inside and get the tiny egg for Batman.  It fits perfectly in the palm of his 4-year-old hand.  “Is this the kind of egg you can eat?” he asks his mom, his voice soft and scratchy.

“Oh, yes.  You can have that one for lunch if you want.”

“YUM.  YUM.”  Batman exalts.  “Let’s go home.”