Monthly Archives: September 2013

flown the coop

2013 - February to August 054

Around 7:20 each morning in the yard behind ours, a very vocal hen lays an egg.  This hen’s egg-laying aria (a reenactment here) is followed by irritable complaining about the state of things, and then, since I can’t see her, what I can only assume is some active scratching and feeding.  Her sisters lay eggs much later in the morning, usually together, making their own duet.  To be fair, if I had to expel an object that size every day, I’d have a thing or two to say about it, too.

I’m comforted by these new birds, and by how many folks in our neighborhood have chickens.  For now, listening from my yard is as close as I’m going to get to owning birds myself.  We’re renting a house.  Zora is allowed here, but nothing else.  The lease agreement expressly forbids chickens, cats, guinea pigs, rabbits, rats, mice, and any sort of reptile.  This list is followed by two exclamation points, which seems like a clause written for a bygone willful renter!!  Also in the lease is language about how I won’t do any yard maintenance, and that feels almost weirder than no chicken wrangling.

Hopefully, this limboed state of alert is temporary !!

Before we knew we were moving, we’d gotten new chicks, Ameraucana babies – Artemis and Athena, named by Riley.  I’d gotten them so we could diversify the flock and have green-blue eggs.  We brought them home in March, a cold one this year.  Because I was having problems moderating the temperature in their cage in the garage, the goddesses lived inside.

Chickens inside your house is a disgusting business.  Sure, Artemis and Athena were cute.  Sure, it was entertaining and unnerving watching the dog drool with longing, hanging her head over the side of the galvanized tub, quivering.  Sure, waking to the sounds of those little peeps from the breakfast nook (yes, they were near the kitchen, which is really, really disgusting), drinking coffee while listening to them practice being big birds wasn’t a bad way to start the day.

Sure.  They were cute and we held them and talked baby talk to them and told them how great their lives on our farm would be.  But chickens are filthy.  About week three the stink kicked in.  They shat in their food, in their water, on each other.  They scratched and made dust and filled their water dish with fecaled shavings.  Despite our efforts to keep the place clean, the dust from their quarters filtered into the house, as did the relentless scratching sound.  Artemis and Athena got older and smellier and the world outside got warmer, so we moved them to the garage to finish being babies before we introduced them to the big girls.

Giving the goddesses away was one of the first things we did when we decided to move.  They were high maintenance, they didn’t lay eggs and wouldn’t for several months.  I wasn’t so attached I was sentimental yet, so they went to live a few streets over with some friends of ours who’d just started their own chicken operation and had room for a few more.

The big girls – Ginger, Marianne, and Rainer (Mrs. Howell was a man.  We swapped her for Rainier)—were a different story.  My first bird children, I’d raised them up from babies, trained them to come when I whistled the opening bars of Vivaldi’s Four Seasons, benefitted from years of delicious eggs.

Also, I couldn’t get out of my head a scene like something from the Beverly Hillbillies, our truck piled high and the chickens in a wire cage on top of a jalopied heap, their feathers trailing in the wind behind us.

Also, there was that business of the no pets !! in our lease agreement.

It was harder than it would seem to find homes for them, what with their “advanced” age.  No one wanted new-to-them chickens who were probably going to stop laying within the year, even if they were gorgeous and tame and cleverly named.  In the end, Riley’s soccer coach Brett, who owns land and has twenty or so chickens already, agreed to take them.

We drove the girls out to Brett’s property a few weeks before we left.  He was ready for us, a separate cage set up near the main coop.

“I’ll toss them in tonight with the rest of the girls,” he said.  “Works every time.  They’ll wake up tomorrow and the others will be like, ‘Hey.  How’s it going?’ and that will be that.”

Inside a huge chicken run, his birds – five or six breeds altogether—were gathered around cantaloupe and watermelon halves, clucking and gorging themselves.  Brett had built the coop, his own design, also large and set up so his kids could easily gather eggs and clean it.  The place was like Club Med for chickens.

His four-year-old daughter Shey led me over to the chicken graveyard under a stand of cedars.  “This is our pet cemetery,” she said.  “Rosy the cat is here, too.” Several rocks brightly painted were scattered on top of the needles there.  “Also Blacky, Whitey, and Socks.”

“Cats?” I asked.

She shook her head.  “Hamsters.”

She gave me a tour through each stone and what was buried under it, and then skipped off to play with Riley on the tire swing.

We have a pet graveyard at our house where we’d buried a gecko, some goldfish, a dead wren we found on the deck, and a frog Riley found in the mailbox that she petted too much.  They’re buried there for closure’s sake, because it mattered to our kids, and because we couldn’t eat any of them.

But chickens are different, I think.  Their presence in our lives had been about more than love and nurturing.  Having them was symbiotic – I did a good job and they did too.  Our house wasn’t a chicken pleasure cruise.  When the girls stopped laying, our plan was to harvest them and make soup stock, a reminder for our whole family about not wasting resources and knowing how to do things for ourselves.

Still, I was charmed by Brett’s kids, four girls, who were fully involved in caring for their animals.  He never gathered eggs, the two younger ones did that.  His elder two did all the feeding and cleaning the coop.  The birds also came out to “play.”  They sometimes wore doll clothes and went to the front of the property on leashes.  Another look inside the coop revealed a chicken-sized rocking chair, filthy with chicken poop, and a window with gingham curtains.

When I asked Brett about it, he shrugged and said, “It’s more a petting zoo than a farm.”  He rubbed at his beard and looked over at the girls swinging.  “There’s a lot of…uh…estrogen out here.  ”

For Brett’s family, I guess that graveyard makes sense.  My bird girls will have a nice retirement at his estrogen ranch before they join the others under the cedars.  No soup pot for them.

Birdless for now, I guess it makes sense to scratch off the chicken wrangling headline on this blog.  I’ll have to live vicariously through my neighbors’ birds and the yards they tend themselves.

Hopefully, it’s only for a little while. !!

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Categories: chickens, community, gardening, Uncategorized, writing | Tags: , , , | 2 Comments

found books

Spring was full of reading disappointments.  Either the book I chose had a stupid plot.  Or characters I couldn’t access.  Mystifying edits. Writing that made me feel I wasn’t in very capable authorial hands.  By May I had begun to despair.  I used to read every book to the bitter end,  the least I felt I could do to honor a writer’s hard-won journey to publication.  I don’t do that anymore – there’s too much great literature to read, too many bad books out there, and too little time.  Now I give a narrative 50 pages, and if it’s not working for me, I put it down.

It’s possible my problem this spring was mostly reader error, what with packing and being distracted, but I don’t think so.  Summer’s surprising, random, unexpected reading list broke several months of stories that failed to delight.  One thing I love best about these reads is the way they came to me.

From the “Take Me” shelf at the coffee shop:

When the Killing's Done

While I waited for my latte at the coffee shop, I looked through the “TAKE ME” bookshelf and found a tome about two centuries of opportunists exploiting the natural resources of the Channel Islands off the coast of California.  The promise of a couple generations of depletion from sheep ranching, a shipwreck that introduced rats to Anacapa, and one very passionate National Park Service conservationist Alma Takesue from the 21st century who wants to eradicate the rats on Anacapa to save a species of shore bird, made me take the novel home.  Always rich and believable, Boyle’s female characters tussle with the natural world and with their lovers.  Boyle is masterful at storytelling with a wide lens on generations and place, but he’s also good at the intimate landscaping that captures the dark forest, as Willa Cather calls it, of the human heart.  And while When the Killing’s Done is far from one of Boyle’s best works – even full as it is of shipwrecks, the sticky wicket of conserving species and how conservation is inextricably linked with destruction, and a very one-dimensional PETA-esque bad guy called Dave LaJoy who gets what’s coming to him on the heels of an act of revenge – in all ways that mattered most to me this summer, it was the perfect read at the right time because I was transported out of my world.

From a rusty wheelbarrow selling used books at a garden shop:

San Miguel

I had T.C. on the brain already.  In the city on my way somewhere else, I walked by a garden shop wheelbarrow and out of the corner of my eye caught the name Boyle. For $2 (sorry, T.C.), I picked up Boyle’s San Miguel, set again in the Channel Islands.  It’s another sheep island story, on a different island this time, and most of it set in the 19th century.  But in both When the Killing’s Done and San Miguel (published less than a year apart), Boyle is scratching an itch about generations of people discovering, exploiting, preserving, and resurrecting the natural resources of the Channel Islands, and the human drama behind such ambitions.  Both books are gritty romances, rife with relationships built upon punishment and power, lust and willful misunderstanding.  He’s fantastic at this emotional geography, map-making a world of tortured souls who often don’t know what they want, or worse, they do know, and their sometimes terrible desires become the gears of the story.  I get it.  An island is an interesting Petri dish for storytelling, with an ecosystem you can manipulate and experiment with, not to mention the outside world sailing over to disrupt the narrative.

I couldn’t put it down, because how could you not careen off the tracks with such characters as these?

From a pile of books a friend gave me:

12731708

Alan Bradley’s The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie.  This book had been on my bookshelf for several months, and I’d purposefully avoided it because of the cover, spring green with a bird and stamp on it that screamed of some saccharine story about women finding epistolary love.  While packing, I left out books from my collection that seemed like good summer reads.  Most of them were mysteries.  Another look at the synopsis of Bradley’s book piqued my interest, so it made the cut.  It took me almost the whole first book to realize that though Bradley’s narrator is a precocious, naughty and very determined eleven-year-old Flavia de Luce, the book isn’t really Young Adult, though on the surface it seems to be.  I liked the book so well I did a quick search to see what else Bradley has written and was gifted with the knowledge that there are FIVE Flavia de Luce books.  Oh boy.

I checked out the next three from the library, in LARGE PRINT, because those were the only versions they had.  And I was desperate.  In each of the books, set in the 1950s English countryside, Flavia works to solve a murder.  A crackpot chemist with her own chemistry lab in the abandoned wing of their ancestral English home, Flavia comes at problem-solving through science; in fact, a reader can learn a thing or two about chemistry from her.  But some of the best scenes are born out of the passages where we see Flavia acting as a child – mourning the death of her mother, plotting revenge against her two older sisters, looking for a way to talk with her father, who is wracked by grief and who deals with the imminent crisis of bankruptcy by losing himself in his stamp collecting.  The cast of characters flanking Flavia is, of course, also delicious – Dogger, her father’s valet, gardener, butler, and right-hand man, and also Flavia’s closest ally; Inspector Hewitt and his wife Antigone, whom Flavia half longs to be adopted by; her bike, Gladys, which used to be her mother’s and which ferries her to crime scenes and various investigations; and in each book, the characters who come through to people the world of the crime.  It’s delicious fiction – witty, smart, backlit by clever capers for which you can suspend disbelief — and the first time I’ve fallen for any books from the mystery section.

Bradley’s got another installment in the wings, Book Six, due out January 2014, and I’ll wait, mostly patiently, to continue the saga.

Also, there’s going to be a television series.  Oh dear.  Mixed feelings.

In the mail from a friend, because she knows I adore him:

Benediction

Kent Haruf’s Benediction.  A master at impaling his characters on the prongs of their foibles and choices, Haruf’s stories teem with regret and redemption.  His characters labor under the aftermath of failing to act, or emotionally sealing themselves against the world, and the reckoning that comes as a result of hiding from themselves.

His latest, Benediction, is again set in Holt, Colorado.  It’s more ambitious in some ways than his previous novels, in that it braids the lives of five or six sets of characters.  At the center of the narrative are Reverend Lyle, a newcomer from Denver who’s been transferred to Holt for some transgression we can only guess at, and Dad Lewis, dying of cancer, owner of the town’s hardware store, father of two children — one estranged son and one daughter who’s come back to care for him as he’s dying.  Writers are generally advised not to scaffold a story around cancer, a character dying from cancer, so I was skeptical such a seasoned writer would take this plunge.  But the presence of Lyle, a man of God, works to offset Dad’s life of harsh mistakes and complicates one of Haruf’s central questions about what it means to live an upright life.

Readers know, of course, that Dad Lewis is going to die from cancer.  Haruf establishes this on the first page.  We know his wife Mary is there to take care of him, that he’s agitated by regret.  While he waits to die, we see Dad’s life in flashback, which is to say we are transported to times for which Dad feels he must make amends – the firing of an employee and that man’s ultimate suicide, the way Dad alienated his son Frank.  The big question pulling a reader through the narrative is whether and how Dad’s going to see Frank again before he dies.  Except through morphined hallucinations, he never does see his son again, which is inevitable and heartbreaking and earned.  Dad’s absentee and sometimes harsh parenting and his tender care of others instead of his own family have brought him to this place of being alienated from his son, and it hurts like hell.

Readers also know that Reverend Lyle will do something to alter his path — he must have agency where Dad can only recollect his version of it from his deathbed, after all – but we don’t understand why Lyle doesn’t have a better relationship with his son, and what makes him fall away from the church, though it seems admirable enough after a life of passivity.  Still, I’m not sure he’s working to his potential as a character.

The heart of the story, then, is the disconnect between fathers and sons, the bond between mothers and daughters (Haruf has an affinity for stoic women; Benediction is rich in pairs of two generations of women holding what crumbles together), and the way, as in all of Haruf’s work, people quilt family out of the dust of loss and need.

I’ll forgive Haruf for the left turn at the end and its half-hitched deus ex machina with Alice and her bike, since I can see he was grappling with how to deliver the point home.  I was already crying my eyes out about Dad’s death, about Reverend Lyle’s inability to make a relationship with his son, even there in that dark garage.

We have to work for grace however we can, but there’s never enough time, which I guess is largely the point.

Categories: books, community, fiction, Uncategorized, writing | Tags: , , , , | 1 Comment

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