Posts Tagged With: urban farming

tiny farm notebook

www.lauramgibson.com

Snow’s on its way. I’ve closed up the garden and turned my attention to indoor pursuits. It feels good.

In the last two seasons I’ve learned a few things about tending a tiny farm. It’s a ton of work, for starters, which I knew. But also didn’t. Just as I knew, but also didn’t, how raising a high school senior and keeping a garden bigger than the house would invade writing time.

Still, I’ve managed to harvest some bits of wisdom along the way:

Two roosters fight. Constantly. If you try and give one of your men to a gal pal with more land and a bigger flock, she will lecture you about why you should be made of tougher stuff. Real farmers suck it up. They do what’s necessary.

So, you research what to do.

No one else you know wants, or is allowed to raise, a rooster. If you list your FREE rooster on craigslist, he will be used as cockfighting bait for champion roosters to practice on.

You let your two fellas range in the pasture, hoping nature will decide. The red-tailed hawk that hunts on your land looks hungry for fresh chicken, but the boys are better than you thought at avoiding danger. This is the only activity during which they create an alliance in order to survive.

Weeks pass. Every time you feed the birds, you get assaulted by the big rooster Carson (formerly named Custer), who shows his irritation that you’re near his harem by flying at you sideways with his spurs out.

In the interest of taking care of your own business and being merciful, you have to kill him. Then you explain to your kids how not all living things on our farm are pets.

 Even though this is a lie.

www.lauramgibson.com

Bees sometimes swarm. When your bees flee, it doesn’t mean you’re a bad parent. It’s not like 20,000 kids ran away because you neglected them. This just happens, according to experts who know. If your bees only get as far as the plum tree twenty feet from the hive, and you catch them after watching seven videos on YouTube about how to do it, count that as success! The dog, who tries to “help” and gets stung twenty-seven times, will be okay once the swelling goes down.

Try not to congratulate yourself too much. The next day, your bees will get attacked and killed by someone else’s robbing swarm, and that will be the end of that. Utter colony collapse.

There’s always next year. You have all the equipment now.

www.lauramgibson.com

Gardens get big. When, in your spring zeal to GROW a GARDEN, you plant three times more tomato, pepper, zucchini, and bean plants than your family can possibly handle, remember to preserve, can, freeze, salsa, red sauce, bruschetta, and chili your way through harvest. Once the shelves and freezer are full, you can SHARE the wealth. It’s important to hear poorly at this time. For example, when friends in August try to tell you they’ve got all the zucchini they can handle, it really IS okay to insist they take more. It’s their civic duty.

Also, you can leave presents on the porch when they’re not home which, let’s face it, is better than a visit from Santa.

www.lauramgibson.com

Labradors like birds. If a friend’s dog attacks your remaining rooster Willy (formerly named Napoleon), think carefully before you use your home as the infirmary. Chickens really do prefer to be outside. Once the injured fella is inside the house, there’s no helping the way the whole of your living space will smell like a barnyard. Several websites will suggest giving injured chickens Epsom salt baths and syringe-feeding them electrolytes, and you can employ these methods if you want.

However, it will likely make tending Willy’s psychic and physical well-being very heartbreaking. Your friend’s dog gave him a sound thrashing, and his legs are clearly broken.

Try not to be relieved when he dies on his own. You won’t have to subject your children to another round of murder, which, as they keep reminding you, will be the reason they’re in therapy later.

www.lauramgibson.com

Woodstoves are a hassle. If you have a tantrum about the inefficient woodstove in the living room that leaks and covers the furniture with ash and takes up too much space and MUST COME OUT, and if, then, you watch more YouTube videos about extracting the beast from your world, be careful. These videos are not nearly as entertaining as the ones you watched about bees. You might discover that woodstoves are quite heavy, and awkward to move, and you can’t do it alone. So you enlist your spouse, the foul-mouthed pirate, who helps you while he cusses the thing out the door. When it’s over, he’ll tell you that this activity does NOT qualify as an emergency, and that it would be nice if you could learn the difference between what is acute and what can wait for someone who knows what the hell they’re doing to help you out.

Also, when you remove something attached to the house, you will be left with HOLES in the wall and in the roof. Because you were a Girl Scout, you’ll be able to insulate the holes, and also fashion a piece of tarp to prevent any water from coming in through the roof.

But it will be a sad little Band-Aid of a solution.

Remind yourself not to let too much time pass before you arrange a drywaller and roofer to clean up your mess.

Because critters WILL find this space. Word spreads fast about the easy access your tantrum has created. You’ll likely hear them in the night, scratching and squirreling away food for winter and hiding whatever they’ve found inside the walls.

Fall is windy. You might hear the chimney cap you jammed back into the hole in the roof fly away one night in the wind and land somewhere in the yard. The next day, you’ll climb up there and put it back in place and wonder how a person who’s smart in so many ways could have decided to proceed with home “improvement” in this way.

You will have to get the roof patched. You will.

Kids leave home. If you’ve raised them right. Because hasn’t this been the point all along? To plant the seeds, to build the tools, to foster independence? He’s ready. He’s got the skills to drive his own life, mostly. He’s already making plans, one eye on the door to the what next, and he’s itching to walk through it.

But he’s wistful and tender, too, about his “youth,” as he calls it, which is almost as funny as when he calls himself “a grown man.” Because neither is true today, and both squeeze your heart. The little melon-headed boy who had two speeds: awake and busy with endless questions, or asleep and sweating, breathing too loudly. The young man: articulate, curious, driven.

You hadn’t reckoned on this. The way your boy is a man and still such a child.

Maybe you’re the one who’s not ready.

You’ve got seven months left, and you’ve been telling yourself  for a couple of years that you’ll have a party when that boy leaves the house and takes his stubborn opinions, loud music, cloying cologne, disgusting bathroom habits, and bottomless hunger with him.

And you will.

But now, you’re thinking about how quiet it will be without the hum of him, and how much bigger your tiny house will be without the size 11 shoes he dismounts from and leaves in front of the door and the bags of swim gear and books you trip over. You’re thinking about how the leaving, for both of you, is the beginning of the rest of his life disconnected from you but tethered to everything that’s come before.

It’s a lot to process. This joyful sadness.

 

www.lauramgibson.com

 

 

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Categories: chickens, community, family, fiction, gardening, parenting | Tags: , , , , | 10 Comments

billy and the band

2014 - Pix from Laura's Phone 515

This summer John and I gave in to the siren call of buying a log built home on an acre.  A project house, a blank slate of a place, it’s too small, has poorly insulated doors and windows, and lacks reasonable cooling (which is to say, it has none) and heating (which is to say, it has a tiny woodstove and electric baseboard heaters we’re not sure work).  We nonetheless fell in love with its possibility.

For Riley, the cabin fulfills a few wishes.  She’ll get to raise animals, have her pick of climbing trees, eat fruit she picks herself, go wading in the small irrigation stream in the back.

The first time we showed the place to Owen, he stood next to the car shaking his head.  “I mean, all that looking around and this is what you chose?  I’m confused.”   Our choice was further evidence that his parents are nutjobs, that he was switched somehow at birth and got taken home with what he calls “hygienic hippies” instead.  Owen wanted a pool, a media room, a hot tub, a house that said “Wow” from the street.

Early summer was long and lovely and mild, the perfect conditions in which to move ourselves just the few miles with hundred of trips in our pickup truck and some help from a band of teenage boys.  Owen’s friends are much more willing helpers than he is, for which we’re grateful.  In addition to a growing curiosity about his real birth parents, Owen is newly in love, and therefore anything we ask him to do is half completed in a hot rush, one eye on the clock, while he counts the minutes and seconds until he can be reunited with his gal pal.  When they cannot be together, there is furious love-struck texting, and also more than a little staring off into the middle distance, deep in thought.  He wants to be fully independent and stay out at night as late as he likes.  He wants to bring five friends home for dinner with five minute’s notice.  He wants to go camping with a pack of boys and girls and no chaperones, burn huge bonfires in the desert, wear a LOT of cologne.

This territory is new for all of us and seemed to come all at once.  He can hardly have a conversation, changes clothes three times a day, and takes a lot of showers.  We like his gal pal quite a bit; she’s genuine, helpful, a good friend to him.  John and I do remember how all-consuming teen desires of any kind are, which helps us dread the brain-damaged condition we’re all going to have to suffer through for the next few years.  We remember enough to be a anxious about Owen’s choices in his Technicolor love haze.

“Give me a break,” Owen tells us when we talk about not getting carried away in love. “You’re in love too, you know.  With LAND.”  As if it’s a bad thing.

Many days, the new house is too small for Owen and me, so I spend a lot of time outside on the LAND, which I do, I must confess, love.

Anyway, by day three in the cabin I realized the back pasture’s thigh-high grass needed attention.  On Craigslist I found a goat wrangling schoolteacher with a hobby farm a few towns over, so I called him and asked him to bring me some professional eaters, which he did.  The next day our new Nubian friends pulled up to the house in the bed a tiny pick-up truck .  A mother goat and twin kids, a boy and a girl about four months old.  They’d been on the freeway and caused quite a ruckus among drivers, but when they arrived the goats eyed us from the back of the truck, chewing rhythmically on some hay, and didn’t seem too worse for the wear.

2014 - Pix from Laura's Phone 528

The wrangler stepped out of the cab.  He wore workout clothes, a pair of Nikes, a baseball cap.  I’d expected him to show up wearing, um, goat wrangling clothes, and then realized I had no idea what that attire would be.

“That’s Cooper, the mom,” the wrangler said, “and Coeur d’Alene, the girl; and Preston, the boy. We name all our goats after places.”

Riley and I sat on the tailgate.  The goats nuzzled our hands from the truck’s bed and leaned their foreheads into our chests.

“I just banded Preston,” the wrangler said, “so he might not feel too well for a few days.”  He took some leashes from his cab and reached to clip one to each goat’s dog collar.

I had no idea what he was talking about.  “You did what?”

“See that rubber band back there?”  I maneuvered to look at Preston’s backside and spied a green rubber band wrapped around the top of his testicles.  “It takes the Billy out of his Billy, if you know what I mean.  Last thing you want is a Billy around.  Doesn’t really hurt, just tingles a little.  Should dry up and fall off in a few days.”

Though I had just met the wrangler, I said something about how great it would be if it was that easy to take the Billy out of some human males, remembering John’s post-Billy-surgery-drama-queenness.  The frozen bags of corn and peas. I thought of Owen’s burgeoning Billy, and also wondered how anyone could possibly know that for a goat, having a rubber band cutting off the blood to its Billy did nothing more than tingle.

We stood quietly a moment.  “Wait,” I said.  “Which thing falls off?  The Billy or the rubber band?”

“You’ll see,” he said.  “You can call me if there’s a problem.”

We put the three goats on leashes and took them into the pasture and let them go.

2014 - Pix from Laura's Phone 533

Preston licked at his backside and then laid down by the gate while Cooper and Cordy wandered off.

2014 - Pix from Laura's Phone 539

We watched them browsing in their new salad bar, and by the time the wrangler was ready to leave, Riley and I were decidedly smitten.

2014 - Pix from Laura's Phone 540

It’s been two months, long enough for us to train the goats to come when we call.  They follow us around in the pasture, nudging our hands for kitchen scraps, putting their front feet onto our chests to make sure we’re not concealing anything.  When it’s hot, they lie together under a big spruce at the corner of the property, just opposite the fence from our neighbor’s chickens, who lean against the fence from their own side, close enough to touch their goat pals.  They’re fast friends, which has given life to a habit of breaking property lines to be together.  Once, my neighbor found the goats inside his chicken run, where they ate all the chicken feed and then laid down with the chickens.  A few days later, the hens were in our back pasture, trailing the goats and chortling to one another in chicken speak about what good fun a day visiting friends was.  They put themselves to bed later in the evening.

We’ve spent a lot of time shoring up fencing, hoping each time we’ve succeeded in preventing their next houdinied adventure.

All summer we waited for Preston to lose whatever it was he was going to lose in only a few days.  We called the wrangler once to ask why it was taking so long and got another cryptic answer:  “Sometimes it does,” he said.  In the background I could hear a chicken laying an egg, a lawnmower, some kids yelling.  Riley and I decided to resist asking Uncle Google what to do, and instead, we just waited.

Preston, his Billy perpetually shriveling but not falling off, spent the summer trying to work out what it all meant.  At dusk, he’d run up to his mother and nurse furiously for a minute, then canter spastically toward his sister Cordy and mount her until Cooper bleated at him to stop, at which point he’d run in zig-zags, until they were all sprinting back and forth along the fence line, tossing their ears.

Summer’s pretty much over as far as the kids are concerned.  Owen’s still with his gal pal.  Though John and I are bold in our conversations about how it’s possible to be in love and also make smart choices, we’re terrified of Owen’s Billy being in the driver’s seat of decision making.

Last week Owen and I were in the way back diverting water into the pasture.  He’s been much more willing to help than I imagined, and I’m tickled.  The goats were with us, using one of the fence posts to stretch up into the leafy branches of a locust and eat.  Their appetite is like nothing I’ve seen; it beats even a band of teenaged boys after swim practice.  Owen and I stood in the knee-high stream in our rubber boots, watching the water find its way through the grass in the pasture.

“Isn’t water games so much better than a media room?” I asked.

He shook his head, smiled, offered a clutch of mint to Preston, who nibbled on it, jerking his head to keep it away from Cordy.

I leaned down to check out the status of Preston’s rubber band, finding nothing at all.  All of it had fallen off, both the Billy and the band.  I patted his head and asked him if he felt better, if he’d even noticed that he was newly unencumbered.

“Poor guy,” Owen said.  He stepped out of the water, and Preston sniffed his pockets and put his front legs up on Owen’s chest.  “Wasn’t really a fair fight, was it, Bud?”

I opened my mouth to seize the opportunity to have another TALK about inhabiting the world of love while also making good choices.  But my boy was in galoshes, mucking around with me in the pursuit to divert water, and he was pretty good humored about it, for once.  And already, I was seriously at risk of being the dog whistle he couldn’t hear, so I let it lie.

Owen patted his pocket for the appendage of his phone, then looked toward the house.  “So.  We’re done here?” he asked.  “I’m going to do that thing in a while?”

“Sure.  Thanks for the help.”

I bit my tongue against all the cautionary words to live by, the pearls of wisdom gleaned from my own near-misses and hard lessons, the ever-present feed of news informing new pitfalls for youth.  He wouldn’t have heard me anyway.  Already gone, Owen walked back to the house, sloshing through the water-soaked pasture, his head bent into texting while the goats trotted along behind him.

2014 - Pix from Laura's Phone 608

 

 

Categories: family, goats, kids, nature, parenting, Uncategorized | Tags: , , , , | 4 Comments

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. !!

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

the well of souls

A few years ago, on a sunny spring morning, I woke up to find eight plants had been stolen from my front yard.  Not whole pots of plants waiting to find homes, but mature bushes from the ground.  Mornings are not my sharpest time.  It took a couple beats to identify what was missing while I stood at my front window, eyeing the yard over the rim of a coffee cup, confused.

Once outside, it didn’t take long to see the problem.  A trail of dirt faded off down the sidewalk two houses away and then veered into the street.  The thieves took a whole hedge of Pieris Mountain Fire that had been there for years.  I liked them for their jaunty winter foliage, and they were one of the things I’d kept from the previous owners.  Just at a place where I felt the yard had started to reflect my landscape sensibilities, I’d spent several weeks working on that section of the yard – taking down a hideous fence, planting native species. Now all I had was a bald section that looked like the front teeth of my yard had been knocked out.

My neighbor Tom across the street had had some plants stolen the month before.  The morning after it happened, several of us stood on the sidewalk in front of his house, shaking our heads at the news and wondering what the hell was going on in the world.  Those were Japanese Maples, still in pots sitting down the driveway and around the back of the house.  Someone was paying attention.  It was creepy.   Tom bought more, and these got stolen, too, before he had a chance to put them in the ground.  He gave up and planted something cheaper.  Azaleas, I think.

John wandered out to the sidewalk after a while and stood next to me kicking at the dirt, cussing, one of his less acceptable mixed-company hobbies.  He’s actually kind of a poet.  For pirates.

“What do we do?  Call the police?  Tom said all they did was take the details over the phone.”

“I guess,” he said.  “Maybe they’ll send someone now that it’s happened three times.” He pushed dirt into one of the holes with the toe of his shoe.

“Don’t mess up the crime scene.”

“This is shitty,” he said.

It felt absurd to even suggest involving the police.  I probably couldn’t identify my plants.  I doubted they’d be able to.  It was the perfect crime, really.  I looked around at my neighbors’ yards from a lens of stealthy acquisition.  Our street was a goldmine.

Thirty minutes later, we stood on the sidewalk again with the police department’s Landscape Crime Detective (I’m not making it up).  She was a one-woman show in a newly created position in response to the rash of landscape crimes happening especially in our neighborhood. The fact that lots of other people were waking to find their yards bare made me feel only slightly better.  Mostly, I had a hard time listening to her while I mulled over the world’s seedy underbelly.  Also, I should know her name and what her rank is.  Is detective a rank?…I’ll just call her Detective Blue, which is lame, I know.

Detective Blue wrote down all our particulars in her little notebook, licking her pen a few times to keep it working.  She was from New Jersey.  “We have a lead on a couple of plant rings in town,” she said, “but I’m afraid your bushes are gone.  How much were they worth?”

John threw the rest of his coffee onto the grass.  “Oh, Jesus.  Let me walk away first before she talks about how much she spends on the garden,” he said.

“But those plants were already here,” I said.  “Also, you love the garden.  Also, I get a lot of my plants from friends.”

He shrugged.  “True.  I’m just saying, it seems like we shouldn’t plant the same thing in this spot.”

Mountain Fire

As a gardener, I was out of whack for weeks.  It was hard to reconcile what had been stolen.  Not just plants, but sweat equity, creativity, joy.  I don’t have ten acres (yet) to tend, and while I wait for the time when that works, I’m transforming the space I do have into something uniquely mine.  Gardening gifts me all these things and also keeps me from going bat-shit crazy living so close to neighbors, whom I mostly like.  But still.

As a victim of theft, I was very pissed and a little paranoid.  Someone had been casing the neighborhood.  What else in my yard had the chance of being taken?  Why hadn’t the dog barked in the night?  The windows were open.  How could I not have heard someone digging outside?

I left that spot bare.  Afraid to plant the same thing.  Not sure what else to put there.  I spent a lot of time thinking about black market gardening, and whether those chain-linked-roadside stands that were stuffed with potted plants along the rural highways were legitimate.

A few months later, a zinger of an inspiration came while I was in the woods.  There were people at the heart of those landscape crimes who were trying to eke out a living in a bad economy.  What if those people were a bunch of kids?  What if they lived off the grid?  What would that look like?  How would they decide what to steal?  Who would be in charge?  What else was at stake?

Thus began a novel in response to some of those questions.  It’s a mess.  It’s my first.  The characters are very patient with me, and we’re searching for the story together.  It might be a project that lives in a drawer later, and I’m not too romantic about it being a bestseller or anything.  Some days it feels like giving birth.  Not the fluffy-after-labor-with-a-good-smelling-baby-in-your-arms part, but the in-labor-with-no-epidural part.

Still, I believe in the project as passionately as I believe in putting my hands in the dirt. This month marks one year I’ve been world-making with my band of plant thieves.  I’m darn grateful for these girls in my life, which I guess means I’m grateful for being robbed, because without my gone plants I might never have pulled this collection of souls out of the “well of souls,” as Dorothy Allison calls that place where inspiration is born.

I eventually did plant something in the bare spot.  Grass.   That seems about right for now, until I get the urge to put in corn.

Categories: gardening, girls, writing | Tags: , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

bird mama

I got chickens last spring, my first foray in many years into pets that live outside.  We’ve had a series of critters my kids have chosen, none of which we have now:  frogs, fish, geckos, hermit crabs, and guinea pigs (whom I sent to “live in the country” when it became my job and not my daughter’s to take care of them). I vaguely remember having hens when I was a kid.  I was in charge of mowing our massive lawn, and one of my younger sisters raised our brood from chicks.  She doesn’t remember it at all fondly.  They’d chase her around the coop and peck her legs when she went in to feed them.  In her haste to escape, she’d often drop the eggs and come back to house with nothing.  One day our dog Freddie killed them when someone left the coop door open.  We found our whole flock later that evening, scattered about in our back field with their necks broken.  That was the end of that.  My sister was delighted and switched to cleaning bathrooms.

The kids thought it was funny I was choosing our next pets.  Hours were spent discussing breeds, considering the coop and where it should live in the yard, and whether our dog Zora would create a terrible massacre before we could train her to co-exist with her new pals.  As is his way, my husband John entertained my scheme, listened to some of the details, and reminded me that he had all the hobbies he’d like to have.

“I’m glad you’re excited,” John said.  “It’s fun to watch.  This sounds like less mountain biking for me, sooooo…better not count me in.” His standard response.

I’m not that great a carpenter (read:  I have no spatial awareness and am dangerous with power tools), so I found a guy in a neighboring town who builds coops.  In a sunny corner in the yard I put together the one I’d chosen.  From the feed store I got three Barred Plymouth Rock chicks and set them up in a bin with a growlight in the garage.  So began my chicken mothering.

We were all smitten (even John; he always comes around).  Several times a day, we checked on them, picked them up, and sang to them while Zora stood quivering and sniffing, drooling through the old screen window we’d put over the top of their box.  The kids were obsessed with reruns of Gilligan’s Island.  We named our girls Marianne, Ginger and Mrs. Howell.

When they were ready, I let them run around the back yard each day.  They learned to come when I whistled, eat out of my daughter’s hand, and dig for worms in the garden.  Early on, they  imprinted me as their mama.  I loved how they followed me, running in that hilarious, wingless way chickens do, all feet and swaying necks.  With a husband who’s grown weary of my endless projects (he says I have project A.D.H.D.), and one teen boy in the house who thinks I’m the village idiot half the time and spends the other half asking me why girls are so lame, it felt good to have creatures so thrilled about my existence.  These chickens wanted to be in my pocket.  It was sweet.  Still, despite my chicken love, I was impatient.  These girls were meant to be working pets.  Free range poopers and layers who would make miracles happen in my garden. I couldn’t wait for them to be old enough to lay eggs.

We have two back entrances to our house, both of which have a sliding glass door.  The birds spent enough time chasing after me to see that I’d disappear past these doors and be gone.  Summer teenagers by this time, my disappearance was distressing to them.  Also they were spoiled, receiving kitchen scraps anytime someone came outside.  They began to lurk  just outside the sliders, running back and forth, shitting up a storm and pecking at the glass.  Calling to me.

At first I was tickled.  Then the kids and their friends would step in chicken poop and track it in.  Or we’d forget to spray off the patio and later find truffles of chicken shit baked onto the stones.  This was putting a serious damper on the free range thing.  John was cheesed; to his credit he didn’t say anything and just went biking.  I did my best to take my medicine, remind myself I’d chosen this hobby, and be good about cleaning up after them.

Then autumn and the rains came.  One of our girls, Mrs. Howell, was decidedly the group’s alpha and much bigger than the other two.  She was the boss, and being the boss meant you squatted on the patio out of the rain, pecking at the glass, laying big chicken shits and terrorizing the kids for kitchen scraps.  It was too rainy to do much mountain biking.  “You have to do something,” John said.   The girls needed to be contained.  They needed more space.  I sweet-talked my family into helping me build (read:  I held the tools) a covered chicken run, very chic and inviting, along the side yard.  We’d allow them out if we were in the yard working so we could monitor them.  No more running the shit gauntlet on the patio.  Problem solved.

I waited for them to lay eggs, listening every day for tell-tale signs inside the coop.  In the beginning, the sound of a young hen laying eggs is pretty dramatic.  She wants everyone to know about it.  Our girls were making all the noises, but with no product.  Mrs. Howell was particularly vocal, her pre-pubescent call something between that egg-laying noise, a leaf blower and a honking goose.  I couldn’t understand what the hold up was.

Our neighbors down the street have chickens.  All summer and most of the fall I’d heard their rooster each morning, which I personally found charming, though I wondered how many other neighbors had complained.  Because we live within town limits, we’re only allowed to have hens.  One day it was quiet.  I caught Maggie in her front yard digging up her grass to put in blueberry bushes.

“What happened to your rooster?”

“Um.  That wasn’t a rooster.”

I was confused.  I couldn’t figure out why she was lying.  It really had been a rooster.  Every day.  At dawn.  And sometimes in the night.

“Wait.  What?”

“She was an old hen who didn’t lay anymore and thought she was a rooster.  She’s in the freezer.”

Clearly, Mrs. Howell was on the same trajectory, only she’d never gone through years of egg-laying.  I’d gotten a dud, a hen who thought she was a rooster.  Except she was starting to look like a rooster, too.  She was beautiful and she knew it.  My friends with chickens told me I was just being dramatic.

“You hardly ever get a rooster from the feed store,” they said.  “They’re so good at sexing chicks now.  Don’t be so impatient.”

I waited.  I’m very bad at waiting.

By late fall, Mrs. Howell was spending all her time calling out to the world.  Bullying Marianne and Ginger.  Cock-a-doodle-dooing at all hours.  Not just at dawn, though there was plenty of that.  One night just before Halloween, she was up all night crying out to the moon on the half hour about her gorgeous self.

John rolled over, wide awake, and said to me.  “THAT is a man.  You have to get rid of it.

“What if we keep her and use her to have chicks?”

“Jesus.  No more pets.  You started this, now you have to deal with it before the neighbors get pissed.”

“But Maggie had a rooster all summer and no one complained.”

Radio silence.

“What am I supposed to do?”

“Make some soup.”

He was right.  I had to do something, but I couldn’t bring myself to kill her.  Him.  She was too impressive a specimen.  Plus, I’d raised her up from that fragile youth, and she’d survived Zora, who by this time had gotten into trouble enough times over the chickens that she was over it.  They could be out in the yard with her and she’d just lie down and watch them scratch for bugs.

My friend Jan had fifty chickens in the country, so I arranged with her to exchange Mrs. Howell for one of her laying hens.  John and I loaded Mrs. Howell up in the old guinea pig cage (the last time I’d used it had been to send those rodents off into the wilderness).  It wasn’t quite tall enough and she had to squat, feathers sticking up through the bars.  She was very indignant and managed to shit several times in the half hour drive and smear it around the cage.

At Jan’s, we released her into one of the runs alone.  It was muddy.  It was raining. It was roofless.  Mrs. Howell stood there, shifting her bird feet to keep them out of the mud, blinking at us indignantly.  “He’s such a city slicker,” Jan said.  “Doesn’t want to get dirty.  You didn’t  keep that thing inside, did you?”

“Well.  Not really.”  I thought about the gravel and sand we’d put in our run to make it easier to clean, to keep the mud down, to exfoliate their feet.  I kept all that to myself.

We brought our new hen, Rainier, home and she fit right in.  She’d just molted.  Her bottom was bald and red, her feathers matted and muddy.  She’d never been outside a fenced run before, so we had a good time watching her taste freedom in the grass.  She’s not quite as smart as the others, but she’s sweeter in temperament.  Marianne and Ginger have taught her how to break into the veggie garden and get the good stuff.  She taught them how to lay eggs, which they all did within four days of Rainier’s arrival and have continued to do like champs ever since, though somehow, Rainier’s eggs are twice the size even though she’s no bigger than the girls.

Blessedly, Rainier doesn’t much care about being on the patio.  There aren’t any good worms there.  But while Marianne and Ginger have decided I’m only good for snacks, Rainier follows me wherever I go in the yard, sometimes running to keep up.  She’ll stand close enough so that her feathers rub along my leg, which I accept to be the chicken version of a cuddle.  Her tiny head canted to one side, she blinks up at me and emits a throaty chicken purr.  I know it’s crazy, but that bird wants to tell me something.  Something heartfelt and deep.

The kind of thing a kid can only tell its mother.

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