Category Archives: death

On rushed seasons

22 March is shockingly early for the first (measly) asparagus harvest, don’t you think?

The girl barges in through the back door Wednesday afternoon and announces “It sure is quiet out there!”  That morning’s trip with the dogcrate full of roosters guaranteed that the regular sounds of backyard bucolia have returned here.

My call to the butcher’s wife brought the usual guffaw from her.  “SEVEN roosters? You ARE a softie, honey.”

Jellybean and some of his wimmin.  What you can’t see is his torn-up wattle, poor thing.  Now he’s back to being #2 Rooster.

Er, not really.  The seven in question were late-summer chicks too small for the Thanksgiving turkey trip to the butcher in question.  We endured their presence until we just couldn’t (“we” includes the harassed hens and of course the now bloody and pissed-off Mary Ellen and Jellybean) any longer.  And since one guy was keen to “sleep” in the huge blue spruce which shades the henyard…well, let’s just say an early spring’s open windows and one obnoxious night bird are not exactly compatible.  It’ll buy you a trip to freezer camp, dude.

I envy those of you who are actively eating down the contents of your freezers.  I am somehow unable to ever see the bottom of a freezer (understandably, not a bad problem to have), what with the seasonal binges like a rooster harvest.  Things simply get replaced.

The new greenhouse:  I had planned on harvesting these greens by the end of April, not March…

One thing not easily stored is the lettuces.  My best-laid plans of harvesting one  older-lettuce-filled greenhouse and then moving on to the next baby-lettuce-filled greenhouse are crappy plans indeed with daily lows beating average highs here.  Three solid weeks of temperatures in the 70s/80s mean that the 100s experienced in the greenhouses are not good for anything currently in there…including the 100 cells seeded with tomatoes.  Sigh.  Time to reboot, clean out, reseed.  Weather, you know, just happens.  My plans would’ve been perfect in a normal year.

The routine on Sunday and Thursday nights:  gather ye CSA bags as ye may…

But what are we going to eat in May?  I wonder!  Better start seeding lettuce rows for the fickle world outside.

The nightly haul:  leeks, lettuces (Amish Deer Tongue and red romaine), atop bolting collards, asparagus and onions…with herbs. 

Is blogging dead? Or is it just dying?

Greenhouse lettuce and chervil

So:  What is it that makes people read other people’s blogs?  It was a Friday afternoon and my blog aggregator had been silent for hours.  Granted, historically Fridays (for whatever reason) aren’t a big day for posting…but as someone looking for a quick non-work-thought fix, I missed the lack of input.  And because my blog reader follows about 100 blogs, this silence was fairly deafening.

Where is everyone going?  Is Facebook so important a source of infotainment that it’s sucking all the communication bandwidth?  Is Twitter?  Or is it just that the blog format (words, pictures, generally more than 140 characters) is too…long both to write or to read?

Perhaps it’s just the blogs I read.  Those crowding my aggregator tend to be of the homesteady/gardeny/foody stripe:  all very much in the Look What I Can Do mode, and once someone’s accomplished something (their hens lay, their tomatoes ripen, their charcuterie dry) then it’s, well, done.  No need to revisit it, to post about it twice.  But (for what it’s worth) I haven’t particularly noticed the numbers of folks who read this blog fading…and we all know I go over the same material again and again.

[Also for what it is worth, I don’t think I plan to stop blogging any time soon:  I enjoy the writing exercise, the dialogue; and, strangely, I have a (perhaps hyperinflated) sense that what I say might be of interest to others.  I try to talk about my strange path without being too much of a pedant, too much of a tyrant.]

Anyway, wherever you are, you 100 bloggers, I miss you!  Whether I read you because you’re an emotional train wreck, because of your sparkling personality, your good stories, or because you likewise teach ME, I just wish you would post more often.

I would especially like it if you posted, say, during a long Friday afternoon?

On negatives being positive

Uh oh:  chicken tractor and lawn furniture scattered hither and yon

My husband continuously says I am a glass-half-empty person.  He says it often enough that it makes me suspicious:  does he want me to believe this?  Tomayto tomahto I say.  Frankly, I think we could all use a dose of half-emptyness, at least some of the time.  If it does nothing else it lets you accept that Stuff Happens, and it prepares you for it, for sometimes Stuff will happen to You.

Stuff Happens, so pick up the pieces and move on.  We had a hellacious windstorm on Thursday night, preceded by a hailstorm of long length.  The hail was kind of cool to watch, and thankfully wasn’t so bad as to shed greenhouse plastic and/or leafy plants.  But that windstorm!  Wow.  Friday morning was a bit of a blur:  tree-sized branches everywhere, and the chicken tractor thrice tumbled, meat birds scattered.

Lucky Lucy, wondering where her siblings might be.  Every year our daughter commutes the sentence of one female meat bird.

So yeah, lots of damage.  We lost two chickens (gone with the wind?).  This  morning fortunately was the appointment with the butcher, so I gathered the remaining 25 Freedom Ranger birds and drove them over, avoiding fallen limbs and debris along the way.  And then, well, then I carried on.

Old greenhouse, 4 Oct 11:  Left photo shows the lone tomatoes in the front and on back wall, with green tomatoes ripening on a screen; right shows rosemary, sage, and artichoke in the foreground and the zany fig tree at the right.  All empty-looking beds have been planted with winter-hardy lettuces and greens (mizuna, arugula, kales, chickories).

Control what you can:  I cleaned the summer crops out of the old greenhouse on Saturday.  I was too depressed to do outdoor garden work, so instead I prepared the old greenhouse for winter.

But it’s still summer in the new greenhouse  where it’s tomato city, with peppers…but seedling beds are full too.  Those are some late sweet potatoes on the screen, dried beans on the chair at the right.  Lots of work to be done here too, toward the end of the month.

The next cleanup project:  re-erecting the trellis.  Those are my hops on the ground.

So indeed:  bit by bit, pick up the pieces.  I suppose I should be thankful this storm occurred toward the end of the growing season…it would’ve been more discouraging earlier in the summer.  As it is now, well…things had begun to be harvested, picked, prepared for winter before this storm.  The trellises and broken-up beds aren’t “needed” except maybe by my aesthetic sense of wholeness.  Which is motivation enough, actually, to get me moving.  Half full indeed!

On chemical warfare in the garden

Slippery slope time:  I have a gardening secret, one whose use still causes me some great shame.  Like all secret shames, though, there’s a sweet upside to it.

My secret?  Bt.  Bacillus thuringiensis, technically.  This naturally-occurring soil bacterium has a sharp, crystalline structure that when ingested by caterpillars is quite lethal.  My aim is one particular caterpillar: those of the dreaded cabbage moth.  Those bloody things make any and all of my brassicas poop-covered, leafless stems if I gave them a chance.  Hah!  No chance, no quarter.

Yes, kitchen tools in the garden too!  I am shaking the powder upon pre-wetted red cabbage and Russian kale:  somehow, a butterfly got in there under the rowcover and laid her eggs.

You must understand that using this stuff is an absolute last stop with me.  All other insect and bug pests get squished between my fingers during my twice-daily trips to the garden.  With the exception of tomato hornworms (too big to squish and too valuable as chicken food) the swarms of Colorado potato beetles, squash bugs and bean beetles all meet the wrath of my finger and thumb.  It’s no wonder I always wear garden gloves, and even then that’s not a guarantee I won’t get grossed out…should I describe the arc that potato nymph guts will take?  Toward one’s eye, always.  Perhaps a face mask is recommended.

Anyway, back to the powder.  I go to great lengths otherwise to avoid the cabbage moth butterfly.  All (and I do mean all) of my cabbage family crops (broccoli, cabbage, cauliflower, collards, kale, kohlrabi, rutabaga, turnip, and the zany Asian voodoo mashup veg of which I am so fond) grow under row covers in the warm months and are behind butterfly-proof screen within the greenhouses during the cold months.  This means about a third of my outdoor garden beds are covered with white cloth…not exactly pretty or natural, but, hey, I’ve gone on about the barrier method before.

The folks at the Fruit Exchange laughed at me, though, when I put the bag on the counter.  They know I grow organic.  And they know that I think this bag of stuff is really straddling a fence…it’s natural, but it’s far from its natural form.  “Things that bad, eh?” said the big guy in the overalls who always helps me.  “You know, I’ve got stronger stuff if you need it,” pointing to the odoriferous poison aisle.  (This is the same guy who, the last time I saw him, said “How many bales can you get in that thing,” he asked, pointing at my ancient VW Golf.  “Five, if I use the front seat,” I replied.  “Well, Jeff Foxworthy says you know you’re a redneck when you know how many haybales fit in your car,” yeah, lots o yuks.)

So I use the stuff only sparingly and in a reactive way:  only AFTER I see them does the powder come out.  It takes a day for the f*ckers to eat sh*t and die, but…all I need to do is hose the food off and it’s edible.  I still keep the covers on so no other creature from the order Lepidoptera gets affected.  And yes, it’s easier than squishing…and just as sickly satisfying, come to think of it.

On new compost

The compost heaps are also where the best volunteer veg spring up:  note the squash above.

Upon trucking the umpteenth wheelbarrow full of fresh compost around the new beds this weekend, I reflected on how much the big pile of stuff means to me and the gardens.  I’ve waxed philosophical on the subject many times over the years, and my ardor for the “garden gold” has only grown with time.

That said, I still have never let it cook down to being completely finished. Nope. Call me impatient, or greedy, or both.

It’s an interesting math problem, actually.  With the addition of dairy goats two years ago, the actual volume of compostables (in the form of their bedding) has quadrupled.  My gardens, however, have not.  It was only this weekend that the garden got expanded…it’s been the same size since 2008, thus, technically, I should be sitting on a surplus.  A surplus, or at least a big enough reserve so it actually cooks down!  There never is a surplus, though:  like the government’s budget, new sources for the goods are always readily found, and those resources get sucked up.  And lo, it’s never quite “done” yet.

So during that schlep of compost it also occurred to me that, as a gardener, my job is actually within the vast field of waste management.  You know, winkwink, nudgenudge, what Tony Soprano would claim as his profession (with a perfectly straight face, mind you) to anyone who asked.  Heh.

Yep.  Behold, the power of poo.

On worst-case scenarios

The pod people descend

You regular readers may have been noticing a decided lack of content-laden posts lately.  I apologize.  I have been up to my eyeballs in personal matters.

Lo these last few years it has been fairly commonplace for many bloggers to rue a flavor of the week doomer issue:  global warming/climate change, peak oil, global fiscal collapse, terrorism, whatever.  What to worry about, what to do about it, is generally the theme of those posts.  “Preparedness,” “sustainability,” and “adaptation” are very commonly mentioned terms made in response to these problems.  I certainly didn’t read (much less use) these terms with such frequency a decade ago.  Statistics show however that personal tragedies are much more likely to befall you, and probably a lot sooner, too.  A job loss, say, or a house fire, or a car accident, or natural catastrophe, or the illness or even death of a dear family member.  It is these common tragedies that we should prepare for, that we should…befriend.


One often goes through Elisabeth Kübler-Ross’ five steps in things other than death.  “Acceptance,” the last step, does not mean fait accompli; often, the griever circles back again through the steps like some nightmarish carnival ride.  Personally, I think what hurts the most is the yearning for that time Before The Event.  You know:  your carefree miles spent in your gas-guzzling SUV, say, or life before the job loss/accident/flood/fire/illness/death. Life seemed so much simpler then!  Our problems were so few!  What could we possibly have had to complain about?

Grieving too is practically another world, a parallel plane to the one most of us walk about every day.  In the words of Iris Murdoch, “A real experience of death isolates one absolutely.  The bereaved cannot communicate with the unbereaved.”*

Becalming the bees

Our family is going through some changes.  My autistic brother has moved in with us; I have blogged about him before.  My mother is suddenly very ill and cannot care for him.  We, in turn, will be caring for my mother.

Honey Turkey don’t care

What in the world does this have to do with gardening?  Quite a lot, if we were to look at my garden, my kitchen.  The dining room table will be set for five, not three.  We will probably purchase the farmhouse across the road for my brother:  it’s larger than this one, and needs a bunch of work.  He will eventually live there with a few other developmentally disabled adults.  That house’s eleven acres will complement this house’s five.  And the old farmstead will be reunited (the houses and land were originally part of a 38 acre fruit farm, built by two immigrant Sicilian brothers a hundred years ago).  And, well…life will go on.

*An Accidental Man by Iris Murdoch, NY:  Penguin, 1988.  Originally published 1973.

On death and…poop

There’s a lot of life, too, including new life.

Thursday was a gray morning with me stepping into my boots, trying to keep my second cup of coffee from spilling, when the phone started ringing.  It was our next-door neighbor, asking, nicely, if I could come over, which, being neighborly, I said sure, of course.  Coffee down, hastily-kicked-off boots back on, I was over there in a flash.

Life on the farm has put me in contact with two expected but not necessarily always welcome things:  Poop and death.

Poop is mostly welcome, though I admit there is that maddening period of time wherein the snow has retreated yet the hose remains frozen:  poop, courtesy of free ranging chickens and turkeys, is everywhere on the walk and the deck.   (The hose has remained unfrozen for a couple of weeks now, yay!)  I am an inveterate harvester of poop and bedding, and goodness poop is what makes a farm productive so…as long as it stays out of the house, poop’s not a bad thing in its ubiquity.

Death, though, is also everywhere.  I found it ironic that this morning my neighbor happened to call when I had already killed or found dead five things (three trapped mice, one cabbage butterfly and one egg-stealing raccoon) and they were asking me to help with a sixth:  their fourteen-year-old Golden retriever had died in the night.  Their 120-pound dog.  Yes.  Who’re you gonna call but the feedsack-slinging, haybale-hauling, ditch-digging, raccoon-shooting neighbor, heck, SHE can lift old Annie into the trunk.

And I did.  Then I went back, got my now-cold cuppa, and had a sit in the old greenhouse, musing about my lot.  There’s turkey poop on my boots, I notice, and that first greenhouse bed needs more compost.  More poop, more death, to bring more life.

Sometimes, you feel small.


On spring chickens

Ah, spring.  The temperatures have finally climbed above the finger-numbing range so I took it upon myself to off a few supernumerary roosters on Sunday.

It seems that March through June is such a fraught time around the place, so much so that I awake at night with worries of “did I do that already?  ohgah when am I going to find the time to do X time-intensive, necessary farm task?” and it’s tasks like killing roosters that I put off and put off again and again.  Usually, things need to rise to near crisis level (read:  they’ve begun fighting) for me to really jump into action.  Let’s face it:  Chores like cleaning out the chicken coop or putting up a new fence, however distasteful, beat chicken killing any day.  But it’s come to that with these birds.  Spring means rooster testosterone flows just as readily as chlorophyll in the grass or lutenizing hormone in the egg chickens.

Life became a lot more cushy for this farmgirl when I found a local butcher to do in my critters for me.  Fifteen chickens takes him two hours, whereas five chickens nearly kills me and shoots my whole day (it takes me four hours, plus recovery for my feather-plucking fingers).  At $2.50 a bird, it beats the heck out of what I bill an hour, and even math-averse me can see that Mike’s skills, though cheap, are priceless.  But I won’t bring him these eight-month-old little bantam roosters.  It’s not worth his time!

Me, on Sunday

Two of the birds went to the freezer, but the last went into a wonderful mild soup called Cock-a-leekie…it’s a Scottish dish.  It’s traditionally prepared with the losing roo in a cockfight, actually!  Perhaps this boy didn’t lose a cockfight, but he lost the game of numbers…a farm only needs a tiny number of roosters.  Caput kaput, which makes me snort.

Cock-a-Leekie:  I harvest a good pound or more each of leeks and carrots out of the outdoor garden, grab a huge hank of thyme from the herb garden and scrounge up celery leaves, parsley, scallions and chervil from the greenhouse.  The rooster, gutted, headless and footless, is in a heavy pot with hot salted water to cover; I start braising him at the barest boil while I prepare the veggies and herbs.  After about an hour, I take the meat off the carcass, pan-sear the leeks and a handful of pearled barley in some butter and then put the leek/barley mixture, meat, bouquet garni (thyme, chervil, parsley tied w/ string), chopped carrots and celery back in the broth pot to cook another hour or so until the carrots are softened…adding spices to taste.  Traditionally served with prunes, this soup is sweet enough without them thanks to the winter-grown leeks and carrots, methinks.  Thanks, little annoying rooster!

On preparing for the high holy day of local food

Ruby (center) and Earl (top left) with this year’s birds

The American Thanksgiving holiday:  there’s a lot to like about this day of belt-loosening gluttony.  All the world ’round has harvest festivals of some slice or another that’re trussed in tradition and stuffed with myth and baked to a golden brown glory mostly by the women of the household.  Ours is no exception, as we like our edible myths here.  The reality, though, is that it is a lot of work, especially for this hausfrau.

My call to the butcher’s wife a month ago had me crestfallen at her guffaw of laughter.  “Sorry, sweetie, we closed our calendar for turkey processing three weeks ago!” she snickered.  Sigh.  See, I have not one turkey to do in, but two, actually three; one for selling, one for eating…the other, well, she’ll just be “dinner on the hoof” until we feel like eating her.  And my father in law emailed recently to say “can’t I just buy you a bird for the day?  I mean, I don’t like the idea of eating something that I’ve talked to every time I come over to your house,” which made me laugh.  (“Don’t talk to them then,” was my response.)  So it looks like I will need to take a day off to actually butcher the birds.

It’s okay, really.  Every year, I shuck another side dish; by this point, well, the side dishes are spare (three) and the desserts are singular (pie).  Soup course, salad course, cheese course, check; everything else though?  It gets baked in the masonry oven this year.  And yes:  I made sure to size the oven door to fit a 25-pound, rack-lifted, home-grown bird in a roasting pan.  Functional design does matter, after all.

I wish all of you a great harvest holiday…and may we all be thankful for, and appreciative of, what we have.

Earl concurs, as he’s thankful he’s not table fare

On the killing season

From the Class of 2010:  Peaches (left, a roo) and Eagle (right, a pullet)

The wind is coming in strong puffs, and it’s bringing with it the smell of the lake.  I’m not too happy about the task at hand.   I am dry-plucking a chicken.  A half-grown chicken, actually, a half-grown bantam…that’s practically no chicken at all as he probably only weighs a pound, a pound and a half.  Four and twenty of them, yes, might just fit in a pie:  I am holding him by his legs and I believe I have eaten bigger frog’s legs in my lifetime.

I had to put the guy out of his misery, you see.  His foot had gotten stuck in the little fence surrounding our back yard garden, and his compatriots had pecked him into a stupor.  I seriously doubted he’d recover from his head wound.

Poor guy.  I know I am either grimacing or am biting my lip; I try to just relax and do what is needed before my husband and daughter get home.  Poultry deaths aren’t easy, unless they’re expected.

It’s been a year of lots of birth and little death around here this year.  Six turkey poults followed the original seventeen of this spring.  (We kept three.)  Twenty-eight chicks have hatched under various chicken mothers; of them, eight of those cute bantam babies died when their idiot bantam mother decided she needed her nest up on top of a box, and the chicks couldn’t reach it, dying of exposure in a 60-degree night.  I walked in to the goat shed in the morning gloom and thought, who left these kleenex lying around, when it was little bantam bodies I was seeing on the straw.  And then this little death in my hand:  we’re left with twenty.  Plus the twenty-five meat birds (Freedom Rangers, much overrated) and the five girls whose egg-eating habits have sealed their freezer fate…as you can see, exponentially, the poultry population explodes every summer here.  And it recedes in the fall.

We’re keeping two laying hens out of the twenty home-hatched babies that remain.  There are three female bantam chicks who might live another year too, depending on how generous I am feeling.  All the home-grown chicks are amazingly colorful, but all the bantams have their father’s boring white plumage.  With all of them, I stare and think “Who’s yer ma,” hearkening back to one of the putative definitions of Hoosier (i.e., one of the thing Indiana residents said in days of yore was this direct question of your parentage:  who’s your ma, who’s your pa, who’s your folks?, who’syer, hoosier).  Daddy is definitely known:  he’s our handsome Black Sex Link boy Mary Ellen, and he’s lent speckles to every baby.  All the chicks are named and cared for by our daughter, which is why I was hurrying in my grisly task.

Plucked, gutted, de-headed, de-footed; this little creature is reduced to nearly nothing.  He’s crowed his last croaking adolescent crow.  I pluck the last of his down off his waxy skin, hose him off and bag him up for the fridge.

On sex and the barnyard

Let’s face it, people.  The male sex is not valued in the world of the farm.

It came as a shock to me.   A very parallel universe to the one I knew:  being of the female persuasion is actually highly valued if one is a farm animal.  All males are either quickly eaten or dispatched at birth/hatching.  This is NOT a hard and fast rule, of course:  being male won’t hurt your chances of growing to maturity if you’re a cloven-hooved creature, or a turkey.  You just most likely won’t get there with your scrotum intact (cattle, pigs, sheep, goats) or once you hit sexual maturity (turkeys).

I am not blind to the reason that female creatures are welcomed:  We desire the products of their reproductive organs (eggs, milk, more babies).  And even as a vegetarian I harbored no illusions that I wasn’t killing animals in my quest to have milk and eggs:  you need to get pregnant to have milk (duh!) and, the chicken DOES come before the egg…and the ratio of males to females in almost every animal grouping is 50/50, thus, for each egg-producing hen, one potential rooster chick was snuffed out.  The fact that you don’t even need male poultry to produce eggs further reduces their chances.

So it was with some sadness that I learned all three of our goats turned out to be boys.  Sigh.  And in my readings of goat-rearing handbooks, most dairy manuals were clear-eyed about this–a lot more clear-eyed than my usual gimlet-eyed self, too–that the most humane thing to do with newborn bucklings is to drown them in a water bucket.  “For every 500 males born, only 5 will find productive service as stud, and it most likely is not the one born in your barn,” is the way one manual put it.  Other suggestions were to skin them for their downy-furred pelts, or tan their hides for kid gloves.  (Eeps.  I am so not there yet, people.)

But in my usual take on the world, I knew the most responsible thing to do would be to do the responsible thing:  get them disbudded, castrated, and shot up with necessary injections, pronto.  Within their first week of life, then, they had their horns burned off, their immunizations, and their male parts disarmed.  They will all three find lives as either dinner or as cart-pulling bellwethers.  This is what is required if I want home-grown milk.

Likewise, one male turkey and one male chicken is all I require to have a self-sustaining (closed) poultry flock.  This is the first year we will not get chicks/poults from the store or in the mail, the first year then that we will have truly homegrown poultry (Thanksgiving Dinner and last year’s goslings excepted).

I harbor no illusions about what it is I am doing and what has been required of me to do it.  I am simply a lot closer to the reality of it than many meat-, dairy- and egg-eating people are; the choices pluck a touch harder on my heart-strings because I know and in most cases love these creatures.  But please don’t kid yourselves:  you’re subcontracting the killing if your hands aren’t physically wielding the knife.  And that is okay, as long as you know the animals have been well treated (for whatever their lifespan) in life and through death.  And if you don’t know, then you are, at the very least, being willfully blind.

Don’t be blind.  Support small ethically-committed farmers if you choose to eat meat, dairy and eggs.

On flock protectors

Don’t mess with her

It’s a good thing that Ruby is in with the chickens!

The dog was whining terribly, and as I couldn’t really hear anything over the music I was playing, I let her out…to see a hawk in the chicken run, fighting with our hen turkey.

Ruby got the upper hand, I have not a clue how.  The hawk was terribly injured, so I put it out of its misery.

Ruby is fine, though flustered.

Don’t blame me for this one, says Little Edie

On anticipating the Thanksgiving feast

I knew it.

I knew at first sight back in May that THIS was a specimen worthy of the Thanksgiving table.  All summer and fall I spent many hours feeding and watering.  I was vigilant against predatory attacks from birds and insects.  I covetously watched growth, being ever surprised, day by day, by how big this thing was getting.

Monsterous growth!  So big, there is no way we could eat it all at one sitting!!!  Yay:  Thanksgiving, after all, is the one time of year that we look forward to leftovers.

And then, one chilly day in November, I killed it.

But, gutted and peeled, it came in a quarter of a pound less than Baby Turkey did.

(Galeux d’Eysines squash:  quite sweet flesh!  Pumpkin bread, pumpkin soup, and pumpkin pie…plus, a ton of puree for the freezer.)

I hope everyone had a wonderful holiday…

NO more Ms. Nice Guy

P1010236It has taken me years, but I believe I am a happy plant murderer now.

Perhaps it is a matter of scale:  scale up one’s garden considerably, there’s not much wiggle room for the slackers of the garden world.  If a seedling looks stunted compared to its fellows, then I pull it.  If half a tomato plant’s production of fruit has blossom-end rot, then I kill it.  If I don’t need any more broccoli out of a perfectly fine plant, then I uproot it.

And with this newfound bloodlust (okay:  if plants don’t have blood, should I say chlorophyll-killing lust?), I am a happier person.  I don’t have that groaning maternalistic impulse to save all seedlings, nurture all volunteers.  It’s liberating, this new relationship with my Felco pruners, these limber muscles normally utilized solely in weed-pulling.  I can now happily lay waste to any garden bed, regardless of contents.  And I did so recently!  All but the paste tomatoes are history, as are the eggplants, okra and tomatillos.  Whee!

This is so contrary to my upbringing and training that it’s quite remarkable.  But it’s a point of evolution most gardeners undergo, I suppose, especially we gardeners bent on year-round food production for our households, because succession planting and efficient use of space both outweigh the needs of any one individual, ailing plant.  And seed-saving likewise does not favor the slackers, the malingerers; instead, it’s all hurry-up-and-grow.  Then:  Quick death in my hands.

I would hate this to be a general policy toward everything, but accepting the full mantle of Plant Grower, Nurturer and Compost-filling Killer is not a terribly heavy burden on my shoulders.  It did take me a long time to get here, though.

On subcontracting

On Monday morning, my calendar flashed my appointments for the week.  “What in the WORLD could I possibly have scheduled for 7:00am on Wednesday morning?” was my bleary-eyed question to myself.

Here’s what the calendar said:  “7:00 a.m. Chicks 12 weeks”

Ah.  It’s much more clear now.  The meat birds are ready to be butchered.


And boy howdy are they!  Unlike the last two batches of meat birds that I have raised, these feathered friends are actually CROWING in the morning.  It’s past time, it would seem like, for them to be freezer fare.  What a big task ahead for me:  I received 52 chicks in the mail the first week of June.  Eleven of these creatures were exempt from butchering, as they’re the new crop of laying hens (plus rooster).  Chicken Patty gets a husband and at least two sister-wives, so there go another 3 chickens.  And then there’s the turkey baby, and then there’s the 5 goslings, who are now full-sized geese.  Thirty-eight chickens, one turkey, and five geese.


I happened to be on a post-movie panel discussion last month with the woman who runs our Eat Local listserve.  She came out to the farm and graciously took three of my new laying hen chicks, plus extra rooster, off my hands, as she had decided Speckled Sussex was what she wanted to concentrate on for her own dual-purpose birds, but (sadly) a raccoon ate all but two of hers.  So we were doing the Chicken Talk thing, and I asked her how often she made it out to my neck of the woods (she lives closer to Kalamazoo, about 45 minutes east of me) and she said “every time I need to butcher the chickens.”

Apparently, the guy in town with the sign on his lawn that advertises deer processing is an all-around butcher, and he charges $2.50 a chicken, and $7.00 for geese.

Part of the reason I am doing this whole poultry-ranching thing is to have a complete connection with the entirety of what goes into our meals.  Butchering the birds is a part of that, albeit a not terribly pleasant part; I do it alone, as my husband wants no part of it but the eating, and all my friends are not exactly…the types of folks who get into this kind of thing.  To do all those birds would take every weekend day from now until October.  But:  $2.50 a bird!

I checked out the guy’s facilities, chatted with him for a while, and have made another calendar date regarding the chickens.  But this time the date won’t surprise me.

P1000608Turkey girls love playing King of the Hill.  Earl of course just likes to show off his stuff “to the ladies.”

On “not enough”

P1000253Only one lousy 4×16 bed of onions.  Normally, we have two such beds.

So I might be waxing poetic about my garlic harvest, but it has been a dud year for onions.

Onions are very important.  Yes, they’re an inexpensive, readily available crop to buy, and those who are space-crunched in their vegetable gardens do very well sticking them in the “why bother” category.  But I am not space crunched, and I am a tightwad, therefore, I grow my own.  And this year has not been kind to my onions.

Granted, I have plenty of onion-y alternatives around here, so our food won’t be achingly bland.  But a combination of factors out of my control means it’s very much an Onions = Gold year.  No pickled red onions, no splurging with the caramelized yellow ones on the bean dishes and pizza…just the “usual” use of them.  And that is okay.

You know, when you do grow your own stuff, you have a different relationship with your food.  I won’t say it’s all gold, but it is all precious. If you’re the gardener as well as the cook, you remember pulling that onion you’re eating:  you may not remember planting the seed or transferring the seedling into the ground but you do remember watching it fill out, thinking, “that’s a fine looking bulb.”  I will say we have very little wasted food around here, somewhat by design but mostly by the fact that all produce is precious.  I cannot say this was the case when we bought all our food, and that astounds me:  we paid good money for that stuff!  Now, what little money we spend is offset by a different kind of investment:  the investment of time, of concern for our patch of earth.  And the victuals finally rendered onto our plates are very dear.

So yes, those few onions, they’re gold to me.

Natura abhorret a vacuo

img_1061Bubbly trouble

We have a little pond that I dug in the yard outside our dining room four years ago.  It’s a blobby Y shape, holding about 750 gallons of water, and has been home to various amphibians, snails, bugs and some goldfish; it’s also chock-full of water plants and bordered by a decent-sized perennial garden with some bushes thrown in (buddleia, rose, dogwood, mock orange, tree wisteria, forsythia, hydrangea).  It has a small pump and waterfall, and a bench.  It is a pleasant little place.

Lately, we have been serenaded by a single Western chorus frog and a couple of toads.  The windows are open now and it is nice to hear the bubbling of the pond, the calls of the amphibians.  It’s actually more than nice.

You see, we killed all the animals that were in the pond this winter.

Mostly inadvertently, of course.  This is an instance of one’s green save-the-earth principles (let’s not waste the electricity by running the de-icer) actually have done more harm than good.  In most winters, see, the pond will ice over but it won’t last long.  This year it iced over and stayed that way, trapping all gases under the ice and killing all the fish and frogs.  Tom pulled out close to 100 frogs and all 30 of our goldfish.

So, yes, it is great to see some creatures return.  There are a few green frog tadpoles that also survived:  nowhere near the 100 that are gone, surely, but there’s hope for the future.

It is an indulgence to us humans, this little pond.  But by digging it, stocking it with fish, and enjoying the natural critters that come requires us to do what we can to ensure the pond critters’ health, safety and welfare.  Otherwise, I need to triple the size of that little pond and make it fully natural…something I doubt I will do, given how hard it was to dig through that damned clay to begin with.

On nature, tooth and claw

sad_henSad Ruby on Friday

I have a bit of an update on Ruby and her eggs.

Early Friday morning, I exited the house on critter chore duty and I was greeted by the sweetest sound.  “Goodness,” I thought, “Earl has learned to imitate Ruby and her sweet coo,” when actually it was our Ruby that I was hearing…and seeing!  How in the world…?  What happened?  Why is she out and about, why is she not sitting on her eggs?

She couldn’t have gotten out on her own, and I was right.  Apparently, a raccoon got into the brood chamber and attacked her, and eaten all her eggs.  We were all so sad, but not as sad as Ruby herself.

She’s safe now, back on a bunch of (dummy) chicken eggs, and I have thrown the Chicken Tractor over her nesting chamber, so now she’s doubly (triply, counting the new fence) secure.

But that particular raccoon won’t be bothering her again.


Mean omnivorous bastard.  Our daughter wanted to make a coonskin cap out of him.

On new greenery

img_0755The return of the growing season is a fairly level playing field as far as our botanical friends are concerned.  The new greenhouse, cleared out of most of its winter contents, is now a wide-open environment for WEEDS.  Yipes!

And nine out of ten times these weeds are unwelcome opportunists.  But I did have to pause when I saw these little cuties.  They are sprouting in one of the now-empty carrot beds, and look suspiciously like carrot seedlings themselves.  I do seem to remember seeing two carrots go to seed last year: strange enough in a biennial, especially one in its first season of growth.  And as a seed-saver I should never encourage the seeds of something that throws seed so readily.  But still, I paused, sparing them the hoe guillotine.

They also look suspiciously like grass seedlings.  Their true leaves will tell me the difference:  ferny fronds=carrots, or more thin leaves=grass.   We shall see.  A week might be a stay of execution…or not.

On health, safety and welfare

To keep up accreditation in our field, we architects must attend seminars that address certain areas of our profession.  The majority of the credits we need are in the area of “Health, Safety, and Welfare,” a general category meant to keep our knowledge current so our buildings don’t collapse and kill people.  (Granted, these seminars are usually bone-dry boring affairs run by building products manufacturers to sell their products, so attending these seminars is not, for me, an irony-free affair.)  Anyway!  I think of this phrase often now that I sideline in animal husbandry.  If you’re going to take on the responsibility of having animals, anything you do must benefit their health, their safety, and their welfare.

dscn3623Coop construction, July 2006

I am so glad we built the Taj Mahal of chicken coops, really I am.  Never intended to house more than a dozen or so birds, our coop could easily accommodate another dozen, but I am glad it does not.  Why?  This cold weather is why.  Those girls are going nowhere.  Even if I do leave the door open and shovel them paths to tread in their yard, it’s just too cold for them outside.  They are (and will remain for the foreseeable future) cooped up.

Cooped up, and bored.  Sorry, girls.  I do try to bring them treats a couple of times a day, and I do need to freshen their water, which freezes.  (In their boredom they flipped and pecked the heated dogbowl I set in there; fearing barbecued chicken, I removed the bowl, and now schlep water often.)  During the day I turn a 40 watt light on for them too; it’s on for about 10 hours.  They’d started laying again (whew!) around Christmas before the light went on so I don’t think I am overstimulating them to produce, and the light is too faint to really warm the place up.

dscn3632Secretary of the Department of Chicken Homeland Security: yours truly, July 2006

Our pellet gun has gone a long way to defend the Chicken Homeland.  A good strong fence over and above the chicken run would help too with aerial threats but it’s not in the cards if I have my Daisy handy.  Last year I strung deer netting over the run and awoke one morning to find a hawk INSIDE the run.  What the…?  The girls were in the coop as is the usual overnight situation but I had the hawk to deal with.  Tom and daughter were out of town.  What to do?  As usual when defending the Chicken Homeland my adrenaline kicks into high gear and I ran outside in fuzzy slippers and bathrobe with the nearest weapon I could find:  a cast-iron skillet.  It was not the hawk’s best day.

The geese and turkeys have their own pen and shed, and I have to chase them all into the shed every night.  Sometimes the geese adamantly refuse to go into it and I let them stay out.  Considering they don’t really sleep at night (they doze most of the day, in turns) being in the shed is no fun for them.  We’ve had no threats to the Greater Poultry Homeland, though.

Now that we’re getting a goat or two, plans are changing.  Dogs are the greatest threat to goats, dogs and their wild coyote cousins.  Again, the goat(s) will be cooped up at night in their own shed inside a sturdily-built fence.  Considering that goats are great as poison ivy and brush eradicators, we’ll use electrified fencing to give them access to day browse.

So, yeah, you’ve got to do a bit to keep your critters safe, secure, happy and healthy.  Owning them, though, is so rewarding that the daily details of addressing their needs are really much more of a pleasure than a burden.  Skillet days excepted, of course!

The end of this year’s meat chickens

Lucky girls:  six of our last round of meat chickens have had an extended life on Death Row.  How could this be, you ask.  Have they not run out of appeals?  Did the governor issue a stay of execution?  What could be the reason, as these girls are now 16 weeks old or so and are quite large enough to be considered freezer fare.  Well, I confess I have simply been busy.

I have been quite pleased with this last batch of meat birds.  As per fellow bloggers’ suggestions, I tried Privett Hatchery in New Mexico and got the turkeys, geese and slow-growing Cornish X chickens at the end of June.  Here I admit that despite my best-laid plans (and $100) I am not much of a fan of The Chicken Tractor.  Confinement is confinement.  Therefore, Round 2 of the Meat Chickens (a smaller batch of 16 birds) got to live in relative freedom* within the chicken yard with the egg birds.  They ate a mix of grower and regular feed, got access to dirt baths, grass, bugs, their own mini-vineyard of grapes, got to fly up on the coop’s perches at night, had fun dodging raindrops by running into the Chicken Condo, and in general got along as members of low standing in the egg birds’ pecking order.  For me, it was a much more amenable situation:  I did not worry about them at night, I didn’t need to move the tractor daily, and the birds were happy doing chicken-y things.

It helped that the genetics of this particular batch of birds worked better in a chicken yard than in true confinement.  I had three sad birds from the first batch who never grew as rapidly or as well as the first 20-ish, and I had them live with the egg birds, too, but these big-breasted babies were so misshapen and had such leg problems that I needed to lift them over the threshold of the coop morning and evening.  The threshold is a whopping 7″ off the ground so it shows how truly effed-up Cornish X broilers have been bred.  Listen:  I am still a bleeding heart at heart, and each chicken’s life is precious to me.  I cannot in good conscience let any animal in my care suffer a life of horror or hurt, and these poor birds’ inability to even jump off the ground bothered me profoundly.  How could they ever have escaped a predator, I wondered.

Anyway, it is time for the last six to go.  We’ll see how many chickens we still have in the freezer at the beginning of next year’s chick ordering season.  Having never done this before (hell, I didn’t even eat meat until a year ago) I have no clue if I have over- or underestimated the needs of my family and friends.  Next year’s Meat Birds might not be so numerous, or even, necessarily, birds bred to just be meat birds.  We might just try breeding our own, and intend to start with a batch of relatively rare meat/egg birds: the Chantecler.

* Re: confinement.  The chicken yard (50’x80′) is a rather porous affair.  There are two holes in the fence and the chickens can get out but mostly choose not to:  the egg birds and guineas walk out in the early evening for a bug/grass dinner, and the meat birds, being timid, stick by the pond, or at the chicken yard’s perimeter.  Everyone knows there are hawks about and that it’s safer in the yard than not.  As long as they get their needs met (shade, shelter, dirtbaths, water, plentiful food, a dark nest) they are all quite happy staying within the yard.

On gifts from the ground

Look what I found in one of my old greenhouse’s garden beds!  It is what I think it is.  I think.  It’s fairly worn.

I’m always surprised any artifacts like this are found at all.  I always wonder, too, how they ever got missing in the first place:  think about it.  That was a lot of hours spent finely honing that stone.  I’m wondering if it was lost in a strike on an animal that got away.  (It’s a spearhead, I think; it’s too big to be an arrowhead.)  It would be horrible to think it is actually a tool of war, but it could be that too.  Anyway, with finding this little stone, much thought has been thunk.

I’ve already been on a do-your-own-food kick for a while, and the Eat Local Challenge for October posts that I have made have addressed some of the ways we eat very local around here.  But the Hubbard squash picture from yesterday, and the hominy corn post I did a while back?  These were staples of the Native Americans who lived where we do now.  Squash had to be big:  you needed to feed a lot of people with it.  No fluffy little Delicatas for them, what was the point?

The known tribe that still actually exists in Southwest Michigan is the Pokagon band of the Potawatomi.  This particular band wasn’t shuttled further west and south on their own Kansas and Oklahoma-bound Trail of Tears with the rest of the Potawatomi because they had the…distinction of being converts to Catholicism at the mission of St. Joseph (a town 15 miles south of me).  Rather fascinating story.  Fights with the Iroquois of New York in the 1650s led most of the Lower Peninsula to be a kind of no-man’s land, depopulated of its Miami and Potawatomi tribes, who, with the Hurons from Ontario and the Sauk from the Detroit area all fled to what is now Wisconsin and Illinois, on the other side of the lake.  Some Potawatomi and Miami returned, finding some security with the Jesuit mission on the St. Joseph River, around 1668.  And they settled, and stayed.

So for me, wondering about what they ate is an interesting exercise.  The fruits I tend to forage are not natives (olive berries, apples, pears).  Many edibles that are native I mostly ignore (lamb’s quarters, sassafras, wild cherry, wild grapes, sugar maples) or can’t find (pawpaws, acorns, wild rice, cranberries).  Lake Michigan has lots of native fish, but the easily caught spawning salmon that we find now are white-man introductions.  I don’t hunt, so all the game readily found around here (deer, turkey, pheasant, rabbit, beaver) and predators (cougars, coyotes, no-longer-here wolves) also get a pass.  The things I readily forage (asparagus, black raspberries, strawberries) are short-seasoned things that certainly aren’t at all filling.

What a different life it seems today, the life behind that spearhead.

On the upside to a lot of rain

So:  two weekends ago we got a record rain.  Has this rain done the garden any good?

You know, I think it is rather amazing that most things really just up and grow at all.  Unlike, say, a roomful of persnickety toddlers, most veggies and flowers have a wide range of what is considered acceptable to them.  Nobody really whines much about their conditions.  In fact, the only whiner is the gardener. And this gardener sure is whining, ruing the loss of her Brussels sprouts for the second year in a row.  And the rotten root crops in the ground.  Ah, the splitting cabbages!!

Well, the celery loved it.  I have always grown celery but it was mostly for taste and not so much out-of-hand fresh eating.  Celery is a water hog.  Park it under a drippy faucet and it would be happy (or so it would appear).  Otherwise, and usually for me, I get skinny stalks that are very tasty but you’d need to be a four-stomached bovid to be able to appreciate the fiber.  Cooked, though, they’re fine.  But now, with all this extra water?  I have nice crunchy celery!  One-stomach-friendly celery!

The autumn olive berries love it.  Granted, these are invasive shrubby trees that I shouldn’t encourage, but they got the rain at the right time of ripening that the berries are lovely and plump.  (I will post later about what I do with the things:  my mom is coming up again to do a half-day harvest soon.)  As far as the rest of the fruits, the grapes are kind of sad, and are taking longer to ripen than is usual.  Same with the apples.  I suppose this should fall under the category of “the rest of the things that hate the rain” but now is the time when I am normally buried in grape and apple harvests.  So I am…appreciative.  But that hammer will soon fall.

The Amanita muscaria (toadstool) mushrooms love it.  Too bad we can’t eat them.  We do have cepes (porcini) but those won’t pop up until it gets cooler…about Oct. 15th or later.  The grass looks lovely now, too, and all the birds just love it, especially the geese.

Otherwise, extremes plainly stink.  Luckily, most of the stuff in the gardens was winding down:  the rain was simply the push toward the compost pile. Could’ve been snow, you know…

On the death of summer

I spent the autumnal equinox in my car, driving home from Wisconsin.  I thought mostly about changing seasons and death.

Funny:  most of the weekend was spent wildly reveling in the strength of my body and embracing life.  And food.  Glorious food, the fuel of life itself.  But death has a way of sticking its nose in.  Fortunately, I was able to spend some time at the bedside of a dying friend.  I was able to at least say goodbye.  The rest of the weekend was living the life of the living, and living it with those who remain alive, without him now.  He died Friday morning, at home.

Ostensibly, the reason for my journey was to configure a large screened enclosure to house this thing.  This wood-fired oven has been a labor of love for my friend C on her farm.  It’s been wonderful, helping shape this dream with her:  lots of sweat, edible payoff.  The oven needs to be stuccoed yet, and the concrete legs on the side are to hold up plank tables for easy pizza assembly.  But as you can see it is functional.  I spent much of the weekend playing with its functions.

Here are the tomatoes I brought for her (with some gnocchi I made): we threw these in for an overnight roast in the cooling oven (300* down to 125*).

I adored the quick hot pizzas we would wolf down for lunch, but the oven’s greater wonders for me were in its long-term cooking abilities.  Seeing what it could do with the tomatoes, I threw in unshucked corn cobs, some glut sauce hastily made from what I could find in C’s garden, and sliced apples and pears from two neighbors’ trees.  In different pans, we let them cook all day while we labored…except the corn was just on the oven floor. The glut sauce is now frozen and the apples/pears are now butter with ginger, allspice and sugar.

Sweaty dirty working girly arms, and one should always drink out of canning jars, don’t you think?

And then after digging and hammering, wine would come out, and a walk through the cornfield, then hot outdoor showers in the cool dark in this lovely space.  Then dinner.  Repeat the next day.

Ah.  Life.

On tomatocide

Okay, to prove to the few doubters of you that yes indeed I am human and have actual limits in this food preservation thing:  I hit a huge wall on Wednesday night.  BANG.

I was making another batch of corn/black bean salsa and took time out to play with the family and geese/turkeys and then put the kid to bed and as I was reading her the 4th story, wow, all I wanted to do was stay right there in the bed with her and not get up again.  Ah.  Couldn’t do it though:  had the salsa to make, then can.

So I mentioned it to Tom.  Then I took a tour early Thursday a.m. of the gardens and came back in and asked him:  can you help me kill my tomato plants?  Because, as the good earth mother that I am, I am unable to uproot these green children of mine and I need help.

Last night, in the rain, we uprooted the remaining 25 or so paste tomato plants outdoors, harvested the ripe ones, put the greenies in the greenhouse to redden, and composted the remainder.  Relief!!!

Now, I have a whole weekend to freak out about what to do with two full bushels of tomatoes.

The meat bird wrap-up

Note: I will be describing, without pictures, the methods I use to butcher in this post. Come back later if you don’t want to know!

The chicken tractor. You can see the blue tow-rope I have attached to the front. There’s a PVC pipe “runner” slipped on the back frame so I can drag it it fairly easily. These blokes poop a LOT so I move it twice a day. I set the rope around my waist and walk backward slowly. They’re now old enough (smart enough) to just follow me.

This is the Food Bong. PVC pipe, funnel, duct tape, 30* elbow at end. It helps, as lifting the tractor up to slide the full food trough one-handed is tricky (especially if they’re hungry). I bring it out with their food; it’s not a permanent fixture. We widened one hole big enough to stick it through the chicken wire.

So: On April 7th, 26 day-old fluffball White Mountain Broiler (CornishX) chicks awaited me at the post office. I spent $42.50 for a straight-run (nonsexed) shipment of 25 birds, plus $8 in shipping. I had had brooder equipment (lights, box, towels, bottles, feeders) from previous chicks so I did not need to purchase anything new, *but* I did get medicated drops from my feed store to put in their water. I purchase 20% protein broiler-type feed from a feed store that mixes their own; it is not organic, but I would buy some if it were. Each 50-lb. bag costs $15. As a point of comparison, 50-lb bags of comparable feed (20% protein) at the farm stores around town, from another Michigan-based feed company, is $11.50. The feed store I go to is 20 miles east, a direction I never drive, so I get four bags at a time. At the time of final butchering, they will have eaten most of 12 bags, plus lots of table scraps and home-made meals of eggs, ground-up eggshells, oatmeal, and milk. I ration their consumption. Always letting the food bowl go empty for an hour or two, I feed them twice a day. I make sure they have enough food to last through the night, but I always ensure they have plenty of water.

The birds moved into the tractor when they were four weeks old. At four weeks they’ve got quite a few feathers. Our very cold spring though made me regret getting them so early. We ended up putting two lamps in there and turning at least one lamp on for a few nights afterward. The tractor cost us just under $100, including the tarp. I did have to buy a bigger waterer and feed trough for them; the waterer was $22 and the feed trough $12. “Incidentals” in cost were the Food Bong Tom made for them and the PVC runner that aids in moving the tractor over the grass.

Mortality, intentional and otherwise: These guys are not the hardiest of poultry. I lost one chick at two days, another at two weeks, a third of apparent fright at going outside for the first time at three weeks. I lost two birds inexplicably at Weeks 5 and 7. I am guessing these last two had heart/circulatory issues: their combs turned bluish purple and their breath was labored before they expired. Three others are not dead but are permanent Infirmary patients: they were not growing as fast and have always had problems with their legs. I have them on regular (egg-layer) feed so as not to beef them up; they are easily only half the size as the others, and probably will never walk well.

Harvest day, May 24th: They are just over 6 weeks old at this point. It helps to isolate those destined for the freezer and remove their food for 12 hours before butchering. This aids greatly in Poop Avoidance, but it’s not completely necessary if you know chicken anatomy. I get out my biggest canning pots and get lots of water boiling. I place the Killing Cone on the tree: my cone is actually a squared-off milk jug, neck and bottom removed, hung upside-down 24″ from the ground above a garden trug. I have my fish fillet knife sharpened and I also have a pair of metal snips handy. I have a galvanized tub (suitable for at least 3 cases of beer) ready with a hose nearby; I also have a large cooler half filled with water and some ice. A cutting board is on the table.

Selecting the biggest bird, I tuck him gently under my arm and talk to him. (I talk gently the whole time, mostly to calm myself I think.) I bring him to the killing cone and hold him by his feet upside down: the blood going to his head calms him somewhat; he is still agitated and tries to flap a bit. I hold him like this for about two minutes to make him woozy. I slide him into the cone, feet facing me, tail/head against the tree; I might need to pull his head through the bottom of the cone if he doesn’t just slide it in. The jug fits him fairly snugly so he is unable to flap his wings. I continue to hold his feet. I try to do what I need to do next quickly, but there is no avoiding the fact that I am going to cause him pain. I sever his carotid artery with the fillet knife; placing the knife on the ground I then grasp his head with the knife hand and still hold the feet with the other. I hold his head to keep him from shaking and panicking. Death takes about two minutes, more or less; there is always a last burst of motion as the neurons continue to fire and the life force makes its final stand. I leave the bird in there to drip some more. There really is not much blood: maybe half a cup.

I remove the bird, thanking him again for his sacrifice, to the ground. I widen the slit I have made to expose the crop; I then slit the skin all the way around, and sever some tendons on the neck below the crop. (I never seem to be able to go all the way through the neck with the knife, thus I use the metal snips.) Into the trug goes the head and then off to the table go me, the headless bird, and the trug. I set the bird on the ground and spray him with a hose, trying to loosen the matted poop on his breast. I go inside and retrieve the boiling water and a thermometer. Pouring the water into the galvanized tub, I add water from the hose to make it about 170*. I also squirt a dash of dishwashing detergent in there. Grabbing the bird by the feet, I swish him in the water. I am wearing clean gardening gloves: ones with rough fingers, dipped cotton gloves. These are great for plucking feathers. I begin to pluck with one hand while I hold and swish the still-submerged bird with the other. I put the feathers into the trug. It’s easiest to get the feathers on the legs and body first, the wings and tail last. I still might need a pliers to pull the tail feathers out. The detergent in the water helps you get to all the feathers, but it’s still a pretty dirty job, and that water is quite hot. It takes me a good half an hour to pluck the bird completely clean.

After he’s plucked, I remove the feet. Using the fillet knife, I bend the foot forward then sever the tendons at the knee. I remove all of his scaly skin at the end of the drumstick too. I hose him off and place him in the cooler, and then go on to Bird #2. I repeat the above steps until I have five birds in the cooler. Tom has brought me a big glass of water and a small glass of wine. He’s on deadline or he’d be helping more.

Gloves off now, I remove the first bird and place him on the cutting board. The table is on a slight hill, so the tail is on the downside, breast up, partially overhanging the feather-filled trug. I make a small incision through the skin just below the diaphragm/rib cage. I continue the slit until I can see the muscle at the diaphragm; it is at this point that I make a deeper cut to go all the way through the muscle and the membrane that holds the guts in. I then place both hands’ index and middle fingers in this cut and pull in opposite directions, widening the hole so I can slide the fingers of one hand under the ribcage. I loosen the innards all around the ribcage with that hand, pulling the liver then heart down in a clump with the rest. I reach way up and pinch to cut the trachea. I take the knife again and I slice through the skin and membrane only toward the cloaca/anus and then behind it: my aim here is to make a hole large enough where I can remove the innards in one sweep, including, with one cut, the anus and its attached intestine. Into the bucket they go. I do need to go back in and remove the lungs and, in this fellow, the testicles, which are mounted under the back pretty high near the lungs.

The innards are quite colorful. They are also mercifully cool after their trip in the cooler. Yes, waste not want not and all that: I have no time today to separate edible parts from nasty bits. I would love to recycle the parts but all I have time for after five birds is to put the blood, feathers and soft tissue into the compost in layers of hot grass, and bury the bony feet and heads. Microbes are the happy recipients of the bounty there.

With each evisceration I bring the body in for Tom to prep for the freezer. He weighs each bird and then marks on each bag droll witticisms like “Met Maker 5/24/08; 5lbs4oz” or “Offed On 5/24/08 6lbs6oz Big Boy!” Tom has the easier job I think, don’t you?

My math says that I will end up with 21 birds in the freezer that vary from 4lbs11oz to over 8lbs. Including unknown incidentals (gas, electricity, Tom’s food bong) and discounting things I already owned (fillet knife, pots, hose, cooler) my math says this first batch, including the tractor, was about $400. This comes down to $2.72 a pound. Next batch? No tractor, no waterer/feeder, same inputs: $1.93 a pound. Less early death? Less cost. With time, then, the cost will go down.

Trouble is, I am not expecting the same parameters next time. This is my last trip with these blobby meat birds. Their mortality rate is entirely too high for the money we small flockholders spend on them. Morally, maybe I could handle it if my name was Frank Perdue, but I’m El: every unexpected death was a hard knock to my conscience. Not a hard enough knock though to keep me from chicken ranching, though. Next up in the tractor? Heavy breeds of roosters (Orpington, RIR, Australorp, etc.), which will take about 16 weeks to finish out. Wish me luck.

The budding naturalist strikes again

Unfortunately, we see about as much death here as we do new life, especially in the spring. We had two esteemed visitors last weekend and were taking them on a farm tour when we found a foundering chipping sparrow. Poor thing.

Even though we told her she shouldn’t touch it, The Budding Naturalist had to touch it as you can plainly see. We buried it later. “I’m going to miss that little guy,” said she.

On the law of unintended consequences: a story of hubris

WARNING: If you have a fear of snakes, or just plain don’t want to read about them, then check back in a day or two.

I often kid myself into thinking that I (as opposed to most other humans) live in as much harmony with nature as I possibly can. This of course is a massive self-delusion. I am human, therefore, my lifestyle-slash-existence is the least harmonious with nature than any other creature’s on this planet. It is true I may cultivate some natural, non-human things, but my preferred “nature” is a list of maybe 200 plants and five animal species that I brought here myself. All other things are either in my way (weeds, hawks, voles, raccoons and opossums) or tolerated (sparrows, deer) or welcome (all other birds, most other mammals). Snakes are in the “welcome” category.

I first saw a snake on the property by first seeing a snake skin, shed a few feet away from a compost pile, a few years back. It was a big skin. Cool, I thought: a snake will keep the vole population in check. I of course never put two and two together and thought the skin’s proximity had anything to do with the compost pile. Ahem. A blue racer (about 5′ long) was living in the pile, and when I turned the pile I found him/her and screamed like the girl that I am.

Fast-forward to last year. I found another snake, this time a dead one: another blue racer. It had tangled itself in the deer netting that I had erected as chicken-proof fencing around the greenhouse beds. I felt awful.

Okay, now this year. Mother’s Day around here is Leave El Alone All Day To Garden Day. It was to rain all day but hey, that’s alright. I have a greenhouse to garden. So I armed myself with a shovel and some task buckets (I planned on evicting the herb garden along the back wall) and set to work. I moved first to the far corner of the greenhouse to begin the chores and…caught in that same deer netting, which until now, was used to deter voles, was A WHOLE BUNCH of snakes.

I did not scream. The small part of my brain, the residual prey-animal part, was definitely spooked though. I sighed deeply, then went inside to tell Tom about it, and convey how awful I felt. Because I did feel awful: no, I did not foresee that snakes could get into the greenhouse; it’s pretty well sealed against voles. But, in the back of my mind, I knew (like finding the skin near the compost pile) that it was a possibility, and that that netting, if it was doing any good at all against voles, was potentially harmful to snakes.

Three blue racers were trapped in it. Agh: not only did I kill three animals in their prime, I probably killed off another generation. What little I know about snakes is that spring is mating season and snakes, being solitary creatures, are never near each other except for this important purpose. So I clipped the deer netting in the area before and after the snakes and then proceeded to go outside with it but ONE WAS MOVING!!

Okay, I placed the mess outside and then went back inside the greenhouse and sat down for a bit. I need to get that live one out of there, I thought. So I took a few breaths, grabbed a pair of garden scissors, and went to work. Trouble is, I’d no sooner free the guy he’d try to crawl back through the netting, so…I had to hold his head to free him. I had to completely be in My Happy Place in my head to do this, too.

I felt a little better afterward. I felt even better after I took a hot shower.

A guinea(less) post

I never claimed to be handsome

We got our four guineas last spring. As usual, though I wanted three birds, Tom brought home four. They are really hard to tell apart. I should say they WERE really hard to tell apart, as the largest bird has definitely embraced his inner testosterone. I have named him Himself.

He is a terror.

What was a very peaceful chicken yard has now become a very unhappy place. The other three guineas mostly ignore Himself, but all six chickens are now continuously on alert. There is so much stress in there! I feel awful, because when they could free-range, at least they could run away from that horny dude. I think of those poor female members of that nutjob Mormon sect in Texas, they of the 400 children who need new homes right now before they too become “spiritually married” to the male members of the sect…the only true parallel I can draw is neither my chickens nor those children had a choice. But someone must intervene.

Himself, I bid you adieu. I just hope you taste better than you act.

More fish stories


Big Momma

So, I do love fish, but I don’t particularly love our frog pond’s fish. Is that fair? Probably not: I am responsible for digging the pond, I am complicit with stocking it with its goldfish. This is the pond’s third year of existence, and therefore the fourth year for the fish. I mentioned earlier that we had had a few die this winter. We had never lost even one, so…I had mixed feelings about losing eight of them.

You see, I left it to Tom to buy the fish. He went to the store with our daughter in tow and the clerk at the pet area was so taken with her that they came home with scoops of fish, not the 10-12 I thought we needed. We had so many we could not count them. Then it occurred to us that, if we wished to count them, we should take a picture of them. (They don’t move around in a photo.) So we did, and we had almost 50 of the things!

Last summer, we had noticed Big Momma (a particularly large fish, almost 6″) acting a little crazy by nearly beaching herself. She did a lot of flopping along the rocks at the pond’s edge. She was pursued by other fish and uh-oh: yep, she was spawning. Goldfish are notorious for eating their own young, so I figured I wouldn’t have to worry about having too many babies. (Actually, goldfish are notorious for eating anything, which is why we have no tadpoles or snails in the pond…you have to take the bad with the good, I guess.)

Ice-out day was on the 13th, as I mentioned. I sat by the pond, peering into its chilly depths, gazing at the fish when…oh NO. I noticed two SMALL FISH. Like, fish BABIES, under a year old. Argh! So: I am left with this dilemma of too many fish, again. I will probably do a combination of expanding the pond and finding new homes for a few of the fishies. And then I can cross my fingers that Big Momma and the rest…stay hungry!