Sunday, March 17, 2019

The Awful, Beautiful Spectacle of Renewed Health

In reading this blog, parental discretion is advised.

SamtheRooster is back.

I don't mean to suggest that Sam had run away. At this point, I'm not sure we could dislodge him from the chicken yard if we tried. No, I only mean that SamtheRooster, as we had come to know him, had disappeared.

Some history is important to this story. We only purchase female chickens — "Started Pullets" is the technical description. We have neighbors who sleep. We sleep. We aren't interested in morning crowing; and neither interested in — nor possessing the equipment to manage — hatching fertilized eggs, we were not interested in those reproductive virtues of having a rooster. Plus, roosters sort of intimidate me. They are big. They have spurs. And, from a purely economic point of view, they do not lay eggs I can sell. Hence, our determination to only purchase hens.

Generally speaking, by purchasing started pullets — most commonly 8-10 weeks of age — the gender of a bird is easier to discern. So it was that we brought home two "Mottled Java" birds of about that age. We kept them separate from the flock, as is the protocol, until the risk of importing diseases had passed and, of equal importance, the new arrivals attain a size by which they can hold their own as adjustments to the existing pecking order are made.

I'll confess my surprise when, months after accepting responsibility for them, we discerned that Samantha was, in fact, Sam. We were not happy. For all the aforementioned reasons, we did not want a rooster. We hemmed and hawed, stewed (figuratively speaking) and fretted; complained to the hatchery and wrestled with how to proceed. After all, we had months of feed and tending invested in him by this point, along with the original purchase price, and — OK, I'll admit it, we had gotten somewhat attached to them both — to the end that we resisted simply dispatching Sam or finding for him a new address. So, after considerable consultation and soul searching, and after securing Sam's signature on an agreement of good behavior, he stayed.

I'm not sure the hens have ever forgiven us.  Prior to Sam's advent they had had a really nice and quiet life. Once Sam entered the picture, he was always crowing, strutting, nudging others out of the food line, chasing and ultimately mounting first one and then another. All day long. What we had created was our own little "MeToo Movement" in the chicken yard. And let me just say that chicken sex is not for the faint of heart — for those participating in it or those observing it from outside the fence. It is…rough. For their part, once the act is accomplished, the girls get up, quite literally shake it off, and go on about their search for worms. Such an impact it has had on one of the hens that for months she would exit the coop in the morning and immediately jump the fence into the free range beyond where she would spend the day beyond Sam's reach until such time at dusk that she observed Sam retreat inside the coop for the night. Only then would she jump back over the fence, eat and drink her fill, and choose a different coop in which to calmly pass the night.

And then came this winter. As has been well-reported, this has been a brutal winter — the "Polar Vortex" and all that. During the depths of those sub-zero weeks, Sam became ill. He would descend the coop ramp slowly each morning — silently — slouch over just beyond the outer door and remain there looking like Willy Loman in "Death of a Salesman", an empty, bent, hovel of a creature with little will to move or mate and seemingly little will to live. The comb atop his head looked sheered and black; the wattle beneath his chin was swollen, as though afflicted with the mumps, and was itself darkened. Silent, he never crowed — something I never thought I would miss. So disinterested in the hens was he that we feared that not only were his head and neck frostbitten but quite likely certain other extremities as well. A week went by like this, each day us observers expecting the worst. I left town for a meeting and each succeeding day Lori, too, prepared herself to deal with a carcass. Still he survived. Weeks more passed; then months.  And then he began to revive. Slowly, Sam's wattle returned to its more usual size and swing. The comb on his head perked up and reddened as had been its norm. He regained weight, and attitude.  He began to prance again and strut around the yard and even began to crow — weakly at first, but gradually full-throttle. Still, though healthier, he remained…celibate.

Until yesterday. It's not yet exactly springtime, but the temperatures have risen, the snow has melted, the sun is shining. Hints of fertility are emerging in the grasses…and in Sam. Yesterday, the Sam of old was back. No hen was safe. In fact, I don't think anything moving was spared. From sun up to sun down, Sam mounted everything in sight.

As far as I could tell, more than once.

As for the hens, they seemed to take it all in stride — no doubt grateful for the respite, whatever had precipitated it. As for us, though in any other context we would deplore such behavior and take aggressive steps to intervene, in these recuperative, symbolic exercises we found ourselves inexplicably smiling and high-fiving. After such a season off-kilter, out of balance, paralyzed in more ways than one, all somehow seemed right with the world again. At least in the chicken yard.

Welcome back, SamtheRooster. We've missed you. Every part of you.

Monday, February 18, 2019

Sanctuary in the Snow

It had snowed all night.  By morning at least six-inches had accumulated.  By afternoon another two had fallen without end in sight.  In contrast to the bitter cold of prior days, however, this one had moderated with the snow -- upper 20's instead of near zero.  The invitational snowglobe effect, coupled with the nudging of the day's cabin fever moved us into our snowshoes and outside toward the trails.  

We were not the first to pass this way.  Hoof prints evidenced where the deer make of these clearings a kind of wildlife highway; deer, and who knows what else?  There is plenty of activity in this minor prairie -- on the trails and among the grasses, but also overhead.  Eagles have been soaring in recent days and perching in the nearby trees; a majestic brush of wings that paradoxically grounds and lifts me at the sight.  

Progress is slow with snowshoes, especially in the depths amassed from last night's snow added to the previous foot of earlier days' prior accumulation.  But the pace rewards with the opportunity for a different kind of the lacy snow gathering on the cedar branches; the particular frosting along the naked branches and the elbows of bare trees; the prairie grasses pressed flat where deer have slept overnight; the blue line shadow on the buried beehive platforms; the sound of our own labored breath and the tingle of gentle snow on our faces.  

And there, pausing in the chilly afternoon air and the breathless animation of falling snow, a precious and poignant silence engulfs like a blanket.  After the morning's growl of the tractor engine and its snowblower whirring, the snow shovel's scraping and chickens squawking until I could dig out a wide enough space for them to stretch their legs, the expansive quiet of these anodyne moments held us; centered and evoked us.  It was, in a way, the church service the storm had prevented us from attending earlier in the day.  

Prayer, less uttered than experienced.  
Holiness, enveloping.  

Grace, embracing.  

Blessed silence, within and without.  

If we stood still much longer, however, the chill would begin to speak of a different kind of spirit.  Pronouncing a grateful benediction, we lifted our feet and continued on around the trail toward home, giving thanks for the manifold gifts of this excursion -- 

the physical movement, 

the austere beauty, 

the ephemeral whisper of creation's very breath.

Thursday, January 24, 2019

The Wisdom and Mysterious Functionality Of Winter Sleeping

 "For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven..."
(Ecclesiastes 3)

A season, according to that biblical sage -- a time -- for everything.  For war, and also peace; a time to plant, and also a time to pluck up what is planted.  Those, and all manner of other things and times and miscellaneous pursuits.  Whatever else there might be on that list with varying degrees of applicability, the chickens understand that there is a time for scavenging, a time for pecking, and ultimately a time for cuddling.

It’s cold in Iowa.  That is routinely the case here this time of year, but this time, though the calendar signaled a warning, we have enjoyed a reprieve.  Snow has only fallen a couple of times, and neither particularly interruptive.  Temperatures have see-sawed between chilly and mild, but until now we have been largely spared the usual biting aggression of winter in the upper Midwest.  In the chicken yard that has meant the flock has been free to make choices about activities according to the energies, comforts and proclivities of each.  The three coops afford some flexibility in their sleeping arrangements, though the first two see most of the action.  Every evening as the sun descends, the citizens of the chicken community distribute themselves between the sleeping options, sometimes ascending and descending the respective ramps multiple times before finally choosing the company behind door number one or door number two.  Each structure is rated for 10 birds, give or take one or two depending on size.  With a current census of 30, the group would, in a perfect world, equally divide themselves among the three; but that has never been their apportioning mathematics.  Two coops, as I mentioned, have been the draw.

Except for one.  We call her Cleopatra — “Cleo” for short — in part because of her regal appearance.  A Light Sussex by breed, she is pure white except for the black striated necklace that looks like jewels.  There is, then, her appearance.  There is also her royal aloofness.  For the past several weeks she has been the lone inhabitant of coop number 3 — what we have come to refer to as “her royal chambers.”  It could, we acknowledge, be the opposite.  She could be the victim of a bullying ostracism that turns this nocturnal isolation into a sad and lonely but protective prison.  But I don’t think so.  In daylight hours she plays and scavenges alongside of and indistinguishably from her neighbors; we’ve observed no harassing interactions.  Similarly, during the day the other chickens freely visit this third sheltering option, contentedly availing themselves of the food supply there and the water, leaving behind an occasional egg.  Come nightfall, however, the anticipation of sleep lures them elsewhere.  Among these social creatures, Cleo alone steals away to her private chambers, to pass the night in spacious quietude.

Until, that is, this recent storm.  Once again snowflakes have fallen and the winds have blown, but this time the temperatures have plummeted.  Teens have topped out the afternoon highs, while nights have dropped to single digits — both above and below zero.  Tonight they are predicted to fall into the double-digits below zero, coupled with fiercely blowing winds.  A certain existential stillness has quieted the chicken yard — or maybe they are simply stuck.  Since the storm began a couple of days ago, the birds have further consolidated their community into a single coop — Cleo included.  Thirty chickens, self-crammed into a space designed for 10.  Whatever else they might prefer to be doing, and wherever else they might prefer to be sleeping, they have collectively and unanimously concluded that this is the time to keep warm.  Setting all other concerns aside, they have, at least for the time, huddled themselves together.

Though some question the intelligence of chickens, count me among those who are routinely impressed with their common sensibility.  They quickly retreat inside when they note flying predators overhead.  They seek elevation at night, knowing that ground level has intrinsic vulnerabilities.  And they stay sheltered when it is unsafe to be outside.  Humans may be a more sophisticated species, some rungs higher on the food chain, but we haven't yet managed to learn that there are times to hold fast, and times to argue, but

other times to set aside our principles and preferences and simply do what we can to keep each other warm.

I’ll be interested to see how much of this togetherness they can take.  There is more snow predicted, and the coming week makes no pretense of any warmup.  It will remain bitterly, mortally cold at least through the extended forecast.  They could eventually get on each other’s nerves.  My money is on Cleo to make the first outward move.  But we will have to wait and see.

Rubbing shoulders with the common folk will likely start wearing thin.  Besides, a queen requires her space.  At least she seems to think so.  Meanwhile, the others would likely disappoint her with how little they care.

For now, however, goodnight girls…and SamTheRooster.

Wednesday, December 19, 2018

Just in Case, We Are Sort of Prepared

A few days ago a friend shared with me the weather predictions he has been finding for the upcoming winter months.  Mind you, my last word on this subject was the Old Farmer’s Almanac which I recall predicting a milder than average winter — winter, to be sure, but above normal.  They attributed this likelihood to to the expected arrival of a weak El NiƱo and “blah, blah, blah.”  Cutting through all the technical rationale which I don’t understand anyway, the bottom line for that venerable publication is “mild.”  

Not so, says my friend.  According to his sources we could experience the coldest February in fifty years.  “It’s literally terrifying,” he added in case I wasn’t grasping the gravity of the prospects.  

When I probed further for details about what could be in our future he responded, “On the high side, temperatures 10 degrees F; on the low side -30, with precipitation up to 40 inches of snow.”

I can’t explain the disparity in the predictions.  There is a big difference between “above normal” and “the coldest in fifty years.”  I don’t know where my friend is getting his information, but he is a seasoned academic and no stranger to diligent, careful research.  As much as I respect the Old Farmer’s Almanac, my friend is not given to wild theories and hyperbole.  I’m inclined to listen to him.

As if to drive home the point, he adds for emphasis: “Not a single day above 15.”

We all have our own personal thermostats, of course, but I’m guessing most of us would likely adjudge that to be cold.  It’s easy to imagine broken pipes, downed power lines, a scarcity of heating fuel, frostbite, and chapped lips.  OK, the truth is that I will get chapped lips no matter what the weather is outside, but the rest of those prospects sound dire.  

“What,” you wonder with concern, “about the chickens?”  It’s a reasonable question.  Everyone in our flock is a cold-hardy breed, but still.  Even with their self-equipped down jackets, this kind of weather could be deadly.  There isn’t auxiliary heat in their coops, though their huddled community generates an ordinarily sufficient amount of heat to fill the relatively few cubic feet of enclosed shelter.  They can’t, however, spend both day and night all winter literally “cooped up.”  

The coops in which we have invested are designed with a self-contained coop and run.  The coop portion is that enclosed cabin in which the chickens sleep at night.  The run is a wire-enclosed open space down the ramp where the feeder and heated waterer are maintained.  It’s sort of a protected play area.  The roof of the coop extends over the run, but the wire-wrapped sides are open to the elements.  As I do every year, I had already stacked straw bales on the northwestern side of the runs to block out the worst of the wind and potential snow.  Given my friend’s bleak forecast, however, I picked up additional bales today and finished the job on the opposite side.  It’s part insulation, part weather break, and, in the meantime, part jungle gym.  They are as protected as they are going to be.

As for us, we are feeling smug about our addition, last summer, of a whole house backup generator with a 250 gallon propane supply tank.  We, I suppose, are as protected as we are going to be.

All that being said, lurking in the background is that contrarian Almanac.  As if to emphasize the fact that this is weather we are talking about, my friend concluded his dystopian forecast with this parting observation:  “Of course, the prediction could be wrong.”

Of course.  Lucky for us we have alternate uses for the straw.

Thursday, December 13, 2018

Tasks Within My Pay Grade

The morning chores are complete — later than usual, but not by my procrastination.  Daylight didn’t invite the work until almost 8 a.m., a dramatic shift from the 5 a.m. wake up call only weeks ago.  Even allowing for the seasonal shift, it’s been interesting to note the more granular variations.  Within the last week chicken bedtime has varied from 4:30 pm to 5:15 — incrementally later as we approach the winter solstice, rather than the earlier I would expect.  Similarly, the morning release.  Recent days have varied between 7 a.m. and this morning’s bugle blow almost an hour later.

The girls don’t seem to mind, neither SamtheRooster.  Perhaps between the bitter cold nights and the persistent possum problem they are simply delighted to be alive and moving around at all.  That delights me as well.  Every morning I hold my breath when I release the latch and look inside to assess what price the flock might have paid for winter.  Every evening I hesitantly, cautiously peek inside, bracing at the prospect of coming face to face with gray fur and egg-coated bared teeth rather than coos and feathers.  So far, so good.  The birds are cold-hardy breeds and shouldn’t have a problem, but still.  It’s cold.  I wouldn’t want to trade places with them.  As for the possums, they are generally more interested in eggs than meat, but hunger has a funny and predictable way of tamping down our preferences.  And I notice the distance the chickens maintain anytime one is around.  Smart girls.

And so it is that I keep the feeders filled and the waterers topped off and plugged in to keep from freezing, and we collectively relish the absence of snow that keeps the flock sequestered and me frost bitten.  As it is they are free to roam the range — inside the fence and, for the adventuresome, beyond.  As long as they willingly return in the evening I don’t really mind.  They never go far, and their exploratory forays somehow make me smile.  After all, I enjoy a new patch of ground every now and then, so I don’t begrudge them their wanderlust.  One of these days I’ll get around to repairing the breach in the fence, but I’m really in no hurry.  And who knows?  Maybe all that extra exercise will shake loose a few more eggs now and then.

Snow will inevitably come, and the daylight hours will continue to shift one way and then the other.  Each of those eventualities brings blessing and hardship.  We will manage them as they come.  Life in the country, after all, is more response than control — a kind of holy submission to forces infinitely larger and beyond us.  Try as I might, I’ve so far not managed to move the sun.  Or move the mercury beyond my walls.

Somehow I suspect the world is thusly better off.

Thursday, November 15, 2018

Feeding This Circle of Things

 Yes, it’s cold — 22-degrees according to the thermometer in the window.  Balmy compared with some of the mornings we have already experienced in recent days, and nothing compared with the depths of winter to come.  Chilly, though, nonetheless.  And yes, I forgot to wear my gloves — a careless mistake that will become more and more costly as the season progresses.  But despite the discomforts I rather like feeding the chickens on mornings such as this.  They need me, after all.  The feeders are empty and so I scoop the mash into the bucket and distribute it into the various tubes and boxes from which the girls — and SamtheRooster — spend these chilly days nibbling.  They are increasingly dependent on my handouts as the austerity of winter descends.  Their free-ranging, these days, affords little enough nourishment; the worms and bugs long-since having descended or departed to warmer climes.  And so I am attentive.

There are other ministrations.  In recent days I have unloaded the annual supply of straw bales and stacked them around the runs, creating a compostable barrier against the wind and eventual snow.  That, and they love climbing the towers and enjoying the elevated view.  Just in time I stretched the extension cords from the sockets at the solar panels to the warming waterers inside the coops.  The “winterizing,” in short, is largely done.

It’s the daily work that remains and is ongoing.  Repetitively resupplying the food and water.  Stirring, refreshing, and occasionally replacing the bedding.  Reconnoitering and repairing the fencing.  Retrieving, perchance, a gifted egg.  It is a rhythm.  A life-sustaining discipline, along with releasing in the mornings and securing the hatches every evening.  Clock work.  Because if they are to survive, what I do matters.  The fact of it -- the concreteness of it -- unlike in most other pursuits, is readily, viscerally, apparent — quite literally before my eyes and at my fingertips.

There is no appreciative feedback.  There are no clucked “thank you’s“ or nuzzlings against my leg.  SamtheRooster rather stalks around me, making clear his opinion that I am a nuisance intruder.  Well and good.  They have their work to do; I have mine.  Theirs is to go about their living.  Mine is keeping them alive.  And the thanks I receive is not their mindful gratitude, but my own for the privilege of having a part to play in this great circle of things that purposes my getting up in the morning and paying attention throughout the day to basics like food, water, shelter and warmth and the lives that depend on them.  From me, whether those lives are conscious of it or not.

And so I get out of bed because I am conscious of it, and with numbing hands scoop the mash into the bucket and distribute it among the boxes and tubes all over again, suddenly and gratefully conscious, as well, of the other lives of which I have a part in keeping alive within this great circle of things.  Cold hands and all.

Saturday, November 3, 2018

It’s Not Easy Being Green

The grass is still green — brilliantly so; Irish emerald green. This, despite the multiple nights we have already seen the temperatures drop below freezing. The leaves have long since autumn-hued and dropped, carpeting the ground below with their red/bronze/gold mottle. It wasn’t until yesterday’s mowing — almost certainly the season’s last — followed by Lori’s sweep of the clippings into the compost pile, that the lingering green was rediscovered. 

It’s a little disconcerting. The cornstalks in surrounding fields have long-since crispened and browned; for days now the typically quiet countryside has growled with the mauling mouths of combines hurrying to gather in the crop before snow flies. The garden looks more dormant and drab by the day. The firs, pines and cedars — by now expecting to assert their verdant monopoly on the season — are confused and jealous.
What, then, to make of this persistence? After all, though Kermit the Frog of Muppets fame had other reasons for confessing it, it can’t be that easy for the grass either — “Bein’ Green.” There is little enough sun these days to encourage it, the hours becoming briefer with the changing season. More and more frequently we wake to frost on the ground and the sight of our breath in the air. Inside, the fireplace has helpfully added warmth by day, extra blankets encourage closer snuggling by night, and flannels and corduroys have replaced linens and cottons throughout the hours between. Is it willful pride — the turf’s smug resolve to hang on as long as it can, like a rebellious toddler refusing to go to bed?
Or is it nature’s testament of resilient grace — that though winter is coming and will surely blanket and paralyze us for what will seem to be “forever”, spring will be reliably and close behind.
Let’s go with that. Generally speaking, I’ve come to trust that, whatever the alternative options, grace is reliably the preferable choice. If the grass wants to assert it as well, who am I to argue?
Whenever winter chooses to arrive, then, I’ll welcome it for the temporary shiver that it is, having heard it on good authority that it won’t be the final word.