Monday, March 31, 2014

the scent of almonds

First, I have to tell you that I so appreciate all your notes and comments on my chicken adventure (or chicken mess, in a less optimistic reading)! It's a less lonesome journey when you know someone is laughing at the sidelines. You're reminded that life can be a pretty funny business.

Now, onto the topic at hand: a second warm day, though not nearly as magnificent as Sunday. The clouds are with us almost from the beginning.


Only by evening do the skies clear, but by then it is too late: I've sold my soul to an Ed expedition, almost entirely indoors. But that's a later story. Let me scoot back to the beginning of the day:

I get up with a deeply felt gratitude for the freshly erected chicken pen (remember: there is the small little house -- that's the coop -- and around it, there is now a 12 x 18 foot movable fence, creating a pen for the chickens in the hours that I want to ignore them). The cold cold days that were with us the day the chickens arrived chilled me enough so that I now have a hacking cough and though I can hardly complain -- I'm not really sick -- I do note that I also have a painfully blocked ear and so spending time with chickens is about the last thing on my wish list, even on this unusually warm day. In fact, after I clean the coop and let them out into the pen, I crawl back into bed and fall asleep.


Later in the morning, I am almost my old self again. A nurse friend suggests some mineral oil and a cotton swab for the ear. I look around my cabinets. No mineral oil, but I do have a bottle of almond oil from days when I did my moonlighting stint at L'Occitane. And so I float through this day on a cloud of almond blossoms tossed around by the day's warm breezes. How lovely is that!

At breakfast...


...we do talk about the chickens. A funny thing has happened in the course of the week. I've become much more "what the hell" about the birds. They are, as I write, roaming the greater yard somewhere. What the hell. Others let their chickens roam, without fencing, even as they live in the suburbs. Why am I so jittery about it?! So I let them roam now, darting only an occasional glance to make sure they are not destroying my flower beds. Peck away, birds! Clear out the pests, the creeping charlie, stir up things in the soil! But none of this hole digging in my flowers. Save that for the wood chipped courtyard.


And if I once thought about mimicking the ideas of the chicken lecturer (who got us hooked at least on the idea of chickens) -- putting out, as she does, sprigs of lavender into their roosting area, presumably to send the chicks adrift on some voyage of fragrant ecstasy, now, after nearly a week of chickens, I look the birds in the eye and say -- kids, be glad you have a foster home with a meticulous chicken keeper who, instead of clearing your droppings twice a week, reaches in and polishes up your quarters twice a day.  Springs of lavender? You gotta be kidding! You're spoiled enough.

Ed, on the other hand, continues to spin and improvise and he comes up with improvements and structural alterations constantly, all day long.
We could put up additional fencing and create a series of pens. I could build... And so on.

We are different that way, he and I. If I spin about anything at all, it is not about the structural integrity of their play areas, but rather, on their psychological development. I know chickens have a far greater intelligence than our grandparents or even parents allowed for. So I want to treat them with that in mind. When Lexie pecks at us, I want to reason with her. Show her a better way to communicate. Swoop her in my arms and hold her until she settles.

The literature is completely not with me on this. She wants to dominate, I read. Peck her back or else she'll terrorize you. 

Well now, I don't have a beak, but I understand the message here: I am thinking like a human, not like a chicken. Rap her on the head, kick her in the gut. It's the only way to get her to stop trying to assert herself against the human form.

My reaction is twofold: good! someone else speaks the chicken tongue and has an explanation and a solution for me. But on the other hand -- kick a chicken in the stomach? Is it like the old advice columns that would tell us to leave our infants crying so that they'd toughen up? (I hated that message and pretty much ignored it.) I mean, in two years, will they call a chicken head-rapper "cruel," rather than "one who speaks the chicken language?"

Besides, Lexie is the scrawny one. She is already pushed aside by the two big girls. They are so dominant that when she digs in her own sweet pile of dirt and they come over, she steps aside and lets them have it, leaving nothing for herself. (Okay, she's got Oreo, but still, she is the shrimp in this brood of four.) So how can you push away a scrawny brat?

But after a week of swooping up and cradling, I see that Lexie is not only not improving, but she is getting worse. I'm reinforcing her nipping! She runs over when she sees me, dances around my feet and starts to peck away: shoes, socks, anything within reach. I pick her up with a hug and tell her she is the most wonderful scrawny little chicken in the world. I let her down, she nips some more.

So today I try a gentle nudge instead. No, that's wrong. She thinks I'm engaging her and that it is an easy battle -- one that she can win. I try a firmer nudge (some would call it a kick) that sends her flying. The nipping stops. She walks off and concentrates on improving the landscaping at the farmete.


And with Lexie otherwise occupied, I spend time with the other two girls. These are chicks who have had a lot of human contact in the first year of life (I have finally a clarification here: the whole brood is just short of a year old). But I've ignored them thus far, concentrating on the scrawny she-devil herself. So I reach out to the big hens, Butter and Whitney and I think how easy it would be if the entire flock was as calm as these two girls are. But of course, this is the challenge of taking in foster chicks: they come with their life's issues. You are their mentor now. You must do well by all of them.


In the afternoon, Ed and I are to take the pickup to Farm and Fleet. If you're not from Wisconsin (or Iowa or Illinois -- and I know that most Ocean readers are not from these states) then you wont know much about this place. Ed worships it in quite the same way I would worship a sustainable/organic/concerned food store. I want that food store to do the homework for me as to which producer/farmer/fishery does the best job at keeping us healthy and as kind to the planet as we humans are capable of being. Ed wants his store to do the research on which fencing, tools --  oh, the list is so long! -- are the most durable, economical, worth owning. Farm and Fleet is, for him, that store.

I have become Ed's shopping buddy for these outings and let me tell you, they can stretch over a very long block of time as he looks and compares. After, he is always in his most adoring mood, mumbling sweet things like -- I had such a good time with you today, gorgeous! -- as if we'd gone on a special date to Madison's finest restaurant.

We're to pick up discounted snow fencing and chicken wire. Screws, two by twos, a brush to clean the coop net floor. And mud clogs for me. (Return those frou frou boots to Zappos -- he tells me. You need the real stuff from Farm and Fleet.)

And so here we are, with a list yay long, ready to go, except that the truck engine wont start.
I say -- it's the battery. (That's because in my limited world, dead cars can only have dead batteries.)
He says -- it can't be. I just recharged it.
He fiddles. He puts on cables. Eventually it starts.
Are we going to get stuck somewhere?
He grins, as if relishing the adventure of it all.

First stop, Menard's. Another construction materials chain. No good builder, I'm told, shops here. But, we need to compare. We look, we get back in the truck. And again it wont start, only this time, there isn't a friendly car next to ours, ready to help us jump the battery. Which seems very lifeless.
Should you maybe get a new battery? I ask this because it is now obvious that we have a fully dead one.
Not here, he says, horrified. We need to get to Farm and Fleet. Do you know how to pop the clutch?
So funny. Do I know how to pop the clutch!
What's that?
You bump-start the car by popping the clutch. I'll push, you pop... no, never mind -- if you've not done it before, it wont work.
I'll push the truck then... Gales of laughter from Ed on that one.

I sit there feeling completely worthless. And a sorry state of womanhood, too, what with my most torn up jacket and the old winter cap pulled snugly over my plugged up with cotton ear even though it is a whopping 65F outside.  I sit back behind the cracked windshield and watch as he does a one-man stunt of pushing the truck, jumping in, pumping the clutch, releasing the pedal and rolling forward as the engine rumbles to life -- all this in between the parked cars of Menard's parking lot.

Ed can be very impressive.

Evening at the farmette. Around us, the call of the sandhill crane is now ever present.


And I see that to the east, the truck farmers are, for the first time, starting to tend to the fields.


There is a restlessness in the air that comes with that gusting warm breeze. I let the chickens out of the pen, against my better judgment. I know it will be murderously difficult to get them back in on such a night, but they are so happy to be foraging on this warmest day of the year (and I must note that tomorrow, we jump back down to reality). I relax. In fact, I take my laptop to the porch for the first time this year and I type bits of this post there, watching the chicks move daintily between buds of emerging flowers.


Of course, the chickens come up to the porch door and stare at me, trying hard to figure out this next life's puzzle for them: how is it that I am now in a cage and they are out?

Ponder away, dear ones. Someday I'll be better able to understand you and you'll be better able to understand me, but in the meantime, we're having a pretty damn good time of it, don't you think?