The Hillhouse

The Journey of a Mother and Son

Bad Bird January 22, 2014

It has been a long day. Started early and cold. When I went to let the birds out I found Bald Mountain, our three year old resident rooster, upside down and wedged in between a milk crate and the wall, his back end almost bare of feathers and covered in blood. It took a good struggle to free him without hurting him further. Shit. The goose had done it again. Maximus had recently led the flock in pecking two hens – one to death, one to the point of a mercy killing – and this time he’d taken Baldy on all by himself. I’d seen him tugging at the remaining feathers when I arrived, and while I really yearned to give him a good scolding whack, I knew it wouldn’t fix anything. Remorse is not something a goose can feel, and lessons are short-lived. Besides, I was on chicken medic duty once again. My heart sank to see several frozen trickles of blood hanging from the crate. I wasn’t even sure the rooster’d make it to the house alive. But he did, so I began my now-familiar poultry-saving regimen.

The first order of business was to get the poor fellow in the kitchen by the radiator. Next, I provided him with some water and a bowl of my custom mash of high protein feed, nutritional supplements and crushed baby aspirin. Then I waited, hoping he had enough steam left to eat and drink. It took him a while to adjust – he even had a hard time standing at first. All I could think of was my son and how much he loved this stupid bird – we’d done in dozens of gals we’d named, we’d eaten em too, but above all, Baldy meant the most to him. He’d fathered the whole flock, he himself was born of two of our very first chickens. I myself don’t hold a lot of sentiment for boy birds on the whole; they are so fundamentally motivated by the need to procreate that they become a nasty pain in the ass at some point in their lives. That goes for geese too. That damned gander leaves me alone cuz he thinks I’m his gal. (Actually, that’s not entirely accurate. He has tried to ‘get busy’ with me many times, but I won’t put up with that sort of behavior. I just swat him away and tell him ‘no’. I feel bad for the guy; he’s just frustrated and lonely, but I do have my limits!) I’m spared his wrath, but no one else is. The poor UPS guy always honks his arrival before daring to exit his truck. Piano students run from the goose, and the rooster too… Yeah, I’m not a big fan of the boys. But we need Baldy around if we’re to keep the flock going in the spring, and he means a lot to Elihu. So I wait around for the injured bird to make a move. Thankfully, within a few minutes he’s going at the bowl of mash and shortly after he’s drinking. Hope that helps. He sure looks bad. But he’s a fighter. I think he’ll make it. But the question then becomes, what do we do with him after he’s better?

Yeah, this throws a monkey wrench into things. Can’t return him to the coop cuz Max will lay into him again. So we need to quarantine him until the warm months return. Crap. That means one more chore on mama’s list. Gotta put the rooster in the brooding pen in the garage. Get him good and strong. Then, when spring comes, we can try him in the flock again. Either Max will have forgotten, or his cabin fever will have abated (I strongly believe that his behavior is a result of close quarters and cold weather). I consider the additional work load. I’m not thrilled with it, but I see no options. I make a note to discuss this with the kid later on.

Meanwhile, I have an appointment with the family attorney to go over mom and dad’s affairs, I have recess to monitor, an annual physical appointment with my doc, a chorus to accompany and a string bass to pick up. All these things go relatively smoothly but for the fact that I left something behind at the doctor’s office and had to return the twenty-some miles round trip to pick it up, plus Elihu admitted rather apologetically to me (as we were leaving school) that he had ‘a project on Egypt due tomorrow’. Really? I’d seen the email at the beginning of the month telling us of the project but had myself forgotten the due date. Half my bad too I guess. So then were were off to Walmart to buy some clay and paint. Also stopped in at mom’s to rehearse a couple of tunes for Friday’s open mic night at school (he has a set of congas there that grandma got him for Christmas). Still had to make dinner, clean up and begin the sculpture of Horus, which yet needed to be baked, cooled and painted. Time was escaping us, and it wasn’t until nine that Elihu was finally in bed. Not bad, really, when you consider all that we got done. I’d pushed the cooking temp up a bit, and then super-cooled the bust in the freezer. The whole thing was a bit on the sketchy side – Elihu’s own words – but hell, at least it was done.

As we lay in bed recapping our day, we came to the dilemma of the birds. I pitched the idea of butchering Max. While Elihu was an enthusiastic consumer of all the hens we’d done in, he told me that he would never consider eating Max. Ok, fair enough. A new home? Only if it was a good one – a humane one. No bird auctions, no unknown destinations. Ok. Then what? Elihu agreed that keeping the rooster apart til the weather warmed was about our only option. He agreed to share the duties, and we left it at that. I’m not looking forward to keeping up two bird camps, and I must admit that while I’ve shared some very special moments with Maximus, I’m quite a bit less thrilled with our goose at the moment. I’ve had enough bad birds in my life and I’m not keen on keeping company with yet another. But for the time being, Max is lucky. Our goose isn’t cooked quite yet.

Post Script: You can see Baldy in one of the three photos on the lower right of our home page here. This pic was taken almost two years ago. Elihu’s affection for his roo is easy to see. I can report that three days later Baldy is doing quite well – crowing loudly in our tiny kitchen, strutting and scratching in the manner of a chicken on the mend. His back end is mostly bare, and in near-zero temps we just can’t put him outside quite yet. As he is a fouler smelling fowl than any others I’ve ever had inside my house before, we’re going to move his digs to the basement this weekend. Out of sight, out of smell, but definitely not out of earshot. ! No alarm clocks needed here!

 

Iron Bird May 21, 2013

Those who live in my neck of the woods and are familiar with the main north-south commute from Saratoga to Schenectady may know of the old garage on route 50 which is surrounded by large abstract sculptures and painted over in bizarre icons. I myself had remembered passing this strange landmark upon occasion over the past two decades, and in the past few years as I began to pass it even more frequently (as Elihu and his father went back and forth to the train station) I’d begun to wonder more deeply about the place. I’d stopped a few times to take photographs, and as I examined the whole menagerie more closely I became increasingly  intrigued with the place, the paintings, the sculptures… Who’d made them? Why were they all just sitting there? And where was this person now? What were the stories behind the pieces? I’d loved this art for years, and now with the place for sale by owner, they sat, rusting, languishing. At first it was just a small hunch, a wisp of an idea… could I possibly own one?  There was one piece in particular that called to me… a lovely bird… and I knew exactly where it would go in my garden… Then months would pass, nothing would change. There they still sat. My vision remained, too. I loved that bird. I could find a way to take it home with me, right? Why not? But how? I can’t just take em. That’s not right. Gotta find out who owns them and go from there. And money, oh, yeah. I’ll have to set some aside. Gotta make a plan here…

About a year ago I finally took down the number on the sign and called. After a bit of Googling to equip myself with some preliminary backstory on the place, I called the family who was selling the property and spoke to the artist’s brother. The artist himself was named Allan – known better to friends as ‘Ace’ – and had made the sculptures several decades back. Ace had been in Viet Nam, had returned a changed man, had discovered relief in the bottle, in the Bible, and finally in his artistic creations. At one time in his life he lived all across the country, hitching rides and taking odd jobs where he could. But finally he ended up here, in his grandfather’s old auto shop, using bits and pieces from the junk pile and welding them into large, free-standing organic shapes. He was still living, his brother told me (to my great relief!) and in fact he was in a nursing home not terribly far from my home. Within a day of that call I was off to meet Ace.

Since that first meeting, I’ve stopped in a handful of times to visit. Although I understand he has his off days, whenever I’ve seen him he’s been pretty together. Recalling stories, tidbits of this, tidbits of that. He’d had a stroke about eight years ago, and that’s when he moved out of the property. His brother’s been taking care of the place ever since. When I told his brother I’d like to acquire some of Ace’s pieces – in particular that delicate bird which had so captivated me – he expressly told me that it was business between me and his brother alone. Told me to take it up with Ace. As this man was a tremendous fan of Ayn Rand and put great value on respecting the rights of the individual (and would therefore not intercede in the sale of something that was not his to sell), I realized my hoped-for pieces were safe for now. No one had expressed interest before, and I had a direct line to the artist. Perfect!

For my 50th birthday I bought myself two pieces of sculpture. I visited Ace, wrote up a little contract, put the money in his account at the home, kissed him in thanks and left. Life got busy, and while I’d intended to pick them up sooner, a week had passed and they still sat waiting for me. One morning the phone rang. It was Ace’s brother. He had my ‘bird’. My heart pounded with the thrill of knowing it would soon be here, in its new home. We made plans for the next day. Elihu and I met the brother at the garage, but when we pulled in I felt something might not be right. There were only two pieces left of the dozen or more that had sat there for years… and none my bird. These pieces had sat virtually ignored for decades, and now they were nearly all gone? Just like that??  Ace and I had agreed on two pieces, so Elihu and I looked over the mere three remaining and had just chosen the small one (which he titled “Mayfly”) when Bill pulled up and told me the bird was in the locked garage. I held my breath as he opened the door… and then – I’m ashamed to say I reacted so strongly – when an entirely different bird appeared my heart sank and my body went cold. Oh no… I’d waited. And I’d trusted this man. Thought he had let the deal be mine and Ace’s alone. “That’s not the one” I said, trying not to cry. Really. Cry? Oh, but I’d had this vision for so many months now… So much anticipation. This piece really had that ‘look’; it was Ace’s for sure – and it was a nice piece, just not the one I’d held in my mind’s eye for so long. Fifty year old women don’t cry about things like this, I’m thinking to myself. Suck it up. You’re lucky you got anything at all. But still. This feels wrong. He sold my bird to someone else – knowing full well which one it was I wanted! And you know what else? Although Ace and I had agreed upon two pieces of sculpture for the price, his brother told me that was unacceptable. !! The small piece already in our van would cost extra. Extra? I thought this was between Ace and me! I hadn’t any extra with me – Elihu and I had hoped to have a celebratory lunch out. (Maybe I didn’t need extra money for eating out – there was less to celebrate than I’d thought.) I made him an offer of the remaining cash I had on me, and as I went to find it in my purse he agreed to take ten less. So at least we could swing lunch. Thanks. Sigh.

Always one to try and preserve relationships as best I can, I smiled my way through some small talk as we looked around Ace’s old shop together. We even had some friends in common – the folks at Elihu Farm! But that didn’t help us here and now. As Elihu admired the stuff all around, and even as the brother gave us a couple of Ace’s things as mementos, a sick feeling still hung in my gut. I was stunned and in disbelief. Something so simple. A man proclaims his principals, proselytizes about them to me (an earlier visit had him and his wife urgently encouraging me to seriously begin to study Ayn Rand and learn about the importance of individuals acting on their own behalf), then doesn’t even live by them in the end. Ugh. My tummy wasn’t much better even by the time we got home.

I’d thought some time, some perspective might lighten my heart. And yes, it has. A little. And yes, this still might be a ‘best mistake ever’. Cuz I’ve told myself that I’m just going to have to learn how to weld a bird of a similar shape on my friggin own if I can’t have Ace’s bird in my garden. We’re a bird family, after all! There is a woman not far from here who is a sculptor of large pieces. Already considering calling her up. Can one just up and learn to weld? Really? Secretly, this missing bird has got me going… been collecting interesting looking pieces of metal from abandoned farms, from trash piles in the woods… all with the hope of doing what Ace has… Can I? Not convinced I’ll take it that far. I just miss that little shape, that gentle turn of iron… and still wish she were here with us.

For now I’m going to enjoy the pieces we have. They animate our little perennial forest garden so delightfully. They just add a certain charm, humor and extra presence which seems to bring the space alive. Since I’ve lived here I’ve secretly held a vision of this property with footpaths running throughout, a flowing creek under the bridge, terraced land held back with lovely stone walls, perennials at every turn, trees that will one day make a glorious canopy overhead, walls of lilacs that will burst each spring….

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Here is the ‘wrong’ bird. He’s growing on me, though.

(Maximus hissed at it like crazy when I took it out of the van and stood it up. !)

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and now from the other side (looking toward the driveway from the woods)

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Here’s little Mayfly

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and up close..

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Elihu smooching rooster Irik on the bridge

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Tall Bird, Mayfly, Irik and Elihu

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A handmade leather vest Ace made for himself.

A part of this guy will always live on here at the Hillhouse.

 

Spring Day April 11, 2013

Another post by Master Elihu. It seems the apple has not fallen far from the tree…. see?

I wake up in the morning, and it’s early spring and the ground is carpeted with flowers. I walk outside and see grasshoppers, hopping from flower to flower. A robin flits in front of me and lands on the ground. Listens, then pulls out a fat worm and flies away to his nest. The call of a hawk above me makes me look up; a red-shouldered hawk is soaring above me. He circles and circles and climbs so high that he is just a dot in the sky, then he’s into the woods and comes right back up with a fat rabbit which he then carries to his nest. A chicken, startled by the hawk flying so low overhead struts up to me and clucks a few times, hopping up the stairs, she looks at me inquisitively, as if to say got food? I reach down to the inquisitive hen, stroking her head. ‘No I haven’t got any – but if you go over to the coop there’ll be some.’ She struts away and a whole flock more of chickens comes up to me and asks the same question to which I give the same answer. Grabbing a stick just in case the mean rooster decides to attack me, I walk out to the coop to enjoy my big flock of hens. Red, brown, white, and black they hop up to perches, flutter from nesting box to nesting box, some quarrel about who gets the majority of the food and some simply just sit and enjoy the warm sun. It’s a nice spring day indeed, I think to myself as I watch a small frog hop from leaf to leaf. And I am sure there’ll be many more to come.

With that, I think I shall sit down and enjoy this one as best I can.

 

Increasing the Fold November 13, 2012

Big day here at the Hillhouse Coop. We acquired sixteen new laying hens from Elihu Farm. Bob and Mary Pratt run this lovely hillside farm which produces eggs, meat birds and lamb. Named for its homesteader/builder and Revolutionary War patriot (so fitting for this Veteran’s Day!) Elihu Gifford – who lies a few paces down the road in a family plot – we first found the place several years ago through a quick Google search for anything “Elihu” in our new neighborhood, and we soon came to learn that this farm is well-known in the culture of the area farmer’s markets. We’ve visited Mary at both her farm and her farm stand over the past few years, and she’s given us some very helpful information about the raising of hens. She’s been very kind to us as we fumble our way into the next level of chicken farming.

Today we learned how to tell the difference between a hen who’s currently laying eggs, and a hen who’s taking a short hiatus from the job. In the fall, with the loss of daylight, a hen’s system often switches gears; her system slows down a bit and among other changes, she often shuts down in the egg department. There are physical indications; her comb is dry-ish looking and more pink than red, her legs may be less colorful, she molts all over, and finally – and most importantly – her ‘vent’ – that is to say, the hole where everything (yes, everything) exits her body, is much more constricted during this phase. Mary showed us how to informally ‘measure’ the vent to see whether it was in shape for passing eggs or not. She flipped a gal on her back, and kinda held her fast between her knees, bird head up and back, vent end up and forward. Mary showed us how two of her fingers easily fit between the pelvic bones and how the vent itself was much larger on the gal who was currently laying. Another hen also so checked, showed a much smaller vent – quite easy to see at a glance – and the fit was much tighter between the pelvic bones. For now, this hen was considered a bit of a ‘free-loader’ as she was eating but not producing. (She’d most likely be a stewing chicken fairly soon.) I’d thought it would be some messy, wet-ish, esoteric, veterinarian kinda challenge to see the difference between the birds, but it was easy. Invert bird, inspect vent. Done. Give the gal a couple weeks to get back in the egg laying game, and if she can’t get it together, she’s retired. Retired gals will be thanked for having contributed their wonderful gift of eggs thus far, spoken to ever so gently as we box em up and drive them to the Amish farmer who’ll have em dispatched and bagged up half-frozen all in less than a half hour. (I must remember this time to have them quartered. And to save those giblets. !)

Elihu hasn’t been this thrilled, happy, nor deeply contented in a good, long while. The very essence of joy was all about my son this evening as he stood in the middle of his flock, stopping to handle each and every one of his birds, new and old, to look them over, talk to them in a low, reassuring tone before returning them to their roost. We have 48 birds. Four are grandfathered in; two roosters, one male guinea fowl, and one white gander (Ya only need one rooster. Our neighbor’s offered to lend out his Roo as a stud service in the spring, thereby making our old boys redundant and quite unnecessary. Elihu won’t have it. He’ll send the old gals off to the butcher, but he can’t see these boys gettin done in. Oh well.)

The sounds of a full house – a full coop, I should say – are gentle and pleasing sounds. I think they’d soften even the hardest of personalities. As you stand in the coop, rows upon rows of birds before you, sitting on their roosts, getting comfortable for a good night’s rest, they make all sorts of quiet little purring and cooing noises. It’s a peaceful place to be. Elihu can simply stand in the presence of his roosted flock for literally hours. Literally. There’s a spiritual quality to this quiet time; there’s a true communing with the birds that seems to take place. The coop is an oasis, separate and apart from the buzzing, high-energy output of human life.

Today’s acquisition was not an impulse; we took a look at some numbers before we made our move to increase the flock. Our prices are far too low, our egg output lately has been the worst ever, and it’s been a while since we’ve donated to Heifer International (one of the founding principals of Eggs of Hope), so we had planned this addition for a while. We’d added a few hens here and there over the past few months, but hadn’t found a true solution until Mary told us she was selling hers. So, calculator in hand, we ran by some different scenarios til we arrived at what we think will be a profitable number of birds. We will have to step things up a bit; get some new customers, announce our new price for a dozen ($3.50 – still a steal!) and work our way up to our new price for Spring of $4 a dozen. At that point we’ll be solidly in the black, and perhaps able to save. Whew.

(Now if only folks wanted piano lessons like they do fresh eggs!)

 

Our Molly March 14, 2012

Our dear white hen, Molly, died this morning. I went in to the mudroom to check on her and give her the morning meds when I found her, lying on the floor. Although her feet were cold, her body was still supple and at least felt room temperature. Looks like she’d just died. Maybe less than an hour ago. I look for clues, signs of how she died, why she died. I see a puddle of liquid around her mouth. She’d thrown up something. I just knew these past two days she was getting far worse. I wonder, did I do the right things? Did I fail her this second round? Since my back’s been out I’ve not been keeping a good schedule with her, and I’ve missed a couple of doses. Was it that? Something tells me no, she was just too far this time. Past few days she’d been burying her head far into her neck feathers – a new posture I’d not seen before – it signaled to me that she was worse. Yesterday, for the first time ever, her tail drooped to the floor. And yesterday she collapsed a couple of times. I took that to mean she needed calories, so made an effort to get a concoction of yogurt and high-end feed into her gullet. Did I force feed her to her death?

In the end, of course none of it matters. But I must take something away from this, lest she have died in vain. And after stroking her feathers and going over the past few weeks in my head, I come to the conclusion that in the past few days I was just prolonging her discomfort; I was trying to keep her alive for my benefit, not hers. I ask her to please forgive me for this. I knew damn well she was not feeling good – that she was feeling very bad, she might have been in horrible pain for all I know – but regardless I sought my goal, rather than the goal I should have pursued: that of her comfort.

I don’t tell Elihu til after breakfast. He’s much more stoic than I. He doesn’t burst out into tears, he just gets up and walks in to the mudroom. He strokes her, then picks up her head to look closer, to glean anything he might, then he lays her back down. I leave for a moment and when I return he’s still there, just looking at her. I join him, we hold hands and just sit. Then I allow myself to cry. I haven’t cried in a long time. I must need this, because the tears are pouring out of me, spilling onto my dear, white hen. I look at Elihu, who is not crying. Instead, he puts his hand on my shoulder. I pull myself together. We talk about where to bury her, and decide it should be under the flowering quince bush. All the birds love that spot, and on sunny days they like to rest there after a day of wandering the property. Yes, that’s perfect. Just perfect.

I drive Elihu to school, then come back home to tidy up. To take care of a dead hen. First, I sit with her, and I try to understand what it is that still nags at me about her death. And then I get it. I knew she was uncomfortable, but I chose to ignore it. But I knew better. So in the future, when an animal is not feeling well, and I’ve already done my best, I will have mercy on them and put them down before they suffer any more. Thank you dear Molly for reminding me to be a better caretaker to my flock.

And thank you for making our homestead so cheery these past three years. How many times I’d stood at the sink, washing dishes and looking out the window at my happy flock, spread wide across the lawn and woods, scratching, ever scratching, flinging leaves behind them as they searched the dirt for tasty bugs. Most of our chickens are red, some lighter, some darker, but mostly they are all of subdued, darker shades. Except for one. I could always find Molly at a glance. She was our bright spot in the flock.

We’ll miss our dear white hen.