The Hillhouse

The Journey of a Mother and Son

Done November 20, 2013

Yesterday was one long day. When I awoke early, it was pitch black outside with a full moon in the western sky. The winds were so strong – and loud – that I opened the door to see if was just the wind and not a truck mistakenly roaring down my driveway. The dark, combined with the roaring winds, made me feel just a bit uneasy. A quick peek out the window showed the coop dark for the first time since the warmer months. Whether the heat bulb had burned out or the wind had somehow had a hand in it, it didn’t matter – the scene was eery. The timing, ironic. Not much freaks me out in my life these days, and I don’t fear for much, even if we do live a bit off the road. But for some reason, with the combination of darkness, violent weather, the full moon and the task at hand, I was not feeling my full confidence. But we had a date at 7:30 with the Amish farmer. On we went…

To make things even a bit more harsh, when I opened the door I noticed we’d had our first snow. Not much, but enough to cast a slight white over the frosty leaves. It was so cold, and I just wasn’t ready for it. We had work to do, and this would make it less pleasant still. I handled the boxes in thick gloves, but Elihu’s job required bare hands. His job was to vent the hens to find the non-layers. It was easy pickins; they were still on the roosting bars tucked up into fluffy breasts and resting when we entered. A couple of the new roosters insisted on crowing (very loud in such a small space) and it helped further my resolve in getting them gone. But getting Shirley Nelson? And Judson? He was named after my beloved home in Evanston. One of our first guys. And all the rest, too. Each had some story. Jessie was our very first-ever hatched chicken. Man, for me this was hard stuff. But Elihu honestly didn’t seem to feel the same. In fact, he was light hearted as he plucked the hens from the bars and checked their vents. “Nope” he said, brightly, “She’s a non-layer. Goodbye, Gabriella. Goodbye, Inca. Sorry girls. But thanks.” he handed them down to me, and I proceeded to shove them, protesting and squawking, into a box.

We took the longer but less winding road. We wanted to give them as stress-free a ride as possible. I got into the groove, and began to get myself mentally ready. About halfway through the thirty mile drive the car began to smell of fresh chicken poop, and it helped motivate me to stay the course. When we arrived at the farm, Ben was just starting up. He was in a good mood and amenable to my chat. I always had questions, and thankfully, he was happy to answer them. A lot had changed since my first visit to his place almost five years ago. I remembered the adrenaline that pumped through my system the first time. It was still a sad place, it still had me a bit on edge as I listened to the mad flapping of the protesting birds, the clack-clack-clack of their legs kicking against the metal cones as they bled out. Ich. I tried to be a professional farmer this time, I tried to keep my focus on our end goal here. I distracted myself by sharing some of our experiences with him. I laughed casually at the two of us from a few years back. I tried to act like this was nothing at all to me now. Like this stuff was natural to us, like we were now somehow peers of this man. As if. He commended us on how far we’d come, how much we’d learned. “Some folks come in here and kiss the birds one last time”, he laughed to me. “And some of em even cry.”  I just shook my head with him in shared amazement. Some people…

The birds came back home in the same boxes they left in. Only this time they were in plastic bags and covered in ice. As I hauled the boxes off to the car, I was impressed with how much heavier they seemed now. Of course they were almost all in one box, and there was the ice, but nonetheless they felt different. We all know the phenomenon of living weight being easier to lift, the animal in question – whether human or not – always helps out a bit. Whether it’s in the form of a struggle or a simple willingness to be lifted, the animation of life just seems to lessen the weight. Wow. It was a lot of bird. Let’s see, if we were walking away with over fifty pounds of chicken, we should be eating for quite a few months. If I could actually eat these guys. I wasn’t still convinced. Even after all this. Yeah, I was still a little sad, and this was harder than I’d thought it would be.

Just an hour ago I made peace with cutting up and roasting our first bird. I inspected the legs and saw the few feathers that were left were dark. Cora? Choco? Missy? Forget it. Just forget it, I told myself again and again. Keep going… Although these were all old birds, and they’d probably be better made into soup, I still wanted to try and see just how tender or tough these old birds were. I went online and watched a quick tutorial on cutting up a whole chicken. I sharpened my knife. And I began. Oh boy. Some of the goop inside was still there. And so too was a tract full of tiny, undeveloped eggs. Oh dear. What to do? I googled for answers but none came. Anyway, what exactly does one google for in this case? “Lungs and bits of intestine left inside chicken, ok to bake as is?” Yeeps. Ok, keep going. I fairly mangled this poor dear. All this progress, and now it comes to a clunky halt at the hands of the chef? Julia Child would freak out if she saw what I was doing to this poor bird! I did my best, however, and decided to make up for the lack of butchering skill with a tasty rub. I created an impromptu, Pakistani-inspired mix of spices, mixed it with butter (fat always improves things, doesn’t it?) and I spread the pieces in a pan. Rubbed and smothered them as best I could, put them in the oven and hoped for the best.

To be honest, I don’t know why it should freak me out that the tiny eggs were still there. Nor that some of the intestine was still there either. Really, I love chicken liver. And I eat their eggs. And the meat, of course. It’s all the same stuff really. Most important, there’s no poop here. That’s the only real potential problem I guess. My hope is that the smell of the roasting bird will help me overcome my ambivalence about dinner. And as I sit here now and write, that scent is now filling the house. While most often it’s a welcome thing, I cannot say that I’m feeling the same tonight. If only we hadn’t named them. If only the cavity had been entirely clean. If only. But what on earth am I whining about? Half of the world eats birds like this. I’m gonna guess not every cook in every corner of the world cleans the bird as perfectly as possible. And many a grandmother has wrung the neck of her own dinner.

I’m clearly still a beginner at all of this, and I have a long way to go til this feels completely right. I know unquestionably that this is the way to go, but there’s a lot of cultural stuff to overcome. My bird might be done soon, but it’ll take me just a little bit longer.

 

Last Night November 18, 2013

I must remember that they’re just chickens. My ten year old boy has no room – or tolerance – for the sentiment I’m succumbing to now that the Amish farmer has finally found time for us in his schedule. The appointment came rather suddenly after months of setbacks, and perhaps just a teensy bit of stalling. Maybe I wasn’t exactly consciously stalling, but I suppose I may have dropped the ball a time or two when we might otherwise have gotten it done. But then again, we truly have been busy, and it takes more than a little planning to check this off the list. (Serendipity must be on one’s side as well.) But each time we get close, I do get a little wimpy about it all. I start taking photos of them, I make them endure enforced smooches, I look on at the marked gals in a mixture of love and nostalgia – for most of them have been here since the start of our adventure as chicken farmers (hence the current lack of egg production). We’ve been thru a lot together. The gals who are here today have survived half a dozen animal attacks. They’ve graduated from international shipping crate-as-coop to a legitimate, framed-in structure, and they’ve now seen some sixteen seasons. That’s a lotta happy living. Happy, happy birds they’ve always been. So for as much as I may anthropomorphize em and raise them to heights of character sophistication they’re probably far from ever achieving, and whatever the reality of their intelligence (or lack thereof), it can still be said that these particular girls have been with us for the whole ride. So saying goodbye, for me, at least, is just a little hard.

There won’t be much time for sentiment tomorrow. Mr. Shaw has no time for that. He’s a farmer. Got a dozen or more kids, half of whom work the line, and there’s a lot to do in one day. Calls me m’am, treats me kindly, and has my birds returned to me in tidy bags within a half an hour. Plus we’re doing another ‘chicken removal’ service for some friends and must arrive there super early to box up their girls too. I even wonder at the pure logistics of the operation; just how will we fit all these living birds into my car? Coming back they’re in bags, and they’ll fit in a cooler or two. But we must be able to fit these coolers as well as these boxes in the vehicle. Haven’t rehearsed it, so we have our fingers crossed. Ironically, I got a bunch of boxes from the grocery store today in which Thanksgiving turkeys had just arrived. Perfect. Each would carry four birds. Got some taller boxes at the wine store. Good for roosters. So we’re ready. Up at 5, a quick breakfast, then under early-morning dark it’s out to the coop where Elihu will pluck each bird off their roost, one by one, and check their vents to see if they’re currently in production or not. I tell ya, this kid’s a natural. No hesitation, plus pure confidence. And at this point, a good year’s experience sorting out the layers from the dead ends. Yeah, not sure I’d have the oomph to do all this without him. In this case he more than carries his own. Tomorrow he’s a true partner.

We both shut the birds in tonite. He indulged me. These days it’s not the event it was when he was younger. Some nights he’d be in the coop, smooching, petting, crooning and talking softly to his flock for a good hour before I could get him to come in. Now, what with homework and practicing and getting older and such, he runs out, does a quick head count, then shuts em up. I kinda miss the innocence of just a few months ago. ! But it’s all good. While I will miss the crazy, loud and goofy chicken population meandering all about the property, and the lovely little interjection of energy they provide here, I will also be greatly relieved to see my food bills cut by more than half, and to find far fewer fresh poops on my doorstep. And finally, the gals will get a break. Only one horny rooster around. And he’s getting old, too. You’re welcome, ladies.

So it’s goodnight, farewell and thank you to our first ever hatched, Jessie, our nods to twins Cora and Sophia, of course the new roos – including the bravest and most resilient rooster we’ve ever known, Julius Caesar (first-born of ’13) – and, last, but never least, my favorite: Shirley Nelson, our green egg-laying Araucana. She stopped laying months ago. She is still flighty, and has never let me pick her up without a fuss, but I just love her beard, and I just love her most curious habit of crawling underneath alpha rooster Bald Mountain as he stands in one place. She likes to sit underneath him, and he is most content to have her there. Never seen such a strange and cooperative arrangement before, and it is one more reason I’m  just a bit sad about seeing her go. Never got it on film, but I hope my brief description here will inspire long-lasting mental images thru which she may be ‘immortalized’. Elihu, knowing her to be one of the tiniest birds, is looking forward to trying out a buffalo-style chicken wing recipe on her, so at least she’ll be remembered (can one be ‘immortalized’ by simply being a meal?) for that. And the door. The back door on the coop has a diamond pattern in the glass. Elihu said it looked like it belonged in a house of someone named ‘Shirley Nelson’. And actually, he’s kinda right. First came the bird, then the door. And we still refer to it as the Shirley Nelson door. So, let her time come. She leaves behind a legacy, and maybe even a good new recipe for the book.

I need to get to sleep. My little farmer has been out for almost an hour. Five am will be here sooner than I’d like, and I gotta be on when I get up. (Plus I have a full day of school immediately after that adventure, and so does the kid.)

Thanks so much you dear girls and guys. You had probably the best lives that chickens could ever hope to have. Freedom, food, fresh air and the love of a boy and his mom. We appreciate your gift to our stomachs and to our growing bodies. Enjoy those cozy roosts one last night, and we’ll see you one last time in the morning.

Post Script: Shortly past five and the winds outside sound like a passing freight train. I look out the window for a quick coop check and see that the light is out. Wow. That almost never happens. (Likely the power line was pulled down by the weather.) A real-life metaphor for what’s shortly to come. Here we go…

 

Corner Turned October 28, 2013

Originally I’d wanted to write a post about our first experience butchering chickens in two parts: one before, and one after. I’d wanted to compare my thoughts and impressions from the idealistic, perhaps naive beforehand perspective, and the more grounded, realistic perspective that I expected to set in after the event. But to write about what a challenge it was that we faced, and how it was beyond our comfort range, even to express my thoughts on the merits of making one’s own food – all this seems so obvious, so clear – so unnecessary. I didn’t want to appear all greener-than-thou, and I certainly didn’t want this to seem like a bigger deal than it was. Plenty of my friends hunt. I know people who’ve killed many times. Clearly it wasn’t beyond my ability. And the principal of it should be pretty apparent. Yeah, we can pretty much all agree that it’s a good thing to take responsibility for your own food if you’re able, and to offer the creatures happy lives and quick ends. So in the end, especially now after having done it, the preamble I’d originally planned seemed kinda silly.

There is one thought that stays with me, however, an image I’ve had in my mind for years that’s related to the acquisition of ‘live’ food. As Westerners, we don’t exactly grow up seeing our food while it’s still alive. The only exception I can think of is lobsters. I might be way wrong here, but I’m kinda thinking that we’ve all felt that quiet, inner conflict when passing those tanks of tangled, doomed lobsters at the grocery store. And should we actually take one home, we manage to talk ourselves out of our remorse, cuz hey, this is gonna be one delicious meal after all. Maybe we offer the creature, or even Creator, some thanks, and so the guilt lessens even a bit more. But not all folks on this globe feel the same about their food. Years ago in New York City’s Chinatown I once witnessed an old woman shopping for dinner. I will never forget the scene – one I wasn’t expecting, one which I wasn’t even fully understanding until the moment was over. She first pointed to a huge barrel filled to the top with live bullfrogs, the clerk scooped out two, laid them out on the counter and before I knew what was happening, he bashed them over the head with a bat. It wasn’t a killing blow, and I watched in horror as they haggled over the price of the still-moving and clearly horribly injured frogs. They were paid for and bagged up, and the grandma took her bag in hand, along with all her other shopping bags and left the shop. She was obviously not bothered, as I was, at the spasmodic kicking that continued from inside the bag as she made her way down the sidewalk and into the crowd on her way home to make dinner.

That little scene blew my mind. And it changed how I thought about food. Sure, there was something right about the freshness, the immediacy, but there was something very wrong with the lack of humanity with which the dispatching went down. A couple things to be learned there. I always wondered after that – in a tiny, almost inaudible voice – if one day we might live on a planet where all our food would be gleaned in a responsible and humane way. If one day we might finally take the horror out of it. Whether factory farmed chickens who live in darkness and pain or miserable frogs piled dozens deep – might we hope to one day end such profoundly crappy, disrespectful treatment of fellow creatures? But back then it was just a fleeting philosophical question which hardly lasted a minute as I dashed off to the next gig, the next project, the next rehearsal. With no solutions in sight, why make myself miserable thinking about it? I had no idea that at some yet distant chapter of my future I’d actually find myself closer to an answer. That one day I wouldn’t be living in the city. That I’d be a country gal, a mom, a chicken farmer. Yeah, it’s closer at hand, but we’re still not there. A one afternoon how-to class doesn’t make us self-sustaining farmers. Still working on it; Elihu and I continue to run the numbers, discuss the nitty-gritty details, and visualize the goal. Ya never know. Everything has to start out small.

IMG_8733Idyllic Eastern New York state – the town of Cambridge. Rolling hills just East of the Hudson River soon meet the rolling hills of Vermont. It’s here that Jared and Shannon Woodcock run Taproot Farms, an all-around farming venture. They have a toddler and a tiny baby and big dreams for what this project and life could potentially be. By teaching their farming skills and sharing their knowledge they help broaden the community of like-minded, good folk that wish to do things as they should be done. It sound blessedly simple, and yet there’s so much to it. There’s always so much more to things that it appears…

IMG_8651Bringing the young chickens up to the barn.



IMG_8663Jared goes first, demonstrating the two swift cuts on either side of the neck. It’s so quick, I can tell you it’s a minor event for the bird. Super sharp knife, just two, three seconds. Done.

IMG_8811Jared helps Elihu get the bird in the cone.

IMG_8816At first it’s hard to see the blood. But soon you get in the groove and you see instead the task that you’re doing.

IMG_8761Our first bird. I was nervous about slicing my hands and needed Jared to hold my hand to assure a good cut. Better next time. Here the bird is bleeding out. Doesn’t take more than a minute. And their legs do kick, but it’s clearly a physical, nerve-related action. By then the dear soul has moved on.

IMG_8763Elihu did his own bird too. Jared helped, but the kid was involved in the entire process.

IMG_8767You gotta dip em in hot water to loosen the feathers before you pluck em. A couple of short dips and they come right off.

IMG_8773

A beautiful, simple machine. A motor, a belt and a wheel with a bunch of rubbery fingers that rotate and just zip off those feathers. I’d be interested to see how much more time it takes to pluck a bird without this little gizmo.

IMG_8778We’re just cleaning up a few feathers left behind. But not many.

IMG_8819Elihu dunks his bird.

IMG_8831and inserts it into the magic wheel

IMG_8838First, Elihu learns how to cut off the feet; two easy cuts and they just kinda pop off.

IMG_8847Jared’s helping him loosen up the trachea and crop from the top end, so that it’ll all pull out more easily from the bottom end later on.

IMG_8794Ok, my turn…

IMG_8781all good…

IMG_8792things are gettin kinda slippery…

IMG_8791….and warm! Yeeks! And – wow – there’s a lot in here, too!

IMG_8857we’re almost done…

IMG_8707Elihu’s been wanting to eat chicken’s feet for I don’t know how long. Finally I can cook up some crunchy feet for my son!

IMG_8863Wrapping things up. Literally.

IMG_8864What a lovely little operation! Thanks Jared (and wife Shannon, plus tiny Calla and tinier baby boy) We love Tapoots Farm! (And Jarred’s also a ‘bird boy’ like Master Elihu – he actually studied orthinology. !! Really hope we see these folks again some time!)

IMG_8970The house smelled divine. And no kidding – in a blind taste-test Elihu totally knew the ‘home’ raised vs. factory chicken. If ever a kid was born with the potential to grow his own food,  it is Elihu.  And he certainly is fast-gaining the qualifications for the job….

 

Culling for Fall September 18, 2013

Can no longer justify feeding all these dead ends. While we’ve meant to get to this butchering business several times already this year, it’s finally getting to the point where pure necessity is forcing my hand. I have to start saving for Christmas, I have a Halloween costume to make (in spite of being handmade it always sets me back at least a hundred dollars) and in the wake of my new employment, ironically it’s costing me a lot more just to keep the two of us fed, as food stamps have been cut by more than a half as a result of the new income. At this point we could truly use those birds in our freezer and not in the coop. Our three year old hens, while they’ve survived many raccoon attacks and have been with us through nearly our entire journey of chicken-raising, must finally go. They lay only intermittently, yet they continue to eat. And poop. And I am done. Even Shirley Nelson, our lone Araucana and occasional mint-green egg layer, is doomed to the freezer.

In the past we’ve taken our birds to Ben Shaw, a local Amish guy who butchers chickens (‘process’ is the world he chooses to describe the task), and he charges four bucks a bird – plus he charges extra to quarter them or reserve the giblets. That’s a lot of money when you add in the gas and factor in all that feed through the years. I know I’m not coming out ahead here, but I want to mitigate my losses at the very least, and paying upwards of $4 a bird feels a bit much. And we’ve come so far at this point; we need to make it to the ultimate end product here. There can be no denying it: we need to butcher our own. But exactly how? I know what it involves, I’ve been there at the butchering of our flocks in the past, but it takes a good bit of infrastructure to get the job done, and certainly I’ll need another adult present who’s had some experience in the matter. But who? I do some asking around at Waldorf and come up with a couple of options.

One is a guy some thirty miles away who has a real chicken farm. Just so happens he’s butchering this Friday. And if I’ll help him on the line for the day, he’ll let me use his setup to do my own birds. Only catch is, he’s in business to actually make a living; he won’t be able to help me with my twenty-something birds. He warns me that we’ll start in around eight in the morning and won’t be done with his birds till around two. He doesn’t say so exactly, but I can read his message. I should be ready. I’ve got a lot of birds, and while he’ll make his gear available to me, it’s a lot of work for one person. Plus I’ll need to bring my own knives. ! I’m not quite sure about this. Looks like a great opportunity for learning, but not so sure it’ll help me with my goal. I thank him, tell him I may or may not see him on Friday, and I hang up hoping for another solution. I contact a local farm that endeavors to help new farmers learn the art of butchering. But they’re a seasonal operation, and they’re not up and running now. I’m beginning to despair, so I rack my brain just a little bit more.

Then I remember Chuckie Arnold, the local farmer here in Greenfield. He’s a real-life hero in my son’s eyes, and I believe that Chuck himself is fond of Elihu. I have a memory of Elihu when he was a tiny five year old, his arms full of Mr. Roosevelt, our very large New Hampshire red rooster – literally half his own size – walking across the field to show him off to Chuck who was in the middle of haying. Chuck stopped the tractor, turned off the motor and stepped down off the machine to see the bird. Elihu was thrilled to have the audience of a real farmer. Chuck is not one for showing emotion, he speaks very little and his face is a hard read. But instantly I could see him soften as he put a hand out to pat the top of Elihu’s head. In that moment, I swear that he recognized a kindred soul in my son. From then on we’ve run into him at the feed store and around town, and he’s always been kind. At least as kind as an anti-social farm type might hope to be. So this morning, fed up with my prospects, I drove to his farm. I tried not to overwhelm him with my questions, I tried not to talk too fast, too excitedly, I tried to be as much the farmer peer as I could. But I felt him begin to withdraw under the interview, and I noticed that he never once met my eyes. He fiddled with a scratch on his truck, he shuffled his boots in the gravel. He didn’t look very encouraging, yet out of nowhere he just said “I’ll help you out.” ?? Wait, did he just offer to help? What did he mean exactly? I asked him. And not to push things, but just when was it that he thought he could? “Gotta get the corn in first.” he said, still looking at the ground. “It’s supposed to rain.” Wow, this guy really meant it. He was going to help me butcher my chickens! A thankless, messy job that required an investment of honest-to-goodness labor; a true gift of this busy man’s time. But how to proceed from here? I wasn’t sure how he’d contact me – did he even know my last name? He knew where I lived – it’s a small town, one knows these things – but was I to expect him to call? Just show up one day after he’d gotten his corn in? He probably knew me well enough by now to figure I’d get back to him. So I simply thanked him, as he’d already turned to head back to the barn, and I said no more.

On the way home I imagined the scene… Our lone traffic cone nailed upside down on the giant beech. Would the blood permanently stain our beloved tree? Would the blood also stain my favorite yellow marine-turned-farm boots? Just what would I wear? Did I need an apron? And what about knives? I wasn’t sure I had anything near sharp enough. I tried to imagine the act itself, the birds themselves. It’s one thing to hand off your bird and turn away as the deed is done, it’s another to take the knife to the throat. And I must be swift and effective – good Lord the last thing I want is a half-dead bird. I love these girls – our whole goal is to give them happy lives and a humane and quick dispatch. I had to have some technique! And it’s one thing to practice giving your kid a haircut – it’ll grow out – but to make a mistake here… it was unthinkable. ‘Get a hold of yourself – don’t anthropomorphize these stupid birds’, I remind myself. But still, the image of bearded Shirley Nelson, upside down in a cone is hard on me. I try to imagine that place from which I must act; the economic necessity and compassion I must keep firm in my heart. I try to recall that feeling I’d had once at the Amish farmer’s – I’d once begun to visualize doing it myself; I’d watched each and every one of our birds as their heads were pulled back and their throats were slit – I’d watched as their legs kicked and the blood drained from their small bodies. I remembered the smell, that irony smell of the blood, that strange and specific sort of smell to the whole operation…. As difficult as it was to face the process, I was strengthened by my resolve – assisted energetically by my small son’s own conviction – to honor their lives by seeing to it that they died quickly, efficiently. Plus I’ve always just felt that if I am to eat, I should I take responsibility, as I’m able, for what it is that I eat. If I can’t truly earn it, at the very least I can participate to the best of my ability in a respectful way. Same goes for vegetables, for milk, for eggs… I need to acknowledge where it is my food comes from. I cannot turn a blind eye, pretending that it all comes magically, without labor, sweat… and death. It’s been my goal and that of my son’s to participate in the witness of our food. If we can’t make it ourselves, we both feel that we need to be mindful of the process. It’s the very least we can do for the bounty this world provides us. Most folks are not lucky enough to be given this honor. But we’re lucky enough to have this rare opportunity, so we feel we must avail ourselves of it.

But after mulling it over a bit, I just can’t accept his offer. I’m not sure he was even considering it through to its completion. Propane stoves, huge buckets of water, gutting tables and knives, time and mess… I wonder what inspired him to offer his help, and I wonder how I can turn it down but still show my sincerest appreciation? And if I do turn him down, what then? I remember a Facebook message from my neighbor the other day. I know she’s not really down with this butchering thing, but she’d said something about her gals not laying anymore. About maybe putting them in the ‘deep freeze’. Now she’s not one for this sort of stuff – cuz she loves her birds – but her husband and her father-in-law just might be. So I called her. Suggested we pool our birds – that I take em all out to Ben’s. Or maybe…. maybe Zac and Phil might consider doing em in? Phil grew up on a chicken farm, and the father and son duo had butchered flocks in the past. Though both were currently out of town, she said she’d run it by them soon. We hadn’t settled on it at the end of our conversation, but it seemed possible they might be the men for the job.

Over dinner Elihu and I discussed it. We both felt like we didn’t know Chuck well enough to make such a request of him. We also both felt a bit more comfortable with Zac and Phil. “They kinda feel more like uncles, ya know?” Elihu suggested. “Like they’re kinda family.” He paused for a bit as he thought about it.  “I think I’d feel better going with them.” I knew that we were both feeling the need for some emotional support here. And while Chuck would certainly offer us a good education, I could tell we were each feeling the silent, unexpressed need for a bit of tenderness, a bit of familiarity to ease us into the process. Elihu was ahead of me, for sure, but still I could sense he’d appreciate the help of neighbors over the stern-faced farmer. We didn’t talk about it again. Instead we talked a bit about his bass, about orchestra and the need for a rubber stop at the end of his instrument’s end pin. We talked about Central America, about his wanting to go to Pategonia, about the islands just east of New Zealand and puffin studies in Maine. Soon he got into bed and I read to him a story of a mysterious, fast-growing cat.

His bedtime book may have presented us with a mystery, but there is no mystery here in the case of our chickens who continue to eat but have long since ceased to be fast-growing. There is no mystery in what comes next. There is only the hard fact before us: the seasons are changing, our freezer is empty, and we cannot keep some forty-odd birds over the winter as pets alone. They must earn their keep. It’s either eggs or soup.

As the trees let go of their leaves for fall, so too must we cull our flock in order to prepare for the cold months ahead.

 

Pullets’ Surprise September 25, 2012

As most backyard chicken hobbyists do, we began our adventure with little more than a vague dream, a soft outline of a goal… We imagined that having our own hens and fresh eggs daily would be charming, picturesque, that it would bring us closer to nature and to simple living. We might have done a little research online beforehand, but not too much. Just enough to sort of get the idea. After all, we really want to do this thing, and if we knew too much, we might just decide it wasn’t really worth it…

So, one naive stroll through your neighborhood farm supply box store around Easter time and you’re hooked before you realize it. You hear the tiny, incessant peeps long before you spot the red heat lamp bulbs or even see the irresistible, fuzzy, day-old little chicks crowding the temporary cages. My God, you had no idea they were this cute! Crazy, over-the-top cute with love-me eyes and tiny, drunken walks. Klutzy little chicken feet hobbling over each other, standing, now falling, cheeping all the while. It’s just too much for you to bear. You must take some home. You must have one all to yourself to smooch endlessly. How hard can it be? You’ve had pets. You know. Yes, it’s a responsibility, but that doesn’t worry you. You’ve done this before! You had to walk the family dog all through junior high school! But see, you don’t even have to walk a chick! Seriously, how hard can this be? Man. Just give me that little cardboard take-out box and I’ll choose me six of the cutest little chicks ever seen. Really. No big deal.

Ok. So the cutest little chicks in the whole wide world have been living in a plastic storage bin in your son’s closet for two weeks now, and the whole house smells like, well, chicken shit. It’s a sour sort of funk, a weird new poop smell, mixed with the tang of urea. Hm. Oh well, you knew they pooped. Just change the wood shavings, or if you went poor-house on ’em, change the soggy shredded newspaper. That’s a little better. But not much. Man, who knew they’d smell up the whole house? And look how much bigger they are all of a sudden! Wow. They sure are growing, aren’t they? Oh-oh. Seriously. What now?

In the back of your mind you thought you could put em in the cellar for a while longer, cuz it’s still kinda cold and snowy out. Easter in the north is still on the edge of winter, and even though they’re growing, they’re still not up to the 20 degree nights outside. Ok. So you’ve killed another two weeks, but they’re still growing. They’re eating and drinking like crazy, the upkeep never stops! Plus they keep escaping their temporary home and exploring all corners of the basement! What now? The funky smell is everywhere and so are the poops, and you’re not sure you’re good with another month like this. Ok. Think. Heat lamp. Got some place in the garage that’s secure? That’s fenced in? If you don’t, you’ll spend next Saturday afternoon with a chop saw and some scraps of wood cobbling together a mildly sketchy pen of sorts for your teenagers to move into. On a mild, early spring day you’ll get brave enough to commit them to this new apartment. You’ll hang a red heat lamp bulb above them – the kind that costs $10 a pop – like you saw at the farmer supply place. Check the windows and doors otherwise the raccoons’ll get em the very first night they’re out. (Then it will take another full calendar year to get to this stage again. Been there. I know.) The morning after their first night in the new digs, you run out to check on them. They’re all still there!! Now you know what this kind of relief feels like. It’s your first rite of passage. This is how you’ll feel hundreds of times, over and over again for the duration of your career as a chicken farmer. You’re over the first hump, so congratulations! Here we go….

So it’s mid summer. The chicks are long-legged and gangly looking, their plumage is spotty; fuzzy down pokes out from the emerging patterns of adult feathers. The combs on their heads are mere bumpy ridges, waddles are yet far-off, and it’s still not clear who’s who. But after another month – usually around the end of July or beginning of August – it becomes more apparent who will be laying and who will be strutting about and making trouble. The young roosters become apparent by three defining features. No, not their spurs – that comes later. Not even their crowing – for that too comes later. What first appears are three different sets of feathers: the hackles, the saddles and the tail. The hackles and saddles look much the same; drapey, elegant long, thin feathers that serve as an embellishment to the neck and lower back areas. And the tail feathers themselves are grand, arching things that rise above the height of the bird and cascade out behind him. No hen has such a tail. No hen has such long, thin decorative feathers about her neck or hind quarters. Hens may be surprisingly beautiful, but they are not as flashy as the men. Nor as obnoxious. Gradually it will become obvious to the armchair chicken farmer that something must be done about the excess of testosterone in the coop. But what? Hmm. You hadn’t quite thought this far ahead. You just sorta thought they’d all stay on as one happy family. But you’ve stalled so long now that the boys are challenging each other and things are no longer so peaceful on the farm. In fact, the poor girls are now being mounted by these randy teenagers to the point where some may be missing the feathers on their backs. Oh dear, something is not right. No, it is not. The ratio, half males to half females, it just doesn’t work in the world of chickens. Not at all. But you didn’t really think it through, did you? You hadn’t worried about having too many roosters. Heck, chickens are chickens, right? Not really. So. What’s next? I’ll tell you…

Chicken soup. Like the kind that’s simmering right now on my stove. Man this house smells good. Smells like a home. Puts my son in a fantastic mood, makes me feel like a real good mom. Plus it gets rid of all that extra testosterone on the farm. They say the ratio of hens to a rooster should be like 25 to 1. Seems about right. (It’s a living lesson for my son about the power of chemistry over good judgment. Read into that what you will, ahem.) It’s funny, but I really never gave any thought to the difference between hens and roosters before I became a chicken farmer. In fact, I’m pretty sure I used the terms interchangeably for a while. Wasn’t quite sure that hens were girls – the ones that laid the eggs – and roosters were the fancy ones. The ones you only ever saw one of on farm. Never gave much thought to that until I was in the thick of it. And a pullet? What the heck is that?

Well, I’ll tell you. It’s a young hen. A gal who’s just started to lay. In the very beginning of your chickening career you start to lose hope that your own hens will ever lay. Months seems to stretch on with no proof that you really do have hens. It seems that hens that actually lay eggs might really be something out of a dream – some sort of crazy magic that happens somewhere else, not in your own backyard. But just as soon as they’ve crossed the line of puberty, if the young hens aren’t overly stressed and are given some nearly private sort of space in which to work things out, you will indeed have eggs before long. And oh, that first egg is truly a miracle. It is a landmark day in your life, it is a personal triumph! Hens really do lay eggs! It’s taken months – but they’re actually doing it now! How crazy is that? I mean, eggs come from factories, right? This is what you believe on a cellular level, so it will seem almost supernatural to your modern self for a time. And I know that there are even some of you who will be even a little put off by actually eating these au-natural eggs… Yes, it might just gross you out a little bit in the beginning. Yeah, I know. I’ve heard it many times. I too felt a little weird in the beginning. But the longer you live with your fresh eggs, the longer they become a staple of your homestead – plus the more guests you have who marvel over the intense flavor of your eggs – the more you will become not only a believer, but a liver-of-the-lifestyle.

You may choose to bring the extra eggs into work, give them out freely and be a hero, or you may decide that the cost of feed and upkeep deserves some payback, and so you may sell them just a tad less than those at the farmer’s markets. You’ll definitely have enough to make your son fresh, home-made, healthy French Toast for breakfast every morning, and enough to pack a hard boiled egg into his lunch each day. So these hens are a happy story with a happy ending, but what of the other story – that of the rooster? Why that is a very different story, to be sure.

Roosters don’t stay long. Almost as soon as we can tell em from the rest, we make a call to Mr. Shaw, the Amish farmer who prepares em for us. Elihu is excused from the first half of his school day (mainly cuz I need him to physically round them all up and get em in the toter) and we dedicate one chilly morning in September to butchering our modest flock of roos. First off, you’ll notice the term I choose is “butcher”. You may use other words – kill, do in, dispatch – but the term ‘butcher’ says what it means, plus it seems to infer some civility, skill and tradition in the trade too. So that’s why I use it. And butcherin’s messy. It’s a process best left to someone who’s got the setup. If you’re kinda on the fence about it – I recommend you still go ahead and have your roosters butchered, but just don’t watch. My kid and I choose to watch – I might not have if it weren’t for his strong desire to know the whole cycle – to take real responsibility for his food, and to be a part of their death too. I supported my then 7 year old son so much there was no way I was not going to share the experience with him. And it was shocking. Truly. I was stunned by the amount of blood, the bright, bright red of it. That iron-y smell of the blood. The kicking and kicking of the dead birds’ legs, long after they’d been bled out. Witnessing the actually killing part does require one be in a certain emotional place. You must just steel yourself. Distance yourself. I like to try to maintain some gratitude, some reverence for the sacrifice that’s being made of one living being for my own sustenance. But with all your adrenaline flowing and all that blood-letting going on, keeping one’s heart somewhat reverential and calm is a small challenge – and the combination of it all makes for a surreal event.

When we first went, three years ago, Elihu would whisper his thanks to each bird before handing them over to be dunked upside down into a cone and having its neck slit. He felt closure in his offering of thanks and gratitude. I was amazed to watch Elihu go through his own process with such certitude, with a real sense of gravity projecting throughout his whole demeanor. To see how deeply he felt it, how critical it was for his experience of raising and making his own food. On the way home however, finally he began to cry. I wondered if there wasn’t going to be some fallout afterward, in fact I rather expected it…. I told him that I understood that it was a hard thing to watch, that the whole thing was sad and difficult. But he protested that that was not what was bothering him so. He wasn’t so much sad as he was mad – at Ben Shaw, the Amish farmer. Apparently Ben had told Elihu not to say prayers of thanks to the animals because God had given us the animals to do with what we would. That they belonged to us, and that they had no souls of their own. Ben told Elihu instead to make prayers of thanks to God alone, for these were his gifts to us. Elihu was livid, through tears he protested to me that Ben was wrong! “How can he look into his dog’s or his horse’s eyes and think that they have no souls! It makes me want to turn the car around and go tell him that he’s wrong!” Oh my poor, dear son. This is what troubled him. I could only tell him how much I agreed, and share his great disappointment with Mr. Shaw’s beliefs.

Since then, we haven’t looked back. We let Mr. Shaw believe what he will, and we continue to know that even the beasts we butcher and eat each have their own unique imprint of life, animated by soul, just as we are. They are just another speck of God that’s taken another form. And we thank them, we do em in as quickly as possible. And man, do we LOVE the soup that we get from em. We started out this year by roasting and souping up our handsome black/green rooster, named ‘Sylvan’; we ate “Sylvan soup” all week and loved it no less the last time than the first. I tell ya, these home raised chickens make the tastiest broth I have ever had. I like to over-salt things – but I find I just don’t need as much when I make soup from these boys. Yup. Our Rooster Soup is a highlight of fall. Nothing like the smell of crisp, autumn leaves outside and simmering soup inside.

But there’s still one more surprise this year on our little chicken farm. The pullets – the young gals whose brothers are now resting in plastic bags in the downstairs chest freezer – they have just started laying. And on account of us having a rather rag-tag, higgeldy-piggledy sorta flock – inbred now these four years – we have ourselves some interesting looking gals, and now, we’re learning, some interesting looking eggs. We learned about pale green eggs from our petite little lady Shirley Nelson, who is an Aracauna. We learned that mixed-breeds are a toss up. Some lay enormous pale pink eggs, some medium light brown ones. Some lay close to white. But today we learned of an altogether new experience here in the Hillhouse Coop – we found two small, roundish (this tells us they’re from first-timer pullets) dark purplish eggs! When we set them in water they turned a deep brown, but when they air dry, the reddish, purplish cast returns. ! Just when we thought we knew it all. Ha! Far, far from it.

So nice to know that we can still be surprised by our hens in happy little ways, like today’s discovery of purple eggs. Between the pullet’s new contributions to our hen house and the fresh pot of rooster soup on the stove, we have the makings of a very content little homestead. If you would have told me four years ago that this would be my life in the near future, I don’t think I would have believed you. Sometimes I still can’t believe that this really is my life – and that I really do love it. Yup, this whole beautiful, serendipitous, heartbreaking, soul-restoring, chicken-raising, child-rearing ride here in Greenfield has been the most unexpected – and welcome – surprise ever.