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.

 

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.

 

Happy at Home September 8, 2012

Elihu has had a fever on and off for the past few days. Reminiscent of his very first day at Waldorf last spring; on his first day of the new school year I was called by the school nurse to come and administer his nebulizer treatment (as I’d not yet gotten this year’s doctor’s slip) and I ended up taking him home instead. He stayed home today too, and good thing. His sleep was deep and long, his fever only breaking just this morning. This needed to be a day of rest. He’d been going non-stop with his father for weeks and had come home with little time to adjust to the new school year. My intention was to give him a day with nothing to do but feel better.

Well, kind of. I did have a secret agenda for the day which seemed like it might work well with my kid confined to the home. I had a pile of clothes to go through which a friend (with boys just ahead of Elihu) had dropped off recently. A boon to be sure, but there was still some labor involved in assimilating and using it all. Not everything would work; the piles had to be gone through. Not all would be the right size; some were too big and would need to be put in bins for next year (and clearly marked so as not to overlook them until they were then too small!), some weren’t quite his style (shirts that advertise ‘Nike’, ‘The Gap’  and that feature the ‘life is good’ stick figure playing baseball aren’t really a match) and some he can wear right away. It just takes some time to assess what’s what. And in a little house like ours there’s only so much room; one can only keep what one will really and truly use.

We did this for about twenty minutes, until Elihu hit a wall. I don’t blame him, I kinda knew I was pushing it. In his incredibly convincing adolescent girl routine, he flung himself onto his bed and wept, and then in his incredibly self-aware young adult persona he paused from his drama to explain to me that he needed to simply cry and be angry right now, he apologized for doing so, and then promptly resumed his performance. I in turn apologized, thanked him for helping as much as he did, then left the room to give him some space.

After a while I came back to check on him. He wanted a hug. I gave it freely. He seemed pooped. Still not himself. I offered to read him a story. He told me he’d like that. After the story was finished, we lay there on his bed for a moment, shifting gears, and then got up and had lunch.

As I cleaned up the lunch dishes, Elihu put on his glasses and headed outside. After I’d finished in the kitchen, I followed him out to the coop to see about some fixes I’d been meaning to get around to for a while now. The weather couldn’t have been more perfect. The air just right, on the warmish end but not too bad – that is to say no mosquitoes hanging around – and a nice breeze blowing through. As I began my work in the coop, Elihu began his work of chasing chickens. It was kinda cute to see him zipping past – first right, then left, whizzing by in pursuit of a fast-moving bird. We’d check in with each other every now and then, sometimes stopping what we were doing, each seeking out the other and simply meeting in a hug. Wordless, or perhaps with a simple “I love you” we’d part and go back to our respective projects. It was a productive day for me as I’d finally gotten around to the outdoor to-do list I’d put off for too long now; I zip-tied holes in the fences, screwed planks along the perimeter of the coop bottom to deter under-the-coop-laid-eggs (as well as hunkered down raccoons and such), fixed the timer that opens and closes the coop door, installed a couple new nesting boxes and did a half dozen other little things – all of which added up to a couple hours work.

All this time Elihu was in his own heaven. Birds everywhere, birds tame enough to hold, wild enough to chase, varied enough to be beautiful and fascinating each in its own unique way… And with each of us so close by to the other, yet each of us each so engrossed in our own work, it made for the most perfect afternoon. An afternoon of love, security, joy – and even progress. We enjoyed ourselves thoroughly. We’d take a moment out, pick up a bird, sit together side by side on an overturned milk crate and spend a full ten minutes marveling over all of its wonderful qualities. The variation from bird to bird is really impressive, and neither one of us is ever bored of bearing witness to it. We admired nearly every bird in the flock; at the end of the day we’ve handled, smooched, praised and thanked nearly thirty birds. Especially the young roosters who will go to the Amish butcher this week. (This is about as long as we can know them and still hand them over…) We know we have one mature rooster too many, but as we’ve had him for over a year now (his name his Judson) we cannot bring ourselves to butcher him too. The young ones go easier…And it’s these quiet, one-on-one moments we share with each doomed fellow that make it easier for us to let them go. They live a good life, and they die a quick death, and they receive our deepest gratitude. As farm animals go, it’s a sweet life.

The hours pass by and it is perfect. Every now and then I try to look up and around at my world; I see the spread of the beech tree branches, the canopy of the white pines, the view of the pale blue mountains beyond. The air is perfect. We are in no hurry. This is a day where not a thing is expected of us. And on account of once having lived a life where there really was a whole lot expected of me, it makes me treasure this moment even more. It’s a good thing to know the companionship of animals, to know the outside air, and to be blessed with unscheduled time – and to experience all of it with my young son makes it even better.

We even got around to burying out old pets today. They’ve been in the freezer for a while now. Some months, and well, yes, some even years. We have our three-legged leopard gecko Sweets – who’d come with us four years ago from Chicago and who’d had her leg amputated by a very kind and generous vet who did it gratis – as our situation was then fresh and dire – and she’d meant a lot to us. When she finally died, the ground was frozen, so we simply put her aside to bury later. Her sister, Stripes is there too. Died on Christmas day of a bored, tank-confined heart. (She got the best gift ever, in my opinion.) Then oh! Here’s King George!! Our beloved button quail. He lived free-of-cage in our house for over a year, every night making his surprisingly loud mating calls sadly to no avail… he pooped very courteously in one corner only, and he was a good companion to a six year old boy. (There are a couple of pics of them together in an album on Facebook which you can see for yourself.) And of course, there is Molly. The white hen who started this whole business. The cute little yellow chick that we found absolutely irresistible as we passed through Tractor Supply ‘just looking’ one Easter season.

I’d dug the deepest hole I could – and it wasn’t big, cuz digging in this particular corner of Greenfield is a job rife with rocks – and we planned on nestling all our little guys in there together. “With white cloth or on dirt?” I asked Elihu. “White cloth”, he answered. He put Molly down first, after we’d admired her peacock necklace and thanked her especially, then the others went in around her. “You know the white cloth is just for us. This whole thing is just for the living – you know that, right?” I said. He nodded. I said a general thanks to all of them for coming into our lives, and I apologized for the things we may have done to cause them distress. Then I told Elihu we should each take a fistful of dirt and put it in to begin the burial. He told me to wait – he needed to say something. Then, in the earnestness that can really only yet be found in a child, he kneeled down and pressed his hands together. He spoke for a while, basically saying what I had, but adding a whole bunch more. (He kinda reminded me of his paternal grandmother – always offering these ten minute long blessings at the start of a keenly-anticipated meal. !) Then, feeling ready, he let me shovel in the dirt. We marked the spot with some large rocks, then placed a couple of daisies on top. We hardly even paused; it was over, and we’d concluded the chapter the best and most fitting way we could. On to more life now.

We meandered down to check on our garden, which by now was reduced to a handful of plants; some tomatoes, peppers and beans. Elihu had pilfered some dried beans from his handwork class at Waldorf and brought them home in hopes they’d germinate. Germinate they did, and so we planted them here. Tonight they yielded just about enough for supper. We harvested an enormous, bright red cayenne pepper too, but learned that someone had beat us to the tomatoes, trimming off all the upper branches, leaving us just a few green ones close to the bottom. Maybe we really do need an electric fence next year. After all, we mean to do this right, and so far this garden has hardly been anything but a rather unsuccessful experiment. Gleaning a handful of a crop ‘every week or so’ wasn’t what we had in mind. Guess a true farmer can’t just get up and go to the Cape for a week, can they now? We’d missed a key week of watering and weeding and were seeing the results. Plus, going fence-free didn’t help. With our dinner in our hands – or rather, in one of my hands – we headed back up the hill.

I find some leftovers and heat em up, and I cook the beans. I’ve got a glass of wine left too; we have the makings of a nice, simple dinner. Tonite it’s kind of a white-trash kinda night; we’ll watch some show on cable about fellas scuba diving for gold in the frozen Bering Straight while we eat. We don’t watch a whole lot of tv – and when we do it’s usually while we eat. I know that’s not a great habit – but even that’s not so much a habit as it is a treat. Just as we finish eating, a truck pulls in… it’s a student of mine and her dad here to return a metronome and to say they’d like to start lessons again when they figure out their new fall schedules. It’s nice to see them again and to hear about their summer. Elihu whisks Katie away to look for frogs as her dad and I chat, but soon it’s time to go. It’s been a long day and we still have to close our birds in for the night. Goodbyes and good nights follow as they pull away and we go out to evening coop duty.

The automatic coop door opener is working again. Maybe all it needed was to be re-set. Who knows. But the door is closed, and all the birds have roosted. Even Max got back into the swing of an automated coop and got himself in before the little door closed. Now we have to close and lock the big door. But not before we count them all, and certainly not before we play ‘musical chickens’. When you simply touch the back of a resting chicken, he or she will emit a little sound – a little ‘whirring’ noise of surprise. Each a bit different; some coo low, some chirp high, and when you get going it’s kinda like a little bird orchestra. Elihu has fun with it. Then he stops, and the place gets quiet again. Head count. Twenty-eight chickens, six of whom are roosters (and going next Friday), one helmeted guinea fowl named Austin whom we love very much and who adds loads of comic charm to the place, and finally, the largest of our flock, Maximus, the Lavender Ice Goose. Thirty birds in all. For now. Elihu and I just stand there, looking, unable to walk away. Soft cooing and gurgling sounds surround us. It’s a peaceful place to be, here in our chicken coop. I know Elihu is feeling very proud right now. I am too. Honestly, it’s not as if we have some special talent here, but what we do have is a group of animals whom we care for responsibly, and whom we love, and of that we have pride.

Our night isn’t quite over. We want to enjoy our screen porch, and Elihu wants to enjoy some time in the darkness when he is free of having to wear dark glasses just to exist. I light all the candles until the porch glows. I sit and watch as he plays. He locates a long piece of PVC which once served as a drainpipe, and he begins to play it like a didgeridoo. Sounds pretty good. He looks around for crickets or mice (he wants a mouse to replace the one he found outside today and then let go by accident inside the house! Sorry, that lil guy’s showing up again tomorrow morning – in a trap…) He runs around back inside and flicks a light on and off, faking it’s a ghost, then asks me if I’d seen it too… Things get silly, then they wind down as I’ve drawn a bath and we need to get down to business. Candles out, pipe down, clothes off.

Elihu enjoys a much longer bath than I’d intended, as I sit down to write a much longer post than I’d intended. He’s certainly old enough to get himself out and dried off, and mostly that’s what he does these days, but in that we’ve had such a day of togetherness, when he calls to me to come and help, I do. Soon he’s in bed. Too pooped for stories tonight. Instead, the room is dark right away. I lie next to him, and lying on his side, he puts his hand on my face. “This was a great day” he says. I agree. We kiss, then lay back down. Oh so soon he is deeply asleep. So am I. It’s not til halfway through the night that I awake to finish the post. But now it’s back to bed for me too.

What a day we had. Such a very happy day at home.