Yesterday began with a morning job, meant to be finished before it got too hot outside. It ended up with a realization. Chores do that, sometimes.
Our first spring in the foothills, we got chicks and I became sort of a self-styled chicken whisperer. Every spring since, until this year, I’ve had baby chicks in my office well past their expiration date. That is, they were still young enough to be considered vulnerable and yet old enough to cause a big stink. Every spring, right next to the bills and papers and unfinished tomes, I’d place a big cardboard box of little chickens, until they grew large enough to be merged into the flock (with varying degrees of success).
This year, I decided to take a break from spring-time chickens and concentrate on the solid flock of heritage layers that call our coop home. Their run is about the size of my entire back yard in Culver City. This year began with a dozen chickens, all named Betty, each of whom produced an egg pretty much every day during their “on” season. Chickens go “on” and “off” pretty easily. Chickens are easily offended and retaliate by withholding product, like the famous Soup Nazi on Seinfeld. Step out of line and your bird will not lay. Our coop has no electricity, so if it’s too hot or too cold or too dark or too windy or you don’t feed them enough (okay, admittedly, that’s bad)… no egg shall be left for you.
That’s most chickens, anyway. Predation is always a problem in the mountains. Some people say they’ve never had a loss due to predation. I don’t believe them. Chickens come and go and we do the best we can to shelter them, but sometimes things go wrong. I came home from a trip recently to find my Delaware Betty nearly stripped of her feathers, bloodied and bruised, with large pieces of skin torn off and her little red hat missing. My Rugged Husband is not the chicken whisperer I am. I hollered him out of the house, “Get my gloves and the axe.” I thought I would have to take this chicken “out,” in a sort of Mafia way. Not my style. I’m a beach girl, I don’t even like to take the head off a pimple, let alone a bird. It’s what they do in movies, though, so I thought I’d play the part.
Immediately I isolated the chicken, which wasn’t hard to do – badly wounded Betty that she was. By the time the rugged husband returned with the axe, Betty and I had met eyes and I could see there was plenty of life in her. Placing her in a small dog’s crate we use for sick chicks, I gave her water, food and 24 hours. The next morning, when I opened the crate to check on what I assumed would be a dead chicken, she bolted past me, full of life. Plus, she left an egg behind! That is one tough Betty.
So, I love my flock and try to keep them happy. For a chicken, that means lots of extra food scraps. Yes, I am that embarrassing friend that requests a table of twelve to pass their leftovers forward for my chickens. Sometimes I stop in random grocery stores and request their leftover fruits and veggies. My girls don’t like onions, garlic or anything too tart, like lemons.
They LOVE most everything else, though sometimes their deeply entrenched survival fears won’t let them approach an obviously delicious treat. One fall, I saved an un-cut pumpkin as their “Thanksgiving Surprise!” With all the ceremony fit for ritual, I plunged the over-ripe pumpkin onto the ground, expecting them to act like turkey vultures on road kill. Alas, they were scared. Terrified. They wouldn’t touch that pumpkin for a week, until it had degraded and deflated into something small and unrecognizable, and finally, edible.
Recently my friend Kriszti and I drove to Auberry for a wonderful half-day program on biodynamic gardening, led by Chris, farmer of local CSA (community supported agriculture) and part-organic farm, Stella Luna. It was a fascinating talk before a diverse group of people, all seeking the same results: a balanced garden with maximum output and limited effort.
Chris explained the essence of biodynamic gardening/farming this way: one examines the entire organism, that is… the farm… as ONE. Even the people who live and work on the farm are part of the greater organism. This makes perfect sense to me, so as soon as we came home, I set about examining our dirt, inside and outside of our enclosed (deer proof) small vegetable and flower garden.
Combining dirt from our property with potting mixture from Western Sierra Nursery, we “inoculated” the sterile soil with beneficial microbes that already exist on our property. In theory, this would make our plants more resistant to pests and overall, the garden would thrive in a greater way than before.
I am simplifying this considerably, so if you want the real scoop, go to one of Chris’ talks. It was a beautiful thing, and it worked, producing the best garden I’ve had here yet. Anxious to apply these same principles to my beloved Betties, I noticed a great idea in this month’s Mother Earth magazine.
The article suggested we throw a 3″ bed of leaves and straw into our clean coop, then toss in handfuls of scratch (chicken feed) every day, and let the chickens do the rest of the work, raking through and tossing the bedding with a regularity that would leave me having to clean the coop only once every few months instead of every two weeks.
So yesterday, there I was, first thing in the morning, raking out the stinking coop. Shovel after shovel of old, dirty straw went into a barrel. I dumped the barrel up our hill, and returned for refills again and again. As the sun got higher in the sky, I raked dry oak leaves together and added them to the heady mix, anticipating the moment when my brood would enter their newly refreshed digs, clucking with delight. They did. They laid eggs, talked about how nice it was and generally were a well-improved flock of chickens by the time I, sweating and grinning, finished the chore.
This process took long enough for me to get into the “zone.” That’s when you’re doing something you love so much, time seems timeless. Once in the zone, my thoughts turned to my own life and needs. Was I tending my own needs? Had I been properly inoculating my own garden against pests in any form? Did my cubby have a nice bedding where I could rest and produce my greatest work?
No. Nope. Not really. Here I am, arguably the chief organism up in this place (okay, Rugged Husband is the Alpha when he gets home, but I rule the roost by day and ALWAYS in the kitchen) and who is looking out for me? Not me!
By the time yesterday’s chore was finished, I was full of resolutions that came from my realizations. Now is the time to take care of myself, so that I can take care of others. Get up, get out, stay busy, be happy. Avoid pests and predators. Keep my coop clean. Maybe find some worms. Don’t you just love chores?