A Narrow Escape

August 7, 2017

Here’s my rooster, Monty (named for Montgomery Clift, because as a young cockerel he was slim, tall, dark, and handsome) back in February. Someday I’ll have to write a history of my roosters, but for now suffice it to say that last fall I drove an hour to pick up Monty from a farm in Mooers Forks. He took over my small flock of four hens with adolescent enthusiasm. His own harem! Sex at every opportunity!

Monty struts with self-importance and crows all day long. “Shut up!” I hear the builders yell good-naturedly in reply.

For the last three days I have been very busy with guests and struggling to put things together in the house. (Where could the cross bars of the bed frame be?) Yesterday at around 2 PM I was sweating over bookcase pieces in the living room when the dogs suddenly leapt up barking.

I ran to the window and saw nothing. The dogs stared out the glass patio doors for a moment but eventually went back to sleep.

An hour later I took them for a walk and to my sorrow found dozens of black and green iridescent feathers littering the ground in front of the barn. I felt sick. The feathers were unmistakably Monty’s. That coyote has killed my rooster ten feet in front of the barn in broad daylight!

I walked the dogs feeling sad and savage. My mind churned.

However, this time I received my miracle. At chore time, there was Monty in the barn! He looked shell-shocked, huddled with his four hens. He also had only two scraggly feathers left in his tail. But he was alive.

I have to come up with a good solution for this problem. I don’t want to shoot the coyote (I don’t own a .22 anyway). He or she is just trying to make a living. However I need to keep my creatures safe from predators. Thank you, God, for this momentary reprieve.

Today I am supposed to be on the road all day. It is pouring rain. I may leave the geese and chickens in the barn while I am gone.




May 23, 2017

The good news is that Damon figured out what was wrong with my truck. We were due to pick it up on Saturday when he called me. “I woke up in the middle of the night and I was thinkin’ — maybe the brake shoe in the back fell off and is jammin’. Have ’em pull off the drum and take a look.” The shop called me yesterday. This was indeed the issue.

The bad news is that the total bill for repairs will be $1500. My scalp is starting to twitch. I have had our expenses parsed to the dime and was already short. $2000 in vehicle repairs in two days was not in my plans.

My days are crazily busy, every minute scheduled from now until June 7, when school is out. So many tasks and so many worries that I’ve forgotten something. Did I order the toilets? Did I measure for the countertops? What about the bathroom tile?  On Saturday renters for the farm apartment arrive; after work this week I need to clean the apartment, touch up paint, and write the lease. I’ve chosen a bank for our mortgage but must schedule the application date around the time the house is expected to be ready for appraisal. That appears to mean I cannot apply until June 15. Not only may the rate go up but sixty days later, at the closing date, DH will be in South America. I’m adding Look into getting a Power of Attorney to the list. In my professional life I’m teaching, correcting tests, and writing diplomas. This weekend I have to start writing final reports for all my students and creating yearbook pages for all the graduating seniors. Monday I host a class dinner for 25.

Meanwhile the coyote apparently came back yesterday in daylight and stole another hen. I need to walk the fences in the north and south pastures and turn those lines on. The challenge is to find the time. Every morning it takes an hour to move the sheep before work, and another half hour to muck out the barn.

My brain is so overloaded I don’t make a move without my lists. I can’t take my eyes off the ball. Focus, focus, focus.

Two more weeks and the worst will be over.

Almost to Saturday

May 5, 2017

What a week! Moving sheep before work, bank meetings after work, showing history movies in the evenings. On Tuesday we rose at 3:45 AM so DH could get off on his business trip. He should be home by midnight tonight.

Between meetings I ran to the hardware store and ordered my paint samples. It is testament to my jangled mind that I ordered two of one color (a color that naturally it turns out I will not use). It is Montgomery White. Maybe I just was hearing my mother say Montgumreh in her soft Southern accent.

Yesterday I got up early to prep for classes, bake a couple of loaves of chocolate chip bread for my evening movie, and then run down to the farm to paint swatches before barn chores. Of course, since I was under time pressure, the truck wheels locked up and none of the usual tricks to unlock them worked. I parked the truck again and carried the bag of paint samples to our car. As I walked the bag split and the cans bounced all over the driveway. Stay calm. Breathe deeply. I collected the dented cans and continued on.

The light in these photos is poor. You will just have to believe me that the colors are much, much louder in person. After seeing these photos, I’m thinking I can never trust the look of any paint photographs online.

These are potential kitchen yellows. They are, in order: Provence Creme, Hawthorne Yellow, and Montgomery White. Hawthorne Yellow is perhaps the most popular yellow paint going. I was almost sure I would use it. Unfortunately, to my eye it is a muddy Dijon Mustard yellow. Montgomery White, promised to be a creamy yellow, is a creamy peach. (It must be all the iron in that Alabama soil.) And Provence Creme is so bright it should be called Kindergarten Yellow. I think if it were multiplied across the walls it might appear neon. So, this weekend I will have to try again.

Here is Navajo White. Again, the color is not registering in the photos. When I look at the wall itself, I try not to think: it looks tan. Or: it looks dirty. I have to make a decision and I may say that it’s fine.

Here is Lucy’s bedroom with her mint. I painted swatches on both big walls. It is much more minty than it looks here, where, bizarrely, it can barely be seen.

I am a timorous person when it comes to style choices. I remind myself that the color will be the backdrop for a lot of cottage white: bedspread, chest of drawers, nightstand. Still, I am going to let this color decision wait until Lucy sees it next week.

After the painting I hurried to barn chores.

I have had a hen sitting on a nest. The entry to the barn (where she is sitting) reeked of rotten eggs. Though I had no time, the stench was so awful I stopped to investigate. It appeared that many of the eggs on which she has been sitting were not fertilized. Instead of developing into chicks, in the warmth the yolks had been rotting — and now, exploding. The industrious hen was splattered with wet, horribly stinking blackish yuck but sitting on, oblivious. To her indignation I cleaned her up as best I could before hurrying on to the rest of chores. Sheep out to pasture, cows fed, hay distributed. Hurry, hurry, hurry. Then I headed home for a quick shower before work. Leaving the farm I was nervously aware that I was driving our good car with hands splotched with paint and rotten eggs. I tried to sit very lightly, perching like a praying mantis.

The wood flooring was due to be delivered yesterday. It was the only day in the ten-day forecast without rain or snow. At 5 AM I’d written to the supplier to thank him. When I got out of my shower, my hair dripping, I found his reply. There had been a miscommunication. I’d have to go to my bank.

I had 40 minutes before work. The bank is 15 minutes away. Oh my goodness. 

I packed up my computer and school files, stampeded down the stairs, and raced into town. At the bank I concentrated on looking calm and relaxed instead of crazy and frantic as I waited in line. Out of the bank, I raced back to the farm and then raced to work. My briefcase banged against my thigh as I jogged to the building from the parking lot. I almost skidded into my classroom, just in time for my first class.

At the doorway a colleague was waiting. “Do you mind if I observe your class today?”

“Oh, fine, fine,” I gabbled.

I taught the class in a blur. The colleague later sent me this photo from the beginning of class, a photo mostly remarkable because I am not frothing at the mouth.

After work I drove to Damon’s house to help him with some paperwork, and then drove back to the farm. Before chores I stopped to look at the wood delivery. Nick, who is an athlete, said he’d had his strength workout for the day lugging all the wood into the house. Looking at the many stacks, I was sure this was an understatement.

Here is the tongue and groove pine for the mudroom walls. It is rough, industrial quality. My hope is that I will be able to pick among the boards and cut around knots, cracks, and other imperfections to get the walls decently paneled.

And here is one of the dozen piles of oak flooring stacked through the house.

The wholesaler calls this flooring “rustic oak.” It is essentially the leftovers from premium oak flooring. It is mostly short pieces and they, too, have knots.

Though I am not excited about this, I remind myself that for months I believed I would have to have vinyl floors. Then I discovered this far less expensive option and I decided that imperfect real wood floors were preferable to vinyl. As always when it comes to decisions I make alone, I have done a lot of second-guessing on this one. I hope I was right — but either way, it is done.

I painted a second coat on my wall swatches. Then, after barn chores and walking and feeding the dogs, I went back to school, moved all of the desks in my classroom, and showed my 8th graders the movie The Long Walk Home, about the beginning of the Civil Rights movement in 1955. This is a quiet film and every year it requires energy to keep restless teenagers absorbed in the story. Still, it feels important to teach children that there are many kinds of heroes.

By 9 PM I was home again and brushing my teeth. Despite all my showering and scrubbing, I realized my hands still stank faintly of rotten eggs.

Only one more day until the weekend.

Getting Ready for Sandy

October 29, 2012

L to R: Opie, Birch, Henry, Dorrie, Katika, Fee, Stewart, and Moxie

I spent the weekend preparing for the hurricane, getting in a hay delivery, filling water troughs, collecting and battening down loose items in the barnyard. I don’t expect major flooding issues here on the farm but am bracing for winds. My biggest concern is keeping all the animals safe, of course, and within fencing if the power goes out.

My problem is that I currently have too many animals to fit comfortably in the barn in a storm. I have two cows, a bull, a yearling heifer, three calves, a horse, seven chickens, two geese, sixteen sheep, and a cat.

In the photo above, I am feeding the large livestock hay on the stony crest of the cabin knoll paddock, to fertilize it. [Doubleclick to enlarge.]

I have sold six sheep, taken nine lambs and five pigs to the butcher, and made arrangements for ten more animals to leave in the next ten days. But that doesn’t help me now. So I am trying to be creative. The horse and cattle, poultry, and cat all fit in the barn. The sheep are now in the barn paddock, which I can power with a battery charger if I have to — but which I am not 100% confident is coyote-proof. I may use cattle panels to pen them at night under the run-in shed. If worst comes to worst, I will bring them into the barn aisle and lock the doors.

Like everyone else on the East coast, I’ll be glad when this storm is over.

Thoughts on Rye

September 7, 2011

Above is the front fender of the brush hog, covered with rye seed heads and loose kernels.

For some time I had wondered why my enormous back field, thick with rye, was not crowded like a New York City deli at lunch hour with wildlife eating the grain. Last summer deer (and my horses) jumped the fence repeatedly to demolish my much tinier plot of wheat. The deer did not seem interested in the rye. Did they not care for pumpernickel? Were they waiting for pastrami?

It was not until I was wading through the dense, waist-high stand that I began to get a clue. Ow! This stuff is really sharp and scratchy! When I looked closely at each seed head I realized that the kernels of grain were protected by long, stiff, painful needles.

Anything grazing on this might as well be munching on a porcupine.

The only exception I’ve seen are field mice and meadow voles. Hundreds of the tiny creatures, fat with rye, have scampered away from the roar of the brush hog. Perhaps my cutting has become a small part of the ecosystem, for on my last day of mowing I noticed a redtailed hawk circling hopefully overhead.

When you’re buying in grain, bag by expensive bag, it’s maddening to have a field full that only wild rodents will eat. Reading a memoir from 1910, I learned that in the past farm hens would scavenge fallen rye from around the shocks. I cut a bundle of rye and carried it back to the barn. My chickens trampled it underfoot in their rush to their familiar Blue Seal pellets. Oh well.

It occurred to me that rye might mostly be useful as livestock forage when it’s still young and green. However I have now read about ergot, a fungus to which rye is susceptible, that when ingested by animals (including humans) causes convulsions, hallucinations, mania, and black gangrene in the extremities. In the middle ages in Europe, ergot poisoning was believed to be a communicable disease and called St. Anthony’s Fire. The mania was the cause of many accusations of witchcraft, and ergot poisoning loosely associated with bubonic plague.

Perhaps I will skip the idea of feeding rye to anything.

However, on the plus side: I had wanted as much “litter mass” (growing stuff to chop and let rot as mulch) and as many roots in the impoverished soil as I could get — and in this the rye has been spectacularly successful. A single bale of straw costs $6 and I have an entire field of it!  Bales upon bales. Yes, the mowing is a serious commitment but I’ll get that done eventually.

Meanwhile the blades of the brush-hog have acted as a flail, shaking the ripe kernels loose from the needles and straw. In many places the ground is covered with seeds. Each day finds more crows, ravens, and wild turkeys pacing the mowed area, gobbling the loose grain. (And if I should see a large maniacal bird, I shall know it’s been dining on rye.)

As it is raining this week I’ve returned the brush hog until my leg heals and the skies clear.

The Axe-man Cometh

August 6, 2011

DH has one job on the farm. He has always been the axe-man with turkeys. I can’t hold the really big birds and chop their heads off.

For these jumbo chickens, Jeremy, the new boy at the rental store, had sharpened my axe. I ran my thumb over the wicked edge of the blade.

Over morning coffee and tea, DH asked me my plan. I explained that these birds were quite large, but I was thinking… I outlined a scheme involving baling twine. DH looked dubious. “I’d better come down and help you.” It was clear he thought I’d chop my hand off. Though I can cover most things by myself, in this case I was relieved. The birds were so heavy I grunted to lift them.

There are ways to slaughter poultry that can be handled by one person working alone, but they involve either slitting the throat or piercing the brain with a knife thrust through the mouth. Either way is too hard on me emotionally, as the goal is to have the bird slowly bleed to death. I once attended such a slaughter and when a supposedly dead rooster convulsed under my hands almost ten minutes later I was near tears, and told myself, “Never again.”

I prefer the quick death of an axe blow. I am not confident about much, but I am fairly sure that when the head is in one location and the body in another, the brain is no longer sending or receiving messages of pain or fear.

DH and I coordinate times. He ducks out of work and meets me at the farm at the stump I set up as a chopping block. He gets out of his car, picks up the axe, and dispatches each chicken as I hold it. Once I pointed out that an arterial spray had splattered his good pants with blood. He smiled. “Oh, nobody will notice.” Then he is gone.

It takes me a little more than half an hour to scald, pluck, gut, and wash each chicken. These birds are too big for my scalding pot. They fit in, but only by displacing all the water. So I heat the water to 150° on my stove and then scald them in the kitchen sink and pluck them over a trash bag. The dogs wait eagerly for the gutting, as I always toss them the hearts and kidneys as I work.

The first day I did six birds. After evening milking, barn chores, watering the sheep, and supper, I was still chasing down stray pin feathers at 9 PM. Since then I am trying to do two a day. It is slow, but not as overwhelming. The chicken pen is gradually getting quieter as the bullies make their exit.

I weighed some of these roosters with my digital lamb scale. Dressed out, they average ten pounds! They barely squeeze into a two-gallon freezer bag. They will be good eating over the long winter.


July 2, 2011

If it weren’t for the gigantic, ponderous bag, the ropes of mucus dripping from her vulva, and her occasional groans of discomfort, I’d be starting to wonder if Katika were not pregnant after all.

She is now a week overdue and I’m feeling a hundred years older. I’ve given up on making any predictions. I’m just putting one foot after another and plodding through the rest of my chores.

I don’t have energy left for a lot of emotion. On Thursday a grain delivery was unexpectedly delayed. I had to feed the meat birds chicken scratch, rather than pellets. I knew the change would upset them, and sure enough, when I went into the barn to check Katika, one of the Cornish Rock hens was drooping. By now the pellets had arrived but it was too late. I held the hen to the water but she would not drink (Cornish Rocks drink copiously in order to process the tremendous protein load they consume). I could see she would not revive from the stress.

I wasn’t going to waste another chicken. I carried her behind the barn, chopped her head off with a quick blow of the splitting maul, and bled her out. In under an hour she was scalded, plucked, gutted, washed, and cooling in my refrigerator. I hate to kill anything but in this case I barely reacted. And though generally when DH is away I don’t bother to cook, I roasted the chicken last night and served it to myself with Caesar salad. Delicious.