Saturday, November 5, 2011


IN BIRDLAND THE FIELDS ARE SHORN OF CORN AND BEANS. The air is crisp and chill this morning and the sky is bright blue, and empty, save the puffy white stripes of the ghosts of trips above the prairie, crisscrossing towards Chicago, New York, San Diego, St. Louis, Atlanta, all from parts unknown. Ursula tugs at her leash as we walk toward the aviary to let the chickens loose below, to cluck and strut in the yard for the day. Perhaps a traveler will look down from the window in the sky to see us, tiny bugs crawling along my green patch of lawn. My dog is friendly with the chickens, but a little too rambunctious. Maybe someday they will run together, but not today. Tomorrow it will rain, but we don't realize that yet, and go right ahead and do the laundry and hang it out on the line. Who knows how much longer we can hang it without freezing our fingertips. We hang the first load, and then, what the heck, start a second load too, of towels and bedding. Sometimes we have a little too much confidence in our ability to finish a project.

We hang the first load,
and then--what the heck-- start
a second load, too.
 The harvest is in, but Jim and Sean are out in the fields again, the big tractors crawl across the stubble in the distance, pulling tanks of fertilizer. Farmers are always busy, like bees. I hang socks and jeans and dish towels, and they dance in the breeze while the tractors crisscross the fields, and the jet trails dissapate above. The mellow weather and the gentle wind make me feel optimistic, and I go to the basement to pull red tomatoes from the upside-down vines I hung under the stairs last week. They were green when I hung them, but they ripen one by one, so quickly that I have to make sauce every other day to keep up with the basement harvest. I use the lazy, crock pot method—quarter them and puree in a blender with half an onion and a clove of garlic, pour into a crock pot with herbs to slowly cook down to a thick sauce. If I weren't so lazy I would have jars of sauce lining my pantry shelf, but instead I pour it into plastic containers to freeze. Not as picturesque, but easy-peasy. The smell of tomato sauce fills the house and makes me think of pizza, so I start some bread dough, and then the rich, yeasty aroma adds to the party atmosphere. I get lonesome for my sister, so I call her. The next thing I know, I'm walking down the road toward the grass waterway, we chat about our plan to send cookies to the kids next week. Ursula tugs at her leash and I let her lead me, so involved in my plans that I don't notice when we turn into the waterway. Suddenly I see we are in the field, and my dog is rooting up fallen ears of golden corn from the stubble and husks. I pick up a few snaggle-tooth ears, trying to carry them in the crook of my arm as I juggle the dog leash and the phone. I find more—too many to carry back—I'll have to bring a sack next time. I'll toss these ears in the yard as a treat for the chickens, maybe shell some it for winter. It would look nice in a jar.

Chicken Dark

 I realize it is chicken-dark—that time of day when the chickens go in, and we turn back toward the house, going right across the field still talking with my sissy. If I hurry I can use the corn to lure the chickens back into the aviary for the night. Just yesterday we lost Michael's favorite chicken. I noticed she was missing and found a pile of light brown feathers under the apple tree where they like to roost. They go after the corn, and I count my feathered friends. I can never remember exactly how many we have, and anyway they're always moving, so I have to count like a chicken: Two roosters: check. Two barred rock, one little silver spangled: check. Only one :( light brown one left: check. Two white leghorns: check. Three French Hens (I don't know what they are, but that's what I call the three sisters): check. Yep. All there. I latch the door and let Ursula off leash. I make a fateful decision that I will regret in the morning, to leave the laundry hanging so Ursa can chase the frisbee in the darkening evening.

Count Beauty; Collect Peace; Blessed Be.


CAN ANYTHING BE MORE SATISFYING than getting the last chicken into the coop as the sun is going down? About half of our chickens prefer to roost high in the apple tree, so we have to encourage them in all sorts of ways to come into the safety of the aviary. One big encouragment is, of course, food. I feed them some in the morning, then let them out to scratch in the yard and they snap up all sorts of snacks—bugs; greens of Dandelion, Clover, Queen Anne's Lace; Apples; the meats of Walnuts that have been cracked by squirrels or by being backed over by the car. In fact, the flock spends the bulk of their days quietly grazing, tails up, beaks to the ground, making satisfied clucking sounds. Still, when they see me walking toward the aviary with a big, galvanized metal scoop, they'll come running. And if you haven't seen a chicken run toward you, you should come out at feeding time.
Sammy Runs

“Chicken Dark” is what we call the time of day when the sun is about to set and the chickens head back to their coop while they can still see. Chickens really do go home to roost,  but we sometimes have a difference of opinion about where “home” is. In the mornings, after Ursula has had her run, I prop open the aviary door and let the chickens out for the day. For now we can either have free-range chickens or a free-range dog. Maybe someday we'll have both, and one of these days I'll tell you about our journey toward a peaceable kingdom at Birdland. The birds have their day in the yard, while Ursula watches from the window. With careful supervision (preferably by at least two of us) she can play fetch. She is increasing her vocabulary and learning the fine distinctions between “frisbee” and “chicken.” She is also learning impulse control, and we can see it in her eyes when she is about to bolt, and take off to the chicken side of the yard. Most of the time we can redirect her, but occasionally, chaos ensues, and we run for the garden hose as a defense of chicken territory.

The flock spends the bulk of their days quietly grazing, tails up, beaks to the ground,
making satisfied clucking sounds. 

In the evenings, if I can get home before chicken dark, I carry another scoop of food, and most of the flock will follow me into the pen. A few stragglers will circle around the aviary, and this is where an extra person can help. One person can hold open the door, while the other herds the flock clockwise around the aviary. With each circle, a few more slip through the door to safety for the night. The old, red rooster gets curious and tries to come out, and that is where a rake is convenient. It's a trick to block his exit while encouraging the stragglers to come in.

If we wait too long, half a dozen of the hens will be perched in the apple tree. A few will hop down when they see me coming with the scoop, but 3 or 4 will hop up a little higher into the tree. In summer, the leaves provide a little shelter from the weather, and hide them from predators. But now the leaves are falling. We have a variety of chickens, and though a sharp-eyed owl would probably see the moonlight glinting off of the beak of one of the brown hens, we have two white ones who like to roost in the tree. Even to my failing, human eyesight they look like bright neon signs that say “Free Lunch” to any nighttime predator. The flock has thinned since they began this habit, so I do my best to discourage it. Sometimes the ruckus below gets them curious enough that they will fly down and get caught up in the frenzy of snack time, but sometimes they pretend not to notice. That's when the garden hose comes in handy.

Roost in Beauty; Shelter Peace; Blessed Be.