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My head was splitting as I switched on the light in the kitchen. Ouch. Worse. I put on a kettle of water and glanced at the clock. 5:56am.

I’d been awake since 2:15am, tossing, turning, stressing and sobbing silently in our family bed. Finally, I disentangled Isla’s thin, warm limbs from my own and rolled out of our toasty nest of tossled sheets, down comforter and quilt. I left behind my tear sodden pillow and stumbled into the dark bathroom. Randy turned over, probably aware in some deep land of slumber that my exit at this early hour meant he had escaped milking duty. I blew the snot from my nose and dried my red, burning eyes. I had to do it today. I could not live another week with this monumental deed weighing so heavily on my shoulders. Bucky had to go. NOW.

THIS MORNING.

Coffee grounds pattered softly into the glass bodum carafe. The choice of coffee over my usual pot of green tea was indicative of how horrid I felt. My mind replayed all the images of my sleepless night as the steam rushed upward from the boiling water…

…The muzzle of my father’s gun placed just below the knob of Bucky’s horn buds… my trigger finger taking up the tension and slowly pulling back towards my sweaty palm… Bucky innocently nibbling at the pile of choice grain I had piled on the ground for him, his fuzzy little head with the wanky right ear bobbing enthusiastically, happy to be eating alone without the constant interference of his herd. And then, the ear splitting sound of the discharge and the rude slam of the butt against my right shoulder.

And then what? Would the bullet blow his head apart? How much blood would there be? Would he drop immediately? Would he struggle? Would I drop the gun and collapse in a sobbing heap in the blood splattered snow? Or, my biggest dread of all – would I miss and merely injure him, putting him through extreme pain and suffering before I could still my shaking hands and finally shoot true?

Why in the hell had I said I would pull the trigger?

This had been a joint decision to purchase and raise a meat goat. Randy and I felt it was an important aspect of homesteading. Although we had both been vegetarians for 10 years, we were now carnivores and believed we should take responsibility for our carnivorous choices. So, where did my partner disappear to? Why was I the one researching the best way to angle the bullet into the goat’s skull and how to skin, gut and butcher the goat afterwards? Why was I the one planning the morbid chore, sharpening my buck knife, gathering my support group and setting the date?

As I chugged my black coffee, a sleepy Isla straggled out of bed, looking like a jailbird in striped pajamas, and insisted on accompanying me to the barn in the 4 degree pre-dawn. Once the fresh milk had been strained and chilled, and Isla was warming up in the bath, I unexpectedly got the apology I did not even know I needed. Desperately needed. Funny how that works. And funny how once that apology came, the emotions I had not yet identified came rushing out in angry words.

Randy leaned against the blast from my sleep deprived, Scottish-Irish temper, then calmly admitted that he had been “checking out” around the impending slaughter day. Simply put, he was dreadfully uncomfortable about it. His admission and apology quickly defused my wrath as I realized this was one of the many things I loved about him – he was sensitive and emotional. Sure, he could whack off the heads of the mean, rapist roosters – but he hated doing it. We usually didn’t eat meat for a week or 2 afterwards. And shooting a sweet, innocent goat was different from beheading a nasty rooster. We both knew this was true. This was my gentle bear of a partner – all 6′-3″ of him. And I would not want him any other way. I also remembered that I had been forewarned. He had told me from the beginning that someone else would need to pull the trigger as he was not up for that challenge. Our argument was concluded with his promise that he would not abandon me next weekend, and that promise washed away the remaining fire in my hazel eyes.

And then the processing began….

Everything has to eat, as Isla will tell you, and we have chosen to be meat eaters. The majority of our species is right along there beside us. But we are not animals – we are emotional beings. So we do everything possible to distance ourselves from what being carnivorous really means. We do not want to feel uncomfortable about the choices we are making. Animals are totally renamed to start with. Cows transmogrify into “beef” once the processing plant takes over. Pigs miraculously change into “pork”, “ham” and “bacon”. Even the wild deer leaping freely through it’s native forest becomes “venison” once it’s antlers scrape the frozen earth and lay still. (Yet chicken remains chicken and fish remains fish…. is it only the 4-legged ones we rename for our emotional comfort?)

We wheel our wire baskets through aisles of fluorescent-lit boxes, cans, vegetables, and – oop! There’s that neat little pink lump all sanitarily plastic wrapped on a styrofoam tray, nuzzling the laundry detergent, and peeking shyly from behind a bag of frozen broccoli florets. Um… HELLOOOOOO. That is COW. A COW part. In your shopping cart. Right THERE. That hunk of FLESH was mooing a week or 2 ago. Let’s hope it was a happy moo. Let’s hope it was raised with respect, on open pasture, without growth hormones and antibiotics. Let’s hope it was slaughtered humanely. Or did that COW live it’s short, pathetic life in a filthy feed lot, so jammed with other COWS that the sick ones could not even fall to the manure caked earth? Did that COW ever even know what grass was? And was it carried to the slaughter pen in the bucket of a front end loader because it was so weak and sick it couldn’t walk there on it’s own power? If it doesn’t say “organic” and “pasture raised” on it, you can bet it led the latter sorry life.

No, I am not making these scenarios up. And yes, I still eat meat. Organically grown, pastured meat. Preferably raised locally. But even these choices have not felt like enough lately. I want to know FOR SURE how the meat I eat is raised, treated, and harvested. And the only way to do that is raise and kill the animal yourself.

So here we are, looking down the gun barrel of our first 4-legged domestic animal slaughter: Our Bucky, AKA: Buckster, Buckmeat, Buckmeister.

Randy says, “You should never name and love an animal you plan to eat.” I say, “Why should Bucky be treated differently from Hazelnut and Fiona, just because he will be eaten instead of milked? I could never shut my heart off to him while opening it to the other goats.”

And Randy says (hypothetically), “Why can’t we just sell him to someone else and they can eat him?” And I say, “Because he is OUR Bucky and we have made a huge investment in him both financially and emotionally. And how do I know the next owner won’t abuse him before they kill him in some UNrespectful and UNhumane fashion?”

And my friend says, “Why don’t you just keep him instead of eating him?” And I say, “Because we can not afford to keep a farm animal who does not pay rent in some way. I am not interested in supporting another pet.”

And my friend says, “I heard that women should really not be the ones who do the slaughtering. They are the mothers, the nurturers. The men should do the killing.” And I say, “That may be true, but it is also the women who get things done. Woman are practical. Women are mother bears. They can do what is needed to be done.”

And Randy says, “We need time to prepare. Let’s keep it scheduled for next Saturday like we had planned.” And I sigh, and say, “OK. I can wait, now that I have processed through this truck full of emotions.”

And Randy says, “It obviously upsets you terribly, Sweetie. You know you don’t have to do this.” And I say, “Discomfort has seldom stopped me from doing what I feel is right. I have a belief and I need to see if I can support it. I can not just sit down and let myself be paralyzed by fear.”

And Randy says, “Why don’t we just let Justin shoot him? He’s a law enforcement ranger and was raised on a farm.” And I say, “I sure would like Justin to be there for support, and a second shot if it’s needed. But this is just something I have to experience. I just need to do it myself.”

And I think I can. I hope I can. At the least… I can try. For the knowledge that I can be accountable and responsible for the choices I make so offhandedly. For Bucky, as strange as that may sound. For my family.

But most of all…. for myself.

Bucky

Bucky

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She did it! My wee Nugget, my Isla Elizabeth, the light of my heart and life, my sweet pea of 3yrs and 8 months, made it through a full 6 hr day at our local Waldorf school, without any tears and no calls to Mama from the teacher!

Heading to the car for her first day at school!

Heading to the car for her first day at school!

I can not, however, say the same for Mommy. Yes, I shed quite a few tears, and thought of her constantly, and had butterflies in my stomach as I sped north to pick her up at 2:45….. but at least I did not call the teacher. I almost did. I reached for the phone several times. But each time I breathed deeply and set it back down… and distracted myself – just like I told her to do if she missed me.

We tried the last school year – 8 consecutive tries which stretched into Oct of ’11. But she just could not stay alone, and I could no longer spend the days with her at school. If she wasn’t ready, then she wasn’t ready. There was no need to force it. We said we would talk about it again after Christmas… but she wasn’t ready then either. We said we would talk about it this past August… but she still wasn’t ready. But after 4 weeks in Reno, NV in November, spending every day with Papa riding bikes and playing with other children at the nearby playground, she was READY. She REALLY wanted time with other kids. And most of her friends were in school, which meant they had no time for playdates.

We were in Reno for my Lyme treatment. I thought I could get through this latest relapse on my own, without the help of my usual, trusted clinic. But I just could not get back on my feet at any level of functionality that would work for me. 50% of the norm is not acceptable, especially when you consider what the “norm” looks like for someone with Chronic Lyme. So we packed up the family and left the farm for an entire 5  1/2 weeks. We split up the drive west with a stop in Zion National Park, and the drive back east with a visit with the Grands. And while I read in a reclining chair with an IV dripping salvation slowly into my veins, received multiple daily injections, colonics, lymphatic drainage treatments, chiropractic appointments, and a series of tests that seemed to have no end, Randy became Mr. Mom – full time. Because I was not even available at night, due to the reaction to the treatment. I’ll spare you the treatment details as they were not fun, but the result was Isla and Randy developed a strong father-daughter bond and she became a pro on her balance bike! Nothing like a bit of pavement and bike paths to really open up the world to a kid and her dad.

One afternoon when I returned from the clinic, Isla rushed into my arms. “Mama! I played with a great big black girl today on the slides!” I chuckled and said, “Do you mean the girl was bigger than you and had dark skin?” This translation was confirmed and I was entertained for some time with each and every detail of their time together. Living in a town where there are few Afro-Americans, I was tickled at her excitement and experience. And each day there was a new story of her adventures with new kids – different ages, different genders and different ethnic backgrounds – many not even sharing a common language with my daughter.

One evening I was sitting in bed with a book, feeling like I had been run over by a mack truck, when she quietly walked in and climbed into bed with me. “I wish I could make your Lyme go away Mama,” she said softly. “Can I read next to you?” I nodded with a smile and brushed away my tears. She pulled out her book and started to look through the pages next to me. The uncharacteristic stillness caused me to glance down at my little clone, and I noticed she was staring into space, deep in thought over some dilemma, the same scowl of concentration on her face I so often wear on my own. “Mama?” she said. “I think I need a bruthah. Could you find a little boy without any parents to be my bruthah?”

This request is a bit more poignant than it might seem as she had had a brother who had died at birth. And it wasn’t the first time she has requested a sibling. With me at 50 and Randy… ah, snipped, we won’t be producing any siblings the “natural” way. But what it made me realize, was that she was lonely. As an only child, staying at home with mommy most days, she was craving playmates.

As we drove homeward across the hundreds of miles of basin and range, Randy and I had a lot of time to talk (when we weren’t listening to Charlotte’s Wed or Little House on the Prairie). We discussed getting back into foster care again – Isla was old enough now. And we discussed updating our homestudy for adoption – because you never know when a baby might miraculously fall from the sky into your waiting arms, right? We could never afford the normal adoption-through-an-agency route. We have learned over the years between the loss of Isla’s older brother and her own arrival, adoption is for rich folk… which we are not. But a private adoption….. we might be able to handle. Or an adoption through foster care.

It’s much more complicated than I make it sound, but the bottom line was… it was time. Time to try school again. And I had decided a year and a half ago that there was only one school I felt I could trust with the care of my darling child – Waldorf. We first discovered the Taos Waldorf School when we cared for a 10 yr old foster child who was in 3rd grade there. I fell in love with the school immediately. And over 4 yrs later, I still cry when I go there. I don’t know what it is – the safety? The nurturing environment? The animals, gardens, greenhouse, apiary and orchards? The teachers exuding love? The simple environment based in Nature? The smell of fresh baked bread and simmering soup? I want to regress and become a child and feed “Cookies and Cream”, the enormous angora rabbit, or milk the nubian goats, or pet the ducks and chickens, or walk to the “magic grove” and climb into the massive arms of the old cottonwood tree, like climbing back into my mother’s lap.

But there were two obstacles: money, and an available spot. I waited patiently until school was back in session from the holidays before calling to inquire. And I was greatly relieved to learn that there WAS a space available for the Tues/Thurs attendance I hoped for. Wew! One down….

Next was money – being a private school with no funding to speak of, the only way we could afford it was if I could find work. Ah, that would be… PAYING work. And that is no easy task when you have a VERY limited number of specific hours in which you are available to work. Thankfully, the Universe seemed determined to support this monumental change in our family’s lives. A dear friend was loosing her nanny, right at the same time Isla was beginning school. She needed someone to care for her 1 yr old so she could continue her own career, telecommuting from home. And her hours were flexible, and enough. Good thing I adore her wee lassie as I have not been paid that little is a very, very long time. Even my own 17 yr old babysitter chastised me and said I should not take less than $15/hr. “But dear, I pay YOU 10 an hour.” “Yes, but I am 17 and you are 50, MacLaren – with a child!” But this is all a mute point as I am not interested in starting up my old business designing houses (for $45/hr), nor would I be able to with so few hours available. The important thing is when all is said and done, I come out about $2 ahead per month. Or something like that. It sits uncomfortably in my gut, but I can deal.

And so, Isla had her first day at school last week, with mama of course – a re-introductory visit day. But yesterday, she stayed the full day, WITHOUT me! I was beaming with pride from ear to ear! I played with her after school in the frigid playground, and treated her to a decaf chai at her favorite cafe. She spewed a non-stop string of stories from her day, stopping only to guzzle her well earned beverage. Her whole demeanor seemed to have shifted. She was cooperative and polite with me, thanking me over and over for taking her to school. I could not stop smiling. She seemed so different – so grown up.

And Randy brought her home a beautiful pink rose and big hugs of congratulations. It is so hard to believe that she really did it! And tomorrow is day 2 and she can barely wait. Sigh…

I can’t deny it anymore. It’s true! Our bonnie wee lassie is growing up!

Isla's congratulatory tostada dinner complete with a pink rose from Papa!

Isla’s congratulatory tostada dinner complete with a pink rose from Papa!

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I realize I said my next farm to-do item was harvesting Bucky, our meat goat we raised since last spring. But we must roll with the punches of farm life, eh? Last night my farmer friend called requesting to bring over his 2 doelings. He was anxious to get them in on some of the hot action of the royal boudoir. And less than 24 hrs later – here they are!

Katniss (gray and black - the screamer of the twosome), and Prim (brown and gray, the quieter of the two).

Katniss (gray and black – the screamer of the twosome), and Prim (brown and gray, the quieter of the two).

Meet Katniss and Prim, close relatives of my own goats and pre-empters of their kinsman’s fast approaching demise. Prim is, in fact, our Bucky’s sister, and Katniss is half sister to Fiona, Bucky and Prim. And Hazelnut is auntie to Bucky, Prim and Katniss, and mama to Fiona. I know, caprine kinships can sound a bit like the genealogical archives of a West Virginia Appalachia mountain family. But the important thing to keep track of is that King Arthur is no one’s Uncle Daddy.

“But he IS, ah, Katniss’….. grandpa,” informed Chris with a concerned look in his eye. We both shifted our weight from one foot to the other, finding great interest in a passing magpie. Chris rubbed the stubble of his red beard thoughtfully.

But putting the sketchy family tree aside, there’s about to be a lot of action at Back Porch Farm. King now has his harem of courtly ladies and the only question is who will go into heat first. I am considering selling tickets for front row dinning room window seats. Perhaps a complimentary glass of vino and plate of goat cheese and bruschetta? It could be a timely opportunity to make some cash for which there is a list of projects waiting. I might even compete with the Superbowl. Isla could easily be in charge of the half time entertainment. What do you think, 50 bucks a seat? (No pun intended, surely!)

Just back in from evening feeding and putting to bed our suddenly doubled herd. The new doelings are crying like they’re being led to slaughter, and perhaps deflowering is not too far off the mark. But I know the painful mourning is for their mothers from whom they have never been separated, before tonight. Poor little nuggets. I sat on a play stump for some cuddles which Katniss and Prim lost no time in taking advantage of. Their knobby, little heads thrust strongly under each of my arm pits, trying together to topple me off the stump backwards. I regained my balance ungracefully to a snotty, royal snort in my face from the massive head of King. I’ve got to admit I am finding a fond spot in my heart for that stinky, old fellow. His massive back is at such a convenient height for petting, something that ranks high on the likability chart once you’ve turned 50.

I also have to admit I like the additional barnyard members. It helps to satisfy my insatiable mommy need to take care of creatures. I like the rush of fur and lips, the tasting of my gloved fingers, the nibbling on the string of my hood, pushing and leaning for attention, the smell of alfalfa hay on snow, and the warmth of unconditional, furry love. Lots and lots of love. It surges between us like the ebb and flow of the ocean tides…. love out… love in… love out… love in….

Like the soft, milky breath of a newborn kid.

The new improved herd, 50% larger and more absorbent (of grain and hay and water anyway)!

The new improved herd, 50% larger and more absorbent (of grain and hay and water anyway)!

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It was a first date and I had the jitters. And with royalty no less! Out the southern window I could see the truck turning onto our road, snow kicking up beneath the back tires, the bobbing headlights cutting through a frigid twilight. I adjusted the shoulder straps of my Carhartt overalls, smoothed the mud crusted legs over my thighs, and hoped they didn’t make me look too fat.

And then I saw him – King Arthur himself – riding high and proud in the back of the pickup, his crusty beard cutting a path before him like a rusty saber. Damn, he was HUGE.

I fumbled on my muck boots and tripped into the front courtyard, head lamp gleaming from atop my wool hat. Jim and I shook hands, our collective breath clouding our first introduction. He asked if I had something that could be used as a ramp. I ran around to the shed and dragged back our pet ramp, previously used for an old Pyrenees. That worked fine for his Lordship, and “King” stiffly decended down his red carpet.

And that was when the reek hit me.

I had heard about how buck goats smelled, I had read about it in books, but experiencing it firsthand was… shocking! I struggled with the rising of my stomach as my gag reflex threatened with menace. But I kept smiling, swallowed stoically, and petted the old goat on his sticky, knobby head. Uck. He was the height of an Irish Wolfhound, his back as high as my waist. More like a small pony in fact. And scruffy, and old, and ugly, and did I mention stinky? Have I mentioned yet the way he STUNK?

Together we led King Arthur into his new digs, the palapa in our barnyard pen. I had safely locked the girls and Bucky in the barn before his arrival – no need to have introductions in the dark. He was enthusiastic about his royal welcome: the bowl of grain rations, the fat flake of alfalfa, the throne of fresh straw, and the shiny new bucket of warm water. Jim and I locked his gate and I gave a quick tour of the barn and yard with the short versions of goatie intros (Jim to my goats). The temperature was already plummeting, fast heading down to it’s predicted -13. We slapped our arms against our sides, stomped our rubberized feet in the snow, made a few quick remarks that required a brief laugh in response, and then high tailed it back to our respective warm retreats – me to the house and Jim to his truck.

And that was that. For that night anyway.

Randy did the animal chores and milking in the morning as I got Isla her kefir and toast. This process was constantly interrupted by my need to run to the north window and watch the courtly proceedings as the caprine courtship commenced. Gates and doors were flung wide with great fanfare and Hazelnut had been mounted and well serviced, in -13 degree temps, before the royal trumpets of sunrise had even sounded! Damn! Not bad for a 10 yr old buck. And he only took a short smoke break before he was chasing her amorously around the pen for a second go, upper lip curled back, neck stretched forward, and tongue flapping and blabbing loudly in Hazelnut’s nether regions like her tail was a microphone and he a punk rocker. Fiona and Bucky, both around 10 months old, were terrified, running away in short bursts of speed to huddle together, necks entwined, behind a sage brush. But they, too, were fascinated, and did not run TOO far off. They were just as glued to the scene as we were. Up close animal sex can really bring out the voyeur aspects of humans and animals alike I guess.

King Arthur has proven to be quite sweet, beneath all that horny, lusting, sexual freight train of hormones and stench. It’s a good thing, seeing as he’ll be here for something like a month. I couldn’t help but notice Jim’s hopefully comment that if we wanted to keep him longer – we could. Ha! Fat chance that! But we do need to be sure we are getting our money’s worth out of the elderly gentleman. First Fiona has to go back into heat (she had her heat a week before King arrived), be successfully bred, and then we need to see if either of our does go back into estrus again 21 days after experiencing the Wild Thang. Pregnancy needs to be confirmed before we get our sweet smelling barnyard back because I plan to have TWO milking goats this spring and a pen full of bouncing baby kids!

King Arthur, the resident "Dirty Ole Man"

King Arthur, the resident “Dirty Ole Man”

Himself.

Himself.

Which brings me to Bucky, our current buckling with the wanky left ear and pronounced overbite. Having been castrated at a young age, he, fortunately, does NOT share King’s “ode de cologne”. What a sweet little skewer of kabobs he is, that little nugget of tenderness. It’s fortunate my deep feelings for him do not exceed the limits of my stomach lining. With King Arthur settled in to impregnate the ladies, Bucky is next on the farm to do list. I have stressed away many sleepless nights imagining the process of harvesting a goat for meat. I have read the most graphic of blogs to learn all the standard ways. I have talked to farm friends to file away as much technical information as I can. Some of the details are still foggy, such as what sort of gun to use and where exactly to place the muzzle on his head bone. Some say behind the eye, some say the back of the head. One website showed the forehead. My nurse friend says I need to find the medulla oblongata and shoot there to scramble all signals immediately. He also lent me a game butchering book which I have yet to look through. I figure the butchering of a deer and the butchering of a goat should be about the same as they are both ruminates. I hope I am right.

But my main goal is for Bucky to experience as little pain as possible, and to know he was loved (well, sort of), respected, well cared for, and had a very pleasant life with us, albeit short. Isla will participate in the blessing we say over him and the thanks we give his goatie spirit for the sacrifice of his body so that we may eat it. I have not yet decided if she will be present when he is shot. She has asked to be. She also wanted to see the headless roosters Randy butchered, the the body of our hen who was savagely decapitated by a weasel. She is pretty tough that way for a 3 yr old – a farm girl through and through. We have talked openly about Bucky’s fate from when we brought him home last spring until the present. She understands. She tells friends that Bucky is our freezer goat. “Everything has to eat,” she explains with an off handed shrug of her delicate shoulders. And we would like to take responsibility in as much of our animal meat procurement as possible, knowing that the animals were treated well, fed well, and lived a healthy life. And also that they were dispatched in as humane a way as possible. I do not want a repeat of the demise of Fiona and Bucky’s father back at their birth farm. I was not present, but heard it took 3 shots to drop Lancelot, and that he went berserk in between, pumping out so much adrenalin that the dogs would not even touch his meat.

And so I pray my shot will be true, because I have volunteered to pull the trigger….

….and the time is nearly nigh.

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A perfect evening I almost missed.

I was on my way to the bath, 2 fingers of single malt scotch over 2 cubes of ice, tinkling in my hand. I was behind the Lyme curtain, in a haze of achy joints and muscles, exhausted from just making it through another day of mommyhood and farm life. All I could think of was BATH. ACETAMINOPHEN. SCOTCH. But I looked back…. and saw…. Randy, who was also exhausted from a hard day of work, still in his BLM uniform, unshowered, running hot water in the sink to tackle 24 hrs worth of dishes… then feed the animals… and then cook dinner… while keeping an eye on Isla. All while I was in the tub. Crap. I may be in a Lyme relapse, but that was just plain unfair.

“How about if I feed the animals first honey?” He turned towards me with gratefulness in his eyes. Gratefulness. Not resentment. Not sarcasm. Not anger. That is this man I married. “That would be great,” he smiled. “Thanks.”

And that was how my perfect evening began.

I truly thought I was still going to the bath, but before I knew it, Isla and I were filling water tubes and petting the goaties and counting eggs into the basket. For the first time I let Isla scoop out the grain rations herself and mix them in the big red bowl. I have been working hard on this – resisting the urge to be a helicopter mom. And I fought the urge then to look over my shoulder and instruct and micromanage. To my proud delight – I won my internal battle by busying myself tossing hay flakes to the goats. Then Isla filled chicken feed tubes and scattered scratch while I set things up for morning milking. We got lost collecting perfect turkey feathers that Thomas has been moulting – snow white with flat, black tips. I have an idea of selling them on EBay one day. We did our best to pet Noche, our one and only 2012 chick, but she is still rather skittish. (At least we hope she is a she.) Then we dropped the eggs off in the kitchen and I retrieved my scotch to follow Isla around the yard on her balance bike.

“Watch me Mama!” She careened around the garden fence with no chance of Mama catching her. That girl needs a pedal bike, I thought. Molly, the Pyrenees, did a much better job of keeping up than I. Randy had wandered out into the garden with our big metal harvest bowl to get some veggies for dinner. I stopped and we talked about our days while leaning on the fence. Isla yelled to me from behind the chicken coop, still waiting for me to watch her. (!!!) I walked slowly around the corner of our 3 Sisters patch and commented on 2 new winter squash fruits getting started on the edges. No telling what was happening in the middle – it was an absolute jungle of red flint corn, Taos Pueblo red beans, winter squash and amish pumpkins. The paths I had carefully raked in Spring, had disappeared in July. I’ll have to remember to give the plants a more generous spacing next summer. On the east run of fencing I leaned over and checked the Calypso beans. A few pods were dry. They were ready to begin harvesting. Isla adores shelling the colorful dried beans. And there is something so satisfying about digging your hands into a bowl of hard, cool, shiny, colorful beans – Ireland Creek Annie (greenish-white), Calypso (black and white) and the Taos red beans (brick red) – and hearing the shooshing and tinkling sounds as they bounce back into their ceramic bowl.

I rendezvoused back with Isla near the play set. We watched a large spider in it’s hole for a few minutes. I thought it might be a tarantula, but it was not. But we did coax it an inch or so out into the light. And then I offered to push my nugget on her swing. This may seem like a normal occurrence, but the truth is that it’s rare. Randy is the one who swings her in the evening when he comes home. I am too busy working around the farm or house in the days, or too tired in the evenings. I have never been one of those “make and do” sort of moms who has time for activities with my child. Isla and I spend our time together doing house or farm chores. She has her own broom and mop, her own tool belt with real tools, her own rake and shovel. When we muck out the coop, we do it together, filling her wheel barrow first and then mine. And in the rare moments I can read a mommy-farm blog, I savour in the fantasy of being like them – art and sewing projects, music time, general creativity. But I am not, sigh. That was why this moment was so very sweet and special.

We counted the swings together to 30 and then she pumped her legs and swung herself. Randy and I chatted more through the 7′ high sunflowers. Isabelle and Thomas flapped their prehistoric wings up to their roosts, and watched us from their bleachers, pink wattles wagging as they retained their balance. The Tommys alighted one after another, sidestepping closer to mom. Then Father sun dropped below the low western clouds and lit the landscape with a sudden shot of alpine glow. It was like a pink filter had been dropped over my eyes. I sat in the second swing and Isla slowed beside me. And for the next 15 minutes we watched the spectacular scene, side by side, as it changed from moment to moment, making sure we checked over our shoulders as well. The swatch of dusty rose tiptoed up the mountains at our backs, and launched off the top off Taos Mountain into lavender and powder blue. The setting sun said goodnight, leaving the horizon blazing in neon salmon, hot yellow, and smears of blueberry. A curtain of pale purple virga reached its fingers toward the parched desert land, but was intercepted by the low relative humidity, never realizing it’s distant goal. Too bad for our garden, but stunning to our eyes. A baker’s dozen of grackles flapped over our heads heading to their roost on the eastern hills. Thomas gobbled. Molly barked. Willie crowed. And in perfect synch, Jay Jay, the neighborhood’s donkey let loose a rusty, winding bray! The scent of grilling burgers reached my nose – burgers from the 1/4 cow we buy each year – local, organic and pasture raised. And grilling slabs of zucchini – I could smell them too. The color slowly faded from the sky, starting from behind us and retreating over our heads toward the west.

“Let’s go set the table Sweetpea.” This was Isla new responsibility, since the child proof lock had busted on the silverware drawer and she was cutting with sharp knives now anyway. She also decided to start filling all 3 of our water cups for meals as well. She can reach the water dispenser on the fridge and the enamel camping cups are pretty safe to carry. So what if I skate through a river of spilled water – she is learning and she feels valued and responsible. That’s what tile floors are for. Then we grabbed the flashlight and went back to the barn to put everyone to bed.

With Hazelnut in her new stall, and the kids busy chowing on the grain in theirs, Isla was able to give Bucky a big hug. As he is usually too rambunctious and nibbly, this was a very sweet moment. Bucky is soon to be our freezer goat and Isla knows we need to give him lots of love now, as we’ll be eating him this winter. Fiona, our doeling, is an easy snuggler, always gentle and willing, and she responded to her attention with the usual love in her brown eyes. Then together we counted the chickens through the coop window and latched their coop door and fence door. We said goodnight to the turkeys as we passed quickly beneath them, reaching high to touch each one lightly on his or her tail or breast. Then we headed back to the house, hand in hand in the darkening twilight.

As I paused to drink in the night, count the stars and heft my daughter to my hip, I thought, “This was such a perfect night. Sure, hot baths are great too, but this was…… PERFECTION.”

And to think that I had almost missed it.

August garden

Isabelle with a Tommy under each wing facing opposite directions

Another spectacular high desert sunset from our farm

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Being the animal boss of the farm is a hard job. It’s not only the physical aspect of it, and the logistics, and the nights and days spent worrying… but the inevitable attrition of the animals. I am not talking about “culling” the mean roosters for the freezer. I mean death by unknown causes or predators. Last year, in 3 separate attacks, we lost 2 mama hens and 4 out of 6 chicks, as well as a laying hen, to unknown predators. This year we’ve lost Gertie, the flock Matriarch, and Jackie, one of our sweet Americanas who I nursed back to health as a chick with dropperfuls of milk. I never knew the exact cause of either death but Isla and I respectfully buried their bodies in the frosty adobe soil. But the worst of all was just last week. We lost another mama hen with 14 chicks!!! Only one chick remained, hidden under the feeder tray overhanging a brick in the broody house. I discovered the piles of feathers blowing in the dawn breeze when I went out to milk. My heart sank. I KNEW what I would find. I went numb, my heart rate and breathing lowered – a sort of shock I think. I did not even go to the broody house. I went first to open the main coop, then checked on Isabelle, our setting turkey hen. Then, slowly, with tremendous dread, I opened the broody house. Feathers. An overturned water bottle. I could feel the fear and bedlam oozing out of the door. My heart clenched tight. My numbness deepened.

I switched on the autopilot. Then I milked Hazelnut, fed and watered chickens, goats and turkeys, and I began a detailed search of the surroundings, just in case a chick had escaped. And then I heard it…. the little tiny peep of a 5 day old chick. I looked under, between, around, and finally back inside. And there it was. The one remaining Marans chick out of the family of 14 plus mama. I scooped it up and tucked it into the neck of my fleece jacket. It was a chilly morning in late spring and the little peep shivered and shook against my chest. I grabbed the pail and walked slowly to the house.

Randy was at the computer sipping a mug of steaming coffee. He knew immediately something was wrong. “They’re gone. They are all gone. Except for this one…” His mouth dropped open and his face turned pale. I held the little peep in my hands, then took off my cashmere hat and tucked her deep in the warmth of it’s darkness. The peeping stopped. Randy took me in his strong arms and my tears began. My body shook silently against his for a long time. I thought of the terror all those chicks, and the mama, had faced before their death. I wondered what had done it. And I blamed myself fiercely. The mama was a borrowed broody Americana from a friend. We named her Inky as she was our Incubator. And she was the coolest, sweetest chicken I had ever had the honor to have known. She would fly up to my shoulder, and even onto the top of my sun hat once. When I held her she relaxed into my embrace and lay her head on my arm. She was genuinely the coolest bird ever. After falling in love, I officially traded her by buying my friend 3 little peeps to add to her new batch.

And now she was gone.

While Randy held my hat with the traumatized chick, I scoured the dust around the pen in the rising sun. There. And there. Definitely not our Pyrenees. Not a skunk. Not a weasel. Too round for a coyote. It looks like… a large… cat. Do we have bobcats in this urban neighborhood? I doubted it. I pulled Randy out for a look, and took pictures, and then thumbed through our tracking books. There it was – Gray fox. “Looks like the tracks of a large cat but with obvious claw marks.” Yep. Mr Fox. I had never seen a fox here. Plenty of coyotes, but never a fox. 5 days later our suspicion was confirmed as I had the “pleasure” of chasing Mr. Fox off in my pajamas. He had come back to the barnyard cafeteria for seconds. And he was small and beautiful and very fast.

This summer has been a complicated chicken summer. My business plan is to double my flock, adding in laying hens of dark chocolate brown eggs (Marans and Penedenscas), a few more blue-green layers (Americanas mainly) and some white layers (Andalusians). I already have plenty of tan and light brown, and with two of my three hen deaths this spring being Americanas, the blue eggs are getting thin. I figured with the addition of 1 turkey egg per dozen (off white with milk coffee spots), a colorful spread like that would make my cartons really stand out in people’s mind. Plus, being free range, foraging and organic birds, my yolks are orange, dense and delicious. The sale of eggs don’t exactly cover costs, but it sure helps. So I had done my research and found my hatchery for incubation eggs. When my friend announced a broody bird at her coop, I ordered 18 expensive very rare eggs and brought Inky over.

To give the mama something to do, I put her on 5 of my own flock’s eggs. The shipped eggs were suppose to arrive in 2-3 days. It took 5 days instead which made the timing tricky between my eggs and the shipped ones. They were technically 5 days off their hatching dates. At 21 days, sure as clockwork, the first little peep cracked a wee window through it’s shell and into the big new world. And for the first time ever, I was there to see it! It struggled mightily to push through, and being the type A person I am, I helped it by splitting the egg just a tiny bit for it to wriggle out. Within 20 minutes it was a fluffy black ball with a blonde head spot and utterly adorable. 2 more hatched in the next 24 hrs from my eggs, but I could see Inky was loosing patience with the remaining eggs. $130 worth of eggs. She kept pushing out the dark brown ones and pulling in the tan and blue ones. I guess they were just too foreign for her. I called feed stores near by and found one with Rhode Island Reds and Americanas, both 2 days old. So I zipped over and returned with 2 of each. Inky barely blinked as I lifted her multicolored wing and slipped the chicks under, one by one. And she was quite content with 7.

Inky with her first wee peep hatched from our egg.

But I wasn’t. 5 days after the first little fluffernugget emerged was the next hatch date, and nothing happened. I did in fact find a fully developed chick in it’s crushed shell, quite dead and covered with wood shavings from the bedding. I think Inky may have been too distracted to realize what was going on under her with 7 wigglers already there beneath and quite active. Isla and I carefully cracked open the remaining eggs to find only one other partially formed chick, and a bunch of reeking, rotten ones. From the 18 shipped eggs, only 2 had been fertile and neither had lived.

I was angry, and determined to meet my goal in as much as I could. I drove an hour to another feed store who actually had Marans, and returned with 5 Marans, 2 California whites, 2 Speckled Sussex, and 1 Black Astralorp. As I unloaded the chicks one by one into Inky’s box, I discovered one of the Marans was very small and had deformed feet. She wobbled uncertainly, her eyes half mast. I did not expect her to survive, and she didn’t. But what I didn’t expect was to find both Speckled Sussexes stiff in the wood shavings with their heads eaten off. There are definitely aspects of chickens that I prefer to ignore and cannibalism is one of them. Why the Speckled Sussexes? I will never know. And now Inky was down to 14 chicks. It was manageable.

It was the day after that when all the chicks made it out of the box with mama. I admit I helped the smallest, even though I swore I wouldn’t. But it was hard for Inky to have 9 outside scratching and pecking under the sage brush with her, while 5 cheeped pitifully from inside. Isla and I both got sunburned sitting mesmerized in the dirt as 14 little chicks cruised around us, over us, and through us, exploring their new world. It was an idyllic, delightful hour.

And the very next day – they were gone.

With red rimmed eyes, I contacted my friend, knowing she had the peeps I had just dropped off with her a few days prior, and drove over with the sole survivor still tucked into my hat. It was 6:45AM. I was still crying. And I cried more in Heather’s pajama-ed embrace. I felt physically ill. Nauseous. Why hadn’t I finished wrapping the stock panels in stucco netting? Well, I know why. Because being a farm manager and mom of a 3 yr old, I have a list of to do projects that would keep 3 people busy full time. But that didn’t keep the proverbial 2×4 from continuing to bash down on my head. Not only was there the loss of life, the loss of an awesome hen, the loss of those fluffy little nuggets, the loss of the $130 worth of eggs, and the loss of 21 days plus of waiting, but there was also the loss of my business plan.

I took out my anger on the egg company and they offered to reship the same order to me for just the cost of shipping. Some consolation at least, but my Inky-Incubator was gone. I had no time to hand raise chicks. I researched Marans chicks for sale on the web and found only one small mom and pop farm who had all the breeds I wanted. They would have to hatch to order. And it was incredibly impossible to catch the woman on the phone as she worked constantly and the chickens were just her side hobby. But finally we connected and agreed on the order, which due to the probability of hatchings, is vague. But she placed the desired eggs in the incubator for me last monday with a verbal commitment. It is going to be expensive. AND she wants me to agree to overnight shipping so she worries less about her babies. The next day, Tues, Heather told me she was pretty sure another of her birds had gone broody – a Buff Orpington. Did I want to borrow her and try again? Sigh. Weds it was confirmed – she was in the zone. And Weds evening I brought home The Golden Girl and plopped her in the broody box on top of 12 of our eggs. The timing for the shipment of day old chicks from Wisconsin would be only a day off. Hopefully Goldie would go for the adoption idea as easily as Inky did. And the ages of the chicks would be closer.

So this morning I stumble out the door at 5:30AM with milking pail in hand, aware of an unusual ruckus coming from the coop. But I knew the chickens were closed up tight and safe so I didn’t worry. I tossed a flake of hay over the fence to the goats, wiping the alfalfa dust from my bleary eyes. I scooped out the grain rations into the red enamel bowl and balanced it on top of the gate post. I took the pail through the gate and hung it on the branch stub on the post in the pole barn. I pushed through the 2nd gate to the coop pen and opened the coop door. Birds piled out blinking in the rosy light. I tossed scratch on the ground, filled the layer mash tube, petted Little Willie, and hefted the water tube noting it needed filling. I shuffled sleepily back out of the chicken pen, inadvertently releasing one of my wildest Barred Rocks, Checkers, into the goat pen. Sigh. 10 minutes later I had her back on her side of the fence and I went to open Isabelle’s door. Isabelle is our Royal Palm turkey hen who has been sitting on 18 eggs for longer than I anticipated. Yesterday one fuzzy yellow poult finally appeared. I am still waiting for more. I petted Thomas, her mate, and went to check on G.G..

WTF? She was gone! The box was empty! She was NOWHERE. I took a few deep breaths to made my brain work again.

We had turned the pen into Fort Knox over the weekend since the tragedy had occurred. It would have been close to impossible for a predator to get her now. The pen currently consists of 52″ stock panels, wrapped in 36″ of 17 gauge stucco netting (NEVER use 20 gauge poultry netting – it is a joke), and 18″ of horse fencing both buried in the ground and attached to the top of the stock panels. PLUS the turkey/chicken broody nursery is enclosed with dog kennel panels within the goat pen – it’s own inner sanctum. I looked in the sage brush within the kennel and even looked in the depths of Isabelle’s house, receiving a warning hiss in my face. Where was the freakin’ chicken?? The only thing I could imagine is that she had managed to fly over the 5′ fence into the adjoining free range chicken pen. Which would mean she would be hiding under the massive clump of sage brush where all the chickens hang during the day. Ahhh.. I remembered that ruckus earlier and the mystery unfolded in my head. So she managed to fly over into the free range pen, then followed the flock back into the coop pen, and then into the coop to roost. AND she managed to escape the night time head count before the door was bolted shut on the coop. This morning, as the chickens jumped down off their perches in anticipation of release, the pecking order was being re-established due to the new member. Hence the noise. Sneaky little mama. Smart little mama. But would she go back into the broody zone?

I milked Hazelnut and finished the feeding and watering chores. I strained the milk and plopped the jars into their ice bath. Then I took a deep breath, donned my sun hat, and headed out to the free range pen. I found G.G. quickly. She was one of the few who did not come out of the brush when I set down a bowl of cheese whey for the flock. I squatted and talked sweetly to her through the scratchy dead sage branches. I did a little courtship dance around the clump of brush, hoping to lure her out. I kneeled down and asked politely. And finally I started pushing myself sun hat first into the brush on hands and knees. Of course G.G. just walked out the opposite side leaving me ensnared and sweating. After a few of these episodes into various sage brush thickets, I herded her into the coop pen. Now I had to climb over the fence as I could not fit through the chicken hole. Interesting. Once in the smaller pen, I had a slightly better chance. After 5 or so minutes I was able to get her cornered, and secured, and then back in the broody house with the doorway blocked off with an extra queen excluder from my hive. She showed no interest in the clutch of eggs. I left her to walk our Pyrenees and returned to the house and a fussy, just woken up 3 yr old.

Later in the day, Goldie was sitting beside the eggs but not on them. Come on girl – give it a little broody try, eh? At last glance she was obliging. I shoved 2 stray eggs under her and let her be. In 21 days I will tell the rest of the tale: Did she stay broody? How many of my eggs hatched? What chick breeds did I end up getting in the mail? How many will be roosters? Will G.G. adopt them? How many laying hens will I end up with at the end of this ridiculous goose chase? Will I be able to get the new coop addition onto the pole barn before winter? How many turkey poults will hatch? How many more poultry deaths will there be this year?

And will my first dark brown egg, some time next winter, taste like….

chocolate?

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It begins with a back massage and a little acupressure for those trigger points…. a long massage… very LONG…. possibly 3 minutes. The hen crouches motionless under the massive weight of her 30 lb masseur. No feathers are flying, this is not the violent rape of a rooster. After just the right amount of time, the tom’s talons become still and he slowly crouches down on his lady’s back, lowering his massive wings towards the ground in an avian embrace… and waits for her to give the word. The suspense builds, and then, without warning, she suddenly flips her 16″ tail up in the air, the tom wraps his tail around the side and under, and… SCORE! 10 POINTS!  I could set my watch to their punctuality. Every morning, just as I am heading back to the gate with the milking pail (wishing it was a little more full), the foreplay begins. Isla and I watch with rapt attention, determined to catch a glimpse of a “turkey weenie”. But so far I have only seen the deposit left at the bank as the door closes at the end of the business day.

I brought home our adult pair of Royal Palm turkeys in the back of my 4-Runner. Isabelle could barely turn in the medium sized dog carrier and Thomas strutted freely back and forth gobbling at the gawking drivers behind us. As we crept through the bottle neck of Plaza traffic, his gobble sounded like a PA system through the open windows, causing chiropractic mishaps to all the rubbernecking tourists. Isla sat mere inches in front of him in her car seat with her hands planted firmly over her ears for the entire drive home.

As Randy was at work (his paying job), the transfer of the turkeys would be on my own, while keeping my 3 yr old from melting down and my Pyrenees from having Thanksgiving dinner early. My initial shock at seeing their size (the internet said they were a small breed) had worn off by the time we arrived home and now my heart palpitations were all in response to the big question: How is the hell am I going to get them to the goat pen by myself?

First I got Isla out of her car seat, then we put our excitable Molly in the house to graze freely on the cat food while we were otherwise occupied. I wanted to release both birds into the goat pen simultaneously, so they would not stress about being alone. I carefully opened the hatch, stretched my arm inside, and caressed Thomas’ broad back, slipping my arm around him in a big bear hug. UGH. Gawd he was heavy! With the big boy wrapped in my arms I grabbed the handle of the dog carrier. This was certainly the world’s most awkward way to carry 40 lbs of potential dinner. Crap – the 1st gate. I slowly squatted, setting Isabelle’s carrier on the ground, opened the gate, and squatted once more to heft her back up. That’s when the top of the carrier parted from the bottom and Isabelle started to walk right out! AHHHH! Of course the excitement caused Thomas to start flapping and Isla to start crying. (A quick clarification here – Isabelle is a turkey, Isla is my daughter.)

I managed to push Isabelle back into the carrier while containing Thomas’ prehistoric wings and claws. Somewhere in the back of my brain I was aware I would have a bruise on the side of my face from the battering I had just received from his wings. It felt like wrestling with an out of control 747. Somehow I reattached the lid, and secured the hen inside once more, this time leaving her in the gravel by the car. I carried Thomas to the 2nd gate – the entrance to the goat pen and his future home. I had read that roosters and toms can fight to the death so I wanted the poultry intros to be over time. As I struggled to open the latch Thomas saw the goats and the goats saw Thomas. All hell broke loose! The goats ran away into their barn ma-ahing fearfully, and Thomas tried desperately to take to the sky! I now giggle at my fear of breaking his wings as I wrestled him down to the ground. It would take a front end loader to break a wing on a turkey tom! I could sense the stickiness of blood welling up on my belly from my growing list of battle wounds. But, I finally got him back in my arms and carried him in, shoving him into the commandeered dog house we claimed for their new home. We hoped the pair would eventually raise a veritable feast for us and our friends, so the boudoir felt important. A few deep breaths, and back for Isabelle. Once they were both introduced into their house, shown their food and water, I was ready for a stiff martini. At noon.

So far, life with turkeys has been very enjoyable. Royal Palms are an endangered, heritage breed that were developed by crossing Black, Bronze, Naragansette and native turkeys. They are slow growing, small (HA!), and considered the most beautiful of all the turkey breeds. They are good foragers, thrifty to keep, and an excellent choice for a small farm who wants “slow food”. We had been discussing raising turkeys for 2 years, and were feeling more serious about it this spring. But a few minutes on line reminded me of the brooding box phase and I knew I simply did not have the time and energy to raise poults (turkey chicks) by hand. If only I could buy some adult turkeys…. preferably Naragansettes. A few weeks later a good friend asked if I had seen the posting on the local Facebook Barter Bank page for the pr of turkeys. I quickly pulled up the page and posted a comment so I could be “in line”. I had one person ahead of me who was interested. Some quick research on Royal Palms gave me enough education to realize this was the perfect breed of turkey and the perfect arrangement! And the next day I got the news that I’d won the turkey lottery!

Since bringing them home, I have grown quiet found of Isabelle and Thomas. Thomas is a masterpiece of Nature – almost hideous on first glance with his bald, bumpy blue and white head, his wattle that resembles bright red intestines spilling down his neck, and a limp, red snood that drips over one side of his curved beak. But after a few hours, his beauty starts to emerge: that blue head is the color of the New Mexico summer sky, his red, the color of fresh blood. And as his mood changes, so do his colors. The red becomes a pale pinkish white and a few clouds come across his blue sky baldness. When very frightened (as in when I brought him home), his snood turns gray white and contracts up into a little cone that sticks out from the top of his beak. It is fascinating, and I haven’t even gotten to his feathers yet. He is snow white with a black end band on most of his feathers. When he deals out the hand of his magnificent tail in a full strut, it is a beautiful fan of black tips over white. He fluffs his body feathers, with his back feathers standing erect, and blows up his chest airbags with a thump. If he knew more about his frankenturkey cousins, the Butterballs, he might not make his chest look so delicious. Then he vibrates his body and airbags, creating a sound like distant thunder, and scrapes his wing tips noisily along the ground for emphasis. Over and over he displays in this way as if to say “Look at me! Aren’t I a handsome, fearsome beast?” Yes Thomas, you most certainly are. But when I herd him with open hands into the embrace of my arms, he cowards between my bent knees. His head and face change to white/gray and he turns away from me like a small boy away from a gushing, perfumed aunt. He squeaks out a small whimper that simply makes me want to snuggle him closer. All that boasting display of color and thunder, but inside is just this sweet, shy little boy.

Isabelle is 1/2 the size of her mate and just as sweet. She is pure white with pale pink bald head and wattle. In as much as Thomas is gaudy and flashing, she is demure and classy, waiting quietly to be noticed. She will let me stroke her gently without walking away, something Thomas won’t stand still for as it would affect his image. Although Thomas services Isabelle religiously each morning, and struts around her in his finest array waiting for her attention, Isabelle pines through the fence at Little Willie the rooster, pacing back and forth, whistling and pipping and cooing. Her windy whisperings of sweet nothings would make any man weak in the knees, regardless of the species. (Randy came in quite affected by it this morning.) This poultry love triangle is almost painful to watch. I would let the birds mingle unsegregated, as the turkeys both show a painful desire to be with the chickens, except for the risk of injury . Both Isabelle and Thomas have ended up on the chicken side of the tracks a few times and the result was not encouraging. Little Willie was bleeding profusely from his comb and wattle and Thomas lost a handful of chest feathers. When I caught Isabelle in the coop pen she and Willie were sparring and I am not sure where it would have gone without intervention. And the previous owners said Thomas had been mounting their chicken hens and being quite rough about it. We plan to fence in a large area (1/8 acre) for some pasturing for all the animals as soon as we can. I will let the group cruise together then while I shepherd them from a camping chair with a good book. We’ll see if they can all get along in a larger space filled with new and interesting distractions.

But for now we will chug along, dreaming of a nicer turkey roost, a turkey addition on the goat barn, a brood of little poults, and keep trying to catch a glimpse of the elusive “turkey weenie”.

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I never liked her much, but it seemed like a good… learning opportunity for my almost 3 yr old. I am speaking of my chicken, Gertie. She died last night. It was not particularly tragic, but there was great need for verbal and emotional processing. From Isla anyway. And perhaps from me too. The “Part One” of this story can be read here.

We found her this morning, as I expected, stiff and quite dead where we had left her. Although the “Part One” tells the touching tale of Dot, the caring Americana, who “stood” by Gertie’s death bed, supporting her physically and emotionally through her transition – the rest of the story was slightly less… touching.

Last night I loaded Isla into the back on my back, covered her and me against the wet spring snowstorm, and sloshed out into the dark to “put the chickens to bed”. Of course, the goats now get first priority, especially as Bucky is still being bottle fed. But after the goats were tucked in, we headed to the coop to shut the girls and Little Willie up. And, of course, check on the “almost dead Gertie”. I expected another tender scene of flock devotion for the failing Queen. Instead we found Gertie at the bottom of the coop ramp laying the snow and mud, struggling on her side. Ouch. She was bleeding heavily from her comb. I could only imagine one of the other chickens, perhaps the “next in line”, pecking aggressively at her head as she lay helpless and dying on the floor of the coop. And perhaps Gertie struggled to escape, ending in a tumble out the door and down the ramp. It made us very sad.

We raised the hatch on the “chicken condo”, the screwed on coop addition for our expanding flock, and took a look within. Perfect! Only Rosie, sweet Rosie Livingston Seagull Chicken. She was our first chicken and Gertie was our second. They were fast buds for an entire summer of camping in our yard. Rosie would not harm her. I picked up Gertie tenderly and laid her on the fresh, dry, wood shavings inside the condo, and even turned on the heat lamp. Her legs were already growing stiff. Rosie stood, shifted, and nestled back into the shavings beside her dying, old friend. I believed Gertie would be able to pass into the spirit world safely beside Rosie. I HAD to believe, or I would not sleep. Isla witnessed it all over my shoulder by the light of my headlamp – the Biggest Lesson of all – Life and Death and the harshness of Nature. Farm life never glosses over uncomfortable realities. Farm life never says “Oh it’s OK, they’ll just be happy up in Heaven watching over us.” Life and Death is never… “OK”, it just… IS.

And as we lay in the dark warmth of our down comforter, the processing began. Isla is a BIG verbal processor. We talked and talked about Gertie and her spirit and how her spirit would leave her body behind. We discussed how she would not need her body anymore, and that her spirit would go to the spirit world and be free of her physical body and unencumbered. I told her I felt certain that she would be dead in the morning. We discussed the act of burial. And Isla made the obvious comparison to her own dead brother, Rowan. “Will Gertie’s spirit be with Rowan’s spirit Mama?” “That’s hard to say Sweetie. It’s possible. Chicken spirits and little boy spirits may not go to the same places. Would you like for Gertie and Rowan to be together?” She thought long and hard on that question, but the answer never came. She had finally, gratefully, fallen asleep.

With 6″ of fresh, wet, heavy, spring snow this morning, I thought I would wait until after nap for Gertie’s ceremony. I re-dressed my groggy, cranky toddler at 4:30 PM and we headed out the door in our muck boots for afternoon farm chores. Goats first, then scraps and scratch to the chickens, and collection of eggs (only 4 today instead of the usually 7-8). Then with shovel in hand, I hefted Old Dead Gertie by her legs, and we headed out of our gate and across the trail to the vacant lot to the east. I chose a nice spot next to the acequia and stamped the shovel into the clay. It was a mud fest. The clumps of wet snow had soaked into the earth creating a slick bog that a mud wrestler would envy. I dug and dug, determined to keep the coyotes away from her grave. Isla watched, talked about Gertie, and squished her boots into the mud. I laid our old Matriarch in her grave and explained the process of saying a little something and then sprinkling her body with dirt. After I had my go at a chicken epithet, Isla took the podium: “Gertie, you were a good chicken. I love you.”

We sprinkled our handfuls of dirt over her rust colored feathers, the red clay nearly the same color as her body. Then I began a chant, dredged up from my short stint with Paganism, and as we stomped down the dirt we droned along… “We all come from the Goddess, and to Her we shall return, like a drop of rain, flowing to the ocean.” On and on we chanted and stomped as the newest snow flurry blew in around us from the north. And we continued to sing as we slopped back along the edge of the acequia, kept upright by the shared shovel. Green blades of grass poked up through the remaining clumps of snow, lining the path homeward. Our boots were 5 lbs each by the time we reached the coop again, pausing briefly to grab up the egg basket. These signs of rebirth, these cycles of life, were not lost on me…. spring snow, green grass poking through, eggs, and Easter less than a week away. Life and death are forever inseparable. Our compost pile rots all winter to give us fresh wormy dirt for our spring beds. Gertie will go back to the earth and the same red wigglers that once fed her, will feed on her, leading her slowly and steadily back to the Grand Mother of us all.

We sighed, leaned the shovel against the porch post, kicked off our boots and went back inside.

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“Take a horned toad, for example. If you think you’re better than a horned toad, you’ll never hear it’s voice – even if you sit there in the sun forever….Don’t be ashamed to learn from bugs or sand or anything.” From The Other Way to Listen by Byrd Baylor and Peter Parnall.

This morning I am learning from my chickens, and I am not ashamed.

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Our very first chicken was a juvenile rescue from a friend – the sole survivor of a fatal attack on her flock by a roaming dog. We named her Rosie, and she badly needed a friend. We asked a farmer friend who we bought goat milk from if she might have an older hen that we could take as a companion for Rosie. She had many chickens and we thought it wouldn’t hurt to ask. Roberta agreed to let us take one of her Rhode Island Reds, who we brought home, and named Gertie.

Summer of 2010: Young Rosie comes home with us to launch our newest farm project - Adventures With Chickens.

At first I was alarmed by the lack of feathers on Gerties rump – a sunburned example of living at the bottom of the pecking order. She was in rough shape – visually at least. Later I understood the wisdom of removing her from her daily torment. As the eldest in our flock of 2, she was suddenly the matriarch hen. Young Rosie followed her about like a good minion, taking the occasional abuse Gertie had learned from her previous flock and now carelessly doled out to her new devotee.

Gertie, our second chicken, sports her sunburn with cranky pride.

We raised mail order chicks separately that spring and finally, as the aspens turned golden on the mountain side, we introduced the 2 flocks into their new coop together. Gertie remained at the top of the pile. Although she recovered her feathers and became a handsome flock leader, she was never nice. She chased the other hens and pulled out their feathers, ruling her underlings with an iron beak. And honestly, although I understood the dynamic that had turned her mean, I have never liked her. Unlike Rosie, who followed me around the farm like a panting retriever, Gertie avoided me like I stank. There was never any opportunity to bond with her. She would not allow it.

Settling into their new home, Rosie and Gertie explore the fresh sod with Isla (then 16 months old).

Building the coop took a long, long, LONG time as Isla was only 16 months old and I was the sole available builder.

"An egg! An egg!" Gertie graces our farm with it's first ever egg! It was a great cause for celebration!

The following summer she was showing her age. She was already 2 or 3 yrs old when we got her – over the hill in chicken years. Her second year with us, at 3 or 4 yrs old, she barely laid any eggs. We always knew her eggs as they were BIG, and she was our only RI Red. Late that summer, after a series of predator attacks on our flock that took 3 laying hens and 4 chicks, Gertie suddenly seemed…. injured? It was hard to tell. She waddled about awkwardly, like a penguin instead of a chicken, way too upright, resting her bottom on the ground instead of her belly. She seemed off balance. She listed to starboard. But she still made it up the ramp into the coop each night. I could not get close enough to her to examine her for issues but assumed she may have been hurt in a tousle with an attacker. I thought each day would be her last as she progressively got worse and worse (yet still remaining able to allude capture). Then one day, instead of finding her dead in the coop, I found her… completely normal. It is still a mystery.

Gertie, lording over her flock. She's the massive bird in the center.

And here we are, another year later. Gertie has really been showing her advanced age of 4 or 5 yrs. She spends a lot of time in the coop, even during the day. She has been drifting in and out of progressive decline for a few weeks. This morning, when I went to wash the water tube, I peeked in the nesting box for morning eggs and saw instead Gertie and Dot, huddled together face to face on the coop floor. Dot, my favorite of our 3 Americanans, was gently and lovingly preening Gertie’s neck and face. Gertie’s inner eye membrane was closed over her eye, giving it a milky, blind appearance. She was drooping heavily against Dot.

Tears sprung unbidden into my own eyes. I was not so much sad for Gertie’s emminent passing – I would not particularly miss her. But Dot’s devoted support of her cranky flock matriarch was more than I could stand. As I watch, Gertie began to droop more and more against Dot, her head hanging lower and lower off towards Dot’s head. Dot carefully shuffled under Gertie’s slumping form, supporting her with her own body as best she could.

Dot has pushed herself under Gertie's side to help support her drooping frame.

And there the two have remained, in that same position, all morning…. waiting. It is hard not to anthropomorphize this touching scene. Do chickens love? I do not know. Do they respect authority? Perhaps. I do remember seeing Dot hanging with Gertie at times, the 2 of them nesting side by side under a favorite sage brush or in the corner of the winter garden. But I have never noticed the apparent devotion I am now witnessing. I wonder if Dot will mourn her passing. Dot was a mail order chick with no mother hen that she had ever known or seen. I doubt Gertie was ever particularly nice to her, and certainly never motherly. Yet here they lay, Dot attending the death watch of her flock leader, patiently, tenderly, waiting and supporting as the current rule succumbs to the inevitable cycle of life and death that none of us can escape.

I know few humans who would do as much for a mean, grouchy, old lady who no one much liked. And it seems so strange to be learning such a poignant life lesson from a chicken. But today, I am trying to watch, and trying to listen, to this feathered teacher before me. And for some reason…. I just can’t stop crying…

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It’s Saturday. A not too abnormal Saturday. The 3 of us began to tangle about in the untucked sheets around 6:10 AM. Isla said suddenly and loudly, “Mama, I want to get up!”  Groan. “Soon honey. I am not quite ready.” I mumbled. “Popee, I want to get up!” The sound of “Murph!” issued from the dusky blob on the far side of the bed. The room began to slowly lighten and I heard Little Willie protesting his dawn captivity with a trumpeting crow. “OK Isla, I’m ready.” I said.

We dropped our bare feet onto the floor and pattered through our bathroom routines, Papa on our heels. The tea kettle on, I filled Bucky’s beer bottle of goat milk and settled it into a pot of water on the remaining working stove unit. Randy’s espresso pot waited in line. Tea kettle whistled and the timer went off for the milk. A few minutes later, the espresso hissed to life. I filled the milk crate with the milking pail, a tub of rolled barley and equine pellets (goat kibble), Bucky’s nippled bottle, a small jar of olive oil (teat lube), and a tub of warm water with grapefruit seed extract and rag (teat wash). I was looking forward to when we could move these goat feed bins out of the living room. My pot of green tea slowly steeped. Randy checked email. Isla nibbled on some honey and butter toast. With a contented sigh, I sipped carefully and thankfully from my steamy mug – currently my favorite mug – from an apple orchard in Hancock, NH that I used to visit every fall. My vision began to clear as the dark green, bitter brew infused into my veins. Staring thoughtfully at the spreading green apple tree across the grey ceramic backdrop, I admitted – it’s going to be a busy day…

And so it unfolded….

Randy stepped into the brightening dawn first to open the chicken coop, a fuzzy Isla on his hip, her bed-headed, golden mohawk waving and glowing in the shimmering morning air.

The same 2 family members started some breakfast while I bottle fed Bucky, milked Hazelnut (only 5 cups of milk as Fiona and Bucky were coursing off the milking stand pissing both mamas off to the extreme). As I grumbled and elbowed off another flying kid, I mentally designed the detention pen I would build the next day. Alfalfa flakes and grain were dumped into respected tubs and bowls and 5 gal buckets of water hauled to another tub from a spigot way too far away. Gave the chickens a quick check, topped off their tube of layer mash, checked their water tube (low). Molly leaped repeated beside me, wondering why I didn’t have her lead in my free 7th hand.

We ate a sustaining farm breaky of sausage, fried eggs, toast and sauerkraut. I always prefer a cooked breakfast to cereal and seem to need the protein. And as Randy and Isla headed to the hardware store for lumber and a new faucet, I headed back to the salt mines, I mean apartment, to continue where I had left off cleaning from the 1-1/2hrs of the day before. I cursed. A lot. At least I only needed to walk 4 steps from door to door.

3 hrs later I was done, in more ways than one, and exhausted, and pissed off by the state the tenants had left it in. I felt violated and taken advantage of as we had given them such a killer deal. Lesson number one – nice gals don’t always finish first. I dragged into our half of the house in time to pull bee suit and tools out of the closet. Then Robert, our bagpipping, retired-doctor friend, who is also a beekeeper, arrived in his bright red Madza convertible with bee suit in hand (but no bagpipes I was sad to see). I was thankful for his presence this day. It had been years since I had had a bee mentor and I was delighted to have him agree to be such for me. Of course it had been St. Paddy’s Day, at the local brew pub, and we were drinking…. he was playing bagpipes in full Scottish attire. I reminded him of who I was –  “MacLaren Scott, remember? You played at my wedding. There is my husband Randy over there. Perhaps you’d remember him better if you imagined him on stage, in his skivvies, being “kilted” by my father and 2 brothers, in front of 300 guests at our reception?” But Robert remembered long before I got my story out. I had hoped he hadn’t thought better about our beer induced agreement by today.

But here he was, right on time. We donned suits and fired up my smoker on the back porch. I glanced longingly through the french doors at the hot quesadillas Randy had just set on the table, settled my bee veil and hat on my head, and the 2 of us walked to the hive with my stomach gurgling loudly. We smoked liberally, removed the entrance reducer, and cracked the lid. More smoke. We cracked the inner cover. More smoke. Slowly we removed several frames to find them chocked full of honey… and bees. By that time I was wishing I had brought a large serving spoon with my hive tools. The good news was the bees were fit as a fiddles and had plenty of food. I did not even need to feed them. The hive was full and the colony healthy. Bad news was I didn’t get to steal any honey… yet.

Robert and I chatted as we slowly meandered away from the hive, waiting for the bees to get bored of us and go home. We took a circuitous route as their interest was not waning. While commiserating over all the bear attacks fellow bee keepers have recently been victim to, we were finally able to take off veils and suits, and return for introductions to the kids and Hazelnut. It would seem the bees didn’t recognize us without the white coveralls on. And then a farewell in the driveway which overlapped a hello in the same location with our new apartment guests. As this Canadian couple were our first “official” guests in the apartment, reserved through our airbnb site, I had hoped to make an impression. And I am sure I did – with my half naked child clinging to me like a baby monkey, bee helmut hair sticking out in all directions, stinking of smoke, stomach growling as loud as an attacking bear, and farm clothes covered in milk and little muddy hoof prints. But it wasn’t exactly the impression I was aiming for.

Flustered, I settled the Canadians into the apartment, and returned to our kitchen famished and shaky. I devoured the now cold quesadillas, grateful my hubby had gone all domestic on me this day. Daddy and daughter had laid down for books and quiet time so I crept in stealthily to slip in beside them. “Mama, I don’t want you in bed with us. I just want Papa.” Ouch. “Well dear, it’s my bed as well and I need to rest a bit too, so I AM going to lie down with you.” I slithered between the sheets and drifted to the sounds of Randy reading. Then delightful silence. Ahhhh. 25 minutes later I was done and slipped back out to resume the day.

While Isla napped and Randy surfed, I grabbed the keys and headed out for errands. After restocking the apartment at the natural foods store, I headed to the kitchen store to replace items that had been… trashed. Sigh. Our first unofficial guests had been a definite trial by fire.

Then home again for Bucky’s 4:30ish feeding and evening farm chores. More water, more alfalfa, more grain and kibble, more bottle feeding, and affection to all 3 goats. Isla amused herself in the mud puddle I’d created with the old water I’d poured out of their tub. Randy worked on cutting a hole through the outer fence so we could bring in the new hay bales that had been delivered the day before. We needed to store them properly on pallets beside the goat pen. I had finally resorted to cashing in almost all of my measly IRA in order to stock pile the hay now, before the shortage left my goats with no food. The report from John, who was bucking our bales off the back of his flat bed, was: only one more batch of bales coming, and those would cost $20-$25 a bale! From the goat pen I saw that one of our new guests had found Randy outside and they were chatting by the green stack. I hoped I looked impressive in my Australian fur felt hat lugging a 5 gallon bucket of water through the gate. I was impressed I was still standing at all!

Then back to the chickens with the scrap pan, I scattered scratch on the ground, refilled layer mash, hefted the water tube (noting it would need filling first thing in the morning), and collected eggs. I stooped low to scoop up Little Willie for a few minutes of rooster therapy, convinced this was the key to keeping him gentle. Whenever I thought he was getting too rough with the girls, I would carry him over to the outdoor freezer, open the door and point to what remained of his mean brothers. “Don’t forget Willie. I’m watching you Mister.” But for this therapy session, I simply stroked his shimmering sunset feathers and iridescent green tail. He was a very handsome boy. I hoped he would behave for many years… long enough for generations of little Willies, or preferably Willaminas, to cruise through the sage brush behind their mamas. Time for a quick cuddle with Bobo, my favorite Black Australorp. Then I strolled over to Randy who was chatting now with both guests, swinging the egg basket with confidence. I had a second chance at making a good impression and didn’t want to blow it. Smiling broadly, I offered Connie her pick of 4 fresh eggs, so very glad I had thought to knock the poop off the shells first. She beamed back at me, choosing a lovely blue egg and 3 shades of brown.  The 4 of us chatted a bit, then I led the group into the goat pen for the requisite introductions. Isla was now total mud from toe to thigh and finger tip to elbow. Fortunately Connie and Ken found this amusing. And I am sure I made quite a lasting impression when I stood my child on a stump of the goat play ground and stripped off her pants and boots, leaving them behind in a muddy heap. I departed with a loving smile towards my husband, “Honey, could you grab those for me please?” and swung my monkey back on my hip, headed for the house.

It was too bad I took off her rain pants and muck boots as she was right back outside on her balance bike, in her clean PJs, within 10 minutes. So I gave up the fight, mixed up 2 strong margaritas with fresh squeezed lime and hobbled back out to find Randy. He was by the garden fence talking with Ken, so I offered them each a glass. They were definitely big enough to share with spouses. Once Ken headed back to the apartment, Randy and I had a rare moment, sitting side by side on the porch love seat, sharing the last of the one margie, watching our child taking dust baths under a sage brush with her chickens. Glorious! Much too short. Then I headed for the bath, reminding myself there were always more PJs.

Randy continued to work on moving hay bales while Isla filled her wheelbarrow with dirt and gave it to him as a present. When my dusty child trotted into the bathroom, I was nicely soaked, so I stepped out and let her climb into the same bath water. It’s a good practice in the high desert. I laid naked across our king bed, the cool sheets absorbing my sweat, listening to the trickle of Randy’s shower and Isla’s constant chatter to her tub friends. I was too tired to cook dinner. Thank god for rice noodles and jars of pasta sauce. Randy joined me on the bed, naked as well. It had been a hot day for March – probably had hit 70. The room was warm. The waterfall in the koi pond tickled my ears through the open window. A cooling breeze moved the wind chimes. Chickens bucked and Bucky bleated. Molly barked once from the west. “I’m ready to get out Mama!”

After a simple pasta meal, Randy began the teethbrushing and getting in bed march of death. I started to heat Bucky another bottle of milk and sat down to write. The timer beeped, I donned my head lamp, and stepped out into the night. Bucky ran out of the barn to greet me and inhaled the milk in seconds. Once again, I had that uncomfortable feeling that he was starving. I ducked inside the barn to give Hazelnut and Fiona goodnight pats where they were nestled in the straw. Then with Molly’s escort, I went to put the chickens to bed. Closed one gate, closed the coop door, and did a head count through the window. Only 14. Hmmm…. Lifted the nesting box flap and looked through sideways. As I thought – there was Dot, under the roosting bars on the floor. 15 all accounted for. I felt great gratitude to Randy for replacing the constantly falling upper roosting bar the day before. The chickens were so much happier with 2. Last gate closed. I took a deep breath of the night air.

Stopping in the sage as I headed to the house, I switched off my headlamp and stood still. The night sky was stunning. And this was the sky I knew well from my winter sailing days in the tropics. Orion the Hunter was high above me in his end-of-winter position. Taurus, the bull was close by… Cassiopeia… the Pleiades or 7 Sisters (known to me as The Shopping Cart)… the Big Dipper…. Jupiter and Venus were hanging one over the other in the western sky. And just on the western horizon was the setting crescent moon beneath the planets, the entire orb visible as a faint illuminated tracing. Neighborhood sounds filled my ears: dogs barking here and there, cars on the main road, a distant siren. I don’t think this would be considered the country… quite… but currently, it was our paradise. Then as I passed the koi pond I saw a flicker of motion from the edge of my lamp. Ahhh, yet another koi had survived the winter – the little orange and white one. Two so far. It put a smile on my face.

I fed Molly on the back porch and wrote some more. Still no internet service. Still no cell phone service. I felt isolated from the world and mildly content about it. I kept struggling with the urge to check the NASA site for solar flare activity – but of course, I couldn’t. As Molly had been barking for a minute or so, I stepped onto the back porch once more to quiet her. A flash of light stole my glance and I looked up in time to catch the burning blaze of a shooting star streak across the western sky. It felt like something strange and magical was afoot – the alignment of planets and new moon, the shooting star, the cell and web outage. A coyote howled in the distance sending a shiver up my spine. But then again, magic was always afoot. I only had to remember to look up from my chores to see it. A good reminder as I said goodnight to the darkness and headed gratefully off to bed…. without starting the new batch of goat chevre.

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