Thursday, September 25, 2014

Not a Whimper But a Shout

Winding down, huh? HA!

So, when last we met, we had found the perfect place to rent.  (Yes, rent.  We continue saving money to be able to afford to buy in this area.  When a small starter-type house costs more than a quarter million, you know you live in Northern Virginia.)  Well, that perfect place was for the other applicant who DIDN'T have a dog.  (grumble grumble)  Fortunately, my original first choice was still available, our application was approved, and we signed the lease yesterday.  Funny that even if it was my first choice since the beginning, it feels like a bit of a let-down after finding that other amazing place.  Oh well.  It is a lovely townhouse, and will put us back in town, and the Boy will be in the same elementary school where he went to kindergarten.

But, yesterday.  Completing the lease packet was quite a process.  But the farm decided, after weeks of relative calm, to act out, to let us know that it perhaps is not pleased to find that our time here is limited.

So, first, it threw a fox at the chickens.  Thank goodness the roosters know what to do...which is scream like a bunch of girls, and make the hens run in terror.  I stuck my head out to see what the hell was going on, and saw the beautiful fox that lives on the next property, trotting after the girls.  I started screaming, and tore out (in my inside shoes, like a moron) after it.  Amy got excited to be running with me as I shouted incoherently.  I chased the fox around the building, and I saw it look over its shoulder.  I swear it had an "Oh sh*t!" look on its face, and that is when Amy finally understood why I was being such a maniac.  She took off like a bat out of hell, and she either tangled with it  or it disappeared suddenly.  I heard her barking up a storm.  Meanwhile, I went inside, changed shoes, and finally saw to the chickens.  It didn't take too long to get them back in the yard and shut them up safely--not a missing bird or feather.  But good grief!

So, the farm sat back, cracked its knuckles, and threw the next thing at us.  The Husband, late in the afternoon, was patrolling around, verifying that the fox was indeed gone.  But, who should he happen to see?  Clarence, in one of his many bodies. (He is Legion.)  Clarence, who has been steadily digging the floor of the corn crib into a terror-pit of soft dirt and hidden holes.  The Husband took the shot, and down went Clarence... or this body, anyway.  The Husband didn't report the black swarm of evil escaping the body, but then it had also had enough energy to try to hide under a lumber rack.  This Clarence was not the size of a small bear, but it is one less Clarence.  All this happened just after dinner.

But, that of course wasn't enough.  Nope, the farm just chuckled.

After the demise of Clarence, I went into the chicken yard to check on the birds, and I noticed that the same hen was sitting up on her roost.  This was too many days in a row, and could no longer be written off as her being anti-social.  So, I walked up to her and easily caught her.  I tucked her under my arm and went outside to look at her.

She had only one eye.

That is what it looked like, anyway.  It was swollen and hidden in deep folds of filthy skin.  She also had a huge swelling next to her beak.  I noticed around this time that she kinda stunk, too.  I had the guys get a towel so I could wrap her up, and we used baby wipes to clean away the crusty yuckiness.  This was way beyond our ability to deal with.

So, I got to call the emergency vet (again!) and find out if they dealt with chickens.  The receptionist said they do have avian doctors, but they were not in that evening.  She had an opening at 8:30 in the morning.  Fine, I'll take it.  She took my name and found my file.  New pet entry... but she wanted a name.

I was flummoxed.  The only remaining chicken with a name is Princess Leia, who is one of the first chickens we got.  We stopped naming new chickens a long time ago.  So, after a moment, I said, "Chicken?"

The receptionist laughed, and as the boys started yelling out names, I blurted out, "One-Eye Jack!"

She laughed some more.

But she called back about half an hour later, saying that one of the vets on duty could do emergency treatment for birds, and he wanted One-Eye Jack in tonight.

So, at 8PM last night, I traveled with her to the vet.  I was already famous.  And so was One-Eye Jack.  But the humor and fame didn't soften the blow.  She has mycoplasma gallisepticum.  Otherwise known as Chronic Respiratory Disease.  The vet thinks she probably caught it from a wild bird, since it can spread that way.

The entire flock is likely infected, even if One-Eye Jack is the only sick one. It can be treated with medicine, but it makes the bird and eggs not safe for human consumption for over a month after the treatment.  Frankly, the normal course of action with an infected flock is to "remove" it and disinfect the coop, leaving it bird free for several weeks.  There has been a lot of talk and discussion with Country Kitty and the Husband, and then a follow-up discussion with the vet.

But, ultimately, we have decided to sacrifice One-Eye Jack for the good of the rest of the birds.  Special food for awhile, and I will have to do more in the coop:  replacing the waterer, disinfecting the feeder, scooping out the poo under where she'd been roosting.

So, yeah.  One of my favorite musicals is Chess.  In one of the songs, a character talks about his father:  "When I was ten, my father moved out./ Went with a whimper, not with a shout."

In my case, it is more like:  "After a year, we tried to move out./ Farm made no whimper, mostly a shout." 

I know I have personified the farm, weather, wildlife, and plants on a regular basis.  But, seriously?  To have all that drama on the day we sign the lease?

Most suspicious.

Monday, September 15, 2014

Winding Down

Over the last month, I have learned that uncertainty kills creativity.  How does one celebrate the glorious cross-fade of summer into autumn when one is poring over MLS listings, debating the merits of a familiar school zone versus the cost per square foot, and whether a garage is really important or not?

The simple answer is, I take the moments for the moments they are, and accept that those moments are not going to be shared.  Oh, I've been taking photos like crazy, marveling over the abundant fruit of the Russian olives and the wild grape.  I watch the chickens wander around the property devouring grasshoppers and flies and fighting over the flower beds I have finished weeding.

Life continues, even when I am not recording it.  School started.  The roosters scared off a flock of wild turkeys.  The car had so much dirt from the roads caked in the wheel wells that it threw the tires out of alignment.  We've built another burn pile, and are eagerly looking forward to that first fire of the season.  Birthdays came and went.  Leaves are falling already, and I am harvesting the last of my vegetables, although I am considering leaving in the carrots for the County Kitty.

What this all means is that this blog is winding down.  Country Kitty will be home in a month and a half, and I will be moving back into town.  We moved on a lovely home.  We walked in with our realtor, and we knew within three minutes that it was the one.

Inner reflection has begun.  I have changed.  The other night, I was watching a film, and I felt something on my arm.  I looked, and a teensy little spider was crawling there.  All I did was pinch it off and wipe my fingers on a tissue.  No shriek, followed by laughter.  No grimace.  No...nothing.  Look, pinch, kill, wipe, and back to Pride and Prejudice.  I didn't even pause it.

Who is this, and what did she do with City Kitty?


Monday, August 18, 2014

Cheers and Tears

The week began with tears.  

Last Monday, we had to sit down with the Boy and really drive it home for him that we are going to be moving.  He doesn't want to leave:  he's going to miss the farm, the fields, his school, but mostly the chickens.  I assured him that Country Kitty agreed to keep the chickens, and I was certain we would be able to come out and see them.

His tears hurt both our hearts a little.  All three of us have grown accustomed to the farm, and all of us will miss it in some way.  The Husband will miss it more than I will, since this is his dream.  However, the farm has grown on me.  I'll admit there are things I've come to like about living in the country.  But, we have to find a place to live until the right opportunity presents itself.  So, we are looking at places both in town and in the country, if the commute for the Husband won't be any worse.

In the meantime, we are all determined to enjoy life here to the fullest.  The Boy and the Husband cleared out the upper field on Saturday.  The Boy has been spending even more time outside, playing frisbee and unfortunately chasing the chickens:  he loves the sounds they make.  I've just suggested to him that maybe he ought to record them, so he'll have the sound forever.  Big smiles.

white peaches
The peaches in the barnyard have come in finally.  White peaches, sweet as can be.  I don't know if I am going to have enough to attempt canning any.  Sad, that.  But the pears are also coming in, and we all shared a beautiful but tiny apple.

fixing a broken handle
Early last week, the chicken waterer appeared to have been knocked down.  Alas, the red carrying handle had broken somehow.  I found a suitable object to set the waterer down on, but wasn't relishing having to buy a new waterer.  I grumbled about it for a few days, and was working up to a new one, when it occurred to me that I could fix it!  I found some heavy wire, a few plastic corks from wine bottles, and went to work.  It is really cool, and way more comfortable to carry than the other had been.  I haven't rehung it, however, as I am not certain if the wire will keep its shape if it is holding 5 gallons of water underneath.

Sheila, the Eastern black swallowtail
We are not only raising chickens here on the farm.  All our work to preserve some butterfly habitats paid off!  The boys discovered tons of caterpillars in the fields this weekend.  We captured one (now called Sheila) and put in the Boy's Butterfly Habitat.  Sheila didn't do anything much on Sunday, but this morning, I found a cocoon!  Very exciting...
rat snake skeleton
The boys also uncovered the remains of the snake we killed:  nothing left but bones.  

The bones make me think about what we leave behind, how we affect the world and lives around us.  We've been here a year now, and I can see signs of our presence here:  the reconstructed chicken coop with its big pen, the white laurel, the new path through the woods, Katt's grave, all those funny trails in the lower field, the trees we've trimmed from the paths, the new lawn near the sunroom.  

But, the farm is also leaving its own trace on us.  The Boy identifies plants and bushes, where once he asked if everything was poison ivy.  He has no fear of wild animals now, and indeed recognizes that the cute fluffy bunnies are evil beasts from Troll Planet X, and that the majestic eagles we've glimpsed are a danger to our chickens.

I've learned how to use a riding mower, and how to dodge potholes.  I automatically climb into my muckers when I leave the house to chase down the dog or check on the chickens.  I rarely leave the house without my phone, so I can snap pictures of cool spiders or weird scat or an unusual footprint.  Heck, when I walk into a spider web, I don't even shriek anymore.  
Well, not as much, anyway.

The trees are beginning to turn, and leaves are falling already.  My garden is past its prime, and I've been considering planting a fall crop of greens and maybe broccoli.  At every task or observation, I now remember fondly how I handled it last year.

Memories fade.  But I did two amazing things last year, and will benefit for the rest of my life from them.  First, I agreed to try this whole living-in-the-country thing.  Second, I decided to create a blog so Country Kitty could see what we were experiencing.  I've recorded many of the big experiences, and more importantly, lots of little ones.  I'll have this forever.

But, in the meantime, I have two more months to live here.

And I will be living it.

Monday, August 11, 2014

Zombie Chickens and Fashion Statements

The law of averages dictated that the new hens would begin laying eventually.  I wasn't expecting this:

What the hell is that?  It was soft, and kinda meaty inside.  (I did NOT take pics of the autopsy--even I have my ghoulish limits.)  I found a few more a day later.  I looked at a million images online, and read dozens of chicken-owner blogs.  The Internet told me that it is a horrifying disease that will mean that the hen will never lay again.  It also told me that it could be a starter egg, from a young layer making some premature attempts to begin laying.  My personal theory (because I KNOW who produced such a disgusting thing), is that the hen who lays shell-less eggs is now laying shell-less FERTILIZED eggs, and she is now birthing a flock of zombie-chicks...and I am so not a scientist.  But it was kinda fun to poke at that nasty thing and try to figure out where the head was supposed to be.  It says something about me that my son hovered over, trying to remember what he learned about eggs in school as we poked and prodded at it.

But, to my amazement and delight, yesterday evening, the Husband came in from shutting the girls in for the night, and showed me this very welcome sight.

ABOUT EFFING TIME!!!  Although, I am a teeny bit disappointed that my zombie chick-ghoul theory was wrong.  I think they must have known I was considering this as an option...

In other news, yesterday I finally got off my lazy bum and canned tomatoes.  Rather than do another 7-8 quarts of my amazing arrabbiata sauce, we decided that I would can whole tomatoes.  But, being the lazy person I am, I decided to can half-tomatoes instead.  This meant that I didn't have to spend time trying to match sizes.  This meant I just chopped the wee ones in half, and the medium ones in quarters, and the big humongous ones in whatever size felt right.  So, I got 4 quarts and 7 pints canned, and put another two quarts in the freezer.  I was going to do some peppers, but I found that I am clean out of pickling salt.

Go me!

But, that burst of energy came after I managed to drive the riding mower into a tree as I frantically tried to wave off a big spider web I was passing through.  Fortunately, all I did was unseat the wheel... but it meant that I needed to take it to our local small engine place to get fixed, which meant I didn't get to practice my lawn meditation yesterday.  And boy did I need to.

In an effort to cheer me up (well, to stop me beating myself up), the Husband got me started on the big tractor.  I think he must be a brave man or a very silly one to let me on a big tractor after I managed to break the small one, but he gave me a lesson on the controls.  It went in one ear and out the other.  Then, he rode with me for a few minutes and told me to do a pass around the upper field.  I managed to do the loop without running into any spider webs or trees, and did not kill anything (that I noticed, anyway).  He snapped this adorable picture of me.  And yes, the tractor IS moving.

Notice the red circle.  City Kitty has had to amend her fashion-nightmare country wear.  When one is sitting on a riding mower or tractor, one cannot see the controls next to the seat when one has shirttails flapping.  The adorable knots manage the problem nicely.

And plus it looks kinda cute.

Monday, August 4, 2014

An Odd Thing

I live on a farm, and I've had all sorts of odd experiences.  Like having to drag my groceries on a sled through three foot deep snow to get from the car to the house.  Like watching a spider cricket grow to maturity in the utility sink, because he was stuck there and I knew that if I tried to free him, he'd just crawl up my arm.  Like searching for a walking stick that can double as a web-wand.

We can also include under "Odd Experiences" the time I ran out of my house barefoot to rescue a chicken from a fox, then chasing that fox into the woods, and finally administering first aid to the chicken.  Or, the time when the sump pump backed up due to ice, and I got to spend several hours wading in my own basement when I wasn't crawling under the front porch, armed with a hairdryer and a few buckets of hot water.

I hardly think about the odd things I do on a daily basis now.  I stepped into the shower the other day, and saw a spider on the inside of the plastic shower curtain.  I was already wet, and I didn't want to call for assistance, so I just gathered the folds between my hands and slammed them together, effectively squishing the spider.  I then took my shower.

This morning, I reached into the trash can to rescue the toast crusts that the Boy had accidentally thrown away:  the chickens love cinnamon toast crusts.

However, something happened last week that has captured my imagination.

One of my best friends came for the week, a last-minute trip that was so great.  She and I did some of the things that I have been meaning to do for a long time, but never got around to doing:  visiting the local distillery for the tour and tasting; hiking a section of the Appalachian Trail; and getting out on Friday night to hit the local First Friday event.

We also spent hours talking and laughing, enjoying wine every evening.  I gave my usual tour of the farmhouse, pointing out all the charming details (moss from the 1700s, ax marks in the log walls, adorable kitchen) and the places to watch out for (sloping floors, odd steps up or down, low ceilings). Of course, I also showed her around the farm and entertained her with all the adorably odd habits I've picked up here.

Her favorite was my web-wand.  We went on a walk of the fields, munching on the occasional blackberries, letting the Boy pick our route, so he could show us the new paths he mowed with his father.  (And they are hilarious.  Period.  Curves and twists...if I hadn't known that the Boy had done them, I would have thought that his father had been doing something with the weeds other than mowing them.)  Anyhow, my friend was giggling over my web-wand, and had already pictured Lockhart before I explained it.

Moments, later, however, we came upon the really odd thing.

We have rain and storms often enough, and we come across fallen branches and other assorted storm debris.  But this evening, in middle of the path, we found this nest.

It looked undisturbed.  There were no obvious nesting branches overhead.  No sign of a distressed mama bird.  Just a nest full of cloth fibers and a perfect egg.  Google failed us when we tried to identify it, although the closest match was a bird species so common I've already forgotten its name.

Who knows how it happened?  We'll never know, but for once, something odd enough happened that I actually recognized that it was odd.  And it made me think about how many things I have come to accept as just part of my day, that had once seemed so extraordinary.

So, I will go back to waving my web-wand and eating fruit right off the bushes, tormenting the local foxes and feeding my chickens slightly-rotten but organic cucumbers and tomatoes along with their favorite cinnamon toast crusts.  And I will look at it all and giggle at how far the City Kitty has come.

Monday, July 28, 2014

Same Chicken, Different Day

I freaking HATE being right all the time.  I'm not kidding.  I picked up the three new birds, making the grand total thirteen chickens...and two were missing by sundown.  So, I have eleven birds now, and am still getting only 1-2 eggs a day.

I have decided that chickens are a big old pain in the rear.  Oh well.  Another day, another chicken, right?  It says something that I am more pissed off than anything.  Mostly pissed off that I didn't just buy four instead of three. Fourteen wouldn't have been unlucky, right?  Right?  We are all accustomed to how high the mortality rate of my birds is.  It seems a bloody shame.  The Husband is pretty sure that word is going to get out and no one is going to sell birds to me anymore.  I am sure the birds might agree...if they hadn't wound up as fox food.


We spent several hours this weekend re-designing and expanding the chicken yard.  It is quite a bit bigger now.  By the time we leave, we may have met our goal of turning the ruins of the old garage into the outer wall.  People talk about getting goats to clear land--all we have to do is pen the chickens in and they clear everything for us.

However, we have found another way to clear out areas.  Lawnmowers Anonymous, please meet the Boy.  He is BEGGING to mow the fields daily...although I think it is mostly the tractor.  Maybe I should start him on the push mower and see if he still wants to mow all the time.  Might be worth a grin or two.

I did more canning this week.  I put up nine quarts of marinara sauce, pureeing about 30 pounds of tomatoes.  I have it down to a science now, so it isn't that big of a deal, except I ran out of onions for the sauce.  We'll see tonight how it tastes.  However it came out, the chickens enjoyed the seed and skin mixture that remained after the pureeing.

I also attempted some pure blackberry jam.  I say attempted, because I am terribly afraid I let the jam cool too much before processing.  There was not enough to fill a fourth jar, so I put it in the fridge and offered it to the boys.  The consistency was kind of like a softened Jolly Rancher.  I really hope the other jars didn't come out like that.  I'll get to check, since one of the three didn't seal during processing. Just in case, I labeled the jars "Blackberry Jam/Candy?"  According to the National Center for Home Food Preservation, if it is merely a stiff jam, it can be heated and used as a glaze or syrup.  It can also be thinned.  But, I can honestly say that I had not thought to try it on meat.  I found this recipe...and I have a freezer full of venison.  And if it means I will not have wasted all those blackberries, double score.

Because I refuse to follow the Boy's advice when we discovered that I may have botched the whole batch:  "Why don't you just give it to the chickens?"

I may do a lot of things in the name of getting eggs, but feeding homemade blackberry jam to the chickens is not one of them.

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Snakes and Jam

Harvesting is the word.  How I love to walk in the door with a basket, full of tomatoes, cucumbers, and peppers, or overflowing with freshly picked lettuce, kale, and Swiss chard.  I use a green pitcher for berry picking, which is becoming a compulsive behavior:  there is no such thing as a fast walk now, only stop-and-pick-and-sidle to the side to get the next juicy wine berry or blackberry.

When I realized I was sitting on over seven cups of mixed berries and had just used four cups two days prior to make an amazing gluten-free fruit crumble, I thought maybe I ought to explore some preservation options.  I went to my favorite book: The Busy Person's Guide to Preserving Food, and then looked at the Joy of Cooking canning book.  I thought about freezing at first and then cooking it.  I discovered that I was afraid of trying to can jam.  

So, I took the bull by the horns and prepared to can jam. I found a simple recipe for Berry Jam, and even learned what the terms "gelling" and "sheeting" mean.  (And I am not gonna share, since I am now part of an exclusive club of people who know what that means...can you tell I am proud of myself?)  Aside from several splatters of boiling hot pre-jam, there was no fuss or drama, and I managed to successfully preserve five jars of Berry Jam.  It was a lot easier than I had anticipated.

Less easy?  Figuring out how to capture the snake that was preparing to eat two eggs in the chicken coop.

We've started free-ranging again, and the chickens seem to love that, but I don't want them wandering come evening.  So, we shake the old cottage cheese container we are using to collect kitchen scraps for the chickens. The chickens appear out of nowhere, desperate to make certain they don't miss a single kale stem or toast crust.  They follow us into the pen and we shut the gate.  Later in the evening, I go and close the chicken door for the night.

So, the night of the 16th, the Boy and I had gotten them back in the chicken pen for the evening.  I went into the coop to get the eggs.  As I came to the favored nesting box, I saw that there was a black nylon strap in there.  I find all sorts of weird stuff in their boxes:  container lids, clots of dirt, bits of plastic or wood, and once, an apple core.  So, I saw the nylon strap, and was reaching for it, wondering where the hell they found that...and it moved.
a black rat snake, I think.

I was inches from a big snake curled around the two eggs.  I screamed.  And then I screamed for the Boy to get my phone so I could take a picture.  Priorities, right?  He rushed back, begging to see the snake.  I showed him, and snapped several photos before it occurred to me that we have a snake handler in a cupboard in the kitchen.  I sent the Boy for it.

And then it got silly.  The snake had already decided that maybe it was time to move to quieter premises, but he was stupid or something, because he kept trying to shove into a crack between two boards.  Yes, there was daylight to be seen...but he wasn't going to fit, no matter how determined he was.  Meanwhile I hadn't used the snake handler before, and I was worried I was going to hurt the snake.  I managed to get him, but in the middle, and I thought I was supposed to get him near his head.  In trying to change the grip, I lost him.

And then caught him again.

And lost him again.

As he was slithering into the corner, I caught him in the last foot before his tail.  But he was strong... and I couldn't drag him out.  So, I tried to let him go.  Oops.  I had accidentally stabbed him with the snake handler, so he was stuck, and I was stuck, and I had seen his head, and it was kind of hooded, and he looked pissed off.

The end result is that I managed to free the poor thing, he left the chicken coop somehow, and I got my eggs.  But I wonder how many of my chicken eggs he's gotten before.  Kinda makes me  I have ten chickens (7 of which are less than six months old, and one might be a rooster, I'm afraid) and am getting only two eggs a day most of the time.

I'm buying three more layers tomorrow.  Lucky thirteen...