Tuesday, April 22, 2008

ringo the feral chicken and other adventures

I woke up at 5:30 Saturday morning, hazy eyed and slightly excited. I knew it was going to be a hell of a long day. I was picking up livestock upstate, then picking up a friend from the city at a train station. Nisaa, an old college friend turned New York Red Sox Fan (they do exist) was coming to hang out, escape the city, and help plant my first veggie garden of the year... And it all started with getting my butt in the silver Subaru and driving up to Lake Champlain to pick up some laying hens.

Which might sound like an unbelievable distance to drive, over two hours one way, but you have to consider the circumstances. Small hobby farmers like myself can't buy animals in bulk or always plan far ahead. When the perfect animals come you better be prepared to work your life around it. So when I found a farmer selling young, fat, and healthy homebrewed free range laying hens (cheap), I jumped at the chance to take home five at once. The hens were a mix breed of farm-hatched Rhode Island Reds and Wyandottes, they lay like gangbusters and can handle the Vermont winter with the best of them. Making them more than worth the drive.

I needed layers. I already had a deal in the works with a local cafe in Bennington that needed a full time organic local egg supplier. A great side business for my little farm, but my Polish hens little white eggs weren't going to cut it (specially since they have developed the awful habit of eating their own recently, but that's a story for later)

So, the excursion was going to pull me into parts of the state I have never seen. I was wound up with anticipation while loading the wire cage into the hatchback and pouring coffee in the car mug. Every time I get to add some more animals or plants to the farm I feel a separate kind of happiness. Something that's pleasantly fulfilling because I know they'll be contributing to my life here in ways most things you buy can't.

I drove off towards Burlington with a light heart. While rolling the station wagon past the dairy farms and high water creeks, I realized chickens have been my personal New England tour guides. Forcing me to drive into parts of New York and Vermont I would've never had to navigate though if I wasn't trading for livestock. Meeting people I would've never otherwise met. I am in love with all of this. I drive like it's a chance to be grateful at high speed.

I pulled into the chickens farm, put on my gloves and helped the older gentleman and his wife load the cage with the fat, squawking, HUGE birds. Compared to the Polish hens they were monsters. Almost seven pounds each. And when you're bones are hollow, that's a lot of chicken, son. I drove them south, listening to some Irish music I was trying to learn on the fiddle, and stopped at a garden center for some pony packs of salad greens and some bags of garden soil and compost. Driving towards home, with a car full of chickens and soil, plants and tools, gave me a smile on my face that was a force to be reckoned with. The day had already peaked at 77 degrees. Warm sun, healthy animals, dark soil.

How dare I ask for more at 12:30 on a Saturday.

I unloaded the birds. Two escaped. Shit.

They flew right out of the coop and ran into the woods. It was foolish to chase them. All that could accomplish was scared birds running even further away from safety in a place they didn't know. I could only hope they'd find their way back. The Polish hens hated the new birds and literally segregated themselves to a far corner of the coop in protest. Wonderful.

I got a shower, and hoped in the car for another two hour drive, this time over the mountains and past Mt. Snow to the funky town of Brattleboro. Nisaa was getting off her train there and when she started walking toward me at the station the years apart melted. I hadn't hung out with Nisaa since three states ago. She knew nothing about Tennessee or Idaho and Vermont was her first real connection with me in years. But it was like we just talked yesterday. She bought me dinner in Bratt, we paroozed a music store where she shouted in glee to finding Paul McCartney's Ram for 3 bucks on vinyl, and we drove home through the mountains in the dark.

That night was the Beatles on the record player, wine in our glasses, and catching up in our conversations we were like girls in a dormroom back in college again. Nisaa was excited about gardening for the first time, and I was looking forward to teaching her what I learned so far. Before bed I went out with a lantern to see if the missing hens had perched in low branches in the woods around the cabin. I never saw feather or heard a coo. I felt upset, guilty those helpless birds were in the New England woods living on a prayer.

Well, Sunday started out nice enough. The sun rose, Ben the rooster crowed ("Is this really happening?" Nisaa asked from the bathroom shower as Benedict belted out the morning thunder) Before any labor was to be procured from my guests, I usually buy them breakfast in town. We hit 'Up for Breakfast' (second floor restaurant, get it) and after full stomachs and some shopping at Northshire Books, we drove back to the farm. We found out that one of the runaways had returned! There with the other hens was a fourth, pecking away, back from the wilds. She somehow wasn't eaten by a coyote or raccoon. The lucky thing was back in the safety of the farm. The other hen was still missing. I chalked her up as a loss.

And then, we gardened. Nisaa, to her credit, is too stubborn to give up on a project even if she hates it. The romantic ideas of gardening were flushed down the Jon when she realized that breaking sod, throwing rocks, pulling weeds, carrying fifty pound bags of dirt, and always-biting bugs meant gardening was awful business if you aren't into it. As she huffed and puffed with her hoe in hand, she just shook her head and said "we are VERY different people" By the time we had broke sod, added in our fresh composts, made rows, and planted she was pissed off at gardening in general. She said she'd come back and look at it when she forgave it. I liked that Nisaa didn't pretend to be into gardening. She had no interest in being like me or impressing me, but I was impressed. She might be a city person but adapted instantly to the garden work, and while she didn't like it all - the sweat and manure, she loved the garden by dusk. Said it looked great, even felt proud of the effort. But she'd stick to flower pots, thanks. I respected her more than ever.

We cooked a big homemade meal of fettucini alfredo with homemade garlic bread and applie pie with ice cream for dessert. I love homemade food more than most. I have no shame in this and ate like a girl who deserved it. My sore arms and sunburned nose proved it up. Bring on the white sauce.

As dusk fell I gave the meals scraps to the chickens and hoped my four-star leftovers would win over the missing hens. It must've worked because in the distance, we noticed a miracle, the fifth hen had returned! it had also survived a night in the woods and was back with the other girls. But as it became dark out she ran off to the woods again. Great. I doubted we'd ever see her again. A chicken is exactly equipped for a life in the pines. But maybe this would be her bit. The wild chicken of Vermont, farmer by day and werebeast by night. Living with the grouse and cardinals like a true highland girl. Fighting of coydogs with kung fu like maneuvers of talon and beak!

Eh, she'd be fox poo by 4 AM. I gave up on her. Nisaa called her Ringo as she ran into the forest, saying, "She's not really missed when she's gone but nice to have around when she's here." Ringo was my feral chicken.

Monday morning we made scrambled eggs and checked on the birds and backyard salad bar. All made the night and Ringo was outside by the coop waiting for me to let her friends out to play. I couldn't believe she survived a second night. People, me included, don't give these birds the credit they deserve. She joined the flock, always wary of me when I came by. As the other birds played in the dust and scratched for bugs wihtout so much as looking up, she would stare at me like I was the equivalent of a human trafficking operation to a labor camp. I guess to her, I was. I felt kind of dirty when she glared at me, throwing me hands up in the air saying "What!?" like she'd cut me some slack. Ringo hated everybody. The world owed her something.

The weekend ended with Nisaa's train back to the city, and Ringo joining the flock in the coop that third night. I guess two nights of kung fu was enough and apple pie won her over. But I had a garden planted (the first of many), and chickens laying delicious eggs right in the yard. I felt that I was starting to use the six acres correctly, and went to sleep sore and happy. I am a big fan of getting dirty with friends and animals. Feeling the long days in your body and smelling the farm on your shirt when you take it off at night. The world is full of people who hate the smell of dairy farms but like the smell of gasoline, when are we going to realize how messed up that is?

The weekend was grand. Let's hope for more.

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

the practice of keeping chickens

Keeping chickens isn't just a hobby, it's a practice. There's a definite ritual you develope every day with them, or at least I do. Every morning after the dogs have been out, before breakfast or a shower, I bundle up, throw on my wellies and trudge uphill to their coop by the garden. I walk inside and pour fresh mash and scratch grains into their trough, and make sure the frost is removed from the water stations. I say Hi. I tell them about the world news events on the radio. I check for any signs of lameness or discomfort, and leave with an egg or two in my hands.

But nightwatch with the birds is my favorite. I love the last check right before bed. I go outside with the same boots and warm coat as in the morning, but it's after a long day at work, a walk with the dogs, and a healthy meal. I'm tired and have a content stomach. I grab my lantern and walk into the night, which in rural areas is black and dark without the luxury of streetlamps or neighbors windows. My eyes darting for fisher cats or a fox in the brush. Sometimes I see one and yell, shaking the beams of the lantern in the rucus.

Needing to bed them down means I get to breathe in fresh dark air, see the stars, and smell a mix of wet leaves and burning fireplaces from other cabins in the village. Three things I am grateful to do, and those birds make sure I do it every night.

But besides being outside with a purpose, keeping chickens means taking care of something, knowing that they rely on you for protection and food and their general well being. It feels really nice to provide that. It really does. And it's not all giving either - the ability to collect fresh eggs, a source of protein that doesn't require taking their lives, is unique and special to the hens. I don't know many other bi-species relationships that can offer feelings of responsibility, enjoyment, and a killer slab of French toast. Well maybe ducks, but we all know ducks are assholes.

So chickens, thanks.

hipster homestead

I'm a designer who wants to be a farm writer. And since designer comes first in that sentence, I feel obligated to share some kickass stuff I found on Etsy. There's no rule that the rural life means overalls, tobacco tin signs, and plaid sundresses. Etsy has thousands of cool options for those of who adore, aspire, or just plain like country stuff and want something beyond average. Here were some of my recent favorites. The links below take you to their shop pages.

snap pea necklace

steer print

gardener shirt

tractor painting

rabbit shirt

beehive totebag

Monday, April 14, 2008

friends, chickens, coffee, and bio fuels

Meet Benedict, the 11 month old White-Crested Black Polish rooster. Ben and his entourage (two Polish hens) were introduced to their new home this weekend. Thanks to Team Mack, we were able to convert the old garden shed into a four star poultry home. Complete with hay storage, feeding stations, natural roosts and nest boxes made from whatever we could find (some winners were old drawers from the garage and a hay filled dish rack). I don't think I could've finished the coop Saturday without the help of neighbors and my weekend guests, Sara and Tim...

Sometimes it really does take a village. Katie, who lives literally down the hill from my place, gave me some spare wood. And with her resources we were able to build a frame and open wire door that was fairly predator proof. All three of us were holding beams, nailing, giving our two cents. What we ended up with was a fence wall and a flush door and it only took about an hour. The next day we rolled through southern Vermont and upstate New York, listening to music, taking in the sites. We crossed the Hudson and ended up in Saratoga, college town extraordinaire. We had lunch in a nice coffee house/cafe and picked up the hens at a small hobby farm outside of town. We brought home the hens and rooster in the station wagon and set them into their new coop. Want to know what feels great? Seeing productive animals bed down and eat a meal in a house you built them. I was a happy gal. That evening we retired to th cabin. We played music and watched episodes of Northern Exposure. All weekend had warm fires at night, home cooked meals, pie, ice cream floats. (Not great for the diet but grand for the camaraderie.)

Also, Sara taught me how to purl, which completes my basic knitting course and showed me the sweater she was working on. I looked on with wide eyes and utter amazement. I can whip out scarves and hats and the occasional mittens, but an entire sweater knit by hand seems epic. Tim helped by doing what men do, he chopped wood, broke in the outhouse (which has electricity?!?) and found a telescope in the woods behind a shed. Something I hope to check out soon and set up on my porch.

The two Pennsylvanians pulled up in their vintage Mercedes, which they are converting into a bio diesel machine. They drove up on that stuff and Tim is learning how to cook up his own. It's a weird mix of chemistry and planning, but they are in the process of making their own fuel, which is hands down commendable from this girl.

This weekend was wildlife central. I saw toads, song birds, herons, vultures, deer, a porcupine and the highlight - a king coyote trotting along a streamside on my drive into work. He was beautiful. There was also goats and chickens and we passed a big Belgian and his rider on the dirt roads by my house, where a lot of the locals use horsepower to get around still. Speaking of horses, I've decided I adore and want a Fell pony someday. Just a head's up if you're thinking of the perfect birthday present when I'm 30. Solid black please.

Thursday, April 10, 2008

heather's garden

Heather, a good friend who went to Design school with me and now lives in Knoxville, sent me some pictures of her southern garden. (I'm green with envy because it'll be weeks before I can start planning for my own garden. Because Vermont's the coldest state in America*) But for the past few weeks she's been prepping soil, mixing in composts, raising seedlings and now her 4x20 foot mega box garden is seriously on it's way. She's focusing on heirlooms and herbs, which is awesome. Come fall, her, Sara and I will be trading recipes and sharing photos and complaining about zuchinis like old salts. If salts had anything to do with semi-urban gardening that is. Which they don't. However, we will use salt in the recipes, I'm sure. Or I will. Oh dear. Anyway, I like that my friends get their hands dirty.

*probably not.

Tuesday, April 8, 2008

poland invades vermont

This weekend, Sunday to be specific, I'll be picking up my first Vermont livestock! The animals in question are a trio of chickens, all one year old Crested Polishes. One rooster and two hens. Polls are white egg layers, so they'll be a nice mix when the big girls come in may. A nearby farmer in New York is selling them and I'm hoping Sara and Tim are interested in picking them up with me and helping set up the coop. I always wanted a few of these, but never thought it was practical to get a bunch at once like other more logical breeds. This is a golden opportunity to have some rare livestock that looks ridiculous from the porch. Plus, I miss waking up to a crow.

Country Sayings I made up and encourage you to use in urban settings

Put a muzzle on your bird dog

I'd sooner punch my woodstove in the throat
(I strongly do not want to do that in which you requested)

Pasterns belong in pastures!
(keep your animals, or kids, in line)

Drink up the tall grass
(calm down)

Passing a highway tractor on the right
(Are you %@#^% kidding me?)

Those hawkfeet could pick up my veal calf on a Tuesday
(think you're right about that, but wish you weren't because I enjoy being correct)

Peas are born shut in the dark
(consider thinking before speaking)

Hey there
(there's some animal feed in the form of dried green grass over there)

beer and cream

I started home brewing soda a few weeks ago, and the first result wasn't great. I read the recipe wrong, used too much water and not enough sugar. I ended up with this root tonic that didn't hurt anyone but wasn't the root beer we know and love. Well, I did some research, bought updated supplies, and redid the recipe correctly and now have 2 gallons of soda fermenting as I type back at the cabin. One gallon of root beer in an antique whisky jug with a metal handle (thanks Ebay) and a 2-liter bottle and two liter glass bottles of birch beer also fermenting. By the time the weekend rolls to an end, and the chicken coops been built and my new birds are resting on their roosts, I hope to have the beer ready to serve. So we'll see.

But this post really isn't about root beer. It's about what root beer egged me on too. I was emailing heather, like I always do throughout our workdays, and she brought up the point of, "if you're going through all the trouble to make your own soda, why not make your own ice-cream for the floats?" Well, the answer to that was pretty logical. Because homemade ice-cream is expensive. A decent maker barrel costs at least 200 bucks and that isn't counting the bags of rock salt, ice and ingredients. But then I remembered a gadget I first saw on hiking blogs. The ice cream ball (by now, it's so common I think they sell it at Target.) I ordered one for eighteen dollars.

The ice cream ball is like a mini factory/soccer ball. You fill it with ice and rock salt and then fill the little metal vessel with cream, sugar and flavoring. What you end up with is a clamped shut ball you just kick around the yard, let the dogs play with, and roll down the hill and after 10 minutes you'll have a pint of fresh ice cream. I only did this once before in girl scout camp, and we used 5 pound coffee cans with one pounds cans inside them for the same effect. Sadly the ice-cream turned out salty as hell and gross (coffee can lids aren't very good barriers between the salt and cream). So there's this morning's update. Adventures in home brewing, part two with Vermont hill ice cream to boot.

Wednesday, April 2, 2008

dogs and oxen

Here is a little story about a book cover designs and how the three locations I've lived in have come full circle.

When I was over at Storey last weekend, I walked into some office which I assumed was an AD's and on the wall was, of all things, Yee Haw prints. Yee Haw Industries of Knoxville Tennessee is a traditional letterpress design firm, and my good friend Leif worked there. Leif used to come over to my apartment in Knoxville, bake pies and lay out prints he was working on. (My favorite was a werewolf driving a truck, wearing a hat like Leif's, which I made him sign) Anyway, there I was, standing in an office looking at two book cover designs for Storey called "OXEN" and Livestock Guardians" Both done by Yee Haw. So, friends and readers, I was standing in a New England Office because of a book I wrote about Idaho looking at posters from an old haunt in Tennessee. It's a small country, no matter much of it you see.

Tuesday, April 1, 2008


For those of you who don't know her, meet Sara. Here she is with her seedlings, she wanted to send me the picture to show me she too is getting her garden started. And since she lives below the arctic tundra of the Green Mountains, she'll probably actually get to plant those seedlings. It's still winter here. Can't say I'm not jealous of her more temperate climate, but I think a cool breezy mountain summer will pay off come July. Or so I hope.

Anyway, Sara and I met in college and have been friends ever since. She's an art teacher outside Philadelphia, and has made the effort to visit me in every state I ever lived in! Sara (along with her awesome husband Dr. Tim) will be coming up to see the cabin and hang out in Vermont in about a week. Which is exciting for me because I miss these cats when they aren't around and I have a lot of projects I could use help on. There's a garden shed piled up with chicken wire, hay bales, wood chips, paint, and roosts. Soon I'll be knee deep in projects like building the chicken coop, painting the beehives, setting up a chick brooder and turning up the compost pile. I want to turn the now barren shed into a farm center complete with potting and gardening area, hanging egg and vegetable baskets, buckets of feed, a rain water barrel for the garden, and piles of garden tools and stacked soils. I'm really looking forward to working on something three dimensional and useful. After weeks of staring at a computer screen, nailing and painting outside feels remarkably satisfying. And when you first introduce those new hens to their pre-built home you feel REALLY satisfied.

Friday, March 28, 2008

my books coming soon!

You can pre-order Made From Scratch now on Amazon! If you're mildly interested in mountain music, Idaho, farming, chickens, beekeeping, jerk bears, gardening addictions, baking bread, sewing, county fairs, japanese bantam chickens, dog sledding, people I meet or my blogs you'll enjoy it. It's half memoir and half instruction and I hope it gets a whole new crop of future farmers insprired to grab a chicken, bake a pie and generally get their hands dirty.

Preorder here son!

Awesome image by UK artist, Lucie Summers.

backyard chickens

Backyard chickens is a great resource for anyone thinking about getting a few hens. It has free information, a downloadable care guide, images, a forum, questions and more. It's for new chicken people, crazy coop designs, poultry lovers and gawkers alike. If you get inspired by it, and live close to me, I'll have about 3 little hens up for adoption in a few weeks. I decided to only raise nine of the twelve since I have the four big girls coming. So I'd be more than happy to help a friend get started. Most towns and cities allow chickens long as they are female and in a confined area like a chik-n-hutch (150 bucks!) or an eglu (about 500, but damn cool). This post is pretty much jabbing Kevin, Sara, Tim and people from Palmerton who want some farm fresh eggs in town. But hey, if your local or work with me, even better.

click here for the site

Thursday, March 27, 2008

another one

This morning a co-worker stopped by with some of her handspun wool and we somehow got around to talking about bees. I explained to her how easy it was keeping bees, how you could get everything you need to get started for less than the cost of an ipod. Generally just how important it is that people start keeping more bees to help with the decline in their population. Did you know one hive can pollanate an area as wide as ten miles? Anyway, within the hour of our conversation she had ordered her own hive, gear and bees online! This is exciting stuff for me guys. For the first time ever I'll be helping someone else set up their own bees. The student becomes the teacher. I'm excited for her, and more pumped than I was before for my own hive.

You know what my hive is going to say across it in giant black letters??