July 22, 2011

In the matter of Roxy...

The fact that a single chicken produces 45 pounds of poop in one year didn’t dull my enthusiasm for starting a small flock. At six chickens, that’s an annual 270 pounds of dooky.
For an urban backyard flock, that’s a serious pile to consider, I suppose. But on Shuddering Squirrel Acres, where fruit trees, vegetable and flower gardens, and outdoor potted plants all need to be fertilized each growing season, it’s a potential heap of gold.
Composted for a year or two with the chickens’ bedding of straw and pine shavings – as well as kitchen food scraps, dead leaves, grass clippings, and a little bit of dirt – chicken manure becomes one of the finest natural fertilizers you can use. Try buying a five- or 10-pound bag at the garden supply shop, and the price will tell you its relative value.
Our chicks at two weeks, Roxy at center
Getting chicks and raising them was the first thing I wanted to do when we moved here, but more pressing concerns around the property delayed it for a year. At the end of April, we bought the chicks at the Tractor Supply, dipping them out of a big galvanized stock tank packed with peeping fuzz balls and warmed by a red heat lamp.
We wanted all laying hens, so we chose from the tank labeled “Pullets” – the name for young female chickens. They were all supposed to have been sexed, found to be female, and separated from an adjoining tank labeled “Straight Run” – the term for unsexed, unsorted chicks that may be pullets or may be cockerels (young males).
I chose three red chicks, two blacks, and last, a single yellow chick just like those you see every Easter, given to temporarily interested little kids by unthinking parents who are soon stuck with the problem of how to get rid of them. I don’t much like to think of how they go about that.
The day after we brought the chicks home, we had a Sunday farm breakfast – albeit at 2:30 p.m. – thanks to the serendipitous Saturday. On the way back from Tractor Supply we saw a roadside, handmade sign for farm-fresh eggs, “None of them older than five days,” and met some good people we expect will become friends.
Givens eggs
The Givens family is the real deal. There’s the dad, Little Grady, whose own father was Big Grady; the mom, Stacy, a do-it-yourself environmental activist and poultry raiser; and their son, Littlest Grady, who hustles eggs and drives a hard bargain.
Their eggs were in an old refrigerator standing out in the open with a slot mailbox for cash payment of $2 per dozen. Honor system all the way, and as the man who greeted us said, “We don’t really make anything on them, and if somebody’s hungry enough to steal eggs, they need them more than us.” This was Little Grady, current patriarch of a certified Century Farm that has been continuously operated by his family for 100 years or more. (Some of the few remaining members of my mom’s farming family in central Indiana continue to operate their own Century Farm.)
The Givenses also raise beef and pork on their big spread. We chatted awhile about how the meat is raised, its prices in the fall, bought some frozen pork sausage to sample (it was exceptional), enjoyed a generous tour of their chicken houses, sage advice for raising our own, and left with a big blue plastic tub that Stacy said would be perfect for our chicks’ first brood box. In giving it to us, she asked only, “When you decide to get rid of it, promise me you’ll recycle.” We’re dedicated to using local products whenever feasible, and plan to buy a side of beef and various cuts of pork for our freezer in the fall.
Our brooder
Back home in the garage, I set up our brood box complete with clip-on red heat lamp, water and feed dishes, and a thick layer of shaved pine bedding. In went the chicks, and a lifelong desire to have my own source of fresh eggs began. For the record, Vicki adores our chickens, but it was tacitly agreed that this was my idea and the bulk of their care was my responsibility.
From the beginning, the yellow chick was different, and not just because she was the only one of that color. The other chicks tended to gather around her, although she could be a little cranky if crowded. A photo taken on their first day here shows the three reds together and the two blacks together, formed into a circle dance around the yellow. This was a portent we did not recognize.
As the days and weeks went on, each of them began to show her personality. One of the blacks, now Sadie, had a permanent scowl on her face. The other, sweet and always happy to see me, I named Billie – to honor the spectacular heart render, Billie Holiday. The reds were hard to tell apart, so they were temporarily Red, Her Sister Red, and Her Other Sister Red. And the yellow, who quickly whitened, was dubbed Roxy after my wicked stepdaughter, Jamie, said she had the sass and flash for that name.
Roxy’s bright red comb and wattles developed sooner than the others, and Vicki said she looked suspiciously like a rooster. Unhappy about that prospect, I went to the books and found several pictures of adult Leghorn females that looked just like her. Besides, I said, there was no sign of incipient spurs on the back of her legs.
Once they had all their feathers and were old enough to move outside into the rather unusual coop I built for them, Roxy looked and acted suspiciously butch.
All the chickens were making throaty noises, but Roxy seemed to be trying to raise her voice in a familiar declaration of prominence and pride. She had already established herself as the Boss Chicken, sometimes bullying the others or “herding” them to go where she wanted them to go.
Still, I was unwilling to accept that she may be a he, and tried to rationalize away her emerging roosterness. Vicki just kept saying, “Look, that’s a rooster,” but I wasn’t buying it yet.
I went back to the books, and online, and found one acid test that was dismissed as an old wives’ tale by some, but sworn to by others as a reliable method for sexing a young chicken. Pick it up, hold it away from your body, and look at the legs. Hens tend to draw theirs up close to their bodies when aloft like this; roosters let theirs hang loosely.
It took many days to get close enough to Roxy to get my hands on her. While Billie and one of the reds – now named Sweet Red – reluctantly let me pick them up, then lie on one side in my hand, relaxed and enjoying my attention, both Roxy and Sadie kept a chary distance.
Finally, a struggling Roxy in hand, I performed the farmyard test. Those legs were hanging.
I reluctantly changed her name to Rocky, but it seemed to pat. Now our Leghorn rooster’s name is Larry. Why? Have you ever heard of another chicken named Larry?
I must say he is a striking gent, snow white with a tail like a sailing jib (but in this case aft instead of fore), and big bright red comb and wattles. He is the archetypal, historic picture of a barnyard boss.
But it’s disappointing that our Leghorn won’t be laying any eggs. The breed is one of the most prolific of them all, commonly laying 365 or more eggs a year.
Now the question is, do we want or need a rooster?
Behold, Larry!

July 21, 2011

A brief rant, just to clear my throat

To give you some idea of my perspective on things:
Mask and Ether
I’m old enough to have been put under with ether when I had my tonsils removed as a kid. The operation was done in our family doctor’s office. He was a gentle man who knew us all well and personally, and made house calls if needed. His wife was his nurse. Before the ether mask was placed over my nose and mouth, the nurse gently rubbed ointment into my eyes to prevent drying, and asked what I wanted to see when I was out cold. I said a boat. As I lost consciousness I indeed saw a boat, but from the view of someone lying on a river bottom and looking up at the bright white outline of a rowboat’s hull as it moved along the surface. Power of suggestion, I suppose, in a weird kid.
American government still had statesmen (women weren’t yet well represented in politics), not the self-serving, hypocritical, venal dogma puppets who have brought us to the edge of ruin – and not just financially.
When I started in newspapers it was as a copyboy, sharing a city room bench with a few others, neatly dressed, shoes shined, and awaiting the clarion call, “Boy!” – the signal to spring up, run to the source of the bellow, catch the dropped sheet of copy paper “before it hits my out-box,” then deliver it where intended.
Magnafax Telecopier
Other duties included plugging parking meters for anyone who demanded it, sending memos or other text by the new but time-consuming “Magnafax Telecopier” that preceded today’s common fax machines, managing betting pools for some members of the staff, fetching the occasional half-pint of booze as an eye-opener or hand-steadier for a star columnist, and anything else that anyone else wanted done. Later, copyboys were called “copy messengers” after girls were hired for the job. Stories were written on manual typewriters, and newspapers were printed with plates made from hot type by deaf pressroom workers who communicated by signing across the vast, thunderous space where it was impossible to be heard. I learned to type on a big manual, which since has prompted my wife and others to ask why I’m angry while I write on a computer keyboard. I’m not angry (usually) – I just pound the keys like I learned on those old typewriters (which I now collect as artifacts).
Detroit was the automobile capital of the world, and the latest models were oversized, high-powered, often two-toned, and had those pointless but sporty tail fins.
Up the revolution!
I’m in large part a product of the 1960s, when a real revolution here brought an end to the opportunistic war in Vietnam, and changed American culture in countless ways. I often wonder – with our current involvement in two opportunistic wars and the military “support” operation for the revolutionaries in Libya – where our outrage has gone to hide since the ’60s. As we export democracy, we've allowed a wholesale dismantling of ours at home, and now limp along under the withering rule of an oligarchic plutocracy. Which is to say, if you ain’t rich, you don’t count. And populism is the plaything of hustlers.
Now that this is rapidly becoming a rant, I think I’ll cut it short and return to the task at hand – our conversion from battle-weary urban veterans to peace-loving, homesteading country folk.
Besides, it appears some of you are awaiting word on Roxy. Things have progressed, depending on your point of view.

July 20, 2011

On Shuddering Squirrel Acres

It wasn’t a snap decision, but it was an easy one.
Urban blight, thick traffic on salt-pocked roads, animus, crime, and black snow. Or sunshine, woodlands, hills, mountains, serenity, and a simpler life.
Our last home in metropolitan Detroit was a cramped condo with a patch of grass in front and a view of a poorly maintained asphalt parking lot out back. We tried to grow a few plants on the tiny balcony that overlooked the lot, but there was never enough sun. The walls on either side of the condo were thick enough to dampen neighboring sounds, but the ceiling seemed as thin as cardboard.
Up there lived a man-child who kept a large farm dog. He and his malignant tweenie son made games of romping and stomping with the dog on the hardwood floors and generally making as much noise as possible because we had complained. It was just one act in their extensive repertoire. To look for more livable quarters in or around Detroit seemed a fool’s errand. As times got tougher, people turned meaner, and they were everywhere.
It took some doing, but we found a new home in the hills of Middle Tennessee about 45 miles from Nashville. The house is roomy with a large kitchen, a third bedroom that I’m refitting as a library, and a long front porch with plenty of space for an old desanctified church pew, a couple of rockers, and a red swing that I’ve nearly completed. White pickets surround the porch.
Crick in the forest primordial
It sits on more than five acres mostly covered in mature hickory and other hardwood trees, with a pretty stand of pine near the back of the woods. Down in a small “holler” that dips steeply behind our backyard is a small spring-fed “crick” that flows away into thick trees and undergrowth, steaming in summer like the forest primeval. A small stone escarpment overlooks the scene and is a good place to sit and ponder.
I ponder a lot. I’m a writer and editor with many years in newspapers and magazines, and now