September 2, 2011

Barnyard Sex and Violence

There’s a power struggle over violent sex at Shuddering Squirrel Aces.
I knew it might be coming, but had hoped things would work out. Chickens are chickens, however, and tend to act in predictable patterns.
Larry, looking for some
Although we haven’t yet collected our first egg, Larry the rooster is tapping all the hens, repeatedly gettin’ his freak on, while Chaz the outcast rooster has to have secret trysts.
The problem is that Chaz and Billie, our two black chicks, not only spent most of their time together while they grew, but Chaz had already claimed Billie as his own before we knew he was a rooster. This is not acceptable to Larry, who has always dominated the flock, and cast Chaz out of the chicken house. He now tends to spend the nights on top of it, a pariah. We provide his own water bowl under the deck because he’s not permitted to share the communal fountain inside the run.
All of this caused a problem for Billie. She’s sweet natured and stands on my foot while eating cracked corn out of my hand. She prefers running to walking, lowering her head, half spreading her wings, and charging from point A to point B in a frenetic, comic gait. In the last couple of weeks she’s shown a tough streak, standing up to harassment and staring it down – most of the time.
Billie, an eye on her back
A few days ago we heard a blood-curdling shriek and ruckus down among the garden beds and saw Larry facing Billie with his beak locked on the nape of her neck, twisting it awkwardly. She struggled and squawked and kicked, but Larry succeeded in turning, throwing one spurred leg over Billie’s back like a mounting broncobuster, forcing her tail into the air and having his way with her. That was over in about two seconds. Then both went back to what they’d been doing. Larry conquered Chaz’s only hen and now the flock is his. I have, however, seen Chaz try to mount Billie several times when she wanders away from Larry. He’s succeeded at least once, despite her furious resistance. She belongs to Larry now, submits without complaint, and clearly doesn’t want any more trouble.
I’ve read that roosters start mating about the same time hens start laying, but we’re still waiting.
Chaz, the cuckold
Meantime, Chaz and Our Trusty Dog Pete, the world’s friendliest German shepherd, have become pretty close companions. Pete is neutered and Chaz is a shunned cuckold. Their pairing reminds me of longtime drinking buddies with elbows on the bar, commiserating over the mysteries and cruelties of sex.
Too much anthropomorphizing? No doubt. But our animals commonly play out their stories in humanlike ways. Still, we study up on their natural behavior and understand more as each day passes. Otherwise, the drama would be hard to bear.

August 30, 2011

Eve in the garden

Even with a repeat of near drought conditions this summer, my own Eve has coaxed more out of our gardens than last season. She has the touch.
Vicki's pea patch
One of my great pleasures on Shuddering Squirrel Acres is to look out and see Vicki babying our crops, to see her ash-gold hair tousled and glimmering among the tops of staked cukes and beans and tomatillos and sweet peas, to admire her lovely and graceful form, to see her deftly manipulating plants as though born to the garden. A bit of copper dust here to fight fungus and blight, some Epsom salts there to encourage healthy tomatoes (sadly a losing cause this season), gently nestling seeds into peat pots inside the greenhouse – her botanical “nervous hospital" – for late season crops, tucking worm castings into the potting soil around a collection of experimental container plantings on our deck.
Vicki’s grandmother was an Englishwoman who found herself married to an American farmer and leading the life of a farm wife. As though to defy the hot, hardscrabble work, she always wore heels and a dress, even while working outside. She taught her granddaughter more about husbanding plants than Vicki realized, until we found our own place in the sun where she could exercise those long unused skills.
I have a spotty history of growing, or attempting to grow, vegetables and other edibles. Until now, all my life has been spent living in the city in small places on small lots with small dirt patches that were hardly ideal for gardening. Maybe I’d get a handful of bush beans, a tomato or two, a few herbs, some chile peppers.
Swan gourd
Now our division of labor has me preparing the soil with various enrichments, especially two-year composted horse manure bought on the cheap from a nearby mom-and-pop nursery situated beside a horse farm, some bone meal, mulched leaves and chopped straw. Vicki does the planting and growing, although I managed to get a few pounds of potatoes – Yukon gold, purple Peruvian, fingerlings, russet – out of one of our garden boxes, and plenty of chiles, which love this arid, stifling heat.
I also dug a new garden patch this year, removing the densely rocky soil with my backhoe, and filling it with the good, black, composted manure. Initially it was to be a nursery where I’d plant reedy tree saplings ordered from the Arbor Day Foundation big enough to transplant around our wooded property. But I waited too long to get them in the ground, and only a single sugar maple has survived.
Pie pumpkins
I also planted the same patch with a few pie pumpkin plants and some ornamental gourds, and they have flourished with almost no care. The plants are free of the myriad pests that hector our other gardens, the vines have overgrown their boundaries and now snake outward in all directions, and I already have a big batch of pumpkin puree in the freezer. The gourds aren’t doing quite as well, but we’ll get a few for crafts.
Cuban black chiles
Yesterday I made my first batch of hot sauce from a combination of takanotsume (“Hawk’s talons”) chiles, green and red serranos, and Cuban black chiles, which ripen to a deep red. These were crushed and mixed with garlic, onions, cider vinegar, water, honey, salt, pepper and thyme, simmered together for a while, then pureed and strained. The resulting orange sauce is fiery with enough sweetness for temper, and is now aging for a couple of weeks in the fridge before bottling.
Takanotsume chile peppers
I also enjoy canning, and have put up a few jars of bread-and-butter pickles, clementine marmalade, and spring strawberry sauce from juicy, sugary Tennessee strawberries grown about 30 miles from here.
The season is winding down, but Vicki is already working on extending it with plantings of fall vegetables and some hothouse projects. We don’t yet reap all that we sow, but we’re getting the hang of this new climate and the bugs that are without question the most populous things on our farm. This year, as I said, was better than last.
Wait 'til next year.