And Then There Were Three

Of course, I only wanted three hens when I first began making plans for keeping chickens at Acorn Lodge, so perhaps this is merely a case of “Be careful what you wish for” come to fruition . . . but still, the further thinning of our small flock has taken some time to come to terms with. Sadie, the Welsummer, is gone. Her departure from our chicken run was ultimately compelled by the need we felt to care for ourselves: we needed to protect our own well-being in order that we might continue to care for our girls in the manner we see fit. And yet, the decision to cull Sadie from the flock was a difficult one.

Dolly, Dottie, and Biddy all began laying eggs back in September within a few weeks of each other, more or less according to expectations — most hens begin laying at around 6 months old. Right about the same time, two things happened: Sadie fell to the bottom of the pecking order (yes, it’s a real thing!), and she began to behave aggressively towards me when I would enter the run. She would run at me and peck at whichever appendage was closer, leg or arm, hard enough to draw blood. I began to armor myself in black rubber boots and long sleeves before entering the run, but also did some research to try to figure out how to deal with an aggressive hen.

The first piece of advice I happened upon suggested picking up the offender immediately upon entering the run each time, keeping a hold of her firmly while completing any chores or spending time with the flock. Sadie didn’t mind being held and I would carry her along with me into the Barn to fetch grit, oyster shell, or treats –which I hoped might also serve to endear her to the others if they associated her with the delivery of such. For a few weeks it seemed this might be the solution to keeping myself safe from her strong beak, but then one day as we sat together on the log in the run, she suddenly craned her neck and pecked my cheek, about an inch-and-a-half below my left eye. Shaken and bleeding, I retreated from the run looking for another approach.

The only other piece of advice I could conjure that seemed sound involved utilizing distraction: throwing treats into an area of the run away from where I needed to be might buy me enough time to complete any necessary chores without drawing Sadie’s attention. This worked pretty well if I needed to enter the run during the day, and I decided at the same time that I could choose not to let the girls out of the hen house in the morning until their food and fresh water were already in place, meaning I could then open the door of the house, set the ramp for them, and high-tail it out of the run before Sadie had a chance to go after me. But neither of these strategies allowed for me to simply sit with the girls, enjoying their company, as I had done in the past. I missed spending time with the flock, but remained hopeful that once Sadie started laying she’d settle down and we’d be able to get back to my visiting the run on a social call.

And then, one day in November, my husband went out to the run to offer the hens some oats, their favorite treat: we’ve hand-fed them oats almost daily since they were about a week old, and visitors to Acorn Lodge have often participated in the late-in-the-day ritual. On this particular day, as he squatted down at the door of the run to proffer the treat, Sadie sailed at him and pecked just to the outside of his left eye. Almost as soon as he’d left the kitchen to visit the hens he returned to me, shaken and bleeding (sound familiar?), the white of his eye rapidly becoming suffused with blood as well. As we rushed off to the doctor to have his eye checked — thankfully there was no damage — we kept thinking, “What if it had been a visitor, a friend, that she had done this to?”

Sadie still wasn’t laying nor was her plumage becoming more hen-like: layers sport fluffy bottoms and an overall silhouette that suggests nothing so much as a 1950’s debutante in a short ball gown. Her tail feathers weren’t exactly rooster-like either, but her aggressive behavior, which had come to include chest-bumping, combined with her failure to lay, suggested that perhaps she wasn’t ever going to develop fully into a hen — and certainly she wasn’t showing any signs of settling down into our little flock. We, quite literally, have the scars that prove that. Certainly we undertake an obligation of care and nurturance for the animals we adopt into our lives, but of course, we are obligated to all of those animals and we have a duty to care for and protect ourselves so that we are able to provide that nurturance. And so, the next morning, I delivered Sadie to the farm center that had taken Lollie/Lalo in last summer.

The first thing I did when I returned home was visit the chicken run: I sat with the girls for the first time in months, and now it’s back to being a regular habit. Biddy likes to roost on my shoulder, while Dolly and Dottie prefer nestling into my lap as we enjoy each others’ company. We coo back and forth while I stroke their soft feathers, and I am suffused with a feeling of well-being. I feel the chicken run is a safe place once again for all comers, and I’m thrilled that I’m able to nurture the girls fully, without constraint. The decision to remove Sadie from the flock was not an easy one, but I’m at peace with it: I tried — and failed — to find a way to keep her, but the demands of the greater good of the flock and its keepers prevailed.

“Happiness can exist only in acceptance.”

— George Orwell

And So It Goes

Last night, in anticipation of a warm day today, we opened up the house before we went to bed to allow the cool air in while we slept. Upon arising this morning, we were making the rounds to get all the windows closed up and just as we entered the kitchen, which is in the corner of the house nearest the chicken coop, we were surprised by the sound of a rooster crowing. Stepping quickly out of the house, I caught sight of the chicken we have known and loved as Lollie standing proudly on a log in the coop opening up to another full-throated “Cock-a-doodle-do” and revealing himself to be Lalo. And just like that, the story of raising 5 hens changed.

We like to think we’re the author of our own stories, and for the most part, I am privileged to be able to believe that I am, that I have control over how the story goes. I was deliberate in the breeds I chose, I purchased the chicks from a reputable breeder, I made considered decisions as to how to feed and care for my new charges, and further carefully planned how best to house them over the long term. I was writing this story of our sweet little flock of hens — or so it seemed.

Sometimes, a story writes itself. Lollie was so much bigger than the others (we had affectionately dubbed ‘her’ The Beast); while the others are happy to be stroked and held, Lollie always shied away from any contact initiated by us but instead would peck (hard) at our clothing and skin (as if to intimidate); and in the past week it had become harder to ignore the beautiful plumage that was looking more and more like a rooster. Try as they do to correctly determine the sex of chicks before shipping them off, the breeders acknowledge there will be mistakes: Lollie’s story was always different than the story that I had imagined (and kept trying to believe) — in fact it is Lalo’s story and it is not mine to tell. Within an hour of this morning’s revelation, I delivered Lalo to a local farm center so that a new home for him can be found.

Recently we visited a brewpub where our waitress was generously tattooed. In particular, I noticed two tats in elaborate script that were symmetrically arranged and I asked her about them. One suggested, “Everything is a story.” The other claimed, “Stories are everything.” As we sit with our sadness today after losing our Lollie, the stories ARE everything and we are grateful that, for a time, our stories were intertwined. Truly we are only authors of our own responses to whatever comes next, whether it be anticipated delight or unexpected bummer, THAT is what we can control as the stories unfold. ‘Flock of five hens’ becomes ‘flock of four hens and one rooster’ becomes ‘flock of four hens’ — the story changes and we move through our disappointment to embrace the new normal with grace because we can. And so it goes.

The Birds and the Bees

Lately the population at Acorn Lodge has swelled in number by an additional 30,005, or so — not by any accident of ‘the birds and the bees,’ but rather because we’re finally acting on our plans to keep chickens and honeybees here. Over the last year or two we’ve done the reading and obtained (and built) the requisite equipment: the proper tools will support our endeavors best, and our setting, home to all manner of predators who would relish a chicken dinner, added another layer of consideration to our preparations on that front. And then, a few months back, we eagerly placed our orders to reserve the breeds our research suggested would be the best fit for us (we wanted local bees; hens that are docile, and lay a mixture of egg colors, among other features). Careful ‘family planning’ is a cornerstone of well-managed domestic bliss, yes? Finally, with April and May cleared on the calendar so that we could be dedicated ‘Mama’ and ‘Papa’ for the newly adopted, we felt ready!

Well, the chicks arrived, more or less according to plan, via the US Mail. Shipped on a Monday for overnight delivery, I didn’t actually get the call to collect the peeping box until 6:38 a.m. Wednesday morning, but once the hatchlings were nestled into their brooder box, encouraged to drink water, and had discovered their feed they were happy to settle in and are growing so quickly I feel I can almost see it happening. We have five different breeds: a Dominique (Dolly), a Silver-Laced Wyandotte (Dottie), a Buff Orpington (Biddy), a Welsummer (Sadie), and an Easter Egger (Lollie). They are darling to watch and interact with (they will eat from my hand now, and Lollie will hop onto my outstretched palm to do so!) but the real story here is the chronicle of the bees’ arrivals.

The rocky knoll that sits on one side of our driveway appears to be a sweet spot for swarms — this is the third spring in a row that we’ve been graced by said. An enormous swarm, the size of two footballs, gathered on April 1 in the easy-to-reach-into young hawthorn tree that I planted on the knoll last spring, and with the help of some local beekeepers the swarm was easily contained in a temporary box. Thrilled to have secured local, feral bees for my hive, I called to cancel the package of bees I had ordered for pick-up later in the month. Early the next morning I transferred the swarm to the hive I had ready for them, and for seven sweet hours the colony appeared to be setting up housekeeping in their new quarters. But alas, they swarmed again (absconded) — leaving me as forlorn as a spurned lover, the joy of the previous day dashed to pieces by their abandonment of the hive. The following day, I reinstated my bee package order.

Several days later I spotted another swarm in the same area, but this swarm (the same bees?) was 30′ up in the towering fir trees, too difficult to try to capture. Then on April 13th, a third swarm gathered, this time back in the hawthorn tree. This swarm was more an average size and I decided to capture it myself, transferring the bees directly into my hive from the tree. I did not cancel my bee package order this time around — once burned, twice shy — but instead ordered another hive set-up in case I needed it. Two weeks on, the feral colony looks to be staying put and I’ve since picked up my package of bees, so I’ve now got two hives going: the bees have arrived, and how!

We didn’t plan to start beekeeping with two hives, but neither did we plan to start our lives as parents with two children — and we did. Our first pregnancy, many years ago, was greeted with the same kind of joy I felt on capturing that first swarm of bees: we were ready to have children, and rushed right out to buy a crib, thrilled to anticipate the baby’s arrival. But that first combination of our DNA was not a successful one, the miscarriage being just as devastating as having that swarm abscond. That baby was not meant to be, any more than that first swarm was meant to be ours. Then life unfolds, nature takes her course, bringing us first our twin sons and then our daughter, and honestly, I can’t imagine — wouldn’t want — any children other than those that are ours. I have no regrets for what might have been, only gratitude for what IS.

Here and now, with the tenure of the birds and the bees established at Acorn Lodge, the stewardship of coop and hives is my welcome responsibility, my opportunity to extend myself in the care and feeding of others, my privilege to observe and appreciate.

Make the most of what comes and the least of what goes.

The chicks enjoying their favorite treat of fresh chopped herbs from the garden

The Care and Feeding of Others

Today I pulled the final bit of pumpkin from last summer’s garden out of the freezer in order to bake up a batch of biscuits for our dogs, one of a couple of tasks I have set for myself this afternoon. I’ll also spend some time in the garden (starting the seeds for this year’s pumpkins in fact!) and continue with some reading on the subjects of chickens and bees (more on that soon). I can’t claim to be accomplishing anything of great importance these days as I putter about, but I am nonetheless deeply satisfied by day’s end — and that, I’ve decided, is accomplishment enough.

The thread that seems to run through my activities on a given day seems to be tied to my urge to nurture: the organizing principle behind my efforts is the value I place on the care and feeding of others. I feel it as a driving force, and one that I’ve recently come to acknowledge as THE motivation for rousting myself from my cosy bed each morning. By extension then, almost paradoxically, the care and feeding of others is, for me, a completely selfish act (perhaps my mother was right after all!): acting on my desire to nurture others is the very best way I have to nurture myself.

I’m happy to bake biscuits from scratch for the dogs, willing to spend the time it takes to water the garden by hand, delighted to tidy up and refresh the cottage ahead of the arrival of guests. I actually don’t mind even the routine maintenance tasks of house and garden — planning and executing meals, weeding and pruning, neatening and cleaning inside and out to ensure an easy comfort. Each of these activities affords me the blissful solitude I crave as a confirmed introvert and ensures the payoff of eventual company (which even an introvert needs from time to time!). Pets and garden, friends and family actually do me a favor by asking of my time and energy because there is no other way I’d rather be spending my days: the care and feeding of others is my true religion.

My darling daughter found this recipe online and I have no idea whom to credit — but our dogs will do anything for these biscuits!

Dog Biscuits
⅔ cup pumpkin purée, canned or fresh
2 large eggs
3 tbs. peanut butter (I use one with no added salt or sugar)
2½ cups whole wheat flour
Preheat the oven to 350°F. Place all ingredients in the mixing bowl of a stand mixer fitted with a paddle attachment. Mix on medium for about a minute to obtain a stiff dough. Gather up half of the dough and roll out to ¼” thickness. You can either use a cookie cutter to cut out shapes or use a knife to cut squares or strips. Repeat with the other half of the dough, then gather the scraps together and reroll to cut more until all the dough is used. Place the biscuits on a baking sheet and bake for 20-25 minutes until browned and crisp. Let cool completely before storing in an airtight container.

“There are random moments — tossing a salad, coming up the driveway to the house, ironing the seams flat on a quilt square, standing at the kitchen window and looking out at the delphiniums, hearing a burst of laughter from one of my children’s rooms — when I feel a wavelike rush of joy. This is my true religion: arbitrary moments of nearly painful happiness for a life I feel privileged to lead. Think of the way you sometimes see a tiny shaft of sunlight burst through a gap between rocks, the way it then expands to illuminate a much large space — it’s like that. And it’s like quilting, a thread surfacing and then disappearing into the fabric of ordinary days. It’s not always visible, but it’s what holds everything together.”

— Elizabeth Berg

Hello, Peter!

Hello, Peter!

The very first day I spent some time on my own up at the property I had a visitor. A cheeky brown bunny kept a wary eye on me as I moved about quietly, hoicking out poison oak. I must have looked quite the sight, wearing my bright pink dishwashing gloves, but he didn’t really seem to mind my presence. As he lippety-lopped back and forth to check in on my progress, I couldn’t help but think, “Hello, Peter!” As if I needed any confirmation that this piece of property, after all of our searching, was ‘the one,’ Peter’s appearance sealed the deal, like a thumbs-up from Miss Potter herself.

One of the highlights of our recent trip to England was the opportunity to spend a morning at Hill Top, the inspiration for much of what we endeavor to create as we develop Acorn Lodge. The visit to Hill Top was my husband’s first, and he was just as gratifyingly impressed with the warmth of that dear house as I continue to be. Now, thanks to the wonders of the worldwide web, you may wander through the the garden and cottage too, by clicking on the link below. Enjoy the birdsong!

One of the very few disappointments of our trip was the fact that, try as I might, I didn’t spot Squirrel Nutkin as we traversed the countryside. The list of wildlife sightings was otherwise rather well filled out — bunny, heron, dipper, grouse, buzzard, vole, hedgehog — but no red squirrel. At Acorn Lodge we’ve sighted, besides Peter Rabbit, deer, turkeys, acorn woodpeckers, and scrub jays just in the brief visits we’ve made over the months since we acquired the property. Yet to be spotted are the quail that are known to live in the area, or any other number of beasts we’ve been led to expect to find by a book called Secrets of the Oak Woodlands.

Beatrix Potter was an ardent conservationist dedicated to preserving the Lake District, where she had come to live and love in her adult years. She championed the land and its animals (both wild and domestic) in her lifetime, and in her will, she left well over 4,000 acres to the National Trust, ensuring that much of this beautiful terrain will be protected in perpetuity. We feel ourselves both inspired and privileged to act as the stewards of our new property, cautious to minimize our domestic overlay and committed to protecting and enhancing the natural beauty of our own little bit of oak woodland. While Peter won’t be any more welcome in my kitchen garden than he was in Mr. McGregor’s garden, I hope to catch sight of him from time to time, lippety-lopping atop the rocky knoll behind the house, still feeling safe enough in my presence to feel at home.

“Nature is not a place to visit. It is home.”

— Gary Snyder

Spring Rabbits