Sunday, March 28, 2010

This is Just to Say

We are having
For dinner,

Forgive me
They were so vibrant
In the winter

C. Ellis, with thanks to William Carlos Williams

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

George the Ancient Chicken

George is laying eggs. She is nine years old—an ancient hen. I had my suspicions a week or so ago when I let them out of the coop and she went into halt-and-hover mode, spreading her wings for her chicks to hide under (never mind that there has never been a chick hatched from her eggs). It was confirmed on Monday when I was working in the yard. I did a quick head count and George was missing. When I checked the nest box, there she was, glaring at me like I had just opened the outhouse door on her. “Can’t you see I’m busy,” she said.

George is a notoriously slow layer. She likes to sit on nest for two or three hours, contemplating the meaning of her eggs before she actually lays them. This was not a problem when we only had two chickens. Myrtle would wait. Sometimes she would stand on the perch and holler loudly, playing Labor Coach, but there was space and time for both in the Preferred Nesting Area. Now we have five chickens and there can be a bit of a back-up in the coop. On Monday, three chickens were pacing around near the coop, squawking away like small children who have to pee, waiting for George. One stood on the perch and yelled loudly. Another gave up and dug a temporary nest in the corner of the coop. An hour later, George leapt down from the nest and announced her feat to the world. “I am STILL Boss Chicken around here,” she proclaimed to the entire neighborhood. I gathered five eggs that day.

According to all of the hippie chicken books I’ve collected, hens stop laying after three or four years. That is why we took in Gracie, the Houdini of chickens. Rachel had to give her away because she kept escaping into the neighbor’s yard—a fact she neglected to mention as she praised the laying qualities of Red Star chickens. George and Myrtle were growing older and I wanted eggs. When Myrtle died two winters later, we acquired Herma. “Three is enough,” Mark said, when I talked about raising chicks, a year ago.(I had gotten hold of a chicken catalog…) “But George is old,” I reasoned. “She’s going to die soon. I’ll get one chick.” “You can’t get one chick. What if the cats ate it?” Mark replied, leaving open the gate to raise two. So here we are. Five chickens. Both peeps lived; they never even glimpsed a cat’s tooth. George is still alive and laying. Even Gracie, who turned rooster-y last summer when the peeps threatened her position, is laying again. Five chickens= five eggs in the springtime. I think I’ll be leaving free eggs on my neighbor’s doorsteps soon….

Saturday, March 13, 2010

Chickens and the War

We’ve had our chickens for eight years and George is still around. George is a hen, named after the man who planted our fig tree—she is the first and only Boss Chicken. She came with three of her sisters, two of whom we moved to a friend’s coop, in October 2002. Her companion, Myrtle, died several years ago, taken out by a raccoon when she was too old to fly up onto the perch at night. George, however, is hanging in there. She hobbles and hops around and takes sun naps in the afternoon, but she has prime perch spots, unquestioned authority, and lays the occasional egg in the summer. A fine old hen. We’ve had her about as long as the country has been at war with Iraq and I’d like them to go out together.

Mark and I had been pretty active in the anti-war protests that winter. We went to Portland one Sunday to take part in the largest world-wide protest against the war. The march wound through downtown chanting “This is What Democracy Looks Like” And “No War.” People beat on drums and sang. One guy walked the route naked and painted (it was pretty chilly, too). We were quiet; I carried my “Think” sign over my shoulder. We stood in front of the courthouse regularly; I went down one night when the group was holding an all-night vigil for several hours and returned for an hour before school. Beth and I took a personal day on March Fifth, when students all over the country went to “Books Not Bombs” rallies. CHS was well represented that day at OSU—about a third of the students did not go to classes, but showed up at the rally, at least for an hour or so. We had hopes that enough people would come to their senses in time to stop the war.

The night war was declared, Mark and I walked the carpet. We have a braided rug in the living room and, when stressed, we walk along the edge. There was something calming about walking in a focused circle, listening to the news night after night. It functioned as a labyrinth of sorts, keeping us grounded. The president sounded so smug and confident when he declared war, announcing that planes were flying over Bagdad as he spoke. “Shock and Awe has begun!” like it was fireworks over the city, not bombs killing civilians and frightening small children in their sleep. I paced while Mark washed dishes.

Later, I slipped outside to check on the chickens. I unlatched the door to the roost and reached inside, patting both of the ladies in their sleep. Chickens are soft and warm at night, their feathers sleek against their sides. They woke slightly, murmured their disgruntlement, and settled more firmly on the perch. “Let us be, we’re tired,” they said. I relatched the coop, checked the gate to the outside and their food, and went back in. “Chickens are safe,” I told Mark, wishing that the rest of the world was.

Sunday, March 7, 2010

Chicken Coops!

Mark and I went on the “Coops Circling Corvallis” tour this afternoon—eight different chicken coops, one at the top of every hill that rims the town. Our coop was on the tour last year, so this was our first chance to peer into other people’s backyard structures. We saw an amazing Tom Turkey strutting around, striving to impress the ladies—fowl and otherwise—in the yard, a pristine coop with photographs of each chicken laminated of slices on pine, with the name underneath (shades of 1975…), and a very sweet dog who did not understand why she was not the focus of the tour. We did not see a coop that was integrated into the gardens and yard so that an entire section of the lawn was not torn up by endless rooting for grubs. It’s not easy. Chickens like to dig, and they really like to dig in soft garden beds and the leaf litter that builds up under trees and bushes. But you don’t have to give over a third of your yard to them.

We have a “Chicken Tractor” in the backyard. It’s not our idea; there’s a book called The Chicken Tractor that the co-op used to have in its lending library which I read three times before we acquired a chicken. The basic idea is, the coop moves easily. Our coop is sized to fit on the top of our raised beds, which are four feet across and ten feet long. The coop is four by five. It’s an A Frame design from Mother Earth News with a roosting and laying spot up high, an outside door that allows you to reach in for the eggs and shove the poopy bedstraw down, and two side doors to let the chickens out. In late September, when the Spring Bed is finally empty because aphids have taken over the old kale, we pile leaves on the entire bed and hoist the coop up. The chickens then go to work doing what they love, first eating the aphidy kale, then thrusting their pre-historic claws down into the leaves, shredding them and mixing the soil beneath in, increasing organic matter in the bed. They also drop some lovely fertilizer into the mix during the month or so that they live on that bed. Over the course of the winter, they rotate through every vegetable bed, destroying slug eggs, mixing up organic matter and soil, and fertilizing. In the summer, they live under the hazelnut tree and have the run of the back third of the yard. I used to let them run through the entire back yard, but the combination of bare feet and chicken droppings was not a good one. And then Myrtle decided to join us for dinner a few times, jumping up on the table. It was a bit too much of a good thing.

I love our chicken tractor. It’s the second one we have built. The first was a huge heavy box that was unbelievably awkward to move and way over built. Mark was worried that it would fall apart when we moved it….we nearly fell apart ourselves a time or two during relocations. This one is light and flexible and much easier to negotiate. It’s not totally perfect—we would like an attached run that covered the entire bed, rather than the system of rigging chicken wire and rebar that we have right now—but it does the job. And I saw a pretty clever frame made from PVC pipe today that just might work as an extra run…

Monday, March 1, 2010


It is bloomtime in Corvallis—the two edible white plums, the pink wild plum, all of the daffodils, and the Daphne are all their full glory right now. And, as it was clear this weekend, they were stunning against the spring sky.

If you don’t know, Daphne is a unobtrusive little shrub for eleven months of the year. Back when I lived in Portland, Mark and I walked through my totally uncool, highly diverse, working class neighborhood of Northeast Portland on Sunday afternoons. One February afternoon, we kept smelling this incredible clean, sweet, fresh, spring-y flower, but we couldn’t figure out where it was coming from. We’d walk by an old porch with a few battered foundation plants, smell it, look around, and see nothing that could be, in our minds, the source of that smell. It took us at least five houses before I spotted it. Scrubby, tough looking, in the rhododendron family, and small, but covered in white tubular flowers with pink edges. I walked up to the front porch to confirm my suspicions. That little shrub perfumed the entire neighborhood. We were amazed. As soon as we bought our house, I bought a daphne for myself and planted it under the bedroom window, dreaming of smelling it in the evening through the open windows in early February. I didn’t know then that the windows swelled shut every winter from rain and wouldn’t open until early May…but I take trimmings from it into the house every week, and I can smell the flowers throughout the back yard, especially in the evenings when I brush against them on the way to the water spigot. It is the beginning of spring.