Wednesday, April 25, 2012

George the Boss Chicken

George The Chicken passed away last week. She was our best chicken, our boss chicken, our first chicken.

We began keeping chickens in the fall of 2002. We bought four from a man who was reducing his flock—two for us and two for friends who were also moving into an urban flock. (We had heard that chickens kill pillbugs….). George was clearly the boss. The biggest, the loudest, the first to do everything. She was beautiful, too, a pattern of black and white feathers with a proud red comb again the green winter grass. We built a coop, balanced it on the garden beds, and checked on them every night before bed. I remember slipping out the night we began bombing Iraq—Shock and Awe—and feeling her soft warm feathered body snuggled into the straw. She burked quietly at the touch and settled back down—unlike those thousands of human beings being bombed across the world.

George had a good life. She never stopped being the boss, despite a steady flow of new coopmates. She controlled the compost heap, the perch, the dust bath. Even as she grew old and hobbled around on arthritic feet, she was still the boss. Younger, bigger chickens might think they were in control, but, when she hopped over, they all ceded the Chicken Treat to her. She spent hours sunbathing, eating overgrown kale plants, talking to us about bugs and how we were digging up a garden bed. She even laid eggs early last summer. Eggs, at ten years old!

This winter, she has been showing her age. Rather than coming out of the coop, she nodded off in a sunny corner. She perched quietly in a flower bed, watching the world go by and napping. Her feathers were not coming in after her molt; her comb was battered. But, she still hopped over for a treat and maintained a running commentary on backyard life.

When I came home yesterday to chicken carnage, she was tucked into a corner of the fence and looking stunned. I picked her up and moved her into the coop, where she could eat a bit. She was not stable on her feet, but she had things to say. I buried Gertrude and Agnes and then came over to check on her again. She was wounded and shaken. We sat together on a bench in the sunshine for half an hour; she nodded off while I held her gently. When I stood up, she hopped down and followed me over to the Chicken Treat, so I brought her inside for the evening. Maybe, I thought, the tough old bird wasn’t dead yet.

In the morning, she was still alive. I promised her an outing this evening and left for school. When I came home, she was gone. Her head was down, her wings gently spread, her final nap over. We’ll buried her in a garden bed, with a headstone.

George, the Boss Chicken. 2001-2012.

Sunday, April 15, 2012

Potato Planting

The moon is waning and there has been no rain for three days, so it is time to plant the root crops. On Friday, I turned over one bed and planted the Ruby Crescents and Yukon Golds, but the other bed, which is right next to the neighbor’s downspout, was still too wet, so I waited until today to plant the blue and red potatoes. It’s a lovely task: cut the sprouting taters, dig trenches, push them in, and cover them over. Easy. Unlike seeds, you always know where you left off. This is the first year that we are growing the entire crop in our back yard. For several years, we raised them in the community garden, and, when that became problematic, we moved into the backyard of our rental down the street. However, it was clear to me that all crops need to be looked after closely, so the entire operation is now in the back yard. I have high hopes for a bumper crop, come August.

In between potato plantings, I also put in the other root crops: carrots, parsnips, and beets. I made some signs, trimmed the grass around the beds, and mowed the garden. There are still tufts of grass that the push mower didn’t catch, but the whole back yard looks tended and lovely. The bees are out, the chickens commenting on my every move, the cats lounging on the sunny benches, and I have a small callus forming from the hand trimmers. The back neighbors are all watching the progress avidly. The space is alive once again.

Sunday, April 1, 2012

Al and the onions

My neighbor Al and his big black dog Sweetie showed up on my doorstep a few days ago.
“Hey,” he shouted (Al always shouts. You can hear him greeting a passerby a block away.) “Thanks for the bread! It was great.”
“Anytime—the wheelbarrow was really helpful.”
“I’ve brought these over for you.” He waved some greenish stalks that looked like straw. “Walla Wallas. Thought you might have some room for ‘em.”
“Cool. I’ll find a home for them.” I patted Sweetie, a well-named dog if there ever was one.
He nodded and tugged on Sweetie’s leash. A few moments later, I spotted him hauling a table out of the dumpster across the way and checking it for stability. It passed inspection; he hoisted it up on his shoulder and took it home, where it would wait until next week, when he went into work at Habitat. I went out back and tucked the onions into one of the new beds, right before the next deluge.

Two days later, I was sprawled on the floor, touching up some trim paint, under Lucy the Cat’s watchful eye. I never did this for a rental, I thought. I just moved when the back corners were grubby, about once every two years. My life changed and so did my address. It was good. But now, I live here, and I’m not moving, so I’m painting. It’s pale purple paint, under a sage green wall and butter yellow ceiling—a radical shift from the cheap white paint the pervious owners sprayed one weekend before they sold the house. We paint colors we love—we make changes to the yard and structure to make living here more pleasant for us. We don’t plan on selling our home—and neither does Al, who’s is quite stubborn about not letting the Lutherans, who own the other houses on his block, buy his place and turn it into a church parking lot.

And maybe this is what we all need to do—inhabit our spaces like we are going to spend our lives here, because, the truth is, we are. We need to paint for ourselves, not for the next buyers. Build shelves to hold our books and canned goods. Put in a fruit tree that we love and harvest the apples six years later. And get to know our neighbors, send bread and eggs, onions and tomatoes, information about city council meetings and new senior rescue dogs up and down the street. This is my home, and it very clear to me on rainy March afternoons.