I’ve been known to say, “More love is always a good thing!” I’ve been known to live that maxim, too, which is how I ended up with a husband, five children, a dog, a cat, 18 chickens, and 8 ducks. But I do have my limits, and I offer the following proof: We’re not sure about getting alpacas.
This will likely be a short column, because we are in the midst of putting in our garden.
I have a complex relationship with my garden – as, I suspect, do many. Starting around March, a feeling that has lain dormant throughout the winter begins to stir in me: panic. Suddenly, I feel the urge to start drawing up a planting schedule and ordering seeds. This feeling intensifies as the days lengthen. By the time we start planting, usually in late April, my panic has been replaced with a lingering guilt. I feel guilty if I’m not out working in the garden when the weather is fine. When the forecast calls for rain, I am almost always relieved; nobody would expect me to be out working in my garden in the rain, would they?
Yet I will tell you that I love gardening.
This year, our gardening season has overlapped almost exactly with the COVID-19 quarantine. I hear that more people are planning to put in gardens this year, driven perhaps by the desire to have a food source that doesn’t involve navigating grocery stores, or inspired by more unscheduled time at home. But I wonder how many people shared this thought along with me, as I pulled on my garden gloves and picked up my shovel: Finally! Something I can control!
One thing I’ve learned over the past few weeks is that we are able to endure a great deal more than we believe is possible. Life is not a benevolent tutor, handing down lessons one at a time in order of increasing difficulty; instead, life often feels like an opponent in a boxing match landing a punch in your ribs and then throwing a jab to your eye while you’re still catching your breath. The remarkable thing is how many of us remain in the ring. We may be hanging on the ropes, bruised and battered, but we don’t go down.
This is why, when I found the mangled carcasses of two of our chickens (the rooster in the shed, the hen on a snow drift next to the coop) after having just switched places with my husband at the bedside of our ten-week-old son (who was beginning the second week of his second stay at the University of Vermont Medical Center in less than a month) – on the same day that my husband discovered fraudulent charges on our credit card – I simply thought, “Of course: Another predator.”
This past week, as I’ve done for the past six years, I spent three straight days at Branbury Beach State Park, where I spent three hours each day teaching nature classes to children aged 5-11 as part of an annual summer camp run by our church.
On the second day of camp, my nature theme centered around blue whales, so I dug up a copy of one of our family’s favorite blue whale picture books (recommended years ago by my friend Amy, of Vermont Book Shop fame): Billy Twitters and his Blue Whale Problem, by Mac Barnett. The story centers around Billy Twitters, a boy who won’t do his chores, and who gets a whole new sense of responsibility when his parents buy him a blue whale to care for. In the end, Billy moves into his blue whale’s massive mouth, concluding: “Sometimes the only way to escape from the problems caused by your blue whale is to spend some time inside your blue whale.”
That line haunted me. After reading it aloud three times to my campers, I was certain that Mac Barnett was trying to tell me something profound, but it took me a while to pinpoint just what.
Billy Twitters moving inside his problematic blue whale reminds me of how our family has been dealing with death lately.
Please, don’t tell me that you’ve spent all day working out in the garden.
I see you, anyway: out in your yards, industriously raking leaves out of your garden beds, shoveling mulch, setting up your floating row covers.
I see you out my minivan window as I’m driving my daughters to piano, or theater, or a friend’s house, or Girls on the Run. Girls on the Run, indeed.
Those are my weekday afternoons.
And I’m not quite sure how this happened, but it appears that every single weekend between now and June is booked up with something: a Library Board retreat, a trip to see family, some sort of culturally enriching experience. Unless it’s raining; those days, I’m free.
Speaking of rain, this month seems to be taking the concept of “April showers” to an extreme. Only our ducks are happy.
Please, don’t tell me that you’ve already planted your kale.
It all started with 11 secondhand chickens that friends packed into plastic bins and drove to our house.
Those original 11 birds reproduced themselves, and the widescale slaughter we’d expected at the hands of predators or disease has yet to occur. At the moment, my family shares our property with 23 chickens and seven ducks; another three ducklings arrive later this month.
We raise poultry for a variety of reasons, including:
-Half of our daughters have a deep affection for these birds. (The other half is either ambivalent or wants nothing to do with anything poultry-related.)
-Poultry-keeping chores teach our children the value of hard work and responsibility. (That is, when they’re willing to drag themselves out of bed on cold, dark winter mornings to do their chores.)
-We haven’t had to buy eggs in two years – and we have eggs to spare. (Current tally: six dozen eggs in the refrigerator and another couple dozen in a bowl waiting for a carton to open up. I choose recipes based on how many eggs they use.)
-It seemed like a good idea at the time.
Whatever the reason, once we’d invested in the birds, coops, feed, and fencing, we felt a certain responsibility to keep them alive. Our dog did not share this sense of responsibility. Our dog wanted to do what came naturally: Snack!
One of the challenges of living with multiple species is navigating the fine line between the freedom of one species and the survival of another.
According to our family’s well-loved edition of D’Aulaires’ Book of Greek Myths, Hermes, the “merriest of the Olympians, was the god of shepherds, travelers, merchants, thieves, and all others who lived by their wits.” That’s a diverse set of patronages; the bottom line is that, although best known for zipping around in his winged shoes and winged helmet, Hermes was a bit of a trickster.
So it’s particularly appropriate that my daughters named their new kitten Hermes, since we were basically tricked into adding him to our family.
“I think those hens are about to start a #MeToo movement,” my husband said, coming in one night after tucking our chickens into their coop.
Yes, spring fever has struck our poultry. Watching the chickens and ducks act on their hormonal urges, I can almost hear the voice of Friend Owl in Bambi: “Nearly everybody gets ‘twitterpated’ in the spring!”
In that Disney-fied, animated world, being “twitterpated” involves a lot of animals fluttering their eyelashes, blushing under their fur, and slinking off into the flowers. That is not the truth; at least, not in our poultry yard.
It’s the time of year when we are all asking each other, “How was your summer?”
As the season changes, we re-emerge from the long, unscheduled days. Gone are the late, light nights and the mornings when various family members rolled downstairs to breakfast anywhere between 7 and 9 AM. Now it is dark when we sleep, and dark when we wake. Our days are snapped back into the structure of a schedule. We meet friends whom we haven’t seen for months. And, now that we’re back to “normal,” we ask them, “How was your summer?”
Our family had a wonderful summer, but it was unlike any other that preceded it. We celebrated a year in our house — a house that was the result of a dream of having more land on which to raise plants and animals. Much to my delighted surprise, this was a summer when we saw the fruition of many of our plans for our home and land.
Although there is now a sign at the top of our driveway proclaiming your arrival at “Gong Girls Farm,” I remain hesitant to use the word “farm.” We’re such novices, we have so much still to do, and we’re certainly not attempting to do this in order to make any sort of a “living.” Still, this morning when we remarked that the rain was good for the farmers, one of my daughters said, “We’re farmers!”
What follows is my visual answer to the question, “How was your summer?” It’s my attempt to explain why, although we spent an unprecedented amount of time at home, although we only took a week’s “vacation,” this was a wonderful summer — a model of what we hope our summers will all become.
First, an apology: In preparing this post, I realized that I have taken almost no “before” photos of our house and land. I meant to, I thought I had, but in the end I was just too busy with the actual doing to document! Here is a photo from the real estate listing of our house instead:
What you’re meant to notice in the above photo is the predominance of nothing: There is the house, a shed, a vast lawn, and some trees, but nothing else. No gardens, no flowering plants around the house, no animals, just…nothing. (Also, I’m not sure those clouds are real!)
Now, here are some views of that same flat expanse of lawn from this past summer:
Erick is starting to make noises about expanding the vegetable garden, and putting infrastructure in place so that we can “extend our growing season.” This makes me nervous and giddy in equal amounts.
One of my ongoing projects is to put in nice-looking flower beds along the front of the house. This is still very much a work in progress, since the house is laid out “railroad-style” (i.e. it’s very narrow and long) and there’s a LOT of front to plant!
Now, let’s move along to the animal portion of our little homestead:
Finally, we’ll walk around the poultry yard to the back yard, which is slowly becoming an orchard of sorts, with fruit trees and bushes.
No account of this summer would be complete without mention of the TREEHOUSE (which I also like to call: “The project that ate Erick’s summer!”)
The treehouse began as a dream of our daughters, and quickly became reality when my father enlisted the help of his friend (and our neighbor across the road), an octogenarian retired contractor named Ernie. Ernie drew up plans and whipped Erick and my father into shape. Almost every day this summer, from 8-11 AM, they’d be out back working on the treehouse. Often another octogenarian friend and neighbor (and former dairy farmer), Harley, would join in the fun.
Here is the finished product (minus the green and yellow stain that have now been applied to the house itself, and some ongoing plans for rope swings and bars to be installed under the deck):
It’s pretty magical up there, and I’m already looking forward to the day when the girls get bored with it and I can convert the treehouse into my writing cabin.
You may notice that Erick gets a great deal of credit for the things that we’ve accomplished this summer, and that’s well deserved. Erick has stepped up to this whole lifestyle — which began as my dream — in a way that continues to astound me. In the course of three months, he’s transformed from a suburban-raised economist who preferred hiring out for the simplest of tasks, to a confident and handy builder/mower/installer. He’s now finishing up a “chicken tractor” to enable our flock to move around freely but stay safe from predators, and just this weekend he became the proud owner of a chainsaw (which our daughters promptly christened “Daisy.”)
What can I say? This was the summer I realized that there is absolutely nothing more attractive than a man in ripped, dirty jeans, waterproof boots, and a John Deere cap who’s holding your 3-year-old on his hip and discussing building projects with your father.
Apology in advance: This is another column about poultry.
I promise that “Faith in Vermont” will not begin focusing entirely on chickens and ducks. Still, the truth is that I’m learning a great deal about life, love, death, and motherhood from the silly, smelly, feathered fowl who share our land.
In my last column, I wrote about losing two of our chickens to a fox. A couple of weeks later, in what seemed like poetic justice, one of our broody hens hatched out a new chick.