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.
When the first chicken disappeared, it wasn’t a big deal.
She’d been one of eleven chickens – ten hens and a rooster – of indeterminate age, passed on to us by friends. We’d always considered this our “starter flock,” and planned to add fresh chicks in the spring.
We live in a predator-rich area, so every night we lock our chickens into a sturdy coop behind an electrified wire fence. But because we held these chickens loosely, and because it seemed to go against their nature and purpose to keep them confined to a 400-square-foot yard, we let them free range during the daylight hours.
This system worked beautifully for about two months, until the night I counted the chickens that’d come home to roost and came up one short.
She was a black bantam hen, one of three black bantys who scuttled nervously around Elvis the rooster all day long, like a jittery teenage fan club. After she’d been gone for two days, we declared her “missing, presumed dead.” My daughters were a little wistful, but not for long. Nobody had been particularly attached to this hen, whose personality was all humble subservience to her mate. We’d never even given her a name; in order to have something to write on her rock-tombstone in our animal cemetery (which joined the memorials of three deceased tadpoles), my daughters named her “Dianne” posthumously.
Because we’d never found a body – not even a feather – Dianne’s disappearance was shrouded in mystery. Lack of a body indicated that a hawk or a fox was the likely predator. We kept our eyes open, kept the chickens confined to their run for a couple of days, and then assumed that the threat had passed. Some days, we even joked that Dianne had gotten sick of following Elvis around and faked her own death; she was probably living a life of adventure in the treetops, or lounging on Palm Beach.
Our family just returned from our annual vacation in Ogunquit, on the southern coast of Maine. Ever since 2007, when I was pregnant with our first child and living in California, my mother’s side of the family – which includes my aunt, two cousins and their husbands, and a growing number of second cousins — has converged upon Ogunquit for a week of beaches, lobster, and family fun. Other family members who live nearby drop in for a day, and we visit my father’s side of the family in New Hampshire on our way home.
My husband and I have missed only three Maine vacations over the past decade: two because we had newborn babies, and one because we had just moved to Vermont (that year, the entire family renounced Maine and came to visit us!) This tradition is so ingrained in the pattern of our daughters’ lives that they think of it much the same way that they think about their birthdays, or Halloween, or Christmas: as something to be planned for and looked forward to all year long.
This year’s week in Maine was much the same as it always is: We walked across the footbridge to get candy in Perkins Cove, jumped waves and built sandcastles on Little Beach, climbed the rocks by Nubble Light after eating mammoth ice cream cones from Dunne’s, held “Family Olympics” and a play produced by the youngest family members, and stayed in the same house where we’ve set up camp for five years.
But tradition can’t stop the march of time, so our Maine vacation this year was also unique. Ogunquit 2017 was marked by the same unseasonal rain and chilly weather that we’ve experienced in Vermont: We had only three good beach days of the seven we spent in Maine, so we spent more time that usual in shops and museums. Because our children are growing up, some were less enthusiastic about dressing up as pirates for this year’s play, but I was able to have more uninterrupted conversations with other grown-ups than I can recall during any previous summer. And our annual lobster dinner was marred somewhat when our second child, a budding vegetarian, realized that her father was about to kill four lobsters on her watch, and all but chained herself to the refrigerator in protest.
Then there was this: As my husband and I walked along the Marginal Way, a gorgeous path winding along the cliff-tops above the crashing ocean waves, he turned to me and said, “You know, I feel like three days of vacation is just about enough for me at this point in life.”