Monday, June 8, 2009

Chicken mortality

Well, we lost a chick. We don't know why, so obviously we were more than a little worried about disease and so on, but so far two more days have passed without incident and I'm feeling hopeful. Certainly there's nothing particularly unusual about one out of 27 chicks dying. It was one of the phoenixes, though, and they are a very beautiful bird, so that's too bad. On the up side, I was pleased to note that while I was worried and a little upset by the loss, I wasn't at all what you'd call sad about it. No "oh, the poor little baby!" It was alive, and now it is not, and the other chicks clearly don't give a damn, so that's pretty much that. Which is obviously reassuring if you're in the process of raising birds for meat.

I think that this is actually a pretty big advantage of just diving right in and getting a lot of chicks like we did. It would be difficult, to say the least, to make pets out of 27 chickens. I know that another woman who got six female chicks just for laying at the same time as we got our chicks has already named them and clearly regards them as pets. I'm not saying there's a dang thing wrong with that, but it was not our intention at all, and so far we're obviously on track. Killing them--that I expect to be difficult to do, emotionally. The actual killing, I mean. But I don't expect to have any lingering emotional trouble afterwards, and no guilt unless we botch it and one suffers.

I know that a vegetarian would doubt me on this, but I have thought about this a great deal, and I'm quite confident in my decisions on this point. I intend to let me chickens live as their nature suggests, as safe and "happy" as a chicken can be, and then to kill them in such a way that they won't ever know what hit them. I have read many reports that it is entirely possible to do so. The other chickens won't miss the goners (the dead chick, in fact, was trampled into the litter by its fellows, who regarded it much as they would any rock in their path), and frankly, I just don't see the advantage to growing old for a chicken. Chickens don't make plans for the future and they don't dream of raising a family (indeed, most modern chickens are not broody and would never "raise a family" given all the time and opportunity in the world). They have a choice between living a while and then dying quickly and painlessly, or living longer and dying of disease or injury. They live day to day, and I really can't grok how it could matter to them how many days they live.

Actually, I have to say that most vegan comments on chicken and egg eating just seem poorly informed to me. That is, they're well-versed in the horrors of factory farming, but apparently haven't gotten past that. A lot of them don't seem to grasp, for example, that cows readily make more milk than their calves need, and that being milked is not inherently unpleasant at all (a fact I can personally testify to, having been milked mere minutes ago). They're not clear on whether chickens lay eggs without fertilization or other outside encouragement (they do). They attribute emotions to animals that, in most cases, are simply not there. They don't seem to understand that well-managed livestock can perfectly well be content and provide useful product at the same time. The honey bee is a great example--beekeeping, ideally, consists pretty much entirely of giving the honey bees a dream setup, protecting them from negative outside influences, and, with a little careful management, harvesting the plentiful surplus they create. The bees are of course completely incapable of emotion, but properly managed, they are unstressed and free to live as their nature dictates. Personally, I think that this sort of livestock management is completely ethical and that animal products are a valuable part of a health diet and a sustainable society.

I don't eat factory farmed foods--I'm quite in agreement with the vegetarians and vegans on that. But I really think that the leap from "no factory farming" to "no animal products" is usually logically immature and/or ignorant, and when it's well-thought-out, it's just based on basic premises about the rights and nature of livestock animals that I just plain don't agree with. For example, the oft-heard complaint about the "exploitation" of animals just really goes over my head. For one thing, we created chickens. They are what they are because of literally millenia of human tinkering. Same goes for the modern dairy cow, the sheep, etc. Some animals are closer to their wild roots than others, but the livestock animal that could successfully revert to the wild is a rare beast. If we stop raising them, they will stop existing. That's not hypothetical--it's already happened to a lot of breeds. Frankly, I don't think the chickens care either way, but I, for one, think that would be a great pity. I also don't think that the chickens care or indeed even know whether we benefit from their lives. For another thing, I think it's pretty self-evident that human beings have evolved to consume animal protein, and I believe that it makes us healthier to do so, although obviously opinion varies on this subject. Healthier or no, people have been consuming animal products since before we were "people", as far as anyone can tell, so whether you think god or nature made us the way we are, I'd think that should carry some weight.

I personally feel that by eating only ethically-raised meat, I'm delivering a double-whammy to the factory farms--not only am I depriving them of revenue directly by not buying from them, but I'm supporting and encouraging their competition. or, in the case of chickens, I guess I actually am their competition. So much the better.

I do feel that it's important that people face these issues head-on, each person for themselves, and make decisions based on complete information. If I thought I couldn't kill a chicken, I'd have to stop eating them--it would definitely be unethical to just pass my moral burden to someone else out of sight. So far, though, I think that my theorizing is correct, and I'm happy to recieve confirmation, however small, in the form of my unfortunate dead chick. Put another way, I love squirrels--they're a totem of sorts for me, and I call myself Squrrl online sometimes. But I have sat right next to a hawk messily devouring a dead squirrel and had a conversation, and had no problems with it--both hawk and squirrel were living (so to speak) in accordance with their natures. I think all animals have the right to do so, including humans.

Thursday, June 4, 2009

Feeling optimistic

Not about the state of affairs at large, let me hasten to add. That looks more terrible by the day. But I am feeling optimistic about our little homestead and our family preparations.

To sum up: The garden is on schedule and in good shape--just harvested my first kohlrabi bulb last night and enjoyed it in salad. The front herb garden is doing well, and I'm excited at the prospect of selecting and learning to use new culinary herbs now that I have space. Our chicks are now 4 1/2 weeks old, and all 27 are still alive and apparently healthy. Our food stores could use some work, but they're a whole lot better than nothing. Our medical stores are, I think, pretty durn good. Our durable goods could, no doubt, use re-upping here and there, but are on the whole pretty well-thought-out and taken care of. The chicken coop is really only one good weekend away from done...I can't wait to paint it; it'll be SO darn cute.

Now I'm daydreaming...I hope the chickens will keep the mid-yard area under control without denuding it completely. I think we've given them enough space that I have cause to be hopeful. Be pretty awesome to have that much less to mow...between digging up the back yard and digging up the front yard, that'd leave not very much at all to mow.

I wish we'd kept closer track of expenses with the chickens, but honestly, I could probably go back and record everything we've bought. A great deal of stuff has been scavenged, from the brooder box to almost all of the chicken coop materials (indeed, the only exceptions I can think of are some hardware cloth to cover the droppings pit and a single sheet of plywood). Between that, free ranging, and at least attempting to grow some food for them, I think we can at least keep the chickens at the break-even point, assuming the cost of free-range eggs and meat (which is fair, since that's all we buy).

This may seem funny, but I daydream Jacob's shop, too, even though I personally spend hardly any time there and don't plan to. I do love a nice clean, organized shop, and that's just the sort of shop Jacob would run if he had half a chance. He's very tidy-minded. I love the potentiality of it all, and the smells of oil and lingering coal smoke, and the wonderful Jacob-ness of it. I love to think that by the end of summer he'll finally have a shop he can be proud of, after all the careful thought and hard work he's put into it. And it's not just idle hobbying, either...that shop is a potentially very important source of future income and productivity for us.

I'm dreaming of jars full of beautiful dry heirloom beans, rare-breed chickens in the yard, dinners flavored with new and wonderful herbs, and that wonderful glow of security and accomplishment...

Tuesday, June 2, 2009

Ludicrous speed

This spring, as Jacob and I hoe away in the garden, we've discussed an idea that his mother gave me. We were whinging on about all of the rocks we've had to chisel out of the ground in order to make a viable garden, and she commented that she was proud of us; that we were breaking ground just like our pioneer ancestors. First of all, obviously that's very flattering, but it got me thinking, too.

Let us compare two different basic types of people who "live off the land". There are peasants, and there are pioneers. This isn't meant as a comprehensive list, just the categories that are relevant to the moment.

Peasants are sort of the ultimate in sustainability--that's what they do. They sustain. They keep going. What level of existence they sustain at, what quality of life, etc., varies by time and place, but either way, it's a generally stable state. Peasants live a basically cyclical life, with the same fashions, the same holidays, the same foods and the same tasks, for potentially hundreds of years at a go, disturbed only by outside forces. Ambition is not a common trait, nor is it necessarily considered a virtue. All you have to do is maintain. Work the fields your grandfather worked. Wear the clothes suited to your station. It may not be an easy life, but by definition it should never exceed that which is physically sustainable over the long term.

Pioneers are pretty much the complete opposite. They're making history, and they know it. They are cut off, sometimes almost completely, from the known and the familiar. They are creating something new in the world, and often they have to seriously bust their butts just to survive. When you couldn't start the trip 'til May because of mud, traveled for two months, and now must secure food, water, and shelter before winter, you push yourself as hard as you physically can, and worry about paying the piper later.

Part of the reason that the work Jacob and I (and others like us) are doing is so punishing is that we are, in essence, pioneers. Obviously we're not exactly living in a soddy and burning cow pats for heat, but we are breaking new ground, figuratively and literally. We are creating our personal culture and values anew, creating fertile soil where, believe me, there was none, and pushing ourselves as hard as we can ahead of the threat of scarcity and adversity.

Of course, we are not cut off from the known and familiar, and its lure is a constant mental drag on our efforts. We are children of our time; we like steak and Bruce Willis and vegging out playing video games. We have to constantly remind ourselves that these feelings and the culture we grew up in are likely not to serve us well in the future we forsee, and it makes all that frenetic pioneer-speed hoeing bite just a little harder when we're tired and the baby is crying to go back inside.

So now we joke about pioneer-speed and peasant-speed. Some days, especially when the sun is brutal, peasant speed is all we can manage, and the hoe rises and falls and the feet tread to a steady, deliberate beat that I can imagine singing to, if only I were in better shape. Other days, though, we move as if a demon snapped at our heels, and collapse at the end of the day nursing aching backs and icing strained joints.

This weekend, we went to plaid. I really don't know how we kept going. We harvested and froze the last of the bolting bok choy. We planted cucumbers, potatoes, zucchini, watermelons, winter squash, and spaghetti squash. We dug up a large chunk of the front yard, worked it smooth, and planted four types of basil, sage, parsley, rosemary, and french tarragon (there's still space for more, I just don't know what yet). We turned and began to hoe a huge chunk of the far-back yard, preparatory to planting buckwheat and millet (for the chickens). We weeded and prepared a roughly, I dunno, 15x20 chunk between the parking lot and chicken coop and planted it with millet, rapeseed, and mustard to provide a nice nutritive patch of greens in the chicken yard. We picked maybe 5 quarts of strawberries. We potted leftover pepper and tomato seedlings. We weed-whacked a large portion of the overgrown back yard. We completely stripped the grass off of a strip 2 feet wide and maybe 60 feet long along the fence preparatory to planting beans there. We hilled up a row of potatoes. We changed out the chicks' litter. We went to the farmer's market, the grocery store, and the feed-n-seed. And we had the kid with us the whole time. And mind, this was a two-day weekend, no Friday off.

This weekend, I can honestly say that we did everything we could. I am very proud of us.

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Update at last

Hello...been a loooong time. I really, really wish I got to write more. It does me so much good.

Sigh...well, we have the chickens, in the living room dusting the place up. They're 3 1/2 weeks old now, no longer cute fluff balls, now half-feathered-out and distinctly untidy looking. The coop is making progress, not done. Soon, though, all the "spring" stuff will be planted in the garden (should already be, but at least we're close), and the focus will shift more to the coop. I feel comfortable with where we are, anyway. The things I'm not comfortable with are how little I can get done when I'm alone with Evelyn and what a pit the house is. "Spring cleaning"--are you kidding? It sounds great, but I'm too busy breaking my back in the garden.

Right now I'm in a good mood--nothing like a project yielding results to start a decent morning. On Saturday, I and a couple of others set up a booth at the Maryland Heartland Sustainable Living Fair for our little sustainable living group. Last night I took the signup sheet we put out and sent out invitations to join our Yahoo group...and this morning there are already three new members! Now I'm planning strawberry picking for this weekend, trying to get people to come out and share a picnic, and hoping to goodness they don't run out of berries before we get there. And that's entirely possible, since several of us are involved in the farmer's market, so we can't very well go first thing Saturday. Argh. Well, there's always next weekend.

So, as Evelyn's miraculously still sleeping, I've been catching up on the news. Always a depressing activity, and at the moment, it always makes me once again want to yank Jacob's 401K, take the penalties, and put the money to work. I have no faith in savings in the current climate, and that is saying something, because Jacob and I are both very play-it-straight, pinch-penny, savings kinda people. But with the global economy disassociating themselves from the dollar as fast as they can, and the gov't printing money as fast as it can, forclosures still going crazy and predicted to hit another "wave" this summer, etc., etc., etc., I am thinking I can come up with better uses for our money than watching it burn. We still need to replace the gutters and a piece of siding that blew off now over a year ago, we'd love to blow in some more insulation, a home energy audit seems like a great idea, and I for one would like to see a small solar array, if only to keep the chest freezer and maybe one or two other things running. That freezer is a really valuable part of our food storage system.

Basic status right now is that in some ways I'm really proud of us--picture perfect garden, decent food stores, good collection of tools, coop's coming along nicely, and in general we've done a truly monumental amount of work all while raising a very high-spirited baby into a remarkably thoughtful, intelligent, and loving toddler. In other ways, I am completely overwhelmed by the work still to do and dismayed by how much trouble I have with, say, housekeeping, or keeping in touch with people. And, of course, by how much of my time Evelyn still demands (and demands is exactly the right term; you should hear her) and how little able I seem to be able to do anything about that, like, say, do a few dishes without her screaming and trying to push me away from the sink.

Meanwhile, it's fairly clear that the world I grew up in is crumbling around my ears. People naturally expect "the end of the world as we know it" to be some big, dramatic event, but the fact is, history usually takes place over the course of months and years, and when you sum them up history-book style, the crises of the past and coming months and years would probably look pretty dramatic. So of course I feel pressured to be the best I can, to do as much as I can and then some, and when I inevitably fall short, it's hard on the self-confidence. And, of course, frightening. It's all so very frightening.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Cognitive dissonance

Am I happy or miserable or terrified? I really do not know. Consider:

We ordered chickens last night, after talking about it for two and a half years. The coop is still in need of some serious work, and the fence is only partly done, but, eh, we have two months before they're needed. Momentary euphoria.

Jacob worked his butt off at his blacksmithing class and came home with a very creditable dragon head to show for it.

It rained all day and I couldn't get squat done in the garden, which is about two weeks behind schedule right now.

My neighbor started seed for the one pepper I wanted most and didn't start seed for (lemon drop), and will share. Whoohooo, yellow hot sauce here we come!

My daughter is pretty much over the vomiting/diarrhea tummy bug she got from the neighbors.

My husband is just getting it with an agonising vengeance, and has been in and out of the bathroom for going on two hours now, and since he can't even face the thought of peppermint tea, I really have dick to offer. Wish I could nurse him like I did the baby. I don't even know what he could possibly be throwing up at this point, but let me just say, it sounds positively epic.

Jacob did the taxes (yeah, we procrastinated all hell outta that) and we'll get a decent return, so, something in the bank again after dwindling our savings down to zip over the Christmas season.

The Obamas are planting a garden on the White House front lawn, and gardening, knitting, and chickens are all gaining wildly in popularity. And Freecycling and Craigslist and consignment sales. How awesome is all that?

Soul-crushingly horrifying prospects for the immediate and not-so-immediate future economically, socially, environmentally...yeah. Four horsemen, here we come! The complete collapse of society is rapidly moving from seeming totally impossible even to those of us who know better to seeming all but inescapable. Go us.

But, on the other hand, chickens...

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Hopeful January

Well, the pump is installed, and it works great. Glee! Joy! As if that weren't enough joy, Jacob and Mamma also fixed the library and living room doors so that they actually close and installed my coat rack after two years of it sitting in a corner of the bathroom. I am so inspired by my house's new awesomeness that I actually picked up the office floor. Incredible, no?

So, Obama's in the White House now. I am very hopeful. I'll tell you what would be awesome, would be if he actually listened to the people who are petitioning him to put an organic food garden on the White House front lawn. He read Michael's his chance to show he really got it. And hell, what'd it cost him? He's got gardeners. If he did that, I would be very, very hopeful. Of course, if gardening gained ground as the new national fad as it would from such a thing, then there really would be a seed shortage. Well, so much better that than a food shortage. Just have to be sure to start saving seed this year!

Actually, I don't seem to have much to say.

Tuesday, January 6, 2009


Yup, my husband rocks. For Christmas this year, he made the calls, he did the thinking, he made the measurements and calculations, and he got me the best goddamn hand deep well pump on the market, so far as he or I can tell. $1800 for a solid stainless pump from Bison. By far the most either of us has ever spent on a gift, and he's still reeling, but I consider it's well worth it. How utterly absurd to be cut off from one's own water in a power outage or blackout! And if you're going to spend the money, do it right. There were, of course, other, cheaper pumps, but Jacob didn't feel that they were cheaper enough to really compensate for the loss in quality, so he bit the bullet. That's a philosophy the two of us share, obviously, but even so, $1800 takes a bit of getting used to. He's allowed to be a bit shocky.

Me, I'm amused, because I was utterly delighted and astonished and, well, so relieved to have him take all the worry and figuring off my hands and just DO it, and the pump head, it really is beautiful...every weld is smooth as butter, and the whole thing has a lovely burnished gloss...but of course most people would not find a well pump to be a romantic or exciting gift. So gushing about my wonderful present is a little funny, as most people greet the whole thing with something akin to incomprehension. For example, a dear friends' parents, who have just finished spending who knows how much on another big screen HD TV, think that spending $1800 on a well pump when, uhhhh, it already comes out of the tap?, to be thoroughly odd. And who can blame them? I am preparing for something that we all hope will never happen. I'm just not in the least willing to gamble that blackouts and the like will never happen, and not having non-electric access to one's water strikes me as a pretty big gamble.

Anyway, there it is. I can't wait to get it installed, gleaming subtly in the center of my herb garden.