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.