Monday, June 27, 2011

truck farm

With Hank and Max off to the land of the stately pine, I've had quite a lot of time on my hands since yesterday morning and not enough hands and strong backs to make any progress on the coop. Fortuitously, there were two events of note to the local food movement community yesterday and this evening. Yesterday was the First Annual Midwest Sustainable Backyard Tour, wherein 30 or so folks who are doing very cool green stuff opened their yards and properties for a self-guided tour. I knew there was no way I could make it to all the properties, so I made a list of my choices--based on a matrix of proximity, chickens and networking--and downloaded sequential directions for my personal tour. There were so many I wanted to see but could not fit in!

It's a shameful admission for a labor lawyer, but I don't really think of myself as an activist. Part of why I like "the law" is that ideally, if you get a good judge and you find the right cases and argue your facts well, you should get the right result even if you don't have a lot of power on your side. But it is becoming clear to me that the City Council is not going to operate like that idealized version of "the law." The City Council is (surprise) political! And the wheels of politics turn because of power. Power can mean money or, as I think it does here, an impressive number of voices all unified behind a common goal. The City Council has surely begun to hear from the chicken-haters, who are, of course, entitled to voice their ill-informed, factually bereft, misgallistic (yes I just coined that term) opinions. The trick will be to make sure that the Council hears more powerfully from the pro-chicken lobby, which is dedicated but nascent.

To mobilize the chicken-positive community will require some community organizing. I considered the advice I give clients in preparation for bargaining about building their power base. I needed to build the chicken power base by reaching out to like-minded people and helping them understand how our cause fit with their interests. It was easy to identify the most likely targets for our message: the sustainability folks, the slow food movement, the farmers' market bunch. And what better way to get out the message than to leaflet? So I drafted a leaflet with all the best talking points ("Help Keep Backyard Chickens Legal!"), opened a dedicated email address for the cause to collect names (enabling me to rally the troops as needed), and printed it on some bright green paper that had been destined for the recycle bin.

My first stop on the backyard tour was the only one in my municipality--and a beautiful one at that. Here is where I have once again fallen down as a documentarian because I utterly failed to take pictures. I was so excited to see what Deanna had going on in her yard (food crops EVERYWHERE, ponds, rain barrels, a beehive...) and so excited about delivering my message (and leaving a stack of flyers on her card table which seemed set up just for that purpose) that I totally neglected to photograph anything. Argh.

Next stop was at Merryl Winstein's marvelous place, where the main attraction was a lovely flock of hens and a gregarious small herd of milk goats! (maybe next year?) Again, no pictures, but at least you can go to her website and take a look. And there were lots of friendly people who seemed supportive of our cause.

Next stop was in the city proper, to a yard that could not have been tidier or more beautifully planted with flowering plants--and which also happened to contain this darling coop and four sweet girls:
See, I took a picture, finally!
I picked up some useful coop-building tips talking to this one's builder and proud flock-tender.

Another stop took me to the third of an acre lot of the Villareal Family Farm, where they have thrown themselves into transforming their suburban lot into an incredibly productive small-scale farm. It reminds me a little of what we did on our builder's half-acre in Ft. Lauderdale, although our focus was more strongly on fruit and of course we didn't have chickens like they do!

Everywhere I went, I left piles of flyers and I came away with a few thoughts, unrelated to the organizing effort. First, it takes a fair amount of work to make food production aesthetically pleasing to the typical suburban eye. But clearly, it can be done. Second, I probably don't need to insulate my coop. The tidy coop above was uninsulated and even had a vent that stays open year-round. But we'll see. Third, the single most devastating predator in our area is hawks. Tidy coop has no protection from diggers and lots of visible gaps that could be enlarged to admit a predator. But those hens were 3 years old and had never had a problem. In the early evenings they also range free in the yard, which is fenced on two sides with only 4' chain link (the other sides being house and wooden privacy fence).  But everyone talked of hawk sightings and two reported losses from hawks. Good to know. More than anything, the tour inspired me to put in the labor on our yard such that I feel confident putting it on the roster for next year's sustainable backyard tour!

The other local food event was tonight--a screening at the Schlafly Bottleworks of a wonderful little film called Truck Farm. If you have the opportunity to see it, do. I found the music a little annoying at first but (alas) came away humming some of the amusingly inane little tunes after all. But more important than the music was the message of the film, which follows the conversion of a pick-up truck bed into a small-scale, mobile garden. The film ties that project to roof gardens, wall gardens, urban community gardens and a barge set up (including chickens!) to fully sustain four humans. The message is, we humans need a lot of food, food is best when it is grown close by so that we eat it shortly after it leaves the we should be growing food wherever we can, close to where we live. 

And to that I say, Amen. And here, take a leaflet!

Saturday, June 25, 2011


For all seven of you who have been waiting on pins and needles to hear how today's construction work turned out...

The morning dawned grey and threatening. A thunderclap fortuitously shook Max and his friend Dylan (who slept over last night) from their beds a little after 8. I had acceded to the sleepover because it would be the last before Hank and Max depart for 3 weeks at Interlochen early tomorrow. I knew I'd made the right decision after seeing Dylan trounce Max and their friend Rebekah in arm wrestling--he was surely going to be an asset when the time came to raise those framed panels. Before we'd finished breakfast (waffles) there was a cloudburst...and then it stopped and the skies cleared.

Hank and I took stock of the site once more and considered how best to move the panels into position.

The plan was to move the north and east walls first and attach them to one another using 3.5" screws. I was nervous about Hank's back--squatting and lifting seem to be the most problematic activities. Sure enough, as he started to lift the first panel off the garage floor, he halted abruptly and shook his head. Time to call in reinforcements.

Hank and I have a rhythm with these kinds of projects and a well-developed non-verbal and semi-verbal vocabulary. Suffice to say that things don't go as smoothly when I'm trying to direct and collaborate with a pair of teenage boys. But eventually, we wrestled the first two panels into place on the foundation.

The ground was wet and the clayey soil clung in clumps to all of our shoes. I promised Dylan I'd buy him a new pair. The long screws necessary to make it through the flat side of a 2x4 and deep enough into the paired 2x4s that make up the corner posts to hold it all together balked going into some of the posts. Hank proposed pre-drilling. Pre-drilling is one of our bedrock disagreements. I am rabidly impatient and don't tolerate well the swapping of drill bits and extra time required to pre-drill. I'm also unconvinced that it helps most of the time. On a previous project, where I conceded pre-drilling was necessary, we set up the corded drill with the drill bit and the cordless drill with the driver bit, speeding the operation to a tolerable pace. We did eventually do some pre-drilling and I will grudgingly admit that it probably helped.

If I was a better documentarian, I would have photographed the first pair of panels, but the tension level was high and we were focused on getting the structure stable. We finally got all four in place and released the boys to go back to their video games!
Even this was taken after I'd already started putting up floor joists!
We decided that the easiest way to stabilize it was to put in the floor joists, so that came next. With the boys gone, Hank and I fell into our usual pace and the banter that goes along with it. (warning: PG rated material--and totally lame humor--ahead) Me (seriously): "nail or screw, what do you think?" Him: "either! nailing and screwing are both good." I know, just awful. But it broke through my anxiety and made me laugh. The joists went in easily, plumb and level.
And then...we were hungry (a hunger not to be satisfied by tofu!) and the need to get everything packed for Interlochen pressed in on us. I had hoped to get the roof on today, but it will have to wait. If anyone wants to come and help steady the ladder and hold the 2x4s for me tomorrow or some night this week, I'll buy dinner and put you on the egg list!

I climbed up and perched on a floor joist, savoring the solid feeling of the coop structure. It's big. And it feels a little like a tree house with a fantastic view to the south and east:
It's going to make a wonderful home for our birds. And if the city doesn't lift its restrictions, I could always use it as an office!

Friday, June 24, 2011


The pace of work on the coop has slowed this week as we've turned our attention to site preparation. One of my priorities is to site the coop where it will gain some passive solar heat and sunlight in the winter. I've designed it with two large windows--one each on the southern and eastern exposure--in order to maximize the winter daylength. Daylength is tied to egg-laying, so this is an important point. I will still likely have to burn a light for a couple hours before sunrise and after sunset on the shortest days, but these two cast-off and recycled windows (saved from our window replacement a couple years ago) will help immensely.

It's a little tricky finding a spot in the yard that is out of the winter shadow of our house and the surrounding structures. It turns out that the old chicken yard is probably the best spot from a sun exposure standpoint. Sunny in the winter and shady (thank you, giant oaks) in the summer. It also has the advantage of being fenced separately--not sufficiently to keep predators out, obviously, but still enough to give another layer of screening between our dog and the chickens' run. And, for human comfort, it is not far from the house and the entirety of the path between the back door and the coop is covered in pavers--no wading through mud to get to the eggs. These are all details whose import I have gleaned in my coop research over the past weeks.

But the chicken yard's major drawback is that, like most of our yard, it is decidedly not level. A couple nights ago, we planted ourselves on the spot with a bunch of pavers, a six foot board, and a level. We laid out the pavers in a square the size of the coop, digging in one corner, adding soil to most of the rest. It's hard work and Hank managed to completely ruin his back only a quarter of the way in. I, of course, persevered. This is what it looked like by the end of the evening:

It was dark enough that I had to use the flash by the time I finished. Maddy, as if to demonstrate the very threat we're protecting against, or in an effort to be helpful, or just showing off her superior skills, dug her own hole while we worked:

This is why we'll give the whole thing an apron of hardware cloth. The foundation ended up pretty amazingly close to level but I was concerned about soil subsidence in the areas where we had built it up. So tonight we were back at it, moving several wheelbarrows full of heavy clay from the way-low up to the chicken yard, reinforcing and leveling out the area around the foundation. I'm almost very happy with it now. It was lucky Hank was back in commission because he, of course, is the only one who knows where all the (mostly rodent) bodies are buried and which parts of the yard are safe to dig up.

Tomorrow will be the true test of our earth moving. Tomorrow is the last day I have Hank and Max to help out before they take off for three weeks at Interlochen. The plan is to raise the coop in the morning, moving the four panels we've framed in the garage into position and fastening them together on the foundation we've prepared. Keep your fingers crossed. I'm hoping to get the roof on tomorrow as well, while there is still someone around to notice if I fall off the ladder!

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

the city council

So, all unbeknownst to me, the municipality in which I live (and hope to raise chickens) has been, even as we've had and lost our first flock, contemplating limits that would turn our new flock into contraband. Specifically, anyone who wanted to raise chickens would have to erect a privacy fence around their entire yard and, after erecting said privacy fence would be permitted to keep a whopping total of three chickens!!!

When I learned, late yesterday, of this clearly misguided plan and the City Council's intention to discuss it that very evening...well, now you know what I did last night. Over dinner, I hammered out a few talking points and did a little research. One of the books in my growing library has a chapter entitled "Get City Chicks Legal in Your Town." Although I haven't found the book, City Chicks, to be all that useful in general, this little chapter proved invaluable last night. 

It was my first visit to the City Council. In many respects it was not unlike the school board hearings I've attended as part of my day job. The vast majority of people who serve on these boards and councils are well-intentioned and conscientious. It is often-tedious work, but essential to the functioning of our public institutions. I'm proud that one of our councilwomen (and a formidable one at that!) is a friend and was a fellow traveler on the mid-life law school path. She was a year ahead of me in law school and we got to know each other in the context of the search for the ever-elusive balance between the demands of a top-tier legal education and the equally pressing demands of family. I remember hearing her talk, during 1L orientation, about how she structured her days in order to do sufficient studying and still have time with her husband and children. I was deeply apprehensive at the time, having read Scott Turow's terrifying 1L and hearing from the law school administration all kinds of depressing statistics about the under-performance of "non-traditional" students like me. After hearing her talk, I began to feel that perhaps I really could manage this seemingly-impossible task. And of course I did.

While most of the people who serve are perfectly reasonable and thoughtful, there are those occasional few who come to their public service with a personal agenda, or a history that has left them scarred in one way or another, or a temperament that is just ill-suited to governance. One of our councilmen appears grimly set against the entire concept of raising chickens in the city in a way that seems to defy logic and reason. I have no idea why he feels this way, of course, and I am hopeful that the more reasonable folks on the council will prevail upon him to soften his stance. One of his more absurd observations/queries was to note that we don't allow people to have ten dogs, so why should we allow them to have ten chickens.

The number 10 comes from the sustainability committee of the non-profit "Friends of" our municipality. There was a contingent from their committee at last night's meeting and they were as wonderful and positive as the unfortunate councilman was dark and rigid. One of them had submitted a spreadsheet reflecting the legal status of chickens in our neighboring communities, highlighting the relative severity of our rule, and provided some other very helpful information. Another community member spoke movingly about how he and his wife, in retirement, had embraced the joys of organic gardening and had taken in two "rescue chickens" that had been at the bottom of the pecking order of the flock kept by the community childhood center and in danger of being killed by their flock-mates. Now they live in a coop created from a Little Tikes playhouse that was discarded by another family!

And I spoke. I made chickens my client last night and pleaded their cause like I'd argue any case. After introducing myself and Hank and telling them how long we'd lived in the community, here (roughly) is what I said: 

I’m here tonight because I’m distressed to see this community moving backwards on this issue. I respectfully disagree with the limitations the City has placed on permits to raise chickens.
These days more and more people are recognizing the value of raising their own food, whether that means planting a few tomato plants, growing an entire victory garden or raising a small flock of hens to ensure a supply of healthful fresh eggs. The value of this kind of small-scale, close to home, food production becomes more attractive with each new E Coli outbreak and each new revelation about the dangers of chemicals in our food supply.
For some families, the drive to grow their own food is about more than just food safety or the latest fad. In these tough economic times some families are relying increasingly on their own backyards for the basic nutrition they need to keep their families healthy.
There are few things more economical or “green” than a flock of hens—give them a bit of chicken feed and your table scraps and they will reward you with beautiful, nutritious fresh eggs. And in the bargain they’ll help control the bugs in your yard—including ticks, fleas, flies and mosquitoes—and reduce food waste that might otherwise end up in a landfill.
I think of this as a family-friendly community with lots of resources to support the families who live here. There are few activities that are more educational or more just plain fun for kids than raising a small flock of hens. Taking responsible care of a flock—starting from baby chicks, watching their antics, watching them grow into full-fledged hens, seeing that first egg appear in the nest—these are the kinds of experiences our children will always remember and they are experiences in short supply in modern city life.
The limitations that are being discussed are draconian and would make it impossible for an average family to keep chickens. The privacy fence requirement would leave out any family that’s having a hard time economically or who, like most of us, just can’t afford to put up what ends up being a multi-thousand dollar fence. The limitation on only 3 birds would mean that all but the very smallest families would not be able to get enough eggs from their birds to actually feed their families.
I understand that some people worry about the smells, sounds or sights of a chicken coop. It’s reasonable to be concerned that whatever a homeowner does on his or her property does not pose a risk to sanitation or safety—and we have laws on our books to ensure just that. Title II of our Municipal Code comprehensively addresses public health and safety and prohibits nuisances.
A few facts: a family flock of ten hens is not the same as a factory farm of 100,000 in terms of the smells and waste it generates. A flock of ten hens produces less waste each day than a 40-pound dog—and that waste, unlike the dog’s, is recyclable as garden fertilizer. Chicken coops can be beautiful and whimsical. If you take a look on the internet you’ll see many examples of lovely coops that would be an asset to our community, not an eyesore. Chickens are very quiet. At their noisiest they are only slightly louder than human conversation and considerably less noisy than our children at play in our backyards or barking dogs!
In closing, I urge you not to impose restrictions that would make our city among the least hospitable of local municipalities for families who want to keep a small flock of chickens. These are birds that, if responsibly cared for, have the potential to be solid animal citizens of our community and to give back so much in the way of education, entertainment and nutrition.
Gratifyingly, most of the people in the room seemed to agree with me. A reporter from the Post asked for my card. The sustainability folks reached out and invited us to join them. After the meeting, Hank and I shook our heads and wondered at how it was this whole chicken thing had led us down such an unexpected series of paths. Back in May, when I was aching for something to do, something to occupy my mind and energy, I never would have envisioned myself as a crusader for backyard chickens. But here I am. And although last night's visit to the City Council caused an enforced hiatus in coop construction, we were back at it this evening. Because I do believe that by the time our new flock is ready to take up residence in their fortress, the voices of reason will have rendered them completely legal.

Sunday, June 19, 2011

a visit to the hatchery

With ACR (anticipated chick readiness) about a month away, the time has come to make a decision about where we will get our next flock. In the immediate wake of the massacre (what I've taken to calling it in my  head), I felt like receiving chicks in the mail a second time might just entail more uncertainty and stress than I could manage. About the same time I started to feel clear that we would try again, I ran a google search on "chicken hatchery missouri" hoping to find one within reasonable driving distance that would allow us to simply pick up the new babies rather than subjecting them (and us) to the incredible journey via US mail.

Up popped Cackle Hatchery, located in Lebanon, Missouri. Cackle has been family owned and operated since 1936 and bills itself as specializing in "hatching and shipping day old pure bred poultry to your local post office." Their website offers a dazzling array of not only chicken breeds but turkeys, ducks, geese, pheasants and game birds. An email elicited confirmation that we could pick up our chicks instead and that they would have many (although not all) breeds of egg layers available in July. We would have to pick up on a Tuesday or Thursday and could call that morning to see whether they had what we wanted and ask them to hold it while we made the trek. An email to Chickens for Backyards confirmed that they would have all breeds available in July, although if we wanted Wyandottes or Ameraucanas (the Easter Egg layers, which I'd thought too frou-frou the first time but was starting to think would be a nice addition to the flock) we'd be advised to order pronto. What to do?

It seemed like a visit to Cackle might help us make a decision and their storefront is open Saturdays from 9-3. Hank had a matinee performance of Daughter of the Regiment, but Max and I agreed we'd make the pilgrimage to Lebanon on Saturday.

We got a somewhat later start than I had hoped but were on the road before 10:30. I anticipated a two and a half hour drive on a route that took us straight out I-44. An hour out of St. Louis we needed a pit stop and Max predictably clamored for lunch. His request for Quiznos was easily redirected to barbeque; I'd been seeing signs for "Missouri Hick: the Ozarks finest smoked meats" and was intrigued.

Missouri Hick sits along a stretch of old Route 66 just outside Cuba. My initial impulse to grab a sandwich and drive on gave way to a seat in a booth with a cheerful napkined piggy placemat.

In the end, service was so quick we were in and out within half an hour, after enjoying some of the moistest pulled pork ever.

As we pulled out and drove a spell on Route 66, I explained to Max that it had once been the main thoroughfare for travelers headed west, a concept all the more outlandish given the modest state of this particular slightly crumbly, 2-lane stretch of the road. We passed the cottage-y Wagon Wheel Motel:

note the eponymous wheel at left
And the world's largest rocking chair:

And, in Lebanon, spotted two relics of another age:

this is still fully operational, with a lovely central motor-court style swimming pool
But we finally arrived at Cackle, behind an unassuming storefront:

Inside was just as unassuming, but alive with the smells and sounds of baby chicks. Just inside the door was something like a bakery rack stacked five high with various breeds of chicks along with a few ducks and geese and a bunch of turkeys. 
Each level has a trough around the edge with water on two sides and feed on the other two. In another tray was a mix of exotic breeds and bantams:
Another tray, marked "sold" was mostly covered. The young woman who showed us around explained that these were turkey poults that had been spoken for. An aside: baby turkeys are perhaps even cuter than baby chicks. But as she lifted the lid and I leaned over the brooder I was struck by the smell: very strong, completely different from the smell of baby chicks--and identifiably turkey. When we had our first flock, several people asked me how they smelled, wrinkling their noses as if the answer was obvious--and unpleasant. In fact, our chicks never smelled bad, partly because we were so diligent about  keeping their brooder clean. The truth is that before the massacre I had become rather enamored of the smell of our baby chicks, which was not unlike the slightly milky smell of the top of a human baby's head (you moms know exactly what I'm talking about). But these turkeys were another animal (literally) altogether.

We spent some time watching the chicks. Max especially enjoyed the geese but also formed an instant attachment to several chicks. I looked at (and measured) a very nice galvanized nesting box they had on display and checked out their library of chick lit. I discussed our situation with the very helpful young woman at the counter and she talked me through my options. It would not be possible to pre-order any particular chicks for pick up in July and even if I could, I would be required to order a minimum of 5 of each breed. Contrary to what I had been told in the email, July hatchings take place only on Wednesdays, so pick up would have to be on a Thursday. She said I would have to take my chances that they would have breeds I wanted on the day I made my pickup. She also told me that this year has been huge for them, with demand unlike any they'd ever seen. I asked her whether she had a sense of why that was. "People want all natural," she said. "They're sick of chemicals and hormones and antibiotics in their food. These [gesturing at the trays of chicks] are all natural." Indeed.

Armed with information and a copy of their glossy color catalog ("We Sell Chicks! 187 Varieties"), Max and I headed out, after checking out the pre-constructed coops on display in an adjacent yard. Seeing the chicks, hearing their peeps was heartening. The coop project has grown to the point it often threatens to overwhelm and it was good to have a reminder of what all this lumber and sore muscles are all about.

Home again, I pored over the Cackle catalog and re-visited CFB had updated their website with a handful of new breeds for 2012, including a Partridge Rock. The mystery of Sadie's breed was finally solved: she had seemed to have partridge markings but CFB had listed no such breed as among the potential inclusions in the mixed bag of brown egg layers we ordered. Sadie was clearly a member of an early generation of the new stock. 

Perhaps it was my road-weariness from the drive (was that really something we wanted to do again and take a day off work to do it?), perhaps the winsomeness of the CFB website got to me again...probably some of both. But more likely the promise of predictability and a guarantee of certain birds delivered to my door won out. I placed an order. With any luck, sometime during the third week of July, a peeping box will arrive at our door or at our post office for pick up. Inside will be two Ameraucanas, a Dominique, a Barred Plymouth Rock, a Golden Laced Wyandotte, a Buff Orpington, a Golden Comet and a Mystery Chick, to be determined by the breeders. And yes, if you're keeping score, that's more than five. With the incredible effort (not to mention expense) we're putting into coop and run construction and the large scale of the finished product, it feels like we might as well be in for a pound if we're in for a penny. The new digs will easily accommodate this flock and I don't imagine their eggs will ever go begging for homes. 

And perhaps the readers of this blog will forgive us for a little dissonance between title (not giving that up) and reality!

Wednesday, June 15, 2011


With Hank busy playing the opera this evening coop construction is on hiatus. I considered forging on without him and once upon a time that's exactly what I would have done. But I increasingly appreciate his role as calm and attentive sous-chef on my projects, whether in the kitchen or elsewhere. Or perhaps it's just my ever-aging body that tells me I'd better take a break. Over the past three days we've framed two of the four walls of the coop and I'm feeling like we're well on our way:

This picture is taken in our nearly-falling-over garage, which has been cleaned out (!!!) and pressed into service as a workshop for the project. I'm not quite ready to divulge all the details of the coop and run construction in part because it's still evolving in my head. But the basic plan is for a 6x6 coop and a 6x12, 8 foot tall attached run. The basic idea is similar to this one, although the, um, aesthetic sensibility will be a little different. In fact, if you want to see a really beautiful coop that would never work in this climate and whose bio-security I question a little (chicken wire turns out not to be appropriate for chicken coops, who knew?), check this out. Love the charred cedar siding.

The coop-building hiatus gave me an opportunity to check in on the vegetable garden this evening. I suspect I'm not alone in secretly enjoying pulling weeds because it's a chore that provides an unparalleled opportunity for contemplation. Tonight I did a lot of weed-pulling. On Monday, Hank and I took a couple hours and attended the funeral service at Powell Hall for Rick Holmes, the SLSO timpanist. I did not know him, but Hank worked with him on several occasions and had come to appreciate Rick's warmth and collegiality. It was clear at the service that Hank's experience was not anomalous. There were many beautiful moments in the service, not least a deeply heartfelt performance of the slow movement of Mahler 4 artfully arranged by Erwin Stein (a Schoenberg student) for small ensemble. I've been hearing strains of that piece ever since. 

Tonight I was thinking about David Robertson's remarks at the service comparing the resonance of the timpani with the effect each of our lives has on the lives of others. He talked about the illusory barrier between present and past tense when we talk about both music and life, how a sound never really ends because of its ongoing effect on those who hear it and how a life, in some sense, never really ends when, as Rick's did, it has such a profound effect on others. I recognized it as a variant of the standard "s/he lives on in all of us" statements we so often hear at end-of-life gatherings, but in this incarnation it spoke to me.

I was already focused on this idea of the effect we have on others. One of Max's early reactions to my decision to raise hens was "oh, boy, here we go again!" When I asked him what he meant he talked about how we were once again doing something a little unconventional that he thought others might emulate once they heard what we were up to. There is a precedent for his observation. Two years ago, frustrated by the lack of sun in my back vegetable garden, I placed two raised beds in our front yard among the fruit trees we've planted, orchard-like, in our tiny front yard. The tomatoes I planted there performed beautifully and so last spring, I decided to expand my beds to create an entire potager in the front yard. This is what it looked like in April of 2010:
two older beds on the left rear, 6 new beds amongst the fruit trees
It wasn't long before people driving by slowed down to see what was going on in our yard. I was relieved to see no apparent scowls of derision. I had a lovely conversation with our octogenarian neighbor, a nun, who likes to stroll down the street wearing one of those hats like an umbrella on her head and a needlepoint crucifix around her neck. The first time she stopped to chat I was concerned she'd be judgmental. But she was very approving and confessed to having coveted the previous year's tomatoes. "Back home, we used to have a truck garden," she told me. "My pa, he had us to lay out the rows with boards to get everything just right. You could line yourself up at the end of a row and look down—perfectly straight!" 

And pretty soon, I started seeing raised beds that looked a lot like mine in other front yards around the neighborhood. I have no way of knowing for sure but I like to think that seeing how nice ours looked might have tipped the scales for some of those folks. I didn't set out to change the landscape of the neighborhood. I was just frustrated with my own microclimate and chose a solution that I thought would work. But I did so in the service of a goal--growing healthful food for my family in a pleasing manner--that I don't mind seeing others pursue.

In my travels on the net researching all things chicken I have encountered Kelly Coyne and Erik Knutzen, who were recently featured in the NY Times and keep their own blog called Root Simple. Kelly recently posted the following:
If Erik and I have a single message to offer, it is that you can't control the world, but you can control your life. There's plenty in this world to be outraged over, or worried about, but those feelings don't get you anywhere. What you have to do is tend your own garden: Your body, mind and soul. Your family. Your kitchen. Your yard. Your neighborhood. See to those things. In making those things better, you do make the world better. At the very least you've improved your own life. Or, perhaps, you might be one of the many pebbles that makes an avalanche.
Although I might quibble with her assertion that "you can control your life," because of the many  variables that closely touch our lives but over which we have very little control...and I also do a fair amount of work to change some of those many larger things in the world over which I am outraged...her general sentiment captures something I feel very strongly.

And tonight, from my little potager, I made the earliest-ever first harvest of tomatoes and pepper along with the radishes, snow peas and arugula we've been enjoying for weeks:
Mammoth Jalapeno, Sun Gold Tomatoes, Easter Egg Radishes
The start of a pretty tasty avalanche, if I do say so myself.

Sunday, June 12, 2011

lessons & plans

One of the habits I took with me to the practice of law from the practice of music is that of viewing every "performance" as an opportunity for reflection and improvement. In the practice of law, those performances come in the form of arguments made (persuasive or not so), bargaining positions taken (goals achieved or not), cross-examinations conducted (admissions obtained or not). In the wake of each is moment in which I consider what worked and what I will try never to do again.

At our house, the past few days have been one long pause for reflection on what went wrong and led to the loss of our chicks. It's absolutely clear to me that but for our neighbors' irresponsibility our sweet girls would be flapping about their yard today and climbing aboard the laptop as I write to see what could possibly be so intriguing there. But it is also absolutely clear that there were many things we could have done to prevent disaster. I've been working to catalog the contributing factors this week not because I enjoy beating myself up for my part in what will go down in family history as one of the worst events of our lives. But rather because if we are to raise chickens I must know what not to do the next time around.

The past few days have given us the opportunity to answer that question as well: do we really want to raise chickens? And the answer, it appears, is a conditional one. When we embarked on the project the first time, it was from a position of total naivete (fatal naivete, as it turned out). We had no idea what it would be like, what they would be like. I had never even had a pet parakeet, let alone a flock of hens. But if you've been following this blog you know that our girls charmed us from the first moment and it's clear we all feel strongly that a flock of hens is something we truly want in our lives.


Tuesday night left us all heartbroken and feeling extraordinarily vulnerable. Hank and I, at least, have suffered enough heartbreak and disappointment to know that it comes with the territory of living. We've learned that often, despite your very best efforts to head it off at the pass, tragedy comes right up your street and knocks insistently on your door. We've developed certain coping skills that get us through the days that follow such a knock. Poor Max, bless his heart, is not as practiced. And truth be told, even for those of us with a substantial amount of life under our belts, this was a particularly horrible knock.

So the other thing that has come clear, in addition to how much we all want to try again, is that we can only try again if we have satisfied ourselves that we've taken every conceivable measure to keep our next chicks safe from all imaginable harm. We also know that this time, we cannot rely only on our own imaginations to predict potential harms but must tap the collective wisdom of all those flock-tenders who have gone before us. We know there is no guarantee we will not again suffer a horrendous loss. The only way to ensure that would be to never try again. But that is an unacceptable outcome. So we will do our homework and do everything we can, this time forewarned, to prevent a second disaster.

Having arrived at that conclusion, I undertook a round of hardcore research into best practices in coop and run design. And of course my heart broke all over again when I realized just how tragically silly we'd been and how many resources there are for anyone who wants to learn the proper way to house and protect a flock of laying hens. By opting for a pre-built (and, as it turns out, completely insufficient) coop I bypassed those resources the first time around.

Not this time. This time, we're starting from scratch. Because we will all be away for a number of days in early July, we've decided to wait until the middle of next month to get new chicks. That will mean we will wait longer for eggs, possibly until days start to lengthen after the solstice, but the chicks should be sufficiently feathered by the time cold weather arrives and may (with good insulation in the coop, windows and light to extend day length) reward us with eggs as soon as Christmas. With a month's lead time, we can build a deluxe coop and run employing best practices and providing the new girls with a degree of bio-security we can all live with.

So here is the plan:
There is at least one architect who reads this and I hope he's enjoying a good laugh. I've used this style of drawing to close in a carport, renovate a kitchen, build two differently designed loft beds and the patio table on which these plans rest. They're not pretty, but I can read them and they let me problem solve and create a fairly accurate list of materials.

And here, loaded into the trusty Subaru, is the first round of building materials:
I only had to stop once on the way home when the boards shifted and I couldn't get the windshield wipers to turn off!

Tuesday, June 7, 2011


There is no nice way to say this. Tonight, after dinner, Hank and I took Maddy on a walk. When we returned home, I went straight away out to the back porch to check on the chicks. For some reason Hank was right there with me. I saw, but he gave voice to it: Cassie, the dog from next door, was in the chicken yard. Without even needing to look, I knew.

Cassie has been Maddy's friend since we brought her home. The people who lived here before us had a dog, Roosevelt. When we looked at the house we overheard them in conversation with Cassie's owners arranging a playdate for Cassie and Roosevelt. Although we were dog-less for the first year or so we lived here, once we adopted Maddy and she grew big enough to play with Cassie, the two of them enjoyed long adventures in our yard. Because our yard was fenced and theirs was not, ours was the natural situs for their romps.

Over the years, things shifted a little. A boyfriend moved in next door and he had the idea that Cassie should be allowed to roam free. I don't like to be uncharitable, but I think it was at least part laziness. Their yard, as I've said, is unfenced and letting her out to relieve herself meant putting her on a leash and going out with her. Not the most pleasant task, but it was their choice--either do it, or fence their yard. They made a third choice, which resulted in Cassie ranging through our front yard, the yard of the next house over and who knows where else. It always bothered us. We often saw her in the street and our neighbors on the other side complained to us about the poo she left in their yard. A couple weeks ago I stepped in what was clearly her poo as I picked peas. My shoes are still on the front stoop. But we were reluctant to say anything to the neighbors. They're not bad people. Their daughter was a reliable babysitter for Max when we first moved in. They have tended our cat when we left town, we've tended theirs.

But tonight. This is not easy to write. Cassie had managed to squeeze in through a gate we thought was secure (and certainly dog-proof) and hopped the low fence into the chicks' yard. When we found her she was still there, wagging at us excitedly. The chicks were...well, gone. I saw Hattie right off. Not sure whether the rest might be all right, I grabbed at Cassie and forcibly moved her out. Hank helped and she bit him in the process. But it was all pointless. She had already managed to catch and kill them all. The flies had already begun their work.

I'm not sure I can describe what happened next. From within me came a noise. The neighbor was on her deck having, ironically, what appeared to be a "hen party"--all women. The noise I made finally caught their attention. It probably helped that in my state of blind rage, grief and shock, I made my way into their yard. One of the guests was a woman who, a few days ago, had been over and brought her little daughter to meet the chicks. "B____, I need you to come over here and see this," I ordered, after imparting the basic news. "I need you to see this." They filed in, B and all her hen-friends. I could hear Hank, who had warned me not to look (to no avail), filling B in on the negative judgment the neighbors had harbored about their irresponsible dog ownership. About the shit we stepped in. About...

I went inside. Max was sitting at the dining room table, doing something on his computer. I will always regret that he learned of this through my uncontrolled wails but, as Hank says, "your mama's a human being, lucky you."

My wonderful husband, hand bleeding from the dog bite, dug them a grave in the part of the yard we call the "way-low" (because (surprise) it is all the way at the back and much lower than the rest of the yard). Hank has a long and venerable history of disposing of corpses, from roaches to possums to family pets. When our other neighbors' cat was killed on the street in front of our house and they were overwhelmed with grief, he helped them dig a grave and gently transported their cat from the street to its resting place for them. This is one of many reasons why I love him beyond all measure. Tonight, he scooped up each of the girls in turn until they were all collected in a peaceful heap on the shovel. Then, as I wailed, doubled over by their graveside, he slid them gently into the ground and covered them with soil.

I am not religious. My relationship with the idea of God is too complicated to explore here. But there are moments when, like the child I once was in the pews of the Methodist church up the street, I hedge my bets and talk to God. This was one of them. As I told Max later, whatever sweet little chicken-souls our girls had are resting peacefully somewhere. I know that to a certainty.

There have been buckets of tears cried in our house tonight by all three of us. I know that I bear some responsibility for what happened because it was my job to keep them safe and I failed to recognize a flaw in our protection system. That is hard to bear and I will think long and hard about the kind of fortress I need to build if I ever muster the courage to do this again. But the hardest to bear is the fact that these irrepressible, idiosyncratic personalities (for example: earlier tonight, as I worked to get good photographs of Rosie, squatting in the dust, elbows out, Gertie hopped right up on to my arm as if to interject herself into the proceedings) are simply gone from our lives. Just like that.

Max is taking it hard. At bedtime, he could not stand to be alone in his room and I don't blame him. The only thing that gives me any comfort right now is the pure, visceral warmth of having him and Hank near. So we all cuddled together for a while and talked about how vulnerable we feel.

We are indeed vulnerable. Last night there was an earthquake that rattled some from their beds, although we slept through it. Floods threaten many along our rivers this spring. Jobs are lost and gained, health is compromised and restored, friends move away and new ones arrive. We work so hard as humans to protect ourselves from pain, from loss, sometimes to the point of never truly investing in those things that could bring us such bliss because those same things could also inflict the deepest agony. It may take us a little while, but I expect we will invest again, a little wiser, a little heavier of heart, but still and ever hopeful.

In memory of Millie, Hattie, Rosie, Sadie and Gertie. 

Thank you to all who have offered condolences and comfort. Sharing our adventures with the girls has only heightened them for us and we deeply appreciate your kind thoughts.

Sunday, June 5, 2011


This morning the chicks were a bit quicker to rise and fell upon their scrambled egg with enthusiasm. With them squared away, I turned to my own breakfast. But a few minutes into brewing cappuccino and chopping apple I had a sense something was happening in the backyard. I could hear jays screaming, but my mother hen senses told me it wasn't anything too alarming. Not quite ready to venture back out myself, I sent Maddy outside to investigate and report back. Maddy has been very jealous of the chicks, peering anxiously through the fence at them (and us) when we dote on them, but in our absence she mostly ignores them. But she is also very good at observing and reporting any anomalies in her territory so I knew I could count on her to let me know if anything was amiss. Sure enough, a half-minute after I let her out she began to bark excitedly. Now I was concerned. As soon as I stepped out on to the porch I could see the girls were just fine. Maddy was barking and pointing at the western fencerow near the compost bins. My first thought was that there may be a possum, which could be a real threat to the chicks. But as I drew near, this is what I saw:
box turtle
Probably totally unrelated to whatever riled the jays, but fortuitous that their calls set off a chain of events that brought me out to see this visitor! This is not the first time we've seen a box turtle near that spot. Our first sighting occurred shortly after we first moved into the house, 6 years ago. Back then, it felt like a sign that our micro-ecosystem was healthy. Today's sighting feels like confirmation that we've been good stewards of our little plot.

Saturday, June 4, 2011

redbreasts & redheads

I've written about how having chicks has altered my perception of bird vocabulary. It's not like I was oblivious to birds before. It's just that once you've learned what a chick sounds like when she's been startled by the sudden appearance of a hand in the brooder, or what she sounds like when her sister chick accidentally lands on her during one of those first flights when loft surpasses navigational skills...well, a whole universe of bird speak begins to open itself to you. I realize now that it is very much like what happens when one becomes a parent. Where before a crying baby was an indecipherable annoyance (assuming one even tried to decipher those horrible noises), the parent's ears are finely attuned to recognize the hungry cry, the tired cry, the bored cry...even when it emanates from the stranger's baby in seat 24C.

Anyway, I've always been aware of the wild birds that frequent my yard and we've been lucky to have a habitat that draws a great many. I've mentioned our two majestic oaks but we also have a variety of fruit trees and bushes (peach, plum, pear, blueberry and raspberry among them) and we're not averse to sharing with our feathered friends. Just don't get me started on the squirrels. Add to that the healthy population of earthworms thanks to our organic practices and the ever-replenished open compost pile and there is ample nutrition for the jays, doves, cardinals, robins, finches and mockingbirds we regularly see.

So since moving the girls outside I've been curious to see how the "indigenous" fowl react to the arrival of my tame brood. For the most part, they've seemed oblivious. But on the second field trip we took earlier this week I noticed that the girls were suddenly very still and clustered together along the eastern edge of their yard, looking fixedly out into the main yard. Maddy was inside so I knew it was not her they were checking out. When I followed their gaze, there he was: a small male robin. And he was every bit as interested in them as they were in him. Since that day, I have observed him several times, making his way across the back yard, working his way closer to the chicken yard and keeping a close and curious eye on my pullets all the while.

The first time I tried to photograph him, he was screened from my view by the fence and the camera captured it meticulously; him, not so much:
nice chickenwire, eh?
I couldn't get the camera to ignore the fence and I knew that if I stood up to shoot over it, he'd be scared off. So today when I spotted him once again sniffing 'round the henhouse, I parked myself right next to the fence. And sat very still as he made his way closer and closer, photographing him all the way. His boldness confirmed my impression of his youth--an older bird would not have been fooled by my stillness and would never have approached as close as he did. But approach, he did, intent on the chicks. And my reward, 31 pictures later, was this:

He looks every bit as tufty as the girls and, with the exception of foot size, similarly proportioned.

And speaking of's time for me to retract an earlier statement I made concerning Hattie's breed. You may remember that I based my decision to order chicks from the company I chose in part because of their forthright endorsement of the Buff Orpington as their favorite. So naturally, I was keen to see for myself what it was about that bird that made it so special. And just as naturally, when the chicks arrived and one of them was a lovely creamy blonde, I concluded she was my Buff Orpington. Well, nicht so schnell! Hattie, my image-conscious blonde, has morphed this week into a red-head, or at the very least a strawberry blonde. What's more, her entire body has become increasingly pock-marked with red feathers:

Remember how she looked just a week ago? Still babyish, still buff!

 And here she is today!
note her contribution to the blog--she and Millie adore the laptop
Now don't get me wrong, she's absurdly photogenic in her new dress and she's a real charmer to boot. But I'm just a smidge disappointed not to have an "Orp," as they're called. And I'm also stumped as to just what she is! Perhaps a New Hampshire Red? Any ideas, folks?

And for those who may have wondered, the girls survived their first night in the coop just fine. I, of course, woke up several times and worried. And couldn't sleep past 6. On a Saturday. But they were just fine and even a little reluctant to come out of the coop and have the egg I scrambled for their breakfast. Sleepyheads!

Friday, June 3, 2011

dust bath

I described before the way in which Rosie and Hattie had plopped themselves on the egg plate and launched into a "bizarre spastic ritual" that sent egg flying everywhere. Well, silly me, the very first time we ventured out into the chicken yard it became perfectly clear what that bizarre spastic ritual actually was: a dust bath!

Chickens, like other birds that lack a uropygial gland, keep themselves clean and free of parasites by dust bathing. Right away our girls set up their spa in a corner of the yard. Hattie, once again, was the first to plop herself in a relatively weed-free patch. One of the striking things about a bird about to engage in a dust bath is the air of determination she projects. Most of the time, the girls seem content to blow with the wind, shifting easily and with little apparent reason from roosting to grazing to flapping excitedly about to nodding off. But when a chick gets it in her head that she's due for a bath, there seems to be little that will deter her. And really, why interrupt when a dirty child actually chooses to get in the bath?

Having chosen the most auspicious corner, Hattie got to work. Through a combination of scratching and pecking she loosened the soil at the surface, intermittently pausing to test the depth. Then began the shimmying and shuddering, the flopping and flailing...all undertaken with a kind of eyes-half-closed bliss reminiscent of a cat with catnip or a dog whose belly is being scratched. Or a human having an encounter with The Tingler. Don't let the woman pictured at that link fool you. There was once a Tingler that made the rounds of a certain Opera Orchestra green room (it sounds a little unhygienic, I'll grant you, but desperate times--or a run of Tannhauser--will sometimes lead to desperate measures) and the facial expressions more closely approximated drunken ecstasy than this lady's cheerful grin.

Soon after Hattie began her ablutions, the others joined her. The result was a writhing carpet of mottled feathers and baby fluff, chirping and squealing. And "splashing" dirt all over themselves and each other. But words fail to do it justice. Watch:

This evening is bittersweet. I wrote most of this post from the bench in the chicken yard, having taken the girls out of the house for what I expect will be the last time. My friend Susie, who herself keeps chickens at Thierbach Orchards, told me I would know when it was time to put them out. I think (hope!) she was right. Last night, I arrived home after work to find the chicks had unearthed the layer of paper toweling underneath the wood shavings in the brooder and had made great progress toward completely shredding it. They've become increasingly bold and competent about flapping up to the top of the fount and feeder and even up to the top edge of the brooder. They adore their field trips outside and seem completely at home in their yard (and hate being scooped up and taken back in at the end). The combination of a warm weather forecast and their rapid fledging means they'll likely be warm enough even without a heat lamp.

So after enjoying their frolics and gaining their assistance writing this post...
Millie: giving new meaning to the "hunt and peck" school of typing

yes, Hattie, it's about you!

I rounded them up (easier said than done), put them in the coop and shut the doors. I will be out there as soon as I post this to check on them and again before I go to sleep, I'm sure. But I don't imagine I'll have chickens in my living room again for quite some time. Maybe I should have titled this post "empty nest" instead!