Hobby farm – phase 1: Chicken Update


The "ladies" in the orchard.
The “ladies” in the orchard.

Well, despite the odds of being raised by novices in a house full of cats, our “ladies” as we like to call them, have grown into healthy and obnoxiously lovable creatures.

We nearly signed our divorce papers trying to assemble the pre-fab chicken coop. I’d like to go back to the Co-op and slap the pimple-faced kid behind the counter for telling me it only takes about 20 minutes to put together! I suppose if the morons who “pre-fabed” it knew their way around a measuring tape and how to use a level, it might have only taken 20 minutes. And that’s a big “might.”

Assembling the chicken coop from hell.
Assembling the chicken coop from hell.

It looks OK, but I’m thinking a raccoon would have no trouble unlocking it. We’ll have to do something about that. Raccoons in the country are a species unlike their city cousins. City raccoons are so dignified in comparison. These country guys? They will eat a dog.

So, the ladies are now able to graze free-range style in the orchard by day, and will be cooped up at night in the outdoor coop. They adjusted well to the transition. They even joined us for our picnic the other day, running over for scraps and hugs!

At the picnic.
At the picnic.

Rob was not impressed.




Boys with sticks

Strawberries with cream, peanut butter with jam, boys with sticks; some things just seem to complement each other naturally in life.

I come from a long line of women. I grew up with a mother and two older sisters. I only had one living grandmother. I have a dad, but even he was a woman by default. He would buy our household cartons of tampons and pads and suffer through “the full moon” right along with us. My mom had him trained to sit when he peed (something I have passed along to my own husband – I highly recommend it!), and he took care of most of the household cleaning and cooking.

My own daughters are girls through and through; as are my nieces. My out-of-country sister adopted two boys but, being out of country, their boyish ways have had little influence on me. So when my son arrived into my world, I was ill prepared. It’s a boy?

Oh, boy!

The boy-child
The boy-child

Three years later, I still marvel at what is between his legs. Every time I change his diaper, I honestly can’t believe what I’m seeing. The miniature, hairless “weenis” as my daughter coined it, so precious and, well, un-female….

But I digress.

It’s not just the “weenis” that makes life with a boy-child different. I used to sit in the city parks and be slightly shocked at the goings-on of the boys there. My girls would be playing, gently and carefully, giggling and skipping along. The boys, however, appeared to be at war with one another, or with a tree, or themselves, writhing and hollering, and generally nuts.

I would look at them, and then back at my girls, and give quiet thanks to my “stellar” parenting skills. Little did I know.

“Boys will be boys,” so they say. “They” are presumably mothers or caregivers of boys. That phrase in and of itself almost sounds like an apology, doesn’t it? Instead of saying “Yes, I know, he’s insane and I don’t understand why,” they say “boys will be boys” and everyone nods in solemn agreement.

For my family, dealing with a boy was in part experimental. Suddenly all of the female gender-specific paraphernalia became a thing of the past and we marvel still at what constitutes boy toys. A trip down the “boy” aisle at Toys “R” Us is both horrifying and exciting.

We quickly fell into the gender trap and began buying stuff like Star Wars figurines, books about trucks and tractors, and even picked up a beautiful vintage set of Buffalo Bill toy guns and holsters at a flea market. And who could resist the super hero pyjamas and bulldozer underpants?

Cal with his Buffalo Bill gun and favourite stick.
Cal with his Buffalo Bill gun and favourite stick.

So the argument became the age old “nature versus nurture.” When our son began behaving like an asshole, we were quick to use the above mentioned “apology.” But really, hadn’t we done this to him ourselves? I asked this very question to the parents of a local family I met recently. I honestly expected them to agree that we had, and to scold me for falling into the gender trap. However, they just seemed perplexed that it was even a concern. In the city, little boys can run around in pink skirts if they want to. In the country, I suspect it would be frowned upon.

The turning point for me was when, at a local drop in center, after kicking down a young child’s precariously-balanced stack of blocks, my son made a bee-line for the Barbie hair dryer and proceeded to “shoot” all the mothers in the room with it. It was not a great parenting moment for me. I hustled him out the door and that night, my husband and I decided to ban all toys and movies that conveyed violent behaviour.

I even bagged Buzz Lightyear.

Cal was sad. But, when he realized his favourite sticks (i.e. weapons) were also gone, he was enraged.

At the country school where I have been teaching, their philosophy on child play is either very antiquated, or extremely forward-thinking, depending on your opinion of what constitutes a safe play zone. There, they encourage children to run with sticks and climb trees. They have wooden-seated swings (or tooth extractors as I like to call them) and a metal slide that reminds me of the ones we had growing up. They have access to sharp tools; they throw snowballs, fall down, get hurt, and carry on. It’s quite intriguing to watch, actually.

I was discussing this different philosophy with one of the teachers during break when the door to the classroom flew open and one of my students came in, dragging a large tree limb behind him. We continued talking about the differences between what is generally accepted as “safe play” as the student hoisted the limb up onto a table and began rummaging through the cupboards until he found – wait for it – a hand saw.

I finally interrupted my conversation and, gesturing towards the table said, “Like this for instance. In a public school system, you would never see this!”

We both watched, mesmerized, as he furiously sawed away.

The Current on CBC Radio had an interesting show recently on this very subject. Studies have been conducted over the years about “safe” play grounds vs. “un-safe,” and the results have been surprising. There were far fewer injuries in the “un-safe” zones. There was a decrease in bullying and vandalism, and children learned important life skills in the process.

Swordplay, it seems, not only helps children explore the boundaries of relationships (good vs. evil), but also encourages imagination. And as Harry Harbottle says in an interview with Jian Ghomeshi on CBC’s Q (“Are playgrounds too safe?”), children are no longer able to learn how to manage risks.

By allowing my son to engage in these “violent” behaviours, to a degree and within reason, we are in fact helping him to be become a better person. One who can actually manage risk independently; a child who understands that actions have consequences and who can channel his aggression in a healthy way.

The violent toys and movies are still in a bag in the basement, but the sticks are back. Leaning against the side of the house, on top of the bookshelf, in the car…the little swords and guns of his imagination; precious in their innocuousness.

And all I can do is hope and pray that he will grow up to be a good man.

My nephews, Luke and Jude, carrying a large stick during their visit here last summer.
My nephews, Luke and Jude, carrying a large stick during their visit here last summer.

Dead things

A few days ago, I hosted my neighbours for an afternoon get-together. We wanted to take a hike through our bush to see the “huge disgusting dead thing” our kids had come upon during a hike a few days earlier. The way they described it had me thinking it might be worth a phone call to the prehistoric remains society!

In the city you might happen upon a squirrel freshly flattened onto the road or, if you’re up before the clean up crew, a cat or a raccoon.

Here, there is death everywhere.

It is part of the rural culture. Animals are raised for slaughter, men hunt and the general landscape of bush and acreage allows for nature to take its course in the circle of life. Coyotes can be heard hunting in packs in the night and the fox on our property has taken it upon himself to reduce the rabbit population.

A disturbingly fabulous image by Sally Mann.
A disturbingly fabulous image by Sally Mann.

Hawks and vultures circle above, barn kittens die of neglect; nests are raided leaving bits of pretty shells scattered about…and all these things, both big and small, have been significant learning curves for me. In the city we lead a fairly protected existence from all of this. Our road kill is quickly cleaned away; our meat is presented to us in clean, wrapped packages. This certainly didn’t prepare me for farm life.

Broken shells and a nest collected from my property.
Broken shells and a nest collected from my property.

The country is full of dead things. This is a fact I learned very quickly. And, it’s often dramatic. Last year there was a dead pig on the side of the road. A large, dead pig. Of course road kill here is varied and abundant, but the pig was a shock. This spring there was a severed rabbit carcass at my door step. A rabbit. Severed. (Thanks to my neighbour Ann for cleaning that one up for me!)

Out for a stroll a few days later I found its wee tail. How nice. Then there was the huge jaw bone on my driveway…that was special. And how about the head (of what might have been from above mentioned rabbit, but hey…) poking up from the melting snow next to the crocus?

The spring has also awakened the serial killer instinct in my “barn” cats. They are killing machines, bringing home quantities of mice, moles, chipmunks and snakes.

Back in the bush, we found the remains the kids had discovered, and it was a deer. Nothing nearly as dramatic as we were anticipating, but impressive nonetheless. It had been dead for some time with most of the bones already clean. It was both fascinating and morbid to look at, actually (I have an interest in skulls and may end up keeping this one for my collection). As I stood there, I wondered how many other “dead things” this bush had claimed over the years. Things, gone to ground, that I would never see.

Country living will toughen you up, there’s no doubt about it. But I don’t want to toughen up too much. I appreciate the circle of life, but I hope I never get to the point where I see death and don’t feel it.

I have a coffee table book, What Remains by Sally Mann. It contains a collection of photographs she took of people and places, post-humus. It is beautifully done, and absolutely captivating to look at. I will give the final words to her:

“When the land subsumes the dead, they become the rich body of earth, the dark matter of creation. As I walk the fields of this farm, beneath my feet shift the bones of incalculable bodies; death is the sculptor of the ravishing landscape, the terrible mother, the damp creator of life, by whom we are one day devoured.”

They’re here!

Edwina the yellow chick with Elsa and Henrietta

They’re here!

Cal and I picked our chicks up after work yesterday. I knew they’d be cute but, omg!

The drive home from “the Co-op” was very stressful. The nice shop lady warned me not to let them near any drafts, so when I opened the door to leave the store, the torrential rain and monsoon winds we were experiencing yesterday nearly blew the box right out of my hands. I was certain I had already killed them.

I wrangled Cal into the car and as I was tucking the box into the front passenger seat, I wondered for a moment if I should be strapping them in. (Really?!) And it gets crazier.

While driving home listening to their little chirps, my nipples twitched and I thought I was going to start lactating all over my steering wheel. It was reminiscent of those days of new motherhood, when you’d be driving like a zombie hopped up on cocaine to get home so you could feed the crying newborn strapped in your backseat.

God, that was awful.

Fortunately for all involved, that didn’t happen.

We got home and opened the box. Turns out little chicks can be black, not just yellow. I mentioned this fact to one of the dads at my daughter’s gymnastic lesson later that night to which he replied, “We don’t see a lot of black chicks around these parts, (insert belly laugh here).”

Oh boy.

Anyway, we now have two little black chicks and one very round yellow one. They have survived the night, and the cats (and dog) have been very welcoming.

If they live, we will have our own eggs in 18 weeks.

George, the “barn cat,” babysitting.