Friday, 13 July 2012

Terror in the Coop

I am, by some standards, not a farmer. I can be matter of fact about the realities of life and nature, but when those realities come into my barn they admittedly come into my heart as well. Tragedy hit our coop last Sunday, and in the process kicked my daughter and I in the gut. And I admit that I cried. Several times, actually. Seems so silly to cry over a bunch of chickens, but there you have it. A country girl who perhaps has no business living in the country. Or perhaps I do.

We knew we had trouble when the feed bin in the barn was knocked over. We had bought a good strong bin with a lid that clasped down. But the second time it was knocked over it had popped open. Then we noticed foot prints. Or paw prints. We have heard of problems with fishers in this area, but it was unclear if the prints were fisher or raccoon. Either one would be as likely and capable of knocking the bin over and enjoying what spilled.

Then one morning my daughter, whose nickname is Hopechick, came running back in from the barn, obviously upset. When she went into the barn a raccoon peered around the corner at her. Choosing the right response, she immediately ran back to the house, slamming the barn door behind her in hopes of scaring it and preventing it from chasing her. It worked. When I reached the barn the raccoon had taken refuge on a beam near the ceiling. We watched until my husband came with the only weapon we have – a hockey stick –and then left the barn while he carefully urged it from its hiding place. Our intention wasn’t to kill the raccoon, but in the process it was wounded so we couldn’t leave it alive. However, we also realized that having found easy food in the barn it had become bold, making it very dangerous. With my young girls caring for chickens in the barn, it would not have been safe to leave it alive. We made a mental note to purchase a weapon that would be more humane for future encounters.

In the process of getting the raccoon, my husband accidently knocked the coop door open. The coon of course ran in. My husband noted some chickens in the inner coop so prevented it from going that way. Then he called to me and was able to hand those in the outer coop to me. I took each one and put them all in the inner coop and closed the door, shouting out to Hopechick that they were all accounted for, and all were fine. My husband dealt with the raccoon.

But evidently raccoons don’t travel alone. Almost a week later, on Sunday morning, my daughter again came running back to the house after checking on the chickens. I was dressed for church, ready to head out a little early that day with my parents, who were visiting. She was unable to tell us much, getting only words out. Words like“all dead” and “only Clara is alive.” I quickly kicked of my heels and donned my barn shoes, dashing past my mother and out the door to the barn. My poor girl had to stop half way there because she thought she was going to be sick. The sight that met me at the coop explained why.

Several chickens lay dead and headless on the floor of the coop. Two were alive, but badly wounded. One came in from the outer coop, hearing us I assume, and she looked a little worse for wear, but not as wounded as the other two. I stood dumbfounded. What had happened? Taking in what I could, trying not to take in what I couldn’t, I stood there in my skirt & blouse, hair done, all ready for church, surveying the sad scene. Some of the bodies were recognizable, which added to the tragedy. One of the badly wounded survivors was my beloved Clara Cluck. I was at first glad she had made it, but later saddened by what she must have endured until she was mercifully removed from her pain.

My husband and parents arrived at the barn and I returned to the house to call our neighbours. Good neighbours are always a blessing, but in the country they are a necessity! I knew they had chickens and have had to deal with predators and wounded birds before. I also knew they were not the type to just “put down” any wounded animal, but would be conservative in that regard and help us save any that we could humanely save.

I hardly had spoken the words that we had something in the coop when my neighbour quickly said, “We’ll be right there.” They arrived and helped us assess the situation. We found the breach in the coop. They helped remove the dead birds. They took the wounded outside in the light to assess their wounds. It was clear that the two could not survive. They took them to spare us having to deal with that. They checked out the one survivor, Mabel, and determined that with help she might be able to be saved. They left us with a trap and advice on how to trap the predator. We thanked them gratefully. And we thanked God for experienced neighbours who cared enough to come, and even offered a hug as they saw the devastation we had experienced. As they held the wounded chicks, Hopechick said, “Mum, that’s Clara.” I nodded and my neighbour gave me a hug. They know we’re “greenhorns” and that with so few chickens they are difficult to lose in such a violent way.

Hopechick and I sat with Mabel as my husband cleaned the big dog crate we had used as a brooder. We comforted Mabel and we comforted each other. One would survive. Hopechick praised God for this. She had called her Mighty Mabel before this, and even though it was an ironic name for the most timid in the flock, she proved it to be true.

Getting her settled in the cage-brooder, we thought about how to best care for her. Her face was hurt, but otherwise there were no injuries. Her eyes were swollen shut. She had black marks on her face and comb, and the end of her tongue seemed blackened as well. Her lower beak was broken, or at least cracked, and seemed to be a bit crooked as well. Whether she would be able to eat was the biggest concern right from the start.

Since her jaw wouldn’t close all the way we decided to try using a straw to drop some water into her mouth. She couldn’t see, so didn’t balk at the process and swallowed what we fed her. Later we tried some water with food dissolved in it, but it was too thick and she wouldn’t/couldn’t swallow it.

That night we brought her cage into the house and kept the cat & dog in closed rooms so they wouldn’t scare her. We have nursed her all week, and she has shown great improvement. By Monday she was opening one eye well and walking around. By Tuesday she opened the second eye a bit, and was scratching at the ground and rubbing her beak on the ground as chickens do when they forage. Her face & comb wounds were also fading well by this point.

By Wed she was able to drink water on her own (a good thing since she was by then well enough to fight the dropper we were using) and was acting much more “chicken-like.” Her beak is definitely cracked, but she was by this point able to close it almost completely. On the advice of a friend we bought a powder to mix in her water that contains vitamins, penicillin and other good stuff. She has been drinking this solution well, which has undoubtedly helped with her healing. But was still unable to pick up food in her beak. I tried to put pieces of feed in her mouth, far enough back that she would swallow it, but she fought that process as well and usually dropped the piece out of her beak, so I was only able to get her to eat a couple of pieces.

This morning, Friday, I wrote to a chicken website ( and asked for advice about caring for a chicken with a cracked beak. On the advice I received I soaked some feed in water, not to make a solution as we had tried before, but just to make the feed soft & fluffy. I put it in a deep dish and held it for Mabel to see. She began to peck at it and I could tell that she was finally getting some food into her beak far enough to ingest it!

Mighty Mabel, Able Mabel, Miracle Mabel…from the most timid to the only survivor, she has earned all of these titles that we have found ourselves using this week. The next order of business is to clean up the coop and make it more secure. We have two weeks to make it safe as we can order new chickens on Aug 1, to be delivered Aug 8, and it is important to have a safe place for them, and for Mabel to be able to go back to her home with some new friends.

Meanwhile, we have been setting the trap in the barn and have caught two more raccoons. These have been disposed of humanely by a friend of our neighbour. I do not like killing animals, but when they pose a threat to my children, not to mention the animals in our care, I am not willing to take chances. Raccoons, by the way, are clever with traps, and after the first one was trapped the other one moved the trap and turned it over to get the bait safely. My husband put heavy water cans on top of it and heavy sand pails beside to finally immobilize it enough so the raccoon couldn’t move it, and we were able to trap another last night. This is not quite the adventure I was looking for when we moved to the country, but I guess it is part of country life, though an unpleasant part. But we take the bad with the good, learn from it, and move on to hopefully a better, safer coop for the next batch of chickens.

This whole experience has made me wonder if it would be better to just keep the hens more pragmatically. They give us eggs, we care for them, but not to get attached in any way. However, half the fun of raising chickens has been in getting to know them. Hopechick could tell them all apart, though I admit that in recent weeks as they approached adult-hood some were becoming more difficult for me to recognize. We knew them by personality as much as by look. We knew which would be the first to come peck at the rivets on jeans when squatted down in the coop (Omelet), which one would come over jealous of attention another chicken was getting (Mabel), which we could only pet on the perch but never on the ground (Clara& Frou Frou). It was hard to lose them, yes, but we will do it all again with a new brood, though we are not ready to start from chick again quite yet. We will get pullets ready to lay, hopefully next month, and possibly consider chicks in the spring when the weather warms up. But we’ll cross that bridge when we get to it. For now, we move on and start over, a little sadder, but a little wiser, hopeful that this time our endeavours will not be thwarted.

Tuesday, 8 May 2012

The Waking of Spring

Every morning and 6 am, weather permitting, I take my coffee & my devotional magazine onto the deck and listen to the land wake up.  It is my favourite time of day.  As spring has crept in I have felt somewhat like I’ve been watching the whole acreage wake up from its winter slumber.  More and more varieties of birds have arrived, many of them serenade us daily, much to our delight!  We have discovered frogs in the small pond out front, herons flying over head, and more kinds of plants than we’ve ever seen!  Every day that I step outside new leaves are opening up on this bush or that tree, spring blossoms beginning to appear and slowly open, new discoveries are there to be found every day.

We were supposed to move here in the summer.  If we had, we would have discovered much of this already.  But moving in November means most of the birds have flown south and most plants have died or gone dormant.  So we really are discovering new things with the arrival of spring.   Every day feels like the day we first arrived at the property with so much to explore, so much to enjoy!

When I was a child, we spent many summer holidays camping in national and provincial parks.  Banff, Jasper, Long Beach and Honeymon State Park in the US were some of my favourites.  One of my favourite parts of these trips was learning about all the flora and fauna of the area.  In those days when you entered the park you would be given pamphlets on all sorts of things, and I poured through them all!  My favourites were the ones that explained how to identify the various trees, animal tracks and wildlife.  I spent days collecting pine needles and inspecting bark so I would know what kind of trees surrounded our campsite.  I sat for hours in an empty campsite, crouched beside a picnic table, with bits of bread on my knees and shoulders, hoping a squirrel or chipmunk would be brave enough to come get them.  And I sat perfectly still as they did!  When we camped near the ocean, I could spend all afternoon just watching the surf and listening to the roaring waves.  The first time I went to the ocean with my husband he was astounded at the number of pictures I took of the waves.  This was before the days of digital photography, back when we had to pay for each print!  “They’re all the same,”  He said.  “No they’re not,” I insisted.  “They’re all waves,” he was sure.  “But they’re all DIFFERENT waves,” I explained.  My goal was to capture a wave just as it crested and began to break.  I had pictures of waves at every different stage, but very few at that precise moment that I was looking for.  But I loved watching and trying to capture that moment.

Nature is inspiring.  Virtually all of the poetry of my youth was written on camping trips.   A year did not feel complete if I had not been camping, not spent a week or two exploring and enjoying nature by day, sitting by a campfire by night.   That is, in part, why I looked forward so much to our move to the acreage.  On these warmer spring days I feel like I’m camping, only I get to live here!  Every time that realization comes to mind, I smile.

One of my favourite times of day is first thing in the morning.  My husband leaves for work at 6 am, and if the weather cooperates I go straight to the deck where I listen to the birds wake up.  Just one or two songs at first, then others join in one by one.  I count it a great privilege to listen to the birds wake up.  To hear them call to each other as they start their day.  The rippling brook gives the underlying melody to their symphony.  The woodpeckers add rhythm.  And the sun bursts out over the trees in the east like the conductor, bringing it all to life.  The higher the sun, the more “instruments” join in.  The percussion of the woodpeckers, the cooing of the doves, the chattering of the squirrels and the many, many songs of the other birds from whistles to cheeps, long shrill calls to short chirps.

Through the day I enjoy the sounds as I wander the grounds, discovering trees with new leaves, shoots coming up from the ground, and now buds on some of those shoots.  Soon those buds will be opening and I will finally be able to identify many of the plants I am discovering.  In future posts I will share pictures and hopefully names of these discoveries.  This is part of the adventure, the excitement, of my new life in the country!

As I write I am sitting on my deck at dusk, fighting off the mosquitoes, but feeling it’s worth it to hear the steady chorus of the tree frogs.  Various birds chime in from time to time with their wide range of songs, some chattering persistently, others calling out at long intervals.  The air is still and cool, carrying the pungent and fresh mixture of spruce, pine and cedar.  I can hear the bubbling of the creek behind the house.  Soon the birds will rest for the night and the bats will take over.  On nights when we’re out after dark we are treated to the high, squeaky sound of their nightly conversations.  I can’t wait for the weather to be warm enough to sleep with the window open.  To be lulled to sleep by the creek and the crickets will be heavenly!

Thursday, 3 May 2012

Meet the Chickens!

The last time I posted spring was in the air, but not yet arrived.  The end of March, the end of winter, the end of the quiet part of small farm life!  I may learn to love winter by virtue of the lowered activity level required to keep the farm going!  Although I will never really enjoy going out in sub-zero temperatures to staple plastic around the chicken coop!

All the same, spring has arrived, and with it a myriad of tasks and a flurry of activity which have all worked together to whittle my writing time down to almost nothing.  It also allows me more time outside, which inspires my writing but ironically leaves me with less time to write. With so much going on, and more than a month unreported, I will have to summarize what’s been going on, and leave more to your imagination than I normally would.  Although, once I get writing I tend to keep going, so that is not a promise!

The first order of business, since my last post was about the impending arrival of 6 fluffy little chicks, is to introduce you to the new brood!  They are a fun little bunch that we have all come to enjoy, but hope to be moving out to the coop with the “big girls” very soon.

Before they arrived we had decided to choose names for them that were reminiscent of “old fashioned hens,” at least in our minds.  The idea came from a cat named Prudence that appeared on an episode of the Waltons.  “What a perfect name for a chicken!” I thought.  And so we began to come up with a list of names.  A few of us had a name that we particularly wanted, and those three chicks quickly became associated with the one who named it.  Really, all the chicks are Kathleen’s – she’s our resident bird lady – but of course we each have favourites.  It is a great deal of fun to watch them and to see how their little poultry-personalities are being defined.  If we’re not sure which is which by their feathering, we can often tell just by how the bird is behaving!  But as they are growing into their permanent “big girl” feathers, it is becoming increasingly easy to tell who’s who in the brooder.

First, the older two we purchased “ready to lay.”  These two have feet that are more yellow than our older two chickens.  And their combs are considerably smaller.  They were distinctive immediately, both in looks and personality.  The first we named Prudence (of course – after Mrs. Brimmer’s cat).  Prudence (on the left in this picture) showed herself to be the high-strung of the two, strutting around at her full height and periodically letting out the sound we had typically used as a chicken sound but had heretofore not actually heard a chicken make.  Ba-KAWK! 

The second, and quickly our favourite, of the new chickens we named Mabel.  Mabel is the quiet, submissive chicken.  She generally waddles around making a very soft, throaty clucking sound – the kind of chicken sound I have come to love when I go visit the girls in the barn.  She is also the one who was the brunt of the new “pecking order” competition.  Even though Prudence is more dominant, it was Mabel that our current hen mother, Smilie Fry, decided to pick, or peck, on.  With Smilie pecking at Mabel we noticed French Fry would join in.  This trend was a little worrisome, so Smilie Fry spent a few nights in the dog crate (in the coop) to separate her so that we knew Mabel would be safe.  Once it warmed up enough to let them into the outside part of their coop, they had enough to do and have left each other alone.  Now they are four laying hens that seem to get along.  Soon we’ll be letting them out of the coop for the day, and that will help things further, especially once the younger pullets join them.

Now for the chicks:

Amelia – I’m not sure how this one was chosen for the name, but it was a name Kathleen wanted to use, so Amelia is considered hers, even though they are really all hers.  Amelia has often shown “mother hen” tendencies, but is not very aggressive, which is good for everybody.  She was one of the first to develop “big girl” feathers, learn to roost & fly, and otherwise grow up.  She now has darker red around her neck with white feathers on her back and wings.

Annabelle – Annabelle quickly became everyone’s favourite!  She loves to nestle in and would settle right into the palm of your hand for a snooze when she was small enough to do so.  She has always been the lightest in colour, and remains so now with her golden feathers from head to toe.  And she still loves to roost so if you pick her up be prepared to hold her on your finger for a good long while!

Clara Cluck – This is my girl.  I chose the name remembering an old Mickey Mouse record I had as a girl.  Mickey would introduce each act on the record and I recall his mousy voice announcing this world renowned singer, “Claraaaaaaaa Cluck!”  After which the chicken would do a lovely “pawk-pawk-pawk” to whatever tune she was singing.  I loved that record…  But I digress.  Clara is the most beautiful bird, in my opinion.  She was the yellowest chick and now has the darker red head & neck, barred with white.  Her body and wings are white barred with the dark red.  Gorgeous!  She is a very curious bird, usually the first to come see what’s up when you visit the brooder, and often the first to fly up for a chance to come out and play.  And once she's on your hand, she is very likely to climb up your arm to your shoulder, around your back...

Frou Frou – This is the name Victoria chose.  I don’t know why.  But when one of the new chicks began to peck at my rings – and continue to peck at them every time I reached into the brooder – we decided she would be Frou Frou.  She has always been the darkest chick and now sports the darkest over-all colouring, not quite as dark as Amelia’s & Clara’s necks, but with no white she is the darkest over all.  And yes, she still loves to peck at my rings!

Omelet – Another name that doesn’t quite fit the theme, this was Emily’s choice.  With a name like Omelet, we chose the chick who was the first to find the feeder and who seemed to eat voraciously right from the start.  She has always been the smallest of the chicks, her head was yellow like Clara’s but her back was brown.  As a young pullet she is now mostly brownish red with stripes of white feathers across her wings.  She is a very friendly bird, and while Clara is quicker to jump at opportunities, Omelet always wants to come out and play.

Henrietta – Henrietta was typically untypical.  She had no distinguishing features and so we often identified her by eliminating the others.  A little darker than Annabelle, lighter than Frou Frou, without the striping of Omelet…  Still, we loved her as we do all the chicks.  Sadly, she introduced us to the tragedy that is part of life on a farm.  When moving the growing chicks to a new location in the house, and cleaning out the brooder in the process, it happened that the dog was able to sneak in and terrorize the poor little birds.  Thinking these would be fun to play with, he got Henrietta in his grasp and while he was gentle enough to not puncture her skin, she did not survive the pressure of his playful jaws.  It was a pretty traumatic few minutes as Matthew got the dog out of the house, I sat with Henrietta to see if I could do anything to save her, and Kathleen ran up and down the hallway trying desperately to find something, some way to help.  Emily sat beside me, and eventually the three of us sat where Henrietta lay, knowing there was nothing we could do.  We found a shoebox and buried Henrietta just inside the forest behind the barn, not far from the coop.

And these are our chickens.  The 5 young ones are just over 6 weeks old now.  They are too big to still be in the house, but we can’t put them in the coop until the nights are a little warmer, which, by the forecast, looks like it should be soon.  I read that the optimum time to introduce new young pullets to a flock is at 2 months of age, so that should be about right.  As the weather allows the older birds to forage on the grounds during the day, that will also help keep them occupied and busy so as to prevent too much pecking in the coop.  The plan is to put them in the coop in the brooder (which is actually a large dog crate), under the heat lamp if necessary, so the birds can all get used to each other before they are allowed free in the coop.  Once they are, it could take some talent letting the older four out to “free range” while not letting the younger 5 out until they have sufficiently learned where they need to return to roost.

Tuesday, 20 March 2012

The Birdies in the Treetops and the Starry Morning Sky

Yes, I actually wrote today's post today...

Today is the first day of spring.  Normally, out west, this day would be likely to yield inches of snow, possibly multiple feet would be accumulated during the month of March.  Temperatures would rise above zero, only long and high enough to tease…then drop below and send us shivering back into the house.  Cabin fever reigned in those springs.  That maddening desire to get outside weeks before the weather was conducive to such activity.

But not this year.  This year I live in a land of seasons.  And as if to welcome me here we are experiencing record-blasting temperatures this week, bringing spring in with temperatures those in my former town would consider summer heat.  I am enjoying every minute of this wonderful warmth, while wondering how cold the normal spring temperatures – still a far cry warmer than was normal in Alberta – will feel when they return this weekend.

However, I will not think about that.  I will simply enjoy every day as it comes.  This morning that meant that, seeing that the temperature at 6 am had already reached a tolerable 6 degrees, I took my coffee onto the deck.  It seemed incongruous to me to be warm enough to be outside yet to have stars still twinkling above.  I tried to resist the urge to name every star I saw, did have to get out my “Pocket Astronomer” and figure out a few locations, but managed to put it away after a short time and simply stare in wonder at the beauty above.  I really do like to know what I’m looking at (and am currently still getting used to where things are in relation to my new home), but sometimes I need to just enjoy the beauty.  (The photo is of Venus & Jupiter taken in the evening about a week ago.)

I spent almost an hour on the deck this morning.  It was too damp to sit, and I was too lazy to get a towel to dry anything off, so I stood at the end of the deck, gazing across the lawn up at the stars and over at the trees.  Saturn was out this morning, not far below Arcturus, shining brightly among its twinkling friends.  I did not want to take the time this morning to get out the telescope, but will make a note to have it ready tomorrow.  Turning off the kitchen light will give me zero light pollution.  Just one more benefit to living in the country!

Another benefit is the birds.  As I gazed at the beautiful, starry sky, I was treated to the most delightful sound.  The birds were waking up.  At first there were only two or three distinct calls, but within a half an hour there were more than I could count!  The many layers of sound intrigue me and whenever I’m outside listening to the birds I find my ears listening to see how many I can distinguish as unique calls.  I decided to find some good bird call websites and see how many calls I can learn to identify.  I find it frustrating that I can hear them but can’t see who they are.  I can recognize the distinctive calls of the chickadees and mourning doves so far, but there are so many more!  Learning their song should help me to know who is treating me to such glorious music each day.  (The robin in this photo, taken through my binoculars, reminds me of the song at the end of this post.)

I was reminded, as I often am on days like this, of a song I learned at camp many years ago.  It goes like this:

What a beautiful day, a beautiful time to say, Thank You, Jesus.
What a beautiful day, a beautiful time to say, Thank You, Jesus.
The sun is so bright, the sky is so blue
All the birds are singing praise to You.
What a beautiful day, a beautiful time to say, Thank You, Jesus.

The birds sing His praise all around me, and I can’t help but join in their song.  Before coming in I took a deep breath of the fresh morning air.  I could stand on my deck for the rest of my life and be perfectly happy.  I could stay outside, never leaving this land, and be as content as one of the birds who sang to me this morning.  On second thought, I probably wouldn’t stay on the deck, but would have to wander over the lawns and through the trees, across the creek and into the pasture.  But I could stay here and never leave…  but there is more to life than the enjoyment of one’s blessings.  It is good to count them and sing praise to the One who blesses, but there is work to be done, so I returned to the indoors where my work waits for the attention it needs today.

And this is the reason I have not posted in awhile.  I will be giving a workshop at the Kitchener/Waterloo Home Education Conference on March 31.  Writing my workshop had taken some time, and yesterday I discovered that the work I did last week had been lost through the wonders of technology.  I have a little over a week to re-write what I lost and to complete it as well, so that will be my focus for the next while.  My other somewhat large project for the spring is the Annual Ceremonial Review for our cadet squadron, which I have been put in charge of.  I’ve done this two years before, but this is my first year with this squadron and I’m still getting to know how they do things out here.  That will be another focus over the next several months.

And for the next few days I, along with the rest of my family, will be focused on the chicks!  Two new laying hens will have to be introduced to our veterans in the barn.  And six baby chicks will be requiring our care over the next few days.  They may not need as much care as we give them, but being the greenhorns that we are we will be giving them care anyway!  The girls are very excited and have cleaned up their room to make space for the brooder.  Having chicks in a bedroom, I am sure we will discover quickly, is not ideal, however we need them in a room that can be closed to keep the cat out when we are not around to supervise.  So that is where they’ll start. 

So for now I must get to work.  But I will be back tomorrow to post pictures of the girls and their chicks!  Until then, breathe deep of the blessings God has poured into your life today!

The birdies in the treetops sing their song
The angels chant their chorus all day long
The flowers in the garden lend their hue
So why shouldn’t I, why shouldn’t you, praise Him too!

Friday, 2 March 2012

Whose Woods These Are

And, as promised at the end of my last post, here is the rest of the story...

From January 6, 2012 

As I thought, I turned eastward toward the forest.  This is one of my favourite places, partly due to a very old and interesting tree that seems to have been the site of a tree house long ago, and because it stands on the edge of the forest.  I walked toward the edge of our property and stood gazing into the woods, listening to the sound of the stillness.  Often I have stood on this spot, the woods calling me to enter and explore, but I have turned away either without the time or the proper clothing, longing for warm summer days in which to take long walks through these woods and discover their paths.  But on this day I could not turn away.  I stood listening to the birds, drawn to enter the woods, yet loathing the sound of my own footsteps.  The last thing I wanted to do was to disturb the stillness which was beginning to surround me and draw me into itself.

The draw was greater than I could resist and so I entered, the snow crunching under my feet.  Yet the birds seemed not to care.  Perhaps the sound I made was no more than that of a young deer wandering through the woods looking for nourishment in the undergrowth.  Perhaps they were simply too occupied with their own quest for food to notice my slow movement below.  Whatever the case, I moved slowly through the trees, away from the woods’ edge, stopping to listen to the activity overhead.

There was a woodpecker, I was sure.  I peered through the branches above but could not see the busy bird.  But I could hear him, though whether he was digging a hole in which to nest or simply looking for bugs in the tree’s bark I could not tell. 

I stood amid the trees, an audience of one, listening to the orchestra playing above me.  Chiming in with the woodpecker was the distinct call of the chickadees.  As if on cue, the music of other sections of the aviary orchestra rose and fell and rose again.  Soft tweet-tweets, raspy caw-caws, and the percussive notes of the unseen woodpecker, together sang of the beauty over which they flew.  Never have I heard a more peaceful, beautiful symphony.

I watched, hoping to catch a glimpse of the feathered musicians, and occasionally was rewarded with the sight of a bird flying to a new perch, as the fluttering of his wings joined the chorus.  Often I saw a branch sway with its changing load as birds came and went from the perch it offered.

I moved deeper into the woods, feeling as if I were sneaking backstage, listening in on a private performance not meant for human ears.  Yet this heavenly music is there, falling on the ears of all willing to stop and listen.

Stop.  Listen.  This is the sound of stillness, a stillness so full that even my blood resisted flowing through my veins so as not to disturb it, or possibly to become part of it. 

“Be still, and know that I am God,” we are encouraged by the psalmist.  But what does it mean to be still?  Here was the answer before me.  To be still, truly still, is complete contentment.  Nothing else matters.  All is peaceful.  All is right.  All is beautiful.  Can this be found amid the trials of life?  Only in the presence of God, as the stillness of these woods can be experienced amid the craziness of the world, but only when we take the time to stop and feel it.  I could hear traffic, far off traffic, traffic that did not drown out the sound of the silence.  I was most definitely still in the world, but I felt not part of it in those moments.

Gradually the cold began to invade my solitude in the form of pain in my earlobes and discomfort in my legs.  Still I hesitated to leave.  The stillness I had found was greater than even the pain of the cold.  Yet the cold served to remind me that I could not stay in the woods forever.  I had to return to the house, to life, and a good life it is.

I turned and reluctantly left the wintery woods, the symphony playing on behind me.  One last check in the barn to make sure doors were secure and the animals were content, and I headed back across the pasture towards the house, knowing now where peace resides.

Some Poetry...

My time in the woods, especially in winter, often brings to mind one of my favourite poems, "Stopping By Woods on a Snowy Evening" by Robert Frost.  As I thought about this well-loved poem, another thought occured to me and when I returned to the house I decided to re-write it.  I hope Mr. Frost would be flattered by the attempt and not insulted that I would change his original poem.  Loving the poem as I do, I then had to look up the full original, and did another re-write keeping much closer to the original.  Both are below, along with Robert Frost's original poem.

Whose Woods These Are

Whose woods these are I think I know,
His house is in the heavens, though.
He feeds the birds in treetops tall
He knows each one and if they fall.
The winter stillness, midst the snow,
Falling on all we below,
Fills my heart with peaceful bliss
As snowflakes to the branches kiss.
I wander through these woods so deep,
Wishing all the while to keep
The peace and stillness in my heart
E’en when these woods and I must part.
I long to stay here ‘neath the trees
Drinking in the pine-fed breeze,
But I’ve got promises to keep,
And miles to go before I sleep.
                           January 7, 2012

Stopping By Woods on a Snowy Evening
By Robert Frost 1874–1963 Robert Frost
Whose woods these are I think I know.
His house is in the village though;
He will not see me stopping here
To watch his woods fill up with snow.
My little horse must think it queer
To stop without a farmhouse near
Between the woods and frozen lake
The darkest evening of the year.
He gives his harness bells a shake
To ask if there is some mistake.
The only other sound’s the sweep
Of easy wind and downy flake.
The woods are lovely, dark and deep.
But I have promises to keep,
And miles to go before I sleep,
And miles to go before I sleep.
And my version...
Whose woods these are I think I know.
His house is in the Heavens, though;
He always sees me stopping here
To rest my weary heart and soul.
And though the world may think it queer
To stop and then incline my ear
To hear the One whose comfort makes
Bearable the darkest time of year.
He holds me close although I shake
Because of guilt o’er some mistake
His promise clear that He will keep
Me ever in His warm embrace.
The woods are lovely, dark and deep.
But I have strength from Him to keep
Me going on until I sleep,
To live for Him until I sleep.
                               January 16, 2012

Wednesday, 29 February 2012

Back to the Coop

This post is really just a precursor for the one to follow, but for now, here's the first half...

From January 6, 2012

Everyone had something to do, and I felt restless, not able to concentrate enough for any of the tasks I could had chosen to do that afternoon.  Then I recalled that the evening before I had thought about going out to the barn today, to see if it might be possible to put a heated water dish in the chicken coop in a way that would ensure the hens (and their hungry beaks) could not in any way access the cord.  The water dish currently sits under the heat lamp, and I would rather not use that spot for water in case the chickens themselves need to bathe in the warmth it provides on some cold winter morning.  It would also remove the possibility of the water freezing on particularly frigid nights, in spite of our diligence in refilling the dish daily.

As I thought about this, the idea of going out to the barn appealed to me more and more.  I’m not outside as much as I’d like to be these days, due to the cold and snow, but whenever I do venture out I linger as long as my freezing earlobes can endure, soaking in the beauty of my new natural surroundings.  And so I donned my barn jacket and some warm mitts and snow boots and headed out into the late afternoon.

I rounded the corner of the garage, walked half way across the bridge and stopped.  Under the cover of my footsteps the creek could not be heard, but standing perfectly still I could hear it quietly gurgling just beneath its icy crust.  The faint sound was reassuring, though I was not sure why.  With my eyes I followed the tiny footprints of a small forest creature who had descended one rocky bank, crossed the snow-covered ice to the other, and evidently not finding a way up had headed back to the south bank and under the bridge.  Since no tracks appeared on the other side of the bridge I assumed that the creature must have found a way up out of the creek gorge beneath the bridge.

I moved on to the pasture, pushing the gate open as much as possible against the ridge of ice that had built up on the pasture side of the opening.  This would be difficult to shovel away, given that it was no longer packed snow but had melted and frozen into sheer, solid ice during the strange up-and-down temperatures we’d been having.  Closing the gate behind me I angled toward the well to check the water level in the trough.  It was low enough to assure me that Whopper had been drinking, but high enough that it did not urgently require filling. 

From there I made my way toward the barn.  Whopper watched me cross from the window in his stall and greeted me as I came near with his raspy bray.  Noticing the uncharacteristic lack of sound from the other end of the barn I called to the chickens, but received no reply.  It always makes me nervous when they’re quiet because they so rarely are.  But upon entering the coop I found both birds on their perch, apparently happy to see me.  I say they were happy to see me because they allowed me not only to stroke their back, but to snuggle them warmly into my chest, surrounding them with my arms.  I thought they might need a little warming, but did not expect them to allow this much closeness.  But Smiley Fry sat quite contentedly in my arms for several minutes, and even French Fry allowed me to hug her momentarily.  They must be cold, was my only thought, and so I gave freely of my warmth, though how much they received from me through my jacket I can not say.

I surveyed the coop and noticed that their food was quite low.  Had the girls not added seed to their feeder that morning, or in the cold are they eating that much more than usual?  Whatever the reason, they clearly needed food, so I left the coop and returned with a full pail of chicken feed.  As I proceeded to refill their feeder, the two grateful hens came at once and began pecking at the seed.  Perhaps it was their hunger that made them so friendly toward me initially.  Perhaps one day I will actually understand these birds a little.  But for now all I can do is to keep them fed and as warm as possible. “Two months,” I told the birds, “and it will begin to warm up again.”  I just have to get them through the next two cold months, and then we’ll be home free.  And in February I can order a few more chickens to fill out the coop with more company for them and eggs for us.  I wish I could add hens to the coop now because more bodies make for more warmth, but the cold would be too hard on new birds, so they will have to wait until March when the first order of spring arrives.

Securing the chicken coop doors, I returned to attend to Whopper who is enjoying almost daily servings of hay to supplement the depleting supply of growth in the pasture.  I gave the grateful donkey his slice of hay, and since he did not dig in greedily I deduced that he is still finding sufficient food on his own, though the nutrition in what he might forage would be questionable.

There was still one issue in the coop I wanted to address.  There is one window in the indoor portion of the coop, which is in the end wall of the barn, and it does not seal.  Not only does the window not seal, but the window is almost a full inch smaller than the opening it hangs in, leaving too much room for cold wind to enter the coop.  There were some pieces of foam insulation of random sizes beside the coop that I had found when looking for plastic last week, a few that I thought might be small enough to fit into this opening.  I grabbed a couple of possibilities and unlatched the window to put the foam behind it.  One piece fit, but only covered about 1/3 of the opening.  The second piece would not go in at all.  Well, that will have to do for now, I thought.  It was, at least, better than nothing.  I put the window down and latched it, but for some reason it now swung loosely on its hinge, which turned out to be a nail in the window frame above, whereas it had been fixed quite steady before.  Something will have to be done about that.  Covering it with plastic would be the simplest solution, but it will have to be done from the outside to keep the chickens from pecking at it.  I would need to go outside and survey the wall to see what could be done.

On the end of the barn where the chicken coop is, there is a gap between the front pasture and the back pasture, so that the coop itself is not enclosed by any fence other than chicken wire it is made of.  From the outside of the coop one can enter either the front pasture or the back pasture through the gates that open to that area.  The barn is on the west of this section of land, the front pasture borders the south side, the back pasture is on the north side.  Directly east with no fence blocking the way, is the conservation forest. 

I surveyed the wall of the barn and found that the outdoor chicken coop comes to its end under the window in question.  That would complicate the logistics of putting plastic up, considering that the window is high enough to require the use of a ladder.  Adding to the equation was a large opening above the window, much larger than the window, with no glass or any other barrier to block the cold wind from entering the barn above the chicken coop.  This could be covered from the outside using a tall ladder, or from the loft on the inside.  I would have to think about this.

Whose Woods These Are…

As I thought I turned eastward toward the forest...

Tune in next time for the rest of the story...

Monday, 27 February 2012

Through the Looking Glass...Otherwise Known as Ice

Those with more chicken savvy than I have will be relieved to know that since my last post it has come to my attention that one should never clean a chicken coop with the chickens in it!  This is the learning curve I was talking about, and I am very grateful to my chicken-raising friend for all her advice!  I am also glad that both hens survived my cleaning frenzy.  I hope that my inexperience does not cost any aviary life, and this is much less likely with the advice of good friends.  :-)  My current reading material is Storey's Guide to Raising Chickens, and that is helping keep our chickens healthy and our eggs safe as well.  But there is so much to learn!

After leaving the barn I took the leisurely way home, after which I wrote the second half of the last post.

From January 1, 2012

I took my time, wanting to see how frozen the creek was a little further upstream.  The creek winds its way from the south-east corner of our property to the north-west corner.  Down by the road the top is frozen completely over.  It widens into a calm pool near the garage, so with little movement and not much depth that is the first section to freeze.  The girls were outside with a friend just before Christmas, and they came in with stories of walking on the creek.  I warned them that the ice would be thin and uncertain, that parts of the creek were still not frozen so they could not be sure at any point how thick or secure the ice would be, and was then let in on the secret that they had broken through in several places.  Cold water did not deter them from having a splendid time, but they assured me that they would not walk on the creek again until we had confirmed its safety!

As the creek passes under the bridge to the pasture it is forced through a deeper, narrower passage, churning over rocks as it meanders west-ward behind the garage.  Here it takes a little longer to freeze, and I have taken to periodically checking this portion of the creek to see how far from the shore the ice has grown.  It was the most beautiful section of the creek in the fall, and is now proving to be so in winter as well.  The ice forms from shore and rocks, leaving portions of the water visibly bubbling beneath the open skylights.  As the snow has fallen it has left mounds of sparkling frosting on these icy patches, adding to the picturesque winter scene.  It is as if the landscapers had planned it this way.  As I cross the bridge to the pastures I am treated to the most breathtaking view:  the creek as I have just described it, anchors the Norman Rockwell-like scene deep in the creek gorge; the rocky bank leads up to the pasture on the right and on the left to the site of native shrubbery, now dormant for the season, out of which grows a structure, its red paint faded and worn by years of garage service, watching over the entire scene from its place of importance, a silent testimony to pioneers of old.

From this beautiful scene the creek works its way toward the house and then bends northward into the forest.  It divides the land cleanly in two, the house and woods on the western bank, the pastures and barn on the eastern.  In warmer fall days I often wandered into the forest, enjoying the company of the many birds and squirrels who find shelter among the trees, and on those walks I see the creek from the west bank.  Wandering along the creek on the pasture side, the east bank of the creek, is a more arduous journey.  The pasture fence is set back some ways from the edge of the embankment.  Along the western side of the pasture is a grove of trees offering shelter from wind and rain for the animals that prefer not to retreat to the barn during inclement weather.  The grove grows thicker near the embankment and so the fence stops the pasture short of the most dense section, leaving a strip of land between the creek and the pasture that is difficult to navigate once the fence is breached.  However, there is one section of the fence that juts out closer to the creek, a section less overgrown, which affords a striking view of another widening in the creek, as well as the house on the hill beyond.  It was to this point that I made my way after finishing with the barn chores for the day.

The widening at this part of the creek is of particular interest because it is easily accessible from the shallower slope on the west bank.  The pool is calm, and, so I’m told, offers a cool retreat from hot summer days if one chooses to wade in the water or to set a lawn chair just so where one’s feet are in the cool water.  A good book and glass of iced tea would complete the refreshing picture.  Or choose to watch the minnows and frogs play in the pool.  Whatever refreshes, this is the place to do it! 

From the barn I could hear the faint gurgling of the creek, a sound that normally dominates the air but of late has been muffled by the cover of ice, so I wanted to see how much of the creek was frozen beyond the bridge and garage.  So as Matthew headed southward to the pasture gate, the bridge and eventually the house, I headed westward to the edge of the pasture overlooking the pool.

Many times since moving in I have wandered out onto my land to see what I could see.  Never have I been disappointed by the scene I have discovered.  Not once has the beauty of this land failed to amaze and delight me.  This day was no exception.  From my vantage point in the pasture I looked out over the creek and saw the pool below, completely frozen over except for a small hole in the ice where the creek flows into the pool.  Through this opening the rushing water tumbled and churned, creating the illusion of a hot springs bubbling up from the earth beneath, yet fuelled only by its own need to reach the river.

I wandered along the fence, ducking under the low-hanging evergreen branches, stopping to photograph a set of tiny footprints that told the story of a squirrel scurrying down the tree trunk and off across the snow.  I wondered briefly if this was the squirrel the kids have named Taz because of his antics at our bird feeders.  That squirrel would have reason to run, having carried off the peanut feeder to points beyond our yard, presumably finding it suitable storage for his own personal winter stash.

I neared the pasture gate, lifted it over the accumulated snow and passed through.  Crossing the bridge I headed reluctantly towards the house, longing for warm spring days when I will be able to more fully enjoy this beautiful land of mine.