Read Sylvia's Farm Online

Authors: Sylvia Jorrin

Sylvia's Farm (20 page)

This year the hen chose an especially nice spot in which to make a nest. It was outside of my chicken coop, of course, but nearby in some hay scraps that had gathered in a corner immediately on its outer edge. I was delighted. Yet there were no eggs to be found. Ever.

A couple of days ago I was in the carriage house loft feeding the geese. There was the ugly little hen. She had nested between the floorboards and wall joists. The space was just the right size to accommodate her small size. I took her off of it for a moment and counted eleven eggs. Blue. I put her back, dumbfounded. Yesterday
I saw her fuddling her way out of the carriage house door surrounded by eight baby chicks. I ran back upstairs to the loft. There were still eight eggs in the nest. And there in the now-vacant winter chicken coop was a chicken I hadn't noticed before sitting in a nesting box. I saw the hole in the netting where she had gained entrance. But why? Who was she? From where had she come? There was no longer anything to eat up there. What could have drawn her? Were the additional eggs hers? And if not, whose?

The chicks were only a few hours old and were quite easy to catch. Their counterparts, the three baby chicks born a couple of weeks ago, had not been, and I've left them to their mother's devices and luck. With two barn cats around the third, Pierce, has taken to hanging around at the neighbor's and assorted other treacheries that abound here, I've not enough trust that this one hen will manage all eight chicks. My fears may be misguided, however, as I watched her try to push one back up a stone stair using her head as a rather unsuccessful lever.

With some help, I managed to get all of the chicks into my trash bin and then, wonder of wonders, the mother hen walked, quite by accident, into a cage nearby. She was immediately incorporated into the tiny flock in the trash bin.

Ernest Westcott and Jim Wilson came down from the side hill having finished the messiest part of the fencing today. Ernest has farmed all of his life. He also has been blessed with the instincts of a farmer. He promptly fashioned the perfect cage for the mother hen and assured me that while the chicks could get in and out of it, she'd call to them and keep them in line. She has. I've put some cracked corn and water and chopped hay in there for them. Last night she had all eight under wing. Today two gray, two black, two brown, and two yellowish chicks are popping in and out of the cage.

The mother hen is amazingly calm in confinement. This, my most outrageous chicken who has never allowed me within ten feet of
her, is now sitting calmly as I approach. She acts only mildly perturbed when I drop some fresh food into her cage and is unflustered when the dogs approach. In all, she seems immeasurably altered by her experiences as a mother hen. She is watched intermittently by all manner of the wanderers, seems absolutely contented in her cage, all chicks within her sight or under her wing.

The geese have managed to keep one of the two goslings that remain. One disappeared shortly after it was born. The other is beginning to change color. The geese have never moved from the security of the loft of the carriage house where they had made a nest on an old cushion (or rather I had made the nest on the old cushion, having moved their eggs from their nest on the floor). I bring them sod from the vegetable garden to have green grass; a great deal of water served out in dishes of varying sizes to accommodate goose, gander, and gosling, as well as some cracked corn. They guide their charge with their heads and push it to wherever they have decided it is the best advantage. I remain the enemy. Or rather, as I am expected to bring them their food, I am regarded as an enemy to be tolerated. A bucket serves to let them wash their faces and pat water on the gosling. They have abandoned the nest but not the loft and yet in other ways seem to have created a home for themselves. They lack the courage of the mother hens who take their chicks into the world with such immediacy and aplomb.

Two chicks had been hatched by a much beleaguered little chicken the day before shearing. She had been sitting on her refuge behind a wooden pallet leaning against the wall on the upper level of the barn. She never realized that she could most clearly be seen at all times as her head was facing inward into the darkness caused by the shadow of the pallet. Her back bore the scars of many attacks by my outstanding flock of roosters. She is only a year old, born here, and quite inexperienced in the ways of being a hen.

The chicks must have hatched in the morning because it wasn't until afternoon that my son and I came upon them. They were both one flight down from where they were hatched, and could they run! We dove and dashed and ran and chased. Each time I'd think I had my fingers around one, it slipped through them. I'm always afraid I'll hurt a young chick and never quite get my fingers tight enough around it.

One slipped off of the floor's edge down between two walls. I was certain I had driven it to its death. The second hid in all manner of awkward places, eluding capture in every instance. Their mother was beside herself, alternately looking for them and chasing us away. Miraculously, her back feathers had regrown and she suddenly lost her fragile appearance.
She
had become a
hen
. I was heartbroken thinking she'd never find them.

The following morning there she was, clucking and pecking next to her sister, the first hen with chicks this year, and racing in front of her were her two, saved from the corners and cracks in the barn. Chickens count very well to two. And those two hens managed very nicely to keep track of their little ones while making dwelling places they abandon and relocate with great regularity.

The geese have to count only to one to know where their gosling is. But to count to eight is another task altogether. My little ugly hen seems to know, however, when one or two or even three of her chicks are not under her wing and watches them with great intensity. Her get-over-here-now cluck is easily interpreted by them, and they are well-behaved little chicks, racing back into her cage when she demands their obedience. I check on them with great frequency. That means all day long. It is a delight. With any luck they will not be as skittish as their mother hen. With a bit more luck than that they might all make it.

MIRACLES GREAT AND SMALL

T
HE BARNYARD
has been cleared of debris. The remnants from the collapse of the south wall of the barn two years ago are all gone. Or rather, the broken beams are neatly stacked, and forty huge piles of manure have been distributed in perfect order around the pastures. It is not, in fact, gone at all, none of it, but instead repositioned to more useful places. The grass near the piles has already turned a dark green. Dew trapped in the manure has quickened the slow release of its fertilizer and given small droplets of water to the drought-stricken pasture. I am grateful beyond imagination and haven't a clue about how to express it.

Yesterday I was given a hundred tomato plants for a mere ten dollars. And some fertilizer and advice thrown in. The advice was invaluable. One flat was of yellow tomatoes, which make the best jam in the world with all due respect to red tomatoes. The other flat, somewhat in distress, was of Roma tomatoes. If they make it, they will replace ones I bought from Georgia that are failing.

I have been working relentlessly on the vegetable garden and have high hopes for it. Some of it is planted, but much is waiting for me first to move the chickens to an enclosure that will prevent them from nibbling on the seeds. The ground where I planted some bean seeds had been well fluffed up by my rooster collection the day after the planting. I have only a few more days to see if it needs be replanted. Should anything have sprouted, all will be declared well.

One morning I was in the garden far before dawn. Worries of a
practical nature had plagued me all night and it made no sense to stay indoors any longer. Light had come from the east before the sun. A neighbor down the valley was playing music. It floated on the morning mist. It was very beautiful. I dug in the garden all morning and for most of the day with renewed joy and strength. I have since added to the stone paths and am now an hour or two away from completing the redigging of the original garden. All that shall be left by this time tomorrow is the section that shall hold its expansion. And that, too, is partially done.

It feels as if I am smashing down relentlessly all of the obstacles that are preventing this farm from succeeding, one at a time. The lessons learned from the fence have made a deep impression on me. But there are other lessons as well, some of which I've had inklings of for my whole life but had never become part of me. Some of the debris from the barn is the result of tasks that I have only partially completed. There is an old semidemolished feeder in which I have gathered plastics, both of which I have been intending to throw away. And there they have sat for a very long time. I now think it is best to do all of something and to seem to accomplish less, than to do part of many things. Nothing here has ever been totally neglected, because I have been evenhanded in performing my allotted tasks. But nothing is totally completed, either. I have decided to complete each task one day at a time in its entirety before going on to the next. It is summer, today, so nothing will seriously suffer if I try this experiment. I remember the desperate day one winter I started to shovel the cow manure from the stall out of the barn window. I resolved then to immediately spread it onto the fields. It sits there still, much shrunk, but in its original pile, soon to be moved by machine onto the field. The cow manure shall never again be piled anywhere except, at worst, into a wheelbarrow outside of the window unless it is to be immediately spread.

In its own way, the manure now being dumped onto the fields is an extraordinary gift. The parched earth is desperate. The nutrients and the abundance of good things being bestowed upon it must be received with equal gratitude. The sheep will not graze next to spread manure no matter how decomposed it is, and so the newly flushed grass shall be spared. With any luck, it shall be spared until fall.

The blessings that have been bestowed upon us this year have been received with a heart full of gratitude. However, there is an element of distrust that, with an insidious consistency, tries to use up the presence of joy in the human heart. It whispers, “Do not speak of the good that has befallen you because it shall then be taken from you. Do not say a child is beautiful for the wicked fairy will then take it away.” But there are no jealous gods waiting to snatch good from our lives. Only jealous people. And even they may be simply impoverished souls who fear to allow love to enter their hearts. Nonetheless, we still fear sometimes to tell each other our blessings, hearing ancient warnings in the back of our thoughts, warnings that they shall be taken from us. But then how do we sing out thanks? And celebrate gratitude?

There has been a grand assortment of blessings here of late. Some have been in the form of a box of white shirts, enough to wear a different one every day for more than two weeks. And yellow tomatoes at half price. And a dear friend to run around town with sometimes and bring me Epsom salts. And a kind and generous person who is shoveling the barn for us, for the sheep and me, that is. And a gracious friend who has told her waiters that I am a guest of the house when I snatch a rare moment to have lunch at her restaurant. And the friend who brought me enough crystal green first-cut hay to feed my most prolific sheep next winter, besides going out of his way to bring me store cheese whenever he comes to work for me.

My front apartment tenants are a joy to share the house with. And even the elderly lady who is staying with me for a while is a blessing, because the only good she can still remember in life is love. The sheep have grown fat for some amazing and no understood reason on the parched earth. And dear friends are taking some of them for the summer to relieve the stresses on the pasture.

There are even more blessings to be counted. And I shall.

SUMMER ON THE FARM

T
HERE IS
a chicken that I have forgotten. A brown hen with spurs on her feet. It is not distinguished by anything exceptional, markings or color, or personality, for that matter. A chicken most easy to forget.

I found her today in the cow manger surrounded by a dozen little chickens. Tiny little chickens. Six black or steel gray, reminders of Zorro the fighter rooster who lived here for a little too long, and six yellow with a brown or, rather, sienna stripe. Very pretty little chickens.

I don't quite know what to do. The outdoor nesting box has the fiercest fighting chicken on the farm in it, the famous layer of blue eggs. She has spurs bigger than her beak, attacks at no provocation whatsoever, and clucks furiously when any of her surviving six baby chicks are out of sight. She is content, if that word could ever be used to describe this chicken, only if all of her chicks are either under or over her wing. (They are too big to all fit under her tiny wings any longer and some now simply sit on her back.) Those are the only times I've ever seen her sitting still. She occupies the baby chick–mother hen cage of choice by my back porch steps. There is only one. What to do? I don't want to let her go free. She is the kind of chicken who inevitably finds her way into the garden. If only one chicken feels like pecking someone else's chicks, she is the one.

What to do with the russet hen and her chicks? Furthermore, where are my little henna hen and the partridge-feathered one who
raised a little flock this spring? I think I'm short two more chickens. Could they be brooding? And shall I be feeding a massive number of chickens all winter, waiting to see which sprout tail feathers indicating that they are roosters and subsequently needing someone to butcher them for me?

One of the clutch of four born a couple of months ago may be a black rooster. He is smaller and has longer tail feathers than the three with whom he was hatched out. I have no way to tell what any of the six of the blue-egg hen might be. Nor the twelve in the manger. Nor the three racing after the orange hen in the barnyard. Of course I prefer hens to roosters. I have too many roosters.

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