chicken fever (don't call homeland security- it's not H5N1)
Autumn arrived with a 90 degree day, but now 3 weeks in we are cooling and the trees quiver and turn; the Leaf People will soon descend and motels will all be full. It is Pat's favorite season, maybe mine too. I do like the summer, though. This was a great summer. Best ever. Better, I told Pat, than the one I spent on the nude beach at San Simeon with a girl who was a human gazelle - yes, better even than that. It is very gratifying to find things are better, so far, as we get older. Pat is my beloved and I am in thick clover.
I will go back a bit - seems only a month or two but, it will be half a year. I must be having fun. We arrived home from S. Carolina to find pipes, and a toilet, broken. Shattered. Setting about tearing out walls and chopping the hernias from copper tubing I thought I forsaw endless days of frustration and disappointment. The truth was very close to that. I find I am so rarely disappointed in the big things.
One thing that will keep a man motivated thru hard times, knowing he perches on the edge of hell and may imminently plunge, is a woman who does not have a flushing toilet. Never mind the woman scorned; she is mild stuff. The happy homeowner works 'can't-see-to-can't-see' in his quest for the perfect domestic union. Water returned to the kitchen in about a week, and to the bathrooms a week later. Heat did not reappear until it was warm. Pat began to cook again.
Have you ever soldered copper tubing? A fairly simple operation, but for some reason, in my hands, a recipe for the certain horror of seepage. Almost good enough doesn't quite manage. Seepage, like cancer, moves slowly, just shuffling along to a funereal drumbeat, but you cannot outrun it. I gave up. I became man-the-problem-solver and scrambled for the out-of-the-box answer. The obvious one is to simply replace all the copper with the new plastic tubing that never freezes and breaks; I had neither the time for this nor the willingness to spend the money. I got some epoxy and began gluing copper joints together. Right, roll your eyes at that one; a plumber I know certainly did. When they didn't work I tore them apart and did it again, until the floorboard hot water heating system in the front half of the house was sound. Turned it on again just last week as fall begins to encroach and it still functions. As for the back half of the house, well, it has been without heat for 3 years now and remains so. There is only a crawlspace under it which I cannot access. The plastic replacement is coming - but we will need a roof first. Keeping a house up in Maine is far different than the same task in coastal California.
Next on the bold ventures list was fixing the basement walls under the garage. Poorly built many years ago of concrete block they had suffered the almost mechanical assault of the freeze-thaw cycle until some blocks were a couple of inches out of place. The weight of vehicles on the front wall had bowed it toward the road by nearly a foot. Ever being one to save a dollar I began to dig the wall clear from the outside. I needed the exercise, and I got it. The trench was nearly 8 feet deep and I maintained it about 30 inches wides. What an enormous amount of dirt that is when the trench is about 50 feet long! The very sandy soil gave me pause. During minor cave-ins I would look up at the slice of sky above from trench-bottom and wonder how many retired men actually accomplished self-destruction in the throes of home improvement. Too many, I was sure. One consideration was hauling a garden house with me, strapped to my chest where I could get my mouth on it when the walls fell in. I would lie down there in the crushing dark sucking air thru it until someone noticed they hadn't seen me for a day or two. Too ghastly to consider. I just got down in there and dug gingerly, assuring Pat that there was no danger whatsoever but "would you mind looking out from time to time to see where I am?"
Richard the concrete-guy said he could buttress and straighten the walls from the inside, and then pour an 8 inch wall outside the blocks, tightly rebarred to them, for around $5k. I consulted IRA and agreed. The old, crummy, dark, wet basement is now a well lit, dry and newly painted place. I still can only stand up in in between the joists, but I am very pleased. Now, if we can just convince Sgt. Rock that this area is not the damp, fecund cat box it has been for years....
The summer was going along well on the home front, and my fear of imminent social and economic collapse in the rest of the world was growing as ever, so it occured to me that what we really needed was to become a little more independent foodwise. I found a haul-behind-Chuckles (he's a tame Kubota), 48 inch rototiller at a good price and got to practice my three point hitch skills getting him into harness. Chuckles dates from New Mexico where he was my stone boat and road builder. If you have never owned a tractor and want a really fun toy, this is it. You do need a place to drive it around, and hopefully some usefull tasks to accomplish. When I put him on the trailer to haul him out here to Maine there were mutterings amongst the crew as to what I thought I was doing. And while I have moved rock and dirt here, helping neighbors out as they asked, Chuckles hasn't been a lot of use. But, oh!, can that lad turn the earth.
Boyer Park was already fenced and actually lay in the sunniest part of our 3 acres, so I turned an 80 x 50 foot plot. Had to mow down the 6 foot weeds first. Boyer Park had gone from mowed lawn to wild scrub in the 4 years that Boxers had used it. Once it was mowed it took all of Chuckle's 27 HP to tear up the root mat and turn it in. Nearby in Buckfield was a riding stable willing to give me all the stall muckings I wanted; I hauled about 30 cu. yds. in two weeks, and then turned that in. I was feeling very good. Nothing like manure on your fork to give you an apetite.
What do I know about gardening in Maine? Nada. While we had a wonderful garden in Napa this is extremely different. How different? The County, Aroostook County to the north of us - a sort of Amazon jungle-place on the Canadian Border, has its last frost around June first and its first frost around August fifteenth. Yikes! We are better off here with a growing season from 1 June into October. The first step seemed to be to get this new garden ready for next spring. We sowed winter rye; it came in in just days and is so healthy and thick I've had to mow it twice. As we were sowing it the ammonia fumes coming up from the soil were so heavy Pat was coughing; I thought nothing would withstand that. The rye loved it. It will get mowed under in the spring as green manure.
With a bit of summer left I decided we needed chickens. Maine is a treasure trove of small country fairs. Off we went to see the descendents of the raptors. The best fair of all is the MOFGA (Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners) fair in late September. A cross between the Renaissance Faires popular in California and a new convocation of hippies; it is a wonder. It does not have the false note of the Renaissance Faires where too many people are trying to act parts, but it has that earthiness and rambunctious atmosphere. The hippies? Ah, they must be living in little villages hidden from the general population and only coming out for festivals. When I was young and had long hair I never liked the hippies; they, too, seemed to be false playactors, feebly auditioning for parts they hadn't really prepared for. These folk at the fair have prepared. Some living off the grid, some farming, raising livestock, and all outside the orbit of the world we think of as normal. I like the fact that there really are folk who went on to establish viable lives in kingdoms other than our cities.
A nice gentleman - I started to say 'old gentleman', but hell, he was about my age, suggested we start chickening with Red Star dual purpose, meat and egg, hybrids from the Murray Macmurray hatchery in Iowa. Minimum order is 25 day old chicks. The sent us 27; one exotic come as a free gift; I don't know when we will be able to tell what it is - it's black.
We were quite at a loss until we met this fellow. The fairs are where people bring out their cute Bantys and wild exotics. Amazing to see, but not feet-on-the-ground farmyard birds.
All 27 were doing very well up until their 4-week birthday when one hen got past me at the chicken coop door and Waldo-the-killing-machine gave it the neck-snap shake. I was so mad a him. The chick looked still alive and he wouldn't put it down; I chased him and broke a 2x2 across his back. He didn't even notice. We made up later. I just have to be more careful. We let Shay out with the chicks when we are there; she just follows them around and does little nose-pushes. They are quite used to her. Anthropomorphically speaking I think she is quite concerned, worried even, that these things will never grow up into proper dogs.
Our neighbor in Mimbres, Don Orton, raised chickens. I could never see what the pull was. We'd had dozens of ducks and geese in Napa, and they were wonderful. But chickens? Ugly, dumb, weird chickens? Part of my animosity to them was my grandfather's introduction to 'where chicken dinner came from.' Standing me near the stained stump he would lop off a head and then set the fountaining carcass on its feet pointing at me. It would charge me. I would run. Looking behind me I would see that this dreadful thing was chasing me. I was well into my 20s before I ate chicken again.
My view has altered. Chickens, I discover, are the new Valium, the organic and homeopathic alternative to the little blue pill - if you're really hooked up and doing ten milligrams a whack . (No, I am not referring to the little blue pill of erectile dysfunction fame.) I don't know that I have ever found anything as relaxing as sitting in the yard with these damned chickens. It is amazing. Pat has the same experience. It worries her. She considers that it might be the sign of onset of a brain-softening disease.
In keeping with 'how does one garden in Maine?' was the question of how chickens are kept. The coop obviously couldn't be the single wall loose affairs our waterfowl had lived in. For starters the floor is 3/4" exterior plywood on 2x6 joists nailed to 2x12s at the ends. This platform then gave us an 8x8 square to frame up from. Our framing knowledge comes from the bit we did for Habitat in S. Carolina last winter. The studs aren't exactly on 16" centers, and I used 96" studs to the walls are too high, but it generally went well. I put in used double pane windows on the south and west walls and a 36" exterior steel door, also used.
We tried to keep it all level and plumb as we went up. This is made easier, I think, if you sheath the outside with 4x8 sheets as it shows what doesn't fit. My personal coup was in buying $40 worth of 100 year old barn siding for the outside. As you can see I put it on horizontally; it looks slightly odd as this is usually done vertically. It was amazing that the one load of boards was almost exactly the amount needed.
Waldo BloodLust supevises construction.
While we nailed most of the framing with 16d galvanized the barn boards were all attached with deck screws.
The walls have OSB sheathing on the inside and R13 insulation between. The ceiling is also OSB on the inside but the insulation is R19 between the 2x6 rafters. All was well wrapped in heavy tar paper before any siding went on. The roof is corrugated metal over OSB on the outside. All told the house seems very tight and stays nicely warm with one 250 watt infrared bulb.
All the cracks and old nail holes in the barn siding were heavily caulked and then the wood painted with latex urethane.
Pat did a really cool wipe on sort of duck's-yolk gold over the base coat of tan on the OSB inside. (If you aren't familiar with duck eggs their yolks are an almost radioactive orange.) I laid linoleum on the floor.
Maybe this is a good place to mention Mr. Toad. Pat has taken to calling me that; I finally asked her to explain.
Fopish? Self-centered? Conceited? Naw. Never. But I do tend to have 'enthusiasms'. If I recall correctly the word, in Greek, spoke to followers of Artemis who roamed the forests catching small
animals and tore them apart with their teeth. Maybe I'm a little like that. (She also calls me a pirate, but I quit stealing after my last stint in jail.)
I restlessly adopt new projects and go too far with them. You should see the collection of large iron machines littering lawn and barn. And then I move on. I don't always move completely away, but I do redirect my sometimes manic energy, drifting between what things I need to get my teeth into next. This left Pat somewhat taken aback earlier in our time together, now approaching 30 years, but she's gotten used to it - some. I get the occasional question like: "are you off to the monastery soon?" But I think she really does trust that I'm in for the long haul. A safe mate for the aging woman who still houses the entirely rancorous and bereft three year old: Little Patty. We all have our demons.
A side note: even with using lots of used material I think we still spent about $500 on the coop.
Left are the roosts over the wire-enclosed 'poop pit'; keeps the rest of the place much cleaner. The tube feeder and waterer hang from chains.
Right: the future-garden winter rye with the coop at the back.
Below is the mink-proof house all finished with trim and window wire.
Chickencam on the prowl. At 4 weeks they are nicely fledged and can fly several feet.
Below is the new chicken-mom, Shay.
We had Waldo tied out to watch and get desensitized but he went bonkers with blood lust and was put in.
This is Pat speaking about chickens. When Don first spoke of them in an off-henned way, I knew we were doomed. Don isn't one to speak casually of commitment. Chickens will put quit to my dreams of April in Paris or even January in Bluffton, SC. We will be here in Auburn always and forever. The boats are burned, and I must turn to the task at hand. The task at hand would seem to be measured, responsible, graceful and, if possible, enlightened ageing .
This isn't as grim as it sounds. Emily Bronte wrote,"No coward soul is mine." She was a 28 year old genius who would never encounter the loss of short-term memory, delusions of adequacy or sub-cutaneous fat. My soul,unlike hers, was running screaming. Chickens checked it mid-flight. I won't retreat to fantasies or facelifts. The lines around my lips won't fill up with flakes of scarlet. I won't pretend that I'm going to lose 50 pounds and go big-game hunting. I'll feed my chickens and eat my oatmeal and really understand things like Medicare Part D, or how to maximise the effectiveness of my genealogy software. It's not too late to Now myself; in fact it's just about time.
It's not as if I haven't lots of things left to do that can't happen within 100 yards of a coop. I can finally read Proust. I can learn to appreciate housekeeping, if not as fine art at least as a craft. I can stalk old friends via the net , maybe even contact them. I can rake leaves in the fall and plant sweetpeas in the spring. I can learn every lesson to be taught by Red Star chickens and the more exotic breeds sure to follow them. Then of course there is the Chickenmeister himself. Each day he is dearer to me---and we will always have boxers.
This page was last updated: October 21, 2007
I keep the site up and it is disorderly. There are other anecdotal snippets and letters on the home page. Look around as it pleases. don e.
schooner fred's comment on farming in maine.
<scroll down a few inches and possibly be offended>
Another side-note: we are in an ag zone, no problems there, and a single family shed of less than 120 ft. sq. and under 10 ft. in height doesn't require a permit. Gotta love it when the gov't. stays the hell out of it.
The lighter colored birds are the cockerels. All ten of them will go to the freezer in 4 more weeks. Can I really do it? Yes, I have been reading up on chicken-skinning and have purchased an expensive boning knife. A sweet life and a quick death: the lot of the range-chicken bound for glory.