empty spaces

many years ago, we lived next to a strange building. it was a grand victorian, a queen among the painted ladies, and had once been a prodigious home. in the years i knew her, she was an empty, echoing shell, an abandoned nursing home, her walls saturated with age and sadness. the locks weren’t very locky and i spent a fair amount of time exploring there, running my hands down the dry, dusty banisters as i slowly spiraled up and down the stairs. it smelled like any old building, maybe a bit more medical than most, but dust and mildew and the sighs of spiders were the main smells. it had been added on to and converted and generally abused in the way that many old buildings that need to have modern missions are abused. it was an unhappy place. there were shoeboxes of old photographs, sepia-tinted and dry as bone, the relics of long-dead old ladies and gents who had spent their final weeks and months there. no one took them out when the patients were moved to a new building. no one cared enough to rescue them. they were other peoples’ memories, other peoples’ stories. a portrait, a vase, a pair of purple shoes: that’s all that remained of someone’s mother, someone’s grandmother, someone’s loved one.

i’ve always found abandoned buildings sad. it doesn’t matter if it’s an old shed with a dirt-colored tractor still parked in it or the remnants of a great family’s once-fine home. the walls hold in the hopes and dreams of anyone who lived or worked inside them. a silent room, bare and grey with nothing but dust to inhabit it can still emit a silent sob for all those who went away.

i have stood silent inside an old barn with nothing left in except trash and cobwebs and could hear the clank of cows’ neck chains against stanchions, could sense a shovel sliding through sawdust, could feel the tails of ancient barn cats against my leg. the smell of manure and sweat and sour milk lingers under the thick furring of dark dust. you can see a pitchfork propped carefully against a wall and picture the last hand that did the careful propping of a valued tool for the last time. but it’s not the smell or the sight of things, it’s the absolute quiet that seems to be hissing with the absence of sound.

is it imagination? probably. we think of our own spaces and imagine them empty, shallow, lonely. we are reminded of our mortality and probably seek to grasp the echo of life in a dead building. but perhaps not. perhaps the dreaming and building and living and dying that happens in buildings is something that does abide.

i went out to do chores tonight and, walking back to the house, i stopped at the henhouse to check on its last denizens: a lone welsummer hen and a black silkie rooster. my flock of 30 or so has shrunk to these last two. the henhouse is starting to sigh, starting to gather its ghosts. the near-silence in there is almost deafening. soon, it will be another empty space.

freedom of the garden

a couple of weeks ago, one of my old hens disappeared in the middle of the day. she was a dear thing, a sweet soul that would spend the whole day picking along in your wake if you were outside. she had a limp in old age, the wages of a leg injury in her youth. we are all marked by where we’ve been, what we’ve done, who we’ve known. anyway, cricket disappeared and i was sad.

i kept the rest of the birds shut tight in the hen house the next day. i didn’t want to lose any more hens. when i went to check on them in the evening, they were gathered at the pop hole, flapping their wings  and hopping at me. knowing that they wouldn’t stay out long in the late afternoon and that i would be around to watch for bad things, i opened up the door and let them loose. there never were such happy, relieved birds. one headed right for the shed where we store our hay and where she lays her eggs. the others headed for deep grass to begin the tardy tasks of bug hunting and salad nipping. it took me a moment to realize that what i had done to protect them had been a benign cruelty, that there is a risk in everything in life that is good and to remove risk is to remove goodness.

this is an argument i have with myself whenever the savage garden takes its toll. keep them in to be safe or let them live their best lives, perhaps with disastrous consequences?

in just a couple of weeks, my daughters leave for the west coast to have a grand adventure. they are 18 and society agrees that they are adults. they have a lot of mistakes to make and not much time to do it in: four score years or so. i can’t keep them by me, can’t lock them up to protect them or the people they will inevitably hurt along the way.

in 18 years of defining myself as a mother, there was very little education provided for the day my nestlings became fledglings, but in keeping hens, i guess i learned enough.


error: spring not found

this intrepid blogger, hereinafter dubbed mud maiden, has just returned from a two week family vacation to california. while i was gone, the three or four feet of snow melted, leaving behind the muddy brown landscape of early vermont spring, an endless carpet of matted soggy brown grass, earthy squishiness, and manure that takes a creative mind to bear. occasionally, the monochrome of mud and dog turds is broken by a daffodil or a faded wrapper or the sodden once-mighty limb of a pine tree that was dislodged by winter snow and is still stubbornly green, but mostly it’s brown, brown, brown. it’s incredible to me, every year, how many things were left out last fall, how many papery bits blew in on the cold winds, and how wind, air, and water can uproot fence posts, knock over plant pots in winter storage, and seep into every groove and crevice. it’s a bloody mess out there. it’s also chilly and damp with skies the color of wet wood ash that makes me think fondly and yearningly of the warm desert i just left.

the two ducks and half my flock of hens were rehomed a few weeks before i left. my newly-wee flock of chicken remainders, all old hens and young roosters, is free ranging again, raking through a winter’s worth of hulls under the bird feeders for whole seeds that the wild birds missed. they’re scraping around in the pastures for dropped oats and early bugs. they’re picking daintily around the edges of cold puddles for grass shoots and gulps of snowmelt. the roosters battle daily to see who can be the biggest jerk. too many roosters. i have had to go on a hunt of an evening to find old, blind bob, who flees the warlike overtures of the two young silkie cocks and is always under a different bush at dusk. previous attempts at separating him from the flock for his own good (even with a hen or two for company) have resulted in a sad and sullen bob, so i have been humoring him and letting him spend his days in hiding, knowing that some evening i wouldn’t be able to find the old guy and some oily predator would find him in the night instead. because my heart bleeds, after the third or fourth night of digging around in the dark looking for a lump of sleeping rooster under every bush and on every rock, i put up a new pen and bunged him and a big pathetic yellow hen in there. evening chicken chores are much easier now and bob and goldberry seem content for now.

the goats are shedding great sheets of precious cashmere that’s too dirty for me to bother harvesting this year. i was gone while it was still clean and close and now it’s just dirty, ragged yarns of fiber blowing in the wind. the birds in this neighborhood will have luxurious nest linings this year and, truth be told, i have been unable to find the motivation to clean and spin what i harvested last year and the year before that anyway. i tend to like the idea of spinning more than the actual spinning, especially with fiddly little fibers like cashmere. too much bother.

my ponies are rummaging like pigs through the soil for grass roots in the winter pasture, which is all eroded mud and fallen pine branches. there’s a summer full of brush burning waiting for me out there which will have to wait until there’s enough grass on the summer pastures to shuffle the horses. that is a month or more away, so they’ll be skipping and tripping on trees, boughs, and branches for a while yet. perhaps the worst of the blackfly season will be done by then and working outside will be more humane. and maybe the incessant winds will die back for the summer and make burning possible. it feels like the wind has been blowing sharp and cold for six months.

there’s raking to be done and general clean up, too, from a rough winter of “good enough”: the compost pile was completely snowed in, so there’s three or four coop cleanings piled as close to the composter as i could get it (not close enough). the failed garden from last year is deep in old weeds and tough sod and will need to be machine tilled this year instead of turned by hand. my horse shed is a disaster of empty grain bags. this is all very dispiriting.

normally, spring is the time when i turn optimistic and start planning for the mad scramble before fall. this year, the whole dance just depresses me. send some sunshine, mother. i won’t make it long without.

chickenasaurus rex

i find it interesting how many people i meet who are deathly afraid of the average hen. at first i was perplexed, but the longer i know chickens (and now ducks), the less i am chagrined at the monkeybrain twitch that causes people to read “poultry” as “thunderlizard” and do without, thank you very much indeed.

i feel, in fairness to chickens, that i need to preface my scathing takedown of their species by pointing out that my flock, roosters included, are a peaceable bunch. if i put a chair out in the yard in fine weather, i am sure to have a hen or two perched happily on my knee within a few minutes making cheerful chuckling sounds and wiping their beaks companionably on the knee of my trousers. i’ve had very few interflock battles, even with a couple of chronically pathetic denizens who could easily be pecked to death but haven’t been yet.

that said? chickens have absolutely been known to peck each other to death. when the late, great felicity came barreling out of the woods at us that fateful evening several years ago that led to chicken-keeping as a hobby, she was a bloody mess, pecked seven ways to sunday. she’d clearly come from a warlike flock, perhaps too tightly packed into too small a space. maybe just a bunch of bitches. it happens. after pecking a flock-member to death, these vicious birds have then been known to eat the corpse. apparently, chickens taste just like chicken?

i also have one hen, now one of the aforementioned pathetics, who was terrifying in her heyday. she would gouge at hands to get rings, or sometimes just for the sheer pleasure of hand-gouging. she would go broody often and violently, protecting even pretend, invisible eggs with her hand-gouging specialty. i’ve lost a fair bit of blood that way.

several years ago, we had a large bird of prey swoop in and try to leave with my blind barred rock, gloria. fortunately for gloria, she is a fat, fat hen and the predator wasn’t able to carry her off. also fortunately for gloria, one of her flock came barging in and fought the predator away. by the time i got to the partridge rock that had saved the day, her head and neck were covered in blood and i thought she’d probably gotten her death blow in that battle. minutes later, having washed off all the blood, i couldn’t find a mark on her. i don’t think any of that blood was hers at all. i dubbed her “falcon biter” and my admiration for her as an individual went way up. she died suddenly early last fall and a few weeks ago, i found a welsummer hen dead and half devoured under our birdfeeders with only some large wing tracks in the snow to tell the tale.

i was horrified recently at the systematic stalking and killing of my silkies by my two young ducks until a coworker shared some grisly stories of rotten, awful ducks just as bad as mine. velociducktors.

chickens just don’t stop to think. i’ve seen signs that they do actually think (falcon biter’s heroic self-sacrifice aside, i have three black australorps who know that human + shovel = worms for all and mob me every time i move a shovel), but they don’t stop to do it. it starts when they’re little fluffers in the brooder, picking up a tiny twig of peat moss and running madly, squeaking, as if to say “i have a thing! a thing! a thing! i have a thing!” and then realizing too late that all that running and squeaking has revved up the rest of the brood which is now intent on having a thing, too. that thing. now. the thing-chick will often drop the thing and pick up another thing (a non-thing, in this case) and then let another chick take the non-thing, leaving the thing-chick free to go back and get the real thing. ingenious and incredibly stupid all at once.

sadly, i’m not sure that ducks think even on the fly. at least, mine don’t. now that the silkies are safely away (which doesn’t keep the ducks from lurking on the other side of the wire and quacking loudly just to make the silkies jump), they’re quite good birds, timid and loudish and generally pretty dumb. the appeal of ducks is their doofus-y charm, i think.

poultry move quickly, look too closely, and have pointy bits on front and underneath. they’re always on the lookout for food and i suppose it’s easy to see how some people fear that the food found might be them should that beady eye stop where they are standing.

perchance he for whom this bell tolls may be so ill as that he knows not it tolls for him
perchance he for whom this bell tolls may be so ill as that he knows not it tolls for him

animals amok!

it has been rifle season, so of course the horses have been getting out and wandering in the woods. this is courtesy of soni, who is undaunted by the electric fence and has been breaking it on a corner twice a day, every day for three days. they all go to the shed, help themselves to a bale of hay, eat up the goats’ hay, rummage around in the empty grain dishes, dig around on the lawn a bit, then toddle off into the forest, the better to be mistaken for deer. i guess the two leopard appaloosas probably wouldn’t be mistaken for anything but horses, but every fall it seems like someone shoots someone else’s horse during deer season and i’m frankly at a loss to see how anyone could think a horse is a deer, regardless of colour. other than having four legs, they really look nothing alike. i feel certain it’s a question of shoot first, ask questions later.

i finally gave up trying to keep soni in and have been letting him roam loose. this means he’s not breaking the three others out of their pasture, but it means he’s helping himself to free-choice hay (probably not a bad thing with his difficulty keeping weight) and has his nose all up in my business whenever i go out to do anything. i was transporting a dead hen the other evening and i finally had to lead soni beside me by his halter because he wouldn’t stop standing in front of me to check out the bird corpse.

the good news (for both us and for soni), is that soni is going to go spend the next half year with a lonely young morgan gelding who lost his elderly herd. soni’s a great choice for a companion horse and J, the soon-to-be lessee, is going to do some work with him under saddle. depending on how things work out for the lessee, there’s always the chance that soni will end up with her more long-term, but i’d just like to see him in a small herd where he doesn’t get poked, harassed, and bullied for food for a while. and it would be great if my other three would stay in their pasture for several days in a row, rather than several hours. oy.

we’re still fostering oakland, which ain’t no thang except that every once in a great while, someone leaves the door ajar or loses a grip on his leash and then it’s a half hour or so of “oh crap”. a few weeks ago when he got loose, he caught one of my newly re-feathered hens and pulled most of her feathers out. between my mom and i, we managed to catch him before he killed her, but only just. the day before thanksgiving, he pulled the leash out of my hand and went frolicking through the pasture, barking and gamboling and dragging the leash under the hooves of the horses. qohqoh, my appy gelding, finally put a stop to this nonsense with a sharp kick to the offending dog which, fortunately, didn’t break any dog parts but has kept oakland studiously uninterested in horses ever since. because, like the horses, this seems to be the weekend of roaming oakland and he’s been loose twice in as many days. the rescue has gotten no inquiries and the few that we’ve gotten independently haven’t panned out. he’s such a great little dog; it’s really a shame.

my little texas a&m quail (we call her gail) is living upstairs from charlotte, the fierce bad rabbit, in a rabbit hutch in our basement. the day after i brought her home, she commenced moulting and hasn’t laid an egg since. probably being in the basement isn’t going to kickstart her back to laying eggs, but they’re such comically tiny things that i’m not too concerned about it. the same co-worker who brought me gail has three bobwhites looking for a home, too, so my poultry herd is about to expand. someday i’ll have a fancy barn with a fancy semi-detached poultry coop where i can have different species in mini-habitats. in the meantime, as my hens grow older and die, i am steadily replacing them and filling up my little coop with odd birds that don’t pay for their own room and board. the ducks drink (or splash) all the water out of the fount every day, which triples my chores (in winter, i generally fill the chicken water every three or four days) between water hauling and mucking. next summer, i vow to create a proper duck house and yard so that they aren’t happily undoing all my neat chicken arrangements all winter.

the cats have cabin fever, except for mimi who expects someone to stand at the door to open it whenever she has a fancy to go out or come in. there’s a screaming cat fight downstairs at least once each evening and chuzzy, the incorrigible creature, has his paws in everything they fit in. he has lost the cap to the toothpaste tube, knocked down my mother’s magnifying glass (and not broken it) twice, and has a steady flow of pipe cleaner people and toy mice that have to be policed so that oakland doesn’t ingest them.

basically, the animals have taken over and are driving us insane. only five more months ‘til spring?

make way for ducklings

it’s been really wet in the northeast US this year, to the extent that i never actually got my garden planted in the spring. we have clay to clay/loam soil which is prone to compaction and it just plain never dried out enough for me to turn all the soil. the things planted in raised beds (tomatoes, peppers, and radishes) rotted in the ground. two-thirds of my pea vines likewise withered and died from the wet before making peas. this means the grand sum of my garden this year will be last fall’s garlic plus a few early spears of asparagus. we’ll get a couplefew pints of blueberries from our bushes and hopefully a few quarts of blackberries from the wild and thorny blackberry patch down the driveway, but this lack of summer produce is amazingly depressing. i don’t even know who i am any more if i can’t sojourn off to the garden for a dirty little snack of carrot or bean.

whether or not i was influenced by the rain and the spongy ground or not, i procured five possibly-fertile pekin duck eggs from a coworker near the beginning of june. i had  broody silkie (like, what else is new?) and i was tired of watching her sit on an empty nest with that birdy look of complete determination. in vain! in vain! as goes murphy’s law, as soon as i gave her a nest full of eggs to sit on, she stopped setting. fearing i would lose the viability of the eggs and not really having anything to lose, i snaffled another silkie hen as she walked past me one evening and bunged her into the brooding cage. by next morning, she’d set up shop on the nest. talk about going broody at the drop of a hat….

she did a good job. about a week before projected hatching, a stink started to come up from the nest. the next day, she had dumped one of the eggs out of the nest and onto the floor of the cage, mercifully without breaking it. i tucked that one deep into the compost heap and let her finish doing her thing.

on 3 july, i took a peek under the hen and found a duck pipping. by the end of the day, three ducklings had pipped out.


by the end of the following day, the hen had broken the last egg (an alarmingly stinky dud) and started trying to raise ducks…

she has only been partially successful.

she’s not a fantastic mamabird anyway. last year, she brooded some silkie eggs and got three out of four, but would frequently wander off and leave her biddies or flee from danger without taking them along. she does, at least, tell them when she’s found something good to eat or there’s something possibly dangerous. her limited skills don’t really work with ducklings, who don’t speak chicken. i had to show them how to eat and drink and, of course, swim. as a result, i had a trio of very happy, clownish ducklings now who weren’t really sure if they were ducks, chickens, or people.

ducklings2 week four

ducklings week four

i went to lock them up one night and all four were snuggled up in the corner, the hen with one tiny, defeathered wing slung over the necks of each of two of the ducklings. about as warm as a scarf! good thing they’ve got lots of down right off the bat.

anyway, i’m not really sure about ducks. they’re extremely comical to watch, but i no longer think that chickens are messy since i have ducks. i’ve been researching duck house and pen construction like mad, trying to fiture out how to build something that will drain, drain, drain. they certainly can’t live in the chicken coop, where the brooder pen is currently standing water under the shavings every evening. i was talking idly about selling them, but my daughters forbid it. i mentioned that the person who has to do duck chores gets to make duck decisions and lo! when i went out to begin chores last night, the duck pen had been cleaned and bedded and they’d been watered, too. my spawn are amazingly averse to exerting themselves in any way that doesn’t involve personal payoff (classic geminis, those two) so maybe my plan should be to threaten duck sale often enough that i get an occasional reprieve from scraping up wet shavings….

one duckling left last week to go be a companion to a lonely pekin drake. the new owner is looking forward to having a pair, but i fear she will have to invest in an incubator (or silkie hen) before she gets her own ducklings. i have my own too-closely-related pair (hard to know whether they’re siblings or cousins or what) and time will tell if i can conquer the duck mess or it will conquer me.

musical dogs

willow is still with us. like the old codger in monty python and the holy grail, she’s stubbornly “not dead yet” and every time i think it’s time to load her on the plague cart, she decides it’s a fine time to go for a walk (and she does), followed by days of badness, inability to even get up by herself, followed by another walk.

in the meantime, we adopted a sparky little mongrel from a local all-breed rescue. his name is oakland (a name he arrived bearing and that we’ve been too indecisive to change) and he seems to be mostly boxer with a smattering of other breeds.


he and lola have become inseparable, joined at the teeth, two glossy black rockets of doggy joy. incorporating him into the family has been fairly easy: he’s an amenable little fellow and not unintelligent, although his natural prey drive is a little more robust than a labrador’s. he doesn’t seem to be trying to catch and kill, just chase and catch, but this is annoying to the cats and dangerous to the chickens and rabbit. the cats are incurably disgusted and the chickens have been relegated to a small outdoor yard during the day instead of being able to roam far and wide. the rabbit gets out to kick up her aging heels when oakland is in his crate, either at night or when we’re all away from home. it’s kind of sad for the hens, but i must admit that the flower beds are looking better than they have in years and it’s rather nice to go tromping around the property barefoot without dodging chicken poos. the girls are getting weeds and dirt clods and bundles of grass several times a day in addition to kitchen scraps. the compost pile is suffering, stinking more than it ought since it’s not being stirred and picked regularly by a herd of hens, but, all-in-all, the new arrangement is working out to almost everyone’s satisfaction.

oakland is a very nice little dog, very sweet and affectionate and mostly quite gentle, not as bumptious and roughneck as lola. he’s as well-mannered as you’d expect a six-month-old pup to be. he has responded well to clicker training, although i’m not as dedicated to it as i should be. with my work, kids in two spring sports, gardening, and the rest of the menagerie to tend, i often just want to spend the brief rest period in the evening petting on the puppy rather than schooling him. he’s very submissive. in some respects, he’s a little too timid. he is sometimes fearful to the point of being paranoid and he has snapped at one visitor already because he was afraid. we’re working on socializing him, bringing him places with us (although his carsickness makes only short trips possible). he’s very good on these outings, very friendly and laid-back. it appears that his fearfulness at home might stem from some territorial tendencies. he’s also afraid of the vacuum cleaner, the goats, the bathtub, and the lawnmower.

he came from a southern shelter, was found wandering with another puppy at two months old. he and his sibling were picked up and put into the shelter system. his sibling was attacked and killed by another shelter dog; oakland has scars on his legs and face, but survived. nevertheless, he adores dogs. he’s pretty gentle with old willow and when he meets other dogs on outings or at the vet, he is immediately animated, but respectful and submissive.

and so we’re in a holding pattern, which is nice for now.

three dog night
three dog night