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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.

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.

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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.

the grisly death of an innocent squash

the thing about chickens is that they’re basically very small dinosaurs. whatever thing you definitely don’t want your chickens to do, that’s what they’ll do, by definition. they can not be trained, they can not be redirected. they do not recognize your “rules”. they have a pretty simple lizard brain that, apart from a few minor signals (BIG BIRD DANGER! LAY EGG NOW! MAKE NOISE!), basically has one massive, overriding mission: PUT FOOD IN!

one of the thing that my egg customers invariably say to me after a month or so of buying eggs from me is “gosh, i’ve never seen such yellow yolks!” indeed, i’m extremely proud of those yellow yolks, which indicate a robust and healthy avian diet, but they come at the terrible price of pretty much every single thing i attempt to plant.

as ground-dwelling birds, the chicken’s main food-gathering technique is digdigscratchscratch. this offers up a number of food options: seeds can be knocked off grass stems or unearthed from the soil; burrowing bugs are disturbed and gobbled up; worms are tricked to the surface for a quick, dirty slurp; and grasses can be fluffed for optimal end-biting. alternately, anything in the path of the chicken’s talon is destined for failure. bulbs and corms are uncovered, tender sprouts are smashed, and anything edible is quickly gobbled. woe to fruit of any sort. small fruits like berries are eaten whole. large fruits like eggplants are punctured, gutted, and made into wee eggplant-skin canoes, which are left to rot. it seems like, eventually, all things come under the blades of the lawnmower, eggplant-skin canoes and all.

i’ve managed to keep those glorious yellow free-range yolks and a simultaneous garden only with the interference of a hideous garden fence, green plastic and flappy in all the wrong places. two years ago, i fenced the garden proper and then hid the rest of my produce out of the range of chickens, out on the edge of my winter horse pasture where the ground had never been worked. my pumpkins and squashes weren’t eaten by chickens that year, but they weren’t eaten by me, either, as they were so meagre and measily that they weren’t worth harvesting. actually, they were eaten by chickens that year, in a sanctioned feed rather than stripped sneakily and messily from the vine. this is the same fate that meets cucumbers and zucchini that turn into baseball bats in the long, hot days of august. it’s how i keep from having to pick up slimy green tomatoes that got frosted before they ripened. the chickens are a roving, many-faced composter, doing the same work outdoors that the dogs do in: picking up anything that gets dropped, left, or unsupervised for too long.

last week, my cousin offered me a pumpkin that had been doing ornamental duty for about a month in the room next door to my office. it was a dignified squash, upright and blazingly orange. she wondered if my horses would munch it and i didn’t think that they would, but i did think i knew who might:

this will take them a few weeks to pulverize. i’ll check in from time to time to document the dinosaur damage.

Week 1:

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Week 3:

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Week 5

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