Our chickens won’t be winning any intellectual awards. Ku’okoa (aptly named with the Hawai’ian word for “freedom“) is brighter than the rest—she spends a fair bit of time outside the chicken-yard, but she always returns when she’s done adventuring. The other girls, though… Maybe I’m too much “Mother Hen” with them, but I just don’t trust their capacity to figure out where they’re meant to be.
Their general lack of imagination is evident in how INfrequently they get out, not to mention their behavior when they do. Last time one of the Stupid Chickens blundered out of the chicken-yard, she tried to return by running through the fence. Repeatedly. Like some kind of wind-up chicken-brained battering ram.
They remind me of nothing so much as a sleepy toddler who falls out of bed, too groggy to navigate back to the starting point. So when one of the Dumb Clucks “fell out” of the chicken-yard yesterday, I felt compelled once again to round her up and tuck her back in.
She sped away from me, dashing along a narrow stretch between our fence and the pond behind the house. I ambled along after her, confident that I would scoop her up where the fence and water converged to cut short her runway.
This is where she proved me wrong in my assumption about lack of imagination. Instead of the dithering disorientation I expected, she took to the air!
Clearly she can achieve enough lift-off to hop the short fence around the chicken-house, but I really didn’t think she had enough flight-power to make it across the water… And this time I was right. She managed half the distance, ran out of juice, and splash-crashed right into the drink. It was unkind of me, but I couldn’t stop laughing while this poor soaked, bedraggled, panicking chicken thrashed her way to shore. Ducks make it look so easy!
I looked up “swimming chickens” on the internet when I got back inside (the waterlogged and baffled bird returned safely to her enclosure) and found quite a few videos of serenely swimming chickens. So they CAN swim—but apparently someone needs to explain that to OUR chickens. Maybe I’ll show them the video…
In other animal antics… I’ve been in a fever of anti-packrat cleaning-up this week. Cleaning junk out of drawers, cleaning old documents off the computer, uploading photos into our online album (I learned that lesson when a laptop died and took a load of family photos with it!), filing the stacks of paper that have been accumulating on the kitchen counter where I drop the mail…
And I’ve had “help!” Our ferret Niele (aptly named with the Hawai’ian word for “nosy“) was particularly useful when she climbed into my accordion folder. Evidently we need a new filing system: “Kids’ school.” “Medical.” “Utilities.” “Insurance.” “Ferret.”
Filed in the category of “new knowledge”… Our son Christian has me reading the “Ranger’s Apprentice” series of books—great read, by the way!—and he brought home #4 and #5 from his school library for me this weekend. What an “aha!” moment I had when I got to this passage, about a knight riding through a snowstorm:
“His surcoat was white and his shield was marked with a blue fist, the symbol of a free lance–a knight looking for employment wherever he could find it.”
This freelance writer had never wondered about the etymology of the word that describes what I do! I exclaimed aloud at my discovery, and earned a look from my son—the kind of look that pre-teens have perfected. Half affection and half disdain, the kind of look that says “Duh” without a word spoken. “Seriously, Mom? You didn’t realize that? It’s kinda obvious.”
I used to think that my sister and I had the best-ever outlet for playing with our bath toys. We grew up in an Idaho farm-town that practiced irrigation-watering for the lawns in town, so our front yard was flooded in several inches of water for a couple evenings every week.
I still have memories (and I’m sure my mom has photos) of the two of us prancing around the flooded grass just before bedtime, lifting the hems of our nightgowns above the water and pushing around all the toy boats that usually lived in the bathroom-drawer by the tub. Those were some great summer evenings.
I think, though, that my son has us beat when it comes to bath toys, thanks to the discovery that ferrets (not unlike kids!) require bathing. On his last weekend with us, he wore his swim trunks in the tub so I could give him another scalp scrub, and then I brought out Niele the ferret for her first shampoo in our household.
I confess I braced myself for a ruckus (imagining what would happen, for example, if we tried to bathe our CAT), but evidently ferrets don’t have an aversion to water. At least this one doesn’t!
Christian and Niele happily played in the tub for a good half-hour before I scooped her out to dry her off. I had the bright idea of using the “low” setting on my hairdryer so she wouldn’t get chilled, so I can report that this ferret DOES have an aversion to the hair dryer. Lesson learned—I did the best I could with our newly-designated “ferret towel”…
On the topic of “wildlife sightings” (moving now to wildlife living OUTside our home), our country neighborhood been visited in the last couple weeks by:
A skunk, which waddled right up on the porch with me one afternoon while I was reading…
A flock of wild turkeys. which had us thinking about the bow-hunting classes in which Christian has expressed an interest, and in which I’d like to join him… He took a “Hunter Education” class this fall–and has the card (and the shot-up target!) to prove it. Keoni paid him the compliment of remarking that he “shoots like his mom.” Maybe next Thanksgiving we’ll snag our own turkey for the table… We wake every morning to the sound of shots from nearby duck-hunters (there’s a duck-blind in the cow pasture right across the country-road from our place), so turkey-hunting doesn’t seem too fantastic.
A raccoon, which (after checking online to see how raccoons and chickens get along) had me checking the chicken-house at obsessive intervals for an entire night. Our “girls” have been providing us with four or five eggs every day, and our Thanksgiving table included both Yorkshire Pudding and Pumpkin Pie made with our own big, brown eggs.
A red fox (ditto the above reaction regarding the chicken-house)
Barn owls (not unusual at all here, but meriting a place in the list purely because of my affinity for my “totem”)
A beaver, hanging out in the lake at the State Park right by our home, and…
A mountain lion, which we are happy not to have encountered for ourselves! It has been hanging around the river for a number of weeks, and sighted in numerous locations nearby, but hasn’t made a house-call. As much as I enjoy living out of town and encountering some of Idaho’s wildlife up close and personal, I’m happy to take a pass on this one.
I do love Idaho. AND I’m still enjoying Keoni’s pumpkin pie, so I’ll leave you with his new recipe (adjusted for the “regular” ingredients we didn’t have on hand, and for how he “tastes things in his head”—the mark of a Born Cook)…
1~1/2 cups sugar
1 tsp salt
2 tsp ground cinnamon
1 tsp ground ginger
3 tsp Chinese five-spice (that’s one of his “tasted-it-in-my-head” additions)
5 large eggs (from OUR chickens, of course!)
1~3/4 pounds (equivalent to one large can) pureed baked pumpkin (from our neighbor’s garden!)
2 cans coconut milk (most recipes call for evaporated milk; we didn’t have any on hand, but—because of our habits of Hawai’ian cooking—we did have coconut milk)
2 pie crusts (of course, he makes his own from scratch)
Beat the eggs, mix in the dry ingredients and pumpkin, slowly stir in the milk, and pour the mixture into the pie crusts. Bake for the first fifteen minutes at 425, then another forty-five minutes at 350. He sprinkled the top with shredded coconut and a dollop of sour cream (I’ve always used whipped cream, but my hubby’s taste-it-in-his-head instinct never ceases to surprise me—pleasantly!) Speaking as a pumpkin pie aficionado (aficionada?), this is the BEST I’ve ever enjoyed!
I jinxed myself, no doubt about it. When I wrote last week about our growing tribe of pets and animals, I ended by saying I hoped we wouldn’t be floating away like Noah’s Ark. Just a couple nights later–Saturday night, to be specific, or rather, the “wee hours” of Sunday morning–Keoni woke me to say there was a distinct sound of gushing water beneath us. Oh, that can’t be good.
Bundled up in bathrobes and sweatshirts, we emerged from our back door with a flashlight, stepped over the rivulets of water streaming out from underneath the trailer, and pulled the skirting off the side beneath our bathroom. Sure enough, the main water line was in free-flow.
Our favorite neighbor, Bill, is also the maintenance guy for our trailer park, so Keoni was knocking on his door as early as we deemed decent. (The sun wasn’t quite up, but the sky was light… All three of us realized afterward that the nation’s clocks had been set back during the night, so we really woke him at an earlier hour than we’d intended…)
Bill answered the door in his pajamas; Keoni greeted him brightly with the observation that it was Sunday at our house, and he just wanted to see if it were Sunday at Bill’s house too. Oh, and by the way… Our trailer was now sitting in a veritable lake, and could Bill come take a look?
Times like this, we’re glad that our home is propped up on cement blocks ABOVE the ground. We’re also glad we’re on a well, and not paying for all the water that was suddenly surrounding us. (Not even feeling guilty; it’s headed straight back to the water table it came from.)
Keoni whipped up some French Toast for all of us while Bill crawled underneath to wrestle with our pipes (and modeled his sense of humor along with the life-jacket I jokingly fetched for him)… Before noon we had running water IN the house again, and our moat gradually began to recede.
I’ve had the Beatles’ “Yellow Submarine” song stuck in my head ever since. That’s absurd, of course, since our home was mercifully NOT “beneath the waves”–but somehow that song is sticking with me anyway. I think it’s not even about the flooding.
I have (at long last!) begun writing a book. A book of my own—which is a topic we’ve talked about every time I’ve been commissioned to ghost-write an e-book for someone else. Hell (we keep saying), if I can knock out a book on astrology or vitamins or the Foreign Exchange system (topics in which I really have no interest or background—just solid research skills), why am I not writing the book I want to write? So now I am. Working title: “Your Backyard Homestead: Sustainable Living, Wherever You Live.”
And still humming “Yellow Submarine”…
“…and we live a life of ease; every one of us has all we need…” I’ve always associated the phrase “life of ease” with affluence, but that’s not necessarily so. After all, I’m paying the bills by doing the one thing that comes most easily to me: wrangling words. And I get to spend my days in this home I love (moat or no), with my husband and our kids (and the cat and the ferret and the chickens and the mice)… I love my life. I am happy. No, more than that. I am joyful. The official U.S. “poverty line” is still a target way above our heads, but we have all we need. And right there we have the heart and the core of my book!
“…and our friends are all onboard; many more of them live next door…” I’ve been reading Eric Weiner’s book, The Geography of Bliss. It’s a humorous and insightful look at the nature of happiness, and the things that actually make people happy. He observes, among other things, that people often say “money doesn’t buy happiness,” but then proceed to behave as if it did. Social science studies show that money does affect happiness–but only up to a point. And that point, he explains, is a lowly fifteen thousand dollars a year. With the basics of security (and, interestingly, dignity) taken care of, additional funds don’t translate into additional levels of happiness. This idea, too, fits in with the premise of the book I’m writing.
Weiner also illustrates that many factors that do add to people’s happiness are tied to social interactions. Trust. Family ties. Cultural connections. Community identity. Neighborliness. He observes at one point that when we get money, we tend to use it to buy walls. Richer people are likely to have taller fences, essentially–and poorer people may have known neighbors instead. Which of those things make us happier? Why, the people-connections! When I shared that bit with Keoni, he pointed out that the thought was exactly in line with a blog-post I write a while back, on the Dying(?) Art of Knowing Your Neighbors. As I think about it, our neighbor-relations have also contributed substantially to our “homesteading” lifestyle—everything from our ability to scrounge and barter to our collaborative efforts last summer in Bill’s vegetable garden.
The “Yellow Submarine” song, after all, isn’t about getting overwhelmed or swept away by flood. It’s about living joyfully among other people in a state of satisfaction. Small wonder if that’s been playing in my head all week.
Come to think of it, even Noah’s Ark (the original “swept away by water” story) ended with a Rainbow of Promise.
We don’t usually get a lot of rain here. We live in Idaho’s “high desert” climate, where it gets really cold in winter and really hot in summer, but we seldom get even an inch of precipitation in a month. Which makes the last few days unusual—we’ve had more than an inch of rain this week.
I do love Idaho autumn, though–despite the inescapable fact that winter will be following close on its heels. I don’t like the cold. Give me barefoot-weather any day! Still… The oversized old trees around us are ablaze with rusty colors, and there IS some satisfaction in snuggling under our down comforter when our windows are icing over…
Keoni and I have been joking that perhaps this week’s rain is not coincidental, given how closely our home is coming to resemble the infamous Arc of Old Testament story…
For quite a while we didn’t have any animals (unless you count kids, which might not be a misclassification), but a year and a half back we rather unexpectedly ended up adopting my Grandpa’s cat. I had flown to Colorado with my mom to visit my grandparents, who had recently moved into assisted living, and discovered that the Big Family Question was what to do with Grandpa’s kitty, Suzy. Keoni had always declared himself “NOT a cat person,” but I called him from Colorado to feel him out on the topic of Suzy—which is how I came to find myself navigating the security checks at Denver International Airport with a stoned cat as carry-on luggage.
Mr. Non-Cat-Guy fell under Suzy’s spell from Day One, and submits to her whiskery whims without even a pro forma protest. She has trained him to perform a number of Human Tricks—my favorite being the one where she cries for food when her bowl is still full. She’ll carry on until he goes to her bowl and rattles his fingers through her kibble, at which point she’ll settle in for a contented meal. He’ll get out of bed to do that, knowing full well that she’s not out of food.
So Suzy has been family for a while… And then, along came the chickens! (Or, as Suzy prefers to refer to them: “Kitty Television“…) The chicken-house gradually took shape over the course of the summer—the work of Keoni and our 11-year-old, Christian, who had put in the original chicken requisition last spring.
“The Girls,” as we call them, have turned out to be charming and entertaining—and they do a fantastic job of cleaning out all the kitchen scraps that used to end up in the trash. No waste in this household! And although we’re supplementing with commercial pellets to ensure they’re getting everything they need, it’s nice to note that the bought feed will stretch a long way while they’re eating scraps.
One by one they have been earning names, beginning with Ku’okoa (tagged with the Hawai’ian word for “freedom”), who regularly asserts her independence by running around our yard outside the chicken-fence. When we go to feed the Girls in the morning, we just leave the gate ajar and she comes scuttling back into the enclosure to make sure and get her share.
The first hen to start laying earned herself the moniker of “Fertile Myrtle.” She started off by presenting us with an absurdly miniature egg, but she has followed up with a nice big brown one almost every afternoon since. (I always thought hens laid their eggs first thing in the morning! I still don’t know if that were a misconception on my part, or if we just have a confused chicken…) Whatever the case may be, we’re enjoying her output.
Saturday morning the kids climbed into bed with me, we queued up a rainy-day movie, and Keoni brought us all breakfast in bed! Crepes for Christian, pancakes for Elena Grace, and biscuits & gravy for me—all prepared with eggs from our chickens. How cool is that?
We did run into one hiccup when we brought the chickens home. Elena Grace had been excited by the idea of chickens, but when she came face to face with them, she didn’t want to chase them, catch them, or… well… touch them. In pretty short order, she felt left out—and started wondering aloud about a pet of her own.
First she floated the idea of a bird, but I confess (despite my mom’s amusing stories of a childhood parakeet with some embarrassing catch-phrases and a habit of riding around the house on the dog) that I’m not wild about the idea of an indoor avian. I suggested something of the mammalian persuasion instead—maybe a gerbil?—and promised that if she would do the research about gerbil-care, we could build a gerbil cage and get one. She proceeded to fill a small journal with gerbil-notes from her online research—she’s nothing if not thorough!
Keoni had noticed some likely building materials in a scrap-pile belonging to our neighbor Chuck, a disabled vet whose lawn Keoni has been caring for all summer. When he asked Chuck about them and explained the proposed project, Chuck told him to hang on a moment, disappeared into his shed, and wheeled out a moment later with a cage! Elena Grace wrote him an illustrated thank-you, and off we went to the pet store… Where both kids fell in love with the mice.
Welcome to the family: Nibbles, Whiskers, Climber, and Frogger (the jumping mouse). Suzy’s Kitty Television now had two channels: Chickens and Mice!
But guess what? We’re not done. Evidently on a roll, Christian proposed a ferret. And promptly found a guy on Craigslist whose landlord had ordered him to offload his ferret in 24 hours—so Christian counted up his saved allowance and got a crazy cut-rate deal on a ferret, a cage (more like a condo!), and a box full of ferret-care goodies.
And just for good measure, we had a surprise on our front porch when we arrived home: a hexagonal fish tank with a note from Chuck, who thought the kids might like this as well… Research is once again underway.
Allow me to pause here and observe one small irony about this growing menagerie. Our current custody schedule has the kids with us for just two weekends a month during the school year. (We’re on the verge of filing for a change, but that’s another story for another time.) So as the schedule stands, Keoni and I are the sole zookeepers for 24 of every 28 days. And we have zero regrets.
Last weekend the kids played with their pets for hours. I’m not a fan of mice in the kitchen cupboards, but in the kids’ hands they’re awfully sweet. And Niele the ferret (named with the Hawai’ian word for a nosy busybody) has enchanted all of us. She’s clumsy and playful and scampers around the house nosing into everything and chirping like the chickens, then collapses curled up in her hammock to recover from her exhausting adventures… She’s absolutely adorable.
We hope we won’t be floating away on a flood (despite all the recent rain, and despite our location on an island of the Boise River)… But a menagerie-count of five people, one cat, four mice, seven chickens, and a ferret would have been a good start even for Noah.
As of last weekend, our little Idaho “homestead” is up in population by seven, thanks to the adoption of seven (long-awaited!) laying hens for the chicken-house we’ve been all summer building. With the kids incoming for the weekend, I contacted everyone on Craigslist who was offering chickens, and we lucked out by hooking up with Rob Newburn of Rockin’ R Ranch. He turned out to be a wealth of knowledge, and (bless his heart!) spent more than an hour with us when we arrived, showing us his various breeds (though we could only afford the $3 “black coppers”) and filling us in on all sorts of chicken-care nuggets of wisdom.
Hearing that our “chicken project” had been instigated at Christian’s request, Rob also rounded up a Barnevelder hen with beautiful brown coloring to her feathers, and presented her to Christian as a gift, to be his “special chicken.”
We’d brought some U-Haul moving boxes from our shed (pre-printed on the sides with various possible purposes and rooms for movers to mark, but strangely enough, no pre-printed checkbox for “chickens”), and under Rob’s direction the kids took turns cutting air-slats in the sides before heading into one of his many hen-houses to pick out our chickens. After a quick demonstration on chicken-handling, Keoni and Christian rounded up six hens, helped along by Rob’s sage suggestions and bemused commentary…
Having taken up more than we’d intended of his Saturday morning, we bid Rob a very grateful goodbye and headed home, stopping just for a moment to scrounge some hay from the ground on a public easement by a horse pasture. (In case you’re wondering, this blog is NOT sponsored by the word “scrounge,” though I certainly wish someone were paying us for every time I use it!)
Back home, Christian distributed hay among the “nesting boxes” (kitchen drawers, scrounged—of course—from the neighboring trailer that was due for demolishment) and then we turned “the girls” loose!
Our neighbor Bill (happily for us, an old hand with chickens) came over to meet them, and shared with us how to clip the flight-feathers on their wings. This, in turn, led to my toilet-tweet (isn’t social networking wonderful?): “What every mom wants to hear through the bathroom door: ‘Mom, where are the BEST scissors you’d let me use on chickens?'” Out came the sewing-shears (what the heck, I know a guy who sharpens stuff!), and we clipped the wings on all seven hens.
The “special chicken,” however, quickly decided that clipped wings were no impediment to flying up on the chicken-house roof! (Christian thinks her name might be “Freedom,” and we’ve been tagging her since with the Hawai’ian variation of ku’oko’a, while waiting on his final decision.) She’s definitely her own lone hen. We’re only beginning to learn chicken-culture, but the other six chickens huddled up in a heap in a single nesting-box that night, while she sat aloof in one of her own. Having watched the other six “settle” who would be on top and who on the bottom of that heap, there’s no doubt in our minds where the expression “pecking order” originated!
The kids headed back to their dad’s house for the school-week, so we’re on chicken-duty in their stead, and sending updates (and photos) by email. I’m suddenly reminded of when Christian was about three years old and begging for a kitty. Before we made any move to visit the animal shelter, I had him go through the motions of cat-care (filling food and water bowls daily) to show that he was ready for the responsibility. He invented an invisible cat to go along with this ritual (named Clay, for reasons still unknown to me), and when we finally did visit the Humane Society, our choice was clinched by his excited exclamation that “THIS kitty looks exactly like Invisible Clay!”
I think our roles have been reversed now, and Christian has been training me up for chicken-care with the previous task of “feeding” his electronic reef-fish in the game on my iPad! Hmm, I’ve accidentally let the reef-fish “die” on more than one occasion… No doubt he’s glad Keoni is on the spot! And sure enough, I woke this morning to the sound of Keoni outside the window, calling “Hele mai, moa! Hele mai, moa!” (“Come here, chickens”) as he tossed out feed on the ground. Rob cautioned us not to expect eggs until they’ve had time to settle in, but hopefully they’re on their way to getting comfy…
In the meantime, we’re suddenly looking at the onset of Autumn here. Yesterday I was on the front porch with my book, perfectly comfortable in shirt-sleeves, and tonight we’re looking at our first hard frost. The sun has just called it a day and the moon is on the rise (seemingly magnified by the lingering haze from the summer’s forest-fires), and neighbors Bill and Anatoli are both out blanketing their vegetable gardens with tarps against the expected freeze.
Earlier this afternoon, Keoni made a run to the mailbox (another adaptation of “Emma” in the mail!) and found himself waved across the road to meet a neighbor we hadn’t yet encountered. We watched his thriving roadside vegetable-stand all summer, and today he was trying to harvest and offload everything that was left, before the frost hit. At his urging, Keoni brought home a haul of peppers and cucumbers and yarrow and dill and tomatoes, and we feasted tonight on stuffed bell-peppers and fresh salsa.
Keoni has already turned out his first batch of pickles this week. Bill and Anatoli have both been sharing armloads of their cucumbers, so today we were able to reciprocate with mason-jars of home-made sweet pickles. Christian and I are looking forward to the next batch: dill pickles! Neither of us has historically been a fan of the sweets (though having said that, I did sample this batch, and was amazed to discover that I loved it)—but Christian has been known to eat a whole jar at a time of dills. (Cast-iron stomach, that kid…)
I’ve finished up my own little harvest—all of our lavender is now hanging to dry (mostly destined for our home-made shampoo & conditioner), and I’ve stripped the monster sunflowers (growing up around the bird-feeder) of their seeds. I’m saving about half of them to plant along the fence-line next summer, in hopes that we can keep both our neighborhood songbirds and our kids satisfied without resorting to “bought” seed. We’ll roast the other half when the kids are back for the weekend.
Another fence-line already has raspberries planted—shoots we brought back from my dad’s burgeoning thicket. And Keoni’s potted kitchen-herbs (bedecked in the kids’ colorful artistry) are pulled in and tucked up on the porch. I don’t know if I’m ready for winter (despite the purring cat on my feet), but I think we’re at least ready for frost. And I’m thinking our first (modest!) summer of “sustainable homesteading” has been a pretty good success. Please pass the hot cocoa!