A few weeks ago, I finished the twelfth draft of my memoir about life here at Darwin’s View, off-grid with chickens. Since then, I have been scrambling to get caught up with myself and everything else that fell by the wayside, not least, the book summaries I said I’d write and haven’t. What was I thinking, giving myself that task? Each morning, I sit down to write. I pick up one or another of the books I’ve read . . . and I’d rather tidy a hen’s pasty butt until it’s back to fluff and order. And so, instead of pumping out reviews, I have organized my flute music. And moved around my office furniture. With Carl, I have gathered up our taxes and reconciled our accounts. And lots of phone calls and texts and emails. I signed off of that time suck Facebook. What a relief! Now I have more time . . . to write the dratted reviews that are like disassembled skeletons. Even once they are put together, they’ll need flesh and blood to make them worth reading. And ever in the background, the question that ends my memoir and jumpstarts this blog going forward: Now what?
Adopting oxen was my first, if temporary, response to that question. Mentioned to us by a new friend, Jesse and James are described as gentle giants, hand-raised from birth, a working team who pull timber . . . and are quite amorous toward their new and petite Devon cattle sisters. Thus, they need a new home, and I thought, why not here at Darwin’s View?
I must have said that aloud because Carl promptly counted out the reasons why not.
“We have no barn.”
“Oh details,” I replied, and waved a hand in the general direction of outside. “We can build one.”
Carl countered with the obvious fact that cats and chickens challenge my limits. Oxen are enormous and they have horns. And, before I could respond, he suggested we start with something more our size. A dog. I took the bait and opened PetFinder.com. Carl went down to his man cave to practice, leaving me to drool over corgi mix puppies . . . and, unbeknownst to Carl, goats.
Not long ago, I read Brad Kessler’s Goat Song and suggested Carl do the same. The book is about Kessler and his wife’s who move from New York City to a Vermont farm where they take on the task of goat adoption and cheesemaking. In the course of the year Kessler details, he tells the history of humans and goats, his own interactions with their Nubian goats, and the process of cheesemaking. That process would include the fact that in order to get goat cheese, one needs goat milk, and to get goat milk, one needs female goats to get pregnant and have babies that are then detached, bleating, from their mother’s teat so that the milk can be used for cheese. And to get that female goat pregnant? Kessler describes his virgin goat’s first time in graphic detail.
Ah, silly me. There I was imaging that the book would get Carl hooked on the idea of the cheesemaking, and thereby goats. In fact, he was so repulsed by the description of the rutting goat’s rape of that young female goat that he almost contemplated giving up eating cheese. Me, too. Though I was more upset by the bleating kids. Kessler’s goats might be treated humanely but the fact remains, as with cows in dairy farm factories, dairying requires humans to step in and separate mothers from their children.
Fortunately, I was able to balance the anguish of that with Sy Montgomery’s The Good Good Pig. We might not be able to save all animals but, at least, we can have the satisfaction and self improvement of saving one, in Sy Montgomery’s case, a runt pig that grows to be . . . well, rather larger than an ox calf. Montgomery, though, has a barn. And chickens. And a heart full of love for all the world’s sentient creatures and the verve to befriend and love them all.
My friend who suggested the oxen, Alyson, works at Nye Hill Farm in Roxbury. It is a brewery and a sanctuary for animals, not least numerous piggies. I have met these piggies and they are grunty and sweet and big. Actually, huge. Overwhelming and amazing and not, in any current context, within my comfort zone, even having read about Sy Montgomery’s Christopher Hogwood. I feel so limited. After all, if it would mean saving a pig from becoming bacon, I should leap at the opportunity. Instead, I harken back to Carl’s remonstrance that chickens and cats are my limits. I come up short even with them. Just ask Nick and Nora. They meow incessantly throughout the night for attention, enduring great loneliness and neglect when I don’t get up to pet and feed them, maybe run the shower for a moment so that water will run down the drain for them who are positively parched at three o’clock in the morning.
And the chickens? Every morning, while I am strapped in my office chair and don’t dare leave because I know I won’t come back due to one distraction or another, Carl does the chicken chores of watering and providing daily treats. Truth be told, some days, I barely make it out to say hello. Ping is so offended that she hardly deigns to approach me anymore. Granted, she is elderly now and likely prefers to avoid the kerfuffle of the Suffragettes, and Swallow and Squeaky stampeding me in hopes of mealy worms.
In contrast to me, Sy Montgomery is a real, honest to goodness animal steward who develops a relationship with her hens. She keeps her peeps with her in her office as they grow up. She let’s them fly about, be their authentic selves. And when they are grown up, she visits her girls and so they like her.
Pause to note girls. Montgomery doesn’t have the karma that attracts boy chicks to her circle. No cock-a-doodles for her. Her chicks never transgender into cockerels, who start out so sweet and end up chasing her around the yard, rapping her on the wrist with their beaks, insisting she keep away from HIS hens.
I am not bitter. I am only making reference to my own chick to chicken history which is chock full of roosters. Big Red. Cornelius, Pong and Clayton. Little Big Man and his brother who died too young to be named. Mo and Schtude, who was supposed to be Uncle Schtude but is currently not living up to his laid back, gentle name, thus not embodying the future I had hoped to write about in a children’s book. It will have to be fiction.
All to say, I’m not sure if I should start an animal sanctuary here at Darwin’s View. The animals might not be as attended to as they should be. And it’s so blowy up here. This past week, fifty mile an hour winds that blew out the trim in our attached greenhouse. They’d have to be sturdy animals. What if they got sick and the vet took a long time to get here and they were in pain? And if they died? No. I need to protect myself from the worry and anxiety of animals beyond Nick and Nora and our ten chickens . . . and the resident twelve or fifteen wild turkeys that promenade the property like long-tailed pterodactyls. And the herd of leaping, browsing deer. The porcupines and mice. The frogs in our lap pond . . .. Why not be content with worrying about all those living beings?
Because I know what goes on out there in the world. The carnage and cruelty of CAFOs (concentrated animal feeding operations). The terror of the just born separated from their mothers. The slaughter.
Whoops! Before I get onto my high horse about that I have to go out and attend to Brownie who is not well. And stare at the myriad books I have read, details of which to come. Maybe. Maybe not. For now, I’m going with the flow, seeing where it takes me. Today, it takes me to meet Jesse and James, the oxen. And a couple of goats. Just to see them because we don’t have a barn. Carl is coming with me to be sure I remember that. And then we will come back to Darwin’s View, to the wind buffeting us and the cats and chickens and I will likely read more words, and write some, all with the aim of finding the answer to that still echoing and haunting question Now what?