Monday, July 11, 2011

Free Range and Free Spirits

Millie loves chickens.

That's easy to see from the decor in her new kitchen. Friends and family have contributed. Bit by bit the original corn theme is being consumed by roosters and hens. Appropriate, no? We've done our share with the addition of a four foot tall sheet metal rooster on the front doorstep. We knew she would love him.

Blake has lots of stories about the ongoing battle between chickens and varmints when he was growing up. When we came back to the farm, I think the chickens pretty well had the run of the place. This situation fluctuated depending upon the aggressiveness of the neighbor's dogs. Too many feathers flying and the chickens were locked back into their pen between the farm house and machine shed under the silver maple tree.

The first summer we were home from college and farming, Millie butchered chickens. Like many of the other summer chores, it was a family production: everyone pitched in. This meant the menfolk helped, but it also meant the newest farm wife got a pan of water and a big knife.

Just one problem. The newest farm wife was pregnant, the stage of pregnancy particularly susceptible to odd smells, textures, heat.....well, I don't have to paint you a picture.

The chickens did arrive in the kitchen sans feathers and sans heads. But they were in possession of all their no longer vital organs. All the lessons of high school biology came back to me as I sliced the bird open. There they were: kidneys, liver, crop, heart. Gulp. I knew without being told that I was the color of a chicken gizzard. With teeth clenched, I cleaned gobs of fat off the chicken and picked at the nibs of pinfeathers. I stuck it out but I won't pretend I was heroic. I will say it was about thirty years before I put up chickens again...and that baby Lee helped this time around, also pregnant, determined, and green around the gills.

Because of attrition in the hen house, or perhaps just because she liked to, baby chickens appeared nearly every spring at Millie's house. Sometimes they started life on newspaper with walls of cardboard and a heat lamp keeping them toasty in the utility room where muddy farmers would have to dodge their peeping fluffiness until they were big enough to go to the hen house. After the grandchildren started arriving, the new chicks took their turns in the playpen. Millie loved to show the kids the baby chickens but it became even more important to keep them away from little hands; more than one chick got a way bigger drink than was really good for its health. Or maybe the confusion between "chickens" and "ducks" caused the unwelcome immersions.

When we moved back out to the farm, we inherited a small pig shed in the lot across the driveway. Before we knew it, we were expecting parents to a new flock of chickens cheeping in Millie's utility room. We walled in a safe cozy room and installed some used nesting boxes. We got a waterer and several sacks of chicken feed. Blake pounded in some steels posts and we drug up some cattle panels for a new chicken yard.

Our chicken flock turned out to be 'bin run' in a manner of speaking. Out of our dozen chickens, half turned out to be roosters. This wasn't a problem for quite a while. The girls now had chores to do: in the morning, check the chickens' water, let them out, check their feed. Look for eggs.
I have to admit that Lee and Ann showed some reluctance to pick up eggs with poop on them. Even wearing gloves down to the chicken house was insufficient protection from the offending excrement. But they did take care of the birds even if I had to do mop up operations on gathering eggs.

When the roosters got bigger though, it got more difficult to get the kids to care for the chickens. The roosters were aggressive and the girls weren't very old. I finally took action, relying heavily on Mother Nature. I left the roosters outside. Presto change-o....happy kids, happy coyotes. No roosters.

The chicken population waned as the dog population waxed. Something about our farmstead proved irresistible to abandoned dogs.There was Frisky, who pulled all my clothes off the line. Mister would stand on his hind legs and "dance" with the girls. And Bob, a big dog eager to please whose outstanding achievement was eating fireworks! A steady parade of friendly and forlorn animals showed up from time to time; as long as they mingled well with little kids, didn't dig, or bark for hours at end, they found a second with lots of other dogs!

Juno was our first pet, a German Shepherd Doberman mix with soulful eyes and a gentle disposition. She spent her puppyhood riding back and forth from Columbia to Tarkio in the back seat. That experience informed her life long behavior. Juno leapt into the pickup each morning before Blake poured his last cup of coffee. She rode in the front, in the back on toolboxes and fuel tanks. She would wait in the cab of the tractor running the auger until a truck arrived to ride in.
Juno's day ended only when Blake returned home. She retired when she could no longer make the jump into the front of his pickup.

At risk of anthromorphizing our doggy companions, I'll tell you that Juno had a great buddy. Nancy's beagle Barney was a wandering soul. In Juno's later years, he would show up at our place on his short stubby legs and stay for days or weeks on end. Nancy knew where he was; periodically, she would come up to fetch him back home. They are both long gone now, but I remember the two gray muzzled dogs resting beneath the trees and how happy they seemed to be when Barney trotted up into the yard.

Summertime, and each family made plans for its summer escape. Summertime, and the entire cow herd, from fat cattle to mamas and babies, found ways to taste freedom as well. Cows would munch the green grass on the side of Highway 0. The electric fence would short out and the steers would head for the tall corn. As everyone knows, these excursions happened most frequently on Sunday mornings. Like the cherry atop the sundae, the yard bull would be back in Millie's front yard.

The yard bull was a Houdini and creature of habit. Wherever the bulls were pastured for the summer, this bull would find his way out and head for the headquarters of Hurst Farms. He never strayed into the road and paid little or no attention to the parade of pickups and other implements coming and going in the driveway. He appeared tethered to the pines. I believe we would have accepted him as another animal oddity if he not taken a notion to scratch himself on the little fruit trees Millie was nurturing. Whether or not one saw the yard bull, the path of destruction he left in the yard was indelible.

No more free range chickens, no more open range cattle; the farm is devoted to corn and kids and flowers these days.

One less excuse to be late for church on Sunday.

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