Hello beautiful gardeners,
My memoir is FREE today and tomorrow on Amazon (downloadable ebook)!
Take a look, tell your friends.
With LOVE and gratitude,
My memoir is coming out this month!
Yes, I know. I announced that it was coming out “soon” in JUNE (over six months ago). This baby is late, very late. As some of you know, I’m a self-taught publisher. Over the last eight years, I’ve published six issues of Greenwoman, a YA novel (Zera and the Green Man), a book of short stories (Fifty Shades of Green), a few e-books, and many articles and posts. I’ve had the honor and pleasure of working with many talented writers of fiction, creative non-fiction, and poetry. I’d published so many things, but I’d never published a memoir—so here, once again, was another huge learning curve.
I thought I had all the material, all the stories I’d written over the years, and it could be easily put together. Oh, ha ha—wishful thinking! Luckily, my daughters (thank the heavens for them, always bringing me back to reality and keeping the bar set high) told me that the first draft was too incomplete and too inconsistent.
Those were not words I was hoping to hear.
My daughters urged me to rewrite several of the stories in past tense. A significant undertaking.
Then I discovered that the book, about our menagerie of pets over the years (among other things), really needed a story about our dog Chancho.
More importantly, the book needed an “origin” story.
That story took another month of writing, but first I had to time-travel back twenty-five years. (And let me tell you, time-travel is not easy!) The process was difficult emotionally, reliving those days, the tough times back in the early days, before all the fun started with raising kids, chickens, and a garden. Andy and I were just starting out in business and in parenthood, paying student loans and the mortgage on two houses for an entire year, living paycheck to paycheck (having to borrow money at times from his brother Danny to keep the utilities on), as Andy worked seven days a week to fix up a beautiful yet humble home with (finally) a space to garden . . . Oh, and did I mention I was pregnant with Lily and we had no health insurance?
I wrote the origin story. We went over the manuscript, again. And then again, reading it aloud this time and making over 600 more editing changes.
Two days ago I received what I hope will be the final proof. One more fine-tooth comb reading and a only a few (I hope!) minor edits.
I was reminded: Anything worthwhile takes time and thought and care. More than you imagine!
But today, finally, a sneak peek! Here she is. Almost born!
(Consider this an invitation to the baby shower.)
Now for the backstory on the title, because some of you might remember that it was going to be titled The Chicken Chronicles. A good friend alerted me (thank you, V. G.!) that there was already a memoir with that title, by the illustrious Alice Walker (the Pulitzer-prize winning author of The Color Purple). Her book was also about chickens. So . . . I had to think of another title. Not easy, as that was my “working title” for years.
For a while I was stuck on Mother Hen . . . but no one seemed thrilled about that one, and the only male beta reader (hello, Geno!) gave it a thumbs’ down in appeal to male readers. A clever friend (again, G. V.) , suggested a few alternatives. Her favorite was Chicken Scratches, which had its charms, but as I always prided myself on good penpersonship, it didn’t connect with me the way it needed to.
Sidenote: Wow, while writing this, I just thought of another title . . . Clucked Up. Ha ha! Maybe that will be the title of the sequel! Goodness knows there have been many more challenges and harrowing adventures this last decade— and especially these last two years!
Anyway, back to the subject at hand: One day I was rattling off title suggestions to Lily, including “Please Don’t Piss on the Penstemons,” the original title of one of the stories about our dog, Broonzy, and his destructive puppyhood. The back story on that title is that it’s a play on the old book/movie title Please Don’t Eat the Daisies, a work I’d never read, but I remembered vividly from childhood.
Lily said, “I like that one.”
I said, “I do too, especially the alliteration, but . . . I don’t know. It has a swear word. And I think there are a lot of people who don’t even know what penstemons are!”
Lily said that readers could look up penstemons—and that it wasn’t a big deal about “piss.”
I still thought it could be a dangerous move, a title with both “penstemons” and “piss,” so I decided to change penstemons to another “p” flower. What would sound best? We asked friends their preference: poppies, pansies, petunias or peonies?
Now, to take a look at “piss” (ha). I researched: “book titles with swear words.” It seems that it can actually help sell a book these days! Who knew? I brought it up to a media-savvy friend (hello, Mary Ellen!) a decade older than I am. She was, to my surprise, very enthusiastic. She said, “Our book club chose to read The Badass Librarians of Timbuktu because of the title. Do it, Sandy!”
Still searching for a bit more reassurance (this was a big move!), I brought up the subject of swear words in book titles in Facebook-land. My mother immediately commented that she would never have a book with a swear word in the title on her coffee table! (Protecting the grandchildren and great-grandchildren, you see. I didn’t even disclose what the colorful word would be, but she was against it.)
So “Piss” it was!
The book is very sweet (and only slightly pissy). More than anything, it is a love letter to our home and garden, our family, and Nature.
I hope you’ll make a note to buy a copy this month. I’ll let you know when she is born!
With much love and appreciation to all who have helped bring yet another dream to fruition,
Autumn days come quickly, like the running of a hound on the moor.
For weeks, friend and Flora’s Forum contributor Virginia (Ginny) Gambardella and I have been sending emails back and forth about my upcoming memoir, a collection of “Stories about raising kids, crops, and critters in the city” (actual subtitle). For those of you who have forgotten, this is a book that I thought was very close to being ready to be published . . . in June! (Ha ha ha, she laughs, the frustration showing a little.) The Chicken Chronicles, which is no longer going to be titled The Chicken Chronicles (more on that in an upcoming post), has undergone a round with beta readers, a semi-pro editor, and a professional editor. I’ve also been working on the cover. Now the manuscript is back in my hands for a final rewrite. I’m adding a much needed “origin” story to the beginning of the book, I’m also rewriting the Introduction, and making a few other adjustments.
Creation can sometimes take (so much) longer than we expect!
Absorbed in this work and other concerns, the connection to my garden has been very different this year. For the first time in over 25 years, I decided to take a break, to “let it go” in a big way. At first, I felt shame and disappointed in myself. I wasn’t doing “what I was supposed to do.”
It took me a while to realize: Who is the creator here, anyway?!
Now, several months later, I’ve learned that the things we love the most can become yet another master. This is not how it is supposed to be! Gardening (to me) is not meant to be about control, but about joy, about communion.
This disconnecting from the garden, painful at first, taught me valuable lessons, and it’s still teaching me. As I kept my distance, all the beautiful creatures who rely on this space for food and shelter and a place to raise young (a significant amount of pollinators and birds!) were not affected negatively by my decision whatsoever! On the contrary, they have been happier than ever with the wildness and the extra weeds in bloom! I have seen more hummingbirds, more goldfinches, more bees of many species, than I ever have before.
THIS is also what gardening is about. Discovery!
Wow. That’s a long way to getting to the point of this post: Ginny informed me that September 1st is actually the first day of fall! (Not astronomically, but in accordance “to the meteorological definition of seasons, which is based on temperature cycles and the Gregorian calendar.”)
Did you know that?
I thought autumn officially began with the equinox, which this year in the northern hemisphere arrives on September 22nd. Of course, there are some leaves changing colors and falling here in Colorado, and the nights are cooler, but it feels like “late summer.” And, of course it is (I’m just now getting some ripe tomatoes!). And yet . . . it isn’t.
The fact is, time is relative. Oh, and here’s the informative link Ginny sent me.
We all have our own timetables, for learning and growing.
And, it’s an in-between time for sure.
Looking forward to the harvest season (and all that “harvest” means!), and wishing you a happy 3rd day of fall. ❤
Karla sent in her September newsletter two weeks ago and I’m just now getting the green bits to you today. So sorry for the delay! It’s a list of goodies with a focus on the soulful, the beautiful, the green. Again, thank you so very much, dear Karla, for sharing! —SK
P. S. If you’re local (Colorado Springs) and would like Karla’s full newsletter that includes local events, you can write her at karlaann45 @ gmail.com.
* * *
Eco-brilliant: These portable, inflatable, solar-rechargeable lanterns were invented by a woman and help folks who have no electricity. You can also put one on your car dashboard to recharge your phone as you travel! Buy them directly from luminaid.com so some of your money will go to help those who can’t afford them.
“There’s no problem so awful you can’t add some guilt and make it even worse.” —Bill Watterson
Being used as a college text, Drawdown: The Most Comprehensive Plan Ever Proposed to Reverse Global Warming, was written by a host of experts & edited by Paul Hawken. I never buy a book I haven’t read, and only buy “keepers” — this one I knew right away was a keeper.
And one more book recommendation:
“Faery energy, the Gaian presence, the Goddess, Mother Earth: every culture has had a name for this awareness of the Life Force in Nature.” (p.17) “Water is an optimist . . . always willing to take on the more powerful positive structure of thoughts and intentions. It wants to be healthy, strong, and beautiful . . . even a small quantity of positively charged Water [can] communicate with and transform a large area or body of Water.” (p.54) —from The Garden Awakening by Irish wild-gardener Mary Reynolds. Illustrated by Ruth Evans. Here’s a short film about the book:
Mama Moon is NOT dry—there’s a water-rich interior & polar canyons! Check it out here.
Are you drawn to Ireland? (So am I!) Watch Ireland’s Wild Coast for free.
It’s the Bees Knees! Check out Chicago’s airport – it hosts beehives!
Raise food on the roof of a grocery store where you sell it—that’s called “hyperlocal” GreenCityGrowers.com
Think Small! “Nothing is more responsible than living in the smallest space you possibly can.” —minimalist F. Marcia
Have you heard of “ABEEGO”? it’s a re-usable beeswax wrap that lets food breathe. “Keep food alive!” says our friend.
A Beautiful Gift Idea: A RESIST BIG MONEY IN POLITICS stamp to put it on all your dollars, even on the $20 White House! It’ll let those who you do business with know your values!
Women Chief Judges of two west coast tribes are the center of this POV film TRIBAL JUSTICE. Their Native systems focus on restoration, not retribution . . .
Word! “2.4 billion people lack sanitation: more people have a cell phone than a toilet.” —Matt Daimon
And, to end on a fun (and admittedly political and not green, but I couldn’t help myself) note:
Clowns in wedding dresses confound the loud KKK with silly WIFE POWER! This is a brilliant story and shows how laughter can be more than medicine—it can be the perfect way to ridicule Nazis!
* * *
Well, here I am, interviewing myself for a press release I put together for Fifty Shades of Green last fall. (When you hear self-publishers wear a lot of hats, that is the truth!) I was going to share this interview back with you then, but other things came up and it got stuck in the Drafts folder here on WordPress. Since the film of the other Fifty Shades book is out, I thought now might be a good time.
If you haven’t bought a copy of my book yet, you’re in luck. We have a special going on now – retail price is $15.95, sale price is $12.95 (and it looks like Amazon has taken another dollar off from there). Don’t delay; the savings will not get better than this! Here’s the link!
What brought this book about? It started as a joke. I read Fifty Shades of Grey and was shocked. Not by the BDSM sex, but by the inequality in the relationship. I thought: This is what women find sexy? The story had no basis in reality and the heroine was the “submissive”—in bed, in experience, and economically and socially. What’s sexy about that?
I talked to friends and saw most had the same reaction. At first I thought it would be funny to do a parody, a novel with a female protagonist who was older and a billionaire, someone who had all the power in society, and in the bedroom, who would mete out discipline to a virginal, college-aged male love interest. But after exploring that idea, I found it didn’t hold my interest. So the idea changed to a collection of stories.
Where did the gardening theme come from? Gardening had to be a theme. It’s my personal passion and it’s the subject of all my publishing work. Plus, the garden is the perfect setting for sexual encounters. Non-gardeners may not know this, but the garden is a sexy, fruitful, lustful place. And besides, women and gardens have shared an intimate relationship since the beginning; starting, one could say, with Eve.
Can you tell us about the writers? I fell in love with all the writers. Most are seasoned erotica writers and avid gardeners, so they know what they’re writing about in both departments. Several are men, and it was wonderful to have that perspective; two of the writers are from Britain, and I found that thrilling as the British are known for their mad gardening skills. Another writer’s the editor for a regional gardening magazine, and one graduated from Harvard Law School. There’s an exciting diversity in styles and backgrounds.
Do you have a background in the erotica genre? No, and I honestly didn’t know a lot about the genre before I started this project. But I learned, and I read some of the best work out there, and the more I learned the greater my respect for the genre grew. This is my feeling on the subject: sexuality is one of the most important, powerful, and certainly one of the most beautiful aspects of our existence and the way it’s treated is sad. We have a culture where sex=porn and that is just not so. There needs to be a return to honoring sexuality and lovemaking. Placing sexuality in a dark, forbidden place breeds a lot of society’s ills.
How do you feel erotica fits into today’s literature and why is it becoming so popular? I feel that readers are looking for deeper connections, and when you have access to a character’s sexuality, you see the whole person. I think this is the reason TV shows have become more sexual—not for the titillation, though that can be a part of it, but because we want fully-developed characters. In a big way, A Signature of All Things by Elizabeth Gilbert validated this book project for me. Here was a story, from a respected author, about a virginal woman in the 1800s obsessed with studying, of all things, mosses. There’s a lot about horticulture and history and becoming a fully-realized human being, but Gilbert also explored her protagonist’s sexuality. It was enthralling, reading about this character’s sexual awakening and her desires.
What surprised you most about the stories you received? The imagination, and the heart. Eros is the god of love and where the word erotica originates, and there is a joy and a depth in these stories that goes far beyond the sex act. In pornography there is no heart; it’s only about the stimulation. I found myself moved by some of the stories, such as “Pulse of the Earth,” a healing love story between two men. “Love Lies Bleeding” is so beautifully written it took my breath away, and “Phallus Impudicus” is high comedy. “The Judgment of Eric” is a riddle. There are a couple of stories where love potions figure in and that’s always fun, both from an adult “fairy tale” perspective and from a psychological standpoint. The collection is a mix of many aspects of the sexual psyche.
Did you have a favorite? Yes and no. I hand-picked them all, and I love them all, but there are a few that are special to me. I won’t name my favorites, but what’s funny is they changed during the editorial process. One story I read aloud recently and just went, “Wow. I think this is my favorite.” I also find it interesting that there’s no consensus among those who’ve read the book. This tells me there’s something for everyone.
Do you garden? (And do you think gardening’s sexy?) Can I scream, “Oh YESSSS!”? I have been an obsessed gardener for over two decades, when we first bought a home that had a yard. I went through master gardener training twice, the second time as a refresher course. I remember the first cottage garden I saw. I was 19 and my soon-to-be husband and I were house-sitting for his brother and his wife. Victoria and Danny had little money but they had an amazing garden: chickens and flowers, a vegetable garden, fruit trees in barrels, a tiered strawberry bed. This was in Colorado in the 1980s and enjoying this humble yet wildly productive and beautiful garden I thought, “This is paradise. I want to do this one day.” And I did.
As far as sex and the garden go, there is no place sexier. Flowers are the sex organs of plants, you know. They are beautiful and many emit intoxicating perfumes. If you have a flower garden and a vegetable garden, you have an orgy going on during the spring and summer, right in your backyard! The bees and butterflies are pollinating, the flowers are cross-pollinating. It’s amazing. You’re surrounded by sex.
P. S. I thought you might find it amusing that the pose and setting for my press kit photo was inspired by one of my favorite garden writers—that true champion of organic growing, Ruth Stout! I love her so! It I wrote about her life last year in a mini-bio that you can read either in Greenwoman #5 or in the Kindle publication, The Whole Ruth: A Biography of Ruth Stout.
Thank you, Ruth. Your sexy good humor was just what I was looking for.
And, once more, the link to buy yourself (or your lusty gardening pal/s) a copy. You know they make great gifts, too!
Some of you know about the adults-only publishing adventure I’ve been on this spring and summer, Fifty Shades of Green. It’s a book project that started out as a feminist answer to the famous/notorious novel Fifty Shades of Grey, but then turned into a one-of-a-kind collection of erotic and literary gardening stories. (With a feminist bent, of course.)
I wanted to announce today that while we’re still a week or so from having the paperback book available, Zora and I have managed to get five individual stories available on Kindle as of today. I am also offering a FREE sample story, “Phallus Impudicus,” for those who sign up for the Fifty Shades of Green newsletter. (Look to the top right of this blog to sign up or go to the Garden Shorts website.)
For those of you with full in-boxes, I’m offering, temporarily, this link to read the story on the Garden Shorts webpage. It’s a hidden page so it doesn’t show up on the site. You’ll only be able to access it through this special link, here.
But, I’d encourage you to sign up for the newsletter. There won’t be a lot of “mail” and through the newsletter you’ll learn more about the project, its authors, have access to discounts and special offers, etc.
We may have the entire book available on Kindle as a digital download as early as today. For those of you who don’t have a Kindle device, you don’t need one; you can download a reader-app from Amazon and read it right off of your computer. It’s easy-peasy!
If you choose to indulge in any of these stories, please let me know what you’ve sampled and what you think! (And it would be great if you told your friends about it, too.)
The second part of this post is about our story covers. While I hope to connect with gardeners and aspiring gardeners through this project we realize there’s a huge erotica market out there and those readers might be interested in this book.
With that in mind, Zora thought we should create some “sexy lady” covers. My idea was having covers that feature some kind of provocative-looking fruit, veggie, or flower, like the poppy bud on the book’s cover. We talked it over and I sided with the fresh vision of youth; we’d try the sexy ladies. And I realized that this produce/floral idea might only catch on with gardeners.
So, among other things, we spent all week making covers and formatting individual stories and the book.
You’ll can see three of the covers—and stories—on Amazon if you type in “Fifty Shades of Green.”
I have no idea why these two don’t come up through the author or editor’s name. Yet another glitch to fix! There are many in self-publishing. It is anything but easy-peasy.
Now for my cover story. This week I made the cover for “The Judgment of Eric.” It’s a story about a gardener who gets the attention of two Greek Gods, Apollo and Dionysus. They appear in his garden and compel him to participate in a contest—a contest in which Eric will decide which god is the better lover! It’s sexy, wildly imaginative, and homoerotic. (We have three homoerotic stories in the twelve story collection.)
I tried to think of a good image and finally came up with this one. It’s from an ancient Greek amphora (jar).
Last night I was notified this cover was rejected as pornographic. I disagree, but I adapted it. (And then we all had a good laugh.) Now I don’t know if this one will be rejected, too, but to me it’s more suggestive. Such is the nature of censorship.
I hope you’ll take a peek!
Let’s call it Throwback Friday.
This week I went through my first blog, Greenwoman Zine, looking for posts about starting my business. Words that described not only the process but my feelings about why I’m doing what I’m doing. By that, I mean sacrificing dollars, time, and sanity in an attempt to be a publisher in this genre of literature I love most—garden writing.
I found what I needed. Oh, how much more starry-eyed I was back then! Every victory was huge. Every discovery was full of sparkly-specialness.
Would I trade now for then? Today I would say yeah, probably. But ask me in a month or a year and it could be a very different story. I hope so. That’s why I keep on keeping on.
I’m sharing this old post because I thought you might find it amusing, and this week I’m revisiting the agony of straddling the gulf of business while wearing the hats of creator and “boss.” I’ve always felt I was a teacher, and at times a good leader, but being a boss is a very different manner. To be a boss, it sometimes seems that there has to be an inflation of ego (that I cannot muster) combined with a talent to firmly deal with those you’d prefer to tell to (insert imaginative insult here). That, too, is a skill I do not possess. So it’s a struggle and often I wonder if the Grace and Anna (you will read about them below) will ever be in balance.
* * *
(This essay first appeared in Greenwoman Zine on June 14, 2011.)
At the end of last summer I watched the documentary September Issue with my daughter Lily. While I’m not a huge fan of haute couture (and Lily is) I appreciate the art of fashion and I’ve always dug Vogue‘s articles.
I’d also seen, and loved, The Devil Wears Prada, so I had a preconceived notion or two about the subject of the documentary, Vogue editor in chief Anna Wintour. The Devil Wears Prada portrayed her as 1) shockingly insensitive to others’ feelings, and, 2) cruel and boundary-less when it came to using employees for personal needs. If you think about it, those were her only “crimes;” but for a woman they are felonies.
After watching The September Issue, about the time I started my own magazine, I didn’t come away with a negative impression of Anna Wintour. I, instead found myself in complete awe of her abilities. She also seemed a soft-serve version of the icy Prada-lady, but, then again, who knows the “truth”? Like any art, films are subjective. Though I was in awe of Wintour, I identified with Vogue’s Art Director, Grace Coddington. Coddington, a brilliant photographer and stylist, was fun, a bit impish, and she didn’t give a shit about being a fashion plate herself (defiantly wearing her signature black clothing, which Wintour had declared “out,” and comfortable sandals instead of de rigueur high fashion high heels). Most admirably, Coddington was fearless about questioning Wintour’s editorial decisions. This is what I connected with most—that questioning of authority, as that has been a major theme in my life.
It fascinates me how the “establishment” and the “movement” work against (yet ultimately for) one another—the establishment seeking to thwart evolution, the movement always pushing for it. That dynamic is clear in the film. Coddington (and other artists) push, Wintour reigns them in, yet also engages in the process (and progress). She evaluates and edits the forward push, serving both establishment and movement.
My surprise, recently, was to see my own shift. I now identify more with Anna Wintour—though I actually shook my head while typing those words, as it is such a newly emergent part of my personality.
Here’s how my sympathy for the devil came about. Now I’m doing basically what Wintour does, though, obviously, at a much different level. The point is I’ve become the person who must make decisions. I’m answerable to everything, which is, ultimately, the success or failure of my publishing work. As this enterprise has progressed I’ve come to the point where I’ve learned a single all-important lesson: I simply cannot, must not, fuck around. The magazine comes first. Emotional stuff gets in the way. Decisions must be made quickly and clear-headedly. If something isn’t working, it must be fixed, or dispensed with, immediately.
This is tough. In the last month I’ve had to 1) reject a small piece of art that I asked, as a favor, to be created from someone I didn’t know well—and then deal with a mini-temper tantrum from the artist; 2) find another writer, at the eleventh hour, to replace one who couldn’t fulfill her obligation; 3) make the decision to try to design the entire magazine myself, adding more weeks of training and work to my already overloaded plate, not to mention setting the publication date back a few weeks; 4) consider advice from a person notable in the garden/education field who wrote me suggesting that I should abandon my idea of a subscription magazine and, instead, create a free online publication (having faith the advertisers will come!); and, most harrowing, 4) go through a grant interview in which I had to lay my last 15-20 years of of a life immersed in art, gardening, and writing soul-bare, in order to try to make this project easier on me and my family financially.
All of these trials have had emotional costs, and my decisions had to be made quickly and on a single criteria—what I believe is best for the publication, and, by association, me. I surprised myself on how efficiently and quickly I met each challenge. As I told a friend, I could not have done the things I am doing now ten years ago.
Some of those trials were painful but the only one that really shook me was the grant interview. Although the people conducting it were wonderfully friendly, receptive, and genuinely engaged in my story, and the questions put to me were perfect, I have never felt so naked and vulnerable as then, sharing my hopes, dreams, motivations. The hardest part was doing it in a context that felt, ultimately, like begging. Please approve of me, what I’ve put my heart and soul into for the last two decades! Please consider my vision worthy! Won’t you slice off a little slice of that tasty philanthropic pie for my art? Later that day I wept while working in the garden, feeling angry at what I perceived as failure—that I didn’t have enough money myself to do things without asking for help. I was also angry that I had to expose my soul and ask for my worth to be validated.
My anger was soon replaced by defiance. At one point during the interview I was asked if I’d “accept less than I requested.” Immediately I chirped, “Sure!” Later, I thought, I’ve put in a lot of hours of work and have been through a lot of hoops doing this, endless weeks of waiting around, and I’m going to have to jump through more hoops if I get the award. My friend Edie once joked that we had the same personalities, we were like the little mouse that gives the hawk the one finger salute just as it’s about to be swooped upon and devoured. Hence my next thought: If I don’t get what I applied for, well, then, I don’t want any of it. It’s not worth it.
I know I may happily eat humble pie regarding that little proclamation. It won’t be the first time. Whether it would be selling out, or wisdom, or a bit of both, I’m not sure. What I do know is the very next day I went to the bank and took out a loan—and I felt better.
Last week my horribly unfashionable old pink Converse shoes were showing their wear. Faded, a couple of holes, unfit for wearing in public, though I was still doing just that. I have a weird attachment to this brand of shoes; it’s not just comfort—they also symbolize the girl-me who lives strongly still, who got her first pair (white) at age 11, and the whole rock ’n roll/Coddington-appetite for defiance. Lily, out shopping with me and somewhat scandalized by my lack of good taste (her inner Anna Wintour always in dominance), remarked when I gleefully spotted a new pair for $25: “Mom, you’re almost 50, when are you going to stop wearing those?”
“When I’m 90.”
At home I showed my husband my new shoes and took the old ones to the trash. He asked, “Aren’t you going to save those, to garden in?”
“Hell no,” I said. “I’m wearing my new ones.”
Anna Wintour is rising, but I’m glad the Grace in me is still going strong.
* * *
(This week I’m sharing my weekly Greenwoman newsletter. —Sandra)
I don’t know about you, but even though it can be a teensy bit stressful at times, I like the Christmas season, a lot.
Not only do we allow ourselves a little more indulgence (which is not always such a bad thing) but when the shortest day of the year arrives, I am elated. To me, it feels like turning a corner, and it is. The days will now get longer, and soon it will be warming up, and another growing season will be here! (In my winter daydreams, I can almost feel the sunshine on my back and the warmth of the earth under my feet, and smell the tomato plant foliage . . . )
I tried to think of something entertaining or clever or educational to send you today, but it’s been a very busy week. Both our daughters are home now (they are, right at this moment, baking sugar cookies in the kitchen—and it smells so good—um, the vanilla—). I’ve also been focused on getting packages of magazines out to our contributors and to a local store or two.
To top it all off, yesterday we did our shopping, and the landscape looked like this.
Well, not exactly like this. This is at a nearby park, but the streets were lined everywhere with just this kind of frosted beauty! (I’ll reveal who took this gorgeous photo at the end of this letter.)
But, seriously, with everything going on and with this beauty, is it any wonder I’ve been distracted?
I did make one fun publishing-related side trip this week. I spent an hour or two checking out the Christmas art at The Graphics Fairy. The site features public domain works—art and illustrations that are old enough to be available for free use to hobbyists, crafters, or, in my case, small self-publishers. I fell in love with this beautiful stag and wanted to share it with you.
(This particular image is from a rare, circa 1907 pyrography catalog. Pyrography is the art of burning a design into wood.)
Art found on The Graphics Fairy site has appeared in nearly every issue of Greenwoman. I am so grateful for the web creator’s sharing of these charming images.
So, that was my week. Between now and Wednesday there may be one more trip to the post office, one more visit to the store, the wrapping of a few more presents, but mostly, I’m looking forward to a bit of fun and much-needed relaxation. (Lots of cooking, visiting family and friends, movie time with popcorn and hot cocoa, reading, nature hikes.)
I’m feeling very lucky, as I do every year. What more could we wish for but to have loved ones close and time to spend together?
I hope you will be enjoying these days with your good friends and loved ones.
Merry Christmas and much love to all of you!
And thank you for your interest in Greenwoman Magazine. I look forward to sharing more of the art and wonder of the green world with you in 2014.
P. S. A very special thank you to Bill Griffin, who took this photo on December 21, 2013 at Palmer Park, and to his wife Lauri, who told me about it. Bill is also an amazing gardener. Lauri is an artist, writer, and teacher and she wrote about their backyard poly greenhouses in the latest issue of Greenwoman Magazine. Her column is named Green Heritage and her essay is entitled “Heirlooms and Hothouses”. I hope you will get to check it out.
As we left the story last week, Alice, our young Dalmatian, had dug under the chicken run and the chickens had escaped. As we had just lost a chicken to drowning the week before (when a cat menaced them and Jessica flew into the children’s swimming pool) I was, needless to say, freaking out.
Presenting the conclusion of The Chicken Chronicles.
* * *
The chickens escaped and again I ran around, heart racing, hunting and gathering. This time I found only three.
The other Sebright was missing, as was Zelda, the female Silkie. Finding evidence of Alice’s digging at the wire fence surrounding the vegetable garden, right next to the chicken shack, I investigated there. Sitting very still in a patch of grass was the Sebright. I took him into the house and examined him, discovering some minor scratches under a wing and a scrape on the lower right leg. He had apparently injured himself trying to escape Alice by squeezing under a low spot in the fence. Vehicle-less, I phoned our veterinarian. Dr. Westrich. He told me that if I couldn’t come in I should clean the wounds with hydrogen peroxide, keep the bird in a quiet place, and watch him. He also said that if the other one hadn’t been found yet it probably meant that she wouldn’t be found alive.
I made a box for the male Sebright named Suzie in the girl’s playroom and went to search for Zelda again. I found her immediately–alive and well! She had been hiding out on the other side of the enclosed run–between it and a bale of straw. I spotted her as she ventured out into the open, peeping frantically to her coop-mates on the other side. I quietly thanked whoever was in charge of her safety for having mercy on me as well.
Early the next morning I found the Sebright hopping around his box. I picked him up for a minute and murmured consolingly to him, and when I left he made loud, distressed peeps. I comforted him again and again he cried out when I left. The third time I went in he was perched on top of the box on his good leg. Maybe he would be okay outside with his buddies, I thought, it was apparent he would be miserable inside alone. In the chicken shack, his brothers and sister, noisy and excited, gathered around him, but he was hopping around so pitifully I changed my mind about leaving him. He needed rest. As I walked away from the other chickens with Suzie pressed against my breast, he began to protest–loudly and incessantly. With a nagging conscience, I returned him to his flock.
The next couple of days he seemed to be okay except for the leg–I could tell it was causing him pain. As the other chickens filed out of the coop into the garden to scratch for bugs and eat young weeds he protested loudly, then reluctantly hopped along behind them. Otherwise he ate, drank, and rested normally. I checked twice daily for signs of infection and found none.
On the third day I noticed the bottom of his injured leg was swollen. I called Dr. Westrich. Although he didn’t treat birds, he agreed to check him out that afternoon. I figured the bird’s leg was infected and that it would be drained and the doctor would put him on antibiotics. I wasn’t really worried, and thought it would be an educational experience for the girls.
Christiana, a friend of the girls’, was spending the day with us and her mother said she could come along. As I carried the basket holding Suzie into the veterinarian’s office, three little girls dressed up in tea party clothes–long colorful dresses, shawls, rhinestone jewelry and parasols–traipsed behind me. In the examining room, we gathered around Dr. Westrich as he gently lifted the bird from the basket, speaking to him softly and reassuringly.
He examined him for only a few moments before pointing out the area above the swelling. “Do you see here, where the leg bends?” he said. “If you compare it with the other leg, you can see it shouldn’t do that. It’s broken.”
My heart sank.
“And his foot doesn’t have the healthy pink color that the other has. That shows that the area is not getting circulation.”
“So it’s getting gangrene?” I asked, completely horrified.
“It looks like that’s probably what’s happening.”
I asked if it could be amputated and he said he thought it could. He told me he thought the chicken would eventually be able to get around like other animal amputees, but that he didn’t do surgery on birds. He said he’d call a doctor he knew, see what he thought, and try to set up an appointment.
The children had been silently taking in the unfolding drama. Zora now spoke. “Do we have to watch the other doctor do that?”
“God no!” I blurted.
The doctor, father of six grown children of his own, smiled at me sympathetically.
We waited at the front desk. After a few minutes Dr. Westrich came back out and carefully explained, “I spoke with Dr. Abernathy. He said that in the case of amputations, the birds eventually develop a disease, an arthritic condition in the other leg, that ultimately debilitates them.”
“So there’s nothing that can be done?” I asked tearfully.
“You could go ahead with the amputation,” he said, “ but I wouldn’t recommend it.”
“We’d be putting off the inevitable . . .” I paused, trying to find an escape route from reality. “Are you sure it would be the same for him, since he’s a miniature chicken? They only weigh about a fourth as much as a regular-sized bird.”
“I’m afraid so.”
“I can’t imagine putting him through more than I already have.”
“We can euthanize him here.”
“I think that would probably be best.” I looked over at the girls chatting happily near the waiting room’s aquarium. I felt dread, devastation, and a large measure of self-loathing.
“You can use the examining room to talk to them,” Dr. Westrich said quietly.
Trying hard to hold on to what little composure I felt I had left, I called the girls back into the examining room. Crouched before them, tears brimming, I told them what had to be done.
Zora, in a consoling tone I’d never heard her use before said, “Okay, Mom.”
Lily’s eyes filled with tears for a few moments before asking, “Are we going to bury him next to Jessica?”
It felt like I was co-starring in the absolute worst, most melodramatic soap opera of all time–and I could not escape–the scene had to play out. We went to say our good-byes to Suzie. Before taking him away, the doctor asked if we wanted the body to take home, or if they should dispose of it.
“Please do it here,” I said. I knew I was copping out. The girls could probably handle it, but I could not. Not two pet burials in as many weeks, even if they were “just” chickens.
The doctor brought back the basket and left the room to begin the euthanasia. Taking out my checkbook and pen, I asked the receptionist how much the bill came to.
“The doctor says there’s no charge.”
“You can’t be serious. I have to pay you.”
“He said not to charge you.” She smiled. “So don’t worry about it.”
When I got home I found I had to make a decision. On one hand, I could not bear any more tragedies. If anything else happened, the chicken experiment was officially over. And I meant it. We were down to four chickens and three were male. And I wasn’t sure how long we’d be keeping them. After a summer of work and dreams we had one hen. On the other hand, we’d gone this far–we’d built the covered run, I’d now laid cement blocks around the parameter so the damn dog (I’d cursed her bitterly when we returned home that day) couldn’t dig under it. I had nearly twenty-five pounds of feed, plus all the poultry paraphernalia–waterers and feeders, vitamins, a wire cage. The girls had bonded with their favorites, who were luckily still alive, and we’d taken a lot of pictures, documenting our “fun,” including some wonderful ones of the girls holding the birds while wearing their tea-party clothes. I decided I’d give it one more try. But to make it worth while, I needed to find a few replacement hens.
I browsed the local paper’s Classifieds under “Farm Animals” and found no chickens for sale. Not profitable enough in the big city, I deduced. The County Fair had come and gone, and the only other places I knew of to buy poultry this time of year were the weekly livestock auction in the rural town of Calhan and the State Fair, now going on in the nearby city of Pueblo. Still quite the livestock novice, I was more than a little wary of buying at auction, so I called the State Fair. A helpful woman informed me they’d be selling chickens from the Junior Division Livestock Show in a couple of weeks.
The weekend before our trip to the fair the girls and I had a yard sale to raise money for our chicken purchases and on Friday of Labor Day weekend we set out at 9 A.M.. The trunk contained our outfitting: a wood-sided red wagon, two cages, and a basket, all made comfy with soft straw bedding. I had recovered from the previous tragedies and was looking forward to our hen quest, hoping to find my own objet d’desire, a Mille Fleur Booted Bantam that I’d seen in the chicken books. “Mille fleur” is French for thousand flowers, and “booted” refers to this breed’s feathered legs. It’s a fancy tan, black, and white bird, with feathers that are spangled, mottled, stippled pattern, or sometimes all three. Some of the tail feathers are two toned–tan on one side and black on the other, and most have white tips. Lily says they look like they have white polka dots. She decided she wanted to find a black chicken, to pair with Garrett, and Zora hoped to find either another Cochin or an Araucana.
At the fair, we found a parking spot near the entrance. The morning air was refreshing and the grounds quiet. Andy came along but we couldn’t stay long because he had to return to work. After taking Zora and Lily on a quick run through the Arts and Crafts Building while Andy browsed the new trucks, we headed for the Small Livestock Building. We made a bee-line for the chickens, passing areas filled with pigeons, ducks, geese, turkeys, and rabbits. The sale had begun at 8 A.M., over a fourth of the cages were empty, and buyers milled about. The pressure was on.
Searching through cages of bantams, we found no Cochins or Araucanas, but I located a half dozen Mille Fleurs, and my decision was made. Lily fell in love with a black hen who wasn’t for sale. Her second choice was a little Rhode Island Red. The hen seemed gentle and was handsome–her dark reddish-brown body embellished with black, lacy-topped tail feathers. She was an American girl, something new for our collection. I heartily approved. The Polish breed chickens, referred to as such even though they are thought to have originated in Belgium, caught my eye. They’re the type with the big feathery topknots that resemble haute couture hats from the 1950’s. I call them Dr. Seuss birds. I liked them but Zora couldn’t be persuaded into getting one; she declared them ugly.
She took her time selecting her perfect pullet–a medium-sized mixed breed. The young female was admittedly beautiful. Her body was graceful, tapered, like the Sebrights’, but she was an Amazon. Her long neck displayed a multitude of thin, white, vertical feathers, setting off a body tastefully speckled in black and white. Her wing feathers were tipped white, and her tail feathers black–the latter sticking up at a haughty angle. She had long, slate blue legs, and her head featured sharp golden-brown eyes, small red comb, and wattles. After being around them a while, one can sense a bird’s personality. Lily’s Rhode Island Red and my Mille Fleur were easy to read–they were mellow. This bird was different. I detected an attitude of arrogance.
“Are you sure?” I asked Zora. “Why don’t we look around one more time?”
“I want this one,” she said.
I looked at the price on the cage. Twenty-five dollars. The hen I’d picked out was ten and Lily’s was only six. But I knew there was no use trying to persuade Zora otherwise, she was a girl who knew what she wanted. Always had been. From birth.
As we were paying for the birds a photographer from the Pueblo Chieftain came up and asked if he could take a few pictures. Enthusiastic, but wary of having both Zora and Lily hold birds they were unfamiliar with at the same time, I asked that he photograph Zora first. She happened to be wearing an ensemble–a black and white patterned dress with white collar and matching beret, both embellished with small, red cloth roses–that perfectly matched her new chicken. Then he photographed chubby little Lily, whose hair needed brushing (though I didn’t notice it at the time), and whose dark brown, blue, and black-checked dress probably made the Rhode Island Red nearly disappear on film.
As a final shot he posed them together. It became the final shot because Zora’s bird got away and had to be chased down the long aisle of caged birds by a man with a net. While this took place, Andy returned. He’d been gone most of the time, visiting the hot tub display.
“What’s going on?” he asked, eyeing the photographer.
“Oh, nothing. Just memorializing the occasion.” I replied a bit bitchily. “This photographer asked if he could take pictures for the newspaper.”
“Pictures for the paper?”
“Yeah, and you missed it.”
We loaded the chickens into the cages and basket, then into our little red wagon. In the car the girls each happily held a caged bird, and I kept my chicken-in-a-basket with me in the front seat. It crossed my mind it would be very weird indeed if we got into an accident with three chickens riding with us inside the car. The girls chattered in the back, picking out names for their new pets and talking about being in the newspaper. Lily declared, “Now we’re going to be famous. We won’t have to go to school anymore!” We all laughed, but I had a sinking feeling. Knowledgeable about photography, I felt almost certain they would use Zora’s picture. Either way, one of them would be disappointed, unless they used the one of them together, which I thought unlikely. I tried to broach the subject, but the girls were too jolly to consider anything negative.
Zora named her hen Aphrodite, after the Greek goddess of love and beauty. Lily’s favorite goddess was Athena, the goddess of war and wisdom, so that became the Rhode Island Red’s name, and they christened mine Hera, queen of the gods (we’d been reading Greek mythology that summer). I loved their choices. One urban chicken farmer I knew of had named all her hens after country and western stars–Reba, Dolly, and so on, so I was pleased that the girls had picked up a theme of their own, without my help.
Since the chickens were all females, introducing them to the flock went off without a hitch. That night at dusk I slipped them through the door and after a few clucks and rustlings everything went quiet.
The next day they began to get to know one another and re-establish the pecking order. I wasn’t sure who was at the very top, it was either Zora’s Kayley or Lily’s Garrett–but Aphrodite asserted her dominance right away. Towering over them all, she stretched her neck high and challenged them to question her authority. The girls screamed as she pecked at each and every one of the other chickens, including the males, when they were so insolent as to not bow down to her majesty. After a few kicks and pecks sent back her way, however, she realized that the boys were supposed to be the leaders and she began to take on a more ladylike demeanor. And I stopped calling her Mighty Aphrodite, which irritated Zora. My bird, meek Hera, queen of all the gods and goddesses, immediately sunk to the absolute bottom of the order, and in her position usually stayed several feet away from the other chickens most of the time. She was the last to approach the daily pan of table scraps. Gentle and wise Athena took a middle rank.
The day after we brought them home, in late afternoon, Zora and Lily came running into the house. “We found an egg, we found an egg!” they yelled excitedly, holding the small, light brown gift from Athena. It was absolute magic to them, as if they’d discovered a jewel in the nesting box straw. I felt proud too–our very first egg.
I called the paper and found out that it was indeed Zora’s picture they used in the Saturday edition. Lily was upset when I broke the news, but not as upset as when we finally got our copies of the paper in the mail the next week. There, on page 5A, we saw a full-color, six-inch by nine-inch picture of Zora holding Aphrodite. An accompanying article flashed the headline: “Lots of Cool Chicks at the Fair.” Lily took one look and ran out of the house. We could hear her through the opened back door, at the swing set, crying as if her heart would break. Taking only a few seconds to marvel at the picture (we were expecting a small black and white) and how fun it all almost was, I went to try to comfort Lily.
She was swinging, and crying so hard her face was blotched red and white. I had never seen her so upset. “Why did they use Zora’s and not mine? Everybody thinks Zora is better than me.”
“That’s not true, Lily. Her chicken just happened to show up better against her clothes. I’m sure that’s why they used it. Please don’t cry, honey.”
I told her that no one in this whole city of Colorado Springs would even see the picture because you can’t even buy a paper from Pueblo here (I’d checked). I told her that no one we knew would even know Zora was in the paper unless we showed them. I told her about other members of the family who’d been in the paper or on television for fun things and that her turn would surely come soon too. Of course nothing I said was good enough to soothe her. I learned yet another lesson in motherhood. I did not expect Lily, who had always been very easy-going, to be so jealous, so traumatized. I felt incredibly stupid.
I wondered if a summer of ups and downs in the arena of backyard chicken raising had been worth the roller coaster ride after all.
My answer came several weeks later when Lily’s preschool teacher asked if I could bring the bantys in for “Sharing Time.” I decided to bring the three gentlest birds, Kayley, Jane, and, of course, our egg-layer Athena.
I prepared for the talk by gathering some feathers, boiling a few eggs, store-bought large and bantam for size comparison, and hauling out our globe so I could show the children where all chickens originated, the island of Java. As I lugged in the wooden cage holding Kayley and Athena, Lily looked up at me with sparkling eyes. The teacher told me I had five minutes. First I presented Jane, the Silkie, who was in a separate basket. I talked about his unique feathers and where his breed was from (the same place the Disney character Mulan was from!) I passed around feathers and eggs. Then, as I went to get Kayley, I asked Lily if she’d help with Athena. She deftly gathered up her little hen and was immediately surrounded by classmates who wanted to pet and hold her. It was Lily’s turn in the spotlight.
In the car a little while later she said, “Mom, I learned something today.”
I looked in the rear-view mirror at Lily in the backseat. “What’s that, sweetie?”
“That happiness can make tears come to your eyes.”
“I was so happy when I saw Athena I felt like crying–and then I couldn’t stop smiling.”
* * *
It had been one intense summer. If someone had told me what was going to happen in our little experiment–the profound highs and lows, the multitude of things to learn, to question, and to feel, over something so seemingly, inanely, simple–I wouldn’t have believed it. Like an egg incubating under the warm down of its mother’s bosom, the process of learning, of experiencing, took its own sweet time. I ended up reviewing a simple lesson: the most rewarding experiences in life are never, ever easy. And one more. That if you are ever adventurous enough to find yourself doing something a little deviant, a little unexpected, say raising chickens in the city, you just might find you end up with something to crow about.
As we left the story in the last post, I (well, actually, a borrowed neighborhood hen) had failed to hatch a clutch of eggs. Eager to start my backyard farm and teach my daughters about LIFE, I impulsively bought a half-dozen exotic breed bantam breed chicks from a feed store.–Sandra Knauf
* * *
The girls named the chicks within the first hour of their arrival–the Sebrights became Jessica and Suzie, the silkies Jane and Zelda, the little black one Julianna, and the yellow chick, Kayley. “Great names for roosters,” I said. We wouldn’t know their actual gender for about six weeks, when the males were supposed to begin their first attempts at cock-a-doodle-doo-ing.
I admit that at first I was just a teensy bit anxious taking care of the babies. The temperature in the box had to be regulated–about ninety-five degrees the first week, dropping about five degrees weekly for about a month until they feathered out. I monitored the temperature daily, and fussed with the position of the light each time I entered the room, which was often. I checked on them twice each night before I went to bed. I worried whether they’d have retina damage due to the constant illumination. I read about baby chick diseases and learned about something called “pasting up,” a condition in which runny droppings get stuck to their bottoms, causing elimination problems. So with a bit of tissue I pulled dried baby chick poop off their butts. I can’t believe I’m wiping chicken’s asses! I thought. I had metamorphosed into their mother.
Peeking into the room during the day, I continually spied Lily with little black Julianna in her small, chubby hands. “Put that chick down and go wash your hands!” I said over and over. They had a lot of leeway to play with them, but with no admonishments they would undoubtedly try to take them into the bath with them. Already I caught them putting them in the doll house cars (they said the chicks looked out the windows), the doll house motorcycle, and in and on top of the doll house. They asked if they could take them out to the swing set. My biggest fear was that one of the chicks would accidentally be killed, ruining the whole experience and no doubt creating fodder for adult therapy sessions.
Soon Zora and I began digging worms for their breakfast. We all gathered around the box and one of us would dangle a wiggler until a chick grabbed it ran around the box–the others peeping excitedly in hot pursuit. Zora gave them voices. “No, Julianna, you can’t have it,” she’d have Suzie say, “It’s my worm, it’s mine! It’s mine!” The girls, laughing uncontrollably, squealed as the chicks raced round and round. Zora exclaimed protectively when her favorite chick got a worm and the others tried to take it away. “Stay away! It’s Kayley’s! No!” She’d block the others off with her hands and I’d say “Don’t!” We’d all gross out when one would have a long worm almost swallowed and another would pull on what was still hanging out of its mouth.
Then we discovered we could buy live crickets at the pet store. We’d buy a dozen or two at a time and dump the contents of the plastic bags into the box. The chicks would be on them with lightning speed. I recalled reading somewhere that the skeletal structure of chickens was very much like some of the meat-eating dinosaurs, and it wasn’t hard to imagine little Velociraptors lurking under the fluff. The girls and I, accused of being bloodthirsty in our enthusiasm by Andy, knew we were just doing what any good mother hens would do.
They grew rapidly. Like Grandma Ruby said, it was almost like watching popcorn. Halfway through third week the Sebrights sported fully feathered wings, Kayley had a tiny comb and a few snow-white wing and leg feathers, Julianna had black tail feathers, distinct but tiny, sticking straight up, and the Silkies’ down was even fluffier, especially on their large blackish-grey feet. When I found one of the Sebrights perched up on top of the box one morning, I knew it was time to take them to their outdoor home.
At first I kept a light on near one corner of the chicken shack because summer nights are chilly in Colorado and the chicks were not totally feathered out. As in their box indoors, they piled up to sleep, snuggling under the light. Within a couple of days, however, Julianna and one of the Sebrights started to roost away from the crowd. One night, after a couple of weeks, I turned the light off. The terrified peeping that ensued alarmed me. I then realized how tenaciously they clung to the warmth- and light-giving bulb. They would have to be weaned from Mother Illumination. I first lowered the wattage to forty for a few days, and then I actually made a trip to the grocery store and spent over three dollars on a twelve-watt nightlight bulb for chickens who were afraid of the dark.
They were spoiled in so many ways. We brought them table scraps and other treats on a daily basis and found out their absolute favorite (non-living) foods were corn on the cob, cantaloupe, and homemade split pea soup. They grabbed bits of ham from the soup and ran around covetously like they had with the crickets and worms. The girls and I began catching grasshoppers for them and discovered there were five different species living in our backyard. I showed them how to distinguish grasshoppers in the nymph and adult (with wings) stages.
We checked out books on chickens and found out our Sebrights were not Golden, but Silver. According to the illustration, almost every feather on their bodies, wings and tails would become a bright white, edged completely around in gloss black. The body shape would become sleek, like other birds, not rounded like most poultry breeds. The homeliest of the chicks, as they matured their slight builds and distinctly patterned feathering began to take on an elegant, even aristocratic, appearance. We learned they were a breed developed over thirty-some years by Sir John Sebright of England in the early 1800’s. The birds were remarkable in the poultry world for the fact that the male and female had the same feathering, shape, and coloring. However, we soon noticed that one of them was definitely growing a more pronounced comb and wattles–we had one of each sex.
Right from the beginning with the Silkies, Jane (my personal darling) was bigger than Zelda. But it was three months before there was enough distinction in his wattles and comb to declare Jane a John since Silkies also have near-identical plumage. The breed is prized for its gentleness and broodiness, and the hens are often used commercially to hatch eggs, especially pheasant eggs. In my reading I learned that broodiness, the desire to set on a clutch of eggs, to become a mother, had almost been bred out of many modern breeds of fowl.
Lily’s Julianna, with “her” tail feathers growing more pronounced every day (Grandma Ruby’s own foolproof way of determining a male), was also a he. Julianna was a Black Rosecomb, a breed named for their unique combs. It lies low on their heads, is square in front, terminates to a pointed spike at the back, and is covered with small bumps. Julianna’s comb and wattles were vivid red, and he sported white disk-shaped “ear- lobes,” part of the rooster’s dangly parts, as I called them, below the ear holes. His earlobes were perfectly round, enamel white, and added a jaunty, pirate-like air to his already cocky countenance. With lustrous green-black feathers, including long, arching tail feathers, he was handsome, and knew it. He was the first to crow. Lily renamed him Garrett.
Zora’s bird also turned out to be a cockerel, though she remained in denial for a long time. As snow-white feathers on his rounded body and large orange feet began to replace the down, we soon I.D.’d him as a Cochin, of the bantam variety once known as Pekin. We read that Cochin chickens, originating from China, were the cause of an episode of “poultry-mania” in England in 1845. Presented as gifts to Queen Victoria from that exotic land, the public was quite taken with the breed’s beauty, size, and gentle nature. Nearly overnight many Victorian yuppies longed to own one, and before the mania died down, some paid up to the equivalent of more than an average worker’s yearly pay for a single “Shanghai Fowl.” Kayley, like the description, was sweet-tempered and could be scooped up without fuss by simply bending over and sliding a hand or two under his soft breast. When he began to crow his voice was deep and unobtrusive, but also somewhat fit the (obviously exaggerated) description of Queen Victoria’s birds who were said to “roar like lions.”
So we ended up with only two hens and four cocks. Although their crowing was not yet a problem, we knew we probably wouldn’t be able to keep the males, though I told the girls we would for as long as possible. As the days passed, though, I began to hope that maybe we would be able to keep them until next spring and try for chicks again–Sebright and Silkies, and maybe a few hybrids. I was amazed to find out that most of our neighbors had been totally oblivious to the “Morn of Grandma Ruby’s Rooster.” I let them know what we were up to and asked them to tell me if the roosters became a nuisance.
For about six weeks we basked in perfect poultry happiness. Then one morning when I went to feed them, I found a cat crouched on one of the fence posts of the chicken yard. The birds were huddled in a corner, terrified. I shooed the cat and counted them–one was missing. My heart raced as I frantically searched the backyard. Nothing. I searched the alley, thinking that perhaps the cat took one over via the tree she came across. Still nothing. Zora came out and I calmly told her what happened, and that the female Sebright was gone. We looked some more and as I neared the girls’ inflatable three-foot-deep swimming pool I spotted her–floating, wings spread wide, eyes closed, her graceful neck resting motionless on top of the water. In a low voice I said, “Oh, Zora. I found her.” Zora came over and we stood there, looking, fighting back tears. I went into the house to find something to pick her up with and Lily followed me out. It then occurred to me there was no reason I should be squeamish to touch her–I knew her. I lifted her out and placed her tenderly on the paper towel. The girls petted her. There were no signs of injury. Apparently the cat had frightened her into flying over the four-foot fence and into the pool.
We buried the Sebright near a semi-circle of small Siberian Elms the girls used for their outdoor “castle” area. I gathered smooth, pretty rocks to cover the grave and Zora found a red and white plastic Fisher Price farm set chicken to perch on top. A few minutes she added part of a small, broken crystal sphere from the kitchen windowsill collection of odds and ends.
“I got this because Jessica liked shiny things,” she explained. We gathered around the grave on our knees and I said a few words about Jessica’s sweetness and goodness, how we all loved her and would miss her very much. Privately, I also felt disappointment at losing our male Sebright’s mate and fully half our hen population. There would be no Sebright chicks next spring.
It never occurred to me that the pool was a danger. Grandma Ruby cautioned me about the four-foot fence (“Oh, they’ll be able to get over that pretty soon,” she said on her first visit) but I hadn’t been very concerned. We had a six foot fence around the yard and secured the chickens in their coop each night. Besides, Grandma Ruby’s chickens ranged her yard freely among her young cat Tweety, two miniature poodles, and various neighborhood felines (her ninety-some-year-old neighbor next door had thirteen). The only problems she’d had came from a marauding raccoon who killed a rooster the year before, and a time years earlier when some obviously psychotic teenage boys abducted and murdered another.
We had our own pet carnivores, but I’d never seen our cat, Merlin, a seventeen-year-old bag o’ bones Siamese, hunt for anything other than a good place to nap. He showed absolutely no recognition that a flock of chickens had invaded his turf. Our fourteen-year-old black Labrador Retriever, Cato, was not only a creampuff, but he’d been blind in one eye since age two (he was kicked by a horse), and was now nearly blind in the other from a cataract. He sometimes stood at the chicken fence, on now unsteady legs, and barked a few times, tail wagging. I imagined he saw blurs of chickens and surely smelled them, and was making the canine assertion that he had some authority around here yet. Our only potential problem was Alice, the one-and-half-year-old Dalmatian we adopted the summer before. A spotted hell-on-four-paws–she was my outlaw shrub pruner the winter before–we nonetheless adored her. Alice menaced an injured wild bird early that spring, but only by bouncing around and barking, she never tried to hurt it. Knowing her potential for frolicking destruction, however, I kept close tabs on her.
When Andy came home from work I told him about the ordeal we’d been through and that we had to build a covered run the next day, on Saturday. After a morning of almost non-stop nagging on my part, we started the project. It took us only about three hours of constant bickering to put it together. I mixed the concrete for the fence posts and stapled the chicken wire and Andy cut and assembled the posts and rails.
The very next Saturday Alice dug under the run. The chickens escaped and again I ran around, heart racing, hunting and gathering. This time I found only three.
(To be continued . . . )