Sketching Shenanigans

photo credit: Sam Gascho

Instead of washing the dishes, I run a half-dull pencil across one corner of someone’s school paper I just flipped over. Hours of talking with an unstable client at work this weekend have left me without words. My fingers want to trace clean lines, simple forms. I need something quiet and directly satisfying, completely under my own control. The papers pile up as I draw a kestrel, geese in formation, barns, a wood frog.

photo credit: Stella Gascho

Around home, we compile shenanigans. We chug to the hilltop with Eloise the Tractor and her trailer and our tent. Pitching our two-person tent that takes me back to our honeymoon fifteen years ago, but now, I pitch it with and for our kids to snack and read while Andrew and I scuff across the newly disked fifteen-acre field, picking rocks. We move our rainbow rangers—adolescent meat chickens—from the kitchen brooder to a chicken tractor, fortified with cardboard and heat lamp against the chill, and rearrange the brooder to make room for new chicks this week. We work on cleaning out the barn, tearing down ceilings that release a foot of dust, mice, hay, and more dust.

Skip, always helpful, finds a duck egg and totes it so carefully in her mouth that her teeth don’t even scratch it. Sam, always zooming around, plays soccer and baseball and football in cleats, pausing to hug passing chickens. Stella makes dirt soup, tricycles, calls Skip with a high-pitched “HooHoo” that Skip always comes to, and also hugs the chickens.

wood frogAt work, I often have several patients at once—a lacerated paw, a hard-breathing dog, a vomiting cat. At home, there are competing noises—Sam yelling, Stella yelling, hungry birds, the cacophony of toys covering the living room floor. Right now I am drawing this frog.

Somehow, probably while I was a work, Andrew has replaced a board in the ramp leading into our barn’s top level. The gaping, leg-tempting hole across the ramp is gone, as if it healed. That one board changes my whole outlook. What seemed unsightly, un-useful, treacherous for the past year is now strong and whole. Inviting. One board, making all the difference.

onenewboardI pause in sketching because a gawky Barred Rock chick has managed the jump to brooder-edge, where she poops over the side onto the kitchen floor. These laying henlets will need to move outside soon, too, following the meat birds. Silkies and Polish chicks and Mille Fleur d’Uccle chicks will arrive this week, completing our three-ring poultry circus. In the next two weeks, we will plant close to 300 trees, and we’re scheming with our neighbor to install a fence around our lower field.

Our April activity rivals the spring peepers in frenetic volume. The wood frogs, though, early and brief heralders of spring, have chuckled themselves into silence. They are still, like a pencil drawing of a wood frog on a quiet kitchen table near midnight.


Coaxing Life



On Sunday morning, the first tracks on our road scroll out behind my tires. It is my snowiest drive to work all winter—April 3. My feet make new tracks on the sidewalk at the emergency clinic. I am walking in to a kitten with an infected eye, a dog with dog bite wounds, an old cat with an intestinal blockage who tries to die under anesthesia.

I wish I had stayed home and sat all day, cross-legged, in the brooder. Light is constant and warm there. Peeping balls of fluff skitter across clean shavings and droop into naps. Chicks are simple babies, able to eat and drink and run on their own. Curiosity is their survival trait. They see everything, peck everything. They reassure me with their fragile, feisty lives.

weekoldchicksThey arrived early one morning, and we rang the bell at the post office back door, where we could hear the peeps inside. Sam carried the noisy box carefully to the car and held it on his lap. At home, we lifted each chick, weighing nothing, and dipped their beaks in water. It’s a ritual of welcome and a promise—we will care for you.

A farm, even a barely operational farm like ours, holds one hundred opportunities for tending—animals, plants, buildings, equipment, soil, each other. It is rhythmic work interspersed with frenzy, both meditative and stressful. The work is coaxing life, guiding life, and respectfully ending life to feed other lives. In spring, there is tiny new life to nudge forward.

At one week old, the chicks already seem like strapping young birds compared with a week ago. The twenty-five chicks that will grow into meat seem burlier—meatier—than the twenty future laying hens. They are all growing accustomed to us, and I indulge myself in reaching into the sleepy crowd of them and strumming my fingers among their soft bodies.

SkiptendingThe chicks are getting their first feathers that extend fuzzy winglets into more useful-looking patterns. Oblivious to the April snow, these babies have everything they need. Our dog watches over them with all of her border collie concern, whining if her peeps sound distressed. I feel the same way about them, and about my veterinary patients.

At the emergency clinic, I think of the chicks as I stroke my fingertip up the nose and downy forehead of the old cat. The adrenaline settles in my bloodstream from navigating his rough anesthesia. This old cat survives, sits up, and we blink at each other, bewildered by the afternoon’s events. Relieved and subdued, I listen to his chest and tuck his blankets around him. It’s a ritual and a promise—we will care for you.