Our Hens Hold These Truths to be Self-evident

A Delegation of Independence

When in the course of human events it becomes necessary to dissolve the political bands that connect us with an amoral leech, we must take action. Governments are instituted among Men and Women, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, yet another reason to emphasize what we mean by consent.

Many voices are demanding impeachment. For my part, I will be sending a delegation of representatives from the farm to Capitol Hill.

Electing these representatives proved tricky, since the ducks accused the sheep of gerrymandering, and the hens’ low voter numbers raised suspicions of fraud. As a result, I have dispensed with democracy and appointed the delegates by process of elimination. Our dog and cats are needed here. The sheep cannot think independently, and ducks are homebodies, so the job falls to our chickens. They are ready.

Actually, they are angry—in a productive way. I understand their anger, given that the White House harbors a greedy incompetent intent on slashing any aspect of government that makes the world a better place. Like many of us, our hens value mercy, education, health, and the planet. So they are angry and ready.

I have appointed six hens. The speckled Sussex will lead the delegation. Her regular escapes from containment show her ability to think outside the coop. Last summer, she disappeared for weeks. We presumed her dead, but she returned unscathed, and seemingly wiser. Now Specky is unperturbed by group pressure, and can lead calmly and objectively.

I will also send Fancy, our Silkie. Her petite fluffiness, coupled with uncompromising toughness make Fancy an important delegate. She tolerates no insult, never instigating a conflict but commandeering respect from everyhen.

Although we hate to be without her, the delegation must include Buffy Bon Foo. She is approachable and kind, always a diplomat. She can be quietly firm when necessary, assertive without ever raising her voice. When she gets broody—as she is right now—she ruffles to twice her normal size and becomes formidable.

I was ambivalent about sending Exxon—named because she spent all winter perched on the waterer, crapping in the water. Also, her feathers obscure her vision, giving her an fossil-fuel-burning short-sightedness. While not our smartest hen, she sometimes surprises me by actually figuring out what’s going on. She has a strong presence, though, which is useful, and she could be seen as representing corporate interests.

Camilla will go, despite my misgivings about her tendency to be a bit aggressive. She has flown into my head at least twice. She is fearless, pushing the boundaries of chicken life, so she adds something crucial to the delegation. After all, well-behaved hens rarely make history.

The last hen does not actually have a name. Last Hen is always the first to find worms in freshly turned soil, which shows initiative and perhaps some intelligence. I feel a certain gardening camaraderie with her, and maybe guilt for not naming her (appointing delegates is complicated). Anyway, the delegation can use her sharp eye and quick beak.

All representatives have accepted their appointments, as far as can be understood. We will send these brave patriots to speak for logic and justice, to call for impeachment of the reigning self-serving idiocy. And for support of this Delegation, with a firm reliance on the protection of Divine Providence, we mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes, our Eggs, and our sacred Honor.

Fancy
Exxon
Camilla
Last Hen

 

Mother: Part Science, Part Magic

As my hand buzzes the circular saw through scrap two-by-fours, no one is making supper. Andrew steadies the boards while I power the screws in place, and the skeleton of a moveable sheep shelter arises from the concrete barn floor. Our kids are tucked into their screen-time—although I think this is their school’s screen-free week—and will forgive a very late supper of noodles and sauce, minus veggies. I’m counting on the idea that parenting, as my mom says, is more about the overall average than a particular meal or moment. There are many ways to be a mother.

As a noun, mother expands far beyond her first definition as a female parent. Mother is a woman in authority, leader of a religious group. Mother is the source, origin—calling up images of soil and water. When speaking of an extreme or ultimate example, especially in size, we might say, “That is the mother of all roller coasters,” or ice cream sundaes or construction projects. We might say, as writer Cheryl Strayed did to encourage a woman to be strong and honest in her writing, “Write like a motherf***er.” We might open a mussel and admire the luminous lining, the mother of pearl.

As a verb, to mother is to give rise to, and to care for and protect. Being a mother, by definition, is powerful, large, and fierce, as well as tender. I note with relief that the prerequisites do not require excellence in organizing school papers, mopping the kitchen floor, or folding laundry. Mother embraces and exceeds the ordinary and spectacular and complicated acts of bearing and raising children.

Another image arises in these definitions: a mother of vinegar. This mother hovers in liquid—not pretty, but transformative. It is a film or jelly, a slimy clot of cellulose and bacteria. The mother turns alcohol into vinegar in the presence of oxygen. I love this name for something so alive and potent. The mother seems part science, part magic—performed by a messy pile of life. It fits.

As mother’s day approaches this year, I am sawing old barn siding into pieces to fit our sheep shack. Each cedar board tapers, from thin to thinner, made to overlap the board below it and stronger when nestled above the one before them. I handle them gently, aware of my own overlapping—my mother below me, my children above. All of them alive and close to me in this season.

Mother, children, alive, close. There are no assumptions or guarantees in these words. So while I stack the fragrant, fragile boards, I think of children wanted or unwanted, lost before they arrived or lost suddenly or lost after painful struggles. I think of mothers able or unable to care for or protect. Mothers lost early or late. Children and mothers, sharing the extremes of pain and joy. I stack the boards, thinking of how things change.

Together, Andrew and I nail the siding to the structure, with Stella handing us nails. All of our previous mobile pasture shelters have ended up less mobile than planned, so we snap our pulling straps (dog leashes) into place with trepidation. But this time, our educated guesses have proven correct. To our surprise, it sails across the grass behind us: part science, part magic.

This sturdy shack is a mothership, a protective structure allowing for pliable, changing lives, and a home base to follow, to leave, and where to return. We celebrate the strength of this ship. We will treat her gently, support her work, and anchor her so she does not blow away.

 

Immersion in Asparagus

I have just learned how to plant asparagus from a nice man on YouTube. I found him shortly after I cut open one of our cardboard boxes from Stark Brothers Nursery. The asparagus crowns lurked in plastic bags—strange, white, squid-like plants, unlike anything I’ve ever planted. The asparagus video reveals a much more intensive process than I anticipated, but luckily I tend to be energetic and naïve at the front end of a big project. So I dig in.

I hack a long trench that will become our asparagus bed. Soil piles up along the trench’s sides, and the chickens arrive to poach juicy worms. Muscles awaken in my arms and back; they wake up a little grumpy. I am having fun, though, and trundle past the garden to the compost pile. After I fill the wheelbarrow with dark organic material, I can barely push it upslope, but the chickens help me churn it into the trench bottom. I add a wheelbarrow of crushed stone, mix, then hoe two mounds lengthwise in the trench. It is finally ready for asparagus crowns.

I have heard bringing book into the world compared with having a child, but this analogy is not my experience. For me, writing a book resembles planting asparagus, or trees—not flowers, but plants who demand serious digging and delay our gratification.

Yesterday, I knelt in the heavy drizzle, mud soaking my jeans while I planted pawpaw trees. At this early stage, the trees were glorified pencils, with a few tiny branches. Most of each tree was underground. I tenderly fanned out a sapling’s roots and palmed soft soil around them. Here it will anchor and grow into a life of its own. Six years ago, I held something equally spindly, mostly underground—the beginning of my book—and decided to let it take root.

Now I kneel again in light rain, in the asparagus trench. Not being one to hamper my creative momentum with excess planning, I find myself revising extensively. I space the asparagus crowns one foot apart, until I am halfway down the trench and realize they need to be farther apart.

After several rounds of scootching asparagus forward and hopping them to the end, I discover that at 18 inches apart, the 32 plants exactly fit my trench. With the book, I also found myself leapfrogging sections, cutting an entire chapter, splitting one chapter into two, and writing most of a new one. I could have measured things better from the start, but perhaps the process was necessary for me.

Tossing soil in the trench, I race against the chickens. They dart their beaks at the white worms of asparagus lying across the mounds. My reluctant muscles are angry, but I finish tucking all the soil back into the bed as the rain relieves me of watering responsibilities.

Now it is springtime for my book and our farm—full of newness and promise. I’ve brought home four small Romney lambs in the back of our Honda Fit. Two boxes of Red Ranger meat chicks—125 of them—have arrived from the post office. We are planting in the rain and after dark to keep up with deliveries of trees and berry plants. And two weeks ago, my book released into the world, as if finally bursting into bloom.

The fruit from my book is sweet, and I have already begun to taste its ability to connect me with longtime friends and new people. As my book finds readers, I am savoring the space created between us by these words, which bear more fruit in the mind and life of a reader. As with the asparagus and pawpaws, it seems that the book will grow into a life of its own.

But there is an important difference. At the end of the asparagus video, the nice man stands with shovel in hand. He says, “Then be happy that you’ll never have to this in your lifetime again, and you should have asparagus for 10, 20, 30 years.” While I do feel that relief about asparagus planting, I am already scheming about my next book.

This Thinning Ice

Let’s be clear. The ice is thinning, and we are all out on it.

Today on our frozen wetland, Stella leads the way, feeling confident because the kids explored here yesterday with Andrew. She ducks under branches, encouraging me to hold onto them and move slowly. She knows I fall down easily.

Yesterday was colder, though, and things seemed more solid than they do today. Now a crack snaps at my right foot as if beamed by imaginary lasers from my toe and heel. I jerk my feet sideways. “So if the ice cracks under you, lie down on your belly.” I tell the kids, “Spread out your weight, and squirm along to safety.” Sam spread-eagles onto the ice, trying it out. Laughing.

We are out on the ice, and although the water is only a couple of feet deep, my fear threatens to paralyze all of us. Up ahead of me, I hear loud cracks under Stella’s feet. “Ok, sweetie, come back this way!” She doesn’t move. “Stella, when you hear those cracks you need to come back! Quickly. Come away from there!”

As my voice rises, I arrive beside her. I realize the ice is fine. Her boots were cracking frozen bubbles at the surface. Stella crumples to her knees in tears because now I have shared my fear with her. We redeem ourselves, though, by holding hands and making some jokes and noticing again the beautiful way the light plays on the textured ice and how the barn cat has followed us bravely.

We are out on the ice that thins and cracks in the warming temperatures of today. I struggle with finding our course across it. I want the kids to know the truth without scaring them. And truth is, these kids and I have a luxury of not actually being in real, immediate danger here—the water would not swallow us.

Elsewhere, there are families on thinner ice, over deep water. And many families cannot choose safer ground. Even imagining this kind of fear—trapped, moment-to-moment fear for the lives of my children—feels blue hot, searing my insides.

It appears that the white men at this country’s helm cannot imagine that fear, or they simply do not care about other human beings. In rapid-fire, hate-filled executive orders, they discard people—parents, children—and the planet that sustains all of us. There are no traditional politics, or even facts, that can combat such depravity. All of us with intact empathy are trembling.

But we do not cower. So many people are transforming that blue-hot searing feeling into something visible—un-ignorable—in streets and airports, with words and wallets, with friends, neighbors, and strangers. Truth is, safer ground is changing, and we will all find ourselves on the thin ice over deep water, together.

These days, Pete Seeger’s words keep singing in my head:

Old devil fear, you with your icy hands. Old devil fear, you’d like to freeze me cold. When I’m sore afraid, my lovers gather round, and help me rise to fight you one more time.

Old devil hate, I knew you long ago, before I learned the poison in your breath. Now when I hear your lies, my lovers gather round, and help me rise to fight you one more time.

Out on this ice where things look bleak, something keeps surging in me, as irrepressible as the marching crowds. Thank you, everyone raising your voices, placing yourselves physically and otherwise in front of this administration’s barreling train of destruction. I will join you as we gather round, and help each other rise.

Back To My Senses

As I write at the kitchen table, oblivious to my tense shoulders and cooling coffee, a strange popping sound filters into my awareness like distant fireworks. Probably the cat sharpening claws, I think, until she wanders past me. And the dog is nearby. Is it ice cracking on the roof? Squirrels in the attic? Finally, I have to check and climb the stairs, baffled.

Two steps into our guest room, I burst out laughing. I forgot about the chicken.

One of our Polish hens had ended up indoors on Saturday evening. The other hens had plucked her tail raw and naked—chickens can be as mean as people—and she stood with her head hanging. We considered culling her, but between my feelings and dinner guests arriving within the hour, she got a reprieve and a dog kennel in the guest room. This morning, she spilled her food and is pecking vigorously at the newspaper-bottomed cage.

I forgot the chicken because I woke up bleary, roused reluctant kids, herded them through breakfast and into backpacks while zigzagging the kitchen being distracted by other thoughts, ushered them to the car without wearing a coat, hurried back indoors and fumbled for coffee, then opened my laptop and left half my senses behind until the popping started above the ceiling.

Laughing brings me back to my senses. I sink to the floor beside the cat, who has devoted herself to sitting with her very own indoor chicken. I notice the hen’s beak curving slightly to the right out of face feathers so thick I cannot see her eyes. The damp, sharp smell of chicken poop on newspaper. Low crooning of the hen. Purring cat.

Later, with my toes clipped into cross-country skis, I shuffle forward awkwardly out of our yard behind Andrew. Again, I forget my body, thinking that these skis are not working with me, probably because they are both left skis, and I should not even be out on them, risking a fall that could be debilitating, but I should get exercise and back into shape while I have the privilege of being healthy and access to skiing, which is not to be taken for granted, especially in this changing world. My shoulders have tensed and crept towards my locked jaw, and I am white-knuckling the ski poles. Even my toes are curled.

I breathe, sink into my feet, wiggle my toes, drop shoulders, unclench hands. My center of gravity shifts from my neck down into my pelvis—stability. Skiing becomes calming. I notice the woods around us. The smell of my breath in the scarf. Swish-crunch of Andrew skiing ahead of me. Jingle of dog tags as she wriggles past, focused only on how good it feels to move through snowy woods with people you love.