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Our little flock – originally 8 hens of mixed breeds – turns one and a half next month. We’ve prided ourselves on not losing a one, despite the abundance of local predators. We’ve enjoyed our fresh eggs, which are erratic in size, shape, color and frequency. The last few weeks, the girls have been fenced in the garden, cleaning up bugs and weeds and winding down egg production as they prepare for their first molt. But something was off about One Patch.
One Patch was one of four Barred Rocks in our flock. They’re big, friendly birds, with that distinctive barred black-and-white plumage that seems such a part of New England farm life. They lay generously sized brown eggs and they get along well with other types of birds, even though they can sometimes be a little slow on the uptake.
One Patch got her name in the usual way. The Barred Rocks were hard to tell apart when they were chicks, so we hunted for tiny differences in their coloration and behavior. Jumpy was the brightest and liveliest, with a big white “ J” on her head. Lumpy had an odd-shaped beak. And Two Patch and One Patch had white spots, right next to their eyes.
In the fall of last year, the hens were 6 months and nearly mature. One Patch grew restless. She began pacing the coop, going in and out of the nests I’d prepared with straw and wooden dummy eggs, groaning and whining. She revealed what would be her adult temperament – grumpy, irritable, quick to peck – and harassed her flockmates when they too grew curious about the nests. It was One Patch who was the first to lay, leaving a perfect small egg next to the dummy egg and then heading downstairs for a drink of water.
The other girls followed over the next three weeks. By the time they were laying regularly, I could pretty much tell the eggs apart. One Patch laid the smallest of the Barred Rock eggs, and it was sharply tapered at the top. It became clear to me, as time went on, that One Patch was not a fantastic layer. Whereas Jumpy, Lumpy, and Two Patch grew plump and docile and each laid 4, 5, even 6 eggs a week, One Patch only managed one or two, and she stayed small. Still, she developed a canny habit of “fake-laying” – she’d sit on the nest for exactly half an hour and then come down for a sip of water, like an atheist stopping at the font on the way out from Mass. She acted just as if she had actually done her job, and sometimes she would even sing a victorious, spurious egg song.
As this summer came to a close, One Patch started acting stranger than usual. When the other hens took shelter from the midday heat, One Patch would stand in the broad sunlight, blinking. She was slow to come at feeding time, and took to sitting in a corner of the enclosure, far from the other birds. She even stopped fake-laying.
A week ago, I noticed she could no longer make it up onto the roost at night. She stumbled and limped, and could barely drag herself even a few inches along the ground. The other hens watched her, in a group, silently, unsure, as if illness itself were a stranger and not to be trusted. I brought One Patch inside to decline by the hearth. There, in a Priority Mail box lined with straw, she lingered a few more days. Yesterday, she began to “stargaze” –her neck twisted far back to look at the ceiling, which I took to be an end stage in her progressive paralysis.
It was likely to have been, in the end, a case of nerves – neural damage from disease, or a nutritional deficiency. Whichever it was, the plain fact was that One Patch had become less animal than vegetable, and the kind thing was to dispatch her swiftly. I am sorry to say that my first attempt was not a success. It fell to Husby, with his greater fortitude, to bring One Patch’s suffering to a merciful end.
Often the last few days I’ve said to myself, “It’s just a chicken.” That’s true. But there are also the larger questions of pain and responsibility, of the compassion and anxiety that come with being “just a human”. On my mind for a while will be: what makes a good death? Because entangled in that question, after all, is the other one: what makes a good life?
As a family, we have never had much luck with fruit trees. When we moved here as newlyweds 12 years ago, we were in love with apple trees as well as each other, and we planted four out back right away. Two died almost immediately, so we replanted the next year, and the next. When our daughter was born, we planted a couple of pears (I heard that was a tradition somewhere); we also tried peaches and Asian pears. There were voles, and hard frosts, and overeager bears, and in the end, only 3 trees out of well over a dozen survived. Dormant oil, conscientious pruning, organic kaolin powder -nothing seemed to help. Once in a while we get some small pears or some wizened apples. We try not to expect too much.
But the tree in the front yard is another matter. Some 5 or 6 years ago, I noticed the young sapling, looking out of place among the daylilies and echinacea in our neglected bit of dooryard. I had no idea what it was or how it got there, and in one of my periodic efforts in the direction of order, I took the lop cutters to it and tried to get rid of it. It was a bit too stout, though – the trunk almost as wide as my thumb – and I gave up.
But the amputated stump put forth leaves again the following spring, and the next, and sprang another trunk or two, and grew in height. I decided that, whatever else it was, it was now an “ornamental,” and we put away the loppers. After another couple years, pink blossoms followed by green fruit began to appear. The elegant, tapered leaves and the shape of the fruit roused our suspicions. Wouldn’t it be funny, we mused, if it turned out to be a peach! Not that it would be edible even if it were. Anyway, the green fruit dropped to the ground by July, and we thought no more of it.
It took a couple more years for the tree to build up enough steam to carry its load all the way through the summer, and we watched as the fruit fattened and turned yellow. I tasted it mid-August – sour and puckery. Oh well, I thought, at least it looks nice. By mid-fall, though, the remaining fruit had developed a deep rosy blush. Wasps and worms swiftly overtook them, but I picked one anyway and cut away the bad parts. We shared a bite and goggled. It was, in fact, a peach – despite everything- and a good one. Not that we were ever likely to get much of a crop.
This year, a mild spring sun shone on the tree, followed by steady rains and then weeks of June drought. There were what seemed like endless humid days, and wave upon wave of mosquitoes. The tree took it upon itself to fruit abundantly. While the kids went to camp, the fruit grew heavy. When they went back to school, the laden branches bent clear to the ground. Again I tried one while it was still yellow, and that first fruit was as hard and sour as the one the year before.
A month passed without change – and then, just as the days began to shorten, something shifted. A troop of inspector wasps arrived, and when I lifted one of the poor burdened branches, I found flattened, aromatic fruit littering the ground beneath. The chickens had a carnival that night, and so did we.
So began a decadent fortnight: every day, I picked ripe peaches and cleaned up the drops for the chickens. We ate what we could and baked the rest into cobblers, but still, there were so many and they were so perishable, I couldn’t keep up. There was at least a bushel, but I doubt we ended up eating half.
Bit by bit, the branches began to unbend, rising gracefully – and, I thought, gratefully – off the ground, until one day in the second week of October there was but one peach left. It glowed with sunset colors, it was already a little overripe, and everything that crawled or flew circled nearby, waiting for it to drop. But it was mine.
I brought it inside the house, and its fragrance filled the quiet kitchen. I ran my thumb over its slightly wrinkled skin one last time, and halved it with my paring knife. The skin slid off like a silk chemise; the flesh was yellower than a mango, and just as juicy. It was the last peach, and it was as full of life and sweetness as the first peach had been of bitterness, or futility.
I still don’t know how that peach tree arrived in our yard 6 years ago. I suppose one of us was sitting on the porch steps on a summer afternoon, juice dribbling down our chin. I suppose that one of us carelessly tossed a pit away, too lazy to go inside and put it in the compost, or too sticky-fingered to turn the doorknob.
I sometimes feel like apologizing to the tree – for not knowing how it came about, for trying to chop it down, for feeding it with nothing but doubt and surprise all these years.
But the tree doesn’t seem to care whether it’s a mystery, a fluke, or a symbol of forgiveness. It’s nothing more than life itself – unasked for, unremarked upon, yet in the end, more than one might ever think to ask.
There is almost nothing I love better than radish butter on toast, on a cool spring morning when the radishes are new.
First you toast the bread, on just one side. How do you toast it on just one side? You use a toaster oven, laying the slice on a piece of foil or a tray, so the down side is protected. The nubbly, nutty, toothy crumb of multi-grain bread suits the purpose better than anything else I can imagine.
While the bread is toasting, you slice very cold unsalted butter as finely as you can, 1/32nd of an inch thick. It’s going to melt, but just barely. If your knife’s not sharp, you can use a peeler. Or grate it on a box cutter.
When the toast is just stiff and barely gilded on its up side, you take it out and wave it around a bit till it’s only just warm to the touch. The butter goes on the untoasted side, where it clings and subsides a little, but doesn’t melt.
Next you salt the butter just enough. (With Maldon salt if you’ve got it and like it, or any other salt if you don’t.)
Then you shingle on the radishes, sliced just as fine as you can so you can see the watery morning light through them. These are two French breakfast radishes I just rooted from their beds. One was imperfect – dented, stained, and crooked – before it met the knife. But when you take that first bite, your eyes closing with your teeth, you see that what seemed broken was actually whole all along.
Today the girls reached a landmark – every one of them laid an egg in the same day! For a few weeks we would once in a while reach 7 out of 8, though 4 or 5 a day is more usual. Either somebody hadn’t started laying yet, or somebody was having a day off, or somebody laid a rogue egg out in the yard and we never found it.
Stormy and Stripèd, the Silver Laced Wyandottes, are probably our most reliable layers – 3 days out of 4. Feather and Spalty, the Easter Eggers, lay the most beautiful ones (greenish for Feather, bluer for Spalty).
Of the 4 Barred Rocks, Two Patch and Lumpy have emerged as champions, hustling up to the nests to lay perfectly formed, large eggs right after their breakfast. One Patch, the earliest layer of the flock, lays a small, tapered egg that’s easy to identify, every other day or so.
The really dirty one is a “floor egg,” laid on the ground in the coop (I had to hunch over and go inside to get it). It’s probably Jumpy’s –she’s a late bloomer and an erratic layer, and she might not have the hang of laying in the nest box yet.
[In case you're wondering how I know whose is whose? I haven't watched them lay every egg, honest! though I've certainly wasted a lot of time out there. It's mostly a matter of shape, and to a lesser degree a matter of size and color.]
For those of us lucky enough to have a working stove, some chicken broth on hand, and a couple of eggs, these soups may provide a little comfort without much fuss after storm-drenched days of coping.
I didn’t catch them at it, but this morning there were two beautiful palest blue eggs in the coop. They could only have been laid by Feather and Spalty, even though only Feather has shown all the signs of maturity.
One of the girls was apparently taken by surprise and didn’t quite make it to the nest box. Nevertheless, both eggs were delivered safely, and without apparent drama.
One Patch, on the other hand, continues to raise high the roof beam with cries of indignation for an hour every day before she lays.
Incidentally, the eggs are crazy delicious.
*since originally posting this, I’ve made a terminology change. I’d thought my girls were “Araucanas” but they’re almost certainly not. They could be “Ameraucanas”–a white and “blue wheaten” perhaps. Or they could even be “Easter Eggers,” Araucanish mutts. Regardless, the eggs are beautiful, and so are the birds.
I was there when it happened!
I went out the door to check on the girls, and I thought I heard an egg song so I dashed inside for my camera before walking over to the garden. I looked in the nest box. No egg. Big circular hole in the straw, though, with the linoleum showing through. I went and got some straw to add to the nesting box, but when I got back One Patch was already there–fussing and making swirlies in the straw and playing with the wooden dummy egg. No more complaining, just quiet clucking.
Then she settled in and just sat. I took a picture or two. Lumpy and Two Patch came up to visit and watch her. After about 10 minutes of me watching them watching her, I was ready to head inside and leave One Patch alone for a while.
I took a look at the other birds, who were hanging out in the downstairs of the ark. I inspected the 4th Barred Rock for distinguishing marks–they’re quite hard to tell apart. Just as I’d decided it was Jumpy, two more Barred Rocks came down the ramp. And then another. Drat! I thought, now I have to figure out who you-all are too. And then Wait! that’s 4 Barred Rocks! Who’s minding the nest?
I went round to the egg door, opened it, and there it was, a beautiful light brown egg exactly the size of the little wooden dummy egg sitting next to it, but speckly and yes! still warm!
The flock is exactly 21 weeks old today.
Well, the girls are 21 weeks old tomorrow, and we’re all waiting anxiously for the first egg. There’s been pacing, and growling, and constant checking out of the nest box. And that’s just me.
One Patch (Barred Rock) has been ahead of the game all along. Her comb and wattles were the first to redden, and a couple of weeks ago she started to do the “egg squat,” flattening herself to the ground and spreading her wings. Since then, Feather (Ameraucana), Stripèd (Silver Laced Wyandotte), and Jumpy (Barred Rock) have all started doing it too. The others still run off, skittishly, when you try to pet them.
We’ve moved the portable ark to garden bed #2 and fenced it in with bed #4, so the girls have a place to play, forage, hunt for bugs, and generally be chickens while cleaning up the debris from my tomatoes, pole beans,and cucumbers. After they’re done here, we’ll move them down to beds #4 & #6, #6 & #8, and so on till winter, when they move into Chickhenge, the fortress-like permanent winter coop.
Today, One Patch has been more edgy than ever, pacing the edge of the fence and popping into the ark several times an hour to look at the next boxes. She’s being very vocal, too–a sort of raspy, downward, protracted, complainy kind of growl, like a rusty barn door being opened and closed repeatedly by a restless toddler. It’s about equally cute and annoying.
I understand all of this is pretty typical behavior for a pullet about to lay. (Some people call it “chicken PMS”.) And I know that first egg could be today, tomorrow, next week, or November. But it’s sure hard to wait…which is probably why I’m sitting here balanced on the corner of the asparagus bed with my laptop on my knees.