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Yesterday I finished weeding the beans.
It seemed like such a small thing, in the July jungle of my garden. June rains had brought forth a high tide of grass, and then a fortnight of drought toughened up the weeds, which sent their sinewy roots deep. When you pull them, they make you fight for every inch.
“Never weed unless you mulch!” I tell myself each summer; i.e. when you weed, put straw down on the newly cleared patch immediately afterward so the weeds don’t just come back, like the telemarketer who promises to “catch you at a better time”. But “never weed unless you mulch” had turned into “never weed at all” somehow, as it so often does.
And so the beans, easiest of all vegetables to plant, easiest of all vegetables to maintain, sat stoic amongst a dense mat of spreading weeds. Carpetweed and purslane, spurge and chickweed. The beans were coping, as beans do. They’re not ones to complain. Anyone can grow beans, which is one reason I plant them.
Their pointed leaves, average-Joe green, drifted above a choking mass of radial foliage no more than half an inch high. The sun beat down on my neck. A weak impostor of a breeze stirred the invasive grasses all around. It would’ve been easier, I realized belatedly, to do this with the garden tools, which sat forgotten in the barn. Never mind, thought I, pinching the root hubs savagely with my fingertips. I can cope too. A drop of sweat trickled down, silently followed by another.
I picked my way from row to row, avoiding the pale bean stalks and attempting to spare the chervil – that poor low-growing sidekick with its minuscule, finely cut leaves, all but smothered by the annual predators. Chervil – delicate in taste, lacy in habit, thin-stalked and self-effacing – is the canary in the coal mine of my garden. When the garden’s well looked after, chervil thrives. This chervil was all but extinct.
I laid the last handful of straw in place, straightened up, and looked around. Seventeen beds of neglect stared back. I looked back at the bean bed, a small act of restoration in a wide world of chaos. I focused, hard, on the pattern of pale straw and bright leaves. “Whenever skies look grey to me…and trouble begins to brew….I concentrate on you.” I sang it to myself, and only in my mind.
Sometimes it feels like I can only grow one kind of garden: a garden of intentions, with a harvest of reproach. But the beans at least have no argument with me. For a scorching hour in a month of drought – drought for gardens, but also drought for freelance food writers – I felt gainfully occupied. Nobody said my idea was unpublishable. Nobody struggled through 600 stubbornly mediocre words. Nobody had to make the best of a pitch gone sour. Nobody needed to be cajoled into doing, or not doing, anything at all.
I slowly made my way back toward the house, passing beneath the grateful shade of the maple, trying out job titles. T. Susan Chang, seamstress. T. Susan Chang, occasional fortune teller. T. Susan Chang, underemployed pessimist. T. Susan Chang, friend to beans.
I decided I liked the last one best.
This is Lumpy, who does not lay.
In the two years since I first became a flockster, I’ve often known who was laying what. The two Easter Eggers laid distinctive blue (Spalty) and green (Feather) eggs. The two Wyandottes laid smallish golden-brown (Stormy) and pinkish-speckled (Stripèd) eggs.
But the 4 Barred Rocks – One Patch, Two Patch, Lumpy, and Jumpy – were so alike in every way, their habits and nesting preferences and their pale brown eggs so similar, that I was never quite sure. After One Patch went to the big coop in the sky last year, I thought I’d figured it out. Not counting the Easter Egger and Wyandotte eggs, I had, I thought, three other kinds: a very regular-shaped extra-large egg, a slightly elongated, blimp-like egg, and an enormous egg with a “sleep wrinkle” on one end. Jumpy, Two Patch, Lumpy, I thought.
But after the March chicken massacre, the only Barred Rock left was Lumpy. And every morning since that awful day I’ve looked for her enormous “sleep wrinkle” egg, to no avail. The other two survivors, Feather and Stripèd, continue to offer up their pale green and pinkish-speckled treasures about 3 days out of 4. But of Lumpy’s egg – or what I thought was Lumpy’s egg, anyway – no trace.
Lumpy’s a healthy bird, with bright black-and-white feathers (especially glossy and vivid after the last winter molt), a symmetrical comb, and elegant small feet. She’s talkative, too, with a musical voice and a funny cry that sounds like the original Star Trek intercom whistle. All in all, she’s an easy girl to like. And I know she used to lay, because there wasn’t a hen in my flock I hadn’t caught in the act at one point or another. But right now, she’s not doing her job.
So this brings up the question: what do we do with layers who don’t lay?
Another kind of household would have an obvious answer: stew pot. And I’m sure my bloodthirsty, bottomlessly hungry teenage son would agree. But when the word stew pot comes up, I inevitably counter, lawn mower.
This is because one thing even a non-laying hen can do is keep the grass from encroaching into the garden in the summer. The Barred Rocks are pretty flightless (one reason they were easy pickings for the neighborhood dog, I guess), so they’re especially good at staying inside the fence and snapping off the grass tips, one blade at a time. It’s slow, but they’ll do it all day. They never get bored.
But the fact is, even if Lumpy weren’t a pretty good lawn mower, I’d probably have to keep her anyway. Friendly, harmless, not the most productive, occasionally entertaining – somehow, when I go down this list of Lumpesque qualities, it seems terribly familiar.
In that remorseless middle-aged way, I think to myself: Who else isn’t living up to their potential? Shouldn’t I be doing more in life than just, sort of, getting along? Is it OK to be an affable person, essential to my family, of value to some friends? To produce a small body of work that brings pleasure to a few? Is it enough?
The answer, of course, is yes – it has to be. Because if I spend my life worrying about not enough, in the end I really won’t have anything to show for myself. It’s just one reason – perhaps the most intangible, but perhaps the most secure – that Lumpy won’t be getting the axe.
Still I hope, for all our sakes, that one morning I’ll go out to that empty, haunted nest and find it: one enormous, sleep-wrinkled egg – the work of a day; the justification, however disingenuous, for a life.
This last weekend, we suffered a predator attack – our first since we first got our chickens exactly two years ago. It must have happened in broad daylight, while we were inside the house, laid up with stomach bugs. But none of us heard a thing. When R went to check on them for the afternoon, he found 4 carcasses inside the fence. Only one had been well and truly savaged; the others, it seems, were merely killed for sport. Amongst the drifts of fallen feathers, we found the muddy prints of a very large dog.
Our coop is a fortress that had served our birds well till now. We have seen predator prints in the snow, pacing the coop, only to find it impregnable from above, around, and below when closed. But the door had been propped open for the day, and the hens were enjoying the first few days of scratchable, bare earth after an interminable winter. After the dog jumped the netting, the hens must have run for the open coop in panic. Judging from the feathers lining the floor, the dog followed them in. Any hens that didn’t make it up the narrow ramp to the upper floor didn’t stand a chance.
They were only chickens, but in a small flock you’ve raised by hand, the losses hit hard. Spalty the Easter Egger was our one blue egg-layer – she gave us a lovely pale turquoise egg with a matte finish, and she was one of our cleverer birds. As a chick, her plumage was dotted and stippled like spalted maple, and that’s how she got her name. She nearly died last summer after eating something she shouldn’t have, but made a full recovery; and she was always the first to find a patch of chickweed or steal a strawberry or learn anything new.
Jumpy and Two Patch were Barred Rocks – docile and friendly, though Jumpy was rather thick. As a chick she was adventurous – the first to jump out of the nursery (hence the name), the first to catch an ant. She grew to be the biggest of our birds, with giant feet and a wobbly, crooked comb. She could scarcely figure out how to exit the coop in the morning for her feeding – she’d bonk her head repeatedly against the corner opposite the door because it had a clear view out to the yard. Clumsy as she was, she was a reliable layer. Unlike Two Patch, who laid oddly pointed, elongated eggs and would squat beneath your hand with a nervous stutter step.
I’ll especially miss Stormy the Silver Laced Wyandotte, who used to come running when she heard me weeding the garden beds. She’d forage for bugs right beneath my fingers, and she laid beautiful golden-brown eggs. After this year’s molt she grew skittish and would linger back in the coop when the others came out to greet me, as if she had a premonition that it wasn’t safe Outside. Alas, she was right.
Of our original 8 chickens, only 3 survive (One Patch died of a mysterious illness last year). We have one of each breed, now. The children’s favorite, Feather the Easter Egger, is still with us, still offering up an olive-green egg almost every day. So are whistling Lumpy and the speedy Stripèd, who is our escape artist and was hiding through the attack.
If there’s any consolation to be found in the timing of this disaster, it’s that it happened before the order deadline for new chicks this year. So in a month or so, we’ll be bringing in new little feathered friends – tiny souls to pamper, nourish, shelter, and delight in, and, eventually, to mourn. But hopefully not for some years.
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.