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This has been/still is a hard winter. It’s been one snow storm after another, with long stretches of below freezing temperatures.  Three weeks ago I caught a bug which developed into pneumonia – hence the silence here – and now that I’ finally up and about, Amie caught something as well. That’s how it goes. The winter was hard on the bees as well: all three colonies are dead of starvation in boxes still half full of capped honey.  They just didn’t have the chance to break cluster and move toward the honey.

But things are stirring. Before yesterday’s snow flurries we actually saw dirt. Then it got covered up again, but all that should be washed away by tonight’s rain and tomorrow we may see some outdoor activities. I plan to wash all the seedling trays and pots so I can start the basement garden. If I’m up for it, I’ll also clean out the chicken coop: there’s some good compost in there after months of deep litter.

A couple of days ago I (hot-water-bath) canned the sauerkraut that had been fermenting in big jars on my counter for seven weeks. I usually don’t can kraut as it pasteurizes it (duh!) and kills off all the good bugs. Still, I had too much of it to keep in the fridge, and as I’m the only one who eats it round here, I decided to reserve one jar for the fridge and can the rest.  I hope the canning doesn’t make it too soggy. I like it crunchy.

 

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Kidding! We’re not getting 20 of them. Only four of these little ones will become ours: 2 Buff Orpingtons, 1 Black Australorp, and 1 Barred Rock – these were Amie’s choices. We pooled our order with a friend and a friend-of-that-friend. I can’t wait till April 14, when we go pick them up: a box with 20 puff balls, all chirping away!

As for our five hens (4 of them soon two years old, 1 one-year-old), we’re getting two, sometimes three eggs a day now. I decided to start keeping a record.

It started snowing again, an end to the warmer weather of the weekend. I missed the opportunity to go into my hives, but I did find out that mice got into my stored honey supers and chewed through quite a lot of wax and fouled it up.

Our plans to bury the recently deceased Nocty were thwarted by the deep freeze we are in. The ground is rock hard. The bird too.

I put Nocty in an empty feed bag and rolled it up. I’m keeping her on the porch so no big animals can get at her. As for the little ones, the undertakers, they won’t start their work until the body defrosts. Amie asked why, and I explained we humans are about 60% water and I suspect it’s somewhat similar for a chicken. She got it right away with regard to the chicken. It blew her mind that the same goes for the soil. I couldn’t say how much water is in the soil, but all the tiny spaces between the mineral molecules were flooded when it rained or when the snow on top of it melted, and then that water too froze. So the soil per se isn’t frozen, but the water that saturates it is. That’s why my shovel can’t make a dent in it.

Thinking of it now the similarities between the state of the bird and the state of the soil go further. Both seem brittle, parched, dry, because the water in them can’t do its thing, that is, moisten and move.  The soil should be awash with life and so should Nocty – Amie believes that firmly now, that Nocty should rot and give her body back to the circle. But the bird, the creatures who will do the rotting (the washing), and the medium in which this can be done (the soil/the water) – all are waiting.

Looking down into the brown paper bag at the golden brown feathers, it doesn’t feel right that she’s neither alive in the chicken-sense, nor in the rot-sense. I hope we’ll have a thaw soon.

After reading Lauren Scheuer’s book, Once Upon a Flockin one swoop, Amie now has a favorite blog: Scratch and Peck, which is adorable and very funny and, well, about chickens! She has decided that this Spring we should get one Barred Plymouth Rock, one Black Australorp, and one Buff Orpington, just like Ms. Scheuer has!

DSCF2765Amie took the news of Nocty’s demise very well, much better than I thought she would. She was shocked, then cried a little. After absorbing the news, we went to see the body on the porch. It was dark so I brought a flash light. I lifted the cardboard to uncover the body and Amie stroked Nocty’s  soft feathers. She said, “She is still a beautiful bird.” Then she became very curious. She tried to open the wing, remarked on the stiffness and I explained that when the blood is no longer flowing, the muscles get stuck and stiff. She even peeled open the bird’s eyelid and peered into the eye, searching for something.  I didn’t ask or talk, wanted to let her thoughts be free.

Then we went to check on Oreo, Nocty’s “sister,” who is now alone at the mercy of the older hens. The chickens were roosting, so she didn’t get to talk to Oreo, but this morning she went out to the coop before school and sat with her for a while. Her abiding concern, as mine, is with Oreo.

She also asked if we could keep Nocty the way she is and I explained we couldn’t, that she will rot. I explained that rotting is  being returned to the flow, that specialized insects and bacteria go in and tear down all the bonds that bind the flesh together and so release the atoms back into the stream and so on, into other bodies and new life.  I said to let that happen we should bury her, put her into the Earth, and we discussed where on the land. I proposed one of the garden beds. Then Nocty’s atoms would go into the lettuces and we could eat them. Amie liked that a lot. Encouraged, I proposed that at the end of the season we could dig up the bones. She liked that too.

We have set Wednesday after school aside for Nocty’s burial. We’ll also  do research on whether it will be safe to eat those lettuces, and on how to preserve animal bones.

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This morning I found Nocty, one of our younger Ameraucanas (she would have been a year old in April), dead in the coop. She was lying in the narrow space between the roost and the big door.  It couldn’t have happened long ago. Her blue egg was next to her, still somewhat warm. There was no blood or anything on her, and she didn’t freeze. There had been no symptoms, on the contrary, she was the energetic one, and she was regularly laying eggs. I think it may have been Sudden Death Syndrome, aka heart attack. I hope so, because I wouldn’t want there to be a disease in the coop. Everyone else seems fine, but then again, so did Nocty.

I was shocked and sad to see this sociable, sweet and funny chicken lying there so vulnerable and – I think this is what got me the most – so alone. She is still a beautiful chicken and I held her like she let herself be held in life, like a baby. Hardest of all is the realization that Amie will take it badly. Another issue is Nocty’s “sister” Oreo, who is at the bottom of the pecking order and who always found refuge with Nocty, who often pecked back at the four older hens.

It’s the first chicken we’ve lost, indeed the first pet (that’s how Amie thinks of her). I’m getting ready to tell Amie after she comes home and after her play date – which means I’ll need to keep mum the whole time they play. For once I hope it rains and they can’t go play outside, with the chickens.

On a warm and sunny day last week,  I let the chickens out in the yard. Amie came home from school just then and she joined the flock. For an hour she herded the hens around, nattering and scolding like a mama hen, with some marvelous life lessons (for chickens). What is the difference between needs and wants? She explained it to them. It is thus: If you need something but you don’t want it, it’s always a mistake. If you want something that you don’t need, it could be a mistake. It depends. Luckily, for chickens the factors aren’t too complex. In the end the chickens ran back into the coop out of their own volition, knowing full well what they needed.

Most of the snow melted.

Yesterday a snowstorm blew in and dumped a lot of wet, thick snow. The land is transformed again. The clouds above are fat and fast.

 

NOAA predicts -13 F or -25 C for tonight. I’ve been perusing the historical weather data for Massachusetts and that looks like a record cold. If we make that, we beat the low of -12 of 1957. This kind of cold was on my mind when I went out to give the hens a bowl of fresh warm water and a bowl of warm oatmeal, which they devoured. There is no electric heating in their coop, which isn’t insulated, but due to the deep litter method there is some heat (you can feel it when you hold your hand over it) and on cold nights like this, I close the coop hatch.

The powdery snow that fell last night (about a foot) creaked and crinched around my boots. The sun was already low in the sky and the air was dead calm. There was something eerie about it. It is that kind of big freeze that I wonder might set in and never end, not in my lifetime. That makes me half-remember that there’s something I may have to do to make it end, but that I’ve forgotten the old ways of making the sun come up in the morning, of making the world go on, the warmth return. I’m part curious, part terrified.

As I write this, the chickens they are hollering. They holler every evening when the sun sets. I used to think, like most, that they’re claiming their spots on the roost or reporting on their day. This interpretation doesn’t befit this evening, or any evening, come to think of it. I think that instead they’re lamenting the end of the world and voicing their doubt that there is anyone left willing and able to make it go again tomorrow.

Jenkinson says we need people to join the crew of pushing the sun up every day. The chickens are counting on it.

Yesterday night it went down to 9 F (-12.7 C) and tonight they predict 5 F (-15 C), -1 F with windchill. That’s cold. The two inches of snow that remain creak and crunch under your boots. Speaking of which, I shelled out for a good set of boots: MuckBoots, with steel toes. I read some reviews, especially Anna’s on the Walden Effect, and went for it. No more this:

DSCF9863 wet feet, frozen toes

Now I’ve got warm, dry feet in these:

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But I am most impressed with my hens. They have no heating, no insulation in their coop, and I leave the little door to the first part of the run (which is predator proof) open at night. They are all healthy and energetic, not even a touch of frostbite on their combs. Unfortunately, yesterday when closing the larger coop (not predator proof, I forgot to check for eggs. So this morning I found this:

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We are visiting my family in Belgium, so I’ll be off line for a while. We’ve got a friend house sitting, a marvelous arrangement for both him and ourselves that I might write about later.

 

 

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This afternoon, taking advantage of the warmer weather and the abeyance of snow/rain, I spent a good three hours splitting, moving and stacking close to 1/4 cord of firewood. While I was at it I conversed with the chickens, whose coop is next to the woodpile and the chopping block (eek).

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Two friends happened by to admire my ax form and give me gifts! A. gave me a huge bag of carrots she and her family pulled at our CSA Farm’s carrot pull last weekend, and R. brought me a pumpkin she grew in her garden. I moved all the split wood to the porch and then the sun set.

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I came in and started a fire in the stove, which sealed the deal: a hot shower was in order to wash away the sweat, dust, wood splinters, soot and muscle stiffening. I give thanks for hard work, the reward of warmth, and friendship.