For weeks Ive been looking out for more tiny pullet eggs. Not a one. I thought the older hens had stopped laying and the pullets had immediately skipped to the big egg scale. Then today Amie was trying to round up all the escaped hens and ended up missing one. Where was Lucy? We looked and looked with the ominous sound of either a jay or a hawk above us. Then Amie laughed out loud and yelled “Mama, Mama, come see what Lucy is sitting on!”

I came running and there they were, in a hollow in a little side yard, not even within the confines of the chicken yard fence: TWENTY-ONE pullet eggs:


They’re definitely pullet eggs. Compare to the big egg:


So, we have a nest box situation. I’ve two boxes for nine hens, which the books says is sufficient, but not for my flock. Also, these pullets seem to like a leafy, grassy nest, while the older hens always make it a point to clear out the boxes to the bare wood. I’ll need to make a special box for the pullets, preferably somewhere inside the coop…

I’ll have to chuck all these eggs. Who knows how old the oldest one is, and it’s been pretty hot (75F) these last couple of days. Amazing, though, they are all intact, even though they were just out there, unprotected.

In Transition and Permaculture circles we’re constantly talking about putting systems in place for when, that is, before, they’re needed. When I headed up the Solarize program in Wayland in 2012, this was my main motivation: lots of individual solar arrays on roofs so we have at least a basis for clean and decentralized electricity in times of emergency, if (when) the big grid goes down. It’s also part of my motivation for much of what we do here at the homestead: chickens, bees, garden, solar PV, solar hot water, rainwater harvest, etc. It’s not just a matter of physically building and installing and test -driving and improving these systems, but also of training oneself to build them getting the experience to get a yield from them, and then to be able to teach the skills to others.

The problem though is this: most of these systems are not yet needed. With any luck, they won’t for a long time, maybe not even in our own life time. Once an “element” is built – a favorite phase involving family and friends and fun problem solving – it needs to be maintained even though there are still much more convenient ways of getting the yield.

For instance, I could much more easily get eggs and veggies from the farmers market than having to deal with lame hens that need nursing and garden beds that need weeding. The water still comes out of the tap, so why am I scrubbing the algae from the water totes and struggling with low water pressure? There is still oil in our tanks or money to buy it, so why am I cold with the thermostat at 59F and why should I get up in the middle of the night to feed the wood stove? Why can’t I go on a long holiday without having to arrange hen and garden sitting? Why am I canning so much apple sauce! Often, the systems I like the most are those that don’t need maintenance, like the solar machines. Yes, I admit it, the living systems are often a drag.

It’s yet another skill, of course, and perhaps the one that most needs learning and practicing: to persevere in a difficult thing and to not give in to comfort and convenience just because we can buy it, or just because society still supplies it. It’s a skill to not turn a blind eye to the real costs of that comfort and convenience and to live a principled life, now and here.

The front of the house has been on our list for quite a while (cf. this blog post), and now we’re finally doing something about it. The little balcony up front
1) was too small, a mere 2 1/2 feet deep,
2) was darn ugly with cemented red brick and a cement rim,
3) had a flagstone floor that was wicked slippery when wet,
4) and most importantly, badly installed: its floor sloped toward the house. Whenever it flash rained and the gutter above it overflowed, the water went into the basement.

We hired a local contractor (he lives around the corner from us) and his crew came to demolish the old thing. This revealed this:


After decades of water seeping through, the sill was bound to be rotten. Another contractor is coming to take care of this.

This is what the place looks like now, without the balcony:


You can see the outline of the planned new patio. The idea was to have the new patio (15′ x 15′) at the same height as the living room floor, so that when you stand in front of the picture window looking out, the eye finds continuity and it would open up the living room. However, the slope up front is steeper and starts closer to the house than the picture may show, and it would take a lot more work, material and money to lift the patio to that height. Also, now we are warned against placing a stone structure against a wooden house,

So we opted for lowering the height of the patio to beneath the sill, so it rests against the cement foundation, which is sound. (The whole thing will of course also be graded away from said house).

The patio itself will consist of two steps of brownstone risers (13″ deep, 9″ high) all around, and the same material in front of the door, where there will be a third step. The inside surface will be yellow/light brown peastone. Like so:


Lastly, at the front of the patio there will be a large trellis for grapes and other climbers. Eventually they will shade the living room in Summer. It will be offset enough so that the masses of snow sliding off the PV panels on the roof won’t crush it and the plants on it.

We’re hoping the whole thing – patio installation and woodwork on sill – will be done before cold weather and snow come along. I’m looking forward to a Winter of designing the new plantings and the patio furniture we want to build.

Aside from eating the lunch and dinner I prepared, I was busy in the kitchen for eleven hours (11 am to 10 pm) and it was wonderful. I had a lot of accumulated CSA produce to use up, and I’d bought a lot at the last Farmers Market in town. And then there were eggs. The result of a day of peeling, slicing, chopping, frying, boiling, steaming, stirring, sterilizing and canning with Arvo Part’s Fratres (*) on repeat:

huge stack of crepes, had with homemade peach butter and yogurt.


20 trays of apples in dehydrator


most time consuming of all: 24 8oz jars of applesauce (my friend A and I bought 120 libs of apples, each, at a local orchard)


vat of sauerkraut (white cabbage from CSA)


large quart of colorful kimchi (all kinds of radishes and beets from CSA)


for dinner: big omelet with eggs (our hens), kale (CSA) and garlic (friend’s), huge salad of steamed beets (CSA), slightly boiled sweet corn (Farmers’ Market), fried garlic and kale and yellow beans (CSA), with a glass of wine (not local).


(*) Maybe Part’s haunting music was the reason why everyone stayed away?

Joining the flocks after letting them spend their days in the large chicken yard together has been less dramatic than we feared. Still, in the mornings they start hollering to be relieved of each other’s close company around 6 am. I get up, pull on a sweater (that time of year), slippers and head out, a bleary-eyed zombie, and open the door for them, then go back to bed and to sleep. Not fun.

So I did some research on chicken coop door (“pop hole”) openers. I looked at many systems and products and in the end went for one of the more expensive but (I hope) less troublesome systems: the VSB motor that runs on batteries and by a light sensor made in Germany by AXT Electronic. I might get the timer, but we’ll see how the sensor works first.

I bought the motor, the rails and the door in one package from a US supplier, then got the outdoor sensor from AXT Electronic directly. It’s all pretty light and small:


My install was going to be pretty straightforward. There is a lot of space in the coop, and no studs, etc. At first I thought I’d cover the pop hole that was already there, but it was too wide and, anyway, I thought it would be good to keep that one free (though closed), in case the electronic door stops working and the hens need to get in or out quickly. Also, since that new roost is pretty well stuck, it would have been hard for me to reach that area. Lastly, I figured that by moving the pophole and ramp to the other side, it’ll make access to the coop easier for humans.
So I decided to cut a new hole. It took some effort as I had to cut through the box and the siding.
Not straight, but it’ll do.

Whatcha doin?
Whatcha doin?

Then with the help of a bubble level, a pencil and my in spite of my perfectionist ambition to get it all level and straight, etc., I managed to install the rails.
The instructions aren’t very clear, so here are some tips:
1) The “stops” mentioned in the instruction are the two screws you put into the bottom of the rails. When the door hits those, the motor will stop unwinding the cord. So make sure you install those bottom holes on the inside.
2) Make sure the stops are an inch or so below the pop hole you cut. That way, when the door is closed, an enterprising long- and nimble- fingered raccoon can’t get its digits underneath the very light door and pry it open.
3) Don’t install the rails extra tightly against the door: you want it to slide easily, but also don’t give too much leeway.

So far so good. Then I installed the VSB box. First I opened the door to where I want it, then marked the highest point of the paper clip. I held the VSB so that that point overlapped with the bottom of the loop in the pull cord. It’s at that point that the VSB will stop retracting the cord (there is a tiny bead on the cord that pushes up the white lever, making the engine stop). Screwing it in requires a long drill bit.
The distance between the bottom of the door when closed and the VSB can’t be more than 60 cm, which is about 23 inches. I was good.
When I threaded the loop through the paperclip and let the door hang on it, it turned out the cord has some give, so I put in a knot to make the loop less long, giving the hens an extra inch.

The sensor is threaded through a small hole in the bottom of the box and attached to the 5 and 6 pins. I put in the batteries, covered the sensor, and it worked! Here’s a 40 sec video:

I closed the box and guided the sensor cable along the open eaves of the coop. I taped it down on the inside and the outside (my hens like to climb up there) so they don’t get the idea to peck at it.
Then I closed the other hatch and moved the ramp over.

The real test will happen this evening and tomorrow morning: then I’ll see if the door closes not too early, not too late. If it does, I’ll need to adjust the sensor’s light sensitivity.

Beyond making my life easier, this kind of technology makes it possible for schools and businesses to have chickens without burdening custodians and volunteers. Wouldn’t it be neat for your neighborhood school to have chickens?

{UPDATE} It works perfectly: all chickens made it in at night, and this morning I was not woken up by their squabbling!

Our pullets espouse an escapist ethic. They fly up into the vines and no fence that I’ve put in place – the highest being six feet – has kept them in the chicken yard. Their adventures have led them into the vegetable garden, which is no big deal at this point, as most of the plants in there are done, but come Spring I won’t appreciate their visits.

They found the compost bins!
They found the compost bins!

They hang out under the raspberry bushes where I’m not keen on searching for their eggs. They are venturing further and further down the drive way, and soon the neighbors will have to swerve and the neighborhood dogs, some of which are just loose in the streets, will have themselves a nice raw chicken nugget.
So, enough of that. I became a Youtube expert in wing clipping and with Amie’s helped clipped those wings.

Victim number one: a Buff (I can’t keep the two apart):

Ten flight primary feathers (I clipped only their right wings):
Done, and the other Buff comes to investigate:
The pullet jumped off and continued her scratching, no harm done. The primary flight feathers don’t have a blood supply, as you can see from the next shot: the shafts are a pure white.

And some video:

We’ve had a couple of cold nights, in the upper thirties. Apparently, it’s beyond what an exposed colony can handle. I checked yesterday and except for a couple of stragglers, there are no bees left. I will ask my neighbor if he wants to climb up there and bring down that gorgeous comb.


We may march in the Big Apple in the biggest Climate Action in the world, ever, but then we come home where our lives are (somewhat) normal and comfortably small. Here we concoct an elder syrup of elderberries, elder flowers, astragalus root, peppermint and homegrown, raw honey. In fact, over a quart of it!
One jar sits in the door of my fridge and gets sampled every day. The rest went into the freezer, which is safe for honey.

We also celebrate the arrival of pullet eggs! We’ve found five so far (these pullets are master flyers and escape over the fence to the great beyond quite often, so who knows), so must be more than one pullet. Figuring out which ones is nigh impossible, but it’s not essential. As the eggs gain their mature size, we might be able to start telling the difference.


The days are shortening and cooling fast. I made that wonderful escarole, garlic and cannellini bean soup with an escarole head from the CSA box. Yum!


Over the weekend we visited our dear friends in NYC. They and more friends joined us at 81 Street and Fifth Avenue West at the Climate March on Sunday. We walked out of the subway station to find what turned out to be 400,000 people! That is over four times what the organizers had expected.

This meant that everything happened a little behind schedule. We stood, waiting, for two hours before our section (the second last one) of the march started moving. (So first we stood for Climate Change Action, and then we marched for it.) Our three girls, ages 9 and 10, bravely stuck with it in the often jostling crowd and the Indian Summer hot, humid weather that at one point threatened with a couple of rain drops.

I think they were impressed and I hope they will remember this experience for their lives: the day they too stood up and marched for action on climate change, with people from all over the world, all ages, all colors. Lots of youth, lots of little kids.


The moment of silence – 400,000 people, all quiet together – was very touching, and then when the cheering rolled down the Avenue, that gave me the chills.

People's Climate March, 21 September (2) 2014, Kaat Vander Straeten
People’s Climate March, 21 September (2) 2014, Kaat Vander Straeten

As we stood, danced and sat waiting, I listened to the conversations around me. Many were well-informed, others not at all, and there was a lot of talking. What fracking is all about. What is divestment. There was a man who told the story of the lobster boat like we were sitting around a campfire, hearing stories of heroism.

We felt safe throughout and there was fun for the kids too. Mostly we danced, as we attached ourselves to Berkshire 350MA Node drummers, who were just fantastic.

I kept looking for people I knew and had planned to hook up with, but in that crowd? No dice. We couldn’t even hear our cell phones ring.


I took lots more pictures, which you can see here.


This mead is done! It was made with raw honey and champagne yeast. After more than a year in the carboy, I bottled it. It is quite dry, with that typical, somewhat surprising mead flavor reminiscent of honey. it can age some more in the bottle. Look how clear it is, compared to the next batch!


I also racked the two 3 gallon carboys that I put together with the winterkill (hence pasteurized) honey at the beginning of August. One went into a fresh 3 gallon carboy (not pictured) – I had to top it off with brandy, since after leaving the lees (thick layer of dead yeast at the bottom) I no longer had 3 gallons. The other one went into two 1 gallon carboys and the leftover 3/4 gallon went into a bottle for immediate consumption. These are obviously very young and the taste isn’t as developed yet, but I hope after this thoroughly oxygenating operation, they’ll start up again. If they do, I’ll select one or two to add fruit. If they don’t, I’ll make one into a metheglin by adding spices. They’re sitting on my bedroom dresser, so I’ll know if they start bubbling again soon.