To be brutally honest AmeriCorps was not something I had strong, if any, feelings about until this past weekend. Though Ian and I have been working for the organization since September, I merely saw it as a way to make living and working at the Big Laurel Learning Center economically feasible for us. The day to day impact of being part of the entity that is AmeriCorps rarely seemed to extend beyond biweekly meetings and lots of paperwork. The four hour drive between us and our team members in Cincinnati prevented us from seeing much of them, making it easy to forget we are part of an organization bigger than southern West Virginia. But this perspective has changed dramatically for me after a four day Notre Dame AmeriCorps midyear conference in Baltimore, Maryland.
Fall days are death- if you are a leaf. For the rest of us, they are a glorious final celebration before the doomy gloom of winter smothers every memory of happier times. If you doubt my hatred of winter, just know I’ve spent the past two out of three winters fleeing to the tropics under the flimsy excuse of ” gaining farm experience.” Farming was a great idea, but mostly I just thought winter in Hawaii sounded better than in Michigan. I don’t do well with cold, and I do even less well without natural light. But seeing as West Virginia doesn’t have the climate of a Pacific Island, winter is going to happen here regardless of my personal preferences. Until that happens, I’ll continue to skip around barefoot and lay down in the grass to read books. And Ian and I will continue to use as much of the fleeting daylight that we can to continue with our property projects. This week, we tried to figure out what to do with the thick blanketing of dead leaves around our home’s perimeter.
The first project was pulling out the o’ chipper we found stashed in a shed to shred up as many leaves as we could collect. This was a two person job, so while I scurried around with a big rake and bigger tarp, Ian fed the piles into the roaring machine. I guess it worked, because our massive pile of leaves shrank to one tenth its original volume, easily fitting in our makeshift leaf composter. The idea is that greater surface area will allow the leaves to decompose faster, allowing for quicker compost. I’ll report back in a few weeks on the results.
*he wants everyone to know that he’s lost fifteen pounds** **yes, he really did tell me to say that
The second project was another composting method, but instead of a chipper we wanted to try out a different farm tool- the chickens. Lazy things haven’t laid any eggs yet, so we needed to find a different way to get some use out of them. Chickens enjoy nothing better than to scuffle around their yard, scratching and turning over everything in their path in an endless pursuit of bugs. It look a matter of hours for six little hens to turn their pen into a barren clay wasteland. So we thought we’d give them our leaves to play with instead. Their shredding instincts would be put to good use and we wouldn’t have to run the chipper as much. The bonus addition of their poop into the mix could make for a nitrogen-rich fertilizer for the garden come spring.
So we filled the coop with close to a foot of leaf litter and allowed the chickens to play around in it. They seemed a little startled by the dramatic change to their outdoor arrangements, but being chickens, it took them all of two seconds to adapt. Do they like playing in the leaves? Watch the video below ad see for yourself!
Let’s all just agree that chickens are the best. Cool. Glad we agree.
Oooooh chickens. To my count, this is my third blog post focused purely on extolling their virtues. The first was in Thailand when I was responsible for slaughtering one for a village meal and somehow managed to let it literally slip through my fingers and dash into the woods. Did I spend the rest of that afternoon chasing it through the forest with a slingshot and a ten foot bamboo pole? Yes. Did I even get remotely close to recapturing it? I’ll let you think that one through. (Hint: lets just say I was teased about my “ba gai” or forest chicken for the rest of the semester.) My second post about chickens is from my time living and working on a farm on the Big Island of Hawaii. There, one of my jobs was to tend to the feathery flock of 30 layers. There wasn’t always a lot to do on that farm so I spent a lot of time plunked down on the ground, watching the ladies. It’s actually one of my better pieces, so I’ll probably repost it someday.
And what’s not to like? Little lumbering dinosaurs that clumsily scratch around their mud pens in an ever preoccupied hunt for tidbits of food. If only all our lives could be that simple. In their ten thousand years of domestication, it’s apparent intelligence was never a sought after trait. Frankly, I think it’s been just about bred out of the little suckers. But their simple dumbness is a large part of their charm for me. My chickens ask for little besides a mud yard to scratch around in, some food scraps, and a couple of roosting perches. In return I plan to get hours of entertainment and in all likelihood over a dozen eggs a week. I get as much enjoyment out of chasing them around the yard as Wendell does, and they give me a great captive audience to practice my crazy voices on. Unlike Wendell, they can’t run away and hide when I get too high pitched. I tell myself they secretly enjoy it.
But back to the basics. After our chicken yard was completed, Ian and I packed the dog crate into the back of the nuns’ pickup and drove the half mile past Big Laurel to our neighbor’s, who had agreed to sell us six chickens at five bucks apiece. Craigslist wasn’t offering me any better deals, so we accepted. A true mountain man, our neighbor has quite the set up. His ridgeline property boasts several gardens and at least three chicken runs jammed full of birds. He also has multiple dogs and is raising two sows with his grandson. My ears perked up when I heard he was going to get them bred; if all goes well our neighborly livestock purchases could soon extend to a piglet!
The chicken catching process was simple. After we were told which birds were off limits (all the pretty ones) I was let into the coop to “gather” the ones I wanted. Thankfully I’ve had some experience catching chickens since that fateful day in Thailand and I quickly snagged five. But, not wanting to have all the fun, I made Ian catch the last one. Though his massive hands and feet didn’t do him any favors, Ian managed to catch just about the ugliest chicken in the coop. But ugliness is no indicator of egg laying ability, so we kept her anyways. After we stuffed all six into the dog crate and drove back up the bumpy mountain road to our place, we released them into their new home.
I’m not sure what I was expecting. More of an adjustment period, I guess. Heck, we’ve had Wendell for two weeks and he still flinches at every noise in the house. But it took those birds all of two minutes to feel right at home in their new chicken palace. And a palace it is. I guess we had forgotten just how small chickens actually are when we were constructing it, because the coop that holds six looks like it can comfortably hold 35. Talk about exciting goals for the future! Within two hours every scrap of greenery in the yard had been pecked away, and I’m sure most of the worms and bugs as well.
So far the birds have been pretty quiet. We aren’t going to let them out of their pen for a few weeks to allow them to get a sense of home. In their pen they keep to themselves and move around in two flocks of equivalent ages. They go crazy when we threw them some moldy bread, but it’s a reserved kind of crazy. Three of them are still fairly young and won’t lay eggs for a few months. The way Wendell has been getting excited around their coop, he will probably try to kill a couple. But that’s an acceptable risk for us. It’s strange to be entering this new relationship of animal ownership, moving from having pets to livestock. I’m going to love having these chickens of course, but I fully intend to eat every one of them if I can. They will be pets only so long as they are useful- after that point they will be dinner. Funny that I think of our new dog as a farm animal as well, but a similar fate for him would be unthinkable. The boundaries we impose on what is acceptable and what is abhorrent can be strange indeed.
I bet your dog walks can’t compare!! 😉
Finally, FINALLY we are real homesteaders. Before we were just playing around, thinking that canning a couple pears and owning some useless cats and a farm dog qualified us. But no longer do we have to pretend. Because… we have livestock. More specifically, CHICKENS. I have been desperate to own poultry for years now, and one of the requirements that I made when we decided to move our here was that I would get my own birds. Half the work was already done for us, because our Knob property had a massive chicken coop in good condition. To make it functional, we needed to build an enclosed yard that would keep the chickens in and chicken killers out. It’s been a long project, but I’m very happy to say that the final results should keep out even the most persistent predator.
Poll: who makes a better chicken, Ian or Lydia? Cast your vote in the comments!
Lucky for us, we had plenty of work groups come over several weeks that were able to help us with different stages of construction. Without them, the two of us would be slogging through the snow trying to get that yard done.
And suddenly…the coop was complete and move-in ready. Check back in a few days to read about our adventures buying chickens from our neighbor, releasing them into the coop, and seeing if we can get their moist little bodies to produce eggs for us after all.
According to Ian, he’s never really liked dogs. He finds them big and slobbery and dog poop almost makes him gag. Even when he practically lived at my house this past summer he all but ignored my family’s elkhound mutt, Meikah. So the last thing I expected was for him to suggest that we adopt a puppy. Just when you think you know someone, they challenge everything by wanting to adopt a dog. However, a failed attempt by Ian to adopt a “stray” puppy that had a loving home caused us to reconsider, so we tabled the idea for a while (a week) and tried to talk about other things.
But the internet and free time are a dangerous thing. I spent a large chunk of my day on Thursday mentally checked out from the high school agriculture class I was aiding. In my defense I was struggling through an intense head cold that was going to keep me in a heavy fog no matter what I did. So the day was spent on Craigslist and Petfinder. Sadly, considering how many stray dogs roam the mountain roads around here, there weren’t many dog postings closer than 3 hours away. But that didn’t take the fun away from searching. Every time I found an interesting dog I emailed the link to Ian, with a subject line like “!!!!”. In his typically fashion, he ignored every one of my emails except the very last one, the one titled “I think I’m in love”.
This last dog was a little different. Named after one of Santa’s reindeer for his holiday arrival last year, Donner wasn’t a puppy and he wasn’t from Craigslist. He was a long time resident of an animal shelter in Louisa, KY, and he had just about the sweetest face I had ever seen. One look at that speckled muzzle was enough to activate my imaginings about what kind of amazing farm dog this Australian Shepherd/Cattle dog mutt could be. I imagined us romping through the woods together (him perfectly trained), running together, and being guard dog to our home and soon to be resident chickens while we were at school. And he had a sob story. Poor guy had a genetic skin condition that took a year of treatment and had caused him to spend almost his whole life at the pound. It was love at first profile read, and I guess Ian felt the same way because his simple response to my gushing email was “let’s go get him!”
And so we did. At our earliest convenience on Friday we hopped in the car and drove an hour to Lousia, Kentucky. I was a nervous mess. Here we were, falling in love with an online profile of a dog we’d never met. Sure Donner sounded great, but what if we were actually incompatible? What if our real life meeting went as badly as many a Tinder date!? I might not recover from the disappointment.
We made it to the shelter and wandered around the outside cages waiting for a staff person to arrive. The noise was deafening. Dog after dog jumped on their fences and almost on top of us in either a desperate bid for our attention or as a warning in case we came too close. Even though we were there only to meet Donner, it took two full walks around the cages to even find him. He was easy to miss, being the only dog in the whole pound that cowered in a corner of his cage and visibly shook as we got closer.
We had read he was timid, but we didn’t know he was THAT timid. In one fell swoop, all my dreams of a boisterous farm dog came crashing down. When we took him for a walk up the pound driveway he was so nervous that the staff woman had to carry him outside his crate and he flinched at every attempt from us to get closer. Even the leaves and shadows terrified him. It was a short, unsuccessful attempt at walking and bonding. The staff lady seemed pleased at his response though, telling us “he’s never been on a walk out there before!” One full year in the pound and he had never gone the fifty feet to his own driveway. That’s the sad reality about how overcrowded and understaffed many rural shelters are. But the walk did accomplish one thing. It triggered Ian’s compassion and desire to fix pain and brokenness. One look at him and I knew there wasn’t a chance that Donner was going to spend another night in the shelter. The staff woman’s obvious affection for him and her promise that he would be a different dog once he adjusted to us and left the stress of the shelter solidified Ian’s resolve. Leaving him there wasn’t going to be an option. Since Donner had been at the shelter longer than any dog, he was going to be moved on the next day to a rescue group. If we wanted him, this was our only chance. Good thing the two of us are good at making quick decisions. Within minutes the adoption process had begun, and faster than I expected we were driving away with our new dog, filled with the gleeful recklessness that comes from making a major life decision without nearly enough thought.
The timing was unfortunate. The weekend we adopted him was also the weekend that we were hosting 11 Americorps team members from Cincinnati. We were moving the poor guy from a kennel of dogs to one of humans. But it couldn’t be helped. He definitely suffered. For the first 12 hours or so he was hunched in a corner, too paralyzed even to fully lay down or go into his crate. After he finally went in, he flinched at every noise and cowered from every set of eyes. Nothing but endless patience and a few sauce covered meatballs could convince him to come out in the morning, but soon after a short walk he returned to his cowering posture near his crate. The poor guy is a year old, but he has the life experience of a two month old puppy. Every smell and sight up here is a new experience for him, and his default response is a trembling fear. Even wood floors are a challenge to be conquered. The only thing that doesn’t seem to scare him are the cats; no matter how much they hiss and spit and run away he always looks at them with wide-eyed interest.
But we think our neurotic puppy is going to do just fine. We’ve named him Wendell, after Wendell Berry. He’s warmed up to me surprisingly fast. I think it’s because only females worked at the shelter, so he finds me more familiar than Ian. Walks are going great, and we learned today that he’s a chewer. Since we didn’t think to buy him any bones he has to entertain himself with pieces of kindling. His shepherd lineage should make him relatively easy to train, and I doubt he will be violent towards chickens. With a little luck, lots of patience and probably a few chewed up shoes, we might just turn little Wendell into a farm dog after all.