I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived. ~ Thoreau

Thursday, September 30, 2010

A Plug for 18th Century Living

Hey guys here is a link and a brief description of an event going on this weekend. Fred and I will be there it is sure to be lots of fun & I am sure there are lots of things to be learned from the frontier that are still applicable to modern homesteading. Hope to see you there.

"Middle Creek Station Harvest Weekend Oct 1-2 Middle Creek Station is an 18th century Living History group comprised of men women and children who strive to open an authentic portal into 18th century living through live -demonstrations, lectures, and presentations. The station sits at the mouth of the Middle Creek tributary to the Guyandotte River, six miles east of Hamlin WV. The station is an 18th century re-constructed garrison (under construction) that demonstrates everyday hardships that our forefathers endured in defense of their homes and families as they carved out an existence in the western frontier (present day WV).
Our weekend activities include....
Gates open at 9:00 am to close at 5:00
Demos are to include
1. Spinning and weaving
2. Sheep shearing
3. Blacksmithing
4. Military, Militia, Flintlock Firing, Cannon firing, camp life etc.
Washington's 13 VA regiment
5. Fur trade (actual furs, traps and accouterments)
6. A surgeon's life tools and methods of 18th century medicine.
7. Eastern woodland village and life skills.
8. 18th century apothecary and field remedies.
9. History of the arms that won our freedom museum.
10. Archeological dig, School children will be allowed to dig a site to
recover actual hand knapped arrow points. (any artifacts (reproductions)
that they find they will be allowed to keep)
11. Multiple static displays exhibiting 18th century building techniques
and life skills.
On Friday, a group from the local elementary school will be attending after 12:00. Homeschoolers are welcome to attend at any time. There will be a concession stand selling hot dogs & snacks on Saturday."

Link to directions: http://maps.google.com/maps/ms?hl=en&client=firefox-a&ie=UTF8&msa=0&msid=117935442830806981231.00048f0d6703b39818281&t=h&z=19

Link to facebook event: http://www.facebook.com/#!/event.php?eid=162668810412428&index=1

Updates: Chickens, Bees and Master Gardening

I am sure many of you have noticed that since I have committed myself to one more undertaking (the Master Gardening Course) that the blog entries have dropped off substantially. I am endeavoring to, at least, get in one update a week but until this course is complete I probably will not get much more than one per week. That having been said I will try to keep this entry as coherent as possible but without one big theme and with lots of little things to touch on I cannot make any promises.

Let me start with the thing that I know is foremost in many of your minds; as you wait with bated breath on the edge of your seats, I am here to tell you bionic-chicken, aka Helga, is now back in the coop. She is now functioning in chicken society, a little worse for wear but no longer under attack, and laying normal eggs every day. While Fred and I are extremely pleased that she has so easily assimilated back into chickendom she on the other hand is slightly miffed. It seems as though through her ordeal, suffering the mental angst and physical abuse she was subjected to at the hands of her feathered sisters, she has somewhere along the lines developed a welfare-like sense of entitlement. In other words, she firmly believes that she is now a house chicken and is only slightly less than enraged that she is being forced to return to outdoor farm life. Her constant attempts at getting in the house, her ability to stand at the door and screechingly berate me for hours coupled with her now uncanny resemblance to Pinhead make her a Halloween novelty I am sure our neighbors tire of as I type.

I also owe a great debit of thankfulness and gratitude (and probably some baked goods if I ever get a spare second) to the staff and vets at the Elk Valley Veterinary Clinic here in Elkview. Dr. Stephenson from Good Shepherd referred me to them for help with the chickens. Specifically she referred me to Dr. Marshall who was a great help and kindly and patiently answered all of my chicken questions. He, the other doctors and their staff were wonderful and understanding and removed Helga’s stitches and gave me lots of useful information. Not the least of which was: (drum roll please) Helga’s eggs are once again safe to eat. The half life of the antibiotic she was given in such a small dose at the emergency clinic should have no lasting effect on the safety of her eggs. I can attest that we have been eating and cooking with them and no one in my family has grown a third eye or come down with any bizarre catastrophic illnesses since consumption.

In further chicken news I believe Stacy-chicken, Miranda-chicken, Gina-chicken and Autumn-chicken may all begin laying eggs this fall. I had not expected any of the BJGs to start laying until next spring but over the last two weeks or so they have really hit a major growth spurt. Even Gina-chicken is easily three times the size of Mama and probably twice the size of Helga. Their combs and waddles are bright red and have started to get bigger. Their butts have started to spread and their feathers are fluffier. So I am once again combing every nook and cranny of the yard for eggs. I am sure that my neighbors enjoy the parade of me, followed by six squawking chickens and one weird dog, walking the fence line every day and climbing under all the trees. I have had a noticeable flair up in childhood pine allergies since starting this daily ritual, anywhere along my arms that come in contact with the pine needles looks like I have contracted the pox for about twenty four hours then it fades away. I am glad the weather is cooling off so I can wear long sleeves because it seems that egg hunting is not just for Easter anymore. Oh well, it beats the heck out of emergency vet visits on Sunday afternoons.


Sadly there is little bee news to update. The poor bees have pretty much been neglected for the last several weeks since the chicken drama set in. I was supposed to attend the state bee conference last weekend but with all the loss and prior family commitments I was forced to forego my trip. Hopefully next year Fred and I will be able to attend together. The sharp cooling off and daily rainy drizzle have made getting in the hives nearly impossible for the last few days so we are in a holding pattern. Our main plan is to get 3 empty supers and set up a feeding system to coax all three hives through the winter.

Because we did not medicate we have been assured by many of the bee elders that we will not have any bees next year but I guess that remains to be seen. We will continue on as if the bees will thrive through the winter and hopefully we will be able to come up with an effective feeding plan that will at least allow them to limp along till spring. Now that we have a somewhat better idea of what we are doing next year we will redouble our beekeeping efforts and hopefully harvest enough honey for our own use and some Christmas gifts, if not a little extra to offset the cost of beekeeping supplies which can become quite pricey.


I am now three weeks into my Master Gardening course and I have to say so far I am disappointed. Week one was a foray into botany the likes of which I have not seen since Mr. Walker’s high school science class. So much Latin was involved that my brain felt like it had been through the food processor on high speed for three hours. We were lectured on the different types of plants and the means by which to identify them based on characteristics like the edge of the leaf, leaf cluster and veining pattern. While interesting and informative, my seizure riddled brain may just be too far past prime to absorb this kind of information in three hours.
Week two found us being lectured on soil by expert from the Putnam County extension office. Now, let me tell you, I was excited about this guy. The teaser in week one was that he was a pig farmer who naturally tilled and fertilized his soil via a free-range pig herd. Ok, now that piqued my interest. That is exactly the kind of thing Fred and I get into. Well, he was a very interesting man. He basically moves the pigs from lot to lot in the fall and lets them forage in a given field until they have tilled under any standing vegetation, then their manure and the plant life they have worked back into the soil act as natural fertilizer. He then turns them loose in forty acres of forest to forage for the fallen chestnuts before taking them to slaughter.
I was fascinated. He really seemed to have a handle on it and this seemed to be a great method. Pigs, unlike chickens, really till up the soil so they are not just scratching up some weeds and leaving manure they are really aerating and composting the soil very efficiently. The only drawback for me is of course that I do not eat pig so slaughtering it would not really work into our plan, plus with our limited space we really could not sustain a herd (or even probably a sow) of free-ranging pigs.
As I sat listening, and fantasizing about pig farming, he transitioned the lecture into soil types soil samples and how to identify your soil and collect a sample. He went through the process and told us step by step how to collect the samples and label them for shipping to WVU for analyzing. We all got our little forms and looked at the fancy on-line soil mapping program then he told us when we got our report back it would tell us just which type of chemical fertilizer to put in our gardens. WHAT!?! Hello, was not the first two hours of this lecture about how these chemical methods were not sustainable and how they would eventually sterilize the soil?
I called him on it. He paused for a moment and then told me I was the first person who had ever questioned him. Really?! REALLY?! Are we all this committed to polluting everything and doing everything the easy way that we do not even ask questions? I was shocked. I explained I was taking this course to help our family create a more sustainable existence, etc. He then lectured briefly on composting but advised that in the first couple of years until we perfected our composting methods we would probably still need to put some kind of additive in the soil, yet another disappointing week of class.
Week three found me even more excited than week two. Entomology. BUGS! I had skimmed through the chapter and was sure we were going to learn about all the exciting things pollinators and predators and helpful critters could do for our gardening endeavors. Boy was I disappointed. The lecture broke down into about twenty minutes of natural and helpful bugs and remedies and about two hours of recommendation on which was the best pesticide to use. Do not misunderstand me, there was some really helpful information disseminated about how to identify bugs by both their physical characteristics in larval and adult stages and by the damage left behind on plant matter but I was really hoping to learn more about natural methods of pest control and more about bugs that are helpful like my honeybees. I was disappointed by what I perceived as basically a giant commercial for, and I quote, “our crown jewel: pesticides.”

I do not know what next Monday’s class entails. I admit I have not even looked at my book to check out the next topic. I have been really let down by the last two classes and the huge push for chemical everything. I guess what I really needed was a course in natural gardening or organic gardening instead of a Master Gardening course.

Stay tuned,
Much Love and thank you for reading,


Wednesday, September 22, 2010

a song

My heart is heavy this morning with the loss and sadness and suffering I see all around me. I have held off for several days on any new blog entries hoping for something lighthearted and pleasant to write about. I have systematically avoided writing about the things that have been so prominent in my mind and since these things have become almost all consuming there has been nothing else of which to write. Unfortunately, this cloud of sadness has not lifted. Instead of continuing to avoid the blog I decided that I need to address these things because they are not going away. I feel compelled to write because all other roads are barren and these thoughts must work themselves out of my mind and heart:

Everyone struggles, even Christians, even Christians who walk closely with God, and struggling does not equate punishment. Sometimes we struggle because there are lessons to be learned and sometimes we just struggle for no apparent reason, other than we live in an imperfect world. I know how flip that sounds and what a poor and lackluster reason that is to give someone whose world is wrenched apart by grief but sometimes it is the only answer we have. So often we are quick to pass judgment on those among us who suffer. We think God is judging them or they have done something wrong to merit the suffering in their lives and so they are reaping what they have sown. We judge ourselves and question God and wonder “what have I done wrong? Why is God punishing me? Why can’t I ever win?” When, in reality, as our salvation is “not by works of righteousness which we have done” sometimes our suffering is too by no fault of our own.

This week I lost an old friend, whom I had not seen in years and had only recently reconnected with through facebook. He was only thirty-three years old. We had chatted on line and said those things like “let’s get together soon” feeling for all the world like there were many tomorrows stretching ahead of us because, really, no one thinks at thirty-three that we will die in our sleep. This week a former colleague, whom I hold in great esteem as an honorable man of God and whose family I greatly respect as good and kind examples of practical Christianity, lost a son to cancer. They knew their tomorrows together to be finite but I assume their grief is no less sharp for the knowledge, because twenty is too young to die of cancer. This week I have watch a friend struggle with her son’s illness and vague diagnosis and with all the financial burdens that weigh down single parent’s everywhere and I know as I look at him that eighth grade should be a year of carefree fun not of doctors visits and tests. This week I have watched my dad struggle with his chronic pain and more surgery. I look at his sleepless face and know that retirement should be a time of ease and enjoying grandchildren not a constant struggle against insidious pain and depression. This week the nucleus of my own family has struggled and I find myself helpless.

In this time of powerlessness all I can do is give my struggle and my doubt to the Lord as we are instructed in I Peter 5:7 “Casting all your care upon him; for he careth for you,” because I can do nothing else. I am staggered by the vast amount of suffering everywhere. As I look out my window onto the first calendar day of Autumn I see with my physical eyes a beautiful, calm, warm and sunny day. As I look around me spiritually I see the storms of life raging all around the people I love and rocking their boats, and mine, to the point of capsizing. I see friends and love ones clinging by their spiritual fingernails to the planks of driftwood that are all that remain of their lives.

Growing up in Sunday School I was taught that we are always in a state of spiritual warfare, that we are in a constant struggle with the unseen to maintain our soul’s integrity. I do not so much believe this as I have gotten older. I believe that if you truly accept Christ as your savior then that ultimate battle has been fought and won. I do not believe that it is then somehow my responsibility to fight and re-win that battle every day. That lends a “works” aspect and a sense of futility to the whole thing that I just cannot swallow.

That being said I know through my own practical experience that being a Christian does not somehow magically exempt me from suffering, from hurt, from loss, from bad decisions, from death or from hurting others. We are still human, we still function inside this flawed world, we are still children of flesh and blood who bleed and die. So if Christianity does not exempt me from suffering then what practical good does it offer me? I think this is where I personally have struggled and where I have seen so many loved ones fall away. They often feel as if God did not answer this specific prayer with the answer they begged for so: A) God obviously does not love or care about them, or B) God does not exist. Well, I have been there. I have been on my knees begging for healing, begging for a job, begging for relief from pain, begging for specific answers only to feel like my prayers hit the ceiling and fall back down on my head.

I think too often we want to treat the Bible like a magic eight ball or a Google search, expecting it to magically fall open to a verse tailored for our specific question when we reach a crisis. We pray to God like he is a genie who will grant our wish if we can just find the right combination magic words. Too often in our day to day lives God gets pushed to the back, Bible study becomes a once a week social excursion to church or a five minute cutesy story with an abbreviated Bible text blurb at the end. If we sit down and really delve into the Bible God does not promise us lives of ease if we follow him. In fact Christ tells the disciples the opposite that if we follow him the way of righteousness will not be easy. Matthew 7:13 tells us, “Enter through the narrow gate. For wide is the gate and broad is the road that leads to destruction, and many enter through it.” The undemanding path will ruin you.

That leads me to the conclusion that the Christian life will never be easy but I will tell you this; I will tell you, from my own experience, that surrendering your burden to Christ offers an ease of the spirit if not an ease of the circumstance, a shelter in the storm. Immersing yourself in God’s love and surrounding yourself with the church, delving into the scripture and truly seeking God’s face is like rubbing a balm on a wound. It will offer comfort. It can ease pain and prevent the suffering and the hurt from infecting your heart and eating away at your joy the way disease infects an open wound.

King David was a man who lived an extraordinary life. Reaching the loftiest heights of accomplishment and sinking into the lowest depth of despair. As I face the rest of this week and try not to be pulled down into despondency I seek comfort in the word of God, in my Christian friends and family and in prayer. I also look for inspiration and words to comfort those around me who suffer. I look to the words of David as he wrote poetry to God in the Psalms; “Though you have made me see troubles, many and bitter, you will restore my life again; from the depths of the earth you will again bring me up. You will increase my honor and comfort me once again.”

We have the promise of God to always lift us up again. It is easy to look down and sink beneath the waves. Faith is sometimes a struggle and keeping our eyes on Christ is not always easy as the grind of daily living tries to churn us under the waves, but that is why it is so important not to neglect that relationship with God, that daily time spent in prayer, those moments spent reading the Bible trying to gain a deeper understanding and not just an instantaneous answer.

I am sorry if this blog is kind of disjointed. I should have been writing all along instead of trying to stuff down things I needed to get out. This week as I have watched so many around me suffer and have felt so powerless to help them I go back to the story Jackie tells about the flood that took away our church building fifteen years ago. Jackie talks about how, when they were trying to clean out the copious amounts of mud, she felt powerless and helpless but amidst all that suffering and pain she could still sing. And that song became her prayer, her plea, her communion with God. I feel that and I can relate whole heartedly to that elemental cry. When I can do nothing else I can raise the song in my heart to God’s ears and let the emotion of my soul cry out for me when I cannot find my own words.

So I encourage you, my brothers and sisters in this life, to raise your voice to God, find your song and let it pour out of your soul. God will hear you. He will understand. Throw your burden on him. When you are too weak to read and feel too abandoned to form the words to pray let your song take those emotions and carry them to God, let that be your prayer and let God heal you. He will give you the strength to carry on. I encourage you to spend time in the scripture and study when you are not in crisis so that when the storms of life rage you are standing on a firm foundation but when you can do nothing else, please, sing.

Much love,

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Healing Helga and Master Gardening

I have very limited time this morning but I figure that so many of you have been so supportive and encouraging with our recent chicken struggles that I definitely owe you at least a quick update on Helga’s health. There are even strangers subscribed to the blog now. Fred and I find this very flattering and really are amazed that people who do not know us find our lives interesting enough to read about (although I will admit to finding the nameless faceless “facebook user” silhouette a smidgen creepy), all that aside, I cannot thank you all enough for your well wishes and kind words and support. If anyone has thought something unkind they have kept it to themselves and that is also greatly appreciated!

Helga, I am happy to report, is well and sassy. Her head looks like Dr. Frankenstein decided to begin his medical feats of wonder on reattaching a chicken head before he began his human experimentation but the swelling has gone down, there does not appear to be any sign of infection and she is eating and drinking normally. She is basically back to being a lively little chatter box and begging for treats anytime she hears voices anywhere around her bathroom.

Yes, notice it is now her bathroom. I feel bad because she has to spend so much time in the dog kennel and she really likes to get out and peck at the linoleum but we cannot let her out too often because chicken poop is nasty and I do not want to clean it out of the bathroom floor. Yes, I have considered buying chicken diapers. I said considered, not purchased. I think some of my extended family and in-laws might have me committed if they came over and saw a chicken running loose in a diaper!

For the first two days of her confinement we had lined the dog kennel with newspaper and she was so unsettled and fussy that I was really concerned her head was causing her major pain. Then after changing the newspaper multiple times a day I realized that she was probably more uncomfortable due to the cold metal floor of the dog kennel underfoot and the constantly messy paper than anything else. I stopped at greens and got a fresh bale of straw and Fred rigged it up so cardboard buffers around the outside of the kennel. We did away with the inferior newspaper bedding and put down a nice fluffy layer of straw. She seems much happier and more content now that she can arrange her bedding to her satisfaction and scratch around in it for misplaced raisins.

We had some trouble at first administering her antibiotic. The TMZ-TCP they sent her home with from the emergency clinic is an oral liquid and “dosing” a chicken is much more difficult that dosing a cat or dog. I tried putting it directly in her mouth but attempting to hold her head still without disturbing her stitches was impossible. I read you could put it in their water but I was afraid she wouldn’t get all of it or would get too much one day and not enough the next. I also tried dribbling it on some oats, this method worked slightly better than the others but it made the oats sticky and chickens are not big fans of sticky so I still was not sure she was getting the entire dose. Finally, I hit upon putting it in some kind of porous scrap. For example, last night it was “meatless” loaf, it absorbed into the bread and she gobbled it up. So I think as long as the scraps have some kind of bread or other absorbent food in them she will eat her medicine and be none the wiser.

Which leads me to the only other major hurdle in Helga’s care: her medicine. As I stated in the last blog the emergency clinic does not normally treat birds so they were not only doing us a gigantic favor they also had to patch together some semblance of avian treatment from what are facilities and supplies used normally for only feline and canine patients. They did a great job. However, in the course of her treatment, during her surgery, they gave her an antibiotic injection of Baytril. It is my understanding that Baytril is normally used to treat cats. I was not majorly concerned and we did not intend to eat any eggs Helga laid during her treatment so I really did not think too much about it until Tuesday morning.

I kept my niece all day Tuesday and we spent much time in Helga’s bathroom petting her and talking to her and feeding her snacks and just generally keeping her company. She was very happy to have all the extra attention and my niece, who is twenty months old, was thrilled to once again have a “boc boc” living in the potty. So everyone was happy. During late morning nap time, just as my niece had drifted off to sleep, Helga began to make an awful fuss. A half crow and loud gurgling chatter was coming from the bathroom. Thank goodness my niece is a sound sleeper. I worried that once of the cats had gotten in the bathroom so I left the dishes I had been working on standing in the sink and rushed to check on Helga.

When I got in the bathroom she was standing off to the side of her makeshift nest and was staring intently at what, from the doorway, appeared to be a broken egg. As I got closer I realized that it was not broken so much as it just was not all there. In her nest was a gelatinous mess, it looked like the white part of the egg with no yolk and half of a mushy ill formed shell. It was like a soft rounded edge cup with little flecks of egg shell attached.

Now, remember, on Monday even after all the trauma she had laid a small normal shaped if slightly discolored eggs, so this monstrosity really concerned me. I had spent most of my free time through the week on backyardchickens.com trying to read through the help forums to see if anyone else had ever dealt with any similar situation. In the process of sifting through the copious amounts of information on their site I had scared myself to death reading about chickens that are egg bound, prolapsed, have passed ovaries and a myriad of other egg laying related horrors. So one can imagine this little mutant egg terrified me.

I called our regular vet, Dr. Stephenson at Good Shepherd, (she and her staff are saints) and explained the situation. I told them the whole store from finding her pecked, to the emergency trip, to the now mutant ovum. Dr. Stephenson was not concerned about the egg itself, she told me that trauma or stress of any kind can disrupt a chicken’s laying cycle and can cause them to stop laying, to lay misshapen or strange eggs. She said after Helga finished her medication she should go back to a normal laying cycle. What did concern her though, were the antibiotics Helga had been given. She told me she did not know if we would ever be able to eat any eggs that Helga lays. She gave me the number to the state vet and told me to call them and explain what had happened.

I called the state and talked to a very nice very sympathetic woman who told me she was the secretary to the vet and that the vet was out of the office for the day. She took down all my information, took notes on Helga’s story and said the vet would call me first thing in the morning. True to their word, I got a call shortly after nine yesterday. The state vet, Dr. Plumly, confirmed what Dr. Stephenson had said about Helga’s egg production but unfortunately she could not give me a definitive answer regarding whether or not we would be able to eat Helga’s eggs. She told me that like humans chickens are born with all the eggs they are ever going to have and so in theory anything the chicken eats or takes could leave traces inside their ovaries.

She said in normal chicken situations, with an antibiotic designed for poultry most recommendations on safety are that one cannot eat the meat or eggs until thirty days after the chicken has finished the medication. Since Helga was treated with an antibiotic intended for another species this was considered an “off-label” use, and while not a incorrect method of treatment it simply means that there may not be studies regarding the safety of Helga’s eggs for consumption after being given this antibiotic. She advised me that it is the responsibility of the treating veterinarian from the emergency clinic to give me a decisive answer on the matter. That would be Dr. Chase, to whom we will be eternally grateful even if Helga has to live the rest of her life in our bathroom, just for treating and saving our pet. I have yet to be able to get in touch with Dr. Chase and actually as soon as I finish typing this blog I will call the emergency clinic. They keep weird hours because they are open when normal vets are closed.

Dr. Plumly also brought up another concern, which had crossed our mind but we had yet to dwell on, and that is how exactly we will reintroduce Helga into the flock. In the backyard chicken forum others had expressed the same concern. I am not entirely sure. I really do not think Mama is “out to get” Helga, in fact I believe she is mourning her now. She has not laid any eggs since Sunday. I think she believes the nest box she sleeps in to be hers and was probably ready to lay her own egg when Helga was sitting on it and simply flew into a rage trying to claim her spot and just murderously pecked at Helga’s head in a violent attempt to get her off the nest she felt was her own.

I guess if we can never again consume Helga’s eggs it will solve both the problem of reintroduction and the problem of the nest box in one fail swoop. We will have to build Helga her own coop. I told Fred she will just have to be our porch chicken if that is the case and we will build a small coop up on the porch for her with a separate roost and nesting box. I would really hate that because I do not know how we would isolate her from the rest of the flock without keeping her penned all the time. Chickens are such social little animals I would hate for her to not be able to stay with the others. Oh well, I guess we will cross that bridge when we get there.

I am guessing that all in all the dose of Baytril she was given was a single use and it was such a minute amount that I cannot fathom it will eternally effect the safety of her eggs. I mean good grief; I have seen what chickens are given and what is done to eggs in commercial production. I do not think this one time single dose of antibiotics is going to render her eggs inedible forever but I hope to find out an authoritative answer today. I am much more concerned with Helga’s immediate health and with her reintegration into the sisterhood of the backyard chickens then I am with the long term edibility of her eggs for now.


In other news: I was accepted into the Master Gardening course and was granted a reduced tuition of fifteen dollars because I was loaned the book from a fellow beekeeper. I am very grateful to both the book owner and the WVU Extension Service for making it possible for me to participate in the program. That said, I may be in over my head. The first night’s lecture was on botany. BOTANY. By the end of the three hour class I felt significantly older and less intelligent. I was never the best science student in high school and as you can imagine I have been out of high school for many years.

I really hope I have not gotten in over my head. I, in reality, need to complete this course not only to participate in the program but to help Fred and I in our homesteading endeavors. We really hope by this time next year to have raised most all of our own food and I would rather go into the planting aspect of gardening with as much solid knowledge as possible instead of the hit and miss, learn as you go style in which we have approached everything up to this point. The book is five inches thick and I get the distinct feeling that everyone else in the class has some history personal experience like having been Eagle Scouts or the female equivalent. They seem to be able to identify the plant species by a two inch blurry black and white picture on a handout while I struggle to take notes and remain on the correct page.

In my defense I was still under an intense amount of stress on Monday evening so I am hoping, with some diligent studying, by next Monday I will be better prepared and able to hold my own at least through the question/quiz portion of the class that will surely consist of lots of Latin and scientific terminology. I wonder if my blank stare gives me away?

Much love,
thank you for reading
and thank you for praying (especially for Franken-chicken aka: Helga),


Monday, September 13, 2010

Heartbreak and Hope

This has not been a great weekend and before anyone sends me any jeering email or criticizes how we spend the precious little money we have or before anyone decides to use this incident to point out how Fred and I just do not have what it takes to run even a small backyard farm, I just want you to know you cannot say anything to us that we have not already beat ourselves up with. I assure you that my paternal grandmother is probably rolling over in her grave at what she would consider; yesterday’s frivolous waste of what probably should have been the car insurance money. Whatever, my only defense is this: our flock of half a dozen laying birds are pets. To our family they are actually more than pets, they represent our small successes our struggles and our fervent desire to thrive and be self sustaining. That being said I know that what we did will be a onetime frivolity and that next time we will have to “man-up” and do the more fiscally responsible thing.

As everyone who follows this blog knows; the last few weeks have been disappointing at best. We found our honey supers to be empty, we found fifteen of our eggs ruined under the pine tree and in turn we learned that our hens had decided the nesting box was no longer to their liking. Well we can add yesterday’s horror to the list of failures and disappointments.

Helga, my favorite little underdog of the chicken world, has recently begun to lay her first eggs. They have been a mismatched assortment of different sizes and different numbers of yolks. She left them in different nests and under multiple trees. It was kind of funny if not frustrating although after yesterday’s incident it takes on a much more sinister tone. At least now I think I realize why she was so desperate to hide her eggs.

Last week one of the things that prompted Fred to believe Helga may have begun to lay was when she showed up one afternoon to beg at the kitchen door with a small bloody spot on the back of her head. Fred thought if she had begun to lay momma might feel threatened and probably gave her a sound peck at some point. We doctored the little eighth-of–an-inch wound with peroxide and kept an eye on it. It scabbed over nicely and began to heal we assumed this was the end of it. Chickens can sometimes be mean, especially a dominate hen like Momma, especially to each other. I did not worry too much about it, I figured Helga had just got her head in the way of something Mama wanted to eat and Mama had too soundly made her point. I did not know just how wrong I was.

At this juncture, we were still dealing with the problem of finding eggs all over the back yard. We had to do something to get the hens to once again lay in the nesting box. I read a lot of information on the internet and referenced my Encyclopedia of Country Living looking for ways to break the hens of leaving eggs under every tree. Some of the methods were extreme and cruel. Some called for things like housing a hen that refused to lay in the nest box without food or water until she produced an egg in the proper location. This is arcane and wicked. Yes God gave us these animals to use but NOT to abuse.

We chose a less Natzi-esque method of breaking our girls and decided to leave them in the coop every day until early afternoon. We cleaned the coop well and put decoys in each of the nesting boxes to give our girls the right idea. Now, remember, these girls are used to being let out of the confines of their chicken yard as the sun begins to crest the horizon. One seriously would have thought I was individually pulling out their toenails with tweezers they way they fussed through the first couple of mornings of confinement.

“Tough”, I though, “you girls can just sit there until you put those eggs where they belong,” and for a couple of days it worked. Both Friday and Saturday found new warm eggs in the nest boxes before noon, so I would let everyone out and praise them and give them treats. Now, mind you, I continued to feed and water them and give them treats in the yard of the coop I just did not let them out to free-range the back yard until after the eggs were in the nest box. I thought I had hit upon a good compromise and I was once again getting two or three eggs a day. I do not know if this is important or not but I will note it here anyway: both laying hens (Helga and Momma, the RIRs) continued to use only one nesting box even though I clean both and put equal amounts of sweet straw and decoys in each.

Also, I think it is important to realize that our coop is spacious and large with a good sized yard (more square footage than necessary per chicken) and two nesting boxes for six chickens only two of which are actually mature enough to lay. In theory and according to everything I had read this should be ample space in which to raise the chickens in total confinement. But, like I have said before, these girls are our pets, we want them to be happy as much as we want their eggs and we enjoy having them free-range through our back yard.

I though all was good. I thought we had solved our problem of the wandering eggs. I had just begun to think about how long I would need to keep them confined each day before they realized that if they would just return and put their eggs in the nesting box I would again let them out at dawn. I was actually wresting with this Pavlovian conundrum driving home from church Sunday morning when I got back into cell service and found I had both a voicemail and a text from Fred. He had stayed home from church.

The voice mail told me to stop at the dollar store and get cat food and Bactine. The text just said BACTINE in all capital letters. I sighed figuring Fred or Sarah had stubbed a toe or some such nonsense and, instead of walking the quarter mile to the dollar store, was insistent that I make a special trip to get it. I will not lie, I was considering ignoring the voice mail and cruising past the dollar store. It had not been the best morning and I was actually considering not going home at all and treating myself to an afternoon movie. Fred and Sarah were both home, I figured for one afternoon they could take care of themselves. About the time I was contemplating these selfish thoughts my phone rang and it was Fred again;

“Where are you?” he said.

“I’m crossing the Big Chimney bridge. I’m almost home, I’ll stop at the dollar store.” I said as my afternoon of indulgences dissolved in the mist.

“Never mind, I’m at the dollar store now,” he said, “Just get home quickly.”

“What is wrong?!” at this point his tone and urgency had me worried,” Are you hurt?”

“No. I can’t tell you now, I will tell you at home. I have to get off here and get what I need.” He urged.

“Ok.” And we hung up.

As you can imagine at this point I am panicked and my mind began to swim with any number of atrocities, but how much could you really fix with a bottle of Bactine I wondered? I consoled myself with the thought that surely if he or Sarah or one of my animals was hurt that badly they would already be at the doctor, right? Wrong. Even so, I raced home driving 119 like a woman possessed I tore into the driveway throwing gravel into the yard and raced up the front steps banging into the house.

“Sarah!!” I screamed. She answered in a typical teenage nonchalance. I got a half hearted “yeah?” from the directions of the living room/her bedroom area. I asked what was wrong and why daddy was so desperate for Bactine? Was she hurt? Was daddy hurt? She muttered something about no, but one of the chickens had pecked another one.

I raced out the back door barely shutting it in my haste, but I thought: oh good grief Fred has worked himself into a panic over a few missing feathers or something. I called for my flock and they all came barreling out of the underbrush except for Helga, who often tottered in last, but is by far the most lovable of the bunch. As they closed in I looked closely at each one for marks of missing feathers. Everyone seemed fine and then Helga approached. She was walking more slowly than the others and as she got close I saw there was blood running from her head. She staggered a little and made very little noise as I bent down to pick her up.

As I knelt and gathered her in my arms she did not struggle or fuss, she seemed glad of the security and warmth of being held and snuggled down tight under my arm. I looked at the bloody mass of feathers matted to her head and began to examine the wound. From behind the right side of her comb, crossing her scalp and reaching up almost to the vent on the left side of her head her skin had been viciously torn and her skull degloved, scalped. Blood and tissue and bone were clearly visible. I do not really know what Fred thought we would do with a bottle of Bactine and quite frankly I thought I was holding a dying chicken. Fred pulled into the driveway as I was standing their clutching Helga to my chest. She lay still against me only making the occasional clucking-coo.

Fred got out of the truck and asked what I thought we should do. I told him we were not going to fix this with Bactine, I told him that I was not sure it could be fixed at all, and it certainly would not be repaired without sutures. He nodded his head and asked what we should do? I knew what we should do. I knew the merciful thing to do would be to put my hands around her little head and break her neck, thus ending what was surely excruciating pain and not incurring any additional expense over a chicken which, after all, was free.

I also knew I could not do it. Helga, named after my mom’s nickname and by my mom herself, was by far my favorite of the flock, an odd and loving bird who very much liked people, liked to be petted and held, and enjoyed socializing on the porch steps with me in the afternoons. This is my bird who talked the most, who ate from the wildbird feeders and who generally had personality plus. I could not snap her neck anymore than I could walk back in the house and snap the neck of one of my cats or Louie. Now what?

Yep, emergency vet.

It was Sunday afternoon, no veterinarian was open and our only option was to take her to South Charleston to the emergency clinic, that necessary vice of every loving pet owner. I do not know about you, but the thought of having to go down there makes me sick to my stomach. Number one: it is never good, anyone who is there is in a pet crisis of some sort and number two: you can rest assured that it will drain your bank account. Stepping through the locked doors requires you to sign away almost a hundred dollars just for an exam. But , like most other pet owners, I am so thankful they are there. In the night or on the weekends with a sick animal that is more child than pet where else would you turn? I am grateful they provide such a necessary service to stand in the gap of regular care.

We packed Helga into the cat carrier and loaded ourselves into the car for the seemingly endless journey to South Charleston. In hindsight I look back and am thankful for my training in the fire service and EMT fields which does not allow me to instantaneously get sick or panic at a sight as gruesome as poor Helga’s head. I had kept my cool and my resolve until I was sitting in the car with a cat carrier on my lap and a pitiful hurt scared little chicken trying to coo at me and rub my fingers through the bars. I lost it, it was as if she were trying to comfort me.

I put my head down on the carrier and let my guilt and anguish over her suffering run down my face in tears. If I had not kept them in the coop would Mama still have pecked her so cruelly? I know this is probably funny to some of you. I know the thought of a grown woman who has dragged dead bodies out from behind toilets, who has responded to mutilating car accidents, who has been covered in vomit and other bodily fluids sobbing over a chicken who most people would consider dinner must be hysterical. To me it was not.

We arrived at the Emergency vet where a tech took my carrier to the back but explained that they do not treat “exotics” I kept my smarmy tongue in check because I really wanted to scream at her, “just what in you-know-where is exotic about a stinking domestic chicken, it is not a parrot.” But I knew it was not her fault and more importantly I knew I desperately needed these people’s help if Helga was going to live to see tomorrow. I bit my tongue and I guess the anguish on my face made her feel a little more compassionate towards me. She told me that we were lucky, the vet in attendance today had formerly practiced in a clinic where birds and some farm animals were treated and that if they had the proper antibiotics that she would treat Helga. I thanked her and collapsed onto the bench beside Fred.

I could tell the staff of the clinic thought we were nuts. They had probably all just had chicken for lunch and, since they work their every day, they know the expense entailed in a visit to the clinic. I am sure they were wondering what kind of eccentric rich morons would bring a chicken almost thirty miles for an emergency visit. But they kindly did not utter these thoughts they merely took Helga back for the vet to examine. The vet joined us several minutes later and told us again that she did not normal treat birds but that in the past she did have some experience. She was willing to treat Helga and she said she realized from her initial exam that Helga was oddly social and affectionate for a chicken, she said she had never really seen chickens behave like that.

I tearfully explained that she was a pet. Fred went on to tell her that we had recently begun our homesteading endeavors and that we were very attached to our birds. We consider them pets with benefits not just a source of food. She agreed and said that she understood and in her former practice she always enjoyed dealing with the small homestead farmers who treated all their animals with dignity and respect. She said she admired people who take good care of their animals and it was always a much better experience to treat an animal that was loved and well tended than it was to treat one that lived it’s life treated like an inanimate object.

Then she gave us the estimate on Helga’s care. Needless to say you can safely assume it was staggering and we will be feeling the economic effect of it for a while. We signed off on the estimate and she said it would be a while if we wanted to go out and grab a bite to eat or walk around we should. I chose to sit in the waiting room. I know that technically me sitting there praying for a chicken is probably an extremely absurd activity but that is what I did. Fred and Sarah went down the street to get something to drink and then promptly came back to sit the vigil with me.

While we sat there we were privy to the suffering of another small family when three generations waiting stoically for their cat to be put to sleep and then waited again, with tear stained faces, to receive the body of their smallest family member in an undignified cardboard coffin. My heart went out to them but I had very little emotional resource left for empathy. I put my head down on my lap and worried selfishly about my own chicken. I did send up a quick prayer on their behalf but I probably should have offered some words of comfort. I was not in a mental state to comfort anyone.

After several hours in the emergency clinic with eyes swollen, head throbbing and general exhaustion and anxiety taking over my body, the vet techs came out to announce that Helga had done quite well through surgery and that we would soon be able to take her home. I was relieved, although until I actually had my chicken I was not entirely sure of her outcome. Each of the technicians working in the clinic came out in turn to tell us what an interesting and strange bird Helga was. One tech, who raised chickens of her own, said she had never in her life seen a chicken that actually liked to be cuddled and petted. See, I told you Helga was worth saving.

Ok, I know that many of you still may not agree but whatever. Come next pay day when Fred is sick of eating eggs and pinto beans he may too agree that it was not a wise investment. What is done is done and now we once again have a chicken living in our master bathroom. They had to pluck most of the feathers from her head and neck to debrade the wound and to make room for the sutures. She looks distinctly like a guy I saw once who had fallen from a bridge and had his scalp degloved in the process. He had a long scar that went ear to ear and when he turned to the side he had a strange indentation that ran the length of the scar across his head.

Helga will have to live in our bathroom for the next ten to fourteen days until her stitches come out but the good news is, although a little worse for wear with a splitting headache and what promises to be an ugly scar, she should make a full recovery. I can tell you that she is very unhappy with our attempts to give her the necessary antibiotics she is also extremely unhappy with her confinement to a large dog kennel. Fred built her a short perch last night so at least she was able to sleep in relative comfort. I have bombarded her with treats all morning trying to make sure she is as happy as possible. She does not seem to be as bothered by the stitches today as she was last night so hopefully her pain is minimal.

I know that what we did was frivolous and probably not a good decision from a farming stand point. I know that the money we spent to save the life of one laying hen would have bought us countless new ones. I also know that money could have bought us the two nanny goats we want in the spring, or repaired the fireplace that must be fixed before winter, or even have paid for groceries and take out for several weeks, but what I also know is that killing Helga or worse, letting her die of infection and pain would have killed the little bit of hope that is sometimes all that keeps this little homestead running.

I know that in the eyes of many we will be judged and found wanting but I know that as a family unit we did the right thing and yes we consider those birds part of this family unit. I know in the years that follow, and with the many chickens and other forms of livestock that will follow Helga, we will have to grow a tougher skin. I know there will be loss and death and pain and suffering to temper the joy and pleasure and success of our endeavor but yesterday in Helga’s tiny little beating heart and shinny little chicken eyes rested the hope and all that we hold dear in our grasp towards green. I think to have sacrificed her would have killed a part of the spirit of what we are striving towards and ultimately may have been the chink that brought down our dam.

What I do know is that we have patched one more hole in that dam of loss, and although we may not have had the best first year so far, we have made it through. We have made improvements in our lifestyle and we have improved our small patch of earth and we continue, with God’s grace, to push forward. Now we have a scar headed hen as a mascot for our homestead and as an ever present reminder of what is worth the sacrifice of one family may not be worth a ninety-nine cent meal to another. I think that Helga and her story will far out last the meager life span of a chicken. I think she will live on in family lore and hopefully her story will always remind us that sometimes kindness and compassion are worth more than we think especially if they buy you a little more hope.


I was to start my Master Gardener’s course this evening. The money we spent yesterday would have partially been used to pay my class fee. The class fee is supposed to cover the book materials. I was able to obtain a book used from one of my fellow beekeepers who completed the course last year. I put a call in this morning to the extension office to see if I would still have to pay the class fee. If so then the class will probably have to wait till next go round. I will be disappointed but it is worth it to listen to Helga fussing in my bathroom as I type.

Thank you for reading,
Much love (and less judgment),

Thursday, September 9, 2010


I had intended today’s blog to be a sweet little story about a girl (me) and her dog (Louie), guess what? That will have to wait for another time…

Fred and I took an extended camping vacation over the Labor Day weekend and spent some time at Watoga, West Virginia’s largest state park. We had a great time, other than the frigid nighttime temperatures dropping down into the 30’s and the constantly shivering dog. We did a lot of hiking and ate a lot of crappy camp food, drank some really good percolator coffee and were generally glad to get back to our nice mattress and warm quilts after several days in cold damp sleeping bags. All in all we really did have a nice respite from real life. I also took time off from the internet, disappeared from facebook, shut off the cell phone and took a break from the blog.

We left the tending of the homestead to my mom who has graciously stepped up from substitute cat herder to part time chicken farmer. We discussed in great detail, while we traveled, whether or not mom would once again rise to the challenge of part time milkmaid if we invest in our hoped for goat herd next year. I have a creeping suspicion that may be where grandma draws the line. Letting the chickens out in the morning and giving them a few treats before you shut them in at night is a far cry from showing up before dawn to milk a bunch of surly grumpy goats and then repeating the exercise before bed. Oh well, that is still in the somewhat distant future we have real live up to the minute problems to deal with in the here and now.

If you remember a few blogs ago Mama had stopped laying, or so we thought. We were still under the assumption that the other five were too young to lay and after some extensive research we assumed that Mama had merely stopped laying for the season as the days got shorter and the temperatures began to drop. Well apparently, as my daughter would say, we suffered an epic FAIL. Sigh.

Fred has been on me for about the last week insisting that he thinks Helga is going to begin laying at any moment. He said her waddle and comb had filled in completely in the last few weeks and that her bottom had widened out and she was developing the same fluffy under feathers as Mama. I blew him off. By my calculations Helga would not be due to lay till probably spring. (Oh and yet another FAIL.) This evening as we ate dinner Fred again broached the subject.

“Look how big Helga’s gotten,” he said. I looked out the sliding door where the chickens stand looking pitiful while we eat at the table (and yes if pitiful does not get them any prompt scraps they will resort to terrorizing the dog by pecking at the glass). Yes, she was big, yes, her comb and wattle were totally filled out and bright red. Yes, her butt was extra fluffy and soft looking.

“You know she has been disappearing a lot,” he said. I sighed.

“I think we should go out and walk the fence perimeter and look for eggs,” he pushed. I sighed again and gave in.

We left the dinner dishes on the table and hurried out to look for eggs before the sun began to set. I was almost certain we were not going to find anything but I figured at least if I made a concerted effort Fred would stop badgering me about the eggs. I have heard for days on end now how he would really like to have a “meatless” loaf. “Meatless” loaf is one of my original recipes very much like a traditional meat loaf but with a textured vegetable protein instead of meat. It does have to have an egg to bind it together and since I will not eat or cook with store bought eggs it has been off the menu since Mama stopped laying. So of course it is something my family begs for constantly.

Out we went tramping around the fence line like a scraggly bizarre little parade. Fred and I were in the lead followed by six straggling chickens that were followed by one scruffy dog. This was not the first time I was thankful our neighbors never cut their grass. At least no one from the road could see us getting down on our hands and knees and searching through the brush. We walked the entire fence line and found nothing I was starting to feel vindicated but figured we should check under the pine trees that dot our yard just to be sure.

We looked under the first tree and found a false alarm. What looked to be a pterodactyl size egg was actually a whiffle ball long ago forgotten and abandoned by the kids. I breathed a sigh of relief I was sure that I had miss counted and obviously had a dead chicken corpse somewhere if any of them had managed to pass anything that size. We moved on to the next tree. As we circled the base and tried to get a good look through the branches Helga began to put up quite a fuss, dancing around my feet and clucking and carrying on like a wild thing. I shushed her and bent down to pet her right about the time that Fred shouted “I SEE THEM!”

He saw them all right, all fifteen of them, in all their oval, creamy-brown glory. I could have cried. Not only were their fifteen eggs laying there that we could not eat (it is impossible to tell how long each one had been laying in the makeshift nest) but now I have at least one chicken, and more likely two, to break of laying outside the nesting box. I cannot even begin to tell you how frustrating a task this promises to be.

I am really baffled as to why Mama, who had religiously laid her daily egg in the nesting box would now choose to go and lay them under a tree? Did she see Helga do it and decide it was too long a walk back to the coop and up the ramp? Was her nesting box suddenly unsatisfactory? Was she afraid she was going to miss some excitement in the chicken world? I suspect that she was annoyed with us opening the nesting box too frequently and decided to create for herself a more private egg-laying experience. I really do not know all I know for sure is that there were fifteen eggs under the tree which also leads me to believe that Fred was correct and that Helga too is laying. I will have to go back and do the exact math when I figure out which day I collected the last egg from the box.

We gathered up the fifteen orbs and marched over the bank to the river’s edge where Fred unceremoniously hurled them into the Elk. We originally started to throw them over the creek bank but we were afraid that this might attract raccoon or some other egg lover who would in turn begin to haunt our coop. Again, I found myself wanting to cry. I know they are only a few dollars worth of eggs. It was not so much the loss of the actual eggs themselves as it was the disappointment in once again being thwarted on the homestead. I am learning to take the little disappointments in stride but sometimes it is just frustrating. The victories are sweet the defeats are razor sharp.

But like most things in our green endeavors there is no time to cry over spilt milk or, in this case, cracked eggs. I had to put my big girl panties on and suck it up. We decided that as of tomorrow we cannot let the chickens out to free range until there are eggs in the nesting box. Fred and I got out our dust masks and the wheelbarrow to hurriedly clean the coop out and make the nesting boxes as inviting as possible. We laid down a fresh bundle of pine shavings in the main coop and lined the nesting boxes with a thick layer of fresh sweet smelling straw. I shaped the straw to look like a nest and I took two of the fifteen back in the house to paint black lines on them. We decided to do this so we could use them as decoys. Our hope is any laying hen would recognize that eggs go in the nesting box, but they are chickens, and sometimes they need a little extra help.

As I was walking back to the coop with the blackballed decoys I looked over under one of the smaller pines and admired the dappled sunlight streaming through its branches and illuminating…what!??! Another egg. At this point I think I really could have lost it. There sparkling in the sun was one perfect, huge, lustrous, giant, speckled egg. I ran over to the tree and dropped to my knees, mocked by the gleaming shell. I looked under the tree from every angle but, as best I could determine, that lone ranger was flying solo. I think that probably further confirms Fred’s suspicions that Helga too has begun to lay. This egg was disproportionately larger than the others (although not the size of a whiffle ball) and had a strange shell which was mostly white and flecked with brown bits, it almost looked like beautifully handmade pressed paper.

Lots of the chicken books and articles we have read state that the first few eggs a chicken lays when she reaches maturity will often be extremely large, double yoked or misshapen. It is almost as if their bodies are not quite sure they have the hang of it and have to squeeze out a few test runs before they get down to business, whatever the reason, that egg stood alone in under the small pine.

We finished up with the coop with half a dozen of unbelievably curious and innocent acting chickens milling about our feet trying to see what we were doing and pecking at our toes vying for a treat. I scolded and lectured and grumbled but all it got me was that curious side gaze and a look of utter astonishment “who me?” they all seem to say. As if none of them would be caught laying eggs anywhere but the nesting box. How indecent! Really, to accuse an innocent chicken of such malicious behavior, I should be ashamed. Obviously I was off my nut and some rouge chicken has been sneaking into my yard and leaving their illegitimate egg clutch behind to incriminate my girls.

Helga even went so far as to drink from the indoor waterers (you remember the one designed for gerbils) as if to say “Look at me, look how smart I am! I know a trick, now give me a treat!” I was so exasperated I even threatened her with the stew pot. She answered my idle vegetarian threats by walking over and soundly pecking me on the toe. Sometimes not even the chickens respect me.

Well the game plan for tomorrow then is indefinite chicken imprisonment, wrongfully accused or not, everyone stays in the coop until someone produces an egg, preferably in the nesting box. We will see how long I can hold out. Helga usually begins screaming to be let out at first light. I wonder if I will get any complaints from the neighbors. I intend to feed them at the regular time and give them lots of treats just not let them out until I have an egg. I guess we will see. Who will win the battle of wills? Chicken or chicken-keeper? Stay tuned.

Much Love & thank you for reading,