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

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

As the Homestead Turns

I have been sorely reprimanded by Fred for my irresponsible blogging but I will plead my absentee updates on an unbelievably hectic schedule including vacations, harvesting, canning, driving school and back to school preparations. Disclaimer applied. I have some wonderful news and a funny story to tell. So sit back and grab some ice tea.

Remember Autumn-chicken’s untimely demise from my last entry? Well as should be expected things are not always as they seem in the world of homesteading. I should know this by now. Bare with me as I will pick up the tale where I left off: I had gone to the DNR to obtain the trap. It was a smallish contraption and, although sturdy, it did not inspire a lot of coyote catching optimism. It would probably have held a neighborhood cat, maybe a small terrier, maybe (and that is a big maybe) a small to medium-ish raccoon.

On the first night of our epic homestead battle Fred and I diligently baited the trap with a can of kipper snacks. We had previously been warned about the wiles of the coyote (we both grew up watching cartoons) and we thought ahead to wire the snack to the trap to avoid our nemesis using some Acme tool to alleviate us of our bait. Fred positioned the trap outside our fence but close to the coop and the creek. We figured our culprit was coming down the deer path to the river and would be intercepted by the enticing aroma of fish snacks rotting in the heat, barf.

Fred brought home my shells and I positioned myself inside the yard within visual range of the trap location and the coop. I had my back to the house and figured I would sit very still and “drop me” a coyote as soon as he poked his head over the fence. Fred has some trepidation as to me a) accidentally shooting a neighbors dog, b) my inability to kill anything remotely pathetic or sad-looking and c) the very real possibility that in my murderous wildlife rage I might accidentally shoot Fred! Tee hee. I assured him that while my marksmanship probably would not win any awards, I was perfectly capable of shooting the broad side of a barn or a coyote within a relatively close distance and of discerning the distance between said coyote and my beloved hubby.

I put the chickens up a little early and waited. I sat until full dark, nothing. I sighed, checked the coop door and headed in for another sleepless night of worry. I put the gun close to the door.

After I packed Fred off to work the next morning I headed out to check the trap. Now let me say, Fred had asked me (forcefully) to wait until he got home to check the trap. I think it was probably a combination of the fact that he placed the trap in a densely thicketed area of our property, the inaccessibility of that corner and either the fact that he thought I might bludgeon the villain to death with my broom or the fact that he thought my years of animal rescue would get the better of me and I would let the killer go free. I told him I would think about it, which clearly meant as soon as he was out of the driveway and the sun was up I headed out. Before I went to check the traps I did a morning head count of the girls, still five. No one had disappeared in the night but no one had miraculously returned either.

I prepared to face the enemy. Donning my armor, which consisted of long sleeves, long pants, a hat, boots, gloves a machete and a shotgun, I headed into battle. Not only was I concerned about the rabid little monster rapidly growing in my imagination attacking me with dripping gums but I did not want to come home covered in ticks either. I looped the machete in my pants, to cut through the undergrowth, and I loaded the shotgun. It was barely light so it was around 7:00am and I had to go all the way up to the railroad bed, within sight of the hard road, to cross around behind the fence. I think I may have startled more than one morning commuter with my militia-chic look. I crossed the creek bed and clamored up the hill side, by the time I had neared the trap my imagination had worked me into such a frenzy I am surprised I did not manage to Barney Fife my own foot.

I pushed toward the trap, slightly sick to my stomach with my heart pounding in my ears. Could I really shoot it? What if it was a coon and not a coyote? I was definitely mad enough to shoot a coyote, but not only was I not sure I could off a fuzzy raccoon, according to the DNR legally I could not shoot a raccoon. I would have to transport it to a public land or take to private property with permission of the land owner. Who was going to let me release a coon on their property? Get real. Nobody wants one of those little garbage mauling machines in their back yards! I do not care how cute they are with their little hand and bandit masks. I knew a raccoon would mean a trip to Kananwha State Forest dressed like Rambo's homeless ex girlfriend.

As you can imagine I did a lot of sighing to myself as I trekked across the creek bed. I finally fought my way through to the trap only to find the it sprung and lighter by exactly the contents of one kipper snack can. Cue more heavy sighing. Now what? I thought as I stared at the licked-clean-and-still-tightly-wired-to-the-trap can. I mashed my way through the brush back to the house where I peeled off my costume and promptly banished Louie to the back yard with serious admonishments about how he was to dog-up and protect the flock. Eye roll. He spent the entire day throwing his body weight against the sliding glass door and barking himself hoarse to get back inside. I took a small amount of comfort in the level of commotion he created figuring, although it would win me no neighborhood popularity contests, it would, hopefully, scare off any impending doom in the form of four (or two) legged beasties.

I spent a lot of that third day of the ordeal considering my other trapping/hunting options. Obviously, something had come to eat the bait and that something was big enough that when they sprung the trap it would not close all the way. They could eat the stinky buffet and back their fat self out to freedom. I wondered if I and the shotgun should spend the night in the chicken coop? Should I buy a bigger trap? The DNR only had one size available. Should we bait the trap again? I tell you, the most frustrating aspect of the whole thing was just not knowing what we were up against. It is hard to fight an invisible enemy. How does one set a trap for an unknown foe?

Fred came home from work and we decided to bait the trap again and press our luck. He tried new, and even more disgusting, bait in the form of a kipper snacks and peanut butter combo which he stirred together and smeared on the actual trap itself, hoping to lure our nemesis deeply enough into the bowels of the trap to alleviate them of their freedom. We repeated the previous nights shenanigans which included putting all the girls (and Elvis) to bed early and me sitting with the shot gun until I had become anemic from acting as a mosquito buffet and it was too dark to see. Still no evil villain with glowing read eyes and slobbering jowls approached. I went to bed that third night and slept a dreamless sleep. I was too exhausted to even toss and turn.

The next morning found Louie once again banished to the yard and me gearing up to check the trap. Again, everyone was accounted for except poor little Autumn-chicken. This being the fourth day of her absence, my belief in her untimely demise had been solidified. The trap was once again empty. We were not winning this battle. I left Louie out in the chicken yard anyway and continued my day's chores with frequent trips to check on the flock.

Fred came home late that afternoon and went outside to do a few chores. I was standing in the kitchen when I heard him yell for me. Oh great, I thought, here we go again. I grabbed for the gun and went running out the door. He stood just off the porch with some stale bread, surrounded by chickens and said to me,

"How many chickens do you see?"

I looked down around his legs and counted five chickens. Five, that is how many there were that morning when I let them out.

"Five, what is your point?" I said my heart thundering loudly from the sudden adrenaline and my feet filthy from running through poop.

"Um, honey," he patiently chastised, "there are FOUR black chickens and ONE red one!"

My mouth fell open as I counted again. Then I panicked. Where was Helga?! She was no where to be seen. I ran into the yard barefoot and for the second time that week began screaming for a chicken at the top of my lungs. False alarm. Apparently, Helga had been off on some kind of chicken adventure around the building and, as soon as she heard my panic, began tearing towards me with the same breakneck insanity I was exhibiting. Relieved, I looked back at Fred and recounted. Sure enough, Autumn-chicken was back. There were once again six chickens in my yard four black and two red.

We stopped what we were doing and lifted up prayers of thanksgiving for the miraculous return of our bird. We put all the ladies (and Elvis ) to bed and then we began to try and puzzle out Autumn-chicken's great adventure. Where had she gone? How did she get home? She appeared unscathed but had she been abducted by aliens? I started calling everyone who I had alarmed/annoyed with the original Amber Alert. Everyone had a theory on Autumn-chicken's absence.

My dad insisted she had been chicken-napped and returned. I could not really picture it but when I questioned him as to why someone would merely kidnap her for a couple of days and then bring her back unharmed he informed me that their guilt, coupled with the fact that she was not a great layer, compelled them to return her to the yard.

I poked about a million holes in his theory but he stuck to his guns. In fact he repeated this obvious rationale to me so often I began to give it some credence. Maybe there was some pervert sneaking around molesting chickens? I mean really, not even a week before on the news some freak high on "bath-salts" kidnapped his neighbors goat and murdered it while dressed in women's underwear. So maybe dad was not too far off. Maybe some drug addicted redneck stole my chicken for some nefarious reason and then, struck by their latent Baptist guilt, felt the overwhelming alter-call of returning her unharmed? Maybe. I mean I spend all day on a homestead, mostly by myself, after a while I can start to believe anything.

Mom put forth a slightly more believable theory. She suggested that Autumn-chicken in fact had a boyfriend and had hopped the fence and gone off on a lover's weekend. This would seem far fetched except several days before her disappearance I had spotted a handsome Bandy rooster strutting his way across our local Dairy Queen parking lot. (These things happen in West Virginia) But how did she get back, I wanted to know. And how did she get over the fence with clipped wings anyway? And how did she get back in the fence even if she managed to get home of her own accord? It still just did not fit.

In contrast to both these theories I still had to point to the fact that Autumn-chicken was indeed one of the most timid, if not the most timid of the whole flock. Someone could coax Helga out of the yard, I could buy that, but I do not think Autumn-chicken would let anyone other than myself or maybe Fred close enough to grab her. My dad, sticking to his abduction theory, said it was simple: someone offered her a doughnut. Maybe he was right. Those stupid biddies would do anything for sugar coated fried dough. I could only throw my hands up. Heaven knows I did not have any better theories.

Things settled down and we got back into our normal routine. Louie was thrilled to be back in the house and I was thrilled not to have to listen to his constant yelping. That next evening Fred went out to put everyone to bed. He came back in and said,

"Don't get upset, but Autumn-chicken is gone again."

WHAT!? I sprung up out of bed in my night gown and headed into the yard. Where had that chicken gone? Ok, at this point we figured it was pretty obvious she had to be in the yard somewhere. Was she getting into something and getting stuck? Fred and I began to meticulously comb through the yard, inch by inch, we looked like psychotic jammie ninjas, I was starting to believe one of the Candid Camera theories that had been lobbed at me. Maybe my brother and Ashton Kutcher really were hiding somewhere with captive Autumn-chicken, filming us looking for our lost bird.

Finally, as we were about to surrender her to alien abduction once again, Fred noticed a small tear in the chicken wire surrounding the new goose coop addition. When he got down to examine it more closely he realized there were two beady black eyes staring back at him making the unmistakable chortling sound of a broody chicken!

Autumn-chicken had not only managed to go broody and pry her way under the goose coop but she had dug out a lovely chicken shaped trench filled with TWENTY-ONE spoiled eggs. No, I am NOT kidding. Here we thought our flock had been so traumatized by a predator that they had stopped laying when the fact of the matter was they were conspiring against us with Autumn-chicken to hide the eggs, make us look like simpleton greenhorns and give us full fledged anxiety attacks. Really, at that moment I could have put her in the pot. She is seriously lucky I do not eat meat.

All rage and joking aside, I am thrilled to have her home. Although I did suffer some minor embarrassment at the DNR when I returned the trap, overall everyone that works there was helpful and kind and generally just happy that my flock was intact. As am I. They did caution me that there are predators living in our immediate vicinity and just because we had a happy ending this time did not necessarily ensure all our future stories would end so joyously.

This was confirmed for me last night as I stood at the kitchen sink drinking a glass of water and staring at a hawk who had apparently made a failed poaching attempt from my yard. I dropped my glass and ran scream (once again) out the back yard. Flailing my arms like a lunatic I jumped up and down and basically had a conniption-fit (as my mother used to call them) until I was sure my yard was predator free and all of my girls (and Elvis) were present. I know this is the life of a homesteader and yes I understand the importance of predators in our ecosystem but my yard is NOT McDonald's drive through and I will do everything in my power to keep my flock intact.

Much love and thanks for reading!