Tales of a Vashon Farm: a city girl’s SURVIVAL guide

December 2, 2010 § Leave a comment

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(from my Farm Adventures one fine Pacific Northwest summer, part 1)

Day 4 begins late, at 7 am. I wake up in a wash of sheets twisting about me like a cummerbund to the sound of Alpha rooster, crowing. Demanding. I pivot my legs towards the edge of a bed too expansive for One, torpid, limbs propelling me with all the grace of a drunk, half blind as I don pants, shawl, and borrowed boots before stumbling out the porch into a cool, still morning. The gravel crunches and shifts amiably as I head down a gentle curve to the wire boundary of the chicken coop. I unsnap the bungee cord holding the wire gate, then undo the latch and the coop door swings open. 15 pairs of eyes of Gallus Domesticus stare at me in a mix of resentment and abject, instinctual fear. I tip a bowlful of feed, granules bouncing and clinking dryly against the metal base of the feeder before folding in a satisfying swoosh. One by one they step to the edge of the open door, then pop out like parachuters to perform their various morning poultry rituals, insisting on my irrelevance through a careful ignorance.  Except Alpha Rooster – all puffed plumage and self-importance, he shadows me a few steps behind. “Chickens have a charm that will affect even those with no bird experience,” the chicken book claims, and belonging to that category of Persons, I can say that there are few things more charming than being pecked in the back of the leg by machiavellian poultry, after you’ve gotten up at 6 in the morning to free and feed birds. So I don’t turn my back on Alpha, and make sure to wave the short metal bar I carry in warning when he gets too close.This bar swings for thee, my friend. When I finally close the gate between myself and Alpha, Elvis, the black chicken with the bouffant pompadour framing head and the top half of her face, glances in blissful non-involvement, safe in her ignominious perch in the middle of the pecking order. Chickens cluck happily. My job is done.


Chickens are good at ignoring you


Day 4 in the Vashon farm and I find that rather than alone, I inhabit an ebullient universe of 17 chickens, 14 sheep, 2 cats, 1 dog, an 84-year old expert bridge player, and a boy named Brice yielding an ailing but imposing chainsaw. Currently it buzzes outside as I write on the dining table of the Not-So-Big House, a red wooden construction at the back of a property surrounded by trees. There is a long gravel driveway, a chicken coop, a vegetable patch,  house, cottage, treehouse, and my favorite, a freestanding structure of metal arches beneath a semi-transparent plastic skin, resembling some kind of quarantine chamber or the intestinal half of a fictional monster. There’s a toolshed, a hayshed and downslope by the front of the property, a fenced-in pasture where tri-colored sheep roam and moan, sending sullen calls up the hill to the house, where I type. In total, 36 souls, 6 buildings and dozens of plans entrusted to my care and administration, which for better or worse is peppered with furious skims through books with uplifting titles such as “Living with Chickens“, or “Storey’s Guide to Raising Sheep“, and periodic moments of reflection where I carefully ask myself, “Now, in this situation, what would Old MacDonald/the Dog Whisperer/the folks at Homes and Gardens do? I am pleased to report that on day 4, no casualties yet to report, though the chicken compound design has proven to provide less than optimal security: chickens make their regular escape by catapulting from the roof of their coop over the fence, and currently two emancipated hens make the rounds through the property, a bit bewildered in their newfound freedom

Hay. One cannot underestimate the importance of hay in the lives of sheep (aka Ovis Aries). Having exhausted local natural resources through their constant graze (and apparently bereft of the problem-solving skills of chickens), the sheep parade in their round enclosure, sending periodic Baaahs! towards me which can be roughly and confidently translated as “Haaay! Haaaay!” Without instructions on how much to feed them, I faced my first bale of hay for the first time in my natural life 2 days ago. With the mathematical precision of the Truly Ignorant, I stared at the partial bale of hale left on the loft above me and through reverse engineering, surmised a rough quantity, spread it on ground by the hay shed, and observed as the wooly mishapen heads of sheep swarmed forward, zealously edging each other to select and discard bits of hay with a logic mysterious to me. Quickly dismantling piles to a thin carpet that they stood and then relieved themselves upon, I assumed satisfaction by their waste and walked away, only to be faced by a delegation of protesters standing by the gate later in the afternoon. My math apparently wrong, I surrendered more hay, only to watch them disperse, discard, and then soil the fresh hay with the same seeming senselesness as before. And still they Baaaeed (past tense). Now, why they should bury through mounds, fight for some bits while liberally dousing pebbles of crap on other equally fresh hay…. the answer to this burning question eludes my search through my sheep book. For now, the urbanite in me chooses to interpret it as a larger metaphor — here is a species, somewhat roundish, ravenous and perpetually consuming, assigning unreasonable arbitrary value to some things while forsaking others in an endless cycle of waste and unsustainable dependency… perhaps not only some men are sheep, but sheep are the humans of the animal world. Uneasily (and surprisingly), thoughts such as these lead me to conclude that maybe, just maybe, if I had to come back as a non-primate, I’d have to choose a chicken.

"I know I'm cute and fuzzy. Now where's the hay?"

Sheep are of course cuter, fuzzier, anthropomorphically comforting, and as mammals closer relatives to us than something with a beak and frankly gnarly feet. But chickens, I am informed, are “very social and like to spend their days together, scratching for food, cleaning themselves in dust baths, roosting in trees, and lying in the sun.” Take out the roosting in trees, add in the desire for a pecking order, and it describes many people I know. Also, chickens apparently “comprehend cause-and-effect relationships and understand that objects still exist even after they are hidden from view. This puts the cognitive abilities of chickens above those of small human children.” Now a failure to grasp cause-and-effect is something, I’m sad to report, that also describes some people I know (many of them adults), which puts them in an awkward position relative to poultry.

But I digress. In the end, in these days of feeding, it seems the habits of chicken so far surpass those of sheep, and if life on a farm should teach one anything, is how to manage natural resources, to bring forth and multiply, hopefully without a substantial subsidy from the federal government.  But before turning this into a nasty contest not unlike a blue state-red state standoff, I’ll leave you instead with the wish that All beings be happy (at least moderately so), as I sign off from my roosting perch on Vashon Island, Washington.

Pomo chicken enjoying a cigarette. Yes, I drew it myself, and I'm not ashamed.


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