Monday, May 24, 2010

Farewell, Batgirl!

Batgirl - around 3 weeks old

Batgirl (Barred Rock in background) last summer

My very favorite chicken died yesterday. I was stunned; am still stunned. She showed no signs of ill health and was frisky that morning. When I went out to give them their morning greens and fresh water, she pecked at my jeans like she often does so I would pick her up. She only tolerates a few seconds of petting; then she wants to be free. But she seems to want just that little bit of attention.

When I went out in the afternoon, she was lying on her side in the pen, beak tucked into her breast. The other two were hanging out in the side pen, as far away from the corpse as they could get. I couldn’t even go into the pen. I ran back to the house calling for Rick. He checked her and confirmed what I knew; she was definitely dead; stiff as a board. My neighbor who grew up on a farm suggested it was the sudden heat that did her in. After a spell of cooler-than-usual spring weather, it suddenly got hot, with a high of 88 frickin’ degrees yesterday.

I guess I didn’t think carefully enough about how to protect them in these conditions. There are trees on either side of their pen, so they get lots of shade and had plenty of water. But apparently that wasn’t enough. Today I’ve been supplying the remaining two with ice-filled plastic containers they can cool off next to, ice in their waterer, and tomatoes and cucumber. Hopefully, all of that will keep them reasonably cool and hydrated.

Batgirl was the first chicken to ever touch my heart; heck, the first animal to do so. At 52 years old, I never had any pet or livestock before these chickens. How do they cluck their way into your heart? I don’t know; she just did.

Things I loved about Batgirl (in no particular order):

• I loved how she always tried to escape and be free. She’s a major reason I want to move somewhere with more land. I want to give my chickens lots more space to roam and play. Batgirl was our best escape artist – sneaking under netting, flying over it, nimbly flitting past me when I opened the door to their tractor or pen. I silently cheered her every time she made it through.

• I loved how when she escaped by flying over the temporary netting I’d put up in the yard, she’d come over to where I was working in the garden and stay next to me, scratching in the soil alongside me.

• I loved how she was always the bravest and first to try anything new. Like when she was just a couple weeks old and we put a low roost in the brooder. She investigated the new item immediately, hopped up on it, and tried to walk along it like a balance beam. She looked like a little toddler, unsteady on her feet and was adorable when she fell off.

Or when we started taking the 5 week old chicks outside. We’d put a smaller box with chicken wire over the top and a drop down door cut into it inside their brooder and try to get them to walk in. Then we’d close the door and carry them outside in the box. While the others resisted walking into that box, she’d brazenly march right in. Of course, she crapped immediately and panicked when we shut the door, but once we got her outside, she had a great time.

• I loved her independence. Although she didn’t stray too far from the group, she liked to keep a little distance between herself and the other hens. She was happy off doing something else by herself.

• I loved how she would pout when something didn’t go her way. She’d turn her back on you and take a few hops in the opposite direction. Sometimes she’d even turn back, look at you again, and take a couple more hops. Just to make sure you got the message. She stayed mad at Rick for about a week in winter when, against her will, he put bag balm on her comb to prevent frostbite. She really hated that indignity.

• Her latest funny thing: whenever I’d transfer them from pen to tractor, she wouldn’t go. The other two would run obediently from one place to the next, but she’d just stand there, looking at me and making some kind of mewling sound. It’s hard to describe – it wasn’t the clucking sound they make when they’re contentedly digging. But there she’d wait, at the door of the pen, for me to pick her up, pet her once or twice, which was all she could take, and then put her in the tractor. Why she had to have me physically move her, I do not know. I guess she just wanted a little attention.

Unlike the other hens, she really seemed like she wanted to interact somehow, if just for a few moments. The first time she pecked at my clothes, I freaked out for a second. Then I realized she wasn’t being aggressive, and maybe just wanted attention. In winter, when I’d give them their greens in the morning, she’d peck at my coat pocket, wanting me to bring out the little bag of cracked corn she knew I’d have. Unlike the others, she loved that corn more than greens (and they all love their greens). Other times, she’d just peck at my jeans a couple of times. When I’d turn to her, she seemed to look right at me, like she wanted to communicate.

Probably I’m imagining it, or reading too much into her little chicken behaviors. But I feel that somewhere in there a little spark connected her little chicken soul to mine. Farewell, little Batgirl. I miss you so much.

Friday, May 21, 2010

Catching Up

We’ve been so busy preparing the house to go on the market that I’ve neglected this blog. I really miss it, too. I enjoy writing it, but also think I need it for my mental health! I even sleep better when I’m writing regularly. But we’re done with the hard labor, having our first open house on Sunday, and I’ve got a backlog of ideas for posts. The first is a quick “catching up” entry.

Happy Hatch Day!
I meant to do a special post for the chickens’ first hatch day, and somehow let it slip by! I got them as day-old chicks on May 12th last year, so as far as I can tell, they were hatched on May 11th. What an interesting year it’s been. I’ve gone from being someone who never had or wanted any pet or livestock, who was a bigger “chicken” even than the chickens, easily spooked by their sudden movements and fearful of picking them up, to someone entirely comfortable handling them and fairly knowledgeable about their care.

I planned to experiment with putting up videos using one of them as baby chicks and one I just took the other day. However, I can’t find the baby chicks video. Now that I think about it, I’m pretty sure I deleted it one day out of embarrassment. I was talking away to the little chicks on it. Now I’ve really gone over to the other side and don’t care what people think about me talking to the chickens.

So here is a still photo of the baby chicks, followed by a video taken a few days ago of the girls all grown up. (The photo was taken when we still had the ten chicks. When they were two weeks old, I gave six away because we’re only allowed to have four in the city.)

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Current state of the Garden

Look at these cherries – aren’t they gorgeous!!! I’m lucky they’re still so beautifully healthy. According to the books, I should have sprayed by now. But my preferred fruit tree pest control product, Surround (kaolin clay) isn’t locally available. I called everywhere I could think of and most didn’t even know what it is. One sales person, assuming I didn’t understand what I was asking for, patiently explained that they didn’t carry it because customers didn’t like the look of it! Isn’t that the American way – style over substance? It’s true that covering your lovely trees with a fine mist of white clay is less visually appealing than glossy green leaves, but hey, I’d rather do that than eat chemical pesticides.

The only way to get it is to order it online, and it’s clay – it’s heavy - the shipping costs almost as much as the product. The smallest quantity I could get was 25 pounds, which will last years and years with just a small number of trees. But I took a deep gulp and finally ordered some because before we move, I really, REALLY want to taste at least a few cherries off those trees we have worked so hard to nurture. We should probably go all out and have some champagne with those cherries – they’re going to be the most expensive ones we’ve ever eaten!

The strawberry plants are loaded with fruit, as are the blueberries, and the raspberries are covered with flower buds. Tonight I’m planting out my tomatoes, sweet potatoes, peppers, cilantro, parsley, basil, and eggplant. I’ll put up some photos afterwards.

The “It’s for Everyone” Argument and Social Control
The other night I was flipping channels before going to sleep and found the 1975 film One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest playing on TCM. Of course, I had to stay up late and watch it all the way through. It’s an amazing film. On one level, it’s about institutional control over individuals and crushing the human spirit. Jack Nicholson’s character, Randle McMurphy, opts for a mental institution to get himself out of a hard labor prison sentence. But he finds himself in a new kind of prison.

Anyway, the incident relevant to this post occurs when rebel McMurphy politely asks during group therapy session whether the work schedule might be changed to allow the men to watch a World Series game. Nurse Ratched explains in her calm, controlled, and steely manner, that a lot of thought is put into the schedule, that changing it may be upsetting to some patients. The schedule, like the constant anesthetizing music, she says, is for all the men on the ward. But she offers a vote on the matter, confident that the men are too cowed by her to side with McMurphy.

The vote fails, but on a subsequent day, Cheswick, who voted with McMurphy, asks for another vote. Irritated, Ratched reminds Cheswick that they had a vote. Cheswick presses the issue, pointing out that there is another game on today. Ratched allows the vote; this time all the men vote with a jubilant McMurphy.

Ratched looks around the group at calmly before telling McMurphy, “I see only 9 votes. There are 18 men on this ward.” The other nine she refers to are too out of it to even participate in the group therapy sessions or understand that a vote is taking place. They orbit around the dayroom, lost in their own worlds. McMurphy later complains to the doctors that Nurse Ratched “likes a rigged game.”

I woke up the next morning thinking about how the argument that the schedule could not be changed because it was for everyone was like the argument that we can not have a community garden in the park because the park is for everyone. It’s an argument that seems, on the surface, like ethically based opposition to changes in the system. We are looking out for everyone. You are asking for changes that will only benefit you. Don’t you see how unreasonable and selfish that is? Democratic rituals and phrases are used to uphold the system and enforce control. You are the crazy one, if you don’t see and appreciate the fairness and rationality of the system. I’m still thinking through the full implications of the analogy.

Thursday, May 6, 2010

It Takes a Community

Yesterday I wrote my report on the neighborhood garden survey. I’d been putting it off – I’m not sure why. Maybe because it represents closure for me. Once I had it finished, it was like a great weight had been lifted – and not just because I had one more task off my desk. It’s the weight that is lifted when you make a big decision and are ready to move forward.

For us, that decision is to sell our house and move someplace where we can have a little more land. In some ways it was a difficult decision, especially now that we are finally going to enjoy the fruits of some of our labors. The first cherries are forming on our trees, the blueberry shrubs are covered with blossoms, and our best strawberry crop yet is coming along beautifully.

I never wanted to live out in the country, and wrote a post about that last summer. (You can read it here.) I like living in the city and hoped to emulate the Dervaes family by packing as much edible landscaping into a city lot as possible. When the opportunity arose last winter for an “urban orchard” in our neighborhood, I was thrilled! Here was yet another way to stay in the city, and expand the land available for food crops. Plus, I’d get to meet more of my neighbors.

I’m a believer in the value of community – of looking out for one another, working together, and helping each other in times of need. That was the kind of neighborhood where I grew up, back in Illinois in the late 1960s and early 1970s. The fathers in our neighborhood were skilled blue collar workers. When someone wanted to pour a driveway, the masons among them would lead a group to accomplish the work. When toilets or other plumbing malfunctioned, they’d call on the neighbor behind us, who earned his living at that trade. When anyone had electrical problems, they’d call on my dad, a proud member of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW).

In this way, these blue collar families could afford to keep a wife out of the labor force and maintain attractive homes. It was a multi-ethnic neighborhood, but with a common religion, as most were practicing Catholics. When First Communion or confirmation rites occurred, there were usually a number of children going through the ritual. Mothers in the neighborhood would plan communal celebrations which I mainly remember because of the terrific ethnic food – pasta dishes from the Italian families, next to strudles from German-descended families. It was hard for a kid to get away with anything in that neighborhood. The watchful eyes of many mothers were upon us, and quickly reported our doings!

In 1976, I married a man from a low-income family. (We just celebrated our 34th anniversary!) He joined the Air Force and there we experienced another kind of supportive community. It was the norm in those days, at least among the enlisted, to look out for one another. If somebody’s husband (most of the service members were male) was TDY (temporary duty at another base), neighbors and co-workers would check in on her, to make sure she got help if she needed it. Since we usually lived far from our extended families, when holidays rolled around, especially when we were stationed overseas, we typically planned communal celebrations. Everyone asked around and made sure that single guys had somewhere to go for Thanksgiving and Christmas dinners.

You didn’t have to know people for a long time to benefit from this mutual aid. Since we were a transient community, we’d reach out to one another almost as soon as we met. Rick could strike up a conversation with someone while he was on line to in-process at a new base, and get us invited to a BBQ that week-end. The common bond was military service.

We didn’t go to college until later in life – that’s how we came to be living in this neighborhood of white collar professionals. The neighbors we’ve met seem to be nice people, but are not very involved with one another. They will help if they see a need, like the time I got stuck in snow at the bottom of my driveway, and one of my neighbors helped dig me out. But mostly we don’t interact much – maybe because we don’t need each other as much as did the blue collar workers in the neighborhood where I grew up?

Sociologists have observed that working class people and those from racial-ethnic minority groups build and maintain networks of economic interdependence among neighbors and extended family and that these are essential for their survival and quality of life. Men trading skilled work in the neighborhood where I grew up are a perfect example of that. When one neighbor does electrical work gratis on another neighbor’s house, knowing that he can later call upon that individual to provide free service when he wants to pour a driveway, those neighbors develop a relationship. They need and depend upon one another, and therefore work to build a relationship, in ways that neighbors who are white collar professionals do not.

If say, a judge from our current neighborhood needs electrical work done, he will engage a licensed electrician and pay him for the work. Their relationship ends there. Middle and upper middle class professionals do, of course, develop interdependent social networks, but these are usually focused primarily on their colleagues, rather than their neighbors.

The point I am trying to make in this rambling essay is that I’ve come to believe that you can’t establish a community garden without a community – meaning something more than a group of neighbors, unless a majority of that group of neighbors values a garden. Then community may grow through work on the garden. Many people in relatively affluent neighborhoods appear to have trouble seeing the value of an edible garden. After all, they can just buy whatever it is they need, just as the hypothetical judge in the example above can pay an electrician. He doesn’t need to have a relationship with one and perform a service in return.

If people don’t see the need for a garden, they will oppose change and cling to the status quo. Even reason will not work, as with the woman who opposed an orchard on the (quite valid) grounds that she didn’t want chemical pesticides in the neighborhood, yet clung to that argument and opposition despite assurances from me and others that we shared her concern and planned to use organic pest management.

If I ever doubted my decision to give up on a community garden and move to a place where we could have a little more land of our own and grow a bigger garden, it was dispelled a few days ago when a heated dispute arose over a proposed prairie garden. A resident of our neighborhood stopped by a few weeks ago to drop off his survey. He suggested on his survey and in person establishing a small prairie garden on the green space of one of our cul-de-sacs. Currently, neighbors are using it as a dumping ground for branches and other garden waste. He offered to lead a project to plant a few coneflowers, rudbeckia, a third crabapple tree to join the two already there, and possibly dedicating the garden to a former resident, now deceased.

I thought it a lovely idea and encouraged the few who responded to the survey indicating they wanted a garden to join this neighbor. I offered to help, too, thinking that even if we didn’t get a community garden or orchard, this small project might be a good start. Interestingly, the woman opposed to the orchard also suggested a similar garden on this green space back in the winter. She is one of his neighbors and plans to help him with the project.

If you think such a garden would be uncontroversial, you’d be wrong. Despite the project leader’s polite tone and effort to hear everyone’s concerns, loud opposition has emerged. “STOP!” one woman emailed. “I have a three year old. I am completely opposed to a prairie garden.” She didn’t elaborate on what she saw as the hazards of a few prairie flowers for a pre-schooler.

Another, hiding behind the “I’m just concerned about the children” mantra, angrily wrote:

It is an inane idea to take away a common play area for the kids. I for one will not be chasing kids out of the nice plantings nor will I help maintain the area once the glow wears off.

Since the area in question is essentially a part of my view every time I gaze out a window, I would prefer to
see children playing in the area as opposed to seeing an often barren and browning ornamental "prairie style" garden.

Instead of plantings, maybe the folks interested in improving the appearance of the area who have extra time on their hands would consider weeding and cutting the grass which would improve the appearance of the area while maintaining the circle as a common area for the small children in the neighborhood.

Bear in mind, there are two parks in this neighborhood, and the suggested plantings will not take up all the space on the circle. And, there are other circles with plantings in the city – it’s nothing new.

He also argued that the garden would be a safety hazard, because children could emerge “undetected from plantings” and get hit by a car. Understand that this neighborhood is so quiet, I feel completely safe riding my bike around it without a helmet. And how small would a child have to be to be hidden by a coneflower? A child that small should have adult supervision – which would prevent them being run over by a car.

This person is so vociferous and angry that volunteers are dropping out of the project, saying they no longer want to be involved. If people can get that worked up about a few native plants, I can only imagine what opposition I would face if I pressed on with the community garden idea. And if others will not stand with you, but drop out of projects because of a few angry people, it’s just not worth it. I feel badly for the guy who wanted to establish this garden, but have to admit enjoying a bit of schadenfreude at the anti-orchard lady’s expense. Maybe she will learn something when her own garden project is opposed by people who cannot be reasoned with even when their concerns are addressed.

I hope this post doesn’t sound bitter; I’m not really feeling that way. I was sad and disappointed for a few days, before we made our final decision. But now I’m looking forward to more land, more chickens - honeybees! Room to plant more than one pumpkin and more than one watermelon. It will be an exciting new beginning.