Some experiences in life leave indelible marks on our souls. They enrich us, open our eyes to new worlds, give us joy - and then they pass, leaving us with warm and lasting memories to cherish forever. I was lucky enough to have such experiences when, as a woman who had lived for nearly 50 years in big cities, I moved to a small and secluded farm in northern B.C.
With two young daughters, Jackie, nine and Leanne, six, I made choices that resulted in the family "homesteading" in a log house on five cleared acres in the middle of a rainforest. I reasoned that our move north, away from city amenities, gave us one distinct advantage - space. We cleared enough land around the log house to raise a variety of large and small farm animals. Not that I knew anything about them! Growing up in Vancouver, I had never been closer to a pig than a grunt at the PNE, or closer to a goose than a bad-tempered hiss from a bird in a city park. But through a combination of research and hands-on practise, we all learned quickly how to house, feed and care for our increasingly large menagerie.
To start, we bought 10 female Araucana chicks (known as Easter Egg chickens because they lay pastel-coloured eggs), two turkey poults and two fluffy white goslings, which luckily turned out to be male and female. Our feathered acquisitions were, of course, as mystified with humans as we were with them, but we all fumbled along learning new things every day. In the case of the chickens, for instance, I came to understand that no matter how many nests I built in the chicken coop, the hens had a strong preference to lay in a specific one. And after a rooster was introduced into the flock, I was in awe of his visual ability - he seemed able to spot hawks circling a mile in the air, and would call out a warning to his wives, noting impending danger, so they could all run for cover.
Living on the farm meant the girls had to take an early school bus ride into town, so it was agreed that I would feed the animals and let them outside to have the run of the barnyard in the morning, and the girls would be responsible for seeing them in at night. One night, after rounding up the animals and conducting head counts, the girls rushed up to the house and said, "Mum, there are only nine chickens, not 10, in the coop!" So, armed with flashlights and overcoats, we braved the dripping wet forest calling, "here, chick chick chick" to no avail. We retreated to the house in tears, mourning our very first loss of an animal - and a friend. Each day, after the girls left for school, I continued to call out and look for chicken, but lost hope after several days had passed. It was inconceivable such a small, defenseless bird could fend for herself in a hostile forest environment. Then Jackie, who was looking out the front window on the eighth night, called and said, "Mum, I think I see something out there moving in the bushes!" Again, armed with a flashlight, I went into the black night and found the wettest, thinnest chicken I'd ever seen. She had survived the cold and rain, the wolves and coyotes, the eagles and hawks for more than a week! As I leaned over a log and scooped her up, she looked up at me and weakly squawked her thanks. That evening, we fed her a special meal, and used a hair dryer to warm her and fluff out her feathers. Although she recovered exceptionally well after her incredible adventure, she breathed forever more with a noticeable asthmatic wheeze. Her endurance and tenacity made her a favourite with the girls, who, thanks to the wheeze, christened her Sick Chick.
My barnyard education was gleaned in large part by the many farm magazines I read. I was particularly impressed by one story, which boldly claimed, "Pigs Have Paid Many a Mortgage." Enamoured with the idea, I rushed out and bought a book on the topic and - without reading through to the end - paid $20 each for two tiny, pink, bristly piglets, who squealed in terror every time they were touched. It didn't take us long to learn that of all the farm inhabitants, pigs are the cleanest and most intelligent of the lot. They went "potty" in the same place without fail at the far end of their enclosure; they retrieved sticks, and turned in circles of delight when I went into their pen to feed them. Granted, pigs aren't born with many manners, but our two piglets, Margaret and Elizabeth, soon learned they weren't going to be fed unless they went to their own end of the trough without jostling each other's jowls. Of course, they got dirty walking and lying in the mud, but it dried off and I vacuumed up the dust in their pen. Nestled up to their tummies in fresh straw, those two smelled like big pink roses.
According to the first chapters of the book, I figured that with two sows having two litters of 10 to 15 piglets a year - and selling them at $20 each - they would certainly pay the board for the two horses we had by this time acquired, plus Mother and Father Goose and the turkeys. But when I went looking for a likely boar to do his job (the sows must be taken to the boar, as they don't usually perform well away from home) a bona fide farmer down the road told me that sometimes his sows were so badly gored when they were mated, they had to be put down! Rushing through the final chapters of the book, I was appalled to read about other hazards associated with making piglets, including broken bones, maiming and various forms of infections. I asked myself, "Would I want to suffer like that to produce children who would be taken away from me and sold?" Thus, Margaret and Elizabeth lived their lives as virgin pigs.
The experience with the pigs taught me a valuable lesson, but I persevered in my quest to leave my soft city life behind and become a tougher, more complete farmer. True homesteading isn't only about feeding and caring for animals; living off the land successfully means facing difficult questions. Inevitably, I was forced to do some soul-searching when it came to the topic of what we ate. "If we live on a farm, and continue eating meat, is it fair to have someone else doing all the killing?" I asked myself. The answer to the question was (to me at least) obvious, so I set about to "toughen up," and adopt a more hands-on approach.
I bought 30 "meat chicks," which I fully intended to raise and then slaughter myself. The poor things had been genetically engineered to have small brains and huge appetites. Pecking food voraciously, like feathered eating machines, by the time they reached six weeks old, they were too heavy to walk. Knowing I had several more weeks before their demise, and concerned for their overall health, I decided to try to strengthen their legs with a course of physical therapy. A la Sister Kenny, the Australian nurse who tried exercising children's limbs during a polio epidemic, I tried to work the chicken's legs, using their resistance to my bicycle pedalling motions. My efforts didn't seem to help at all. Knowing how their story was destined to end, I gave up on their therapy, but kept them fed and clean and tried not to make eye contact. I knew by now that being attached would surely melt my resolve.
The day of reckoning came too soon. While the girls were at school, I took the first chicken and walked with her, out of the sight of the rest, toward a stump where I had placed an axe. As I moved her towards the waiting stump and axe, I steeled myself and looked at the chicken about to meet its fate. Unfortunately, she raised her head and looked right back at me. That was the end. I carried her back to join her sisters, and drove to the local Co-Op Store where I hired the butcher - offering him $1 per bird - to send the lot of them off to chicken heaven. I made him promise - on his absolute word of honour - that he would do the deed one by one, out of sight of the other birds. On the fateful day, I took the girls on a contrived daylong errand, and came home to see 30 birds in the freezer neatly wrapped in plastic. We gave them all away.
Some of the animals seemed smarter than others or perhaps we understood some better. The laying hens, including Sick Chick and her sisters, were incredibly intelligent. They knew they weren't allowed in my fenced vegetable garden, though they regularly sneaked in when they thought I wasn't looking. As soon as they heard the front door to the house slam, they would all jump up and fly out. And believe it or not, chickens communicate in sentences. After countless hours in the barn we built, I began to recognize patterns, and then recorded them, just to be sure. "Get off the nest; you've been there too long," "Hey girls, I just laid an egg," and many more easily discernable and repetitive series of clucks are among the recordings I still have on tape.
When we bought our first 10 chicks, the Co-Op salesman told us they had been factory-hatched for so long that "motherhood" had been bred out of them. But Sick Chick proved him wrong. Our long-sighted rooster proved an equally agile suitor, and Sick Chick became broody, producing our first "natural" baby chicks on the farm. She was a wonderful mother and seemed especially fond of one of her daughters we named Midge. Inseparable, wherever Sick Chick led, Midge wasn't far behind. When my own mother, in her 80s, came to the North in the spring to help me plant, Sick Chick and Midge would follow beside her, row by new row in the garden, clucking advice all the while. Mum was sure they were keeping her company.
And in the category of animals we never understood was Terrible Turk, our turkey. Unwilling to take direction, he would try to attack the girls as they herded him into the barn. They eventually used the lids of large garbage cans and wielded them like shields against his advances. Though he had nothing but contempt for almost everyone, for some reason, he was fond of me; let me put my arms around him. I would rub his head and talk to him, and he answered me with low gobbling turkey "sweet nothings."
In fact, one of the most remarkable episodes we had on the farm involved a turkey, one of two of Terrible Turk's wives. The girls and I came home from shopping, one day, and found one of the female turkeys lying prone in the horse's corral. When we got close enough, we saw that her right leg was broken at a right angle and hanging together by the skin. Undoubtedly, one of the horses had unwittingly stepped on her. Leanne raced to the house to fetch a bath towel, which I wrapped around her. She lay on Jackie's lap, looking out the car window while I drove to the vet's office.
"You want me to do WHAT?!" he asked, aghast. "Make a cast for her leg," I answered. So he did, and the turkey tolerated her heavy appendage for six weeks in the barn, stumping around in the straw like a peg-legged pirate. (She couldn't go out, of course, because we couldn't let the plaster cast get wet!) At the end of her six-week convalescence, we took her back to the vet's office, where he cut off the cast, patted her on the rump, and watched as she walked without a limp across his surgery floor. When she laid her very first beautiful beige-coloured speckled egg, I took it back to the vet as a gift, and he displayed it with pride.
After several wonderful years on the farm, we moved back to the city. I often think of those animals that taught us so much. Perhaps the most important thing I learned was that the animals were not so different from us. We saw love and tenderness, jealousy and hate, intelligence and stupidity, loyalty and even a sense of fun. Seeing Margaret and Elizabeth chasing sticks or pulling at my watchband, or the horses playing with each other or the large inner tubes we placed in their corral convinced me of that. And each of those experiences opened my eyes, filled me with wonder and left me with memories that will last a lifetime.
SENIOR LIVING VANCOUVER - April 2009
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