Tuesday, December 25, 2007

Looking forward

Chick-Chuck is growing up.

Now three months old, she is undergoing an amazing transformation. When I called to her last month "little peep peep, are you there?" I would hear her high-pitched whistle come back at me. The other day I called out and was distressed not to hear a reply. I stepped into her side of the coop and she was talking away -- about an octave deeper! She's getting her grown-up voice. It's clear now that she's a she, not a rooster. Still no sign of a comb. You can see in the photo that she's approaching the size of an adult Marans.

Here you see her in the middle, with papa Egglebert on the left and possibly her bio-mom on the right. Or another possibility on the ground below her! Chick-Chuck does not yet have the roundness of a healthy hen, but her structure is expanding on a daily basis, inching her towards egg laying.

Still, however, she is not a part of the flock. She stays in her separate area, on the outskirts rather than joining in when the other hens scratch for corn or rooster under the heat lamp. A few of the Araucanas seem to be comfortable around her now, not fussing at her. And at times she'll perch near, but never clearly with, other hens.

I realize that they have to work these things out in their own chicken way. Some days it makes me sad that she's so alone. But I am inspired by her spirit -- something seems to tell her that she has an important future, and so she keeps on looking forward.

Wednesday, December 5, 2007

The Cold World

It's the cold, hard truth about life on a farm. Things die.

Plants die before you can harvest their fruit. Trees die before they grow tall enough to cast shade on a hot day. Ponds dry up and fields flood and the animals that depended on them die.

Last weekend I accidentally locked a hen out of the barn for a few hours. Since I didn't know she was out there, I didn't restrict Ulani's access to the yard. Next thing I knew I had to bury that hen. Ulani's prey drive overwhelms her -- she simply cannot resist an animal that runs or flies.

Then last night the beautiful black hen that had become eggbound died. She was sick for a few weeks. I did not know that limping could be a sign of egg-binding. I figured she'd twisted her leg jumping down, so I isolated her. Nothing was wrong with her appetite. With the exception of limping, she seemed fine. Then about a week ago, as she began to go downhill, I picked her up and realized my mistake. By that point not much could be done other than to keep her comfortable. If I were a real farmer I probably would have snapped her neck. I am not. I suffered with her, and this morning I felt relief that she was out of her misery.

On a snowy, gray December morning I carried her lifeless body far out into a field and layed her down for the last time, offering her back to nature. It's a cold world.

Tuesday, November 27, 2007


Thanksgiving day brought a blizzard to Busy Solitude Farm!
The snow fell so wet and fast, after a while the dogs did not want to stay outside. They gather rock-hard snowballs on their feet. Yowch!

I started out for my sister's house for our family meal, but the 11 year old car started making an odd noise on the interstate entrance ramp and I decided that it was the safest choice to turn around and go home. It disappointed me not to see my family, but the idea of being stranded on the highway at night in a blizzard convinced me otherwise.

So, rather than having a real Thanksgiving, here is my fantasy Thanksgiving dinner menu. Begin with a glass of champagne and some mushroom caps stuffed with bread stuffing and cheese. After all the fabulous guests arrive, move to the table. Pour a nice pinot noir and pass the following dishes to delight the tastebuds.

Simple mashed potatoes (made with cream and butter)
Wild mushroom gravy (full of onions and pepper)
Sweet potato souffle (so sweet it could be dessert!)
Brussels sprouts with a light mustard sauce
Cranberry sauce with cinnamon and cloves
Green bean casserole (c'mon, it's Thanksgiving!)

For dessert I like the classics, straight and narrow. Simple pumpkin pie with lightly whipped cream and deep dish apple pie ala mode. Have a hot cup of coffee with it and get ready for a nap!

Happy Thanksgiving!

Monday, November 19, 2007


Just look at those eyebrow feathers! This is Egglebert, my Cuckoo Marans rooster. He is almost 18 months old now and rules the roost for the 16 hens (plus his daughter, Chick-Chuck). I just love the sculptural beauty of his comb and wattles, offsetting the delicate feathers in his eyebrows and down his body. "Cuckoo" refers to the broken black and white bars in their coloring (look at a Barred Plymouth Rock for the alternative coloring).

This is Belle (Vraiment Belle de Guerande). She is Oskar's niece and Ulani's half-sister. I think she has the very most gorgeous "eyebrows", which in Briards are referred to as the "fall" of hair over the eyes. Because her ears are cropped, she also has a more sculptural quality to her head, not unlike Egglebert.

Eyebrows are on my mind. I had noticed over the past year or so that the outer half of my eyebrows seemed to be disappearing. It was not a total surprise, my father just has the tufts in the middle left! But I don't feel nearly old enough to have "old man eyebrows"! Then I was diagnosed with hypothyroidism. One of the symptoms is losing eyebrows. After five weeks of medication I swear that my eyebrows are coming back. Will they stand up like Egglebert's, or form a luscious fall like Belle's? Not likely. I'm just glad to have them back.

Wednesday, November 7, 2007

Duh! Fence Fixed

A quick follow-up. I admit it. The hot wire and the ground wire were reversed on the power source. Switched them up and all is well. Oh, well!

Monday, November 5, 2007

#@$%ing Fence

Everyone I asked said it would be simple. "Just don't turn it on until you're done, ha ha ha!" "Don't ever try to climb over it, that'll gitcha! Ha ha ha!" "Don't test it with your tongue! Ha ha ha!"

Oh, c'mon. I'm a somewhat handy woman. Surely I can run a couple of lines of electric wire around the chicken pen to keep the murderers away. Right?

Apparently not.

Every step of the way today there were issues. First off, I forgot how overgrown the grass and weeds were at the bottom of the existing fence. Not good for electric. So I had to trim all of that back, then I decided to pull the t-posts and mow it all short before I got started. Most of them needed to be turned around for the insulators to fit correctly anyway. After I reset the t-posts and rehung the wire, I realized I did not have the correct nails for the insulators that would go into wood. I also recognized that I didn't know how the ground wire clamp works. Off to the hardware store.

It's a perfect example of not understanding the language. Dennis said to me quite clearly "you tighten the outside screws around the pole, then put the wire in the little hole and tighten the screw." I bet almost any guy who grew up doing handy things would understand those instructions. Or pretend to. But I did not. "Do you mean tighten the screw through the insulation on the wire, or do I strip the wire and then tighten the screw on the metal part?" He seemed a little startled at the question, in a "didn't I just tell you?" way. "Strip the insulation, otherwise the electricity won't travel." Oh, sure, I get it.

Next I worked on attaching the ground and fence wires to the power source. Stripping the wire was a struggle with an old pair of pliers. Then I drilled holes through the barn siding to send the wires outside, lost track of ground and hot for a while, sorted it back out, and successfully attached the ground wire to the pole. At least, I think I did, but the fence isn't working and from what I read a bad ground is the most likely cause.

Running the fence wire -- how difficult could that be? I've strung lots of beads, threaded needles without reading glasses. No big dif'. Running the fence wire made blatant the floppy nature of my existing wire fencing. Oh, heck, this will never do. I had to fix up some supports to keep the wire fencing from contacting the soon-to-be-hot wire. Another hour gone.

When at last all the wire was strung, all the fences pulled back, I thought I was done. In the barn I plugged the power in and saw the happy flashing green light that pulses with each surge of electricity. Just like a pro, I carried the fence tester outside and stuck the ground into the dirt. Cautiously, I hung the other end on the bottom wire. No lights. On the top wire. No lights. Inside, the tester showed power coming from the supply. Outside, no juice. I diddled with it for a while but in the end I could not figure it out.

Go ahead. Climb over it. #@$%ing fence.

Thursday, November 1, 2007

Chick-Chuck Update

Chick-Chuck is doing OK. It's not been easy, however.

After Tuesday's terrors, I thought that the flock was accepting Chick-Chuck as it did while Mama Hen was around. Wednesday afternoon I discovered that they were attempting to eliminate her from the coop, pecking at her and chasing her until she found a hiding place under an ancient manger.

We are lucky in that the chicken pen is L shaped with a division between the legs. I herded the hens into the larger of the two sides, and left Chick-Chuck with one calm Black Australorp hen in the smaller side. Finally peace returned to the hen house.

My plan is to gradually introduce other hens, one at a time, until a good percentage have accepted Chick-Chuck's presence. This evening I added a yellow hen (seen above). I am afraid that CC's first thought was "Mama!" because she ran right over, then looked the hen in the eye and took a step back. Still they were able to scratch next to each other without fireworks.

Hen-keeping is not for the faint of heart.

Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Chick-Chuck in the Morning

This morning I went early to check the chickens in the barn. I found Chick-Chuck perching on a roost just a foot away from Egglebert and a couple of the hens. She wasn't yet so bold as to lean into them for warmth, but it is clear she is finding her way into the flock.

We had one sad moment, when all the other hens were in one area of the pen scratching for corn and Chick-Chuck wandered to the other side. Suddenly she let out the baby peep alarm -- high pitched, long notes in a very loud voice as if saying "help me!" I peeped back in what I hoped were happy, reassuring tones and she came back to where the others were. Was she realizing her Mama is gone?

It's a lesson in the laws of nature. Sometimes vicious things happen, but we are made resilient.

Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Tragedy is part of farm life

Something murdered Mama Hen.

When I got home from work today and called the chickens into the barn, only two of the four yellow hens came. As soon as I counted everyone else I went outside to check, because sometimes one will jump over the fence in pursuit of greener pastures.

I found the first hen huddling in a corner, clearly uneasy about whether it was safe to come out. It took a few minutes to encourage her into the barn. While I was at it I glimpsed a pile of yellow feathers on the other side of their fenced yard.

Upon investigation I found the corpse of Mama Hen. Something must have grabbed her through the fence and taken one big bite. Everything else was left. I imagine that she was protecting Chickie, putting herself between her baby and danger. What could I do but dig a hole, bury her with a prayer.

She was a good Mama Hen.

Friday, October 26, 2007

What's on the horizon?

The recent fires in the west alerted the whole country to the risk of nature interrupting one's life.

Our spectacular sunset may well have been brought about by pollution in the air from Chicago, as some say, or all the way from California. What it reminded me of, however, was that it is practically November and we have not yet had a frost. By now I would anticipate Indian summer, that glorious post-frost period where we get to experience summer one last time. One last lawn mowing. One final trip to the pumpkin patch.

Indian summer signals the time to batten down the hatches, too. Once a frost kills off all the tender plants in the vegetable garden, it's time to put the beds to sleep, pull out or turn under the remaining vegetation, maybe plant a cover crop to protect the soil from those west winds. It's time to clean up the tools and put them away for the season, move the potted perennials to the barn, put away most of the lawn furniture.

Never put away all of the lawn furniture, however. You want something comfortable to sit on when one of those beautiful Indian summer afternoons comes along. Make some mulled apple cider, aromatic with cinnamon and cloves (add a touch of cranberry juice for beautiful color), grab a thick book and soak up the last of the late summer sunshine!

Sunday, October 21, 2007


This weekend temperatures hovered around 75 degrees. It was the third week of October and I have used the furnace for only about five evenings.

Something's gotta give.

The longer this pattern endures, the greater my concern for the winter. Our modest home stands surrounded by fields of crops. Here in the middle of the cornfields we have little protection from blowing snow and wind.

I know that we should be enjoying these late "summer" days in autumn -- not even Indian summer, as there has not been a frost. What kind of an ungrateful ox doesn't take an extra bike ride, or have lunch at the picnic table, or let the dogs stay outside all day long when it's 75 degrees in late October?

But here when we should be baking pumpkin pie and making curried butternut squash soup, a big salad remains the menu choice.

Something's gotta give.

Wednesday, October 17, 2007


We spent the past weekend "up north", my college friends Amy and Tomison and I. Since the mid-'80s Tomison's family has generously shared their secluded house near Luther, Michigan with us so that we can enjoy the river, the roaring fireplace, and the autumn colors.

This year was pretty typical. Upon arrival one adds to the stack of magazines and books to be shared for the weekend. Then the coolers, bags and boxes of food to feed an army get unpacked and stored away in the three refrigerators and full pantry of shelves. How about a glass of wine? We have eight bottles for the three of us to share in just over 48 hours! (Well, on Friday evening is the annual cocktail party with our friend Marian, and god knows she can put it away!) The menus put Martha Stewart to shame. Nothing too precarious nutritionally, though, at least not this year.

The wildlife stayed away for some reason. In past years we have seen many deer, turkeys, pheasants and other forest animals, but the animal stars of this visit were the mewing kittens up at the keeper's house. "Great kittens!" I called to the lady of the house. "They're free!" she yelled back. No, there are no new residents at Busy Solitude Farm.

Each year, visiting at the NeBoShone inspires fantasies about escaping the world. Living a mile off the road, filling the pantry in the fall and disappearing through the winter to exist simply with pets and projects -- it's an enticing proposition. Somehow money always gets in the way. I bought us a MegaMillions ticket to share, figuring that 8 million would underwrite my escape. Sadly, we lost.

But you haven't lost too much when you've spent a weekend at the NeBoShone. The fresh pine air and brisk walks invigorate the body, a glass of wine near the crackling fire rekindles the spirit. And spending a couple of days with the best of friends, that's a win-win-win.

Tuesday, October 9, 2007

From Beth's Lips to God's Ears

During the summer of 2006 I had a spectacular vegetable garden. Multiple varieties of tomatoes, cabbage, garlic, onions, potatos, plus cucumbers, strawberries, tomatillos, and many herbs.

Then the rains came. October of 2006 was one of the rainiest ever. My vegetable garden was under water for weeks. A nightmare. I had to wait until January to plant garlic for 2007.

And when it came time to plant the 2007 crops, I discovered that the standing water had filtered my soil so that I had a hard crust that was almost undiggable. Spring and summer are the busy season at work so I could not devote enough time to get through the crust, and I ended up with no garden this summer. It was devastating.

Over this past weekend my friend Beth, who is a subscription farmer, offered to till my plot. When we discussed it in detaill, however, she decided that it had to be opened up first since the tiller wouldn't get through that crust. "How can I do that?" I begged. Her suggestion was that I wait for a rainstorm, or run the sprinkler, and then work the moistened soil.

And so last night it rained. Beth's lips to God's ears. And this morning I got almost half of the garden opened up.

Things are looking up for the summer of 2008!

Friday, October 5, 2007

Patient as a Hen

Chick-Chuck welcomes Mama Hen back to their kennel-condo!

Animal behavior fascinates me -- observing these two proves the existence of maternal instinct again and again. Last night the Mama Hen wanted to roost on a 2x4, out of the kennel and up off the ground, like the other hens. Chick-Chuck, however, could not make it up three feet to roost, so they ended up sleeping in the kennel.

This morning before I went to work what did I see but Mama and Chick roosting proudly in another spot in the hen-pen. I guess Mama was not planning to sleep one more night in that kennel! Just now I went out to turn off their light and I got to see Chick-Chuck rise like a helicopter up to the bar. The sweetest part was that once it got next to Mama, all the crazy peeping stopped.

Everyone should have the patience of a Mama Hen when caring for loved ones!

[Addendum one hour later: I checked on the chickens and discovered Mama Hen and Chick-Chuck sleeping in the kennel. I guess baby just wasn't ready to sleep up high!]

Tuesday, October 2, 2007

Open the Floodgate!

This weekend (Tuesday-Wednesday with my current schedule) I am planning to tile my bathroom floor and paint the window trim. The project requires me to temporarily take out the sink and vanity and a couple of days ago I discovered a possible problem with the shutoff valves under the sink. I may have fixed it, but I won’t know for sure until I actually proceed.

Last night I took down the blinds so that I could put a coat of Kilz on the window trim. Then I realized I would have to rig up some kind of temporary curtain if I wanted a shower in the morning.

I woke up this morning thinking I would really like to wash my hair. I walked into the bathroom with that on my mind (it was still dark) and heard this tremendous gushing. I stood there for a moment trying to get my bearings. The sound seemed to be coming from the closet area — the water main into the house is there under a trap door. I didn’t sense any water moving, but it sounded like a flood.

Just as I reached for the lightswitch I discovered the source. When I painted the window frame last night I scooted the cat litter box over by the closet to get it out of my way. Abe was having his morning relief! He must have had quite a bit to drink last night!

This is the culprit. Another crisis averted!

Sunday, September 30, 2007

No Solitude Today!

Today is the Apple Cider Century bike ride in SW Michigan. About 5000 people are riding 25, 50, 62, 75 or 100 miles through the countryside.

In past years one or two of the longest distances has taken riders past Busy Solitude Farm, but this year they seem to have done a reroute. However, on my way to work I was reduced to a 25 mph crawl when I hit the "ride out" street that all the ACC participants start on.

All varieties of outfits and bicycles are on the road, including some pulling wagons with children or dogs aboard. You can tell the serious bikers by their matching outfits, in neon colored lycra, or camouflage jackets, or tandem bicycles.

It's truly amazing and I am envious of those who can cycle 100 miles! Maybe next year...

Saturday, September 29, 2007

Herding Dogs

Oskar (brown) and Ulani (gray) are Briards, that is to say French sheepdogs. (Which is not to be confused with "friendship dogs", though if you say it quickly it sounds that way!) We do not, however, keep sheep.

So they have found their own solution.

Each morning the cats -- Abe, Luke and Bodhi -- get a few moments out on the porch before breakfast. This is a relatively new addition to their busy lifestyle. As such, they are fairly cautious about where they go. But not always enough so for me.

Enter Ulani.

Now if one of the cat-boys wanders out into the yard, perhaps trying to investigate the barn, just for example, I simply say "Ulani, bring the cat!" and she races out to herd the cat back to the house. Oskar balances her on the retrieve, going left to her right or right to her left to keep the cat in line.

Without the command, the dogs stay on alert near the porch. They do not herd the cats until asked to do so. But once permission comes down, an absolute serious glee attends the task. After all, herding is a job, and a dog with a job is a happy dog.

Friday, September 28, 2007

Almost autumn

Autumn shuffles in. Usually by the end of September the furnace has been fired up at least once, but this year a particularly mild weather pattern kept the chill at bay. Last night the barn got down to the high 40s, though. With a baby in residence, I wonder if the heat lamp needs to be hung already. Egglebert loves to sit under the heat lamp -- would he allow the baby near it?!

The sweet autumn clematis surprised me by completing its bloom already. Then I thought "already? It's nearly October!"

"Back to school" passed me by this year. The gallery's art fair over Labor Day weekend stole the thunder. Now this resort area has shifted to the slow speed of off season. While that can make a day at work tedious, it also means that people have time to share a cup of coffee, discuss the day's gossip, and intentionally meet for a meal and a catch-up.

These days are the highlight of the year.

Thursday, September 27, 2007

There's a new chick on the farm!

There was a blessed event at Busy Solitude Farm about ten days ago. After waiting and waiting forever (well, 21 days), one of the golden hens hatched out a little Peep! I came home from work, checked the barn and heard a beautiful trilling voice, quite different from the mature clucking of the hens. A peek in the corner revealed a dark baby chick looking out from under the broody girl.

Of course Egglebert is the father, but I am fairly certain that the blond is not the bio-mom. Now that the feathers are coming in my guess would be Black Australorp - Cuckoo Marans cross. The bars on its wingfeathers are in an outline pattern, not as broken up as a Cuckoo.

The other key question is boy or girl? I can't tell, so I've been calling it "Chick". If it turns out to be a rooster, quick change to "Chuck"! This is the season for that name, right?