Just Us Chickens

A.V. Walters

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I’m not one much given to ‘cute.’ Never have been. We got chickens because we prefer the taste of fresh eggs, and we like to be able to ensure the quality of the food we eat. Our chicks eat organic.

I resisted the idea of naming them. However, they have earned descriptives–if only because we need to be able to identify them in conversation. When they first arrived, there were two very small chicks and two larger chicks. Then, one of the small chicks (whom we identified as “Yellow-head”) had a burst of development. She is now the largest. The other smaller chick is still well behind all of the others, both in size and feather development. Despite being the runt, she’s no dummy, and has strategies for compensating for her size. I’ve been calling her Einstein. The middle two have been neck and neck in their growth–and sometimes it’s hard to tell them apart. One walks taller–and so I refer to her as ‘Upright,’ while the remaining mid-sized chick moves about with a sort of nervous, crouched, posture. Perhaps it’s wrong, but I call her ‘McNugget.”

My sister has chickens. They have them for the eggs–and because the spent chicken litter is a great way to speed your compost and build high quality soils. But her chickens are pets. They have proper names. She fully speaks chicken.

Chicks are a lot of work. They are filthy little creatures. I should have remembered from when we raised emu chicks, but I am at a loss to understand how an animal that will spend hours preening its feathers will also shit in its food bowl. Perhaps it’d be easier if the “cute” factor resonated for me. Oh well. After just two weeks, they’re looking moth-eaten, and teenage scruffy. They not fuzz-balls anymore, but neither do they have their full plumage. Only a mother hen (type) would find them attractive at this point. They are, however, psychologically interesting.

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Even at this stage, they clearly demonstrate the concept of “pecking order.” Yellow-head is the dominant and lets them all know that she’s in charge. After the first week we gave them a perch. It belongs to her, the queen of the roost. She won’t let anyone else on it. The others get it. They stay on the floor–except for the occasional hop up to try it out–when Yellow-head is asleep.

At first, the three larger birds would crowd Einstein out of food bowl access. Now she just pushes in between them. And if the rest are asleep, Einstein takes advantage and fills up when there’s no competition. I don’t know if this is intelligence, or just survival. Einstein does not challenge the pecking order. Nor does she spend much of her time socializing–grooming or cuddling together for naps. The two middle sycophants are forever nestling together, grooming each other or Yellow-head. That must be chicken bonding. So far I don’t see any outright pecking of the little one–though I’m watching for it. Chickens can be vicious. Maybe she can continue evasive maneuvers and avoid that particular bit of chicken ugly.

Yesterday we moved them from the basement to their coop. They’d outgrown their cardboard box. Seeing them in larger digs is a relief–they look much better. Relief from overcrowding seems to have minimized aggressive behaviors.

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Watching their interactions reminds me of our current social order. As a species, we need to move beyond bullying and ass-kissing. We need to foster resilience, independence and courage. As much as I’m impressed with little Einstein, it isn’t enough to keep your head down and mind your own affairs. We need to stand up for our convictions. Maybe we can find strength together. Otherwise, we’re just a bunch of chickens.

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“Victorian Cool”

A.V. Walters–

And I don’t mean steampunk.

I’ve never lived in a home with air conditioning. Of course, that’s easy for me to say, most of my adult life was in Northern California, where there was no real need for it. Still, even with my memory of hot and humid childhood summers, we opted not to provide for summer air when we built here.

You cannot solve your climate change problems using fossil fuels. It’s as simple as that. At best, you can kick the can down the road to make the present more bearable–knowing that in so doing, you’re stealing from the next generation. When you build a home from the ground up, you cannot point the finger at the former owners; you need to walk your talk on your carbon footprint.

When we sited the house, we selected the location, in part for summer shade. And we insulated. Recently, following a Memorial weekend heat wave, we bought screens for the windows. This is Michigan. You cannot open a window without screens, unless you’re willing to donate all your blood for the cause. It was always our plan to use natural air movement to survive the summers.

North Americans are complacent about getting ready for climate change, as though our problems could be resolved with adjustments to the thermostat. But this wasn’t always the case. Historically and architecturally, we have had cooling solutions that preceded air conditioning. Tall ceilings, double hung windows, roof overhangs (and/or curtains), along with the occasional fan, kept the Victorians cool. It can work for us, too.

I’m continually amazed by my midwestern neighbors, houses perched wherever view is best, with no shade protection from the summer sun. Their air conditioners kick in before 10:00 am. What were they thinking?

Within a couple of hours of installing the screens and opening the windows, the temperature in our house dropped by eight degrees. By the next morning, it was a little chilly–a perfect prelude for the expected heat the following day. It looks like the house will perform according to plan.

You don’t need to start from the ground up to take advantage of Victorian wisdom. Just open up the house in the cool of the evening and close it up again in the morning, before the heat of the day. Draw the drapes. Install an attic fan. Invest in some extra insulation. Turn down the air conditioning a couple of degrees. Consider window awnings…remember them? And always, always, plant trees. Together, we can make our environment more habitable, inside and out.

It can be done. The Victorians did it. How else could they have endured the summers in all that silly clothing? Can you imagine corsets in the heat?

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I Win!
A.V. Walters–
There’s been a running, albeit subliminal competition around here, regarding weeds. Rick and I each have a target-weed, a weed that, in our minds, is the worst weed. It won’t be a surprise to anyone following this blog that my nomination for the most evil weed is spotted knapweed. Rick, on the other hand, has long held out for a weed we’ve encountered before, one we’ve always called “choke weed.”
I am among the first to admit that choke weed is a worthy opponent. It is wildly invasive and opportunistic. But, you see, I’d done my research on the knapweed, aka knotweed, aka star thistle. Spotted knapweed is evil in so many ways: it out-competes the natives by poisoning the soil around it, for up to three years (both to seed germination and to neighboring plants): its water storing, tuberous roots steal all the available water; it propagates both via runners and seeds (and its seeds are viable in the ground for up to seven years); and, if you pull it, any part of the root left in the soil can re-develop into a new, healthy plant. It is so toxic, to other plants, you cannot safely compost its remains–or the resulting compost will carry the toxins back into the garden. As far as I can tell, nothing eats it. In my books, knapweed has a corner on evil plant hegemony.
Rick’s pick seems to run hand-in-hand with the knapweed. They manage to co-exist in some kind of evil pact — choke weed isn’t bothered too much by knapweed’s evil ways. I’d be talking conspiracy here, if I didn’t know that that would paint me as some kind of a weed nut. But, since we didn’t actually know the choke weed’s real name, and modus operandi, we had no way to actually judge which of the contenders was the worst.
Not that we don’t respect each other’s opinions in the garden, but we did have a bit of a schism in terms of weeding priorities. Schism is an ugly word, with an ugly history. And yet, there it was. While playing lip-service to the noxious qualities of each other’s weed of the day, really, we mostly spent our weeding energies on our own respective weeds.
Finally, I broke down and did the research. Rick’s choke weed is commonly known as red sorel. It’s an invasive in it’s own right — again, spreading aggressively both by runner and seed. Like knapweed, it is deceptively attractive in its own way. And, left in the ground, any part of its runner-like rhizome will generate new red sorel plants. And it will out-compete and choke out native plants or garden plants. But it doesn’t hold a candle to knapweed’s toxic legacy. 
I win.
Lucky me, eh?
I suppose the good news is that this information has re-animated both of us in our eradication quests. Both of these invasive weeds are worthy of our directed intentions. At least on this, we can both agree. We will prevail. (Well, at least in our dreams.)

“Conventional Wisdom”

A.V. Walters–

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Conventional wisdom says that bees located in the shade will be cranky. Conventional wisdom says that bees that get too hot in the full sun, will be unproductive and may tend to swarm. We’ve seen hot bees in the sun. They “beard” on the outside of the hive. Once the sun is up–and the heat–they return to the hive and quit foraging. What’s the point? The nectar dries up. Back at the hive, it’s too hot to go in. Other bees are busy, cooling the hive with the wind from myriad wings. What would conventional wisdom have us do?

We have relocated the bee yard up the hill and into the pines. There were plenty of reasons to do it: to avoid wind blown pesticide contamination from the adjacent farmer down at the bottom of the hill; to put more distance between the bees and any neighbors; so that the bees would not be visible from the road (some of our beekeeping friends have experienced thefts!); to get the bees out of the direct sun during the hottest part of the summer; and to reduce bee “issues” in the garden, that can lead to gardeners being inadvertently stung.

I’ll miss being able to see them from the house. Bee hives have a way of saying, “here we are, and we belong.” This is the first year that the orchard really looks like an orchard–and that, along with the garden, will have to satisfy our visual boundaries. The bees’ new digs enjoy the dappled light of the pines–and a regular refreshing breeze. It’s only a few minutes walk, one that will pull us into the forest with more regularity. And it’ll be cooler for us, too, during the dog days of summer. Often beekeeping requires suiting up–and those extra layers can be really stifling in the heat.

Rick put up the new fence. Then he marked it with ribbon tape to alert the deer. Not that they’d have any reason to invade, but we’ve had problems with deer colliding into fences and tree cages, if they weren’t marked. You’d think the fence would be enough… but those deer aren’t looking. A deer can really mangle a tree cage. The fence is really for the bear, and it’ll deliver quite the jolt. I hope it’s enough to dissuade them. There are three hives, now. By mid-season, we hope to split them–for six, going into winter.

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We moved the bees in, this morning. They were a little crabby at first. But by the end of the day they had settled nicely. I’m sure there will be some adjustments as we all adjust to new routines. It’s beautiful up there. I hope the bees enjoy it. By my estimation, they have nothing to be cranky about.

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(Really, only three hives. That tall stack is extra honey supers for when the nectar flow really starts.)

Spring, Not for the Faint of Heart–

A.V. Walters–

We celebrated today. The trees are in. It’s a little late, but then, spring was late. My hands are rough and raw and I ache, but all 100 trees are happily in their new homes. Once the trees arrive, we drop nearly everything to get them in the ground. The hurry is twofold; to minimize the stress on the baby trees, and to get them in the ground before the bugs arrive. I’d post a picture, but 100 baby trees spread over many acres doesn’t present well.

We put 50 bass trees into the forest, this season. The ash are almost all dead now–victims of the Emerald Ash Borer–though many remain standing. The beech trees are dying, too–beech bark disease. Beech Bark Disease is the result of an introduced insect, beech scale, combined with one of two native fungal infections. It takes both the insect, and the fungus to kill the trees. In the past few years the disease has been making its way west, and it’s estimated that Michigan will lose over 90 per cent of its beech trees. Rick and I have forest panic. We are desperate to plant our way ahead of the devastation. Though the insect involved in beech bark disease was introduced into Nova Scotia almost a hundred years ago, its impact here is recent. And fast. We feel we have no choice but to keep planting. The bass trees are a favorite of the bees, so it was an easy choice.

This year, spring came so late that the sellers (catalog and the Soil Conservation District) all had to delay their tree deliveries. You cannot plant in the snow. We had two major snow storms in April, leaving us knee deep in the white stuff at mid-month. It was the first time I saw people angry about the snow. Our local police blotter told of a woman  who reported a man on her block who was yelling and cursing. When the police arrived, the guy was surprised, and embarrassed. He’d been shoveling, yet again, and he was just venting. A lot of people felt that way.

I had a trip planned–to go downstate with my mum. Rick and I planted as many trees as we could–about seventy of them, before I had to leave. Rick heeled in the rest until my return, and now those are planted, too. Though Spring is late, the bugs are on time–and the past two days of planting were challenging. Black flies don’t care that the trees must be planted…they just want a bite of you, swarms of them all want a bite of you.

Now that the trees are in, we can concentrate on getting the bees ready. We are moving our bee yard up the hill, into the pines. That way they’ll be far from incidental human contact and out of sight. It’ll be cooler in the summer. There’s always a light breeze up there, and they’ll be partially shaded. Hot bees are not happy bees. Rick has already put the new fence up, and tomorrow I’ll sort through all the bee stuff and ready the hives. By the weekend the bees will be installed in their new digs.

In the meantime, we are starting to get the garden ready. That’ll be another few weeks of work. It will be interrupted, though, because I found a great craigslist deal–on blackberries. We want to put in a long hedge of blackberries to shield us from the cornfield on our south side. Blackberries grow fast (sometimes too fast) and they’ll give us a good wind break. So, next Monday we’ll pick up 200 blackberry plants and get those in, before returning to the garden project. The bees will love them.

It’s Spring. What can I say? It’s not for the faint of heart.

Earth Day Sale

A.V. Walters

Don’t get me wrong, I don’t want to rain on anybody’s parade. But really? I have a little trouble with the whole concept of ethical consumerism. Consumerism is the problem. I cannot celebrate it by putting a positive spin on it.

Sure, when you shop, buy smart. Do your research. Reuse, reduce, recycle. (And don’t forget repair!) I’ve never seen shopping as a leisure activity. I have a nice lifestyle–most of what I buy is food. My main purveyor of non-food items is craigslist. Nothing pleases me more than to find someone else’s cast-offs, repair them and give them new life.

I haven’t seen it yet, but I know it’s coming. I’m bracing myself for the Earth Day Sale–or a two-fer-one, or all-you-can-eat Earth Day restaurant coupon.

In the meantime, it’s Earth Day. Go outside. Pick up some litter–and make sure that you recycle it. I’m getting ready for our annual tree planting extravaganza. But today I’m doing bee events. Let’s all raise awareness of our precarious place on the planet and our individual, and singular role is setting things right.

Save the bees.