Thursday, May 29, 2008

Chicken love

On the left, we see Emily with her favorite chicken. When I see this one, I think of Foghorn Leghorn listening to that other cartoon bird, who says "I'm a chicken hawk, and you're a chicken. You're coming with me." (doesn't this one look a bit hawk-like?)

On the right, we see Emily's favorite chicken running away as soon as she lets it go.
Loving chickens is a decidedly one-sided affair. Yes, they come to the side of the cage every time we come to see them - because they think we're going to feed them. And often enough, we do. But they certainly just tolerate our affections - calmly enough, especially Hazel's chickens, two small, docile hens who seem to just give up on running away while she's handling them. But they also don't come to her eagerly.
We did have a chicken death, leaving us now with 21. Unfortunately, this was a hen, and the one who we came to think of as Manny's chicken, for the boy down the street who held her most often. Thank goodness, she did not die due to children's handling, but of unknown causes, as we found her in the cage next to the feed trough. Emily is worried about hers (and worried about what we will do with the roosters), but otherwise, we are all weathering the loss well. Hazel helped me bury her, and that was that.
Chicken love is fickle and heartbreaking at times, but still, we enjoy them, feathers, beaks, claws, and all.

Monday, May 26, 2008

The Pool Season begins

Saturday the pool opened, and now we begin the season of chlorinated hair, sunscreen, eating dinner at the pool, and chatting with friends poolside while our children exhaust themselves. Because we walk there, we get a tiny dose of nature on our way there, but it is a totally different world from spending a day outside on a trail, or in the yard with the chickens.
For opening day, it was quite cold. I barely lasted in the water for 10 fast laps, and I wasn't any warmer at the end than after the first one. The girls got in and out several times, but eventually they found other entertainment. The bushes around the pool were covered with what my husband later identified as sawfly larvae - but they were just caterpillars to non-entomologists. The girls and two friends collected a whole bowlful, and twice we ran home to feed the caterpillars to the chickens. I anticipate that when the pheremone traps for Japanese beetles are set later in the summer, we're going to be emptying those into the chicken coop as well.
We also did all the usual first day of pool season events - limbo, line dancing, spray-on hair color, ice cream sundaes. Then Sunday, we went to see the Pirates play (they beat the Cubs 6-5 in 11 innings, after a very entertaining error by the Cubs right fielder let us make a tie game); we came home, and went back to the pool. Today, we went to a meeting at my work, and then went to...the pool. It's a tough life, here in O'Hara township, living 100 yards away from the pool.

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Two characters

I'd like to introduce two chickens today, Honker and Topnotch. At left, you see Honker, so named because he is so honking big - easily twice the size of some of the little hens. He isn't particularly aggressive to other chickens, but he is the flock guardian, and pecks at any fingers which go near the cage. Honker is not long for this flock, as a result.

Topnotch is not so easily photographed, because s/he doesn't come near the door when I open it. Topnotch is hard to catch, but distinctive to pick out. Our neighbor calls this chicken Mohawk. We started with the assumption that Topnotch is a boy, for the rather illogical reason that only roosters could be this - sorry Topnotch - ugly. However, Topnotch is not aggressive with other chickens or with our hands, so perhaps Topnotch is, um, striking in her appearance. The downcurved beak gives an impression of ill temper which is not justified.

Friday, May 16, 2008

A Better Looking Coop

After only about a week and a half of living with my first coop, I got tired of its inadequacies, and finally worked more on a coop which I hope will last the summer. This is heavy as can be - I did not splurge on lightweight, rot-resistant cedar, but instead used scrap 2x4's from our shed, plus a couple of pieces of plywood, plus extra roofing shingles and two new wheels from Home Depot. The axle situation probably won't last, but at least now the chickens will have more grass under their feet and more space to stay dry, and the coop moves well for now. This young rooster clearly associates me with either food or freedom. The roosters have started pecking at my fingers when I reach into change their water. This is not a good survival tactic!
Tonight I'm taking the girls with me back to Raccoon Creek State Park. I spent the night there last night in a shelter, with 5 students but no children. I slept pretty well, when the young woman next to me wasn't desperately and fearfully searching for scratching mice with her flashlight. Then we'll see if we can get up early, for tomorrow's soccer games.

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Nature Hike vs. Forced March

One of the joys of my teaching job is that sometimes I get to teach really cool things. Thanks to my friend and colleague Kerri, who I bonded with over the Rachel Carson Trail last June, I am now co-teaching a backpacking class. It is basically a bit of Nature 101 for college students.

We took a long hike yesterday, at McConnell's Mill State Park, on the Slippery Rock Gorge Trail, 6.2 miles of variable terrain. The girls went with me, and I was a bit nervous about this. However, one thing I love about my children is that they are game for a trail, especially with food along. Emily hiked the whole thing, and I carried Hazel for perhaps half of it - but 3 miles is a long way for a five year old, and I was really impressed with both of them. Moreover, they kept up a good pace - which was a good thing given that the hike started at 5 pm. I told Emily afterward that I was particularly impressed that she can hike almost as many miles as her age (8), which I think is actually an impressive feat for almost any age.

I love nature walks, and though this was in nature, it wasn't quite a nature hike. My cousin Brigid takes her grandsons on "adventure walks" - low mileage, slow pace, but noticing everything on the way and probably picking up quite a lot of rocks and bugs en route. Her adventure hikes sound like my idea of a good nature walk. I'd rather have had this be a long nature hike, but given the late start, I was afraid it would be a forced march instead, especially because once we got in the car together we really did have to go the whole way, no turning back. The situation made me a bit nervous. We stepped in a number of streams but couldn't play for long; we saw a number of flowers and couldn't stop to admire much; I knew if Hazel got too tired I could carry her a lot, but not the whole way. We passed a lot of rocks and logs and couldn't spend energy climbing on any of them. We ate dinner on the trail, but it was fruit leathers, peanut butter or nutella and bread.

So I don't know what the kids got out of it, but I know this: we all slept well, we stopped for doughnuts on the way home, the girls showed a lot of courage and stamina and fortitude and even, often enough, playfulness. When the footing got rough, Hazel delighted in being able to nimble over it much better than I; when the hills got steep, Emily complained gently and good-naturedly, and kept up a good pace right on up the slope (I like to think that having an 8 year old do the hike so well makes the students realize they can do it, but in truth this class has a bunch of good hikers in it already). The girls did a great job, and I am really, really proud of them. I will try to make sure we don't have too many hikes like this, but I know that when we need to, they can do it, beautifully.

Tuesday, May 6, 2008

The Bedtime Creeps Later

This week has been an important one at school for Emily: PSSA testing. No, I have no idea what those initials stand for, but apparently it is one of these tests which BOTH tells the school and teachers how well they're doing and tells them how Lake Wobegon my eldest child is. As parents, we were instructed to feed our children good breakfasts and make sure they get good sleep all week.

Sunday night, the girls were in bed at 8:30, the light was out at 9:00 sharp. This is our goal time, and when I achieve this they generally wake up on their own for school without too much prodding. It was not dark out when they climbed in bed, and Emily noticed this and asked why she was going to bed so early...

Monday night I also tried to be good. They were probably in bed at 8:45, light out by 9:15. They woke up fine this morning, but it was definitely a creep into the direction of summer nights and out late.

Tonight, I mowed again - darn this nice grass growing weather! It was exhausting. I cooked a bit of chicken (from the fridge - still 22 in the cage!) and my husband sauteed the latest mushroom we grew in a kit under the sink (this kit was my birthday present; when I get the first portobello I'll post a photo). At 8:30, he notes that we should make the girls come in, as they were still out playing in our new hammock. Perhaps they were in bed by 9:00. Perhaps the light was out at 9:30.

Sometimes I think we have this regular bedtime for children thing all wrong. In winter, we should all sleep late and go to bed early - some sort of semi-hibernation. In late spring, when the days are long like this, we should wake up early and play outside all we can stand, and drag ourselves to bed only when the stars come out.

But in any case, tomorrow morning Emily will have PSSA testing. I hope the school, the teachers, and Emily all come out looking rosy. But I promised them that at the end of this week, we can stay outside late, and I have to say, I think they'll get more out of that experience than anything with a pencil and a bubble sheet.

Saturday, May 3, 2008

Mowing season again

First off - I can't take credit for the photo (my colleague Roxanne) or for the occasion - my colleague Mary taught a class, in which one of the class projects was a demonstration of non-gas mowers. I can only take credit for the mower, my lovely Brill, with which I just mowed our half-acre lawn (OK, probably a third, when you remove house and garden areas) this evening, while the kids played ball and harassed their chickens.

Reel mowing isn't normally as easy as the lovely student makes it seem. First, I set the height a bit high, so that her mowed swaths don't actually show any differently from the uncut lawn, but more importantly so she could move the thing in her outfit. My lawn was overgrown this evening, so many sections required backing up and mowing again over the same spot.

But it is every bit as pleasant as she makes it look. It is quiet, and while she was demonstrating she was walking with friends and telling them about it while they mowed. Try that with a gas, or even electric, mower! When the girls yell to tell on each other or to tell me what their chickens are doing, I can hear them, and the moment I stop moving, the small amount of noise I am making (a rhythmic spinny clicking noise) stops instantly. The world smells pleasant while I use it (don't ask how I smell when I'm done). Since I don't normally wear heels for mowing, I don't do double duty by aerating the lawn, as our lovely model is doing. However, I find it easy to mow around my favorite patches of bluets, hawkweed, or yarrow. The mower won't even cut twigs, so I never worry about it cutting off little or big people's fingers or toes. I can hear the birds sing on summer evenings, while mowing.

And once a week, my workout doesn't require that I go running on streets with no sidewalks, nor does it require biking miles from home without the children. I get a great workout, upper and lower body both, mowing my yard. There is a local auto shop, called Fossil Free Fuels, which will convert your diesel vehicle to run gracefully on straight veggie oil. I'm not mechanical, so this is my Fossil Free venture. The neighbors comment at times on me doing this the hard way, and I know this mower isn't for everyone. But it is, unquestionably, the mower for me.

Even if I don't look quite this lovely using it.