Rich men have chickens

“If I were a rich man…
I’d fill my yard with chicks and turkeys and geese and ducks
For the town to see and hear
Squawking just as noisily as they can
With each loud “cheep” “squawk” “honk” “quack”
Landing like a trumpet on the ear
As if to say, ‘Here lives a wealthy man!'”

“I want to hear about chickens because we’re thinking about doing it, too.” I get that a lot. Now that we’re a year out from the start of our unfortunately short-lived chicken adventure, I’m really wishing we’d been able to keep them!

Although it seems like this started when I went away for a weekend and came home to find Aaron working on a half-built “play house” for our “future kids” in the garage, there is more history than I’ve mentioned before. The story of our chickens really begins two decades ago, when a little boy with long legs and a squeaky voice built an egg incubator and searched all natural habitats he could access in hopes of scoring a duck nest with eggs he could swipe and raise himself. Later he actually had a chicken business in the backyard, with a little flock of laying hens and funny anecdotes about training his dog to stay away from the chicks. (At one point he ran a home-made ice cream sandwich business, which I am hoping will resurrect itself in adulthood as well.) Just like his “mean” parents were hesitant about supplying fowl eggs, he grew up and got a “mean” wife who shot down his suggestions about chickens every spring with objections like, “We don’t have enough time,” “We’re probably going to move,” “They will make the backyard stink,” “It’s not actually going to save money,” and “If we’re committing to animals we should just get a dog, which is what we both really want anyway.”

As it turns out, every one of my objections about chickens actually came true, but it worked out after all. I was pretty ticked about this at first, and I could have put my foot down and stopped the whole thing right then, but I also realized it was providing a strong boost for Aaron when he was feeling very beaten down by a long, lonely stretch at the end of his PhD program. He needed to know his extreme life-long desire to understand everything about nature was a blessing, and that it didn’t only mean being locked in a lab for six years just because he was grown-up and reasonably smart. I tried to bite my tongue for the most part, but I stipulated that he was responsible for ALL chicken work and the coop had to be cleaned as often as I wanted when the weather warmed up. We’ve since agreed that decisions of that financial and personal scope require two “yes” votes no matter what, but I came around when they started laying and now I’m bummed we didn’t get them sooner to enjoy more eggs and hilarity. Our new neighborhood isn’t zoned for chickens, but I’m very interested in getting another coop next time we move!

So, for people thinking about chickens, here are a few things we’ll consider next time..
The Coop: 
Aaron built our coop and we were really happy with the A-frame on stilts that could be moved around the yard.  I would probably think about adding wheels to a future coop for easier moving. This was almost  too heavy to move around. It can be done, but if it couldn’t be made lighter, I think at least one set of wheels would be easier.

DSC05796I don’t think our yard was quite big enough for a coop of this size because the chickens’ scratching and eating in the pen was rough on our grass, even when we moved it every day. We had a particularly dry summer and we were very concerned about keeping the grass up in case we had to sell the house, so it might have been fine in a different year. We will do more research about the best ratios of coop-to-yard size next time. We weren’t fenced in, so full free-ranging wasn’t ever an option, but that would have lessened the “patchy” impact, too.

The Chickens:
This is probably an issue no one else will have, but Aaron is particularly nerdy and an obsessive perfectionist about these things, so we went through several breeds of chicks. In future years, we’d just try one or two new kinds every other year and live with the fact that there might  be a breed out there that would eat a little less and produce a little more. We tried Rhode Island Reds, Barred Rocks, and a California Grey hybrid, eventually landing with two Rhodies and two Californias for our flock. I think we’ll start with the California Greys next time (even though I like brown eggs better) and branch out from there.
DSC05559Who Should Get Chickens: 
Everyone. They are amazing. Okay… you should make sure you’re zoned for them, and petition your township/city to rezone or give you permission if you’re not!  Even though it worked out for us, I would NOT recommend spending this much money or getting animals if your roommates or spouse aren’t on board. And while they are lots of fun, I don’t think we saved any money on eggs, because the cost of their food alone was just about what we would have spent on eggs anyway. The extra benefits were huge for us — it made composting easier and more fun, the eggs were delicious and easily shared with friends, everyone’s kids wanted to come over and see the chickies, and it was fun to have a non-house project to work on together. I think chickens would be a great “pet” for kids, because they don’t require as much upkeep as a puppy or kitten, and they lay eggs instead of… something else. And it could be a great first business for your kid, because all your neighbors would pay top dollar if your adorable child went door-to-door selling eggs from “Li’l Johnny’s Chicken Emporium.” (We are already planning as much for our family and I might have already worked on a possible company name and logo.)

What We Learned:
-Don’t invest in livestock without talking to your spouse and having full agreement.
-Know when to let it go (for me, this meant having chickens) and when to stand firm (but still making him do all the work).
-Chickens were much more fun than I expected.
-We absolutely want to have them again.
-For us and where we were at, chickens were a sorry placeholder for the puppy we really wanted. So now we have Max, and I’m really excited that someday we will have dogs and chickens!  (I’m also starting to think about bees, if we have more room someday…)
-Most importantly, we experienced a lot of God’s tender care at the end of our time with these chickens in passing them on to some little girls who were VERY EXCITED to be getting pets, and these memories are filled with with great reminders of God’s love and provision for us in all circumstances.

chicken Collage

 

Lord, who made the lion and the lamb,
You decreed I should be what I am.
Would it spoil some vast eternal plan,
If I were a wealthy man?

–“If I were a Rich Man,” from Fiddler on the Roof.

{formed & fallen} overlap

DSC05727

It is a very, very strange thing to be carrying a child who is exactly half-way gestated on the same day doctors would have said a different, older child should be completely at term. In the shocked, overwhelming beginning of this pregnancy, I felt like loving the baby we have was a way of betraying the one we had just lost. Sometimes now loving the other one seems like a betrayal of the one who -by some miracle I cannot yet wrap my mind around- grows right on schedule and has all the right body parts, frequently jabbing them into the walls of the home my own body provides. The other miscarriages were spaced far enough apart that the pregnancies would not have overlapped in any way, so this is a new sort of grieving. (I am not complaining – I think the bittersweet path that leads to a baby in your arms is far preferable to the one that just seems bitter, but it’s a little more intense.)

There was a day in July when I took three naps and developed a blister under my ring, and while I was sick of hoping for news of a baby coming… I knew it was happening. After the Wal-Mart test confirmed this, my college room-mate squealed on the phone with me even though she was in a library in Indiana, and I put a sign on the big blue chicken coop to tell Aaron he had someone even more important to take care of. We hugged and he hoped for a cute little girl like the one he had seen at lunchtime with little braids over her shoulders. I slept a lot – A LOT. I shared the anxious joy of close due-dates with someone dear who had a similar history to me and we prayed for two healthy babies to come this spring.

Just a few weeks later, I bossed my midwife’s new nurse around when the dread crept over me, demanding blood tests that proved I was right to be concerned. Arriving  home from the decisive ultrasound that showed a way-too-small baby who never even had a heartbeat, my computer was playing a song called, “God will take care of you.” To this day I have no idea how it ever got into my music library in the first place. I sat on the couch and sobbed while the friend who had squealed earlier read me Psalms over the phone.

Then I was relieved and guilty about how great it felt to not be sick anymore, and I thought making the announcement sign for the chicken coop -still folded on Aaron’s dresser as if to taunt me- was the dumbest thing I’d ever done. I sat around and it took hours to get anything accomplished. I painted my toenails. I begged Aaron for a puppy. I told him I hated our house, I didn’t want to have kids anymore, and I wanted to pretend like none of this even happened in the first place.

Summer trips were not cancelled, so I drove to Michigan alone and listened to the last Harry Potter audiobook, where Harry prepares for battle by internalizing the inscription on his parents’ graves: “The last enemy to be destroyed is death.” It had to be my rallying cry, too. My belly was swollen with death, and I made sure to sip wine conspicuously while giving a too-morbid toast at my sister’s wedding, praying that no one would make awkward baby comments to me because I just wasn’t ready to go there. (It felt very strange to hope I just looked chubby.) I hate that negativity seems so much stronger than truth, because the only thing I remember about finally breaking the news to friends and family was hearing that, “God just wants you to get settled after Aaron gets a job and THEN have a baby. You have too much going on to think about that right now!” That still hurts. I’m sure many people told us they loved us and they were sorry.

And while I spent the weeks after in a haze of confusing blood tests, there was so much love all around. I remember the beautiful postcard from the squealing psalm-reader, old friends who visited from afar with gourmet cheeses and Cabernet Sauvignons, and friends nearby who cleaned my closets and made me leave the house with them and brought us meals for weeks. Meals! For weeks! They made my life infinitely easier and cut our household spending that month by almost the exact amount of all the co-pays and lab fees associated with the whole debacle. I heard that song about God’s care ringing in my head every time I heated a meal, paid a bill, and wrote a thank-you note. Was I “over” it? No. Was I cared for? Yes.

Sometimes I still get really angry thinking it would have been better if I hadn’t even been pregnant, or wondering why we couldn’t have just had this baby then. Why mess with the heartache if we were going to get a healthy baby a few months later anyway? I marvel at the ironic mystery that God still said yes to some of the early prayers of anxious summer joy — two babies (healthy twins!) arrived last week for the people we shared our due date with. (I also got the puppy I asked for! hooray, hooray!) None of this makes any sense yet. It might always be like that. Sometimes not knowing is a gift, even when it doesn’t seem that way.

Today I know beyond any doubt that I was created for eternity, proved like C.S. Lewis says, by desires and love that cannot be satisfied by anything on earth. I dearly love two babies, each formed in the image of God, and the strange timing of these pregnancies does not diminish either of them. Both of their lives are worth celebrating, even if I’m not sure how to do it. And my current pregnancy with Li’l Kicker here does not remedy the real problem of any of my miscarriages. Any death happens because of the fall, and while it is very normal to especially long for a miraculous pregnancy, there is no promise that anyone will definitely have a baby, or that having a baby takes away the sting of death. A child always a gift, never a guarantee. I can’t expect this coming baby to answer these questions when I know I have never lacked the only promised child I have ever needed. The remedy for the consequences of the fall is the gospel, not having a baby.

“Since by man came death, by man came also the resurrection of the dead… for as in Adam all die, even so in Christ shall all be made alive.” – I Corinthians 15

“God so loved the world that He gave his one and only son, that whosoever believes in Him shall not perish but have everlasting life.” – John 3:16

{Mary consoles Eve} by  Sr. Grace Remington, OCSO

{Mary consoles Eve} by Sr. Grace Remington, OCSO … (yes, I know it is Jesus who crushes the serpent)

I will rejoice and be glad in your steadfast love, because you have seen my affliction; you have known the distress of my soul. – Psalm 31:7

 

 

livestock update

The chickens are still well. We have settled our coop down with two black Barred Rocks, two Rhode Island Reds, and two California white hybrids. We aren’t too far away from collecting eggs. They should be laying in a month or so!

Aaron wanted to give the new birds names that silly kids would give them, so he chose Snowflake and Sugar. I suggested the spelling “Snoflak” since that would make it even more authentic, but Aaron says that’s overthinking it. Oh well. He picked these names on behalf of all the children in all the world. Since he is a man of such generous heart, I imagine he willl probably go to Dunkin Donuts and eat some donuts on their behalf soon, too.

DSC05559

 

We also had a little visitor in a window well a few weeks ago. Neighbors on both sides of us have dogs, so the bunny situation gets out of hand sometimes. This year we had a little baby running around in a window well, and Aaron got him out. His mommy was waiting for him, but I still wanted to try domesticating the little thing.
baby bunnyHe could have been a good addition to the coop, but we decided against adding more animals right now. Well. Aaron smirked at me and set the bunny down to hop over to his mama. Hopefully he doesn’t return and try to eat out of the garden!

{cute graphic via Karen Watson}

{cute graphic via Karen Watson}

at capacity

Several months ago, I realized anyone who compared the things I claim to value to the things my calendar claimed I valued would think I was crazy. I probably was. It definitely felt like it. So I had to do some cutting back, getting rid of good things that I wanted to do, and the only rationalization was that they were (innocently) choking the life out of the things that were necessary. This was the hardest and wisest thing I have done yet this year, and I’ve seen much good come out of it. (I found this post on marriage encouraging during the process of schedule-culling.)

saturday am

One of the things that I was a little embarrassed to protect in the revised Spring schedule was times like this one. I really need some time for hot coffee and morning reading built into my weekend schedule. Nothing else works if I don’t get this in before the weekly grind spills over into the rest of my weekend. Really, there is no good reason for a Christian to feel bad about putting non-negotiable boundaries around their practice of a sabbath rest, but these things always make more sense when you look at it in retrospect.

I started this morning feeling disappointed, used up, exhausted, uncertain, and fully inadequate for the tasks ahead of me, nagged by the thought that this shouldn’t be happening because I have all the skills necessary to tackle my responsibilities. My relationship with Oswald Chambers ebbs and flows, but I find myself invariably turning back to this old copy of My Utmost for His Highest when I am frustrated or wanting something that isn’t happening. I read it every day the year Aaron was in Iraq and it feels comforting to revisit the graces that sustained me then.

saturday am promises

“We must not measure our spiritual capacity by education or by intellect; our capacity in spiritual things is measured by the promises of God. …When it is a question of God’s Almighty Spirit, never say “I can’t.” …Never forget that our capacity in spiritual matters is measured by the promises of God. Is God able to fulfill His promises?” – Oswald Chambers, My Utmost for His Highest, April 20.

The other thing at capacity in our lives? Our chicken ownership. We had just the right amount for our coop, but Aaron succumbed to the cuteness of baby chicks and brought a few more home. He came up from the garage mid-day last week when I had a break in piano lessons and said something like, “I just want you to think about how much you love me… and how much you love things that are little and soft before you go down to the laundry room.”

sunny chick

Surprise! Though the timing was close, I’m not letting him pass this off as a birthday present. And unfortunately, this isn’t an exotic colored breed; that purple mark is just from a Farmer’s marker.

It’s hard to get or stay mad at someone who brought you home some baby chicks. It seems that Space Dad is becoming a total softie. And if you don’t hear from us for a while, please check in and make sure we’re not accidentally becoming chicken farmers.

“….without fathom.”

It goes without saying that our chicks started off pretty cute. Then they got little tail-feathers and that was still cute, but it went downhill from there. As they grew, they got a little bit brattier and much, much stinkier.  Apparently this is typical of adolescent chickens as well as humans. We also sent two of the Barred Rocks (Black-and-White) to a new home, since we only wanted four and were pleasantly surprised that all six survived their first few weeks in the box.

coop outside

In recent days, they moved out of their box in the laundry room and currently reside in a stylish navy blue coop in our backyard. They won’t be laying eggs until August, so we’ve entered a less-than-exciting phase of chicken tending.

chickens outside

I have always been very opposed to the idea of “Furbabies,” where people consider their animals as important as kids and call themselves “Mommy” and “Daddy” to the pets. However, we don’t have any children or even regular pets running around, and the chicks are definitely getting an extra dose of our doting while we teach them to do things their moms would have taught them on a farm. The solution has been to narrowly escape the “furbaby” category by claiming a special title for ourselves as caregivers. The idea came from Megamind, one of our favorite movies. (If you haven’t seen it, don’t judge the whole movie based on this one-minute clip. The full-length feature is quite a hoot!)

Last night, after he successfully impelled the chickens to use their ramp independently, Aaron gave a perfect impersonation of this scene, saying, “I am the Chicken’s Space Dad and my chicken-training abilities are unfathomable…. they can’t be fathomed… they are without fathom.” Since I’m less involved with their activities, I get to be the “Space Step Mom.” What can I say? I’ve had some work done recently.

do they have large talons?

“Do the chickens have large talons?”
“Do they have what?”
“Large talons.”
“I don’t understand a word you just said.”
— Napoleon Dynamite (Paramount Pictures, 2004)

This is not going to become an organic-chicken-raising urban-farming blog, but here are a few more updates for our chicks’ devoted fans.

1) The fuzz is on the way out. This Rhode Island Red is Golda. She is displaying her fancy wings and (let’s be honest here) the cutest tail feathers of all time.

tail feather

2) I can’t tell the Barred Rock chicks apart and we might give some of them away, so two names rotate between all four. This little lady might be Winifred or Simone. She is displaying her talons.
talon

3) You can get another peek at all six in this video – they are still reasonably adorable and like to peck their beaks on the side of their box.

a box of chicks

After trying to convince me his little project was for our future children, Aaron finally confessed that his “play house” wasn’t for kids, it was for chickens. And he told me if I ever put a child in this coop, whether it was ours or someone else’s, he would probably call Child Protective Services, but that our future chickens would really like it. Since Aaron had a great experience raising hens when he was a kid and we both harbor secret urban homesteading fantasies, we’ve been talking about chickens every spring for four years. They have always been in the long-term plan, and whenever one of us works on anything in our shed Aaron talks about transforming it into a coop. He realized chickens were legal in our city and when he discovered the massive supply of DIY-coop-building plans from other hippy-ish blogs, there was no turning back. We just happened to go to a farm supply store this weekend and… now the rest is history:  We have six little chickens in our laundry room. (This is the year of MAKING IT HAPPEN, after all.)

I do want to say that I didn’t have animals growing up (except a hamster named Pecan, may she rest in peace), so this is pretty new to me. I have firmly indicated that I am not interested in raising any cloven-hoofed animals, but I could probably be convinced to get a horse if resources allowed and we had kids who would manage the riding and caring. I’m pretty sure no one is reading this for my treatise on hobby farming – you just want pictures of the chicks. I will happily oblige.

1) Chicks at the store. We couldn’t leave them there: chicks 12) Transporting them home in a box:
chicks 23) Aaron carefully observing them. He is such an animal-lover that I can’t believe we haven’t had anything serious until now:
chicks 34) The chicks enjoying their temporary box home in the laundry room:
chicks 4…But, wait! There’s more! I TOOK VIDEOS. Indulge yourself as you see fit.

Aren’t they cute!? I’ve heard they might even stay this way for a few days.

Vander Port preparations!

“I don’t think you should get your hopes up for this wedding dress trip, Mrs. Hummel, because I have two sisters just like you and I’ve gone shopping with them both before.  I don’t think there is anything fun about it. You’re probably going to be really disappointed.” – a nine-year-old boy in my piano studio.

My first Sabbath of Lent started off with a sudden burst of tears. While I scrambled eggs before church, Aaron showed me a meteorologist’s report indicating a big snowstorm for the end of the week, and said I should prepare myself to make a hard decision about my weekend plans: driving (solo) to Michigan for a special day of wedding dress shopping for my sister Bethany, who is getting married in July. I knew Midwestern road trips in February were never a sure thing when I put this on my calendar, but facing the reality of a predicted blizzard in an area not known for decent road conditions was entirely disheartening.

Almost everyone I know heard my tale of woe during the week, and many faithfully prayed this trip would work out for me. With three sibling weddings coming up this summer, extra time to visit and prepare for the big day(s) are a luxury, so it is likely this dress shopping trip would be my only time to celebrate with Beth before her nuptials. This was it! The trip HAD to happen! And then my prayers were mercifully answered with a very light snowstorm so I could travel safely. This probably came at the expense of children all over my county who hoped and prayed for a snow day from school. I hurried through the local library and grabbed some random audio CDs off the shelf to keep me company on the road.

I listened to Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother by Amy Chua during my drive. I cried when she spoke of her sister’s cancer diagnosis, and it made me so glad I was going to spend this weekend with my own sisters. After I arrived and recovered from the car time, my mom and all three of us girls spent a long Saturday shopping for a wedding gown. We watched Beth start off nervous and quiet, (probably overwhelmed by thousands of yards of lace, satin, taffeta, ruffles, ruching, sparkles, and appliques)  transforming through the day into a confident, comfortable, well-spoken Bride – with the perfect dress to match! I wiped a few tears when she first wore it. Grandma had to stay home nursing an injured knee cap, so we took secret forbidden iPhone pictures for her.

After all this hoopla, we ended our Saturday with a party celebrating the engagement with both sides of the new family. Now that she’s engaged to Isaac, Beth is marrying into a family of our old home-school friends. (Aaron and I even went to college with the oldest brother and his wife.) During the past ten years of friendship we’ve all known we would somehow become related, since “they have boys and we have girls,” and we have called ourselves “The Vander Ports,” a combination of our last names, for years during our movie nights and beach parties. For a while it wasn’t clear where the romantic connection would eventually happen to bring brother-sister friendships into an official capacity, but Beth and Isaac are finally making good friends into a big extended family. We made plans for the wedding and swapped stories, laughing until we cried on more than one occasion.

vanderports

The Vander Ports (minus Caleb) — best wedding party ever! 

Then I cried a bit when I had to leave on Sunday morning. We chose to move forward with Aaron’s PhD knowing that this career was not ever going to bring us back to the same towns (or state, probably) as our families, but it’s really draining that the current distance requires such sacrifices to get back and forth. During that long trip back, I listened to A Mighty Heart by Mariane Pearl, and I sniffled along with her tale of love and sacrifice, losing her husband Danny at the hands of Islamic terrorists in Pakistan. My story isn’t the same as hers, but she hit me hard; I was very ready to be home and celebrate that my husband was alive. When I arrived, I found Aaron working on a project in the garage. He says it is an A-frame playhouse for our future kids. I think it looks suspiciously like a chicken coop, which he recently mentioned was legal in our neighborhood.

chicken coop Oh, my!

(It seems like there was altogether WAY too much crying over such a great weekend, no?)