Saturday, July 13, 2013

Writing From Thursday

Where the chickens live.

Today I learned how to locate the carotid arteries of a chicken. Feeling the bird's throat, just below its ear, there is a soft spot in the triangle of flesh bracketed between the skull and the descending spinal cord. Or ascending spinal cord, as the case may be, with the chicken suspended upside-down in an aluminum cone, lulled into calmness by the fingers stroking its feet.

My fingertips, encountering this soft spot, provide a rough estimate of where the major blood vessels will be found. But they do not, themselves, play the role of finding the arteries. The arteries are found by the thin knife in my other hand. I ask the knife, “is this the place?” and it answers, I hope, a yes in deep red that promises that the chicken will be unconscious almost before it can register what's happened.

I am new to this question-and-answer, though, and the knife sometimes responds with “no.” Here instead is a windpipe, or a minor trickle of blood and a squawk of pain. When this happens a feeling of discomfort centered in the point where my jaw meets my ear demands that I ask again, apologetically, finding relief only in flowing affirmation of the end of a life.

I have never before killed something for food, or really much of anything more advanced than an insect. I've spent one summer raising beef cattle, and am partway through a summer raising chickens, turkeys, guineas, ducks, geese, goats and pigs, all of which are eventually food. But this step in the process is new to me. While it's not pleasurable, it does feel important. I'm not yet sure why, though. Do I know more now than I did before, aside from where those blood vessels reside? Do I understand something now that was hidden to me before?

Even if I'm still sorting out some of the reasons why, I do feel it to be an important piece of the process of understanding, in more than just the intellectual sense of knowing, the way in which energy from the sun interacts with the materials of earth to animate the fantastic web of living things in which we're all inextricably embedded.

New lives begin even as others end.

Each thing that falls feeds another's growth.
For two and a half weeks, a beautiful black Cochin chicken named St. Agnes' Daughter did me the service of incubating twelve small speckled eggs that were not her own. They were fertile Guinea Fowl eggs, a gift from another farmer. It was decided that raising a little flock of Guineas would be a good project for me to take on personally, so I built a cozy nest box and scraped a corner pen in the big blue chicken coop free of the seemingly ancient, solidified chicken manure that coated the floor.

The chicks are beautiful. Lightly striped with a lavender gray that hints at their future coloration, a pale blue-gray laced with white. Guinea Fowl originate in Africa and are raised both for food and for the role they can play in reducing pests like ticks on the farm. With Lyme disease a point of growing concern, Guineas may be an increasingly appreciated presence on small farms in the region. They are voracious hunters not just of ticks but supposedly anything small enough to eat, insect and reptile and rodent alike. They are also reputed to be excellent guard animals, with raucous voices that they raise whenever an intruder appears.

Less domesticated than chickens, Guineas are supposed to have a good bit of wild left in their natures. Managing them in spite of their instincts to roost in the woods, for example, may prove a serious future challenge. I still have a lot of learning to do.

I look forward in particular to learning the character of Guinea Fowl. Chickens, turkeys, ducks and geese all have different species-characters. Their are plenty of individual personalities within each species, of course, but there are certain actions and tendencies that are very “chicken” traits or very “duck” traits. So far I definitely prefer the species-characters of chickens and geese to those of ducks and turkeys. It will be interesting to see where Guineas fall on that spectrum.

It has not been a good season for vegetable crops. Rain is usually a good thing for a garden. Rain of varying duration appearing five days out of every six, and often as not in very heavy showers, can be a bit too much of a good thing. Rot takes a toll on root crops like onions and potatoes. A heavy rain just after I planted rows of carrots flooded that section of the field and many of those little seeds floated right up out of their shallow coverings of soil and are now growing as far as 20 feet from where I planted them. A good portion are in the strawberry patch.

We'll be borrowing a backhoe shortly. After we dig a ditch to improve the drainage of the garden field I hope to take advantage of the wet season by preparing part of the ditch for growing watercress. The field is wet enough as it is that there's already watercress here and there volunteering as weeds in my scattered carrot row.