Five-Sixths

Figure 1. The five eggs delivered and collected on Sunday, September 10. First egg was August 18 (credit to Cinnabon, a cinnamon queen). 延

Today’s five eggs confirm that five of the six hens are laying; until today, we had thought the number was four. Egg laying is, given the coop’s nesting box and roost area configurations, a private event, though it is common for one hen to stay in the run, to abide a sisterly and supportive-appearing proximity to the layer for the duration of laying.

The eggs referred us back to the Rural King labeling on the day we purchased the chicks, April 19, because we had thought we purchased two cinnamon queens, two black sex-links, a buff brahma, and a calico princess. As Bitumen and Lightfoot (who now also goes by Lightning, because she is the fastest to exit scene for the deep woods any time a predatory threat presents itself) have matured, their plumage and personalities have distinguished them, especially the brown RBG-like “dissent collar” on Bitumen, and the pearl-hued ears on Lightfootning. We are not entirely sure whether or not Bitumen or Fluffy Foot (the buff brahma) is the last to lay, but we suspect it is Bitumen. And with this comes some genealogical suspense, in that the eggshell hues thus far have suggested Bitumen and Lightfoot are different breeds after all.

Bitumen bears out all of the features and mannerisms of a black sex-link, and particularly the Black Copper Marans rooster she would, if she could, call dad. Bitumen’s ancestor Marans (and contemporary cousins) tend to lay brown-shelled eggs there along the mid-coastline of France. But Lighfoot, on the other wing, lays blue eggs, and this suggests she is a Black Ameraucana whose ancestry is therefore Chilean. Whichever of the other four are laying or not, their qualities map to what the Radford Rural King sign-posted: Cinnabon and Tiny Honey are cinnamon queens who lay nearly every day, Fluffy Foot is a buff brahma, and Big Sweetie, a calico princess. We’ve learned more about thisand care more about these distinctionsthan we could have anticipated four months ago. Chickens have been relegated by most to a certain kind of skewed global food mythology as an abundant, homogenous, if largely inobservable (before market), source. This mixed flock is a patient, persistent, and nuanced teacher, affirming every day that our avian imaginary has fallen more toward the consumptive-extractive, less toward sustaining kinship-mutualism, than can (or should) last.

Pecking Orders

“Pecking orders” have transcended the barnyard. A well-run metaphor, though not a dead metaphor, exactly, but verging on clich矇 to the point of let’s call it a palliative metaphor, pecking orders name the hierarchy performed within a flock. Hen one, hen two, hen three, etc.; they behave as though they know who is first, who is not. Something appearing pecking-order-like plays out when the coop door opens in the morning and down the ladder they hop. Similar patterns show up with eating, whether crumble or pellets or treats.

But pecking orders also change (indicating they might be communicable, even rhetorical, though that’s not today’s trajectory). They are more contingent than I think they tend to be credited with, especially when pecking orders are invoked as shorthand explanation for human hierarchic structures, like those one might find in a workplace. I’m relatively new to shepherding chickens, but at least for this Wonder Hollow mixed flock, pecking order is never as strict as a higher ed org chart because the flock is holarchic.

Holons, from the Greek for “whole,” hearken to synecdoche and also to network studies, for they are simultaneously part and whole, these structural-organizational alternatives to isolable, part-parsed groupings. The holarchy has no top and no bottom. Connections are varyingly lateral. With this, rank may be a temporary function of sequencing, but the sequencing is not reinforced by strict, enduring power skews. Rank gives, reshuffles, holding on to repeatable patterns while bending to mood, moment, and context. Holarchy is, in this example, observably friendly. Today Tiny Honey eats first, Lightfoot second. Tomorrow, Bitumen is first, Big Sweetie is next. Etcetera.

The flock as super-organism is more important. This, I suppose, is a lot like faculty shared governance. Cup an ear to all voices. Let mutualism guide. What is best is not dictated executively by a top bird who has not (whether not ever, or not yet) listened. Granted, I am fusing frames and playing a bit; chickens are not administrators, nor faculty. But the point is that the phrase “pecking orders” does not bear fidelity when lifted from the gallusphere and plunked into non-avian organizational structures, except when those organizational structures are guided by mutualism and cooperation of a larger magnitude. “Pecking order” strains against hierarchy because the flock’s well-being is paramount.

Sum-Sum-Sum

Figure 1. Bitumen observing “Bitumen on the Run Swing.”

So signals the end of summer “fata morgana” break, 2023, an occasion I mark today with a low grade fever, scratchy throat, and raw-rusted cough crossed between smashberried larynx and tetanus positive muffler. However, I did manage both to get the Virginia vehicle inspection tended to this morning AND double back to the DMV for round two of Virginia driver’s license (round one ending with DMV employee chorus singing “systems are down”), so, yeah, not an entirely unproductive day in the category of administering a life, even if I did lie on the couch for a couple of hours watching old Barker-era Price Is Right episodes, while sipping Vernors and thinking I don’t know how to feel about the fact that many of the people on this program (studio audience, contestants, etc.) have by now ferried across the Styx.

Among the goings-on this summer have been

  1. Emptying the Ypsi condo of its last and not least things, carting them to Virginianotably 500 miles with a tiny Uhaul trailer on the Fourth of Julyand then listing the condo for sale. If all continues to go as planned, it’ll close next week.
  2. With Virginia neighbors, organizing and responding to a proposed rubble landfill that, had it gone through, would have sent thousands of loaded dump trucks rumbling down our too-narrow gravel road over a decade.
  3. Hosting several friends and family for meals and get-togethers, which, while altogether enjoyable, has gradually become more of a chicken de-feces-ing ritual, given that the mixed flock frequents the porch and that each of the six defecates on average (like all chickens) 50 times per day.
  4. Sorting out the critter seal-off in the attic of the upper shed, declaring it hardware clothed at the seams and squirrel free by mid-late July, then moving shelves from the lower shop to the back shed, demo-ing gnarly bird-nested insulation in the lower shop, replacing the insulation and fitting replacement wallboard. Good as new? Hard to say. New was 1987, Sheena Easton. But it’s on track for becoming good as well-used, becoming usable and, eventually, useful again. I also confirmed that the electrical overload issues in the lower shop were from the heat lamps for the chicks in April, which likely overloaded the circuit breaker. Wall plugs are on just a 15 amp breaker, and it breaks irregularly, likely needing to be replaced. But in terms of electrical wiring, the rest of it is all fine bzzt and good zzp.
  5. Adding a 9th tattoo, Bitumen on the Run Swing. Thanks to Janet Nelson, on August 1, I had set in ink the moment when Bitumen was spotted out the window taking a first (and only?) turn on the decorative swing in the chicken run, fiercely leaned in but balanced, pumping her wings for max height, a gathering of that rare intense glee of 1980s recesses when swinging highest was a felt accomplishment and highlight of a school day.
  6. iPad Procreate drawing not as much as I hoped to, but something like seven drawings with a few mock-ups in progress.
  7. Ending a ten year turn as Writing Program Administrator, between EMU and VT. From June 30 through July 20 or so, I put up an out of office response, but then I learned that it probably wasn’t necessary, since I was getting so few emails and anyone reaching out to me by that point likely knew I was WPA emeritus. And this is probably as big of a deal as anything else that happened this summer, though Bitumen’s swinging for outer space is far more tattoo-worthy. It’s a very different feeling not to be sitting in an administrative appointment, and especially not to be suffering the swells of unpredictable and unregulated email influxes. I don’t miss that one bit. The next horizon, though, remains somewhat unclear, but for right now I am working on not leaping too quickly or conclusively into a next-nuther big project nor reaching any grand conclusions about hard-set paths.
  8. Attending a couple of webinars on AI and academic freedom, reading around on AI well enough to form an approach I will be morally satisfied with in my teaching throughout the year ahead, and pacing on review tasks for article manuscripts and P&T letters, though I am possibly overcommitted on these and wishingagain!that I hadn’t taken on as much. Slow to learn risks becoming “he never learned that lesson.”
  9. And more, always more, forever more: a copperhead the chickens alerted us to the other day but that got away before I could reach it, switching from HughestNet to Starlink so we finally have sufficient internet speeds at home, a few UCW meetings related to elections and expanding the message about how unions chance ensuring that a workplace is good for everyone, mowing, trail cams showing bears and deer and more, grand flushes of chanterelles on turkey slope, two wind-toppled trees chainsaw-chunked and stacked, a mushroom propagation workshop with Gnomestead Hollow, and frequent swims and aquajogs at the aquatic center, especially throughout July.

Goodfine sum, fast sum, blinked twice, blur sum.

Flock of the Pines

Figure 1. Bagawk Bawk Side of the Moon. I have yet to post this drawing from early May (5/11/2023) because this summer has been more slip-n-slide accelerometer than planned and patterned desk-sits.

Today, like most days in the past week, the Wonder Hollow Six has wandered farther than before from their run and coop. As early in the day as the pin holding the run door gets lifted, without so much as a good-bye flap or side glance, they’re zip…gone. Door busters. And that leaves us, their lookouts and keepers, a tad nervous. We’re committed to their free-ranging. They do seem genuinely contented by the openness of their peck-what-you-will days. But they also seem genuinely naive in that they haven’t had many bona fide predator encounters. Only that one set of raccoon mud prints on the side of their Eglu cube, and when that happened the chances were good they corning and gritting deep in the dreamscape.

They’ve taken to the woods, undoubtedly because it is, for chickens, a cool and shaded carnival with lots of scratchable leafy detritus covering the ground, edged with poison ivy and wine berries, which they’re said to enjoy, and a carpet of soft-bodied wormy assorteds to feast upon. In the woods, no boredom; only food and fun.

We do check on them periodically. Yes, they’re still there, kicking leaves and razing foliage, a hop beyond Moon House and the forsythia stand, in the pines, in the pines, where the sun don’t ever shine. Mid-afternoon, back from a “dump run” to the Montgomery County Waste Site on Pilot Road, I found the six were unexpectedly sunning themselves on the moon house stairs, Bitumen and Lightfoot with their wings extended, doing beached seal imitations, eyes slowly closing before napjerks called them back, and again. Looking closer at them, their crops were distended, more overstuffed than I’d seen before, kind of like when Yoki (who was a puggle) busted into his 40 lb dog food bag and ate so much he nearly split his trousers around, when was that?, 2008.

Our hope is that they are alert in the woods, that they are learning, that whatever they are eating in the woods is more good for them than bad for them. By respecting their free-ranging and by therefore courting the risks associated with being a young, flightless bird in the woods where there are hawks nesting nearby, where a possum and groundhog possibly share a subterranean burrow network, where predators occasionally lurk, I know freshly that feeling of groundlessness and the limits of control. The six have each other in a super-organismic way, and so it’s true, too, that their being more than alone gives these conditions a halo of friendliness, like it’ll be okay, come what will.

At 43 Days

Six mixed flock chickens gather in a run enclosed by green mesh wire.
The Wonder Hollow Six at 43 days: Bigfoot, Lightfoot, Honey, Cinnabon, Bitumen, and Big Sweetie.

We brought home the six pullets1Or were they technically chicks?…many, many questions without answers. from the Radford Rural King on April 18, which means today marks 43 days at home, variations on heat-lamp-lit brooder box and pine shavings, then daytime hours in the run, then a chilly overnight in the coop maybe two weeks ago, and soon very soon, permanently in the coop and run. A. was generous to send me this photo today, the six in what I’m seeing as a lineup for possibly dried meal worms, possibly a dish of chopped vegetables. I’m not saying they’re spoiled; I’m just saying they’re friends, and what we know about friends is, treat them well.

Notes

  • 1
    Or were they technically chicks?…many, many questions without answers.

Coop

Let’s call this one “Painting Among the Decaying Birds, July 1991” or “Coop.”

Nearly thirty years have gone by, but I can not forget that first job after high school, working for Coyne Oil & Propane. Didn’t have any description to pair with it, and I was 17, so didn’t pause to care for long about how the job was defined, what amounted to a do-anything unskilled generalist, some days refilling the windshield washer tubs mounted near the fuel terminal or sweeping the engine-leaks-absorbing clay pellets scattered on the concrete where fleet vehicles parked while fueling. Other days painting lines on parking spaces, emptying garbage, or loading grime-covered empty barrels by hand into the back of a semi trailer, one by one by one. When the weather cooperated, most days involved painting propane tanks. I wrote about it once before, several years ago (“Propane“), keying on some of the flashbacks to that job and how it was set up, the Ford half-ton flatbed I drove when the tanks were in the field and the rickety front loader whose hydraulics were so breezy, to hoist a tank initiated game show-like countdown, racing to paint the tank’s underside before it lowered to the ground.

It was an iffy first job. Minimum wage was, what?, maybe $4.25 an hour in 1991. The beige paint came in five gallon buckets with exclamatory warning labels about its toxicity and how you should avoid contact with your skin, but day in and day out for months my hands were covered with the stuff.

Iffy, too, were some of the situations that presented with the off-site, in-the-field painting. Some of the tanks were a mess–surfaces pocked and rusted and impossible to refinish with the limited tools I had available; many of the sites were heinous, too–tanks converged upon by tall weeds or branches, swallowed up by their surrounds, much of which the homeowners preferred to have left undisturbed. But there weren’t many rules, otherwise, and the only lines of communication were when one of the Coyne brothers who owned the company would receive a phone call of request or complaint.

The drawing up top returns again to the unforgettable excursion to a remote, wooded lot north of Farwell, Mich. A trailer in the trees with an ad hoc perimeter of chicken wire around, lazy-tacked stakes leaning, and inside that perimeter, the 330-gallon propane tank sat stably on blocks. I knocked on the door to alert them to my being there; but the adults inside were gravely ambivalent, vaguely gesturing “go on” without getting up from where they sat watching television. And in the side-yard, in that coop, all around the tank, dead, decaying chickens were strewn about right where the universe had left them–unfed to the point of starving, maybe, or subjected to a weasel’s spree. Who knows. Not the finest hour of my work life, tending to the job, stepping across the piles of putrid feathers abuzz with flies, getting out my painting supplies, pouring a roller pan full of beige paint, and rolling until the tank glistened, there in the shade. Naked or half-dressed, little kids ate cherry popsicles and watched from the window, onlookers almost like at one of those live sidewalk art performances in Chicago or New York, only humbler.

The memory comes up. This time, I drew about it, then wrote a few lines. Grand lessons, I don’t know, probably not. I do wonder if anyone has had to paint that tank since. How those kids are doing. Whether the residents got right with raising chickens and had a better go of it. Coop is of those memories that raises up any time I have a bad day at work. I suppose that’s why this was such a good first job after high school to have, painting propane tanks this way. At least it’s not that July 1991 excursion again. At least there aren’t dead and decaying chickens scattered about the place.