Feta

Feta, the Scandinavian Elkhound.

We’d been watching the Montgomery County Animal Control website for a few days, figuring right now to be as good as any time could be for taking the leash on a new pet, a guardian of the chickens who would not succumb to predator instinct nor terrorize the cat, Z. I dragged my feet on an impulse-trip to the shelter on Friday, but on Saturday, sure, why not?, and so we drove across town. We’d seen the profile of a Great Pyrenees who was by breed and age and temperament a promising prospect. The shelter also happened to be hosting an event called Purricane, what I understand to be a kitten season adoption and fundraising extravaganza made even funner-sounding by blending ‘purr’ and ‘hurricane.’ We witnessed it not as so much storm-like but as heavily trafficked with kitty oglers such that were it up to me, I might have gone with Catectacle. Catectacle drew a magnificent crowd.

The foot traffic boded poorly for really meeting a prospective foster dog. The shelter hallways were golldamn, devil, bustling, and most of the dogs mirrored the energy, which was filled with possibility, nerves, anxiety, and barks of all sorts. We met the Great Pyrenees, and then as A. was lingering with her, I walked a round to have a look adjacent, like we did back in the olden days when libraries had books on shelves and we browsed by looking not only for the focal book but also looking around at its near neighbors. As I did, I spotted a dog who quietly and smartly seemed to be telepathizing something like ‘I’m the one.’ A Norwegian Elkhound, she presented as sagely and warm and hearty, like she remembered her great-grandmothers were Scandinavian wolves and that this shelter scene was only temporary. Her self-control under the duress of the raucous shelter ambience suggested a different kind of interiority; I want to be careful here because it’s not as if I am some kind of dog whisperer, but I had a feeling just by pausing with her, looking at each other, that there was more to her than was common. A good feeling, an I-could-get-along-with-this-dog feeling. I was surprised when I went back to A. and said there was another dog here worth of a look that she said she’d already sent a photo of this Elkhound to her mom because it reminded her of her childhood dog, Pepper, who also happened to be a Norwegian Elkhound. A. was thinking that I was hard-set on a Great Pyrenees, but since I wasn’t, the Pyrenees-adjacent, serendipitously glimpsed dog elicited even more interest from us.

Saturday’s click meant Sunday included housewarming and yardwarming efforts: complete the foster-to-adopt form on their website, order and assemble an outdoor pen, and revisit the process that would allow us to have a trial period before committing, as aggression toward Z. or the chickens would be a deal-breaker. The form asked for a list of childhood pets: Cookie, Brandy, Peppy, Sheba, Jake, Kelly, Mushroom, Fang, Pigeon, Max, Tony, Cujo. Not all of these were dogs; Kelly and Mushroom were cats, and Cujo was a guinea pig. But mostly, in those years, dogs were the pet of choice.

We’d been lightly considering for several months a tandem, two dogs, one named Salty and the other Cousin, but fostering two dogs at once was, as the real and pragmatic conditions came into view, just too complicated. With everything else lining up as it did, we were green lighted to pick up the Norwegian Elkhound and bring her home on Monday afternoon. The folks at the shelter had given her the temporary name, Snigglefritz. And we talked some about the decision either to go ahead with calling her Cousin, or, instead, to spend some time with her and for us to come up with other possibilities later. By Monday night, we were thinking either Saga or Feta, both being two syllables with a hard second consonant that would not sound too much with the names of Z. or the chickens. Is. confirmed by text that Feta was a good choice, and so that’s it.

Feta commonly refers to a simple, crumbled, brine-based cheese. Languages being many, in Norwegian, which I don’t know about you but I can plausibly suppose a Norwegian Elkhound more or less comprehends, the word ‘feta’ translates to ‘fat’ in English. Given the troubling ways this pejorative association tracks, we can instead say she is a Scandinavian Elkhound, generally Nordic, possibly Icelandic. But then there is the similar phrase, “fytti faen,” which a lookup tells me is Norwegian for a milder version of “fucking hell,” translated roughly as “golldamn, devil.” Should I be worried about this secondary connotation? No. It’s just enough to not want to shed the Norwegian valences altogether.

We’ll continue for another week in the maybe phase, but after a day it has already become a maybeprobably phase and by tomorrow could be a Feta is where she belongs stage. She’s an astonishingly kind, patient, subdued canine, a creek wolf with Diogenesian quirks who wades in until the water is almost touching her belly, then sits, solving for just-right depth. And golldamn, devil, does she shed. A lot. Guess it’s a seasonal thing, winter coat loosing its blankethold. Creek currents willing, I’ll introduce Feta as friend and flock protector, and, in time, I suspect, as much more.

A Norwegian Elkhound (named Feta) wades in a small creek.
Feta wading in the creek.

Where Are You?

Big Sweetie.

This morning, the second morning since the Wednesday late afternoon incident, upon opening the coop door, the flock descended the ladder and settled in pretty much as they usually do, Bitumen and Lightfoot at the feeder, Tiny Honey who is rebounding from her molt heading straightaway to the water, and the others kicking walnut tree detritus and leaning in for the scratch grains mixed with layer pellets, a half cup of which I scatter every morning to ease traffic at the feeder. Keeps peace. Their eyes have been up and searching, noticeably scanning for signs of return since the Wednesday late afternoon incident. This was apparent late yesterday, when I hurried home after teaching to share a few minutes with them before they tucked in, to play the xylophone cover of Shake It Off so as to warm their crossover into the dreamscape. Although I didn’t know it at the time, A., driving separately because it was undecidable for the first half of her day whether she would go to campus at all, happened not to be long behind me. The hens were almost all inside the coop when we arrived at 5:42 p.m. ET (sunset being 5:45 p.m. ET). Only Fluffy-foot, the head hen, was visible there in the coop doorway, posting up as she does for one last look-around before going in for the night, but when I emceed the Taylor Swift tunes, she doubled-back, down the ladder again, and soon after her followed Bitumen, then Lightfoot, then Cinnabon. Everyone can stay up a few extra minutes at times like these, linger for a few plinks, elongate the softly transitioning dusk. Tiny Honey stayed in; her January molt has accompanied a tendency to rest, to hold spacetime with the eggs, and so this was nothing out of the ordinary, her settled reserve. 

Different this morning, the second morning since the Wednesday late afternoon incident, was that after opening the door, setting down food and water, as we walked back toward the house, there came a sharp bird call from the vicinity of the run. Was it from the trees above the run? From one of the hens? Once, twice, again. Three or four seconds between each call. And this was a new sound; a sound I hadn’t heard before: an intense callout expressed so as to travel the holler’s uneven landscape, a sound for finding, for carrying, for bringing back.

Back at the house, I read this, an excerpt of an excerpt from Melissa Caughey’s book:

Still, for days after a hen dies, it is not uncommon for those who were closest to her to mourn the loss of their friend. From the safety of the coop, they call out, using the same sound that means “Where are you?” when they are free-ranging in the yard and can’t find a missing member of the flock. A grieving hen avoids interacting with the flock and sits in a corner with puffed-up feathers like a chicken that feels ill.

And so it happened, on Wednesday afternoon, a Cooper’s Hawk attacked and killed Big Sweetie. The chickens had been out of their run for 90 minutes. Big Sweetie was creekside, curating the muddy banks with Lightfoot and Cinnabon when the raptor made first contact. The offshed feathers tell of an encounter that started on one side of the creek and continued to the other, where A. found Big Sweetie moments later, fatally injured, likely a broken neck or back, as the hawk exited the scene. I wasn’t at home, but A.’s messageless call at 4:50 p.m. ET, near the end of the writing group session I was on (from my campus office), let me know something was not as it should be. There are known risks in free-ranging, especially in mid-late winter, but so too are there deleterious impacts for always and only ever being cooped up. This is not to rationalize away the incident but to take responsibility for caring for vulnerable birds under conditions of a sometimes-predative surrounds. Rather than go long with forensic redescription, though, Big Sweetie deserves a few more eulogistic words.

One of the Wonder Hollow Six, she and her small flock came home from the Radford Rural King in a small cardboard box on April 18, 2023. We’d sought a pair of Cinnamon Queens, a pair of Black Sex-Links, and a pair of Calico Princesses that day. As entropy would have it, with the last pair, we ended up with one Calico Princess, Big Sweetie, and one Buff Brahma, Fluffy-foot: Rural King bin sisters, if sisters from other mothers. Calico Princesses tend to have a shorter lifespan (~3-4 years) than the other breeds, a fact we learned only after bringing them home. Big Sweetie quickly distinguished herself. She was in those especially formative days the biggest and the sweetest, easy to find during that stage when chicks are all down plumage, befuzzed and nonstop peeping. The other chickens grew and eventually caught up with her in size, but never in sweetness. Her sweetness was observable in her seemingly caring deference to the other birds, a conflict-averse friendliness, a palpably joyful regard for human attention, an implicit jolliness. A. identified her quickly as her favorite bird of the six (as Bitumen is special to me, Big Sweetie was and is to A.; what can explain how such a feeling forms?). 

Ten or twelve weeks ago, when Craigs Mountain neighbor H.’s on-the-loose but thankfully slow dog lumbered with a drooling hoggishness through the holler, all of Big Sweetie’s commatriots darted with astonishing speed to the woods, but Big Sweetie, even as she was evidently terrified, rather than running—freeze!—went into statue mode, standing still-still in the tall grass, as if seized by the threat. Nothing happened. And yet, this confirmed an understanding that Big Sweetie was not in the same way as her sisters equipped with a flight response. It was as though because her disposition was deeply defined by friendliness, joy, and curiosity, there was nothing left over for capacitating fear.

Wonder Hollow Six (left to right): Lightfoot, Bitumen, Tiny Honey, Big Sweetie (front center), Fluffy-foot, and Cinnabon.

I have a hundred more anecdotes: about how she was, we think, the first to lay an egg, and how, thereafter, she would linger in the run when each of the other hens laid their first (few) eggs in September and October, companionably close-by but not over-bearing, proximally supportive and being in such a way that hints at the calling of an avian doula, were there such a thing; about how she wanted so badly to be able to perch but didn’t have the flap and spring coordination of Bitumen, Tiny Honey, Lightfoot, or Cinnabon, and still she tried and tried and tried until one day she reached the roost; that night she sat on the roosting bar for 30 minutes after dark, extending her accomplishment, holding onto the moment all for herself (and for A. who photo-documented it from the window) after the others had gone inside the coop for the night; and about what a friend she was, like the day—which just so happened to be the first day of classes last fall—when she went deep up into the pine woods with Lightfoot and Fluffy-foot, the three of them would not—golldammit!—come for calling nor for the irresistible rattle-shake of mealworms in a plastic cup, so I had to climb and navigate bramble and sweat (before leaving for work) only to nudge them from their holdout. The thing was, while the other two birds were entranced in a forest floor dust bath, Big Sweetie was just standing there, along for the joyride. 

Big Sweetie (top) stubbornly remains deep in the pine woods along with Fluffy Foot (bottom) and Lightfoot (right) who are entranced by a forest floor dust bath on Monday, August 21, 2023.

***

Might not be cut out for chicken-keeping, is one thought, one topic of conversation these past 48 hours. Or maybe, instead, this is exactly the structure of feeling we owe to this ecosphere, a structure of feeling that has gone thin socioculturally such that it is uncommon to interact with chickens in this way, to engage them as friends, good, giving, and profoundly mutualistic in what they provide us and each other. It’s been a heavy couple of days. We miss her; we’re sad. And not just we the hominids. The Wonder Hollow mixed flock is looking and calling so hard for their sixth and biggest-hearted; a song of sorrow, and so too a together and onward song, expanded by a life with Big Sweetie so fully and lovingly in it. 

Wonder Hollow Six head hen, Fluffy Foot, expresses “Where are you?” callout for Big Sweetie, who was killed Wednesday afternoon, 1/31/24, by a Cooper’s Hawk.

Mixed Mess ?

Mixed Mess, the name Roanoke forecasters have assigned to this Saturday’s maybe precipitation, a could-be-rain-but-might-be-snow guess, also happens to be the name I had assigned, before reading the weather forecast, to the porridge I prepared for the Wonder Hollow Six late this afternoon. Mixed Mess—the chicken treat slurry, not the cusp weather event, but then who can reliably say—includes two eggs, two overripe bananas, a half cup or so of quinoa, cinnamon, crushed eggshell, and equal parts sweet potato skins and carrot peels from a lunchtime ramen bowl. (90) ??❄️???

[WSLS Weather Authority, 2024]

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). ?????

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 this—and care more about these distinctions—than 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 cliché 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 Virginia—notably 500 miles with a tiny Uhaul trailer on the Fourth of July—and 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 wishing—again!—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.