Welcome to the Family*
My husband has been a painter, an ad man, a bike messenger, a brewer, a product designer, a contractor and a sculptor. I’m probably forgetting a few. But beneath all the guises he has worn, one seed of potential has lain unsown..until now. My husband, the farmer.
It started with plants. Increasingly each season, our garden has grown and our yard has shrunk. What started as two narrow planters has become six queen-bed-sized boxes. It is still possible to traverse the path without using a machete, but space for humans in our yard has been relegated to a shady, cramped corner where nothing much will grow. We’ve got vegetables for miles come every August.
Then came the little live things, first on only a small, slimy scale. I admit I enjoyed cheerfully announcing in mixed company: “We have worms!” Millions of em, actually, their healthy pink goo contained in a tiered bucket into which we scattered our kitchen scraps. The bottom tier, equipped with a tap, released a muddy brown “tea” the plants loved. Everybody won.
Next, a leap. Two frogs, and six baby chicks. The frogs, which we raised from tadpoles, graduated to a rocky and watery landscape in a fish tank which sat in our kitchen. Frogs are boring pets, grumpy looking and frustratingly placid, if you can see them at all. The only highlight of the frog adventure was when one of them ate the other.
One night, I happened to glance into the frog tank. One adult leopard frog sat on his rocky plateau, with the legs of his tank-mate sticking out of his mouth. He looked somewhat put out, as if the possibility of his pal being more than a mouthful hadn’t occurred to him. Presently, he spit him out, and we were able to give the gummed green carcass a proper burial.
The chickens’ arrival was a major event. Husband farmer built the world’s most luxurious chicken coop, in the other shady corner of the yard. To defend against earth-bound predators, he dug a six foot foundation and poured concrete. Against raccoons and the like, he chose cross hatched fencing too small for a paw to reach through. He found salvaged doors and even windows, so the birds could have natural light. He even fashioned roosts from dropped branches, securing them to the corners inside the coop. In the dramatic light of the heat lamp, it looked like an art installation.
The stagey lighting was appropriate, because the chickens became instant local celebrities. We somehow found time to spend hours sitting with the little fuzzy yellow and black chicks on our laps, delighted with their impossibly soft feathers and their scaly dinosaur feet. Droves of friends and even strangers stopped by, peeking their heads shyly in the gate, so many we built a chicken observation bench and strung up a bottle of hand sanitizer. They loved to fly up and sit, blinking their reptilian eyes, on your shoulder.
Soon we were up to six eggs per day, and the once-fluffy chicks were tall beefy chickens with bustles of glossy feathers and distinctly superior expressions. The cats, who had once sat entranced and salivating outside the coop as the babies scratched and pecked, now slunk away from the sharp beaks and clawed feet of their proud yard mates.
Farm animals are a little like tattoos: once you start, it’s hard to stop. Any initial reticence I had felt, based on the thought of adding to our already-overwhelming list of chores, was gone the minute a chick fell asleep in my hand.
A murderous frog and six healthy chickens, as well as millions of worms, might have been enough for some husbands. But the reading had begun..he devoured every book of the Urban-Farm-Sustainability-Do-It Yourself-Backyard-Organic-Everything genre, and soon he was contemplating how to up the farm ante.
Back in his ad man days in Manhattan, my husband had a menagerie of roommates: a dread-locked stripper-cum-law student, an obsessive road biker who trained on an indoor bike treadmill through the snowy winters, and a body builder with a pet duck. The duck lived in a cardboard box in the kitchen, made a terrible smell, and watched television to stave off loneliness. The lesson being, obviously, that what we needed was ducks; not one, but two.
However wrong it may seem, baby ducks travel in the mail. Ours came from a duck farm in Southern California, and our local postmistress was not impressed. “Pick them up immediately,” she said in her message, “that is our policy.” Her voice was edgy. But if she had only seen them, she would have melted. Baby ducks are the Platonic Ideal of cuteness. We put them in a dog kennel in our bathroom.
Again we sat for hours watching them and holding them, delighting in their tiny parts. But not for long: ducks grow at an alarming rate. Our wee ones seem to double in size each night, and their “leavings” grew in volume too. They learned to swim in our bathtub, at first noisily paddling around, then dunking their heads with a snakelike movement to bathe, then finally shooting beneath the water like arrows.
This week, sleek feathers appeared next to the messy fuzz of their down, giving them the awkward look of adolescents. On their wings, bright blue shafts of wing feathers. It was time the ducks moved outside, to live with the chickens.
According to one of our many farm books, ducks are sensitive and dislike change. They can even be disturbed by an unfamiliar shovel or rake appearing in their vicinity. So we moved them in their dog kennel into the coop. The chickens seemed interested only in the duck food, and hustled over in a hungry mob to sample it. The ducks, who we had named Nina (Simone) and Jane (Grey), cowered together in the corner. When we took them out to get some air and sun, they hurried back inside.
Apart from the sudden cannibalism of the frog, the duck problem was our first animal challenge. We read everything we could on integrating them into a coop, and lay awake wondering if they were laying awake afraid of their new home.
Finally, we took a two-pronged approach. Every morning, we take our cups of coffee down to the yard and hold the ducks on our laps in the sunshine, talking to them and petting them. They settle down like a cat on your lap, and even tuck their heads into the corner of your elbow. Nina doesn’t go in for such intimacies, but Jane will set her beak on my hand and allow me to stroke it.
Husband farmer has also built Nina and Jane a house, with a doorway too narrow for our beefy chickens to squeeze through, and a removable roof for easy access to the ducks and eventually, their eggs. The whole thing stands about two feet off the ground, and is accessed by a slatted ramp, another discouragement for the portly hens. They seem happier, and less freaked out. We feel like good duck parents.
What new species this spring will bring I can’t say, but I’m hoping for bees. A life full of life, bursting with growth, is worth a few stings.