A Good Year

Snow ushered in 2011. For awhile it was hard to imagine that we’d ever see the ground, let alone green.

But seasons change.

Having animals in my backyard is a constant here, but the cast of characters also changes. This past year we experienced losses of some beloved chickens,

and added a dozen new girls to the mix.

Some animals just keep on going. Candy is now an elderly bunny, but she still reigns supremely and serenely over all.

Not everyone has her demeanor.

Not a day goes by that I’m not filled with gratitude for my animals. I’m also grateful for having your company. It really is more fun to share.

I wish you all the best in 2012. Happy New Year! I can’t wait to see what it will bring.

Oyster Shell For Hens

Chickens are designed to make eggs, and they are very good at it – commercial layers will produce upwards of 300 eggs in the first year. Your backyard hens will lay far fewer, but each and every egg requires a lot of inputs in order to come out right. Chickens are designed to lay eggs, day in and day out, but it’s depleting and they need our help. It’s up to us to give our hens the raw materials essential for them to do the alchemy that makes eggs.

The egg shell is the part we see first and worry about. Shells should be hard and smooth. Thin-shelled, rough and wrinkly eggs are signs that something is off. The building blocks of egg shells are calcium, phosphorous and vitamin D. Commercial pellets have these minerals in the right amounts – that is, if your hens eat nothing but this feed. However, free-ranging chickens, who get treats and kitchen scraps, grass and bugs, will eat fewer pellets and so, proportionally, don’t get enough calcium. Free-ranging hens that try to get all the minerals they require from the pellets will overeat. It also turns out that hens need more calcium during periods of hot weather – exactly when they become listless and go off their feed. Fortunately, studies show that hens will consume the calcium they need if it is offered free-choice.

Oyster shell, ground into gravel-sized bits, is the best supplement as it provides calcium readily absorbed by your chickens’ digestive systems. You can buy oyster shell by the bag at your feed store. It’s not expensive, but you don’t want it to go to waste. There are days when the hens won’t eat any, and others when they scarf it up. Tossing it on the ground or mixing it in the feed isn’t efficient. I’ve come up with a tidy solution. I use a rabbit feeder, hung in the barn.

Florence says it’s just right. After a few pecks she goes outside. After all, she needs her daily dose of vitamin D, too. My girls don’t have to get that from their feed- fresh air and sunshine are part of their healthy diet.

A Cold Morning

It’s 14º F when I do the morning barn chores. There’s a smattering of snowflakes on the frozen pond.

Underneath, all is well. I see the fish, slowly moving.

When the temperature drops, the goats’ fur stands on end and they look especially fuzzy. Not that I’m making excuses for rotund Caper. He has put on weight. A New Year’s diet might be in store for him. Despite being plenty toasty, Caper asks for an extra flake of hay. I will not give in. Well, not more than a handful.

The Gems hurry out of their coop into their fenced pen. The ground is too frozen to scratch up and they want to go into the woods where the loose leaves harbor all sorts of tasty things. I’ll let them out later.

The old girls have no such ambitions. They fluff up their feather coats and stand in the corner of the yard where they know the morning sun will warm them. They remind me of dowagers on the deck of a cruise ship, swaddled in warm blankets and enjoying the ocean breezes.

Candy has spent the night nestled in her hay. She’s the one animal that relishes the cold. She’s waiting for snow so that she can tunnel and play. For now she’ll settle for a head scratch from me and a hop around the pen.

I seem to be the only cold one, but I don’t hurry through the chores. It’s a beautiful morning.

I’ll be away for the next few days where it’s really cold – in the mountains of Colorado – for a joyous wedding.

Christmas In The Barn

I didn’t grow up with Santa, or stockings hung by the fireplace, or the tingling wait on Christmas morning to open presents. It all sounds like a lot of fun, but I never missed it. There was, however, one Christmas story that I hoped was true and that I fervently wished that I could take part in. Somewhere I’d heard that on Christmas night, all of the animals talk. Of course, animals talk all of the time, just not in the same language as their people. The story was that the animals, in the shadowy nighttime light (there’s always a moon glowing through the barn windows in this story) start talking in English! To each other! If you slipped into the barn, you were welcomed into their conversation. As a child, I imagined living on a farm, and on Christmas night, tip-toeing out in my nightgown, cuddling up next to a warm cow, and hearing the animals talk. In my imagination, I could smell the hay, hear the stomp of a horse’s hoof, and listen to the squeaky mouse voices.

Back then, I didn’t think much about chickens, but I do now wonder about the Christmas conversation these girls would be having.

Should I go out tonight and listen? What would the boys say?

In all likelihood, it’s exactly what they tell me everyday.

We’re filled with love.

Our bellies are grumbling.

What are you doing? We’ll join you and make it more interesting.

I don’t need to stay up until midnight to hear my animals. They talk to me all the time.

All of us here, in all of our voices, wish you and yours a very Merry Christmas.

Chanukah In My Home

In my home we celebrate Chanukah. Like all religious holidays that are thousands of years old, it begins with a germ of historical truth and then, over the centuries, goes through transformations in meaning and traditions. Over the millennia Jews have been persecuted and assimilated, were victims of genocide, learned new languages, and gained education in secular schools. Judaism has evolved and gone through a reformation. The celebration of this holiday has changed as frequently as Jews have moved from one country to another, and from one time to another.

At its core, Chanukah is a story of a beautiful building, the temple in Jerusalem. It was the heart of the Jewish community, a place of worship, education, love and pride. It was destroyed by a king and his armies when the Jews failed to bend to his will, honor his gods and pay his taxes. After much strife and bloodshed, it was reclaimed by the Jews, rebuilt and used once again. Embedded in this story is a tale of a miracle. Jewish temples have an “eternal lamp” that burns sanctified oil. When the Jews reentered their vandalized temple, they had enough of the oil for only one night, but it would take eight days to get more. They lit the lamp anyway, and it burned brightly until more of the sacred oil was brought to the temple. That’s why, it’s said, we light the menorah for eight days.

Chanukah is a rather unimportant holiday, certainly not a holy day, and is only in the limelight because of it’s proximity to Christmas. But, underneath the story told to our children, there is a complex fable. It is one that dwells on the balance between assimilation and religious dogmatism, between the fear of the “other” and the tolerance of diverse society, between the heavy hand of a government, and what a people will tolerate, and between when to act through armies, when to be subversive, and when to give in. It’s about symbols, faith and identity. I think about all of those things at this time of year. I am so grateful to live in this country where I can celebrate how I want, in public, with my family. I am grateful to live at a time when my religious decisions can be personal and not dictated by fundamentalist dogma, or by an oppressive government. I’m grateful to live where where I can walk among others who are celebrating their own holidays.

On Friday I’ll have seventeen people here for a Chanukah dinner. My grandparents came from Russia, and so in a nod to them I’ll have brisket. I’ve bought a large one from my favorite meat purveyor at my local farmer’s market. I might toss in some spices my grandmother would never have used (cumin! harissa!) but it will be a brisket nonetheless. I’ll make potato latkes—frying in oil is a Chanukah tradition. These will be served with homemade applesauce and sour cream. I won’t mess with the basic recipe of shredded potatoes and onions, held together with eggs and bread crumbs, but I will use and be thankful for my food processor. My grandmother used a hand grater. Life changes in many ways! I’m also making a winter squash and chickpea soup (actually traditional fare from Mediterranean Jews) and salad. I’ll make challah, a traditional (well, in the last few hundred years or so) bread. A friend is bringing dessert, but if I find a moment, I’ll make something sweet, too. So, after a couple of thousand years, in my small way and in this small place, Chanukah will continue to be celebrated, with food and family, candles, love and gratitude.

Whatever you celebrate in the next week, I wish you joy and warmth and happiness at your table.