Tuesday, September 25:
The last three nights have been cold, not frosty but in the forties, and the zinnias which burned all summer with the intense pinks and oranges of cactus flowers or those enormous crepe paper blooms they sell in Mexican marketplaces look stiff now, dull and scorched with the cold. The Beautiful river reflects the sky in infinite shades of blue, here laid down with palette knife, there dotted in with the tip of a brush.
Leafless tomato vines hung until today with the uncomfortable knotted boniness of skeletons from the stakes in the big garden; this afternoon, to cure a fit of discontent brought on by intractable chickens, we cleaned out that garden. Vines were yanked and piled in wheel barrows, stakes were sorted and stacked against the fence: whole ones, broken ones to mark the ends of rows, and rotten ones for the bonfire pit. The fall cabbage was weeded and hoed, the carrots picked over painstakingly for tiny young purslane and gallinsoga – so hard to pull without disturbing the baby carrot roots – and the okra that will soon succumb to some unknown nematode was stripped of every pod, however small. The piled weeds and waste were carted around to the pig pen and thrown in for the pigs to eat. They did so, fastidiously, like a diner nibbling a sprig of parsley.
The chickens defy – at present – our attempts to cull them for non-layers. Some years this culling is a simple matter, a perfunctory glance at vent, wattles, and pelvis telling us all we need to know about a hen’s present state of lay; not so lately. The examination is performed as we turn the birds out of the hen house in the morning. The Sussex and Australorps are all too young for the hatchet and are turned out at once with a can of cracked corn scattered over the bare ground for their breakfast; then it is the turn of the Rhode Island Reds.
They are hungry and mill impatiently around the chicken house complaining. We catch them one by one, beginning with those whose pale yellow legs and thick red combs indicate that they are in lay; but when we examine eyelids for a bleached appearance, vents for a similar lack of color and a wide, wet, generous appearance, we are stumped. Of the eighteen Reds, counted off by tally marks chalked on the side of the laying box, only four show consistent signs of their state of lay. These are, or should be, the slackers, those hens marked by destiny to make chicken pie for tonight’s dinner, but are they? The other chickens have us confused, uncertain; they show some of the attributes of hens presently laying, and some of the dry hen. If their skin is bleached, indicating that the yellow pigments in their bodies are being deposited in the yolks of the eggs we so badly want them to be laying, then their pelvis, instead of being loose and three fingers wide is stiff and tight, scarcely admitting the width of two fingers. If they have the thick yellow legs of a non-layer then their vents are wet and smooth like those of a hen in lay. So we suspend the jury until tomorrow, hoping that somehow by then they will have settled into something more consistent.
We hate cutting a hen open and finding eggs inside.
There have been none too many eggs on the place this summer as it is; with forty mature birds we should expect at least twenty or more eggs a day, rather than the measly dozen, or ten, or seven, we have been seeing lately. And yet we started off the summer so well, the baskets coming up with almost three dozen eggs every day, and like wise virgins we kept them by us, filling cardboard egg cartons with dozens and dozens, fifteen or eighteen dozen at a time, selling none, knowing the day was not far off when the superabundance would be a dearth and nothing would compensate us for the lack of those eggs. And the dearth came, and now we are sometimes even reduced to the humiliation of buying pale, flaccid store eggs so there are enough eggs for baking.
We killed a snake by the pond today. S-4 took off its head, suspiciously triangular, with an eye-hoe, leaving the writhing orange-and-brown mottled body where the pastured pigs whose paddock we were setting up could eat it. I guess they did, but we took the head away and prized open the hard grim mouth with a stick and couldn’t assure ourselves it had fangs, as we have done in the past to make sure the snake was a copperhead. It hurts us to kill a non-venomous snake; we are fans of the snake in general, but this farm is home to lots of children and we take no chances.
Moral: if you aren’t dangerous, try not to look as though you are.