Casaubon's Book

On Chores

Chores sounds like such a dreary word, and until I moved to a farm, I would never have believed that I’d have anything positive to say about it. As a kid, I did chores around the house, and while I may have groused less about the dishes and cleaning gutters as an adult, I certainly didn’t (and don’t) love the jobs.

But on a farm, chores are something else – they are bookends to each day, a formal structure like the forms of a sonnet or musical scales that shape the day. They can be speeded up, slowed down, slightly elided and occasionally contracted out, but for the most part, they are there, implacable, eternal and oddly pleasurable.

“Chores” mean the most basic tending of animals, and over the years they’ve grown from a few minutes a day (a quick scatter of chicken feed, the dumping of some water and back) to half an hour or forty minutes of barn work every single morning and evening. I don’t do it all every day – in fact, Eric does more chores than I do, and sometimes we do them together, either on summer evenings when the boys are playing baseball in the driveway or on winter nights when the boys go to sleep early. But often enough one of us is out in the barn alone with out thoughts and our creatures.

There are about 40 chickens at the moment, including 5 roosters, all of whom we are fond of, so who stay, even though we don’t really need that many. There are 20 chicks in the brooder. There are five mature ducklings and 8 adolescents. There are five rabbits – two cinnamon does and a cinnamon buck and two male angoras. There are eight goats – a buck and seven does. The rabbits will kindle (have babies) in a few days, so the numbers will rise. In May, I have hopes that two of my does will kid. In August, the rest will. There are two hens setting nests right now. The population will rise when the fields green up and 15 sheep and lambs arrive to take up residence on the pasture along with Xote, their guard donkey. Add to that the two dogs (one working farmcollie, on Great Pyrenees) and six cats in barn and house (including Rubeus, who thinks he’s a dog and trots to the barn at my heels alongside the vastly larger canines), and there’s a whole lot of feeding going on.

Feeding the chickens and ducks takes just a few minutes, and laying down hay for fresh bedding adds a couple more. We haven’t yet done the spring barn clean-out and the layers are getting thick – it is hard to push open the door. I do them first, to get the hens out of their perches in the rafters, where otherwise they poop on unsuspecting people’s heads. Down they flutter, following the siren song of food. Watching chickens short of fly is pretty funny.

Next I invite (with grain, we bribe them) one of the milking does (four) up on the stanchion, wash her udder and milk her out. Evenings aren’t the most productive time, so I have time to fill the duckling and chick waterers and give them their food after I’ve filled the milk jar. We’re having a cold snap, so they get a brooder bulb in their segment of the barn and the most insulated spot. I hold one of the tiny bantam chicks in my hand for a moment and it pecks feed off my palm. I will refill the ducklings’ waterer before I leave because they can’t resist playing in it. The ducklings are getting large, and when it finally warms up at the end of the week, if it does (I’m hoping), they should be able to go outside for the first time.

I’m drying up Jessie, since she was bred in December and should kid in about 7 weeks – maybe. Frodo, our buck, was showing some serious interest in her a few days ago, and I’m worried that she was in heat. If so, she’ll kid with the rest in August, which is a bit of a delicate timing issue. We’re going to Virginia for 5 days in September, and the babies all have to be big enough to be left by then. If she’s not pregnant, Jessie will get to hang out and be fed like a pregnant doe without producing anything – she’s not complaining.

I feed the bunnies and give them their carrots. The does are both pregnant, and they get extra food. Everyone gets some hay and a carrot along with bunny pellets. The baby rabbits will be cute – but they are an attempt to close the circle of outside feed sources at our farm. We don’t eat rabbit (not kosher – pity, I like rabbit) ourselves, but we will sell the rabbits for meat, or to other breeders, and I have a plan to donate them to local urban community gardens, but mostly we’re raising them to reduce the amount of pet food we will buy. Rosemary and Sage, the two cinnamon does are pets, as is Parsley, the buck (Thyme is one of the angoras), but their babies, while cute, won’t be.

The next doe is on the stanchion and I milk her out – the first jar is full, and I switch out another. Most people buy milking pails, but I milk into glass mason jars, and I’ve had no reason to buy something specific, since they work well and I’m cheap. One of the little cochin bantams (about 1/3 the size of a regular chicken) likes to spend her time sitting on the goats’ backs – it is warm, and you are always near the grain. They look like strange, fluffy oxpeckers on very small hornless rhinos ;-) – it is my safari. One of them comes fluttering over my head with a swoop of wings and lands on the Maia’s back. I toss her off, and she comes back and lands on my head – I’m wearing a scarf, but I still don’t want chicken poop on it, so I remove her – but it is strangely companionable to have a small chicken on my head. How could I hate this?

I brush the goats quickly and look at their feet. Then I have a minute while Mina is finishing her grain to lean over and watch the other goats. There’s a lot to look at – I’m trying to guess if Maia is coming into heat, and I will her to hurry up (that trip in my mind). I look at Bast – is she bred or just getting chunky? Do they have enough hay? Is their water bucket full? When do I need to vaccinate them for tetanus by?

The last goat, Selene, is up on the stanchion – I milk her and I bring Frodo and the three young goats their ration – they get to share. I refill the duckling’s waterer, and pet a couple of the ducklings, and make sure the hay feeder is filled. I let the birds out into the sunshine, make sure all the bunnies have fresh water and bring a little sheep’s wool to the cages of the two does that are going to kindle to make sure they are plenty warm (fortunately, our cold snap seems to be winding down before the birth). Tomorrow we’re expecting rain, so I add more bedding to the barn, since the animals will be inside.

I’ve been out here a little more than half an hour. I sometimes bring the radio out, and Eric usually listens to music while out in the barn, but I enjoy listening to the animals as well and enjoy the quiet. There’s the sound the rabbits make when they begin to drink from their waterers, a steady clicking sound. There’s the noisy quack of the ducks, which settles into the sound of splashing as they can’t resist diving into their water dish. Everyone else is munching. It is dark now, and the goats are settling in for the night. When it is bitterly cold, they all huddle together, but now they make comfortable pairs – Maia with her daughter Arava, Selene with her daughter Tekiah, Mina with granddaughter Bast, and Jessie snuggling against Frodo, all gently chewing.

My last stop is to top off the goats’ waterer and turn out the light. Before I flick it off, I gather the couple of eggs that were layed in the goats’ manger – there are always a few and slip them in my pocket. I call out “good night critters” – which is silly, since they don’t care what I say, but I somehow feel compelled to say good night to the barn and the creatures in it. The dogs are waiting for me outside – they’ve done their job, chasing errant chickens nesting in the hay barn into the barn, and stood guard, waiting for me. I fed them before, so my re-entry into the house is a cue that they can go stake their territory, barking challenges to the dogs that live half a mile up and over the hill, and hearing them barked back.

I’m tired, but it is a happy tired, and I don’t mind the chores. I find my time in the barn to be soothing at night, and energizing in the morning. I find the creatures fascinating and am grateful that I get to watch them. I get to see them as animals, behaving as creatures of their species do – and also as personalities. I know that Selene is bold and greedy and bossy to the other goats, but also personable and affectionate, while Maia is quieter, less pushy, but also more reserved, and that Frodo stands in front of every door, not pushing to go out, but guarding his girls. I know that Blackberry the cochin rooster will stay outside the barn until the last hen is in for the night, and that if he’s outside, I or the dogs need to go hunting for that one last hen. I know that Mac will lean his considerable weight against me when I come out, a “hi, I’m here” reminder to scratch his ears and praise him for helping with the chickens. Mistress Quickly, collie through and through (she only has two speeds, high and off), races ahead and runs back, looking at me for confirmation she did good.

Into the house to feed the cats – they all come in at night now, ever since Zucchini, our barn cat, disappeared. The temptation is a little soft food. Myxie and Minnie are elderly, and the soft food dispenses medication to Myxie and needed calories to Minnie, who we thought wouldn’t last out the winter, but did. It draws Dayenu out of the basement where she’s been chasing cobwebs and maybe mice, Rubeus in from the barn and Culpeper, who had a long life as a roamer before we adopted him, out from who-knows-where.

I’m done now – All things Great and Small are fed and watered and tended, patted, scritched, loved, admired and tucked in for the night. I get dinner now. It takes me longer to write it than do it, and most of the time, the doing is strangely pleasurable, and largely relaxing. Oh, there are days when Eric and I play “who has to do the chores” – days when everyone is sick or it is biterly cold or when the creatures are misbehaving (which usually means we screwed up in some way – the creatures like their routines and when we mess with them, they do what they do). But for the most part, the chores are comforting, enjoyable, a half hour at each end of the day that do something satisfying and comforting. I can do them without thought, and sometimes I do, engrossed in considering some problem. But often I do them with thought – mindfully, joyfully, revelling in the brush of feathers and the warmth of bodies. And when they are done, and I go off to my dinner with a sense that the day, whatever it contained, began and ended rightly.

Sharon

Comments

  1. #1 Comrade PhysioProf
    March 28, 2010

    That’s fucking hilarious that one of your cats thinks it’s a dog!

  2. #2 Stephen B
    March 28, 2010

    Chores are the best! Not that I have the animals you do right now, but still.

    The secret to making life pleasurable is to find work that is pleasurable, then it hardly seems like work to begin with. Though it may come as a surprise to people that don’t have real, daily chores, the latter are one of the best things in life.

    Enjoy!

  3. #3 Jim Thomerson
    March 28, 2010

    When my goats were kidding, I would count them when they came in out of the pasture to spend the night in the goat shed. Missing would be the nannies with a new kid. I would then go out in the pasture and find them. Pick up the kid by the front legs and sort of drag it along behind me. (I sold my goat herd when I was 14.) The nannie would follow along behind me. Occasionally one would run back to where she had the kid and we would have to start over. The worst was the time a nannie dropped a kid into a cholla cactus and I had get all the cactus segments unstuck from the kid, from myself, from the kid, etc. etc. And the time five nannies kidded at once. Dragging all five kids along was difficult for a young person to accomplish.

  4. #4 Lora
    March 28, 2010

    What do you do with all the milk? Make yogurt/cheese?

    Because I just know that someone, somewhere will stop by to say, “I worked on a farm once and it completely sucked!” I guess I will add some balance:

    -Finding out that you need to use the calf puller chains and then putting them into use. Involves a horrible long wait, usually through the wee hours of the night, followed by a really slimy and nasty process, which itself is followed by making sure the resulting baby critter is OK, warm enough, able to nurse or take a bottle. Hopefully you can stay awake long enough to throw your clothes directly into the wash, because if you throw em in the hamper in your exhaustion…

    -Thawing waterers in an unheated barn. Most of the time a hot brick that has been warming by a stove is sufficient to keep a waterer reasonably liquid, but in the frozen wastelands of the north, sometimes it’s not enough. Now you have to haul 30-40 lb. waterers filled with ice into the kitchen to thaw.

    -Baling hay. As the song goes, can only be done in the right weather, which doesn’t often last long. 14+ hours of heavy lifting, with hay in your hair, hay in your shirt, hay in your undies. Fortunately it really is only a couple weeks, twice a year.

    -Manure spreading, pretty much for the same reasons as baling hay. You might say that it smells worse than haying, but really after a couple hours of haying everybody’s armpits stink so badly that it’s six of one, half-dozen t’other.

    I still think it is worth reiterating something you said previously: even though some of these chores involve long 14-16 hour days without air conditioning, it’s not like you do that year-round. It’s less work overall than a lot of office jobs.

  5. #5 Tracey
    March 28, 2010

    I’m also curious with what you do with all the milk. I really want a little farm just like yours with goats or maybe a cow but I know they would produce far more milk than my family could ever consume, even with cheese, yogurt, ice cream, etc. Do you sell it or trade it?

  6. #6 Anna
    March 28, 2010

    Chores are often the best part of the day on our farm too. We have less livestock, so ours is simpler (though we do take our dog on a training walk before each meal, so elapsed time is about the same.) I find it very Zen, repetition of the same activities that somehow are different every day as the seasons change. Keeps me grounded and centered.

  7. #7 Jim Thomerson
    March 28, 2010

    I had angora and Spanish goats. Mostly angoras for mohair, and a few Spanish goats to eat. Goat is really good meat, very mild, but flavorful any way you cook it. Barbecue is the best. I made my college money with my goats. Of course I was totally subsidized by other ranch operations.

    Spend a day in the hot sun out in the sheep pen marking lambs if you want the real ranching experience.

  8. #8 Kelly R.
    March 28, 2010

    Mmmmm, Sharon. That’s a meditation, if I ever read one. I love the place your farm prose takes me…just the thing before I crawl into bed. Yeah, that’s it…it feels like a bedtime story.

  9. #9 Kylie
    March 29, 2010

    You know how sometimes you read something and that person has said exactly how you feel about something, but much more eloquently than you ever could? That’s this post for me. I grew up on a farm and am living there again startin in May. I love the chores- the warmth, the fascinating animals, even the smells! (ok, some of them) There is a true dignity to physical labor that has been forgotten by our office-going brethren- although, to each his own I guess. I have a horror of cubicles, office chairs and beige carpet.

  10. #10 Sharon Astyk
    March 29, 2010

    I should be clear – I don’t consider every farm activity a delight. But day to day chores I do like. I’ll be cleaning out the barn after a long winter shortly, and I’ll let you know how much I enjoy that ;-). Although with a lot of the less fun chores, the pleasure is in having it done with!

  11. #11 Chris S.
    March 29, 2010

    Thank you, Sharon, for this picture of what’s involved in doing chores. I’ve never had more than dogs and cats, but I am contemplating getting some chickens, and who knows where it will go from there. Your evocative writing gives me a sense of what I will experience.

  12. #12 Jim Thomerson
    March 29, 2010

    One thing you need to understand about animals. They own you. You are their slave. You have to tend to them every day. If you do not, they will punish you by not doing well, getting sick or dying. They do not understand the concept of a day off, or a vacation. The daily chores are just that, daily chores.

  13. #13 April
    April 5, 2010

    Rubeus? I thought we were so clever and unique when we named our cat that 18 mos ago. :-D

    Some of us don’t think of it as “being owned” rather, we dance together in interdependence.

    Thank you for sharing a glimpse of your day.

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