“It is soooo hard to wait, Mom!”
Isaiah is seven years old and when you are seven, uncertainty is torture. He asks me when the mail will get here 20 times a day, and can he go out and wait for the mail truck? I point out that it is 4 degrees F out there, and the mail won’t be here for three hours, but he and his youngest brother still go out until the cold drives them back.
What’s he waiting for? Not birthday presents or toys, he’s waiting for the Murray McMurray hatchery catalog to come in the mail. Isaiah, you see, is a poultry addict, and his addiction is all my fault.
Last year we had the idea that the children could each choose a variety of poultry and show them at the county fair if they liked. We ended up not showing (goat birthing came during the fair), but the boys were excited. Then four-year-old Asher was deemed too young to care for his own birds, but could help his brothers in hope of earning the right to have his own poultry when he was five (he did), and then-nine year old Eli wasn’t particularly interested, but SImon and Isaiah set about the critical project of choosing their birds. Simon looked through the catalog twice, pointed to golden-laced cochin bantam chickens, said “those” and was done. For Isaiah, however, this involved weeks of agony as the catalog (and those from Strombergs and Cackle) became more and more tattered from an excess of love. Finally, agonizingly, Isaiah chose crested ducks, which he lovingly tended all summer.
By late summer, Isaiah was speculating about next year’s birds. For Chanukah he received a copy of Storey’s Guide to Poultry Breeds, with pictures of hundreds of different chickens, ducks, geese and peacocks.
“I can’t pick peacocks, right Mom?” he asks for clarification.
Ummmm…no. I don’t really want peacocks.
“Ok. What about quail?”
The thing is, this is totally my fault. All my kids love the farm in different ways, but none of them inherited my passion for farming like Isaiah did doing. At three, could name more plants than his father. At five, he asked if he could use his spending money to buy a bamboo plant and some succulents to plant on our stone wall. As I wrote in “Doing Has No Need of Wishing”, Isaiah fits in this life like a glove:
You see, Isaiah from as early as I can remember, took to this life in ways my other children did not. They all love the animals and the open spaces, the creek and the gardens, the climbing trees and the woods to play in, but of all my children, Isaiah is organically, naturally, innately a farm child. Of my sons, he is the most fascinated by plants and animals, most anxious to participate in anything domestic. When he was younger, he hated to leave the farm, although he’s grown more adventurous with time.
Isaiah loves to cook and can bake a mean pan of cornbread almost by himself or a sheet full of chocolate chip cookies. He can name more plants than Eric can, and when Asher scraped a finger recently, Isaiah was the one who ran to the lamb’s ears to make a bandage for him. Every animal on the farm likes and trusts him, and he alone can pick up every bird on the whole farm. He loves to build and mend things. When he was two, as we left for a visit to his Grandmother in New York City, each child was allowed to pick something to bring with them for the trip. My other children brought favorite books and toys. Isaiah brought a salad he’d picked himself – sorrel, mint, lettuce, mizuna, arugula – as a gift for his grandmother. I think that salad still says something deep about my child.
Isaiah has a farm dream of his own – when we considered moving last year, Isaiah, normally the least adventurous of my children, was entirely for it – the barn, after all, had a hayloft. He barely looked at the house. Isaiah’s farm dream includes lots of poultry as well.
I can’t really criticize, since he gets it from me, and from his grandmother. It seems to run in the family – Uncle Billy loves ducks (Isaiah gave Uncle Billy one of his beloved crested ducks, since Uncle Billy was sad that his Dad died, and Isaiah wanted to make him feel better – Isaiah observed that ducks would make *him* feel better, so it seemed reasonable to believe that it would work for Uncle. I’m assured that it did.) Auntie Rachael has a thing about the Polish Chickens with the feathery heads. Nunu (his grandmother) just got permission to go from four to six hens in her tiny backyard in a small city outside Boston.
Secretly, of course, I’m hoping the catalogs come too. And that maybe they send two by mistake, so that I get to look at one of them. I could do it online, of course, but it isn’t the same. And, of course, I’ve got to engage in the important work of choosing what chickens we might add to our household. Of course we hatch some out, but I want more little egg-producing walking lawn ornaments for farm production and well, because I love them.
Most of the chickens are treated as livestock here, but as I wrote before, a few of them are pets. There’s a Cochin hen named Fluffybutt who, as far as I can tell, hasn’t ever laid much of anything, but has the gift of hatching out chicks and a name, so she’s become a pet. On one annoying afternoon the boys came back yelling delightedly that they’d named all the roosters. Several of those roosters had been slated for a visit to freezer camp in the near future, but as the boys proudly told me the names they’d come up with “This one is Toasted Marshmallow” “This one is Firecracker” “This one is Stinky Inky” I sighed and let them live.
None of the birds was ever as special as Blackberry, who I wrote about in “On Sentiment…And Against Sentimentality” earlier this year. Blackberry was quite elderly at that point, and perhaps unsurprisingly, he died in the coldest part of the winter. Isaiah misses Blackberry desperately, and I know that’s part of why he can’t wait to order his chicks for spring; He’s hoping that he’ll find another bird as loveable and gentle. And who knows, he might – because Isaiah is loving and gentle, and animals respond to him.
Isaiah doesn’t just want the animals, he wants the work that goes with them. He wants to help sell his own eggs at the farmstand. He is planning his garden – giant pumpkins, yard long beans, enormous Bloody Butcher Corn – the three sisters garden of the Brobdignagians, and he’s already plotting what he’ll do with it. Does he want to thin the pumpkins and try and win a prize at the fair? Or would he be happy to line the driveway with gigantic jack-o-lanterns? Will I teach him to pickle the beans, so he can enter his pickles in the fair? Should he choose chickens who lay better (more egg sales) or chickens who are more unusual (better shot at a ribbon?). These are complex and important decisions, and they can’t be rushed. They are best made curled up on the couch with a mug of tea and a pile of catalogs. And if Mom is next to him with the seed catalogs, casting the occasional longing glance over at the poultry catalogs, great!
There’s just something about chickens – I’ve called it the “chicken pax” that highly communicative disease that makes you want chickens…or more chickens. Symptoms include:
…praising egg quality, paging through the Murray McMurray catalog and craning your neck to see if that thing in your neighbor backyard is a coop or a shed. No one, no matter where you live, is immune.
A major public health menace, this pax – after all, it could deal a death blow to the confinement egg operations if everyone was to get it . Wouldn’t want that, would we?
Meanwhile, if you want to know what we’re doing here, well, watching for the mail, of course. The addicts, big and small, are waiting for their fix!