today, happily, is the vernal equinox. it seemed like it was a really long and difficult winter. not as bad as the kind i use to struggle through growing up in the great lakes region of pennsylvania, but still difficult by our new mexican, high desert, winter standards.
it has been in the 70's and sunny this past week in march, the week my kids enjoyed their spring break from school. it is early morning, and i just came in from sitting in the chicken coop with my cup of coffee watching the chickens peck and scratch and sunbathe and drink water. it is one of my favorite ways to spend as much of the morning as i can steal away from the rest of my responsibilities. i was sitting on the edge of the range feeder enjoying my coffee and feeling thankful that all of us, here on my little urban farm, on this beautiful day which began with the setting of the march supermooon, had made it through the winter. it always amazes me and makes me feel a little shaken.
but actually, not all of us had made it through the winter, and that is part of the natural cycle. i took some time on this beautiful morning to remember the ones who had not made it through this crazy-cold winter.
it started in november when i answered my phone early, early one morning to hear the woman at the post office letting me know that my most recent batch of baby chicks had arrived, and they were peeping loudly in her office. i threw on a jacket and drove down to pick them up, happy to discover they had all arrived alive and perky. each year i raise a batch of baby chicks in my sunny, warm greenhouse over the winter. when spring comes i open the door and a lovely, fresh batch of young, healthy hens who are just starting to lay eggs emerges. i sell these hens to people who are interested in beginning to raising chickens.
baby chicks, they are fragile creatures. as the fall and winter weeks went on, i would occasionally find one who couldn't muster enough strength to live to it's chicken adulthood. those poor little souls get placed at the bottom of my lilac bush to give themselves back to the earth to bloom again as sweet smelling purple flowers come mid april.
we had recently harvested our garden and put the beds to sleep when i signed up for a winter gardening workshop. our jam was put up, the birdhouse gourds we grew all summer were now cut and set in the shed to dry over winter, the tomatoes and morning glories were a memory. i hate saying goodbye to my garden in the fall, so i decided to try my hand at growing greens in my gardens beds over the winter. my husband is an electricain and he bent some pipe for me to use as strong supports for my garden cover. in went the seeds in late fall, boc choy, mustard greens, red and green oak lettuce. i didn't hold out much hope for them to make it, it just felt strange to be planting seeds as winter was looming.
this past winter, for the first time ever, i ordered some extra chickens to raise as meat birds. having been vegetarian for over 18 years (up until about 4 years ago), i didn't know if i could harvest them when the time came, my husband bet not. one of the meat chicken i received was a baby speckled sussex rooster who had not been lucky enough to come into this word with a pair of working feet. he threw me for a loop. my nurturing tendencies kicked in and i fell in love with him while hand raising him. he was my karma for even thinking about slaughtering my chickens. i knew most farmers would have immediately "culled" him from their flock. instead, i made little paddles for his feet to help him walk. i would put him out in the greenhouse if the day was warm enough, and then bring him into the laundry room at night. he couldn't huddle up and keep warm with the other chickens because they would peck him, so he needed to be separated from the rest of the flock.
february came, my least favorite, darkest, coldest month of the winter season. february 2nd, my husbands birthday, began a snap of record-breaking freezing temps. new mexico ran out of natural gas. yes, you read that correctly, our state ran out of natural gas. many people in taos, santa fe and other small new mexican towns and villages were without natural gas to heat their homes for days. fortunately, many of those folks are resourceful enough to heat their homes through other, more traditional methods, but not all of them were set up to go without gas for heat. i drained what little winter energy i had left worrying about all the people and also the animals, wild or domesticated, who might not make it through those cold nights. my neighbor left their small dog out in temps that would have killed most unprotected creatures. i woke up to the small dog's last-gasp efforts to yelp for it's owner. she finally brought it in once she saw me trying to get her attention across the gate in the 6.30am dark of the morning. somehow the little dog survived. all the while through the extreme cold, my greens were growing bigger each time i peaked under the cover of my winter garden, and my birdhouse gourds were tucked in the dark shed, drying.
my little rooster with the cardboard paddle feet made it through that cold snap, although he was stuck in the laundry room for days until it warmed up enough for him to go back out into his bigger pen in the greenhouse. i had visions of him napping in the sun come spring and summer. amazingly, all of my chickens, young and old, made it through the cold snap, although i am sure not comfortably. they were huddled up together in the greenhouse with the heat lamps blazing. my dogs made it through, tucked warmly into bed with my kids, unaware of any other type of dog life.
the cold snap broke, the weather turned warmer, but it was still winter in new mexico. my little rooster with the paddle feet had good days when he could actually get up and walk, and bad days when he would lay on his breastbone and could not really figure out how to get his feet under him. i really wasn't sure i was doing the right thing by him. his worst was a day when he got wet in the water and then he got stuck in a draft. it was a rare day when i was not here to check on him every few hours. he didn't make it through that day and he is burried out under the cottonwood tree in my front yard.
my other chickens grew up and started to reveal their gender. i had way more roosters than i had ordered. roosters are not like puppies, it's not so easy to just give them away. i once gave away one of my extra roosters to a nice-seeming couple, but later saw him on the news in a story of a busted cock fighting ring. i would rather harvest them humanely, than have them go through that torture. my friend, wendy, had offered to teach me how to harvest them. i decided this was the year to learn.
wendy and i, and our husbands, and even our kids (except the vegetarian ones), spent a sunny, warm late spring day harvesting my extra roosters. i woke up early that morning before everyone arrived, sat in the coop drinking my coffee, and watched them enjoy their last beautiful morning on this earth.
even though wendy is skilled in the most humane ways of ending a chickens life (i wouldn't expect any less of her), it was still intense and exhausting for all involved, including the humans. i wasn't sure i would be able to do it when it was my turn, but i did. i took the life of four roosters that day. at the end of the day, i realized i felt better about harvesting my hand-raised chickens than i would about buying a cheap rotisserie chicken who had lived a miserable factory-farmed life. i really hate factory farms more than just about anything. even though i normally buy meat from a humane, local farm/butcher, this experience made me feel like i should only eat the meat i grow, and no more.
so, on this beautiful first official morning of spring, when my winter garden has mostly been consumed (what's left is already starting to bolt), my gourds are dry and ready to paint, and my freezer is full of fresh, home grown meat, i am looking around at all of us who are left here on my little urban farm, and i feel a lot of love for them. but even more so, i feel a lot of love and i pay my respects for the ones we lost over the winter, even, and maybe especially, the ones we lost to our own hands.