This has been quite a week. I have had little sleep and a lot of work. Not all of it was fun, but all of it was rewarding and fulfilling. Four consecutive nights this past week saw me getting to bed at 3:30 am, 4:30 am, 1:30 am, and 2:30 am. These are hours I’ve rarely seen since writing all night research papers in college or nursing my own babies at all times of the night. Well, actually, babies were at the center of much of my activity this week too.
My son decided that he would like to hatch and raise chicks for his 4-H project. He gathered 40 eggs, with the hope that at least some of the chicks to come from them would be the offspring of one of our favorite chickens, Cappuccino, who was killed by a dog a few weeks ago. Cappuccino was an Easter-egger breed rooster with a mild-mannered and friendly temperament, and his feathers looked like they were tie-dyed with mixtures of yellow, grey, rusty orange, brown and black. As with all projects for novices, parental involvement was necessary. I showed my boy how to set up the incubator, regulate the heat and humidity, and watch for signs of hatching. When hatching began, he had to watch the chicks and decide when they were ready to be moved from the incubator to the brooder box that he had set up with an old wash tub and a heat lamp – the same way his dad and I had set it up a few weeks before with our own batch of chicks. The hatching process was actually what kept me up until 4:30 in the morning. Following the hatching of most of the chicks over the course of two days, there were six of them that were clearly still alive inside their shells but having trouble hatching out. We could hear them peeping and scratching, but we saw little to no progress in their hatching, despite their day-long efforts. Having experienced this the last time we hatched chicks, and having ended up with several dead chicks, I didn’t want to see the same results. So, I checked the membranes of the eggs and realized they were too dry. This could prevent otherwise healthy chicks from hatching. I decided to intervene. After my son went to bed, resigned to the fact that those chicks of his might not make it out of their shells alive, I made the decision to help them hatch. We had candled the eggs with a bright light and could see that they were vivacious and eager to get out. I peeled only tiny sections of the shell at a time. Some of them had already pipped a small hole themselves, while others hadn’t made any cracks in their shells at all. I peeled back these tiny chips of shell and wetted the membrane slowly with warm water that I squeezed from a paper towel – being super careful not to squeeze water into their open beaks, as they were already breathing air. I was also keenly aware of the fact that I could be opening these shells before the chicks were ready – before they had fully absorbed their yolk sacs that keep them alive in their little oval box – and that this could result in death for them. I would chip away and then wet the membrane and then wait awhile and then chip away some more. This process was repeated over and over for several hours until each and every one of those six chicks was able to hatch and move and spread its wings. It was wondrous.
One chick in particular got my attention and captured my heart. It was big – probably far too big for his shell, which is another factor that can cause inability to hatch. He hatched out but didn’t seem to have either the strength or maybe the desire to uncurl his body from the fetal position. He stayed curled up and stiff, and then he began to have tremors that would cause his little legs and body to shake uncontrollably. I felt awful, because I thought that maybe he would have been better off staying in the shell a little longer. It even occurred to me that maybe I shouldn’t have helped him at all, and that it might have been better to let nature take its course in this case. But, I had done what I had done. I kept looking away, checking on other chicks, hoping that when I looked back at him he would have somehow been imbued with vim and vigor. But, this was not the case. I reached down to touch him, and he raised his teensy wing and put it on my finger; he tipped his head up and looked at me. I was hooked. Maybe this was a fluke. I tended to some other tasks and then reached down toward him again. Again the wing raised and found its place on my finger, and his tiny eyes looked up at me pleadingly. Swoon. There was no way I was walking away from this little fellow. I was reminded of one of my sons who was born with torticollis that pulled his little neck to one side, locking down the muscles in a way that made him look weak and helpless. And I was reminded of how weak his whole body was and how, when I adopted him, I was told he might never get better or swallow correctly or move right or talk or learn, and how I refused to accept any of those possibilities without at least giving him a fair shake. I also thought about how he is now a strong young man who loves to write and draw and do tae kwon do and ride a bike and read books far above his age level. It’s been a long road, but one that has been worth it. And this chick needed the same kind of fair shake.
So, I picked him up out of the incubator and put him in the brooder box with the other chicks. He got trampled. He lay there under the heat lamp in a stiff, crumpled heap as he got his head stepped on over and over again. I took him out and put him in the incubator again. I still saw no change in his condition. I thought back again to those years ago when my son needed help. I knew that just throwing this chick into the same environment as the others was not going to result in the same outcome that the others had achieved. It was time for chicken physical therapy. I put him on my hand under the heat lamp and let him warm up. I had hoped that the warmth in and of itself would help his atrophied muscles loosen up. This also didn’t work. I flipped him onto his back and stretched his wings and legs and straightened up his crooked neck. He seemed to respond a little. I let him rest and then stretched him some more. He didn’t begin to move freely, but his body started to relax, and he trusted my efforts. I let him rest a little, and then I resumed the stretching exercises. Before I realized it, I had worked on this little chick for about two hours. By the end of that time, he was able to squirm around on his own some and was lifting his head. I put him in the brooder box with the others. My back hurt from hunching on the floor with him for so long, but in was 4:30 in the morning, and I was exhausted; I felt that he probably was too. As I lumbered off to bed, I felt like I had given him at least a fighting chance for survival. It took a while for me to unwind that night, and I went to bed worrying about this little chick – maybe far more than I should have. I remarked to Kevin that for someone who used to self-identify as “not an animal person,” I sure was feeling a lot of connection and concern for all the animals that call Two Clay Birds Farm their home.
After three hours of sleep, I got up expecting the worst. I worried that this chick wouldn’t be alive when I peeked in the brooder box, and that there was a good chance some of the others I had helped hatch would be dead as well. To my surprise and great joy, ALL of the chicks were alive. Not only that, I couldn’t even pick out my favorite little guy from the crowd! He was doing so well that he was just one of the gang now! There were 27 in all. And, it was clear that a good portion of the chipper fuzzballs that I was seeing bounce around in the tub were descendants of our beloved Cappuccino. All the hours that our son had logged in caring for the conditions of the eggs in the incubator, and all the hours of sitting up trying to give some weak chicks a head start in life had paid off with great success. It wasn’t all fun, but it was worth it.
We also added three new goats to the farm this week. We got a buck named Concho from a woman who is sure to become a new friend. We had to drive to Springtown – a little over an hour away, near the Fort Worth area. We had no livestock trailer, so that morning we fastened together some shipping pallets and two-by-fours and made ourselves a little goat pen in the back of our flatbed trailer. We were quite a sight to see as we went on a date in Fort Worth afterward (we had a goat with us, but no human kids, which is an unusual occurrence that we decided to take advantage of). That goat got toted around the city, first to Tractor Supply, then to Panera Bread, then to Barnes & Noble bookstore. We garnered quite a few stares and had some people ask us if we had just come back from the stock show. A few days later we drove another hour to get two goat does from a woman and her son who clearly loved them and didn’t want to part with them, but whose lives could no longer accommodate their care. I think they are planning to come out and see the goats and enjoy the day with us sometime soon when they are in the area. The does are named Delilah and Mia, and they are sweet and affectionate – always wanting to be petted and to follow us around. Mia is pregnant, so I am trying to take extra good care of her and am excited to see her pregnancy progress and her baby playing in the pen with her.
This week, Kevin also planted over 2,000 seeds in flats – some for growing as crops and some for selling at the shop in flats. Additionally, I helped get in about one-and-a-half rows of onions, while he put in some 70+ rows of onions and hand-tilled, broadforked, and mounded soil for new crop rows. Clearly, Kevin was a farming badass, and I was far behind in the field.
It seems the projects here never end, so after the chicks and the goats got settled, we began breaking ground on our new greenhouse that will help us grow and protect our plants before they take root in the soil. The plants are – like the chickens and goats – just getting their start in life. I see now why places that grow plants are called “nurseries,” as it takes the same patience and care and involvement to truly care for plants that it does to care for animals. Giving them the right nourishing conditions and a healthy start is paramount to their success. Audrey Hepburn is quoted as saying, “To plant a garden is to believe in tomorrow.” It’s true, isn’t it? Even the tiniest seeds bring a sense of hope to the observer watching them grow. Jesus told his followers that “faith as small as a mustard seed” could move mountains. That’s pretty small. And the results are huge.
I guess a sense of faith in the wonder of life – the hope that the most seemingly improbable sparks of life can roar into a flame of vivacity and strength – is what carries a farm forward. I was reminded this week of one of my favorite poems by Rumi. It’s called “The Seed Market,” and it begins like this:
Can you find another market like this?
Where, with your one rose
you can buy hundreds of rose gardens?
for one seed
get a whole wilderness?
For one weak breath,
a divine wind?
We hope that the art studio and the garden market that are taking shape now will serve as extensions of this hope and faith in good things. We hope that, like the animals who thrive here, the connections that we form with other people through the studio and shop will grow and ripple out into a wilderness of good and strength in the world.