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Archive for December, 2017

I won a trophy! Well, a consolation prize. My sister found it at an antiques mall and presented it to me at Thanksgiving, soon after Ernesto and I went from married, with chickens, to empty nesters.

It was like this:

At the end of the summer we removed the fence around the chicken coop and allowed the hens to roam free. It seemed sensible, since they were able to find ways out of their pen pretty much any time they wanted, and having the fence down made it easier to mow inside the pen. Plus, I loved having the hens out and about, running with the goats or hanging out under the bird feeders. They always went back to the coop to lay eggs and sleep. Life was peaceful and good.

Until Halloween weekend. We went off to work that Friday the owners of two goats and 10 chickens. When we got home on Friday evening, I collected the eggs and noticed that one of the hens was missing. Ernesto said he had spotted a feathery pile across the road and up a bit that morning on his way to the office, and we imagined that some critter had gotten a hen and carried it away. It was a shame, but it does happen from time to time. I didn’t fret about it much.

The next morning we awoke to find that our white goat, Iris, had escaped from the corral and was standing outside the fence, looking as if she very much wanted back in. I went out to open the gate for her and found four chickens dead between the coop and the garden, and two more dead inside the coop. I report that quite calmly, don’t I? At the time, I was not calm. I didn’t scream or faint or anything, but it was a terrible shock, the kind where you walk back and forth and look at the poor limp hens and imagine that in another few seconds they will perk up and live again.

Two hens were actually still alive, though seriously rattled, and another was unaccounted for. I believe that whatever savaged the chickens had spooked poor Iris so badly that she leapt (hard to imagine) out of the corral. She has such stumpy legs, it actually cheered me up to think of her jumping.

We spent a sizable chunk of Saturday afternoon trying to catch the two surviving chickens to put them into the nursery coop, which is smaller and in a high-security pen. It used to be a dog pen, so it has a chain-link fence and the stable forms one wall. When the chickens were young, Ernesto added a layer of chicken wire across the top to discourage attacks from the air. We use it as a halfway point for new chicks. Once they’re sturdy enough to move out from beneath a heat lamp, they live in the nursery pen until they’re old enough to go free-range.

But after surviving the Night of Horror, our last two chickens would not allow us near them. They were Ameracaunas, one of them golden and the other mostly charcoal gray with touches of gold. They may have been shell-shocked, but they were still having nothing to do with us and were much spryer than Ernesto and I. That being the case, I waited for them to go into the coop for the night and then went out and reinforced the little chicken entry door with a heavy piece of wood. (Note: It was actually the sign that Ernesto had made when we had too many eggs to keep. It read “Fresh Eggs” on the first line and “Free Range” on the second line above our phone number. One afternoon a guy called to ask about the free range; he thought we were giving away an oven.)

I also took the wood-and-chicken-wire gate that used to be part of the hens’ enclosure and put that against the heavier piece of wood for extra protection.

Alas, the next morning I found both of those barricades pushed aside, and no sign of the hens. Inside the coop, a terrible struggle had caused the framing of one of the nests to be knocked completely askew. The Ameracaunas evidently fought to the bitter end.

We still don’t know what exactly went after the chickens. Possibly a fox or weasel, maybe even a coyote. Whatever it was, it took the goats several days to get over their uneasiness. The Wednesday after the massacre, Ernesto was working from home and looked up from his computer to see Iris and Rose walking up the driveway side by side. He led them back to the corral with little fuss, but we believe they were patrolling the property to make sure all was well. Either that or they were so psychologically damaged from the things they had witnessed that they were running away from home.

At about the same time that we lost our chickens and (therefore) our source of fresh eggs, I came across a bit of information about St. Swithun. It was almost as if the dear saint were reaching out to give me comfort in my chickenless and (therefore) eggless state:

He was, say the chroniclers, a diligent builder of churches in places where there were none before and a repairer of those that had been destroyed or ruined. He also built a bridge on the east side of the city and, during the work he made a practice of sitting there to watch the workmen, that his presence might stimulate their industry. One of his most edifying miracles is said to have been performed at this bridge where he restored an old woman’s basket of eggs, which the workmen had maliciously broken. David Nash Ford’s “Early British Kingdoms”

Apparently the egg miracle was St. Swithun’s greatest claim to sainthood, though the diligent building of churches probably didn’t hurt. He also gets credit for the weather during the summer, but I never did understand that part, something about if it’s raining on St. Swithun’s day it will rain for another 40 days. Moving on to more interesting tidbits, I found a charming photo of his skull, which looks rather egg-like itself, all tied up with a crimson ribbon and resting on a red cushion. St. Swithun’s bones seem to have been sent around to several different places, as his skull is in one place while his shins and various other parts are someplace else and possibly not together. Kinda like some of our chickens, poor things. It seems appropriate but sad that he is himself a broken Humpty-Dumpty of a saint, unable to put himself back together again.

 

St. Swithun’s egg-like skull

Anyway, now we have a participation trophy for chicken farming. I am trying to decide what to have engraved on it, maybe “Remembering the Eggsistential Crisis of 2017,” or “We tried.”

But perhaps leaving it blank is the best memorial to our poor hens.

Remember: May 4 is International Respect for Chickens Day. It’s not too early to plan how you intend to celebrate and/or “protest the bleakness of chickens’ lives.”

 

 

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Train 2 (3)

Engine 611

Do you believe in magic?

I didn’t see The Polar Express until I was well over 40, and the only reason I saw it then was because someone mentioned to me at a party that she and her grown son went to see it every December. They had read the book every year as he grew up, and when the movie came out watching it together became their new holiday tradition. It impressed me that it must be a very compelling movie, and I made sure that I saw it the very next chance I got.

Well, I loved it. There was something about all that cold and snow, and the wolves in the forest, and the earnestness of the children on the train, in their little pajamas and bathrobes. I found it perfectly charming and by the end, like the young hero of the story, I completely believed in the magic.

Since the film’s release an entire industry of Polar Express-style excursions has sprung up around the country during the holidays. If someone could guarantee me the snow and wolves and a cup of hot chocolate, I’d buy me a ticket. I do love a train ride.

Last spring Ernesto and I took a day-long excursion on a train pulled by a Class J steam locomotive, Norfolk and Western 611. We had to get up ridiculously early to travel from Greensboro to Roanoke, Virginia and back. For different ticket prices you were assigned to special cars and were entitled to varying levels of refreshment. We chose one of the upper-middle price points to ensure that we had access to all of the snacks we might need. We also had our pick of seats in our assigned car, a 1930s-era railcar with lovely Art Deco features. We chose to sit in a section of the car where the seats were positioned with the backs to the windows and faced a similar set of seating (and windows) across the aisle.

As we left Greensboro, we wound our way through woods and what often seemed like the backside of the real world. We had not gotten far before Ernesto—very much against my advice—fished around between the seats and pulled out an 8-year-old newspaper from somewhere in Montana.

I spent much of my time twisting around so I could see out the window behind me, and Ernesto spent much of his time talking to John Schmidt, a passenger sitting opposite us. John had logged thousands of miles on railroads around the U.S. and was amazingly knowledgeable about Engine 611 and the history of the rail line we were traveling. The ability to watch the scenery and chat with our fellow passengers in such a leisurely way—after all, we had lots of time, and nothing that we had to do—was magical.

But the most magical part of all—nearly as magical as The Polar Express—was the way that the train threaded through towns and tucked-away communities and connected us to all of the people who had come out in the misty coolness of morning to watch the train go by. At every stretch of track that crossed a road, no matter how remote, people were there waiting for us to pass. They waved from side roads and the shoulders of highways; some videotaped our passing from their cars. I loved that. It brought to mind another misty morning train ride, 37 years ago, when I was in Japan for a summer exchange program.

Julie, Dave, Jeff and I spent three weeks of that trip at a conference center in the mountains of Nagano prefecture. Mostly we worked with the kitchen staff: the thin, gentle head chef, Nakagawa; Shigeo, an expert in martial arts; Kuichi, with a heart-shaped face and brushy short hair; and Hideo, who shuffled around in black slippers as if too exhausted to pick up his feet. They and the rest of the staff assigned us innumerable simple tasks: filling salt and pepper shakers, shucking corn, dipping ice cream into small bowls, washing and refilling the square glass marmalade dishes, shredding cabbage for curry. While working, we taught each other our native languages. They taught us the Japanese phrase, “I hear, and I obey.” In retaliation, we taught them to say, “Quitting time!”

When it really was quitting time, they swept the four of us away to sushi restaurants, bars, local temples, ice cream shops, and sites of historical significance. One excursion took us to Nobeyama Station: “Japan’s highest railway station,” Nakagawa announced. Then we drove a mile or two further up, where a stone monument rose from a gray stone base beside the tracks.

Nakagawa stopped the van. “Highest point of Japanese railroad,” he said gravely. Kuichi smiled as if it were an inside joke, but they all seemed proud of the marker. We regarded it for several long minutes before driving back to the conference center for a round of ping-pong and casual vocabulary drills.

Then our days ran out, and it was time to return to Tokyo. Two Nobeyama administrators and the kitchen staff saw us off at the train station. A sad group, we huddled under a single umbrella in the spitting rain. The kitchen staff evidently decided it was too wet to hang around; they bowed their good-byes and sprinted for the parking lot. They didn’t even turn around as they jumped in the van and peeled off.

Julie watched them leave, sniffing back tears.  “We don’t know anybody in Tokyo,” she said, as the administrators settled us on the train with great care.

Soon we were chugging out of the station, moving slowly up the mountain as Julie and I cried ever harder.

Several passengers seemed concerned, so Dave tried to explain, in slow English, “They are fine. They are sad because we are leaving friends.” Julie sobbed, and I choked.

Jeff tried distraction. He pointed out the window. “Look, we’re getting close to the marker at the Highest Point,” he said in his gravel-road voice. “Remember when we came up here with the guys?” 

At first we saw only the top of the marker through the window, then it was in full view.

And there was the kitchen staff. They had driven up to the Highest Point and climbed the little hill that the marker post was on, where they waved at the train as it passed. We jumped into the aisle of the train and waved like crazy. They actually spotted us through the window—you could tell by the way their faces lit up and their mouths opened in exuberant shouts that they had seen us—and they waved with a fervor that matched ours. Then they were behind us, and gone.

Even as the train carried us away, we had never felt so deeply connected to those dear people. It was exactly that way as we traveled behind Engine 611: a feeling of peace on earth, goodwill toward men. And ladies.

I know I should try to preserve that attitude even when I’m not on a train, but it ain’t easy in this world we live in. Sometimes our train is more like the one in “The Celestial Railroad,” a strange story by Nathaniel Hawthorne that is a sequel to Pilgrim’s Progress. The Celestial Railroad passes near a cavern that was occupied in Pilgrim’s Progress by two old troglodytes. Hawthorne tells us that though these vile troglodytes have moved or mouldered away:

…into their deserted cave another terrible giant has thrust himself, and makes it his business to seize upon honest travelers and fatten them for his table with plentiful meals of smoke, mist, moonshine, raw potatoes, and sawdust.

As Andy Griffith might say, “Sounds like a recipe out of the newspaper.”  

It also sounds very much like the menu we’re fed on a daily basis by our national politicians. Oh, I assume that some of them are good people who are trying to do good work. But so many don’t seem to be trying at all.

They need to stop feeding us smoke, mist, and moonshine and try harder. I’m trying! Awhile back I took a course in cultivating compassion and learned the loving-kindness meditation. Here’s the recipe for how to do it from the Greater Good Science Center at UC Berkeley.

Or if you are into shortcuts, simply imagine that you are on a train, and everyone you pass in the course of your day—even that person you don’t much care for—is waving at you, and wishing you well. Likewise, from your comfortable seat inside the train, you are waving at every one of them, and wishing them well.

I am here to tell you: This is magical stuff.

The Center explains how it works:

Loving-kindness meditation increases happiness in part by making people feel more connected to others—to loved ones, acquaintances, and even strangers. Research suggests that when people practice loving-kindness meditation regularly, they start automatically reacting more positively to others—and their social interactions and close relationships become more satisfying.

In short, it evokes those same feelings of connection and universal goodwill that I felt as I waved at the nice people who had come out to wave at Engine 611. It would do us all good if we would remember our essential connectedness. As a nation, we are, after all, on this particular train together, and whether or not we’re bound for glory we are certainly zipping along at a steady clip toward the future—and I would like for every one of us to arrive there, safe and happy.

Magical thinking? Maybe so.

But I believe.

 

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