Friday, December 30, 2011

Goodbye William

William died yesterday - he was hit by a car. He was too old, and the damage was too great, for him to survive, so we had him put to sleep late last night. After a terrible day in which he managed to drag himself home through the rain on two legs, he ended his life peacefully, wrapped in warm blankets and surrounded by love.

He was 16, and had gone through more lives than two cats put together. When he was just a kitten he was found abandoned in an empty apartment in Toronto with his sister Arbus, and when they were about 6 months old they were adopted by Kim. Maybe memories of those early days trapped in the apartment stayed with him, because he much preferred an outdoor life - at his prime he would only come home to eat, spending his days roaming the neighbourhood and dining at a few homes other than ours. When we still lived in Ontario he loved to go camping with Kim at her property north of Toronto - he would sleep in the tent with her at night, and go canoeing with her during the day.

William was a charmer, a character, and a very handsome cat - he looked just like Sylvester from the Bugs Bunny cartoons, only grey and white instead of black and white. His long, silky fur was gorgeous, but a problem for a wild outdoor roamer like him. We always knew where to find him in the house because he would leave a trail of debris behind him -all the sticks, leaves and burrs he dragged in with him would gradually be deposited on floors, couches, counters and beds.

His closest call came about eight years ago, when a raccoon chomped out a good portion of his throat. As he recuperated he had a tube to drain the wound running right through his neck, so he looked like a very handsome and furry Frankenstein. We tried keeping him in after that, but he was miserable being confined, and so we decided to let him lead the life he wanted.

He started to slow down in the last year or two, and began spending his days on the rocking chair in the verandah and his nights in his special bed away from the pestering attention of Petunia.

And now we imagine him reunited with Arbus, young and strong, with all his teeth again, and fur without a single mat, roaming the bush in search of more adventures. Thank you, William, for making it home last night so we we had a chance to say goodbye. You were a good cat and we will miss you.

Sunday, December 25, 2011

Merry Christmas from Mucky Boots

Frankie is one happy dog today. His human grandparents don't only know what makes my heart sing (new ergonomic gardening hand tools in lime green so I don't lose them) and Kim's (a new book full of colour photos on guitars and guitar makers). They also remember the four-legged members of the family. And so Frankie is the ecstatic recipient of a knotted rope toy and a fabulous new B-A-L-L. What a lucky boy.

Saturday, December 24, 2011


After a run of bright, sunny and cold days, it looks like we're in for a warmer, foggy, wet Christmas. Which could just about match my mood (I am once again prevented from participating in a family Christmas by my don't-you-dare-get-on-a-plane-sinuses) were it not for my sweetie, who is full of enough Christmas spirit for the both of us. Thanks to Kim, we have fairy lights twinkling on the verandah, a beautifully decorated Christmas tree in the living room, and bouquets and garlands of salal, holly and cedar adorning the entire house - not to mention a turkey in the fridge waiting to go into its brine bath sometime today.

If I could name only one gift Kim gives me year round (and there are so many) it would be the gift of joy - her easy laughter and joyful heart blow clean, fresh, cedar-scented air through the thickest fog of sadness or worry. She finds the humour in any situation, can cheer up the glummest person with her funny voices and chicken imitations, and has magically turned what could have been a lonely Christmas into a magically special time for two.

Who needs a better gift than that?

Happy Holidays, everyone. I wish you joy in your hearts every day of the year.

Monday, December 19, 2011

Line in the sand

Well, not sand exactly. More like dirt. And the line goes clear from one side of our long, skinny property to the other, cutting it in half. A half for me. And a half for the chickens.

The problem is that Gump and his flock of teenage pullets have been making themselves at home in the front half of the property, where the house and all the perennial gardens are, and they are making a mess. There's the issue of poop everywhere, which is bad enough, but the thing that is making me tear out my hair is the damage the chickens are doing to all my perennial beds.

I have a love/hate relationship with those beds. Actually, forget the love part of that equation: it's more like a lukewarm regard. We inherited them from the previous owners, and there are a few problems with them. There is way too much square footage. The beds are infested with mint and creeping bellflower. And practically everything in the beds that's supposed to be there is of the grow-in-the-spring-cut-down-in-the-fall variety - in other words, a perennial. There are very few shrubs or trees, which means the beds are splendiferous in the spring and summer, and a desolate wasteland in the winter.

But the biggest problem is they don't feel like mine. Unlike the vegetable garden and greenhouse, they aren't a source of joy - they're a place where I feel the pinch of my perfectionism most acutely, where I feel smothered in responsibility. These beds were someone else's dream - I didn't design the beds, or choose the plants. I'm just responsible for making sure they aren't overtaken completely. So I was floored when my friend Elisabeth, a passionate gardener herself, asked if I got pleasure from that part of my garden. All I could do was gape at her like an idiot while my brain tried furiously to compute some sense from that statement. Pleasure? Seriously?

I'm working on it. I've converted small portions back to what we like to call lawn (which really means an easy-to-care-for mix of grass, moss and mow-able weeds). Kim and I bought out the fall sale at our local garden centre and planted a small army of shrubs this year to try to lend some structure to the beds. I've been making liberal use of heavy-duty landscaping cloth in the areas most hopelessly infested with creeping bellflower. The current prohibition on gardening while my sore shoulder heals is teaching me how much effort I can save by sitting back and letting nature handle some of the yearly decay, instead of jumping in to clean up at the first sign of autumn.

I'm overstating this a bit (I've inherited a tiny tendency to exaggerate from my mom). There are times of satisfaction, moments when the primeval urge of all those plants to grow, to leaf out, to flower, to reproduce just amazes me, when I feel like I'm surrounded by living things working like mad to create a gorgeous panorama solely for my viewing pleasure, when the layers and layers of life, from the wind swaying the upper branches of the evergreens and the birds flying overhead right down to the worm I unearthed and the bug crawling across my hand all make my heart burst with joy and gratitude for this Mucky Boots time of my life. Those are moments to treasure.

But mostly the perennial gardens are a place full of my sweat and labour, my battles with myself and the weeds - a place where I feel the weight of obligation to be a caretaker and custodian of someone else's vision.

All that is bad enough. But try putting a stampeding, rampaging flock of chickens into the mix. They dig. They scratch. They demolish. They are masters at flicking the mulch I so carefully pitchforked, wheelbarrowed, dumped and spread on the beds all over the grass outside the beds. Yes, they are cultivating and aerating and fertilizing at the same time, but I had had enough.

Enter the new fence.

We are lucky that the previous owners had the same commitment to pasturing their chickens as we do, and the same wish to preserve the property around the house. Shortly before they put the house on the market they did the thankless work of sinking all the required fenceposts for a straight run of fencing from one side of the property to the other, delineating a house-half and a farming-half. All we would have to do was string the fencing material and build a couple of gates. Easy, right?

I should know by now that no construction project is as easy as you think it's going to be. Sure enough, when the third post we reached cracked and fell over when we tried to hammer in some staples, we knew we had a problem. It turns out a couple of the posts had already rotted below ground. So today we dug holes, invented ways to keep the posts vertical in the empty holes, mixed concrete, and got the new poles done. This week, if the weather holds, we'll finish attaching the fencing material and string a couple of extra lines of wire to raise the height. Next week, if all goes according to plan, Kim will build the two gates we'll need. And then the line in the sand will be well and truly drawn.

Get used to it, chickie-chickies!

Thursday, December 15, 2011

New Coat

You might remember reading about our poor hen Broken Feathers, so named because her position as Hector's favourite (amorously speaking) resulted in so many broken feathers on her back and wings she needed a coat (quite a stylish one, if we do say so) to help keep her warm.

That may have seemed bad enough, but things have worsened for our plucky little hen: winter arrived, and with it came unusually cold temperatures (below freezing most nights) and the usual damp, drizzling rain. So we came up with a waterproof version of the coat, with a top layer cut from an old shower curtain and a layer underneath made of soft fleece (modelled here by Broken Feather's friend Ginger, Hector's #2 go-to-girl).

And if that wasn't bad enough, Broken Feather's first molt (when chickens lose an awful lot of their feathers over a period of a few weeks, which are then replaced by brand new ones) took a dive from mild to wicked: that chicken was practically naked. She looked half plucked, the poor thing, and the saddest was her bare little pink butt. We were just grateful that she had the sense to start sleeping in a nest box at night to keep warm, since my modest sewing skills prevented me from covering all of her with fleece and shower curtain.

I am happy to announce that Broken Feathers has turned a corner: her new feathers are finally coming in - all at once, which means she is an itchy chickie. Her fleece coat became much too irritating for her, so she is back to being au naturel. She may look a bit funny right now, but in a couple of weeks she will be back to her original, fluffy, Buff Orpington glory.

We're going to have to give her a new name.

Monday, December 5, 2011

Hide and seek

I'm always learning new things about chickens. For example, did you know that one of a chicken's eyes is used for looking at objects that are close, and the other for objects that are far away? That's why, when a chicken finds you interesting, it seems like she is turning her head and looking at you sideways. She's just using her close-up eye.

Here's another: once you find a chicken's hidden nest and take the eggs, she won't lay there anymore.

So when we found the secret mother lode of nine eggs laid by our teenage pullets (known as the Wild Bunch), and took away the eggs, we inadvertently launched a game of Chicken Hide and Seek.

Round 1: The Wild Ones laid their eggs in the nest in the woods. Kim took away the eggs. The pullets abandoned the nest.

Round 2: The pullets laid in the dry, warm spot underneath our external chimney. Kim took away the eggs and the pullets abandoned the nest.

Round 3: The pullets laid their eggs in the dry dirt near the bicycles under the verandah. Kim found the nest, took away the eggs, and the pullets abandoned the nest.

"Why can't they lay their eggs in the coop?!" said Kim.

Finally, in Round 4 the Wild Ones got smart. They didn't lay under the verandah. They didn't lay in the woods, or around the house, because they knew Kim the Chicken Sleuth would find the eggs and take them. We knew they were laying somewhere, but where?

Apparently they decided the principle of hiding in plain sight might apply, because after three days of missing eggs, and searching high and low, Kim found their new the coop, if not precisely in the coop.

Yes, that's right: under the coop.

What clever chickie-chickies. What exasperating chickie-chickies.

The upshot? The Wild Ones have been confined to quarters pending their successful completion of Egg Laying 101: How to Lay an Egg in a Nest Box.
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