by Laura Parker Roerden
5:30 am (May 8, 2014). I’m awakened by my cell phone ringing and the accompanying chime of a left voicemail message. It’s the post office calling: they have my forty baby chicks. The ones that were not supposed to come for three weeks. (Who knew that the post office opens at 5:30 am?)
I head to the barn and feed and water the grown chickens and the thirty, four-week old chicks, who now have their pin feathers and no longer require a heat lamp. If you listen here you’ll notice the sounds of farming are not unlike those you hear in a restaurant kitchen. Grains are spilled, cascading notes of aluminum and steel clash, voices compete for real estate.
I collect the eggs, separating the warm-to-the-touch ones so that I can notify a customer that the fertilized eggs she wants for incubation are ready are to be picked up. In a modern twist, I text her a simple message: “12 eggs, warm to touch.” Like a summoned midwife, she replies: “I’m on my way.”
My nephew Ed Parker comes into the barn to feed the cows. His head nearly brushes the low ceiling as he stands with a rubber pail full of grain and we talk over the timing of CSA beef deliveries and the awaited cash flow. He heads into the free-stall barn. I can see through the still open door the crowd of expectant cows’ faces awaiting him.
The brooder needs to be cleaned for the new chicks now surprise arrival, so I grab a shovel and wheelbarrow. When people picture farming, they no doubt picture sunrise moments of planting seeds and feeding animals. But the unromantic truth is: farming is 90% poop removal. I hastily prop the brooder door open with the nearest thing available—a hammer. In the middle of this most odious of tasks, my cell phone rings: it’s the post office again. Yes, yes, yes. I’m coming.
In the confusion of grabbing my cell phone, the hammer falls and a two foot line of chicken wire scrapes my face from forehead to chin as the brooder door slams shut on my hand. Fortunately, there is no mirror in the barn, but I imagine I look like someone who has had a run in with a rake. This particular injury must remind me of childhood, because I swear I smell the iodine that my mother would have used on such a wound. I run my fingers over the jagged cuts and wonder if it will leave a scar.
Ed finishes feeding the cows, then heads to the post office to retrieve the chicks, so I can be on site to finish the brooder and sell the fertilized eggs to the woman who is on her way. I hide my face behind my hair so as to not have to explain what just happened.
The woman arrives and introduces herself; we shake hands, and I hand her the dozen of eggs I have kept warm in the sun. She hands me the money and tells me about her children, grades 7 and 4, and how excited they are to be hatching their own chicks. She had confessed to me when we spoke on the phone earlier that they had lost their previous backyard chickens to predators, but there is no mention of anything in this encounter but the counting of days to the coming of new life.
The handyman who is preparing our Big Red Barn for a paint job shows up and we exchange “good mornings” as he gets to work on the historic windows that need puttying. Swallows, bees, and squirrels are already abuzz around his worksite protesting the disturbance.
I call the local grain store to make sure that they have finally gotten in the fifty pound bags of chick crumbles that they didn’t have over the weekend; then head off to gather 200 lbs of grain. I arrive to find the feed store manager turning over his 10 x 20 garden by hand. With a shovel. He is already soiled in sweat and happy to stop to help me. We chat casually about peacocks and a local man who made some good money selling them.
A big cattle rig from a local farm pulls up as I finish paying for my order. The son of a farmer who my father taught how to dairy farm hops out of the cab of the pickup after having perfectly backed it into the space where the hay will be loaded on. I think of my own seven-year old son, who plays with a miniature rig of this very kind and his own backing into imaginary adventures on the floor of our farmhouse.
Now it’s back to the barn, where Ed has already settled the chicks into the brooder. “How many were dead?” I ask. “None,” Ed answers. Without another word between us, Ed unloads the grain I have just bought, I grab the chick waterer and food tray and fill them. He’s off to his next thing before I come back with the water.
I put the waterer in the brooder and touch the water with my fingers and bring a single bead to the beaks of one chick after another. The chicks come to the waterer like a magnet drawn north. I indulge in a few moments of touching the birds, knowing that their imprinting on me will help in the coming free ranging, as they learn the confines of their world as drawn by the comings and goings of their surrogate parent.
I next prepare a beef share for later delivery to Boston, where errands related to my other job and time with dear friends await. I leave notes for the children, who will later check on the chicks and close up the bigger chickens for the night. Good night, great green field, I whisper as I drive away.