Five-Acre Almanac: The Rooster Years

Week 15:

Yesterday our rooster died. It happened sometime between when I brought the chickens some water around 11:00am and when I went back around 4:30 to shut them in for the night. I found him on the floor of the coop, close to the feeder, perfectly still, still warm. He lived through six Alaskan winters and didn’t have it in him to make it through another one.

In all the years we’ve kept chickens he was our only rooster. I never gave him a name and each summer around the solstice when he’d start crowing at 4:00am I’d grow weary of his voice piercing through the quiet every fifteen minutes like a persistent snooze alarm, but still I grew attached. He was beautiful to look at and the seriousness with which he took himself amused me to no end. While I don’t have any hard evidence, I think the flock was healthier with him around. He was protective and unafraid to speak his mind if the feeder ran out of food or if he spotted an intruder. His last valiant effort was in early October. I heard him sounding the alarm from a thicket of spindly spruce and when I went out to see what the ruckus was all about I found a Northern goshawk perched in the chicken pen. From his safe space the rooster sent out a warning cry that sent all the hens running for cover. With a little coaxing from Dean and I, the hawk moved on and in time the chickens found their way back to to coop. That was the end of the chickens’ free ranging for the year, and as it turns out, the rooster’s last foray out into the wild.

The year we got the rooster, which was an accident, was the same year we planted a garden in our front yard. Dean used a pile of pallets and made six 4’x4’ raised beds within feet of our front door. Although we’d gardened off and on before that, moving the garden to a location that demanded our attention was a game changer. The next year he added another three 2’x4’ beds even closer to the house. We made a temporary fish-net fence around the front yard garden to keep the chickens and the moose out, but as these things go, the temporary fence is still in place.

A couple years after the front yard garden went in, Dean built a small greenhouse off the back of our chicken coop. He used old windows and a used sauna door that our friend Robert found at the dump. In addition to creating a space for us to grow warmer weather crops, it made it so the chicken coop warms up by a few degrees on a sunny day, and it blocks the south wind that used to seep through the cracks.

The summer after the greenhouse was built, we cut a trail through the lower portion of our property. Starting from the chicken coop/greenhouse, the trail cuts downhill through a thicket of wild roses and ferns to a small spruce forest. When we first moved in, three old spruce trees dominated the area, but within two years the spruce bark beetles came through and killed them. They stood tall and dead for several years, but one by one wind storms knocked them over. Dean and our brother-in-law Joel milled one of the original old trees into lumber that we’ve used for various projects around here. The other two are slowly rotting back into the earth. Now the spruce that were young enough to survive the beetles have grown tall.

After the forested area, the trail comes out into a meadow and turns west. Those first few years after the trail was built we found morel mushrooms in the springtime in that transition zone where the forest turns into the meadow, usually on the south side of a particular small spruce tree. We haven’t been so lucky the last few times we’ve looked but like our old dog Porter who once caught a mouse and for the remainder of his days looked in the same spot every time he passed by in hopes of it happening again, we’ll probably continue to look for morels under that same tree every spring for as long as we’re able to walk the trail.

Where we once found a morel

The trail turns north toward the house again after a hundred or so yards of walking west through the meadow. It winds up through a thicket of wild elderberries that once entered feels otherworldly and is completely private. It’s protected from wind and it’s a space that could be inhabited by fairies, black bears and moose. In the years since we’ve cut a trail through, wild raspberries have moved into the edges to take advantage of the light, and as you move up the hill the stinging nettle becomes more prominent. We spend hours picking nettle along the trail in the early part of summer, and we dry it and store it in glass jars on our pantry shelves to use through the winter months.

One of many elderberry trees

Yesterday after I found the rooster lying dead on the floor of the chicken coop I came in the house and made myself a cup of nettle tea. It’s considered a tonic herb, which according to a study out of the Institute of Integrative and Complimentary Medicine in Zurich, Switzerland means that it has the ability to promote the physiological functioning of an organ system, leading to the subjective feeling of well-being of the patient treated with it.

I sat and treated myself to the hot, earthy, chlorophyll-rich tonic and thought about the rooster’s years with us. I stoked the fire and looked out at the moon, half illuminated and reflecting off the bay. I thought about the hens out there in the coop, wondering which one will claim the highest perch now that the rooster is gone. He was noisy and had a big presence and I imagine it will take a few days for them to sort out their new pecking order. It will take some time to get used to all the newfound space and quiet now that he’s gone.

Old guy

Five-Acre Almanac: Never A Straight Line

Week 9

What I write and what I want to say don’t always come together easily, and yesterday was one of those days. Yesterday I sat writing on my couch for almost the entire day, and in the end I had fewer words than I started with. I’ve made a commitment to myself to post something every week, but I don’t want to write just for the sake of writing. I want to write something I like.

Yesterday I didn’t like my writing, and it felt like I was wasting time. As the day went on I grew increasingly frustrated and I was hard on myself, and while Dean worked to get a bunch of things crossed off of our to-do list and was infinitely patient with me sitting on the couch for hours writing, I felt guilty. Late in the evening I finally gave up. I’ve learned that trying too hard is counterproductive, and I was definitely at that stage. Today I’m starting over.

One of the many things Dean accomplished when I was writing.

Today is Sunday and the sky is mostly blue with a few wispy clouds. Our daughter called and I told her of my dilemma with writing yesterday and she said I should just go outside and work on something for a while and then write about it. So that’s what I set out to do.

I’ll start from the beginning.

After coffee, and my phone conversation with Adella, and a piece of toast, I decided it was time to go outside, but first I needed to change out of my sweat pants. When I went to put on some clothes I remembered that I needed to switch over a load of laundry, so I did that. I didn’t want to take the time to fold the clothes from the dryer so instead I took them to a chair in the spare bedroom. Out the window of the spare bedroom I saw a spruce grouse in our driveway, so of course I wanted to go get a photo of it.

I slipped on some shoes, grabbed my phone and went outside. I followed the spruce grouse around and managed to get a couple of pictures, but not good ones because my phone camera isn’t the best and the grouse kept moving. When I was about to come back in the house, two of my chickens showed up. These two particular hens have been perching outside at night lately, and they were locked out of the coop. So I went to unlatch the door so they could get in for some food. While I was there it made sense to check for eggs. There were four of them.

I didn’t have a bucket, so I put two eggs in the pockets of my sweatpants. As I was latching the chicken coop door I looked down on the outside of the coop. Two days ago Dean dug up a bunch of dirt from the chicken pen to add to one of our garden beds and I looked down at some of the holes he’d dug and found a giant portobello mushroom growing in a crevice. It was huge, and I had to get it, so I spent the next five or so minutes carefully extracting it. I carried it back to the deck, set it outside so the dirt on it could dry, brought the eggs in the house and remembered that I needed to start another load of laundry.

Soil rehab: Layering up with chicken coop dirt, straw, and grass clippings.

I finally got dressed and headed outside. It made sense to start with the greenhouse since it was warm. My task was to empty all the tomato and cucumber pots into the compost bin and stack the empty pots in our garage. As soon as I set the pots on the ground outside the greenhouse, the chickens flocked to eat the fresh chickweed that was growing in them. And because the chickens were enjoying their buffet I couldn’t empty the pots quite yet so decided to find something else to do for a while.

Sauerkraut is on my list of things to make today, so I went to the front yard garden and harvested some cabbage. We didn’t get a bumper crop of cabbage this year, but we did get two excellent heads, one purple and one green. Then I went to the back garden to pull some carrots that I’ll shred into the kraut. On my way to the carrot bed I noticed our chrysanthemum plant finally looks like it’s done for the season. We bought the plant from Strictly Medicinal earlier in the summer and they told us to give it a nice deep mulch before winter. So I went to find some straw. While I was at it I thought I might as well get enough for the lavender plants.

Dean started the lavender plants from seed last spring, and seven of them survived and are doing well. But depending on our winter, they may or may not make it. In addition to mulching them, I decided to dig one up, put it in a pot, and bring it in the house for the winter. All of that required finding some soil and a pot.

I got the soil and the pot and set them on the deck. Then I went to get the straw, but before I actually got the straw I saw some tall nettle plants that I decided to cut down so that I can extract some fiber from them later when I have more time. I cut the nettle plants, found a safe place to stash them, then got the straw.

I grabbed Dean’s hori hori knife for digging up the lavender plant. I mulched the plants I’d set out to mulch and dug up one of the seven lavender plants. But before I headed back to plant the lavender in its new pot I saw the two beds we harvested potatoes from the other day. They were empty and the soil was exposed and now that we’ve changed to no-till gardening I have this thing about exposed soil and I had to cover it up. So I used the hori hori and cut down a bunch of fireweed stalks and mulched those two beds. Then I remembered to pull some carrots for the sauerkraut.

That brings me up to right now, and after spending a whole day writing yesterday I can’t afford to put much more time into this post. I’ve still got sauerkraut to make and pots sitting out beside the greenhouse that need emptying. And as you might guess, the odds are high that I’ll find something that’s not on my list that I’ll want to get done.

Mushroom, cabbage, carrots, hori hori.

Five-Acre Almanac: Mid-September

Week 7

It’s Wednesday night and finally after sitting on my couch bundled up in a blanket for an hour I decided to build a fire. There’s always some denial when the weather cools down to the point of needing a fire every day, but we crossed that threshold this week. I’m not sure if the denial is out of stubbornness, as there’s a certain amount of work in burning wood for heat and I’m not fully prepared to add that task into my daily life again, or if I’m just trying to hang on to summer as long as I can. Either way the house is cozy now with a fire crackling, and there’s comfort in knowing it won’t be frigid when we wake up in the morning.

Tonight, for the second time this week, we had trout for dinner. Last weekend Dean and Dillon borrowed a canoe and drove north to spend the day on a lake. Alongside the trout we had purple potatoes and sliced cucumber from the garden. I wasn’t expecting cucumbers, but a few pulled through for us despite the cool summer. We’ll have potatoes and carrots well into winter, but we’re in the last days of our zucchini. Clear skies are predicted over the weekend, which means we’re likely to get frost, which means we need to pick the peas, pull the green tomatoes off their vines, and pick as many of the herbs as we can and get them drying. The kale will be fine with a light frost, and the carrots will just get sweeter.

A few frosts will turn the rose hips bright red and we’ll be able to harvest them for several weeks, even after snow falls. A couple years ago I discovered that chickens love rose hips. I toss them a handful a couple times a week and hope that it gives them a healthy boost that will help them get through another long winter. Like heating the house with wood, keeping chickens through the winter in Alaska is work. It requires a bit of resolve to slog through rain, snow, and oftentimes ice in the dark for months at a time to make sure they have what they need. I find myself apologizing to them for having to be cooped up for so long and questioning my decision to keep them. Our seven year old rooster looks a little tired these days and last week one of his spurs fell off. I’m not sure what that means, but I have a feeling it means he might not have another winter in him.

There have been moments, usually around 4:00am in the middle of summer, when I’ve been frustrated by his wake-up calls. Overall though I’ve been happy to have him as part of the flock. Besides being handsome, he acts as spokesman when food runs low and crows hello when we get home from work. He sounds off when he sees one of our neighborhood eagles circling overhead or peering down from the top of a nearby spruce tree.

The nesting eagles have had their eyes on our chickens all summer. We had one close call, but so far we’ve had no eagle casualties this year. The area around the coop is better protected than it used to be now that the trees and foliage have grown in, and the chickens can easily take cover.

Unfortunately the cover didn’t protect them from the bears that came through when we were in Georgia for our daughter’s wedding. When we returned from our trip we found a door to the pen that had been torn from its hinges, eight piles of bear scat surrounding the coop, and two fewer hens than we had before we left. A neighbor told us that there had been a bear with cubs spotted walking down the road around that same time. We fully expected that they’d be back since they successfully acquired food from our place, but thankfully they haven’t returned. It would be bad for us and our chickens if they made a habit out of coming here, but ultimately it would be bad for the bears.

In addition to building a fire again every day, this week also marked the beginning of headlamp season. I dusted mine off and don it daily now when I take the dogs out in the mornings. It’s still light well into the evening, but the morning darkness comes on fast this time of year and I find it a little disorienting. I’ll wake up and have no sense of whether it’s 3:00am or 6:00am. Soon enough I’ll adjust, but right now when the time between sunrise and sunset is shorter by over five minutes each day, my internal clock is a little out of whack.

Living in Alaska where the movement from one season to the next is anything but subtle, I’ve learned to take notice of how my own waxing and waning throughout the year is tied to the earth’s journey around the sun. It’s true for the plants and for all the wild animals, and so of course it’s true for us too, but it’s easy to believe that our humanness makes us immune to the forces of nature. In the springtime when we’re gaining daylight, my energy levels are surprisingly high. This time of year though I’m tired and my mood tends toward melancholy.

Maybe it’s the angle of the sun and the way it filters through the yellows and reds of autumn that makes me feel this way or maybe it’s that I’m worn out after a fast paced summer. Either way I don’t think it’s a bad thing to feel pensive. I just need to remember to be easy on myself. Do what I can and don’t expect to get it all done. Allow myself time to move slowly. Take comfort in the things we’ve accomplished.

Yesterday afternoon after a week of rain and cloudy skies, the sun broke through. I spread a fresh layer of straw in the chicken coop and washed off the potatoes that Dean harvested earlier in the week. Seeing them spread out on the table drying in the sun filled me with a kind of satisfaction that’s seldom matched, and our dinner of baked potatoes topped with stir-fried veggies from the garden gave me some comfort that I needed.

Now it’s Saturday morning. The sun is up and it’s time to get out in it. The first thing I need to do is save the potatoes I washed last night from the Steller’s Jay that’s undeterred by the blanket I covered them with. It’s flown away with two in the last ten minutes. After the potatoes are safe I’ll harvest carrots and enough greens for another batch of pesto. I’ll work on getting one of the garden beds tucked in for the season. I’ll bring a few pepper plants in the house and start picking green tomatoes. Maybe this evening we’ll build a campfire. Standing around a fire is a good way to soak it in—the colors, the crisp air, the quiet, the bigness and the wild of all that surrounds us. It’s a good way too, to feel the wild that goes along with being alive in this world, and surrender to it for a while.

Speaking of Chicken….

It seems that chicken is all over the news this week, and things are no different here at the Sundmark household.  Monday evening when we came home from work we discovered carnage in our yard.  The security of our chicken tractor—the one that got us through last summer with 25 healthy birds—had been breached.  Some kind of critter, most likely a dog, had broken the fiberglass greenhouse siding off of one side and proceeded to slaughter seven of our chicks.  The others went in to a state of shock and huddled together in a corner.  The ones on the bottom of the pile suffocated.  All together we lost fifteen of our chickens.

I know that eating local food isn’t going to save the world, but it’s a cause our family has decided to put some effort toward.  For us it means growing a garden or buying from local growers.  It means harvesting salmon, buying beef from our local cowboy, and raising our own chickens for both eggs and meat.  After the slaughter we found in our yard on Monday it looks like next winter we’ll have fewer chicken dinners.

There are plenty of foods I’m not willing to give up in order to eat a strictly local diet and so we spend a great deal of money on food that comes from places much warmer than Alaska.  I’m a big fan of apples, for example, and I have a weakness for the Rugged English Cheddar cheese that Save-U-More carries.  In fact Save-U-More is full of surprises, including an aisle of Trader Joe’s foods and an extensive organic produce section.  It’s a goofy grocery store with its bizarre layout and its incessant rearranging, but for the most part it keeps the foodies in Homer happy.

For the size of our town we have a good selection of restaurants and cafes as well.  Back in the day when we ran a bed and breakfast we had a guest one time that expressed surprise that a few of our nicer restaurants stayed open through the winter.  I tried to explain that in Homer people have priorities that might not be the same as in other parts of the country.  We may only buy a new pair of jeans every two or three years, and we may drive a Subaru that can only be entered through the passenger side door (true story) but we’ll spend good money on good food.  A few of our higher end restaurants have survived when Arby’s and Burger King couldn’t make a go of it.

And so it’s safe to say that after living in Homer for eighteen years I’m no expert on fast food.  I eat at the local Subway once every couple of years, and I haven’t stepped inside the local McDonalds since my niece worked there several years ago.  When I go to Anchorage there are so many great places to choose from that fast food doesn’t even cross my mind.  What all of this is getting at is that I’ve never eaten at a Chick-Fil-A, and I never will.  I wouldn’t have even if Dan Cathy had never made his statement in opposition to gay marriage, or if the company had never donated millions of dollars to organizations like the Family Research Council.

When I came home on Monday to find a bunch of dead chickens in my yard I had the realization that something I thought was secure was in fact very vulnerable.  I feel the same way today after seeing photos from around the country of crowds of people lining up to eat at Chick-Fil-A’s.  I thought we were moving beyond homophobia, but I see that we have a long way to go.  I believe that for some people eating at Chick-Fil-A this afternoon was a matter of showing support for our first amendment rights, but I don’t think that was the true motivation of most.

I’m in the fortunate position of having a diverse group of Facebook friends.  They cover most sides of any political issue and this whole Chick-Fil-A thing is no exception.  One of my friends stated in a thread that people were just taking a stand for Godly values by showing their support for Chick-Fil-A.   A couple of people on this thread even evoked the old saying, “hate the sin but love the sinner.”  It shows me that to them today’s turnout for chicken sandwiches wasn’t about first amendment rights.  It was about speaking out against homosexuality.  What I want to point out is that hating the “sin” in this case is synonymous with hating “the sinner,” because it’s not a matter of deciding to be gay; it’s a matter of being gay.  And that hatefulness, no matter how it’s framed, is disheartening.

A line from a John Gorka song comes to mind sometimes when I feel overwhelmed by the way humans build up walls and divisions between one another… We are here to love each other, that is all…

I know it’s only a line to a song and that it’s not realistic to think that this world will ever be a place where all people show love to one another all the time.  But the truth is that we all have the capacity for love on an individual level.  Every day lives are changed and attitudes are changed; every day individual worldviews are changed because one person somewhere decides to imagine the world from another person’s point of view.

We’re a diverse bunch, us humans.  Some of us will raise our chickens ourselves, some of us want ours served with a side of waffle fries.  Others of us would never think of eating a chicken.  The reality though is that we all get hungry.  Our differences are lower on the scale of importance than the things we have in common.  Let’s focus less on the ways we fill ourselves up, and more on the fact that we all need food.

The chicken before the egg


One of my chickens is dying.  On Monday morning when I went to give my small flock of seven some food and water she had that look that I’ve come to recognize as the dying chicken look.  She was huddled on the ground instead of perched up high on the branches I’ve arranged inside the henhouse and she didn’t show any interest in what I was bringing.  I thought she’d be dead by the end of the day, but she’s been hanging in there all week.

This isn’t anything new.  I’ve been keeping chickens for quite a few years now and we’ve watched many of them grow old and die.  Some people are very systematic about culling their chickens in order to keep their egg yield high, but I don’t have it in me to kill something just because its productivity isn’t optimal.  I did banish one from the coop once when she wouldn’t stop eating eggs and I found a pile of feathers a few days later.

I first started raising chickens when my children were little and I didn’t work away from home.  It was always exciting to get the baby chicks in the spring.  We’d go to the feed store and each kid would choose one that they could call their own.  Adella usually chose a Buff Orpington.  Dillon was partial to the black and white spotted Barred Rocks.  We raised them in cardboard boxes in the house for a few weeks before we introduced them to the older hens in the coop.   My kids were proud of their chickens and loved showing them off to their neighbor friends.

Times have changed though.  Now that my kids are teenagers they show no interest whatsoever in anything farm or garden related and I spend big chunks of my time away from home.  I’m pretty sure it no longer makes sense to keep chickens.  I should probably make my life easier by buying eggs at the store like most reasonable people, but I guess my chickens aren’t just about the eggs.

I love to watch them in the spring after the soil thaws; manic in their search for worms after a long winter.  I love that to them, nothing is more luxurious than a dust bath.  They remind me that a good life isn’t always about high productivity.  It’s more about enjoying the life we’ve been given.