Ranch Wife Musings: Evening

As I tidy up the kitchen as my last home task of the evening, I get a good view of my little flock of chickens down by their coop, chasing a few last bugs. Clearly they aren’t ready to be tucked in just yet. The horses are visible just on the other side of the barn, having been given their freedom for the night, and sometimes Charlie the Calf comes wandering into the barn yard for a drink of water or maybe thinking I’ll give her one more little scoop of calf creep.

The sky turns orange then pink then lavender as the shadow of our little ridge is cast further and further east, until the last little bit of sunlit prairie has been covered in the comfort of evening shadow.

What a peaceful sight.

I love my little jaunt down to the chicken coop to do the very last of my chores for the day. Pearl comes with me, since she takes her chicken chores very seriously, and usually one or more of the cats run down to the coop with me as well. With an actual pounding of little feet, Yellow Cat (who probably slept all day until five minutes ago) races by, then Grey Cat (who probably worked all day), tearing around, then stopping suddenly and staring at absolutely nothing in the uncanny way cats do.

The chickens chatter contentedly amongst themselves and maybe greet me quietly when I come in to make sure everyone is accounted for. Yep, there’s Amelia, and Alice, and Audrey, and Goldie, and Little Red, Little Red, Little Red, and Little Red. And seven black chickens, including Henrietta, the only one who gets a name because she looks like a vulture. I close the coop windows or open them a crack, depending on the evening temps, and scratch one or two of the friendly birds on their backs before collecting my egg basket and closing the girls in for the night.

Pearl reluctantly joins me on the little walk back up to the house. The cats run and pounce on each other, occasionally scrapping and working out a few feminine feline differences. Rocket the Horse says something sarcastic to Jargon the Horse, or maybe that was Chip putting Rocket in his place.

And everything is still. I love an evening on the rim of the prairie. A distant coyote yelps. A nighthawk calls out high up and out of sight. Maybe there’s the soft roar of the nighthawk’s wings as he swoops and dives. The warmth of the last days of summer melts away and cool night breezes shift around gently, resiny, fresh, and sweet.

This is home.

However Small the Harvest

This hasn’t been an overwhelmingly productive summer, as far as the garden is concerned. Anyone who has gardened for any length of time knows that some years are wonderfully over abundant and other years are woefully under abundant. This has been somewhere in the middle of the two, on the lower end of the productivity spectrum.

The grasshoppers alone have been a menace and wiped out a whole garden I planted in squash, pumpkins, and tomatoes. My efforts in grasshopper management were fruitless there, as those vicious insects chewed through at times three layers of netting at once to get at the seedlings practically as soon as they emerged from the soil. Several attempts at replanting and pest eradication finally resulted in me throwing in the proverbial towel. Sometimes you just have to recognize a loss.

Add to that the excessive heat and the desperate drought and it just hasn’t been a great year for a great garden. And yet there have been some victories and the satisfaction of sitting down to a 100% homegrown meal, eating beef from our ranch and produce from the garden.

I took a loss on the one garden but doubled down on the other. My other garden, planted in and around two large stock tanks close to the house, has produced a wide variety of vegetables, though it had its share of grasshopper damage (they wiped out my green beans and jalapeños, and have intermittently wreaked havoc on various greens and herbs and my zucchini), but it was decently well established by the time the grasshoppers got too bad. I turned the chickens loose in it a couple of times, which definitely helped, although those silly birds are pretty indelicate and enjoy dirt bathing in very inconvenient locations. In spite of everything, that garden has been rewarding!

Last week, I harvested all the onions, replanting their area in carrots and turnips, and cut most of the rest of the rhubarb, putting up enough for a few pies for this fall. My Swiss chard has produced abundantly all summer and we enjoyed a supper of southern style greens last week. We have enjoyed fresh cucumber salads with the occasional tomato (that is another story for another time…) and plenty of dill and arugula, and the beets are finally getting big enough to harvest. I was a little behind the eight ball on getting those in, so the heat probably stunted their growth. Basil and mint were abundant and dehydrated nicely, and I have dill hanging in the yard shed for the seeds.

I have learned that Hubbard squash is delicious harvested young, and cooks up even more deliciously than zucchini. Which is a good thing, considering that my zucchini this year was a bust! The Hubbards are gaining a lot of size and the pumpkins are starting to pick up a tint of orange. It makes me excited for the fall! The sweet corn is tasseled and silked, so hopefully we’ll enjoy some of that in the next month as well.

In spite of the lack of abundance (enough for meals but not enough to put up), it really has been a productive year. I learned that wild predators are the best control for grasshoppers, and have found that hanging a few bird feeders and having water available around the garden are hugely beneficial. I see a noticeable uptick in grasshoppers when I get complacent and let the bird feed run out! I have also gained some knowledge on what grows best here, and what I can grow a lot of in a relatively small amount of space, and those mental notes will turn into a formal garden plan for next year.

So you learn what you can and enjoy the harvest, however small!

Chicken Math

My husband is a very patient man.

Somehow two chicken fatalities several weeks ago strongly suggested an immediate need for a whole new flock of chicks, so two weeks ago that exciting noisy box came to the post office and eighteen chicks took up residence in our spare bedroom. Much to my delight, and to Pearl’s, who was overwhelmedly thrilled to have baby chicks to stare at for hours at a time. We actually caught her perched on top of the brooders, absolutely fascinated by her chicks, and without any intent to injure them. My husband says she and I watch the chicks with the same expression on our faces.

I steered away from Buff Orpingtons due to their apparent lack of healthy fear (they were the two fatalities) and instead leaned heavily on Ameraucanas and Light Brahmas, and also added a few Delawares. McMurray Hatchery threw in three freebies for the total of eighteen chicks. What fun. I split the Brahmas and three Delawares off from the Ameraucanas after the first day or so, since the latter were all on the smaller size and I wanted to avoid picking. I used the same brooder setup as before, made from large Rubbermaid tubs with screen inserts in the lids, but was able to get by very easily with one heat lamp for the two brooders, rather than one lamp each.

The chicks have done really well over the last two weeks, without any losses. One chick, who has been named “Little Betsy,” or “Little Bee,” for short, one of the seven Ameraucanas, got some hand feeding for about five days due to her small size. She took readily to the egg yolk on a Q-tip and loved feeding time. She’s still petite and does have a slight cross beak, which doesn’t seem to be affecting her ability to eat, and gives her the funniest quizzical expression. She’s a gentle little bird.

Today was moving day and the chicks, just starting to reach their awkward adolescent stage with pin feathers and scruff, were graduated from the nursery brooders to their grade school brooder, made of an old Lumix feed tub, about 4×8 feet in size, with plenty of room for them to spread their little wing stubs. The two mini flocks had shown a little schoolyard hostility over the last few days, when one chick would manage to get into the other brooder, but they combined rather well this afternoon, without any issues. The warm summer weather will be to their advantage, only needing supplemental heat at night, and they will enjoy all the extra room. It really is amazing how fast chicks double and triple in size!

At least now Pearl can do her chicken chores without running back and forth from the house to the barn and back again. Maybe she’ll even take up her old hobby of bunny hunting. Meanwhile, I can try to figure out how it is that 18 chickens – 2 chickens = 34 chickens. Math never was my strength anyway.

Nesting

In spite of a beautiful set of heirloom nesting boxes, compliments of my husband’s grandma’s chicken coop, my chickens are determined to lay their eggs in a certain corner of their coop on the ledge of the floor sill, tucked behind the bin I store their feed in. A few days ago, I didn’t find any eggs and assumed they all just took a day, but the next morning I found a stash of four eggs in this choice corner, three of which were broken, with a chicken getting ready to deposit another in the same place.

I took away the feed sacks they were clumsily using as a sort of nest, tried to block the corner off, with the only end result that two chickens still managed to squeeze into that space and lay their eggs, one of which rolled off the floor sill and cracked. Foiled, by a critter with a brain the size of a lima bean.

Since they were insistent, I played along, if for no other reason than to keep the eggs from getting broken. I was also suspicious they were then eating the broken ones and was eager to nip that unsavory proclivity in the bud. So I made a makeshift nesting box with a 5-gallon bucket tipped on its side, and also did the golf balls in nesting box trick to try to con them into laying where I wanted them to lay. A few hens have seemingly caught on to the nesting boxes, with a little encouragement (i.e. actually placing them in the boxes and then babysitting them) and have used the nesting boxes without supervision since then, but there are apparently four hens that literally wait in line for that special corner, since all the eggs today were placed oh-so-nicely in the bucket, not in the nesting boxes.

I’ll keep working on getting them in the nesting boxes, but as long as they aren’t cannibalizing their own eggs, I honestly don’t really care where they feel compelled to put them. And if they’re patient enough to wait in line until their friend is done in that special corner, well, bless their little hearts.

Thankfulness, Like the Rain

We were sitting down for supper last night after a busy Sunday, listening to the sound of rain on our roof. Our weekend was a blur of county fair busyness, fire department busyness, hot weather, and lots of people we don’t get to see very often.

It was a hard week. Not a bad week, just long, hot, and dry. We could gripe about a lot of things. We could gripe about the hot and dry weather we’ve been having. The pastures that are so sparse they almost look grazed out even though they haven’t been grazed yet. Dry dams. Politics. Sturgis rally traffic. Or any other number of things we humans are great at coming up with to complain about.

Or we could find something to be joyful about and thankful for. Thankfulness breeds thankfulness, and once you start finding things to thank God for, it really just keeps going.

Like the rain.

Like a repreive from the heat.

Like that first full dozen eggs I got from my chickens.

Like all of our crazy, loveable critters.

Like getting the chickens moved into their new coop.

Like a weekend full of those once-a-year county fair festivities that wear a person out, but also fill a person up.

Like the community we are so blessed to live and work and worship with.

Like faithful neighbors.

Like a loving, God-provided spouse.

Like a wonderful Sunday evening supper of homegrown steak, zucchini, and dill cucumber salad, a meal entirely harvested from this ranch.

Like a million other things.

So we sat listening to the music of rain on our roof, watching the downpour so heavy we lost the horizon, thanking the good Lord for a much needed wetting-down of this parched piece of earth, thanking God for friends and neighbors and cows and chickens and thanking God for each other.

What a good end to a hard week.

A Full Clothesline and a Full Heart

Think me strange, but I love to do laundry. And I love to utilize my clothesline. Laundry is one of those simple, down-to-earth tasks that really shouldn’t be anything but pleasant and with the right mindset should be very satisfying. I’ve always loved that particular aspect of the summertime, when I can enjoy the mundane task of putting laundry out to dry, slowing down long enough to enjoy the rather aesthetically pleasing sight of a clothesline full of clean clothes or crisp, white, floursack towels, and a few hours later take all of it down again, wind-fresh and sun-dry.

Maybe some find this task frustrating because it never ends, or because it gets in the way of other things. Our cultural mindset can be so productivity-oriented that perhaps we have lost the appreciation for and pride in accomplishing tasks that generally go unnoticed. Certain tasks are viewed as a nuisance and as if they somehow take away effort from “important things.”

Growing up, I loved the Little House books, and I still enjoy them. In Little House in the Big Woods, Laura writes how each day of the week had a specific task to accomplish. One day was baking day, another laundry day, etc. What with modern technology, we are able to speed up so many of those tasks that used to take up the better part of a day and so in a sense have lost respect for those tasks. What a loss, especially for women. Rather than taking pride in homemaking tasks that would be sorely missed if they didn’t happen, women try to squeeze those boring, household chores in around all the other dozens of super important things they are trying to accomplish in a day. I happen to thoroughly enjoy those boring, household tasks, and love a task that requires me to slow down and think and gives me a few moments of enjoying the sunlight and fresh air. And I refuse to see as illegitimate or unimportant those tasks that make a house a home.

Some may say, and I can appreciate this, that not everyone has that freedom to enjoy those tasks. I get it, and I feel very blessed that I am able to enjoy being a wife and a help meet and work with my husband. But a lot of times, we lose those things we allow to be lost. And we allow to be lost those things that we choose not to value.

Colossians 3 talks about earthly thinking versus heavenly thinking, putting off what is earthly, such as evil desires, covetousness, idolatry, and putting on those things that are of God, such as compassion and kindness and humility and patience, and love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony (Col. 3:14). How often does our discontent or lack of enjoyment of the tasks God gives us stem from selfish desires? Probably every time. What if the “peace of Christ” really did rule in our hearts (v. 15), and we really were thankful as admonished? And what if we took to heart verse 17: “Whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.” If in every task, whatever we did, we actually worked heartily as for the Lord, wouldn’t that transform our attitude towards so many things?

The first time I did laundry as a wife brought a smile to my face (and I’m still smiling). Truly, what a momentous occasion! I honestly never thought I’d see a husband’s work shirts and stained work jeans (never to completely come clean) up on the clothesline next to my own, but there they are. I didn’t think I’d have a husband to be making laundry for me to do. I had lost hope of finding a man to love, or of ever being able to be that help-meet, that homemaker, that keeper at home. But now every time I do laundry and hang up one of those faded, snap-front Western shirts, or jeans snagged by barbed wire or stained from working on the tractor, I’m reminded of God’s faithfulness and His generosity.

So I enjoy my household tasks even more than I used to, and say a little prayer of thanks while I do them.

What a gift.