We’re in deep winter right now, and last weekend’s foot of snow is either in complete disarray from daily life or left to slump into itself. It’s no longer magical, just another aspect of the scenery. Monochromatic, dreary, unremarkable; only a canvas for dreams and eventualities: spring gardens, trees in high summer’s full regalia, vivid greenness everywhere you look. We’ve had clear skies lately, and the sunsets and glimpses of the Milky Way are breathtaking, especially offset by the snow.

Summer tests your endurance because you need to keep up with everything growing in all directions at once, but winter tests your resilience. Drinking in the stars in the middle of the night, when you have a feeling something is wrong and head out into the cold to check, reinforces the fact that you are but one tiny organism in so many vast systems. Your toes are cold, you’re dreading your morning alarm, and you better remember that humility is a requirement to thrive.

Besides the vastness of the sky and the smallness of your person, nothing reinforces the lessons of humility quite like death. Death is always part of life, but the relationship is so much more tangible on a farm.

Last night, when I went to close up the coop for the night, I found the carcass of one of my two pet chickens. A purple, fluffy bantam (miniature) hen, which Vincent brilliantly named Plum Pudding. She had been eaten by something, seemingly from the inside out. She was so small, so gentle, so goofy. I still feel crushed by both the shock of finding her in such a state, and knowing that her last moments were probably terrible.

I found another chicken, a full-sized hen we call Margery, huddled on the ground in Filomena’s stall. One wing was bloody and raw, missing feathers and skin. I don’t know if whatever got Plum Pudding also attacked her. We couldn’t discern any fresh or unusual tracks around the barn or coop in week-old snow.

I was furious at myself for not closing up the coop earlier, for choosing to spend the last minutes of daylight going for a ski around the woods. We’ve made wagers about not closing the coop up during early dusk before, and everyone has always been fine.

Regret does not better inform present circumstances. Sigh.

In winter, there’s neither the time nor the inclination for frivolities like a “proper” burial. We took photos of her carcass, so we could try to better understand what happened, and then Vincent buried Plum Pudding in the manure pile, where hopefully her body will be left to decompose [quickly] in peace. We’ll spread her spirit over our garden.

This morning I found a pile of her feathers and blood-tinged snow and straw outside the coop, a few feet from where we found her carcass. All of the other chickens (and geese and ducks) seemed normal. I groomed Filomena, escorted her and the ruminants to the pasture, fed and watered the pigs, and checked on Margery, who’s recuperating in our house: winter chores as usual, with one fewer creature to tend.

This lifestyle is difficult, sometimes expensive, frequently inconvenient. But I find the unending physicality of the work, the inevitable sorrow, and the dependence on intuition all so rewarding.

(Most days.)

Especially now, when we’re all so connected cerebrally through technology but physically isolated from humanity and nature, choosing even to ignore our bodies' needs. 

I’m grateful to experience such a range of feeling every day, both emotional and physical. Sore shoulders, sad heart, warm stove.

The sudden sharp coldness deep in your chest when you first step outside in the middle of a wintry night; the particular, warm scent of each species of animal, as well as the different cuttings of hay and straw.

The pang of despair—and permission to wallow in it for a moment before moving on.

R

 

 

 

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