Chicken Chat and Trivia Night

    Aurelia happily peeks out from behind the newly-decorated Solstice tree. Photo by Ted.

Aurelia happily peeks out from behind the newly-decorated Solstice tree. Photo by Ted.

We’re in holiday mode here at Dancing Rabbit, with numerous members and residents traveling intermittently. Potlucks and community suppers are small affairs. There are still enough of us to attend to all the essentials in the village and make sure our friends get the rides they need on the way out or back, but it does feel quiet. That makes the gatherings we still have, like Solstice, Christmas cookies, carols, and potluck brunch all coming up this week even cozier somehow… like we’re grateful not to be alone out here. Ted here to bring you the latest from Dancing Rabbit.

One of last week’s gatherings was a final trivia night courtesy of trivia master Zach, who is heading back to city life soon, after part of a year’s sojourn as a Rabbit. The theme was animals, which meant Mae was sure to be the one to catch, so others jockeyed for team affiliations that might even things up for days in advance. With Zach’s mother and sister in attendance, the Mercantile was quite full, four teams ready to match their respective stores of animal knowledge and trivia.

It was in the identification round, the final three examples of which were all different breeds of chickens, that I began to accept the possibility of defeat. I got two out of the three; Mae of course knew them all. My team (“The Magic Bunnies”) went down to the wire, but still fell two points behind Mae’s (“The Chicken Likers”). The whole crowd had some good laughs and enjoyed a little good-natured smack-talking at intervals. We shall see whether any other villagers inherit the mantle of trivia master, or whether we’ll have to bring Zach back regularly. Hopefully Zach will return regularly anyway.

I’ve read lately that the past two years were each in turn the warmest years on record, and that 2016 is projected to be warmer still. That highlighted the importance to me of the Paris climate talks that concluded last week with an unexpected world agreement to try to limit global average temperature rise to no more than two degrees Celsius, and more like 1.5 if possible. Now we’ll see what the follow-through looks like, and I have to confess my doubts, but I’ll take it as a start.

I understand there’s not a lot in the agreement that’s binding to member nations, but I felt a shred of hope all the same that UN member nations could even rhetorically agree that we’ve got to halt anthropogenic climate change, to fundamentally shift the basis of human energy and industry, to diminish our immense collective impact on the natural world. With each nation holding its individual needs and circumstances above the entirety of the problem for round after round of these conferences over the past couple decades, I had begun to doubt that humans and their governments could ever really rise to the occasion.

All of that served as backdrop last week to our never-ending homesteading adventures out here in northeast Missouri. Despite a few dips, we’ve had weather that feels more like October than December. Many of our shiitake logs, having already flushed recently and provided some unexpected late harvests, took last week’s renewed warmth and rain as a sign that they ought to really go for it, and numerous logs started popping out all over with fresh fungi.

That’s when a quick cold snap intervened. I couldn’t bear to see so many mushrooms killed by the freeze, so I grabbed a half-dozen of the most fruitful logs and brought them into the kitchen’s greenhouse to stay a bit warmer and perhaps be able to complete their flush. The jury is still out, but three days later it looks as though perhaps some of them are growing again.

This sort of thing does make it hard to hate climate change in the moment. It’s not as though I love bitter winter winds and low temperatures, despite the austere beauty of many a winter day. I am geared up to survive the cold, but I enjoy life more when I can spend more of it working and playing outdoors in milder temperatures. Humans are far more flexible in their living conditions than most critters, though, and it is the health of the whole, and especially the most vulnerable elements, that I am most concerned about. What kind of impoverished nature will we be left with when all the least numerous and adaptable cease to be?

Since October our hens have been in low-production mode, molting and resting after another season, but also just showing their age: the older flock arrived in a cardboard box in the overnight mail in May 2011; the younger ones arrived a year later.

Commercially, I understand laying hens are not kept beyond two years or so, when their consistent laying starts to taper off. Ours are heading into their fourth and fifth winters. The steady feed is not translating into eggs as readily as I’ve been accustomed to, with only a trickle coming in from the coop each day for two months. Now we decide: keep our old hens on a pension plan with no expectations? Or cull older, less productive birds to make space for the next generation? There are so many angles to this, from being humane to ecological and monetary efficiency.

[Editor’s note: To skip the specifics of the animal butchering topic, resume reading at the page break below…]

As it happened, I had an ally in Mae, who knows a thing or two about chickens (far more than I, at any rate), and also runs a thrifty business selling attractive chicken feathers of all shades and patterns via the internet. Our birds having just molted, and Mae knowing their age and having heard me kvetch about the feed-to-egg ratio lately, she brought the topic of killing our old hens up enough times (interested in the feathers while they were new and clean) that my reluctance to face the necessity of culling our flock finally admitted the need.

Mae and the other Critters are a crack chicken (and duck) processing crew at this point, and were willing to support us in the event. Mae came over after the chickens had roosted the night before, and we examined the vents of the older chickens, assessing who looked like she was actively laying and who did not. We put those selected for harvest out in the chicken tractor for the night, the first tangible step in a play I was reluctant to act in.

Come a chilly grey morning, Mae, Ben, Sparky, and Althea all arrived with sharp knives, stainless surfaces, plus their skills and good will to help Sara, Aurelia, and me in the task at hand. We proceeded to kill, pluck, and gut the birds, and by the end, a few hours later, I felt like I had re-upped my certification in knowing how to kill and dress a bird, while enjoying a couple of hours of casual social time with friends and neighbors to boot.

Among other features, we discovered that these old hens were simply stuffed with fat, so much so that it obscured the inner topography of the bodies as we tended to the gutting, compared to those raised as broilers for a much shorter time. Their long, rich diet of corn, oats, wheat, buckwheat, and soy, along with some pasture and numerous other tidbits from the kitchen compost, was clearly evident in the sheer abundance of these birds’ bodies.

‘Twas only the beginning though, for after we let the cleaned bodies rest overnight, we began the second phase of canning the meat and broth. Aside from one set in the slow cooker for dinner that night, the rest were skinned, parted up, and boiled, then stripped and packed in jars with boiling broth and canned at 10 lbs pressure for 90 minutes. Beyond the five quarts of canned meat and four of broth, and some giblets bagged in the freezer, the skin and fat separately rendered nearly a gallon of clarified chicken oil, and a whole oven tray of cracklins.

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This process occupied Aurelia’s school experience for two days, by the end of which she had participated in each step directly and was a real asset to our processing effort, putting in the steady time and energy required to bring the project to conclusion. She also learned all the ways we value these birds in their final contribution to our homestead.

I envy Aurelia the experience of being so tangibly connected to her food as a child. These are among the more brutal of human practices, from a chicken’s point of view, and yet a central feature of the omnivorous human diet that too few of us know personally anymore. I believe my daughter will be better equipped to make good choices in life when she’s had her hands in it from start to finish and knows the value of each piece of the whole.

Now that I’m several hours into the shortest day of the year, I’m going to go make use of the strange Solstice warmth to accomplish some more outdoor tasks. I hope that all our readers will be warm and well-fed today as we welcome the return of the light and our first steps toward the more seasonal warmth of spring to come. Whichever holiday you may be celebrating this week, we wish you joy and good health as well.

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For those of you who live locally and like to frequent the Milkweed Mercantile’s pizza night on occasion, please note that the Mercantile will *not* be open for pizza this week or next, but they (and we!) hope to see you in the new year.

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Woo-hoo! Announcing Dancing Rabbit Ecovillage visitor program dates for 2016! If you’ve been dreaming of visiting us, now’s the time to make plans! Our visitor sessions often fill up quickly, so check out the new dates and request an application today!

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Dancing Rabbit Ecovillage is an intentional community and nonprofit outside Rutledge, in northeast Missouri, focused on demonstrating sustainable living possibilities. Find out more about us by visiting our website, reading our blog, or emailing us.

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