The San Juan Islands have become a rural escape for the very rich and others who will pay $40 to get their car on the ferry. There was a time when they were 'êundiscovered.'ê The agricultural value of the land in the early 1970s wasn'êt much — four or five hundred bucks an acre — and if you had other sources of income and the time, you could act like a farmer and raise chickens or sheep or horses. This was an attractive lifestyle for my young family of six.
Lopez Island in those days had a few farmers and commercial fishermen, whose families had been 'êLopezians'ê for generations and still worked and lived there. The look of the place had not changed for a hundred years: gently rolling hayfields bordered by woods. Seattle'ês economy was still dominated by 'êBoeings.'ê Downtown Seattle considered itself grand with two pricy Italian restaurants (Rosellini's 410 and 610) and a couple of steak and chop houses. The Seattle Symphony was mediocre. There was little theatre. The sidewalks were empty by 8 at night. Bill Gates (a teenager) was a student of mine at Lakeside School, where I taught English.
My grandmother had died and left me some money. Big surprise! Let'ês buy a farm! Why not? So, true to our impulsive selves, we bought the first place the real estate agent showed us. No one had lived there for several years. The vegetation had grown exponentially and the place had a softened feel. My wife, Gwenyth, loved it at first sight and I went along. There was a house and several outbuildings, large and small, that, in the surprising afternoon'ês slanted sunlight at the end of a cloudy day, delighted me while I was looking at the place. It was glorious. I was reminded of Wyeth watercolors.
I was the perfect patsy for this place. Right after I had signed the papers, I was leaning against one of the mossy split-cedar fence posts, admiring the whole thing, when the post snapped off at the ground. I almost fell flat on my face. The nearer posts, attached to the rusted barbed wire, sagged and I soon realized that they were all rotten. But they had looked so good! Lesson one: what you see is not necessarily what you get. We had yet to discover the chimney plugged with a bird'ês nest, the solidified septic tank, and the earthy-tasting water from the shallow dug well.
Back in Seattle, Gwen and I thought, 'êLet'ês start with chickens.'ê I concurred. She found an ag magazine and ordered some.
This is what happens when you buy day-old-chicks through the mail. The chick producer calls you the morning they ship to be sure that you will be there to receive them. The day-old chicks arrived in the hands of our postman in what looked like a very large pizza box, with vents. In the box were 50 New Jersey Giants, at these stage only little balls of yellow fluff. They were peeping away, I thought maybe trying to figure out where they had fetched up. The postman was shaken and gladly handed the box over to my wife.
'êMan, am I ever glad to be rid of this,'ê he said to Gwen, who had her arms out to receive the carton. 'êI been driving around with it in the back of my truck all morning and I just know that what'ês in there is alive.'ê
Gwen took the box from him, walked into the kitchen, and cautiously opened it. Baby chicks, alive alive O, making peeping and whistling sounds, they were, already pecking for something to eat. The fact that the cardboard gave up no nutrients whatsoever hinted both at the chick'ês pre-programmed behavior and their limited intelligence. Nothing suggested that they would become Giants, from New Jersey or anyplace else.
But they might just do well at the derelict farm on Lopez Island. Neither of us had ever raised chickens. This did not daunt our enthusiasm. We sent for literature from the local County Agent of the Department of Agriculture. I bought a huge stockman'ês manual and found plans for a fenced-in chicken coop. We would have fresh eggs. What would happen to the chickens at the end of the summer when school resumed? Question unasked. Why did we think we needed 50 eggs a day? I have no idea.
As we watched these miraculous babies it became apparent that of the 50 chicks shipped from the producer, only 49 were up and running. One had keeled over. Surrounded by all the other chicks that cared not a peep that it was there, it lay still, with its eyes closed, out cold on the floor of the pizza box.
It looked dead to me but I had never before seen a dead chick. I had read that new-born chicks need warmth, and it being a chilly April day, guessed one had succumbed to chick hypothermia. Without hesitation (but with slightly rising gorge) I picked up the dead chick by its little leg and said, 'êI will dispose of it.'ê I started to walk toward the garbage pail.
As I was reaching into the box to pluck the creature from its cohort, Gwen'ês sinewy, denim-shirted forearm intervened on the chick'ês behalf. Her hand reached out for the limp chick. I gave it to her. Although we had been married several years, I had yet to really know that my wife was intuitive and forceful, and usually right even if she had never done something before. Gwen had great self-confidence. She laid the fallen chick in a ceramic cereal bowl and popped it in the oven.
Then she turned the oven on. We stood there, staring at the floor, for several seconds and I wondered, if that chick is still alive, how much gas is it going to inhale before the stove ignites? Then I asked Gwen, 'êCan you imagine what unplucked, roasted baby chick looks like?'ê She did not answer or waver. I then thought, with the chick'ês feathers still in the yellow fluff stage, maybe it would explode in the oven — a chick firework?
We stood in silence in the kitchen and looked at the floor. A few minutes later Gwen cautiously opened the oven door and peeked in. It was warm and moist in there, just what the chick needed, I guess, because there it was, swaying slightly but upright for sure, in the bowl. In a while we put her with her buddies and she survived. I had been the skeptic and Gwen had been right.
I was not unprepared for this event of the chickens. In the generous basement of our house on Capitol Hill I had built a 12-inch tall plywood corral, encircling about 150 square feet of floor space. At the center of the corral, suspended from the ceiling, hung a heat lamp with a reflector behind it, about a foot above the floor. Mash feeder and watering pans were carefully placed in anticipation of the Blessed Event of the chicks'ê arrival. I had even bought a sack of lime to absorb their droppings.
And so began the days of baby chick occupation. I returned from teaching school each day to descend to the basement. I was both eager to see my brood and anxious that something awful might have happened. I looked among the herd to find any that had keeled over and died. There were none. I refilled the watering device and feed tray. I sprinkled a little lime around. They sure were cute, peeping and thriving and chirping around.
Then, about a week later, I noticed that they were growing bigger — all 50 of them — a phenomenon that I had never really anticipated. They kept growing. Whoever had named them 'êNew Jersey Giants'ê wasn'êt kidding. They became adolescent, looking like mini-versions of those galloping bird-like war machines in Star Wars, constantly stalking about the floor, pecking away at the sawdust and the concrete.
One day I descended to the basement to find it filled with a kind of fog. I was baffled by this and then I realized that the entire basement was suffused with atomized airborne chicken shit and lime. It was time to move these girls out of here. But where? The school year had a few weeks to run; we couldn'êt take them to Lopez yet. But our back yard, a small place, was fenced and paved, and even had a playhouse. I could make it into a chicken coop!
Full of purpose I strapped on my leather work apron, fired up the Skil saw, and went to work. Using the plywood from the enclosure in the basement and some chicken wire I bought at a hardware store, I established the girls there. The kids carried them up from the basement and deposited them outside. The chickens thrived, growing bigger by the day. Compared to their size when they first arrived they were huge.
Now, there is a Seattle ordinance that allows you to keep just three hens, no more, in the city. I began to worry that a neighbor would sic the chicken cops us. I had to keep the chickens in Seattle for two more weeks. The chicken cops were really the Rat Patrol of the Health Department because they knew that a sack of chicken feed would attract rats.
Then there was the transportation problem. How do you move 50 adolescent chickens to the San Juans Islands? This was the early 1970s and like so many righteous good folk with kids, we owned a VW bus. I made the rounds of the liquor stores, gathering up boxes, and spent a fun evening with the kids cutting little windows in the sides of the boxes so that the chickens placed therein, three to a box, could stick their heads out and enjoy the view.
On the day of the move I stacked the chicken-laden boxes three deep and was able to fit in all 50. They were softly clucking away and willing to go along with whatever I had in mind, but they did not seem impressed that I had invented and they now occupied the first ever chicken condo. They even stuck their heads out of the windows we had cut for them. I felt like a bold and purposeful pioneer indeed as I wheeled the van onto the freeway and headed for Anacortes. I was amazed that the birds totally accepted what was happening to them.
Finally on Lopez Island, the chickens adapted immediately to the forest duff and grasses they would scratch and peck at. I enjoyed a wonderful feeling of accomplishment. Everything was working. At dusk, somehow sensing that things go bump in the night, they would drift into the wire-enclosed coop. They'êd happily roost on the wooden bars I had installed according to the Stockman'ês Manual'ês instructions. With the kids in their pajamas gathered around, we would go out there and look at them by flashlight. We couldn'êt wait for them to start laying eggs.
Unfortunately, the coop was also perfectly placed for raccoon predation. The first announcement I had of this was to go out to the coop one morning and see what looked as if someone had taken a feather pillow, cut it open, and emptied it on the ground. I couldn'êt make sense of what lay on the ground before me but I already knew that it was not a good omen for chickens. Then I spotted a pair of scaly yellow feet — the only part of the chicken the raccoon had not consumed. I had never imagined or heard of such a thing. Seriously, the raccoon had eaten everything — bones, guts, and all.
I could imagine it. The chickens all evenly spaced on their roosts at night. A burly coon comes in, quietly plucks a sleeping chicken off the roost, and kills it with maybe one squawk from the bird. One day I went out and there were two piles of feathers. I began to imagine a line of raccoons winding into the woods, each one holding a number as at a busy Colonel Sanders.
I thought, Maybe I could catch the coon at his dirty work. After dinner one night I went out there and was startled to hear the rapid scratching sound of claws on bark. I quickly recognized it as the sound a coon would make while it climbed a large Douglas fir in a hurry. I had brought a flashlight and as I shone it up the tree; there was the coon, peering around the trunk with curiosity and caution. I had treed the coon.
What to do now? I told Gwen, 'êWait here. Keep the light on him. I'êm going to Oberholzer'ês to borrow his shotgun.'ê So I ran back to the house, got the keys to the beater pick-up, charged out to the truck, raced over to OB'ês and borrowed his gun, raced back to the house, etc. I found Gwen in just the position I had left her, with the flashlight trained on the coon. What I did not know was that in the interim she had developed a relationship with this creature. She liked it. Her heart went out to it. And here it was, totally unpanicked and curious — about to get shot gunned.
She said, 'êWe can figure a way for the animals to co-exist.'ê She was right, of course, but I would have none of it then.
A few moments later we three — Gwen, the raccoon, and I — made a tableaux. The flashlight lay along the barrel of the shotgun, illuminating the raccoon in the tree. His eyes reflected light back at us as big as headlights. We stayed thus for maybe 20 seconds or so. The raccoon with his face mask was pretty cute all right, peering down, trying to figure out who had interrupted his evening meal. Then I thought of all the hours I had put into getting the hens this far, and all the atomized lime and chickenshit I had breathed. And I thought, This fucker is killing my birds!
I pulled the trigger. The explosion was tremendous. The animal, a large one, crashed through the branches, hit the dirt with a resounding thump, and ran off into the woods. Gwen said nothing. I was pleased as Punch that I had avenged the murdered chickens and did not have to deal with a dead raccoon. I took a child in hand and proudly walked back to the house. Sam, the youngest, on my shoulders, held the shotgun.
The chickens that had not been murdered thrived. My kids were familiar with eggs: how many different ways you could cook with them and how useful in cooking they were. But for them eggs were bought in a store. When the hens started to lay, Gwen and I gathered all four kids and sent them out to the hens'ê coop 100 yards away. Each kid had a basket lined with hay. They experienced peering down into the laying box and being seriously startled when they found an egg therein. They touched it and felt that it was warm. And they carefully picked an egg up and gently placed it in the baskets. Now they knew something important.
They gathered them carefully into their basket. In a holy parade they came home, walking carefully and slowly, each head bent to the egg he or she was carrying.