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August 13th, 2010

Work is Love Made Visible

My wife’s supercilious grandmother used to tell me I had peasant blood, which I took as a compliment.  Better an honest, hardworking peasant than a soft-palmed scoundrel.  Good, physical work, with something to show for it besides tight abdominals (a bountiful harvest, say) is an act of alignment and sometimes even exaltation. It ties us back to the order of the natural world.  Work is what the wild things do–all day long, for food, shelter, survival, maybe even joy.

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Last week’s bountiful harvest, the love made visible by work.

Growing food for others is a physical act. “Such hard work!” they say. Yes, but how fulfilling, how joyful. “The highest reward for a person’s toil is not what they get for it, but what they become by it,” said Ruskin.

We have become more capable, more patient, more resourceful, more humble. Work on the land develops deep connective tissue with simple purpose. Something we’re in great need of in an age of tweets and texts.

I bought a new/old tractor for the farm this year. It’s seen plenty of hard work, and it’s in its forties, so we’re peers.  It’s throaty, cast iron rumble is reassuring. No squeaky plastic or pot metal here.  No imported parts. It was built somewhere in the Midwest, back when industry had integrity, and work wasn’t just virtual bustle. It rambles across the property, making a clean cut in the orchard, indifferent to the carpet of twigs and small stumps.

A morning of virtual housekeeping, such as answering emails from clients, or prepping for a shoot, is usually balanced by an afternoon of real physical work, of which there’s always plenty. Without exertion of some kind, my time seems incomplete. I need to feel used up at the end of the day.

We don’t move anything unless it weighs a thousand pounds, the New York Times quoted us saying more than ten years ago when they did a feature on our efforts to restore Stonegate (see House Proud) .  Clearly work was not an obstacle.  After an urban upbringing, among worlds others had created, I needed to build. I needed to move mountains.  I needed to see what I could become by it.
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Interiors of the new coop.  There was plenty of sustainable re-use of materials, and a little art for inspiration.

So with new coop now completed in the orchard, my sweet Copernican universe, with the farm at the center of all things and us in perpetual orbit around it, seems momentarily balanced.  I can stand back from the work and feel its value and worth to the farm, despite the near heat stroke hours it took to build.

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Hens out for an early peck and scratch in the orchard.

The laying hens have taken to their new digs without a lot of fuss and feather. Even the prodigal pullet rejoined the flock, although at the bottom of the pecking order. They’re now ranging happily in the orchard, tilling and fertilizing the soil, devouring pests, making their most magical eggs. Working hard, without a second thought.  -Mb

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August 6th, 2010

To Get To The Other Side

The day we decided to resettle the chickens to the other side of the farm began clear and lovely: the luster of the previous night’s rain still visible in the grass, the air luminous and warm.  I weeded early in the orchard and stole a few productive hours before heat and swelter took my energy hostage. The day before, the farm seemed to exist only to absorb the sky, to take in its rain like a sieve. The sky on resettlement day was unburdened by clouds or rain, punctuated instead by temperatures already in the 90s.

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Coop and cupola, separated by a century and a half, now occupy the same aesthetic space. Ambivalent chickens just want a roof over their heads.

It was high time to furlough the young hens. They would be freed from their tight hot quarters in the Hell’s Kitchen garden, and moved three at a time to their new coop.  The trip from the kitchen garden to the orchard is a few hundred feet, but to the hens—who had never known the flap of freedom—the journey was pure trauma.

Each hen had to be blindly grabbed through the coop door, and whatever I got my hands on was how they were removed (foot, wing, thigh, tail, giblet), squawking as though about to be slain. They were put into a box and carried to the new hen house.

My first instinct was to excite them about their new space, like any good chicken realtor:  “Look at all these windows, and the closets.  Plenty of space to park your eggs, and room to scratch.  Have you seen those roosts?”  But instead they chose to lie low in the box, head tucked under wing as though resigned to the certainty of a swift end. It took turning the box upside down and shaking them out to get them to check out their new home.

The coop was modeled after the cupola on the barn, with its carpenter gothic detail and pyramidal roof.  When the farm was built in the late 1850s, the Gothic Revival period was in full fancy in the Hudson Valley.  Its advocates claimed, like their gothic predecessors, that steep gables, vertical battens, and skyward finials brought the dwelling closer to the vault of heaven, so as to almost scrape the stars.  All this is lost, of course, on a chicken.

Chickens love routine, and are ambivalent about architecture. To them, any change is loss, even the good changes.  What they covet is the daily pattern language they’ve learned since cracking out of the egg.  Give them repetition, monotony even, and they seem content.  One hen was so put out by the change of venue that she took flight, choosing the perils of the wild wood over unfamiliar routine.  She returned a fallen woman, ready to join the showgirls at La Cage.

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Free at last,  Free at last!  The hens take to the orchard and frolic over worms and dirt

After a few days of house arrest, the young hens were set loose upon the orchard.  At first the vast, open sky bewildered them, but they quickly acclimated and before long were actually frolicking (when was the last time you frolicked?). They soon headed down the long alleé of quince and plum to the thicket of blackberries, where they poked and scratched and left thorny brambles between them and the circling red tails.

We’ve lost a few hens to hawks in the past, and their swift, ominous shadows and piercing cries are embedded into a hen’s survival DNA.  My children have witnessed a strike and kill, and after invoking The Lion King, the circle of life, and unfledged hawklings desperately needing a meal, they seemed perfectly at peace about it.  For the chickens, now calling the gothic coop home, the further away from the vault of heaven, the better. – Mb

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