Wednesday, 27 November 2013

An Eerie Absence in the Barn

It's quiet now when I approach the little barn that houses the pigs and once housed the chickens.  There is some grunting and the odd squeal, but no more clucking and squawking.  Yesterday our yard became a sort of carnival of bright reds, of loose white feathers and fluff, and of colourful boxes of squishy innards.  As the snow and sleet slowly soaked us, we bagged the chilled birds and by nightfall, they were in the freezer.  Bags of necks, feet, livers, and digestive tract (for the dog), and then lovely meaty shells we tend to think of as whole chickens

In other news, we are on a low-tech binge:  we are clearing our 300-metre long driveway with only an ordinary snow shovel; we are chopping our own wood and splitting it with an ax and we are avoiding unnecessary car trips.  All this makes the world seem big again.  It is what an extreme version of post-peak oil might be like, one that we are choosing to live, which can be rewarding and at the same time, feel very masochistic.  I don't know much about peak oil scenarios, what they could be and what they most likely will be, but energy costs are in the news a lot lately and so is climate change.  I guess that either energy becomes so expensive that we all learn new ways of living, or oil remains cheap and places like the Maldives and the countless other much more heavily populated places near sea level will be submerged and Canada's security costs will rise.  Either way, it will be expensive and we will feel it slowly happening but no one will say:  "Starting this year, we can officially say we are in a peak oil condition."

If you live in the country and you are neither in a supply-managed industry, nor on a good pension, nor gainfully employed, you learn to be frugal.  Ideally, this makes you more resourceful and more ready for a tougher future, if you believe that is where we are headed.  But speaking with a friend who is also a farmer, also frugal and of limited financial means and also interested in the impacts that runaway energy consumption have on our lives, it was agreed that while being "on the land" can position a person to be better equipped to live with scarcity, and living simply can be satisfying, the only people prepared for calamities like power shortages or famines or natural disaster are those for whom survivalism is a hobby, something they revel in. 

These would be the people who are skilled with knives and ropes; who have created bomb-proof spaces on their properties and set up traps to ensnare trespassers.  They would be the kinds of people who would raise animals and slaughter them without anyone's help.  Very few of us are prepared for a world where big industry can't meet most of our needs, including myself and most of the people I know.

We had a trained butcher do our slaughtering:  quickly and efficiently but with due care.  Propane was running low on the scalder and our butcher just barely managed to get through without running out. If he'd had to come back the next day, he wouldn't have made it to our yard since we got a massive snowfall that night.  We were lucky.  I helped put them in the cones and watched decapitation after decapitation, which was not traumatising, but also not pleasant.  I can stomach chicken slaughter, and I can clear my 300-metre long driveway by hand, but I am not on a path to self-reliance and a rejection of the world that seems to be extinguishing itself.  I do, however, find it exciting to pare back some of the complacency I grew up with regarding food, housing, and travel, all of the things that require substantial energy inputs which, when the world is moving so fast, are so easily taken for granted.

Monday, 4 November 2013

Livestock Fatigue

"These Chickens are so annoying!" I said, portioning out their meal as they pecked at my legs.  My sister, who was visiting, stood to the side.   "Yeah, but they're so yummy!"  she said.  I have days, especially those when it's cloudy, dark, muddy and cold, when the chickens are constantly hungry, jumping at me and crowding me so closely I have nowhere to step, when I can curse the chickens with the vilest language, and wish them all nothing but suffering.  I think of the notion I've heard many times: "If thought crime were enforced, a lot of people would be jailed for their murderous desires." If thought crimes were enforced, the SPCA would be on my case.

Both XB and I do treat the chickens quite well but both of us are exasperated by them.  They don't ask much, they do not want me to say nice things to them. They are utterly indifferent to the nuances of facial expression and gesticulation.  But like any animal, they are subject to suffering and so I try to keep them comfortable and fed and give them space to roam between meals, which are frequent and met with great anticipation.  Chickens are not known to skip meals at will.

Recently, when I came to the barn to feed them, I noticed one with a spot of red on one of its wings.  I gave it a closer look and realized that underneath the wing, the bone was exposed and its skin had been badly broken.  It looked like a predator of some sort had grabbed it and fled, leaving it to languish.  I corned it and picked it up, carried it to the garage and made the little house we'd built for the chicks into its hospital room. I hoped that if it were isolated from the rest (where it would not risk being pecked to death - chickens are vicious) it would perhaps heal.  I also knew I would have to start researching the most humane euthanization methods in case it didn't.

The issue of humane treatment of animals in rural farming circles is a tricky one.  No one that I have met would condone neglect or intentional mistreatment of any animal, even chickens, which can try anyone's patience.  But vet bills can be prohibitive, and not everyone believes that a chicken's life is sacred; that giving it a few more weeks of life is worth a $150 vet bill.  A chicken might fetch $20 to $30 by the end of its 10 weeks.

I browsed through a few forums.  One chicken owner posted that her pet chicken was ill, suffering, and in need to being put down.  The owner simply did not have the funds to have it nursed back to health, to which another responded:

"I don't mean to be rude, but that is just around, find a vet who can do it,work out a payment plan.  Sell your TV, stereo, computer, whatever. That's what a responsible pet owner would do."

I can't say this dissuaded me.  The chicken is hardly a pet in our case. But, thinking back to the afternoon when I discovered the injured bird, I did have a moment, as I hauled it to the garage and the rest of the flock stood back, where I felt a pang of sorrow.  I was sad seeing the animal seemingly oblivious to the fact that it had been maimed, as she pecked about with the others.  This was one of the cute yellow chicks we picked up from the feed store in the cardboard box, one of the little peeping sounds coming through the cracks. One of the big white birds running out to greet me (for food of course), who has no arms, which makes them look especially goofy and cute as they run and which makes me forget that they are dumb and selfish.

Another blog presented the following advice:

"If you own a dog, you tend to take it to the vet if it is ill.  But chickens bridge that gap between pet and livestock.  You don't have to take a chicken to the vet if you don't want to, and I feel you shouldn't feel guilty about that."

Again, I would not have felt guilty killing it and these words weren't the words of comfort I was in need of, but for some, this is an especially sensitive topic.  The blogger then explained that over several years raising chickens, she had had to kill a few before their time was up, who had either come down with viruses or succumbed to injuries.  By kill, she meant chop off its head.

Chickens' lives are okay if they are treated with decency.  There probably aren't a lot of "happy chickens," Even free range chickens who are well fed and sheltered and given adequate square footage when indoors are not suffering the way they would be in a less humane environment, but I doubt they experience self-actualization.

The challenge, especially in November, is making sure that whatever one's frustrations, the animals are taken care of as well as they were when they were younger and nicer.

In other news, the electric furnace is on now.  Does anyone know how to operate a wood-burning furnace? One of the differences between cities and rural areas is that urban dwellings are toasty warm.  The office I worked in, my own house, which was crammed between two others, a narrow place that held heat well, and shopping centres, which are notoriously sweltering in the winter.  Here in the country, houses are spread out and heating is a more contemplated matter.  Thermostats are watched more closely.  People don't walk around in shorts and t-shirts.  Winter in the country is a good setting for comfort withdrawal.