Upon seeing the delightful little chicken house my flatmates had built for their chickens earlier this summer, a friend knew exactly what I needed: keets. When he said he was giving me some, I tried to conjure up in my mind what a keet was to no avail. We drove to pick up the seven cute, little, incredible wild birds. I fell in love immediately, until the drive home when they started shrieking, each at 96 decibels, the whole way. The magnificent seven spent their days frolicking in the garden.* Their volume crescendos when they are excited about things like learning to fly, or when strangers come up the driveway, or for various reasons beyond human comprehension.
The very kind couple who sold me the keets provided me with everything I need to know: they were a mixture of pied and pearled coloring (which meant nothing to me), they needed more protein than chickens, and they preferred to roost in trees and nest on the ground, which made me wonder how any survive ever.
If your knowledge of fowl beyond chicken, pheasant and turkey is a bit rusty like mine is, keets are baby Guinea Fowl. Originating from Africa, they were introduced here primarily as a meat bird. They are hunters, which means no tick, grub, or grasshopper escapes their attention. They also run on the wild side, preferring not to be picked up. Unless their options are being carried or having to walk in the snow. In which case being carried suddenly becomes a very attractive option.
*Why did the keet cross the road? To prove you can’t build a fence good enough to hold it. I drove over one of the keets within days of their arrival because they were too small to see. I hadn’t been worried about that because I knew they safe were in the garden.
When you hatch your own chicks, approximately 50 percent of them will be male. As the overseer of Sugar Grove Farm, dealing with the baby roosters is my problem. The hens get to live an organic, free-ranging lifestyle at the farm. A neighbor was initially interested in raising the cockerels as meat birds, but decided there were already enough projects in her life.
“I will feed them to Mr. Friendly,” I said.*
“We would raise them,” my flatmates said.
“You’ll do everything? Feeding? Care? Building a house? They could live in the garden. It’s already fenced.”**
“Kill them at the end of the season?” One of my flatmates is a vegan and the other is a vegetarian, which makes this question a bit deeper than asking your average person if they are up for killing what they will put on their plate.
“We think the experience would be valuable.” I couldn’t argue with that. But looking at their honest, hopeful faces, I recognized the expression. It was the same expression on my face when I was young, and sprung the mouse traps in my parent’s house because I did not want the mice to get hurt. It is not the face of someone who is going to find killing something easy or even possible.
My flock of five ISA Brown roosters-which are actually white, because they are sex linked-was started. The hens, which are brown, are some of the most productive egg layers on the market. At the time, the roosters were a week old and living in a kiddie pool.
My flatmates were amazing in how seriously they took chicken care. As the birds got bigger, they were carried back and forth to the garden each day. A small chicken house was added to the garden. Eventually, a larger walk-in chicken house was constructed.
When my flatmates were getting ready to go back to college, I asked the question: were they still planning on slaughtering the roosters?
“It is hard to kill something you have spent so much effort keeping alive,” they said.
“I’ll take care of them until they get mean,” I offered. “As soon as they get mean, I will do it.”
Because everyone knows roosters get mean, right? That was August. It is now December, and the Cluck-Clucks still expect to be petted regularly, like to be carried into the chicken house at night, and try to sneak into my house.
*One of my flatmates insist after I said that, I followed it up with, “unless you guys want them.” I don’t remember saying that. But it is the sort of thing I would have thought, and I frequently say what I think without fully thinking through the consequences, and my flatmates have an extraordinary strong sense of honesty.
**My garden fence was built to keep the deer out. It does that well, and holds up squash vines well. We quickly learned that it fails to keep anything besides deer out, and fails to keep anything in.
Trigger is-as you can see-not a bird. The flock is a mixture of guineas, ISA Brown Roosters, and Black Star Roosters. They all agree on one thing: an opossum is not a bird, and does not belong in the aviary. Or so I thought earlier this fall, as they threw very vocal temper tantrums whenever Trigger wandered inside and they refused to go in for the night. Refusing to go in at dusk has resulted in the death of many a bird.
Trigger would let me carry him back out. He didn’t even fear me enough to bother playing dead. His tail was rubbery, his fur silky. As much as I love opossums, I thought, I can’t feed everyone. I feed the flock, I put tasty scraps out for everyone, and have a bird feeding station and a ground feeding station. I already am feeding everyone, in limited, affordable quantities. But Trigger eats a lot of food and upsets the flock.
Last night, I went out to button up the chickens. It was cold (it is 12 F now) and there is a foot of snow on the ground. The flock hasn’t ventured outside. Trigger was inside the aviary with the birds. I don’t know that anyone was happy about it, but those roosters are roosters. If they wanted to kick a young opossum out, they could. I sighed. Trigger moseyed out into the snow and headed for the woods, instead of waiting for me to take him into the shed for shelter. Nitro makes him nervous. I know this because he plays dead for Nitro. The tip of his tail was already suffering from frostbite.
This morning, I fed and watered the birds. Then…I took a bowl of cat food out to the shed for Trigger and the two other opossums who live there. One of the opossums is Kip, Trigger’s mother; the other is a skittish black opossum who hasn’t shared his name with me yet. Because it is higher in protein than bird seed, the cat food will support the opossums better through these cold nights.
It is impolite to ask a lady her age. It is impossible to ask a tree her age. But as these old, ancient ladies with their lacy leaves have finally fallen, I have been able to ask some of them. In death, they can share with me what they could not share in life.
The 9″ diameter Ohio buckeye: 32 years old
The 28″ diameter honey locust: 56 years old
The 24″ diameter white oak: 124 years old
The 36″ diameter cottonwood: 47 years old
The soil conditions, available sunlight, precipitation, and even genetics contribute to how big a tree gets. Some species simply get bigger faster than others. It is not a good thing or a bad thing. It makes it a very challenging thing, when people ask me how old a living tree is. An oak is probably older than you think. A cottonwood is probably younger than you think. Many of the massive trees brought down in the derecho were hollow inside, so we will never know. The massive sycamores and black walnuts growing along Indian Creek predate when the area was logged. So old.
Since August 10th, I have sawn on trees that I planted. I have sawn on trees that I loved for more than 20 years. I have sawn on trees that were growing before women had the right to vote. I have sawn on trees that were growing before Iowa was a state.
I have touched trees that are still in the agony of dying, and I did not have the strength to give them a quick and merciful death by chainsaw. I have cried over and over again.
Trees are strong. Some of the trees I plant today will still be strong 100 years hence. Some I will cut down. Some others will cut down. Some will fall under the pressure from the termites, the buck rubs, the lightening and the wind. Some will remain. The massive old trees we grieve for today were young, once. Someone loved them and gave them space to grow. Nurturing our young trees and creating protected spaces for them to grow is the best thing we can do to honor the trees that have fallen and pay homage to the forest we love.
We had a beautiful, restorative fire on the Bena Prairie Friday. It started, like many fires, with a simple strike of a match. To start a prairie fire, I like to make a small ball of dry material, similar to a mouse nest, and place it at the base of standing prairie grasses, such as big bluestem.
From the match strike, the grasses of the tallgrass prairie, the topography of the land, and the wind should combine to create a prairie fire. We coax it along with our rakes and suppress it with our water tanks, but the fire itself is a living force on the land, bringing dynamic change. In the long term, it will be a positive change on the landscape. Locally, it will look stark until spring. When spring comes, the burned areas will green up sooner than unburned areas. There will be more flowers, and the vegetation will be taller than in areas that didn’t burn. Many of the young seedling trees trying to become established will die in the fire, enabling the prairie to remain a prairie for years to come.
I am done for the evening. Done with the sound of chainsaws, the sound of dying trees, the sound of dump trucks. Done with the smell of wood chips, the smell of two stroke engines, the smell of burning green wood.
Done with the sight of blue sky instead of green canopy, the sight of brush piled higher than me stretching for miles, the sight of shattered wood a solid mass across what was the forest floor.
Tomorrow is another day. But tonight, as the darkness brings a temporary peace, and the cicadas and owls replace the sounds of living inside a sawmill, tonight I am done.
On August 10, I sent a text shortly after noon to my flatmates:
“Get the chickens in! Shriekies first, as the big ones can get under cover.”
I do not use exclamation points lightly. As things turned out, it was appropriate. I was experiencing the beginnings of a storm so severe it would sever my electronic communication for some time. That was the last dependable text I would be able to send or recieve for days.
The shriekies spent the storm safe inside in the bathroom, the older chickens safe inside in the garage. The forest that I have loved and cared for since 1996 didn’t fare so well.
The rain swept through, being driven by winds at 140 miles an hour for 45 minutes. Straight line winds of such magnitude are known as a derecho, I would come to learn. It destroyed homes (not mine), businesses (not mine), and trees. Many, many trees.
The community estimates that more than 60 precent of the tree canopy is gone. In looking at the broken tops and splintered trunks of the remaining trees, we will lose a lot more in the coming years from this singular event.
One concern I have with the phrase “food forest” is that it implies that the rest of the forest is inedible. Nothing could be further from the truth, at least in Iowa. Upland forest canopies are dominated by oaks and hickories, with a handful of butternuts mixed in. The midlands are full of mulberries, black cherries and black walnuts. Even the bottomlands, with their thick stands of silver maples and lindens, are full of edible life.
In most landscapes, I focus on the natural history of the land, and ask what would be here, if we hadn’t cut the trees, grubbed out the roots, and planted corn in the heart of the forest? What is missing from both this particular plot, as well as the surrounding areas? What would increase the native diversity and resilience of the ecosystem?
In a food forest, I narrow that focus to species that 1) are native to the area, and 2) are fairly straightforward for humans to eat. A food forest has a greater concentration of native edible species than you might naturally find in a woodland. Done properly, a guest wouldn’t necessarily notice they were in a food forest; they would simply notice that they were in a beautiful woodland with abundant opportunities for them to forage as they walked. People are so far removed from what is and is not edible without a plastic wrap label and a price tag on it, I’ll probably need to put out signs. There isn’t much point, if people don’t know that the food in the forest is there for them.
The pocket of sunlight we created this winter will be planted to maples this spring. I am locally sourcing Black Maple from Fleming Nursery and Sugar Maple from Hughes Nursery. Just downhill from the clearing is a large silver maple, well-suited to flooding. Mulberry and black cherry are already growing in the area, and we planted butternuts last year.
We took out two leaning black cherries. A third cherry was left, because black cherries, while tiny, are quite tasty. Spit the pits out! Cherry pits contain amygdalin.
We took out a half dozen small scruffy elm trees and mulberry trees. Two large red mulberry trees were left to anchor the southern edge of the forest, because mulberries are also quite tasty.
We took out a box elder, nearing the end of its life. All of the trees we cut were about 40 years old, and one was quite hollow in the middle. Check out the mouse cache of bittersweet berries.
We also removed a variety of impenetrable bittersweet vines, green briar vines, honeysuckle bushes, and blackberry canes. The blackberry canes will come back with a vengeance (as will, regrettably, the others), but we needed a clear space to work in. Underneath that mess, we discovered the old fenceline.
The firewood will be split, allowed to dry for two years, and then used to boil maple sap into maple syrup. It will also be used to heat the pizza oven.