That Wasn’t the Plan

I always forget the way this works, how fast things change here. In the hot, hot days of summer, I think it will last forever and then suddenly, one rainy July day, there it is. The chill, maybe a wool sweater, the thought of lighting a fire crosses your mind, and you notice the first blush on the cranberries and rosehips.

Things change quickly here in the Yukon.

It is a time of intense harvest, of bounty, basketfuls of berries, canning, an overwhelming wave of kale and cabbage spilling from the garden. I am already anticipating a sauerkraut overload, that we will have more peas than we know what to do with, a delightful surplus of cranberries.

But along with the old familiars, we will also be harvesting something new this winter: our own chickens.

We brought our first real “farm” animals on to our property this summer: seven mature laying hens and then, a few weeks later, 50 day-old, heritage breed chicks.

It has been a steep learning curve.

On the hens’ second day at our house there was a harrier perched on their coop. An hour later one of the hens had escaped our pen, our husky had caught her and in the handful of seconds it took me to reach her, the hen was dead.

We eat meat. We harvested a moose in the muskeg near our home last year. I have killed and eaten grouse. We want to raise our own food, and believe it is important our daughter knows where her food comes from. But, standing there with a dead hen, the same hen my daughter had just been stroking the hour before, I found myself at a loss for words. I found myself wondering if I really have what it takes to do this homesteading thing.

How do you explain to a toddler that something can, so very quickly, go from alive to dead? On the May afternoon when the hens arrived, I had thought I would have until fall to figure out how I to explain slaughtering a chicken to our daughter, or at least become more comfortable with the actuality of it myself.

A few weeks later we learned another hard lesson. We had overestimated the security of our greenhouse, where we were brooding our chicks, and underestimated our dog’s interest in them. In a matter of minutes 13 chicks were dead.

A costly mistake. And a wholly disappointing one.

We blamed ourselves, we blamed our ambition. Called ourselves foolish for building infrastructure as we go, for not having the electric fenced chicken tractor ready before the chicks arrived.

We blamed ourselves for not better training our dogs, for not being constantly vigilant, and on and on… The feeling of being responsible for all the living things (the toddler, the garden, the chickens, the dogs  –  even though they’re eating the chickens…) is an unreasonable and unsustainable feeling.

Talking to a good friend who has, over the past 10 years, become a successful goat farmer, she shared that while she remembers the first chicken she lost to a dog, she has since lost so many to predators that she has just accepted the place of the chicken as “snack food” of the animal kingdom. Pragmatic for sure, but difficult to accept and expect the experiences that brought her to that point.

I guess this is just the next chapter for us in our homesteading challenges, foolhardy and idealistic as they may be. We’ve lost crops before, had plants killed by frost, eaten by mice, swarmed with aphids. I guess we just find it easier to emotionally distance ourselves from those losses.

I also now realize that while an element of distance and acceptance is necessary to cope with the inevitable losses of livestock we face, that the whole reason we are doing this is to stay close to these realities. We don’t want the cellophane wrapped, butter injected Christmas bird. We’ve chosen to be close to the source of our food, and that means getting our hands dirty.

So what do you tell a toddler when she looks to you for explanation? The truth: One day it’s summer, the next it’s fall. Our dogs are hunters, and eat meat like us.

One minute your beautiful new red hen is healthy and whole and making you eggs, the next she’s in a roasting pan. We do our best and are thankful for her either way.

We are learning, and I do not have all the answers.

We live in a place of extremes, where the changing nature of the world around us is a bit more blatant than the more moderate climes of the world. When it is light it is LIGHT. When it is cold it is COLD.

And in between? Well, here we are, holding on to the best of what is just behind us while holding out for the best of what’s to come, and rolling with our crazy seasons. We find ourselves wondering just what it is we are doing and trying our best to explain it to ourselves, so that we can explain it to those looking to us for explanations.

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