When Life Hands You Chickens, You Make…

Four years ago a friend of a friend bought three silver-laced Wyandottes at a store in Alton to make his granddaughter happy. She was, indeed, happy. But the subdivision rules said “no”.

With promises to do our level best to protect and love those chickens, the grandfather brought them to our farm. His face showed regret mixed with relief.

Dot and her two sisters did not fit in well with the flock. They were smaller than the other pullets and that comes at a cost. They were not allowed to roost at night and slept next to the chicken house.

dot 2

Two of the three were murdered in the middle of the night by an evil, stinking, thieving skunk. We slept in the field for a week trying to bring that monster to justice. We failed. But the kids had fun. Grandpa and grandma and the kids slept in a tent next to the pond. I patrolled on foot or slept next to the chicken tractor. I guess it sounds romantic but it was miserable in real life.

The skunk problem may have been solved for us by way of owl. Or car. I don’t know. But the murder of our chickens abated…briefly.

Dot eventually became a part of the flock. The only black and white bird in a sea of red. How could we avoid naming her?

dot 3

Somehow, years passed by. Where did the time go? Where does the time go?

Dot died earlier this week after a big storm passed. I went out to close up the birds after moving the cows and noticed her laying still, taking shallow breaths under the nest boxes, unable or unwilling to open her eyes.

I have some idea what was wrong with Dot. Mostly I suspect she was old. There is nothing I can do to prevent old. I believe her heart had failed her in some way, though her comb was not yet blue.

So it was time for Dot to do what Dot should have done a long time ago. We should not own 4 year old hens.

Dot lived with a purpose. She is not a pet. She is a farm animal. She existed because she was productive. When she is no longer productive she moves on to the next job. The last job. Two gallons of beautiful, amber broth.

I left Dot sitting on a jacket in a cardboard box while Julie boiled scald water. This box was last used to comfort a dying cat at Christmas. The cat was a pet. We buried it. Dot is not a pet. Dot is food.

It only takes a minute to dress out a hen. We let her soak, maybe with a dash of salt, then she stewed overnight with a few onions.

There are three details I would like to add in here. First, she had a heart attack as evidenced by what I found inside of her. Second, she was in otherwise excellent health and, even at her age, was still actively laying. Third, we would never even consider selling a sick bird. We keep them for ourselves. Heart attack birds taste a little off.


That said, I suspect she will taste something like our pasture. She will taste like long nights sitting under the moonlight staring at the stars. She will taste like sacks and sacks and sacks of feed I carried on my left shoulder to the pasture over hills and across creeks. Mountains of bedding shoveled in and out of the chicken house or the greenhouse. She will taste like every morning I opened the chicken house door no matter what the weather and every evening I closed the door to keep them safe at night. She will taste like the long July days we spent in the hot sun building said chicken house. I cannot waste years of investment by burying Dot in the compost pile.

I would rather she had lived. I liked Dot. But this is what needs to be done.

The pasture feels a little empty without her.

The Life-Changing Magic of Planting Trees

Mom mentioned some childhood neighbors in a blog comment yesterday that got me thinking about Mrs. Ruth. She lived next door when I was very young. I have only a few memories of her, really: She had a cat, she was a German immigrant and tended to mutter to herself in low German when I was around, she kept candy orange slices in the bottom crisper drawer of her fridge and she had three cherry trees east of her garage.

I remember more than that about Mrs. Ruth but the cherry trees are etched into my mind forever. In fact, I checked Google maps and it looks like the trees are still there. As a kid I would take a break from my sandbox and climb into the mulberry tree in our back yard for a snack and I would tend to stare in the direction of the cherry trees wondering why there were always mulberries but almost never cherries. But on those rare few days when they were ripe we would all help Mrs. Ruth pick cherries.

Buckets of cherries. Cherries in the freezer. Cherries in jellies. Cherry pies. Cherries cooked into a sauce with sugar and poured over ice cream. I don’t even know what else.

And you can’t overlook the reliable mulberry tree in that story.

Mulberries. Julie and her brothers didn’t have much experience with mulberries when I met them. Julie and I would walk through the pasture together at her parent’s house (definitely not a date, right?) and eat and talk (cause we are just friends, right?) and hold hands (friends can hold hands, right?). Mulberries were a staple food. They are not too sweet and tend to be a little stemmy but don’t have the pesky seeds of a dewberry or black raspberry. We would pick a few berries in the summer evening, our hands would be stained purple just like in the picture I shared a few years back of picking mulberries while putting up hay…because we always stop to rest in the shade under the mulberry trees in the bottom.


Not all mulberry trees are created equal, btw. Some are more sweet than others and some don’t fruit at all. And having written “btw” I am reminded that mulberries have a good BTU rating (above oaks) and coppice well. And the leaves are a good source of protein for cattle. So these are trees I work to keep around. Although, you don’t have to work too hard as mulberries tend to grow wherever there are birds.

But cherry trees are a different story altogether. There are wild black cherry trees all over our farm. We have picked buckets of these too but the fruit tends to be bitter and thin around the stone. Apparently it makes a good cordial. But a sweet or sour domesticated cherry tree is a real treasure.

My friend Yoichiro came to visit us in 2013. He and I planted a cherry tree together. I think of him every time I look at that tree. I am still happy we shared that experience.

I got the sapling from my friend Steve. They are a small, short-lived sour cherry and they replace themselves readily. He digs up a dozen or so saplings every year. The original sapling came from an abandoned farmstead. He dug it up at some point in the last 20 or 30 years. Here is a picture of it several years ago.


Let’s review. decades ago, Steve and his wife spent an afternoon driving through the countryside looking for heirloom varieties in the yards of abandoned farm houses. Among other things, Steve found a cherry tree that he brought home, planted, cared for and propagated. Doesn’t that sound nice?

Years later we were invited to pick cherries and asked if he could spare a sapling we noticed coming up under the canopy. Early the next spring Steve loaded us up with a trunk full of food, rhubarb plants and a small cherry sapling.

A friend from Japan came to visit in 2013. Together we planted the cherry sapling above promising to meet again someday and enjoy the fruit together. Then my kids and I planted daffodils and comfrey around it.

Steve came by later, inspected the planting and took home some comfrey and some bamboo from my yard.

Do you see how that little cherry tree is intertwined in our relationships? …in our community?

Life changing magic.

I wrote about my grandpa Jordan recently. Last summer my kids and I spent a hot afternoon picking peaches from his peach tree. They were not spectacular peaches…kind of small and spotty. But he planted a tree, did a little maintenance on it and we all ate all we wanted and my kids have a fun memory of standing on great-grandpa Jordan’s cannon while picking peaches…just days before our youngest was diagnosed with cancer.


What is the value of that peach tree? Or grandpa’s grape vines he made homemade wine from?

I have shared about my friend Eileen, her Mutsu apples and chestnut trees. This year we came home with a  trash can of waste apples and a big, big box of chestnuts. The pigs made pigs of themselves.

And it seems obvious to remember Aunt Marian’s apple trees. I have written this before but I would race to prune her trees as fast as I could, doing a portion of each tree each year, because she would catch me pruning and would run me off. But I had her Mutsu in good shape by making a few “accidental” cuts here and there to slowly get the tree in shape. And I got all the apples I could use. And so did the pigs. And aunt Marian had all kinds of stories about each tree in her orchard and where they came from.

picking apples

I’m sure there are other things you can do to build inter-generational memories but trees put down roots. There is a giant burr oak tree in my pasture that my grandpa Chism said was always big. Roots. Ties to previous generations.

What is that worth?

Where are you planting your trees? You don’t need a farm. You just have to stay put for a while.


The Jordan Side of Me

My mom is a Chism. I am surrounded by Chism…or descendants of Chism. Being related to the whole county made dating difficult as a teen.


But dad came from another state.

In some ways I identify more with my grandpa Chism than with my grandpa Jordan. Maybe because of proximity. I spent a lot of time on this farm as a small child, not so much in Indianapolis. Maybe because my grandpa Chism had tractors. I don’t know. I am not writing a comparison, I am hurting a little and thinking of both.

I am who I am, in part, because they were who they were.

The “me” inside of “me” has a lot to do with who I thought they were. And who I thought they were is surprisingly different than who my sister thought they were. And that is different than who my dad thought they were.

So who am I? And who do my children think I am?

My grandpa Jordan passed away last week at the age of 89. I have spent a lot of time in thought about the man and my relationship with him. And in my own head I seem to be mourning both of my grandfathers which is odd because grandpa Chism died nearly 20 years ago.

I really didn’t know my grandpa Chism when I was an adult. I saw him through the idealistic eyes of a child. He was big and strong and did the things big, strong farmer guys did. He was also quietly tolerant of me.

But I had time to really get to know my grandpa Jordan. He was not quietly tolerant of me. He was strong but not big. He did things retired city people did…like scratch lottery tickets. But he was also a carpenter and I have a number of skills I learned either directly from grandpa or from my father who learned from grandpa.

So who am I?

Carpentry and farming go well together but am I quietly tolerant or not?

I have wrestled with this kind of thinking all week. I am not Tom Chism. I am not Sherman Jordan. But they are certainly both a strong dose of what I hold up as the ideal of man.

I am acutely aware of both of my grandfathers’ many flaws. They were not perfect men. As an adult I avoided certain conversations with grandpa Jordan and to this day thank God he gave me a polite nickname (Old-timer). So why did he have rude nicknames for everybody else? That’s not part of my picture of ideal manhood. But it is not fair to say that my grandfather was a jerk. He could be at times but so can I.

There were conversations I just could not have with my grandpa. We could not talk about politics or religion…but that’s common in any relationship. But we could talk about stocks and coin collecting and commodity futures. These were safe topics, especially if you just open the throttle and let him run. But never get him started on “rich people” or labor or any of his ongoing list of conspiracies…

I learned to handle my grandpa safely. Great. What does that have to do with me? And what ON EARTH does that have to do with the farm?

There was no Jordan farm until dad bought land in the ’80’s. I think that is an important detail in this reflection. There was no land. No tie. No roots. There is a Jordan cemetery somewhere in Tennessee but I don’t know anybody in there. I know an awful lot about the Chism people buried on the next hill over from my house. I live in a house my grandparents lived in…a house my grandpa’s uncle built. On land we have owned for nearly 200 years. Why didn’t the Jordan family settle? Why didn’t they build permanence?

I don’t know much of anything about Sherman’s father, Arthur. I remember vague stories of extreme poverty and abuse. From what I have put together, grandpa Jordan had a very difficult childhood right up until he lied about his age to join the Navy. Then he met up with his siblings again, opened a carpentry business with his brother and played euchre. I have memories of my aunts and uncles playing cards at the dining room table together. Even if he made insulting comments, I think we can safely say that grandpa was different than his father. Better. Even if still rough.

And my father is better still.

I am who I am because he was who he was. I am who I am because he pushed me to become more than he was…even if just to prove him wrong about me. And my kids, through positive reinforcement, will continue that refining what it means to be a Jordan.

There is a lot to explore within our family legacy and culture. Who am I? Who are we? What do we believe? How do we treat each other? What do we offer our future generations?

I haven’t answered any questions here. These are ideas I am struggling to understand and I hope you are too.

Julie and I are exploring, establishing and refining our family culture together with our parents and our children. We are purposeful about giving everyone a sense of belonging, love, place and purpose. This is our way of cleaning the world by cleaning our front step. How are you changing the world?