and Christmas and Yule. From my home to yours, goats and all.
(artist: cutiepainting on Fiverr)
and Christmas and Yule. From my home to yours, goats and all.
(artist: cutiepainting on Fiverr)
In February of last year, Richie got me two hens. He’d spent a decent part of the winter building an impenetrable chicken fortress that would keep them safe from our local evil genius pine martens. We called the henhouse Sereggnity–or rather, I did, because I am the lover of terrible puns in this house.
The hens we brought home I named Flora and Elfine. They were both red hybrid chickens from the same flock, but Flora was slightly smaller and darker, Elfine a bit taller and brighter. Flora’s eggs were smaller and darker than Elfine’s, too. Both of them were tremendous layers and, except for a slight tendency to bully the cat, very friendly and docile. Within a few weeks it was hard to imagine life without them. Last week Flora got sick. I found her one afternoon huddled down by the goat shed, feathers puffy, her comb nearly white instead of bright red (the surest sign a chicken isn’t healthy). I brought her inside and put her in a box with some dry hay, food and water, then went online to do some research.
I’ll spare you the chicken health class or the sad details, but it turned out that an egg had broken inside of her. We did what we could (only follow the link if you actually want to learn about emergency chicken care), but she died the next morning. I’ve lived with animals all my life. I’ve had beloved pets die and it’s been utterly heartbreaking. I’ve also lived on a farm before, and I know that death is a normal part of this kind of life. My husband grew up farming, and he knows that even better than I do.
But we were both very saddened by losing Flora. We are omnivores, and we may well keep chickens that are destined for the pot someday. We ate a goat that we raised, and it was even harder for both of us than we’d predicted when the day came for his death. But that absolutely does not mean we don’t love our animals and do everything we can so that they suffer as little as possible. When you are responsible for a stock animal, when it’s part of your working life, you feel a particular duty toward it that is different, but not totally outside the realm of the responsibility you feel toward a pet. Flora had a job–producing eggs–and in exchange, our job was keeping her safe, healthy, and happy. So part of my sadness comes from wondering if there was more I could have done for her, if I could have noticed her sickness sooner, things like that.
I’m still learning to be a good farmer. I love my goats, and I love my hens, too. Their lives may seem small, but they are so important. Lives like theirs keep the rest of ours going.
So this might seem like a lot of thought to put into the death of a hen, especially from someone who eats chicken for dinner at least once a week. But my sadness for and gratitude to Flora is important. I know it is. It has to be.
A hen on her own will get anxious and scared, so we picked up a new black-and-white feathered companion for Elfine this week. Richie named her Lisbeth, which has proved very apt. This new girl is crazy like a fox, with a wild eye and every intention of busting out of the coop at any moment.
In fact, this morning she made a sprint down the road to the next farm, and it is only by the grace of my having a ridiculously fit husband that she wasn’t gone forever. I haven’t laughed as hard in a while as I did watching Richie and Lisbeth sprint down the road at breakneck speed, then face each other down as if they were in a Western shootout. Hens can run damn fast, you know.
She’s no Flora, who sometimes hopped up on the picnic bench for a cuddle, but she shouldn’t be. She’s pretty and funny and she’s already pulled Elfine out of her funk. We’re glad to have her.
Rest in peace, Flora Poste, the first hen I kept. We’ll watch Cold Comfort Farm in your memory this week.
Flora is a fairly cuddly chicken. #chickens #hens #henstagram #farmlife #homesteading A video posted by Betsy Cornwell (@betsycornwell) on
Like, a (mostly) benevolent, indeterminately aged woman who lives in a quirky cottage where there are always weird bundles of things drying in the kitchen, who spends a lot of time prowling the hedgerows for wild herbs. Who dresses a bit like a mori girl or Baba Yaga. Who may or may not have a private back room used for magic (or writing, or magical writings).
Happily, that’s pretty much me right now, except for the aspirational fashion. Today I’m a village witch dressed in muddy rain boots, worn-out jeans and my “Kiss Me, I’m A Lyons” t-shirt.
When I was eleven, I read a book about natural skincare products and spent the next year attempting to make my own bubble baths, lotions, and powders. For one of my first projects, I took the petals off of the roses from a wilting dance recital bouquet and submerged them in sweet almond oil in an empty spaghetti sauce jar, screwed on the top, and hid them in the back of the bathroom closet. The book assured me that in a few weeks I’d have rose oil, and I figured the parts about sterilizing the jar and using only organic flowers were, you know, optional. Rose oil sounded like magic potion, and that was enough for my baby-witch heart.
Of course, being eleven, I promptly forgot about the jar. Many months later, my mother found it while rummaging through the shelves for ipecac to rescue one of the dogs. What she found was rank and festering, limp brown petals nesting in layers of gray mold and globby oil. It popped like soda when she opened the jar and unleashed a truly foul stench into the air. She probably could have fed the dog my rose oil instead of ipecac and yielded similar results.
Mom forbade me from doing any further ‘experiments’ outside of her supervision. But supervised potion-making was not nearly so satisfying, and I eventually gave up experimenting altogether.
Now, though, I live in a stove-heated cottage along Ireland’s wild Atlantic way, and the urge towards hedgerow witchery has come back to me. That does include actually paying attention to Old Irish holidays and rituals and other quietly Pagan and Druidic things, which I hope to write about as I learn more about them.
Mostly, though, my witchy practices involve gathering edibles: sorrel, strawberry leaves, and elderflowers this time of year, field mushrooms (which I am so neurotically careful about) and strawberries in the summer, and hazelnuts, elderberries, rose hips, and sloes in the abundant fall. Goat’s milk soap, cheese, and caramel sauce are my most common potions, because each of my goats can produce nearly two liters even when they’re only milked once a day, and I don’t want a drop of it to go to waste.
My latest village witch endeavor, though, would really have delighted my child self: sugared primroses. Doesn’t that sound like something on which a good witch or a fairy queen would feast?
Well. Let me tell you something.
First I gathered the individual flowers from within a half-mile radius of my house, which was appropriately charming and fairylike, even if my hands started to freeze when the late afternoon turned suddenly and uncomfortably cold as it slipped toward evening.
As soon as I got home, I beat egg whites (from my own hens, Flora and Elfine, for that thorough cottage aesthetic experience) and poured caster sugar into a bowl. I shook my primroses carefully to dislodge any creepy crawlies; washing would wilt the delicate petals. I picked up a small, flat paintbrush and a teaspoon.
Then I spent four hours painting each flower, front and back, with egg, dipping it carefully in caster sugar, and using the teaspoon to pour tiny streams of sugar onto any surface the brush-and-dip had missed. I placed each flower painstakingly onto the wire rack that I had purchased especially for this occasion.
Finally, the flowers had to dry in an oven, set to the lowest possible temperature and cracked open, for an indeterminate amount of time; just “until thoroughly dried.” In this foggy, cool, densely humid place, that meant the primroses in the middle of the rack caramelized while the ones on the edges were still damp with egg white.
But fine. Whatever. They were sugared flowers, and wasn’t that just magically delightful? And hadn’t the recipe claimed they were breathtakingly delicious, that in fact you couldn’t make them with small children around because they’d gobble them all up in a flash?
Well. If your definition of “breathtakingly delicious” is raw-tasting sugar and egg white glued to tissue paper, then, OK. But that is literally what they tasted like: thin paper dipped in egg and sugar and allowed to dry.
Which is, basically, what they are. I know, I know.
I actually liked the burnt, caramelized ones better, because at least they tasted of something. (In fact, as I write this I am munching on a few of them, and they’re . . . fine. The way thin, grainy caramel paper is fine. But clearly I’m still eating them, so, you know, make your own choices.)
Still, I have to say that they were terribly underwhelming, and far too fiddly and involved. This game was not worth its candle.
My recommendation, should you wish to feast on wildflowers (and who doesn’t?), is to gather your primroses and sweet violets, but keep them fresh and toss them in a salad. A plate of mild, fresh, colorful flowers, drizzled with the simplest lemon-and-oil vinaigrette: now that’s the feast for this village witch.
And the best thing about primroses and violets is this: the more you pick, the more they bloom. That seems like magic to me.
(Photos from my Instagram feed.)
As usual, I’m late to the holiday. February 2nd was Imbolc, the feast day of Saint Brigid–or, as it’s called in America, Groundhog Day. Much less romantic.
Imbolc is the midpoint between the winter solstice and the vernal equinox, the shortest day of the year (December 21st) and the one that balances light and darkness (March 20th). The word itself comes from the Old Irish word for “ewe’s milk,” since sheep coming into milk was traditionally one of the first signs of spring.
Saint Brigid was once a Celtic goddess; funny how these things change. An eternal flame burned in her honor here in Ireland for over a thousand years, in a temple no man was allowed to enter. The Church extinguished the flame in the fourteenth century and turned the temple into an abbey, but it was run by nuns, and still, no man could enter. Funny how some things don’t change.
My two dairy goats, Nanny and Ninny, have in fact really come into their milk this past week; they had their kids back in August, and we’ve been kept in milk all winter, but suddenly–right in time for Imbolc–there’s a huge excess. So in addition to the garlic-and-herb soft cheese I always make, I have several jars of cajeta, a Mexican milk caramel sauce, which I’ve been drizzling over plain yogurt and stirring into coffee (raw goat’s milk makes an especially fluffy foam for cappuccinos, too).
I also made my first batch of goat’s milk soap, which it turns out takes just three ingredients: milk, lye, and some other fat. I used sunflower and coconut oils, and the bars turned out a pale, buttery color. They have to cure for a few weeks now, but when I washed the bowl and hand blender I used to make them, the lather was creamy and promising.
The goats themselves have been kicking up their heels lately, too. They know spring is coming.
And the biggest miracle: pools of snowdrops, growing at the edges of our yard and in a little hidden glade down the road. In a few weeks it will look like snow again, but warm, living snow, the snow of springtime.
Imbolc. These are the real holidays: the turning points of the year, which come whether you remember them or not. Even if you’re an absentminded writer–or a groundhog.