A Year Later: Checking in on That Whole “Life Plan” Thing

I’ve never really been one to have what you might call a “plan” for my life. I cringe at the “where do you want to be in five years” question, so popular among motivational speakers and prospective employers. The only grand vision I have ever had of my life is to have it be a happy and fulfilling one. What does that actually look like? Well, that’s a moving target, always shifting, which I like to think keeps things interesting.

20131020. Our fall garden, half deconstructed.

Our fall garden – beginning to harvest and prune and clean up.

With that in mind, though, I realized recently that I did set a new “life plan” for myself, just a smidge over a year ago. It is amazing to me to see what has come of that one simple proclamation in such a short amount of time.

20131020. Little Red amongst the leaves.

Little Red amongst the leaves in the chicken run.

From September 22, 2012:

However, a new life plan has manifested itself as of late, and I think it’s a damn good one. My new plan is to offer whatever services I can (aka whore myself out) to all the people I think are doing super-fantastic things in this town until one of them either hires me or adopts me… OR I learn enough that I decide I can move forward with my own thing. At the very least, I will meet people who I think are doing awesome things, learn a ton from them, and maybe, just maybe, make something out of it. At the worst? Well, I don’t really think there’s a downside, to be honest.

So yeah – new life plan: surround myself with awesome people, doing awesome things that I want to be doing, too. Seems simple, right? How did it take me so long to get here?

20131020. Birdie, totally tuckered.

Our exceedingly cuddly animals continue being exceedingly sweet.

So where am I today? Things are different and wonderful and surprising and awesome. I’m getting to create and make and grow for myself, my friends, and organizations I believe in and want to be a part of. I have a husband and a dog and a baby on the way. I am really excited for the future and to see where me and my little family are a year from now.

20131020. Prolific peppers.

The year of the prolific pepper.

In short, exciting things are happening, and they all stem back to that simple decision to just reach out and do something. I love it when positive actions receive smashingly positive results. It doesn’t always happen – at least, not to this extent – but man, is it ever cool when it does.

20131020. Fall basil.

Even the basil is ready for fall and new things to come.


Bust Out the Kleenex!

I am so thankful to Maggie, one of my fellow apprentices, for documenting the inspiring, thoughtful, candid, wonderful human beings I got to spend my summer with during the Growing Places Indy summer apprenticeship. It’s strangely comforting to me that everyone’s mannerisms, their voices, how they talk, their thoughtfulness was captured for me to listen to any time I need it. Which means I’ve watched this video probably about five times today.

I guess what I’m saying is I miss you all already.

It’s Decorative Gourd Season!

Maybe it’s weird to be making plans for the future in the fall. Everything around us is dying back. Once screaming-intensity desert temperatures are suddenly dropping into the 30s at night. Scarves have  been busted out, as well as handknit wool sweaters smelling of cedar. Hell, we had our first fire last night – and it was delightful.

However, a new life plan has manifested itself as of late, and I think it’s a damn good one. My new plan is to offer whatever services I can (aka whore myself out) to all the people I think are doing super-fantastic things in this town until one of them either hires me or adopts me… OR I learn enough that I decide I can move forward with my own thing. At the very least, I will meet people who I think are doing awesome things, learn a ton from them, and maybe, just maybe, make something out of it. At the worst? Well, I don’t really think there’s a downside, to be honest.

With that in mind, I’ve volunteered my time twice so far over at Big City Farms Indianapolis and had an awesome time. I’m hoping I can continue picking Matthew’s (head farmer/owner) brain about how he’s gone into business for himself and, well, everything there is to know about farming an urban plot. Right… I’m sure that would take me my whole life. In addition to gleaning these nuggets of wisdom, though, I’ve also been enjoying sharing stories about plucking turkeys, what happens to the chickens when young couples break up, missing the caramel apples of old handed out at Halloween, and how jumping into piles of leaves really is what a six-year-old should be most excited about re: fall.

On Thursday, I worked a full eight hours at my job, but I didn’t really feel as though I had accomplished much until I got to the farm and spent a few hours weeding. I think that’s saying a lot.

So yeah – new life plan: surround myself with awesome people, doing awesome things that I want to be doing, too. Seems simple, right? How did it take me so long to get here?

20120920. Big City Farms Indianapolis.

I came out on Thursday to start weeding the “disaster zone” by myself… and I was super excited to be able to take a few shots of the space without feeling like a total creep/dork. And yet, I still feel like a creep posting these shots.

20120920. Big City Farms Indianapolis.

It’s the quintessential urban farm plot: bordered on one side by the highway and an old factory-turned-antiques mart, a view of the skyline in the background, and a very active, noisy train bordering the other side. I kept thinking, “It’s so peaceful,” and then a giant semi would go wailing past on the highway. Ah, nature.

I also discovered today that just past those train tracks is Flat 12 Brewery, which makes fantastic beers (like Sushi Saison, a delicious Belgian IPA, a cherry stout that almost required chewing as you ingested it, and… some others I can’t remember because I sampled a few too many this afternoon).

20120922. A true lady always leaves lipstick stains on her plastic glass.

When we got home, it was time for the chickens to have some outdoor time of their own.

20120922. We hang. Me and my best bitch on a Saturday evening.

My favorite bitch, Beaker, came to chill in the late afternoon sun. She really does get this cozy every time I hang with her.

20120922. Me and Little Red.

Little Red is still quite little. We’re beginning to think she might be a bantam.

20120922. Boo.

Boo in high relief.

20120922. Dino Puppy says HEEEEY.

Dino Puppy, coming in for her closeup.

And this about sums up how I feel about my whole new life plan:
20120920. Happy!P.S. I almost forgot the whole point of this post. Would you like to read my favorite piece of prose related to fall and the changing seasons? Warning: it’s delightfully FILTHY in the language department. “It’s Decorative Gourd Season, M*therf*ckers,” by Colin Nissan.

Backyard Manifest Destiny

Manifest destiny was the belief widely held by Americans in the 19th century that the United States was destined to expand across the continent. I am becoming convinced that the same can be applied to chickens and our backyard. Our backyard is the wild west, just waiting to be settled and conquered. Our chickens are the settlers/conquerers.

How have we made it to this point? Here’s the recap: we purchase a coop on wheels, thinking we can move it all over the yard. The coop turns out to be nearly too heavy for one person to move with super wimpy wheels that probably won’t last a season of moving it around our lumpy yard anyway. Still, all seems well – until we go on vacation and three of our four chickens cook in the heat of their attached run. We vow to free range the chickens and look for ways to provide them with more cover. Then we have a hawk run-in AND a chicken escape in the span of two days.

The latest revised plan, then, is to give the girls as much free range time as we can, provided we are physically with them, and make their run able to sustain them happily otherwise. We also wanted the run to be secure so we can someday go on a weekend trip somewhere. Wouldn’t that be amazing? A trip! Away from the house! For more than an afternoon!

We started with this lovely little coop.

20120329. Coop and yard.

The coop, pre-chicken.

After yesterday and Chris’ mad know-how and building skillz, we have this brilliant piece of backyard manifest destiny!

20120908. Extending the chicken run.

Laying out the extended floor. We’ve added 32 square feet of space to their run.

20120908. Extending the chicken run - chicken view.

While Chris continues to attach the sides and roof, I do the VERY important work of documenting the view.

20120908. Extending the chicken run.

All done! Look at that sexy door. We also filled up the new section with dirt and grass clippings to encourage the girls to scratch for bugs and to help level the floor a bit as it sifts down through the wire.

20120908. Beaker and Dino Puppy explore.

Dino Puppy and Beaker, the Easter Eggers, take a stroll.

20120908. "If I can't see you, you can't see me."

Construction can be hard on a chicken. I call this one, “If you can’t see me, I can’t see you.”

20120908. Extending the chicken run.

The finished product!

20120908. 4/5 of the chickens.

I think they’ll like it (also, look how GIANT Edgar, the Australorp, has gotten! And how little Little Red still is).

All this… and can you believe we’re STILL waiting for our first egg?! Jeez, chickens.

Part 2: Chicken Processing, the Rusty Clippers, and Thanking Your Bird

As mentioned previously, Chris and I recently attended a poultry processing workshop, held by Distelrath Farms (aka my new favorite people/place). The fine people at Distelrath just posted photos, so I thought I would share a little more of our experience.

While I don’t think the photos are anything to get queasy over (especially not compared to what “processing” means for the vast majority of chicken consumed in this country), this post does contain chickens in various states of undress. And, let’s face it – my bar for things to get queasy over might be slightly more elevated than some.

Step 1: Catch the chickens. Chris hopped right into one of the moveable runs they had out in the pasture, but I let the first gal who hopped in grab one for me. Hey, I chase after chickens all the time in the backyard, and she seemed quite good at it. I figured I’d expedite the process.

20120728. Distelrath Farms' poultry processing workshop.

Step 2: Get a good knife sharpening lesson from Andrew as he preps the knives, water, buckets, etc. While getting this lesson, freak out internally and hide the fact that you keep thinking to yourself, “Am I really doing this? CAN I really do this? OMG, I really hope I can do this. Breathe. Breathe.”

20120728. Distelrath Farms' poultry processing workshop.

MOO! MOO! Oh, you’re processing chickens today? Hmmm, haven’t seen any. Have you checked behind the shed? MOO!

Step 3: Hang chickens up by their feet, take more deep breaths, get a lesson in knife work and how to cut the jugular, and then… do it. The chickens became very calm the second we hung them up and started closing their eyes – which helped with the whole mental/psychic part of this. We paired up, and since I had the knife in my hand, I went first. Gulp.

20120728. Distelrath Farms' poultry processing workshop.

This is my less-than-thrilled face re: what is about to occur. In Andrew’s words: “I’m not going to lie: this part sucks.”

Step 4: Learn how to process the chicken from start to finish! They don’t have a plucker there, so we learned how to skin the chicken and part it. Here’s Andrew showing how to remove the legs (I think). For me, this is where all those biology dissection classes kicked in (I also can’t help but think of all the chicken parts I uncovered every time I rub Dino Puppy’s belly or Beaker’s chest – creepy, I know. Don’t tell them).

20120728. Distelrath Farms' poultry processing workshop.Step 5: Actually doing it! At the beginning, I did a lot of patting the (now dead) bird and saying, “Thank you, bird.” For real, I did.

20120728. Distelrath Farms' poultry processing workshop.

Ah, those rusty shears. Here I am in the process of skinning the bird and about to cut off the head.

20120728. Distelrath Farms' poultry processing workshop.

I think I was trying to figure out what was needing to be pulled out and what needed to stay in at this point.

Step 6: Chris gets his turn.

20120728. Distelrath Farms' poultry processing workshop.Step 7: Rinse, clean, quality control, wrap up your birds… then pose proudly with your fellow bird processing partners in crime!

20120728. Distelrath Farms' poultry processing workshop.

What a great experience. If anyone has specific questions about the process, I’m happy to go into tons of detail. I just didn’t want to belabor the whole thing too terribly much. Anyway… ask away!

Part 1: Chicken Processing, the Dungeon, and a Pig Named Pat

And now for something completely different: today, I learned how to kill and process a chicken from start to finish (in other words, from feathered friend poking through the dirt to wrapped-in-freezer-paper carcass in my fridge ready for dinner). It was a strangely amazing, empowering experience, and I really think anyone who eats meat should learn what we learned today.

Distelrath Farms put on the workshop, and I am a new huge fan of the place and the people. Seriously, I want to work for them. Andrew taught and demonstrated and guided with humor, respect, and expertise, while Rachel snapped photos and offered good company and words of encouragement. However, the really cool thing for me about the place, which launched in February, is their passion for education and bringing young kids out in the dirt. It reminded me of my days working for the park service and non-profits in the Bay area, teaching kids about the animals and ecosystems right in front of their noses. This is going to be a place to watch in the coming years, Indianapolis – heck, I know I will be. And they have a “rescued” potbellied pig named Pat (after the SNL character) and Jill, the nicest donkey I’ve ever met, so what’s not to love?

summer 2002. this kid was rad. i was giving her some tough questions before she got her official jr. ranger badge.

Ten years ago, my second summer as a ranger at Rocky Mountain National Park.

There were eight of us attending the workshop, and we established a certain camaraderie early on just by the very nature of what we were about to do, I think. Some had laying hens or home flocks, one fellow was looking into buying a farm in Kentucky and starting a pastured broiler operation, another was a member of the farm. When we first called to register, Andrew’s response was, “Cool! [Long pause]… So, are you ready for this?” I think my response was an uncertain, “Ummm… I *think* so!”

And, frankly, I still wasn’t certain I was ready for it as I stood under the trees holding a very sharp knife, standing next to a calm chicken hanging from his feet, one hand looped gently around my Rhode Island Red’s beak and comb, preparing to cut his jugular vein on both sides. The anxiety of NOT MESSING UP was strong. Usually when you mess something up, you fix it or it sucks for a while until the pain wears off or it ends up not being nearly as big of a deal as you thought. With this, though, I wanted very much to dispatch this creature as kindly and humanely as I could. I missed the jugular on one side but managed to get it without much of a problem on the other side. Andrew referred to the otherwise lovely spot under the trees as “the dungeon.”

It is true that chickens’ nervous systems kick in when they die, which is where the “running around like a chicken with its head cut off” thing comes from. I didn’t realize, however, that you have about 20-30 seconds after severing the jugular before that occurs. I held the chicken’s head gently to help the blood drain for a bit before flapping occurred. Then we let them bleed out while we got the rest of the processing stuff ready to go (basically, a knife, a table, a water source, and a bucket).

Next up: processing the birds. I’m going to wait, though, until Rachel uploads some photos to share more. For now, I am so glad that I took part in this. I think if more people were exposed to learning events like this, they would slowly begin re-thinking how they live, how they eat, and what their relationships are or should be with the rest of the living creatures in this world. I also feel a little like I can conquer the world, too – or at least someday maybe have a broiler operation of my own.

20120728. Distelrath Farms' chicken processing workshop: Chris' chicken.

Chris’ chicken, which was a male Leghorn. We’re trying beer can chicken, then I’ll turn the leftovers into probably the best broth ever.