The ducks have been with us for a year. I have to say that our experimental backyard poultry operation has been a rousing success! We have wonderful eggs, enough to sell some to friends; we’ve found a routine that integrates the ducks into our "halfway homestead," and we’ve been able to keep the ducks happy and healthy.
For several years, since we were first married, Kathy and I planned a future in which we would buy more land where we could have big gardens, livestock, pasture, barns, a workshop, and a bigger house. At one time, we thought we would be there by now, but we are still working on it. For the time being, we have a house that is small but nice enough and an acre and a half of land, most of which is wooded, in a suburban neighborhood.
As we progressed from a two-bedroom apartment to a tiny rented house to our present home, we’ve picked up homesteading skills. Kathy has expanded the garden year by year, growing small quantities of a large variety of crops, learning to grow them better, discovering what she enjoys and is good at growing. Now we have three good-sized raised beds, two small plots in the process of being sheet-composted, a pair of potato bins, and a pile of logs we hope will grow shitake mushrooms. I call it the experimental garden. She has the lettuce, greens, herbs, beans, and peppers down; this year she’s trying to expand her mastery of tomatoes.
When I was still in college, I made apple butter for my friends for Christmas presents, mostly, I guess, to see if I could. My girlfriend thought I was nuts: nobody makes their own apple butter, she told me, so I dumped her, went to graduate school and met Kathy. Each year I added varieties to the rotation, and now I make all of the jam, jelly, marmalade, pickles, catsup, and sauerkraut that we eat, and also can fruits for winter pies.
My woodworking began by accident. Before Kathy and I were married, her roommate moved out and took their coffee table, and she needed to buy a new one. We were disgusted with the quality of the tables we found in her price range, and I remarked that I could build one better than that! So I did, after re-inventing the dado and dowel joints and swearing in many (I’m sure) fascinating ways at my countless mistakes. For a first effort with cheap tools it wasn’t bad, but with better tools, more shop space, and a lot of practice I’ve gotten much better. I’ve now built much of the furniture in our house, including a set of cherry side and coffee tables to replace my first effort.
We have a few other homesteader’s habits, too: brewing beer, knitting, making curtains. We cook everything from scratch; this has become a matter of principle now. I don’t think either of us ever wants to produce all our own food, but it is interesting, and rewarding, to add one activity at a time.
But there are limits to what we can do in a backyard, and as the "homestead" kept getting pushed further into the future, we started growing frustrated. The problem with dreams deferred is that they can quietly become dreams forgotten: you have to keep moving toward what you want, even if by baby steps. And I felt that we were stalled.
Then, a year ago, in a fit of mild insanity, we got a flock of seven ducks. They live under our second-story deck at night and in a portable grazing pen during the day, and they lay eggs for us. We simply decided that we were tired of waiting for our homestead, and that there was no reason we couldn’t have at least a halfway homestead while we waited.
It was as if a dam burst. Now we’ve refinanced our house and committed to staying here at least another five years, while we save money and decide what exactly we want. We’re going to clear about 2500 square feet of woods by the street and use the space for more gardens and a second shed so I can have a dedicated woodshop. Kathy is working hard at growing mushrooms; if she succeeds, we’ll be eating little else this fall but mushroom omelets. We still don’t have room for llamas, so it isn’t a permanent solution. We’ll keep working on that. In the meantime, we’ll have our halfway homestead.
After all, every homestead is a halfway homestead. No real homestead ever quite lives up to the dream; life is a compromise between ideal and necessity. We can never be or do everything we’d like — but that fact doesn’t absolve us of the responsibility to try. So we try, every day, and we move forward by baby steps. And ten years, twenty years, a lifetime of baby steps adds up.
Too many of us who want change in the world envision the world we’d like to live in but never figure out how to get there from here. It is daunting to think about a divide so great, so I advise trying not to think about it. Keep the end in mind, but focus on the small things you can do rather than the big things you can’t.
And so the halfway homestead is our answer to the question What can we do right here, right now? It’s about putting down roots where we are, rather than holding back until we’re where we think we’d like to be. It’s about taking the scenic route, enjoying the ride, and holding open the possibility that we might find a better destination than the one we had in mind.
The ducks have been laying eggs for five weeks now. We found the first two on September 28, and found at least one egg every day after that. After a week we were averaging three a day; after a month five a day. Now we get five to six each day, and we believe that all of the ducks are laying, so each of them lays an average of five to six eggs each week—pretty impressive, I think.
I edited and posted these movies in 2002, when bandwith and processors weren’t what they are today, so the videos are all fairly small.
The cherry tomatoes, undeterred equally by months of drought and by the torrential rains that followed, still bear more fruit than we can eat. Planted two to a pot and having long since outgrown their stakes, they intertwine with their neighbors for mutual support and have strength to spare for the morning glories, whose blue and purple flowers now swarm the fence, clashing riotously with the orange tomatoes.
But even these prodigious plants now weaken as the first frost approaches: we found three tomato hornworms this week devouring the green leaves. One was healthy, plump, nearly the size of my index finger; we pinched off its chosen stem and sent it to face our avian death squad. Saffy, the adventuresome eater, tasted it first but dropped it when bossy Eddy arrived. Through a fascinating combination of slurping, tossing her beak, and dabbling in the pool, she was able to choke down two-thirds of this huge worm. The last third, snipped off in her bill, fell to the ground, where Francie quickly plucked it up and swallowed it.
The ducks have completed their second molt, so they have their full coat of adult feathers. The new feathers look just like the old ones, but there are more of them: the ducks have finished growing now.
With the exception of a few tomatoes and some basil, we have given up on the garden this year. The drought is simply too severe, and the raised beds were taking more water than they are worth.
But professional farmers with drip irrigation systems are surviving, if not thriving, and we have been eating well from the farmers market. I have spent most of my Saturday mornings lately canning. This summer we have put up strawberry and blackberry jam, yellow tomato marmalade, cherries and blueberries for pie, three kinds of pickles, chowchow, pickled beets, and I can’t remember what else.
Most recently I put up sixteen half-pint jars of hot pepper jelly, my own private recipe, which I believe I have finally perfected. A whole habañero in every jar, that’s the secret!
For their first year and a half, the ducks spent their nights under our deck, which is nearly a full story off the ground and was already enclosed with chain link fence. (We think a former owner kept a dog under there.)
On a trip to Pennsylvania in late June I bought the finishing touch for our duck pen: a hex sign. It bears an eight-point star and rosette, for fertility, surrounded by raindrops. The fertility wishes, needless to say, are for the ducks. The rain is for all of us, and dear lord do we need it.
Almost as I crossed the state line into North Carolina with my new totem, a light drizzle began to fall. Bythe time I reached home it was raining, the first real rain in more than a month. Rain fell on six of the next seven days.
Coincidence? Well, yes, probably. But I have taken no less delight in trumpeting my Pennsylvania Dutch heritage and the value of a few good superstitions.
Spring was framed by death.
At the end of winter we lost Kishi, our kitten, only ten months old. She had never been an especially robust cat, on the scrawny side, retiring and prone to recurring bouts of worms, but we thought her fundamentally healthy until the day in late February when she stopped eating. When she refused even tuna we took her to the vet, who made an educated guess: respiratory infection? She spent the weekend on antibiotics and ate a little, but by Monday she was no better, and we took her back for bloodwork and more tests.
Tuesday morning she collapsed and could not walk, only dragged herself around by clutching her front claws into the carpet. Wednesday night, after two more days of failed forcefeeding and inconclusive tests, we laid her in the bed between us when we went to sleep, knowing she would probably not last the night. By morning she was dead.