Life and death (and soup) in the city

Originally published by New American Homesteader in 2015.

Under a bright December sky we gathered to kill the St. Elizabeth House chickens. My friends who built the coop and tended the chickens had moved to Georgia for a new job, and the chickens had mostly quit laying. Now the aging hens strutted and preened one last time in the weak solstice sun, oblivious to their fate.

“Why can’t they just keep feeding the chickens?” my daughter wanted to know.

Because, baby, nobody here can afford pet chickens. It is a house by and for those living on the margins, where the doors are open for community dinners and a room is reserved for someone with nowhere else to sleep. For two years the chickens fed our friends with their eggs, and in return received clean grain and warm grass and a well-built coop. But the humans come first, so now they’ll have to be soup. Better that than to be a racoon’s lunch. My daughter nodded: Her chickens met that fate last fall. She saw the carnage.

So our farmer friend Jamie offered to help slaughter and dress the birds, and I volunteered because—why? I was happy to help. I’d done this before and I have good knives. It was a beautiful day and I enjoyed the company. And something more. Years ago, I needed to prove to myself that I could kill an animal, feeling that if I were going to eat them, I ought to accept my responsibility in the matter. I made my peace with meat. But it’s good to be reminded the cost.

daffodils in the woods

14. Feral flowers

For feral flowers gone a-ramble over roots and moss, from the tumbledown stones of a life’s foundation. From the mossy bones of a house that must once have been tidy, must once have been kept tidy by her who planted the bulbs whose blooms return each year long after her own has faded from the earth. A streak of gold in the slow-greening woods, a proud adornment to a modest house. Now in defiance of all sense and logic the adornment outlives the adorned, and by the grace of God and springtime has come to pay its respects. Flowers that mark the grave of a life, of lives once made and joined and shared. Of a way of life gone from this place, and too quickly by us forgotten. The earth remembers.

daffodils in the woods

5. Mud

For mud, that dank cacophony of death and life from which all life and death comes new. All the leavings of forgotten seasons, entombed as one, consumed and voided, long returned to elements. Carcasses of spiders. Beetles, grubs. Wings of moths. Eggshells, snake skins, apple cores. Fallen limbs and mottled leaves. Lichen, moss, and petals. The body of a sparrow, broken. The blood of a squirrel. A wine-dark stew of humus, rot, decay, detritus, death. And now into this sacred ooze, this primal muck of first creation, the ancient oak tree, dead the winter, sinks his toes. Drinks in the warmth, accepts the blessing of the earth. Tomorrow he’ll unfurl his limbs, turn his face towards the sun: and live again.

Carolina chickadee

Prayer over a dead bird

Carolina chickadee

Photo by Virginia Sanderson.

I’m pretty sure this isn’t theologically correct, but it seemed to help my daughter on our lunchtime walk today, when we found a tiny bird lying on the asphalt, crushed by a car.

Lord, please guide the brave spirit of our brother chickadee to fields that are always green and full of seed, where the insects are plentiful but not too swift, and the skies are ever clear for flying; and make us all more aware of the presence of your beautiful creatures, whatever form they may take. In Jesus name: Amen.

Feynman and I sledding

Feynman, 1994-2006

Feynman, our first basset hound, died yesterday. She was twelve. A tumor burst in her abdomen, but she wasn’t in pain for long, and we had time to say goodbye and buy her one last cheeseburger and some coffee ice cream.

She was my first dog. I don’t even know where to begin. This is the best I can do.

  1. She was a horrible puppy. She chewed up our wedding album, books, CD cases, chairs, carpeting, and four straight pins that after a night in the hospital she passed without incident. We still have the straight pins, in a plastic jar in the closet. I can maybe understand one; but four?
  2. Despite all that, and despite our obedience trainer’s joke that as a basset hound she would be her “special ed student,” Feynman was certified as a Canine Good Citizen when she was two. For years I had the certificate framed on the wall over my desk. I never hung the Ph.D., just the CGC.
  3. We used to watch a lot of TV, because we were in graduate school and avoiding work. Sometimes we were desperate enough to watch rodeo, and Feynman sat on the couch and watched with us. She was a rodeo fan. If I changed the channel, she would look pointedly at the remote control, then glare at me.
  4. You might not think a dog could glare. You might not think a dog could have a lot of expressions Feynman used daily. When I did something she thought was stupid (like put up a Christmas tree or bring home a puppy) she looked at me with a combination of guilt-inducing sorrow and something close to pity for being so thick.
  5. She could balance a Milk Bone on her nose, flip it up, and catch it in the air. She gave the impression that a lot of things were beneath her dignity, but food talks; dignity walks. Thanksgiving will never be the same without her.
  6. She had a working vocabulary of over a hundred words. We counted them, once. Her favorite was “waffle.”
  7. She once outsmarted my mother-in-law. She pretended that she needed help getting up onto the couch, and when Kathy’s mom got out of her comfortable chair to help her, Feynman leapt up into the warm spot on the chair. There was no getting between Feynman and her personal comfort.
  8. I could talk about her as the noble dog, and in fact she could carry herself with an air of nobility. But she also thought the litterbox was a snack bar and the cat a vending machine. So I won’t.
  9. When we brought Toby home from the breeder Feynman, the pampered only dog, knew immediately her gig was up. I have a photo framed on my bookshelf of her on that day looking at us as though we had sold her to the redneck neighbors. She growled at him, she barked at him, she wanted him dead. She stayed surly for a full year, and then they were best friends for eight years after.
  10. If you referred to them as “the dogs” and told them to do something, she ignored you. What, me? Toby was the dog. She was, well, Feynman.
  11. When Kathy found a kitten starving in the drainpipe under our driveway and brought it inside, it decided that Feynman was its mother and tried to suckle off of her. She kissed him so much that we had to take him away from her; he was soaked in basset drool. We didn’t want a cat, but we kept him. Now we have three. I blame her.
  12. One Christmas when we were visiting my parents it snowed and we took Feynman sledding: grabbed her, held her on the flexible flyer, and careened down the icy hill. At the bottom she leapt away, shook herself off, barked at me, then raced to the top of the hill to do it again.
  13. This summer when she came with us to the farmer’s market every week, limping around the lot on her arthritic hip, she made so many friends that there are people who changed their Saturday morning schedules so they could see her.
  14. There were times when she seemed nearly human, but she made me a dog person and taught me to be a dog, and that’s as good a gift as anyone has ever given me.

Feynman and I sledding

Passings, and cheese toast

My grandmother died this morning. To liven the mood I shall tell a story.

When I was about five or six years old, my parents drove me down to the beach for the day where my grandparents were camping. We had lunch, and I (and everyone else) was asked whether I wanted ham and cheese, or peanut butter and jelly. Peanut butter and jelly, I said.

Then lunch was served, and I received a piece of cheese toast. Bread, with cheese broiled onto it in the toaster oven so that it was melted and brown. You know what I mean.

But I asked for peanut butter and jelly, I said to my father.

He explained that the cheese toast was a first course, and then we would have our sandwiches.

A first course. My grandmother was fixing lunch for eight or ten people in a camper, and she was serving a first course.

In a camper.

Because, by god, we will be civilized human beings and we will do things are they are supposed to be done.

She was not a gourmet by any standard — her mashed potatoes could cement a house. Nor was she an adventurous eater. She once told a story about eating dinner at a Chinese buffet: normally, she said, she didn’t like Chinese buffets, but this one didn’t have so much Chinese food, and so it was pretty good.

But when she made dinner, good heavens, she made dinner. We had hors d’oeuvres and first courses and half a dozen side dishes and dessert, and a jello salad for every month of the year. There was a precision to her meals; she had a set of rules, and she followed them. No one else cared whether she followed them or even knew quite what they were, but she did it this way because, to her, that was how it was supposed to be done.

Given my propensity to gravitate toward the opposite of what I think I am supposed to do and my continual need to try new things — not to mention my deep love of Chinese food — one might assume that my grandmother and I didn’t have a lot in common.

But watch me get ready for a dinner party or a holiday meal or even the odd Wednesday supper, plan every detail of multiple courses, spend days prepping and cooking, and there she is. Working through me, her spirit inexorably in my genes. Running back and forth to the kitchen getting everything right while the guests are arriving, then stuffing them until they beg for mercy and wonder why in hell I don’t just sit down already.

Because, by god, we will be civilized people, and we will do things are they are supposed to be done.

I hope that wherever she is, they are doing things the right way.


Toby, 1997-2006


Toby, my younger basset hound, died this week. For two weeks his appetite was a little off; for two days he was lethargic and vomited; and his heart stopped an hour after we learned that he had advanced liver cancer. On his last afternoon he chased his tennis ball, sounding joyously. Every day he lived to the fullest, with every ounce of heart and spirit. No one could ask more.

So much has been said in honor of dogs, from Byron to a million weblogs, that there seems little point in adding words to the fray. The only epitaph or eulogy he would want is that he was a good boy. You were a good boy, Toby, and I love you. And I miss you, terribly.