On Loss, Teaching Writing, and Losing My Ability to Cry: Or a Day in My Life

Little Miss was one of my oldest hens, and she passed away this weekend. She was a beautiful girl, a Blue Laced Red Wyandotte, but she had health problems very early on. She would always pull through, and over the years, I realized that she was a tough girl. I came to learn that she was just going to live her life to the fullest, and I just needed to support her when I could.

She was our only Wyandotte to ever go broody and become a mama. She was a pretty terrible mama in many ways, but she did her job–aggressively–but still. Her single baby was raised up healthy and happy. Her baby’s name is Nugget because she was just a tiny little thing forever. Nugget went through a lot. As a mama, Little Miss had to have things her way, and when Nugget wasn’t doing things “just right,” Little Miss would let her know about it.

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This was Little Miss with her baby, Nugget. Aren’t they beautiful?

I love observing mama hens with chicks and studying their behaviors. I’ve seen some patterns of behaviors that result in certain behaviors in the chicks when they grow up, but I have still never seen a mama quite like Little Miss. Interestingly, her baby, Nugget, grew up very well and went broody for us last summer. She raised three babies and was very nurturing as a mama.

In the last couple of months, I noticed Little Miss was really tired. She started laying again in the spring, but she was not herself. Last week, I could see we were really close to the end, so I started pulling her away from the flock at night and keeping her in a giant dog crate where she could have her own water and food.

On Saturday morning, she didn’t want to leave the crate. I figured today was the day for her. I had a ton of work to do, but I kept her in my mind and would go check on her every little bit. Finally, about 2:00 PM, I had it in my head that I just needed to stop everything I was doing and go get her and hold her. So I grabbed a towel to wrap her up in for snuggling and scooped her up.

I took her to the rocking chair and just rocked and talked to her and rubbed her ears. Almost all of my chickens love their ears rubbed. I talked to her and told her it was okay to let go, to go see Poe, that Poe would help her. Little Miss just leaned into me for about five minutes; then, I saw the death spasm. It was weak and soft and quick. Little Miss was gone from the world.

I’ve always been a big crier. I recently read some research about it, and it really is a thing. It’s how I deal with my emotions and let them out. I keep so much in my head and can never speak it all out. All my ideas and thoughts just get all jumbled in there within the anxiety and will come out in a cry. However, since the COVID-19 pandemic and our time in isolation, I don’t cry so much. It actually worries me a little.

So I didn’t cry much for Little Miss. I did have a few tears, but I was mostly thankful beyond all reason that I had the urge to go get that chicken and be there with her when she passed.

Then, my phone rang. As an aside, that very morning, I had been duck sitting with a cranky duck in our guest bathroom who has a hurt foot, and I was looking for a cool classical ringtone for my phone. After much research, I landed on the BIG part in Dvorak’s Ninth Symphony. It’s loud. The horns are big. My ringtone is epic.

So, as I am sitting there with Little Miss, I hear epic horns going off from my phone. It was an awful disruption from the silence of death in the room.

I was like, “I’m gonna have to change that ringtone.”

Then, the phone rang again. I knew it must be a student. Then, I heard a ding with a text. I knew it was a student who really needed to speak with me.

So I got up from the rocking chair with Little Miss still in my arm. I read the message on my phone; it was one of my graduate students stressing out. I could tell she was in a panic, so I called her to help calm her down. Part of being a teacher is being a therapist, as any teacher will tell you, but since this whole COVID thing, my students are more on edge than ever before. I mean, of course they are.

So I called my student. Her voice was shaky, and she asked me how I was doing. I knew, if I told her what had just happened in the last five minutes, she would never tell me what was really going on with her, so I told her I was fine. And, with my dead chicken in one arm, I listened for a good 20 minutes about what all she was struggling with, and I talked to her and calmed her down.

You see, I teach writing, and one thing I have learned for sure over the years is that people can’t write well when they are anxiety ridden. If I am going to get my students to grow as writers, I need them to feel some level of calm. It just works better.

So I did my best, and it helped. I could tell. I could tell she was going to be able to keep writing and finish her Literature Review for her dissertation.

But my student kept talking.

She told me how thankful she was for me, how this was her first semester of her doctoral program, and how I had kept her going. She told me she was so thankful to have a professor who truly understood writing and was also so kind about it. She told me that she was forever thankful to me. I don’t hear things like this very often.

Normally, this would surely make me cry. It didn’t. My cry is gone for now, I guess, but her words touched my soul. To be honest, there are times it’s hard to keep going as a writing teacher. The pay is low, and the hours are long. In fact, one of the reasons we farm is help make my professor’s salary go a really long way.

But, after hearing these wonderful words from my student, I was reminded exactly why I do what I do. If I help even just one person, then I am making the world better. And, for real, that is really all I want in the world–all I want for my life–to find some way to make this world a little better.

As I sat there with my sweet Little Miss dead in my arms, I thought I had done alright this day.

On Chicken Coops

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In my series on raising chickens self sufficiently, I will be offering advice on how you can establish a symbiotic relationship with your flock–where you take good care of them and they take good care of you. I will teach how to minimize your costs and how to take full advantage of the resources chickens provide.

But in all of that, the reality is that a chicken coop is going to be a big, upfront cost for people, so we should probably address coops early on.

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Here’s our coop that my husband converted from a shed. Instead of purchasing windows, he saved money by building very simple plexiglass windows. I like that our coop is big enough that I can walk in and visit with the chickens during our long winter months.

There are many options for coops. You can buy them, build them, covert a shed, but you really want to keep in mind five basic things when it comes to coops:

  1. You need to be able to provide shelter from the elements, whether you live in hotter or colder climates.
  2. Your coop needs to be sturdy enough to provide protection from predators. Now, there is no such thing, I think, as a 100 percent predator-proof coop, but you do want to do your very best.
  3. Coops need good ventilation, and we have found, over the years, that we need to adjust our ventilation depending upon the season and the number of chickens we have, so need vents you can open and close.
  4. As a rule of thumb, you want to aim for at least three square feet per chicken in your coop.
  5. You will need to make sure your coop has room for nests and roosts.

Buying a Coop

There are pre-made coops you can purchase online that range a great deal in price. There are coops for as little as $200 and as much as $900. There was even a $100,000 coop I saw once, but it had a crystal chandelier, and you probably don’t need that.

I have seen mixed reviews on the pre-made coops. Some people curse them; some people love them. Just be sure to do your diligent research and read the reviews before you buy any pre-made coop online or from a store.

You can also purchase smaller coops from local builders. Here in Maine, we have Facebook forums dedicated to all things chicken, and people who build coops will list them for sale. The price might be a little higher in some cases, but I have seen some really sturdy-looking coops for sale for $400 to $600.

Building a Coop

If you are handy or know someone who is, you can also simply build a coop. There are free plans online for building chicken coops, such as those listed at this site, at the Backyard Chicken Project.

You can also purchase coop plans for a very reasonable price on Etsy, and I like this idea because a lot of the excellent plans there include reviews, pictures from folks who have built the coops from the plans, and excellent information on the cost of materials.

This coop plan is one of my favorites because the coop seems really sturdy and covers all of the basic elements I think someone needs. The cost for building materials for this one is $700 to $800, but I am convinced it can be done more cheaply. One of the things I am seeing right now is a lot of people trying to help each other out. Get into your state and local farming, chicken, and homesteading Facebook groups. I am seeing people sharing materials and donating extra materials to others. Sometimes, the kindness in humanity is profound to me and gives me so much hope.

Converting a Shed

This is the option we took on our homestead because we wanted a big coop as cheaply as possible. If you convert a shed to a coop, you will need to add a small door for the chickens (at least this is preferable), nest boxes, roosts (which can be built from tree branches), and in an ideal world, windows for extra light. However, I know a lot of people who were not able to add windows and do okay. I think they would be a preference though.

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This is inside our coop. It’s not fancy, but it works very well. We have lots of roosts and six nest boxes for the 20-25 hens we have at any given time. Of course, they all still want to lay eggs in the same nest box.

Other Considerations

Coop Placement

You want to place your coop away from woods and easy access to predators. We have ours close to our house for that reason, but, in the summer, when the windows are open, the chickens are quite loud–even the hens–especially the hens. Ask me sometime about the egg song.

You also want to make sure you place your coop on good ground that is high enough not to be flooded.

Runs and Free Ranging

I will write about about the pros and cons of free ranging in another post, but, at the very least, you will need a run or some kind of fenced area for your chickens. If you plan to let them completely free range, there are risks to your birds and risks related to neighbors.

Food and Water Placement

Some coops are not large enough for food and water to be placed inside the coop. In those cases, you can place the food and water outside in the run. However, if you have a coop large enough, as with our coop/shed, you will have to decide whether or not you place the food inside. We place our food and water inside because, in the winter, our chickens stay in the coop, but if you have a run you can protect in the winter, you may  not need to place food and water inside.

There are pros and cons to keeping the food inside. I like the easy access, but we did have rats in the coop one year and had to trap for several weeks to get them all.

I hope this is helpful enough to get you started. If you have any questions, post it in the comments section. I will do my best to answer questions!