“What we need to start doing,” somebody recently told me, “is start getting back to a bartering system. Get away from dependence on the dollar bill.”
“Yeah,” I said, several times, finally picking up a baseball and doing a partial wind-up, firing a pitch at an imaginary strike zone on a pile of wood chips the T Tree folks had dumped next to our driveway when they were in the neighborhood. My blue heeler was right on it. She dropped the ball at my feet complete with the slobber of a spitter. When people start talking about the economy I like to throw a baseball.
“The barter system,” they tell me.
The chickens have started laying again, for those of us who don't use light bulbs to trick them into thinking it is summer all year. At our farm we are only getting about one or two dozen eggs a day, as our flock has dwindled in the last three years, from three hundred hens down to about forty old bitties. There was always this big demand for the free range eggs that I never really wanted to meet because it meant we had to buy more chicken feed to the tune of two hundred dollars a week. I had never planned to buy chicken feed, believing that farmers should not rely on feed produced somewhere else. Originally the only reason I'd wanted to get chickens was the compost available from what was then “Glad's” Bakery, the General Store, and Boont Berry. The General Store especially was tossing out loaves of somewhat stale bread along with cheese rinds, which I thought were silly to use in some kind of compost pile. It wasn't long before we were taking the compost from the General Store, feeding it to our hens, and selling eggs back to them, which I told Julie and Darius, the owners, was stupid. They should raise their own chickens, I said, harassing and goading them for a couple years.
Now they are selling eggs in their store from time to time, though they've had some trouble with bobcats recently. Bobcats in these parts, once they discover a chicken coop that is accessible, will return every day at the same time like clockwork. The bobcats prevent most homesteaders from letting their chickens range free in these hills.
Originally I tried keeping the chickens on small pieces of fenced land, building a mobile coop on an old RV trailer so we could move them in to clean up a crop of lettuce or what have you. It was a lot of work to move the fences all the time, and since hens have wings you can't really fence them in very well if you move them around frequently and they are aware that there is more to this world than what lies inside the wire, so I learned. Gradually the chickens memorized all the loopholes in the stationary fences between our little paddocks or vegetable gardens, including parts of the old Boont Berry apple orchard where they were stationed from time to time, so I eventually quit trying to move the mobile chicken coop. There was no point moving it if the chickens went wherever they wanted, anyway. Usually ten or twelve hens will pair up with a single rooster and go their own way. I think these days we have four roosters and forty hens, or so, so in the morning these four groups take off in four directions. Most of them stop at the trough where I dump five gallon buckets of milk that is changing into crude yogurt for some breakfast before venturing off.
One rooster and his cluster of ten or so hens makes a beeline for the chicken coop that Burt and his friends built in the old Boont Berry orchard in order to supply more eggs to the store when my hens started slacking off after my ex left. Naturally these folks started dumping the Boont Berry compost over there, relieving me of my former job. Evidently these old hens of mine have recognized the specific calls associated with the dumping of the bean burritos and eggplant lasagna. According to some experts, chickens have somewhere from twenty to thirty different sounds with different meanings, but in my experience the hens are underestimated, and they have several hundred distinct sounds in their vocabularies. They have a specific pitch for lasagna that is different from the one for burrito or barbecued tofu. The differences are subtle, they say. Scientists are only beginning to recognize the complexity of the chickens' communication system, to ascribe different frequencies to various situations. ¥¥