Best Mother Hen

The decision to allow the broody hen to incubate some chicks, despite the impending cold weather, is turning out to be a very good one; thanks again to all who wrote with encouragement to allow her to do so. The most recent post I published about Henny Penny and her chicks was based on information from the neighbor who was watching our farm while we were out of town for Yeoman Farm Baby’s adoption. (I got the hen set up in her new nest before the adoption trip, but the chicks didn’t start hatching until we were gone.) It turns out, she managed to hatch six of the seventeen eggs she was sitting on — which is not bad at all, given the terrible weather (and the fact that other hens laid five additional eggs on top of her original twelve, which made it more difficult for her to incubate them and led to different hatching dates for the various eggs).

The six chicks are doing very well, and have already grown to be noticeably larger than newly-hatched chicks usually look. (Which makes sense, because they began hatching two weeks ago.) The chicken tractor has proven extremely effective in keeping the new little chicken family together, ensuring that food and water are always close by, and protecting the chicks from being trampled or scattered by other animals. Thanks again to Rachael for reminding me of the value of using a chicken tractor to enclose a brood hen.

Just how good of a mother is Henny Penny? The temperature got down to 15F both Friday night and Saturday night, and to 23F last night — normally a death sentence for featherless baby birds. But when I came out to check on them each morning, all six chicks were peeping happily. Henny Penny had ensured that all six spent each night in the shelter of her warm body, providing the featherly protection that they are still trying to grow for themselves. The only thing I needed to get for them each morning was fresh water; their waterer was naturally frozen solid.

A mother hen is fascinating to watch, and can entertain us for hours with the way she clucks at her little charges, puffs herself out, and hovers near her brood. It’s especially fun to go out to the barn late at night, when all is quiet and dark, and just spend a moment listening to the deep, reassuring clucking noises she makes to the little ones that are nestled beneath her. And to remember the passage from the gospel about Christ wanting to gather the children of Jerusalem as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings — and to allow myself to be gathered in that way, and to trust that His own protection and providence are infinitely more effective than that of any hen on any farm on earth.

God’s Plans, and Ours

A few years ago, I attended a week-long theology workshop taught by a very holy and learned priest. One subject had to do with Natural Law foundations for morality, and proofs from natural reason for the existence of God. At one point, the priest posed a question to us: “How many of the Ten Commandments are knowable from natural reason alone?”

Various people threw out various guesses, ranging from “six” to “all ten.” The priest shook his head after each one, and we ran out of guesses. Then, with a wry smile, he gave us the answer: “Nine and a half.”

“Huh?” we collectively responded. “What’s the ‘half’?”

Still giving the wry smile, he explained, “We can know from natural reason that human beings need a day of rest, but we need God to reveal to us which one it should be.”

As I explained in one of this blog’s earliest posts, we’ve grown much more appreciative — and much more observant — of Sunday as a day of rest. We’re not Pharisaical about it, but we try to avoid doing any kind of hard labor or other work that isn’t strictly necessary. Livestock certainly need to be cared for on Sundays, but the garden certainly doesn’t need to be weeded and laundry almost never needs to be washed. We try to spend our time seeing and hanging out with extended family, taking bike rides with the kids, catching up on some reading, or having other families over for dinner. The idea is to avoid shopping for anything but emergency items, trying to clear backlogs of work, and other kinds of “running around”.

This weekend, an unfortunate necessity loomed over our Sunday: Haying. Thanks to a timely application of fertilizer last fall, we have a bumper crop of hay this spring. We hire a local farm family to cut it, flip it, rake it, and bale it; we assist with hauling it to the barn and stacking it. The farmer did the cutting late last week, and thanks to some hot weather it was nearly dry enough to bale yesterday afternoon.

Nearly dry enough, but not quite. The hay was so thick on the ground, it hadn’t all dried even after flipping and raking. But by his estimation, Monday might be too late; the hay could be so dry, much of it would crumble into dust and be lost.

We reluctantly decided that we’d better bale the hay on Sunday afternoon. In this case, as backbreaking and exhausting as the work is, it was necessary if we were to feed the livestock. We decided that this week, our “day of rest” would be Monday.

We decided. But, as it turns out, God had other plans. I awakened this morning, threw back the bedroom curtains, and observed a surprise: rain. Not a hard rain, but the ground was definitely wet. Going out to take care of chores, there was definitely a steady drizzle. Everything, including those five acres of neatly-raked and ready-to-bale hay, was wet. Not soaking wet. Not we’re-going-to-lose-it-to-rot wet. But definitely too wet to bale today.

Fortunately, the drizzle has already let up, and it’s supposed to be sunny and warm all afternoon and Monday. It’s not supposed to rain again until Tuesday. I suppose we’ll let the top of the hay dry today, flip it, allow the other side to dry Monday, and bale it Monday afternoon.
Regardless, it’s looking like Sunday will indeed be our day of rest this week. And thank God for that.

Good Out of Evil

Mrs Yeoman Farmer came across the following story the other day and asked me to share it:

NAIROBI (Reuters) – A Kenyan man bit a python who wrapped him in its coils and hauled him up a tree in a struggle that lasted hours, local media said Wednesday.

Farm manager Ben Nyaumbe was working at the weekend when the serpent, apparently hunting for livestock, struck in the Malindi area of Kenya’s Indian Ocean coast.

“I stepped on a spongy thing on the ground and suddenly my leg was entangled with the body of a huge python,” he told the Daily Nation newspaper.

When the snake coiled itself round his upper body, Nyaumbe resorted to desperate measures: “I had to bite it.”

The python dragged him up a tree, but when it eased its grip, Nyaumbe said he was able to take a mobile phone out of his pocket and phone for help.

When his supervisor came with a policeman, Nyaumbe smothered the snake’s head with his shirt, while the rescuers tied it with a rope and pulled.

“We both came down, landing with a thud,” said Nyaumbe, who survived with damaged lips and bruising.

The snake escaped from the three sacks it was bundled into.

MYF’s comment: “Thank God my ancestors came here on boats 300 years ago, so my kids and I don’t have to live some place where giant snakes drag people into trees!”

When I finished laughing, she added: “I’m serious! You can quote me on that. Put it in your blog!”

Slavery, particularly the way it was practiced in the Americas, was a horrendous affront to human dignity; MYF and I would be the last people in the world to wish it on anyone. But it’s interesting the way such tremendous good can be drawn even from such a tremendous evil. Beyond freedom from giant serpents, MYF and other descendants of African slaves enjoy liberties and opportunities that are unthinkable on the African continent today — and we are deeply grateful for that.

With everything in the news these days, it’s easy to forget how blessed we are to live in this country — no matter how our ancestors got here. Sometimes it takes a truly odd news story (“man bites snake”) to remind us of that. And to remind us of all the ways in which God can draw good out of the evil that men commit.

I fully expect that, ten years from now, we will all be marveling at the unexpected goods that emerge from these present social and economic difficulties.

Unfortunate Footnote

I must add a sad footnote to this morning’s post.

I reported that Licorice had a set of twins, because that’s what I observed at chore time. Then, after returning from the Good Friday liturgy at our parish this afternoon, I was able to make a more thorough examination the sheep pen. In the far corner was an object that appeared at first glance to be afterbirth…but something about it didn’t appear quite right. It was darker than usual.

Looking more closely, I recognized the shape of a black lamb’s body. It was much smaller than Nera’s two surviving lambs, and its limbs were crumpled into odd angles. The umbilical cord was still attached. Given all of the evidence, I’m almost certain this lamb was stillborn and never took a breath.

It is terribly sad, and the first time we have ever had a stillbirth, but I suppose it makes for a timely Good Friday reflection. Particularly because this is a death from which good will flow almost immediately: triplet lambs don’t get as large as twins or singletons — a third sibling must share the same limited amount of milk (unless we bottle-feed one of them, which is a huge and time-consuming hassle).

So, at least the two survivors will now have a better shot at reaching their full growth potential. Life ends, life goes on.

Farm life is wonderful, even when it’s sad.

In Control Here In the Farm House

Ash Wednesday has rolled around again…and in the last few days I’ve actually found myself looking forward to it.

Last year, I posted a reflection about ashes — the everyday kind that we dig out of our fireplace. The ashes build up and build up, and slowly reduce the amount of space available for burning wood. It’s a gradual process, and we don’t think about it much…until there’s not much room for fire at all. Only when we clear all those ashes out can we begin again. Ash Wednesday is a wonderful opportunity to “clean out” the figurative ashes that have accumulated in our lives.

I thought about that this morning, as I was cleaning the ashes out of our wood burner. We got a new, high-efficiency unit this fall, and it’s a wonderful improvement over what we had last year. It produces so much heat, we’ve made it through this whole bitterly cold winter on just one tank of fuel oil in the furnace. Because the fire is going pretty much around the clock, we need to clean the ashes out every day or two. This morning, as I shoveled them, I couldn’t help thinking about the dead material and bad habits I’d be shoveling out of my life this Lent.

And I think that’s why I’ve been looking forward to Ash Wednesday this year. I have a couple of specific things that I enjoy that I’ll be giving up as a sacrifice. But I’m also making a couple of “positive” resolutions for ways to be more disciplined and focused in my prayer life. As I prepared for Lent, it occurred to me that there is a common factor or “problem” that unites both the things I need to give up and the things I need to be more disciplined about: In these specific areas of my life, I have ceded control over my appetites. And at the root of it, the discipline of Lent is in many ways about regaining that control. Because it’s really hard to make spiritual progress, or to become the kind of friend or family member God is calling us to be, if we don’t first have control over ourselves. And I’m looking forward to being back in control.

For those of us who remember the 1981 assassination attempt on President Reagan, one of the most iconic images of that day was Secretary of State Alexander Haig, standing at the podium, and declaring: “As of now, I am in control here, in the White House, pending return of the Vice President and in close touch with him.” (An excellent description of the full context of the event, and what led up to Haig’ statement, can be found here.)

Lent is the time that each of us can declare, to our laziness or to our appetites, “I am in control here. I don’t need to indulge my body, and what it is demanding from me. I do not need to let my imagination run wild when I am supposed to be praying. I don’t need to watch that television program, no matter how interesting it looks. I will give my kids the full attention they deserve from me right now. I will read that book I’ve been putting off reading, and not give in to procrastination. I am in control.”

Go ahead and say it, using your best Alexander Haig voice.

Nearing the End

Mrs. Yeoman Farmer’s mother has been hospitalized for the last week or so, in the most critical portion of the ICU. As many of you know, she suffered a series of strokes several years ago and has been chronically ill for some time.

I just got a call from MYF, with the sad news that the end is officially now near. Her mother has gone into a spiral, and will not be recovering; there are simply too many systems shutting down all at once. If she is still with us on Friday, that is when the life support will begin to be removed.

As always, your prayers are greatly appreciated. MYF’s mother is among the best-prepared people, spiritually, for this passage. But I hope we can all accompany her with our own prayers, and ensure she makes the best possible transition into eternal life.

Updates will follow as I have them.

UPDATE: Saturday morning, Nov 22nd. MYF is at the hospital with other members of the family. Her mother has been in constant decline for the last 24 hours or so, and it is looking like she will be removed from life support later today. A time has not yet been set, but it will be soon. And from then, it will be simply a matter of waiting. As always, your prayers are greatly appreciated.

FINAL UPDATE: MYF’s mother passed away at 2:35am on Monday the 24th. It was a very peaceful and spiritual death, and both MYF and her father were there at the bedside. For those of you who are local, the funeral will most likely be this Saturday and will definitely be at St Joseph’s in Jackson, but the details have not yet been arranged. Thanks to all of you who have been accompanying us with your prayers.

One Big Family

One of the best things about being Catholic is that you’re not alone. Regardless of your personal family situation, you’re part of a much larger family. That’s really been brought home to me (in a manner of speaking) these last few days, when I’ve been in NYC on business. There is a Catholic church right around the corner from my hotel, and right on the way to where I’m working. It’s been easy to stop in for Mass, and it’s remarkable the diversity of people who are there: the business executives, the Fordham students, the young married couples with small children, the homeless man huddled in the back pew…all here. All part of this crazy family.

And the family isn’t just here in this particular church building, or the one we attend back in Michigan, or anywhere else. All of us are only one slice of the family; the saints who’ve gone before us, and are now in heaven, are the older brothers and sisters and aunts and uncles we’ve heard so much about and are looking forward to meeting again. And especially during this month, we’re praying for the souls in purgatory, that they can be speeded along their way to that family reunion as well.

I think it was James Joyce who said the best description of the Catholic church is “Here comes everybody.” And it’s hard to think of a pair of days that illustrate that better than November 3 and 4 do. Today is the feast of St. Charles Borromeo, one of the most prominent reformers at the Council of Trent. He grew up in the aristocracy, became a cardinal archbishop at the age of 22, and his uncle was a pope. He lived a life of outstanding holiness, and cleaned out many of the abuses in the 16th century church. And yesterday, November 3, we celebrated the feast of St. Martin de Porres — a contemporary of Charles Borromeo, but living in a social situation which couldn’t have been more different. He was the illegitimate mixed-race son of a Spanish nobleman and a young black freed slave in Lima, Peru. He grew up in abject poverty, and lived a life of austerity and menial labor (which he regarded as a tremendous blessing, because all work is a participation in God’s own creation).

November 3 and 4. Two men, alive at the same time, on different sides of the world, in entirely different circumstances…and yet both are my older brothers who I admire and who have a lot to teach me.

I posted the following video some time back, but it somehow seems especially appropriate to recommend it again today: