Back in the early 1970s my father and brother decided to get back to the land, and Dad bought a 10 acre spread in a small valley near Watsonville, California. The acres were diagonal. The farm was mired in the process of not becoming: in the last century it had not become a truck farm, not become an orchard, and most recently had not become a hog farm. The farm house started life in the mid- or late-1800s as a one room shack. At some later time later a room had been tacked to one side and another along the back, so the building resembled a frustrated letter L. Eventually a bathroom was added to one end and a kitchen to the other, but these weren’t improvements as much as they were accretions. Dirt crept up from the loose floorboards and god knows what sifted in from the roof; frogs inhabited the bathtub drain and lizards lived under the toilet seat. When I went down to visit, usually about twice a month, it amazed me that the place was still standing.
My dad, Dick, worked ten hour days teaching at the local continuation school and a night school ESL program to bring home the mortgage money, while my brother Rick and his friends spent their days sitting around the kitchen table drinking coffee and engaging in what I came to call “conversational farming.” They planned to put in a windmill, either in the valley where there was water but no wind, or at the top of a hill where there was plenty of wind and not a drop of water. I remember a short lived plan to hook a generator up to the septic tank in the hopes of producing electricity from methane, because somebody remembered seeing plans for such a device in a copy of the Whole Earth Catalog which they would get their hands on any day now. They decided to buy a plow horse and were very excited until they realized that they couldn’t afford to buy feed and they couldn’t graze the horse because the only grazing land was already scheduled to be a vegetable farm, which was going to go in any day now as soon as they figured out how to plow it which they couldn’t do because they couldn’t afford to rent a tractor and they couldn’t afford to feed a horse, but boy, when that vegetable garden went in they were going to sell organic vegetables down in Santa Cruz and make a bundle. I think the only thing these all talk and no walk back to the soil hippies succeeded in planting was a small dope garden up the hill amid the scrub oaks and dying apricot trees, until the deer discovered it and ate it down to the ground. Since deer apparently don’t get high, that was wasted too. My kid sister lived there for a short time, attending Watsonville High School, until she could take no more of farm, friends, or high school and returned to Berkeley.
The conversational farmers did help Dad put in a small kitchen garden and construct a chicken house, and somebody bought three ducklings, the big white domestic kind. Two were slated to be pets and so were named Admiral Sir Elmore Duck and Gladys, his wife. The third was named Dinner, just so that nobody would mistake his eventual fate.
The chickens were a miscellaneous lot. I remember a couple of White Leghorns, and an Araucana which laid blue green eggs, and some scruffy brownish reddish hens, and a single rooster. The chickens were allowed to run around loose until the local foxes ate too many of them. Dad built a fenced chicken yard which worked well until a coyote came in over the top, so Dad put in a chicken wire roof and brought in more chickens.
I went down to visit one weekend when my son, the third Richard in the family, was about eight. Sunday morning, the conversational farmers suggested that I gather eggs for breakfast. I agreed. As I was on my way out, my father pointed out a stick leaning up against the chicken yard fence, and said it might be a good idea if I took it into the chicken yard with me. I’m a city girl, born and bred, and raised on books like Little House on the Prairie in which innocent and helpless young girls happily gather eggs from the farm’s chickens. I suspected nothing, even when the stick turned out to be more of a cudgel. I picked it up in my left hand and let myself into the yard. I locked the wire fence gate behind me and turned, already stepping toward the nesting boxes in the chicken house.
Chickens, it seems, fly, especially when city girls come onto their property looking to steal their eggs. I turned to find the flock flying up and down, yelling and shrieking and darting at my face. I edged toward the hen house, protecting my face with my right arm. They kept a clear circle around me which I maintained with threatening waggles of the cudgel as I reached into a nest with my right hand and groped around. It was nasty in there. I thought I felt an egg, so I took my eyes from the mob for a moment – sure enough, a speckled brown egg. I picked it up and turned to find an infuriated chicken screeching and flying straight at my face.
I panicked. Without thinking, I threw the cudgel into my right hand, forgetting that this hand already held a nice, warm, brown, speckled egg. It broke, dripping raw scrambled egg around the stick, over my fingers, and onto the floor of the house. The chickens stopped attacking me and started fighting over who got to eat the broken egg. It was appalling. Even more appalling was the sound I now heard from outside the pen. I looked up to see three generations of Richards rolling on the ground laughing at me, but by the time I got the pen door open and went after them they were long gone.
In time, the conversational farmers hired a dowser to find water in the valley. He came, he dowsed, he found an old cesspit, and he departed with half the farm’s stash in lieu of payment. An attempt was made to charm the neighbors into loaning the conversational farmers a tractor, but the neighbors (thick-necked farm types all) weren’t interested in having anything to do with the commie pinko dope smokin’ free love semi naked hippies who had invaded their little valley. I think they were most upset by the resident would-be Earth Mother, a chubby girl named Mayflower who dressed in fluttering rags and liked to dance naked under the full moon, to encourage growth in the crops that somehow were never planted. I didn’t care for her myself, nor did Dad, but she was the girlfriend of the only mechanic in the group and if they ever did get the money together to buy that windmill or tractor or generator or whatever they were going to need him, so Mayflower happily danced naked in the weeds while the conversational farmers stared, the neighbors peeped, and Dad revised lesson plans.
The seasons passed, the garden failed and flourished and failed again, the ducks grew up and grew fat, and the day came for Dinner to turn into his name. The other conversational farmers became sudden vegetarians and my dad was at work, so my brother picked up the cleaver and went outside. I pause to say that he had named the cleaver “Eldridge” and horrified our sister by sitting at the kitchen table sharpening it and chuckling. So, he took Eldridge outside and caught Dinner (who thought he was a pet like the others, and would come up to you looking for food), stretched the duck’s neck over a tree stump, and – couldn’t do it.
You must understand that my brother is a very short man and has never come to terms with that. So far he had been able to blame the farm’s problems on others, who filled a long list that he would review periodically, re-ordering it depending on who he currently found most offensive or who had most recently witnessed his failures. Reprieving Dinner was a non-starter because he would have to explain why Dinner still graced the yard instead of the table, and he couldn’t blame anyone for his lack of nerve except himself. He had said he was going to kill the duck and by damn he was going to do it. So he went back inside, took up the shotgun, went to the yard, and blew the poor damned duck’s head off.
Dinner did what fowl tend to do in such circumstances: he ran around the yard with the remains of his head held on by a bit of skin and flopping against his neck, spouting blood like a fire hydrant. My brother went into the bushes and lost his lunch. After a while Dinner stopped running and pumping and fell down into the dirt, and a bit later my brother went over and prodded him. When Dinner didn’t move, he picked the duck up by one foot, carried it inside, and threw it onto the kitchen table. Plaster dust sifted over it like flour. He went back into the bushes and lost his breakfast. My brother was sitting on the stoop when Dad got home. He jerked his head toward the door and said, “I killed the duck.” Then he went into the bushes and lost his midnight snack.
My dad was also a short man, but he had come to terms with that years previously and was content with himself. He grew up in California’s wide Central Valley during the Great Depression, where he helped supplement the family dinner table with hunting and helped butcher the occasional pig or calf with which my grandfather was paid for his carpentry. So Dad had no problem gutting, plucking, and dressing the duck, and cooked it up a l’orange with new potatoes on the side. Dad said it was one of the best ducks he had ever tasted. My brother said it tasted like shit. The conversational farmers, forsaking their morning vegetarianism, dug in anyway.
Eventually Dad got tired of supporting the conversational farmers and required them to be productive so they moved away, taking with them dreams of windmills on hills and generators over piles of shit, and horses that never happened and fabulous vegetable gardens that produced just enough food for the gophers. Dad met the woman who became my stepmother, who made him give up his long hair and earring, dressed him in pearl-buttoned Western shirts and Tony Lama boots, and moved him into town. I don’t think my dad had ever been happier. Dad rented the farm out to a series of bleary eyed slackers who did nothing to keep the place going except to dig a cesspit when the old septic tank filled up, and nail flattened tin cans over the leaks in the roof. The old farmhouse rotted so thoroughly that the window sills would fall off all by themselves.
When Dad and my stepmom decided to build their dream house on the farm, they thought to get rid of the old place by offering it to the local fire department, who could practice their technique while burning the place to the ground. The fire chief came by one day, took a look, and refused – the place wasn’t even good enough for burning and he wouldn’t risk his crew in it. Dad hired guys to come in with sledge hammers and crowbars to take the house down.
To everyone’s surprise, the old place didn’t want to go. It had been built of clear heart virgin redwood which over the years had become one with the nails, except those around the window sills, and it took contractors close to a month to pull the place down. Then my stepmom took the place in hand, as she had taken my dad in hand.
Things that take a long time becoming leave ghosts. The remnants of the old hog pens are long gone, as are the rotted apricot trees and most of the poison oak. In their place a cozy white house graces the valley floor, surrounded by porches which are, in turn, surrounded by my stepmom’s flower beds and the fruit trees she and Dad planted. It has become a home, and I like visiting. Sometimes, after the folks have gone to bed, I spend an hour in a rocker on the porch, sipping a little Irish whiskey and looking out over the valley. Sometimes, especially when the moon is full, I can almost see a chubby, naked Earth Mother dancing through the flower beds, and if I listen with care I hear the sound of windowsills falling off, all by themselves.
photo credits: “duck neck” By Ezhuttukari (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
“Araucana eggs” By Penarc (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
“Angry chicken” Olena Istomina/iStockphoto
all others © 2005 Marta Randall