Self-reliance and sustainability in the 21st century.
Early one summer morning I was sipping coffee, looking out over the quiet garden. There, on top of the shed, was a Cooper's Hawk — a beautiful, long-tailed, orange-legged bird, not particularly common in the city, even nature-filled Seattle, where I live. I ran to get my binoculars, wishing my husband and daughter were awake to have a look. But then I stopped in my tracks. Cooper's Hawks are bird eaters, and that hawk was perched right above my innocent, six-week-old chickens! In a flash I morphed from “Urban Birder” to “Protector of the Flock.” I ran outside like Ma Ingalls, waving my arms, pink flannel pajamas dragging around my feet, and yelling "Bad hawk! Go away!" The bird threw me a cool glance before leaping into flight, and I scampered barefoot around the muddy coop yard, scooping up the girls to bring them into the kitchen for the day.
I have always been critical of farmers that bait “vermin” such as hawks, coyotes and cougars because of their perceived threat to livestock, and I still am. But since the Cooper’s Hawk incident my thinking has become more nuanced. What if I really was Ma Ingalls? What if I was raising chickens not just because I love to do it, but because I had to do it, because there was no other source of sustenance for my family? What if all this was true and I kept a shotgun over the door?
One of the motivations for modern homesteaders — urban or rural — is the deepening of our "connection to nature." The notion conjures a poetic warmth — we sow, we reap, we nurture our gardens with compost, we stand in rain, in sun, beneath clouds and moon. The seasons are made beautifully manifest from peas to pumpkin. But just as often, the brush with nature is of a much different sort.
This year, crows watched me plant my peas, then nimbly plucked the seeds up with their bills as soon as I left (evidently they could identify the exact place of each seed by the dark patch of freshly-turned earth above it).
Raccoons clawed several of the apples from my new little columnar trees. A mole lifted my young broccoli plants right out of the ground. Most horribly, one night several years ago I was feeling complacent and didn’t shut the chickens in the coop; a raccoon climbed the fence and left poor Beatrix, Iris and Opal nearly dead.
In his indispensable book, Living With Wildlife in the Pacific Northwest (which offers a great deal of insight no matter what your geographic region), Russell Link writes, "We love wild animals, or we hate them, depending on what they're doing." Our hearts lift at the robin's spring song, then in the summer they eat our strawberries.
Our modern homesteading efforts underscore the fact that our dwellings are, in large part, semi-permeable. In our everyday living, we cross into wild nature, and it crosses — distressingly sometimes — back. I truly believe that it is both a privilege and a joy to live alongside wild creatures in our urban homes. But to dwell thoughtfully alongside wildlife, we will have to tolerate some inconvenience, give up some control, allow some slight discomfort. We’ll have to call upon our own wild creativity. We’ll have to remember that when a raccoon gets a chicken, it’s our own dumb fault.
And so we put nets over the strawberries, shoo the crows, and lock the girls into their own little Chicken Guantanamo every night. We take our place in a richly more-than-human world with as much grace as we can muster, with occasional difficulty, and with an ever-deepening delight.
Pictured above: Crow-bill sized hole in the pea patch. At least I knew right where to re-plant! Photo by Lyanda Haupt.