Six weeks or so past St. Bridgit's Feast, with light and warmth returning at long last, I head out to make my morning rounds. The overgrown broiler birds--all cockerels--crow in motley harmony from the barn. The treacherous frozen expanse of the driveway melts into mucky troughs and merry rivulets. The sun dances down from behind the trees and I catch it blowing kisses across the snow.
It is time, I decide, for treats and Spring Tonics. Along with fresh water, the birds get the remains of last week's gallon of raw milk. (With The Bagpiper's Son gone the last few weeks, we never manage to drink a full gallon before it's time to pick up the next one.) It's on the edge of turning, but still good and soothing to their winter-stressed systems.
Next, a new bale of shavings is spread in each of the poultry pens. Where it was musty and slightly sour, the air of the wee barn's newly redolent with resiny sweetness. We pay special attention to the nest boxes, where our twelve Gingers and the occasional Bantam have been splendidly generous with their eggs. Even in the darkest Winter depths, the dear lasses gave at least eight eggs a day, and now we are back to a full daily dozen. Thank God for them--no matter what else we've lacked, we NEVER lack for eggs!
I open the wee door at the back of the barn so the birds can stretch their legs and roam in the yard. Just above their door, the climbing hydrangea has new growth showing and fat, swelling buds. Still, the hens seem hesitant. Even after long acquaintance, they do not relish the feel of snow on their scaly yellow feet.
Inside the barn rest two enormous plastic bags. They are full of bread. This is not the pasty pre-sliced stuff from the big industrial bakeries--oh, no. The bags are filled with a panoply of rounds, baguettes, focaccia, dinner rolls, and sticky spiced fruit-breads. They come from two local bakeries by way of the food bank, which releases its leftover, unclaimed donations to any local farmer that wants them.
Now, when the food bank receives this bread, it's only a day old. By the time it comes to us farmers, it's usually three days old. The dinner rolls and oat bread can be broken open by hand, but some of those lovely "artisan" loaves have to be sliced with a shovel before the animals can enjoy them!
The Bagpiper tosses several rolls into the poultry pens. They scarcely come to rest on the freshly-spread wood shavings before the excited birds descend, pecking them open and running off into corners with tasty morsels balanced in their beaks.
Meanwhile, I work at breaking the bigger loaves to give the cattle a treat. (We don't give our cattle grain on a regular basis, so the chunks of bread cause quite a stir. To ensure that the Alpha Cow doesn't vacuum everything up, we always prepare "cow communion" with more than enough for everyone.) I sort through the bags and pack one of them up with plenty of cow bread, sling the heavy plastic bag over my shoulder, and start down the barn ramp, headed over to the pasture. A sudden rush of wings behind me, coupled with an unbalancing added weight, tells me one of the Gamecocks came along for the ride!
The cattle are idly chewing their way through a massive round bale of "haylage." It has a clean, spritely, pickle-ish scent, sort of like hay sauerkraut. They're pretty enthusiastic about it, normally, but hooves and eyes shift when they see the Bag-Lady coming their way. They know that treats come in bags. They jostle and shove each other for a prime spot, then stare with appalled disbelief as I fling the chunks of bread far and wide. I try to be fair, first throwing some 12-grain bread to greedy Iona and her pushy bull calf, then heaving sweet apple-spice chunks off to the sides for Maisie and April, the two meeker heifers. (The gamecock has long since fluttered off, unnerved by all the bird-sized, edible projectiles.)
The sun is warm on my back. From the tall pines at the pasture's edge comes a raven's raucous, chuckling call. I stand in the snowy yard, savouring our creaturely communion. I don't want to go in, but there are more creatures there to tend: The Bagpiper and I require breakfast, and a certain Border Collie is getting desperate for her morning game of "Find It-Bring It-Give!"
Back to the house I go, preparing for another phase of the morning's familiar rhythms. I open the door... and find feline and canine on the Forbidden Couch, enjoying a little communion of their own!