After raising our first batch of chickens this spring, the women of the household informed the men in no uncertain terms that using the sewing room for brooding chicks was a one-time-only deal, and that another solution would have to be found before another batch was started. Chris’s friend Jacob uses a small standalone A-frame structure for his chicks and is happy with it, so we decided to copy it.

I drove Chris over to the Ellises’ farm one afternoon and sat in the car reading while he spent an hour using a notepad and a digital camera to study the A-frame inside and out. Later I printed out the photographs for him. This morning he handed me a parts list, which I took to a nearby home improvement superstore and spent two hours filling. (I have a renewed appreciation for the cost of a sturdy wooden structure.) When I got home Chris unloaded the lumber and other parts into the basement. Not too long from now I expect to watch him construct our own A-frame brooder.

I’m pleased that Chris is able (and, even better, willing) to take on important jobs like this. And I think more and more about how he is quickly becoming a man, and what we might need to change around here to acknowledge that change, and how little we have in the way of guidance for managing the transition. He doesn’t get paid for his work—and I don’t want to pay him, I want him to have an appropriate amount of control over (and access to) the family wealth, and to thereby be encouraged to work to increase that wealth. He isn’t being prepared to strike out on his own, and I don’t want him to do that, I want him to begin to lead the family economy in new directions, directions that will satisfy him and employ his talents fully and spur him on. He doesn’t bear the responsibility of making this agrarian enterprise work—I do—but I want him to see his own future in it, the future well being of his wife and children and their children after them.

In six months Chris will be eighteen. That doesn’t scare me as much now as I thought it would, but it will still be a momentous occasion for all of us. Our family has changed directions so many times over the years, every time in an effort to provide a better path for the children to follow. But to change directions again at this point would mean that we’ve failed in a major way. Each change we made was with the understanding that the children would have to scramble to make up for lost time, the time they could have had if we had been right from the beginning.

Chris has had to scramble more than most, having endured these course corrections at a later age. Who would have thought just eighteen months ago that he would embrace the life of a farmer, even begin to take the lead for the family in many ways? It wasn’t an inclination of his back then, and I wouldn’t have been surprised if he balked. Instead, he threw himself into it dliigently, and found that he was good at it, and even enjoyed it. And I think he threw himself into it for two reasons: he knew it was important to the family; and he knew that we would support and honor his efforts no matter how things turned out.

As it happens, things turned out well. We couldn’t have been certain of that eighteen months ago, but we had poured ourselves into figuring it out, and were not so much confident that we could make it work as we were convinced that we had to make it work. Similarly, we don’t know for certain that our efforts will succeed, but we are convinced that they have to succeed for the sake of the family, and so we pursue them as thoughtfully and diligently as possible.

Chicken processing

If even a year ago you would have told me that our three oldest children would spend the morning killing, scalding, plucking, and eviscerating chickens, while their mother and I and the rest were occupied with other things—well, I would have doubted you. But that’s just what happened this morning. Chris, Maggie, and Matthew slaughtered the first six of our Cornish Cross chickens, start to finish without any help from us. Even better, Debbie and I don’t really know much about what they are doing; Chris learned the process partly from books and partly from his friend Jacob, built and tested the chicken plucker on his own, and showed Maggie and Matthew what needed to be done.

It took about three hours start to finish to process six chickens, including setup and cleanup time. At lunchtime Debbie told them to take a break, but they insisted that we eat without them so that they could get the job done. Just as we were finishing lunch they marched in, each carrying two of the bagged chickens. These were all eight week old hens, and they dressed out at between five and six pounds—very large. Somewhere it was suggested that we could let the roosters go to ten weeks, so the remaining nine Cornish Cross birds are scheduled for slaughter week after next; I’m curious to see how big they will be by then (and how many will have keeled over from heart attacks from carrying around so much weight).

Everybody pitched in, but each of them has their special gifts. Maggie turns out to be the champion eviserator, because of her smaller hands and her cooking experience; she did five of the six birds. Chris was thankful, since he finds it hard to get his hands inside the birds, but he knows that when there are more to be done he will need to be gutting them as well.

You can’t really tell from the picture, but these birds are just unnaturally large. Especially their feet!

Proud assistants display the fruits of their labors.

Debbie is urging me to fix the rotisserie attachment for our Weber gas grill, so we can cook these chickens the way God meant for them to be eaten.

The old way of singing

Faithful readers know that Chris and I have gone to some length to learn about what is often called “the old way of singing.” It is a style that is dying out, restricted mostly to Appalachia, only found these days in Primitive Baptist and Old Regular Baptist churches, both of them small and shrinking denominations. But originally it was the dominant style of church singing among English Protestants, approved by the Westminster Assembly of Divines, brought to America by the Puritans and the Anabaptists, and eventually marginalized by snobs who thought that the high-art singing style of continental Europe was preferable.

One of the things we like about this sort of music, along with the rest of Appalachian music, is that it contains major elements that were jettisoned as the music was commercialized. Old time musicians have broader and just plain different ideas about tempo, meter, rhythm, tone, and song structure, ideas that are hard to grasp if all you know is modern pop and classical music. Sometimes it’s fun to listen to songs that were popularized during the folk boom of the 60s by people like Pete Seeger or Peter, Paul and Mary, or the Kingston Trio, or even Bob Dylan, and then go back to the original sources—so much had to be thrown out just to make them palatable to modern tastes.

The old way of singing has a lot of these characteristics. It is done slow and without musical accompaniment, and many people would say that there is no tempo or rhythm at all, although I don’t think that is accurate—the songs do unfold at a steady pace, and there are rhythmic elements present. Because there is no accompaniment, you can sing notes that aren’t found on the keyboard. Because not everyone changes to the next note in the melody at the same time, you get a sort of “unstructured harmony” happening, with multiple pitches being sung at different instants during a transition. And a very wide range of vocal tone is appreciated and cultivated among singers, so that when singers join together a deep and varied texture is created, allowing kinds of expressiveness that you’ll never hear on the radio where everyone sings like everyone else.

(As an aside, I heard a twelve-year-old girl recently singing a couple of songs by Jean Ritchie, a famous Appalachian balladeer. The girls voice was good, strong and on pitch and expressive. But her style was shot through with pop singing cliches, which made the whole thing jarring and almost ridiculous. It was especially weird when she would lead into a line about, say, the toxic effects of coal mining with that sort of sexual groan (“unhhh … “) that so many girl pop singers start a phrase with.)

All this to say that last night Chris and I were overjoyed to discover an Old Regular Baptist church just down the road that still sings in the old way. Since we’ve moved here I’ve noticed a number of Primitive Baptist churches and wondered if they sang that way, but never checked it out. Then I heard from a friend of a friend about an ORB church just a couple of miles away, and I wondered about them. Talking to Brother James Caudill in Whitesburg, an ORB elder, he assured me that “if they’re one of ours, they definitely still line songs out.”

So finally last night Chris and I went over to their evening service, and sure enough they did. In fact, one of the elders who preached sang as well as I’ve ever heard it sung. We hung around afterwards and talked with the elders, who were very pleased that we were interested in the singing. They told us about the state of singing in the immediate area (the Primitive Baptists in the area no longer do it), and in their denomination in general, and they invited us to come to their monthly Sunday morning service, which has much more singing, and to accompany them whenever they are headed to a gathering where there will be lots of singing (the elders will travel long distances to preach at churches all over Kentucky and Ohio, then come back for the Sunday evening service). They also invited us to record any of their services.

I don’t know how things will develop—the time we can devote to such pursuits is limited these days—but this could be a major connection into the old time singing community for us.

Good food

Ever since a friend sent us a packet of kefir grains, we have been turning way too much milk into kefir. It tastes very much like yogurt, the consistency is thick liquid (that gets thicker as it ages, although it usually doesn’t age too much around here), and there is even a bit of fizz to it. We mix the grains together with a gallon of real milk, leave it sit on the counter overnight, and after about 24 hours it is time to strain out the grains and start again.

The kids will often drink it as a dessert at lunchtime, and I will usually join them. Chris likes to have a glass sometimes when he takes a break from a hard afternoon’s work; it re-energizes him to get back out and do more. And at lunch today we had a fine treat, kefir smoothies, made with the wonderfully fresh and sweet peaches Debbie bought the other day.

This morning Chris was fortunate enough to catch the two remaining free-range chickens unawares (they were snacking on the dog’s dogfood), so he went ahead and processed them this morning. With help from Matthew, he had them done and everything cleaned up in about an hour’s time. Next week he will probably slaughter the six Cornish Cross hens, which will be eight weeks old, and then two weeks later he will do the nine roosters. By then he should be pretty skilled at it.

Tonight we had the two chickens that Chris and Jacob slaughtered when they christened the Whizbang Chicken Plucker. Both were old, and one was a rooster, so Debbie cooked them the “Amish way”, by slow roasting them in a 200 degree oven for ten hours. They came out fine—not exactly a delicacy, but very flavorful and tender enough. The meat was surprisingly dark.

We also tried yet another kale dish. So far I’m the only one who comes close to liking kale prepared straight, and I’d say I appreciate it more than I like it. But this was a sort of casserole which contained lots of kale but also enough other stuff (bread crumbs, cheese, butter) to balance the flavor of the kale. It seemed to go over well, but sometimes it takes a few tries before we can decide if we really like a dish.

Submitting to civil authorities

I had a call from a friend this morning, and we talked about the proposed National Animal ID System (NAIS) and its implications for small farmers. In principle, I think the idea is outrageous. In practice, I’m not likely to get involved in any efforts to head it off, because it is just the latest in a continuous series of political outrages, and to actively campaign against it is to get involved in politics, something I prefer not to do. (That is a purely personal outlook, though; I have nothing to say against those folks who do decide to get involved.)

Since there is a strong likelihood that NAIS will be established in some form, I’m already thinking about what my own response will be, which requires me to think once again about my responsibility as a Christian to obey the civil authorities. I’ve never been persuaded by the common pro-state interpretation of Romans 13:1-7, namely that we must obey the state in everything except when it requires us to disobey God; I think that the authority of the state to bind our behavior is much more limited than that. But so far I haven’t turned up much that addresses this matter thoughtfully, no matter what point of view the writer takes. If any readers know of books or articles that would be helpful, I’d appreciate a pointer to them.

Tomatoes and peaches

Debbie went to Nolt’s Bulk Foods this morning for supplies, and came back with half-bushel boxes of tomatoes and peaches. The peaches aren’t from around here, but they are ripe and sweet. The tomatoes are from Daniel Burkholder’s greenhouse just down the road from Nolt’s. Even though these are organic tomatoes, they sell for only $1.50/lb. And even better, the tomatoes that Debbie came home with were labeled “seconds,” meaning they were merely beautiful but not perfect, so we got the half-bushel for $12, or about 50 cents per pound.

I only enjoy raw tomatoes when they are very ripe—I’m talking deep, deep red. These are just that way, and so I happily ate a stack of slices at lunch.

Music diary

This is a slower year than last as far as public performances go. That is partly intentional; we have enough going on with getting the homestead established that we decided not to chase after opportunities to perform, but just take the ones that come along. And just enough are coming along to let us keep our hand in.

Last Sunday we went to a potluck dinner and singing at the invitation of our friend and next door neighbor Leemon Goodin. The church is just a mile or so away, up on the ridge. Some of the kids were getting sick, so only Chris and Maggie and I went. We came home from our own church service, dropped off the rest, and drove up the hill. Turns out they got started a lot earlier than planned, and so the eating was almost over when we arrived. But they had saved some for us, and we ate quickly while we visited with Leemon (who had made some terrific country ham—baked, so it was tender and moist).

Like a lot of these invitiations, it wasn’t clear whether we were expected to play, so we had our instruments in the car. The “singing” was really a performance by a local gospel group which the pastor had married into. We laughed to ourselves when we walked into the church, because it seems that even the smallest gospel group in the smallest room still lives or dies by its sound system, and they had a pretty nice one already set up, stage monitors and everything. There was a rhythm guitar player and a bass player (the lead guitar player couldn’t make it), and three folks that just sang. The singing was very good, better than we had expected, and the performance was polished without being slick.

When they were done we found out that we were indeed expected to perform, so Chris and I went to get the instruments. The room was small enough that we just asked them to turn off the sound system, and we played about five or six gospel songs. Our stuff is fairly different from what the usual gospel group will do, so we were happy to find that it went over pretty well. Afterwards as the gospel group began to pack up their stuff, the leader/guitar player came over and asked to sing a few songs with us. It was a special treat for us, since they were able to conjure up extra harmony parts on the fly.

Thursday we headed out to Blackey, Kentucky for the initial event of the Seedtime on the Cumberland festival, a singing at the Old Regular Baptist church there. We’ve attended a number of singings there at Ron Short’s invitation, including the one that kicked off last year’s Seedtime festival. The folks there like us—they ask Ron if “them fellers” are going to be singing that night—and we like them a lot too. The room was packed, and things got pretty warm, so Ron cut the program a bit short and let the folks get on with eating the potluck dinner. We had planned to do three songs but only had time for two, so we grabbed Rich Kirby and his mandolin and sang the third song while we waited for the food line to die down. The line was long, so we did four or five more songs before putting our instruments down. Again, it was a special treat for us because Rich was able to add a baritone part to songs we usually do as a duet.

Normally we would have headed home after the show, but this was the 20th anniversary festival, and so the lineup was special. Hazel Dickens was going to be there, although she had to cancel for health reasons. Mike Seeger was there, someone we admire a lot. And there was a special concert on Saturday night arranged by Ron Short, featuring coal mining songs. So we decided to stay for the weekend. We saw a lot of local music, and Chris signed up for the banjo contest, and we both signed up for a ten-minute slot during the open stage program. (Later we were talking to Suzanne Savell, who scheduled the festival, and she said if she’d only known we were going to be there she would have scheduled us for a set during the regular program.)

Saturday afternoon Chris played in the contest, and then we went to a workshop hosted by Mike Seeger. That was done around 4:30pm, so we wandered back to the outdoor stage to see if the contest results had been announced. They were running way late, and so as we arrived they were just saying who had won. (Chris did not place.) Then suddenly the announcer said, “OK, let’s get started with the open stage. First up we have the Ridgewood Boys.” Well, we hadn’t expected to play for another half-hour, and so we had to run to the car for our instruments and run back to get set up. Fortunately, the festival ground is very small, and we were back in a couple of minutes—out of breath, though, and the first song was a pretty wordy one, but somehow I managed to catch my breath and we made it through fine.

The final concert was very good but also ran long. We didn’t want to leave early, because the very last part was our friend Brother James Caudill leading an Old Regular Baptist song, “There is a Fountain Filled With Blood”, except with words about coal mining. Singing along with that was probably the highlight of the weekend, and so we didn’t grumble too much about not getting home until 1:30am.