Chickens Make Me Dirty

Because I’m a mother, and because I’ve worked on farms, I know that caring for creatures makes a mess. All that input, all that output, not to mention the emotional blow-outs along the way … You work with the end goal in mind: life, well-being, sustenance.

When Jim finally agreed to chickens, I knew it would be a mess. Taking care of living beings, as we’ve established, is not a tidy process. On that first day in August when the chickens moved in, I gazed in wonder at the perfectly tidy little coop in my yard. Teeny chickens who hadn’t even made teeny poops yet, in a nice cedar box on a green grassy zone in my yard. I knew it would not last.

Here it is:

Look how neat and clean that thing is. I think the chickens were mitten-sized, tops.

Ahh, isn’t that nice? It looked that way for maybe a few weeks.

The chickens are now giant beasts. I tacked a haphazard chicken run onto that nice little coop, because they gack up the yard so bad that the kids had to wear muck boots just to play on the swing. Because I suck at building things, it looks terrible and the chickens get out all the time. I think it’s the writing gods” way of making me get up from my desk and stretch, all the chicken escapes I have to tend to. I haven’t clipped their wings, and they’re probably bored, so there are maybe 4 jailbreaks a day. They’ve even untied garden wire to get out of the coop. God knows how that happened. Sometimes all I can do is drag a spare window or piece of fencing out of the garage to block an escape hatch until I can figure out something better.

A few months ago, Jim moved the coop, because it made our yard look like a refugee camp (he said behind the garden was a better place for it, but I know the truth).

Due to all these mutations, plus insulating for winter, here is the coop now:

I think I’ve seen this same design under a bridge downtown.

So yeah, my coop is a mess. But those chickens are big, happy beastie girls and I like them. Though only one of them lays eggs (get on it, ladies!), they make me get dirty. I think getting dirty is a good thing.

I spend all day running words through my head. Not very tangible work, and a very clean pursuit. It can make a woman feel fairly batty. So when I get my hands nice and muddy with actual physical labor, it levels me out. I muck out the hay. I feed and water. I patch the chicken run (over and over and over). When the chickens waddle up to me, mooching for food, I pick them up and listen to their little harrumphs and clucks, and their chicken feet get my coat muddy. It can be a pain, but it’s a good balance to that clean, quiet desk. And in the end, I get to eat eggs because of them, which is one of my favorite things to do.

Life. Well-being. Sustenance.

If I wanted a clean version of chickens, suppose I’d just make them out of paper, like these totally cute desktop free-range chickens from the blog How About Orange, that my friend Kelly just sent me. I might make them anyway, just to have auxiliary chickens. As far as I can tell, they don’t get you dirty.

Then again, they don’t lay eggs either (GET ON IT, LADIES!).

And now I have chopped down a tree.

Okay, fine, to be totally honest, my buddy Inman did much of the chopping, and it was his chainsaw, too. But I couldn’t help clapping my hands in glee when that first dead birch tree came crashing down in my yard.

In Mrkopalj, you could tell a lot about people by how they stacked their wood, and wood was the sustaining force of the village. (Wood, and the hard-working women.) When my woodpile outside was getting low, Inman offered to help me take down some dead trees in the yard to re-fill it. And yes, we still have a real fireplace. No, I have no intentions of retiring it because it’s not supposed to be eco-friendly. I drive a Prius to justify that refusal.

I went wood-chopping with my dad when I was a kid, and I spent the majority of my winter nights in childhood lying on the stone hearth in front of our fire. The stone would warm up as the night went on, and I read “like a wolf eats,” to quote Gary Paulsen, author of Hatchet, which we just read to the kids, and which is also celebratory about fire and the making of it. (Best read-aloud ever, by the way.)

So I associate fire with happiness and warmth and reading myself into another world, and the way my dad could split wood like Paul Bunyan. I pride myself on once starting a fire with one match at Camp Buckskin in northern Minnesota (never happened again, by the way). Last winter, Jim and I liked to wear all our sweaters from the time we spent in Mrkopalj, and point out the burn marks from the wood burning stove there.

This winter, I will associate fire with the warm fall night Inman came over, and we made firewood that the kids hauled and stacked, with Zadie so pumped from the work of it that she asked when we were all finished and way sweaty: “Anything else you’d like me to do, Mom?”

She’ll remember last night the way I remember chopping wood with my Dad, I’m betting.

Let’s hope.

I found it very reassuring that the green roof on the chicken coop sprouted on September 11.

With clear intentions and hard work, good things rise up from the dirt.

Bad gardener!


I’m a bad gardener. I get out there and plant things, sure, and my gardens aren’t unsightly or anything. But it’s clearly not my special skill. They’re never manicured. The flower beds don’t have color year-round (or barely ever). Nothing has a water feature. My vegetables often do not grow properly. That garden up top? Not mine.

I’m pretty much okay with all of that.

When we were lucky enough to live in Mrkopalj, Croatia, last year, our neighbors in the village gardened like crazy. Jasminka and Pavice and Andjelka and Zjelko were really good at it. Those skills had been passed down through the generations and they were necessary to defray the cost of really expensive groceries. Plus, people liked knowing where their food came from, after hearing horror stories from more “developed” countries.

But I’m self-taught when it comes to the garden. I’m good at lettuce, because it doesn’t need anything but planting. Same with tomatoes, though my success rate is spotty there because they also need cages and occasional eggshells around the base, and that’s officially Complicated. I don’t read books about gardening. I don’t try to Improve. Until the economy bottoms out even further, or Michelle Bachmann is elected, my gardening success will be allowed to remain marginal at best.

That’s fine by me. I’m in it for the outdoors time, and to get my hands plugged into the dirt for a recharge. It’s fun to grow things, even if I’m not an aficionado.

This is not me.

I do a lot of work for magazines, which show off people’s houses and yards when they are literally picture-perfect. I’m going to go ahead and confirm what you already know about that: It’s a myth. I’ve been to those photo shoots, and pretty much only that very precise area being photographed looks that good. Then the cameras get put away, the family dog pees on the floor, a kid dumps out a bunch of markers, or someone spills coffee on the white slipcovered couch. Soon, the natural chaos of the universe returns. It’s not as perfect as it looks. Never is.

As I’ve gotten older, it’s been nice to happily accept that I will only be good at a few things, and everything else is just screwing around for fun. I’ll get out in the garden when it works for me and the kids, time-wise. My house isn’t up to the latest trends, nor will it ever be. My chef skills are limited to Things That Zadie Will Eat, which revolves around unadorned meat and cereal and yogurt without chunks. (I am naturally gifted at parallel parking, so that doesn’t require any time or attention. It’s more like a magical skill bestowed by God, really.)

But there are a few things that command real attention. I want to be good at having a family, so I work hard at that, and it dominates most of my thoughts. I want to be good at telling you stories, and this is a close runner-up in the daily-thoughts category. Good books and music also get a lot of my time, because they inspire the other two things.

So that’s it. As I write this, I’m sitting on the porch with Sam and watching birds, which I’m also not very good at, but I like asking other people about. I own a few birding manuals, but mostly I bought them because the pictures are so pretty, and looking at birds makes me happy, even if they’re just sparrows. Or that asshole bluejay that bullies everything in the yard.

I’ll never be an expert or anything. And I’m super okay with that.

Urban Chickens, 9 Days Old

Josh still has the chickens in his living room, which he says is becoming mildly problematic because they’re getting really big already and they’re literally trying to fly the coop. They’ve already ripped through a 5-pound bag of feed and have about doubled in size. Their “output” is equally prolific. So we’ve got that to look forward to when they move over here.

Want to see some pictures? Yes, you want to see some pictures. Josh sent these last night. Now, remember that Josh and I agreed heartily that if these chickens become a burden, we will eat them. But these girls look pretty pampered, don’t you think? We will have to take some drastic measures to avoid anthropomorphizing our little feathered layers.

Chicken coop and a simple walk.

Josh built the coop. It’s too late to back out now.

It has a green roof! We are swank.

In other news, this morning the kids and I took a walk around the neighborhood. Sometimes, we get to moving so fast that I forget to build in some down time for them. And, truthfully, for me. I’ve never been very good with that down time thing. It makes me nervous. And then I start making to-do lists for the time when I am no longer having down time.

But today, it was cool outside, and the grass looked particularly green. I had a little coffee left in my cup, so decided to spend it on a slow walk. The kids agreed without complaint, which was rare, and this was how I knew that it would be a particularly fine walk.

My kids are at their most peaceful when they’ve been outside for a while. After they’ve forgotten that they wish they were watching TV or having a playdate. We have a vacant lot we like to stop at. Nothing particularly attractive, and often smelling of dog poop. (Always with the poop, this one.) But it’s big, and it’s open, which gives it the two qualities I miss most about Mrkopalj. Open space is hard to come by in the city, and we don’t leave the city very often anymore.

Within a few minutes, Zadie was building bark art on a tree. Sam was putting together a fort of sticks, and occasionally stopping to have me time him as he ran between two far-apart trees. We played like that for an hour.

It’s not as eventful as, say, introducing barnyard fowl to the yard. But today, it was enough.


Hello again.

Hello, everyone. My name is Jennifer Wilson, and I’m the author of the upcoming book Running Away to Home, if you couldn’t tell by all the giant faux book covers all over that front page. The book is about the time we sold all our stuff and headed back to the beginning—the Croatian mountain village of my ancestors—to start over with our family. It’s out October 11.

It was an amazing journey to take with my family that we still talk about every single day. We were all pretty wrung out by the time we landed back here in Des Moines, Iowa. (And also broke.) But if I thought gallavanting around Europe with my favorite nerds was epic, I had no idea what the process of writing a book would be like. It was all-encompassing, and awesome, and it took some real effort to try to maintain all those connections with land, family and history that we learned in Croatia.

This week I sent off my final proofs of Running Away to Home, and it felt a little like kissing my third baby goodbye. Already I kinda hate not writing to my readers, so I thought I’d get all bloggy on you. Like I mentioned up there, since our journey away from America—and then back to it again—we’ve struggled to maintain the connections with land, family and history that we found in Croatia. This blog is about maintaining those connections, be it through food or fun or, um, yard chickens. More on that later.

On this website, you’ll also find the archived blog of our time in Croatia in 2009-2010, as well as photos and other things that sustained us while we were away from the United States, including a few songs from our awesome playlist of music that was on constant rotation in our Peugeot, navigated by our endearing GPS Charla. I hope to switch those out every so often, so you can hear Croatia as we heard it.

And who knows. Maybe this blog is also about how we geared up for another journey, culminating in another book. But hopefully, this time the villagers in the far, far away land will share their recipe for bootleg rakija with us. I’m looking at YOU, Mrkopalj.—jw

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