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The Education of a New Farmer: Part VI

by Raven OKeefe

It Was a Dark and Stormy Night...

I've always heard the phrase "mad as a wet hen," but until last night I never really appreciated quite the degree of anger that conveys.

Since it's December and we're in Oregon, rain has of course been falling pretty consistently most days and nights. Our farm's drainage system is better than it was when we first moved in last year, but it still has a long way to go before it's anywhere near efficient, and the past few days of hard nonstop rain have been more than it could handle. Around ten o'clock last night we went out to do our usual last check of the evening to make sure all animals were safe and sound, and instead of our east pasture we found a large and rapidly growing lake advancing from the field to the driveway and garage! In the midst of this instant lake sat the chicken coop, its roof blown away, and a flock of sodden, disgruntled, out of sorts hens perched lumpily atop it.

The barn was still dry, so we waded into the new lake, water sloshing over the tops of our boots, and began gathering up as many hens as we could catch to move them into the barn. Now, if I were a wet hen, no matter how mad I was, I think I'd appreciate having someone leave a snug, warm, dry house to slog out to rescue me and take me to a safe location.

Not so.

Immediately they all took off madly flapping and squawking in all directions, into the water, under trailers and trucks, behind fences and machinery, anything to avoid being caught and moved to the barn. It is never easy to catch a hen, even under the best of circumstances. When she's wet, mad and terrified, it's next to impossible. We staggered and dashed and splashed through the rain and deepening lake, trying to sneak up on them, trying to make wild grabs for them, trying to corner them against a fence or building.

One by one we managed to catch them and trundle them off to the barn, but only then did I truly learn about "mad as a wet hen," as the ungrateful wretches squirmed and wriggled in my arms, tried to flap and scratch, squawked their heads off, and snaked their soggy, bedraggled heads around to peck at my hands and arms. By the time we got them all safely stowed in the barn, I myself was mad as a... well, you know.

After that the rest of the damage control, rounding up ewes from the most desperately flooded areas and moving them to higher ground, was a breeze. Thanks to our good dog Moss, who seemed to know instinctively what had to be done, racing off through muddy water up to his belly to gather in ewes who were straggling on little hillocks here and there in the pasture and bringing them to a high ridge line, all the sheep made it to safe spots for the night. We dragged ourselves back to the house, dried ourselves and Moss off, and figured we'd done all we could for the night, we could get up and do battle with it again in the morning.

This morning the sky was partly cloudy, sun broke through here and there, and the lake was gone. GONE! Sheep were grazing where they always graze, the ground was wet but visible, and the hens were clucking and scratching around as peacefully as ever. Just another morning on the farm.

-- Raven OKeefe

January 2003