Sharon December 7th, 2008
We’re having our first serious blast of winter (I don’t count the snowstorm at the end of October - that was a preview) here - bitter cold, snow, winds. It is the kind of weather that makes you want to be indoors drinking cocoa in front of the fire. So why am I so drawn to the barn, when I could be inside?
I think it is because the barn in winter is one of the loveliest imaginable places. The animals huddle together as well on the coldest days, and they are delighted to see us as we come and bring treats, replace frozen water with fresh and make sure all is well . During the warm months, the animals are often busy doing their things - they are hunting bugs and grazing, and while they stop a moment and interact with us, they, like us, are attempting to get the most out of the time they have on those lush, sunny days. And then suddenly winter comes, and the animals have time and so do we. Shut up inside (not always, but on the coldest and stormiest days), all of us, we have a shared sense of endurance and the knowledge that friendliness passes the time and warms us up.
Thus, the angora bunnies come hopping up to be held. They are as soft as anything you can imagine, and surprisingly small - their halos of fluff make them look far bigger than they are. In summer, I pick them up, and they tolerate my strokings, but are clearly thinking of the green grass underneath their bunny tractor. Today, they nuzzle against my jacket and nibble slices of pear from my fingers.
The chickens make soft winter noises as they roost around the barn. They call softly to one another, and allow me to stroke their feathery heads. There are only a few eggs since it is the darkest season, and hens lay by light, but what there are must be collected regularly, lest they freeze, and the cochin must have her eggs taken away, for we want no hatches in this bitter season. She pecks at me, but gently, displeased but no where near as protective as she will be in the springtime, the right season for raising babies. I bring the scraps from the house early, since it is too cold for them to be out hunting for bugs. The duck who thinks he is a chicken, and the two hens who reside with the goats will even come out for cabbage leaves and plate scrapings.
The goats, of course, think they are people. Their preference would be to spend these days in the house with us, alternating between sitting on our laps and climbing on the furniture. Since we are so cruel as to deny them our company there, they are thrilled by it when we come out to milk or bring them a handful of sunflower seeds or a slice of apple. They eat hay from my hands, and rest their bodies against mine, warming me and themselves. At milking time they bounce and leap, shaking out the energy that they can’t burn in the pasture on this icy, snowy, frigid day.
Zucchini, our barn/house cat has taken a break from the space behind the cookstove, where he absorbs heat, to come radiate it in the barn and keep an eye out for mice. He hangs out on a bale of hay, leaping off occasionally to chase a hen, pouncing at her and enjoying the sudden outraged clucks of a chicken confronting a half-hearted predator no larger than herself. He does them no harm, and the chickens probably know this deep in some small segment of their none-too-large brains, but just as my 5 year old can’t resist rising to the bait when his toddler brother teases him, the chickens never fail to give a satisfying bit of panic to a bored cat. Angus, who is mostly a house cat but occasionally joins Zucchini in the barn no longer plays this game, since a particularly assertive hen he annoyed suddenly noticed that she was as large as he was, turned around, and began chasing him around the yard this fall. It took weeks before poor Angus, who is about as fierce as your average marshmallow, could get near a chicken.
All this life together is surprisingly warm - the barn isn’t very tight - it is better for their health that they have more air circulation and less warmth actually. But the combination of creatures all lending their body heat - and I mine - mean that the barn is surprisingly pleasant. Nor does it smell bad, if your nose is accustomed to animal smells. The shavings and bedding absorb much of the manure smell, and it is earthy, rather than unpleasant, at least to me.
Sometimes the children come out and nestle down in the new bedding with the goats, or settle on a bale of hay, and wait for a hen to come and sit next to them, so they can feel the feathers under their hands. Somehow, we fellow creatures, we animals all, human, hen, cat, goat, duck, rabbit - we are all quietly settled, waiting for spring, and in the meantime, taking comfort in fellowship. And so do I find myself strangely drawn to the quiet - and the noise, the cold and the warmth, all the pleasures and contradictions of the barn in winter.