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My Empire of Dirt


Garnished With Italian Parsley, Served With Collard Greens Sautéed in Green Onions and Garlic and an Heirloom-Tomato Salad Dressed in Table-Ground Salt and Pepper.

With Spicy Chicken-Foot-Tomato-Habanero Broth, Spindly Celery Slices, and Technically Off-limits Key Food Carrots (a Result of Devastating Local Crop Failures) and Caperberries (Spirited In From the Fridge in the Kitchen).  

I drove the does back up to Connecticut, where the breeder mated them with six of his most virile bucks. The Litchfield doe got properly knocked up, but the Jersey doe couldn’t get any action to save her life. “Sorry, Manny, that is one old rabbit,” he said. Upon my return from Brooklyn, Lisa and I retired/promoted her to house pet. The kids loved her. She died of heat stroke two weeks later.

Amid all this commotion, I miscalculated the due date of my only pregnant doe. When she had her first litter, I had not yet built the all-important kindling box, the vessel in which baby rabbits, or kits, are stored and weaned. The literature makes it very clear that a box must be introduced to a pregnant doe one week in advance of the birth so that she has time to fill it with fur—build a nest. After discovering the newborns, I scrambled to build a proper box and in my haste miscalculated the measurements. The result was disastrous. The box was too small; consequently, the doe could not enter it to feed her brood, forcing the newborns to come out of the box and scramble around the cage. The logistics of keeping track of her first litter proved overwhelming to the doe, and she panicked. And when a mother rabbit panics, apparently, she devours her offspring.

I had read about this behavior and quietly dreaded it as I recalculated the measurements of a new box. But I figured it was a rare enough phenomenon and neglected to warn Lisa.

When the weekend arrived, I took leave of The Farm and went with Jake to watch the Mermaid Parade in Coney Island. Hoping for a mother-daughter bonding moment on The Farm—it’s gotta be good for something—Lisa took Heath to visit the baby rabbits. Only moments before their visit, the doe had set about destroying the remaining kits in her first litter, crushing two and tearing the head off a third. Seeing the carnage, Lisa managed to keep from retching just long enough to push Heath away from the cage.

All along, to an extent I didn’t realize until later, Lisa had been trying to keep her simmering resentments about The Farm under wraps. She hated the mess, was embarrassed by the growing pile of refuse in our driveway and disgusted by the stink of manure coming from the barn. The fact that I wore dirty work clothes all the time and that I never left the property except to run errands for The Farm didn’t help things either. Then there was the ring of filth I left in our tub after I took a bath at night. Lisa hadn’t signed up to be a farmer’s wife. She has a demanding career in midtown and, in fact, had just earned a big promotion when I started farming in earnest. She needed our home to be a sanctuary, not the abattoir I’d turned it into. A career and two children were hard enough; what did she need with a husband playing with dirt and shit all day?

By the time I returned from the parade with Jake, I think it is fair to say that Lisa’s empathy for me and my agrarian adventure had been placed in a garbage bag, covered with lime, and put to the curb for pickup.

We avoided each other for the balance of the day. While she fumed, I was consumed with worry—the rabbits had been a tactical blunder. It was early July, less than a month from my start day. I needed a new protein source. On Monday, I drove to the Agway in Englishtown, New Jersey, and returned with 26 baby chickens and 4 little ducklings. Lisa arrived home from work just as Caleb and I were unloading the birds, the kids dancing at our feet among a score of day-old chicks. Feeling ambushed, Lisa seriously contemplated packing a bag and taking the kids to a hotel (she told me this later; at the time, she kept up her stony silence and made herself scarce, as was becoming her habit). Her anger boiled over when Jake, in his excitement, tripped over one of the ducklings, maiming it so badly that I had to scoop it up and dispatch it before he realized what had happened.

Home less than an hour, we were already down a duck. “You’re going to turn the kids into ax murderers,” Lisa told me.

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