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My Empire of Dirt


On Day 2, she laid another egg—but then ate the damn thing before I could get my hands on it. I doubted the bird would make a habit of this disgusting, cannibalistic act, and waited hopefully for Day 3, when exactly the same thing happened. And then again on Day 4. The score was Chicken 3, Human 1 by the time I did some research and learned that the taste of her own egg has the same effect on a hen (any hen, not just my ugly freak) that crack has on an addict. Nothing else will do.

What ensued was a battle for every egg.

The hen lived in a cage designed with a sloping floor specifically to preserve eggs. The bird laid the egg, the egg rolled out of the cage. The bird—very dumb—never noticed it was there in the first place. But after the hen, by some twist of fate, got a gob full of her own yolk, she learned to whirl around and shatter each egg with her beak and gobble whatever she could before it dripped through the wire floor to the guano tray below.

My first move was to increase the angle of the cage and pad the wire catcher so that the shell would not crack as the egg tumbled at speed away from the hen. I yielded two eggs—tie score!—before she learned to stretch her neck through the same break in the cage that allows the egg to pass.

I lost another and responded by stringing wire in the front of the cage from floor to ceiling. This rig yielded me three eggs before, with a junkie’s furious ingenuity, the hen learned to weave through the wires and crane her neck out the cage as before. I replaced the forest of wire with a sheet of mesh in the front of the cage that gave her just enough room to assume the laying posture but created a secondary floor wide enough so that no matter how much she strained—and she did strain—she could not reach beyond the front wall of the cage.

As the commencement of my farm diet neared, I was winning the war of the eggs, and had almost a dozen stored up.

The first meat birds were slaughtered five days after the tornado. The plan was to take the five heaviest chickens and hang them by their feet to lull them. That’s as many as I could do because the other twenty were still underweight. According to what I determined to be the best practices, the birds were placed headfirst into a stainless-steel cone. The cone keeps the infamous “running”—senseless flapping and leaping, really—to a minimum. The birds’ throats are then cut using a fourteen-inch blade, and when they have finished bleeding out, they are placed in the scalder—a fiberglass container filled with water heated to 155 degrees—so that their feathers come loose easier. Once plucked, the chickens are gutted, relieved of their feet, and dunked in ice water.

The process takes hours, and while I’ve killed animals on hunting trips before, I somehow wasn’t prepared for the psychological toll. Harvesting the chickens was tedious and grotesque work. When it was done, I laid down on the driveway with three bottles of beer.

On August 15, the first day of the diet, I surveyed my stockpile of chicken, greens, tomatoes, eggplants, a serving or two of cucumbers, a couple of other odds and ends, and those eggs. One thing was for sure: I was going to need those damn potatoes. I’d put off taking a census of the potato drill, because I didn’t want to interfere with what I hoped was their wild, bounteous growth. My father, who’d grown potatoes in his native England, had consulted on this part of the project, and having him involved gave me confidence. I was counting on 100 spuds in there, possibly as many as 200.

I pulled the plywood berm away from the drill and attacked the soil with a gardening fork. I hit something solid and dug for it with my hands, only to realize it was a clump of dirt. I repeated this futile exercise until I had gone through four cubic yards of soil. Zero. Sifting through the dirt more closely, like a miner panning for gold, I scored seven of the tiniest potatoes the world has ever seen.

I called my father. “The potato crop failed, Dad,” I said, by way of greeting.

“Failed?” he spluttered. “How?”

“I dunno,” I whined. “But I could only find seven, and they’re hardly as big as shirt buttons.”

“But I was there,” he said, incredulous. “We planted them together. What could you have done wrong? Maybe it was all the rain.”

“Your potatoes grew in England, Dad.”

Maybe with another month in the ground things would have been different, but at least for now, my farm diet would be potato-free.

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