This summer we have faced a good chunk of challenges having to do with legs. First there was our hen—a Rhode Island Red whom we named Providence. Her troubles began in the chicken coop that night when Geoff and I were yanked out of bed by a ferocious squawking. We ran down stairs, pulled on muck boots, and ran to the coop in our nightclothes to find Providence on the coop floor. Her right thigh was torn open. The leg beneath was bent at a right angle right at the ring where the feathers end. We saw nothing else amiss until we rotated the flashlight up to the rafters and found two glowing orbs. A raccoon—a large raccoon—was peering down at us, wondering what would happen next.
We found the place where the racoon had pried the chicken wire loose from the window frame and slipped through. We moved Providence to a bed of hay in the corner, fixed the window, and finally managed—after failed attempts to coax, cajole, startle, and scare the raccoon out of his perch—to hit the back of the coop with sticks in a rhythm catchy enough to move that raccoon out of the coop and into a nearby tree.
The next morning, in broad daylight, I took a good look at Providence’s leg. The thigh wound was already healing. We had seen worse. It looked like it could heal. But that lower leg was a bent twig. Providence could not stand up, extend the leg, or put any weight on it. When she tried, her wings would flap and flap in a desperate attempt to balance. The other hens were bothered by this obviously aggressive action and rushed to peck her into place. At this point I knew that Providence would not make it if we left her with the others. The healthy hens, unable to tolerate weakness or difference, would peck her to death.
I made a splint for Providence's peg. I located our large cat carrier, layered it with hay, added food and water, and placed Providence carefully inside. She sat quietly. Was there hope? Could she heal? Every couple of days we would take her out, change the hay, and examine the leg. The splint failed. The leg turned black. She was not eating much, but she would eat green things—leaves and shoots—when Kai and Leif held them out to her.
Meanwhile, Daisy, our seven-year-old Jersey, our first cow and matriarch of our herd, went into heat. We knew because Bright and Blaze, our 1800-pound oxen were suddenly standing sentinel, chins poised above her back, guarding the gate to her future generations. We called our “AI” guy who came with his pickup truck, carrying frozen bull sperm, and put it in place. Later that afternoon, Daisy’s right rear leg was hanging, disconnected from the ground. She was holding her hoof high. Had she been hurt by overly enthusiastic oxen? Or a hidden hole? We had no idea.
We examined the leg. Her foot was warm and sensitive. We assumed a strain or sprain or break. But what can you do? You cannot cast a cow. Bright once hurt his leg and it swelled horribly. We waited nine long weeks. Then, he put it down and began walking. Now he pulls his own weight—and sleds full of firewood—as part of a yoked team.
We put Daisy in a pasture by herself, close to the barn, so she could stay still and eat without having to compete. Cows cannot easily move on three legs like a dog or cat can. They need four on the floor. Nevertheless, within a few days, Daisy had learned to lurch herself around the pasture to preferred spots, seemingly calm and content on her three legs. She would stretch out her neck, lean her body forward, and then hop her left leg to catch up.
To milk her, one of us would carry a bucket up the hill to wherever she was, and squat down to milk her in the field, by hand, without a stanchion to hold her still, hoping she would not hop. To avoid being splashed by jostled milk, we learned to notice her thrusting chin—sign of an imminent move. We practiced pulling the bucket out from underneath her right at that moment in her heave forward when she would have kicked it.
Meanwhile, when not helping to give Providence and Daisy a leg up, Jordan decided to try out our new scythe in a far meadow. He woke at 4:30 AM, took the scythe into the field, and moved back and forth with an even rhythmic swing for four hours. In bare feet. It was a beautiful sight.
The next evening, the tops of Jordan’s feet were sore. The following morning—48 hours after he had scythed the meadow—his feet-tops were bright red and covered with clear pus-filled blisters as long as an inch and as tall as three-quarters of an inch. The culprit: poison parsnip juice lit by the sun. As Jordan had sliced through these encroaching plants, setting their stalks aside, his feet had brushed by the cut stems. Unknown to him, juice from these stems had triggered a chemical reaction in his skin, rendering him hypersensitive to the sun’s searing rays. His feet were not a pretty sight.
For the week following, Jordan could not stand, walk, or even think of wearing shoes. He spent most of the time on the couch, with his feet up. Fortunately, he had company—two young brothers, newly released from school--who couldn't get enough time playing board games. Undeterred by his painful plant encounter, Jordan picked up Aldo Leopold’s classic call to love the wildness of the wilderness--Sand County Almanac--and read it cover to cover.
Those of us left standing were waiting on Jordan, tending to Providence, hauling water up to Daisy, and bringing her milk back down—most of it in the bucket, and the rest on our clothes.
Meanwhile, Providence was getting stronger. One afternoon I opened the door of the cat crate and she tried to stand up. I took her out of the crate and she plopped back down again. “Come on, Providence! You can do it!” She tried again. I had the boys feed her more lettuce and spinach and grass by hand. She hopped and flapped her wings vigorously, beating for balance, while we kept the other hens away.
We started taking Providence out of the crate during the day and leaving her outside of the coop, while the others were in. Or we would leave her in the coop while the others were in the back pen. Mostly she sat. But then she began hopping around a bit more, spending more time standing on her one leg. Her hurt thigh had new skin. Her broken, black leg remained folded beneath her. I tried introducing her to the hens again. Those lower in the pecking order stood alongside her, happily enough. Only the top hens turned upon her. I separated them again.
Meanwhile, Daisy was not improving. Her knee started to swell. We called the Vet. He prescribed anti-inflammatory medicine and time spent even more immobile than she had been, in a stall. We could not drink her drugged milk. But Maple’s calf Magnolia could. So we put Maggie in the stall with Daisy so that Daisy could nurse her great-granddaughter. As many years as I have nursed, Daisy has me beat.
Fortunately, Jordan’s feet were finally permitting themselves to be used. So twice a day, while Jessica and Kyra were milking Maple, Jordan started going out with his scythe—wearing shoes—to gather a tarp full of grass for Daisy and Maggie. He could give have given them dried, crunchy hay, but the fresh grass is so much more delicious and nutritious.
Then one day Providence’s broken leg fell off. Claw and all. Yet rather than suffer this loss, she began standing taller still, hopping more, and asserting her place in the flock. Now, just over two months after her attack, Providence is back. She hops gracefully with no need for wild wing action. She lowers beak to grain without toppling over; tips her head up to swallow water and does not fall. Even more, none of the other hens seem to mind. Once again, she is one of them. Our one-legged hen. Providence indeed.
Last night, Jessica came in from chores: “Mom! I just saw Providence stealing food from another hen!” Ordinarily, I am don't support stealing, but in this case, I'll take it as a sign of unexpected, irrepressible life returning. Hooray.
So now we are all waiting on Daisy. We have one more dose of anti-inflammatory to dispense. The swelling in her knee is down; her leg still dangles. But we have hope. As long as she is healthy and not in pain, as long as her quality of life is good, we will wait to see what solutions nature has in store, and align our actions as best we can with whatever healing is happening.
Here's to a summer with legs.