So this is my “new stuff”—these hymenoptera homes (see my last post), along with bird’s nests, caches of lizard eggs, the squeaky-high calls of young hawks, mushrooms that could be psilocybin, jade-and-gold scarabs with their gleaming green undersides, a feathery cassia coming up from the spot where it died eight years earlier, a caterpillar that looks exactly like bird shit (for camouflage), a big black marble of a carpenter bee hovering in my face, then flying off, satisfied with my friendly aura. It isn’t the kind of stuff that piles up in the house—usually I leave it where it is, or it moves by itself.
If I’m not shopping for new stuff, or taking it to be fixed, or working to pay for it, or addictively playing with it, I have time to see what’s happening out there, where my species (and all others) evolved. I recognize that my back yard isn’t pristine nature, but it’s as close as I can come right now. With aircraft and now drones cutting through every bit of sky on the planet these days, none of us can do true wilderness anymore.
Boring as the idea of “getting out into nature” will sound to many modern humans, it represents real health issues, even life-and-death matters. An abundance of research demonstrates that frequent contact with natural environments is critical to health and happiness. Some studies show you’ll be healthier if a window you look out of regularly offers you a view of greenery rather than something like a brick wall.
So natural new stuff—new-to-you discoveries, like finding your pea leaves cut with perfect little circles in them—is never going to suck. Unless you investigate a scorpion or a rattlesnake too closely. (Nature can be cruel. But we don’t have to go there.)
Ironically, building the chicken coop—an outside activity—meant creating an indoor space from a fairly open, outdoor space. I’d be using natural materials, like straw and mud and stone, along with some manmade supplies—cooler pads, glass, nails, and stakes.
I needed to make one long wall, which would butt up against the shed, and a shorter one that would butt up against the side of my house. If anyone in the future wanted to undo this building, it would be easy: they could just train the hose on the mud, and it would melt. Pull on the cooler pads and they’d come loose. I felt more comfortable about building, knowing this.
Having decided where the walls would go, I built foundations to support them. I used a mishmash of sidewalk chunks, brick, and flagstone remnants—whatever I could find around the yard and alley with a flat surface. This was art—a mosaic. But its beauty would soon be covered by the cooler pads—temporary art, like the works of Andrew Goldsworthy, which he makes from leaves, ice, twigs, rocks. He photographs them and then abandons them to melting, decomposing, drowning, or blowing away. And he’s still my favorite artist.
Like all walls, perhaps, this first, longer wall would provide a recycling opportunity. We’d been drinking a shameful amount of ready-made kombucha, and seeing the bottles pile up bothered me to the quick. Glass can be recycled, but the city of Tucson had just discontinued that service. We’d given a batch of them to a friend who wanted them for a pathway project, but once again they’d started accumulating.
I would use the bottles to make light tunnels through the wall. To do this, you have to put the neck of each bottle inside a wider-mouth jar, making a pair that would span the wall’s thickness. Small jam jars would be perfect, but we had none, only a ton of plastic medication bottles. Plastic wasn’t ideal; it would turn brittle and break. But the craziest thing was, their threads matched those of the glass bottles exactly. It seemed like the Goddess of Reuse was blessing this pair-up.
I had enough pairs to make two rows of tunnels. And then I remembered I also had some salvaged glass blocks, enough for a third, even prettier row. With a glass sun face in the center! I couldn’t remember where I’d gotten that. But it seemed meant to be set in a wall, or something—it was heavy glass with a flat back, not just a plate with a sun design.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. I set the first course of cooler pads on their mosaic foundation with just enough border showing around them for a bit of protection from puddles, I hoped. It suddenly occurred to me that, even though these pads would be well-weighted down with more pads, mud, and glass, it might be a good idea to pin them to ground. So I went out back to my sticks-and-stakes storage shelves and gathered up some tent ribs, antennae sections, slender copper tubing, meta umbrella arms, short lengths of rebar, and some pieces of unknown origin.
It was a great game to hammer these stakes diagonally through the corrugated blocks, trying blindly to hit the dirt joints between the rock-hard pieces of the foundation. It reminded me a little of playing darts: satisfying to hit the target.
When I’d done all I could, I quit. It might all be overkill. The way I built things, I never knew.
Now I could indulge in the mud. Our neighbor five houses down had thrown four bales of straw—plus two that had fallen apart—into the alley. With bales at $11 each from the feed store, this was almost $70 worth of straw. I didn’t know what they’d used them for, but they didn’t want them anymore, so we were “welcome to ’em.” It was a beautifully short distance, a couple of trips with the hand truck, and we had enough for our chickens into the future, as well as a mud-strengthener for plastering the cooler pads.
I began to run handfuls of this golden straw through a screen to weed out the long, awkward, pokey pieces in favor of the fine, short fibers that I would mix into my mud to strengthen it. Maybe mud alone, forced into channels of a pad’s structure, would be enough; maybe the straw was overkill. But I’d worked with this mixture before—this ancient material used around the world—and I had no reason not to make use of this free gift.
I was right about the forceful way the cooler pads grabbed the mud and let my hands smooth it over their surfaces. I covered the first course and swept over the line of bottles to prepare for the next.
The wall would be taller than me, tippy unless I pinned them together. I pounded a few of my longest pins from top to seam and past, for a strong bond. The shorter pins went through the seam diagonally, or I countersank them from the top.
I kept going, adding another layer of bottles, another of mud, then the row of glass block with the sun in the center. I couldn’t remember where or when I’d gotten the block—not knowing how I’d use them—but it’s been my “policy” to pay no more than $4 for a block. Cheaper than that, my alternative-builder self can’t resist them, with their built-in pockets of air-insulation, and the ripply-stream way they catch and reflect sunlight.
I stood for a while and admired my work, as I always liked to do. Thanks to the shed wall, half the coop was done. But—oops. My wall leaned in a bit. I hadn’t used a plumbline; plus, things shift when you’re pounding rebar into them. It didn’t matter. Not because this building was just for chickens, but rather because the aesthetic of sculptability was tolerant. Also, I could add more mud to the caved-in spaces if I wanted.
It would be fine.
The wall opposite would be mostly window. The chickens would be looking out on my house’s back wall and the area just in front of it. A narrow but full-height wall would hold the window on one side, and a vertical four-by-four attached to the shed would hold it on the other. I’d already learned from more than one unfortunate experience that when mud tries to hold glass, it often cracks the glass as it dries. But this window was already set in a frame—and that’s what the mud would be grabbing onto. I hoped it would work.
All that was needed now was a beam going from the narrow wall to the vertical four-by-four. It would support the tin roof panels on that end.
The door suggested itself. A friend had just sold his house and left town, leaving me quite a stash of materials. Among them were two flimsy wire wood-framed doors—not really usable on their own, but if bolted together, perfect for a lightweight chicken enclosure door. They—now it—called out for some kind of decoration. Something circular, maybe. All I could find was a painting on a thin, round piece of wood that had just done a stint as an outdoor stool cover and was curling up severely, as thin wood is wont to do. This isn’t good for anything, I thought. I should throw it out.
But I couldn’t. This design had been painted by my favorite aunt and given to my parents when I was a little girl. I remembered it hanging next to the door of our new garage. It must have been almost fifty years old.
I got it to uncurl by gluing it to a piece of plastic campaign sign, cut round and weighted down with books. Hopefully it would stay flat and stuck. I should not be doing this, I thought. I should be circulating a petition. Sitting in front of a bulldozer somewhere. Volunteering to get out the vote. Joining the Hunger Walk. Calling my congressperson. Occupying pipeline land. Marching for diversity and justice. Documenting animal cruelty. Instead, I was trying to rescue this silly piece of almost-trash.
Well, there was a virus raging out there, for one thing, and many of those powerful acts had been curtailed. Beyond that, though, this uncurling and gluing actually was an act of protest. It was self-entertainment: time I wouldn’t spend with vapid TV, internet commercials, social media ‘influencers,” or other advertising, but rather engaged in memories of my favorite aunt.
The tension of my one-person “reality show” revolved around the real question: could I revive this thing for actual use on a chicken-house door?
And if I succeeded in this escape from media coercion, would it matter to anyone but me?
Probably not. (Unless it matters to you.)
The painted circle stayed glued. I gave it some touch-up paint and topped it with a piece of clear plastic for protection from the desert sun.
There was already a chain-link fence where the chickens would run. I doubled it with the window screen, and tripled it with chicken wire. No hawk, no dog or coyote, no squirrel could break in. Then I took the 1950s ceramic hen and rooster out of storage and wired them to the end of the fun. Sixty years and not a scratch or chip on either one. I wired them tightly to the other wires—two guards that would keep the girls safe.
Next Monday: short bios of the parents who managed to keep these ceramic figurines from all harm for half a century—and who proved to be my “influencers” in wanting to live a life of super-low consumerism.