Editor’s note: For the past five years, Crash Barry has pursued the neo-homesteading lifestyle in eastern Oxford County. This is his penultimate essay about his attempts to live closer to nature.
It was the day before Thanksgiving, last year, and the half-dozen tired hens had to die. I was dreading the job of executioner. They had been a great flock. In addition to eggs, the gang provided entertainment with their ceaseless search for bugs, ticks and certain weeds, while avoiding the beaks of local hawks. Snow was in the forecast, though, and these four-year-old chickens, who’d quit laying months earlier, were in no condition to face another winter.
Just after the bright pink dawn broke, I took them out of the coop, one by one, and ended their lives quickly and painlessly with my hatchet on a nearby stump. Saddened, I sipped my mug of tea and smoked a fat joint. What next? My frugal side wanted to skin and feed ’em to our dog pack, who are on a raw- meat diet and have often eaten parts of animals we raised and killed.
I’d have to eviscerate ’em first, though, which would be too traumatic, because these birds were practically part of the family, having lived on the land almost as long as Sweetgrass and I had. So I divvied up the carcasses into a couple of garbage bags, tied the ends together and slung ’em over my shoulder. I donned my hunters’ orange watch cap and headed into the woods on an old skidder trail.
At the edge of the swamp, on our neighbor’s parcel, I left the trail and entered a no-man’s land of unusable real estate. I’d disposed of offal here before, mostly the entrails of birds, goats and sheep I’d slaughtered. The ability to get rid of dead things via scavengers is a convenient part of the cycle of nature.
In an attempt to share the fowl feast with multiple species and micro- ecosystems, I decided to place the chickens, one by one, at various locations among ledges and boulders a good distance apart, hoping to discourage food riots among the wild beasts.
This wasn’t exactly a stroll down Memory Lane, but it was still a sad job and I was on the verge of tears as the end of the task loomed. Then, after unceremoniously dropping the last bird among a cluster of small birch, I sobbed for a moment, shook my head, looked around and suddenly realized I had no friggin’ clue where I was.
During the funereal wanderings, I’d neglected to pay attention and had gone astray. The sky was thick with low clouds, hiding any morning sun that could point me in the right direction. I strained to hear the roar and whine of trucks or commuters driving on the nearby state road, which would indicate the way toward civilization. But the only sound was a steady rumble of wind just loud enough to drown out the din of any sporadic traffic.
There was no need to panic, of course — I was literally behind my backyard, not in the hinterlands. This was an anonymous, 200-acre tract in boggy rural Maine, bordered on all sides by roads. I could visualize the swampland’s representation on the map. About 4,500 feet long and 1,800 feet wide. (Superimposed on the Portland peninsula, the swamp would cover about half of Munjoy Hill.)
Lacking a compass, all I could do was try to walk in a straight line. Theoretically, one of the roads would eventually appear. Slogging through the muck and bramble wasn’t easy. My bushwhacking took me over downed trees and thin streams that snaked through the swamp. Then a seemingly impenetrable stand of young spruce stood in my intended path. To the right and left was quagmire. Damn. Time for a water-and-smoke break to consider my next move.
A rifle shot echoed. Sounded like it was in front of me, on the other side of the spruce. Uh-oh. Getting lost was dumb enough. Getting lost during hunting season, with just a tiny cap of orange upon my big skull, was friggin’ idiotic. Because the swamp was also a four-season deeryard. There were signs of deer everywhere, including many piles of scat and several areas where the swamp grass had been flattened by families of does, fawns and button bucks, who slept in the swamp when not foraging for apples and other treats in our ’hood.
I doubled back and around, trying to find a spot from which it would be easier to trek in a direction that wouldn’t get me shot.
Another gun blast rang out — still ahead of me, but now somewhere to the right. Veering leftward, my slow odyssey continued. Eventually, I arrived at a road. I took a quick look around and realized I was nowhere near the place I’d expected to be. Home would be about a two-mile walk along this road. Cutting diagonally, back across the swampland, was a third of the distance. So I headed back into the woods.
I figured knowing my location would make the return trip easy. Following the wet fringe of earth to the northeast soon brought me to more familiar terrain.
“HEY YOU IN THE WOODS!” a man shouted. I recognized the voice. It was my neighbor, Tim, standing in his dooryard a couple hundred feet away, hidden by scrub brush and dying hackmatack, probably having coffee and a smoke. “YOU BETTER PUT ON SOME ORANGE!” he bellowed. “OTHERWISE, SOMEONE IS GONNA SHOOT YOUR ASS!”
“A-YUH,” I hollered back with a wicked thick Maine accent, hoping to conceal my identity, then started jogging in the direction of our land. Through a gap in the canopy, I finally spotted Super-Pine and knew home was a hundred yards away, uphill.
As I approached the house, Sweetgrass appeared at the entrance to the mudroom. “I was beginning to wonder where you went,” she said. “How was your walk?”