Friday, 19 June 2009

Green Acres is the place to be . . .

"Farm living is the life for me"

I've always thought of myself as a city girl. Just give me a whiff of that acrid city air and it's like leaded petrol in my veins.

For three years now I've been out of my natural habitat, and bogged down in the countryside. Instead of taxi fumes, the air smells of wet grass, honeysuckle and the earthy tang of manure.

I've adjusted to clean air; I've come to love the quiet of the place; but the one thing that I cannot wrap my head around is the subject of animal husbandry.

I live next-door to a farm, and every morning as I depart for the school-run I see some unfortunate jodphured person mucking out the stables. It combines everything I like least: mud, stench and hooves. I'm deeply grateful for the work that farmers do, mostly because I'm glad that I don't have to procure my food the hard way. I know that I am like Marie Antoinette at Le Petit Trianon, dabbling in my strawberry plants and hen's eggs, but I'm content to rely on the grocery store as our primary food source.

Although I exist on the fringes of actual agriculture, occasionally I will wander into the trenches, and then be as surprised as an Alice who fell through the rabbit hole.

Last Friday night, my husband and I attended a Farmer's Ball -- my rather airy description of a fundraising event to help local farmers in times of need. (It's an emergency fund, really.) General impressions: Lovely Food (new potatoes and rare roast beef and properly sweet strawberries) but Worst Disco Ever. (The Nolan Sisters? The music was cheesy more than 30 years ago.)

I was sat by a German farmer and his wife; I will call them Hans and Helga. They are the most extraordinary pair: equally strapping and hearty, and always smiling and laughing. They are like a cross between an apple dumpling and an Oom-Pah Band. You might think that the stress and disappointments of farming would result in dour dispositions, but these two act like the world and everything in it is a great jolly joke.

I've no idea how Hans and Helga came to live in West Berkshire, but they've been local fixtures for two decades at least. I've known them for about a decade, and encountered them mostly at chilly "summer" barbeques and Bonfire Nights. Perhaps because I am usually leaning against the AGA, trying to stay warm, they tend to tease me. They treat me like a delicate flower or lace doily: something pretty, "precious," and ineffectual. Although I am usually wearing jeans and a fleece, they make me feel like Eva Gabor in a filmy peignoir.

Despite generalized good-will and a casual fondness, Helga and I tend to bring out the stereotype in each other. When I discovered that she was originally from Bayreuth, I immediately asked her if she had ever been to the Festival. She found this deeply hilarious. "But doesn't everyone ask you this?" I said. "No one! Never has anyone asked me this!" she replied. "Only YOU would know this," she chortled, and then leaned over to share with Hans this great joke. Then, widening her eyes, she confided me: "I did see The Ring Cycle once. Ten hours on a wooden bench. NEVER AGAIN."

At some point, the conversation turned, inevitably, to chickens. I have two hens; Helga has sixty, give or take a cockerel. She proceeded to tell me a lurid tale, sort of a cross between Chicken Run and The Exorcist.

For reasons which weren't entirely clear, Helga decided to "do away" with one of her cockerels -- a mean and stringy old fellow. First, she bashed him unconscious with a wooden board. Then, she cut his throat with a knife to finish him off. Finally, she buried him deep in the muck heap "so that the dogs wouldn't eat him." (Each stage of this murder was related to me with much chuckling and chortling.)

Has anyone guessed the punchline? It was the chicken who just wouldn't die. The next day, one of her daughters commented on the "strange chicken" walking around the yard like a drunken sailor. Like a grisly spectre, the cockerel had risen from the muck heap . . . and was listing around, head lolling at its side.

Apparently, he went on to make a full recovery.

Knife crime takes on surprising forms in the countryside.

one of my pampered chickens


25 comments:

Elizabeth said...

So you long for the city
as I long for the countryside
hmmmmmm

ArtSparker said...

There was supposedly a chicken that lived for a year minus its head...Must have fed it through a tube.

Sounds like life on Mars.

Kate said...

I need to stop laughing long enough to type ... I am reminded of that oh-so-funny movie from a decade back, Death Becomes Her. In it, actresses Meryl Streep and Goldie Hawn (cannot remember their characters' names ...)take a special potion that renders them immortal -- only there's much hate between them and so the hilarity comes when they try to off each other.
Oh, I wish I could have been a fly on the wall at the farm party. Helga sounds delightful!
+++

Dick said...

An anecdote that must have consolidated entirely your distaste for the animate side of farming! A great tale.

The Spiv said...

Mike the headless chicken is no myth! Check it/him out at

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mike_the_Headless_Chicken

It's the kind of story that will brighten up your day .... unless ....

blackbird said...

I had chickens in my little garden in Seattle and luckily never had to dispatch one. If the job had needed to be done, I had already found a woman down the block who had a lot of experience as a child 'doing away' with the chickens on the family farm. I wasn't even a very good chicken nurse.

Star said...

Not funny! poor cockerel, I feel for him Huh!
That said, I'm sorry you are 'stuck' in the country. No doubt you feel cold most of the time as well? I'm not sure which part of the US you hale from, but I do understand the suffering. I come from cold Britain to hot south of US, Tennessee and I suffer in reverse. I am always saying to L, 'where are the sheep?' 'where are the horses and cows etc.?" I never see any, you see. All I see is mountains and Krogers and Walgreens and cars, cars cars. Oh well! We must both look on the bright side.
Blessings, Star

Beth said...

“You can take the girl out of the city...”

I’m rather partial to a Charlotte’s Web sort of depiction of farm life – friendly, talking animals... (Although Charlotte’s death did hit me hard.)

Great story!

rxBambi said...

Very funny story! I have a picture of Hans and Helga in my mind...I wish you could post a photo so I could see if I'm close!

Delwyn said...

Hi Bee
I enjoyed your story and description of H&H. Perhaps its safer to stay with the idealised version of 'the country' there are some things we'd rather not know about our food and when we do it can put you off for life...like battery produced eggs, and chicken sheds....

I remember looking over the neighbour's fence when I was a kid and seeing a chook tear around their back yard without it's head.

Stuff of nightmares for children...

Happy Days

JaneyV said...

I spent three summers when I was in college deep in the German countryside and met many Hans and Helgas. What I loved about the people of rural Germany is that they were very hearty - they loved good food, good booze and good company. I had a ton of fun there. The chicken story doesn't surprise me. Farmers can't have a soppy attitude to their livestock or we'd never have any sausages. I love that the zombie chicken went on to make a full recovery. I don't blame Helga for not wanting to revisit 10 hours of Wagner - torture indeed.

I think Hubby's grandfather came from somewhere in North Bavaria near W├╝rzburg.

I have to say that a Farmer's Ball - even complete with naff 70's disco sounds like a hoot. It's the company that makes any event worthwhile I find.

Isn't it funny Bee - I was born and bred in the city too and here I am in the middle of rural England - and as much as I sometimes miss the cosmopolitan energy of city life I find that my spirit is better suited to the quiet life. I guess that's why I call myself a sociable hermit. I need a bit of both to feel balanced but I'm content to just make visits to the city now.

Bee said...

Elizabeth - Actually, I think I long for the best of both!

ArtSparker - I wouldn't put anything past chickens. They are quite brainless anyway.

Kate - I've seen Death Becomes Her and I know exactly what you mean! Helga IS delightful, and I am really fond of her despite being as dissimilar as "chalk and cheese," as the English say.

Dick - True; it is difficult for me to imagine slitting a chicken's throat!

The Spiv - Thanks for the link!

Blackbird - I don't mind feeding them, but I definitely don't want to administer to them in other ways.

Star - Yes, I do always feel cold! As for the livestock, they are very pretty to look at . . .

Beth - Yes, real pigs are not a bit like Wilbur, unfortunately. Nor are spiders much like Charlotte . . .

rxBambi - Hans has straight blonde hair, slightly bulging blue eyes, red cheeks and large features. Helga is built upon the lines of the Aunt Jemima maple syrup bottle -- with twinkling brown eyes. They have three tall, buxom daughters with long blonde hair -- very Heidi-ish, only in their 20s.

Hi Delwyn - The headless chicken story is much more common than I realized!

JaneyV - Your description of Hans and Helga as certain types is spot-on. They are hugely appreciative of any of the pleasures in life -- including a good joke or story. I find them easier to get on with than many of the English farmers I know, who do tend to be a bit dour.

Although I like to have the occasional moan about the countryside, sometimes I do wonder if I could put up with the constant stresses (noise, pace, various threats) of the city anymore.

Reya Mellicker said...

OMG - that chicken story is truly awful.

Loved this: a cross between an apple dumpling and an Oom-Pah Band. Hans and Helga - wow.

Dumdad said...

But even if the chicken survived it was wanted dead in the first place so why did they allow it to live? They could have tried drowning or electrocution...

Pamela Terry and Edward said...

Oh see now, that's why I couldn't have farm animals as anything but pets. I do think, however, that I'd rather much out a stall than work in a high-rise. Living in the country, but close enough to the city for occasional visits...would be the perfect combination, I should think.

Barrie said...

Seriously? It unburied itself and was actually alive? Oh my, it sounds like a nightmare. That said, I've always wanted to try keeping chickens. We're not zones for it, though.

Yvonne Anderson said...

Having just moved from a city in Australia to the nature in New Zealand, I did love your story.

We are going to be starting a market garden, getting a worm farm and my husband has just bought his first pair of gumboots. I am still to find a fashionable pair myself :)

I would like some chickens though....

Lucy said...

My god, Hans and Helga and their stories sound like something out of one of those weird modern British black comedies I don't watch because I can't get my head round them. I did laugh though!

I feel very much the same about life in a rural idyll.

One of my German friends has done the Ring Cycle twice, including once at Bayreuth. She says the 10 hours on the wooden bench is an integral and essential part of the experience...

Bee said...

Reya - One's reaction to that story probably reveals a lot about one's sensibility.

Dumdad - I think that she thought if something had that strong of a life-force, who was she to stand in its way?

Pamela Terry - Yes; I'm afraid that my squeamishness will keep me from ever being a proper country person!

Barrie - And yet, as she told the story, it sounded like a ludicrous cartoon. I guess you will have to content yourself with lizards . . .

Yvonne - Lots of cute gumboots here in England! Hunter does all sorts of colorful ones, now, if that's what you want. Thanks for visiting.

Lucy - I like a Wagner prelude, but I'm not sure that I'm up for 10 hours of any kind of music!

The whole anecdote was rather Cold Comfort Farm-ish. I'm afraid that I like the pastoral bits of the countryside, but not the harshness. (That's me all over; pathetic, really.)

A Thousand Clapping Hands said...

This was a very entertaining story! I was on the edge of my seat. So many contrasts! Thanks, Bee.
Catherine

CashmereLibrarian said...

Oh, now Bee this is one awesome story! LMAO!

Bee said...

Thanks Cashmere and Catherine. I couldn't make this stuff up! (my imagination is not that good)

Willow said...

I still remember the horror of watching my uncle behead our chicken dinner. It ran around and around in circles for a while before flopping over. Bleeding. I was four.

Does Helga assume that you had visited The Alamo?

Bee said...

Willow - My mother used to tell me about her grandmother ringing the chicken's neck. (I'm actually kind of afraid of our chickens. Shh. Don't tell!)

If Helga has heard of the Alamo, she's never seen fit to bring it up!

Fantastic Forrest said...

Ooh! Zombie chickens. Like Nearly Headless Nick.

I love your stories of country life. I envision a Wallace and Gromit-like village. Please say there is a vegetable growing contest. Please!

I will make sure to visit you when those berries are ripe. I want some of that disco action.

Oh, and the Ring Cycle thing? We had our own mini-version of that with the 6 hours we spent watching Soderburgh's two part Che extravaganza and listening to him talk about it. Our butts were very tired. But we've watched the Lord of the Rings trilogy without a problem. :)