For Roger’s birthday a few years ago, I gave him the gift that keeps giving: an all day class on bread making. Early one March morning, he headed off to an artisanal bakery to return that evening armed with an apron, recipes, a half dozen loaves of Roger-made-bread, and unbridled enthusiasm. This last bit was essential as bread baking at home is very different from a commercial kitchen. In the beginning, through trial and error, Roger turned out a few loaves that I affectionately referred to as “doorstops”. A harsh assessment, perhaps, but true. With time, he developed his signature bread that we all love.
We being Sam, the chickens and us.
When I head outside to do any of my daily chores, the chickens will come running pell-mell to see what’s on offer. When it is a slice of Roger’s bread, they forget all their shyness and manners and start jumping up to take bread out of my hand. They fight for it in ways that would make bargain shoppers at a clearance sale proud. And in the midst of this feeding frenzy sits one proud dog suppressing his instincts to edge out the hens and gobble up the bread. He waits, watches, and then takes a big helping torn off for him when the chickens aren’t looking.
It’s funny that Sam and I should conspire to keep his bread eating from the chickens. Will they care? Will they remember? Will it make them feel badly? Or, does Sam enjoy getting one over the chickens?
This race for treats does not extend equally to worms. Unlike the chickens, Sam shows no interest. Recently, I created a scene of pure carnage when I decided to unearth an old stone walkway, delighting the chickens with newly found treasures. This path was covered with grass, mud and years of neglect. I can’t say what prompted me to start pulling up the muddy turfs, but once I got started, I could hardly stop. Obsession and single mindedness had something to do with it, but there was also a joy observing the crazy behaviours of chickens on a worm-eating frenzy.
Meanwhile, Roger created his own overwhelmingly messy scene when he took down one of the ceilings in the house. He removed awful painted interlocking pine planks, revealing sparse, inadequate and highly flammable sheets of polystyrene. Polystyrene was a popular insulation from 40 years ago, but anyone who has packed a picnic lunch into a chill box made of this stuff, knows that the coolness has left the scene within hours. When used to insulate a roof, it is incomparable to what’s available now. The part of the roof above this ceiling did not need repair, leaving this insulation replacement to be done from the inside up toward the exterior slates. As I was making a muddy mess cooking up a worm feast for the chickens, Roger was yanking down the last marginal barrier we had to the slates in preparation of installing something far more effective.
Insulation is not unfamiliar to me. When I was in the ninth grade, I competed in the State of Ohio Science Fair with my project on Conduction, Convection and Radiation of Heat comparing different insulation materials. My Dad built a small doghouse for me to conduct my experiments. While this structure was awkward to carry to the science fair, it was a wonderful contraption with an interchangeable front panel allowing me to insert the different materials: wood, fiberglass, glass, and polystyrene. Using a fairly imprecise thermometer, a heat lamp and a timer, I measured the changes in temperature inside of this insulated doghouse, to compare the efficacy of the various materials.
At the tender age of fourteen, that science experiment was an equal mix of excitement and humility. I thought I knew my stuff until I encountered several brainy kids who really did know their stuff. It pains me to confess it in writing, but I was seriously outclassed in the State capital. The ability of some of these kids to test their null hypothesis exceeded even the most logical, intuitive and cunning skills of Encyclopedia Brown or Nancy Drew to solve nefarious crimes. And, I was surrounded by these people! After First Prize was awarded to the kid who did some sort of study of molecular structures, I have never forgotten the word “polymers”. Some lessons are learned during big events. I sat in the bleachers next to my Mother, feeling somewhat glum while looking at my “Thanks for Participating in the Ohio State Science Fair” certificate, and I privately committed, from that day forward, to pay more attention in all of my classes. During the acceptance speech delivered that afternoon, I learned from the Fair’s anointed winner that polystyrene was a polymer. How did I miss that in my own research? What I did know – and secretly hoped that the newly exalted one had missed in her research – was that this lightweight and widely used foam had some degree of insulation powers. If I hadn’t learned it at the tender age of 14, I have learned it living (and wearing many layers) in this old stone house: it may work, but it isn’t great.
As we weigh all the options as to which heating system will be our best choice for economic, environmental and maintenance considerations, we are still charging ahead with increased insulation and draft elimination. What use is a nifty new boiler if we don’t address these issues? Insulation in a house is as basic as bread in a diet and, while good, no one can live on it alone. The chickens need to both feed and forage for the ultimate in health and happiness. Ours raid the bird feeders, scratch for worms, bugs, seeds, grit and they eat the layers pellets that we provide. They also like a mixture of shredded carrots, cucumbers and Greek yoghurt. If we aren’t careful, they would eat the Polystyrene. But these chickens have picked up a thing or two from Sam: There will be some bread coming for them each afternoon and it is definitely worth the wait!