Sustainability is less about mastering some idealized, advertised lifestyle & more about exploring my personal connection to the energy of the natural world – by Katie Custer



Hi Willi –

I admit I learned about your project from a friend (Andrew Jecklin) more than a month ago and just this morning it occurred to me that I’d better check the deadline because I would like to submit a proposal. I am a day late. I still wanted to share a snippet since your call for proposals got my juices flowing – consider this bit a ‘thank you’. 🙂 I have lived in Eugene for 8 years. Mine is a story of trial and error, and trial again. Until two years ago, I had heard others talk about sustainability. My only experiment in sustainability involved a leaf delivery from the City. Those leaves were spread over the grass in my backyard. At that time, an acquaintance invited me to a gathering. The intention was to introduce the concepts of local currency, sustainability, and trading of resources to build community. I met several creative, inventive individuals. Follow-up connections over the next few months led to one of these individuals standing in my leaf covered backyard, pointing to the back corner and asking if I’d ever considered getting chickens. Uh…actually, yeah, I have thought about it. [The Universe now takes over.]

* * * * * * *

The Chronicle of the Chakra Chickens: How do I define sustainability?

The characters:

  • Me
  • The boyfriend
  • The ladies (hens) – Speckle, Goldie, Baby Buttercream, Baby Goldie, Blackie, Blackie, Blackie, Blackie, Blackie and Blackie (oh yes).
  • The cat (little, stealth, and very, very skittish) – Pasht
  • Raccoon
  • Vulture

What is sustainability?
This is a story of trial and error, and trial again…and how I have learned that not everyone can simply ‘become’ sustainable. Some of us (okay, me) have to practice it, try to master one bit of it, and then move forward and add to that bit. As long as I call it a ‘practice’ I feel okay about it. Okay, fine, not really. Actually, I look at this ‘practice’ from my vantage point of a grad student (with little/no time to dedicate to anything else) and I just feel lazy about it. I feel the same lazy that I feel when reflecting on how little I have been practicing yoga or meditation this winter. Again, a practice. The actual best part of practicing *anything* is that if I do even a little bit of the activity (yoga, meditation, purposely digging in the dirt) in the next 12 hours I’m still practicing. Baby steps. And so the gentle, mental struggle continues. It all started, ever so innocently, a few years ago.

October 2008
I have lived in Eugene for 6 years. I had not heard of sustainability when I first moved here. I had been a classroom teacher turned massage therapist. When I first heard about sustainability it was from interest in energy work and the local healing community. As a homeowner within the city limits, I had a small plot of land full of grass and little interest in mowing after three or four years of doing so. It just didn’t seem right, having a yard but not really ‘using it’. So I started thinking about it…and heard about the ease of natural grass-to-garden transformation. Free leaf delivery from the City made it easy.

November 2008
Those leaves were spread over the grass in my backyard. Grass to garden, baby! Um, at least, goodbye grass…and eventually a garden will, um, appear. Luckily for me I do not have to do anything else for months! Let Mother Earth have her way with the cardboard, newspaper and leaves. In the spring I will come back out and get to work. Absolutely.

January 2009
An acquaintance invited me to a gathering. The intention was to introduce the concepts of local currency, sustainability, and trading of resources to build community. I met several creative, inventive individuals. One of these individuals came over, stood in my backyard and pointed to the back corner. “Have you ever considered getting chickens? That’s the perfect spot for a coop!” Uh…actually, yeah, I have thought about it.

February 2009
Attended a ‘coop raising’ to get ideas and keep taking steps toward an actual coop in my yard…if it’s meant to happen…

March 2009
The boyfriend is helping me build a coop and I am getting chickens! I traded energy work for 3 hens, and seven more came quickly thereafter, the result of the boyfriend doing a trade of his own. The hens started scratching away and have uncovered all sorts of random things. Mostly they’ve uncovered body parts of small action figures. An arm here, a leg there. One day I found a fully intact Spider Man.

I’m noticing there’s an energy connection with these hens. It’s very similar to the energy connection I have with Pasht (meowser). When I’m agitated by something, it doesn’t matter whether I am out with them or inside the house, the hens make awful squaking sounds loudly enough that I can hear them anywhere. Whining and whining and agitating me more…until I calm down. Usually then I realize that they were just trying to pull it out of me. Once I stop, take some deep breaths, clear my head and start feeling better, they stop their bitchin’. Huh. Hens have energy, just like humans. Chickens have chakras. I feel like writing a story about them…my chakra chickens.

April 2009
No story has yet been written. Maybe someday. Apparently I was meant to be guardian to these ten foster chickens. They love the leaves and are natural roto-tillers. Three are laying. I already hit the egg jackpot and the other seven are just leaving pullet-land (teenage chicken-ville) and are about to start laying, themselves. Eek!

Summer 2009
Bliss. Except on days when I notice they don’t have enough area to keep themselves busy scratching. Ten hens is a lot on a little bit of property. It is what it is.

Fall 2009
The other seven have started laying. Egg overload. Gifting friends with eggs. Leaf delivery from the City arrived to placate the hens in need of something new to scratch. No garden has materialized in the backyard. All the grass is gone, though, so anytime I’m ready…and I got enough leaves to convert the front yard this year.

Winter 2010
Some friends have become egg customers. Having to give them all a heads’ up about slowing egg production.

Spring 2010
I love my babies. The cat and the hens are each, individually, called ‘babies’. I am a woman in her late 30s without children. Maybe that’s why I call them that. Luckily I only have one cat (and not ten or 12 or whatever the stereotypical Single Woman With ___ Cats threshold is) but maybe the ten hens count toward the same end? Or maybe when I do have kids I will still call each creature ‘babies’.

I have considered what I will do when they stop laying. Most people then count them as food. If I cannot do that, it means they are really my pets. Outdoor chickens like outdoor dogs and outdoor cats. I just don’t know if I can bring myself to eat Goldie…or Baby Buttercream…or a Blackie.

Why do I even have to consider this? Oh, right, because it’s part of my own definition of sustainability.

Summer 2010
A Blackie died today.

I have always had a soft place in my heart for animals. That soft spot has made it incredibly hard to experience the death of pets – a dog, two cats and now a hen. So sad. I got the heads’ up about the first death when I was riding my bike home and saw a vulture circling high above the neighborhood where my house is. I love vultures. Usually. A Blackie had tanked in the middle of the backyard. No explanation. I quickly converted a corner of the front yard into a Chicken Cemetery. Did not think twice. A friend offered support for that decision saying that bears do not eat dead meat and neither does he.

Fall 2010
Egg production is dwindling again. I forgot how they just stop laying when the days get shorter.

Lost another Blackie. Also lost Speckle. My heart has broken again. Twice.

One night I was falling asleep and briefly ‘dreamed’ an image of a 5 gallon bucket with a couple chickens laying inside. Woke up briefly with no emotional reaction whatsoever, and fell back asleep. Early the next morning when it was still dark, I went outside to check on things and heard sounds coming from near the hen house. For ‘whatever’ reason, I chose not to venture further into the darkness, instead deciding the sounds were something I scared away from the yard. A little while later I was inside and heard a terrible growl coming from the same part of the yard. I ran outside with a flashlight.

From there, I do not remember details except the sight of a huge raccoon that somehow had the strength to haul its gigantic body away, over the redwood fence, as I approached. My eyes fell to Speckle laying lifeless on the ground. It was my fault. I had left the henhouse door wide open. I cannot explain why. I had actually left it open without incident for more than a year. I did not have a way to secure it in that moment, so I felt absolutely defenseless, unable to offer protection to the surviving 8 hens. I could only make one lame attempt and propped the door shut with a 2×4.

In my moment of shock, desperate to save the remaining carcass from the likely-to-be-returning Raccoon of Unusual Size (ROUS – watch The Princess Bride and you’ll understand), I grabbed a 5 gallon bucket and gently placed her body in it. In the next half hour, unbeknownst to me, the raccoon returned, quietly shoved the 2×4 aside, grabbed and killed a Blackie. I discovered her an hour later and set her gently in the bucket next to Speckle. My ‘dream’ came true.

Raccoon’s needs were met and s/he did not return the next night. If s/he had returned, there would have been a surprise – I set a live trap, all prepared to become the hunter and show this creature who was boss by, um, trapping it. And then, well, having the boyfriend drive it to a new location in the country where it would have to rebuild its life somehow. Well, I didn’t want that raccoon to have another easy feast! I was reacting. It was going to take awhile to calm down.

As much as I wanted to blame the raccoon, I knew it was a) my fault and b) just something that would probably have happened a different way otherwise. It’s just what happens in this life. I had to work very hard to shift my focus from anger and hatred of the predator to forgiveness of myself. A couple days later I was starting to feel better. That’s when I saw the fresh raccoon road kill on a nearby highway. Hmm.

After a few weeks passed I stopped setting the live trap. Some squirrels were apparently able to tiptoe in, eat some peanut butter, and tiptoe back out w/out the tripping the mechanism.

At the end of the day of the attack, the boyfriend came over and designed a door with hurricane clips, rebar, and a heavy slab of wood. I now secure it every night, no matter what. There is no proof of predators and no attempted incidents to prove that the ladies are safer than they were, but at least I can say that I AM doing the best I can to protect them.

February 2011
Egg production is starting back up again. I wonder how many ladies are still at it? If they aren’t, no big deal. They just graduate into being pets at this point. I feel good about that. These came to me as foster hens. I had no intention of slaughtering them.

A friend asked if I’m getting chicks this year. It is the season. I am too tired from school and I must take care of myself, first, before I launch into caring for any other creatures. I said ‘no, but I will next year’. Mostly I am afraid of losing more. But I’m more likely to lose one of my existing hens to old age at this point. Maybe I’ll know I’m ready when I could just as soon slaughter and eat one as feed and pet one. Time will tell what kind of emotional evolution I am meant to experience.

March 2011
I had thought I wanted to be a farmer (small scale) someday, returning to the lifestyle my grandmother had lived as a child. But if I am so emotionally connected to animals that I am totally devastated, albeit temporarily, when they are taken as part of the ‘cycle of life,’ then am I really the right candidate for farm life?

* * * * * * *

My definition of sustainability includes all sorts of things that I’m just not consistent about doing. Practice, practice. For example, I researched how to make plum butter a few years back (and then successfully made some!) after being invited to a friend’s plum harvest. In the years since, she has invited me to gather more, which I have done…and then I have chosen to just eat them or give them away rather than ‘taking the time’ to make the butter, or otherwise preserve them. I miss the process but I also remember it took more than half a day and right now I do not have the time (okay, patience, tolerance…interest?) to do such a thing.

The memory of it, juxtaposed with the image of it, is enticing. That is what motivated me in the first place. And the payout was delicious. I recently opened one of the jars from back then and was deeply gratified to discover the taste brought back vivid memories. Maybe next season.

For awhile I even had beehives and helped my beekeeping boyfriend to save swarms from random buildings during ‘bee season’. To me, honey bees are as cute as chickens are as cute as cats are as cute as birds. When we would be saving a large swarm from an abandoned trailer or broken down building, there would be bee casualties. I felt sad about the loss. Is this some kind of neurosis or just true compassion for the manifest energy of the natural world?

Maybe, for me, sustainability is less about mastering some idealized, advertised lifestyle and more about exploring my personal connection to the energy of the natural world.

Join the virtual barn yard peeps at openmythsource – reservoir

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About [ open myth source ]

The [open myth source] project gathers conversations, symbols, songs, visual art and stories. Building a house for Myth in the Sustainability Age.
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