Throughout my Pickaway County childhood I raised chickens, ducks, sheep and a horse, but I will always be known for the geese.
Cast your mind back to recess in elementary school. You might have spent your time on the swings, playing hopscotch or throwing a football with your friends, but that’s not what I want you to remember. Were there two or three girls on the edge of the playground pretending to ride horses? The Horse Girls? Of course there were. There always were. I wasn’t one of them. I was the Goose Girl.
I grew up on a 6-acre farm in rural Ohio. How rural? Every school that I attended had a cornfield across the street, hearing gunshots from the neighbor’s house was not a cause for alarm, and the coolest kids were in FFA. My family’s farm is named “Cowfeathers,” which is a little misleading because we’ve never had cows. We have, however, had just about every other farm animal you can think of, all because of a cool little organization called 4-H.
Well, it’s not that little. 4-H is a national organization to promote agriculture, education and leadership, and I was a member for 12 years. My 4-H claim to fame was that I took the only goose project to grace Pickaway County until this summer, when someone else finally recognized the brilliance of raising geese. I served as club president and was interviewed by a TV crew about poultry projects during the avian flu outbreak (I never watched the interview).
In 4-H, kids between the ages of 9 and 18 can take on projects that allow them to explore new skills and interests in an educational way, culminating in competitions at the week-long county fair. Topics range from llamas to knot-tying, with an option to forge your own path if you can’t find a 4-H book about the project you’re hoping your parents will finance that year. My favorites were the livestock projects, because they allowed me to raise five different species of farm animals.
The first, pre-4-H livestock to join our big red barn were chickens. My family chose 25 chicks from a catalog, ordered them from a hatchery and drove to the post office to pick up the cheeping box when it arrived. We kept the chicks in the bathroom until they were old enough to live outside, where it is cold and deadly. All 25 peepers had names and I hugged them all every day, because I was 6 and excited to have animals that I could potentially call mine.
After the 25 were reduced to nine by a roving stray dog, we ordered more birds. “Birds” and not “chickens” because I had begged my mom to let me take a goose project in 4-H, and she had (rather foolishly) agreed.
My goslings arrived in a box with the chickens and ducks (I really like poultry) and I carried them around with me every day when I got off the school bus. I was quickly dubbed The Goose Girl by my classmates, who seemingly neglected to notice my other animal charges. I named my geese Henri and Henrietta, and proudly took them to the fair where we won our class (as the only entry, but a win is a win). I won the poultry knowledge division against some competition, and continued to do so most years, so if you have a burning question about the best breed of duck or the specific parts of a chicken’s wing, I’m your girl.
The fourth species to join the farm was sheep, and a much briefer love affair was ignited. For about five years, I ran a very small Border Leicester breeding operation out of my barn, with the assistance and financial backing of my long-suffering parents. My original sheep were gifts from my grandma, a hobby sheep farmer in Maryland. She brought them to me in the back of her minivan, and no, she never got the smell out. I had three ewes (Dottie, Delores and Dancer) and a ram (Cesar) who produced a herd of bouncing lambs that I named by generation, so the first born had names beginning with E and the next generation had F names. I lost interest after the Gs and sold my sheep when I realized the flock—priced to sell—would cover the cost of my plane ticket and accommodations for a trip to France.
My horse is named Chanelle, and she’s a former racehorse who hasn’t quite realized that she doesn’t race anymore. I have never been brave enough to ask her to gallop. Nellie and I competed in Pony Club (it’s not as childish as it sounds) for five years, to the great joy of my mother. My mom rode horses in Pony Club when she was growing up, and her desire for equine companionship was what drove my parents to move to Cowfeathers in the first place. So I did get to be a Horse Girl for a while, complete with wearing my boots to school to break them in and asking my friends to quiz me on horse knowledge so I could prepare for my ratings (a system to denote a Pony Clubber’s knowledge and experience).
Though my family has raised many nice animals, I seem to have an affinity for the creatures that no one else likes that much, because they’re “too mean” (please note: this does not extend to boyfriends). I have a scar on my eyelid from when a rooster tried to peck my eye, probably because I was trying to kiss his beak. I walked around on legs that had turned purple from all the bruises given to me by my attacking gander, Henri, whom I have since learned to catch before he bites me. I could have stopped trying to hug him, but I wasn’t about to do something that ridiculous.
I wrestled with my ram in an effort to keep him from pinning me against a fence, and then insisted to my horrified friends that he was nice, for a ram. (This is true: He only wanted to hurt me, not kill me. Do not get in the same pen as a male sheep. They are not nice.) Even my horse is a little standoffish. She has been known to chase chickens out of her stall that get too close to her hay. (Chickens don’t eat hay, but I’m not sure she knows that.) She threatens her own reflection with flattened ears and bared teeth.
Living near Ohio State has given me a completely different set of expectations and thresholds for excitement. None of my college friends would have been excited that their brother cleaned the chicken house before they had to, and none of my high school friends would have been excited that they installed sidewalks on my route to campus. But farm life is always fascinating, no matter the audience, and I am unabashedly a poultry-lover. People love to hear that I have a horse and chickens, but when I mention Henri, they’ll never stop asking about him. Who else has a pet goose—who is honestly too cranky to ever be a good pet—and goes to the barn to hang out with him? Who else can say that they’ve been nicknamed the Goose Girl?
My visits to the farm are less frequent now that I am a worldly and cosmopolitan Ohio State student who has accepted the sad fact that she will not get to raise a cow or a turkey. When I do make it home, my horse lets me pet her face because she missed me, the rooster (Larry Bird—I didn’t name him) runs in the other direction because he knows I’m going to carry him around with me and Henri gives me a half-hearted hiss because I seem familiar. He’s my favorite.
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