Life and Death on a Western Pennsylvania Homestead
Jesse of the House Flaherty, First of Her Name, the Unflappable, Jill of all Trades, Huntress of the Great Pennsylvania White Tail, Maker of Bone and Feather Jewelry, and Mother of Rabbits.
...Okay, I had to! My new friend, Jesse, has such an interesting life that I felt the need to give her a proper introduction. Plus, she and I share a love of Game of Thrones so it just had to be done. I met Jesse Flaherty at the end of a long dirt road in rural western Pennsylvania. After an hour of driving deeper and deeper into the countryside north of Pittsburgh, my car finally emerged in a clearing where a cluster of buildings sat nestled within the woods. I rolled on up the muddy drive, along a pasture where two horses grazed peacefully, and pulled around to park in front of a quaint old house with a front porch any city dweller should be jealous of. I hopped out of my car, gratefully stretched in the unseasonably warm January sunlight, and collected my gear. Within a few moments, a coral-haired young woman appeared from—what felt like—out of nowhere. She stood all of five feet, three inches tall, dawned a camo baseball cap, black eyeliner, farm boots, a tattoo sleeve depicting the portraits of native Pennsylvania wildlife, and a friendly, open energy.
After introducing ourselves, exchanging niceties, and comparing tattoos, Jesse proceeded to show me around the 14 acre farm she and her husband own and live on. Our first stop was the rabbitry. I will admit, I don't believe I'd heard the term "rabbitry" before meeting Jesse. We had exchanged a few emails, plus chatted on the phone prior to our face-to-face visit, so I had already formulated my own understanding of the word after hearing her use it a few times. But, for those of you still wondering what a "rabbitry" is, dictionary.com helpfully defines it as: A collection of rabbits, or a place where rabbits are kept.
A collection of rabbits, indeed. Inside the brick outbuilding where Jesse had led me, I was introduced to approximately fifty rabbits, a handful of ducks, several chickens, and one angry cat (appropriately named 'Asshole Cat'). Jesse has been raising rabbits since she was a small child. She is clearly a pro, and each rabbit appeared clean, healthy, and well fed. Depending on their determined use, she shows them, breeds them, cares for them as companions, sells them for meat or fur, or uses their remains to create one-of-a-kind jewelry, clothing and art to sell in her Etsy shop. All kinds of rabbit breeds are housed here, including one exceptionally soft Standard Rex, a caramel-colored rabbit that was the most cuddly velveteen critter I've ever touched. So. Soft.
Once the rabbitry tour was complete, we walked around the side of the building, where we approached two wood-framed enclosures flanking a small field. One enclosure was a regular chicken coop, where a small collection of laying hens and one lone turkey pecked around as a colorful little family. The other was a space for Jesse to allow bones, feathers, and various animal parts to decompose naturally in the elements before cleaning and drying them to use for her creations.
Across the field behind Jesse's house, more animals live content lives as companions and friends. Horses Joker and Milo were enjoying the warm day as snow turned to mud in their pasture. Pigs Giselle and Amadeus rooted around happily in their hay-filled play pin. They are fairly small now, but one day soon these little buggers will grow up to be extraordinarily large (and stinky).
While Jesse's farm is, on one hand, full of life, there is another side of things here that is completely based on death. Skulls, bones, feathers, antlers, fur, heads, feet, wings, and any animal part you can imagine are scattered around the farm in various places, each for a specific purpose. Jesse is a deer hunter and avid hiker, and often comes across animal parts while walking through the woods. She doesn't like to waste any part of an animal, and strives to ensure that it is either used as food, art, or somehow returned to the earth.
Lastly, Jesse showed me to her home studio, where she breaths life into death. Trays of feathers, bones, and tools were organized neatly on a work table. Bright, exquisitely crafted earrings lined an entire wall. Rabbit fur scarves and naturally dried pheasant wings sat basking in the sun under a window. When Jesse says she doesn't like to waste any part of an animal, she really means that. In her shop, one can purchase frozen oddities like rooster hearts, or baby bunnies who didn't make it. Perhaps you might even be interested in some naturally dried chicken feet.
It's always wonderful to meet someone who lets you into their unique world, even just for a short time. Running a farm full of animals and an online business is no walk in the park, but she somehow manages to balance the two in harmony. Keep an eye and and ear out for Jesse Flaherty in western Pennsylvania this year. Her goal is to become a rabbit purveyor for local restaurants, and to turn her farm into a place where she and her husband can raise pesticide and hormone-free animals on a larger scale to serve the surrounding area.