I dashed into the hardware store the other day, looking for niger seeds for my finches, and, this being Vermont and almost spring, I walked by a display of sugaring supplies. Next to them was a forty-pound bag of chicken feed, and the sight of that bag pierced me like a sword.
It’s been six years now since I took my little flock to be killed, in preparation for our move to the retirement community where we now live. My hens were big, affable, butter-colored Buff Orpingtons, the golden retrievers of the chicken world. They were, as hens go, unflappable, and they made it through Vermont winters in their unheated chicken coop. They were not egg-laying machines, like those sad, nervous Leghorns favored by factory farmers. My hens’ egg production waxed and waned with the seasons, as God intended it to.
On the other hand, they were composting machines, and my garden depended on them for its fertility. All year round, hunting for seeds, they scratched and shredded the layers of old hay that lined their coop, and deposited nitrogen-rich droppings into the mixture, which I periodically hauled to the garden to work its miracles.
As thrifty as Depression-era housewives, my hens consumed every wormy apple and rotten tomato I threw into their yard. They even ate their own eggshells (after we’d eaten the eggs), thus recycling the calcium. I admired them for their usefulness, but I loved them for the eagerness with which they rushed out of the coop in the morning, for their cozy go-to-roost purrings in the evening, and because they knew and trusted me, and would let me sit with them in the sun while they pecked at the grass, and sometimes at my shoelaces.
I have a long history with chickens, from the ones that my grandmother used let me feed when I was barely old enough to walk, to the live capons that she sent by train to Barcelona for our Christmas dinner, and the little lame chick that she sent to keep me company as I lay in bed recovering from measles.
Now, as my autumn declines into winter, I would like nothing better than a couple of hens (you can’t have only one, because they get lonely) to comfort me. But as Vermontish and progressive as the community where I live is, chickens are not allowed. And so, whenever I run across a bag of feed in the hardware store, or drive past the “Chicks Are Here!” sign in front of the Tractor Supply every spring, I practice the art of letting go. I’ve read that this is important preparation for the ultimate divestiture, and makes it easier.
I practice letting go of the idea of keeping hens, and of raising my own food, and of being who I was all those years ago. And in my mind I also practice letting go of Bisou, who is fine right now but who will be my last dog, and whom I’ll inevitably have to let go in another three or four years.
On the other hand, carpe diem! we are told. Live in the moment! But how to do this while simultaneously practicing letting go is the emotional equivalent of rubbing one’s stomach while patting one’s head. The two things keep leaching into each other. No sooner do I enter fully into the joy of taking Bisou for a walk than I’m overwhelmed by the thought that someday we’ll be taking the last one. And I can only recapture the enjoyment of the walk if I firmly put out of my mind the inevitability of loss.
It’s at moments like these that a couple of pasturing hens would come in handy, to turn my mind to dirt baths, grass, earthworms, compost, and the cycle of life.
|My grandmother and I, feeding chickens|