By Grayson Shelor, Phase I Fellow
This is a story about the clash of two worlds. It’s a story of shameless flattery, and of unrequited love. This is a story of hubris.
This is a story about chickens.
Twenty-four of them, laying hens of a breed called Barred Rock Pullets: They are a few months old now, which, in chicken time, makes them teenagers verging on adulthood. Collectively, I fondly refer to them as “the ladies.” The ladies, if they have speech and names in the way that humans understand them, likely refer to me as their lackey.
I wouldn’t have called myself a city girl before I came to the mountain, but it is true that my impression of farm animals was formed more from the stuff of children’s literature than from actual sensory experience. As such, my impression of hens was that of a tight-knit, matriarchal society, probably a bit gossipy, but overall steeped in good wholesome communal values. And then I saw this:
Chickens cuddle! I hadn’t known. I was floored. I was entranced. I was supremely jealous. I, too, would cuddle a chicken. I couldn’t wait. And soon enough, my chance would come.
Monday, May 22, 8:00 AM: My first experience of farm chores. I enter the coop, officially known as “The Chicken Palace” with some slight apprehension. The ladies, too, eye me a little warily. As I stoop to unlatch the door that divides the safety of their indoor roost from the rest of their little kingdom, I feel a tugging at my ponytail. I have been nibbled! I take this as a sign. Now I am a true part of the flock, and I couldn’t be more pleased.
Wednesday, May 24, 11:00 AM: Today, as we sift through the compacted soil inside our newly erected high tunnel, we encounter an abundance of small orange centipedes. We begin to fill a bag with the wiggly pests, and when someone mentions offering the insects to the chickens; I jump in at once. “Me! I’ll do it! I get to give it to them because it is my week on farm chores!” I demand. I sound like a kindergartner who is having trouble with the concept of sharing, but the remainder of the cohort kindly refrains from commenting on that. As I skip off to the coop on our lunch break to deliver this blatant bribe to the ladies, I crow confidently. “The chickens will make me their queen!”
Update, 8:00 PM: The chickens have not made me their queen. It takes me 35 minutes to coax them into their coop for the night.
Tuesday, June 6, 7:45 PM: It is now my second week of farm chores and I am once again outside the chicken palace, feeling a little bit more confident about my ability to communicate with my feathered friends. “Hey, girls!” I sing out to them, “It’s bedtime!”
It becomes almost instantly apparent that I have made a mistake. Not only have I arrived at the chicken palace with the sun still high in the sky, I have further brought every one of the ladies outside to investigate just which fool might be standing in their yard shouting. It’s a blunder I will pay dearly for.
Emilie Tweardy and Ryan Blosser, two of our teachers from the Shenandoah Permaculture Institute both raise chickens themselves, for meat, as well as for eggs. And one point about which Emilie and Ryan are in complete agreement is that chickens are, in their words, “freaky little dinosaurs.” When I first heard this term of dubious endearment, I was offended on behalf of our ladies. Tonight, I see where they are coming from. Only to me, the Jurassic parallel is not so clear. What our chickens bring to mind most clearly in me is a cranky toddler. And just like our resident farm toddler, Amala Devine, age 22 months, this evening, the ladies have no intention of going to bed on my schedule. Unlike Amala, they never fall for my attempts at bribery via raisins.
I plead: “Girls, please go inside your nice warm, clean, coop.”
I coax: “Chickies, if you go to bed, I will bring you something extra special tomorrow.”
I let them know that I’m not joking about this. I stomp my boots and clap my hands, attempting to scare them inside.
Finally, I resort to physical persuasion. With only two chickens left, I begin chasing them around the pen. As well as being injurious to my dignity, this is startlingly ineffective. I go right, and the chickens dart left. When I swoop in for a grab, they take flight, only to land inches beyond the reach of my short arms. Finally I corner first one, and then the other, and catch them up gently beneath the wings. Their bodies are marvels to me: light, and downy soft, with leathery talons and skin strung tautly across their fragile bones. In their beady little eyes, I am certain I see a cunning intelligence. I give each bird a nod of acknowledgement, as one cordial adversary to another. I’ve won this round, but tomorrow remains to be decided. I gently but firmly stuff them through the door to their roosts, to a chorus of affronted squawks.
Saturday, June 10, 8:45 PM: Tonight the chicken palace is quiet, and I shut the outer door with no fuss. But when I enter the coop, I only count 23 of my ladies. I count again, but the final chicken remains elusive. And then I look up.
She stares down at me with a cold, yet defiant light in her eyes. And though I confess I can’t distinguish one hen from another, I’m fairly sure I know this one: my opponent--the revolutionary, the hen who will not be tamed. She hasn’t forgiven me. “Your Majesty.” I murmur, bowing my head. I have learned my place now. I can only hope her favor will finally net us some eggs.