Consider the Chickens

Written by Jessica Tunis

Strange days, friends. The world spins dizzily on its tilted axis, and nothing is the same even as it was a week ago. Seeds are flying off of our shelves, and even The Internet, that vast and ceaseless web of commerce, has run out of basic necessities or restricted their purchase. Seed companies are sold out of many popular varieties, and still, the orders keep coming in, as though a thing as simple and precious as a seed could be simply willed into existence. We are ordering three times as many vegetable starts as usual for this time of year, and despite the difficulties of taking orders over email and voice messages, the young plants are flying out the door. Will, there be enough tomato starts left by the time night temperatures are settled above 50 degrees, which is really the proper time to be planting summer crops around here? We hope so. Chickens, too, are suddenly more popular than ever. Do most of us even know what to do with those bags and bags of dry beans we have hoarded? How long it takes to raise a hen from an egg? We are all about to find out.

Let us take a breath. A deep one. And then another.

It is understandable to be afraid in these times, to be cautious, to be anxious. The sudden steep increase in sales of seeds and vegetables and chickens and dry beans is asking us to look at something difficult and real, and those deep breaths are going to help us face it, and move into it, as bravely and as wisely as we can.
Just one more breath, maybe. In recognition of the fact that something as basic and unconscious as breathing is also vitally important. Though many of these purchases may have been made in fear, let us imagine what that fear might be transformed into. Though this virus is brutal, it has much to teach us.
Sow the seeds, yes. Not for a single season, as something to do while you are in lockdown. Sow them as though the seeds themselves were gifts from the plant kingdom, evidence of a relationship that has been tended to as long as we have been human. Sow them knowing that nature is fickle and generous. We are not owed, but are given, this opportunity. What will you grow?

Plant a garden, do. Learn from it and let it teach you. It takes skill and patience and time and weather and luck to grow food. You have to water it regularly and pull the weeds that steal nutrition from the crops. Some of the weeds are medicine and have things to teach us, too. You may not grow enough dry beans to last you a year. But in growing a garden, may you be connected to the earth and to the work of farmers everywhere, who labor all year round for those commodities so easily taken from a grocery store bin. Cultivate appreciation of such a small treasure as an onion, unearthed for your table. You can hold it in your hand, the result of months of growing, buried beneath the soil. Drinking water, creating air, making seeds for the future.

Save some seeds from each year’s garden. The act will nourish and connect you, as surely as eating. If you save the biggest, the best, and the tastiest, you will be creating land races specific to your garden. This is evolution in action. It is the backbone of civilization, a curled embryo, the past, and the future entwined.

Raise chickens! They too need a safe place to sleep at night. Each one will have a unique arrangement of feathers, a warbled cluck, a particular habit. Each bird is an individual. You do not have to venerate them, or sing to them, or refrain from eating them if that is your need. You do not have to cry if you take their life. But true respect means acknowledging that each creature is an individual who wants nothing more than to exist. When we take life, may we do it in recognition of the seriousness of the act. When we consume the flesh of others, may it be done with open eyes, and a grateful heart. Every fragile egg taken from beneath a hen is a piece is a larger puzzle. Of living and dying. Of leaving enough to harvest next year. Of counting our blessings, like eggs still warm from the nest. The yolks are rich and orange when the hens have access to earth, stones, bugs, kitchen scraps. The yolks are pale and yellow when they come from the store. When they stop laying for the winter, as all hens do under natural conditions, where will your eggs come from then? Or will you abstain? Choose wisely, and do not look away.

Stock your pantry, of course! It is wise to prepare for disruptions of all kinds; weather or virus, politics, fires, or earthquakes. But do not take so much that others will have none. The food wants to be eaten. It will do no one any good, to molder forgotten on the shelves, when the immediate panic has passed. Share with those who were less quick to fill their cart. Trade with your neighbors. Reforge connections to those around you, and learn how we can support each other better. It starts with eye contact, or a smile, or a basket on the doorstep. A peace offering. A cardboard box labeled Free, Take Some. A donation to the local food bank. And, dare we say it? It starts with living wages, and access to sick pay, and health care for all people. This need not be a radical concept.

Mourn. For what we have lost, and what we have squandered, and what will never be. Mourn for our elders, whose wisdom is at risk of being lost too soon. Mourn for dreams hamstrung by circumstance. Mourn for your loneliness. How will you heal it? All pain needs first to be felt before it can be healed. The work is worth doing, but damn, it is hard, sometimes. Do it anyway, when you can. It is another way of tending the garden. Sometimes, we have to cut the raspberries back, hard, down even to the ground, before they will bloom to bear fruit again.

Though fear and pain and loss are all valid, it is time to look beyond panic to consider how we want to shape the world. We are being offered a brief moment in time, an anomaly, like a solar eclipse, or a comet blazing with news from space. It is a finite pause and it will not last, but in this brief window, we are offered a gift. What is real is thrown into stark relief, it stands out, it calls us. We are answering the call, by planting gardens, by saving seeds, by raising chicks, by reaching out to support our neighbors. When this is over (it will never be truly over), when we get back to normal (normal is a deviation) we will again be pressed to make more, earn more, consume more, stimulate the economy more, all more more more, and as quickly as possible. This pressure will be presented as inevitable, and even desirable, or patriotic.

This is not the way of a successful garden. Though we amend and tend the soil, infinite growth is not possible. Hens do not lay 365 days a year. Instant gratification is a mindset never satisfied, always groping for the next quick hit of dopamine. In this liminal time, it is worth considering how else we might structure our world, our only home, the earth that sustains us in every way. It is worth holding on to the feeling of possibility rustling in a paper packet of seeds. It is useful to consider how we might live if home were where we wanted to be, right here on this earth. The chickens in the backyard know, and they are scratching the damp soil for what they might find there, beneath the surface. They are taking dust baths and making shallow nests beneath the rose bush. They are pausing, sometimes, not to contemplate their ultimate fate, but to feel the sun beat down, just so, upon their bodies, or to listen to the leaves rustle in the wind. They take a moment to pause. And then they get on with the work.