Theory and Methodology
One of the ways that I pray is by watching chickens. This is not standard Christian practice, even for Mennonites like me, who have traditionally lived close to the earth. It doesn’t even mesh with more eastern religious practices. A flock of chickens is no Zen garden, no smooth open space for meditation. A flock of chickens is a series of distractions, the ever-shifting motivations and pursuits of six greedy individuals with fifteen-second attention spans spending the afternoon together. It’s daycare without diapers or timeouts. If my broken-beaked Emily came upon a Zen sand garden, she’d dust bathe—sand and feathers flying across the raked paths! In Christian bookstores, the sun-catchers etched with inspirational messages do not have images of chickens. That dubious honor goes to falling sparrows, doves, soaring eagles, and—unbiblically—hummingbirds.
I confess no great fondness for Christian bookstores, sun-catchers, or inspirational messages. My spiritual life has not been enriched by inscribed bookmarks or personalized crosses. I’m barely comfortable with the prayers for all occasions collected in the back of the Mennonite Hymnal. I’m skittish of prayers read aloud in church. Who is praying? The writer? The reader? The congregation? Who is putting words in whose mouth?
I try to justify my discomfort thus: As a member of an Anabaptist group, I shy away from both High Church forms and charismatic emotionalism. I’m fine with the Lord’s Prayer, but prefer Luke’s simpler version, without all the “thine is the kingdom and the power” business. I also like a simple prayer my father prays: “Let us be the hands and feet of Jesus.” That’s plenty form for me and enough words to cover everything that needs to be covered.
I try not to offer up words at all, when I can help it. I know too much about rhetoric. I prefer to offer up a walk back to Briery Branch, an evening by the fire, rhubarb wine with friends, a challenging yoga class, or an afternoon’s chicken-watching. This brings us back to the original point: the spiritual benefits of chicken-watching, of which there are many. With my mind over-tuned for metaphor, I watch the flock and glean clues for a theology that’s all-natural, all-chicken.
As soon as they hear the house door open, or simply see me through a window, the hens begin to holler. They run out of their shack and line up at the fence, caroling. Even when it’s clear that I am coming, a jug of water in one hand, feed and scratch grains in the other, they continue to call. Phoebe, the Speckled Sussex with a polka-dot petticoat, can’t contain herself and jumps up and down, her beak turned toward Heaven—the direction from which the scratch grains fly when I throw them over the fence.
If the chickens are ranging in our backyard when I step outside, they rush across the lawn, their drumsticks pumping, wings flapping for balance. Youyouyou! they cry, youyouyou! I could almost mistake this for worship, but it isn’t. Not true worship, anyhow. If I have nothing for them, they quickly lose interest. Their joy in me is connected entirely to what I can offer their stomachs.
One winter night, I didn’t count the hens when I closed up the pen, and yellow Charlotte spent the night in our cold backyard, away from the heat lamp and the feathers of her sisters. When the sun rose enough for her to see—chickens are blind in the dark—she stood under our bedroom window and shouted until I crawled out from under the down comforter, thrust my feet into some boots, and lifted her back into the pen. She came straight to the source and didn’t hesitate to ask.
Also: she knows where we sleep.
Chickens are not born evil; they are born raptors. They have claws and beaks and hunger and hierarchy. Factory chickens are bred to be docile and obese, but they’d still peck each other to death in the close quarters if they were allowed to keep their beaks. My hens, a little closer to the original jungle fowl, dinosaur fire still in the eyes of the Ameraucanas, only peck as a reminder. No one pulls out anyone’s feathers. Rarely does anyone get pecked until she bleeds. They have ample access to food and water, plenty of roost space, and about twenty square feet apiece in the chicken run. That’s about three times the number of square feet allotted in theaters for each human audience member. The hens have a hierarchy, but everyone gets fed, and they snuggle together on chilly nights.
But they lack finer feelings. When our golden Ameraucanas Belinda caught a cold, we separated her from the flock for a few weeks. She improved, staying down in our warm cellar, but then it flooded during the winter melt. I found her in the morning perched above the water, wet-feathered and mad as hell. I put her in a grazing box in the sun to dry, but while we were at work a dog attacked the box and got a mouthful of feathers. She was crouched in the undamaged corner of the box, trembling, when I found her.
I returned her to the secure run with the rest of the flock. She ran about squawking: Everyone! Everyone! You’ll never believe what happened! I’ve had the most horrible day! How did they respond? They beat her up. That’s compassion for you.
If you throw a wafer—well, a stale Ritz cracker—into the pen, Miranda will nab it. She’s an Ameraucanas, all beak and mane, no comb, and fearless. She’ll sprint, cracker in beak, to the farthest corner of the run, pursued by a bevy of hens. Methuselah, the Rhode Island Red rooster, will stroll behind sedately. He outweighs any two of them together, but is too gentlemanly or too arthritic to interfere with the match. Miranda can’t swallow the cracker whole, and so she must drop it. Mama, the weighty White Rock, will shove in, snatch the cracker, and run to a different corner. It will break in half and Phoebe will peck at it until Miranda bops her on the comb. In this way, the wafer is shared, Emily, Methuselah, and little Belinda catching the falling crumbs.
So much for the wafer. I haven’t dared try them on wine. They’ll swallow grapes whole, stretching their crops to avoid sharing.
The flock would have no problem with the doctrine of transubstantiation, the idea that the bread mystically becomes the Savior’s flesh. Whenever they’re set free, or escape, they run first to our compost pile and the first thing they’ll seize, if available, are the leftover bones and deep-fried skins of takeout chicken. If you are what you eat, they might say, Why not eat what you are?
1) Given the opportunity, they will eat anyone—not just their Savior, and not just metaphorically.
2) Participation in communion is competitive.
3) June bugs trump wafers, every time.
Chickens don’t bother with guilt. I can catch them in flagrante delicto, tearing up a flowerbed, and they’ll ignore my shouts. I can shoo them out, but they’ll come back as many times as I chase them. If I don’t want hens in the flowerbed, why did I let them out of their pen? Why, indeed? If God didn’t want us to eat the apple, why was it in the Garden? I enjoy watching my chickens run free; what pleasure did God derive from watching Adam ignore fruit?
Chickens don’t do guilt, so they can experience salvation only in its most physical sense. One day at our old place I opened the screen door to see Charlotte and a red-tailed hawk rapidly parting ways, the hen squawking and streaking to wedge herself into the two-inch crack between the house and an old dog-house, the hawk flapping to a low branch of the maple. I chased away the hawk and went to soothe Charlotte. I had to pry her out of her hiding space—bold Charlotte with an orange eye, a yellow eye, and a rooster spur on one leg, Charlotte who raised her hackles and attacked the fence when a visiting dachshund got too close—Charlotte trembled and crept into the doghouse and refused to come out. I left her and went to rally the troops. Phoebe and Emily, crouching in the bushes, soon emerged to kick gravel around in the carport. But Miranda was gone. We searched the shrubs around the house, the hedgerows, walked up and down the road and beat the shrubs again. The hawk must have got her, we agreed, then come back for another one. Maybe there were two hawks.
We searched all afternoon, and then went inside to make our suppers. Hours after the rumpus, just before dark, we heard a loud cry and rushed outside to see if the hawk had returned. It was Miranda, strutting up the sidewalk hollering, I’m back! Where are you guys? There was great rejoicing and we all rushed to meet her, human and fowl, except for Charlotte, who had to be carried up from the doghouse at bedtime and who hid inside the chicken house for the next three days when the others went out for their afternoon stroll.
My chickens spend hours in their purification rites. They scratch deep dust holes and then nestle down into them, kicking dirt up over their backs, shaking the dirt through their feathers. If you come upon one suddenly, it’s startling: a half-chicken, a chicken embedded in the soil, its eyes half-closed while the dirt seeps down between its feathers. They prefer the loose dirt of flowerbeds above all other dirt, but they’ll take any sunny corner of their chicken run if necessary. Lice can’t get a foothold in the powdery dirt; I don’t have to dose them.
The hens share their dust holes with each other, and a lot can fit in one dust hole. However, if Methuselah plops down in the middle of the bath, it’s usually the more timid hens who end up building adjoining holes, even if they were there first. Then again, Belinda can and will defend her advantage, once she’s dug in.
Last winter, at our rented house, the chickens weren’t wholly comfortable in their low, roost-less, front-less hutch. Phoebe, believing in a better life, set out into the world and found the corner of the carport where we kept extra straw. She returned to this place faithfully each night to nest and had to be carried to her proper bed. “Think of the foxes,” I told her, but she ignored me. Freedom was worth it. Soon Emily, and then Miranda and Charlotte—the whole flock at the time—followed her lead, and I’d have to carry two loads of chickens home each night unless I remembered to herd them to the hutch before dark. Phoebe resisted, ducking and running back to her corner. I had to shoo her with the leaf rake. When we blocked the straw bale, two of the hens gave up and went home, but Phoebe and yellow Emily roosted amongst the flowerpots in the carport, keeping vigil.
This fall, at our new house, we refurbished the old two-seater outhouse into a deluxe chicken shack with proper roosts and nest boxes and egress to a large run. But we had two new hens and a rooster to shelter in this deluxe chicken shack; the original four remained in their hutch. Phoebe sensed the approach of winter. One afternoon, Jason left the workshop door ajar, and she led them inside. I found them there, gravely examining the circular saw and exclaiming to each other about the high ceiling and good lighting. I shooed them out, but promised that, as soon as they made peace with the new flock, they would be granted proper housing. Which brings me to:
The first time I integrated new hens into the flock, I was not particularly tactful. Phoebe and Miranda had traveled all day with us from Indiana in a cardboard box in the backseat of the car. We arrived home, travel-weary, after dark, tucked the two new hens into the hutch, and went to bed.
When the sun rose, all hell broke loose. Charlotte, used to queening it over her broken-beaked sister Emily, had no intention of giving up her status as top hen. Phoebe was larger and more clever, and Miranda had a bigger beak, but Charlotte was on her own turf. She turned out to be loudest and used her volume to impressive effect as she chased them about the pen. She scolded and cursed for two days. The third day, she lost her voice and could only growl, but she had kept her crown. The new birds treated her with wary respect, as you might a psychotic extremist.
Seasons later, when it was time to move these four into the deluxe chicken shack with the new rooster and hens, I decided to give them plenty of room and time. I freed both flocks to roam in the backyard. Methuselah was eager to meet the new hens and strutted back and forth between the separate flocks. The hens glared at each other across the grass. Over the next few days, in a series of short, quick competitions, they tested their strength against each other. They’d get up on tiptoe in each other’s faces, beak to beak, their chests puffed out, trying to stare each other down. They’d exchange a swift peck or two, and within seconds one of the hens would bow to the other, who would hold her head up even higher before she strutted away. Charlotte, however, refused to bow to the queen of the new flock, White Mama, an enormous broody Plymouth Rock. They sparred for five minutes before Mama tore a piece out of Charlotte’s comb. Charlotte, instead of making proper obeisance, ran behind the storage barn and sulked for the rest of the afternoon. After that, peace reigned during the grazing sessions, though the rooster was the only one who talked to everyone.
It was time for the old flock to move in with the new. I invited Charlotte, Emily, Phoebe, and Miranda over to the new house and showed them the food and the water. They looked interested, but left quickly; this was someone else’s home. I closed their pen so that they couldn’t return to the hutch at dark, left the Deluxe Chicken Shack open and went out for the evening with Jason. After dark, I found all seven chickens roosting in the new house together. I don’t know what they did or said, but somehow a plea was made, an invitation issued, or someone pushed and someone else gave in. Given enough time, space, and incentive, they came to an understanding.
Healing and Dying
At about the point in a person’s illness when we Mennonites would hold an anointing service to dedicate them to God’s care, chickens assassinate. I didn’t understand this with my first three hens: Charlotte, her sister Emily, and the little white Leghorn, Anne. They seemed as innocent as the maiden Brontë sisters, eager to eat my offerings of grapes, tomatoes, and Japanese beetles, content to scratch all day in the dirt. Timid Anne was scarcely more than a pullet, a factory chicken with a docked beak, shortened and curled so she looked like she was whistling. She’d try to pluck grass tips and lamb’s quarters with the phantom beak and fail again and again.
One evening, I brought my offerings to the pen to find a bright-eyed Emily and Charlotte unimpressed by the food and more interested in the dusty, wormish strands strewn about the run. I peeked in their hutch. Anne was clearly dead. I dealt with death in the most mature way that I could: I went and found Jason. I watched him gather up the pieces and shovel. Anne prolapsed—not unusual for a young layer from a breed engineered to lay large eggs early. Her flock mates finished the business by unraveling her guts. We couldn’t have done much for her. Standard procedure is to replace the defective bird.
For weeks afterwards, watching Emily and Charlotte on their journeys around the backyard, always together, peering around like a pair of nearsighted old women in baggy trousers, clutching their purses close and gossiping softly, I’d get cold chills. It was like discovering that the grandmother in the apartment across the hall has had a collection of stolen babies in her freezer all these years.
This will for murder may be a form of mercy. A year later, I saw the flock begin its funeral ritual for Charlotte, but I finished it my own way. They had ignored her developing idiosyncrasies: her tilted head, the way she walked in drunken circles until she couldn’t even find her way back into the coop. But the night that Charlotte lost her balance completely and fell flapping as I helped her find the water, Phoebe flew forward with her beak outstretched and Methuselah jumped down, kicking with his spurs. If I had not pulled the sick hen out of the way, they would have torn her to pieces. I have a little scar on my knuckle where Methuselah’s spur tore me. It was the only time he ever kicked me.
The flock had a good point. By this time, Charlotte’s head had twisted completely backwards and she couldn’t eat or drink. She was too far gone for any of us to help. I asked Jason to help me. He dealt the death blow, because he can swing straight, but I held her still under the blade of his axe. She didn’t struggle, and afterward her body didn’t leap about as they say it should; she was already on her way out. I felt we did the right thing. I do not think that act of killing tarnished my soul. I am a pacifist; I also descend from generations of farmers. Farmers grow—and kill.
My chickens rarely wish to be anything that they are not. Sure, Methuselah wants to be taller, but he stretches his neck and he is. Phoebe wants to fly and sometimes, under the proper conditions, she does. Either that, or she teleports—there’s no other way she could get past the fence. No one even seems to care who is top chicken, after the matter has been decided. It is easy to keep them happy. Food, water, room to roam, grain and garbage for variety, crabgrass for salad, and good powdery dirt. They like to be let out into the yard so that they can rummage around in the bushes and chase grasshoppers, but they seem to be just as excited about running inside to the feeder, kicking pebbles around in their little run, or strutting outside to catch some sun. They lay eggs every day but do not grow less proud; they cackle just as loud.
They teach me that I do not need so much, that it takes little to be deeply grateful, something as small as a fresh warm egg in my hand. When I watch them, peace settles. I imagine God looking upon me as I look upon my chickens: intrigued, sometimes deeply disturbed, wondering what is going on in their tiny minds.
Kirsten Eve Beachy is Assistant Professor of Languages and Literature at Eastern Mennonite University.