[Many years ago, I enrolled in a Writer’s Workshop here on Beaver Island. The teacher was my friend, Mary Blocksma. At that time – possibly twenty-five years ago – she already had a long list of published works that included children’s books, poetry, memoir, and the most entertaining nature guides I’ve ever encountered. “Teacher” is too narrow a term for the wonderful woman who facilitated the workshop. Mary generously shared her knowledge and experience, offered kind and helpful feedback, read to us from her own works-in-progress, and even made cookies! I recently came across my tablet containing some essays I wrote during that workshop. One seems to be everything I knew about chickens, and every single chicken I ever encountered in my life. The writing wasn’t bad, though. This is just one segment of my “chicken history.”]
My Dad raised chickens. We’d get them in the early spring: fifty fluffy yellow chicks. They spent their first few weeks in a large cardboard box in our utility room. The floor of the box was covered with newspaper. A light bulb dangled over it at one end, to provide warmth. Mason jar feeders, for water and chick-feed sat in the center.
It was our job, as small children, to change out the newspapers as needed, and to make sure the feeding stations were clean and full. We were allowed to handle the chicks – carefully – and we did. We took it upon ourselves to try to train them. We each picked our favorites, named them, and swore we could identify them. We taught them to jump into our outstretched hand, or onto the water jug, when we whistled (those of us that could whistle), or snapped our fingers (if we could) , or called their name.
We trusted that we would always know “our chicken” and that it would always know us. I imagined going out to the chicken house with its big fenced-in yard, with fifty chickens milling about. I’d call out, “Penelope,” and my own chicken would look up, and run right over to me. Of course, that was never the case. Once they moved outside, they didn’t know us, and we could no longer recognize them.
The chickens ran toward us all together when we came to spill grass clippings, garden weeds or kitchen scraps over the fence. We loved them all together, then. It was no longer “Penelope” or “Sally” or “Fluffy,” but “the chickens.” And, in the world of raising animals for food, that is not a bad thing. Having grown up on a farm, my Dad understood that, and led us gently through the process.
In the early summer, before the hens started laying, the young roosters were culled from the flock. That gruesome tale, I think, can wait for another day.