Rants from the Hill: Chicken pastorale
"Rants from the Hill" are Michael Branch's monthly musings on life in the high country of Nevada's western Great Basin desert, published the first Monday of each month.
American folk musician and hillbilly existentialist Greg Brown offers some mid-song patter referring to Pablo Neruda’s wonderful poem “On Weariness” (“Cierto Cansancio”), in which Neruda memorably wrote “I am weary of chickens: / no one knows what they’re thinking, / and they look at us with dry eyes / and consider us unimportant.” Brown first quotes these lines, and then adds that “It’s true . . . they do . . . and we are. But it’s hard to take that from a damn chicken.” I can’t help but agree that I’d rather be looking into the starry sky than into the hollow eyes of a hen when I have a profoundly ennobling epiphany about my cosmic insignificance.
And yet I too have become a keeper of chickens. I should confess that I find the recent popularity of chicken keeping a yuppie fad that I’d rather not be associated with. I’m certainly no yuppie. I’m not young, I’m as far from being urban as I could manage without moving to Alaska, and I’m only professional in the sense intended by Hunter S. Thompson, when he made the insightful observation that “When the going gets tough, the weird turn pro.” This chicken keeping, like most of my follies, is instead the fault of my young daughters, who were sure that raising chickens would be fun because “they’re so fluffy and yellow and cute.” As all fathers of daughters know, “cute” is a four-letter word—a sure sign that trouble is brewing. I explained to the girls that the fuzzy yellow stage of a chicken’s existence lasts about 45 minutes, and is followed by a protracted cohabitation with a feathered beast so vicious and scaly that keeping one is akin to having a pet baby dinosaur. “Baby dinosaur?” exclaimed Caroline, our five-year-old. “That’s cool!”
All fathers of daughters know the futility of resistance to anything deemed cute. So, in early May, we made the momentous trip to the feed store, where the girls chose four yellow fluff balls, whose best quality, I thought, was how incredibly cheap they were. But we also had to buy a big plastic tub to keep them in, and a screen to cover the tub, a bag of shavings and some chick food, and a little water bin, and also a pricey clamp-on heat lamp. The total cost of this outing was something like ten bucks for the chickens and another hundred to accessorize them, a thing-to-its-stuff ratio so disturbing that it reminded me of Barbie dolls—another cute purchase that had left a sizeable dent in my hip. But we brought the birds home and set them up in the garage out of reach of the dogs, and the girls had fun playing with them, not to mention naming them. Hannah named one “Henrietta,” which seemed inevitable, while Caroline insisted on “Eggcellent Chicken” for another. A third was named “Susan Henimore Cooper” for novelist James Fenimore Cooper’s daughter Susan, who wrote Rural Hours, the 1850 paean to the virtues of country living. Finally there was “D. B. Cooperetta,” whose name honored aerial outlaw and folk hero D. B. Cooper, who in 1971 hijacked a Boeing 727, extorted the airline for cash, and then parachuted out into the rainy darkness somewhere over the Pacific Northwest.
Despite their cuteness and their clever names, the little chicks had a pretty active business end, and of course it fell to me to clean out what quickly became a bucket of dust, shavings, and fowl turds. They grew so quickly that it soon became necessary to acquire a coop and attached run, which I scored for $200 from a guy selling them out of the back of his pickup in the parking lot of the only gas station in our valley. When the hens grew large enough we installed them in their new home, which now required yet more shavings and an even larger water dispenser, not to mention that the baby pterodactyls started gobbling up a ridiculous amount of feed. There went another hundred bucks. Within 48 hours the coop and run were invaded by ground squirrels, which necessitated lining the entire bottom of the run with plywood and reinforcing the poultry netting around whole operation, at a total cost of another C note. When the first frost fell in autumn I also had to add a device to prevent the birds’ water from freezing, and this, along with the heat lamp, required a heavy-duty extension cord, power strip, and timer.
By mid-September I had done a whole lot of coop cleaning and still had not a single egg. It was time to reckon the damage. Over a stiff drink I determined that although I was only out a ten-spot on the chickens, everything they had needed to stay warm, healthy, hydrated, and out of the intestines of the local coyotes had run me a staggering seven hundred bucks. At threeish bucks a dozen at the supermarket in town, the seven Benjamins I had shelled out on Susan Henimore and her girlfriends would buy almost 3,000 eggs. I then calculated the likely lifespan and laying productivity of these squawking featherballs and determined that even if a bobcat didn’t eat them these ladies could never pop out eggs at a rate that would ever get us to the break even point.
Then there’s the chickens themselves, which attract coyotes and which constantly require feed, water, and fresh shavings. There’s nothing like coming home from a long day of work, pouring a glass of sour mash, sitting down by the woodstove, and then remembering that you have to pull on your snow boots and tramp out into the wind to take care of the chickens. It takes all the fatherly sympathy I can muster to not “accidentally” leave the coop door open—a simple mistake that would allow Old Man Coyote to cure me of this bird habit forced upon me by my children. Worse still is the emotional and psychological trauma of having to look at those chickens, with their weird, bulbous heads and their scaly legs and scrabbly claws, their vicious beaks clacking as they strut and squawk around mindlessly. And their eyes: those dark pinpricks of nothingness! Beady, shifty, devious. Is it any wonder people have so long questioned the motives of chickens crossing roads? Like Neruda, I am weary of chickens. And like Greg Brown, I suspect that if there is any message in their empty eyes, it has something to do with the Sisyphean insignificance of our own existence. Yet somehow, even while scraping up chicken shit in seven-degree weather, that strikes me as funny.
Although the hens at last began to lay a few eggs, the birds were still a reminder of why I’m destined to remain a land poor rural hobby farmer whose quest for pastoral bliss, if reckoned by the dollar, amounts to little more than a spendy affectation. I was reminded of how my own mother—whom I otherwise love very much—had once demonstrated the poor results of a fishing trip I had made with my father by calculating the price-per-pound of the few fish we caught relative to the considerable sum we had spent to try our luck. But we weren’t buying fish, of course. We were buying an experience together, which Mom knew perfectly well. And I’m not in the chicken game to produce eggs. I’m buying a shared experience with my daughters, and I consider that a fair bargain even if it comes at a high price. The eggs we buy at the store are eaten, and nothing more. What doesn’t end up in the septic tank may lodge in our cells, but there is no other payoff from the experience, no sense in which that store-bought egg will also lodge in our memory and imagination. But the beautiful, small, pointy, bluish egg left by Eggcellent Chicken is a different thing entirely. That is the product of something more than a chicken, purchased with something more than money, and enjoyed with something more than the need to chow down and race off to school. When the girls crunch out through the snow to harvest that bluish gem—talking all the while to the birds, who also talk back to them—they are being nourished in some way that simply won’t be reckoned by the dozen. Living up here on the Ranting Hill doesn’t make a lick of sense. It will never pay. But it is a bargain just the same.
Michael P. Branch is Professor of Literature and Environment at the University of Nevada, Reno, where he teaches American literature and environmental studies. He has published five books and many articles on environmental literature, and his creative nonfiction has appeared in Utne Reader, Orion, Ecotone, Isotope, Hawk and Handsaw, Whole Terrain, and other magazines. He lives with his wife and two young daughters at 6,000 feet in the western Great Basin desert of Nevada.
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Chicken close-up courtesy Flickr user Stewart Black.