It is late afternoon, and in my backyard there is a mutiny afoot.
Let me explain. We have chickens—five feathered egg layers who sometimes refuse to lay eggs, winged meat providers who no one has the heart to kill, dino-legged junglefowl (and what exactly is a junglefowl anyway, a fascinating term that brings to mind exotic locations with heavy greenery and damp earth so different from the desert climate in which I make my home), poultry who peck and scratch and cluck like it is their sole purpose in life, and maybe it is, for who can tell what runs through a chicken’s small brain when they are going about their day, eating grain and bugs and sometimes small rodents who venture into their pen, that brain that is just a little bigger than one of their eyes, but for all the relative lack of size, surprisingly focused and intent.
Back to the mutiny.
The chickens are, as my children like to quote from one of their favorite movies, conspiring. They are planning and plotting. Preparing. Scheming, for lack of a better word.
The chickens are trying to escape. Now, during most of the year we take care to secure their indoor coop and outdoor run against spontaneous chicken jailbreaks, for they are undiscerning destroyers of edible greens and consumers of perishable plants. They would just as soon pull up and unearth my tender shoots of lettuce as they will a weed, will indiscriminately scratch the dirt from the garden beds and the bark from the flower beds and the sand from between the carefully laid brick paths, and in general, become pernicious pests, so we keep them locked carefully in their pen to spend their time in clucking conversation and egg laying and feather ruffling and roosting, and generally whatever it is that chickens do.
Things are different in the fall. In the fall my husband lets them free from their cloistered confinement, allows them to roam the grassy yard and to dig through the loose loamy soil of the garden where the vegetables have been harvested and plants pulled and plots put neatly to bed for the season—he gives them just a touch of freedom. And it is sweet, the way they recognize that he is the one most likely to let them loose, as they follow him around our yard in single file, more like baby ducklings than full grown hens, but it also breeds bad habits.
The chickens become discontent. They look for ways to liberate themselves. This, in itself, would not be a problem, if not for the hawk which has recently been cruising through our backyard, alert to any sign of free fowl, of paroled poultry, of off-the-hook hens, and so we have to be careful that we don’t lose any of them to a hawkish midday meal.
So today the chickens conspired and plotted and planned—and pushed against the fine wire of their pen until they managed to loosen the door enough to escape, which I did not notice until I heard an almighty cackle and rushed to the back door in time to see the solitary hawk swoop down on our small, free wandering flock, in time to yell futilely at the threat, in time to see one brave hen lower her head, fluff up her feathers, and charge straight into peril to protect her pals—to play chicken, as it were, with a larger and more vicious bird.
We do not give chickens enough credit for bravery.
I have been brooding about this all day, ever since I forced the fugitives back behind their fence with a little bit of feed while pondering the nature of feathery heroics. It lives in my memory, poking and prodding until I think of the way the essayist and poet Emerson spoke of nature, of the way “mountains and waves and sky become…emblems of our thoughts,” that there is nothing which “nature cannot repair,” his belief that “nature is a metaphor for the human mind,” and although I don’t know what he thought about the mighty chicken, today I think I learned a lesson from a hen. I learned that it only takes one to stand up and protect, to charge in and change. I learned that it is folly to think that the hawk will always win. I learned that we do not look to the natural world for inspiration as much as we should.
Chickens are fierce and ferocious when it comes to a threat to their family, putting themselves in the way of any danger, spreading their feathers over their vulnerable young, drawing attention away from those flockmates who cannot protect themselves.
Chickens are industrious—laying an egg a day (at least when it suits them and the weather is right and there has been enough sun and a whole host of other conditions I have never quite figured out and they are reluctant to tell me), constantly clucking through their lives with a cheerful certainty of exactly where they belong.
Chickens are determined, finding any gap to push through to reach the best of what life has to offer, even if that is the fruits of my labor, the prize production of my somewhat haphazard gardening skills.
Chickens are loud, and unafraid of being heard.
Chickens are grateful, as evidenced by the way they follow my husband devotedly through the yard but won’t even glance my way.
Chickens are utterly convinced of their own importance, which you can see in the way they clatter on in the morning without a care or a thought that they might be disturbing another’s rest.
I admire this about them, a little bit.
I think if we approached our lives with even a fraction of that same strength and optimism and resilience, that same fearlessness in facing up to a challenge, we would find ourselves utterly transformed. Today I learned that we must be willing to look for lessons in the most absurd and unusual of places. I learned that even the unexpected can show us how we should approach the world around us and can speak to our inherent worth. That even the humble chicken can be a metaphor for our devotion to family, and our willingness to stand for one cause, or person, or flock, or fowl at a time.
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