The chickens came first.
At least, these chickens — the quintet of hens that were our charge for the week, while our neighbors, their owners, were visiting family in Mexico.
Each morning and evening, my partner or I walked around the corner bearing a plastic container of vegetable scraps. These chickens are especially fond of strawberry hulls and tomato ends, though they’ll also gobble wilted arugula or bread blooming with greenish mold.
Among the five are two snowy white birds, like the chickens in a children’s picture book, along with one that’s russet-feathered and two costumed in a lush brocade of tan and cream. I could hear them cackling before I unlatched the back door, and as I approached, they rushed the gate of their coop, a cacophonous gaggle of beaks and wings and feet. It was 7am, and I was up with the chickens.
Chickens, alive or oven-roasted, weren’t much a part of my childhood. My father — still haunted by the memory of Friday night dinners in Brooklyn, boiled chicken congealing on the plate while he refused to eat and his mother scolded — banned chicken in any form from our family table.
Misconstruing farm fauna
As for the living, clucking birds, my closest encounters may have been on annual road trips to Clearwater, Florida. As we cruised by South Carolina pastures, my mother inevitably, hilariously, misconstrued the roadside fauna: “No, mom, that’s not a sheep, it’s a goat!” I could easily get a rise from my parents by announcing that someday I would live on a farm — an ambition as alien as if I’d declared my desire to become a coal miner, or a Republican.
At home, our “garden” was a four-by-four-foot patch of scraggled tomatoes; my only pets were goldfish and gerbils. For at least three generations, my people had clung to city life and urban occupations — fur-cutting and shorthand in New York, a bakery at Orianna and Poplar — and before that, what did I know of my great-great-grandparents’ shtetl lives? That’s right: chicken-scratch.
But my week of hen-tending gave me a glimpse. The “girls,” as our neighbor calls them, really did come home to roost, huddling in their shingled coop after sunset. They were young, these hens — spring chickens — and prolific; we gathered four or five eggs each day, in pastel shades of blue and green and tan.
There may have been a pecking order, with that white one, the hen most eager to fly the coop, at the apex of the hierarchy. And they did indeed feather their nests, leaving a poof of grey, brown and white next to the dingy golf balls, the “nest eggs” their owners had planted in each wooden box.
Fine feathered idioms
You can flee the farm, you can board a boat to the New World, but it turns out the old one, with its agrarian cadences, is still deeply embedded in the psyche and the tongue. Who knew — until I found myself hauling water and scattering feed — that so many chicken-related idioms feathered our language?
Don’t be a chicken. He’s a good egg. Handwriting like chicken-scratch. Running around like a chicken with its head cut off. Walking on eggshells. Birds of a feather flock together. And the expression that captures any existential, unanswerable quandary: Which came first, the chicken or the egg?
Chicken life and lore provide us with metaphors of prudence (don’t count those chickens before they hatch), cost/benefit analysis (you can’t make an omelet without breaking some eggs), and even misogyny (dumb cluck, hen-pecked).
Politicians, too, appropriate the language: in 1928, the Republican Party abridged the vow of Henry IV, “I want there to be no peasant in my kingdom so poor that he cannot have a chicken in his pot every Sunday.” The party’s slogan that year: “A chicken in every pot.” Democrats retorted, “Don’t have a pot to put it in.”
Sound familiar? Cluck, cluck.
Distancing through language
So often, we use language to paint a bright line between our farmer-selves and consumer-selves, between our animal husbandry and our animal hungers. We herd cows, but we eat beef; we breed pigs but eat pork (unless we’re kosher or halal). In Spanish, there’s a word (el pez) for the fish that swims, and a different one (el pescado) for the one on your plate.
But it turns out that line blurs and bends. You may be a Wall Street banker who wouldn’t know a cow pie if you stepped in one, but you still build a nest egg for the future and refrain from putting all your stock options in one basket.
See, it turns out that under the business suit, inside the Cole Haan pumps, lurks a creaturely self, not so many steps removed from the chicken pen. Maybe even a creature with a longing to return; small wonder that urban chicken farming has become a trend from Boston to Berkeley.
Raising a cow is a commitment (not to mention utterly illegal in most cities), but you can rent chickens to dabble in your agricultural past. And even if you’re just a bird-sitter, tending the girls for a week at the neighbor’s request, you can’t help but realize that those hens we sometimes mock (chicken-hearted, bird-brain) mirror our own deep urgencies: to consume, to congregate, to leave a mark.
This morning, once again, I was awake with the chickens. While they pecked away at yellowing broccoli florets and dried-up carrot nubs, I lifted the lid on the nesting box to find a single egg, an iconic egg: perfectly ovoid, startlingly white and absolutely literal, still warm from the body that pushed it into the world.