Ever truly ponder the question, "Which came first...the chicken or the egg?" Well, yesterday they both arrived simultaneously in my mailbox. No...not the real kind, but miniature versions I'll be adding to my indoor fairy garden this spring. A few weeks ago I found an adorable wooden coop with a lone chicken sitting inside it. I decided she needed a couple of friends and some offspring, so I ordered two tiny brooding hens and a little basket of brown eggs, complete with straw. When they arrived along with some leaf-shaped garden pavers, you would have thought I had won the power ball lottery.
As many of you know from reading my last blog, I'm easily amused. And why not? It's nearing the end of winter. Even though the temperatures are dropping fast this week, the days are also getting longer. Snow still blankets the ground and here in the Midwest we're often doing what my friend, Bobbi, calls "the old lady shuffle." I call it the "save your butt from falling on the ice waltz," but it's still a familiar experience here in Heartland as spring takes its own sweet time in coming.
The other day I was in the basement trying to stay warm on the treadmill and longingly gazed at the boxes of fairy garden decor stored on a shelf nearby. In two months, it'll be April, I told myself. Two months ago it was early December and that went fast. But these days, time can't pass fast enough so I can dig my hands in the dirt and play in the garden. Which is why two tiny chickens and a basket of lentil-sized eggs can really make my day...and bring back fond memories of my days when I was a Chicken Master.
Seven years ago I lived in Big Sur and one of my responsibilities while working in the garden at Esalen was taking care of the brooding hens and their Leghorn rooster, Henry. Other than Big Mama, the enormous cochin hen, the other ladies didn't have names, so I gave them each a moniker: Anais, Merryweather, June, and Angelina. Near the end of my work-scholar month, Anais hatched a few eggs. Despite June's best efforts to steal all of the chicks, a couple of them survived, including one little sassy sprite I named Martha.
|Anais, Angelina and two new babies|
Martha followed me everywhere...from the hay-stuffed coop to the outdoor cage where all of the hens and Henry pecked at spent lettuce and kale. She often poked through an errant hole in the chicken wire and toddled over to where I was working to explore a bed of cilantro. One late morning when Martha was about four weeks old, I distinctly remember her running up and down the dirt paths between the beds. At one point, she flapped her wings and lifted off of the ground for a moment. After which, she turned and high-stepped it over to me, then took off running in the opposite direction, so I'd see her fabulous accomplishment. Again and again Martha flew up and down through the flower beds until it was time for a chunk of squash back at the coop with her less adventurous siblings.
It was hard to leave the chickens, as I had become fond of watching their charming personalities evolve over time. Who knew fowl could be so fascinating? Big Mama was bossy. Anais was dainty. Merryweather was a no-nonsense kind of gal who always squawked the loudest whenever someone laid an egg. Angelina was a prolific mother as she kept laying egg after egg after egg and would sit for hours with her brood once they hatched. And then there was June -- spiteful and nasty and always ready for a fight. Even she and laid-back Henry would sometimes go a few rounds before he finally showed her who was boss. But of course, it was little Martha who was the hardest to leave, knowing I might not be able to watch her grow up into a sassy little hen.
I needn't have worried.
Five weeks later I returned to Big Sur, this time as a garden intern. What a surprise to see that my little Martha had grown into a stunning multi-colored rooster! A new name was in order, so in accordance with the Big Sur writer's theme I named him Jack (as in Kerouac). He lived up to his moniker's reputation, strutting around at all hours, pecking here, there, and everywhere. Deviling the hens. Fighting with this father. He even escaped the coop a time or two. Oh, he was a rambunctious one alright, but I loved him all the more.
|My little pal, Jack|
Still, I learned the very difficult lesson that you can't have two roosters in a hen house. Since Henry had seniority, the garden crew decided it was best to find Jack a new home. I put signs up everywhere that asked if anyone had a place where Jack could rule the roost, but to no avail. Big Sur residents came and went, but none of them had room for my little pal. Day by day things got worse. Jack pecked the hens and antagonized the new babies. Henry was starting to get more than a little cranky.
We all knew something had to be done...soon.
"Just let him go on the farm," someone suggested.
I lived in a yurt on the edge of the farm and knew that a pack of coyotes and wild animals of all sorts roamed the place at night. The last thing I wanted was to find Jack's carcass in a chard bed on my way to work. I knew Jack was a social fellow. Even though he was ornery, he still loved the socialization of the other hens and the garden workers. I reasoned it would be traumatic for him to be set free on the farm, left to his own devices until the inevitable would happen.
So a handful of the garden workers and I decided to give him a good death in a grove by my yurt. Surprisingly, Jack was calm and accepting of his fate, as were all of us who witnessed it. It was sad to be sure, but when my friend, Ken, and I buried him in a shady spot beneath some pine trees, I knew it was the best thing to do for an animal who had both challenged and delighted us all.
The next day dawned with peace in the garden. Henry strutted around just like he always had before Jack's arrival. The hens clucked and chuckled to each other, sharing a bit of granola I tossed to them for good measure. The little chicks darted here, there, and everywhere hoping that a morsel or two would be left behind. I missed Jack, but looking at the bigger picture, it was the kindest thing we could have done in the moment. And I soon learned that life in the chicken coop often reflected my own life in more ways than one.
Six months after Jack was set free, I flew the coop myself and came back home to Toledo. It's been here where I've set up housekeeping once again. Here where I cultivate my little nest in the Heartland. Here where I brood in the winter when it's dark and cold. Where I squawk in the springtime as I celebrate the newness of things. It's here where I work and gather with friends to chat about our day-to-day comings and goings. Here where I continue to accept the cycles of life, no matter how painful or confusing. Here where I've found enchantment in the simplest of things.
So as my indoor fairy garden takes shape in the weeks to come, I'm delighted to create a miniature version of my Big Sur babies. A colorful vegetable garden will follow, along with a baby bee hive and a couple of birdhouses. But it's my little cute coop which reminds me that spring is in the air, even it I can't see it just yet. The cochin hen that is Big Mama's doppelganger brings back memories of nurturing my inner Towanda. The delicate white and brown hens are Anais and Angelina incarnate, harbingers of my desire to continue hatching new ideas as my life unfolds. And the basket of eggs keeps me mindful of all the things in my life that have not yet reached their fruition...but are eagerly anticipated.
I'm reminded of an eloquent quote by William Blake, "To see a World in a Grain of Sand and Heaven in a Wild Flower, Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand and Eternity in an hour." In tending my little garden and chicken coop, I know that every morning I'm reborn to sweet delight.