It’s so quiet. Sad quiet. Amazing how animated and alive every second used to be. And now silence. You wouldn’t think that you would be able to discern different voices, intonations, patterns and inflection, but like every social group, there are characters, and sometimes you know what’s going on just by tones, level and pitch. Some days it sounded like a high school lunchroom cafeteria, and sometimes it sounded like a beauty parlor in the afternoon with a bunch of old ladies telling stories and griping, and other times it was a call of warning, or salutation to the sun, but it’s all silent now and with time, their voices and overheard conversations will fade in my memory. Even though they were turkeys and chickens, they were my friends.
Years ago, when after the death of my mother, I moved back to the farm, I decided I wanted to get chickens. Chickens need a house and we had a beautiful former garage that for the last couple decades had just been a place where junk was stored, but still had perfect farm character and our signature white clapboard exterior with dark green trim. Thought it needed quite a bit of building restoration and a whole new roof, my dear friend and farm regular ‘City Chick’ and I responded to a Craigslist ad for a gentleman named ‘Bob’ who lived just over the river and had the largest selection of some of the more unique breeds of chickens that we saw in our newly purchased book on chicken breeds from Tractor Supply. Newbies that we were, I don’t think it even occurred to us to bring cages. We walked past pen after pen and it was like picking out individual chocolates to make a valentine box for yourself: “I’ll take 2 of the Blue Splash Orpingtons, 2 Marans, 3 speckled Sussex”, yes I’ll even take the one even Bob couldn’t identify (who became ‘Collette’), several Buff Orpingtons, a Turken (half chicken and half turkey), Barred Rocks, Black Copper (Martha Stewart’s favorite), Auracanas, Americanas, Leghorns….and a few ducks. We picked out so many birds and winded up taking them home in flimsy produce containers since we’d forgotten boxes. When we got back to the farm, it felt like Christmas as we unpacked them all and ‘ooooh’ and ‘aaaah’d over them.
Bitten by the chicken-collecting bug, and after “City Chick” declared that picking out beautiful chickens was more satisfying than buying fancy shoes, what followed was a couple crazy “chicken” runs to the Bonne Terre Swap meet and Silex Swap, then a few orders of chicks from McMurray Hatchery and really unique eggs ordered by bids from Ebay to incubate in our brand new incubators. We were so excited.
I truly believe that the most beautiful art can be found in Mother Nature herself, and chickens are the walking supermodels of a farm. So many different colors, styles, patterns, angles, personality and fluff in different places, body styles and headdresses. As an artist, I fell in love with all the variety and details, but what sealed my devotion was just sitting and watching them on sunny days: their animation, their social groups, how they would congregate and then like a deck being reshuffled, all of a sudden be in a different grouping. I likened it to the shifting alliances and friendships in any high school across American….you have the cool kids, the jocks, the pretty girls, the mean girls, the nerds, the kids who don’t care, the dramatic ones….it goes on and on, and our chickens were like watching a sociology study unfold. I couldn’t help but name them and to some degree anthropomorphize them. I loved to photograph them and introduce people to them. Especially kids. I loved showing people all their beautifully colored eggs of white brown, pink, blue, green, terra cotta, grey, with speckles and splotches. I bragged that every day was an Easter Egg hunt, and it was. That kid-like wonder never wore off when it came time to gather up the day’s eggs.
Over the years, our neighbors have fallen in love with our flock too. Neighbor Joshua and his family would come over all the time to see the chickens and years back, we gave him our incubators so he could take our prettiest eggs and hatch them. If you give Joshua and Jay-bird eggs, he gets 95% of them to hatch because unlike pretty much anybody else in the history of ever, he loves the bird in the egg even before it hatches. When he has eggs, he’s by the incubator hand rolling the eggs just right because he doesn’t trust an incubator to properly manage the shape of the egg in relation to the air pocket inside and how the chicken is situated within (probably like the obsessive first time soon-to-be-moms who play ‘Baby Mozart’ on headphones pressed up to their bellies in the last months of pregnancy). Because we didn’t separate our flock by breed, Joshua hatched some of the most beautiful chicken ‘mutts’ from our birds…so extraordinary and unique. He then moved on to the turkey and duck eggs, where he and his family fell in love with turkeys specifically. We host a big Easter Egg hunt every year and for the past several years, just in time for the party, Joshua and his wonderful wife and kids have hatched our chicken, turkey and duck eggs for the full baby animals Easter experience.
Dear friend Bob and his wife and daughter also fell in love with the chickens. They soon began a flock of their own with some of our birds and then later swapping back and forth. Here’s a fundamental chicken truth: Once you have a chicken, it’s hard to stop with one. If you don’t believe me, go look at Bob’s back yard…they even added a miniature pig (jury is still out on whether they would take that back if they could). J
As far as neighbors go, you don’t even have to decide to start your own flock to be a chicken enthusiast. Neighbor Cathy, in response to a raccoon serial poultry killer on the loose in the area, decided to take matters in her own hands and bought a cedar shed off of Craigslist (and now named “Jaeger’s Eggers), and with the help of neighbor Bob, had it brought to the farm and placed so that again the flock could be safe while neighbors Bob, Mike and Joshua could hunt down the predator.
Neighbor Julie loves the chickens so much that almost weekly she brings a 4 x 4 trunk full of leftover food pantry bread for the flock, while brand new neighbor Connie weekly drops off slightly over-ripe produce also for the birds. Neighbors Charlie and Jody save their scraps, as do next door neighbors Lynne and Vinnie. Loving chickens is contagious, and this has spread to so many people, and in the process has made us all feel more like a family. These happy and beautiful chickens were so loved and benefited so much from all the humans who’s hearts they had captivated. I even think all that love made their feathers prettier, the twinkle in their eyes brighter, and anyone can attest that whenever the flock saw people, they would go running to greet them. Photographers would schedule photo shoots just so people could visit with them, in hopes of being ‘photo-bombed’ by our friendly birds.
I could go on and on, but unfortunately this story does not.
Here’s the part where it gets really real: a young man on his way home from work notices something that doesn’t look right as he drives by the farm. He does something extraordinary, and instead of shrugging it off, he turns around and at the closed gates of the farm, he begins running towards the farm house to tell people inside that a building is on fire. As “Farm Mom” Alanna comes to the door and says that the red light he sees is from a heat lamp, he says “No, It’s on fire”. Barefoot, she, her husband Mike and this young man run towards the chicken house, and Alanna immediately runs to open the door, as ducks pushed out by geese “Wally” and “Gracie” come barreling out, followed by a flurry of chickens. This young man and this wonderful friend try the other door and call for help, while trying to do everything they can as both Nick and I arrive. Water hoses are stretched out and water sprayed on the roof, but do little while we wait for firetrucks from 3 municipalities arrived. Outside the burning building were neighbors and friends who came running to help. In the cold late night, there was Cathy and Connie there to do what they could….more people still walking down the street. It was horrific. The building was completely filled with black smoke and Alanna in gulped breaths tells me how opening the door was followed by a mass bird exodus. Staying out of the way, I went around the back of the greenhouse to get to the birds now gathered pushed up against the garden fence, who are now in a path for all the heavy wafting black smoke. I am worried that unless I personally push them into the garden, they won’t be able to get far enough from the smoke and can be asphyxiated from where they are in the open air. As I am looking frantically around inside the garden fence, I can see Wally and Gracie and all the ducks. I can see chickens but as I begin to count, I keep stopping at 14. There were at least 100 more bird inside than what I am seeing. Here’s where it hurts….when your mind is ahead of itself and it knows where it’s going and protects you from what you aren’t ready to accept: My heart hurt but my brain said “these are the not-so-smart 14, and the rest got far enough away and are spread out in the greenhouse, the back of the green house, moving to the bottom of the 6 car to roost for the night until things calm down….in the light of dawn, they all be walking around out front wondering what’s the new plan”. My brain believed that but my heart did not, and the fire still raged. We rounded up all the birds we could find and put them safely inside Cathy’s shed with bedding, food and water.
Nick and I returned home with smoke in our lungs, adrenaline still pumping, tired bodies and broken hearts to pretend to sleep until the light of dawn revealed what the cover of smoke and night concealed. As pink fingers of daylight crept over the charred remains, one chicken walked frantically back and forth in front of what was never to be a building or a home again. Inside the broken beams and hull of his home lay the scattered bodies of the chickens and turkeys that ran out of time. Pompeii…Ground Zero….life extinguished right in the middle of living. Destruction of everything without discrimination, and so much ripped away so quickly. It’s hard to let that all in and process it. See it, feel it, smell it and accept that it is unchangeable and that it is a pain and sadness that is waiting to pound its way into your consciousness and boomerang back and forth inside your heart like shards of glass. Shards of glass tipped with sunlight, and reflecting back the beautiful patterns and colors and angles of all those wonderful innocent creatures that are no more. I have spent the last several days going over and over everything in my mind and looking at photos like someone in New York on September 12 . As I look at photos, I see “Mabel” and put her in the category of ‘didn’t make it out’, and I go on through the list and the photos, each time feeling the scrape of the glass inside my heart. I think what drops me to my knees more than anything else is looking at the photo of my turkey named “Hugo”. She was an egg that we donated to a school for kids to hatch and that was brought back to the farm with the rest of the classroom hatched offspring. She was a gawky tall-necked kiddo with astonishingly bright blue eyes and she reminded me of a children’s book character, so I named her “Hugo”. Weeks and months passed as she grew and presented compelling evidence that she was most definitely a girl, but she was still my “Hugo” and the name stuck. She was 100% a farm creation and she was my girl. Lovingly hatched by Joshua and family, Alanna’s pet turkey girls and “Amigo” the Tom turkey all bear “Hugo’s blue eyes.
I look through their photos and am filled with sadness not only for them but also for all the people who loved them, smiled because of them and came together because of them. There is now a the family of people and neighbors that have grown closer because of the chickens who touched their hearts. Even without the chickens, that love remains, and if you’re not crying already, as the light of the next day revealed the lone rooster pacing in front of the lost home, cars and trucks began arriving….the human family of these chickens arrived one by one. No call was placed. Nobody was asked to come, and yet one by one they arrived with their families, friends and tools, trailers, Bobcats, food, supplies, materials, love and the gift of their time. By 2pm on Sunday, just a mere few hours after the last curls of smoke, the building was taken down and the site cleared, and a temporary safe enclosure pen and home for the birds that survived.
I haven’t known what to say in these last couple of days that would do justice to what has happened. Because my best friend has a heart that you could park Texas inside and still have room for Russia, Canada and China, “Farm Mom” Alanna built a ‘GoFundMe’ website so people could contribute to helping us recover. The outpouring of love and support has given me the strength to finally find my voice and tell you that this shared kindness has the power to heal. What I also want to tell you is that the human family of these birds; our friends and neighbors – Bob and Mike made a dumpster appear by early hours of Monday morning and disappearing fully loaded less than 24 hours later….that wonderful Bob (with the help of his wife, father and Frank) has unselfishly given the better part of his work week to remove ALL of the debris….(and with the help of neighbor Tony), ALL of it, and also lay down a fresh floor of white rock over what used to be a home, so that as we continue on with life and care for the remaining birds, each pass by the site wouldn’t rip open our hearts. They have taken it upon themselves to start the process to make good things happen in the face of adversity and with the things they can each do, take us closer back to those sunlit days of beauty and life. There is no finer gift in life than to be surrounded by people then when you fall to your knees, they take turns out in front and get you dusted off and back standing tall. I am blessed and I can see that even in loss, there is honor that it will not be forgotten but will one day be better.
It is quiet but it is not the end…..Sitting on my kitchen counter is the basket of eggs collected Saturday early evening. I have looked at them and thought that they are too precious and too sacred to eat or discard. They have been a source of pain….these final colored gifts from my beautiful birds. I live my life by a famous quote of Anais Nin who said “The Universe shrinks or expands in proportions to one’s courage” and tonight I found mine. Out of the darkness there is light, and in these eggs are hopefully a few brave new chickens, that with the help and love of neighbor Joshua, are meant to be the pioneers of what their parents left behind before leaving this world. There are still dark days of winter ahead, there will be reminders and hurt, but I choose to tilt my head towards the light and wait to see what colors and patterns and shapes will come in the rebirth that is Spring on a farm.
Thank you. Heartfelt thank you.