Thursday, March 25, 2010

The Parable of the Chicken

Several years ago we acquired four chickens—a motley crew, there was one small red hen with very strange ways, a large red hen that reminded me of a church lady I once knew, plus two black and white hens that we promptly named Pepper and Salt.

For over three years our small flock seemed content. A few months ago, that all changed. First Miss Wacko, who often refused to come in at night, disappeared. Not long after surviving an attack by a red-tailed hawk, Big Red gave up the ghost.

In the days that followed Salt and Pepper seemed contented enough to have the coop to themselves and wander the confines of the pasture, escaping occasionally to make a break for the barn or the orchard. I must confess that Salt’s demise rests on our shoulders. One Saturday evening we drove to Guerneville to dance to the rockin’ rhythms of Michael Adams’ band, The Fargo Bros. By the time we got home, we were so tired, we forgot that we had not closed the small back door to the chicken house. The next morning, Pepper sat alone on the perch except for a pile of feathers in the corner.

Each morning we let Pepper out. She wandered alone, pecking here and there, a small black and white figure against the sea of green. Who knows if chickens get lonely, but they are flock animals after all—they naturally form communities. So we asked around until we found a farmer north of Ukiah who had young hens for sale.

We were so pleased to bring home a dozen new companions for Pepper—four white hens, tall but slender birds, three red hens much like Big Red, and five Araucanas, large birds feathered in rust, brown, and black in gorgeous patterns.

However, chicken psychology is obviously not our forte. Much to our surprise and dismay, Pepper rejected all attempts to introduce her to this new family. As soon as we began unloading the newcomers, Pepper set up a terrible squawk. As each chicken was set on the floor, her insulted and angry screeching grew louder. When I let her go, she immediately rose up like an avenging angel, striking out with her heavy talons at any chicken that dared approach her.

It has been five days now and each time we let Pepper out of her cage, there is a violent but short-lived struggle. Amid a great flapping of wings and flying dust, I manage to snatch her up and put her back in the large pet carrier that has become her refuge.

How strange that even chickens reject strangers, even their own kind, just because there’s something about them that’s just a little different—the wrong color, the wrong size, the wrong smell, the wrong behavior. This is especially intriguing to me in the midst of the ongoing battles over health care reform and immigration.

Don’t people realize how they sound? Underneath all the rhetoric, their words are pretty clear. “I take care of me and my own—you can darn well do the same.” Or “This is my place—you look different, you talk different, you even dress different and you’re not welcome here.”

Like dogs fighting over a few scraps or a none too smart chicken that doesn’t realize that a new flock might just be a blessing. Amid a great flapping of lips and a cloud of innuendo and insults, our leaders have refused to see that we’re all in this together, that we need each other. Many of them seem to have lost their way and sometimes they fool the very people who put them in office into following after them.

Worst of all, lots of people on both sides claim to be Christians. Maybe they read a different Bible than I do. The one I read says over and over that our differences don’t matter. It says we’re all part of the same family, brothers and sisters, children of the King. The Scriptures that I read say that everyone is our neighbor, even those we fear or despise. Again and again Jesus speaks of love and forgiveness and grace.

A chicken can’t read, but human beings have no excuse. No excuse at all.

Peace and blessings, Country Woman

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Living on Foggy Mountain

On Saturday morning we castrated all the ram lambs. It wasn't as drastic as that sounds, no blood or sharp knives, although drastic enough. My husband caught up a lamb and held it sitting on its rump on the corral fence. My job was to take this tool called an "elastrator" that resembles heavy duty pliers, put the smallest, tightest rubber band on its four prongs, spread the prongs stretching the rubber band wide, and place it over the poor lamb's testicles, letting the band return to its original size. Within a few weeks, the testicles will have dried up and dropped off, a supposedly painless procedure, though I have my doubts.

Our ranch is 106 rocky, tree-strewn acres. We're 1500 feet up from the valley floor and on a clear day we can see the very top of Mt. Tamalpais though San Francisco is hidden a bit beyond. Most mornings we walk a mile-long loop up around the far end of the ranch and then down again to the house. Some mornings we're startled by a flock of wild turkeys, their feathers puffed up in fright, their anxious calls like nervous church ladies. Other times we'll see a herd of wild pigs snuffling their way along, seeking grubs, bugs and acorns among the leaf duff scattered beneath the oak, madrone and bay laurel trees.

It is a gift and a blessing to live in such a place. There are times we don't leave it for three or four days, depending on work schedules or those necessary errands we can't do by mail or phone. Even when I must leave, the beauty of it, the peace it offers stays in my mind. When I return, I stop to open the bottom gate, a mile from our house, and find myself breathing a long sigh of relief, knowing that home is only minutes away.

Living in such a place also means hard work, lots of it. If the water pressure fails, we must follow the pipe lines, check the water tanks, inspect the spring boxes. When one of the sheep escapes, someone has to walk the fence lines until a hole is found and fixed. If a tree falls, we let it age, and then we cut, split and stack the wood that will warm us that winter. In the rainy season, we walk the ditches and shovel out the leaves and debris that block the culverts. The work keeps us mindful of the natural order of things, mindful of our place in the natural world, aware that our bodies were meant to be used.

People visit us and envy our peaceful, pastoral life. Being "good hosts," we sit with them and drink iced tea while two red-tailed hawks circle overhead and the lambs jump and play in the orchard pasture. When they're gone, we return to the work for the day—transplanting tomato starts, pruning grape vines, whatever the season requires. Most days, though, if only for a few moments, we pull up the lawn chairs to rest and talk and admire the world around us.