Three weeks ago we added four pullets (adolescent chickens) to the backyard flock we raise together with our next door neighbors. Four beautiful Barred Rocks, which we hoped would be providing eggs regularly during the long winter months. I came home Monday evening to find one of them lying in the shade of a rain barrel. When I approached she did not move, which surprised me as all four have been very skittish around us. I picked her up to examine her and her wings flopped, which was an ‘uh oh’ kind of moment. I also noticed that she looked paler than the other three. “Maybe she’s just hot,” was my hopeful thought as I put them up for the night.
Yesterday morning when I went to let them out, she was lying on the floor instead of up on the roost with the others. I called my friend Jeremy Porter, the ‘chicken whisperer’ of CLUCK, the ‘Coop’erative of Lexington Urban Chicken Keepers. He came over to examine her and as he lifted her out we could both see that she was struggling. She was trembling, and as he gently examined her, she fluffed up all her feathers and suddenly stretched out her neck. As her neck began to drop, Jeremy said, “I think she’s about to die.” As we watched, her eyes slowly closed and she went limp in his hands.
Why am I taking time to write about the death of a chicken we’ve owned for just three weeks, especially given that I consider our flock to be livestock rather than pets? I think it’s because as I watched the life slowly fade from her eyes, I felt incredibly sad. I felt sad that this beautiful creature with the potential to live a good life in our urban flock while enriching ours with eggs and her innate chicken-ness had died before she had even been integrated with our other hens. I felt sad because I felt that I had failed her in some way (even though I know chickens are very good at hiding symptoms of serious illness).
In the industrialized North, it is increasingly rare to be in the presence of a living creature when it dies. We are a death-denying culture that prefers to keep death and dying very much out of sight. We pay professionals to wash and dress our loved ones’ bodies for burial or cremation, rather than sit and keep vigil over them ourselves. And when it comes to food, the animals we eat are usually slaughtered at a great distance – both physically and emotionally – from where we consume them. My children enjoy collecting eggs, but they know that when the hens stop laying, we will harvest them and make chicken stock from their carcasses. They know this because they have participated in chicken harvests.
And yet I still felt incredibly sad as I witnessed the death of a chicken yesterday. I think it was because, having grown food for years now, having tended a small urban plot of land and having lived with chickens, I am more attuned to my vocation as a human being, at least as I understand it from the beautiful poetry of the first 2 chapters of Genesis. My work is to serve the soil which provides the abundance of food with which we are intended to live, and to care for the other creatures which share the soil’s bounty.
This morning I read the following prayer in Ellen Davis’ wonderful book, Scripture, Culture and Agriculture: An Agrarian reading of the Bible. The prayer was penned by Basil the Great in the fourth century, and it captures what I felt yesterday upon the death of a chicken:
O God, enlarge within us the sense of fellowship
with all living things, our brothers the animals
to whom thou gavest the earth as their home in common with us.
We remember with shame that in the past
we have exercised the high dominion of humankind with ruthless cruelty
so that the voice of the earth, which should have gone up to thee in song,
has been a groan of travail.
May we realize that they live not for us alone
but for themselves and for thee,
and that they love the sweetness of life.