Take chickens, for example. I never had a close personal relationship with chickens, except on the dinner table. Until now. Unable to resist recurring temptation, I bought a few pullets (female chicks to the rest of us) recently, and was thrown into instant confrontation with certain linguistic realities. Already I know where we got the idea of “spring chickens,” who personify youth and vigor and innocence for the rest of us. I thought I understood “pecking order” as a concise description of a dominance hierarchy, but there’s more. It also, more benignly, tells the story of the first chick to wake up—her pecking wakes the others who then rush to join her at the feeder. “What, there’s food? Oh boy!” For me, pecking order isn’t just part of the cultural overlay of education or absorption anymore, it’s part of my direct experience.
Once upon a time, in this land not so long ago, most everyone lived with chickens and daily experienced certain chicken truths. “A chicken in every pot” was a well-understood promise on which a politician could ride to the White House, much the way “A MacDonald’s on every corner” might work today. It was a guarantee of abundance people could relate to, and it translated instantly into everyone’s experience. Today, chickens and eggs are “produced” on industrial “farms” without ever being touched by human hands.
Living with chickens, I’ll learn that “henpecked” describes a pretty grim reality , and that having “egg on your face” isn’t just a sign of shame but absolute proof of guilt, as it’s often the only way to tell which hen has developed the bad habit of egg-eating. I’ll find out whether chickens always come home to roost and maybe I’ll start going to bed with the chickens, as real farmers do. Maybe I’ll even figure out whether “egg money” and “chicken feed” ever strike a balance.
I’m sure I’m going to be learning a lot more from these birds, and it won’t just be old sayings. Attempting to raise chickens in the foothills will teach important Nature lessons too, and put my relationship with local predators on a whole new footing. Whether or not one plans to raise domestic animals for meat, there will be lessons of life and death, attachment and letting go. I’ll learn to let go when I have to share my chickens with local hawks and coyotes, just as I have with cats who disappear in the night now and then. I’ll learn to be more aware of and responsive to changes in weather and seasons, as I weigh their effects on the chickens and watch the hens’ behavior change with them. And, perhaps most important, I’ll learn (again) humility—when and how much interference Nature will tolerate—as I learn whether to try to save a weak chick or a sick bird, and whether human ingenuity and chicken wire can outsmart sheer hunger and determination on the part of local skunks and foxes.
If our experience with domestic animals is becoming limited—and how many of us have tried to lead a horse to water or bought a pig in a poke lately—so is our direct experience of wild animals. Although there are truths in some clichés, many others abound with contradictions. As our experience grows away from the roots of these expressions, how will we know which are which? If we neglect to sit and watch crows cavorting on the thermals near a cliff face, we won’t know how straight they fly. Without personal observation, we can’t be sure what “eating like a bird” really means, or where acorns fall in relation to their trees, or how big an oak will grow from one. It’s not books or teachers that tell us what happens when a twig is bent or an ill wind blows, but experience.
Our language would be far poorer without such sayings, but it’s easy to lose track of their true meaning. We've forgotten that “a bird in the hand” and the innocent nursery rhyme about “blackbirds in a pie” recall times and places when songbirds were (and still are) dietary staples, a practice we’ve come to deplore as we rely more and more on domesticated foodstuffs—including, of course, chickens!
I doubt I’ll ever solve the old riddle, but in my experience the chickens will come months before the eggs. With luck, I’ll learn what fresh eggs taste like sometime this fall. And above all, I’ll learn that chickens are true birds, with charming individual personalities and fascinating behaviors, not just wrapped packages in the supermarket. I’ll learn about instinct, as I watch day-old chicks grow into competent adults without a shred of parental guidance, an accomplishment we mammals can’t begin to match. Maybe I’ll even learn a few words in the rich assortment of clicks, whistles, and alarms with which the flock communicates. And I expect I’ll be learning chicken lessons until the cows come home.
Copyright, S.L. White, 2008. Illustration copyright Jan Ratcliffe.
Originally published in Upbeat, June 1996.