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The Chicken With the Broken Neck

Goodbye, Tabasco

The Chicken With the Broken Neck

It’s been a good week up here on the hill.

Except for the chicken with the broken neck.

We appreciate our friends who patiently hear out of chicken stories, so yesterday, we mentioned it. Our realistic chiropractor friend quickly asks, “So, did you eat it?” No, Joe, we explained, we couldn’t pinpoint when it died; couldn’t take that chance. We will cross that “making the best of a sad situation” bridge when we come to it. We took this hen up the forest road and gave it to the forest to eat. She knows what to do.

There are tribes who, in honoring their dead, offer up the bodies to the birds at the top of the highest trees. Every sacred way feeds another.

Out back during morning chores, a flock of silver-white birds, the tiniest things, quick as swallows, swoops out over the valley. Loud tiny things; haven’t seen them before. Out front, it’s another morning of putting food out for the enthusiastic white cat. The white cat—known around here as “Hunter,” “Artemis,” (didn’t work for me) and “Not Our Cat,”—it’s been fattening up. We know it has a home across the way a piece—and a twin brother to boot, who tends not to cross the road—it has chosen our cats as its playmates, our porch as its base. It has schmoozed every damn one of us in the household, but out of respect for its other home, we’re currently caretaking it as a visitor: food and water, yes; indoor privileges, no.

A friend of mine from the software world of several years’ acquaintance surprised me one morning with a detailed explanation of the symbiosis between crows and red tail hawks in the midst of a story painted by cries from a grackle outside a 3:00AM window. I thought I knew the various worlds she was fluid in, fluent in, but lo and behold, birdwatching wasn’t one of them. How wrong I was; what a delightful surprise to listen to her twenty-minute, give or take, story, and learn so much. Sometimes we forget the multiple worlds each of us live in, that one circle of knowledge is but a subset of all other lives we have lived. Pay a different kind of attention the next time you notice a friends’ eyes change. Ask where that’s coming from. What you hear may surprise you. This time of year even on hard days the quality of light can amaze, and we can hear so much of what still fascinates, and what we still have left to learn. All we have to do is quiet down long enough to listen. And keep listening.

The animals we return to the earth; each feast, an ecosystem within itself. Each time we sit to eat, our bodies work their ritual of intaking, and making use of, other living thing’s ecosystems. While we’re not above the many-children necessity of a frozen dinner now and again, we try to eat a diet that holds the life energy of something, be it the tomatoes from the kitchen garden outside, someone else’s wheat carefully dried and processed into flour, or fresh organic chicken, aged none too much. Our plans for having meat pens of poultry, rabbit, and more by this time of year didn’t happen; other priorities and a dose of the kind of earnest poor planning that keeps you smiling at yourself. Kind of. One of our primary homesteading goals, though, is to grow the majority of the food we consume—meat included—so keeping an eye on where we are in this path remains important.

This fall is coming upon us with either of us having to revisit butchering an animal for survival. I am certain there is some spiritual lesson I am suppose to relearn, and Learn Deep, by doing this, yet I have reasons why I am Not Ready, not the least of which is fear, accepting a stark example of one’s place in the world, and choices made—am I willing to take full responsibility for that chicken dinner?—and, deep in there, a pretty no-holds-barred example of power. Coming to grips with one’s power, the iterations of accepting it, holding it, again and again over the years: this can be a mighty humbling thing. Most nights it’s easier to just cook up that box of mac & cheese.

But that path, I’m still on, and have stopped to rest for awhile; this afternoon, I’m here, and tending to trimming the trees on other ones. There is much to be thankful for in this peaceful hour of the afternoon, where, both in the forest world right outside the back door, and in the human world at large, there is precious little peace. Hanging laundry, feeling that precious balance between gratefulness, and knowing how much we do not know. There are so many lessons to walk, but such finite time. We get so caught up in choices, when it is really: feed the cats, feed the chickens, put out the wash. It really is that simple. The angst of getting caught up in, “what to order?” at dinner, you know this drill, right? Warren Zevon said, when discussing his terminal illness, that he wished he had learned earlier to enjoy every sandwich. Opening up to daily life: there is all manner of food there to enjoy. Walk it, and listen: so many of the choices are already being made for you. Get that, and there is so much more to focus on: you may hear far more through the trees than just the breeze.

The dogs aren’t too fazed by the current influx of ladybugs into the office, for example; this would be their third year seeing it. Something intangible outdoors comes into bloom, and for a few weeks, if that, ladybugs lay a lacy red coat on the gardens, the driveway, the fields, and, in smaller measure, in the cabin. We adults are live-and-let-live about this; we gather the wayward spiders and bugs of a day and ferry them outside. Dogs are more direct: once an hour or so, I’ll hear a snap … I’ve been assuming, one less ladybug. Enjoying that sandwich.

Perhaps understanding that so much of the burden of making the choice of which lesson to walk through next, lo, so many of those choices really aren’t ours to make. We have burdens—delightful and not—given to us by another power that may, or may not feel any of this weight. Perhaps the lessons are so expected that there’s no element of surprise, no newness, when we are being watched down on: these lessons, of course there waiting to be presented to us; why would the human ego think any different? Disease, death, relationships that grew into bad things; life goes on, parents die, these things are life-changing, cataclysmic, and happen all the time. Mary Oliver has a line about a bird keeling over dead from a branch, without ever once in its life having felt sorry for itself. White cat at our feet, looking over the valley at birds which surprise us as new, but were most likely quite there, and quite very much at home as well, thank you very much, the entire time.

If a flock flies into the forest, and a human isn’t there to hear it, yep, those are still birds. Our human ego really doesn’t matter too damn much. Our observations don’t change the birds knowing how they are living is right. The ladybugs continue their searching march up the curtains, across the desk. The kitten doesn’t care who its owner on paper is: for the last few weeks it has chosen us, and as of this morning its right ear needs attention. This is one of those instances where my attentions can matter for good: do I take it to the vet tomorrow, or wait?

I believe we’ve made the tacit decision that our overage of roosters won’t be slaughtered at present; they will get a fall and winter and another blooming spring. Next month, the ewes will be bred for the spring, but I’m not making an assumption of locker lamb this time around. We wait.

I think on the loved ones in my life who are grappling with, or have walked, the diagnosis of disease. When our time comes, and we are told the heart is irrefutably weak, or the cancer has been running so silently deep is now talking: will we hear it then? The birds in flight, and resting? They are always listening.

And we, learning to live among them—forgetting they were all here before us, and know how to simply walk it so much better than we do—we wait.

This morning, we put an old crate out on the porch, with enough old blankets and towels to windbreak the growing chill. Not Our Cat curled right up inside. Perhaps that’s how the days are measured, in the more important places, by the answer to the quieter questions—did we take care of that little life that found us by listening?

—Linda Jackson
9 October 2004


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