Friday, August 1, 2008

The Chicken in the Egg

The chickens behind my tent were 'enclosed' by a wire fence...chicken wire you might say...with a hen house and a mulberry tree that rained delicious tidbits on them with every passing breeze. I write enclosed hesitantly since the chickens embraced the term free range with more abandon than their human masters probably intended when putting up that enclosure. Most of them are young and small enough to squeeze out the gaps and run wild through the garden, popping out at unexpected moments from every nook and cranny ("how did you get in my backpack?"). The rest take short flights from the yard to the top of the fence to outside the yard. Or the one or two smart enough to fly up into the mulberry tree hang out up there much of the day snatching the ripest sweetest fruits from reaching human fingers.

I think one of the first animals I spared a sympathetic thought for outside my own household or the Amazon rain forest were chickens. I felt some responsibility for them since they were my primary meat source. Without chickens life would be an unending march of tofu. It doesn't take much looking to find out how most chickens are raised, not free and easy in the shade of a mulberry tree, but stacked to the ceiling wing to wing, legs breaking underneath the weight of bodies bred to grown at unnatural rates. I found out about it...and didn't really give a shit. A teenage girl I'm teaching this summer who recently gave up her vegetarianism put it this way: "I was just like, why shouldn't I eat this chicken? I'm better than this chicken. So I ate it." She also admitted that the chicken (one of the boxed up varieties, presumably) was stringy and not very tasty.

The Frosts had two kinds of chickens-the back yard chickens, the ones in the pen, and the front yard chickens, a smaller golden variety who were just beginning to raise up their babies and still had the luxury of a rooster. Occasionally the rooster would try to chase a back yard escapee, strutting comically after a hen twice his size but mostly the front yard chickens hung out around the goats stealing their grain and sleeping slumped over on their stable doors. A couple more teenagers in on the tainted vegetarianism conversation asked me this,"What's better, caged chicken or free range? CAGED is better because free range you give them some nice time outside and then BAM kill them. The caged never know what they're missing." Well, I know what they're missing. It's pretty good.

Alison Frost took me to the county fair where she'd been asked to judge the art submissions for the 4H club. What I know about the 4H club is pretty limited and since it's a very extensive program this is just the most basic description-4H is an agricultural club where kids experiment with the crafts that are popular with scouts like wilderness survival but also raising livestock, baking, jam making, vegetable growing etc. etc. Its also a way to make money since every ribbon earned in each category is traded in for points which equal a small amount of cash. So Alison and her kids used to come to the county fair with their goats, rabbits, chickens, giant squash, preserves and pieces of art to collect points and socialize with other home schooled farm kids in the area. They're too grown for it now but Alison's still tight with 4H organizers and she invited me along to guest judge.

The county fair was pretty dead in the middle of a broiling hot day except for the judges and their 4H child assistants (why weren't they in school come to think of it?) with stacks of drawings and aprons and quilts in front of them. On the walls and in booths were posters and dioramas of farm activities and in one corner was a small cage full of chicks next to an incubator. As Alison sorted through the elementary school drawings-she gave away blue ribbons until they ran out, then we had to admit some were red ribbon material-I wandered over to the chicken exhibition trying to sneak a finger through the cage bars and pet a downy head. A girl of about nine or ten came up and pointed to the most demented looking one staggering around, its black fuzz a bit sticky and dusty looking, and said proudly, "That's my chick. I donated the egg."

"He's looking a little bedraggled," I said, thoughtlessly.

"Well, he just hatched," she informed me like I was a fucking idiot. Shut me the hell up!

I looked over at the incubator which had a clear plastic top. Inside were about a dozen eggs of different sizes and colors. Did you know some chickens lay blue eggs? Not like a robin's egg blue more a greeny blue, like sea foam. Along a few were hairline fractures and to my everlasting shock a baby chick kicked its way out of a shell as I watched. It lay there slick with birth, breathing shallowly on the damp paper towel of the incubator as stunned to be alive as I was to see it being born. The little farm girl shook her head at my slack jawed ignorance and wandered away.

So there's knowing and then there's knowing where chickens come from, how they come into this world and how they go out of it and all the ways they can be treated in between. The chickens at the Frost's have a sweet life and then BAM it's over. But chickens in factory farms live lives they probably wish would be over a lot quicker. It's interesting to think about how an organization like 4H might awaken a lot of school kids to the amazing responsibility of raising an animal to feed yourself and your family, to point at a chicken and say, "That's mine", knowing the care that went into its life as well as the benefits of its death. Of course 4H does not in any way cater exclusively to organic or free range farmers, for all I know that little dusty baby was going off to to be shoved in a cage with a hundred brothers and sisters.

I stood for a long time over the incubator, entranced. The newborn chick lay under the weight of its fresh existence, tossed to an uncertain future on the shore of its sea foam shell.

If you'd like to read a bit about 4H they have a crazy convoluted website here:

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