A few months back at the farm we had a woman that easily could have been referred to as “the chicken whisperer”. She seemed to know chickens better than anyone, and, at times, seemingly better than human beings. They were literally, “her girls”, and they followed her when she arrived. She knew when to feed, when to sleep, the snacks that they’d like from the farm, such as fruits and vegetables, and certainly what they shouldn’t eat. Joking aside, I learned a great deal from her and began, since then, observing “her girls” most afternoons when I delivered their afternoon snack. You learn who’s in charge, and they let you know it, who the weaker one’s are, making sure they have food as well, when they lay eggs, how they go to sleep, and basically, the intricate structure of community that the chickens share, just as we do as human beings. We can learn a great deal watching and observing.
Then there was today. This community of chickens encountered their darkest of days. A dog broke free and literally massacred all but about seventeen with a few of them probably hanging on with their last breath. It was one of the most difficult things I had witnessed here on the farm. You are always aware that there are predators close by. The hawks make themselves known on a daily basis as they fly overhead. You are fully aware, just from education and experience, that there is a brutality to the animal kingdom just as there is with humans as we know all too well. There’s an animal instinct in all of us, that, thankfully, as humans we learn to tame, at least for the most part. We know that if we too act on those instincts that there are consequences to our actions in order to be held accountable for preying on the weak and vulnerable.
It was obvious, in witnessing all of it today, that despite that brutality their sense of community remained intact. The lone survivors found themselves huddled around their dead comrades. We practically had to lure them out in order to give them assurance that they were ok. In some sense, it too was an instinctual reaction, in some sense “playing dead” in order not to be next, but in witnessing it, there appeared a reverence, of sorts, for those who lost their lives so tragically, as if “huddled masses yearning to be free” while we stood by helpless. As we cleaned up the dead, the others seemed to be simply frozen in place, not moving at all or at times huddled together, as if frozen with fear. There are reasons we call someone “chicken” when they refuse to face their own fears. Today, though, it wasn’t that skiddishness that you often witness from them when you walk into the yard. It was a different feel, and by simply watching and observing you can learn a great deal from them in our own dealings with hurt and suffering.
As I said, you know who’s in charge. There’s no doubt in this community as well. There is one rooster, reddish brown and tall in stature, who has a presence about him. He’s sure to make the hens aware when food has arrived but is also the one who warns them of predators. For a bird that cannot fly, he was found in the opposite yard. When I finally arrived, the dog had his eye on that rooster, alpha preying on alpha. What would it do to the eco-structure of that community? How does such a prominent figure in the community carry on if he survives? It was by no means his fault that others died, but at the same time, and I read into the rooster, how does he once again lead when his leadership seemingly appeared to fail? How does he once again walk with such prominence in the community that has literally been decimated before his very eyes?
There’s a certain even flow to the life of a community, even for chickens. There aren’t always warnings when something is going to change or when “predators” arrive, and often unbeknownst to us, changes the eco-system for months or years to come. The cycle of life and death is always working itself out. At times it’s like the changing of seasons where the change seems to happen so gradually to where one day we awake to bare trees, but at times it also comes in the form of traumatic experiences, like today, where we’re thrown off kilter much more quickly, bringing up within us all different kinds of feelings and emotions because the chickens weren’t just a part of their own community but also part of a larger community that feels the pinch in their absence. It’s too easy to simply write it off as “well, that’s just the way it is”; that doesn’t take away the felt loss in that absence and the silence that now looms over the scene.
I am a believer, now more than ever, that the world beyond humans has a great deal to teach us about ourselves. If you had asked me six or seven months ago about the same experience, I’d probably say just the same, well they’re just chickens. There obviously is truth to that and all that unfolds, whether we like it or not, but when you allow yourself to become a part of their world and they yours, something begins to change. Observing and watching them, at times just standing there for several minutes, begins to open something within yourself and who you are as a person. There begins to be a bridge between what appeared to be two worlds and see that it is but one. You begin to see that you are a part of their community just as much as they are of yours because there is just one.
The tragic events of the day may have been avoidable, but it’s also the reality of the world in which we live. It’s always the most unexpected events that cause us the most pain but also have the most to teach us and in forming us for the future. We can be “huddled masses yearning to be free”, remaining attached to the dead and living our lives in fear but we also have the choice to take steps, one at a time, out of that fear and begin to live our lives again but now in a new way and a part of a different community. It will never look the same but what we carry with us is always there if it truly is of something beyond ourselves. Picking up the dead, while surrounded by life, reminds you just how fragile it is and the fact that you have but one chance at the life that is given. We can learn a great deal by observing and watching the world around us. We often become that world if we aren’t aware, simply conforming to it all because “that’s just the way it is.” In those most critical moments, though, standing over what has died, we are given choice and we are being given overwhelming freedom, to step out and encounter a new world, a world now less confined by fear but rather an overwhelming sense of love that transcends humans to a world and an earth and a universe that isn’t separate from me but one. We can learn a lot about community by observing and watching, even in the face of such trauma and tragedy.