Let the beauty we love,
be what we do.
There are hundreds of ways to kneel and kiss the ground."
The Farmwife Diaries
The Little Speckled Hen Occupies the Front Porch
This tale starts with a chicken at my front door, ventures to Wall Street, and ends at the back door. The wayward fowl that inspired this humble reflection on the meaning of life is a member of the cold-hardy, long-lived heirloom breed of chicken called a Barred Rock. We raise these birds as layers and our flock of several hundred live on pasture, with portable chicken coops for roosting and moveable fencing to rotate them onto fresh ground. They are protected from the fly-by attacks of eagles and other predators by a sweet-hearted dog called Pippin. And they are tended daily by farmers to ensure they have clean water, sufficient food and general comfort. There is no denying that these chickens are part of our food production system on the farm, and we relish their delicious, nutritious, flavorful eggs every day, but they have it pretty good as far as poultry lives go.
Given the typical complacency of chickens, as long as they are well fed, it was a bit surprising to discover that a number of birds in our flock went awol (absent without leave) this season. One day we looked around and there were chickens everywhere…in the kids’ treehouse, walking down the driveway, wandering the orchard, and generally roving all over the place. Despite the electric fencing, and the herding efforts of our dog, a renegade posse of chickens has persisted in breaking out and wandering the farm. At first the farmers were diligent in collecting the ramblers and putting them back in the fencing. But after weeks of repeated escapes, they surrendered to the notion that these particular chickens had other places to go. I will acknowledge that this behavior caused me to re-evaluate the character of the chicken. That the “call of the wild” is still present in these birds is an honorable thing I think, although highly inconvenient for the egg-gatherers who must rummage in blackberry brambles and under the house for the wayward eggs.
The free-roaming (a notch significantly more “green” than just free-ranging) chickens continued to frustrate us until one day I opened our front door and there she was, right on our front stoop. A speckled hen! The noise and fuss of my door-opening and my resulting exclamation of surprise caused the little lady to rush off into our lilac hedge. But there, sitting prettily in a little bowl smoothed out of the landscaping bark, tucked in the space between my sons’ yellow Tonka truck and bicycle, were three fresh eggs. (I posted a photo on our Finnriver Facebook page). I did not even need to put my shoes on to reach out and grab the succulent eggs. With these treasures I made up a batch of Sarah’s Poached Kale & Eggs, one of my favorite eggs-cellent breakfasts.
[Recipe here, with thanks to Sarah Spaeth of the Jefferson Land Trust: Fill the cast iron skillet with a big handful of kale and a bit of water to get it steaming. Cover. When the kale gets hot, break several eggs into the kale and let them poach. In a few minutes, lift the lid and sprinkle with grated cheese. When the eggs are cooked as much as you require, salt and pepper to taste.]
After this marvelous occurrence—of the hen laying eggs at my front door—I felt much more tolerant of the peregrinations of the poultry. Indeed, for several weeks, I had eggs at arm’s reach every morning and could not get over the marvelous sight of them tucked into a pile among my kid’s truck toys. And, beyond the amusement and convenience, there was something else about this hen’s behavior that captured my attention. I felt a tender recognition of her strong impulse to roost and an appreciation of her search for the right place to do the necessary thing.
In choosing to occupy our porch, this hen actually caused me consider current worldly events in a new way. She reminded me, if you’ll allow me to make a mental leap, of the Occupy Wall Street movement occurring in New York and beyond. She made me think about the spaces we choose to occupy, and why. How in the case of the Wall Street folks, they are bucking a big system in which the status quo is protected to serve the privileged. How they are occupying the nexus of power, literally planting their bodies down, to demand a new way of doing things, unsettling business as usual. And then the hen made me think about how this life my family has chosen, here on this swath of green land, could be a form of occupation in this new radicalized sense of the word.
To own a farm is to root oneself down in a place, with a very grounded purpose— in our case, to create a viable and vibrant model of small scale family agriculture; to participate in creating healthy rural community; to grow good food and ferment beverages with a commitment to principles that seek to honorably balance economics and ecology. I don’t want to sound too lofty about it, since we wake each day wondering how to go about it, but we are here for a purpose and we hope what we do causes more good than harm. Of course it’s hard to measure such things when there are so many compromises in a day and a limit to the time, energy and resources we have to pursue our ideals. But we are here, and the here-ness of our existence, the passionate occupation of this specific farm, is the greatest defining factor in our lives, alongside our love for each other.
On this particular day of occupation, my husband is up at the barn pitching yeast into tanks of cider. My kids are playing in the shifting light of the Chimacum valley. And I am musing on poultry, politics and the purpose of my life. Meanwhile, the free-thinking hen has moved on from our front stoop and must be roosting somewhere else now. I see her today loitering behind the house, by the back door, where we pile our compost.
As the earth completes its 2,012th rotation around the sun, in the common era of the western calendar, we are here together—occupying Finnriver with attention and aspiration—working for right livelihood, striving for good love and hoping for plentiful eggs.
May your new year be fruitful, healthful and wonderful!