Yesterday, we had to kill one of my chickens.
I had three, all happy in this little wire box called a "chicken tractor" which we'd wheel around the garden to give them new tasty bugs and grass every day. In exchange for this pampering, our gardens eat the nitrogen in their...um...manure.
I had decided from the first day that I was not going to get attached to them: They're chickens. They're egg machines, and, I thought, they will stay egg machines. I am a farm woman; I will not have pet chickens.
So I didn't name them. Other than filling up their water, wheeling them around, and feeding them, I spent no time with them. I was thankful for the egg which would show up every day, but that's as far as my emotional attachment went. I remained cool, aloof.
That is, until the stupid little birds decided they liked me.
The first week, they huddled away from me every time I opened the top trap, making concerned little noises and jumping out of their feathers as bits of feed rattled down. Gradually, however, they got used to me. Even my hat falling in did little to ruffle them. I could practically drop a jar on them and they'd look up with thankful, beady, greedy little eyes. They started making soft cooing noises whenever we'd weed near them, little chickens songs and contented clucks.
The end of my emotional disattachement came, however, when they started coming to me. The backtrap swings open sometimes; the latch isn't too tight and I'm too lazy to fix it. So one or two mornings a week, I walk past or we drive up to pick lettuce, and they're meandering around the bean patch eating beetles. The first few times this happened, I had to chase them a bit. Then they'd let me walk up to them.
Last week they started walking up to me. I didn't even have to train them; take that, Flannery O'Connor. They'd perk up their little heads, see me coming, and one of them would scamper over and squat down so I could pick her up. Another one would pretend to run away from me, but while I scooped up the third and hopped over the bean rows to their tractor, a chicken under each arm, she's sort of mosey over as if the whole thing were her idea. I imagine she wanted to maintain some pretence of independence--and there I go, anthropomorphizing. But she'd mosey over and sort of scoot away from me as I tried to pick her up. I'd fold my arms and pretend not to care, and she's come back and cluck a bit as I grabbed her between both wings and dump her through the top trap.
But then on Friday one of them, started hunkering down in the corner with her eyes half shut. The side of her neck was plucked and damp. The other chickens never bothered her; she worried herself, plucking feathers and dribbling herself with water. I don't know why or what was wrong.
All I knew was that I couldn't kiill her.
I've been here for 3 months, and though I've helped butcher a couple animals, I've never killed one. I didn't want my "friend-chicken," as Nii'Anang called her, to be the first. Sillier yet, I didn't want the other chickens to know that I was involved in killing their friend, which is probably absurd, but that's how I felt. So I had Nii'Anang slit her throat quietly in the woods. That was yesterday, and by then she had developed a little cough, like pneumonia, and looked terrible. I couldn't look at her when I went to feed them.
I was talking to a friend on the phone the other evening about the joys of farming, and he used the term "man's mastery over nature." Maybe it's because I hang out with feminists, but I winced. Just to prove I'm not a feminist (though I respect them), I corrected him with the term "husbandry."
The truth is, we don't have very much mastery. We have to remove ourselves via technology and urbanization before we can afford that illusion. Heck, I can't even control my own heart when I get all tore up over a little chicken's suffering. Much less can I control the rain, seed germination, and the chicken herself. Some years are good bean years; the next, though, the beans all die. Why? We don't know.
We lost our onion crop to tiny little insects called thrips; everyone was in a black mood for two weeks after that. Deer ate all of our lettuce, and no deer fence seemed able to stop them. That same week, the racoons completely destroyed our corn crop. Yeah, we're organic--but you don't think conventional farmers have the same problem? They can manufactor all the petroleum-based nitrogen they want, but when it doesn't rain, they hurt. We're not in control. We just work with the world, within the world, and we'd best not forget that. We learn some, we cajol things into flourishing, but consider the lilies and the sparrows. We're not too far removed from them, despite the fact we can fly in cucumbers from Mexico or wherever in December.
And then that little chicken I didn't want to like has to die, and I can't do anything about it.