“It is quite possible that an animal has spoken to me and that I didn’t catch the remark because I wasn’t paying attention.”
E.B. White, Charlotte’s Web
I’m rusty, y’all. Everything in my head has not hit type for years, so this might be harder than I thought. I sat here today, after grappling for several days with re-learning WordPress, trying to get the words to come. Okay, and trying to figure out a home page again, inserting pics, and good grief I’m behind in my skills here. I reckon the only way is to try, so here goes.
I met Harriet back in the spring. She was bullied from day one, smaller than the rest and not willing to peck back to achieve that critical order that would allow her a share of the food. I noticed, but not enough, and there was so much chicken shit. Oh, so much. (Let’s talk later on how on how to use that for maters?) To make matters worse, we were hunkered down trying to finish a high tunnel on a tight timeline . . . with nowhere for these chicks to go. And so, they lived on top of my deep freezer for a bit too long.
That’s when I noticed. Amongst all those adorable “Frizzle” babies, one little black one, running back and forth in front of the door like the building was on fire. I had grabbed her up that first day quite by accident: two white, two black, two brown, two red . . . wait, I can’t have two of the brown? Fine, I’ll take the extra black one left in the corner. No one seemed to love her. I had no idea, but that was Harriet—my darling, my heart. But I didn’t love her yet. She was just . . . another chicken.
So, my sweet Frizzle was frantic. I grabbed my coffee, a stool, and some patience to sit there for a spell. That’s when I saw it: they were all pecking her. Hitting her, over and over, with sharp beaks across her head, her eyes, her tiny little rumpus. I opened the door to swat them away . . . and she fluttered to my shoulder. I attempted to put her back (what the hell was I going to do with a “free chicken?”), yet she hid her head under my ear and begged for sanctuary. I should have known then. How many times in my own life have I asked for the same thing?
She lived on top of the cage for the remaining month, free as a . . . chicken? Y’all should have seen her, pooping on the heads of her abusive kin, cooing at me and occasionally flying down to watch me make coffee. We called her “free chicken” for a while, but one day she whispered her real name in my ear, and that was that.
She wasn’t as classically pretty as the others: missing so many feathers on her head made her somewhat sharp in the face. And it had nothing to do with her. Oh no, not one nary bit. Her eyes were pools of copper, a tiny ball of ebony fluff, but she was so much bigger than her tiny body. Harriet went to work teaching me something I had no intention of ever truly learning, something I’m still grappling on: everything has a soul.
Oh, I’m fairly unnerved about this. I mean, I knew that everything had a soul, I just didn’t “know that I knew,” if you get what I’m saying. I’ve preached hours about the Cherokee way of thanking an animal for it’s life, honoring that life in real and sacred rituals, and working to assure that the meat we buy is ethically “harvested,” blah blah blah. And yet, I still had maintained a healthy (???) cognitive dissonance about it all. I mean, c’mon y’all. Chickens have tiny brains, right? So . . . it’s not so bad. Right?
(I’m sure you are all thinking: she’s gone vegan. Nope. Hang on.)
I’ve gone with the “tiny brain” theory on so many moments . . . and then, Harriet showed up. Let’s see: yup. Her brain is tiny. But: she coos when I touch her, while all the others run for the hills. She snuggles me, while the others scream as if in the clutches of a fox when I pick them up. (Assholes. I have tried to ‘splain to them to no avail.) Every night, she still runs back and forth in front of the cage of their new luxury coop and run–just so that I can pick her up and put her to bed. And then, it finally occurred to me:
Brain size and soul size have literally nothing to do with each other.
We already know this, somewhere deep inside of us: we’ve always known this. We knew, as children, looking into the souls of dogs, kitties, butterflies, turtles. I have even recently pondered: do chickens “know “this? Did she outgrow them? Was she born unable to pretend? Is this why they were compelled to attack her, push her away, kill her? To paraphrase Eddie Izzard, did she cluck a word that they did not understand? (See “Dressed to Kill” if you want to chase that one down.) Either way, Harriet was down to break the rules. She intended to make a human remember what her soul had lost. I was the lucky victim.
I fear that I cannot get across the deep lesson this has given me. Words seem so inadequate. It’s like when a tree frog doesn’t jump away, but gazes back at you for one brief moment and you wonder: do you *feel* things? If you cannot think them, does your soul know them? And is that somehow, at the end of the day, so much more profound?
I remember the day that I knew Harriet loved me. I cannot prove it–nothing can–and I’m sure that it can be dismissed as imprinting. You had to be there, I guess. She doesn’t peck–never will–it’s against her nature, but one day, she accidentally “bit” me with her beak trying to garner a green bean. I must have hollered out, and then we just looked at each other, and then . . . she picked up her right foot and placed it in my hand. We just froze there, human and chicken, in an awkward trans-species moment, and I knew. Her brain is the size of a pea. Her soul is the size of my heart.
You see, I think we miss this as one of those magical “great mysteries.” I think we miss it because we are conditioned to be the grand poobah of the animal kingdom amongst subjects that we might decide to eat, train, domesticate, or stuff and hang on a wall. Waking up to other souls on the planet that are not human is, well, inconvenient.
Do I still eat chicken? The truth is: I’m not sure. I’ve struggled with whether it would be better to raise my own, give them a few years, grant a more sacred and honorable death than Tyson and live with the reality of it all. At least, the Cherokee knew this to be more noble, more balanced. Without that connection (and YES, it would cost me something), I don’t know if I could still honor the life of that soul. It’s horribly inconvenient, this moment, and I have not finished the battle with my conscience.
But I will say that I’ve decided to learn to fish. (Yikes, now there’s THAT to think about.) Upside: Harriet adores fish.
Finally, and this is the heart of the matter, I cannot continue to live my life as some kind of uppity-careless-unaware species. (Harriet would have my ass for that, after all.) While we might have the biggest brains, I am becoming more and more doubtful that the same can be said of our souls. There are mysteries to unveil, lessons to learn, love to find. And sometimes, your teacher might just be a chicken.
Sorry for the rust on my writing. I’ll get better.
To watch Harriet being, well, a chicken: