Well, we thought it would come much sooner than this, but it was still a shock. I suppose death always is. Mary, one of our Silver-laced Wyandottes, died yesterday. I went out to the coop to check for eggs and to let the girls out for an hour or so of scratch and peck in the yard. I opened the door to the coop and first saw Lucy, broody as all get out, puffed up and looking at me from one of the nesting boxes. And then I saw Mary, dusty, laying on her side on the floor. She was, sad to say, the bottom of the pecking order which meant among other things that she hardly ever had her proper covering of feathers. She was the most edgy, undoubtedly because she'd been hen-pecked so much. At the end, she had hardly any feathers on her back side which was not, shall we say, an attractive feature. Blessedly, her wings mostly covered the slightly pinkish flesh poking out from under her beautiful black and white feathers.
Actually, when we ordered eight chickens in the spring of 2006, we never expected them all to survive into adulthood. That's why we ordered eight! But, much to our surprise, they all flourished through their adolescence--hmm, human parallels here?--when they began to establish their hierarchy. Mary ended up on the beak end of that struggle. She was, as a result, hard to catch and hold, and never very settled if you did. I'd often catch Herbertina, my favorite and the alpha female. Tina, or "Herbert" as I affectionately call her, sits nicely in my lap and even falls asleep once in a while, reminding me of chicks who will fall over dead asleep right in the palm of your hand. Now that is cute, and almost a reason to get chicks all by itself.
But those days of holding a cute fuzzy chick seemed ages ago as I stared down at that dusty stiff chicken on the floor of the coop. I stepped out, called to Grace (my six-year-old daughter) that Mary had died, and she promptly ran to tell Isaiah (my nine-year-old son). By the time they'd arrived, I had already retrieved a shovel and bucket (what does one use for such a task?) from the garage, picked Mary up and dumped her in the bucket upside down. They wondered why she'd died, and I guessed that perhaps she had an egg stuck, which does happen, and does kill the chicken. But who knows? No obvious sign showed, but I was regretting the unceremonious position I'd put Mary in as now her bare rear was face up to the sky in the bucket. The option was bury her or put her in the garbage, and both kids thought burial was more appropriate. They selected a spot back behind the coop, and I began to dig. Grace asked if she could carry the bucket over, and I said, sure. Isaiah went to get a post hole digger and helped dig a fairly deep hole (driven deeper by worries about animals digging her up after burial.
When Grace asked if we should do the prayer she used for her first fish that died (she'd gotten a kids book with a music button because she remembered it had a picture of a fish, and standing next to the toilet, she quite somberly pressed the button setting of a very up-beat version of "If Your Happy and You Know It, Clap Your Hands.") I told her I thought there may be another prayer that would work, and she asked, "What?" So I thought, and said, well, there is a very old way of praying that thanks God for all good things, and for something particular that needed to be held up in thanksgiving. I said, "It goes something like this: Blessed are you, O Lord our God, Creator of the Universe, for you give us our lives and all things. We give you thanks for giving us Mary, our good chicken, who lived with us and gave us eggs. May she rest in your love. Amen." The kids said, "Amen." By this time we'd dug about three feet down, and Grace helped me slowly drop Mary on her side into the bottom of the hole. Then, I said, we could each throw a shovel full of dirt into the hole. We each did, and kept on, until the hole was full. We stamped it down and raked over the top. Grace said she'd find some sort of marker, and I turned to clean out the coop.
Okay. Really, what else does one do when a pet chicken dies? Having visited a chicken processing plant where 132 chickens a minute go down the (dis)assembly line, I'm not naive about the fact that we're treating this chicken with a regard we surely don't those we eat. That yawning gap, and some sense that we ought to regard even those things we eat with more gratitude and respect than is typical in commercial agriculture, is part of our motivation for getting chickens in the first place. I remember when John Tyson was visiting our office (he's on the board of the Center for Faith & Culture) and after we'd said hello, I told him we'd gotten eight chickens for the back yard. He was glad because, he said, it would help the kids know where dinner comes from. I think too many people don't think about where their food comes from beyond the supermarket, or if they do, have hysterical ideas about life and death that comes from being too removed from the cycle of birth and death by which we live. I'm reading Barbara Kingsolver's new book, Animal, Vegetable, Miracle: A Year of Food Life. She comments on this, and offers some reflections on what it might mean to live closer to that circle of death and life, and to have a lot more care and gratitude for the miracle of it all embedded in our practices of farming.
Well, I'm grateful for Mary, and not just because she laid eggs for a year. I'm grateful that through her our family is a bit more connected to the web of life that sustains us, and to the Giver of life who weaves the web, to whom we owe gratitude and praise, and lives that show forth such gratitude in how we live on this earth.
Anon, and peace,