August 6th, 2010

To Get To The Other Side

The day we decided to resettle the chickens to the other side of the farm began clear and lovely: the luster of the previous night’s rain still visible in the grass, the air luminous and warm.  I weeded early in the orchard and stole a few productive hours before heat and swelter took my energy hostage. The day before, the farm seemed to exist only to absorb the sky, to take in its rain like a sieve. The sky on resettlement day was unburdened by clouds or rain, punctuated instead by temperatures already in the 90s.

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Coop and cupola, separated by a century and a half, now occupy the same aesthetic space. Ambivalent chickens just want a roof over their heads.

It was high time to furlough the young hens. They would be freed from their tight hot quarters in the Hell’s Kitchen garden, and moved three at a time to their new coop.  The trip from the kitchen garden to the orchard is a few hundred feet, but to the hens—who had never known the flap of freedom—the journey was pure trauma.

Each hen had to be blindly grabbed through the coop door, and whatever I got my hands on was how they were removed (foot, wing, thigh, tail, giblet), squawking as though about to be slain. They were put into a box and carried to the new hen house.

My first instinct was to excite them about their new space, like any good chicken realtor:  “Look at all these windows, and the closets.  Plenty of space to park your eggs, and room to scratch.  Have you seen those roosts?”  But instead they chose to lie low in the box, head tucked under wing as though resigned to the certainty of a swift end. It took turning the box upside down and shaking them out to get them to check out their new home.

The coop was modeled after the cupola on the barn, with its carpenter gothic detail and pyramidal roof.  When the farm was built in the late 1850s, the Gothic Revival period was in full fancy in the Hudson Valley.  Its advocates claimed, like their gothic predecessors, that steep gables, vertical battens, and skyward finials brought the dwelling closer to the vault of heaven, so as to almost scrape the stars.  All this is lost, of course, on a chicken.

Chickens love routine, and are ambivalent about architecture. To them, any change is loss, even the good changes.  What they covet is the daily pattern language they’ve learned since cracking out of the egg.  Give them repetition, monotony even, and they seem content.  One hen was so put out by the change of venue that she took flight, choosing the perils of the wild wood over unfamiliar routine.  She returned a fallen woman, ready to join the showgirls at La Cage.

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Free at last,  Free at last!  The hens take to the orchard and frolic over worms and dirt

After a few days of house arrest, the young hens were set loose upon the orchard.  At first the vast, open sky bewildered them, but they quickly acclimated and before long were actually frolicking (when was the last time you frolicked?). They soon headed down the long alleé of quince and plum to the thicket of blackberries, where they poked and scratched and left thorny brambles between them and the circling red tails.

We’ve lost a few hens to hawks in the past, and their swift, ominous shadows and piercing cries are embedded into a hen’s survival DNA.  My children have witnessed a strike and kill, and after invoking The Lion King, the circle of life, and unfledged hawklings desperately needing a meal, they seemed perfectly at peace about it.  For the chickens, now calling the gothic coop home, the further away from the vault of heaven, the better. – Mb

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