Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Nobody Here But Us Chickens

First published in The Oxford Journal on Wednesday, April. 4, 2012, by Sara Mattinson.

During a recent conversation, I mentioned my chickens and the woman I was talking to exclaimed, “You have chickens?!” the same way I would say, “You won a million dollars?!” Yet I understand her excitement because for some of us, chickens represent a certain kind of achievement. 
Back in the summer of 2006, when I was spending a few weeks alone at the summer house my parents used to own on Pugwash Point, I opened up a book of writing exercises by author Julia Cameron. In her introduction to the second exercise, Cameron wrote, “Each of us has a different idea of sophistication. Each of us has certain items that speak to us as tokens of success....List twenty-five things that represent to you sophistication and success.”
By the time I’d reached number 12 on my list, I realized I had it all wrong. I drew a line through tuxedo and champagne and a trip to Italy then wrote, “A chicken coop in the back yard.” To me, keeping chickens would mean I’d reached a level of success that allowed me to have a home in the country. A few weeks later, I started dating a local boy and the first time I saw his rural acreage, I said, “What a great place for a chicken coop.” 
When he replied, “I would love to have chickens,” I knew we would have beautiful eggs together.
Some scientists believe the domestic chicken dates as far back as 10,000 years. There are 19 billion domestic chickens in the world. A free-range hen can lay 160 eggs in her first year of laying. The expression “raising your hackles” refers to the long, flowing hackle feathers on the back of a rooster’s neck which he raises in order to make himself look larger. The fear of chickens is called “alektoraphobia”.   
It was fear of the big feet and swishing tails of horses and cows that made me fulfill an adult-onset hankering for livestock with chickens. For a city-raised girl, seven-pound hens were the perfect way to introduce me to animal husbandry. A year after we married in 2007, we built a chicken coop, painted it yellow, and filled it with a dozen chickens which is a nice size for a back yard flock. Today, the only remaining member of that original flock is our large but good-natured rooster who turns four this spring. 
 “How much do you think that rooster of yours would dress?” my father-in-law asked me. 
I pinned a beady chicken eye on the former farmer and replied, “I hope you mean dressing him up in a tuxedo because that’s the only way he’s coming to dinner.”  
Wouldn’t that be sophisticated? 
The woman who was excited to learn I keep chickens recently moved here from Halifax and I’m sure if she saw me walking across the yard in my rubber boots to collect warm, brown eggs from under the dozen hens who live in our yellow chicken coop, she would be envious of my sophistication and success. 

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