The Chickens and the Half-wild Heart

It’s been a few short months since the half-wild years ended. For two years Annie, Niamh, our dog Gunnar and I lived in the Scappoose/St. Helens area, a rural cluster of towns an hour’s drive out of Portland. We moved there to live on land; we moved there to raise a daughter away from the stress and grime and danger of the city; we moved there to raise animals and grow food; we moved there to know deep peace and let our souls drink deep of the song of stars and trees and hawks and dragonflies.

And after two years at two farms, we’re back in the city, having traded a field for a yard, a wild space for a domesticated grid. We didn’t make this decision lightly, and we made it for positive, proactive reasons: to finish school, both of us, and to partner with relatives in caring for Niamh. This is a step forward, not a retreat. But we did leave the wild place, which upon our departure Annie named the Big Green. It wasn’t that wild, honestly. We were just off the highway, and the second farm was bounded by a row of housing developments. But it was wild enough, wild enough to be alive, to speak to us, to breathe its breath through us, to make us feel that we were living on planet earth and sharing that life with other furred, feathered and leafy neighbors.

During my time there I learned to converse with tree—to speak and to listen, to commune with them and feel their energy, to honor their sheltering presence in our lives and even to turn to them for comfort in times of grief. I saw hawks in flight, and felt the stars close, bending down to kiss the earth. I heard coyotes in the night, and welcomed their song.

And we had chickens. Six hens at first, then six naked-neck chicks who grew to adults, including three roosters. Then two chicks hatched on the farm. We fed them, watched their antics, Niamh and Gunnar chased them, and we dined on farm fresh eggs. It felt good to have them; it felt like life, like connection, like sheer earthy animal-ness. They were not wild. They were domesticated, and our relationship was one of dominance and exploitation: they lived to serve our needs. But they brought with them wildness enough, just enough to free our souls a tiny bit, just enough to give our hearts grounding in this life on land, this partnership with earth.

I named them, one by one as I got to know them, and Annie joined in. The orange hen, most defiant and bold, was Boudica, proud queen. The black hen who fended off raccoons from her babies in the wee hours was Midnight. the sleek white hen who escaped confinement one day and led me on a merry chase was Artemis. The pair of white naked-necked roosters were Flotsam and Jetsam. And the great speckled rooster was Vercingetorix, mighty king.

Some of them died during their time with us. A hawk swooped down, right in our backyard, and picked off one of the young ones. A family of raccoons moved into our crawlspace and refused to be dislodged, picking off chickens one by one, including poor Midnight, who went squawking into the night in the defense of her brood, and did not return. She left behind two chicks, who grew up into adolescent hen and rooster: Wanda and Pietro. And we killed and ate Jetsam, ending his life as peacefully as we could, holding him and soothing him and thanking him for feeding our family.

It was a free way of living, an honest way of living, a glimpse of a world where procuring food requires a relationship with the food source. I tried to develop that relationship with roosters, hens and chicks as best I could. I’d been slowly reading through Derrick Jensen’s A Language Older Than Words, in which he talks about interspecies communication, about hearing comfort from the stars and bargaining with ducks and coyotes. I took that idea seriously, and thus I talked to the chickens, named them, tried to be real with them.

I don’t have any illusions about the result. Much as I’d like to think so, I don’t pretend that we understood each other, or truly acknowledged each other’s needs, or formed an actual symbiosis or partnership. I don’t believe the chickens loved me. But I did love them. I loved them and laughed when the antics of dog and toddler scattered them hilariously during morning foraging. I loved them, and mourned for them, when they were slain and orphaned by predators. I loved them and sympathized with them, when we penned up the hens for protection from raccoons, and the roosters stalked the coop perimeter, frustrated and randy. I loved them in what small, broken way I could, loved them as much as anyone an love within a relationship of ownership and exploitation. And that love may not have mattered to them, but it mattered to me; it enlivened me, changed me, made me a more fully realized human.

It’s hard, though, impossible, even, to avoid making this all about me. The chickens exist for MY betterment; the swaying field and stalwart trees and blooming wildflowers and yelping coyotes are all there to enrich ME. I recognize the selfishness, and can’t escape it. All I can do is accept the gifts the Big Green freely gave, and carry them in my heart, even as I allow that heart to open further, decolonizing my thought patterns bit by bit.

I miss the Big Green. I miss Boudica and Vercingetorix and Pietro and Wanda and even the rampaging raccoons that I would have gladly killed if given half a chance. I miss the half-wild heart that beat within me during those two years. I can only hope that its echo doesn’t fade too much.



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