— by Susan Eirich, PhD —
I went to a meditation retreat recently, seeking the deepest, most effective way to help the animals’ voices be heard, but at first all I could think of was chickens. The food was vegetarian and there were huge bowls of eggs on the side for those who felt they needed more protein. Mounds and mounds of brown and white eggs. For those of us lucky enough to have chickens, and are able to let them run free and be themselves, you know how neat they are. What a sense of comfort, peacefulness and companionship they give us as they race around, Mother Hen scratching with great energy and intensity, digging and catching bugs. The rooster calls excitedly when he finds a treasure trove (usually in horse dung) and all the hens come running as fast as their flat little chicken feet can go. The rooster stands back as his hens enjoy the treats. He may or may not use the opportunity to jump on his favorite hen, who willingly submits if it is her rooster. I have seen hens furiously chase away a rooster trying to mate with her if it wasn’t her accepted male. And if you watch a hen looking after her chicks you understand the term “mother hen.”
It is a joy to see how seriously she takes motherhood, looking after the next generation, showing them how to find food; clucking and fluffing and calling them to her when she senses danger as they disappear underneath her into the warm dark safety of her feathers. And then curiosity gets the better of them and bright-eyed little heads peep out. It is hard to believe how many chicks can disappear under a hen, so spread out to cover them all she is almost flattened.
It is such a common refrain among people who have been able to experience them: “Oh I love chickens!” They are cozy, passionate, and very entertaining in their unselfconscious way of being. Picture our rooster leading his hens across the snow as they high-step through the snow, picking up each foot up and out and down, in obvious distaste for the wet cold sensation, but apparently deciding it was worth it to get to the hay stack under the shed. Or the intensity and excitement with which they peck. Their comical left to right waddle, like their two-legged dinosaur ancestors must have walked. Or picture our black banty hen flinging herself body and soul, in fury, at Timber the wolf when she thought he was coming toward her chicks. Really- a tiny chicken attacking a wolf to protect her babies? But she did. Such a strong urge to protect life is to be respected.
Back to the mounds of eggs. . . You can tell from acres away when an egg had been laid because it is loudly celebrated. When the hen is finished she lets out a loud clucking that with a little imagination sounds like, “I laid an egg! I laid an egg! I laid a beautiful egg!” The rooster gets all excited too and sometimes the whole flock gets worked up. The poetic side of me says she is celebrating life and I kind of believe that. But my more practical and body-centered side thinks maybe she is saying “What a relief! Thank goodness that is over.” (Ladies may particularly relate to this).
One day I decided to watch the whole process and film it. A little red banty named Shera was getting that look in her eye, so I followed her to the place she chose to lay. She settled in. She fluffed herself up, sank down, and became a cozy pile of feathers. She had an inner focused look in her eye. I waited and watched and filmed. She started in one position, shifted her weight, looked to the left, looked to the right, turned around 180 degrees, shifted her weight again, turned back. For twenty minutes she labored before she finally finished. A lot of time, and a huge production, given the size of an egg in relation to a chicken’s body. I never felt the same about an egg since, treat them with respect. To people who take eggs for granted I say imagine you doing that once a day. It became an exercise in appreciation for me, which was rekindled by those mounds of eggs. There was a chicken’s labor behind each one of them, and hopefully they were treated well.
Eggs from Chickens
The retreat was a silent one, making it possible to focus on the food we were eating. There was a written prayer on the tables that said in part.” This food is the gift of the entire universe, the earth, the sky, and much hard work. May we live in a way that is worthy of this food. . .” I liked that. Thinking about what we eat; where it comes from, what land was used to produce it, is a very useful exercise. It is important personally and as a society that we think about how we want our food raised, and the financial and non-financial costs we actually bear and are willing to bear.
Dr. Susan Eirich is the Founder and Executive Director of Earthfire Institute Wildlife Sanctuary and Retreat Center. A licensed psychologist, biologist and educator, her goal is to widen the circle of conversation about conservation to include the voices of all living beings.