When Life Provides Chicken Soup

buttercups

 

 

I have sharpened my knives, I have
Put on the heavy apron.

Maybe you think life is chicken soup, served
In blue willow-pattern bowls.

I have put on my boots and opened
The kitchen door and stepped out

Into the sunshine. I have crossed the lawn.
I have entered

The hen house.
~Mary Oliver “Farm Country”

 

 

johnshens

 

What did I love about killing the chickens? Let me start
with the drive to the farm as darkness
was sinking back into the earth.
The road damp and shining like the snail’s silver
ribbon and the orchard
with its bony branches.
All eighty-eight Cornish 

hens huddled in their crates. Wrapping my palms around
their white wings, lowering them into the tapered urn.
Some seemed unwitting as the world narrowed;
some cackled and fluttered; some struggled.
I gathered each one, tucked her bright feet,
drew her head through the kill cone’s sharp collar,
her keratin beak and the rumpled red vascular comb
that once kept her cool as she pecked in her mansion of grass.
I didn’t look into those stone eyes. I didn’t ask forgiveness.
I slid the blade between the feathers
and made quick crescent cuts, severing
the arteries just under the jaw. Blood like liquor
pouring out of the bottle. When I see the nub of heart later,
it’s hard to believe such a small star could flare
like that. I lifted each body, bathing it in heated water
until the scaly membrane of the shanks
sloughed off under my thumb.
And after they were tossed in the large plucking drum
I loved the newly naked birds. Sundering
the heads and feet neatly at the joints, a poor
man’s riches for golden stock. Slitting a fissure
reaching into the chamber,
freeing the organs, the spill of intestines, blue-tinged gizzard,
the small purses of lungs, the royal hearts,
easing the floppy liver, carefully, from the green gall bladder,
its bitter bile. And the fascia unfurling
like a transparent fan. When I tug the esophagus
down through the neck, I love the suck and release
as it lets go. 
I’m empty as I rinse each carcass,
and this is what I love most.

It’s like when the refrigerator turns off and you hear
the silence. Even in just this one thing:
looking straight at the terrible,
one-sided accord we make with the living of this world.
At the end, we scoured the tables, hosed the dried blood,
the stain blossoming through the water.
~Ellen Bass from “What Did I Love”

 

rooster

 

For a number of summers, we spent most of the morning and afternoon of Fourth of July with neighbors at a farm down the road doing that most American of activities:
communally butchering chickens.

There is some risk to writing about killing living creatures.  I also pull carrots, radishes and onions from the ground, dig up potatoes and weed-whack thistles in the field.

It is what farmers do. As we shop at the local farmers’ market or grocery store, we are insulated from this harsh reality, this terrible one-sided accord humans have with the land and growing things.

It is how food ends up sustaining us, supporting the next generation and the next, and these living creatures deserve our blessing of gratitude.

I grew up on a farm where we raised our own meat and my parents, who also grew up knowing the animals that would eventually be on their plate, encouraged us kids to watch and participate in the process so we understood what it meant to sacrifice an animal or a plant for our benefit.  We knew that animal from birth, we named them, looked them in the eye, we petted and held them, we fed them, cleaned up after them, and when the time came, we watched them slump to the ground, their hide or feathers stripped and their steaming carcass prepared.

I cannot take this lightly.  These creatures, who I respected and cared for, were breathing heart-beating beings just minutes before, and have been sacrificed.

It has been quite a few years since we raised our own meat as a family, since those summers our children growing up also learned this relationship with the food on the table.  As a group of neighbors, we would combine our chicken butchering together on Fourth of July so we had an efficient assembly line approach to the process of putting dozens of chickens in the freezer all within a few hours.  There were catchers, holders, choppers, boilers, pluckers, gutters, rinsers and baggers. We all took turns doing different aspects of the task. There was an irreverent reverence to the day, a bit more joking and laughing than was warranted as blood is intentionally spilled.

We had to acknowledge the tight intertwine of life and death though none of us could bear to eat chicken for dinner that night.

We too bore the stains of the remains of the day.

 

feather201815

 

 

feather201814

 

The Thing With Feathers

feather52018

 

feather162018

 

feather12018

feather92018
feather202018
feather222018
“Hope” is the thing with feathers –
That perches in the soul –
And sings the tune without the words –
And never stops – at all –
And sweetest – in the Gale – is heard –
And sore must be the storm –
That could abash the little Bird
That kept so many warm –
I’ve heard it in the chillest land –
And on the strangest Sea –
Yet – never – in Extremity,
It asked a crumb – of me.
~Emily Dickinson
feather212018
feather102018
feather22018
feather132018
feather82018

feather142018

 

feather192018

 

Our local fair feels much like I remember when I was a child in the 60’s, accompanying my father to the Lynden fairgrounds during those summers of political and social turmoil.  His job was to supervise the teachers of FFA kids (Future Farmers of America) so he did the rounds of the regional and county fairs and my brother and I tagged along to explore the exhibits and go on rides.

The heart beat of a country fair pulses deep for me: I fell in love with my future husband at a fair, and we spent twenty years from 1992-2012 at the local Lynden fair exhibiting our Haflinger horses together as family and friends. Once our children grew and flew away four years ago, my husband and I were relegated to mere fair-goers, exploring exhibits without the need to show up to muck out stalls at 6 AM.

The chicken exhibit building is one of the same buildings I wandered through as a child over fifty years ago.  As we entered, it struck me I was admiring designs and color schemes, layered with nuance and texture, much like the nearby quilt exhibit — these feathers are God’s threads put to exquisite use to blanket a mere chicken.
So much design, so much detail, so much hope covers something as mere as a chicken … and me.
feather232018
feather112018
feather62018
feather242018
feather72018
feather122018
feather172018
feather152018
feather32018

To Get a Better View

IMG_7666

 

buttercups

 

rooster

 

 

What struck me first was their panic.

Some were pulled by the wind from moving
to the ends of the stacked cages,
some had their heads blown through the bars—

and could not get them in again.
Some hung there like that—dead—
their own feathers blowing, clotting

in their faces. Then
I saw the one that made me slow some—
I lingered there beside her for five miles.

She had pushed her head through the space
between bars—to get a better view.
She had the look of a dog in the back

of a pickup, that eager look of a dog
who knows she’s being taken along.
She craned her neck.

She looked around, watched me, then
strained to see over the car—strained
to see what happened beyond.

That is the chicken I want to be.
~Jane Mead “Passing a Truck Full of Chickens at Night on Highway Eighty” from The Autumn House Anthology of Contemporary American Poetry, 2015

 

johnshens

 

IMG_7667

I want to be that chicken.

When life is an anxious,
even terrifying journey
and everything around me is a swirl of chaos –
I want to be able to stick my head up above the fray,
feel the wind as opportunity rather than threat
and exist content in the moment,
looking ahead to what may happen,
unperturbed.

Reaching my mind beyond what I can hardly grasp,
I want to be that chicken
who experiences life like a dog.

 

Ah, but a man’s reach should exceed his grasp,
Or what’s a heaven for?
~Robert Browning from “Andrea Del Sarto”

 

earsgrass

 

samgrass

The Heart Breaking Beauty of Eggs

eggsbroken2

 

newegg

 

fresheggs

 

eggshell2

And the secret garden bloomed and bloomed and every morning revealed new miracles.

In the robin’s nest there were Eggs and the robin’s mate sat upon them keeping them warm with her feathery little breast and careful wings.

….in the garden there was nothing which was not quite like themselves—
nothing which did not understand the wonderfulness of what was happening to them—
the immense, tender, terrible, heart-breaking beauty and solemnity of Eggs.

If there had been one person in that garden who had not known through all his or her innermost being

that if an Egg were taken away or hurt the whole world would whirl round and crash through space and come to an end—

if there had been even one who did not feel it and act accordingly there could have been no happiness even in that golden springtime air.

But they all knew it and felt it and the robin and his mate knew they knew it.
~Frances Hodgson Burnett from The Secret Garden

 

eggsbroken

 

wwuhydrangea619151

 

Some say you’re lucky
If nothing shatters it.

But then you wouldn’t
Understand poems or songs.
You’d never know
Beauty comes from loss.

It’s deep inside every person:
A tear tinier
Than a pearl or thorn.

It’s one of the places
Where the beloved is born.
~Gregory Orr

 

hydrangeavarigated

 

lacehydrangea

 

We all start out an egg pierced,
broken in order to become whole…
–  each tiny part of the least of us  –
– whether brain, heart, lungs or liver –
wonderfully made,
even if unwanted or discarded or taken away.

The act of creation of something so sacred
is immense, tender, terrible, beautiful, heart-breaking,
and so very solemn.

The act of hurting this one tiny part of creation
hurts the whole world;
we risk whirling round and crashing through space
and coming to an end.

If there is even one who does not feel it and act accordingly,
there can be no happiness.

But they all knew it and felt it and they knew they knew it.

And what is born broken is beloved.

 

broken

 

lacehydrangea1

 

eggshell

 

 

The Muttering Hens

johnshens
hayfield
frontyard2915
Every few minutes, he wants
to march the trail of flattened rye grass
back to the house of muttering
hens. He too could make
a bed in hay. Yesterday the egg so fresh
it felt hot in his hand and he pressed it
to his ear while the other children
laughed and ran with a ball, leaving him,
so little yet, too forgetful in games,
ready to cry if the ball brushed him,
riveted to the secret of birds
caught up inside his fist,
not ready to give it over
to the refrigerator
or the rest of the day.
~Naomi Shibab Nye “Boy and Egg”
fresheggs

Gathering eggs on my childhood farm
was a source of wonder and terror:
the amazing pleasure of reaching under a downy breast
to wrap my fingers around a smooth warm wholeness;
overcoming the fear of a hen muttering under her breath
and defending what is rightfully hers
and not mine.
It was a game of chicken
in the truest sense,
a stand-off between four year old farmgirl
and two year old hen.
We locked each other’s eyes
while I held the egg,
and I will never let go,
not now,
not ever.
chicken2
briarcroftponies