That Thing with Feathers: Hope and Literature in a Time of Upheaval
Where do you turn for reprieve during these cold December days? For Karin Anderson, the answer is found in the far corner of her own backyard. In today’s That Thing With Feathers: Hope & Literature in a Time of Upheaval, Anderson introduces us to four things with feathers—five, if you count the hope.
Hope is the Thing That Clucks
by Karin Anderson
Last spring on a sunny cold day, just before COVID got officially serious, I capitulated to the winsome appeal of fuzzy chicks at the farm store. Probably I shouldn’t have brought my twenty-three-year-old daughter and her girlfriend; I was seeking planter buckets but the young ladies were sucked directly into the baby bird vortex. We drove home with six peeping fluffballs in a box. And a coop kit.
I’d been resisting this for years. I grew up with chickens on my parents’ (much larger) property. I don’t know the breed—plain white with red combs and pink eyes, not one bit personable. Sure, cute for a newly-hatched minute but we kids didn’t name or cuddle them the way we went after, say, orchard kittens. Plus, roosters were involved. And besides, there were creatures everywhere—at our house and everyone else’s. I was fixated on the horses on down the hill.
Because I’ve lived within the same seventy-five-mile radius most of my life, I feel a need to keep past and present partitioned.
It’s mostly good to grow up among domestic animals, but I raised my kids in another world. Because I’ve lived within the same seventy-five-mile radius most of my life, I feel a need to keep past and present partitioned. I think my grown children see my rural Utah childhood through a jaded contemporary lens, but they feel twinges of solastalgic longing too.
They’ve found ways to compensate. They live in a world where dogs and cats share our interior spaces—unimaginable in my mother’s house. My oldest daughter and her husband have assembled an ingenious mini-farm out of their one-eighth of a city-acre: the front yard is lined with trellised garden boxes, lush as a jungle in summer with sunflowers, tomatoes and eggplant, beans and peas on climbing vines, bright chilies on the bush, multi-colored carrots and fat beets. In the back, a generous enclosure for chickens, a rescue duck, a silly bunny—all on nuzzling terms with the two big dogs and a stare-down truce with little bug-eyed Iggy Pup.
Only four of the farm store chicks survived my incompetent incubation. Watching tiny helpless things in my care die in my hands—just as first glimmers of global disease and quarantine began to sink in—made me sorry I’d even thought to revisit that relationship of wonder and horror that rural kids have to incorporate—new life set against the blunt violence of death. I have more to write about this sometime—a forcefully enculturated contempt for citified bleeding hearts, the learned shame of shedding tears for animal life—but for now I’ll stick with the quirky charmers who cluck in my backyard universe.
I have a fenced-off space in the far corner of my backyard that’s perfect for a chicken run—it takes three linked hoses to reach it. The soil is studded with rocks and too depleted even for xeriscape. It craves long-term fertilizing—a few good years of shavings and chicken poop might do the trick. But for the generally buck-naked preschool siblings who hail me from their side of the chain-link fence (I’m their “favorite person!”), the spot is invisible to my neighbors. I held out for four years after buying the house, but inevitably the birds arrived.
There really is a kind of timeless hope in watching four busy, curious hens peck about in their complacent chicken existence.
There really is a kind of timeless hope in watching four busy, curious hens peck about in their complacent chicken existence. They’ve established their schedule and benign community order, and they stick to it: every morning I troop out to release them from the upper coop. Right now I keep a heater in there—just a little radiance from what looks like a flat-screen TV. They’re all cuddled up together on the roosting bar, blinking in surprise at the pale dawn light when I lift the winter tarp. They seem happy to see me. I leave them a bowl of unfrozen water, spread a few handfuls of scratch and pellets, and leave them to emerge at will. Sometimes I go back in to my own warm bed for another hour; by the time I peer out the back window again they’re out murmuring amongst one another, inspecting the yard, measuring the December cold with their pronged padded feet. They pick up little snacks as they progress.
I’m taken aback by their frank trust and affection for me. They see my head at the back window and tip theirs up sideways, drawing closer to respond. When I walk out to visit them—by now a self-soothing habit—they run in urgent armless chicken gait to greet me. They peck at my boots. They hunker and freeze when I lean over them, ready to be picked up and held in my warm coat.
Demelza, first to lay, taught me how to read the patterns of the others as they followed suit. She and Cassandra, nearly indistinguishable barred-rock sisters, have each produced an egg a day since September, waning winter light notwithstanding. They have their special laying spots. Demelza has formed a perfect tummy-shaped roundness in the clematis against the old grape stake fence. At first, every morning was a crisis—she’d lurch about the yard, squawking in alarm. She’d stand under the bathroom window, pleading for explanation. Peck at the foundation. Flap her wings and moan. My son in California said “I’d freak out too if I had to shove something bigger than my head out my cloaca every morning.”
Every time another hen reaches the laying stage, we go through the same phase of avian confoundment. Cassandra was so determined to make her way over the fence to nest in the front yard pyracantha I fled to the internet to learn how to clip her wings. Once she convinced herself that the hedge was a forbidden dream, she retreated to the reasonable shelter of the coop, tucked between old lilac and dogwood, filled with soft pine shavings, and began to lay in earnest. By now the twin sisters drop eggs as casually as they bask in the afternoon sun. It makes me believe that hens have a rather human calendar sense, an instinct for task lists—a smug check of accomplishment after completing a familiar chore.
Maybe I’m personifying, but I’m tracking threads of comfort and hope in a lengthening season of fear and despair, and so: four hens in their own sufficient society, going about their busy clucking lives at the periphery of my own cluckish domestic circuit—what generous reassurance they give to me. Last summer I nearly killed myself in the brutal heat, adapting my own coop for quarantine functionality. My house no longer shelters a flock of little children—nor even surly but interesting adolescents—but we’re still family, and this home remains the recharge port. And so in July and August I turned my garage into a semi-independent “ski lodge,” complete with a cheery propane stove and a sparkly lacquered floor. My youngest kid settled in to finish her last season of college, maximizing her coffee-slinger tips and paycheck. I built a pre-fab shed on the ample driveway cement and painted it to match the house, which means I can safely partition an extra room for my fierce but aging mother. I bottled, dried, and froze a season’s worth of backyard garden produce. I make sure there’s plenty of food in the fridge: if I fill it, they will come.
Strolling out every few hours to find another exquisite orb feels like an offhand gift from an otherwise hostile cosmos.
Just this week, big strutting Lagerthe and pint-sized frizzle Mattie Ross have begun to lay as well. Considering the price of the chicken coop, the reinforced fencing, the wood shavings and straw and feed, four deeply personal eggs a day from the flock in back can hardly be called cost-effective or self-sufficient. But strolling out every few hours to find another exquisite orb feels like an offhand gift from an otherwise hostile cosmos. It’s easy to understand why eggs appear as talismans, harbingers of wellbeing, a stroke of lucky enrichment in nursery rhymes and fairy tales.
What rises to clarity (in this season of unclarity) is that these four feathered specks of alertness, existentially absurd and pointless as the rest of us, also deserve the secure small joys of their allotted days. Sometimes I think of them back there, fenced within an arbitrary space and time with no purpose but to peck and murmur, await the appearance of a fraudulent goddess bearing kitchen compost, confer as the sun sinks and enter the roost together, emerge again in the glimmer of morning—and I panic at the absurdity of them, and us, ticking out our ritual days, hoping to sleep and wake again—for what? Another morning, another afternoon, heat and cold, smog and sky, corn and compost, a drink of water. The relief of jamming out yet another egg.
But in the enumerations I’m smacked by the sweetness of a hen’s diurnal pleasures. Sometimes I look out to see they’ve dug tubs for a communal dust bath. They call to one another when they’ve found a cache of delectable seeds. They make space for the dozens of songbirds who drop down to partake. Sometimes they stand at the fence and gaze in wonder at the intractable world beyond. They murmur and coo as they follow me; they sing in low tones in the evening coop as I approach to close them in; they cluck in sleepy greetings when I open them back into dawn. My cold, cloying fears of virus, of sorrow for my mother’s aging blankening days, the ugly prophecies of political upheaval mean nothing at all to them, Sometimes they make me wonder why I cling to meaning at all.
I do cling—it’s who I am, but the simple geniality of these awkward things with feathers grants reprieve—a wry, and healing, hope.