Grey hairs, spiderman and chicken feed: A decade since my first publication

With Facebook celebrating its ten year anniversary, many of my friends are digging up their first profile photos and posting them. So, I followed suit – posting a picture from 2006 that was before I had my son, when I had a lot less grey in my hair and far fewer lines in my face. I’m not complaining – those grey hairs and lines are proof of nearly a decade of life lived to its fullest, strong emotional experiences (good and bad), and wisdom.

This morning I had another opportunity to peek back in time as I was searching for a document on my computer and came across the very first story I ever had published. I wrote it long before I was a professional writer and I can remember the thrill of seeing my name in print. I had already published in scientific journals….but this was something that people might actually read!

Finding this story reminded me that I’ve always been a writer. Long before this, whilst in primary school, I would write and illustrate comic books. I loved comic books! In grade 3, my best friend Sarah would be tackling the Lord of the Rings series for the third time, while I was reading X-men and Spiderman. We both turned out OK…better than OK. Luckily, in my pre-teen years I felt no pressure to read what others thought I should be reading – I read what I loved and I read all the time.

The same is true for writing. My very wise and talented friend and fellow-writer, Jennifer Kingsley, recently reminded me that you should write about what you love…about what interests you. Chances are if it interests you, it will interest others and your love of the subject will always shine through.

So, with that, I thought I would share this piece that I wrote 10 years ago. It’s my first published work – about a subject I loved…my childhood. Of course, for the record I’m now a vegetarian, so I never order the chicken now…

Chicken Feed

On animal desires and avian fear

Published in Monday Magazine, April 22-28, 2004

As a child growing up on a small acreage in Kemptville, Ontario, I had very few concerns in life.  I worried myself with the best methods to harness fireflies, whether the pond was frozen enough to skate on, and frequently, whether my school would be on the list of closures after a heavy snowfall.  I did, however, have one true fear.  It developed during my observations of chickens.

Our small farm was only about 10 acres, so we had no heavy farm equipment and most of the chores were done with a great deal of manual labour. Had it been 10-15 years later when phrases such as “certified organic” and “free range” came into vogue, it would have been trendy, but instead it was just considered hard work.  My mom would mow about six acres of the property with a push mower.  Granted, it was a pretty heavy-duty mower, which had been modified with over-sized tires for the fields, but it still had to be pushed.  I remember watching her march off, pushing her super-mower, followed by approximately two dozen hens.

I couldn’t understand the chickens’ fascination with my mom at first.  I initially thought this was similar to human imprinting with baby geese that I had seen on nature programs.  I thought how pleasant it was that the chickens were out for a stroll with their adopted parent.  However, something about the frenzied behaviour led me to believe this was more than a simple stroll.

At the beginning of July, fresh into summer holidays, boredom had already set in and I was driving my mother crazy.  I was given the onerous task of cutting the grass in one of the fields.  After a great deal of futile whining, I headed off, lawnmower in tow.  The feathered fan club followed close behind.

Not five minutes later, tragedy struck.  A horrible clunk sounded from the underside of the mower, where the blades seemed to slow for a split second, and then once again resumed their lethal speed.

I looked down just as a bloodied mass flew from the exhaust of the mower.  I stood frozen as I watched four hens take the bloodied flesh and rip it in four different directions.  Each hen took her prize and ran full speed as the other hens chased her down.

These were the same hens I would venture beneath each morning to grab the eggs warming beneath their little bodies.  My hands had been mere centimeters from beaks that now tore at the flesh of the creature I had just massacred with the lawn mower.

I pushed the mower forward a few more inches and uncovered the remains.  Frog.  I watched as another gang of chickens whisked this newly uncovered meal away.  I felt sick.  I began to see chickens in a different light.

The next spring I watched my grandfather dismantle the manure/compost pile that stood heaped beside the barn.  This seemed like a rather odd chore at first because, well, it stank.  Why someone would purposely delve into a warm, steaming pile of manure, rotting vegetation, broken egg shells and other such hideous smelling articles was beyond me.

I decided to observe from upwind.  Even the ewes were curious about the impending events as they stood chewing their cud.  Armed with a pitchfork, my grandfather took a stab at the rank heap.  The top layer shifted.  Nothing happened.  The sheep chewed.  I plugged my nose.

Then came the second stab, and all hell broke loose.  About a half dozen rats broke loose from the pile and scampered off in six different directions.  Grandpa was obviously evicting these grain-eating tenants from their warm little nest.

The next heaping pitchfork revealed what seemed like hundreds of blind, bald, pink squealing infant rats.  The chickens descended and the massacre began.  The entire ordeal lasted about seven minutes.  The sheep turned their backs, still chewing.  I kept my distance, not because of the stench, but because a fear of chickens was beginning to seed itself quite solidly in my subconscious.

Later that same spring we inherited a rooster.  I don’t recall how he came to live on our fine little establishment, but he soon settled in.  He was enormous, especially from the perspective of an eight year old girl.  He was jet black with large spurs.  Intimidating.  He towered over the hens. In no time at all, he had established himself as the king of the coop.  He always ate first.  Hens who tried to eat out of order were swiftly punished with a harsh peck.  The hens, which I had seen tear frog flesh and devour an entire family of rats, were subdued in the presence of their new patriarch.  I found myself disappointed.

One morning, several months after the arrival of the rooster, I entered the chicken coop.  I changed their water and filled their troughs.  I was about to replenish the hay on the floor when I noticed something in the corner.

I knelt to have a closer look.  Bones.  Chicken bones?

I looked over my shoulder.  The hens were busy pecking at the cracked corn and oyster shells, watching me while pretending not to.  I looked back at the floor and saw the scattering of black feathers.

The rooster.

They had sought revenge sometime during the night.  A chill ran down my spine.  I listened to their cooing as they pecked and scratched at the hay on the floor.  My fear of chickens was now cemented in my childhood consciousness.

It is now 22 years later.  I am a biologist by training and I think that my fear of chickens has finally faded with time.  However, in a world where we must be conscious of the social, environmental, and health consequences of our food choices, and where we feel guilty whether we eat the farmed or the wild salmon, I must tell you one thing.  I take great pleasure in ordering the chicken.


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