It is a sweet thing, to come to the end of a day and realize that it was built with small, ordinary moments. The mundane and trivial, the gritty, earthen, commonplace. A day spent roving the contours of the home landscape, for instance, bending into the labor that keeps a hearth and sustains life.
I cut the squash-vine borers, fat as a thumb, from the scratchy cucurbit vines and throw them to the chickens who pluck them from existence in a flurry of feathers. I fork the top layer of the compost pile to reveal a heart beating with bodies of redworms and sow bugs, transforming spent leaves, rinds bitten or pared, broken eggshells, into something new and nourishing.
And there are the hens that add their soft clucks and feathery humor to the gentle array of my everyday. This spring, it was the event of adding two new pullets to my backyard flock after a local varmint snagged a hen one night. These Black Sex-Links began as two very awkward and unattractive chicks and grew even more ungainly in their adolescence. But their patchy fuzz gradually gave way to glossy black feathers and finally glinted with hints of blue and red in the ever-warming sun.
I have often wondered what runs across a hen’s mind when she lays her first egg. I imagine her on an ordinary day, hopping from roost into sunlit morning, flapping her wings to greet the world that is still new to her. She may spook at a leaf spinning in an eddy of wind, and then scurry to join her sisters who are scratching earth and fluffing feathers. Suddenly . . . an odd discomfort, a movement, a tightening. She squats and turns to find a strange, oblong orb in the dirt behind her. A vague wonderment flits across her little chicken consciousness, connecting this surprising object – somehow – to her body.
The one called Jayber was the first of these new hens to find a shelled “surprise” behind her one morning. It happened as she passed through the carrot patch on her way from coop to pen. She copped an unceremonious half-squat, let the egg plunk to the ground, circled it for a minute, then trotted on toward her breakfast.
After this first egg, the laying process seizes a hen with a once-a-day duress toward her nesting box, where she enters into a dull-eyed trance, accepting her obligation to sit and pass her gift of yolk and shell into existence. The “nesting box” I have provided for my hens is an empty compost bin, nestled like a cave in the corner of the chicken pen. The Rhode Islands (my more mature two) approach the bin without question and sit with solemn resolve until their duty is done. When I added the two black pullets to my flock, I hoped they would learn the ways of the world from their older sisters. Jayber, however, didn’t quite shake the experience of her first egg.
The next day, nervous squawks pulled me outside to find three of my hens bundled in an envious mass by the gate of their pen. Jayber, who had flown the coop, was circling the carrot patch in a nervous strut. She waded into the leafy tangle and sank down. The other hens, agitated by Jayber’s freedom, launched jealous shrieks into the late summer afternoon.
But the process got easier, and the hens determined their laying preferences. It is autumn now, and I retrieve a palm-full of eggs each day from a weed-lined depression behind the coop. Jayber suns herself proudly in the thinning warmth and follows me as I set about the process of a late season harvest.
In the lingering light of the day, I realize that all these moments – the death and life and that funny, feathered flock, make up something that is soft and shimmering and wholly a part of my experience. My love is poured into this little homestead and, as the moments meld into days, the days give way to an existence filled with labor and laughter and mercy: a landscape rich and contoured.
Copyright © 2008 Erin Tuttle. All rights reserved.