Thursday, June 26, 2014

Chickens, chickens, chickens. Or, the problem with civilization.

I hate our chickens. There, I've written it.

Layers at 2 days
We ordered 40 chickens from the local seed and feed store this spring, and I was excited for this new adventure in farming. I've been growing vegetables for 7 years, and I thought it would be a good challenge to take on this new crop, as it were. 30 we ordered for meat. Yup, meat. And our plan is to slaughter them ourselves. And 10 for laying.

A short in our order, and the loss of 8 chickens due to pasty butt or weasel attack leaves us with 31. 31 chickens we are stuck with, for whatever duration.

Why don't I like these chickens? Could it be their intense creepiness? Or perhaps their highly effective digestive system? I don't hate them equally, it's true. The layers are much more enjoyable, if only because they seem more like actual chickens, and less like the genetic experiment of some farm scientist whose only concern is the rapidity of growth of their output. We bought the one step away from the every popular Cornish Cross chicken, who is touted to be ready for eating in 8 weeks. The Red Rangers we are growing are now 9 weeks, and they are giant reptilian creatures with feet like pterodactyls and as aggressive as all hell. And it is so so clear that we humans have bred them to be twisted parodies of actual chickens, and I only know this because we have other chickens as well. I imagine if we hadn't gotten other chickens, I would not know that chickens could be anything but mean and desperately hungry. All. The. Time.

Laying chicks at 8 weeks
The other chickens, the layers or layers we are raising for meat, are much more chicken-like, in whatever mythic conception I have of Chicken. They peck. They squabble. They leap and almost fly. They grow in a recognizable trajectory. They seem to be having some level of development, getting more or less adventuresome. I see that they flock together. I see that they look for things to interest them. The meat birds mostly eat, shit, and sit. And as the time comes closer to their end, I see that their weight is too much for them, and they aren't strong enough to carry their weight. But they still eat. All. The. Time.

I think what bothers me most about the Red Rangers is how they have been manipulated by us humans. I know farm animals are useful. They are meat. They are eggs. They are manure. But they are beings nonetheless, even with their specific purposes, having been bred. I know acutely that all of these birds have no place at all in the wild eco-system surrounding us. The 7 birds that had their blood sucked and heads taken off by weasels one night was enough to convince me that farming is not, strictly speaking, natural. And the Red Rangers, in their intense appetites, body dysfunction, and aggression, are a clear example of this ending of nature.
Red Rangers at 4 weeks

Michael Pollan, of Food Rules and Omnivores Dilemma fame, has a really good book about what human attempts at wrangling nature are about, called Second Nature. The irony of my listening to it was that I took an heirloom seed workshop with one of the more pretentious gardeners I have interacted with at the same time. I would travel to this gardener's home and see the intensely manicured gardens, with vibrant bursts of diversity and elevation in gardening, and listen to Michael Pollan describe the rapid dissection of his illusions about gardening as being anything about 'getting back to nature.' I'm glad I listened to this book, digested it as I drove and weeded at the student farm I worked at Westtown School. The lesson I took from it is that there is no mythic idyllic natural relationship between humans and nature, and attempting to capture that in a farm is crap. What we need to recognize is the struggle with nature we have. And instead of giving up, we must attempt to harness natural processes appropriately, with reverence, respect, and humility, and know that, in the end, we lose.

I see this all over the place in Vermont. Farmhouse ruins, overgrown hoop house frames, even decaying stone fences in the woods, all point to the winningness of nature. At some of my most cynical times, I've been comforted by the television series Life After People. In it, various scientists speak about what will happen to the infrastructures and eco-systems that are part of civilization, and what would happen to them if humans ceased to exist. It's comforting to know that nature would take things back, and there would continue to be life after our various attentions or inattentions.

Maybe I just think the Red Rangers are human meddling gone too far. Maybe I am having a hard time being confronted with what exactly we humans have done, and what I have benefited from in my consuming habits. I think by raising these birds myself I am responding to this distance from my food. It's important to engage this process, and I'm glad for it. I just wonder if on the other side, I'll be a vegetarian again.



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