December was rough. At the very end of November, my “mother-in-love” died after many, many years slipping deeper into dementia. For her it was release. For those of us who loved her, the loss is still hard, all these weeks later. Then came an eye-blink of a visit with my sweet girl who was more withdrawn and disconnected from me than I’ve ever experienced. A few days later, it was a round with Covid; Sherod and I both got it and the timing was awful with Christmas around the corner. I tested positive for just short of two weeks, on the 20th, the day I finally tested negative, I found out my brother’s first wife, one of the most beautiful, luminous people I’ve been privileged to know, died of suicide. Five days later, Sherod’s squadron commander in Vietnam, a guy bigger than life, died of cancer and Sherod spent several days travelling to North Carolina to officiate at his funeral. And Christmas woven all through that, along with the exhaustion everyone says comes after Covid. Rough
The coop and yard finally ready with the protective electric fencing.
The Big Mamas settled in for the night
The thing is, there was a thin golden thread weaving through those days, a daily responsibility for continuing to raise 8 gorgeous chickens who arrived in the tiniest of boxes and grew, and grew some more, and then some more. We’ve never before had so many biddies to raise at once so the planning we’d done was woefully inadequate. Nonetheless, there were answers to all the challenges and each time another piece clicked into place, the sheer satisfaction of having it work, even if just for a few days.
Buckie hanging out with the babes
There have been surprises along the way too. The funniest came on the most bitterly cold day of the Christmas freeze. With windchill that morning (I think the 23rd), it was 12 degrees in Lowndesboro. I bundled up with layers and layers to go out and tend to the flock. Sherod and I had rigged up this propane heater, that looks like a jet engine and roars like one, that blew heated air into the coop. My job was to turn it off in the morning long enough to make sure everyone in the coop was still alive, to refill feeders and let the girls out, or at least open their little door so they could go out if they dared.
That morning, everyone was alive and well and as I entered the coop, I heard it. A very early effort by a little girl chicken who wasn’t, who was instead a rooster, trying to crow. Oh my stars, he melted my heart with that sorry little, croaky effort. Last time this happened, we gave away the rooster that arrived in our flock. This time, I’ve been researching how to manage the most aggressive rooster behaviors and I’m working with Buckie to teach him some manners and make clear he is not the boss of me. We’ll see if/how that works out.
Something else really funny has happened. For the past couple of years, the older hens, or Big Mamas, as I call them, have hardly laid eggs. Additionally, egg laying drops precipitously when the cold sets in so you don’t expect any eggs at this time of the year. Well…get them in the new Lowndesboro chicken Taj Mahal. Have them see all these young whippersnappers getting ready to be as fecund and abundant in eggs as chickens ever are, and you get your rear in gear. Next thing we knew, we are finding one or two, on some days, three, eggs nestled in the straw in the coop. Then they discovered the nesting box condo and some are laying in there instead, though one prefers the quiet corner at the back of the coop.
Until the week when congress was electing a new Speaker of the House, the Big Mamas and the babies were segregated from each other. On that Thursday, I began the slow, careful work of bringing them together. I kept thinking of the passage in John where Jesus describes himself as the Good Shepherd and says he has another flock that he will bring and they will “listen to my voice. So there will be one flock, one shepherd.” (John 10:16). Well…chickens are aggressively territorial, they don’t think they need a shepherd and I sure as heck know I am not one. All I could do was watch, intervene when it really got bad, and accept this wasn’t pretty.
The little ones staying as far away from the Big Mamas as Possible
The beginnings of détente…
For two days, I spent most of my time out with them in the chicken yard and in the evening would come inside for dinner and to watch the nightly news. What scared me the most was this: the folks trying to elect a Speaker, and the chickens I was trying to coax into peaceful cohabitation, exhibited strikingly similar behavior: the posturing, the pecking, the puffing up, OMG, it was so daggum funny and terrifying all at once. I think our behaviors are similar and we are all, all of us, creatures, of one single flock and there is our poor Good Shepherd, trying to herd us in the direction of the Kingdom of God…
With my morning coffee, I’ve been watching YouTube videos and jumping down rabbit holes of learning about chicken care. I now make my own chicken food by mixing split peas, lentils, flax seed, black oil sunflower seeds, whole oats, whole wheat berries and cracked corn. I’m learning how to ferment the mix to make it go further and to include probiotics good for my girls’ and boy’s gut in their diet. I’m also getting my weight training in since this involves slinging around 40 and 50 lbs. bags of feed.🤪
With all the sorrow of the past month. With the stress of starting a new church year and a new program. With all the craziness of what someone described as a new ‘normal on steroids,’ I give the most profound of thanks for this small flock of creatures I now share life with. Friends and parishioners have given me gifts that make me bust out laughing This is just one… I can hold most of the young ones in my arms, rub their backs, simply hang out with them. They all have names now: Perlita (little pearl), la Pecas (Freckles, Canelita (Cinnamon), Monita (little Blonde), Reina (Queen), Dulcinea, la Peludita (little Fuzzy) and, of course, Buckie. The flock has been becoming one in fits and starts with a fair number of plucked feathers, little ones running for their lives, and Big Mamas being the mean girls.
Late yesterday afternoon, when it was already dark and raining, I got home after we hosted our first respite event for 20 children on the autism spectrum. This is the beginning of the launch of the community arts center program at Holy Comforter. I was exhausted and wanted nothing more than to crawl into my comfy chair and shut down. Instead, I put on my mud clogs and rain gear to hike out and make sure all the girls were safely in the coop. The two “parts” of the flock have split up each night, one sleeping on one roost and the other on the other. To my utter awe and wonder I looked in, and there they all were, lined up on a single roost, huddled together, fast asleep.
The One who said “I am the Good Shepherd” in the Gospel of John would later in the gospel ask his friends to abide in God’s love and to abide in love for one another, “that his joy might be complete.” The poignancy of that moment has always gotten to me. Again, I am so clear that at best, I am an ‘along-sider’ for these chicken girls and boy, but through the continued grief, the stress, the tiredness of a busy day after a busy week, I knew something more about what it is like to look at this little flock and know my joy to be complete…