Utter devastation. This morning I got back from a walk to find the tiniest black chick floating limp and lifeless in the duck pool. I'd come in to empty the blue plastic paddling pool, happy cartoon octopuses and other big-eyed, smiling sea creatures stupidly peering up at me through the brown scum on the bottom. Time to put it away for the winter. It was filthy, and I was sick of emptying and refilling it, and frankly sick of watching my two adolescent drakes prove their virility while practically drowning our one sweet female as they both mount her at once over and over again the second she jumps in the pool. Who am I to say? Maybe she likes it, but I've read a thing or two about duck behavior and anatomy, and my guess is it's less than a steamy romance for her. Trust me, if you think the mysterious, confounding ways of human courtship and sexuality are interesting, just hang out in the barnyard long enough, and you'll find you don't know nothin' yet. And then you'll wish our lives could be half as instinctual as all that, and then you'll yearn for the pea-sized brain of a chicken. Well, at least I do when I take a minute in my day to just be in the simple presence of my animals and momentarily release the complications and heart churnings of life as a blundering biped.
That's most of why I love my birds, I guess, because they just are, just being just as God intended them to be, pecking and clucking and laying, or cock-a-doodle-doing as the case may be, and not having to operate outside of their inherent worth or purpose in the slightest. They're just doing what makes sense, without thought or second guessing, and when I'm participating in that rhythm, I breathe a little slower, sink a little deeper into a rooted sense of order that just makes me like the world better. This love is easy, in the chaos of this existence, it just settles so simple and good. At times I have had more animals to love and commune with – cows, pigs, horses – but for now, poultry is what fits in the current symbiosis of my life, and the peace I feel amongst them sustains me, at least a little bit, until the time I can build the picture more into the one I want. Perhaps once I believed that real farmers don't love their critters, because to love them is too risky, because their lives are too precarious and because sometimes we are the purposeful instigators of their demise; so you should not name the animals you are going to eat, and you simply shouldn't let yourself get too attached, right? But I could never stop myself from falling in love, and size and intelligence just hasn't seemed to matter. Now don't get me wrong, there's really nothing that compares to sinking into the big liquid eyes of a sacred beast you sit and share the silence with every day over a frothing pail of milk. But I love my chickens too, however much you can love a chicken.
The thing is, I've been thinking a lot about love lately. About the ways we devise to hide from it, to protect ourselves, the ways, even, we'd wish to erase it so as not to endure the suffering of loss or the tumult of uncertainty. Mostly I try to reject those flimsy notions of self-preservation, but today when I looked around the chicken yard after seeing mama hen with only two of her chicks and then discovered the littlest one drowned in that brown water, my heart broke into pieces that felt as splintered as the moment I heard of my father's death, and I wondered about hardening my heart; about armoring myself with a steely exterior so as not to fall so hard, not to love so deeply, and then not to hurt so much. I know that sounds crazy - of course I am not saying that the death of my chick is equivalent to the death of my father or the end of a human love, and of course I also know that one moment in time is not isolated from a million other tugs at my heart and conscience that tie into that tiny death and ripple out as if that one stone is killing a hundred birds at once in all the many complicated layers of my life. Of course I know that my crumbling to the ground in a screaming, wailing heap with all the chicken shit and hurling the empty execution pool as far as I could into the field was related to something bigger than that little chick. For me, in that moment, that death was symbolic of the fragility of everything, the vulnerability of the things we hold dear, the relatively ephemeral nature of things precious and beloved. On a very base level, it was wrapped up in my own deep guilt because the danger of the pool to the chicks had occurred to me many days ago, yet I had neglected to do anything about it; wrapped up in my insecurity about being able to protect and provide for the things I love and am responsible for; wrapped up in the difficult discernment of being tough and tender in the right moments with the right measure, two things I fear I am constantly applying in the wrong places, at the wrong times, in the wrong order.
Not many days ago, I watched our hen bustling about the yard with her little brood, aching with envy at her simple responsibilities. Today, she pecks around with one less baby, none the worse for wear, as far as I can tell, while I am completely wrecked. I'll do the crying for the both of us. This is her second clutch this year. Her first two died in the heat of the summer, little yellow bodies splayed out on the coop floor one morning. I don't know why. Did they overheat? Get sick? Was it my fault, could I have prevented it? I tried to be stoic, picked them up by their skinny dinosaur legs and buried them in the compost. That's life on the farm, right? Birth, abundance, regeneration, and death, plenty of death. It ain't easy. It's never easy. When this clutch was hatching, we could hear pecking from within one egg that just wouldn't hatch. I decided to let nature do it's thing and trust the little guy would find his way out. He never did. A few months before that, we hatched ducklings inside in an incubator, dutifully turning eggs multiple times a day for 28 days. We candled them to watch their progress like a backwoods ultrasound. Some you could see the beginning of development with veins, a big black eyeball, and then the bloodline to signify an embryonic death. My fault? Or just the nature of life? When hatching day came, one started pipping, and just never made it beyond the first tiny hole. His efforts waned, peeping slowed, and I stayed up late into the night researching duck hatching midwifery and determined the little guy was literally shrink-wrapped inside the thin dried membrane within the shell and couldn't move to free himself. This time I did intervene, terrified, of course, that I was doing the wrong thing, but I slowly peeled away tiny bits of shell, trying not to break blood vessels and eventually a wet little heap of down feathers lay in my hand looking more dead than alive. I was sure he would die, but after two days of little faith and nursing administered by my determined daughter, baby Rocket lived. I do everything I know how to do to keep my birds happy and safe, but I have lost them to foxes, coons, fishers, and weasels, and even the tires of my own car. At every turn it breaks my heart. At every turn I wonder if I am cut out for it. Tough enough. Tender enough.
I have no profound conclusion for this day's wrenching heart rambling, where all the woes and hardships of my current life's sad excuse for farming got emblemed in the death of a single tiny chick. All I know is that love hurts. All kinds. We muddle through the best we can, trying to be good parents, good stewards and animal husbands, good partners, friends; we try to let our hearts break open to those vulnerable places where all the treasure lies; we try to take care of the things that are smaller than us, and try to do it all with our whole spirit and a little wisdom, and no matter what, we break, we fail, we screw up or things just go wrong out of our control. And it hurts something fierce, sometimes even something as small as a downy peeping chick. What I'm saying is, love hurts. Would I take it away, and make things easy, safe? I don't think so. I think I'd always love again.