Friday, April 18, 2014

Chickens in Life and Death

The Full Mating Moon

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Do you have any idea how amazing chickens are? They are chatty and cute, constantly moving, interested in the world and did I mention cute? This spring my students and I were able to experience the amazingness of chickens first hand in our classroom. Birth, life, growth and even death happened right here in middle school. May 14 was the full Mating Moon, a time of growth and birth, of coming together of opposites into new vibrant wholes. And a time of chickens.

It all started when one of my wacky science teacher coworkers (all science teachers are weird, you know that, right?) mentioned that he was incubating eggs in his classroom. He graciously offered to let me use his incubator, provide me with fertile eggs from his flock and take the chicks back when we were done. Heck yes! In the middle of April I did a lesson on eggs and chicken incubation for my kids and then we got everything set up and eggs incubating. It takes 21 days for chicken eggs to hatch and my students and I were on the edge of our seats counting down the days.

I was expecting the chicks on a Tuesday but when I walked in the room on Monday morning I was greeting with a muffled peep! peep! peep! from the incubator. One had hatched hours earlier and was already fluffy, a second was wet still and a third still pecking at it's shell. The kids were over the moon - we got no work done that day. One student, who lived across the street from the school, stayed all afternoon and got to actually watch the third chick break open its shell and tumble out onto the mesh floor of the incubator. It was amazing to see them fluff up, learn to walk, learn to eat and, as all babies do, develop their individual personalities so quickly.

For a whole week we were chicken obsessed. Every day the kids asked questions, brought in information, watched the babies grow. We talked about the various strategies for making babies and how a chicken lays an egg every day hoping some will make it to adulthood while humans put tons of energy into just a few children. The kids named them, though I never endorsed any official names, and came to watch them eat and peep at each other in their free time. After a few days I started letting kids hold the chicks and we applauded every time anyone got pooped on. Turns out, chickens poop a lot. The babies grew, the kids were enamored and I couldn't stop talking about them.

But all was not happiness and roses. One of our chicks, the middle one who was sickly from the first day, did not grow like the others. He was visibly ill and by the middle of the second week he was getting worse. He'd stopped eating and his sick bowels had turned to open sores. During chicken news on Tuesday I let every class know that the sickly chick was quite sick, and not likely to make it through the night. We had good conversations that day - can we take it to the vet? How do you know it's sick? What if it gets better? And everyone got to say a bit of a goodbye.

That afternoon I googled "how to euthanize a small pet". Turns out, this is something people have to do regularly. Like I talked about with the kids, when we take responsibility for an animal we are always weighing costs and benefits and sometimes a vet is a big cost. Too big for a chick. One website had a method utilizing carbon dioxide from a vinegar and baking soda reaction. That seemed do-able so after the kids all left I set things up and got the sickly chick out of the tub with the others. He was starting to stagger from weakness, I'm pretty sure it hadn't eaten or drank anything in two days. The process was not as easy as the website made it seem and after what felt like too much time, memories of a recent flubbed death penalty case in Oklahoma very ripe in my mind, I broke the chick's neck with my hands.

Time had seemed to stop during the time when I was struggling with the chick. It was sick and dying. It probably would not have made it through the night if I had left it alone, but in those last moments it struggled hard to stay alive. Living things simply do not want to die. When it finally did die, in my hands, at my hand, I had the experience like coming out of a pool of water. My senses worked again beyond the tiny thing in my hand. And I was nauseous.

One of my co-workers, upon hearing the tale of the sickly chick, said something like "oh, you are just so strong! I could never have done that!"  I don't know if I really am strong, but I think I am pragmatic about life and death. I can intellectualize the process; chickens are the kinds of creatures that get born in large numbers with the expectation that many will die. If every chicken egg became an adult chicken the world would be overrun with chickens. Every creature will die eventually. But I am not as stoic as all that. I was physically ill and quite distressed over the death of this little chicken. In middle school I caught my pet rat's foot in the door of her cage and when she limped away I cried, worried I had hurt her permanently (I hadn't - she was fine) and in college I cried buckets over the death of my pet guinea pig. I might be more afraid of my dog's future death than that of some of my family members. I am not a cold intellectual in the face of death, I'm really not.

In her interview with Krista Tippet, Eve Ensler is quoted as asking "What if our lives were precious only up to a point? What if we held them loosely and understood that there were no guarantees?" She was talking about life with cancer, about seeing herself and begging to be seen as a human in the middle of a transition rather than a patient with a diagnosis. But these words have stuck with me as I struggled through the process of caring for the life of, and stewarding the death of, my baby chickens. Every creature knows its life is precious. We humans have a particular kind of self knowledge and fight like mad to maintain our lives and our integrity but all animals, and probably many other organisms, know they are alive and work hard to stay that way.  Death was probably a welcome respite for my chick. The kids commented the next day on how quiet the remaining chicks were, suspecting that they were sad. I think it was just that the sick one had been distress calling for six or seven days non stop. It had been in pain and still fought against death with every ounce of its being. In the grand scheme of things, though, that little chick was really just a way to turn plant and bug energy into meat energy for the purpose of making more baby chickens and feeding baby foxes. 

The core of my pagan theology is the dance between opposing forces; light and dark, summer and winter, life and death. This is explicitly the theme of this month's Mating Moon - how do opposites move together to create the fertility of the Earth and human culture. In my work with the chickens this spring I was reminded of this other set of opposing elements - the individual and the community. Individual organisms are not the unit of natural selection or the unit of ecological stability. As far as evolution and the energy flow on Earth are concerned, my individual self is inconsequential. My genes and my population are important so as long as my close relatives survive, I am expendable (and as long as I survive, they are expendable). But the individual is the unit of awareness and of social change. Art and science, though collaborative human enterprises, occur because of individuals. We make changes in our human cultures by individual actions that then spread. The chick's life was inconsequential, but also the most important thing imaginable to it. Mine, too.

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Full Mating Moon 2013: National Poetry Month 2013

Full Mating Moon 2012: Happy Hours and Pirate Queens

Full Mating Moon 2011: The Green Month

Full Mating Moon 2010: Mercurial

Full Mating Moon 2009: The Flower Moon

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