"There is no charm equal to tenderness of heart." Jane Austen
It happened early on a foggy morning in June.
My wife Judy noticed a fox scurrying away, leaving feathers behind, and by the time she checked, all of our nine chickens had been attacked by the fox, their necks neatly punctured, their bodies stiff. The fox was coming back to drag the rest of the kill away, but Judy intervened.
Feathers of the nine Barred Rocks hens, with their beautiful grey-white striped waves, were scattered, with their bodies crumpled on the wet ground. A year and a half of our labor, raising them from when they were chicks, evaporated on one fine morning.
I noticed one trying to stand. It survived the attack, and the back of its neck held a puncture wound. I stroked her body and she let out the warning sound that I've heard them make when a hawk hovers. I apologized.
The fox forced through a mesh panel that I opened to feed them fresh clover and grass. I suppose that is fitting. One's effort to nurture often is the vulnerability that opens for nature's ways. The fox, like an assassin, planned her attack, sneaking in through the opening, waiting until the automatic door of the hatch opened as the sun came up, killing all (or she thought she did) in a matter of seconds. The hens did not even scatter; their bodies were left in the usual formation in the pen, where I had noticed them chasing ants on an old fence.
I am speculating that the fox was a female, as it's hard to tell them apart. But it was a fox that I have noticed roaming the grounds for a while. She has cubs, I am sure, and the offering of one chicken would serve them well.
I picked up the hen that survived, but with its neck wounded, was not sure how long she would live. I lined a nesting box with fresh straw and placed her in it gently; I filled a blue Japanese lacquer bowl with water and set it in front of her. She stood on the ledge of the egg box, with her neck drooping.
I suspect that the one that survived was Jane Austen, the one that came to us right away, an ever-friendly bird that seemed more aware than the others.
We were told never to name our chickens. It's wise advice to keep your chickens as impersonal sources of eggs and meat. But each chicken seemed distinct, a unique creation; so when one kept on greeting us every morning with her long head cocked high, my wife named her Jane Austen.
She also named the bossy, large hen that often laid double-yolked eggs Alpha Girl, and she called two other smaller ones that seemed to follow her around the Two Hench-Women. My wife would rebuke Alpha Girl when she pecked at others and ordered them around.
Then we noticed a short, small, frantic one, often running around the others in the pursuit of a cause unknown, fluttering her wings in jest, and she earned the name Dr. Ruth.
One hen would often be alone in the corner, and laid her eggs in a secluded place. She was, of course, Sister Wendy.
We could tell most of them apart, and that is why they were given names. They held a distinct place in Creation, or at least in our backyard.
My second son C.J., a composer, was back from his Detroit adventure, and he offered to help put down Jane. My wife had spoken to the Animal Control folks, and our "egg man" at a local co-op, and had learned that the injured bird was not worth saving, given the threat of rabies.
C.J. stepped up to our conversation and told Judy, "I'll put her down." He reasoned, "I consider this my responsibility as a meat-eater."
When we checked on Jane, she had stayed in her usual position for laying her eggs, her neck still drooped, unable to stand.
When I removed her to do the bidding, I was astounded to find that she had laid her last egg.
The egg was pointier than usual, and malformed; but it felt the weight of gold.
C.J. and I watched several YouTube videos on how to kill a chicken. Most showed a very dignified and objective "how-to" on how to behead and eviscerate one. Some, however, showed a darker side of humanity; in one video, a whole bunch of guys seemed to enjoy the killing, and drank beers and hollered as a headless chicken ran about. When the head of a chicken is cut off, apparently adrenaline rushes to the body, and the bird flaps its wings and runs about. The video, appropriately, showed the men's heads cut off within the frame, too, in the guise of anonymity.
Chickens seem to reveal our way of living, connected both to the reality of farm life and to our modern conditions. These creatures have survived into the present with us, and they now expose our view toward death and life. Are our lives utilitarian, and, therefore, is our bottom line only survival? Is beheading of a chicken to be a mere casual entertainment in our shallow YouTube culture? What does that say about us all?
I wrote about some of these survival matters, connecting them to the migrant workers at Tyson factory in Arkansas, in a previous Refractions essay: Optimal Foraging Theory: Can You have Your Chickens and Eat Them, Too? I began the essay this way:
On the day that the Arkansas Democrat reported the sighting of thought-to-be-extinct ivory-billed woodpeckers, I toured the Tyson kill factory in Springdale, Arkansas, where two hundred thousand Cornish hens are eviscerated each day.
In that refraction I reflected on the mind-numbing efficiency that factories go through to feed us, especially during the holiday seasons, and how the machinery serves us. But beyond that mechanism, the tour of the Arkansas factory raised deeper issues: the dignity of migrant workers, and the quest for stewardship of our resources. Tyson, we must remember, has the capacity to feed thousands of people, and in time of need-as in the great tsunami that took thousands in Indonesia-they could provide food to the survivors in a span of two weeks.
Watching the YouTube videos reminded me of a further connection: Does the way we treat animals reflect how we treat each other, and therefore frame the culture we create? Chickens are not people. I know. Migrant workers are. Does the care for the animals we depend on reflect how we treat the "least" among us, too?
As I wrapped my gloved hands around Jane's legs and as C.J. placed the knife on top of her neck, she seemed too exhausted to struggle. I wondered why God kept her alive, forcing us to do the bidding. What would be the purpose of killing a wounded bird? I thanked God aloud, nevertheless, for her life; C.J. took a deep breath and the knife came down. Both of us fumbled through this; the knife was really too small to do the task, and we should have prepared a larger wooden block underneath to make the cutting easier.
What was expected did happen; this vigor of life took its last charge to the fullest, and I had to use both of my hands to hang onto her legs, with her wings flapping wildly.
"It took two grown men to kill a chicken," C.J. said as we were disposing the bodies. "I don't think either of us could have done this alone." I did note then that it was indeed providential that he was home when the carnage hit.
Abraham had to put a knife to his son Isaac, and our faith is tested, ever since, in smaller ways every day. Our lives are made of tissues connected through a bond of everyday deaths, and severing of them should always be a ritual, and not some gruesome game. It's a ritual as old as time. It echoes our severing from Eden and reminds us of our grim fallen condition-of our desperate need to survive. We are given, sometimes, a glimpse into that Gap between life and death: We are given, through Grace, moments to consider that greater depth of reality as a father and a son.
Earlier, I had written a sketch-poem about our Barred Rocks.
My chickens live in question
Marks, full of them
On their feathers
And in their orangish eyes
Whether ants crawling
On a wooden plank
Or red tails circling
or clovers waving
Beyond the fencing
These are all questions
That can only be
Pecked at, or considered by
As the hawk circling cannot perceive
them if they do not move at all.
As I am now, watching them.
And upon mid day,
Laying of an egg
Is giving birth
Full of rituals
The rhythm of their
Delight and their agitated
Dance wrapped in their
naive Instinct, the belief of Life.
Fully clothed and comfort-able
without Answers or certainties;
The imperishable contained
In the patterns of their feathered
Poetry and Art exist, too, "without Answers or certainties," and "The imperishable contained" within the ritual of life and Death. We fumble through the divide, especially in our convenient, fast-food lives, not really knowing how to kill a chicken, and therefore not knowing how to fully live, either. Living cannot be by ignoring deaths all around us: Sacrifice is given every day, so we may enjoy our ordinary days. At every meal, some life, including the butter-head lettuce that I grow in the garden, is sacrificed so we can live to enjoy its sweet and tender flesh. Imbedded in every cell of a lettuce, therefore, is not just the material reality of these cells, but a signature of labor, a narrative of a greater care, the providence of rain and sun, all of which we need to be thankful for.
At the same time, every foggy morning of our post-Human reality, in our own backyards, a frustrated and gruesome drama of survival unfolds without our noticing. If it is not our own chickens or lettuce, it is someone else's. We try not to notice, and create our convenience-packaged culture stripped of neither marks of sacrifice nor death. In that suppression, the undercurrent of what we try so hard to ignore will eventually bubble up to haunt us. This is the inevitable equation of our time, where sanitized commodified products reveal the lack of care for our culture as much as the sudden deaths of our overdosed celebrities. Our carnage of abundance is left visibly in our techno-frenzied world, and we hear hecklers of our modern condition, like the Joker's sadistic laughter echoing in the Bat Cave, a darker hiding place of our own design and wealth. When a silent assassin attacks, then, we should not be surprised.
That assassin may not be a wily fox prowling our farm, still looking for the carnage of the kill to feed her cubs. It may be a condition of dehumanization, a false idol of security replacing the old ghost of our insecure past; it will show itself suddenly and haunt us, like in reports of sex-slaves being hidden, stored and shipped, or, in what is now a "new normal," bullet holes in our school hallways. They should not be nameless sacrifices to the altar of our culture of convenience and death. Their names should be noted; and the way to honor the death of loved ones is to re-name the conditions of our depravity. We need to name and identify the pollutants that are killing our young. By naming the depravity and evil, we may be able, at last, to acknowledge our longings.
Adam was given the task of naming the animals in Eden. It was a way for God to teach Adam his need for Eve. Naming is the first step toward stewardship, the first step of Adam's care for the Garden. Naming is art and poetry, too, as a way to note our present, reflect on the past, and create a passage toward the unknown. By creating, we name; we name the conditions of our reality, our fallenness, and our "bright abyss" within.
Jane Austen, the writer, so named the conditions of her culture. She called them "pride and prejudice," or "sense and sensibility." In her elegant, witty expressions, she re-named the life journeys of early 19th-century England by exposing the flaws of class-dominated culture, teaching us to rise above the bondage of an old system, to journey toward our higher virtues. Art ventures to re-name, or name for the first time, our realities. It helps us to make sense of our world. Art is a map into the unknown regions of our hearts, flesh and desires; art reveals, simultaneously, our depravities and the longing for human thriving. Our shortcomings can be exposed and our hunger for elegance drawn out. As the noble Mr. Gardiner risked his reputation to recover the foolish Lydia in Pride and Prejudice, so should we care for the wayward, to recover from our senseless dictates ("insufferable," I suppose, would be the word Austen would use if she could write about our time, and our YouTube videos).
Our senses lead to a deeper knowledge of our "sensibilities." The arts can incarnate the harsh realities of our condition into a form of an enduring communication. By playing these roles on stage or by reading them on the pages of fiction, we can be equipped to feel beyond the mechanistic, and to probe beyond the divide.
C.J. played Mr. Gardiner once, in a college production of Pride and Prejudice. The caring hand that held Mr. Gardiner's cane, now held the knife mixed with feathers and blood. Our senses were opened to both the violence of death, and cruel dictates of nature's ways. Surely, this act of disposing of a wounded chicken would not be the everyday reality that Mr. Gardiner or Elizabeth would have experienced in Pride and Prejudice society. We are more like the servants preparing a meal for the nobility; but a death of a chicken can teach us more than survival, and lead us into a compassionate servanthood of culture. Virtues of a nobler reality are hidden beneath the seemingly unchangeable rules of life and death. A death of a chicken can humble us to inform us of our true humanity-and perhaps point beyond a culture of death, and the death of "sense and sensibility" in our own culture.
Refracting in the feathered Gyrations of death, therefore, are the mystery of our own existence, and a reminder of our stewardship responsibilities. Each death, of creatures great and small, should bring us closer to a truer, more elegant life, to make us long for a world in which Darwinian survival is no longer the marker of our days. We can see our roles, then, as servants of a greater Banquet to come. Our Names are written in the palms of the One who sees us as unique parts of Creation, whose name is given, earned and honored.
I am glad we named her Jane Austen.