Selections: “We Move the Chicken Coop: Chickens Inform the Creative Mind”

Nonfiction by Sherry A. Rind

According to Howard Gardner’s book Multiple Intelligences, our society prizes logical-mathematical thinking above other kinds.  It follows that I did well in school because my talents fall in the linguistic-mathematical range beloved of givers of standardized tests and late twentieth century teachers.  When taking such tests, I learned to shut off the part of me that could manufacture reasons for choices A, B, as well as C to be plausible and to choose the answer that was superficially correct.  The farther I have gone from my school years, the farther my thinking has moved from that strict mode and into the sloppy-intuitive mode. Now I can barely fill out a suggestion box form correctly at the grocery store.

Years of writing poetry have trained me to connect disparate ideas and objects, so much so that I cannot disconnect them.  This is a handicap if you are supposed to teach the writing process in six steps or organize your desk. Recently I attended a writers’ critique group where, shown our hostess’ study, I exclaimed in awe over its neatness.  She said she could not settle down to work when the room was a mess. She had moved all business and outer world concerns to a handsome roll top desk in the family room and had designated her study for her biographical writing only.  This is what I have been wanting to do–we even have an antique desk downstairs that could accommodate stacks of bills in its pigeon holes. But separation is not as simple as it sounds. What about storage for new and used checks, tax-related records, receipts?  Must I create a whole second set of record-keeping equipment, writing and mailing implements, paper, file cabinets? I need to have bills sent snail-mail because they get buried, unnoticed and forgotten, in my email inbox. According to most people, all these problems can be solved, one by one; but I get tired thinking about them.  I get confused when having to make decisions about categories.

The intricacies of human life bewilder me because I have been spending so much time with animals.  At the writers’ meeting, which included a potluck lunch, I noticed in myself a new social awkwardness, different from shyness.  I know shyness. This was an uncertainty about when to line up for food and what to take and a feeling of despair and puzzlement at the sight of mayonnaise on two different salads (middle-aged people cannot afford to keep both mayonnaise and chocolate in their diets, nor can they feed these foods to animals).  Then the guests fiddled with our flatware and attempted awkward conversation while waiting for the hostess to serve herself, sit down, and begin eating. In my house, you slap a dish down and the creature dives in. Sometimes you do not even provide the dish. If you are human and want to eat at my table, you have to perform heroic acts of debris clearance to make a place for yourself because the table is littered with books, magazines, mail, toys, and grooming equipment.  Sometimes we eat standing up, like the dogs. I have definitely come down in the world and it is all because I can no longer categorize. I believe that means I no longer think in the kind of linear fashion acceptable to our society.

Although my way of functioning is a mess, it conforms to Gardner’s predictions.  He noted that in school we can no longer be the Renaissance men and women we used to aspire to become; we can no longer learn some of everything because there is simply too much.  His presentation is a kindly way of showing why specialization is necessary. Although I feel like a dabbler in many things, I specialize in fauna and words. According to Gardner, I need not, as the newspapers have been urging me, become a techie nerd in order to survive the future.

In my youth I began heading off in this direction, despite my being such a model student, and here I am at the logical end point, unfit for a regular job but adept at some unusual things, like getting along with small-flock chickens.  I have achieved a sympathy with chickens, different from merely liking them, that requires understanding of their needs, desires and even their particular brand of logic. There’s a lot more to a chicken than cacciatore on the run.

All creatures, even non-linear ones, need form and discipline in their lives.  Backyard chickens wake with the light and will pace and whine if kept locked in their coop.  They will pace and whine if they cannot get in again at dusk, like a poet kept from her desk for too many days in a row.  Chickens want the same things to happen daily, in the same order and place. Although able to take a more comprehensive view of cause and effect, poets, too, long for a similar routine.  Imagine how much less stressful life would be if we knew the rejection slip would arrive exactly six weeks after we mailed out the poems, instead of our having to wonder every time how long it will take.

On the very afternoon that I recognized my non-linear shortcomings, my husband, AKA Farmer John, was contriving the equivalent of a rejection slip for chickens.  Because the corner of the yard that had held the old chicken pen had flooded, he built a new enclosure in a dry, grassy area on the other side. He then hitched the chicken coop to the ride-on lawnmower and dragged it to the new site.  Some coops are built tall enough for people to walk in. This one, John’s original design transformed from a drawing on graph paper to wooden reality, was sized like the hens’ own little playhouse with sleeping and pooping in the main area, a separate compartment for egg laying, and a floor that pulled out like a drawer for easy cleaning.  It had a door with a ramp for the chickens and a lid that opened over the nest compartment for us to steal the eggs, which we replaced with golf balls to remind the hens this was a laying area. Although I hate to admit it, if the chickens had only me to rely on for shelter, they would be living in a pre-fabricated shed or my laundry room. In other words, my husband’s logical-mathematical thinking, combined with high school shop classes, is prized for a reason.

The chickens had been roaming free in the yard for a couple of weeks, due to the flooding, and might not take kindly to being fenced in again, although the new pen had all the conveniences: grass, food and water, a newly cleaned coop smelling of sweet pine, and some freshly cut logs to stand on and peck.  There was just this little problem of herding them into it.

We decided the best time was at dusk, when the chickens would be wanting to go inside as usual but before they had a chance to get creative and perch in trees for the night.  John was still putting the fence together and the chickens congregated across the yard where the coop used to be. I watched them pace back and forth, much the way I do in the kitchen when I have put something down and forgotten where, though I know it is around here somewhere.  Chickens do not waste time just pacing when they are walking around waiting for the coop to reappear like Dorothy’s house in Kansas; they also scratch the dirt and peck for bugs. Perhaps I could lure them to their new location with something more attractive.

I went into the house to fetch their scrap bowl and food.  I chose dry cereal for the loud rustling sound it made when I shook the bowl.  As soon as I began walking toward the chickens, all ten looked up alertly. Shaking the bowl, I began veering down toward the new pen where a light shone in the coop, to get their attention.  They began moving toward me, much like any herd, a few starting the rush and others following. But as I approached this unknown part of the yard where they rarely foraged, they slowed down, then turned back to their original location.  Night was approaching and they knew it was time to roost. Logic dictated that if the coop had been at point A and the pen surrounding it had been at point B for one’s entire lifetime, then coop and pen should be where they had been.

Food’s magnetic field carried only so far, not far enough to lure the chickens to the new location of the coop.  True herding was out of the question, even if our dogs were trained to herd. You may have seen herding demonstrations where dogs herd ducks around a ring, over a little bridge, and into a pen.  They herd ducks, never chickens, because chickens are no more herdable than cats. While they have flock instinct that urges them to group together, when danger threatens, it is every hen for herself.  They scatter instantly and each chicken switches back and forth at remarkable speed. Since I could not lure or herd, it was time to grab.

I approached the chickens, shaking my bowl, and squatted, holding it out.  Several came running and it was a simple matter to grab the tamest one, my Rhode Island Red, tuck her under my arm, and carry her to the new location, where I tossed her into the coop.  Before she could come out, I shut the door of the pen. She was in familiar territory now, content to stay in the coop, scratching through the fresh wood chips and muttering softly.

I enlisted my son Marty’s help to catch the rest of the chickens.  Long-legged and quick, he was an experienced chicken-catcher in confined areas but grabbing them in an open acre of yard was a challenge.  Fortunately chickens lack the kind of intelligence that warns them to keep away from a person they saw kidnapping their compatriots. They approached us with confidence when I held out the food and Marty sneaked up behind to grab them.  I had thought the quick Araucanas would be the most difficult to catch, but the Wyandottes proved to be the more wild. A silver Wyandotte led us on a chase across the yard until she darted inside the old dog house. While I lifted the roof, Marty darted in to corner and grab her.  As the evening darkened, the hens looked for perches in the yard and one hopped onto the back of Emma, the park bench named after our first Airedale. She must have been tired by then, for Marty simply plucked her off the bench and carried her to the coop.

Chasing after a squawking, flapping chicken, darting from side to side, I knew some of the joy a dog feels when he scatters a flock.  There is something about the fuss and noise that awakens anyone’s predatory instincts and keeps you on the chase even when good sense tells you this is not of benefit to the chicken.  Something internal shifts gears and good sense is shouted down by the excitement of the chase. You have your eye on that particular chicken and are determined to get it. You are laughing and the chicken’s alarmed squawks sound like hysterical laughter.

I felt a bit guilty about chasing chickens beyond the point when I should have stopped.  This was not correct management. Fortunately, chickens regard a hot chase as part of the day’s work and quickly forget about it.  When I picked them up, they calmed instantly, being accustomed to handling. Once captured, they were relieved to find themselves inside the familiar coop and it was now too dark outside for them to observe its new location.  The world was back in order, though come morning they would be irritated at their new confinement, pacing back and forth along the fence and making muttering noises until they forgot they had ever lived anywhere else.

Some people find the simple-mindedness of chickens contemptible.  Or they cannot believe chickens are really that stupid, so they attribute to them all kinds of intention they do not possess, such as affection.  Their simplicity is their beauty. They are static thinkers, with no interest in the fact that something true yesterday–you have the most efficient software program–might not be true today: the new version just came out and yours is obsolete.  The world for them functions perfectly as long as everything stays in its place and does what it is supposed to do, what it has always done. If the coop moves or the roof blows off, as it once did, they stay put, waiting for it to return.

They do not spend time, as humans do, thinking of alternate ways of solving problems.  I contemplate hiring a professional organizer who will command me to throw this out and tell me exactly where to store that.  I doubt I could get linear enough to divide my study into the two categories of writing and not-writing. When is a writer doing something that will never find its way into her writing?  This is like trying to tell the dancer from the dance.

Once we stop taking multiple-choice tests, few straight lines rule our lives. As I tell my students, there are valid exceptions to every rule, except the one about enclosing a self-addressed, stamped envelope.  Logical-mathematical thinking, so prized in school and workplace, designs our houses and chicken coops; but I do not believe it will help catch scattered chickens. What catches the chickens is non-judgmental understanding of their habits, enough consistency to teach them that the bowl you carry will always contain food, and the kind of thinking that can switch directions as abruptly and illogically as a fleeing chicken.

There is no test for this kind of thinking and no valuation. Still, I believe it to be grounded in the daily reality of our lives, where the very existence of huge objects such as weapons and nuclear reactors is debatable, where your house can move when your back is turned, where truth switches directions and we have to be nimble enough to keep after it.

Sherry Rind’s poetry books are The Whooping Crane Dance, a chapbook; The Hawk in the Back Yard (Anhinga Press), winner of the Anhinga Award; A Fall Out the Door (Confluence Press), winner of the King County Arts Commission Publication Award; and A Natural History of Grief, runner-up for the Quentin R. Howard Chapbook Prize.  She has received grants and awards from the Seattle and King County Arts Commissions, Pacific Northwest Writers, National Endowment for the Arts, and Artist Trust.  She edited two books about Airedale terriers and her articles have appeared in Bird Talk, Bird Breeder, Seattle’s Child/Eastside Parent, and other magazines. She teaches at Lake Washington Institute of Technology in Kirkland, WA.