Photo: Rhode Island Red, The Magazine of Yoga
The Yoga of Rhode Island Reds
BY MAGAZINE COLUMNIST RUTH FARMER
Depending upon the day of the week and the season of the year, my mornings follow routines shaped around the needs of our animals. My partner and I own thirteen chickens, two terriers, and a cat that depend upon our daily attention to their needs.
I never thought much about the needs of animals as a kid growing up in North Carolina. In our neighborhood, dogs and cats ran around at will, some feral and unattended; some owned but neglected. Some were loved, well-fed and groomed. My family owned a cat that I so ignored that I don’t even remember her name or the color of her fur.
Sunning themselves after dusting
When I was young, the closest I came to caring for the daily needs of animals was during summer vacations, when my sisters and I visited our maternal grandparents’ farm in Wagram, North Carolina. They owned several animals but the ones I recall are the chickens and hogs because it was our responsibility to collect eggs and slop the hogs.
Because this activity was foisted upon us during the summer, it was less serious and more disruptive. Even as a child, I believed that vacations are for doing as little as possible. Instead, we had to do work against the backdrop of my grandmother’s carping about us not doing the chores well enough to meet her standards. Even if we met her demands, she barely noticed, as she didn’t expect much from us “city” kids. The real truth is that we lived in a large town. We just weren’t “country” kids and we were there under duress doing chores that were interesting but messy. We just wanted to go about the business of vacation.
Taking care of chickens can be particularly time consuming. And the return is rarely worth the cost in terms of feed and time. Though my partner and I sell the eggs, the chickens are as much pets as the dogs and cat. Several are far too old to lay, but we take care of them nevertheless. They will be with us until they die.
Our Buff Orpingtons, Rhode Island Reds, Barred Rocks, and a Black Austrolorp supply us with fresh eggs and a routine that keeps me cognizant life’s cycles. I could watch them for hours, as they peck and poke and scratch at the ground and – sometimes – each other. Hens are busy birds: They rarely stop moving except to lay, roost, or sun themselves after dusting. They maintain this level of activity even during winter, though it is difficult with snow on the ground.
Feeding chickens on snowshoe
Caring for the chickens takes on an edge of seriousness during the winter.
The water to the unheated barn is turned off to prevent the pipes from freezing. So each morning my partner or I carry water across a busy road, sometimes waiting several minutes for a break in traffic. This winter, the trip often required wearing snowshoes or slogging through knee-deep drifts, a slow trek across several yards of sloped and rocky ground.
I am infinitely amazed at how uneven the landscape is in this part of Vermont. On our property, just when you think you’ve got a good clip going, you suddenly slip on a rock. There are always plenty lurking beneath the grass or snow. Around our barn also are bricks and chunks of foundations from old farm buildings, as well as gravel sprayed onto the land by the town’s snow plow, little pebbles that snow, ice, and footsteps pack into the ground.
After fording drifts, and sliding across a ledge – the foundation of the old barn that burned down many years before we owned the property – you finally reach the yard in front of the barn, which is covered in ice because melted snow pooled and froze in the barn’s shadow. Grippers are required to keep from sliding along the final sloped feet to the barn door. Piles of snow have blown in through the cracks.
Getting to the barn to take care of the chickens is always an adventure in winter.
Summer days less lazy
Our chickens love the outdoors and they are indulged with shoveled paths lain with straw allowing them to sun and peck as long as the cold and wind aren’t too bitter. This winter, they’ve spent more time indoors than any winter before, what with the record snowfalls. In late March the snow was so deep that the door to the barnyard was blocked first by drifts, then by ice. My partner spent hours chopping and shoveling so we could give the chickens access to the barnyard.
Shoveling manure and brushing cobwebs and putting down fresh nesting materials have to be done no matter how cold it is or how busy we are. When the weather is hot and we want to loll in the sun, summer laziness must be planned around our hens’ needs. We are committed to the work we’ve created for ourselves.
I get a pang of empathy for my grandmother when I think about the relentlessness of the day-to-day dealings of keeping animals alive. How burdened she must have felt to have extra mouths to feed, children to look after, little help from us, lots of grumbling, and a farm to run while my grandfather worked a job to supplement their income.
A part of the Universe like a ripple in the lake
Some days I grumble but I still have to trek across the road with vegetable scraps and water or if I notice that the pen is scuzzy. On a spring snow day, I don’t mind the chores because the sun is brilliant on the sparkling white crunchy surfaces. I take the time to inhale the cold air. I notice the colors of our multi-breed flock, how fluffy the Rhode Island Red looks, how golden the Buff. I am bolstered by caffeine. (There is nothing more uplifting than sunshine except sunshine and coffee). But it is not just that. I feel part of the Universe, connected to the earth, the animals, and the sun, like a ripple in a lake.
When disasters strike, I wonder about the chickens and hogs and cattle and dogs and cats and other animals we humans accumulate for work and pleasure. When we humans can’t take care of ourselves, sometimes our animals die. When we have no place to live, our animals become homeless, too. They often do not survive without us. It isn’t right. It just is.
I begin my day by feeding my terriers, my cat, and my chickens because they cannot do it themselves. This routine reminds me of cycles that I sometimes would rather not remember.
Several times, predators have attacked our chickens. Perhaps coyotes found a source of food and kept coming to pick them off. We never saw them, though they are very prevalent around here.
We thought at one time that a weasel was the culprit. A have-a-heart trap went empty for several days, finally capturing a baby skunk. All we know is that our hens’ ravaged bodies – sometimes headless, sometimes disemboweled and plucked – were found in the fields or so close to the pen that it is sad to note how close to safety they were before they died.
Sometimes the hens just die.
It’s hard not knowing why they’ve died. Death is a puzzle we are not intended to solve. It comes at surprising times. It is inconvenient. Even though we know it must happen, we are never prepared for it. Regardless of death’s imminent arrival, we must feed and water animals and ourselves. The routine continues until it isn’t needed anymore.
The beauty of caring for our chickens is that they help me to appreciate Life’s finiteness and fullness. I am in and of this earth. Our routine together is the routine of Life.
We may publish any content, comments or ideas sent to us.
Name may be withheld by request.
© 2011, The Magazine of Yoga, LLC.