Life Lessons Learned from my Chickens
By Cam Mather
There was a great movie made in 1979 with Shirley MacLaine and Peter Sellers called “Being There.” It’s about a simple gardener who has never left the estate where he has worked his whole life, until his employer dies. Through a number of weird coincidences he manages to ingratiate himself to powerful people, who mistake him for a profoundly brilliant sage, even though he has the mental capacity of child. At one point he has a conversation with the President of the United States, which goes like this;
President “Bobby”: Mr. Gardner, do you agree with Ben, or do you think that we can stimulate growth through temporary incentives?
Chance the Gardener: As long as the roots are not severed, all is well. And all will be well in the garden.
His utterances become legendary and he is quoted far and wide.
It was a brilliant concept – funny and terrifying. I, of course, took great offence with a gardener being depicted as a very simple person… okay, I didn’t.
Extrapolating from this concept of simple creatures sometimes having great wisdom to impart, I have been watching and learning a lot from our chickens. As Michelle and I have become more comfortable with them spending more time outside of the confines of their wire enclosure, we’re getting a much better sense of their personalities.
I am hoping this blog will be posted by others, will become an internet sensation, will go viral, and in a few short weeks I will be a key advisor to both Canadian Prime Minister Harper and President Obama. When the call comes, I will be ready and willing to impart my “chickenisms” to any one in high places.
Lessons I Have Learned From My Chickens
By Cam Mather, Tamworth, Ontario, © October 14, 2011. All rights reserved. Copying and redistribution in whole or in part is highly encouraged as long as you tell the people who wrote it. That being me, Cam Mather.
Lesson #1 Slow and Steady is the Strategy
Our chickens go at a steady pace all day. And it really is all day, from the minute they charge out of the coop in the morning, to when they put themselves to bed at dusk, they go at the same pace all day. In the tortoise and hare analogy I have always been a “rabbit” who starts off strong, and burns out gloriously in the afternoon.
This has usually meant a lot of flailing and inefficient use of muscles and energy. When the chickens are around me I have to slow down, especially when I’m in the garden. If I’m hoeing or digging potatoes they are always at my feet. A few years ago this would have been a disaster waiting to happen. Now I am much more slow and methodical about my movements to avoid stepping on one of them, and I swear I’m finding it’s improving my stamina. To me it kind of feels like Tai Chi, and I go from “Crouching Dragon” to pick up the shovel to “Downward Setting Sun” to dig a row. The chickens figured this out when they were dinosaurs, which they evolved from, and it’s still in their DNA.
Lesson #2 Loyalty Counts
Our chickens are incredibly loyal. Once they leave the chicken corral, they will stick with you. Right now the coop is a long way from the garden, but since the garden is fenced, it’s a good place for me to take them for a change of pace. I can walk the 200 yards and they will be right at my feet, keeping pace, watching my every move. I appreciate the loyalty. They, of course, are staying close to me because they figure I’m taking them to a place ripe with grasshoppers and lunch, but for someone like me who is “friend challenged,” I like the attention. I am returning the favor and watching out for my chickens. The fox will have to take a bite out of me before I’ll let it get to my chickens. And I will try to be a more loyal friend to these wonderful chickens who provide me with such wonderful eggs.
Lesson #3 It’s Best to Work as a Team
I’ve always been a bit of a lone wolf. From cycling around suburbia twenty years ago, to eating a non-traditional plant-based diet, to home schooling my kids, to moving off the grid 4 miles from my nearest neighbor … I have always been marching to my own drum beat, and that often means going solo. But when we walk around the yard the chickens have figured out it works best when they all work together. Right now the yard is a mass of grasshoppers. As we walk about the chickens spread themselves out about 2 feet apart, looking like one of those police search lines when they’re scouring a field for evidence. We walk just far enough to flush out the grasshoppers that can then be hunted down by one of the grasshopper termination crew. The “Grasshopperinator” quickly returns to the line. It’s kind of like how geese have figured out that by flying in “V” shape each goose is creating lift for the one behind it.
The chickens have developed this system on their own, but it works. I’m going to have to learn to work better as a team. This is the survivalist’s mantra. The more people on the homestead, the safer you are. I use this quote in my workshops… “Belong to a big family. If you don’t, marry into one.”
Lesson #4 Shake Off The Punches
Michelle loves animals and I love Michelle. I like the chickens, but because Michelle is so fond of them, I am incredibly careful around them. It can be a pain in the butt when they are determined to be on the shovelful of dirt as I dig sweet potatoes, but they want to be the first to spot and grab a grub. I have learned to work very slowly and carefully around them. I have only made two mistakes. Once, I stepped back on to one of Flora’s feet. When she screeched I froze and didn’t clue in to get off of it for a few seconds. Once her foot was free, Flora jumped aside and went back to the loose soil where I was digging to hunt for grubs. It didn’t seem to faze her a bit. And she apparently didn’t hold it against me either, which is kind of nice.. And loyal… see Lesson #2.
Shortly afterwards I was pulling the vines off another row of sweet potatoes and as I put the hoe back to grab another bunch of vines, it grazed Penny’s head. Very gently. Honestly! She did that thing that dogs do. She looked dazed for a second, shook her head violently and then got right back into the undergrowth looking for bugs. It was pretty cute. For a minute there she looked like a prizefighter that had just been punched, but she got right back in to the ring.
Michelle’s breast cancer last fall was a major punch in the face, but I think we’ve pretty much shaken it off and are back in the ring. Chickens have got this figured out. Don’t let a temporary setback keep you from being the first into the freshly dug soil around potatoes.
Lesson #5 Sometimes the good stuff is buried where you can’t see it
Chickens love to dig. They love to unearth bugs because they love to eat bugs, and the best place to find them is just under the surface of the soil. I think if we were chickens, most humans would look at the soil and think, I hope a grasshopper hops by, because that’ll be easy. But chickens don’t wait for grasshoppers, as much as they love them, they go out and find grubs and worms and potato bugs and all sorts of other hidden treasures. When I’m loosening the soil and digging up potatoes, the chickens can’t get their heads in the holes fast enough to look for lunch.
When our book sales tanked with the economic collapse I was kind of waiting for something easy to hop on by. It didn’t. But we had these gardens that were growing more food than we could use each year, and we had this great guesthouse we always said we should turn into a renewable energy retreat, but never did. Now that we’re selling vegetables at the farm stand and running a B&B at the house, I think we’re finally “Thinking like a chicken.”
Lesson #6 Just ‘cuz your wings don’t work, it doesn’t mean you can’t move pretty darn fast anyway.
Even though this sounds like a hokey Hollywood movie theme with Richard Gere carrying Debra Winger out of some factory, I think the chickens live this everyday.
Our chickens can’t seem to fly. If they could I would have thought they would have made the great escape from their fenced-in enclosure by now. It’s not that high. It always seems weird to me for a bird to have wings, but still have to walk everywhere because they can’t fly. But every once in a while when we’re out walking the grounds one will become separated from the pack. She’ll suddenly realize this and make a huge racket and flap her wings and make a running start like she’s ready to take off but never get airborne. But man can she move! Kind of like a defensive lineman when he recovers a fumble close to the goal line. It isn’t pretty, but there is no number of offensive running backs going to climb on his back and stop him from scoring a touchdown.
I fantasize about being a real farmer. I have 150 acres so what’s holding me back? Well, my land is mostly trees and ponds and soil that is marginal at best. This should be debilitating, but I’ve decided to be the best market gardener I can be anyway. I’m going to squeeze more healthy, organic vegetables out of a one-acre garden than anyone could imagine. I’ll never need that half million dollar combine, but I will use what I’ve got to the best of my ability. I shall celebrate my limitations, just like my chickens.
This will be available shortly as a podcast called “Tuesdays with Chickens”, as an eBook called “A Million Little Chickens” and a Tweet “Grasshopper Soup for the Chicken Soul.” I am currently working on a screenplay version called “Chickenman,” and am in collaboration with U2 for a Broadway musical version called “The Book of Chicken.”