zen and the art of keeping chickens

Over the past few weeks we have been raising up our first flock of chickens. The little balls of fluff that arrived in a cardboard box at the Palmetto Post Office on a cold Sunday afternoon (the postal worker told me I had to come get them before 4:30 because she had a cake in the oven and had to get home to take it out–- how much do I love living in a rural community?!) and just last weekend we moved them out of the brooder house (i.e. garage) and into their permanent portable chicken house out in the pasture. They have just exited their awkward semi-feathered stage and are entering full-blown pullet-hood.

These birds are so much fun. I've spent an unusually large amount of time just watching them. I can watch them for hours, given the chance. I find myself saving chicken-related farm chores for the very end of the day so I can take my time with them and just watch them. It's hard to describe the mesmerizing effect they have on me. It's not that they're doing anything particularly interesting, I mean, they're chickens, not The Bourne Identity, and yet somehow, I find them just as riveting. So when I came across this article by Peter Lennox titled Pecking Order at the Times Higher Education website, I began to understand their hypnotic power over me. Lennox writes,

Watching chickens is a very old human pastime, and the forerunner of psychology, sociology and management theory. Sometimes understanding yourself can be made easier by projection on to others. Watching chickens helps us understand human motivations and interactions, which is doubtless why so many words and phrases in common parlance are redolent of the hen yard: "pecking order", "cockiness", "ruffling somebody's feathers", "taking somebody under your wing", "fussing like a mother hen", "strutting", a "bantamweight fighter", "clipping someone's wings", "beady eyes", "chicks", "to crow", "to flock", "get in a flap", "coming home to roost", "don't count your chickens before they're hatched", "nest eggs" and "preening".

It's really, really true. There is something about watching these feathery creatures that clarifies the human condition. These birds elicit a zen-like inner calm. It's as if the chicken, a creature so utterly and helplessly in-the-moment, transfers a part of its most central nature to its watcher; this central nature, is bound up in the fact that,

Humans got the mental wherewithal to try to control everything; the chicken's future rested on being tasty. Chickens are thus relieved of an enormous responsibility, making their lives simpler. They don't have to organise the whole world, or attend meetings to discuss policies "going forward"; they don't have to invent the future continually - it just comes when it comes.

It is therefore a serious relief to watch chickens. They serve to remind me that the great responsibility of "inventing the future", which is precisely the thing I am finding myself constantly engaged in as I build this farm, is all a bit silly. The "I'm running a business here" mentality I have been know to affect melts away in the chicken house as does (quite blissfully) the time I could be spending doing other things. When I watch them, I am learning, among other things,

competition without co-operation is nonsense; you can't win by simply eradicating all the opposition - that's a pyrrhic victory. In life, winning really isn't everything - it isn't even anything. Taking part is all.

Reward and risk go hand in hand. The top cockerel has to take the biggest share of both. A flock can manage without a cockerel, but a cockerel without a flock is nothing.

A flock can keep you warm, inform you about dangers and advantages, and provide you with companionship; but you have to work at it.

Everyone should have a place in the pecking order. Strive for your place in life, not someone else's. Someone else's bread isn't necessarily tastier than your own. Envy will cost you dearly.

Don't let "flock-think" smother your own opinions; give yourself space to be an individual. Common sense is useful, but it's not always right. The society you're in may prompt you to behave badly, but only you can change that.

I can't wait to start entertaining requests for hosting corporate retreats at the farm with required chicken watching. . . Go read the article and start spending time with chickens. It's good for you and it's good for business. And of course, in the meantime,, you can enjoy watching them here: