Here is another part of Trying Montana, the phantom book I never wrote about the time we spent living in the mountains.
The Day of the Chickens
I was on the telephone, trying to explain about the chickens and about life here in northwest Montana to my oldest friend, who lives in New Jersey. It was so highly philosophical and rarified a conversation that I called upon the words of other people in order to try to communicate the nature of what was happening around me every day as I learned more about animals, the land and the inside of my own head.
I told him to go read T.H. White. Not The Once and Future King, but his lesser-known autobiographical writings, England Have My Bones, and The Goshawk. White, who reinvented the most accessible Merlin I have ever come across, writes in Have My Bones about the fearsome danger of sameness, consistency and schedules: “Even sitting in the same chair can rot one’s soul. Decent men ought to break all their furniture every six months.”
The wonder of life here, I explained on the telephone to Charlie, who was listening in his inner-city Trenton apartment, is that there seems to be something absolutely new to learn everyday. That learning, whether it entails the erecting of a building or the stretching of a fence, is not without a price — either in sweat or humility.
If you live with eyes, heart and mind open you will constantly learn new things, but what I was speaking of here is elemental. And it has to do with land. Deeds and titles notwithstanding, we don’t own land, but are instead held in thrall by it.
In Goshawk, his journal of the training of a hawk, White discourses on the domestication of animals. An elephant, he observed, is tamed by catching it, tying its leg to a tree and starving it for a few days. After the enforced fast it is brought “the sprouts and tender stalks of its favorite plants …” When, at last, the elephant breaks down and eats, it is tamed, and training can begin.
Yet when it comes to a parcel of land, the task is more akin to the taming, or “manning” of a hawk, a process accomplished by enforced wakefulness by a human. It is done, White wrote, “with at least as much travail on the part of the human as on the part of the animal.”
I liked the word “travail,” I said, and although the hawk, hooded and jessed, I argued, is less free than before, so is the man.
Despite my best efforts in the highly literary conversation Charlie said he still had no interest in spending his vacation coming to Montana to help with the chickens.
The Day of the Chickens, as it was thereafter called, began early on a Sunday as I took my wife Dorrie, and Robbie, then 4, and William, then almost 2, to a small livestock flea market held at the North Valley Ag Center.
I own two cowboy hats, a summer, straw variety, and my felt Drifter, a hat of Australian extraction. I wore the Drifter, it being Sunday and livestock looking, even for the sole purpose of entertaining the boys, seemed as formal an affair as Montana had yet to offer. I put the checkbook in my pocket, prompting Dorrie’s raised eyebrow.
“I’m not going to buy any animals,” I said. “I know less about animals than anything else.” Her eyebrow rose higher.
We looked at rabbits in cages. We looked at clean, neat pigs, small ponies and excited goats of several varieties. The boys wanted one of each. I began to become fixated on the chickens, which were housed neatly behind the wire mesh of their wooden crates in the beds of several tired pick-up trucks.
I explained, with careful logic that came to me as I spoke, that chickens eat insects and other crawly things, can range about by themselves and give back eggs for the trouble.
“So why are they all for sale?” Dorrie asked.
We three men folk ignored her and headed inside to feast our eyes on sacks of feed, leather halters, salt blocks, veterinary supplies and gerbils. It was then that Robbie discovered the chicks, shelved by variety in a tall mesh cage that exuded yellow, and chirping.
Buff Orphington, Silver-Laced Wyandott and Barred Plymouth Rock babies vied for seed and the attention of my children. After the boys held baby chickens for the first time, I suddenly realized that chicks were less expensive than the grown-up variety. Chicks carried the added value of giving me time — as they grew to chickenhood — to learn all about chicken husbandry.
We decided to purchase a dozen babies, six to grow to eating size, and six as layers. The checkbook came out, and we were chicken farmers.
There ensued several days of frenetic coop building. There followed weeks of travail over whose job it was, exactly, to water and feed the poultry, which drank and ate in amounts entirely disproportionate to their ever-increasing size.
It wasn’t long before the owl that lives in a tree along our western fence line and the coyotes that frequent the area began their depredations. Several chicken funerals were solemnly enacted. Few parts were ever left for burial.
At one point, now down to seven chickens, I erred in earshot of the elder boy and said that it wouldn’t be long before we could eat one of our chickens. Faced with his tearful reaction — “But won’t their families miss them, Daddy?” — I was forced to hold a seminar on chicken biology.
I explained, as Dorrie hid laughter behind her hand, that there are three kinds of chickens. There are Father Chickens, called roosters. There are Mother Chickens, the hens that provide eggs — scrambled and fried for breakfast and hard-boiled for picnics. And there are Broilers, which may be killed and eaten because they have no brothers, sisters, or friends to be saddened by their passing. That chicken biology story has held so far, but I know that it will need an eventual sequel for when the boy is older.
The coyotes and owl continued their night-to-night work, and down to five chickens I began defending chicken ranching to my ever-practical wife.
She offered cost-benefit discussion about “those damn chickens, which I always end up feeding,” against the drive to the supermarket, including the cost of gas, to buy already-dead chickens, de-feathered, neatly portioned, and/or eggs, clean, white and packed in cardboard containers.
I slowly began to agree, fearful that she’d start in on fishing, and prove by financial analysis of hand-laid graphite fly rods, neoprene waders and husbands absent “all weekend,” that the trout and bass I was catching cost more per pound than caviar and champagne.
With never an egg laid, nor breast eaten, we were down to one hen, which although now wary of owl and coyote, seemed to enjoy teasing our dog. I did not protest when Dorrie gave the surviving chicken to Jim and Ima, friends more experienced in these matters. And now, on a fairly regular basis, they drop off fresh eggs.