"Where's Papa going with that ax?"
-- E.B. White, Charlotte's Web
I blame the whole thing on Michael Pollan. Everything. Every single bit of sordid drama that has played out in our back yard over the past three and a half years, involving certain feathered, egg-laying creatures that -- alas for us! -- have names.
You see, when Tim and I read The Omnivore's Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals we became convinced of our need to know where at least some of our food comes from. While our small patch of land within city limits could not sustain a herd of grass-fed cows, or even a decent crop of corn, we could do backyard chickens. And so we did.
"We are NOT going to give these chickens names," The Professor warned the children on the way to buy our first crew. Five minutes after they left the feed store, he called to report sheepishly that they were bringing home Feather, Chirp, Cluck, and Kiki.
Over the years, we've had our share of possums, egg-eating snakes, midnight forays with the pitchfork or pellet gun, chick-coddling, chasing runaways through neighbors' yards, etc. Also, lots of eggs.
We never quite knew what our pets' life expectancy would be, because really, when do chickens ever live to old age? Recently, it became clear that Madelyn was ailing. The Professor consulted the wisdom of the backyard poultry list. "Put her out of her misery," the group advised. I looked at him like a gimlet-eyed martinet. "I do NOT want to know about it," I declared very sternly.
I can be very firm that way.
He tried, one morning. (By this time, Madelyn was in the isolation pen, poor girl.) But he made the mistake of looking her in the eye before ... uh, before the deed was done. Attempt aborted.
We could hear Crystal, the hen we purchased at the same time as Madelyn (about 3 years ago), caterwauling away in the larger pen. Clearly, she was heartbroken at the separation from her bosom friend.
Either that, or -- more probably -- she's just a vocal chicken with big needs. But still.
Two days ago, Madelyn spent the day motionless, eyes closed, breathing oh-so-slowly. We brought her food, clean water, the Rolling Stones on her iPod -- anything to jazz her up a bit. All in vain.
The next morning, the Professor woke me with the news that he had just buried Madelyn. "You said you didn't want to know any details," he reminded me. So, I don't know. Did he use the meat cleaver? The axe? An overdose of Tylenol? Did he get Sayid to do it for him? Ignorant I am, and ignorant shall I remain.
They say that kids who grow up in a farm have a more matter-of-fact relationship with all aspects of nature, including the facts of life and death. Apparently, we have a little outpost of all that right here in our little urban patch of green earth. When we say we want our kids to love and appreciate nature, I guess we tend to think romantically of children chasing butterflies or studying leaves under the microscope. But a relationship with the natural world encompasses far more, including the poignant lessons that caring for smaller creatures also means accepting their loss.
I think Mr. Pollan may have given us a bit more than we bargained for.