Poor Little Hearts?

What does a gardener do with aging chickens?

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ILLUSTRATIONS BY BLANCHE DERBY

Humans have used, loved, and exploited chickens for a very long time. Originally jungle fowl from Indochina, they were probably domesticated about 2,000 B.C. The Greeks and Romans not only ate eggs and chickens but also used them for cockfighting and augury. The way chickens behaved was believed to predict the future—with results, it might seem, no less reliable than our own computer polls. As for being loved, a 16th century Italian naturalist called Ulisse Aldonvandri wrote that his pet hen “would not go to sleep at night anywhere except near me and my books.”

Most of my life I remember having chickens. When I was a child during World War II, every family was urged to grow vegetables and keep chickens. I remember my grandmother boiling vegetable scraps and bran for the hens. We always had eggs, which were kept through the winter in a solution of isinglass. (Hens naturally lay eggs only when the days are long, so unless duped with lights, they rest in winter.)

My father kept chickens almost until he died at nearly 90. He maintained that he couldn’t have controlled his yard without them. He had a series of wire barriers that he moved to wherever he wanted weeds kept down. After the chickens were done, the earth was bare, scratched as if raked—and manured for the deep-rooted plants left behind.

Nancy Luce had elaborate tombstones carved for her hens, and wanted to be buried beside them.

My father was fond of his hens. Indeed, I would hear him talking to them as he closed them in at night. But he never gave them names. As we all know, to name something is to create a special bond between it and you. My father did, however, “cull” his hens when their laying potential ceased. I think he had someone do the deed for him—a vegetarian, he hated to kill even wasps and flies, preferring to capture them under a glass and carry them outside.

Our own hens are old. In human years they are about five, which is really as long as most hens are expected to live—but most hens aren’t allowed to live that long anyway. They are born with a limited amount of eggs in their oviducts, and after about four years lay less and less. Most farmers replace them after a year or two. As I say, our hens are old—and we ourselves are getting older. There was a time when we culled them, but as we age, the fragility, the beauty, and the brevity of life makes it harder to annihilate any life—and I confess, willy nilly, I mostly grow cabbages for caterpillars! So especially in winter, we buy eggs as well as hen food.

Even so, I can’t help wondering how long this is going to go on. Our hens, secure in a kind of Luxurious Retirement Home for Privileged Poultry, run trustingly towards me whenever I approach. They know that grain, not euthanasia, is what I bring. Their bright red combs and golden feathers bring to mind the Red Hat Club—a group founded for elderly women as a statement that they are having well-deserved fun! Occasionally, as a reminder of their industrious youth, our hens will produce an egg or two. When they do, we feel we should personally thank them. I am more tactfully quiet, though, about the wonderful manure they produce—this, of course, enables me to grow the most luscious cabbages a hatching butterfly has ever encountered. Incidentally, the fact that the manure and egg come out of the same orifice (the cloaca) of hens makes some cultures eschew eating eggs.

“Poor Little Hearts:” A Brief Except

Three her last days and nights,
She breathed the breath of life here on earth,
She was taken down very sick, then I was up all night long,
The second night I was up till I was going to fall,
Then I fixed her in her box warm, close by the fire,
Put warm clothes under, over and around,
And left fire burning and lay down, with all my clothes on,
A very little while, and got up and up all the time.
The third night I touched no bed at all,
Poor little heart, she was struck with death at half past eleven o’clock.
She died in my arms at twelve o’clock at night, O heart rending!
I could been heard to the road, from that time till daylight,
No tongue could express my misery of mind.
She had more than common wit,
And more than common love,
Her heart was full of love for me,
O do consider my Poor little heart.

How long is this luxurious facility to continue? I like my hens, but eggs are nice, too. I thought it wouldn’t be long, and they’d begin to die on their own. Then one did, so we replaced her with a young hen from the farm up the road—with disastrous consequences. She was so bullied by the older hens that she soon died. It seems that hens don’t share my (sentimental?) sanctity for life.

Anyway, I had figured that this situation would surely change quite soon, and any day now all the old girls would be called to their maker. But that was before I read the poems of Nancy Luce.

Nancy Luce lived on Martha’s Vineyard from 1814 to 1890. She was known there as the Chicken Lady and became famous for the poetry she wrote—to her hens! “Poor Little Hearts,” a poem she published privately, is 16 pages of lamentation for two of her favorite chickens. Apparently it caught the imagination of her con-temporaries, and a visit to her house (where she subsisted on her home-reared milk and vegetables) was a popular stop for tourists.

The hens memorialized in “Poor Little Hearts” were called Ada Queetie and Beauty Linna. Nancy Luce named all her hens, following the progress of each one with incredible care and tenderness. They were her only family. Of Ada Queetie, she wrote, “Her heart and mine was united/Love and feelings deeply rooted for each other.” But here’s where my attention was caught: Ada Queetie was 12 years old when she died, and Beauty Linna was 9!

Nancy Luce had two elaborate tombstones carved for her hens, and she wanted to be buried beside them—though she herself didn’t die for another 30 years. This means, though, that our hens could potentially live another seven years. I’m not that young myself. Will I be buying hen feed into dotage? What should I do?

We gardeners are constantly challenged by questions of balance. Those who buy all their eggs, meat, and vegetables in a supermarket are spared the dilemma of how much we rule nature and how much nature rules us. Do we gardeners shoot the rabbit or groundhog ravaging our vegetables? Do we spare the caterpillars and buy cabbage from Mexico? How are we to love the earth and ourselves, too?

I can’t answer these questions. Maybe others can, but mean-while philosophizing will have to wait. For it’s time for me to feed the hens—and wish my fellow gardeners a happy and prosperous spring!


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