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By Joanna Lucas, Peaceful Prairie Sanctuary
It's like the pitter-patter of rain, the sound of their small feet rhythmically tapping, patting, stamping the ground, stirring up dirt in their enthusiastic rush to greet you and follow you around -- a soothing, rustling, living sound. They follow you excitedly, flapping their wings, fluffing their feathers, craning their necks the better to behold you.
If you stop, they stop too and, with them, the sound. They surround you in expectant silence, their befeathered selves all aflutter with curiosity and excitement, billowing around you like a cloud -- a radiant cloud of waking minds, throbbing hearts, hankering souls, living memories, passionately lived lives -- riveting you at the center of their focused attention, lifted on almost tiptoes by the sheer force of their fascination with this new, rich feast of scents, sounds, shapes, colors, textures, thoughts, rhythms, and inner weather that you are to them.
It's hard to believe that these vibrant birds, crackling with life and wonder, are the same "free-range" hens who arrived at the sanctuary a year ago, bruised, battered, bewildered, disconnected from the world around them and from their own selves, unable or unwilling to inhabit their own lives (what was there to inhabit?)
Yet here they are today, fully present and fully immersed in the lives they managed to reclaim, restore, and rebuild from nothing, the absolute nothing to which we reduce persons like them for a handful of eggs. Here they are today, fully engaged in living, playing, exploring, learning new skills, solving problems, tackling the daily challenges of living, enjoying the fruits of their efforts and finding them good. To our relentless attack on life, they responded with life; to our dimwitted view of life, they responded with intelligence, to our contempt for life, they responded with wonder. Each in her own way.
After the first flush of excitement, the flock scatters and they all go back to their usual activities in the barn, in the far reaches of the yard, in the nests and perches and straw bales and wheelbarrows. But Blaze sticks around.
She looks into your bags, pecks at your jeans, pulls at your shoe laces. If you sit on the ground, she is right there, inches away from your face, walking across your lap, inspecting the photo lens, the knobs, the flash, the shoulder strap, posing unflinchingly for the camera -- bright eyed, broad chested, chin thrust forward, comb reddened scarlet -- clucking back at the shutter as it rattles back its metallic clicks.
She examines you at such claustrophobic close range, that she is almost impossible to photograph.
She walks under and around the camcorder tripod, checking its legs, its buckles, its dangling chords, looking straight into the viewfinder with directorial authority, pecking at the Record button (and once or twice actually pausing it).
She beholds you (and everything about you -- your clothes, your stuff, your toys, your cameras, your equipment) the way she beholds everything else in her world: with interest, curiosity, excitement, pleasure, sometimes wonder, sometimes annoyance, or impatience, or displeasure, or suspicion, but always with rapt attention.
Everything interests her. She is the first to dart out of the barn in the morning, bursting out the door the second it opens, aimed at the new day like a missile, avid for all the sights, tastes, sounds, experiences of living.
She is constantly pulled by the splendor of the world, or rather, the mundane world in all its infinite nuances, which she finds splendid. It pulls her past caution, past comfort, past self preservation, straight into the unpredictable open where something new presents itself every living minute to be investigated, to lend its rich nourishment to Blaze's avid mind and intoxicate her with its novelty. She lives always in the singular, blazing, effervescent throb of the moment, in the thick of life, in the mud-straw-spit-grit-gold of the messy moment, mired in it, literally covered in it.
She was the first of the flightless 100 to spread her scraggly wings and try to fly. She backed all the way up to the farthest fence and started running full speed, as fast as her brittle legs could carry her and, before she reached the end of the "runway", she managed to lift herself off the ground for a couple of ground-free feet and a couple of exhilarating, gravity-free seconds.
Soon, others followed suit and began practicing flight on "Blaze's Trail", running and flapping their wings, and trying to lift off, and almost succeeding, then falling to the ground, and repeating the running, the attempted takeoff, the brief liftoff, savoring the fleeting intoxication of flight despite the inevitable and repeated crashings. From a distance, all you saw was a massive agitation of white feathers roiling about blizzard-like, with clouds of white dawn flying, floating, and filling the sky like snow.
Today, most of them have accepted the limitations of their flightless wings but Blaze has not. She still tries to fly, hurting herself in the process. It's impossible not to admire her determination. It's also impossible not to wish she'd stop her futile, bruising effort, or not to realize she never will. The longer you know Blaze, the more you realize that the pursuit of flight is not a game, or a "project", or a phase in her adjustment to her new life. It's who she is.
Blaze is fascinated by things she can't have, things she cannot get to, things she's never seen or known in her life. Like flight, which she feels swelling within her own body as a powerful urge to spread her wings and lift off, the flight which she never stops trying to initiate, which she sometimes attains briefly, which she repeatedly fails to sustain. Like the wild world on the other side of the protective fence, the endless prairie with all its wonders and perils, which she keeps trying to get to by working relentlessly to lift herself higher and higher off the ground to get past the fence and find herself in the midst of the big, bad, dazzling world. Or like the call of the vertical stretch of sky above, the endless reach of sky calling on the other side of her earthbound wings.
She sees what others don't, what is not there at all but is imprinted in her soul and is felt as a yearning to fly, or as a hankering for the wild world on the other side of the fence, or as an ache for the rapture of the limitless sky. And she not only has the ability to "see" these invisible wonders, she has the boldness, the chutzpah, the moxie, the nerve, the gall, the temerity, the supreme self confidence to pursue them. And the determination to will them into being.
By contrast, Edith and Pillar see, love, want, and seek to have what is immediately within their reach -- the good, small, tangible things of their daily existence. The things they can see and taste and touch and keep.
Of all of the pathetic hens rescued from that "free-range" egg farm, Edith and Pillar were the most pathetic. Pillar was so hunched over that she seemed collapsed within herself -- breastbone and pelvis almost touching, as though compressed by opposing forces, backbone derailed from its long, horizontal slope into a short, vertical slump that forced her featherless tail to point down in a permanent gesture of defeat. She hardly moved at all. She stood in one place, bent to the earth, as if crushed under the weight of an invisible burden, but looking around with a dreamy expression that made her seem oddly disconnected from the painful reality of her wrecked body.
Edith fared no better. Her skeletal body was completely bald except for the spikes of a few tattered feathers stuck to her wings and tail as though glued in a cruel joke, in a mockery of wings. For the first two days, she ran around in a manic frenzy -- not eating, not drinking, not resting -- just darting around as if desperately trying to escape the attacks of an invisible foe. Eventually, she collapsed, exhausted, and we brought her in for treatment along with Pillar.
At first they were so weak, so feeble, so unresponsive, that there were times when the only visible sign of life was the faint fluttering of their hearts beating in unison under the skin of their featherless chests. It took them two whole weeks to gain enough strength to eat and drink on their own. And two more weeks before they felt strong enough to leave their pen. But, even after they had completely recovered, they rarely ventured out into the large, open room. They preferred to stay tucked in their little corner, hidden inside their carrier, partly because they still felt too vulnerable to share the open space with other birds, partly because it's simply their natural inclination to watch from a distance and learn from the trials, errors and successes of others.
They kept to themselves in polite isolation from the other patients, except for the brief time in the morning when the others rushed out of the rehab room to join the hustle and bustle going on in the rest of the house and left the room empty. That's when they both came out in full celebration gear, puttering and clucking and busily scuttling around. Space! All to themselves! It was one of their high pleasures and they savored it every morning for the duration of their convalescence. It became a ritual, a thing to share, enjoy and and look forward to, and probably the tie that bonded them most.
Their connection may have began by chance, when they were separated from the rest of the flock and treated together in isolation, but it grew by choice and held by affinity. They have similar preferences, similar burdens, similar pleasures, similar aversions, similar fears, similar small, silly or serious questions (how do I get to that tasty morsel? how do I bathe in a water dish that's half my size? how do I make the pain in my crippled body go away?). They have similar temperaments that incline them to observe rather than participate, and that steer them towards quiet, secluded spaces and away from the comfort of big groups. If they do mingle with other hens, they seem to do it more for camouflage than connection.
Back in the big barn, the big yard, the big flock, they are still together, still inseparable. A flock of two. A distinct and separate culture within the culture of the larger flock.
You can see them watching from a distance and observing how others react to new things (a new resident, a new visitor, a new object) before deciding how, or if, to respond to that new thing themselves. It's how they learn, by, watching not by doing. They are observers. They detect patterns, they remember behaviors, they connect relevant dots and they figure out how to use what they know to obtain the things they want.
For instance, they have figured out how to secure the best sunbathing spots without ever fighting, bickering or competing with stronger, healthier chickens -- they simply watch and wait until a favorite spot becomes vacant for a few moments and then Edith, who is faster, rushes over and claims it while Pillar hobbles behind her in small, slow, stilted steps.
They have also figured out how to not only "steal" eggs -- that delicacy that chickens love and crave but are unable to crack open with their mutilated beak stumps -- but they have devised a way to break the shells and to keep the contents all to themselves. This is how they do it. It they spot a lone, stray egg, they wait till there are no other hens around and then, with Edith standing guard, Pillar, whose beak stump has healed into a sharper point, not a round blob like Edith's, pecks at the egg until she breaks the shell. Then they both enjoy the contents as quietly as possible so as not to alert the others.
But, most impressively, they worked out a way to get the one thing they love, seek, crave and enjoy above all: the empty barn all to themselves. They watched, observed, detected and remembered relevant patterns, they connected relevant dots, and they figured that, when certain visitors come, the whole flock is likely to rush to the gate leaving the barn completely deserted for a few precious minutes.
So, as the flock of 100 rushes to the gate, their flock of two rushes to the barn -- Edith running in long, rickety strides on her skinny legs, Pillar tottering behind on her short, stubby legs -- and they claim their prize, their moment of wonder, with absolute, vocally expressed delight.
There they are, just the two of them in the whole barn, puttering and clucking and busily scuttling around in the treasure trove of the empty place. A space filled with soaring possibilities, free of the challenges and limitations of a space shared with others. And, oh, the sheer joy of it! The sheer pleasure and play of it! No obstructions, nothing to watch out for, nothing be cautious of, no one to compete with (and lose), just the two of them expanding in the suddenly widened world.
There is no practical usefulness for it, only the wonder of it. Once there, they don't do anything different -- in fact, they do exactly the things they normally do (forage, eat, drink, scratch the dirt, cluck to each other, preen each other, dustbathe, doze off) -- only they do it with infinitely more zest -- as though their very senses and abilities are heightened: their movements are more precise (even graceful), their voices are stronger, their eyes are sharper, their finds are infinitely better: and they act as though the mere gravel tastes delicious, the daily grain is a rare delicacy, and treats like grapes and cucumbers are divine! Alone in the empty barn, they have the world all to themselves. But it's not just the world as they know it and struggle to live in. It's infinitely better, it's the world as they wish it, the world as two crippled hens like them, these two crippled hens, Edith and Pillar, want it and wish it to be.
And they find it delicious.
The only other soul "allowed" in the perfect, 15 minute world they create by their will, wit and work alone is Dora. She is not exactly "invited" but, if she happens to be there at the time, she is usually tucked in one of her cubby holes, and she inhabits it so gently, so quietly, that she hardly seems there at all.
She treads so lightly on the earth that she barely leaves a mark, barely moves a straw, barely ruffles a feather. No matter where she lies down, where she sleeps, what dirt she dust bathes in, what puddles she crosses, her feathers remain immaculate, untouched by dirt, dust, mud, spit, murky water, soggy straw. Her nest is always undisturbed as if no one ever sleeps in it.
In the months following her rescue, she coped by hiding in the most unlikely places, in the most unprotected shelters, in small nooks that barely covered her face while leaving the rest of her exposed, and she used to peck at phantom targets for hours, as if the repetition of behavior could obscure the happening world around her and reduce it to one controllable action. She rarely came out of the barn then and she still seldom comes out today.
Open spaces still frighten her and, to this day, she remains shy, melancholy and reclusive, attached to her solitary spots from where she does not watch and observe the goings on, the way Edith and Pillar avidly do, she just avoids the goings on altogether. She is focused on her own inner happenings, her own inner feelings and responses to outer events, not on the events themselves. She is aimed inward, alert to the rich world within not the roiling world without.
She avoids gatherings and chatterings and chasings and greetings, and she sunbathes alone in her secluded snugs even though the sun hits them only briefly every day. But she'd rather wait for the sun to come to her cloistered roosts than go out in the yard where it shines all day. Then she stretches herself in the straw, wings relaxed, comb flopped to one side, lids lowered, beak slightly parted, legs sticking up at such improbable angles that they look broken, and she soaks up the sun, and the dirt, and the grit, and the mud, and the whole messy bliss of the moment with earthy abandon.
Once in a great while, if you wait around long enough and sit quietly enough, she may come to you.
She won't exactly walk up to you. She'll sidle up to you obliquely, crossing the open space that separates you in small hurried scurries, running from hiding place to hiding place, from the nearest straw bale to the nearest box, to the water dish, to the ladder, to the wheelbarrow -- as if dodging sniper fire -- until she finally gets near the spot where you sit. There, she'll stop at a short distance, not making eye contact like the others, not even looking in your direction. Just standing there, waiting, swaying, listening as though for a signal from within.
Then, with a swift, gentle thrust, she'll ease her lowered head under your arm, keeping her body as far away from you as possible, safely out of your reach (by her calculations) but offering you her neck, her trust, her jugular, nestling her head under your arm as though under her own wing.
I don't know why she does this. I don't know why someone as shy and reclusive as Dora would leave her safe spots, the world that she can predict and control, to expose herself to the unpredictable hands of an ape.
But I know that, as she stands by me today, head tucked in my sleeve, body sticking out at an awkward angle, she is using the shield of my arm in the same way she used the shelter of those impossibly small nooks and crannies that masked her face while leaving the rest of her exposed -- not hiding her face, so much as separating her head from the painful reality of her frail body, not making herself invisible to the predatory world, so much as protecting the only place in the world where escape is possible for a defenseless being like herself. The dream-filled mind.
She dreams of her peaceful world, head snuggled under my arm, I dream of mine: a world where the wretched of the earth are free to live on their own terms -- not ours -- and die of their own failings -- not ours. But it's one and the same world -- the world we carry imprinted in our sentient souls. The world we all need, seek, crave, bruise ourselves struggling to build, ache to have and to hold, wither without. The world on the other side of the catastrophically unjust and unbalanced world that our species has created. We call it a vegan world. But it is not a new, separate, or special world. It is not a world apart. It's just the world. This world. Restored.
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