Schmaltz

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A few nights ago, some critter got our chickens.  The coop latches had been chewed off, the door pulled down. 

Bobcats are neat and artistic in their massacres. Coyotes: they take everything.   But here, two Buff Orpingtons lay dead in an area of matted grass and strewn feathers. A third bird was gone entirely.  So probably a raccoon which kills for the killing sake.

I grabbed the two dead hens and carried them into the kitchen. Years ago, a neighbor had killed an orphaned raven that I’d been raising.  I was away at the time and the house sitter had buried the bird carcass in the desert. A dear friend – an omnivore woodsman from rural Maine – lamented that “it was a terrible waste of perfectly good protein.”

So, that evening I go about the dirty business.  I set a pot of water on the stove on a medium heat.  I dunk the birds in the water. Again and again. And again until the feather’s slip from the flesh as if from butter.

I strip all the down from the body, revealing the teeth marks and contusions. The birds had been savaged until their necks had snapped.

I severed the heads with a cleaver and then incised the rumps and reached in and removed the gray feces filled intestines, the ruby heart and livers wedded in deep yellow orbs of fat. It smelled distasteful and putrid.  

The gathered fat, an unearthly gold, was a different matter.  I would render it slowly at low temperature into that delicacy which generations of itinerant and dispossessed would call “schmaltz” — the ignominious word for that crucial ingredient in chicken soup that may perhaps make you well, and that thing that lends the crisp to latkes.  It’s that thing that can only be extracted from a bird that has known a real life; that thing which at the very least gives meaning to death.  

These sentient creatures loved to explore our home and sit on our porch.  What more can I do than to ensure that their being will in some way become a part of me and that it will matter?

 

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Chickens

Have we talked about chickens?

Let’s talk about them.

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This is little white chicken. We don’t really have a name for her, so that’s what we call her. She’s also the sole survivor.

She started in a brood of five. All of her siblings were taken out by other animals. She was joined by a black Austrolope who was taken out as well. And then later we added three Bardrocks, all gone. She’s basically an Auschwitz survivor.

I’m writing about her because four weeks ago she took to roosting on the front porch. Up until then she was totally happy roosting in her coop. For two years, at dusk each night she’s gone in there and put herself to bed. It was fine. But four weeks ago her last sister was taken out by a dog right next to the coop. Ever since then, she’s been afraid to go to sleep in her customary home. So instead, at dusk, she goes up on the porch and puts herself to bed on the railing where it’s much more safe.

Let’s think this one through. She’s a chicken. But she prefers this to that. Even more fundamental, she can discern this from that. That means she has discernment. And she has preferences. Preferences and discernment define sentience. She is aware.

Furthermore, she doesn’t go near her old home because she associates it with the death of her sister (she was besides herself the morning it happened). She had an emotional response. A bunch of neurochemicals kicked off inside her. It doesn’t matter whether those neurochemicals expressed fear or sadness or anxiety. She felt something and associated that feeling with an event. She has chosen to sleep somewhere else because she will be safer. She feels and she is self-aware.

On Tuesday morning, I heard her going nuts in her coop.  I looked out the window and saw the two dogs that killed her sister running about maybe 600 feet distant. They were hardly visible, let alone a threat.  But she appeared to remember.

Each day she goes over to play with the chickens next door. She prefers this. Then she comes back with them to have a little party at our house. They eat and scratch through the compost pile. She prefers to be with other chickens. She craves the social interaction. She is a social animal who finds pleasure or safety or satisfaction in being with another living creature similar to herself.

In the evening the chickens return to their respective homes and put themselves to bed. And it begins all over again the next day.

Granted, she would have a hard time building a rocket ship. But then again, so would most human beings.

When can we stop privileging ourselves over others?