Sitting on a Hen House

I’m walking down a worn-out path in a patch of dark green and shin-high grass, and a dozen hungry chickens are in hot pursuit on my very tail. Their busy wiggling and neurotic giggling wants to catch up with the heels of my feet, and the proud rooster keeps his feathery flock of egg laying maidens in good marching order, himself walking amongst them, proud, like a German general parading and raising his thorny feet before him to the heavy pulse of the Valkyrie. In my right hand dangles a small, white and worn-down plastic bucket, which contains the kitchen scraps of the day from the house we are presently residing in. Those leftovers from the habitual human wastefulness are about to be transformed into some very healthy and happy rounded packs of good animal protein. Man’s innate gift for domesticating the more docile members of the animal kingdom has once again landed a masterpiece of ingenuity here. With a good bit of extra feed and a section of land to roam about at their fancy of just under an acre, those dozen chickens lay anywhere from six to eight eggs every single day. I will tell you more about that in a minute. But first there is something else that needs to be explained. Or better: there are a string of questions before your minds eyes that are eagerly awaiting sensible answers.

How did all this come about? How is it that I find myself far away from our by now habitual life of sea steading and doing chores more fit for a farmer than for a sailor? And even more puzzling: what are you to do if your job description includes having to eat that quantity of high-quality animal protein every single day?

It’s all about relationships. You meet some new people, and immediately there is this spirited interaction we humans are drawn to quite obviously by our very nature. Curiosity reigns unbound and everybody sets out to establish his or her own comfortable version of the social picking order that permeates human relationships. You set out to test the waters and get an idea who your new acquaintances are. Are they friends or are they foes? Do they belong to the normal breed or are they of the extraordinary kind? Are they masters of their domain or slaves to their own destiny?

Most of the time it is wise to stick to small talk for the first ten minutes, so as to make a good favorable impression, or at least register in their minds as a worthy opponent. But don’t get caught in the insipid mechanics of that! Keep up your guards at all times and stay awake! You also know that if you can’t drive home a good strong point referring in one way or another to that bottomless pit of human conflict, and guide the collective mind to focus on the real problems we are facing, there will not be much meaning in pursuing the arduous task of building up of a friendship and the slippery slope of mediocrity will lure you down its slowly increasing incline.

Well in this particular case it turned out that the company seemed mutually agreeable and dates were set for future encounters of the socialite kind. Before we knew it things had escalated and we found ourselves involved in a serious conversation with a glass of room temperature Cabernet 2001 in our hands. We were dining at Janet’s lovely flower farm and pottery barn in the rolling hills of Maungatapere, a short drive southwest of Whangarei. We had met Janet up in Fiji, she sails six months out of the year the sweet waters of the tropical isles on her catamaran SV Calusa, and for the rest of it she grows exquisite flowers in her lichen-ornamented greenhouses. Also with us were Yvonne and Bruno from SV Momo. Christmas time was fast approaching and Yvonne and Bruno were going to housesit Janet’s farm while she was to be away down South, visiting family for the holidays. As it turned out during that spirited conversation, Janet’s daughter and her family were attending the same family festivities and therefore also in need of somebody looking after their home in West-Auckland while away. That suited us just fine and we volunteered for the position. Things fell in place smoothly and we even got a free ride down to the mighty metropolis by delivering a van there for some fellow sailors.

Here we were then, all of a sudden no longer worrying about the anchor holding, barnacles growing on the bottom, or sudden shifts in the wind. We were now responsible not only for the physical and spiritual well-being of the rooster’s harem, but also of two well-rounded cats named Tiger and Rascal, a rather productive veggie garden with cherry tomatoes, zucchini, silver beets, spring onions, herbs and more, an orchard ripe with plum and lemon trees, and an aquarium without any fish in it. Part of our list of chores was the stern duty to eat our way through whatever food was left in the fridge and the spacious freezer. We did our best to fulfill this requirement and our taste buds quickly got accustomed to all kinds of treats we haven’t set our eyes on for a good while, probably since we left the sweet comforts of civilization four and a half years ago.

So here I’ve finally made it to the small enclosure at the end of the section, without having my heels bloodied by picking chicken beaks. Inside this fenced area the frenzied feeding of the masses is supposed to happen. But life is never straightforward and it’s all because of the spoilers, who by their sheer existence defy our so well manicured sense of logic and orderliness. Had I just thrown the kitchen scraps and the purchased chicken feed into the feeding troughs and walked away, most of it would not have ended up in the domestic fowl’s digestive tracts, but it would have been gobbled up by the voracious beaks of a horde of wild ducks that also called the ample grassland of the property their home. They had come flying in from the surroundings and mingled with the chickens to pick up worms, insects and many other goodies from the lawn in just the same way the Chinese immigrants are flocking to the Land of the Long White Cloud and to the great despair of many a native Kiwi are driving real estate prices in certain areas of the metropolis up and through the roof. Nobody seems to have a well thought through solution for what to do with the Chinese, but for the duck problem the solution was simple. I put the scrap bucket down on the ground with an energetic shove and started to run around the yard like a screaming madman, swaying my arms around imitating a giant raptor ready to make piecemeal out of each and every one of the grown up ducklings. It was in fact quite a good workout regime, since once arriving at one end of the section, the first ducks have flown full circle around the neighboring properties and are landing again right at the entrance of the enclosure where the bounty is about to be presented to the chosen ones. My running therefore goes back and forth the entire length a good three or four times before a period of ducklessness of sufficient duration is established to proceed with the feeding of the chickens.

Finally and by now huffing and puffing I’m dumping the scraps into the feeding troughs and go into the little shed to complement the leftovers with a cup full each of corn kernels and wheat beads, plus a handful of ground seashells to help make the eggshells strong and firm. Once all that is in the trough too the avian excitement climbs to unprecedented levels. A drumroll of sounds from bony beaks hitting weathered wooden boards rises up from the ground accompanied by the expressive chatter of the hens and the slightly threatening screeching of the rooster. In between the gobbling, shuffling and heckling the tiny chicken heads turn their pair of round eyes up towards me with an empty stare. In spite of my deeply rooted longing for being appreciated for my nutritional deeds there is absolutely no trace of gratitude in their glances and the feeding continues with undiminished frenzy.  Once the bottom of the feeding trough reemerges the picking slows and one by one the chickens disperse emitting satiated blurbs of content.

The next step in the complicated procedure of chicken care is to collect the eggs. I life the lids that cover the boxes in which nests of straw have been prepared. There are three different places I need to check, remove the freshly laid eggs but leave the nest eggs behind. They are there simply to encourage the feathered friends to continue their productive habits of serving the human race with many more of their potential offspring.

Today we’re beating the record and a full eight eggs line the bottom of my bucket once I finished my rounds. By now the ducks have returned to the field and make it clear they do not underwrite to any concept of segregation. As soon as I leave the enclosure they all rush in and gobble up whatever there is left, right from under the busy beaks of the remaining dining chickens.

Omelets, soufflés, quiches, curds, scrambled, fried, hard-boiled, five minute, whipped and beaten, worked into cakes and cookies, whirled into soups and gravies, glazed over casseroles, sliced into salads, there’s really no end to this intense egg diet, and when they are fresh eggs from quite obviously happy chicken there is an avian vigor emanating from your frame of core muscles, which makes you want to spread your wings, take to the air and check out your neighborhood for new feeding grounds with sprawling worm beds and crunchy critters and crispy kernels.

Unfortunately, or maybe fortunately for our waste lines, our housesitting experiment with a prominent avian component came to a sudden halt once after two and a half weeks the owners had returned from their happy vacationing in their batch on the beach, and before we knew it we were once again roaming our very familiar realm of the maritime gypsies, where things are measured, resources sparse and the consequences of our endless string of consumption impossible to ignore.

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