Monday, July 30, 2012

Americanas and Chicken Little

Americanas III

During the month of June, we added six Auricana/Americana pullets to the stock at Freedom Ridge Ranch. Auricana/Americana chickens are a South American breed, very hardy and calm, but with good preservation of predator avoidance and they are also very good layers. They are the famous “easter-egg” layers, and their eggs vary from sky blue to turquoise to green, and more rarely, pink to brown. 

Our hens are now about 8 weeks old, and we moved them outside weeks ago, after raising the little chicks in the bathtub over at the cabin for a few weeks. I had not had chickens since we raised three chicks given to us when I was a child, and I have become fascinated watching our hens. When we arrive at the chicken coop in the morning, they are chirping and clucking behind the closed door, already awake and ready to come forth into the daylight, to scratch and eat, chase insects and take dirt baths. We move their portable pen called the chicken tractor around the yard every day, so that they have access to weeds and flowers, as well as vegetable scraps from the kitchen.

The “ladies”—as the Engineering Geek calls them--are used to us, and to their hanging waterer, but whenever a shadow passes overhead, they immediately huddle under the raised chicken door to their coop and become very quiet. Once the threat passes, they go back to their clucking and eating, but with a watchful eye toward the sky, where a hawk or eagle might swoop down and take them for dinner. Drops of rain, or even vegetable scraps pitched into the chicken tractor sends them scurrying under shelter, even though the chicken wire top on the chicken tractor prevents any predator from entering. “The sky is falling!” the EG jokes, as they run for cover and grow silent.

Those of us of a certain age remember those classic animal fables from our childhood, The Little Red Hen, Chicken Little, the Ant and the Grasshopper. All of them were intended to teach a moral lesson: how those who work have earned the fruit of their labor, why one drop of rain does not a deluge make, and why it is important to plan for the future in the present. These tales inculcate and strengthen classic American virtues: hard work, common sense, and being prepared for the inevitable tough seasons.

But in watching my Americanas, I have come to reconsider how the tale of Chicken Little is understood by the newer generations of American children, if they have heard it at all. For some American children today are being raised almost as hot-house children, protected from every bump, bruise or danger while simultaneously being given the sense of enormous entitlement, so that they grow up with little experience of how to handle deprivation, danger and fear. For these privileged children, does the story of Chicken Little resonate differently than for those raised on the farm, or in the “duck and cover” era of the Cold War?

I think so, because twice last week I saw Jewish Libertarians insulted and ridiculed for pointing out the dangers of ignoring and appeasing the new, virulent anti-Semitism coming simultaneously from the left and from the Islamists of the world. In one case, several of them were called “Chicken Littles” and their concerns were ridiculed as if they were constantly running around proclaiming that “the sky is falling!”

A farm kid growing up in the ‘50’s and ‘60’s was aware of the context of the story of Chicken Little in ways that citified American children of privilege are not. When hearing the story of Chicken Little, the farm kid understood that there is really danger out there in the sky for little chickens, and that there can be real reasons for a chicken to run for cover and grow silent when the shadow of the hawk passes over the feather pen. In this context, the story is a warning not to invent danger where there is none,  and not to develop fears that are out of proportion to the evidence. The story was not meant to teach children to close their eyes to real danger, it was meant to teach them not to create conspiracy theories just because there is evidence of danger.

But in the present context, in which privileged city children are protected from even the intimation of danger, the story has morphed into one that teaches that there is no reason to take cover, or to be prepared for danger, and that the watchmen on the walls are crazy and ought to shut up. It is as if the story is meant to say, “Do not disturb my illusions. Let me continue to evade the reality of the hawk.” And yet the hawk is out there, as is the owl, and so it is important for little chickens to pay attention to the  shadows passing over them. However, it is equally important not to invent evidence of danger that does  not exist.

One reason that there is revived interest in the heirloom varieties of chickens is that the hybrids used in commercial egg and/or meat production are so incompetent that if left out on the free range, they will be easily taken by the hawk and the fox. All of the survival instincts are bred out of them in favor of fast and easy production characteristics. Such chickens must be protected by being kept in small cages, never seeing the light of the sun or feeling the pleasure of a dirt bath. They cannot survive on their own, for they do not recognize real danger, and will not duck out of sight when hawk comes soaring by. 

I can’t help but think that chickens raised in cages are easier to control than are my Americana hens, and they exist not to live their lives but only to produce the most eggs and meat in the shortest amount of time, with no thought to either the quality of their live of the quality of the meat and eggs they are used to produce.

Are we raising generations of our future doers and shakers who will be equally easy to control, who will not step out of line for fear of being ridiculed as Chicken Littles? This is certainly not a strategy for raising free-range kids, who will grow up to be free and independent individuals. 

This quashing of warnings is an interesting study in the evasion of reality. We are teaching to fear big systemic changes that they can have little impact upon, but at the same time, we tell them that there are no predators in the world, and that to be wary of threats to their individual lives and being is ridiculous. It is as though we are making ourselves and our children vulnerable to the most insane demagoguery.

And we think chickens are crazy because they duck under shelter and grow silent when the shadow of the hawk passes overhead.

Saturday, July 28, 2012


LB Grazing II

On a quiet Shabbat morning as I took a rare cup of coffee on the porch I noticed it. I was looking across at LB, who had left the corral and was grazing on the bank of Freedom Ridge Draw.

Because of last year’s drought we are still feeding the cattle at the corral, and usually they stay there all morning, moving across to water in the early afternoon. But here was LB, grazing in the morning. The valley and the hillsides are greening finally, after three weeks of monsoon winds bringing moisture over from the Gulf of California, lifting it up across the Arizona desert,  building the clouds heavy over the Mogollon Rim, and dropping the monsoon rains down upon the Mogollon Slope and Continental Divide. This year a good monsoon season has begun, the clear, cool mornings with a hint of moisture and the clouds beginning to build to the west-southwest by 10 o’clock. In the afternoon, wave after wave of heavy clouds begin to move across our ridges and valley, some of them dropping showers and on some days, a cloudburst. It is a good start for the monsoon, clouds every afternoon, and showers and storms three or four days out of seven.

The greening season here in Southwestern New Mexico is different from where I grew up in Central Illinois. In Illinois, spring is the season of tender green shoots and new grass, with the deep yellow of dandelion flowers hailing the end of winter in March. The corn grows high, there, each plant cycling a quart of water or more a day, bringing the muggy dog days of August, the hottest part of the summer. As the corn matures, the days dry out, gold and brown in the fall.

In New Mexico, the spring is windy and dry, brown with dust and sand—Arizona blowing over to Texas—one of the two dry seasons, following the winter snow that falls mostly over the mountains. The warming days and wind, the return of the birds are harbingers of summer. But here on the Mogollon slope, there is no green, no soft colors. The land is hard and bright, straw and brown. 

When the winds die down in June, we have our hottest summer days. The heat comes up from the desert, south winds from Mexico, and descends into the valleys. Ours is a dry heat, and you can get relief in the shade, if you can find any. In good years, by the end of June, the winds shift, coming from the southwest, and we see towering white clouds forming in the southwest, moving slowly across the Continental Divide to the north. Nights become humid, and our evaporative coolers don’t work for a week of two. But if all goes well with the trade winds coming up from the tropics and across these horse latitudes, in a few weeks the afternoon humidity will become afternoon thunderstorms, making coolers unnecessary as they wash the humidity into the dusty earth, clearing the air, and greening the land.

Some years are La Nina years, and the Monsoon winds fail, and we have drought. Last summer, the clouds built and we got a few feeble showers in July, and then it stayed dry until September. The feeble trades dropped their sparse moisture quickly over the Mogollon Rim but did not reach New Mexico. Last year, we had late rains and early snows in September and October, as the days grew shorter, and so the land never greened up, and the grasses did  not grow tall. We had drought and fires, drought and fires.

This year, the monsoon seems full of promise. The land is greening, the first I have seen these two years. May the monsoon continue and grow in strength this year, breaking the drought and bringing life-giving water to a dry and weary land.

The greening of the land is rest for the eye.