There are 5 coups on Skipley Farm. The one in the front yard has an A-frame roost that is home to a few chickens and a turkey. I helped build them a larger run last week. There is the coup by the pond, between the old greenhouse and the apple orchard. There is a rooster with these chickens who crows constantly the other rooster throughout the day. The other rooster lives by himself a dozen yards away. He has a congenital defect in his foot, and so was never welcomed into the flock. There are the young chickens on the top of the hill that arrived at the farm in the summer. They were born in July and are still growing. And then there are my favorite, the Peeps. When I first arrived, these baby chickens lived in the living room of the old farm-house where Chris and the interns stay. They had outgrown their cage, so last week were transferred into a larger cage in the dry storage room with the potatoes, onions and the winter squash.
Every day I spend at least a few minutes watching each group of chickens. The black peep is my favorite, and I feel the worst for the solitary rooster with the lame foot. The caramel colored hen by the pond is almost always out of her pen, making the nearby ducks uncomfortable. A white hen from the front yard has also taken to exploring outside her cage, making me doubt my chicken run building abilities.
I was told in my first few days that a couple of chickens were not long for the world, but things on the farm are easily delayed as more pressing tasks come up or the weather shifts. The chickens aren’t any different. Except that I get the sense Chris is not particularly motivated for this particular chore. So tonight, after a day of running errands, with about 45 minutes to dark, I was surprised when Chris announced that its time to do the chickens. He gathered the necessary equipment: a thermometer, a large pot filled with water, propane burner, blue plastic gloves, an empty water trough, plastic bags, a box cutter and burlap sacks. He told me the burlap is to soak up the blood so that it doesn’t go to waste.
Otherwise, I had no real idea how these items are going to come together. Well, except for the box cutter. Chris informed me the water needs to be at 140 degrees, and asked me to monitor the water while he goes to collect the chickens.
The first bird he brought is the lone rooster. He put his good buddy in the empty water trough, and then went to get the other animals. I stayed near the water pot, now on the propane boiler, listening to the rooster rustle about. Before long, he jumped on to the edge of the trough. He is definitely bigger than the hens I have had to help chase. He was about eye level with me. I glanced at his spurs and thought back to the Bantam rooster that terrorized me as a child. I didn’t want to have to chase the rooster in the dark, and I felt very timid about trying to grab him, so I tried to edge around the trough so he would hop back into the temporary cage by himself. I swore to myself when he jumped onto the higher apple stand nearby. I made a grab for him, but I hedged when he squawks, because I thought I might hurt him. I realized a few minutes later how sentimental that is, considering why he is even out of his home to begin with.
We recouped him and soon Chris brought the remaining three hens, holding them all to his chest. The water still wasn’t up to temp, so we talked for a moment about the relationship to these animals; how he has taken care of them for so long, about how he is thankful for them, and respects them; how he hopes to honor them by using as much as he can, with minimal waste. I think about my bees. I am not naïve about we get meat, and I knew ahead of time that it would be sad. I am pragmatic enough to accept the process as it unfolded that night. But that doesn’t mean I am callous to the situation, and my eyes started to sting. Truthfully, I think it was more for Chris than for the chickens. I am overwhelmed at the generosity and openness of Chris. I understand how this is an intensely personal moment for him, and the fact that he is allowing me, a relative stranger to him and his birds, to be a part of it is extremely meaningful to me. I am not sure that I would be able to reciprocate that gift if our positions were reversed.
By this time, it’s completely dark. Chris carried the first hen several yards away from the other birds. He does this so the other ones don’t have to hear what is happening. He invited me to follow him if I want. I did. I stood a few feet away while Chris knelt in the dirt and firmly held the bird down on the burlap. He spoke reassuringly to her, that it’s ok, and tells her not to worry. I wondered if he is not also talking to himself a little bit. As smoothly and respectfully as can be done, and in the dark, he slit her throat.
He held her, stroking her back in the few moments it takes for her bleed out. We walked back to the light without the body. I checked the water temperature again, still only 80 degrees. The rooster was next. I didn’t follow him. It’s not necessary for me to intrude again on this last intimacy. These are not my birds, and it was not for me to be there in last moments. Once all the chickens are passed, he brought them back to the light and lines them on the plastic bags that covered the work bench. I irreverently think about Dexter. I am a little surprised about how little blood there is.
The water is to help pluck the chickens. The first body is submerged in the water for a while, and the Chris showed me how to pluck the birds. He piled the feathers onto more burlap so he can keep them. He is thinking about making a pillow. We chatted briefly about sewing and creativity while he confidently handled the carcass. It’s a normal conversation for us. We talk about life and death and sewing and people on the farm, about the impact we have in our world, with the people, animals and plants we encounter. We talk about responsibility and stewardship, and what’s on the radio. We passed the half plucked birds back and forth, alternating between plucking and soaking. He is sad, but still positive. Once one bird is completely plucked, he began to process them further, and I continued plucking on my own. Eventually, he showed me how to remove the gullet and the organs. It’s fascinating to me. The organs are easily identifiable and I imagine it’s basically how I look on the inside.
Chris buried what he can’t use, the heads, the gullet, the intestines, and the hearts. We took them into the house, three of which went into the freezer. The fourth was stuffed with chestnuts and thyme, and put in the oven. More than watching her die, more than pulling out her beautiful feathers, or feeling her lungs depress in my hands, I find it the hardest to see chestnuts being stuffed into the newly emptied body cavity, which not an hour before held a beating heart. When the chicken was cooked, I ate the chestnuts.
That night I was discussing the ordeal with a friend back home. I was trying to articulate the experience to him and the amount of cognitive dissonance I had about it. On one hand, it felt like the most natural thing in the world. That everyone and everything unfolded the way it should. And yet, it is arguably the most peculiar thing I have ever done. Unless my lifestyle changes drastically in the future, this is the most involved I will ever be in the food I consume. And I find that to be an invaluable experience.