I am relearning what I once knew about chicken husbandry. We had chickens when I was a kid, complete with their own house and yard. New chicks came every spring. They were unsexed so when the roosters started crowing, our family spent a day butchering. That left the hens in peace to lay eggs, and provided meat for our table. For years I thought brown was the only possible egg color.
My Gramma Mueller was a keeper of chickens, and had an affinity for all kinds of fowl. At various times she had ducks, peacocks, and guinea fowl but the chickens were constant. Tending chickens was one of the farm chores, and I believe she always enjoyed entering their world. She swore that they had their own language that she could understand. Gramma spoke to the chickens and they replied, a kind of murmuring croon and soft drawn-out clucking. Along with the sound, always the tilted head and bright eye.
Grampa Mueller grew grain–oats, barley, and rye which he ground into animal food. Besides what they foraged and were given in scraps, my grandparents’ chickens ate local. Mine have to make do with a mixture from Scratch and Peck Feeds in Bellingham. They appear to be thriving on it. I add grit to their food which helps them digest the grains. Birds have a crop, or gizzard, in their breasts. Food they swallow goes into it, a small muscle-y sac. Grit in the gizzard grinds up the food so that nutrients can be extracted. The larger the bird, the larger the grit or stones. When you see birds standing on a road, they may be picking up grit for their crops. Piles of stones have been found near dinosaur fossils, suggesting that dinosaurs also had gizzards. When I look at chicken feet, I know what became of the dinosaurs.
Being the metaphorical creature that I am, I wondered about the equivalent of grit in my diet. Of course mammals don’t have gizzards, having developed other methods of digestion. But it seems like a certain amount of grit is needed in life to help us digest our experiences. How will we derive the lessons we need to learn if they just pass right through us?
All winter there were two unopened boxes in my shed that came to me after my Gramma’s death last August. I waited this long to let the sense of loss settle. But I finally opened them, which stirred the pool of grief. Such intimate remnants of a long life, and reminders of the bond she and I shared. I felt myself go soft with remembering and sadness. What to do with these feelings?
Gramma had grit and pluck and lots of other characteristics. She was tough and stoic, but also sentimental and laughed often. Life honed her with hard work, loss and grief, as well as many moments of beauty, connection, and contentment. She became wise and tolerant, and loved what she loved.
Some grit is necessary, even for us non-birds. A few stones to turn over and over with the food life brings to us. For me, observation and reflection make an effective grit to balance daily experience and activity. To have had a grandmother for so long is a gift, especially a grandmother who was a kindred spirit.
My chickens’ voices are changing. They are eight weeks old, and in the peeping I can hear the cadence of that long clucking croon. They are practicing chicken talk, and if I listen closely I know I will understand it because after all, I am my grandmother’s granddaughter.