Holism: The Healing Power of Community
Shortly after moving to the country, I decided to raise my own chickens. I began with just three chicks; an experiment that turned out pretty well. I discovered that two were roosters, the other a hen. I had to move my hen to a neighbor’s home because the roosters were ganging up on her. The day before I took them to be butchered, I brought them each up to my kitchen, one at a time, and talked to them, thanked them for their companionship and the learning we had shared together, and then I let them each drink a shot of tequila.
The following year I bought 25; the next year 100; and the next year I decided to raise my own, hatching eggs in an incubator while letting those chickens who wanted to “set” raise their own. I also had, by now, a few ducks and two geese who were doing their own thing at their own pace—the geese sitting on a nest of their eggs and the ducks hiding eggs everywhere until they decided to nest. With so many duck eggs and only a few setters, I eventually robbed some of the nests where eggs sat without a setter, and put them under a setting goose. That summer the geese raised the mallard ducks they had hatched in commune with the ducks who had hatched theirs.
It was while incubating and hatching my own that the healing power of the community was demonstrated to me. My brooding box was in a back room I use for office storage space. (Ironically, their first home, the brooding box, was next to their last home, the freezer.) One day, a chick had somehow jumped out of the brooding box. Being a conscientious parent, I rarely went more than a couple of hours without checking in on them. On the day that the lone chick had broken out of its brooding box, I had checked in just a little after noon, and I found the little chick dead alongside the brooding box. The entire room had been kept at 95º. It did not die of thirst, because they can go nearly 48 hours without water. I could only assume that in the few short hours it had been separated from the others, that it had died of loneliness and fear.
Life and death on a farm exist in each other’s embrace. While one egg hatches and produces a healthy, vibrant chick, another produces a cripple that will soon die on its own, or will have to be put down. I learned an awful lot that summer. I learned that some chicks are born with “wry neck.” The head is pointed upward and when they attempt to stand, they fall over on their backs. I would take these down to the lake and let them view the world and talk to them and thank them for visiting me, and then wring their necks. It was a difficult job, a difficult lesson. Chicks hatched naturally usually do not have this problem. Wry neck is most often a malady caused by human intervention—hatching them in an incubator.
There were a lot of hard, tough lessons learned that summer. I learned that not only should you not count your chickens or ducks before they hatch, you shouldn’t even count them while they are hatching. Many times a chick or duckling will die after making its first opening in the egg. One day, there were eight ducks hatching—eight little beaks protruded through their eggshells. I checked in on them often. At one time while checking their progress, I realized that there were only two ducklings still alive. The others had all died. Maybe the temperature was a degree or two too high; maybe there was not enough moisture. Who knows why? I knew only one thing: It was time to intervene.
I filled a bowl with warm water, and placed one of the live eggs in it and began breaking the shell. I was careful to leave the sack intact because it contains blood the duckling will need to absorb. The second duckling wasn’t as lucky as the first. The sack broke and all I could do was soak the duckling’s weak body in the warm water and give it warm and tender stroking. I placed them both back into the incubator and watched them. That evening, they could not stand up yet, so I kept them in the incubator overnight. That next morning, before going to do chores, I checked in on the ducklings. When they tried to stand up, they fell over backward. They still could not raise their heads. I decided I would have to destroy them.
While walking downstairs, aware that this was one job I preferred not to do, the thought came to me that maybe I should just put them in with the others, who were less than a week old, and just see what happened.
It was probably just a rationalization intended to put off my distasteful destiny. But I placed them under the heat lamp, and the other ducklings came over and began pecking at them. It wasn’t pecking like chickens will do to weaker chickens; they weren’t trying to hurt them. I wasn’t sure what it was, but it didn’t look like it would hurt them, at least not any more than I had been planning to hurt them. A pair of ducklings got on opposite sides of one that was lying on its back with its legs in the air and they both grabbed at a foot. Such a sight: two ducklings pulling another’s feet in opposite directions, and a third tugging at its beak from the front. I went outside to water and feed the rest of my family, and bring in some of the eggs I collect for friends.
My chores took about half an hour—a perfect way to greet the day. So many lives depend on you, yet they are not so sure about you to come too close. I washed my hands and went in to see if my weak ducklings were still alive. I was secretly hoping they would be dead, and that I wouldn’t have to make that walk down to the lake. What I found instead was terrifically moving. Both ducklings were sitting up under the light. The others were huddled together, and every once in a while one would waddle over, examine the newcomers, poke them in the side or on the neck, and then go back to being a duckling.
I had read books. I had the listened to the advice from my stepfather who had been a farmer all his life. I had listened to friends who knew more about raising chickens than my books knew. I was a thinking, rational, intelligent being, stuffed full of knowledge, and there before me sat a group of ducklings who, together, had the intellectual capacity of loose gravel—but who instinctively knew how to perform a group form of physical therapy on the weaker ones.
I learned a lot that summer. I learned about the healing power of the community. And I learned that sometimes, the most we intelligent creatures can learn is that we know so little; that perhaps we put too much emphasis on our intelligence; and that the great spirit of the universe gave us much more than intelligence, free to explore, use and play with, if only we can dig deep enough inside to find it.
This article appeared in Pathways to Family Wellness magazine, Issue #37.
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