She was the only one to make it. The only one to hatch. Back on a grungy day last June with the mist clinging to the slopes like hag snot, the tiny being that is Priscilla bashed her way out of an egg and into the world.
She was a spirited little fluffball back then, high on energy, low on circumspection, and careered around the chicken run in the way of a downy ball-bearing. Her surrogate mother Frida was patient and doting, showing her this and that and sharing her food. Slowly the fluffball began to grow.
I’d assumed a hen took about three or four months to mature. I was wrong. At least I was wrong with this one. Priscilla swelled from the size of a fist to the size of a bantam, and then to the size of the other hens. Yet while Hilde, Frida and Gertie were russet hybrids, the newcomer was clearly different. As I have no cockerel here, and no intention of getting one thanks very much, when Frida turned broody I’d acquired some eggs from a friend. But I’d no idea who was the progenitor of these eggs. For all I knew a goose would pop out.
Priscilla didn’t seem to be a goose. But she wasn’t an ordinary hen either. She was as white as a swan, with a tiny crimson crown and a fabulous boa of black feathers around her neck. Once I was sure she was female I called her Priscilla. Priscilla, Queen of the Picos.
But Priscilla was an odd’un. After her feisty start, she turned nervous and flappy, a trait that wasn’t assisted by Gertie the wicked stepmother, who pecked and harassed her at every opportunity. I won’t lie, when Gertie died, Priscilla fairly danced on her grave. I wondered on the fateful day that the ill-disposed Gertie left our world, who would take over in the pecking order. Would Frida or Hilde change temperament overnight?
The Order of Pecking
Ah the famed pecking order. Yeees. Humans are obsessed with hierarchies, forever desperate to label and discriminate, certain if they push someone or something beneath them, they will have gained something.
The more I observe animals, the more convinced I become that the man-made concept of hierarchy has little to do with the way roles are distributed in the wild and woolly world of nature. Whether it’s dogs, cows, or chickens, I see a far more complex organisation at play that functions more like a flock of birds in flight than some static power pyramid. Birds in flight are in constant rotation. The leader bird at the tip of the flight arrow bears the brunt of the air resistance, while the rest of the flock benefit from the slipstream created by the arrow formation. But the leader isn’t permanent, and nor does she want to be. The birds rotate. When one leader is tired, she drops to the rear of the arrow tip and the next takes the helm.
Animals aren't at sea in a separation narrative so they don't cling to rigid role models and images and stereotypes. Flock structures are in a constant state of flow and flux. Sometimes it’s the toughest who 'rules' the roost, sometimes the smartest, and more often than is ever mentioned in the literature, it's the cutest. Not to mention this other mysterious phenomenon common to animal and human alike: mindset and the ability to dream, to invite a new reality into the present.
So Gertie the tyrant was dead and buried. Who was going to take over as domination-hungry pecker in the coop now? The answer turned out to be no one. No despot. Perhaps my other hens don’t possess the authoritarian gene, perhaps they worked out in some mysterious archosaur way that life is more interesting as a team, perhaps they’re enlightened beings. The upshot is though, they live in some hen-style democratic utopia where everyone manages to be both free and connected, the food either rains down from above or wriggles out of the dirt, and a magnanimous giant biped mammal builds them luxurious mud hen estates, closes the door at night, and keeps the danger at bay. They are warm, safe, well-nourished, and yet simultaneously free to roam and squawk and roll in the dust. And most of it, from their perspective at least, happened as if by magic.
I often wonder when I watch my birds off on some hen adventure eking out slug eggs, rummaging through the compost heap, perching on rocks and surveying their terrain, did they dream of such a life once upon a time? Back at the sorry beginning of their lives when I found them squashed in a lightless metal cage, had they in the foggy depths of their chicken spirits sensed a better world was out there for them? The intelligence of the planet courses through everything after all, always reaching ahead for fresh experiences. The past flows within it too. Running deep in my chicken's genetic code is the memory of freedom and the wild. It's a gift from their ancestors. And that is why after two days of arriving here they instinctively knew how to forage and scratch and hide.
Yeees. We humans need to raise the bar of our expectations a little if you ask me. As my hens attest, no one has to choose between freedom and safety, or liberty and care. Not in nature at least. That nasty choice is a human game, a way of coercing people to relinquish their sovereignty. It's an idea. Just an idea. And when we let it go, it suddenly loses all power and the world is ours once more.
But what about Priscilla?
Summer slid into autumn and autumn became winter. Priscilla kept on growing. And growing. And growing. Her feet were laden with feathers, and her butt was the fluffiest thing this side of Sesame Street. She towered over the others. At night she would stand while Hilde and Frida crawled beneath her, and I don’t blame them, it looked snug! But Priscilla was nonetheless rather clueless, and still didn’t lay an egg. I began to wonder why. Was there something wrong with her? Was she even a chicken?
January saw the skies scraped clean of cloud, leaving the nights deep with stars and the morning grass coated in Gaia’s icing sugar. One such day with the silver fingers of frost receding from the bank, I pulled out my phone and began investigating hen-kind to uncover the mystery of Priscilla. Oh what an array of resplendent birds fill the ranks of the chicken world! I saw Silkies, Orpingtons, Easter Eggers, Golden Comets, New Hampshire Reds, and Frizzles, but none of these birds looked like Priscilla. Was she a Japanese bantam? No, too big. A Cochin? No, wrong feathers.
At that moment Priscilla wandered over to the kitchen door and eyed me. If you’ve never looked into the eyes of a chicken you won’t understand, and the moment you do, you’re finished. The eyes are the window to the soul, they say. And it’s as true for animals as it is for humans. Hens might be half-dinosaur, they might have unsettling feet, questionable bathroom habits, and spend half the day with their beaks in rotting compost, but when they look into your eyes you feel it. Boom! Connection. Consciousness. Gaian life. On that fundamental level we are all most definitely one.
So I bent down, and picked up the plush white pillow-bird that is Priscilla hen. Holding her in my arms, I buried my head in her feathers, marveling at her soft warmth. Her hen eye rolled up to meet mine again. She stared and stared, deep and long. Was she wondering who I was too?
Placing Priscilla on the mat, I picked up my phone once more. Again I ran through chicken images: fluffy heads, sleek whites, fat reds, skinny blondes. And then at last I saw her! Another Priscilla! Huge, white, with a black feather collar and tail feathers luscious enough that Ray Charles would shake them. I clicked to find out just what this opulent breed was. The answer? A Brahma hen.
Brahma? I know Brahma from Hinduism. Brahma is part of the Trimurti of Gods along with Shiva and Vishnu, and represents the creator power of the universe. In the hen world Brahmas are a bit special too. Brahmas were originally Bengali, and imported to the West from Shanghai in the 19th century. Due to their size and luxurious appearance they are known as the “kings” of the chickens. Ooh, royalty eh?
Now, I’m not about to insert some half-baked, tax munching monarchy, constitutional or otherwise, into the precious free community of the hen coop. But I couldn’t help smile at the thought of unconfident, slightly clueless Priscilla being regal. I stepped out of my stone kitchen. Priscilla waddled off to find her red-feathered family, pecking at a bit of chickweed on the way. Chuckling I called out after her. “Priscilla, you’re a Brahma! Ha ha, you really are Queen of the Picos after all.”
She stopped and raised her head thoughtfully. “Waaaah!” was her reply.
Her mother, Frida, looked on, her large red comb shimmying in the sunlight. Had she dreamed of hatching a beautiful snow queen when she turned broody last spring? Had she wished to bring forth something incredible? Hmm, good job Frida didn't possess a human mind, or Priscilla could never have happened, because as we all know, red hybrids chickens don't give birth to white Brahmas. That's just impossible.
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