The Hen Wife, related to the witch, the seer, and the herbalist, but different from them too: a distinct and potent archetype of her own, an enchanted figure beneath a humble white apron. We find her dispensing wisdom and magic in the folk tales of the British Isles and far beyond (all the way to Russia and China): a woman who is part of the community, not separate from it like the classic "witch in the woods"; a woman who is married, domesticated like her animal familiars, and yet conversant with women's mysteries, sexuality, and magic. -Terri Windling
The sky was still grey dawn when I was awakened by the sound of flapping chaos, a recently familiar alarm bell that meant the chickens were awake and were now walking around the kitchen. Just days before, they had come to the conclusion that the ground was not, in fact, hot lava, and began to bravely venture down from the top of their refrigerator box which had been the horizon of their world for the last 6 weeks. With the coop still not completely predator proof, our little flock was becoming increasingly domesticated. At dinner time, they would peek around the corner into the kitchen and come strutting out, clucking for crumbs and flying up to my shoulder to get a better view of the spread. And this morning, after the sound of crash landing on slippery laminate, I heard it. An unmistakable first crow from our little red rooster, Mr. Brown. "Aaah Errrr" he cried, twice, thrice and I thought This would seem ridiculous to pretty much anyone. But I don't care. To me this just seems right.
The coop was supposed to have been done weeks before, in timing with full feathering and the end of the brooder light. There were unavoidable obstacles...for several weeks it rained on the weekends, we couldn't afford more hardware cloth until a next paycheck, breaking ground took two weeks. It was mostly on Jeff's shoulders, although I dug trenches and hammered poultry staples, and there's only so much one person can do. But the biggest problem happened right at the beginning, and it belaid all of our plans. It came in the form of searing anxiety that blotted out all the light and caused me to furrow my brow even in my sleep, such that I wore a pronounced crease during the day. It was made of ghosts and little girls, canine hunger and hawk cries, and most of all, the type of broken heartedness that creates a fissure that never quite seals over.
Longtime readers and friends know that I have this thing about chickens. There's the infamous chicken picture from when I was 9, and the soft focus my face gets when I'm around poultry. But the core of it I never speak about, such as we do with things that sleep in the dark. When we walked out of the farm center with that little cardboard carrier full of cheeps and peeps, I was on fire with cold flame as I felt myself walking into a future that I knew contained so much of what I wanted and the possibility of so much I didn't. I knew too well how badly it could go, and I had been choosing to forget about it until the moment when we buckled in the car. I placed the box on my lap with a heating pad and stared, frozen, out the window. Jeff and the kids were all smiles and giggles, and he placed his hand on my shoulder and said "Don't worry. You're a good mama hen.".
My childhood home in Shasta County came with chickens and at four years old, they didn't really register until I raised a chick in second grade. I named her Pepe, and having imprinted on me, she followed me everywhere. Pepe was a big golden Orpington, all warm heft and soft feathers, and I often felt pinch-myself-lucky at this sweet friend who loved me and I her. Then one morning when I was 9, I went up to let her out of her pen and discovered she had been killed by a dog in the night, along with her rooster companion. Our chickens were pets at a time when it was unheard of, especially a time before the internet when we could have found like hearted people and experts to help us protect our flock, which free ranged and slept in trees at night. It was the good old days, and if you didn't know how to DIY something, there was no Google or Makers Faire to help you out. Although we lived rurally, our immediate community wasn't agrarian, so when we started having problems with predators, my parents, not really the handy types, were isolated and at a loss. I fell in love with, and attached to, every chicken we raised over 14 years. And nearly every one met a violent end at the mercy of dogs killing for fun, or owl and grey fox mamas feeding their own babies. Pepe was the first to go in such a way and the morning I lost her, I remember wailing and later, sitting frozen and sad on my bed. The same kind of frozen came over me this spring as we drove home with 8 newborns.
Sorrow, loss, tragedy and death are great teachers, especially if approached with a level of acceptance and consciousness as to their lessons. When you are a child however, repeated loss that is seemingly out of your control makes for wounds that scab over on the surface but never truly heal at their depths. As an adult I have had the opportunity to become well versed in navigating grief, to the point where it is an expertise I use in my field of counseling. Death is an initiation, for the one who dies and the one who stays, and the way it breaks us open leads to the cultivation of richer soil for the self. Over my lifetime, I have developed a type of courageousness born of descending down dark steps to the underworld, and I have returned from the depths with knapsacks full of knowledge and ever increasing trust in the wild realms of my heart. This knowledge dances through all aspects of my work as a healer, from unflinching presence in the midst of a client's breakdown, to comfort with the type of sweet humility required to learn from The Great Ones...plants, trees, insects, animals. Even so, there is still a little girl inside me who hates the reality of death, the seemingly cruel talons that snatch life in its own time and no one else's. My inner girl has been waiting down at the bottom of that scabbed over brokenheartedness.
Our new flock's entrance into our lives was a whirlwind of planning and tending and cleaning and watchfulness. It was not unlike the newborn babyhood of my daughter, where the number one priority is Keep Baby(ies) Alive. There were so many considerations that came into play once we realized that our property, situated in the middle of a working horse ranch, was just not going to be secure enough from dogs to ease the micromanaging panic that surfaced for me in those first few weeks. Any idea I had of not getting attached to our chicks evaporated on the first day. And all that sorrow that had stayed locked inside a moment at 9 years old came flooding out with a fierce dedication to Do Things Differently. Our chickens were not going to free range, they were going to be protected at all times and we were also going to provide them with a high quality of life. This meant building a far larger coop and run than planned, in a different location, on a piece of property that we don't own, along with a mobile chicken tractor big enough for 8 chickens and light enough for someone with very little upper body strength (me) to move easily. This meant reinventing the wheel and finding some sweet spot in between the typical small backyard flock of four hens and larger scale pullet and egg farms.
Over the weeks, pieces began to fall into place and so did the flock's presence in our lives. Jeff, experiencing chickens for the first time, would send me texts throughout the day inquiring wistfully about them. Our days began to take on rhythms according to feeding, cleaning and visiting times. We didn't go out much after the day the power went out and we came home to 8 freezing and sneezing fuzzy babies with no light. It's like we were grounded, self-imposed and happy about it. We learned that their stinkiest poops happened in the morning, so we waited until the afternoon to let them perch on us. Despite my early insistence that we not name them, it was inevitable and so as our friends' personalities emerged, so did the names: Cheeks, Gregory Peckory, Mr. Brown, Merle (The Chicken Formerly Known as Loretta), Thingumy and Bob and The Blondies (two Buff Cochins we couldn't tell apart). I trained them to come when called, and we learned their language too...the curious choop choop choop? and the happy trill.
As our coop neared completion, my anxiety began to lessen. I tacked up hardware cloth, hammering intention into each staple This one's for my inner girl. Nobody's going to hurt my chickens. I'm the adult now, I'm the parent, and I'm proactive. The chicks stayed out in the run during the day and were so happy. Thrilled to stretch their wings, they had frequent flapping contests, fluttering around with each other like children let out at recess. At night, we loaded them up into a cat carrier and transitioned them back inside where they slept on the wooden rungs to my daughter's loft bed.
Two nights after our little red rooster (Mr. Brown) crowed for the first time, the coop was completed. The hardware cloth was buried around the perimeter and the trench filled in with soil and mulch and planted with sunflower seeds. We installed two-step locks on all doors, to foil even the cleverest raccoon hands. When dusk descended, Jeff and I went out to tuck the chickens into bed.
Except they were having none of it. Chickens don't like change and new things and as far as they were concerned, the coop was a bad scary box that wanted to eat them. So I climbed inside as Jeff handed them to me one by one. Squawking with alarm and panic, they all huddled in the corner where ventilation let in the light, nearling suffocating each other in their attempt to escape. Mr. Brown kept trying to get out at the top vents, crashing down over and over. I knew that the first night wouldn't be easy, but I did have a moment of concern, wondering if we were destined to have chickens in our house forever. Then I remembered the folkloric figure of the Henwife, and dropped into that intuitive space that every skillful animal caretaker knows. They needed me to be the mama hen, to show them the way.
I placed each one on the roost, starting with the rooster, and kept my arm around them, encouraging them to huddle up close together. I brought the tension down by mimcing the choop choop choop that meant relaxed curiousity, rather than fear. As more and more found a seat, they began to answer me, panicked squawking easing into commentary and typical conversation of getting comfortable at night You're stepping on my foot! I need to turn around! I want to be next to Bob, scoot over! and so on until all 8 were perching, albeit with uncertainty. And then, I started to trill. My daughter calls it chicken purring and it means Isn't this good? I am happy, aren't you?
They all began to answer back, first one, then all 8, more at once than ever before. Our little flock, purring, happy, safe and secure in their new home.
This would seem ridiculous to pretty much anyone. But I don't care. To me this just seems right. It feels right to listen to other beings with the same deference that we give to another human. This is the magic of the Henwife, of the Weedwife, of the Witch and the Healer and the Counselor. To be able to exchange self for other, to see with eyes not our own and to be humble enough to walk the world as a fool, always willing to learn. It means respecting the sentience of all beings and stepping down out of the oligarchy of anthropocentrism. Perhaps most of all, becoming a Henwife requires entering the unknown and surrendering to life: getting dirty, becoming unphased by manure, being versed in life and death and letting it call forth ferocity, proaction and wisdom.
Everything I Ever Really Needed to Know I Learned from chickens. And I didn't fully realize it until, 25 years after my last pet chicken passed, I held a new fuzzy generation in my hands.
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For some fun reading about the mythology of the Henwife: