Barry Smith: Irrelativity
Aspen, CO, Colorado
The visiting 9-year-old girl is demonstrating the proper technique for herding chickens. She spreads her arms wide, bends at the knees and leans forward. Then she shakes her hands and makes a crazy high-pitched bluh-bluh-bluh noise while gallumping forward.
“Bluh bluh bluh bluh!” she says, and my chickens respond accordingly by moving quickly away from the crazy person.
“That’s how my dad does it,” she tells me. “He knows a lot about chickens.”
Yeah, well. … Good for him. I don’t say this, of course. Best to keep that opinion to myself. It’s not her fault that her father is an overly aggressive chicken-keeper. Kids only know what they’ve been taught.
“Neat,” I tell her. “But I prefer to be a bit less invasive with my chickens. I think they respond better to kindness and love than to intimidation and bullying.”
Oops. That last part kinda slipped out.
See, I’m new to the chicken-having thing, but I like to think of myself as somewhat of a chicken whisperer. I believe in the dignity of the chicken and that they should be allowed to find their own way in the world without me forcing my values or directions on them. Charging at them while flapping my arms like a crackhead is no way to treat anyone.
All of that happened about a month ago, after I’d just started letting my then 4-month-old chickens “free range.” I have this vision of a life with chickens roaming freely in my yard, living in harmony with me, my wife and my cat. Hey, dream big. That’s what they say.
They stayed close to their pen at first but soon embraced the notion of ranging freely, especially once they discovered the joys of crapping on the brick patio, tormenting the cat and, best of all, invading the garden, where they can consume a patch of spinach in a matter of minutes. And hey, look, there’s the neighbor’s garden right across the fence! Let’s go, girls!
That’s a tough neighbor conversation to have: “Hey, sorry my chickens totally destroyed your garden. It’s just that I don’t like to impose too many boundaries on them so that they don’t get stifled. They’re still developing, and these are crucial, formative days for them, and I need them to know that they’re important and empowered. Anyway, here’s 10 bucks. You can buy some spinach or whatever.”
Nope. Gotta get the chickens out of the neighbor’s garden. All 12 of them. And right now! I step into the garden and gently clap my hands at them. They react by eating faster, as if I’m applauding their fine work.
“Way to make the lettuce disappear! Bravo!”
I clap louder. They assume it’s a standing ovation.
And then I do something terrible.
I spread my arms and flap my hands while bending forward and going, “Bluh bluh bluh!” And I’ll be darned. … It works. The chickens flee their Garden of Eden and head back into my yard, where they continue their quest to discover new, exciting and hard-to-clean surfaces on which to poop.
Well, most of them. There are still a few stragglers who ran the opposite direction. I run around my neighbor’s yard, flapping and bluh-bluh-ing and trying to get the last of the chickens home. They are not cooperating. I decide to try to catch them. I lunge. They run. I’m falling and toppling and cursing and running around trees in pursuit of the slippery yardbirds. This goes on for about 10 minutes. The only saving grace is that there’s nobody around to witness this. Or, even worse, to film it. If I saw someone doing this outside my window, I’d have it up on YouTube within the hour.
I keep the chickens locked in their pen the next few days while I put up chicken wire around the yard. Free-range boundaries. I haven’t taught my chickens the word “oxymoron” yet, but it’s in the lesson plan. (We have vocabulary lessons ever Wednesday.) My neighbor sees me working and comes out to say hello.
“Chicken trouble?” he asks.
“Trying to keep them out of your garden.”
“I really enjoyed watching you chase them the other day.”
“Oh…you saw that? I didn’t know you were home.”
Awkward silence. Finally I have to ask.
“Yeah,” he says. “Sorry.”
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Columnist Roger Marolt is learning to hold his breath longer during these hot, dry summers, he writes.