Easter Sunday would have been the fourth birthday of my eldest hen, Annabelle. She was the last of a tribe, all named Annabelle, all of whom arrived as day-old chicks on Easter Sunday, 2004.
In the intervening years, various Annabelles fell prey to dogs, skunks, and finally, with the old girl’s passing last week, raccoons. Such is the life of the urban chicken. And such is the predicament of the urban chicken farmer, or any farmer, or any person for that matter—surrounded by life, stalked by death, and living with the nagging truth that you could have done better.
Annabelle had lately preferred roosting on top of the coop, which I condoned. Thanks to the free will I allowed her, she tempted the raccoons, and was plucked from the garden of life.
Rebirth is life’s answer to death. It keeps the numbers up and balances out the longing, regret, and other accumulated byproducts of living. No wonder Easter is pegged to the vernal equinox. What better time to celebrate the transit of Jesus from death to life than the height of springtime, when dark and light are in balance, and the earth is reborn from the dregs of autumn’s killing spree?
But where does the Easter egg fit into all of this? And, what’s up with the bunny?
Some believe the struggle of a baby chick to escape its shell symbolizes the struggle of Jesus to escape the confines of death. The egg, like the bunny, is a symbol of fertility, celebrations of which have been enacted around the spring equinox since long before Jesus was a glint in God’s eye.
After last year’s dog attack, which killed the rest of Annabelle’s generation, she was alone while I awaited the arrival of replacement day-old chicks, ordered online. Since the minimum order was 25 birds, I found four sets of neighbors interested in raising chickens. Back in those days, raising chickens in Missoula was still illegal, which was exciting.
Annabelle, meanwhile, was prone to wander, as if looking for her lost friends. She crossed the road, hung out under the neighbor’s bunny cage (for the food droppings, I hope) and roamed the back alley. To keep her around, I had to lock her in the pen.
The post office called me one Sunday night—they call immediately when live chicks arrive in the mail. In minutes I had them home, where they huddled together under a heat lamp in a big fuzzy clump.
When the chicks were big enough I put them outside with Annabelle, who seemed more annoyed by the chaotic intrusion than happy for the company. An upstart I’d named Baldy broke the tension by pecking at Annabelle’s mouth in a filial way.
Annabelle eased into her role as surrogate mama hen. She taught the little girls how to take dust baths in the bike shed, where the ground is always dry. She taught them how my digging projects around the back yard could yield easy worms. Luckily, she didn’t teach them to wander. Instead she followed me around like a puppy, waiting for something good to happen, making that gentle cooing sound I miss so much. In this way she taught them that, despite looking scary, I’m actually a nice guy.
The morning I found Annabelle’s remains, the new hens were still freaked out, having listened to the violent death of their mama. After I buried her beneath a rose plum tree, I let the survivors roam the yard.
They were surprisingly clingy, following me around like never before. Each hen was suddenly interested in hanging out, the way only Annabelle used to be. At first I assumed they were scared and looking to me for protection. But they weren’t acting scared. In fact, they were making those gentle cooing sounds that Annabelle used to make, and giving me that look. It was as though I had become what Annabelle had been to them, their leader, protector and teacher. At the same time, they became to me the bundles of chicken love that Annabelle had been. Perhaps this is the literal message of Easter.
Meanwhile, in the weeks just before Annabelle died, the new girls began laying eggs. Thanks to the diversity of my chick order, the eggs come in pink, white, blue, and brown.
The raccoons that killed Annabelle were back the very next night, big as dogs. I chased them off and nailed the neighbor’s fence with a rock. While admittedly it would have felt good to hit flesh, I don’t blame the raccoons—they’re just trying to stay alive. Unlike the dog, who killed for sport, raccoons kill to eat. A few days after I buried what was left of Annabelle, something dug up her remains and took them away.
Immaculate conception, as evidence that light can spring from some place other than darkness, is wishful thinking; Easter is more realistic, acknowledging that life depends on death as the chicken depends on the egg. Chicken and egg, life and death—these states are framed by the murky thresholds that separate them. It doesn’t matter which came first.
Ask Ari: The number one rule for composting
Q: Dear Flash,
My office is in an un-plumbed detached garage in my backyard. When my work is interrupted by the urgent call of nature on days when, because of rain or cold, I don’t feel like walking to the house, I keep a thunder mug in the office. I’ve been dumping my thunder mug on my compost pile, and I’m wondering if that’s okay. Is it?
A: For those who don’t know, thunder mugs used to be more popular in days when indoor plumbing was rare and a late-night trip to the outhouse was a rude awakening. According to the online Dictionary of Urban Slang, thunder mugs are widely used on road-trips, too—that is, unless you work for NASA and have really good diapers like that astronaut who wanted to mess with her boyfriend’s other woman.
Back on earth, it turns out the contents of your thunder mug will be fine on your compost pile. I had to do a little research here, since I haven’t messed around with composting since 2004, when my first chickens began eating kitchen scraps. Since then, the ladies have taken care of whatever would have gone on the compost, turning it into eggs and fertilizer.
But according to J.C. Jenkins in his definitive Humanure Handbook, urine is good for compost piles. It adds nitrogen, which will speed up decomposition, and moisture, a certain amount of which is necessary. But be careful. Too much nitrogen can burn, and too much moisture can get soggy or even anaerobic. Any added urine should be balanced with a source of carbon, like leaves, weeds, straw or, ideally, half-rotten sawdust. Just add a little whenever you empty your mug. This will help keep moisture and nitrogen levels where they should be, as well as eliminate any smell.
Send your food and garden queries to firstname.lastname@example.org.