Readers will remember RIXFORD KNIGHT for the troubles with goats which he recounted in “Dubious Panegyric” in the August, 1948, Atlantic. Here are some ruminations about hens, prompted by his experiences with those on his farm in Jamaica, Vermont.
by RIX FORD KNIGHT
PEOPLE build smaller houses than they used to, but poultry buildings get larger every year. They have three or even four stories, with elevators and automatic drinking fountains, and are surrounded by small open dachas for use during the summer months.
The avian standard of living has indeed risen enormously since mongrel flocks took potluck on manure piles. Dietary deficiencies are unknown or quickly remedied. Preventive medical treatment is an expected service. Neurotic individuals seem never to occur.
This trend probably has no alarming social significance. My concern with it is sentimental. I miss the personalities who used to rush in at the rattle of the garbage lid, and contributed an occasional egg or, more often, a Sunday dinner. Modern hens are too suave, too uninhibited. The ones I had as a boy would fuss and fume half a day after laying an egg, but the new kinds give a few unconcerned croaks on their way to the food dispensers.
You used to be able to get good and mad at a hen. You could identify her, and for days after she had scratched up the garden you could swear at her personally. Besides getting mad at her you could make fun of her, inquire about her family, discuss farm business with her. The modern hen is just a prototype. You can’t get mad at a prototype.
And there don’t seem to be any roosters any more. Just hens and hens, and all alike. A rooster was a person of distinction. He stood on a fence post and crowed, and when you told him to shut up he crowed again. But now there aren’t any roosters. Some Mendelian technique has permitted rooster genocide at a tender age.
There aren’t any little chickens either. It used to be that a hen would steal her nest somewhere, be missing for twenty-one days, and then make a fighting reappearance with half a dozen chicks. The cat would get two, a cow would step on another, and the remaining three, after perilous adventures, would grow up slowly and properly as members of the family. No more—modern hens spring fullflodged from cardboard cartons with dime-sized ventilating holes, and head directly for the trap nests.
People used to “keep” hens in their back yards. That was the expression; I remember it well. “Don’t you keep hens?” you would ask. But if you said to one of these modern poultry tycoons, “Do you keep hens?” he would look at you.
People who keep hens get. to looking like hens. You’ve noticed how a hen looks at you out of one eye and then turns her head and looks at you out of the other? And elongates her neck for the near view?
The eggs hens lay are different now. They used to come white and brown, pointed and round; and opened they would stare at you out of bright orange eyes. Now they give you a flat, pale yellow look and coat your spoon with a watery discharge.
The quality of poultry meat has changed too. The new product is more juicy, more yielding to the tines, more like a summer squash.
Hen-keeping has been an important economic frontier for several decades. For wistful suburbanites it offered rural color at moderate expense; and rural families of quality, fallen on evil days, could keep hens instead of roomers, which was more pleasant and hastened the inevitable auction by only a little.
That era is past. Henhouses have become poultry buildings, functional in architecture and Empire Statish in size. The old-law ten-by-twelves have been carted off in trucks by young men who add an ell for the kitchen and set up housekeeping in them. “Chicken coop” is becoming an obsolete term, like “shed chamber” or “backhouse.”
People don’t just decide to keep hens any more. They sell stock and elect a board of directors. Such concerns never go out of business. In the public interest they can’t be allowed to. A manager is appointed by the court to protect the bondholders.
Gone with the barnyard hens is the old cutter sleigh in the wagon shed, whose shafts they used to roost on and spatter,and between which the familiar behind of the old mare used to bob up and down. Instead of lolling over leather reins, you stare tensely over a wheel. Not to avoid frenetic hens, Hens don’t cross roads any more. When you see hens nowadays you see thousands of them, moving staidly across gray backgrounds like bright-colored flagellates under a microscope.
Gone with the flock that gleaned it is the oat field next the lower mowin’. It is cheaper to buy grain. Or, if you live out West, you don’t work behind the cows for three days before “turning over” the stubble. You engage a man with a Diesel to spread government phosphate while you pore over commodity futures and date checks four months ahead.
In stubborn opposition to this modern trend toward efficiency, I give squatters’ rights on my premises to an unclassifiable group of subversives who emerge at sunrise from sundry hideouts, forage boldly till sunset, and then disappear again. I have a small forge in a side building, where I can repair things that might better be thrown away. Leaning against the door is a big wagon wheel that I’ve got to shrink a new tire onto, and up onto it flaps an old fool with a satisfied squawk.
Right eye, left eye: right eye, left eye.
“Go lay an egg. Get out of here. Shoo.”
Right eye, left eye.’ “Cut-cut to you.”
You get to think like a hen after a while. The coals in the firebox haven’t been disturbed for over a month. I peer under the cowl said count thirteen round shapes, very grimy but not quite so black as the coals. “Listen, sputtterfuss. How would you like it if we sent you away for a while to one of those ladies’ seminaries where you’d have to learn to do things the proper way? How’d you like that, eh?”
But she is off — probably to peck some more holes in the tomatoes. So to get an answer to my question I have to think, “Now, if I were a hen, how would I like it?” After much cocking of the head and elongating of the neck I give my considered conclusion: she would not miss me half so much as I would her.