The recent killing frost has us backyard farmers recalibrating. After a bountiful summer with heady blooms and eggs aplenty, the hens are holding back, and tired plants are nodding their seedy heads in submission — they have given all they can.
The lustrous flock of chickens about which I boasted in June look positively reptilian. They are stirring around the yard pert near naked, their feathers falling around their ankles like my poor great aunt Eleanor’s undergarments did one Sunday morning as she made her way to Communion.
The birds are molting, a natural autumnal occurrence, a seasonal change, dictated by light, in which they shed old feathers and grow new ones. Their bare skin makes them look vulnerable, and indeed their new feather shafts are delicate and prone to injury. (NB: It’s best not to cuddle a molting bird.) And since feathers consist of 85 percent protein, and feather production places great demands on a chicken’s energy and nutrient stores, egg production drops or stops entirely until the molt is over, usually within 4 to 12 weeks. My egg customers are on a wistful hold.
I remind myself that this is as it should be, a loss making way for new growth. A reminder of impermanence.
I loved how Indie contributor Kai Potter wrote, at the end of October, about syncing our animal selves with the slowing rhythms and changes of fall, urging us to consider “the fluctuations of nature in our humanness.” How do we allow and even become grateful for the pauses, changes, and even the losses of this season? Might we think of autumn as nature’s yahrzeit, the “year time” or anniversary of the death of a close relation?
But I find that death is just not a sexy topic with a general audience, don’t you? Recall how this summer’s Barbie killed the mood at a dance party when she broached the subject.
I say, “You go, Barbie!” because wrestling with impermanence takes practice and, darn it, she knew that it helps to have community around to support that work.
My friend Dawn Walsh, co-founder of the Lily House (who does a mean impression of Barbie at that dance party, by the way), always has good advice on this.
“For me, contemplation of impermanence is the companion to a practice of gratitude,” she says. Dawn and I can geek out on “letting go” and how we’ll call upon that practice at the time of our own deaths — which Walsh refers to as “the grand letting go.”
Animal husbandry serves up plenty of opportunities to contemplate impermanence. Three chickens have gone on to that great barnyard in the sky this year. My heart aches in advance as my old shepherd dog gets wobblier by the day.
In her introduction to a volume combining her husband Graeme Gibson’s novels, Gentleman Death and Perpetual Motion, Canadian writer Margaret Atwood muses with practicality about moving to a weedy farm in 1970s rural Ontario with him. He was a writer who had never farmed anything. Gibson asked an old farmer what kind of animals they should raise.
“ ‘None’ was the answer,” Atwood writes, “Then, after a pause: ‘If you’re gonna have livestock, you’re gonna have dead stock.’ And so it was, and so it would be. Things died. Sometimes we ate them.”
And there you have it, my friends. Cozy in and perhaps ponder your mortality now and then while you’re inside the gaping maw of the winter months. As the Buddhist translator Allison Choying Zangmo reminded me when she appeared on my “WeCroak” app: “If we’re not reflecting on the impermanent nature of life, then there are a lot of unimportant things that seem important.”