One of the many lessons I have learned in my first month of chicken farming is that I am easily outwitted by chickens.
For example, all four of my young hens can easily fly the coop—which is another valuable lesson, the phrase itself, so literally true. Here I have spent my entirely urban lifetime thinking “fly the coop” means to escape; now I know it means you can devote hours and hours to fencing in your hens with chicken wire, mesh, siding, more chicken wire and more mesh—and still your hens get out and either cluck, cluck, cluck all over your garden or else stay right outside the perimeter you have tried and failed to reinforce, looking at you as though you are not really there.
For these four golden-brown-browner-brownest hens, it’s either pecking, nesting, clucking, ruffling, fluttering, roosting, brooding, pooping, or nothing. It is not blankness or stupidity you see in a chicken’s eye. It is single-minded focus, which I patently lack and which currently gives them the edge when it comes to outwitting me.
Yet every day I get closer to being smart enough for them. I have come to understand, for example, that to be “chicken”—as in afraid—does not refer to a chicken’s lack of courage. It means being afraid to fight a chicken, who is formidable in her own very specific and resolute way. I learned this from my dog Chip, who sometimes helps me get them back in the coop at night by barking, a skill at which he is a true champ. He will also occasionally flush them out of a bush, for which he gets to sleep on a pillow in the bedroom after years of being banished to the garage. He deserves this major upgrade because he is now a working dog, even though he also sometimes flat out runs away, overwhelmed by the fluttering of the squat-beaked beasts with feathers.
In those precious moment when my little doggie shows exactly what it means to be chicken, I feel enveloped by a beam of etymological insight, like when a knight is traversing a forest and a single ray of light bursts through the treetops to illuminate the true meaning of gallantry. And just as Sir Gawain shall never turn away from the challenge of the Green Knight, neither will I back down from this battle of wits with chickens. On the contrary, I am just getting started.