Writing: the in depth process of navigating a world you’ve created as you create it. Walking the streets of a new city as the roads are laid, without a map. The only navigational device is the imagination, optimism and determination. Words are tools that shape the landscape, carve rivers, drop chasms, colour reefs, bring new beings to life and give them thoughts, dreams and desires. The deep, cathartic hum of the brain that’s thought too long about a character vibrates through the cranium and out on to the page and then reaches further, into your life, your being.
The outlet—the mindless outlet—that is needed for the overflow of thought can be mundane, and I would say it’s best if it is. This winter for me the antidote to my creative spilling arrived in the form of four mangy looking chickens. A day after coming home from a research trip to Croatia for March of the Red Crab, I learned of a lady nearby who was bringing some rescue hens to the island. Rescue hens are hens that have been rescued from a factory farm —usually by well-intentioned vegan activists—and the island is Waiheke, where I live about 25km off shore from Auckland. I’d intended to get hens at some point so thought, why not? I contacted the coordinator who had rescued some 1800 hens set for slaughter, as they had reached 18 months old. After that the owner deems them too expensive to keep as they go ‘off the lay’ (pause laying eggs over winter) and instead of feeding them, they just renew the flock. In intensive farming terms hens have a useful laying life of just one year and spend that year inside a small metal cage, with another bird, where they perform beneath 24 hour stage lights, until they’re too expensive to keep to eat and lay continuously. They still lay eggs, just not with the prolific volumes and unnatural expectations of a factory farm. But as I’m learning, they come with their idiosyncrasies.
Saturday arrived and I was ill prepared. I’d never had hens before. We did have an old hen house on the property, so I dusted the cobwebs off and lay some straw down and set off to collect the Girls with a trusty friend who has hens, lots of tips, a book on what to do, and a car to collect them. She was also brave enough to hold the things, something I hadn’t thought about until I saw the feathers and realised I couldn’t bring myself to touch them. Not yet.
Watching a previously imprisoned chicken who has traveled in a banana box in the dark across the harbour eventually emerge from the hut and into the pen moved me more than I expected. One at a time they came out. Curious, brave and a little unsteady under foot. Wobbly because they hadn’t walked before; uncertain because they hadn’t been in day light before. And as they came out I named them: The Hurricane; Nelson Mandela; Pussy Riot and Su (short for Aung San Suu Kyi, who incidentally is part renamed given her stance on the ethnic cleansing of the Rohingya Muslim minority in Myanmar). All wrongfully imprisoned for a variety of reasons across their lives. Little did I know that naming the Girls would be so apt, as their characters unfolded.
The chickens were bare pink from the head, down the neck, to the front, all barren and pecked of feathers. When chickens are stressed or compacted they will peck each other and so caged birds spend most of their lives feather pecked by others. It can be brutal and also fatal, if blood is drawn other hens will peck with bird to death.
I’d received a motley crew of haggard, greasy feathered, and traumatised birds and it took a few months for me to realise the synchronicity of this happening as I was in the depths of my book world.
By the end of Day One they all emerged from the nest into the cage. As night fell, I realised they may not know what to do, having such messed up circadian rhythms, so I headed up to the hut and found them all outside in the dark ready to roost wherever they could. I coaxed them into the warm hut with my head-torch light; they followed in a white-light trance like the well trained all night party chickens they were trained to be. I later read they are meant to sleep on the perches so this took a few nights of placing them so they could literally get the hang of it.
Adaptability in nature is the right hand of survival. The Girls knew how to head home to bed every night after that and by Day Two were walking with confidence and laying eggs. It became clear they needed more space. I hadn’t got a big enough yard fenced for them and soon their boundaries expanded with their new found sense of freedom. They went from a small metal wire box for 18 months into an endless search for new territory and adventure. My chickens became explorers with purpose and I couldn’t blame them at all, in fact I encouraged them.
As the Girls settled in to their new home, I adjusted to the strange behaviours of chickens and grew and enhanced their pens and feeders to suit. I was not ready at all for the ‘Pecking Order’. It is brutal. The Hurricane rose to domination and in true boxing fashion smashed her way around the pen, pushed all others away from the food and feather pecked her sisters ‘til they knew she was boss. Bitch. Lately she’s calmed down and I enjoy her curious nature, and delight in her flying down the hill as soon as she sees me in the garden.
Nelson Mandela, like her namesake, is inquisitive and the most intelligent hen: working out the self-feeder first, finding how to eat grubs from the garden, eating through the holes in the fences, discovering anything new for the first time, the other peckers copying what she does. She is the last in the Pecking Order though, and still suffers from some pecks on her neck from the bossy other three. Poor Nelson Mandela. (She’s my favourite).
Pussy Riot, like a show stopping attention seeker, dramatically shed her coat and went from rooster red to marmalade, a gingery streak throughout. She was severely pecked on her back when she arrived but it’s since healed and she rocks a fluffy orange coat with white zig zags on her head. She’s usually 3rd in the Pecking Order.
Su went crazy, so she became known as Crazy Su. She stood on one foot with one eye closed for a month and didn’t eat a thing. I was sure she was going to die. I guess trauma manifests in different ways. Then one day she snapped out of it, also shed her coat, and now is back to almost-normal. She has bossy days but she hasn’t managed to outstrip the Hurricane. She’s number 2 in the Pecking Order and picks on Nelson Mandela. Crazy Su hangs back and is cautious. She is the last to try anything and I still hardly see her eat. After a few months, she hasn’t worked out the feeder without the help of her sisters. Perhaps like her namesake, her character is changing, influenced by her previous trauma.
As time went by the Girls became fluffier, fatter, and fitter. Feathers regrown and a spring in their step they are now different animals, physically and mentally. Each with their own personality, they roam around the garden, a generous and moveable yard and spend hours in their favourite patch under the citrus trees, where they exist in a symbiotic relationship with lemons, limes and grapefruit.
Which leads me to where this all began. I find myself out in the garden in the winter sun, surrounded by native birds singing, staring at the chickens. When I started full time writing I took Facebook off my phone and restricted when I visited the distractive world of the Internet, but now instead of staring at pointless posts and falling down web rabbit holes, I stare at my chickens. Watch them with Darwinian curiosity. I was clueless when I started this journey and had no idea how to look after chickens. I wanted them to be as free ranging as possible—when you don’t have fences along the neighbouring properties that’s a challenge—so I bought a 50m long moveable fence and every week or two I shift them around, farming them in strip grazed patches. I grew up on a farm so I guess this habit takes me back to my roots; instead of cows I now graze four hens. Cross this farming tendency with my inner scientist and I end up wondering about all sorts of biological and ecological hen habits, observing these mysterious creatures of the bush hill side, which in wet winter makes them resemble true swamp hens. And then, I come out of the trance and return down the hill to my house and my book, where I re-enter the world of creativity, characters and painstaking editing.
Murikami talks about what he talks about when he talks about running. I have less profound statements on what I think about when I think about chickens. I can scratch out a blog on it, not a memoir. If I really think about it, I don’t think about much. It’s a time to zone out and observe. We all have an outlet, I thought mine would be something more adventurous, exploratory, or profound, but no, for the marathon of this novel, chickens are my outlet. There’s a little tube that runs from my brain outside when it is overflowing with creative capacity and needs to spill somewhere, it’s that fragile tubal space that chickens occupy. At times they are more than something to stare at, they’re something to talk to. Living in the world of the writer, the even stranger world of the extroverted writer, the one who prefers people around and misses their company, where writing is the Yin to the hustle of the world and the Yan of trying to save it, isn’t always the best personality fit. I’ve not felt lonely writing, it’s not the same feeling for me, I am so entranced in characters and the world of my book it’s hard to think of it as lonely; alone yes, perhaps a state of hypnotic aloneness with the need for a simple distraction.
So as you embark upon your all-consuming task of birthing something like a book, I recommend finding an outlet tube, one that leads you back to sanity. Walk the dog. Buy a gold fish. Plant a garden. Something you can do without venturing far that doesn’t take up any mental space but gives you simple joy and some interaction without taxing the mind. Rescue some hens!