Today I’m working in my yard and garden and seeing many details that I often overlook when other priorities are first in mind. I have often joked that learning all your plants can seem like a curse when it’s time to do lawn maintenance type activities. We have little more than an acre of what could be considered “manicured” lawn/field/garden but it’s a meticulous puzzle that evolves with available sunlight, animal needs, proximity to house and which areas are likely to be traveled in succession. I’m a little behind and feel the pressure of needing to get some things in the ground but I’ve learned that at this altitude the lateness is better than the harsh freezes that happen at 4,000 feet elevation.
Today, however, it’s not just the excitement of seeing the same yarrow patch back again, or wondering where that field of heal-all went, it’s my chickens. Chickens are surely a strange bird. At first they don’t seem all that intelligent. The peck and pluck, and chirp and gargle, and poop all over my porch. They can be stubborn, even against their own interest. Especially against their own interest! And the times I have given up and said “the heck with you” and left them to their own devices they get eaten. Or I have to chop off the head and deal with the still-alive chicken that has holes in its back. But as often occurs when just watching nature, today my own greater level of awareness of the things in my yard allowed me to perceive a deeper intelligence on the part of the chickens.
Now at first the particular action they displayed seems perfectly logical and not all that smart. I mean, why not go where the “greener grass grows”, right? Isn’t that the survival nature of all things – to seek favorable conditions for the existence of the species? Well, if that isn’t all that smart we humans have some work to do to get out of the dumb range.
As I watched the birds herd around it didn’t take them very long to discover a freshly mown lawn revealed tasty bugs and had the prey in a state of shock and chaos. Shock and chaos is a vulnerable state for any society or biological community – but there is often a beneficiary. In this case, chickens. The chickens followed me, eating their fill, taking full advantage of the situation taking place all around them. They reminded me of a hunting pack, deadly, efficient, absolute terror to the small world at their feet. Their eyes were keen and they hit each mark with extreme accuracy pegging even the smallest crawling thing. Only the crawling things which ceased to crawl were rendered invisible and escaped unharmed.
As much fun as this sounds for a chicken, they soon left the trail of the mower and swept in behind the tiller. Same game, bigger slower prey – earthworms. My loyal hens pawed through the carnage of my rotating blades and scarfed up any potential fishing lures for my trip down to the river this afternoon. But as I sat there contemplating this ‘common sense’ approach to food acquisition, making use of opportunity – an act performed by the humblest of creatures inhabiting my little corner of the mountain – I thought of myself as a hunter.
Am I as smart as my chickens? For years I would sit in the woods with my bow, convinced the deer just weren’t there. Or maybe they had all been killed or something. As I would turn into a small tree welded to the ground in some creek-side hollow I would feel saddened by the immense amount of time it took to play the game of stakes in seeing my prey – a deer of correct size and sex and so on. But Eustace could ride a freakin’ motorcross bike into the woods with a shotgun slung over his shoulder and come back with two; in a matter of hours. I knew there was more than just silent movement, scent control, listening skills, even bird language and watering holes. At least, there had to be. Or he was lucky. Every year. All the time. Sigh.
It’s not a huge realization to step up into chicken level hunting intelligence but yet, for some reason, many of us take a while to do it. The chickens were taking advantage of outside influences and maximizing success based on the likelihood of a certain location. Those looking for a photograph of that elusive animal, or a broad shot on a large buck, should take these things into consideration as well. Things like weather affect patterns and movements of animals in the forest. Wind, temperature, precipitation, all have a say in the attitude, sensitivity, and movement of critters that call the outdoors “home”. Topography, hillsides, safe zones, water drainages, vegetation, each add another layer to the multi-dimensional puzzle! And then human activity is another! And then mass die offs of anything, but especially hemlock trees in the southern Appalachians, creates huge disturbances in routine, habit, sheltering areas and so on. In fact, on a geologic scale Earth Changes are not some freak thing – it’s all that is! But we who want to see a little more of the bigger picture must try to see what changes are relative to us and how to capitalize on them. My chickens got worms because I dug them up. I shoot a deer because the new development across the ridge has cut off travel routes through the valley. I only had 3 hours to hunt anyway before a kid needed to see a doctor.
Now while some of us use ‘hunting’ as a reason to just spend 48 hours away from everything we know, or hang out with buddies, get away from the old woman, or sit silently on some stone outcrop like a piece of rock tripe, or all of these, there are times when a stationary skill grows cumbersome and we feel the need to excel. Or at least improve. How many people have you known that didn’t have sense enough “to get out of the rain”? Literally. And then someone had to intervene to stop hypothermia or at least deal with their bad attitude after the last jacket was soaked or the sleeping bag made heavy with water. Ugh. Fishermen know this intelligence; where to anchor, where to float, where to pull fast and where to let sink. Girls looking for good men at the local bar might be lacking it, I don’t know (some of my bar attending friends might disagree ha!) But whether we are looking for a rare and exotic plant, a potential mate, a wild pig or a nightcrawler we can save ourselves a lot of time and be more selective if we maximize our resources by starting in high probability areas. What are those areas?
Well, only time will reveal these secrets when it comes to the woods but there is a way to maximize even that investment. Find a good mentor, someone who has spent time learning and let them help. And always stay a student! Even the humblest of fowl can remind us of what natural knowledge we often forget. But, of course, there is something else that my birds remind me of. Something with ominous extrapolations. See, the chickens do their chicken thing, surviving and thriving, killing like mass harvesting machines, feeling quite satisfied, but there is someone else that benefits from the conflict. The violence taking place in my yard controls bugs and pests, especially since the birds are encouraged to hunt in areas in need of patrol. The food makes better eggs. Which I gather. And eat. And if the bird doesn’t produce eggs I always have the option of eating the bird. But what really gets me is the realization of how small my awareness really is. Certainly I cannot even know a fragment of a grain of the Universe in all its space and time and dimensions. The thought cannot stay silent: “Who is above me?”