Early this spring an unfriendly committee greeted us when we entered the dark, dank shed. There on the rafters above us lounged six snakes, which a local naturalist identified as rat snakes. We welcome most wild visitors on the farm, having little choice in the matter. A compartment in the ceiling of the shed is also home to a squirrel who helps himself to bird seed we store there. Rats and mice leave their calling cards generously on the shelves, so that the presence of rodent-eating snakes wasn't altogether unwelcome.
Nevertheless, it gave us a chill. A friend had one of these creatures drop on him in his barn which provoked him to do a lively dance, accompanied by hysterical screams. We made our visits to the shed brief and kept our eyes on the rafters. The snakes regarded us with languid, pitiless eyes. Occasionally, one of them would begin to move with a creepy, endless flowing. From nature's point of view, there is no good or evil. But something about snakes strikes most of us as sinister. One day, they were gone, having left their skins behind as desiccated reminders.
About the same time we were treated to another surprise. One of our hens became "broody" and began sitting on the nest. For 21 days, more or less, she sat, ignoring the others as they filed out into the barn yard in the morning, trying to tempt her with all manner of festive squawks and cock-a-doodle-do's. With glazed eyes she kept her position night and day leaving the nest only for moments to drink and eat.
One morning a tiny ball of yellow fluff appeared amid the hen's black feathers. The next day, when she stood up, eight puff balls ran out from under her. It seemed a small miracle to have these creatures spring to life, born of our own roosters and hens (who knows how many fathers and mothers were involved). It was a different experience from picking up a box of hatched chicks at the post office.
Celebration of their birth was quickly displaced by fear of the snakes. The other name for "rat snake" is "chicken snake." They had to be lurking nearby. The barn was porous and the peeping of the chicks would be like a dinner bell summoning the heartless monsters. I had visions of discovering one of them dozing in the coop with a bulge in its midsection and I cried out loud in protest of nature's injustice. I sprinkled "Snake Stopper" powder around the barn and lined the chicken nursery with plastic mesh, which snakes are supposed to shun.
Meantime, trouble was brewing among the grown-up birds. Due to poor planning, we have three roosters and three hens. (One rooster for 10 hens is the recommended ratio.) This imbalance has made life exhausting for the ladies and brutally competitive for the men. The removal of the brooding hen from the circus only made matters worse.
One day I found two of the roosters flying at one another like a pair of fighting cocks. I tried to intervene but the alpha male, who was on the sidelines enjoying the spectacle, attacked me with a clear intent to kill. The two combatants pecked and scratched until they rested their necks on one another in a clutch like punch drunk boxers.
The next thing I knew, one of them was flat on his back, feet in the air. I thought he was a goner, but he still drew breath. I picked him up and sequestered him in private quarters and he survived. But by the next day, he was hurling challenges to the other rooster, ready to go at it again. Memory is short. He didn't like being away from the action. He'd rather be dead, apparently, than alone. Why can't these creatures learn to live and let live?
When the chicks were about three weeks old, another transformation took place.
The mother had been the model clucking hen, guiding her babes to water and food, heading them off when they strayed too far. How they loved to hop up on her back and slide down the feathery slope and to disappear into her feathers at night like the suppliants under the robe of Piero della Francesca's Madonna.
One morning, this same motherly hen suddenly turned on her brood, pecking them violently, picking them up by the nape of the neck, chasing and harassing them, driving them away from their food. In short order, one of them had lost the feathers off the top his head and was standing in a state of shock.
I quickly grabbed the hen and put her in isolation with the rooster. She raised a fuss at first, but within an hour seemed to have forgotten her little ones. It wasn't long before the chicks noticed their sibling's bloody head, which marked him as different and vulnerable. Then the pecking began. The bullies kept the poor little guy on the run until I intervened again and removed him to separate quarters where he peeps continuously, longing to rejoin his tormentors.
The cruelty of these creatures appalls me, which only goes to show how little I understand nature and her purposes. "Every natural fact is a symbol of some spiritual fact," wrote Ralph Waldo Emerson, who referred to the woods as "plantations of God." Nature in Emerson's view is blithe, tranquil, lovely, cordial.
The Marquis de Sade may not be a very reputable source of wisdom, but I think he was closer to the truth when he wrote, "Nature averse to crime? I tell you that nature lives and breathes by it, hungers at all her pores for bloodshed, yearns with all heart for the furtherance of cruelty."
Why should we expect human beings to be rational and peaceful when we're part of the same setup as the vipers, the weasels, the vermin, the insatiable raptors - and the blood-thirsty chickens as well?