We start looking around. There’s no doubt about it. One of our hens has disappeared.
“It’s Henrietta,” I say. “She’s gone.”
CJ and I haven’t been home for 10 minutes, but already we’re outside at the edge of our chicken run, scrambling to find a lost hen. Even though we’re exhausted and jet-lagged from a 7-week vacation in the States, the moment we finished hauling our luggage out of the car, we put on our gumboots for a walk on the property.
While we were away, CJ and I received email updates from Jenny, who leases our paddocks. She was house-sitting for us. It worked out well because her sheep were lambing in our paddocks and she was able to be nearby if there was any trouble. She sent updates about the new lambs and about how CJ’s pigs escaped one day, but there were no updates about our chickens.
“Maybe Henrietta is just laying an egg,” I say, even though it’s a little late in the day for that. “She must be in the chook house.”
I turn and begin walking over to the chicken coop to find her.
Urban Chickens of America
Throughout our long vacation I felt like I was viewing everything through chicken goggles. CJ and I saw chickens everywhere. In Chicago, our friends Russ and Joel said, “Becca and Dennis want to have you over for dinner. Dennis wants you to meet his chickens.”
Becca and Dennis live in Hyde Park, a South Side neighborhood full of old townhouses near the University of Chicago. The area is definitely urban, but when I stepped out Becca and Dennis’ back door, I saw what can only be described as the mad machinations of a farmer.
A row of bee boxes lined one side of their backyard. A short walk down an alleyway and into a neighbor’s backyard took us to the spot where Dennis and two other chicken-crazed families had converted a playhouse into a large coop populated by 6 lovely Black Java hens.
I chatted with Dennis about how his hens were doing, about the mild winter they’d just had, and about his bees. It didn’t matter that we were in America’s third largest city. To me this was rural conversation. It felt like the exchanges with our neighbors back in Martinborough, chats about the weather and crops and lambing – all things which have become concrete and meaningful to us after six years of country life.
In the midst of our urban holiday – which was jam packed with museums and restaurants and theaters – that simple conversation with Dennis made me truly miss my home. It made me miss Martinborough.
Looking for Henrietta
I approach the chicken coop now, and I reach out to lift the lid on the nesting box. There are a few brown eggs, but there’s no Henrietta. Then I go to the coop door and unlatch the clasp. I peak inside. The perches are empty. On the ground there’s nothing but dirty pea straw.
“She’s not here,” I call out to CJ, a clear tinge of worry in my voice.
Back when she was a young pullet, there was a moment as I was holding her when I suddenly felt her shift from tensed-up fear into a kind of relaxed ease. There was a palpable change in her tiny body. I believe she realized at that moment that she was safe with me. Ever since, she has eaten out of my hand. She remains the only one of our chickens to do so.
“Maybe she’s hiding back in the run somewhere,” CJ says.
CJ and I go into the large, grassy chicken run and walk around. Is she behind that clump of tall weeds? Is she on the other side of the compost heap? No. She’s not. She’s not in the run at all.
Now CJ and I begin looking everywhere – in the hay shed, in the trees. Perhaps she’s escaped and gone feral. But no matter where we look, there is absolutely no sign of our Henrietta.
Slowly, very slowly, it becomes clear to both of us that something very bad has happened. Henrietta is gone.
The chickens of Sunset Boulevard
By the time CJ and I arrived in Los Angeles at the end of our American holiday, we’d been traveling for over six weeks. We’d had fantastic visits with friends and family in Chicago, Michigan, New York, Denver, and San Francisco. But we were tired.
We spent our three days in L.A. with Hannah, a good friend from our Tokyo years. Standing on Hannah’s front porch in Silverlake, I looked out at the traffic of Sunset Boulevard just a few streets away. And directly across the street, in the front yard of a large house, I saw chickens.
It was a very strange thing to be able to see the traffic of Sunset Boulevard and chickens scratching around, all at the same time. It felt unreal, like someone had photoshopped the view.
Some people say that the backyard chicken craze in the States is a response to tough economic times, but I don’t think so. I think people are keeping chickens because somehow, in some way that cannot be put in words, it gives them meaning. I know it does me. It feels solid and real and grounded to gather eggs from your very own hens. It’s a good thing. It’s that simple.
Up at the house, I take my gumboots off at the back door and go inside to call our neighbor John. I want to tell him we’re back, and I want to find out if he knows what happened to Henrietta. John knows everything that happens round here. He’ll know.
And of course, he does.
As it turns out, Jenny was called away on a family emergency while we were gone, and John came over to check on the animals for us. One day he found Henrietta on the ground in the chicken coop, her head buried in the hay. There wasn’t a mark on her.
“It happens sometimes,” he says. “Chooks just lay down and die.”
“But she was only four years old,” I say.
“I know. But it happens. No reason. Just does.”
Ever the practical farmer, John saw a dead chicken as a chance to fertilize. He buried Henrietta in one of our raised vegetable beds, which are currently empty and covered in pea straw for winter. He isn’t sure which bed.
“You’ll know because you’ll have a patch of veggies that will grow really well there,” he tells me.
Perhaps in the spring I’ll find Henrietta, as I’m planting beans or carrots. Perhaps I’ll come across a cluster of bones, or maybe there will still be flesh and feathers. If I do find her, I’ll move her. I’ll bury her what’s left of her next to Old Man Henry, under the Oak tree behind the hayshed.
And I’ll tell her my goodbyes then.
Would you start digging up the garden beds to find Henrietta?
- Old Man Henry and the chook house race wars - when Henrietta met Henry
- Tsunami of the lost purse – our Chicago friends visit Martinborough
Related external links
- Black Java chickens: Back from the brink
- United States of Americana: Backyard Chickens, etc: the New American Roots Movement
Special thanks to Hannah for the pic of the L.A. chickens, to Lucy of the Lakeside Gang for the pic of Henrietta eating from my hand, and to Dennis for his pic of his Black Java hen. Hyde Park image from from Foxmovers.com.
Wairarapa Lifestyle Magazine
‘International chicken tour’ appeared in the Spring 2012 issue of Wairarapa Lifestyle Magazine. See other ‘Moon’ stories from Wairarapa Lifestyle Magazine.
You can find the magazine in the cafes and shops all over the Wairarapa. Check out the magazine’s website.