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Charney/My Turn: Safety in numbers

She holds the dying chicken in her arms. “My girls,” she calls her flock of chickens in the collective, like when they come running for their share of a treat. On other occasions, “the girls” have particular names, opportune names, like names of the visiting grandchildren.

“Which one is Rose?” asks Rose. Then she hopes to recall their distinctive features: the dark specks on the crown, the white stripe across the rump, the black amid the red tail feathers that define one from the other. “You said that was Paulie, not Rose,” Rose corrects.

The hen feels light, almost weightless in her arms. Its eyes have a dull yellow sheen; its rear end is moist and clotted. She tries to dip the bird’s beak into a solution of electrolytes and water, as suggested by a concerned and better-informed friend. “She’s dehydrated,” the friend noted. But it’s too late and the drops don’t pass to the gullet. Instead there are spasms, and a final protesting shudder. Her chicken dies.

“Nature’s tax,” a farmer decreed in the matter-of-fact statement of one used to the vulnerability and casualty rate of domestic animals. And true, she had already wrestled with a raccoon to save one of their original dozen. On that night, returning from a late movie, there was a loud squawking from the coop as she and her husband got out of the car. They raced into the backyard to find the culprit in the hen house. Her husband grabbed a handy shovel; she waved her arms and squawked chicken-like until the raccoon dropped its prey. This time the hen was saved, but later something else picked it off, along with two others. Perhaps an eagle, a hawk or any number of other hungry predators searching for an easy dinner. From the 12 chicks, they now had eight hens.

Now, she took the daily head count. Eight in the morning and eight in the evening. Each time, she breathed an invisible sigh of relief and felt a sneaky sign of accomplishment. Survival was a shared enterprise. But truth be told, lately her girls had been grounded, their free-ranging privileges curtailed, after a neighbor had complained. He appeared at the door, evidence in hand, holding what had once been a large gorgeous, ripe red tomato and now a pecked vestige of its former glory. “Your chickens,” he said in a firm but neighborly way.

“Girls,” she had had to say, “no freedom for you until after tomato season.” They clustered at the gate, expecting release, getting only a head shake. And perhaps a few extra treats, a few more kernels on the cob or watermelon left on the rind, snatched away from the finishing touches of dinner guests. The only benefit was that now her head count felt a bit more secure. How much trouble could the girls get into fenced into coop and pen? She wasn’t bargaining on parasites, if it was parasites.

On the town farm recently, acres of hard-worked crop — golden beets, winter squash and leafy chard — were lost to a sudden microburst, ruined by wind and hail. Then, too, to her way of thinking, even bigger losses, such as the terrible decision by the Supreme Court to turn back its seminal decision of 1963, gutting key parts of the Voting Rights Act. There is this summer’s devastation to our national parks and sacred forests due to hotter and hotter fires, as well as the firefighters who lost their lives in Prescott, Ariz. Or on a world-wide scale, the mounting death toll in Syria, the violence in the Middle East and the growing numbers of refugees everywhere.

A local writer friend and naturalist has said that one has to be brave to continue to love the world in the face of such losses. She encourages us to continue to find that courage to act in its defense and significant causes. So I will try. And I will continue to count the chickens I still have each morning and night. There were seven this morning. I hope there will be seven tonight.

Ruth Charney lives in Greenfield.

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