With apologies to Joni Mitchel

Michael Johansen
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"I've looked at chickens from both side now

From up and down, and still somehow

It's chicken illusions I recall

I really don't know chickens at all ..."

I first knew chickens when I was 12. Despite being descended from tenant farmers, I was then only familiar with the countryside for recreation - not for hard, smelly work.

That changed when my parents sold their suburban bungalow and bought a rundown horse farm on the Canadian Shield. The horses were long gone, having been replaced by tractors and other kinds of livestock. The stables were remodeled to accommodate 40 head of cattle and 2,000 egg-laying hens.

The cattle were easy to like. They didn't require a lot of work, except during the weeks spent cutting and baling hay. In spring, summer and fall, they rarely slept inside. They roamed the woods and pastures at will to search out their own food and water.

When they came inside on winter nights, their bodies alone warmed the stables to a comfortable temperature. Then they had to be fed and mucked out daily, but they were gentle company. Soon, even their smell loses its unpleasantness.

That never happens with chickens. One might grow accustomed to the stench of their copious droppings, but none learn to like it. The work the chickens required was not arduous, but it was incessant. Three times a day, hundreds and hundreds of eggs had to be collected by hand.

Chickens are not bright birds. Opening the door suddenly sends them into a panic and when more than a thousand leap wildly into the air, flapping their inadequate wings, they stir up a thick and long-lasting cloud of feces and feathers - into which I'd be forced to walk and breathe - so I usually opened the door slowly.

They'd fall silent, forgetting whatever they were gossiping about before I arrived. Each would turn to look at me with one or another of her eyes, then twitch her head to look with the other - all at once. Their cooing would resume, but with clucks interspersed.

"It's that kid again. It's that kid again. It's that kid again. Oh dear, the eggs. Oh dear, the eggs. Oh dear, the eggs."

Chickens may be big birds, but they're hardly dangerous. The occasional one was brave enough to peck at me while I fished eggs out from under her, but fortunately none of them were smart enough to realize that if all 2,000 of them ganged up on me for a mass pecking, I wouldn't stand a chance. They'd save all their eggs. However, I usually only encountered mass passive resistance, which was annoying because then I had to avoid stepping on their crouched bodies.

If there had been no chickens in my boyhood, I might have taken to farming (for a fleeting moment), but the lessons those birds taught me about dirt and drudgery made me seek a home far away from agriculture: Labrador, where the only birds I see are crows, ravens, partridges, whiskyjacks, geese, ducks, owls, loons, woodpeckers, hawks and sometimes an eagle. No domestics anywhere - or so I thought.

Now, to help out a friend, I'm once again listening to the gossip of hens before raiding them for their eggs - here in Labrador! This time, I only have 35 eyes (and then the other 35) watching me as I enter the coop, but the smells and the sounds are almost the same as those created by thousands.

"Who's that? Who's that? Who's that? Oh dear, the eggs. Oh dear, the eggs. Oh dear, the eggs."

Actually, there was once many more than 35 hens in Labrador. Farming here always seems to get thrust back to its beginnings every few decades, forced again and again to start over.

Only now, all the farmers who were evicted from the hard-worked land they cleared along the Churchill River are finally getting back on their feet. More and more of their fresh food is eagerly bought by local people, so the new farms will just keep on growing.

I'm only facing 35 chickens now, but I'd better get used to them. I'll probably be seeing a whole lot more.

Michael Johansen is a writer living in Labrador.

Organizations: Canadian Shield

Geographic location: Labrador, Churchill River

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