Wednesday, June 15, 2011


Step into the Garden

Why do you scramble for the most prestigious seats like chickens after a grub?

At the core of the desire for prestige is a misguided and exaggerated sense of amour propre. Such thoughts, feelings; such pathological urges and impulses are enormously counter-productive and worse, self-destructive.

Often, these impulses lead precisely to the opposing place than you thought they would take you. Thus, instead of placing you at the apex of position, they cause you to compare yourself with another; the ‘other’ usually winning out. Hence, one incurs the pain of self-imposed inferiority.

A group of chickens chasing after a grub is an apt metaphor. I have seen it. While growing up, I lived next door to a family that raised chickens. I discovered that if one purposes to spend time in observance of a pen of chickens, one must first-off realize that it isn’t going to be pretty.

A chicken pen is not a particularly hospitable place. Once I was charged with the formidable task of cleaning out Sister Hamby’s chicken coop. Sister Hamby was no nun. She was, in a word, a delightful elderly lady. Well, perhaps I am trying to be kind. A more apt description is one who gave the appearance of a white-haired old crone, who smoked like a chimney. She was short, wore thick glasses, and I couldn’t help but wonder how often she bathed. Still, I liked her because she baked me cookies.

As I addressed Sister Hamby’s chicken coop, I allowed the door to swing open, creaking on rusting hinges. There, inside, racked up against the wall, stood a chicken roost. It was daytime, morning actually, so the chickens were out in the yard, chasing grubs, or bugs, or each other. Who knows the complex priorities caroming off the walls of chicken skulls? Often, they peck at each other’s head, leaving the unfortunate with a head more resembling a turkey buzzard, than a chicken. And there, beneath the chicken roost, was a four-foot thick pile of chicken manure. The odor smelled a mixture of chicken feathers, lice, an odd white, gray and brown admixture of chicken bowel movements, and . . . ammonia.

If you know anything at all about a four-foot-high pile of chicken manure, the moment I mention the smell of ammonia, you know I am telling the truth.

Also, if you are a professional chicken pooper-scooper, you know you need the right tools for the job. The tool of choice here was a long-handled garden “fork.” An instrument about four feet long with pointed v-shaped tines on the working end, that with a little force, could tear into the earth seeking to cultivate and dismember huge clods of clay. Only in my case here, it was not clay, but chicken excrement, moist with said ammonia.

I started to work. Before long I was sweating. The smell of ammonia grew stronger and stronger. So strong, in fact, that it became hard to breathe; its molecules mixing with the molecules of my sweat, distilling itself through my eyebrows and causing my eyes to sting with acid.

The poop clung like honey to the tines of the garden fork, making it easier to carry it from the coop itself, to the waiting wheelbarrow. Only it wasn’t honey. It was well digested, chicken feed, assorted bugs, worms, and fat, yellow grubs. You know, the kind that looks like an obese caterpillar, brown head, maybe a third of an inch thick and an inch long. Grubby little things! Chickens will kill for them. One chicken grabs a grub, all of the other chickens converge upon it, until the hapless grub is torn to pieces by a wild, frenzied mob of feathers and beaks.

We upright humans, who also convey ourselves about on two scrawny legs, (in some cases, not unlike those of chickens) can be grub-chasers, too. We digest ours in the entrails of our pride and our sense of self-importance. Our grubs are influence, power, position, control, money and things -- to consume. Enevitably, our abandon to consumption produces an inordinate stench, not too dissimilar from ammonia, which, mixed with the sweat of expended energy, does far more damage than irritate our eyes; and the pile left on the floor beneath the roost is our character, our spirit, the very best of our souls.

I guess it labors the obvious to say that the marketplace and the media has shaped our culture. Glitz, glitter and glamour are prized. We love the TV commercials that tell us how much we “deserve” the products being hawked.

Humility – true humility, as opposed to feigned – is seen as weakness.

As for a servant of God, (we often wear this term as a title, pretentious in its paradox), one might prefer to be perceived as weak, than perceived as one chasing after a grub with the rest of the chickens.

But true humility is not weakness. It bears the regal stamp of strength too great for the imagination – especially the imaginations of chickens.

I wonder if God has ever created a chicken, who, instead of grub-chasing, quietly and humbly clucking, found its way to the nest, and did something truly productive?

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