The Apocalypse or the Egg

MTT News Desk's picture
Matt Geiger
Biscuit, one of the chickens featured in this article, after reaching adulthood

Editor's note: The following column first appeared in News Publishing's Spring 2012 Home and Garden Supplement.

In our partisan culture, half the populace always believes we’re on the brink of the apocalypse.

I’m an Independent, which means I’m always convinced everything is on the verge of collapse. As a result, I’m cultivating a lifestyle that will make the inevitable apocalypse manageable. I don’t just want to survive the End Times – I want to enjoy them.

I’ve already dabbled in various types of self-reliance. Canning food is a must, as is knowing how to grow turnips (one of the few crops that will be unfazed by all the environmental disasters). It’s also good to learn how to grow potatoes in a garbage can. I keep a canoe right outside my front door, so I can hop right in when the floodwaters reach my neighborhood. I keep an axe for chopping wood, a machete for harvesting food, and a nice oak 4X4 because if television has taught me anything it’s that there will be plenty of zombies.

My latest project involves chickens. I’m raising hens in my backyard so I can enjoy organic eggs, save money and treat the animals that feed me humanely. (Also to have a steady source of protein when the North American infrastructure collapses and we all spend our days riding around in dune buggies, wearing makeshift armor made of black leather and hockey pads.)


Getting Started

Getting started was easy. We purchased three young hens, which are called pullets, from Ruegsegger Farms.

Two were Red Stars - a “sex-link” breed. (This means males and females are different colors, making it possible to avoid buying any unwanted roosters.) They look like the animal you envision when you think of a barnyard chicken.

The third bird is an Aracauna, a Chilean variety that will lay bluish-green eggs. She has fierce eyes, dazzling plumage, and what I can only describe as a feathery white “neck-beard” under her beak.

When we got our chicks they were just a few weeks old – too small and fragile to live outdoors in Wisconsin, where nighttime temperatures were still in the single digits. They lived in an old dog crate in my home office. We often let them out, lining the floor with old newspapers so they could run around and stretch their little, rubbery legs. (It felt good to finally find a utilitarian use for all my articles.)

Within hours of our arrival home, I noticed that one of the chicks was living out the life cycle of every female character to ever inhabit a Charles Dickens novel:

Step 1.) Be happy, pretty and carefree; Step 2.) Experience a mild scare or trauma, like going outside with wet hair or reading a sad letter; Step 3.) Get a fever; Step 4.) Die.

My wife immediately filled a box with wood shavings, placing in it little dishes of food and water with the sick chick. One Website we visited suggested giving her some raw egg yolk, which I assumed was some form of low-tech stem cell therapy.

Despite our best efforts, little Gladys – she had already received a name - soon collapsed, her feet up in the air. She was as dead as Jacob Marley.

I had been aware that people who display cowardice are often called “chickens.” What I hadn’t realized until that moment was that, like the hemophiliac or sufferer of brittle bone disease, the baby chicken has every reason to be nervous.

Their skittishness is not paranoia – it is legitimate fear.

Taking pity on a pair of inept first time chicken owners, the farm offered us a replacement chick free of charge. She proved much hardier.

Once they are a couple months old these animals are actually surprisingly tough. In fact, when they have their adult feathers, chickens aren’t bothered by the most frigid temperatures. (This will be useful during the first nuclear winter.)

And soon our chickens – Cornbread, Skillet and Biscuit (the replacement chick) – had grown strong and hearty and were moved to new lodgings in our yard.


The Coop

After months of research and various sketches of the coop I planned to build, I instead bought a prefabricated one from a farming goods store.

Any structure I built from scratch would have fallen apart at once, probably on whatever poor creature was sitting inside it. The advantage offered by the retail option was that it fell apart piece by piece, every time I looked at it or considered moving it, like the workings of some cruel, particleboard clock. The retail method also gave me an opportunity to part with all my troublesome money. (Which is fine, because we’ll all use gasoline and turnips as currency in the future anyway.)

Lastly, this allowed me to assemble the structure based on a single sheet of paper, containing instructions clearly meant to be paired with some other project – perhaps a space shuttle.

In retrospect, this was my one mistake. For just a few dollars I could have made a simple frame of wood and PVC pipes, finishing it off with chicken wire and a tarp.

But I was stuck with the coop I had purchased, eventually assembling it using only a pair of screwdrivers and an assortment of swear words of various shapes and sizes.

Once our chickens were out of our house, we started pondering their many benefits.

For starters, and unlike the dog and cat, these animals will pay for their room and board. Also, chickens do a wonderful job of eating garden and table scraps. This means they are inexpensive to feed. (They can practically live off of turnip greens.) It also cuts down on yard waste that could potentially attract the inevitable roving packs of feral dogs and humans when the Mad Max times arrive, probably sometime right after the next election.


A Surprise

The chickens were also at the center of a very old discussion between my wife and I. Having grown up on a farm, I’m cognizant of one reality: everybody, and just about everything, poops. Farm kids like me know this because they spend most of their formative years shoveling, raking or pitchforking waste out of various stalls.

Individuals who didn’t grow up in an agricultural setting have a difficult time wrapping their suburban minds around this concept. My wife loves animals, but every time we bring home a new pet, there is always an awkward moment when the creature reminds her, in the most visceral way possible, of this one truism.

My wife’s countenance will grow dark. She’ll look at the droppings with alarm: “It’s going to the bathroom!”

Cats go about their business with so much secrecy it might as well be a drug deal. For dogs it’s not such a clandestine affair, but they at least have the decency to look ashamed – some say stupid – while doing the deed.

Not chickens. They don’t even stop eating, drinking or walking. But this too is a blessing, because their waste can be turned into compost, which you can use to grow life-sustaining turnips once all the convenience stores burn to the ground.

As I write this, we have three healthy, happy hens, calmly chirping under their breath as they roam our yard looking for bugs and eating dandelion greens. (Dandelions, which will flourish everywhere after the apocalypse, are already welcome in my lawn.)

There are few downsides to keeping chickens. All the neighbors love ours, and kids from next door like to come over and feed them. The birds are quiet, don’t smell bad, and don’t have any interest in leaving our lawn.

Their hierarchical aviary society is fun to watch, which will come in handy when we no longer have television.


The Real Apocalypse

This all brings me to the heart of the matter: the reason we got chickens in the first place. Eggs.

The chickens are about to begin laying eggs any day now, and their presence has taught me something. At first the eggs will be small and brittle, but soon they will be hefty, scrumptious and plentiful. (These eggs will come in handy after all the supermarkets have been looted and converted into tribal base camps.)

The great truth is this: A gift from a friend is always superior to a gift from a stranger. The present has context and meaning.

Our eggs will be daily gifts from small, feathered friends. Friends who we know and for whom we care. Friends who we hang out with when doing yard work or just relaxing on a Sunday afternoon. Friends who enjoy harassing our dog and defecating outside our door. Friends who make little contented chirping noises each night when I lock them safely in their little house.

This will make their eggs taste exponentially better than eggs created by ill-treated chickens we don’t even know.

As I mentioned before, I grew up on a farm. I hated it, feeling I was being punished for some unknown crime because I didn’t live on a busy street and get all my food from a supermarket.

Now, when I slip outside just before sunrise each morning to let the chickens out and give them fresh food and water, I feel very much like I did back then. But this time I appreciate it.

When I do the little chores that chickens require, I feel like a slightly fatter, wiser version of the kid who did these same things with chickens, cows and horses all those years ago.

There’s a certain peace to it. It allows my brain to become recumbent, and all troubling thoughts of the apocalypse slip easily from my mind as I toss some scraps onto the lawn for my backyard chickens.

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