When Pasty died, I cried so hard I started dry heaving. Even as I listened to myself sob, I questioned whether I was being ridiculous. Sobbing over a dead chicken. It didn’t feel ridiculous in that moment. For me, Pasty represented the beginning of it all. The desire to raise farm animals, the belief we could pull it off, and the small but persistent reminder to look for the joy in what, on many days, is just plain hard.
Before I moved to GTF, I fantasized for months about “urban farming” in my backyard in Houston. I planted raised beds and grew more kale than one person could consume. Emboldened, I made weekly trips to the bygone feed store in my neighborhood to scope out the newest shipment of seedlings. Soon I became distracted not by seeds, but by the cages of baby chicks. I loved eating eggs. I was already paying $6.99 for a dozen pasture-raised eggs each week. For $1.25 a chick and six months of feed, I could have my own!
I didn’t have a coop and didn’t know the first thing about raising chickens, but I bought my first assortment of six chicks. I put them in my spare bedroom, covered the floor with newspapers, and hung a heat lamp from my desk drawer. I woke up multiple times each night to make sure I could hear their healthy peeping. I convinced Ryan to help me build a chicken coop (or, rather, he built it and I hammered in some of the nails).
The chick that would be Pasty was a tiny black barred rock. The first time Ryan came to visit the chicks, he saved her. One day she was more listless than the others. I hadn’t noticed why, but Ryan knew, almost instantly. She had pasted up. We rushed her to the kitchen sink and clumsily wiped her tiny chicken butt with warm water to clear the vent. She pooped and voilà, Pasty came alive! Almost instantly she began hop-stumbling around, happily flapping her tiny pin-feathered wings, chirping. From that day on, there was no holding her back. She was the first to perch on a wooden dowel in the chick bin, the first to flap her wings in clumsy flight, the first to eat out of my hand. She was curious. She was bold. She was stubborn. The other chicks startled easily, but not Pasty. When threats approached (like giant human feet and legs), she wouldn’t squawk and run like the others. She’d stand her ground and cock her head horizontal and look up at me, inquisitive, eyes blinking and trill her trademark “Hmph!” noise, asking, “What do you have for me?!”
I found her boldness and irreverence irresistible. Early on, when the chicks were still living in my spare bedroom, I startled awake one night, listening to what sounded like loud hammering. Thinking someone was breaking in, I opened the door to the chicks’ room, my heart beating in my ears. I didn’t find an intruder. It was the rat-a-tat of tiny Pasty, perched alone atop the metal trash can I used to store the chick feed. She was drumming her beak on the lid, enrapt in her own concert. The other chicks peered up at her in awe.
After they moved outside, Pasty reigned. First out of the coop every morning, she’d walk right up to me, waiting for me to bend down with a treat for her. Her favorite treats were blueberries or blackberries, but she’d try anything. The other chickens were skeptical, skittish. Not Pasty. She’d march right up and grab anything I offered out of my hand. If I was too slow to bend down, she’d stare up at me and hop vertically, pecking my hand to hurry it down to her beak level. I could grab Pasty and sit her on my lap. She’d cluck out a grumble or two, but then let me stroke her neck, knowing this shared moment would lead to more treats for her.
When I moved to the farm and brought my small Houston half-dozen with me, Pasty remained the boldest. The others were wary of wide-open spaces, but Pasty would lead them on ever-larger exploratory missions, scoping out their new home. We had other, more feral chickens and much larger numbers of them. Pasty was never intimidated. There was no part of the farm that wasn’t hers. The hens met roosters for the first time. The roosters, with their horny minds, would circle around the henhouse door every morning, waiting for the ladies to come out. Pasty was perpetually unimpressed with their struts and advances. “Hmph! Hmph!” (“Is that stupid dance all you have to offer me?”). And she’d turn her back on them and walk away. Intimidated, they’d let her pass, untouched.
I looked forward to the days I could get home to the farm in the daylight. Pasty would see my car pull up and, from across the pasture, come running. Chicken feet churning like a wind-up toy, thumping over the dry ground until she’d skid to a stop by my car door. Cocking her head up at me, “hmph!” (“what did you bring me?!”) I learned to recognize the pitch of Pasty’s trills and warbles. I could tell when she was coming with my eyes closed.
The farm has forced me to confront grief more frequently than I had ever imagined. Sure, we had planned deaths from the beginning. We set out to raise meat birds, to raise beef cattle. There would be butchering. Well-cared for animals with good lives and humane deaths. I have always believed taking part in the full life cycle, start to finish, birth to death, is the most responsible way to eat. The most honest acknowledgement of the sustenance animals provide us.
But it is the unplanned deaths on the farm that catch me off guard and stun me emotionally. Returning one day to find a patch of feathers, scattered at the edge of the garden plot. A hen, lost to a hawk. Stumbling upon the gutted carcass of a hen in the dark. Victim of a raccoon or opossum, perhaps. In the middle of an afternoon a hawk dives before our eyes, and poof, another chicken gone. We find another hen decapitated in the barn.
I convinced myself Pasty wouldn’t die this way. That she’d live into good old age and, upon her natural death, I could cook her into a dignified stew. There was one scare, some months ago, that challenged my idealism. I arrived home in the dark. The chickens had already put themselves to bed. I did the nightly count, all accounted for but one. Pasty. Frantically, I walked around the barn, the garden, calling her name. I thought the worst, and started searching for the carcass, the feathers, the any traces. I found nothing. Making a wider radius, I began to search the trees. The flashlight finally caught her, roosting in a tree, head hung down, fast asleep. Just Pasty, her rebel self, trying something new that night. I plucked her out of the tree and got a sleepy squawk of protest in response before she begrudgingly marched herself into the coop. “Hmph!,”(“If you insist!”)
She didn’t try the tree sleeping anymore, and life returned to normal. Blueberries, blackberries, broccoli florets and cherry tomatoes. Greetings from across the pasture when I arrived home before sunset. Pasty leading the pack after me on weekends in search of handouts, making me feel like the Pied Piper of Poultry.
But then, again, returning home late one night, she wasn’t there. Ryan broke the news as I was getting ready for bed, catching me off guard. She’d been mauled by a dog. I didn’t believe him at first, but it would have been too cruel a joke. She was gone. All I had put into her, all she represented to me. It was devastating.
Pasty’s death was personal for me. But it was also the accumulation of so many others. Animals, all of them part of the life of our farm. Animals we put so much into. Animals that gave back to us. It feels defeating, to lose them, because it’s hard to see the unplanned deaths as anything other than our faults, our failures.
I was raised to suppress grief through silence, by taping down the stories, by not talking. Run fast enough and far enough ahead, and the memories won’t catch up. But as I climbed into bed, still bawling over Pasty, Ryan started talking, recounting her stories one by one. Remember when we saved her. Remember how she flailed her wings about. Remember she was the first to perch. Remember how she bossed the roosters around. Remember the night she slept in a tree. Remember how she’d greet you each day. At first my brain screamed for him to stop. Stop talking about her now. It’s too soon.
But it’s not too soon. We shouldn’t stop talking about her. Or the others. We need the memories of the animals we have lost. Their forgiving personalities. Their ability to confront each new day with verve. Their spunk and their stubbornness. They give us hope against the backdrop of the hard: fences breaking, cows escaping, flash floods, tornados, coyotes, tractor tires gone flat, and myriad other challenges. They display the resilience that we often have to dig deep to find inside ourselves. That we might never find without them.
Pasty always reminded me of this. And I don’t want to do this thing called farming without her memory.