My farmer’s tan is fading, so I know fall is upon us. I love fall in Maine, it’s the most special time of year to me, but I don’t know if I feel it in the same way others may. I love Halloween and everything orange. I love apple cider and pumpkin cookies. I love the leaves and the beautiful colors. Oh, how I love the colors in Maine in the fall!
But there’s something even more meaningful to me about fall. Perhaps it’s because I struggle a bit with depression in the long Maine winters or perhaps it’s because the fall is just a reminder to me of another cycle of life—the life, the death, the rebirth of Nature—but I always feel deeply poignant about this time of year.
This year I feel that even more so. This was very tough summer for me on the farm. We experienced a lot of death. The first chickens we got five years ago are aging and from a hatchery (before I understood what that really meant), and we lost several of our original flock this year.
Those were my original chickens, each one so special to me and each one responsible for changing my life. I became a farmer when those baby chicks arrived at the post office. I spoke into the box to tell them I was their mama, and I have never looked back. I honestly can’t imagine myself ever not being a small farmer of some kind. Even when I’m 80, I’m going to have at least a couple of chickens.
Still, I struggled this summer. It was losing Poe that just knocked me down, but it was Poe’s death on top of so much death that took a toll on me that I just didn’t even fully understand.
A few weeks ago, I had a health scare. I was so stressed about life and also still feeling quite down from Poe’s death. It seems the stress got to me a little too much.
My health scare was powerful enough to make me begin to reevaluate everything. I thought I was having a mini stroke; I thought I might be leaving my boys without a mama. Thankfully, it seems the episode was due to some severe stress and some possible dehydration after too many days picking from the garden in the hot sun and was not a mini stroke. Still, ultimately, I think it was a life changer for me.
Living on a farm often has me thinking about my own place in the cycle of life. I used to be an agnostic, maybe even an atheist. I had grown up with a version of Christianity that was scary, stressful, and judgmental, and if that was God, I didn’t want any part of it. But living on a little farm and living so close to Nature, coupled with a deep study of science, helped me find God on my own terms and in my own way, and what a wonderful thing that has been for me.
But my little health scare and the death toll this summer had me thinking extra long and hard about my mortality and my place in the world. One of things I do as a farmer is raise our own chickens. I am with these chickens from the time they are chosen as an egg to the time of their death. It’s a powerful thing to experience, and it becomes difficult for me to separate myself emotionally from these amazing animals. When each one is a miracle to you, how do you keep eating meat? How do you not mourn them when they pass?
After so much loss this summer and my struggle with it, I began thinking that maybe I would need to stop being a farmer. I have been having a hard time eating meat and have struggled with some vitamin deficiencies because of it. I wondered if I was tough enough to do this job. What kind of toll was all of this taking on me?
Still, part of me can’t imagine my life without these animals, and there’s so much joy and learning as well. There’s nothing more magnificent to me than observing a new mama hen with her brand-new babies. She’s so nurturing, so focused on doing her job and doing it well. And what a little miracle those babies are, struggling to pip their way out of that shell. It’s beautiful to see Nature in action like this.
I have learned so much about the cycles of life and death that I have no doubt I am a better human. In the grand scheme of things, our journey on this planet is so short. I have learned that I want to devote my life to being kind to both people and animals in as much capacity as I have at any given moment. With that kindness comes great rewards but also great pain, and some of that pain comes when I lose one of our animals.
So I have decided that the pain is worth it, that I am a good chicken keeper, that our chickens have really good lives where they are deeply respected, and that they deserve to be mourned.
If I have to be the one to mourn them, so be it.
Plus, I feel I grow wiser with each passing year, and that’s so important to me. Living on a farm can pack your life quite full of life lessons if you are willing to learn them. I think I am.
One night, my little boy, who just turned ten, was asking me about my death. He was worried about what would happen when I died. First, I told him to try not to worry too much because I planned to live a long time.
“I have much to learn from this life, so I have to stay awhile,” I told him.
Then, he asked me if I wanted to be buried and if I wanted a headstone. I told him I would like to be buried in a natural way, so my body would go back to the Earth and that I didn’t need a stone. But if he needed me to have a stone, then he should get one.
He asked if I wanted to be a tree, and I told him that would be great.
“What if we bury you on a hill at the base of a tree with lots of grass with no casket and a view of the sunset?” he asked.
“That would be awesome,” I said.
“Then, I am going to put this quote on your headstone: ‘Love yourself no matter who you are. Signed, the Chicken Lady.'”