What memories live on in our spaces on Earth? Take, for example, a 8 ft. x12 ft. structure, raised off the ground, supported by sturdy locust posts buried securely beneath it. A space at the crest of a hill. A space, where in all but the lush, leafy green months of summer, the valley below and ridge beyond can be scanned from east to west through a tangle of swaying, bare branches. A space in view of Grandmother Maple, who has been a steady presence for longer than any living thing around, for how long we will only know on the day when she falls when she is ready, allowing those of us who are here at that time to peer inside and count her many rings.
This space was initially built to serve another purpose in its next life. That was a given from the start. Perhaps it was that intension, that future vision, that helped erase the sadness.
How the conversation about bringing chickens and ducks onto our land and into our lives began, I can’t recall, but what preceded their arrival was a home. I call it a home and not just shelter because that’s what it was, a 8 x12 building with plenty of room for an adult to stretch to the ceiling, a sloped roof, repurposed windows and doors. From the beginning, it was much more than just a chicken coop.
Once the fuzzy chicks and ducklings who were strong enough survived those perilous first days, weeks and months, dodging the conditions and predators some of their not-so-fortunate companions did not, we had a healthy stock of a dozen hens of differing varieties, one duck, and an amazing hand-me-down rooster, named Sergeant Pepper. These birds did not just provide us with the most amazing eggs we had ever eaten, manage the insect and slug populations in our yard, and fertilize our gardens, they gave us music, piqued our curiosities about animal behavior, changed the way we thought about the intelligence and personalities of domesticated birds, and made us grow to love them.
Perhaps it was the collective memories of all of these happier times accumulated in this space that lived on in spite of the sadness of their demise.
It had been a long, harsh winter. I thought for sure that if something were to happen to them, it would have been from the frigid temperatures. Never did I think that the end would have come as the Earth reawakened, as the days became longer and the Earth warmed and brightened from brown to green.
The mystery of it all was almost as frustrating as the loss. That, and being home alone when it all started. I had returned from vacation alone to go back to work while my husband and children continued to soak in the southern rays. I certainly couldn’t blame them. I entered the west-facing door that morning to check on everyone when I noticed Seaweed, our duck, standing at an awkward stance with an abrasion on her neck. I couldn’t tell what it was from or how severe it was, but she wasn’t herself. Being the only one who couldn’t fly up to the roost, she was the most vulnerable. The next morning, there I found her, lifeless on the straw-covered floor of the coop. Not having had to directly face the death of an animal we had taken into our care before that moment, I didn’t realize how she had become much more than a farm animal. I was such a softy, and clearly not hardened for the realities of farm life. I sobbed and sobbed, and, with no one else around, did the duty of burying her in the icy ground.
From that point on, the dominoes continued to fall. Each day or two, I would enter the coop to find another hen, lying still on the floor, even shouting at the birds through my sobs in the hopes that they would knock it off, tell me what in the hell was going on. I continued the crying, continued the burying, until Goldie was the only one left. SHE was a different bird. Once all the others were gone, she refused to return to the coop. She roosted in our flower box on the porch. She roosted in the branches of the rhododendron in front of the house. She even roosted on the luggage rails of the minivan. Any chance she had, when someone had not closed the sliding back door to the house, she entered the kitchen, made her way to Buster’s dog food dish to peck at what she could get away with until someone, either human or canine, danced her back to the lonely yard, still teeming with the echo of Sergeant Pepper’s cock-a-doodle-dooo.
It was clear she needed community, companionship of her own kind. Friends down the road welcomed her to join their flock. She had taught us what she was here to teach us, and it was time for her to move on to a new home.
There sat the coop, accumulating extra lumber and anything else that needed shelter from the rain. The space felt dry and lifeless, sighing with the stinging memory of the carnage I had encountered day after day, mysterious until I one day noticed a tiny human-like paw print on a pane of glass: a raccoon. That smart, stealthy, hungry animal had made its way high up to the one-and-only broken pane of glass, climbed inside, down, then up and back out, one fewer bird alive than when it had entered. I guess her babies were hungry, too.
It was time. Time for renewal. Time for repurposing. Time for remembering that a next iteration was, and had always been, in the plan. Little by little, hand by hand, bit by bit, the space was re-birthed. West-facing door became east-facing door. House-facing view became forest-facing view. While the footprint stayed the same, inside and outside, it slowly transformed.
I just couldn’t call it an office. It was no longer a chicken coop. L'ex Pollaio. Yes. Somehow, in Italian its new purpose could be served. It’s been nearly a year since I began creating from this space, scanning the crest of the ridge, sitting in homage to Grandmother Maple, blossoming in the memory of the salty lessons I had learned here. Though I now sit where I first found Seaweed, the sadness is gone from the space. I give thanks for their being, which initiated this space. I give thanks for their passing, which opened this space. I give thanks for my willingness to let go, which transformed this space. L'ex Pollaio: what memories will continue to live through you? If no one were to share them, no one would ever know.