A CROW, SEVERAL WATERLESS CHICKENS AND A MONARCH BUTTERFLY
Near where I used to work each day here in
California, there is a large apartment building. Fronting the wide eastern wall
of the complex is an equally wide, ten-foot-deep lawn, surreally, almost
radiologically, green, of exactly one horticultural variety of grass. From time
to time, the lawn is fertilized furtively, against City of Los Angeles
regulations, by house-bound pet dogs on daily leashed walks with their owners.
Except for this random feeding, the lawn receives only chemical treatment, a
fact that is duly posted by the landlord as being dangerous "to pets and
feet" by staked signs. Consequently, one never sees, for example, a child
rolling in the grass.
The traffic cleared and I moved on, but I couldn't forget the scene, including my impression of the confusion or lethargy, whatever it was, of the solitary, still, and dehydrated crow. I drove on alone, headed home, across the arteries of the Valley, my own solitude mirroring that of the crow, and I found myself remembering an incident from my early teen years in rural Verda, Louisiana.
For lack of variety of subject matter taught at our tiny school (first through 12th grades all in one medium-size two story brick building) I was forced to major in agriculture, along with all the other boys without exception, and a further requirement of this enrollment was membership in the Future Farmers of America (FFA).
My father worked in another town, Winnfield, the ancestral home of the Eagles family since 1850, and my own birth town. He was a rock salt miner there. When our car (then a twelve-year-old 1936 Ford) was running well, he would drive the thirty-odd miles down country roads to work Monday through Friday, from Verda to Winnfield. When the car was not doing so well, he hitch-hiked. (The only public transportation was the U.S. Mail courier, a sedan that made one round trip a day from Winnfield to our town to deliver mail and to transport the occasional person who stood by the roadside and flagged the car down; the fare was a quarter, later fifty cents. The hours of operation, however, were not such that my father could travel that way.) Finally, he gave up and took another job in Winnfield not far from the salt mine doing sharecropping in the evenings after working all day at the mines, in exchange for rent in a small sharecropper's cabin strategically placed in the middle of the field so that the tenant du saison could keep an eye on the crops, particularly during watermelon season when poor young boys would sneak onto the property at night to steal a the delicious fruit.
As a result of my father's absenteeism from the Verda household, I (the eldest son) was entrusted with tilling the vegetable garden, milking the cow, gathering eggs, drawing water from the well, feeding and watering all the animals, including the cow, the chickens and the pigs, and chopping wood to fuel our heaters and cook stove. I also made the first fires of the day -- in the heaters and in the wood stove where I learned the hard way how to cook a batch of biscuits.
On one occasion, my father came home earlier than usual and was waiting in the kitchen when I arrived home from school. He had made coffee, the thick black, unsweetened brew that we all drank, even as children, and he was sipping from a bone china cup as I came in. He allowed me to get a cup first, then spoke.
"Bud," he said, "we've got to have a little talk. It's a hot day today, and when I got here, the chickens were walking around with their beaks wide open. Their watering pan was empty. Tell me something. Are you, I hope, the only FFA student trying to raise a new breed of waterless chickens?" (This was a parody of the experiments by horticulturists to create seedless grapes, cob-less corn and other nature-defying hybrids.)
I needed no further punishment than his ironical question, and thereafter did my chores more reliably before I left the house in the morning for the walk to school.
Yesterday, I realized that it had been half a century since I had seen a bird in such a plight. As I drove, I was listening to a classical work of music on the FM radio, but my visual field was haunted by the crow, and then the flock of waterless chickens from my boyhood. I had a sleepless night that night, waking up in a sweat at 11:30, and then again at 4:45 when our Siamese cat Mahra realized it was first light and therefore time for me to get up and have my coffee and scone at the computer, reading the electronic New York Times and petting the cat on my lap. I had a vague feeling of having dreamed some unpleasantry or another, but couldn't remember any details.
On that day, as a result of rising early, I put the finishing touches on three tax returns for clients and drove them over to the Sun Valley Post Office to mail them. The day, today, was again blistering hot, in excess of 105 degrees. The post office has no greenery, not even concrete-bound trees. Thank goodness, I remember thinking, for the air conditioning both in the car and in the post office. Coming back to my vehicle across the street, I unlocked the door. As I opened it and got in, a monarch butterfly flew into the car, a splash of vivid colors and velvety texture fluttering about as I drove home.
When I arrived home ten minutes later, the butterfly flew out the door as soon as I opened it, and settled on a plant on our lush front patio (my wife Marilu has kept our place green and watered in the unkempt, "natural" look of English gardening practice, albeit on a tiny scale by comparison, since we bought our San Fernando Valley home in 1978.)
I drank a tall glass of water after I had come into the house, then sat down to write this. I felt a sense of closure. Somehow I knew that I would sleep better that night. Written & published to the WWW: 7/17/98
Copyright © 1998, 1999, 2003, 2004 Walter Rufus Eagles. All rights reserved.