Daily Bread

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I love watching the pigs and chickens eating – their styles are so different. Right now both groups are getting bread with their morning scraps.  The pigs sort and prioritize, though they are not the types to save dessert for the end, exactly. Although things are a bit frantic before breakfast actually gets in front of them (do NOT stand in the way of a pig and it’s bowl – they do not consider themselves responsible for any damage inflicted on their way to the food), once the food is in front of them, and they have established boundaries on personal eating space, they settle down to eat very industriously, because the first one finished is entitled by pig etiquette to go round and help any slower eaters finish their breakfasts.   The chickens on the other hand operate on the basis that there will never be enough scraps for everyone, also that every hen with a scrap obviously has something better.  Therefore hens are compelled to go for whatever is in front of them, and then drop it when they see another hen with something, to give chase.

This morning, I had torn up the chickens bread into small pieces and thrown it into the run before I let the hens out. It’s a bit like watching kids at one of those town sponsored easter egg hunts, where they drop the ribbon and the kids dash to grab all the eggs they’ve spotted while waiting – cutthroat. The chickens pour out of their house, and grab the first chunk of bread they see. And then they have to run for it, because of course, 55 other hens are likely to give chase. The problem then becomes what to do next. Put it down so she can peck at it to eat it? Surely another hen will come along and swipe it.  Finding a good hiding spot is paramount. The hens scatter everywhere, heading for bushes and brambles, tall clumps of grass, anything to hide them for a few seconds of frantic eating. Since they’re all doing the same thing, they aren’t very successful. Many run around for several minutes with their piece of bread gripped firmly in their beaks, unable to enjoy it, unable to eat it. Just owning it.

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The pigs and the hens both spend their days foraging for wild, natural food – bugs, grubs, roots, leaves, etc.  Both are fed commercial feed by us; the hens have free access to theirs, while the pigs get fed twice a day, commercial feed morning and night, scraps with the breakfast meal.  Despite their reputation for greed, well understood when you witness the rush for the bowl – once that initial moment of panic is over, meals are fairly peaceful.  The eating pace is brisk but steady.  Neither pig seems to see the need to go and hide a special treat or eat it out of sight of the other. With normal veggie and fruit scraps, the chickens behaviour is less desperate – it’s not uncommon to see two chickens working on one apple core, for example.

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Interestingly, in their daily foraging, both species operate somewhat similarly.  They root or scratch or explore in more or less companionship.  The pecking order in both species seems to kick in with regard to particularly good morsels, but other than that, the day is fairly calm as the creatures work together, or wander separately, relax with a dust or mud bath, or go and snooze in the shade.  There might be the odd spat over personal space occasionally, and the pigs in particular have moments of playfulness, but generally speaking, peacefulness prevails.

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So what’s with the bread?  Is it because it comes to them rarely?  Does it actually taste better to chickens?  Is just that it’s a change from same old same old?  French white (today’s offering) certainly isn’t better nutritionally than what they forage for (greens, insects, etc), their pellet feed, veggie peelings (normal scraps offering) or even chicken scratch, which is usually a  mix of corn, oats and barley.  If their main food group on a daily basis was a French loaf or two, they’d be very unhealthy and unhappy chickens.

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It struck me this morning, watching a frantic hen dashing around futilely with her piece of bread, that people are far too much like this.  Convinced that the Joneses have it better.  Dropping what we already have to grab for what we think is better.  Or perhaps worse, hoarding what we have, unable to feel secure enough to let go, and at the same time, unable to enjoy what we worked hard to get.  Were we perhaps designed to spend our days foraging in companionship, rather than competing for scraps of bread?

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Bread falling from the sky?  When they first began their exile in the desert, the Israelites were pretty happy to have manna drop into their laps every morning.  But after forty years of it, long enough for the generation who had done the escaping to the desert had died, and the generation who grew up knowing nothing else but exile to predominate, disgruntlement and dissatisfaction set in.  They even believed that their parents probably had a better life back in slavery in Egypt, building pyramids.

Maybe I’m stretching a tad too far here, mixing bible with barnyard.  But tell me you’ve never felt like a chicken with a scrap of bread – no time to put it down to enjoy it, worried it will get taken from you, convinced that everyone around you has something better.  Tell me that you’ve never been like the Israelites with their manna,  developing a sense of entitlement to your daily blessings, so that you have come to take for granted what is good in your life.  I know I spend a great too deal too much of my life worrying about bread and not nearly enough of my day enjoying the plenty in my life.

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9 thoughts on “Daily Bread

  1. The bread ran short once the pigs started walking on two legs and sleeping in the farmhouse.

    Great post and great observations about feeding behavior…stuff I’ve always seen but never noticed. We enjoy throwing worms or grubs in with chicks in the brooder. Good times.

    There are a few tricks we use to avoid keeping up with the Joneses. Turn off the TV, throw away catalogs immediately, cancel magazine subscriptions (they are full of ads). When you finally do pay attention to the man behind the curtain you are likely to find out the Joneses are drowning in debt.

    This from the flock that never quite fit in the suburbs. We cooked our meals, mostly stayed home, owned one car, composted our scraps and home-schooled our kids. We read books, played in leaf piles, went swimming…always together. The other birds around us were frantically racing to work, home, soccer, gymnastics, karate, the pizza place, the doctor, the private school, the second job…always sticking their beaks into the other birds’ business, making sure they weren’t missing out. They were all missing out. I suspect they still are. But they kept busy. I suspect the busy aspect was necessary to fill their empty lives. Sounds harsh but I believe it was accurate.

    So many of them had to pay people to listen to them. So many took pills to deal with their whatever. So many put entertainment in the children’s bedrooms to avoid the ruckus children make. So many got divorced. Sad.

    Now, I certainly do worry about tomorrow…just as the ant does. I have observed her ways and am less foolish (but not wise). But, for the purposes of your illustration I think I’m more of a pig than a chicken.

    • Of course, the problem with analogies is that they can/should only be taken so far…I personally was not going to go as far as equating myself with the pigs…:). Also, I think the reference to the ant and the grasshopper fable is important here too. Neither pigs nor hens are putting aside for lean times, though arguably, they might do better fending for themselves through a mild Northwest coast winter than I would. And they certainly wouldn’t survive in your winter (the chickens wouldn’t – maybe the pigs?). In our family, we do sometimes have to sit back and reassess our saving and earning strategies – I no longer work quite as many extra shifts as in years past – our need for the dollars that activity earned me has diminished, and nowadays my time at home is worth more to us. Things may change again. We’re ants trying to instill a little grasshopper ethic.

      Like you, we eschew many of the things that make up the race with the Joneses – many, but not all. We like scraps of bread when they come our way. I think it must be said too, that many people who do the second job, the extra curricular activities, team sports, etc are perfectly happy with the choices they make. I think the point is to pick and choose based on your own preferences, values, and circumstances. The Jones are not bad because they have a lifestyle they enjoy – there’s nothing evil about owning an RV to spend the summer touring with, or having a swimming pool in your back yard if you don’t have a pond. If you saved up for those things because you wanted them, they have value to you. If they don’t make you happy, that’s different. And I think you’re making the point that the crazy hamster wheel of driving from activity A to activity B and eating Subway in the car to make mealtime work in the family schedule does not necessarily make people happy – and that’s the part that makes them like the chicken with the bread she can hold onto but not do anything with.

      • Now, I’m not against owning things. I’m against being owned by things.

        I have lived in upper middle-class suburbia. It was not to my liking. It’s all some weird struggle to percieve within ourselves what we pretend to believe about other people. The oasis of social success can never be reached because we are really only judged by our own insecurities. I think some finally learn that lesson. Maybe they are the Jones families. It appeared to me, however, that most people never understand why they walk so far and only find more sand. Then they begin blaming themselves – or those near them. It could have been great entertainment…eating popcorn on my front pouch and watching the ongoing drama unfold around me…affairs, gossip, backstabbing, therapy, pills, alcohol abuse all hiding behind a wave and a smile (no time to talk). Just like on TV. I couldn’t watch though. It was too sad. We sold our beautiful home to a nice, young couple who probably can’t afford it. The home before that was sold to a nice lady who couldn’t afford it. We bought it from a woman who couldn’t afford it either. Are millstones really that fashionable?

        But then, maybe I’m a Jones. Or worse, maybe I own a 60 acre millstone.

      • We are only judged by our own insecurities … I’ll have to think about that. By others? or by ourselves? Because it seems to me if we know that what we believe about others is just pretend, then isn’t that how they think too? It’s getting too deep for me. What you end with though is maybe where my head was when I was watching the chickens. Is my piece of bread that I can’t put down, I can only own, is it this farming thing? This thing that needs more time than I have – or maybe that I’m able to give it given the other pulls on me? Are the other pulls the other bits of bread I am wanting to chase down? Yes, that’s kind of where I was with this. And trying to be grateful for having this dilemma when I could so easily be having a completely different kind of dilemma – like affording basic shelter, food, etc. Is a millstone only a millstone if you see it that way?

      • I can’t control what others think of me. Being imperfect, I will offend you. I can’t force you to overlook my imperfections. Further, what you think of me is none of my business. Your feelings for me aren’t my feelings for me. The Head Farm Steward you think you know is not the “me” I think I know (and thank God!). I have some control over what I think of myself. Do I succeed in evaluating myself and others honestly? I am an emotional creature and emotions are poor counselors. Speaking from experience, knowing myself as I do, I have to control my insecurities (which are largely emotional and irrational) before I can truly succeed at introspection. Who is in here today? How does his perception of how others perceive his actions affect his standing when compared to Mr. Jones? Did he use the right word there? Affect or Effect? Jones would know which word to use. Or would Jones even care which word was correct, believing that others like him and would overlook his error? Darn you Jones! Sitting there all quiet and smug thinking how smart you were for keeping your mouth shut on your friend’s blog.

        Maybe millstone was the wrong analogy. Maybe albatross. They probably look quite fashionable until they start to stink.

        I’m sorry if I derailed your blog post. It brought out some interesting ideas.

      • Affect was the right word.
        I don’t think Jones reads my blog 🙂
        What others think of me is perhaps none of my business, but is in fact what makes me care about being like Jones in the first place.
        Detached introspection is probably an oxymoron.
        Nothing stinks about the way you’re raising your kids, loving your wife, raising food with integrity, improving that pasture or attempting to live out your beliefs and values about stewardship. I suspect nothing stinks about the way you play video games either :). Or a thousand other things about you that I don’t know, nor will ever know.
        Yup, very interesting discussion considering we started with chickens and bread crusts.

      • Well, I had hoped you would feel that way. It makes me feel good about myself to hear you say those words. Take that, Jones!

  2. Bill says:

    What a wonderful post. I especially appreciate the life lessons you mention at the end.

    I also spend part of every day watching chickens and pigs eat. Lately I’ve been thinking about another part of their eating behavior that has life lessons for us humans.

    Our chickens free-range and our pigs live on pasture. So, like yours, they get much of their food from foraging. We also supplement with feed the same way you do. And we give them scraps from the table or gardens as well.

    I’ve noticed that some foods excite them more than others. If I give the chickens or pigs wilted greens or collard stems, for example, they eat them but they’re in no hurry. In fact the pigs prefer playing with me and will come back to the greens when I’m gone. But if I give the chickens some fat from a pork chop, or if I give either of them some bread or something sweet, they dive on it frantically and gobble it down as quickly as possible. Well, the chickens grab it and run, trailed by other chickens intent on stealing it from them.

    I wonder if this behavior is reflected in the human tendency to gorge on fats and sweets. A human might eat a whole box of cookies or way too much bacon, for example. But a person isn’t likely to overeat kale.

    I’ve read that in nature fats and sweets were uncommon in the human diet, so we’re programmed to stuff ourselves with them, since our body doesn’t expect to have any more for a long time.

    Maybe that also explains why pigs and chickens get a little crazy over sweets, fats and starches.

    I really enjoyed this post. Thanks for sharing it. Now it’s time for me to go feed our critters. 🙂

    • I think you’ve hit an interesting point with the desire for sweet and fat. I’ve read of it a few times, with regard to humans, most recently in “Salt, Sugar, Fat” by Michael Moss. There is also an interesting chapter about the possible relationship between this factor and diabetes in a book called “Survival of the Sickest” by Sharon Maolem.

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