I've often wondered if one reason the book 'Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance' sold so well was that people bought it because they were intrigued by the title, juxtaposing as it does two such apparently disparate subjects (no offense intended to the writing skills of Robert Pirsig). And now I'm pairing Paganism with Poultry keeping. What link could there possibly be between them?
Firstly let me define what is important to me about Paganism: for me Paganism is about seeing and acknowledging the divine within the world - not conceiving of divinity as something external and discarnate. It's about tuning into the cycles and patterns of nature, understanding my place within this incredibly complex and beautiful, yet finely balanced web. Knowing that the divine is here and now, and that I am part of it.
The difficulty is in the many little obstacles that get between me and my connection to the web of life. Perhaps out of a fear of mortality, or our apparent insignificance within the Multiverse, society throws up a myriad of distractions - things and activities that conspire to keep us from being in the here and now. TV, shopping malls, mobile phones, office blocks, iPods, multiplex cinemas, gyms, books, supermarkets, radio, email, Ebay, computer games, cars: each of them isolating us in our own little space, cut off from the breeze, the birdsong and the pull of the moon in our blood.
"So where do the chickens* come in?" I hear you asking - good question! Well quite simply keeping chickens turns out to be an excellent way of rooting oneself in the natural cycles of life. It's not the reason we started to keep them in the first place - that would have been the eggs - but it is an unexpected side-benefit. Let me explain: chickens need feeding and watering daily, shutting into their house at night and letting out again in the morning. I also give them an afternoon treat of wheat or mixed corn each afternoon. That means that at least three times a day I go out into the garden - sun, rain, wind, sleet, snow or hail notwithstanding.
This routine becomes intimately tied in with the daily cycle of the sun, the weather and the phases of the moon. The chickens are let out as soon as it's light in winter (although admittedly in high summer when it's light before 5am they may have a bit of a wait until I crawl out of bed). Their afternoon grain is given roughly an hour before dusk to ensure they have full bellies overnight. As soon as dusk has fallen they are securely shut away from the fox. And so I have found that at any time of year I can tell you what time it gets dark, and roughly what time the sun will be rising. I can tell you if there was a red sky at sunset, signifying a fine day tomorrow. I can tell you whether there is likely to be a frost. I can tell you when I see the first sliver of a new moon, when it is a full moon, and when she is diminishing back to her dark phase - all without the aid of a moon diary!
Going out into the garden several times a day in all weathers, I notice when the first bulbs are nosing up from the frozen earth in spring, when the first leaf buds begin to break, how the fruit blossom is faring, when there is finally a patch of daisies big enough to lie in, and when the blackberries start to ripen. I can tell you when the autumn leaves begin to redden and fall, and when we have our first hard frost of winter.
I see the birds collecting nesting materials, the wheeling aerial courtship of ravens and the first lambs in the fields in spring. In summer I see the rabbits in the fields at dusk, and the return of the swallows, and the flutter of tiny bats. I see the swallows replaced by starlings over the winter and the red kites coming down off the hills in bad weather.
Much as I may have appreciated and thought I understood all of this on an intellectual level, there is nothing quite like getting out there and experiencing it with all the senses. And though it would be a wonderful idea for me to be disciplined enough to get out there morning and evening every day simply for my own benefit, I have to admit that on the first rainy morning I would probably pull the duvet up over my head and make an excuse. Because I have to get up and see to the chickens every day, skulking under the duvet is not an option.
Another side-benefit is the constant interaction with another species. Although chickens can undoubtedly be more than a little bit daft at times, I have also come to really appreciate how clever they can be. Learning their sounds and body language has revealed their different personalities, in some cases quite startlingly different. Recognising and empathising with the desires, needs and emotions of a different species shifts me into a less human-centric world view - which I think can only be a good thing.
I have never been great at maintaining a daily spiritual practice - at different times in my life I have tried morning meditation, daily divination, dream journals, prayer beads etc. None have lasted. But now I realise my daily spiritual practice is poultry keeping. Because I have no choice but to be out there three times a day, connecting with the earth and sky and moon. And the chickens.
Blessed Be the Pagan Art of Poultry Keeping!
* My poultry keeping of course includes not only the chickens but also our Brecon Buff geese, Buffy & Angel. For simplicity's sake I've only referred to the chickens here.