Tuesday, March 20, 2007

A Passionate Life

I heard Louise's voice long before I met her in person, commenting along not far away from the phone, actively participating in every conversation, offering comments, reprimands, or just plain merrymaking – joyous, questioning, telling sounds to the world. Because every conversation, regardless of language, was irresistible to her, she showed up whenever others talked – people, turkeys, cats, dogs, goats, pigs – offering rich and endless song structures whose meaning she clearly understood and seemed certain that others did too.

Sometimes, her voice was a faraway whisper, other times, a burst of sound delivered straight into the receiver. I could hear her all the way from Denver. No doubt, her voice was also heard all the way to Miami, Chicago, New York, Dallas, Los Angeles, Paris, Tokyo, or wherever other calls to the sanctuary may have come from.

Louise had a distinctive, nuanced, richly inflected, impressively projected soprano voice that issued forth an irrepressible stream of emotionally charged sounds, sounds that recorded and communicated a wide range of subjective experiences with a clarity that was astonishing – astonishing not because she, a person of another species, expressed feelings, thoughts, perceptions, memories, meanings, stories, longings, nightmares, desires, triumphs, terrors so clearly, but astonishing because we, with our notoriously dull hearing and dim perceptions, were able to understand her so clearly. What Louise communicated through her rich vocabulary of sounds (and, as I learned when I finally met her in person, through touch, gaze, posture and body movement) was clear as speech.

It was meaningful sound, Louise's conversation, meaningful to her and her kind, but also meaningful to us because what she expressed, we tend to express in similar sounds: the high-pitched whines of worry, the cranky creaks of complaint, the low songs of contentment, the melodic breath of calm, the trumpet bursts of excitement, the syncopated whistles of wonder, the rapping, clanging, clattering rattles of outrage, the burning blares of anger, the fresh chimes of curiosity, the lulling whispers of trust, the long peals of sadness, the grinding growls of jealousy, the bold horns of joy, the choked half-beats of fear, the fluttering whimpers of defeat, the air- tearing whips of pain, the spitting, strutting, drumming bursts of confidence, the muffled mumbles of doubt, the crackling trills of mischief – sounds and rich inflections whose meaning and emotional charge we understand beyond words.

Often, Louise matched the shifting tone and mood of the phone conversation and, just as often, she sounded off dissonant responses, puncturing the flow of sound, issuing a counterpoint, an accent of sorts, a distinct, different and opposing note – either because she was responding to one of the myriad sounds in her surroundings, or simply because, to her ear, the musical phrasing of our conversation called for that counterpoint, that accent, that shock of contrasting color...

It is not unusual for chickens to "talk" to anyone who will listen. Most of them comment, inquire and interact tirelessly, with a remarkable ability to communicate fluidly and effortlessly the richness of their experiences, perceptions, feelings, finds. They initiate and sustain melodic exchanges, they sounder to each other constantly, they hum themselves to sleep in softer and softer whispers that often continue in their dreams – a stream of consciousness recording of sorts. But, often, what Louise did seemed more like singing than saying, more like simple, pure delight in the exercise of her own voice – its own vibrant expression, its own healthy working, the sensation of sound being produced as it was forced from the chest, issued from the throat, rolled off the beak, and heard back in infinite varieties of pitch, color, phrasing, rhythm – than the exercise of telling, asking, responding, warning, reassuring, correcting, alerting, negotiating... Her voice sang in pleasure. Sound was its own reward.

And no sound was uninteresting or unimportant to Louise – the rustling of insect wings, the hum of power lines, the cadences of footsteps, the droppings of mice, the breathing of moths. No sound was left unanswered. Each sound was a call, a cue, an imperative, each sound had a face, a meaning, a supreme identity. Each had an answer. And, in her constant singing to the world, Louise inevitably created new sounds, added to the world's sound, and changed it.

What did she have to sing about? There she was, one in 9 billion birds forced into grotesquely mutated bodies for human consumption – 9 billion this year, 9 billion the next, 9 billion the following – lucky not only to be alive, lucky to be alive that far. Everyone in her generation was dead – born in mid June, 2005, decapitated, dismembered, and flushed into sewers by mid August, 14 or more years before their time. Louise herself was struggling to survive in a body made intentionally nonviable, a body bred to grow morbidly large, morbidly fast, for flesh production.

Many of her friends from the "broiler" flock she was rescued with were gone too. Some had died suddenly, of violent heart attacks, when their hearts could no longer sustain their ghoulishly large bodies, some had died slowly, shutting down one system at a time, aging at an accelerated rate, terminally geriatric at age 2. They all had clung to their diminished life as long as they could, limping on bumble-feet, every step a stab straight into the bone, dragging their enormous bodies around on collapsed joints, every step another agony, their bodies more and more soaked in pain – feet, legs, wings, brittle bones, aching muscles – their combs paler and paler, their eyes dimmer and dimmer, their breath more and more labored, wheezing with every move, every breath a panicked gasp for air – grim evidence of our daily crimes against the innocent, the weak, the downtrodden of the world.

And there was Louise, still alive, still singing to the world – what did she have to sing about? – this one wounded life, acting as though she were a normal bird, shooting for this impossible normalcy as though it were within her reach, wanting to be involved in absolutely everything, every meal, every exchange of affection, every song, every single conversation. Responding to every single sound in her environment, tuned into the world's pitch, rhythm, timbre, tone, color, phrasing, cadence, tempo, inflection, leaving no call unnoticed, unheeded, unanswered, making her voice heard all the way to Denver, Miami, Chicago, New York, Dallas, Los Angeles, Paris, Tokyo, or wherever phone calls to the sanctuary came from. Refusing to let her voice be silenced.

Then one day, without warning, she went from song- filled to quiet. She hid in a secluded nest and refused to leave, refused to move, refused to eat and drink, refused to be preened, refused to be held, refused treats, refused to sound back to the world. She sank under the weight of ruffled feathers, her eyes dimmed, her head drooped like a snowdrop, her voice wilted. When Louise stopped participating, talking, inquiring, commenting, socializing, we knew her end was near, and we also knew there was nothing we could do except try to make her passing as painless as possible, and knowing full well that it won't be painless, for her or for us. She grew still, closed her eyes and waited. She withdrew in a shroud of muffled sounds, so muffled they seemed like silence, a lullaby of sorts that she hummed to herself continuously, as though laying herself to a final rest and doing it Louise-style, exiting the world the way she had lived in it: on a stream of sound, palpable, visible sound, complete with specs of dust, feathers, muddles of mice, gathers of grubs, scatterings of grain, footsteps, gouty legs, dreams of flight and wings, or whatever she happened to be singing about in the urgency of that particular, singular, living moment – the world exhibited and exhibiting itself as sound, and now her exit exhibiting itself as whisper – song-filled to her last breath.

What we didn't know, and were amazed to learn, was that Louise was undergoing a different kind of transformation, a different kind of seachange. She wasn't dying. She was brooding. She had an egg she wanted to keep and she hid it from everybody under stilled body, closed wing, gathered straw, secluded nest, cover of darkness. No one knew. When we finally discovered her secret, it was too late to stop the process: the egg was soon to become a bird, and Louise was soon to become a mother. She had tricked us. She wasn't exiting the world, she was hovering in the gravitational pull of a new life.

She wasn't doing what "broilers" like her are bred to do – succumb to the tragic, nonviable, bodies we force them into for our sandwiches; she was doing what "broilers" like her, and all commercial poultry breeds, are bred not to do: "go broody", feel the drive to extend life beyond their own, and act on that drive. Louise not only heard that faint call to be a mother, she answered it as she answered every single call no others heard or wished to heed. True to form, she was adding to the world – not only a new voice, not only a new sound, not only a new experience for her kind, now a new life.

It was impossible not to be elated. A new life, a baby born into the Free State of the sanctuary, the only person in Louise's condemned nation who was going to have a full record of her existence, who was going to learn her own language from adults, who was going to learn the life skills of her community, and pass them along to newcomers as wisdom. It was impossible not to root for this new baby.

It was also impossible to ignore the tragic reality that yet another being would soon enter a life of total dependency. No matter how well loved, no matter how well cared for, this baby, like all domesticated animals, would never grow up to be independent. She would be forever at the mercy of her keepers' ability or willingness to feed, shelter, care for her. A handicapped life. Like all domesticated animals, she would never aquire the most basic skills to survive on her own and, outside the free space of the sanctuary, she would never even have the most basic right to exist. We work tirelessly to prevent this from happening. But Louise tricked us.

She anchored herself on her nest and refused to leave except once a day – for exactly 15 minutes – to drink and eat from the bowls across the room (not the ones we laid right next to her), and to relieve herself. As though all of the functions of the hankering body – the eating, drinking, straining, eliminating – had to be be carried out away from her nest. Then she'd make a hasty, urgent return, neck stretched forward, wings arched out to her sides as though clearing a path – way! way! way! – back to her nest, her destination, drawn back into the orbit of her single life-bearing egg, the golden center of her universe, calling, calling with a force she could not and did not want to resist. A force she wanted to increase. Her body, her life, her will, concentrated on the passionate life pulsing inside her egg.

There is something we know deeper than words, this thing she was doing, this birthing, brooding, mothering, this battered bird's selfless devotion to her baby, we know it to be sacred and we know it to be the only thing worth protecting, yet we squash it serially, mercilessly, between fork and knife, every day of our non-vegan lives.

Louise bloomed like a rose over her egg – a sky of roses and a bed of roses for this new life – a white rose of fluffed feathers and warm air pocketed in thousands of living down nooks, breezed through the living cilia, beating the warm air in rhythmic waves, each a valediction. Her cocoon was now teeming with the two-way communication that had already begun between Louise and her baby – whatever Louise called her baby, whatever cluster of melodic chirps designated her baby's self, quiddity, essence (do, re, mi), the baby's supreme identity, known beyond doubt to the baby, to the mother, to everyone of her kind, and invisible to human perceptions so dull that we can't even tell individual birds apart. If there had been several chicks, there would have been a song for each. We call it song because, when we use sounds that are so melodious, so flowing, so fluid, so salty, so sweet, and innocent, and true and soulful, so much like tears, we call it music. But it is language to them. It is meaningful sound, structured in meaningful ways to the speaker.

Louise's voice changed. It was so quiet now that you could not always hear it, but you could always see it throbbing in her throat – a pulse more than a sound. She was now poised to listen, not tell, poised to hear those faint sounds and signals from the other world, the baby's happening world. She listened. Her voice was now an instrument of guidance and affirmation, a beacon, a sound bridge between two worlds, a mother's voice issuing a mother's tacit vows ("I will protect you. I will nurture you. Your life matters. More than my own"). She sounded to her baby constantly, even in her sleep. And the baby sounded back softly, issuing chirps of response that only Louise could hear.

Then, one morning, the egg peeped so loudly, that all of us could hear it. Peep! Peep! Peep! That baby had pipes! She was Louise's baby allright, already signing at the top of her tiny lungs, already announcing her presence to the world, even before fully entering it. And she peeped into the evening, sounding off from Louise's secluded nest, from under cover of wing, gathered straw and secluded darkness. She was still peeping when we said good night, engaging in an audible duet with Louise, adding her high pitched chirps to Louise's low clucks and coos. God, how she sang! As though life was beautiful.

By morning, the nest was quiet. The baby was still, flattened under Louise's unwieldy body. A perfect, golden baby whose silent body Louise was still protecting by the evening of that day and into the next morning, and probably would have guarded as long as we would have left it there. Louise got her mutated body to live, to sing, to go broody – to do every natural thing that we breed out of the birds we intend to eat – but she couldn't fulfill her mothering with the crippled body we forced her into, too large to allow normal movement, too heavy to respond sensitively to the needs of a tiny, dependent baby bird, a body hoisted on joints too achy to move the body at will, unresponsive legs, lead-heavy breast. A body bred for nothing but death. I don't know what Louise felt as she sat on her quieted nest. I don't know how she experienced the sudden absence of warmth, the stilled pulse of her baby, the silenced voice of her chick. I don't know how she experienced the presence and company of this growing, happening child, this someone that she had focused her own life on, this someone that she had spent 21 full days and nights with, that she surrendered food, drink and freedom for, that she concentrated on to the exclusion of everything else. This someone that had called to her with a greater force than anything in her entire life had or ever will.

We humans call this kind of devotion love, in fact, we call it the purest kind of love. Few of us can obey and communicate it better than Louise did. If we feel it at all, most of us express it exactly the way she did: by action not words, by dedicating every ounce of our being to the beloved.

Few of us can express the experience of love and grief better than Louise did and does. But all of us feel it acutely even if we can't put it in words, or especially when we can't put it in words, when there are no words to shield us from the raw reality of feeling, no words, no intellectual constructs to distance us form the raw passion – only the dead baby and the burning reality of grief.

So I don't know what Louise felt as she roosted in her now silent nest, I don't know what she had anticipated as she mothered her egg, or what she remembered of her dark, motherless past, but I do know that she dedicated every ounce of her life force to fulfilling this something she desired and yearned for.

The chick didn't live, Louise didn't get to nurture her only child into adulthood. But she did become a mother, that much is undeniable and unforgettable, and it is something she will know and keep, an experience that will inform her for the rest of her life, long after she leaves her empty nest.

That experience, that mother blooming and loss, is now imprinted in Louise's song along with every other life experience she's had – from the silent, lonely hatching in the belly of a machine, to the motherless flock she was tossed with, to the skyless world she was confined to in order to be fattened for slaughter, to the arrival at the sanctuary, to today's eerily silent nest. We may not be able to hear that new sound in Louise's song, not with our limited hearing range, but the other orphans and mothers-to- never-be at the sanctuary can. Louise is the only one of the sanctuary flock who had that experience of becoming. And now there's a sound for it that wasn't there before. Now, there is a story.

Joanna Lucas
© 2007 Joanna Lucas
If living ethically is important to you, please remember that there is nothing humane about “humane” animal farming, just as there is nothing ethical or defensible about consuming its products. When confronted with the fundamental injustice inherent in all animal agriculture—a system that is predicated on inflicting massive, intentional and unnecessary suffering and death on billions of sentient individuals—the only ethical response is to strive to end it, by becoming vegan, not to regulate it by supporting “improved” methods of producing dairy, eggs, meat, wool, leather, silk, honey, and other animal products. For more information, please read The Humane Farming Myth. Live vegan and educate others to do the same.