Sunday, August 12, 2007

A Wing And A Prayer

Before that bad December spell, that stretch of dark days when the fury of three consecutive blizzards left them trapped without heat, food or water in a frozen barn, Libby and Clara had pretty much ignored each other. It's not that they disliked each other, it's just that, other than gender and species, they didn't have much else in common.

They were different persons, with different temperaments, different interests and abilities, different histories, different memories, different perceptions of the world, different expectations, different ways of coping, different crosses to bear. They inhabited different worlds, with different inner climates, different emotional geographies, different pleasures and perils of the soul, different soulscapes.

They hardly even looked like they belonged to the same species – Clara, manipulated to grow grotesquely large for flesh production, Libby, bred to stay sparrow-small for egg production – and, when they first arrived at the sanctuary, before they had had a chance to learn the complex song structures developed, used, and passed down by generations of free sanctuary chickens, they didn't even sing the same language.

Clara peeped in the insular language of her death camp – the desolate birdsong developed by baby birds in grim isolation from mother, family, community and nature, and lacking the very sounds to communicate those fundamental sentient experiences.

Libby was the last remaining minstrel of the idiosyncratic language of her gulag – the stammering semblance of a chicken language eked out by her fellow captive orphans, and extinguished with them, its last sounds of despair uttered on the way to slaughter.

Both had absorbed those tragic languages and, with them, the despair inherent in their meaning. Both arrived at PPS with their weird, choppy, stammering, incomprehensibly structured sounds, their crippled lives, their mutilated bodies, their dark memories. But each carried her old burdens and her new freedom differently.

Libby aimed for the sky, she seemed always to barely touch the ground she walked on, always seemingly detached from the physical, constraining, bothersome weight of the earth. Clara, on the other hand, treaded in the thick of life. For better or for worse, she remained firmly rooted in the good, the bad, the possible of her immediate, tangible world.

You could see her lovingly, attentively, avidly studying, whatever patch of yard she could still get to in her progressively disabled body, and savoring every minute detail of it – the quantity of grain, its type and color and texture, maybe even the number of pecks it took to collect it, the thickness of the straw on the ground, its warmth and texture, the coolness of each patch of grass at different times of day, the best dustbathing spots, the comings and goings of others, the precise movement, sound and scent patterns of things. Given that she was trapped in a body programmed from birth to harm, wound and betray itself for human entertainment, it's not surprising that she gravitated towards things, places, and persons she could predict. It's not surprising that she craved the sense of safety and stability inherent in those small, good, solid things whose integrity was so unlike her disintegrating body.

It's not surprising that she derived a measure of joy, pleasure, possibility from the small, good, predictable things in her life, the things that were miraculously still there, that she could miraculously still touch, that were still flooding her senses, still stirring feelings, still able to evoke something deeply good at times – a sense of comfort, a sense of promise, a sense of hope – and still able to lift the burden of life for a brief moment. The taste of grapes, sweet grain, blueberry muffins, the small, safe, warm confine of Chris's lap, the feel of Michele's hair caressing her back, the bliss of a preening session, the physical presence, closeness, warmth of her few friends – these were things she could still count on.

But, as you got to know Clara better, you realized that, even without the cross of her growing disability, she would have still kept the same close and constant connection with the concrete, tangible details of her life, she would still have given the same warm attention to what was there to touch, taste, see, smell, hear. She was an earthy soul, grounded for better or for worse in the thingness of things, the material, physical details of her daily life. She liked the things she could measure precisely, and return to without surprises. She was a map maker of sorts and everything figured tenderly in the constantly revised map of her diminishing world – even Libby, that spectacular comet-like event that blazed out of the barn at dawn, and blazed back in at dusk with reassuring regularity. Perhaps, especially Libby, that creature who was in enviable constant motion, never in one place, hardly touching the ground she walked on, always floating seemingly just above it, barely connected with any tangible thing, zooming fairly-like from place to place in fast, silent and spectacular motion, gliding silently in and out of sight like smoke, always on the edge of your vision, always in motion, never in one place long enough to be watched but always watchful, and always aware of everyone's every move.Even flightless as she was, Libby's entire being spelled "bird". There was something winged, weightless, lithe, spirit-like about her. And, even though she had had the flight bred out of her, she was more evocative of flight and freedom than a condor.

She was a sky-bound creature and even the flightlessness in her wings could not diminish the impression that she was lighter than air. And, the more you knew Libby, the more you realized that her being sky-bound, aerial, gravity-defying was not an impression as much as it was the physical manifestation of who she was. She seemed grounded not in the tangible reality of things, the way Clara was, but in a sort of active disbelief of it.

She didn't see the concrete things that Clara compulsively, lovingly collected, she imagined something else. She didn't see the tumbling weed that you, Clara and I saw, she imagined something else – perhaps a fox, or a strange bird, or a fantastical foe... She didn't see a sputtering hose, a patch of tall grass, a broken ladder, she imagined something else – a snake?, a jungle?, a horizontal tree? She was burdened with the blessing of an active imagination. She bolted at the slightest rustle of grass, she refused to enter certain barns, she went to great lengths to avoid certain grassy spots, circling them cautiously, leaving plenty of distance between her and their invisible border, as though they were inhabited by a clear and present danger, she refused to approach strings and cords, she spooked at the sound of tractor engines... but she also celebrated things invisible to the rest of us. Out of the blue, and for no apparent reason, she would start flapping her wings, shaking her head, prancing, strutting, dancing, and celebrating something that, though imperceptible to anyone else, was real and well worth rejoicing to her. Some invisible joyful thing had just happened (or perhaps was sensed, or recalled, or anticipated, or imagined) and Libby was the happy recipient.We're not sure exactly what she saw at any given time, but we're sure she didn't see what you, Clara, and I saw. Unlike Clara, who was grounded for better or for worse in the burden and the blessing of her physical reality, who saw cause and effect much the way we do (water droplets = rain, not a betentacled entity tapping Libby's back with 10,000 needles), Libby seemed to make connections based on something closer to myth and imagination than concrete reality, something based more on how things felt (to her) than what things were.

For as connected as Clara was with what WAS there – the tart, tingly, tangible, glittering thingness of things – Libby was connected with what MAY be there – the winged possibility of things.

They were different persons, Libby and Clara – different temperaments, different interests and abilities, different histories, different memories, different perceptions of the world, different expectations, different ways of coping, different crosses to bear. They inhabited different worlds, with different inner climates, different emotional geographies, different pleasures and perils of the soul, different soulscapes.

And if, that December night they embraced each other with such urgency, such unflinching certainty, it wasn't because the shared experience of pain, fear, and trauma melded their individual differences into the common foundation of similar experience, but probably precisely because it didn't, probably precisely because it increased their sense of difference and otherness.

When the third of seven back-to-back blizzards hit Eastern Colorado that December and buried the entire sanctuary under 8 feet of snow, Libby and Clara were trapped in their barns without any heat, food, water, or dry straw for 24 desperate hours.

They were trapped in their dark, frozen barn, with the wind howling outside, and the roof rattling, and the barn walls shaking, and the inside of the barn slowly filling with snow, and the food and water supplies dwindling, and the breath of death, the physical sensation of defeat tangibly felt all around them, and Chris and Michele desperately digging on the other side of the snow-covered door, and our muffled voices betraying an ever growing despair, and the rhythm of our movements betraying a deeper and deeper exhaustion. For 24 hours, Libby and Clara were trapped together.

Sparrow-small Libby, who could have easily climbed on Clara's broad back to escape the frozen straw below, or who could have easily burrowed under Clara's ample breast to escape the cold, extended her minuscule wing over Clara's giant back and covered a fraction of its raw, shivering baldness. It was an absurd, ineffectual gesture and certainly not felt as warmth-giving by either one of them. But, all day and all night, through a crack in the only barn wall that wasn't completely obscured by snow, we could see the two of them huddled together in this pathetic, absurd, sublime embrace, Libby's moth-wing extended to cover a fraction of Clara's giant, featherless back, Clara's chin caressing the top of Libby's head.

We don't know what Libby imagined was happening at that moment, or what Clara knew was happening, but there they were, two winged persons, the smallest sanctuary resident taking a giant bird under her moth-wing. And, on the other side of the frozen door, there we were, two bare-handed humans digging escape tunnels with our rickety shovels, clearing the cosmic mass of snow one teaspoon at a time.

And all of us, on both sides of the frozen door, knowing with a certainty deeper than language, deeper than species, that our seemingly ineffectual gestures were absolutely necessary. All of us expressing in action, in will, in heart – not in words, not in song, not in sound – the certainty, deeper than language, deeper than species, that ultimately the only thing that saves us, delivers us, redeems us, and ultimately the only thing that survives even the smallest, weakest, most vulnerable one of us, is that form of supreme, unconditional benevolence known and needed by all sentient souls because our very lives depend on it, that benevolence collectively imagined, desired, invoked, deeply felt and concretely experienced as love. Not love for someone similar – a mirror image, a clone – but love for someone completely different. A mysterious other.And there we were, all of us stranded in the middle of a frozen world, fighting the darkness with two teaspoon shovels and a moth-wing, affirming life in the middle of mass extinction, hope in the middle of cosmic despair, light in the middle of the darkest night. There we all were, laboring, toiling, struggling, hoping against all hope to unfreeze the world with a flightless wing and a wordless prayer. We did. We do. Every day of our vegan lives.

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.