Spring is a season of rough edges. The sharp new blades of grass, the itchy, grainy pollen that scratches my eyes. Warmer sunshine begins to streak through the curtains, but when I step out onto the stone patio, there’s still a cutting breeze.
It’s as if new life can only break through with a bit of struggle.
My childhood memories of Easter are kind of like that. The tactile contrasts of warm softness and sharp cold.
I can still feel the starchy collar on my new Easter dress with the wooly pastel tights I wore to church. And the chilly wet grass under my bare feet as we ran around the yard looking for colored eggs.
And wearing coats to school, but then, when the afternoon heated up, running through prickling cold sprinklers in the yard, our soft, pale bodies shivering in delight.
Of course, this is the season of fertility and the life cycle. And animals, particularly the soft, fluffy, adorably bright-eyed ones, are at the center. They are our ambassadors of spring.
How we love to humanize the barnyard critters. Remember those staged photos of rabbits and kittens dressed up in Easter clothes that were so popular years ago? Someone had the big idea to pose them with wheelbarrows, stiff and stilted, wearing straw hats and overalls.
I remember growing up, my father wasn’t immune to such animal charms. One year, at Easter time, he bought newborn baby chicks, one for each of us kids. Real, live chicks, not eggs for hatching. The year before had shown that we weren’t mature enough for that. Dad had given us a large duck egg and I’d accidentally cooked the huge embryo under a very hot light bulb in my closet.
Opening up presents early has always been my fatal flaw. The omelet smell, the premature loss, it’s still fresh in my memory.
But these chicks were ready-made – precious yellow cotton balls, with bright orange beaks, and teeny-weeny peeps that came out of them when you picked them up. Their feathers were so downy that our moist palms would darken their lemon yellow fluff to amber.
And we could feel their pin-prick heartbeats under their delicate rib cages. Their eyes were like shiny peppercorns. They didn’t register intelligence exactly, but they were certainly anxious.
Because life for a chicken in the 1970s suburbs was not the bucolic life found on a farm. Back then there was no such thing as a trendy urban garden with happy, organic hens.
There was a cardboard box with a scrap of flimsy chicken wire.
And my father had come up with the inspired idea to put a dot of neon food coloring on the tip of each chick’s tail feather. Mine was yellow, my brother’s blue, and so on. A way of identifying them.
In death that is. Because three of the little chickies met untimely ends.
It was a sad cul-de-sac version of And Then There Were None, as the casualties mounted, week after week. Those perky critters sure were adventurous. My brother’s simply went missing, and I don’t recall what happened to my sister’s.
But I personally witnessed my own chick’s horrific exit. I’ll never forget sitting at my bedroom desk, looking out the window and suddenly seeing the neighbor’s beagle with a mouthful of yellow feathers running down the street.
I hated that dog. He was fat and old, grizzled around the muzzle. But he was running like a pup that day. I was furious. And every time I saw that hound afterwards, I thought his belly looked fatter, even chick-shaped, and I wanted to kick him.
The harsh lessons of life and death, and animal instincts.
But I’m happy to report, the last hardy chick made it. He grew out of his adorable peep-stage and molted into chicken adolescence. With bald, plucked patches on his scrawny body, and a croaky, annoying cluck, he no longer fit cutely in our chubby palms.
I think my father’s lesson was to demonstrate the life cycle. Or to teach us an appropriate respect for livestock. Yes, that must have been his plan. That, or my mother was simply ready for the chicken to go.
Because one Saturday he drove us out to a local farm for the final goodbye.
I don’t really remember feeling sad, the chick had lost some of its appeal. I was kind of ready to be done with the smelly, flapping, sharp-beaked fellow in my closet. Besides, I’d moved on. I had my eye on a snow-white baby bunny in its A-frame chalet, complete with window boxes at the local pet shop.
But when we got to the big farm, it was cold, industrial – not the shag rug bedroom my chick was accustomed to. And it seemed like literally thousands of full-grown chickens lived in the same pen. The smell was overpowering.
And our young chick looked like a real loser when my father lowered him, scratching and flapping, down into the mass of white bodies. Immediately the other birds swooped over to investigate the new arrival. He looked smaller, more intelligent, tamer than the others. Definitely more vulnerable.
I think Dad tried to say some poignant words, but honestly, none of us was listening. We were in a prison camp.
And as the clucking rose to a murderous frenzy, he hustled us back into the car quickly. I wasn’t sure I wanted to linger anyway, because I couldn’t locate the neon-yellow tail feather beneath the suffocating chicken pile. They were all on top of him.
It was upsetting to learn about the new world order of poultry my chick now inhabited.
What brought back this old memory was an article that I was reading recently, about people injecting eggs with chemical dye to make Easter chicks hatch out in designer colors. I think it’s a pretty hideous thing to do.
Sometimes humans really disappoint me. We just can’t leave nature alone – as if the darling, yellow fluff balls aren’t perfect enough.
My father’s lesson rings true: we shouldn’t mess too much with nature. Baby cuteness always yields to a larger reality. And growth is messy, and fraught with some real ugliness, even danger. And a barnyard animal should stay locked in the barn.
Yet the gift he gave us was precious. The opportunity to touch those soft buttery heads. To observe their fragile toothpick legs running hither and yon, faster than human hands could catch.
What a treat to witness, up close, the amazing contradiction of nature’s vulnerability yet surprising sturdiness.
These early days of April I’m enjoying the tentative peeps of spring – the new baby lamb trotting after its mother, the velvety rabbit-ear tips, poking through the hutch wire. And inside the chicken coop, beneath the hen’s soft, russet feathers, I imagine the smooth, perfect eggs, lightly pimpled with tiny, breathable pores.
They are all such miracles of design.
And I think we’re so lucky to be able to touch these things, briefly, and be reminded of how incredible creation is. To experience those fleeting moments when nature flutters, astonishes and tickles us, and somehow lets us in.
And like the chicks, we’ve made it through the harsh winter, folded inside our hard shells, waiting in the dark for the tiny cracks of light.
Restless for release, we’ve been craving the sunshine that propels us outdoors. Toward the smell of manure and wet grass, the soft apple blossoms floating on the breeze.
And we can finally get back to scratching around in the yard, fluffed up with the energy and verve of springtime. Relieved to be unfurling, coming back to life, just like everything else – another year, all over again.