The Ranch Hand’s Diary:
Bear In Mind the Chickens
It's Tuesday. My day off. I sit on the porch in the sun talking on the phone to my mom. I'm gazing out into the trees when suddenly I say, "Holy smokes! I just saw a bear." The unmistakable shape, on all fours, ambles behind a fortress of trees and out of my sight. I wait for it to reappear on the other end, but it doesn't show again. "I just saw a real live bear," I say to my mom with a touch of disbelief. "Oh wow!" she says.
The bear is the week's big news. Even bigger news on Friday morning when Jesse walks past the broilers only to discover one of the pens smashed, half the chickens eaten or killed, and the other half, some injured beyond repair and the rest right as rain, scattered around the grass with eyes either closed in coming death or wide open with dazed freedom.
Karen, Jesse, and I catch the live chickens and put them all together in the second pen. We collect the dead and bag them up. Karen dispatches a handful of fowl whose injuries are irreparable. "Sorry baby," Jesse says to one chicken huddled panting in the grass, bloodied and fatally doomed. Then Karen and Jesse take the still living chickens over to the reinforced and electric-fence enclosed turkey pen where they’ll be safer for the time being. I water trees.
"On a ranch like this," she says, "you live with the fact that at any time, inevitably, everything might die."
The rabbits might eat all the new garden shoots, a frost could kill all the fruit trees, an owl could get the turkeys, and a bear could easily eat half the broilers.
A ranch, the wilderness, shows that never-ending circle of life and death. Always life and death. Death and life.
"Rilke said," Jesse says, even later on, when we’re in the kitchen cleaning up, "that animals have their backs always toward death and their faces toward God."
I think about how death could be a looming, scythe-wielding specter or an event that is already happened and therefore no longer needs to be dreaded or feared.
Greg calls the Fish and Wildlife Department and they send someone out almost immediately to set up a trap for the bear. The cows, curious, always so curious, sniff the trap, sniff at the decaying scent of the elk meat left inside to entice the young, male grizzly in, and then wander off to graze.
The bear is not caught Friday night or Saturday night. Sunday, the Fish and Game guy moves the trap behind the garden where he and Greg have discovered a bear-killed cow, one of the ranch’s yearlings, and the reason the bear has been sticking around. The Fish and Game guy sets up a camera and Sunday night it records the grizzly getting in the trap then out again. In and out a second time. Rewatching the video, they see the grizzly has a collar on. He'd been caught last year and released when the Fish and Game Department had been after a troubled sow and her three cubs. With trap experience, this grizzly is wary.
On Monday, Fish and Game set a snare. If the bear is caught in it, they’ll dart him and then take him to some place where he (hopefully) won't cause so much trouble.
It's Tuesday again. The bear is still not caught. It's my day off and I linger over my first cup of coffee while waiting for my laundry to wash. Jesse comes in for some breakfast. I ask her about the Rilke line so I can look it up. I find it and read it out loud to her.
The free animal has its dying always behind it and God in front of it, and its way is the eternal way, as the spring flowing. Never, not for a moment, do we have pure space before us, where the flowers endlessly open.
-Rainer Maria Rilke
Then I make light of a dark, sad thing by saying, "The caged animal has a bear always behind it and God before it."
Jesse corrects me, "The caged animal has the bear always behind it and humans before it." We don't quite laugh. For the remainder of the chickens are to be processed on Wednesday. They're called broilers for a reason.
"This may be awful," I’d said days earlier, "but do you think it's better to be eaten by a bear or to be eaten by humans?"
Those chickens, the broilers, truly do have death, the specter, behind them always, but the sweet part is that for the time that they lived they had a beautiful life. Jesse loved them. She made sure they had fresh grass to scratch, sometimes moving their pen to new grass twice in one day. She carried them out fresh water to drink and gave them plenty of food to eat. In addition, she spoke to them with a soft voice of love saying, "Hello, babies," when she was near them.
Maybe she was the God in front of them. She made their life beautiful. For all those chickens, she was the God they knew face to face, and in a way because of that, the death that was always behind them, when it came suddenly to them in the form of a bear, became as beautiful as the life they’d so rejoiced in living.