Running around like chickens with their heads cut off

Have you ever held a chicken by its wings and watched while your grandmother cut off its head with a butcher knife?

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Have you ever held a chicken by its wings and watched while your grandmother cut off its head with a butcher knife? Probably not! I rarely talk too much about this to people I know (unless they are from a farm background) because I think they might misunderstand. I don’t think they’d understand that this whole process was an art, a ritual and, most of all, a lesson in life.

Once the chicken’s head was cut off, I had to carefully and quickly place it into a pail and let it bleed until it stopped flapping its wings and moving its legs. I had to do these things carefully and skilfully, for if I held the struggling headless chicken too firmly I would bruise its skin and, as my grandmother constantly warned me “…no one wants to buy a bruised chicken, Jim!”

The absolute worst-case scenario, and the one that would elicit my grandmother’s utter disdain, was the unforgivable mistake of allowing the headless chicken to escape your grasp. The few times that I did, I was at once amazed, frightened and transfixed. This headless chicken would run around as sure-footed as it was when it had a head, profusely spurting blood, flapping its wings in wild disorder and, on occasion, chasing me in some final bizarre act of retribution.

The term “running around like a chicken with its head cut off” has an immediate, powerful and graphic impact upon me to this day, and one I don’t think anyone can truly imagine unless they’ve been there.

Now what’s the purpose of this grotesque reminiscing? I am sure some readers are picturing in their mind’s eye, my family as some sort of mutation of the family in Texas Chainsaw Massacre and silently whispering a prayer that I no longer teach their children. However, amid the blood and gore and seeming horror that I have pictured here, are some lessons in life that helped to form me into the person I am today.

Killing chickens may not have been pleasant but it was and still is a part of life. As sad as it may seem, the chicken wings we consume today come from chickens that were killed. Perhaps not in such a graphic, bloody way as they were on my family farm some 40 years ago, but the fact remains that the chicken industry does not wait until their chickens die a natural death to sell them to restaurants.

Whether it was the killing of chickens, the slaughter of a steer, the death of a favourite pet in a farm accident or the failure of a crop, they all had a sudden and immediate impact upon me. These things did not scare me or make me afraid to live or cause me mental distress. These things were part and parcel of life and, in fact, made me understand life, to appreciate life and to put life and death in a clear and healthy perspective.

It did not make me a violent person, nor did it make me an insensitive person. In fact, these experiences made me a more sensitive person, a more understanding person and one who valued life and started to formulate, within me, the glimmerings of some understanding of death.

I sometimes feel that we shelter our children about the things they should be exposed to and fail to protect them from aspects of life that are much more harmful. No one had to tell me that the death of a chicken, a heifer, or dog or pig was not cause for celebration but it was, whether we liked it or not, a part of life.

Best of all, I experienced these life-and-death experiences with my family and their actions, reactions, comments and explanations taught me more about life than I learned anywhere else before or after. All too often in today’s world children sit in front of TV or video screens and, literally, watch as thousands and thousands of people, or representations of people, are killed in such graphic, horrible bloody ways and means that make the beheading of a chicken seem trivial.

These same parents would blanch at the thought of their child being forced to watch or worse yet actually take part in the decapitation of a chicken. In fact, if their child had been inadvertently exposed to this “chicken carnage”, many would seek counselling for the child in order to alleviate the fall out from this “horrible and traumatic experience.”  Yet the death of thousands of humans, often presented as entertainment on screens, causes no more than a passing glance and rarely a word of explanation or discussion.

Growing up on a farm, I firmly believe, made me a better person. It made me a more compassionate person and a person who has a much firmer grasp on life’s endless complexities, joys and sorrows. I regret there are fewer farm families today and that fewer children each year get to experience life on a farm. I am not even sure how one can teach today the things I learned on the farm as a part of everyday life.

Today’s children often grow up without a real sense of life in all its manifestations. To many of them, it’s even a mystery as to where the money comes from that enables them to buy their $200 Nike sneakers, that they rarely use to run any distance, or their cell phones, which are seldom used in meaningful conversations.

Their parents go off to some mysterious place each morning and return, magically, each night with money. Whether it rains, or if there is a drought or the frost comes too soon, or if the crop cannot be harvested, matters not to them. Most children today play no meaningful role in the acquisition of the family’s income. They do not have the chance to take part in the planting, harvesting and generally tending of the land and the subsequent establishment of a family. They are denied that wonderful opportunity of regularly failing, succeeding, laughing and crying as a family.

Their pleasures and pains are often private and lonely and misunderstood.

They have lost their ties to nature, to the land – and to themselves.

They seek pleasures and understandings of life in unsatisfactory, inadequate, and often incorrect places. They keep searching for things that always seem just beyond their grasp.

Unfortunately, all too many of them will spend a good portion of their lives “running around like chickens with their heads cut off.”