My Chicken Became a Cat—And Taught Me to Imagine a Happier, Healthier World

If there is one key to making it in a family farm—or in any business that thwarts the trend toward relentless greed and destruction of the planet—it is the ability to believe.

Tayla and Strawberry. Photo by the author.

On Thursday, Mom and Dad sit down on the back porch to listen to the chorus of afternoon crickets. Mom’s cat, Tayla, hops into her lap. Dad’s cat, Strawberry, hops into his. Tayla has long, calico fur. Strawberry has feathers.

Many creatures pass in and out of our lives, and a few always prove noteworthy in some way.

When Strawberry first came to us, we mistook her for a chicken. Most people do. Her beak, comb, and scaly feet could fool anyone. But Strawberry knew her true identity and patiently corrected us over her years at Sap Bush Hollow. Eventually, we came to understand that she had no place in the chicken coop and no place out in the fenced-in pasture with the other birds.

Strawberry roams the farm freely, but like any cat prefers to keep to the back porch. Like a chicken, she ovulates almost daily, leaving eggs in unlikely places—in Dad’s feed buckets, in the kindling box, beneath the brake pedal of the truck. She never acknowledges these eggs. They are forgotten symptoms of a former identity. Like a true cat, she denies any part of her reality with which she does not agree. Mom has learned to look out for them, to gather them up without chastising Strawberry; just as she patiently cleans up the droppings Strawberry periodically leaves by the back door (she has not learned to use a litter box).

Photo of Strawberry by Shannon Hayes.

She is, however, our best mouser.

Strawberry is not the only creature on our farm who created a new reality for herself. Confit looked like a mallard duck, but she mated with Foie Gras, a goose. Like geese, they were a pair for life, and Foie Gras never questioned her identity—at least not as far as we know. She laid eggs every spring, and he guarded her while she sat on them, waiting for them to hatch. They never did, but neither Confit nor Foie Gras allowed that to come between them.

Isabelle was born to one of our breeding ewes one May, but recognized her true identity as a dog after the death of her mother. She does not run away when we try to herd her. She follows us, just like the border collies, through gates and across fields. She has never been much of a breeding ewe, but, like a good dog, she helps us move the flock.

And let’s not get started on the dogs, who believe they are people….

As I watch Mom and Dad sit nonchalantly with Strawberry and Tayla, I observe how our family doesn’t challenge the behaviors of these extraordinary animals. Many creatures pass in and out of our lives, and a few always prove noteworthy in some way. We accept them for who they are, granting them permanent amnesty from the chopping block and processing room. These critters occupy my mind on Sunday, while I drive Saoirse over to visit Aunt Kimmie.

Aunt Kimmie and Uncle Tommy inherited my grandfather’s sheep farm. It came with a three-story stone house built in 1789 and 300 acres of stunning farmland on the other side of the state highway. They came up from New Jersey and moved in with Grandpa at the end of his life. Tommy ran the farm and saw to Grandpa’s needs during the day, trading off hours with my dad and my Aunt Katie. Kimmie accepted night duty and took care of Grandpa through his long sleepless episodes. But a giant stone house and a 300-acre farm are more work than they bargained for.

I know she is overwhelmed. They love the land, but I know this giant house was nothing she wanted. I know she feels like she can never get ahead of it. Tougher still, Aunt Kimmie is a tropical fish in a trout stream. The upstate bugs frighten her. When she receives the smallest bite, her skin develops welts, her lymph nodes swell, her ears fill with fluid. She tolerates my family’s pragmatic ways — our culture of meat, butchery, and animal husbandry. But she is from a different world.

Kimmie couldn’t be more than 5 foot 2, with full, feminine curves. She is a baritone with a Jersey accent. “Dere’s ghosts in this house like you wouldn’t believe,” she confided to me one afternoon, as Saoirse and I led her to a sunny corner of the kitchen for tea. She squints her eyes and leans across the table. “They watch my programs with me.”

“They watch TV with you?” I ask, my eyes wide.

“Yeah. You know, like The Dead Files, or Ghost Adventures. They stand around the corner, there in the hallway,” she points. “I tell ’em, ‘Don’t get any ideas!’” She pauses, her fingers twitching for a cigarette. She refuses to smoke in the house but fears going out to the realm of the insects. “They’re not so bad, though. Sometimes they help me when I can’t remember where I left my coffee cup.”

Saoirse’s eyes are bugging out of her head in excitement. “Aunt Kimmie,” she exclaims, “you’ve actually seen ghosts?”

Cynicism is the easiest lesson to teach ... once it is mastered, we become paralyzed to take actions to change our world.

She shrugs. “They don’t like ta show themselves ta people with freckles. I don’t know why…. But I’ve caught ’em staring at me before, standing over my bed.” She gets up and goes to the doorway for a smoke.

“Mom, do you believe Aunt Kimmie?” Saoirse whispers.

“Of course I believe her.”

“Have you ever seen a ghost?”

“No. But that’s because I’ve never wanted to see a ghost. The idea frightens me. I think my mind is turned off to perceiving them.”

“But you still believe her?”

“Why wouldn’t I?” We come from a family that believes chickens can turn themselves into cats, and sheep can become dogs. There is no reason to doubt that Aunt Kimmie sees ghosts.

On the afternoon when we visit, Aunt Kimmie has been trying to putty over the cracks in all the windowsills of the house. She has to focus on the little issues she can address with her own elbow grease. She cannot cope with the buckles in the walls, the leaks in the roof. I suggest she let me and Saoirse take her out for a drive around the farm. The air is growing drier, the mosquitoes and black flies are abating. She confesses that it has been a year since she has visited the backfields. Enthusiasm for the land gets the better of her.

“Sure, let’s go,” she says, and stubs out her cigarette. “I wanna show you the best place ta summon the Witch of the Woods.”

And so, for the next hour or two, we noodle about in the fields. Kimmie leads us into a place she calls “The Enchanted Forest,” and stands amid the trees. Her eyes have come to life.

“And if you stand here,” she explains, “and make a little altar right there—you should probably focus on that tree—then the Witch of the Woods will walk right out of it. You can ask her anything you like. But, when she says she wants ta go, ya gotta let her go. That’s the deal.” She walks on a few steps, pointing to places where the water runs in the spring, where silver birch branches have fallen to the ground. Then she stops and stares at me.

“This is it,” she says, opening her arms in what I see as an uncharacteristic gesture of joy. “This is what it’s all about, you know?”

I smile. I know.

Uncle Tommy finishes evening chores and comes out to join us. The four of us pile into an old Jeep, leaving my car behind. He drives us to a corner field, where he dreams of putting up a small solar-powered house. He and Kimmie argue over whether they should be closer to the tree line to avoid the winds, or farther away to allow more sunlight. For just a few minutes, I see their hearts grow lighter. They are believing they can have their little house, that they can sell the big stone one, that they can make this life work.

On our drive home, Saoirse is full of excitement and talks nonstop. I grow dizzy trying to follow her conversation. She bubbles about how she wants to have a cafe and bakery someday, where people from town, who are used to McDonald’s, can find out how delicious healthy food can be.

“I want them to learn that they don’t have to eat food made from GMOs,” she says, “so we can put McDonald’s out of business. Or, at least, maybe Wal-Mart and McDonalds will learn that it is important to stop selling GMOs, and to stop selling all that nasty garbage. They’ll see there’s a better way and they’ll change what they do.”

If there is one key to making it in the unlikely venture of a family farm ... it is the ability to believe.

My brow furrows in the dark as we wind our way back up to our own mountain. She doesn’t see my face. I am considering explaining to her about Americans’ obsession with cheap food and cheap consumer goods. I am considering delving into the details of corporate greed, which inhibits Wal-Mart from becoming an ethical business venture. But I stop myself. Those things, I decide, are lessons in cynicism. And cynicism is the easiest lesson to teach, the easiest to learn. Once it is mastered, we become paralyzed to take actions to change our world. Right now, there is a greater lesson to learn: the power of believing.

If there is one key to making it in the unlikely venture of a family farm, or of any business or lifestyle that thwarts the trend toward relentless greed and destruction of the planet, it is the ability to believe—to believe that, in spite of cold springs and dry summers and tumultuous rains, the seeds planted in spring will emerge as the fruits of fall. It is to believe that, if you do things right, honoring the earth and her creatures, someone will step forward and honor what you have to sell. And when it comes to a child dreaming about a future where her community is rich in healthy food, happy children, and artistic expression, learning to believe is far more important than mastering cynicism.

“And mom?” Saoirse says, interrupting my thought. “I think the cafe should have a special section for the ghosts,” she says, “because they need a place too. They need to feel like they’re welcome here. I think people need to stop being afraid of them. They should feel like they’re part of a community.”

I visualize the evolving future of Sap Bush Hollow Farm and see chickens who become cats, ducks who become geese, sheep who become dogs. I see a Witch of the Woods who offers counsel and a special corner for all wayward spirits to gather around a homemade meal. It is truly a vision worth believing in.