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Staring at chickens 

During the days of "Eat the Rich," "Smash the State" and Kwai Chang Caine ("Yet, it is eyes that blind the man, Grasshopper"), a bunch of us moved into an old farmhouse on 60 acres and tried to share everything. Toward the end of the first summer, the house grew too crowded, so we started moving into the outbuildings. We salvaged windows and lumber from houses in Durham that were slated for demolition. One couple converted a tobacco barn into its quarters, while another moved into the smokehouse, going solar with aluminum foil. I renovated a chicken coop.

I cut a hole in the roof of my coop and built a sleeping loft with skylights. There was a creek just out the window. We added insulation and wood stoves that winter. We even used to have a chair in the chicken coop just for contemplating them. The chickens wandered in and out, sleeping in a row of cherry trees nearby. They ate well, since half of us worked in restaurants. We had a huge garden, too. At night, they clucked at the stars. The scene was surreal.

Eventually, I moved, and it was time to build a new coop. I had been watching chickens a lot, so I had plenty of ideas: Chickens "know" southern exposure—length of days, the angle of the sun, when spring arrives. This new coop had several doors. The back door opened onto the garden. We clipped their wings so they wouldn't fly over the garden fence. After all, chickens invented composting and rototilling. Barnboard and chicken wire secured the coop from very curious neighborhood possums, squirrels, dogs, snakes and raccoons.

The simple pact you make with chickens is that, if you give them fresh water, some scratch corn and a few greens every day, they'll give you eggs. Bonuses of holiday leftovers are shared with all. Give them a safe, comfortable nesting area, and they'll make egg collecting a daily family favorite. But we're not talking pets here: They don't really like being picked up and petted, though they will let you. Given a choice, they would rather be bug hunting or simply doing their sophisticated chicken dance—forward and back, with distinctive head bobs.

When the seasons are changing, chickens will, in effect, say, "You know, we won't be laying as much these next few months—winter break." They resume when the sun rises higher and the days are longer. They are hitting their stride these days. It's warm and sunny enough, with plenty of weeded greens from the garden to go around.

There is a phrase, "curious as a chicken." Chickens are curious if your toe is edible, if that shoelace is a worm, if that sniffing dog is really offering a vegetable. Chickens don't waste words. When the flock tells you the sky is falling, seek shelter. There is that thing about pecking order, but over time everyone gets a turn. Ruffled feathers? We all have stories.

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