Lumpy, the non-laying Barred Rock hen.

Lumpy, the non-laying Barred Rock hen.

This is Lumpy, who does not lay.

In the two years since I first became a flockster, I’ve often known who was laying what.  The two Easter Eggers laid distinctive blue (Spalty) and green (Feather) eggs.  The two Wyandottes laid smallish golden-brown (Stormy) and pinkish-speckled (Stripèd) eggs.

But the 4 Barred Rocks – One Patch, Two Patch, Lumpy, and Jumpy – were so alike in every way, their habits and nesting preferences and their pale brown eggs so similar, that I was never quite sure.  After One Patch went to the big coop in the sky last year, I thought I’d figured it out.  Not counting the Easter Egger and Wyandotte eggs, I had, I thought, three other kinds: a very regular-shaped extra-large egg, a slightly elongated, blimp-like egg, and an enormous egg with a “sleep wrinkle” on one end.  Jumpy, Two Patch, Lumpy, I thought.

But after the March chicken massacre, the only Barred Rock left was Lumpy.  And every morning since that awful day I’ve looked for her enormous “sleep wrinkle” egg, to no avail.  The other two survivors, Feather and Stripèd, continue to offer up their pale green and pinkish-speckled treasures about 3 days out of 4.  But of Lumpy’s egg – or what I thought was Lumpy’s egg, anyway – no trace.

Lumpy’s a healthy bird, with bright black-and-white feathers (especially glossy and vivid after the last winter molt), a symmetrical comb, and elegant small feet.  She’s talkative, too, with a musical voice and a funny cry that sounds like the original Star Trek intercom whistle.  All in all, she’s an easy girl to like.  And I know she used to lay, because there wasn’t a hen in my flock I hadn’t caught in the act at one point or another.  But right now, she’s not doing her job.

So this brings up the question: what do we do with layers who don’t lay?

Another kind of household would have an obvious answer: stew pot.  And I’m sure my bloodthirsty, bottomlessly hungry teenage son would agree.  But when the word stew pot comes up, I inevitably counter, lawn mower.

This is because one thing even a non-laying hen can do is keep the grass from encroaching into the garden in the summer.  The Barred Rocks are pretty flightless (one reason they were easy  pickings for the neighborhood dog, I guess), so they’re especially good at staying inside the fence and snapping off the grass tips, one blade at a time.  It’s slow, but they’ll do it all day.  They never get bored.

But the fact is, even if Lumpy weren’t a pretty good lawn mower, I’d probably have to keep her anyway.  Friendly, harmless, not the most productive, occasionally entertaining – somehow, when I go down this list of Lumpesque qualities, it seems terribly familiar.

In that remorseless middle-aged way, I think to myself: Who else isn’t living up to their potential?  Shouldn’t I be doing more in life than just, sort of, getting along? Is it OK to be an affable person, essential to my family, of value to some friends? To produce a small body of work that brings pleasure to a few? Is it enough?

The answer, of course, is yes – it has to be.  Because if I spend my life worrying about not enough, in the end I really won’t have anything to show for myself.  It’s just one reason – perhaps the most intangible, but perhaps the most secure – that Lumpy won’t be getting the axe.

Still I hope, for all our sakes, that one morning I’ll go out to that empty,  haunted nest and find it: one enormous, sleep-wrinkled egg – the work of a day; the justification, however disingenuous, for a life.

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