Free Range

“Chicken! Chicken!” My husband nudges me. “Shit!” I mumble under my breath and scramble to turn on my camera, but it’s too late, we’ve missed another one. I sigh and wonder if we’ll ever get a good chicken picture.

We are being driven down a road near the city of Malang, on the island of Java in Indonesia. Here, it’s best to leave driving to the professionals. Scooters populated by sleeping children, furniture, harvested sugar cane and much, much more swarm around our van. The roads are lined with tiny beaten-up food stands with big signs boasting “Es Kopi” (iced coffee) and “Bakso Malang” (Malang meatballs). Men sprawl on benches outside these food stands, smoking, and in the middle of it all, are chickens, scratching in the dirt by the side of the road.

We have seen many things in Indonesia; monkey forests, bat caves, temples thousands of years old, but for whatever reason, we are obsessed with fascinated by the chickens. We have pictures of the monkeys, temples and bats, but we have yet to capture a satisfactory chicken picture, which is making us both a bit antsy because we feel, deeply, that the trip would not be complete without one.

My husband has dubbed them “Free-Range”; a name which has kept us smiling for three weeks. First, because that term is so inadequate, so tame in describing the kinds of freedoms these chickens enjoy. These chickens are free range in the way the early cowboys were. Tough, independent, they go anywhere they want; a neighbour’s back yard, a farmer’s field, a storefront, a busy thoroughfare. A family friend who lives in a village and owns chickens, told us they aren’t actually fed by their owners. The chickens run around, free of fences, to fend for themselves, finding grub wherever they can, and return home at night (for the safety of shelter, we assume). These chickens are big, wiry, built for fighting. (In fact the roosters are kept for cock-fighting sometimes. They keep them in cages the day before a fight to make them angry.) “Street” chickens might be a more accurate term.

Secondly, these chickens also fall under the “Free Range” moniker in the sense that they are technically organic, free of hormones and antibiotics. (“Free Range” isn’t actually the same as organic, but we often think of the terms interchangeably). Yet again, the name doesn’t quite fit the picture. When I think “organic chicken” I imagine fluffy chickens in green fields eating pesticide-free bugs and grain, probably listening to Bach. It takes work to grow organic chicken and is reserved for people who can afford it. But in Indonesia, it’s opposite. The organic chicken is ubiquitous, running across the street in front of your van. The expensive chicken is in KFC. Which makes sense. Shouldn’t it be more difficult to get chicken that’s had something (like steroids) added to it?

Ultimately, I think the chickens exemplified a kind of freedom and honesty that I didn’t know I was missing until I saw it. Life in North America looked overly structured and sterile for the first time. Knowing that the “ayam campung” or “village chicken” on my plate at dinner had likely been looking for worms at the side of a road the day before felt honest in a way that the fat, packaged chicken in the supermarket never could. Sure, many North Americans may balk at chicken that has been God-knows-where and eaten God-knows-what. But at home, if I buy Free Range chicken, I barely know what that even means. The many rules we have over food production are meant to keep us safe, yet I constantly have to dodge the doublespeak of marketing to avoid chemicals I know are harmful. And it wasn’t just about food. Looking at my life, it seemed that it was filled with ideas and beliefs that I thought were sophisticated, but only complicated matters. It was so refreshing to step away from the emails and “worries about my career” to view life more simply. Living isn’t actually as complex as we like to make it; give us some sunshine, water and food, a little place to run around, shelter at night and some company. The rest can be added or subtracted as we see fit.

Advertisements

16 thoughts on “Free Range

  1. “I think the chickens exemplified a kind of freedom and honesty that I didn’t know I was missing until I saw it. Life in North America looked overly structured and sterile for the first time.”

    I love this observation. Thank you chickens! I love it because you’ve managed to put into words something I’ve at times felt but have never been able to articulate. And I love how it’s the traveling that gets you there. Because of the choices I’ve made about where I live, I’ve had to adopt a few ‘norms’ that might run contrary to what NA would agree with. And it can be hard to be understood ‘back home’. Sometimes I’m not even aware of how I’ve taken on board those other norms (in structure, in do’s and don’ts). Because when you’re living somewhere else (or visiting for long enough), you judge those other norms at your peril.

    I’m so glad you wondered and enjoyed and found the world more beautiful and complex for it.

    And I think your chicken pictures are pretty good.

    • Thank you so much! Yes, I can see how you could take on other norms without realizing it sometimes – except when you’re back in NA, maybe. 🙂

      And it’s true – you can’t be in another place and sit there in judgement. And yet, I’m finding it important to hang on to some things too. It’s interesting trying to figure out when to stand strong and when to just eat the chicken feet, or whatever it is that seems strange.

      And yes, hooray travelling!

  2. This post is timely. First, it was thanksgiving and while chicken is not the traditional poultry it isn’t too far off. Second, we in Alberta are facing the largest beef recall we have ever had. I wonder if ‘street’ cows would be a better to solution then feed lots and slaughter houses. I love the chicken pictures and I think you’re right those organic chickens must listen to Bach. The ‘street’ chickens are much more interesting. I actually had my first bit of poultry in over two years this weekend. It was a little bit, more of a bite maybe. It reminded me that I don’t miss it. That being said, if there were ‘street’ chickens or ‘alley’ cows here then I might eat meat.

    • Wow, I’m so out of the loop in terms of news, I didn’t know there was such a huge recall going on. Maybe street cows are the way to go… I definitely think pretty much anything would be better than factory farming.

      “Alley cows” – I love it!

      Happy belated Thanksgiving!

    • Thanks! 🙂 You understand how much I wanted to get a picture then! They don’t just sit there waiting for their pictures to be taken. 🙂

      Thanks for reading! Happy Thursday!

  3. I love how these renegade chickens have reminded you — and subsequently, us — about so much. I read this sitting on a rock along the river near my house, where yellow and brown fall leaves have gathered in the eddies and the sun is unhindered. Before reading this post, I was feeling a touch of a familiar anxiety– something having to do with the thought that I don’t have all the time in the world, I must get home and shower and make use of my day. After reading, I thought: time do what? Sit by a river with my happy dogs and enjoy the sunshine? So I’m still sitting here. Thank you, chickens.

    And I agree: your chicken photos are quite good. What personality!

    • Thank you chickens! And thank you for that reminder as well! I was sitting here, facing a anxiety about choices, being sure to make the right ones. Your comment about you and your dogs by the river in the sunshine helped to calm me right down. The miracle of the Internet. 🙂 And I’m so glad that you stayed to cherish that sunshine a while longer. How delicious. 🙂

  4. “Looking at my life, it seemed that it was filled with ideas and beliefs that I thought were sophisticated, but only complicated matters.”

    I’ve had this sensation while travelling too. It’s one of the things I love about being away. I’m glad you put into words what it was about the chickens that was really worth obsess-… er… being fascinated over.

    I saw a lot of street cows and chickens in Nepal. I have to say though that after watching a duck eat a dead rat in a dark back alley in Patan, I’m not sure I’d actually want to eat street duck, or chicken for that matter. 🙂 At the same time, maybe all these factory farms we have are just another example of “sophisticated” ideas and beliefs that only complicate matters.

    Maybe chickens don’t need to listen to Bach, but neither do they need to be grown in factories. Indonesian yards look like a pretty nice compromise!

    Nice chicken pics!! It looks like you got a few good ones to bring home.

    • Ew, seeing a duck eat a dead rat is gross! Maybe if I’d seen the chickens eating something like that I’d be less optomistic. 🙂

      Yes, travelling is a wonderful way to shake up your perspective a bit.

      And I agree, maybe we need a happy medium between streets and factory farms. 🙂

  5. So many people have already pulled out the lines I love, but I have to reiterate: “Living isn’t actually as complex as we like to make it; give us some sunshine, water and food, a little place to run around, shelter at night and some company.” (Yes!) Also: “Ultimately, I think the chickens exemplified a kind of freedom and honesty that I didn’t know I was missing until I saw it. Life in North America looked overly structured and sterile for the first time.” Amazing to have these deeper observations about life after watching chickens cluck around the street… We DO convince ourselves that things are way more complicated than they are, don’t we? (Lord, I do, every single day.) The organic packaging makes us feel safe and sterile and morally good. And yet: as you say, what the hell do we know about it all? (I love this metaphor for basically anything.) You make me long for a time when our little ecosystems worked sort of simply– those birds you saw one day were on your plate another. Not shipped and cut and sterilized and de-sterilized and packaged and sold. Of course it’s never that simple, but nice to be able to recognize it when it’s in front of us and make choices accordingly…

    • Thank you very much for reading and for your insightful comments!

      I too long for a time when “our little ecosystems worked sort of simply”. It may not have been nice to actually kill those chickens we fed every day, but maybe better than what we have now, in some ways. Although, I so appreciate the amenities of modern life too, I’d hate to go without a lot of them. So, as you say, it’s never that simple. 🙂

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s