In Italy, the winter solstice is on the 21st this year. It is the longest night of the year. For millennia it has been celebrated with drumming, singing, prayers to beat back the forces of darkness to welcome birth the infant sun. For six months, the sun will grow with the increase length and intensity, only to be subdued once again by the slowly rising dark. An eternal cycle.
For years, I have been sending out a winter solstice story. It changes a bit over time, perhaps reflecting my ageing and the times we are living in. But the sentiment is the same.
For thirty-five years I have lived with chickens. The first six were brought home by my fifteen year old son. They lived in the bathroom. It was only when they began to fly out of the tub, and the shit factor became intolerable, that they were banished from the house. Phil made an elaborate structure for them in the backyard which we christened the Chicken Hilton. Though they arrived as unexpected guests, when they began to lay eggs they became valued members of our household. My children played with them, watched them for hours. They wandered about our backyard, coming up to the kitchen door to be fed every afternoon. Once, my daughter sat in the chicken coop all day, just watching the babies peck their way out of their shell.
But the children grew up, lost interest and now, for lack of a descriptor, the birds are somewhere between my foster children and employees. As much as I love watching them and find myself chuckling inadvertently at their constant glee with anything new, there is no doubt that we have a barter arrangement. The chickens are provided with excellent housing, daily maid service, free health care for their entire lives, catered meals—the same food we eat—and as many worms and insects as they can handle, season dependent. In return, they provide eggs, most of the year. And high nitrogen compost year round. Their eggs are our major source of protein and, grown by free-ranging, well cared-for hens, they are superior to anything I could buy at the store. As they age, the old hens become pensioners, no eggs are required, though they are excellent adoptive mothers for the new members of the flock.
All our animal companions live by natural light. It keeps their bodies in rhythm with the natural world. They wander about during the day but, at dusk, they all return to their barns. The hens, not unlike their tree-dwelling ancestors, without coaxing, come indoors, climb onto perches and go to sleep. And also like their ancestors, in October they begin to molt. It is a natural process where, signaled by the decreasing daylight and increasing cold, they loose their old ragged feathers and grow healthier, thicker new ones. They slowly stop laying eggs in order to put all their energy and protein into a winter coat.
In November they begin to look pretty bedraggled. A few are balding. And there are fewer eggs in the nesting boxes. They stay close to the coop more, huddle together for warmth and go inside well before dusk. But by December they are respendent in their new clothing. Truly magnificent. They are busy and active and eat non-stop. Perhaps more than in the summertime. But they have stopped laying eggs. All but the ones born this past year are holding onto their energy—and their eggs. They are waiting.
Shorty after the winter solstice, with the increasing sunlight they slowly begin to lay again. One day in late December or early January there will be a great amount of singing in the barn. Someone has laid an egg and is singing an aria with all her heart, letting the entire world know about it. And sure enough, there in the middle of the nesting box is the first egg of the new year, arriving with the rebirth of the sunlight.
The hens do not all begin to lay at once. Every few days there is one more egg in the nesting box accompanied by the on-going opera. Within the month all the hens will be alaying. The ancient ones—over seven years old—may only lay one or two for the entire year but they always acknowledge the increasing light.
For me, that first egg symbolizes what it has always symbolized… renewal. This December was filled with very dark days. Literally. It rained for three weeks straight. A small section of our old country road was washed out in a mudslide. It seemed that the cold seeped in quicker, earlier than other years. I remind myself that the months before the solstice are the time to pull within, to add wood to the fire, retreat to the back of the cave and sleep. When we are not planting out flats of winter vegetables or feeding and cleaning the animals, we are in the back of the cave. There are times when the many challenges racing at us can feel overwhelming. But the rain retreated and sun appeared last Saturday and this week I began to grow new feathers. I feel I am recharging, getting ready to take up the fight again, to ‘do something’, to act, to lay some eggs. The Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines renewal as restoring to freshness or vigor. Isn’t that what the new year is all about? Tomorrow a new cycle begins. I wish renewed vigor for all of us. I wish for fresh insight with which to see our challenges.
I wish you joy and a renewed sense of wonder with the rebirth of the light.
© La Bella Terra di Jeri Metz. December 21, 2022