Starting from scratch

A judge somewhere in Europe recently ruled, with my approval, that eggs produced by captive hens in the ''battery'' facilities of the poultry conglomerate may not be marketed as ''country fresh.'' Country fresh, he held, suggests the idyllic freedom of bygone days, when hens would frolic in a barnyard and, encouraged by a resident rooster, turn out a worthy product. Eggs that have about the same genealogy as a plastic pool ball should be labeled accordingly, he said, and he fined the grocer who had been putting ''country fresh'' on the celibate monasticism of modern mechanical ovulation. The plaintiffs relaxed.

This is proper. I have lately been intimately involved in research in this matter, and have joined in an effort to save the hen. We have some neighbors here at salt water who have winterized and become resident. When they were still summercaters, the gentleman would come up to Maine each May to open the cottage, plant his garden, and have things ready for the family after school let out. He would look about and find some farmer who was willing to take his money, and he'd buy a half dozen laying hens, installing them in his small hennery with run , and fresh eggs adorned the summertime. Before everybody returned to Massachusetts on Labor Day, he would dispose of the biddies and, along with the cottage, the hennery was padlocked for the winter.

Now that these folks are here year-round, he still picks up summertime hens, but he gets them from a chicken-mill of the battery kind. The day I asked him if he had bought his hens yet, he said he had, and that this year's collection was the worst yet. ''They don't have the faintest idea,'' he said, ''what a hen is.'' Which means that the poultry industry has bred from the hen every habit, custom, instinct, and characteristic to which the Laws of Nature and Nature's God entitle her. To prove this, let facts be submitted to a candid world:

These hens wouldn't scratch. When placed in the hennery they squatted on the floor, as they had squatted in their wire cages, and, having no automatic feeder and fountain, they knew not how to nourish and refresh themselves. My friend tossed down some scratch feed, which hens are supposed to scratch for in the litter, and they responded not. It took several days to retrieve them, and they are now kicking the litter about like hens of old.

They wouldn't step through the hole into the world. They didn't know what ground and dirt are. He had to shoo them outside into the run, and it ''frighted'' them, but now they are dusting in the sun as did their ancient grandmothers.

They wouldn't roost at night. Come evening, they would squat where they were on the henhouse floor. One at a time he'd pick them up, all drowsy, and set them on the roost. And one at a time they'd fall off and squat again on the floor. It took several nights to train these hens to roost, and now they have recovered this lost talent and climb up by themsleves. He says they seem pleased at this accomplishment and he hears them talking pleasantly amongst themselves about this new way to sleep.

Then, they didn't know a thing about a nest. In the battery cubicle, there is no nest. My friend wasn't happy that these hens left their bounty in the litter of the floor, and wouldn't go into the boxes nailed to the wall and upholstered with clean pine shavings. Aside from eating fresh eggs, he said, the best part of his hen keeping is to come in the afternoon with some table scraps and scratch feed, to have his hens cutt-cutt-cutt a friendly greeting, and to find warm eggs in the nests. Eggs in the nest are what it's all about, but he was picking them up off the floor.

This is when I joined the effort to redeem the hen. I had to hunt, but I found my old 4-H Club china nest eggs in a drawer with my old baseball glove, an old carbide bicycle lamp, and an old kite string. I took them over, and my friend put them in the nests. They are supposed to toller his hens back to the fundamental purpose of the feathered kind, as once in my youth they brought my pullets. If they work, my friend is going to bring me some country fresh eggs.

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