In recent years, some Southerners have returned to practices that were once common among earlier generations. As “backyard homesteading” and “urban agriculture” grow in popularity, Southern suburbanites who choose to raise crops and animals find what older Southerners knew: there are mythic lessons to be learned from nature. In this essay, an Atlanta rabbi muses on insights that he gained from his encounter with an “illegal” bird and connects them to narratives from sources outside the South.
by Rabbi Spike Anderson
Perhaps the turkey would think it ironic that on its most American celebration day, I would be thinking of another bird. If the turkey were honest with himself, he would not be surprised that he was upstaged by his cock-a-doodling cousin, crowned and fierce. Long ago, most of his fowl brethren had resigned themselves as lesser caricatures of that preening cock, the bane of all sleepers, The Rooster.
I don’t want to mislead you. It’s not like I think of The Rooster all of the time; to be honest, my thoughts of The Rooster are so infrequent that it seems a bit absurd to be talking about him at all. But when his name pops up multiple times in only so many weeks, in a way that is delightfully strange, I listen. For we all know The Rooster is very hard to ignore. I suppose he has always been around. Overlooking Vermont barns, he shifts with the wind, adorning rustic kitchens and acting as the crest for storybook noble houses.
When we moved to Atlanta from Los Angeles, excusing it as a surge of Southern romanticism when in reality it was a good-natured guilt trip from our young children, we built a coop and bought tiny yellow chicks. They were all to be hens, we were warned, for the Sandy Springs city ordinance forbade any rooster at all. Or so we were told.
But with the changing seasons, as if heeding a call just beyond the horizon, we caught echoes of his legend.
“There was a seeker,” my wife relayed to me, “whose silence was maddeningly disturbed in the dark before each dawn by The Rooster’s relentless crow. All through the day, just when she had finally found the rhythm of her breath, The Rooster would jar her out of her repose. The world rushing to meet her, uninspiring and mundane. She tried, of course, to meditate through the interruptions. She listened to the instructions, the present just beyond her grasp, at times lulled just far along enough to be hopeful . . . and then The Rooster would pierce her stillness, as if challenging creation itself.
“‘Damn that rooster,’ the seeker snarled, thinking thoughts beneath her, but hardly caring. Her better angels laughed with her fantasies of how The Rooster might disappear.
“The next evening, mindfully walking with a friend, each few steps interspersed with a word, or a knowing nod at a tree, a wind kissed flower, or how the light angled through the canopy, the seeker spoke of The Rooster, and her immense frustration at his thoughtless gall.
“‘Ah, but maybe that rooster,’ said her sagely companion, ‘is here because he has something to teach you.’”
And as my wife relayed this story to me, we both agreed that clearly he did. And so The Rooster first entered our life as metaphor, referenced whenever some constant annoyance or distraction kept us from the higher task at hand. His name became synonymous for the lesson such a messenger held for us, if only we were open enough to hear. He became part of the private language between my wife and I. The gentle reminder we offered one another when we were frustrated. A kindness.
I’d like to think that when The Rooster’s name was not on our lips, which was almost always, he had a life of his own to live. Not as a Zen Master but rather, comfortable in his yard. Relatable in the natural habitat of his own ambiance, just a regular guy. Of course, he is more than he seems. But he has the class not to dwell on that, at least not for too long. If you put him on the spot, like some Millennial guru, he might give you a rooster-like wink, before returning to his scratching in the dirt. He would agree with you, if pressed, that his presence is pregnant with potential for higher meaning, but he would prefer to strut around the yard, blissfully unaware.
The season that brought coronavirus to our lives, introduced a dark presence just beyond our sight. More time around the house, all school and work truncated through a modem, drew our attention to our sad flock, whittled away by the seasons, and the predators who watched from forest and tree-top. Our busy lives, in their newly condensed form, invited simple joys once again. In truth, nine new baby chicks fit in beautifully with our other homesteading activities. After all, we had named our sourdough starter, chopped and stacked wood, and upgraded our home-security system. Baby chicks were a welcome addition to our busy home, and “who knows,” we whispered in the dark, “if corona was still ‘a thing’ in the fall, we might need the eggs.”
Like choosing a dozen donuts from Dunkin’, online orders of baby chicks can be mixed and matched. “I’ll take three Old Dutch Silvers, two Plymouth Barreds, three Rhode Island Reds, two Norfolk Greys . . .” And of course, within weeks, the peeping pecks grew into their juvenile plumage, their fluff became feathers, ornate with cowls and colors.
Over weeks, the chicks grew out of the spare dog cage in our garage, with their fresh wood chips and filtered water, to the enclosed garden outside of our kitchen, and finally, to join the old maids in the backyard coop.
But one ‘chick’ especially caught our eyes.
“That one,” my wife said, while shaking her head, “is definitely a rooster.”
And she was right.
“Website says that it’s very rare, but it can happen.”
“How would anyone ever know that we had a rooster,” asked my son, looking for loopholes. “It’s not like anyone would ever come back here and see.”
“Ah,” I demurred, with the satisfaction of a father who still has an answer or two for his tween. “When he gets older, and starts crowing, everyone in the neighborhood will know that we have a rooster.”
We all decided, with quiet conspiracy, that we would put off dealing with our illegal male until the day when he found his voice. We were conflicted. Our seder-table held stories that prompted us to defy Pharaoh’s decree. Maybe our rooster would be like Moses in a basket. Besides, we liked our little rooster. I liked our little rooster! He was so cute, and proud, and handsome, and bold.
“Yes,” I whispered. “We will keep him as long as we can.”
Spring melted into summer, verdantly Georgia, the air thick with sounds from flitting birds and mowing lawns. Like yesterday, and yesterday before that, each morning seemed akin to the last, as the corona cases soared, and on our Facebook feeds, the country rioted in color. Which ‘lives’ mattered was flung from neighbor to neighbor, as pundits raged and parents checked their basement stores. Like a tempest on an approaching wind, the war drums beat a rhythm crescendoed for crowds in masks, their agendas weaponized, installing Justices and confusion. A sharp contrast to the bedtime stories and earnest check-ins we prescribed as the antidote for what the fortune cookies warn as ‘living in interesting times.’
The daily routine of waking, breakfast around our kitchen table, work, and even chores were valued, even by the children, because they were so very predictable. We welcomed them as silver linings, and in sermons they were dubbed as blessings. Anytime, yes, but against the backdrop of pandemic and strife, even more so.
Then, one morning, it happened. I was outside, doing what I don’t remember, when a new sound came from the closed coop. It wasn’t quite a ‘crow’, but it was clearly trying to be.
“Oh shit,” I thought, “that’s it.”
In the silence that followed, I stood stock still, as if The Rooster’s call might not see me. As if his reality and mine might somehow miss. But before my breath exhaled, he called out again, not yet strong, a broken staccato. In that instant, I knew that the jig was up. The writing was on the wall. The proverbial die had been cast.
In my mind’s eye, I could picture our nosy neighbor, his yapping dog entangled in his perpetual bathrobe, perking up. As if some sixth sense of his somehow knowing that he would get a chance to be a pain in my ass.
By noon, my wife had researched and spoken with the proprietors of a farm that would take a “City Roo,” as we came to find out our rooster was called. If I would get him into the dog-cage, she could drive him the hour’s journey to his new home. It was fair, more than fair, and it could be done, I assured myself, in the half-hour before my next Zoom meeting.
Some of the other chickens I had picked up on occasion, but I’ll admit, not The Rooster. While the hens passively accepted my hands with a chicken-like shrug, The Rooster emitted an aura that said, “Don’t even think about it, Jack.” But desperate times . . .
I’m not sure who was more surprised when I picked him up from behind. Me, that it worked, or him, that I had dared. We had deliberately avoided naming any of the chickens after our first crop – easier on the kids when they got ‘got’ – but if I had to name our rooster in that moment when I picked him up, I might have considered calling him Spartacus or Razorback, so great was his indignation.
I had lined the dog-cage with cardboard to protect his feet and had left the small door open, in case things got rough. With our young prince held tightly in both my hands, folding him into my chest, our rooster went . . . What’s the right word? Bonkers.
I got him inside without too much trouble, but was not at all expecting him to push off against the cage wall, charging back at me, a mad jailbreak attempt to escape. Again and again, he threw himself against the door, each time barely preventing me from closing it. He was desperate. And if I were honest, I had my doubts. When I finally slid the wire lock into place, his smoldering eyes seemed to shout, “Traitor! How could you!” And he was not wrong. But this was the only choice. I thought of speaking out loud of “the farm” and “new friendships” that awaited him, but what was the point? He was, in the end, just a chicken. That I wanted to assuage his pain, and assure him that he would be ok, is a testament that, against our better judgment, we cared for our bold City Roo.
“He was happy when he was released,” my wife assured me. And within moments she was unable to say with certainty which, of the many roosters roaming the farm-yard, was ours. We wished him well.
As the months slowly unfolded, like waves at low tide, the kids returned to school, masked and sanitized. Each day, our prayers for everyone’s safety less acute, so subtle, yet constant. It was there if we listened for it; otherwise it just blended with the sounds of our daily life. The corona numbers continued to climb, and pulpit sermons predictably treaded through themes of ‘despair’ and ‘hope’, ‘loneliness’ and ‘missed connections’; now they had a less produced quality about them. Like the Temple incense of old, perhaps, their swirling ascent would bring us primal wisdom for our stripped down, naked self.
The news reports, retweeted tweets, political signs, conspiracy theories, taboos, and fears for our future could be so overwhelming. Perhaps the lives of our matriarchs and patriarchs would be all the context we would need to weather the storm, this forever storm.
Corona funerals continued, mostly the elderly, sacrificed against the pagan alter of selfishness. Many holes were drilled in the boat, each passenger insisting they had the God-given right to do what they wanted under their own seat.
The cemetery, always open, did brisk business. Like unfolding petals, new sections were opened to accommodate demand. The last parcels of land against the wooded borders, adorned with fresh tombstones and flowers.
Unseen but ever present, the gravediggers waited in the wings, dulled against the tears of mourners, well-crafted eulogies, and ritual prayers. Rough-dressed and unthanked, they prepared the grave and smoothed over the heavy cement lids, lined coffins encasing Sunday best.
“You know,” my wife said to me, as we trek back from a river walk, the exhaustion of two funerals in three days still heavy on my heart. “I heard a story today, told by one of the best known teachers, which I really like. It has a rooster in it. Do you want to hear it?”
Of course I did. And the mention of The Rooster was a shibboleth between us, a balm offered for us both, open wounds spiritually raw.
This is what she told me.
There was a young man, from a village, who saw the rich daughter of the town’s merchant on market day. She was, to him, beautiful beyond compare. The Youth gathered his courage, and he approached her. “Could we sit in the tea-house together? I would so like to spend time with you.”
To which, she answered him, ‘I’ll see you, and we can spend time together, in the graveyard.’ As her gaggle of friends snickered, she thought herself clever, and that it was her right to snub.
But The Youth was both simple and smitten, and so all he heard in her words was a promise. “When?” he called after her, her shoulder disappearing into the market crowd.
“When The Rooster crows,” she called back.
That night, he laid out his cleanest shirt and closed his eyes with nervous resolve, for surely right before the dawn, amid The Rooster’s call, they would meet up besides the graves, and all would be right in the world.
But as the sun rose, The Rooster’s piercing calls echoing off the tombstones, the Youth found himself alone. He had placed himself atop a gentle hill, to best see the merchant’s daughter, when she arrived. The early morning light exposed rows and rows of names and numbered dashes, which seemed to meander down the well-trotted paths.
He was unsure from which direction she would come. And as he thought about it, he realized that The Rooster would sound all day. She had not specified which crow would signal their meeting. But no matter, he thought, she would surely come before too long. And they would talk. His daydreams turned to fantasies. She would realize that his modest upbringing cradled a purity worth cleaving to, and they would fall in love. Mores would be put aside for what they shared together, and their wedding canopy would be erected in a quiet clearing amongst the cedars, the branches to be their home, with children’s laughter always on the breeze.
His gaze roamed the horizon, and every few moments he smoothed his shirt, grooming his fingers through his hair, so that he would look his best when she appeared. But as the sun began to set, he realized that she was not coming today. Surely, with The Rooster’s crow, they would meet at the graveyard on the morrow.
For weeks, he stood for her, each day, without fail. As the days grew shorter, he still went to the graveyard each dawn, but now, rather than stand in wait for her, now he sat. His back against the cold stone, autumn sun against his closed eyes, and he began to listen.
Throughout each day, processions of mourners would accompany their beloved dead past his perch with muted footsteps and the occasional wail. Sometimes, the sobs seemed a piercing question, again and again, “Why?” And with the same listless desperation, it would echo back to them as their answer. Other times, their grief watered their sorrow in a way that seemed almost nourishing, fertile soil of memories to grow that which would emerge back into something sacred. This type of grief reached for a faith that it all had to mean something; for the other option, that it all meant nothing, would break them.
Day in and day out, The Youth watched as families gathered around pine boxes. Hands wrinkled with long days would give the young whispers of appreciation, and the silent prayer that they might be blessed with long years of their own. For the old, they gave knowing squeezes that conveyed their shared depth of loss, and the unspoken plea that their own time would be similarly appreciated, knowing that nature had spoken, and they would likely be here again, before too long.
From his nearby hill-top, The Youth would hear the words of eulogy carried across the breeze. Each one gently nestled in story and anecdote. “To capture a life lived in mere words is impossible,” many a mourner began, “but sometimes words are all that we have.” And so they tried.
On the days when the wind blew in the opposite direction, the Youth would leave his post in order to get close enough to hear the final words of brothers and daughters, parents and children, friends and admirers. At first, he came close because he was bored, but soon he realized that what was being shared was far more than entertainment. For now, he was privy to the inner sanctum of home and relationship, of blood and of dream, of the humdrum and of the profound.
For a while, he stood a respectable distance apart, alone. But before long, he began to gather with the gravediggers, to stand apart, together. The teams of two shifted, depending on the day; and they did not talk to one another while the funeral droned, either out of respect or disinterest, they would never tell. The Youth became familiar to them, and it cost them nothing to recognize one of their own, those who spend their waking hours amongst the graves, to tend but not to mourn.
The Youth’s rapt attention drew their own, more than it had before. Sometimes their newfound focus would wander from the predictable mourners to The Youth himself, whose face would reflect the joy and the pain, the grief and the hopes, that each eulogy evoked. Thoughts of ribbing him were easily ignored, for they knew that he was right to react so, and in their core they hoped some of what he felt would reach them too. Just a little bit to make their time worthwhile, but not enough to disturb the pragmatism of becoming numb to the sadness of others.
At some point, one of the workers did not show up, and the other handed the Youth a shovel. He took it without hesitation, knowing that the wages to come would be as welcome as the excuse to be there, for he had long ago accepted that the merchant’s daughter was never coming, at least to meet with him.
With the seasons of each passing year, The Youth became wise; and then he became known for being wise amongst the people of the town. For surely one who hears the depths of the human heart, day in and day out, must be. And on occasion, when he was asked, in the pauses between celebration and concern, and the wakeful cock-a-doodling of The Rooster’s crow, to share a word of wisdom, he usually would. Nothing earth-shattering, mind you, but the way that he said it, quiet and vulnerable, would cause even the most obtuse amongst them to listen.
Spike Anderson is the Senior Rabbi at Temple Emanu-El of Greater Atlanta. He and his wife Marita live on the edge of a Chatahoochee River National Recreation Forest in wonderful chaos with their children, dogs, and chickens.
Lesson Plan: NH-MSF-Lesson-Plan Personal Essay Epiphany