When I was a kid, I grew up on a farm, where a bunch of us kids ran loose, what people nowadays call “free range”. Running around with us were a bunch of chickens, who could go where they wanted, as long as it didn’t involve borrowing the car. Georgia was pretty lax about who could drive, though I never understood why chickens couldn’t drive if my brother was allowed behind the wheel.
Even without transportation privileges, the chickens always seemed happy. There was a social structure, with a Master of Worms, a Mother Hen, and a Counter of Chicks. They had their own feathered folkways, brought over from the old world. At night I could hear them down by the barn, the whole group singing along to old poultry songs, like “I’m Cracking Out” and “Heaven Is a Land of Grubs”.
Now that I’m surrounded by city people who think milk is made in factories, I have more appreciation of living on the farm. Two days ago, three of my friends (Lucilla, Carmen, and Betty) got engaged in a heated discourse over free-range chickens. The point of the dispute was what exactly “free-range” means.
Lucilla, a nurse, said that “free-range” applies to ability to move the joints without hindrance, and that the phrase is a reference to “free range of motion”, meaning to be flexible and move easily.
“Do chickens have joints?” Carmen asked.
“And why do chickens need to be flexible?” Betty asked. “It’s not like they’re doing yoga.”
“Although there are dog yoga classes,” Carmen said. “I was thinking of getting my husband to start with that and see if he could work up to what humans do.”
Carmen teaches geography, and she disagreed with Lucilla about what “free-range” means. Carmen said that that chickens naturally live on the range as native fauna, and if you can catch one, it’s free.
Lucilla asked what a range is, and Carmen replied, “Honey, did you go to college in Siberia? A range is like the prairie, like in that song ‘Home on the Range’.”
“I went to college in Alabama,” Lucilla said. “But I never heard that song. Anyway, nobody uses that word. If somebody asks where you live, you don’t say, ‘Oh, just outside of town, on the range. We were glad we could afford a home on the range.’”
“And those free-range chickens sure aren’t free,” Betty added. “They cost more than regular chickens. I think they must be drinking champagne.”
Betty is a real estate agent, and she had a third opinion of what “free-range” means. She said it refers to chickens who have special living arrangements, and they have free range of the place. That was why they were expensive.
Carmen sighed and rolled her eyes. “That doesn’t make sense. What kind of special arrangements would chickens have?”
“They could have a variety of possible needs,” Betty said. “Like a heated pool. So they don’t get cold.”
“Betty,” Lucilla objected, “do you know anything about chickens? Chickens don’t swim. They’re afraid of the water.”
“They’re not afraid of the water,” Better replied. “They’re afraid of getting chilled. Chickens don’t like being cold, just like I don’t. That’s why I understand chickens. Now if they had a heated pool—
“Excuse me,” I said, interrupting this inane conversation, “but I grew up on a farm, and you’re all wrong. I happen to know what ‘free-range’ means.”
“Oh,” Lucilla said. “Poultry Master is going to tell us.”
You hear that sarcasm? You hear that? I mean was there any cause for that attitude? I got offended and didn’t want to tell them, but Betty’s inducements prevailed on me. I always liked Betty better. “Well then,” I said, “free-range means the chickens sing old songs.”
Lucilla, Carmen, and Betty, without saying a word, all stared at me. After a minute, Carmen said, “They do what?”
“They sing,” I repeated. “They have old songs like—”
“Sure,” Lucilla said, “like cockadoodledoo.”
“No,” I replied, and I was feeling a touch testy. “I mean chicken songs.”
“And do they play little violins?” Lucilla asked, and all three women burst out laughing.
After that kind of ridicule, I decided they were just going to have to live in ignorance and I left. Violins. Who would think a chicken would play a violin? Anybody who grew up on a farm knows they have little guitars. And an occasional mandolin.