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Sunday, January 16, 2011

Crowing Decoded

, [carving on kitchen cupboard]

When I was little my world was full of chickens. One of my jobs as a five-year-old was dragging a gunny sack under a tree collecting walnuts. Once I got a few dozen in the sack I'd swing it round in front of me and kick it with every step. It made such a satisfying crunch and it attracted chickens. Chickens would follow me around and say, "buck, buck, buck."

I was sure the chickens thought my name was Buck and were trying to get my attention. But, by and by, and because they seemed to call each other Buck and mutter it about everything, I considered other possibilities. One day I tried stiffening my lips in approximation of a beak and found it impossible to pronounce the letter F. Mystery solved, and I learned something of the general disposition of chickens.

But this is not intended to become an autobiography. Typical of boys and girls my age I have an aversion to the finality of the form. After one experiences a few blows in life, one feels a bit vulnerable and impermanent and shies away from writing it up. This is instead a personal essay which, although containing some historical exposition, is another sort of thing entirely.

If I was writing an autobiography I would have begun,"I am the fourth of two children." It would be met with suspicion and I would have to admit many of my siblings and cousins are remembered only as undifferentiated protoplasm. So was I, and will restrict my comments to barnyard animals.

Childhood observation was recalled to me recently as I sat in the back porch with one of my grandsons. We heard roosters crowing to the west, then to the south, then more distantly to the east. Once those in all directions knew of each other, they crowed back and forth incessantly.

Benny asked what they were saying and I said, "cock-a-doodle-do."

He didn't think so. I listened. He was right, cock-a-doodle-do has five syllables and these roosters were crowing only four. The rise in pitch toward the end was right, but was revealed now as interrogative. A question?

"A riddle?" asked Benny.

A riddle with no answer, or a riddle whose answer was so obvious as to need no articulation besides silence. We listened carefully, trying to fit lyrics to their four notes. Finally we heard it together: Where's-the-bathRRROOOM? Where's the bathRRROOOM?

We got the answer simultaneously too: for a chicken, anywhere.

I post this personal essay in hopes that others will explore the language of chickens and contribute to the humble beginning of this lexicon. Remember to consult children in this endeavor, especially if you can't remember being one --or aren't one-- yourself.


  1. First--and least important, really--I was distracted by your opening: "But this is not intended to become an autobiography. Typical of boys and girls my age I have an aversion to the finality of the form." Are you still a boy? I know in our innermost beings we are still the boys and girls we have always been, but that verb tense threw me off distractingly. Then later, you say something to the effect about why this is not autobiography, but surely, I thought to myself, it -is- marvelous memoir!

    Beyond those niggling demusions (as they can say in French) I loved all of this, especially both your own boyhood experiences and those of your grandson Benny.

    Then, it also reminded me of cross-cultural studies I had made of animal sounds. "Cock-a-doodle-do" is weak compared to what other humans in other language groups hear. Check these out:

  2. Thanks Will. As to the present-tense verb with boys and girls, you're right. I look in the mirror some mornings, after the sandman has beaten me to lumps and creases in my sleep, and ask, "Is that me or just the old box I came in?" You have deduced my usual answer.

  3. I Love the conversation you had with your grandson.

  4. Annie B.,
    Merci, mon artiste analogue!


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