Why did the chicken cwoss the woad? I looked down at my young niece, who was practicing her stand-up routine. She blurted out a punchline I didn’t understand, and then ran out of the room giggling hysterically, the long blue ties of her dress trailing behind her. I started to feign laughter before realizing that she’d be long gone before I’d perfect it. Some performers are in it for the audience, some just like to crack themselves up.
The road-crossing chicken question is a classic puzzle, by which I mean that ever since I moved to a farm I get a lot of birthday cards with that joke, not that anyone has ever truly pondered it – and rightly so. Nobody really cares what the chickens do so long so they make breakfast in the morning.
Why are we so fixated on chickens, anyway? I’ve lived on a farm for four years now and in that time we’ve had rabbits cross the road, coyotes, horses, once even a bear. I’m far more interested in knowing the intentions of the bear than the chicken. Our ducks cross the road pretty much daily, no matter how much we try to dissuade them. But no one’s ever asked why. The passing cars slow down and wait for the parade to end, and while they may roll their eyes at the inconvenience of it all, I don’t think they’ve ever pondered the ducks’ motivation.
Yesterday we had turkeys cross the road. We get wild turkeys around here from time to time, often in massive flocks, but usually in the far back of our property. But this was up near our house, and just a small family – a giant tom, his ladyfriend, and their little cutlet. The turkeyling stared at us as intently as we stared at him, each of us seeing the other for the first time. He finally got shuffled along by his momma and ducked into the grasses across the street. I wondered if at night he peppered them with bad knock knock jokes about people.
Is the joke thing because chickens are somehow funny? They’re the butt of a lot of punchlines, and I’m not really sure why. If you’ve ever seen one in person, you know that the only thing that keeps them from being terrifying is their size. It’s said that they evolved from dinosaurs, and if you look closely enough, you can tell. If you look a rooster in the eye, which I don’t really recommend, you don’t even have to look that hard before you realize that this creature would eat you without a second thought if he was any bigger. Thank god they’re mostly vegetarian. And thank goodness they make breakfast in the morning.
When I was a child, I went through a joke-telling phase just like my niece. My dad still reminds me how I’d corner him for hours with the same terrible riddles, perfecting my technique. I had a joke book that I took out of the library and renewed so many times they were convinced I’d lost it. I finally returned it, and then my sister checked it out. This went on so long that the library called and demanded payment for the book, as they were clearly never getting it back. My dad said the hell they weren’t, and scoured the house until he found that book and marched it right back up to the library.
I eventually grew out of telling riddles, much to everyone’s relief. But when my niece assails me with her jokes, I am certain that karma exists. I deserve this. It’s my turn. It took thirty-some years to catch up with me, but I’m doing my time. I feign laughter, but it isn’t really the point. Some chicks just like to crack themselves up.
One summer, in our “pre-farm” days, Alan and I took a trip to a rural part of Canada. We stayed in a cottage on a small plot of land surrounded by pasture, the borders of the lot delineated by a thin wire fence. If you didn’t notice the fence, it looked like the yard out back went on for miles. We were both still living in the city at the time, and it was still fairly early in our relationship. In hindsight, I realize that Alan was revealing what he truly wanted in life, nature surrounded by wilderness with nothing but a thin line between.
One morning we awoke to a handful of horses wandering around in our backyard. They were clearly trapped, running from one end of the wire fence to the other desperately trying to find an opening. It was scary and cool at the same time – horses are pretty big beasts, especially close up. And they weren’t all that bright. The fence wasn’t very tall; they could have stepped over it at any point. But they didn’t.
I asked Alan why. Why don’t they just go over the fence? Why didn’t they go out the way they came in? What were they doing there in the first place? The grass was literally just as green out in the pasture. Alan shrugged. Why does an animal do anything? Sometimes they just do, and that’s the end of the riddle.
I wasn’t sure how to go about resolving such a situation, but of course Alan knew what to do. He called the cattle farmer across the way, and the farmer called around to see who was missing their horses. Within a couple hours a harried young hockey mom showed up in a minivan.
I watched her stare at the horses for a moment and look back at the minivan. Even I could see that the math was not in her favor. But like all hockey-soccer moms, when faced with a crazy herd that needs to get from point A to B, she does it. Somehow, against the laws of time and nature, everyone ends up where they need to be.
She tossed a lead around the instigator ‘s neck – a shiny black horse with sharp eyes and crisp white teeth – and led him out of the yard and down to the minivan. She rolled down the window of the van, hopped inside, and started driving, her arm stuck out of the window and the horse trailing behind her. The other four horses, seeing their buddy now heading down the road, looked at each other and then suddenly ran to catch up. She led them like that the whole way home, a slow-motion minivan equine parade.
I watched it all from the front porch of the cottage. It was all just so adorable. It was so far out of my realm that I couldn’t even wrap my brain around it. And yet the mom acted like it was just another day in the country.
We left the next afternoon and as we drove past the cattle farm, there were the horses running through the farmer’s newly planted fields, tossing their heads like stallions, free from their confines yet again. Alan shook his head. Why does the horse cross the road? Because some horses are just plain trouble.
I think of the hockey mom when my neighbor walks Buck back on a dog leash after he’s escaped his fence. He chuckles, and I feign a smile and roll my eyes. I watch the duck parade stop traffic down the road and I calculate how I’m gonna get them back to where they’re supposed to be. Cars slow down to watch the chaos. Young children point out of windows, and soccer moms smile at how charming it all is – but for me it’s just another day in the country. I’m pretty sure karma exists. It took a few years to catch up with me, but here I am, doing my time. I deserve this. And I wouldn’t trade it for the world.