Wednesday, August 8, 2007

Chickens and Counting Them – a Ramble

We are often told not to count our chickens before they have hatched.
The phrase is normally expressed as a command, rather than a piece of homespun advice, which brings up the whole area of civil liberties. If I insist on counting my pre-hatched chickens, I should be allowed to do so without censure. Tut-tutting might be permitted and disapproval for my actions in jumping the gun might well be expressed, but the choice ultimately is mine. My grandfather did not die on the battlefields of Monte Cassino so that I should only be allowed to count my chickens when the powers that be say so. (Actually, he didn’t die on the battlefields on Monte Cassino at all, but hid in the wardrobe every time the military police called around to the house, but you get the point.)
Personally, though, it is very rare that I have actually counted chickens before they have hatched. I have of course counted eggs and I suppose that there is little I can do if my mind translates the unbroken shells into a picture of fluffy yellow chickens running around a farmyard. Counting eggs is of course perfectly okay according to the philosophers and indeed it is a necessity for those people who make a career out of packing the eggs into egg boxes. Pack in too few and the customer will be most disgruntled when he/she gets them home. Pack in too many and the lid won’t close, no matter how much you sit on it.
Not that I have had much opportunity for counting chickens since we moved to Dublin 15. We are hardly overrun with the little yellow flea-ridden feathery bundles. I have counted them occasionally in the supermarket when there have been very few and I intend registering a complaint to the meat manager. Of course these chickens are well-hatched, though judging by the state of them, they would have been better off remaining where they were.
Whereas the instruction not to count chickens while they are still in the shell might be sound advice to human beings, one would think that the Mother Chicken (or is it a Hen?) might be forgiven for doing a bit of forward planning. A mother who knows she is going to produce triplets might have to adjust some of her thinking on sleeping arrangements, equipment, bottles and asking the mother-in-law for help and I imagine that the Mother Hen (or is it a Chicken?) would be inclined to be the same. “I have six eggs,” she would say to herself, “and, if they all hatch, I will have six chicks.” (It is this sort of logic that makes you wonder why hens (or chickens) aren’t higher up the evolutionary pecking order.) “Therefore” – she would continue – “I will need to plan for feeding, rearing and educating six chicks after hatching.” It is only natural and one cannot really castigate a mother for dreaming.
The proverb is quite unclear as to whether it is acceptable to count chickens whilst hatching is actually in progress. In certain cases, this is instinctive. It is hard to say to yourself “Ah – a certain number are in the process of breaking out of their shells while a certain number have yet to do so.” There is also the very salient point first broached by Wittgenstein in his groundbreaking book “The psychology of farmyard animals” that a chicken’s egg that is actually hatching should not contain anything other than a chicken. “It is unlikely to contain a long-eared bat,” he chortled with that wicked Teutonic humour of his.
Of course it is absolutely imperative that you start counting the chickens after they have hatched (If you are a member of the younger generation, you may bring a calculator as there could be anything up to ten of them) If you fail to count them, one might slip under the bit of wire at the bottom of the yard and you mightn’t even notice. The poor little chick would then be at the mercy of any amount of predators that like to prey on uncounted chickens like hyenas, pterodactyls, certain species of whales etc
Again, if a chicken wanders off and you move house suddenly, the little beastie is unlikely to find its way to your new home. We have all heard heartwarming stories about families who throw a stick for the family dog to fetch and then move to Ulan Bator, only to find the poor wretch whimpering on the doorstep of their yurt six months later. Chicks do not have the same sort of homing instinct as dogs, although they would be unlikely to be fooled by the fetch-the-stick trick in the first place. Only by the scientific approach of “counting them” can you be assured that they are all packed safely in the suitcase for the long journey.
In days of yore, the ancient Celts used to employ chicken-counters who would be responsible for the inventory of chickens within the tribe. The chicken-counter was much exalted though not as much as the Druid, who seemed to get more perks. A little-known story from the Four Annals describes how Niall (of the Nine Sausages fame) once caught his chicken-counter hovering over a nest of eggs with a notebook and pencil in hand and had him hung, drawn and quartered until he said sorry.
During the Great Famine, the role of the chicken-counter all but disappeared in rural Ireland as most birds ended up on the dining room table an hour after emerging from the shell. Many turned their attention to root vegetables, though the job satisfaction was not as great. “Turnips,” one demoralised counter recounted in his memoirs, “do not run around. They are too easy to count.” With the advent of the steam engine, many farmers found they had time to learn the rudiments of counting themselves, which completely demystified the chicken counting art. Many counters were forced to emigrate or consider a career change, although some still eked out a living until the end of the nineteenth century.
I am approaching fifty years old and have never been involved in a traumatic incident to do with eggs or indeed chickens, though a fried egg once slipped out of a sandwich into my lap while I was waiting to be called for an interview. This blissful existence I attribute to having followed the above maxim assiduously for most of my life and I would urge all Dublin 15 residents to do the same. Counting chickens and eggs simply do not mix and those people seeking spiritual nirvana are advised to eschew all temptation to do so.

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