Mary Jane’s Long Dance: A Hen’s Story

It seemed difficult for me to decide what to write about for my first blog post for Farmer-ish, but, today, as I work through my day, despite all that is going on in the world, my thoughts have turned to Tom Petty and a hen named Mary Jane in his honor.

I hesitated to write about Mary Jane for my first post, but what better example is there of the way my life has somehow managed to weave itself so deeply around both farming and the arts?

Here’s the background.

On the day Tom Petty died, which was three years ago this day, my husband and I were processing meat chickens. We had done it only a few times at this point, and the days of processing were always hard on both of us. First of all, it’s hard work, and though my husband always bears the brunt of it, I am his assistant in the endeavor. I work from sun up to well past sun down with him. Second of all, it’s a deeply emotional experience.

To not only know where your food comes from but to also know your food will change you. Over time, the experiences have led us down a path where we eat far less meat and eat vegetarian meals more and more. But that’s another story.

This story is about Mary Jane. And Tom Petty.

There was always something special to me about Tom Petty–the poetry in his lyrics, his deep understanding of those of us who are broken for our various reasons. It was only after his death that I learned about how he, too, had been broken by his childhood, which explained so much about that deep empathy and artistic soul.

My husband was outside processing when I came inside the house to take a break on October 2, 2017. I went online to skim the news. There, I saw the headline that Tom Petty had died. It had been a rough year for all of us, for our country, and losing Tom Petty hurt badly. I just sat and cried for a bit.

I went outside with my red face and hollered at my husband from our back porch, “Hey, Tom Petty died today.”

“What?” he asked, and then the understanding came. “No!” he said in sadness.

He stopped what he was doing, and we talked for a bit–about our disbelief and sadness. It was like losing a friend. Of course, we didn’t know Tom Petty at all, but I felt like he had been with me through his music my whole life.

Now, a little more background.

Every single time we processed meat chickens, I would always start asking to save a few, especially the hens. In my mind, it’s more than just an emotional appeal; it’s logic. A hen makes so much food for someone over her lifetime because of the eggs she lays, more food than someone can get from processing her.

“But these are meat birds,” my husband would always respond. “They don’t live very long.”

It was true. Meat chickens are bred for very short lives. They grow large quickly, and even though we have never purchased the kind that grows so quickly they struggle to walk, the reality is that meat chickens are definitely not meant for longevity. We both knew this.

But that evening in October, in the sadness of Tom Petty’s loss, my husband agreed to give the last hen a chance. She was smart. She had dodged him all day, and she would be reprieved.

“She has to be named Mary Jane,” he said. I agreed.

In the coming days and weeks and months, we would listen exclusively to Tom Petty’s music, and I was inspired to write. I wrote a short piece about Tom Petty’s impact on my life that was featured on the front page of Huff Post, only for a few hours, but there I was. I would later go on to publish a collection of essays about Tom Petty’s work. It was as if Tom Petty’s creativity was contagious to me. And, in my frenzy of writing, I also wrote about Mary Jane.

When I shared Mary Jane’s story, many Tom Petty fans reached out to me. “Here’s hoping Mary Jane lives a long and healthy life,” one person wrote to me. I didn’t have to heart to explain that Mary Jane was a meat bird and that “long” for her might be just 18 months.

But I really liked Mary Jane, and over the years, I came to love her. That’s right, I said years! Mary Jane is now just about 3 and 1/2 years old and is still with us; she is just a magnificent bird. She’s huge, like the size of a turkey, and she’s even smarter in her age. She knows her name and somehow knows exactly when to run and hide when I am coming for her for a health check.

Last year, she nearly died. I brought in a little hen who infected our whole flock with a respiratory illness. Mary Jane took it the hardest, as of course she would. She was an older meat bird. But we moved her into the garage, and I got on my hands and knees every night for weeks giving her medicine. She hated it all and fought me like crazy. Essentially, I had to fight with a turkey every night.

After a while, and in my exhaustion, I just decided to put remedies in her food and hope for the best. I thought, perhaps, my battle to get the meds in her was maybe causing her enough stress to hinder her recovery. So I took good care and waited and watched.

After nearly three full months of battling the illness, that hen fully recovered. Mary Jane has will.

Then, miraculously, this spring, Mary Jane even started laying again–and on the regular! We now have a Mary Jane baby on our little farm named Petty, and somehow, Mary Jane is, indeed, living a long and healthy life.

Much has changed in my life since the day Tom Petty died and Mary Jane got to live. We no longer listen to Tom Petty music exclusively. Our little boy is a cellist, so we listen almost exclusively to classical music. Interestingly, after a few years of listening to classical music all day every day, we can’t listen to popular music anymore–with one exception, of course–Tom Petty.

Sometimes, late at night, I go to our basement for quiet while I grade essays, and I listen to my Tom Petty favorites. I think about the impact a man I never met has had on my life. And, tonight, in the middle of writing this, I just went to the chicken coop and tucked in Mary Jane and gave her an extra pet. She didn’t even seem to mind.

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