Michael Mobbs with chook, photographed from Total Environment Centre film, Waste Not

By Michael Mobbs

8 July 2011 – When he was 45 Rainer Maria Rilke wrote the first sentence below and the rest when he was in his late twenties:

“I tell you that I have a long time to go before I am – where one begins . . .”

“You are so young, so before all beginning, and I want to beg you, as much as I can, to be patient toward all that is unsolved in your heart, and to try to love the questions themselves like locked rooms and like books that are written in a very foreign tongue.  Do not now seek the answers, which cannot be given you because you would not be able to live them.  And the point is, to live everything.  Live the questions now.  Perhaps you will then gradually, without noticing it, live along some distant day into the answer.

Resolve to be always beginning – to be a beginner.”

I mention this because I want to talk about seeing some things where I live, particularly the roads here, and water and chooks.

I’m only just beginning to see them.  I am 61.

Lately I’m seeing the crash barriers in the roads.

Some are made of concrete and look heavy, intended to repel run away vehicles.

Others are plastic, and coloured yellow, white, red or orange.  These seem light.  They are hollow and may be filled or empty of water.

I wonder how they choose them.  Does marketing influence choice, or is there some pure science the choosers are propelled by?  Is it the speed and cost of getting them on and off the delivery truck which matters most?

Just lately, it’s the water aspect of crash barriers I wonder about.

The thing about water is it simply amazes me.  Fluid.  So it can be hosed into the plastic crash barrier vessel, perhaps from a tanker or a nearby tap. And so serviceable because of it’s liquidity.  Amenable to being used to serve the purposes of the road crash barriers.  Able to be drained away (frittered away I say) when the vessel is to be relocated.  But heavy enough when accumulated in the barrier to repel the crashing car.

(Do the barrier installers have free access to water mains that they may use to fill up their mobile container?  Do they have a key to the water main which they bring from job to job?)

How do the crash barrier installers see the plastic crash vessel and the water that makes them work?  Do they feel greater admiration for the vessel or for the water?  Do they even think about the water; is it just like, say, air, which is there anyway no matter what we do and not a thing worth thinking about?

That water, to me, is an unsung hero.

Which in a roundabout, wondering way brings me to chooks.

I throw food to my chooks through the kitchen window.  Bob and Bert gather outside there when they hear me in the kitchen, quietly clucking to me about their hunger and getting loud if I ignore them.  Their coop is at the end of the house.  Inside it is the food grain dispenser which is never enough even tho’ it’s always got grain in it.  They roam up and down in their narrow run beside the house, constantly pecking at the ground, their eyes never off the ground and their ears, I assume, peeled for sounds inside the house.  Others in the house say they run to the kitchen end when they hear me come in the front door.  Maybe.

When I let them out for a peck in the garden and leave the back door open often they’ll come inside.

At first I was horrified by their intrusion.  It challenged my sense of order and civilization.  I put up a barrier to their presumptuous behaviour so I could keep the door open for the breeze.

There’s a dinosaur dimension to your chook, the primal waddle of them and the mad gleam in their gaze, and this is exaggerated when they single-mindedly wander across the boards of my timber floor. And your blessed chook does not toilet train.  Disgusting.  Over time I’ve become more tolerant of them inside.  Their apparent wonder at the strangeness of how I live entertains me.  It strikes a chord.

And I’m just beginning to see them.

When they come inside I think the big question in their mind is the same one, “Where’s all that food coming from?”

They’ll turn their head sideways to give me a full one-eyed checking out, to see if I have food on me.  But most of their time inside is spent intently looking down, eyeing off the floor boards for food.  For food in their world always comes from the ground.  So, obviously, it’s got to be on these floor boards somewhere. As they waddle along searching, their eyes, and perhaps their noses, tell them there’s no food there.  They peck the boards more with curiosity than expectation.   But they know, from all the stuff that comes through the window, food’s got to be there somewhere. So their pecks are half-hearted, just testing the boards for a surprise, an answer, expecting food down there but not expecting food to come from the boards.

When I open the fridge or a cupboard they barely look at me but if I reach inside they’ll jerk their heads abruptly to look at my hand and its contents.  They’ll waddle over with a brisk glaring question to check if any food is in my hand. If they’re particularly curious they’ll turn their heads at right angles to look in turn with both eyes, apparently not trusting one eye alone to provide accurate information.

I conclude from their behaviour that they think all food comes from the ground.  And if it comes through a window it must have come from the ground on the other side of the window.  I reckon that they have no idea of the possibilities of cupboards and fridges but do have some of the potential of what may be in a human’s hand.

Humans, too, have the chooks way of seeing.

That is, we look at things expecting to see a particular thing.  We don’t look to see what is really there.  We peck away with our eyes often blind to the landscape.

Well, I do, anyway.

Diligent, I try not to, but . . . oh well.

At least I’ve seen the crash barriers and their water.

And I’ve got some questions to savour about what’s in my chook’s minds when they come exploring my floor boards trying to solve the mystery of the source of the food through the window.

Michael Mobbs is a sustainability coach and author (of Sustainable House now in its second edition) who advises, teaches and speaks on sustainability issues. He works with developers, governments and communities to design and obtain approvals for houses, units and subdivisions. He is based in the inner Sydney suburb of Chippendale, where in 1996 he pioneered the conversion of his inner city terrace into a sustainable house, which has now been disconnected to mains water and sewerage and is powered by solar energy. See www.sustainablehouse.com.au