The dark haired girl said in the next
Life she would choose to be a chook:
David Campbell, ‘Words with a Black Orpington’
Much has been made of the desert as a symbol for the precariousness of European civilisation’s hold over both the Australian continent and the minds of those who dwell here, but for most Australians it is not the desert but the chook which symbolises the precariousness of our social order. Scratching out an existence from unyielding ground, col- lapsing into a flap when danger threatens, the chook not the desert haunts our dreams. And no one has gone into the national Parliament dressed as a desert, or even its ship. For the chook symbolises the forces, both inner and outer, which we fear we have not conquered, and it does so by being a uniquely Australian comic figure.
The word ‘chook’ is a symbol of our cultural difference; where the British have hens and the Americans chickens we have chooks, though as one moves up the social scale and ambivalence about Australia’s difference from England increases the word is heard less frequently. Private school educated people nervously refer to hens; and when chooks were being discussed at an academic dinner party, a professor of lower middleclass origins remarked with surprised wistfulness, ‘Chook, that’s not a word you often hear around the university these days’. Social status is often expressed by one’s distance from nature; the more nature is controlled, and the more of it one controls, the higher one is in the human pecking order. So, from chooks in the house, to chooks running free round the backyard, to chooks neatly penned, to the pinnacle of respectability where one is free from the foul altogether. Chooks are dirtier than hens, so the word, along with other images of dirt now banished, carries something of the allure of instinctual pleasures renounced for the dubious benefits of an upward mobility measured by one’s distance from the dirt. Partridge describes the word as an Australian and New Zealand colloquialism derived from Irish and English dialect and current from about the mid nineteenth century, though the use of ‘chook’ as a pejorative referring to women is given as Australian only.
In his books Totemism and its successor, The Savage Mind, Claude Lévi-Strauss shows how human beliefs about and practices towards animals, which anthropologists had called the institution of totemism, are really systems of classification with which human societies think about their own social relations. Speculating on the relationships between human society and different species of animals he suggests that the bird world is the most perfect metaphor for human society that the natural kingdom offers.
Birds … can be permitted to resemble men for the very reason that they are so different. They are feathered, winged, oviparous and they are also physically separated from human society by the element in which it is their privilege to move. As a result of this fact, they form a community which is independent of our own but, precisely because of this independence, appears to us like another society, homologous to that in which we live: birds love freedom; they build themselves homes in which they live a family life and nurture their young; they often engage in social relations with other members of their species; and they communicate with them by acoustic means recalling articulated language. Consequently everything objective conspires to make us think of the bird world as a metaphorical human society.
Lèvi-Strauss sees the society of birds as representing humanity’s achievements—its love of freedom, its language, its caring family life, its sociability. But chooks are ground dwelling birds penned in our own backyards, made ridiculous by their lumbering efforts to grace the air with a flight that’s more aspiration than achievement. They are birds slipped from their rightful element, an image not of human society’s achieved harmony and completeness, but of the vulnerability of humans and their social forms to some of the less admirable characteristics of their nature. The pecking order, closely observed, is not a lovely institution; nor is the chook pen under threat an image of an ordered social world.
It is the chook’s vulnerability that is perhaps the key to its role in the unconscious. In The How to Teach Your Chicken to Fly Manual (Kangaroo Press, Kenthurst, NSW, 1983) Trevor Weekes describes them as ‘the birds evolution forgot’ and gives detailed instructions for the building of a machine to exercise the domestic fowl’s flying muscles. This little book, with its meticulous pencil drawings of chooks in mechanical contraptions and photos to show the machine in operation with a white leghorn called Gregory Peck, is evidence of both the sadism inspired by the chook’s comparatively flightless fate and the laughter we use to defend ourselves against the knowledge of that sadism.
To visit the chook pen in the backyard is always to risk finding the devastation wrought by a marauding dog or fox—blood, feathers, dismembered chooks that couldn’t fly away. The cruelty of nature’s ethic of survival made manifest in suburbia; culture’s fragile control over nature destroyed. Throw a rock on the chookhouse roof, run a stick along its corrugated iron sides, and you can recreate the blind panic of flightless birds trying to escape. Ned, in Olga Masters’ Loving Daughters, returned from World War I not quite right in the head, beats the chookhouse wall with a lump of wood whenever he passes it, stirring the din and frantic flapping of the chooks within to an image of his own growing madness. And in the headless chook running round the backyard there is an image of panic not even death can stop.
This image is a vivid childhood memory for many Australians, particularly those over thirty-five who witnessed chooks being chased and killed for the family table. Perhaps for many their earliest experience of violent death, its impact was the greater because of the capacity for violence towards small living creatures it revealed in the parents.
The plucked carcass of the chook bears a remarkable resemblance to a human baby, or rather to its corpse—the beginning and end of the human life cycle brought together in a single image. After a difficult day with the new baby and cooking a roast chook for tea, a friend of mine had a dream: he trussed the baby, pink and vulnerable, for the oven. So in the Barrel routine on Hey, Hey, It’s Saturday, in which numbered balls are replaced by numbered frozen chooks, there is a transformation of the symbolic equivalence of babies and chook carcasses to the world of the frozen embryo. In this transformation we see further evidence of the symbolic power of chooks and the need to give it cultural expression even within the urban world’s attenuated relationship with nature. The particularly strong disgust evoked by battery hen farming is further witness to the chook’s continuing power as an image of vulnerability.
In most cultures it is the male not the female domestic fowl which has been loaded with symbolic importance. The cock of European and Asian culture with its pride, courage, aggression and splendid plumage has been a rich source of images of masculinity. And cockfighting has been and still is, despite being banned in most countries, a popular male pastime. So although there are tales of the foolishness of the cock’s pride, and talk of cocks gives great scope for sexual innuendo, the cock is only incidentally a comic figure. In Australia the cock scarcely figures; a hanger-on among the chooks, if it is singled out at all it is by the bowdlerised American word ‘rooster’. Australia has replaced one of the central masculine symbols of the old world with a comic female figure, suggesting that it is female rather than male sexuality that is problematic in the Antipodes.
One must beware here of too glib an interpretation, resist the temptation to speculate about drooping cocks and other signs of national impotence. As Clifford Geertz has shown in his celebrated essay ‘Notes on a Balinese Cockfight’, cultural symbols are never simple reflections of social life. Rather they are parts of stories cultures tell themselves about themselves, and like all stories they could have been different. Australians’ interest in chooks rather than cocks may have little to do with sex and more to do with their unease with nature; and of course human sexuality can both demonstrate and symbolise humanity’s implication in nature, particularly female sexuality with all it implies about the physicalness of our birth and the consequent inevitability of our death. For as Lèvi-Strauss has argued, women have generally been seen by human society as closer to nature than men, their integration into culture more ambivalent.
Partridge notes that the use of ‘chook’ as a pejorative term for women is peculiarly Australian. When Reg Ansett called the air hostesses ‘old boilers’ they struck till he apologised. Pejorative terms express annoyance, generally caused by the speaker’s inability to get someone so described to do what is wanted. They are a response to another’s intractability, a railing against the limits of one’s power. Intractable women, intractable nature. Female sexuality is particularly problematic here because nature is so problematic, both for those who try to farm it and for the urban majority who try to ignore it.
If nature were not so problematic here we would still have hens. Later in the poem of David Campbell’s cited at the beginning a rural idyll is evoked, and like all rural idylls it refers to an English not an Australian landscape.
And she said she would be a homestead hen
With a nest under a damson plum
In the windfall orchard back home.
Hens are at home in a cosy domesticated nature; always plump, never scrawny, they peck away in the orchards and solid stone barns of prosperous farms, red and black and speckled against the green fields of England; never dirty white mongrel chooks scrabbling between ramshackle corrugated iron and wood buildings in dusty paddocks.
The chook is an image of the tenuous hold Australians have over the land, its stubborn intractability and our ridiculous vulnerability. Whenever the word ‘chook’ occurs in conversations, at first people smile in the sophisticated way people smile at childish things they have put behind them; but if the topic is pursued most soon respond—with stories, memories, jokes and with the conspiratorial pride of sharing a cultural touchstone, of playing for a while with the secret identification in most Australians’ hearts between themselves and the chook.