Rooster, Rhubarb, Rue

I once had a problem with an ugly rooster. He was not proud and tough, but hen-pecked and feather bedraggled. One day he flew the coop and came to roost in the lower barn under my studio. I supplied him with his own food dispenser and water and he seemed happy enough. Day by day, his appearance improved. Around his neck he grew a lush white feather cape and from his tail, long green and blue feathers sprouted. He became so handsome a friend named him the Lone Ranger.

Our relationship developed and the Lone Ranger would come up and visit my studio whenever he heard me arrive. It was summer and I would always throw open the large garage door, so he had easy access. Strutting around among the sculptures, he seemed quite at home, though he never stayed too long. Only long enough to say hello, and check out anything new; and then he was on his way. I loved the sight of him with his white cape and appreciated the liveliness in his step.

 The Lone Ranger

The Lone Ranger

He must have missed henhouse life, though, because after his studio visit he would walk over to the chicken fence and peer in. I had, at the time, about thirty hens and two other roosters. He seemed especially conversant with the smallest rooster, a wiry white-and-black one. One day, thinking he really wanted to return to the flock, I opened the gate to give him the choice and I returned to the studio. After a few minutes, bedlam arose.

Those two roosters were at it. Lifting their spurs, each tried to pierce the abdomen of his opponent. They pecked at each other’s necks with their sharp beaks. I knew about the legendary cockfights in Bali, but I’d never seen one. Such brutality! To ward off more bloodshed, I wedged a shovel between them. It worked. The wiry black-and-white rooster retreated and I drove the Lone Ranger back outside the gate. So ended the Lone Ranger’s visitation rights. These two foes continued to do battle through the chicken wire fence, pacing back and forth like soldiers on opposite sides of a wall. But they could do no harm.  It’s not only humans who have a propensity to make war.

As for the rhubarb, the plants grow at the end of one of the raspberry rows. A little like the ratio of roosters to hens — there are very few rhubarb plants compared to the number of raspberry plants. But the rhubarb always makes its presence known with a powerful surge, as it lifts the soil, the balled-up leaf stalk rises, and its umbrella-sized leaves unfurl, not unlike the Lone Ranger developing ornate feathers.

Like the rooster, there’s a ferocity about this plant not only the way it grows, but also in the way the name sounds. Try saying the word, rhu-barb, out loud. Directors in the Elizabethan theater apparently instructed actors in angry crowd scenes to repeat, “rhubarb, rhubarb, rhubarb” over and over — rhubarbers they were called. The sound of a furious mob filled the theater. My roosters did a lot of rhubarbing around the henhouse.

 Rhubarb with a little horseradish and raspberries in the background.

Rhubarb with a little horseradish and raspberries in the background.

Rhubarb is one of the earliest perennial plants we harvest. The name rhubarb comes from the early Greeks, who must have encountered it and thought it quite the barbarian, because they named it Rha (Greek for Volga, River in Siberia where they first encountered it) and barbarum (barbarian), for foreigner. We are so quick to judge the unfamiliar to be barbarous.

A few months after the cock fight, the Lone Ranger was gone. I found his rooster feathers scattered in the barn, most likely rooed by a coyote or a fisher, that snarly creature of the weasel family. (Rooed, I learned, is the verb for removing the fleece from sheep by hand-plucking the wool.)

The name rooster comes from his habit of roosting, or sitting on a fence post guarding his hens. The Puritans apparently preferred the word rooster to the more common word, cock, taken from the sound of the rooster at daybreak, ‘cock-a- doodle-doo.’ Though the roo in Rooster sounds like rue, the word first used in the 12th century to mean regret, it shares only its sound.

I rue the Lone Ranger’s passing.

Now try saying, Rooster, Rhubarb, Rue  three times quickly . . .