How to hypnotise a chicken – A New Zealand adventure

The trouble with any long period away is that it includes such a variety and wide range of incidents, anecdotes, encounters and adventures that it’s nigh impossible to provide a short, cogent answer to a question as simple as ‘How did you find New Zealand?’ apart from the utterly banal (‘I liked it, thanks.’)

I attempted to make things more interesting by summarising my month and a half in New Zealand in a few sentences of Dickensian length and complexity, but since they’re a little too rhetorical to recite by heart, I mostly copy them into letters, Facebook statuses and blogs:

From the streets of Christchurch, where life and culture thrives even among the rubble and dead hulks of its earthquake-stricken centre; to the star-brilliant skies above the blackness of Lake Tekapo; to the mist-shrouded bulk of Mt Cook, waterfalls pouring down its cheeks in angry cataracts; all down the jagged line of the southern alps, past the icy lakes of Wanaka and Wakatipu and into the sheer mountains and impenetrable rainforests of Fiordland, bridged by a single stoney track beneath which the clear Routeburn flows through valley and gorge, I ventured; then turning northward along the dangerous, ever-sounding shores of the west coast, where the glaciers sink slowly backwards into the mountains and the sea foams and spouts like a tempestuous geyser among the tortured and labyrinthine rocks; to the golden sand of Abel Tasman, where western eyes first glimpsed the young country, and paths lead through waist-deep tidal bays to the farther shore; to the vine groves of Marlborough and thence to the verdurous pastures and rainbow-haunted skies of North Island: the snowy crater and steaming volcanic lake of Ruapehu; the redwood forests and bubbling mud pits of Rotorua, and the deep azure mineral pools in which ferns silver and decay; up past Hobbiton and the black water caves of Waitomo to the northern capes and islands where the country began; where the great kauri, taller even than redwoods, pierce the canopy; then south once more to volcano-spotted Auckland, spanning the peninsula from the Pacific to the Tasman Sea: such were my travels in New Zealand. I flew gliders higher and for longer than I ever had before, leaped from planes and the top of skyscrapers, guided kayaks over wide, deep lakes, ascended sheer walls of blue ice and pitted rock, and plunged gasping into lakes, oceans, rivers and waterfalls. And there were beers cooling in the stream, and the scent of wood shavings on the forest air, the geothermal pools were hot and the lakes were cold,there were kisses by moonlight, shooting stars and new constellations, seals swimming the the rivers and kea clowning for scraps, and a beautiful woman did a hula dance in an apartment by the sea.

In any case, I was complaining of this excess of anecdote to my friend Ffion recently, and she cut through my pontificating by asking me to tell her a story about a chicken.

‘Oh yes, we hypnotised one.’ I said, and realised this was a story that I’d neglected to write into my diary, never told anyone of, and completely forgotten until now.

With an archly raised eyebrow and a subtle bulging of the eye, Ffion invited me to go on.

This was in the midst of my coach tour from Queenstown to Auckland, just outside Abel Tasman National Park. Our coach driver, Vince, was brilliant, fearless – one of those people who can persuade with a grin and a quiet word where others would spent gales of breath and bluster failing to convince. He seemed to have a girl in every place we stopped, and tonight he’d come up with two – Cathy and Marie. I’d ended up joining them and a few more of the livelier members of the bus group in playing ‘Never have I ever’. Vince did a lot of drinking, and I haven’t felt like such an innocent since before my first kiss.

Over the course of a dozen-odd beers that evening, Vince happened to mention that he could hypnotise a chicken. It was at that stage of the evening when everything has to be tried, and accordingly we trooped outdoors to where the chickens were roosting in the trees. Vince would bend the branch down low enough for one of us to make a clumsy grab, and an extremely startled chicken would slip through our drunken fingers and make for the hills. This continued until all the chickens on the campsite had received a rude awakening, and then we started to hunt them through the bushes. Cathy eventually managed to catch one after we closed in on it in a threefold pincer movement.

The Wikipedia page on chicken hypnosis is absolutely fascinating. First described in 1654 by Athanasius Kircher, it is mentioned by Nietzsche (“the streak of chalk bewitcheth the hen”) and the article includes tips on technique by a German Chancellor and a U.S. Vice President. Vince’s method was simple and classical. His lovely assistant, Cathy the chicken wrangler, held the chicken at chest height, facing Vince, who held out a piece of chalk at the chicken’s eye level. Slowly the two squatted down to floor level, when Vince drew a long straight line of chalk running away from the chicken and between his legs. Both of them stepped away, and the chicken continued staring fixedly at the line of chalk, completely hypnotised. Only when someone disturbed it by a shove or a loud noise would it snap back into life.

Having proved it was indeed possible to hypnotise a chicken, we left it in the tent of an unsuspecting Dutch woman and went back to our drinks. It would have been the highlight of another weeks diary, but in the midst of all the adventures it passed entirely unrecorded.

Super Tramp Chicken

Anyone who has ever been camping will know and recognise how much better everything tastes when cooked outdoors over a campfire, though not every outdoor cook would go to the lengths taken by W.H. Davies, a tramp and minor poet of the early 20th century, now probably best known for his poem ‘Leisure’ (‘What is this life if, full of care’), best known to those my age from a successful Centre Parks advert.

Originally from Newport, Davies spent much of his early life as a homeless vagabond travelling around the United States and Canada. He made his way by begging, for the most part, but also tried his hand at fruit-picking and canal building, and made several Trans-Atlantic trips as a cattle-man. All that came to an end one day in Canada, when he had the misfortune to stumble whilst trying to jump onto a moving freight train, and the wheel severed his right foot at the ankle.

Five weeks later, he returned to Britain, equipped with a new wooden leg, and began his attempts to establish himself in a literary career. This recipe is taken from The Autobiography of a Super Tramp, his most popular prose work.

  1. Take one chicken, unplucked.
    N.B. It is probably not a good idea to inquire too closely into where this unplucked chicken came from. The choice of the verb ‘Take’ is not as innocuous as it might be in other cookbooks.
  2. Cover it in a thick layer of mud.
    You heard me.
  3. Bake under a pile of hot ashes, until the mud has dried into a solid crust.
  4. Break off the mud crust. The chicken beneath should be ‘as clean as a new born babe, with all its feathers and down stuck hard in the mud.’

The result, according to Davies, is a chicken ‘far more tasty than the one at home, that was plucked and gutted with care and roasted or baked to a supposed nicety’ – though perhaps it is best suited to those who bemoan, like him, that  ‘this food of civilisation certainly seemed to suffer from a lack of good wholesome dirt, and I should have liked to have had my own wood fire at the end of the backyard, were it not for shame.’