By now it is a trope: city girl trades her high heels and Blackberry for a ramshackle farmhouse, and in tending gardens and chickens, she realizes what is truly important. Yawn.
That is not my story. That bucolic vision leaves out some bits, like the way locusts can descend and take out a whole crop, or the fact that chickens will turn on each other, leaving those at the bottom of the pecking order battered and bloody. It is not as if corruption clings to cities, leaving country life pure and good. There is no Garden of Eden in the heartland of America.
is the story of my move to the country, but it is a story of death and decay,
of how we divide the world into bits and pieces for consumption, how we bloody
each other in the process. This is the story of how
knowing my chicks by name reminded me that I am human and gave me hope that I might yet be saved.
I didn’t buy them because I love animals, or because I couldn’t resist the soft butteriness of their fluffy new-chick down. I didn’t buy them because of the tiny hops they took with tiny feet, or the way they looked up at me and cheeped. I didn’t buy them because I was hungry, or to please my children. It happened like this: my two-year-old son and I were grocery shopping and had an extra twenty minutes before it was time to pick up his sister from preschool. So we stopped in the farm supply store to look at the animals.
We live in rural Indiana, as foreign a country as any place I have ever lived (and I have lived in three foreign countries). When Jack and I moved here four years ago, the first thing we noticed were the women wearing bikinis on their riding mowers, oblivious to muffin tops and skin cancer. If the weather is nice, people drive their golf carts into town to buy ice cream, or on Labor Day, they drive them from house to house at our all-town garage sale. The 3,700-person town is famous for an ice-cream shop called Ivanhoe’s, though newspapers say the best thing to order is not the ice cream but the pork sandwich: tenderloin, pounded thin, heavily breaded, and fried, served with lettuce on a white bun.
the summer you will see adolescents walking to the gas station, walking home
with Styrofoam cups of soda, forty-four ounces for sixty-nine cents. Boys
uncomfortable with their sudden growth spurts hunch to be shorter, leaning
toward girls with ponytails like corn silk, and I wonder about these
they dream of college or of being Corn Queen, carrying red roses in a convertible in the Labor Day parade.
We call girls chicks, dumb clucks, mother hens, and say women get as mad as an ole wet hen. Arrogant men are cocksure, and whoever rules the roost is the cock of the walk. These gendered English idioms express centuries-old sentiments. Aristophanes called the cock the ancient sovereign of Persia, while the Roman writer Pliny praised it for its bravery, declaring roosters to be “sentinels and astronomers” whose fighting prowess awed even lions.
The wild red jungle fowl of India, the ancient forebear of our domesticated chicken, was first captured by the Burmese, and not for food, but for sport. (Cock-fighting, in fact, is the longest-running sport in the world, with a 3,500-year-history, and was still legal in Louisiana up until the last decade.) The Burmese exported the red jungle fowl to China, but officials almost immediately made it illegal to raise the birds for food. Perhaps the Chinese worried that the presence of humans would contaminate the chickens.
The Romans had no such fear. Archeology indicates that big, organized farms in Rome provided the first chance for large-scale chicken production, with protected space for flocks. Farmers “crammed their birds to fattness” with bread soaked in wine or milk or mash made of cumin seeds, barley, and lizard fat. Again the government became involved: out of concern for excess and gluttony, Roman consul Caius Fannius ordered that households could only eat one chicken per meal.
After the fall of Rome, their industrious methods of raising chickens fell out of use until the beginning of the last century, when technological developments in chicken feed allowed Americans to begin raising hens exclusively indoors, in cages. In the hundred years since chicken farming in America ceased being primarily a casual, local enterprise—half a dozen birds in the side yard of the house, scratching for worms in the dirt—and became a thriving industry, chicken has become the American meat of choice. We now consume nine billion birds per year.
My mother came to visit when we moved into our house in the country, bringing a wrought-iron rooster. I thought you might want it on your front porch, she said. It is so cute. The rooster, in contemporary mythology, is still powerful, arrogant, beautiful: the cock of the walk, the one-time emblem of the Democratic party, an animal worthy of front-porch display. The hen, the female of the species, we have turned into a protein-producing commodity, feeding her high-calorie food so tempting that she neglects to go outdoors even when the outdoors are offered, preferring to stay near the feed trough. She is bred to get breasts so large that her legs break under her. Most often, she spends her five weeks of life in a building with twenty-thousand other broilers, in a cage where she doesn’t even have room to spread her wings. Not once.
At the end of our third winter here, we bought a house on two acres of land just outside city limits. Leaving our rental house in town meant that we could raise chickens, if we wanted to, and have space for a garden and bees, fulfilling our idyllic Wendell-Berry-fueled fantasies. Raising chickens is not a dream most townspeople here share; residents have outlawed chickens and other farm animals within the four square miles of town. While my citified friends in Denver and Little Rock and Seattle happily experiment with urban chickens in their backyards, locals here are the children of farmers; they are already intimately familiar with the noise a rooster makes at 4:00 am, the way hens cackle after laying an egg, the mess of chicken shit, the way hawks and weasels and coyotes—even cats—will attack. They know you might need a gun.
But I bought our chicks while we still lived in town, reasoning that they would stay in the garage for the first six weeks anyway, and no one would know I was breaking the law. Easter passed, the weather still too cold for Easter dresses, and both spring and the paperwork for our new house were moving slowly. Winter had been long and dull, and I felt dull too: I bought the chicks as a way of hoping, of acting into the belief that things would change. They were the visible manifestation of my belief that, against all odds, spring would come.
Our move-in date was pushed back by two weeks, and the birds grew too big for the box in the garage. I moved the chicks, little down-covered softballs, to the backyard, closing them into the storage shed overnight. The neighbor girls, including the cop’s nine-year old daughter, came to play with our pets. They named them: Duke (the rooster), and the hens, Goldie, Calico, Queenie, Star Bright, and Nightmare.
One afternoon I realized Queenie was gone. I scoured the street for her, but it wasn’t until that night, when my husband came home, that we found a pile of yellow feathers fifty yards behind the house.
What to tell the kids? We worried, worried, then simply told them the truth, unadorned. A hawk had probably eaten Queenie. My daughter, who had carried the chicks in her hands and on her shoulders, who had fed and watered them daily, who loved them, just nodded, as if death were a natural part of life.
Jack built a chicken coop on our new property, but we let the birds range freely during the day, feeding them store-bought chicken feed to fortify their foraged diet of worms and weeds. I had chosen a mixture of breeds based on a friend’s advice: all docile, friendly birds, good for egg production. Duke and Nightmare, Australorps, have shiny black feathers. Goldie is the only Orpington now that Queenie is gone, a classic yellow bird, and Callie and Star Bright are Golden-Laced Wyandottes, every stunning copper colored feather on their bodies edged in black.
At the end of the summer, the chickens are nearly five months old, which means they have already lived about five times as long as most chickens raised in the US for consumption. But we are not raising ours for meat; they are for eggs, and they begin laying small, orange-yolked eggs for us at the end of September.
This is also about the time we realize that we do not want a rooster.
We hadn’t planned to get a rooster—they were all supposed to be hens—but it is hard to tell with chicks, and some roosters always get into the mix at the farm supply store. Now we have had him for almost five months, and I am torn: Duke is loud, yes, but he is also protective, chasing the cat away from the hens. On the other hand, we are paying to feed an animal who will never produce any food for us. He doesn’t lay, and we want layers. After a week or two deliberating, my gentle, kind husband Jack decides to slaughter him.
This is not a casual, throwaway decision. It is born out of years of trying to be more aware of what we eat: of not eating factory-farmed meat, of memberships in CSAs that provided local and organic vegetables and fruit, of experiments in small-scale gardening. It is born out of books we have read, out of Wendell Berry and Michael Pollan and Barbara Kingsolver. It is a symbolic gesture that sticks it to the food industrial complex, that says we refuse to be disconnected from the reality that animals must be slaughtered in order for humans to eat meat.
Youtube research indicates that slaughtering a chicken is not difficult. The calm, measured voices of men on videos instruct us to prepare a milk jug to hold the bird by trimming the plastic from the top and bottom and attaching it upside down to the edge of a table. Simply hold the bird upside down, and the flow of blood to its brain will cause it to go limp. Slip the head through the milk jug, then slit the throat. The blood will flow out in the vessel you have prepared to catch it. Pluck and cook.
Jack’s experience is not so smooth. Duke is spooked, and runs around the garage like a chicken with its head cut off long before his head is actually cut off. Being held upside down does not cause him to fall into a trance or to relax; he is frantic, pecking at Jack’s arms, angry. His head does not fit in the milk jug.
I can’t tell you what happened, finally, because Jack doesn’t like to tell the story. But an hour later, he returned to the house, pale. It is finished, he said.
Coq au Vin
slices bacon, chopped
legs and thighs of a rooster
medium onion, diced
2 carrots, roughly chopped
5 cloves garlic, minced
2 tablespoons butter
1 pound white mushrooms, sliced
2 cups cabernet
Sauté bacon in a large cast-iron skillet over medium-low heat until fat is rendered. Remove bacon from the skillet and set aside. Increase heat to medium.
Salt chicken pieces, then place fat-side down in skillet and cook until both sides are nice and golden brown. Remove from pan and set aside.
Sauté onions, carrots, and garlic in bacon grease until onions are translucent, about five minutes. Remove with slotted spoon and set aside.
In a separate skillet, sauté mushrooms in two tablespoons butter until golden, about three minutes. Set aside.
Pour the wine into the cast-iron pan, whisking to scrape loose any bits that have stuck. Simmer for three minutes, then add everything in: bacon, onion, carrots, garlic, mushrooms, and chicken. Lightly salt. Cover and bake at 350° for 75–90 minutes.
Goat Cheese Polenta
Bring 4 ½ cups of water to a boil, then slowly add 1 cup polenta, whisking continuously. Simmer gently for ten minutes. Salt to taste. Add two tablespoons of butter and four ounces of goat cheese. Stir until combined.
To serve, spoon generous helpings of the gravy atop the polenta. Put a leg and thigh on each plate. Take the food and two glasses of red wine to the basement, where the television is. Put on a movie while you enjoy your dinner.
Cut into the dark meat of the rooster, Duke.
Carefully lift the meat to the side of the plate, enjoying the carrots, onion, bacon, the gravy, and the polenta, when you realize that you will not eat him. Enjoy the flavor he has lent to the gravy, be thankful for his life, for the five months he roamed freely. Save the rest of his carcass to make stock for soup.
Become a vegetarian for the next two weeks.
After dinner, I escape the mess and noise of my kitchen with a plate of table scraps for the girls. “Here chickie chickie chickie,” I call, like all ancient farm wives have called. The hens run toward me, bouncing from foot to foot as they run, fat-bottomed ladies stung by bees at a church picnic.
I shouldn’t give them table scraps this often; it makes them discontent with their normal feed, but I don’t care: it saves money and it means less goes to waste. There is great beauty in the way that on our small homestead, nothing is ever wasted. When I clean out the coop, the hay and chicken shit go into the compost with other kitchen and garden scraps. The compost goes into the garden, making our dense, clay-like soil both lighter and richer. The nutrients feed the arugula and corn and tomato plants, which feed us. And any leftovers feed the chickens. The chickens give us eggs, and they eat the mosquitoes and ticks in the yard, and they shit in their coop. It is a beautiful cycle, when it works, when it is not interrupted by predators or insects or drought or floods or frost or curious cats or the chickens eating their own eggs, leaving nothing but empty shells for me to collect.
Maybe it is true that being connected to the whole process—birth, life, death, seed, soil, shit—can help us recover a sense of our own humanity. Maybe it is true that raising chickens in the backyard rather than in industrial chicken farms is better for them and for us, but it is still far from idyllic. It still leaves us all at the mercy of nature.
Sometimes I wonder if the cultural shift—what Wendell Berry actually calls “cultural amnesia”—about what it means to eat animals contributes to a more general confusion about what it means to be human. Are we becoming as likely to see women as commodities as we are to see chickens as commodities? Last year, a young man in California killed six women because they refused to have sex with him. What about American culture has led him to believe that women are objects, commodities, things he should be able to touch and use at will? Why did he believe that his life was meaningless if he couldn’t possess the women he wanted to possess? How did he grow to see women like factory-farmed chickens, purposefully plumped and packaged, cut into legs, thighs, breasts?
I think about him as I feed the chickens in the evenings. Knowing Nightmare, Star Bright, Goldie, and Callie, I can no longer view the shrink-wrapped breasts in the grocery store in quite the same way. Had he never known any women as women, as individual persons? Had he only ever seen them as consumable parts?
The world is not yet right, factory, farm, funeral. Sometimes we eat our own.
Jesus compared himself to a chicken. I had a vision of this passage in my mind: the man standing alone, or maybe with his disciples, on a hill overlooking the city, contemplating its history and its present, then murmuring to himself, O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that killed the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often would I have gathered your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you would not! See, your house is left to you desolate.
That is not how it happened, though. He was standing in front of a large crowd of followers and disciples, preaching. It was just after his triumphal entry into Jerusalem, all palm branches and praise, and his shocking cleaning of the temple, turning over the tables of the money-changers. He had been healing and preaching with authority, decrying the hypocrisy of the scribes and Pharisees.
And then this man, his sinewed carpenter arms, calloused hands, dirty feet—he stopped, overcome with compassion for the people in front of him. And he didn’t say how often I would have fought for you like a lion. He didn’t say how often I would have annihilated your enemies and hidden you in my castle. He says something that, try as I might, I can’t imagine my brother or my husband or my dad saying, full of emotion, in front of a large group of people. To a large group of people.
He compares himself to a mother hen. With the knowledge that he is the next of the “sent” ones to be killed for coming to the rescue, and even knowing how they will turn against him in the next few days, he longs to gather them like a mother hen under his wings, clucking, feathering, settling into the be safe place in the straw where the chicks can hide. He wishes to restore his self-absorbed, rebellious, hard-hearted people to himself, these murderers of the prophets, these people who look at the world with eyes that cannot see it for what it is or what it will someday be. How often would I have gathered your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you would not!
The chickens’ first winter is also the harshest winter Indiana has known in twenty years. One week, wind chills down to the negative forties, we bring the hens into the garage, but other than that, they survive for several months in their coop with a single heat lamp. Extreme winds in an early-spring storm blow the roof straight off their coop, but in the morning, they are all still there.
It has been six months of snow, and, tired of waiting for change, I have to do something. I am losing hope. A year after buying the chicks, I find myself again looking for some tangible action I can take to prove that winter will in fact end, that spring will someday come. This year—instead of farm animals—I turn to vegetable seeds. If hope is the evidence of things unseen, then maybe seed catalogs are the evidence of spring. I pore over the beautifully illustrated, richly described advertisements for plants. I spend two hundred dollars on seeds and starts. Seeds! The moment the ground thaws, I borrow a tiller and turn the soil, thirteen hundred square feet of it. Mud clumps to the blades of the machine, but I pull it off with my hands, and keep going. The hens come over and peck in the dirt for worms I have turned up, leaving fresh fertilizer in the tilled soil.
I am in way over my head, more seeds than I can possibly keep straight, too much garden space to care for and yet still not enough to accommodate all my wintry dreams. I accidentally kill a batch of seedlings under heat lamps in the garage. I leave town for a conference and let the weeds and grass reseed themselves in the ground I had tilled, but never cleared. I haul wood home in the minivan with my two small children, convince my husband to build raised beds. Bare root strawberry plants arrive in the mail—twenty five of them—and I have no space prepared. I kill weeds by covering them with cardboard. I plant tiny seeds.
Spring descends and despite all my mistakes, vegetables grow: arugula, chard, lettuce, and peas. I ride the mower across our two acres in my tankini, oblivious to muffin tops and skin cancer. I choose to believe that nothing is ever wasted, that there is a God who sees neither women nor chickens simply as commodities, but watches us and weeps for us. I choose hope, believing that my seedlings and my hens are signposts for another world where we remember what it means to be human, where we are all finally, finally gathered like chicks under a mother’s wings.
Amy Peterson is Assistant Director of the Honors Program at Taylor University. Her book Dangerous Territory: My Misguided Quest to Save the World is forthcoming from Discovery House (2017).