Sunday, March 14, 2010

Broods and Breeding, Excerpt from Our Life in Gardens by Joe Eck and Wayne Winterrowd

Chickens at the Edible Schoolyard in Berkeley, California
(c) 2006 K. Smokey Cormier

I want to share an excerpt from Our Life in Gardens by Joe Eck and Wayne Winterrowd. They are a queer couple and have written a couple of books about their experiences with their farm and nursery in Vermont. The excerpt is about chickens.

(Also, there's a wonderful piece in the NYTimes that you might want to read. It's called "It came. It clucked. It conquered.")

I have a special connection with chickens. I don’t remember if I have written about it before ... but here you go ... one of my first jobs as a child was to gather chicken eggs in the morning. (I know this will surprise those of you who think of me as nothing but a city slicker ... but, as I keep trying to remind people: I am old as dirt. I have had many experiences ... and a million jobs!)

When I lived with my grandparents in Ireland for five months, when I was almost nine years old, my job first thing in the morning was to go out to the chicken house and gather the freshly-laid eggs. It took some courage because some of those hens would try to peck you. Oh, they’re nowhere near as bad as geese ... but that’s another story. Some hens weren’t sitting in their straw hollow of a nest so I could easily pluck their eggs out. But, some ... the type A’s of the coop? ... would be sitting there. And they would watch me approach with fierce eyes. Remember, I was only a child ... a short one at that ... always second shortest of my class. When I got close to the hen on her nest, my face was just a bit higher than hers. Do you think she wanted me to rob her of her son and heir? ("son and heir"? ... There were few feminists in rural Ireland in those days.) I carried a cardboard shield with me. Quick! Up with it! Shielding my face, I would simultaneously reach my hand in under her and grab the egg. Such squawking! Flapping!

If too many of the hens were sitting on their babbies, they’d be alerted. I’d have to go and take a break, come back, and try again. It’s too bad. After all the effort, I didn’t like eggs in those days. Those fresh eggs were wasted on me. I would feel nauseous as I ate eggs. But, I had to clean me plate, after all.

By the way, did you know that the earliest evidence of human writing was found on ... what material? Dunno? Eggshells. Pieces of ostrich eggshells were found in South Africa, dating back 60,000 years!! Ostrich eggshells are very hard and durable. You can read about it here.

The excerpt from Our Life in Gardens by Joe Eck and Wayne Winterrowd:

We lived at 89 Beacon Street for three months short of a year. The plant collections grew larger, and at one point included a ten-foot-tall weeping willow tree forced in the high windows of the bedroom. But in the end, it was not plants that sent us to the country. It was chickens.

We can no longer remember how we came to visit a chicken show, but it must have been the venerable Boston Poultry Show, now in its 158th year. In any case, we came home with a trio of Mille Fleur bantams, a sturdy little red rooster all spangled over with white and black dots, and two meek little hens. The hens were of an age to lay, and so, shortly thereafter, on Beacon Street, we began to produce our own eggs, generally two every other day.

Even then it was probably quite illegal to keep poultry in a Boston apartment. At first we wondered how our landlord would react, and so we quickly fashioned a pen for our chickens in keeping -- we felt -- with the grand circumstances to which they had been elevated. It was a large cage, roughly six feet long and four feet wide, with a deep tray in the bottom for sweet-smelling cedar shavings. Tucked behind the Kentia palm at the sunny end of the great ballroom, it also had Chinese export-ware feed and water bowls, and was of course kept immaculately clean. Our landlord seemed, if anything, amused. We gave him some fresh-laid eggs.

But as all chicken fanciers know, chickens are addictive, and one can never stop at three. So many of our Saturday mornings were spent driving to the breeders of fancy chickens around Boston, our favorite of whom was Marjorie George, just over the Massachusetts line in Nashua, New Hampshire. Around Easter, she sold us a tiny cochin hen we named Emma. She was hardly the size of a cantaloupe, though her body was a cloud of soft, almost furry snow-white feathers. (We kept them that way, by weekly shampoos and fluffing out with the hair dryer.) She was the only chicken who had full run of the apartment, though she mostly favored the kitchen, where she had a nest box tucked privately in one corner. Soon, she became broody, a skill for which chochins are famous, being generally considered the best of chicken mothers. Or foster mothers. For as Emma had no mate, her eggs were sterile. So we bought a dozen assorted fertile ones from Mrs. George, and twenty-one days later every one hatched.

Shortly thereafter, we had a morning visit from the chairman of the English department at Tufts, who lived in a beautiful house around the corner on Chestnut Street. Just at the moment he was lifting his cup of tea, Emma decided to show her brood the world. Perhaps seventy feet of dark, waxed oak parquet floor lay between the kitchen door and the couch where he sat. Emma proceeded that length, leading a stately procession of tiny, chirping chicks. She observed our guest skeptically, found nothing special in him, turned, and proceeded with her train the long way back. Good breeding kept him, we presume, from saying a single word about the extraordinary sight that had passed before him. But we wondered what Emma's perspective had been. Perhaps good breeding of her own caused her so politely to withdraw.

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