So I suppose it was inevitable: when a friend and fellow backyard-gardener told me last week that she and her husband and toddler are moving into a new house on the other side of town with a large yard and a somewhat dilapidated pre-existing chicken setup, I immediately thought: This is the chicken-raising chance I’ve been waiting for. Cooperatively, in a yard where the space already exists and can be redesigned to fit our needs. Another woman friend also wants in: with three of us dividing the labor and costs and responsibilities, how hard can it be? “And chicksandhens.com is still available!” says the tech-guy husband enthusiastically. “I can make you a website!”
At the end of that evening, I asked my philosophical friend Wade for advice on something, well, kind of related to lifestyle-shifting and chicken-raising. “Sometimes,” he said, “you just have to accept what the universe offers you. Whether you think you are ready or not.” Wade is the man who famously — magically — stretched out his hand into the water on an Upper Iowa River canoeing trip a summer or two back and plucked an unopened, ice-cold can of Budweiser from the current. A prizewinning statistician, he detects and connects with patterns of order in the universe the rest of us cannot see. When Wade gives advice, I listen.
So many women I know and respect have managed chickens in addition to the many other moving parts of busy lives. A great writer I admire (and fellow expatriate Southerner) provides an ongoing, encouraging example of how to grow a literary career, children, and chickens with grace. The omnicompetent and multitalented Robin Mather, Jenna Woginrich, and Kristine Jepsen of Grass Run Farms, and so many other local friends, have provided inspiration and instruction in person and/or in writing and by example. Just recently, Kristine and I shared special summer cocktails on my porch (involving ginger liqueur) and she told me hilarious stories about finding a great horned owl in a chicken coop in Wyoming, the hitherto-unknown-to-me phenomenon of spontaneously self-transgendering chickens, and surprising an egg-stealing raccoon which pissed frantically all over her as it tried to escape the coop and the excited dogs. Her husband, who’d been rocking their daughter to sleep in the house with the windows shut and hadn’t heard any of the commotion, came out on the porch to call, in unwitting sarcasm, “hey, you need any help out there?”
I’ve never had chickens. I am excited about the chance to learn new things, have fresh eggs, watch new animal personalities — growing up on a farm as a horse person and cat person and dog person, I now have only cats in my life. And yet I’m trying hard to negotiate the reality of what I can actually do and how much my life already holds, avoiding the pitfall of burnout every farmer and homesteader, on however small a scale, knows. Once the school year hits — with three writing-intensive classes this semester, one completely new, and a brighter spotlight of responsibility on me as Newly Tenured — I will be lucky to spend thirty minutes every night pulling weeds and picking produce and flowers, while the season lasts. There are tons of tomatoes and peppers and eggplants coming in in my garden to preserve, too – I can’t wait! – and I do not want to give them short shrift. This fall the daylight hours will shrink as the stress of the school year rises, leading me to prioritize biking if the health gains I’ve made are not to slide backwards. I don’t want to take on responsibilities I can’t fulfill fully, joyfully, and consistently. Anything else I add to my life — this is just reality — gets added at the cost of my writing.
Yet I keep revisiting a sentence I wrote in my novel manuscript two years ago about my protagonist’s chickens in Iowa in 1876, before I had even considered them: “Now, all around the house the chickens strut and scuttle and quarrel, nestling their feathered bustles into their loose-dirt wallows in the yard, blissful as ladies settling into parlor chairs.” I keep looking at this video from Jenna’s blog. And making excuses to drive past my friend’s soon-to-be-new house, where the overgrown chicken patch waits to be reclaimed.