Notes From the Urban Homestead – Vol. I
“This is the cycle of life farmers have created since they first started breeding the wildness out of chickens centuries ago. We’re just following it, trying to do right by a creature who may no longer have the pedigree to protect herself from an uncivilized alley cat. But there was a reason she kept going in that tree. It’s something that we may never understand, something that may have been bred out of us too.”
A series by Nic Esposito – “Notes From the Urban Homestead” for Paradigm Magazine
I’m an urban farmer from the Kensington neighborhood of North Philly. For many people, the concept of farming in any city is strange, let alone in this neighborhood. No matter that there’s a family who lives out of their car, or a heroin addict who sleeps in the park all winter, or a woman who prostitutes herself just for a bed to spend the night and maybe a hot shower: I’m the weird one on the block. But that doesn’t bother me. We all have to fit somewhere in this world.
It’s kind of like the story of my chicken named Tutti. I first picked Tutti up from a homestead in Southwest Philadelphia; she wasn’t named Tutti yet. She was just one of the six chickens I packed into a Rubbermaid container, that I strapped into the front seat of my Volkswagen with the safety belt. I remember as a kid feeling bad as I’d watch a horse shoving his snout out of a steel grate as the tractor-trailer hauling his crate sped down the interstate. But there I was, with six chickens kicking and clucking in the darkness, as I drove back to Kensington with the windows down.
I’d just built the chicken coop a few days before from a hundred pieces of scrap lumber and ten bucks worth of hardware. It wasn’t as nice as the labyrinth of well-maintained chicken runs Tutti just left, but it was better than the fate she would have faced had she found a home where the folks wanted meat and not eggs.
They say never name an animal on a farm: we couldn’t help ourselves; they were our first chickens. But that wasn’t our first mistake. Our first mistake was thinking that they were all hens. We were merciful for the first two months as we patiently checked the hallowed out bowls of hay for the first laying of eggs. By my rough math, it was going to be about eight weeks before the hens were to prove themselves. After nine weeks they did, at least one of them did, as his feathers started getting fire red streaks of masculinity and the gait of his strut got longer. Ironically, we named him Uncle Bob, so it wasn’t too traumatic to gently take him from the coop, put him in the killing cone, say a soft prayer, and slit his throat. The blade was dull and my heart bruised my breastplate as it beat against it, but it was a quiet kill. There were just a few flicks of the legs and that was it. Then it was to the scalding pot, the quartering table, the grill and finally our plates.
The other hens must have gotten the message because the next day, there were two eggs in the hay. And every day from then on we started collecting four eggs from the coop. Four eggs for five hens. The math didn’t add up until one day a second chicken, Tutti’s cousin Sally, let out a long crow in the yard. It wasn’t long before it was time for another kill. Except, this one didn’t go quite as well; it was in the flurry of city kids trying to get out of town for the weekend without the neighbors complaining about a loud crow waking them up at five in the morning.
While Elisa was at work, I made a killing cone out of two sun weathered plastic planting pots taped together. By the time she got home, I’d just finished putting the scald water on the boil and nailed the pots to the side of the compost bin. She subtlety critiqued my invention by saying -We’re not using that- It was a demand conveyed as a question. But with only an hour to go before we had to leave, we didn’t have time for debate.
Once again, we went to the coop and grabbed our prey. I know that chickens don’t have the most impressive cranial capacity, but I swore that they still remembered that when Uncle Bob left, he didn’t come back. So we were quick as we stole Sally away to the killing cone, hoping no one would notice. We stuck him in, pulled his head through and, with a much steadier hand and calmer heart, I ran the same dull blade across Sally’s neck, this time opening up the entire jugular straight away. But this time there was no leg kicking, Sally’s body just went limp as the blood poured out. Elisa and I looked at each other. I was just about to say, “That was easy,” when the wings started flapping with such fury that the plastic pots completely shattered, letting Sally fall through. She hit the ground running, just as the saying goes, except her head was still on. I thought that it was the same phenomenon of nerve endings burning off the last sparks of energy, so I chased after him, thinking it wouldn’t be too long before he bled out. But as he ran behind a piece of wood to hide, I could see him standing there, eyes darting from side to side as the blood spurted out onto the ground. I wanted to wait him out but Elisa would have no more of this. She chased Sally down and held his body to the ground as I grabbed a serrated knife and sawed his head off. It didn’t take long, but I could feel vibrations flow up my arm as the knife snapped the sinews and bones. As soon as the neck released the skull, I dropped the knife and leaned against Elisa as she still held the body down. We couldn’t even look at each other. The only face I remember seeing was our neighbor Juan’s as he stared at us from the missing post in his fence.
Every day for the next week, as I’d go into the coop to clean out the chicken shit and collect the eggs, the chickens would dart off in different directions, some taking refuge under the bottom of the hen house where I couldn’t reach, others repeatedly ramming themselves into the chicken wire of the coop in an effort not to escape, but to get away from me. I let them be. This was what I had always wanted since I first picked them up. As long as the hens kept healthy and gave us eggs every day, there wouldn’t be any more problems.
For a time we reached a plateau of peace. Even when they slowed down to four eggs every other day as the sunlight shone shorter and the air got cooler, I didn’t mind. Life in the coop was mechanical. I kept cleaning out the hay and feeding them, they kept pumping out eggs. The whole process ceaselessly amazed me.
The more I studied these systems, and the more care I took of these birds, the more I started to notice things. I noticed that they would always be inside their coop by nightfall. I noticed how they would never sleep in their hen house at night, preferring to sleep on the top perch all huddled in a pile. And I noticed that the pile would split in two, with the three similar bred silver laces on one side, and Tutti by herself on the other. This is what is called the pecking order. And as I came to learn, it could be deadly for the chicken at the bottom. Every night this would go on, and as Elisa and I watched, Tutti got thinner and slower. One early winter day her feathers started molting, another day she sat in a corner of the yard for three hours staring at the stucco on the side of the house. And everyday, she would be the last to eat as she was chased from the food bowl by the other three until they were all satiated.
Then one day I got the call. Elisa was frantic. All she could say was, “Tutti is missing. Tutti is missing.” This was bad. Not as bad as the time our dog left the yard for the night when she was a pup, only to turn up in the morning, but bad just the same. I reassured Elisa that this would be the same situation. And low and behold, when we woke up the next morning after a restless sleep, there was Tutti outside the chicken coop, looking more like a guilty teenager trying to sneak back in the house after a long night out than the helpless creature we made her out to be.
Later that night, I promised Elisa that I would pen in the chickens before sunset to make sure everyone was accounted for, but again, Tutti was nowhere to be found. So I closed the coop, lied to Elisa and told her it was fine, and went out the next morning to find Tutti there again. By the third day of this same phenomenon, I reckoned that it was safe to tell Elisa the truth. When I explained what was happening she didn’t believe me. So she went out and saw for herself. That night we had a discussion as if Tutti was our out of control teenager, fraternizing with the riff raff of the neighborhood. I must admit from my end that I just didn’t want our egg machine eaten by a cat. But her best interest was in mind nonetheless.
For another month, we just gave up control. Every night the other three chickens followed their natural instincts to ignore Tutti, and in return Tutti flew the coop as the saying goes. It took me the whole month to finally learn that “flying the coop” is not just a saying. On one day, after one of our few snowfalls, I let my eyes naturally wander up the juniper tree that towered over the coop, studying the beauty in the formation of white snow plastered onto the jagged green growth. In between this fairy tale like site sat something gray on the branch. I couldn’t believe it at first, although I knew what it was from the first glance. There in the tree was Tutti. I stared for a good five minutes in disbelief. I spent then next ten piecing it together. And after fifteen minutes it was settled. Every night, this is where Tutti would go, nesting in the green brush of the tree. I’m not sure if it was any warmer up there. But if Tutti was going to freeze anyway, it couldn’t have been any worse being in the tree than being forced to watch the other chickens survive while she suffered.
When I got in the house, I debated not saying anything to Elisa. But I had to; it was too intriguing not to. Elisa didn’t take it this way. She wanted to go shake her out of the tree and put her back in the coop, but I stopped her. Were we to put Tutti back into the savage natural order that we humans like to idealistically think doesn’t exist in the animal world? Or should we let instinct take its course and leave Tutti to make her own decision on survival? Were these our pets and, were we to treat them like the faux pet parents who put their dogs in winter sweaters and let their cats use the toilet? Or were we the farmers who already had the blood of two of them on their hands while we ate countless amounts of their unborn children?
What was happening to Tutti, was what happens to plenty of creatures who find themselves on the bottom of life’s boot. But rather than submit to death, she perched in a tree overlooking the street where the kids of the homeless family take turns riding the one scooter they own, and the heroin addict stares through the gate for an hour with a simple smile on his face, as he watches the other chickens scratch at their food and dig for bugs. No one even noticed the small pile of chicken shit that accumulated on the sidewalk underneath her.
In my opinion, there was dignity in Tutti’s defiance. But after time, as her frame remained thin and her feathers shed, I couldn’t deny something was still wrong. Elisa had been protesting my libertarian view of Tutti’s plight since we first found her in the tree, reasoning that she still wasn’t getting enough to eat, and that the only creature who was going to get a meal would be the first feral cat with the sense to climb the tree while Tutti slept. But it wasn’t until I noticed that she hadn’t laid an egg in weeks that I gave in. So every night, I forced myself to either get to the coop well before the sun went down to pen her in, or to use a broom to push Tutti out of the tree and back into the coop. Tutti’s feathers didn’t come back, and her frame didn’t fatten, but after just a few days the hay was again filled with her signature blue eggs. I had forgotten how ironic it was that she laid the biggest eggs even though she was the smallest chicken.
Tonight, Tutti’s safe in her coop. Tomorrow she’s probably going to lay an egg. We’ll keep collecting them and eating them. And as Tutti’s days come to an end, we’ll beat the reaper to the punch so we can at least get a stew out of her. This is the cycle of life farmers have created since they first started breeding the wildness out of chickens centuries ago. We’re just following it, trying to do right by a creature who may no longer have the pedigree to protect herself from an uncivilized alley cat. But there was a reason she kept going in that tree. It’s something that we may never understand, something that may have been bred out of us too.