Life and death (and soup) in the city

Originally published by New American Homesteader in 2015.

Under a bright December sky we gathered to kill the St. Elizabeth House chickens. My friends who built the coop and tended the chickens had moved to Georgia for a new job, and the chickens had mostly quit laying. Now the aging hens strutted and preened one last time in the weak solstice sun, oblivious to their fate.

“Why can’t they just keep feeding the chickens?” my daughter wanted to know.

Because, baby, nobody here can afford pet chickens. It is a house by and for those living on the margins, where the doors are open for community dinners and a room is reserved for someone with nowhere else to sleep. For two years the chickens fed our friends with their eggs, and in return received clean grain and warm grass and a well-built coop. But the humans come first, so now they’ll have to be soup. Better that than to be a racoon’s lunch. My daughter nodded: Her chickens met that fate last fall. She saw the carnage.

So our farmer friend Jamie offered to help slaughter and dress the birds, and I volunteered because—why? I was happy to help. I’d done this before and I have good knives. It was a beautiful day and I enjoyed the company. And something more. Years ago, I needed to prove to myself that I could kill an animal, feeling that if I were going to eat them, I ought to accept my responsibility in the matter. I made my peace with meat. But it’s good to be reminded the cost. Continue reading “Life and death (and soup) in the city”

Raining words and remonstration

The rain falls, and falls, and falls some more. The sky showers invective like a prophet of Israel. The storm lightens and I think it will end, but it has only paused for breath before resuming its tirade. Last night an inch sat in the plastic bin I’d neglected on the porch; this morning an index finger’s depth, three joints, three inches, give or take. By afternoon the bin was full, and still the rain falls: five inches? Six? A rain gauge offers needless precision, a mindless answer to mindless curiosity: did his listeners count Jeremiah’s words? But even Jeremiah nodded off eventually. Meanwhile the chickens, who bear most directly this philippic — as ever the poor and innocent take the brunt of the moralizing while the rich and guilty burrow under complacent roofs and watch through glass — the chickens cower under trees, hunker grumpily in the rising mud and release now and then a desolate squawk that pierces the white noise of the downpour. They too have a house, but the mist and dampness invade it, and they are not overly fond of close company nor, perhaps, sufficiently intelligent to think of it. Worms flee the flooded soil, out of the frying pan into the fire, or out of the sink and onto the plate: from the buckthorn a robin sings of his lunch. The wood is a swamp, my walking path a river in whose current a beetle drifts on a raft made of leaves. The downspout rumbles like a dump truck on the street. And now, at last, as if to compete, thunder — portending what? More of the same? Thunder missed his cue, sometime yesterday afternoon. Who has ears, listen, but no one is listening any longer, only wondering when it will end so we can join the birds for the doxology and go home to dinner.

Efficiency, waste, and backyard chickens

I finally read the NRDC’s report on food waste in America, the one that concludes we waste 40 percent of our food, and I noted that most of the report is framed in terms of “efficiency” — we waste food because our food system isn’t efficient enough. Which leads to language like this: “A recent report by consulting firm McKinsey ranks reducing food waste as one of the top three opportunities to improve resource productivity.” Or this gem: “Increasing the efficiency of the U.S. food system is a triple bottom-line solution that requires a collective approach by decision-makers at every level in the supply chain.” Eh, maybe. I mean, sure. Whatever that means. I’m not sure who they’re speaking to, here.

There may well be big solutions worth pursuing. But big solutions tend to create waste; in fact the pursuit of efficiency itself can create new kinds of waste even while limiting other kinds. Let me give just one example of why: Chickens. Continue reading “Efficiency, waste, and backyard chickens”

Putting a face on food waste

Last week I ran across, again, the figure that Americans waste 40 percent of our food, which was widely reported last summer. I got to wondering how much of that was meat, because I am (and try to remain) keenly aware that meat is not merely pounds and calories and grams of protein; it’s the body of a once-living creature. Not that wasting bread or vegetables is a great thing, but I don’t see it as the same kind of moral issue as wasting meat. So I did a bit of research, and here’s what I found. Continue reading “Putting a face on food waste”

Birds do it

At the age of eight, Francie the Duck (Ret.) began turning into a drake. For eight years she had unquestionably been a hen, brown-feathered, egg-laying, but then she went through the change and now, two years later, her head feathers have a greenish tinge, her neck is thicker, her tail feather curls, her feet have turned orange. She has all the secondary sex characteristics of a drake.

What’s odder: her behavior has changed as well, and dramatically. Over the last year she took to watching over the two other remaining ducks when I let them out in the yard. While they grazed and hunted bugs, she kept an eye out. As a hen she had never shown a lick of interest in watching out for anything; she was the most devoted bug-hunter of the flock, but now she thought it more important to stand guard. Continue reading “Birds do it”