My dream of chickens comes home to roost

Ever since graduate school in Iowa, when my wife, Sharen, and I lived for a summer on a rented farm, I've wanted to raise chickens. That summer sometimes shimmers in my memory as peaceful as the miles of corn that surrounded us.

There was the one broody leghorn who gave up her eggs as though they were precious gems. I don't know how long she'd lived there. Our landlord, who wasn't really a farmer but an irrigation supply salesman pretending to be a farmer, had probably picked her up as a novelty for his kids.

We figured that, like the six unprolific white turkeys who sauntered around the big yard, he'd bought the hen from a commercial poultry operation eager to sell off its poorest layers. We were fortunate if we got an egg a week. That hen would forgo a whole day of farmyard foraging just to sit on her latest creation.

But as fickle a layer as she was, she bequeathed to me a penchant for fresh eggs and an odd fondness for a chore involving feeders and waterers, wood shavings and straw. So when the Midwest winter chased us off the farm, it was a sad goodbye I said to our hen. Once again we joined the ranks of supermarket shoppers buying turbid, weeks-old eggs by the dozen.

The following summer, we moved back East. Graduate school had called once again, this time for Sharen.

I was torn having to leave the vast, flat, placid Midwest for the loud, overcrowded outskirts of New York City. We couldn't even claim to live in the Big Apple.

We were students in debt. So we settled across the Hudson in New Jersey in an apartment about one-fourth the size and five times the cost of our last place in Iowa. Out the window now was cement and brick. Not a yard to speak of. No endless rolling fields of green or, far in the distance, the plume of dust kicked up by a pickup. No place to plant a petunia, never mind build a chicken coop.

We'd grown up outside of Providence, R.I., and had lived in Boston a few years. We had relatives and friends in Manhattan. We were no strangers to cities. But slow-and-easy had seeped into my bones, and riding buses and subways to my new temp job in midtown quickly began to take a toll on me.

I felt the way an ear of corn must feel after it's been picked, packed, trucked halfway across the country, then stacked on a vegetable stand, stripped, examined, and sniffed. When I actually bought corn myself, or bacon, I was reminded of what I'd left behind. On those mornings before work when I'd have the energy to make breakfast, I'd think of our leghorn and what I wouldn't give to be back there, even if it took her two weeks to give us enough eggs for an omelet.

Most people, I've discovered, don't dream of owning chickens. They consider the birds odious, odoriferous, and otherwise unpleasant creatures best relegated to petting zoos – unless, of course, they're ordering them in marinara with a side of linguini. They also consider them stupid, which they are. But even before our Iowa leghorn, I always thought them endearing.

Equipped with feathers, yet unable to fly, they appeal to my envy of all things that can take to the sky. I recall boyhood experiments involving crudely fashioned wings and perilous leaps from a garage roof, not unlike the much older story of Daedalus and his reckless son Icarus. I commiserate with the chicken's failure to fly – maybe even feel worse for them because they seem to have the proper equipment.

They're not so unlike us. Industrious producers, voracious eaters, proudly plumed, they wake with the sun and chortle and cluck; they scratch at the ground and make the best of what they've got. Chickens are the epitome of the domesticated immigrant: No wonder they appeal to this American!

This past fall, we bought a house in upstate New York, a 40-minute commute to my job as a high school English teacher in New Jersey. High atop a hill overlooking the Hudson, the place appealed to me because it's secluded – and it came with 1-1/2 acres of land.

One morning shortly after we moved in, we were eating breakfast on the screened-in porch and I heard a neighbor's rooster crow. I think I grinned from ear to ear. Sharen looked at me, shaking her head. I began telling my colleagues in the English department about my plot to raise chickens. They looked at me as if I'd said "antelopes."

I secured a book on backyard poultry operations, one replete with building plans. In February, during my week-long winter vacation, I ordered the lumber, broke ground, plugged in my circular saw, and started measuring and hammering. Four days later, there stood an 8-foot by 8-foot-tall shed with a shingled roof, a door, and a window. My first hand at construction, the coop wasn't exactly plumb, but it was sturdy. After I'd painted it maroon and white to match our tool shed and erected a fence around it all, it looked every bit a chicken coop. Now all I needed were some hens.

Believe it or not, I bought my gals from a Farmer Browne. Like most people, I had no idea what a live chicken would cost. "Six bucks and change," he told me over the phone. "Bring a box." I thought it funny that a live chicken costs less than a plate of chicken parmesan at a restaurant, especially since a hen, as Farmer Browne assured me, would at its peak lay an egg almost every day. Figuring each hen would lay 300 eggs per year, that comes out to 75 dozen eggs in all.

Gertrude, Martha, and Betsy have put our Iowa leghorn to shame. Gert gave us an egg the very afternoon we brought them home and released them into the piney smell of the new coop. Though plain-looking as chickens go, with dark red feathers, red combs, and yellow legs, they are beautiful birds, majestic and bold. Every day I leave the house with an empty basket and return with it full of large brown eggs.

The landscape I view now from my back porch is anything but flat. The Hudson highlands hem us in like a huge green nest. I'm content, grounded. It's not Iowa, yet I feel the slowest and easiest I have since we left there.

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