A Bird in the Hand

We have constructed an artifice, a Potemkin village of an ecosystem where we perpetrate the illusion that the things we consume have just fallen off the back of Santa’s sleigh, not been ripped from the earth. This enables us to imagine that the only choices we have are between brands.
                —Robin Wall Kimmerer, Braiding Sweetgrass
Black chick

This week, I’ve been thinking about chickens.

I’ve been thinking about chickens because we’ve been eating them–experimenting with using dry rubs, letting the breast meat soak that in, and then roasting it on the grill, basting it with a barbecue sauce, letting it slow cook, and then eating it with farmers’ market corn and new potatoes from Randy’s fields. Rubs are new to our chicken repertoire, and the results–tasty and moist, seared on the outside–are a welcome revelation.

But I’ve been thinking about chickens, too, because of the folks we know who raise them. They are varied, these chicken-raising people: artists and officers, class-act retirees,  professors, stay-at-home moms. These are people, for the most part, who have been quietly tending their fowl for a long, long time. Their chicken preoccupations predate the current poultry raising craze by a broad span of years. Their stories, I think, would make a compelling article, and I message my friend Robin to see if she’ll let me come and visit, to interview her about her chickens and her art.

Robin is gracious and welcoming, and so, on Thursday morning, James and I pile into the car and drive north to Mount Vernon.

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Robin lives, with her husband Craig and their sons, Paul and Isaac, in a pretty red cottage on the borderline between town and country. The house perches on a little slice of verdant heaven, and we pull up the long gravel drive and park next to the family van. We walk up a path bordered in green, past a homey looking chicken coop, and up the steps to the back door.

We sit at the table and visit while cinnamon buns bake and Robin makes a second fragrant pot of decaf. Isaac, about to enter his last year of college, tells us about a new bird he’s been watching this summer. It’s wren-like, but with a longer beak and a different perching pattern, and it’s been pecking at his window. He realized, he says, that it had peeled away a corner of the window screen to get to spiders spinning homes in the space between window glass and summer screening. He’s excited because that means the bird has taken its instinctual feeding pattern–foraging in the bark of a tree,–and adapted it to human construction.

Isaac is tall and lean, ponytailed, with piercing black eyes. He is a biologist, studying, right now, fish and their adaptive relationships in Ohio waters, but birds are his passion. He loves video games, too, and Robin and I leave him and Jim discussing a digital world. We take our coffee and warm-from-the-oven buns, and we retreat to a little sitting area at the top of the stairs. It’s where Robin does her sewing, away from everyday house bustle.

Robin moves the sewing machine close to the window, pulls out chairs, and we settle in. Emily, the aging poodle, sweet and friendly, hoists herself up the stairs, too, settles in, falls asleep on the area rug at my feet. Robin shows me her just-finished project, a beautiful, capacious, quilted bag that she puts up on top of the sewing machine and covers. Otherwise, the cat will find that soft and comfy fabric, mash it down, and create for herself a new sleeping spot.

And then we talk about chickens.

Robin and Isaac started raising chickens together twelve years ago. It was a 4-H project for Isaac; he got several Banties, who first lived in the basement. Every day, Isaac and his mom would take them outside and put them in a hutch with a run; every night, they would herd them up and bring them back inside. They grew completely used to humans, those chickens; Isaac took to wandering around with the rooster on his shoulder, like a pirate with his parrot. He loved the chickens and he continued to raise them long after his 4-H time was over.

The Banties were joined by other breeds–Orpingtons and Wyandottes, Barred Rocks, New Hampshire Reds, Cuckoo Morans, and Rhode Island Reds. Robin loved the birds, too, and even after Isaac went away to school, she continued to keep the chickens. She favors heavier hens who lay brown eggs–they are tougher birds, she says; it’s harder for a hawk to swoop down and carry one away.

Still, they have attrition. One night, as she turned up that gravel drive, Robin’s headlights illuminated a coyote stealing off with a bird in its jaws. It dropped the hen and ran away.  Robin butchered that freshly dead bird–something they do only rarely, although they enjoy the eggs year ’round.

Chickens are one connection, for Robin, to an Iowa farming childhood. She may not have time, with her full-time job at a bookstore, and her commitment to teaching ceramics, to till a kitchen garden or tend to goats or pigs. But chickens she can do.

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We go into the basement and visit the newest chickens–babies just fluffing out working wings. There are eight or ten chicks; they are all hens and all different types–pale and dark, some with patterned beaks, some with feathered legs, some just beginning to sport a comb. They tumble together in a big galvanized tub, sweetly cheeping, running to get food, taking impatient little drinks of water. They are impossibly fluffy and impossibly cute.

Outside, the mature chickens–a Banty rooster named Earl, Lord and Lady Orpington, and a Wyandotte hen, wander peacefully among the shrubs by their coop, poking their heads out, looking to Earl for instruction when Robin offers feed.  They are big and bright-eyed, strikingly colored,  and beautiful.

Grownups

Robin talks about predators–raccoons are the worst, she says, followed by foxes and an occasional coyote, and they have to balance a healthy, free-range life with the carnivore threat.

She shows me chicken catalogs, with glossy, alluring pictures of beautiful birds accompanied by lists of characteristics. You can choose size, of course, and appearance and egg color; you can choose the level of cold-weather hardiness and you can choose disposition tendencies.

There’s a lot to think about with chickens, I begin to realize. There’s a lot, say Robin and Isaac, to love.

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Robin has taken to photographing the grownups; she sketches from the photos she likes, and then the sketches flow into her ceramic designs.  She’ll throw a batch of mugs, then pull and place the handles, coat them with a slip made from local, Knox County, clay and bisque fire them. When they’re cleaned and washed, she’ll do a wax drawing of a chicken, a drawing taken from life. She shows me a photo of Earl pecking at a nugget of food; she shows me a mug with a perfectly proportioned, stylized rooster in the very same pose.

Wax drawing done, Robin dips the mug into a base coat of glaze, applies a second layer of wax, adds the top glaze coat, cleans the base, and then loads the kiln and fires the mugs.

A  mug takes at least two and a half weeks to create.

Chicken Mugs

You have to love the process because it brings you joy, says Robin, but you’ll never recoup, in dollars, the time you put into it. You have to own an appreciation of the long, slow way of doing things.

It’s true in raising chickens, as in art, of course. We talk about the difference between a factory farmed egg and its free range counterpart–the richer, more deeply colored yolks, the shells’ fragility, the difference in flavor.  The same differences, says Robin, are seen in the chicken meat. Factory farmed chickens are bred to maturity within eight weeks; their meat is watery and flavorless, their bones flexible and rubbery.  Free-range chickens  take a minimum of twelve to fifteen weeks to grow into themselves, and their bones, and their flesh, are firm. The flavor, Robin says, is incomparable.

It’s a dilemma, she acknowledges, because to buy a free range hen for roasting, you’d probably pay something like $6.99 a pound–a cost most families can’t embrace.

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Long ago, I read that United States Americans seldom think about where food comes from. They just eat it—a lot of it.

And I think about the chickens–food chickens–in this context: I’m reading Robin Wall Kimmerer.  In Braiding Sweetgrass, Kimmerer writes about the relationship between a person and her food. In her native American tradition, when she gathers food, Kimmerer asks permission and she gives thanks. And she never takes everything.

So she’ll go out to gather wild leeks to make a risotto for her visiting daughters, and when she locates a patch, she will ask the plant’s permission to take her harvest. Then she’ll dig up a tiny portion; if the plant has granted her permission, it will be whole and healthy. Kimmerer will leave a gift of tobacco and judiciously harvest what she needs, leaving enough to perpetuate the food plant’s life.

It’s a philosophy, a practice she calls the Honorable Harvest; she applies it to the eating of plants and to the eating of animals. We need animals, she acknowledges; we need their flesh and their fur and and their hides and their feathers; we need their bones to make our stock. But we need to use them wisely, judiciously, reverently. “Gifts from the earth,” she writes, “or from each other, establish a particular relationship, an obligation of sorts to give, to receive, and to reciprocate.”

And I wonder if this has something to do with the pull that draws many to the raising of chickens–the ability to hold the tiny chick in your hand, to feed it, to allow it to run and explore and take dust baths in the bare spot under the rhododendrons. To get to knows its quirks and foibles and to enable it to have a natural life, a wholesome life, a life that is fulfilled and meaningful. To say thank you when the eggs are harvested. And, when the hen or the rooster is butchered for food, to make it happen in a quick and respectful way. And to use, as Robin says, every part of that chicken that can be used–even the heads and feet in a stock that, she affirms, is more flavorful than any you’ve ever tasted before.

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Knowing the bird on the plate before me has to make a difference, to slow me down, to make me appreciate, force me to savor. This is not just one of a million identical bred-to-eat birds, I acknowledge. I know this bird. This was an individual who flapped and pecked and socialized, a being who gave us joy in life and sustains us by his dying. We gave him freedom, sunshine, and companions. He feeds us. We knew this rooster’s name.

The Artist’s Walk

We pull ourselves up, grabbing gleaming railings buffed by years of hands sliding over their glossy surfaces, to the fourth floor of the old Masonic building.  Heart pounding, legs quivering, I stop to get my breath, to let a family—long-tressed tiny mama, dad with a fuzzy knit hat and a baby papoosed on his chest, dancing toddler daughter in blue jeans and lavender nylon tutu—scooch around me.

The old building, with its grand architecture, elaborate woodwork, intricately tiled floors, is a warren of art studios. On the first Friday of every month, the artists put out brownies and lemonade, white wine and home-baked Parmesan crackers, craft beer and crudités. They sweep up the detritus that’s left from making art; they display their work on rickety tables covered with jewel-toned cloths. And they throw open their doors to a cool-eyed crowd. They wave and beckon, hoping the public will appreciate and understand.

I wander down the hallway after the boyos; at the very far end, in a small, bright room, a slender young woman stands rigidly next to a table full of tiny paintings. I say hello and she takes a breath, and then she is unleashed.

She tells me she works in paint and crayon, ink and oil. She does multi-media art and photography. She is celebrating her one year anniversary of having this studio with a buy two, get one free sale.

She looks at me, hopeful.

I ask her about her favorite medium, and I pick up a pen and ink drawing of the Dark Side album cover. I show it to Jim, who, at age 27, has just discovered Pink Floyd. (“Oh, by the way,” he will ask me, once or twice a day, apropos of something random, “which one’s Pink?”)

I mention Jim’s interest to the artist, and she lights up, swiveling, still in that tightly-held posture, to face him. “Favorite song?” she demands, and Jim is thoughtful. He tells her about the four albums he has bought and downloaded in the last year; he has favorite tunes on each. He loves an opening here–but not the rest of that song,–and a cover there.

I leave them discussing “Comfortably Numb,” (“My dad wants that played at his funeral,” Jim confides to the artist-girl) and wander next door, where Mark is looking at some large photographic canvases. There are shots of soaring planes in magenta clouds and gleaming red sports cars on rain-glazed Parisian streets. There is one of Janis Joplin floating above the ground next to a pink RV. Behind her, the moon is tethered to the ground with what look like attenuated swing-set supports. Acrylic and multi-media, read the tags.

This room is bigger, evening sun shining through massive windows with ancient, rippling glass, and many artists share the space. Amazing wooden sculptures interrupt the photographic realism. They sweep and swerve and they beg me to touch their gleaming surfaces, as smooth and lovely as those railings that help us heave ourselves upstairs. Polished by elbow grease, though, these works are–not patina-ed by time.

We circle the room, the walls lined with prints and girded by sculptures; the sweeping floor punctuated by installations. I circle around one and find, behind a wall of paintings, an exhibit of chain mail. There are gloves and the beginning of a vest; there are tiny samples  of linked metal that show how one begins. There is a stack of flyers advertising the artist’s specialty bracelet–chain mail linked by a polished silver puzzle piece. He urges people to wear them in support of families affected by autism.

“How about that?” I say, showing Mark,–and Jim, who has joined us. The artist, a gentle young man in a fuzzy toque, with baggy jeans and sleeves so long I can just see his black-tinged fingertips, breaks away from a conversation and wanders over. He tells me that someone from the autism society suggested the project to him. He liked the idea.

How many should I make? he asked his mentor, and that person said, I don’t know. Twenty?

So he made twenty, and they sold within two days.

I need to make more, he says.

I told him we’d be interested in knowing when he had more bracelets. Autism, I say, is a topic of close importance to my family.

He looks at me, fiercely making eye contact. To MINE, too, he says.

He gives me his card, and we wander on, down the stairs, past the three men by the doorway, playing folk guitars and singing “The House of the Rising Sun” .

We cross an alley and a parking lot and we go into another studio, shared by two women named Susan who do collage and fabric art and experiment with paint and printing and weaving found objects into their work. Their studio is upstairs; three men make music in a couched corner. Above and behind them soars a book lined loft, reached by ladder-like stairs. Slouchy, comfortable chairs angle into the sun. I want to sneak back and spend an afternoon, reading in the sun amidst amazing art.

At the back of the studio, one of the artists offers us a tour of the loft apartments which have just been vacated. We walk on reclaimed wood floors, surrounded by soaring brick walls, and windows that reach from floor to 16-foot ceilings. Sleek open spaces. Wood and stone and metal.  Someone’s artistic urban vision come to life in a downtown Zanesville building.

We drive home by the still and mirrored river, and I ponder artistry and inspiration. I am reading a new book by Kay Redfield Jamison,  Robert Lowell: Setting the River on Fire. It is subtitled, “A study of genius, mania, and character.” Lowell, who won the Pulitzer for his poetry, also spiraled between intensity and insanity, in and out of institutions, up from the depths, writing his way through despair and shame after manic episodes left him reeling.

I think of the intense young artists I met tonight. I think of an artist’s cooperative I visited in Chicago with my nephew Brian, a vibrant downtown space filled with the work of autistic adults. I think of Vincent Van Gogh and his mutilated ear.

Because where is that line, the one between genius and lunacy?

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Children are creators, uninhibited, dancing and singing, wielding wild crayons, declaiming to plush audiences. Cutting paper into baubles worthy of the Queen. Children land beautifully, unselfish-consciously, on the side of crazy-good creating.

But that doesn’t always–or often, maybe–stick. Something happens; the creativity fades and other passions flood in–the passion for achievement, for nurturing, for being responsible. This is not wrong or bad or ill-advised. But I remember going to visit ‘Auntie’ Mags, many years ago; she was in her nineties, in a home, and her hands encircled my wrists like the claws that blindly reach for gaudy treasures in those rip-off machines at the arcade.

She’d been an art teacher, Mags had, and a dancer. Once, she told me, she’d loved an artist; he had, she said, a chest as big and firm as a tropical beach, and as warm and tantalizing to rest on. She chortled at my twitch of shock.

An artist, she mused, remembering, and then she told me that a day came when she looked at him and didn’t see free-spirited creativity. She saw laziness instead. She burned, she said with the desire for motherhood and respectability, and not long after that, she met her love, a businessman who adored her bohemian charm. They had babies and they gave parties in their artfully appointed home. They traveled. He built her a studio over the garage.

It was an artful life, said Mags, but not an artist’s life. She had come to a day, way back there when she was a wild-eyed, dancing girl, when she had to decide which flame to fan. She never regretted her choice, but, she said, when you close that door…Oh, it stays so firmly shut.

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There’s a fine line, they say, between genius and insanity. Robert Lowell walked that razor’s edge, falling sometimes this way, sometimes that. Living on that terrifying ledge, he was able to make his art. His art enriched the world.

Mental illness does not guarantee artistry, and not all artists are mentally ill–I know firm-footed, completely grounded creators who produce work that makes one soar and dream and weep. But there is some open doorway there, in all creators, an access to a rooftop, maybe; it’s a vista reached by a hidden stairway not all of us can climb.

Maybe the fact of illness, for some people, unhooks the restraints that keep the rest of us tethered. Maybe there’s a moment of decision for every artist–a pivotal point like the one Mags remembered so well: rooftop or kitchen? Phoenix or LeSabre?

And some, maybe, put away the brushes and the clay and craft a life instead–a life often filled with beautifully sculpted meals and well-plotted family adventures and rich fabrics and doors that open to a fascinating fleet of friends. Life as collage, perhaps, responsible and well-ordered, yes—but tinged around the edges with a vibrant searing hue.

And the others–well, they throw themselves into the fire and let genius, as Jo March’s sisters said of her, burn. And what they forge! The songs and sonnets, tales and tableaux, paintings and sculptures. Masterpieces. In between, of course, there are the false starts and the flops, the mis-steps and mistakes. The artists throw those things back into the fire. They continue on.

They emerge sometimes to get cool, to rest from the unrelenting heat. But then, the creative brave ones, they dive back in. They sacrifice, those artists do, giving up a certain security, foregoing some sorts of domesticity–they enslave themselves to art.

If they live next door to us (unmowed lawn, lights blazing late at night), we might call them lunatics. If they are separated from us by time or geography, we deem them geniuses, and we scrimp and save to buy their creations, or to visit the museums that showcase their work.

What makes a person an artist? What calls a person to create?

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I don’t know, but I know I need it. I need the spice and rhythm and richness that artistry releases into the world. I need the direct contact with jolting, flooding feeling, with a different kind of worldview, with a willingness to walk an unmarked path.

I don’t know what conjures up the artist in a person, but I walk the busy studios on First Friday, I see the intensity and eager displays, and I am grateful beyond gladness that there are those–in any and in every time–who give their lives to art.