One of my favorite authors, from whom I draw wisdom and inspiration, is Wendell Berry. In his book, The Way of Ignorance (2005), he offers this illuminating definition of husbandry:
“To husband is to use with care, to keep, to save, to make last, to conserve … Husbandry is the name of all the practices that sustain life by connecting us conservingly to our places and our world; it is the art of keeping tied all the strands in the living network that sustains us.”
My goal in moving out of Albuquerque to an old farm house in Tomé, NM., seven years ago was my own personal experiment in urban homesteading, the art of which is what Berry calls “husbandry.” Life with miniature donkeys, pygmy goats, sheep, and, of course, larger-than-life Scottish Terriers has been a species-broadening experience. Now, we’re adding poultry.
Regular readers will know from prior posts that we’re adding six pullet hens to our menagerie. Between recent magazine cycles, little by little, I’ve built more than a chicken coop– more like a “Chicken Palace” for our girls. It really is a dandy, complete with chicken shaped turn-buckle latches on the chicken door and the people door. My coop is inside a huge 6-foot high chain-link fence enclosing a chicken yard some 30 feet by 50 feet to provide controlled ‘free’-range. We have coyotes in the sand hills across the road from us, stray dogs roaming the roads, Great Horned Owls overhead, and raccoons–all of which are addicted to drumsticks, thighs, and chicken wings and all the other ‘parts’ Colonel Sanders isn’t interested in! I want our girls to last, so I’m taking precautions with aviary netting, chain-link fencing, and a secure coop at night.
I’ve wanted our own chickens for some time for several reasons. First, I like the early morning sounds of a rooster greeting the morning. Second, producing home-grown fresh eggs for our own consumption appeals to me. Third, We like the idea of having extra eggs to take to neighbors and friends as gifts from our place. We’ve grown close to many of the Albuquerque vendors and suppliers we’ve worked with in producing Great Scots Magazine and Tartan Scottie products over the past 14 years, so farm fresh eggs from our own chickens will be pieces of our good life at Las Golondrinas we can share.
You may be interested to know something about the three breeds of chicken we’re getting and why I chose the birds for our wee flock. I wanted large, heavy-bodied birds because they’re less flighty, less inclined to try roosting in trees or to fly over their fence. I wanted docile birds, suitable as pets. I wanted good egg layers.
Turns out, my three criteria are also what most urban chicken raisers seek, so my three breeds are the big three in the popular chickens-in-the-city movement now catching on from Seattle to Philadelphia. Here’s a photo of adult birds from each of our three chicken breeds:
The book on Orpingtons (the buff color predominates) is they are large (7-10 pounds) and usually tame with fluffy, profuse feathering which almost hides their legs. My books say these girls are highly docile and well-suited to families with children. I think the jury is out on suited to families with Scotties! We’ll see. These are supposed to be the clever chicks among chicken breeds, capable of tricks and mental gymnastics, so that may mean our Orpingtons won’t get as many dates as the other two breeds! Each hen lays about 150 large brown eggs per year.
(2) Plymouth Rock/Barred Rock.
This chicken was developed in New England in the 19th century and first exhibited in 1869. The Barred Rocks are only one of eight varieties of Plymouth Rocks. The books say they’re long-lived chickens, easily tamed, and therefore ideal for families wanting backyard chickens. Hens average between 7-8 pounds and lay around 200 large brown eggs per year.
(3) Rhode Island Red.
On May 3, 1954, the Rhode Island Red chicken became the official state bird of Rhode Island. These are large birds (hens average around 7 pounds), known to be sturdy and hardy even in marginal conditions. They are famous as egg layers, laying between 200-300 eggs in a 12 month period. The books suggest the original birds from which today’s Rhode Island Reds come may have come to the New World on Columbus’ second voyage in 1493. Our modern bird traces to Adamsville, part of Little Compton, Rhode Island. We’re getting a pair of Rhode Island Red hens and our one rooster is also a Rhode Island Red.
Our experiment in what Wendell Berry speaks eloquently of as “husbandry” is modest at Las Golondrinas. But quantities of scale are not what husbandry and stewardship are about. It’s the art of keeping tied all the strands that connect us to the web of life and such art requires intimacy, reflection, and personal attention on a one-to-one scale. I want to learn up close and personal that grocery stores are not where eggs come from. Eggs come from chickens who possess personalities and quirks and moods. I want to get to know the ‘girls’ who make our fresh eggs. I want to learn through the give and take of care-giving and egg-getting the personal dimensions of my own ‘ties’ to the living network that sustains me.
So these are our chicken beginnings: six girls and their ‘boy toy’ in the Tomé Chicken Palace.
Stay tuned. I have a feeling it will be ‘poultry’ in motion!
Joseph Harvill, publisher Great Scots Magazine