Read an Excerpt
You Come, Too
A path between two garden gates connects Ulisse Aldrovandi and me. Through pasture and woods it winds away into lands where all time and distances have lost meaning.
At one end is Lilyfield Farm, my Pennsylvania home, where the daylilies spill down the hill to Suzanne’s garden of sunflowers and squash, where Sophie the pig wallows by the pear tree, beside the catfish pond. I made the gate to our garden, from old boards adorned with nail holes and knots.
At the other end of the path, a gate of ornate ironwork opens to Aldrovandi’s villa Sampolo, in a valley of the Apennines between Bologna and Florence. Sometimes when the light’s just right, or I’m tired enough, still draped in dreams, I need only step out from my garden, and I stand in the glory of the Italian Renaissance. Whenever he sees me approach, Aldrovandi beckons to me as he would to a lost friend, home at last.
The old botanist delights in showing me what he’s grown, his pomi d’oro and other revelations of a dawning age. As we talk, he cradles a hen in his arms. He tells me about the specimens he’s spent a lifetime collecting from the New World. They would thrive, I say, at Lilyfield. In our gardens, the things that I know, and that he knew, mingle under a sometimes pleasant sun.
Come dream with me this morning in my garden, next to our farmhouse on the road to Valley Forge. The sundial says it’s early still, though shadows only guess at human time. From his roost in the chicken coop down by the barn, the rooster declares another day coming on, but he can wait.
I built the coop myself, of lumber scraps, an old door, and roofing I scavenged. Suzanne designed it. But I made it, rising early each day to hammer away before heading back to Philadelphia to earn my wage as a newspaperman. Today, half a hundred hens have the run of Lilyfield. They peck in pasture and swale, along the pond and amid the stone ruins of the springhouse, though it’s the manure pile they love most, digging deep for the treasures within.
Atop the hill, a weeping cherry shades Suzanne’s grandfather. They planted it together long ago, and there she buried his ashes. I see them planting it now; I hear her crying; he rises for a new season. Here, in this garden, I will scatter her ashes one day to nourish the tomatoes. Or will she scatter mine?
Four seasons I’ve e seen spin past six times since Suzanne and I first kissed at midnight under the willow tree on the far shore of the pond. Seventy moons or more we’ve e counted here together. Peeps turn to pullets, the roosters strut, a summer comes and goes, and another, and we marvel each year at the first eggs. I’ve e learned to admire these creatures, as did Aldrovandi, who has taught me more about them than I ever imagined. And, like him, I loved a hen.
Now each day as I head to work, along a crowded path that’s far better marked than the one that leads to Aldrovandi’s garden, I carry with me a basket of eggs to sell to my newsroom colleagues. Next to me on the seat, the eggs remind me of our lily fields, and of Aldrovandi’s villa in Romagna, and of another Pennsylvania farm that I’d thought was lost to me forever.
Come with me today, into the city and home again. Along the way I’ll tell you a story or two. I’ll tell you about a rooster that survived the chopping block and became a sideshow curio, a headless wonder fed through an eyedropper. I’ll l tell you about a perplexed farmer who found a hen floating lifeless in the pond, and the next day another—until, as the body count grew, the farmer finally cracked this serial killer case.
We’ll parse the thirty or more sentences that researchers suggest chickens can say, and translate some of their talk—the peep’s lonely call or its trill of terror, the hen’s cackle after laying an egg, the rooster’s battle cry and the gentle cluck and coo by which he summons his hens.
We’ll find out why hot young hens tend to go for those bad broiler cocks at first, until they settle for the family guys from the laying breeds. Man, ever curious, has studied such things.
We’ll have questions to ponder: Did an African tribe execute a German explorer in the 1850s near Lake Chad for the crime of eating eggs? Does a rooster have a penis of any consequence? And friend, I will show you hens’ teeth, scarce though they are, and a featherless chicken that, praise be, needs no plucking. Science has given us one. It’s come to this.
The rooster calls us ever onward to the rush hour. We’ll be back at day’s end. Suzanne will take us down to the garden to see what’s ripe, and we can sit amid the arugula and oxhearts and too many weeds, and laugh as loudly as we want, or let the tears come. We’ll watch the chickens finally head home at sunset. Bide with me awhile today, and let’s roost tonight at Lilyfield.
"The quickest way to stop a train is to forget your package," warns the sign near the woodstove in the North Wales, Pennsylvania, station. Next to a folded newspaper, a wicker basket of eggs sits unattended on the bench. Returning from the restroom, I find the stationmaster scowling.
I snatch the contraband and scoot out to board the 7:55 into the city, where I work at The Philadelphia Inquirer and sell farm-fresh eggs to my fellow editors and reporters. I confess to raising chickens. Forty-eight, last count. We are the creatures of Lilyfield Farm—the chickens and I, my lovely wife, Suzanne, our four children on the cusp of adulthood, Sophie the pig, a few horses, three goats, and a peacock. Our five-acre homestead, two centuries old, is midway between Philadelphia and horse-and-buggy Lancaster County.
A man of hayseed roots long urbanized, my life aswirl, I married a city girl gone country and moved five years ago to her oasis near Valley Forge. So many years distant from the Amish-country enclave of my youth, I’d resigned myself to cities, never dreaming that at forty-six I’d be blessed with life and love anew.
I am "the egg man" now, or so I’m known to the coterie of coworkers who have enjoyed the daily produce of my coop these past four years. Each spring, I add a new brood: Silver-Laced Wyandottes and Barred Rocks, Australorps and Araucanas, Brahmas, Rhode Island Reds, and my latest acquisition: Marans, the French marvels that lay eggs the color of rich chocolate. The others lay brown eggs, mostly, a few white, and some green, or rose, or lavender.
I’m hooked. And so are my customers. These eggs sell themselves. I suppose that’s because they come from free-range hens that chase grasshoppers and such. Or because they’re e hormone-free, a source of omega-3, and quite possibly organic, whatever that may mean. Some folks adore the spectrum of colors; others are lured by the brilliant yellow yolks and the heavenly egginess of their taste.
Grocers and restaurateurs have seen the pattern: People want fresh food, locally grown. Consumers who suspect big producers are cruel to chickens take their business to down-to-earth farmers whom they consider kinder and gentler.
Settling into my window seat on the train, I close my eyes as I often do when it’s time to pull away. When next I open them, the world is changing. Outside my window, colors blur as the train slices through rings of suburbia, past old warehouses, new condos, old warehouses becoming new condos, while, sagging in the underbrush, farmhouses molder away as they wait to be bulldozed into profit. Speculators are "developing" old Pennsylvania apace, the countryside underutilized no more.
"Eggs?" asks an overstuffed young woman, a bobbed blonde in black, balancing herself on my seat as she enters the car. She’s grinning at my basket, which is taking up a seat to itself. I allow as to how they are eggs.
"Keeping them all in one basket?" she asks, before lurching onward and away.
My fellow travelers come and go, station to station, caught, like me, in the loop of living. We are migrants still: rural to urban to suburban and rural and back, swaying on the track, trying to get home.
"In Milan, first thing we do, see, is get up and go down to the henhouse and suck us a few right there," offers a gentleman across the aisle who clearly has known Italy, his hands enacting this long-ago memory. "We poke the end and suck ’em, right there in front of the hens." He pauses, his eyes in distant mirth, and tells me this again.
A man who carries around a basket of eggs must expect to hear about such egg-sucking exploits and more. There’s a coop, it seems, in most everyone’s childhood, where we helped a tottering grandpa fetch the eggs on misty mornings; where grandma, apron bespattered, swung her ax wildly in gleeful pursuit of supper.
On the train, as the scenery changes from field to factory, from sprawl to high-rise, I hear how it was once: in Italy or Indiana, in Puerto Rico or Pennsylvania.
And I hear how it is now. I discover others like me, who keep coops: on small farms, in backyards, and even in the city, on rooftops. Speeding through North Philly, I look out upon lines of row houses, or what once were row houses. Next to the El tracks at Eighth and Poplar, a patch of green: A dozen youths have turned an eyesore of trash and tires into a garden of tomatoes and eggplants, lavender and sunflowers, as part of a city program to break through years of encroaching ugliness. I imagine chickens lurking in these neighborhoods, as dispossessed and determined as the greenery amid the rubble.
I lean back and close my eyes again, contemplating other gardens. I think of our patch at Lilyfield—each year we vow to devote the time to tame the weeds, and each year life gets in the way, though the garden blesses us regardless. And I think of Aldrovandi’s garden at Sampolo, perfectly arrayed, with a place for everything and paths as organized as his thoughts. He loved the flora of the world he knew and of the new one unfolding across the wild sea. He founded a great botanical garden in Bologna, one of Europe’s first.
The man knew a thing or two about chickens, too, and wrote down all that he had heard about them—a good deal of it preposterous, yes, but some of it insightful and wise. I’m sure history will judge a few of our modern ideas absurd as well.
Among the extensive projects he tackled, Aldrovandi set out to record for posterity everything he could learn about birds. The result: his two-thousand-page Ornithology, completed in 1600, of which about a tenth deals with chickens. Aldrovandi on Chickens, a remarkable 1963 translation into English by L. R. Lind, restores that part to us.1
Aldrovandi didn’t seem to dare dismiss anything as trivial. Not only do we learn, for example, what chickens are called in many languages, but we get an exhaustive accounting, page after page, of what their various parts are called, in obscure dialects, as well as the many parts of an egg. Many pages are devoted to drawings and descriptions of chicken freaks with four legs or two heads. The world, he believed, needed to note and remember these things—they were part of the larger order.
The master naturalist also collected interesting proverbs about chickens, medical cures, historical anecdotes, and biological findings, to which he added his own insights and musings, as well as the opinions of the great minds of the past.
He understood that chickens are an important part of our natural history, and have long followed wherever people go. Today that can mean a row house roof or suburban backyard. Some coop keepers are recent immigrants who wouldn’t dream of giving up their chickens, even if they moved to, say, Philadelphia. Others want to rediscover their rural roots, their inner farmer, to get in touch with something they fear they’ve e lost, or missed. For some, quality is the issue: They want their food wholesome and fresh, not shipped from afar, so they take the "buy local" creed to the next step. Others want ribbons from the fair: Birds of resplendent feather fill exhibition halls as hobbyists follow the lead of Martha Stewart, chicken fancier exemplar, who says she adopted her perfectionist standards from a poultry manual.2
Twenty-four billion chickens walk the earth, making them more numerous than any other bird.3 To wipe them all out, every man, woman, and child would have to gulp down four—in one sitting, lest they multiply. To clear out my coop, my family of six would each have to eat eight.
Some among us would welcome the chance to facilitate chicken extinction. There are those who do not love chickens; who would wring scrawny necks with abandon, given the chance; who cry not over the loss of heirloom breeds. Those urban escapees in the subdivision down the road don’t necessarily share a love for predawn cacophonies and acrid scents wafting on the evening breeze. And though country folk will defend their right to keep a coop, they don’t necessarily love the processing plant over in the next township—or the new neighbors it has brought in from far away to take jobs nobody local seems to want.
It’s no easy matter, introducing the new flock to the old. Any poultry farmer could tell you. To a chicken, the concept is simple, as are all concepts: These are newcomers. They are different from us. We must peck at them. They must keep their place.
In the eight thousand years since chickens were first domesticated from a wild breed called the Red Jungle Fowl of Southeast Asia and India, humans have kept them for many reasons. We never dreamed of a McNugget then, nor the croquette special at Louie’s. It wasn’t their culinary qualities that first drew our attention. It was their nasty ways. Cockfighting has long been the beloved sport of nobleman and commoner alike. The Greeks made it an Olympic event.
As our ancestors bred roosters to perform gallantly in the ring with razor and spur, so, too, did they perfect the hens’ performance back in the coop. Selective breeding created the egg machine that serves us so faithfully even today. In this sense the chicken most certainly came before the egg, for without cockfighting we would not have bred such prolific layers.
Along the way we tossed them on the grill—and today poultry is a world staple. Americans alone eat eight billion chickens a year. The industry boomed in the last century, though the popularity of poultry and eggs has ebbed and flowed with dietary trends. Cholesterol was good, then bad, then both. Atkins dieters redeemed the egg, leading to a new generation of designer varieties considered good for us.
Through our civilized ages, we have fine-tuned our chicken machine to attain economies of production. In the last century, we put the hen on the assembly line, automating its ovum. We helped out the struggling family farmer by concocting a broiler bird that he could get to market more quickly; then Big Chicken took the profits, relegating the farmer to serfdom.
Today, the disassembly line can process eight thousand birds an hour.4 And prodigious hens such as the White Leghorn, caged nearly motionless over chutes, their heads pumping nonstop into a conveyor of enhanced feed, can plop out their pristine prizes at well over twice the rate they could before we fiddled with them.
In 2006, a typical hen laid 262 eggs a year, a workaday wonder, having steadily increased from 112 in 1925.5 (My own work year is almost exactly the same as the average hen’s: The company pays me for 260 days, though I get 24 of those as vacation when I’m not expected to lay an egg.)
Eggs are cheap, though, and birds don’t take days off. Broiler birds grow fat quickly, ready for market in six weeks, bland though they might be. Technology has created the superchicken to serve the masses.
So what need have we now for fine feathers, for the pedigrees of plumage bred lovingly for generations? In the heady days of "hen fever" in the 1800s, when a chicken fancy swept Victorian society, gentleman geneticists crafted an abundance of new breeds. Some rare varieties survive now only due to the diligence of poultry clubs, passionate in their pursuit of perfection for the exhibition hall.
Not only the classic breeds but all of chickendom is in peril, judging by the doomsday predictions in some of the accounts of the avian influenza cases sweeping the Old Country and threatening to migrate to the Americas. The industry began to take a hit as publicity about the disease spread in 2005 and 2006; people shied away from poultry, at least for a while, and various nations imposed restrictions on commerce. Some even scowl at the backyard farmer, whose flock still dares to go outside where it could catch its death. The reports do seem heavily populated with peasants, but it’s the factory farm nearby where the virus would likely have more opportunity to mutate. We must, indeed, be vigilant: In 1918, the Spanish flu pandemic killed as many as 100 million people worldwide, one of every sixteen people on earth.6 We know now that it was an avian flu similar to the one threatening calamity once again.
The chicken had a role in this, but it’s hardly out to kill us all— though some would understand the impulse. To the contrary, chickens have saved countless human lives: Scientists have long used their eggs to culture vaccines to fend off influenza and other diseases. And in antiquity, the chicken was a walking pharmacy.
Aldrovandi praised poultry as the ultimate health food, its flesh so easily digested. Physicians and deep thinkers, he noted, had long recognized every part of the chicken as useful in some way for healing. Among those prescribing the meat for a variety of illnesses was Rhazes, the ninth-century Persian physician and philosopher who profoundly influenced the course of medicine.7
Through trial and error, deduction and extrapolation, the ancients put their poultry to the service of medicine. They knew what chicken soup could do. It heals best, Aldrovandi averred, when made from the flesh of an old rooster, chased until he collapsed from exhaustion. Chicken soup cures dysentery, advised the Roman scholar Pliny the Elder. And if a young lady misses her period, Pliny wrote, induce menstruation by slicing three hard-boiled eggs, reheating them on the hearth, and piping the vapors into her uterus.
Hen brains stop nosebleeds, wrote Marcellus Empiricus, one of Rome’s great medical minds. And, he pointed out, the dung of a red cock effectively treats boils. Here Aldrovandi drew the line. "I make an exception of their excrement," the wise man wrote.
The ancient Greeks sacrificed roosters to their god of medicine and healing to thank him for good health and to appeal for more. So it was with Socrates, condemned on charges that he had corrupted the youth of Athens by thinking too much. Fading from the hemlock he had quaffed, he called for his old friend. "We owe a cock to Asclepius," he whispered to the tearful Crito. "See that it is paid?"— and spoke no more.
"They are acquainted with the stars," Pliny wrote of the humble chicken, and indeed the ancients believed we had much to learn from these creatures. Namely, who would win the next battle—and for this intelligence, the chicken was compelled to spill its guts. All over the temple floor.
We, too, hold the chicken in high esteem for what it can teach us— though what we wish to learn has more to do with profit margins than war. In 2004, we cracked the genome of the chicken, the first bird so blessed. The feat was tackled by an international team of scientists who, having accomplished this, forged onward to decipher the amoeba.
Taking apart the chicken’s genome is a far more fruitful method of learning its secrets than eviscerating it. We discovered, for example, important clues to such maladies as cleft palate and muscular dystrophy.8 We found that its sense of smell is better than we had thought, and that it has a relatively poor sense of taste. It doesn’t know, for example, what bitterness is.
It should. We’ve e given the chicken plenty to be bitter about. Our new insights will let us better manipulate its body to serve us more efficiently, and fill our bellies and our pockets more abundantly. We can breed the master chicken race to feed the world, inexpensively. Poultry can be had for a song.
That song would be The Four Seasons, by Antonio Vivaldi. The strains of his "Spring," "Summer," "Autumn," and "Winter" are coop favorites, according to a study conducted a generation ago at Cornell University. The researcher found that chickens gained weight faster when exposed to soft music—he chose Vivaldi, explaining that they seemed partial to classical.9
Swaying to the music on their roosts, the chickens doubtless believed their keepers had tuned in to their inner need for cultural edification. They’d been had. It wasn’t the first time, nor the last.
Spring, summer, fall, and winter. All that mankind has accomplished, Pliny wrote, we owe to the rooster and his crowing, for he rousts our lazy bones each morning lest we sleep our lives away. Before the sundial, the rooster marked our time. And although, some would say, he lacks Vivaldi’s sense of song, the rooster does know a thing or two about the four seasons.
"The power of the sun attends the rooster," wrote Aldrovandi, citing the wisdom of the ages. The rooster knows the solar secrets, the philosophers observed; he senses the changes in the air as the sun moves.
The hen, too, is a creature of heavenly rhythms; she orders her life around her clutch of eggs. Like a woman, she is on a monthly calendar. As her cycle begins and ends, she can pop out a few oddballs— some as tiny as quail eggs, some lumpy, some torpedo-shaped, some rubbery, with shells lacking calcium. It happens particularly when she’s young and new to this business, but soon she’s laying a perfect egg about every other day. She presents it a few minutes later each time until, when the moon has fulfilled all its phases, she begins afresh. Not until the mid-twentieth century did we fully understand how attuned the hen is to seasons and light, and how a farmer could use a timer and lightbulb to coax more eggs from her by fooling her into believing in endless summer.
The rhythms of my daily commute to work are not unlike a chicken’s. Each morning as I open the coop door, the chickens burst out in a dash to be first to the manure pile, where they peck the day away till roosting time. They spend their days squabbling, fleeing predators, chasing fluttery things. Puzzled, mostly, they strut and preen.
I check the time. I’m ten minutes from Philadelphia’s Market Street Station; from there it’s a quarter hour more by foot to the newspaper office, under the big white clock tower between Spring Garden and Callowhill, the finest names two streets could have.
Through the train window, before our descent into subterranean blackness, I look out upon a desolation of chain-link fencing and razor wire. In what passes for a playground, a young man, alone, dunks a basketball through a rusty hoop, swishing the tattered net.
I arrive at Market, where I do my own dash through the crowd, and climb into the sunlight to begin my walk through the old streets with my basket of eggs. I pass the Reading Terminal, once a rail hub but now a cavernous farmers’ market where Amish and Italians, Greeks and Asians, and the rest of Philadelphia’s pepperpot serve up their best—tandoori chicken and apple dumplings, souvlaki and cheesesteaks, panini and soul food that can make a man weep. I look up at the clock atop the tower of City Hall. My stomach’s growling, but there’s no time to stop.
I’ve long lived by deadlines. At The Philadelphia Inquirer, I’m a writer of headlines, a polisher of prose. I try to repair grammar. I determine whether "armpit" is one word or two.
For several years, I was an editor of features and arts, with stints on the metro, national/foreign, and business desks. I’ve e loved my job, which, in essence, involves wrestling big ideas into small spaces. And among my coworkers I’ve e found an enthusiastic market for fresh eggs. I sell a dozen or two a day at three dollars a carton.
Several of those customers, some of my best, are gone now, swept away in a round of career-crushing layoffs. Seventy of the Inquirer’s most talented editors and reporters disappeared overnight in a concerted effort to improve our lot. I survived.
They asked me to help out on the sports desk.
When my son, Ross, was a wee lad, I took him down to the playground in the Blue Mountain town of Slatington, Pennsylvania, where we lived then, for a test drive on his new tricycle. I brought along a basketball, underinflated from lack of use. On an impulse at the playground’s edge, I hurled the ball in a transcendent arc toward the hoop, watching bewondered as it swished the net. A threesome of high-schoolish girls, standing at the corner, applauded, and I bowed.
Then I tried it again. I didn’t bow.
It’s not that I dislike sports. It’s that I didn’t grow up with sports. The farmhouse of my childhood heard no hooting in the den on Saturdays. We made hay on Saturdays. Nobody taught me all the rules of play—that is, until third grade, when a crackerjack gym teacher, a master of tact, noticed my deficit and put me with the girls for basic lessons. It can be easier to pretend not to care.
Forty years later, feeling far afield, I found myself on the Inquirer sports desk trying to write nightly basketball wraps and craft headlines for the joust du jour. Someone wins, someone loses. It’s clear, usually. I do like that. There is a ballistic beauty in perfect bodies excelling, and sports writing can be a newspaper’s best. But this wasn’t my dream.
And somewhere, out there beyond the tracks, a determined young man dances on cracked concrete, drives for a layup, and dunks, imagining cheers from the bleachers and the bright lights that will lead him to stardom and anywhere save where he is.
"People say, ‘When you make it to the NBA, don’t forget about me,’ " the teenage athlete William Gates said in Hoop Dreams, a 1994 documentary about young inner-city men and those who exploit their desperate hopes. "I feel like telling them, ‘Well, if I don’t make it, make sure you don’t forget about me.’ "
In the dying western Pennsylvania town of Sharon, where I was a cub reporter in the 1970s, I dreamed of an exciting career of Watergate wonders. I moved to city and suburbs, to Washington and New York and Philadelphia. Decades later, I now find my industry fading as sadly as did the steel town I once knew. People are losing the newspaper habit, opting for the Internet.
Each workday evening, I retreat to our farm amid the madly developing suburbia of southeastern Pennsylvania. The pharmaceutical industry thrives in the nearby towns, where the suited masses grab their morning coffees, check their e-mails, shave in the car, bang their BlackBerrys, do most anything but read a morning paper.
Lilyfield Farm is a survivor in a world fast encroaching. I want to see all the vistas of that new world, still, but more and more I want to keep it away, too, and when did that happen? I dream now of making it here, on these few acres, away from the bright lights, tending the chickens and the stables.
"Got to love that Ben Franklin," a gentleman calls to me from the steps of the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, where he’s sitting with his pal. He stands to intercept me, holding out his left hand while pointing down Broad Street with his right.
I reach out to shake, then notice his bundle, and his coat, too heavy for such a sweet day. It’s a coin or two he wants. I doubt even an egg would do. My eyes follow his finger to the celebrated statue atop City Hall.
"You mean Billy Penn?"
He turns slowly and points again, his finger tracing a wide arc back to me, then bows. "Got to love that Bill Penn."
I hand him a dollar, the best-spent alms ever. No longer would he lead our tourists astray. "Say, brother," he says, leaning near, "don’t keep ’em all in one basket." His friend on the steps snorts.
My wife is well acquainted with such souls. Suzanne grew up in some less-than-pleasant sections of Philadelphia, moving as an adult to Worcester, thirty miles to the northwest, where she "raised the roof" of a ramshackle stone house, two centuries old. It slumped amid fields choked with wild morning glory and thistle and bane. A massive, gnarled oak tree—one of the county’s oldest—graced the lane. It must have stood there, though hardly more than a sapling, when General Washington’s men crisscrossed those fields on the way to Germantown, White Marsh, and Valley Forge. Geological layers of manure rose high in the barn stalls. The house showed the weight of its two centuries. But Suzanne set to work and designed the renovation herself, rallying work crews from her church.
I married that girl five years ago, and we combined our separate broods in that yellow farmhouse, reminiscent of the Tuscan countryside.
For years we had been neighbors, living just a few miles apart on opposite sides of the Skippack Creek, each a single parent raising two children. Life had tried to pull us both down. It was time to dream again.
We met in the waning days of August, and in a December blizzard we drove to New Hampshire to visit friends. The next evening, in the mist of the darkling shore of Goose Pond, I asked her to marry me. My two children and I moved across the creek to her farm on Frog Hollow Road. We became a family of six. Ross and Gretel, Julia and Alexandra, and my dear Suzanne—these are the names I wish to have upon my lips when all this fades away someday.
I walk up Broad Street, my stomach competing with the rumble of the subway under the sidewalk grate. Still a few minutes from the Inquirer’s brass doors, I stop for a quick McChicken. I set my basket by the register.
"Those eggs," says the cornrowed clerk. He’s looking at neither me nor the eggs.
"In one basket," I say, quickly, as I pat my pockets in search of the dollar bill I gave Billy Penn’s friend.
Puzzled that I would state the obvious, he repeats himself. "Those eggs."
I want to punctuate him. Was it a question? An observation?
I prefer to think he was having an exclamatory moment, a Philly epiphany, proclaiming throughout all the land: "Brother, got to love those eggs!"
Even after years of knowing cities, I feel like an observer from another world. The places and people I’ve e known have come and gone like the scenes that blur past my window on the R4 line.
During the Depression, my father, at age twenty-one, moved from New York City with his family to an 1870s farmhouse far out in Mercer County, Pennsylvania, on a hundred-acre spread he later fondly described as "the corn among the ragweed."
For sixty years he built his land. He and my uncles and grandparents subsisted, at first, on what they could raise themselves—cows and pigs and chickens, as well as the produce of their garden. It was the 1930s version of sustainable farming, though nobody called it that then. Come the war, my uncles got jobs for a while in Sharon, the nearby factory town on the Shenango River.
In 1988 my father had a stroke while we baled hay as a late July storm swept in. He was seventy-seven. A man of many words— cursing at the cows, reciting long poems, chatting with all comers— he spoke only in labored whispers after that. His life’s work eventually slumped into a tangle of joe-pye weeds and briars. He asked my brother and sister and me to sell the farm where we had grown up.
A few years ago the new owner bulldozed the memories. On an August afternoon that throbbed with cicadas—the sound of summer dying—my brother, Jeff, and I walked down the lane to poke around the old homestead as we often had done, exploring the pastures and our past.
The greenery had been rendered rubble. The house was gone, as was the barn that smelled of timothy and old wool, and the pigsty where I played, and what remained of the old coop with its rows of nesting boxes cloaked in cobwebs. We sat silently on the foundation, two men just shy of fifty, and one of us might have wept.
Ours had been one of the last small family operations, a way of life that’s fading fast in this age of factory farms. As recently as 1950, in the decade I was born, nearly half of rural Americans lived on farms. Today, it’s one of ten.10
In 1950, about three-quarters of the farms raised flocks of chickens, and farm families ate 6.6 billion eggs from their own coops, compared to a total 52.2 billion sold. They’d eaten 7 billion in 1925, and well over 8 billion in the depths of the Depression, when thrift was born of desperation.
Of today’s remaining farms, fewer than 5 percent even have a coop. Though we’r e selling 90 billion eggs a year now in America, in 1982 the USDA stopped bothering to count the few we still ate down on the farm.11
At Lilyfield, my family and I count ourselves blessed to taste such delights on a crisp Saturday morning, when sizzling essences of egg and bacon mingle. And I still count the eggs—in fact, too diligently, says Suzanne, who has to confiscate enough for her cooking before I whisk them off to market.
Arriving at the Inquirer, I join a group of women waiting at the elevator. "I have to ask," says one, pointing at my basket. "Are those— eggs?"
It’s a question I hear almost daily. I reassure her. With my farm background, I’m a curiosity at the Inquirer—though I regret to say that all newspaper people could soon become a curiosity.
In the newsroom, I double-check my work schedule and take a seat on the national/foreign desk, across the room from my usual haunt on the city/suburban desk. My friend Steve notices I’m out of place.
"What’s a hayseed like you doing over on the national/foreign desk?" he asks. "Chickens get loose in Kabul?"
The city desk isn’t exactly a pastoral bastion, either, but I don’t point this out. "They were down a body today," I explain. They needed some help, the way the sports desk had needed help after the layoffs decimated its ranks. I had spent four months editing sports, surprised that I was sometimes enjoying it, until the bosses figured I’d seen enough of the bright lights and rehired an editor who knew how the games were played.
"Heard you were raised Amish, and came out," another colleague says, then asks me, "Sorry you did it?"
The unadorned truth is that I grew up down the road from Amish farms. We were "English," meaning non-Amish. We harvested crops with our plain neighbors, bartered with them, did commerce with them. They drove their buggies down to our pond to fish. We got along.
"Get awt, I say!" the old man, crouching at his coop, shouted at my father. It was 1965, and we had pulled up in our ’56 Ford pickup to buy a few dozen eggs. "These here are fifty cent a dussin, and I’ll not be cheated by the likes of ye! Now get awt!"
His son-in-law Albert rushed from the farmhouse to escort his wife’s pappy inside, closing the door gently as a bonneted figure within led the poor codger muttering into the darkness.
"He’s taken a stroke, Burt," Albert explained to my father. "Don’t mind what he says, they’re e still thirty cent a dussin." Albert, a farmer and wheelwright, had met and befriended my father, the rookie from Brooklyn, years before.
As the facts are hollered down the pipe, I’ve e been rendered Amish. Such is the way information often spreads, as journalists know. I may not be one of the plain people, but I’m forever a farmer by virtue of birth. And when I tally my life someday, I’ll be proud to have called myself a farmer and a newspaperman, even as technology transforms both pursuits almost beyond recognition. On the farm and in the office, I have shoveled my share of manure and spread it wide over the fertile earth. The smell, I confess, can be potent, but what seems at first unpleasant often turns, with time, to good.
You come, too, as I make my rounds through pastures and streets, sunshine and shadow, the here and now and the heretofore. I want to tell you what I’ve e learned in my few seasons. We’ll crack us a few eggs today and at nightfall chase the chickens to the coop.
Excerpted from Home to Roost by Bob Sheasley
Copyright © 2008 by Bob Sheasley.
Published in 2008 by St. Martin’s Press
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