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Trauma Farm: A Rebel History of Rural Life

Trauma Farm: A Rebel History of Rural Life

5.0 1
by Brian Brett

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Brian Brett’s farm on Salt Spring Island is affectionately known as Trauma Farm. There, he raises chickens, pigs, cows, sheep, and goats, tends an extensive orchard and vegetable garden, concocts fabulous meals from the bounties of the farm, and has various misadventures. This funny and thought-provoking memoir traces one day on Trauma


Brian Brett’s farm on Salt Spring Island is affectionately known as Trauma Farm. There, he raises chickens, pigs, cows, sheep, and goats, tends an extensive orchard and vegetable garden, concocts fabulous meals from the bounties of the farm, and has various misadventures. This funny and thought-provoking memoir traces one day on Trauma Farm. In it, Brett explores the natural history of the small mixed farm, meditates on the perfection of the egg, offers critiques of factory farms and the slaughtering industry, muses on the uses and misuses of gates, and ponders the constant presence of death as he goes about the activities of farming — birthing lambs, contending with rats, helping an aged horse to his death. Underlain with deep knowledge of biology and botany, this erudite, witty, and passionate book is an unforgettable portrait of the issues all farms face in this age of industrialization and homogenization.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
Both a celebration and excoriation of farm life, the latest from author Brett (Uproar's Your Only Music) examines his family homestead on Salt Spring Island, British Columbia, and the state of contemporary farming. With intimate knowledge, Brett speaks to the challenges faced by many independent farmers as well as the fleeting joys: "Rural living is an eccentric pursuit, in the same way that beauty is an eccentric pursuit." Raising fruits and vegetables, a small group of cows, chickens and pigs, Brett airs some strong criticism of modern agriculture-such as cattle slaughterhouses "that resemble medieval torture chambers"-tempered by lighthearted passages on topics like farm-fresh eggs: "I can tell what a chicken has been eating and how it's been raised when I break an egg on the frying pan." His account is also spiked with a grim sense of humor: "How do you make a small fortune at farming? Start with a large fortune." Brett's wit and giddy ambivalence makes this account a stretch more provocative than similar rural memoirs, and an altogether compelling read,
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.
From the Publisher
“A wonderful meditation on farm life and by extension life itself ...told intelligently and often humorously, by a writer with a welcome fresh sharp eye.”
—Peter Matthiessen, author of Shadow Country and the Snow Leopard

"a superb, wise, witty, and vivid weave of barnyard tales with deep insights into the fraught symbiosis of animals, plants, and man”
—Ronald Wright, author of A Short History of Progress

"a touching and tender memoir, at once humorous and profound, filled with wonderful insights about life as a poet and accidental farmer"
—Wade Davis, National Geographic Explorer in Residence and author of One River and The Serpent and the Rainbow

"[Brett] comes with the gumboot poet’s fearless tongue to speak truth to those who would reduce the life-and-death work of farming into a pastoral idyll. ...If it’s hope you’re looking for, you’ll find it in the fortifying madness of Trauma Farm"
—James MacKinnon, author of Plenty (aka The 100-Mile Diet)

"…It is a striking, stunning book, easily one of the best of the year."—National Post

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From Overture

A farm is both theory and worms. Once it was the bridge between the wild and civilization; now it has become a lonely preserve for living with what remains of the natural landscape – a failing companion to a diminishing number of hunter-gatherer societies, a few parks, and the remaining wilderness. There is a science to farming, but that science is also victimized by its own fundamentalism. There is also a history of traditional practices in farming, some delicious and others scary. Those traditions, along with the small farms remaining, are being crushed by regulation and the demands of globalization.

Yet, if anything, the small, mixed farm is a hymn to the lush achievement of this diverse world and what’s called entropy. Tradition and science and the ecology wrapping around each other like a multi-dimensional puzzle full of laughter. It’s night hawks celebrating the dusk with their booming dives, the fields turning gold in the late afternoon light, crazy events, a bright Spartan apple peeking from behind a green leaf, and the need to produce good food for the community.

We moved into our 4,000 square foot log house on a cold January afternoon, eighteen years ago. It was a challenge. The shake roof leaked, skylights were smashed, snow drifted through the laundry room, the plumbing was split from freezing. Two of the outer doors were completely gone. Lost. Who would take someone’s doors? You could see outside through the gaps in the log chinking. The sole heat was provided by a pair of wood stoves, both working inadequately. The woodshed attached to the barn contained a forlorn, punky chunk of alder. The kitchen stove hadn’t been cleaned in a year because the caretakers didn’t realize that the ashes needed to be hauled out of cookstoves. The chimneys were thick with creosote.

I was still in good health then, and Sharon is tireless. We were fools for work. We brought our youngest son, Roben, nineteen years old and a silent tiger when it came to labour. He was accompanied by a changing cluster of anarchic nineteen-year-old friends, eager to adventure in our world outside the city – Joaquin, Seb, Paul, Gerda, Lenny, Jason. The farm was a romantic escape for them, as well as a way to keep out of trouble, and they crashed in various spare rooms in the house and barn (which had a guest room). The group changed regularly, a few women drifted into the barn, but it was mostly guys, except for Gerda who became a master gardener and sculptor. Sebastion, easy-going and affable; Paul, brilliant but he kept it hidden; and Joaquin, the vocal rebel who questioned authority. They were the most regular. They still whine about how hard they worked so hard for so little. I tell them that’s farming.We could have probably taken the more economical tack of hiring farm hands, since the boys ate like horses and had a tendency to break furniture and tools, but we achieved an enormous amount of work and I loved relearning the world of the young while, I like to think, we gave them some good directions about living in the world. They all spent varying amounts of time on the farm, working for room and board and wine, a lot of partying, and very little cash. When we look back now at those first six years, none of us can believe how much we accomplished.

As the initial building, fencing, and rebuilding years drew to a close I recognized I would eventually write about the farm, but some instinct demanded I find a way to tell it within the story of farming itself. The question is – how do you write the natural history of a farm? Natural histories tend to follow a linear logic. But a farm isn’t logical as anyone who’s had their foot stepped on by a clueless horse, or watched the third crop of peas fail to sprout, will tell you.

I realized the only way I could write this memoir was by association – a walk through a summer’s day – the June day of the solstice – a walk that begins in the darkness before dawn and ends in the midnight hours. A walk that simultaneously remembers winter snows, sunflowers, the dinnertime song of the sheep, history, and the taste of acid soil – a sublime landscape framed by laughter and absurdity and shock – an eighteen-year-long-day that includes both the past and the future of living on the land, tracing the path that led hunter-gatherers to the factory farm and globalization.

Rural living is an eccentric pursuit, in the same way beauty is an eccentric pursuit – an exercise in non-linear, non-Euclidean thinking as much as it’s a series of rational steps. It’s both a logical and an intuitive act, like running an obstacle course – it seems easy until you attempt to make a machine that can do it.

Although our business name is Willowpond Farm, we came to refer to this land as Trauma Farm, because we soon realized beauty also demands a little terror and laughter, and that any story I wrote would have to be one that follows the form of the farm, and not the logic or romantic mythologies we inflict upon it.

To live the rural life you have to think circular – combine that with a plane and a line; then balance the whole damned affair on an isosceles triangle. This might sound ludicrous; yet it’s a crazily realistic picture of small farming in action if you examine it logically. And as soon we move away from traditional practises and apply too much order and logic to farming it becomes more cruel and dangerous – thousands of pigs clamped into sterile environments; 30,000 chickens fed unnatural diets in a shed for 33 days – from chick to slaughter – without ever having seen the sun; fields flooded with oil products and contaminated sewage sludge; frog genes crossed with tomatoes or potatoes that are also pesticides in the brave new world of genetic modification. A hog farm so enormous it produces more faecal waste than the entire population of the state of Nevada.

Farming doesn’t have a long history by evolutionary standards of time. The earth is approximately 4.5 billion years old, whereas Emmer wheat was first utilized around 19,000 years ago, but its real cultivation began a mere12,000 years in the past. It was closely followed by Einkhorn barley. That’s when the small farm began. These two exquisite grains remain in cultivation, though mainly in small pockets in Ethiopia and North America where seed savers are attempting to protect endangered grains from the maw of globalization. Rice, although the genus appeared 120 million in the past, wasn’t cultivated until 10,000 years ago. It’s higher protein content and ability to grow in dense quantities is perhaps why Asian populations exploded so quickly.

The discovery of seed collecting marks a paradigmatic change in human evolution towards what some optimistically call civilization. Cap this with the invention of record keeping, and suddenly, in the five thousand years since writing began the rest of the planet is in trouble. Estimates of the population of the human race in 10,000 BC average around 5 million people. Today, there are 6.5 billion people on the planet, all of us roaring toward the systemic extermination of the natural world. The historian Ronald Wright notes our recorded history equals the combined life span of only seventy people, counted from the first slashes in wet clay around 3,000 BC, to the billions of binary codes in the hard drives of today.

As soon as we arrived at the farm I recognized it was what I’d always wanted, even as child. The memories came hurtling back – a forlorn kid dreaming in the back of my father’s truck full of potatoes as we drove from the country farms of the Fraser Valley to the houses of suburban wives who would sometimes buy our potatoes merely because they had nothing else to do. He was a peddler because it gave him freedom, and he loved being on the land, especially in the morning. My earliest memories are of lying on those sacks of potatoes, with a few filthy burlap bags pulled over me for warmth as we drove the ice-puddled frost roads of the Sikh or German or Chinese farms of the Fraser Valley, and the Japanese farms of Steveston – the richest, most temperate farmland in Canada, now covered in apartment blocks, malls, and subdivisions. Father and these elders showed me the real world, and their teachings eventually caused me to lure Sharon to Trauma Farm.

At dawn the canvas flap would snap in the wind while the truck bounced and picked up speed, and through the open window in the back of the driver’s cab father would yell far-fetched stories. He was excited like a puppy, ready to begin the adventures of the day. We sold bootleg potatoes, unapproved by the government regulators of a byzantine protectionist bureaucracy. Potato board inspectors would hunt us down and arrest us and seize our potatoes, but my father had a knack for dodging the inspectors and the police, and they seldom caught up with him as he unconsciously made a rebel of me.

Both my childhood with my adventurous father and this farm taught me how fluid the world is, and that our compulsive need for regulation could be our most beneficial and dangerous habit simultaneously. Born with a rare genetic malfunction, which made me middlesexed, Kallmann’s syndrome, I was a troubled and difficult left-handed child, regularly thrashed by my teachers who wanted to make me right-handed, though there was a lot more help I could have used. So I learned to be ambidextrous, and would switch back and forth just to drive them crazy. One teacher used to give me the strap because I would look out the window and weep at the beauty of the world – bad form for a twelve year old ‘boy,’ and he tried to beat the beauty and the weeping out of me. “Be a man!” he said, as the leather strap hit my outstretched hand. It was a popular phrase in that era, and I only began to understand its ramifications when I started receiving treatment for my condition in my twenties.

These experiences taught me to always look beyond the envelope, to enjoy traditional knowledge yet to never trust authority. And that’s why I am writing these stories in this non-Euclidean form, stories told within and alongside other stories. Our stories are as elastic as the world around us – a web in every direction – the way we actually live, despite our attempts to regulate the world. Like Proteus the ecology slips through our fingers. Trauma Farm is a stroll told backwards and forwards, all the way from Babylon to the exotic archipelago where my island farm exists.

Milan Kundera long ago discussed how we see the history of a life. Each of us spends our existence walking through a fog, but when others look back on our stories, they only see the mis-steps, the great leaps, the retracings – they don’t see the fog. History, real history, needs to run with all of it – numbers, dreams, and the fog.

Not only have Sharon and I lost money every year since we began farming, like all small farmers we are also in conflict with the mighty tentacles of agribusiness. Given a bad year or two we could even be forced to sell. It took us only a few years to realize we couldn’t make it financially. Every one of our naturally grown free-range sheep cost us twenty-five dollars when we sold them last year. We paid our customers for the privilege of spending a year growing their lambs. Now that's farming.

Yet we’ve found ourselves unwilling to sell the farm. Debt used to terrify me. Farming today, is learning how to accept debt – a spiritual exercise in humility. Like the seasons, you live with it. The small farm hasn’t got the proverbial ice cube’s chance in hell. But we’ve made our rebel decision. That’s what makes the fight so beautiful. Farming is a profession of hope. You will not meet a farmer without hope even when you encounter a flock of them drinking coffee at the local café, lamenting their lot, their bankers, pests, fuel prices, seed costs, weather – hoping they can harvest that low field before it turns to mud or that the rain won’t split the cherries – or they can get the livestock to market before the prices crash again.

I like to tell the story of the government inspector who showed up at a farmer’s door claiming he’d heard there was a man cheating his hired help, and was it him? And would it be possible to talk to the workers? The farmer doubted the culprit was himself. “I’ve got a hand here who I pay good wages, and I cover all his benefits. You can talk to him until the cows come home, but it won’t do you any good.”

“Anybody else?” asked the inspector.

“Nope.” Then he thought for a moment. “Maybe you mean the local idiot who I pay 50 cents an hour and feed a bottle of whiskey every payday.”

“That’s the one I want to talk to... the idiot.”

“You’re talking to him.”

It’s a comic occupation.

The numbers vary depending on who they come from, as it’s complex trying to calculate what is rural, suburban, or urban, but it’s generally accepted that in 1790 almost 90% of Americans lived rural lifestyles. By 1900 the number had reduced to 60%. Yet rural skills remained strong. During World War II, according to Michael Pollan, 40% of American produce came out of Victory Gardens. When the recent century expired, around 2-4% of North Americans lived on working farms. The farmland has been accumulated by multinational agribusinesses, and the leftovers, the land that once circled the cities, has been swallowed by subdivisions named after the landscapes they destroyed. Hazelnut Grove, Meadowlands, and Orchard Valley have become tacky comments on our vanished landscapes.

But you must recognize that as soon as you start talking numbers you have already made a judgement. Local farming versus factory farming has been a victim of the same dissemination of false statistics as the cigarette wars and the climate change debate – too many of the numbers depend on the point of view of the number cruncher. Lewis Carroll knew what he was talking about when he said; "If you want to inspire confidence, give plenty of statistics – it does not matter that they should be accurate, or even intelligible, so long as there is enough of them."

Both sides of the debate are guilty of twisting statistics, but Trauma Farm is not about statistics, it’s the glory and joy and terror of living on the land. That’s why I’ve decided to treat all statistics as stories. I have sought the best numbers I could find, but the reader, like me, should consider them as what they are – stories. This is a story of stories, not of statistical leveraging. Distrust all authority. Suspect all statistics – they are only as good as the individual who cites them. Although I have abandoned the practise of footnotes, I have included a small collection of my best sources, with some comments on the more interesting books cited.

This farm has given me almost two decades to contemplate the questions that arise out of living a rural life, in both light and shadow. We will begin in darkness and end in darkness, and during this solstice day, walk through a short history of Willowpond Farm, known to its friends as Trauma Farm, told during an eighteen-year-long-day that remembers all the way back to the fields of Babylon, and beyond, in every direction.

From Chapter 3, Fowl Play

I pass the koi pond and the back house gate; then the swing-gate of the chicken run which we generally leave open for the dogs to patrol at night, and then I unlatch and drop the ramp to the coop itself. I love the thump of the hinged door, with its little wooden steps, when it hits the ground, and the desperate rush of the chickens into the sun, cackling excitement and joy. Every day the chickens know delight. I wish I were as good as that.

As the birds rush towards the sun a ruthless cock leaps onto the nearest hen, and she crouches dutifully, wings spread and trembling. The hens that escape the sex-mad, morning roosters sometimes won’t stop for a hundred feet. I don’t blame them.

I open the side door, and check the feed, and the water. When I am raising layers I also carry the little woven collecting basket in the crook of my arm, besides balancing my tea mug. Small farming can involve a lot of dexterity. There it lies in a nest of straw. Magic. As fresh as it’s going to get. The egg – despite its current, sorry state in factory farms – is one of history's great cultural icons. From the cosmic egg to the primordial egg to the golden egg laid by that doomed goose, this marvellous creation has long inspired our imaginations. “Whiter than an egg...” Sappho said some 26 centuries ago. This phrase, quoted from a rare Greek text known as the Dinner of the Learned, is all that remains of a poem written by a long dead woman with a fondness for young girls. It has taken on its own beauty over the years. Kenneth Rexroth called the fragment a supernatural gleam and a delusion. When I first encountered Sappho I was shocked by its evocative simplicity, and the shock has remained with me for forty years. An egg can hardly be called white, but it’s a phrase that means more than it means; it can also describe, a cooked and peeled egg, as firm and white as a young Greek woman’s thigh. It evokes purity, the qualities of whiteness, the mythology of eggs.

How lovely the egg – within it all the miracles of creation. Besides white, you can find brown, blue, speckled, grey, and even the legendary black eggs of a mysterious bird, possibly a honeycreeper, in deepest Central America. Pablo Neruda once talked of encountering eggs in the jungle that shone like a shotgun barrel.

Eros, that libidinous symbol of Greek mythology was born from the egg laid by Nyx, the goddess of night. Leda met her swan, and the twins, Castor and Pollux, were born of her eggs. A multitude of cultures – Phoenicians, Egyptians, Hindus, Japanese – insisted the world was egg-shaped, or that it was hatched from an egg laid by the creator of the land. According to the Dogon people of the Sudan and Mali, the cosmos is represented by the Nommo, a gigantic egg with two placenta. The Russians have a cruel wizard named Koszcey who can only be killed by a needle hidden in a magical egg. The Egyptian Sun God hatched from an egg. And Sun Hou-zi, the divine ape of China was also born of an egg, impregnated by the wind. The serpent-circled egg was a key symbol of the ancient cult of Orpheus. The egg – the soul of the philosopher; the serpent – the mysteries.

Gallus gallus, the red jungle fowl and its variant the grey jungle fowl, strode out of the Indus Valley and into our yards at least 5000 years ago, and was more famous for its fighting cocks than its eggs or meat in the ancient world. Black chested and legged, its red-brown neck feathers shine deep mahogany. It generally lays clutches of 6-8 brown eggs, an impressive number in the wild bird world, though some birds can produce more, including the partridge which will clutch up to seventeen eggs. The chicken is so prolific the world is now eating more than 71 million tonnes of chicken a year.

The original bird was noted for the brilliant red comb on the cock. The hen was combless, unlike the majority of modern varieties. I had a combless Rhode Island red hen for several years – only because, when she was young, she was struck by a marauding Cooper’s hawk who ripped the tip of her head off. Instead of a comb she grew back a punky tuft of feathers that gave her a cute, thuggish look.

A real chicken can fly like the wind, melt into the jungle, and crow at unexpected moments. The scrawny, 2-3 lb. wild fowl soon won the hearts of farmers and fight enthusiasts. Even today, in Java, a phenomena known as ‘Deep Play’ exists – where fanatical cock-fighters will stake more money than they can win on their birds. The chicken enjoyed pride of place in the land of the pharaohs 3500 years ago. Egyptian lords stepped aside when the cock strutted about the court, and its cry was a conversation stopper. We can only imagine the aristocrats pausing in dilettantish delight at the crow of a great rooster before it shat on the marble floor and strode off.

The chicken is impressively attractive to human culture. Biologists have estimated its diffusion rate across the planet at approximately 1.5 to 3 kilometres a year. It made it from Asia to the Americas 100 years ahead of Columbus. Before the electronic age this was about the same travel speed as our transfer of technologies or ideas. I like to imagine a scholar publishing a text in Dusseldorf and the ideas reaching Paris at about the speed that farmers passed along a new variety of chicken.

When I raise chickens for eggs, I prefer a mixed flock. Bantams are the best brooders. Their ‘broody’ hens will stubbornly hatch anything short of dinosaurs. If you place a smooth round stone under one it will try and hatch that too. Leghorns give white eggs. The luminous-feathered Ameraucana has blue-green eggs. Rare, weird varieties like the black-skinned silkie or Polish chickens add an amusing diversity to the flock. The Polish chicken has an extravagant tussock of feathers that fall over its eyes like the furred helmet of medieval Polish soldiers, hence its name. It’s also an extraordinarily stupid bird. All the intelligence was long ago bred out of it. I had a bird keel over in the yard, and I couldn’t understand what happened until I picked it up. The bird was gaunt, starving. I took it inside and held it on my lap and began stroking it. Sticking my finger in a piece of Sharon’s rich, chocolate cake, I held it up to the bird’s beak. After a few minutes it was pecking up the crumbs from my palm. Once it got a shot of sugar into it, I fed it some grain. The poor bird had been so blinded by its extravagant feathers that it couldn’t find the scratch in the grass or the feed dispenser. I clipped its feathers back from its eyes, and within days it was in the pink again, fully fed and fleshed out. .

Up until the middle of the twentieth century thousands of chicken varieties thrived. The advent of the factory farm and the trammelling of commercial fowl into a very few inbred varieties has led to numerous extinctions and has critically endangered more. In the U.S. alone there are 20 varieties that exist in numbers of less than 500. These include famed birds like the Andalusian, the buckeye, the chantecler, the Java, the Nankin, and the Sumatran. The red jungle fowl itself is near extinction. Only a few dozen birds have been discovered that show no genetic DNA from domestic chickens – the common yard rooster is a promiscuous bird.

To keep our chickens healthy and with plentiful access to range and safety, we run two chicken sheds, far enough apart that the birds can pasture without contact, which keeps disease transmission down, and which might be why we’ve never had an outbreak of anything grim. Old tradition passed from farmer to farmer also teach healthy, non-toxic methods for controlling pests. For instance, if you brush mineral oil on the coop’s perches it will keep mite populations down because they like to move from bird to bird at night and the oil smothers them. Lately, we’ve been summer-growing meat birds – letting the fields fallow in the winter, but I miss my laying hens, and that exotic pleasure of sliding a hand under a hen and pulling out a warm egg while she clucks morosely.

Since recorded history began people have lived with birds. Not only do birds entertain and comfort, but they feed us. Brillat-Savin, the nineteenth century French epicure, noted: “Poultry is for cuisine what canvas is for painters.” However, in North America, after WWII, a different attitude towards livestock grew to dominate farming; along with it, the ‘battery hen.’ The agri-business version of a Van Gogh stamped out on black velvet canvases or TV trays. When agri-business discovered it could keep several hens in a single cage, and then stack the cages, a major industry was born. The battery chicken came into its own, along with confined broilers in the 1950s – following the discovery of nicarbazin – the breakthrough drug, that diminished diseases common to over-crowding.

Within a short while the majority of battery hens (the cocks were all destroyed at birth) were confined in cages. The layers never saw the sun, living out their lives in cages as small as 20"x18"x16", five birds to a cage, in block-long buildings holding up to 90,000 chickens fed on processed high protein pellets, the cage floors slanted to allow the eggs to roll out onto conveyor belts. Their beaks were melted off so they wouldn’t cannibalize each other (cannibalism always appears among tortured animals), their feet growing into the cage wire, as they choked on the dust, spattered with manure, forced to undergo artificial moulting using starvation in darkness, and then, before they were two years old, every chicken was recycled for ‘chicken products.’ Bon appetit!

The manufacture of poultry feed (like most livestock feed) was soon calculated in computerized control rooms – where specialists study shipping tables of railway carloads of raw materials, calculating against costs the necessary proteins, enzymes, fillers, etc., that make up a standard pellet mixed from different grains (soya and wheat and corn and barley), alfalfa, canola oil, enzymes, minerals, rendered animal (cattle, pork, chicken) by-products, fish (sometimes from heavily polluted heavy metal – mercury, cadmium, lead – contaminated fishing regions), and excrement that was recycled back into the feed.

Consider putting 5 teenagers into a room not big enough for one of them to fully stretch out; then pull out their teeth, feed them powdered meal made from dead animals and excrement and pesticide-laced grains on conveyor belts and, and control the lights according to what levels would cause them the fastest weight gain. Now imagine what you would find when you opened the door. That’s the world of the battery hen.

Permanent antibiotics are no longer permitted in North America, I’m told, but the chickens are still sprayed in broiler sheds by huge rollers blasting out pesticides and anti-oxidants and arsenical compounds that will enhance growth and egg production. These practises are also in the process of being banned in America and other modern countries (Britain banned forced molting in 1987) even as they are being revived in third world countries.

Recently, due to the uproar over these inhumane charnel houses, nervous, processed food manufacturers like MacDonald’s and KFC have created minimum standards (eg, the cages are bigger) that are slightly less horrific. The mistreatment of livestock has fed a growing rebellion, and many countries are also banning animal and fish by-products altogether in feed. A new kinder, gentler regime is arising, as can be affirmed by the confusing variety of eggs we can encounter in the more conscientious big box grocery stores, but despite the labels depicting radiant little farns with cheerful chickens, it’s still a grim world for poultry.

Since 1955 the average flock size in a laying house has risen to 80,000 birds. But between 1986 and 2002 the number of major American egg producers declined from 2,500 to 700. Globalization and corporate consolidations led to the construction of 10 ‘farms’ that each raise more than 5 million hens. Another 61 producers keep more than 1 million hens. These are U.S. Department of Agriculture numbers from 2002. This is the goliath that the small farm with its little flocks of 50 or 100 or 200 clucking hens in the yard is competing against, yet almost everywhere the small farms can’t keep up with the demand for real eggs from humanely raised chickens. Sometimes, when I’m on tour, lecturing, and I gaze at those pathetic white, runny, pallid, thin-shelled eggs I’ve encountered when trapped in a dismal franchised restaurant I can’t help but think we’ve broken the primordial egg in order to make an evil omelette.

We rescued our first batch of chickens, red rocks, from a small commercial layer facility. We had only just moved to Trauma Farm. I had grown up as a child among farmers and my father had gifted me with much knowledge about animals without me even knowing it. To catch the chickens I brought along our resident clutch of nineteen-year-old skateboarders and anarchic rebels who’d been raising hell in the urban world and looking for a rebel, alternate community, which we inadvertently provided at Trauma Farm.

I took these three boys to the last local, small-scale chicken factory in the evening, when the birds were settled down, and set them loose in the semi-dark shed. The first question was from Joaquin: “How do you catch a chicken?” This caught me off guard because I’d assumed they’d know, taught by their father, like I was. But it’s a different world for their generation. Describing how to hold a chicken is more a matter of showing than explaining. Another dying art. There were soon a few feathers flying, and Charlie Chaplin routines, but we safely rounded up thirty chickens who thus escaped the soup pot, housed in our old-fashioned coop.

Because commercial birds are fed an enriched diet, often under intense light to keep them laying, they burn out fast, yet they can be reclaimed. I bought them for a dollar apiece. These were so-called free range chickens, which meant they still had beaks and were kept in a shed, not a cage, and are usually slaughtered in their second year, yet a chicken can easily live a decade, even if it’s a little grunged by then, and won’t lay much. We moved them to our coop, which only received natural light and weaned them onto whole grain and natural grain mashes. Battery hens, like children raised on fast food, will spurn real grain at first, but gradually they return to their natural appetites, and learn how to scratch as well. After they went through their moult they started laying again.

That first night, about three in the morning, I was suddenly awoken by an elbow in the ribs. “What’s wrong?” I asked. Even the frogs had grown creepily silent.

“Listen!” Sharon said. “Our rooster is crowing.” She’d been born in Thunder Bay and had never lived on land larger than a city lot. She was thrilled

I groaned and turned over. “You’ll get used to it.”

“I love the sound, but why is it crowing in the dark?”

“Something disturbed it. He’s their protector. He’ll soon go back to sleep, and that’s what I want to do.”

We named the rooster Charlie, after a rooster my father’s family used to keep. It slept in their basement rafters. The original Charlie was such a mean-minded bird that the postman refused to come in the yard. Our version of Charlie was a big, white, lovable goof. He’d cluck around the yard pompously, guarding against dog and racoon scares, and after the first eagle left a big pile of hen feathers on the grass, topped by a gory-looking gizzard, he sent them fleeing every time a plane flew overhead.

These chickens also came with a feisty hen who decided she liked our house better than the coop. She took to sneaking into the mud room and laying eggs in my toolbox. Sometimes she’d sleep in there if we didn’t catch her. Despite our reaction, she was graced with a streak of stubbornness, and kept coming back, so we christened her Gertrude because she reminded us of a Scandinavian housekeeper with her own mindset. After we put a door on the mud room she’d often sleep in the trees, which corrupted a growing number of hens, and I would have to go out every night near dark and shake the chickens (with a great deal of squawking) out of the cedars, and send them scurrying into the coop.

This soon earned me the nightly query: “Have you shaken the chickens?”

It’s relaxing to watch chickens. I can sit with them for hours, observing the dynamics of their behaviour and social order. They live in a more restricted social world than ours. Any chicken that moves beyond its station will soon be attacked, and often gang-attacked, including the rooster on rare occasions, despite his guard duty parades and demonstrative bug-finding skill, when he clucks loudly enough to bring the hens running.

City children are afraid of chickens at first, but within a few days at the farm they are striding out there and grabbing the hens by the neck to raise them up and look for eggs, until I tell them to be nice to the birds or the hens won’t give any eggs. Then they settle into a good relationship. I’ve also found that most children accept death more easily than adults. They will suddenly look up and see a dead rooster hanging from a winter tree and say: “Why is that rooster hanging in the tree?” After I gently explain that it’s for dinner, they will usually say “Oh,” and go about exploring the hens for the real treat – the egg. They know a gift when they see it.

We hired a young woman, a university student working her way across the country, to help in the garden, but when she learned I was going to be slaughtering chickens she begged to assist me. This seemed a little twisted at first. While I slaughter animals, I’ve never enjoyed the job, unlike some sadistic farmers I’ve met. She explained that she loved eating meat, and that, like me, she believed it was two-faced to eat meat without having, at least once, participated in the slaying of a living creature. So I said: “Okay,” curious about how this lovely, city-raised, idealistic student would deal with the passion play of death.

Over the years, I’ve developed a simple system with minimal stress for both me and the chickens when I am slaughtering. It’s more complex and much sadder when I’m forced to drive them to the slaughterhouse an island away.

I gather the chicken up, holding it until it’s calm, loop the baling twine around the legs, and hook the twine over a nail in the rafters of the woodshed. Then in a swift move I slide the killling blade into its brain through its beak, and let the chicken drop and hang, killing it instantly.

Hardly anyone witnesses real, violent deaths today. Our knowledge of death is now a product of Hollywood films, where the standard victim clutches the heart, or the wound, and keels grandly over, dead. Those deaths are one in a thousand. Almost all creatures when they die release their natural electricity, especially when they bleed out. The bird is already dead, but around 90 seconds after its death it will convulse and shake wildly. As soon as I kill the brain I cut the throat, or sometimes cut the head right off. When the electric death throes begin the convulsing headless chicken will usually just shake and die, but the occasional chicken will flip so hard, it will leap right out of the baling twine and run around, somersaulting and shaking in the ecstatic dance of the death of the nervous system.

The first chicken I killed with my helper watching did exactly that. I was so used to the death convulsions I didn’t think anything about it; then, to my surprise the girl began doing the same dance. She suddenly started screaming and strutting a high, weird-stepping ballet in front of the convulsing chicken. It was completely physical, unthought, visceral, a kind of communion with death and a simultaneous rejection. The guttural noises coming out of her matched her spastic ballet, which echoed the chicken death.

I had no idea what to do. “Are you alright?” I asked when she finally slowed down. A dumb question in the circumstances. .

“Yes... yes...” she gasped. “No... no ... that was extreme.... O man I had no idea....O that was awesome...” She finally choked back her shock and smiled shyly at me, embarrassed. “Wow, I had no idea it would be that real.”

“Well, of course. Death is always real.”

We often find ourselves renewing the flock, bringing in new chicks. Chicks need a hen and rooster to guide them, both with diets and dangers. If it’s a whole new flock, we find ourselves taking those roles, scaring them when we see eagles, or luring them to food. Sharon collects worms and beetles and bugs, dropping them into the brood under the heat light. At first they are frightened. But there’s always a brave one. A first tentative peck. Then a chase, and before long, a chick fleeing with a worm while pursued by the rest of the flock, darting for the worm. It’s a sight. Chickens raised within a flock often have an aversion to sowbugs. Someone once told me the birds find them sour tasting. I’ve never eaten a sowbug myself, so I have no idea, but we discovered that we could feed them to young, undiscerning chicks, and they would eventually show a real appetite for them, which gave us a laugh, and did a good deed also, because the sowbugs are a menace to seedlings in the garden.

Here, now, standing beside my coop, I find honest comfort listening to the clucking of the hens, who always keep one eye to the sky, and one eye to the ground where they direct, with soothing conversations their little chicks to grains and grasses and insects. While I know the bureaucrats are diagramming scenarios for the elimination of all domestic fowl from the open air and into sealed ‘bio-secure’ environments, all is still right with the world when you can stand in the meadow, even if temporarily, and admire the birds living their lives with their fullest attention. It makes me jealous of them.

Distantly, down by the pond, the peacock cries merely to honour the sun, and the heron spreads the canopy of his wings, sunning himself like an ancient pope blessing the fishes. The sheep stand a few feet away from it with a kind of awed, dumbstruck gaze. And I think somehow, that in the shade-dappled highlands of the remaining forests of Utter Pradesh, after we and our chicken factories have all faded into dust and smoke, there, in the last jungle of the world, will crow distantly the first rooster of celebration, and the dynamic flock will begin rebuilding itself again.

What People are Saying About This

From the Publisher
“A wonderful meditation on farm life and by extension life itself ...told intelligently and often humorously, by a writer with a welcome fresh sharp eye.”
—Peter Matthiessen, author of Shadow Country and the Snow Leopard

"a superb, wise, witty, and vivid weave of barnyard tales with deep insights into the fraught symbiosis of animals, plants, and man”
—Ronald Wright, author of A Short History of Progress

"a touching and tender memoir, at once humorous and profound, filled with wonderful insights about life as a poet and accidental farmer"
—Wade Davis, National Geographic Explorer in Residence and author of One River and The Serpent and the Rainbow

"[Brett] comes with the gumboot poet’s fearless tongue to speak truth to those who would reduce the life-and-death work of farming into a pastoral idyll. ...If it’s hope you’re looking for, you’ll find it in the fortifying madness of Trauma Farm"
—James MacKinnon, author of Plenty (aka The 100-Mile Diet)

"…It is a striking, stunning book, easily one of the best of the year."—National Post

Meet the Author

Brian Brett is the author of numerous books of poetry and fiction and one previous work of nonfiction, Uproar’s Your Only Music. He has also written for such publications as the Globe and Mail, the Toronto Star, the Vancouver Sun, and Books In Canada. He lives with his family on a farm on Salt Spring Island, British Columbia, where he cultivates his garden and creates ceramic forms.

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Trauma Farm: A Rebel History of Rural Life 5 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 1 reviews.
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