The contributors bring a story-based approach to this urban safari, taking readers on birding expeditions to the Magic Hedge at Montrose Harbor on the North Side, canoe trips down the South Fork of the Chicago River (better known as Bubbly Creek), and insect-collecting forays or restoration work days in the suburban forest preserves. The book is organized into six sections, each highlighting one type of place in which people might encounter animals in the city and suburbs. For example, schoolyard chickens and warrior wasps populate “Backyard Diversity,” live giraffes loom at the zoo and taxidermy-in-progress pheasants fascinate museum-goers in “Animals on Display,” and a chorus of deep-freeze frogs awaits in “Water Worlds.” Although the book is rooted in Chicago’s landscape, nature lovers from cities around the globe will find a wealth of urban animal encounters that will open their senses to a new world that has been there all along. Its powerful combination of insightful narratives, numinous poetry, and full-color art throughout will help readers see the cityand the creatures who share it with usin an entirely new light.
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|Publisher:||University of Chicago Press|
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About the Author
Read an Excerpt
Animal Encounters in the Chicago Wilderness
By Gavin Van Horn, Dave Aftandilian
The University of Chicago PressCopyright © 2015 The University of Chicago
All rights reserved.
It was a cold but sunny mid-November day when a half dozen kindergartners at the Academy for Global Citizenship, a Chicago Public Charter School on the Southwest Side, introduced me to Buttercup, Daisy, and Puddles. Like the students, the school's resident hens were a diverse trio: one gold-speckled brown, one glistening iridescent black, and one fluffy white. But all had the glittering eyes and brilliant red combs of healthy hens, and they clucked conversationally with one another, as contented hens will do.
The children chattered away alongside the hens, comfortable with them yet respectful of their space — neither cuddling them as if they were pets, nor keeping a wary distance as they would with wild animals. When I asked the kids if they had hens at home, they looked at me as if I had stepped in from another planet. Of course not, they said, these were school hens, just like the school garden, and the school cafeteria that cooks organic meals from scratch. That a school might not have organic meals or a garden or hens was a thing of which they were as yet blissfully unaware.
Although those particular children did not have hens at home, Chicago and its suburbs are key players in the backyard chicken movement that has swept the country since the early 2000s. "Urban Chicken" now has its own Wikipedia entry, and there are over 200,000 members of the go-to website BackYardChickens.com. Even mainstream companies are capitalizing on the burgeoning interest in knowing where our food comes from: Urban Outfitters has opened new stores called Terrain to meet the need of urban farmers, and Williams-Sonoma features an "Agrarian" line of products. The hens have come home to roost in Chicagoland too, hatching the Chicago Chicken Enthusiasts website (www.chicagochickens.org) and its lively Google group discussion forum and Facebook page, as well as giving Buttercup, Daisy, and Puddles a home at the Academy for Global Citizenship.
When recess was over, I followed the children as they scampered across the asphalt to line up in front of the school door. I had come to join them for their afternoon class, a review of everything they had learned in their "Chicken Unit." Having grown up the fourth of five generations of a central Illinois farm family, I have more than a passing familiarity with chickens as rural livestock. What I was interested in was urban chicken keeping, and their keepers in general.
"Keep it" are two words that have echoed in my mind ever since I heard farmer and philosopher Wendell Berry say that there is really only one commandment concerning the creation: "Keep it." I later found the passage in Genesis: "The Lord God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to till it and keep it" (Gen. 2:15). Digging deeper, I found that the English translations for "till" and "keep" come from the Hebrew abad and shamar. These are not arcane or abstruse terms, but wonderfully straightforward words that describe common activities. Abad is the root of words related to work, service, or serving. Shamar means to protect or preserve, or to keep. It turns out that the original version of the gentle benediction that ended every Lutheran church service of my childhood, "The Lord bless you and keep you ..." — which comes from the famous blessing that the descendants of Aaron were to pronounce over the people of Israel — uses the word shamar.
If Genesis 2:15 and Wendell Berry are correct, our primary task in this world can be reduced to one word: shamar. We are here to tend and keep, preserve and protect, the ecosystem we share with every other living and nonliving thing — including the plants and animals that feed us.
How urban chicken keepers relate to their chickens, and how keeping chickens situates humans in the larger ecosystem, seemed a good way to explore the question of how well we humans are "keeping" the creation as a whole. Chickens might be good teachers, I reasoned, because they occupy a distinct space between pets and wildlife. Pets we love like family members. Wildlife, particularly the charismatic megafauna, we admire for their beautiful, wild otherness. But chickens? They do not fit into either of the animal categories to which we are most accustomed. They are not pets and not wildlife; they are neither completely wild nor fully tame. What they are, domesticated jungle fowl prized by many cultures for their powers of divination, leads to our complex relationship with them, and to lessons they can teach us about ourselves, our fellow humans, our fellow creatures, and our common world.
And so I found myself sitting in a pint-size chair in a colorful classroom at the Academy for Global Citizenship, curious to see how city schoolchildren keeping a few chickens might illuminate the question of our responsibility "to keep" the creation. The teacher calmed the kids down with a few yoga stretches, and then started a PowerPoint presentation to review the parts of a chicken, eliciting exclamations of "Wing!" "Beak!" "Comb!" "Feathers!" "Feet!" and "Tail!"
Then the teacher asked, "What are the five things the animals who live with us need?" Hands shot up around the room: "Food!" was the first answer, followed quickly by "Water!" And then a discussion of "shelter" and how animals needed sun and air to be healthy, but also protection from the sun on hot days, and from wind, rain, and snow.
I was intimately familiar with animals' food, water, and shelter needs, since meeting those needs had comprised the chores I did every morning and evening growing up on a small farm. Even on the coldest, darkest winter morning, I lugged two sloshing five-gallon pails of water to my cow, Frosty, and made sure she had enough hay before running down the lane to catch the school bus. Each of my six siblings did the same, looking after the food, water, and shelter needs of their sheep, chickens, goats, rabbits, cows, and pony.
As far as I was concerned, food, water, and shelter covered basic animal needs. But in the classroom more hands were up, waving the bodies attached to them, vying for attention. "Friends," shouted one student. The teacher nodded as she clicked to a photo of a flock of chickens in a green pasture, "And what else?" "Love!" shouted three or four kids in unison, putting their arms around themselves and rocking back and forth in what was obviously the school's sign language for love.
Love. Chicken love. That was not an animal need I would have thought to articulate. But, reflecting on the summers spent on my grandparents' farm, "love" was certainly present, as were "friends" in the large flock of laying hens. Sometimes a flock of young males shared the chicken yard as well — the "fryers," we called them, knowing they would end up as the crispiest fried chicken on the planet one Sunday afternoon, a fact that complicated but did not contradict the love that was showered upon all the chickens my grandparents kept.
On that central Illinois farm where both my grandfather and father had been born, taking care of the hens and gathering their eggs each day was not so much a chore as a mission. Each day eggs appeared in the straw-filled nesting boxes, sometimes still warm to the touch. Their size and shape seemed custom-made to cradle perfectly in a child's hand. Upon returning to the house, I'd show the basket to Grandma, and she would ooohh and aaahh over it. Then she'd ask, "Did you thank the hens?" The time or two I forgot, she had me go back out and do it — a little bit of tough love, but love nonetheless, toward me and toward the hens.
A habit of gratitude becomes second nature when you grow up with a grandmother who insists that you thank the hens every time you gather their eggs. Even now, fifty years later, this is the question that echoes in my mind every time I eat an egg. And whether I do it out loud, as I did as a child at my grandmother's prompting, or internally, as I most often do today, I always thank the hens.
Thinking back, the hens on that farm had all five of the things the children had identified: food, water, shelter, friends, and love. Yet none had names like Daisy, Buttercup, or Puddles; in fact, none had names at all. Perhaps it was because when their egg-laying days were over, well, then, their days were over too. I'm not sure what end-of-life issues the hens and children at the Academy for Global Citizenship will face, but the topic is one of the busiest threads on the Chicago Chicken Enthusiasts' discussion forum.
In my own farm upbringing, the end came swiftly, and then Grandma's hens underwent a transubstantiation into the most delicious chicken soup, with the rich flavors that come only with a long, happy life. And that is certainly an odd notion — to love a creature, and then to eat it. But then again, so is the notion of eating the body and drinking the blood of a deity. That sort of institutionalized cannibalism, or Holy Communion, only began to make sense to me after I read these lines from "The Host" by William Carlos Williams:
There is nothing to eat,
seek it where you will,
but the body of the Lord.
The blessed plants
and the sea, yield it
to the imagination intact.
Once I learned to conflate "the body of the Lord" with "the blessed plants and the sea," a dinner of salmon and asparagus became a true communion. Similarly, if you keep chickens, then a breakfast of scrambled eggs and chives will also become an intimate spiritual union with a particular piece of "the body of the Lord." It's breakfast, but it's also an unborn chicken. With every bite, a backyard chicken keeper can recognize the inherent interconnectivity and interdependence that sustains us all, and begin to live in the mystery of a world in which life begets life, acknowledging that death is always part of the circle of life.
If we are dependent upon "the body of the Lord," then it is imperative that we keep it, and keep it well. That brought me back to Wendell Berry, who has written extensively about farming and eating, famously proclaiming that "eating is an agricultural act" and that "how we eat determines, to a considerable extent, how the world is used" (149). These quotes are from his essay "The Pleasures of Eating" in What Are People For?, where he also points out that our contemporary economic order encourages us to be mindless consumers of food because the products of nature and of agriculture have become nearly indistinguishable from the products of industry. An industrial egg now rolls off an assembly line the same way a tube of toothpaste does, as anyone who has ever visited one of the concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs) that produce nearly all eggs consumed in the United States knows all too well. Berry warns that when we lose the connection between our food and the living creatures and the soil it comes from, then both eater and eaten are exiled from biological realities. He concludes, "The result of this exile is a kind of solitude, unprecedented in human experience, in which the eater may think of eating first as purely a commercial transaction between him and his supplier, and then as a purely appetitive transaction between him and his food, but not as something in the realm of the living world" (148).
Backyard chicken keeping is an antidote to this alienation and appetitive transaction. It brings people out of exile and places them firmly in "the realm of the living world," as even a cursory glance at the Chicago Chicken Enthusiasts' discussion shows. When you keep chickens, you enter the world of complex interconnections and messy contradictions, of the problems of chicken sex, of poop on eggs, of predators — sometimes including your own lovable yet murderous pooch — and, of course, those difficult end-of-productive-life decisions. Dealing with these issues is not easy, but it does intimately connect us to our food, how it comes to us, and how it fits into the larger world, where — let's face it — everything eats everything, and someday maggots and worms will eat us.
When we don't keep chickens or tend other food sources, we experience a sort of collective eating disorder because our experience of eating is detached from the natural order of things. And so our recognition of the kinds of creatures we humans are, and of the rights and responsibilities of a well-lived life, is also disordered.
The idea that keeping chickens might help recenter and reorder our lives led me to Mike, who keeps Henrietta Thoreau and three of her friends in his backyard in a central Illinois city that shall remain nameless because the town ordinance prohibits chickens. "I'm curious," I said to Mike. "How do you relate to your hens?"
"Well, when I come home, I get a glass of wine, and go into the yard to watch my chickens. They're entertaining, and they chill me out," says Mike. "But they're not too bright. They're interested in you because you are where their food comes from. They don't realize that the situation is reciprocated: They are where our food comes from." He chuckled, collecting three warm brown eggs.
And yet the human-avian relationship is far more than a utilitarian one. In the beginning, which was roughly 8,000 years ago according to the gospel of Gallus gallus, people began to bring a particular red fowl from the jungles into their living spaces. The reason is unclear, though the general consensus is that it was not for what a farm girl like me had supposed: a close and convenient food supply. Rather, the evidence suggests that wild red jungle fowl were integrated into human society to predict the future. After a moment's thought, this actually does make sense to anyone who has ever kept chickens: the hen's squawk foretells an egg; the rooster's crow presages the dawn.
The idea that chicken oracles — if poked, prodded, or pulled apart in just the right way — would predict the future is as old as the evidence of the first domesticated chickens. That role was so important that domesticated chickens quickly spread with human communities all over Asia and Africa. And everywhere chickens went, they continued to prognosticate.
And so it was that the ancient Etruscans came to draw a circle in the sand and divide it into segments, one for each letter of their alphabet. They scattered seeds around the circle, and then brought out the oracle chicken and set it down in the center of the circle, as scribes gathered around. Those scribes carefully observed which sections of the circle the chicken stepped in and pecked from, and wrote down the corresponding letter. After the chicken was finished, they used their observations and notes to answer pressing questions and predict the future.
While we tend to look upon practices such as this alectryomancy with an air of superiority, which one of us has not made a wish and pulled apart the fused clavicles — the furcula, or wishbone — of a holiday turkey? It turns out there is a direct line from the avian-inspired prognostication of the Etruscans, to the Romans, and via them to the Anglo-Saxons, and to their descendants, the Puritans, and from them to the Thanksgiving tradition of many Americans today. When I was growing up, not a turkey or chicken dinner went by without the ritual of drawing straws to see which two of my six siblings would put their fingers around one half of the wishbone, make a wish, and then pull it apart.
Similar traditions are carried out throughout the world. Among the Karen people of Burma, chicken bones are examined for what their holes and divots, crooks and crannies, can foretell. Among the Ho people of Chota Nagpur in India, chickens are used only for divining and never as food. Consuming chicken is also taboo for the Vedda of Sri Lanka, the Sabimba of Malaysia, and several different peoples in the Solomon Islands.
Nor are oracle chickens restricted to faraway times or places. The phenomenon is common across much of Africa and has reached the New World and the twenty-first century. When I lived in New York City and when I've walked along Lake Michigan near Belmont Harbor, I've seen evidence of chicken sacrifices. Whether they were slaughtered for prognostication or propitiation, it's hard to say, but the sacrifice was clearly not food-related, for no part of the animal was eaten. In general, it seems, most cultures agree with Cambodia's Khmer people, to whom the greatest value of chickens is as fortune-tellers, secondly as fighting cocks, and only incidentally as food.
Excerpted from City Creatures by Gavin Van Horn, Dave Aftandilian. Copyright © 2015 The University of Chicago. Excerpted by permission of The University of Chicago Press.
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