Back to the Land During Difficult Times

1 / 2
Michael Perry recounts a year of living in a rickety Wisconsin farmhouse in “Coop: A Year of Poultry, Pigs and Parenting,” a humorous, heartfelt memoir of a new life in the country.
2 / 2
“All around were reminders that the land was more important than we were. The land could do without us.” — Ben Logan, The Land Remembers 

The following is an excerpt from Coop: A Year of Poultry, Pigs and Parenting by Michael Perry (HarperCollins Publishers, 2009). In over his head with two pigs, a dozen chickens and a baby due any minute, Perry, author of Population: 485 and Truck: A Love Story, offers an engaging account of country living that’s equal parts rural reflection and roughneck humor.

In the company of our 6-year-old daughter Amy, my wife Anneliese and I have recently moved to a farm. I would like to present some sort of grand agrarian charter, but the whole deal is predicated mainly on the idea of having chickens.

We are not alone in this: These troubled times seem to have precipitated a fowl renaissance. Mail carriers labor under a groaning load of multicolored hatchery catalogs, the latest issue of Backyard Poultry and perforated mailing containers that peep. The online world is alive with Subaru-driving National Public Radio supporters trading tips on eco-friendly coop construction and the pros and cons of laying mash. My NASCAR-loving brother-in-law tenderly minds a box of chicks beneath a heat lamp in his garage. My biker-bar-bouncer-turned-Zen-Buddhist pal Billy and his wife, the nurse’s aide, are building their second backyard coop with an eye toward expanding into “ornamentals.”  Drop the term “chicken tractor” in mixed company and behold the knowing nods.  Anecdotal evidence to be sure, and a drop in the Colonel’s bucket, but something is afoot.

The subject of chickens was raised between my wife and me fairly early in our courtship, and has sustained us. We are enthused by the idea of fresh eggs, homegrown coq au vin, and (at least until butchering day) a 24-hour turnaround on the compost. In addition, it is my long-standing opinion that, entertainment-wise, chickens beat TV.

Our move is also family-driven. We are assuming responsibility for a farmstead previously owned by my wife’s mother. Faced with an unexpected relocation, my mother-in-law wants to keep the place in the family. And in a bit of a flip, we are moving from a northern village to the country in order that my wife might be closer to the university where she sometimes teaches. This will save gas and time, although that glow on the horizon is a mall and whenever we notice a Prime Commercial sign one forty nearer, we review our escape plan from a place on which we have yet to pay the property tax.

We are also going rural in the hope that we might become more self-sufficient in terms of firewood, an expanded garden and perhaps a pair of pigs. Whether through prescience or too much nervous reading, we have developed a low-key doomsday mindset regarding the imminent future, and believe the time has come to store up some potatoes and teach the young’ns how to forage. Amy can already identify a coyote track, and I intend to see to it that she carry the phrase “slop the hogs” a generation further.

To an extent, my wife and I are acting on positive recollections of our own childhood — I was a farm kid from the age of 2, and much of my wife’s childhood was spent on a farm just one valley over from the spot to which we have moved. But I hope we don’t burden Amy with the idea that living outside the city limits is an inherently pious act — that rural equals righteous.

As a country kid, it took me awhile to round the bend on that one, but thanks to a blend of peak oil posts, Kwame Anthony Appiah’s Cosmopolitanism and a week spent buying groceries at a bodega in Bushwick, I am well on my way to reconstructing all residual prejudice. Let’s hear it for sensible urbanism. Whenever I catch myself waxing unctuous on the subject of getting “back to the land,” I think of the Parisian Jim Haynes, who has said city dwellers protect the ecological balance of the countryside by staying away from it.  And then there is Ben Logan and his touchstone book, The Land Remembers, in which he wrote, “All around were reminders that the land was more important than we were. The land could do without us.”

Reprinted with permission from Coop: A Year of Poultry, Pigs and Parenting, published by HarperCollins Publishers, 2009.