Lily’s Chickens

From raising your own chickens to growing your own food, the decisions we make about what we eat have an astonishing power to change the world around us.

| August/September 2005

  • Lily's Chickens
    Barbara Kingsolver’s daughter Lily feeds her chickens. The family raises much of their own food, including fresh eggs and produce from a large garden.
    Photo courtesy Kim Williams
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    Above: Kiwi, one of Lily’s favoritechickens.
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    Barbara Kingsolver’s daughter Lily feedsher chickens. The family raises much oftheir own food, including fresh eggs andproduce from a large garden.
  • Chickens
    Mr. Pepper, another valued member of Lily’s flock.
    Photo courtesy Kim Williams
  • 211-048-01i5.jpg
    Eliot Coleman

  • Lily's Chickens
  • 211-048-01i2.jpg
  • 211-048-01i4.jpg
  • Chickens
  • 211-048-01i5.jpg

Lily's Chickens

My daughter is in love. She’s only 5 years old, but this is real. Her beau is shorter than she is, by a wide margin, and she couldn’t care less. He has dark eyes, a loud voice and a tendency to crow. He also has five girlfriends, but Lily doesn’t care about that, either. She loves them all: Mr.oodle, Jess, Bess, Mrs. Zebra, Pixie and Kiwi. They’re chickens. Lily likes to sit on an overturned bucket and sing to them in the afternoons. She has them eating out of her hand.

It began with coveting our neighbor’s chickens. Lily would volunteer to collect the eggs, and then she offered to move in with them. Not the neighbors, the chickens. She said if she could have some of her own, she would be the happiest girl on earth. What parent could resist this bait? Our lifestyle could accommodate a laying flock; my husband and I had kept poultry before, so we knew it was a project we could manage, and a responsibility Lily could handle largely by herself. I understood how much that meant to her when I heard her tell her grandmother, “They’re going to be just my chickens, Grandma. Not even one of them will be my sister’s.” To be 5 years old and have some other life form entirely under your control — not counting goldfish or parents — is a majestic state of affairs.

So her dutiful father built a smart little coop right next to our large garden enclosure, and I called a teenage friend who might, I suspected, have some excess baggage in the chicken department. She raises championship show chickens, and she culls her flock tightly. At this time of year she’d be eyeing her young birds through their juvenile molt to be sure every feather conformed to the gospel according to the chicken-breeds handbook, which is titled, I swear, The Standard of Perfection. I asked if she had a few feather-challenged children that wanted adoption, and she happily obliged. She even had an adorable little bantam rooster that would have caused any respectable chicken-show judge to keel over — the love child of a Rose-comb and a Wyandotte. I didn’t ask how it happened.

In Lily’s eyes this guy, whom she named Mr.oodle, was the standard of perfection. We collected him and a motley harem of sweet little hens in a crate and brought them home. They began to scratch around contentedly right away, and Lily could hardly bear to close her eyes at night on the pride she felt at poultry ownership. Every day after feeding them she would sit on her overturned bucket and chat with them about the important things. She could do this for an hour, easily, while I worked nearby in the garden. We discovered that they loved to eat the weeds I pulled, and the grasshoppers I caught red-handed eating my peppers. We wondered, would they even eat the nasty green hornworms that are the bane of my tomato plants? Darling, replied Mrs. Zebra, licking her nonlips, that was to die for.

I soon became so invested in pleasing the hens, along with Lily, that I would let a fresh green pigweed grow an extra day or two to get some size on before pulling it. And now, instead of carefully dusting my tomato plants with Bacillus spores (a handy bacterium that gives caterpillars a fatal bellyache), I allow the hornworms to reach heroic sizes, just for the fun of throwing the chickens into conniptions. Growing hens alongside my vegetables, and hornworms and pigweeds as part of the plan, has drawn me more deeply into the organic cycle of my gardening that is its own fascinating reward.

I was looking forward to the eggs, too. To anyone who has eaten an egg just a few hours’ remove from the hen, those white ones in the store have the charisma of day-old bread. I looked forward to organizing my family’s meals around the pleasures of quiches, Spanish tortillas and soufflés, with a cupboard that never goes bare. We don’t go to the grocery very often; our garden produces a good deal of what we eat, and in some seasons nearly all of it. This is not exactly a hobby. It’s more along the lines of religion, something we believe in the way families believe in patriotism and loving thy neighbor as thyself. If our food ethic seems an unusual orthodoxy to set alongside those other two, it probably shouldn’t. We consider them to be connected.


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