Illustrations by Brian Orr
One summer in the heyday of the back-to-the-land movement, during a period when my life was in limbo, friends who had bought a little homestead farm let me pitch a tent in the woods above their ramshackle house. Allan and Alison were relatively inexperienced at farming, and they both had full-time professional jobs, but their place came with a weedy garden plot, a free-range chicken house, open fields, a farm pond and a big front porch.
Nothing bespeaks bucolic tranquility quite like chickens scratching in the dirt, so the couple celebrated the closing of the deal that spring by going right out and buying a couple dozen bantams from a local farmer.
As spring advanced, Alison became irritated that none of the chickens showed any signs of raising a brood. Fearful their dream of self-sufficiency would wither before winter arrived, she sent away for one of those glossy poultry catalogs, complete with handsome 19th-century illustrations of each breed. The prose descriptions were worthy of a Pullet-zer Prize.
One warm evening, sitting on the porch with a large pitcher of margaritas, Allan and Alison ordered more chickens while under the influence of the intoxicating breeze, the buzz of an insect chorus and a little too much frosty beverage.
Allan sensibly decided on a couple dozen heavy breasted birds, which would easily fill their freezer when mature. He then, thoughtfully, added a couple dozen more good layers. Alison persuasively argued more laying hens would hasten the day they might both retire, so she made her own selections of three breeds she believed Allan underestimated.
Then they came to the section on ornamental fowl. Whether it was the tequila, or simply Alison’s passion for hats, I do not know, but she fell in love with the Golden Polish, with their grand head plumage blossoming out and covering their eyes, sheep-dog style.
She wanted one, but the company had a minimum of six, and one or two might die, so she ordered eight. That brought their total chick order to 92.
There was some discussion if this would be enough, but they agreed they could always order more later. The next morning, after the check was in the mail, the little bantam hens began to disappear into the woods to lay their eggs.
Soon, 92 of the day-old chicks arrived in the mail, and an avian nursery was created in the living room, handy to water and electricity. The little chicks and their cute antics were the center of attention for several nights, until the increasing odor caused the audience to sit elsewhere. About the time they were thankfully ready to be released, the proud bantam hens began emerging from the woods, each with 6 to 10 chicks of her own.
Like parents when first informed they will be giving birth to quintuplets, Allan and Alison were initially heady with their success, and then sobered by their impending responsibilities. The farm had no fencing, except for a wisp of barbed wire surrounding the garden plot. The house had neither screens on the windows, nor doors on the porch. Chickens soon ruled every roost.
More than 200 free-ranging chickens quickly devoured everything edible within reach. They stole dog and cat food from under the animals’ noses while the poor pets were trying to eat. Any human venturing outside was immediately surrounded, like St. Francis of Assisi, by scores of faithful followers expecting sustenance.
Between the chickens and the flies, we humans developed a feeding reflex of constantly waving one hand over our plates, while rapidly forking food into our mouths with the other. Conversation languished. Tempers flared.
I took to eating in my tent, from where I had an excellent vantage of the chickens as they devoured the countryside like locusts. Alison still enjoyed pointing out her Golden Polish to visitors, but they were getting harder to spot.
One afternoon I was reading in my tented sanctuary when I looked up to see a neighbor’s golden retriever galloping in slow motion amid the many chickens in the lower pasture. As he passed a particularly plump hen, he glanced sideways at her, caught her in his teeth and flipped her high over his head in a joyful cloud of speckled feathers. She was dead before she hit the ground, and he circled back to collect her body without even breaking stride.
The other catalog chickens never seemed concerned. The canny bantams flew down from the trees where they had escaped at the dog’s approach. The Golden Polish, with their impaired vision, had apparently been the first to get picked off by the dog.
Eight or 10 of the fancy chickens eventually made it into the freezer that summer. Allan made a coop around the chicken house and confined enough layers to provide a few eggs to sell. Egg sales almost covered feed costs.
When I acquired my own farm, I profited from my friends’ experience. I love to get my copy of the beautiful poultry catalog, and sometimes I make my selections sitting on the porch in springtime at night.
But never, ever do I drink margaritas while ordering chickens.
Josh Young recently wrote a second edition of his humorous guidebook Missouri Curiosities for The Globe Pequot Press. He makes his living on Long Creek Herb Farm, near Blue Eye, Missouri, from where his writings have earned him several state and national newspaper awards for humor.