A few weeks ago was Mother’s Day, which of course had me thinking about my mom. She was born in 1921 to Italian immigrants who arrived on Ellis Island and settled in Massachusetts. Raised during the Great Depression, my mom had a childhood that was less than pleasant. My grandparents were very poor and worked hard to scrape together a living while raising my mom and her four brothers during desperate times in a country they did not know.
Like most families during that time, they raised chickens. One of my mom’s most dreaded chores was to pluck feathers from the chickens after watching my grandmother wring their necks. She still scrunches her face when describing this, recalling how badly it smelled. She was afraid of chickens, having been chased down by roosters more than once as a small child. She frowns when she tells me how her brothers “got to go blueberry picking” while she had to stay home and pluck chickens. She hated those damn chickens.
They were not pets, they didn’t have names, they didn’t live in a fancy little coop, and they were not well cared for. They were necessary for survival. They represented food at a time when food was scarce, and nothing more.
Now, my mother is an 89-year-old widow who lives in an upscale neighborhood in Southern California, less than a mile from the beach. She is spending her senior years making up for lost time by ballroom dancing, bowling and traveling. There’s no stopping her. Needless to say, she never again wants anything to do with chickens, or anything else that reminds her of being poor, and I don’t blame her.
I am the youngest of her five children. I live in Salem, Ore., with my husband, two dogs and four pet hens. We have a cute chicken coop in the backyard, nestled between the greenhouse and the garden and just 10 feet from our bedroom window. Painted and decorated with artwork, our coop is attractive and clean. Our hens are pets that we dote on. We would never eat them, but we certainly enjoy the fresh eggs. Aside from that, our reasons for chicken-keeping are very different from my grandparents’ reasons for raising chickens. If you’re reading this blog, you’re already familiar with all the benefits of backyard hens so I will not bother to elaborate here.
Back to my story . . . In the summer of 2008 my mom visited us. At first she was shocked to see our chickens and her first response was “Why on earth would you … ” (I’ll leave the rest up to your imagination). I tried to explain, but it seemed to go in one ear and out the other. Hers was a knee-jerk reaction based on negative memories and associations.
Sharon Astyk describes this well in “Facing the Zoning Monster,” an article in The Chatelaine’s Keys blog :
“Over the last 50 years, food and zoning laws have worked to minimize subsistence activities in populated areas. Not only have we lost the culture of subsistence, but we’ve instituted legal requirements that make it almost impossible for many people to engage in simple subsistence activities that cut their energy use, reduce their ecological impact, improve their food security and improve their communities. In some cases, these laws were instituted for fairly good reasons, in many cases, for bad ones that associate such activities with poverty.
In fact, scratch most of the reasons for these things, and you’ll find class issues under their surface in the name of “property values.” There are ostensible reasons for these things, but generally speaking, they derive from old senses of what constituted wealth – and what constituted wealth was essentially having things that don’t do anything of economic value, but show that you can afford. It is important to remember that many things we think are ugly because of their class associations are not inherently ugly – that is, a lush garden is not inherently more ugly than a lawn (quite the contrary), nor are colorful clothes on a line inherently unattractive. What we find beautiful has to do with our culture and our training, otherwise how could anyone have ever found an 800K McMansion beautiful?
Among the basic subsistence activities legislated against by towns, cities and housing developments are:
1. Clotheslines instead of dryers. Reason: Looks poor. Might suggest you can’t afford a dryer. Plus, you might see underwear that isn’t your own. This is a major cause of sin.
2. No livestock, but large pets are acceptable. Reason: Ostensible reasons are health based, a few even broadly grounded in fact, real reason is that pets, which have no purpose other than companionship and cost money, are broadly a sign of affluence, while livestock are a sign of poverty, because they provide economic benefits.”
My mother never entered the coop during her visit, preferring instead to keep a safe distance away, but she watched while I tended to my girls, gathered fertilizer for the garden, and played with my pets. One of my hens laid her first egg while she was there, an event we celebrated. Together, we sat and drank Chianti while the chickens entertained us by scratching the ground, hunting for bugs, and dust-bathing.
By the time my mother returned to California five days later, she understood the concept of urban chickens. While she never wants to raise another chicken and cringes at the thought of hanging clothes on the line to dry, even she gets it. Despite her background and negative view of chickens, my mom now understands why people would want to keep a few egg-laying hens as pets and sees nothing wrong with allowing them to do so.
A month after she left, a code compliance officer knocked on my door and told me backyard chickens are against the law (a neighbor turned me in). I was devastated. Since that fateful day, I have been leading a movement to change the city’s ordinance and legalize backyard chickens in Oregon’s capital city and helping others do the same elsewhere.
During the course of this work I frequently encounter people like my mother who oppose a chicken ordinance because of outdated opinions and personal biases. Rather than invite these people to live with me for five days, I produced a feature-length documentary film called The Chicken Revolution with them in mind. It includes interviews with people who enjoy keeping backyard chickens in six Pacific Northwest cities where it’s legal. It shows a variety of backyard coops, including some featured in the famous Portland coop tour , and dispels many myths associated with chickens. After watching the movie, some of our strongest opponents, including a city councilor, have changed their views on this issue. If you know someone who needs convincing but would prefer to avoid a five-day visit, this is a practical alternative (available at www.Chicken-Revolution.com).
Since my mom’s visit two years ago, we have replaced part of our lawn with edible plants. Now when she visits, my mom enjoys picking blueberries in the backyard … right next to the chicken coop, something she never got to do as a child.