Last night, I dragged the kids through the Tour de Fresh in Ypsilanti, which was a showcase of cool things happening locally to promote local food production.
Weird synchronicity #1: At tour signin at the Ypsilanti Farm Market, the table next to us was being operated by David’s old Cub scout leader and fellow den member. I had no idea they sold stuff at the farm market. Maybe my boys should be there with their extra tomatoes …
After leaving the market, the first stop — only a few blocks from downtown — was Peter Thomason’s backyard chickens.
Weird synchronicity #2: While I don’t remember meeting Peter before at our homeschool co-op, a quick roster check proved that yes, we’re in this together. The co-op isn’t that big (“only” 150 kids), but obviously I still haven’t met all the other parents.
Yes, chickens. In addition to an amazing display of heirloom tomatoes trellised along the fenceline and some very nice raised-bed veggie gardens, the Thomason’s have a chicken coop.
When people ask me, and they frequently do, why we have chickens living in the yard of our Ypsilanti home, I usually answer, “for the eggs.”
But the truth is, the main reason we have them is that it pleases my wife. And, if my wife is happy, most of the time, I am too. What I’m referring to is the inestimable value of pleasure that philosopher-farmer Wendell Berry speaks of in “Economics and Pleasure,” an essay that should be required reading for anyone who refuses to accept the idea that a monetary bottom line is the only “real” bottom line.
For several years we tried to sell our house, move to the country and start a farm, but the times and the market were against us and we finally accepted that, at least for the time being, we were going to have to stay where we were. Not that we had a problem with being here, we just felt a need to reconnect with our agrarian roots. The thought that we were not going to be able to do that was depressing, but we did our best to let go of it and to focus on growing as much of our food as we could on our one-tenth-of-an-acre city lot.
Then one day it just got to her and she said, “I don’t ask for much. I don’t want jewelry or fancy cars, I just want to have some chickens.” My wife’s distress about this weighed on me for weeks until it finally occurred to me one day to check the city’s animal control ordinance…
Read the whole thing.
For more details on the politics of urban chickens, plus being a philosopher-carpenter, and building coffins (yes, coffins), see this “Teeter Talk” interview with Peter:
HD: Something I would sort of like to explore is that, as best I can tell, it’s not that you’re somehow obsessed with chickens per se, it’s that chickens factor into this broader context of sustainable living, and even that has a much broader context of stemming from a Christian belief system that includes stewardship of the environment as an important component of your faith.
PT: And it’s more than stewardship of the environment. It’s what I think of as building a whole culture of life. The late John Paul II was excellent at re-presenting traditional themes in new language, so he sort of coined the idea of building a civilization of love as a way of talking about building the kingdom of God, which was a more traditional Christian way of talking about it. He talked about building a culture of life, and building a civilization of love. The components of that–certainly stewardship of the environment is a component–but also economics as if people mattered. And that is something that was largely talked about in my generation, among people that I grew up with because of the work of E.F. Schumacher. Small is Beautiful was a rallying cry for a whole generation of people I grew up with, the other two books in the trilogy being Good Work, and A Guide for the Perplexed. And from his perspective on sustainable economics, that what you can do in your own yard–in a cottage industry, what you can do to not just be a unit of consumption, but a unit of production, even in your own urban neighborhood–then counters so many of the negative and depersonalizing aspects of, if you will, a money-based economy, and makes economics human again. It’s no longer just the exchange of money, it’s the exchange of goods and services between people who’ve learned to trust each other and give people things of value. So there is a bigger discussion that, in my mind, that all of this is part of. But what it comes down to practical things that one can do–keeping chickens, or using worms under your sink to help compost organic material–it sort of brings it home. Chickens are in one sense emblematic of being somewhat independent, but they’re also pragmatic. They’re also a very real way in which you can make your own home economy sustainable. Not only are they pets, but they give back to you, you know? Your dog might be a pet, which you enjoy, but your dog may also guard your house. You may enjoy your cats, but your cats might take care of the mice that are a problem. Well, chickens also give you back food. And they eat compost, and they eat kitchen scraps, so they’re more than just symbols. They are …
HD: … good examples.
PT: They’re good examples. They’re good citizens [laugh]. They give enjoyment and they give food back. So they really fit nicely into the idea of the home economy being a producing economy, not just a consuming economy. And to me, all of that is a big part of building a civilization of love, and replacing the impersonal exchange of goods and services for money. I mean, what’s money? It’s just a dead thing, it represents something. It’s replacing it with real exchange of things that are of value and meaningful to people, because they’ve invested their time, their labor, and their love in them. So a money-less economy is not just something that communists or Marxists have a right to talk about, but people who have a Christian world-view, and who believe that it is possible to build a civilization of love.
Also worth a full read.
Anyone who can quote both Wendell Berry and John Paul II like that is all right in my book.
P.S.: David sampled one of their Amish Paste tomatoes, and is now praising heirlooms as tasting better. And Rachel was inspired to plead “Dad, can we have chickens?” in the same tones she usually reserves for “Dad, can I have a horse?”