Home to Roost: A Backyard Farmer Chases Chickens Through the Ages

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9780312373641: Home to Roost: A Backyard Farmer Chases Chickens Through the Ages

Each day, Bob Sheasley leaves Lilyfield Farm and heads into the city. And each day, he brings along a basket of eggs for his coworkers at The Philadelphia Inquirer. Depending on the breed of hen, these eggs may be white, green, rose, blue, or as brown as chocolate. And they are all deliciously fresh, a taste of the rural way of life that people have enjoyed for millennia, one in which chickens have played a supporting role for nearly as long.

In Home to Roost, Sheasley tells of the intertwined relationship between humans and chickens. He delves into where chickens came from, what their DNA tells us about our kinship, how we’ve treated our feathered fellow travelers, and the roads we’re crossing together. This is a story of agriculture and human migration, of folk medicine and technology, of how we dreamed of the good life, threw it away, and want it back.

Modern farming has changed the lives of both bird and man over the past century. But backyard farmers like Sheasley offer hope for a return to the pleasures of locally grown food, as diverse as the chickens he’s raised on Lilyfield Farm. With wit and personal insight, Home to Roost examines of how our lives can be changed for the better, with something as simple as a backyard coop.

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About the Author:

Bob Sheasley is a farm boy in the city. A lifelong Pennsylvanian, he grew up on a 100-acre dairy farm in Old Order Amish county. He works at The Philadelphia Inquirer and lives with his wife, son, and three daughters in their 1830s farmhouse, where he keeps a coop of fifty or so chickens.

Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

Chapter One

You Come, Too

A path between two garden gates connects Ulisse Aldrovandi and me. Through pasture and woods it winds away into lands where all time and distances have lost meaning.

At one end is Lilyfield Farm, my Pennsylvania home, where the daylilies spill down the hill to Suzanne’s garden of sunflowers and squash, where Sophie the pig wallows by the pear tree, beside the catfish pond. I made the gate to our garden, from old boards adorned with nail holes and knots.

At the other end of the path, a gate of ornate ironwork opens to Aldrovandi’s villa Sampolo, in a valley of the Apennines between Bologna and Florence. Sometimes when the light’s just right, or I’m tired enough, still draped in dreams, I need only step out from my garden, and I stand in the glory of the Italian Renaissance. Whenever he sees me approach, Aldrovandi beckons to me as he would to a lost friend, home at last.

The old botanist delights in showing me what he’s grown, his pomi d’oro and other revelations of a dawning age. As we talk, he cradles a hen in his arms. He tells me about the specimens he’s spent a lifetime collecting from the New World. They would thrive, I say, at Lilyfield. In our gardens, the things that I know, and that he knew, mingle under a sometimes pleasant sun.

Come dream with me this morning in my garden, next to our farmhouse on the road to Valley Forge. The sundial says it’s early still, though shadows only guess at human time. From his roost in the chicken coop down by the barn, the rooster declares another day coming on, but he can wait.

I built the coop myself, of lumber scraps, an old door, and roofing I scavenged. Suzanne designed it. But I made it, rising early each day to hammer away before heading back to Philadelphia to earn my wage as a newspaperman. Today, half a hundred hens have the run of Lilyfield. They peck in pasture and swale, along the pond and amid the stone ruins of the springhouse, though it’s the manure pile they love most, digging deep for the treasures within.

Atop the hill, a weeping cherry shades Suzanne’s grandfather. They planted it together long ago, and there she buried his ashes. I see them planting it now; I hear her crying; he rises for a new season. Here, in this garden, I will scatter her ashes one day to nourish the tomatoes. Or will she scatter mine?

Four seasons I’ve e seen spin past six times since Suzanne and I first kissed at midnight under the willow tree on the far shore of the pond. Seventy moons or more we’ve e counted here together. Peeps turn to pullets, the roosters strut, a summer comes and goes, and another, and we marvel each year at the first eggs. I’ve e learned to admire these creatures, as did Aldrovandi, who has taught me more about them than I ever imagined. And, like him, I loved a hen.

Now each day as I head to work, along a crowded path that’s far better marked than the one that leads to Aldrovandi’s garden, I carry with me a basket of eggs to sell to my newsroom colleagues. Next to me on the seat, the eggs remind me of our lily fields, and of Aldrovandi’s villa in Romagna, and of another Pennsylvania farm that I’d thought was lost to me forever.

Come with me today, into the city and home again. Along the way I’ll tell you a story or two. I’ll tell you about a rooster that survived the chopping block and became a sideshow curio, a headless wonder fed through an eyedropper. I’ll l tell you about a perplexed farmer who found a hen floating lifeless in the pond, and the next day another—until, as the body count grew, the farmer finally cracked this serial killer case.

We’ll parse the thirty or more sentences that researchers suggest chickens can say, and translate some of their talk—the peep’s lonely call or its trill of terror, the hen’s cackle after laying an egg, the rooster’s battle cry and the gentle cluck and coo by which he summons his hens.

We’ll find out why hot young hens tend to go for those bad broiler cocks at first, until they settle for the family guys from the laying breeds. Man, ever curious, has studied such things.

We’ll have questions to ponder: Did an African tribe execute a German explorer in the 1850s near Lake Chad for the crime of eating eggs? Does a rooster have a penis of any consequence? And friend, I will show you hens’ teeth, scarce though they are, and a featherless chicken that, praise be, needs no plucking. Science has given us one. It’s come to this.

The rooster calls us ever onward to the rush hour. We’ll be back at day’s end. Suzanne will take us down to the garden to see what’s ripe, and we can sit amid the arugula and oxhearts and too many weeds, and laugh as loudly as we want, or let the tears come. We’ll watch the chickens finally head home at sunset. Bide with me awhile today, and let’s roost tonight at Lilyfield.

"The quickest way to stop a train is to forget your package," warns the sign near the woodstove in the North Wales, Pennsylvania, station. Next to a folded newspaper, a wicker basket of eggs sits unattended on the bench. Returning from the restroom, I find the stationmaster scowling.

I snatch the contraband and scoot out to board the 7:55 into the city, where I work at The Philadelphia Inquirer and sell farm-fresh eggs to my fellow editors and reporters. I confess to raising chickens. Forty-eight, last count. We are the creatures of Lilyfield Farm—the chickens and I, my lovely wife, Suzanne, our four children on the cusp of adulthood, Sophie the pig, a few horses, three goats, and a peacock. Our five-acre homestead, two centuries old, is midway between Philadelphia and horse-and-buggy Lancaster County.

A man of hayseed roots long urbanized, my life aswirl, I married a city girl gone country and moved five years ago to her oasis near Valley Forge. So many years distant from the Amish-country enclave of my youth, I’d resigned myself to cities, never dreaming that at forty-six I’d be blessed with life and love anew.

I am "the egg man" now, or so I’m known to the coterie of coworkers who have enjoyed the daily produce of my coop these past four years. Each spring, I add a new brood: Silver-Laced Wyandottes and Barred Rocks, Australorps and Araucanas, Brahmas, Rhode Island Reds, and my latest acquisition: Marans, the French marvels that lay eggs the color of rich chocolate. The others lay brown eggs, mostly, a few white, and some green, or rose, or lavender.

I’m hooked. And so are my customers. These eggs sell themselves. I suppose that’s because they come from free-range hens that chase grasshoppers and such. Or because they’re e hormone-free, a source of omega-3, and quite possibly organic, whatever that may mean. Some folks adore the spectrum of colors; others are lured by the brilliant yellow yolks and the heavenly egginess of their taste.

Grocers and restaurateurs have seen the pattern: People want fresh food, locally grown. Consumers who suspect big producers are cruel to chickens take their business to down-to-earth farmers whom they consider kinder and gentler.

Settling into my window seat on the train, I close my eyes as I often do when it’s time to pull away. When next I open them, the world is changing. Outside my window, colors blur as the train slices through rings of suburbia, past old warehouses, new condos, old warehouses becoming new condos, while, sagging in the underbrush, farmhouses molder away as they wait to be bulldozed into profit. Speculators are "developing" old Pennsylvania apace, the countryside underutilized no more.

"Eggs?" asks an overstuffed young woman, a bobbed blonde in black, balancing herself on my seat as she enters the car. She’s grinning at my basket, which is taking up a seat to itself. I allow as to how they are eggs.

"Keeping them all in one basket?" she asks, before lurching onward and away.

My fellow travelers come and go, station to station, caught, like me, in the loop of living. We are migrants still: rural to urban to suburban and rural and back, swaying on the track, trying to get home.

"In Milan, first thing we do, see, is get up and go down to the henhouse and suck us a few right there," offers a gentleman across the aisle who clearly has known Italy, his hands enacting this long-ago memory. "We poke the end and suck ’em, right there in front of the hens." He pauses, his eyes in distant mirth, and tells me this again.

A man who carries around a basket of eggs must expect to hear about such egg-sucking exploits and more. There’s a coop, it seems, in most everyone’s childhood, where we helped a tottering grandpa fetch the eggs on misty mornings; where grandma, apron bespattered, swung her ax wildly in gleeful pursuit of supper.

On the train, as the scenery changes from field to factory, from sprawl to high-rise, I hear how it was once: in Italy or Indiana, in Puerto Rico or Pennsylvania.

And I hear how it is now. I discover others like me, who keep coops: on small farms, in backyards, and even in the city, on rooftops. Speeding through North Philly, I look out upon lines of row houses, or what once were row houses. Next to the El tracks at Eighth and Poplar, a patch of green: A dozen youths have turned an eyesore of trash and tires into a garden of tomatoes and eggplants, lavender and sunflowers, as part of a city program to break through years of encroaching ugliness. I imagine chickens lurking in these neighborhoods, as dispossessed and determined as the greenery amid the rubble.

I lean back and close my eyes again, contemplating other gardens. I think of our patch at Lilyfield—each year we vow to devote the time to tame the weeds, and each year life gets in the way, though the garden blesses us regardless. And I think of Aldrovandi’s garden at Sampolo, perfectly arrayed, with a place for everything and paths as organized as his thoughts. He loved the flora of the world he knew and of the new one unfolding across the wild sea. He founded a great botanical garden in Bologna, one of Europe’s first.

The man knew a thing or two about chickens, too, and wrote down all that he had heard about them—a good deal of it preposterous, yes, but some of it insightful and wise. I’m sure history will judge a few of our modern ideas absurd as well.

Among the extensive projects he tackled, Aldrovandi set out to record for posterity everything he could learn about birds. The result: his two-thousand-page Ornithology, completed in 1600, of which about a tenth deals with chickens. Aldrovandi on Chickens, a remarkable 1963 translation into English by L. R. Lind, restores that part to us.1

Aldrovandi didn’t seem to dare dismiss anything as trivial. Not only do we learn, for example, what chickens are called in many languages, but we get an exhaustive accounting, page after page, of what their various parts are called, in obscure dialects, as well as the many parts of an egg. Many pages are devoted to drawings and descriptions of chicken freaks with four legs or two heads. The world, he believed, needed to note and remember these things—they were part of the larger order.

The master naturalist also collected interesting proverbs about chickens, medical cures, historical anecdotes, and biological findings, to which he added his own insights and musings, as well as the opinions of the great minds of the past.

He understood that chickens are an important part of our natural history, and have long followed wherever people go. Today that can mean a row house roof or suburban backyard. Some coop keepers are recent immigrants who wouldn’t dream of giving up their chickens, even if they moved to, say, Philadelphia. Others want to rediscover their rural roots, their inner farmer, to get in touch with something they fear they’ve e lost, or missed. For some, quality is the issue: They want their food wholesome and fresh, not shipped from afar, so they take the "buy local" creed to the next step. Others want ribbons from the fair: Birds of resplendent feather fill exhibition halls as hobbyists follow the lead of Martha Stewart, chicken fancier exemplar, who says she adopted her perfectionist standards from a poultry manual.2

Twenty-four billion chickens walk the earth, making them more numerous than any other bird.3 To wipe them all out, every man, woman, and child would have to gulp down four—in one sitting, lest they multiply. To clear out my coop, my family of six would each have to eat eight.

Some among us would welcome the chance to facilitate chicken extinction. There are those who do not love chickens; who would wring scrawny necks with abandon, given the chance; who cry not over the loss of heirloom breeds. Those urban escapees in the subdivision down the road don’t necessarily share a love for predawn cacophonies and acrid scents wafting on the evening breeze. And though country folk will defend their right to keep a coop, they don’t necessarily love the processing plant over in the next township—or the new neighbors it has brought in from far away to take jobs nobody local seems to want.

It’s no easy matter, introducing the new flock to the old. Any poultry farmer could tell you. To a chicken, the concept is simple, as are all concepts: These are newcomers. They are different from us. We must peck at them. They must keep their place.

In the eight thousand years since chickens were first domesticated from a wild breed called the Red Jungle Fowl of Southeast Asia and India, humans have kept them for many reasons. We never dreamed of a McNugget then, nor the croquette special at Louie’s. It wasn’t their culinary qualities that first drew our attention. It was their nasty ways. Cockfighting has long been the beloved sport of nobleman and commoner alike. The Greeks made it an Olympic event.

As our ancestors bred roosters to perform gallantly in the ring with razor and spur, so, too, did they perfect the hens’ performance back in the coop. Selective breeding created the egg machine that serves us so faithfully even today. In this sense the chicken most certainly came before the egg, for without cockfighting we would not have bred such prolific layers.

Along the way we tossed them on the grill—and today poultry is a world staple. Americans alone eat eight billion chickens a year. The industry boomed in the last century, though the popularity of poultry and eggs has ebbed and flowed with dietary trends. Cholesterol was good, then bad, then both. Atkins dieters redeemed the egg, leading to a new generation of designer varieties considered good for us.

Through our civilized ages, we have fine-tuned our chicken machine to attain economies of production. In the last century, we put the hen on the assembly line, automating its ovum. We helped out the struggling family farmer by concocting a broiler bird that he could get to market more quickly; then Big Chicken took the profits, relegating the farmer to serfdom.

Today, the disassembly line can process eight thousand birds an hour.4 And prodigious hens such as the White Leghorn, caged nearly motionless over chutes, their heads pumping nonstop into a conveyor of enhanced feed, can plop out their pristine prizes at well over twice the rate they could before we fiddled with them.

In 2006, a typical hen laid 262 eggs a year, a workaday wonder, having steadily increased from 112 in 1925.5 (My own work year is almost exactly the same as the average hen’s: The company pays me for 260 days, though I get 24 of those as vacation when I’m not expected to lay an egg.)

Eggs are cheap, though, and birds don’t take days off. Broiler birds grow fat quickly, ready for market in six weeks, bland though they might be. Tech...

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