Citizen Action Monitor

“Lily’s Chickens” — A love story

No 34, Posted by fw, July 15, 2010

“My daughter is in love. She’s only five 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 girl friends, but Lily doesn’t care about that, either. She loves them all: Mr Doodle, Jess, Bess, Mrs. Zebra, Pixie, and Kiwi. They’re chickens. Lily likes to sit on an overturned bucket and sing to them in the afternoon. She has them eating out of her hand.”

"Darling, that was to die for."

And so begins the opening of Barbara Kingsolver’s essay, Lily’s Chickens. published in her inspiring 2002 book of collected essays, Small Wonder. But it’s about so much more than a little girl’s love for her chickens. It’s about the captivating and persuasive power of beautifully crafted prose.

It’s about the love and bonding power of a mother-daughter’s shared discoveries in nature’s wonder-garden:

“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 non-lips, that was to die for.

It’s about one woman’s struggle to live lightly on the land:

“Since it’s nonsensical, plus embarrassing, to be an outspoken critic of things you do yourself, I set myself long ago to the task of consuming less. . . . in various stages of my free-wheeling youth I tried out living in a tent, in a commune, and in Europe, before eventually determining that I could only ever hope to dent the salacious appetites of my homeland [U.S.] and make us a more perfect union by living inside this amazing beast, poking at its belly from the inside with my own little life and the small, pointed sword of my pen. So this is where I feed my family and try to live lightly on the land.”

It’s about growing what you eat:

“Wherever I’ve lived, I’ve gardened, even when the only dirt I owned was a planter box on an apartment balcony. I’ve grown food through good times and bad, busy and slow, richer and poorer- especially poorer. . . For years I’ve grown much of what my family eats and tried to attend to the sources of the rest.”

It’s about getting what you don’t grow from local growers:

“Most of whatever else I need comes from the local growers I meet at farmers’ markets. Our family has arrived, as any sentient people would, at a strong preference for the breads and pasta we make ourselves, so I’m always searching out proximate sources of organic flour. Just by reading labels, I have discovered I can buy milk that comes from organic dairies only a few counties away; in season I can often get it from my neighbors, in exchange for vegetables; and I’ve become captivated by the alchemy of creating my own cheese and butter. . . . Somewhere near you, I’m sure, is a farmer who desperately needs your support, for one of a thousand reasons that are pulling the wool out of the proud but unraveling traditions of family farming.”

It’s about understanding the power and responsibility of personal choice:

“I understand the power implicit in these [food purchasing] choices. That I have such choice at all is a phenomenal privilege in a world where so many go hungry, even as our nation uses food as a political weapon, embargoing grain shipments to places such as Nicaragua and Iraq. . . . If we are blessed with an abundance of choices about food, we are surely also obliged to consider the responsibility implicit in our choices. . . . We could make for ourselves a safer nation, overnight, simply by giving more support to our local food economies and learning ways of eating and living around a table that reflects the calendar.”

It’s about a vanishing American culture:

“During the last half century or so, each passing year has seen about half a million more people move away from farms. The lively web of farmhouses, schoolhouses, pasture lands, woodlots, live-stock barns, poultry coops, and tilled fields that once constituted America’s breadbasket has been replaced with a meat-fattening monoculture.”

It’s about aspiring to waste not and want less:

“Where I look for evil I’m more likely to see degradations of human and natural life, an immoral gap between rich and poor, a ravaged earth. At the root of these I see greed and overconsumption by the powerful minority. I was born to that caste, but I can aspire to waste not and want less.”

It’s about choosing how to eat:

“We can hardly choose not to eat, but we have to choose how, and our choices can have astounding consequences. Consider this: The average food item set before a U.S. consumer traveled 1,300 miles to get there. If Mr. Average eats ten or so items a day, in a year’s time his food will have conquered five million miles by land, sea and air. Picture a truck loaded with apples and oranges and iceberg lettuce rumbling to the moon and back ten times a year, all just for you. Multiply that by the number of Americans who like to eat — picture that flotilla of 285 million trucks on their way to the moon — and tell me you don’t think it’s time to revise this scenario.”

It’s about calculating the costs of chemically-produced foods:

“Before anyone rules out eating locally and organically because it seems expensive, I’d ask him to figure in the cost paid outside the store: the health costs, the land costs, the big environmental Visa bill that sooner or later comes due. . . . A meal prepared at home from whole, chemical-free ingredients costs just pennies on the dollar paid for the highly processed agribusiness products that most Americans eat at restaurants or heat up in the microwave nearly every day. For every dollar we send to a farmer, fisherman, or rancher, we send between three and four to the shippers, processors, packagers, retailers, and advertisers.”

It’s about raising kids to like healthy food:

“I’ve learned that the best-tasting vegetables on God’s green earth are the ones our garden-wise foremothers bred for consumption, not hard travel. And I seem to be raising kids who like healthy food. When Lily streaks through the crowd at a farmer’s market shouting, ‘Mama, look, they have broccoli, let’s get a lot!’ — well, heads do turn. Women have asked me, ‘How do you get one like that?’ “

It’s about the “sweet ache” of gardening:

“The soreness in my hamstrings at the end of a hard day of planting or hoeing feels good in a way that  I can hardly explain — except to another gardener, who will know exactly the sweet ache I mean. . . . I suspect that most human bodies have fallen into such remove from that original effort, we’ve precipitated an existential crisis that requires things like shopping, overeating, and adrenaline-rush movies to sate that particular body hunger.”

It’s about protecting kids from dangerous ignorance:

“I want to protect my kids against a dangerous ignorance of what sustains them. When they help me dig and hoe the garden, plant corn and beans, later on pick them, and later still preserve the harvest’s end, compost our scraps, and then turn that compost back into the garden plot for the following spring, they are learning important skills for living and maintaining life. I have also observed that they appreciate feeling useful. . . . In modern times it’s not easy to construct opportunities for kids to feel very useful. They can pick up their toys or take out the trash or walk the dog, but all of these things have an abstract utility. How useful is it to help take care of a dog whose main purpose, as far as they can see, is to be taken care of.”

Above all, Lily’s Chickens is a love story — my love for a storyteller living inside this amazing beast, her homeland, and poking at its belly from the inside with her own little life and the small, pointed sword of her pen.


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This entry was posted on July 15, 2010 by in food gardening and farming, sustainability and tagged , , .
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