An e-mail came this week advertising pullets for sale: both Rhode Island Reds and something called Black Sex-Links, which, when I looked them up, looked like what we used to call Plymouth Rocks.
I don’t need chickens in my life right now, but the offer was tempting, less for the eggs than the nostalgia they'd deliver.
A rooster creates a certain sense of place.
I’ve not had much experience with chickens. When my brother, Scot, and I were still young enough for bedtime stories, my father told us the adventures of Ootie, a green, brown, and red Bantam rooster that lived on the farm when he was growing up. Ootie was proud of himself. He used to strut around the place, guard the hens, chase off foxes and weasels.
By the time I was old enough to appreciate it my grandfather had sold the dairy farm in Angola, New York, to a man named Mr. Sassy down the road. We used to walk down to Sassy’s when we visited my grandparents, and he had chickens.
Around that time a distant relative owned a hatchery in Orchard Park, where we lived, and gave Scot and me a couple of chicks that grew into roosters in the wingspan of a month. They were white Leghorns. The roosters crowed fiercely at first light and woke the neighborhood. There were complaints. We took the cockerels to my grandparents’ place, down the road from Sassy’s, where they crowed freely until a neighbor’s dog ate them.
In my teens I worked for a couple of dairy farms in Ohio. I had seen the film “Fiddler on the Roof.” It was the time of Woodstock, back-to-the-land communes, and even city kids like me wore bib overalls and flannel shirts. I was smitten with the idea of homesteading. One of the farms I worked on was called Sugar Row Ayrshire Farm. They didn’t have chickens, but the farmyard, the area surrounded by house and barns, looked like there ought to have been a coop’s worth of hens and rooster scratching around for seeds and bugs.
I think this last image – the absence of chickens where they are expected – hints at the appeal of chickens and, for some reason, particularly roosters: a rooster is emblematic of a farm and farmyard. Think about the rooster’s silhouette in a weather vane.
The image of a rooster evokes farm life, and where there’s a farm without a rooster, the eye looks around for one anyway, the ear strains to hear its crow in the morning.
I now live in an urban neighborhood. One of my neighbors (I won’t say which for reasons that will be apparent) owns roosters that crow loud and long every morning. I’m awake before them, so they don't annoy me. They give me daily pleasure. They remind me of farm life. Moreover, they make me think of Asheville’s long ago days when farms really weren’t that far away. The campus where I work a mile north was a farm only fifty years ago. I gather from Thomas Wolfe’s novels that, when he was growing up in the early 1900s, many houses in town, particularly the boarding houses, had chickens.
I spoke to my neighbor a couple of years ago, and assumed aloud that he had the chickens for the eggs they layed. He corrected me, said they were fighting cocks. That was less appealing, though it interested me. I continue to enjoy their morning cockadoodles.
A young family not three blocks away on Montford keeps a coop of hens in the backyard. I assume they're for eggs, though I haven’t asked. They have small kids and a large garden, and I can’t imagine they raise them for fighting. Besides, I’ve walked by early many mornings and have never heard a rooster, so I don’t think they have roosters.
What’s all this talk of roosters have to do with place?
Chickens remind me of a certain sort of place – a farmyard – and evoke the farmyard even in the city.
It’s not the farm per se: it’s the yard between house and barn. Chickens remind me of the space just outside the kitchen door, bordered by barn, fence, and garden. Chickens signify agrarian domesticity. They do not evoke fields or forests.
My picture of a farmyard contains chickens, clothesline, fence, barn, and garden with string beans and tomatoes. That’s my map.
I also associate crows with farms: crows in the field, crows in the woods beyond the fields. Scarecrows in the cornfield. But not in the farmyard with the chickens. Crows evoke the fields beyond the barn. They are wild, less domestic than chickens (or songbirds, for that matter).
In my mind chicken is rural but domestic, inside, near farmhouse, while crow is rural but wild, outside, beyond barn. Other farm animals such as cows and horses are either in the barn or in the less domesticated pastures farther away from the house.
Thus, the sight of a chicken in the city, or the cock-a-doodle-doo of a rooster, does not conjure up farms in general but a certain location, a certain place, on the farm: the farmyard.
The painting above is Marc Chagall's "The Rooster," from HuntFor.com.