Life Imitates Music

IMG_0029Fourth of July is upon us, and it’s looking like the Tennessee state song knows what it’s talking about: Corn don’t grow at all on Rocky Top, nor do it grow in my Nashville back yard.

If you plant corn after the first frost, it should be knee-high by the Fourth of July, they say. But my crop is looking like a bunch of lawn cowlicks, those stray blades of grass that escape the mower.

It’s possible I planted later than I should have. I was aiming for Tax Day, but it was still a little chilly here, so I waited until my husband said it was time. Admittedly, he doesn’t know Shinola about farming, urban or otherwise. He’s a hedge fund analyst. But he was on a conference call one day in May and his macro-strategy commodity fund managers happened to mention that Big Ag was starting to plant. That sounded like solid intel, so I ploughed the back 40. Forty feet, that is.

Anyway, I’d say we have about a one-in-six yield of stalks growing from seeds planted. What’s worse, the anemic stalks that are emerging could double as dental floss.

The problem is not that the dirt’s too rocky by far, as the song says. The problem is that there’s no sun in my yard. There used to be, and when there was, we grew one helluva an ear of corn. Literally, one ear. But dammit, it was good. It tasted like Summer herself had shape-shifted into a grid of sweet, milky bubbles, smooth and crisp to the tooth, but silken and custardy inside. Oh good lord, it was delicious. Unfortunately, bugs got all but that one ear. Farming — urban or otherwise — is a difficult business. Big Ag, I salute you.

Anyway, the summer after that magnificent crop of one, we relocated our garage. The original garage in our 1930s house was built to fit either a Model T or a bicycle built for two or some other vehicle too narrow to meet the transportation demands of today’s traveling fat-asses. It was so narrow, in fact, that twice I pulled off the front panel of the building when reversing my 2000-era station wagon. When I finally succumbed to a minivan, I couldn’t even fit that bubble-butt bus inside.

Building codes being what they are in a historic neighborhood, we couldn’t construct a new garage on the footprint of the old garage. Go figure. So we scooted a few feet to the left, i.e. north. The new garage helped the parking, but seems to have put an end to our corn cultivation. Too much shade. Hence, the feeble crop of lawn cowlicks.

I was weeding this morning, taking care not to extirpate the cornstalks, which, in some cases, were dwarfed by more robust invasives. Like big, strong clover. Miraculously, the weeds were replacing themselves as fast as I could pluck, like the Augean stables filling up with manure as fast as Hercules could muck. Or like Whac-a-Mole. Pick your metaphor. Either way, it was supremely frustrating.

As I rhythmically ripped crab grass from the furrows and smacked sweat bees against my thighs, it occurred to me that this was the kind of fruitless labor that could drive a person to drink. A familiar tune crept into my head.

“Corn don’t grow at all on Rocky Top, dirt’s too rocky by far…”

Then it hit me: I wouldn’t be the first failed farmer to turn to the bottle. As the song goes, that’s why all the folks on Rocky Top get their corn from a jar.

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Poultry, Thy Name is Chicken

A Red Star chicken named Red Star

A Red Star chicken named…Red Star

When we got our first backyard hens, we spent countless hours naming them. Like new parents besotted with their offspring, we never tired of telling how we came to christen the birds with titles such as Buffy, Colin, Wally and Kiss. Our favorite anecdote was about how a pair of frizzled cochins both got dubbed Nancy, in honor of our two beloved neighbors, Uphill Nancy and Downhill Nancy.

Three years into urban farming, we don’t name the birds any more. For one thing, we ran out of names. For another, it was too heartbreaking when they died. And die they do — in the grasp of possums, respiratory infection, time … you name it. Chickening can be a morbid endeavor. We’ll have more on that in future posts.

In any case, for our emotional health we had to stop thinking of our poultry as pets. Now we just call them “Chicken.” Occasionally, we’ll specify “Frizzled.” Or “Silky.” As in, “Frizzled, stop pecking at my toenails. They’re not strawberries!”

Such shameless speciesism seems cold. But just as I was beginning to worry about my hardening heart, I received an email from a fellow Hen Chick that made me realize I wasn’t the only urban chickener to recalibrate my affection for the food source in my backyard.

The Nashville Hen Chicks are a group of chicken-owners who get together for an all-egg potluck once a month. When we are not dining on free-range frittatas and crème anglaise or sharing composting tips and recipes for home-brewed kombucha, we maintain an active online dialogue about our microflocks. Topics range from hawk sightings and varmint control to bird behaviors such as brooding, venting and henpecking. But this Hen Chick email went beyond observations of the chicken coop, to a philosophical exchange about the food chain.

Here was the deal: The writer’s hens were approaching 2 ½ years old. If you are prone to anthropomorphizing, you might imagine women of a certain age, still vibrant and beautiful but declining in fertility. Since urban residents are only allowed six backyard hens, these middle-aged birds were occupying space where younger birds — spring chickens, if you will — could be making her breakfast. Consequently, the writer was requesting referrals for people who might take the peri-menopausal poultry off her hands to make room for a batch of fertile pullets. She remembered a conversation at a recent egg potluck, about a woman who “would love to have hens to butcher herself, cook and serve to her family as a special meal.” The email asked if anyone had that woman’s phone number.

This was something to brood about, indeed. This, from the same Hen Chick who, two years earlier, salvaged vintage French ironwork to construct a coop for the hens she named after her great-grandmothers! Now that her beloved Esters and Lucys were drying up in the egg department, she was ready to give them the hatchet.

A few years ago, I might have cringed. But after breaking the news to Uphill and Downhill Nancy that their namesakes were eviscerated by raccoons, all I could think was that the Hen Chick was lucky her great-grandmothers weren’t still around to hear the gruesome update. A backyard full of chicken gravestones had really changed my thinking about poultry as pets.

In fact, it was after the slaughter and burial of our frizzled Nancys that we put a moratorium on the naming of birds. From then on, we agreed that only animals with names, i.e. pets, would require ceremonial interment, whereas unnamed livestock would necessitate only hygienic disposal. That is to say that Lulu, our utterly useless Havanese terrier, will be buried with full honors, while our prolific sex-link layer of the Red Star breed will be bagged and dropped at the curb on the first trash day after her demise. But that’s only if we don’t locate the butcher woman’s phone number.

It sounds brutal, but my fellow Hen Chick summed it all up with great tenderness in her email. “I’m not happy about handing off three hens, whom we named after our great-grandmothers, to someone who’ll kill and eat them, but I know that it’s the best option, and it really is about the circle of life,” she wrote. Then she added, “We’re not naming the new pullets — they’re just called by their breed.”

Well said, my Hen Chick sister. Meanwhile, when your new pullets arrive, I’d like to introduce them to my new spring chicken. We call her simply “Red Star.”

Birds of a Feather

cowfeathersWhen Rabbi Phil passed our house last week on his way home from shul, I invited him up the driveway to check out the chicken coop. I love to show off the new Ameraucanas and the very prolific double-egg-laying Red Star, and since Rabbi Phil is considering raising quail, he was an eager audience.

Phil Ackerman-Lieberman is one of the brainiest people I know. I don’t often understand what he’s talking about, so I smile and nod a lot.  He is currently working on a publication he calls Jews and Dogs, exploring various traditions and rituals involving canines. I smiled and nodded, then told him about my creative writing project, which I call WASPs and Hens.

As we walked past my small front-yard vegetable patch, our conversation veered toward the subject of the Jubilee Year. Biblically speaking, that’s when people displaced from their land get to come home. Landowners aren’t supposed to plant crops that year. Since the story I’m writing is about farming and homecoming, I’m particularly interested in the language of Leviticus 25 and the Jubilee Year.

In most versions of the Bible that I’ve seen, there is a line about “strangers and sojourners” or “strangers and travelers,” but occasionally I’ve seen reference to “strangers and tenants.” There’s something poetic about that particular translation — an implied impermanence, a tenuousness I want to convey about my characters. That’s the language I want to borrow for my own story, but I’m not sure exactly which version of Leviticus it comes from.

Rabbi Phil offered some suggestions, then we headed back to the chicken coop, where our children were clomping around gathering feathers. His son presented him with a strawberry-blond-and-white plume. Rabbi Phil said, “Thank you. I can use it for work.”

I didn’t say anything, but…really? For work?

Then Rabbi Phil explained that he was recently certified as one of a small handful of people authorized to draft a Jewish divorce decree. Naturally, a Jewish divorce decree must be written with a quill.

Naturally.

I told him he was welcome to take the quill home, but after further inspection, the rabbi deemed it too small and let it fall to the floor of the coop. My strawberry-blond-and-white chicken looked ashamed, crestfallen. Honestly, I felt the same way.

Rabbi Phil, I’m sorry I couldn’t give you something to write with. You sure gave me plenty to write about.

Life Imitates Art

BoysGarden

Reuben Torres’s oil painting

It’s hard to remember exactly where my novel, Coming Soon: Jubilee Hill Cornfield, started. With a newspaper column? With an accompanying photograph? Or with an oil painting inspired by the photograph?

In any case, the seeds of my story were planted in 2009, when I embarked on a tongue-in-cheek project to farm my sunless quarter-acre in the urban services district of Nashville, Tenn. What began as a playful and slightly facetious family activity — chronicled in a column  in the Nashville Scene — evolved into an all-consuming solitary writing project.

Coming Soon: Jubilee Hill Cornfield is set in the contrasting landscapes of Nashville’s most manicured perennial beds and grittiest community gardens. Writing about horticulture and agriculture inspired more gardening (including illegal urban chicken husbandry), which, in turn, inspired more writing. On sunny days, it was hard to decide whether to work in the fictional garden or in the actual one. Needless to say, I got more writing done in the winter.

Eric England's photograph

Eric England’s photograph

Anyone who has ever undertaken a large-scale fiction project knows it can be easy to lose sight of the bigger picture, to lose the forest for the trees, so to speak. In my case, it wasn’t a forest so much as a garden bed — a plot, you might even say — of perennials and edibles, which serves as the backdrop for my fiction. Fortunately, whenever I did begin to lose creative perspective, I had something to bring my focus back to center: an oil painting, inspired by a photograph, which accompanied a newspaper column.

The figures in the images here are my own children, planting their first basil plants in my side yard. Photographer Eric England originally captured the scene to go along with my newspaper column, and I loved it so much, I asked an artist friend to immortalize it in an oil painting. Reuben Torres’s gorgeous portrait hung in my house while I sat at my computer tapping out the pages of Coming Soon: Jubilee Hill Cornfield.

Whenever I began to lose the thread or the voice of my narrative, I looked at the portrait and remembered the concentration and joy my children experienced when tending their plants. Then I could once again imagine how my fictional characters might delight in cultivating their urban garden. And I could put my fingers back on the keyboard and concentrate on the joy of cultivating a newspaper column into a novel.