The Chicken Chronicles by Alice Walker, 208pp. The New Press, 2012, $13.56 paperback
Alice Walker’s The Chicken Chronicles’ full title is The Chicken Chronicles: Sitting with the Angels who have returned with My Memories: Glorious, Rufus, Gertrude Stein, Splendor, Hortensia, Agnes of God, the Gladyses, and Babe: A Memoir; quite a mouthful. The book apparently grew out of Walker’s blog, which chronicled her joint stewardship of chickens that she and her neighbor raised from chickdom. The result is a beautifully meditative exploration of the author’s life with and, at times, away from “her girls,” as she calls her brood. Along the way she reflects on her childhood, memories of her parents and her siblings, long tucked away traumas, language, space, friendships, travels, her relationship to the natural and the spirit world, to history, and to the future.
Something that the reader may find surprising is that Walker is not vegan, or even vegetarian; at several points in the memoir she takes the reader into her relationship with eating the flesh of animals, and in her honesty, reveals the complexity of choices and decisions around omnivorism, vegetarianism, veganism, pescatarianism, the practice of shunning certain meats (pig, lamb, beef), but consuming others (goat, chicken). Her beginning the text with an epigraph from Buddha advising us to “Drink deeply. Live in serenity and joy” points to the nonjudgmentalism and call for gentleness with one’s self and with others that guides the text. The quote is a fitting opening to a book that ultimately explores what it means to be human.
The author is clear about her inextricable and intimate connection to nature. Her chapter, “Grandfather Gandhi—And Mommy’s Experiments with Reality” in which she, in one of several letters to her girls, writes about her “experiments with ‘meat.’” (113) In the chapter/letter, she divulges how difficult a time she had sleeping the night before while trying to digest the four bites of lamb that she had thoughtlessly consumed at dinner. She relates her uncomfortable experience to that of Gandhi who, in his book, The Story of My Experiments with Truth, talks about how, the last time he ate lamb he could hear the animal bleating in his stomach for hours, thus, drawing to a close “the meat experience for him, permanently.” (114) Later in the same chapter/letter she discusses her unsatisfactory experiences with airline vegetarian meals and then her appreciation for the broth from the chicken soup that her “daughterly acting neighbor” (115) shared with her. In yet another chapter/letter she recounts how she brings hardboiled eggs on board airplanes and shares with her partner whom she calls Daddee. The love and appreciation that she expresses for the eggs reminds the reader of a time before factory farming when animals were not treated so cruelly, their lives ripped from them without regard for the their pain and suffering—a time when they were allowed to live as they were meant to live, loved and cared for, and thanked for their sacrifices so that humans might be nourished before they were killed.
There are several profoundly moving passages in the book. One of my favorites is in the chapter/letter, “A Few Kind Words about Stupidity” in which she ruminates on her relationship to the deer with whom she shares natural space. Her dilemma of how to live in harmony with these beautiful creatures who also love to munch on her plants, and fruits, and flowers, and trees came to her in a flash of inspiration, which she notes,
is simultaneously a welcome release from stupidity! Instead of fencing the deer out, she needed to fence herself in, her and her various gardens and munchables. She saw how she and her kind, humans, were really the dangerous one. So that is what she did. She drew a snug though graceful circle around her house and yard and fenced that in. She drew another tight and attractive circle around her vegetable garden and fenced that in. Small orchard trees she gave their individual small fences. Although this accounted for less than an acre of the land. The deer would have the rest, all thirty-nine acres. Well, she and the deer. (123)
For her wise decision she is rewarded with witnessing the return of deer families, which for years, had vanished. The story, one of many throughout the book, speaks to the importance of human beings realizing that we are not separate from nature, and that honoring our oneness, the sacredness of all beings, will liberate all of us.
Finally, through her carefully chosen words, Walker is able to communicate in subtle and simple language that our connection to Source, to The Mother, in whose lap we all sit and which is too big for us to fall out of, “whose head is too extraordinary to be fouled by chicken poop, whose mind is too flexible to worry about who gets eaten up and by what. This Mother, unlike Mommy, never worries; time is her toy. Being is her thought” (186) is a wisdom that her “girls,” the chickens instinctively know. It is we, the so-called evolved species, who have forgotten this very basic truth to the detriment of everyone and everything we encounter. What a gift.