Chickens in the Road
An Adventure in Ordinary Splendor
(Harper One)Ms. McMinn seems to get along better with cows than with people, or at least with men people. This, after buying her first heifer: "I named her Beulah Petunia and became besotted with her." She also becomes besotted with milking Beulah Petunia (I didn't make up that name: McMinn did).
I'd never heard of milking a cow once a day, but I liked it. I brought home three-quarters of a gallon the first time. I stared and stared at the milk in my refrigerator. And took it out and examined it. And put it back. And took it out. And photographed it like it was artwork. My cow and I, we made that.
Then comes time to get Beulah Petunia married, so Suzanne studies "cow heat cycles" and starts checking out BP's "flower petals" twice daily, "looking for signs." Immediately she tells us what she has learned, becomes our teacher on cow lust and calf production, whether we are interested in cow babies or not.
And the odd thing is we do get interested. All of a sudden out of the blue we want to know all about milking cows and cow cycles in heat and finding a husband for them and marching them across field and stream for a brief courtship and marriage so we can have cow kids to fawn over.
Because McMinn is a great enthusiast, and, on top of that, a cheerful writer. She is also there, at the beginning, a dreadful farmer, just like the rest of us might be if we were to pack up and head out to the north forty. She didn't know then (she knows now) how to pick out the proper place to change one's life from city to country.
So we learn the hard way how to live with horses, cows, pigs, goats, snow and slush in winter, the hot sweats of mid-summer, chasing raccoons out from under the bed, tending to the baby critters (along with her own babies). Finally learning --- like a computer, forty acres is a great teacher --- so that at last it starts to work, and we can even spend time making burnt sugar cakes and sweet potato pie there in West Virginia.
§ § §
Everyone in their right mind is getting out of West Virginia right now ... but not McMinn. She decided, after a failed marriage, that it might be best to follow in the footsteps of her father and her father's fathers into Roane County, Stringtown, W. Va.
Her first farm is all up-and-down. You don't want to farm up-and-down. No, you want to do flatland. Because on a farm you are going to be all over all day, there chasing the animals hither and yon. And you don't want to be trudging up and down hillocks, losing pigs in the hollow when there is snow on the ground, goats all over where there's mud, cows down by the river when the river wants to flood.
But this wasn't the worst of the worst there in Stringtown. She just gotten out of a marriage and there's this guy that comes along --- they met online (don't do online I tell my friends ... but she does online) --- and he tells her how great she is and says that when they get old they can just sit on the porch "and get old together --- and we won't care if we're fat and old and worn out because we'll love each other too much to care." She fell for it, and boy, by the time we get half-way through Chickens in the Road are we sorry that she did.
She is too. She names him 52 for purposes of this book because that's how old he is, and I think it might have been better to name him Joe or Groucho or better Sam Rotten because after they've been hitched for a couple of years he starts in giving her a hard time even though he is, she tells us, "between bouts of anger, very nice."
"Who's that?" [he says.]
"That's Debbie. She's the cleaning lady."
"It's ridiculous for you to have a cleaning lady."
I said, "I work hard. I need the help."
"If you have extra money, then give it to me."
"I'm trying to help you. That's why I took over the bills here..." etc. etc.
Trouble is, McMinn is such a good writer that she manages to convey the reality of life with a bothersome man perfectly. And we begin to wonder why she doesn't dump him so they can go their separate ways and she can be with Beulah Petunia and the goats and chickens and cooking and making soap and candles and pumpkin pie and be happy. Get Out of There! we think. But McMinn being perfectionist doesn't get out until she finally (whew) tells him she's quitting. "I recognized that I had a responsibility to love myself more than I loved the farm or my job." At last.It turns out she has a bit of cash left over from her last marriage so she can (as she should have done all along) get a real farm, which she can farm herself, some 100 acres, with a real road without potholes and daily mail delivery and a school bus that comes to the front door for the kids and free gas "to keep me warm in the winter." Hooray.
And we want to email her at once to tell her to stay away from the email courtship business forever, please. Because by the end of this we are in love with her and --- would you believe? --- her chickens, pigs, donkeys, dogs, cows, fainting goats and all those animals with lurid names like Zip, Eclipse, Glory Bee, (o come on!), Nutmeg (no!), Annabelle (stop it!), Clover (OK! OK!)
§ § §
There are a bunch of books about city people getting back to their roots, all the way back to Virgil's Georgics,
Yet here, this night, you might repose with me,
On green leaves pillowed: apples ripe have I,
Soft chestnuts, and of curdled milk enow.
And, see, the farm-roof chimneys smoke afar,
And from the hills the shadows lengthening fall!
Shakespeare makes country living very inviting too. The second act of "As You Like It" begins with these bucolic lines:
Sweet are the uses of adversity,
Which, like the toad, ugly and venomous,
Wears yet a precious jewel in his head;
And this our life exempt from public haunt
Finds tongues in trees, books in the running brooks,
Sermons in stones and good in every thing.
I would not change it ...
It's not far from there to the parodies of our own time, Perelman's incomparable Acres and Pains and Betty MacDonald's The Egg and I. The difference is that McMinn isn't out there in farmerville to laugh but to fall in love. With men, yes; but better, with the cows, and the chickens, and even having a chance to chase sheep around the lot so they could be sheared. With a real country sheep-shearer. The shearer says, "I used to be able to shear twelve sheep an hour."
He kept a running tale of his shearing experienced going as he worked. I watched in awe as the thick wool fell away, leaving a much smaller bald sheep behind ... The shearer was several minutes into shearing the last one, a Cotswold Ewe, when he said, "I ain't never cut off a tit before."
"I don't think I expected to ever hear that particular sentence, in any scenario, in my entire life," says McMinn.
If you have even thought you would like to give up the city, go pastoral, get Chickens in the Road. O hell, even if you don't want to do a Virgil, you might want to read it because the author shows survival skills that we all may need at some time: how to surmount the original terrible decisions that can turn our lives to nightmares. How, despite these, to become a skilled herder, milker, shearer, in-home vet. How to love a cow. How to revive a fainting goat. How to make soap, candles, cheese.
In fact, the last seventy-five pages are given over to these specific crafts. Teaching yourself to be a complete rustic. How to make soap, "chocolate cream facial mask," hand-dipped tapers, homemade laundry detergent.
In the food department, you'll find complete recipes for your own cheese, pumpkin bread, apple dumplings, coconut-oatmeal rum pie, sweet potato pie, molasses cookies and drunken rum cookie logs, and, gack, fried bologna sandwiches. And, lordy me, lard: "Start with a big bag of fat from when your pig was butchered."
Suzanne, as much as I love your book (and you), I just don't think it's in the cards for me to have a pig on hand, much less have one just butchered. In fact these recipes each contain about a zillion calories per, and I was expecting, when I got to the McMinn picture gallery in the middle of the book to see what one of my friends judiciously refers to "a slightly overweight lady." But not so. McMinn might be hearty, but she is also hale.
Still she does things you and I would never dream of doing like picking up and becoming a certified country people and on top of that butchering some of her pets for the dinner table. But such is her way with words that she makes it OK --- for instance --- for her to slaughter two of her Nigerian bucks (goats), even though they were her buddies enough to get saddled with improbable names like Eclipse and Pirate.
After taking them to the butcher, he asks, "How do you want me to cut them up?" She just then thought about sticking them back in the truck and taking them back to the farm but then remembered how the two of them damn near gored her with their horns. In a few days they were home again. Ground.
When she went to make burgers the smell got to her, and she wondered "if Eclipse was going to jump right out of the pan. Smelling his scent made me feel as if he were right there on top of the stove." In the weeks that followed, she tells us that "goat burgers become one of my favorite things ... a cross between pasture-raised beef and lamb." Eclipse and Pirate had "had a good life --- and one bad day, which was more than one could say for animals in most factory or mass agri operations."