session four: lily’s chickens

by Elizabeth de Barros

USED TO BE ONE KNEW from whence the evening meal came — the chicken coop or cattle stall via the slaughterhouse, with maybe some potatoes or beans from the garden thrown in. Bread making was part chore, part rhythm, after milling the wheat. A family’s sustenance was an occupation born of necessity harnessed by the knowledge of living close to the earth — something akin to breathing — stemming from a certain built-in dependency.

Today, we’re more apt to be found whirling a cart around the periphery of a big box store, debating over the vast selection of packaged foods and calling it an adventure — but not before we critique the sample of this or that as either too salty, too bland, or just plain off. If short on time, we might throw down a hefty chunk of change for take-out. Shame. Not only are we what we eat, but how we eat. 

Thrice removed from the source.

In Lily’s Chicken’s, Kingsolver records how she and then 5-year-old daughter, Lily, taught each other a thing or two about love, food, and resourcefulness.

When it came to love, allowing her daughter to own a small poultry farm gave way to motherly sanctions against cooking “Mr. Doodle” or any other feathered creature dubbed with a proper name. After all, friends don’t eat friends. As for food, Lily discovered it to be the means of her own resourcefulness, learned to work all things for the common good: the daily chore of collecting eggs meant “FREE BREAKFAST” for the natives on the plantation. A burgeoning work ethic with a side order of kick.  A kind of entrepreneurship that makes a mother proud.

Kingsolver’s generosity spills over by offering reasons why she grows her own food, crusades for new politics on agriculture both local and organic, lobbies for energy conservation, and stumps for the simple ideal of consuming less. Not bad for a list of survival skills considering the present dangers we face. Not only are natural disasters resulting in widespread blight and food shortages, but also does the perpetual threat of fertilizer and pesticide contamination and the ever-looming reality of GMO’s present an entirely different sort of consideration.  Boiled down, fallout from manufacturer greed is the leftover slop we’re left to feed on — or not.

There is a better way. Choosing to live closer to the earth doesn’t necessarily mean maintaining a 40-acre field or even rototilling a 6 x 6 backyard garden plot. And it doesn’t mean to never again eat another Lay’s potato chip. But it will cost in ways that might take some getting used to, perhaps by simply looking at our food with a new pair of eyes and instituting smarter, healthier ways of doing things for reasons beyond selfish. Kingsolver provides thoughtful incentive for supporting the local farmer:

“Americans have a taste for food that’s been seeded, fertilized, harvested, processed, and packaged in grossly energy-expensive ways and then shipped, often refrigerated, for so many miles it might as well be green cheese from the moon. Even if you walk or bike to the store, if you come home with bananas from Ecuador, tomatoes from Holland, cheese from France, and artichokes from California, you have guzzled some serious gas.”

But all this is slowly changing, thank God. People are wising up. They’re tired of Frankenfood. They’re getting educated about what they’re swallowing, voting with their dollars and feet. There’s a buzz. CSA’s and local farmer’s markets are popping up everywhere. Public space is being transformed into urban community gardens. Mothers are milling their own flour. Fathers are building coops and sheds. Families are composting. Five different neighbors who live within a 5-mile radius of us are not corn-cob farmers wearing overalls, per se,  but they have chickens. Breakfast is free at their house, too.

And Lily is one of this world’s natural resources.

“All of us sooner or later must learn to look our food in the face.”


I’m no tree hugger, but I dearly love the gustatory satisfaction of biting into a buttered ear of sweet corn or slicing up a thick, juicy beefsteak tomato that sprouted from seed planted in the loamy dark of my own backyard. But that’s just one pleasure. Gardening is an enterprise of unquantifiable returns for the whole man, not only the senses.

Where to begin?

For starters, growing your own food is honest. It’s economical. Cuts out the middle man. And you know what you’re getting. No mystery meat or recall notices. It’s organic, like breastfeeding — nothing artificial and a perfect economy — as long as you’re willing to put in the time and labor, mostly the waiting kind.  Plus, there’s something to be said for possessing a measure of self-sufficiency. And the seventeenth zucchini of the season forces neighborly generosity. Good for everybody all around.

But perhaps the most resourceful aspect of growing your own food comes from the genteel quality of learning to be dependent on the One who makes things grow. Most rewarding is coming to the table to celebrate the harvest with a heart of thanksgiving more than just once a year.

What it means Biblically to draw close to the Source:

He waters the mountains from his upper chambers;
    the earth is satisfied by the fruit of his work.
He makes grass grow for the cattle,
    and plants for man to cultivate—
    bringing forth food from the earth:
wine that gladdens the heart of man,
    oil to make his face shine,
    and bread that sustains his heart.

-Psalm 104: 13-15


Next Thursday: Letter to a Daughter at Thirteen with Melissa Jackson 

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