At Crossroads with Chickens (book review)

by Randy Graham

At Crossroads with Chickens
by Tory McCagg
Bauhan Publishing – June 2020
A memoir – with chickens

Is it a thing everybody does or is it just me? Whenever I read a memoir, I find myself comparing the author’s life to my own. Tory McCagg and I lived very different childhoods. She describes hers as “privileged.” Her father was an academic and her mother an artist. McCagg’s childhood included a private boarding school and trips to Europe—her good parents endeavoring to encourage their daughter’s personal growth, in my estimation. My good parents were of solid Midwestern farming stock and they were completely on board with encouraging the development of my positive characteristics as well.  Since they firmly believed in the virtue of wholesome, healthy physical labor, my childhood included long summertime days in the beanfields with a hoe, in the barn with a pitchfork, and with bale after bale on a hay wagon.  

And yet, as adults, Tory McCagg and I share these important attributes: We both long for tranquility, safety, and routine.  Yet we both surprise our friends and ourselves by making choices that result in a life filled with anything but tranquility, safety or routine. Thus, in my twenties I found myself based in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia while wandering around obscure parts of the world and acquiring exciting new diseases. When I returned to the States, I settled down not in some quiet suburb, but in a substandard house on an acreage in the woods. Oh—and then there were the chickens. Likewise, McCagg decided to forego law school for an MFA in writing, marry a jazz musician, and move into an off-grid house in the mountains of New Hampshire. Oh—and then there were the chickens. 

The chickens: Most days I can find a project in the coop—do a little cleaning, some nest box repair, fix a broken water fount, just hang out and watch the birds. Time spent with the chickens is time well spent, I always say. McCagg writes, “Whatever my mood might be, when I walk out to the chicken coop, upon arrival, my attitude shifts…With the chickens, I existed, and watched them as if, by osmosis, I might take in their acceptance of life…”

I actually came to this book for the chickens. But I stayed for the excellent writing, the insights, and the fascinating cast of characters. The focal character, appropriately, is Tory McCagg herself. Her husband Carl, a jazz trombonist for Roomful of Blues and other bands, plays a huge supporting role. She has dedicated the book to Carl and describes herself as “a helium balloon tethered to the earth by a string that Carl holds.  He grounds me, even as I distract. Except when he distracts. Then I ground him.”  

The person who shares the book dedication with Carl is Tory McCagg’s mother, who plays a large role in the book as well. McCagg remembers her mom spending her time in a double geodesic dome that housed the Art Yard, a space in East Lansing she shared with two other artists, where she would cast large metal sculptures.  Later in life she moved to a studio in lower Manhattan where she created, traveled, and lived the “vital, bracing, crisp, and palpitating as a fall day” sort of life one can live in New York City. And then came the “devastating mental fog and physical exhaustion” of Parkinson’s and the accompanying medications.  

McCagg notes that “exposure to heavy metals [like those used in metal sculpture] can cause Parkinson’s disease.” And she wonders, “Given the choice—health or creation—would she have given up having created? What makes life worth living? What is a worthy life?”

Mirroring her mother’s decline is the decline of Mother Earth as the world changes to “something we oxygen-dependent, temperate-temperate creatures cannot survive in.” McCagg suggests that, “the only difference between this sixth extinction and any other is that it is human caused.”

Another figure that looms large in this remembrance is not a person, but a place:  Darwin’s View, an off-grid house at the end of a long, precarious driveway on a wild, windswept collection of acres in the mountains of New Hampshire—Tory and Carl’s domicile.  

And the other 45 or so main characters in this account have feathers. Big Red, Panda, Ping, Lola, CooLots, Chipper and all the rest live as heroes even as they live the lives of chickens. The story of their lives is clearly not for the faint of heart. Chickens become ill and die. Chickens are killed and consumed by predators. Chickens are killed and consumed by humans. These chickens are not the chickens who populate children’s books, where anthropomorphically smiling roosters crow from the roofs of red barns while hens and fluffy chicks cavort in sun-dappled pastures. That world doesn’t exist now and never did. These chickens are real. 

But while their deaths are sometimes cruel and are often unbearably sad, these birds are given the opportunity to live a good life, unlike almost every chicken alive on the planet right now. And unlike most every other chicken alive on the planet right now, every single death in this intrepid flock is mourned. 

The chickens and Darwin’s View are two strands of Tory and Carl’s life that eventually weave together to form their reality from 2012 to the present. First comes the acquisition of land in New Hampshire. They had been living in Providence and were casually searching for some property in New Hampshire where Carl had grown up and still had ties. By and by they stumble upon sixty-four acres of woodland and bramble—overgrown orchards and fields on a rutted, unmaintained road. They buy the property with the idea that someday they might build “a weekend getaway. A holiday roost.”

By and by, they discover that local code disallows the building of any structure on that unimproved road.  And by and by, they find that the adjoining 129 acres, right across the stone wall, is for sale and that property has 200 feet of frontage on an improved road. By and by they build a house—the foundation is poured April 2012. The house is off-grid; not hooked to any outside source of electricity.  There are solar panels, storage batteries, and a backup generator for those times when their power use is greater than what the sun can provide.  

By and by there are baby chicks—the postal service delivers six peeping balls of fluff to the Providence house in June 2012 and the bathroom becomes their brooder coop. And by and by, the chicks grow, and one chick, Rhoda Red, is noted to have “wattles [that] had begun to look more distinct than any shy and retiring girl’s wattles should look. And her tail a bit plume-y.” Shortly after that Rhoda Red is rechristened “Big Red” the rooster. Providence does not allow roosters.

About that time the New Hampshire “weekend” house is nearing completion, and they begin to wonder “Does a newly built off-grid house require oversight initially? Just for the first few weeks, to be sure everything is running smoothly…Three, maybe four months? The winter months. To avoid frozen pipes.” 

Thus, in November 2012 Tory and Carl fill a rental truck with their belongings, including their hens and a lustily crowing Big Red and drive to Darwin’s View. The move becomes permanent. By and by they live their lives from then until right now, with many life adventures and milestones documented in the book—an addition to the house, a new coop, a natural swimming pond, and many new generations of chicks. McCagg says that visitors come to Darwin’s View and often ask “’Do you love it?’ as if to say, ‘How could you not?’  

“I allow for a pause and a heartbeat. Love is a strong word and my attitude toward Darwin’s View is balanced by a breathless fear of the elements we face and a fear of the future.  Must one love one’s home? If so, why have we humans destroyed the earth? Why are we doing nothing to fix it?”

No false sentimentality expressed there. Rather, when she pragmatically states that “This is the place where we live.”  She is probably talking about Darwin’s View but perhaps she’s also talking about our planet. She goes on to say, “Here we will try to share what we have learned, once we figure out what we’ve learned. Politics, permaculture, chicken rites and passages, working to return our democracy back to The People, the people back to the land, the land back to its health, health back to the world, the world with its vast beauty.” 

McCagg speculates about impermanence of our existence; how Darwin’s View, which is not only “this place where we live” but also is a physical manifestation of this couple’s beliefs and values, will in fifty years, after their deaths, be gone and “nature will take…its view back,” while “our footprint, with time, will disappear…” Overly pessimistic perhaps? I prefer to think that the way that Tory and Carl have chosen to live their lives, and the fact that there now exists a profound record of those lives—this book, will guarantee a more permanent mark than she realizes. Does Tory McCagg have it right or do I?  Only time itself can answer that.  “And in the meantime? The chickens scratch and peck.”
If you’re looking for a book to enjoy and learn from, here’s one— a life well lived contained in a well written book.  What more could you want? Oh…chickens? You want to read about chickens? Well, bingo.

Photo credit: Randy Graham