creating community through celebration

The Birds and the Bees

Glorious summer is at its full height just now, what with warm sunshine, ripening tomatoes, a garden full of greens and a yard full of clucking hens (much preferable to a garden full of clucking hens). Yes, this is going to be another chicken column, so if you might be inclined to wander elsewhere and read more about the Bromliad or the winter show, I’ll understand.

I seem, by dint of my involvement with chickens, bees, seeds and dirt, to have become part of a movement of some sort. It goes by various names - Urban Agriculture, Locavore Movement, Backyard Animal Husbandry – things like that. I hear myself described as an “urban farmer”, although I certainly don’t consider myself to be by any stretch comparable to a real farmer. I don’t deal with anything resembling the scale, complexity, or economic consequences of a production-oriented farming operation. I am quite content, in the manner of most of my dirt grubbing peers, to wrangle dirt, bugs, and birds in order to have the satisfaction of looking at my dinner table and most often seeing something there that I had a hand in growing.

And we share, we urban growers. We share plants, dirt, tools and advice. This morning, a neighbor who is new to chicken raising thanked me for a roll of chicken wire and my “wisdom”. I had to point out that what I have isn’t wisdom, it is just a growing collection of results from things I’ve tried. But that conversation and another one I had last night about bee swarms made me realize that people have a lot of misconceptions about this activity. Notions like:

  • Hens need roosters around in order to lay eggs. They don’t, and it’s a lot quieter without them. Urban farmers have to get rid of their roosters.
  • Chickens are dumb. Well, they’re smart enough to get me to feed and house them.
  • You dispose of hens that have stopped laying by making coq au vin. Coq means “rooster”. See above.
  • Swarming bees are hostile and dangerous. Not. They’re just looking for a new home and have no interest in you – unless your home becomes their home.
  • A bee can sting you multiple times. No, stinging kills the bee. Just one per customer.
  • You only keep bees for the honey and chickens for the eggs.

This last notion requires a more complicated response. Although honey and eggs are certainly welcome and desirable products of the enterprise, they are not the main reason for doing it. After all we do live in a world with grocery stores.

This whole backyard farming business shares one of the Revels core values (yes, Revels does have core values. You can see them all here). This is the one I’m talking about:

Connection to the Land

Experiencing agrarian customs and culture reconnects us with the earth and reminds us of how human society is ultimately formed by natural forces,, and how weighty is our mandate to shepherd resources carefully. Revels portrays people in community with – not dominance over – the natural realm.

There is no way that I’m going to make a living from keeping my urban livestock and garden. It is not even able to take me off the commercial food grid. But that doesn’t mean it doesn’t have practical results.

One demonstrable benefit of maintaining hives of bees is that it helps them survive. You may have caught wind of the phenomenon of colony collapse and the decline of bee populations worldwide. A combination of factors, likely including pesticide use, habitat modification, and other human impacts has led to a dramatic increase in the die-off of over wintering bee colonies world-wide. The result isn’t just less honey and fewer bee stings. It is estimated that as much as 80% of the food humans eat is reliant on the presence of pollinators – bees and other nectar gatherers. The equation is simple: the bees die off and we starve. It’s a result of the complex dependency that results from our coevolution with honeybees. We live “in community with – not dominance over” these insects.

Similarly, my chickens have enticed me to subject my dreams of a nice grassy back yard to their desire to scratch for insects and devour anything green. It is evidence of the symbiotic relationship we have: You give up lawn sports and we give you eggs – I’m trading croquet for soufflé. It’s not a power struggle but a dance of cooperation and I wish every aspect of urban life could go so smoothly. There is a lesson there that I get to experience daily.

Finally, the demands of my little urban farmstead help keep me attuned to the cycles of the year. Chickens vary their egg output according to the hours of daylight; bee colonies contract and expand by the season; and plants make their needs and achievements known in a language entirely inflected by sunlight, water and earth.

It is an enterprise that is at once foolish and endlessly humbling, but also deeply satisfying on a lot of levels. Often, when I’m working on writing the stage business and dialogue for the Christmas Revels I’ll sit with my laptop computer in my “backyard office”. Surrounded by clucking and buzzing, dodging falling plums, and smelling the mint and basil growing at my side, I realize that when we think of reveling as singing and dancing, we have to include the singing of birds and the dance of sunlight in our definition. It is all part of what we do and very much what Revels is.

- David Parr, Artistic Director