Alice Walker’s Chicken Chronicles

Alice Walker, The Chicken Chronicles: Sitting with the angels who have returned with my memories – Glorious, Rufus, Gertrude Stein, Splendor, Hortensia, Agnes of God, The Gladyses, & Babe: A memoir (The New Press 2011)

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The Chicken Chronicles consists of 37 short chapters, originally blog posts, about keeping chickens. Not just keeping them, but spending time observing them, enjoying them, being sat on and pecked and fed by them, communing with them, falling in love with them as individuals and as a species, and following the mind wherever they take it.

One of Alice Walker’s childhood chores was to wring the neck of  a chicken each week for the Sunday dinner. Chickens, or more specifically roosters, featured in her 1992 novel Possessing the Secret of Joy – as a nightmarish presence to do with the genital mutilation of little girls. It’s tempting to read The Chicken Chronicles as Walker’s joy-filled atonement for those sins and slanders of the past.

The first chapter describes an encounter with a mother hen who was ‘industrious and quick, focused and determined’. The memory of that encounter kept resurfacing, and Walker writes:

I realised I was concerned about chickens, as a Nation, and that I missed them. (Some of you will want to read no further.)

I took this as a warning and a challenge to anyone who finds that capitalised ‘Nation’ ridiculous or even offensive: if you read on, be prepared for some tendentious animal-liberation rhetoric, perhaps. I did read on, and I was glad to have been forewarned, especially when there is a change of register after half a dozen chapters, and from then on Walker addresses the chickens directly and refers to herself as Mommy (and the person who until then  had been her partner as Daddee), telling them about her travels and her admiration for figures such as Gandhi and Ho Chi Minh, or delivering little sermons to them and the eavesdropping reader. Like this:

Mommy’s mind is dizzy and her heart sore from all the troubles in the human realm. She sees pictures of other birds, no less wondrous than you, covered with oil and dying of suffocation and despair. How can they fathom what is happening to them? How can they understand they are not to blame? What have they done but be themselves, flying about eating insects and grubs, while appearing marvellous to the human spirit, even whole doing so? She learns soldiers from her country have shot and killed two pregnant women in Afghanistan, one of them Mommy of ten. What is an Afghanistan? You will wonder. Is it edible? Mommy has never been there but she used to wear beautiful long dresses made of velvet and embroidered in many colours, which came from Afghanistan.

There’s something real happening here: in addressing the chickens, the mind can go to some basic questions. But any grumpy and humourless children of the Enlightenment should probably stay away from this book. I’m grumpy but not completely humourless, and had to work hard to appreciate passages like that one,  and I found a lot to enjoy elsewhere.

The chapter that picks up the notion of ‘sitting with the angels’ from the book’s title is an example. (I’ve just discovered that a version of this chapter is online in Alice Walker’s facebook timeline – you could do worse than read the whole piece.) As she spends time with the chickens, sitting in her ‘meditation chair’ in their enclosure, Walker finds that memories of her childhood come back to her:

For, spending time with you, not only did Mommy recall and visualise her own mother’s thumb with its deep, beloved scar, and from the thumb begin to see her mother’s face and actions, but she also began to see, in stark detail, the house near Ward’s chapel: the final and most wretched of all the grey shacks; the house that her mother attempted to hide, as she camouflaged all the others, behind a vibrant wall of flowers. And inside the house that shook when anyone walked from room to room, there was Mommy’s room papered with real wallpaper, though too thin and delicate to actually touch! While in her parents’ room her mother had done the Mommy thing that was so typical of her: she had papered her own bedroom with flattened cardboard boxes and brown butcher’s paper.

As she describes the way the chickens gave her back these memories, she also gives memories back to the reader – at least to this one. We had chooks in my childhood home, though I didn’t have to wring any necks and our chicken meals were a lot less frequent than the Walker family’s. This book is full of wonderful descriptions of chickens – their behaviour around roosting, their alarm at predators (river rats and hawks in my case, North American beasties in Walker’s), their joy at being fed and called to by humans’ crude impersonation of their cries. These felt like a generous gift of memory. Walker brings to her chickens with the kind of attention I remember from my childhood, and her descriptions of them capture beautifully the joy of being close up to other species.

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