Ten states now have animal welfare laws requiring bigger cages for hens and livestock. We look at what these new rules could mean for food prices, farmers and how we raise animals in the United States.
Guest Host: Susan Page
Alice Walker is an acclaimed author, poet, and Pulitzer Prize laureate. For the past several years she has cared for a flock of backyard chickens on her farm north of San Francisco. Over time this has become a source of inspiration, strength and spiritual discover for her and connected her with her southern rural roots. Walker discusses the personal discovery and the joys of relating to these animals.
- Alice Walker Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist, poet and activist.
Author Extra: Alice Walker Answers Questions
Ms. Walker stayed after the show to answer a few more questions.####
Q: Just six miles from Washington D.C. is the small city of Alexandria, Virginia. A movement of grassroots activists who support sustainable food are striving to convince the city council to change its code to allow backyard chickens. (Currently the city requires 150 feet from coops to property lines and very few homes have this kind of footage). What arguments for chickens would you cite as most compelling for a campaign like this? The city and particularly animal control is dragging its feet, and activists are losing hope.
– From Jill via email in Alexandria, VA
A: I live in Berkeley California much of the time. We have chickens on both sides of us and it’s wonderful to hear the hens cackle their joy every time they lay an egg! Our neighborhood had been so quiet and boring before. I wouldn’t mind hearing roosters but many people can’t go that far.
Think of having chickens in the community as a re-learning of how to coexist with nature; a way to teach our children that other beings inhabit their communities and have presence!
Send out copies of THE CHICKEN CHRONICLES! Often folks just don’t know what it is they fear.
Q: Which authors/books are you reading right now? Which authors do you particularly respect?
A: I love Cutting For Stone by Abraham Verghese. This is novel writing at its best. I learned wonderful things about medicine from this book written by a compassionate man and an excellent surgeon.
I also recommend The Blood of Flowers by an Iranian American whose name escapes me. It is set in 7th century Persia (now Iran) and is about a young woman carpet maker.
Also excellent is The Inheritance of Loss by Kiran Desai. Everything we all need to know about immigrants from countries like India who try to make it in places like New York City.
Q: You have been a lifelong feminist, or “womanist,” a term you coined. What kinds of activities or endeavors are you currently involved in to this end?
A: I just returned from a remarkable three day gathering of Womanist scholars who were studying Buddhist texts to see how Buddhism and Womanism complement each other. This is the new direction for this philosophy of self-love and love of Earth and “other.”
Read an Excerpt
Copyright © 2011 by Alice Walker. This excerpt originally appeared in 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. Published by The New Press. Reprinted here with permission.
MS. SUSAN PAGEThanks for joining us, I'm Susan Page of USA Today sitting in for Diane Rehm. Alice Walker is best known for her 1982 Pulitzer Prize-winning book, "The Color Purple." She has since published several other novels and collections of short studies and poetry. Her new book, "The Chicken Chronicles," describes her experience over the last few years raising backyard chickens at her home outside of San Francisco and how it turned into a journey of personal discovery. Alice Walker joins us in the studio. Welcome back to "The Diane Rehm Show."
MS. ALICE WALKERThank you so much.
PAGEWe invite our listeners to join us in our conversation later in this hour. You can call us at 1-800-433-8850 or send us an e-mail at email@example.com, you can find us on Facebook or Twitter. So I have to say, even some fans who think they know everything about you, I think, might be surprised to learn that you have been keeping chickens. How did that come about?
WALKERWell, I was actually in Bali in many -- three decades ago and I was coming home from a fire dance and I saw a mother chicken with her babies and I was transfixed. And I couldn't figure out why they were so vivid for me and they stuck with me. In fact, I came back, I was an editor at Ms. Magazine at the time, and I wrote a piece called, "Why Did the Balinese Chicken Cross the Road?" And at the time, I thought it was to help me with my vegetarianism, but over time, I realized it was because I needed to renew a connection that I had had with chickens as a child...
WALKER...when we raised them.
PAGE...what kind of connection -- tell us a little more about your childhood experiences with chickens.
WALKERWell, I grew up on a farm and we were 10 in our family, so we had to rely on animals as part of our diet and so we raised them as well as, you know, the grains and plants. And I think one of the things that I had blocked from my mind was that by the time I was nine, I had inherited the task of ringing the neck of the chicken that we ate for dinner on Sunday. And knowing myself now, because, you know, as you grow older, you get to know yourself really well, hopefully. I can imagine that this was very traumatic for me to kill anything that I loved.
WALKERAnd so I had blotted it out and also, I was injured myself when I was child. One of my brothers shot me in the eye and at the same time, this was during that same period of having to ring the neck of the chicken. And so I think those two things came together in a way that made me identify with the chicken and also with the expression, running around like a chicken with your head cut off, because that is what happens to injured children often. I mean, maybe not every one of them, but we go somewhere else. We go into a space that is so removed from where we are with the family that it is as if we are running around like a chicken with his head cut off.
WALKERSo that was basically where my experience with this chicken in Bali was trying to lead me. It was trying to take me back to reconnect with that experience and therefore, with a deeper understanding of my spiritual and, you know, almost visceral life and connection to the world.
PAGEYour relationship with these chickens, your chickens today, is not the same relationship you had with chickens in your child in that you're not raising them to eat them. Your attitude toward them is really very maternal.
WALKERMy attitude toward my chickens is entirely maternal. When I'm away from them, I write to them (laugh). I believe that the world is magical and I believe that if we can feel that and get into that with whoever's around us and whatever's around us, then we make it just super joyous. So my relationship with them is one of great love and warmth and even though I understand perfectly that they don't care. I mean, you know, they are happy if I'm there and cuddling them and they're on my lap and they're eating good food and I have a garden planted right around their little condo.
WALKERYou know, they're chickens and so how they see me is, you know, up to them, but how I see them is so wonderful for me because I can appreciate that they are creatures who belong here, you know, on this planet, not just for our dinner, but to have lives, which they do.
PAGEI would like you to read perhaps a passage from your book to give our listeners just a taste of how you write about (unintelligible).
WALKERWhat I'm saying, yes. Well, this is writing to them from another country, so it says -- the song is called the "Song Behind the World, the Nuns of Dharamsala," because during the period, I was traveling a lot. "Girls, today Mommy is planting okra in another country. As she presses the soil around the seedlings, she is reminded of many things, of you and how you would eat the seeds and the seedlings if given the chance and of my trip to Dharamsala to visit his holiness, the Dalai Lama. The waiting and conversing rooms in the Dalai Lama's palace are very nice and spacious, not fancy. And the palace is built on a hill.
WALKERIt is across from a temple with many sculptures of the Buddha. Mommy thinks it should be called his house and not his palace because palace always makes Mommy think of Feudalism, a condition to which she has no intention of returning. After a warm and cheerful visit with him, which Mommy and Daddy and our friend, Adebake (sp?), enjoyed very much. We were taken down the hill to visit nuns who live on a very different part of Dharamsala. They live in the flatlands.
WALKERMommy was doing her usual thing of thinking, 'oh, why are the women way down here, hidden from view, etc.' The road down the hill was a long one, followed by a road to the convent that was fairly rough. But then, just at the end of this road, there stood the most exquisite monastery, large spacious, airy with wonderful slate roofs at different levels and cherry trees just beginning to bud. Inside, in addition to dormitory space, there was a library and classrooms. From the back windows of the library, Mommy leaned into the beauty," excuse me, "of lush and ample grounds with gardens, irrigated by what appeared to be a solar powered water system.
WALKERBehind all this rose the majestic Himalayas. It was breathtaking. The soul of woman, the spirit of woman could find peace here. Mommy was sure of it and so happy to have her cynicism squashed. Through the beautiful but empty hallways and rooms we went until we were led to a huge door, from behind which came a faint hum. Our guide gently opened this door, which liberated a tidal wave of sound. There before us were hundreds of nuns in dark red and okra robes, seated at desks on the floor, chanting an ancient prayer. The sound of these nuns praying was like a billion bees buzzing. And best of all, they were not even attempting to pray in unison, but were chanting wherever they were on the page, which meant a dissonance that brought life and spontaneity to the words, an urgency to the prayer.
WALKERIt was so powerful and unexpected, it nearly floored Mommy. In fact, Mommy sat right down among the nuns and let herself be bathed in the sound of what felt like an ocean of prayer. If she could've lain down without offending anyone, she would have. She could've stayed there forever. She never wanted to leave. She wanted to come back to you, though, even so. Mommy had this realization that behind the world, always, there is a song, that behind every country's leadership and every country's citizenry, there is a song. Behind Tibet, behind the spiritual country, the Dalai Lama and Professor Rimpache (sp?) and the Tibetan government in exile have formed, there is the song of the nuns, which is the song of the feminine.
WALKERWithout this song, there is no movement, no progress. It is the song that keeps it all going, though we may hear it infrequently or only by accident. For millennia and to our detriment, it has been deliberately drowned out, but it is there nonetheless. Mommy was ecstatic to hear it. It is the same with you and with the other animals of the planet. You are the song behind the world human animal inhabit. Ahh. This is the vocal song you sing as chickens, but each animal has its song in its very being. We are our songs embodied. It is the song of all of us that keeps our planet balanced. What about extinction of any singer? What about missing or mangled notes?"
PAGEAlice Walker reading from her new book, "The Chicken Chronicles." It has quite the subtitle, "Sitting With the Angels Who Have Returned With My Memories: Glorious, Rufus, Gertrude Stein, Splendor, Hortensia, Agnes of God, The Gladyses and Babe: A Memoir (laugh).
WALKERYeah, it turned into a memoir. I didn't know that while I was writing it. And then one day, it really occurred to me, that, oh, this is about retrieval of memory.
PAGEAnd when you write the letters to your chickens, are they read to them? Do you send them to them and they hear them?
WALKERYou know, you communicate with the other animals differently, so I know they can't read, they can't read, you know, our writing, anyway. Although I have been said that my writing is like chicken scratch. So I send them vibrationally and I send it as my love and hope that in this magical realm, you know, of our planet, things happen that we can't know.
PAGEAnd yet you're also writing for your human readers.
WALKERVery much so because I think it's so important for us to understand what we're eating and my thought of it, who we're eating, you know, because if you're thinking of other beings as having consciousness, you're thinking about something other than just your dinner, you know.
PAGEWe're talking with Alice Walker. We're going to take a short break. When we come back, we'll go to the phones. Our phone lines are open, 1-800-433-8850, give us a call or send us an e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.
PAGEWelcome back. I'm Susan Page of USA Today sitting in for Diane Rehm. With us in the studio this hour, Alice Walker, the Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist, poet and activist. We're talking about her new book, it's called, "The Chicken Chronicles." Now, just before the break, Alice Walker, you said that this had affected -- raising these chickens had affected your decisions about what you should eat, your relationship with food. Tell us about that.
WALKERYes. And it's not as if I'm saying that everybody has to rush out and become a vegetarian or a vegan, either, and that I don't ever eat chicken. It's just that I think it's terrible that our children eat so much chicken, for instance, without having a clue of what the chicken itself is. And therefore, no ability to appreciate what it is that they're eating and what the creature's life was. I think very much that if we bring up our children to think of other creatures as beings who have feelings and who have attitudes and who have, you know, themselves, it would be harder for them to just mindlessly munch them, you know, to the tune of a million chickens an hour in our country.
PAGEBut I'm a little surprised, I guess, to hear that you do still eat chicken...
PAGE...given your close relationship with your flock.
WALKERI know, I know. It's a contradiction and I have been a vegan and I've been a vegetarian, but from time to time, I do eat chicken. I grew up on chicken and I accept that. And I think what I'm more interested in advancing is the idea of compassion for whatever it is you're eating, for the plants, too, you know, and for the farm workers. In other words, this is about really a sense of reverence and love for what we're given and what we take actually to sustain ourselves.
PAGEYou mentioned earlier that you keep a vegetable garden that's out near where the chickens live, too. How much of your own food to you end up growing?
WALKERWell, I grow collard greens all the time. And because I've learned to make smoothies out of them, it means that I have them almost every day. The winter months, as you can imagine, are hard to grow things, so it's not a whole lot. You know, I grow as much as I can. I grow lots of greens, but I don't -- you know, I no longer really farm.
PAGESo you name your chickens in your subtitle and in the book you say they are beautiful and describe their personalities. Tell us a little about a couple of your chickens.
WALKERWell, actually Rufus and Agnes of God, I thought were roosters because they have such attitudes and they were so domineering. And one of the funniest things was one day I came down and I was, you know, thinking of them as roosters and one of them went into the chicken house and got on the nest. And I was thinking, well, why are you in there? You trying to be warm or something? And low and behold, Rufus, it was, I went over after Rufus got up and there was this wonderful warm egg. And that's when I knew that Rufus, who was so attitudinal, was actually a hen. And the same was true of Agnes of God. Those are the two Barred Rocks. They're black and white.
WALKERAnd then there are the Ameraucanas, who I'd never heard of, and they're just incredible. You know, the artist Aubrey Beardsley? His designs I'm sure were influenced by seeing these chickens' feathers because they're extraordinarily beautiful and they come in these oranges and golds and blacks and reds. And they lay blue and green eggs, which I had no clue could even exist. They're especially loving. They do like to lie in my lap and I like to cuddle them.
PAGEYou don't kill your chickens for food, but you have had deaths in your henhouse.
PAGEYour chicken, Babe, a very traumatic death.
WALKERYes. Well, a few of them have died. We have a lot of predators where I live because we live very far in the countryside. And Glorious -- the death of Glorious was very hard because she died the same week that Michael Jackson died. And I was sitting there with her and thinking everything was fine. And I went up the hill to turn off a burner I had left going on the stove and when I came back, she was gone. And what had happened is that a hawk had just swooped down and gone off with her.
WALKERAnd this taught me, though, in her case, as with Michael Jackson, that freedom is such a risk and loving anything is a risk. And you cannot be there. Mommies cannot be there either to protect chickens or to protect Michael Jackson, you know, or all the people who need protection in this world. And that nature has its ways, even though sometimes we're devastated by them.
PAGEIn the middle of the book, in fact, you have a poem for Michael Jackson.
PAGEWas he important to you?
WALKEROh, Michael Jackson is very important to the world because we see this -- we see what can happen to genius and a giving heart when it is met by people who just are brought up to consume whatever is put before them. So in a sense, he becomes like a chicken, you know, that people just mindlessly consume until they consume him completely. And he loses a sense of who he is and what he's here to do and he becomes this, you know, piece of, you know, something that people can basically, you know, eat themselves, you know, consume.
WALKERSo I think that what I want people to understand about that is that Michael is -- he was someone who was trying very hard to present what we seem to want and not what he was in himself, which -- you know, which was beautiful. I mean, there was no reason for him to whittle away any part of himself. There was no need for him to change any part of himself. But because we were in our consumption mode, you know, just wanting basically dinner (laugh), he tried to comply and I think that that is part of why we lost him.
PAGEWe're going to go to the phones and invite some of our listeners to join our conversation. We're going to start with Gary, who's calling us from Englewood, Fla. and we'll take other calls. Our phone lines are open, 1-800-433-8850. Gary, hi, you're on the air.
GARYWell, hello. Thank you for taking my call and I hope you ladies are having a good morning. I'd like to share with your guest. The first time I raised chickens, and that's from chicks, it was about in the mid '70s. And I found out really quickly what wonderful creatures they were. Now, I was fortunate that I was caretaking a small ranch, a half a section and so we had two fence lines. And the chickens could run free range with a good eye out for coyotes and hawks and whatever, but they ate an amazing amount of insects.
GARYAnd then in the hard times in the winter -- this was outside of Flagstaff, which is about 7,000 feet, they were in a good chicken house that was -- the water was warm, the beds under their roosts were very clean with alfalfa hay for compost. And the eggs were out of this world. They were healthy and I did cull, them, so we ate a lot of chicken. And if anybody has done this, it's just almost a humble experience. The -- not the killing, but the food. The heart was big, the liver was bright, dark and firm. The meat, you could cut with a fork and it changed my whole life as far as eating of animals. I do eat meat, but I've never -- since that experience and others like it with chickens, I do think of the animal that I eat in reverence.
PAGEAll right, Gary. Thanks so much for your call. Alice Walker.
WALKERThank you for your call, yeah.
PAGEAll right. Let's talk to Brian. Brian's calling us from Grand Rapids, Mich. Brian, you're on "The Diane Rehm Show."
BRIANGood morning, ladies. My comment was if the author, Alice would comment on the different sounds chickens make in different nationalities. 'Cause here we kinda say cock-a-doodle-doo and in Germany it's keek-a-deekee. And over in Asia, it's even something different. I wonder if she could comment on that.
PAGEAll right. I guess everyone trying to replicate the sounds they hear from a chicken. Is it different in different parts of the world?
WALKERI don't know. I'm only familiar with my chickens. When I travel, though, to, for instance, India, I try to find out where the chickens are. And I was so -- I was recently in Kerala and for two whole days, we were traveling looking for chickens and couldn't find any. And I was very sad because I thought, well, where are they? We saw a lot of goats. And then one day, way out in the water in Kerala on these little islands by the rice paddies, we started to see them freely. I mean, they were actually roaming. They weren't in cages and that was wonderful for me.
PAGEYou write about your thoughts on Gandhi in this book.
WALKERYes. Well, part of, you know, this journey is about not eating so much meat or meat and I was -- you know, he's a wonderful guide on that because he was brought up not to eat any. And yet when he was in England while studying, he did eat meat twice. And both times, his mother found out and she was very upset. I mean, it's a fascinating thing to think of Gandhi's mom being so upset because he had an experiment with meat. And then his last time of eating lamb, he couldn't sleep because they just came and they bleated. He said the lamb bleated all the way down his body while he was trying to, you know, eat it.
PAGEYou know, you write that the chicken house smells sweet. That might be a surprise to some people who would think a chicken house might smell not sweet.
WALKERIt's a matter of what you put in it. I mean, the caller before who was saying alfalfa hay. That's really good to put in. And, you know, my place for them is like a little condo, actually and -- I mean, it's a chicken house, but, you know, it's wonderful. It's built out of really fresh good lumber and it has a concrete floor, is very clean. They have a heater, they have -- you know, the sun can come in. They have plenty of space.
WALKERI think if people realized how chickens generally, the ones that they eat, are raised, they would be sickened and they wouldn't be able to eat them. Because they're just crowded into spaces that are way too small. They're forced to -- you know, to live in conditions that are really unlivable in. So my chickens don't have that. You know, I'm very -- I'm as concerned about them in how they live as I am about how I live. I mean, they have everything that they need as chickens.
PAGEAnd do your chickens have treats?
WALKEROh, they have treats all the time, yeah. And...
PAGEWhat a treat for a chicken?
WALKERWhat the treat? Well, corn on the cob, which I like to give to them chilled in the summer, because they really like that. They like persimmons. They like figs -- well, they actually don't like figs that much. We had a little disagreement about that because for some reason they don't really like figs and I like figs, they like watermelon, they like bananas, they like -- you know, and I grow these incredible beds of kale and collards, because I like them and I share them with the chickens. And, you know, they love all of that stuff.
PAGEI'm Susan Page and you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." We're talking with Alice Walker and we're taking your calls at 1-800-433-8850. Let's go to Jeff. He's calling us from Alexandria, Va. Jeff, thanks for holding on.
JEFFOh, thank you, ma'am, for taking my call. I love chickens, too. I grew up on a farm and I have a lot of great memories about chickens. But what I'm calling about is not actually about chickens, Ms. Walker, and it's not about your wonderful book, either. It's about collard smoothies.
JEFFThat really intrigued me and I wonder (unintelligible) don't mind breaking into the other subject and tell me how you make them.
WALKEROh, I would be so happy to teach you how to make this because you will love this. If you like collard greens you will love this.
JEFFI love them.
WALKERAnd it is so good for you. Okay. So go out in the garden, you pick two or three leaves of wonderful strong collard greens. You get a Vita-Mix, you know, blender thing.
JEFFGet what, ma'am?
WALKERA Vita-Mix. It's called a Vita-Mix. It's not like a regular blender, it's one where everything that goes in there gets really smoothed out so you drink everything. You know, nothing is separated.
WALKEROkay. Vita-Mix V-I-T-A-M-I-X. So you put the collard greens in the Vita-Mix. You add an apple, an orange and anything else you want, but actually, that's enough. Put in some, you know, good water.
JEFFYou're talking about orange, a peeled orange, I assume.
WALKERNo, no, no. I said apple. But if you want orange, you can have orange. But...
JEFFAll right. Oh, I thought you meant an apple and an orange. All right. I got the greens and an apple.
WALKERAnd a banana.
JEFFOh, and a banana, all right.
WALKEROkay. And add water and blend that and drink it. And if you do that every day or whenever you can it will actually -- 'cause it's full of vitamin A, it's full of vitamin C and it's full of calcium, so it's very good for your bones, it's very good for your skin.
JEFFAnd these are raw collard greens.
WALKERRaw, raw, raw. They have to be raw. And you'll be amazed at how delicious this is.
PAGESo I would be amazed, I've got to tell you, if this is delicious, but I'll take your word for it. Jeff, are you going to give this a try (laugh) ?
JEFFI will give it a try. I mean...
JEFFYes, ma'am, I'll give it a try and thank you very much. And again, it's a fascinating conversation you're all having about chickens.
PAGEAll right. Jeff, thanks very much for your call. Let's go to Julie who's calling us from Tallahassee, Fla. Hi, Julie.
JULIEHi, how are you?
JULIEI'm so glad you put me on the air. I'm actually out at my vegetable garden watering it right now as we speak. I keep chickens. I got them about six months ago. I was inspired by a few books that I read about urban farming. I live in a suburban neighborhood. I've never lived on a farm. I knew nothing about farming whatsoever, but I loved what they wrote about, you know, growing your own food and being responsible for the food that you eat. And as part of this process, I felt -- I love to cook and I do eat meat, I've never been a vegetarian. But I wanted to know what went into my food. I became more interested and then after also reading Michael Pollan's books and whatnot.
JULIESo I volunteered at a farm to help process some chickens one day. It was an organic farm and they use the cones, you know, to process the chickens. And I didn't know if the procedure would make me want to become a vegetarian or not. I didn't know how I'd feel about it. But afterwards, I was kind of surprised and a little relieved to find that I was still okay with eating meat as long as it was raised humanely.
JULIEAnd dispatched humanely. And I know that these birds were. They free range, they eat bugs, they enjoy the sunshine, you know. And it was -- they had a happy life and they were humanely put down. And it's also caused me to not waste food anymore. Now, when I buy chicken, it is always free range organic chicken. Not only do I eat all the meat, but I use the carcass for stuff. I don't waste any of it because...
PAGEAll right. Yeah.
JULIE...I don't want that life to go to waste.
PAGEAll right, Julie. Thanks so much for your call.
WALKERAnd Julie, I thank you, too, because that's perfect. That is the work, you know, to try to understand, you know, what it is we're eating and what their life is like and also to care about how they're treated and how they leave this world.
PAGEWe're going to take a short break and when we come back, we'll talk with Alice Walker about her seminal book, "The Color Purple" and how her relationship with that book may have changed over the years since it was published and we'll take your calls and questions. Stay with us.
PAGEWelcome back. I'm Susan Page of "USA Today," sitting in for Diane Rehm. We're talking with Alice Walker this hour about her new book. It's titled "The Chicken Chronicles." Here's a tweet from BallerniaX. She posts, "Did you know that one of the latest trends in earning money is by chicken sitting? I've used one myself." Now, do you use a chicken sitter when you're out of town?
WALKERNo, I don't have a chicken sitter but I work with my neighbors.
PAGENow, Ryan has posted a question on our Facebook. Ryan says, "I was wondering what Ms. Walker thinks of both the film and musical adaptations of her novel, "The Color Purple?" She is both a literary and spiritual inspiration. What do you think? You wrote the book, "The Color Purple," won the Pulitzer Prize. It's been made into a movie, musical, adapted. Does that change your relationship to the book that you initially wrote?
WALKERNo, I think, I see them very separately, and I'm just so happy that people get a lot of medicine, good medicine from them. I meet people all the time who have read the book, seen the musical or the movie and they just seem to be such happy well-balanced people. I feel that I've had a little bit of a part in that, you know, in making them happier, and that's just delicious.
PAGELet's go to Damien calling us from Elkhart, Ind. Damien, hi, you're on the air.
DAMIENHi, thank you so much for taking my call. Your speaker here, she talks about the magic that's in the world and I absolutely agree with that. This is magical that this show's on today. My wife and I were out to dinner, enjoying a rather delicious cheeseburger, actually, a couple months ago, and I'd said that, just sort of candidly said that if I couldn't just go to the store and buy a piece of meat, I probably wouldn't eat meat, because I don't raise any meat and I don't have a clue how to raise any meat.
DAMIENAnd that was -- to me it was sort of, you know, a revelation. It's really a pathetic commentary on our culture, that we just are so disconnected from the land and from nature around us that we just depend on going to the grocery store and buying a piece of meat.
DAMIENSo I told her, actually at that time, that I thought I should start raising chickens and she sort of, you know, she was like, chickens, gross. But I think I've almost got her convinced that I should start raising chickens. Is there anything, I mean, really just from scratch, a boy who knows nothing about it, is there any advice that you would offer?
WALKERI would. I would say get a really good chicken book, you know, about how to raise chickens. There are a lot of them out there and build a nice place for them where you can see them every day, and I think you'll be amazed, you will just be absolutely astonished by them.
DAMIENYeah, yeah. I jokingly tell people that I'm actually a closet Hindu and there's a little vegetarian clawing his way out of me. But someday I'll probably be a vegetarian, but I think I'll give raising my own meat a try first.
PAGEDamien, thanks so much for your call.
DAMIENThank you so much.
PAGEHere's a question post on Facebook from Jim. He writes, "Is she aware that you can use positive reinforcement training on chickens? A common technique with dogs, Bob Bailey, a contemporary of Skinner, teaches people to train chickens to perform common dog obedience tricks. And if one needs proof, all you have to do is go to YouTube and do a search on clicker training chickens." Have you seen that?
WALKERNo, and I don't want to train them. I like them wild because what I find is that in their own way, they give me everything that, you know, that I need from them, you know, which is just affection and curiosity and they like to peck at my glasses and my earrings and sit on my lap and, you know, and sing. What more could I want?
PAGENow, you collect their eggs?
PAGENow, there was a time, I think, I read in your book that they were battling the idea that you were going to collect their eggs. What happened?
WALKERIn the beginning, they didn't know what I was doing in there. They'd see me collecting the eggs and they, like, you know, why is she doing that and what are these weird things that we've laid in there anyhow? And then eventually they had an attitude about my taking them and they started to eat them themselves and there was a whole little rebellion.
WALKERWhich was led by a bluebird that got into, that came into the chicken house and pecked eggs open and taught the chickens how to eat them. So we had to then go through a long process of getting the eggs before the bluebird and before the other chickens started, you know, making it a habit.
PAGESo have you come to a resolution of this situation now?
WALKERWell, early gathering.
PAGELet's talk to Christine. She's calling us from Long Island. Christine, hi, welcome to "The Diane Rehm Show."
CHRISTINEHi, thanks so much for taking my call. I just wanted to thank Alice Walker for "The Color Purple" and to let her know that I was lucky to read it at a time in my life where I really needed to. I was about 11 years old and I was beginning to understand my place in the world and it was immensely helpful to me.
CHRISTINEIt was a very difficult time and it profoundly helped me at that time. And I just, I've read many of her books and she's somebody that I hold very close to my heart and I thank her for her work.
WALKERAnd I can hear the beauty of you in your voice.
PAGEChristine, thank you so much for giving us a call.
CHRISTINEYou're welcome. Thanks for taking it. Bye-bye.
PAGEBye-bye. Now, there's a phrase that you write about in your book and I think, you say it means a lot to you. The phrase is, "Everything that rises must converge." What do you like about that?
WALKERWell, I like the idea that no matter where we are, if we are struggling to come to our own highest being, someone else is also doing that somewhere and eventually we will all converge, we will all come together. And I see that all over the world.
WALKERYou know, whenever I travel now it is such a delight to find myself always with my own tribe, and we may not speak the same language or anything, but we have the same feelings about loving the planet, wanting to connect with the animals and be here for them, you know, to sort of interpret them to other humans in a way that means less suffering for them.
WALKERAnd so we just naturally do that. This is something I think that's planetary and human, to rise together in this way. It's like consciousness and that is what's happening on the planet.
PAGELet's talk to Valerie. She's joining us from Chestertown, Md. Hi, Valerie.
VALERIEGood morning. I am a fairly new chicken owner. I got chicks last June and I would sit for hours in their coop, holding them and scratching them on their chests and under their chins. They're almost a year old now and I, every time I approach the coop, I would always say, "Hey my babies, hey my babies."
VALERIEThey'd come running and now they'll run up to me when I call them and they'll throw their chests up and I scratch them and they will sit on my lap and eat spaghetti from my plate and they are, they feel like family and they give me beautiful eggs every morning and I give them as gifts and I have loved, I have never raised chickens before. This was just something that I started doing this past year and it has been so satisfying. I love it.
PAGENow, Valerie, what prompted you to get into the chicken business?
VALERIEWell, the idea, you know, we bought a little estate that, you know, has orchards and we have rescued donkeys and the idea was to have our own eggs and to be closer to the earth, you know, be closer to the animals in our lives and it has been joyous.
PAGEAll right. Well, thanks so much for your call.
WALKERThank you. That sounds wonderful.
PAGELet's go to Heather, calling from us Ellicott City, Md. Heather, you're on the air.
HEATHERHello, my name's Heather Samansky (sp?) I'm executive director of a place called The Green Building Institute, and we were just out on lunch on Friday with some of our architects talking about raising chickens and organic farming, because we're very into permaculture and integrating organic farming and permaculture, and it's been very difficult to convince communities like, you know, say D.C. on zoning regulations on how you do this.
HEATHERSo I was wondering if you had any ideas on, perhaps, how to convince people on a larger scale and thank you so much, Alice Walker, you've influenced my life in many ways and I never thought I'd be calling and talking to you for the first time about chickens, but I'm so happy.
PAGEWell, Heather, do a lot of jurisdictions prohibit chickens?
HEATHERWell, it's the municipalities and the zoning and such that there are people very interested in doing it, but it's helping, like how, we're trying to educate our politicians on how important this is and how it can be done on a larger scale. I'm definitely going to use your book to people on board, but I was just wondering in terms of influencing hearts and minds, if you had any grand advice there?
PAGEAll right, Heather, thanks for your call.
WALKERI don't really have, beyond this book, I don't know, I mean, but part of the reason for this book is to open the space in the minds of people so that they can start to chickens as well as other animals as beings, you know, deserving of respect and consideration.
PAGEWe've got an email from Glenn. He writes us from San Juan, Puerto Rico and he'd like to talk about cats. He says, "I take care of over a 100 feral and stray cats on the streets of Puerto Rico, seven days a week, doing spay and neutering and also feeding them."
PAGE"I'm also a very active animal activist. I've been very inspired in work by some of your animal-related writings, including your essay, "The Universe Responds." And I was wondering if you still have your cat, Freda, and can you please say something about your views on cats? The inner lives of cats and the connections between humans and cats?"
WALKERYes, I think that cats are the original kings and queens and that is where that whole idea came to humans, because they watched cats, who are always very much themselves, very self-possessed, will not change their ways really and really don't care what you think, and why don't you just get their food and find them a really nice place to be in the sun and, you know, stop bothering them.
WALKERSo I love cats, I love that feeling of independence and regalness, you know? Freda died after many long years of actually being, she'd been thrown out by someone before I found her. I fell in love with her because she was beautiful, but in fact, she was shattered in some really bad way and never outgrew her tendency to hide in the closet when I had guests.
WALKERBut the cat that I have now, whose name is Surprise, is the perfect cat for me. I mean, she's affectionate, she's, you know, loving to the extent that cats want to do that, and she has all of these queenly qualities that I so admire.
PAGENow, does Surprise the cat get along with your flock of chickens?
WALKERWe don't know, because I haven't taken her to the chicken coop, but the dog, Miles, is very at home there and they seem, he and the chickens seem fine.
PAGEAll right. Let's go to Tom, he's been holding on for a while. He's calling us from Millfield, Ohio. Tom, thanks for being with us.
TOMGood morning. So many fine observations. I have a humane way, well I don't know if it's humane, but it's most humane of the unpleasant task of killing chickens. If you cover their heads in the daytime and you take off the light, the chickens become comatose, and I take a sock and I put it over the head of the chicken and I lay it down on its side, even with its feet off the ground.
TOMAnd I stroke its head very gently and the neck relaxes and stretches out and I have the sock folded so that the neck will stretch out below the sock and then I take a very sharp edge and make sure that it's just one swipe and that's it.
PAGEAll right, Tom.
WALKERI thank you so much for this. I think this is what we need to share with each other because people don't know how to be compassionate. They know they need to eat, but they don't know how to be compassionate with what they're about to eat.
WALKERI mean, that's the crux of the matter and what you're offering is precious. It's like that scene in "Cold Mountain" where the woman kills a goat. You know, she does what you did. She has, she's raised these goats, you know, with great care and love, and then she has to kill one because there's nothing else to eat and there's a soldier there who's dying.
WALKERSo she has the goat's head on her lap and she strokes it and she talks to it as she has stroked and talked to it the whole time of its life, and then she kills it and then they, she and the dying soldier, you know, have something to eat. I mean, there is a way to do it.
WALKERThere is a way that we must learn and, you know, people have known how to do this before. In my family, we did not kill things, well except for the wringing of the neck, but, you know, there was a consciousness about, for instance, killing the yearly bull we had to eat. So I really appreciate what you said very, very much.
PAGEThank you Tom. I'm Susan Page and you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." We've been taking your calls at 1-800-433-8850 and reading your emails, email@example.com. You know, we're coming toward the end of this hour, and you refer to the chickens almost as if they were your children. You refer to yourself with them as momma. I know you have a daughter, Rebecca, with whom you've had a strained relationship. Is that still the case?
WALKERYes, yes, but that has nothing to do with my chicken love. This is more in the sense of Amma, you know, the hugging saint of India, who says that true motherhood means that all creatures are your children. That's true motherhood, and she defines that as divine love and as God.
WALKERSo that is where I'm coming from, that in a sense, all the creatures, if you’re a mother, you're a mother of everything. You're not just a mother of your children. So even though Rebecca is my biological daughter, you know, she's just one of many beings that I claim as, you know, my children.
PAGEI think having a child does make you feel more responsible for everything else in the world, certainly for all the other children in your world. That was certainly the case with me. Did you find that as well?
WALKERWell, yes and no. I mean, my way of being is inherited. I mean, I come from a culture where the mother of the village or the mother of the house totally got it that she was responsible for all the children in the community. My mother was responsible, not just for her eight children, but for every child in the community and this went on until she was an old woman.
WALKERYou know, to the end of her life, I would go back from college or, you know, my own life, visit her and there she would be, surrounded by even more children than she'd given birth to, and she was teaching them Bible studies, she was teaching them singing, she was teaching them how to sew. And, you know, that's what it means to be a mother.
WALKERYou're a mother of everything. You're not just a mother of your children, and the selfishness in the small view, you know, that you're just the mother of the two or three that you have, that's why we're in such a desperate situation because you don't care about other people.
PAGEAnd you write that actually having these chickens has connected you back to your mother, your childhood, in this thought?
WALKERYes, and it's like Proust, you know, Proust who ate the Madeleine cookie, you know, in France, you know, and suddenly he remembered, you know, what he had forgotten, and that's because things like, you know, some scenes, some sites like the chickens, some smells, some textures take us back and my thing is to say to people, let yourself be taken.
WALKERDon't block it out, don't say, gosh, I dreamed about, you know, chickens last night, but I'm sure that didn't have anything to do with anything. Well, it might have something to do with everything.
PAGEAlice Walker, thank you so much for joining us this hour. Alice Walker, the Pulitzer Prize winning novelist, poet and activist talking with us this hour about "The Chicken Chronicles." Thanks so much for being with us.
WALKERThank you so much.
PAGEI'm Susan Page of "USA Today," filling for Diane Rehm. Thanks for listening.
ANNOUNCER"The Diane Rehm Show" is produced by Sandra Pinkard, Nancy Robertson, Susan Nabors, Denise Couture, Monique Nazareth and Sarah Ashworth. The engineer is Tobey Schreiner. Dorie Anisman answers the phones. Visit drshow.org for audio archives, transcripts, podcasts and CD rates. Call 202-885-1200 for more information.
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