When I was growing up a lame riddle often repeated was: “Why did the chicken cross the road? To get to the other side.” Looking back on it, I can see the question and answer are just kind of daffy, but also hear a little bit of a Merrimack Valley version of the Zen mind-bender: “What is the sound of one hand clapping?” This is all to say that chickens are so familiar in our culture that it’s easy not to think of them, or at least the actual animals that produce eggs for the Owl Diner and meat parts for the packages at Market Basket. In the mid-1950s, when my family moved from Centralville, Orleans Street, to the Dracut frontier way down at the woodsy foot of Hildreth Street in ye olde New Boston Village, some of our neighbors were small-scale farmers (Fournier, Shaw) and a couple of others raised chickens in backyard coops. For a long time the Cotes lived in a semi-finished cellar while they saved money to eventually build a handsome two-level Cape-style house on top. They had hens in the backyard. I hadn’t thought about these close encounters with chickens for a while, but the subject has come up in the city. For decades, one of my uncles raised pigeons in a coop behind his house in Centralville. I was fascinated by the birds and never thought it was strange that they were flying around the yard and living in the small structure out back.
I don’t have a firm opinion on how the city should regulate live chickens. More information is due from various city departments and officials. That’s the way it should be handled. Let’s get the best information available. Stepping back from the particulars, I am interested in the process of petitioning the City Council for action on this issue. This public conversation seems to be of a piece with an increased level of civic activism in the community. That’s a good thing. I want to hear from the other 15 people who showed up to speak at the subcommittee meeting before time ran out this past Tuesday—the meeting will be reconvened soon. This feels like it is part of the larger community gardening movement in the city, part of the discussion about sustainability, part of making accommodations in a one-time factory city where people are customizing the urban lifestyle, part of an adjustment in a place with thousands of people who have come here from more rural environs not unlike the earlier waves of immigrants. Those small farmers, home gardeners, and poultry-raisers in Dracut included Greek, French-Canadian, and Polish families whose forbears had come to Lowell and Greater Lowell in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Their Yankee neighbors had been on the ground since the mid-1600s. And Lowell has another kind of newcomer, the urban homesteader type who is looking for a distinctive Green-tinted, small-scale urban experience with the benefits of a lively culture and pluralistic population.
I think we can figure out why the chicken crossed the road and learn something in the process.