The Hen: An Appreciation – E.B. White October 27, 2013

Our blog at My Pet Chicken has made many posts and references about the social misconceptions associated with keeping a backyard flock. Such as Lissa’s post: Do chickens make you look poor? Yet, the humble chicken always finds its way back into our backyards and hearts.  When I read this essay by E.B. White—“The Hen: An Appreciation,” from the book of essays, The Second Tree from the Corner, 1944—I was shocked by how we, as humans, repeat our own absurd social notions, even across centuries.

The Hen: An Appreciation--we enjoy our silkies as they wander beneath the mimosa tree.

Our Silkies wander free by the Mimosa tree.

I’d like to share how much “The Hen: An Appreciation” touched me. He wrote:

Chickens do not always enjoy an honorable position among city-bred people, although the egg, I notice, goes on and on. Right now the hen is in favor. The war has deified her and she is the darling of the home front, feted at conference tables, praised in every smoking car, her girlish ways and curious habits the topic of many an excited husbandryman to whom yesterday she was a stranger without honor or allure…

This brings to mind our economic issues of the recent years, 2008 and beyond—and how we went on with our everyday lives before then, grocery shopping, and buying our eggs in cartons, as if these little pearls of protein originated nowhere before they appeared in the grocery store and came home to our fridge. Then we saw turmoil in our lives, upsetting our wallets and our days of ignorance came to an end. The concept of victory gardening came into our lives again. Along with a garden, most of the families I’ve known have added a few hens to work hand in hand with their tomatoes and herbs. It has become a time, again, that where you live doesn’t matter because we made room again for our feathered friends in our lives among our picket fences.

White shared a similar experience in “The Hen: An Appreciation”:

My own attachment to the hen dates from 1907, and I have been faithful to her in good times and bad. Ours has not always been an easy relationship to maintain. At first, as a boy in a carefully zoned suburb, I had neighbors and the police to recon with; my chickens had to be as closely guarded as an underground newspaper…

I can’t tell you how many statutes in city and country alike have ousted the chicken from backyards! Sometimes rules automatically regard them as livestock, as if they could not be as important to a family as their household cat, or family dog. People are  fighting to change the laws, city by city and town by town, as neighbors step up speaking in favor having hens. But in the meantime, many are still keeping hens in secret in fear someone will call the police and haul off their sweet Betsy and Henrietta.

In “The Hen: An Appreciation,” White wrote:

Later, as a man in the country, I had my old friends in town to reckon with, most of whom regarded the hen as a comic prop straight out of vaudeville… Their scorn only increased my devotion to the hen. I remained loyal, as a man would to a bride whom his family received with open ridicule. Now it is my turn to wear the smile, as I listen to the enthusiastic cackling of urbanites, who have suddenly taken up the hen socially and who fill the air with their newfound ecstasy and knowledge and the relative charms of the New Hampshire Red and the Laced Wyandotte. You would think, from their nervous cries of wonder and praise, that the hen was hatched yesterday in the suburbs of New York, instead of in the remote past in the jungles of India…

I’ve personally seen the social stigma in a modern society. Of course, with the Internet and Facebook, we live in a time where people will nose into your lives and openly pass uninformed judgement. But when we moved outside city limits, I found a whole new world open up to me. No more apartment meant land. …And the joy animals gave me. I was able to fill our home with lots of love for furry and feathered beings. So chickens moved right in, before we even finished unpacking our city life. I couldn’t wait to share my new found love of having chickens, and no sooner did I share online, did comments like “You’ve gone country!” started popping. I just “Keep Calm and Chicken On!” so to speak.

Keep Calm and Chicken On - The Hen: An Appreciation (E.B. White)

Appreciate your hens!

Now, many years later, I have more friends posting about their adventures with chickens then ever before, and they haven’t even left the city behind. Some post with thanks for bringing them into the fold, other to inform me of their newest breed obsession. But city or country, these chickens are now EVERYWHERE!

“To a man who keeps hens, all poultry lore is exciting and endlessly fascinating. Every spring I settle down with my farm journal and read, with the same glazed expression on my face, the age old story of how to prepare a brooder-house…”

For me, this happens when I look forward to my spring catalogs, or the newest baby chick availability updates from My Pet Chicken. Of course I’m also a regular subscriber to Mother Earth News and I’ll bury my head in that magazine for hours when they write about growing your flock, or helping my broody hens expand my flock for me. I know that feeling in my heart just as White had nearly 100 years ago in “The Hen: An Appreciation.” 

I certainly hope if you find any more historical references to this wonderful bird you feel free to share with us, they’re an important part of history. Everyone should know the chicken as we at My Pet Chicken Do!

2 Comments
Heather O'Keefe October 20th, 2014

I’m stealing the ‘Keep Calm and Chicken On’ picture…That’s so me. I always wanted the country life as a child and people thought I was crazy. Now I’m living the dream and can’t imagine life without my chickens, ducks, geese, goats, and sheep. Last year had a woman ask me why I was starting my hobby farm so late in life. Wasn’t I too old for it? Told her that you’re never too old to follow a dream. And I can’t wait to see where my dream takes me as our flocks and herds grow.

Amanda T. October 21st, 2014

Love the picture 😉 and that in a country that is becoming more and more strict by laws created by ignorance people are still able to live on the land! Those are cute critters/pets you have!!

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