As those of you who read here regularly will remember, when we got our chicks in April, there was quite a brouhaha in the neighborhood. We were quite taken aback, having been optimistically confident that Portlanders were into chickens, into neighborhood, into sustainability, and all those good, wholesome things. Knowing how many folks in PDX successfully raise chickens in their city lots, I maintain a belief that some, if not most, parts of the city are friendly to these practices. Our neighborhood has proved resolutely not to be among them, however.
The girls are just now getting into their laying rhythm, a couple of eggs a day now, and are gorgeous creatures, as you can see. But they are chickens, and they are chatty birds who are keyed to the seasons. Right now, sunrise is around half past five, and that’s when the girls arise. A few weeks ago we heard them setting up a racket around then, and rolled out of bed to go put them in their yard. Since then, we’ve been getting up at 5:30 to beat them to the coop door, and letting them range in the yard for an hour or so, and then putting them in their run. We thought that this would be sufficient to keep their clucks and conversations from being annoying to the neighbors.
Nevertheless, because of the stated powerful opposition we received early on, we have been terribly self-conscious about any noise the girls make. Just this week, on a ride we took early one morning, we had a long conversation about how we worried about the girls bothering people, and what that meant and what, if anything, we should do about it.
This is a very difficult issue for us. Contrary to the way many people seem to live in today’s world, we do not actually believe that being an American means that one has the “right” to do whatever one wants. We may feel that way, sometimes, but we try not to act on it. It’s hard, though, not to drift that way. We struggle with that attitude with many incidents in daily life. In a country where most of what people are doing seems wrong to us, it is tempting to add up a column of those wrongs and say, well, if you all get to do all those things, then we can do this one little thing. It is easy to fall in to the popular pastime of self-victimization by this route. All those things people do suddenly become things they are doing to us. All the power mowers, all the cars, all the NIMBY attitudes become personal assaults.
It all starts to feel very wearing: the fact that our anti-chicken neighbors will not meet our eyes when they accidentally emerge into the front yard when we are outside, all the conversations we have in our heads, etc. But after that ride we felt renewed in our convictions, and decided it was OK to keep the chickens. We love them, our household does not make any more noise than any other household, and furthermore, people should get used to integrating chickens and other productive activities into our urban landscape. We added it up, that is to say, and decided the account balance was in our favor.
Ben Stein wrote a really thought-provoking editorial in Sunday’s NYT Business section, speaking to a shift in our country, from a collection of communities to a collection of individuals. From a place where your neighbors would share their pool, and look after your kid if she got sent home sick from school, to a place where everyone is supposed to have their own damn pool, and your neighbors wouldn’t recognize your kid because they’ve never even met you. There is something of the suburban pastoral in the vision he presents of America in the fifties, but at the same time, I could not easily push away what he had to say. Things have changed, for the worse, here in America. We are losing the ability to share—space, time, words, ideas. I was particularly struck that this article was in the business section—not the section of the paper you generally turn to for sentimental views of community.
One of the big things that I think has changed is that economistic thinking rules. We all live by adding up what we have against what someone else has, what we get out of a transaction versus what the other guy gets. In this mode of thinking, graciousness, cordiality, and civility do not compute. They are ephemeral, and not amenable to quantification. In fact, they take time, moments of slowness and pause, impeding the all-important forward motion of commerce. I suppose it doesn’t help that we are in an intensely militaristic moment globally. Attack first, and heck, don’t even bother with asking questions later.
Monday morning we got a call from Dave, the very kind man with the county (see the chicken fracas post for more on this man’s goodness) who told us that he is getting noise complaints about the chickens. He has gotten some from the original opponents, but he is also getting some from new people. People, as Patrick notes, who are reacting to reality, not to the imagined horrors, of chickens. So we know of 6 households (at least) of the 28 or so in our permit area who are not happy to have chickens nearby. Unhappy enough, in fact, to go out of their way to complain.
After writing to our landlord (a chicken proponent, who is about to get his own chickens) we learned that over the weekend, some neighbors also emailed him about the early morning chicken calls. Unfortunately, they did not feel comfortable complaining to us. This is not a community. It is a collection of individuals.
Tuesday morning we sat on the backsteps listening to the wild birds make their morning calls, and the squirrels begin to scrabble around and scold, and then, at 5:30 (they are consistent), the chickens. Their sounds do not by any means distinguish themselves on a decibel level from the local urban wildlife. Patrick observed, however, that the chickens sound different to human ears. There is some way, developed over thousands of years of mutual domestication, that their clucks and croons grab our attention. Sadly, some people are working hard in today’s world to deny those old connections to the nonhuman, natural world, to our environment, to our food sources. They do not want to be reminded that their eggs, their grilled, boneless chicken breast are connected to an animal, a living, breathing, feathered, speechifying being. To hear, to see, to gather an egg from our chickens is for me a moment for grace—for gratitude for what we have. For some of our neighbors it is cause for a rise in blood-pressure, or an early morning groan, or a frustrated phone call.
Our initial reaction was to give up. Our goal is not to prove a point, not to make people unhappy, nor, even, to win. Our goal was to nurture animals, to nurture ourselves, and hopefully to add some of that good experience to others’ lives. We do not want to just confront arrogance with adamance, in a poultry arms race. That is not the world we want to live in. Just because we want chickens does not mean that we should have them. Chickens are not an inalienable right, just like cars are not, nor clean air, nor even free speech. They are all privileges, dependent on many things we take too much for granted.
So we have sent out feelers about who might take them, and communicated with various homesteady/urban poultry folks about the problem. Patrick asked folks on the Portland Backyard Chickens list (an awesome group of very supportive and helpful folks) to tell us their stories about having chickens. What were their neighborhoods/neighbors like? The consensus seems to be that we, by some fluke, managed to find one of the few agressively anti-chicken outposts in Portland. Folks have had occassional issues with neighbors, but their neighbors have told them about it and they have found solutions. Mostly, however, people report that neighbors enjoy the birds, visit and feed them, chat with them about the hens, and enjoy any excess eggs. This was actually much more our experience in Oakland, despite the much closer quarters we and the chickens were in.
One member of the list suggested the possibility of mediation, wherein a third party would sit with us and the offended parties and see if there was any possible resolution that is less antagonistic than the current state of affairs. We are exploring this possibility, though we are unsure whether anyone will be willing to come. But Patrick had a good conversation with the mediation office, and we are awaiting more info in the mail.
On top of all the complaints to the nuisance control people and our landlord, we received an anonymously-sent letter yesterday. It was a form letter to be sent to owners of barking dogs, with the word “dog” crossed out and chicken written in, and apparently downloaded from the County Department of Business and Community Development, Animal Control Division web site (which I can’t find—the letter said that’s where it was from). This is a different division than Dave’s. The sender also attached three pages of suggestions for keeping a barking dog quiet! Patrick contacted the office that the form comes from, and they said that the neighbors could get a petition going that would result in a fine. We could appeal the fine.
The woman at the agency—out of Troutdale, where apparently roosters are legal—said she had a neighbor with a rooster, and the crowing was a problem, but they came to an agreement that the neighbor wouldn’t let the rooster out until the woman left for work. This intrigued us, as in combination with some remarks from the informal PDX chicken survey we’d been receiving, it suggested that perhaps we could do something about the early morning issue. Chickens will not make noise if it’s dark. Our coop set up was such that half the coop was open, so they knew it was dawn as soon as it was dawn. Last night we took a bunch of corrugated cardboard and covered the open end, so the coop is dark when the door is shut. This morning we got up at 5, went and sat on the back stoop and listened to the neighborhood wake up for and hour and a half. It was quite a grey morning (beautiful, blessed relief from the heat wave!), and the local avian population was a little slower to start than usual, but even once all the crows and scrub jays and flickers were swooping and calling and screeching, no sounds from the chickens at all. How cool is that? So, we let them out at 7 a.m. When we opened the coop they were all awake, but just not making any noise. I think a lot of people probably have completely enclosed coops, so the 5:30 a.m. thing isn’t an issue. This is good chicken fact to know, whatever happens!
We received many generous offers to take our birds, even while the offerers encouraged us to keep them. Our landlords said they’d take them, and good friends (Cleverchimp’s Todd and his wife Martina) who are planning their own coop made the great suggestion that they foster the birds while we figure out what’s going on. This would also give them a chance to try chickens on for size—though their neighborhood has proven chicken-cred.
One thing I take from this whole mess is that, whatever petty nonsense our anti-chicken neighbors put out there, we also have a tremendous base of support—and squawking about this has been a source of great suggestions and generous support.
We don’t know, yet, what we’re going to do. We’ve initiated the mediation thing—while remaining skeptical that we’ll get many takers. We’ve remediated the early morning issue, so that should take some heat off that front. And we are considering what it means to live smack dab in such a yuppified, Stepford block. Whatever happens, I am not sure that is likely to change. We know from other neighbors that this type of aggressive opposition to the new is not restricted to our chickens. There was a powerful opposition, for example, to an attempt to do a City Repair project here. So, we are confronted with the possibility that it doesn’t make sense for us to get too settled in here.
On Monday Patrick and I were distraught. We couldn’t think about anything else, we were angry and sad and hurt. But two days later, even though we may still have to remove the chickens if there’s no other resolution, I am feeling so much more positive. It is mostly about feeling like there are options, avenues of possibility. How much of our anger and stress in daily life is because we feel like we don’t have those things? How much of others? I never knew how much chickens were going to teach me about human relations.