At Crossroads with Chickens: A 'What If It Works?' Adventure in Off-Grid Living and Quest for Home
A memoir by Tory McCagg
Bauhan Publishing (2020, 192 pp.)
Monadnock means "a mountain that stands alone," and in its imposing shadow - at 3,165 feet above sea level it still lords over six New England states - the author and her husband, Carl, decide to buy 193 acres in rural southern New Hampshire in 2006.
They plan to live there someday, somehow, but not now, still ensconced in their "forever home" in Providence, Rhode Island. The author is writing and working as a local political activist, while Carl, a New Hamphirite by birth, who likes to drive in blizzards, is the former trombone player for the R&B band Roomful of Blues, and travels a lot as a freelance musician and producer- and time has not decided them. Until it does.
The couple - who don't have children - have a hard time being, she notes. They are always doing.
She writes that they "lost all rationality" when they bought the land in Jeffrey, New Hampshire. They named the windswept land Darwin's View - "with its suggestions of evolution, effort over the long haul, and survival, seemed apt. This would not be an easy place. It would be bigger than us and here for longer. … We wanted to make something of it that would make a difference."
Stewards of the land they would be. Living off grid, as the town planners admonished them was not possible, since a yurt, their original idea, had to be connected to a septic system. Then a hobbit house, they think, raising the ante. A sod house. Except if the roof leaked. And, adds McCagg, "eventually all roofs leak."
Finally, in 2012, a small, 24-by-38-foot timber-framed self-contained structure is put in place, in the foulest New England weather. Energy-efficient windows, a solar array, because of "all those tax incentives and rebates."
Now, where do the chickens come in?
They have to put the land into a conservation easement, and cut down a lot of old trees in order to build the house on top of a hill. That was not a good idea, according to the local dowser, who had been electrocuted as a youth and knows a thing or two. They have upset the mountain dragons, thus causing horrendous windstorms the first winter that they attempt to live there.
Now the author becomes obsessed with eggs - "happy eggs," not eggs born into industrial production, but eggs that she knows "their living conditions with my own eyes." Six chicks she mail-orders. The beginning of seven generation of chickens she chronicles lovingly, each with its own endearing personality.
Enduring the first winter's scathing windstorms, she muses on their mission: "Carl and I intended to restore the soil and pastureland and orchards. ... We hoped above all to help, not to harm. ... Maybe we, as a species, have caused this planet's trauma and destruction. Maybe Americans, with all our potential, are not following in our founders' footsteps and doing whatever we can so that future generations might have some degree of joy in life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness."
The author's own history of "home" is troubled. A child of a professor of Eastern European studies, who moved the family to Michigan, and an East Coast mother who was a sculptor, the author grew up uneasily between the Midwest and Connecticut, the family seat. Attending boarding school in Connecticut cemented her sense of isolation. She has always felt plagued by a conflicted mind.
Gradually, the author manages her mother's visits to the house - although her mother now has Parkinson's disease, is based in New York City and severely restricted from her earlier self. The move to Darwin's View means also a shift from "mother/daughter to daughter as caretaker."
The chickens bring delightful relief. Big Red the blustery rooster protects his harem daily, and glares at the author eye to eye from the covered porch as she sits at her desk. The chickens offer sprightly lessons in social "beingness." McCagg writes: "Whether I fully understood the depths of the chickens' teaching moment, I knew I needed more of them. ... that my fantasy of healing the earth might come true."
Here is a couple trying to do the right thing. They have money. They are tormented by the questions: "Where do I begin? How line up my actions with my principles? How challenge myself to make the necessary changes and sacrifice when I didn't have to?"
There are no answers. The author just watches the chickens.
An epigraph that seems particularly prescient: "In order to attain the impossible, one must attempt the absurd." - Miguel de Cervantes