When Art Meets Chickens

Elliott: Lessons Learned From Chickens

When I started this blog three years ago I began interviewing fellow chicken keepers – first my friends, and then total strangers about how they ended up on Gabriola Island, what they did before they moved here and their experiences with chickens. I’ve now posted 49 profiles in a series entitled “Having Chickens Is A Great Way To Meet Your Neighbours”.

I’m always looking for ways to connect with other chicken people so when Elliott posted a zoom invite to a reading from his chapbook of poetry in an online chicken group I was eager to attend. Unfortunately I wasn’t able to, but asked if I could interview him for this blog. He happily complied.

This is the first long-distance online chat I’ve had. It’s not quite the same as meeting someone in person and seeing them on their home turf, but it allows for a small snapshot into his life, his writing and art and the impact that keeping birds has had on his life.

Can you tell me a bit about growing up and the draw to country living?

I grew up in the village of North Syracuse in Central New York State. I didn’t have experience with farming or rural life. I always loved animals more than anything. We had some woods and a creek behind our house. I spent a lot of my childhood playing down there and watching animals.

From my teen years onward I always pictured myself living somewhere like New York City. I thought I would find belonging in urban life as a queer person. 

Living on our own land was honestly my partner’s lifelong dream. I wasn’t sold on the idea, but I love it now. Chickens were a big part of my discovery that this was indeed the life for me. 

Have you ever had chickens before? 

Nope, I have never lived anywhere else that would be conducive to chickens. However, my partner has raised chickens in the past on another family farm. 

What was your first experience with them?

My first interaction with chickens was in kindergarten. We incubated and hatched eggs in our class. I remember being very excited and concerned about their welfare after they hatched and went back to the farm. It was wonderful to see the fluffy little chicks. After that, my second experience was picking up our chicks at Moyer’s Farm two years ago. Chickens have been a part of my daily life ever since.

What is your homestead like? 

We are located in the town of Homer, N.Y. I traveled around in my 20’s but ended up back in Central New York. We have 96 acres! Much of it is pine and hardwood forest, and we also have cleared land for farming. There is a pond stocked with fish that is great for swimming. We live in a modified post-and-beam barn with shellacked larch floors, ceilings and walls. We have are 3 Nigerian goats who provide us with milk, about 40 egg layers, 4 Saxony ducks, 2 angora rabbits, 2 kitties, an Australian Shepherd and an Old English Sheepdog. We are kill-free when it comes to our chickens.

You mentioned that you don’t eat your birds, but you did start off with both meat birds and layers. What happened?

As for the broilers…yes, my partner originally wanted to raise our own meat. But we fell in love with them. I knew I wouldn’t be able to handle it, although I did eat meat. I’ve been a vegetarian on and off the past 10 years. I thought it was definitely more ethical to raise our own if we were going to eat meat. I thought I’d just try not to get attached. They were too wonderful. We discovered we can’t personally do it. Also, I would never buy commercial broilers again. They are designed inhumanely and their bodies can’t sustain themselves. They were clearly uncomfortable, too heavy for their legs and their hearts couldn’t maintain their metabolism. They are bred just to be slaughtered after a few months and that doesn’t seem fair in my worldview. 

“What they don’t tell you about chickens is that you will fall in love with them. Or, more likely, I am among the few who have fallen for these strange and beautiful birds.  People have written poems and odes to all sorts of birds, but I have never read one about chickens. Chickens are grossly under appreciated.”

– excerpt from “What They Don’t Tell You About Chickens”

Your first four books – fiction, essays and a non-fiction novel – are centered around themes reflecting your own identity as a non-binary transman. Your fifth book, a collection of poetry titled “Lessons Learned From Chickens” was a bit of a departure. What prompted that move?

I wanted to do something different. Living here, I felt inspired by nature and the simpler things. I began writing haikus on my morning walks. I was taking a poetry class with writers.com and poet Susan Vespoli that encouraged writing about gratitude and hope. Poetry was new for me, and it took me in a different direction. I wanted to share something a bit more positive with readers. I think writing about trans issues is important for sure, and I will again in the future. But it’s also neat to see trans artists sharing art unrelated to gender identity. And for me, it was turning towards the light of the present moment, instead of the struggles of the past.

How do you think having chickens informs your writing?

I was very inspired by the sisterhood of our rotund, white chickens. Their lives and deaths touched my heart. I’ve always loved birds, but I was admittedly surprised at the sweetness and complexity of these creatures. They cared so much for each other and even mourned their dead, standing vigil through the night. They are all gone now. But they are beautiful souls who continue to live on, in spirit on the land. I wanted to share their stories in particular. They brought up ideas of life, death, family, spirituality. Loving them changed me as a person. 

Was ‘Chickens’ a one off or will they feature in future work?

My current novel-in-progress features Gina the magical chicken, based on her true story. I have the beginnings of a novel about chickens for children (and all ages). My poetry often comes back to chickens. They seem to be a permanent fixture in my heart and imagination!

“Chickens’ eyes get heavy 
as they fall asleep 
with the warmth of their sisters. 
Thinking of them, 
I won’t have nightmares 

From the poem “Lessons Learned From Chickens.”

“Like obese dinosaurs
they roam among the dandelions,
running and flapping with pure joy,
or huddling down in the dirt,
rotund bodies pressed together
to wiggle and shake
and throw dirt in the air.”

From the poem, “Pure Joy.”

Many thanks to Elliott for sharing his writing, artwork and photos, used with permission.

To check out more of Elliott’s work:

“Lessons Learned From Chickens”:  https://www.amazon.com/dp/B096LTWCH2ref_=pe_3052080_397514860

His blog, where you can read the chapbook for free:  https://catroadtrip.net/poetry-2/

Instagram: elliottdeline

If you are an artist or writer that features chickens in your work and would like to share it here, please drop me a line by using the ‘contact’ button on my home page.

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