Oliver on Warren, 'Hatched: Dispatches from the Backyard Chicken Movement'

Author: 
Gina G. Warren
Reviewer: 
Catherine Oliver

Gina G. Warren. Hatched: Dispatches from the Backyard Chicken Movement. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2021. 272 pp. $24.95 (e-book), ISBN 978-0-295-74863-4; $24.95 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-295-74862-7.

Reviewed by Catherine Oliver (University of Cambridge) Published on H-Environment (January, 2022) Commissioned by Daniella McCahey (Texas Tech University)

Printable Version: https://www.h-net.org/reviews/showpdf.php?id=56658

Backyard chickens—and the industries surrounding them—are booming in North America, Europe, and Australia. This surge of (usually middle-class, often urban or suburban) domestic chicken keeping has been linked to a perceived threat of food scarcity during the early shortages of the pandemic in the United Kingdom and, in the United States, to “hipsteaders,” who, “like hipsters, [are] setting new trends and flaunting the look on Instagram. But they’re also doing a lot of the hard, survival-focused work that defines homesteading.”[1] Gina G. Warren’s Hatched: Dispatches from the Backyard Chicken Movement attempts to capture the impulses, economies, and communities that are flourishing around these simultaneously totally ordinary and wildly strange creatures.

Hatched is about the US backyard chicken movement and aims, according to its back cover blurb, to “shed light on Americans’ complex relationships with animals—as guardians, companions, and consumers—and what it means to be a conscious eater.” The book promises to weave together interviews with the author’s own experiences as a backyard keeper, although it is the latter that is the predominant force. Across eleven chapters, Warren moves from the reasons behind the “flock frenzy” to graphic depictions of home slaughter, cutting a chicken’s neck and watching blood flow, “catch[ing] it in the yogurt container” (pp. 3, 202). The book opens by firmly setting out the author’s perception of chickens as lively commodities—as goods to be understood as part of a process—so the inevitable slaughter at the end of the book should not be surprising, but it is harrowing.[2]

Between the opening history of backyard chickens and her home slaughter, Warren visits some of the topics that contemporary chicken keepers might be concerned with, such as what chickens eat (chapter 7), what might go wrong (chapter 6), and how to butcher and eat a whole chicken carcass (chapter 10). There is also a smattering of interviews with other chicken keepers (chapter 5) and chicken sellers (chapter 3), as well as some “freegans” whose ethics Warren aspires to in her pursuit of a different way of eating (chapter 4).

The first half of Hatched keys into some of the contemporary economies and lifestyles burgeoning around chickens. From a brief history of the backyard chicken to understanding the people who keep “designer” (specialist breed, often ornamental) birds, the first five chapters explicitly attempt to connect backyard chicken keeping with wider questions over waste, human connections to nature, and the ways chickens might change urban life. Unfortunately, however, Warren’s engagement with very real and substantive communities of and literature about, for example, veganism, freeganism, and animal sanctuaries is minimal and tends toward surface-level opinions (“chickens are a lot more mainstream than veganism and a little bit like kombucha” [p. 5]). As a result, the book sways firmly into memoir rather than nuanced academic text.

The first few chapters offer some interesting insights into parts of the current backyard chicken boom in the US, drawing on interviews with chicken keepers and sellers. For example, in chapter 2, Warren meets a range of chicken sellers who offer birds for sale for up to a staggering $189.99: “it’s as simple as supply and demand” (p. 31). In chapter 5, readers are introduced to some of the people who keep designer flocks. Here, we meet a farmer called Patrick who farms black soldier fly larvae as a gourmet chicken treat. To Warren’s seeming confusion and annoyance, Patrick talks about the growing market of people for whom eating backyard chickens is “a big no-no” (p. 110).

Two things particularly struck me in the first part of the book: for the author, chickens are never considered as beings who could exist not as food; and Warren’s self-proclaimed countercultural ideals and aversion to capitalism are rarely, if ever, translated into understandings of how capitalism had violently produced, through exploitation of human and nonhuman labor, the very birds in front of her. Warren’s argument for relocalization as a form of resistance to grand capitalist narratives—“urban agriculture challenges the notion that some people are only consumers while others are producers”—ignores arguments around nonhuman labor, and the productive capacities of chickens as lively commodities and metabolic laborers (p. 70).[3]

The later chapters of Hatched are firmly focused on Warren and her own small flock of chickens. The narrative and tone of the book switches in chapter 6, with an uncomfortable story about Warren and her neighbor Taylor. As the book progresses and the author takes on an increasingly confessional tone, the author’s commitments to alternative ethics reveal themselves as almost entirely aesthetic: “I’ve asked Katie [Warren’s roommate] more than once if she thinks I’ll be providing an honorable neighborhood service or just starting an all-out war with Taylor if I slaughter the [neighbor’s] rooster in secret. If I wasn’t so terrified of Taylor, I suspect the rooster would be gone by now” (p. 140). What is particularly jarring is that Warren takes issue with specific natural galline behaviors (roosting in trees, crowing, pecking, roaming freely, jumping), which are the very same behaviors that chickens are denied in industrial agriculture. These behaviors are ones that many ethically driven domestic keepers love to see flourish in their flocks.[4] Warren’s monologue around her neighbor’s rooster, while ostensibly grounded in concerns over biosecurity, reveals a deeper inconsistency in her own views of chickens. Warren views these chickens not as pets nor companions but as objects that are owned and whose value is only in “providing breakfast” (p. 149). While her own chickens are good because they are productive, these other unproductive chickens are distasteful and a waste of resources.

Later in the same chapter, Warren shares her contempt for an animal control officer who questions Warren’s own backyard setup in an imagined scenario of how to deal with the challenge to Warren’s own, potentially legally dubious, backyard chicken setup: “knock the woman out, throw her in the backseat of her car, and drive it into the Atchafalaya Basin” (p. 154). Things continue in this troubling turn over the next two chapters. First, Warren tries unsuccessfully to breed insects to eat; then, she tries, also with deadly consequences, to raise a set of chicks as broiler birds to slaughter (“dispatch”) and eat. The inconsistencies between Warren’s stated ethics and her practices only become further apart as she breeds chickens to eat alongside her egg-producing (and beloved) birds, Joan and Amelia.

The ethical nuances of human relationships with animals as food—and how they could be otherwise—are absent from Warren’s reasons for keeping and writing about chickens. Chicken keeping is not an alternative mode of being—a way into the parallel world in which all other animals exist—nor a political choice for Warren.[5] Warren’s backyard chickens convey a particular “hipsteader” aesthetic, albeit one that comes with a lot of hard work. Warren concludes the book by saying she occupies, uniquely, both sides of a spectrum of chicken keepers: those who love their birds and those who eat them. To her mind, these are not oppositional.

Unfortunately, Warren fails to engage with the wide range of critiques posed by critical animal studies scholars around questions of care, love, abuse, power, and domination in our relationships with animals.[6] While debates around love, care, and killing have been commonplace in the wake of recent work on animal companionship and collaboration, these complexities are not developed by Warren so much as stated as irrelevant.[7] Throughout, there is little recognition of the ways that chickens and humans have become mutually dependent on one another, or on what this means in the backyard.

Hatched is the latest in a stream of books pertaining to the natural world that see the ultimate act of love being to eat their subjects (most viscerally realized in the disconcerting Badgerlands: The Twilight World of Britain’s Most Enigmatic Animal [2013] by Patrick Barkham). While Warren has clearly tried, to her credit, to foreground her own inconsistencies and hypocrisies in the book, articulations such as “I don’t cry because I feel guilty about killing them; I cry because I miss them. I cry because it’s sad. Because I’ve lost beings I care about” being espoused after a graphic depiction of the slaughter of the very same birds ring hollow (p. 212).

Having worked with and known chickens for several years, I began reading this book excited to learn more about these wondrous and special birds that are widely denigrated and abused. However, I left feeling deeply uncomfortable about what I had just read. Chickens themselves—their desires, behaviors, relationships, and needs—feature at most as addendums to a book dedicated to describing Warren’s own world. At one point, Warren writes that “the chickens most people eat on a weekly basis are not really chickens at all,” a refrain that ultimately serves to allow these birds to continue to be industrially exploited (p. 180). After all, they are not really chickens. Thus, the interesting early chapters of the book are sadly overshadowed, for me, by the book’s latter half.

If you are interested in learning about a burgeoning and complex chicken movement that has been related not only with food scarcity and urban agriculture but also with transformative mental well-being effects and other benefits, the first half of this book features some interesting introductory narratives. However, the second half goes little way to documenting any of these galline worlds beyond Warren’s own backyard, and perhaps will leave those seeking out critical perspectives feeling underwhelmed, if not uncomfortable. In her talk of keeping chickens being countercultural, it feels disappointing that Warren fails to unpack or challenge their widespread positioning as lively commodities, metabolic laborers, or productive pets. Wouldn’t the truly countercultural act be to dispute these framings of chickens altogether and aspire to less violent and truly anti-capitalist means of cohabitation with these amazing, but underappreciated, birds that make up so much of life on earth?

Notes

[1]. Tiffany Kary, “Covid Is Turning Us All into Hipsteaders,” Bloomberg News, September 8, 2020, https://www.bloomberg.com/news/features/2020-09-08/covid-diy-boom-raising-chickens-gardening.

[2]. Rosemary-Claire Collard and Jessica Dempsey, “Life for Sale? The Politics of Lively Commodities,” Environment and Planning A 45, no. 11 (2013): 2682-99.

[3]. Maan Barua, Thomas White, and David Nally, “Rescaling the Metabolic,” CRASSH (blog), October 1, 2020, http://www.crassh.cam.ac.uk/blog/post/rescaling-the-metabolic.

[4]. Mary Britton Clouse, Chicken Run Rescue, accessed October 15, 2021, http://www.chickenrunrescue.org/About.

[5]. Alice Walker, The Chicken Chronicles: A Memoir (London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 2012).

[6]. Zipporah Weisberg, “The Broken Promises of Monsters: Haraway, Animals and the Humanist Legacy,” Journal for Critical Animal Studies 7, no. 2 (2009): 22-62; and Kendra Coulter, Animals, Work, and the Promise of Interspecies Solidarity (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2016).

[7]. Eva Giraud and Gregory Hollin, “Care, Laboratory Beagles and Affective Utopia,” Theory, Culture & Society 33, no. 4 (2016): 27-49.

Citation: Catherine Oliver. Review of Warren, Gina G., Hatched: Dispatches from the Backyard Chicken Movement. H-Environment, H-Net Reviews. January, 2022. URL: https://www.h-net.org/reviews/showrev.php?id=56658

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