Excerpt: 'Farm City'

'Farm City'
Farm City: The Education of an Urban Farmer
By Novella Carpenter
Hardcover, 288 pages
Penguin Press
List Price: $25.95

Chapter One

I have a farm on a dead-end street in the ghetto. My back stairs are dotted with chicken turds. Bales of straw come undone in the parking area next to my apartment. I harvest lettuce in an abandoned lot. I awake in the mornings to the sounds of farm animals mingled with my neighbor's blaring car alarm.

I didn't always call this place a farm. That didn't happen until the spring of 2005, when a very special package was delivered to my apartment and changed everything. I remember standing on my deck, waiting for it. While scanning the horizon for the postal jeep, I checked the health of my bee colony. Honeybees buzzed in and out of the hive, their hind legs loaded down with yellow pollen. I caught a whiff of their honey-making on the breeze, mixed with the exhaust from the nearby freeway. I could see the highway, heavy with traffic, from the deck.

I noticed that three bees had fallen into a watering can. As their wings sent out desperate ripples along the water, I broke off a twig from a potted star jasmine and offered it to the drowning insects. One bee clambered onto the stick and clung to it as I transported her to the top of the hive. The next bee did the same — she held fast to the twig like a passenger gone overboard, clutching a lifesaver. Safe atop the hive, the two soggy bees opened their wings to the morning sunlight. Once dry and warm, they would be able to fly again. Just to see what would happen, I lifted the final rescuee to the entrance of the hive instead of the top. A guard bee stomped out from the dark recesses of the brood box. There's always one on vigil for disturbances, armed and ready to sting. As the guard bee got closer to the wet one I braced myself for a brutal natural history lesson.

The waterlogged bee started to right herself as she waved a soggy antenna. Another guard bee joined the first, and together they probed the wet bee. She couldn't have smelled of their hive anymore, which is how most bees recognize one another. Nonetheless, the guards began to lick her dry.

"Hey! Hey!" a voice yelled.

I peered down to the end of our dead-end street.

A new car, a silver Toyota Corolla, had arrived on 28th Street the night before, probably the victim of a joyride — Corollas are notoriously easy to start without a key. Local teenagers steal them and drive around until they run out of gas. Already the car had lost one wheel. By nightfall, I predicted, it would be stripped completely.

Amid the jumble of abandoned cars and trash and the shiny Toyota Corolla, I made out the figure of the man who was yelling. He waved vigorously. Bobby.

"Morning, sir!" I called and saluted him. He saluted back.

Bobby lived in an immobilized car. He switched on his television, which was mounted on top of one of the other abandoned cars. An orange extension cord snaked from a teal-colored house at the end of the block. The perky noise of Regis and Kathie Lee joined the sound of the nearby traffic and the clattering trundle of the San Francisco Bay Area's subway, BART, which runs aboveground next to the highway.

Just then, a monk came out of the Buddhist monastery across the street from my house and brought Bobby a snack. The monks will feed anyone who is hungry. Next to the fountain in their courtyard there's a giant alabaster statue of a placid-faced lady riding a dragon: Kuan Yin, the goddess of compassion. My bees loved to drink from the lotus-flower-filled fountain. I often watched their golden bodies zoom across 28th Street, at the same height as the power lines, then swoop down behind the temple's red iron gates.

The monk who handed Bobby a container of rice and vegetables was female, dressed in pale purple robes, her head shaved. Bobby took the food and shoved it into a microwave plugged in next to the television set. Nuked his breakfast.

I heard the clattering sound of a shopping cart. A can scrounger. Wearing a giant Chinese wicker hat and rubber gloves and carrying a pair of tongs, she opened our recycling bin and started fishing around for cans. She muttered to herself in Chinese, "Ay-ya."

I watched as Bobby jogged over to her. I had never seen him run before. "Get out of here," he growled. His territory. She shook her head as if to say she didn't understand and continued fishing. Bobby butted her with his belly. "I said get," he yelled. She scurried away, pulling her cart after her. Bobby watched her retreat.

Then, when she was almost around the corner, as if he felt bad, Bobby put his hands to his mouth and yelled, "I'll see you at the recycling center!" Just a few blocks away, the center paid cash by the pound for metal. Chuckling to himself, Bobby glanced up at me on the deck and flashed me a mostly toothless smile.

This place, this ghetto of Oakland, California, brings out the best and the worst in us.

Bored of waiting around outside, I headed back inside my apartment. A fly strip dangled from the ceiling, and ripped feed bags piled up near the door. A black velour couch my boyfriend and I found in the street sagged in the corner.

I guess the neighborhood brings out the best and worst in me, too. Sure, my chickens lay eggs — but the flock has spawned an occasional rooster that crowed loudly and often, starting at 4 a.m. Bees do result in honey and wax and better pollination — but they have also stung people from time to time. The garden: verdant cornucopia on one hand, rodent-attracting breeding ground on the other.

I flopped onto the couch and read the chalkboard tally that hung near the door:
4 chickens
30,000 bees [approximately]
59 flies
2 monkeys [me and my boyfriend, Bill]

That tally was about to change.

***

A long-debunked scientific theory states that "ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny." Basically that means that the order of development in an embryo indicates its evolutionary development — for example, a human embryo first looks like a fish because we evolved from fish. When Bill and I first moved from Seattle to Oakland, I was reminded of that theory, because somehow we ended up re-creating our old life in the exact same order as we had created it in Seattle. The first year in Oakland, we built the garden; the second year, we got the honeybees and then the chickens. In this, our third year of development, it was time to evolve to the next level.

Out of the corner of my eye, I watched through the window as the postal jeep turned down our street and pulled to a stop in front of our house. A man dressed in wool shorts hopped out, holding an air-hole-riddled box in his arms. I bounded downstairs. My neighbor Mr. Nguyen, who lived one floor below me, was sitting outside on the porch, smoke and steam from his morning cigarette and Vietnamese coffee wafting up together in the crisp spring air. In his sixties, Mr. Nguyen dyed his graying hair black, wore button-down dress shirts, and was surprisingly sprightly. He set down his coffee, stubbed out his cigarette, and walked into the street with me to receive the package.

The postal worker made me sign an official-looking piece of paper before he would hand me the box. It peeped when I opened it.

It was filled with puff balls. Fuzzy yellow ducklings called out desperately with their orange bills. Long-necked goslings squawked, and fluffy multicolored chicks peeped. Three odd-looking chicks with an unattractive pimple of skin atop their heads gazed up quietly from the box.

The delivery guy shook his head in disbelief. I could tell he had questions. Were we not in the city? Wasn't downtown Oakland only ten blocks away? Who is this insane woman? Is this even legal? But years of working for the government had, perhaps, deadened his curiosity. He didn't look me in the eye. He didn't make a sound. He just jumped back into his postal jeep and drove away.

Mr. Nguyen giggled. For the last few years he had happily observed — and participated in — my rural-urban experiments. He knew poultry when he saw it: he had been a farmer in Vietnam before enlisting to help the Americans during the war. "Oh, yes, baby chicks," he said. "Ducks." He pointed a cigarette-stained finger at each species. "Goose." His finger paused at the pimpled heads. He looked at me for a hint.

"Baby turkeys?" I guessed. I had never seen a baby turkey either.

Mr. Nguyen raised his eyebrows.

"Gobble-gobble. Thanksgiving?"

"Oh, yes!" he said, remembering with a smile. Then he grimaced. "My wife make one time."

"Was it good?" I asked. I knew that his wife, Lee, was a vegetarian; she must have made an exception for Thanksgiving.

Mr. Nguyen shook his head vigorously. "No, tough. Too tough. Very bad." I thought he might spit.

I closed the lid, and the peeping stopped. Mr. Nguyen went back into his apartment, returning to the blare of a Vietnamese-language television show.

In the middle of 28th Street, I held the box of poultry and waterfowl. The abandoned ghetto where we lived had a distinct Wild West vibe — gunfights in the middle of the day, a general state of lawlessness, and now this: livestock.

I glanced at the invoice connected to the box: "Murray McMurray Hatchery," it read. "1 Homesteader's Delight." I didn't think about it at the time, but looking back on it, I realize that "Homesteader's Delight" does have a rather ominous ring to it.

***

Every second-rate city has an identity complex. Oakland is no different. It's always trying to be more arty, more high-tech, more clean than it is able.

O-Town is surrounded by overachievers. The famously liberal (and plush) Berkeley lies to the north. The high-tech mecca of Silicon Valley glimmers to the south. Just eight miles west via the Bay Bridge is San Francisco — so close, but the polar opposite of Oakland. SF is filled with successful, polished people; Oakland is scruffy, loud, unkempt.

I've always chosen uncool places to live. I guess it's because I was born in Idaho, rivaling only Ohio as the most disregarded state in the union. Then I lived in a logging town in Washington State whose big claim to fame was a satanic cult. By the time I moved to Seattle (living in the boring Beacon Hill neighborhood), the uncool, the unsavory, had become my niche. When I went traveling and someone warned me — speaking in low tones, a snarl to her lips — not to go to Croatia or Chiapas or Brooklyn, I tended to add the place to my itinerary immediately.

"Whatever you do, don't go to Oakland," a stocking-cap-clad guy at a Seattle barbecue told me when I confessed that I was going to check out the Bay Area on a long road trip/quest to find a new place to live. I made a mental note to check it out.

Bill and I took three months to explore the candidates. At his insistence, we brought our cat. Bill's a tough-looking guy, with shaggy hair and a strut like he's got two watermelons under his arms. His voice is Tom Waits gravel from years of smoking. He might resemble a Hells Angel, but he's really just a love sponge who spends a great deal of time cuddling with our cat. We hit all the cities we thought we might like to live in: Portland (too perfect). Austin (too in the middle of Texas). New Orleans (too hot). Brooklyn (too little recycling). Philly and Chicago (too cold).

But Oakland — Oakland was just right. The weather was lovely, a never-ending spring. There was recycling and a music scene. But what really drove me and Bill away from the clean and orderly Seattle and into the arms of Oakland was its down-and-out qualities. The faded art deco buildings. The dive bars. Its citizenry, who drove cars as old and beat-up as ours.

Because of inexperience and a housing shortage, Bill and I wound up sharing a ramshackle house in the Oakland hills with a pack of straight-edge vegan anarchists. They wore brown-black clothes, had earth names like Rotten, and liked to play violent computer games in large groups in the common room. Sober.

At first I thought it was cute that anarchists had rules. No alcohol. No dairy products. No meat. Then the paradox started to chafe.

Forced by the strict house regulations, Bill and I would have to rendezvous in our travel-worn van in order to take nips off a contraband bottle of wine, gorge ourselves on banned cheese products, and remember the good old days when we oppressed chickens in our backyard in Seattle. And we plotted our uprising.

One night I unearthed an apartment listing on Craigslist that would set us free. I found it during video game night at the house, surrounded by a pack of anarchists in our living room. While they fired imaginary guns on their computer screens, I clandestinely scanned the ad for the apartment. It was reasonably priced and in downtown Oakland. Feeling subversive, we went for a tour the next day.

The first thing we noticed when we came down from the verdant hills into the flatlands — also known as the lower bottoms — was the dearth of trees. Gray predominated. Bill drove, his coffee brown eyes nervously scanning the scene. We passed one green space huddled under a network of connecting on-ramps. A basketball court, some shrubs. It was called Marcus Garvey Park. No one was there, even on an early summer day.

What was happening was liquor stores. Captain Liquor. Brothers Market. S and N. One after another. The surrounding restaurants were mostly fast-food chains: a Taco Bell, Carl's Jr., Church's Chicken. One variety store caught my eye. Its handmade sign used no words, just images: a pair of dice, socks, eggs, toilet paper. Life's necessities. It reminded me of the little roadside tiendas in Mexico. It was the third world embedded in the first.

The houses, though dilapidated, had clearly once been lovely homes: elaborate Victorians next to Spanish Mission bungalows, Craftsman cottages, and vintage brick apartment buildings. They were chipped, charred, unpainted, crumbling. Beautiful neglect.

As we cruised the neighborhood we took stock of our potential neighbors. A man wearing a head scarf was singing as he swept garbage out of the gutter in front of his liquor store. A group of old men sat in lawn chairs in front of their apartment building. A blond woman with scabs on her face limped along the street, pausing to ask for spare change from the young black kids on the corner. The kids wore enormous white T-shirts and saggy pants; they counted their bills and stood in the middle of traffic, waving small plastic bags at prospective customers. Clearly a rough crowd.

All these people out on the street — they were characters I had never met in Seattle, or in our more suburban house in the Oakland hills. I was curious, and yet I had to admit it: they scared me. Could I really live here? Walk around the streets without worrying about getting mugged?

The place was a postcard of urban decay, I thought as we turned down 28th Street. Cheetos bags somersaulted across the road. An eight-story brick building on the corner was entirely abandoned and tattooed with graffiti. Living here would definitely mean getting out of my comfort zone.

We came to a stop in front of a gray 1905 Queen Anne. Like almost every other house in the Bay Area, it had been divided into apartments. The place for rent was the upstairs portion of the duplex. Bill and I surveyed the house. The paint was peeling; a bougainvillea sagged in the side yard. It was a dead-end street, stopping at what was once the grass playground of an elementary school.

Bill pointed out that a dead-end street is a quiet street. He had once lived on one in Orlando and got to know all his neighbors. It made things intimate, he said. Just then, a dazzling woman with cropped platinum hair and platform boots peeked out of her metal warehouse door and beckoned us over to her end of the street.

"My name's Lana," she said. "Anal spelled backward." Bill and I exchanged looks. She stood behind her chain-link fence, a 155-pound mastiff at her side. A robed Buddhist monk emerged from the house next door. He and Lana waved. He disarmed his car alarm — the danger of the 'hood trumps even karma — and drove away. Lana gazed at the retreating car and said, "The old monk used to make me bitter-melon soup when I was sick."

Lana told us, in her high, funny voice, that she had lived on "the 2-8" for fifteen years. "It's not bad now," she assured us. "A few years ago, though, I had people running over my roof, firing machine guns. Now it's like Sesame Street." She shook her head.

Lana then pointed at each of the houses and described its inhabitants: a white family she called the Hillbillies in the teal house, a black mom with two kids in the stucco duplex, an apartment house filled with Vietnamese families who wanted to live near the temple. An abandoned building with a sometime squatter. An empty warehouse that no one knew much about. As we took leave of Lana she invited us to Blue Wednesday, a salon for artists and performers she held every week.

"She seems interesting," I said as we walked back to get our tour of the apartment. Our landlords had arrived in their gold BMW.

"We should move in," Bill said, running his fingers through his shaggy dark hair. He didn't even need to see the apartment.

Our soon-to-be landlords were an African couple with socialist tendencies. They led us upstairs for a tour of the bright little apartment. Hardwood floors. A tile-lined fireplace. A backyard. A living room with a view of a 4,500-square-foot lot filled with four-foot-tall weeds. The landlords didn't know who owned the lot, but they guessed that, whoever they were, they wouldn't mind if we gardened there. We gaped at the enormous space. It had an aspect that would guarantee full sun all day. In Seattle we tended what we thought was a big backyard vegetable garden, but this lot — it was massive by our standards. It sealed the deal.

Bill and I grinned on our way back to our hovel in the hills with the vegan anarchists, still giddy from too much California sunshine and the prospect of a new home.

A few weeks later, when we moved into our new apartment, we discovered that our neighborhood was called GhostTown, for all its long-abandoned businesses, condemned houses, and overgrown lots. The empty lot next to our house was not rare: there was one, sometimes two, on every block. And through the vacant streets rolled GhostTown tumbleweeds: the lost hairpieces of prostitutes. Tumbleweaves.

The day we moved into GhostTown, a man was shot and killed outside a Carl's Jr. restaurant a few blocks away. We drove past the crime scene — yellow caution tape, a white sheet with a pair of bare feet poking out. We heard on the radio that Oakland had been named number one — it had the highest murder rate in the country. When we drove by later, the body was gone and the business of selling hamburgers and soda had resumed. That night, the not-so-distant crack of gunfire kept me up.

Because of the violence, the neighborhood had a whiff of anarchy — real anarchy, not the theoretical world of my former roommates. In the flatlands, whole neighborhoods were left with the task of sorting out their problems. Except in the case of murder, the Oakland police rarely got involved. In this laissez-faire environment, I would discover as I spent more time in GhostTown, anything went. Spanish-speaking soccer players hosted ad hoc tournaments in the abandoned playfield. Teenagers sold bags of marijuana on the corners. The Buddhist monks made enormous vats of rice on the city sidewalk. Bill eventually began to convert our friends' cars to run on vegetable oil. And I started squat gardening on land I didn't own.

***

As I fiddled with the door to our apartment, the new box of fowl tucked under my arm, I recognized that I was descending deeper into the realm of the underground economy. Now that I had been in California for a few years, I felt ready for what seemed like the next logical progression, something I had never dared in the soggy Northwest.

Meat birds.

I felt a bit nuts, yes, but I also felt great. People move to California to reinvent themselves. They give themselves new names. They go to yoga. Pretty soon they take up surfing. Or Thai kickboxing. Or astral healing. Or witch camp. It's true what they say: California, the land of fruits and nuts.

In Northern California one is encouraged to raise his freak flag proudly and often. In Seattle my mostly hidden freak flag had been being a backyard chicken owner, beekeeper, and vegetable gardener. I got off on raising my own food. Not only was it more delicious and fresh; it was also essentially free.

Now I was taking it to the next level. Some might say I had been swept up by the Bay Area's mantra, repeated ad nauseam, to eat fresh, local, free-range critters. At farmer's markets here — and there is one every day — it isn't uncommon to overhear farmers chatting with consumers about how the steer from which their steaks were "harvested" had been fed, where their stewing hens ranged, and the view from the sheep pen that housed the lamb that was now ground up and laid out on a table decorated with nasturtium blossoms. Prices correspond with the quality of the meat, and Alice Waters assures us that only the best ingredients will make the best meals. But as a poor scrounger with three low-paying jobs and no health insurance, I usually couldn't afford the good stuff.

Since I liked eating quality meat and have always had more skill than money, I decided to take matters into my own hands. One night, after living in our GhostTown apartment for a few years, I clicked my mouse over various meat-bird packages offered by the Murray McMurray Hatchery Web site. Murray McMurray sold day-old ducks, quail, pheasants, turkeys, and geese through the mail. They also sold bargain-priced combinations: the Barnyard Combo, the Fancy Duck Package, the Turkey Assortment.

These packages, I had thought, might offer a way to eat quality meat without breaking the bank. But I had never killed anything before. Blithely ignoring this minor detail, I settled on the Homesteader's Delight: two turkeys, ten chickens, two geese, and two ducks for $42.

I bought my poultry package with a click of the mouse and paid for it with a credit card. It was only after the post office delivered the box that I realized one can't just buy a farm animal like a book or CD. What I now held in my hands was going to involve a hell of a lot of hard work.

My first task was to install the birds in a brooder, a warm place where they could live without fear of catching cold or encountering predators. I carried the box o' birds upstairs and set it next to the brooder I had hastily built the night before. "Built" might be a strong word — my brooder was a cardboard box lined with shredded paper, with a heat lamp suspended above it and a homemade waterer inside.

The hatchery advised that the chicks would be thirsty from their twenty-four-hour journey in a box. So the first order of the day was to dip the birds' beaks into a dish of water and teach them to drink on their own. I picked up my first victim, a little yellow chick covered in a soft, downy fuzz, and held her tiny pink beak up to the homemade waterer. It consisted of a mason jar with tiny holes drilled into the lid; when the jar was turned upside down into a shallow dish, capillary action allowed only a bit of water to dribble out and pool in the dish. Amazingly, the chick knew just what to do. She sipped up a beakful of water, then tilted her head back to swallow. The mason-jar waterer glugged, and more water seeped out.

I released her into the cardboard-box brooder, and she wandered over for another sip of water. Then she realized she was alone. She peeped and stumbled around the shredded newspaper looking for her companions. The fowl still in the postal box, strangely silent since I'd placed it on the living room floor, suddenly went wild when they heard her peeps.

So I reached into the box for another chick and worked quickly. Without fail, each victim peeped in distress. The others then chirped in solidarity. All ten finally installed, the chicks quieted down. Exhausted from their journey and my manhandling, they mounded into a fluffy pile under the circle of warm light and took a nap.

Bill stumbled out of our bedroom wearing his boxer shorts, his hair mussed. Not a morning person, he glanced at the baby birds like they were a dream, then headed for the bathroom.

While the chicks slept, I had to educate the dim little turkey poults. They looked like the chicks but with bigger bones and that strange pucker of skin on top of their heads, which I later learned would develop into a turkey part called the snood. Their demeanor was reminiscent of chicks that had done too much acid.

It took the first turkey poult three firm dunkings before it got the hang of drinking water. The poult resisted when I put its beak into the dish, craning its head away, struggling in my hand like a hellcat. Finally, exhausted from struggling, its head went lax and drooped until it dropped into the water dish, where it discovered — surprise! — water, and drank greedily. The other two (the hatchery had sent me an extra poult and an extra duckling, probably as insurance against death by mail) were no different. After I released them, the poults poked around the brooder, gentle and cautious. Eventually they waddled over and joined the puff pile of chicks.

The downy, almost weightless ducklings and goslings drank deeply, using their bills to slurp up large amounts of water. When I set them into the brooder, they waded their big orange feet into the water dish and splashed around. Water hit the side of the box and splattered the sleeping chicks, who awoke and began to peep in protest. Sensing that this might be a disastrous species intersection, I lugged out an aluminum washtub and set up a separate brooder with extra water, a towel, and a bright warm light for the waterfowl.

The baby birds were home, warm and safe. The chicks scratched at their yellow feed just like our big chickens out back did. Sometimes they would stop midscratch and, feeling the warmth of the brooder light, fall asleep standing up. The puffy gray goslings curled their necks around the yellow sleeping ducklings. A Hallmark card had exploded in my living room.

I called my mom. A brooder box full of fowl was something that woman could appreciate. She had once been a hippie homesteader in Idaho.

"Listen to this," I said, and held the phone near the brooder box. A hundred little peeps.

"Oh my god," she said.

"Three turkeys, three ducks, two geese, and ten chickens," I crowed. I watched the chicks and poults moving around the brooder — pooping, scratching, pooping, pecking, pooping.

"Turkeys! Do you remember Tommy Turkey?" she said.

I didn't, but the photo in our family album had stuck with me: my older sister, Riana, in a saggy cloth diaper being chased by the advancing figure of a giant white turkey. Tommy. My mom told us about Tommy every time we got out the old photo album from the ranch days.

"Well, he was mean as hell, and he would chase you guys ... "

I looked out the window while my mom described the smokehouse she and my dad had built. Bill had made it downstairs, where he was out front tinkering with our car. His legs peeked out from underneath our dilapidated Mercedes as he rolled around amid the street's numerous Swisher Sweet cigar butts. I had warned him about my meat-bird purchase, and he had been excited about the prospect of homegrown meat, but now that he saw the baby birds — fragile, tiny — he seemed a bit skeptical.

N

Tommy grew to be an enormous size, my mom said, and as back-to-the-land hippies, she and my dad had been very pleased. They didn't encounter any predator problems that year, and butchering him was a cinch. But disaster did hit: the smokehouse burned to the ground while they were smoking the turkey.

"Oh, no," I groaned.

"Life was like that," she said glumly. I felt sorry for her. My mom's stories usually involve some heroic hippie farm action. I hadn't heard this part of the story before, but I knew bad things had happened. My parents' marriage had dissolved on the ranch in Idaho, after all — my dad too much the mountain man, an uncompromising nonconformist; my mom isolated and bored.

Her voice brightened. "Even though the smokehouse burned down, we did manage to salvage the turkey."

"What do you mean?" I asked.

"We dug through the charred wood, and there it was, a perfectly cooked turkey. I brushed off all the cinders and served him for dinner." She paused and smacked her lips, a noise that was repellent to me as a teenager but now filled me with hope. "It was the best turkey I've ever had," she declared. We said our goodbyes, and I hung up the phone.

I glanced into the cozy chick brooder. The chicks slept on their mattress of shredded pages from the New York Times. Their fuzzy bodies slumbered on snatches of color ads for watches, a stern op-ed about pollution in China, the eyebrows of a politician. I had to remind myself that though they were cute, these baby birds would eventually become my dinner. Thanksgiving, in particular, was going to be intense. I imagined the killing scene: a butcher block, an ax, three giant Tommy turkeys I had known since poulthood. I wasn't sure if I could bring myself to do it.

But the conversation with my mom left me emboldened for my foray into killing and eating animals I had raised myself — this urge was clearly part of my cultural DNA. I wondered if this would prove that I could have it both ways: to sop up the cultural delights of the city while simultaneously raising my own food. In retrospect, though, I wonder why I thought my experience would be any less disastrous than my parents'.

***

The next day, following the suggestions of a homesteading book from the 1970s, I swabbed the baby birds' butts with Q-tips. The long flight in a box can cause digestion problems for the chicks — namely, pasted vents. Which is a fancy way of saying blocked buttholes. So I dutifully wetted them down, plucked dried matter from their bottoms, and felt terrible when I had to tug off whole chunks of downy feathers. I wasn't satisfied until all their parts looked pink and healthy.

After morning chicken-butt detail, I sat in my kitchen and surveyed our squat garden. All the east-facing windows of our apartment overlook the lot, which after the past few years had been transformed into a vegetable and fruit-tree garden. I could see that the collards were getting large and that the spring's lettuce harvest promised to be a good one. Even from inside, I could see some mildew forming on the pea vines.

It was going to be a remarkable year; I could sense it. If my life in Oakland was a developing embryo, with this meat-bird addition, it was as if a fishlike creature had suddenly sprouted wings.

From Farm City: The Education of an Urban Farmer by Novella Carpenter. Copyright 2009 by Novella Carpenter. Published by Penguin Press. Used by permission of the publisher. All rights reserved.

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