Coop - A Year of Poultry, Pigs and Parenting – A Book by Michael Perry
I picked up this gem by Michael Perry eight years after its publication. Maybe I just wasn’t paying attention—I don’t know how I missed this book for so long. Not only is it a first-rate and compelling book, but I feel like Perry is speaking directly to me. Needless to say, his other books are now on my reading list. When I first cracked open the cover, I was expecting a story about chickens. That’s not what it’s about. To be sure, chickens are minor characters in this book, but it’s a memoir—so it’s really about Michael Perry. Perry tells us the story of his first year in an old house on a Wisconsin acreage with his new wife and daughter, with frequent flashbacks to his childhood on a Wisconsin dairy farm amidst an “obscure fundamentalist Christian sect”. Along the way he discourses on home birth, milking cows, slaughtering pigs, building a chicken coop, and even blowing one’s nose using a technique he calls the “farmer snort”. And ultimately, perhaps he offers us his perspective how one should live one’s life.
After the dairy farm/fundamentalist childhood, Michael Perry worked on a Wyoming ranch in order to generate the necessary funds to attend nursing school. Currently, in addition to maintaining his acreage and writing, he’s the host of Wisconsin Public Radio’s “Tent Show Radio”, a variety show broadcast live each week from the Lake Superior Big Top Chautauqua in Bayfield, Wisconsin. On his website, he describes himself as a “New York Times bestselling author, humorist, singer/songwriter, [and] intermittent pig farmer.” His is obviously a focused and interesting life worthy of inspection. Serendipitously, he is the sort of person that notices and reflects on the minutiae that each day offers—thus is an interested and thoughtful observer of his own interesting life. And that seems like the perfect formula for a successful memoirist.
It makes sense that I would relate to this book. Like Perry, I grew up on a midwestern farm and understand innately the demands farm life makes on a farmer and his entire family. Perry’s father started his adult life as a scientist in the Twin Cities, then in a strange twist, morphed into a Wisconsin dairy farmer. Perry writes, “I first perceived my father as a farmer the night he drove home with a giant lactating Holstein tethered to the bumper of his Ford Falcon. There was no cart, just a rope. And Dad motoring real slow… We went to fetch the cow after supper, from a farm some three miles distant. Owning neither truck nor trailer suitable for transporting the beast, Dad chose the Falcon—a station wagon model with a nifty roll-up window and a naughtily noisy Hollywood muffler…. The cow stubbed along reluctantly at first, all straight-necked and flat eared, but eventually she calmed and found her road gear. For the balance of the journey she shambled along easy, following her nose through a faint blue haze. That Falcon burned a little oil.
“One does not become a farmer simply by taking possession of a milk cow, but it does drag you in that direction. The night Dad tied that Holstein to the Falcon, he tied an anchor to his ankle. From that day forward, he would find his way to the barn a minimum of twice a day, every day, morning and night, seven days a week, with no break, year after year after year. Whenever we went to Christmas dinner, or visiting of a Sunday afternoon, Dad kept shooting looks at the clock. Sometime around 4:00 p.m., he’d say, ‘Weeelll, I s’pose them cows ain’t gonna milk themselves,’ and we headed home.”
I naturally connect with Perry’s childhood memories, since I too am the son of a dairy farmer. And just like Perry, I left home for the city where I pursued city-type stuff, then, like Perry, I eventually moved back to the country to raise my family, and discovered that pursuing all that city-type stuff, attempting to maintain an acreage, and raising a family all at the same time requires more than the 24 hours that each day gives us.
This book begins with Perry moving to a derelict acreage with his new wife, Anneliese, and Anneliese’s six-year-old daughter, Amy. They have big plans. There’s going to be a big pile of split wood to heat the house, a vast garden, and pigs, and chickens. Plus, he’s going to build a coop for those chickens from scratch. But here’s the reality: Michael Perry is a radio host, traveling lecturer, and writer, and not a full-time farmer. One lesson life has taught me is that how much time you spend on anything affects how much time you have left to spend on anything else. Perry occupies the entire timeline of this book learning that lesson over and over. Instead of using an automatic splitter and the help of a few neighbors to get his wood split (his wife’s suggestion) he goes it alone and by hand. “I want to split wood by hand for the same reason I want to have pigs and chickens. You want to eat meat, you raise an animal and kill it, or at the very least steal its eggs. You want to stay warm, you knock the wood into little chunks… You take that ax in hand and it frees your mind… I am regularly dramatic with my wife about accumulated pending deadlines and backlogs and time spent on the road, only to have her look out the window and see me there chopping when I should be typing. In proposing the firewood bee, she is being eminently sensible. And that is where we part company. If she brings it up again, I shall tell her I am freeing my mind.”
When he eventually gets chickens, it seems obvious to me that he hasn’t completely thought out the logistics of caring for the birds. The coop of the book title exists only in his mind when the chickens show up, an elaborate vision based on a historic archive of poultry housing he found on the web. The fits and starts involved in getting an actual coop built form chunks of narrative that occur sporadically throughout the remainder of the book.
And so it goes. Perry spends most of his time pursuing his real paying job while Anneliese and Amy do much of the farmwork. Or the farmwork simply doesn’t get done. And then Anneliese gets pregnant, stops sleeping, and becomes just sort of worn out. And being possessed of the same tenacious impracticality as her husband, she decides on a home birth. Perry is not on board with “the idea of delivering babies old-style if it is simply in service to some whole-grain earth mother sensibility picked up during a women’s studies course in Colorado. As a former fundamentalist gone agnostic, I tend to dig in my heels at the first whiff of evangelism, whether it be deployed in the service of salvation, Girl Power, or the curative wonders of organic yams.” But a home birth it is. Marriage is about compromise. He gets solo hand wood-splitting—she gets a home birth.
Michael Perry is a compelling story teller, and this entire book is infused with humor. But between the lines lurks a disheartening message that resonates with me: Life is finite and you can’t do everything. I moved to my acreage and spent most of my life thinking wistfully of the things I could be doing on that acreage if I only had time. I built my first coop and got my first chickens only after I retired. Michael Perry is bound and determined to have it both ways, and is lurching forward with his pigs and chickens and garden and hay-making and wood splitting while maintaining a full-time career. It’s a juggling act, and it is clear from his narrative that he knows that it’s a juggling act. I can’t wait to delve into the next memoir to find out how it all worked out.