It’s probably too early to make accurate predictions about the reordering of economic life yet to come, but the past few months of enforced domesticity have not been entirely disastrous. Even if the elaborate baking craze of the pandemic’s first few weeks has been quietly shelved, and rustic sourdough loaves replaced on social media feeds with photos of holidays as far from home as possible, many have taken on board Voltaire’s advice, in Candide, that for a good and peaceful life, “we must cultivate our garden”, turning our attention inward from the stresses of an uncertain world.
My own experiment with the good life centres around chickens, a trio of hens acquired just before the lockdown rush. Clemmie, Floogie and Buttercup are, together, a gentle introduction to livestock keeping, and a pleasing distraction from the outside world. Their lives, circumscribed to the small suburban garden in which they scratch around, are a strange echo of our own newly limited horizons. As you’d expect from far-diminished descendants of the dinosaurs, our hens are ferocious predators, searching out the slugs and snails which would otherwise ravage our modest vegetable patch with cool genocidal determination.
They each have their individual personalities — Clemmie the proud and dominant leader of the three, Floogie timid and retiring, Buttercup so affectionate and desirous of human company that she will jump into my 4-year-old’s lap for snuggles. And it will be difficult, when the time comes and their egg production slows, to repurpose them for the table.
But those days are, fortunately, far off. Acquired as egg-producers, our hens keep their side of the bargain so enthusiastically that it’s increasingly difficult to make a dent on the ever-growing supply. We have already approached the limit of the amount of eggs one family can consume, with quiches, omelettes, frittatas and mousses all rapidly losing their appeal. Instead, we hand out boxes of eggs to neighbours, visitors, acquaintances — really, to anyone who will take a box— and have been pleasantly surprised to find ourselves drawn in to a previously unsuspected local barter economy, rewarded for our industrious trio’s labours with backyard honey, bags of homegrown vegetables, and shelves full of pickles and preserves.
Even the regular chore of cleaning out their dung-filled ark, scrubbing their perch and raking their dirty straw into the compost heap, is a strangely calming retreat from the outside world. Our pandemic experiment with back garden farming may be a modest one — my attempts to convince my wife we can squeeze in a small goat have sadly not been successful — but for us it has undoubtedly been the happiest result of this baneful period.