Saturday, June 30, 2012

Gold Medalist Chicken Woman

A Palette of Patriotism                                                Photo credit: Nancy Shobe

There's yet another celebrity chicken farmer . . .

Natalie Coughlin, the 11-time Olympic medalist (3 Gold, 4 Silver, 4 Bronze) who was "the most decorated female athlete at the 2004 Athens and 2008 Beijing Olympics", keeps five backyard chickens at her home in Lafayette, California. It seems that in her downtime, she's a bit of a homesteader who loves cooking, farming and even photography.

Read an interview with her, Natalie Couglin, Gold Medal . . . Farmer? by Avital Andrews, in Sierra Magazine.

We're all crossing our fingers in hopes that Natalie makes the cut for this year's Olympics in London!

Friday, June 29, 2012

Photographer Adam Jahiel's West Texas Chicken

Look, It's a Chicken - West Texas                        Photo courtesy of Photographer Adam Jahiel
Put a hobbyist's photos next to a career professional's and you'll discover a world of difference. Photo hobbyists frequently forget to "tell the story." Career professionals know that it's the story that often makes the photograph.

Look, It's a Chicken by photographer/artist Adam Jahiel makes a humorous statement that made me chuckle when I saw it on his website. He generously offered to let me put it on Chicken Women. Thanks, Adam!

The Last Cowboy by Photographer/Artist Adam Jahiel 
Adam is probably best known for his outstanding Western photography project, The Last Cowboy. For years, he has photographed authentic cowboys in the Great Basin. He magnificently captures their rugged lives, where "talent, knowledge and skill are valued above all else."  If you check out his website, you'll discover photos that'll have you yearning for the Western life. His book, The Last Cowboy, is also sold on his website.

Adam's professional career has included extensive work in the motion picture industry, including on films like Out of Africa (One of my personal favorites. I saw it five times on the screen and have a copy of it on I-Tunes). His photographic adventures include work as the photographer for the French-American 1987 Titanic expedition. His photos have also appeared in many of the most prestigious of U.S. publications, including The New York Times and National Geographic Society, and dozens of published books and galleries around the United States.

Update: 8/28/12- Adam Jahiel's photos and visual story making are showcased in a story in the Huffington Post.

Thursday, June 28, 2012

Does A Coop Next Door Lower the Value of Your Home?

Does having a coop next door lower the value of your house?

Elsa Brenner wrote an interesting article in today's New York Times, Poultry Proximity: Plus or Minus?

Vintage Chicken Photo

Keith Dexter Skelton on Skelton Farm, PA   c1920 (Photo courtesy of Keith Skelton)                                              

It's not easy scratching around for old vintage photos with chickens in them.

This wonderful photo fell into my proverbial lap a few days ago. It was emailed to me by Keith Skelton. It's a picture of his father, Keith, on the Skelton Farm in Skeltontown, PA. The photo was taken around 1920.

It appears that the chickens nibbling the grass are White Leghorns. Perhaps, this young two-year old was helping his father "till the land" with his four-wheeled tractor?

Keith Skelton steered his life into greatness right from the beginning. He was a bomber pilot during World War II, flying over 50 missions in the war against Japan. He also served seven terms in the Oregon House of Representatives, taught at two state universities, and served on the Board of his local community college.

Too bad he's no longer with us today. If he was, I would ask him how his rural beginnings helped shaped him into the man he became.

Would he say that he spent a lot of time watching the chickens? Because, Keith obviously learned at an early age how to summon the courage to lift his wings and fly. And, when he did, boy, did he soar.

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Chi-Town Chickens (and Backyard Gardens)

Christina and Matt's Downtown Chicago Backyard Garden                             Photo Courtesy of Christina
Having lived once upon a time on the north shore of Chicago, I can tell you there's nothing more wonderful than the cool breeze coming off Lake Michigan during a hot, muggy summer.

I can also tell you that there's nothing more awful than hot, muggy weather without the lake's breeze--and, that's what you get in downtown Chicago. Sticky, humid, buggy summers.

Most people while away their summers cooped up like chickens, listening to the endless drone of the air conditioner.

Not so for one artistic couple, Christina and Matt. They were determined to turn Chicago summers into a time of year their family could actually enjoy. How so? By transforming their once-dreary urban backyard into a living garden.

Mosaic-tiled stepping stones create a path filled with artistic story. Planter boxes overflow with summer veggies and treats. A refurbished bathtub serves as a small wading pool and vine covered fences add some much-needed privacy. An accommodating bench and Adirondack chair provide nesting places to curl up with the latest thriller and a tasty microbrew. It's the perfect garden for entertaining friends, family, and neighbors.

Christina and Matt are the kind of people who see possibility in nearly everything and, more importantly, make it happen. Personally, I think they should win some sort of garden/urban living award for the transformation of their backyard.

In the not-so-distant past, Christina and Matt also raised chickens in their urban backyard. Their son played the role of chicken farmer to their amusing variety of feathered friends.

Christina said having chickens in the inner city was "Pretty cool. Whenever they got out of the coop, we always found them in the house. One hen ended up being a rooster. She was turned into chicken tacos."

She and Matt hope to get some hens again, soon. "Having chickens was good times," said Christina.

The coop sits ready and waiting.

So, do their family and friends, who are anticipating yet another invitation. Spending a summer evening at  Christina and Matt's is as welcoming and soothing as a Lake Michigan breeze.

Sunday, June 24, 2012

Catch Me If You Can

Cleopatra at three weeks                                                                    Photo: Nancy Shobe

My, those little chicks grow up fast. Cleopatra stands looking smart and sassy at three weeks. She is now nine weeks--much larger, and infinitely more shy toward the camera. In no time at all, Cleopatra will be laying eggs. 

Where has the time gone? I can really see it passing through the growth of the chicks.

I don't know about you but, no matter how much time goes by I still feel inside like a twelve-year old girl. I struggle daily with trying to figure out who I am and what my life's direction should be. Love? My belief in loving others and being loved hasn't changed much over the years. And, my approach to life--with zeal and enthusiasm--remains as fervent as ever. Heck, on an off day, I'm even still trying to learn how to cook. 

That shy, unknowing, loving part of me never ages and convinces me inside that I am still that twelve-year old girl. 

Until I look in the mirror and scream, "Who's that middle-aged woman looking back at me?"

Friday, June 22, 2012

The Birth of Backyard Kids

The Brand New Kid               Photo credit: Nancy Shobe

Enough with only allowing chickens and bees. Eugene, Oregon's City Council is considering adding goats to the city's backyard mix.

Current city standards require goat owners to have at least 20,000 square feet of backyard space. But, Council members are now "kicking"  around the idea of allowing goats on much smaller parcels.

Eugene's "sort of" neighbor, Portland, already allows goats in the city, with one caveat -- licensing is required. Eugene is considering adding goats without the added licensing.

To hear more about where Eugene's City Council is going with this, listen to the TV clip or read about it on KEZI - ABC TV news. Who knows? Maybe you'll be able to entice your own lawmakers into allowing backyard goats, if they don't already.

I have had personal experience with backyard goats. Well, perhaps that's not quite the truth. Rebecca, a friend of mine, raised backyard goats and I helped, kind of. I was there for their births.

I never imagined that animals were on my life's "plate." I grew up in a household completely  devoid of animals except for the random goldfish and my brother's stuffed piranha. Once my sister won the school's lizard to bring home for a couple of weeks. I decided to decorate its cage with some rocks because I thought it looked "lonely." But, when I placed in the first rock, it landed right on the lizard's head. That poor old lizard made a fast exit into heaven and I made a fast entrance into my bedroom for the evening. My Mom had the onerous task of explaining the situation to the school and I had the onerous task of having to sweet talk my sister for over a year. Sis, I'm still sorry for my destructive decorating skills-- but, I digress. . .

One of the beautiful things about being around animals is observing their births. No words can describe the powerful magic of seeing a human or animal being born. It's like all the souls gather in a joyful exuberance of twinkling color to welcome the new baby.

My first goat birth didn't disappoint. Rebecca and I were prepared with a goat birthing manual, two lawn chairs and glasses of  fresh-brewed tea. What we weren't prepared for was the three-day wait. And, what do you do for three days while you're waiting for birth? You begin to tell stories.

Rebecca and I spoke of old beaus and lost lovers. We sang the stories of our daughter's births. We laughed and giggled about life's silly plans and how, when we were teens, we thought we knew the future.  Layer upon layer, we revealed ourselves in ways we never had before. Like the shedding bark on a Eucalyptus, we revealed our core.

Birth's offerings are far greater than just the welcoming of a new life into the world. Birth blows comfort into a room like the soft whisper of a new mother. It allows people the chance to gather, tell their stories, to share moments of their lives that may never be told again.

Birth envelopes people safely in its protective arms and holds close to its bosom their secrets. It reminds us of our sacredness, our uniqueness, our gifts.

Birth weaves a sacred golden thread through the hearts of all who gather and ties the ends together with an indelible knot. Most of all, birth gives us the beginning to a brand new story.

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Raising Chickens in The Big Apple

Coachie Taking A Bite Out of the Big Apple                                     Photo: Nancy Shobe

Raising chickens in an ultra chic, urban environment takes a little extra creativity and a whole lot of pre-planning.  Meredith Engel penned an excellent article, How to Raise Chickens in New York City, in Metro.  If you're not a Big Apple chicken farmer, fear not. Engel's article has a multitude of good ideas for rural, suburban and urban chicken farmers.

Here are some of its highlights:
(The comments in parentheses are my own additions.)

1. Don't expect to get rich off of raising hens. (Raising "bull" on the NY Stock Exchange is a
    far better scheme for getting rich.)

2.  Don't raise hens if you don't have the time. (Unless, of course, you can afford to hire a
     chicken nanny.)

3.  Choose your breed. Heirloom breeds make great pets, live a long time, but produce
     fewer eggs. Larger quantities of eggs come from birds that generally live a shorter time.
     (Thank goodness the same isn't true for Moms having children.)

4.  Provide enough space for the birds. (John Kay from Steppenwolf couldn't have sang it
     better. Chickens are "Born to be Wild.")

5.  It's important to adopt no less than three birds. ("Only" children are verboten in the
     chicken world. Chickens like to flock.)

6.  Give the hens a place for pecking, dustbathing, scratching, and nesting. (Sounds like
      you'll be moving them into your Manhattan flat.)

As for my own personal addition to Ms. Engel's list, please make sure you check the chatter level of the birds you've decided to raise. I had to give away two of my Rhode Island Reds, and I don't live in Manhattan or anywhere near New York. The Reds were incredible layers but they just couldn't keep their gabbing down. (It probably had something to do with their desire to cross the water to Long Island. You know those Rhode Islanders. They yearn to live in The Big Apple.)

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Quick Chicken Facts: More Chickens on Earth than Humans

Buff Orpington                                              Photo: Nancy Shobe

Sometimes life gets you by the tail feathers and you don't have much time to read or write.

Today was one of those days. The chickens needed to be fed, the tomatoes watered, the banana trees trimmed and the dog prepped for graduation. Tonight, my English Doodle, Mango, received her diploma from Perfect Puppy Academy (see photo below). Trust me, a magna cum laude graduate, Mango's not.

Because of a lack of time today,  I resorted to pulling a few chicken facts off the website of the Imagination Station, a hands-on science museum located in Toledo, OH.

Did you know:

   -  There are more chickens on earth than humans?

   -  China has the most with over 45% of egg production coming from China. The U.S. is
       second with only 8.1% of the egg production.

   -  Chickens can travel up to 9 mph.

   -  The greatest number of yolks in a single egg was nine. (And, that's no yolk.)

   -  Chickens are a domestic subspecies of the red junglefowl, a member of the pheasant
       family native to Asia.

   -  Chickens were once sacred symbols representing the sun.

I have absolutely no idea how many humans are on earth, so I wouldn't know when chickens exceeded our population. That was an interesting fact.

Mango: English doodle at Graduation
I never guessed that China has the world's greatest egg production, but it doesn't surprise me. They seem to be setting a lot of production records these days.

I've never been in a race with any of my chickens, so I can only trust the stats. Nine (9) mph is something I only do while seated in the driver's seat.

One fact I do know is that chickens are the sacred symbols of the sun. Because every morning around 6:30 a.m., my restless chickens squawk just as the sun rises. I awaken knowing I need to drag my weary bones up to their coop, scoop out  some morning feed and  release the chickens  for a day of free-ranging. Those are the only chicken facts that truly matter to me.

Sunday, June 17, 2012

Happy Father's Day to the Harbingers of the Sun

Roosters may be missing from neighborhood backyards throughout the United States due to their loud morning crow, but they've never been banned from literature or religion. In fact, roosters have held a prominent place in history for thousands of years.

Below are some of the ways in which roosters have been symbolized:

Greek Mythology

The rooster or cock played a major role in the story of the great love affair between Ares (the god of war) and Aphrodite (the goddess of love and beauty). Alectryon is a youth whom Ares appoints to keep watch outside the bedroom door while Ares and Aphrodite consummate their love. Alectryon falls asleep while at his duty and Helios, the god of the sun, walks in on the couple. Proverbial mythological hell breaks loose. As punishment for dereliction of his duties, Ares turns Alectryon into a rooster. The rooster, as we know, crows the coming of the sun. 


The Gnostics believed in the god, Abraxas, a rooster-headed god with the torso of a man and legs that were serpents.  "To the early gnostics. . . Abraxas was 'the rooster-headed god with serpent feet, in whom light and darkness are both united and transcended.' The cock will always be a totem of great power and mystery." (Ted Andrews, Animal Speak)


According to some Bible translations, Jesus said that Peter will deny Jesus three times before the cock crows twice. A rooster on a weathervane is found on many churches throughout Europe and North America is supposed to symbolize a vigilant watch against evil. 

Chinese Astrology

The rooster is also one of the twelve Chinese astrology symbols and is said to represent loyalty, frankness, honesty, enthusiasm and humor. Roosters are known for their colorful and eccentric displays. 

Celtic and Norse Lore

The rooster is a symbol of the Underworld. It is a messenger that calls out warnings. In Irish folklore, if a rooster crows at your door, visitors are coming.


The rooster heralds the dawn as well as represents wisdom and spirituality.

I like to think of roosters as the harbingers of the sun. Although I am not allowed to hear their mighty crows each dawn because of city noise ordinances, I do get to see their mighty strut when I visit ranches in the valley. To me, they symbolize learning how to survive the darkness to see the dawn.

Today, on this special day, I would like to recognize the "roosters" of our lives: the men who have weathered their often rough and rocky journeys in order to become our inspirational "suns". It is their histories, their stories of coming to age and surviving all that was expected of them, that have created the fathers that they are today: wise, understanding, loving, compassionate souls. 

Although my two greatest inspirational "roosters" are no longer physically here, they are still alive in so many ways. My grandfather and father instilled in me their strength of character, honesty, loyalty, wisdom and dedication to others. They taught me the importance of playing fair. They instilled in me the strength to be me, and they gave me the courage to tell my own stories.

On this Father's Day, I would like to cluck my thanks to them as loudly and as noisily as I can (to heck with the neighbors)! For they were truly my guiding lights, the harbingers of the sun.

Monday, June 11, 2012

Tic-Tac-Toe Playing Chickens

In today's New York Times, there's a video clip about Tic-Tac-Toe Playing Chickens at a New York casino. I always thought that tic-tac-toe was spelled as such and not as the New York Times listed it: Tick-Tack-Toe. It's a funny clip, nonetheless.

Sunday, June 10, 2012

Famous Author's Backward Walking Chicken

A Good Chicken Is Easy to Find                              Photo: Nancy Shobe

Perhaps one of novelist Flannery O'Connor's (3/25/25-8/3/65) finest moments was when she was captured on film at the young age of five with her backward walking chicken. O'Connor said of her experience, ""I was just there to assist with the chicken but it was the high point in my life. Everything since has been anticlimax." (Click on link to view the film from British Pathe showcasing Mary Flannery O'Connors backward walking chicken.)

It seems that Ms. O'Connor might have been a bit of an odd bird herself.

In a New York Times Sunday Book Review (2/26/09) titled Stranger than Paradise, writer Joy Williams said, "Flannery. She liked to drink Coca-Cola mixed with coffee. She gave her mother, Regina, a mule for Mother's Day. She went to bed at 9 and said she was always glad to get there. After Kennedy's assassination she said: "I am sad about the president. But I like the new one. As a child she sewed outfits for her chickens and wanted to be a cartoonist..."

Does raising chickens and sewing outfits for them make a person stranger than paradise? Do hen savers count? I wonder...

Ms. O'Connor also raised peacocks and penned a a famous essay, Living With A Peacock, in September of 1961.

It begins:
"When I was five, I had an experience that marked me for life. Pathé News sent a photographer from New York to Savannah to take a picture of a chicken of mine. This chicken, a buff Cochin Bantam, had the distinction of being able to walk either forward or backward. Her fame has spread through the press and by the time she reached the at­tention of Pathé News, I suppose there was nowhere left for her to go—forward or backward. Shortly after that she died, as now seems fitting.
If I put this information in the beginning of an article on peacocks, it is because I am always being asked why I raise them, and I have no short or reasonable answer.
From that day with the Pathé man I began to collect chickens. What had been only a mild interest became a passion, a quest. I had to have more and more chickens. I favored those with one green eye and one orange or with over-long necks and crooked combs. I wanted one with three legs or three wings but nothing in that line turned up. I pon­dered over the picture in Robert Ripley’s book, Believe It Or Not, of a rooster that had survived for thirty days without his head; but I did not have a scientific temperament . I could sew in a fashion and I began to make clothes for chickens. A gray bantam named Colonel Eggbert wore a white piqué coat with a lace collar and two buttons in the back. Apparently Pathé News never heard of any of these other chickens of mine; it never sent another photographer."
(The rest of her essay may be found at Holiday Mag website.)

I know that friends giggle when I tell them that I raise chickens. But, it doesn't seem too odd to them as the chicken coop is nestled on a hillside with a field of sunflowers and planter boxes overflowing with ripening tomatoes, beans, peppers and cucumbers. It all seems to be in synch with going organic.

At least, that's what I like to think.

Saturday, June 9, 2012

Peace, Love & Misunderstanding

Jane Fonda stars in a new flick: Peace, Love & Misunderstanding
Stephanie Zacharek on MovieLine reviews Peace, Love & Misunderstanding, a movie starring  Jane Fonda as a hippie mother with a yard full of chicks.

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

The USDA, again...

Cleopatra, the Silver Phoenix                                   Photo: Nancy Shobe

Kim Gieger reported in today's (6/5/12)  Los Angeles Times that the USDA plans on allowing chicken slaughterhouses to run "production lines faster with fewer federal inspectors...Production lines would be allowed to run 25% faster while the government would cut by as much as 75% the number of line inspectors eyeing chicken bodies for defects before the carcasses are packaged for consumption."

The bottom line for the federal government?  The USDA would eliminate 800 inspector positions saving the federal government $90 million over three years. (Calculations show that the average inspector must make $37,500/year--chicken sh-t wages for someone inspecting our food supply.)

In the future, inspections would be performed by the chicken slaughterhouses themselves, essentially creating a privatization of inspection.

To read the story, click here.

In another chicken-related story reported on May 29, 2012 in the Wall Street Journal:

Cameron McWhirter reported in the Wall Street Journal (5/29/12) that "robots can fly aircraft into war and help doctors perform surgeries" but researchers are still having trouble creating a robot that can debone a chicken.

But, Georgia Tech Research Institute may have solved that with their newly-invented chicken de-boning robot. It slices. It dices. It debones a chicken faster than a speeding bullet...well, kind of.

Because the consumption of chicken in America is so high (it has doubled in the last forty years), a new deboning robot may make a big difference in the poultry industry.

It seems that we will not only have fewer inspectors, but may soon have robots that debone the chickens.

Idea: Perhaps all of the people who formerly deboned can be turned into private inspectors?
(I'm being sarcastic...)

Tuesday, June 5, 2012

Venus In Transit

Venus                                                                                 Photo: Nancy Shobe

Today, Tuesday, June 5, a rare astronomical event will occur. Venus will be in transit. Venus will pass in front of the sun and viewers on Earth will see Venus' shapely silhouette from 6 p.m. PDT until sunset.

The last time this event was able to be seen in L.A. was 1882. And, when it occurs again in 2117, I think my view will be from front row celestial seats.

I love Venus.

Known as the "Morning Star" or "Evening Star", Venus is the next brightest object in our sky besides the Moon and the Sun. When I arrive home after a day's work, I often look up toward the night sky and search for Venus. I feel especially rewarded on those rare occasions when I see Venus dripping off the Moon, as if the two were consorting all day and just waiting for the darkness to shine their light. It solaces me to see the two together; like best girlfriends.

In Roman mythology, Venus is the goddess of love, beauty, sex, fertility, and prosperity. She and her Greek cohort, Aphrodite, were held in the highest regard--at least they were until Christianity came around. In the Middle Ages, Venus went from "light" to "dark". She became the personification of sinful lust and depravity. It was the Renaissance that brought her to light again, in all her sexual, feminine glory.

Years ago, when I visited the Uffizi Museum in Florence, Italy, I was mesmerized by Sandro Botticelli's painting, The Birth of Venus (c1486). The rest of my family pleaded with me to move on to other paintings, but I was transfixed. I studied the painting, scrutinized it, absorbed it into my memory.

In Botticelli's painting, Venus, in her revered nudity, is stepping ashore from her seashell, blown in by the wind. Her red hair cascades in rivulets along her body. She casts her glance slightly downward and away, as if lost in thought, a goddess resigned to her duty. According to myth, where Venus lingers, roses fall from the sky. The woman greeting Venus and welcoming her to shore wears a waistband of rose vines.

Botticelli, a devout Christian and a renowned painter, unchained the beauty, the purity, and the innocence of women through his great artistic masterpiece, The Birth of Venus.

I love Venus.

Venus is the ruling planet of my astrological sign, Libra. An appreciation for love, beauty, fashion, and the arts are all aspects of what Venus brings to my birth. A true romantic at heart, it is often difficult for me to see the shadow sides of people--to read the chronicles of war, to see the brutality of what we do to one another. I actually walked out of the movie, Schindler's List, not because it was a bad flick but because I couldn't stand the cruelty. A pacifist at heart, I sometimes cannot comprehend how people can inject such meanness on one another or why we choose to misunderstand.

When I turn my head up toward the sky, I look for Venus and the Moon because they make sense to me. They pacify each other, delight in each other's company, and shed over others their beaming glow.

I love Venus.

I am surrounded by Venus energy right now. I have a young puppy, Mango, an English Doodle who is a spirited girl. Nine pullets and two hens trill their high-pitched tunes from my hen house. I spend many evenings visiting my new granddaughter and drinking in her soft coos, sweet face, and luscious baby scent.

The only Mars (Ares) in the household is my cat, Sequoia, a wandering, once-homeless, killer with a lion's instinct for the hunt and a mouse's instinct for the late night nest. He is a Sun living in a world of Venus'. I often wonder how he feels around all of this Yin energy, if he feels alone, empowered, or better than? In a strange way, he reminds me of a friend's father who used to make jokes about living amongst the clutter and female "things" of his wife and four daughters.

We are all new together, this female energy--my granddaughter, my puppy, the hens, and me. There was an exquisite month of births this spring. We are all learning how to honor each other, how to revel in the soft, female energy that each brings, and how to dance in the presence of one another.

We are learning that without the Sun and its harsh, bright light, it would be impossible for us to radiate our lightness and happiness into the world. And, we are learning that by knowing the universe and its myths, we can understand our part--what we each have to offer.

We are all loving each other,
and learning together,
and reveling in the journey we're on


we are Venus's in transit.


Another artist's "take" on Venus in transit:  From Astro Daddy on Flicker.

Sunday, June 3, 2012

Carpe Diem: Choose A New Focal Length

Ova--Avo turned around                                                     Photo: Nancy Shobe

Learn to see, and then you’ll know there is no end to the new worlds of our vision.’

This morning began as any other. At 6:30 a.m., my adult hens, Diamond and Coachie, were scuffling their claws against the wood floor of the coop and rubbing their beaks back-and-forth against the aviary wire. It was enough to wake me up but not enough to motivate me to jump out of bed.

In fact, nothing really motivated me to jump out of bed this morning. With a "to-do" list a mile long, there was no excuse. But, something inside of me, (and it wasn't because of a late night or too many beers), was uninspired to get up and go.

I used to workout with a trainer years ago who coached me, "When you're feeling stuck, do something out of your norm to get moving. If you've been sitting at the computer, go take a walk. If you're bored with your daily chores, get out and shoot some pictures. Whatever it is that feeds your soul, get moving, and then go back to what you need to do."

What could I do this morning that would make me feel somewhat "naughty" for taking time off and would get me shaking and grooving my bed-bound tail feathers?  I decided to go to the Farmers' Market--not for delicious, fresh produce shopping but for photographing the goings on. There's always a cast of characters at the local market.

I went early, as soon as the proverbial doors opened. There's something about being there at the market's dawn. The vegetables are lined up like little soldiers in perfect symmetrical formation. The performers effuse a fresh morning glow, untarnished yet by the burn of the sun. Local chefs wend their way through the aisles making choice picks for their evening dinners and a lot of "older" people meander about--early birds on a mission.

I also issued a challenge to myself. Most photographs of Farmers' Markets are so damn boring. Or, at least I think so, probably because I've photographed Farmers' Markets dozens of times. Red, yellow and blue fruits playing off of each other. Baskets overflowing with carrot tops. Sunflowers winking their playful "hello's." This time I wanted to do something different, eclectic. Something that changed the way I "saw" the market.

The magic of street photography is that you don't get a command performance. You have to be patient, and wait to "see-ize" the moment.

I started out my foray taking the usual ho-hum photos: The man with the colorful shirt plucking the guitar to some random tune; the blues, blacks, and reds of the berries striking a pose next to the playful oranges, yellows and reds of the daisies; the wicker harvest basket brimming with colorful veggies.

I careened up and down the aisles like a cat on a rat hunt. At one point, a man in his eighties came up behind me and tapped me on the shoulder. As I turned around, he said, " I've been following you for awhile. You're acting like a real photographer." What do you say to that? I just smiled and moved on.

As fun as it was, I didn't feel the thrill of creativity. That was until I turned my head suddenly to the right.  A man was just finishing a handstand behind a table of Haas avocados.

I clicked the shutter a moment before he landed. "Awesome," I said to him. "You couldn't have timed it any better."

It was a new perspective on the Farmers' Market. A carpe diem moment--I captured it and it was momentarily electrifying.

One of the best books I've ever read on creativity was Twyla Tharp's, The Creative Habit: Learn it and Use it for Life. Besides being a motivational tool for learning the discipline of creativity, Ms. Tharp also suggests that people tend to get wedded to a certain observational focal length; it's part of our creative DNA. "All of us find comfort in seeing the world either from a great distance, at an arm's length, or in close-up," Tharp says.

She cites photographer Ansel Adams as an example of "an artist who was compelled to see the world from a great distance." Choreographer Jerome Robbins, she contends, liked to see the world from a mid-distance. In Robbins first ballet, Fancy Free, "Boys watch girls. Girls then watch boys. And, upstage the bartender watches everything..." And, most of us have seen how Robbins directed and choreographed true to his mid-distance length in the film West Side Story

Other artists like to see the world as if it was glasses resting on the tip of their nose. Tharp cites writer Raymond Chandler, whose detective fiction is rife with tight shots and extreme detail. His stories were in the details.

I am a close-up person. That's my creative identity, my focal length. I write with obsessive detail, observing everything and everyone in the scene. I like to talk one-on-one with people. I want to see the person, hear the person, smell the person with whom I am interacting. When I took up photography, I stayed within my creative identity. I shot pictures of people that showed the pores of their skin, every crease and every wrinkle. I wanted to see what each person's lives had scratched indelibly onto their faces. There is no ugliness, only beauty in each person's close-up story.

And, then, one day I was challenged to enlarge the frame. To take pictures from a great distance. To take in the whole picture and not just the close-up view. It was frustrating at first. Miss out on the details of the scene I was observing? No way. I found myself digging in my heels. Why should I change what I so relished about my creativity?

After a lot of resistance, I complied. Only because as Tharp says, "The better you know yourself, the more you will know if you are playing to your strengths and when you are sticking your neck out. Venturing out of your comfort zone may be dangerous, yet you do it anyway because our ability to grow is directly proportional to an ability to entertain the uncomfortable." Okay, sleeves-rolled-up, I was ready to be uncomfortable.

And, what I discovered was that my "all encompassing" photos often told more of a story; they put everything into context. That door with the large question mark that I shot in Lompoc? In my close-up photos, it was just a funky door with a very vintage texture and a large question mark painted on it. In the photos I took from a distance view, that door became a question mark on a rundown building in an abandoned part of town. What bigger question could there be? What was in that building in the past and what would replace it in the future? And, when a new business moved in, would the question mark remain?

I discovered beauty in the art of a new focal length.

Challenging yourself to change your focal length may allow you to "see" things better. It can help you create a greater understanding of the people and the places around you. If nothing more, it may develop in you just enough enthusiasm to get your tail feathers moving.

What is your focal length? Are you willing to change it?

Go ahead. I dare you. Get uncomfortable. Try to see the world from a different focal length. And, if you're especially athletic and up-to-the-task, do a handstand and see how the world looks from down there!

Saturday, June 2, 2012

It's the Only Trip the Establishment Would Let It Take...

Where did that silly saying about chickens crossing the road come from anyways?

According to Wikipedia, the riddle was first printed in Knickerbocker magazine, a New York City magazine, in 1847. The riddle became a widespread joke by the 1890s.

David Morin on Harvard University's Department of Physics has his own scientific take on the saying. He has written the riddle's answer from famous scientists' points of view.

For example, Morin suggests that Isaac Newton would have answered the riddle:
     Chickens at rest tend to stay at rest. Chickens in motion tend to cross roads.

 And, Carl Sagan might have answered:
     There are billions and billions of such chickens, crossing roads just like this one,
     all across the universe. [Apologies for perpetuating the misquote.]

Read Morin's other clever sayings at  Harvard's Department of Physics website.

On PlumJam's Poultry Project website, an abundance of political and apolitical answers are made about the chicken and the road riddle. One of my favorites is what Timothy Leary might have answered:

     Because that's the only trip the establishment would let it take.

Animal ID Regulation for Chickens?

Carole sent this to me in response to the California Egg Law blog that I previously posted. This Animal ID regulation is troubling, but I haven't researched it and don't know much about it. If anyone has any insight, leave a comment below or post one on Facebook.

Here are some comments that were posted on

Protect family farms and ranches from new burdensome Animal ID regulation
The USDA is about to finalize a rule that will cause significant problems for independent ranchers, small farmers, and even backyard poultry owners.  Please help protect our farms by telling your Representative to put a stop to this!
The USDA is on track to issue a final rule on Animal ID this summer and has not indicated that any major changes have been made from the version it proposed last year.  That rule as proposed by USDA would subject cattle and poultry owners across the country to new tagging and paperwork requirements that could collectively cost hundreds of millions of dollars, yet the agency has designated the final rule as “not economically significant.” 
The bottom line is that this animal ID rule is a solution in search of a problem.  The USDA has failed to identify the specific problem or disease of concern.  Instead, the real focus of the program is helping the export market for the benefit of a handful of large corporations.  
The agency has also failed to account for the true cost to private individuals, businesses, and state and federal agencies, creating an unfunded mandate.  The new rule will harm rural businesses while wasting taxpayer dollars that could be better spent on the real problems we face in controlling animal disease, food security, and food safety. 
Please help protect our farms and our right to own animals by contacting your Representative today!
Call your U.S. Representative and ask him or her to work to stop funding for the Animal ID rule until and unless the agency addresses the full costs of the proposal.
If you don’t know who represents you, you can call the Capitol Switchboard at 202-224-3121 or find out online at
Hi, my name is ____ and I am a constituent from (state).  I urge Congressman ____ to work to eliminate funding for the USDA’s Animal Traceability rule.  The agency has told the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) that the rule is not “economically significant,” but that is simply not true.  The rule as proposed by USDA would impose significant costs on independent ranchers, family farmers, backyard poultry owners and livestock businesses.
In a time of economic hardship, it makes no sense to spend our tax dollars on this program when USDA hasn’t even properly evaluated the costs or identified specific, concrete benefits.  Please work to stop the funding for this unnecessary and burdensome program.
Although we don’t know for certain what is in the final rule that USDA has sent to the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) for final approval, we do know several things:
1)  The proposed rule had many problems (discussed more below).
2)  The USDA has not announced that it has made any major changes to the proposed rule.  In fact, in informal statements, the USDA has indicated that the costly provisions for tagging feeder cattle are part of the final rule.
3)  The USDA has told OMB that the rule is “not economically significant,” putting it on the fast track for final approval without any serious evaluation of the true costs that it will impose.
We have repeatedly asked USDA for data showing where the problems are in tracking animals currently.  Rather than provide that data, USDA hand-picked a few anecdotes, out of the millions of animals in this country.  But the agency’s unsupported claims do not justify imposing broad new tracking requirements.  Small farms are not the source of most disease problems in this country, yet the proposed rule will burden them unfairly.
POULTRY: Small-scale, pastured, and backyard poultry would be particularly hard hit by the rule as proposed.  While the large confinement operations will be able to use “group identification,” the definition of the term does not cover most independent operations. Since thousands of people order baby chicks from hatcheries in other states, these birds cross state lines the first day of their lives. Even if the farmer or backyard owner never takes the bird across state lines again, they will have to use individually sealed and numbered leg bands on each chicken, turkey, goose, or duck to comply with the language of the proposed rule. 
Even if the definition of “group identification” were changed to cover small operations, the result would be new paperwork requirements on almost every person who owns chickens, turkeys, or other poultry.  The agency has entirely failed to justify imposing these burdens on poultry owners.
CATTLE: Along with new identification requirements imposed on all breeding-age cattle, the proposed rule would require identification and paperwork on calves and young cattle (“feeder cattle”), even though there’s no evidence that such requirements will help disease control. In addition, veterinarians and sale barns will have to keep records for 5 years, even though many of these cattle will have been consumed years earlier, creating mountains of useless paperwork.
Producers will only be able to use brands or tattoos as identification if their States enter into special agreements. State agencies will have to build extensive database systems to handle all of the data, creating problems for States’ budgets.
HORSES: The proposed rule also requires that horse owners identify their animals before crossing state lines.  Although most, if not all, horses that are shipped across state lines are already identified in some fashion, the proposed rule creates a new complication: Whether or not a physical description is sufficient identification will be determined by the health officials in the receiving state, leaving vets and horse owners struggling with significant uncertainty as they have to anticipate what will be allowed.
SHEEP, GOATS, and HOG: The proposed rule also covered sheep, goats, and hogs that cross state lines, essentially federalizing the existing programs which have been adopted state-by-state until now.