Saturday, November 22, 2008

More matter and less art

Michael Kinsley wonders if there are too many blogs, and perhaps this one was the last straw, though I tried to choose a title that would let Kinsley off the hook. In any case, he observes, quite validly:

The opportunity for us all to express an opinion is wonderful. Having to read all those opinions isn't....Many readers may be reaching the point with blogs and websites that I reached long ago with the Sunday New York Times Magazine—actively hoping that there isn't anything interesting in there, because then I'll have to take the time to read it.

Opinions abound, but I for one found it worthwhile to read an article in which Nancy Gibbs lists several good reasons for the Obamas to send their daughters to the distinguished Sidwell Friends private school in Washington, where Chelsea Clinton also attended; I have no doubt that their decision was sound, though I would still have been happy to see the Obamas encourage by example the work of Michelle Rhee, the feisty, reforming Chancellor of D.C. schools.

The Obama daughters are promised a puppy in their new home, which should be easier to maintain than the bear cubs that Jefferson kept when he was there; meanwhile, other city dwellers are turning to urban chicken farming. As described in Newsweek:

Over the past few years, urban dwellers driven by the local-food movement, in cities from Seattle to Albuquerque, have flocked to the idea of small-scale backyard chicken farming—mostly for eggs, not meat—as a way of taking part in home-grown agriculture. This past year alone, grass-roots organizations in Missoula, Mont.; South Portland, Maine; Ann Arbor, Mich.; and Ft. Collins, Colo., have successfully lobbied to overturn city ordinances outlawing backyard poultry farming, defined in these cities as egg farming, not slaughter. Ann Arbor now allows residents to own up to four chickens (with neighbors' consent), while the other three cities have six-chicken limits, subject to various spacing and nuisance regulations.

Newsweek acknowledges that there could be drawbacks:

That quick growth in popularity has some people worried about noise, odor and public health, particularly in regard to avian flu. A few years back in Salt Lake City—which does not allow for backyard poultry farming—authorities had to impound 47 hens, 34 chicks and 10 eggs from a residential home after neighbors complained about incessant clucking and a wretched stench, along with wandering chickens and feathers scattered throughout the neighborhood. "The smell got to be unbelievable," one neighbor told the local news.

Some parts of China are apparently carrying on the Salt Lake tradition; as the Journal of Infectious Diseases notes, "China plays a huge role in the global poultry industry, with a poultry population of 14 billion birds, 70%–80% of which are reared in backyard conditions." Admittedly, China's public health practices are not ours, and in any case, sophisticated Americans want to flavor their urban lives with authentic experiences of nature; as K.T. LaBadie, a major figure in the movement, noted, slaughtering a chicken is "messy, but real."

No doubt, though for my money, if LaBadie is simply looking for meaningful existential encounters, she should volunteer in a hospice or read Dostoevsky. I'm sure we all appreciate fresh eggs, but I see no more reason to set up a chicken coop so that my quiche will be just right than I do to skin my own rabbit to make a pair of mittens for my grandnephew.

As Jared Diamond notes in Guns, Germs, and Steel, living in proximity to animals has always been "a bonanza for microbes." (See pages 205–210 of that book for a description of animal pathogens and their emergence as contagious diseases in humans.) A guide to small-scale chicken production published by the World Poultry Science Association describes the ways that infection can spread:

Pathogens can multiply rapidly in a chicken flock and be passed from bird to bird...via saliva, droppings or contaminated eggs. They can also be spread via humans and animals (rats, birds, flies), on boots, feed bags, equipment, bicycle- or car tyres. Some viruses can even be spread by air, on wind and dust. Other birds (ducks, geese, turkeys, guinea fowl) can carry pathogens without showing any signs of disease, and can pass them on to chickens. The most notorious case of this is avian influenza. (p. 52)

Frankly, it doesn't surprise me that the URL to this document contains the rather ominous title, "Journey to Forever."

To be fair, the 84-page guide is a clearly written list of effective procedures for ensuring health and safety for humans and poultry alike. If the lady in the apartment downstairs, whose free-range dogs do their best to fertilize our apartment parking lot, ever decides to cultivate chickens, I have my doubts as to how closely she is likely to comply with this guide, or any other.

In any case, it seems the experts overrule me; Newsweek notes, "As GRAIN, an international sustainable agriculture group, concluded in a 2006 report: 'When it comes to bird flu, diverse small-scale poultry farming is the solution, not the problem.'" Public health officials believe that if avian flu turns up in the United States, it is much more likely to appear in factory-farmed poultry than in your neighbor's back yard.

I don't know enough to contradict them and can only hope their judgment in this matter is sounder than that of Alan Greenspan. Actually, I have a turkey in my apartment right now, which I won in a trivia contest last night, though it is confined to my freezer; I'll deliver it to my brother's home Tuesday morning, and my sister-in-law can have a "real experience" preparing it.

© Michael Huggins, 2008. All rights reserved.

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