Sunday, May 25, 2014

Ghost Voice

by Zinta Aistars
Published in Kalamazoo College's newsletter
May 2014

You know you want to. Go ahead, do it. Just don’t get caught.
Sneak into your sister’s room while she’s out to the party, fish under her fluffy ruffled pillow—and there it is, with its tiny gold key attached by a thin orange and black ribbon. Read her diary under the bed covers at night, using a flashlight to skim her rounded handwriting. All her secrets …
A picture of Claire Wight Payne from the scrapbook of her classmate, Lydia Buttolph ’16.
It’s a lot like that. Only these diaries are one hundred years old, they’re available online, and the girl sharing her secrets on the written page is Claire Wight, Kalamazoo College Class of 1916. She’s a student (and athlete) at K, walking the Quad with her boyfriend Ralph, tennis racket under her arm, telling him how she’s pretty darn sure that “Tuffy,” her math professor, is going to flunk her this time.
Some things change and some never do.
The diaries, nine of which may be viewed by appointment at the Kalamazoo Valley Museum, are dated between 1909 and 1938. In 1909, Claire Wight is 15 years old and attends Kalamazoo Central High School. “Mamma gave me a lovely new diary,” she writes. And she writes in her diary most every single day.
“She’s at the stage of figuring out who she is, what love is, what she wants to do with her life,” says Lisa Murphy ‘98, College archivist at Upjohn Library Commons. Wight’s diary entries about her years  at K begin with 1913. Her entries for the year 1912, when she was a freshman in the fall, are missing.
September 17, 1913:
“College opens! It seemed good to see all the students back and it was regular ‘pandemonium’ with them all talking at once.  I have a very stiff program. The hardest there is and I don’t know how I will come out with it. I have 7:55 math, 9:15 german 10:15 public speaking, 11:15 history 1:30 Chemistry besides Lab work gymnasium etc. I have Prof. Williams, Prof Bacon, Prof Dagistan, Dr. Balch, Prof Smith, This P.M.  E & I went down town and got our books then came home & went over to the gymnasium & practiced tennis against the brick wall Oh I hope I can beat Miss Gregg, It was quite fun watching the Freshmen and helping them out of their dilemas [sic]. This evening I studied a while then Ralph & I went walking through town out onto East Main got some ice cream & candy then came home.”
Murphy has been in close contact with Paula Metzner, assistant director for collection and exhibit services, who has been meticulously transcribing the diaries to the Kalamazoo Valley Museum website, entry by entry, with spelling and grammar mistakes intact for authenticity. In the Kalamazoo College archives (third floor of Upjohn Library Commons) are collections of photographs, programs, notes and various mementos from Claire Wight and from her school years at K in general.
Reading these diaries is a great way to get an idea what K was like a century ago.
“Claire Wight was the daughter of a Baptist minister, Rev. Wallace Wight, who also went to K and graduated in 1892,” says Murphy. “The Baptist roots of Kalamazoo College were very strong during that time, so it makes sense that she came here. Women had few career choices back then—maybe teachers or nurses—but a minister would have thought it was important for a young woman to be educated.”
Students back then, explains Murphy, would not have declared majors and minors, but rather designated a course of studies. It appears Claire Wight studied chemistry along with Latin and German, and other general courses, including what was then known as “hygiene class.”
“Hygiene class promoted health and efficiency,” says Murphy. “It would have included gymnastics, dancing, graded physical training, and games.”
Claire Wight ’16 donated her many MIAA tennis medals to the K archives.
Wight made her mark most, however, in ...

Friday, May 23, 2014

Earth Words

by Zinta Aistars
Published in Kalamazoo College's BeLight
May 23, 2014

“. . . we go to poetry … so that we might more fully inhabit our lives and the world in which we live them, and that if we more fully inhabit these things, we might be less apt to destroy both.”  – Christian Wiman, poet
Gabriella Donofrio ’13 (left) and Alice Bowe ’13 sort and plant lettuces at Harvest of Joy Farm in Shelbyville, MI.
Amy Newday plants seeds in soil (she runs her own farm), and she plants seeds in students (she directs K’s Writing Center and teaches classes in the English department). Some seeds grow green crops. Others grow green poetry.
Newday recently completed a winter term course called “Ecopoetry,” and is currently teaching a spring term senior Capstone class called “CSA (community-supported agriculture) and Sustainability.” The two courses are an integral part of Kalamazoo College’s ongoing creation of a Center for Environmental Stewardship, teaching students about the impact of human life on their world.
“I feel a strong call to be of service to the earth and the non-human beings we share it with,” says Newday. “As I get older and get to know myself better and as our ecological crises worsen, this call becomes stronger. What I was curious to explore with my students in the ecopoetry course was—what does poetry have to do with ecological crises? Can poetry be a vehicle for transforming our relationships with the ecosystems in which we dwell?”
A farmer and a poet, Newday grew up on dairy farm in Shelbyville, Michigan. Her “Ecopoetry” course drew thirteen students, all of whom participated in a reading on campus to draw their class to a close. Each student read a poem from the textbook that had especially moved or inspired them.
Emily Sklar ’15 was one of those students, a biology major with an interest in ecological issues. “I love biology, although I’m not quite sure yet what I will do with it,” Sklar says. “I also love being outdoors, and I’m concerned about the environment, so I’ve been wondering how to combine all that. Science comes short on the ethical and moral aspect of ecological issues, so that’s why I took the poetry course. Poetry gives me another way to understand what’s around me, and the course has given me a blend of language that builds collaboration between scientists and poets.”
“Ecopoetry” is a relatively new term, if not quite a genre in its own right, Newday explains. “Writing about daffodils is no longer enough. Critics beat up poets like Mary Oliver for being what they call a ‘nature poet,’ writing about birds and trees. Writing about birds and trees is important, but ecopoetry includes the bulldozer that knocks the tree down and destroys the bird.”
Poetry can help us imagine possibilities … possible solutions to ecological crises.
Three main groupings of poetry compose the new genre, Newday says. As defined by Ann Fisher-Wirth and Laura Gray-Street, the editors Newday’s class textbook, The Ecopoetry Anthology, poetry that explores nature and the meaning of life falls into the first group. A second group includes environmental poetry with a more political slant that may address social justice issues and is often related to specific events. The third group includes poetry about ecology, often in more experimental forms.
“In this course we explored how the language of poetry has shaped and reflected changing perceptions of nature, ecology, and humanity over the past two centuries,” Newday says. “We looked at what poetry can contribute to current cultural and cross-cultural conversations about environmental justice and sustainability.”
Students at the reading in March read favorite poets they had studied, such as, yes, Mary Oliver, and also Alicia Suskin Ostriker, Ralph Black, G. E. Patterson, Deborah Miranda, Tony Hoagland, Robert Duncan, Lucille Clifton, Lola Haskins, Sandra Beasley, and Linda Hogan. Some students also read their own work.
“I’m not a big reader,” Sklar admits. “But I fell in love with this poetry. What I had hoped would happen, happened. The facts in science are great, but poetry gives us a way to connect to people who aren’t scientists.”
The ecopoetry course, Sklar adds, helped her to solidify an idea for her Senior Individualized Project that she’d been mulling over for about a year. Her interest in nature, biology, ecology, and human responses to all three came together in a plan to hike the entire Appalachian Trail. Along with ...

Thursday, May 22, 2014

Long journey from Peru to Kalamazoo ends in success with Mamita's recipes

by Zinta Aistars
Published in Southwest Michigan's Second Wave Media
May 22, 2014

As the only Peruvian restaurant in Southwest Michigan, the owners of El Inka Peruvian Bistro were not prepared for just how popular it would be the minute they opened the doors. Zinta Aistars has the story, and the fascinating back-story.

Eighteen years old, just a few thin bills in her pocket, alone and with only the most minimum English skills, Sylvia Varillas left home in Lima, Peru, and fought her way to the United States. Mamita was so upset about Sylvia leaving that she wouldn’t speak to her. Papito understood. 

Today, Sylvia Varillas is co-owner with her American-born husband Erin Kane of the new restaurant on 563 N. Drake Road, El Inka Peruvian Bistro, which opened in February. Mamita and Papito (Sylvia Estacion-Fernandez and Hernan Varillas-Guzman) are always there to help, cooking, prepping food, waiting on tables, cleaning up, and joining in the laughter.

It was a long and arduous journey here.

Much has changed since the younger Sylvia came to the United States, but her journey to Kalamazoo is one that she wants her children to hear when they get older. Hers is a story of determination, persistence, and a willingness to work hard to achieve success—all qualities she is determined to bring to El Inka Peruvian Bistro. 

“I had gone to Saskatchewan in Canada for six months of high school on a scholarship,” says Varillas. “It opened my eyes to a different life. I didn’t have to hide or be scared.”

Varillas' memories of her childhood and teen years in Peru are of a government in turmoil and family life in ruin. Her father lost his job as an attorney, and the family lost all of their assets. No longer living in comfort, her father drove a taxi. They sometimes had to stand in line for food. 

“So when I was 18, I sold all my clothes, everything I had, and I bought a ticket to Miami,” she says. “I knew of someone there who I heard had a cleaning business.”

When Varillas arrived at the Miami airport, no one was there to pick her up. “I arrived at 11 a.m., but my ride didn’t show up until 5 p.m. … the next day. She took what money I had, $100, gave me a piece of bread, and locked me into a room with another girl. I climbed out the window.”

Varillas walked through pouring rain to reach a train station, where she begged for money to buy another ticket. Making her way back to the airport by train, she was allowed to make a phone call by a person behind the airline desk, and Varillas called her parents, who were by then frantic to hear from her.

“They begged me to come home, but I refused,” says Varillas. “So my papito gave me the phone number for his grandfather’s sister living in Maryland. He hadn’t seen her in 20 years.”

Varillas made the phone call. Her great aunt was ...


Monday, May 19, 2014

1,000 Books Before Kindergarten Encourages Reading to Your Kids

by Zinta Aistars
For the Arts and More program
WMUK 102.1 FM Radio
Kalamazoo, Michigan's NPR affiliate

Listen Tuesday, May 20, at 7:50 a.m., 9:50 a.m., 4:29 p.m., 5:44 p.m., for Zinta Aistars' report on the 1,000 Books program on WMUK, 102.1 FM. Or listen online.

In January, Kalamazoo Public Library started a program that challenges kids, and their parents or mentors, to read 1,000 books together before they start kindergarten.
About 370 children have signed up for the program so far and nine have made it to a thousand.
Kids and parents at Kalamazoo Public Library's 2012 Party in the Park
Credit Kalamazoo Public Library
A thousand books may seem like a daunting task to some parents, but Kalamazoo Public Library Children’s Programming Librarian Andrea Vernola says it doesn’t have to be.
“It can be the same book over and over. We know kids that like to repeat books, which is great for them for learning to read and that’s fine. We know that babies will look at a book and sometimes just want to look at the pictures,” she says.
“There’s all different ways to share books with kids, so all of that counts.”
Vernola says kids in the program aren’t even required to finish all 1,000 books. It’s supposed to be a fun, self-paced program that encourages kids and their parents or mentors to read together. But Vernola says the goal isn’t ridiculous.
“If you read a couple books a day for even a year, you’d have 900 books,” she says.
Even newborns can get involved. Vernola says talking to your baby is really good for them. It builds their future vocabulary and knowledge of reading.
Vernola says reading with your kids, no matter what age, is also great family bonding time. It lets parents take a break while helping their child get ready for school.
The 1,000 Books Before Kindergarten program is not new to libraries. Vernola says it’s a great way to get young kids familiar with the library system and to feel comfortable asking librarians questions. Vernola says kids who are read to have ...

Thursday, May 15, 2014

Story about 1,000 books has a happy ending

by Zinta Aistars
Published in Southwest Michigan's Second Wave Media
May 15, 2014

If you were writing the book of a child's life wouldn't you like it to have a happy ending? Every day more children are signing up for a Kalamazoo Public Library program intended to give them a life that includes loving the reading of books. 

Once upon a time there was a child hungry for words. Words strung together make stories, and stories make a child’s heart race and imagination soar, so this child picked up a book and then picked up 999 more.

Andrea Vernola, children’s programming librarian at Kalamazoo Public Library, 315 South Rose Street, knows this story well. Together with Sue Warner, head of youth services, and Judy Rambow, lead librarian at Alma Powell and Eastwood Branch Libraries, the three sat down to brainstorm a new children’s reading program called 1,000 Books Before Kindergarten. It’s a program of a thousand "once upon a times" with happy endings.

"You can read the book yourself or have it read to you," says Vernola. "You can read the book to your brother or sister and it will count for both of you. You can sing the book, or you can just tell the book. Whatever builds enjoyment in the process of reading."

The new 1,000 Books program, launched in December 2013 and partially funded by a Target Early Childhood Reading grant, has about 350 children signed up to date, with more signing up daily. All five branches are involved: the central library in downtown Kalamazoo, Eastwood, Oshtemo, Alma Powell and Washington Square. 

"1,000 books may sound like a lot," says Vernola with a smile. "But it’s not so many that it’s impossible, and there is no timeline. The preschoolers? Not at all overwhelmed by such a number. Eight have reached the goal already. They get excited!"

The program, Vernola says, was made as easy as possible to complete. Sign up at any library location, pick up a reading log or download one; record each book that you share and enjoy, even the ones you repeat more than once; bring it in to your friendly children’s librarian each time you reach 50 books.

"Then we give the child a prize," says Vernola. "Stickers, pencils, bookmarks. Kids love stickers. At 250, 500 and 750 books read, the child gets a book of their own, to keep. At 1,000, we award a certificate of completion and a KPL tote bag."

Reading with your baby, toddler or preschooler, Vernola says, is the best way to prepare a child for reading on his or her own. "Research shows that reading with a child improves vocabulary, introduces a child to sounds, phonics--not to mention strengthens family bonding. You can’t quantify that, but the kind of family bonding built on reading together helps a child in all areas of life."

Vernola points to a study by the National Early Literacy Panel (NELP), that says 37 percent of children reaching fourth grade fail to attain basic levels of reading achievement. That percentage climbs even higher when paired with ...


Listen Tuesday, May 20, at 7:50 a.m., 9:50 a.m., 4:29 p.m., 5:44 p.m., for Zinta Aistars' report on the 1,000 Books program (or listen online) on WMUK, 102.1 FM.

Kalamazoo Public Library

Tuesday, May 13, 2014

Teaching with Testimony

by Zinta Aistars
Published in LuxEsto Fall 2013
Kalamazoo College alumni magazine


Corey Harbaugh '91 was on a plane to Madrid, Spain, on his way to study abroad. He expected study abroad to change his life, like it does for so many other Kalamazoo College students, but for him, life was changed forever before the plane had even landed.

He found a book. Someone had left it in the seat pocket of the plane. With time to pass, he opened the cover of Elie Wiesel's Night and started to read. It was the autobiography of a Jewish teen who had survived the Nazi concentration camps of Auschwitz and Buchenwald during the Holocaust.

Harbaugh was an English major, and he loved a good story. This one nearly overwhelmed him. With the years to come, he would learn the power and value of sharing stories. Sitting on the plane with book in hand that day, he would experience that power firsthand.

"When you hear a story," Harbaugh says, "you take in some of the DNA of the person telling the story, and it becomes a part of your own DNA."

Since that day on the plane, Harbaugh has committed his life to bearing witness to the most profound stories, then using them to teach others, most often his students at Gobles (Mich.) High School, where he has been a teacher and administrator since 1995.

"When the plane landed, I had finished reading Wiesel's Night," he says. "I left it on the seat for the next person to read; this isn't the kind of story you keep to yourself. I learned more about the value of a story during my K education, and I have been pursuing the answers to big questions in stories ever since.  my faculty advisor, Gail Griffin, would have said this was my 'calling.'"

In 2009, Harbaugh pursued big questions as a participant in the Memorial Library Summer Seminar on Holocaust Education. Part of a two-person team of educators, Harbaugh became immersed in a 60-hour seminar focused on reading, writing about, and teaching the Holocaust, creating a Holocaust Education teaching unit to bring back to his students. He became a satellite leader on the Michigan Summer Seminar in Holocaust Education, meeting in Kalamazoo and the Detroit area with teachers from throughout the State of Michigan, learning how to teach the Holocaust to their students.

Two years later, Harbaugh was Master Teacher of the USC Shoah Foundation (, the Institute for Visual History and Education. Training included digging through an archive of 52,000 Holocaust survivor testimonies. He emerged with a curriculum he had created on IWitness, a digital Holocaust curriculum available to teachers everywhere.

And then—the journey to Auschwitz and to Jerusalem.

"That's what comes next," Harbaugh says. "After you hear the stories, you are compelled to action. What do we do next, after we bear witness?"

Prior to this immersion into Holocaust materials and testimony, Harbaugh had left his position as English teacher to become principal of Gobles Middle and High School. One day a colleague, on an occasion of again seeing Harbaugh rush around managing with never enough time to interact with students, asked him: "You know you're miserable, don't you?"

Harbaugh smiles ruefully at the memory. "As principal, I was working with data no one read," he says. "It was all stress and paperwork. My colleague’s comment confirmed what I already knew: I wanted to teach again."

And the trip to Poland and Israel ( would mold him as a teacher and an educational leader. He attributes this, too, to his education at Kalamazoo College.

"I learned at K that education goes beyond what one learns in the classroom," he says. "K taught me to ask the hard questions. The questions of the Holocaust can't be answered—or understood—yet we must continue down this path of trying to understand."

He and 24 companion teachers from across the United States traveled to Poland and Jerusalem to explore the difficult questions embodied in the death camps. Harbaugh dealt with his arising emotions with poetry.

Here everything is sinister.
Everything touches death
And dark memory:
Those tracks
That train
Carries the silent shadow
Of a scream. That brick wall
I saw it in a grainy picture once
Used to be black
And white.

"I had to document my encounter with these stories.  The experience was so powerful, so I turned it into a poem to share." Harbaugh has long liked the idea of sharing words, and in college he began to leave little pieces of paper with his poetry here and there, for others to find. It was what he called "a collective experience," a part of sharing his story as he lived it.

In Tel Aviv, on the second leg of the group's journey, Harbaugh met Ron Huldai, the city’s mayor. "We had a 45-minute audience with him, and he invited us to ask him any question. When we asked him about Israel and Palestine, he said that all people want peace. Governments may be motivated by greed and a lust for power, but people everywhere just want peace."

Harbaugh brought all of these experiences and impressions home to his classroom in Gobles. In a 9-week class, he invited his students to walk the same journey he shared. "It's a hard journey," he nods. "Teaching trauma brings kids to their own dark moments.  You can depersonalize facts and statistics, but you can't depersonalize someone's story. I keep my students safe, but I also make them uncomfortable. That's where the learning is."

The learning becomes about his students, Harbaugh says, not his own objectives. He becomes perhaps more of a tour guide than a teacher, allowing the students to learn by shaping their own stories. He invites questions, lots of questions.

"The community in Gobles is 96 percent white and 98 percent Christian," he says. Harbaugh brings his students into an experience far from their own, prompting them to peel away the layers of their beliefs and value systems, to work on their own identities, and to consider that Germany was a civilized, highly cultured nation in Hitler's time. Could the Holocaust happen anywhere? Here?

"Each one of us has to hold up a good, clear mirror. That's my job as a teacher: to help my students hold up a mirror. What do you want to see in your mirror?"

And then, Harbaugh invites them to tell their stories.

Social justice, Harbaugh says, belongs in every class, in every curriculum. That, too, he says, he learned at Kalamazoo College. No matter the topic, everything in life comes down to social justice--privilege or lack of it, breaking the cycle or letting it churn on in endless, repeated human tragedy.

"When the students graduate and they are ready to leave high school and go out into the world, I want them to think: how will I change the world?"

Harbaugh has hope. Walking through darkness, he believes, one can find light. "Because of people I've met in this work, I am three handshakes from Hitler. Far enough for critical distance,  and the rigor of scholarship. Close enough for living memory. Yes, I believe we can change."

Harbaugh looks back for a moment on his own journey, and then he says: "I can't imagine the last 25 years of my life happening without K. None of this was by chance. I was recruited to K to play football. I played in high school, but I was ambivalent about it. On my second visit to K, still unsure, I wandered out from Hoben Hall onto the Quad, feeling lost. A couple K students approached me and talked to me. It was a meaningful conversation; they told me about K and answered my questions. It took. I decided Kalamazoo College was for me."

And the rest, as they say, is history. History worth understanding, exploring, and turning into a story that can be shared, and this time, just maybe, with a changed ending.

Corey Harbaugh’s Story Tellers

"Corey Harbaugh is the rare educator who teaches from the heart as well as the head. He brings a vision of a better world to his work. He is an articulate spokesperson for how Holocaust studies have the potential to awaken a sense of social justice in students, and he is tireless in his efforts to create curriculum, especially using digital and new media formats, that brings the lessons of the Holocaust into the 21st century. Having worked with hundreds of teachers across the country, I don't know anyone I admire more or feel more privileged to know than Corey Harbaugh."
Sondra Perl, Professor of English, Lehman College and the Graduate Center of the City University of New York, and Director, Holocaust Educators Network

"Mr. Harbaugh's class at Gobles High opened my eyes. He brought Irving Ross, a Holocaust survivor, to speak to us. You can read about the Holocaust, but to hear the story from a survivor, I'll never forget it.  It's important for kids to be engaged with the impact of the Holocaust on the world. It made me really think about social justice, and that kind of thinking is reinforced here at K.

"It was Mr. Harbaugh that told me about Kalamazoo College. He encouraged me to visit and learn more about K. I'm glad I made the decision to come here to continue my education."

Richard (Gray) Vreeland '15, Kalamazoo College student and graduate of Gobles High School

Story in Kalamazoo Gazette MLive about Corey Harbaugh, May 13, 2014:

Even Obama is paying attention to Gobles teacher's lessons on the Holocaust 

Thursday, May 08, 2014

Staff Profile at WMUK

How nice. Finally made it onto the WMUK 102.1 FM radio staff page, Kalamazoo, Michigan's NPR affiliate station. Having great fun interviewing various authors on air.

Zinta Aistars is our resident book expert. She started interviewing authors and artists for our Arts & More program in 2011.
Aistars is creative director, writer, and editor at Z Word, LLC. She's also the published author of ...

Visit the WMUK Arts and More page to see the full listing of my interviews with links to listen online, and read the rest of the profile.

Interviews have included Joseph Heywood, Michael Loyd Gray, Maryann Lesert, Vic Foerster, Kristina Riggle, Bryan Gruley, Michael Delp, George Dila, Susan Blackwell Ramsey, Philip Levine, Blaine Pardoe, Steve Luxenberg, Gail Martin, Mariela Griffor, Joan Donaldson, Shirley Showalter, Janet Ruth Heller, Marie Bahlke, Elizabeth Kerlikowske, Andy Mozina, Paul Smithson, and more, and many more to come ...

Tuesday, May 06, 2014

Autographs You Won't Want to Miss: The Rare Book Room at Kalamazoo College

A radio interview by Zinta Aistars
WMUK 102.1 FM
Kalamazoo, Michigan's NPR affiliate station

Paul Smithson, curator, in the Rare Book Room at K College

Once or twice a month, I record radio interviews for the Arts and More program at WMUK radio. In May, I talk to Paul Smithson at Kalamazoo College: 

Every term, Kalamazoo College digs up an exhibit for display at the A.M. Todd Rare Book Room. It’s located on the third floor of the Upjohn Library Commons building at the corner of Thompson and Academy streets.
The exhibit “Sincerely Yours: Noteworthy Signatures” will be up until June 5, 2014. It's filled with letters, books, documents, and even artwork signed by famous figures in history. 
Rare Book Room Curator Paul Smithson says handling the actual documents written by these famous people makes them real to students of Kalamazoo College in Kalamazoo, Michigan. 
Among the collection are photos of Alice Hargreaves--the original Alice of Alice in Wonderland. Hargreaves encouraged Lewis Carroll to publish the fantastical stories he made up for her. There is also ...

Monday, May 05, 2014

Going to the Birds

By Zinta Aistars
(Read at Bookbug author reading,
"Verses and Vibes" on the theme of 
food and raising food, March 2014) 

Communing with my girls (Photo by L. Rozins)

Reading at Bookbug
On how many playgrounds have children taunted each other with the label: “Chicken!” On the playground, chicken means a lack of courage. But on this blue-misted morning in late October, I am the one short on courage—even as I am tingling with excitement at this new adventure.

I am on my way, at the break of a cool dawn, to a poultry farm in nearby Zeeland. During the previous summer, the toolshed on my 10-acre farm had been converted into a roomy and comfortable chicken coop. Two rows of nest boxes had been installed. Chicken feeders and waterers were in place. Straw was strewn across the floor for warmth and comfort.

Ever since I moved here at the beginning of 2012, I’ve been dreaming chickens … and fresh, organic eggs.

I had read the instructional books, joined chicken-raising forums, visited a friend’s poultry farm, even participated in a day of processing meat chickens to learn the literal ins and outs of all things chicken. I was as ready as I could be … but for a jelly edge of fear.

One day old chick at Z Acres
My fear was about handling these soft balls of fluff. They are, after all, living beings. Tender little things that chirp and peep, delicate and light as a golden feather. Will I know how to raise them? Will I be a successful mother hen? Will I know how to keep them safe from predators?

Where I live, deep in Michigan country, coyotes roam nights in hungry and howling packs, raccoons peer from behind their black masks around moonlit trees, and sharp-eyed hawks loop in the sky overhead, watching for tell-tale movement.

I’d heard the horror stories about wily raccoons pulling witless chicken heads through the wire fencing—and pulling their little heads loose. Oy.

The moment I walked into the chick building at the poultry farm, I recalled why I wanted to try my hand at raising chickens. Other than fresh eggs in unlimited supply, of course. That sound … that soft clucking and peeping, it was as soothing as any sound I’d heard. I knew I didn’t want a rooster crowing at the break of every dawn (not soothing), but this soft murmur of hens and chicks was almost meditative.

So I brought them home: six day-old chicks, six tiny bundles of downy feathers with tiny beaks and skinny little toothpick legs. After the first day and night of checking on them every few minutes to be sure that the chicks hadn’t suddenly keeled over and died on me for any number of irrational reasons, I began to relax.

And enjoy. The little chicks were growing so fast, truly before my eyes. Every day I saw a visible difference. By golly, they weren’t stupid birds at all—weren’t chickens supposed to be silly? Think the sky was falling upon their downy heads? With each day, I saw them interact more and more with each other, peer out the window at new light, cock their heads to listen to the crow cawing outside, trot over to take a closer look at my camera lens when I photographed them. They scratched in patches of dirt to find grain, they bumped beaks with each other in some measure of interaction. My presence drew immediate curiosity.

As their wings grew and developed feathers in place of the down, the chicks flew higher up to roosts, and finally flew up and out of the open box where I kept them in a warm greenhouse. Sooner than I had expected, they were ready to move into the grownup chicken coop.

Four months later, I discovered the first brown egg. I stood, perfect egg in palm, and stared in wonder. This was why I was raising chickens, after all, I knew this was coming … and still, I was bowled over by the wonder of it. The good egg.

No egg ever has been more carefully cracked into a hot pan of bubbling butter and fried. None more lusciously eaten, licking lips at every bite. Rich. Creamy. Buttery. The yolk was a deep orange, evidence to the diet my growing hens have enjoyed: all organic grains supplemented with greens and vegetables, berries and fruits, and the occasional bug and worm as spring begins its hesitant thaw. Oh, the joys of free-ranging soon, soon!

But it isn’t just my daily basket of eggs that I now so enjoy. It’s the chicken communion. Before I gather those eggs, I commune with my girls. I listen to the pawk pawk of their conversation. They chatter, they hum, they toot and chirp and cluck in contentment. When my day grows stressed, I visit my girls, and they hop on my knee or sit on my shoulder or arm. They pick the dust from the seams of my jeans and the pebbles from the soles of my boots. They look into my eyes as if they saw some sense there. They give me a peck, hard, when I take too long to answer. They are not too chicken to do that, to me, a mother hen a hundred times their size.

Boiled, poached, sunny side up with crispy lace edges, or swimming in lemony Hollandaise sauce. Doesn’t matter. Chicken or the egg, I want both. Both have made my life a richer experience and, more than once, kept the sky from falling.