The Egg & I by Betty MacDonald

Within days of Betty and Bob MacDonald’s marriage, while still on their honeymoon, Bob announced that what he wanted, really wanted, was to be a chicken farmer. Shortly after their return from their honeymoon, he found a farm off in the hinterlands of Washington State. Betty MacDonald’s book The Egg & I is a memoir of the author’s trial by fire life on that farm.

“When you make a complete change in your mode of living, as I did, you learn that, along with the strange aspects of the new life which seep in and become part of you, will come others to which you never become accustomed.” (p. 94)

I found the initial pages delightful. The broad similarities of the MacDonalds’ relationship and experience with Carl’s and mine that imbued the book kept me happily reading. The humorous recounting of her childhood, and her 1950s conditioning on how-to-be-a-good-wife, lay the groundwork for her lack of rebellion at Bob’s turn-on-a-dime announcement. Their move out to the hinterlands to rebuild derelict chicken coops and outhouses, reclaim the forested landscape to create gardens, all while lacking 20th century conveniences like electricity, running water, a radio and telephone . . . and then the creepy nighttime visits to the outhouse? It was humbling to read. I whinge on if I can’t have an espresso in the morning. My comfort zone might be rather small but—full disclosure—we are very, very comfortable here in our now-large, off-grid home. I might have to clean the chicken coop, refill the water buckets and food bins, shovel snow and toss hay bales with my arm in a cast and in negative wind chill weather, but the chores here are manageable with only ten chickens . .  and Carl.

Too, we have hot showers. I cannot imagine facing the manure and kerfuffle of two thousand hens without running water or a backup propane tank.

Betty and I do share a special something: a lack of organizational skills. Her high hopes and fantasies regarding seeds are mine. She, too, would dream, as she ordered seeds for fancy-ass plants that grow in zone 8 rather than her zone of 3, of a stunning garden full of burgeoning flowers and herbs and bushes. Her attempts flailed and failed as have so many of mine. Carl’s and my greenhouse, for instance, resembles our barren hens, in its failure to provide us with our winter greens and I would suggest that failure is not the greenhouse’s but mine. Even in a greenhouse, for example, one must plant seeds in the dirt and water them. It’s ever so much like gardening. At times, I wonder if, as was suggested to Ms. MacDonald once upon a time, someone ought to say to me, “You ought to get you another hobby, there is some folks who just don’t have the feeling. Yep, you should get you another hobby.” (p. 155)

I would reject such a notion. I only lack intention. Or maybe it’s attention, a skill I am currently honing with the help of meditation and Carl, which brings me to the topic of husbands.

Bob MacDonald and Carl, too, share interests and tendencies. For instance, both love manual labor’s satisfactions. Bob, though, is more enamored of the financial benefits of that work, also known as chicken care. Carl has a more architectural interest, being on coop ten or eleven for our motley flock. And Carl labors more to satisfy my assessment of the coops, rather than the bookkeeping of the final egg count. Clearly, egg count and finances don’t rate up here at Darwin’s View. If ever we get another egg, it will be equal to gold.  If Betty and Bob had had our hens, our girls would have been cooked and plated back in September when they all gave up entirely on providing us with eggs. As she writes “if a hen is lazy or uncooperative or disagreeable you can chop off her head and relieve the situation once and for all.” (p. 39) She further pounded the stake in my heart when she wrote,  “I got so I actually enjoyed watching Bob stick his killing knife deep into the palates of fity cockerels and hang them up to bleed. My only feeling was pride to see how firm and fat they were as we dressed them for market.” (p. 147)

Needless to say, when she wrote “dressed”, it wasn’t in a suit and tie.

To enjoy taking a sentient life isn’t something I ever hope to feel. Which brings me to another point of divergence:

The abundance of nature is throughout her book. Her descriptions of the fauna outside of their door, and on their plates exhibit a flourishing of life’s variety. And its intrusion into their life. In the chapter “Who Bothers Whom”, she describes her scary walk through the woods being followed by some unknown beast. To allay her worries, Bob goes out for a walk with the dogs and a gun. Shots and silence. Upon his return, Bob proudly announces he has killed a She bear. A mother bear. Leaving two cubs. Knowing what I know, to kill a She bear when her babies are cubs equates to killing the cubs, too. They don’t yet know how to survive in the wilds. True or false?

She read my mind when she wrote, “Now, were we bothering that bear? Of course, some people will say that the woods were the bears’s natural domain and just by being there Bob was bothering her. But those woods were our property!” (p.173)

In that same chapter, a cougar “that measured eleven feet from head to tail tip” was killed as well and it just begs the question, for me, on property ownership. I get it. Were a bear to stroll up to our porch and take out a bird feeder, I would freak, too. And when our local bobcat showed up at our coop’s door a few years ago, I ran out with a broom. And then ran back in. But I didn’t call around to find someone with a gun.

“In every case the wild animal bothered us first and it was merely luck for our side that Bob was nerveless in emergencies and a crack shot.” p. 181

That is one possible interpretation of facts. My interpretation is that humans are the one’s trespassing. Certainly, we take all the toys and leave nothing for the other creatures. Given the fast dwindling species, I think it’s about time to consider coexistence rather than destruction. There is a way to coexist. Our chipmunks might be obnoxious, how they take one bite out of every, single strawberry rather than focusing on a few and leaving us the rest. But think how plump they got for that happy kestrel? I would argue that if the chipmunk had not been there, neither would the kestrel. By destroying other creatures’ habitat, leaving them no room to exist, we remove the web that supports life, not least, ours.

Betty is aware of this, I think, in her description of the logging companies working in the forests around her farm.

“The only ugliness we saw was the devastation left by logging companies. Whole mountains left naked and embrrassed, their every scar visible for miles. Lovely mountain lakes turned into plain ponds beside a dusty road, their crystal water muddy brown with slashings and rubbish.” (p. 91) … The small companies were careless and wasteful in their logging, but their attempts at destruction were feeble and unimportant compared to the wholesale devastation this company left in its wake. (p. 227) I counted twenty-seven red flags on the way home. Some of them may have been old, some may have belonged to pole cutters, but even ten were too many.(p. 231)

Red flags on a road side show where a logging company is, was, or would be working.

MacDonald is a product of her time. She notes the destruction and killing but seems to accept it as the way of the world. Humans dominate. We kill other animals for food. We wreak havoc on nature for wood and sustenance. We do what we do to survive. For her, the chickens are more important than the cougars and bears. An understandable attitude.

Less understandable is her insulting descriptions of Native American Indians, whom her husband befriended but she did not. Take this breathtaking example: “Little red brothers or not, I didn’t like Indians, and the more I saw of them the more I thought what an excellent thing it was to take that beautiful country away from them. They had come a long way from Hiawatha.” page 220

And so. Although I found the book amusing initially, it is dated with its prejudices, and casually exhibits the thoughtless waste of nature, and the hubristic, callous, too-often inhumane treatment of our fellow creatures. I, too, am a product of my time. I believe that when a single person or class or race or species claims dominance, the balance of life and nature tips and the world wobbles. The wind picks up. The chaos grows. Hell arrives at our doorstep until nature provides balance again. Because she will find balance, with or without us.

Thus, I recommend this book. The Egg & I is a time capsule, showing a perspective on a past world, one that still burgeoned with the diversity of life, so much of which is now extinct. It provides myriad subject matter for discussion, not least for those who are considering a “return to the land”. And it left me, anyway, contemplating this question: how will our generations be viewed fifty years from now, assuming there is life on earth.