Pondering Poultry

Susan Merrill Squier answers the obvious question right away, in the introduction: Why chickens? Why, after mining biomedicine, reproductive technologies, radio culture, and, well, Virginia Woolf, did the scholar turn to fowl for her latest book, Poultry Science, Chicken Culture: A Partial Alphabet (Rutgers University Press)?
One reason is a certain "agricultural amnesia" in cultural studies, writes Squier, a professor of women's studies, English, and science, technology, and society at Pennsylvania State University. With its focus on the "metropolitan," she says, cultural studies has largely ignored agriculture's centrality to our lives, societies, landscapes, and geopolitics. She derides the "bunker mentality" in academe that "distinguishes farm culture from scholarly culture, the country from the city, the body from the mind, and life from theory. ... "

"I gave myself the holiday of curiosity," she writes. The result is a quirky mash of essays on chickens and the interplay of biology and culture that manages to blend all of Squier's interdisciplinary interests. She ranges freely, from takes on chickens as subjects of photography and exhibition, playwriting, film, and children's and other literature, to musings on such public-policy issues as risk management, the avian-flu scare, and the societal costs of industrial agriculture.

"Chickens are good to think with," writes the author—her own flock included.

To our benefit as readers, Squier ignores the counsel of E.B. White, writer, grammarian, chicken fancier: "Don't try to convey your enthusiasm for chickens to anyone else," advice he gave in an introduction to a 1944 poultryman's primer on chicken raising. Squier is sanguine. "I risk my own share of withering glances to admit that I am very partial to chickens—and what we can learn with them, from them, and about them."

At the time of writing, we find out, Squier's own flock numbered 34 hens of various breeds and "three splendid bantam Seabright roosters." Her brood, past and present, tracks busily through the book, adding pleasantly to the lore that leavens the theory.