‘The Orchid Thief’ Author Susan Orlean Becomes a Chicken Person

Courtesy: Museum of ScienceFrom left, Terry Golson, Susan Orlean and her husband John Gillespie.

By Matt Saldana, From The Wall Street Journal

Author Susan Orlean (“The Orchid Thief”) never fancied herself as a chicken person. But after moving from Manhattan to the Hudson Valley, she found herself craving her own flock, she writes, “with an urgency that exceeded even my mad adolescent desire to have a pony.” Orlean was surprised to find she was not alone; in a recent New Yorker piece, she describes the resurgence of “backyard chickens” in American cities: “Chickens seem to be a perfect convergence of the economic, environmental, gastronomical and emotional matters of the moment,” she writes. For a price roughly equal to a carton of eggs, one can purchase a chick that will lay hundreds of eggs over the course of five or six years—roughly one every 36 hours, and all, one can be sure, cage-free, local and organic.

This week at Boston’s Museum of Science, Orlean delivered her first-ever lecture on backyard chickens, in which she invoked both AMC’s “Mad Men” (“Can you imagine Don Draper with chickens? The whole point of the suburbs, in its darkest conception, was to deny any association with an agrarian past.”) and Martha Stewart (“You might not think of her as someone who wants to rip the veneer off of suburban living” but she “deserves credit” for making chickens glamorous).

Earlier, Speakeasy caught up with Orlean to talk about the sociology of chicken-keeping, her next book project (hint: it’s animal-related), and Meryl Streep’s bid for a third Oscar.

The Wall Street Journal: Does the chicken movement expose the fault lines of the urban-rural divide, or does it redefine those terms?

People have a very emotional reaction to it. For some people, their whole trajectory has been away from a connection to a rural past. Chickens are one of the sorts of livestock that never had a glamorous association, and never had a lot of money connected to them. They represent the most simple expression of rural living. And for some people, it’s uncomfortable. They moved to the suburbs to get away form that. There’s nothing charming, for them, about having chickens running around.

Even though people approach it for different reasons, do you think raising backyard chickens could be something that unites people?


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