On Good Land

By Michael Ableman

One of my new neighbors had been a tight end for an NFL team. He stood 6 feet tall and weighed 200 pounds. One evening as the produce stand was closing, he rushed in unannounced and angry. The new home he had just purchased was near our compost piles. He wanted the piles removed.

He filed his complaint with the county health department, who issued an order for me to -- cease and desist -- composting. The penalty for noncompliance was jail. I ignored the order.

Compost was not just a central part of our natural soil fertility program; it also allowed us to recycle hundreds of tons of green waste that would otherwise clog the local landfills.

We had some explaining to do. My wife, Donna, and I invited our new neighbors to discuss composting and other issues. Over a meal of homegrown salad and freshly baked bread, we talked things through. Most of the neighbors showed up, except the one who complained so bitterly. He sent his wife.

Exactly one year later, an officer was tramping purposefully through the peach orchard. "PUBLIC NUISANCE" was printed in bold on the top of her 6-page document. The "ORDER" commanded me to restrict this nuisance, and deemed me responsible for enforcement costs. If I did not comply, the matter would be turned over to the district attorney.

The public nuisance was my roosters. These roosters had run free for many years, fulfilling their part in the balance of the farm, and crowing about it most mornings. When I refused to sign the document, the officer stood bewildered at first, then became angry.

"You'll go to jail if you don't sign," she said. I refused again, as I had refused in prior years. I refused for reasons that were purely practical and for deeper reasons involving my principles and convictions.

Soon Fairview Gardens, our farm, was caught in the eye of a controversy heralded by headlines reading "Rooster Riots," "As the Cock Crows," and "Rooster Reveille Stirs Flap." Television crews waited outside the house. Local radio stations set up recording devices to capture the offending noise, and the newspaper assigned a reporter to cover the daily developments. Televised hearings were scheduled and a throng of supporters showed up in pop-up rooster hats. Marriages were strained as couples living near the farm were divided on whether the sound was a nuisance or a pleasant background to their suburban environment.

Mail and messages poured in, as well as plenty of expert advice. "Put a large metal bucket over their heads and they can't stretch their necks to crow." "Send them on a flight to Australia and back again to upset their internal time clocks." At the hearing, officials suggested in all earnestness that we cut the vocal cords of the offending beasts.

I responded with an editorial that ran in the newspaper on Mother's Day about the archetypal cry of the rooster and our lost connection to the land. Perhaps the district attorney didn't want to take on Mother's Day, the American farm, and a public dressed in rooster hats. Whatever the reason, the district attorney withdrew the charges.

But the issue was not as the media presented it -- just about roosters or composting. Seen as isolated occurrences, those situations appeared ridiculous, my attitude simply stubborn and uncompromising. The real story had to do with the loss of our relationship to the natural world. The crow of the rooster is symbolic. It has been the call of natural rhythm since the beginnings of recorded history. That people wanted to silence that sound was also symbolic. It was one of the last natural sounds left in this valley, even though it could barely be heard over the constant hum of Highway 101 and the roar of jet planes from the nearby airport.

Michael Ableman is the founder and director of Fairview Gardens, a community farm in Goleta, California.

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