Here’s Jill Lepore—easily becoming my favorite New Yorker staffer—on animals in the 7 Sept 2020 issue. When I talk to students about their short paragraphs, or their understanding that a paragraph should cover a single subject, I’ll try to show them this one, which just soars. Or maybe it hops? It’s as moving as a montage:
In the encyclopedia of animal accommodations, the most admirable architect is the beaver. Beavers build lodges out of sticks and mud, complete with ventilation and underground entrances. Domesticated animals live in houses built by people (etymologically, that’s what it means to be domesticated), from cow barns to pigpens. One reason some people don’t eat meat is that on big farms animals are forced to spend so much time crowded together indoors. Factory-farmed chickens, raised in giant sheds stacked with thousands of cages—ten to a cage the size of a file drawer—don’t even have room to spread their wings, and most spend every last, miserable moment of their lives inside. That only started in the nineteen-fifties, and, recently, lots of people have been going back to raising their own chickens. Since the quarantine, there has been a rush on chicks and back-yard coops. (Enthusiasts who have never met a hen are well advised to read Betty MacDonald’s 1945 memoir, “The Egg and I,” in which she recounts, “By the end of the second spring I hated everything about the chicken but the egg.”) A D.I.Y. coop consists of a roof, a roost, and nesting boxes. Translucent roofing is recommended, the idea, apparently, being that if chickens can see the sky they’ll forget that they’re indoors. Chickens like to roost inside at night but among the many reasons for letting them out during the day is that otherwise they might peck one another to death. That’s what it means to be cooped up. The Italians call free range chickens polli ruspanti. A wandering chicken is a happy chicken. People are no longer ruspante. We build lean-tos and huts and shanties and houses and motels and condominiums and apartment buildings. Lately, we’ve been stuck in them, like a prickle in a quiver, chickens in a coop, bears in a den, waiting out our desolate hibernation.
This ends the piece’s opening section, what the New Yorker generally does with most of its pieces. I think it’s called a nutgraf. “A prickle in a quiver” refers to the porcupines Lepore opens the piece with, and how “[a] gang of porcupines is called, magnificently, a prickle.” She humbly suggests “quiver” as the name of their den, the floor littered, as it is, with fallen-out quills.
Read the full piece here.