The Muse of Island Chicken

Nancy Luce

by Samantha Barrow

Nancy Luce

Mariel Reed

Our Island’s aura is rich with the rhythms of poetry and chickens. While the links between the ponderous lines of poems and the oscillating tensions among structure, excitement and the laborious tedium of farm life abound throughout the world, our line of connection between poultry and prosody can be directly traced back to our very own mythic poet, “The Hag of Tiah’s Cove”, Miss Nancy Luce. She lived down New Lane in West Tisbury for the bulk of the 19th Century, claiming the title of the Island’s first professional artist because she eked out a living from the sale of her carefully calligraphied poems and photographic self-portraits with her hens. She padded that income with the produce of her small farm, which included a garden, her hens, and a three-legged milk cow, as well as with the profits from her tiny store that sold tobacco and a few other necessities to neighbors. She was, at her peak, a bona fide celebrity, but a public figure maligned as much as celebrated during her lifetime. Some of the attentions she garnered during her decades living alone with her animals were from people coming to gawk at her as an eccentric freak.

Here are a few excerpts from the West Tisbury police blotter that illustrate her plight. She was almost 70 at the time:

Oct. 20, 1881: Miss Nancy Luce was visited by several parties during the fair. Report says she showed her bravery when persecuted by some of the parties by firing off a pistol, loaded with powder. One unlucky swain received a flash too near his face.

Feb. 23, 1882: Miss Nancy Luce is fine. Those noisy visitors have other things to do, giving her poor, sick head a chance to rest.

Oct. 26, 1882: Miss Nancy Luce, a maiden lady who lives alone, was visited recently by two unknown young men, and she thought it best to defend herself by showing a pistol. They wrested it from her hands her cries aroused a neighbor, who went to her assistance. She now has a new pistol and claims she has a right to defend herself. During the last day of the Agricultural Fair, twenty carriage loads of people visited her. Some of them carried their fun a little too far by shutting their hostess in a closet, but they made up with her by purchasing a large number of her books.

It’s hard to pinpoint exactly what the throngs came to marvel and sneer at, but certainly she was famous for her fellow-feeling with animals expressed through her poems, letters, photographs and instructional manuals on the proper medical treatment and regular domestic care of hens. She narrated the hardships of her own life—loneliness, illness, poverty, loss, and powerlessness— with a connection and sensitivity towards all living things, often through the sense of common suffering. She wrote, “God requires human[s] to take good care of dumb creatures and be kind to them, or not keep any.” Through her poems and writings, she inspired us to imagine ourselves in the animals’ shoes (or claws or hooves), as she taught us to recognize the “dumb creatures” as an extension of ourselves.

These days the name Nancy Luce, is met with either “Who?” or “Oh, I LOVE her!” Several Island farmers even claim that they are, in fact, her modern-day incarnate. And one only needs drive by the West Tisbury cemetery to regard the devotion of those who tend her gravesite, populating the gravestone with plastic chickens and glass eggs. In an effort to further understand the grip that our mythic poet and muse (as well as these birds and their eggs) have on our imagination, I held a Chicken Dinner & Poetry Party in honor of our Nancy Luce and all things chicken. The participants ranged in age from 11 to 70, and all possessed a variety of relationships to our Island’s chickens. They included slaughterers, cooks, large scale-for-the-Vineyard producers and backyard tenders. And I’d invited them all to do something most of them were not used to doing—write poems. Or, more exactly, word sketches; amused scraps of text to be assembled in order to create a mosaic-like picture that could help tease out what exactly humans and poultry had to say about each other. Nancy Luce served as our inspiration in this collective approach to communal storytelling and exploration.

Chicken stew and pot pie made with West Tisbury birds from Cleveland Farm, served with greens and bread crafted at the Scottish Bakehouse, got the crew warm, cozy and willing. Everybody had something to say about poultry and our evening’s local patron saint. It wasn’t long before chicken tales started flying: stories of roosters jumping rope, inheriting chickens in strange ways, children’s experiences with the slaughter and of course, new reasons why She crossed the road.

Luce’s legacy—her writings and spirit—help us think about complicated questions: As agriculturalists and as eaters, how do we think about and develop these relationships with animals that recognizes their aliveness? Relationships that acknowledge animals’ sensitivity to pain, fear, and dare I say gayety—or at least contentment—at the same time as incorporating them into our food chain? A wise and sensitive response came from farmer and member of Island Grown Initiative’s mobile chicken processing crew Emily Palmer over our dinner: “It’s hard for me to explain to people who don’t work with chickens how this could possibly happen, how affection for chickens could eventually evolve into slaughtering and eating them. Like, how that could possibly be logical? But I think if you provide them with quality of life, and you love them and care for them properly, and slaughter them in a humane way, it’s an honorable relationship. I’m proud of the work I do.”