Two Up-Island retirees figure out the secrets to hen—and human—happiness

The Hen Whisperers

by Susie Middleton

The Hen Whisperers

Elizabeth Cecil

Katherine Long and Tom Vogl, hens in han  

“I talk to the chickens. they talk to me. i just really like interacting with them,” Katherine Long said to me on a recent visit to Up-Island Eggs. Honestly, I don’t think she’d mind my telling you that she talks to her chickens, because let’s face it, who among us hasn’t talked to our animals—our dog, the cat, the horse? My farmer friend Liz talks to her oxen. But Katherine—she has a way with hens. When she talks, they jump in her lap.

Okay, it’s true that sometimes she uses a little bread to entice them. But I have to tell you, I think the 65 hens (and 3 roosters) that live out back behind Katherine and Tom Vogl’s place in West Tisbury are extra happy. They roost in two beautiful coops fitted out with plenty of comfy nesting boxes. From there, they tumble out the door into a spacious covered run—or venture further out into a big yard, where lovely shade trees provide cover when the cry of a hawk is heard, and seriously strong fencing installed by Tom protects from ground predators. Outside, the chickens have plenty of room to peck in the dirt (they need grit for digestion), and most importantly, they can loll languidly all they please, taking their beloved dust baths. “You will not have a happy hen,” Katherine tells me every time I visit, “unless she can take dust baths.”

It’s those little tidbits, and, well, the warm oatmeal scones, good strong tea, and homemade cheese I’ve been offered, that keep me inventing excuses to visit Katherine and Tom. I first met them last summer when I was writing a quick, short blog and needed the “Idiot’s Guide” to raising hens. I was worried that I’d insult these two—a retired librarian and biophysicist respectively—by asking them to dummy-down their chicken wisdom. But it didn’t bother them in the least. They were only too happy to distill the basics for me.

See, these two have a little side business—free chicken consultations—in addition to their business of selling eggs (at Alley’s and to regular customers). Actually, the free chicken consultations—by appointment only, please—are only slightly less lucrative (some years maybe more) than their egg “business,” which is more of a serious hobby.

In this spirit, I hoped they wouldn’t mind if I wrangled another visit this spring to pick up a few more tips. I figured, with the economy the way it is, that this might be the year that a lot of Islanders decide to keep a few laying hens for the first time, and I knew they’d appreciate knowing whom to turn to for advice. Plus, selfishly, now that I’m the proud owner of six books about raising chickens (but not a single hen yet), I had to go back and find out from Katherine which of their beautiful, colorful breeds lay the most eggs (Americanas), which are the friendliest (any older hen), and which tickle her fancy most (Silver Gray Dorkings—an old Roman bird—very intelligent, but not very hardy.) Left to my own devices, I’d pick the prettiest, most colorful birds. When I first stepped into the midst of a flock of Katherine’s hens in motion, the kaleidoscopic splendor was startling. Once my head stopped swirling, I could see the fascinating differences between breeds. Some have feet as feathered as the plushest bedroom slippers. Some have mop-tops—feathers sticking straight out of their heads as if waiting for the colorist at the hair salon to come back. And together, those feathers—barred, striped, stippled, laced, spangled, dappled and brushed—form the most amazing patterns and colors. If you think a chicken is a chicken, think again.

Hen-picking aside, there was another reason I wanted to catch up with Tom and Katherine, who just celebrated their 30th wedding anniversary, both still sporting their trademark white braids down their backs. I will be blunt: Tom has cancer. It’s a rare cancer, mucosal melanoma, and it has metastasized, most recently in Tom’s liver, since its original detection four years ago. This, despite everything. Despite numerous innovative drug treatments that Tom has bravely embraced—even courted—and written about in a fascinating blog called “Ruminations on Melanoma.” I must admit, I sometimes have trouble keeping up with the science in the blog. (Tom—Dr. Vogl that is—does, after all, have a distinguished record of accomplishment in the field of neural optic research, for which he holds six patents, and he is fluent in biochemical-ese.) But I am nevertheless awed by a doctor’s dissection of his own disease, by a scientist’s relentless hunger for the truth, and by a human being’s willingness to take part in a process that will likely benefit future cancer victims more than himself.

I bring this up because I take comfort in watching the way Tom and Katherine carry on with the pleasures of their Island life, as if. As if… That’s how I want to live every day, so I love to hear what Katherine says when I ask her about their schedule.

“Friday I’m making cheese. Thursday Tom goes curling. We just baked a new batch of croissants. We’re heading to Cynthia Riggs’ Groundhog Day party. We’re planning our next solstice party. Our zebra finches just had more babies. We just joined Facebook. The grandkids are coming this weekend. I’m knitting another chemo hat.” On and on it goes like this, days filled with simple pleasures. When I listen to her, I know that what they do, how they live their lives on this Island, is just right, for any day.

I also know why they picked this place. The Vineyard is a long way from Austria, where Tom was born (he fled the Nazis and grew up in New York), and from western Texas, where Katherine was raised on a ranch (and had a pet rooster named Rhubarb who was house-trained and slept on her bed). It’s also a bit of a hike from Washington, D.C., where the two met while they were working for the government and courted each other with elaborate dishes from the cuisines of Austria and Mexico. But, as Katherine says, “We’re really comfortable here—with the people, the land, the water around us. The infrastructure, the support of the community, the way we share food.” Because they have eggs, and bread, and (sometimes) cheese, Tom and Katherine find their friends are only too happy to trade for fish or venison or veggies. “If you leave your doors unlocked around here, stuff just shows up in your refrigerator,” Tom says.

Well, maybe not everyone’s fridge. But you could understand why folks might be happy to have these two as neighbors. Just the other day, I left their house with macaroons, hollandaise, a tee-shirt, a Venison stroganoff recipe (and Katherine’s incredibly delicious Lemon Sponge Pudding Cake recipe at right), an article on chicken language, an extra scone, a dozen fresh eggs (of course), and a few more hen breeds to add to my list. I also left with a lump in my throat. I’m not sure why. Maybe it’s just that thing that generosity does sometimes—it’s like Christmas morning, when everything gets to be a bit too much and you start to cry. But I think it was more just that Katherine and Tom’s lives seem so perfectly in tune with this place. Not just the physical place—the Island, their land, their birds—but also this place in time, this moment in their lives together. It’s as if tomorrow they will wake up in a magical place and fill their baskets with dozens of pretty eggs the colors of Easter itself and wonder what wonderful things they can cook with them. Which of course, they will.