Watching a flock of 40 heritage birds grow proved to be an unexpected pleasure.
Isabella Rossellini has just published a book about keeping backyard chickens. The famous model-actress daughter of film star Ingrid Bergmann and director Roberto Rossellini lives on a farm in Long Island, New York, where her chicken-raising hobby has turned into a work of art.
When Rossellini first ordered 40 baby chicks by mail, they arrived in a confusing mass. She didn't not know which heritage breed was which, nor could the breeder tell her, so she asked a photographer friend, Patrice Casanova, to help document their growth. Along with her own drawings, research-driven musings, and funny anecdotes, Rossellini found herself with the makings of a book.
The book's purpose, Rossellini told Vanity Fair in an interview, is to convey the remarkable process of domestication, which is something she finds fascinating:
"I never thought about it until I went to school, that in order to domesticate them, our ancestors used evolution without understanding it. Chickens probably didn’t lay as many eggs as they lay today. They were probably much more capable of flying. But when they fly their meat becomes tough, because what we eat is muscle. So we selected them not to fly so high, so the meat was softer and we could catch them more easily." (edited for clarity)
Rossellini discovered that chickens are quite intelligent animals; they recognize faces and behave differently around different people. She liked the way having chickens connected her to her rural community, to her Italian agricultural heritage, and to the source of her food. She told VF:
"I'm Italian, and in Italy we are not so separated from the farm. And here in America, children don’t even know that eggs come from chickens."
The book is short; Rossellini says it can be read in ten minutes, but that's not the point. It is meant to be educational, entertaining, and, of course, beautiful. There is something eternally irresistible about chicken close-ups.