Hen spectacles

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(Betty Smith) As VPR celebrates our 25th anniversary, it’s given us the opportunity to remember some of the people who helped shape VPR. Back in 1977, VPR wanted to provide local news, but in the early years we simply couldn’t afford the kind of journalists needed to produce news coverage equal to that of NPR. So we looked to our friends and neighbors and in 1988 created the VPR Commentary Series. It’s been going strong ever since.

Our first commentator was Janet Greene. Janet was a well-known independent book publisher and editor. But it was her zest for life that made her memorable. She was an early and tireless supporter of public radio and together, she and I learned what makes a good radio commentary.

From the VPR archives, here’s one of Janet’s earliest commentaries:

(Greene) Every farm has a shop. Not the polite, basement craft room, but a wonderful cubby near equipment storage and feeding racks. And it’s a jumble of stuff…glorious, in-depth stuff.

I was out in the shop the other day – I forget what for – and I ended up poking through a rack of small wooden drawers, part of the furnishing of an old-time hardware store, now long gone. Chalk on the front of each drawer tells what’s in it. “Knobs” one says; another says “Buckles”. There are Rivets, and Hooks, and Spiles. And then (I’d not thought of them in ages), Hen Specs… meaning, Hen Spectacles.

Years ago I kept chickens. The farm wife traditionally has a flock of laying hens, and what eggs she doesn’t use for the family, she sells. The money is hers to spend. That’s where the term “Egg Money” comes from – a kindly expression I still use, to describe what budget experts call discretionary income.

In the spring, I went to the grain store to pick up the day-old chicks I’d ordered. They came in a flat, ventilated fiber-board box, and I heard their soft little sounds all the way home. When they would be big enough to lay; they would be white, but because they were an inbred-hybrid cross, their eggs would be a lovely light brown.

Their first eggs were pullet size – the smallest commercial chicken egg. But soon there would be the odd Jumbo egg before they settled down. I had a few china eggs to put in the hay in the nest boxes, to encourage them to lay in expectable places. Otherwise they wouldn’t lay eggs, they would just have eggs, wherever they happened to be. Hence another term: “nest egg” – to create a clutch that ultimately produces a brood.

But Hen Spectacles! I almost forgot them again. Chickens can see colors, and when another chicken gets hurt, and shows blood, the other ones will peck the hurt place and do great harm to the injured bird.

These spectacles are tiny – little tin Pince-Nez, with red plastic lenses. They clamp across a hen’s beak like President Franklin Roosevelt’s spectacles, that pinched a fold of skin above the bridge of his nose, to stay on.

Then everything looked rosy-red to the chickens, and the bird that was hurt would be left in peace, and could get well.

(Host) For many years, the late Janet Greene was an editor, writer and observer of country ways from her hillside farmhouse in West Dover, Vermont. We hope you’ve enjoyed this rebroadcast of her classic 1988 commentary as part of VPR’s 25th Anniversary Celebration.

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