A Conversation About Chickens: Reflections on Community

By Katherine Emery

Dan and Tessa Kane, Katherine's husband and daughter
Dan and Tessa Kane, Katherine's husband and daughter

Our family moved from San Francisco to Mount Desert Island in the early frenzy of the pandemic in 2020. For my husband, it was a return to his childhood home in Somesville. For my daughter and me, it was claiming a place we love as our new home. The move gave us a backyard and a National Park to explore, the rediscovery of the seasons and time to notice the smell of winter in the morning air. I am honing my wood splitting skills. I am learning about annuals and perennials —that both are important for soil health— and how there may really be no such thing as a weed. We enrolled our daughter at Mount Desert Elementary School, knowing she’d walk the same hallways as her dad and uncle.

While I believe community exists everywhere, I was struck by how much more tangible it feels in a smaller town. I witnessed school employees performing feats of strength and flexibility as they reconfigured classrooms in order to allow our children to be in school, in person, during the pandemic (all this while juggling their own families outside of school). Our family doctor introduced us to a few families who welcomed us into their weekly hikes. This was enormously helpful, as the school was our initial way of engaging in the community. Efforts to adapt and modify were everywhere—the library carefully wrapped books and placed them outside, Hannaford offered pickup services, and restaurants created abbreviated takeout menus. The Community Cafe at The Neighborhood House was our takeout on Thursdays, and we devoured Mike and Fayelle Anderson’s cooking.

I said to my mother that I felt like, for the first time in many years, I was living in a place where I was accountable to my neighbors. One neighbor brought us eggs. Another asked us to check for an Amazon package while they were away. We cut one neighbor’s grass. They then watered our plants and fed our bunny when we went camping. I attended a knitting circle at the library, and a lecture entitled A Conversation About Chickens. We chauffeured and shared rides to the airport, to doctor’s appointments, and to school.

I began to appreciate how community extends beyond humans too. We participated in the Somes Meynell Sanctuary’s loon count, and helped the alewives migrate up and down the fish ladder in order to spawn in the ponds on the island. We thanked the traveling turkeys for eating the ticks in our backyard, and tasted the syrup from our crown of sugar maples in the winter. Every one of these interactions involved offering, giving and receiving—and being in community.

As a photographer working to rebuild my portrait and documentary business in Maine, I travel to work in the fields of healthcare, education, science research and the arts. I am often asked how we were able to find a house and live on Mount Desert Island. The question came so frequently that I began to understand our fortune in purchasing our home from a family member, as well as the struggle for others to do the same. I hear story after story of those who commute long distances to work on MDI , and yearn to live here.

When I think about a threat to communities, I think of losing the population that works and lives together. In order to thrive, communities require us to see each other, to engage day to day in organic ways. During the pandemic, we’ve lived for long stretches of time as islands to each other. I remember in early March 2020, my daughter asked “How are we supposed to see the people who need us to see them to know they need help?” When you can’t see each other, when we miss opportunities to engage in person, we lose opportunities to connect.

In San Francisco, we lived for nearly 16 years on the top floor of a building in the Marina District. Our kitchen had a window that looked across a shared stairwell into the window of a neighbor. Rena, a feisty 80 year old Italian widow, cared for her great-grandson Israel during the week. She would bathe him in the kitchen sink, and he would stand up on his tippy toes to tap his fat baby hands on the window.

This is one of my fondest memories—I would hear the tap, tapping and come to squish my nose against the window and make funny faces. Israel would throw his head back and laugh. Rena mimicked my faces and I would laugh. I watched as Israel grew up, and they watched as our daughter Tessa was born and did her own version of tapping on the window. We began crossing the stairwell and having drinks with Rena, and then dinners. She loved martinis and Frank Sinatra. We loved her.

When Rena sold the building to live with her daughter, the new owners erected a wall between our buildings the day they moved in. On one hand, I can appreciate the desire for privacy. But for the five years that I looked out into that wall every day, I mourned the loss of something profound—an unexpected connection across a stairwell, between neighbors who became friends.

I recently asked my daughter if she missed California. “Oh yes,” she said, wistfully, “I will always miss California. “ And then she said, “But I like it better here. I feel like I live a life here.”

I am grateful for the life we are building on Mount Desert Island, and to have been welcomed so warmly by the community. I intend to contribute in equal measure.

Katherine Emery lives with her family—Dan and Tessa Kane—in Somesville. Before becoming a freelance photographer, she taught French in Mississippi through Teach for America, worked as an assistant editor at Henry Holt, managed animators on the film “A Bug’s Life” at Pixar, served as project director at the Stanford Technology Ventures Lab, peeled carrots and potatoes in the cafeteria during college, waitressed and nannied for 5 years, and had a paper route and lawn mowing business in junior high.

Through her work, she explores the ways we are connected, and how photography as a process allows us to redefine ourselves and create our own belonging. She invites your story ideas about how island communities are models of how we all should be in community with each other. Learn more about her work here.