“I’ve decided not to get a dog.” I was clear on the matter as I chatted to my friend Lonneke while we glugged our beers. She was now fostering a rescue hound, and looking for a permanent home for him. I clearly appeared dog-needy.
“Yes, they are a tie,” she said, eyeing the bottle-lined walls of the artisan alehouse with the kind of gourmet appreciation I reserve for cake shops. Things were already a little odd that Friday night in the city of Gijon. Half the bars were closed, and the other half were spraying so much disinfectant everywhere, I was coughing. It was Friday, the 13th of March.
I was resolute at the time. No dogs, nor any other animal for now. I was happy with the robins, wrens, crows, and finches that graced my kitchen door each morning. Having quite literally worked my butt off over the past year, I was ready for a little gallivanting. A little fun and freedom between the bouts of building slog. Dare I say it, I was ready to socialise?
Oh life! You have to laugh, eh? As Lonneke* and I ambled down the city streets that night, the residents began anxiously shutting their eateries and stores. Grilles descended with a clank, right and left. The 24-hour supermarket was already sporting a few empty shelves. The next day the prime minister spelled it out: Lockdown. You have to hand it to this virus, it’s got a sense of irony.
Thus began our (now fairly global) trip into the twilight zone. Here in Spain, we’re a little ahead of much of the world on our Corona journey. We’ll be almost in week seven of our incarcerations by the time you’re reading this. When you live alone, this means seven weeks without connecting with a human in physical form. Even eye contact, over mask-rims, is a little furtive, as if the virus might be transferred by sight as well.
It must have been about week three of our collective curfew, when two things occurred to me simultaneously. First, I wished I had adopted Lonneke’s foster dog, or some other fur-rich animal that I could pet and nurture. I just wanted to feel the warmth of another body and check I wasn’t dreaming I was alive some of the time. Second, the supermarkets weren’t exactly beacons of infallibility in a shifting world. While northern Spain wasn’t witness to the panic hoarding of some places, there were nonetheless always weird gaps on the shelves that reminded you just how fragile the food chain is, and how it could fracture at any time. I would inevitably return from a provisions trip feeling unsettled.
The beauty and gift of creating an off-grid world for yourself, no matter how rudimentary, is of course this: Collapses can happen, and you pretty much carry on regardless, empty shelves or not. There was just one thing I felt I was lacking: eggs.
It was a grungy morning when I turned on my phone, and saw a Whatsapp message from my nearest neighbour, 2 kilometres up the road.
> I’m heading down to the shop. If you need anything let me know.
The sky was dripping like a dilapidated roof, and as I waded into my kitchen I saw the flagstones were weeping. Sheltering inside, I began to type.
> All I need is chickens and a dog:)
There was another ping.
> How many chickens are you thinking of getting?
> About 3, but I don’t have a coop yet. Have to make one first!
> You can have our old one then. Will bring it round tomorrow.
And that was that. The next day, I drove to one of the only open agricultural stores. A tooth-sparse little chap in a boilersuit opened up a concrete cupboard in the courtyard. It was windowless and cheerless, and lined with metal cages. “There are only three left,” the fellow grinned, gaps hopping out of his mouth like blackbirds from a hedgerow. “Everybody has bought them up!” He grabbed the poor hens out one by one, and stuffed them squawking in a crate. As carefully as I could, I loaded them in my boot.
As I drove back through the empty town, I stared up at my fellow humans in their own crates. Concrete boxes they’d probably paid quite a bit of money for. But that was when they all thought they were free, of course. Some played music on balconies. Some chatted with their neighbours through windows. Where were the children? I hadn't seen a kid in weeks.
Soon I was back on my land with a box full of terrified chooks. Brian and Julia turned up in their truck soon after with their old wooden coop poking out of the back. We dragged it up my hill, and I set about erecting it. By evening the three hens were hunched up on their roosts, bracing themselves for whatever calamity had befallen them. Their little yellow bird eyes rolled, scanning me for clues of the impending atrocity that awaited. Change is rarely greeted with optimism in the animal kingdom, I find.
For three days my hens refused to leave their coop. They sat there in collective terror, hardly daring to peer out of the door. I could only imagine the types of chicken thoughts that might be running through their walnut brains. “That’s it. Terminado.” “She’s going to eat us!” “If only we could go back to our cold, concrete, lightless cupboard! We were safe at least. Woe is us!”
While they cowered, I built a small run for them out of the chicken wire and posts I had left lying around. My hens would be free range most of the time, but only on clear days. Because when the mist descends and dusk loiters on the edges of my land, the beasts of prey come out of their lairs. The run would serve as a type of balcony, or garden, a safe place for my chickens to see sunlight.
Eventually they ventured into it, pecking dubiously at the dirt. After studying them, fascinated, for a few days, I named them: Gertie (the pecky boss one), Frida (the adventurous, productive one) and Hilde (the quirky underdog).
Death and Danger
A part of me was as terrified as my hens, and I wondered whether I should ever let them run free. This is, without a shadow of a doubt, the badlands for a chicken. There’s a badger set at the bottom of my land, countless birds of prey overhead including eagles, wolves, foxes, stoats... you name it, it’s there in all its clawed and razor-toothed splendour. Death. Everywhere. And after all, my birds seemed reasonably happy in the run. They had food. Water. Daylight. I threw in grass cuttings and other goodies. Wasn’t that enough?
It was Frida who reminded me, that’s not what life is about. One day she flew onto the top of the run fence, and peered at me from her swaying wire perch, goading me with her little bead eyes. I sighed. Thus it was, I opened up the run, and let my precious hens out, watching their fluffy butts waddle away into the grass stalks.
It was obvious from the first moment. These birds had presumably never seen nature in their lives. Their feet had never scratched the dirt. Yet, as they strutted off into the undergrowth, you could see the fervour wafting off them like heat waves rising from sun-beaten tarmac. They were three feathery little Lara Crofts striking out into the wilderness. It was a joy to behold.
From that day forth the eggs they laid grew bigger and bigger. Their rufous bodies fattened. Their feathers shone. They looked extremely happy.
One night I was snuggled up in my stone hut, which ironically (you have to hand it to life) was itself a chicken coop before I renovated it. I was readying myself for sleep. As it happened, I wasn’t going to get much. It was three minutes to midnight when I heard them: the wolves.
There is no sound like the howls of a wolf pack. On the one hand it’s an honour, as though you are witnessing a sacred ceremony. At the same time, it’s spine-chillingly eerie, and depending on how close they are, somewhat nerve-wracking. I’d heard the wolves quite a few times this winter here in the picos of Spain, but never this close. The howling and yapping was frenzied, and alarmingly loud, so loud that the noise made me leap out of bed.
Grabbing my torch, I opened my door a fraction. I thought of my dear little chickens down there, cowering on their roosts, as silent as the prevailing mist. The howls rose to a cacophony. I tried to pinpoint where the wolves were. I was pretty sure they were loitering in the arroyo beneath my land, or perhaps on the path just above it. Near. Very near.
My spine wriggled and shook. My hair turned in its follicles. I flashed my torch at the darkness and yelled, the beam of light hitting the trees one by one. Immediately there was silence. It was as if a hood had descended over the pack. Presumably they fled, sleet-footed, as wolves with any sense are inclined to when they realise a human is around.
The next morning, sleep-deprived and bleary-eyed, I staggered down to the chicken coop. As always, the hens greeted me with relieved little clucks. Gertie, Frida, and Hilde were living to see another day, and it was a beautiful day at that. The sun had burned off the mist, leaving my land cloaked in lush green grass and bedecked in colourful petals. Snail shells glistened, and fat bumblebee bottoms poked out of the dead nettle flowers. As I opened the run, my feathered adventurers didn’t miss a beat. They strode off into the long grass, as eager to find grubs and scratch the dirt as ever, wolves or no wolves.
Perhaps tomorrow a predator will take them. Perhaps not. But I shan’t be locking my birds up in their run forever, regardless. Ten years safe behind wire? Or ten days in a risky, juicy Eden? I’m looking in their archosaur eyes, and I see what they prefer. I know what I prefer, too. I can’t speak for the rest of my species, because I don’t really understand them. Me? I’m with the chickens. That’s why I live in a hovel on a mountain with the eagles and the vultures.
Life isn’t the same as staying alive. It’s not a game of numbers and years, and there are no prizes for survival. Life is danger. It’s uncertain. It’s a mysterious rite of passage into the wild. It’s a quest and a story and a secret mission. It’s a poem, a song, and a caterwaul of howling under the stars. The world may be locked down now, but in truth, was it ever free anyway? Were the chicken runs of shopping malls something we can call living? Was fifty hours a week in an office, plus a couple of hours extra trapped in some transportation cage, a dignified existence for a human being? And these were the ‘lucky’ ones. Then there were the others. The children mining metal, the girls sold into ‘wedded’ slavery, the starving and the war-torn, all also a part of that old chicken run we know so well.
Some are feeling sadness and fear that the old way is dying. Sorry, I’m not. I don’t know what’s coming next, or what shenanigans (if any) will unfold. But there’s a profound freedom to be won in an unambiguous lockdown, when no one’s pretending everything is fine any more. Freedom and life both come at a price, that price is the illusion of security. There never was any real security. It was a lie. The future was never going to stick to our plans. We could have died in a car accident, or contracted a terminal disease, or lost our jobs at any time. It was always a game of chance, and no amount of insurance policies, or back-up plans, or being ‘good’ and following the rules was ever going to save us. It was a truth that was easily ignored in the gilded cage.
Perhaps now we’re all stuffed back in our coops, we’ll scratch a little deeper and dig up another more essential kind of freedom. Perhaps when they finally open the door, we’ll look up and out instead of down. Perhaps we’ll think twice before swapping our life for some half-arsed promise of security. Planet Earth is an untameable adventure, not a battery farm, and we are free-range Gaians. We can either strike out ruddy-cheeked into the backwoods, or run squawking back inside the mesh of rules. Either way, we won’t be safe. We won’t cheat death. We won’t avoid pain or loss. Either way there’s a price. So we might as well get our money’s worth.
Ah, the mist has lifted. I see the mountain ridges again. It must be time to let the chickens out.
*For speakers of Dutch, Lonneke Lodder is author of Het leven is te kort om op kantoor te zitten (Life's too Short to Sit in an Office). You can read all about her (in Dutch) here. https://lonnekelodder.nl/
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