I suppose it is high time I explain what we are doing here on the Caribbean coast of Costa Rica, aside from stargazing and birdwatching and eating bizarre fruits. We are here for a month at Nuestra Finca as guests of Mike and Yvonne and their little daughter India. They live in a very nicely appointed shipping container with a large porch, and we stay in the original cabin further into the farm. We are part time volunteers, receiving lodging and cooking gas in exchange for 20 hours of work per week. Three times a day, five days a week, we care for up to 700 free range chickens: letting the big ones out to pasture or herding them back in, feeding and watering, scrubbing poo and feathers out of the troughs, adding fresh woodchips to the coops.
I must say that working with chickens doesn’t exactly build compassion for them. They are interesting to observe, but stupid and stubborn. This is forgivable in chicks, who are also adorable, but less so in adults who require much goading because they can’t figure out where to go. They have an amusing way of plumping themselves down during herding: they drop heavily into a roost of convincing permanence. Picking them up out of the squat with both hands, it is bizarre how much their bodies feel like… chicken breasts. Warm and panting and chicken-skinned, even through feathers. Observing the chickens makes me imagine a couple aliens looking down upon earth and shaking their… whatever they shake… in pity and slight annoyance. Still, I try to be kind.
Neither does the chickens’ lack of intelligence make me want to eat them. It may be strange to hear of a vegetarian volunteering on a chicken farm. I am complicit, just not with a fork. These are pretty lucky death row inmates: fresh water, organic grass to peck, good air, no antibiotics or force feeding, not overcrowded. I hear their flesh is extra tasty and tender, presumably due to the decreased stress and natural living. (In which case, I reckon I’d taste pretty good myself.) We all consume, we all end life to sustain our own, but I have no interest in these ladies; I don’t want to eat creatures, intelligent or otherwise.
Aside from hen duties, we also have projects suited to our skills: J’s carpentry and my sign painting, both of which can be put to good use here. The chicken business provides the family income, but the passion is a fledgling permaculture community growers collective. Vegetable beds are going in, volunteers need updated housing, eco-tours may be added one day, and a greenhouse is on the horizon. (You may wonder why anyone would need a greenhouse in the tropics: not for heat, but for protecting delicate lettuces from torrential rains.)
We want to be extremely helpful. I love the idea of being a break for someone, to create even a month of breathing room despite a constantly demanding business, to lend time for family, for projects that would otherwise remain back burner, even for doing nothing at all. We have received so much, and continue to… we want to give back.