I am surprised to find that in rural Nicaragua I am learning a lot about the roots of North American culture. For example, had I not come here I may never have considered the roots of that quintessential American joke “Why did the chicken cross the road?” That joke exists - and it’s funny - because people once lived close to chickens, and chickens are constantly crossing the road for no apparent reason, just like the bird brains they are. There was a time in American history when most people had direct experience with animals other than cats and dogs. Pigs, horses, cows, and chickens were all part of people’s daily lives. The evidence is in our language – “you can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make him drink”, “as dirty as a pig sty”, “coming home to roost”, “the early bird gets the worm”, and those are just the few that spring immediately to mind.
Here, there are no pets. People don’t have animals around whose only role is to receive love. All animals have jobs. If they aren’t providing food, they are protecting the house (dogs) or killing pests (cats). I tried to explain the concept of an American house cat once to my host family, and they just did not get it. It must be one of those things – like wall-to-wall carpeting – that you can’t understand unless you’ve lived with it.
Since I don’t own any animals (yet), I don’t interact much with pigs or horses or cows. But chickens are everywhere here. One of my favorite hammock activities is to observe chickens, since they do a lot of strange things. I like to watch them scratch around looking for insects. In the heat of the day they lie down on their sides and roll around, coating themselves with dirt. The way roosters chase the hens around can be pretty comical. I sometimes laugh out loud watching a flustered hen try to recuperate after a hot and heavy encounter with an amorous rooster. And like pigeons, chickens always have an inquisitive look on their faces, as though their brains are just slightly too small to grasp some important concept.
But the chickens also annoy me, since they are the primary pest from which I must protect my garden. Free range eggs are great, but chickens do not respect property lines, and my neighbor’s flock doesn’t seem to understand that my vegetables are not for them. I throw rocks at them when I see them messing with my plants, but they are too dumb to remember and be scared.
There is one rooster in particular who really gets to me, so much, in fact, that I have declared him my arch nemesis. It’s not even his behavior that bothers me so much as it is his attitude. I mean, he is just cocky (and now I know where that word comes from). He struts around like he’s the boss here, chest all puffed out, crowing, womanizing. He is beautiful, I’ll give him that, but I don’t know why he has to be so vain.
I also don’t know where the myth that roosters only crow at dawn originated. They do crow at dawn – that is true enough – but they also crow pretty much constantly throughout the entire day and night. Maybe they crow a little bit more at dawn, but they crow basically all the time. My arch nemesis is no exception. He loves to jump up on a fence post and sing his heart out, as if everyone around is just hanging on his every utterance. Whenever I see him parading around my yard, I have an uncontrollable urge to cut him down to size. So sometimes, when he’s not looking I sneak up on him, and just when he’s least expecting it, I make a loud noise. It scares the living daylights out of him. He runs away on his skinny legs, flapping his wings and making a huge racket. See, he acts tough, but when it comes down to it, he’s just a big chicken.