How five chickens changed my research journey

By Laure Lelasseux

Like most people, I found myself caught off-guard by the announcement of the confinement in March 2020. As I was lucky enough to have access to a house in the countryside, I decided to move there with my daughter for this undefined period.

When we arrived there, lost in the middle of nowhere, I realized that despite the anxiety this move had represented, the confinement was a fantastic opportunity to experience a dream of mine, to live in the countryside for a while. I decided to fully use this time to try a different way of living. After a few weeks spent trying to find the right balance between Ph.D. work, homeschooling, and getting the garden ready for spring, I found an equilibrium, and decided to throw myself into a bigger project: renovating an old chicken coop, buy chickens and learn how to take care of them. The project was inspiring, but what I didn’t expect were the challenges I would face and the benefit I would gain for my research.

Securing the place.

We hadn’t used the old hen house for more than 25 years. The space was ample but filled with bramble bushes more than 2 meters high. To me, this appeared as the only thing I had to do. Once the coop would be cleaned, I thought I would just have to buy a few chickens, put them there and wait for my eggs. But this was a very utopian vision of my future life with chickens.

I started to attack the bushes with shears and a small saw, which turned out to be an utterly inefficient approach. First lesson, having and mastering the right tools can save you a lot of time. Once cleaned, I was impatient to go and buy the chickens. But after discussions with neighbours, I realized that the priority was to secure the place from predators such as weasels or martens. For days, I had to look for holes in my fences, replace old wire with new – which in turn required learning about wire, their size, how to fix them etc…I spent hours at the top of a ladder, cutting my hands, but incredibly happy to be learning something concrete. 

Taking care of them.

After weeks of constant work, things were happily taking shape, so we finally ended up in a pet shop to buy our five chickens. Driving back home with them in the boot was a complete adventure in and of itself. I felt responsible for securing them, feeding them, taking care of them. New challenge. The first eggs were a great family joy, but a few days later, the eggshells started to become soft. Once again, I had to seek advice, and I learned that this was a common problem, fixed by adding oyster shells to the food. We sorted the issue out. We thought we were done, but when we left for Paris for one week, a marten attacked the chickens at night, and killed one. We went back, looked for holes again, repaired everything… it’s a never-ending job.

Chicken and research

I didn’t expect that I would personally gain benefits (least of all for my research) by spending time on something else. I would classify these benefits into three categories: productivity, learning, and creativity.

First of all, and paradoxically, this additional project increased my work productivity. I was spending the day until 4 p.m. on my research, motivated to avoid any form of procrastination to be able to save time for my chickens. Besides, thanks to this project, I was physically exhausted in the evening, which helped regulate the stress of the Ph.D. Last, contrary to research projects that take a long time to become a concrete outcome in a journal, practical work can deliver tangible results rapidly, which is very satisfying. This experience made me realized how much a balance could help stabilize research productivity (at least for me).

The second thing I experienced was a step back on the process of learning. I understood that an excellent way to improve your work (and yourself) is to do things concretely. Thinking about things is not enough. For a long time, I felt that if I were thinking long enough about something, once I would start “doing,” I would come up with a pretty good first draft. But things don’t work that way. Dare to practice is the best way to learn. The book Write No Matter What (Jensen, 2017) has helped translate this idea into concrete everyday writing for my research projects.

Third, and maybe the most important, I discovered that letting yourself try side projects, things you don’t master, with no apparent and direct connection with research, can significantly foster your creativity. I was amazed by the number of new and different ideas that emerged about teaching and research while spending hours on this project. I guess that because my brain was put in a completely new configuration, it was pushed to think differently. Tons of questions came: why aren’t we using all the land on our campuses to grow vegetables or build chickens’ houses? How can we choose between prohibiting hunting and protecting chickens from predators? What are the benefits of going back to these more traditional ways of living on our health, family, and work? These questions were refreshing and lead to the start of a new research project on sustainability that I couldn’t have come up with at my desk in Paris.

I am convinced that these “fresh-air projects” are fundamental. As Rob Hopkins explains in his last book, “From What Is to What If: Unleashing the Power of Imagination to Create the Future We Want” (2020), developing our imagination is essential if we want to create a better future. Imagination will be an essential resource to create new narratives about our world, try new solutions, and stick together facing these challenges. As researchers, I consider we have a duty to take care of our creative and imaginative possibilities and help students develop their own. We have to keep asking ourselves the “What if?” question. Besides, when it comes to sustainability questions, getting physically involved outside can help us develop concrete and emotional connections towards Nature, motivating more involvement on these topics in our research. For example, it is fascinating to see how the Deep Ecology Movement’s father, Arne Naess, has been inspired in his thinking about ecology by his childhood and passion for mountain climbing. And he is not the only example. 

So let’s find our ways to foster our creativity. Let’s start gardening, do pottery, play guitar or anything that brings us joy and helps our brain wander along new paths.

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