Meat and Death

May 31, 2013 § 8 Comments

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I can’t even remember when we started raising meat birds, but it was at least a dozen years ago. I do remember the first year with did it with children present. Or more accurately, with child present, since Rye would not yet have been born. It’s almost funny to recall that Penny and I actually debated whether or not Fin should be present for the slaughter.

It didn’t take long for us to determine that if our family was going to consume meat, we were not going to “protect” anyone from the realities of processing. So that first year with Fin, when he was all of eight or nine months old, we propped him up in one of those semi-circular “boppy” pillows and he watched and drooled (because he was an infant, not because he was that hungry for chicken), and tried to eat grass and actually ate some grass while Penny and I gathered the birds and brought them to the trailer where Ralph and Cindy did the bloodwork.

When Rye came along, we did the same with him, although by now Fin was running about, trying to catch birds in his soft little three-year-old hands. He didn’t catch many.

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Seven or eight years ago, we began slaughtering and processing our own pigs and lambs; it felt important to us that if we were going to eat these creatures, we would assume personal responsibility for the act of killing, dressing, and cutting. We do not do this with every animal we raise, in part because we sell some of them, and this would not be legal, in part because it’s a lot of work, and in part because we enjoy the relationships we have with the people who do some of our slaughter (if you want to know more about what this work is like and get to know some wonderful and colorful characters, check out my first book. There’s a chapter devoted to Ralph and Cindy). Still, we do it with enough of our critters that I feel as if we have honored an unspoken agreement between us and the spirits of the animals that feed us. We know what it is like to put a gun to the forehead of a pig and pull the trigger, or to sink a knife into the throat of a lamb and to hold it while it bleeds out. These things are not easy, or fun. But to my way of thinking, they are an essential and honest part of the relationship between us and the flesh we consume.

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I have no qualms about taking the life of an animal to feed my family, so long as that animal has been treated and slaughtered with respect. There is simply no way for us to be alive on this earth without causing the death of other living beings, and rather than deny this reality, we have chosen to embrace it. Others, I know, choose differently, and I understand those choices.

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Over the years, the boys have become essential to the slaughter and processing of animals on our land. For the last two batches of pigs, they have been the ones to pull the trigger, and they have assisted in the skinning, dressing, cutting, and wrapping. They enjoy the work, and I can foresee a day when they will inherit the whole darn process, and that would be just fine with me.

Either that, or they’ll start eating tofu.

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Often, I think to myself what is wrong with death? And the only honest answer I can come up with is nothing. This does not make death easy, and it does not mean we don’t feel grief, particularly when death comes to humans. This does not mean that if the threat of death came to someone I love, I would not do everything in my power to fight it off. But that grief and that willingness to fight do not make death wrong. They do not deny the essential role of dying in the constant, cycling process of nature.

They do not mean, no matter how much our human ingenuity and ever-increasing distance from the natural world makes it seem so, that we can stand apart from death. It is just as real and present as every breath we take.

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I Admit It

May 30, 2013 § 4 Comments

At work

At work

I am not actually all that busy. True, there is plenty to be done, but no more than the day can accommodate, and what doesn’t get done today, will get done tomorrow. Or next month, whichever comes first.

I do not get very many emails. I do not have hundreds of unanswered emails begging for the attention I could give them if only I were not so busy. Because, remember: I’m not actually all that busy. And I don’t actually get very many emails.

I do not wish there were more hours in the day. I am perfectly content with 24.

I do not feel pulled in too many directions. I know exactly how I’m going to get everything done: One slow step at a time.

My phone is not ringing off the hook, and I do not worry about how I’d live without my cell phone. I do have a cell phone, but I do not know where it is, and I could not tell you the number if you asked.

This might explain why my phone is not ringing off the hook.

Cows at Night. And at Morning

May 29, 2013 § 7 Comments

Introducing Foster to his foster mother, in hopes she will allow him to nurse. Which she did.

Introducing Apple’s calf Foster to his foster mother, in hopes she will allow him to nurse.
Which she did.

This morning I was out early, preparing a fresh paddock for the cows’ daily grazing pleasure. It’s hero pasture now, a sea of cow candy everywhere you look, thick, verdant, top-of-shin high. It’s hard to remember that it won’t last forever, that in just a few months we’ll be scheming on how to squeeze a couple extra weeks out of the grass to cut down on the hay bill. But damn this is exactly what I love about this place: The seasonality of everything and the obscure rural ingenuity it demands.

So anyway. There I was, and it was that sort of milky, half-light of pre-dawn, and I was standing by the fence line admiring our motley herd, all of them sleek and glossy and filled-out, not a rib to be seen. And just at that moment, just as I was about to drop the wire that stood between them and that enviable, concentrated contentment that is unique to grazing bovine, it softly – very softly – began to rain. And I thought of this poem by Hayden Carruth, which is approximately my favorite poem ever (which given the volume of poetry I’ve exposed myself, is not saying terribly much). By the way, my second, third, fourth, and fifth favorite poems were all written by this guy.

Here you go. Enjoy.

The Cows At Night

The moon was like a full cup tonight,

too heavy, and sank in the mist

soon after dark, leaving for light

 

faint stars and the silver leaves

of milkweed beside the road,

gleaming before my car.

 

Yet I like driving at night

in summer and in Vermont:

the brown road through the mist

 

of mountain-dark, among farms

so quiet, and the roadside willows

opening out where I saw

 

the cows. Always a shock

to remember them there, those

great breathings close in the dark.

 

I stopped, and took my flashlight

to the pasture fence. They turned

to me where they lay, sad

 

and beautiful faces in the dark,

and I counted them–forty

near and far in the pasture,

 

turning to me, sad and beautiful

like girls very long ago

who were innocent, and sad

 

because they were innocent,

and beautiful because they were

sad. I switched off my light.

 

But I did not want to go,

not yet, nor knew what to do

if I should stay, for how

 

in that great darkness could I explain

anything, anything at all.

I stood by the fence. And then

 

very gently it began to rain.

Ill Logic

May 28, 2013 § 9 Comments

Ah, late May in Vermont!

Ah, late May in Vermont!

Last night Rye and I slept in a tent next to pen that houses the boys’ goats. Rye’s doe, Flora, is due to kid any day (or night) now, and Rye, being of the caregiving sort, darn well plans to be there when it happens. So for the next unknowable quantity of nights until she comes forth with however many impossibly small creatures of the caprine variety she’s carrying, the tent is where I slumber. Which ain’t so bad, really, particularly on these cool, clear, bug-free nights, the rain fly left wadded in the grass so that we might see the stars through the tent mesh and wake in the morning with our faces damp from dew. I can promise you, there are worse things in the world.

I have been thinking a lot about logic, particularly since I posted a couple weeks back about how we’re not always particularly logical in our decision making. The more I think about it, the more I realize how wrong I was: We do think and act logically. It just may not always appear that way.

Here’s what I think (for now, anyway): Our culture’s definition of logic seems to have become linked to expectations set by contemporary economic arrangements. In other words, we determine what is logical or illogical based in large part on what the market tells us is logical or illogical. It is illogical to keep cows, because milk and butter and beef are so plentiful and cheap in every supermarket. It is illogical to spend two hours tromping through the forest in a fruitless search for morels, because of course time is money, the latter of which those hours could have been spent earning. And what do you have to show for those hours? A bunch of bramble scratches and a stubbed toe?

It is illogical to repair a tool or appliance, because tossing it and buying a new one is easier and cheaper. It is illogical to educate your children at home because to educate your children at home, you must forgo whatever income you might otherwise be paid. It is illogical to pursue your passion, because your passion does not pay. Better to make a practical career choice, and perhaps when you retire, well, maybe then you’ll get to do what you really want. Maybe then you’ll get live the life you truly want to live.

The definition of logic is reasoning conducted or assessed according to strict principles of validity. Which makes me wonder: What are my strict principles of validity? It seems a worthy exercise to determine what these might be, for if we don’t even know what they are, do we not risk having them determined by external forces, and won’t those determinations be made with someone else’s profit in mind? I think we do, and I think they will.

So then. For the record, and perhaps to be continued, my strict principles of validity:

1) Time is not money. Time is life.

2) Ergo, I would prefer to retain control over as much of my time (life) as possible.

3) Ergo, I would prefer to not relinquish portions of my life to pay for shit I don’t really need.

4) My family is important to me, my children are growing fast, and I love their company.

5) Ergo, I wish to spend as much of my time (life) in their company as possible.

6) Ergo, I will educate them in a manner that enables this.

7) I am most satisfied in body, mind, and spirit when I am able to spend a portion of each day laboring or simply being on the land.

8) Ergo, I will arrange my life in such a manner as to make this a reality.

That’s a fairly short, off-the-top-of-my-head list. But already, I see how it transforms my notion of what is logical and what is not. Already, I see how I needn’t allow my personal sense of what makes sense to become a victim of forces that don’t necessarily have my best interests at heart.

Ergo, to allow others to define what is logical, my friends, would be simply illogical.

There’s Something

May 22, 2013 § 7 Comments

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Yesterday I had a long conversation with Richard Louv, author of Last Child in the Woods. This was for a story I’m working on –  not the book, but another project relating to children and nature and education. It’s funny how this stuff tends to crop up for me.

Anyhow, my style of interviewing is pretty informal (goodness, imagine that!); I prefer to have conversations with the people I’m interviewing, rather than work from a script. The benefit, of course, is that you end up going places you might never have predicted. Such was the case with Richard, because pretty soon we weren’t talking about kids and education and nature. Pretty soon, we were talking about fear.

“You know, parents have such fear that their kids are going to be left behind in the economic race,” Richard said. “I never judge people for that fear, but we’re up against economic forces so strong, only a mass movement can stand up to it.”

He’s right, of course. Fear is an incredibly powerful motivator, whether it’s fear of death, poverty, social acceptance, or – perhaps even more affecting – our children’s death, poverty, and social acceptance. This is all entirely understandable, perhaps in part because these things really are worth fearing, but I suspect in some cases because we’ve been taught to fear them. We have been socialized to accept and even embrace these fears, and I think this is largely because these fears help fuel the economic race Richard speaks of and in doing so, generates profits for those at the head of that race.

Later in the conversation, we got off onto another tangent, about sensory perception. “You know,” said Richard, “it’s widely accepted in science that there are a lot more than five human senses.”

Oh yeah, I said, how many?

“Conservatively, 10. But maybe as many as 30. And the crazy thing is, a lot of these other senses are the ones we end up pushing away because we don’t give ourselves the freedom to experience them. We don’t give ourselves the ability to feel and to be fully alive.”

Later on, you know what I thought? Now, there’s something to be afraid of.

No Bother At All

May 21, 2013 § 10 Comments

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I was thinking the other day – always dangerous, as Penny is ever-keen to remind me – about how most folks probably come to this site because they’ve read one of my two food-related books. And how it might be sorta confusing that, once here, what they find is primarily anti-establishment ranting about parenting and education (as if the two should rightly be separated) and money and not really all that much about food or food systems or any of that jazz. Which is not to say these things aren’t all connected on some level or another, because of course they are. They very much are.

Still and all and because I’m working on a section in the new book that’s about our place, and because when I’m out and about people often ask me to describe our homestead-farm-smallholding-whatchamacallit, I’m going to do what I often do in this space, which is use it as a ceiling upon which to hurl the imperfect pasta of my thoughts and see what sticks. Wow… how’s that for an extended metaphor?

As I’ve mentioned, we bought this place as 40-acres of bare land in ’97. The first farm-related endeavor was the planting of 100 bare root blueberry plants. This was before we even had a roof up, and I thought it was pretty much insane to be planting blueberries before we even had a dry, warm place to lay our heads, but as usual, Penny was wiser than me and the berries got planted and ever since about, oh, 2001, we’ve gone hardly more than a day or two without eating blueberries either fresh or frozen. As an added bonus, the plants have paid for themselves many, many times over with what we’ve sold as pick-your-own.

We also got laying hens right around this time, as well as a couple of piglets. We had Melvin till up a couple of nice-sized gardens. Not too terrible much later, we got the cows. More pigs. Another garden. And so on.

Our primary intent for our place is not so much for it to serve as a means of income – we do realize a few thousand dollars in farm-related income each year – but as a cornerstone in our personal economy. And by “economy,” I do not mean the portion of our life that relates to money, but a more holistic sense of the word (the origins of which have nothing to do with money, by the way) that relates to how we manage our lives. Of course, money is a part of this, and given that we raise the majority of our food on this land, and given that if we weren’t doing so, we’d be spending a whole heck of a lot more on groceries, there’s no question that our food-related endeavors impact our financial bottom line.

But the truth is, that’s not really a motivating factor. Primarily, we’re motivated by the fact that both Penny and I enjoy the process, as much as the outcome. In other words, we like the work. This morning, I was up and out by 5:20 or so, preparing a fresh paddock for the ever-hungry cows, when a thunderstorm came in fast and the sky got lit by a flash of lightning of a color I’d never before witnessed. It was pink, or nearly so, and for a moment, the whole place – even the cows, waiting impatiently by the single strand of poly wire separating them from their breakfast – was awash in that strange light for a half-second and it was… hell, it was amazing. I love these little moments; they happen at least once or twice a day, and almost always in the context of some farm-related task or another.

I am glad that we do not have to farm for our primary income, although there are times when I can imagine it, or at least some form of it. But because we do not live under the onus of meeting profit expectations, we are able to run our place exactly as we wish, with all the absurd diversity that gives us so much pleasure. Right now, we have 7 cows, 9 sheep, 15 or so laying hens, 2 pigs, and of course the boys have their goats. We have the 100 blueberry bushes, 3 extremely large and productive gardens, and 3 unheated hoop houses (1 for tomatoes, 1 for melons, and 1 for winter greens). We tap about 70 sugar maples. Every summer, we raise 100 meat birds on pasture, although given the grain those little buggers go through, we’re probably going to cut back. We prefer to consume meat that eats grass, or in the case of our pigs, primarily waste milk. Which of course is mostly grass, having been produced by ruminant animals. We have been planting large quantities of fruit and nut trees. We do quite a bit of foraging: mushrooms, nettles, fiddleheads, and so on. We make kimchi, sausage (fresh and dry-cured), bacon, and gobs of butter. Penny make a nice soft cheese and though every year we promise ourselves that we’ll figure out how to make a decent cheddar, it never seems to happen. Our guiding nutritional philosophy is that high quality saturated fats and fermented foods are crucial to good health and that pretty much anything that comes in a box or can is best avoided.

Reading over this list, I’m struck by how it might seem as if all this is a whole heck of a lot of work. Inconvenient. And I can see how, from a certain perspective, this is true. But it has been our blessing to have arranged our lives in a way that does not make any of this seem like work, or like an inconvenience. There are trade-offs, of course. There always are. But in a strange way, even those are a reminder of how much we value this life. Because if we weren’t willing to give up anything for it, how much, really, could that be?

 

Too Short to Drink Milk

May 20, 2013 § 6 Comments

"Camp Dubbins"

“Camp Dubbins”

Penny and the boys were away for the weekend, helping her parents pack up their condo in MA in preparation for a move to VT. Her folks want to be closer to me, of course.

With the family away, I went into git ‘r dun mode. Both mornings I was up and out the door by 4:40, doing what chores could be done in the spectral half light of the four o’clock hour: Feed the chickens, slop the pigs, give the cows a fresh paddock, heat a bottle for Foster, and so on. Then, as light filtered into the sky, milk Apple and Minnie, pausing every few minutes to shake out hands and forearms, all those small muscles reorienting to the task. After milking, a piece of toast (I am making some wicked good sourdough these days, if I do say so myself. And I do), a cup of coffee, and then, by 6:30, the house reverberating with the heavy thunder of all the infantile music Penny cannot tolerate (goodness, but I’d almost forgotten about Dio!) and me with hammer in hand, framing the sidewalls of the new woodshed. A decade-and-a-half we’ve been here, the whole time stacking firewood under sheets of old roofing tin, weighted by old tires and other random objects of significant mass. But this year, a woodshed: That, my friends, is what passes for upward mobility in these parts.

On both days I treated myself to an hour or so of mushrooming, with the result being well short of last year’s haul – it’s been terrible dry – but plentiful enough that my primary meals of the weekend featured steaks cooked just past the point of biting back and a sweet mess of pan fried morels. I scarfed them sitting on the front stoop, then picked a salad out of the greenhouse, and scarfed that, too. Then back to framing, then chores, then leftover steak, a glass of cream (because life’s way too short to drink milk), and another salad.

Sitting there last night, gnawing cold steak from last year’s steer, drinking cream skimmed from the mornings milking, eating early salad out of the greenhouse, and picking at the crusted remnants of morels in the fry pan while Metallica’s Ride the Lightning (I know, I know: I really need to grow up a bit)  rattled the windows, I couldn’t help but feel like ’bout the luckiest fool ever to walk this good, green earth.

And I thought of how, just a couple days before, Penny and I had been discussing our finances, which are not actually all that bad at the moment. Then again, they’re not actually all that great, either, particularly if the current proposal my agent’s shopping around doesn’t find a home. Ah, to have my family’s financial fate resting in the hands of a bunch of NYC publishers I’ve never met. “Comforting” is not the word that comes to mind.

Yet there I sat, every last morsel of food in my belly a product of the very piece of land on which my family has made our home, onto which my sons were born, and onto which, if my luck holds, my own flesh and blood will decompose. There I sat, full and satisfied and tired in that sweet, bone-deep way that can only come of physical labor.

And then do you know what was best of all? It started to rain.

Where Am I?

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