Only the Beginning


We killed two beef this morning. I just returned from burying the cast-off bits of in the compost pile and I smell of that particular wet gut smell of just-slaughtered bovine. Did you know that every just-slaughtered animal has its own smell? It’s true. I’ve noticed that pigs and beef smell a little sweet, though a different sort of sweet from one another. I think I like the beef-sweet smell better.

I can confirm that we did not “harvest” these animals; we killed them. I know because I saw them both go down; it was my finger on the trigger that released the hammer that ignited the powder that drove the .410 slug into the brain of the second animal we killed this morning. It is popular these days to talk about harvesting animals, and I can sort of understand why, but from the perspective of someone who just looked a trusting animal in the eye and dropped her to the ground with no more physical effort than it takes to pick his nose, I’m not buying it. She probably thought I was coming in to scratch her on the back of the knob where her horns would’ve grown if she’d grown horns, which is understandable, since I’ve done that at least once a day for the past two years. I liked that girl. Sometimes I stood with her for a few minutes, just scratching and looking out across our land and feeling like maybe I know my place in the world.

What I’m saying is, you harvest a potato. You kill an animal.

Down below the house, Penny and Rye are fleshing the silky hide from the cow I shot. She’s a Highland /Jersey cross and there is talk of huaraches and who knows what else. The heads, having been cleaved in half to extract the brains for tanning, went into buckets with holes drilled in them to allow in the ingress and egress of flies, which will lay millions of eggs on the rotting flesh. Our chickens will eat the resulting maggots. We will eat the chickens. If it’s true that you are not merely what you eat, but what you eat eats, then we will eat maggots. I find that perversely pleasing, sort of like when I was driving over to our friend Lucian’s a week or so ago with a couple of pig heads in a bag so he could make head cheese. I kept thinking of the opening scene in the movie Repo Man, where the old dude gets pulled over and the cop wants to look in the trunk. “Oh, you don’t want to look in there,” he tells the cop, which of course only makes the cop want to look all the more. I imagined getting pulled over and the cop asking me what was in the bag. I actually passed a cop just before I got to Lucian’s house. I tried to look like the sort of guy who might be driving around with something suspicious in the back of his Subaru, but he didn’t even look my way.

I believe this is the way it should work. Things should become other things and in the process they should not decrease, but increase. The cow I shot was a nurse cow to her calf and Apple’s. She provided milk to feed our pigs. She gave us shit to grow our beans. Her meat will give us the fuel to chop our wood and bake our bread and argue and love one another. Her hide will protect my children’s feet. The maggots that grow on the hollowed-out remnants of her head will make eggs and chickens we will cut up and fry in the lard that came from the pigs we raised on her milk. The calves she nursed will be next season’s beef and the whole damn thing will happen all over again. The trust. The trigger. The wet-gut, beef-sweet smell. The maggots. The lard. The chickens. The calves. The compost.

What I’m saying is, you kill an animal. But that is only the beginning.

36 thoughts on “Only the Beginning”

  1. Yeah, ‘harvest’ no me gusta. Love you Barbara, but no love for ‘harvest’ and Carlin was right, shell shock is a better word for PTSD.
    ‘Huaraches” no se. And too lazy for Google today.
    “Eating maggots”? Really, are you mocking the current standard of living again, Ben?
    And I’m messing with you, but I get you. And I still get you when you say ‘should’ and I still mess with you to say that ‘should’ is the only thing causing limits (I mean, do you want increase or do you want limitlessness)…
    Anyway, enjoy your meat.

  2. When I think about systems such as yours, I often wonder who the first person was that noticed how all of these things hinge together or was it just some accident (Hey, look at those chickens over there eating those maggots? There’s an idea!) It most certainly was someone less distracted than the average person nowadays to even notice this interconnectedness. The lack of waste really appeals to me and is something we strive for in our own way. Before moving to our farm, I always had a compost pile for kitchen scraps but was pleased to see how having animals limits your need for one (or, at least, the size of it) since they do a lot of that work for you. One of my favorite sights is the chickens scratching around in the manure windrow. And the eggs are all the more delicious as a result. No bovine heads here but I get your excitement. And I have worn my share of huaraches in the past. Thanks, Ben!

  3. So many people, me included, have lived detached from the source of what feeds us. I’ve read there are kids today who do not recognize a tomato or potato when shown one, nor are they aware this food is grown in soil. Most of my friend do not know, and if they some sense of it, actively do not want to know, how beef or chicken ends up on their dinner plates. While I’ve always been familiar with basic gardening, my purposeful ignorance of meat grew more and more uncomfortable. So, a couple years ago, I decided to learn where grocery store hamburger and roasted chicken come from, and then decided to no longer participate with all that, as best I could.

    I’ve lived the life that promised, in the 70s, 80s, and 90s, if I follow the rules, do a good job, then a pension and social security would be my ultimate reward. I just squeezed in under the wire – most folks a few years younger than I are no longer being offered all the old promises.

    What saddens me most of my own story is my son’s rejection of the world I was raised in and still trusted while he was growing up – be a “good boy,” do your homework, follow the rules, get a job, and in some unseeable distant future, retire to a life of leisure. Because I had nothing else to offer him, he chose to walk away from a school life that was meaningless to him, a home life that had grown painful, and disappear down the rabbit hole of drugs and urban street life, drifting from city to city and squatting in abandon buildings. I regret not knowing more back then, feeling at a complete loss as to what else to do. Your boys are blessed beyond measure. I wonder if my son had had their opportunities would things have turned out differently for him.

    1. Your son has his path. You have yours. God bless you both and give you strength. And I mean that in the deepest way possible and not some knee jerk religion way altho’ that’s ok too.

    2. Hi Martha,

      I am sorry to hear about your son. I’m sure that’s incredibly difficult for you. I hope my boys find a path that is satisfying to them, but no matter what we do as parents, I know there are no guarantees.

      1. Thanks, Ben. There are no guarantees. And no way of knowing had circumstances been different that my son would not have still chosen the same path he’s on. Tres might be right – he has his own path to follow, as do I. I find a sense of peace in honoring both his path and mine own. I’ve only recently come to see that if I could have done things differently back then, I would have; if he could live his life differently now, he would be.

        Thank you for all that you share of yourself and your family’s story. ❤

  4. Somewhat off point here, but I took your recommendation from last last year and planted piricicaba. You were right. I should have thanked you in advance. What a wonderful bullet in my bandolero of veggies. It goes great with MountainHome Farm butter.

  5. A+ on convenience and efficiency with what was and in a way still is your bovine. All of you, including the ones who reply are such an inspiration for me. Thanks again!!!

    1. Yes. Yes. This is a very, very fine blog! Always engaging. And the thoughtful comments/responses are truly worth reading….yes, every one, every time. Thank you!

    2. Amen. Efficiency, convenience and amazing use of resources. The use of the wheel and fire are most likely part of the process as well.

  6. Just yesterday, I was having a discussion about this, with my 4-year old who likes to ask if problem cows are “keepers” or “killers” ( I prefer to say “beefers.”) But I realized his term was probably more accurate.

    For some reason, I find it uncomfortable, yet exhilarating to realize that my children know so much about reality at such a young age.

  7. What a great circle of life you have there. I like to tell our meat rabbits “I’m gonna miss you” as I scratch their heads, “but you’re gonna taste good!”

  8. Regarding trying to give the cop a particular look, I can imagine that Ben’s vehicle is far better known, by sight and sound and, in season, smell, than he knows, and as for his acting capabilities……….

  9. Eat real food, raise strong boys, live fulfilling days, be authentic. That goes for language too. For every piece of meat on a plate, an animal has died and for that they deserve, at least, more than euphemisms. Pffffft @ harvesting living creatures.

  10. Shoot. I tossed a bag of trash the other day that had been in a forgotten trash can for weeks and there were maggots spilling out of it. Missed opportunity. It didn’t occur to me to feed them to the chickens. You’re making a maggot factory, Ben, with that bucket and holes idea. Brilliant. So when exactly do you harvest the maggots?

    1. We don’t actually harvest them…. we (and by “we” I mean Penny) drilled a bunch of holes in the bucket and the maggots just sort of fall out of the holes.

      So it’s self-harvesting, I guess

  11. Ben, I was a vegetarian for 5 years in my early 20’s after reading “Diet for A New America”. Then, I wasn’t. Then I began to have children and read and read, and realized the best start possible was for them to eat organic, so I started when they were in utero and have not looked back. Last weekend, on our new little farm, we killed 15 of our chicks raised from day old to put in the freezer for the coming year. It was the first time we had ever raised livestock to eat ourselves, though I’ve been buying local organic free range meat for years now.

    We found the experience to be one that was both really tough, and really rewarding. Every single life that we took was hard, both my husband and I took it with the reverence and sick-in-the-stomach feeling the first time produces. My heart was heavy with the task and it did not get easier for us. Being a person who believes in a higher power and have asked for guidance from same, I said a prayer over each of those birds before their life was taken. Might seem sappy and unneccesary to some, but maybe it was my request for absolution or something, not sure.

    The end result is knowing that we have meat to feed our family for the next 9 months or so until we decide if we want to do it all over again. My oldest, 11 years, decided that he wanted to be involved with the process and was present while we slaughtered and butchered them, helping us pluck and eviscerate. My 9 year old animal lover stayed on the fringes and didn’t want to participate. Every child has their own reality for sure, but he knows where his food came from just the same.

    Great post, just wanted to share our experience with you. I’m sure I’ll blog about it on mine at some point, but I’m still processing it in my mind and how I want to present it there.


    1. Yes Vonnie, I think you’ve said it perfectly. Every time we kill rabbits, we also say a prayer, thanking God for what he has provided us and for letting us care so much for those bunnies. It is with a heavy heart that we do the killing, but a happy stomach when we do the eating. As God intended, I believe.

  12. “Being a person who believes in a higher power and have asked for guidance from same, I said a prayer over each of those birds before their life was taken.” This sounds good and right to me, respecting the life given as a wondrous gift. Thanks, Vonnie.

  13. Killer blog Ben, found your writing randomly in an Outside mag. a couple days ago. I loved it I have a 20 month daughter and this is definitely on my radar and if thats what she wants. I didn’t have a choice, “prison” was a common word that ran through my mind in childhood. Sweet! excited to see future posts, and learn more about un-schooling though it seems pretty straight forward. The WORLD!!! needs to trust in children more!! Ever heard of the “The School” in Russia founded by Mikhail Petrovich Schetinin? If not you might dig it, ya pretty sure…

  14. One of the best pieces of writing you’ve ever produced. Talking of the circle of life becomes a little clichéd, but I like how this article felt almost anti-poignant. You do this because you do this. The cow was always going to die and it did.

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