Then We Could All Be Prophets

Clearing for berries

There is rawness to the landscape now that reminds me of November, though the angle of the March sun diminishes much of that autumnal sternness. And yesterday, while boiling sap atop the cookstove, windows open wide to disperse heat, I sat for a time and listened to a trilling birdsong, so different – softer, lighter – than the severe caws of winter crows and ravens.

Our focus has shifted outdoors, and there is much to accomplish, though the pressure of shelter is behind us. What we have now is a piece of land, our animals, some nursery stock, and our intentions, and the task before us is determining how each can best serve the other. It is a puzzle, nothing more, albeit one that demands a working knowledge of the braided connections between each of these facets. There’s no one right way to assemble the puzzle, but there are plenty of wrong ones, and in some ways I suppose this only makes it more confusing. If only there were one right answer. Then we could all be prophets.

Someone asked me this morning what it’s like to kill and eat animals we’ve known and loved, and I realized how long it’d been since I’d even thought about it, despite having killed two pigs just last week, and cut them on the very table I’m sitting at now. There was a point … no, wait, that’s wrong, there wasn’t a point. There was no specific moment. Instead, I guess I’d describe it as an evolution in both my understanding of the interplay between death and life, and also in my awareness of our animals’ role in the aforementioned puzzle. Which is to say, it is not life that begets life, but rather death; it is decay that necessarily precedes the bloom of regeneration.

I know this will sound callous to some, but it is nonetheless true: I do not mind killing animals I’ve known and loved. Actually, I’d prefer to kill animals I’ve known and loved, if only because it means I got to know and love them. To be sure, there is a certain anxiety inherent to the task, but I’ve come to accept it as an anxiety I must grapple with if my relationship to my livestock and my land is to be whole. I’m not saying it needs to be this way for everyone; I’m merely saying it needs to be this way for me.

Now I see clouds building; the forecast calls for a return to winter weather. It’s ok. We’re swimming in sap from a string of strong runs, and we need a break. We need time to boil. We shouldn’t have tapped; we don’t have a proper set-up, we’ve got way too many other balls in the air. But tap we did, and so just before lunch, I carried two overflowing five gallon buckets of sap down the hill from the sugarbush and through the fenced-in pasture, and as I passed, the cows watched me in that skeptical way they always do. The old fool, at it again. My arms ached, and I willed myself another 50 steps before rest.

But I made it 55.



22 thoughts on “Then We Could All Be Prophets”

  1. Something else about raising your own animals for food that people don’t often think of is that you can assure your animals are receiving a good quality of life during their existence. You don’t always know what kind of life the animals from which you buy meat in the store have had.

  2. Down the hill and through the fenced in pasture with TWO overflowing five gallon buckets of sap and then fifty-five more steps is beyond human ability or understanding. (Each overflowing bucket weighs forty pounds, making an eighty pound load.) There is a reason some might call you “Ben the Bull.

  3. Thank God, I ran out of scrap pine to burn, so I han an excuse to quit boiling. On to the next thing. Or, as it always is, the several next things.

  4. When you’re at the end of your rope, tie a knot and hang on. Bought you five more steps anyways. Thanks for your work.

  5. I totally agree with you. I’d rather eat animals I’ve known and loved. As always, your work is inspired. Thank you.

  6. an interview in the morning, talked with yours truly for a couple hours late morning/mid-day, had a guest over as we were hanging up, hauled a bunch of sap from the back forty, took care of the animals, boiled sap, and managed to scratch out these gorgeous words by 4pm. the speed and proficiency with which you write, all in the mix of everyday life, is kind of amazing. i know your humility keeps you from seeing that, but seriously, talk about a decent skill set.

    ps – loved this: “…it as an anxiety I must grapple with if my relationship to my livestock and my land is to be whole.”

    1. It’s amazing what one can accomplish if one does exactly no planning or preparation for pretty much anything…


  7. Ben, do you guys not use a shoulder yoke for carrying 2 full buckets? I never saw my grandpa without one, and he carried that way well into his 70s.
    Looking at that photograph of the plot cleared out just for berry patch, the vastness of your land and activities overwhelm me. Best of luck with the busyness of the season.

    1. Keep talking about a shoulder yoke, but it’s one of those things that never seems to rise high enough on the priority list.


  8. Going against the grain.. Some of us are just built that way, choosing instead to live a way of life that thrives on challenges, even self-inflicted ones. (Let’s build a house in the middle of a Vermont winter!! No time for sugaring..screw that! Not just 50 steps but 55!..) 🙂
    Some would say there is only one way. Maybe they don’t enjoy puzzles. Masterful piece of writing.

  9. Agree with your views on livestock to a degree…..when I was a kid one of my jobs was to go to this really awful meat market in our city to buy the families meat for the week ….I used to HATE that job…as I got into my teens I hated it even more …I’m ashamed to say one day I went into town as usual but just hung around with my mates instead …as you can imagine when I returned home empty handed my parents were FURIOUS …..quickly thinking of an excuse I said I didn’t feel I could do the job anymore because I was vegetarian …my father ( who was a traditional working man) just glared at me for a second…..then roared with laughter and said …’RIGHT ….. more for me then ….your still doing your job tho’ ….and from that day on vegetarian I was:D:D:D ….and I’ve kind of grown into it since

    Another great post Ben ….the great thing about the Bloggosphere I am finding is all the different views ….different lives …all around the world …it’s amazing:)

  10. Love this! Reminds me of the steep learning curve we experienced moving from a suburban to a more land based mindset… Your beautiful observations on animals and on taking on too much remind me of my own dear husbands musings! (www.outtherefamily.org)

  11. We raise on own meat and I very much like that they are happy for all but one moment. My teen daughter recently had a discussion with some of her friends about hunting ducks, oh poor ducks they said. Are you vegetarian she asked them, feel sorry for the chickens you buy in the store, the ducks have a good life. She summed it up well I think.

  12. I started my life on the land as a vegan of over 20 years. But nature has taught me much and though I wrestled with the ethics of killing our own animals, I was determined that if my boys were to eat meat it would have been raised and loved and named by us and we knew it had lived a good and happy life. I have blogged extensively about my mental gymnastics over these issues at http://www.littlehouseontheriver.com.au and ultimately have come to understand that we all want our lives to have had some point, that we serve in some way. The animals understand this. And rather than die futilely, savaged by wild dogs or struck by pestilence, they prefer to die nobly and serve us who have served them. We all die, after all, it is just a question of when.

  13. About 10 years ago I made the decision to become a farmitarian. I decided that henceforth I would eat no animal, unless I killed it myself.

    If you raise an animal and kill it yourself, if you know and love the animal that becomes your food and you have a profoundly different appreciation of meat–an appreciation that humanity had for thousands of years until we outsourced that responsibility. Knowing what it truly costs to put meat on the table completely changes eating–returning to it the sacredness (for lack of a better word) that it deserves.

    I hate killing animals. It’s my least favorite job on the farm by far. But like you, if I am to kill animals, I prefer to kill animals I know and love. And I never do it without first thanking them and asking forgiveness for any ways we have fallen short in our stewardship.

    Now that we’re selling pork by the cut, federal law prohibits us from killing pigs ourselves. We have to haul them to a USDA-inspected facility for that, an absurd and cruel requirement that introduces stress and fear into the lives of pigs that otherwise would never have any. But I still kill the chickens, fish and deer I eat.

    Our culture has become so disconnected from our food that the thought of personally killing the animals we eat freaks out most people. I’m convinced that if we were required to personally kill our food, our nation would become almost entirely vegetarian overnight. We love to wolf down mountains of meat from tortured factory-raised animals–we just don’t want to get any blood on our hands.

    Thanks for the inspiration and for keeping it real Ben.

  14. “keep your eyes wide the chance won’t come again”
    and ‘should be’ slips through
    to this that is
    the right and wrong puzzle left undone
    and the severe caws of ravens
    give way to thrushes who are
    somehow able to pierce the truth w/their calls

  15. It was a mental challenge the first time I killed and processed a chicken. I was rather thrown into it without warning as a neighbor decided to cull their flock and invited me to assist. I figured it was best to learn from someone who was experienced. It did make it better and I felt prepared when the time came to process my little flock.
    It wasn’t fun by any means, but I could do it. I’d still prefer to always do this myself. Hopefully, the time will come again where I am in a place to have my own chickens again. No cow this time though. 😉

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