If you are bothered by thinking about animals being killed by people for food, it might be a good idea for you to skip reading today's entry. Things not normally part of your everyday experience are described in some detail. I sit in judgment of no one who chooses to absent themselves from any part of this process, even just reading about it.
I will not write this with the whimsical, humorous voice I frequently use to make light of the challenges of farming. Death is death, a solemn passage, whether by my hand or not.
We butchered 3 roosters today.I've done this many times, now; for the others present, it was their first time. I noted the tendency of more than one helper/bystander to make light of the occasion through quips and puns. This is a fairly common reaction of some people to things that are stressful or serious: to play the clown, to try to lighten things up. It's a reaction that I try to gently but consistently challenge, however: I will make firm statements to cut it short, at risk of hurting feelings if need be, though I try to be tactful in my admonishment.
I don't believe that death should be taken lightly, even if it's the death of a rooster whose ardent crowing disturbed our sleep on a regular basis. When the moment comes for me to put a knife to its throat, I want to do that with the somber realization that my own life could be cut from me just as quickly, just as apparently randomly as this seemed to the roosters (though we'd set the date weeks in advance). I certainly don't want to draw that knife with any feeling of malice or glee on my part. I think only someone who has actually drawn the killing knife can understand the full extent to which this is NOT an act of violence. In fact, it renews my commitment to living a life of nonviolence more than anything else I've ever done.
I meet the rooster more closely in its final moments than at any other time in its life. I hold its scaley feet, its sleek feathered body, its warty-wattled head in the process of hanging it for the kill. I feel its bodily warmth, its heartbeat, its breathing. This is a living thing, that I am about to kill for my own nourishment. The chicken will become part of me. We're in this together.
I kill them as kindly as I can, hanging them upside down in a sack with their heads out a hole in the bottom. This is done in an area out of view of the house, the neighbor's yard, the other chickens: other than the rooster, those witnessing this have freely consented to witness and participate it. The knives are as sharp as I can have them, for a quick, clean kill...better than ever, today, thanks to the generous help of a friend with excellent sharpening equipment and skills. The neck veins are quickly severed while I hold the bird's head gently, covering its eyes. It bleeds to death within moments, then the random contractions of muscles after death force the last blood out effectively without much mess as the sack restrains the wings and my hand on the head prevents it from flopping. Each time I think: May my own crossing from life to death be so merciful and fast.
I know from nicking myself how painless the cut of a sharp knife can be. When Marie nicks her thumb while skinning (an expedient alternative to dealing with the mess and stench of scalding and plucking, since these old birds are only going to be fit for soup, anyway), I send her to wash right away. She protests, "It's only a tiny nick, it's not even bleeding." "But it will," I speak from experience. Soon she says, "You're right." It turns out she has nearly skinned the back of a knuckle, without even feeling it. After more washing, a bandage, and a disposable glove, she returns to skinning the rooster.
Emily realizes with sudden amazement that a smell she's always associated with fish, from childhood fishing trips, is actually the fairly universal smell of guts. We are all in awe of the beauty of what we are seeing, recognizing that our own innards look a lot like this. The delicate membrane laced with fat deposits and veins that tether the intestines while allowing so much flexibility. The lustrous, iridescent sheen of ligaments merging into muscles. The bright pink buoyancy of the lungs. The plastic resilience and strength of the windpipe. They, and we, are wonderfully made.
After we completed the first rooster, two of the other participants wanted to try their hand at killing the other two roosters. I thought this would be a good chance to photograph the method that I use. The camera allowed the shot you see above, then inexplicably quit. I felt chastened by a God who is more powerful than all technology: This moment of dying is not a public spectacle, but a deep form of intimacy. It was not to be profaned by separating myself from it through the camera's lense, not to be displayed on the Web.
By my longstanding tradition, our evening meal did not feature chicken. By the time we have finished, we don't feel like seeing them again for a little while. Besides, these roosters will benefit from a few days' aging in the fridge, and lo-o-o-o-ng slow cooking. But whether they end up as pot pie or soup, there will be a spiritual dimension to the nourishment we receive from them that can't be bought in any store.
It was not that long ago in our culture, when you compare it to the course of human history, that affluence was measured by some family member having the opportunity to complete this task of killing and butchering on a weekly basis, as normal as fueling the car or stocking up on frozen dinners at the grocery store or recording our favorite TV show.