Sunday, March 5, 2017

The Edges of Life

When Wolf was small we noticed that he had an inclination toward violent play (as many little boys do). So we taught him the law of the jungle: one may only kill for two reasons, either for food, or to avoid being killed yourself. (This may have slightly backfired when, at five years old, he asked if we could please shoot--and eat--a songbird in the front yard, and I had to explain that it was too small to provide enough meat to be worth eating. He was terribly disappointed.) But I digress.

For the last two years we have been raising chickens. We are in it for the eggs, and we have quite a flock of happy ladies.
We knew that eventually they'd get too old to lay anymore, and we agreed from the start that when that time came we would kill them and eat them (or--since an old bird is tough and isn't great eating--put them in the crockpot to make soup or dog meals etc). However this last summer it became evident that one of our spring babies was growing up to be...not a girl. And so we had to face the prospect of slaughtering sooner than we had anticipated. I named him King Louie, because he strutted around, crowed a lot, and was destined to lose his head.
King Louie

(At this point you may be realizing that this post deals with slaughtering animals. If that bothers you feel free to stop reading. One photo shows blood but isn't graphic. I do discribe the process but it's not overly gory, and I share because the experience overall has been significant and poignant, so I hope you'll read on.)

We had no use for a roo. He eats food, he harrasses the ladies, we don't need fertilized eggs since we're eating them all anyway, and he doesn't need to defend the flock since we have that covered. So in October I sent a message to my friend who has butchered birds before, and asked if I could come over and she could teach me how. She was willing so we set a date.
Bear greeting the turkeys.

Hubby didn't happen to be available that weekend, and neither was Wolf, so I piled the younger boys into the truck and took them to my friend's house. She had a turkey that was destined for Thanksgiving dinner and the plan was to take care of Louie and her bird at the same time. Turkeys are big and strong and have to be wrestled a bit, so she'd invited another friend (also with experience) to come and help. All of us had young kids there, and we invited them to watch or help if they wanted to, but also told them that they didn't have to if they didn't want to. I feel like it's healthy to be part of the process though if you're going to be a meat eater, and to be conscientious of where our food comes from. (Bear opted to watch us kill the turkey and Eagle helped with plucking it.)

I was so glad that I slaughtered with these ladies though, because the first thing they both said to Louie as I got him out of the kennel was "thank you" and then I held him while one of them slit his throat, and as she did she was saying "thank you Louie" to him again.

It was a deeply respectful process. 
The place where we took Louie's life.

I somewhat expected to have a moment where I wanted to back out, but I never did. I didn't wield the blades but I helped hold both birds, helped with the plucking, and I cleaned out Louie's insides. We saved some of the feathers from both birds too--I don't know what I want to do with them but they are beautiful and I feel strongly about utilizing as many parts as we can. One of the ladies kept commenting about how clean Louie was so that made me feel pretty good about how we keep our flock. :)

It wasn't until afterward, when I was packing up and getting ready to come home, that I realized that Samhain was that weekend. That's the old observance of final harvest. (There's a grain harvest observance in August, a fruits/vegetables harvest observance in September, and the November observance is for harvesting animals.) I'm sure you know that Halloween has origins in the traditions about Nov 1 being the new year, and the old year dies on the 31st which is why the veil is thin between life and death and ghosts roam etc. Dia De Los Muertos as well as other ancestor-remembering traditions are celebrated at this time, and it all ties into the recognition of death as part of life, which I think is important even if I've never really been into any of those celebrations. This year we ate Louie on that day. It seemed fitting.


But the story isn't over. Because literally the night that I got home from killing Louie, I heard a crow from the coop.

And that's when we realized there was another roo.

I have to explain a bigger story here. We bought chicks in the spring from a local farm store. But in the summer one of our adult hens (from the year before) got broody. So we got her a few fertilized eggs to sit on, and she hatched three babies. So these babies were four months younger than the spring ones, hadn't reached their adult appearance yet, and thus we hadn't realized that one of them was a roo.

Until we took Louie out of the coop, and realized that he hadn't been the only one crowing.

But back to the broody hen: I was checking on her daily, and I was the first to see the tiny fluffy babies when they hatched. I was even there during one of the hatchings--I watched the mama turn this way and that, continually shifting her weight and position and slowly turning a full circle until a third little voice started cheeping with the other two. It was the first time I had ever been present for a non-human birth, and I felt something similar to the births of my siblings or children.

The longer I live, the more I realize that the edges of life are sacred, on both sides.

The transition between life and non-life is an important time, regardless of what you believe is before and/or after it. And regardless of whether the being involved is human.

We gave Chanticleer time to reach maturity of course, but this week his time was up. I had hoped to wait until the snow melted so that we could do it outside, but we've had a lot of snow this winter and finally we decided to just do it in the garage.
This time it was just myself and Hubby. I opened the door of the little kennel we'd put him in and carefully grabbed his feet with one hand and around his body with the other. He flapped and wiggled a bit, but quickly calmed. I adjusted my grip to make sure it was secure.
Since Hubby hadn't done it before, he asked to hold the bird and have me wield the knife. I had expected this, and had had several months to anticipate doing it, but in the process of getting Chanticleer out some part of me had thought and hoped that maybe it wouldn't be me.

Because here is the thing about taking a life: it is easier to do if you can distance yourself from what you are doing (indeed, the farm kills I had seen in my youth seemed to be of this sort). I certainly understand the inclination to dissociate onself from the act of taking a life. But I think that it is important--even vital--to get ones head INTO the space of what is happening, rather than out of it. The end of a sentient life--as with the beginning of one--should be a mindful thing. 

And it was. 

As my husband held Chanticleer's body and feet, I pulled our sharpest knife from its sheath and circled around to face the bird. I gently took his head in my hand, feeling his neck to make sure I would make my cut at the right place. I looked him in the eye. He looked at me for a moment, and then his eye slid shut, as though he knew what was coming; as though he were resigned to it, and knew that he was filling the measure of his creation. I pulled the knife across his neck quick and deep. His death was almost instant.
We quickly tipped him in a large bucket as he bled out, continuing to hold him as his body spasmed a few times. It's disconcerting to feel a body move when you know it's dead, and I had the fleeting fear that perhaps I hadn't done my job right and he was still alive and suffering... But he was not. I did my job properly.

And that is my biggest takeaway from all of this: how to do the job properly. It's not that I've learned how to hold a bird to kill it, or where to put the knife, or that I've learned how to make sure the blood doesn't make a mess, or that I know how to pluck it quickly and cleanly and how to get the guts out. I think the most important lesson in all of this is that life matters, and that whether I am ushering someone into it or out of it, I will always do it with mindfulness and respect for the life in question.

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