Wednesday, July 28, 2010
Killing Big Shot
Yesterday, I killed someone. Today, I ate her liver. No Chianti. I have a doctor appointment in an hour.
My victim was not a victim, at least not mine. She was a two year old laying hen who was mysteriously assaulted in the middle of the day, possibly by a neighborhood dog, possibly by a fox or fishercat or raccoon. My friend found her on the ground with a punctured windpipe. We decided to help her die as quickly as possible. I brought her to the killing cone, pet her, talked to her softly, and slit her jugular. There wasn't a lot of life left in her, but I think it was right to get her beyond that awful suffering, which may have lasted another hour or more.
Three weeks ago, I became a killer. In a sense. I killed a rooster named Big Shot. Now I'd killed before. Many times. Innumerable plants. Far more bacteria and other microorganisms. A few arthropods and crustaceans, at least a couple fish. Thousands and thousands of insects, many on purpose. I'd stepped on frogs without knowing it, and run over more. I hit a deer when I was sixteen, and had neither the mindset nor the tools to help her die. I ran over a squirrel last week. More significantly, I eat. It felt profoundly different than any of my previous killings to intentionally kill a beautiful and familiar land animal by slitting his throat. I have a throat.
I'm actually responsible for a lot of death, but usually someone else has the job of killing. What would it be like to kill a fair portion of my food? How would that change my relationship to my food, to the plants and animals, to the land of which they and I am part? I also take part in the industrial economy, which not only wantonly kills tens of thousands of people every day, but whole ecosystems, indeed the whole planet. If I am to meaningfully oppose the industrial economy, I better know what I actually stand for, or, better yet, with whom I stand in solidarity. Becoming aware of and taking responsibility for the lives I directly or indirectly take is a crucial step in this process. Learning to kill is a difficult but important step toward gaining what Lierre Keith calls “mature knowledge.”
Big Shot had it coming. He was a rapist. Really, all farmyard roosters are rapists, and in the community of chickens, which is not to be confused with the community of humans, the hens don't generally seem too perturbed by aggressive males running over and forcibly mounting them. It's only a problem when there are too many males. The males become hyper-aggressive, fighting each other viciously and often clawing out the back feathers of the hens who get mounted too often and too furiously. In the wilds of Southeast Asia, the chicken's native habitat, males kill each other off and die protecting the hens from predators. In a stable chicken community, there should be no more than one rooster for every ten hens. We were well above that. And Big Shot was the bad rooster in the bunch. He had to go.
Big Shot was a gorgeous bird, probably the handsomest on the farm. A big, proud, golden rooster, well proportioned and strong. I hope he passed along some of those genes. We may have an inkling in the next few days, as it looks like we're nearing the first hatching of the year. And Big Shot had other virtues, for which my friend thanked him as she stroked and held him before the killing. He brought fertility to the soil. He often protected the hens. Soon, we would eat him.
When the moment came, my will faltered. My first slice didn't even get through his skin. Without a pause, knowing that I had to act instantly to prevent unnecessary suffering, I made a second, decisive cut. The bird was inverted and when the knife passed through his jugular, his blood exploded onto my left hand. There was a lot of blood. Big Shot looked sleepy. We were with him as much as we could possibly be, honoring him and ushering his spirit to the other side. But then I felt faint. Nausea swelled up, and I had to kneel against the tree to keep from passing out or puking. I felt ashamed. I kept reassuring my friend that it would pass in a moment, but it didn't. She told me to get the hose and pour some cold water on my head, and drink some. I did, and felt better at once. By then, Big Shot had gone through his thrashing. Who knows if that's when the soul leaves the body. I think it is.
The rest was comparatively mundane. Scalding, defeathering, and eviscerating were fascinating but purely technical. I was now dealing with food. Very good food.
That night we feasted on coq au vin. If you've had coq au vin, it was probably an eight week old broiler. Maybe a ten or twelve week old, if you got a heritage breed from a small farm. But coq au vin, that brilliant Provencal chanson of rooster, red wine, pork belly, onions, tomatoes (older recipes may call for mirepoix instead), mushrooms, stock, and herbs, was invented for a different beast. A young broiler is tender and bland, an excellent base for applying herbs, oils, spices, what have you. It can easily be roasted or fried. It is forgiving. It is easy. That's why we eat so much of it. That, and it's cheap, because it lives only two months, three at the very most, so it doesn't eat too much or occupy real estate for too long. Genuine coq au vin calls for a farmyard rooster at least nine months old. Big Shot was just about a year old. His legs and thighs were big and meaty. Not much breast. His bones were long, slender, and hard. The colors of his flesh were altogether darker and richer. He could not be roasted or fried. Old meat has to be braised or stewed, but treated properly, possesses incredible flavor. I believe we honored Big Shot. We certainly enjoyed him. He is, of course, now part of us.
And that is the point. We are what we eat. We are also what what we eat eats. And so on. In other words, we are our landbase. And we must care for the health of our landbase at least as much as we care for our own narrowly defined bodies, for the two are inextricable. Are factory farms part of your landbase? Denuded prairies and wetlands and aquifers toxified by the natural gas industry? How can you take responsibility for your landbase? How can you redefine your landbase on a more personal, local level, where you realistically can take responsibility? How can you build community so you can act with others to address the problems too big for you alone? Can you kill? Because if you can't, or won't, you will starve. If you live in a bioregion where coconuts, olives, and avocados are impossible to grow, as I do, you will have to learn to kill animals as well as plants, or your health will soon collapse through malnutrition.
Killing is profound, but it need not be evil. Prey need their predators just as predators need their prey. Without their predators, including indigenous humans, the bison would have spread out across the prairie rather than moved in tight herds, and they would have thereby denied the native grasses the conditions in which they outcompeted invaders, and the prairie would have collapsed, and the bison would have largely died off, along with their predators. We evolved to live in balance.
I enjoy the presence and lives of chickens, cattle, pigs, guineas, sheep, goats, and so on. I would be sorry to see them disappear, but their presence depends upon our continued predation. Our continued presence does, too. If we can learn to take responsibility, kill with honor, take no more than we need, and always put the health of the ecosystem first, we will find that death is no end but rather a profound transition.
Who am I? I am Big Shot. I am Bro, the highland bull. I am thousands of other plants and animals, many from within a few miles of here, some from across the world. I am Bradbury Mountain, for I eat her mushrooms and drink her water. I am the clouds above Maine. I am the oxygen exhaled by these woods and the carbon they produce, using the power of the sun, from what I exhale. I am the sun. Who are you? Are we taking care of ourselves? How can we do better? This is no rhetorical question. The fate of the world depends upon our answers.