Today we were out in the snow flurries before dawn, Vincent catching turkeys, guinea fowl, and some of our older layers and roosters, while I opened and closed the crates in the back of the truck. With the fickleness of a third-trimester body, the necessity to write extra publications now so I can take maternity leave later, and an impending move, we did not have the time to process these birds.
I drove them to the Mennonite processor we use when we can't harvest our poultry ourselves. I could see the big dark eyes of the turkeys in the rearview mirror as they huddled low while I drove the speed limit and as they stood up tall when I stopped at intersections. I could see the confusion of the sweet hens, jumbled in a crate with crazed guinea fowl and obnoxious young roosters.
Processing day is always hard, but it carries a lot more guilt when we're not doing it ourselves. How could we raise these birds, feed them every day since they were a day or two newly hatched, watch as they combed woods and pasture and everywhere in between, and then drive them across the county and leave them on a concrete slab, with a litany of sounds from strange birds and unfamiliar scents? It feels like betrayal.
I'm waiting in a lovely local coffee shop while the birds are processed, thinking about how their lives are ending while feeling our baby move around inside me, kicking and hiccuping. One of life's great realities is, to borrow a term from Wendell Berry, its "inescapable cruelty.” No matter what you eat or wear or how you move your person from one place to another, life requires resources that are finite. Calories — from animals or from plants — require spilling blood or capitalizing on labor provided by people working in unsafe or unfair conditions (and, in our current global food system, often both). Mass-produced clothing demands the same. So do electronics, gemstones, building materials, vehicles, fuel — our lives are powered by our taking and others sacrificing. (And so it is true in nature, as well — nutrients and shelter are gleaned at the expense of another, always.)
In a few days, we’ll take four pigs to a different processor. We won’t have to look them in the eye as we load them into our trailer or during the cold, dark ride or as the bolt gun discharges. We won’t have to wash their long black bristles from our arms and faces and clothes, nor another’s blood out of our shirts or pants or hand towels. But our families and friends will have pork from pigs raised with love and attention to preserving the pigness of pigs. The chickens and turkeys and guinea fowl that were harvested this morning will nourish us — including the baby inside me, who grows stronger from their unwilling sacrifice — through major holidays, as well as the mundane day-to-day of a transformative winter. And hopefully, next fall, we won’t have to foist this great responsibility of taking life (to sustain our own lives) on others.
Eating is such a basic tenet and necessity of life that we take it for granted and gladly outsource it. But paying attention to what and where we eat, who or what was affected by that meal, and taking greater accountability for those choices can change the world.