Smile Politely

On Death And Turkeys

Cold autumn mornings often leave me pondering the arc of my own history. At this moment my parents’ arc takes them through the latitudes toward my door, where we will spend Thanksgiving together for the first time since the end of my vegetarian days. That period of my life ended last year, and it began abruptly, before I was fully formed. I can remember the exact moment.

I hunted with my family for most of my childhood, and could kill and clean a squirrel without a bit of queasiness. Then, on a crisp morning not unlike the one we experienced today, I killed a rabbit, and unlike the usual way rabbits respond to twelve gauge shotgun blasts, this one didn’t die quickly. It screamed. Long, and piercing. It lasted over a minute until my uncle could calmly make his way to where it lay thrashing, and break its neck with a quick chop of his hand. I was twelve.

Something broke in me at that moment. I didn’t talk about it, because, well, males didn’t. The act of killing was easy, but witnessing the act of dying was excruciating. Dying was something that happened to people after you left the hospital and before the visitation. It happened to old smokers when their lungs gave out, and to not-so-old coal miners when the roof caved in, and people were sad, and large amounts of food were consumed at the wake. You didn’t have to see death. And you certainly didn’t have to listen to it.

As my consciousness has slowly evolved over the twenty-odd years since then, I’ve added many reasons for my personal choice to avoid meat. Factory farming is horrible for the animal, the worker, and the earth, and I still won’t eat meat from an animal that isn’t raised ethically. But that rabbit’s scream lay at the root of it.

Since then I’ve helped bring my two daughters into the world, as well as one nephew. Birth is a bloody and beautiful process, and it also happens to be a process that our culture suggests that we avoid witnessing if possible. I can’t imagine not having held my daughters in those first moments. Like death, these defining moments of our existence are pointedly missing from our culture, and it’s our loss.

Finally ready to face death again, last year I held our four chickens one-by-one under an arm and slit their throats, holding them firmly but gently, and speaking softly to them as they shuddered and drifted toward death. This was an act without malice, without violence, and without waste. They gave us many delicious eggs in their prime, and they made fine coq au vin after their last gasp.

When people ask why I bother growing vegetables when they are so easy to buy, or why I built my house when better-qualified people could be hired, or why each meal begins with fresh ingredients and often takes a while to prepare, I often give answers about health, fun, and taste. These qualities enrich my family’s life, and they would be reason enough even if there weren’t something deeper. But there is something deeper, and it’s something I hope to get at through my writings on Smile Politely, which I’ve been graciously invited to contribute. It’s a process, and it’s connection, and it’s mystery. To tell you the true, I’m not sure exactly what it is, but maybe writing about it will help me understand it as well.

Though I didn’t kill the bird that will feed us this week, I know how it was raised and how it died, and I have placed my trust in Stan Schutte of Triple S Farms to feed it, care for it, and kill it. After a day’s brining and another day’s preparation, my extended family will gather to eat, with a fire in the wood stove, roasting vegetables from our garden and from John and his crew at Blue Moon Farm, cheese from Wes and Leslie at Prairie Fruits Farm, and honey from our bees. There’s a lot of labor and a lot of love present in this, and not even a twinge of guilt. Though many other aspects of my life lack this coherence, this feast will be a good thing, dead turkey and all.


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