I was sitting in a large tent at a sustainable agriculture fair, watching a butcher demonstrate how to section a lamb into primal cuts. After effectively and efficiently dismembering the freshly killed animal, he asked the crowd if we wanted him to cleave the skull and remove the brain. A tableful of women up front cheered and chanted to proceed with the cleaving. Their response discomfited me, the hooting as if at a sporting event. It was an example of how we have come to deal with death, like in a funhouse mirror, through a distorted lens.
Killing gracefully. How we approach the act, if not with reverence, at least with mercy, appears to have gone on an extended vacation. Our race has always butchered. Vegetarians and omnivores, organic farms and CAFOs alike — all are sustained on a pile of corpses.
But while I do accept butchery as the blood price of living on this planet, I do not accept that we should pay with a callous heart. As a farmer, I have butchered sheep, pigs, and chickens and ended the life of damaged and dying creatures. And as a sometime hunter, I have pulled the trigger. But never as a grown man, after kneeling on the ground with a yearling lamb cradled in my left hand and slicing the jugular with the knife in my right, have I jumped to my feet and offered a victorious high-five.
When I was a child, the excitement of a good hunt or fishing trip always engendered good-natured bragging and boasting. But never once did my father or anyone else in the party point at a dead deer and say, “Who’s laughing now, suckah?” To me, such over-the-top gloating is unseemly, unmanly. Yet it’s a behavior that seems all too prevalent on today’s social media, where a hunting victory results in a jokey post on Facebook before the blood has cooled on the autumn leaves.
Such gratuitous exulting seems an outgrowth of our urbanized world, a place peopled by inhabitants increasingly removed from the costs of their existence. A place where finding the respect and compassion seem to have gone wanting, where too many have wandered too far from the honorable path.
Finding the appropriate note in discussing death, particularly as it relates to farm animals, is difficult. Guests to the farm tend either to focus on the pastoral elements, divorced from the end results, or, like the women pounding the table for a good head-cleaving, engage in coarse talk that cheapens the lives we care for daily (“Ooh, look, bacon!”).
Both responses fit nicely into our world of industrialization. A world of factory farms and factory-like educational systems, work, and purchases; a world in which life is lived on an assembly line of experiences that flicker past for our amusement, detached from the blood and sinew of our animal selves.
Farming has always been an intimate exercise in finding and maintaining a path to where we own the acts that sustain our lives — a path where killing (rather than thrilling) humbles and strengthens a respect for the fragility and value of life.
Reading this weekend: The Shepherd’s Life: modern dispatches from an ancient landscape.