Speaking of Death Speaks of Us

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.

Our companions in this landscape

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.

15 thoughts on “Speaking of Death Speaks of Us

  1. Particularly beautiful, on a difficult topic. This is one I hope Resilience picks up. And I also read “The Shepherd’s Life” recently, its one of the best ever.

    • Thanks for the kind comments, Sally. I am enjoying “The Shepherd’s Life”. It reminds me, a bit, of the new book “A Hillbilly Elegy”. Are you familiar with it? Different, yet similar themes of being left behind.

  2. Ironically, your weekend read exemplifies the very dilemma people find themselves in: the author finding that he can only be a real shepherd if he’s also maintaining a career as a conservation suit, part of the pastoral-industrial complex you mention.

    We should perhaps exercise leniency.
    People have been removed from the countryside in our parts of the world, and that shifting baseline of regarding an urban setting as ‘life itself’ has had more than a generation to develop.
    They literally have no idea how to react, and so they go for what they’ve learned: reality TV that’s like the reality TV on TV.

  3. I fear that this detachment from the value of life extends beyond the farm and into our own neighborhoods where the lives of people viewed as “other” have little value or regard.

  4. I’ve struggled to know how to process this post. Anger, disgust, revulsion, resignation, etc. all mixed together but directed at the subjects of your post, not you. Though your anecdote is only one of many possible spotlights on our mounting loss of empathy, I can’t help but to believe that it’s a potent harbinger of the truly awful nastiness to which Americans will inevitably sink as the economy tanks, further supports are withdrawn, and class warfare deepens. A more telling microcosm of our inhumanity is hard to imagine. Or is it a reminder of our true natures resurfacing, something we managed to suppress during times of peace and plenty?

    I’ve often thought that if I had to butcher my own meat, I probably go hungry. The mechanics are learnable, no doubt, like quartering a whole chicken or carving a Thanksgiving turkey, but the emotional detachment needed to dismember a fresh kill is (for now at least) beyond me. To cheer and celebrate the gore, however, leaves me simply aghast.

  5. Good comments, Brutus. I might add that we don’t need to be “emotionally detached” from the act of dispatching or butchering. But it might be a good practice for anyone, either as a hunter or small farmer, to intentionally reflect on the emotions they do feel. Why do the words, “finding the right balance”, seem to apply to so much these days?

Any thoughts or questions?