When Turkey Day is For Real: Stepping Up to Slaughter

My vegetarian friends: you may not care to read this on principle, but if you do, don’t worry–this post contains no gore. I decided to document my son’s participation in his first turkey slaughter (I refuse to call it a “harvest”), but found myself avoiding certain photos for my own sake as much as anyone else’s.

Back story: Wing Son Two has been working on this farm, owned by cousins of The Mate, since July. The Mate & I & Wing Son One–who is very close to his brother–came out here to spend Thanksgiving together, and to see how our son’s faring as a farmer.

Quite well, it seems. He and the cousins made their time together seem like major highjinks: “Look at that paddock! We built that!” “Tractor got stuck there…” “This field takes forEVER to mow…” But on Turkey Day, which fell three days before what most of us know as Turkey Day, the mood was so serious as to be almost somber.

There were seven victims turkeys, which Son Two & cousins had raised from chicks.

I missed photographing their capture and loading...turkey wrestling!

I missed photographing their capture and loading…turkey wrestling!

After stuffing one bird at a time upside-down into a cone (designed for chickens, so they barely fit) Cousin Jesse had the unenviable task of cutting the throat.

...and of course, someone has to hold the feet. I imagine both men said a little prayer as they were doing this. I think I was.

…and of course, someone has to hold the feet. I imagine both men said a little prayer as they were doing this. I think I was.

Next, Son Two dipped each bled-out bird into the scalder–where, again, they just barely fit. (The largest bird was 16.5 pounds after all the butchering.)

Still a bird at this point, albeit a dead one

Still a bird at this point, albeit a dead one

The most fascinating part of the process, to me, was the plucker, which looked a bit like a washing machine with rubber nubbies, and functioned in much the same way.

Becoming less of a bird by the second...

Becoming less of a bird by the second…

...almost...there...

…almost…there…

Finally, Sons One and Two, along with Two’s best friend who’s been working on the farm with him, cut off the heads and feet, cut a small hole in the back end, and delicately pulled out all the organs in a surprisingly neat little pile. (Two & friend had had experience doing this twice before with chickens, and The Mate and I delighted in hearing them share their expertise so seriously.)

No longer a bird. Meat.

No longer a bird. Meat.

Suddenly,without heads or feet or feathers, these were no longer birds. They were meat. And we were all oddly the better for having participated in, or even watched, the process.

I am–obviously–not a vegetarian. I try to avoid what I call “concentration camp meat”–anything raised in a crowded feedlot or cramped pen. I’m glad these turkeys had happy, relatively free-ranging lives. I did not like to see them die, and I’m glad I didn’t have to do it myself. But I do feel, as a meat-eater, that I bear some responsibility to the animals I have killed to bear some witness to the process, to acknowledge it, to feel its reality.

As Barbara Kingsolver wrote in Animal, Vegetable, Miracle:A Year of Food Life, “You can’t¬†run away on harvest day.” Nor, I think, should you.

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This Vermont farm is a calendar pictures come alive–especially in the snow. We had the most picture-perfect White Thanksgiving together. But along with the joy of being with family, I gave thanks to the birds whose lives we had taken, and felt strangely connected to them, even before they became part of me.

Anyone else had experience with raising his/her own meat? Deciding not to? Please share.

Why Barbara Kingsolver’s Flight Behavior Makes Me Wish I Were Back in the Classroom

First, a bit of irony: after dutifully writing and scheduling five posts so I could go away to Greece for two weeks without my blog curling up and dying, I come back home only to fall off my own schedule.

Turns out, jet lag + travel germs + 3 days in a row of staying up late to rehearse or perform music while having to get up next morning at 4 to bake = sore throat-drippy-nose-splitting-headache bad idea. If I had blogged in the past couple of days, it would have sounded like this: WHIIIIIIIIINE.

But I’m back! and excited to talk about a book I just finished, one that makes me wish wish wish I could have my old job back, teaching high school English.

First of all, it’s Barbara Kingsolver–one of my top ten current (as in, still writing) novelists. I taught The Bean Trees for years–practically memorized it–and used to love pointing interested students toward its sequel, Pigs in Heaven. (Couldn’t get that one past our school board; tad too much sex involved.) And I don’t know anyone who read The Poisonwood Bible who wasn’t blown away. (That one would have eaten up a whole semester.)

(Courtesy faber.co.uk)

(Courtesy faber.co.uk)

Without giving anything away, here are five reasons why you should go read Flight Behavior:

1. Through her characters, Kingsolver addresses the polarity of our country–essentially, the red/blue split, with emphasis on the income gap, religion, science, and community rootedness. But she does this so intimately, it is only after reading that one feels elucidated. “Oh, THAT’s why those people feel that way!”

In one hilarious-but-poignant scene, the protagonist, Dellarobia Turnbow, is confronted by a self-righteous outsider who wants her to sign a pledge to reduce her carbon footprint. As he reads aloud the steps she could take to be a better global citizen, both characters are struck by the pamphlet’s assumptions about opportunity.

“Okay,” he said…”Skipping ¬†ahead to Everyday Necessities. Try your best to buy reused. Use Craigslist.”

“What is that?” she asked, though she had a pretty good idea.

“Craigslist,” he said. “On the Internet.”

“I don’t have a computer.”

Mr. Akins moved quickly to cover his bases. “Or find your local reuse stores.”

Find them,” she said.

Since Dellarobia can afford to shop nowhere else for her family…well, you get the idea. Kingsolver keeps her touch subtle.

2. Kingsolver also plays delicately with the reader’s expectations. Here we have a heroine who is beautiful, impulsive, feeling trapped in her marriage, and, in the very opening paragraph, “[knows] her own recklessness and marvell[s]…at how one hard little flint of thrill could outweigh the pillowy, suffocating aftermath of a long disgrace.” When a tall, dark, handsome stranger appears…what else can happen? Ah, what, indeed?

3. The prose is gorgeous. Just re-read #2, above.

4. If you like writers like Virginia Woolf or Ian McEwan who can NAIL never-spoken aspects of the human psyche in single, crushingly simple sentences…parts of this book will make you gasp in appreciation.

5. Finally–not really, I could go on, but 5 seems like a good place to stop–Flight Behavior functions as a call to action. Without pointing fingers, the novel reminds us that, just because we choose not to think about it, our responsibility towards our planet does not dissipate. As the visiting scientist, Ovid Byron, rants to a hapless TV reporter:

“What scientists disagree on now, Tina, is how to express our shock.The glaciers that keep Asia’s waterways in business are going right away. Maybe one of your interns could Google that for you. The Arctic is genuinely collapsing. Scientists used to call these things the canary in the mine. What they say now is, The canary is dead.”

If I had this book and thirty kids in a classroom, here’s what I’d ask them to do:

1. Find a scene in this book which you think perfectly illustrates the way prejudices form. Explain why. Then, explain how the scene relates to your own prejudices about people. Whom are you most sympathetic to in this scene, and why?

2. Some of the characters–evil mother-in-law, charismatic Southern preacher, out-of-touch scientist, slutty best friend–could easily be stereotypes. Choose two or three of these characters from the book and explain how the author keeps them from being cliches.

3. One of Kingsolver’s most powerful techniques is the long paragraph ended with a very short, simple sentence. Find one of these and explain how that technique increases the reader’s emotional reaction.

4. Think of a person you wish you could force to read this book, someone who might not want to. (It could be someone known to you personally, or not.) Why do you think this book might make them uncomfortable? Given what this book shows about the uselessness of being judgmental, how would you go about trying to interest that person in this book?

Again–I could go on. But I’m no longer drawing a paycheck for this sort of thing…sigh. And besides, it’s time for my next dose of decongestant.

(Courtesy David Govoni, Flikr Creative Commons)

(Courtesy David Govoni, Flikr Creative Commons)

But I have an idea. YOU go read the book and then check back in with me, OK? And if you already have, PLEASE weigh in. What was your own reaction? What discussion questions would you ask?