Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Irrational Love?

This afternoon we brought the cows in for the winter. The day was perfect: cold and windy, clouds shifting across a grey-blue November sky, the light hard and golden on the pastures. We'd been inside all morning, and it felt great to get out into the brisk today and use our muscles. To bring the cows back, we had to run them from the pasture they were just on, about a mile up the road, across five pastures and two roads. This involved a rather intricate fencing design, involving lanes for them to follow through some pastures, two holding pens where we could regroup them before road crossings, and a total of 11 people, herding, luring, road-blocking, and gate-opening.

After an hour and a half putting up fencing, we gathered at the farm to make a plan, split up, and took our positions. The move was easy. It was a gorgeous day to be running behind a herd of 12 cows, across a swath of fields that I have come to know well over the course of a month. The only escapee was one of the frisky calves, at a tricky corner, but we calmly herded her back into the lane and into the cows' permanent winter residence. They'll be living in a paddock adjacent to the barn, with plenty of good hay and shelter if they want it, until the beginning of May.

The afternoon ended on a more solemn note, when the trailer arrived to take the bull back. We rented a bull to breed our cows for 45 days, and his stay with the herd is over. The man in charge of the trailer was harsh and rough, hitting the cows and the bull with fiberglass fenceposts and yelling at them sternly. I don't know if this is common practice, but it didn't sit well with me. At one point, Pride, our sweet dairy cow, was right in the middle of the action, walking calmly into the trailer where we were trying to get the bull. She is used to being handled, and, to my knowledge, not used to harsh treatment.

All of my own dealings with the animals since I've been at Maggie's have been calm, quiet, and gentle. I've watched the farmers here herd cows, catch sheep, and work horses, always with respect, always kindly, and always with dominance and strength. I am no expert on animal handling, and getting a 1200-pound bull into a trailer is not an easy task. But it was hard to watch such gentle, sturdy creatures being treated in a way that, to me, seemed disrespectful.

After the bull was gone and the herd calmed down a bit, my first reaction was to go to Pride and comfort her. Who knows if she was scared or traumatized. She hasn't spent any time with the herd, so for her, it was all new. I didn't realize until today how much I've come to love her. She is sweet and patient, sometimes feisty. She has her own personality. She never stands still when you're milking her. She gets lonely. And sometimes she nuzzles me with her long face and big brown eyes. These are all things I love about her.

A month and a half ago, I didn't know these cows. Now I feel protective of them, especially Pride, who, this week, I am milking every day. I love hanging out with the herd, listening to them eat, getting to know each one with their distinctive quirks. I didn't realize how much I would come to love these animals and appreciate time spent with them.

Is it irrational to love a sweet, 4-year old Jersey dairy cow? Or an orange cat who lets me pick him up and purrs in my arms at least five times a day? Is it irrational to love a ram lamb named Lincoln with the softest fleece on the sides of his ears, who nibbles my sleeves when I go out to say hello to him in the pasture? I don't know. I don't think so. What I do now is that our relationships with domestic animals are not as simple as I once thought. Every day I learn something new about an animal. Every day I have a moment, walking Ruby Star out to pasture, or leaning against Pride's warm side as I milk her, when I know that this daily contact with non-human creatures is changing the way I see the world. I think it's a change worth paying attention to.

The Slaughterhouse

Yesterday we drove three hours north to Fair Haven, Vermont to visit Over the Hill Slaughterhouse, where we take most of our animals to get killed and butchered.

The actual experience was less horrible than I thought it would be. I was prepared to be so revolted by it that I would have to reconsider raising animals for meat. And while it was somewhat disturbing, and definatley hard to watch an animal be killed, I was surprised at how...okay...I was with much of the process. It raised a lot of questions about the act of killing, and what it means to raise animals for that specific purpose.

Visiting the slaughterhouse was the first thing in a while that has made me rethink my basic philosophy about eating meat: if I know the farmer, and approve of her methods, I'm happy to eat meat now and then. I enjoy it. Yesterday brought into clear relief the fact that the life of the animal isn't the only thing I have to consider - the way in which it is killed is just as important.

Over The Hill is a small slaughterhouse. They kill and process 15-20 cows per day at most. We saw the kill floor, the two cooling rooms (one where the animal hangs directly after slaughter and one larger and warmer room where the carcasses hang for 7-14 days.), and the butcher room where a team of about 5 actually cut up the meat.

We saw two pigs killed while we were there. Over the Hill, which is certified by the USDA and the Humane Slaughter Act, uses the captive bolt method to stun the animals and render them unconscious. The air-compression gun is fired once somewhere on the animal's head, which renders them unconscious to pain. They are then cut, bled, and hung. It was incredibly disturbing to watch this process, especially since pigs' nervous system convulse and spasm after they are dead.

By any standards, Over the Hill is a clean, humane slaughterhouse. The workers were good with the animals - not rough, but not reverent, either. The animals come in one at a time to be shot. However, I couldn't help thinking how much worse it would have been if I had been watching a cow or lamb I knew and raised to shot and cut so quickly. What disturbed me the most was the mechanization of it, and the lack of reverence and respect.

Overall, the trip raised more questions than it answered.

Can I eat something that isn't beautiful? This struck me the minute I went into the butchering room. I see the beauty in a basket of tomatoes and peppers. But the carcasses hanging in that room did not strike me as beautiful.

When did the tradition of ritual killing become grotesque (or has it always been)? The killing of animals is deeply rooted in our history. In my heart, I believe at one time it was less brutal and more reverent. How can we bring that mindset back into our culture?

What struck me the most was this feeling that death should be a ceremony. I do not believe that the purposeful killing of animals should be mechanized, industrial, or common. It should be done with humility, reverence, and ritual. I was surprised that this was what bothered me most about watching the a pig killed. Not entirely the death itself, but the routine of it, the quick transition from the act of death to the next bit of work. It is not a judgment on the slaughterhouse or the folks who work there, but on the ways in which killing seems acceptable to us. It is no small thing to take away a life. If I ever raise animals for meat, I want that knowledge to permeate the entire process.

I do think that animals raised for meat have a place in whole, healthy agricultural systems. But the killing of those animals is more complex than I ever realized before. Good systems are genearly fundamentally quiet, unobtrusive, and beautiful. As I think about what kind of future I want to make for myself in this world, I am gaging everything I do by those standards. Even if I raise sheep and cows on good grass, use their manure to nurture my crops, and let them live out their lives in the clean sunshine as they were intended to, it is for nothing if their deaths are not quiet, respectful, and purported with reverence.

Sunday, November 16, 2008

One-Straw Wisdom

"An object seen in isolation from the whole is not the real thing." -Masanobu Fukuoka

Savory Vegetable Pie for Cold November Nights

The soul of fall in flaky crust.

For the crust:
1 cup butter
2 cups wheat flour
cold water

In a large mixing bowl, cut the chilled butter into the flour. Being sure never to let your palms touch the butter, gently mix with your fingertips until the mixture resembles coarse
grain. (If the butter gets too warm, it will melt before the fat globules properly bind to the flour, resulting in a flat crust.) Periodically dip your fingers in the ice water to keep them cool. Once the butter is well-mixed, pour in the cold water, a little bit at a time, until the dough holds together. Knead into a ball and let rest in the refrigerator.

For the pie:
1 medium winter squash (I used butternut)
1-2 heads garlic, separated into cloves
olive oil
salt and pepper
4 medium leeks
2 shallots
a splash of red wine
½ cup pine nuts, toasted
1 ½ cups cheddar cheese, grated

Cut the squash into small chunks, and throw it in a baking dish with the whole garlic, olive oil and salt and pepper. Roast at 450 for 30-40 minutes, until soft.

Slice the leeks thinly. Mince the shallots. Sauté in a little butter until the leeks are translucent and just starting to brown. Add the wine and cook until the pan is dry.

Toss the leeks with the squash and pine nuts. Mix well. Roll out the crust and pour in the vegetable mixture. Top with a thick layer of cheddar cheese. Bake at 400 for 30-35 minutes, until the crust is brown and the cheese is bubbling.

Eat warm, with sautéed kale and, if you are inclined, a good brown ale.

This recipes makes two pies. Trust me, you’ll want one the next day.

A Foodist's Credo

(A partial list brainstormed on a cold, grey morning in the middle of November.)

Food is whole and simple and accessible.

Pleasure and nutrition cannot be viewed separately. (Fukuoka)

Food is an embodiment of place. We, as people, are an embodiment of the places we inhabit. Our food, and the way we grow it and eat it, is an embodiment of the health of the place.

Eating is community-centered. Food is shared. Food is always a celebration.

Food has story.

Children know how to harvest carrots and potatoes. They know that beets and peas and beans and wheat come from the earth.

Food is always a celebration, always shared. There is enough. Not too much, but enough. Enough is a family around a wooden table, a bowl of greens, a loaf of bread, fresh milk. Enough is knowing that the food we are eating is nourishing our muscles and our spirits, the soil and the air and water of our homes. Enough is not a lot. It is a little security, and some good, hard work. Enough is the daily harvest of squash and basil.

We have enough time to eat. We have enough time to cook. We have enough time to kneel down outside in the fields.

We grow food in a way that enriches the earth. We raise animals in a way that enriches their lives. We forage, hunt, and fish in a way that enriches the wilderness. Growing food is one of the ways we take care of the earth.

Communities are structured in a way that enables the communal sharing of eating and cooking, and the work that goes into it. People come together to eat.

We bless our food.

Not everyone is a farmer, but everyone knows a farmer.

Public education includes the teaching of the following skills: basic gardening, baking bread, composting, cooking vegetables and grains, taking care of domestic animals.

Good food is affordable.

Farmers can afford to give away food. Baskets of onions and garlic, crates of winter squash, bins of lettuce.

Eating is not intellectual. We don’t have to analyze our food. Instead, we take pride in knowing where it comes from, how it got there, and why we put it there or found it there. Food is not complicated. It is not pumped full of chemicals and synthetics. It comes from the dirt. We eat what feels good, what tastes good, what keeps us healthy.

We eat with the seasons. Our food ties us to the land we call home. By eating, we do not cut ourselves off from the natural cycles of the earth, but rather, see ourselves as a vital part of those cycles.

Food is regional and specific. We know who we are, who our people are, where we come from, because of our food. Food is part of our story. It is at the center of our story.

We welcome everyone to the table.

We take joy in the work of growing food, the preparation of food, and the celebration of eating food. Eating is not a burden.

We eat with gratitude and wonder.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008


I love the bare trees and the wind that blows through my skin, wind that blows right into my heart. I love waking up to the hardest gold streaked across the sky and the pink that lingers in the folds of cloud till mid-morning. I love the hundred shades of grey in every day. I love walking through November fields, oats and peas just starting to brown, withered grasses, bare soil the deepest earthen black. I love the way the sky deepens and hardens and the way grey penetrates everything: the house, your boots, the trunks of trees, the edges of pastures, stone walls, hands.

I love the early dark. I love the white moon that rises early and sets late. I love the hardy rows of kale and collards, frosty but strong, parades of dull grey in bright relief against the bleak shades of November. I love the bleak shades of November and the landscape they reveal. I love the way it feels walking through woods bare of leaves, the forest empty and still, the curves and turns of the land finally visible. I love being able to look through slim trunks to distant mountains. I love the shapes of ash and maple and birch.

I love the work of November. Turning beds, spreading compost, mulching. Taking stock, putting away, tucking in. I love harvesting for winter storage: parsnips, carrots, beets, rutabegas. I love how a farm slows down and softens in November. How the land stills, naturally preparing itself for sleep.

I love the starkness of the time between the golden leaves of October and the long snow of December. The bittersweet and pine, the brown roads, the pale white skies, the blazing golden sunsets. The stars brighten in November. The earth fades into deeper shades of itself. My heart slows, and strengthens, and opens to meet the endless space of the naked woods.