Sunday, September 21, 2008

What I Learned (butchering, part IV)

The farm’s dirt driveway cut through green fields, and a few yards down from the road a sign read “Welcome CIA Students and Brook Farm Friends.” For most of the ride, the four of us in the car had talked food, Thomas Keller (the Muslims may have 99 names for God, but around the CIA there’s just one: Keller) and the cult of celebrity, run down other students we didn’t care for, and generally avoided the topic of killing. With the farmhouse in sight the conversation swerved down a darker bend; we made jokes that weren’t all that funny and laughed too hard at them. We parked the car, gathered the knives, and, speaking for myself, took heavy steps to the back yard.

The yard would have been big and open, normally, but this afternoon was crowded with vehicles and equipment. As we walked towards a set of tables to put our things down, we passed a mobile chicken coop, presumably filled with the work at hand. A dozen or so feet beyond that was a 55-gallon drum full of bubbling water on top of a propane burner, and next to it a cylindrical tube with finger-sized rubber pieces extruding off the interior sides and on the bottom. There were a few tubs filled with water nearby. And throwing their shadows onto the tables were six traffic cones upended and nailed to a cross beam. Beneath the cones, someone had dug a trench about six inches deep. On this assembly line, no one part of the process was more than a few feet from another.

The farm was run by a husband and wife team. They were a good looking couple, at the upper end of their 50s, or early into their 60s. A lot of years of hard work had helped sculpt their faces. They looked a bit young to have been on the countercultural vanguard, but seemed more a product of the early 70s; they’d probably done a post-Altamont retreat back to the land; if they hadn’t spent time on a commune, I would have been surprised. If you’ve ever seen Robert Kramer’s genius film, Milestones, this was a pair from the cast three decades on. They radiated warmth.

Both of them shook our hands and thanked us in advance for our help. On one of the tables was bread and butter; suddenly buckets of freshly picked corn appeared. The wife and the husband dumped the corn in the bubbling water. Given what was set to happen, the idea of food and eating seemed lunatic. But no one else appeared to hold that point of view; the bread disappeared. People took corn as fast as they could. The wife was suddenly in front of me holding out a pile of it. “Go ahead,” she said. “It was picked and shucked just a few minutes ago.” What do you say in the face of this kind of hospitality? You don’t say no, and I didn’t. And the corn was something to exult over—someday I hope I’ll have some that good again.

Here were all these people gathered together, eating, but there was nothing celebratory to the moment. The ambience was muted, stilled, with the tenor of a commemoration. A stereo in my head grabbed onto the line from Bukka White’s antique blues song, Fixin’ to Die: “Just as sure as we live, sure we’re born to die.” Over and over in my skull, as I tried to suck stuck corn from between two teeth. The wife said a few words about how the chickens had lived well, been treated well, and she read a poem she’d written from the bird’s point of view, absolving the killing because it was natural to die, and the chickens’ short life had been a good one.

And then it was four in the afternoon, and the light was thick. Things began dying. By the coop there were two wooden cages. The husband brought a few of us to the coop, crawled inside, and handed out chickens two at a time. Six chickens were put into each cage. The cages were carried back to the cross beams; we reached in and picked up a chicken by its feet and held them upside down—if they’re held that way long enough, they go into a trance; they’ll fight you, though, when you first try to turn them feet-up. Once they were sedate, we drew them head-first through one of the cones. Our meat instructor spoke his softly-accented instructions: hold the head with your thumb under the chicken’s beak. Put the bolster-end of the knife blade against the bird’s throat. Draw the blade across, applying firm, even pressure. The head should pop right off. All of us stood thronged together, knives in hand, waiting. The first bird went into the cone.

It was coming onto fall. I’d noticed a few of the leaves beginning to tint with color. My parents were getting a little bit older. We’d all see another winter, but only so many. We have only a finite number of times to watch a full moon wax, to see it turn the topography around you a dusky silver.

The chickens had been brought to the farm as newly hatched spheres of down, and had grown ineluctably towards this point in time. The farmers’ daughter, a girl of maybe 14 or 15, had appeared. She wore ratty jeans and a green t-shirt. She still had her adolescence all over her; someday, when that awkwardness dropped away, she’d be very beautiful. She was keeping to herself, sitting off at a distance. The first chicken went into the cone. The daughter just broke. She streamed tears and she wouldn’t look away. She sat with her arms crossed, weeping with more intensity. She’d helped raise them. She’d witness the entirety of their transition. Watching her, my eyes welled up, too.

That first bird: a young woman from school was the first to kill, and it didn’t go as well as it could have. The knife seemed to stick; the bird freaked out; she responded in kind but got the knife through the neck. She had blood running down her cheeks and held the head in her hand. She was blameless; it’s hard for your hands to know what to do. In the cluster of students around her, I saw one of the teaching assistants from school, her eyes also shining with tears.

Most of us were shifting uncomfortably from foot to foot. I held my knife with a tight grip. Other students were reaching into the cages and pulling out the chickens. I watched people lifting the birds up, watched their wings flap frantically, heard them squawking, saw them being killed.

I love my parents and I want to live forever. I love my girlfriend. And I felt a wild surge of resentment move like electricity through me, angry that everything has to end. People I’d known or admired or were influenced by, pets I’d kept, family I’d loved had ended. Jerry Garcia was dead. William Burroughs was dead. My dogs, Nigel and Cedric, were both dead. My grandmother, gone 22 years and still walking into my dreams, was dead. My uncle, too. These last, I truly miss.

It came to be my turn. I could feel the bird’s pulse under my thumb. I positioned the knife as instructed, and drew it hard across the chicken’s throat. And then I was holding its head in my hand, blood on my arms and shirt, watching the body convulse. My foot slipped and slid into the trench. My work boot was glistening with blood.

The body was dunked into the same water that had cooked the corn. When the feathers began pulling away, it was removed from the water out and put into the cylinder. The cylinder whipped the bird around and the rubber extrusions pulled away the feathers. Any feathers left were plucked by hand at a nearby table. Then we gutted the chickens, the viscera still hot. The carcass was then washed and put into a tub. We went through this for hours, until past dusk, stopping when the 100th chicken was finished. About 2 hours before the end, I got stung on my neck by a bee. Our instructor made me stop, put ice on it and sit for a few minutes. “Karma, huh?” he’d said.

In the early evening, I’d watched three other students playing around. In front of the daughter, who sat without saying anything to anyone, eyes red and wet, these three made bloody handprints on each other’s shirts and took pictures. They held up a living chicken with one hand, knife in the other, with a stupid rictus of a smile splitting their face, and they took pictures of that, too. I noticed my friends and some others staring at them in disbelief and contempt. I’m hoping there’s a special compound in hell for people like this.

At the end of the night, the husband and wife asked us to gather in a circle and tell them what we’d learned. One by one, we each mouthed the same platitudes about respect for food, being closer to the food source, and like that. But what I actually learned I still only feel.

For the first few minutes, the car ride back was hushed. But then we started talking about food, the cult of celebrity, running down other students we didn’t care for.

The next night, Nelly and I roasted a chicken. When I carved it, I got every scrap off of the bones. Every piece of that bird was priceless.

And the day after, Nelly and I went to the home of our new friends, Thisbe Nissen and Jay Nicorvo. Like us, they’re recent immigrants to Saugerties. They were showing us around their house, and stopped by the chicken coop, filled with a small flock of two-month old chickens. The chickens were beautiful—some of them were real show birds, their feathers wildly colored and tufted. They treated these chickens almost like pets. One of them was eating out Nelly’s hand. They’d given them names—one was named Monsanto—and were counting the days until they began laying eggs. I stooped to stroke a chicken. At one point, Jay and Thisbe asked what I’d been up to that weekend. I didn’t tell them.

Next: My Peers: A Consideration.


jane said...

this nearly made me cry. i think the only reason i kept it together is because i'm at work.

Anonymous said...

Thank you for this. It was beautifully written and definitely worth reading. I assume you've read Omnivore's Dilemma... I had the same feeling reading your prose as I did reading Michael Pollan's covering this very same subject.

BeeDancer said...

oh come on now...the first 3 installments were good, but this one is just a pity party...growing up on a chicken farm there was never a question of what those birds were for...they were our living and without them our house would be cold, our gas tanks empty & our own dinner table bare...even the 2 or 4 ducks that my grandmother raised each year & that I considered "pets" were always destined for the dinner table, a fact that was always made clear to me

Can't say that I'm sorry that we're higher up the food chain than chickens...Nature knows best...

Scott Wallis said...

I'm going to try a lot harder not to waste food. Yikes.

Anonymous said...

I'm with BeeDancer. This post would be much stronger without the moralizing, the thinking about the parents, and the wishing people to hell. The facts do enough on their own to make the point.

But yeah, earlier installments were good.