It occurred to me one day, as I grabbed a package of chicken from a freezer bin, at a Key Foods supermarket in New York City, that this headless mass of flesh was kind of a lie. What had once been, like myself, a living breathing creature, capable of feeling pleasure and pain, was now a slickly packaged and labeled product—so remote that I could avoid any pangs of guilt about eating it. That was a relief. On the other hand, I suspected that there was a dark underbelly to the ease out of which that relief sprang. I felt that this reliance on convenience, provided by the corporate machine, must contribute to my larger sense of ill-ease—to a detachment from my own humanity. And so, at that moment, somewhere in the depths of my being I made a commitment to finding out what it felt to like take responsibility for the killing, with my own hands, the creature that was to be my food. This commitment was not formulated as a thought, but as an urge, linked to a subterranean chain of moments, propelling me into my future.
Shortly afterwards I met a musician from Mississippi. A year later I followed him to his home state, bought 213 acres, and he helped me set up a ranch. I had a dream to set up an arts and music retreat on a sustainably run ranch, and he was interested in collaborating with me. But the NYC/ Mississippi relationship was fraught from the get-go. We split up after a year and I struck out on my own.
Nine years later
I raced the truck along a winding two-lane road. Purple dark clouds clung to the horizon, and the road lay in front of us, in the dull morning light, like a long, twisted, taffy pull. Madi, my current ranch assistant, sat in the passenger seat. She gazed out of the window as barren fields, dark forests, trashed-out modular homes and obsessively manicured bland brick ranch houses passed by in a blur.
We were on our way to the First Monday Flea Market to buy chickens. It was a 50-minute drive from my ranch in the piney hills of North Mississippi, but I’d been unable to find chickens for sale locally. Apparently, the art of raising chickens in my county had, for the most part, given way to government assistance, hours spent in front of television, cheap industrial Walmart eggs and pharmaceutical induced inertia.
I was not sure if I would find a chicken vendor at First Monday in early February. I’d bought my layer flock last spring, but the chickens I was buying this time were to be slaughtered for food, and the time was now. I had found a capable partner in the crime- Madi. She was in training to be a surgeon. It had been nine years since my supermarket epiphany. I was ready, with Madi, to step up to the plate.
The winding road ended at a T. I made a left into the farming and used-car-lot hamlet of Ripley—home to the First Monday Flea Market.
First Monday thrived in the spring, summer and fall months. There you could find antiques, farm equipment, tee-shirts, socks, semi-automatics, and everything in between. You could also find hundreds of birds and small domestic animals: chickens, guineas, turkeys, doves, rabbits, ducks, piglets, dogs, sometimes ponies or an occasional llama, were set out in stacked cages or small pens.
On this cold, damp, February morning, however, only a scatter of die-hard venders manned their stations. Most of the flea market was abandoned. The tents were down leaving the metal underpinnings exposed like ram-shackled bones. The faded wooden kiosks, boiled-peanut and ice cream trucks and the cotton candy wagon were boarded-up and locked, the pews and altar of the open-air Pentecostal church were empty, and the wind blew through it all with a shudder and a whistle.
We wandered a while through the muddy, chattering isles before we came around a bend and chanced upon the man I’d formerly bought my layers from. Fortunately, he retained a year-round presence, holding out with his stacked cages, housing a wide variety of livestock fowl.
The vendor pointed to some white hens with very plump breasts and bulky yellow legs. “Good eatin,” he said. I picked out three white chickens as well as a black and white speckled hen and an angry looking black, hawk-faced bird (to satisfy my fondness for the underdog) to add to my layer flock. He stuffed the chickens into burlap sacks – two to a bag. Madi and I carried them to the truck. We put them in a cage I’d placed in the bed of the truck, cooed to comfort them, pinned a tarp over the cage and returned to the ranch, navigating the ribbon-road home. The white chickens were to have a sweet, but short, free-range life.
When we returned from First Monday with the chickens, the two other ranch interns ran out to help transfer them to the pen. Chaos ensued, and one of the white chickens escaped into the woods. I have no idea how it happened as, I was soon to discover, the white chickens could barely walk. Having been cooped up in small cages all their lives, their legs were too weak. In addition, their breasts were so plump they seemed to create an imbalance. Apparently, they’d been genetically engineered. But this one must have been motivated by such a rush of adrenaline-fueled fear that she overcame all that. She made her way into the bush and was never seen again. I put the remaining two chickens in the coop.
The speckled and hawk-faced chickens found their place in the flock. The two remaining white hens were immediately relegated to the bottom of the pecking order; the rest of the birds wanted nothing to do with them. They pecked at them and chased them away from the food. After all, they were not real chickens; they were genetically engineered creatures—little Frankensteins. Unable to climb the ramp to roost, they found a corner on the ground for resting in the evenings. I laid some straw down for them so they could be comfortable.
A year ago I had given up my Brooklyn apartment to to live full time on my ranch. Through-out my years of living in Mississippi, part time, I’d been able to keep, under the supervision of a caretaker, horses, cattle, cats and dogs. Yet, I had not kept chickens, for these vulnerable creatures demand a full-time presence to protect them from predators. On January 5, 2010, I set my suitcases down in the loft over my barn I had built in 2001. This was to be my home. My ranch hand, Gene, was building me a chicken coup as I unpacked. He hammered together 3 plywood walls, put up a slant roof, installed nesting boxes, perches, a ramp, curtained the entrance with a black plastic tarp, and penned the whole thing in with chicken wire. In March I went to First Monday and bought my first flock.
Now full time, I also joined WWOOF i.e., the Worldwide Organization of Organic Farmers. My host site introduction said, “Former New Yorker and artist seeking assistance on a sustainable cattle ranch and retreat. If you want to see the real backwoods of Mississippi, this is it. Creative types encouraged.” As a result, Woofers were contacting me from all over the world, requesting work for room and board. Madi was one of three Woofers staying at my ranch this February.
My ranch was located smack in the Bible Belt—at the wooded intersection of Bethlehem and Lebanon roads, eight miles outside a town with a population of 480. It bordered the Holly Springs National Forest and was halfway into the wooded stretch between Memphis and Tupelo.
According to Mississippi records, in 2000, Marshall County ranked as having one of the most undereducated populations in the state. Because I had no children to put through school, and because the University of Mississippi, in Oxford, was only 20 minutes away, I didn’t think this was going to impact me. But I soon learned otherwise. The labor force was frequently of poor quality and untrustworthy. Outsiders, even if just from another county, were often eyed with suspicion. Many people I met had never flown on an airplane, and rarely ventured far from home. There were no movie theaters in the county, and attempts I made to organize events at my ranch—like art classes and camps—were frequently met with disinterest or incomprehension.
However, I found many of the local people to be incredibly hardworking, genuine to a fault and, trustworthy or not, they all had a gift of gab akin to poetry. But now, living full time in Mississippi, cut off from my familiar New York City, I began to feel acutely alienated.
Hosting the WOOF program helped relieve my sense of estrangement. The Woofers were, for the most part, like me, educated and concerned about the environment. But they came and went, and I found myself largely in solitude, deep in the woods, confronting a loneliness that I didn’t understand and, with few avenues of escape felt, at times, almost unbearable.
Gene had built the chicken coop close enough to the barn to keep for me to keep an eye on. In the mornings, when I went into my bathroom, which had a small window looking out to the front, I could see the chickens lined up at the gate, waiting to be let out to free-range. I became aware that, even at this distance, the chickens were also keeping an eye on me. They’d be staring at me through the small second-story window, capturing me in their quick, sharp eyes, as if attempting to hypnotize me with impatient, chicken voodoo. At their command, I would throw on my clothes, set out to feed them and let them out to free-range.
I soon discovered how entertaining chickens were, with their funny walks, fluffy butts, constant foraging and incessantly squabbling—and so felt compelled to visit them, frequently, throughout the day. It was a relief from my afternoon chores of phone calls, bills and research. When they saw me, they’d run to meet me with their humorous, two-legged jaunt, their thick, reptilian legs and splayed claws absorbing the force of their hops like rubber. Some of the chickens were friendlier than others, and upon seeing me, took to squatting in a submissive position at my feet—often breaking my stride and causing me to stumble. But I didn’t mind. I’d kneel-down and run a hand over the hunkering hen’s silken, feathered back. It felt like a kind of love—a love that, in my estrangement, I needed.
But If I wanted to catch them, they were impossible. They might be within inches of my reach, yet always managed to elude me, moving in directions I could never predict. I was convinced that they could comprehend my plan before it was put into action. The little she-devils could read my thoughts. I was sure of it.
“How the hell am I going to pen them up at night?” I had initially asked Gene
“Don’t worry boss lady,” was Gene’s response. “They’ll return to the coop at night.”
Chickens do go home to roost. The proverb came to life. And once settled in the dark, they were docile and, if need be, easy to handle.
My chicken visitations often included a venture behind the black plastic veil—into the holy inner sanctum. There, sheltered behind the curtain, a few hens would be tucked away in their nests, snuggling with maternal comfort on their eggs. I was compelled to pet them even though I knew it irritated them. They’d chirp harshly, bustle their feathers, nestle deeper into the straw, and eye me coldly. Sometimes they’d try a harmless peck. But I’d pet their strange little heads anyway, and talk to them, which seemed to calm them—their sharp eyes softening with trust. Their nesting was soothing to me, easing the stress that came with all the work and responsibility of ranching—and made me forget, for a while, my loneliness.
At dusk I’d go down again to close up the pen, then walk back inside the coop, just to absorb the coziness. After my eyes adjusted, I’d see their dark, voluminous shapes perched along the rail, or sitting in their nesting boxes. The air was moist and fertile with straw, clay-dirt and poop. They’d make little noises when I entered—whirring and clicking and clucking.
I was their mammal as much as they were my fowl. I provided them with food and shelter. They gave me eggs, fertilizer for my garden, kept the insect population down, provided me with constant entertainment and soothed me.
Chickens are very vocal. They have 24 to 30 distinctive sounds. I came to recognize some of them. Throughout the day I’d get announcements of a new egg— indicated by an escalating series of shrieks. Potential danger engendered a unified high, harsh cackling. Their chorus, when I came to feed them, was urgent and demanding, and became softer and more musical once satisfied. When nesting and content, they made whirring sounds and soft clucks.
I could see that slaughtering was not going to be easy for me. Even my layers would be bound for the stew pot once they had lived out their egg producing years. But I could not keep them as pets. I had only so much space in the coop, and I had financial constraints. And so, I learned basic farming rule number one— never name it if you plan on eating it.
I comforted myself with the thought that, if they’d been the ones wielding the power, they would surely have eaten me. Chickens are descendants of the T-Rex dinosaur, one of the most ferocious predators ever to walk the earth. Knowing this made it easy for me to imagine them as giants, devouring me without mercy, like a helpless worm. This braced me for the task to come.
Also, I had read that almost every animal adopts a friend. Even the remote giraffe will have a special friend. In addition, I had observed that my herd animals tended to befriend the ones that looked most like themselves. I’d noticed this with my cattle and horses. The longhorns separated themselves from the Galloways, my silver Arabian was shunned by the darker horses. It seemed to be the same with my chickens. The Rhode Island Reds hung out together, as did the silver-speckled Anconas. Were domesticated herd animals inherently racist? It seemed like it. Good. Better for me if I could find fault. Eat the racists!
Eventually the white hens learned to walk. They’d take a few steps, sit down and then take a few more steps. Like this, they slowly gained strength and balance. Still, the other chickens were cruel to them, chasing them away, pecking at them. The white hens stayed together, separate from the rest of the flock.
One day Gene brought me a rooster—a big, shiny red guy. I set him out near the coop. He strutted and puffed, and the hens took notice. They perked up and clucked with excitement to each other as they rushed, in pairs, towards the glistening, pompous bird. What could they be saying to each other except,” How handsome he is!” or, “OMG, I’m going to swoon!” Maybe they were happy chickens before, but now they were really happy. I named the rooster Clovis, after the first emperor of the Merovingian dynasty—he was that proud. Now, wherever Clovis went, a flock of chickens surrounded him, moving in adoring unison with him. Sometimes I would see him scratching in the dirt, and then back off, to make way for a selected hen to move in and eat the bug or worm that he’d exposed. What a great husband he was! In the evenings, the hens flanked Clovis on the perch, leaning into him, snuggling with him, their pecking order determining who would be the closest.
Maybe Clovis got tired of all the adoration. Perhaps he longed for his bachelor freedom, for, one evening he decided not to return to the roost, but, instead, flew up to perch in the trees. The hens became noticeably distraught. They seemed disoriented. They walked in circles. They looked rejected. For a few evenings I had to gently knock Clovis out of his tree, with a stick, and send him back to the henhouse to make his neglected ladies happy again.
They seemed so much like us.
Now that I had a rooster the eggs would be fertile, so Gene built me a hatching cage. He constructed a large wooden rectangular frame, wrapped it in chicken wire, set it on stilts and made nesting boxes out of sawed-off milk jugs laid on their sides and filled with straw. When a chicken got to brood—to sit on a clutch of eggs—I’d remove the eggs and the objecting chicken from her henhouse and set her in the hatching cage in a milk-jug nest—placing water and feed nearby. The hen sat approximately twenty-one days before the hatch, only leaving briefly for food or water. Then, nestled in her splayed wings, tiny chicks would emerge, peeking out from beneath the fortress of their mother. With babies tucked into her, the hen became fiercely protective, protesting my intrusions when I changed the water or placed feed. She seemed to be the epitome of nurturing and protectiveness. I could not stay away. It felt like I was vicariously absorbing the nurturing I had lacked in my own childhood.
“Get Guinea hens,” my blues musician friend Joe said. “They make great guards. They will let you know when a visitor comes by, or when a snake, a possum, a fox, or even a large bug, is heading toward the barn.” Joe held up his hand, the thumb and forefinger measuring two inches. After all, this was the jungle of Mississippi—a hot and humid land of big bugs and big fat snakes.
A few days later I was visiting a neighbor, following him around on his chores, plying him with questions about cattle. Wherever he went, two birds—black and white speckled, with long necks and bright red curly crowns—wove about his feet, screeching loudly. They were guineas.
“Take them from me,” he cried. “They’re driving me nuts.”
I went home with Frick and Frack. And now, whenever someone drove up the driveway, Frick and Frack would warn me, chasing the car with their ear-piercing screeches.
On a late summer afternoon, while sitting at my desk doing paperwork, I heard a very loud bird ruckus. I walked outside to see what was happening. The flock had wandered off, so I followed the noise down to the creek that wove through the cow pasture. There I saw, meandering down the summer dry creek bed, the whole flock of chickens—including the white hens—flanked by the guineas who were keeping up a constant, unbearable screech. I assumed they were screeching to scare away predators. Guineas, with their plumed, red heads atop white and black speckled bodies, look like they’re dressed in soldier pageantry. From then on I referred to the guineas as my military.
We all took care of each other.
A neighbor brought me a gift. He backed his truck up to my garden patch and dumped a pile of fine black dirt on the ground.
“Chicken shit and bullshit,” he joked.
My garden grew lavishly.
My chickens ate worms, ticks, insects, grasses and seed. My cattle and horses ate grasses and grains. Their poop replenished the soil. When my bull died, deep in the woods, the huge beast was consumed to the bone within a week. Death and decomposition support life. Is the earth a reciprocal feeding system — a living being, with an appetite? This seemed like reality to me—a reality now staring me in the face instead of hiding behind slick packaging under the fluorescent glare of a supermarket. It felt both brutal and beautiful.
I got into disputes with my vegetarian friends.
“Vegetarianism is fine,” I would say.” But don’t fool yourselves into thinking it’s a way to save the world. It’s not sustainable. We need manure, and decomposition to regenerate our soil and fertilize our crops,
“Just raise your cattle and chickens, use their poop and let them live,” they would cry.
But I was becoming wise to the ways of farming. I knew now that herds needed to be culled. Inbred cattle led to deficient offspring. My hens hatched roosters as well as female chicks, and more than one rooster in a coop could lead to bloodshed.
If the world was going to be saved, and don’t we all want to save the world, then I felt the solution was small community farming. Small organic farming, done correctly, was a self-regenerating system. And if we were close to our food sources perhaps others might learn, as I was learning, how to value and care for the creatures and plants that were to become our food, how dependent we are on each other, and on our mother, the earth with her seasons and cycles, her light and shadows, rivers and streams, her reciprocal, maintaining, feeding system.
But I had also learned that farming was not the garden of Eden. Far from it. It was more like the fall of Adam and Eve—doomed to the plough. Though filled with joys, it was also hard, endless work—and it was, at times, painful. Not only would I have to kill the creatures I’d grown to love, but other things might kill them, as well. Raccoons, coyotes, droughts, disease. What a relief it must have felt, at the advent of industrial agriculture, to be able to shrink this workload, by eradicating pests with chemicals sprays, boost production with synthetic fertilizers, and send the animals to industrial sized lots to fatten them for the slaughter, the deplorable conditions of the chicken houses and feed lots far from the humanizing eye. Industrial agriculture promised leisure and alleviation from the burden of concern. Bessie, the family cow, was a thing of the past.
My father was at the forefront of industrial ag, engineering soybean products at a plant, in Mankato, Minnesota, in the 1950s and 60s. He was also a nature lover. He loved to camp out, ride horses, hunt, and fish. When I was 4 years old he moved us to a 40-acre ranch with pasture, woods, split-rail fences and a flagstone ranch house with stone floors and thermal heating. We had goats and horses, sheep, cats, dogs, and a pet pig named Rover
The earth, when I was a child, the days before the influx of mass media and urban sprawl, seemed so enormous, the forests so infinite that my father probably didn’t even consider the consequences when the company decision was made to dump the excess of a 3.5-million-gallon soybean oil spill from a cracked tank, one cold January day in Minnesota in 1963, into the Blue Earth River.
A month prior, Richardson Oil, in Savage Minnesota, also had a massive spill. The following February hunters discovered ducks covered in oil. This sent a shock through the community and a huge local effort called “Save the Ducks” ensued. The two spills led to the first Environmental Protection Agency. But the pollution did not stop there. Had I instinctively been drawn to try, in my small way, to correct my father’s mistakes?
And though my father loved animals, he did not treat them with sensitivity. When our Dachshund, Siggy, pooped in the house, my father rubbed the poor things’ nose it. When we cinched the horses, we were taught to knee them hard in the stomach to release their bloat…. We had been taught, as a culture, that animals don’t understand, don’t communicate, don’t have souls, that they don’t feel, making it okay to be cruel to them—to crowd cattle into dirty feed lots, or to stuff chickens into dark, packed hen houses and cut off their beaks.
I’d always envisioned myself as an animal lover. Now I saw the vestiges of that callousness in myself. But I was learning, intimately, that my fellow creatures had feelings, as I do, intelligences beyond my comprehension, and that I had much to learn from them.
In the summer of 1967, while the Mama’s and Papas’ song, “California Dreaming” laced the airwaves, my family left the farm and moved to the vast, concrete, exciting and sinister city of Los Angeles. Five years later I left again, escaping for three years into the woods of Big Sur, then to the Bay Area, and then, in 1990, I moved to the city of all cities—New York City, where the only relationship I had with a chicken, besides eating them, was watching a poor hen in Chinatown forced to dance in a cage whose floor became electrified when someone, not I, dropped in a quarter into a slot.
Now that I had my white chickens, and my Woofer, Madi, at my side, I began to consider the slaughter. I had to learn how. I frustrated my neighbors and friends with questions.
“You just pick it up, grab it by the head and whirl It” my neighbors said, “The head will pop off.”
I wasn’t satisfied. It seemed cruel. I investigated. I went to a Halal meat market in Memphis and questioned the butcher. I called a Rabbi to inquire about Kosher slaughter. I discovered the famous maverick farmer, Joe Saladin, and watched his online videos on chicken slaughtering. I came away with a conglomeration of ways that made sense to me: I would not kill an animal in front of other animals (Halal); the best way to kill a chicken was to suspend it upside down (Halal and Kosher), which puts it in a trance, stick the point of the knife through the roof of their mouth— causing immediate brain death— then slit their juggler with a very sharp knife and let the blood.
The day came, overcast and damp—though closer to spring, and warmer—when Madi and I were ready. Abiding by the concept not to kill a creature in front of another we locked the dogs in the screened-in back porch on the second story of the barn. I collected the sharp knife and a bright orange rubber cone I’d lifted from a street construction site, and cut off the tip.
We’d chosen a site in the back of the barn in a thicket of pine and bush, and I hung the blunted cone from a tree branch. Then I walked back to the chicken pen, picked up one of the white chickens—consoling myself with the knowledge that I’d given her a good life—and carried her gently down into the woods
The dogs were exhibiting unusual behavior—barking, whining, and crowding the corner of the porch, straining to see what we were doing. Could they smell our predatory intent?
I turned the chicken upside down and pulled her head through the sliced tip of the cone. She relaxed into a state of suspension. I attempted to find her jugular vein through the feathers, but her skin was tougher than I thought. I was almost frozen in fear. Then my panicked brain recalled the need to begin the kill by sticking the knife through the roof of her mouth. I made the jab. She went limp. I turned away. I let Madi, the surgeon, do the final cut.
We brought the carcass into the garden kitchen, put it in a large pot of boiling water to loosen the feathers, then sat down on the back steps and pulled them off. It was a bad, raw smell. I cut the head off, pulled the guts out and washed it. The bird was much smaller naked of her elegant feathers. I tied the wings together, stuck an onion in the neck cavity and put it in the oven to bake. I assumed this was going to be the best tasting chicken I’d ever had. After forty-five minutes, I took the bird out. It was like rubber. I cooked it for another fifteen minutes, and then another. A chicken that’s older than a year, as I was to learn, cannot be roasted without an extensive process of resting and brining. The chicken vendor, the guy who’d said, “they’d be good eatin,” either liked rubber chicken or had deceived me. Most likely the latter, He had seen this city slicker coming, a mile away. I considered that this chicken was sacrificed for my lesson. I made chicken broth.
The next morning Madi went into the chicken coop to feed the birds. Seeing the human, all the chickens ran to surround the remaining white hen, splaying their wings to shield her and shrieking fiercely at Madi. I should have known, from my experience at the bathroom window, that my place of execution had not been far enough away. They were aware, after all, of what had taken place in those dark woods.
The remaining white chicken, though fiercely protected that morning, continued to be excluded. Perhaps that’s why she took to wandering up to the barn. The barn had a wide breezeway and I’d found a cheap way to keep the chickens, or an occasional escaped cow, out of it by hanging two screen doors, horizontally, to make swinging doors. This chicken, who had now been named Henrietta by one of my returning Woofers—an old-fashioned name for a bird that always seemed, with her proud big-breasted bustling strut, like an old-fashioned lady—got to sitting daily outside the screen doors peering into the barn. Was that her Valhalla, her paradise, on the other side?
I developed a special fondness for her and thought that, perhaps, she was above average intelligence. Perhaps, I speculated—ironically—her intelligence had something to do with her being genetically engineered. Nevertheless, I had my commitment and poor Henrietta, name and all, went the way of all chickens—into the stew pot. I felt that if I was going to take responsibility for what I ate. I needed to be unwavering.
The experience of slaughtering my chickens had a profound effect on me. In the aftermath, when sitting to a meal, I was aware of the creature whose life was sacrificed for me and, in turn, I felt deeply connected to the earth, to her cycles, to her sustaining energy. Flesh became so vividly flesh. That’s who I was, a flesh-eating creature. It was grounding and humbling. Eating my meals took on the form of prayer. And yet, how easily we fall into forgetfulness.
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