Sunday, December 18, 2011

Nice to meet you: reflections on death

Welcome back, legions of faithful, long-suffering readers. I'm in a new place from the last post, many months ago, with places in between, but those details can wait.

I am living and working with a lot of animals right now, at a place I just moved to this week. We have a good number of pigs, and at the end of the day we were called to load one up to be taken to the butcher in the morning. Winter is coming on and the bounty from the summer season has been mostly already killed, processed, and eaten or sold off, and the prospect of a whole pig being available to us is pretty exciting. Katelyn the other intern and I went off to try to wrangle the animal into the trailer at the end of the barnyard, neither of us having a really clear idea of the best way to do it. I have driven oxen and dairy cows for a total of one full day, and she had helped load a pig before (to my knowledge), but we were game.

We found the pig fitting the description we were given ("the biggest one") after some deliberation and I was standing in the arena in the barn, with he and I still and quiet in the flattest light possible, straw floor reflecting it all, much warmer than the gray sky. The Gloucester Old Spot's ears flop down, almost completely covering their eyes, and the effect is of the pig wearing a mask. I must assume he could somehow see me, though like shaggy dogs, I can't see how. I approached, murmuring regret, and tried to tap him on the rump like I would an oxen. The next twenty minutes would've been pretty comical to bystanders, I imagine: herd-animal handling concepts, as I understand them, kind of worked on this pig, except that I think instead of following social cues the pig just wanted to get the hell away from me.

He was pissed. When he got far enough away he would almost freeze, like when we first met in the barn. Pigs make really unfortunate screeching, screaming sounds when they're hungry, or thirsty, or pissed, or whenever. I really didn't want to stress this animal, but it seemed pretty clear that he was. When I lost control and he'd run to the fences where other groups of pigs were being kept, they all gathered and faced him and each other, looking exactly like a group of people would if they were saying goodbye, or clamoring for help, or commiserating. The other animals were far from indifferent to the activity in the barnyard. We eventually got him to go through the gate, and after that down the channel and into the trailer was easy.

I believe that it's appropriate for humans to eat meat. I believe that any animal should be able to fully express their evolutionary inheritance, Joel Salatin's "pigness." Is it more or less stressful, or ethical, or disruptive to nature for an animal's space and life to be carefully managed and curtailed, or to be subjected to the stress of wild life, and then be hunted, or trapped, and killed? It's my inclination to say that the animal has it better in the latter scenario. It seems like the hunter and quarry meet as a version of equals, consignees in a contract more or less out of the control of either. Both retain their maximum dignity and agency, because each is making their way independent of each other. When the prey is property of the hunter, making her a farmer, the prey has the dignity and agency conferred on him by his owner.

Derrick Jensen observes as much in A Language Older Than Words. He sees the of dominion over animals progressing historically to a belief in the right of dominion over the whole natural world, that the two are philosophical kin. He raises poultry to eat, too, though his methods would be difficult to commercialize. Even so, here with our guard dogs almost all our layers are never shut in and could go anywhere they want.

Poultry seem like a special case, too, at least in this country. Poultry and rabbits can be slaughtered on the farm for sale, the number varying from state to state. As I write this, the pig in question is sitting alone in the stock trailer, deprived of food for cleaner processing. Chickens would have food withheld too, but the trip from daily routine to killing cone would be very short. The pig will have to travel 25 minutes to the slaughterhouse, and this might as well be next door when we look at the availability of processing facilities in the US. It's entirely common for a farmer to have to drive several hours whenever they want to turn an animal into meat they can sell. Maybe selling is itself at the heart of the issue - it is a question of ownership after all (and a question of skill or expertise in preparation, I admit). I won't go down this road because I'm sure that all the questions can be resolved when freed from the concerns of commerce.

And what about us? What is it to take on the responsibility of maintaining the dignity of another creature, and in some cases, whole species? It seems like a lot to take on, if you care about the task. The path of least resistance, aside from abandonment, is to fail to do so. Seems fair to say that the most common advice, lay and expert, would diminish the fullness of the critter's life. This must certainly be true where production is concerned.

I have an aim in mind when asking these questions: my long-term hope is that my future farm will see a highly diverse forest producing lots of food and other products for humans and other animals. Could it be possible to have increasingly-wild animals form another "crop" from this forest, harvested by hunting, kept in balance with the rest of the system? Could this be a production model? I think of the folks now practicing rotational grazing through herding: no fences, just a "predator" or a few on horseback.

Of course, I haven't much compared the flavor of wild animals to their domestic counterparts..

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