lies I told the chickens while they died

Hellooooo, readers! Remember when I was writing questions about what I should do with my time? Nowadays, I’m running around like a chicken with its head ripped off (Too soon? Anybody?) rather than doing much reflecting. One of the things that I’m proud fills my time is involvement with the Farminary.

Yesterday, out at the Farminary, we butchered 26 chickens. That “we” was a small group of five. There are many people involved in the goings-on at the farm. The way that I got on the Farm Team specifically was persistently articulating how integrally important it was to my experience at this school. (Obnoxious syntax because I CAN hehehe) I mention that to say: You haven’t been intentionally excluded from any work on the farm. If there are activities that you really care about, make that clear. Greenlight yourself!

I’m going to walk you through the process as well as share some of my thoughts. Here goes.

1.     The setup.

We had some industrial equipment arranged in a horseshoe inside our barn. Nate, our organizer, farmer, extraordinaire (henceforth known in this blog as Cap’n Nate) arrived at the buttcrack of dawn to warm the water in the scalding machine (Let’s just agree right now that my lingo won’t all be official. It’s a blog, folks, stay calm.) and get prepared. I’ll say more about the equipment as it becomes applicable.

2.     The great migration.

“It’s kind of like a hay ride!” –Emma

The chickens were transported from the field where we housed their coop in yellow crates.

As I carried one handle, my friend pointed out that the two birds were huddled together. Almost as though they were holding one another in an embrace. Bouncing and waiting to see what was to come.

 

3.     The prayer.

The present members of the Farm Team (because we were missing some of our dear friends) gathered in a circle and said a prayer. It was mostly silent. Throughout the day, we struggled with what to say or how to pray about the process. There was a circulating joke about calling it Judgement Day, but the gravity of the day’s activities was palpable, especially early on.

 

4.     The cone.

Each bird was placed upside down in a cone. The legs stick out the top. The head and beak out the bottom. You hold the bird’s head, perhaps moving a few feathers from the designated spot, and you make one clean cut across the neck. The chicken then bleeds out, blood gathering in a basin below.

 

what shocked me most was the heat.

on the first cut, I was so focused

so determined to be calm for this bird

to meet her eyes with steadiness

that it took me a moment to look down

at the blood spilling across my skin

steaming in the chill of the morning

I looked down at the red trails, shocked as Lady M

tears squiggling on my cheeks

as our compassionate cap’n rested a hand on my middle back

 

the chicken convulsed as the blood dripped into her eyes and off the tip of her beak

she watched me as she died

 

5.     The scalder.

The birds are carried to the scalding tank. One at a time, you place a bird in a metal cylinder which then rotates, dunking the birds a few times in hot water to loosen the feathers.

Have you ever carried a dead gerbil?

Or buried a dead dog?

and felt it’s tenderness in your palms

how soft it is and how you didn’t notice before

when its muscles were taught with movement

 

the softness is particularly apparent in places like

the neck

and I kept waiting for the birds to squirm out of my hands

revive right there and fight me

but they never did

their bodies remained limp

their necks (those necks! there’s something about a chicken’s neck) bending

at odd unfortunate angles

as they went to the day spa

and opened their pores

for the most invasive treatment of all time

 

6.     The feather plucker.

Two by two. The butchering went two by two. Two cones. Two dunk-a-roo’s. Party of two in the plucker. This machine looks like a small washing machine drum with soft rubber nubbins. A soft water sprinkle is turned on and the drum spins. Despite the fact that I’ve used soft twice to describe the machine, there’s nothing soft about the way it appears when you turn it on. The bodies bounce around, feathers stripping, water flying, giggles being stifled by those of us who find humor in the absurd.

 

7.     The butchering table.

After making sure that there were no remaining feathers, we moved the birds up to a metal table. The feet are cut off. The neck is bent over the side of the table, and a surprising amount of force is exerted to rip the head clean off. The esophagus/windpipe are loosened/removed from the neck. We made a cut in the butt skin (very official term) and scooped along the inside of the cavity to remove all of the organs. There was a hose to clean out any blood, poop, guts, and we developed a trademark term: the hose in hinder. A hose in hinder occurs when you get a hose stuck inside of a dead chicken and they get a powerwash bidet.

 

“talk about grass fed!”

because sometimes there are whole blades of grass

startling to see that pop of color and life

inside so much death

inside the heat of a newly slaughtered animal

 

I found myself silently saying “I’m sorry”

after I found the way to make the innards squeak like a rubber chicken

or made a clumsy cut in the skin

but was I really sorry?

 

I’m excited to eat the meat.

Were our ancestors sorry for making sacrifices to their gods?

Where did this guilt originate?

Because I’m not so sure that it’s ancient…

 

8.     The ice tanks.

Legs tucked. Insides cleaned à la thanksgiving turkey. The birds are then placed in a large trash can full of ice water. They will later be retrieved in the style of the newest fad—October bobbing for chickens.

 

9.     The rhythm.

 pick up another from the crate

and find yourself cooing

shhhh

it’s ok

you’re ok

you’re going to be ok

 

when that couldn’t be less true

 

so why say it?

Why couldn’t I let them cry out in terror

Just as I would if someone with blood crusted hands held me upside down

And yet, those farmer’s hands are tender

they are calmly stroking the back of this creature

remembering the time they fed him from their palm

sending him calm energy

and loving gratitude for the way it has lived

for the reason it will die

 

there are moments

particular moments

like when you wait to see if a chicken is completely still and empty of life

and a partner points out that its feet are clasped together

almost held in the posture of a plea

 

and the moment when you realize

that you are no longer mimicking someone else

or responding to guidance

you know what you’re doing

and the barn and your fancy industrial equipment fades away

you could be on a mountainside with a knife

or a sharp rock

and a chicken and an empty stomach

 

the things that are getting on you and in you are visible

you start to question the concept of “development”

because maybe some places on earth have less exposure to the very real threat that their food sources will collapse

but they have skyrocketing exposure to invisible, malignant toxins

and why is that empirical progress again?

 

10.  The plastic.

Each bird was lifted from the ice and fitted into a plastic chicken bag. These bags were made for chickens who lived well. But maybe not quite as well as our chickens. Imagine a Sex Ed class where the students are supposed to practice applying condoms to cucumbers. Except this time, someone grabbed butternut squashes and size small condoms.

 

11.  The fridge.

The chickens need a few days to allow rigor mortis to fade off before we eat them. Rigor mortis is the stiffening/toughening of muscles in the hours after death. Aaand, according to the interweb, the next natural phase after primary flaccidity—the reason why relaxed necks have given me so many heebejeebees!

 

12.  The clean-up.

We cleaned all of the equipment and surfaces. The smatterings of blood and feathers were actually vibrant and beautiful. I was tasked with cleaning the blood collection basin, which became a meticulous endeavor. Maybe I was very hungry after a long day’s work. Maybe I was processing a lot. Maybe there was a deeper psychological reason, but I needed that container to be absolutely squeaky clean. I’m a woman, so I’m no stranger to congealed blood. But this was a whole new level, people.

It wasn’t until I was showering a few hours later that I noticed the markings on my own skin. None of them had pierced through the layers, but I had designs of scrapes up my forearms and along my hands. Nail, beak, and wing-shaped askings.  

One of my favorite parts of the whole day was when we buried the compost of feathers and innards in a spot where a local family of foxes might be able to find them and feast as well.

 

 

A lot of people have asked me, “Why do you have to do that?” and I’ve found great comfort in responding, “It’s my job. I work there.” But the reality is messier and far less secure. I wanted to do this. I didn’t want to become detached. When I see a bird with its legs neatly tucked into a flap, I’ll know that someone had to saw those legs off between the knuckle. The skin had to be peeled off of the feet. As I glance up at my water bottle and see the residual blood smear today, I know the cost of my mealtime.

 

If this post makes you uncomfortable, I don’t apologize. I’d invite you into a conversation about it! If not with me, then with someone you love.

Why do you feel this way?

Is it because you’re not a meat-eater? Been there. I remember standing on a proverbial high ground, confident in the right-ness of my choices. I sometimes still wish I could maintain that lifestyle, but it isn’t healthy for my body at this moment in time.

Does it make you uncomfortable because you’ve never pulled back the curtain around the circumstances of animals’ deaths? I can guarantee not many chickens die at the hands of a community who pray for them directly beforehand. Some do! And if praying isn’t your jam, but loving animals for their fullness is something you can get behind, there are lots of farms who could source ethical meat to your meal tables.

This story is now a part of me just like that chicken will be digested and used for energy in the very fibers of my being.

Somehow, that story feels most substantial. The substance of our bodies can waste away at every exerting turn. And I do believe it’s to dust I shall re-turn. So maybe the story is the most enduring piece. Thank you for listening. It wouldn’t be a story without you.

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