I’m reading Barbara Kingsolver’s Animal, Vegetable, Miracle and loving it. It’s her memoir of her family’s first year of exclusively eating locally (she and her family have a small farm in the southern Appalachians). Last night I read her account of “harvest day”; that is, the slaughtering of six roosters and six turkeys she raised from chicks.
She’s a family farmer who practices low-stress, painless slaughter. “Harvest” is a family affair; even Kingsolver’s 9-year-old daughter participates. I thought the chapter would be too heavy and disturbing for bedtime reading. And it kind of was, but not in a bad way, if that makes sense.
It was simply an honest description of how animals become food (if they’re lucky enough to be raised outside the factory system). The bird is taken from its coop, carried across the yard upside down by the legs (which lulls them to “sleep”) and is set across a chopping block. What happens next is, as Kingsolver notes, “quick and final. All sensation ends with that quick stroke.” She and the other adults present answer the kids’ questions, and the whole gang eventually settles into shared gallows humor. About this backyard “bloodbath” (she is covered in blood by day’s end) Kingsolver writes:
U.S. consumers may take our pick of reasons to be wary of [factory-farmed meat]: growth hormones, antibiotic-resistant bacteria, unhealthy cholesterol composition, deadly E. coli strains, fuel consumption, concentration of manure into toxic waste lagoons, and the turpitude of keeping confined creatures at the limits of their physiological and psychological endurance. It’s that last one that finally ended it for me. Yes, I am a person who raises some animals for the purpose of whacking them into cuts of meat for my family. But this work has made me more sympathetic, not less, toward the poor wretches that live shoulder to shoulder with their brethren waiting for the next meal of stomach-corroding porridge.
In an essay titled “Food With a Face,” Michael Pollan wrote:
More than any other institution, the American industrial animal farm offers a nightmarish glimpse of what Capitalism can look like in the absence of moral or regulatory consent. Here, in these places, life itself is redefined–as protein production–and with it, suffering… the industrialization and dehumanization of American animal farming is a relatively new, evitable, and local phenomenon: no other country raises and slaughters its food animals quite as intensively or as brutally as we do.
On the other hand, Kingsolver’s farm offers a dreamy glimpse into the alternative. Her chickens’ lives and deaths are the opposite of brutal, and her descriptions of raising animals for food are lyrical and real. I’ve haven’t read her fiction yet, but her lifestyle and food practices are so idyllic, the book feels like an escape in the same way a good novel does.