In the late 1990s, I found myself face to face with a chicken (a cow, pig, and turkey too). The gifts of so many animals for my wellbeing, my sustenance, was a blessing I could not avoid. Surely I had some responsibility in this circle of life. And yet, I looked at the treatment of the animals I consumed and I was appalled. I just could not participate in what I saw. So I tried some different things. These are steps along my path.
I became increasingly aware. On routine trips down our interstate highway in eastern North Dakota, I would pass large, extremely cold, open air, prison-like trucks stuffed with chickens, turkeys, pigs, or cows. I remember seeing little piglets trying to look or crawl out. The socialized voice in me kept saying: "Do not get attached. Do not pay attention. That is what they are for. If you let your heart bleed on this one, what will you do? There is nothing you can do. Besides, you are too busy to spend your important time on such things." But my heart was opening. I just had to do something. So I began to thank the critters for their gifts and thank myself for my growing awareness and struggle. Figuring out what to do would follow.
Simultaneously, I noted the proliferation of enormous containment facilities for these living creatures on rural landscapes and the effects on people who lived around them. These families who often lived in places of long family history described the stench of the air and pollution of waterways. Plus, small farmers could not compete in a society which valued "big" and "cheap" over all else. Rural landscapes were emptying of family farmers. Their homes and communities were blowing away like dry and brittle leaves in the fall. Nevermind a lurking question: What were the effects people who worked there?
Many years before, I noted meat I bought did not look right and did not taste right. We quit buying ham and bacon because it did not taste right. Plus, it made my husband sick. Purchasing chickens was "iffy"; increasingly we were getting bad ones. Sometimes leftover meat simply went bad in the fridge; we could not bring ourselves to eat it.
For a while, I became a vegetarian. I would like to say that it worked. It didn't. I simply needed meat. My body and spirit felt more grounded and vigorous when I ate meat.
Over the course of one's life, many lessons unfold. One of my greatest teachers was my husband's mother, who passed in 1991. Ethel was a farm woman raised in an older time and practicing in a more traditional and sustainable way. She and her husband John raised most of their own food, meat included. In the mid 1960's and 1970's, she was out of step with what I knew. I was a town kid after all. As time passed, I am more and more in awe with the simple yet highly sophisticated things she knew. She was ahead of her time. She was incensed with "store-bought" food, which she described as "not fit to eat". Whenever we were passing through on our family visits, she give us packages of eggs, chicken, beef, sometimes pork, grape juice, corn, whatever she had and all she had grown. These were all things she had grown. And she was concerned about what we ate. I remember she would describe at length how the eggs didn't look right. None of the store-bought food tasted right in her opinion either. After all these years, I can say she was right.
So what to do? In this period of transition, we went to great lengths not to waste meat. It was the flesh of living creatues. We bought only what we needed. I went to Amazing Grains, our health food store in Grand Forks. As the store and demand by consumers grew, more options were present. I bought organic turkeys for special occasions. It was more expensive than conventional store-bought. If that was our own criteria, I would have headed back to our former practices. But it was not and I feel privileged that we had a choice about these things. Purchasing organic meat was more consistent with our values. I was more at peace. We bought only what we would use. The meat was delicious and was no comparison with meat from large corporate farms.
We also bought beef from a local farmer through Amazing Grains. Terry Jacobson and his wife were well known in organic and small farming circles. He told me he wanted to make sure the animals had a good life which included being pasture fed. When he sent the animal for processing (that means slaughter), he thanked each for his/her gift. This traditional approach was on target with our intended practice.
After being hooked on the organic turkey, we recognized the turkey was not local, I wanted to support local farmers. So we began to contract with organic farmers Mike and Mary Pat Klawitter for turkeys and chickens. At this stage, we had purchased a small freezer to support this change in life style practices. We were delighted when their 16 year old son Matt began raising pigs and counted us on the list of one of his families for pork. We even went to the farm to visit the animals. We liked what we saw.
Since then, we have moved to our own small farm. We now raise our own chickens for eggs as well as meat. The learning curve is huge. I had never known I would fall in love with chickens, but they are just amazing. We want them to be happy. We thank them every day for their gifts.
In coming face to face with a chicken, I also came face to face with myself. We are walking our talk. We are concerned about what we see in the world and we are doing something about it. Isn't that what we are supposed to do?
Photo: Our first baby chicks arrived June 3, 2007. This little peeper is about 10 days old. What does s/he see in me?