A Terrible One-Sided Accord

johnshens

What did I love about killing the chickens? Let me start
with the drive to the farm as darkness
was sinking back into the earth.
The road damp and shining like the snail’s silver
ribbon and the orchard
with its bony branches.
All eighty-eight Cornish

hens huddled in their crates. Wrapping my palms around
their white wings, lowering them into the tapered urn.
Some seemed unwitting as the world narrowed;
some cackled and fluttered; some struggled.
I gathered each one, tucked her bright feet,
drew her head through the kill cone’s sharp collar,
her keratin beak and the rumpled red vascular comb
that once kept her cool as she pecked in her mansion of grass.
I didn’t look into those stone eyes. I didn’t ask forgiveness.
I slid the blade between the feathers
and made quick crescent cuts, severing
the arteries just under the jaw. Blood like liquor
pouring out of the bottle. When I see the nub of heart later,
it’s hard to believe such a small star could flare
like that. I lifted each body, bathing it in heated water
until the scaly membrane of the shanks
sloughed off under my thumb.
And after they were tossed in the large plucking drum
I loved the newly naked birds. Sundering
the heads and feet neatly at the joints, a poor
man’s riches for golden stock. Slitting a fissure
reaching into the chamber,
freeing the organs, the spill of intestines, blue-tinged gizzard,
the small purses of lungs, the royal hearts,
easing the floppy liver, carefully, from the green gall bladder,
its bitter bile. And the fascia unfurling
like a transparent fan. When I tug the esophagus
down through the neck, I love the suck and release
as it lets go.
I’m empty as I rinse each carcass,
and this is what I love most.

It’s like when the refrigerator turns off and you hear
the silence. Even in just this one thing:
looking straight at the terrible,
one-sided accord we make with the living of this world.
At the end, we scoured the tables, hosed the dried blood,
the stain blossoming through the water.
~Ellen Bass from “What Did I Love”

cedargrove

For a number of summers, we spent most of the morning and afternoon of Fourth of July with neighbors at a farm down the road doing that most American of activities: communally butchering chickens.

There is some risk to writing about killing living creatures.  Yet, I also pull carrots, radishes and onions from the ground, dig up potatoes and weed-whack thistles in the field.

It is what farmers do. Shopping at the local farmers’ market or grocery store, we are insulated from this harsh reality, this terrible one-sided accord humans have with the land and growing things.

It is how food ends up sustaining us, supporting the next generation and the next, and these living creatures deserve our blessing of gratitude.

I grew up on a farm where we raised our own meat and my parents, who also grew up knowing the animals that would eventually be on their plate, encouraged us kids to watch and participate in the process so we understood what it meant to sacrifice an animal or a plant for our benefit.  We knew that animal from birth, we named them, looked them in the eye, we petted and held them, we fed them, cleaned up after them, and when the time came, we watched them slump to the ground, their hide or feathers stripped and their steaming carcass prepared.

I cannot take this lightly.  These creatures, who I respected and cared for, were breathing heart-beating beings just minutes before.

It has been quite a few years since we raised our own meat as a family, since those summers our children growing up also learned this relationship with the food on the table.  As a group of neighbors, we would combine our chicken butchering together on Fourth of July so we had an efficient assembly line approach to the process of putting dozens of chickens in the freezer all within a few hours.  There were catchers, holders, choppers, boilers, pluckers, gutters, rinsers and baggers. We all took turns doing different aspects of the task. There was an irreverent reverence to the day, a bit more joking and laughing than was warranted when blood is intentionally spilled.

We had to acknowledge the tight intertwine of life and death though none of us could bear to eat chicken for dinner that night. We too bore the stains of the day.

 

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mayrose516

A Healthy Fence Row

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Brushy fencerows are in a sense a gift from man to nature — at least if, after the posts are dug in and the fence stapled to the posts, nature is given some free reign. Birds sitting on the fence and posts will pass undigested seeds in their droppings. Some of these seeds of blackberry, wild cherry, elderberry, bittersweet, sassafras, mulberry, and unfortunately, in some areas, multiflora rose, will take root in the loose soil around the posts and later in soil dug up by woodchucks. Chipmunks scurrying along the fence will bring and bury acorns and hickory nuts, while the wind will deliver dandelion, milkweed, and thistle seeds — all ingredients for a healthy fencerow.
~David Kline from Great Possessions

fence

Before I built a wall I’d ask to know
What I was walling in or walling out,
And to whom I was like to give offence.

He will not go behind his father’s saying,
And he likes having thought of it so well
He says again, “Good fences make good neighbors.”
~Robert Frost from “Mending Fences”

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photo by Harry Rodenberger

 

I maintain, in my haphazard and often ineffectual way, our farm’s wood rail and hot wire fences to keep the horses confined, preventing them from wandering into the adjacent orchard, corn field, or most risky of all, the road. As utilitarian as a fence is for that purpose, the fence row itself is the hospitality center for all sorts of diversity of flora and fauna.  It doesn’t repel; it invites.

As one travels in the United Kingdom and across the plains and mountains of North America, old fences are everywhere. Some fences were built painstakingly of stone centuries ago, some of old barbed wire, now falling and decrepit, no longer effective, but still testimony to a determined farmer’s desire to section off his barren land from another’s barren land, or perhaps the requirement borne of the homesteading laws of the time. Robert Frost wrote in his poem “Mending Fences” that a fence spans the balance between man’s sometimes irrational desire for barriers, acknowledging the order that they bring to an uncertain and sometimes unpredictable world that lays beyond our walls.

Political fences continue to exist in many parts of the world today, created primarily out of fear. Indeed, new walls have been proposed, absurdly ridiculous in their scope and expense.  Much celebration accompanied the fall of the Berlin Wall after its years of imposing testimony to the lack of trust and understanding between people who were once relatives, neighbors and friends. The Great Wall of China still stands, now primarily tourist attraction, no longer serving any other useful purpose other than to illustrate the lengths to which man goes to barricade himself off from others.

So why maintain life’s fences, even if the building and maintaining of these fences seems a futile and foolish task when they are pushed down, blown over in the winds, with trees fallen over them, and overgrown with brush and wild blackberries?

Fences, like rules and laws, define order and structure. They can bite back if they are breached. If crashed and broken, they are hazardous in and of themselves, not withstanding the potential dangers that lay beyond them. Remove them altogether and we risk losing the diversity represented in the fence row itself.

So, in the best of times, we are mending walls out of continuing need for contact with our neighbors. We meet across the barriers to shake hands and visit while we repair the fences together, leaving the barriers standing and strong, and the space in the fence row becomes even more diverse and welcoming. In the worst of times, we fortify and hide behind the walls, making them taller, wider, deeper, creating greater and greater gulfs between us and eventually losing touch forever as the walls themselves deteriorate without the necessary mutual “mending”.

So we must not love walls themselves, but must maintain them with our neighbor. We don’t worship the walls themselves but instead respect the foundation they rest on and the life they protect within the row itself.

We accept such boundaries with humility, recognizing their necessity is due to our own imperfections, as we too are full of prickles and barbs that too easily draw blood when breached.

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sunsetfence

A Bouquet of Friends

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ottervile

Don’t walk behind me; I may not lead.
Don’t walk in front of me; I may not follow.
Just walk beside me and be my friend.
~Albert Camus

After a month of nearby wildfires where neighbors supported neighbors
and volunteers responded to calls for help,
then this past weekend a windstorm that took away power and water,
we quickly find out who to be-a-friend-to in a time of need.

Thank God for people who know how to befriend
when we need someone to just walk alongside.

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If friends were flowers, I’d pick you…
~Albert Camus 

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We Never Know…

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Without realizing it, we fill
important places in each others’ lives.
It’s that way with the guy at the corner grocery, the mechanic at the local garage,
the family doctor, teachers, neighbors, coworkers. Good people who are always “there,”
who can be relied upon in small,
important ways. People who teach us,
bless us, encourage us, support us,
uplift us in the dailiness of life.

We never tell them.
I don’t know why, but we don’t.

And, of course, we fill that role ourselves. There are those who depend on us,
watch us, learn from us, take from us. And we never know.

You may never have proof of your importance,
but you are more important than you think.
There are always those who couldn’t do without you.
The rub is that you don’t always know who.
~Robert Fulghum

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Edging Closer for Company

The trees are coming into their winter bareness, the only green is the lichen on their branches. Against the hemlocks, the rain is falling in dim, straight lines… This is the time of year when all the houses have come out of the woods, edging closer to the roads as if for company.
Verlyn Klinkenborg “The Rain It Raineth”

The deciduous trees in our part of the country have all been stripped bare, having come through two rain and wind storms in the last week.  It forces typically leaf-hidden homes out of camouflage and I’m once again startled at the actual proximity of our neighbors.  It isn’t as obvious in the summer given the tree buffer everyone has carefully planted.  Now we’re reminded once again we are not alone and actually never have been.

Even the mountains that surround us from the northwest to the southeast seem closer when the trees are bare and new snow has settled on their steep shoulders.

We think we have autonomy all wrapped up but it takes the storms of autumn to remind us we are unwrapped and vulnerable, stark naked, in desperate need of company when darkness comes early, the snow flies and the lights flicker.