What a weekend. Since Friday I have buried my favorite rooster, harvested my least favorite turkey and canned lots of okra, cukes, onions and peppers from my very own garden. Yes, I would have to say this place is feeling more and more like an authentic, functioning hobby farm every single day.
As much as I like to believe we walk a path lined with roses around here, the truth of the matter is that many a thorn snags our ankles along the way. Friday was a bad day. As a matter of fact, Friday was unequivocally the worst day we’ve had since moving to the homestead.
We lost Pedro.
If you are not familiar with Pedro from reading the blog, he was our family’s favorite rooster. The flock is much different without his kind presence. He was the sweetest feathered friend we’ve known thus far. A Barred Rock with the most vivid crimson comb and silky sleek feathers, eyes as clear as Crater Lake, heart as wide as the Atlantic and a spirit as gentle as a balmy Summer breeze. Wow. It’s strange to eulogize a chicken. I’m sure it’s even more strange to read a chicken’s eulogy. Who would have thought when we started this homesteading venture that we’d ever grow so attached or experience such pangs of sorrow as the result of losing a bird?
Certainly what hurts more than anything is watching our daughter work through the loss in her own head and heart. She had a special bond with that rooster from the very beginning. Is it possible that he found her just as peculiar and fascinating as she found him?
Each morning all of the chickens and ducks and turkeys can barely wait for the food to pour before they begin pecking anxiously at their feeding pans. Not Pedro. While all of the others step on one another and scuffle over pecking order, feverishly inhaling their rations, Pedro hangs in the shadows and follows us to the garden or to the blueberry bushes instead. He often sat quietly in our daughter’s loving embrace and relished in the adoration of his human.
I knew something was wrong the moment I walked out of the house. The ducks were quacking frantically, the turkeys were strutting in an unusual fashion and Shanti – our Barred Rock hen – along with Mr. Darcey were on top of the coop. Then I found Pedro, lifeless in the scratch yard. My heart sunk. Based on my novice sleuth skills, all signs point to the Toms. I’m almost certain those two turkeys are the culprit. They get fired up quickly and I’ve seen them viciously bully the hens and ducks countless times. Itching to pick fights daily, even our male dachshund Fig has taken a beating from them a time or two.
Initially we assumed we’d keep the turkeys until this fall and butcher them right before the holidays. However, they are not a heritage breed and that’s not particularly a good thing. These two Toms are commercial birds that cannot reproduce on their own. They are bred to grow incredibly fast. They came as part of a “package deal” when my Poultry Guru friend (Chanda) purchased a bulk shipment of birds back in the spring. Typically we would not purchase birds like this as they put on the pounds so very fast that they can easily break a leg or even have trouble simply getting around on their own after reaching a certain size. Sadly they are bred strictly to supply the demands of the consumer. Translation: they sit in an itty, bitty, tiny, disgusting space among thousands of other birds and do nothing but get fatter and fatter and fatter until they endure a heartless slaughter. A horrible life and quite heinous demise. Yep. that’s how we carnivores put dinner on the table America! Sounds great, huh?
Not so much. It’s pretty unthinkable.
And basically that’s one of the driving forces as to why my family and I are trying to make a shift from participating in the cyclical horror that accompanies carnivorous consumerism in this country. But that’s a different blog for a different day.
So I called my Dad after I buried Pedro. He helped me realize that although this is not the best-case scenario, it does offer up the faintest of silver linings. This particular circumstance thrust all of us into the right headspace to endure the inevitable fate that lies ahead for the two Tom turkeys. I’ve desperately needed to find a way to shift my mindset, to wrap my brain around the fact that the turkey’s days here at the homestead are indeed numbered. By my own hand, their existence will inexorably cease at some point in the very near future. It has been the plan from the very beginning. After all, this is one of the main reasons we moved from the city to the country.
Losing Pedro by no means made the process of harvesting my first bird any less painful. I’ve dreaded it beyond words for months on end. I’ve been completely unprepared for it up to this point. But the unfortunate experience of losing Pedro forced me to accept that it is time to let the turkeys go and it pushed me to ultimately carry out the process.
People, I needed that push.
Harvesting my first homegrown bird was nothing like what I expected. My dear and knowledgeable, “jack of all trades” friend Chanda walked me through the entire process with much precision. She is a smart, confident, successful real estate agent by day here in Hampton Roads. Her down-to-business, practical and “can do” attitude carried me through the largest real estate transaction of my life this past winter when we purchased the homestead. On Saturday, that same “can do” attitude carried me through the most raw, primitive (outside of childbirth) organic experience of my life. She taught me the kosher way to harvest poultry and it was surprisingly quiet, calm and much less traumatic than I anticipated. She is quite the mentor. She has talked me down from the ledge on more than one occasion. I am grateful and proud to call her my friend.
I believe the months of psychological torture and anxiety that I’ve put upon myself dreading the process of butchering my first animal is probably quite normal. After all, I’ve never done such a thing. The fear of the unknown is often the worst kind. Plus, I’ve never hurt a flea in my life. I pretty much catch spiders and set them free in the backyard. As you can imagine, the idea of fulfilling my dream of raising and slaughtering my own poultry has been a real debacle in my brain. It’s a conundrum, I know.
One thing I’ve been holding onto through all of this is the belief that humans are animals and we are part of the food chain on planet earth. I for one, choose to participate in that food chain. It is in and of itself a naturally occurring process on our planet. I hope to separate myself as much as possible from the shocking and quite frankly terrifying manipulation of this process that we as humans have adopted as the norm in our modern day society. It sounds contradictory, but I have the desire to spread as much joy and love and compassion and freedom as possible to the very creatures I’m consuming.
So, how does one coddle one’s dinner? That is the question. After this weekend, the answer to that question has become slightly more clear for me. Eventually the poultry we raise will play a significant role in sustaining a healthy existence for my family. What better gift or bigger sacrifice could we expect of another living, breathing creature? We must give preemptive gratitude to these animals. We must treasure them and treat them like gold. They are feeding the ones I love most, after all. To say my outlook on my poultry has changed is an understatement. Some will provide eggs, some will provide meat, all will provide nutrients.
Are we blessed, or what?
I’ve been reflecting on my roots. I grew up in the foothills of Appalachia. Hunting deer, rabbit, wild turkey, etc, is very much a way of life. My Gram & Papa Joe once made soup from a turtle they caught in their pond for Pete’s sake! I’ve personally never been hunting or field dressed any animals in my entire life. However, you’d be hard pressed as a teenager to grow up in Jackson County without feasting on deer jerky during lunch hour on a cold winter’s day in the back of the high school parking lot. I’m pretty sure it was a rite of passage. I’ve drawn strength and encouragement just knowing that I come from an area where so many folks harvest, process and consume animals they have physically hunted as a supplement to their family’s nutrition. Somehow, this thought actually brought me peace before, during and after the turkey harvest this weekend.
I used to love the lyrics of this one particular song & I’ve been hearing it echo through my mind lately, playing again & again like a mantra….
“We’ll make great pets, we’ll make great pets”….
It sounds wild and it’s certainly hard to conceptualize, but humor me for a moment and imagine how you would want to be treated if you were a pet. What if humans were no longer the reigning head of the food chain on this planet? Imagine that some great society of powerful beings from some other faraway galaxy took over our earth and we humans fell a rung or two down the ladder. What if we became pets?
Well, I’m here to tell ya… I would prayerfully hope for a keeper who would feed me ripe, warm blueberries off the vine and allow me to breathe fresh clean air all day and night. I’d wish for the freedom to take long, meandering walks through the woods and to snooze in the warm evening sunset anytime I wish. I would hope that after a leisurely, calm day spent exploring nature’s goodness, enjoying clean, cool water and feasting on healthy, tasty sustenance that I’d be provided with a soft, cozy bed to lay my head. But more importantly, I’d pray that when my time comes to a close on this earth, it would be as gentle and humane of an ending as possible.
This wasn’t easy for me. Every new task in this new life does not happen with dancing feet on cloud 9. But I’m truly living my bliss in the love-light of a grateful heart and a life we have created for a reason. I would not trade it for anything under the sun.