life as we make it


Farmer Fantasy…February Failure
February 22, 2010, 9:59 pm
Filed under: Uncategorized

In 2003, I bought a crackerbox house set on a large plot of blackberry, knotweed, and poison hemlock.  Six years of digging, hacking, and cursing have earned me a yard, foot by laborious foot.  Urbanite terraces, log stairs and railroad tie retaining walls now terraform our steep, uneven slope into a cascade of beds in various stages of cultivation.   I was garden gazing with friends by bonfire light on an August night last summer, when the work all at once paid off.  Wrought in battle and toil, the gardens were suddenly spilling over with things that I had planted….ON PURPOSE!

Long shall Pacific Northwest gardeners remember the summer of 2009.  Early and sustained heat ripened summer squashes in June, and an Indian summer pushed them through October.  Enormous tomato plants kept producing, struggling mightily to validate their continued existence by ripening one fruit a day for week after frigid week into early November.  No kidding. And Zinnias!  Zinnias! Maybe we can’t eat them, but walking the path lined with these bright beauties, bending the tough scratchy stems toward me to peek at the sleeping bees folded in the center, could sustain me for days.  Page, my neighbor and the only other person I know who can get drunk on flowers, helps me to overcome my practical workaholic nature and justify botanical pleasure pursuits, reminding me that flowers are food for the soul.  Forget chicken soup.  Give me dahlias the size of baby heads.   And artichoke, the vegetable lotus.  Oh, artichoke, you are delicious steamed and dipped in garlic butter and lemon juice.  But how can I take you in your tender vegetable youth when you mature into such a divine neon twilight purple blossom, sheltering intoxicated bumblebees in your musky sweet scented bristles.  By August, the yard was a jungle , and I was spending hours a day wading through flowers to harvest  beans, raspberries, squash, tomatoes, cukes, strawberries, collards, herbs by the armload, stopping only to sigh blissfully and bask in the sun.

I can pack away formidable quantities of vegetable matter, but as a nursing mother I require some richer accompaniments.  Every few weeks I found myself at the grocery store with a cart full of yogurt, milk, cream, feta, mozzarella, butter and maybe a steak and some good olive oil.  Literally.  That was it.  For breakfast it was steamed green beans with butter.  For lunch it was cukes and feta.  For dinner it was an entire serving bowl of caprese with the aforementioned steak.  Our small parcel of heavily cultivated land cannot accomodate a cow or goat, so I sought a way to satisfy my dairy predilection without going to market.  A kind and industrious family down the street fastidiously keeps a small herd of goats and occasionally a baby sheep or two.  One drizzly day in September, I suited up my boys and trekked down the street to visit our little “petting zoo.”  I was admiring the immaculate enclosures, sturdy fences, verdant grazing yard, organized outbuildings (How do they DO that?  Where are the piles?  The rusty tools?  What, no “barnyard” smell? Not one errant pile of goatshit?!)  while Jack was busy littering the grounds, poking anything that would fit through the chain link.  Shari, the headmistress of this goat utopia, stepped out of the house and in her always gracious manner updated us on the status of all the living things in her domain.  Turns out one of the nannies was giving so much milk they were just freezing most of it.  Then it hit me.  I left with a gallon of sweet fresh goat milk and an agreement to trade milk for veggies, as she just can’t seem to grow much.  A permaculturist’s dream! 

I planted my fall garden with fantasies of near-total self-sustainance for the coming year.  I’d begin raising rabbits for meat once again in the spring, feeding them all my dandelions, borage, blackberries, and lemon balm.  We’d  live off our stored squashes and potatoes, frozen peas and dried favas, fermented krauts and pickled beets, applesauce and persimmon butter.  Yes, I’ll buy olive and coconut oil, coffee and chocolate, nuts, flour and sugar for some holiday baking–but that’s right and proper use of the global economy, to augment a healthy local diet with delicacies and unique comestibles that can only come from exotic climates.  Oh, rapture! 

Fast forward to January.  My friend Krista, a sustainable agriculture professor back east, called to put me in touch with a colleague and friend of hers who’d be attending a writer’s retreat not far from my house.  Perhaps he’d want to come by to check out the view, take a garden tour, talk a little about the local sustainable food scene………Yeah, sure.  Phone to ear, I stared out the front window at the patch of slug-infested collards that was all that remained of my winter garden aspirations.  Gritty bitter spring weeds, scabby ground apples, marginal mushrooms all make it onto my menu.  I’m not picky, but these collards look disgusting and hardly deserve to be burning nitrogen.  I’d rip them out  if they weren’t the only visible sign of life.   The kale failed to grow as fast as the slugs could eat it this fall and, as far as I can tell under the sodden maple and oak leaf litter, no longer exists.  Mizuna, my favorite early spring green, has apparently flown under the radar because it’s baby leaves are too frilly and insubstantial to look like food even to parasites.  The raccoons got our nearly retired laying flock a couple months ago when it got really cold, and the new chicks aren’t laying yet, so……..”He might not be that impressed,” I told her.  We commiserated on the practical difficulties of growing year-round, even in this vaunted Pacific-Northwest gardener’s paradise.  Next year….slug bait.   

So it’s January and I’m buying most of my groceries at the…..gasp!……store.  There’s a full month before peas and early greens can go in the ground and a good deal longer before anything’s yielding.  The dandelion greens, nettles, and mushrooms of March seem far away indeed.  I suppose I could mend fences, sharpen tools, and organize the shed like a good little farmer, but……I’d rather just fly south and hit the beach until it stops raining.

Staring out the window at the dreary gardenscape, I can hardly recall those endless hot sunny weeks.  It seems absurd that I actually looked forward to a cloudy day so that I could skip a watering, leave the veggies unpicked, go to the bins, start a blog.  But those days came soon enough, and now there is nothing but time to ponder.   Already in my mind, legions of verdant comestibles are forming orderly rows off the backporch, mixed long-season secession beds downhill, scenic yet edible flower snacks in strategic pathside locations.  But as the 2009 garden gangbuster season proved, it’s not just how much you grow, but how well you plan and preserve.  So in 2010 I will…..

*Preserve:                                                                                                                                                                                                                  Freeze what I don’t eat……right now.   The chickens ate really well last growing season.  And while I don’t begrudge them some chlorophyl, perhaps chicken fodder is not the highest and best use of my home grown produce.  Green beans that have hung out in the fridge for three days will remain there to wilt while I’ll continue to pluck them fresh off the vine for lunch everyday.  Zucchinis turn seedy and husky on the counter while I sautee fresh tender babies with basil for breakfast.  So this year, what I don’t eat will go immediately into a freezer bag at the very least.  But to very the winter offerings and keep the freezer from overflowing, I’ll set up the dehydrator–and some screens for sundrying on those scorcher August afternoons.  I’ll keep those gallon jars clean and a special spot on top of the kitchen cabinet clear for ongoing fermentation experiments.  Herbs, you will be tied and dried.  By whatever method and in whatever quantity, I shall preserve!  Frozen raspberries still make jam, and tomorrow is another harvest.

*Work smarter not harder:                                                                                                                                                                                         Slugs have the right to exist–outside of my cruciferous crops.  And this year I will thwart their advances with beer, copper, slug bait….whatever it takes, instead of lamenting over their shredded, slimy leavings after the fact.  I will put in the time and effort up front to make watering simple and routine.   Wells around thirsty veggies, smart plant groupings, soaker hoses and sprinkler timers put in place before vegetation cuts off access.  Mulch the maturing garden.  Straw, grass clippings, newspaper and cardboard….keep the water in and the weeds out once seedlings are thinned and thriving.  In short, it’s time to work the garden instead of letting it work me.

*Barter:                                                                                                                                                                                                              Abundance surrounds me, and I needn’t produce everything myself.  Those extra collards and kale could go in the freezer OR they could go to the goat lady down the street in exchange for milk.  And perhaps I don’t even need to grow zukes.  Five people on my block would gladly trade their surplus summer squash for tomatoes.  Good relationships turn eggs into bread.  Cut flowers into restaurant meals.   I’ve got a jug of homebrew, a  jar of kraut, a rototiller, a chipper, a well-appointed tool shed.  Let’s make a deal!        

These are optimistic resolutions that assume a thriving, productive season.  It’s a La Nina year, so I might not need to worry about what to do with my surplus.  But for now, in the depths of January, all I have is frozen green beans and fantasy.

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Emergency Diplomatic Foray
February 22, 2010, 7:18 pm
Filed under: Uncategorized | Tags: , , , ,

Friday began like any rainy day in January…..Jack was climbing the mulch mountain and yelling about being an airplane, while Jana and I were stuffing a wet cowhide into a (clean-enough) city garbage can for the first of a series of rinses that would prepare it for scudding.  Scudding, scraping the soaked and softened fatty membrane that still clings to the hide, is the next step in our home-tanning process.   Jana and I were grimacing, wrestling the slimy, hairy, stinky, unwieldy thing into the tub, and it must have looked like we were attempting to dispose of the corpse of sasquatch as the kids looked on when an official City of Portland truck turned down our drive. 

Gulp.  Jana and I locked eyes and continued our slimy struggle in as untroubled a manner as we could until the building inspector got out of his truck.  We established that I was the owner of the property in question, and I nearly fainted as he read the list of complaints about unpermitted work inside and outside.  My peripheral vision went black as I realized that the official kibosh would end life as we know it on our little homestead.  My “concerned but casual” cover was nearly blown…..literally……as I surpressed the urge to vomit.  Illegal outbuildings, illegal woodstove, illegal BATHROOM IN THE BASEMENT!  Trying to listen to the inspector, my mind flipped through the mental database of names and faces of friends and neighbors who could possibly know enough about our property to make these specific allegations.  I reeled, imagining that it might be someone who we have welcomed into our home and openly shared our space with, who has probably joined us around the firepit to celebrate some community events or holidays.

I’ll skip the details, but fortune was with us.  This inspector  had  no desire to shut down our compound.  With his long gray beard, wire-rimmed spectacles, and fair and reasonable manner, he was like a bureaucratic Santa Claus, explaining as he drove out of sight, “this is a complaint based process, and we will not be back unless this jerk tries to start another fight.”  Ho ho ho!  Well, those might not have been his exact words, but I think I’ve captured the sentiment.

And for a moment it felt like Christmas.  Sweet reprieve!  But relief quickly reverted to anger, suspicion, fear and sadness.  Who?  Why?  My immediate neighbors (good neighbors, whose covered deck currently smells like a butcher shop because it is occupied by our two curing cow-hides) and I have a running joke about our biannual nuisance complaints.  About twice a year, we’re delivered notice about some moldy pile of mulch or construction debris, expired tags, or other evidence of our uncivilized existence.  In higher times, we laugh it off and take it as a push to finish up and clean up the latest lingering project.  In lower times, we speculate unkindly on the identity of the culprit and rant about  anti-agrarian, anti-working class laws and codes that make it nearly impossible to improve our own property in an affordable and legal way.  My inner libertarian cocks my rifle, stands on the porch, and says, “get off m’land.”  But this felt different.  This felt personal.  And I just knew that it would happen again, probably with unhappier results, unless I could also do something personal.    So I confess it was not without a thought to garnering sympathy, that I elected not to change a thing in my ensemble.  I left Jana huddled over the soaking hide in the downpour and set off in my galoshes and babushka head scarf.  With Thor on my back and  a dripping, woolen shawl draped around both of us, this soggy, hunch-backed apparition sloshed off to win the hearts and minds of the disgruntled with honesty and sincerity–and a cute baby.

The feeling was almost evangelical.   Hands shaking, a fire in my belly, I was propelled by a  certainty that I could not fail.  How could anyone who knew our good intentions and hardworking family possibly object to our strange ways.  Who, when approached directly and respectfully could cloak their concerns with covert phone-ins .  I felt this intoxicating clarity of purpose that I was on a peacemaking mission to strengthen and unify the neighborhood, usher in a new era of open communication and local problemsolving, reach out to the disenfranchised,  push my community-building ethic to the next level.  Perhaps it is obvious by now that I am prone to grandiose thought and spiritual experience brought on by relatively mundane events.  This may fall under that heading.  But I was ready to convert the pope with pure charm and neighborly concern.  

I did not rehearse but had complete faith that the words would come because they were bubbling out straight from the heart.  And they went something like this:  A building inspector had just come with some complaints that were really scary because they were of a nature that would require some intimate knowledge of our property.  I was sad that someone in the neighborhood was offended by what we’re doing and upset they didn’t feel they could approach us with their concerns.  Admittedly, we do some things that are a little unorthodox, but we’re doing all the work ourselves because it’s what we can afford.  We love living here, and so much of what we do is for our neighbors to share and enjoy.  We’re building a life here, and this place is a hub for a lot of people who live nearby.  Everyone is welcome in our home.   I want this to be a great place to live for everyone in the community, and anyone can come and talk to me about what we’re doing–whether it’s for a friendly visit or to discuss concerns.  I am more than happy to craigslist that extra set of tires or  deal with what’s under the tarp if I know that it’s important to one of my neighbors.  But I just need to know. 

I should mention that I have changed names and construction project details to protect the beleaguered homeowners who just want to be left alone to improve their ways of life without everybody and the city getting all involved with the intimate details of their plumbing and setbacks, already! 

The first round of outreach yielded little in suspects but much in sympathy.  Stop one was a neighborly lovefest, ending with mutual reassurances that Molly and I were totally on board with one another’s boats, dogs, trucks and sheds and that at very minimum I was better than the last occupants who had a homeless camp in a shipping container and an open sewer pit in the backyard.  On the second stop, Roger and Ella echoed that sentiment and assured me that I was “probably the only one [they] never say anything bad about.”   Ella sent me off with a box of chocolates and a request that I not show my cleavage to Roger when I was working in the yard(?).  Next,  Lacey thought I was a wandering tamale lady (I’ll give her that.  I was sporting a pretty third-world sillhouette.) and denied me access through the front door.  Her husband come from around the back to fend me off, but I ended up with a full house tour and discussion of future remodel plans.  Down the road, Carol kindly offered to hold the baby while I had a stiff drink.  I declined.  Lucy, who I had never properly met before, hugged me.  Nora wanted to set up a playdate with the kids.   On and on it went like this. 

It was dark, I was beginning to intrude on dinner hours, and Thor’s sleeping head was bobbing backwards at an angle alarming to non-parents.  So, out of obvious suspects, I bagged the diplomatic mission for the night.  Comforted that none of our immediate neighbors are secret detractors, I am now venturing farther afield, approaching people with less obvious proximity to our property.  I’ve heard tale of a St. Johns old-timer that makes frequent rounds of the neighborhood, talking to people out working–maybe shooting the breeze, maybe collecting intelligence???  I’ve also heard that he used to make these rounds with his wife until her arthritis turned her housebound.  I continue knocking on doors hoping to find him, and talking to others, but the approach gets more awkward as a little of the evangelical fire burns off and I get farther from basecamp.  Many of these people truly are strangers.  A few blocks away from my own home I know very few people even by sight, let alone by name.  And as the mission gets tougher, it seems also more important.  Yes, this effort has strengthened some relationships that were suffering benign neglect–but creating new ones is the deeper work.  As someone with a self-professed “village” ethic, a belief in the shared life, it’s clearer to me now that we must  reach farther.  It’s not enough to sit content in an insular, exclusive ingroup that is easy to live with.  Reaching out to those who don’t understand or who are downright hostile to our efforts and finding common ground is essential.  This is building concensus.  This is the essential work of changing society. 

I work to create the world I want to live in, to make heaven on earth.  And so should we all.  But what happens when heavens collide?  When utopian visions differ?  When generational and ideological gaps create an impasse?  We put our ethics of localism and collaborative community-building to their greatest test.  We enlarge the scope of our collective vision.  And how can we  collaborate with people we don’t know?  Stop preaching to the choir and start knocking on doors.



Followup: Tallow 101
December 8, 2009, 10:06 pm
Filed under: Uncategorized

Jana estimates the box of meat and fat that we scraped off the cowhides to weigh about sixty pounds.  It is mostly fat, but we did excise a couple bona fide skirt steaks.  We discarded the idea of eating the larger pieces after considering the wrapping, hanging, and aging involved AFTER rinsing off the ground in dirt and dingleberries of unknown origin.  As haters of waste this decision was painful.  But when even my brother Mikiel turned down the meat (he is a man who does not turn down meat) we shrugged and consoled ourselves that we would at least be rendering the fat for some good old fashioned tallow candles. 

Fast forward ten days later: Jana called me to ask if I reeeeeeally wanted to render the fat as planned.  Well, of course I did!  Who wouldn’t?   She said we needed to get to it right away, as Gabriel (Jana’s main squeeze, my other brother) was getting a little testy about the orc-breath* stench in his woodshop.  

No problem.  Let’s just throw it on the burner and get to work.  Tallow candles for all this Christmas!

Oh, but Jana had done her research.  Jana said we’d have to cut the rancid meat off the fetid fat before heating.  Jana said the finished product would smell about the same as the raw material, as would the kitchen for a long time to come.  Jana asked again if I reeeeeeally wanted to keep this sixty-pound box of past-date innards in our possession for further processing, as tomorrow was trash day. 

For a moment it seemed almost worth it.  My inner rabble-rouser rubbed its hands together in mischievous delight. Rotten-meat scented candles in stockings……Oh the scrunched noses.  Oh the foul looks.  Oh the grudges and revenge gifts such an act would spawn.  My inner earth goddess rubbed its hand together in grievous fret.  Oh the sinful waste.  Oh the broken circle.  Oh the loss of rich and life-sustaining fat to an already gorged landfill.  Then it hit me.  Logic trumped both prankster and conscience.  Those candles would likely end up in same said landfill.  This after I  spent my valuable free time sifting through reeking adipose and permanently polluting my kitchen.  Rationalization complete, I broke it to Jana.  Maybe we should just forget about it.  Sigh.

Jana was heartbroken.  Heartbroken that I wasn’t there to help her schlep that putrid package out to the curb. 

As we continue the tanning process, I am a little haunted by this failure, which seems small and large at turns. My error of procrastination may be of little real consequence, but it is a transgression against my professed ideals.  And it is one of many.   I was born blessed with a guilty conscience that will ruminate, deliberate and comtemplate the spiritual aspects of choosing tea or coffee every morning if I give it too long a leash.  So the fact that I didn’t need those candles to make it through these long long winter nights, or the fact that I probably won’t be giving any Christmas gifts to anyone except my 3yr old doesn’t assuage my remorse at letting part of those two cows end up in the garbage truck.  So what did I learn in Tallow 101?  Specifically: tissue decays quickly.  Generally: so does opportunity, intention, inspiration, idea, ideal.  My babies give me at least two built-in excuses to put off anything that seems too hard, too unpleasant or too idealistic for at least another day.  The brutal sleep deprivation of early motherhood and the always demanding tasks of running a household and homestead can keep me stuck on bare minimum power.  I reserve the right to invoke these defenses.  But as a balm to my shrill inner voice, my overactive sense of compunction, I am prescribing a dose of “do it!”   My new motto:  quit thinking and just DO something! Anything!

In this spirit, I press “publish!”



Cows are BIG. Fat is GROSS.
November 17, 2009, 7:55 pm
Filed under: Uncategorized

********UPDATE********My very talented friend Kirsten (AKA Malady) illustrated a highly amusing, slightly incriminating companion piece.  Check out her take at missmalady.blogspot.com

The craigslist posting seemed too good to be true:  two cowhides in Woodburn free to the first caller.  I’m NEVER the first caller.  Trying to time possibly pointless forays into little-known suburbs between naps and diaper changes just rarely feels worth the trouble in cost-benefit analysis.  But I’ve been wanting to tan a hide for years, and the rabbits and raccoons piling up in the freezer just weren’t motivating me.  Two whole Black Angus cows.  Now there’s a worthy endeavor.  So despite the lack of visible enthusiasm on Jana’s part (Jana is my brother Gabriel’s girlfriend, has tanned a deer hide, and was my likely partner in this project), I shoved the crying children into the mom-mobile and headed into afternoon Vancouver bridge traffic in the darkening rain.

As we swung the sopping, bloody skins into my trunk from the back of Steve’s (Mr. craigslist) truck, he asked skeptically over Thor’s frustrated wails whether I had done this before.  I now understand why someone with experience would doubt the ability of a woman with 2 kids under 3 to scrape and tan this kind of square footage in a timely manner.  I saw the same look in Jana’s eyes when I plopped the monstrosities under her carport the next morning.

Four days later, the lessons are many.  First, get an ulu knife.  Alaska natives use its sharp, curved blade (imagine a cross between a nut chopper and a Klingon Bat’leth) for all stages of skinning and scraping, and it is the perfect tool for the job.   I switched between a very sharp long knife given to me by a butcher for just such purposes, and a shorter  pointy blade that gave me a bit more dexterity in tough spots.  Struggling ineffectually for purchase on the slimy integument, I slipped and sliced open my rubber gloves over and over,  muttering enviously at Jana’s superior implement nearly the entire time.

Second, get a babysitter.   While this mother relishes the opportunity to address the matter-of-fact  life and death questions of an almost three-year old, the interrogation became repetetive.   For example:

“Is that dead?”

“Yep.”

“Those are guts?

‘”It’s meat and fat.”

“What are you doing?”

“Making leather.”

“What are you doing?”

“What AM I doing?”

“Making leather?”

“Yep.”

“Is that dead?”

“Yep.”

“Why?”

“Ummm…so we can eat meat and make leather.”

“Why?”

“For yummy protein and sturdy shoes.”

“You making leather?”

“We’re making leather.”

“Is it dead?”

“It’s dead.”

“Why?”

This continued ad nauseum with little variation.  But with wicked sharp tools and greasy innards lying around, “why” fatigue is not the only reason to find another supervised activity for the kiddos while concentrating on this tedious but potentially injurious task.  Bringing a little friend along only compounds the problem.  I tried leaving them in the house to fend for themselves.  When I checked on them thirty minutes later, Bandit the salamander was dangerously overstuffed on crickets and the boys were spitting chewed-up sunflower seeds from one end of the house to the other.  Also, babies should obviously not be crawling around in cow juice and freezing rain, but strapping them to the back is not ideal for this kind of work either.  Thor napped through much of the action, but I was not so comfy.  See photo exhibit A.

Third, get a crew.  Cows are big.  Stretch a cow out into two dimensions, and you have something like a king size sheet that weighs as much as a full grown man–and smells much worse.  Scraping a hide is a clan activity, not a solitary one.  And putting out the facebook call is useless.  Both Jana and I posted what we thought was a cleverly worded, very enticing work party announcement which was met only with jokes and half-hearted “would if I coulds.”  Useless!  Personal calls to a hand-selected, hearty of heart few yielded some willing assistants, one of whom showed up.   James, a semiquasi-vegetarian with eastern Oregon roots and antlers on his motorcycle, came with pie.  Oh!  That reminds me of lesson four:  eat before you begin the day’s work.  You will need your energy but you will lose your appetite.  Fat is gross before it becomes the marbling in your steak or the lard in your pie crust, and meat does not smell good until it hits the barbeque.  Incidentally, I can now see how lard makes a superior crust.  The fat naturally occurs in flaky strata that resemble perfect pastry dough.  But noticing this does not make you hungry for pie.  So perhaps the best reason to muster a team is for comiseration.   James joined us on our third day of work, by which time Jana and I had run out of ways to talk about how difficult and disgusting it was.  Thematically, the conversation differed little, but working through the retches with another person made the experience seem fresh and new.  In a few hours with just one extra blade, we nearly finished the second hide.

Last, think about drainage.  After scraping comes salting, which draws moisture out of the hide, preventing rot.  We salted the first hide after scraping it as clean as we had the patience for and hung it in the garage overnight to stay dry.  We had to splash through an inch of pinkish juice the next morning to get to the second hide, thankfully still in a garbage bag.  Jana swept the liquid out to the driveway, where it mixed with standing rainwater and sawdust to form a slurry of biomass that I can compare to nothing else in odor or appearance.  The salted skins release moisture quickly and in surprising quantity, even after second and third applications.  With this new knowledge, and in order to spare my brother’s tools from a second dip in the au jus, we decided to move the skins to my neighbor’s covered deck before we salted the second hide.  The deck is covered, roomy, and elevated.  A tarp and bucket system contains and diverts the salty excretions.  We’ll continue periodic saltings until the hides stop weeping, and the salt stays white and crystalline when rubbed in.    Hopefully we will reach that stage before Thursday, when we’re expecting about twenty guests for Thanksgiving.  But if not, the seepage will surely discourage overeating.

Pardon a little black humor.  I take no pleasure in the death of a cow.  They are gentle creatures with soulful, sentient eyes.  If allowed, they live peaceful lives seeking only sun, shade, grass, and water.  As an omnivore in boots, however, I feel compelled to participate at least sometimes in the unpleasant aspects of the life and death agreement we make with livestock animals, our partners in evolution.   To honor their sacrifice, we must do the dirty work.  And this is dirty work.  In fact, taking on such a large scale project that filled my hands, nostrils, and brain with bloody meat for most of four days gave me some insight on a meat industry implication I hadn’t much pondered.  What is the psychic effect of constant immersion in gore and death?  Who performs this work?  Should this be anyone’s full-time job?  Like so many dirty, dangerous and undesirable jobs in our country, slaughterhouse and tanning work is done by immigrants and poor people with few options and little recourse for injury and exploitation.  In India, caste-less untouchables slosh through toxic tanning chemicals and slice off fingers on the dis-assembly lines that are subject to no safety standards because their workers are entitled to no protections.   Their plight is worse only by degrees than that of other marginalized people worldwide who deal with death, refuse, and excrement.  Labor unions, inspection systems, and international trade agreements can deal with health and safety issues.  But does outsourcing all contact with death violate less obvious human rights?  When killing and dismembering  are a mere job, a purely physical act devoid of ritual and reverence, for some to perform in degrading drudgery while others remove themselves from it, we are all robbed of an elemental existential experience:  meaningful confrontation with death.  We commit a spiritual oppression, causing either traumatic overexposure to or infantile denial of mortality.

The people doing this work are feeding our collective prodigious appetite for meat, without which it is unlikely we would have come this far as a species.  But if we had to produce our own meat, how much of it would we eat?  How much of it would we want to eat?  Raising it  takes work, water, land and time.  Killing for it requires looking death in the eye.  Cutting it apart forces contemplation of the eventual fate of our own mortal remains.   When we eat the meat, when we wear the skin, we literally assimilate the animal that gave it’s life to us.  We consume it’s flesh and assume it’s shape.   This is a sacred communion lost to many, but not to all.   Most of us are unlikely to stop eating meat completely or to begin raising and harvesting all we consume.  But when we divorce ourselves from death completely,  we lose.  We remain as children.  We live blindly, fearing death, ignoring social, economic and spiritual consequences of our most basic consumption–food.

Unfortunately, Saturday was a long-planned steak night.  Feeling uncertain, I toasted to cows, and after a glass of Spanish red I was able to enjoy the smell of a NY strip searing in cast iron.  But I am eating less meat remembering the innard immersion of the past week, which is right and good.  The first heavy, wet slap of the bloody hide on the plywood sent a quiver through my guts as we unfolded it.  My nostrils involuntarily twitched when the smell hit.  The knife in my hand was less than steady on the first few passes, as it is everytime I face the animals that have died for me.  But I would not want to lose this visceral reaction, to become too accustomed to death.  Nor would I feel completely alive without sometimes standing before it with a knife in my hand, renewing the bargain, feeling humble and sorry and grateful.