Death Comes for the Pastured Chickens

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Last week we drove out to Descanso, to visit Curtis Womach’s new digs. He’s on his own land now, which must do something very good for the soul of a farmer. He showed us around, introducing us to the various breeds he raises, most of which are endangered breeds.

We’ve spoken much about the good it does to know the people who raise your food, that you are feeding off their enthusiasm for their metier as much as off the flavors and the nutrients they cultivate. But I will say that it’s a strange thing to actually come into contact with the food itself, before, during and after it actually becomes food.

dscn3212.JPG                          The men talk business.

When we arrived, Curtis toured us around his place. His farm does the “Old Macdonald” song one better, representing nearly every requisite species with an endangered breed.

Upon entering the yard, we were confronted by a certain ferocity in the environment; the goats began to shove us and nibble at our clothes, while the red-wattled hogs, between bouts of WWF-style mudwrestling, tore eagerly at the carcasses of dead chickens that lay in the yard. They were, Curtis explained, birds that had died of natural causes; rather than waste them, he gave them to the hogs. Think about that one–pastured animals feasting on pastured animals.

dscn3220.JPG                        Survival of the fittest.

In trying to capture the photogenic baby animals on film, I was repeatedly shoved aside or blocked by protective mothers. Maybe the lens of the camera looks like the eye of a predator, or like a rifle scope; anyway, I was consistently thwarted by a rise in tension and sudden, aggressive action by mother sheep, goats, and geese. It’s hard to explain, or to ignore, the respectful fear occasioned by a couple of parents with hard horns, split hoofs, and eyes blind to everything but the safety of their baby.

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I think it was while I was deciding whether to stand aside from the aggressive family procession or to insist on getting my picture, when I realized something was chewing on my leg. One of the hogs, who had been snuffling my knees earlier, had now wrapped his teeth around it. Unsure of whether shaking him off would deter him or make him more determined, or I should laugh or yell for help, I did them all at once.

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Curtis showed us the incubation room, where the baby chickens keep company with a few hatchling turkeys. I was struck particularly by the one chicken who seemed to have set his sights on escape. He stood on the topmost corner he could reach, and stretched his neck toward the rim of the box, with a very cunning look in his eyes. I think he intuited where all this comfort and security was heading.

img_2248.JPG                                                    The Steve McQueen of the chicken coop.

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When they are fully grown, Curtis’ chickens live in a little hitch trailer, parked in the shade between a couple of trees. Compared to other chickens, they are like the Scandinavians at the Olympics–tall and brawny, with good posture and an angular symmetry to their proportions. They roamed the yard with none of the frantic urgency or the eye-rolling paranoia with which we associate their kind. These chickens were the ones we came for.

img_2258.JPG                               The gallows pole

They awaited their death in the bed of a pickup. Eric pulled them out of the cage by their feet; suddenly upended, the chicken would begin to buck and writhe, probably more from the affront to its long-used dignity. After watching this struggle a number of times, I think he must have cut its throat right then, because he carried them straight from the truck to the row of open-ended tin cones, where they hung still, their eyes blinking and their mouths opening and closing mutely, like fish staring through the wall of a glass bowl.

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They were not altogether mute; bending close to get a picture, I heard one of them groaning faintly. Eric must have heard it, too, because he came up and made another incision, and the eyes froze in their glare at the ground.

img_2265.JPG                                                     The chickens drain

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img_2276.JPG                           and are scalded


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img_2269.JPG                         and tumble-dried (to lose the feathers)

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img_2283.JPG                                                   Fear and trembling

I was talking about the experience with Steph the other night, trying to classify that feeling got from having watched (and tried to help with) the slaughter of animals for food. (Incidentally, we talked about it while eating pieces of Curtis’ chickens for dinner.) I wasn’t bothered particularly by the chickens’ death, or even by the pain and struggle they undeniably bore; what I found strange was how I was not bothered by it, at least not enough to stop enjoying the Kentucky-fried result.

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The strangeness, I suppose, lies in the realization that the pain of their death is the denouement of their happy life. These chickens are fed well, and given open space and shelter, and protected from predators, and given the rights of living beings, so that they can eventually be killed and eaten. It’s a foreign sensation, at least for me, to witness suffering and to accept it as a good and proper thing. But I think that’s what you have to do if you’re going to eat good, proper meat. Their foreordained death makes their life more precious, and that life makes their death more delicious.

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Curtis told us about one of his favorite baby goats, who lost its twin when the mother accidentally rolled over on it in her sleep. It’s strange to think that this mother, who while awake would so aggressively protect her baby’s life from a camera lens, would be the one to accidentally crush it, while someone capable of wielding a camera, or a blade, will be twice as careful to protect the baby that remains.

There’s a philosophy in there somewhere. Meanwhile, we eat chicken, and I don’t blame the pig for getting his shot in while he can.

P.S. I’m going back to Curtis’ on Thursday, this time to do more than take pictures.