“Eilif,” I say, “I want to know how to kill a chicken.”
“Oh yes, yes,” he says quietly. “If I kill it,” he offers, “will you eat it?”
I take a deep breath and prepare to put the last nail in the coffin of veganism. We’re sitting at the table, and the shadows stretch long over the grass through to the trees on the other side.
“Yes,” I say, “yes.”
After I’ve boiled the water and Eilif has popped into his room to change his clothes, he walks back out with an axe in hand. It’s an old axe, somewhat rusted and blunted, and there’s a wooden block he’s carrying alongside.
Suddenly, I’m not so sure I want to do this anymore.
Eilif, I had said that evenings, three nights prior, I want to learn how to do this because one day I will have chickens and I might end up with too many roosters. And anyway, I think if you want to eat chicken, you should be able to justify every act in the process, right; you should be able to perform the whole she-bang, start to finish.
Noting the age of the axe, I’m quickly aware that it’s unlikely one strike will do. It’s going to have to flap its half-mangled neck around for a bit.
I try to slow my heartbeat.
Death is a part of life, I tell myself, we are doing all the other roosters a favour by eliminating the most aggressive. They’re all killing each other right now, they need the space.
“Aggression doesn’t mean better health necessarily or higher immunity,” Eilif says, “So we choose for the healthier but less aggressive individuals.” We go behind the kitchen where he strings up a rope. I suddenly realise that we will have the chicken hanging upside down at some point – much like at the butcher’s, a practice which I’ve always thought barbaric and ridiculous – and my heart sinks further.
“Have you done this before here?” I ask him, gesturing to the ceiling.
“Oh ya ya,” he murmurs nonchalantly.
“No,” I stutter, “Like here, like here exactly?”
He shakes his head and points to the fig tree. “That’s where we have slaughtered it in the past.”
“Um,” I say, remembering the number of times I’ve shaken that tree for figs.
He gives a pep talk. “Now,” he says gently, “We are going to get the chicken. It is important that he’s calm. We get it out like a regular cage change, and pat it on the back. It is important that the other chickens do not know what is going on, that they do not see. So we bring it up, up past the nursery, past the house, to here.”
I nod, and gulp. We take the axe and wooden block to the compost heap.
“Here,” he continues, “We will let it bleed out.”
It’s the path I’ve walked everyday to water the gooseberries and conifers. I clench my teeth and steel myself further.
We start walking down the hill and I all but blurt out the question that’s been burning in my mind for the last three days.
“Eilif,” I say, “Fukuoka talks about interacting with nature with reverence. What does reverence mean for us, right here, right now, as we are about to do this?”
He stops walking and we look out over the valley by the entrance to the nursery.
“Treading lightly on the earth,” he says, “We do not disturb nature too much by our actions – we only take what we need, what’s necessary. When weeding, it means going slowly, lightly – we leave the beneficial plants, the beneficial weeds behind.”
I think of indigenous cultures, and the idea of taking only as much as you need in their hunting and gathering, and it makes sense. It strikes me that veganism must seem very odd to these peoples, must seem like a very extreme response to an extremely altered environmental and ethical plane – in the same way that now weeding crabgrass is necessary precisely because we’ve so badly disrupted the natural balance of things, veganism (and even raw veganism) becomes necessary when we’ve destroyed nature to this extent as a temporary solution, to give nature some breathing room, to give health some time to recover.
Fukuoka writes, The reason that man’s improved techniques seem to be necessary is that the natural balance has been so badly upset beforehand by those same techniques that the land has become dependent on them…. This line of reasoning not only applies to agriculture, but to other aspects of human society as well. Doctors and medicine become necessary when people create a sickly environment. Formal schooling has no intrinsic value, but becomes necessary when humanity creates a condition in which one must become educated just to get along.
Human beings with their tampering do something wrong, leave the damage unrepaired, and when the adverse results accumulate, work with all their might to correct them. When the corrective actions appear to be successful, they come to view these measures as splendid accomplishments. People do this over and over again. It is as if a fool were to stomp on and break the tiles of his roof. Then when it starts to rain and the ceiling begins to rot away, he hastily climbs up to mend the damage, rejoicing in the end that he has accomplished a miraculous solution.
“Reverence is the opposite of the warrior mentality we have now – it means creating and not destroying. Leaving room,” Eilif continues. “It means being in awe – to rever – of nature and not assuming what we do not know is harmful automatically. The warrior mentality and modern agriculture says, “I do not know what this plant or insect is – so I had better kill it – in case it does harm.” In contrast, reverence means saying, “I do not know what this is, so I had better leave it, in case it is beneficial.
“Reverence means harmony. It’s easier to explain for the way we interact with plants. For animals, it’s harder.”
I nod, pretending that I can somehow now see how the chicken slaughter can be any more reverent or sacred than when we started. But, I remind myself, you also kill plants to eat them, so why should killing a chicken be any different? I ignore divisive ideas of sentience, consciousness and ability to feel pain and assume that all beings have consciousness and that death is death, whether you feel it or not. The only difference, therefore, becomes that we anthropomorphise; in the same way it’s only sexy to study large charismatic megafauna in ecology, we place more ‘human-like’ qualities on them; we have more cute-shnuggly-furry-animal-attachment for them and in doing so, well, de-humanise plants. Why is it okay to completely destroy a head of lettuce, anyway, in removing it from the earth and not a chicken? Death is death, surely?
I know the classic vegan response here, revolving around the complexity of the chicken’s neural pathways compared to the lettuce, and it’s all to do with pain. It’s never really been an argument that’s called me, however, for reasons I explain here – I have always felt much more pragmatic and artistic in relation to the emotive reasons usually encapsulated by the ‘meat is murder’ mindset. But, I reason, then vegans would find it equally as horrid the natural massacre that occurs in nature – predator-prey relationships, all the things that seem to make all the sense in the world from an ecological perspective get placed into the anthropomorphised lens of pain and therefore demonised. There is something quite incredible, really, about how the cycles of life work – predators kill prey, scavengers take the rest, and the bacteria in the soil gobble up everything else, which presumably then feeds worms and plants that then feed the herbivores (prey). There is a fundamental truth here, a truth that the Europeans – with their cultural embarrassment around the baggage of death – evade: plants eat animals. So, well, in a healthily functioning ecosystem anyway, and fully integrative permaculture system, it’s impossible to be ‘pure’ vegan – the soil is disintegrated animal products.
We go down to the chicken coops, and I’m suddenly overcome by sadness. I feed these chickens everyday. I give them water and grass and flowers and leaves. Despite what I know – or think I know, intellectually – I have a sense of absurd love for these beautiful, stupid, shit-in-my-food creatures I’ve spent most of my month chasing around, dive-bombing and rugby-tackling gently, planning ambushes with washing baskets and tall grass.
I look at the white rooster we are about to kill and am struck, suddenly, by the fact that he is bloody majestic. He’s gorgeous, with a huge, glittering tail, shiny, sleek feathers of all shapes and kinds.
Eilif reaches into the cage, and they all make an awful racket – every chicken in every other cage erupts at once with this – and he takes it by the tail, then holding it so its belly lies flat on his arm, stroking its back.
He says, “Now, we will speak to them in their own language so they know it’s okay, so they be calm also.”
He hands the rooster to me and flaps his arms, making chicken sounds. In any other circumstance, this would be a hilarious sight – a grown, 53-year old man with white hair and a white beard pretending to be a chicken.
The chickens just stare, blankly. They do not react.
It is growing dark. The rooster is calm and warm in my arms. Eilif says, “The chicken shall be calm until the last moment; it shall not know what is going on.”
I think of nomadic hunter-gatherer societies, and muse, wistfully, that the animals that are not domesticated, caged and fed and watered must have some helluva stress in those last moments and that perhaps that is a more authentic, unabashed and honest way of doing this as opposed to the more or less kidnap-and-lull-and-slit approach we are doing. It feels almost underhanded.
“There are two ways of doing this,” Eilif says, as he lays out the chicken face down on the wooden block, neck somewhat elongated, “The conventional, modern method, which involves dipping the chicken in boiling water to help remove feathers more easily. In this method, you more or less pull the neck and you don’t let it bleed out – the blood is contained within the body.
“The dry method, which is what I prefer, involves chopping the neck with an axe and letting it bleed out, then dry-cleaning to remove the feathers.”
I nod and swallow, hands clammy. Neither method seems particularly exciting as far as I can tell. I wonder why butchers do what they do, why anyone even does this.
The joy of life does not depart in death. Death is no more than a momentary passing, Fukuoka writes.
Life and death are one, he says, If you think there is life on this side, then death is on the other, if you want to get rid of the idea of death, then you should rid yourself of the notion that there is life on this side. I remind myself that the whole process only seems so mortifying because I have the idea of ‘death’ in my head, when ‘death’ – in the deepest sense – doesn’t really exist.
The world itself is a unity of matter within the flow of experience, but people’s minds divide phenomena into dualities such as life and death, yin and yang, being and emptiness. The mind comes to believe in the absolute validity of what the senses perceive and then, for the first time, matter as it is turns into objects as human beings normally perceive them. The forms of the material world, concepts of life and death, health and disease, joy and sorrow, all originate in the human mind. In the sutra, when Buddha said that all is void, he was not only denying intrinsic reality to anything which is constructed by human intellect, but he was also declaring that human emotions are illusions. His student replies, You mean all is illusion. There’s nothing left?
Fukuoka responds, Nothing left? The concept of ‘void’ remains in your mind apparently. If you don’t know where you came from or where you’re going, then how can you be sure you’re here, standing in front of me? Is existence meaningless?
Eilif takes the axe, raises his arm, and smashes the rooster’s neck once, twice. Three times. It’s a blunt-ish axe, and the chicken flaps its wings about. Somehow, I didn’t expect it would put up a fight, not really; somehow I didn’t realise that it would move like this.
I realise, watching the blood pour off into the path I’ve walked everyday for watering, that it is not really blood I’m squeamish about. I’ve done dissections, I know the drill – just the bit where we swing the axe or throw it in boiling water seems jarring. It occurs to me that none of this would be possible without technology – the metal axe did not exist in South America prior to the Spanish – and, when I think of other carnivorous or omnivorous animals, the use of the axe in the first place seems laughable. Cats and dogs need no such implements and can moreover eat the same thing raw – the way Ratcatcher on the farm swallows down tuna at lightning speed both entertaining and difficult to watch; I almost get indigestion watching him eat that quickly. I remind myself, then, that without technology – fire – it wouldn’t really be possible to eat potatoes, grains, beans and legumes either, which only points to raw veganism as a ‘natural’ solution…besides the fact that to make nutrients bioavailable and get enough protein and so on, they, too, need all kinds of blenders, juicers, dehydrators and food processors – also technology, and ultimately fossil fuels. Unless, of course, one is a ‘Natural Hygienist’ or Instincto.
I tell myself, we’ve evolved with fire and cooking, and that this somehow makes what we have just done okay.
It takes a grand total of two minutes to bleed out. I am stunned; somehow I thought it would take longer, that there would be more. Eilif lifts the rooster somewhat to get the rest out, and I note the head is still attached to the neck – why did I expect it not to be? – and I try to dissociate myself from the reality of what we have just done, trying to match Eilif’s easy calm, but I’m suddenly not remotely sure about the hunter-gatherer, indigenous-reverence, ancestral health, Weston A Price thing.
We take it to the back of the kitchen, string it up and de-feather it, quickly, with gloves on the whole time. The feathers are spectacular – I cannot believe I didn’t inspect them carefully before, that I didn’t really look, and I feel a sense of sadness to be so brusquely ripping them off.
It feels kind of like shitting on a Monet.
And anyway, it’s pretty incredible – Nature works so hard to create this majestic creature, so long, so many processes and factors and PPOR, it’s an emperor with no clothes – it’s upside down and butt naked. Eilif says, now is the part I don’t enjoy. He carves a hole in the rooster’s butt to haul out the intestines, ripping the gloves off and sticking his bare hands right in there. I’m not so sure I’m keen on this part either.
I’ve handled animal innards before – as any biologist has – so I wonder if I feel this way about this rooster because I’ve sort of built a relationship with it, I’m kind of attached from having raised it for a while, fed it and watered it, chased it around, calmed it down and held it and so on. Predators in nature do not really form this kind of shnuggly attachment with their prey, so it’s a pretty straightforward process of killing and dismembering. No animal really domesticates another animal – at least, not in the way we do – so they never really have to face this whole thing about conscience and love/attachment, which makes what we’ve just done even stranger – is the most ethical omnivorous standpoint then to hunt, as the indigenous did? Rather than domesticating and building attachment and then feeling sorry for the poor things? Or is it more human to allow ourselves to get close, then feel sad for the passing?
I note, then, that it is a very fatty chicken and that chicken fat is yellow. We save the fat for cooking, and Eilif throws the intestines on the ground with the feathers to decompose. I feel a sudden sense of anguish – now we can’t even do anything beautiful with the feathers anymore, covered as they are in blood. Eilif carves a hole out at the top, gently explaining the whole process, and wrenches out the stomach, then cutting off the wings and de-feathering the rest.
I realise, suddenly, that I don’t know anything anymore. I have the most overwhelming sense of what am I doing with my life, exhausted, mortified, detached, and discouraged. It seems like so much work, all of it, and even if it weren’t for the ethical or moral or environmental or health reasons, I would still feel completely uninspired to undertake the whole process. Taking the feathers off takes forever and I battle mosquitoes and the growing darkness as I continue. It’s hard work, and I somehow have greater respect for butchers.
“Eilif,” I say as he returns from the garden, “This is taking too long. Is there honestly no other way?”
“Oh ya ya,” he says, “You could, perhaps, take the skin off. Do you eat the skin?”
“Um,” I said. Do I eat the skin? Gee, I have no idea.
Even this, though, turns out to be hard work. I give up with just my hands and turn to scissors, two knives and a spoon but it still takes hours – or so it seems – and my hands are beginning to smell like something I’m sure will never come off. It just seems messy and inefficient; I’m tired, not hungry and want to sleep.
The night turns into a kind of trance, and I feel like I’ve just aged five years.
Thankfully, the bone broth at least turns out divine, and soaking ginger in orange juice before frying the organs in garlic seems to go well also, although I probably overcook the rest. The bone broth lasts me three days, and sees me through a fast and a cleanse with sen leaves – I am stunned at its power at keeping one sated, and how absolutely nourished one feels; I can drink it all day and have nothing else. But I am also struck by the fact that anyone who wants to eat meat, make bone broths and so on should first go and live on a permaculture farm, feed, play with, catch and learn to kill, de-feather or skin the animal and go through the whole she-bang, alone, start to finish, before saying seriously I need meat in my life. Can you justify every step in the process? And if you can, can you seriously be bothered?
Kadagaya Project and Vladi spoke often about getting ‘machines to do the menial tasks’ but in this case, it seems to me that technology takes away the reality of what you are doing, acts as a buffer between you and nature so you do not see, touch nor feel it as easily. So chicken slaughter on an industrial scale removes the human component and the direct visual and sensory observation and experience, hence desensitises people.
I also face the recurrent idea that somehow people who eat only vegetables are somehow more spiritual than other people. I, too, in my travels and life in New Zealand have often thought I saw a kind of special ‘aura’ or ‘energy’ emanating from vegans or vegetarians, but in hindsight I put this down to my own bias and seeing what I want to see. I mean, how can you compare the degree of spirituality anyway? As in, I’m more spiritual than you are – it seems like a petty division to me, and I’m not sure I see the whole idea of ‘vibrations’ and ‘spiritual energy’ being on a ‘higher plane of consciousness’ as anything distinct to veganism. What about indigenous tribes, who have held all life to the utmost reverence (and not been vegan nor vegetarian)? Are they somehow all savages now, less spiritual? What does meat do anyway to the body and hence to the ‘spirit’? Okay, so, depending on what kind, what part and how much one eats, it can constipate you – so I guess in the sense of being light and ‘clean’ (or ‘cleansed’ as the spiritual term might be – you and I can call it taking a good dump), there’s that. Second, it probably stimulates us sexually more thanks to the nutrients found which allow for full and proper reproductive functioning – also considered taboo in just about all religions. But I’m certainly not going to give up eating onions and garlic, just because they are an aphrodisiac. Third, the whole issue of ‘you are what you eat’ so if you eat dead stuff then you are a dead person – not whole, not live, not in the fullest of resonance with your spirit. This also really makes no sense, given everything we eat is technically dead, perhaps excepting so-called ‘live enzymes’ which I’m still exploring. Fourth, following on from the last point, the idea that ‘if you ate something that was murdered and suffered pain (or, as my father puts it, ‘killed with hate and anger and greed’ – which I somehow doubt applies to all livestock) then you are taking in that anger/hate/greed/murder and therefore somehow become a ‘bad’ person.’ It’s all this awkward realm of right and wrong and good and bad and barely none of it seems to have any kind of tangible backbone, when you really break it down. That said, I do respect and admire a fundamental need for love for all beings – as long as it doesn’t come through the discriminating intellect. But, Gerald says to me, weeks later, if I ate those things I would be on a lower spiritual plane so I wouldn’t. What’s the difference between spirituality and a lack thereof anyway – degree of sexual stimulation? He – and many other spiritual vegans – seem to think so. I find this odd, all of it, and am, all in all, a little lost, but find this a healthier place to be than thinking I’m dead right and fundamentalist. I wonder if the whole experience hasn’t felt particularly ‘sacred’ or ‘reverent’ because it’s unfamiliar, because I have my ingrained patterns of thought which tell me death is something bad, ugly, never sacred, because I just haven’t tried it enough times or with enough heart and soul.
Regardless, though, I have a newfound appreciation for vegetables.