A while back, I wrote a little piece about landless homesteading and it's transient joys and sorrows. This being the day of the dead for some folks, the dying time, a season when nature retreats into itself, I keep thinking about the cyclical nature of raising animals and growing plants.
Last week we said our farewells to Calypso, the little boy goat who's birth we got to witness last spring. When I say goodbyes, I mean it. The sunday before slaughter day, which I knew I couldn't be at because I had to work, I went over to the goat pen, scratched his ears and thanked him for the good company he's been these past months, for being gentle with the little ones we've brought to visit him, for being sweet and funny and a good goat all around. Of course I told him I loved him. I always tell him that. He's my pal.
A week later we had him for dinner.
I know it sounds macabre when you put it like that, but that's the truth of it. It's never done lightly, or carelessly, but some of the animals folks keep, are destined to be eaten. It's the reality of homesteading. I know there are some vegetarians out there who would argue that there's no need to such a destiny and perhaps I will someday take on that conversation, but in the meantime, I think that if one is to be an omnivore, the kindest, most humane thing, is to raise an animal from a kid to slaughter and to do the deed yourself. Something I've personally been too chicken shit to do so far, though raising chickens for meat is in our "plan" for next year.
No matter which way you shake it, animal husbandry and even pet "ownership" means signing up for often considerable heartache. Animals get injured. Animals die. I realized the other day, as I buried yet another chicken in the garden, that in the five years that I've been keeping chickens for eggs, more than a dozen of them have died from various causes; predators and mystery diseases.
I remember last winter, trying to dig a big enough hole in the frozen earth for five chickens, I doubted the whole point of that endeavor, the wasted resources of food and shelter, only to come home and find that the tiniest hole-gone-unnoticed could undo all of it. This was in February, the hungry month, when predators are the most likely to strike and there's little to eat in the woods, for them, for us, or for the chickens.
Of course, as soon as spring arrived, I came to my senses, patched up the coop with more wire and got thirteen new chicks. Why?
Because, I suppose, it's worth it. Having eggs from chickens I know are happy scratching in the woods is, to me, worth any potential sadness, or loss of resources, in the event that they die from in spite of all of our precautions.
It's worth it the same way every other homesteading venture is. Sure you can buy bread and chutney from the store, just as you can buy dried apples and sauerkraut, or smoked salmon, but learning to make things on our own, with ingredients grown at home, or from known sources, somehow seems to make the food more nourishing than its caloric value.
Growing a plant from seed, a chicken from a chick (or egg, if you're lucky!), watching a goat be born, ties you to your food in ways that shopping at the grooviest, most organic market never will.
You do the dirty work: you knead the dough, you muck up the chicken coop and clean the eggs, carry the buckets of manure and clean the pumpkin seeds for toasting. There is reward in this. Deep, human feelings, slightly beyond words, hovering on the edge of your consciousness. You know they're there, but you don't quite know how to express the satisfaction of them.
The point of animal husbandry, beyond the mere food aspect, seems to be that it too is intrinsic to our nature. Humans have gone to great pains to meet other species in the middle, to alter their behavior to better suit companionship with us.
It's always curious for me to watch the cats, chickens and deer in my yard react to each other. They have their own dynamics and we have our own with each of them.
Interacting with animals, whether wild, domesticated, or somewhere in between, seems to make us better people. There's acknowledgement there, that other beings exist and have their own mysterious and puzzling ways and though we can never really, truly understand them, we totally exist in the same space with them.
And though I don't have any large mammals of my own, I feel very lucky to be able to get to know them. There's something humbling about being reminded that docile and domesticated creatures always have personalities of their own, their specific wild and unpredictable natures.
Being able to milk a cow, or a goat, to rest your head against the flank of a warmblooded mammal who's more than happy with their part of the exchange, feeds that deep sense of belonging that makes homesteading such a joy.
When I think about it, packing away meat in the freezer, canning vegetables for the winter, starting sourdough, cooking bone broth, or making a new batch of fermented cabbage that stinks up the whole house, I'm always reminded that I want this life, with all it's grievances and slight inconveniences. That it is those very things that remind me of my luck. That sometimes bathing in a basin is so much more satisfying than a long hot shower. That eating plain beets you grew yourself is at once a privilege, but also a universal human right that everyone should have, because the act of growing them should belong to everyone.
And I'm also always reminded of the glorious concept of energy exchange: that if the things that nourish this body of mine while I'm on this earth, the plants, the animal-people, agree to do so, then it is my part of the bargain to feed a whole horde of beings when it's my turn to go. That all this energy I'm consuming never disappears, is never wasted, but simply dispersed in different forms into the
Now there's your hippie-dippie thought of the day…