It’s the most bittersweet of our seasons, late fall or early winter depending on the day and the weather. Tomorrow it might be 20 degrees and driving sleet or it might be 70 and sunny.
It’s the time of year when we kill the animals — the cattle, sheep and goats — we will eat next year.
Just a few months ago they were the spirits of spring, filling the pastures with the joyful, bouncing exuberance of new life. In a few weeks their meat will be in my freezers, and my friends’, on our tables and in our bodies.
People often ask, “How can you eat your own animals?” Sometimes it’s a sincere question, meant to explore the emotions associated with raising your own meat. Often I think it’s more of an accusation: “How can you be so callous?”.
So I might ask, “How can you be so cruel as to eat animals without knowing them? Without knowing how they lived? Without making sure they were treated kindly and with respect?”.
I don’t mean to suggest that everyone should raise their own meat. But it’s perverse, isn’t it, that many people in our society seem to consider it more humane to eat animals they don’t know? Meanwhile, industrial agricultural treats meat animals as nothing more than cogs in the machine, without regard for their happiness.
Even though I’m proud of the happy, healthy lives we give our animals, I feel a profound twinge of sadness now, as I look out over the animals in the pastures. It’s not the sort of sadness I avoid. It’s the sort of sadness I embrace.
It’s the sadness associated with life’s astonishing richness and vitality. It’s the sadness associated with mortality. It’s the sadness we feel as we consider our own impermanence and the impermanence of everything on this planet, everything mortal we hold dear, the sadness that makes life poignant and sweet.
It’s sad when animals I know well and care for reach the end of their lives.
But it would be far worse if I didn’t feel this profound connection, this profound gratitude, this profound mortality.
A few years ago I wrote about a chilly day when I was working on a fence far out in a new pasture, and I kept smelling food. I checked my pockets for old sandwich wrappers. I checked the toolbox for snacks. I smelled the cuffs of my work shirt. Then I realized I had been sitting in wild onions, the wild onions that stay green all the way through the Kansas winter. They smelled like hamburgers.
I’ve noticed lately how the sheep and goats sometimes dine on the green onion shoots. They’ll come over to visit if I sit still, and I can smell onion on their breath. I like to watch goats eating the seed-heads off sunflowers, and I puzzle over the way sheep like to trim the grass down to a slick butch, like the manicured greens on a golf course.
Twenty-five years ago I was an avid hiker and backpacker. A skier and a climber. I probably spent 45 days a year in the outdoors. I slept outside five or six nights a year. Even though I lived nearby and I tried to get into the mountains every chance I had, it wasn’t much. Even then, I realized that I was missing a lot.
Now I’m outside every night, checking on the livestock and closing the chicken house. I see the ice crystals form a halo around the moon. I watch the sun come up several times a week. I know what’s blooming and which birds are coming through. I know what the dirt smells like as the seasons change. I know how it feels to be outside on the worst night of the year watching coyotes try to open the door of the henhouse.
I know I still miss a lot, but I see much more of nature than I did when I was outdoors purely for recreation.
For me the difference between hiking and farming is the difference between listening to music and playing music. As a hiker, I enjoy the dramatic rhythms and splashy vistas of the mountains. As a farmer, I love the dense, varied, vigorous symphony of the prairie.
I get a lot of blood and dirt and manure on my hands and my clothes these days. I get calluses and scars. I get a lot of laughs watching my animals figure out their lives, and I get pretty sad when it’s time to kill them.
Yeah, I have a lot more death in my life than I did before.
And, ironically, that’s part of the reason why I feel like I have a lot of life in my life.
That’s why I farm.
Photo by Bryan Welch