Of Blood and Stars

September 22, Early morning

I am awake before dawn on the Equinox. The sky is lightening all around me. The clouds are so soft it is hard to see where each one ends and the robin’s egg sky flows in. To my right is a small herb garden planted in dry, mounded beds delineated by white stones. A gateway, made of three simple, straight boughs barely differentiated from the trees they once were, stand beyond the herbs. Past the gate unfolds an intricately woven permaculture garden: fruit trees ranging from a few years old to the grandmother plum in her sixties.

A white horse whinnies restlessly on the golden hill; a stand of redwoods frame her from behind. Interspersed in the orchard are beds of annual crops: beets, carrots, tomatoes, strawberries, kale, chard. Concord grapes grow from vines draping every available trellis, their scent saturating the air. Although I cannot see them where I sit, I hear the chickens, ducks, and geese calling to the arriving dawn. Somewhere, hidden behind apples and sunflowers, are the family of five goats. The two young males, Peaches and Sweetie, we will be harvesting and processing today, and making into our evening meal.

Goat milk clouds my warm cup of black breakfast tea, adding an unfamiliar sweetness. The goats are an integral part of the life here; they provide milk, cheese, yogurt, even caramel, as well as meat and companionship.

The sun has now risen.

The three days spent on the Hill of the Hawk farm was a lesson in ethics, an ethic related to one of the most intimate aspects of survival: eating. Whether or not to eat animal products, especially meat, is an issue to which every culture seems to have a different answer. An example of the views on these issues are presented by Peter Singer and Jim Mason in their book The Ethics of What We Eat, which stands in contrast to the perspective of Sally Fallon in her cookbook Nourishing Traditions. While Singer and Mason agree with Fallon on many aspects of food choice, such as eating organic produce and purchasing from fair trade and sustainable sources, their primary disagreement is about the consumption of animal products.

Singer and Mason write primarily on animal rights and well-being, looking into the methods of factory farming, as well as large- and small-scale organic production. Fallon, on the other hand, is writing from the perspective of human dietary health, drawing on research about the major benefits of a diet rich in animal products raised in a humane way. She gives examples of the longevity of peoples eating diets high in animal fats and proteins—namely the Japanese, Swiss, Austrian, Greek, and, of course, French[1]—as well as archeological research on the decline in stature of Mayan peoples correlated to periods of meat scarcity.[2] Fallon also draws on numerous studies relating to the importance of animal products, both meat and dairy, for the healthy development of children, and for the prevention of numerous degenerative diseases and maladies.

Singer and Mason focus more on how animals for consumption are produced rather than the dietary effects of eating them. They draw on several differing viewpoints regarding the ethics of taking animals’ lives, looking at the quality of life as well as methods of slaughter. They are clearly in favor of a vegan or vegetarian diet, but also present arguments from those who feel that it is better that animals raised well have the lives they do, rather than not existing at all.[3] While these issues have no clear answers even when one chooses to take a particular position, one aspect of my own understanding of eating meat is that one must experience participating in killing an animal before a decision can be made in favor of meat-eating. And this is just the experience which we encountered at Hill of the Hawk.

September 22, Late afternoon

The goats were brought up in the back of a pick-up truck cradled in the arms of several students. They ate grass near us while we sat and spoke with Tamara, the woman who would guide us with the killing. She said that if she ever were to take an animal’s life and feel no emotion in that act she would know she had done it too much and would have to stop. She wanted to cause the least suffering possible, in part by keeping herself and the other participants calm, and therefore giving no reason for the animals to feel anxiety. Everything is about the animal in his last moments, not about the humans involved. Our well-being in that time comes second. Tamara uses the term “processing” to refer to the entire procedure of harvesting the animal, because we humans can process our emotions as we process the animal.

We brought the goats under a great spreading oak and laid a cloth beneath them. The first goat Tamara gently straddled while her assistant held his head. She put her sharp blade into the back of his neck, severing the spinal cord so he would feel less pain. He only made one small sound, one that seemed to convey surprise more than pain or even fear. Swiftly she brought the knife forward and sliced into the jugular vein. Crimson blood welled from the opening, pouring and pouring forth. I came forward to catch it in a clean, glass bowl. Whispered thanks came from Tamara and her assistant, and many of those standing further back. The animal’s fading pulse seemed to pass from him to the very air itself, beating through everything. I was grateful to stand so close, to look into this little animal’s beautiful deep brown eyes, to thank him, and to recognize the moment when life left him. The eye transformed. No longer a window to the soul it became a glass bead. The blood still poured forth.

The deaths of Peaches and Sweetie were not the routine slaughters of factory farmed chickens, cattle, and pigs as depicted in Singer and Mason’s book. Clearly present in the processing of these two little goats was an aspect not mentioned by Singer, Mason, or Fallon; it was a spiritual presence. The focus for Singer and Mason is on the pain of farmed life and the trauma of the slaughtering process. What became apparent for me beneath that oak tree was that death itself was not an issue that could be assessed with statistics, written description, photography, or even filming. When the issue of pain and fear were handled in apparently the most ethical ways possible, death seemed to become a spiritual exchange, a gifting of one species to another, something that could not be captured in any other way than by standing witness.

September 22, Late afternoon

The rest of the day was given to skinning and gutting the goats, and making recipes of each of the organ meats. Nothing was wasted. Liver and onions, kidneys and red wine, spleen pâté, breaded heart and testicles, lung soup, sausages stuffed into the intestines, fried blood, chocolate blood ice cream. The heads were skinned and sawn in half, the brains dried to be used later to tan the hides. The hides were salted and set aside to be cured. The hooves and bones will be cleaned and buried until they are white, then made into jewelry and musical instruments. Nothing was wasted.

Using every part of the animals felt like the most practical way of honoring their gift and sacrifice. Unlike large-scale farming operations which only use the choicest parts of animals, and often feed the remainder back to a different species,[4] our use and consumption of the animal in his entirety seemed an act of thanks. Additionally, it is the diverse organ meats that provide the greatest nutritional value, as Fallon writes about frequently. Fat-soluble vitamins, such as vitamins A, B, D, and E, are especially abundant in organ meats[5], and also allow for the absorption of minerals[6] and the assimilation of protein.[7] While Singer and Mason argue that any vitamins unavailable in one’s diet can be taken supplementally,[8] Fallon provides arguments of how isolated vitamins can, in some forms, be toxic to the system.[9] Organ meats are especially nourishing for pregnant women, and aid in the development and maintenance of healthy sexual organs.[10] Yet Singer and Mason also give the example of a healthy family of four living exclusively on a well-planned vegan diet, without any seeming detriment to their health.

Reflection on September 21, Evening

Sunset. A road climbs to the west over the hill and opens out to a full view of the Pacific Ocean, a vista broad and high enough to indicate Earth’s great curve. In silence we sat and watched the molten gold of the sun sink in blazing glory as Earth rolled away from its heat. The clouds were set alight, shifting from gold to vermillion, to crimson and magenta. Not until the sun had made his departure did the clouds shift to reveal the ivory crescent of the moon, one day from the quarter. She glowed ever brighter in the fading sky, her face ever turned in adoration to the departed sun.

Watching the cycles of the sun and moon, the passage of the planets, and the great wheeling of the stars across the sky each night led me to thinking about the passage and cycles of life upon Earth as well. The processing of the goats somehow to fit into these cycles, a mysterious give and take, an exchange of life and death, sorrow and gratitude. I was all too aware of that sunset as the final sunset in the lives of those goats, and the following dawn as a dawn onto perhaps a new life for them. Whether we eat other beings or not, death is something we all must contemplate and someday face. In reflection, I learned more from those goats about my own death than I could have imagined.

September 23, Early morning

Venus and Jupiter, two fading diamonds in the warming dawn sky. The few clouds are saturated in rosy sunlight, but the fiery orb has not yet peaked over the Coastal Ridge. The flock of wild turkeys that haunt the farm walk past on my left, and quietly filter into the neat rows of the young Pinot Noir vineyard. One of the farm’s many cats, a large gray and white tabby, cuddles close providing welcome warmth, dividing my attention between petting and the pen. He finally leaves to find a more steady source of love.

Venus, last of the night stars, has now vanished from my sight, lost behind an atmosphere flooding with dawn light. The wind stirs, the cold air pushed forward by the approaching sun. Sunrise here for us is sunset for someone else, someone on the far side of that distant horizon.

When I awoke this morning it was still dark, the sky bejeweled in her net of stars. The moment I stepped through the canvas flaps of my tent I beheld Venus, a gem so bright she shone out unmistakably, shimmering princess of the twilight. From her it was easy to trace along the ecliptic to Jupiter, an orange-shaded beam of light, seated right at the mid-heaven.

Dawn is close. I can see pure sunlight on the south-western slopes of the Ventana Double Cone Mountain. Ventana. A window to the east. The Esalen Indians believe the souls of the dead pass between those two white, granite peaks into another realm. Perhaps the souls of our two little goats passed that way as well.

The birds are all awakening; a hummingbird thrums among the branches directly over my head, jays cry, a kite hawk circles in search of prey. When the kite pauses in mid-air, wings poised, he looks like a white angel in the distance, an angel framed against the Ventana Mountain. Many songbirds call to each other. I can feel their anticipation, their celebration, their worship of the sun. The air stirs restlessly and the temperature continues dropping.

The sun is emerging. A liquid platinum fire is melting up over the hill, spreading across the ridge like gold spilled from an alchemist’s forge. At the heart of that fire pure light spreads in all directions, filling the sky, obscuring the mountain. It melts all things surrounding it into undifferentiated lightness. The first warmth of the day is playing over my skin.

I have found myself wondering often if the experience with Sweetie and Peaches has changed the way I eat. Many questions have come up for me regarding veganism and vegetarianism. As we saw at Hill of the Hawk, the consumed dairy from the female goats requires the occasional slaughter of male goats so that the herd does not become too large. And even an organic vegan diet requires the presence of animals on the farm to provide manure to fertilize the soil in a healthy way to grow crops. To farm sustainably seems to involve animals in some way or another, whether we are vegan, vegetarian, or omnivorous. As before this experience, I personally still eat meat and dairy yet also, as before, I eat them in fairly small quantities. But there is something else that has become a greater part of my diet since leaving Hill of the Hawk: intention and gratitude. Whether we are eating animals—or grains, vegetables, and fruits—what seems to matter most is recognizing the gift of that food. All food is a life sacrificed, a life gifted. How do we in turn repay that life?

Bibliography

Fallon, Sally. Nourishing Traditions: The Cookbook That Challenges Politically Correct Nutrition and the Diet Dictocrats. Washington, DC: New Trends Publishing. 2001.

Singer, Peter and Jim Mason. The Ethics of What We Eat: Why Our Food Choices Matter. United States: Rodale, Inc. 2006.


[1] Sally Fallon, Nourishing Traditions: The Cookbook That Challenges Politically Correct Nutrition and the Diet Dictocrats (Washington, DC: New Trends Publishing, 2001), 7.

[2] Fallon, 27.

[3] Singer and Mason, The Ethics of What We Eat (United States: Rodale, Inc., 2006), 251.

[4] Singer and Mason, 62.

[5] Fallon, 39.

[6] Ibid, 16.

[7] Ibid, 29.

[8] Singer and Mason, 228-229.

[9] Fallon, 37.

[10] Ibid, 29.

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1 Comment

  1. Heather Malcolm Tarnas

     /  October 24, 2012

    Thank you for this beautifully written and highly sensitive piece. I am grateful you shared your experience of reverence for the passing of life from Peaches and Sweetie and for their gifts. Although I heard something of this story, it touches me even deeper to read it here, perhaps because I have the quiet of the night to reflect my own experience of holding Undome as his life ended, as the light in his eye disappeared to a realm I don’t yet know. Thank you for reminding us how to open our eyes to what is sacrificed so we may live.

    Reply

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