WARNING: Graphic images of butchery are included in this article
I swing my heavy cleaver down onto the sticky surface of the stump, slicing through the thin bone of the chicken’s neck with a swift sureness that I have gained only through practice. The chicken’s eyes grow murky as life withdraws from them and blood spurts from the main artery that supplies the brain.
There is always a rush of sadness and adrenaline in me as I take the life of a chicken, though I have taken hundreds of chickens lives. I am filthy, my white apron covered in blood and a sheen of poultry guts. A droplet of salty sweat drips into my eyes but I can’t wipe it away with hands covered in blood and gore.
My hands, numb from hours of work, clutch at the chickens slim but powerful legs, keeping clear of the sharp claws that can draw blood even after death. I swing the chicken off and away from the stump as its powerful wings start to flap. Flap, flap, and then a bunch of flapping as the electricity of life leaves that body for the last time.
I set the chicken carcass upside down into a five gallon bucket, and turn around to began to do the same thing again with another chicken my friend has brought to the stump. I hear the clatter of the bucket handle and turn around to see the chicken running around in the yard without a head, blood spurting from its neck.
Good God, I think to myself, this is like a scene from a Hieronymus Bosch painting.
We all eat. We eat, we take lives, and at some point our own lives will be taken and animals will eat us. There is no moral concepts or philosophizing that can change these simple facts, but as humans we like to play around with the concepts of ideals, ethics, laws, and morals in order to justify our behaviors. Animals in the wild have no such compunctions.
We are all like that chicken running around with its head cut off.
We think our individual lives have more meaning then any other animals lives, even if we pretend that we don’t. We circle the wagons but the wolves and the hungry beasts are still out there. They’re waiting to eat us, in the same way that, when our stomachs gurgle hungrily, we think about that juicy double bacon cheeseburger and fries. Or if you’re a vegan, that roasted Tofurkey with cashew gravy.
If you only knew the body count a field of barley produces.
We lie to ourselves, day in and day out, about the bloodthirsty nature of our food lust. We want to eat what we want to eat. We want to believe that we are causing the smallest amount of harm possible, very little pain, minimal deaths. But it’s not true. Everything we eat causes a certain amount of harm, pain, and death.
It is the truth — don’t kid yourself.
Some of us don’t give a shit about anything: we eat everything put in front of us without concern. We don’t care about animal ethics or the concept of sustainability, and just enjoy food for food sake’s. This viewpoint is probably the norm.
Some of us create an ethical framework of consumption, and only eat what we think exists within those borders. We don’t eat meat from factory farms and we strive to eat pastured animal products. We try to make sure the animals are treated well and that they have access to dirt and sun. This viewpoint is becoming more popular, as long as it is affordable.
Others decide to dispense with the animal products altogether. Vegetarians and Vegans like to point out that it takes more water and grain to feed an animal to produce a pound of meat then if we just ate a pound of the grain itself. That is true. They also like to point out that we don’t have to eat animals. That is also true. And yet, we also don’t have to eat cashews or chocolate or coffee either. They say that plants don’t have feelings. I say there are plenty of animals involved in the production of cashews, chocolate, and coffee, including underpaid and overworked humans. Back and forth we go, until the exchange of words is pointless and emotion becomes raw and real. This viewpoint is growing in popularity, but still remains a fraction of the whole.
Others say that grain is the cause of all of our heath problems and so they do without all grain and carbs. Variations on this theme include raw foodists and those who eat like Paleolithic man. Still other eaters are now eschewing vegetable matter and focusing on consuming fat and protein in large amounts (an incredibly privileged ability) to go into a state known as Ketosis, wherein the body burns its own fat reserves for fuel in the absence of carbohydrates.
All of these viewpoints are adopted for ethical reasons or to increase health or lose weight.
Some of us eat only what we grow on our own lands, or what our friends grow, or what we glean from dumpsters. These viewpoints arise out of ethical concerns, economics, enjoyment of community and growing our own food, and so on.
All of us think we know the truth about eating.
But there is no truth — the fact is that there is no truth about living or dying. These things simply are what they are, and we create elaborate intellectual edifices around them to try to make some sort of sense out of life and death— religions and diets and philosophies that make us feel like there is a higher meaning to the simple business of living and dying.
We don’t want to acknowledge the murder and mayhem that proliferates in the undergrowth of the forest, we want to sanitize the action of wild animals and turn their lives into the technicolor platitudes of a Disney movie. Animal life is made up of blood, bone, muscle, and sometimes terror and pain. When a wolf sniffs out a den of baby rabbits, you will see a massacre happen. When a hawk snatches a mouse from the field, you will see pain and suffering. Even though we read about how quickly and painlessly predators kill their prey, predators don’t read the same books that we do.
As human beings we’ve created tribes and societies in which we have rules that govern how we behave.
We don’t allow murder, we punish wrongdoing. We build societies based on moral principles that we all agree upon.
Historically we’ve agreed that keeping livestock and growing crops is an acceptable practice. Thanks to subsidized cheap fossil fuels, we have increased our production levels to an order of magnitude that threatens to rapidly destroy our own environment with its unintended secondary effects, such as erosion of our essential top soil and the creation of superbugs that decimate crops. The epitome of these destructive practices is the farming technique known as Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations, or CAFOs. Inside a CAFO, men turn animals into production units and they suffer unthinkable cruelty.
If you think chopping the head off a chicken is cruel and unusual, you don’t understand how nature works. Underneath our own skin lies rivers of blood that can be drained from our bodies in minutes. Life is fragile beyond measure, and we only have a brief moment to live it. And to live, we must eat.
What is cruel is to not honor the lives of all of those creatures that die so that we can continue.
What is cruel is to decide that your own individual philosophy of eating is the most important, the most perfect, the best for everyone on the planet to follow.
When you live with nature, when you farm in rural America and hike in the wild like I do, you see nature in a myriad of forms both transcendent and gruesome. Neither form is good or bad, they simply are. Whether you live in the middle of thousand acres of wilderness or a thousand acres of metropolis, the natural processes stay the same. But only in nature can you observe them and learn from them.
We all share the same cycles of birth, life and death. Indigenous populations across the globe know this and respect the lives they take daily in order to survive and thrive.
I can only make my food choices based on the best information that I have on what is good for me and what is good for the planet. But let’s not kid ourselves — we are all led around by our senses. We seek pleasure and we want to avoid pain. We are like all other animals in that regard.
The only difference is that we make up stories to justify our behaviors. The story I believe in is that respect is the key to eating well — respect for the animals and plants and the Earth, as well as our fellow human beings. When we respect all of these things, and understand the cycles of life and death, only then can we eat authentically and from the heart.
Even if you consider yourself a vegan, know this: the journey that your beans, grains, or vegetables took to get to your plate involved plenty of suffering and death. Death is an integral part of nature, and we cannot really respect nature until we respect death.