It’s been months since that fateful morning of flat tires, generosity and surprises at the Disco Thistle Farm, but Robyn, bless her buttons, wasn’t finished with me.
On that fateful day, I was flushed with the pioneering spirit projected by her and her husband Shane. I may have said something like: “If you ever need someone to help out…”
A couple months later they needed someone to help out.
It seems that chicken grow up fast, and the ones that I cradled in my arms, shipped lovingly in an egg crate to their new home and fed their first drops of Quadra water (cooing all the way) had reached the level of maturity that meant only one thing.
It was harvest time, so to speak. Time for Robyn’s family to get a payoff on their investment of raising a box full of broilers. These chicks were destined to be food, and it had come time to make them so.
It was time for slaughter.
At first I was elated: I thought “I’m getting closer to the product! Like Thomas Keller when he had to strangle his own rabbits! This will be a great learning opportunity!”
Then the fateful day came and there was a lot of mental back and forth. Maybe some dumb art school dropout city kid like me shouldn’t mess about in the really-real world. Maybe I’m not farmer material.
No, my Dad and Grandpa Joe wouldn’t think twice. They’d get their hands right in there without a second thought. This whole thing was happening whether I took part or not, and I wanted to see this story to the end. “So stop ‘bitchin and grab your mucky-mucks” I told myself in my best farmer-ish accent, “This is ‘gonna get messy!”
Even with my inner-farmer putting on a brave face, I prepared to lose my composure during every phase of this slaughter fest: I brought stomach pills to avoid throwing up. I rubbed my hands in sand because I didn’t trust them not to shake when I held a knife. I even contemplated bringing camphor to rub under my nose if the smell got to intense… I figured my inner-Buddha was going to lose it and trample my inner-farmer in a mad dash to the Quadra ferry… I was wrong.
I arrived at Disco Thistle Farms and immediately felt a weight lifted. Robyn was there to meet me (always a ray of sunshine) as well as her husband Shane (bike-enthusiast, polymath, DIY master and generally cool guy) her sister (black ops coffee run!) three kids and husband.
Everyone was so chill. We all gathered around Shane’s home-made mobile enclosure and played a rousing game of catch-the-chicken. They were so much bigger than I remember, and could really sprint when they saw a big, grabby biped coming at ‘em. Everyone cheered each time another clucker was dropped into it’s wooden box. Once they were all accounted for we shipped them to where the deed would take place, then we sharpened our knives and fired up the hot water bath to strip off the feathers.
Moment of truth.
Sawing, thrashing, blood and stillness… The first chicken head hit the ground and for a couple seconds time stopped.
The three kids were a perfect tableau of emotion ranging from horror and disgust (the oldest) to confusion (the youngest) and even excitement (it’s always the middle kid). I stood by and waited for my insides to coil up, but they never did.
It was sad, but it wasn’t horrible. It just was.
Another head dropped, and another. Time resumed normal flow and soon the bodies were piling up. Everyone got to work and soon we had a fairly well-organized dis-assembly line starting at the chopping block and ending with a long table full of cutting boards for processing.
I never felt even a hint of trouble with the whole scene. It was just work, especially when more hands were needed at the cutting boards. I looked down at the chicken that once was and it looked just like the ones I’d been cutting up in kitchens my whole life.
Except I knew this one hadn’t spent its existence confinement inside the horror of the industrial meat complex. Robyn and Shane had worked hard to give all their animals a real honest life full of sun and bugs and open spaces.
I put on my ipod – The Band seemed appropriate, I ‘dunno why – and it was like a backyard BBQ, or corn roast. Everyone may have been covered in blood, but they were enjoying each others company. Talking, laughing, pitching in and getting the job done. It was very much like that old Cook’s Tour episode when Tony went to Portugal to kill a pig… Just without the game of bladder-ball.
All counted, we ended the lives of all fourty-five chickens that accompanied me on that first trip to the farm. Robyn happily handed me one of the chickens to take home, and I promised to make the best damn roast chicken ever for my family.
All this happened back in September. It’s taken me a painfully long time to come up with the “in” for this story; the crux, the hook, the grand thesis that might make readers give a damn. With such a serious concept like death involved, you’d think my little story would involve even more soul searching and maybe an epilogue involving tears or a hollow stare at the horizon. But I left the killing field without much to bother me. I’d taken those little chicks full circle from cradle to the grave and soon the cook pot, and the whole experience and been a positive one. No regrets.
Thanks once again to Robyn and Shane for helping me to (in the words of composer john Luther Adams) “re-connect with the larger, older world. One that we still inhabit, but we forget” and for just being straight-up awesome people.