Just occasionally you find yourself in an odd situation. You get into it by degrees and in the most natural way but when you are right in the midst of it you are suddenly astonished and ask yourself how in the world it all came about.
~ Thor Heyerdahl, The Kon-Tiki Expedition
It’s my birthday soon. Another turn of the wheel, so to speak. In my kindergarten class, the calendar was displayed in a giant circle at the front of the room, with January on top and my month in the bottom, left hand corner. When I entered first grade and the months were displayed in a straight line, hanging down from the top of the chalk board, I was confused. How did one get from the bottom of December to the top of the new year in this linear set up? I still visualize my years as circles.
Last year on my birthday I was conspicuously in Taipei, like a beetle in a bowl of rice, breathing incense in the temples, and eating my body weight in dumplings. This year, I will be shearing sheep on an Australian biodynamic sheep and cattle farm at the end of the middle of nowhere. To think of where I might end up at my next birthday!
Earlier this week, the Farmer and I were at his wife’s chicken farm in Boyup Brook. She is small, compact, and bursting with a frantic energy. Where the farmer is calm and slow, she is quick and impatient. Their farms are to match: his is sprawling and indolent; hers is smaller and every inch of space is used for plants, chickens, books, art work, etc. The night I met her she said to me, in a strong and abrupt Dutch accent, “Tomorrow we will kill chickens.”
By the time I woke up, at the appointed time of 6:30 am, they had already chopped the heads off fifteen roosters. She had explained to me, that while it’s a dirty job, it’s necessary. When there are too many roosters it upsets the balance of the coop. They fight, gang up on the weaker ones and harass the hens. So she picked out fifteen of the worst offenders and the ones not likely to breed well.
With sleep still in my eyes, I joined the others around a large table with two wheelbarrows at either end, lined with straw for putting the feathers into. The farmer soaked each chicken in a vat of hot water – 70 degrees is the perfect temperature for softening the skin enough to easily pull out the feathers without cooking the meat. We each grabbed a chicken, floppy, wet and headless, and began to pluck out the feathers. When they were naked, they went into a cold tub of water.
From there, the good Dutch lady went about the task of gutting them. I stood next to her and prepared the gutted ones for packaging, watching her pull out each organ, splitting them into piles for the dog and for the compost, and for those who wanted to make their own chicken liver pate. At one o’clock in the afternoon, we finally sat down at the kitchen table, exhausted, and had lunch.
Yesterday, I pulled one of these chickens out of the fridge and roasted it whole. As we were eating it, I thought of how I’d been present for the whole process from live chicken to dinner. And I thought about what she’d said: to be a proper caretaker, you have to know how and when to kill.