I knew it was her as soon as I pulled the bag out of the freezer. I knew because she looked tiny, smaller by a pound or two. I knew because one leg was diminutive, the other over-developed. And I knew just because my heart told me: Gimpy.
Sensible people do not name the chickens they know they will later eat. It wasn’t my decision, this naming. Raising chickens was a joint project with our neighbours; the coop was at their house. So it was my neighbour, who spent much more time with the chickens than I did, who named this physically challenged fowl. It was my neighbour who moved her to the water and food in the morning, moved her out of the way when she was done. And it was my neighbour who, when the chickens had been slaughtered and we were dividing the spoils, held out the bag and said, “You need to take this one. I can’t.”
I wasn’t actually sure that I could eat any of them. Born in town and raised in cities, I was used to chicken parts. I knew boneless, skinless breasts and the occasional whole bird, sans head and feathers, with the neck and other bits tucked discreetly inside. Meat was never real, not like from a living being. But these chickens had been very real. I had fed them, watered them, worried over the temperature in the coop, prayed over the sick ones, and washed the bottoms of the ones who got pasty butt. I’d hauled feed and sawdust and straw and shovelled chicken poop. In the end, I had carried them warm against my breast down the hill from their pen to the truck that took them to slaughter. These were not chicken parts, not Costco family packs. These were animals that I knew.
Sensible people might ask why I thought raising chickens was a good idea. The truth is that I can no longer bear to eat things that have lived a terrible life. I can’t enjoy consuming something that spent its short existence in a tiny chamber, prey to disease, bred to be so top-heavy it couldn’t walk, the product of a process that pollutes groundwater and creeks with great piles of manure.
Everything I’ve read about factory farming — not just chickens, but pigs and sheep and cows — seems wrong: unhealthy for all involved, ecologically unsustainable.
As my friend D.J. says, “It’s one thing to feed your belly. It’s another to poison your soul.” Treating animals — not to mention the planet — in this way seems inherently poisonous.
Sensible people might also ask why I’m not a vegetarian. I can’t seem to do it. Maybe I don’t know exactly how to balance proteins. But there’s an additional concern for those of us in northern rural areas. During six months of the year, anything other than root vegetables has to travel many, many miles to get here. In that light, vegetarianism seems a luxury, expensive for me as well as the environment. So I’m not — yet — a vegetarian.
The Arctic explorer Knud Rasmussen reports that an Inuit hunter named Ivaluardjuk told him that life’s greatest peril “lies in the fact that human food consists entirely of souls. All the creatures that we have to kill and eat, all those that we have to strike down and destroy to make clothes for ourselves, have souls like we do, souls that do not perish with the body, and which therefore must be propitiated lest they should revenge themselves on us for taking away their bodies.”
While I don’t necessarily believe that Gimpy might avenge herself on me, this quote holds a truth I’m only beginning to understand. If I am going to take a life to sustain my life, I need to do it openly, without cringing or pretending. I need to acknowledge the sacrifice that I am forcing this other being to make. Maybe it’s all just wordplay to make myself feel better, but I have chosen to see each animal I eat as a manifestation of the Holy that is nothing but love.
So when Gimpy and her compatriots were clutched against my chest on the last day of their life, I prayed out loud for them. I thanked them for their lives, and I asked their forgiveness. I told them that I loved them, though I recognized the irony of that statement. I think my neighbours thought I was nuts. But that’s the only way I was able to eat Gimpy; and I feel both better and worse thinking about it. I guess that’s good.
Rev. Therese DesCamp operates Heart’s Rest Retreats in New Denver, B.C.
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