On slaughtering chickens

butcher

The day comes without fanfare — usually a sunny day in June. I spend the morning bustling around the kitchen, nursing a cup of coffee. Roasting pans are prepared, knives are sharpened, and an assortment of other preparations are made for the day.

I work quietly, trying not to dwell on the task ahead. My lips are pursed, my brow furrowed.

Butchering day is always a intense mix of emotions. At seven to eight weeks, the chickens are large and ugly. By June, our family has been out of homegrown chicken for months and I’m already planning recipes with our harvest. Part of me is happy to see them go.

Another part of me is dreading the task at hand. I’ve spent a lifetime hunting and fishing, and while taking another life is something I’ve grown accustomed to, butchering chickens is somehow more immediate and visceral.

The process of slaughtering is repetitive. I take the chicken from its pen while it squawks alarmingly. I place it upside down in the killing cone. Holding it’s head in my hands, I make two swift cuts on either side of its neck. I put my knife down and place my right hand on its body. It struggles briefly, shudders, and begins to kick from reflexes. Once it is still, and its blood has been drained, I take it out of the cone and place its lifeless body on the ground. Then I go and grab another one.

There’s something about holding an animal as it dies that brings your mind to thoughts of life, mortality, and gratitude. Through my gloved hand I can feel the chicken tense as the blood flows. Then there’s a noticeable relaxing as its life slips away, before its reflexes violently begins.

While butchering 30 chickens, and watching the life drain from each one — which takes a couple of minutes a piece — there’s plenty of time for reflection. I spend a lot of this time thinking about my own death. Will it be sudden? Will I wither in a hospital bed for months? As I witness the sudden death of these birds, I can’t help but wish for the same for myself.

While these chickens have had short life — seven or eight weeks — their life has been far better than their commercially-raised contemporaries. They live outside with bugs to eat and a hell of a view. They’re more than just capital investments. They’ve been able to do much of what normal chickens do. It’s been a short life, but a good one.

I hope I can say the same — that I’ve lived a good life when it’s all said and done.

What is a good life? That might be a question better left to philosophers. But as I harvest this real meat — as I viscerally participate in this cycle of life and death in the attempt to feed my family from the land I’ve been given to tend for a short period of time — I can’t help but hope I’m on the right track to finding a life that is good — full of good food and good work and good soil.

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