Tomorrow will be the end of the chickens. Since the weather turned cold, the three old hens have not laid any eggs at all and their usefulness on the farm is now done. And so the time has come to watch the youtube videos, figure out a method for their demise, and slit their throats.
It is an event I am not looking forward to at all. I keep playing out in my mind how the scene will be as I sit awake at night. It will be time consuming, and messy. Icky. And of course, above all, there is the death, the taking of a life so that I may enjoy yet another piece of chicken, this time raised and killed by me instead of arriving prepackaged from the store.
Truth be told, I actually don't much like the chickens. The two dominant ones literally pick at the other any chance they get, pecking at her face and back, making me feel like I am witnessing some kind of brutal high school popularity contest. The three have laid only a single egg a day between them since I brought them home from the auction at the county fairgrounds last summer, which has made the reasons why I own them questionable. They also have to be fed grain too every day, when I mistakenly thought they would find their own food, eating worms and our occasional kitchen scraps. And to add to it all their chicken house stinks - chickens shit more than I previously thought possible, all over the place without a shred of hygiene to be found.
But they have also become a part of our routine here. John or I waking early to let them out in the morning, grinding some of the corn and soybeans his dad grew in years past for them to eat. The three hens wandering over to the tiny house during the day, daring to come within range of Rosie to inspect her dog bowl looking for more food. It is amusing to see them take dust baths, designating a random patch of dirt to wiggle around in and preen their feathers, and to watch them put themselves to bed each day when the sun goes down, roosting on a perch in their house all night in a subconscious balancing act.
In this world of urban farming and hipster chicken ownership, another conversation about the importance of raising one’s food and taking a life is cliché. There is nothing more to be said about how killing an animal is challenging, how it is perhaps important to do oneself if you eat meat, and how it makes us reflect upon the cycle of life.
But here I am, reflecting on this very thing in the middle of the night. How did it come to be that I am on the top of the food chain - deciding what lives and what dies, for my benefit? And how is it that some forms of life seem to hold more weight than others in this hierarchy?
Over the years I have concocted a philosophy of eating I call “eating dumber on the food chain,” in which I try to consume the beings that are more stupid over ones more smart. But the system is riddled with hypocrisy, and, John points out, shows my bias toward intelligence. The watermelon plants all died and I didn’t think twice about it, even though the vines were clearly clever in the way they sprawled all over the garden but stayed away from the electric fence. Dogs and cats roam the farm safe from our knives even though a cat doesn’t know its name and none of them feed themselves, a sure sign that their immunity is based more on cuteness than smarts. We are planning to get goats next spring to sell as meat, yet they are about as cute, and curious, as an animal gets while I refuse to raise pigs because they are smarter than dogs and have great personalities. I am ok with raising and eating cattle because they seem pretty dumb, and one cow's life can feed many people (as opposed to eating lots of clueless chickens), but I still don’t want to be the one doing the killing.
Of course, my thoughts in the middle of the night also turn to our own delicate lives, the fact that we too will die and become food for something else on this planet. Yet to think of our own death in the midst of trying to build a life here in Iowa is horrifying, especially because the decisions about when and how our demise will occur is not ours to make. What if it is our fate is also to end this week, as it will be for the chickens? The concept is too scary to contemplate.
Tomorrow we will form a macabre disassembly line to take apart these beings which turned inedible grain into meat, and fashion them into thighs and breasts with which to make chicken soup. Like all humans with privilege around the globe, I have the ability to make decisions about what I consume: I decide that these creatures can be eaten while the cats play in the yard, that I will eat a living head of lettuce but not the funky looking squash that is now an ornament on the front porch. Yet all the while I remain uncomfortable about the one thing every one of us from the kale to the cattle has in common - death.