We had a sad first this spring on the homestead. We had to cull one of our baby chicks. We lost two, actually. One never did well from the moment we took it out of its little chick carrying box, and put it in its new, makeshift room in the spare shower so, while sad, it was no surprise when Mike woke up one morning and discovered the chick hadn’t made it through the night.
But the other chick started out okay, then went on a downhill slide. While the rest of the chickens grew rapidly and started popping out new feathers, this one remained exceptionally small, though it seemed happy and active. Then, while the others zipped around the shower as fast as hummingbirds, this one only walked. It sat down a lot. Then a lot more. Then it moved as slowly as if it were a grandma chick, creeping along using an invisible chick cane.
“I don’t think she’s going to make it,” Mike said.
“She doesn’t seem to be in pain,” I argued. “Let’s keep an eye on her. If she starts to suffer, we’ll take care of it.” The chick continued to eat, drink and peep. Two weeks in, none of the other birds were showing signs of a contagion so we weren’t too worried about separating it from the rest of the flock. It huddled with the other chicks. But it moved more and more slowly, as if it were losing the use of its legs.
Then, one morning, I went to check on it and realized it was paralyzed from the chicken-waist down. Its legs no longer functioned, and when it tried to “run” from me, it just sort of lurched on its wings, trying to somehow propel itself forward. To no avail.
I went upstairs.
“It’s time,” I told Mike. “She can’t move at all.”
So when I say we had to cull a chick, what I really mean is we had to kill it. “Culling” is just a nice euphemism that makes it somehow sound more business-like. More necessary. But when you cull an animal, what you are doing is taking its life.
There is much that speaks to my soul about farming – the smell of the soil on a warm summer day, the soothing meditation of pulling weeds, the thin, green pea tendrils that carefully climb a trellis as if they were a sentient beings. But nothing in farming has touched my soul more than the lesson that things die. And sometimes, things die to keep other things alive. And sometimes those alive things…are us.
In the beginning of my gardening days, I couldn’t even deal with the death of plants. I would plant a row of spinach and be so excited when the tiny little spinach plants popped up that I couldn’t bear to thin them despite clear instructions on the seed packets to do so. But it’s so alive, I thought. I can’t just kill it. Then, the little spinach seedlings, mutually choked out by their neighbors, would grow, but not all that much. Still, I would harvest and eat the mature spinach plants, content that although they might not be as big as they could have been, at least I had done them the favor of letting all of them grow to maturity rather than killing off some of the babies before they had a fair spinach-shake at life.
As I became more experienced in gardening, I realized the ridiculousness of this logic. In the end, all the plants were being pulled (and therefore dying) and they were being pulled for my sake. For food. If I didn’t thin the seedlings, none of the plants did as well, and I did not get as much food.
I started thinning the seedlings.
I developed a slightly tougher skin and didn’t take it so personally when things I planted died, or when I actively chose to kill them. If a tomato plant started turning yellow and wilting, I yanked it without a second thought so its neighbors had more sun and water. When a winter squash outgrew its bed, I hacked at it mercilessly with a knife so the green beans had room to breathe. I became okay with becoming a plant killer, as long as the plant killing benefitted other plants and, ultimately, my belly. Because I was in the gardening business to eat, after all.
But despite extensive experience thinning beets and carrots seedlings, killing a chick was a whole different story. This was a living, breathing thing that we had cared for, that had grown up in its little makeshift coop and that looked at us and peeped, and cocked its head, and ate and slept and pooped.
But we killed it anyway.
And this is precisely why we started farming.
Things eat other things in nature.
Bags of chicken feed excitedly labeled, “Vegetarian Diet!” make me cringe. Chickens are not vegetarians. Chickens should not be vegetarians. Chickens are birds and birds eat bugs, worms, and even rodents if they’re big enough birds and they can get their claws on them. Chickens will be much healthier animals if you can get some meat in their diets. Herbivores, omnivores, and carnivores all serve a function on this planet and all interact in order to benefit and support one another, and I have no moral qualms about my evolutionary status as omnivore or the fact that for any of us omnivores (or those carnivores) to exist it means that other creatures have to cease to exist.
But I do have qualms about cruelty.
And I have qualms about taking the life of another creature for granted, something easy to do in a society where when your meat is served up in the butcher section of the store, on a neat little styrofoam tray, wrapped in plastic, and labeled, “flank steak,” not, “soft, furry cow with soulful eyes.”
So Mike and I committed to eating meat that wasn’t cruelly raised and to working toward being able to look an animal in the eye, understand its existence, and then kill it and eat it.
We didn’t eat our little chick. She wasn’t a meat bird, she was too little, and, most importantly, she was obviously ill. But Mike dispatched her with a quick knife to the neck and threw her body into our back pasture, not out of disregard, but so she could feed the next fox, coyote, or raccoon that came through. So her little body wouldn’t go to waste.
And it’s that – the circle of life – that speaks most to my soul about farming. In a time where death is largely relegated to sterile hospitals and not-without-a-fight rounds of drugs and therapies and pain and suffering, there is something soothing, something right, about not fighting nature. About seeing adorable, fluffy, baby chickens turn into not-so-adorable squawking hens. About watching both plants and animals grow and develop and thrive and sometimes die. About not fighting death but simply accepting it for what it is – part of life – and moving on. Today we killed a little chick, someday something will kill us, and that’s not bad or good, unacceptable or admirable, and it’s certainly not anything worth fighting against.
It simply is.
This year we butchered our own Thanksgiving turkey. Next year we hope to raise meat birds. Raise them, kill them, and make sure that none suffer in the process.
A farmer friend down the road who deals in poultry, sheep, and the occasional cow and who has many hundreds of deaths on her hands, recently sent one of her mama sheep to be butchered into sausage. This sheep had been with her years and had bred her many baby lambs (who eventually also became food) but was nearing the end of her breeding days.
“Did you ever think about letting her retire?” I asked. “Spend her days laying around and eating grass?”
“I get asked that a lot,” she responded. “But the thing is, with sheep, you never know. They get sick and they wander off to die and you find them suffering in a ditch. Or the coyotes get them and they get shredded. This sheep had been good to us, and I figure that we could give her a decent death. She died quickly and cleanly. Every bit of her will be used. And in the meantime, we know she lived a good life.”
I can only hope that upon my own demise the same can be said. She died quickly and cleanly, she lived a good life, and she was of use.
Until then, well, I have one little (deceased) chick and the rest of my life in farming to help me remember my place in this universe and how amazing this whole process of living – and dying – really is.