Keeping Alive

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My youngest daughter and I walk outside, cross our small yard strewn with the detritus of youthful imaginations, and enter the turkey pen through a small gate. I hold her hand, as she steps over the threshold, an unnecessary act at this age but one I love because of the feeling of her small hand in mine. The turkeys are anxious for their food. The tom, with fluffed and fanned feathers, struts around the two hens as they make soft and gentle noises. We feed them and check on their water, something both my daughters enjoy doing. I notice that they are growing rapidly, both the turkeys and the girls, and count backwards from Thanksgiving Day to the present: eight weeks until we eat them (the turkeys not the girls), taking their very bodies into our own. Their deaths keep us alive.

Preservation has long been one of my least favorite words in the English language. To me it reeks of stagnant air and clinging to a time and place that is no longer relevant. The word itself makes me think of time capsules and Preservation Societies and living in the past. Recently, however, I looked up the definition and was surprised by what I found.

Preservation: to keep alive or in existence.

I remember many years ago, when I was the same age as my older daughter is now, walking out to the turkey pen holding my own dad’s hand. The pen was tucked into woods of cherry, maple, and beech, across the wide expanse of our backyard. With a mixture of excitement and fear, I helped my dad slaughter the turkeys and sobbed afterwards. Unable to express myself in other ways, my tears said what I could not – that it is serious business taking another animal’s life.  I didn’t know then how to express these deep emotions and I guess I still don’t, at least not with words. Tears were and probably still are the truest expression of the deep feelings engendered by taking another animal’s life.

We would then take the slaughtered turkeys into our musty mid-1800s basement where my sadness would turn to fascination as it mixed with the unmistakable smell of plucked warm body and wet feathers. We then climbed out of the basement and into the kitchen where my dad taught me about turkey anatomy and the biology of birds. I recall with vividness both how similar and different their digestive system was from ours. I was especially fascinated by the small gizzard filled with stones. Years later doing dissections in a biology class these moments would come flooding back with a clarity that deep experiences like this give. Across all those years my experiences butchering turkeys with my dad made the coldness of a classroom dissection lesson come alive.

I remember another time, as a young idealistic foreigner, walking down a dusty and litter strewn street with my wife in North Africa. We each carried a small turkey by its legs, upside down, feeling strange and very self-conscious. Amidst the dust, flies, diesel fumes and donkey carts, we heard greetings of salam u walekum (“peace be upon you”). The poultry vendors, our friends, shouted offers to kill and butcher the birds for us. “No thank you,” we politely replied, and didn’t know how to explain why we needed to do this ourselves. It wasn’t just because having Thanksgiving was a way to preserve our own culture amidst such foreignness.  More importantly it was because we simply needed to do it ourselves and in so doing to preserve parts of our culture and my own family’s traditions. Deep in the heart of the High Atlas Mountains, we took the lives of these birds in order to keep something else very much alive.

It may seem contradictory but by killing the turkeys myself, I keep alive, so much alive. First, I keep alive the knowledge and understanding, experienced not just conceptualized, of what it takes to eat meat. It’s a bloody business that we mostly separate ourselves from. We seem to not want to think about the chicken breast on our plate as having been a living, breathing animal. With the smoke and mirrors of the industrial process, we distance ourselves from the death it takes to keep us alive by forcing someone else to do it for us and then we wrap the animal and the death in a neat little package.

Second, killing the turkeys reminds me of where I sit in the web of life and helps close the artificial gap between eater and eaten, predator and prey, and acknowledges and honors my relationship with the world; which is utterly co-dependent and beautifully inseparable. Without this relationship, taking animal, plant or mineral into my body, I could not exist, which engenders great humility. This humility is rooted in the knowledge and experience of interdependence, of being so intimately connected with other forms that my very life depends on theirs. Slaughtering the birds, then, serves as a very real reminder of my relationship with the world and forces me to reconsider how I want to relate to the world. Do I want to forget where food comes from or to get my hands dirty and bloody in order to intimately know? Do I want to connect myself with an industrial agriculture system that does not sustain life or do I want to connect with a more resilient and life honoring food system? These are questions that I return to again and again and the slaughtering of our turkeys helps me to answer them, in action and for myself, if for no one else.

Third, by carrying on my dad’s tradition of rearing, slaughtering and butchering turkeys I keep the knowledge alive of how to do it, thereby reminding myself every year of what it takes to put a turkey on a platter. As an adult with children of my own, it is now my responsibility to keep this tradition alive, to preserve it for my daughters’ generation. By this I mean to keep it so alive that my daughters will not only know how to raise their own food and the importance of doing so but will also feel empowered to make it their own. This kind of preservation is not a deferential and mindless act, catering to the past for past’s sake only; it is also forward thinking and rooted in active participation. Preservation includes both these aspects: a backward glance and a forward gaze. For my children, I hope the rearing, slaughtering and eating of our turkeys connects them with past and the future in a present that is alive and vibrant, and one that they can make their own.

As the turkey comes out of the oven, cooked to golden-brown perfection, I think back to all of the time and effort in raising this bird from a vulnerable and fluffy chick to a gangly and awkward poult and onward to the downright beautiful strutting tom that we killed. As mouthwatering smells fill the kitchen, I think about this bird’s life and what it means to me and my family: preserving a tradition, connecting us with so much and keeping us all alive. Just before I begin carving the breast, I say a few words of gratitude for the gift of this bird’s life that it may nourish us all. Past, present and future swirl together in this very moment, in this very act and I am deeply grateful to be here, now, and so very much alive.

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