Tuesday, January 26, 2010


January 28, 2010

One day in early January, I glanced out my fourth-floor window and noticed a commotion high in a huge honey-locust tree nearby. Among the bare branches was a red-tailed hawk, its enormous wings flapping wildly. Hawks, believe it or not, have been turning up in the South Bronx for several years now, expanding their range down from Van Cortlandt Park and the New York Botanical Garden a few miles north. I have observed them from time to time in that tree, usually sitting serenely on a sturdy branch, heads rotating, shrewdly surveying. This one's actions were very different. Grabbing my binoculars, I saw why. The hawk had a pigeon by the tail in one claw while trying to stabilize itself with the other. It tumbled among the twigs of the upper branches, seeking a claw-hold, the pigeon struggling desperately to pull free.
It was no use. The hawk finally found a branch big enough to support itself and pinned the pigeon on top of it. It was easy from then on. Soon the prey lay limp, and the predator went to work methodically to take it apart. First came the feathers, the hawk plucking them out in clumps and shaking them disgustedly from its beak; they floated lazily away, like snowflakes. Next came the innards, the hawk digging them out and knocking them back greedily.
After these morsels, the bird stopped in surfeit, as if in the middle of a heavy Thanksgiving dinner, digesting. Then it resumed with the breasts and thighs, and after nearly two hours, the meal was finished. The hawk released its grip and the empty carcass dropped, bouncing off branches to the ground.
The sight was gruesome and awesome at once, the beautiful horror of nature.
When the drama in the tree was over, I went to the store and bought a plump roasting chicken for my own dinner. No muss, no fuss, no feathers.
Most of us modern carnivores behave more like herbivores. We graze at the meat counter, pulling out plastic-wrapped cuts like tufts of grass, seldom thinking of the killing, the disemboweling, the dismembering that brought them there. If we considered that long enough, or witnessed it, or had to do it ourselves, we might adjust our diets a bit.
That's what happened to my friend Jane, who for a while supplemented her income as a special-ed teacher in rural Connecticut by milking cows. At first it was just a job, but in time she developed a personal relationship with each of the animals. When their milk production failed with age and the farmer sold them off for hamburger and dog food, a part of her heart went with them. "They knew me, and I knew them," she explained to me. "As they were taken away, I could see the fear on their faces. That's when I decided that I would never eat anything that could look me in the eye."
Then there's another friend, Judy, who a few years back dropped into her local vivero or live-animal butcher-shop up in Tarrytown, N.Y., thinking how nice it would be to make her family an absolutely fresh chicken dinner.
"It was hot and awful in there," she told me. "The smell was overpowering. The animals were kept in tiny cages, just waiting to die — and you know it's far worse for the ones raised for supermarket meat. I was so repulsed that I turned right around and walked out. That's when I became a vegetarian. I'm not opposed to eating meat, but I think I'd have to kill the animal myself, quick and painless. Maybe I should go hunting, just to see if I can do it."
That was the attitude of Novella Carpenter. In her gallows- humored book, Farm City, she describes her gradualist move towards "sustainability" in a down-and-out section of Oakland, Calif. In a vacant lot near her apartment, she began with the usual vegetable garden, then set up a beehive, then got some chickens for eggs. But craving meat, she took the next step, teaching herself to kill. She started out with chickens, ducks, and rabbits, slaughtering them in her bathtub by day and serving them up to delighted guests by night. Then she tackled larger fare — geese and turkeys and finally pigs, all of which she raised herself and, like Jane, loved and treated like pets — before pragmatically dispatching them. She wanted, she writes, to have a "dialogue with life" — and death was a part of that dialogue.
Before feedlot farming, all this was a matter of course for countless people — slaughter was as normal as seeding. When I worked on my Minnesota cousin's farm for a summer in my youth, butchering chickens and pigs was a joyful community event, the work of many neighboring families. The men would kill, the women would pluck, dress, and cook, the children would clean up and watch, preparing for their own day. Their dialogue with death was perfectly natural. At the midsummer chicken harvest when I was there, after my cousin had pulled a bird from the pen, chopped off its head, and stuffed the convulsing body in a cinder-block to drain the blood, his eight-year-old son philosophically confided in me, "And that's the end of the poor old chickie."
Nature, of which we are a part despite our ideas to the contrary, is no Peaceable Kingdom. Unobserved by most of us, hawks and doves continuously pirouette in the Dance of Death.
The inhabitants of the henhouse in St. Augustine School's Peace Garden are now too old to lay. Perhaps it is time for the next step.

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