Jason Young's film Animals is a film about a young man from Toronto who marries, and he and his wife buy a farm in Nova Scotia. He decides that he should take responsibility for raising his own meat, and the film follows him through a year of learning to raise and butcher his own meat.
The parallels between Jason's journey and my own were quite striking. While previewing the film, it was unexpectedly funny: my hair was a bit longer but we both braided it, I wore tie-dyed T-shirts, and I've never been that skinny in my life, but other than that, we could have been twin sons of different mothers.
While Jason moves from Central to Atlantic Canada, I moved from the Wet Coast to the Prairies—the difference here being that while Jason Young is unfamiliar with East Coast culture, I was familiar with Alberta. It was, after all, where I'd been born and where I'd lived until my early twenties. But it was while I was living on the Wet Coast that I read John Robbins' book Diet For a New America. I remember looking at Paula as I opened the book and saying “Just warning you. This might change everything.” It did; for the next seven years we lived a primarily vegetarian lifestyle.
I didn't decide to live as a vegetarian for health reasons, or to lower my carbon footprint (in the early eighties, I hadn't started thinking about that yet). The reason was pretty simple; I couldn't justify supporting (with my food dollars) the criminal way animals are treated in North America. I'd had an unusual upbringing for the sixties. While everyone else was exploring what it meant to be urban, I was still connected to Canadian traditional mixed farming through my grandfather Klassen.
My grandfather and two uncles maintained the farm that my grandfather had bought after emigrating from northern Europe just after the Russian Revolution, during the Mennonite diaspora. They were primarily concerned with dairying, but also grew hay and mixed grains (grains both for feed and cash). One of the earliest photos of me is me barely able to walk out feeding chickens with my grandmother. We visited regularly for many years, and when I was about ten or so I spent a big part of my summer there, hanging out with my cousins, drinking fresh warm milk straight from the cow, sucking on chunks of salt block the cow's tongues had shaped into fantastical forms (probably the birth of my love of Art Nouveau and organic forms in design). We rampaged cheerfully about the place, used an outhouse, shot gophers, rode tractors, stacked hay bales. In essence, it was the kind of time spent in a rural environment that had seen only minor, understandable changes over the last 14,000 years. Plucked from the fields of Ur, a Babylonian farmer wouldn't have felt out of place for long.
In the seventies, my father could no longer deny himself, and bought his own farm north of Edmonton. On it, he replicated the model he'd grown up with; chickens and a couple head of cattle, a mixture of grain, hay, and fallow fields. The woods were left pretty much alone, although chunks of the bog were re-deepened into dugouts for water storage. I shot my first duck there, and studied muskrat trails in the fall when the water left their low spots.
One of the important things my father did was to raise a young steer and, one fall, we killed and butchered it on the farm. This was something I'd read about, but hadn't experienced up until that point.
And I really knew nothing about the process. But I remember it as a fall day, Dad having borrowed a chain hoist from a neighbour and put it up on a tripod he'd built. The most difficult part, I think, was convincing the steer to come near enough to take a bullet to the head. But it went down and we got it over to the hoist.
Dad had bought a tool at auction some time earlier, in a box of stuff out of a granary, that I hadn't recognized. An oak bar with hooks at either end, and a ring in the middle. Turns out, the hooks on the singletree went between the tendon and bone on the rear legs, holding them apart, and the ring was used to lift the animal up.
Thankfully, my father was not unfamiliar with the process, and the skinning went quickly and efficiently. Gutting and quartering followed, and strangely, I remember this as a good time. I wasn't expected to know what was coming next, I was there to learn. And if Dad didn't know what came next, he knew enough, and we succeeded in turning a living animal into quarters of beef.
We hung the quarters in a clean section of granary, and, over the next while, Dad managed to turn it into small chunks of meat wrapped for the freezer. Every once in a while, over that winter, we would have a roast appear on the table and my brother would ask if it was our steer. This always seemed to distress my mother more than anyone else. But my dad had succeeded in the lesson he had tried to impart: there is a direct connection between what we eat and a living, breathing animal somewhere. And I don't remember that lesson ever needing to be repeated in the same way again.
This was a lesson that repeated many times over the years—particularly after I returned to the farm after a decade or more of urban life. Chickens, pigs, lambs; you raised them, there was a relationship with them, and then they were dead and eaten. But it was always direct and personal. Years later, I read a piece that asked “What would happen if there was a worldwide commitment to vegetarianism? What would happen to the animals?” And it's true; the animals would not end up on some idealized farm, living some ideal pastoral life until they died of old age. They would be ruthlessly exterminated. If pigs didn't taste good (that is, if they didn't serve some purpose to humans), they would have been extirpated a thousand years ago as far too efficient competitors with humans. This is the essence of the deal we've made with animals. They are useful to us for whatever reason. Thus, we will work to keep the species alive. The downside? Well, its kinda hard on the individual animals. In evolutionary terms, this is a great deal. A different species will work to keep your species alive and kicking forever, as long as the individual animals can be harvested. Really, its the same deal we've made with wheat.
But that deal does not justify what we do to animals. The transition from my grandfather's farm, or my dad's, or even mine, to the industrial food system is wrong. But it is all done in the name of efficiency and economics. But the real reason is greed; is the same as the one that has ground empires into dust since Ur: food surpluses underpin empires. If you want to have or maintain an empire, you have to have a surplus of food with which to develop trade. The pressures on the food system are always the same, to produce more, with less, usually on progressively more marginal land.
This time, animals got caught up in the industrialization of food along with everything else. Just like in The Meatrix, there are two different food supply systems; the vanishing one of small farms producing local food (as Jason Young does in Animals), and the industrial system which does its best to remain invisible and unquestioned.
The rise of the urban chicken is one of those developments that bodes well for re-establishing this link between animals and their consumption. Watching happy chickens tearing apart your compost heap and spreading it about your yard is an excellent way to understand the connection between ourselves and animals. The eggs we take are of such good quality. They are fresh, to begin with. And they have a different composition from industrial eggs: higher carotene content makes the yolks a deeper, richer colour. The flavours are stronger, more “eggy.” And even confined to a “chicken tractor,”
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they are happy to scratch about and dust bathe and just generally cluck contentedly. The difference between that and even a “free range” facility