Monday, June 11, 2018

What we eat, how we live

The chicken’s butt looked strange. We have six chickens that require daily care, but even still I’m not generally in the habit of examining their butts. The strangeness was hard to miss, though: a large red protrusion where there normally wouldn’t be one (and I had to check the other chicken butts just to be sure). The chicken didn’t seem to be acting differently, eating and drinking like the others, fighting for the watermelon rinds I tossed to them as treats. Yet even to the untrained, unprofessional eye, there was clearly something wrong.

“It looks like a big hemorrhoid,” I told K. K’s trained, professional eye required little more than a glance to determine the problem. “Cloacal prolapse,” he declared, adding that this was fairly common in high-egg-producing hens. Part of her oviduct had turned inside-out and was extruding from her body. His face told me that this was not going to be a simple matter of applying Poultry Preparation H.

“Is it painful?” I asked. It looked painful and sounded worse, but I asked anyway because people often ask questions they already know the answer to, out of a foolish hope that the answer will somehow be different. “She doesn’t act like she’s in pain.”

That’s what chickens do, K explained. The chicken who appears sick becomes shunned by the group. To be accepted and gain the protection of the flock, she had to act like all was well. I thought, weirdly, of Anthony Bourdain, his suicide shocking but not entirely surprising upon consideration, at least to me and a few others who understand just how hard some people work to act like all’s well.

I knew this day would come. The chicken could be treated, but it would be expensive for us and stressful for her, and the chances were likely that the prolapse would occur again. Moreover, if she were given any kind of drugs, we could no longer eat her eggs, which would mean separating her from the others so we’d know which were hers. Chickens are social; a life entirely alone would not be much of a life. This, at least, was what we were telling ourselves, because we both already knew what we needed do.

Moving out to a farm, we had wanted to become at least a little more self-sufficient. We weren’t kidding ourselves; they weren’t going to make a TV show about us roughing it as homesteaders in the wilds of rural Illinois. But we did what we could. A friend had chickens to give away, and we had space for them, so we accepted a half dozen and gave them as good a life as we could in exchange for eggs and, eventually, we knew, meat. If there’s one thing that upsets me even more than seeing people thoughtlessly throw away single-use plastic items, it’s seeing people thoughtlessly throw away food. I’ve done both, believe me; I’m not nominating myself for environmental and ethical sainthood here. I’m just trying to do better, which is sometimes ridiculously easy (you really, really, really can live a satisfying life without plastic straws) and other times not so much.

This was a not-so-much time, for either of us. K has had to euthanize many animals over his career, and from what I observe, it has not gotten easier for him in the least. I have never killed anything bigger than a bug in my life. I went fishing a couple of times as a kid, but my parents had always dealt with what happened after the fish was removed from the hook. Other people had been killing animals on my behalf all my life; I was not a vegetarian, though I told myself that the day we had to kill one of our chickens might be the day I decided to become one. If I couldn’t do this, I had no right to expect anyone else to do it for me.

That morning I went out to the chicken yard with a big, ripe strawberry. They love strawberries, though usually they only get the tops after we’ve eaten the fruit. This time I singled out the one chicken and gave her the whole berry, which she swiftly plucked from my hand to devour. A couple of the others saw what was going on and dashed over to try to steal it. “Go away! Leave her alone!” I shouted, shooing them with my hands, angry and anguished. I had wanted her to have a nice, peaceful last meal, but of course that wasn’t happening. Life would be a struggle until the very end.

K came into the yard and stood next to me. Thunder rumbled. A huge storm was coming. A cloud of flies hovered around the chicken. We had to do this now.

We had done our research, graphic YouTube videos detailing just what had to be done and how it could be done as humanely as possible. I’ll spare you a lot of graphic descriptions here; in fact, the most shocking thing to me was how quickly it was over. I had heard horror stories of thrashing bodies and gushing blood. It didn’t happen that way, and in fact there was nothing so heartbreaking to me as the fact that her body’s last movements were small ones, not thrashing but fluttering, and then stillness.

I’m relatively un-squeamish, and the practical aspects that followed—taking a carcass and turning it into neat, clean parts like the kind on Styrofoam trays in the grocery store—were easier to deal with. If you eat meat, you probably shouldn’t be too squeamish about reaching into a dead animal’s body to extract its guts. It has to be done. It is being done, right now, on a massive scale. I don’t say this to be either judgmental or sensationalistic; it’s a fact. I am still figuring out how to deal with this fact myself.

Chicken parts you get in a store probably came from an animal that only lived about four months. Our bird had lived a great deal longer than that, and her habitat allowed her quite a bit of mobility (to give you an idea just how much mobility, our six hens were housed in an area that used to be a pen for as many or more deer). I can tell myself that all of this means she had a relatively full and fulfilling life, but I still know this is just me telling myself stuff. In any case, the meat was very different from chicken you get in a store. Its fibrous chewiness insisted on reminding us that we were definitely eating meat, the meat of a creature whose body once thrashed with life.

The late Anthony Bourdain became famous as someone who ate and lived adventurously. This makes for good books and good TV, as did his tattooed, chain-smoking, badboy persona. That was the image; what went on behind that image, it seems perhaps nobody fully knew. Obviously I didn’t know Bourdain personally, and I’m not entirely sure why I put these two things together, the death of a chicken and the death of a celebrity chef. I suppose for me, everything I write about is an exploration into what goes on behind the image. What happens in order for us to eat? What happens in order for us to live—or die? Huge questions, and so far all I have are the tiniest hints at answers. That will have to do.

Friday, June 1, 2018

The road more or less traveled by

Travel, it seems, is the new black. Many an article will solemnly assert that people who travel are happier, smarter, more interesting, more popular, and better looking than those who don’t. Only fools spend their money on—ugh!—things; the truly wise among us spend it on experiences. And if you’re idly wondering “are food, rent, and healthcare things or experiences?”, oh ye cretin, we have a great rash of books detailing how their authors happily lived out of their Hyundai for six years, munching on uncooked ramen and slurping from fast-food ketchup packets, simultaneously seeing the world and putting themselves through Ivy League grad school debt-free, so if they could do it, well, quit your whining about food and rent and get out there!

Lovely. But not realistic, for a great many people. And perversely, this is the first thing I think when I sit down to write about a recent travel experience: the fact that privilege is the main thing allowing me to do so. The second thing I think is the fact that acknowledging this privilege does not absolve me of anything. I’m lucky. I’m also responsible for my words and actions. The third thing I think is that I think too damn much. I wanted to tell you about the road trip I took with my husband and stepdaughter, but when I sat down to write, my mind went in an entirely different direction from describing beautiful natural scenery and kitschy roadside attractions. Appropriate, I suppose.

I’ve spent nearly a half-century on earth, all of it as a U.S. citizen, and yet up until the last couple years I had seen relatively little of its land. I knew about all of these places, of course—the national parks of Yellowstone and the Badlands, the monuments of Crazy Horse and Mt. Rushmore—but the funny thing is many of my international ESL students had seen them all before I had. I had only a vague idea of what Crazy Horse was all about until a student from Taiwan showed me pictures of the monument and told me what he’d learned there. Yes, he and the others mostly traveled with tours of the “15 sites in 14 days” variety, but they also managed to see aspects of America that I daresay most Americans never do, myself included.

That said, the places we saw were hardly empty of Americans, even though we’d managed to get out there slightly ahead of the summer rush. Seeing the USA in your Chevrolet (or Ford hybrid, in our case) is a time-honored tradition. Granted, that tradition now mandates holding aloft a phone throughout the journey, because experiencing it is less important than posting about it and it’s far more crucial to “make memories” than live in the moment. But all these places, these parks and monuments and roadside attractions, are known things. And for all that guidebooks like to disparage “tourist attractions,” there’s a reason these things are so popular. Old Faithful is fun to watch. Mt. Rushmore is kind of neat. Wall Drug—is kind of lame, but in an amusing way. In any case, I suspect that travel writers who urge all of us to go off the beaten path either don’t really mean it (because what they really mean is “I’m the only one daring enough to go off the beaten path, which is why I wrote about it and you’re only reading about it”) or haven’t thought this through much. How do you suppose paths get beaten down in the first place?

It is all well and good to urge people to get out and see this great land of ours—“before it’s too late,” as I can’t help but add, as so many others over the decades have thought, including Theodore Roosevelt, instrumental in the creation of our National Parks system, as well as nearly everyone else involved therein. There is always the sense that anything beautiful and natural, anything wild and free, won’t be this way forever. Perhaps merely beholding these things already lessens their wildness. And so another travel paradox: instead of being changed by the things we see during our travels, we change them to be more familiar to us. At one of the parks I saw a man wearing a T-shirt with a picture of an astronaut standing next to an American flag, on what I supposed was the moon. “Finders Keepers,” it said beneath the image. I guess it was sort of comical, yet also puzzling. Were we supposed to make the moon the 51st State? Why would we want to? We have a hard time getting water to Flint and Puerto Rico; did he really think lunar malls and subdivisions were a good use of resources? There have been reports of garbage on Mt. Everest from the increasing number of people journeying up it. How much longer before the Sea of Tranquility fills with empty Dasani bottles?

Ooh, dark. I assure you, I did have a good time on this trip. Maybe the thing I enjoyed the most, however, was not what I saw but what I didn’t see. Standing at nearly 8000 feet up in Yellowstone, taking in the vastness, I realized that most of the land I viewed was inaccessible to me. Visitors are only allowed into a small portion of the park, and while some people no doubt find that irksome, I find it reassuring. I like knowing things are going on in the world that I’m not a part of—or, rather, that I’m not directly experiencing. It’s still part of my country, still part of my planet, so we’re still connected; I still have a responsibility to make sure I don’t do anything to screw it up. But it’s still there whether anyone’s holding a phone over it or not, and I hope it stays that way.

So I’m not going to describe anything else I saw. I’ll leave that up to you to discover—or not. It’s OK either way. As the cliché goes, not all who wander are lost, and not all who wander need do it by leaving their current location. Some journeys just require you to think a little too much.