Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Tripping over the Babies

Early this evening I walked up the hill with two bags of meat scraps to deliver to the neighbor’s dogs: leftovers from the canning project of the afternoon. We were nearly finished canning ten quarts of venison broth, some with little bits of meat picked off of bones that had been gently boiling all night. Today is the 24th of June, so it’s hardly deer season, but my friend M had called me yesterday with the news that the white-tailed deer had been very active that morning; he had managed to avoid two deer at two other separate locations before this velvet-antlered buck dashed out from the burgeoning foliage at the side of the road…there was no time to swerve. He wondered what I had planned for my day.

Fifteen minutes later he pulled into my driveway as I was looking for a suitable tree branch from which to suspend the carcass. We opened the hatch and looked the animal over. He was a gorgeous, healthy buck in his prime, and I regretted that this one error in judgment, against which nature could not adequately prepare him, had cost him his life.

Also regrettable was the sizable dent in the fender of M’s Subaru. In the post-collision activity of the morning—locating a missing (though nonessential) bumper part, coming upon the deer’s body with no outward sign of injury except that it was dead (though still dispersing the last of its nerve impulses in shutters and twitches), asking the person in whose yard it had fallen whether he wanted to make use of it (he did not), recruiting said person in the task of loading the deer into the back of the Subaru, and contacting me about butchering it at our place—the dent had managed to escape his notice. “I guess it isn’t a free deer after all,” he said.

Nonetheless, it would only compound the regrettable nature of the incident to let the deer go to waste, so after fondling the soft, fuzzy skin of his developing antlers (they feel just the way they seem like they should), we hung the animal's body from a chestnut limb by a rope tied to a scrap piece of steel rod, each end of which was inserted through a convenient place in a hind leg. We began the work of converting this creature to an iron-rich protein source for our families by opening the carcass.

That’s when we learned the full story of its death. The main contact between the deer and the car had occurred on the left ribcage and foreleg. Nearly all the ribs of the deer’s left side were broken, and the trauma of the impact or the points of broken bone must have caused damage to lungs or other internal organs, as the chest cavity was awash in blood. It had been a far from painless death, but it had been rapid. I needed to remove the viscera quickly as the fender's impact or my knife tip had breached the wall of one of the deer's four stomach sections and fermenting vegetation with foul-smelling juices threatened to taint the meat. The removal having been accomplished, M also took a knife in hand and we began the task of removing the hide. As the sun rose in the sky, the flies began to swarm.

When the hide was off I quartered the carcass; M carried pieces in as I removed them with knife or saw. He set to washing the pieces while I wheeled the offal, head, hooves, and hide to the spot in our woods farthest from our own house and the neighbors’ homes. Since dead white-tailed deer are a natural part of the local ecosystem, I felt no need to bury the inedible portions.

Once a dead animal is in pieces and in the kitchen, it somehow seems less strange to be handling it. I suppose that is when it becomes meat. M had not butchered a deer before, but he is a quick study, and we made good progress. All the same it was late afternoon before all the roasts were in the freezer and we had all the lesser meat separated from the bones. Finally it was time to chop and grind. I was glad for the chance to put a recent thrift store find—an electric meat grinder—to the test. It failed utterly: the sinuous venison bogged it down in seconds. Feeling the end of our available processing time approaching all too rapidly, I felt we needed to refrain from tinkering with the electric grinder and do the job the way I already knew: we broke out the hand-operated chopper and grinder (also thrift store finds…and they never fail!), and started to make time. Part way through the grinding process Janelle and Kali came home. Despite Janelle’s having been a squeamish vegetarian for twelve years of her life, and despite Kali’s tender age, they pitched in with gusto; spirits were high as they made efficient work of the weighing and bagging. We were racing against the clock (M had to tweak his schedule a little) to be able to send M home with his half of the meat. He walked out with his cooler jammed with venison, and with a trash bag containing a mess of soup bones. “W [his wife] is going to be surprised when she gets home,” he understated.

All told, we estimate the deer yielded fifty pounds of meat, not counting heart, liver, and whatever was picked off the boiled bones. I’ll be darned if we wasted more than eight ounces of muscle tissue(we even used the tail)! I honestly don’t mind cutting up a vibrant and beautiful creature for food if circumstances justify it, and I enjoy the consumption stage with great relish - I feel I owe that to the animal. But I will work hard not to waste what I have taken.

And so it was that I found myself walking up the hill to deliver deer bones in June. The neighbor dog, Bubba, was quite interested in the smell of the package! Our neighbors, S and M, are blueberry farmers (among other things), and the season is in full swing. I always savor the blueberry harvest, not least because I am gainfully employed for a few hours most weeks in the maintenance of the patch…we work all year for the possibility of this short period of yield, and it is so worth it! The earliest variety of blueberries, “Bluetta” was nearly over, they told me, and was available for picking at a discount…was I interested? My thoughts went to the sputtering canner on the stove at home and I knew then that it was starting: that time of year when a person who has access to the abundance of summer can feel overwhelmed with the sheer amount of opportunity for simply going out and gathering the riches home, let alone converting them, if necessary, to useful food. I would check it out, I told them, after I gathered what black raspberries I could find along the edge of the woods, motioning to the pail in my hand. They understood, and I excused myself.

Halfway back down the hill, I traipsed into the old peach orchard field, poking around along the edge of the woods for black raspberries, finding many but with only a small percentage free of disease or insect damage…it’s been a very wet spring. A squirrel paused in its task of gathering leaves—presumably for a nest high in some tree—to watch me for a few seconds before casually moving on. Perhaps it wanted to scold me but couldn’t; its mouth being crammed full of dried leaves.

I had just found a particularly nice cranny of berries showing little sign of damage and had stepped into the lush vegetation to claim them when the green leaves at my feet seemed to explode with screamy little squawks and fluttering feathers. As the startled baby bird hopped and flapped noisily away from the startled adult human, the air around my head suddenly filled with two cranium-orbiting torpedoes—one scarlet and one olive brown—both of which were cheeping like mad. I judged that I should leave those berries for later, backed away from the rather tense cardinal family, and headed further up the slope.

No more than five paces from there, the ground seemed to spring away from my footfall: a very mottled, very warty, very tan, and rather large toad had narrowly escaped being trodden. I watched him advance jerkily into the underbrush, then I hesitantly took another step…

Only to have a young cottontail rabbit leap into the air from just under my foot! As it bounded away, I took a moment to recover from the accumulated shock and then tentatively resumed my picking. Other than nearly stepping on the same baby cardinal in the same place (just couldn’t resist those berries!), I was aware of no further near-mishaps. As I walked home, I scared up a family of flickers in the driveway teaching the young ones the tricks of the ant-eating trade. I was idly transfixed by the fleshly cornucopia becoming apparent all around me. ‘A person can’t seem to even walk around here anymore,’ I smilingly, inwardly huffed, ‘without stepping on some animal or other!’ I thought back to the nest of bunnies I had discovered in the garden path—by stepping on them, of course! We had allowed ourselves just one cuddle and photo session with them before returning them to their place (and marking it with a large stone to prevent further run-ins with clumsy feet). The mother apparently continued caring for them - despite the myth about human scent and the rejection of wild babies by their mothers - because they grew like crazy, and it wasn’t long before they were scurrying all over the place.

Alas, where there is life there is death. Shortly after the bunnies struck out on their own, the one that I had seen darting around in the onion patch was apparently hiding in the thick grass at the edge of the bed (I was trying to watch out for them, I promise!) when I came through with the mower. Was it gasoline exhaust or shame and regret that caused the twisting in my gut that evening? Janelle tells me (I have the good fortune to not get out much) that the roads are currently strewn with the carcasses of unlucky animals. On my way to test the blueberry patch for whether picking the “Bluetta” would be worthwhile, I spotted a dead jay by the driveway. Thinking I would toss it into the fencerow, I lifted it by the tail feathers, wondering the cause of this death. It was far too late to tell: as the feathers, skin, and bones lifted away, an amorphous blob of flesh, swarming with maggots, remained on the ground. Repulsed, I placed the jay shell back over the hideous mass, marveling at those wriggling baby flies which, even more carefully than we had with the deer, were working so feverishly to utilize every scrap of their blue bonanza.

After a supper of venison burgers, I returned to the blueberry patch—the sweet, antioxidant rows of little round perfection that awaited me. Dusk found me still fingering my way through my own blue bonanza.

Welcome to our life...

The pressure canner is sputtering in the background, Pandora radio has selected Patty Griffin’s “1000 Kisses” for me to hear through these scratchy computer speakers, and the sun is streaming in the skylights of this, our office/craft/canning room. Welcome to our life.

Not all of our days are like this. But many of them contain some element of contact with those materials, organisms, and ecosystems which sustain us…which is just the way we want it. Admitting to some odd feelings when the five-year-old among us expresses enthusiasm for eating a “big fat deer”, we nonetheless can vouch for—and recommend to all readers—the sense of integration that being involved with our own physical sustenance has allowed us to experience. We hope that, by sharing on these pages some honest and plain-spoken windows into our lives, we may gain you as our companions on this quest for authentic modes of living, here and now.

It doesn’t take much thinking (or knowing us very well) to recognize that, if integration is the object, the topics covered here will extend well beyond our favored methods for the cultivation, harvest, preservation, or preparation of a particular food, or even handy tips for reducing our ecological footprint. Indeed, it only makes sense to us to allow the range of topics to be broad, as this seems to best reflect the way we experience our lives; i.e., as an interconnected whole. That having been said, we will not take up cyberspace with each mesmerizing detail of the latest family reunion. No, instead we will take as our guide the principle that what’s written here should be of potential interest to a general audience interested in well-founded, integrated living (not that we are under the illusion that our readership will extend beyond our ken). Such intricate details as may be helpful in conveying our experience or which spice the stories nicely shall be included from time to time, as the general principles of any discipline are best communicated by demonstration in specific scenarios.

An example of what I mean, in the form of a poem:

Purse Strings

Wandering the
aisles of the hardware store,

something caught her eye. She knelt before it
there on vinyl tile, fondled the packages, then spoke:

“I think I’d like to have a
sponge…of my own.”

I, who would give her the world, began the brief
negotiation: eliciting justification, offering opinions.

And it was settled: my daughter would be
going home with a three-pack of yellow sponges;

I would be going home with a momentarily fanatical
associate in the washing of our floors.

Can you feel the heat of my shame at her utter
dependence on me, my discomfort with this power?

Can you feel the warmth of my delight, the
transcendent joy her tender trust delivers?

Jason Myers-Benner
June 12, 2009

You see, we take our parenting seriously, and we enjoy it very much. The parent-child relationships in our family are a major portion of what sustains us. We invite conversation with all of you as we pursue non-coercive, unconditional, mutually respectful relationships between all of us. There will surely be more to come on this topic as time passes.

I cannot mention parenting without acknowledging the shadow side of the parent-child relationship as we’ve experienced it: the grief we’ve experienced at the loss of our second child, Nora Lynne. A somewhat detailed account of the experience of knowing and loving Nora for the seven months we had with her, and the first year of life without her can be found at Cascades of Light The light she brought to our lives, and the memories we cherish of her are part of what sustains us on the face of this spinning planet.

And so are you. We invite your commentary on the content of this blog and the ideas and principles behind it. Well, I’d better sign off for now…the women-folk have just arrived home with a mess of green beans from our pastor’s garden (she’s on vacation), and I’ve got a chicken coop to build!