We just finished our main season for harvesting animals, and someone asked me recently if it makes me sad to kill them. Most people, even meat eaters, can hardly imagine killing an animal themselves.
After many years of growing both the meat and the vegetable part of our food, I have come to realize that modern people have a prejudice about their plant foods, as if they are somehow inert and not alive. It is generally thought that plants are only a step above rocks, with no sentience or feeling. Interestingly, this is how people viewed animals until recently.
The herbalist Stephen Harrod Buhner has written extensively about plant intelligence, and I highly recommend his book. It is now known that plants do indeed sense and feel. They have nerve tissue which is chemically and structurally identical to our own. A single rye plant contains enough neural tissue to dwarf our big brains that we are so proud of.
And plants display emergent behavior. They are aware of their surroundings, they make choices and cooperate with each other. They will send compromised plants around them sugars through their root mycelia, and they are constantly exchanging detailed information via volatile organic compounds among themselves and with their insect allies.
Even with this knowledge, I go into the garden, where all my carefully tended vegetables are growing in nice rows. I have saved their seeds, planted them, protected them, weeded them, tended them. And now I go into the garden with intentions of death. It is time to prepare the evening meal.
I find a huge, beautiful turnip, comfortable in life and thinking of soon putting forth flowers. Without a pause, I lean down and rip it from the matrix. All the pain-sensing neural hairs cry out as it leaves the earth with a root-tearing “grunch.” I remove the leaves, tearing its body apart while it is still reeling from the harvest. I turn its root in my hands, noticing how it almost looks like a face. I smell the delicious vegetable smell that wafts from its freshly torn top. To me it smells like food, but it is really a shriek of pain and distress, a desperate message of volatile organic chemicals, screaming to the other plants who wait, planted in place, for their own harvest.
I carry it inside and peel its skin away while it is still living, chop its body into pieces with a knife, and toss them into boiling water. As I do this, I am aware of this organism, this being, that has met its death by my hand.
It does make me sad to kill our animals. They are very much a part of our lives, and I miss them when they are gone.
But they are our cows, and we are responsible for them. What I mean by that is that we have sheltered them from the forces of nature that would have brought them death. We have unnaturally protected them from famine, predators, and parasites. And because we live in a world of limited resources, we are responsible for the impact of our herd.
When we cull them, we say farewell to every animal, and we kill them by our own hand. Someone else would not have known them from birth. Someone else would not love them as we do. Someone else would not say to them, “We are sorry, but this herd can only stay a certain size. We honor your sacrifice,” and see with joy the space that is made for new life.
Because we know it is a sacred thing, they die by our hand.