Thursday, December 1, 2011

Killing a Turkey

When I was about 12 or 13 years old, I took a course in hunter safety and received my hunter’s safety license so I could go hunting. Only one small problem: I didn’t believe in hunting. I had a problem with the idea of killing an animal to eat it. Yet apparently this problem wasn’t big enough to keep me from eating meat, I think I simply didn’t think about it. My brother went hunting one year and bagged a buck. I was morally opposed but secretly fascinated to sneak down to the garage where dad was working with our neighbor the Game Warden to skin, gut, and butcher the deer carcass. Somehow it took me another 10 or so years to realize that my moral objection to personally killing an animal was just plain hypocrisy and denial.

I had learned much more about our food system and how it abuses, mutilates (both genetically and otherwise), then slaughters literally billions of animals to provide us all with our meat cravings at a cheap price tag. I had to confront my hypocrisy face to face. How could I judge hunters then walk to the freezer and pull out a bag of Tyson frozen chicken strips (boneless of course!) to eat for dinner? So, Ash and I became vegetarians, mostly. We only ate meat when we could verify where the meat came from, the conditions in which the animal was raised and slaughtered, and what it was fed. Since arriving in Moldova, I have, rightly or wrongly, let go of this distinction. Mostly because almost all of the meat Moldovans eat comes from their backyard or that of a neighbor. Yet every time I eat meat, I think about the animal it once was, and wonder, where and how did it live? Did it know it was going to be eaten? Did it understand that it was only fed in order to become food?

Then Ash signed me up (ok, I also volunteered…) to help kill the Thanksgiving turkeys with a few other volunteers and then help prepare them for the big volunteer meal the Saturday after Thanksgiving. Although I jumped at the opportunity, I did so with an understanding that I would again have to confront my beliefs, thoughts, convictions, feelings, and motivations for eating meat. Yet this time I’d be doing it with an ax in my hand.

So I travelled to the volunteer’s village in which we’d be doing the deed on Thanksgiving and helped him start to prepare pumpkin pie filling and crust as well as cooking a vegetarian chili to eat with his host family and the other volunteers who would be joining us that night. Friday morning we awoke early and, with Grișa, the host dad, hopped in the car and drove across the village to pick out the turkeys. The sun was setting the strips of clouds on the horizon afire and making the backdrop of sky appear a deep purple as we got out of the car and walked through the gate to greet the family who had agreed to sell us six of their turkeys. Us five Americans were obviously clueless as to how to carry live turkeys as we struggled to hold onto their wings and carry them over to the house from the massive yard in which they lived with their about thirty or forty fellow gobblers.

Soon we were on our way back to the house, six live turkeys, incredibly docile, occupying the trunk of the aging white Lada. Back within the confines of the low green wooden fence of Grișa’s house, we carefully unloaded the live cargo, which, with their legs tied, simply plopped down on the grass quietly. We then worked together to start the fire which would boil the water to loosen the turkey’s skin’s hold on their feathers. Soon came the time. Grișa took hold of the first turkey, saying he would show us how then we could each have out turn. Holding the wings together in one hand with the feet looked simple enough. He held the bird upside down like that with his left hand, slowly and gently placing its head on the small block of wood before picking up the small ax with his right. The bird was completely calm, not making a noise nor moving at all as the ax came down perfectly on its neck, severing everything but a tiny bit of skin. Grișa held the body upside down to let the blood come out, then handed it to me to hold until it stopped twitching, at which point he showed me how to dip the whole bird in the boiling water quickly before pulling it out and tasking a few of us with the tedious job of plucking.

Each of us went in turn, and suddenly it was my turn, the last bird a pure white turkey weighing around 6 kilograms. It was quickly obvious that the skill of holding both wings and both feet in one hand firmly enough to not let a wing erupt was a skill Grișa had acquired over many years. I managed to get the grip, and to place the birds head on the block. As I reached for the ax, I thanked God for the turkey in my hands. I thanked him for making it, for the life it had lived, and for the nourishment it was going to provide our bodies. Then the ax fell and I was again holding a twitching body.

The experience was one which I would not have missed, and, if given the chance, will do again. I don’t enjoy killing things. To the contrary, I take the deed with the utmost responsibility and seriousness, knowing that what once was living is now not because of a movement of my arm. It makes me confront profound questions about the meaning of life, humans and our place on this Earth, and how we should be filling our role as stewards of the ecosystems on which we depend for life. We are indeed a part of this world, not separate from, above, or below it. Yet somehow we are apart. We have the power to take a life and to reflect on the life we took. Because we have this power, we have the responsibility to use it. To reflect on our impact on those around us and the world in which we live. To reflect on the consequences of our actions, both large and small. Will you reflect with me?