Sy the Stomach

I saw a stomach the size of an overstuffed sofa cushion lying by the side of the road the other day.  Literally.  And it wasn’t alone.  It had a partially eaten liver on one side of it and a long, flattened tube of intestinal tract trailing off towards the middle of the road like it was trying to crawl away.  Nothing else though.  No legs or body or head, hair, skin or anything.  Not even blood stains.  It looked so displaced.

I realized immediately that it was, to use the hunting vernacular, a gut pile.

I’ve heard of such a thing but, not being a hunter, never seen one.  It was the entrails of somebody’s freshly killed and dressed deer.  Usually these are left out in the field and I’m not sure why this one was plopped down on the side of a very public, albeit dirt, road.  But there it was, just sitting there.  Nonchalant and relaxed.  Looking for all the world like a great round, hairless hitchhiker slouching against the bank between rides.

I was upset.  At first, I thought it was because somebody might have shot the deer from their car.  This is an unfair practice and a big no no.  Then I thought it was because they left a gut pile right on the road which (I think but am not certain) may also be a no no.  (I’m very rule conscious and tend to ruffle and quiver when they’re not followed, especially where killing is concerned.)  But looking back now, I think I was mostly upset because a big, beautiful deer had just died and the evidence of its death was graphic and shocking.  It took me by surprise and knocked me off center.  I wasn’t prepared for it.

I was just out for a hike.

You’d think that in my preoccupation with all things dying, I couldn’t ask for a better topic than hunting, and it’s true.  It has everything to recommend it, from the complex, physiological processes involved, to the ethical considerations that so endlessly fascinate me, to its profound and shaping influence on each and every person engaging in it.  Even so, I don’t want to talk about hunting today.  People tend to react very strongly to that subject, one way or another, and right now I feel like the controversy would swamp me.

I just want to remember that stomach.

Two crows were on the pile when we were first drove around the bend but they flew away as soon as they saw the car.  I was with a friend and we stopped briefly while I got out to investigate.  Even upset I was mesmerized, because other than the displacement it looked absolutely perfect.  Round, intact, smooth as a baby’s skin.  There was an intricate web of capillaries tattooing the surface like some kind of primeval artwork.  It was still fresh.  There was no smell yet and aside from the liver, no evidence of wildlife depredation.  The stomach looked achingly exposed and yet…a little jaunty.  Like it was enjoying it’s day out.

I named it in my mind, Sy, then said sorry buddy and climbed back in the car to drive on to the hiking trail.

Hours later on our way back down the mountain we’d both forgotten about it so it took us by surprise all over again, when we drove around the bend and saw three or four crows and an eagle lifting off of it and flying into the trees.  Sy was fast turning into the Monday buffet and there was something really comforting about that.  The Cycle Of Things is always comforting to me.  We stopped again and I admired him one last time before we headed home.

And I’ve wondered ever since; why is it that the sight of a single stomach by the side of the road impacted me so much more than the sight of all the constant roadkill I see scattered along the highways and byways of this country?  I mean, it’s not like any of us are strangers to seeing gruesome, shocking examples of violent death on a regular basis.  With our national infatuation with the automobile, smeared animals are about as American as apple pie.

In fact, most of us who drive for any length of time will ourselves kill animals that way.  Perhaps, if it’s one that’s either meaningful to us (like a dog) or big enough (like a deer or a cow) we’ll have to stop and do something about it.  But otherwise we’ll just bump, thump, and  drive on, leaving it behind us fluttering or trembling or limp, helpless or suffering or dead.  Most of us will feel a little bit bad (none of us wants to hurt these critters) but essentially absolved.  These accidents are just part of the price we pay (excuse me…we?) for mobility, our own domestic type of widespread, collateral damage.

It’s not the fact of all this graphic, useless dying and death that eats at me.  It’s not.  I don’t have a problem with the fact that everything dies (although I’m forever interested in improving the quality of the experience.)

No.  What gets under my skin is our pervasive denial about it.  We argue over the ethics of hunting or vegetarianism or industrial farming or habitat loss like we really care, but then we watch a finch bounce off our fender or a raccoon lumber under our tires and barely slow down.  Or we pick up a package of ribs or ground beef, pop a chicken nugget or fish sandwich into our mouths, and don’t even think to connect it to the beautiful, sentient beings that gave up their lives so we could be nourished.

We don’t cast back in our minds for a moment, and remember them alive.  That makes me sad, even though I do it, too.

I wonder what the world would be like if we quit trying to hide, pretend, and compartmentalize about all the dying and killing so much, and just willingly received it instead.  Each time.  Opened our hands, bowed our heads, and said I’m so terribly sorry…and by the way thank you so much. I think it might change us all in big ways, and quickly, if we let ourselves recognize and care about every last, small death we’re personally involved in as much as we care about the big trends.

I wonder if we’d wake up, really see the world around us, and and maybe ache more but also fall a little more in love with life each time.

Here’s a blog post and comments from Going Gently with a beautiful example of compassionate culling.  John raises (and rescues!) a bewildering array of poultry and other animals for both farming purposes and pets.  And as anyone who does this for long quickly discovers, dying and killing are an inevitable part of the project.  A while back he rescued a few chickens that, in the process of being selectively bred for meat, had become so deformed they could no longer survive very long in a natural state.  He took them on as pets and let’s them free range and, not only have they survived longer than expected, they’ve even started laying eggs, something he hadn’t anticipated.  This post tells the story of one who finally succumbed to the inevitable fate of her breeding.         

copyright 2010 Dia Osborn

…Do As The Mainers Do.

In our last episode I’d just witnessed the dying throes of a lobster being boiled alive for dinner.  My appetite had taken a big hit and I was now facing the prospect of having to sit down and dine.  I was in trouble.

Well, I’d just learned I knew nothing about how to cook a lobster.  It was now time to discover that I knew even less about eating one.  For any other novices out there, a quick word of warning:  This is not…I repeat not…a task for the squeamish. One must butcher the carcass oneself, right there on the plate.

Fortunately, I had experienced mentors by my side, guiding me throughout the meal.  The coaching was excellent and I was rarely at a loss, no matter which part of lobster anatomy confronted me.  So did I eventually overcome my queasiness and enjoy the meal?

Regrettably, not really.

Some parts of the experience are a little blurry for me now but I remember enough.  Like the sensation of ripping off the legs, one by one, and sucking all the meat I could out of the delicate, shell tubing.  I can still hear the cracking sound as I tore the tail off the carcass and carefully, per instruction, pushed the pink flesh out of the big end of that larger shell tube with my finger.  I vividly remember the spoonful or so of some soft, green, texturally questionable substance which our hostess encouraged me to eat as a particular delicacy.  She called it tomalley and assured me that it was a favorite of hers, so I gave it a try.  It was sweet in an overly ripe, already partially digested kind of way and secretly I wondered if she was fucking with me.  Frankly, it looked like lobster pre-poop, the kind of stuff that collects in the lower intestine just before it’s expelled, but I was just being paranoid.  I looked it up later online and discovered it consists of the liver and pancreas.  Throughout the meal I had a bowl of melted butter available in which to dip the meat, but my stomach took exception to the addition of a slimy, oil coating on foreign matter it was already struggling to keep down.  Butter was out.

And oh yeah.  I think, in my determination to not waste any of it, I may have eaten some cartilage.  This was towards the end of the meal when my conscientious consumption sparked concern.  I remember chewing on something stringy and tough until our hostess leaned over, eyebrows raised, and murmured y’know, most people don’t eat that part.

No.  I can’t say I enjoyed it.  In fact, not only was that the last  lobster I ate, it was the last seafood of any kind.  Which, believe me, is no small feat for a tourist traveling along the Maine coast in October.  Seafood is a big part of what people come for and it figures large in most menus.  Fortunately, during the next leg of our trip up in the staggering beauty of Acadia National Park, we found an outrageously tasty, local place called Chow Maine where we ate for five days in a row until it was time to finally fly home.

Looking back now I have regrets.  I’m sorry I let my queasiness get the better of me and wield the influence it did over the the trip.  I wish I’d gotten over it so I could have eaten more of the fabulous seafood cuisine that Maine has to offer.  It’s hard to understand how my reaction to a single incident could last that long but I’m not sure how one is supposed to overcome that level of digestive revolt.  Nausea is not a sensation that lends itself to compromise.

But in spite of the fact that it affected my appetite the way it did still, I’m glad and grateful for my experience with the lobster.  I’m satisfied that I seized the opportunity to finally participate in the killing/butchering part of the food cycle.

Over the years I’ve eaten my fair share of poultry, fish, and beef.  I’ve willingly participated in the death of all the fellow creatures that a meat diet requires, but always and only as an end consumer.  I’ve been happy there was someone else to handle the gut wrenching violence required to turn a living, feeling, innocent, helpless animal into something dead and edible, because that division of labor makes it easier to maintain the illusion that my hands are still clean.

But still, there are costs growing in the system that gnaw at me.  I can’t help but wonder if it might not be better to participate in the whole process a little more, mainly for the sake of the animals out there that are not only dying, but also increasingly being forced to live under some horrifying and inhumane conditions.

Just so we’re clear, I’m not talking about lobsters here.  Lobsters live (admittedly shortened) natural lobster lives in their natural lobster world before they’re finally caught and cooked.  They spend their lives aggressively eating whatever species of neighbor they can, occasionally each other, and I suspect they’d eat me, too, if I ever fell off a boat and sunk to the bottom.  More power to ’em.  I don’t want to be a hypocrite.  I’m willing to participate in the system if that ever falls to my lot.  I don’t object to the food chain itself.

The part of the food system that I’m referring to is industrial agriculture  (dubbed factory farming.)  Because in that system, the lives the animals are forced to live are an unmitigated nightmare.  Here’s just one example of an egg farm in California but there are countless others, all equally difficult to watch.  I can’t help but feel that my own unwillingness to take responsibility is part of the problem.  As long as I can have nameless, faceless people out there, killing nameless, faceless animals in some other galaxy far, far away, then I can continue to pretend like our meat really comes neatly packaged, skinned and weighed from grocery stores.  Styrofoam trays are the wombs from which pork chops and ground beef emerge.  Chicken breasts and steaks grow on trees, and you can tell if they’re not ripe yet because they’re still frozen in the middle.

No.  There’s something inherently dishonest…cowardly…about hiding behind a shopping cart and a checkbook like that, something disrespectful to the creatures and lives that are being sacrificed for my nourishment and sustenance.  They’re dying for godsakes.  The least I can do is try and ensure that they live a good life beforehand and die a humane death when the time comes.  I can stand witness to their suffering, care about it, say I’m sorry, and give sincere thanks before I bite a big chunk out of them.

I know if I was being eaten, I’d vastly prefer it was by someone who appreciated the costs on my side.

That’s what I tried to do in Maine.  For the lobsters.  It was harder than I thought it would be, a lot harder, but I think, with time and experience, it would get easier.  (Although even after research, I’m still not sure how I would kill the next one.  There’s a lot of controversy about which method is most humane.)

Of course back here in Idaho, my learning curve won’t involve lobsters.  Maybe I’ll learn how to hunt instead.  Or maybe someday I’ll raise a cow for butchering.  But until then I think I’ll start with the chickens I intend to raise for eggs, learn how to swiftly and cleanly break their necks once they’re past their laying prime.  Stand up, be a mensch, and do the sacred deed myself, then mourn and honor my beautiful girls as they deserve to be mourned, before we gratefully feast on their final gift to our family.

I just need to make damn sure that they live really great, happy, deeply beloved lives until then.

copyright 2010 Dia Osborn