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Column: Death Is Always on the Farm Schedule

Sunday, December 23, 2012
I was standing with a friend of mine in front of his compost pile some years ago when he turned to me and said, “When my time comes, just put my body in here.”

He was serious. He and his wife grew almost all of their own food, and their compost pile was a wonder to behold. I nodded my head in agreement and chuckled, both at the perfect reasonableness of his idea and because I doubted he’d get away with it.

I thought of this exchange recently when word came over the radio that the students at Green Mountain College in Poultney had decided to retire their beloved oxen, one of whom was suffering from a chronic injury. Beyond that, the students had also elected to serve the meat from the animals in the school’s dining hall.

I looked up from the eggs I was frying for breakfast and laughed out loud. “Good for them,” I thought. And also, “good luck with that.”

In case you’ve missed the saga of Bill and Lou, here’s what’s happened over the past several months. The students at the college, after extended deliberations and discussions, and after recognizing that not everyone was going to be pleased with their decision, and that, indeed, not even every student was on board with the decision, nevertheless voted overwhelmingly to proceed with the plan to slaughter the oxen and serve the meat.

Once the national media picked up the story, people descended on Poultney by the tens of thousands, mostly via the Internet but some in the flesh, to protest the perceived barbarity of the students’ decision. A smattering of Googled headlines tells the tale: “Green Mountain College Will Feed Students Their ‘Mascot’ Oxen”; “Vermont College Feels Heat Over Oxen’s Fate”; “Campaign to Save Bill and Lou”; “National Animal Rights Group Blocks Slaughter of Green Mountain Oxen”; “Vermont College Postpones Oxen Slaughter Over Threats”; and just recently, “Lou the Ox Euthanized in Vermont.”

Lou, still suffering from the chronic injury that had ended his working days, was euthanized in the middle of the night by a veterinarian, away from the activists who were scheming ways to inject the animals with chemicals to render the meat unsafe for consumption. The college had been unwilling to expose any of its neighbors in the slaughter business to the retaliation that outside groups promised to rain down on anyone who aided and abetted the scheme. Bill, meanwhile, Lou’s twin and lifelong yoke mate, remains at the college, at least for the time being. And what had been a story of careful delib- eration and thoughtful courage on the part of students has turned into a story of waste and destruction.

They say you should never discuss sex or politics around the holiday table, but we all seem to be doing plenty of that. What you really want to avoid, it seems, is talking about death. In particular, a good death.

On a small farm such as ours here in the Upper Valley, conversations about death are unavoidable. We raise animals with the specific intention of turning them into meat. In our case, we purchase mostly chicks and piglets in the spring to fill our neighbors’ freezers in the fall. But we also keep a flock of ewes year-round that supplies lambs for winter tables.

The hardest discussions for me inevitably involve these breeding ewes, most of whom were born here by my hand. I know these animals by sight and sound, by personality and by years of daily interaction. If, on a foggy autumn morning, I hear a “bah” coming from some misty corner of our pasture, I pretty much know who it is and what’s on her mind.

Though we hope these ewes will live with us forever (we currently have a pair who are into their second decade of life, akin to a human second century), there inevitably comes a day when one of them reaches the end of the line.

The only thing quite frankly that makes such a death easier is being able to grind the meat into sausage. Eating the sausage is a final occasion for us to celebrate an animal’s life. And the last chance for her to help further ours. It does not strike me as some sort of defilement. Indeed, defilement comes when a ewe is so shot through with drugs in a futile effort to extend her final days that the carcass is not even fit for the compost pile. Instead she ends up in a hole somewhere. Like Lou.

If you visit our farm on a certain summer day, when the vegetables are emerging from the ground, the sheep are loafing in the shade and the pigs come running over to have their ears scratched, the scene can be quite enchanting. Visitors often wax rhapsodic about the beauty of it all. If I know these visitors well, or if I’m just feeling the particular weight of being a farmer that day, I’ll unleash my contrarian side: “What you’re seeing here is just death on a schedule.” I keep a twinkle in my eye to cushion the blow, but my face shows that I also mean it. The primary difference between farming and life is that in farming you have a vague sense of the schedule. And that death is always on it.

By the time December arrives on our farm, death has taken all but the hindmost. The carrots have been pulled, washed, bagged and sent away. The last of the kale is succumbing to the deer. The chickens are bagged, frozen and sold, and the pigs and lambs are gone to the slaughterhouse. All that’s left are next year’s garlic cloves in the ground and a flock of ewes in the barn. And a farmer eager to do it all over again next year.

Step back even a few decades, and you notice that the farmers, too, are coming and going with regularity, no more exempt from the schedule than anyone else.

The danger in being a farmer is in forgetting the sacredness of life, in becoming inured by the endless knife work, especially in autumn, into thinking that one life is no different from the next. The danger in not being a farmer is in fetishizing life and making it holy in ways that it’s not, in attaching undue significance to the collection of carbon atoms that happen to walk around briefly as a sheep, an ox or a farmer. The trick is keeping hold of both perspectives at once.

Once you’ve mastered this, the rest is straightforward: strive for meaning, avoid needless pain, minimize suffering. Make sure no life is wasted. Said the other way, make each death useful.

My friend who wanted to be buried in his compost pile darned near got his wish: his body was cremated and the ashes scattered, some onto the compost but most around the blueberry bushes, where the acidity was no doubt beneficial.

Lou the Ox was not so fortunate, nor were those closest to him. Lou’s body won’t end up nourishing the students who loved him, though perhaps his story will have a silver lining in reminding us that one of the attributes of living a good life is ending it with a good death.

Chuck Wooster is a farmer and writer in White River Junction.

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