Coming to grips with the sacred violence of eating.
Editor’s Note: This article contains graphic imagery involving animal slaughter and butchering.
“People say that what we’re seeking is a meaning for life ... I think that what we’re seeking is an experience of being alive, so that our life experiences on the purely physical plane will have resonances within our innermost being and reality, so that we actually feel the rapture of being alive.”
—Joseph Campbell, The Power of Myth
My hands, red with blood, are immersed in the still-warm flesh of the sow. With a knife sharp enough to take life swiftly, I cut through fat and muscle, trying to separate her head from the rest of her lifeless body. I’m struggling. With so much fat around her jowls, I cannot feel where to cut between the vertebrae. In my impatience, I resort to a saw, and with full-bodied strokes, push and pull the blade over the bone. It’s neither elegant nor effective. But I need a way to ground myself—I’m in a state of exalted reverence.
We have just killed Willamena, a 4-year-old sow we affectionately called “Willy.” I helped raise Willy from a piglet, fed her nearly every day, and helped midwife her through three pregnancies. I learned from Willy new meanings of persistence, service, and love. I learned from her how far mothers will go to ensure the healthy survival of their strongest offspring. Willy inspired in me love, respect, and appreciation that created a powerful bond between us.
In the days following Willy’s most recent pregnancy, I visited her pen regularly. On many of the visits, I found a limp piglet, so very peaceful, yet no longer alive. Willy’s vision and hearing had been deteriorating and it had begun to impact her mothering. Currently, our land can only support one sow and her litter. So, with Willy’s diminishing capacity to successfully raise healthy piglets, it was becoming clear that it was time to let one of her daughters succeed her. It was time to harvest Willy.
As the weeks passed, I resolved myself for Willy’s coming death. On this day when we planned to harvest her, I spent a few hours with her, resting my head on her back, rubbing her belly, and scratching behind her ears. As she grunted contentedly, tears rolled steadily down my cheeks, wetting her skin. I would soon be taking her life, as she had taken the life of her own piglets.
There’s a foreboding symmetry to it all: life feeding on life. The years of living in a forest, on a farm, one hour from the nearest grocery store, have instilled in me this humbling awareness about the web of life in which I am immersed. I sow seeds and harvest trees. I midwife the birth of pigs and then take their lives as dictated by the needs of the land and the demands of the seasons. This land is my grocery, my doctor, and my security.
My own existence is a collaboration of sun and soil, muscle and bone. Every day is an ecstatic celebration and a stoic fight. I too am vulnerable to the biting cold and the pangs of hunger. Coming face-to-face with my own place in the web of life has increased the frequency of my tears, the potency of my anger, and the quickness of my response. It has also enhanced the power of my love, the authenticity of my joy, and my desire to seek pleasure. It has ushered me into a life that is human, animal, and wild.
Humans have created stories since time immemorial. Mythological stories go far beyond a form of entertainment as they help us find purpose and peace in this remarkably complex, beautiful, and tragic world. Down through the generations, myths help pass the wisdoms that orient us to the world in which we were born, and guide us through the phases and stages of life. Myths have the power to shape lives and guide cultures.
One of the common themes in myth is a cosmology that reflects the subsistence practices dictated by the local ecology, helping place human culture in accord with nature. Joseph Campbell, a professor of comparative mythology at Sarah Lawrence College for nearly 40 years, shares a myth that establishes a covenant between the buffalo and the Plains Indians. The covenant affirms that the buffalo will come every year and give their lives to feed the people and the people in turn will bring them back to life through the sacred rites of the buffalo dance.
In the telling of this myth, Campbell offers that “the essence of life is that it lives by killing and eating. And that is the great mystery the myths have to deal with.” These people, like most people the world over, were “living on death all the time in a sea of blood.” So this myth served to reconcile the human psyche with the harsh reality that life survives by eating life.
Campbell goes on to suggest that if we are to celebrate life for the miracle that it is, we must celebrate it as it truly is. But as a modern culture we are losing the capacity to distinguish between the “sea of blood” that flows from living a life in accordance with life itself and the “sea of blood” that flows from acting out of ignorance, greed, and aggression. Regaining the capacity to discern between these two dynamic forces may well save us from ourselves.
Today we live in a world that is full of needless atrocities. We live in a nation without guiding myths. We live in a culture where comfort, convenience, and progress disconnect so many from the places, processes, and creatures that are the sources of sustenance. What remains is a cultural crisis that is profound and widespread, a crisis of the conscious and our core identity.
What should we eat? Organic? Local? Vegetarian? Vegan? Raw? What if the animals are free-range? Or if the food will be otherwise thrown away? Maybe the answer lies in the Paleo diet? Or in the practices of Sally Fallon’s Nourishing Traditions? We appear to be losing our bearings on how to relate to the very thing that gives us life and nourishment.
Emphasizing the importance of understanding local ecology in understanding ourselves, Wendell Berry observed that, “You don’t know who you are, if you don’t know where you are.” I’d add that if you don’t know the food you’re eating, then you don’t know who you really are.
Food is the most intimate connection I have with the earth. When I eat, I am taking in the body of another being and making it part of my own. I am literally incorporating their cells into mine, their life into mine. I don’t know of anything more intimate.
I can trace my life through the lens of trying to find right relationship with food. At the age of 10, I became vegetarian and pretended I was a calf at the dinner table. At 16, I became vegan, attended animal rights conferences, and recoiled at the horrors of factory farms, monoculture, and industrial agriculture. At 18, I started working on small-scale farms, helping to grow vegetables and fruit for local farmers markets. At 23, I moved to Windward, a small land-based intentional community in southern Washington state, and started the process of integrating with this land—of consuming what this land provides at the nurturing hands of those who call it home. Seven years later, I am now of this plateau. Squash and greens and eggs and bone. Potatoes, lard, cheese, and plums. My body is made of the earth I walk every day. I am bonded with those who too eat from this land—fellow humans, squirrels, deer, coyotes, owls, and hawks. We are made from the same living Earth.
I know that this process of healing, of unlearning and becoming human, is one in which I continually have to confront my deepest conditioning. I am no longer surprised when I find myself thinking something that a few years ago I would have considered heresy. The journey I am on is one that asks me to shed the things I carry that are not mine, and to integrate the part of me that had been lost. Through this process, I am slowly revealed to myself. Some parts are beautiful, some are unsettling. Some parts I can leave behind. Others, I learn, I cannot.
After I sufficiently tire myself with the saw and have made no meaningful progress separating Willy’s head from the rest of her body, I humble myself and ask for help. Andrew takes the knife as I move around to take hold of her head. I sink my hands into the flesh and pull, creating more space between the vertebrae for Andrew to place the knife and sever the remaining connective tissue.
Sinking my hands into Willy’s warm, bloody tissue ignites a series of conflicting feelings inside me. I feel horrified and content. I feel powerful and vulnerable, sickened and satiated. I mourn the loss of Willy’s life—her contended grunts, her smile, the way her ears flopped when she ran toward food—and I simultaneously fill with a primal sense of comfort in knowing we have nourishing food for the coming winter. With Willy’s body laying limp and dismembered in front of me, I have a heightened awareness of my own mortality—I can feel my muscles as they move and my lungs expanding with each breath—I know exactly what it would take for the life to flow out of my body as it has Willy’s. Arising from the same primal place, I feel a heightened desire for my own flesh to engorge with blood, with life, and to surrender beneath the weight of a tender and impassioned lover.
Andrew looks up from where his attention has been focused on Willy’s spine and our eyes meet. “Are you ready?” I nod. He swiftly separates the last of the connective tissue attaching Willy’s head, and the full weight of her head falls into my hands.
At that moment, something shifts inside me: I stop fighting the part of myself that knows that these acts—killing, eating, living—are inherently violent. Holding her head dripping with blood, I feel like a monster. And I know I am. We just cut off Willy’s head—an act that requires force, precision, and a desire to irrevocably damage something that was so meticulously (and miraculously) held together. I also feel intensely human. I feel alive and awake, captivated by my own physicality. I feel viscerally connected to Willy, to Andrew, to the grass underfoot, the trees at my side—to every creature who calls this land home. The weight of her head in my hands broke through another layer of the denial that had been keeping me from accepting the part of my humanity that is wild—the part of my humanity that is fighting for survival just like every other creature with whom we share this earthly home.
We live in a violent world. I don’t mean the needless atrocities that humans commit against fellow humans, against other animals, and ultimately against the land itself. I mean the violence of life feeding on life as a means of perpetuating itself. Of the lioness killing the zebra, of the brown bear catching the salmon, of the gardener pulling up carrots, of the deer eating the newly sprouted fir tree right down to the ground. A violence that I no longer want to deny and will perform with as much reverence as my body can muster.
For just as my body revolts against the experience of killing, so too does it find it deeply grounding. When my hands are immersed in another’s flesh, every cell in my body knows I am alive. When my eyes catch sight of the beauty of the muscles or the intricate patterns of fascia and veins, I am mesmerized. When I am scraping the hide, a deep calm settles in. Even the first time felt familiar, like staring into the flames of a fire or feeling the beating heart of a beloved.
For me, harvesting another life for food—animals and plants alike—has become a sacred violence. I consider it part of the eternal dance of life transforming itself from one form to another, and in the process infusing the transcendent into every mortal life form. It’s a dance too complex for me to understand fully, but it’s a dance that endlessly captivates me, and it compels me to engage wholeheartedly. And I do.
At Windward, we have, over time, developed rituals for killing animals. It’s not the kind of ritual a modern pagan might imagine. We do not declare intentions or call in elements. We do not sing organized song or stand in a circle.
The purpose, however, is clear. Blood, flesh, bone, and earth are present in their rawness and potency. If we are lucky, the wind and rain will spare us. Song is spontaneous, arising out of personal relationship with the animal. The connection between the humans is intensely palpable. The energy starts out solemn, grows reverent, sometimes becomes jovial, and ends in fatigue and cold fingers.
Earlier in the day the primary caretaker of the selected animal will prepare the space. By then, many will have already said their goodbyes—feeding a special treat or scratching in the favorite places. Some draw pictures, others sing songs. Each person chooses what is most meaningful for them. Those who want to bear witness to the death arrive before the designated time. When that time comes, a sharp knife slits the jugular, or a bullet penetrates the brain. It’s startling how quickly life can fade. My heart always sinks and my stomach tightens. And the beauty of the crimson blood as it flows over snow, around stone, or under leaves, takes my breath away. A bond forever connects those who are present for the taking of life.
On harvest days, everyone lends a hand. With repetition, individuals grow into specific roles: the one who wields the knife, the one who operates the crane, the one who ferries meat to the kitchen. We endeavor to use as much of the animal as possible, from tanning the hide to rendering the fat, from preparing the organ meats to fertilizing the garden with blood and bone. The parts we cannot use, we feed to other omnivores on the farm. Then there is processing the meat itself. For the larger animals, we gather in the kitchen to cut, sort, and package for freezing, sausage making, or dry curing. For a few hours we tell stories, make plans, or work in silence. It’s a classic example of many hands making light work. And even then, making full use of all the animal can take weeks or even months.
Having many skillful hands becomes a necessity when we live with the raw elements of the land. When we rely on each other for our daily bread, community quickly becomes a viscerally felt network of security. Nurturing community is as much a necessity of living with the land as knowing east from west. Each of us here at Windward carries a deep understanding that we cannot do this—live with a forest, on a farm—on our own. We rely on each other to create that felt sense of integration that comes when we know our food, the life it lived, the ground it walked, its last moments. We live through partnership, with the forest, with the animals, and with one another. It is through these partnerships that we come to know ourselves and that we become fully human. It is in this violent harmony that I have come to find peace.
Lindsay Hagamen is a Steward of the Windward Community, lover of the Wild, and co-editor of the recently released collection Ecosexuality: When Nature Inspires the Arts of Love. Reprinted from Communities (Summer 2015), a quarterly magazine that covers intentional communities in North America.