first harvest, summer’s end.

last tuesday night, we were invited over to Ironwood Farm to learn how to slaughter chickens. in about three hours, Tristan, Alan, myself and Jenny & Chris processed fourteen birds. Scotty, Chris & Jenny’s 8-year-old, helped by catching birds and offering commentary. We learned a lot fast, by doing it. Chris’s setup involved what’s called the cone method, where you have some cones suspended around eye level, and you put each bird head first into a cone, slit the throat, and let it bleed out while you get the next bird. We had been debating using either this or the hatchet method (put the bird’s head between two nails on a board, to hold it still, then cut the head off with a hatchet), so Chris also showed us how to do it that way, by way of expressing his reservations about that method, and showing why he uses the cone method. By the time we’d killed two birds that way, we understood and agreed. With the cone method, the body is restrained and can’t fight much, either before or after death. This allows you to give the bird a very fast death, as painlessly as possible. With the hatchet method, the head can slide out between the nails, meaning the body collapses when you cut the head off and the decapitated bird is still blinking at you while its separated body thrashes on the ground. The bird’s death is fast, but the trauma to the farmer is greater. On top of that, the bird’s ability to fight means that the wings are easily bruised, resulting in unusable meat more often then you want it.

With that example for reference, we went with the cone method. Saturday started out bright and early, with casting circle and getting the process going at 7 a.m. We’d done most of our set-up the night before, including borrowing Ironwood’s plucker & cones, setting all that up, running electricity & water out to the abattoir, etc. Friday also we caught all the roosters we were planning to slaughter, and isolated them in cages so that we would not be running though the whole coop catching birds saturday morning. We did this after full dark, so the birds were easy to catch (rather than waiting for them to be awake and fast!).

We started with the same ceremony we’d done for the rabbits, modified for chickens. Kit, Joanna and Chris from Ironwood joined us, and I felt a little funny doing the ceremony—as much performative as involved, which i had to work through while doing it to get myself fully centered. We cast circle, called the directions, and evoked deity thus:

Mother Hecate, Queen of the Night,
accept this offering,
children of your own for children of your own,
short lives for long ones.
Their death is our sustenance.
Take them into your dark embrace
and make their passing an easy one.

Mother Demeter, Goddess of the Harvest,
Mother of all life, all growing, caretaker of crops and animals,
accept this offering for the abundance and success
of our garden, our farm, our lives.
Let these creatures nurture and provide for us,
children of your own for children of your own,
short lives for long ones.
Take them into your embrace, accept their sacrifice
for our health and abundance.

Father Cernunnos, Green God of the Hunted,
bless our offering, and watch over the passing of this spirit of life.
We thank you for the great cycle of sacrifice,
renewal and rebirth between us and your children,
for we are your children too.
We give honor to the Creator and the Created,
the verdant and the fallow,
the blossoming, and the sorrowing,
to all that is born and dies, and yet lives again.

Chicken spirit, protective and determined,
social and silly, we honor you.
We thank you for your sacrifice,
as we commit to protecting your culture,
and honor your presence in our lives.
Gentle spirit, go swiftly and easily
to your rest, to the gods, to your next life.
We bless and honor you.
Thank you, Chicken.

(thanks to for the language that formed the genesis of this ritual!)

Having done that, Alan caught a rooster from the pen, and brought it over to the row of cones. Tristan killed the first several birds, and Jenny, Joanna & Kit removed wing feathers for later costume-making purposes, and set those aside in a paper bag. When the water in the boiler was hot enough, we scalded the first bird, brushing a forked stick through the feathers to help them soak up the water. When the feathers pull out very easily by hand, the bird is done scalding. At this point, we turned the plucker on, and dropped the rooster in. the plucker flings the bird around inside a cylinder full of rubber fingers, and the friction (or something) pulls all the feathers off the carcass. Partway through, you turn the hose on and rinse the bird and the whole inside down, which helps keep things going smoothly. Then the plucked bird went over to the butchering block, to be beheaded and eviscerated. Jenny from Ironwood had shown us how to do this on Tuesday, and i communicated what i’d learned to our Jenny, who then took over leading the butchering process. I floated between tasks most of the time. I don’t like butchering, and am actually less comfortable eviscerating a carcass than I am with killing a live bird. I took my turn killing birds about halfway through, and did several of them. you know you’ve made the cut correctly when the blood leaps out of the neck and the spirit passes from the bird a second or two later. Hand around their head, holding their neck, you can feel the spirit leave the body. the last bird of the morning, and the last one i did, was Penny’s Rooster. that old man wasn’t serving any useful purpose on the farm, and had been pecking Penny too much for our comfort. He couldn’t be integrated with the larger flock, because Soup (our one remaining living rooster, and the fellow we’re keeping) will not put up with him. So, saturday morning, I killed him. I looked him in the eye and apologized before doing it. He was upside down in the cone at the time, and i think he knew what was coming. He didn’t protest. I made it as fast and clean a cut as i could, and i think it was the cleanest of all the ones I’d done. is going to make coq au vin from him; it requires a tough old bird. He was the last one, of the 13 we did that morning. He made an interesting contrast with the rest, as he was much fatter, and much older, than any of the other birds–and a different breed; they were white wyandottes, and he was a rhode island red. His internal organs looked different, his skin is coarser, and the shape of the body even looks different in the freezer. and he was the only one with fully developed spurs.

we are having roast chicken for house meeting tonight. one of the younger birds. with fresh corn on the cob and garden green (and purple) beans. I’m looking forward to it.

i’ll post a how-to-do-this with photos in a separate entry, for those that want to see how we did it.

We were done by 10:30. we closed circle, and Chris, who had helped all morning with the slaughter, scalding and plucking, headed home. We cleaned up, got all the birds packed in ice and the giblets sorted out into dogfood packages for Thistle. We rested, showered, and generally recovered from the morning’s activities. Everything went very smoothly with the process, from start to finish. But, as Chris put it on Tuesday, nothing about death is insignificant. We are doing the right thing, and there is no question of that in my mind, nor are we going to change our actions and not raise meat animals simply because killing them is difficult. But that doesn’t make their sacrifice insignificant or reduce its meaning in any way. it is an action that requires great compassion toward and understanding of the animal. It is an act of great meaning, releasing another’s life, taking conscious action toward one’s place in the food chain. it is simultaneously brutal and gentle, and it continues to feel very important to me. It is really rewarding that we were able to move through this process as easily & gracefully as we did. I feel that we collectively have very real skills around raising meat birds now, and while those skills need and will continue to gain refinement, nevertheless, we can do it. it’s empowering, and deeply connective. i belong to my ecology, which includes our farm animals; we are not separate. this affirms that connection, through powerful action within the web. in return for their sacrifice, our end of the contract is to protect them, give them the best lives we can, and, as Alan puts it, to protect their culture–to make it possible for them to be what they are, as best as we and they both can. Given the crowding in the henyard lately, with all the young cocks coming of age and running amok, it was our responsibility to remove those birds from the lives of the hens, and give the hens a more peaceful, calmer existance, where they are not stressed by crowding or by too many roosters. The difference in the barnyard is astonishing; it is so mellow out there now. And Soup is pleased with himself, having won the lottery to resume being the only rooster in the yard. we are trying to do our best by our hens by keeping him; he is the most protective, gentlest rooster, who scratches food up for the girls and calls them over to eat it, and raises hell when they are attacked by something he can’t defend against–he’s good at getting our attention when he needs to, and that’s part of his job, too. and he never attacks people, which is also part of why we like him. (of course, he’s also fast as greased lightning and goes through livestock fences like water, but we can work with that).

when we had some energy again, we headed back to Ironwood to return the chicken equipment, and pick up windfall apples from Scott & Maria’s side of the farm. They have six mature apple trees, and some awesome fruit. We brought home 50 pounds of fabulous fruit, to find that Tristan, Billy & Jenny had picked up as much from the tree at Caer Aisling, and we had about a hundred pounds of apples to process. oh, harvest season! every year, you see it coming, and every year, it leaps out of the bushes and surprises you.

some gratuitous Cute Baby Goat photos, because we played with the goats while at Ironwood on Tuesday. aren’t they darling? these little guys are Nigerian Dwarfs. this little guy is climbing my pants so he can eat the strings.

same little guy. my favorite, for sure. suckling on Alan’s thumb.

and playing jungle gym with their new (if temporary) toys:

luckily, in addition to 100# apples, and an awesome full moon drum jam that night, we also had a work party Sunday. we were going to work on the coyote fence across the front of the property, and we did get some important steps taken on that fence, before deciding over lunch that the apples were the real emergency, and putting all hands on apple processing.

leading up to the work party, Tristan spearheaded an effort to get the fence up. structurally, it is up, and it is definitely defining space out front in a way that was only conceptual before.

Uprights in, Tristan, Joanna & Kit start on the horizontal braces.

Jenny & Joanna attach braces. The fence line divides the driveway from the garden & house space very nicely.

the last few supports go on:

the frame is up.

sunday morning, Rev and Kit start attaching the latillas.

we wired these onto the braces, compressing every few latillas so that the fence stays as tight as possible.

you can tell what it’s going to look like when we’re done. whenever that is. which is probably when harvest releases us from its iron grip.

meanwhile, Alan set up canning supplies in the kitchen

while the rest of the crew processed apples. Britta, Hanna, Corban & Amber peeling, coring & slicing apples for canned apples. Then coring & slicing for applesauce and mead. Scraps went to the hens, and whole unusable apples went to the turkeys, who were also loose in the garden all day, making for some entertaining interruptions.

canned apples. the seminal signal of and symbol for harvest in my childhood.

and, last but not least, we have sunflowers! in the afternoon, with corn:

in the morning, sun full on the blossom:

and best of all: