our first harvest of animals.

It’s been really intense around here, some good, some bad.

Thursday night i went out to the yurt to discover that it had been broken into and robbed. the door was hanging open, drawers hanging open, stuff strewn around. the bed had been shifted and boxes underneath it dumped out; the contents of the bedside table emptied onto the floor. Mostly, the thief found clothing, clothing, and more clothing, followed by scrap fabric for craft projects under the bed. Unfortunately, they also took my pack—-my expensive, internal-frame, fit-me-perfectly backpacking pack. it’s replaceable, but not with the exact thing, because of course they don’t make that model anymore. That is upsetting. All my backpacking gear was inside the pack—my water filter, backpacking stove, fire starter, etc. and i think they took my camera. I wasn’t sure about that at first because i move the camera into the house and around all over the place all the time, so i had to search the livingroom, alan’s room, the computer table, and my office before becoming sure that it is gone. but i cannot find it anywhere, and that is highly unusual—normally it lives on the table in the livingroom when it’s not in my bag. but i think i had it out in the yurt because the batteries were being funky and i had replacements out there.

I’m upset about my lost things, i’m upset because i now have to go through the bother and time and expense of replacing them (we’re looking at close to $400 worth of stuff, altogether, here—one thing i need to do today is find out what our deductible is for theft for our home insurance, and see if i should file a claim), but i’m more upset at the thought that it’s possible it could happen again. that there was somebody in my space, in my stuff. Moreover, that whoever it was now knows that that building is a woman’s bedroom, and might come back. I am deeply grateful for Alan’s ongoing presence, and for Jaime’s over this past weekend. As I said to Jenny that night, there’s nothing quite so reassuring as sleeping with a ninja. particularly one who is concerned for your welfare.

So I have done some spellwork, and i am being the spider in her web, occupying the space with all the energetic force that i possess, and meanwhile i installed more security on the inside so it is no longer possible to get in that way. i’m going to put on a deadbolt, and a motion-sensitive floodlight, as well –Robert offered to install the lights for me, so i went to Home Depot last night and bought lights & deadbolt, and i’m hoping that he can over soon and we can make that happen. I’m going to AZ with Alan this coming weekend, too, so i’m a bit nervous about leaving the yurt by itself. I actually stayed home from work on Friday so that i didn’t have to be out of sight of the yurt all day long, and spent most of it installing a stiff wire mesh (quarter inch galvanized hardware cloth, specifically) along the inside of the door frame in such a way that nobody can put their hand through the kanas, behind the insulation, anymore. I’m sad about putting all those nails into my beautiful wood door frame. And I know how i would design it into a door frame, next time, so that this safety net is an integral part of the yurt. But i can’t take it down, do that, and put it back up, so this is how it had to happen. We did some protective work for the yurt at coven that night, too.

And I have a lot of energetic force with which to occupy a space; it’s something i’m usually good at. I am feeling that to some extent, this was my fault for withdrawing my energy from the yurt for almost a month. Because the dog was barking every night, we started sleeping in the house (where it’s much easier to ignore her, and where the cat will sleep with me—he doesn’t like the woodstove, and won’t sleep in the yurt when we’ve had a fire in the stove). So i am in the yurt now, with all the force i possess. Which i think is considerable.

The rest of the weekend was the good kind of intense—Jaime was down for the weekend, and our work party Saturday was successful—I cleared out the goat pen area, with Jaime, Wendy & Apple, while Jenny & Tristan set up a rabbit butchering area in the wayback, including table, chopping-block stump, and truss for skinning. Bex came over and cleaned house for us all day—she cleaned the windows, since Tristan is engaged in putting up the plastic for the winter (in a sturdier, longer-lasting kind of way), and did dishes and cooked everybody a really tasty lunch from Jenny’s recipe. It was really rather marvellous. At the end of the day we felt that we’d gotten a lot done, and it was kind of incredible to finish a work day with the house still clean. Knocking the old horse sheds over was satisfying, too. They are now reduced to three piles: useful lumber, less-useful lumber, and things that are not lumber. Such as corrugated tin roofing panels, all of which are reusable. We’ll re-use the nice half-barrel feeding trough that was out there, too; it’s very sturdy.

Saturday evening, Jenny and I went out to do evening chores, and decided to check one more time on the still-slightly-uncertain status of Catchable and Uncatcable’s gender. When they were little, we were pretty sure they were both boys. Later, we resexed all the young rabbits and came to the conclusion that these two were both girls. We have been planning to keep Catchable (who is pretty well domesticated and is very friendly and sociable with people & with Thistle) for breeding. But then we thought, you know, we better verify that these rabbits are what we think they are, because it is damn hard to tell, really. You turn a rabbit over, and you’re looking at a fuzzy lump. Whose owner is trying to kick you. It takes getting personal with the protesting rabbit to get any real information. So we snagged Uncatchable and investigated…and lo and behold, he turns out to be a boy. Catchable is definitely a girl.

This means that, since the buns are about 4.5 months old, Catchable is fairly likely to be pregnant, as well. We separated them into two single cages, and decided to keep both of them—Uncatchable can be bred to the New Zealand White, to whom he is unrelated, though not again to Catchable, his littermate. We can’t seem to get reliable information on consanguinity in rabbit breeding, and are still on the hunt for a good source of information.

Keeping Uncatchable as a breeding male meant we could let go of our two adult males, both of whom we’ve had trouble with—one because he had a recurring abscess on one leg, the other because he was extremely grumpy and difficult to handle. Now, there is only one of the original 7 freecycle rabbits left—the New Zealand White, whom we’ve been calling Mama (she was our best mother).

At day’s end, we took ourselves over to Abeulita’s for a good dinner—where we actually got to meet the usual cook, which was fun—and strategizing for the following day. We finished planning the ritual, and then made sure we all had our order-of-operations together, for smoothness, and addressed some possible contingencies—like what if some other rabbit was pregnant and we had guessed wrong in the other group cages. Happily, that did not turn out to be the case, but we did check every rabbit to make sure.

Rabbit Butchering. I am not going to be gratuitious with the gore, but i am going to honestly relate this emotional and physical experience. Skip it if you can’t handle it.

So, Sunday we spent the entire day killing and butchering rabbits. I have now skinned two rabbits, eviscerated two rabbits, butchered three, and helped kill four. for a total of seven. and came, so it was Sunflower River plus two open family members, and that was really good. It was great to have Jaime’s solid steady calm helping everywhere all day. We did ceremony, and had the whole thing inside a formal circle, and that helped enormously. we made offerings to Demeter, Hekate, the Horned One, and the Spirit of Rabbit, and let the animal harvest, the sacrifice, be for the abundance and prosperity of our farm & community. and that all helped a lot. the work is very, very hard. Once the head is off it’s not really that bad, but getting from a live rabbit to a piece of meat hanging on the rack is an awful and gruesome process, even when we made it as absolutely merciful for the rabbits as we knew how to.

and had started on Saturday by setting up the butchering area, in a circle of elm trees back past the fire circle. In the west, they placed the large old elm stump that now serves as a chopping block. In the south, the a-frame shaped frame for hanging the beheaded rabbits so they can bleed out, and where they are skinned. In the east, the gutting and butchering table—the long worktable rescued from the old barn (the barn we knocked over last year), which Apple & Jim Sheridan refinished and made solid a few work-parties ago. This, & topped with large flat marble fragments that had at Caer Aisling. Sunday morning, we had our coffee, and took a box full of altar supplies, and a box full of butchering supplies out to the circle. Tristan lit a fire in the fire ring north of the butchering area, and we set up an altar in the north quarter of the circle. When we had everything together, we cast a full formal circle, evoking Hekate, Demeter, Horned One and Spirit of Rabbit to bless the undertaking and accept these rabbits as sacrifice for the success and prosperity of our farm and community. , i used some of the blessing you wrote, and expanded it quite a bit. Here’s what we used:

Mother Hecate, Queen of the Night,
accept this offering,
a child of your own for children of your own,
a short life for long ones.
His death is our sustenance.
Take him into your dark embrace
and make his 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 this creature nurture and provide for us,
a child of your own for children of your own,
a short life for long ones.
Take him into your embrace, accept his sacrifice
for our health and abundance.

(add’l lines)
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.

Rabbit spirit, swift and whimsical,
playful and wise, we honor you.
We thank you for your sacrifice,
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, Rabbit.

Then we went up front, collected a cage full of rabbits, and came back to begin the process. We had gotten a canister of ether to use to render the animals unconscious before we broke their necks. We intended this as an act of mercy for the rabbits, that they not suffer needlessly, and for ourselves, as, let’s face it, animal-loving hippies only recently embarked upon the sustainable farming lifestyle and unaccustomed to this sort of thing. The idea was, soak a cotton-ball with ether, hold it to the rabbit’s nose until she passed out, then break her neck, cut the head off, and hang the carcass so it could bleed. Then skin, gut, wash and chill in cold salt water, and butcher.

It didn’t work. The ether completely failed to knock the rabbit out. Held firmly in Alan’s arm against his body where she couldn’t really kick, she protested, she looked at us, her eyes followed us and she resisted the ether. Tristan held a soaking cottonball to her nose for what felt like a very, very long time (though as he later noted, we were all experiencing time dilation all day, where one minute passing felt like much longer because of the significance of the action of the minute). Still, i do think it was upwards of five minutes. It had an effect, in that it made her woozy and less responsive, but she was definitely still conscious.

So we followed what every book, rabbit-butchering site, and dialogue with people-who-have-done-this told us to do: we tried to break her neck, as swiftly and firmly as possible, so that she would feel as little as possible. That, also, did not work. Do not believe anything that tells you it is easy to break a rabbit’s neck. It’s very difficult. Several of us tried several times, and this is a strong group of people. Using one’s hands did not work, employing any of the techniques we’d read about. Using a strong stick placed against the back of the neck and swiftly pressed down did not work.

By this point, we were all responding with fairly strong emotions to the whole thing. I sat down by the altar so i wouldn’t have to stand up. We were looking at each other with anguish and fear that we couldn’t do it, that the rest of the day would be this bad, that we were horrible people for even trying this, let alone failing at it. All along, discussing this day, we’d said things like “the worst case is a half-dead rabbit, an animal in pain; the worst case is botching it.” And here we were, botching it, somehow, in spite of every possible attempt do to do it right.

Ultimately, we cut her head off. We also tried to make that quick, and it wasn’t. She screamed in pain during the first attempt. Blood sprayed all over Tristan’s shirt. The only mercies were that the rabbit was at least partially drugged by the ether, and we worked as fast as humanly possible to finish the job after that.

When we got the head severed, someone set it by the West quarter-candle while others strung the carcass up for bleeding. Hugs were shared for those who needed them. Alan was strongly affected in the moment. I was crying. Tristan looked to be having a hard time, and Jaime, who has been through doctor-school and seen some grisly things, looked like he wished he didn’t have to see that. I’m sure we all wished, not only that we didn’t have to see that, but that we didn’t have to do that. I took the altar bell and rang it around the rabbit’s head, and said another prayer. We pulled ourselves together into probably 45 minutes of discussion, then, about how to do it differently. What other approach to take to the question. Since it was clear the ether wasn’t going to work, we capped it and set it aside. We discussed other methods of breaking the neck. We accepted that we had clearly not done that right, that we did not want to do it that way again ever, that the animal was in pain. We finally settled on killing them using a noose, though we brought a framing hammer back, too, just in case that would work better to knock them out. It became clear why many people prefer the baseball method (i.e., take the rabbit by the hind legs and swing it has hard as you can at a tree or pole to kill it). We were concerned that we would not be able to do that with sufficient force, either, and that we would still end up with a half-dead rabbit whose head we had to cut off.

The noose worked. It was also difficult, but the animal lost conciousness a LOT faster. After the second one, it got a lot less harrowing. Their eyes stopped tracking, dilated, and began to bulge out from the head, mostly in a matter of seconds. The kicked strongly a few times, which i am inclined to believe is a function of the autonomous nervous system (as well as Dylan Thomas—”do not go gentle into that good night/ rage, rage against the dying of the light” —they led lives that were worth fighting for, at least a little bit), then went limp. It seemed like it took a loooooooong time, though there almost certainly was some time-dialation going on for us there. I helped kill two of them, leaning on the body and pressing the noose tight. Rope stretches, and the noose needs to be continually tightened for fastest effect. We are going to get not-stretchy rope if we do it this way again. We used what we had on hand this time, since we had to make a decision in the moment. We are also going to get a real meat cleaver, and possibly what the Sporstmans’ store calls a Camp Axe, which is designed for beheading small animals. We used the sharp but not sharp enough vegetable cleaver that we already owned.

After beheading each rabbit, we hung them up to bleed, and then skinned them when they were ready. The skinning was considerably easier. Without a head the carcass was really just meat, just a carcass that happened to have fur on. We were able to buy a real set of skinning knives, which were of enormous benefit to the operation and proved their value already. Wow, are those some nice knives.

All the books say these cheerfully gruesome little tidbits, like, “you can pull the skin off like a sweater,” and “after you remove the tail, you can give it to the children to play with.” Which we kept repeating over the course of the day. A fair amount of macabre humor graced the day, which definitely helped keep us all sane. So did being in cirlce, where we could ground it, offer the pain up, offer up what our eyes wished they had not witnessed, and, after the first rabbit, offer up our own innocence. The gods are there to pick us up when we need it, to be leaned on, as much as anything else. We leaned a little, sometimes more than others, all day Sunday. At least i did.

The skin is not exactly like a sweater. You do have to keep separating the facia from the muscle. However, once you ring the legs and get the fur away from the anus, the rest of the job is pretty easy, and moves smoothly until you get to the forelegs, when you have to either make another incision through the fur up the forelegs—or pull the skin off like a sweater. It does pull, but it stretches the carcass a little bit, and Hannah had to pull hers so strongly the jute twine we used to tie the rear legs up, snapped. The skin is gradually turning inside out as you skin the animal, resulting in an inside-out rabbit fur tube. Which actually is not as gruesome as that sounded. It’s not really hugely pleasant to touch, on the hide side, but on the fur side it’s quite nice, and the whole time, one hand has to be inside with the fur, so that hand is warm and soft, until you get to the part where the blood dripped on it near the neck, which will then get all over your hand.

We stretched all the hides and nailed them to boards, and are now in the process of tanning them the way we learned from Dick’s Encyclopedia of Practical Receipts and Processes: Containing over 6400 Receipts Embracing Thorough Information, in Plain Language, Applicable to Almost Every Possible Industrial and Domestic Requirement Or, How They Did It in the 1870’s, a book I inherited from my grandmother, which is almost exactly as useful as it sounds. Basically, you scrape the hide, wash it with salt water, then wash it several times over a few days with alum solution (which, since it is a dye mordant, i already had in the house), then when it is fully dry, you roll it up and run it through a metal ring often enough to soften the skin. nontoxic and easy.

Having skinned the rabbit, we then untrussed it, chopped the feet off, laid them with the heads by the west candle, which was developing a little row of rabbit heads, ears laid back, looking partly at the altar and partly at the chopping block, with a row of feet stretching along beside it. Then we put the rabbit on the first butchering block, made a careful incision, and removed the internal organs, carefully separateing the edible ones from the really not edible ones (which went into a bucket). Anatomy lesson for all who did not already know what those parts looked like. Checked the livers for spots of unhealth. None found. Jenny got us all started with the skinning on the first rabbit, then did most of the evisceration over the course of the day, as well as the lion’s share of the butchering, while supervising the other two processes and adding helpful instruction and input all day long. After each rabbit was gutted, the edible internal organs and the meat all went into a cooler full of cold salt water. This chilled the meat, and helped remove the hair, which got all over the place during the skinning process. Rabbits shed prolifically, and the hair sticks to everything.

Butchering from that point was straightforward, and not particularly different from taking apart a whole grocery-store chicken, except that the cuts of meat are different; the haunches are meatier, and the ribs pretty thin. Non-harrowing, at any rate.

All in all, we were out there until about 3pm, and then had the hides to scrape and the buckets to wash. Thank goodness, i had cleared the day of anything else. We went from that, through the cleaning up process—28 lbs of rabbit resting in the fridge now—and into a quiet evening capped by a good strong drink! :-)

and somewhere at the end, there, my grandpa called me. he and i don’t really get along, and we have never had much to talk about until i started farming. he grew up on a 300-acre family farm in rural Minnesota, a sort of farm that scarcely exists anymore, and they got through the Great Depression selling eggs—10-12 dozen a week, from about 350 hens, for whom they grew and ground their own feed. i had written to him recently, and he wanted to share farming tips with me. we had the first genuinely fun and pleasant conversation we’ve ever had in my entire life. a welcome surprise!

i think that about sums everything up. Whooosh, said the weekend. then a busy day at work yesterday, too, and as usual, it’s taken me two entire days to come up with an LJ entry.