weekend of the unexpected

it’s been a weekend full of surprises.

saturday’s plan didn’t originally include fixing the truck (which unexpectedly refused to start early last week), but that did get to happen, with Daniel’s help. then we unloaded it, so now the doghouse is in the barnyard with the dog, with fresh bedding and all that, which is also great. i managed to finish my witches’ ball costume in the afternoon, which i had budgeted two more evenings of work on, so i am happy to have two evenings to devote to other projects, or possibly even to relaxing (we’ll see; i still have a huge pile of pants that need to be hemmed so they fit correctly, with increasing urgency as they are all winter pants and it’s getting really cold out).

autumn arrived, in every way. the big cottonwood is bright gold. and it is the season of harvest, and of sacrifice.

the other saturday morning surprise was loose rabbits. the young males had let themselves out of their cage, somehow, and had apparently been hopping around inside the larger pen that encloses all the rabbit cages, sometime in the night. this caused the puppy, ever interested in companionship, to push on the fence in an attempt to say hello (we believe). she tore the fence, though there is no indication that she herself got through; but she pushed open a big enough rent for much-smaller rabbits to get through. two of the three did so, and the dog quite clearly tried to play with one. Unfortunately, the dog does not really understand that she is much much larger and stronger than her little “littermates.” playing meant hurting, though we are certain she did not intend to hurt. So when Tristan went out to do the morning feeding & watering, he found one damaged rabbit lying on the ground, and one apparently-undamaged rabbit beside the cage. undamaged rabbit hopped into the barn (and possibly had already spent some time in there)—the opening at the base of the barn door is plenty big enough for a rabbit; much too small for the dog. so the bun was safe in there, and had ready access to all the hay he could possibly want. i’m sure he had some. that’s fine; it’s rabbit-food. we caught him and put him back. the other rabbit, however, was in bad shape. we isolated him in a cage the dog can’t reach, and provided kibble and water and shade, and left him alone in the hopes he would recover from the shock. he was very clearly in shock, and it became apparent also that his shoulder and one leg were broken.

he was still alive when Alan and I got back around midnight Saturday from Debbie & Steven’s drum jam (which was excellent, for the record; we had a great time and were very glad we went). But sometime between midnight and morning, the rabbit died, presumably of shock. because it had been quite cold during the night, we decided to butcher the rabbit to save and use the meat, rather than composting it. We felt that at the worst, by butchering him, we’d learn if he had other internal injuries (if there had been organ rupture, we would not have used the meat). While Jenny and I ate our breakfast, and Tristan worked on wiring the solar panel for the well pump, Alan went outside and got the carcass, took that and an improvised table and knives out to the back field, and removed the head. He also gutted it, revealing that there had been no organ damage, and the meat was safe to eat. It turns out you’re not supposed to gut it until after you’ve got the skin off, and we will probably do it in that order next time.

So he reappeared in the house after a bit with the beheaded rabbit, whose rent belly was red with blood, ready to be skinned. Jenny and I stopped eating and came to the kitchen to help. Tristan was in and out during all this, and mostly finished wiring the solar panel, as that was something that required his attention, and the kitchen is small, and we did have the matter under control. Or anyway Jenny did. Thank heavens, she has some significant experience working with meat (though with the skin already removed), and we had both been reading up some on the slaughter, skinning and butchering process over the past week or so. I filled a bowl with iced salt water for the meat, which Daniel (who grew up on a farm and has killed, skinned and butchered his fair share of mammals, including rabbits) advised as a good way to get the gamey flavor out of the meat, and get the hair off. rabbits shed readily, and hair gets on everything until you get the skin off, and it really sticks to the raw meat. Alan held the rabbit up by the rear legs while Jenny made the incisions and began to separate the skin from the muscle.

Understand that I have never in my life done anything like this, nor been witness to it. Alan had shot *at* things, on childhood hunting expeditions, and i think been present while other people skinned & dressed them, but not done it himself. Jenny has butchered any number of already-dressed & gutted meats, but not slaughtered, skinned or gutted them. I stopped eating meat when i was 16, and stayed strictly vegetarian for 8 years, partly because meat is gross.

Meat is still gross. but i do eat it, and that obliges me to raise it and kill it correctly, and to learn to do every chore involved in doing it right. By this i mean, raising animals without antibiotics, artificial hormones or chemicals in the animals’ diet, in humane conditions so that all of their needs are met and they lead happy lives, and slaughtering them with a minimum of pain and with a ceremony of thanksgiving to honor the spirit of the animal.

My commitment to doing this, and doing it in the way i emotionally and spiritually perceive as right, has not changed. but working with that rabbit carcass was a real challenge. So I mostly watched and tried to do other support tasks, like filling a bowl of water, while Alan held up the carcass and Jenny skinned it. She used our small paring knife, which is capable of holding a wicked sharp edge, and is small enough to do delicate jobs. She used her kitchen cleaver to cut off the forelegs at the joint, as Alan had already severed the head. Then finished the incision up the belly, which Alan had cut from neck almost to groin for gutting the rabbit outside, and began to gently pull the skin up off the muscle on one side. It went pretty easily. Everybody says that rabbit skin “comes off like a sweater;” you see that phrase everywhere when you look into this topic. I don’t know about sweaters so much, and it did require attention to detail, but it separated easily, with a thin subcutaneous fat layer. After a while, Alan and I changed places and I held the rabbit up while Jenny separated the other side. Then we had enough of it removed to lay it down to finish, and cut the back legs off. The inside of the skin was extremely slick and soft and rather greased-feeling, when we got it off the animal and i took it outside to clean it. The fur is extraordinarily soft, and it cleaned up pretty well in running water. I had a hard time getting off the dirt that had already been on the tail, but the blood washed off quickly. The cold hose water froze my hands, and i folded the skin around them, fur side out, to warm them, and found that incredibly effective. When I had it reasonably clean I took it back inside.

When I came back in, Jenny and Alan had sorted out the organ meat, and Jenny was showing Alan which parts were the heart, lungs, liver, kidneys, and so on. That was educational. He had removed the intestines, stomach, etc earlier, and those were out back. We decided to offer those parts, which we cannot use, to Coyote, and ask that he accept them as sustenance while leaving our living animals alone. We want the wildlife to thrive, but not by preying on our domestic stock. Alan took it to the wayback (the very furthest part of the property) for the coyotes or whatever, so that if our offering it becomes a pattern, Coyote will hopefully not develop a parallel pattern of casing the barnyard to see if there are scraps. I suppose we could also learn the ancient druidic art of divination through entrails. We fed the two cats a little piece of liver each, which Lucille trilled at and then scorned to eat, but Tattersall said thank you, and then proceeded to spend something like an hour licking his piece. Cats.

Then Jenny finished cutting up the rabbit and putting the parts in the iced salt water to clean them. Breaking the breastbone was probably the worst part, as it creates a grinding popping gristly sound when the bones and sinew separate. I was asked to go out to the barn and find a board to tack the hide onto, for tanning (we are going to tan the skins and use them).

So i headed that direction, and put my hands in the warm dog’s fur for a bit when i walked out there, and then headed straight for the ritual grounds. I had reached a point where i neither could nor wanted to prevent myself from crying, so i went out to the cottonwood and sat down in the circle facing west, and wept. I spoke a prayer to Demeter as goddess of the harvest, and as goddess of abundance, asking her to accept this rabbit’s spirit as an offering towards the fruitfulness of our farm, and to Hecate as a guide of the dead and guardian of the crossroads. A crane called out, and flew from west to north, over Gherardi Farms, calling. I stood and turned north and then east, to face the huge golden tree and thank her, and offer all of it to her protection. As i turned away to move back towards the barnyard and find that board, I saw in my mind Persephone, the rabbit held gently in the crook of her arm, heading down towards the underworld.

Then I found a board, with Alan’s help, and we hauled it back up front. Meanwhile, Jenny started rabbit soup with the carcass, setting the organ meat aside, and began to clean the kitchen. I took the bloody cutting board out to the garden with a dish of water, and offered the blood to Demeter for the fertility of the garden, then rinsed the blood into the soil. When that was done, Alan and i nailed the hide up to it, with the fur towards the board. We are following the tanning directions from Dick’s Practical Encyclopedia of Receipts, Recipes & Processes, or How They Did It In The 1870’s. We sponged the hide down with salt water and then an alum solution, and then Erin arrived for the work party.

Oh yeah, work party. right. i had a hard time wrapping my head around anything at all, let alone coordinating people at a task as disconnected-feeling as finishing the greenhouse. In spite of which, the greenhouse floor did get finished. Apple and Robert arrived, and Robert, Alan and Tristan diverted themselves into the pump house to work on installing our resonant chamber—that is, the new well tank. Which, when empty, had a fabulous “boom” when struck. Now, i am happy to say, it is full of water. After a while, Jenny and Erin headed over to the greenhouse and took everything off the floor of the greenhouse and stacked it, and then i helped rake things more or less level, and then Jenny poured sand and leveled it, and the three of us laid the pavers. We poured more sand around the edges and got everything settled. So that, at least got done, and without really a huge amount of work, either. Apple headed out back and started sorting out one of our several enormous piles of coyote fencing and assorted stick-debris, from “unsorted” into “stripped fence poles,” “chip up for mulch” and “firewood.” She had finished one half of a very large pile and a big chunk of another large pile when Adam and i headed that way, later in the afternoon (after first going on the “admire everything” tour when he arrived). We helped finish the second pile, so now there is a lot less work to do out there. two more large piles of sorting, and we’ll be ready to make a fence—and i think we’ll have enough material to do it, too. I intend to have a fire-jam out back for thanksgiving, and to burn a fair amount of the too-small-to-be-useful wood at that. the work was simple and vivifying, which was very welcome.

Somewhere in there, Jenny & Erin went and got a fresh batch of drinking water for the house, and came back with potatoes & onions to dice into the rabbit stew. I diced the veggies, including some carrots we had and another onion, one that we grew, and Jenny added some herbs. I picked some sage from the front flowerbed to go in, and we put it all back to simmer for another hour. While this was going on, we drained the old well tank of clear water, then drained it of red-brown sludge (yum), and Robert removed it and the pump and then completed the hookups of all the parts that led from the new pump to the house. the secret is Chinese finger traps for pipes, he tells me. the whole thing is enormously complex and full of little fiddly parts. more so even than the drip system.

By the time we were done sorting sticks, the soup was done. Alan and Adam and I had some bunny stew, and Apple came over to join us. the rabbit was quite mild and tender. i hadn’t added much salt, so the soup was milder than it would be with more salt. i tried to appreciate the rabbit and the process and the day while eating the soup. and picking bones out of the soup. next time we do this, i’m going to shake the meat off the bones and remove them before adding the potatoes and all that. lesson learned.

I had absolutely no get-up-and-go yesterday at all. usually on a work party day i eat as large a breakfast as i can handle, and then zip around all day working my ass off and telling people what to do. yesterday i had none of that—didn’t eat much of that breakfast, what with the rabbit and all, and then didn’t have any zip, which i think was a combination of no carbs in my body, and grief for the rabbit. fortunately, for all the completely-atypical qualities of this work party, other people had initiative to start and complete projects, and we all got a lot done. the greenhouse floor, the sticks, and—i am very happy to report—the successful and complete installation of our solar well pump and new well tank. Enormous kudos to Robert, Tristan and Alan for all that, and to Tristan and Alan for persevering through an entire morning of follow-up work on it after the sun hit the panel this morning! we now officially have off-grid water! *major* triumph, there!

emotionally overshadowed by the rabbit, in my case. i am glad we had that fellow to practice on, even though the whole thing was a surprise. we didn’t have to kill this one, after all; this will be harder next time, because of that, but also easier, because we know exactly what to expect from the rest of the process. i am quite certain that i want to cast circle before we begin next time, do the work inside a circle, invoke, and speak a prayer for each animal before we slaughter it. i felt a LOT better after praying (and crying) yesterday. it eased it, and i think that the spiritual part of this is inescapably important. we never came together, all four of us, to do ceremony yesterday (schedules didn’t sort themselves out right for it—first there was all the practical stuff, then other people were there, then various of us had to leave and our schedules were disjoint for the rest of the night), and i regret that. I think we each ended up doing something on our own, which is good, but we will be more organized about it next time, and do it together, and in the moment.

Daniel also suggested that we come up with some ether, to render the rabbits unconscious before we kill them. this feels like a good idea to me; easier on the rabbits, and easier on us. less stress and fear for them; less trauma (and liklihood of getting kicked by a lively rabbit) for us. because next time we do this will not only be butchering, we will also have to kill them. depending on what we decide with the adult males, there are seven or eight rabbits scheduled for the freezer first thing in the morning on November 16th.

to enjoin in which activity you are invited, should you desire to experience this sort of thing for yourself. i continue to feel that the only ethical way i can be a meat-eater is to face up to slaughter and butchering. as alan put it, being squeamish serves no purpose in my life, and it is something i don’t need to own; i can let that go. so i shall. it might take work, but i shall.

and as various and sundry “country living” resources note, slaughter and butchering is never a fun task. it’s just a necessary part of running a farm, not one that you look forward to with glee. i can accept that. it’s easier to clean poo out of cages—in fact, alan and i have been able to enjoy each other’s good conversation so well that we’ve had fun doing that once or twice—but they are both necessary tasks that make the farm go. death makes life go. and it’s the season for it.

after all that, a big windstorm whipped up last night and blew the autumn in. leaves leap and tumble against the door. the sun has the pure translucence of light that knows it is waning and wants to enjoy the last of it. we have one rabbit spirit to suggest to the cauldron at Samhain. which, perhaps, was one reason things have happened as they have. in all, all is well, and we are better for having done it.