The Most Difficult Thing
My favorite part of the farm is the animals: They make this place what it is. They graze and till and add fertility. They are friendly, adventurous and smart, and their presence makes the pastures and barnyard come alive.
I’m learning from them—about how best to take care of the farm, about what and how we eat and about myself.
The animals also make for the hardest part. They’re a lot of work: chores morning and night; moving fences and bringing hay in; chasing cows that have gone up into the woods. It can be frustrating, messy and trying. Too, it’s expensive. Yet the most difficult thing about having animals is saying goodbye to them.
Animals change the meaning of that fall tradition of harvest. With vegetables (for which “the harvest” is somewhat of a misnomer, considering that we harvest from April or May on through), there is the satisfaction of a sort of grand finale—the squash and potatoes and onions, the ones that will tide us over until it’s once again summer, collected and put away with a certain nostalgia.
The harvest of animals is bigger. It is a privilege far more profound than the clipping of squash from its vine. On our farm, and I suspect on many similar farms, each animal is raised and treated with reverence. We provide them with the highest quality of life: fresh air, freedom to roam and graze and wallow and root, shelter in harsh weather, clean water and nutrient-dense food. We give them affection, because we want to—because we spend time with them each day and know them all by name, and therefore it feels only natural—but also because they seem to thrive on it.
Now, as we begin another autumn of putting away vegetables and saying goodbye to a few of our pigs and cows, I think hard about our relationships with other animals. I go back, again and again, to Wendell Berry, who wrote of the slaughter of his own pigs that “… today we celebrate again our lives’ wedding / with the world, / for by our hunger, by this provisioning, / we renew the bond.” I believe that the making of animals into our sustenance deserves this level of awareness.
I’m still learning about what it takes, and what it means, to raise and eat animals. I am grateful to the creatures that live and have lived alongside us on this farm: for the physical sustenance, but also the intellectual. The traditions of autumn, then, are sacred ones.