I could see that he was tense. Years of martial arts training have taught my eye and attention to hone in on tight muscles and torqued limbs, and the knotted band that ran up the entirety of his back, over his shoulders, and along his neck as he turned his head were so obvious they practically glowed. He had large, beautiful eyes—a little round, but long-lashed, and a rich chocolate-brown— and held my gaze for a long moment as I, with the rest of the group, crowded around the little trailer where he sat, peering through the bars.
He knew he was about to die.
(Veg*ns, you should probably turn away here.)
Last week, at the Piedmont Earthskills Gathering, I was lucky enough to be able to help with a hog slaughtering. I'd been looking for this kind of opportunity for a while; even with as much trouble as I take to source the majority of my food from local farms that raise and slaughter their animals humanely, I realised it would be incredibly hypocritical to benefit from ending the life of another creature without being able to participate in the act. With no stomach for death, I should have no stomach for meat, no matter how tender and skillful the hands I outsource for that task.
A group of young WWOOFers had come along with the farmer supplying the hog; I understood that at least a few of them had been feeding the pig regularly, and had begun to think rather fondly of him. They made up most of the group that gathered around the barred trailer when the farmer asked us all to look the pig in the eye and to understand the life we were all about to end. One of them decided that it would be most respectful to send him off with a song, and made one up on the spot: a descending, repeating melody intended to be call-and-response. "Bless me; I bless you," I remember them singing, and "thank you; I love you," and "forgive me; I forgive you." And looking at the pig as he sat in the middle of that droning chant, eyes flicking around at the faces—some weeping, some frozen, some just interested— body tensed to run, although I believe he knew he'd never get the chance, was the most difficult part of the process. Relief washed over me when the farmer finally climbed into the trailer, aimed his rifle at the dead center of the animal's forehead, and fired. No jolt or judder—he dropped like a stone, and was miles away from feeling the knife that slashed his throat a few seconds later.
I was a little amazed at how easily I took to the work needed immediately after death: we poured hot water over the body and set about with wood scrapers and pocket knives to scrape off the hair and outer layer of skin. Most of the WWOOFers wandered off to talk about their emotional response to seeing the death, but one or two stayed to help with the processing, ensuring that the death wasn't wasted. Once as much hair as we could manage was removed, the animal was hoisted up on a gimbel, and the core group that remained (even smaller now) crowded around and watched as the farmer slit open the pig's belly and disembowled him, taking care not to sully the meat by nicking the waste organs and identifying each different element as he handled it.
At no point after the sharp retort of the gun stopped ringing in my ears and the woods around us did the process seem anything other than work: a necessary task, and a trade of one life to nourish many. Even now, a full ten days after the event, jars of glossy gelatinized stock and pounds and pounds of scrap meat and skin and fat are sitting in my refrigerator, promising to feed me for weeks to come, and seeming to give a deeper nourishment because I saw the life in those pretty brown eyes that used to belong to this skin and muscle, and because of the work I did to help ensure that those eyes closing wouldn't be for nothing.
And as much as I try to understand that they were at very different point of their emotional journeys, I can't help but be a little angry at the misguided children whose pretty picture of respect and honor for all living things shone so brightly as to block out the very real, very scared creature sitting in front of them, wishing they'd all stop chanting and staring and just go away for a minute. I'm angry that they decided they needed to forgive him and ask his blessing enough to ignore his discomfort. I'm angry that they saw him die and later happily ate second and third helpings of his body but weren't able to muster the emotional strength to help scrape and cut and feel the surprising warmth of fresh blood on their hands—that they took his death in bits and pieces as it benefitted them most, but avoided the work that brought about that benefit.
I spoke to the farmer, a quiet man with sparkling brown eyes and a kind and ready smile, about this. He said he does sing to his pigs when he kills them, but it's always after; he brings death as quickly and unassumingly as possible. He told me he saw how agitated the singing and staring made the pig, and he wished he'd asked everyone to step away for a few (or many) minutes afterward, until he saw that the animal had calmed down. A few touches of ritual might help remind the humans involved of the gravity of taking a life to add to your own, after all, but they don't do a damn thing for the pig. The life I hope all the animals I consume have is, after all, very similar to the one I hope for myself: easy; happy; relatively close to the natural habitat with a few comforts; and then, in a moment and without fanfare, over.