Beginning to End

On our way from Trackers HQ to Camp Trackers in Sandy, we stopped at several places along our route to gather black walnuts, acorns, and hickory nuts. We were a curious bunch, dressed in earth-toned wool and beanies. A number of passer-by stopped to ask what we were doing, a group of adults crawling around in the grass.  One fellow even pointed us to another location in the park that had more acorns. A man out with his young granddaughter caught himself right before he said that "acorns taste like sh**" when he found out we were planning to eat them. A woman who ran a daycare appeared very concerned at our presence, hesitating on the sidewalk a block away with her stroller some ten minutes until Grey went over to talk to her.

We spent part of that day shucking the green hull off the walnuts. Despite our precautionary gloves, several of us walk away from that activity with thumbs and fingers stained a pallid black-yellow. The color will persist for some time. We boil the green hulls to make a tanning solution and save the brown shells, nuts still safely inside, for eating later.

Grey spreads out a tarp and dumps a bucket of obsidian pieces on the ground. There are plastic safety goggles for this stone-age activity. We're given copper-tipped wooden stakes and antlers and shown how to flint knap an edge. Grey explains about 90 degree angles and pieces and what to remove and we understand nothing. Nevertheless, we make a dozen or so stone tools with a razor sharp edge. 

Wednesday we walk into class to find the carcasses of four sheep laying on the ground near the pasture. These are sheep I've met while they lived--we have walked them from their corral to the pasture and back. We have names for some of them. They had personalities. The moment of death has passed, but that is the only part of the process we miss. Five of us haul four sheep up a path into the woods. Every part of the butchering is up to us, from tying up the cross-beam we'll hang the sheep from to cooking and dehydrating the end results.

We make careful cuts using the stone tools we worked on the day before, following the outline that Grey has indicated along the inner hind legs, down the stomach and neck, and back around the front legs. My partner and I pull the sheep hide down off the skin together, carefully using our obsidian to cut a spider-web of sinew and flesh. There is remarkably little blood.

After scraping the hides free of flesh and fat, we place them in buckets with the black walnut tanning solution. These will become our sleeping pads later in the year.

We bury the heads in hopes of preserving the skulls. I'm unsure why this is such a popular part of the animal, but the deer skeleton I found at Rock Island was also missing a skull, so someone must have taken it. I am wrapped up in the practicalities of living in a small space--if I cannot use this object, I don't have room for it.

We lay the skinned and gutted carcasses out on the table and proceed to the finer points of butchering, removing each leg and strips of back-strap along the spine. We cut up some of the meat into small pieces and dehydrate them, jerky for our capstone week in May. We've saved the liver for later. The ribs go onto a large cast iron table placed over a bed of coals.

I spend a happy hour ripping off the small bits of flesh between ribs, smearing mutton grease and crispy black charcoal all over my face and hands. It is a primal moment, the ultimate payoff from three days of physical and emotional labor. 

A fellow student keeps saying "Thank you, sheep." I wonder about what it means to honor the life of an animal. It was hard, in butchering, to refrain from jokes. Humor is how we deal with discomfort. Most of us have never butchered an animal before. We're all a product of our civilization, used to the comforts and conveniences of grocery stores and neatly sanitized animal products. To be omnivorous in this day and age is to be spared the necessity of taking a life, along with the possible emotional turmoil and inevitable mess and smell of death.

Eating the flesh of an animal is to consume the life of that animal. For me to live, others must die. Up to now, I abstracted that reality. The death was removed, far away, weeks or even months prior to my consumption. I never knew the animal that had died. It is harder, so much harder, to be a part of the process myself. But easier, too, in a way. I know how these sheep lived and died. I have seen the large pasture they were kept in and how they were treated while living. As I lick the delicious grease off my fingers, I don't have to wonder if they were ever kept uncomfortably caged, denied fresh air and grass, slaughtered in a moment of terror surrounded by the smells of death. 

Thank you, sheep.

Photo taken by  Cameron MacPhail.

Photo taken by Cameron MacPhail.