10, Sept. 29, 2014: The last day of the season on Nantucket was the old mill on york street, the eroding cliffs of sanktety, the whaling harbor at sunset, the tradition of a penny wish on the ferry to return before another 300 years washes the crescent of sand away.
8, Sept 27: Hyannis, MA; the long, in-between trip days in concrete towns
9, Sept 28: Nantucket, Oldest House
These pictures are called creating habits. They’re for the blues.
7, Sept. 26, 2014: Greenhouses, Scottish Bakehouse; I was lucky to spend the morning weeding the backyard hoops of Martha’s Vineyard’s Scottish Bakehouse (SB), a year-round staple for breakfast sandwiches, Brazillian meats, and ahhh-mazing baked goods - their amaretto cookies and key lime pies are two types of heaven. With these rewards in mind, I worked along with their gardener, Zephyr, and my WWOOF-er host, Heidi, to remove a row of tomato plants and two months of invader growth with our trusty cape codders (see here: http://www.redpigtools.com/servlet/the-32/Cape-Cod-Weeder-Rt/Detail). We were also able to see new growth, like red ripening hot peppers and the tiny kale babies pictured above. Like many restaurants on an island traditionally renowned for farmland, SB tries to source as locally as possible. Not only do the islands along Cape Cod have ties to the ocean and its historically large economies, but they have an enduring relationship to the smaller economies of the land. Although much of the soil is sandy, rocky, or dry, the over forty small farms on the island utilize their rich relationships with each other to keep their varied businesses afloat. Whether native islanders or wash ashores, each farmer is dedicated to seeing their neighbors succeed. The small community and tight ties is a traditional part of both Nantucket and MV culture, and in economies now bound to tourism, it’s tiny bits of beauty to see intimacy with people and place endure.
6, Sept. 25, 2014, Room with a View: For the last week I stayed in Martha’s Vineyard’s Hostel, and with my bag in one room for seven days, the space was sanctuary from a highly mobile Backroads summer. Housing 70 people at capacity, the hostel boasts pancake breakfasts, wavy wind shingles, and a few true characters. I was lucky to find it in a quieter season. Behind the main building, a trail leads to the island bike path. Here I had early morning and late night meditations, watched birches yellow and beetlebungs redden, and found a cradle for my solitude. I’ve left summer craving silence, and I’ve left the Vineyard enamored with open windows, open people and a thin ribbon through the woods.
5, Sept. 24, 2014: Birds (see below)
I approached chicken processing with curiosity and intimidation. I met Jefferson of The Good Farm. Covered in curly black hair, he wore a white t-shirt yellowing at the edges and a salesman’s pair of Nantucket Reds. His chickens boasted all the right adjectives - organically fed, spacious living arrangements, hormone free, island grown, and humanely slaughtered.
I lived for seven years as a vegetarian. At fourteen my favorite camp counselor told me it was a good idea. I felt rather keenly that killing animals for food was unnecessary. The meat industry, and any big agricultural phenomenon, was a detriment to my well-being along with the greater animal population. I started reading Peter Singer and Jonathon Safron Foer. A pillar of gastronomic pleasure ought to be that another organism that can suffer, did not suffer.
It is astonishingly easy for a consumer in America to detach themselves from the origin of their food. For the last three years, I have returned to the life of an omnivore. Recent highlights include parsnip soup with duck confit and buttermilk chicken with sweet potato grits. Meat tastes spectacular.
The experience of slaughtering over one hundred birds of a feather is also spectacular. At The Good Farm, an impressive level of professionalism, respect for the work, and even fun, creates a very straightforward process.
Plastic crates, about half a foot by three feet, are walked down to the mobile bird houses. All white meat birds, they are not as endearing as the colorful laying hens roaming free on most small farms. However, it’s still a challenge to play chicken god, choosing the biggest birds for butchering and cramming them into boxes. Most birds live out their entire lives of six to eight weeks in such cramped quarters. Jefferson’s chickens spend thirty minutes to an hour in their tiny apartment.
After collection, we’re given roles in the outdoor processing arena. It’s small, circled by a netted fence and measuring perhaps 40 square feet. One side is the kill side and one side is the evisceration. I get scolded trying to cross an invisible barrier between them. North Korea and South Korea. Jefferson sharpens knives and the crates are placed next to a painted white board with eight silver cones nailed in near the top.
Slaughtering goes like this: the chicken is picked up, calmed, its neck turned to the side, eye to the sky. Two quick cuts are given to the arteries at the throat. Upside down, the chicken is sent into the cone to drain the blood down the white board and onto a pile of woodchips at the base. Its feet are bound by a black stretch tie to prevent it from jumping out. The spasms, squawking, and wild movements are said to be energy leaving the body. According to Jefferson, the birds feel very little stress or pain. After a few minutes the chickens are checked by looking at the anus; it’s the last part of the animal to have reflexes. If it passes the death test the feet are unbound and the chicken is lifted into the boiler. A vat of water with a waffled steel tray, the boiler is kept at a constant 102 degrees Farenheit. Four chickens at a time are placed on tray that spins like a rotisserie for one minute, cyclically submerging the birds. The steaming chickens are then taken to a cylindrical steel machine with rubber posts about four inches long sticking out the from the sides. All four chickens are placed within and it spins until all the feathers are dislodged, naked yellow legs comically flailing towards the sky. The chickens are removed, the last stubborn tail feathers are plucked out, and the bodies are tossed into plastic trash cans of cold water. Feathers float on the top.
Eviseration goes like this: Two white folding tables each have two holes - one for liquids and one for solids. Clear plastic aprons and a thin knife. First, you bend the knee, cut the tendon not the bone. Feet are tossed behind you in a bucket. Next, the head. Cut the esophagus and the trachea, hold the head in your hand, beak eyes cheek brain, and twist until you break it off. Throw it in a separate bucket. The decapitated bird head bucket. Next, cut along the neck and separate the two tubes from the skin. Cut the oil gland off the anus. Cut a line along the back, pull out the lining to the butt hole and cut out the butt. Pull out the intestines, separate the gizzard. Throw the gizzard in the bucket for the dogs and pigs. Pull out the heart, it’s the smallest, warmest. Fish for the liver, be sure not to puncture the bile sac, filled with emerald green stenches, ugly beauty. Liver bucket. Dig the lungs away from the ribs, throw them away. Pull out the rest of the intestines, the crop trachea esophagus. Rinse out the body cavity, especially if slippery fingers or a novice knife have sliced open an organ containing shit or piss, blood or bile or undigested food. Rinse the outside of the bird, slice the skin just below the gut, and bend the legs into the flap. Toss the bird, unrecognizable, digestible, into the ice bucket.
This whole process is a movement away from the squealing life of chickens bred for food to the packaged featherless, odorless, legless, headless, organ-free hollow sphere of a body we purchase wrapped in clean plastic.
The most visceral part of slaughtering was the ducks. They’re bigger, fatter, harder to pull the organs out from the wall of rib. But really it’s the imagery. The ducks are large and look much cleaner than the chickens. They appear healthier. They have perfect white feathers and long yellow beaks. They are the picture book image of the duck from your childhood.
Working with the birds becomes an economy of labor. It’s filled with camaraderie and it’s anything but ugly. They live the best lives of their brethren. They are processed with respect and care, cleanliness and efficiency. I respect Jefferson and The Good Farm. They treat animals with dignity. They provide a consistent and generous model for animal processing.
The part that bothers me is the emotional churning before, during, and after. It does not feel good to take a bird’s life. I don’t need meat to thrive, and I certainly don’t need it to survive. It’s pure gastronomic pleasure.
I still do not how to conclude. I keep picturing my own throat sliced, my own head shoved in a cone, my own death imminent for someone else’s parsnip soup. For most people, this is a severe dramatization. The birds do not feel like we feel. But they suffer stress and physical pain like all animals. Processing meat birds makes me more comfortable with the process, but less comfortable with my consumption. Like all things, an unfolding.
4, Sept. 23, 2014: Grey Barn creamery sunset, Chilmark, Martha’s Vineyard
adrienne rich, choice
The dark lintels, the blue and foreign stones
of the great round rippled by stone implements
the midsummer night light rising from beneath
the horizon - where I said “a cleft of light”
I meant this. And this is not Stonehenge
simply nor any place but the mind
casting back to where her solitude,
Shared, could be chosen without loneliness,
not easily nor without pains to stake out
the circle, the heavy shadows, the great light.
I choose to be the figure in that light,
half - blotted by darkness, something moving
across that space, the color of stone
greeting the moon, yet more than stone:
a woman. I choose to walk here. And to draw this circle.
3, Monday, Sept. 22, 2014:
An escapee outside the garden bed, Nasturtium is one of the last blooms on the farm still seeking sunlight.
"stay together, learn the flowers, go light" - gary snyder
2, Sept. 21, 2014; Peacocks are turning into the best models on the barn roof of Down Island Farm, makers of Martha’s Vineyard Sea Salt (http://modernfarmer.com/2013/11/making-waves-marthas-vineyard-sea-salt/)
Advice to Young Poets, Sharon Olds
Laskey: Advice to young poets? Do you want to give some advice?
Olds: Yes, I do.
Olds: Take your vitamins. Exercise. Just work to love yourself as much as you can—not more than the people around you but not so much less. Love, Sharon.