Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Killing a Turkey

When I was about 12 or 13 years old, I took a course in hunter safety and received my hunter’s safety license so I could go hunting. Only one small problem: I didn’t believe in hunting. I had a problem with the idea of killing an animal to eat it. Yet apparently this problem wasn’t big enough to keep me from eating meat, I think I simply didn’t think about it. My brother went hunting one year and bagged a buck. I was morally opposed but secretly fascinated to sneak down to the garage where dad was working with our neighbor the Game Warden to skin, gut, and butcher the deer carcass. Somehow it took me another 10 or so years to realize that my moral objection to personally killing an animal was just plain hypocrisy and denial.

I had learned much more about our food system and how it abuses, mutilates (both genetically and otherwise), then slaughters literally billions of animals to provide us all with our meat cravings at a cheap price tag. I had to confront my hypocrisy face to face. How could I judge hunters then walk to the freezer and pull out a bag of Tyson frozen chicken strips (boneless of course!) to eat for dinner? So, Ash and I became vegetarians, mostly. We only ate meat when we could verify where the meat came from, the conditions in which the animal was raised and slaughtered, and what it was fed. Since arriving in Moldova, I have, rightly or wrongly, let go of this distinction. Mostly because almost all of the meat Moldovans eat comes from their backyard or that of a neighbor. Yet every time I eat meat, I think about the animal it once was, and wonder, where and how did it live? Did it know it was going to be eaten? Did it understand that it was only fed in order to become food?

Then Ash signed me up (ok, I also volunteered…) to help kill the Thanksgiving turkeys with a few other volunteers and then help prepare them for the big volunteer meal the Saturday after Thanksgiving. Although I jumped at the opportunity, I did so with an understanding that I would again have to confront my beliefs, thoughts, convictions, feelings, and motivations for eating meat. Yet this time I’d be doing it with an ax in my hand.

So I travelled to the volunteer’s village in which we’d be doing the deed on Thanksgiving and helped him start to prepare pumpkin pie filling and crust as well as cooking a vegetarian chili to eat with his host family and the other volunteers who would be joining us that night. Friday morning we awoke early and, with Grișa, the host dad, hopped in the car and drove across the village to pick out the turkeys. The sun was setting the strips of clouds on the horizon afire and making the backdrop of sky appear a deep purple as we got out of the car and walked through the gate to greet the family who had agreed to sell us six of their turkeys. Us five Americans were obviously clueless as to how to carry live turkeys as we struggled to hold onto their wings and carry them over to the house from the massive yard in which they lived with their about thirty or forty fellow gobblers.

Soon we were on our way back to the house, six live turkeys, incredibly docile, occupying the trunk of the aging white Lada. Back within the confines of the low green wooden fence of Grișa’s house, we carefully unloaded the live cargo, which, with their legs tied, simply plopped down on the grass quietly. We then worked together to start the fire which would boil the water to loosen the turkey’s skin’s hold on their feathers. Soon came the time. Grișa took hold of the first turkey, saying he would show us how then we could each have out turn. Holding the wings together in one hand with the feet looked simple enough. He held the bird upside down like that with his left hand, slowly and gently placing its head on the small block of wood before picking up the small ax with his right. The bird was completely calm, not making a noise nor moving at all as the ax came down perfectly on its neck, severing everything but a tiny bit of skin. Grișa held the body upside down to let the blood come out, then handed it to me to hold until it stopped twitching, at which point he showed me how to dip the whole bird in the boiling water quickly before pulling it out and tasking a few of us with the tedious job of plucking.

Each of us went in turn, and suddenly it was my turn, the last bird a pure white turkey weighing around 6 kilograms. It was quickly obvious that the skill of holding both wings and both feet in one hand firmly enough to not let a wing erupt was a skill Grișa had acquired over many years. I managed to get the grip, and to place the birds head on the block. As I reached for the ax, I thanked God for the turkey in my hands. I thanked him for making it, for the life it had lived, and for the nourishment it was going to provide our bodies. Then the ax fell and I was again holding a twitching body.

The experience was one which I would not have missed, and, if given the chance, will do again. I don’t enjoy killing things. To the contrary, I take the deed with the utmost responsibility and seriousness, knowing that what once was living is now not because of a movement of my arm. It makes me confront profound questions about the meaning of life, humans and our place on this Earth, and how we should be filling our role as stewards of the ecosystems on which we depend for life. We are indeed a part of this world, not separate from, above, or below it. Yet somehow we are apart. We have the power to take a life and to reflect on the life we took. Because we have this power, we have the responsibility to use it. To reflect on our impact on those around us and the world in which we live. To reflect on the consequences of our actions, both large and small. Will you reflect with me?

Monday, November 28, 2011

Urban Agriculture

“Urban agriculture is an oxymoron. People that believe in that are just fooling themselves.” This was the response of a man who was presenting to my Peace Corps program group during a training session recently. He had asked for us each to say our name, where we were from, and if we had any experience with agriculture. Given my experience with Revision International’s program Re:farm Denver, I said that I have some experience in urban agriculture. The man, we’ll call him Bob, was a Ph.D. biologist who specialized in high-output greenhouse vegetable production. He had been brought to Moldova by an amazing program that brings experts in different agricultural fields from the States to consult and help Moldovan farmers for usually around 15 days.

Although his session was extremely informative and it was obvious he had an abundance of knowledge about how to get the most production out of any given greenhouse setting, I couldn’t help but ponder his somewhat upsetting comment about urban agriculture. Indeed his sentiments are nothing new. I’ve seen the same thoughts tracking across the faces of most farmers whom I’ve told about the work we do with Re:farm Denver in the city; they simply think we’re not doing real work. Their looks say that if we’re serious about feeding the world, we’d go lease 1000 acres, get a John Deere tractor, sprayer, and combine to plant, inundate, and harvest a single commodity crop which would then more than likely make its way into the stomachs of animals who weren’t meant to eat that kind of food anyway before the fat on their bones makes it to our mouths. The only exception to this has been my father-in-law, a South Dakotan farmer who has shown a genuine interest in my work with food in the city.

Don’t misunderstand me, large-scale farms (perhaps not as large as today’s farms though), technical equipment like tractors, ploughs, combines, etc, do indeed need to play an important role in the future or our food. Yet, with the global population creeping (read: racing) away from the rural lifestyle and toward the urban and suburban cityscapes, we must engage those settings with the question of how to feed themselves. Oil is dwindling worldwide; fossil-fuel based fertilizers, pesticides, herbicides, insecticides, are growing ever-more expensive; and the transportation to fly, ship, and drive food from the farm to the table is today longer and therefore requires more inputs than ever before in history. All this put together means that using the spaces which are available to us in the urban setting to grow what we can is more than simply not an oxymoron, it is a vital component of creating a future for our children when oil runs out.

It is also important to remember that we (most people in ‘developed’ nations) are forgetting both what real food is, and how to grow it. With grocery stores packed with tens of thousands of combinations of the compounds thought up by food scientists, and an increasingly urban population, we’ve firmly lost touch with where our food comes from. Unlike here in Moldova, where every family has a garden as well as a small plot of land on which they grow corn, grapes, sunflowers (for the seeds and the oil), having a garden in the States is largely considered a luxury or a hobby. Less than 2% of our population are farmers, and that number is still shrinking as my generation grows up and wants to leave the small towns for the big cities. Programs like Re:farm Denver are reteaching people about food. Reshowing people what it means to eat healthy. Reminding people that growing food is always cheaper than buying it.

All the families Revision works with for establishing household gardens are living at or below the Federal poverty line. They also live in food deserts, areas of the city where there is no grocery store. Where the only option for food is the junk food at the cornerstore. These families can’t afford to eat healthy thanks to our current national food system and policies (a topic for another blog), so they have higher rates of Type II diabetes, heart disease, and obesity. I have seen the difference a backyard garden can make in these families’ lives. When a family of four living on a household income of less than fifteen thousand dollars a year saves $40 per week by having a household garden, that is real. When kids are involved in growing their own food and now are excited to eat the vegetables they have helped grow, that is real.

So, urban agriculture can’t be an oxymoron. Cities can, do, and need to continue growing as much food as they possibly can within their own city limits. A very viable path for low-income families toward a healthier lifestyle is through relearning how to garden, which not only connects them with the Earth which sustains us, but also, inevitably, with their neighbors as they search for venues to share their surplus harvests.

Join the movement. Grow some of your own food next year and volunteer or donate to an organization like Revision which helps low-income neighborhoods do the same.

Saturday, November 19, 2011

We are all pro-life

It’s a shame the terms ‘pro-life’ and ‘pro-choice’ have been co-opted into the narrow-sighted and polarizing argument about the morality of abortion (and, by the way, they are not, by definition, opposites; if you really oppose pro-life, doesn’t that mean you’re pro-death? And if you oppose pro-choice, are you pro-indecision?). In reality, there is so much in this world in need of our attention, that perhaps its time we expand the scope of these terms. Indeed the leaders of two of the largest branches of the Christian church, have already expanded the idea of what it means to be ‘pro-life’. In 2002, Pope John Paul II and Ecumenical Patriarch His Holiness Bartholomew I (leader of the Eastern Orthodox church), after concluding a symposium on religion, science, and the environment, together signed a statement detailing a code of environmental ethics.

The unfortunate unwillingness of the majority of Christians worldwide to engage our responsibility to the environment as a mandate from God the Creator is amazing. Not only does this ignore the teachings of Jesus, but it also ignores the entire of purpose of our lives, as Bartholomew of Constantinople and the late John Paul II so eloquently articulate.

“A new approach and a new culture are needed, based on the centrality of the human person within creation and inspired by environmentally ethical behavior stemming from our triple relationship to God, to self, and to creation. Such an ethics fosters interdependence and stresses the principles of universal solidarity, social justice, and responsibility, in order to promote a true culture of life.” (emphasis mine)

They are calling all of humanity, every person of every faith to join together and become pro-life and pro-choice. We must realize that this ‘culture of life’ cherishes the inherent value of all life. To be pro-life should mean that we all “…think of the world’s children [indeed all future generations] when we reflect on and evaluate our options for action.” To be pro-choice should mean to choose to allow this “… love for our children [to] show us the path that we must follow into the future.” So in reality, if we step back and reflect rationally, we should all be pro-life and pro-choice. Yet reason and logic only take us so far in this quest to rethink how we live together with each other and with the Earth that sustains us.

“The problem is not simply economic and technological; it is moral and spiritual. A solution at the economic and technological level can be found only if we undergo, in the most radical way, an inner change of heart, which can lead to a change in lifestyle and of unsustainable patterns of consumption and production.”

Let us deepen our definitions of pro-life and pro-choice. Or perhaps, let us take our eyes off the symptom that abortion is and commit ourselves to addressing the actual illness. We have, as humanity, stepped away from the original purpose we were given; to be stewards of creation, working it and keeping it for our children.