Saturday, May 29, 2010

The Reality of Death

I recently drove from Tennessee to Maryland to visit my two sons. When I returned to the Ecovillage Training Center, I found the non-human ranks of the  ETC sadly diminished. We lost Gordon, our roster, and one of the hens to predators, and closer to everyone's hearts, Jupiter, the venerable ETC cat, died of seemingly natural causes. She was at least 15 years old and had lived a fine life here on the Farm.

Predators have broken into the hen house repeatedly since we first brought the chickens to the ETC, and inn-keeper Merry and apprentice Garrison have repulsed multiple attacks from opossums and raccoons. These most recent losses required no breaking and entering. The shared duty of making sure that the chickens are secure in their nocturnal fortress fell through the cracks one night, and it wasn't until the sounds of violence brought everyone running that anyone realized the lapse.

I have kept chickens in the past, and on occasion I have neglected to lock them up at the start of the evening and scrambled from bed in the middle of the night in response to the sounds of barnyard struggle and violent death. I remember feeling terribly guilty about it. The implicit deal between humans and chickens is that the humans provide food and protection from predators, and the chickens provide eggs and, in the fullness of time, their bodies in exchange for a comparatively easy death. I remember feeling as though I'd defaulted on my solemn obligation when I didn't do as much as I could have to protect my chickens.

In addition to his battles with OESs (Opossums of  Extraordinary Size), while I was away, Garrison killed a very large cottonmouth snake that had taken up residence right outside the Inn. The warm and fuzzy (if not very practical) Farm ethic concerning the denizens of the forest is to live and let live, but when a large poisonous snake parks himself in a high traffic area where chickens forage, children play and city slickers get a theme-park taste of rural living*, responsibility trumps well-intentioned naivete. When it comes to the relationship between humans and the non-human creatures who share this space and whose needs on occasion conflict with ours, sometimes an even-handed assessment of the needs and rights of all parties prompts sensitive, ecologically-minded, compassionate human beings to mete out violent death.

I remember reading a fluff piece in the margins of Tricycle magazine several years ago in which a sample of  American Buddhists were asked if their Buddhist commitment to compassion and non-violence extended to cockroaches in their homes. I remember one respondent who said that she told the roaches, “May you be reborn a Buddha,” just before she squashed them. That idea has stuck with me for years, and I sometimes say the same thing to mosquitoes and ticks before I usher them out of this existence.

When I lived on five acres in rural Arkansas and kept 25 chickens in a pen, my family and I arrived home one morning after an overnight stay with friends to find my neighbor's two dogs in the pen killing the chickens. The pen had been secured against predators, but one of the dogs was a 200 pound mastiff, and the door to the pen proved no match for his bulk. As my young children looked on, the other dog, a boxer, killed our chickens one by one. The mastiff stood guard and kept me from killing the boxer with my bare hands. I actually picked up a brick and went out to do battle with the mastiff, but my wife pleaded with me to come back inside.

We called the sheriff's office for help. The woman who answered the phone told me to shoot the dogs. It made no sense to her that I would pick up the phone rather than a rifle at such a moment. I'm glad that I could not see the facial expression that accompanied the silence that was her response to my admission of helplessness. We didn't have any firearms in the house.

An animal control officer arrived on the scene an hour or so later. As he surveyed the carnage, he asked me, “Why didn't you just shoot the dogs?”

The idea that someone would move to the country and try to keep chickens without arming themselves struck my rural Arkansan neighbors as ridiculous. Stupid. Life in the country leaves no room for the conditioned expectations of suburban life which allow us to live (mostly) removed from the reality of death; not unless you moved to the country to live a super-sized suburban existence with an extra-large helping of house, yard, and commute. If you're actually there to inhabit the land and keep animals, you will realize, eventually, that you will either kill predators or those predators will kill your animals.

The Farm allows no firearms, and the ETC allows no dogs. The ETC is not a functioning ecovillage, and the chickens are here as much to provide atmosphere as to provide eggs, and so we can afford to simply replace them as the local opossums, raccoons, weasels, foxes, owls and hawks harvest them. Other Farm residents also keep chickens, and they do not always take such a nonchalant attitude toward the loss of the their birds. One of them brought us a live-capture trap that he used recently to catch 7 raccoons in 8 days. He drove each animal that he captured several miles from the Farm and released them. Rather than kill those predators, he made them somebody else's problem. I don't blame him. He was faced with the choice of respecting the rules of his community and doing what needs doing. I have also heard stories of another Farm resident who recently beat an opossum to death in order to save his chickens. Even within the borders of enshrined orthodoxy, the reality that in order to for us to live something else must die finds its way in. 

Industrial civilization along with mechanized agriculture allows suburbanites and those who live in the country but remain firmly tethered to very long industrial supply lines the comforting illusion that they can live without taking life. In allowing themselves to live with this palliative illusion, they trade the immediacy of death close at hand for the immensely magnified but comfortably removed violence that industrial agriculture visits upon the biosphere. It's an expensive delusion; one that requires the rapacious apparatus of petroleum-fueled industrial civilization and the myth-machine of modern media to sustain. As we adjust to the realities of energy decline we will, eventually, discover that it is a delusion that we can no longer afford to maintain.


* Most of the people who pass through Inn here at the ETC are really cool, and most of them are quite competent to look after themselves in the country. The oblivious ones are most at risk and can therefore be listed with kids and chickens.


  1. I'm not a hindu, but they have one of the best philosophical writings on the topic of the reality of death (and of dealing death):

    From the Bhagavad-Gita:

    26. Even if thou thinkest that the self is perpetually born and perpetually dies, even then O Mighty-Armed, thou shouldst not grieve.
    27. For to the one that is born death is certain, and certain is birth for the one that has died. Therefore, for what is unavoidable thou should not grieve.
    28. Beings are unmanifest in their beginnings, manifest in the middles, and unmanifest again in their ends, O Bharata. What is there in this for lamentation?
    29. One looks upon Him as a marvel; another likewise speaks of Him as a marvel; another hears of Him as a marvel: and even after hearing no one whatsoever has known Him.
    30. The dweller in the body of every one, O Bharata, is eternal and can never be slain, Therefore thou shouldst not grieve for any creature.

  2. Good post, KMO. Well said. Your stories are similar to those told by Novella Carpenter in her new book "Farm City", a fun quick read.

  3. last paragraph was great
    very Lewis Mumford

  4. Very thought provoking, thank you.

  5. Ditto on everything about chickens and dogs. A dog is a sycophant and loyal lover --- but a chicken is eggs and later, stew. I hate to be a rank materialist but only the short-sighted can deny who is the real "man's best friend."
    Chickens are actually very fun companions as well.

  6. Chickens and rabbits are great in urban backyards. My parents survived the depression because they kept rabbits and chickens and grew a lot of their food, living in a urban environment. These animals are, as you have pointed out, more of a bother in the country. I think cats are another animal that may not do well in the country. Barn cats keep down the rodents but can be food for large predators, such as mountain lions.