Saturday, November 20, 2004

Eating the neighbours

Living on a farm, you can’t get away from death. I know it’s eventually coming for all of us (let me just put a dampener on your day, eh?) but that’s not what I mean. On this farm, there are cows, calves and a bull, and all of them will one day be dispatched to their deaths by humans. (Unless they die of natural causes beforehand, which - though painful - might be preferable). And in case you don’t know it, cattle do have families, friends and feelings. When a cow’s calf is sent away on a truck to the sales or the abattoir, that cow will stand where she last saw the calf, calling it. For three or four days. And it’s not a nice cartoon-cow noise: it’s a loud and rumbling bellow. Airy-fairy types such as myself think she is grieving, but others would say her udder is over-full and she’s telling the calf it’s time for a feed.

Either explanation means distress for her, though, and that’s the point. The production of meat & leather & dairy products (cows produce milk for their calves; you must remove the calf if you want to collect the milk) means a high price for cattle, and I don’t mean dollars. Though that is exactly the point from a farmer’s point of view, and a big buyer from Queensland (bless his socks) made farmers such as my father very happy recently, pushing the local price for vealers up to AUD$2.68 a kilo liveweight. (If you’re a farmer, that’ll impress you, apparently.)

If the picture I’m painting here reflects badly on farmers (including my parents), that would be a skewed view. Mum and Dad aren’t hideous people: they’re kind. They love the cattle. They don’t want to hurt them, and if they allowed themselves the indulgent soppiness that I wallow in, they’d go broke, whole industries would collapse, and eventually there’d be no more domestic livestock.

I don’t like the idea I might be eating someone I once knew, so I used to be vegetarian. But now I believe that life (your life, mine) feeds on death, and can’t do otherwise. It happens everywhere: animals killing and eating other animals, fresh growth rising from decaying plant matter, new technologies ransacking the old for parts. It’s a deep and ancient sorrow that we moderns don’t need to face - that we can’t live without killing - but hunters were always aware of it, and thanked the spirits of their prey for giving them life. Want to try it?

The meaning of meat.