the harvest of romeo

life and death and terra incognita

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He was named Romeo, despite my protests, by two of our daughters. Somehow, he kept the name, even when one daughter left to live in another town and the other daughter left to live on in another realm. He remained Romeo. 

Romeo, born into a frozen world and left on the snow by a disinterested mother. Romeo, scooped up in my husband’s arms and brought into our living room to lie beside a roaring fire while devoted girls tried to mimic the encouragement of a bovine mama with vigorous towel rubbing and cooing adoration.

A hearty guzzle of thawed colostrum, kept in the freezer for such emergencies, and the spark was lit. Romeo clicked and clacked and slid across the hardwood with new hooves still soft from their watery home. He moo’d his bewildered moo. The girls cheered for him. There was life and they had uncovered it.

Days later, Romeo’s mother remained altogether unimpressed by him. Why is that? Why do such things happen? Was it the pain of birth that made her run? Her lack of experience? Some hardwiring issue? I don’t know, but reject him she did. We worked to reintroduce him to her. Each time they met, his instinctual desire propelled him to an udder she vigorously defended. When he came near, she lowered her head and hit him. When he swung around, she swung around, too. When he wobbled too close, she heaved forward and knocked him over. Again and again and again.

For days that turned into weeks, we called her up to the barn where we kept her calf. She never did gain interest in him, never called for him, didn’t seem to realize she even had a calf. When she came to the barn, we put her in a head gate and let her calf nurse from her unencumbered. He would nurse, she would protest mightily. She would eventually give in, he would fill his belly. Every day, three times a day, this was our routine.

He was nourished and unloved. Uncared for. Our daughters did what a human can - offers of touch and scratches, a little company. But we’re not bovines. Our efforts are never as good as the real thing.

His mother never did warm to him. 

As he grew, Romeo learned sneaky ways to get milk from his mother. Often, we would see her trotting away at a good clip, kicking her rear legs out while little Romeo dodged and weaved valiantly, somehow still getting a few moments of suckling in each time she stopped for a little breather. Romeo was tenacious. He had to be. Romeo was industrious. He was more wily and more determined than the other calves that had it easy. I never did see that little fella’ sitting around feeling sad for his lot in life. In fact, Romeo somehow figured out how to get the choice hay and pasture spots usually reserved for the boss cows. Adversity will do that sometimes.

Romeo grew up bonded to his herd. He had three good buddies, all calves born around the same time as he. There were two other steers and a paprika coloured heifer called, “Helena”. It was the heifer he most liked to play with. Romeo and Helena were constantly head butting, checking out who was stronger, and therefore more dominant, on any particular day. I would often see him lying next to her and her mother as the three of them chewed their cud in trancelike union. 

Wee Romeo with a milk moustache. Persistence pays off.

I tell you these things about this calf that grew into a fine steer, dubbed Romeo by two gentle hearted young women, because we harvested Romeo yesterday and I wanted to share a little bit about an animal who lived on our farm. His life was the best life a steer could have. His death was the best death a steer could have. We take both of those responsibilities on with solemnity and an overwhelming sense of duty to what’s right. 

I have written of this many times and many times seems not enough. We live in a time where our fear of death has pervaded into our entire understanding of our place in this world. When I first started writing about animal harvest years ago, I was censored, threatened, and called the most vile names. I’m not sure if the algorithms are just better at lining people up with what they want to hear or sentiments are changing, but today, I am, generally, received with thoughtfulness and kindness. I take care with my words around such a sensitive topic, but I am also blunt in my delivery. I will not mince words around death. I hope the honesty of my intentions lands where it’s meant to and infiltrates whatever illusions our culture of separation coats us in.

Sometimes, I get the sense that there’s an expectation of sadness around the harvest of our animals. Sometimes, I get comments like, “I am so sorry for your loss.” No, that’s altogether not right. There is no loss, you see. There is no sympathy to be had. That’s the harder part to articulate. 

When I wake up on the morning of a day we will be harvesting an animal, I often have a bit of a knot in my stomach. There’s more silence in the house. There’s a weight and we both feel it. We move about, getting ready for a task neither of us really wants to do. Ammunition is loaded in a clip. Knives are dragged back and forth on sharpening stones. Buckets are filled with warm, soapy water. Rote tasks to calm apprehensive minds.

“Are you ready?”

We step outside. We step into the world. We set up the tractor. We get the water hose connected. I collect the bone saw and the buckets. 

“Which one?”, he asks.

The cattle were up grazing well before we opened our eyes and now they laze, chewing their cud or slowly meandering about, looking for choice clover or alfalfa. Morning birds sing or morning winds howl. We never know what we’re going to get. There is little said in the moments before my husband looks down his rifle barrel and takes aim at the head of an animal. It’s a different feeling than when hunting. There is a buffer with hunting that melts away with an animal you have known for years. An animal that has been a part of something that we’re a part of. An animal we have allowed our hearts to have a relationship with. An animal that is indebted to us just as we are indebted to it.

My silent prayer in the moments I stand with my husband as he takes aim, “May your shot be true. May your shot be true. Dear God, please let his shot be true.” I will say it as many times as there is time while he patiently waits for that precise moment that he can pull the trigger.

And with one explosive bang, the animal crumples. Instantaneous death.

The brain is dead, but the heart will continue to pump blood for a few moments more. We severe the arteries and the blood spills onto and into the land. The same land that accepted the blood from his mother and the fluids from his watery amniotic sac as he slid into this world. 

We always give thanks to the animal and send them off with Godspeed into… I don’t know. Into terra incognita. We say out loud the story of that animal’s life as we witnessed it. Prayers of our unending gratitude to a Creator whose brilliance came up with this whole miraculous world that we get to be a part of. Prayers of thanks to the one who kills because it’s the heaviest of jobs.

I wanted to show you the video at the top of this essay because it so wonderfully exemplifies the vortex of calm and peace around us only moments after the death of Romeo. I wish you could have all been there to feel it, but these paltry words and this video might give you some crumbs as an offering instead.

And here’s the really challenging part to convey. How to express the overwhelming joy that comes from being part of this process? Sometimes, it seems inappropriate to even mention it. As if joy within the context of animal harvest is evidence of some sociopathic tendency. But that is not so. How do we go from moving throughout our morning, weighted with apprehension to being saturated with elation? Is it just relief in having the dreaded task behind us? No, although that’s not such a bad thing. It’s more than that and it’s this part that is the toughest to explain.

Deep nourishment through alignment with natural laws. That’s it. No shortcuts.

I have spoken and written at length of that moment around death, when life slips away. When I was a young lass and terrified of death in an altogether unnatural and wholly obsessive way, I would have understood that “life slips away” to mean that it dissolved or fragmented into a black nothingness. Now, I understand it to mean something much more profound, something tangible. That was a gift given to me only when I was willing to step forward and participate in a sacred harvest, something that I thought would be the end of me. And it was, I suppose. It was the end of my understanding that such a thing as “end” even exists.

To be on the earth, with my hands on an animal, as its life force dissipates into the life all around cracked me open to truths beyond my comprehension. To be on this earth, with a child that no longer is, teaches me the wild vastness of life. Everywhere and always. 

All of that, the depth of connection and needlessness of words, an invisible, effervescent cloud growing all around us as we sit and we pray as earth drinks blood. Up and out and around. Life moving through us and around us, in-between us, below and above. Life celebrating life. Life sounding the trumpets and injecting itself with every bird song. Life touching us through winds that skim our noses and play with our hair. Life!

And in its wake, the nourishment. A gift from an animal in reciprocity. For all of our work, for our dedication to his life, to his health, to his bovine nature, and for taking on the load of a good death, he leaves behind a body no longer needed. A body that will deeply nourish us because he was deeply nourished. But it’s not just his body. His life has fed this soil. His life has fed these forests. And those lives will feed the bears and the leopard frogs and the great blue herons that raise their baby dinosaurs on the wetlands his hooves punctured and created little worlds for microscopic creatures we can’t even see.

The preposterous beauty of Creation.

How can there not be joy even then? We are participating in life as life would have us participate. We are in service to all of creation, obeying nature’s laws with reverence. Our ancestors held communal dinners and celebrations around harvest. It was a time of great relief (there will be food!) and gratitude for delicious nourishment. We, too, celebrate these days. We feast and we dance and he sips on a glass of fine whisky while I sing songs of adoration to him. A little party while the sun sets and the wild creatures gorge.

It is not for us to deem the miraculous design of creation as worthy or not, sensible or not. It is. It remains. Creation doesn’t need our opinion or our approval. Our only choice is participation or rejection. The illusion of our power to override the exquisite design of the natural world can only ever be the demise of us all.

Harvest day meal: brined goose and roasted potatoes cooked in goose fat. Simple decadence impossible to mimic, best experienced on a hay wagon with barn cats weighing their options.

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