The cast iron skillets shine with the patina of countless meals. Their smooth, black surfaces are worn thin from use, like stone steps hollowed by countless footsteps. Whose skillets are these? I am not sure. Perhaps they were passed on to us by some aunt or grandmother whose thin hands grew too frail to support their weight. They are ours now, rescued from the dusty top of the cupboard, and freshly greased. It took some effort to learn how to care for them: a quick, ironic Google search to research these pans that could be older than I am.
I was raised a city girl and, although my family ate well, I was never required to be intimate with the origins of my food. Yes, we bought bulk flour from the local coop, stone-ground and organic. Yes, my mother read Adele Davis and made her own bread twice a week for fifty years. Yet we also shopped at the local supermarket, bought chicken that came with a corporate name, and I remained ignorant of the fact that the lobster I loved to eat, although fresh and entirely local, was nonetheless boiled alive for my dining pleasure.
I am a long way from that small Canadian city where I was raised. In Maryland now, I am lucky enough to live on fifteen acres with the dogs, cats, and horses I have always wanted to have. For many years, that was enough. Lately, however, as I walk the paths of this small farm that I call home, my priorities have been changing. The more I learn, the more it sinks in that I cannot live grounded in peace and respect if the food I eat has been disrespected since before the moment of its conception. What do we really understand about the genetic necessities of carrots? I can clearly see the vitality of my home-gardened carrot, washed free of its dirt for a December salad. Like a jack-o‘-lantern or a precious gem, it glows with the force of a furnace.
Each year our organic garden grows larger. My partner is the brains behind the burgeoning beds, choosing rare tomatoes and butterfly-friendly flowers. She starts seeds in the small cold hours of winter, moves them to the greenhouse in the barely spring, and digs them into the wormy dirt after the last frost. I don’t really like to plant, but I will haul away the weeds and bring them back as compost. I like mulching the wide aisles and talking to the box turtles who come under the fence to share the strawberries. I pull a long shirt over my farmer’s tan, and wade into the July thickets to harvest the raspberries. I tithe the berries I cannot reach to the birds and the wild, red foxes.
With much discussion, we have recently acquired some old-timey heritage chickens for meat and eggs. An equally “heritage” outbuilding on our property has been refurbished, and provides a snug home for the Speckled Sussex hens and roosters that are our latest additions. It’s quite something for this city girl to walk out on a cool fall morning to pull warm eggs from beneath the hot, downy belly of a hen.
I have learned some chicken wisdom. For example, two roosters and eight hens makes for a severely anti-social Number 2 rooster. When Rooster Number 1 strained his muscles and was temporarily lame, the Number 2 boy came roaring out of confinement. He ravaged the hens, attacked the hands that fed him, and generally terrorized the farm. Only the dogs were safe from him. So one night, late and dark, I donned gloves to my elbows and a heavy flannel shirt, and accosted this evil creature in his house. I learned that, under all the testosterone and puffery, his slight body weighed hardly more than a hen’s, and he offered no resistance as I crated him for the trip to the processor’s in the morning.
Killing chickens. We’ve actually gotten pretty good at it. I cradle them and ask the angels to carry their spirits home. My partner dispatches them without a single flinch or sqwak, and we send the chicken out of life with our gratitude. We don’t actually enjoy it, but we choose to endure the blood and feathers from a sense of responsibility and a need to eat meat harvested with minimal pain and suffering. We have taken some of the chickens to the nearest farm that will process them, but each trip leaves us feeling saddened. We weigh our time and our convenience against the animal’s fear and stressful death. There is no perfect solution, but increasingly, we opt out of the factory food system as unhealthy and inhumane. Perhaps we will add pigs in the woods or miniature cows in the pasture. Who knows? We have a sense of urgency to know the provenance of our sustenance.
When we first moved onto this property, I saw the numerous deer that lived here as precious and untouchable. Now, I see them as equally precious, but also unsustainable, and I support the herd through appreciation and careful culling. When a hunter friend brings down a doe for us, I say a prayer of thanksgiving over her still warm body and know that her meat will fill my freezer, beside the frozen carcasses of all the chickens we loved and labored over in the summer months.
Sometimes the incongruity of this farm life overwhelms me, as I pull into the driveway in the new truck, with its GPS unit and available satellite radio with 500 stations. Twenty years ago, I could not have imagined that I would contemplate mowing the lawn with a goat, or gathering firewood behind a horse-drawn wagon. I could never have guessed the number of new things I would learn to do just because I live here, like wield a chain saw, drive tractors and fence posts, rescue misplaced snakes, and trim my own horses’ feet. Yet each of these choices builds my health and my bank account, connects me to the earth and the cycle of seasons, and teaches me deep appreciation for the wildlife that shares this land with us.
I am a writer, and more and more my creative life is linked to the crazy laughter of giant woodpeckers, and the coughs of the courting foxes. A whole row of deer skulls lines a shelf in my studio, mingled with the discarded shells of ancient turtles and feathers gifted from the resident hawks. Time spent in the woods with my dog grounds and inspires me, and I feel a sense of connection to my Higher Self and to my mother, Earth.
Walking the farm road is a daily means to an end, a way to do the chores, to reach the horses and equipment down at the bottom of the woods. It has also become a kind of moving meditation. I have learned to truly see where I am walking. I notice with pleasure the discarded shell of a small wild bird, a piece of glowing white quartz, or a cluster of flame-red fungi. There is a sense of rightness to this life, with its awareness of the other spirits that share this land and the more numerous others that share and cherish this planet.
And so these skillets that I have found are more than just a better way to cook fried chicken. As I watch the light sink into their strong shapes, I sense the generations of women before me who have cooked on iron like this. Like them, I will eat buckwheat hotcakes on snowy mornings after I have fed the stock. I will carefully save scraps for the hens and the compost, and I will heat my house with the simple labor of wood.
These concepts now seem not only attractive, but necessary, as I choose to leave behind progress with its toxic breath. Stranger than any fiction: those who would care for Earth have come full circle. And as we step off the progress train, we can see those who are still riding it: their mouths move on as if, in some other language, what they are doing is still making sense.