Tag Archives: thanksgiving

Snow

It’s frozen water and air. There is a clarity that comes from all simple things. In the waxing complexity of my life, the simple things speak the loudest.

St Mary's road bitterroot, mt

Another good season begins.

Last weekend, Martin and I opened our the ski seasons on St. Mary’s (in the Bitterroot). Our bodies quickly remembered the easy rhythm of pushing skis uphill. Step, breath, step, breath. The closest common feeling is sitting in church. It’s a meditation. Quiet snow under foot, the smell of deep evergreen freezing deep in our nostrils. Perfect. Simple.

IMG_1017

avalanche pit, st. marys bitterroot, 11-23-14

Nov. 23, 2014 Avalanche pit. South aspect at 8000′ on St. Marys ridge. Numerous weak layers between 60-90cm from surface.

It is tempting to get caught in the drama of this world. The simple things cut it away.

For so long, I’ve defined myself by what I do. I have to change the way I think about myself in relation to the way I think about what I do to pay the bills. Some of the most put together people I have ever met have been unemployed or underemployed. I fear for them- and I know that my fear does nothing for them. In light of how I let my job both define me and consume me, their grace in that particular regard has always impressed me.

I should be grateful for having a job- but a lot of days I dread going to work because I feel like there is no way to win. There is no way for me to find peace with my career. There will always been more work than I can do. I will never ask the right questions, do the right things, or plan far enough ahead. I let the mistakes I make eat me alive, or at the very least, they crush my morale. You know all those quotes about all the great innovators failing a lot before they struck it big? I’m starting to wonder if I’ve got the guts for that. More often than not, my career has always been this evil nemesis in my life. I’ve never been able to master it, or even balance it. I’ve missed bluebird days, real friends in places of real need, and probably a relationship or two because I was more dedicated to my desk than my heart. Yet, paying the bills and “being a responsible adult” (e.g. saving for retirement,  compiling “professional experience”, etc.) can seemingly only be avoided for so long. There’s a balance there, and I’ve never even gotten close.

Seen at Costco.

Seen at Costco.

I spent most of this weekend stressed out and worried about how to make a major mistake at work come out right. I’m embarrassed to say that I also spent most of this weekend with 20 totally wonderful people that I feel deeply connected to. People that inspire the best in me. What did I accomplish in my worrying? Not much. What did I miss out on? Probably more than I will ever know.

Thanksgiving feast

So much to be thankful for- and this was less than half of it.. Don’t miss a morsel..

It is easy to think we have it hard, but the real fact is that most of the junk we deal with at the office is contrived. I know that it starts with me. It starts with remembering that I am not my work. That there is more to all of us than how we pay our bills. Indeed for most of us, the everything else is often the part that matters the most.

friends, sky, landscape, montana

These men matter.

I’ve said it before- the only real limits are the ones we create in our own minds. This time around- the only real problems are the ones we make in our own minds. Don’t let anyone, or anything, live inside your head for free.

Special.

It is important to remember that the most important, special, things tend to happen in just their own time- and that time has been the last 9 days.

This past weekend I was again at Prairie Heritage Farm to slaughter turkeys for Thanksgiving.  You’ve seen the pictures from last year, so I’ll spare the gory details, and if last weekend wasn’t one to celebrate my anniversary in Montana, this one certainly was.

The high, northern plains.

There’s a feeling I get being out there, on the high northern plains.  The openness of the land and the warmth of its people remind me why the hard, unglamorous work of farming is what has shaped many of the richest, and most fulfilling parts of our culture.  Jacob and Courtney seem to draw a particularly beautiful crew of people each year to help with the grisly work- I was particularly privileged to enjoy the company of my new friend Katie for the drive from Missoula to Power, and our shared work slitting throats together.  We had glorious weather, and spectacular new facilities for the slaughter- making this year less about “getting through it”, and more about “doing it right and having fun.

Getting what she came for.

Farm-fresh and amazing, dinner is not to be missed.

The introspective observations:

  • As much as I enjoy my time on the farm, I don’t feel compelled to farm- but I do feel compelled to empower other people to farm.
  • The hard and unglamorous work of farming often mirrors the hard, unglamorous work of contracting- and I like that.
  • Being around this group of people made me start to seriously think about my own aspirations in participating in the sustainable food system.  How can I participate more?

A humble day of work and 10 gallons of blood.

The practical observations:

  • People always look funnier with turkey blood splattered on their faces.

“I told you not to look directly at the turkey…”

  • Turkey farts smell really bad, and are hilarious.

    The look on little Declan’s face says it all…

  • There is such a thing as “sipping Tequila.”

It was a special weekend, and no doubt I got what I came for.

A few other highlights from the last 9 days:

  • I had a hilariously good time as a guest soloist with the Dodgy Mountain Men last Thursday night as Missoula said goodnight to our beloved Top Hat (until spring of 2013).  Thank you gentlemen, and I look forward to more songs soon.

Soundcheck.

  • Despite a year of injuries and training focused entirely elsewhere- I still put 10 more pounds on my best-ever deadlift last Tuesday night.
  • Last Sunday I took the first few steps on the next BIG adventure.  Stay tuned.

Safe to say, I will have plenty to give Thanks for at the table this Thursday.

The Seeley-Swan at sunset.

Some Bad Mother-Pluckers

My previous post was about violence against people.  I find it ironic that to account for my weekend activity, this post is about violence against turkeys.

It would be easy to describe this weekend with words like “intense,” “gross,” or “brutal,” but perhaps the best adjective is simply “real.”  The work was hard, humble, and rooted in the simple reality that if we want to eat turkey, this is what it looks like in the best possible light. My friend Hannah and I drove up to Conrad, Montana to help Courtney and Jacob (owners of Prairie Heritage Farm) slaughter their heirloom breed, organic, free-range turkeys just in time for Thanksgiving.  I had heard about the great work that Courtney and Jacob were doing at the AERO conference I attended at the end of October, and just happened to hear they were looking for volunteers to help with the slaughter. Jacob and Courtney are simply beautiful people full of integrity and passion, and I jumped at the chance to get to know them and learn more about their farm.  Knowing it was up her alley, I mentioned the event to Hannah on Thursday night and we drove east in a snowstorm on Friday afternoon.

Early indication of how much "fun" we would be having.

(There are a lot of photos below, some of them are pretty, but most of them are graphic.  If you can’t handle it, be a vegetarian)

I headed over to the farm with Jacob at 5:30am Saturday morning to get the scalder up to temperature and set up for the day.  We hauled water, bleached the gutting table, and fed the turkeys that would be slaughtered on Sunday.

Saturday morning, cold and beautiful on the far northern plains.

I had expected to feel apprehensive, but instead I felt excited to learn and get to work- I was going to participate in my own meat consumption for the first time.  We had 6 or 7 volunteers by 830am and that was enough to get started.  Jacob walked us through the whole process:

Honestly, they are pretty birds- and it's about to get ugly.

The shadow in the window says it all.

In the killing room, they watch you work.

We aimed to kill about 50 birds each day.  The birds for that day were kept inside so we could chase and snatch them in a smaller area (it makes a huge difference), and the snatching was often one of the more hazardous parts.  Turkeys are strong and they are fighting for their lives- they kick, scratch, peck, and flap like they mean to live.  It’s a humbling thing to feel the last few breaths their of life in your hands.

Sam with the snatch. I'm grabbing for the feet. Watch out for flapping wings.

Sam wasn't as bothered as he looks here, but sometimes they spurt when you cut them, and blood on your face does feel a little "intense."

Yours truly with blood on his hands.

Somehow I did well with the catching and killing, and spent more time here than any other station. They kick sporadically for a long time after you slit their throats, and you have to hold the birds tightly so they bleed out properly and don’t kick themselves out of the killing cone.

Holding steady for the last few kicks.

Yeah, we were all actually smiling most of the time.  You don’t think about the act of killing much.  The urgency of the work, the desire to kill the birds as quickly and humanely as possible, and quality of people supporting their belief in local, sustainable, free-range, organic poultry is way more powerful than pity.  This is part of the food system solution.  This is what it is supposed to look like.  In non-organic (“chemical”) farms, the scene is not nearly so rosy.  We would have been wearing respirators and processing thousands of birds on a mechanical assembly line.

Some of the birds were rather large, especially in comparison to 5'2" Hannah.

After bleeding out, we weighed the birds (their “live” weight), then scalded them in preparation for plucking. Surprisingly, I found the plucking to be the hardest physical work.  It was tedious, and the plucking station was awkward.  When available, we found that three people plucking one bird was faster than using the machine.  I plucked for just an hour or two on Saturday afternoon, but was at the plucking station for most of 4 hours on Sunday, and got worked.  We also had 9 geese, which were significantly harder to pluck than turkeys- we would often need to scald the geese twice to be able to pluck them efficiently.  Scalding makes the plucking much easier, unfortunately I didn’t get a good photo of the scalding operation.

Our hosts, and local farming heros, Jacob and Courtney get it done cleaning off a bird.

Mandy and Nate were plucking machines- truly some bad mother pluckers.

Once plucked, the birds passed over to the butchering and evisceration table.  This was the only part of the operation I didn’t feel like I learned to do efficiently by the end of the weekend.  Feet, heads, crops (the first digestive chamber), intestines, and other organs were removed and discarded. Necks, hearts, and livers were removed and set aside (for packaging later).  Much care was required to not pop the crops or intestines to prevent feces or partially digested feed from contaminating the bird- in 109 birds, we only lost one.

Opening the neck to remove the crop.

Next up, removal of the head.

I had trouble with the eviscerating.  The texture was disgusting, and picking through body membranes and organs was admittedly gross.  I forced myself to work this station long enough to feel competent, but being efficient at this slimy, frustrating task is truly a skill.  I made through about 5 birds on Saturday afternoon and ~9 birds on Sunday morning.  By the time I called it quits I felt competent, but definitely tapped out of this work earlier than anywhere else.  Huge props to Jacob, “Evil Nate,” and Jill for doing most of the work.

Opening the body cavity.

Intestines are removed by hand to ensure complete and careful removal.

No, it really is NOT very pleasant at all.

Once fully eviscerated, the birds were cooled in an ice bath for about 4 hours, then checked for core temperature and bagged. Bagging was a pretty clean job, but pulling the turkeys out of the ice baths in breezy 0F weather on Saturday night was brutal.  Caroline may have brought some smile and class to our operation, but also brought amazingly tough hands- she pulled birds out of the ice until well after dark.

Clean and ready to bag- it felt good to finish the process.

No, the process isn’t pretty.  Yes, animal rights folks and my vegan friends will probably give me some hell about this post. But having met the farmers and done the work, I know I’m eager to sit down at the table on Thursday and enjoy the fruits of my labor.  I’ll be sharing one of these amazing birds with the friends that first invited me to Missoula, and most of the food we will eat won’t have traveled much farther than the bird did (203 miles).  I’m grateful for the opportunity to do this work, and I’m proud to support Jacob and Courtney as they breathe new life into the beautiful rural landscape that has been dominated by industrial agriculture.  This was one of the most “real” experiences I’ve had, and I’m glad I didn’t back down from the opportunity.

Tired and dirty. More experienced and bloody.