There are tiny prickles in the palms of my hands, millimetre-long slivers from a week of working with recycled wood. My hands aren’t hardened but they are willing, and the tool shed takes shape quickly under the direction of my timber-framer neighbour. It’s not for our farm, but for another, one I am helping to develop through the program I run in my day job at the local conservation organization. In this time of great uncertainty in all realms, our small communities are turning to regenerative agriculture and food sovereignty.
Back up the valley on my own beloved homestead, the garden is bubbling over with foliage, the crop of volunteer sunflowers standing to greet all who come by. Lughnasa, the harvest feast, is behind us. In these shortening days we eat most meals fresh from the garden, filling our bellies with nourishment and gratitude.
The plants we nursed through infancy in the kitchen window were repotted and planted out in soil made from layers of this place, from parts of us. Now in deep summer they offer back their fruits generously. We tend the wild little garden lovingly, a little desperately at times, trying to leave it to its own rhythms while nudging it into balance. My mother spends hours in this bountiful jungle, redirecting weeds, harvesting for the next meal and carefully, consciously building compost for gardens to come. When I am needing some sweetness, I sneak out to the raspberry patch alone and stuff my mouth with the soft red berries that ripen every day and seem to never want to stop. The prized garlic harvest dries under the porch, having been twice rescued from rain, and re-bunched, and re-hung. After work I am sweating in the greenhouse, twining tomato vines around their supports and pruning new branches to focus the energy into the fruits. A tomato, like a potato, like a squash, grows voraciously and without mind to ever stop. This miraculous offering of life. How many times has each morsel of food passed through our hands before it enters our mouths?
The eggs we eat every day seem like a bonus, some bounty unrelated to the time spent raising and feeding chickens, to the sight of our mismatched flocks wandering purposefully around the barnyard, over the porch, even in the house (one or two have discovered the joys of cat kibble); to the chicks raised by hand or hatched in the incubator, to the endless modifications to coops and pens, to the individual losses of promising or productive birds to the foxes and ravens, our tithe to the wild.
The goat, Birdy, who by her choice has never bred – and certainly never birthed – spontaneously, immaculately, fills up with milk. After discovering this anomaly I began to milk to relieve the pressure and stave off infection, and now every second day she offers half a litre, just enough for me. She calls me over on days she is full and I rest my cheek on her warm black side, pulling from her this shocking gift, calling forth this mana she makes from her own blood to feed me. She stands freely wherever we’ve met in the barnyard for this ritual, tipping her belly for better access and chewing her cud. She sometimes curls back to smell my hair, lick my face, or asks to inspect the milk in the jar. She has quickly taught me my craft, how she prefers to be milked. Our two bodies fall into connection and we rest in this strange and beautiful togetherness for the moments it takes. As I sip the warm, sweet, frothy milk from the top of the jar to fit more in, I am overwhelmed by the bizarre beauty, the impossible intimacy. Briefly, I encounter the Great Mother in Birdy (named for Brigid, goddess of fertility and fire, and patron Saint of Ireland – like the Mother Mary, and Birdy the goat, a virgin).
And then suddenly we are once again a goat and a girl, with separate plans for the rest of the day.
Of course, to raise, kill, process and eat meat is quite possibly the most intimate experience of all. Beautiful beasts whose births we attend, whose little selves we greet every day… To know a being their entire life and then to end it, to hold the grief and tumult to one side while the most profound gratitude sweeps in, to take the flesh of a being for nourishment – I realize I still can’t express the fullness of it, the process this has wrought in me, and why I find it so sacred and mundane and relentlessly real. To face death, and in return to discover life; to realize this is the most basic way all life sustains itself, from the forgotten microscopic to the gigantic legends – we take life to live, and we give life when we die. All of us, no exception; plant, animal, bacteria, fungus – all being are sentient and sacred, and all beings will be consumed and disintegrate. And to be conscious, daily, of this inevitable turning is a precious gift in a disconnected world.
And so, and so. We eat to live and we live to eat. We learn every year, every day. We give thanks.