The Farm as Mandala

I write this during the most bittersweet of our seasons. It’s either late fall or early winter depending on my mood and the weather. Tomorrow it might be 20 degrees and driving sleet or it might be 70 and sunny.

It’s the time of year when we kill the animals–the cattle, sheep and goats–we will eat next year.

Just a few months ago they were the blithe spirits of spring, filling the pastures with the joyful, bouncing exuberance of new life. Soon their meat will be in my freezers, and my friends’, on our tables and, quite literally, part of us.

My wife and I raise most of our own food and earn a little income from our farm. But it’s more art than business. We draw a frame around our 50 acres of prairie. Nature fills it with color and motion. Every day brings new pigments, new images and new performances. Every hour of the year is a revelation. The colors change. Some wild creature makes a sound we’ve never heard before. The sky delivers endless, vivid surprises on the grandest scale possible. New players cross the stage–wildlife and our closest associates, the cattle, sheep, goats and chickens.

Some farmers may never stop to consider their animals as anything other than livestock–literally their inventory, their stock in trade.

To us they are partners, friends, entertainers and something close to family. And then, of course, they are food.

People often ask, “How can you eat animals you knew?” Sometimes it’s a sincere question, meant to explore the emotions associated with raising sentient beings for meat. Often I think it’s more of an accusation: “How can you be so callous?”

I might respond, “How can you be so thoughtless as to eat animals without knowing them? Without knowing how they lived? Without making sure they were treated with respect while they were alive?”

My father, both my grandfathers and all my great-grandparents were grass farmers. By that I mean that their vocation, for at least part of their lives, was to raise or find forage to sustain the livestock that provided their livelihood. It’s quite possible that every generation of my family since prehistoric times has followed a herd of grazing animals–either domesticated or wild–down its nomadic path across the ages. We have lived in direct contact and in a kind of kinship with the animals that end up on our table. I believe it’s a “natural” relationship in the deepest and most profound sense of that word.

I don’t mean to suggest that everyone should raise their own meat. But it’s perverse, isn’t it, that people in our society seem to consider it more civilized to eat animals they never even see? Meanwhile, industrial agriculture treats meat animals as cogs in a machine, without regard for their health or happiness except as it affects production.

Relatively few people these days enjoy the privilege of knowing the creatures they eat, or of experiencing the miraculous transformation of their energy into our own vitality. Few people take personal, emotional responsibility for the consequences of existence: In order for us to live, other creatures must die.

Vegans take a similar kind of responsibility. They make a conscious sacrifice for a principle, and that’s admirable. But the cultivated fields where our grain and vegetables are raised become biological deserts where very, very few creatures can actually live. The soybean field displaces and destroys native plants, microbes and animals. Our natural pastures, on the other hand, teem with natural life. Every day we see rodents, ground-nesting birds, snakes, frogs and myriad insects. Every night we hear the owls and the coyotes. If you look only at the number of creatures displaced or destroyed by a meal of soybeans versus the number of creatures who pay, in one sense or another, to provide us with a grass-fed, pasture-raised steak dinner, the steak could very well win the humanitarianism contest based on that criterion. Millions of wild animals can live on the pasture occupied by our cows, and will happily live there with the cows, sheep and goats. Our grass-fed meat diet consumes some animals, but preserves the habitat for others.

While I’m proud of the natural, healthy lives our domesticated animals live, I still sometimes feel a profound twinge of sadness as I look out over the pastures. My computer, when it’s idle, displays a slide show of my personal photos–many of them pictures of animals we have raised over the years. Most of them are, of course, gone. I feel a particular sadness I’ve gradually learned to embrace, a melancholy that embodies the transience of our individual existence. When I kill our animals for food, I sense the implication for my own fate. I’m forced to consider my own life and death as well as the sturdier, less ephemeral living network that includes us and our food.

This sadness I feel is associated, somehow, with life’s astonishing richness and vitality. It’s a sadness associated with mortality. It’s a sadness human beings feel as we consider the impermanence of everything on this planet, everything mortal we hold dear; the sadness that makes life poignant and sweet.

My melancholy brings with it a profound feeling of gratitude.

This exercise of raising my own food forms the bedrock of my love and concern for the planet. I certainly care about the rainforests of Malaysia and the Amazon, but I care for this small piece of Kansas prairie, which in turn cares for me. It’s a very personal, very intimate form of stewardship. My concern for the world’s coral reefs and alpine tundra is informed and enhanced by my stewardship of the grasses and forbs that carpet the black-dirt prairie around my home. In the act of bringing our nourishment directly from the earth I think I’ve developed a deeper emotional attachment to the planet as a whole.

One chilly day I was working on a fence far out in a new pasture and I kept smelling food. I checked my pockets for old sandwich wrappers. I checked the toolbox for neglected snacks. I smelled the cuffs of my work coat. Then I realized I had been sitting in the wild onions that sprout green among the brown grasses all the way through the Kansas winter. They smelled like hamburger fixings.

Like any artistic medium, nature rewards people who’ve studied its methods and its innate character. For the farmer, that study is part of a vocation. It’s a vocation that, at its best, can deepen our appreciation of nature profoundly. The fact that we must destroy life to create life is a subject that farmers seldom discuss, but we must understand the contradiction implicitly.

I don’t believe its possible to fully appreciate life without that understanding.

The sheep and goats eat the green onion shoots. Sometimes I can smell onion on their breath. I enjoy watching the goats eating the dry seed-heads off sunflowers. In late summer they work the edges of the pastures with their heads stretched high over their backs, crunching one protein-rich nugget after another. I puzzle over the way sheep like to trim the grass down to a slick butch, like the manicured greens on a golf course, favoring the new growth next to the ground between the big lush clumps of mature grass. Cattle, on the other hand, seem to enjoy a nice big, leafy mouthful.

Twenty-five years ago I was an avid hiker and backpacker. A skier and a climber. I probably spent 45 days a year in the outdoors. I slept outside five or six nights a year. I knew I was missing a lot, about 360 nights every year.

Now I’m outside nearly every night, checking on the livestock and closing the chicken house. I see the ice crystals in a halo around the moon. I watch the sun come up nearly every day. I know what’s blooming and which birds are traveling through. What the soil smells like as the seasons change. How it feels to be outside on the worst night of the year watching a coyote try to open the latched door of the henhouse. I think I have an inkling of what it must feel like to have an empty belly on a cold night and to smell all those warm, plump hens just a few feet away. I watched one coyote trying to slip a paw under the swinging door. I consider whether I would let him take a meal if he prevailed. I probably wouldn’t, but I admired his enterprise.

I see much more of nature than I did when I was outdoors purely for recreation. Now when I go on a fishing trip or take a long hike, I think I see nature more clearly and notice details I wouldn’t have before I came to see the natural environment from the farmer’s perspective. I’ve appreciated more of the natural world as I’ve come to know it better.

For me the difference between hiking and farming is the difference between listening to music and playing music. As a hiker, I enjoy the dramatic rhythms and splashy vistas of the mountains. As a farmer, I actually get to play this dense, vigorous prairie music.

I get a lot of blood, dirt and manure on my hands and my clothes these days. I get calluses and scars. I get a lot of laughs watching my animals figure out their lives and I feel very sad when it’s time to kill them.

I have a lot more death in my life than I did before I began farming.

And, paradoxically, that’s part of the reason I feel like I have a lot of life in my life.