Slaughtering Animals

We slaughter animals for food. On our land, we raise chickens, rabbits, and goats, and in addition to eggs and milk, we use them for meat, slaughtering them ourselves. We've done chickens and rabbits for several years now, and we just slaughtered and butchered our first young goat.

There's a lot of information on the internet about how to kill and clean an animal, and I don't intend to give much of that here. What I hope to get across is a sense of why we raise and process our own meat, and what it's like when it goes wrong — because it can go wrong, against all intentions and preparation.

Why We Raise Animals for Meat

We raise and butcher meat animals for several reasons. First, it's important to us that the animals we eat not suffer, either when they're alive or in their death. We've seen some farms that are perfect: well-kept animals in sizable spaces with plentiful food; we've also seen scrawny animals in cramped quarters without any comfortable place to rest. We can make sure that our animals are more like the former. I'm also certain that most slaughterhouse workers are conscientious and skilled, but there are no doubt some that aren't; I can know that I'm careful to cause the least suffering possible when I kill an animal. Finally, when we kill an animal and prepare its meat ourselves, we're forced to morally confront where our food comes from; if we're not willing to do that — to see an animal walking, eating our grass, and trusting us for sustenance and shelter, and still be able to eat its meat — should we be eating meat at all?

Beyond those humane reasons, there are practical considerations. A primary one is that the meat is, frankly, incomparable; you'll never find meat so flavorful and dense in a supermarket. It's much easier to properly sear meat that isn't injected with 15% of its weight in salt water, for example, and a few scraps of chicken left on the bones after butchering is enough to make the richest broth I've ever tasted. We appreciate the pleasure of having animals around the place; there's nothing we enjoy more than watching the goat kids running around chasing after one another, or holding a soft rabbit, or scooting a chicken to get to the eggs underneath her. Having animals and knowing how to process them helps us be prepared for an uncertain future, as well; if hard times were to come, we will be equipped and able to provide meat for our family, which would be a great blessing. Carefully managed, our small herd and flock could be the core of future comfort. And it's just plain good for a person's mind to learn new things, especially when they involve providing for your needs from the world around you.

Our children, learn a lot from raising and slaughtering animals. They see how to care for an animal; they learn about birth, care and feeding, milking, and breeding them. They see clearly where food comes from, and they are conscious of what meat production entails. They watch and help with the butchering, and learn what the different organs are and what they do, and ask a lot of interesting questions.

Notice something I didn't mention: raising our own meat isn't saving us any money. It's much more costly than buying meat at ALDI (which we love) or Walmart. Maybe if we were buying meat of equal quality, or if we were growing alfalfa and corn on every spare inch of land we own, the price might be more competitive, but as it is, we could easily eat for less. For us, the contribution raising animals for meat makes to our life is worth the extra cost.

How We Kill an Animal

Here's where I give a few details on how I kill various kinds of animal for meat. If you're uncomfortable reading this, you can skip it, and you should probably skip eating meat, too.

General Remarks

First, I always kill an animal where the others of its kind can't see. I don't know for sure if it makes them anxious, but I'd rather not risk it. Second, you always want to make sure to bleed the animal as soon as you kill it, or it doesn't bleed out completely, and the meat tastes and looks wrong. Finally, I always pray before I kill an animal, out of gratitude for the food and for assistance in being humane, and I think it's a good practice that helps retain perspective on the process.

Chickens

Chickens are built to be eaten, like walking meatballs. They can't fly away, so they're easy to catch. If you hold one by its feet with its body extended down, it stops struggling and just waits. And they are easy to kill quickly and humanely: you hold them with one hand as I've just described, grasp the head with the other, bend it backward gently until it reaches the end of its range of motion, and then forcefully straighten the arm holding the head, extending the neck past its range of motion until the head separates internally from the neck. If you go a little farther, the skin and muscle holding the head on will separate, too, and with the head off the chicken will bleed out thoroughly, which improves the meat. I've never had a failure with this method, and even a tough rooster that we've let mature too long or an old hen past her prime is killed immediately. (Yes, a chicken's body continues to move for some time after the head is removed; the wings flap and the talons scratch aimlessly but forcefully, leaving scars on the arm of anyone careless enough to release their grip, e.g. me — but the bird is dead.)

Rabbits

Rabbits can be killed just like a chicken, but I'll never do it again. I had my one real failure in humanely slaughtering an animal trying to break a rabbit's neck, and I felt awful about it. The first batch I killed were young and tender, and were no more difficult than a chicken, maybe even easier. The second time, the rabbit was old, large, and muscular, and its neck was thick and strong. I had to try two times, and I definitely injured the poor rabbit the first time, so it had several seconds of pain before I could adjust my grip and complete the job. That wasn't an experience I'd like to repeat; I'm not ashamed to admit that I was pretty upset over it.

Since then, I've used a .22 bullet through the back of the rabbit's head to kill it. I have a narrow cage I put in the grass, and usually give the rabbit something tasty to nibble at to keep its attention. I get behind it, line up to go through the head just above the base of the skull in a way that should exit about between the eyes, and fire. Next, I part the fur on the neck under the chin and cut the rabbit's head off with a sharp knife. I then hold the animal up by its hind feet until it ceases bleeding.

Goats

I've only just killed my first goat, but the technique was similar to a rabbit. The differences were that I had to tether the goat by a leash, I used a heavier caliber bullet, and that I used an ax to separate the spine after cutting the flesh of the neck with a sharp knife. I'm very comfortable saying that the goat felt no pain: death was clearly immediate. With a larger goat, I would not be able to easily hold it up while it bled out; I'd probably have to use a pre-prepared rope and hooks.

A Note on Kosher and Halal Slaughter

I'm aware of observant Jewish and Muslim slaughter, where a trained person of good character prays and then rapidly draws a long, straight, sharp knife across the animal's throat, which is represented as causing instant unconsciousness and quick death with optimum bleeding. I'm not qualified to evaluate the claim of quick, painless death by that method, though I doubt it. Even if it is true, I don't feel able to emulate the success of a trained shochet, because I don't own a knife long enough to make such a swift, deep cut, and if I got one, my sharpening skills aren't up to it keeping the edge sharp and straight. If I did have a properly sharpened long knife, my facilities aren't equipped to immobilize an animal while I line up for the cut. I just don't see it as a realistic, practical method of humane slaughter for me, and I question whether it's a good method at all. If I were choosing a way to be killed, I'd certainly rather that someone shoot me in the back of the head than slit my throat.

Studying Counterpoint with Thomas Morley

In my school days, I never studied counterpoint formally; it wasn't offered as a course, and the semester that I set out to take it as an independent study, the professor came down with pneumonia. I can't say, based on my initial session with him, that I was disappointed not to study with him — but that's a story for another time.

I have a better teacher now, though. He's Thomas Morley, dead these four hundred years, the composer of some of my favorite music from Elizabethan England: the Consort Lessons, the Canzonets, and any number of other delicious pieces. Morley, near the end of his life, wrote A Plaine and Easie Introduction to Practicall Musicke, an instructional work in dialogue form, covering the rudiments of music, sight-singing, counterpoint in two or more parts, and more general composition. I've been working through the section on counterpoint — or as Morley calls it, descanting; he reserves the word counterpoint for strict note-against-note writing — and it's a great way to learn. Not only is Morley a fine composer, he's also a good writer and teacher.

Learning from this book makes me regret the demise of the instructional dialogue in pedagogical literature. Badly done, it's nothing but an annoyance; one work on psalm-singing comes to mind, where the student's questions are little more than topic headings, e.g. "What be the several clefs?", but Morley is a master of the form. His teacher, Master Gnorimus, is erudite, witty, occasionally biting, but encouraging and helpful; the student, Philomathes, is diligent, sometimes overconfident, and inclined to be more critical of his teacher than of himself. Their interplay adds a personal element that engages me, and seeing Philomathes' occasional embarrassment at making the same mistake in three different places consoles me when I find I've done the same.

So much for the form of the work — what about the content? I was initially skeptical of Morley's rules, because they seemed over-simplified, especially when writing for more than two voices. I compared them with other works of the sixteenth century, and found my concern justified: especially as regards treatment of the perfect fourth in multi-part writing, Morley's rules did not accord with the practice of Palestrina, Orlando di Lasso, or many others. Next, however, I compared Morley's approach with other English composers, and found them much more closely in accord; it seems that between continental and English part-writing there was a real difference in the handling of dissonances between the upper voices, and that may account in part for the richer sound of English music of that time. Morley's own writing follows his rules very closely, which may seem unsurprising, but I've read enough theoretical writing from practicing composers to have found otherwise. I found a spot in one of the three-voice Canzonets that broke his rules soundly — and then I found it mentioned in the text as a youthful error, caught after it went to the printer.

Morley precedes Fux and his ilk; the species approach was unknown to him, but he covers note-against-note writing (his use of the term counterpoint); binding descant, which refers to a syncopated mode of writing which alternates placing one note against a note of the plainsong with placing a single note against two of the plainsong; and free counterpoint. He also briefly discusses other strict relations: 2-to-1, 3-to-1, 4-to-1, and more complex ones like 5-to-2, 7-to-3, and so on, but that is a side discussion of the practice of others, and not, in Morley's mind, practical or useful. I'm inclined to accept his opinion.

If I had a complaint about Morley's book as a self-teaching guide, it would be the lack of material for practice. Most of the examples are against a single plainsong — a tour de force of contrapuntal inventiveness, to be sure, but not calculated to provide the student with a rich source of plainsongs for the student to work examples over. I have been drawing plainsongs for my exercises from 16th- and 17th-century psalm tunes, and it has mostly been satisfactory, barring a tendency in the later psalm tunes to outline triads, which doesn't really fit with the style Morley is aiming at. Still, the challenge is good, and the tunes are generally well-formed and interesting melodic lines, which encourages me to try and write similarly good companions for them.

I've been studying from Alec Harman's edition, which modernizes the musical notation and a few terms, but the original is not a bit intractable, if you take the trouble to become familiar with the quirks of 16th-century music engraving. The original is available for free at IMSLP, and used copies of the Harman edition can be had for a few cents from Amazon.

Sacred Harp

I love going to Sacred Harp singings. I don't get to go a lot these days, what with young kids and a number of other things on my plate that I think deserve more attention, but when I do, I have a wonderful time. Here's what goes on at a singing:

When you go to a singing, you step into a large room with benches or chairs arranged into a square with an open area at the center — they call it "the hollow square". Each side of the square corresponds to a voice part; basses are men, most altos are women, and the remaining two parts, treble and tenor (or lead), are sung in octaves by men and women. Treble and tenor have about the same range, but tenor has the melody. You choose your part based on your voice range and personal preference; my voice is a little high for bass, and a little low for tenor, but I like the feel of the bass lines, so I sing bass. You sit where you choose; most beginners choose tenor.

Usually, your first time, you can borrow a book. They're not all that expensive, though, and if you have any taste at all, you'll probably want one of your own. The words are hymns, and many of the tunes are recognizable variants of common hymn tunes, but the music is not written like the hymnals you are likely to see in your average church, to the extent that your average church uses hymnals at all these days. Instead, they're written in open score, one voice part per staff, across pages that are broader than they are tall. Most disconcertingly, the notes aren't round, either; their shape differs based on what degree of the scale they are in the key of the tune in question. The major scale, then, looks like this, with the solfège symbols used to sing it:

The familiar tune, Old Hundred, looks like the below. Note that the tune is in the third line, the tenor — this is from the 1911 edition, but it's about the same now:

It sounds like this:

Music geekery to follow:


It seems confusing at first, but it's pretty straightforward once you get used to it. In a major scale, the whole-steps between degrees 1, 2, and 3 are sung to fa, sol, la; then there's a half-step up to the next fa, which begins a whole-step fa, sol, la sequence where you'd usually expect it, on 4, 5, and 6. Finally, there's another whole-step up to 7, which gets the syllable mi. Then the pattern starts over again for the next octave. The minor scale is the same, except it starts on the second la of the major scale. Accidentals are mostly ignored, to surprisingly good effect. (The whole system is, as I understand it, derived from the Lancashire fasola, a four-syllable solfège system simplified from the old English method of Playford and Morley.) To learn to read the music, all a person needs is to look at what shape the notes are, and whether the next note is higher or lower by a little, or a lot.

Once most people are settled in, someone may open with a prayer, depending on how formal a singing it is. (I'm always surprised by the number of non-religious people who love Sacred Harp singing, but they're of course heartily welcomed; Sacred Harp singings are open to anyone.) Then the singing starts. Someone will step into the open middle of the square and call out the page number of the tune they will lead. People will find it, someone skilled at setting the pitch for tunes will sing the starting pitches, and a wave of the leader's hand and a confident bellow starts things off.

The first time through a tune, we sing the shapes; that is, instead of the printed words, everyone sings the syllables of their part in a glorious mishmash of fasola. Then, we sing the words. First of all, you may notice that it's deafeningly loud, everyone singing at the top of their lungs. Next, you may notice that it's exhilarating!

After the tune ends, the leader will sit down, and the next person will do the same. Usually leading goes around the square, section by section, person by person. Even if you're brand new, you'll probably be asked to come to the center and lead. You could demur, but I wouldn't recommend it. Usually you can come to the center with a more experienced leader, and hear the sound from the best spot: the center of the square. (Leading isn't hard; watch how other people wave their hands, and you'll see the pattern.) If you thought it was exhilarating before, this will lift your hair off!

It goes on and on, you get hoarse and tired, and you're happy to stop for a break when that happens. Break is over when a few people sit down and someone starts leading a tune. You'll go home exhausted and with your throat sore, and probably want to do it again soon.

Here's one last tune, one of my favorites: William Billings' David's Lamentation:

Doesn't that sound like a good way to spend some time?