Year To Live Project: B.O.S.S. – Silence Of The Lamb
I always thought lambs were little white things that frolicked through fields in children’s nursery rhymes. The one lying on the ground of in front of me was black, larger than expected, and doing a brilliant job of hiding her terror. Two of our instructors were engaged in the delicate balance of restraining her while simultaneously doing their best to keep her calm. Her throat was positioned over the hole freshly dug into the ground, and she and I lock eyes as I knelt in front of her — knife firmly in hand.
Last week, (Click HERE for Part 1) Team Fukawi ended the IMPACT section of our Boulder Outdoor Survival School experience, combatting hunger, freezing temperatures, and the transition from our everyday front-country lives to the rigors of back-country wilderness living. We learned how to make bedding out of pine needles, that group snuggling creates much needed warmth when lying on frozen ground, and that the key to surviving any form of severe discomfort is to stay present — perfectly present.
Now, we were deep in the forests of Southern Utah and would be spending the next five days in “Survival Camp.” Here we would practice making shelters out of fallen trees, learning how to make fire and to carve bowls, spoons, and other utensils we would need for the rest of the month.
That, as well as the part we were all most anxious about — the processing of a live animal.
Just after sunrise that morning, our instructors, dubbed “The M’s” gathered us up, calling us to sit in a fashion we’d done many times before, in a sharing circle. The previous night, we had finished the last of our food rations and were eagerly expecting a new batch of GORP (good ole raisins and peanuts) to kick off the day. Instead, in the center of the circle, we found only a dozen freshly picked apples. Something was amiss.
We were each allowed one apple, our rations for the day. We devoured them, core and all, as one of the M’s handed the “sharing spoon” to the first person in the circle and said, “Today is a big day. One that is going to be difficult for all of us, instructors included. If any of you don’t want to participate in any fashion, that’s more than all right. In a few minutes, we’re all going to walk down to the river and one of you is going to kill our food for the next week. We’ve got a lamb from a local farm that we’re going to process. Right now, we’d like each of you to talk about how you feel about this, what it brings up for you, and any reservations you may have.”
We shared with a full spectrum of thoughts and feelings on the matter. We had a twenty-year-vegetarian in the group who wanted no part of what was to come. One woman had worked in a laboratory experimenting on live animals and could not partake due to the haunting memories of her past life. I was raised in a house where hunters were considered pure evil, despite confusingly finding meat on my plate every night so I was conflicted about what we were about to do. but also about how I would feel knowing we had killed an animal when we could have easily survived eating bowls full of lentils. I thought of my dog Lucas, and felt like an asshole at being able to compartmentalize killing a lamb while feeding him organic dog food.
The standard practice of using humor to make the best of our perpetually shitty situations shifted drastically that morning. No one laughed, no one joked, and each time the spoon was passed to the next person in the circle the mood got heavier. One of us was going to kill a live animal, with the rest of the group right there with them. Tears flowed as people spoke about both wanting and not wanting to be a part of what we were about to do. We were angry, sad, confused, but also starving. Hunting was something many of had an interest in, until we were put face to face with the reality of the activity. This wasn’t looking down a scope at something two hundred yards away – this was slitting the throat of live animal. Each of the M’s spoke about their own experiences with taking life, about their own ferociously deep relationship with the natural world and the conflict they each felt around cultivating food.
With our tear-filled words ringing in our ears, the six of us willing to do the actual killing circled up to draw straws. In what would become a series of intuitive bursts I would get throughout my time in the woods, a voice rang through my head, “Get your mind right. You’re going to be doing this.”
I was the fourth person to pick, but I wasn’t surprised when the straw in my hand was the smallest of the six — I would wield the knife.
I Hope It’s Awful
I separated myself from our group, taking a moment to meditate, sharpen my blade, and set my mind to the task at hand. One of the M’s came and sat with me, checking to see if I still wanted to proceed before going over the logistics of the actual kill.
“You and I will use our fingers to find the point where her jaw meets her throat,” he said. “Then you’re going to kneel in front of her and hold your knife in your left hand with the blade pointing down toward that exact spot. When I give you the nod, slam your right palm down onto your left fist hard and drive the blade all the way through her throat. You’ve got fur, skin, and tendon to get through, so don’t hold back. You can’t stop then. though. Once the knife is in, pull both hands back toward your body firmly, severing her carotid arteries and windpipe. It’s going to be messy, but speed is compassion here. Move fast, move with purpose, and finish smoothly.”
I pictured what was to come before M and I worked through a few rehearsals of the movements together. He’d be immediately following my own cut with a “just to be sure” slice of his own. We then sat together in silence, feeling the weight of what was ahead of us.
“How do you feel about this?” he asked me quietly before we rejoined the rest of the team.
“I think it’s going to suck,” I told him. “But I’m also grateful for the opportunity, as twisted as that may sound. I want to experience everything I can out here. Good, bad, or indifferent.”
I started to stand, but then added, “I hope it’s fucking awful, Michael. This entire year has been one big dichotomy, every day a paradox. The worst days, the ones I never thought I’d get through are now the ones I’m most thankful for in hindsight. They were the days with the biggest lessons, so I hope this is hell.”
A Time to Kill
We all walked down to the river in silence, twelve of us in one line. As we got close, we saw two of the M’s lying on the ground with the lamb on her side between them. One of them held her back legs as the other stroked her head and neck. We approached slowly with a sense of calm that betrayed our feelings.
I got down on my knees and time stopped. The leaves in the trees ceased their swaying, and the wind paused for but a moment as if it had taken a breath in, then held, unwilling to exhale. She was larger than I expected, a coarse black fur covering her entire body. She smelled like a a mix of hay, wild animal, and earth all churned together. Our eyes met. She was alive. She was real. She was in front of me and not in my imagination as she was thirty seconds earlier. She was not neatly placed in a white Styrofoam package and sealed with plastic wrap at Whole Foods.
“Everyone put your hands on her gently,” we were instructed. “The calmer you all are, the calmer she will be, pour as much love and positivity into her as you can.” God bless our instructors, whether they knew it or not, their own impeccable behavior throughout this experience set the tone for all of us. You could feel their pain as much as you could her fear. No one was enjoying what we were doing.
M and I found the spot in her neck with our pointer fingers, brushing her fur away to make the location stand out. As a group, we took a few deep breaths and I closed my eyes. When I opened them, I took my knife out of its sheath and placed it in my left hand with a death grip on the handle. There was no way in hell I was going to let it slip out or fuck this up.
After hovering the blade over the crook of the lamb’s neck, I took my eyes off hers, found those of Michael and he nodded with an intensity. I inhaled, braced my body, then slammed my right hand down on top of my left driving the knife through the tough fur and skin below it. She cried out in shock before I could rip the blade toward myself slitting her throat. Blood spattered on my hands as it spurted into the bucket filling the hole below, and she writhed again as the second cut was made. I stared at my shaking, bloody hands, and watched the coughing, sputtering, and convulsions commence as the life left her body.
I’d made a deal with myself that I would keep eye contact with this animal until the life left her so she wouldn’t feel she had died alone. Our eyes stayed frantically glued to each other for what seemed like an eternity until a blur fell over hers and I knew she was gone. I had gotten my wish. This was fucking awful.
Every Breath Is Sacred
“Take a minute gang,” one of the M’s said. “Splash some water on your faces, if need be. Let’s meet back here in a few.”
I stood up and walked straight away from the group finding a fallen tree to sit on. My heart was doing its damnedest to pound its way out of my chest, and a wave of nausea soon gave way to uncontrollable sobbing. I sat on the damn stump crying the experience out of my body like a lonely newborn. My previous carnivorous lifestyle coupled with my newly acquired desire to hunt my own food, to eat only what I grew or killed, had come face to the face with the realty of such a decision – any time I eat meat, something has given its life.
Read that again if you’ve eaten an animal – any time you eat meat, something has given its life for you. That’s something I had conceptualized, intellectualized, and known about prior to this moment in the woods. Yet nothing drove the point home like feeling this animal spasm and buck in an attempt to free herself from the grasp on her our hands shared with impending death, with no other way to express her confusion, her horror, her helplessness at what we were doing to her. To have to watch the gaping hole where her throat used to be spit blood onto the ground, onto our faces, and our clothes. The visceral experience of being there, in the moment, as life left her eyes and knowing I had taken this life myself.
My entire being was infused with a new, overwhelming reverence for life. This was the same reverence I had felt in the words of our instructors, a feeling born of experience and pain. Every breath is sacred once you’ve watched the last one be taken. I had felt this sacredness when sitting with people who were dying (read about that HERE) earlier in the year, but out here in the woods, away from the ability to make my feelings go away by logging on to any form of distraction, it became all the clearer. Every breath is sacred. Don’t waste your own or disregard any other.
For the next week, we ate our lamb. We used every single ounce of her wasting nothing, from her brain to her hide. We baked bread in her stomach, cooked broth soup out her bones, made sausage with her intestines, and cut jerky to sustain us for the entire next week.The second part of the lesson clear — if you’re going to kill something, have the respect not to waste any of it.
When I tell people this story now that I’m back to a kitchen and barbecue, they all ask the same question, “Did killing that lamb turn you into a vegetarian?”
It did not. I still eat meat. I believe in the value of eating meat as a human being. Life eats life. Life takes life. That may change for me, but eating animal protein is a practice I still engage in for now. That said, since that day in the woods I have yet to have a meal where I haven’t paused beforehand to say a prayer of thanks to the being that gave its life. For the life that is now gone so that I may have a meal on the plate in front of me.
My understanding of meat has changed and I don’t waste it anymore. Prior to this course, I would let meat rot in my fridge, throw scraps out if I wasn’t hungry, and take more than I knew I could eat. I was wasteful — not having to make the connection between life and dinner. That wasteful part of me is gone. Every breath is sacred, and a reverence for all beings has been awakened inside me.
Killing an animal is hard for most people to imagine, period, and doing so in such an intimate way as using a knife beyond their comprehension. Yet, if I were made king for a year, this is a practice I would make mandatory for every carnivore. If you eat meat, you’d have to kill it yourself – with your hands. You’d have to look into the eye of the animal as you took its life. You’d have to be a part of the process not just a consumer many times removed. I believe it would change all of us in the ways in changed me – it would wake us up.
Cheers from Big Sur,