I helped kill a cow this morning… a steer, actually.  We keep all the females around until they’re done producing milk.  All the males that are born go to the “beefie” herd and are slaughtered at about 3 years old.  I moved here almost three and a half years ago, and joined the milking crew almost immediately.  I probably saw this one as a calf, and maybe even helped with his birth. Today I was a part of his death.

I don’t think I’ve ever seen an animal die before.  I don’t think I’ve ever really seen Death happen.  I’ve seen plenty of dead creatures — just last week my partner Free found a recently-hit deer on the side of the road, and he hauled it home in the back of his truck and we spent half of our date skinning and gutting it.  We stayed up until 2 in the morning while he butchered the meat.  I mostly watched.  I was fascinated by the process, and even more than that, by the concept of something living as an independent being becoming an inanimate hunk of matter.  When I returned to Twin Oaks the next day, I asked Woody to let me know the next time he was going to kill a cow.

I almost didn’t go  this morning.  I woke up early and laid in bed for awhile, trying to imagine what it would be like to see a cow die… such a huge creature, an animal that I’ve worked with so intimately as a milker, an animal that I grew so fond of that I eventually gave up milking and stopped eating dairy products.  After about a year, I returned to eating cheese and butter, though I didn’t start milking again until just a few months ago when the dairy crew was sparse and needed some help getting shifts covered.  And then this morning, I had the opportunity to observe and participate in the other end of our dairy program.

I was running late because of my hesitation, and I had to jog to catch up with the crew of eight other people who were already on their way from the barn to get the steer from the “beefie” pasture.  When we arrived, Woody went through the gate with a bucket of grain to choose which one would be killed.  The steers were curious at first, but each one backed away quickly when Woody approached.  It seemed, though I don’t know if it’s true, that they recognized Woody as the one who took cows away and never brought them back.  He finally separated one large steer, and coaxed it through the gate.  Once through, it started running and bucking in the open field, then calmed down and walked slowly as the group loosely surrounded it.  Another helper held the bucket of grain to his mouth when he paused, teasing him forward.  As he walked away from his herd, I had a distinct awareness of his separation from the others as a predecessor to his death.  He was quite alone.

He came easily most of the way, then stopped suddenly when we got close to the barn.  Woody said it might have been the sound of the tractor turning the compost — I think it was the steer sensing what he was moving towards.  Perhaps it was the energy of the barn where so many others had been killed, perhaps it was the intention growing in each of us, or just Woody, as we guided him closer.  Regardless, he was spooked, and we had a wild few minutes trying to corral him and keep him from running down the road.  We finally got him going back towards the barn, and he actually ran directly to the corner where Woody has killed all the cows — 5 so far this year, including this one.

Once he was in the corner, he was able to smell the blood from the previous kills.  We had gathered around fairly tightly so he couldn’t bolt, and he let out a load of shit and then started turning and pacing and snorting and kicking.  Woody picked up the shotgun and loaded a bullet.  The more experienced helpers covered their ears — I was transfixed by the steer, watching and feeling his fear.

The shot surprised me; Woody got him right under the ear and he immediately dropped.  Suddenly this lively and active creature was collapsed on its side, unmoving, in a heap in the dirt.  Woody grabbed a knife and immediately started severing the head from the body to cut the spinal cord and let the arteries empty.  Once done, he tossed the head to the side for Elona, one of his more experienced helpers, to cut out the tongue.  Once the head was off, the body still moved, muscles responding even without the central command of the brain.  We waited before doing anything else while the legs kicked aggressively and blood continued to drain from the neck.  Woody turned on classical music in the barn and smoked a hand-rolled cigarette.  I watched intently, tears streaming down my face from the intensity.  Watching life suddenly evaporate, seeing the transition from alive to dead… the union of body and spirit separates, body unites with earth and spirit unites with Spirit.

The rest seems mundane after that initial moment.  The rest, I could handle easily.  Woody cut around the anus and loosened up the bowel muscles as well as he could, then tied off the end with a rope to keep it tidy.  Elona worked on the other end, cutting away the trachea and the gullet from the neck.  She tied a rope on her end, and then started opening the abdomen, careful not to puncture the stomach, so we could pull out all the guts and internal organs at once.

Once gutted (the heart, liver, and fat judiciously removed and placed in cold water for storage), Woody cut off the two hind hooves just below the ankles and strung chains between the two bones on each leg.  The chains were hooked to a piece of equipment that I’m sure has a name, a broad piece of wood hooked onto a chain that went through a pulley at the top of the barn.  One of the helpers worked the pulley to slowly drag the carcass into the barn and raise it off the floor so we could begin skinning it.  Yes, “we”, and not the “royal we”.  Woody called me in the barn, and someone handed me a knife.  Up until this point I had been mostly an observer, helping at times with pulling on a rope or moving a cinderblock to help lever the body into a better position.  At this point I felt ready to engage more in the process — we were far enough away from the time that the thing in front of me had been a living creature.  It wasn’t really moving anymore, except when my knife sliced into a muscle and it involuntarily twitched… which was actually quite fun to watch.

Woody showed me how to pull away the hide with one hand and gracefully cut it away from the fat and muscle beneath.  I liked the work, and I enthusiastically dove in.  Others had already gone by then, and I was glad to help at last; I had been frustrated that I felt so reluctant and useless before when there had been so many people and I was caught up in the intensity of Death.

It seemed like it took us about 45 minutes to skin the whole thing, pausing at intervals to hoist the body higher so we could work at eye-level.  Finally, Woody cut off the two front hooves and put aside the hide for a friend in town to tan it.  He hung the limp tail next to four others on a nearby beam, his way of tallying for the year.

I thanked Woody and walked up the gravel road back to the courtyard, and my room.  I washed my hands, noting that the soap was made of beef tallow, and then went up to lunch and ate a cheese sandwich.