It’s too early when the alarm goes off on this month’s butcher day. Six o’clock is not, admittedly, a particularly unreasonable time to rise (I once had a job where my daily shift began at five each morning)—but I have a tendency to stay up later than my very adult bedtime of ten p.m., reading. By the time I’m dressed, geared up, and in the car waiting for my friend Brendan, I’m sufficiently awake but still feeling rather curmudgeonly. Fortunately, the farm has a coffee maker, and Emma, our boss, has stocked the freezer with beans.

The gate is locked when we roll up. Brendan gets out to remove the combination lock and chain while I drum my fingers on the steering wheel and my knee. He’s a cheery person, Brendan. I wish I was still in bed. Sam, my partner, was still asleep when I left, and I spare a glance for the clouds (ominous), wondering if he’ll get caught in the rain bicycling to work.

The water is out—the water we use for irrigation isn’t potable, so we have two water coolers in the part of the barn sectioned off to serve as part storage, part classroom. We’ve been running low on the bottles for the past month, but the company contracted to drop more off still hasn’t. I’ve begun filling my Nalgene up before leaving my apartment to help conserve what we have.  This morning, I sacrifice the litre to brew the half pot of coffee I’ll drink single-handedly while we scrub down the stainless steel tables we use as evisceration stations and sanitise our tools.

Nate, the farm director, talks through the butchering process for the benefit of Brendan and Fitz, who haven’t done this before. It’s deceptively simple, and I feel a pang of anxiety about the easy and methodical nature of this work. It’s simple enough to not take this seriously; even more my nature to take it more seriously than I ought. Nate gives us a minute to each center ourselves before he offers a brief prayer (this is, after all, a seminary farm), and I’m distracted by the lyrics playing through the speaker about ten yards away.

I can love you like I can’t love me

You’re so far away in the future

Livin’ so far away in the future

Can you feel me?

Will you feel me?

Then Nate and two others go out to the pasture in the truck to collect the birds. While the rest of us wait, I caffeinate and futz around with my phone, putting together an impromptu playlist. Nothing too upbeat or too sad; appropriately contemplative background noise (some Vagabon, mostly Lowland Hum, some Lucy Dacus, some This is the Kit).

These birds are bigger than last month’s batch; we can’t fit all fifty or so in the transport crates and will have to make a second trip once some of the birds are processed. This initial stretch always feels the longest, waiting for the first birds to die. Nate takes point on the kill station, cutting the main artery with the sharpest knife of all. It takes a minute or so for each bird to bleed out.

Convulsions—shocking, kill-stand-rattling convulsions—are normal.

Some folks may try to tell you that this is the most humane method, that the birds don’t feel anything, that they don’t suffer. The truth is, we have no way of knowing. The truth is, we do our best to not traumatise the birds unnecessarily—and I do think this counts for something.

But death is traumatising all the same.

We have a couple small pieces of equipment (scalder, plucker) that help with de-feathering, but everything else is done by hand and (very sharp) knife. Taking a chicken apart is in many ways like other manual labour tasks. There’s a sequence to it, a type of choreography.

Feet, necks, and heads come off first; feet cut off easily at the knee joints and heads right under the jaw. The necks are more difficult, what with all the skin and the vertebrae. We pull out the small, vinyl-feeling tube of the esophagus but leave the crop to pull out from the inside, where it connects to the stomach and the rest of the digestive system. Opening up the chest cavity is a bit tricky—the goal is to pierce the skin without cutting into the intestines.

For the next three hours, I am wrist-deep in these small creatures, feeling around for viscera while trying not to focus on the queasy sensation of their still being warm—from the scalder or from their recent transition from life into death, I’m not sure. Skilled professionals can get everything in one handful, but it usually takes me a few slurpy minutes of delicate pulling, scraping, and scooping. The suction created by my hand shoved inside each chest cavity is disconcerting.

Of this small, slippery handful, we keep only the hearts and the livers. Everything is connected; to remove the rest, I cut around the vent so as not to puncture the small intestine. Every once so often, one of us breaks a gallbladder while trying to separate out a liver, spraying a table in neon-green bile. The last task is scraping the lungs—each a bit larger than a quarter—off of the ribs. Everything besides hearts, livers, feet, and necks will be buried at the end of the workday in the compost pile Emma has named the Mortality Pit.

The resulting bird is mostly just a cooling, empty chest cavity. Every time I finish an evisceration, I take another look inside, feeling like I’ve missed something.

Then I rinse off the table and repeat.

It is, of course, at precisely the moment when Emma asks, “Do you feel like you’re getting the hang of it?” that I, attempting to avoid rupturing a small intestine, expertly slice my left middle finger. It’s not a deep or particularly long cut, but finger wounds bleed a lot.

I excuse myself for a few minutes to wash my hands and bandage the cut. I drink more coffee. Brendan cracks some bad puns, and I make an obligatory tertium quid joke in response to something Nate says. We chat about the upcoming semester, this week’s farm chores, the challenges of zoning laws, The Karate Kid.

It’s always over surprisingly quickly.


The land where I live, with which I work, and from which I learn and eat is part of the traditional territory of the Lenni-Lenape, called “Lenapehoking.” I acknowledge the Lenni-Lenape as the original people of this land and their continuing relationship with their territory.

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