One of the under-appreciated benefits of living in the natural world -- for example on a small, diverse farm -- is that you encounter death on a regular basis and become relatively comfortable with it. Those who live on top of the world, let's say the residents of a 10th-floor apartment where water comes in taps and food in plastic, more easily live in denial.
Now you may think that denial -- not thinking about it at all -- is more comfortable than familiarity, but that is not the case for the simple reason that death inevitably intrudes, and the sudden snap from denial to confrontation can damage unused muscles. In the intervals between reality episodes, denial can give rise to chronic hypocrite-ism, as when an apartment-dweller passionately condemns the barbarism of hunting deer while consuming a Big Mac. When you know what misery and brutality is routinely inflicted on beef cattle, you know that the hamburger muncher is like the Dons in the Godfather movies who go to church to profess their Christian beliefs while their employees are slaughtering their opponents.
But here's a question: Is being a hypocrite of that kind worse than being a person like me, who occasionally eats his friends?
A story for illustration. When my two oldest children were still in their single digits, agewise, we had a milk cow named Rosie who, of course, we had bred to keep her lactation revved up. The day came, therefore, when we all stood around the pasture in awe watching the birth of her calf. We groaned at her brief misery, marvelled at the way the little ball of slime started to kick his way into life, ooohed as she licked him into respectability as if she were getting him ready for Sunday School, laughed as he staggered around drunkenly on unruly, stick-like legs, finally, after several nosedives into the grass, getting himself propped up long enough to survey his world, and us, with bright shining eyes. It is a precious memory we all share to this day.
I had explained to the children before, and I repeated now, that this calf was being raised for meat, that we would after a time be processing him for our dinner table, and that we would not under any circumstances be treating him as a pet, by, for example, giving him a cute name. Before the day was out -- hell, before the hour was out -- his name was Ferdinand.
Ferdinand lived his life on green pastures, beside still waters, bathed in affection, nurtured by his mother, protected by our dogs, sheltered, fed and fondled by us all. If he ever experienced a moment of fear or discomfort I do not know about it. Every day of his life he went where he wanted to go (in a large pasture containing only him and his mother) and did what he was fitted to do -- munched grass and wondered brightly what humans were so busy doing.
But the day came. The cattle truck backed up to the barn and we all, at my insistence, were there to help load Ferdinand as quietly and quickly as possible. As the truck pulled away we all -- again, at my insistence -- went about our business as if nothing untoward had happened. But as the truck turned onto the lane and rattled away, we lost our momentum, and came to a stop at various places around the yard, watching. As silence returned, my daughter's small, three-year-old voice, plaintive as birdsong, called "Goodbye, Ferdinand." We all wept bitterly.
Fast forward two weeks. A chilly fall evening, dark early, frost coming, the kitchen warm and thick with smells of meat loaf and mashed potatoes. Sit to table, say the grace, deploy the cutlery -- and eldest son's meatloaf-laden fork stops dead, halfway to mouth. His eyes slide around to mine.
"Is this Ferdinand?"
"Lie! Run away! Hide under the table!" my inner voice screams. But I hold to my purpose. I return his gaze steadily. "Yes," I said, "it is."
"Hmph," he responded. Munch munch munch. "Pretty good."
Mission accomplished. Death had come into my childrens' lives. But he was not proud, nor was he cruel. And we were not scared.