Saturday, September 26, 2015

I'm a Heterotroph

Note: This program first aired September 26, 2015

I am a heterotroph. This means that I eat food, food that comes from outside of my body. Unlike plants, which are able to make their own food within specialized cells within their bodies. I can’t do that. To live I have to eat, and what I eat is important to me.

One of the things I eat is meat, though not very much of it, and mostly meat I have looked in the eyes. In the yard behind my green house are two tidy wooden houses. One is fully of baby chickens, the other full of baby ducks. A few of these birds will join my flock of laying hens, or go to live as slug eating garden ducks for my neighbor, the majority will end up in my freezer, sustaining me and my husband over the winter. I’ve participated in this process for several years, raising or helping to raise the meat that fills my freezer, and when the day comes deconstructing the animals from which I derive my nourishment. I do this not without pause, in many ways I would prefer not to eat animals at all. Watching the ducks embody their inherent duckness, splashing in their water with apparent pleasure, watching the chickens doing what is theirs’ to do, scratching in the soil looking for invertebrates, its hard not to appreciate watching an animal do what it is designed to do.

By all measures I am a greenhorn when it comes to my small homestead. And this fall has highlighted this fact. This fall the “raise your own meat” story didn’t exactly follow the script. It started with a text from my husband that simply read “we may lose a duck”. He went out to do the morning chores and found one of the ducks on its back, waving its legs, unable to stand. He flipped it over but it was unable to stand, and it flopped back over on to its side. We isolated it from the flock by bringing it inside in its own quarantine box in the bathroom. It wouldn’t eat, could not sit upright or bend its legs and would drink only if you put its beak in the water. Its condition worsened and the duck was dead by nightfall. Two days later the process repeated, only this time the duck survived the night, flopping around in its box all night, only to die in the morning.

It wasn’t easy to watch those animals die. They suffered, and the only thing that would perhaps have made them feel better would have been to be reunited with their flock, something we couldn’t do because we suspected that what was killing them was contagious. Using the hard economics of a small homestead, we had to decide how much money to spend to save a duck that we were going to kill in 8 weeks anyway. But even though their fate is the freezer, I care about those animals, I enjoy watching them embody their duckness, and it is critically important to me that they are able to do the things most important to them-wander about in the fresh air, splash in the water, snuggle with their flock mates. Watching an animal suffer when you don’t know what is wrong and are powerless to provide comfort is a reality check indeed. Ultimately we brought the second duck to the University of Maine for a necropsy and bacterial culture to try to get some answers, and while we were waiting for the results a third duck fell ill.

This story though has a happy ending. The third duck spent the night in the house with us, and was able to eat and drink the whole time. He maintained the ability to walk, and was well enough that in the morning I put him outside in a small quarantine pen. He had recovered enough that evening that I reunited him with his flock, and when they came out of the duck house the next morning, I couldn’t tell which one had been sick the day before. Cue the happy music.

Being an active participant in your own food chain isn’t always easy but it will challenge you in all the best ways, and provide endless opportunities to examine your own values and priorities. It may change the way you eat. I’ll always be a heterotroph, but I’m not sure I’ll always be a meat eater. The ducks may have more to teach me still.