Photo by Fiona Gong
Last month, we loaded our four daughters into the minivan on a Sunday afternoon and drove to Duclos & Thompson Farm in Weybridge to see the new lambs and piglets.
This was our first time at the Duclos & Thompson open barn, an event that for many local families is an annual sign of spring -- much like the appearance of sap buckets on the maple trees, or red-breasted robins, or removing your snow tires. Like those other rites of spring, it’s quite possible that the new lambs and piglets will arrive when there’s still snow on the ground; that March weekend, there was a mountain of snow next to the Duclos & Thompson barn that served as a secondary diversion for all the children present.
The primary attraction, of course, was inside the barn: lambs! Two floors worth of black and white lambs sleeping, eating, frolicking, and climbing atop the bigger sheep. So many lambs, plus a little pile of piglets nursing on their mama. It was a cuteness bonanza.
After 30 minutes ooh-ing and ahh-ing, after our daughters commandeered our camera to snap hundreds of dimly-lit lamb photos, we left the barn and crossed the driveway to the building locally known as “the meat shack.” In the meat shack, 30 feet from where the lambs and piglets began life, they end life as a variety of delicious packaged cuts of meat.
The Duclos & Thompson Farm is a nice, small, local, hormone- and antibiotic-free operation; still, there’s a cruel metaphor for life to be found in the adorable lambs separated from plastic-wrapped meat by only a narrow dirt drive. It’s an irony that was completely lost on our daughters, though, both during the visit and later that night as they happily munched on their “sheep sticks” (kind of like lamb-flavored Slim Jims) and chattered excitedly about the open barn.
Obviously, our family is not vegetarian, although that’s due to laziness more than ideology – laziness, and the desire to find something, anything, that our children will eat. I am completely in favor of ethical standards for animal treatment, and would prefer to have all of my meat happy, free-range, and chemical-free. But this is not an essay on food ethics.
No; this is an observation: that my Vermont-raised children know exactly where their meat comes from. And they could care less.
Our daughters are animal lovers. They adore all dogs. They’re constantly birdwatching out our windows. Their epitome of joy: horses. One daughter’s life goal is to own and operate a horse farm and work as a veterinarian. They are lobbying us hard for more chickens.
Yet when it comes to the death of animals, they’re deeply pragmatic. They saw two neighborhood dogs slaughter our first flock of chickens; a scenario they then reenacted numerous times for “fun,” taking on roles as either dogs or chickens.
On at least one occasion, my daughters have eaten a chicken that they knew to have been raised – and killed – in their friend’s yard. They’ve visited a newborn lamb at the same friend’s house -- knowing that it, too, is bound for the table.
This winter, our family read the classic children’s book, Charlotte’s Web, about a remarkable spider who saves Wilbur the pig from becoming breakfast. My girls loved the book, and woke up early one morning begging me to read the final chapter. As I choked back tears after the last paragraph, a salute to the self-sacrificing spider, my oldest daughter hopped up from the couch and chirped, “What’s for breakfast? I feel like some bacon!”
Several weeks later, my husband was reading our daughters “The Parable of the Lost Sheep” – a Biblical story comparing God’s love for people to a shepherd’s love for his sheep. In the parable, the shepherd realizes that one of his 100 sheep is missing. He leaves the other 99 to search everywhere for his one lost sheep. “And when he finds it,” my husband read triumphantly, “he will be so happy! He’ll take his sheep home –“
“—and eat it!” our second daughter yelled.
I couldn’t deny the likely truth behind her interjection. The theological implications were also disturbing; I’d honestly never considered why that shepherd invested so much in his sheep, but in reality he probably wasn’t caring for them so that they could live to a ripe old age.
I can’t say whether my daughters’ pragmatic approach to food comes from growing up in close proximity to working farms, but I suspect that has a lot to do with it. If their only contact with meat came in the form of shrink-wrapped supermarket fare, there would likely be a greater divide in their minds between barnyard and table.
What I can’t figure out is why my tenderhearted animal lovers aren’t bothered by the knowledge that they possess. They’re fully aware that the lamb they’re cuddling today could become tomorrow’s dinner, yet what keeps them up at night isn’t the slaughterhouse, but the fantasy fears of ghosts and monsters.
Could it be that they’re still too young to understand death, to grasp its methods and finality? Perhaps. But I suspect that we all maintain an emotional dirt driveway between the barn and the meat shack. Isn’t this how most of us cope with the certainty of mortality? Apparently, we start young.
Faith Gong has worked as an elementary school teacher, a freelance photographer, and a nonprofit manager. Since moving to Addison County in 2011, her work has involved caring for a house in the woods, four young daughters, one anxiety-prone puppy — and writing for her blog, The Pickle Patch.