For Celts living in the Iron Age, Samhain, a yearly festival held during the end of what we now call October, represented the close of the harvest season and the beginning of the “dark time.” It was dedicated to celebrating the gifts of the earth — the grain and root vegetable stores and the bodies of the animals raised during the heat and long light of summer. They prayed the bounty would sustain them through the cold that fast approached.
The gifts of the spirit were also received with gratitude. Samhain was a time to remember loved ones who had passed on from this life, as it was believed the veil between the material and spirit world was thinnest at this point in the wheel of the year. This tradition was held by many cultures in the northern hemisphere and continues to this day as All Souls Day and Dia de los Muertos (to name two) — days set aside to celebrate the memories of departed relatives.
Here on the ranch, late autumn is also when we sell our calves and lambs, which, at least financially, represents the sum of our labor for the year. If the market is good, we rejoice. If it is not, we contemplate the year ahead and adjust accordingly. Not quite the same as the considerations of the Celts, but not so different either.
This is also when we send beef to the butcher, a reality I dread even as I recognize its necessity. The grassland ecosystem thrives with large ruminants to wander across it grazing and fertilizing. Before humans began domesticating livestock, the third branch of the symbiotic relationship between grass and grass-eaters was the predators, which kept the grass-eating animals from overpopulating the landscape and destroying it and themselves. Those of us raising domesticated livestock play the predators now, and though I don’t relish the role, I know we offer our animals a better death than they could expect from a wolf or bear. Still, it weighs heavy on me.
Usually, we leave the job of butchering to professionals, but a few years ago, dealing with an overabundance of aggressive roosters, our good friend and neighbor came over bright and early with a well-sharpened hunting knife. I caught the boys and held them, and he did the dirty work. I released him from helping me with the plucking and butchering though. They were my chickens after all, and therefore, I decided, my responsibility. It took me all afternoon, but by evening the roosters were tucked into the deep freeze, and I was exhausted but thankful for the hard work.
Before I moved to western South Dakota I was a vegetarian. I couldn’t bear the thought of an animal dying so I could eat. However, my ideas about the source of my food were theoretical at best, misinformed at worst, and mostly I didn’t think much about it at all. But, as I began to live and work amongst animals and plants being raised for food, as I saw their lives on the open plains and their respective relationships to the ecosystem, my mind slowly changed.
Modern life in a western country makes it easy to forget the stands of wheat gleaming golden in the fields, the hen laying the eggs, the cow chewing her cud in the pasture while her calf plays nearby. Modern life makes it easy to forget that everything we eat has a story and a whole life of its own. But, ignoring the story doesn’t change the ending: Some things must die so other things can live.
I was considering all this as I worked that afternoon in the yard, cutting through joints and tendons, breaking down the bodies of animals I knew into food for my family. I saw those roosters as baby chicks emerging from their shells, tucked tenderly beneath their mother’s sheltering breast, and I was there the moment they took their last breaths. The hard work of butchering was a way I could honor the gift of the roosters’ lives, a gift that would help sustain my own. Meanwhile, the barn cats purred and curled around my feet, happy to pick up what I dropped, their nature as oblate carnivores unquestioned.
We are all members of the symphony of life on earth, and we all have our parts to play. If you are among those that believe humans have been playing their parts too loud for too long, rest assured the percussion section of flood and fire is rising to match our volume. The crow, the sparrow, the urban coyote, and the mule deer are also adept at following the melody. The symphony won’t end, but it is changing fast.
And yet, I find myself still listening for the quieter parts, especially this time of year, as the days shorten, the darkness slowly overtaking the light. Listening for the music that lingers as the dusk fades into evening, the night rising to meet the last moments of the day. It is a haunting melody, ancient and tender, the everlasting lullaby the earth sings as she gathers stars like a blanket to cover what remains. A lullaby she will be singing even when it is my own body that returns to nourish the soil so that something new can grow.
Eliza Blue lives on a ranch in northwest South Dakota. She’s a musician, mom, author, and shepherd. She writes a column for newspapers in her region and produces audio commentary for South Dakota Public Radio. You can learn more about Eliza on her website.