Editor’s Note: Welcome to Pictures from the Pickle Shelf, a series giving you a closer look at people, places and stories from the Pickle Shelf Radio Hour, a podcast produced by Lost Creek Farm in partnership with the Daily Yonder. For this second edition in the series, producer Jan Pytalski shares his field notes and photos from a hunting trip at Lost Creek Farm. Listen to the episode now to hear the full story. And subscribe to the podcast through your favorite podcasting platform.
Nature as a nurturing mother is a tired metaphor. But if you peel away the bucolic, romanticized layer on the surface, you’ll find out that there’s a price to be paid every time we demand that nurturing. Like putting expenses we can’t really afford on our credit cards, we often don’t want to see that price charged to our account. But there are rewards for living within your means.
I witnessed my share of killing during my visits to Lost Creek Farm in West Virginia. I saw rabbits butchered, chickens beheaded and plucked, and a cow drained of its blood to be used in Spanish blood sausage.
After a while, it became a sort of a grim joke between myself and Mike Costello, the chef at Lost Creek, that would resurface ahead of every visit: “Well, what should we kill this time?”
Death on the farm was present, I saw it, but I was still removed from it.
It was either Mike or some familiar farmer or breeder who did the killing. I had the comfort of distance and the protection of my camera, separating me from the brutal reality of ending a life. I kept my distance, zooming in for details, or panning out to capture stunning surroundings as a backdrop to what is, for so many, the natural order of things. In a way, someone was still paying the price for me.
I also had the comfort of knowing that the killing was done professionally, animals spared unnecessary stress and suffering, and the meat harvested in full. No waste.
But this time around, it was time to go hunting.
I still didn’t know how I felt about it. I grew up in a house with a hunting rifle that was never used. And I never felt the need to hunt. I never wanted to kill animals for trophies and never had to kill them for food.
We took off early in the morning. The part of Harrison County, West Virginia, where Mike and Amy run their farm seems overrun with deer and it didn’t take long before we saw a group grazing. We stalked our prey for a bit, inching closer and closer, making sure Mike was within range. I was still comfortably assuming the role of an observer.
Mike took his aim.
He wanted a doe. Its meat is much more tender, free of the “gamey” quality you can find in venison from an older buck.
Then he took his shot.
I could tell he was upset. We talked about it before. He was concerned his first shot wouldn’t kill instantly and he’d have to take a second one, much closer to the animal to make sure it was put out of its misery.
The doe stumbled, regained its balance, and stood there in the tall grass. She was terminally wounded, but now it was about ending her suffering as soon as humanly possible. We rushed to it.
“If you care about these animals you consume, the last thing you want is to see them suffer,” Mike told me later, reflecting back on that day. “But it just happens sometimes. A mere couple of inches in any direction is the difference between a perfect shot and a near miss. When you take a shot, you see that you hit this animal, but it’s still alive, there’s just this sinking feeling. It’s a real low point, but you just have to do what you can to minimize the suffering at that point. That’s all you can really do.”
The second shot was perfect. “In a very real way we were lucky to have another close, clean shot so soon after the first shot,” Mike recalled. “I was so bummed out at first, but I just remember there being this tremendous relief when the second shot hit and I knew the suffering was over.”
We had to move quickly, dress the animal and get back to the farm. Handling an animal of that size is a jarring first-time experience. Mike quickly cut the doe open, and that’s when the smell hit me.
There was a full milk sack inside of her, the smell of it overpowering blood and everything else for that brief moment. I was stunned.
It’s one of the more comforting scents I can think of, the smell of oatmeal being cooked on the stove when the milk is just getting up in temperature. It felt surreal. Here we were, here was this body–a heavy, lifeless carcass, its hide plush and soft–smelling like a kitchen where meals are cooked with love. And we were taking knives to it.
Steadily narrating, Mike began dressing the animal. I was helping. It was the first time in my life I was paying off my debt, my first installment for a lifetime of food.
Soon the smell of the animal’s insides, the blood and guts, overpowered the soothing sensation. I was in something reminiscent of shock, my breathing fast and my pulse raised. I focused on following short commands, trying to help and learn as much as I could: how to cut, where to cut, and where not to cut at all costs.
Soon we were back at the farm and Mike was cleaning up the carcass and getting ready to quarter it. That trip ended with one of the haunches being smoked, a lot of venison sausage, and much more. We were generously provisioned for the coming months.
There’s something very sobering about participating in the harvest of an animal you’ll later eat. I recognize how rare of an opportunity it is to have control over your food. Class, race, money and where you live all contribute and shape how we eat, leaving many without any control.
I don’t take it for granted, but having the opportunity to do it, I feel that much richer working for that nourishment.
Jan is the associate editor with the Daily Yonder. He lives in Southwestern Oregon. Before joining the Yonder, Jan covered federal policy relevant to Appalachia from Washington, D.C., and helped with coverage of the Trump White House for Reuters.
Hear these stories and more in the latest episode of the Pickle Shelf Radio Hour, a storytelling podcast produced by Lost Creek Farm in partnership with the Daily Yonder. You can catch up on all of the episodes at dailyyonder.com/the-pickle-shelf-radio-hour or via most popular podcasting platforms, including Apple Podcasts, Spotify, and Google Podcasts. Be sure to subscribe to keep up with the latest episodes.