Embracing the Journey of Simplicity

credit:  Brooke McAllister

Embarking on a journey toward simple living is to travel into uncertain terrain, especially when one is navigating only by the lay of one’s own land. It’s easy to feel you’ve taken the high moral road when comparing the ecological footprint of your family car (ours is a fifteen-foot long, fifty-three horse power Honda Civic) to David Geffen’s 453-foot, 50,000 horse power mega-yacht, but all self-righteousness is shattered to smithereens when comparing the self-same Civic to the family rickshaw in India. And, yes, my home might be modest in square footage by North American standards, but compared to an African mud hut, it is palatial.

Simplicity can be a bit of a tightrope walk with pitfalls of self-righteousness on one side and crippling guilt on the other. We can so easily end up like the friend of author Alan Durning, who aptly quipped, “I used to go on shopping trips, now I just go on guilt trips.” But despite the hazards, the journey of simplicity is worth taking if we are serious about making the connection between our everyday lives and the everyday lives of everyone and everything else in the world. In many ways, living more simply is the easiest and most practical thing the average North American can do to care for creation and their less fortunate planet-mates. Not many of us can trek to the Outer Hebrides to ring Storm Petrels or set up an orphanage in famine-ravaged Ethiopia, but all of us can shop a little less!
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Life and Death on the Farm

credit:  Brooke McAllister

     We killed a bully rooster at A Rocha one spring. He had attacked my daughter and an array of interns and thus became destined for the soup pot. We killed a few of his brothers as well – to make a full meal. I, city wimp and vegetarian that I am, didn’t participate in the actual killing, but joined everyone in the kitchen for the gutting and dressing.

     One of my teammates plunked a big-breasted, puckered-skinned bird on the counter in front of me. I swallowed hard and decided the best way to attack my meat queasiness was to really go on the attack. I stabbed at the bird’s abdomen and with a swift slice upward opened its innards to plain view.

     “This one’s a meaty one,” I quipped to the cook over my shoulder, feigning a butcher’s ease with the entrails that presented themselves so readily.

     “Yeah, thought we should get at least one good roaster from the day,” he said.

     “Roaster?” I queried. “You mean rooster, right?”

     “Nope,” he said, nonchalantly. “That one’s a hen. That one is Susie.”

     I froze. Susie, this bird was Susie?

     My daughters and I had bought Susie as a two-day-old chick the previous Easter and had raised her, first in our living room, then in the playhouse, until she was four months old and finally graduated to the chicken coop. Glossy black, with a speckled brown head, she was a beautiful bird. Evidently, she had been a last-minute addition to the slaughter roster.

     I fought back feelings of betrayal and the wave of nausea that suddenly washed over me as I mentally composed an A Rocha Centre memo concerning the protocol for future meat harvesting so that would-be pets might escape beloved Susie’s fate.

     Gritting my teeth and refusing to be undone by the harsh realities of farm life, I began to pull out Susie’s intestines and toss them in the garbage. Then my fingers clamped onto something hard. I pulled it out and discovered it was an egg -- a beautiful brown egg. I reached in again and pulled out another egg. This one smaller and paler. Again my hand went in and again out came an egg, still smaller and a bit paler.

     A crowd of four A Rocha butchers gathered around me. No one spoke, everyone stared. I felt like a magician pulling miracles out of a hat. In all I pulled out seven eggs that varied in size from a tiny soft white ball to a fully formed, hard, elliptical egg.

     We were, each one of us, hushed. There before us, spread across the kitchen counter, we beheld the miracle of life itself—and, by extension, the somberness of death. We had killed the goose that laid the golden egg without realizing she was full of golden eggs.

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Eating Shaggy


     They say you should never name an animal you plan on eating. Perhaps, but I’ll say one thing: when you know it’s Shaggy on your plate, it sure adds authenticity to your pre-meal prayer. Firsthand knowledge of your dinner’s name brings you face to face with the fact that everything that feeds us—from a beef steak to a beefsteak tomato—has to die to give us life. As Gary Synder so ably puts it, “if we do eat meat, it is the life, the bounce, the swish, of a great alert being with keen ears and lovely eyes, with four square feet and a huge beating heart that we eat, let us not deceive ourselves.”

    Rick Faw taught us a lot in this regard. Rick, who serves as A Rocha’s Education Director, came with his family to live at the Field Study Centre the spring after we arrived. One of the first tasks we bequeathed to him was the care of the cows, a task he gladly accepted, being a closet cow whisperer and all-around animal lover. The image that stays with me from those early days is of Rick, baby Jared on his back and a farm cat at his heels, pushing a wheelbarrow towering with hay through the sodden grass to the pasture. He’d deftly launch the bales over the fence and into the cows’ troughs, pet their foreheads while they munched, and then go on with his other farm chores. This was his morning routine.

     In the late afternoons, while Jared napped, Rick returned to the fields to brush the cows. I think he really wanted a dog, or any more sentient sort of pet, but since he had cows, he poured all his pent-up pet affection into them. He’d stand out there, in the cold, in his 1980s bright blue ski jacket, and brush those cows down as if they were Arabian mares and tomorrow was the Kentucky Derby. Markku and I watched all this from our kitchen window and, I must admit, wondered if Rick was making the best use of his time. Surely he could be writing a fundraising letter or planning a talk or following up with potential interns. There was just so much to be done.

     Our attitude just goes to show our lack of groundedness. Brushing the cows, by Rick’s own admission, served no practical function. Highland cattle on the moors of Scotland never get their coats brushed and they survive just fine. A few burrs and tangles in no way mitigates their enjoyment of sun, grass and stars. But then Rick wasn’t really concerned with burrs and tangles; the brushing was a way of de-stressing for Rick (and probably for the cows as well). In this way it was both an act of contemplation and even, dare I say, of fellowship. Given his bonding with these beasts you’d think Rick would have been the first of us to go vegetarian (I alone of all the A Rocha staff hold that distinction). But no, he ate the stews and roasts just like everyone else. He did admit, however, that he felt a measure of sadness when eating our cows, but for him this was a good thing, for in his sadness lay the seeds of gratitude.
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The Rat Came Back: Musings on Biodiversity

     Funny thing about biodiversity—it’s great in principle, but when things start to get too, well, diverse, one’s feelings on the matter get a bit muddled. Allow me to explain. Back in the early days of A Rocha’s first Environmental Centre, we had the usual diversity of biological life: chickens, cows and a myriad of plants and veggies on the farmy bit; frogs, salamanders, newts, shrews and at least forty species of birds in the wetland/forest bit; and homo sapiens in the shape of staff, volunteers, interns and school children throughout. We celebrate this kind of biodiversity.

     That year, however, things got too diverse—too diverse by two species. The first, Canis latrans, was spotted the previous spring, drawn by our chickens, who being free range apparently seemed a free smorgasbord for our canine nemesis. The coyotes (for that’s what they were) picked off two of our lovely heritage breed chickens, most notably Miss Mullet, a Black Polish cross with a crazy hairdo for whom we all mourned. So the rest of the chickens went back into the coop. But the farm was so much farmier with the “girls” scratching about, and so we let them out again. In short—and in short order—the coyote took three more chickens. Now the four that remained were only let out under the strictest supervision. But since the allure of chicken-sitting wears off after about fifteen minutes, they spent most of their time behind bars. Alas, what can you do when you live in a zoo?

     The second species to appear uninvited that year was Rattus rattus (that’s really its Latin name). They took up residence in our basement that fall when the weather turned chilly. After chewing up numerous plastic buckets and figuring out quickly what the rat traps were all about, they took advantage of renovations on the main floor to sneak up into OUR living space. By the evidence they left, they boldly scurried up the stairs, visited every room in the house and even started building a nest in our green corduroy couch. This last atrocity occurred while we were away for a week, and, needless to say, shot us into serious rat-eradication frenzy, which we eventually won.

     To our shame, I must admit that we used the appearance of these two species to our unfair parental advantage. When our daughter Maya (aged four at the time) showed signs of dashing without permission from our house to visit the interesting interns at the Main House, we casually would chirp, “Watch out for coyotes,” which, of course, sent her scampering back to our sides. And when little Bryn (then two) sauntered into the living room with a crumbly piece of toast in hand, we’d lightly draw for her the connection between crumbs and the onslaught of hungry rats. And so in their impressionable minds, coyotes were beasts to be feared above all others, and rats were so resourceful that at the mere scent of something delicious they flew from the basement to snatch the crumbs falling from one’s mouth. Law and order in the here and now versus a battery of counselling sessions for our girls years in the future—it was a tough call.

At the Table of Abundance

credit:  Brooke McAllister

     The predominant theme overarching all the farming and eating at A Rocha’s Centres has been one of abundance. Weekly Community Shared Agriculture (CSA) baskets (actually, big Rubbermaid blue tubs) overflow with up to twenty different selections of produce, from potatoes to spinach to rutabagas. The bounty is so copious that most CSA members split their share with another household since they find it impossible to make it through all those veggies in one week. Reflecting on this theme of abundance, our farmer Paul summed it up well in one of his regular CSA newsletters: “Such abundance is a gift, and makes possible other gifts: healthy bodies and minds nourished by good food; the raw materials for hospitality; the opportunity for generosity; the necessity of creativity in the kitchen (what to do with kohlrabi?); and the reminder that all of this comes from the hand of our generous Creator!”

     At A Rocha, we don’t have a chapel, we have a table. The meal is a place of community, fellowship and invitation. Conversations range from favourite films to theology to birds sighted on the morning bird walk to the number of eggs laid by the hens that morning to more personal family histories. The table is a safe place, a neutral ground for dialogue, knowing and communion. Is it any wonder that the New Testament is full of accounts of Jesus eating meals with people (and with the most unlikely people)? Is it any wonder that Jesus chose a meal to commemorate the abundance of his love?
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