As I cranked the lever I could watch the forest become pasture. I was using a come-along, a simple winch for tightening wire, to run a new fence. As the fence slowly came into existence, this tiny parcel of the Colorado wilderness was transformed into a pasture. Each time I pulled back on the lever, it cranked a gear that clacked past a catch. When I released the lever, the catch locked in, holding the gear in place and keeping the cable taut. At the end of the cable a section of field fence shivered, the interwoven wire quivering with tension even as the aspen leaves above quaked in the afternoon breeze.
It was a bright summer afternoon, and I was working for a friend in rural Colorado. His family had purchased some land, and hoped to plant one especially fertile stretch of bottom land in the coming spring. There was only one problem: fertile land tends to attract plenty of plants without human assistance, and the area was a riot of grass, bushes, and aspen saplings. If the land was to be planted in the coming year, it needed to be cleared.
We were working in the shade of the towering pines that stood at the edge of the bottom lands. A tiny rivulet ran through the scene, and two enormous peaks formed a sublime backdrop for our pastoral work. Fifty feet of field fence tightened as I cranked the come-along, drawing a clear line across the forest floor. My friend grinned behind me. He was holding the “dummy post,” a metal post driven into the ground to anchor one end of the come-along. As I tightened the cable Newtonian physics dictated that I put the same amount of draw on our dummy post and the fence, so my friend grimaced and dug in his heels, doing his level best to anchor our anchor.
When the wires were tight enough, I grabbed a hammer and pulled a fencing staple from my breast pocket. The taut fence was flush with a pine tree, and I drove the staple into the bark of the tree, pinching down the top wire of the fence. Once I had the fence nailed into the tree trunk, my friend let go of the dummy post and released the tension from the come-along.
The observant reader may have already objected that using live trees as fence posts is rather amateurish. As trees grow they will twist and contort wires, loosening fences and rendering them useless. If you want a fence to last, you need to use real posts. Luckily, we didn’t need the fence to last. We would be running goats on the bottom land for only a few months, just long enough to turn the wild growth into a manageable area for planting.
With the fence fastened to a tree at either end, I grabbed a fist-full of clips—little more than bits of twisted wire—and began working my way along the length of the fence, securing it to t-posts. I hooked the clips onto the fence, looped them around the back of the t-post, and twisted the ends tight. I worked quickly using the pliers on my Leatherman knife, a Christmas present from my father. As we secured the fence, we laughed and day-dreamed, imagining the goats that would soon be grazing.
I had begun the day before, working alone to clear the site of obstructions and drive in t-posts. As I pounded the t-posts into place I had enjoyed The Education of Henry Adams on audiobook. I had listened intently to the book as I slammed a heavy steel driver onto the posts.
“Man’s function as a force of nature—CLANG!—was to assimilate other forces as he—CLANG!—assimilated food. He called it the love—CLANG!—of power. He felt his own feebleness and—CLANG!— he sought for an ass or a camel,—CLANG!—a bow or a sling to widen his range of power.”
My friend and I finished stringing the fence the next day, and on the next day we added a gate and goat shed made from scavenged lumber. Thus, with a simple fence and few rough cut structures, a patch of forest transformed into a pasture. The grass and trees transformed from wild growth into forage; a rill in the stream transformed into a watering hole. It was like a moment of agricultural transubstantiation. The accidents of the forest, grass and soil, remained, but they had been changed into an entirely new substance: farmland.
* * *
Snow was falling gently as I stood at the top of a rise and looked over the old paddock. The goats had eaten it down, the wild growth of the summer was reduced to a stubble of dry grass and a few skeletal bushes picked of their leaves. We had torn down the temporary fencing and shelter, and re-erected them nearby to clear a second parcel of land. Straw bedding from the goats shelter was heaped in a pile and mixed with llama manure. The llama had been bought to scare away coyotes and clear brush beside the goats. Now its manure was added to the compost heap in hopes of achieving a healthy carbon-to-nitrogen ratio. I looked up from the pasture towards the mountains, but they were shrouded in clouds. Flecks of white snow eddied in the wind. I turned away from the scene and towards my new task.
A goat carcass was hanging from a tree, dripping blood onto the pine needles. After cutting its throat I had tied a simple clove hitch around its hind ankles and tossed the rope over a low, strong branch. I rolled up the sleeves of my old plaid shirt, unsheathed my knife, sighed, and began to work.
The goat was named Alcibiades, and he was a Nubian goat, just like his fellow goats Thucydides, Pericles, and Nicias. Alcibiades was black, with a small white blaze on his forehead. In life he had been playful at times, but a bit standoffish. I had gotten to know him well. I visited the goats at least twice a day, once at sunset to fire a few warning shots into the forest and turn on a radio, and again in the morning to turn the radio off. The gun shots and the radio—tuned to the local country station, of course—were meant to scare off predators. I loved to play with the goats as well, feeding them table scraps and listening to the radio.
As Alcibiades hung there on that brisk autumn morning, he was unmistakeably the same goat I had been tending for months. Yet, as I began to work, a transformation came over him, and slowly but surely an animal became meat. The process was not a pretty one, and readers with a weak stomach might want to skip to the end of the article. I repeat the process here not because I want to glory in the gore of it, but because we ought to honor the animals that die to feed us by being frank about how they come to the table. I also hope that my experience may shed some light on the ways we can relate to nature, food, and work.
I started by removing the head. I worked with a simple sheath-knife, a gift from my grandfather. It had been his knife during his days as a Boy Scout. The knife cut through hide and flesh easily, and soon I had sliced around the spine, cutting through the skin and muscle of the neck. I twisted the head and it came off easily.
Next I removed the hide, first cutting off the front feet and then making two slits that ran up the front legs and met at the base of the neck. From there I sliced a slit up the stomach and hind legs, being careful to cut through the hide only, and not to puncture the intestines. From there, it was simply a matter of peeling away the hide. Tugging and occasionally prodding with the tip of my knife, I separated the skin from the carcass. With one final pull the hide came loose, and flopped onto the forest floor with a wet slap.
Next, the entrails had to be removed. This is the most delicate part of the operation, since puncturing the intestines means dribbling acidic ooze and half digested foliage onto the meat. I worked around the bung, carefully separating the goat’s anus from the body. Once I had cut it free, I tugged it loose and tied it off. From there I reached my arms into the chest cavity and freed the organs, gently tugging them out. In a moment they came free, and tumbled to the ground in a rush of offal. The entire digestive track, from throat to anus, was now steaming in the snow and pine needles at my feet. With the intestines removed, I could puncture the diaphragm and pluck out the heart and lungs, setting them aside for stew meats.
This may seem like a disgusting procedure, and that’s because it is. However, removing the digestive system is an important part of transforming the goat into meat. After all, the entire intestinal apparatus is essential to the goat’s work in life. Without a throat and stomach, how would it eat the wild plants we had brought it in to consume? Without its intestines and, yes, its anus, how would it process those plants and produce the manure that is even now slowly composting into soil for a new garden?
With the head, hide, and guts removed the goat was beginning to look more like a side of beef than a living creature. Running along either side of the exposed spine I saw two succulent backstraps. I cut down the sides neatly, separating out a clean cut of meat. I set the backstraps into a zip-lock bag and proceeded to the ribs. I swung the knife down with all the force I could muster, smashing through bone. The crack of the ribs yielding to my knife sounded through the still woods like a gunshot. When I had hacked my way through the ribs, the racks came loose, and I added them to the zip-lock with the backstrap.
Next came the legs. Using the keen blade of my knife, I worked around the joints, separating the cuts of meat one by one and stuffing them into zip-locks. Separated from the rest of the beast, the legs ceased to look like the limbs of a living animal and began to look like nothing more than exceptionally large turkey drumsticks. Soon enough I was left with only Alcibiades’ two hooves dangling from the tree branch, swinging freely in the wind. I had the meat neatly bagged away on my right side, and a pile of offal at my feet. I sighed, cupped my bloody hands, and exhaled, hoping to warm them.
I buried the viscera in the cold ground and headed back to the house with the meat.
* * *
The night was bathed in light. A full moon was reflecting off the snowfall on craggy peaks; the white mountains seemed to glow with reflected light as if they were the mountains of the moon itself. Our fire popped and crackled, throwing flickering light onto my friends and me. We sat on a pair of wooden benches, scavenged from the condemned porch that had also yielded the boards for the goat shed. Occasionally my friend’s dogs rushed to the edge of the light and barked furiously at whatever wild things crept through the trees around us. We talked and laughed, bathed in a circle of warmth and surrounded by the untamed forest like the thanes of Hrothgar sitting in the mead hall as Grendel stalked the misty moors.
The fire slowly died down, leaving a bed of hot red coals. We carefully laid a grill over the embers, and the emanating heat began to warm the metal frame. I went back to the house and returned with a zip-lock bag full of marinating meat. Earlier in the day I had blended red wine vinaigrette, nama shoyu sauce, and olive oil in a bowl. Then I chopped up a fist full of garlic bought from the local organic co-op and added it to the blend. I rubbed the meat down in the thick marinade, letting the flavors blend together as the vinaigrette softened up the outer layer of the meat and allowed it to soak up the sauce. I left the meat soaking in the fridge for a few hours while I finished my daily chores and built up the fire.
Now the meat was ready to grill. I pulled out the long, slender sections of backstrap and slapped them onto the grill. The olive oil immediately hissed when it landed on the hot steel. In a second the aroma of roasting meat and sizzling garlic filled the air. The red, raw meat hissed and spit as the heat permeated it. After a few minutes I reached out with a pair of tongs and flipped it over. The meat had been transformed to a rich brown color, with darker stripes running along it where the hot steel of the grill had pressed against the flesh.
After a few minutes on the grill, I plucked off the two sections of backstrap. The slender cuts had already cooked through, and I set them on our plates. I clicked open the blade of my Leatherman, the same multi-tool I had used to clip together the fence months earlier, and sliced into the meat. A delicate stream of goat au jus seeped out and pooled on the plate.
I took my first bite, and it was delicious. A rich savory flavor, but still vaguely delicate, almost like lamb. The woodsmoke and garlic added a pungent kick. I began to chew it, and more flavor poured out. I continued to chew, and then I continued to chew some more. Truth be told, the meat was pretty tough. Even though it demanded extraordinary mastication, it also delivered lots of flavor.
I swallowed the rich goat meat, and a circle closed. Days grunting and sweating with the come-along and fencing had made a pasture. A morning of bloody knife work had transformed a carcass into packaged cuts of meat. Now our time at the fire had made the meat into a meal. When I ate that meal I assimilated it all to myself: the green prodigal forest, the straining hours of work, the loss of life in the swirling snow, the curling woodsmoke, and, of course, the animal, Alcibiades himself.