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Friday, April 23, 2004 03:19 pm

“Nothing was wasted”

What’s the difference, anyway, whether that burger you’re eating was killed by you or by someone else?

There is no such thing as waste in nature -- except, of course, for the piles of stuff that man leaves lying around or tries to sweep beneath a thin carpet of soil. There's no such thing as a wasted life either, or at least there wasn't until we humans started stuffing the dead bodies of our kinsmen into concrete vaults so that the nickel's worth of good we really are can't be spent. In some places it's the law: millions of years of ashes to ashes and dust to dust wiped out by a single act of the legislature.

Now I don't suppose most people think of burial vaults as symbols of human arrogance or as examples of our disregard for the laws of nature. But the fact is, we've gotten a little careless about how we put things away, and it's catching up with us.

As a child growing up on the farm, I was given to understand that God tolerates no waste, and because farmers were the chosen people of God, they certainly couldn't afford to, either.

Many years later, during the winter of '94 -- around the first of February, I think -- we brought a young heifer up from the calf pasture and put her in with the breeding herd. Assuming that nature took its course, and barring accidents and unforeseens, in nine months she would be a fully mature animal ready to deliver a healthy baby calf. Within a week or so she had settled in and found her place in the pecking order of the herd. Everything seemed perfectly normal until the morning of the 16th. That morning the heifer was pacing nervously around the barn lot and occasionally kicking at her side, the usual signs that a heifer is about to give birth. I dismissed the idea -- the calf pasture was generally considered safe from intrusion by anything capable of getting an adolescent bovine pregnant. Maybe the stress of moving was greater than I had thought; maybe it was something she'd eaten, or maybe some kind of injury. Nothing was visible from 20 feet away, as close as she cared to let me get that morning.

It kept bothering me, though, so a few hours later I made another trip to the lot. Now the heifer was lying down, staring at me with wide eyes and showing signs of swelling in the vaginal area -- unmistakable signs of impending birth. No way, I thought, was this child capable of successfully delivering one of her own. I called the vet.

By the time he arrived, a neighbor and I had managed to get her up and into a well-bedded box stall. She was fully dilated, and a very large hoof was visible at the entrance to a very small opening. The vet took one quick look at the situation and uttered something that sounded like someone choking on a dry cracker. He slipped on a shoulder-length rubber glove and reached in. He wasn't in long. With considerable effort the vet managed to get the tips of the calf's front feet out and slip extractor chains around them.

"At least it's headed the right way," he said.

Sitting down in the straw, the vet braced both feet against the heifer and pulled. I got down beside him and we both pulled -- hard. Nothing moved. He went back out to his truck and retrieved a heavy cable winch, the kind used to pull a car out of a ditch. All that did was move the whole animal backward and damage her uterus. He shook his head -- no way. Then he turned his attention to the calf inside her: "It's breathing. Kicked a little, I think, but it can't live long like this. We gotta get it out, now!"

"How?" I asked. "Do you mean like a C-section?"

"We can't do that in here," he said, glancing around at the dirty oak boards of the stall. "I don't have that equipment with me anyway, and there's no time to go back for it. That calf will be dead in a few minutes if we don't get it out -- the heifer, too."

He stared at me as though the solution to this whole thing were somehow self-evident.

"Look," he said, "there's nothing I can do to save this heifer. We might be able to save the calf, but we're not going to save either if we stand here talking about it much longer. You'll just waste the meat. So, what'll it be?"

I looked outside through the open door at the bright sunlight. It was a beautiful winter day, intensely blue and white, like the photographs you see in Country Living magazine. A pair of sparrows swept past me and perched close together on a beam. Like teenagers, I thought, waiting for the room to go dark and the movie to begin.

I knew what had to be done. And I knew I had to do it. When I was a boy on the farm, we butchered every year. All the neighbors got together and killed two or three cows and a half-dozen hogs -- that's how we lived. No big deal. What's the difference, anyway, whether that burger you're eating was killed by you or by someone else? On the land, you couldn't afford to be squeamish. I walked back to the house and found the rifle and a handful of cartridges. When I returned, I found the heifer wedged against a post, gasping for breath and making deep guttural noises. She was obviously in pain.

The vet pointed to a spot on her forehead, about three inches above the eye line:


I thought about her standing calmly at the feeder just a few hours ago, eating hay with the other cows. I wondered whether she knew what was happening, whether she understood about the terrible pain and what I was about to do. I wondered whether feelings had any place at all in this process of nature. The rifle felt cold and impersonal in my bare hands.

I cycled a cartridge into the chamber, heard a series of clicking and meshing sounds. Each individual sound was separated and amplified by the deep quiet of the barn. The heifer looked up at me, making eye contact, then closed her eyes.

There was no report from the rifle, only a dull thud. The heifer tensed and then relaxed -- no muscle spasms, no jerking or flopping around. And then suddenly there was movement again: the vet rolling her onto her side, slitting her belly open, hacking away at the mass of body parts inside. Steam fogged his glasses, and he dragged a sleeve across them, smearing blood on the lens. Finally the calf's brown body appeared in the morass of blood and tissue. The vet pulled the entire body out suddenly, dropping it to the floor and pounding on the chest, clearing the nasal passages, finally eliciting a tiny cry after the complete ritual of resuscitation maneuvers had been performed. Together we carried the orphan into a clean stall and began the process of rubbing and drying it that the mother would have carried out using her tongue.

Our success was quickly tempered by the carnage in the adjacent stall. I suppose you could call the entire operation a success. The calf was saved. The meat was saved. Nothing was wasted.

Neighbors began to arrive with knives and saws and buckets of warm water -- surgeons in blue bib overalls. We would have to dress her immediately, here on the farm, or the meat would spoil. That, it seemed, would be the final insult.

A place was rigged in the machine shed to hang the carcass and complete the skinning and gutting process begun during the hurried surgery. All who came contributed to some part of the process that they knew best, with the knowledge that they would receive a few pounds of flesh for their efforts.

In a couple hours the job was done, the tools gathered up and washed, the hide and guts loaded up for disposal. I looked at her. The familiar parts were gone. The white-faced calf I had helped deliver into the world and watched romp and play in the summer pasture was reduced to sides and quarters of human food.

Nothing was wasted.

Do you have a tale to tell? If you live in the Springfield area and want to share a story about an adventure, a favorite activity, or a recollection of the past, send your essay to "Capital Voices" at Illinois Times, P.O. Box 5256, Springfield, IL 62705, or e-mail editor@illinoistimes.com

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