All photos/art by Lisel Ashlock
We harvested more potatoes today, on a warm, clear October afternoon, geese threading south high above. With the first killing frost a few days ago, we now light a fire at night, but steadfastly refuse to turn on the heat during the day. Here in central Vermont, the temperature went down to 58 in the house; sweaters and quilts came out; the soup pot went on the stove, and we began toting firewood.
On the clear, cold nights of this past week, we watched the moon wax. As I write, the so-called “hunter’s moon” is almost full; bright and small, it feels aptly named. With the seasonal clearing and gleaning in the fields, migrating birds graze in search of leftover grain, and animals grown fat from summer are prime for hunting. Traditionally in Europe the moon was named for bird-hunting season. Here the Native Americans hunted deer in newly leafless woods, stored the meat for winter, and celebrated the harvest under this moon.
It is slaughter time. Almost hunting season, and definitely time to slaughter turkeys. I ran into Paul Stone, and he tells me that they start Monday at Stonewood Farm down in Orwell. John and I, together with friends Margy and Jordan, spent Saturday afternoon dispatching two of the three turkeys that live in the company of 19 laying hens in Margy and Jordan’s “Poultry Palace.”
It’s not that we couldn’t raise a couple of chickens and a turkey on our three-tenths of an acre in town. But we choose not to. Instead, our laying hens–New Hampshire Reds–and our one turkey have been part of a larger, more social (we theorize) flock in Cornwall. We chip in with grain costs, and whenever Margy and Jordan go out of town, we watch after the girls–checking the water supply, adding grain and food scraps, collecting eggs (sometimes still warm), and making sure they’re snug at night. We chart the growth of individual birds; hear about their antics; share food tales when we all get together. And we eat fresh eggs.
Saturday dawns clear, still, and warm. We have an appointment with Tom and Thanksgiving.
“I feel oddly sad about this,” admits Jordan when we arrive, bearing lunch. “These particular turkeys were real characters. I’m going to miss their odd little voices.” He’s not sentimental, though. He and Margy have been raising birds for a few years, and know that they’re for eggs and meat. But they care for them well, and the growth of the birds becomes woven into the fabric of their summer. Their vegetable garden runs along the edge of the chicken coop, and the deck off the kitchen looks right into it. The flock is almost always part of a larger conversation.
“One of the turkeys laid an egg this week, but we don’t know which one.” Margy has put the eggs in a little dish to show me. It’s speckled and smaller than I would have thought, except of course it’s a first egg (how ironic to have started laying now, I think).
We eat lunch first: ham and Vermont cheddar on Red Hen bread. And then we begin.
John has hunted for, cleaned, and processed ducks, geese, and grouse in the wild. I’ve witnessed chickens being dispatched, but this is the first time I’ve helped. It’s a quiet activity; we don’t want to upset the remaining birds. And we’re grateful to these birds as we handle them in their deaths. I find myself in awe: the stillness, almost drowsiness, when they hang upside down, then the automatic spasms and flapping of wings as their nervous systems shut down. I’m surprised by how long the bodies remain warm and soft. We’re tender as we pluck their feathers, gut and clean them, wash the cavities with rock salt and cold water, and wrap them for our freezers.
We sit on the back deck in the sun, the birds between us, and talk as we work. The cats sidle up and watch. The hens and the remaining turkey go about their business in the coop, scratching at the soil, settling in the shade, looking for fresh scraps. The tom weighs in at 31 pounds dressed; the hen at 23 pounds.
I think about how when I cook the hen we’ll remember her strutting outside, dark feathers flashing. Knowing where and how she was raised–fresh air, lots of vegetable peelings, and some grain–makes her sweeter.
I think about the green-tomato mincemeat I’m going to make when I have a chance to finish picking the fruits off my vines, now partly blackened by frost. We’ll pick apples in the late afternoon, and pull more food out of our vegetable garden back at home.
A blue-sky day. The geese go south. The moon is waxing. Harvest, glean, slaughter, freeze, preserve, prepare. Hunker-down time is almost here.
Read more about Autumn A to Z in the September/October issue of Yankee Magazine
This essay originally appeared in the Addison County Independent, Middlebury, Vermont. See Kate Gridley’s recipes: