The Life and Death of Bun-bun.

There has been some heartfelt times around the urban homestead recently. Our doe rabbit Apple had stopped producing reliable litters of kits, and so for the first time we put one of our breeding rabbits on the dinner table.

I have some precedents in my childhood, particularly when Abby the Goat finally got too old. Abby was a great goat, a good mother, a productive milker, and a lovely person to be around. She was so old, by the time my family killed her, that she was sure to be tough as an old boot, and so we turned every bit of her into Ground Goat. Many the dinner of spaghetti and meat sauce came with a fond remembrance of Abby and a story of living with her.

So, I have some precedent, but I had never killed one of my own breeding animals.

Killing Apple was hard.

We tried a new kill method and that was excellent so Apple truly died as peacefully as you could imagine, literally with a mouthful of clover.

To fill Apple’s spot we bought Lucia, a piebald doe—what the rabbit breeders call a broken colouration.

Lucia came bred, which is maybe good or maybe bad because we still don’t know if our buck Apollo is part of the problem. Lucia is not so used to human contact and charges quite a bit. But she has quickly learned that the green deliciousness we bring is not to be feared.

And then Lucia kindled—a litter of one small kit.

So it begins.

I guess someone who “produces” rabbits would have other litters they could introduce little Bun-bun to, so it would be warmed by the cuddle puddle of cuteness.

Or perhaps someone who produces rabbits would have just snapped Bun-bun’s neck and tossed it on the shit that accumulates under the cages in a production barn.

Carmen brought Bun-bun in at night, and tucked it in a nest of Lucia’s belly hair and straw, so it would survive the chill. In the morning, she took it outside to nurse.

I say it because after several days of this, Bun-bun died, and we never sexed it to know if it was male or female.

We tried to keep it alive, knowing a single kit would usually die. Next time we will try something else.

 

Bun-bun’s death occasions a lot of thought.

There was only one end for Bun-bun, and that was an untimely demise—though untimely is difficult to define, since in the wild Bun-bun may have died at birth or within days. Rabbits have many kits for a reason. If Bun-bun matured enough to venture outside the den there are eagles and hawks, dogs and cats. Foxes? Weasels? Mink? I don’t know. But like I say, rabbits have many kits for a reason.

On our homestead, Bun-bun would have spent four months being moved to fresh grass every day. It would have snacked on blackberry canes and carrot tops, as well as any dandelions we pulled from the garden. Bun-bun would have torn around on those powerful and delicious hind legs, frolicking in sunshine and reclining in rain—droplets beading on its fur.

Would it grow to be piebald like Lucia?

Anyhow. Four months, and then we would have put Bun-bun in our stew pot, probably in the Portuguese style. We would have scraped Bun-bun’s hide and tanned it to gift, or to work into something lovely.

Should I be sad? I am. As Stephen Jenkinson says, “You don’t have to like death, but you do have to befriend it.” I never like it, and I am tearing up and congesting as I read over these words.

Bun-bun would die regardless—by hypothermia or predator or the stew pot or just old age. But I am sad that Bun-bun never knew the taste of fresh clover, or the warmth of sunshine or the joy of leaping.

So, Bun-bun got a tiny shroud of organic cotton. I dug Bun-bun a grave many times deeper than its little body, and laid it carefully on soft sand. Carmen poured it a final meal of milk and sang laments in her ancestor’s language for its short life. I filled the grave in, taking care to pack the soil so Bun-bun would not be dishonoured with soil sinking in an unseemly way. And then we laid rocks in a careful pattern, with big rocks at the cardinal directions and one particular rock in the middle which was just about the same size as Bun-bun itself, though much heavier than that poor, cold little body.

black and white threshold edited

Addendum:

I wrote this post a few months ago, and in our rabbitry some things have changed and some have remained the same.

After Bun-bun died we mated Lucia and Apollo and Lucia bore a litter of six lovely kits. These kits are practically a high-school genetics class, showing the combinations of their black father and piebald mother—one black, one white, three piebald…and one very beautiful light silver.

A couple of weeks after their birth, I found this gorgeous silver bunny dead and stiff out in the run.

So a little more about rabbits…

A few weeks after breeding, we give our doe a nest box and a pile of straw. As she gets close to kindling she begins tearing around with mouthfuls of straw, like a comical moustache. She builds a straw burrow in the box, and as she gets very close to kindling, she pulls the softest hairs from her belly to line the nest. Born blind and hairless but for a light down, this nest keeps the litter warm until they can walk.

The doe will jump into the nest box once or twice a day to nurse the kits. Unfortunately, sometimes a kit will stay latched on the doe’s nipple when she jumps out. Rabbits do not have the instinct to pick the kit up and put it back, so if the kit is too young to find its own way back, it will likely die.

As did this fine silver kit, carried away from the warmth of its litter mates.

As fate would have it, I found it after the Trick or Treaters had all gone home on Hallowe’en.

We were tired, but it was obvious to me that there was no better time to return this little kit to the soil than when the veil between worlds is at its thinnest. So I dug another deep grave near the ash Carmen calls her Grandmother Tree. We wrapped the kit in a clean square of organic cotton from an old sheet that has now provided the shroud for several animals. We sang and drank whiskey.

And then, out of the darkness—Christmas Carols.

I guess a group of people had costumed themselves as carollers, and were singing for their candy. It was eerie and wonderful and hair-raising; I feel quite sure that little silver one was carried safely across.

So, there has been more tears than tastiness in our back yard, but that is how it sometimes must be. I have written a bit about this before, and I frequently struggle to put my feelings into words.

I think if we would like to be “sustainable”, if we would like to find our harmonious place in the order of things, we need to spend a lot more time intimate with the life and death of our kin, both human, and more than human. Raising rabbits is not our dominant source of protein, and it likely costs more in feed than it contributes to the grocery budget. But it very much makes me human.

 

 

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I don’t want salvation.

I watched a deer die this week. It took about ninety seconds, which is a lot longer than I hope for, and the deer fought hard to live. The shock, pain and fear it was experiencing as it struggled against the death spreading from the bullet wound in its chest was not pleasant to watch, but I didn’t turn away.

That was Thursday.

On Wednesday, the Archdruid releases his regular post, and this week he clarified his thoughts on a rising ecological sensibility. I found this paragraph to be particularly resonant:

It’s one thing to proclaim salvation from nature, history, and the human condition to those who want that salvation but no longer believe that the ideology you’re offering can provide it. It’s quite another to [proclaim salvation] to people who no longer want the salvation you’re offering—people for whom nature, history, and the human condition aren’t a trap to escape, as they have been for most people in the western world for the last two millennia, but a reality to embrace in delight and wonder.

This quote draws heavily on a topic Greer has been exploring recently, the Civil Religion of Progress, in which, he argues, Progress has pretty much been swapped point-for-point for God in the Judeo-Christian framework.

If I can paraphrase—Life is Hard. It is uncertain: you never know when your crops will fail, your company will downsize, or the river will flood. There is interpersonal pain: first as a child, then as a teenager going through high school, then trying to find your way as an adult, then coping with the realities of adult and romantic relationships, then death of friends, family and yourself. There is lots of hard work: school and training, the grind in the fields or the office, the maintenance of hearth and home, cooking and cleaning.

So step right up. Who wants salvation?!? We got a lovely god promising eternal life in heaven, reunited with your loved ones and with not a scrap of work to do. We got machines that will eliminate toil and kitchens that will clean themselves and food heated with just the press of a button. We got rocketships to take us off this damn dustball.

And especially, if you are sick or dying or aching with worry for a loved one, we have God’s Plan, or modern medicine, and funeral homes so you don’t need to touch the dead, and hearses so you don’t need to carry the weight of the casket, and backhoes to dump the dirt back in the hole.

So, the goals are the same—salvation from pain and toil—but the ideologies used to achieve those goals are different, theism or progress.

But what if you don’t want to be saved from pain and toil? What if you don’t want to escape the human condition?

I have come to think the desire for salvation from toil is a very big problem. Instead, I am trying to learn to love the work of providing for myself and my family. I don’t mean going to an office and making money to pay someone to do everything for me, I mean growing the food for our table, grinding the grains and baking the bread, brewing the cider. It is repetitive and difficult and capricious, but it feels very real.

Regarding salvation from pain, I have been influenced by Stephen Jenkinson, another wise, bearded man. From The Star:

Formerly a director of children’s grief and palliative care at Mount Sinai Hospital in Toronto, and assistant professor at the University of Toronto’s School of Family and Community Medicine, Jenkinson now makes a living running workshops on care of the dying, dealing with grief, and what he calls deep living.

“Death isn’t something that happens to you. It’s something you do. You get to choose the manner in which you die: the quality of it, the nature of it.”

The National Film Board produced a film about Jenkinson, Griefwalker, which we watched at one of his talks. I don’t remember the film well, as it was sandwiched between several hours of mind-blowing oratory about death and the meaning of words. You can watch it on the NFB website.

And that brings me back to the deer. As Jenkinson says, “We don’t have to like death, who would? But we do have to befriend it.”

I think there is meaning in killing what you eat. Our rabbit tastes all the richer stewed with the difficulty of taking their lives. It is not just the flavour of meat and vegetables, it tastes like connection to the ecosphere. It tastes like I am a little closer to knowing my position on the food chain.

So that deer had the worst two minutes of its life in front of me. Then I helped gut it, and a couple of days later we skinned it and butchered it into various cuts for freezing. But that night we ate the tenderloin, which is cut from inside the haunches, alongside the spine. Carmen pan-roasted it in cast iron, then cut it into medallions and served it with a sauce of jus and chantrelle mushrooms, which came from the same forest as the deer, abundant after the recent rain.

My eyes welled up as I took the first bite. I believe our world would be healthier if we saw ourselves as part of nature, not above it—but abstract thoughts like that are made up of many little specifics, and I felt bad for taking that deer’s life.

I felt bad. I hurt—but I don’t need saving from the human condition.

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The Bacon Life

It is easy to think the Small and Delicious Life is only so delicious because it is spiced with achievement—but independent taste testers agree the greens are crisper, the bacon more flavourful, the bread nuttier. And you get the sweet spice of achievement.

We took a January trip to visit my parents in the Okanagan and enjoyed some serious tobogganing without the headaches of holiday traffic. Along with various other offerings, we brought a chunk of home-cured and smoked bacon, made from Vancouver Island pork belly. We fried it up for breakfast to rave reviews from the family.

But, worried that we would run out of smoky goodness, on the next trip into town C. picked up a packet of bacon—the most expensive bacon at the grocery store. We didn’t need it, so it went into the cooler for the trip home and we had some for breakfast a few days later.

Basically, we are ruined for industrial bacon. The flavour was uninspiring and the texture was unpleasant—like eating a burnt cereal box.

So stop buying bacon and start making your own. You will eat better, spend less time watching television, and save money. Here is how we do it.

P1020701We buy our pork belly from The Village Butcher, where they put some work into finding meat from animals that lived relatively happy lives. One belly is actually just one half of a pig’s belly, and this last one was three and a half kilos. After making a couple of batches I started requesting bellies that are more meat and less fat—I think this last belly came from a Tamworth, which is leaner than a Berkshire. You can ask the butcher to cut the skin off and trim the belly up for you, or you can do all that yourself. I do ask the butcher to cut off the skin, but I would rather cure and smoke everything else, then save the trimmings for soup. I did cure one batch skin-on but the skin lies unused in our freezer, so it depends what you want to do with it.

We follow a recipe from Charcuterie, by Michael Ruhlman—and crosscheck with our other meat-curing bible, Home Production of Quality Meats and Sausages, by Stanley and Adam Marianski.

Charcuterie is more of a recipe and coffee-table book—better for dabblers, while the Marianski book teaches comprehensive principles so the home meatsmith can safely make their own recipes.

Bacon is simple. At the most basic, you need only salt, and liquid smoke for flavour. However, the classic ‘cured-meat flavour’ and the pinkness of bacon is partly from curing with sodium nitrite. If the meat will age for a long time, like salami, sodium nitrate is used; the nitrate is converted to nitrite during aging. Both chemicals come mixed approximately 20:1 with salt for easier measurement and are sold under several names—Pink Salt, Prague Powder, Curing Salt, et c. Nitrite is Cure #1 and nitrate is Cure #2.

We try to avoid chemical agriculture so I did a lot of research on nitrites and nitrates. Some places use things like celery juice to cure bacon ‘naturally’—and apparently celery juice contains enormous amounts of naturally occurring sodium nitrate. So, I use the curing salts

Buy Ruhlman’s book to get the variations on his recipes, but first he would have you mix up a Basic Dry Cure:

  • 450 grams/ 1lb kosher salt
  • 225 grams/ 8 oz. sugar
  • 50 grams/ 2 ounces pink salt (cure #1, nitrite)

Then cut your belly into pieces that will fit into a large ziploc bag—this belly needed three bags. Ruhlman has many ways to add the cure, but the simplest way, as long as your belly weighs between three and five pounds, is just sprinkling 1/4 cup of cure to each piece. Or, you could weigh it all and do the math—add 50 grams Basic Dry Cure for each 2.25 kilos of belly (please see sidenote).

Now get the air out of the bags and seal them. I invented a terribly smart way to get air out of bags without a vacuum sealer, which is to put them in a sink of water until just the open neck of the bag is above water. Zip it shut et voila.

Refrigerate for 7-10 days and flip the bags over every two days to redistribute the salty liquid that forms. The meat is cured when it feels firm, not soft. Poke it when you put it in the fridge and try to remember how soft it felt, then compare a week later.

When the belly is firm, rinse the cure off and let the meat dry on a rack in the fridge for a day. This allows a tacky surface called a pellicle to form, which will help your smoke stick to it.

IMG_0017Before we were given a smoker as a wedding gift, my first smoking was done in a cardboard box. Stalk your neighbourhood on recycling day and find a nice crisp box, about 18” square and two feet long. I found a hotplate at the thrift shop for ten bucks, which goes on the bottom. Put an aluminum pie plate (recycling day) with a cup of dry hickory chips (Canadian Tire, six bucks) on the hot plate.

I happen to have a bunch of 3/16 stainless rod left over from projects I did in the last millennium. It is so useful, I think you should just go buy twenty feet of it. But if you don’t want to, fold a little foil tent to cover the hotplate and pie plate—you don’t want any hot fat dripping on a hotplate inside a cardboard box, now do you?

Maybe this is a good time to say, do this outside? With a fire extinguisher handy? But remember paper burns at Fahrenheit 451, so don’t panic.

Now hang your meat inside the box, with hooks or more of your lovely 3/16 stainless rod. Crank the hotplate up to high and tape the box shut. I had bad luck using masking tape and good luck with packing tape. Smoke for three hours. When the smoke tapers off, you need to cut your box open and add more chips—three cups should do you for three hours. Don’t get too fussy at this stage—your first batch may not be perfect, but it will probably be the best bacon you have ever had.

After three hours take the bacon out and test the internal temperature. It needs to be 65°C/150°F. If it is not, put it in the oven and bring it up to that temp.

Let it cool, then freeze it. Then thaw it a little bit—when the bacon is still a little frozen the fat is easier to cut. Use a very sharp and slender knife, or an electric carving knife (thrift shop, ten bucks) to slice the bacon into rashers. Portion enough for a family breakfast out on sheets of wax paper before freezing again. Keep all the uneven bits for pea soup or rainy days.

Enjoy the Small and Delicious Life!

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anatomy of thriftWe met Andrew Plotsky in a roundabout way—he made a short film about B. for diy.org. Naturally, when we heard he was coming up, we googled him up and watched a bunch of his stuff. I encourage you to do the same, and I encourage you to start with On the Anatomy of Thrift, Farmrun’s series about the philosophy behind Farmstead Meatsmith, a ‘personal abbatoir’ on Vashon Island. They are mesmerizing, inspiring, beautiful and challenging.

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