“Are you ready to dive in at the deep end…?” Chris asked.
“Sure!” I replied, completely oblivious as to what he was talking about.
“Great!” he said. “Let’s go peel a deer!”
So began my meeting with Chris and Dave from the Four Feathers Rural Courses team in Wiltshire and Louise Gray, who was was in the middle of her year of only eating animals she had killed herself. I was going to illustrate the resulting book, and when we arranged to meet up and camp with the lovely Four Feathers guys, I should have been a bit more conscious of what that might mean…
Luckily, at a dinner party the week before my mum had been telling one of the ever funny “and then Sam fainted” family stories when a nurse friend explained that I was probably holding my breath at vital moments. So when I found myself in a meat locker with a dismembered deer that Louise was learning to skin, I breathed a lot, and amazingly for a squeamish veggie, I didn’t pass out.
I managed to get to a scientific observer space in my head and take a step back from the emotional side of the dead animal see it more as a structure of skin and muscles. It’s not a space I often hang out in, either physically or philosophically, but it was interesting. I did some sketching and took photos of Louise at work, and sat outside in the fresh air afterwards drinking sugary tea to ease the shakes. I was very glad when dinner was a vegan-friendly stew made over the campfire.
After the skinning lesson, we went into the woods to set up camp, and Chris and Dave taught Louise some tracking skills, including how to walk making almost no sound at all and dropping in height to pretty much combat crawling on the forest floor. It was gorgeous to see these skills in action, because you could apply them to any moment when you wanted to move through an animal’s habitat without disturbing them and it would help you take wonderful photos.
We sat and chatted as the stew cooked, talking about Louise’s experiences so far (a squirrel and quite a lot of fish) and pondering the situation for meat eaters in the UK . We discussed how things are becoming increasingly industrialised in farming on one hand, in order to turn any kind of profit, and on the other side more local farm shops and ‘ethical consumers’; owning their own chickens and being able to clearly source their meat. A great example is the other part of the Four Feathers business which is the Ginger Piggery, selling high quality meat from handsome ginger pigs that some people adore but which people who are used to more processed supermarket meat might find unpalatable.
Our relationship with animals is something that fascinates me and I’ve been thinking about it for a long time. I am definitely a gatherer rather than a hunter and I don’t eat meat pretty much because I know I could not kill an animal myself, but it was fascinating to spend time with some people with experience of the other side.* And it brought home that it goes a bit further for me too – I couldn’t stop comparing the anatomy of the deer to my own, feeling the similarities and wondering how you would go about butchering me. Part of me going veggie at age 11 was the empathy I felt with animals, and I couldn’t eat meat any more once I understood where it came from and putting myself in the shoes (so to speak) of other animals.
It was such an interesting and and thought provoking adventure and a pleasure to go camping with some real outdoor experts who love what they do (my sleeping bag has never been so well packed down into it’s little sack!).
The next day, I went to watch Louise hone her shooting skills.
I am so proud to be part of Louise’s remarkable and brave project. The Ethical Carnivore is a must read for an overview of the farming and meat-eating industry, as well as a beautiful, personal exploration of what it means to take another animal’s life.
*we didn’t talk about hunting as ‘sport’, it was more about hunting to eat and population management.