Recently, in an antique store in rural Virginia, I came across the Foxfire books, a high-school class project that turned into an epic publishing and oral history enterprise. Now celebrating its 45th anniversary, this series of back-to-the-land classics teaches everything from how to build a log cabin to the curative properties of dog saliva to the rudiments of hog slaughter. In Foxfire 3, I found a recipe for apple butter illustrated with photos of some of the Georgia Appalachians whose skills the Foxfire books recorded. A woman in curlers pours the contents of a battered tin pot into a jar. A hunched woman in a leisure suit and a gray pouf dumps five pounds of sugar into a vat boiling over an open flame. Nearby, an equally hunched man with roughened, wrinkled skin plays the banjo.
But where were the cute twentysomething women in aprons holding colorful Fiestaware bowls full of apples? Where was the luscious shot of apple butter spread across thick slices of home-baked bread and arranged on a vintage china plate?
Mr. and Mrs. Brooks, the aged keepers of the Foxfire apple butter recipe, were the faces of self-sufficiency as it was lived in the previous century. Today, among others, we have the Pioneer Woman, who blogs about her life on an Oklahoma ranch with professional-quality photos; Susan Orlean writing in The New Yorker about her chartreuse designer-built chicken coop; and Kate Payne of the aspirational DIY lifestyle blog Hip Girl’s Guide to Homemaking. All of them, in their photos at least, energetic, fulfilled, glowing with health and vitality. Not a hunched back or callused palm in sight.
Thus the paradox of the modern DIY movement. Farmers have gone from 20 percent to 2 percent of the American workforce since World War II, and 80 percent of Americans now live in cities. Modern Americans may yearn for simplicity and self-sufficiency, but they’re much less familiar with the gritty realities of rural life than even 45 years ago, when more city dwellers knew or were related to farmers. The result is that today’s back-to-the-landers, whether suburban chicken fanciers, serious urban foragers, or just obsessive locavores, have much farther to go before they can even get back to the land. Along the way, they’re learning lessons like: Test the soil for poisonous heavy metals before you farm for food in Detroit. Place your beehives far away from the maraschino cherry factory. And most of all, it seems: Make sure you’re ready before you slaughter your first rabbit.
In the Foxfire books, livestock animals are killed with little ceremony. Slaughtering a hog? Use “a sharp blow on the back of the head with a rock or axe head,” or just shoot it between the eyes. Then slice the jugular to bleed it out before it can be skinned and butchered. As one old-timer described it, “Stick’im right in th’goozle’ere.”
Compare that with an account of a first-time rabbit slaughter written recently on the online forum BackYardHerds.com. The author began by pinning the rabbit’s neck under the handle of a broom, trying to hold its body steady as it thrashed. Then she grabbed its hind legs and jerked upward to snap the vertebra and sever the carotid artery.
It didn’t work. “When I picked him back up he was breathing funny and obviously still alive,” she wrote. So she started bashing the rabbit in the back of the neck with a hammer. The rabbit clung to life. Finally the writer called her husband, who took up the hammer and killed the rabbit.
The experience left her deeply shaken. “For 2 months I have been very matter-of-fact about the idea of these rabbits being a food-source. I have even enjoyed the shocked looks on the faces of friends and family when I tell them I will be doing the slaughtering,” she wrote. “But the idea that he may have suffered by my naive, newbie hand ... that makes me want to cry.”
The trauma of the first kill echoes around BackYardHerds and its sister site for chicken-keepers, BackyardChickens.com. Squeamish would-be chicken dispatchers suggest administering herbal muscle relaxants, bonking the chicken on the head with a board, gassing the chicken with CO2, covering its head with a sock to avoid eye contact, or hiring someone off Craigslist to kill it for you. Some of those who succeed are left sickened. “Going to go drink some wine until their eyes stop haunting me,” wrote one poster immediately after the slaughter.
These unsettled DIYers are operating in a particularly weird moral environment, caught between ideal and reality. On the one hand, there’s the locavore lust for authenticity that promises that slaughtering your own food will be an adventure in self-discovery. On the other hand, we have developed a complex ethical and emotional connection with animals that makes us really uncomfortable with their pain, even if we tell ourselves it’s less than if the animal had spent its life in a factory farm.