Top | First Person

Death on the range

(article, Jessica MacMurray Blaine)

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When the steers arrived in June, I climbed one of the rock cribs anchoring the barbed wire around their pasture and watched them graze. One by one I named them, hoping I’d remember the next day which was which. Unfortunately, they were rarely together in one part of the pasture, so it was tough to be sure which one I was naming at any given time. It was also difficult, at age seven, to remember the names I had chosen the day before. I stuck with the easy stuff: Brownie, Brownie II, Whitefeet.

Every year, my parents bought a few steers — sometimes three or four, one year more than a dozen — and let them graze for the summer in the pastures around our house in central Oregon. The scent of juniper and sagebrush filled the air after an occasional summer rain, but generally the skies were clear, the land arid and sparse. 

[%image steer float=right width=300 caption="A steer on the open range." credit="Photo: iStockphoto/rmfox"]

In my family, I was the only one native to this place. Full of post-Peace Corps idealism and adventurous spirit, my parents had moved away from their East Coast roots and set up a life on 25 scrubby acres, planting the vegetable garden, pruning the apple orchard, swimming in the river that meandered through the rocky canyon.

My father was a country lawyer; my mother was the art history department at the community college. Cattle were not our livelihood. We kept them to prevent the pasture from becoming scrubland and to qualify our household as agricultural for tax purposes. My parents had friends — doctors, lawyers, teachers — who would each buy some portion of a steer, to keep in the freezer over the winter for the occasional steak dinner or holiday roast. 

The steers weren’t very attentive pets. They might look up if I yelled, but would rarely budge from their meal, except to stroll to another patch of grass. On the one hand, their slowness and self-absorption relieved my nagging fear of a “Bonanza”-style stampede. On the other hand, they weren’t very engaging, and soon faded into the background of my summer. Every so often, I would climb back up a rock crib, or officiously replace a salt lick, but it wasn’t a 4-H friendship.

Occasionally, from the vegetable garden that bordered the pasture, I’d point one out to my mother.

“That one’s Brownie. I think. It might be Brownie II, but he’s a little taller.”

“You think? I thought that Brownie II was the one with the white belly. Could you get the dog out of the squash, please?” She tucked a stray wisp of dark hair back under the red bandanna on her head, and returned to her weeding. 

As the summer progressed, the cattle grew fatter, while the grass that had been so tall just a few months before was shorn to a carpet. I went back to school, to the rigors of spelling tests and the politics of lunch recess.

At this point, I called all the steers Brownie.

One Saturday morning, as I poked at the sodden Grape-Nuts in my bowl, I heard a loud motor coming down our road. Traffic meant an event. I looked up at my parents. They glanced at each other. My mother took another sip of coffee, eyebrows raised. 

“Sounds like Gary’s here.” My father got up, put his mug in the sink, and went out the kitchen door. 

[%image blaine1 float=left caption="The author and her mother on a friend's ranch in central Oregon." credit="Photo courtesy Jessica MacMurray Blaine"]

“Are you done with that? Not hungry?” my mother asked, as I escaped through the living room to the glassed-in porch that had a clear view of the driveway. 

GARY’S CUSTOM MEATS. The letters on the side of the big white truck that idled at the end of our cinder driveway were a faded red. Line drawings of deer and cattle decorated either side of the word “meats.” My father stood at the driver’s side and pointed to the pasture. The driver pulled up to the gate. 

My father returned down the driveway and, seeing me at the window, came in through the porch door. He sat down on the low woven chair next to the window where I stood, still looking.

“Now, Jesso, these guys have come to take the cows to the butcher.” I knew that, eventually, the animals grazing mindlessly on the other side of the fence would end up in the freezer in the garage, wrapped neatly in white packages and destined for the dinner table. I also had a vague understanding that in order for that to happen, they would have to be killed, butchered, and frozen. But I hadn’t really thought about it until just that moment.

“Will they all fit in that truck? Is he going to take them somewhere else?”

“No, he’s going to shoot them, here in the pasture. Here’s something for you to think about. You know why we keep the cattle, right?”

“Yeah, so we can have hamburgers.”

“Right. I think it’s important for us to realize that we are responsible for the food that we eat. If you’re going to eat beef, you should have the stomach to watch how it gets to the table. In a little bit, I’m going to go out to the driveway and watch them dress out the steers. I think it might be a good idea for you to join me, so you can see the process.”

My mother was leaning against the doorframe, both hands in her pockets. “Only if you want to,” she said to me. “If you feel weird about it, you don’t have to go, okay?” 

“Maybe,” I said, not quite sure what it was I was signing up for. I went into my room, sat on the wood floor, and fidgeted with a book. I could hear my parents’ voices on the other side of the wall.

“She’s too young. I think this might really upset her.”

“Maybe you’re right. But it’s up to her; if she wants to see it, she’ll come out. Will you help me get them over there?”

[%image blaine2 float=right caption="The author and her father." credit="Photo courtesy Jessica MacMurray Blaine"]

I heard them leave. I wandered around my room, sifting through piles of stuffed animals, picking at the peeling paint on the windowsill. I tried to picture what I thought might be in store for the Brownies: heated pursuit, a struggling, gory death. I tried to be horrified. I willed tears. But no matter how hard I thought about it, I wasn’t sad, or horrified, or sick. I was fascinated. Unsure of what I would see, I went outside. 

The pasture here was bordered on two sides by a barbed-wire fence, on one side by the cedar fence that defined our back yard, and on the fourth side by the truck. Between the back of the truck and the cedar fence, there was just enough space for the steers as they were herded in, their eyes on the fresh hay that Gary’s lanky adolescent assistant, Randy, was spreading around. Randy wore a clean white apron over jeans and a black T-shirt. Gary, a thick man sporting an identical apron and bristly, graying hair that stuck out from under his blue-and-white mesh hat, was sitting on the back bumper of the truck loading a long, thin .22 rifle. 

It was an unexpectedly ordinary-looking, lightweight weapon, and it was difficult to believe it could have any impact on our dense, enormous cattle. 

The steers settled into their feast. A few of them came to the alfalfa, close to me; I could hear their breath, damp and slow, their weight shifting from one hoof to another as they ate. The others gathered at the pile of hay, their dirty white foreheads facing the truck. 

Gary stood, walked to the cab of the truck, and raised the rifle, bracing his solid shoulder against the driver’s side mirror. There was a loud, high crack. The tan steer on the far edge of the group crumpled onto his side with a quiet thud. 

The others, who had been sharing the shrinking pile of hay, looked up at Gary with a start. They stared blankly. One jerked his neck up with a shudder, his tail swinging. Then, calmly, they returned to their meal. I was startled by their indifference — and by my own.

My father emerged from the porch behind me, and crossed the yard to where I stood. 

“What do you think?”

“I want to see.” There. I admitted it. At the first crack of the rifle, I had manufactured a dramatic gasp, but it didn’t take. I held my stomach, trying to feel sick, but I simply wasn’t. After all of this time with these animals, trying to manufacture a relationship, the truth of it became suddenly clear. These were animals, they deserved care and attention, but their role in our life was as food. Killing them for food was not an uncomplicated decision, but we’d made it. We were sitting here, on this sunny morning, to bear witness.

My father and I walked to the end of driveway, to the rock crib that served as the corner post of the barbed-wire fence. I climbed up the rocks and sat, a head taller now than my father. We were silent, as the two men on the other side of the fence cut the dead steer’s throat. Hot, dark blood seeped into the ground and dripped down his slack chin. Gary wiped the round-bladed knife on his apron, leaving a brilliant crimson streak across his thigh. I exhaled, my chest tight. 

The two men set up a row of white plastic buckets behind the bleeding animal and brought a tank with an attached hose down from the truck. After a few minutes of bleeding out, they began to take the steer apart in a practiced assembly line. Gary removed the hooves, tail, and head, and placed them in buckets, which Randy covered with fitted lids and returned to the truck. I recognized the buckets; we used the same kind for washing cars, holding dog food, taking out compost.

Using the same round knife, Gary made an incision that ran from the junction of the steer’s back legs to its neck. Carefully, he disconnected steaming organs, putting them in the white buckets on the back of the truck and continually flushing out any remaining blood with hot water from the hose. Gary kneeled next to a stomach — a taut, quivering, milky-white ball that was as big as I was — and made a swift cut down its length, deflating it like a balloon. Wet, still-green grass burst out, looking as if it had just been shaken out of a lawnmower bag. He turned the stomach inside out, shook out the contents, and dropped it, limp, into the bucket at his feet. 

[%image steak float=right caption="The end result." credit="Photo: iStockphoto/YinYang"]

Their once-white aprons accumulated stains: manure, blood, earth. They worked with precision, stopping only to wipe their faces. There was an ethereal quality to the whole process; the ground was steaming, their movements rhythmic and perfected. Eventually, the carcass was lifted by the back legs with an S-hook, cable, and pulley on a boom that swung out from the roof of the kill truck. Empty and headless, the animal swayed upside down as the two men tugged and scraped, separating the hide from layers of fat and muscle. 

After the meat was sprayed down one last time, it was tagged, transferred to a rail on the underside of the truck’s roof, and pulled into its dark interior. Randy labeled the buckets and slid them back, out of sight. He made more tags with his thick black marker: “MacMurray 2,” “MacMurray 3.” 

As Gary reloaded his gun, I turned from my perch on the warm, rough rocks and climbed down. This had not been about pet names, or pastoral visions of farm life; it was bloody, and difficult, and real. And all right. 

p(bio). [ "Jessica MacMurray Blaine"] is a writer based in Crow, Oregon.

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