Last Morsel—When Worlds Collide
HOW DOES A LIBERAL ARTS EDUCATION AFFECT LIFE ON THE FARM?
I butchered three sheep today. What does this mean to me as a man educated in liberal arts at Middlebury?
I had a .32-caliber pistol. I straddled the shoulders of the first sheep, kept its head steady by holding the ears, and then shot it through the skull. What was I thinking?
Strangely, I remembered sitting in Howard Munford’s winter term class on Robert Frost. I remembered feeling sorry for Frost that he couldn’t split a pile of cordwood without waxing metaphysical or cosmic. I wondered how he carried that burden every day.
As I rolled the sheep over, I flashed to the iconic picture from the Associated Press of the South Vietnamese colonel, his arm leveled across the frame of the photo, as he executed a Vietcong suspect. He, too, had a small pistol in his hand.
I actually thought of Joseph Campbell’s premises that the basic question of being human is not, “Who am I?” but rather, “Why does something have to die, in order that something else might live?”
Middlebury has a part in the last two of these reflections. The first takes me back to the national trauma of the Vietnam War and the three-day student strike at the College during the Cambodian bombings. And then to the December night that all the 19-year-olds gathered in Proctor to watch the first draft lottery on television.
The second reflection places me in the folklore class of Horace Beck, and then in his office as he reviewed my senior thesis, which was based on interviews with people who had grown up on isolated farms way back in the hills surrounding Ripton and Bread Loaf.
As I open the belly of the sheep with my knife, I imagine a Vermont hill farmer predicting the coming winter based on the size of the spleen. Or a Greek shepherd bringing a lamb to the oracle at Delphi, seeking a vision of the world beyond as the organs sputter and smoke on the altar.
I cut around the genitals, and the scene from Light in August when the posse castrates the body of Joe Christmas, is suddenly visceral and tactile. Then I imagine myself bent over another slaughtered carcass in the stockyards of The Jungle. My hands are covered in blood.
I wash out the empty cavity with a hose (I am reminded of The Death of the Ball Turret Gunner by Randall Jarrell). I wonder if the hillside where I live once saw flocks of sheep in the decades of the late 1800s, when sheep were the principal animal roaming the pastures of the Northeast Kingdom (Vermont history with Professor Jacobs).
Has a liberal arts education prepared me for such complex acts of life…and death? My liberal arts education suspends me between the abstract world and the real world—not unlike the Greek shepherd. As an educated man, do I carry out this act at a deeper level? Maybe. Do I say a prayer over the sheep, as did the Hebrew Abraham, or as lshi, the Yahi Indian? No.
As I begin to peel back the fleece, the white muscle sheath crackles, I am inclined to think that I, like Macbeth, like all of us, “am, in blood stepped in so far…that returning were as tedious as go o’er” (Professor Cubeta’s Shakespeare class).
The act of sacrifice is an essential act of living. And yet, does my education connect me to this common human experience, or does it reveal the detachment I have achieved as an educated man?
Gary Johnson, Middlebury class of 1973, lives in Irasburg, Vermont.
This essay originally appeared in the Spring 2009 issue of Middlebury Magazine.
Reprinted with permission.
Illustration by Alexandru Petre