My First Blood

I’m watching a cat drink out of a bowl of blood.

Apparently, cats love the taste of blood. Maybe this should be obvious. Cats are predators; they’re technically not even domesticated. A cat digs into a freshly killed rodent because it likes it, not just because it has to.

Still, as I see the fur around the cat’s mouth stain red, I realize I haven’t thought about this before. Why didn’t I know that?

I’m learning a lot of things today.

A few minutes ago, I was taught how to slaughter a lamb, which is the source of the blood. The lamb’s carcass, still fresh on the table, is leaking bodily fluids out of both ends onto the concrete floor. Blood is still dripping out of its neck into a bowl, where the cat waits to lap it up. It’s red, poppy-red, so bright it seems fake.

I’m starting to feel like I’m hallucinating.

I’m playing at butcher as a sort of cultural experience. This is not without some irony. By the time my grandfather was my age, he had killed countless chickens; when you grow up as a sharecropper, it’s an essential skill. He showed me how to do it once, miming instead of using a live bird. You grab the chicken by the neck and twist sharply, until you snap the vertebrae. Today, he goes to Walmart to buy Vienna sausages, and his granddaughter has to travel over five thousand miles to see something he would’ve considered standard. Progress, I guess.

I’m doing a backpacking expedition in Chilean Patagonia with an outdoor education program. My group mostly consists of the kind of American and European teens who are disaffected enough to disappear into the woods for over a month, but wealthy enough to do it on another continent. For the majority of us, this is part of a gap year or semester off. The exception is the lone Chilean student, who needs to take this trip to qualify as a tour guide in Torres del Paine.

Patagonia has a special appeal for the outdoor-minded. The climate has always been too harsh for large-scale agriculture or development — it’s mountainous, infertile, and as cold as Alaska. Ongoing assaults of earthquakes, wind, and ice have carved out an army of looming, jagged peaks. Many of the ranchers who lived here are gone, lured away by jobs in tourism and homes in larger cities. Pumas have eaten the horses and cows they left behind. In their stead, the Chilean government created a system of national parks covering nearly ten million acres of land.

Currently, I’m not in school because my body has decided that I need a break. By senior year, the pressure cooker of my high school had shredded my nerves along with any desire to do academic work. The thought of enduring college had become almost unbearable. Upon graduation, sensing that I might be fragile enough to crack like an egg, my parents let me take some time off.

I’m similar to many in this group in that I might be a failure. Most of us are the children of middle and upper-class professionals whose trajectories we have deferred from, sometimes to their sharp disappointment. We each internalize this differently. Only I and a quiet Canadian girl, whose rugby career was abruptly cut short by an injury, seem to have the acute sense that our lives have fallen out of alignment. The rest, to varying degrees, have co-opted this and transformed it into a point of pride. The absence of education, of jobs, of plans, is a sign of moral fortitude. They can turn their lives into a series of adventures instead — of which this is one.

There is a universe where I probably would view it that way, assuming a few of my essential characteristics were changed. I immediately notice that I’m the only black person in this group. I’m also one of only a few girls. On our first night, we sleep in tents segregated by gender: one for the girls, three for the boys. Perhaps if I were different, I would have the freedom some of these boys seem to possess; they walk like where they step doesn’t matter. I, meanwhile, have been raised to ward against the danger of mistakes.

In my head, I call them American Boys, though they’re not all American. Still, they embody something particular about our national character. It’s not just their whiteness, their maleness, or their physical strength, though those certainly are factors. It might be how unburdened they are. I sense that these are people who, unlike me, are not persistently aware of their vulnerabilities. I’m unsure if this feeling of mortality is more attributable to my background or my anxiety. They’re probably related.

Our trip is thirty days long, starting and ending at the program’s base, which is also a fully-functioning farm. In the intervening period, we live out of our packs, bushwhacking and kayaking around the Pacific coast. Upon our return, the farm’s butcher, Sebastian, asks us to help kill the lamb. It’s for a traditional Patagonian-style barbecue, meant to celebrate the completion of our trip. Like most of the kids in this group, I’ve eaten plenty of meat, but I’ve never really seen anything die before. Truthfully, the anticipation of what I’m about to see makes me a little nervous.

“Don’t worry,” one of our instructors, Carolina, a slight Chilean woman, says. “It’ll be quick. It won’t even feel it.”

I believe her. I agree to help.

***

When you’re an American, you can make the inconvenient invisible.

It’s almost implied by what we call ourselves: “Americans”, as if there aren’t 34 other countries in the Americas. Our dominance takes the form of ignoring other people’s existence. Felipe and Carolina, our Chilean instructors, take great pains to point this out. They call us “U.S.A.-ans”. This moniker never really catches on in our group.

The American food system benefits greatly from our ignorance. We don’t know the basic facts of where our food comes from, probably because a separation between us and the things we eat is important for maintaining our sense of ourselves as moral people. Contained animal feeding operations and fields tended by migrant workers are not pleasant to envision. Fortunately, we aren’t reminded of these things at the grocery store.

Our power shields us from the truth. It starts at the beginning — in America, farming means ownership. From our nation’s inception, a number of those who we’ve labeled “farmers” have rarely done much planting or harvesting; that’s left to the people whose labor they’ve bought. Thomas Jefferson, foundational in our country’s mythmaking, called himself a farmer. He also had over 600 slaves.

My family used to be the kind of people who were owned by other people. Until very recently, we were not Americans, even though we were brought here almost four hundred years ago. To this day, “American” is probably the last identifier my granddad would use to describe himself. He’s a Christian, a black man, even a veteran. He is not, in his mind, an American.

Granddad was born a sharecropper, which is to say, a slave. Sharecropping was an arrangement in which wealthy white landowners “rented” plots of land to poor, often black, families. They paid back their debt by cultivating the land, giving almost everything they produced to their landlords. Often, when their output was tallied, families would mysteriously wind up with more debt than they’d had the previous year. If sharecroppers tried to complain, or worst of all, unionize, they would be hung from trees. In this way, an ostensibly temporary arrangement could last for generations.

While the rest of the country started to eat pre-butchered meat from industrial slaughterhouses, Granddad’s family got what their landlord, Mr. Beasly, didn’t steal. Sometimes, this was one chicken for over a dozen mouths. To this day, whenever my grandfather eats meat, he gives thanks for what he calls “the blessing of the flesh”. He thanks the animal for giving up its life force because he understands its value. Even as he lives through an era of artificial abundance, he still believes meat is a luxury.

The ceremony of eating meat, as in a celebratory Patagonian barbecue, is rooted in scarcity. I suspect that the significance of such an event is lost on people who have always lived like they’d never be hungry.

***

I realize quickly that lambs know when they’re going to die.

We stand in front of their pen and pick one out, and then two boys from the group go retrieve the animal. They are the only ones strong enough to carry it, since lambs, as it turns out, are not small. When they enter, the lambs panic, backing away until they’ve coalesced into a formless blob of wool and jittery knees in a corner. They bleat in terror as the boys approach, each one fighting to recede into the mass. Eventually, the boys get too close and the bubble bursts like a spider’s egg sack, lambs scattering across the pen.

I watch from outside the pen and I think about dodo birds. When they lived on Earth, they didn’t fear us. They had no predators, so when approached by humans, they didn’t flee, and that was the beginning of their end. If the lambs are afraid, I reason, they know what’s coming.

The selected lamb fights back, bucking when the boys try to lay hands on it. It isn’t enough. Eventually, the boys catch it, grabbing its legs so that it can’t run. It writhes for a few moments, trying to break free, and then abruptly goes still.

They carry it into a shed near the pen — a mini-slaughterhouse. The smell is suffering: sweat and urine and the metallic tang of blood. In the center of the shed, there is a table on which the lamb is tied down. It quivers, but otherwise does not move. Sebastian places a bowl on the ground, just beneath its head.

Sebastian draws the knife — a surprisingly short, blunt blade — and the lamb flails wildly, or as much as it can while tied down. It knows, just as well as I know, what the knife means. It manages one bleat before Sebastian’s hands clamps its mouth shut. Its eyes are wide, rolling around in terror. He cradles the lamb’s head and quickly slices its neck open. Blood pours out into the waiting bowl.

The cat arrives. It has been lingering in the corner, flicking its tail in anticipation.

At this point, two of the girls in the group, who were previously watching, leave the room. One of them looks like she’s going to be sick; the other’s lips are pressed so tightly together that they’re colorless. The first one, I recall, has recently been complaining about how much she missed Chick-fil-A.

I don’t want to be in the shed. The stench of the lamb, I am convinced, will linger on me forever. I want to take a shower so that it won’t stain my skin. I briefly contemplate leaving, but then I glance up at the American Boys. Two of them are smirking. I stay, but it’s getting harder to breathe.

***

Here is the great irony of Patagonian tourism: the same forces that preserve this place will eventually destroy it.

Patagonia is extremely popular among the world’s wealthy, a fact that is immediately obvious. In thirty days in the backcountry, we encounter one human settlement: a half-finished geodesic dome on the far side of a fjord. It’s likely owned by the richest man in Chile, Julio Ponce Lerou, a former son-in-law of Pinochet, who has bought large swaths of land in the area.

Maybe he’s building the house to escape people who hate him. His wealth comes from a mining industry that is infamous for destroying ecosystems and poisoning water, causing some public ire. The only way to reach the house is by a two-hour long boat ride, combined with a six-hour long hike — or a helicopter.

Interestingly, you can’t find the location of the house on a map, at least not a physical one. It sits in a fjord formed by a branch of the Southern Ice Field, which is rapidly receding. The last time it was surveyed, around World War II, it was still covered by a glacier.

Patagonia’s crowning asset — its ice — is disappearing. Its glaciers are melting remarkably fast, partially because there’s a hole in the ozone right above it. Its visitors, who come here to admire it, are often the kind of people whose carbon-emitting trips and over-consumptive lifestyles kill a planet. But maybe this doesn’t mean much to them.

One of the particularly cruel aspects of climate change is its fundamental inequity. The parts of the world that are warming the fastest, or are most vulnerable to natural disasters or droughts, are disproportionately in the Global South. These regions also produce vastly fewer emissions than the Global North. So, the drivers of climate change will never experience the worst of its effects.

We have come to Patagonia to see its beauty before it's all gone. Our presence is also part of the reason why that beauty is vanishing. We’re like thieves, stealing pieces of this place until there’s nothing left.

Our instructors, Felipe and Carolina, seem painfully aware of this. Their salaries require them to spend most of the year in the field. So, unlike us, they are not voyeurs in this place — it’s their home. Probably as a result, they seem to have internalized the cost of their lifestyle. If climate change is the result of our collective consumption, then each of us is responsible. In light of this, Felipe and Carolina don’t buy new things, don’t eat meat, and rarely travel. They want to live without impact.

I think they might be on a mission to change us, too. While we’re here, they announce on the first day, we will Leave No Trace. We will act like we want to erase our existence. Unfortunately, we are never very good at this; throughout the trip, we trample endangered plant species, accidentally spill soap into sensitive freshwater environments, and secretly dump our food waste onto the forest floor.

Maybe Leave No Trace requires more significant unlearning than Felipe and Carolina imagined. American thought isn’t predicated on such ideas of limitation and restraint. As a culture, we rarely challenge the notion that Americans should take what they want.

In the mid-20th century, amidst genuine environmentalism, corporations that produced disposable packaging began to fund anti-littering campaigns. Instead of questioning the underlying logic of making things you can only use once, they encourage us to “properly” dispose of our waste so that it doesn’t dirty our community parks. In many places, Earth Day is now synonymous with cleanups — as if the carbon emissions of a plastic bottle are offset when you put it in a trashcan. In reality, our waste is just put somewhere else, usually shipped to developing countries or piled together in undesirable neighborhoods.

In America, conservation is when you make a mess and then force someone else to clean it up.

***

I’m wondering why the lamb isn’t dead yet.

It’s been minutes and it’s still staring at me, or at least it feels that way. I’m so unnerved that I involuntarily step back out of its sight. Its stomach is still rising and falling, ever so slightly. The blood fills the bowl and then overflows, spilling out and into a drain in the floor.

I can’t move. In my mind, I chant, this is natural this is natural this is natural, and hope that the repetition makes it true. This is how my ancestors lived.

That fact seems to be mocking me at this moment. My mother always wanted to send me back to Arkansas. She thinks I’m too sheltered. “You don’t know how lucky you are,” she sometimes mutters. “When your grandparents were your age...”

There’s a part of me that understands that this needs to be done, that this has always been done. In many ways, this is probably the most ethical way to eat meat. But another part wants to leave. Something about this feels out of context, its meaning distorted. We aren’t slaughtering this animal because we need to; we’re doing it because we want to see what it looks like. Still, my feet remain planted.

I notice that even without thinking, I have been holding myself extremely still. My spine is so straight that it has begun to hurt. It reminds me of a bear encounter I once had, when I was alone in the woods and my screams would have been swallowed by vegetation. I remember thinking that the bear was so large that my head could fit comfortably in its mouth. I was still then too, trying desperately to make myself invisible, convinced that if I moved the bear would realize that I was something it could devour. We stared at each other for what was probably a second, but felt like hours. Then it lumbered back into the forest, and I ran as fast as I could to the nearest road.

So, perhaps I remain out of fear. The departure of the other girls meant that the group is now overwhelmingly male. Looking at the expressions of the American Boys around me, which range between impassive and smirking, I have the sudden conviction that to register any discomfort would be dangerous. If the word “empathy” literally means to be “in feeling” with another, then expressing what I feel would be an admission of identification with the lamb, a marker of myself as potential prey. I don’t want to be eaten. I stay where I am.

All of this, I think, is meant to be a lesson on the cost of things. But I am unsure of what this means for us, who will never really have to pay for anything. It strikes me that there aren’t very many consequences for someone like me. I look again at the American Boys, who only seem to register this as a performance. There are even fewer consequences for people like them.

A milky film forms over the lamb’s eyes, and I know that it is finally dead. I exhale slowly, releasing the air in my throat. I’m glad it's not looking at me anymore. Its gaze seemed like an accusation.

***

In September 1973, the United States government, under the front of the Chilean military, overthrew the country’s democratically-elected president, Salvador Allende. They replaced him with Augusto Pinochet, a right-wing dictator who killed thousands and tortured ten times more, but fortunately was not a socialist. Most Americans are unaware of this, probably because the U.S. government covered it up for over twenty years.

A decade earlier, Granddad was entangled in another of America’s interventions to liberate people of color from self-governance, this time in Vietnam. It was the military or sharecropping, and he picked the former. Death in a jungle, or death in a cotton field. He calls this a choice.

Currently, Granddad’s body is slowly decaying. He uses a walker and his hands tremble involuntarily every time he raises them, the result of rheumatoid arthritis. He has a number of health problems tied to Agent Orange exposure in Vietnam that the V.A. will not recognize, because when the majority of the sufferers are old, poor or foreign, it’s not a priority.

Granddad was one of the oldest of 18 children, and so his absence didn’t mean much for the family’s harvest. But when his younger brother, Lionel, tried to leave for high school, he was met by Mr. Beasly, their landlord. Mr. Beasly pointed a gun in Lionel’s face and told him that it was the fields or a bullet. He chose the fields.

Lionel is one among a faction of my relatives who are highly invested in my academic success, and who I probably disappointed by taking a gap year. Truth be told, we don’t know each other very well. I suspect that I am more of a symbol than a person to him. A few months ago, on a trip back to Arkansas, he ran into Mr. Beasly’s daughter. Apparently, she and her husband are now unemployed and on the verge of bankruptcy. They might lose their house — her father’s house. He recounts this with something like glee. “I wanted to tell her,” he says, grinning, “You’re broke, and I got a niece going to Harvard!”

My other grandfather, the son of industrious Scots, also went to Harvard. He is an excellent American Boy. One of his professors there was Louis Fieser, the inventor of Vietnam’s other predominant chemical: Napalm. Napalm was developed in Harvard labs specifically for killing. It was originally intended to set Japan on fire, though it’s most famous for burning whole swathes of jungle in Southeast Asia, including the people inside it. Fieser later remarked, “I have no right to judge the morality of Napalm just because I created it.”

“You know, he was the nicest guy,” my American grandfather says, contemplative. “You’d never know he’d made a thing like that.”

One grandfather had to drop Napalm out of planes, the other got to chat with its creator. Some kinds of people are always at the mercy of the decisions of others. When Lionel looks at me, he sees someone with the power to make those choices. He sees an American.

***

Sebastian cuts along the skin of the lamb’s underbelly, just deep enough to puncture the layer of wool, and forces his fist in between its pelt and its stomach, separating the two. This, he explains, is how the animal is skinned. He looks at me, smiles, and steps back, inviting me to continue his work.

The eyes of the others are on me. I step forward and hesitate for a moment, but then I remember my audience. I shove my hands inside the gap Sebastian has already made, slowly pulling the two layers apart. It is unsettlingly warm. One of the American Boys hoots. The message is clear: you’ve passed a test. When I pull my hands out, they are sticky.

Eventually, when the lamb is sufficiently skinned, Sebastian cuts it open and pulls its organs out, discarding them on the floor. “We don’t waste here,” he says. As if cued, the cat abandons the blood to nibble on the gallbladder.

Sebastian strings up the carcass so that the fluids can drain and we leave the shed. The fresh air is startling. “I’m glad that he was so respectful with the animal,” one of the boys says to me as we walk up the grassy hill towards the farmhouse. I pretend I haven’t heard. I don’t say what I’m thinking: the lamb didn’t give a shit if we respected it when we killed it.

Later, the lamb is served for dinner. It is a great success. Everyone eats it, including the girls who left the shed. Including me. The only exceptions are Felipe and Carolina, who are both vegans. As I chew on the meat, I contemplate my weakness. Fucking conformist, I hiss. You’d do anything to blend in.

But I was just trying to survive, I whimper.

Maybe that’s not quite true, though. Survival is different from the path of least resistance. I make a mental tally of the major actions of my life; did I do them because I had to, or because I wanted to? I wanted to, I realize. The thought is unpleasant. I’m in Patagonia because I want to be. I’m going to Harvard because I want to. I have been taking and taking and taking my whole life, mostly just because I can.

I wipe my greasy fingers on a paper napkin and stare out the window of the dining room to the glaciers in the distance. The sun has just begun to dip behind the horizon, turning the sky a pale pink. I’m trying to memorize this view, because I know I probably won’t see it again. In a few days, I will fly two hours to Santiago, and then eleven hours back home to New York. These flights will help kill this place. I wonder, if I do return, whether the ice will still be here. It seems unlikely.

Over our meal, we talk about a lot of things that don’t matter. One girl misses the fried chicken place in the Denver airport. Another of the boys discusses his next adventure: scuba-diving and spearfishing in the Seychelles. I wonder if they know how they sound.

***

A few months later, I’m on a train from New York to New Orleans to visit part of my family. The train ride is 36 hours, criss-crossing sections of the country that I have no real relationship with but, I suppose, could be considered an ancestral homeland. In spring, the Southeast becomes dense and green with vegetation. After Virginia, the landscape is almost indistinguishable, creating the odd sensation of a divorce between time and motion; the hours pass, and we don’t seem to be going anywhere.

I could’ve taken a plane with my parents, but instead I’m in the coach class of an Amtrak. This, I told them, is part of an effort to live more sustainably. In reality, it’s less altruistic than that. I’m attempting to cure myself of the feeling that I might be a bad person. I now walk most places, and if I can’t then I take the train. I’ve been much more careful with the things I buy. Soon, I’ll stop eating meat.

I still remember the lamb. It mostly appears in my dreams, which have become increasingly vivid. Often, they’re about the various ways I might die; drowned in a flood, eaten by a puma, cut open by a butcher. Guilt, I’ve found, pairs poorly with anxiety.