Deep in Barnardsville, in a long, oval-shaped valley, Natalie Bogwalker sits among a dozen deer hides stacked like rugs in her outdoor kitchen. Munching on wild-foraged chestnuts from an iron skillet, she tells me that the deerskins were given to her by hunters, and that she’s dried and tanned each by hand. In the kitchen, garlic hangs from the ceiling in braids, and the counters are covered with Mason jars filled with freshly pressed cider and applesauce. Despite the cool morning breeze that flows in, the space is warm and rich with a sweet and nutty smell.
This is Wild Abundance, a place where Bogwalker hosts permaculture classes throughout the four seasons, cultivating her land in order to live off it as much as possible while teaching people how to sustain and create self-sufficiency in their own lives.
On Saturday and Sunday, Nov. 7-8, Bogwalker will open her land and kitchen for a two-day workshop called The Cycles of Life: Humane Slaughtering and Butchering. The goal of the class is to teach people to “face the death and sacrifice that’s necessary to sustain us, while honoring the animal, using the whole animal and giving thanks to the animal.”
Slowly peeling a chestnut from its hull, Bogwalker looks into the misty mountains that surround her land and says, “If you’re going to eat meat, I think it’s really important to take responsibility for the suffering that goes into it [while] embracing the fact that we’re omnivores and understanding the depth of that.
“I think that humans evolved with a very strong connection to food, whether that came from the wild, a garden or an animal,” she continues, “and if we are disconnected from our food and where our sustenance comes from, it’s a very dangerous thing for humanity.”
Bogwalker was vegan for 17 years. Now, 12 years after switching to an omnivorous diet, Bogwalker has become the unofficial butcher for her rural neighborhood, processing animals that farmers are reluctant to slaughter themselves. “It’s hard to raise an animal and then be the one to kill it,” says Bogwalker. “You get really attached, so I can come in and almost be a midwife for the death for those animals.”
She does so with years of experience behind her. She started by experimenting with roadkill. With her former partner, an avid deer hunter, she learned to butcher, process and preserve meat. She learned to tan hides and turn bone into tools for scraping fresh hide. Nothing is wasted, and even deer fur finds its place as mulch in the garden beds. “They don’t come near my land,” she says, admiring her vibrant green garden, untouched by critters. “They can smell it, and they stay away.”
The act of butchering has become a deeply powerful practice for Bogwalker. “I’ve developed this very spiritual relationship with the animals that I take the lives of, and that’s something I encourage with the students in the class, to really understand the depth of what they’re doing, and that taking life [for our sustenance] is not necessarily wrong. Actively engaging with the repercussions of our choices is something that I’m really into. There is suffering that goes into meeting our needs, and [we should not] hide from that but rather feel a deep appreciation for the life that feeds us.”
The two-day workshop will begin by getting to know the animal, says Bogwalker. Then, “there is some ceremony around the death process.” Students will pray together before the sacrifice, and then the sheep is fed water, an offering for it to take into the next life.
Bogwalker will then take its life by slitting its throat. The sheep will be gutted and its organs placed on ice. The animal will be hung in the kitchen, where the group will gather to discuss knife sharpening.
Everyone present will help skin and quarter the animal. A leg of the sheep will be cured. Preservation techniques like making sausage and salami will be discussed, along with hide-tanning practices (there is a whole three-day workshop devoted just to hide-tanning Nov. 13-15). The sheep’s brain will be made into a tanning solution with olive oil or rendered fat and warm water, which will be used as a rub for the membrane side of the sheepskin.
Assisting Bogwalker is Josephine Bloomfield, a current apprentice at Wild Abundance. Bloomfield was a vegan for years and worked in San Francisco with an animal welfare nonprofit called Maddie’s Fund. She butchered her first sheep in June after joining Bogwalker in the valley. “Coming from my animal welfare background, it was a huge edge for me,” says Bloomfield. “You know, it’s difficult, and I think that if people had to butcher their own animals for food, a lot less people would eat meat, because it’s a big deal.”
Of eating meat in general, Bloomfield says, “It’s really easy to put blinders up about where our meat comes from, and factory farms are pretty terrible places.”
When she kills an animal herself, Bloomfield steps outside of a system she doesn’t believe in and faces the reality before her. “If I’m going to eat this animal, it means that this animal has to sacrifice its life for me. So the way I can honor this animal is by treating her kindly while I butcher her, using every part of her, respecting every part of her and then using the energy I’m getting from her to share with other people about respecting the land and animals.”
For Bogwalker, it’s also about empowering people to be self-sufficient in all ways. “I want everyone who leaves this class to feel capable of going through the process of slaughtering and butchering a small animal, a goat or a sheep or a deer themselves. For me, the process of taking life and using all parts of the animal has really given me a much deeper connection to being human. I am another animal in the web of life, rather than a cog in an industrial machine. Getting in touch with the death necessary to sustain us is helping to preserve our humanity.”