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Where the butterfly lands

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José Miranda drains the meat with Ayla witnessing the process, embracing a hen. Photo by Paula Mayer.

José Miranda drains the meat with Ayla witnessing the process, embracing a hen. Photo by Paula Mayer.

Erin Cuseo, Ayla's mother and a devoted agricultor, teaches her children the wonderful and sometimes sad realities of food production. Photo by Paula Mayer.

Erin Cuseo, Ayla’s mother and a devoted agricultor, teaches her children the wonderful and sometimes sad realities of food production. Photo by Paula Mayer.

Ayla woke knowing that today they would slaughter Brown Boy, a heritage pig on their farm. She is not your typical modern child, with soccer practice, piano lessons and a Labrador retriever. She is fiercely independent, able to advocate for herself already. And she doesn’t eat meat anymore.
“I don’t really like the way it tastes,” she says. “Or the texture of it, really.”
“What about bacon?” I ask.
“Oh, I used to, but not so much any more,” she answers.
Until the age of two and a half, Ayla free-ranged what her dad Mike describes as “a verdant forest on the banks of a river” in the northwest. She passed her days with her mom, Erin, who gardened all day, growing vegetables, fruits and herbs. Back in the Roaring Fork Valley, Mom has made a name for herself as a small-business farmer, expanding into laying hens and heritage pigs. Erin produces value-added farm goods, drying and canning produce. Using her partner José’s water buffalo milk, she makes bar shampoo, dish soap (no plastic containers) and body soaps. José makes cheese, yogurt and luscious gelatos. They harvest and thresh their own grain. Ephemera naturae fill their home — skulls, unusual autumn husks, wings, bundled herbs, curing winter squash.
This quality of life extends to Brown Boy, his mama, and siblings. Most of the summer, the pigs rooted and feasted on invasive thistle, preparing a new vegetable field. Farm compost filled their tummies. Friends brought crop remains and fruit tree harvests all summer and fall. Brown Boy had fresh water, spent grain and shelter from the weather. Currently, the pigs are turning ground near a historic cabin which, with the cottonwoods, willows, wild roses and an ancient apricot tree, provides a winter windbreak. The aroma rising from their penned area is fresh and sweet; Carbondale’s leaves and fall trimmings compost with vegetarian pig manure.
Ayla stands on their shelter roof as Erin and José gather Brown Boy. Her face is solemn, absorbing today’s task. The gray day and rotting snow match her disposition, but she understands. She hops down to gather her favorite young chicken, tucking her in the crook of her arm, doll-like.
I follow her and we bask in the fecund warmth of the greenhouse.
“I think of the chickens as my children,” she says, absently picking at arugula, mizuna and kale, hand-feeding her bird. Ayla segues into a lengthy, intricate description of a sci-fi chapter book she’s writing in a spiral notebook, a world of her own creation. She’s ten years old, odd, and I am enchanted.
In a gathering, Ayla will be the one on which the butterfly lands. The one with the snake in hand before others even notice its presence. She’s the one who stalks frogs and captures them. She sees the blue heron first, identifies the cry of the redtail hawk and knows one raptor from another. Obsessed with dinosaurs, she began writing stories at the age of four. Ayla accurately illustrated her stories on scratch paper stapled into booklets, using their Latin names.
“I love animals. I like imagining what it would be like to be a bird. Or a fox or a fish. To live, and see, and eat like they do,” she says in a smaller voice. Is she hearing how different she is? “They don’t use plates for anything,” she adds, an afterthought.
Ayla references “place,” not by structure or road, but by the eagle’s nest, or where she once saw a scorpion, caught newts, or hand-fed a gray jay.
“I fed a trumpeter swan yesterday!” Her words rush with excitement, tumbling over each other. “I found some rosehips. And then there was this plant with all these dry seeds. I stripped them off! Put them in my hand and scattered them on the water. They all floated. And you know how they eat?” She presumes, “They just run their beak across the surface of the water and eat everything on top!”
Hen in her arms, Ayla heads to a chicken run outside, monologuing about mites, frostbite, comb skin, hen varieties. She sounds like a biology undergrad.
“We’re gonna get twenty new chicks around sometime, and I’m gonna get a new chick. She’s gonna be a Golden Phoenix,” she emphasizes. “Golden Phoenix chicks are so cute,” she squeals, with an extra squeeze on the pullet, a quick hop in her magenta Sorrels, child-like again.
Ayla yearns for a pet. Erin and José each have a dog. Ayla’s growing up with water buffalo, chickens, pigs, and the rescued creature of the moment. But she wants someone to care for of her own. She’s saving up for a falconry license and a kestrel. Doing her research, preparing. She’ll train her predator on “mice, voles, lizards, anything they can get their claws on,” she says with relish.
We’re on the far side of the farm, away from the pig slaughter. The hand gun shot had been sudden and intense, delivered with respect, but irrevocable. We had each sat in our emotions, watching Life fight its way out, down back and limbs. This is Ayla’s first big slaughter and she came because she was curious. She’s watched all of the family pigs grow from piglets, holding, feeding and nuzzling them. Our stroll lets her process all of it.
“It’s kind of sad,” Ayla finally says. “And like store bought chicken? I don’t see the point of killing a chicken just to eat it. You should just let the chicken have a life.”
“What about when your kestrel takes a life?” I ask gently. “You’re going to have a direct part in that. What’s that going to be like for you?”
Ayla is quiet. “Well … hmmm.” She thinks some more. And with the innocence of the child she is, versus the brilliant adult she often seems, Ayla finally declares, “I don’t really know.”
When asked about his daughter’s preternatural affinities, Mike credits those earliest years of earthly discovery and direct experience. Natural phenomena are now her lens for interpreting and being in the world. Few kids are so fortunate.
Brown Boy had been the runt. He now hangs by his hocks, blood captured in a basin below and in the snow where he was shot. This is reality. Ayla is learning where food comes from.
Contrary to the gore one might expect, recognizable short ribs and bacon part to reveal viscera. This clean, intricate composition is one of contrasts: luminous lung tissue; dense maroon liver; undulations of white-webbed intestine, shadowed with Capital Creek Brewery’s spent grain and autumn’s green tomatoes. These organs en solo are offal or delicacies; in concert, they are miraculous systems composing aliveness.
José and his friend work quietly, at ease: nick here, slice there. José’s voice lifts in an occasional endearment to son Wekta, two, who toddles and chortles through these cycles and seasons, much as Ayla has. José manages to sever the anus and Brown Boy’s still-full bladder from the pelvic cavity, guiding the interior mass down into the basin. Ayla trades out her chicken for a hug from Mama and slices of orange. She and Wekta share, chirping back and forth a few feet from Brown Boy and winter meat.
She grew up in the forest on a river.

Erin Cuseo embraces her daughter. Photo by Paula Mayer.

Erin Cuseo embraces her daughter. Photo by Paula Mayer.

Tags: #agriculture #Ayla #Erin Cuseo #Erin's Acres #José Miranda
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