Fieldnotes: the beginning

Posted on Nov 6, 2015 in Fieldnotes, Ordinary Madness of Academia


I’ve read five books this year that keep rattling me.


Today looks and feels like proper springtime in the Akatarawa Valley. Two days ago I handed in the final grades from the courses I taught this term, and realised that I’ve taught university for ten years and I won’t be grading again for more than a year. I’ve got a small research project to wrap up in the next few months, but in a few weeks I begin my first academic sabbatical, and I’m equal parts excited and nervous. Excited because I haven’t ever (not even during my PhD) had all of my work time to dedicate purely to research; nervous because it’s a privilege that I’d hate to squander — even by accident.

My goal this year is to get a better understanding of on-farm livestock killing. I’ve grown very weary of arguments that can only imagine killing animals as either an unforgivable violence or the natural order of things. Since when have researchers in the humanities and social sciences been satisfied with such facile reductions? We know it’s never that simple — and it sure doesn’t seem to help us intervene in public controversies.

So what’s a researcher like me supposed to do? I don’t think that meat-eating is unethical. But I do think it’s unethical to treat animals solely as economic units. And I most definitely think that killing animals matters, because who we are as human beings hinges on our relationships with other animals. I’m not looking forward to witnessing death all year long, but I feel compelled to understand it first-hand and I’ve come up with a plan — including documenting the entire experience here.

In December I want to meet with professional, industry, government, animal welfare and animal rights groups so that I can start to wrap my head around how killing livestock is currently managed outside of abattoirs. This will involve understanding laws and regulations, as well as what different stakeholders consider “best practice” around euthanasia and homekill slaughter.

For 4-5 months after that I’ll be travelling around rural NZ doing participant observation and interviews with people who practice homekills (both commercially and privately) for food, and euthanasia as part of livestock management. I’m primarily interested in the ethics of care, and what might constitute a “good death.” At the same time I’ll be embarking on a longer-term, auto-ethnographic project that will have me breed the sheep I currently keep, and personally kill their lambs to feed us.

[I honestly don’t know what this will do to me, beyond the awareness that all ethnographic fieldwork I’ve done irrevocably changed me. I believe that it’ll involve great wonders and sorrows. I hope I’ll be able to endure it, and I hope I’ll know if and when it’s necessary to let go. The great benefit of being on sabbatical is that I can take it slow — maybe even “moss time” slow.]

During that period I’ll also be visiting researchers in Environmental Humanities at UNSW, where I hope to explore what it means to die “naturally.” (If you don’t know the Environmental Humanities Journal, it’s excellent.) Come June, I’ll head further abroad. I’ve been fortunate to receive a generous fellowship from the Association of Commonwealth Universities to spend a month working with the Natures, Materialities and Biopolitics Research Group at University of Exeter. I also plan to spend some time with the Animal Geographies researchers at Cardiff University, and to visit colleagues at the Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences and UmeĆ„ University. I’ll be back in New Zealand for lambing season, and to do any follow-up fieldwork and writing before I head back to work in October.

As I said, I’m excited and nervous. Excited because the research is fascinating; nervous because the research is scary. I hope people will find something of interest in my fieldnotes, and I know I’d appreciate the company. See you soon.