On the day that the Arkansas Democrat reported the sighting of thought-to-be-extinct ivory-billed woodpeckers, I toured the Tyson kill factory in Springdale, Arkansas where two hundred thousand Cornish hens are eviscerated each day. The director of the Yale Center for Faith & Culture’s Faith as a Way of Life Project, David Miller, had invited us, as members of the project (see Refractions Volume 1 for more details of the Faith as a Way of Life project) to experience the inner workings of a Fortune 500 Company whose C.E.O. is now a committed Christian. Tyson, the largest producer of protein products in the world, has indeed been going through a major change in recent years, and is now known to be a faith-friendly company. The tension of living out one’s faith in the workplace seemed to swirl within the greater tension that exists between stewardship of natural resources and capitalistic interests. It seemed rather an ironic coincidence, that on the same day, the newspapers reported this remarkable sighting of woodpeckers that many still believe today to be extinct.
Upon entering the factory, with my hair net, smock and fluorescent earplugs, we saw small hens hung by their legs on a silver conveyer harness, parading in front of us with mind-numbing efficiency. The steamy, yellow odor enveloped us, mixed with bleach, and drips (we were warned) were felt keenly on our smocks as we toured.
Every thirty minutes, the tour guide told us, the workers rotate positions. They told us that this was one way to keep the workers engaged in their tasks, and a result of recent changes. The turnover rate for the workers was close to 100 % annually a decade ago, but after their reforms, now the rate is close to 30%. The workers, apparently, are finding the changes amenable and finding opportunities within the company to advance.
There was one room, though, where only a few workers were spotted. It was the “zero” point of where the birds are killed with laser beams slicing their throats. The birds are captured, hung and plucked, with increasing automation with each step. The hardest manual task, as it turns out, is actually catching the birds, several of them at once, and then hooking them onto the conveyer belt. But everything else is automated, including the actual point of life and death. As I watched the birds one by one approach the “zero point” of a laser beam aimed at their necks, there was an eerie silence about, the weight of life hung heavily in the dark room. The whole scene reminded me of Sue Coe’s drawings.
Then they brought in the workers so that the people on our tour could meet and interview them. Half were migrant workers (legal, they assured us), and others were local folks. They introduced themselves one by one, some with translators, and spoke of their experiences. They spoke humbly but rather confidently of their company experiences, and they seemed open to our questions, acting more like giddy school friends talking to outsiders than assembly line workers.
Many of them do start at a low wage, hard manual labor, and they spoke of having to build up much physical stamina to work there. But they each insisted on emphasizing how caring this company was for them. The workers were replete with testimonials of how much they found the company to affirm their individual value. Of course, these were selected workers who have succeeded in the company. But the sheer contrast between what many consider to be visual cruelty behind the curtains and the relaxed smiles of the workers, who found much dignity here, surprised us. Something is going on here that is unexpected, and even graceful. One of the managers told us, before the workers arrived, that they had for a long time struggled to integrate racial and cultural barriers, but once the rotations began and they implemented work reform, they began to interact, and some formed very close relationships.
One of the workers, Della, told us that she had a special project to benefit the needs of a local community. The cookbook was called “Randall Road Cooking: Sharing and Caring for the Future of the Babies” to benefit the March of Dimes. In the cookbook were recipes contributed by the workers: Aunt Carries’ Potato Salad, Pollo al Vapor, Tamale Pie… and, of course, a recipe for Cornish Game Hens by the Plant Manager.
The ivory-billed woodpecker has not been sighted for 60 years. But a group of Cornell ornithologists did spot one in the Cache River in Arkansas recently. Larger than a crow, with distinctive plumage these handsome woodpeckers “need dead trees for nesting, and logging squeezed out the ivory bill, turning it into an accusatory ghost.” (James Gorman, NYT, Thursday, May 3rd)
When I was a student at Bucknell University, I studied Ornithology as part of a double major in art and animal behavior. I even spent cold, January days in a shack by the Susquehanna River taking data for “optimal foraging theory patterns of Chickadees.” Chickadees kept rather regular hours, as it turned out, coming in each day at similar times to forage, and this pattern could be interpreted with ecological significance. They, too, were efficient, saving their precious energies in a winter river-scape. It is a curious overlap, to see the vulnerable birds and their necessary efficiency, and the capitalistic efficiencies of our factories today. Both scenes mirror each other, overlapping in the needs of survival. Of course, we would be right to argue that our culture is a culture of wasteful efficiency. We have the capacity to alter and create the environment in ways that seem in some cases ridiculously destructive. In the wanton free-for-all drive to succeed, any capitalistic system craves for more and more. And in that kind of abundance, we are clearly in danger of damaging the delicate ecosystem, and losing our humanity in the process.
Does the spotting of the ivory-billed woodpecker represent part of the humanity we lost? And what did we really see at the kill factory in Springdale, Arkansas? Can we really eat our birds and save them, too?
Of course, as we toured Tyson, many of us might have pondered another obvious question related to this: Is it possible to be the CEO of a company and be a Christian? If the answer is yes, you might argue that finding one with much integrity is as difficult as spotting an ivory woodpecker (by the way, none has been spotted since the last reporting and the ornithologists are bickering over whether the proof of the last sighting is substantiated enough.) As skeptical as our group was when visiting the place, we had to admit that it took enormous courage for John Tyson to make his faith public did by weaving it into the core values of the company. He was very honest with us about the tensions that he has to negotiate, the struggles he has gone through as the CEO and as a person. Questions filled our minds. Is it then possible to operate a faith-based company in which some million animals are killed each week? Are they “feeding the country” or simply being part of a consumer driven, capitalistic orgy?
Answers to such questions are never black and white. For instance, if these clean, efficient systems did not exist, avian SARS would have destroyed all of us by now. When Tsunami relief was given as an opportunity, this company filled the order, also with remarkable efficiency. They have the system in place to respond. And they are also able to export this system, whereby Cornish hens only require a month or so from hatching to the table. They are also providing much needed work to these local soils, creating a little city and culture, along with WalMart, in Bentonville, Arkansas.
And, perhaps most importantly, if the likes of the Tyson Company did not exist, I am not so sure that I could successfully chase a free-range chicken and catch it if I am hungry, let alone kill it and prepare it for the table. I would be the first to go extinct, in other words.
Perhaps we are just like the chickadees after all, saving their energies optimally so that we, too, can survive our winters. We are simply trying to do our best to survive in the competition of the marketplace, finding the most efficient means to eat. But there’s cost to this efficiency. All of the middle managers expressed how difficult it was to balance their family and church commitments with the stress of their jobs. These workers are enduring stress so that we can all celebrate Thanksgiving, Christmas and Easter. These holidays have, ironically, become the high noon of stress and death for many creatures.
Their company chaplaincy program, one of the largest in the country, addresses the various needs of the workers, including stress management. But there’s an inherent tension, and stress, in their own roles as well. The minister we spoke with told of a time when the workers went on a strike. He had to choose whether to march with the union or not (he did). After feeling the effects of intensity of the job, from low wage workers, to chaplains, to the C.E.O., I realized that those laser beams of consumerism were not just directed at the birds, but at all of us, and we are all being asked “what is our life about?”
We do long for a day, when ivory-billed woodpeckers will roam the dark shadows of Arkansas rivers, eating grubs and worms to their hearts’ content. Somehow, though, the ideals of that vision seem dream-like in the weight of the world’s conditions today. In the fiendish and ironic drama of survival and abundance, only the bottom line seems to matter. But what we need to think about is not just competitive drive of a successful American Company, but the issue of stewardship of our abundance. It is not the question of kill or not kill, but the issue of how much sacrifice, and for what purpose. The Bible points us to a place of abundance called the Shalom of God. The Bible does not prohibit the killing of animals. But it does deal harshly with our greed, our materialism, and the exploitation of those who are also made in the image of God. Instead, the scriptures point to a time when all things will be made beautiful, and every sacrifice is seen as the entry point of beauty. We need the ivory-billed woodpeckers in our lives, because we need appreciation of that fleeting vision of the beautiful, and what was lost. Their mysterious dark wings reveal part of what was sacrificed for our material abundance today. Further, the greater challenge may be to see that even a Tyson Cornish hen can point to that sacrificial need in our everyday lives. Can we, with grateful hearts, give thanks to the giver of life, not just for our capacity to survive, but to be given a vision of abundant grace, to thrive in God’s Shalom?
A youth pastor/writer member of the group commented: “Maybe we should consider sending our kids to observe this kill factory rather than some summer mission trip?” I nodded, and reached for my wallet to purchase one of Della’s cookbooks. I did want to, after all, participate in the communion of people of dignity, shared through their meals. They are the survivors of the ecosystem of consumerism. And I did want to know what Tamale Pie could taste like in Arkansas.
I do dream of seeing these woodpeckers someday, too. My search for them would be a fabulous way to honor Audubon, one of my favorite artists. These rare creatures are but a ghost of a time past, when survival of the fittest was the only reality, back when the harsh ecosystem might have killed more humans in winter than woodpeckers. Now, that reality is replaced by convenience and our comfort. Perhaps they were to be spotted only once, but in a fleeting moment. Perhaps they saw us, and understood what we have become, and they turned their backs on the world of Wal Marts and Burger Kings, spreading their wings to fly back in the hot, dark mysterious swamps of Arkansas, never to be seen again.
P.S. NPR recently commissioned a friend and a fellow collaborator in our journey of grace, Sufjan Stevens, to write a song on the ivory billed woodpecker, which he titled, “The Lord God Bird.” Check it out here.