I’m standing in Rohan Anderson’s paddock, holding a small rabbit that two minutes earlier was enjoying being alive. It is now bloody, lifeless and missing half its face.
Anderson approvingly calls the animal he just shot a, “New-season rabbit.” But from what I can see that’s just a nicer way of saying “baby bunny”.
He shows me how to empty its bowel and bladder (“otherwise it goes all over you”). Then he points to where I make an incision below its neck. With surprising ease, the skin slips off like a tiny wetsuit.
The next task is to scoop out the organs from the internal cavity below the ribcage, then snap off the still-furry paws. Finally he tells me to remove the head with a sharp twist.
The lean, pink carcass still feels warm. It glints in my hands in the bright afternoon sunshine. It’s cleaner and neater than I imagined it would be. Most of all I’m struck by just how quickly and easily a living thing can be transformed into a piece of meat, ready to be cooked and eaten.
“How do you feel about killing it?” I ask.
“Fine,” he says. “That rabbit had a good life, a free life. It only had one bad day.” He repeats the last bit for effect. “… One bad day.”
For the past four years, Rohan Anderson’s blog Whole Larder Love has documented his attempts to live a largely self-sufficient lifestyle. after the former supermarket buyer opted out of a life of salaries and office work. The blog, with beautiful photography (both Anderson and his partner Kate Berry have worked as professional photographers) and featuring stories about growing food, hunting and cooking, has developed a worldwide following and spawned a book of the same name.
An ongoing theme of Whole Larder Love is the fundamental disengagement many people have with where their food comes from. Anderson has strong views about this and isn’t afraid of being provocative in airing them. In one 2012 post, he documented the process of teaching his young daughters (Anderson and Berry have two each from previous relationships) how to kill pigeons and then cook them in a pie. The sumptuously shot pictures of pretty little girls surrounded by feathers and small, headless birds were deliberately confronting.
There were largely positive comments at the end of the piece, but some readers weren’t so impressed. “I find the killing of the pigeons and the involvement of the young girls disgusting,” one person wrote. “I am sure you will hear their considered views of this particular type of backyard family fun in the future.”
Shrugging off this kind of criticism, Anderson has held workshops to pass on to people the (largely self taught) skills he has learnt since embarking on his Whole Larder Love journey. How to kill a chicken. How to pick mushrooms. How to clean and maintain a gun. How to skin a rabbit. (When the zombie apocalypse comes, Rohan Anderson is going to be a good man to have on side.)
For him, it’s not just about transferring information and skills. It’s also a way of raising awareness and bringing more honesty to how we see the food we eat.
He believes killing then consuming an animal is one of the best ways to resolve what some have called the “meat paradox”; where we all profess to love animals but, in a direct contradiction of this, many of us also eat them. The act of dramatically and violently bringing the meat and the animal back into the same frame becomes a hugely significant event for some people.
“In the workshops, seeing the entire process of a living animal turning into a dead animal turning into a meal is an awakening experience for so many people,” he says.
“In a class of 10 people, where everyone knows they have just made the choice to kill a chicken and they go and do it, there is usually quite a lot of tears. We pretty much cry at the end of every workshop.”
The success of Whole Larder Love shows that the idea of being more involved in the production of our own food is an increasingly alluring one for many of us. This is why we pay $250 for a one-day salami-making workshop, or grow veggies in our backyard. Or maybe even keep some chooks.
We’re happy to take these little day trips to self-sufficiency before returning to the safety of jobs and money. But how many of us really want to live there permanently?
Anderson cheerfully tells me he’s only got $500 in the bank, which he says is more than he needs. His main costs are rent and petrol to take his girls to school from their rented farmhouse in Clarkes Hill, between Ballarat and Daylesford. This comes from Berry’s occasional work as a wedding photographer, a very small amount of royalties from his book and fees from a regular column he writes for The Guardian Australia.
“We don’t need much to live,” he says. “I’ve got enough money to pay rent and bills. When you don’t have any money, you just wait until you’ve got it.”
Anderson seems totally at peace with his decision to be deliberately poor, but does acknowledge that a lack of money can bring with it huge problems, specifically when it comes to security around having a permanent place to live and work.
Until recently, the family lived a few kilometres away, in another rented house where Anderson and Berry established a garden, painted inside and out and even polished the floorboards. Nearby, on another property, they leased space and did it up so they could hold their weekend workshops there.
Then they were evicted after their landlord decided to sell the house. The owners of the workshop setting decided to turn it into a wedding venue, so they had to get out of there as well.
For Anderson, the most heartbreaking aspect was having to destroy the vegetable garden before they left the house, as was required under the lease.
“I had to dig it up and return it to lawn. It was horrible. That’s part of the sacrifice. Life is shit sometimes but you just have to deal with it.
“I’d love to buy land someday, but that’s miles away.”
So that’s the downside. But to Abderson and Berry, the upside is much bigger.
“I’m not sitting at a desk, being mindless, paying my mortgage every month for a place I’m not happy living in and a lifestyle I don’t want to have,” he says.
Their existence is deliberate, based on firm principles that are present everywhere around them: that all food is precious (especially meat); that if you don’t know how to do something, just teach yourself (“it’s amazing what you can learn on YouTube or by reading the packet”); that the seasonality of food is something to be respected and celebrated.
That doesn’t mean there aren’t compromises. Anderson understands he can’t live completely outside the systems he rails against, and trying to do so would be a recipe for failure and exhaustion. Going to the supermarket is sometimes necessary.
“How many times have I read, ‘Rohan Anderson lives completely off the land’? says Anderson. “No I don’t! I buy couscous in bulk. I use petrol to get to the forest to pick my mushrooms.”
They hope they’ll soon have another chance to teach people about their approach to food and life, and do it in a place that’s permanent. They have launched a crowdfunding campaign for a project called The Nursery. Essentially, it revives the workshop idea, with a mess hall for cooking, eating and teaching, but adding a vegetable garden, orchard and paddocks for livestock.
Initially, Anderson and Berry were aiming to raise $450,000 to buy land, construct the mess hall and complete the other works. But, since launching the campaign, a mystery local philanthropist approached them (ironically, at the supermarket) and offered land to lease long term for free, meaning they’ve been able to reduce the ask to $100,000.
“I feel my duty and vocation is to establish a place and throw the doors open to people,” he says. “I can’t tell them to come, to believe in a certain thing, to come and learn skills. All I can say is, ‘The doors are open’.”
As the interview ends, he offers to wrap up my new-season rabbit in two old plastic bags and suggests we grab some stinging nettles from another nearby paddock on the way out.
“Just poach in it in some white wine for a couple of hours and make a pesto with the nettles then stir it all through some pasta,” he says.
l walk away, thinking about the two-month existence of that animal and the role I played it its death. I have a very strong feeling that it is going to be a meal with plenty of significance.