by Nicole Walker
Listen to these three words: Delicate, tender, low-fat. These are qualities you’re looking for in meat. You want the meat to give easily at the bite. You want the flesh to float lightly on your tongue. You don’t want to be reminded of tongue—you want to be reminded of meat that is not quite like meat—meat that has barely had the time on earth to gather up the electrons necessary to put together a carbon muscle.
Delicate, tender, low-fat are not words you want to apply to a newborn baby.
The process to get from abstract idea and self-supporting meat involves suspension of disbelief for specified duration of time. For a human baby, it takes forty weeks of mother-dependence to get meaty enough for the baby to unplug itself and support itself on its own. Not that that support means the baby doesn’t need assistance. Although the heart beats, lungs respire, mouth sucks, the baby still needs someone to feed it, hold it, keep it warm. After nine months in the womb, although a baby can’t survive on its own, its body processes no longer require the direct blood support of the mother.
A calf’s gestation is 265 days, or nine months, about the same as a human baby. However, the actual length of gestation varies depending on the cow’s breeding and age. The thinner the cow, the shorter the gestation. The older the cow, the longer. Paradoxically, at least to my experience, which, I admit, is limited, the poorer the fertility, the longer the gestation.
In humans, there seems to be a correlation between poor fertility and short gestation. But the outcome in the variation of gestation of cows and humans is different. A short gestation for a calf probably does not indicate poor lung activity. It probably indicates that the calf takes longer to stand up, an hour or two, than a cow gestated longer. Humans are more particular about time than cows.
It is difficult enough for any mammal to leave the safe space of the womb. That first gulp of air inflates flat air sacs. Like any hard stretch, there is resistance. To a baby born early, those lungs’ air sacs aren’t meant to expand yet. There is not only resistance, there is inflexibility. The air sacs are cheap balloons—you stretch them before you even try to blow but instead of expanding, your eyes bulge and you blow a few brain cells. The sides of the sacs stick together. There’s not enough fat in them to allow them to slip apart and expand and inhale.
A cow is born folded and collapsed, covered in vernix caseosa. She should be able to stand and nurse within one hour. If she is lucky, it will be a dry spring. The rains that come will leave just enough water for the grass to grow thick and tender green. The mother pulls her lips back to get at the roots. Pulling the milky stub from the ground, the cow transforms cellulose into rich cream. To be a calf and drink that first spray of almost-butter.
A human baby is born stretched and red, covered in vermix caeosa. She should be able to crawl up her mother to reach her breast. The birth matter still stuck to her helps her slide uphill, towards those monumental breasts heaving toward her. They’ve been waiting all these months, actually aching for this moment. The baby should know how to turn her head, how to open her mouth as wide as the nipple is large. The baby should be born with the already talent to suck-swallow-breathe. It sucked coming out of that warm, quiet place into this field of noise and light but the milk makes it go down a little easier, she swallows the warm quiet in.
To turn a calf into veal, you must first separate it from its mother. The calf drinks a formula very similar to Similac. Milk proteins, vitamins, and nutrients concocted. It’s a small pen he’s introduced to, a small crate too small for the calf to lie down, stretch, or turn around. It’s important for him not to move, otherwise muscle builds up, culminating in a toothsome resistance. He doesn’t resist. He’s an hour old. Then, he’s three months old. He faces forward, staring at the same motherless wall.
To turn a premature baby into a regular baby, you must first separate it from its mother. To ensure the pulse-ox and the heart rate monitor leads stick to her nipples, she is quickly stripped of all birth matter. She makes no noise as the cold air blows through her too-thin skin. Intravenous fluids, made from saline or electrolytes, gelatin or sugar water, replace what milk she would get, if she could digest milk yet, if she could swallow yet, if she could master the breathe-swallow-suck on her own. She isn’t on a ventilator or the c-PAP machine so she’s better off than many preemies although the oxygen cannula hooked into her nose is pushing almost a liter of oxygen. The cannula bugs her nose. She’d like to scratch it but even if she could make a fist and bring her arm that far northward, the IV in her arm keeps it pinned. She stares through the ceiling of her see-through incubator like plastic is her favorite mother.
It takes a lot of design to make these babies better. In the calf-case, better tasting, in the baby-case, better alive. It makes you wonder, isn’t veal better than beef because of all of these ministrations? Isn’t Zoë , this prematurely born daughter of mine, more miraculous because of extreme intervention? Man-made, mostly, these creatures are an art as much as medical success stories. Veal, after years of scientific experiment, by crating sooner, by injecting them with antibiotics more often, by skinning them half alive, has been made tastier.
Preemies now can survive births as early as twenty-four weeks gestation by infusing them with suffacant made from pig fat to make their air-sacs inflate earlier, by injecting them with antibiotics more often, by surgically closing their PDA ducts regularly.
Both veal and premature baby are miracles of human desire made real and regular. But the end results aren’t quite the same. The sound the veal makes as he’s prodded from the crate isn’t a cry that lasts very long. His mother, in her own feed-lot pen, waiting for the truck to drive her to a Nebraskan slaughter, can’t hear a sound. I, on the other hand, pick up that baby and have the luxury of listening to this baby, once she’s detached from monitor and tube, yell and yell and yell.
About Nicole Walker
Nicole Walker’s nonfiction book, Quench Your Thirst with Salt, won the 2011 Zone 3 nonfiction prize and will be published in June. She is also the author of a collection of poems, This Noisy Egg (Barrow Street, 2010). She edited, along with Margot Singer, Bending Genre: Essays on Nonfiction, which was released by Bloomsbury in March 2013. She’s a nonfiction editor at Diagram. She received her PhD in Creative Writing from the University of Utah and currently teaches at Northern Arizona University in Flagstaff, Arizona.