Thursday, June 7, 2012

A reform-ing vegetarian

As a vegetarian the past year and a half, I never realized how I take in the blood of animals with my diet of fruits and vegetables, soy and grains.  I thought the matter was almost as deceptively simple as eating meat vs. not eating meat.  Respecting and caring for the livelihood of animals vs. treating them as mere objects.  Flesh to be consumed, instead of living beings that deserved to exist apart from my self-interest.   Turns out, as with much of life, it's just not that simple.

In yet another book I coincidentally picked up, The mindful carnivore (Tovar Cerulli), my eyes are pried open a bit wider, my conscience again challenged.  This time, not to think so dichotomously.  I read things that take me past the brink of no return, that sense of responsibility that comes with the gaining of knowledge.  Ignorance is bliss, indeed, but if I'm no longer ignorant, what will I do with what I now know?  

Which brings me back to the subject of deer.  These beautiful, elegant creatures love most of the foods I consume regularly and feast on most everything a farmer can grow.  In agricultural parts of the state and country, deer can cause from tens of thousands to tens of millions of dollars in damage to farmers' crops.  The farmers then have to make a decision between bankruptcy and killing, feeding deer or feeding their families.  When I sit down to a bowl of stir fried organic veggies and tofu, there's more involved than I thought with my vegetarian meal.  Richard Nelson, author of Heart and blood: Living with deer in America, offers this jarring summary:

     Whenever any of us sit down for breakfast, lunch, dinner, or a snack, it's likely that deer were killed to protect some of the food we eat and the beverages we drink... Everyone in modern North America who lives each day on agricultural foods belongs to an ecological network that necessarily involves deer hunting... In this sense, the blood of deer runs through our veins as surely as we take bread and wine at our table.

Here I thought I wasn't a hunter.  Turns out, I'm one of the many farming out the dirty work to organic Farmer Joe down the road or across the state.

This information stops me in my tracks.  Instead of disgusting me, I feel something else.  Something sobering and more grown-up.  This issue is much bigger than I thought, with few clear answers.

At the time, I honestly felt becoming a vegetarian was the only appropriate response for me with the knowledge I gained of factory farms and their destructive impact on the environment, the well-being of animals, and in the long run, the health and well-being of humans.  While still holding a respect for meat-eaters, I think I secretly also held the belief that, if everyone was really mindful of - if they really cared about - the severity of the situation, they would rethink eating most meat.  And eating meat is done mindlessly by the masses, without any connection to the life or death of the animal that is on the plate.  There is a sense of not wanting to know, of wanting to be sheltered from the gory details and the mess of it all.  Hence, the clean plastic packaging at the grocery stores, the marketing of meat removed from the life of the animal.  We - and I'm talking me, first - don't want to be reminded of the cost, the life, that is behind every package of "meat" we purchase or consume.  And perhaps that's one other, previously subconscious reason, I became a vegetarian.  I didn't want to deal with the gory reality; I couldn't reconcile it in my head or in my conscience, so I removed myself from the quandary altogether.

Well, almost.

So I arrive at another crossroad: What now?  I recently thought the ideal solution would be to start my own garden, grow my own food, raise my own chickens and the like.  I still hope to do this one day, but not as the "solution" to this problem.  Because, inevitably, I would be faced with the same dilemma as every other grower of food: how far will I go to protect my food from insects or animals?  If I won't use chemicals to combat insects, what will I do if beetles consume much of my leafy greens?  What about little rodents and birds and critters that help themselves to the feast?  Maybe my problem would fall on the smaller end of the scale in the farming world, but the dilemma remains the same.  Would I kill a raccoon to protect my chickens?  How far am I willing to go with this living-in-harmony-with-all-living-things and how realistic are my ideals?

Because the truth is not harmonious.  The nitty gritty reality is that nature doesn't give a hoot for my vegetarian ideals and life and death in the natural world goes on around me each day in a web of struggle and conflict.

I will sit with these questions until I think I can live with the answers.  Inside me grows a deeper, reverent respect for animals - in their living and in their dying to give life (sustenance) to others - the conviction that they deserve to be treated well in life and owed a swift, compassionate death if food is their end.  In respect, don't we owe that to them?  Philosopher Jeremy Bentham once articulated, "The question is not, Can they reason? nor, Can they talk? but, Can they suffer?" And, as one professor and farmer, George Wallace, soberly reflects, "If elk would scream, the woods would have fewer hunters." Animals can indeed suffer.  That doesn't mean we shouldn't kill for food; but it does necessitate respect, careful calculation and compassion in the taking of their lives.   

And now, more palpable than the question of what I eat (carnivore vs. vegetarian) is the question of how the food gets to my plate.  Tovar Cerulli writes in his book of this shift in his thinking, from  devoted vegan to mindful carnivore: "The question now wasn't whether my eating inflicted harm, but what kind of harm."  A part of me feels that, if I cannot look an animal in the eyes and kill it myself, I don't deserve to eat meat.  The reality is, I couldn't stomach it.  Not the killing, but more so, not the gutting or the cleaning.  What I aim for, then, is a mindfulness if I choose to eat the flesh of animals and a thankfulness for that life, which informs my purchases and choices of food and where my money lends support.

Eating, it turns out, is no simple affair.

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