Having “Wild Hope”

Opening the first pages of Andrew Balmford’s book Wild Hope: On the Front Lines of Conservation Success, I found myself feeling immensely skeptical. I usually have held a somewhat wary view of conservation, tying it to the ideologies of Gifford Pinchot, a contemporary of Teddy Roosevelt and John Muir, who advocated for the conservation of wild places so that their resources might be available for future generations (as opposed to Muir’s preservationist view that desired to preserve wild places for their intrinsic value and sacred beauty). I have agreed with many of the critiques articulated by William Cronon, who sees preservation of wilderness—defined as wild landscapes untouched by human impacts—as a fantasy of civilization born of Romantic ideals. Yet I also know that it is absolutely vital that human beings begin to lessen our impact on wild landscapes and to make room for the countless multitude of other species with whom we should be sharing this planet.

Wild HopeDelving into Wild Hope and reading of the different conservation projects that are having positive impacts across the globe gave me just that: hope. It is such a nourishing experience to taste hope in the face of all the devastation we have caused. While the stories of conservation success clearly had shadow sides—deadly violence to protect endangered animals, economic incentives based on the same capitalist model that has created the destruction in the first place—what inspired me was that around the world people are taking action. Although the odds are clearly against those who wish to slow ecological decline, reverse climate change, and save thousands of species from extinction, I have always felt that we should still use all of the imagination, creativity, and will that we have to take action on behalf of the Earth. Sometimes when the air is particularly thick with despair I still know that at a karmic level this is what must be done, even when it seems hopeless on the surface.

Perhaps what I appreciated most in Wild Hope was the level of creativity and imagination expressed by those who want to make some difference in conserving the ecosystems of our world. I believe imagination is a great gift to ecology, one that gives those drawing on its power a sense of deep connection and aliveness. Drawing from the wellspring of imagination seems to inspire in others a desire to do the same. Perhaps the greatest value in reading Wild Hope for me was that as I saw how others were engaging creatively to find solutions and participate in holding actions, I felt more inspired to continue with the work as well.

Pathways to Truth: Article Review of “Unfinished Creation”

Imagination is the reconciliator of paradox. In the words of S.T. Coleridge, imagination “dissolves, diffuses, dissipates, in order to re-create; or where this process is rendered impossible, yet still at all events it struggles to idealize and to unify.”[1] Andrew Linzey draws on the importance of imagination for theological exegesis in his short article “Unfinished Creation: The Moral and Theological Significance of the Fall” published in Ecotheology: Journal of Religion, Nature & the Environment. By using a fantastical tale from The Acts of Philip about a leopard who chooses out of pity not to eat a lamb, Linzey begins by demonstrating the ways in which story, and particularly fantasy, make a strong claim on the imagination, and can thus communicate religious and spiritual truth in a way that didactic reduction cannot reveal. He quotes Rachel Trickett’s essay “Imagination and Belief” to hone in on the ways the unifying qualities of imagination can aid in the quest for theological truth:

To see truth as a process of stripping bare, paring away, is a common rational perception; to see truth as a gathering together, a process of accretion which may appear to lead to paradox and contradiction, but which, in the end, resolves them by asserting completeness, is a function of the imagination.[2]

Linzey’s desire to emphasize the need for imaginative narrative within a theological context is to demonstrate the importance of the story of the Fall, as told in Genesis, for an establishment of ethical truth in regards to creation. The focus of the article soon shifts away from imagination and fantastical narrative when Linzey begins to unpack what seems to be the primary aim of his article, which is a defense of the fallenness of creation and its implications for the development of an ecological ethic.

Linzey is specifically addressing theologians who have rejected the concept of the Fall “simply on the grounds that it is an imaginative story.”[3] The implications of such a rejection lead for Linzey to the following conclusions, which have an extensive ethical impact, particularly in regards to an ecological morality:

  1. There is no evil in the natural world.
  2. There is no possibility of redemption for nature, animals in particular.
  3. There is no human obligation to cooperate with God in the redemption of nature, animals in particular.
  4. There is no morally just God.[4]

Knowing that Linzey is a prominent figure in the Christian vegetarian movement lends a deeper context to this short article, and why he has chosen to argue for the fallenness of the created world. The fallenness of creation can alternatively be seen as an impetus toward world-rejection, which has also had significant impact on the Christian relationship to the Earth. Yet for Linzey it is the teleological striving toward redemption that is of primary importance, which can be seen as a call to engage actively with the ecological crisis particularly by attending to our relationships with non-human beings. Linzey concludes by addressing one form of this engagement that takes place at a practical, daily level: “It is therefore unsurprising that the frequent backcloth to this theological issue is the intensely practical question, namely: What, or whom, are we to eat?”[5] This short article seems to take three rapid turns, from the importance of imagination, to a defense of the story of the Fall, to a brief argument on behalf of vegetarianism as a concluding statement: “The truth is that human beings can now approximate the peaceable kingdom by living without killing sentients for food.”[6] Coming to the article’s end one can feel as though something has been left behind, that the conclusion does not align with the introduction, and that perhaps the argument for imagination has really been used to argue for vegetarianism, without actually going deeply into the full implications of either thesis and thus cutting each short at the undeserved expense of the other.

Noting the wider context of Linzey’s position as an animal ethicist explains the turn toward an advocation of vegetarianism, and perhaps the numerous articles and books he has written on theology and animal rights can stand in place of opening up the argument further in this brief essay. His method of research for the article draws on contemporary theological and ecological scholarship, as well as returning to the primary sources of Genesis and The Acts of Philip. The argument on behalf of imagination is primarily a tool to unlock the treasures held within the narratives of the primary literature, which in turn is used to address a very specific question: ‘What, or whom, are we to eat?’ Returning to the content of the opening fantastical narrative it becomes clear the direction in which Linzey was headed, that the story was a means to argue for a specific and valid viewpoint in regards to the human relationship with non-human beings and the Earth itself. Yet, by using the argument on behalf of the value of imagination in such a way, he actually seems to undercut the purpose of the article, for in the end Linzey has drawn on the power of imagination, and fantastical narrative, not for its inherent value as a revelation of truth, but rather to forward one specific perspective reduced out of that story. To return to Trickett’s statement on different ways to approach truth—’To see truth as a process of stripping bare, paring away, is a common rational perception’—Linzey appears to have inadvertently used an argument on behalf of the unifying nature of imagination to actually strip bare and pare away the fullness of story to put forward a rational argument aimed at revealing one particular truth.

Expulsion from the Garden of Eden

Works Cited

Coleridge, Samuel Taylor. Biographia Literaria. London, England: J.M. Dent & Co., 1906.

Linzey, Andrew. “Unfinished Creation: The Moral and Theological Significance of the Fall.” Ecotheology: Journal of Religion, Nature & the Environment 4 (1998): 20-26.

Trickett, Rachel. “Imagination and Belief.” In God Incarnate: Story and Belief, edited by A.E. Harvey. London, England: SPCK, 1981.

[1] S.T.Coleridge, Biographia Literaria (London, England: J.M. Dent & Co., 1906), 159.

[2] Rachel Trickett, “Imagination and Belief,” in God Incarnate: Story and Belief, ed. A.E. Harvey, (London, England: SPCK, 1981), 38-39.

[3] Andrew Linzey, “Unfinished Creation: The Moral and Theological Significance of the Fall,” Ecotheology: Journal of Religion, Nature & the Environment 4 (1998): 22.

[4] Linzey, “Unfinished Creation,” 23-25.

[5] Linzey, “Unfinished Creation,” 25.

[6] Ibid, 25-6.

Walking the Fine Line: The Ethical Divisions of Eating Animals

“There is no death that is not somebody’s food, no life that is not somebody’s death.”
– Gary Snyder[1]

A couple years ago I participated in the slaughter of two young, male goats on a farm in Big Sur, California. The goats were named Sweetie and Peaches, and were “culled” to keep the herd of dairy goats on this farm to a manageable size. The female goats provided fresh milk that could be consumed raw or made into cheese, yogurt, or even caramel, but after a certain age the male goats served their human caretakers most by having their lives taken and becoming meat. Participating in the slaughter of these goats, which was carried out in the most painless and respectful way possible, brought home for me in a new way issues surrounding the human consumption of not only animal flesh but also the other biological products of their fertility, from milk to eggs to even honey. To witness death in this beautiful setting also brought to mind all of the animal deaths that take place behind closed doors, in slaughterhouses where no respect or thanks is given for the life being sacrificed.

Goats at the FenceReligious and cultural traditions have provided the guidelines for the ethics of food consumption for much of human history, dictating rituals and taboos for the preparation and eating of non-human animals. Yet with the dawn of the secular age and the globalization of culture and economy, such rituals and cultural guidelines have largely fallen by the wayside in favor of economic efficiency and endless growth, leading to such cruel institutions as the factory farm that supplies cheap, abundant meat to a consumerist public. In this essay I will be focusing not on the evils of the factory farm, but rather on the ethical dilemma faced by the human omnivore who wishes to engage the question of eating from a non-dogmatic stand-point. What guidelines can we follow when making the choice every day of what to put into our bodies? Are there ways of finding deeper connection with our food, and the myriad creatures who become that food?

I am writing this essay from the perspective of an American citizen, raised in Northern California. The reason this fact is pertinent is because the culture of food in the United States is one that is constantly in flux, altering with the latest consumerist fad or medical study. Diets in this country change with great rapidity, which the food writer Michael Pollan takes to be a “sign of a national eating disorder.”[2] Such instability in a nation’s eating habits “would never have happened in a culture in possession of deeply rooted traditions surrounding food and eating.”[3] Pollan goes on to describe the “American paradox”: “a notably unhealthy people obsessed by the idea of eating healthily.”[4] Why is it that so many Americans struggle with knowing what to eat, or more importantly, what it is right to eat? The complexity of questions surrounding food not only arises from a loss in understanding of what is healthy for our own bodies, but also what is healthy for the bodies of the organisms who we consume. Is it possible to find an ethical way to live and eat on this Earth, or must we always be compromising our moral standing with each meal? Is there one right way for human beings to sustain themselves, or a multiplicity of ways? Or could it be there is no right way at all, no pathway to ethical purity, and rather we are meant to learn from the complexity of being incarnated in bodies that must consume other bodies, of animals or plants, in order to survive?

Humans in most parts of the world have inherited a traditional culture which “codifies the rules of wise eating in an elaborate structure of taboos, rituals, recipes, manners, and culinary traditions”[5] that act as guidance when it comes to consuming other species, particularly species of non-human animals. The nutrition researcher Sally Fallon draws on studies from a diversity of traditional cultures from around the world for her book Nourishing Traditions, in which she argues for a return to a diet rich in animal products, including fats, organ meats, raw dairy, and bone broths.[6] Her argument, based on the research conducted in the 1930s by Dr. Weston A. Price, is that these isolated populations subsisting on ancient, traditional diets were far healthier—with stronger bones, lack of tooth decay or degenerative diseases, and with greater longevity—than their Western counterparts.[7] Yet while she demonstrates the importance of animals as food for human health, Fallon does little to address the impact such a diet has on the non-human animals consumed. She naturally advocates for choosing products from animals who are pasture-raised and organic, but she does not address the larger issue of killing animals, or the loss of each individual life when an animal is slaughtered for consumption.

On the opposite side of the spectrum of healthy eating is Frances Moore Lappé, who first wrote Diet for a Small Planet in 1971. Lappé is addressing, especially in the first edition of her book, the issue of feeding the surplus of grain and soybeans produced in the United States to cattle as a means of making a profit on large quantities of cheap and fatty beef while also disposing of the excess grain grown by industrial agriculture. She exposes the wastefulness of the system by giving a few shocking numbers: it takes 16 pounds of grain and soybeans to produce one pound of beef,[8] and while that one pound of beef translates into about 500 food calories it takes 20,000 calories of fossil fuel to produce it.[9] Lappé also quotes the famous Newsweek statement that “The water that goes into a 1,000-pound steer would float a destroyer.”[10] She is advocating for a turn away from the American diet built around the presence of meat at every meal to a plant-based diet that relies on the protein complementarity of grains and legumes to provide the adequate amino acids for a healthy lifestyle. Interestingly, it was the later turn away in the early 2000s from the low-fat, minimal red meat, grain-based diet that Lappé advocates that inspired Michael Pollan to write his own book on food, The Omnivore’s Dilemma.

A simple summary would say that Fallon and Lappé are arguing for nearly opposite diets, although both advocate for eating high quality, organic produce grown locally and preferably on a small, sustainable scale. As Lappé and her daughter, Anna Lappé, write in their book Hope’s Edge: The Next Diet for a Small Planet, eating organic and local food is a decision that is “defining of who we are.”[11] One major contrast between Fallon and Lappé is that Fallon’s dietary recommendations are focused more on human health, while Lappé’s are focused on ecological health. Yet they are at times completely at odds with each other in what foods they recommend humans should be eating for optimum physical health. For example, Lappé says that she has come to find “that human beings need eat no flesh to be healthy,”[12] and that one could completely eliminate all meat and fish and still get enough protein.[13] Meanwhile, Fallon argues that fat and protein from animal products are the essential building blocks of the human body, and that the vitamins A and D supplied by animal fats are necessary for the body to even assimilate protein.[14] Furthermore, Fallon points out that animal protein is the only complete protein, meaning it supplies all eight essential amino acids not synthesized by the human body.[15] Lappé has a direct argument against the need to eat animal products for complete protein because certain plant foods can be combined to create “protein complementarity,” when the deficiency of amino acids in one food is made up for by an excess in another and vice versa, such as with grains and legumes.[16] Peter Singer and Jim Mason, in their book The Ethics of What We Eat, have written that there is no difference in the quality of soy protein in comparison to meat protein.[17] However, Fallon describes in some detail that soybeans have a higher phytate content than most legumes and contain potent enzyme inhibitors making them difficult to digest unless fermented. Relying on unfermented tofu and soymilk as a protein replacement for meat and raw milk can lead to mineral and enzyme deficiency.[18]

Yet other ways in which Lappé’s and Fallon’s argument directly contradict each other are in the discussion of saturated fats and cholesterol. Lappé cites studies which have shown that diets high in animal protein can lead to atherosclerosis, the hardening of the arteries caused by deposits of fatty acids on the artery walls.[19] She also writes that high blood cholesterol is correlated with an increase in the ingestion of cholesterol and saturated fats, both from animal products and in the latter case also from tropical plant oils.[20] Her recommendation is instead to consume polyunsaturated fats from plant sources, such as safflower, sunflower, corn, and soybeans.[21] Singer and Mason point out that some studies have found that those who eat a diet low or entirely excluding meat tend to live longer.[22] Fallon argues the completely opposite case, pointing to a study in which subjects who ate more saturated fat and cholesterol were healthier overall, and that “weight gain and cholesterol levels had an inverse correlation with fat and cholesterol intake in the diet.”[23] By explaining the molecular structure of saturated, monounsaturated, and polyunsaturated fats Fallon demonstrates how the unstable nature of polyunsaturated plant oils easily go rancid and should never be heated or cooked with because of their molecular instability.[24]

Fallon points to the high quantity of animal fats in the traditional diets of the Japanese, Swiss, Austrian, Greek and, of course, the French, among others, to demonstrate the health and longevity of these groups of people when following their traditional cultural cuisines.[25] Even in reference to the traditional diets of our human ancestors Fallon and Lappé report opposing views. Lappé writes, “I advocate a return to the traditional diet on which our bodies evolved—a plant-centered diet in which animal foods play a supplemental role.”[26] In diametric opposition Fallon writes,

Our primitive ancestors subsisted on a diet composed largely of meat and fat, augmented with vegetables, fruit, seeds and nuts. Studies of their remains reveal that they had excellent bone structure, heavy musculature and flawless teeth. Agricultural man added milk, grains and legumes to this diet.[27]

Fallon also gives archaeological evidence against eating a primarily vegan diet: “Skulls of prehistoric peoples subsisting almost entirely on vegetable foods have teeth containing caries and abscesses and show evidence of bone problems and tuberculosis as well.”[28] Yet there is also much research that has been done on healthy ways to eat primarily plant-based diets, and Singer and Mason argue that a well-planned vegan diet can support the human body at any stage of life.[29] Since the time when our ancestors were living on either plant-based diets supplemented with animal products, or meat-based diets augmented with vegetation, human beings have come to learn much about the world we live in, including about the nature of our bodies and the food we put into them. Our lifestyles have also changed, for better and for worse, since our primitive ancestors lived on their simpler diets of whole, unprocessed foods.

With so many contradictions, are we any closer to solving the omnivore’s dilemma of what we are meant to eat and how? Lappé says people often find it surprising that she does not consider herself to be a vegetarian. “Over the last ten years,” she writes, “I’ve hardly ever served or eaten meat, but I try hard to distinguish what I advocate from what people think of as ‘vegetarianism’.”[30] Professor Lindsay Allen also speaks to how ideology can get in the way of conveying a more important message. In conversation with Singer and Mason she said,

“I’m not against veganism, I’m against people who, often because of an animal-rights ideology, don’t take the trouble to learn about what they should be eating. People come out with self-righteous attitudes and lots of pure malarkey about how you can get vitamin B12 from plants or from the soil.”[31]

Perhaps, while the specifics of what and who we eat is important, the way in which we approach eating it is just as essential. Lappé supports this by saying, “A ‘correct diet,’ one centered in the plant world, one based in less processed and nonchemically treated foods, is not a ‘should’ as much as a freeing step.”[32] Lappé puts the human relationship with food into a larger context, in which our diets become a symbol and practice for the role we wish to play in the world.

A change in diet is not an answer. A change in diet is a way of experiencing more of the real world, instead of living in the illusory world created by our current economic system, where our food resources are actively reduced and where food is treated as just another commodity.[33]

Further into Diet for a Small Planet Lappé elaborates on this point more deeply:

What we eat is only one of those everyday life choices. Making conscious choices about what we eat, based on what the earth can sustain and what our bodies need, can remind us daily that our whole society must do the same—begin to link sustainable production with human need.[34]

On these last two points I believe Lappé and Fallon would at last come into agreement. How we choose to eat is a profound statement about our complicity or lack thereof with the larger economic and political system. It is the most intimate way to take actions that directly affect others, because every single morsel of food that passes our lips is comprised of another species. That is interconnection, that is dependence.

Conscious eating, as Lappé says, is based on two essential factors: ‘on what the earth can sustain’ and ‘what our bodies need.’ Neither of those factors can be determined universally, because every situated ecosystem is unique and every body is unique. Thus what is best to eat within one ecosystem will not be in another; likewise, the best balance of plant and animal foods for my body will be radically different from the needs of someone who was raised in another part of the world, or who has an entirely different ethnic background than I do. Part of the human project of relearning to eat in a way that the Earth can sustain is by recognizing and respecting the unique differences between all of our needs and situations. For example, the 14th Dalai Lama, who one might expect as a Buddhist to be a vegetarian, in fact is not. While Buddhism does not prohibit the eating of meat, it does indicate that animals should not be killed for food. The Dalai Lama had been living for some time as a vegetarian but became severely ill, with complications worsened by hepatitis. The Dalai Lama’s physician recommended he begin eating meat, and within a short period of time he regained his health.[35]

The Dalai Lama’s situation is one in which he had to make a decision against the rules ascribed by the religious tradition in which he participates. Yet for many people worldwide, and for countless generations into the past, it was the religious and cultural traditions that guided how human beings ate, particularly in relation to animals. Paul Waldau writes in his essay, “Seeing the Terrain We Walk”: “Religious traditions, with their impact on worldviews and lifestyles, influences not only the way adherents think, see, and talk about the world, but also the ways they act toward ‘others,’ whether human or otherwise.”[36] This holds true particularly in terms of the human relationship with animals. Waldau also writes, “The first of the central inquiries in the religion and animals field is, thus, about matters we generally call ‘ethical’ or ‘moral’.”[37] Religion has provided the moral guideposts for millennia, but in a country such as the United States in which multiple world views and beliefs reign, no such guidelines are universal—unless it they are the guidelines of the market, which have given us factory farming and Pollan’s American paradox.

One of the rituals practiced in multiple religions worldwide was that of sacrifice, particularly non-human animal sacrifice. To focus on one religious lineage, in the biblical world sacrifice was an “unquestioned given,” according to Jonathan Klawans.[38] But as Klawans, David Fraser, and others are careful to point out in their assessments of the Hebrew sacrificial tradition, the moment of the animal’s death is but one step in a long process, beginning with a lifetime of care for the flock from which the sacrificed animal is chosen. The emphasis on care for the animals gives birth to what Fraser calls the “pastoralist ethic.”[39] The only way one can really understand what it means to sacrifice an animal, to take the life of another being on behalf of God, is to first understand what it means to be a shepherd, a loving caretaker, of those animals.[40] This sense of care is what we have lost in the industrialized food system in which farm animals are referred to as “units of production,” commodities who have absolutely no laws governing their wellbeing whatsoever.[41] According to animal welfare laws the farm animals raised for slaughter in industrial agriculture are not considered to be animals at all.[42]

Scripture dictates that “the feelings of animals should be taken into consideration” when they are prepared for food and sacrifice.[43] This is why Leviticus and other voices in the Old Testament lay forth dietary laws to guide how religious adherents prepare and eat their food. Shechitah is the Hebrew term for the kosher slaughtering of a non-human animal, and because of its strict guidelines is considered to be the “quickest and most painless way to kill animals.”[44] Although not conducted by a shochet as rabbinic tradition would require, the killing of the two goats Sweetie and Peaches in which I participated followed the guidelines of shechitah fairly closely. This specifies exactly which parts of the animal are cut and how, as Ronald L. Androphy writes:

Most importantly, the act of shechitah not only severs the trachea and esophagus but it also severs the jugular veins and carotid arteries. The result is a sudden and voluminous outpouring of blood and immediate and acute anemia of the brain thus rendering the animal senseless instantaneously.[45]

During the deaths of Peaches and Sweetie I witnessed this moment of the blood pouring forth, how quickly the life ended and how, apparently, gently. I will quote a small section of what I wrote in my journal later on the day of this process:

Swiftly she brought the knife forward and sliced into the jugular vein. Crimson blood welled from the opening, pouring and pouring forth. I came forward to catch it in a clean, glass bowl. The animal’s fading pulse seemed to pass from him to the very air itself, beating through everything. I was grateful to stand so close, to look into this little animal’s beautiful deep brown eyes, to thank him, and to recognize the moment when life left him. The eye transformed. No longer a window to the soul it became a glass bead. The blood still poured forth.[46]

Practicing the act of killing with such intimacy makes it nearly, if not completely, impossible to not have a powerful emotional connection with the animal whose life is ending on behalf of the human beings who are sacrificing him and who will be eating his flesh.

Beyond the religious significance, there are many ideas of what the Hebrew practice of sacrifice is meant to dictate in regards to the actual eating of animal bodies. Because there was only one temple in which animals could be sacrificed, this has been seen by some scholars as an imposed limit on the amount of meat that should be eaten.[47] The eating of animal flesh is also seen by some as a condition of being in a fallen state, since in Genesis humans do not eat other animals in the Garden of Eden.[48] Some scholars see this as an indication that the ideal state would be a vegetarian one. However, Klawans points out that in the story of Genesis not only were no animals eaten in Eden, no cooked food was either.[49] If one were attempting to eat a diet based solely on what was consumed in Paradise one would have to live entirely on raw foods—which our evolutionary ancestors did at one point in the distant past, although we had not yet evolved into our modern Homo sapien form.

The desire to live upon the Earth as purely as possible may have some roots in this cultural longing for a golden age, a time when humans were living in a mythic paradise. Yet our every move in this world causes some harm to other beings, no matter how much we try to prevent it. To be in denial of our own continual causation of suffering is to deny the pain of others. Donna Haraway writes in her book When Species Meet, “There is no way to eat and not to kill, no way to eat and not to become with other mortal beings to whom we are accountable, no way to pretend innocence and transcendence or a final peace.”[50] The problem lies, in the end, less in what we did not do, what we abstained from, but rather in what suffering we caused that we then denied to acknowledge. Haraway also writes, “Caring means becoming subject to the unsettling obligation of curiosity, which requires knowing more at the end of the day than at the beginning.”[51] Caring about our human place in the world and the impact we necessarily have on other species, “Earth Others,” as Val Plumwood calls all other non-human beings,[52] is recognizing that we cannot extricate ourselves from the mess of being alive—“mess” being a particularly appropriate term because of its use as a term to refer to food. Haraway refers to other species—our companion animals, the species we eat, the bacteria in our gut—as messmates.[53] As long as we eat we are always in the mess. Furthermore, the term “companion” comes from the Latin cum panis, meaning “with bread.”[54] All species with whom we eat, who we eat, and who eat us, are in some way or other our companions.

Forgetting that we can never extricate ourselves from the suffering caused, in some form, by eating may be a product of the human denial that we too can be eaten. Plumwood speaks of this in her powerful essay “Being Prey,” in which she describes her experience of surviving a crocodile attack in the bush in Australia. She says, “It seems to me that in the human supremacist culture of the West there is a strong effort to deny that we humans are also animals positioned in the food chain.”[55] When arguing whether or not it is right to kill another species for food, it can be important to remember that all beings must, at some point, die. As a culture, Westerners are in active denial of this profound fact. Haraway writes, “I do not think we can nurture living until we get better at facing killing. But also get better at dying instead of killing.”[56] If there is one thing I learned from actively participating in the deaths of Peaches and Sweetie it was the importance of going through the act of taking life, of witnessing death, if we are going to consume the flesh, or even the milk and eggs, of non-human animals. With the world structured as it is today, perhaps we need not personally take life for every body we consume—although this may be the most ethical preference for some. But I do feel it is important to remember and honor that moment of death with each meal that is composed of the life of Earth Others—and that is every meal because, as the poet Gary Snyder writes, “There is no death that is not somebody’s food, no life that is not somebody’s death.”[57]

Biodiversity is one of the gifts of the Earth, the “iridescent variation of aspect”[58] through which our planet manifests its eternal creativity. Biodiversity does not just occur at a species level, but within species as well; one aspect of that diversity is the myriad ways human cultures have developed relationships with the species that become our food. If you find yourself facing the omnivore’s dilemma of what and how to eat, I would offer that the answer may lie in learning to listen: to the suffering of the species we eat, to the bioregions in which we live to understand what these ecosystems most love to produce in abundance, to the quiet voices of our own bodies—our intuition and our messmates—who will tell us what we need to eat and how. Food is the most daily reminder we may have that we humans are utterly dependent on the Earth because of the many species we consume. Instead of seeking spiritual or ethical purity, perhaps we might choose to sink further into the spiritual mess of embodied life on this Earth.

 

Works Cited

Androphy, Ronald L. “Shechitah.” In Judaism and Animal Rights. Edited by Roberta Kalechofsky. Marblehead, MA: Micah Publications, 1992.

Cerulli, Tovar. “The Dalai Lama: On Meat and Moral Gymnastics.” A Mindful Carnivore, October 15, 2010. http://tovarcerulli.com/2010/10/the-dalai-lama-on-meat-and-moral-gymnastics/.

Fallon, Sally. Nourishing Traditions: The Cookbook That Challenges Politically Correct Nutrition and the Diet Dictocrats. Washington, DC: New Trends Publishing, 2001.

Findlay, John, “The Logical Peculiarities of Neoplatonism.” In The Structure of Being: A Neoplatonic Approach. Edited by R. Baine Harris, Albany, NY: State University of New York, 1982.

Haraway, Donna J. When Species Meet. Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press, 2008.

Lappé, Francis Moore. Diet for a Small Planet. New York, NY: Random House Publishing Group, 1991.

Pollan, Michael. The Omnivore’s Dilemma. New York, NY: The Penguin Press, 2006.

Plumwood, Val. “Being Prey.” In The New Earth Reader: The Best of Terra Nova. Edited by David Rothenberg and Marta Ulvaeus. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1999.

–––––. Environmental Culture: The Ecological Crisis of Reason. New York, NY: Routledge,

Singer, Peter and Jim Mason. The Ethics of What We Eat: Why Our Food Choices Matter. United States: Rodale, Inc., 2006.

Snyder, Gary. “Grace.” Co-Evolution Quarterly, 43 (Fall 1984).

Sunstein, Cass and Martha Nussbaum, eds. Animal Rights: Current Debates and New Directions. New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2004.

Tarnas, Becca. “Of Blood and Stars.” Essay for Hill of the Hawk course, October 24, 2012.

Waldau, Paul and Kimberley Patton, eds. A Communion of Subjects. New York, NY: Columbia University Press, 2006.

 

[1] Gary Snyder, “Grace,” Co-Evolution Quarterly, 43 (Fall 1984): I.

[2] Michael Pollan, The Omnivore’s Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals (New York, NY: The Penguin Press, 2006), 2.

[3] Pollan, The Omnivore’s Dilemma, 2.

[4] Ibid, 3.

[5] Pollan, The Omnivore’s Dilemma, 4.

[6] Sally Fallon, Nourishing Traditions: The Cookbook That Challenges Politically Correct Nutrition and the Diet Dictocrats (Washington, DC: New Trends Publishing, 2001), xi-xii.

[7] Fallon, Nourishing Traditions, xi-xii.

[8] Frances Moore Lappé, Diet for a Small Planet (New York, NY: Ballantine Books, 1991), 9.

[9] Lappé, Diet for a Small Planet, 10.

[10] Ibid, 76.

[11] Frances Moore Lappé and Anna Lappé, qtd. in Peter Singer and Jim Mason, The Ethics of What We Eat (Emmaus, PA: Rodale, Inc., 2006), 140.

[12] Lappé, Diet for a Small Planet, xxviii.

[13] Ibid, 159.

[14] Fallon, Nourishing Traditions, 29.

[15] Ibid, 26.

[16] Lappé, Diet for a Small Planet, 160.

[17] Singer and Mason, The Ethics of What We Eat, 232.

[18] Fallon, Nourishing Traditions, 62.

[19] Lappé, Diet for a Small Planet, 122.

[20] Ibid, 123.

[21] Ibid, 124.

[22] Singer and Mason, The Ethics of What We Eat, 225.

[23] Fallon, Nourishing Traditions, 5.

[24] Ibid, 8-9.

[25] Ibid, 7.

[26] Lappé, Diet for a Small Planet, 209.

[27] Fallon, Nourishing Traditions, 26-7.

[28] Ibid, 27.

[29] Singer and Mason, The Ethics of What We Eat, 224.

[30] Lappé, Diet for a Small Planet, 13.

[31] Lindsay Allen, qtd. in Singer and Mason, The Ethics of What We Eat, 226.

[32] Lappé, Diet for a Small Planet, xxix.

[33] Ibid, 26.

[34] Lappé, Diet for a Small Planet, 107.

[35] Tovar Cerulli, “The Dalai Lama: On Meat and Moral Gymnastics,” A Mindful Carnivore, October 15, 2010, http://tovarcerulli.com/2010/10/the-dalai-lama-on-meat-and-moral-gymnastics/.

[36] Paul Waldau, “Seeing the Terrain We Walk: Features of the Contemporary Landscape of ‘Religion and Animals’,” in A Communion of Subjects, eds. Paul Waldau and Kimberley Patton (New York, NY: Columbia University Press, 2006), 53.

[37] Waldau, “Seeing the Terrain We Walk,” 41.

[38] Jonathan Klawans, “Sacrifice in Ancient Israel: Pure Bodies, Domesticated Animals, and the Divine Shepherd,” in A Communion of Subjects, eds. Paul Waldau and Kimberley Patton (New York, NY: Columbia University Press, 2006), 66.

[39] David Fraser, “Caring for Farm Animals: Pastoralist Ideals in an Industrialized World,” in A Communion of Subjects, eds. Paul Waldau and Kimberley Patton (New York, NY: Columbia University Press, 2006), 548.

[40] Klawans, “Sacrifice in Ancient Israel,” 67.

[41] Lappé, Diet for a Small Planet, xxviii.

[42] David J. Wolfson and Mariann Sullivan, “Foxes in the Hen House – Animals, Agribusiness, and the Law: A Modern American Fable,” in Animal Rights: Current Debates and New Directions, eds. Cass Sunstein and Martha Nussbaum (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2004), 206.

[43] Dan Cohn-Sherbok, “Hope for the Animal Kingdom: A Jewish Vision,” in A Communion of Subjects, eds. Paul Waldau and Kimberley Patton (New York, NY: Columbia University Press, 2006), 83.

[44] Cohn-Sherbok, “Hope for the Animal Kingdom,” 85.

[45] Ronald L. Androphy, “Shechitah,” in Judaism and Animal Rights, ed. Roberta Kalechofsky (Marblehead, MA: Micah Publications, 1992), 76.

[46] Becca Tarnas, “Of Blood and Stars,” essay for Hill of the Hawk course, October 24, 2012, 4.

[47] Roberta Kalechofsky, “Hierarchy, Kinship, and Responsibility: The Jewish Relationship to the Animal World,” in A Communion of Subjects, eds. Paul Waldau and Kimberley Patton (New York, NY: Columbia University Press, 2006), 97.

[48] Klawans, “Sacrifice in Ancient Israel,” 73.

[49] Ibid, 74.

[50] Donna J. Haraway, When Species Meet, (Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press, 2008), 295.

[51] Haraway, When Species Meet, 36.

[52] Val Plumwood, Environmental Culture: The Ecological Crisis of Reason (New York, NY: Routledge, 2002), 146.

[53] Haraway, When Species Meet, 17.

[54] Ibid.

[55] Val Plumwood, “Being Prey,” in The New Earth Reader: The Best of Terra Nova, eds. David Rothenberg and Marta Ulvaeus, (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1999).

[56] Haraway, When Species Meet, 81.

[57] Gary Snyder, “Grace,” Co-Evolution Quarterly, 43 (Fall 1984): I.

[58] John Findlay, “The Logical Peculiarities of Neoplatonism,” in The Structure of Being: A Neoplatonic Approach, ed. R. Baine Harris (Albany, NY: State University of New York, 1982), 1.

Of Blood and Stars

September 22, Early morning

I am awake before dawn on the Equinox. The sky is lightening all around me. The clouds are so soft it is hard to see where each one ends and the robin’s egg sky flows in. To my right is a small herb garden planted in dry, mounded beds delineated by white stones. A gateway, made of three simple, straight boughs barely differentiated from the trees they once were, stand beyond the herbs. Past the gate unfolds an intricately woven permaculture garden: fruit trees ranging from a few years old to the grandmother plum in her sixties.

A white horse whinnies restlessly on the golden hill; a stand of redwoods frame her from behind. Interspersed in the orchard are beds of annual crops: beets, carrots, tomatoes, strawberries, kale, chard. Concord grapes grow from vines draping every available trellis, their scent saturating the air. Although I cannot see them where I sit, I hear the chickens, ducks, and geese calling to the arriving dawn. Somewhere, hidden behind apples and sunflowers, are the family of five goats. The two young males, Peaches and Sweetie, we will be harvesting and processing today, and making into our evening meal.

Goat milk clouds my warm cup of black breakfast tea, adding an unfamiliar sweetness. The goats are an integral part of the life here; they provide milk, cheese, yogurt, even caramel, as well as meat and companionship.

The sun has now risen.

The three days spent on the Hill of the Hawk farm was a lesson in ethics, an ethic related to one of the most intimate aspects of survival: eating. Whether or not to eat animal products, especially meat, is an issue to which every culture seems to have a different answer. An example of the views on these issues are presented by Peter Singer and Jim Mason in their book The Ethics of What We Eat, which stands in contrast to the perspective of Sally Fallon in her cookbook Nourishing Traditions. While Singer and Mason agree with Fallon on many aspects of food choice, such as eating organic produce and purchasing from fair trade and sustainable sources, their primary disagreement is about the consumption of animal products.

Singer and Mason write primarily on animal rights and well-being, looking into the methods of factory farming, as well as large- and small-scale organic production. Fallon, on the other hand, is writing from the perspective of human dietary health, drawing on research about the major benefits of a diet rich in animal products raised in a humane way. She gives examples of the longevity of peoples eating diets high in animal fats and proteins—namely the Japanese, Swiss, Austrian, Greek, and, of course, French[1]—as well as archeological research on the decline in stature of Mayan peoples correlated to periods of meat scarcity.[2] Fallon also draws on numerous studies relating to the importance of animal products, both meat and dairy, for the healthy development of children, and for the prevention of numerous degenerative diseases and maladies.

Singer and Mason focus more on how animals for consumption are produced rather than the dietary effects of eating them. They draw on several differing viewpoints regarding the ethics of taking animals’ lives, looking at the quality of life as well as methods of slaughter. They are clearly in favor of a vegan or vegetarian diet, but also present arguments from those who feel that it is better that animals raised well have the lives they do, rather than not existing at all.[3] While these issues have no clear answers even when one chooses to take a particular position, one aspect of my own understanding of eating meat is that one must experience participating in killing an animal before a decision can be made in favor of meat-eating. And this is just the experience which we encountered at Hill of the Hawk.

September 22, Late afternoon

The goats were brought up in the back of a pick-up truck cradled in the arms of several students. They ate grass near us while we sat and spoke with Tamara, the woman who would guide us with the killing. She said that if she ever were to take an animal’s life and feel no emotion in that act she would know she had done it too much and would have to stop. She wanted to cause the least suffering possible, in part by keeping herself and the other participants calm, and therefore giving no reason for the animals to feel anxiety. Everything is about the animal in his last moments, not about the humans involved. Our well-being in that time comes second. Tamara uses the term “processing” to refer to the entire procedure of harvesting the animal, because we humans can process our emotions as we process the animal.

We brought the goats under a great spreading oak and laid a cloth beneath them. The first goat Tamara gently straddled while her assistant held his head. She put her sharp blade into the back of his neck, severing the spinal cord so he would feel less pain. He only made one small sound, one that seemed to convey surprise more than pain or even fear. Swiftly she brought the knife forward and sliced into the jugular vein. Crimson blood welled from the opening, pouring and pouring forth. I came forward to catch it in a clean, glass bowl. Whispered thanks came from Tamara and her assistant, and many of those standing further back. The animal’s fading pulse seemed to pass from him to the very air itself, beating through everything. I was grateful to stand so close, to look into this little animal’s beautiful deep brown eyes, to thank him, and to recognize the moment when life left him. The eye transformed. No longer a window to the soul it became a glass bead. The blood still poured forth.

The deaths of Peaches and Sweetie were not the routine slaughters of factory farmed chickens, cattle, and pigs as depicted in Singer and Mason’s book. Clearly present in the processing of these two little goats was an aspect not mentioned by Singer, Mason, or Fallon; it was a spiritual presence. The focus for Singer and Mason is on the pain of farmed life and the trauma of the slaughtering process. What became apparent for me beneath that oak tree was that death itself was not an issue that could be assessed with statistics, written description, photography, or even filming. When the issue of pain and fear were handled in apparently the most ethical ways possible, death seemed to become a spiritual exchange, a gifting of one species to another, something that could not be captured in any other way than by standing witness.

September 22, Late afternoon

The rest of the day was given to skinning and gutting the goats, and making recipes of each of the organ meats. Nothing was wasted. Liver and onions, kidneys and red wine, spleen pâté, breaded heart and testicles, lung soup, sausages stuffed into the intestines, fried blood, chocolate blood ice cream. The heads were skinned and sawn in half, the brains dried to be used later to tan the hides. The hides were salted and set aside to be cured. The hooves and bones will be cleaned and buried until they are white, then made into jewelry and musical instruments. Nothing was wasted.

Using every part of the animals felt like the most practical way of honoring their gift and sacrifice. Unlike large-scale farming operations which only use the choicest parts of animals, and often feed the remainder back to a different species,[4] our use and consumption of the animal in his entirety seemed an act of thanks. Additionally, it is the diverse organ meats that provide the greatest nutritional value, as Fallon writes about frequently. Fat-soluble vitamins, such as vitamins A, B, D, and E, are especially abundant in organ meats[5], and also allow for the absorption of minerals[6] and the assimilation of protein.[7] While Singer and Mason argue that any vitamins unavailable in one’s diet can be taken supplementally,[8] Fallon provides arguments of how isolated vitamins can, in some forms, be toxic to the system.[9] Organ meats are especially nourishing for pregnant women, and aid in the development and maintenance of healthy sexual organs.[10] Yet Singer and Mason also give the example of a healthy family of four living exclusively on a well-planned vegan diet, without any seeming detriment to their health.

Reflection on September 21, Evening

Sunset. A road climbs to the west over the hill and opens out to a full view of the Pacific Ocean, a vista broad and high enough to indicate Earth’s great curve. In silence we sat and watched the molten gold of the sun sink in blazing glory as Earth rolled away from its heat. The clouds were set alight, shifting from gold to vermillion, to crimson and magenta. Not until the sun had made his departure did the clouds shift to reveal the ivory crescent of the moon, one day from the quarter. She glowed ever brighter in the fading sky, her face ever turned in adoration to the departed sun.

Watching the cycles of the sun and moon, the passage of the planets, and the great wheeling of the stars across the sky each night led me to thinking about the passage and cycles of life upon Earth as well. The processing of the goats somehow to fit into these cycles, a mysterious give and take, an exchange of life and death, sorrow and gratitude. I was all too aware of that sunset as the final sunset in the lives of those goats, and the following dawn as a dawn onto perhaps a new life for them. Whether we eat other beings or not, death is something we all must contemplate and someday face. In reflection, I learned more from those goats about my own death than I could have imagined.

September 23, Early morning

Venus and Jupiter, two fading diamonds in the warming dawn sky. The few clouds are saturated in rosy sunlight, but the fiery orb has not yet peaked over the Coastal Ridge. The flock of wild turkeys that haunt the farm walk past on my left, and quietly filter into the neat rows of the young Pinot Noir vineyard. One of the farm’s many cats, a large gray and white tabby, cuddles close providing welcome warmth, dividing my attention between petting and the pen. He finally leaves to find a more steady source of love.

Venus, last of the night stars, has now vanished from my sight, lost behind an atmosphere flooding with dawn light. The wind stirs, the cold air pushed forward by the approaching sun. Sunrise here for us is sunset for someone else, someone on the far side of that distant horizon.

When I awoke this morning it was still dark, the sky bejeweled in her net of stars. The moment I stepped through the canvas flaps of my tent I beheld Venus, a gem so bright she shone out unmistakably, shimmering princess of the twilight. From her it was easy to trace along the ecliptic to Jupiter, an orange-shaded beam of light, seated right at the mid-heaven.

Dawn is close. I can see pure sunlight on the south-western slopes of the Ventana Double Cone Mountain. Ventana. A window to the east. The Esalen Indians believe the souls of the dead pass between those two white, granite peaks into another realm. Perhaps the souls of our two little goats passed that way as well.

The birds are all awakening; a hummingbird thrums among the branches directly over my head, jays cry, a kite hawk circles in search of prey. When the kite pauses in mid-air, wings poised, he looks like a white angel in the distance, an angel framed against the Ventana Mountain. Many songbirds call to each other. I can feel their anticipation, their celebration, their worship of the sun. The air stirs restlessly and the temperature continues dropping.

The sun is emerging. A liquid platinum fire is melting up over the hill, spreading across the ridge like gold spilled from an alchemist’s forge. At the heart of that fire pure light spreads in all directions, filling the sky, obscuring the mountain. It melts all things surrounding it into undifferentiated lightness. The first warmth of the day is playing over my skin.

I have found myself wondering often if the experience with Sweetie and Peaches has changed the way I eat. Many questions have come up for me regarding veganism and vegetarianism. As we saw at Hill of the Hawk, the consumed dairy from the female goats requires the occasional slaughter of male goats so that the herd does not become too large. And even an organic vegan diet requires the presence of animals on the farm to provide manure to fertilize the soil in a healthy way to grow crops. To farm sustainably seems to involve animals in some way or another, whether we are vegan, vegetarian, or omnivorous. As before this experience, I personally still eat meat and dairy yet also, as before, I eat them in fairly small quantities. But there is something else that has become a greater part of my diet since leaving Hill of the Hawk: intention and gratitude. Whether we are eating animals—or grains, vegetables, and fruits—what seems to matter most is recognizing the gift of that food. All food is a life sacrificed, a life gifted. How do we in turn repay that life?

Bibliography

Fallon, Sally. Nourishing Traditions: The Cookbook That Challenges Politically Correct Nutrition and the Diet Dictocrats. Washington, DC: New Trends Publishing. 2001.

Singer, Peter and Jim Mason. The Ethics of What We Eat: Why Our Food Choices Matter. United States: Rodale, Inc. 2006.


[1] Sally Fallon, Nourishing Traditions: The Cookbook That Challenges Politically Correct Nutrition and the Diet Dictocrats (Washington, DC: New Trends Publishing, 2001), 7.

[2] Fallon, 27.

[3] Singer and Mason, The Ethics of What We Eat (United States: Rodale, Inc., 2006), 251.

[4] Singer and Mason, 62.

[5] Fallon, 39.

[6] Ibid, 16.

[7] Ibid, 29.

[8] Singer and Mason, 228-229.

[9] Fallon, 37.

[10] Ibid, 29.