The Mindful Carnivore
An excerpt from the end of
Chapter 1 – No More Blood
One evening in early fall, we had dinner guests coming. I was in middle school and had moved back to my father’s full-time. That night, there would be four of us. Fresh trout topped the menu. As soon as I got home from school, I dropped my books, hopped into the boat, and rowed, oarlocks squeaking, out to that summer’s sweet spot, a short distance off the jutting granite corner we called Paul Winter Point. The musician had, I was told, sat there once, playing his sax, plaintive notes echoing off the quarry walls opposite. Half an hour before dinner, I hooked the fourth fish.
But such meals were rare. Most flesh came from the grocery store, and I gave no thought to its provenance: the chunks of beef my father sliced up for his favorite slow-simmered stew full of parsnips and carrots, the pork chops my mother broiled. They came neatly wrapped in plastic. No muss, no fuss.
Right through high school, I ate whatever was in front of me. When I had dinner with my girlfriend’s family, I enjoyed their vegetarian stir-fries and salads. When I visited my best friends—a pair of brothers—I savored their mother’s meaty German-style cooking just as much. If I was out with friends and we stopped at McDonald’s, I would order a Quarter Pounder with cheese, never pausing for a moment to consider where the beef patty came from.
By the time I was twenty—holding that trout to the cutting board and considering Thich Nhat Hanh’s words on kindness—my days of carefree carnivory were over.
I started cutting back on meat in my late teens. I had learned that excess beef and pork weren’t good for my health. I had learned, too, that supermarket meat was far from pure. Looking at ground chuck in the local IGA cooler, I wondered what chemical mysteries lay accumulated inside those plastic and foam packages. How much pesticide had been on the corn those cattle had eaten? What antibiotics had been pumped into the animals, keeping them alive for slaughter day?
A year or two later, I learned that more than ten pounds of corn were used to produce every pound of U.S. grain-fed beef and that broad swaths of South American rainforest were being denuded to raise cattle for North American markets. Why should my diet harm the earth? Why should it make such wasteful use of the fruits of the land, perpetuating this pattern of First World gluttony when people around the globe were starving?
My appetite for supermarket flesh had been further dulled by what I knew about factory farming: pigs crammed into crates barely larger than their bodies, chickens stuck in tiny cages for the entirety of their brief lives. What right did humans have to treat animals so cruelly? And must not that cruelty harm humans in turn? Must not the common practice of “thumping” runt piglets—grabbing them by the hind legs and smashing their heads against concrete floors—harden people’s hearts and distort their notions of morality?
The change had been gradual: these questions growing, my meals including less and less meat. Now, at twenty, the final recognition hit hard. I had killed this fish out of nothing more than habit.
Picking up my little spinning rod, I had tied a lure to the stiff, tightly spiraled line and cast out into the quarry. Soon enough the trout had struck and had come in flashing, struggling against the hook. A minute later, I had it on the cutting board, its head severed, my heart filled with sudden disquiet.
Because I had killed the fish, I ate it. But I cooked and swallowed its tender flesh with regret. Unlike a factory chicken, it had lived well, yet its death had been gratuitous. There were so many other things I could have eaten, things like rice and vegetables, things that would not have felt the hook or even the briefest slice of steel. It was, I vowed, the last time I would ever consume a fellow creature.
During my last two years of college, I lived in Brooklyn and attended classes in lower Manhattan. Practically all of my friends were vegetarians. We could see no conscionable reason to eat the flesh of other animals. No rationale could justify it. No apology could set it right. Before long, I became a purist: a vegan. I forswore eggs, milk, yogurt, and cheese. I objected to specific practices like the partial clipping off of laying hens’ sensitive beaks to prevent them from pecking at each other in overcrowded conditions. And I objected more generally to the confinement of fellow animals, the bending of other creatures’ lives to serve human ends.
I could walk into any New York City grocery store and find shelves and display cases brimming with bread and beans, fruit and greens. Or I could walk over to the farmers’ market in Union Square, at the intersection of Broadway and Fourteenth Street, to buy produce directly from the folks who had grown it.
I still knew plenty of meat eaters, of course, including my family. Fortunately, they accepted my diet. When we sat down to Thanksgiving dinner at Uncle Mark’s house and I declined turkey, no one said anything. I, in turn, said nothing about the roasted flesh on the table or about the antlered deer head on the living-room wall.
If I had paused to think about it, I don’t suppose I would have known what to make of Uncle Mark and his pursuits. To me, hunting now seemed like a barbaric relic of the past. Perhaps it had been a necessity in our days as hunter-gatherers, but here in modern America that time was long gone. Mark didn’t depend on wild meat to feed his family. His job as a mechanic and machinist, keeping mowers and other equipment running smoothly on a Cape Cod golf course, put groceries on the table.
The idea of hunting for trophies—anachronistic proof of Man the Hunter’s machismo, his capacity to dominate nature and shoot down the largest possible animals—appalled me. So did the idea of hunting for “sport” or “recreation.” What excuse could there be for taking pleasure in the act of killing? As a boy, I had read Jean Craighead George’s Julie of the Wolves. In the novel’s climactic scene, the young heroine’s friend and wilderness foster parent, the wolf Amaroq, is killed on Alaska’s North Slope. The men who shoot him from an airplane do so not for the sake of protecting livestock, nor for his pelt, nor even for profit. They kill solely for amusement. When I put the book down, I had no words for the grief lodged in my throat.
Yet sadistic fun wasn’t a motive I could have attributed to Mark. He was tender with his wife and kids. He doted on his dog. Driving, he swerved to avoid squirrels or turtles crossing the road. And, though there was that one deer head on the wall, I couldn’t have imagined Mark—who seemed quiet to the point of timidity and self-effacement—getting all puffed up about trophies. So why did he go to such lengths to pursue and kill meat on the hoof?
I might also have wondered why Willie fished. We had lost touch after my father’s sudden, devastating death in an accident when I was seventeen. But toward the end of college, I called Willie and we met for lunch in Boston. He was just as I remembered him: big, warm, full of that funny, high-pitched laughter, at ease with himself and the life he had crafted. He had no vicious streak. And his custom furniture business, while not lucrative, kept him fed. Why, then, I might have asked, did he feel the need to catch and kill fish?
Repentant, I looked back on my own boyhood with a mixture of regret and sympathy, wishing I hadn’t been a killer, but chalking it up to hot-blooded ignorance. I hadn’t known any better.
Now, with the unassailable certainty of youth, I did know.
Peregrine falcons, well on their way to recovery, had begun nesting in New York City. But living there wasn’t going to suit me for long. In my small apartment, I felt separate from nature. It was all around me—in the trees that lined the streets, in the gray and black squirrels that loped through Washington Square Park, in the grass that sprouted in the cracks and seams of the pavement—but it felt too fragmented. I wasn’t touching soil. I wasn’t hearing the sounds of water, of wind in the trees. Unlike the farmers whose trucks I visited in Union Square, I had no contact with the earth from which our food sprang.
Along the sidewalks of Brooklyn and Manhattan, I picked up pigeon feathers. I read and reread the Wendell Berry poem pinned to the wall of my apartment, “The Peace of Wild Things”:
When despair for the world grows in me
and I wake in the night at the least sound
in fear of what my life and my children’s lives may be,
I go and lie down where the wood drake
rests in his beauty on the water, and the great heron feeds.
I come into the peace of wild things
who do not tax their lives with forethought
of grief. I come into the presence of still water.
And I feel above me the day-blind stars
waiting with their light. For a time
I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.
One evening, leaving class and stepping out onto Eleventh Street near the corner of Sixth Avenue, I noticed an unusually bright streetlamp out of the corner of my eye. Looking up, I saw the full moon and realized I hadn’t seen stars in months.
Two years later, I was in love. My sweetheart, Catherine, and I were moving in together and had rented a place among New York’s Finger Lakes, an hour from her hometown.
Leaving my father’s house for the last time, I sorted through my things. I had gotten rid of my .22 and my father’s few firearms by then; guns had no place in the life of mindful compassion I intended to lead. I still had my Jennings bow, though, and decided to give it to a friend.
I still had my old tackle box, too. Figuring it might be useful for some other purpose, I kept the box, and also the retractable tape I had used to measure trout before jotting their lengths in my logbook. Most of the rest I tossed out, including a few bedraggled lures and a handful of rusty Eagle Claw hooks in paper-and-plastic sleeves. They smelled of salmon eggs.
My fillet knife I sent to Willie.
Half a decade into being a vegan, I couldn’t have fathomed eating flesh again. And I certainly couldn’t have pictured myself eight years later, plunking my first freshly eviscerated mammal down onto the kitchen counter.
Copyright © 2012 by Tovar Cerulli
Grateful acknowledgment is made for permission to reprint “The Peace of Wild Things,” Copyright © 1998 by Wendell Berry from The Selected Poems of Wendell Berry. Reprinted by permission of Counterpoint.