Here in north-central Vermont, the earth is just beginning to thaw. By May, though, my wife Catherine and I will be planting tiny seeds in the circular bed at the center of our garden. A few weeks later, we will kneel there with scissors, snipping lettuce—oak leaf, red sails, blushed butter, merlot, and troutback—into a basket, along with the blossoms of heartsease pansies and lemon-gem marigolds.
Back in the kitchen, I will trim silverskin from a piece of venison. Sautéed, then sliced thin and arranged over greens, the steak will complete the salad.
Then, on the back porch, warmed by the late day sun, we will sit. Before eating, we will reach out to clasp hands and pause for a moment of thanksgiving: a moment to reflect on interconnectedness, on what Buddhist teacher Thich Nhat Hanh calls “interbeing.” Our bowls, after all, hold more than lettuce and meat.
In each green leaf are the rains of recent weeks and the life-giving energy of the sun. In each is the sandy soil that tops this little plateau along the upper reaches of the Winooski Valley: soil that settled here some 12,000 years ago in the shallows of a glacial lake. In each is the composted manure we added to that soil, and in that manure are the lives—and, ultimately, the deaths—of local dairy cows.
In each leaf, too, is the work of human hands. In each is Catherine’s turning of the soil, when it first thawed and I was tied to my desk by work. In each is the heft and heave of shovel and bucket as we unloaded manure from the trailer. In each are dairy farmers’ long days.
In each slice of venison is the life of the whitetail buck I shot last November—“the bounce, the swish,” as American poet and environmental activist Gary Snyder put it, “of a great alert being with keen ears and lovely eyes, with foursquare feet and a huge beating heart.” In each is everything the deer ate—leaves and twigs, blossoms and bark, corn and clover. In each is the current of the small stream from which the whitetail undoubtedly drank and the wetland from which that stream flows.
In each slice are all the places this deer lived: the fields where he browsed on summer evenings, the thick woods where he sheltered on winter nights, the places where he ate and slept and mated. In each, too, is the place where he died, a bullet through his great heart, the spot where I knelt beside him that morning, my hand on his still-warm shoulder. In each are the long hours I spent at the kitchen counter, separating muscle from bone.
The greens and meat are made of all these things, all these places, and more. And so, too, are we, as we ingest them.
Fork in hand, I am reminded yet again that we are part of a vast food web, members of a great community of life. I am reminded that though we had a hand in bringing these foods to our bowls, we did not make them. They were made by the miraculous world, the planet and places on which we depend for everything. And someday, upon our deaths, our bodies will feed that world in turn. The making and unmaking goes on.
Taking that first bite, I am reminded that eating is an act of communion. I am reminded that we are not merely on this earth, but of it.
© 2013 Tovar Cerulli
(Note: The video below is an Earth Day tribute to Rachel Carson, produced by Open Road Media. I’m honored to be part of it, alongside Richard Ellis and Jean Craighead George, one of my favorite childhood authors. The tree and landscape footage was mostly shot near our home here in the upper Winooski Valley.)
Your words echo in my heart and speak volumes of the values heirarchy that I have chosen. Your ability to profess without prosletyzing, to speak to the spirit of the universe is unparalled.
Thank you SO much for this beautiful essay! It resonates with every fiber of my being.
You are truly a gifted writer and ambassador of mindfulness.
Thank you for your kind comment, Bradley. I’m grateful to know that my words resonate.
‘Just so’ are the words that came to me after reading your words today. Then Bradley spoke exactly how I feel. Just so.
Thank you, Christine. 🙂
p1 deers eat leaves and twigs
p2 leaves and twigs are dependent on soil and nutrients
main conclusion: it’s ethically ok to eat deer
Have I got that about right? It’s a non sequitur. It does not follow, especially since as you know, humans do not need to consume animal flesh to maintain health. Ask Carl Lewis, 4 time Olympic gold medalist and vegan.
Causing violence, suffering and death to animals, where it’s not necessary is by definition animal cruelty.
Wilberforce: I’m not sure if you’re simply trying to be antagonistic or simply misunderstood my words. This post does not make the non-sequitur argument you suggest. Nor does it make any other ethical argument or claim.
Elsewhere — in my life, in my book, and in other posts on this blog — I have wrestled with the ethics of eating meat, the ethics of hunting, and the ethics of agriculture, for that matter. The issues are complex and arguments could go on forever. So could discussions of humans’ nutritional needs.
Here, I am simply describing a sense of connection, a sense of being part of the world with all its nuances and sometimes-messy complexities, a sense that comes not from eating meat but from looking deeply into the origins of our food, whatever that food may be.
Tovar; “Nor does it make any other ethical argument or claim.” Exactly, there is no logical reasoning here, just feelings. If you can’t justify your consumption of flesh with logical arguments, then there must some level of cognitive dissonance. How do you deal with kind of moral schizophrenia?
Bradley; “For some this is as close to religious belief as we will come.” But you don’t live in a stone age society where you have to eat meat. Eskimo, Native animism is a valid religious outlook, but we live in a modern agricultural society where it is not necessary to eat meat. Again, if this violence against animals is not necessary, it is be legal definition, animal cruelty. I realize that governments and agri-business purposefully exclude cattle from such protection and animals used in laboratories are not classified as animals, they are simply “models”, but individuals should be above such sophistry and equivocation.
No malice implied to anyone, I’m just trying to figure out how people justify the violence done to animals just to satisfy a taste sensation. I know most people (non-hunters) simply compartmentalize their sensitivities when it comes to meal times.
Thanks for your follow up, Wilberforce. I’ll reply as soon as I can. This happens to be an insanely busy week for me.
I’ll respond briefly in a couple ways, Wilberforce.
About the post itself: I gather that because meat-eating and hunting are mentioned, you expect the post to also include arguments justifying both. I don’t share that expectation. Though I fully recognize that meat-eating and hunting raise ethical and moral issues for many people (including me), I don’t feel compelled to argue those issues every time I mention meat or hunting.
About the larger issues you raise: For many years, I saw them in ways quite similar to the ways you apparently see them. Over time, my views have shifted in various ways on many fronts: humans’ nutritional needs, the meaning of human participation in predation, the possibility of living harmlessly, the relevance of moral certainty, and so on. I no longer see the world in the black-and-white terms I used to employ. To some degree, I now think moral dissonance is part of mindul, insightful living.
This may sound strange, but I’ve come to a place where I can more easily make my peace with the swift, intentional kill that I have chosen for the specific purpose of eating (one deer per year, if my luck is good) than with all the unintended harm I do via agriculture, driving, etc (who knows how many creatures and ecosystems per year).
If you really want to understand my journey and perspective, please read my book. I can’t reproduce all the moral, emotional, logical, ecological, and spiritual aspects here in a blog comment.
Incidentally, some of my favorite reviews of the book have been written by vegetarians. One said that the book made her think about returning to veganism and that she thought the author would consider that a compliment. Her comment surprised me, but I realized she was right. She understood that the book is not a call for everyone to become omnivores or hunters. It’s an invitation for everyone to look deeply into the world, to reconsider things from some unfamiliar perspectives, and then to eat and live as they see fit.
I am sorry that you cannot recognize the spiritual connection to animals through ingesting their spirit through flesh.
For some this is as close to religious belief as we will come.
Please respect those who chose to worship this way.
Vegans often preach tolerance for others, until this disconnected reality occurs.
In this country we are free to practice our religious beliefs as we see fit. Mine is to connect with nature and eat the flesh of animals I admire and love as a form of spiritual communion. I choose to do this as a religious practice. If you choose not to do so that is fine, but by no means are your moral imperatives superior to mine. Please don’t preach self-righteousness.
If you feel that hunting is part of your religion and brings you closer to nature/mother earth/creation/the Tao, than I can’t use logic and reasoning to argue the ethical points. So that’s the end of the debate.
Hunting is certainly more humane that modern farming practices, so kudos to you for walking the talk.
ps. I am against our “modern agricultural society’s” treatment of our food, animals and vegetables alike.
Tovar, sometimes your words are like music, lyrical and eloquent. What you shared here, is “religion” in the truest sense. Also, aren’t edible flowers grand?
Thanks for your kind words, Carol. I’m so glad you enjoyed this.
Yes, Catherine has a gift for creating beauty and edible flowers often grace our food in summer. 🙂
All I can say is, right on, Tovar.
I have been noticing feelings of gratitude more when I consume any good food, and esp wild game, as I reflect on these issues more. I didn’t experience this as much when I was younger, either with animals I killed or any other food. That may have had something to do with lack of specific awareness of ecological systems, or not going beyond the simple thought “these are the facts of life” (death begets life). The latter is of course the truth and reality of the matter, but it’s helpful on many levels to go beyond that.
Thanks, Erik. It sounds as though mindfulness is cultivating gratitude for you as well.
I think we can experience that while eating anything. Many moons ago, right before I went vegetarian, I was at a retreat with Thich Nhat Hanh. One of the meditation exercises involved the very slow, reflective chewing of a single bite of bread: a remarkable experience with any food.
Very nice, Tovar.
Thanks, Paul. Glad you enjoyed it.
Nicely put, Tovar. It’s good to stop and recognize what’s in that bowl, and then to appreciate it as a whole.
Hmm… there’s something of the Longfellow in me today.
Glad you enjoyed it, Henry, er, I mean Phillip. 😉
Hi, Tovar! I hope you are still reading comments. I just finished reading your entire blog from start to finish, and look forward to reading your book. I’m not a hunter, but I have relatives who hunt, and I have always felt that, as long as the hunter uses the meat, I’ve no ethical bone to pick with hunting, although I don’t think I could ever do it myself. Well, didn’t think, because reading your and your incredibly thoughtful commenters, I’ve come to think perhaps I could. (Busy city gal that I am, though, it’s not likely to happen.)
I want to thank you and all your commenters for your thoughtful conversation, even in the face of some very different opinions. It renews my faith that human beings CAN have intelligent discussions about controversial subjects–and even come to (gasp!) understand each other better! Congratulations on creating such a forum.
Thanks for your kind comment, Potato Queen! I don’t know of anyone else who has read my entire blog from start to finish. So thanks for your enthusiasm!
I’ve been lucky and grateful to have such fine commenters here, especially in dealing with such controversial issues.
I just came back from a trip to Colorado where I spent a day talking with hunter-education instructors and two days later was interviewed for “conscious media” leader Gaiam TV. Talk about two different worlds. Yet the thoughts and heartfelt concerns expressed in each were not so different at all. At some point, I’ll carve out time to write a post about both experiences.
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