Note: This was first published on No Unsacred Place around 2012-ish, which went defunct a few years ago (RIP–it was a good site). Then it was on Paths Through the Forests, but I split from Patheos a couple of years ago due to philosophical differences with their new ownership. As they have not honored my request to have my writing taken down, and I don’t want to direct more traffic to them, I am slowly reproducing my work from there here. That way if I want to share this post with someone it will come from my site and not theirs. Please help me by sharing this link around–thank you!
Late Autumn is a very special time for me. Yes, Samhain has come and gone, and the air gets colder, and it’s time to toss extra blankets on the bed. But what really gets me excited is green tomato soup.
I am an urban gardener. Sadly, I am not fortunate enough to be able to rent, let alone own, a house here in the middle of Portland. But I don’t need to in order to grow things. Since I moved here, I have put in a small vegetable garden every year, no matter where I’ve lived. This year was the most challenging, since all I had was a small porch, about thirty inches by six feet. But I stuffed it with containers of herbs and carrots—and tomatoes.
Tomatoes are the ultimate example to me of locavorism and why it’s important. Like most Americans, I grew up with grocery stores that had all kinds of produce year-round, even in the dead of a Midwestern winter. I didn’t really have a sense of seasons; I just knew that there were some parts of the year where the watermelons didn’t taste quite as good.
It wasn’t until I read Barbara Kingsolver’s Animal, Vegetable, Miracle: A Year of Food Life that it really hit me that food wasn’t always available all the time. I mean, I knew on some level, but when you grow up in a nation where you can get bananas any time of year, you’re in great danger of forgetting where food comes from. This problem is compounded even further when more and more families, due to finances, time restrictions, and even basic accessibility, favor pre-packaged, overly processed “food products” over fresh fruits and veggies and other base ingredients. Farmers may as well as be an alien species for all that many people here are concerned.
And it’s getting worse. I am 33 years old; I grew up in a small Midwestern town, in a household where good food was thankfully abundant. My grandmother and mother both gardened, and salads were common fare. I also grew up around a lot of farms, so I was aware of what cows, pigs and other livestock looked like.
Contrast that with this video from Jamie Oliver’s Food Revolution, where school children from just a year or so ago have trouble identifying tomatoes, among others. (Okay, I would have had trouble with eggplant, too, but tomatoes?)
So I suppose that as I got older and got involved in more sustainability geekery, I saw myself as trying to turn the tide, and maybe balance out some of that lack of understanding and exposure. I started my own garden in every apartment I moved into once I hit the Pacific Northwest in 2006. I learned to use a pressure canner. I tried more recipes from scratch. And I always had tomatoes.
Which is rather odd, since I used to HATE them. Some of it was age, since our tastes literally can shift over time. But until, as an adult, I tried a fresh tomato straight out of my garden after years of only having access to mealy, watery things in the store and restaurants, I was hooked. I’d planted the vines so I could make pizza sauce from scratch, but fresh tomatoes became a favorite snack. And once the weather got too cold and the sun too far south for the tomatoes to ripen (I never got the paper bag and banana trick to work), I made green tomato soup from the last survivors on the vines.This year, there was only one small pot of soup since my little balcony garden didn’t produce very much. But my partner, S., and I had been looking forward to it for the entire year before. The idea for this post came as we were supping on that one single meal, enjoying a rare treat.
That one pot of soup was extra special this year for its scarcity, and each step of creating it was sacred. From the moment I picked the last tomatoes from the vines I’d tended since March, to slicing them up and adding them to the mix, and then taking them into my body to become a part of me–the entire process was a ritual in and of itself, even if no spirits were formally invoked. For that time, I felt myself to be immersed in cycles that I all too often still ignore, an altered state of awareness that, to our species, was not so long ago the norm.
For now, tomatoes are the main reminder to me of the seasonal nature of foods. I’m still admittedly pretty spoiled for choices, and I don’t buy in season as much as I really ought to. I get really busy with work and such, and when it comes time to go to the store I just want to get through there as quickly as I can so I can get back home to whatever writing or art project I’m working on. And it’s really telling, when even someone who’s conscientious of her actions and choices can still slide into these old behaviors.
As an urban pagan, I face the challenges of observing a nature-based and cyclical spiritual path in an environment that often promotes being numbed to those influences. If we are going to make nature-based spirituality relevant to city dwellers as well as more rural people, then we need to not only utilize the tools of agrarian people from long ago, but to accept that we need solutions for a variety of human-created environments and societies and cultures.
As we slide toward Thanksgiving, a lot of my food-based thoughts are on how to maximize things like leftovers to help my household get through the winter. But I am going to do more research to remind myself of what truly is in season right now, and start to alter my grocery habits to reflect that more as much as I’m able. And perhaps more food will become sacred rituals cycling throughout the year, a reminder of the reasons for the seasons.
[Main photo: rice and cheese stuffed crimini mushrooms, roasted acorn squash and red onion, and sauteed vegetables and mushrooms]
The older I get, the more important food has become to me. For the first quarter century of my life, I couldn’t have cared less about domestic duties. In fact, in my misguided desire to break out of traditional female gender roles, I eschewed anything associated with the household for many years. I remember a friend coming over to visit, and being shocked at how scarce kitchenware was in my home. I was basically living like a stereotypical bachelor(ette).
Then I ended up living with someone who insisted on taking over all the domestic duties as a way of “taking care” of me. Unfortunately, their cooking skills were…less than advertised. After entirely too many pans of cheap chicken thighs or pork chops covered in cream of mushroom soup and then dried to the consistency of shoe leather in the oven, I finally decided to learn to cook in self-defense. I started with my mom’s chili recipe, a piece of comfort food from home. And I found that I loved cooking–the flavors, the alchemy, the transformation of a pile of ingredients and a recipe into something artistic as well as edible.
While I am in no way a professional level cook, and in some ways am still barely competent in the kitchen, I’ve acquired a decent collection of cookbooks and flavor manuals, and I have a much better set of utensils. After years of gardening and foraging and preserving plants, and even raising and slaughtering my own meat, I also have gained a much deeper appreciation for the quality of the ingredients I use. I can’t always afford the pasture-raised meat, but I try to have a bottle of genuine olive oil no matter the recipe. (Costco has become one of my greatest resources.)
One thing that has always been central to my cuisine, even from the start, was respect for the animals, plants and fungi I was about to consume. We literally are what we eat. The vast majority of the molecules in my body came from something I ate or drank, and every time I sit down to a meal or a snack I am aware that part of what I am about to enjoy is going to become a long-term part of my body. After all, I’m only borrowing it temporarily before it gets returned to the ecosystem, so I should be appreciative of those recently deceased whose remains are actively being recycled by my digestive system.
Why is this awareness important?
–Connection with nature on a spiritual level: My paganism has always been nature-based, even if the exact interpretation thereof has evolved over time. As a naturalist pagan, I don’t invest myself in supernatural concepts–even the idea of spirits, to me, is something that I don’t actively try to prove literally. Instead, my path is firmly rooted in the idea that I am a part of something deeper and greater than myself, the concentric rings of community, ecosystem, planet and universe. By being mindful of the living beings whose now-dead remains are about to nourish me and keep me alive another day, I am reminding myself that I am part of that greater cycle, and that I am just one tiny part of the great community of nature. Even when the being who is feeding me–a fruit or nut tree, for example–is technically still alive, I still want to honor the sacrifice of their energy-made-matter and their potential offspring.
–Consideration of the welfare of other beings: I know there are people who will argue that anyone who isn’t a strict vegan can’t possibly be acting for the welfare of animals, at least, and that plants and fungi don’t count since they don’t have animal nervous systems. I’m not going to get into that debate because that’s at least three more blog posts, so leave it be. As someone who is an obligate omnivore, I’ve found the best solution for both my health and the planet is Michael Pollan’s advice: Eat [real] food, not too much, mostly plants. I am not currently in a place where I am able to grow or raise all of my food, but the farm my art studio is on has a nice garden going, with plans for improvement in subsequent years. I also have access to several farmers’ markets in the summer, though I’ve yet to find a good local CSA. And starting this past year I began raising chickens for both eggs and meat (though they’ve ended up being pets as well.) The more I can control the source of my own food and how it was grown and raised, the better I will feel about my role as a consumer of food.
–Mindful eating: This is a way to slow down your consumption of food and to be more aware of the experience of eating. It serves to not only reconnect you with something that can be quite enjoyable, but slowing down the act of eating can help reduce indigestion and other problems. Moreover, I feel it gives meals more meaning. As someone who eats alone 95% of the time, it can be easy for me to just zone about and shovel food into my mouth while I wander around online or read a book. Mindful eating makes me appreciate what I’m eating more, which has encouraged my already active interest in home cooking. And it helps me to remember again that everything I’m eating was once alive, as I am now alive, and that is something to respect.
I don’t really do special rituals or magic with my food; instead, having mindfulness infuse the very acts of cooking and eating is ritual in and of itself. That being said, you’re certainly welcome to toss a little kitchen witchery into the process if that’s your practice. Here are a few ideas:
–When preparing your work area, consider lighting candles or incense, or cleansing the area with a wash of salt- or herb-infused water. You can also put out crystals nearby that represent your intent. Some pagans like to have an apron or other adornment they only wear when preparing sacred meals (though I consider every meal to be sacred.) Consider it a way of making sacred space for the beings you are about to prepare into food, welcoming them into your home.
–Say a prayer over the ingredients for the meal you are about to prepare, thanking them for being there and asking that you be able to treat them with respect as you turn them into nourishment for you and whoever else you’re feeding
–Bless the herbs and spices you add to your meals. You can even look up magical correspondences for them, and add ones that match the intent of the meal. For example, cashews are often associated with financial success, so a meal of cashew chicken might be a good thing to have just before an interview or important business deal. Ask the spirits of the plants and minerals to help you with your goal.
–Create magical art with your food. This is especially easy with baking, and plenty of magical groups have celebrated rituals with cookies or cakes decorated with pentacles and other symbols. Try baking a layer cake where each layer is dyed with food coloring in shades that reflect intent–green for fertility and growth, pink for youth and joy, yellow for sunshine and health, and so on. Ask the wheat (or oats, or rice) in the flour, as well as the eggs, milk or other ingredients, to carry that intent for you.
–Decorate your table with reminders of the animals, plants and fungi you are consuming. You might have plates that have chickens on them, or add leaves of lettuce and fresh mushrooms as an edible centerpiece. Let the meal be a celebration of these beings and their gifts to you.
–If eating with others, take time to discuss the sources of your food and why you chose them. Even if the answer is “This is what I could afford and what I had access to,” that’s valid. Talk about where you think the plants were grown and the animals raised, and if you want to be able to change your sources–even if you can’t do it now–brainstorm ways in which that can happen at some point.
–Let nothing go to waste. Leftovers are love, as far as I’m concerned, not the least reason of which being they save me a night of having to cook again. Should you have chickens, pigs or other omnivorous animals, give them your kitchen scraps. Other pets can have limited types of scraps; dogs and cats love meat bits, various small critters love vegetables and fruit, and rats and some parrots will eat just about anything you give them. As for the rest, if you’re able to compost outside, tend your compost pile with care. Apartment dwellers may look into vermicomposting–composting with worms–which can be done indoors with few problems. Just don’t leave food scraps where wild mammals can easily get to them; this encourages them to lose their fear of humans and makes them dependent on us for food, which rarely turns out good for anyone involved. If you garden, let your compost be a gift to your plants (and fungi, if you grow dirt-loving mushrooms.)
Even if you don’t take the idea of spirits literally, these practices can still help you maintain awareness of where your food comes from and how you are connected to everything in a greater webwork of relationships. At a time when more people than ever are divorced from the sources of their nourishment, and take for granted the soil and the beings that it supports, it is crucial for us to regain that appreciation for our food. We are already destroying the land, the water and the air, and we need these if we are to continue having food available to us. If we start with changing our awareness, then that awareness translates into actions for the better. Let it start in your kitchen, and move out from there into the world.
Did you enjoy this post? Consider a copy of my book Nature Spirituality From the Ground Up, which includes even more practices to connect with your bioregion and the beings within it! More info on my books can be found at https://thegreenwolf.com/books
In case you didn’t know it, I am a minor-level foodie. I haven’t run around to every single pricey restaurant in Portland, but I am an unabashed locavore who loves to cook. And as an environmentalist I’m keenly aware of where my food comes from.
When I eat, I am not just consuming calories so I don’t die, or eating something I like so that it’s an enjoyable experience. I am consciously mindful of the fact that the animal, plant or fungus I am about to ingest was raised in a particular place and in a specific manner. It lived a life, perhaps a good one, perhaps a bad one, and that life now ends in its physical remains becoming a part of my own still-living body. I am made of molecules that came from around the world, though increasingly from my local region.
Connected to this sense of place is a concept known as terroir, which in French means “soil.” Most commonly encountered in the discussion of wine, terroir describes the qualities of the land and its tending that influence the taste of the food or drink it produces. Some of these factors are climate, weather, soil quality, fertilization and other soil treatments (or lack thereof), food given to animals, stress the living being experienced during life, and even how it was slaughtered or harvested. The reason that a wine expert can tell a wine grown from a particular valley in France is because of the terroir that affects the flavor of the grapes that created it.
I first became aware of terroir through the Slow Food movement founded by Carlo Petrini, a response to the growing influence of fast food and heavy processing in the global food market. Slow Food is about locally grown foods which are carefully prepared and then enjoyed consciously rather than simply inhaled for basic calories. Extra attention is paid to the source of each ingredient, where it was grown and how it was cared for, and even the people who attended to it from life to death. Terroir is how the unique taste of that ingredient reflects on the land it came from. Combine several local ingredients together in a recipe from regional cuisine, and you get a veritable symphony of terroir that may be absolutely unique in the world.
Let me give you a more concrete example. I don’t drink wine often, so I can’t really use that as a viable image, though those of you who are wine lovers may find some of this familiar. However, I use olive oil extensively in my cooking, not just for the health benefits but the flavor as well. Canola oil is just greasy compared to the body of a good olive oil. And I am fortunate in that CostCo carries relatively inexpensive olive oils that have Protected Designation of Origin, meaning that yes, this is pure olive oil of high quality that hasn’t been sitting around in a warehouse for years, and the label tells exactly where it came from.(1)
Most of the olive oil on the market is old or poor quality and has lost much of its flavor; some of it has even been cut with cheaper oils like sunflower. If you taste it and then taste real, fresh, extra virgin olive oil, the latter has a much more vibrant taste. It tastes like olives, rather than sunflower oil mixed with a bit of grass. Different PDO olive oils have their own unique notes, much like wine. That’s the terroir speaking, in which the soil and the sunlight and the care of harvest are all reflected in the final flavor. To me, a good olive oil tastes like the land it came from, and even if I’ve never been there I can still imagine it.
So why is this important to paganism? Well, if you ask a lot of pagans, our spirituality is about the land. Honestly, many pagans celebrate a more abstract conception of land rather than getting down and dirty with the soil they live on; if you’re chanting about Earth, Air, Fire, Water but you don’t know much about your local climate, geology or watershed, you have a lot of opportunities for expanding your nature-based practice.
We also make a lot of talk about harvest festivals in late summer and the first half of autumn, but our ritual feasts are often store-bought breads and imported produce rather than anything we grew or prepared ourselves.(2) If we’re really going to celebrate the harvest, doesn’t it behoove us to not only use local food and drink, but also to familiarize ourselves with when our actual growing and harvest times are, and what’s growing when?
Terroir is an excellent opportunity to root your paganism in the actual land you’re practicing on. You’re literally eating and drinking the land; the molecules in locally-produced food came from the same general area that you are honoring, and they will then be incorporated into your own physical form. By paying attention to the flavors that make this area’s flour unique, or its fish especially tasty, or its vegetables heartier, you are experiencing your land, and by consuming that food you are making the land a part of you. And when you utilize recipes and other elements of cuisine created by people who have lived on that land a while, that gives you even more relationship with place.(3)
In the United States, most ingredients in our food isn’t labeled. In our many processed foods ingredients from countless sources are all blended into one homogenous lump. You won’t know where the wheat, rice or oats in your breakfast cereal came from, or where the sugar cane grew. Meat is no longer labeled with what country it came from or where it was slaughtered. Produce may have a sticker saying what state or country it came from, but no more specific than that; if I buy a Washington or Oregon apple I couldn’t tell you what farm it was from unless I happen to buy it from the farm itself.
To counteract that, I offer this little introduction to terroir. To start, pick a single food item that is produced locally. It can be something straight out of the ground, like a vegetable or fruit, or which requires a little more preparation like meat or cheese. Get some of that local food, and also a few examples of the same food that were produced in other identifiable places but further away–for example, an apple from a local orchard in Washington, and then another from California, and another from Mexico. Or pick something that has a reputation for its terroir–get a piece of real Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese from Parma, and then a “Parmesan” made somewhere in the United States, and maybe some of that powdered stuff in a can. Have a bit of a tasting, where you eat a bit of each one at a time, and pay attention to the differences in flavor and texture with each bite.
Be more mindful of the origin of all your food to the best of your ability. Think about the land it came from, and how it got from there to where you are now.(4) When you celebrate holidays with food, choose those that are made locally or that you create yourself from local ingredients, to the best of your ability and budget, and especially for harvest festivals. When you eat, consider it a communion with the land, not just something tasty. Remember that you carry around bits and pieces of every place that has fed you, and this gives you a deeply intimate and physical connection to those locations. In this way you can deepen your relationship to nature beyond the symbols and rites, and into the core of your very being.
1. Not all of the olive oil that CostCo carries is PDO certified. Generally the big plastic jugs aren’t; look for glass bottles, and especially look for a PDO label and the country of origin somewhere on the label.
2. I totally get that not everyone has the space, money or ability to garden. But if you’re going to pour a bit of money into a seasonal ritual, set some aside to get a locally baked loaf of bread or some apples from a local farmer, or whatever your regional farms are producing.
3. Here in the Pacific Northwest there are a few different local cuisines going on. There are the foodways of indigenous people, some of which have been shared with others. There are the cuisines of the various waves of immigrants over the past couple of centuries which meld local ingredients and far-away traditions. And there is a more self-conscious “modern” Pacific Northwest cuisine which is an attempt to combine all of these to one degree or another, again with a strong emphasis on local ingredients. Please understand that where you are, the local cuisine may not be open to all, especially where indigenous people have been subjected to abuse and oppression and therefore aren’t willing to also open their foodways to the perpetrators thereof.
4. To be brutally honest, the way food often gets to us is fraught with both human and environmental abuses; but that’s a whole other post for another time.
I don’t do a lot of praying; I tend to do more acting, being and observing. But occasionally I want to take a moment to appreciate something that I have, so I send out a prayer of gratitude. There’s one that I wrote years ago that I say every night before I go to sleep:
Thank you to all of those who have given me this day,
All those who have given of themselves
To feed me
And heal me.
May I learn to be as generous as you.
When I wrote it as a newbie pagan, I felt that I’d mostly covered the bases on what others (human and otherwise) gave to me so I could go on living each day. Now that I’m older I could think of other actions in addition to feeding or teaching, but I love the flow of this prayer as it is. It’s like an old story–Italian, I think?–in which a man comes across a group of little fey ladies coming out of a hill, singing “Saturday, Sunday and Monday”. The man then sings out “and Tuesday!” and the ladies curse him because he ruined the cadence of their song. Sure, I could add another line or two, but it’s currently perfect in its rhythm and timing for getting me back into touch with all those who have contributed to me getting another day on this Earth.
I’m less naive than when I first wrote it, though. Take the line “To feed me”, for example. Back then I was thinking of the people who helped bring food to my table, from farmers to grocers to my own family. As I got older, I not only thought more about the plants, animals, fungi and other living beings involved in the complex food creation and distribution systems, but also the people who were more behind the scenes and often neglected: migrant farm workers, slaughterhouse employees, late-night cardboard box factory employees. And I thought of those ecosystems that were polluted by industrial fertilizers or torn down to make room for one more monocropped wheat field (even if it was organically grown).
So the whole prayer is a reminder to me that I am part of an incredibly complex web of connections, most of which I will never personally observe, but which I have an effect on in my everyday life. And it’s why the last line is bittersweet. I can never be as generous as a pig killed in a slaughterhouse for pork chops, and I will never know the experience of working fourteen hour days in a strawberry field under the hot summer sun, underpaid and worried about deportation. But I can at least give back in awareness, education, and trying to make better choices–like growing my own food when I’m able to, supporting fair trade practices and organic farming where I can afford it, and reminding others–even through this simple prayer–that nothing is as simple as “thank you”.
Did you enjoy this post? Consider picking up a copy of my newest book, Nature Spirituality From the Ground Up, which encourages the reader to be more aware of their bioregion and all the beings they share it with.
This past weekend I headed up to the coast house with my partner and our roommate for an overnight. The plan was to take measurements in my studio-to-be so I could figure out what I was taking in the way of furniture. I also wanted to get the old garden behind the garage covered over with tarps to kill off the weeds and other plants that had taken residence over several years of neglect. My goal is to be able to start planting in there by the start of June, but if that’s going to happen I’d need to get started on overhauling the space now.
What I seem to have forgotten in the week between the two visits to the house is that the garden had been unattended long enough that several small trees were growing there. So it wouldn’t be a matter of just throwing down tarps and calling it good. No, we’d have to go in and remove the trees, as well as tamp down other plants so they could be covered, along with uprooting a bit of English ivy that had somehow managed to take root in one corner (it’s nasty, pernicious stuff that will take over if you aren’t careful).
I see the killing of plants as a weighty matter in the same way I view the killing of animals. In either case I am taking away a being’s place in this world. And because we’ve been conditioned to see trees as extra-special (compared to, say, dandelions) it somehow feels more difficult to fell a tree than pull out invasive ivy. So before my partners in gardening came down from the house to help, I said my apologies to every one of the plants in that space. I think I said an extra apology to the trees, though.
However, the land isn’t hurting for trees, not in the least. In fact, they need thinning, particularly where they’ve intruded onto the dunes, and where a lack of fire and old growth has made the forest grow thicker than is healthy. And in the long run what I’m doing will be more beneficial to the world in other ways. By growing even more of my own food (I’m also keeping the community garden plot in Portland and my roommate has signed on as a co-gardener) I can cut down on reliance on monocropped produce from the stores, particularly since I can’t always afford the organic option. It’s a good reminder of why I need to be close to the land. And it’s great exercise.
We were all reminded of that last bit as we started in on the preparation of the plot behind the garage. I chopped down seven young fir trees and an alder that was threatening to take down the fence using a pair of clippers and a hand axe. S., my partner (and ever the historical swordsman) helped with the alder using a reproduction Civil War-era Bowie knife (more of a small sword than a pocket knife). J., our roommate, went after the overflow of grass with much gusto, and by the time all was said and done we were tired and sweaty, but the tarps were down and weighted with whatever heavy items we could find (to include, perhaps macabrely, the fir trees I had cut down).
I figure I’ll leave the tarps for a month or so, then rake up whatever’s underneath into a compost pile, turn the soil and remove whatever roots I find. The tree stumps will be a bit more of a challenge but I can work around them if need be. I want to send in a soil sample, too, to see what condition it’s in–obviously it’s been supporting a variety of life, so it’s not sterile. But I’m curious, particularly since the garden is a raised bed and the soil was likely brought in by truck.
I’ll be moving my studio out to the house next week, but I already feel a little more at home knowing I have a garden in the works.
I don’t see it as being contradictory at all to be both a practitioner of nature spirituality (druidry or otherwise) and a hunter. People have this idea that if you kill animals it must make you not like nature. But these same people forget a few important points:
Nature is not just animals; nature is also plants, fungi, bacteria, viruses, stones, waterways, weather patterns, even the spaces in between atoms. And all nature-lovers have to kill to survive, even if they’re killing plants, or fungi, or the bacteria residing on the makings of their fruitarian diet. What makes nature spirituality so awesome is that it encourages us to consciously embrace our place in the rest of nature, not as conqueror and superior, but as just one more ape among a whole host of vibrant and amazing beings.
As we are uniquely conscious (as far as we know, anyway) of the effects of our actions, we can feel sorrow at taking a life, even if it’s in the process of furthering our own existence. Nature spirituality offers us a framework to work through the emotions and thoughts associated with that reality, whether that’s grief at death, or the joy of dispelling hunger, or the gratitude at having another day to enjoy this amazing world we live in.
One of the misconceptions people have is that all hunters are callous when it comes to the rest of nature and the animals they kill. Sure, there are always going to be yahoos lacking in empathy who just want to see something die. But they’re the minority. Most hunters, at least in my experience, genuinely love being outdoors and respect the animals they hunt. You don’t get to know a species in the detail that’s required to successfully hunt it without having some appreciation of its strengths and characteristics. Again, nature spirituality offers ways to celebrate that life and the appreciation we have for the gift of meat that prolongs our lives.
Does that mean everyone following a nature-based spiritual path is going to agree on the issue of hunting? Of course not. It’s not a monolithic religion, but a general umbrella for both pagan and non-pagan paths that center on the sanctity of nature. Just as that tent includes hunters and omnivores, there are also vegetarians and vegans. And there are folks whose focus is more on agriculture than hunting, or who otherwise simply don’t account for the hunt as a part of their practice or philosophy.
IMO, what’s most important is respect, particularly for every being that dies to feed us, from the most powerful elk or bison (even those that are farm-raised) to the tiniest bacteria. Nature is composed of endless cycles of life, death, and rebirth, and we’re allowed the solemnity of death because we know what is lost and gained in that transition.
Last fall I got to the point where I was sick of my garden because of tomatoes.
See, I love making pizza sauce with fresh tomatoes. But last year I ended up planting way more tomato plants than I actually needed, and they all decided to send out a bumper crop in September–when I had a LOT of events happening. So I basically spent the month prepping for and being at events, and in between picking, prepping and canning pizza sauce. By the end of it, I didn’t want to see another tomato for a very long time, and I avoided the garden all winter.
But spring has a way of bringing me around. One of the beautiful things about Portland is that our growing season is super-long. Even if you don’t do winter gardening, you can still start your spring planting in early to mid March, depending on what you plant. I ended up having to delay another month because March was just absolutely crazy-busy, and I simply didn’t have time to attend to the plot properly.
Of course, “attending to” was a lot more complicated than just throwing some seeds in the ground. Thanks to fall fertilization, winter rains, and no one wanting to go out in the cold weather, the weeds took over. My plot wasn’t so bad, but all community garden members are required to keep the paths around our plots weeded. I have a 10′ x 20′ plot with 40′ of path around it, and it had gotten pretty gnarly. So over the past few weeks the order of operations has been:
–Say hello to the two year old parsnips in the middle of the plot, and the kale I left to flower for the bees
–Tame the compost bin and take out the usable compost
–Spread the compost, along with some bone meal and minerals, on the soil and turn it under
–Weed the plot
–Get the first round of seeds in the plot
–Weed the paths and add new mulch (this took about five hours in and of itself)
–Put in another round of seeds
–Glare menacingly at any new weeds in the hopes that will slow their growth some
–Plant the raspberry bush I got as a thank you gift for renewing my Rewild Portland membership at their annual fundraiser
I also spent some time communing with the berries. When I got this plot summer before last, it was completely covered in waist-high weeds and I had to remove them all myself. Most of what was in there was largely inedible, but I kept some calendula, and I found one runty little blueberry bush. So I bought it a couple of friends. These days they’re all still pretty small; I really should be fertilizing them more and testing the pH in their soil. But they still have teeny little berries. My strawberries had to be trimmed back some as they had escaped the patch I gave them; I think they’ll forgive me, though.
This year instead of going crazy over tomatoes, I decided squash would be the thing to do. It stores nicely and doesn’t need canning, and my household LOVES the stuff. I’ve been trying to cook more meatless meals, especially during summer and fall when the garden is producing nicely, and since the spaghetti squash I planted last year did pretty well and organic seeds were cheap, I’m hoping for a good crop this year. So I have several varieties planted and I’ll do another round in a couple of weeks to stagger things a bit and to see which seeds already planted actually germinate.
There’s also the usual roster of roots and leaves–beets, turnips, kale, spinach, and lettuce (not iceberg, mind you), and I cut up some old potatoes with sprouted eyes and got them in the ground. There will, of course, be peas in the pod, and I will allow myself to buy a few tomatoes once it warms up a bit more. In two months I expect everything to be green and flourishing, but for now it looks about like this:
It has been nice to rekindle my relationship with the garden again. I forgave it for throwing all the tomatoes at me at once, and I think I’ve been forgiven for letting the weeds get so tangled. So I’m looking forward to a nice year of cultivation and care, and long days in the sun in my garden plot.
Supposedly Thanksgiving is about gratitude, a rather pagan-friendly appreciation of the harvest that will help us get through the hard winter ahead. In my experience, it’s primarily been a time to get together with family and/or friends, eat lots of food (and for some people get tipsy or drunk on whatever booze is available), and not have to go to work. Other than a prayer before the meal, I’ve observed very little overt gratitude being given amid the festivities. It’s not that I don’t appreciate the value of time with good people and plenty to eat, and I definitely disapprove of the growing trend of nonessential personnel having to work on Thanksgiving proper. But the original meaning of the holiday seems to have been rather lost in practice.
Perhaps this is in part because deliberate harvest festivals have been a part of my spirituality for the better part of two decades. Because I came to paganism after being raised Catholic, and I didn’t have a coven or other group to indoctrinate me formally with a predetermined set of spiritual parameters, I had to really consider what beliefs and practices I was adhering to and why. So I learned about the three harvest Sabbats–Lammas, Fall Equinox, and Samhain–and their historical counterparts in various European cultures. As I spent more time gardening, I was able to put theoretical practices to the test, exercising a new layer of gratitude as I watched seeds I planted sprout, grow, and come to fruition. The older I got and the more my path developed, the less I took my spirituality for granted.
These days, gratitude is deeply ingrained in my path because I know too much now to sustain ignorance. My roots are firmly embedded in urban sustainability and environmental awareness, and so I am acutely aware of where my food comes from and the cost it exacts on the land. “Harvest” isn’t just something to be celebrated in autumn; I’m able to get all sorts of food year-round, and that means there’s a harvest going on somewhere every day. As much as I try to stay local and seasonal, it’s not always within my budget (financial or temporal), and so I sometimes find myself buying out of season produce flown in from far away and processed foods whose ingredients were harvested weeks ago, moreso in the winter.
This means that each meal is infused with awareness and appreciation for the origins of each of the ingredients, whether I grew them myself or not. I can’t help but be grateful to those who made sure I was able to eat, whether that’s the animals, plants and fungi that died (or were at least trimmed back) to feed me, or the people who took care of them throughout their lives, or those who harvested and prepared them. I also have gratitude for the land that supported the food as it grew, particularly those places where chemical pesticides, fertilizers and other “enhancements” have destroyed the health of the soil. And I think, too, of the air, water, and land polluted by the fossil fuels used to grow, process and transport the food to me, and the other wastes that result from the sometimes convoluted path from farm to table.
All of this is summed up in a short prayer I’ve said before meals–quietly or out loud–for many years:
Thank you to all those who have given of themselves to feed me, whether directly or indirectly.
May I learn to be as generous as you.
Notice there’s two parts to that prayer–the acknowledgement of what others have given to me, and a hope that I can be as giving myself. Considering how much some beings sacrifice in order for me to eat, it’s impossible for me to give back exactly as much, at least until I die and my body is buried in the ground to be recycled into nutrients for others. But I can try to give back through more sustainable food choices, and attending to the tiny patch of land in my community garden, and donating food to charity. I can support efforts to gain better rights and working conditions for the migrant workers who pick the produce I eat and the underpaid employees of food processing plants. I can work to educate others about the problems inherent in our food systems and what we can do about them. All these are a far cry from being as generous as a being that died to feed me, but they’re a start.
My gratitude drives me to do what I can each day, not only to appreciate what I’m given but to care for those who have given it to me. The more I know about where my food comes from, the more driven I am to be a responsible part of this unimaginably large network of supply and demand, resource and consumption. Being grateful isn’t just about taking things with a “Yes, thank you”. It’s also the desire to give back, to demonstrate appreciation. The prayer at the beginning of the meal is only the barest glimmer of that urge, and it means little if it’s not followed up by action.
And so this Thanksgiving, as I am surrounded by others and as we prepare to eat turkey and stuffing and green beans and the canned cranberry sauce that retains its cylindrical shape all by itself, it’ll just be another day in which I am grateful and in which I try to enact as well as voice that gratitude. It’s also a good day to renew my commitment to that thankfulness and all it entails, in thought and deed alike. I may never achieve perfection; there are always more thanks to be given. But let this time of year be the rejuvenation of my efforts nonetheless.
I am an animal lover, a sometimes pet owner, and an environmentalist dedicated to protecting wildlife and their habitats. I am also an omnivore, a hide and bone artist, and engaged in a fierce war with the ants that get into my apartment. A large portion of my spiritual path involves animal totems, and every day I consume some portion of their physical counterparts, whether in food or medicine or other products.
I’ve also spent years detangling the inherent contradictions in these relationships to my fellow animals. I’ve toured the free range ranch where I get a lot of my meat, and I’ve watched the (probably staged) videos put out by animal rights groups on fur farming. I periodically assess my personal ethics with regards to the animal remains I incorporate into my artwork, and I research environmental groups and their track records before donating a portion of the money made from that art to them. I’ve played with baby teacup pigs, and then gone home and eaten bacon, and considered how the life of one pig was different from another. In short, I’ve done a lot of thinking about the animals in my life.
So has Hal Herzog, anthrozoologist and the author of the 2010 title Some We Love, Some We Hate, Some We Eat. The cover features three common animals in the American landscape to go with the tripartite title: a puppy, a rat, and a pig. The opening question, then, even before you open the book, is why do we eat pigs and not dogs, why do only a few of us keep pigs and rats as pests, and why do we become incensed about some people in Asia eating dogs specifically bred for meat while ignoring the plight of pigs in factory farm conditions?
Some people already have their minds made up. “That’s just the way it is here”, they might say. Or “Well, it’s wrong, we shouldn’t eat or exploit any animals”. If you go into this book with an absolutist perspective, you’re likely to miss out on a lot of the important questions that the book raises about the sometimes conflicting, always highly personal, approaches we have to nonhuman animals. There are no easy answers, and that’s evident from the start.
The bulk of the book, eight chapters worth, is dedicated simply to exploring the many areas of relationship and contradiction we engage in with animals each day. Herzog looks at how we treat our pets, compares it to historical pet ownership, and questions the motives of those who put their toy poodles in designer sweaters. There’s a highly enlightening—and controversial–chapter that delves into cockfighting, and the comparison of the life of a gamecock to that of a commercially bred, raised and slaughtered broiler hen may have you questioning our priorities as a culture. Another section of the book goes into detail regarding research animals, especially mice, and we find that the research lab is full of more human responses to the test subjects than you might expect. It does get a little repetitive, with chapter after chapter of examples of “Yes, we have really mixed feelings about animals”. But read all the way through: it’s a really important setup for the last part of the book, and you don’t want to skip the middle of the story.
Herzog reserves the closest thing to a hard conclusion in the last two chapters. Chapter nine, “The Cats in Our Houses, the Cows on Our Plates”, directly addresses the hypocrisy on display in the previous chapters. The author points out that yes, we’re almost all hypocrites to one degree or another–and most of us don’t let it get to us. If pressed, we may explain at least in vague terms why we’ll step on a spider but not a caterpillar, but even the most intensive self-searching often comes to a dead end of “It’s just the way I do things”. The issue of animal rights is compared to religion, with a small handful of moral absolutists taking the part of “born-agains” and other fundamentalists, and the rest deciding what of the overarching theology to take and what to leave. This isn’t presented as a condemnation of anyone who isn’t an absolutist; in fact, Herzog brings up some of the destructive elements of absolutism, from the self-inflicted fatigue of activist burnout to the criminal acts of terrorism enacted by a tiny number of extremists. The conclusion of the chapter is that “moral consistency is elusive, if not impossible, in the real world” (262), which segues into the final chapter dealing with real people, rather than moral abstracts, as models of behavior toward animals.
In this last part, Herzog visits two different places where people are actively trying to save animals. On the one hand is Best Friends Animal Society, a decades-old animal sanctuary in Utah where all the animals are allowed to live out comfortable lives–even ants are gently moved outside. And then on the opposite side of the country is Judy Muzee, head of a group of volunteers who for years have been working to protect endangered loggerhead sea turtles, locating and preserving nests of eggs, and making sure the babies get to the water safely so they have a chance–however slight–of growing into adults. Muzee puts her animal-saving efforts into just one species and doesn’t necessarily treat all other animals with the same level of dedication (that would be a LOT of animals!) Best Friends considers any animal that comes through its doors to be on equal footing. Herzog does not choose one approach over another; rather, he presents them as two possible solutions a person may choose for the hypocrisy we have toward animals.
All in all, this is a valuable read, and I recommend it for everyone, though my fellow omnivores and hide and bone artists may find it especially helpful in articulating the whys of our choices. My only complaint was that I felt impatient for some sort of resolution or conclusion earlier in the book–but once I finished it, I understood why it took so long for Herzog to set the stage. It is not the be-all and end-all of answers on the debate over animal welfare and animal rights; if anything, it’s the antidote to the moral absolutism that often dominates that stage. And rather than bogging us down with guilt over “I’m not trying hard enough!” it invites us to be realistic with our own limitations, and to be honest about our hypocrisy–and then consciously act from there.
Recently I’ve run across a few online discussions and blog posts asserting that vegetarianism and veganism (abbreviated as “veg*nism” from here on out) are the proper dietary choices for pagans and other spiritual people. The arguments for this have ranged from “meat is icky and does icky things to your energy” to “such and such culture is/was primarily veg*n so we should be too” and, of course, “no TRUE pagan (Scottish or otherwise) would ever bring harm to another living being” (forgetting, of course, that animals are only one of several kingdoms of living being). I’m not going to link to any of these discussions because I don’t want people to go start arguments there; I think that sort of brigading is a form of harassment and an ineffective way of getting one’s point across.
On that note, before we go any further, I want to speak to the sometimes thoroughly aggressive and unnecessarily hateful speech and behavior that I’ve seen a small portion of people use in these debates over the years. If you are an omnivore, pagan or otherwise, it is not okay for someone to scream at you that you’re a murderer because you eat meat. It is not okay for someone to say “Ewwwwww, you eat meat/drink milk/eat eggs? That’s so gross it makes me want to vomit!” or “You’re an evil bitch/bastard who’s going to burn in hell for hurting poor little animals!” It is not okay for someone to tell you they wish someone would kill you and cut up your body and cook it, or that they hope you die of a heart attack from eating meat. It is not okay for someone to call together a bunch of their friends to leave hateful messages on your Facebook profile or fill up your inbox with the same in a harassment brigade. That shit’s just not okay.
At the same time, I also don’t think it’s okay to antagonize veg*ns for their dietary restrictions. If you are an omnivore, pagan or otherwise, it is not okay to deliberately annoy veg*ns with stupid jokes about meat. It is not okay to tell a veg*n that they just need to eat more bacon, or that they can’t possibly be in good health, or being all “Oh, yuck, tofu? How can you EAT that?” It is not okay for you to question a male veg*n’s manhood just because he doesn’t eat meat. And it is most certainly not okay to sneak meat into a veg*n’s food, whether or not you then tell them you did it. That shit’s also just not okay.
Now that we’ve established some ground rules, I want to address some reasons why it’s okay for you to be an omnivore if that’s your choice. These are talking points you can draw on if someone ever comes in swinging at you for your diet; they’re not meant as bludgeoning objects to try and convince someone that their veg*nism is wrong for them.
Your Body, Your Diet
Bodily autonomy is a basic human right. Regardless of how you may feel about the autonomy of other living beings, almost all of us can agree that each human being’s right to their own body should be inviolate, and the violation of bodily autonomy is at the root of some of the most serious crimes and human rights crises. That means that you get to choose what you eat (finances and availability allowing, of course), no matter what anyone else says.
It also means you have the right to look out for what’s best for your body. Some of us simply don’t thrive well on even a well-balanced veg*n diet, and if that’s the case for you you don’t have to run around sick and malnourished because someone else yelled at you for not eating the way they think you should. That being said, it’s also a good idea to be aware of what you’re eating and the effects it may be having on your body. My partner and I have both been eating less meat (especially not-fish meat) because we both have familial health risks that could be aggravated by too much meat consumption, and we both love good salads anyway. It’s still your prerogative if you want to live on Denny’s ham and cheese omelets and soda (even when other things are readily available to you and within your means), and part of respecting bodily autonomy means accepting that people are going to eat what they will no matter what anyone else thinks.
Spirituality and Subjective Projection
From a more particularly pagan angle, I’ve seen numerous claims that a veg*n diet is better for spiritual practices. The reasons include everything from the claim meat is harder to digest, requiring more bloodflow to the stomach and therefore less to the brain, to the concept that meat clutters up your energy/aura/etc. The part about digestion is true–cooking meat, marinating it (particularly in an acidic marinade) and even pureeing it can make it easier to digest, but it still take more effort than, say, cherries or lettuce. If you’re an omnivore and want to amp up the bloodflow to your brain for the purposes of a particular meditation or retreat, then a temporary veg*n diet can help.
What about the other assertion, that meat makes your aura more icky because you ate dead animal flesh (just this side of cannibalism, according to some)? Well, quite honestly, there’s no way to prove this. A veg*n who claims they felt better and more spiritually active and clean once they kicked their meat habit may be telling the truth about their experience, but it doesn’t mean that meat was necessarily the direct cause. Instead, it may have been the relief they felt in their conscience, which is also a valid feeling. But there are plenty of us who feel just fine spiritually after eating meat. And for those of us who really are obligate omnivores, few things ruin a good spiritual experience like not having given our bodies what they need to function properly.
Given the choice between spirit and science, I’m choosing science every time; spirituality is not meant to be a replacement for professional medical care. That means that since my doctor, who has seen me for years and has been tracking my health with her years of experience and her knowledge of the most up to date research, suggests I stick to omnivorism, that’s going to trump someone without credentials telling me that they think my aura looks muddy because I had bacon this morning.
Just Because We Don’t Have Catchy Slogans Doesn’t Mean We’re Wrong
One of the most frustrating things for me is when slogans like “MEAT IS MURDER!” and “EAT BEANS, NOT BEINGS” are bandied about as though having a catch phrase is all it takes to make you right. Like a sports team’s traditional cheer, these sound bites serve to bind together activists in a common cause with a quick, easy to remember distillation of their message. Unfortunately, just like sports fanatics who stalwartly stick by their team no matter what, the people chanting these things sometimes don’t consider the possibility someone else could have a perfectly valid disagreement. Moreover, these slogans also provide activists with a way to shut down any possible conversation. An omnivore could say “Hey, I choose to eat free-range meat because…” and all the other person has to do is scream “IT’S STILL MURDER, YOU MURDERER! MURDER!”
Here on the omnivore end of the spectrum, we don’t really have slogans, beyond those created by marketing boards. I mean, “PORK! THE OTHER WHITE MEAT!” isn’t really an inspiring rallying cry. And sometimes we don’t really know what to say when someone comes at us, ready to beat us into the ground with a guilt trip. It takes a lot longer to explain why The Compassionate Hunter’s Guidebook spoke to you than it does for someone else to say “YOU KILLED BAMBI!” There’s very little room there for critical thinking.
Why is critical thinking important? Because there’s bad information on both sides of the debate, and critical thinking is a good opportunity to question and double-check this information. One of the discussions I mentioned in the very first paragraph stated that over half of greenhouse gas production is specifically from agriculture; however, the EPA reports that only 10% are from all combined agriculture, livestock and otherwise. Conversely, there are people who honestly think non-human mammals aren’t able to feel pain–yes, there are still those who subscribe to Descartes’ concept of mechanistic physiology in which animals only respond to stimuli because they’re meaty machines, never mind all the modern research to the contrary. And when someone questions either of these assertions, the people who hold to them are likely to just latch on more tightly.
Critical thinking is scary because it can show the flaws and cracks in one’s own beliefs and posits the idea that maybe the other person does have a point. Slogans, on the other hand, often present something as universally desirable for everyone, a much safer but more inaccurate proposition. Even I can see the severe limitations of “Milk: It Does a Body Good”, starting with the significant number of lactose-intolerant and dairy-allergic people out there. This brings me to my final talking point…
We Face Very Complex Problems With More Than One Potential Solution
I am an omnivore in part because I care about the environment. I study (from a layperson’s view, anyway) the entirety of our food system, which is a complicated thing. I am aware of the horrific conditions of factory farms and slaughterhouses and the overfishing of the ocean. I also know how the pesticides, fertilizers and other chemicals that are sprayed on conventional crops kill countless animals through poisoning all the way through the food web. They also wash into the ocean to harm animals there and create anoxic dead zones. That goes for crops fed both to livestock and to humans, omnivores and veg*ns alike. And I’m aware that a lot of the food in the stores, regardless of what it is, got from its source to the shelf (often by way of lots of processing and packaging) with an immense amount of fossil fuels, water, and other resources. I’ve watched wild lands around my hometown and elsewhere being chewed up for agricultural fields all planted with one single crop, unable to support the diversity of life they once did, and I know that habitat loss is the number one cause of species endangerment and extinction.
For some people, the answer to this is veg*nism–fewer animals die, less grain is required for animal feed, and so forth. It’s a good answer for many. But it’s not the answer that works for me, not just because of my body’s need for animal proteins, but also because I choose to focus my efforts at a greener life a little differently. I buy most of my meat from a free-range ranch a few hours outside of Portland; they have a booth at nearby farmer’s market every weekend. I’ve toured their ranch, too; the animals are entirely pasture-fed, with no grain finish. Those pastures also support a diversity of wildlife and plants, and the soil is nourished by the manure of buffalo, heritage turkeys, and other livestock. I have my plot at the community garden and my collection of pots on my tiny balcony; it’s not enough to feed both me and my partner, but it’s a very good supplement, and we can make up the difference with organic produce (especially during the summer when the farmer’s markets are full to overflowing with choices). And there are fishmongers at the same markets who drove just a couple of hours from the coast–or, in the case of salmon, nearby rivers–with small-scale, sustainable seafood. All these things came locally, cutting down on carbon pollution compared to conventional alternatives that were flown in from out of the country. And the meat I buy is a damned sight better in my mind than a Morningstar Farms veggie burger, produced by Kellogg’s from non-organic soy and other ingredients.
But this is my solution, as someone who is an obligate omnivore, who happens to live in a very food-friendly city, and who has the financial means to pay a little more for organic at the store and the time to tend to a small garden. I would never dream of presenting it as the One True Solution to carbon pollution, factory farming, and dead zones in the ocean. When I write about my adventures in gardening, or share recipes on Tumblr, I’m not doing it to tell people that they should do things my way. Instead, I’m leaving my experiences out there as examples for others to consider along with other information, and to encourage those who have been thinking about trying out the things I’m doing. That’s as far as it goes.
And you know what? I’m fine with being an omnivore. I don’t run around wearing an “OMNIVORE PRIDE!” shirt, because I don’t think diet is something to particularly be proud of or ashamed of either way. But I have carefully considered my options with research and critical thinking and found a solution that both works for my needs, and sits well within my eco-conscious conscience. I’ll always question it, too, as new information comes out and as new options arise, because fundamentalism of any sort sucks. (You can insert your own end comment here about omnivory and sacred cows.)