Ask any scavenger of hides and bones what their favorite piece in their collection is, and you’re liable to get an excited flood of passionate words and stories. Sometimes the object of the collector’s affection is a rare, hard-to-get specimen, but it’s just as likely to be a commonly found skull or bone or hide, perhaps the person’s very first acquisition, or something that they found themselves on an adventure in the woods.
I personally find it hard to pick favorites. For a while, earlier in my collecting career, I was pretty big into whole hides. One of my earliest purchases was a very old Alaskan brown bear rug from an antique shop in rural Missouri; I removed the rug “apparatus” so all that was left was the hide, and that was the start of that collection. However, as I got older and continued to live in small apartments, it became incredibly impractical to have a bunch of large, bulky hides taking up a lot of space, so I made them into art and rehomed most of them over time. I still have a couple that are very near and dear to me, though, my bear included.
My fascination with hides was more the “Oooooh, shiny!” effect that a lot of newer collectors get, where they want to have ALL the dead things they can get. Later it transformed into acquiring and maintaining hides as ritual companions in dance and other sacred acts. And I have always enjoyed incorporating them into headdresses and other artwork.
But more recently my eye has turned toward skulls, and there’s a decided natural history flavor to my current interest. Comparative anatomy is one of my little amateur naturalist geekeries. I love how one particular basic structure–the skeleton–can take on such strangely varied forms. A mass of collagen and calcium stretches, through natural selection and genetics, into shapes and sizes ranging from the massive bulk of the skull of an elephant, to the finely sculpted lines of a garter snake skull–and the accompanying bodies, too. Skulls have evolved to consume all manner of foods, to act in aggressive and defensive manners, to house the tiniest and largest of brains.
And it’s all out of necessity. A skull is a tool for a job, and the animal that has a skull better suited for its job than the next animal is the one more likely to pass its genes down to the next generation. The hummingbird whose bill is just a tiny bit longer can reach more nectar and therefore have more calories to work with. The bighorn ram with stronger horns and a thicker skull has a better chance of winning–and surviving–fights with other rams for the privilege to breed. So it is that from one generation to the next, tiny mutations can lead, over time, to great changes and adaptations.
You can see this concept throughout the entire body of any vertebrate–or any living being, really. But skulls are perhaps the most dramatic illustration of comparative anatomy, and to my mind among the most beautiful. Not everyone shares my appreciation, of course. There are people who feel the collection and display of skulls and remains is a morbid subject; this is a relic of our culture’s inability to properly deal with the reality of death. We’re supposed to go through life pretending death doesn’t happen, and acting only with horror and sorrow when the topic is broached (and then wondering why people don’t deal with grief very well). There’s an element of hypocrisy to the criticism of skulls, taxidermy and the like, too: People who routinely eat dead animals, plants and fungi have given me the hairy eyeball for my hides and bones. I suppose the idea is to not think of death once the remains have gone down one’s gullet, but it all feels a little like the teapot calling the kettle black.
But that’s part of why I have the collection that I do. Death is just one of the many realities of a multi-staged life cycle, and you don’t have to be a member of the Addams Family to appreciate it. More practically, it’s a lot easier for me to display the skull of a feral hog next to that of a white-thighed hornbill than to have the living creatures in my tiny apartment! And they sit alongside very much alive and thriving houseplants, and on the other side of the sliding glass door from my little balcony garden and bird feeder, both of which entertain a wide variety of living beings which I love and appreciate as much as my skulls.
In the end, I am a naturalist, if a mostly untrained one. And as I build my own museum, I am creating an ever-growing altar of curiosities dedicated to the wonders of the natural world, that which I consider most sacred. I would not be here today without the development of the vertebrate skeleton, or the evolutionary flexibility this miraculous structure has shown through millions of years of natural selection. I celebrate this marvel through the display of skulls, demonstrating the artistry and practicality of nature’s amazing processes.
Note: If you enjoyed this post, please consider bringing home a copy of my book Skin Spirits: The Spiritual and Magical Uses of Animal Parts, which details my years of spiritual work with hides, bones and other animal remains, along with step by step instructions on how to make assorted ritual tools with them.
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.)
See, as I’ve gotten older I’ve become something of an aspiring amateur foodie, with a particular emphasis on sustainability. I’m much too cash-strapped to afford any restaurant that has a constellation of Michelin stars, and my partner and I are more likely to shop at CostCo and the farmer’s market than Whole Foods. But we have our community garden plot and a few pots on our tiny apartment balcony, and these help me feel a little more connected to the terrifyingly complex systems that bring food to most Americans’ plates.
Truth be told, I’m probably more aware of these systems and their impacts than the majority of people in this country, which is why The Third Plate has been added to my short list of books I think everyone ought to read. There’s a severe lack of food literacy in the U.S., and in recent years several authors ranging from Michael Pollan to Jane Goodall have offered up their written reasonings on why we need to be paying more attention. We can be a tough audience, though; five decades of being told the environment’s going to hell, life-giving soil included, has served to overstimulate and then numb us to the problems we face. Apathy may very well be our downfall, if we aren’t careful.
But this is why I absolutely loved The Third Plate. It’s a delightfully inviting read, where Barber brings us all along on his journey from his own farm on the skirts of New York City, to an inventive seed facility in the Skagit Valley in Washington, and even far across the Atlantic to coastal Spain where pigs and geese alike root through acorn-studded fields. Each stop brings us face to face with some creative individual working to stop the corporate-harnessed juggernaut that is the American food system, whether through resurrecting old resources, or mindfully inventing new ones (or, quite often, some combination thereof).
This is no dry agriculture textbook, though; instead, the true-life stories of farmers, chefs and other innovators illustrate each chapter as Barber discusses how soil, land, sea and seed all come together to feed us. Right off the bat, we enter into the world of Klaas Martens, a wheat farmer who started with being poisoned by his own chemicals, and embarks on a journey that leads him to perennial wheat with roots as long as Rapunzel’s hair. There’s Veta la Palma, an aquaculture facility (read: fish farm) that defies the stereotype of environmental degradation and instead has become a prime spot for migrating birds (even if they do pick off fish with some frequency). Fans of Southern cooking may be surprised to find that what’s being offered to them is a lie, and Glenn Roberts of Anson Mills is determined to shine light on the truth. And far in the Northwest farmlands, Steve Jones works to bolster the available variety of seeds with something old and something new (but nothing GMO), further insuring us against the collapse of a mainstream agriculture that is all too reliant on monocultures and a tiny seed catalog.
These and other key movers and shakers in the grassroots “let’s eat better, more sustainable food” movement share their stories and their motivations through Barber’s words. Not everything goes smoothly; a key critic of overfishing is served a piece of bluefin tuna, and not even the ancient manner in which it was fished can mollify him. And Barber’s own attempts to recreate the “field gras”, a more humane way to grow tasty goose liver, takes some serious trial and error to even get out of the gate (spoiler: opening the gate solves the problem).
But in the end, we’re left with a glowing sense of optimism, even with its realistic tempering. The real beauty of The Third Plate is in its ability to inspire and motivate the reader. Barber (like Pollan, Goodall, and their ilk) presents both the problems inherent to our current food system, and a variety of real-world solutions. Where he really shines, though, is in showing how people more deeply involved in the relevant industries than the average consumer are making real changes. We here on the eating end of things all too often feel like our ability to create change is limited to our buying power (such as it is). Barber shines light on a handful of the growing number of people who are doing extraordinary things in restaurant kitchens, in fields and estuaries, on farms and in research facilities, all aimed at a more sustainable–and flavorful–future of food. By showing where each of these innovators started, what their root problems were, and then sharing the sometimes long and winding paths they took to their current and ongoing solutions, he breaks down the process of changing the world into more accessible portions. And in doing so he reveals that every one of them is just an ordinary person doing their best right along with the rest of us.
I find that to be incredibly inspiring, particularly as a person of rather limited means and resources. Even before I was finished with the first section of the book on soil, I was already researching options for getting the soil in my little 10′ x 20′ community garden plot tested, and wondering if I should try to plant a winter crop of emmer wheat next to my red clover cover to help the soil this autumn. This is a book for creating dreams, even if they’re a little over the top. Because it’s that willingness to break out of established parameters and be a little crazy that has given the people in this book–and Barber himself–the power and impetus to make change happen. I’ll be doing more reading and research into organic farming beyond “no chemicals”, but I’ll also return to The Third Plate whenever I feel my enthusiasm flagging.
As to who should read this book? Like I said in the beginning: everyone. Even if you don’t garden, even if you’ve never even been on a farm, no matter what your dietary choices and restrictions may be–if you eat food, this is a must-read. And don’t be scared by the almost 500 pages contained between the covers; it’s a fast, compelling read that has the power to keep you up well past bedtime.
Ah, Powell’s sale racks, thou art my weakness. Seriously, an entire wall of books with the covers facing out is a great way to catch my attention, and the simple black and white cover of Thor Hanson’s Feathers was almost the perfect Lupa bait. It was effective enough to make me break my promise to myself that I somehow would walk out of the City of Books empty-handed, though I’m glad for the indulgence.
You see, feathers and I have a history. I’ve been making my hide and bone (and feather) art for almost two decades, and in those years I’ve been able to make creations with a variety of plumes: turkey, pheasant, rooster, pigeon, and others. I also know way more about the legalities of feathers and which ones are and aren’t legal to possess than most people because I make it a habit to know the laws about these things. Plus I’ve always loved animals, and nature in general, ever since I was old enough to toddle around the yard, and birds were some of my first discoveries in the wide world outdoors.
So if I was ever going to break a promise to myself over a book, I could have done much worse than this one. Feathers are well-nigh ubiquitous, from pet birds to down pillows to the pigeon feather that’s been sitting for days under a bush by my apartment building. But because the feather fancy is rather a niche market left mostly to fly tyers, taxidermists, and costumers, most people never really get to examine these marvels of natural engineering up close and personal. It’s a rare bird (heh) who really takes the time to get to know their shapes and textures, purposes and colors, and I feel everyone else is missing out.
But enough about me–what about the book? Well, in the grand tradition of Incredibly Interesting Books on Niche Topics You Never Thought You’d Read About, it’s about as perfect an introduction to the feather as one could hope for. Hanson starts off with a thorough exploration of the evolution of feathers–or, rather, the multiple theories thereof. See, the discovery of certain dinosaurs having feathers opened up a whole new can of worms, each one vociferously defending its stance on the “ground up” or “tree down” approach to how flight developed, or what structures evolved first, and so forth. Right away the author makes it clear that feathers are no simple topic.
This is coupled with more information on the feathers themselves, what they’re made of and how they grow. There are some pretty incredible revelations about their ability to insulate a bird–and just how miraculous it is that an animal wearing a down comforter in the middle of summer doesn’t simply self-broil and save the predators the trouble of preparing dinner. Feathers can, depending on their structure, slough off water or absorb it, and how they got to be that way is a pretty good story I’ll leave to the author to describe in detail.
There’s always the human element, though, and feathers have quite the long relationship with Homo sapiens sapiens (and possibly a few of our relatives, too). The latter part of the book is dedicated to the things we do with down and their ilk, and so we’re treated to tours of several industries ranging from the costuming of Vegas showgirls to the now almost-defunct writing quill trade. I never realized just how much of a fad fly-tying was in the late 19th century, nor that the modern trade in dyed feathers is in an impressively small number of hands. And I got to find out these and other “Well, huh, I never thought of that” moments in pages of sometimes LOL-inducing, occasionally cringeworthy, encounters with a wide cast of characters dedicated to their respective trades. Even if all you’re looking for is a good story, Feathers has them aplenty.
But it’s the context that I value the most. I’ve seen feathers treated as part of discussions of bird flight and animal parts laws, but never were they drawn out on their own to such a degree. Instead of being part of someone else’s story, the humble feather gets to take center stage, and it’s caused me to look at my own art stock and personal collection rather differently. I’ve also found myself paying more attention to the individual feathers of birds when I see them outside while hiking or wandering my neighborhood, and while I have a rather untrained eye, I’m starting to notice details about how they move that I’d missed before.
And I think that’s the best takeaway from this book. If you get nothing more out of it, then at least take the ability to look at feathers with a more appreciative view. We spend entirely too much time taking just about everything in our lives for granted, and if one book can make something as ordinary as a molted pigeon feather seem like the finest miracle nature ever evolved, imagine how different the world might look when we expand our understanding and consideration of other common things we encounter every day.
So I definitely recommend this to my fellow feather artists, whether you make fans or taxidermy or pretty feathered hats. And nature-lovers in general may find it a good addition to the reading pile. But I also suggest it for anyone wanting to fill a couple of quiet evenings with a well-balanced read, or those facing a long flight or bus ride. It’s a book that flows well, that informs, and that’s very good at keeping the reader’s interest. Plus how else will you find out what sort of feather the author came home with after a trip to visit family in Canada?
Now, let me preface this by saying I am not a hunter, have never hunted (though I have fished), and don’t intend to take up hunting any time soon. I am, however, an omnivore who occasionally is able to indulge in some wild game meat when others see fit to gift me with some, and who otherwise is concerned with where her meat comes from. Furthermore, I feel that one of the great failures of this society is that we have become so detached from the processes by which our food–animal and otherwise–is produced. It’s allowed us to enact a great deal of abuses upon ecosystems and their inhabitants, and I believe strongly that we should be educating ourselves about our food’s origins so we can make better decisions going forward. It’s in that spirit that I bought this book. Even though I do not hunt, I wanted to know more about the actual process of hunting and the aftermath thereof, with the added bonus of an author whose ethics seemed to be pretty well in line with my own.
Suffice it to say, I was not at all disappointed. Within these pages is a step-by-step guide of how to prepare for a hunt, how to find game, how to get a clean kill, and what to do once you’ve made that kill. Olson is concise but thorough, and I was impressed by how much information he was able to pack into less than two hundred pages. While I’m sure there are other hunting manuals with more information on things like how to attract deer, or how to sneak up on game birds, for a basic point-A-to-point-B overview of the hunt, this is a good one, accessible to the layperson as well as the seasoned hunter.
If you don’t think you can get anything practical out of this book because you don’t hunt, think again. Killing your deer (or pheasant, or rabbit) is just the first step. A large portion of the book is dedicated to explaining how to butcher the animal (with multiple options), ageing and preserving the meat, and even some recipes thrown in for fun (try the deerskin gelatin!) Probably the most valuable chapter in that regard is the one in which he virtually dissects an animal for you, explaining each part and how it may be used in alphabetical order, from the adrenal glands to the windpipe. This doesn’t just hold true for wild game, either–buy a whole free-range pig or cow or chicken, and you can apply the same basic concepts. This goes well beyond making stock out of a chicken carcass; he really does explain how to use every part of the animal!
Most of all, though, I appreciate the spirit in which he writes this book. Throughout the entire thing you can sense his regard and compassion for the animals he hunts. Using all of the animal isn’t merely a practical tactic–it’s almost a sacrament of sorts, meant to honor the life taken to sustain another. Like me, he decries the tendency in this culture to take the animals, plants and fungi that we kill to live for granted, and invites us to have a more mindful approach. In speaking of how hunting is one activity that brings us to face face with the reality of these deaths, Olson writes:
…when the hunter eats the animal they have killed, it becomes part of them. A death becomes a life; the predator and prey become one and the body of the dead, in a sense, lives on. This gets to something else that can be shaken through connecting with our food: our separation from the living world. When you kill and eat a creature [Lupa’s note: or plant, or fungus], you are very literally integrating its body into yours. You are also integrating the land which that creature came from into your body, since their body was entirely a manifestation of that land. This is amazing, a dynamic that I think lies at the very heart of most people’s desire to connect to the land, whether it be through gardening, hiking, foraging, crafting or hunting: shattering the boundary between self and other, human and nature; piercing the illusion that in many ways defines our culture. (p. 16)
We don’t just eat because we’re hungry, or to stay alive. We eat to incorporate the tissues of another living being into our own. We are descendants of the earliest microscopic beings that first evolved to engulf others rather than subsist on sunlight and fragments, and we’ve been eating our fellow beings ever since. The thing that struck me the most in the above quote was the assertion that we’re really eating the land our food grew up on; for a deer it may have been open fields and forests, while for a factory farmed cow it could have been a grassy pasture for the first several months of its life, followed by a crowded feedlot in which everyone was given corn grown hundreds of miles away. That, to me, illustrates how utterly broken our food system has become. We can no longer identify the land we’re eating through our food.
We can all learn from Olson and his compassionate hunting, even if we don’t hunt ourselves. By considering the sources of what we eat, we can start to pick apart the unseen industries that bring us our food, and assess the real impact on the animals, plants, and ecosystems affected by them. We can learn to have more compassion for all the living beings that die for us to live, animal and otherwise. We can be more conscientious in not wasting our food, and making the most of every scrap, even down to tiny bits of meat and vegetable for soup stock. And we can make more responsible choices in our diets while still respecting our personal health and dietary needs, time and financial restrictions. It is perhaps a shorter book than, say, Michael Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma, but it is just as elegant, and even more primal, a look at the same challenges that all too many of us blithely ignore at every meal.
If you would like your own copy of The Compassionate Hunter’s Guidebook, you can order it directly from Olson’s website here; it is also available through Amazon and Powell’s, and you can ask your local independent bookstore to order it if they don’t have it in stock.
One final postscript: I am rather excited that I won a copy of Olson’s other book, UNLEARN, REWILD: Earth skills, Ideas and Inspiration for the Future Primitive at the recent fundraising event held by Rewild Portland. I’ll get a review of it up here once I’m done with it, though at the very least I want to finish up the gigantic book of prehistoric life I’ve been chewing my way through for a few weeks now.
My partner and I are both omnivores. It’s what works best for our health and, quite honestly, we both like meat, seafood, eggs and dairy quite a bit. But we’re also aware of the environmental impact of meat, ranging from commercial slaughterhouses and their manure lagoons, to the fossil fuels and water in agriculture in general, and the vast amount of habitat lost to wildlife so cattle have places to graze. So we’ve been trying to reduce our meat intake some, and buying more free range meat (of the sort that I know grew up outside, not in a barn), plus we use the Seafood Watch app religiously when shopping for fish and such.
One of our recent purchases was a whole free-range chicken from the local farmer’s market. Now, the heritage breed roasting chickens there are a lot more expensive than at the store–what would cost about $5 at a standard chain grocery store here in Portland was priced at $20, though I’ve toured the place they’re raised and it’s worth it, since they are raised in outdoor pens on the grass. Being on a budget and wanting to buy a few other things, I ended up buying a little stew chicken instead, about half the size of your average roasting hen, possibly an old laying hen. Still, it was good meat, and so I took it home, popped it in a roasting pan with some seasonings, and it cooked up just fine. Of course, it had less meat, but there were enough leftovers on the carcass that the next night I made a good soup, too.
I never see chickens this small at the regular supermarkets, though I remember seeing them twenty-five years ago when I was a child. Occasionally I’ll see them at a Mexican or Chinese market, but never at Fred Meyer or Safeway or WinCo. I imagine it’s because a lot of people who shop there don’t often make their own soups from scratch, what with all the pre-packaged options available, so there’s not so much demand for soup chickens. And continuing from my discussion about scavengers vs. hunters last week, culturally there’s also a tendency among many (though certainly not all) Americans, particularly middle class and up, to demonstrate that they can have the best food, not just the scrawny little leftover chickens. We’ve gone from the Depression-era “a chicken in every pot” as a standard of success, to today’s consumerist “bigger, meatier, sooner, cheaper”.
Funnily enough, chickens weren’t always seen as the commonplace cheap meat they are today. 100 years ago, due to limitations in farming practices, year-round production of chickens for food wasn’t really possible, and so chicken was more a special occasion meat. It wasn’t until industry changes were put into place, like utilizing Vitamin D to increase egg-laying and streamlining the connections between hatcheries, farms and meat processors, that year-round production of meat chickens was possible. And this ready availability made the chicken more of a common commodity than a luxury.
Which means that we demanded the best of the chickens that were available. No longer did we have to settle for whatever was available, big or small or missing a leg or not enough white meat. Now if one store didn’t carry plump roasters, we could go to the next that did, and that demand edged out the demand for smaller soup chickens, especially as cooking from scratch diminished in necessity. Hell, these days you can even go to most chain grocery stores in the U.S. and buy a pre-roasted chicken in a bag, ready to take home and eat, no cooking necessary. And that chicken is almost always one killed in the flush of its youth at six or seven weeks, carefully bred for a maximum of flesh and sometimes so heavy it couldn’t even walk properly.
What happened to all those smaller chickens? Some may have ended up in processed food products for people, while others may have been reduced to pet food, fertilizer and the like. Out of sight, out of mind–why even consider things that are thought to be second-rate? And yet, just as our meat comes to us bled out, eviscerated, scrubbed clean and wrapped in plastic and styrofoam to hide its origins as the remains of living beings, so the small, the old, the imperfect are all tucked away behind the scenes, not to reappear until drastically remade into forms considered acceptable to our aesthetics.
And that ties into the tendency–if you’re well-off enough–to only value what’s best and turn your nose up at anything else. Granted, lots of animals will do the same, but only when food is very plentiful, and there’s always another animal around to take up the leftovers. Trouble is, in order to get the best chickens to meet the demand for “only the best”, we have to raise more birds overall and discard some in the process, and we can’t really afford to be as picky as we are about the matter. We use a tremendous amount of resources in factory farming in particular, and we’ve already caused immense environmental damage because of it through habitat loss, pollution and more.
Imagine if every American household that bought a chicken got twice as many meals out of it by making soup with the bones. That could cut consumer-direct demand for meat chickens pretty significantly, plus help people save on their grocery bills. Sure, there would still be demand for chickens from other industries like pre-packaged foods and pet food and the like, but it’s a start. And if people made use of every bit of the chicken, feeding the last tiny scraps of meat to pets as a treat, and turning the bones into fertilizer for the garden, we could even cut down on that demand, too.
But it takes a shift in mindset, away from the consumer throw-away culture where the animal is only a commodity, and toward a culture where every resource is used and appreciated, not just for its value to us, but because in order for us to have it, another being had to give it up. That goes for the bones of chickens, and deer habitat turned to wheat fields, alike. This is not to feel guilty for the sheer act of existing, but simply to be more appreciative of and careful with what we do have.
And we need to be okay with not only having “the best”, but making use of everything available to us, whether our favorite or not. The little chickens are just as useful as the big ones, and they carry some good lessons, too. After all, there’s no shame in having a little more cooking experience and learning how best to use a carcass for soup and other leftovers. And while even my favorite free-range farm removes the giblets, feet and other “icky” parts of the hens before packaging them to sell, it’s worth it to also know how to use a truly whole chicken, end to end.
So I’m going to keep buying the little chickens, and the whole fish that need cleaning, and the carrots that still have their tops, and the other things not so convenient or perfectly presented, and make the most of them that I can. I’m going to learn how to do more with the resources I have, and share with others what I find. I don’t deserve “only the best”. I am fortunate enough to have access to a wide variety of healthy food, easily and affordably, and I’m going to do my best to appreciate that.
American culture (at least the portions I’m most familiar with) has this weird thing about power and hunting. If you’ve ever seen The Lion King, you’ll notice that (despite never actually hunting a prey animal in the movie), the lions are the noble hunting animals, while the hyenas are merely skulking scavengers. And indeed it’s often assumed that hyenas only take the food other have killed, while lions do all the hard work. Nothing could be further from the truth, of course. While all hyenas scavenge, spotted hyenas are some of the most successful hunters in the animal kingdom, both as individuals and groups. And while lions can certainly bring down their own game, they’re not above chasing other predators, like cheetahs or leopards–or, indeed, hyenas–off their kills.
Yet in popular culture, Lion the Hunter and Hyena the Scavenger continue to be presented as a good guy/bad guy dichotomy. Why? Chalk it up in part to our culture’s obsession with rugged individualism and independence. Freeloaders aren’t welcome, and if you benefit from the efforts of another, there’s something wrong with you, or so they say. You’re supposed to do for yourself, and then success will be yours.
But just like the myth of the lone wolf, this whole hunter/scavenger split doesn’t really reflect nature as it is. The truth is that the majority of predatory animals won’t turn their noses up at a carcass someone else killed if it’s fresh enough for their tastes and abilities. After all, hunting is a dangerous activity that can lead to injury or even death for the hunter, and can be energy-wasting too if a kill isn’t made. It wouldn’t make sense for a meat-eater to turn their noses up at a free and easy meal, and it’s thought likely that humans started off as scavengers before we were more active hunters.
Nature isn’t fussy, and it doesn’t waste a thing. Even when a predator doesn’t eat its entire kill, many other beings will benefit from the leftovers, from insects and other smaller animals to bacteria to fungi and even plants. In fact, entire ecosystems may benefit from the kills of one species; for example, when grizzly bears in North America hunt salmon during spawning season, in a good year they may only eat the most nutritious parts; the remains are left in the forest, sometimes quite some distance from the river, where the younger, smaller bears brought their fish to be eaten without being bothered by their bigger counterparts. The nutrients from the rotting salmon then go into enriching the soil that the forest ecosystem depends on, and in years where the salmon run isn’t as healthy, you can see the effects on the various other beings in the forest because fewer nutrients are being added to the system.
Does this mean that the rats and the trees and the fungi and burying beetles and other living beings that benefit from the bears’ leftovers are lesser beings simply because they scavenge what they didn’t kill? Of course not. Every being in an ecosystem is important, and its absence would be detrimental to the whole. We often glorify bears because they’re charismatic megafauna, big and impressive and so forth, but the burying beetles are just as amazing a bunch of critters, and every bit as necessary, regardless of our biases about them.
And we could stand to learn a lot from the burying beetles and others. We spend too much time feeling entitled to the very best the world has to offer. I’ve seen too many people not pack up their leftovers at a restaurant, and leave another meal’s worth of food behind–too many times for it to only be out-of-towners without access to fridges. There are those who brag they’ve never bought any clothing secondhand and look down on those of us who have. Some folks refuse to buy anything but a new car, not for reliability but for status. And it all ties into the same wasteful, prideful attitude that makes us think that hunting is better and more noble than scavenging.
But there’s a reason nature doesn’t waste–it can’t afford to. It’s most efficient to recycle and reuse anything possible, and waste is too expensive for such a massive and intricate system. Nature doesn’t draw on resources without returning them, yet somehow we think we can do the same and somehow defy one of the basic realities of life: nothing lasts forever. So we scoff at scavengers, our own and others’, and think that the ideal is to be the best hunter of fresh, new resources possible, whether that’s new clothing at the mall or a new site to frack for oil.
It’s only been in the past century or so that the U.S. has become such a resource-hogging behemoth. It’s been even less time since our culture shifted, in times of crisis, from responding by tightening the belt to responding by pretending nothing’s wrong. People in my grandparents’ generation went through the Great Depression and the rationing of World War II, when the government said “You can sacrifice a bit for your country!” Today, when we face some of the greatest environmental challenges our species has ever encountered, we’re told to keep spending, keep buying oil, and turn a blind eye to the evidence that says anything’s wrong. We’re spoiled; we don’t want to give anything up.
And we don’t want to be scavengers. We don’t want to dirty our hands with the leftovers. Yet any predator that turns up the chance at leftovers is less likely to succeed in the long run. How have we forgotten that in our pride?
I say it’s time we get back to our roots. We got as far as we have as a species through great resourcefulness and adaptability. But we’re throwing away a big part of that, the ability to get the most use out of resources before they’re completely used up. Let’s be creative scavengers and hunters and foragers again. Let’s make “reuse, reduce, recycle” not the niche domain of dedicated environmentalists, but something that belongs to everyone again. Let’s reduce new mining and logging efforts, and see what we can do with the resources we’ve already taken that are just waiting to be made into something new. Let’s make the creativity and resourcefulness of scavenging a point of pride, not just of hides and bones and scraps of meat, but steel and paper pulp and silicon.
Because we are human apes, and we’re in good company with hyenas and lions, vultures and eagles, wolves and foxes and coyotes, all of whom will hunt and scavenge as the opportunities and needs arise. These are all noble, resourceful beings; let’s remember that we are, too.
Thanks to my booth sales at Pagan Faire last weekend, I was able to make a donation to the Center For Great Apes! This nonprofit organization gives shelter to orangutans and chimpanzees that have been rescued from the entertainment industry, roadside “zoos”, and former pet owners who had no idea what they were getting into. Regular zoos rarely take apes that have been raised (poorly) by humans, so many of these chimps and orangutans had nowhere to go except research facilities, the aforementioned roadside “zoos”, or were simply killed when they got too big.
The Center shelters dozens of apes; these include some you may have seen in movies and other media when they were younger and more manageable:
And these are just some of the examples of chimps and orangutans being used in the entertainment industry or as pets while young, and then being discarded when they’re too old. The Center For Great Apes fills a much-needed role, giving them a place to go that’s humane and comfortable.
If you’re looking for a good organization to support with a few extra dollars, this is an excellent choice!
I have wild love affairs with much of nature these days. I deeply adore the way that water careens down from clouds in the sky, finds the easiest route to the nearest rivulet or storm sewer, and appreciate its brief layover in the pipes and spouts and drains of my home. I caress stones and soil with the reverence of a penitent clutching a holy relic promising salvation. I share intimate breaths with stomata, and I pull leaves and flesh and fruiting bodies into the literal core of my physical form.
These daily sacraments are a source and focus of my wonder and awe at this world I love. But my first love will always be the animals. They were the ones to first escort me into the broader world beyond humans cares and parameters, making me a fan of what we generally call “nature”. And while I marvel at the ways and processes of plants and fungi, stones and water and weather, inside I’m still that seven year old who ran around rattling off the latest facts about animals I’d discovered amid blades of grass and pages of books.
But should I? After all, these defenses of animals are still working toward a human bias–to see other animals as wondrous, worthy beings who deserve a place on this planet. In reviewing my responses in these posts, I see an effort to convince other people that animals are incredible beings (or, as my seven year old self would say, “really, really COOL!”). Ultimately, my efforts are an exercise in applying perceived value to creatures that, for the most part, don’t particularly care whether humans exist or not. (Domestic dogs would, for the most part, be a vocal exception to this, ferals notwithstanding.) Sure, it’s better than only valuing the animals that most benefit us, but even a positive bias is still a bias. Perhaps this wonder at animals is a selfish evaluation that only benefits me through making me feel better. In this moment I find myself considering whether it wouldn’t be better to try and simply accept that animals are here, without judgement in either direction, the deepest expression of “live and let live”. Not “wolves are vicious predators” or “crocodilians are amazing for having survived so many millions of years unchanged”, but instead “Frogs are. Deer are. Sponges are.” and so forth.
It’s an interesting thought experiment, to be sure, and worth trying if for no other reason than an increase in mindfulness. But, as in all things, the best response to a question is rarely the most extreme answer. One of the things I love about humanity is our ability to consider and evaluate and, yes, even judge ourselves and the world we live in. It’s part of how we make sense of it all. And like any tool, it can be used for harm or for benefit. We’ve spent centuries deciding that certain species aren’t useful enough to us to be preserved, and have even systematically eradicated some just because we don’t want them around. My effort, conversely, is to find what makes each species unique, to determine what solutions it evolved to answer the same basic life-challenges we all must overcome to survive, and, most importantly, to experience wonder and awe at these things.
It turns out that those wondrous experiences aren’t just for my own benefit, either. To be sure, the positive psychological effects that I get from them are considerable, and mean a great deal to me personally. But they also perpetually renew my sense of responsibility toward the world and its inhabitants, a responsibility that I then act on to the best of my ability. So what starts internally, with my thoughts and feelings, moves outside of me through my actions. Such is the way of things.
And as social creatures, we’re able to influence the thoughts, feelings and behaviors of others. Certainly there’s the crucial element of free will and the fact that people respond uniquely to different methods of persuasion (which brings up adages about flies and vinegar and honey). But both through empirical evidence and personal experience I think that modeling (human see, human do!) is one of the best ways to propagate positive and constructive thoughts and actions. Which means that my habit of extolling the virtues of my fellow inhabitants of Earth, human and otherwise, can be beneficial to everyone involved!
See, whenever I talk about how awesome it is that clownfish can live in the tentacles of a sea anemone and not get stung, or that plants turn sunlight into food through photosynthesis, I almost always get good comments as a result. Often it’s people who already knew those things agreeing that yes, these are really, really neat things and aren’t we glad we know them? But there are also occasions where someone gets to learn something new, not only making them happier, but also fueling that same feeling of connection with and responsibility toward the world around them. Because if you realize there are amazing things in the world, and then you find out that these amazing things are threatened with extinction, you just may be more motivated to protect them.
In a perfect world, perhaps, we wouldn’t need that personal touch to get people to be more environmentally aware; it would just be a given. But the reality is that too few people have that awareness and act upon it, and any constructive tool we can use to change things for the better, even if it has some self-centered components, is okay by me. If the proverbial donkey isn’t moving already, a carrot might be just the right solution.
Plus when it comes to my love affair with the world, I’m more than happy to share–the more, the merrier! So I’ll just keep right on “defending” the bunnies and grubs, the molds and bryophytes, erosion and uplift. If they can use it, so much the better, and even if not, I’ve made my own little world a little brighter.