If you visit the Green Wolf front page today, you’ll notice that, over in the right upper corner, there’s a little popup. It’s not an ad or a virus–it’s a message. Today, September 10, is the Internet Slowdown, a protest against the major American ISPs that want to make some sites load more slowly if they don’t pay an extra fee. Right now, every site loads at the same rate–with variation according to their own servers, how much stuff is on the page loading, etc., but they still get the same amount of juice from your ISP. If Comcast, Verizon, Time Warner and AT&T get their way, only the sites that pay extortion fees will have fast loading times. The rest? Well, remember when everything was on dial-up?
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.
My artwork and other practices with hides, bones and other animal remains have always been intensely spiritual. I didn’t like seeing them displayed as mere trophies or status symbols, and so set out to remake them as sacred creations and beloved personal artifacts, guides in costumed shapeshifting and curiosities for consideration. I wanted them to be revered, not merely possessed.
There are a lot of factors outside of my control in this. I can’t control who buys a particular item (other than turning away the occasional rude customer) or what they do with something I made once they have it. I’ve just had to learn to let go and let gods in that regard. But I can do my best to seek out my target audience and present my work in a way that will appeal to them, and keep working my intent into everything I create. And I add a bit of a ritual to it, too, whether you want to believe it changes things on a distinctly spiritual level, or simply helps me stay focused on my task.
I realized recently that while I reference the ritual I do quite a bit, I haven’t actually written about it much. So I figured now would be as good a time as any to share it with you in detail. You’re welcome to try it out for yourself, modify it as needed, but please do give credit when sharing.
There are three parts of the ritual: the meditation, the purification, and the offering.
The meditation is the part that takes the longest. I’ll sit with each piece that I’ve created, and meditate with the spirits of the animals whose remains are incorporated into the art. I have a conversation with them, and ask each of them to show me what they’d like me to know about their lives and deaths. Sometimes I get a vivid, play-by-play of their last moments; other times I get highlights of their lives, especially when they were young (even other animals like to reminisce about childhood). I’ve often gotten some of this information already; as I create the art I’m having an ongoing conversation with them about what I’m creating and what they’d like me to include, and it’s a good opportunity to chat with them about other things as well.
The purification involves a physical smudging of the completed artwork. I used to use sagebrush, but these days I tend more toward cedar or sweetgrass as I like the aroma better. I generally only use a tiny bit at one time; rather than burning an entire sage smudge stick, I’d just pull out one lone leaf and light it. Part of this is to keep from aggravating my asthma, but it’s also so I’m using fewer resources. One leaf purifies as well as thirty in my experience, even if it takes just a touch longer to smudge the entire piece. It’s really an issue of quality over quantity. Other forms of purification can work, too, though I recommend against water-based ones since water can hurt certain hides and other remains. I also say a prayer over each piece at this time, asking that they will go to someone who will love them and cherish them for who and what they are, and thanking them for letting me work with them in the first place.
The offering is the part that’s changed the most over the years. When I first got started, I would offer small drilled stones and shells to the totems of the animals whose remains I used. When I had enough to fill a small leather pouch dedicated to that totem, I would make the stones into a necklace, and then give it to someone who worked with that totem. Over time I became less enamored of this. What was I going to offer to the totems of the stones I made as offerings to the animals? After all, they’re a part of nature, too, not just objects to be given and taken. So I instead diverted the money I would have spent on the stones and shells toward donations to nonprofit groups, and increased my volunteer time to compensate as well.
No purification ritual goes exactly the same way as another. Sometimes the meditation is brief, other times it’s looooong. Occasionally I get a spirit making a special request for an offering or other gesture. That’s why I don’t have this all written out in one big “First say this, then do this” format. It’s more a set of guidelines than holy writ. The point is to remind myself that I am working with skin spirits and sacred remains, and that what I do is meant to honor.
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.
A werewolf, of course, is a human being who turns into a wolf, often during the full moon, though some werewolves are thought to have more control over the shift from one form to another. While the werewolf is best known from European mythologies, wolf and other shapechangers are spoken of worldwide. They are on the threshold between humanity and the rest of nature; moreover, they embody that liminal space. That is the first part of what makes Werewolf different from Wolf. Gray Wolf is its own being. While all totems can act as bridges between their species and humans, they are still, ultimately themselves. Gray Wolf is not human any more than we are wolves ourselves. But Werewolf is some of both.
The concept of the werewolf has its roots in the differentiation between humans, and all other nature. Once, we were just another animal in the landscape, struggling with other creatures for food, shelter, and safety. At some point we gained a certain awareness of ourselves as a species, and particularly what made us unique among animals. We noticed our unique ways of communication and the advanced tools we created and used. Eventually, we got this idea that these things made us not only special, but separate from other animals and the rest of nature. Some even considered us to be superior to everything else, somehow chosen by a higher power or made in the image of the Divine. We ceased to simply be “the People” among “the Ravens” and “the Tapirs” and “the White Oaks”, and lorded ourselves over the lot.
So began our supposed separation from the rest of nature. So began the birth of the werewolf.
Wolves, you see, aren’t that different from us in personality. We’re both social and have something of a hierarchy in our family-based groups. Once we humans came down from the trees, ate more meat, and headed north, we discovered that we could learn a lot from our lupine neighbors, and in almost every culture that shares space with wolves, these four-legged creatures have featured prominently in our mythologies. They are charismatic megafauna, big and impressive and noticeable. And even today we share space with their descendants, domestic dogs who are our closest non-human companions.
Wolves, then, became our symbol of the rest of nature, and the werewolf the bridge between that and us. How a given community viewed werewolves closely reflects their feelings on nature as a whole; benevolent shapeshifters reflect a more respectable and close-by natural world, while vicious, terrifying monsters often herald a fear of what lies beyond the light of the campfire. In Europe, particularly as Christianity took hold, werewolves and their wolf kin alike were seen as symbols of evil and desolation, and wolves were slaughtered mercilessly to “tame the land”.
Today, all species of wolves are endangered to one degree or another–those, of course, that haven’t been driven extinct already. And more would be extinct, too, had we not had a shift in our own consciousness, particularly those of us in Western countries where the most damage was done. Sometime in the middle of the twentieth century, as the modern environmental movement began to coalesce into more than a basic appreciation for nature, there came scientists and others who spoke up for wolves. Their narratives were not of bloodthirsty killers and two hundred pound monsters lurking in the trees, but of intelligent, family-oriented animals just as fragile and vulnerable to the challenges of the world as the rest of us. They awakened more and more people to the reality that we were more of a danger to the wolves than they were to us–and we were so close to killing them all.
That change caught up to werewolves, too. Once a mainstay of horror fiction (and still keeping that throne, thank you very much), werewolves are being seen in a more sympathetic light. They may still be fierce and strong and capable of great destruction, but we get to see their softer, more relatable wolf and human sides–and even the occasional cuddliness, too. We see werewolf families, something Lawrence Talbot could never have dreamed of. We watch them muddle through dating and growing pains of all sorts, balance out a normal human lifestyle with the call of the wild, all to varying degrees of success.
And that’s how we see nature. No longer is nature something harmful to be tamed and turned to our service. Now we accept it as it is, value it for itself, appreciate it in all its blood and glory. We still allow it to have its fangs, but we no longer assume those fangs should not exist because they’re dangerous. And we see the need to preserve nature, kind or harsh, not just for ourselves, but for everything on Earth.
This is the primary lesson of Werewolf. Not bloodlust, not being a furry id, but balance, awareness, turning the strict duality into a continuum. Werewolf is the one who reminds us, more than any other, to come home to nature. Werewolf is the answer to the nature/human perceived divide, and the internal conflict we feel over what makes us unique as a species, and what of us weaves into the rest of nature. Werewolf allows us our individual adventures but waits patiently for us in the moonlight to show us our way home.
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.
Somehow Pagan Values Month crept up on me this year. Luckily, it caught me at a time when a good topic was percolating in my head: food.
Food may not seem much like a value, so much as a necessity. Unable to photosynthesize sunlight into energy, we animals must consume other living beings to get our nutrients, whether in the form of other animals or the photosynthesizers (plants) themselves. And despite efforts to create a one-size-fits-all convenience substitute for food (like this dreadful looking stuff here), we’re still largely reliant on the direct products of the Earth for our daily sustenance.
But we are human, and one of the things that (as far as we know) makes us unique is the control we have over our environments through our intelligence, resourcefulness, and nifty opposable thumbs. One of the many ways in which we exercise this is through our conscious choice of food. Particularly as we developed agriculture and gained more independence on our food supply, we’ve been able to decide whether or not to eat a particular thing, rather than eating whatever happened to be available at the time. And cooking is even older than agriculture, with the earliest evidence arising 250,000 or so years ago.
With cooking came even more diversity in flavors, and with that a greater appreciation for the aesthetics, rather than just the functionality, of food. We can enjoy food, not just because a particular taste lets us know it has good things in it, but because we are conscious of our enjoyment. We are capable of choosing the flavors we like best, combining them in unusual and surprising manners. And in that act of creation, we appreciate and celebrate the food and its goodness.
But we don’t celebrate the land itself. Outside of a dedicated cadre of foodies and some wine enthusiasts, most people couldn’t tell you where the thing they’re consuming came from, never mind how the soil it was grown or fed on affects its taste. We may know vaguely that our loaf of bagged white bread was probably made from wheat somewhere in the Midwest–maybe–but that’s about it. For the most part, unless we grew or raised it ourselves, or bought it directly from the farmer, we just can’t say where our food came from. Food is an expression of the place it came from, and our bodies are made of that soil. We carry bits of countless fields and farms within our very flesh, yet few of us could identify every single one that’s provided us with our food.
This goes for most pagans, too. When we have our “harvest” celebrations in late summer and fall, Lammas and Mabon and Samhain, most of us aren’t offering up food that we ourselves grew or raised. Instead, everyone brings things we bought from the store, the farmers and farms themselves left anonymous and forgotten. We come together because someone’s ancestors way back when celebrated the harvest around this time–or because some book explained the eight Sabbats and that’s what we figure we’re supposed to do. There’s an almost complete disconnect between the empty words we speak out of some book of shadows, and the people who actually raised and harvested the food we consume once the circle’s closed.
It is not enough to celebrate “Yay, food!” with bland words of “Thank you to the Earth, blah, blah, blah”. What does that really mean? Thank you, entire planet? Thank you, unidentified spot where this apple was grown? Thank you, soil where a migrant worker stepped as they picked this handful of peas?
For those pagans whose spirituality centers on nature, this is a potential area for a deeper connection to the land. We need to go beyond rote harvest celebrations. Just like a Christian doesn’t stop being Christian after the hour-long Sunday service is done, we don’t stop being nature pagans after everyone goes home from the Sabbat (or whatever your chosen celebration is). To really honor the land we get our food from, we have to know it. We have to remove the anonymity as best as we can. And we have to acknowledge the sources and systems that bring us our food every day, to include the harm they can bring to the environment and ourselves, and mitigate the damage as best as we can. If we’re going to claim to honor nature, it’s imperative that we go beyond the generic “thank you”.
This isn’t always as easy as it sounds. Gardening seems like the easiest and most immediate solution to the anonymous food and land problem; I’ve been growing vegetables since I moved to the Northwest in 2006. But it takes money and resources; there are times when all I had was a few pots on the porch, and some people don’t even have access to that. Few of us have enough land to grow enough food for the household year-round; my community garden plot is 10′ x 20′, and it’s a good week if I can pull a few salads for two from it.
We could look to other food growers, of course. I’m spoiled here in Portland because there’s a strong emphasis on local agriculture, from farmer’s markets most days of the week to restaurants and shops specializing in locally grown and raised food. So it’s really easy to get to know the farmer here. It’s tougher to know the land that grew your food when all you have access to is a chain grocery store with plastic-wrapped meat from one of Tyson’s many factory farms and spinach shipped in from somewhere in Mexico. You may have to do some research to find more local resources–and “local” may be relative, if you don’t have viable farmland within a hundred miles, or if all the farmland is owned by huge agribusinesses.
Cost becomes a factor, too, when trying to buy more personal food. Big agriculture gets a ton of government subsidies which allow their products to be sold more cheaply; often the independent farmers can’t compete because they have to sell their food at real cost. This, unfortunately, can price it out of the reach of some people, especially those on lower incomes. This isn’t always universal; in the middle of summer I can go to the farmer’s market down the road and get a giant bundle of carrots for two bucks, but then pay $20/pound for grass-fed buffalo sirloin. (In which case, we just eat more carrots and only a little meat.)
The good news is that there’s no single right way to treat food as a pagan value. Just having more awareness of your food and where it comes from is a great starting point for breaking out of the generic “thank you, Earth!” form of food and land appreciation. As one example, even if all you know about the chickens your eggs came from is that they lived in tiny battery cages somewhere and existed only to lay as many eggs as possible, then at least you know who to really thank for your food at harvest time! And your awareness can lead to more conscious choices in the future, too. You might have access to free range eggs, whether through the grocery store or a farmer’s market. Even if you can’t buy the free range eggs every single shopping trip because they cost a few more dollars a dozen or because you’d have to travel farther for them, you might consider buying them once a month if you’re able, and that’s better than not buying them at all.
I’ll be talking more about issues surrounding food, sustainability, and their connection to spirituality in future posts–in fact, stay tuned for my next post where I’ll be reviewing a really good book that I’ve found incredibly inspirational in my quest to be a more responsible consumer of comestibles.
Today is an art day. I’m bouncing between a few custom orders and what I call “cleaning through art”. That latter is where I realize the back bedroom where I keep my art supplies is a complete mess, and instead of cleaning everything up like a normal person, I pick up the nearest project idea that’s cluttering up the floor and work on it til it’s done. Sure, it only makes the room a little less messy, but at the end I have a completed project and slightly more space!
One of the projects I’m working on is a dance costume made from a tanned horse’s mane and tail that I got from a Washington taxidermist who collects deceased animals from local farms (among other sources). The tail’s going to be on a belt, as I normally do with my horse tails, and I’m adding a pair of decorated belt pouches; the leather’s all from a deerskin coat I got at the Goodwill Bins a while back. You can see one of the pouches as a work-in-progress in the picture above.
My last Bins trip also netted me the paints next to it. Shopping there is less like a regular excursion where you have a list of things you want, and more like a giant yard sale that happens every day and there’s more brought out every fifteen minutes and you really don’t know what you’re going to go home with. In recent trips I’ve hauled out a pillowcase full of pine cones, a vintage Black and White scotch bottle (empty, of course), an empty antique projector case, and a bag full of several dozen partially full tubes of acrylic paints. I wasn’t able to open up the tubes prior to purchase, so I knew it was a gamble, but it paid off–only one was all dried up, and the rest were primarily in the earthy colors I use a lot. Although acrylics are a better paint green-wise than oils, with fewer toxins and a water base, they’re still a guilty convenience purchase (I mean really, I could just be mixing my own paints from egg and pigments, right?) So I was more than happy to keep these out of the waste stream and keep myself from having to buy new paints for a while, too.
However, just because they weren’t dried up didn’t mean all the paints were in prime condition. Most of them just needed to be stirred to get the pigment to mix back in with the solvent, but some responded better than others. I hate to waste anything, and so I’ve turned working with imperfect paints into an art all its own. If some of the pigment has solidified and the paint that’s left is thin, it makes a good wash or faux-watercolor. Too thick, but still brushable? Look, it’s a texturing medium! They need to be treated a little differently than when they were new, but they’re far from useless. Even the dried out clumps of pigment can be carved into interesting shapes for assemblage work, or made into flakes to glue in as colored details.
Some artists are really particular about their media; they can’t get the exact effect they want if the chemistry’s a little off, or the texture is wrong. I, on the other hand, love all the wrongness. There’s a certain joy I get as an artist out of using things that were discarded by others, whether it’s old hide scraps or bits of plastic or damaged household items. I love the challenge of making the imperfect beautiful, of watching it transform from refused into rejuvenated.
And I think, as a society, we might do better to fall in love with imperfection a little more. I know people who won’t shop at a thrift store because “That’s where the poor people go”. The classism of that statement is a whole other rant in and of itself, but I will point out now that this attitude ties right in with what I was talking about a few weeks back about saving only the best for ourselves. We waste so many resources, artistic and otherwise, because we turn out noses up at the imperfections, the challenges in making something work.
But that’s why I’m a Hyena Artist following the Way of the Scavenger. Their loss is my gain, and few things thrill me more than digging into the Bins and seeing what goodies I come up with to make stuff out of. And now I’m going to go back to painting with my old paints, on the secondhand leather pouch, because it’s going to be awesome when it’s done.
*By the way, the assemblage piece a few paragraphs up is made with one of those aforementioned pine cones, along with other reclaimed materials. You can find out more about it here.
Last week Lon Sarver wrote a fantastic post called The Past is Not Gone, about how the Law of Attraction is utter bunkum. For those who aren’t aware, the Law of Attraction basically says that if you think reallllllly hard about good things, then good things will happen to you. It’s basically the New Age version of the just world fallacy, and I’ve seen it lead to some pretty egregious ignorance, up to and including people explaining away others’ disabilities, poverty, and misfortunes as “well, they just kept thinking negative things!” (Not to be confused with that other well-meaning-but-utterly-clueless claim that “Oh, they’re just paying off karma from things they did in a past life!”)
The great thing he does in this post is outline a number of people and forces in his ancestry that contributed to where he is today. Not all of them are pleasant; he points out where he personally benefited from Manifest Destiny (I can say much the same) and that he is descended in part from people who were once slaveholders. But that’s part of the issue of privilege or the lack thereof–the accident of our birth may confer or deny certain advantages, and not everyone gets to be the hero who overcomes a rough start. And anyone who doesn’t make it out of that hole, no matter how deep, is seen as a failure, and therefore they must have brought it upon themselves.
Here in the U.S., there’s a strong cultural emphasis on individualism (rugged and otherwise). The ideal is of one person in peak condition, able to attend to their own needs, and contrasted against the weak masses huddling together un helplessness. Yet as Rua Lupa, my co-blogger at Paths Through the Forests, pointed out yesterday, we are enmeshed in a complex web of interdependence with people around the world, not out of weakness but out of necessity. Just because we pretend it isn’t there doesn’t really make it go away; that trick doesn’t work any better now than it did when we were young children who thought no one could see us if we just closed our eyes.
We do the same thing with the rest of the world, too, human and otherwise. We consumers are deliberately kept from seeing the sources of all of our conveniences and trinkets, from pre-packaged food to fossil fuels to shiny diamonds soaked in someone else’s blood. In just a few decades, it’s become the norm to not have to think about where your food came from and what living beings (animal, plant, and more) died in its creation, who sewed your clothing together and how little they were paid, and other unpleasant realities.
And it’s that milieu of ignorance that births such codswallop as the Law of Attraction. The lotus-eaters who sit back and bemoan the state of the world and continue to think happy thoughts of manifestation are just another product of our denial. In order to really get things done in the world, we have to get our hands dirty, literally and figuratively, and meet the harsh realities of the world head-on. Action speaks louder than attraction.
At the same time, there is value in keeping an optimistic, if realistic, mindset. If you focus only on the bad news, it’s going to drag you down eventually, and you’ll find yourself unable to do much about anything. That’s why self-care is so important, not just for activists, but for anyone who faces any level of stress. It’s okay to appreciate the beautiful things in the world without automatically thinking “Yeah, but here’s the ugly side”. It’s fine to keep a positive outlook even when you’re in the thick of dealing with (rather than denying) big, scary challenges. We need a respite from the times that try our souls now and again.
The Law of Attraction, on the other hand, is escapism. Worse, it blames the victim. And even when a person really has done themselves a bad favor and made some unwise choices, all the Law of Attraction says is “Just think everything better!” That’s not much preparation for rolling up your sleeves and cleaning up the mess you’ve made.
In the end, it’s people wanting to have a simple answer for complicated problems because they just don’t know how to deal with them otherwise. While I’ve had times where I wished I could just wave a magic wand and make the bad things go away, I don’t try to make a life philosophy out of it. And that’s really the problem with the Law of Attraction–it tells you you don’t need to worry about things like privilege, and environmental injustice, and climate change, and the basic fact that life really isn’t fair and there’s no way around it. I think we all need a better set of coping skills than that to get us through.
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.