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.
One of the features I’m offering some of my patrons on Patreon is a monthly totem profile, featuring a different animal, plant or fungus totem each month. I’m still not a big fan of totem dictionaries for a variety of reasons, not the least of which being what a particular totem teaches me may not be what it has to say to you–if anything. So rather than offering up the usual “This totem means this, that totem means that” dictionary entry, my goal is to offer up fuel for your own explorations. It’s a little more specific than the exercises and ideas I offer in my books on working with totems in general; these monthly profiles provide some inspiration for connecting with a particular totem. However, they should NOT be seen as “Lupa says this is what the totem means, so you can just stop trying now”, and you should always keep yourself open to the possibility that the totem has bailiwicks that aren’t mentioned in the profile. And, as always, these profiles are from the perspective of non-indigenous, neopagan totemism, and are colored heavily by my own experiences and interpretations.
If you would like to receive access to these profiles, become my patron at Patreon at a level of $5/month or more. In addition to the profiles you’ll also get access to other patron-only content like work in progress shots of art projects, sneak peeks of completed blog posts before they go public, nature photos that I don’t post elsewhere, and other exclusive goodies.
This Gray Wolf profile is just a sample; I’ll be posting an additional profile on another totem for my patrons for August.
Name: Gray Wolf Scientific Classification:Animalia Chordata Mammalia Carnivora Canidae Caninae Canini Canis lupus Range: Almost all of the Northern Hemisphere historically, now reduced to less human-populated wilderness areas of Europe, Asia and North America
Physical Characteristics: The largest existing wild canine, the gray wolf is a lean, powerfully built hunter made for long-distance chases and ranging over cast territories. Wolves are typically about twenty-six to thirty-four inches high at the shoulder and may be up to six feet in length. Average weight for wolves is seventy to eighty pounds, with females being slightly smaller. Wolves in northern areas are generally larger than their southern cousins. The wolf’s double-layered pelt can be a variety of colors ranging from silvery-gray to brown, red, yellow, and even pure white; black wolves, which often have paler gray hairs mixed in, are derived from lineages that crossbred with domestic dogs in the distant past. In the wild, the wolf’s average lifespan is six to eight years, though wild wolves have been known to survive up to thirteen years, and captive wolves a few years beyond that. Wolves are primarily carnivores, and will hunt prey ranging from field mice to moose and other deer depending on availability. However, they may also consume a smaller portion of high-calorie vegetable matter such as berries and fruit.
Evolutionary History: Some of the earliest known ancestors of today’s wolf were the creodonts, Cretaceous-era carnivorous mammals that were dwarfed by their dinosaur neighbors over 100 million years ago. About fifty million years later one branch of creodonts became the carnassials, which had evolved better jaws for meat-eating and began to resemble today’s canines. Miacis is the specific member of this group that we think gave rise to canines and related modern carnivores like bears and weasels. Miacis gave rise to Cynodictis around 35 million years ago, which then later evolved into Tomarctus at about 20 million years ago. We don’t start seeing truly wolf-like creatures until about three million years ago, and the gray wolf proper first appeared about a million years ago in what is now Eurasia, later moving into North America. Today around forty subspecies of wolf (including a few now extinct) are recognized, including the domestic dog and the Australian dingo.
Behavior: Gray wolves are among the most social of canines, living in packs generally composed of a mating pair and their pups from previous years; a litter averages four to eight pups. This social lifestyle offers the wolves the opportunity to hunt larger prey as a group than they would as individuals. Wolves hunt their prey by chasing it down, first getting as close as they can to the prey, then running after it to separate it from its herd and tire it out. Wolves have been known to chase prey in shifts, with new wolves replacing those that are tired out, much like passing a baton in a relay race. A wolf can eat up to twenty pounds of meat or more at one sitting, after which a long nap is generally warranted. Hunting is only a small part of a wolf’s life, though. They are quite playful creatures, both with their pups and with fellow adult packmates. They enthusiastically greet each other when they reunite after separation, and use a variety of sounds to communicate both close by and at a distance. The pack is highly territorial and will defend their territory from other packs with some ferocity. While most pack disputes are settled without violence, on occasions fights may occur, leading to injury or even death. Contrary to popular myth, wolves are generally shy creatures when it comes to humans, and usually take great pains to avoid us. It is only a very starved or very sick wolf that will attempt to attack a human being, though wolves close to human settlements have been known to hunt loose dogs and cats and, on occasion, livestock.
Cultural Impact: The gray wolf is one of the most recognizable wild animals in the Northern Hemisphere, and has had a significant contribution to the symbolism of various cultures throughout the land. The wolf’s ferocity in hunting and defending its territory have earned it a reputation as a powerful being, sometimes revered and sometimes feared–and often both. The Big Bad Wolf of fairy tales is just one of several iterations of the wolf as a terrifying monster, and is derived in part from the villainous wolf of Aesop’s fables and the Brothers Grimm. The Navajo in the southwest United States tell of the yee naldlooshi (popularly known as a skinwalker), a human witch who transforms into a wolf (or other animal) to attack and terrorize people. And Fenrir (or Fenris), a monstrous wolf of Norse mythology, is said to be the killer of the god Odin when the end of the world, Ragnarok, arrives. But the wolf is often seen in a positive light as well. Romulus and Remus, the founders of Rome, were said to have been raised by a female wolf, and a similar lupine kinship has been adopted by cultures worldwide, from the Chechen people of Eastern Europe to the Mongols of Asia to several Native American cultures. The strength of wolves also makes them a common symbol of warriors and warrior culture, and their prowess in hunting has been emulated by humans for millenia. Today, the wolf is a common representative of the wilderness and the need to protect it, and several environmental groups use it as their emblem.
Totemic Inspiration: It is difficult for me to write about Gray Wolf sometimes because he has been such a significant part of my life from a very early age and has taught me so much of who I am today–persistence, drive, the ability to connect, but also a sharp tooth and not always at the appropriate times. Gray Wolf’s cosmopolitan children and high cultural profile makes her one of the most popular totems and almost sort of a “gateway totem”. This is not necessarily a bad thing, as he is often associated with teaching and guidance in neopagan totemism, and in my experience tends to be pretty patient (think of a wolf being gently mauled by a litter of playful pups!) Because wolves are persistent long-distance hunters, Gray Wolf may be called upon for help with staying the course in long-term projects and endeavors, though with an eye toward adapting one’s tactics to be more effective, much as a wolf must change course when prey darts off in another direction, or when a new prey animal becomes evident in chasing a herd. This adaptability is reflected in the wolf’s incredibly large range and ability to live in habitats ranging from deserts to tundra to forests, and for myself I’ve learned quite a bit about making the most of the resources available to me from Gray Wolf. Wolf is not without her shortcomings, though; while territoriality can be helpful when resources are limited and need to be protected fiercely, humanity in general has a lot to learn about generosity, particularly in cultures where there are many resources, but those resources are treated as though they are scarce. It’s not that wolves can’t be cooperative or benefit other beings; they frequently partner with ravens in finding food and in play, and a wolf’s kill can feed dozens of other animals. But Gray Wolf’s loyalty is to his own first and foremost, and this may need to be offset with a conscious reminder that as humans we do not need to restrict our intentional loyalty only to our nearest and dearest. Finally, as mentioned earlier, Gray Wolf and her children have become emblematic of ecological protection efforts because of the wolf’s place as a keystone species, and my co-blogger Rua Lupa and I discussed this earlier this year over at Paths Through the Forests. Please note that these are my interpretations of my experiences with Gray Wolf, and they should not be seen as “totem meanings”. Your mileage with Gray Wolf may vary quite a bit, so get to know him on your own terms if she’d like to work with you.
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.
I’ve always had a pretty psychology-heavy approach to spirituality, even before I went to grad school. I confess that I am one of those people who studied psychology in part to figure myself out; while in some ways I am a very capable, functional and adaptable human being, I do have my challenges. I’ve used therapy for years to help treat my anxiety and other idiosyncracies, but even when going on a weekly basis, I still have to attend to myself the other 167 hours. For a good long while I used meditation, with a strong focus on emotional processing, as a big part of my personal psychological toolkit.
It worked pretty well for several years. It gave me an outlet for exploring the weird twists and turns of my mind, particularly regarding my past. I grew up in a pretty safe and loving household, and even if I seemed to be a peculiar child, I was never, ever unwanted. But I also grew up with a constant onslaught of bullying at school, starting in second grade and going all the way to the end of high school. I had very few friends, and most of the ones I did have would often turn on me with no notice. For years I found refuge outdoors, alone and mostly unsupervised, able to immerse myself in the fauna and flora and fungi around me. But there was an additional trauma when the woods I took refuge in were suddenly and brutally bulldozed, and I found myself with nowhere to turn with my grief.
My twenties were tough, and I spent a lot of time trying to detangle myself from all these early influences. And for a while, it served its purpose. I gained more awareness of why I behaved in certain ways, and felt a little less like a badly programmed automaton. I even did some rite of passage work to banish certain behavior patterns or the effects of particular memories as a way of trying to reprogram myself.
But knowing how my brain worked and doing one-off symbolic actions wasn’t enough. In fact, beyond a certain point, it became counterproductive. I started spending too much time in my head, and would retreat into it as a defense against the anxiety, stress and other nasties that had plagued me for so long. I thought that if I could just tell my life story a little more clearly, I’d somehow be free of it, once that final piece was laid into place.
That’s not how it happened, of course. I just obsessed over my past more and more. More destructively, I was judging and measuring and nitpicking my every move and thought and trying to determine “Well, why am I doing this?” I was my own special little lab rat. I’d do a thing, and then I’d analyze it to death, and then I’d write up the “results”, usually on Livejournal. I don’t even want to think about how many pages-long posts of agonized processing I word-spewed onto the update page (thankfully hidden under LJ-cuts to spare my followers who didn’t give a crap what was going on in the deepest convolutions of my gray matter). It can basically all be summed up as “I THOUGHT ABOUT THIS THING FROM MY PAST BECAUSE I DID A THING NOW THAT REMINDED ME OF IT AND NOW I’M GOING TO TAKE AN EXACTO BLADE AND SLICE IT UP INTO TINY BITS AND SCRUTINIZE IT UNDER THIS MICROSCOPE AND LOOK AT HOW DEEP AND INTROSPECTIVE I AM EXCUSE ME WHILE I GO MEDITATE AND REFLECT AND PROCESS IT SOME MORE IT’S NOT MUSHY ENOUGH”.
This was all amplified when I ended up in a relationship for a few years with someone who also did a good deal of internal processing and past-picking. Now I had someone else encouraging me to dig deeper, spend more time “sitting with myself” and my problems and my pain and otherwise focusing on the stuff in my head. Some of their suggested techniques were different than what I was doing, but the result was the same–I stayed stuck in my head, a broken record skipping over the same crack again and again and thinking that the sound I made was the music I was supposed to hear. Eventually it became something of a horrible feedback loop between us, especially when we’d fight–instead of dealing with the problem itself, we’d take turns explaining exactly why we were each behaving the way we were, sometimes spending hours in this war-storying* circlejerk. Unsurprisingly, the actual thing we were fighting about rarely got addressed, and it would just come up again later. In the interim, we’d both meditate and otherwise “reflect” on ourselves and our quirks and flaws in an attempt to gain control of them, which invariably did little good. I was supposed to be visiting my past in these meditations as a way of giving myself control in my everyday life, but instead all I was doing was reinforcing the neurological pathways in my brain that led to the anxiety and other problems.
This approach to “fixing things” continued until I became involved with my current partner a few years ago and began trying the same processing patterns with him. Not too long into our relationship, I had a bit of an anxiety attack, and my immediate response was to open up the mental Rolodex of “Why is this happening? What patterns in my childhood led to this response behavior?” and so forth, going over the same tired examples in the hopes of finding some new little twist I’d missed before. He’d seen this happen a few times, and he’s a pretty observant person; I’ve actually learned quite a bit about empathy and active listening from him.
So he stopped me in mid-sentence. I forget exactly what he said, but it was something along the lines of “Lupa, what are you trying to do? You’re not ten years old any more; you’re not fifteen, and you’re not twenty. You are who you are now, and you need to stop hanging on so tightly to who you were back then. Be here now.” And then instead of letting me continue to obsess over the reasons for my anxiety attack and what created my anxiety disorder in the first place and who bullied me, etc. etc., which kept my anxiety heightened until I exhausted myself, he carefully walked me through the anxiety, calmed me down, and grounded me in the present.
It boggles my mind that until that point no one had ever effectively done that for me before. I’d gotten a lot of dismissive remarks like “Just get over it” and “What are you making such a big deal for?” I’d gotten yelled at and bullied and retraumatized into shutting up by those who couldn’t handle what was happening to me any more than I could, even by people who were supposed to be helping me. And I’d both inflicted on myself and had reinforced by others this idea that if I just “sat with my past” it would fix everything and empower me to change; in the end, people who thought they were helping me by leading me deeper into myself were just perpetuating the problem and hurting me even more with their “expertise”. And yet someone who had only known me for a handful of weeks was able to see where I was stuck in my head and gave me a lifeline out of it.
It took me a while after that incident to break myself of the instant response of “INTERNALIZE! PROCESS! REFLECT!” whenever I got hit with stress. There were plenty of times where I realized, or my partner observed, that “Lupa, you’re doing that thing again. Quit it. Come back here.” And being that I was deep in grad school at the time, I was embroiled in upper-level psych and counseling classes that kept unearthing things in my head (this is why my program required every student to receive at least ten hours of therapy before starting their practicum). So it was a hard fight out of my internal cage.
But eventually I got there. I don’t remember the precise time when things shifted; like so much growth, it was gradual–as opposed to the sudden growth spurts I think I must have been expecting with every new revelation I discovered about my past during meditations and processing sessions. It’s been a couple of years at least, though, since I can remember it happening.
Of course, some things are still the same old Lupa–I still have anxiety attacks now and then, usually from fairly predictable stimuli. But at least now my panicking brain focuses on the here and now, along with some catastrophizing about the future. The catastrophizing I can get around by reminding myself that I’m looking at the worst case scenario and the future hasn’t arrived yet so it does no good to worry about it now, and so then I can get down to the business of the present. And because I’m shifting my focus to the present, I become aware, most of the times when an attack happens, that my mind is going haywire because my brain and body are flooded with fight, flight or freeze chemicals, and I hang onto that awareness til the chemicals flush out of my system and I can think rationally again.
More importantly, I’m not constantly reinforcing that connection with my past. While I have an understanding of how my past shaped who I am today, it’s no longer the central focus of my identity like it used to be. Instead, “influences from my past” is just one of many and varied threads of self that all weave together to create who I am in this moment. Nor do I have to nitpick every single thing I do under the magnifying glass of my past. If I happen to notice a connection between past and present, I note it briefly, usually with a bit of curiosity and “Huh, okay, that makes sense”. And then I move the fuck on with my day.
This is a big part of why my path has shifted so drastically to the physical in recent years. Pagans talk about “grounding” in the sense of visualizing one’s self being energetically rooted into the earth. Sometimes it involves symbols of nature, like pretending to be a tree and putting down roots, but it’s still a technique based on being in my head. The best thing for me has been being grounded right here in the moment, not pretending to be a tree or a beam of light or a cloud, but being me, Lupa, in the flesh. I’m tired of willful dissociation, and I’ve wasted too much time on it. Now, when I feel overwhelmed, I go back to what worked first in my life–I go outside, preferably alone and where it’s quiet. It allows me respite from my thoughts, and it does things that reduce the physiological causes of anxiety and stress, like lowering my blood pressure and letting my senses drift instead of focus hard. My answer to problems is not to think more, but to think less for a while, and rest from thinking. When I come back, my thoughts and plans are more calm and steady, not frazzled from reaching inside for THE ANSWERS.
Does this mean I’ve written off meditation entirely? Absolutely not. But these days I use it as an antidote to overthinking; my meditation is based in mindfulness, not magic. Even when I do guided visualizations I’m not trying to power my way through chakra blockages or go on quests to seek the grails within. Instead, what I visualize are things that reconnect me with the physical world. With my eyes closed, I try to pinpoint exactly where a particular sound is coming from, or to remember where I am in location to a specific tree. And then when I open my eyes again, I am fully here and now again, not rabbiting off down some path to the mean old past yet again.
And that’s made all the difference. A few years ago, if I were talking about my relationship with meditation down the years, I’d be hyper-analyzing every detail of the story, and finishing it with “…and that’s why I am the way I am today! Look how smart I am for recognizing that!” And that’s it. This post is a curious note in my thoughts today, where I realized “Oh, hey, remember that thing you used to do, Lupa? You haven’t done it in years!” And my response was “Oh, hey, that’s cool.” I thought maybe my cautionary tale would be of interest to some readers, maybe if others are stuck in the same headspace; I got out, and maybe you can, too.
As to my ongoing work to calm my anxiety? I acknowledge that my brain doesn’t quite work right; maybe that’ll change someday, maybe not, but I don’t need to try to figure out every single thing that led up to it being the way it is. It’s okay that I’m able to largely ignore injuries of the past and let them work on healing while I do other stuff. I’m like this little puppy with a busted leg all wrapped up, run-stumbling around Tumblr lately:
Like Tumblr user iraffiruse said about the pup:
Some people might feel sorry for themselves in this situation
Puppy don’t care
Puppy’s got stuff to do
Puppy’s got places to be
Puppy’s got people to bark at and things to sniff.
And I think I can relate to that little ouch-legged pup in that.
* War-storying is a term I picked up from when I was interning at an addictions treatment facility in my final year of grad school. It refers to a phenomenon in addictions treatment where the client spends their time telling and re-telling stories from their past to get an emotional rise out of themselves and, as they hope, their audience. It isn’t particularly effective, as it’s just reliving the experience rather than attending to its effects in the now. It’s also very similar to some of the “internal work” I was attempting to do.
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?
Recently on Facebook someone passed along a little “quiz” about one’s birth number and what it means in your life. You take your birthdate (for example, 1-1-1901) and you add up the numbers (1 + 1 + 1 + 9 + 0 + 1 = 13, and then 1 + 3 = 4). Supposedly your personality is somewhat influenced by this number; a four, for example, may mean you’re a practical, down to earth person, while an eight means a flashy show-off (or something like that; I didn’t save the post that had the information). If you Google “birth number” you’ll get a bunch of other metrics by which you can be categorized–some only look at the day of the month you were born, others consider the day to be a “primary” birth number while your day plus month plus year is only secondary, or the big add-up is your life path number, and so on.
The thing is, it’s based entirely on one of hundreds of calendars that have been developed by humans over the millenia, the Gregorian calendar, which was finalized in 1582 AD, itself an update to the Julian calendar of 46 BC, itself a modification of the older Roman calendar. And the Roman calendar was simply an attempt to try and rectify the 365 day year with the twelve lunar cycles (and a few extra days) in that time. But the choice to go by the moon is just a choice, not a mandate; the Mayan Tzolk’in and Haab’ calendars are based on twenty day cycles, for example. Plus the number we assign to the year is based entirely on when people think Jesus of Nazareth might have been born, and therefore associated with one religion in particular; it’s hardly the only system for counting and numbering years that’s existed in the history of humanity.
Then there are the traits that people supposedly have simply by virtue of being born on a particular day of the month, or because the day, month and year numbers associated with their birth according to the Gregorian calendar happen to add up to a particular sum. I looked up the “meanings” of these numbers from a bunch of different sources online, and not only did I find some disagreement on meanings, but I could see traits in almost every definition that described me to one degree or another. Of course, these descriptions were so vague that they probably could have been made to apply to almost anyone–and that’s really how this whole thing works, isn’t it? You’re seeking your importance anywhere you can, to include mostly arbitrary human-created patterns, and giant cosmic cycles that really have very little to do with us at all. It’s quite self-centered.
Anthropocentrism is the philosophical view that human beings are separate from and superior to the rest of the natural world, possessing intrinsic value that other beings and entities (such as plants and non-human animals) lack. (Source.)
Now, it’s perfectly natural to favor our own species. The ability to differentiate between one’s own species and another is a very, very ancient ability indeed, and humans have turned that into a particularly complex ability to define “us vs. them”, both interspecies and intraspecies (and sometimes both at the same time!) Trouble is, we might have gotten a little too good at it.
We are products of a combination of nature and nurture. Every living being is born with a set of DNA passed down from its ancestors; how the genes are expressed, and which ones are expressed at all, are significantly affected by the environment the being grows up in. This is backed up by a mountain of scientific evidence. While we’re still figuring out some of the details, like the proportions of nature to nurture in individual situations for example, we have numerous examples where there’s a clear causation between Factor A (in the genes or the environment) and Result B (in the living being). And this is a phenomenon that affects every single living being on Earth, humans being just one species among the rest.
The birth number thing is just the opposite–it’s based entirely on one particular way in which humans divide up time, and assigning values to numbers that have absolutely no basis in anything objectively provable, and then saying “this number unlocks the secrets of who you are! Aren’t you special!” And somehow this is supposed to have as much of an effect on who you are as a person as billions of years of cumulative evolution of life on this planet. Let’s say I gathered 10,000 people who believed in birth numbers and considered the fact they’re fives to be an important thing, and then another 10,000 people at random from the population of the world whose birth number is five regardless of whether they believe in birth numbers or not, and then a sample made of 10,000 people pulled from the population at random regardless of birth number. And then say that I was somehow able to interview them all over a long enough period of time to see how well they matched the supposed profile of someone whose birth number is five. I would be willing to bet everything that I own that the first group (“Yay, we’re fives!”) would have a higher rate of self-reporting that they matched the “five profile” than the other two groups. Moreover, I predict that the self-reported results of the second group (the fives who may or may not realize they’re fives) would NOT show a degree of statistically significant difference from the results of the third group (drawn from the general population regardless of birth number). (On the other hand, if I was able to somehow objectively observe every person in all three groups in their everyday lives to see how many exhibited the traits of a birth number five, I’m willing to bet that all three groups would have about the same results, and the people whose birth number was five would have about the same range of personality traits as the rest.)
However, let’s say I ran another experiment, this time focusing on long-term negative effects of the stress responses that are ultimately rooted in hundreds of millions of years of animal evolution. I’d have 10,000 people who spent 50% or more of their childhood until age 18 in a war-torn location, 10,000 people who never spent any time in a war-torn area, and 10,000 people chosen at random regardless of background. Judging from my own research and psychological training regarding anxiety disorders and other long-term negative stress responses, I would predict that the sample from war-torn areas would show a much higher rate of these responses and their corresponding effects on the the brain and body as well as psyche. The 10,000 people who had never been exposed to war may have a lower than average rate of stress responses, though other factors like domestic abuse and other non-war-related causes of long-term stress responses could complicate the findings.
Still, the difference between the two experiments stands: you can clearly measure the effects of genetics and physical environment on living beings, human and otherwise, in a way you cannot measure with something like birth numbers. This means that I am much more likely to take to heart a profile that is based on my place as an animal, with all the evolutionary history I have behind me and how I respond to my environment, than a profile based on the numbers that happened to be assigned to the day I was born (itself an event that had more to do with my development and my mother’s body than the numbers on the calendar). And what I say about birth numbers can also be applied to any of a number of other esoteric systems that supposedly predict or declare who you are.
Now, with all that said, I do not take the reductionist view that all we are is a bunch of neurotransmitters swimming around in meat suits; I’m more of a romantic than that! If you personally find value in things like birth numbers and other numerological concepts, or astrology, or divination by birds, or whatever other structure for meaning you choose, by all means go for it! One of the things that–as far as we know right now, anyway–is particular to our species is an intrinsic need for meaning of some sort. It may just be a side-effect of the big brains we evolved, but the numerous religions, philosophies and other structures we’ve created point to our desire for meaning, to include meaning that we feel is personally relevant to us as individuals. And that’s okay; better to embrace it if it leads a person to a more mentally healthy, happy life.
Where I feel the waters get muddied is when people look at something like a birth number (or similar thing) and assign it the same level of importance in the formation of who they are as a person as, say, the environment they grew up in. While a lot of people see their birth number or their daily horoscope as a mild curiosity or something to wrap into a more multi-faceted understanding of self, there are also those who swear up and down that these things hold great sway over who they are as people and even base important decisions on them. By giving things like birth numbers so much weight we may be ignoring the much vaster effects that nature as a whole, not just the human-specific portions of it, has on us. If you’ve had a traumatic history to the point where the effects are having an ongoing significant negative effect on your life today, you’re probably going to look for solutions so you can get better. But if you’re focusing mainly on the calendrical circumstances surrounding the moment of your birth and not paying attention to research on PTSD and how trauma can permanently affect your brain and body, you may have a much tougher time getting the necessary tools to heal yourself.
Meaning-making comes into play, too. There’s a definite difference in depth of understanding both of ourselves and of our place in this world and the universe at large. Birth numbers say “You are who you are because some human decided at some point that this number that happens to coincide with your birthday means this special thing about you”. Nature says “You are who you are in part because of the experiences of countless living beings over three and a half billion years and the tools they left you as a result”. Birth numbers say “You share traits X, Y, and Z with a bunch of other people whose birthdays happen to add up to the same number/who were born on the same day of any month”. Nature says “You share a portion of DNA with every single living being that has ever existed on this planet and will ever be here. Look to your development before you were born, and you see the history of life unfolding in the space of nine months. You, humanity, are just one of countless species that have walked this earth, moved through these waters, glided through these skies.” (Granted, these interpretations are influenced by my personal biases, but there is a lot more time and knowledge associated with evolution than birth numbers.)
You can have both your birth number and your evolutionary history as important things in your life, of course. Bringing things in from the huge-picture view to the more personal, we each get to choose our own meaning-making structures, and that’s part of what gives humanity its glorious diversity even among all the things we share in common. Personally as well as in the big picture, I find a lot more meaning in my species being one of many jewels in the crown of the Earth, an ever-changing display, than in trying to figure out whether my life path is following the proper profile of a “nine” or not.
(I’ll still happily sing you “Happy Birthday” on the anniversary of your entrance into this world if you like, though. I still think that’s important.)
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.