Is it possible that meat-eating can be ecologically sustainable, even compared with a vegan diet? Is it healthy to regularly and copiously eat meat? Is it true that my new diet, full of saturated fat, cholesterol, and animal flesh (as well as very few carbs), lots of broths and fermented veggies/dairy, might actually be even _more_ healthy than the whole-foods vegetarian regimen I consumed, Before?
I've spent a LOT of time pondering these questions over the past eight months. Intellectually, my research is bringing me more clarity, and I believe the answer to each of those questions is, in short: Yes (see a few footnoted resources, at the end of this e-mail). But the clarity came in bursts:
--Back in April, I'd already concluded that refined carbohydrates and added sugars were just about the most toxic substances that humans have ever consumed on a regular basis. So when I read about the GAPS diet, and its potential to heal Ben's Issues, I didn't need convincing--no more sugar and flour, for sure!
--It took a few days longer to understand why, for a health-compromised person, almost all starches and sugars (including grains and beans, and initially nuts and fruit) aren't so good either. Without further ado, away they went.
--It took me maybe two more days to understand that now that all the carbs were gone, a vegetarian diet was impossible to sustain. Now, in came the meat. It was only because of my conviction that GAPS would heal Ben that I was able to even consider this idea, and it meant I had to deal with some--as they say--Stuff.
--From this point, I stumbled along for about five months, more or less grudgingly and gaggingly eating the minimal amount of meat that I could possibly consume in order to prevent a really ravenous state of existence. Sure, I was hopeful about Ben's healing, and glad about Jeff's and Jem's and my own increasingly Good Health, too--but from a selfish perspective, I couldn't help noting my sometimes extreme mealtime trauma.
--Around the end of October, I was finally and truly becoming appreciative of our delicious, nourishing, nutrient-dense diet. I noticed that now, six months since we'd completely eliminated grains from our diet, we were eating from completely new food groups: fermented veggies, bone broths, meats, lots of vegetables, and lately, a tremendous amount of fats, including animal fats. Fats! Finally! Blessed satiety!
--Now, although I've learned about more-digestible ways to prepare grains and beans Later (after this medically-necessary, several-year leave-of-absence from them), I wonder if I'll ever want to consume my former mainstay on a regular basis. My research continues...
But despite all my research, on all sorts of topics, which is convincing me of the health and environmental and social benefits of eating a Traditional diet, there's the emotional part of the human brain--at least, _my_ human brain--that isn't only concerned with matters of practicality, logistics, and health. Despite my growing affection for saturated fats, and my increasing taste for hamburgers, I have not made much headway in dealing with one big, looming, existential doubt: am I a less-moral, -ethical, or -philosophically principled person, now that I eat meat?
I no longer believe that a meat-eating environmental footprint is innately inferior to a vegan one...but what about the _psychic_ footprint of a meat-eater? How can I possibly justify my consumption of animal flesh to all those enlightened, vegan yogis??
Eight months after taking the plunge into hard-core carnivorism, I still have times when I feel the loss of my vegetarianism as strongly as I would mourn the death of a dear friend. Why _was_ I vegetarian for so long, apart from childhood conditioning? Much of my reasoning made sense at the time, but doesn't any more, and sometimes when I think about this I feel so incredibly empty--like I no longer understand my own ideas of right and wrong, like I have every reason in the world for self-flagellation, like I have absolutely no spiritual moorings left.
I guess it's pretty funny for an atheist to bemoan her lack of spirituality, but I'm not talking about God here, exactly. What We Eat is _such_ a huge deal. It is one of those Most Basic Needs, something that everyone has to do, something that humans have always done, and which is, in our modern world, fraught with anxiety, emotional drama, cravings, economics, and public and private controversy. There are many things that an ascetic can eschew, but eating is not one of them. Even Before, I always knew that we vote with our forks. My vegetarianism was as much my own measure of character, politics, and morality as anything ever was.
And now that I'm not a vegetarian...what of my character? My Politics? My morality??
None of my research has been helpful in clearing this up. I would read all about the health benefits of eating cow, and chew my hunks of cow-flesh, and cry silently for all that I was eating. Some would say this internal conflict is as bad as eating food that's actually bad for you; it was my only coping mechanism to deal with the loss of a belief system.
Until this past Wednesday. While I nursed Jem to nap, I read a bit of a memoir that made me cry--with relief, and longing, and the knowledge that as a meat-eater, I am not doomed to a discontented, disconnected life. Maybe, just maybe, there is a way for an Atheist like me to feel connection, and grief, and gratitude for my food--not any less so than I did when I was a vegetarian, and possibly, maybe, more.
[I have copied an entire chapter below, from Jessica Prentice's book. I encourage you to read it, and to buy the book, “Full Moon Feast”. Others argue the science thoroughly, as I mentioned above, but Prentice is eloquent on a different level, speaking more about the human psyche than of Nutritionism or the economics of resource consumption.]
by Jessica Prentice
“Those animals which I use for riding and loading,
Which have been killed for me,
All those whose meat I have taken,
May they attain the state of Buddhahood very soon!”
--Ladakhi Prayer, Translated from the Ladakhi
In midautumn, when the air is growing colder and the nights longer, comes the Blood Moon. Also called the Hunter's Moon by indigenous peoples in the eastern woodlands, it was a time when northern dwellers of many cultures would work to ensure that their store of meat would last the winter. They did this by hunting wild game or slaughtering farm animals. It was a time of year when blood was shed.
Meat eating is one of the most controversial topics among people who care about food, ecology, spirituality, human culture, and the lives of animals. Deciding not to eat meat is often either the first or the most profound decision a person makes about diet in response to political or spiritual convictions.
I was fourteen when an older friend of mine, named Sarah, converted me to vegetarianism. She was fifteen, and seemed to me infinitely wiser than I was. Throughout my childhood, I had loved eating meat. I lived in Madison, Wisconsin, as a small child, and some of my fondest memories form that time involve meals centered on meat. Once, when a tornado warning was in effect, we had to go into the basement to wait for the threat to pass. I remember my parents frying bacon with an electric skillet as we sat our the storm. It is a very cozy memory, of the whole family safe together in that basement and the delicious smells or bacon and a sense of being both nourished and protected. I also remember loving liverwurst--a popular food in Wisconsin--and eating it in the park by the lake. After that we moved to Virginia, and for years my favorite meal--the one I would request on my birthday--was steak and Rice-A-Roni. Another beloved dinner was meat fondue, where we would each cook our meat in a little boiling cauldron and dip it into our favorite sauces. Even in ninth grade, my first year of high school and the same year that I became a vegetarian, my favorite treat was to go to my friend's house and make steak-and-cheese sandwiches as an after-school snack. But all of that soon changed.
Through conversations with Sarah I became convinced that eating meat was wrong on many levels. She argued that eating meat was cruel to animals, bad for the Earth, and an irresponsible indulgence in a world that could be better fed with grains and beans. I put aside my steak sandwiches in favor of trail mix and granola. Being a vegetarian was clearly more evolved than being a carnivore, and what I wanted desperately, at the age of fourteen, was to be evolved--to be more mature, to be older, to be wiser, to be more spiritual. My vegetarianism did indeed take on a spiritual component as I came to think of eating meat as eating death, and began to consider it a primitive, base, and immoral thing to do. I loved life; I would not kill for my food.
While my vegetarianism started with giving up red meat, I quickly stopped eating poultry as well, and then fish. I felt that eating death was eating death and it didn't matter which creature had died. I soon began to feel that it was hypocritical to be a vegetarian yet wear leather, and so also gave up leather products. By the time I went to college, when I was almost eighteen, I was as strict a vegetarian as I knew how to be.
During my freshman year I found myself hating the food plan. This was basically cafeteria food, and though it was geared toward the wealthy youth who attend Ivy League colleges, it was still pretty awful. There were vegetarian options, but not the complete-protein grain-and-bean combinations I favored. When I was allowed to get off the food plan my sophomore year, I did so immediately. I installed a small refrigerator in my dorm room, located a dorm kitchen on another floor, and began to shop and cook for myself along with a vegetarian friend. The Moosewood Cookbooks were my greatest culinary resources, and I made Mollie Katzen's vegetarian chili I don't know how many times. I would make a big pot, store it in a Tupperware in the refrigerator, and heat it up using a small electric pan in my dorm room whenever I was hungry. I vastly preferred my own cooking to the institutional food my university served.
Despite all these efforts to eat nutritiously, during my first two years of college I was not very healthy. One semester was a continual cycle of glandular infections and antibiotic courses. As soon as I would get off the antibiotics, I would get sick again. A cold would turn into something worse. I would go to heath services and get cultures taken; I'd be prescribed antibiotics, and feel better once I took them; but then the cycle would begin again. Whenever I went home for vacation I would collapse with an illness.
Halfway through my junior year I decided to take time off to work in a Thai refugee camp. ...Thai cooking utilizes fish sauce in almost every dish, and I decided not to attempt the impossible by trying to avoid it. I added fish to my diet. In Thailand my health improved tremendously--I had more energy and better digestion than I could remember experiencing in ages. I lived in a community with other workers from the camp, feeling happy, nourished, and fulfilled. The Thai food I ate every day tasted fresh and full of life and goodness, and while I missed cooking, the food available in small roadside eateries was delicious, and felt and tasted like homemade.
Less than a year after my return from Thailand, I moved to Mississippi to spend my last year of study at a historically black college. Once again I was on a food plan, but one even worse than in New England. My friends and I supplemented this with fast food from drive-throughs, which seemed an improvement. Occasionally a friend would bring a plate of home-cooked southern food back with her from visiting relatives, usually made by her grandmother. A paper plate of fried chicken with corn bread, black-eyed peas, collard greens, and sweet potato pie would be generously shared with a the white girl from the North. I would pick through the pieces of ham to eat the collard greens, and enjoy the buttery corn bread with gusto. But all in all, my diet was bad. And that was the year that I got that first horrible case of eczema and had to be flown home for a visit to a dermatologist and a complete course of hydrocortisone.
The next year I was living on my own in Washington, DC, and returned to my supposedly healthy diet. Nevertheless, I had a recurrence of eczema and a fateful intervention of a Chinese herbalist, who added bug carcasses to my herbal brew. When I later moved to California, I continued to have health difficulties. I was often exhausted; I suffered from double periods, PMS, and debilitating cramps. Finally, when I was twenty-five years old, doctors found a cyst the size of a grapefruit on my left ovary, and I had it surgically removed. Not for the first time, acupuncturists told me that I should start eating meat. One specifically suggested that I begin eating lamb. I couldn't imagine doing so! Eating a baby sheep--it was impossible. But I was desperate to get well. As I looked back, I had to admit that in ten years of vegetarianism, I had had ten years of declining health. I began to feel a powerful desire to be nourished. And it seemed that what I needed could only come from the flesh and blood, the death, of another animal.
I began to replay in my mind a story told by Annemarie Colbin in her book, Food and Healing. Although she advocates a largely vegan, macrobiotic diet, she does acknowledge that some people may need to eat meat occasionally to maintain health, and gives as an example her husband. He had become tired and weak on a vegetarian diet, and so they decided that he should try eating meat. She describes the strange sense she had as he cooked a steak for the first time in their apartment and she took in the scent of cooking flesh. The thought filled me with longing. And so, for the first time in ten years, I ate a steak. I had never tasted anything so wonderful. I gave thanks to the cow that had died that I might live, and experienced the sense of being nourished I had been longing for.
As I began studying traditional diets, I found myself in the midst of a paradox that cast suspicion on my earlier notions of spirituality and food. I read about cultures that had an intimate relationship to the spiritual world, people for whom daily life activities were imbued with a spiritual intention and meaning, people for whom the universe and its creatures were respected, and in some cases held sacred. And yet they ate meat. I could not buy the line that these ancient cultures were primitive or unevolved. Many of their ways of life struck me as based on an understanding of life much _more_ evolved than the Western industrial paradigm. It is related to the Tzutujil concept of _kas-limaal_--mutual indebtedness--that I mentioned ...when quoting Martin Prechtel: “The knowledge that every animal, plant, person, wind, and season is indebted to the fruit of everything else _is an adult knowledge_” (emphasis added). I began to see that this indebtedness inevitably involved death--it was impossible for it not to.
The more I began to learn about food and agriculture, the more I began to understand how much death is involved in the raising of food--whether grains and beans, fruits and vegetables, milk and eggs, or meat. At a popular organic farming training program here in California, one of the jokes among the students is, “If you want to be a vegetarian, you have to kill, kill, kill.” To grow fruits and vegetables organically, farmers must protect their crops from the wide range of pests that attack them, till the soil so that the planting can be done, and harvest crops efficiently. All of this requires killing creatures, sometimes in large numbers. Gophers are one of the biggest pests that threaten fruit and nut trees in California, and the diligent organic farmer kills gophers by the score. A friend of mine who is a student in the program decided after years of vegetarianism to start eating meat again. His first meal of flesh consisted of stewed gophers. He figured that since he was already killing so many of them in the course of his farming, he might as well receive their nourishment. A gopher, it turns out, does not yield a lot of meat and takes a lot of work to prepare for cooking, so it is unlikely that he'll make it a regular meal. But he was very glad for the experience.
Barbara Kingsolver captures this adult knowledge beautifully in her book, _Prodigal Summer._ In one passage, rancher Eddie Bondo and wildlife protector Deanna Wolfe are trying to communicate to each other their perspectives on the life and death of animals:
He shook his head, got up to collect two more logs from the woodpile, then shook his head again. “You can't be crying over every single brown-eyed life in the world.”
“I already told you, that's not my religion. I grew up on a farm. I've helped gut about any animal you can name, and I've watched enough harvests to know that cutting a wheat field amounts to more decapitated bunnies under the combine than you'd believe.”
She stopped speaking when her memory lodged on an old vision from childhood: a raccoon she found just after the hay mower ran it over. She could still see the matted gray fur, the gleaming jawbone and shock of scattered teeth so much like her own, the dark blood soaking into the ground all on one side, like a shadow of this creature's final, frightened posture. She could never explain to Eddie how it was, the undercurrent of tragedy that went with farming. And the hallelujahs of it, too: the straight abundant rows, the corn tassels raised up like children who all knew the answer. The calves born slick and clean into their leggy black-and-white perfection. Life and death always right there in your line of sight. Most people lived so far from it, they thought you could just choose, carnivore or vegetarian, without knowing that the chemicals on grain and cotton killed far more butterflies and bees and bluebirds and whippoorwills than the mortal cost of a steak or a leather jacket. Just clearing the land to grow soybeans and corn had killed about everything on half the world. Every cup of coffee equaled one dead songbird in the jungle somewhere, she'd read.
He was watching her, waiting for whatever was inside to come out, and she did the best she could “Even if you never touch meat, you're costing something its blood,” she said. “Don't patronize me. I know that. Living takes live.”...
With this simple phrase _living takes life,_ Deanna Wolfe tries to express in plain English something that is difficult for modern Americans to grasp. The concept might be more effectively communicated in the language of a mythologically literate culture. In ancient Greek, for example, there were two different words for “life”: _bios_ and _zoe_. As Lewis Hyde explains in _The Gift_: “_Bios_ is limited life, characterized life, life that dies. _Zoe_ is the life that endures; it is the thread that runs through _bios_-life and is not broken when the particular perishes.”
On one level, the phrase _living takes life_ expresses that all living things rely on the death of other living things. On another level, it expresses that _zoe_-life, life in the biggest sense of enduring life, Life with a capital L, requires the sacrifice of _bios_-life, the particular lives of living creatures. _Zoe_ takes (kills, consumes, eats, sacrifices, requires) _bios_. A core understanding of this adult knowledge lies at the heart of many spiritual practices and religious traditions worldwide. Death extinguishes a particular life, of course, but it doesn't extinguish Life. Life endures and transcends death.
When you see everything around you (animal, vegetable, mineral) as imbued with Spirit, as alive and sentient, as carrying with it a crucial part of the Whole; when you view all of life as inextricably interconnected by a thread, a spark, of something Divine; you understand that that great beautiful Creation involves death and decay just as certainly as it involves birth and resurrection. _Everything is indebted to everything else._ Every part of Creation is indebted _for its life_ to the other parts of Creation that have died and decayed so that it might live.
The Western mind has developed a detachment from Earth-based and mythological worldviews; along with this it has formed a rather strict hierarchy of life-forms. We hold human life to be the most precious. In times past we consciously ranked human lives according to race, gender, religion, and social status. This is no longer socially acceptable, but we may still do it subconsciously. Nevertheless, cannibalism is our strongest taboo. It is not okay to eat other people.
We also place a high value on the life of animals we feel closer to--dogs, cats, horses, monkeys--and often have taboos against eating them. Next down in our hierarchy are animals with which we share many biological characteristics, particularly land mammals. They have eyes and ears and noses like us, and if we are sentient then they certainly are. This unconsciously influences the decision of many people to not eat red meat. The flesh of mammals reminds us of our own flesh. Birds are another step down the hierarchy, fish, and reptiles further down still, and insects below that--we give them very little value.
Once we have descended the rungs through the world of animals, we come to plants. As a culture, we place some value on trees, which seem more like us because they live longer, and so seem to have a memory. Besides, they are big. We are always impressed with size when it comes to nature, valuing whales over sardines, redwoods over oaks, and lions over bobcats. Most plants, though, fail to command our sympathy. Few people hesitate to eat a carrot, although it kills the _bios_-life of that plant.
After descending through the rungs of the vegetable world, we reach the world of microorganisms: Bacteria, yeasts, and molds are parts of the living universe that we cannot even see. If we hesitate to eat them it is only because we are afraid they may make us ill, not because we feel any moral compunction about their demise. Similarly, we give little thought to the morality or the karma of eating salt or drinking water.
But a traditional culture that lives in close and intimate relationship with the land has a very different approach to valuing life. These groups believe everything in the natural world has its own sacred nature. Water is a sacred living thing, as are trees and plants, animals, mountains, yeasts, and the moon. All are imbued with Life--_zoe_--even if their biological life--_bios_--is not perceptible. To say that it is moral to eat a root but immoral to eat an animal, then makes little sense--both are alive.
A hierarchy may still develop in such a culture, but it will be based on how great a gift each thing is perceived to be to the community that depends on it. Where people depend upon corn for survival, it will be honored and given special importance. Where they depend upon the salmon, salmon are given an exalted status. A precious body of water may be considered a great gift, or the leaves of a particular plant, or the sap of a tree, or a deposit of metal, or stone, or salt. In Tibet, saltmen take a yearly monthlong pilgrimage to a salt lake high in the Himalayas to hand-harvest salt. Following tradition, they perform ritual prayers of gratitude to the goddess of the lake, make offerings to her, speak in a sacred, secret language during the journey, and uphold a strict standard of conduct as they near the lake.
Perceiving a part of the natural world to be a great gift does not preclude eating it, though it will always be eaten with gratitude and thanks to the spirits who bring it into the lives of the people who depend upon it. Sometimes a taboo against eating a particular animal will develop to protect another food that comes from that animal. The most common example is the taboo against eating beef--or restrictions about when it may be eaten--when a community is dependent upon the dairy products that cattle provide. Other animals come to be considered unclean or ritually proscribed for a variety of reasons, and thus there are taboos against eating them. In many indigenous cultures certain clans are prohibited from eating particular animals that are totemic for them. To eat that animal becomes a form of cannibalism, but it is never _all_ animals that are thus designated.
Of course, there are myriad reasons that people become vegetarians, but often the impulse grows out of a legitimate objection to how the animals raised for food production are treated in today’s society. It is bad enough that we don't perceive corn or water to be a gift, but how much worse when it is an animal that can look at us and blink, that sleeps and eats and cries out when it is in pain, just like we do! We view our livestock not as gifts, but rather as units of production. The commodification of animal products--not only meat but eggs and dairy as well--has led to a profound devaluation of the animals we raise within our industrialized food system. They lead tragic, confined lives, cut off from the other aspects of nature--grass, earth, sunlight, sky, rain, fresh air, night, morning, day, dusk. They have been severed from the larger context of Life, of _zoe_, and of the beautiful interdependence and entanglement of existence. They are only one step removed from being machines, and so their biological death, the death of _bios_, does not echo with an affirmation of _zoe_, of Life. Its sound is hollow and cold and senseless.
All creatures live some kind of life and die some kind of death. We don't really want to look at this fact because we live in a culture that deals only indirectly with the reality of death. Because we are so divorced from nature, we are handicapped in our ability to understand the world mythically, metaphorically, or spiritually. Because we are so used to having control over our environment and being able to manipulate it, and because we rely on a literal and mechanistic understanding of how that environment functions, death seems to us a tragic and a frustrating business. We see it as a finality, as an ending, rather than a threshold or transition. The West African shaman and teacher Malidoma Patrice Some gives us some insight into how the people of his culture--the Dagara--view death:
For the Dagara people, death results in simply a different form of belonging to the community. It is a lesson from nature that change is the norm, that the world is defined by eternal cycles of decline and regeneration. Having journeyed adequately in this world in your life, you become much more effective to the community that contained you when you return to the world of Spirit. When my grandfather, Bakhye, died, he told my father, “I have to go now. From where I'll be I'll be more useful to you than if I stay here.” Death is not a separation but a different form of communion, a higher form of connectedness with the community, providing an opportunity for even greater service.
When we think of death as a transition, it is less tragic--in fact, it is full of Life, of _zoe_. Taking the life of another creature is not an inconsequential act in this context, but it has a much different meaning when death is viewed as part of a cycle or circle rather than the end of a line.
Many modern Americans who adopt vegetarianism for spiritual reasons do so as a way of following the doctrine of _ahimsa_, or noninjury to living creatures. The doctrine can be found in Buddhist, Jaina, Vedic, and Hindu forms. In _The Myth of the Holy Cow,_ Dwinjendra Narayan Jha explores the historical development of the concept of _ahimsa_ as well as that of the holy cow within the context of Hinduism and the Vedas. By looking at ancient texts and religious development, he shows that the interpretation of _ahimsa_ as an injunction to vegetarianism is relatively recent:
The [Vedic] law book of Manu (200 BC-AD 200), the most representative of the legal texts having much to say on lawful and forbidden food...asserts that animals were created for the sake of sacrifice, that killing (vadha) on ritual occasions is non-killing (avadha), and injury (himsa) as enjoined by the Veda (vedavihitahimsa) is known to be non-injury (ahimsa). He assures that plants, cattle, trees--and birds, which have met their death in sacrifice, attain higher levels of existence. This benefit is available not only to the victim but also to the sacrificer; for he tells us that “a twice-born man who knows the true meaning of the Veda and injures animals for these purposes (hospitality, sacrifice to gods and ancestor spirits) makes himself and the animal to the highest state of existence (in heaven).” If, however, he refuses to eat consecrated meat, he will be reborn as a beast for twenty-one existences.
Once again, this ancient text makes the _context_ and _intention_ in the killing of an animal the crucial factors in its spiritual impact. It is holy and sacred of it is done in order to _offer a gift._ In fact, it is unholy _not_ to accept meat when it has been consecrated in this way.
I have heard that the Dalai Lama is generally a vegetarian, but when he is offered meat in the context of hospitality, he accepts it graciously. This makes sense when you consider the sanctifying nature of hospitality in ancient texts. It also brings to mind an early experience I had as a vegetarian. When I was about sixteen years old, I went to a friend's house for dinner, along with a few other students. My friend's mother served us spaghetti with homemade tomato-and-meat sauce. I recognized immediately that the sauce had meat, but in that moment decided that to comment on it and refuse to eat it would simply be rude; I would put aside my vegetarian principles for the moment and eat as much spaghetti as I could to be polite. But one of my other friends was also a vegetarian, and she jumped up in alarm: “Does this sauce have meat in it?” she cried. “Yes,” the mother answered, “why? You don't eat meat?” My friend was scandalized: “No! And Jessica, aren't you a vegetarian, too?” I nodded assent meekly, but reassured the mother that I was going to continue to eat my food while my friend's dinner was replaced with plain pasta.
This was an important experience for me because two strongly held principles of mine were at odds: gracious acceptance of gifts offered as a guest in someone's home, and vegetarianism. Something bothered me deeply about my friend's outraged response to the meat, but I also felt that she had been a better vegetarian than me--more noble and willing to stand up for what she believed. Years later I would find myself making a different choice. While I was working in the refugee camp in Thailand, on a few occasions I was invited into homes within the camp for a meal. I remember being offered the fresh spring rolls that are such a specialty of Vietnamese cooking, but I turned them down because they were stuffed with pork. I still feel some shame when I think of this--how precious that pork would have been to that family who lived on UN rations, what a generous offering it was, how much it would have meant to them to be able to offer it to the aid workers to whom they felt indebted, and how much consternation my refusal to eat it may have caused. I think Manu's law book speaks to the fact that food offered in hospitality is consecrated because it is brought into a holy realm, a realm of connectedness, mutual indebtedness, and reciprocity. I'm not sure that I'll be reborn as a beast of twenty-one existences because of my poor manners--but of course my understanding of Manu's ancient sacred text is metaphorical, not literal.
It is in fact impossible to take the doctrine of _ahimsa_ literally, because we cannot live without injuring other living beings. We could devote every ounce of our energy to the task, and still fail. Even if we determine that only animals are living beings, the task would still be utterly unattainable. This is perhaps why the Buddha, although he taught _ahimsa_, continued to eat meat up until his death. His last meal was said to be pork that was “light, pleasant, full of flavour, and good for digestion.” Jha points out: “As is well known, throughout its history the religion of the Buddha emphasized the Middle Path, which meant moderation: neither license or exaggerated self-mortification. This was intended to keep life practicable for the monk as well as for the laity.” The Buddha shows us by example that we can have a profound understanding of _ahimsa_ without engaging in the futile exercise of trying to take it literally.
It is treacherous to read ancient sacred texts as factual truth and God-given law in the context of a post-Enlightenment, culturally diverse, scientifically oriented cultures. It generally leads to one of two positions: disbelief (atheism), or fundamentalism. The atheist looks at the fact that a sacred text is contradicted by science, or by other beliefs, or by lived experience, and concludes that the sacred text must therefore be untrue, and so rejects it as false, often rejecting all religious teaching as hogwash. The fundamentalist looks at the fact that a sacred text is similarly contradicted, and then disavows the validity of the science, other beliefs, or lived experience that challenges it. The fundamentalist clings to the literality of the scared text against all evidence to the contrary, and often becomes militant in its defense. Fundamentalist doctrine gives a person something to adhere to in a complicated and confusing world, and usually offers that person a community of others who cling to the same doctrine. It is a recent phenomenon. As theologian Marcus Borg points out, “Fundamentalism itself--whether Christian, Jewish, or Muslim--is modern. It is a response to modern culture.”
In writing _The Myth of the Holy Cow,_ D. N. Jha was responding to what he perceives to be an increasing fundamentalism within Hinduism, much of which attaches itself to the doctrine of the sacredness of the cow. By putting this doctrine in historical context and showing it to be a relatively modern understanding, Jha hoped to help de-escalate the violence between Hindus and Muslims in which religious dietary doctrines have become a lightning rod. Hindu fundamentalists use the fact that they don't eat beef as a mark of moral superiority over Muslims and a justification for anti-Muslim policies. Jha's book critiques this approach, and it has been variously banned and censored in India. The author has received death threats as a result of its publication.
I see a similar strain of fundamentalism in the radical vegan movement. Unwilling to accept that _ahimsa_ is a compelling but complex doctrine that needs to be understood in a spiritual and not a literal way, vegans can become rabid and unwavering in their approach to food and animals. I gave a presentation a couple of months ago, and one of the attendees approached me afterward. He said he was looking forward to posting some of my material on the fridge in the communal house where he lived because--as he said--he lived with a bunch of “fundamentalist vegans” and he wanted to provoke them. As he spoke, something clicked for me about aspects of the vegan movement that I find disheartening. Unwilling to admit that adhering to a literal understanding of _ahimsa_ is impossible, they cling to the idea that we can build a food system free of the suffering and death of animals. But this is an illusion.
This fantasy is born of a hasty and unfortunate marriage among a number of factors: disconnection from nature and the cycles of life and death, pain over the commodification of animals in our modern food system, a neo-puritan longing to be free of the flesh, righteous indignation toward the powers that be, and finally an inchoate internalized guilt about the state of the world, the destruction of the planet, and the devastation of native cultures. There are good reasons to feel all these things, but I do not think that fundamentalist veganism is a Life-expanding response. It ignores the universal truth that living takes life, and further disconnects us from nature and the eternal cycles of life and death.
I do believe that vegetarianism can be a powerful and positive practice in some people's lives. Abstinence from meat under certain conditions has played a part in many spiritual traditions throughout the world for good reason--flesh and blood are powerful symbols, and abstaining from them can have a deeply focusing, enlightening, or purifying effect when entered into with that spirit. Vegetarianism certainly made a huge contribution to my own life--I can never again look at meat as simply a commodity and can no longer look the other way when I contemplate the lives of animals that are part of our inhumane factory-farming system. I offer time, energy, money, and friendship to farmers who are raising animals in ways that are ecological and human. I am wonderfully entangled with them in a struggle to wrest animals away from the commodity market and bring them back into the gift cycle, where they always used to be.
Indigenous and traditional foodways reflected the knowledge that animal foods were a precious gift. Hunting game and slaughtering farm animals were undertaken carefully and consciously, often in a ritual context. All parts of the animal were valued and used by the community, and what couldn't be used was often gifted to some other being. It often wasn't the meat that was considered to be most valuable part of the animal by the community. Three other parts of an animal's body were most prized--the fat, the bones, and the organs--and (rightly) thought to be the most nutrient-dense. Fat is a source of vitamins and fatty acids that are critical for healthy hormonal development, as well as an important source of energy. Animal bones are primary sources of minerals in most diets--they have been used extensively by cultures around the world to make broths, or added to stews or curries, or cracked open so that the marrow could be sucked out. Organ meats are sources of vitamins, minerals, and many other vital nutrients, and so would never go to waste. The meat was sometimes the most expendable part of a food animal and might even be given to other hungry creatures. Some people think of traditional hunter-gatherer diets as being high in protein. But many of these diets were not so much high-protein as they were nutrient-dense. It wasn't protein per se that made animals so nourishing; it was all the nutrients available from their bodies. And it wasn't just hunter-gatherers who valued all parts of the animal and were focused on nutrient density, it was pastoralists and agriculturalists as well.
This is the opposite of the approach to meat in modern America--where the boneless, skinless chicken breast is a popular commodity. In any traditional chicken-eating culture, the bones were the vital ingredient in soup, curry, broth, or stew. The skin was often rendered as a stable and healthy frying fat (the famous Yiddish schmaltz) or eaten as the delicious crispy coat of a roast chicken, or used for the rich gravy that would be poured over everything else. Don't you wonder what happens to all the chicken bones and skins that are removed from all those supermarket chickens? What a terrible waste, and what a dishonor to the poor chickens!
Once we accept that living takes life, we can begin doing vitally important work: ensuring that farm animals and wild animals have the opportunity to lead a good life and die a good death. We need to approach the body of a slaughtered animal more holistically, ecologically, consciously, and spiritually. We have to witness the lives and the deaths of farm animals, and be less squeamish about the truth of what happens to them. Last year I had the opportunity to go to a local farm and kill a chicken myself. Then I scalded it and plucked it and gutted it. The next day I ate it. I learned a great deal by doing that, and it helped me to accept the mortality of the process. I will never look at a chicken the same way again, now that I know each step involved between a feathered clucking being running around the barnyard and the pink plucked headless body you see in the store. We are divorced in this culture from all of these steps. This disconnection is a big part of what makes it seem possible to step outside the cycle of life and death and be free from the karma of killing for our food. But a life lived on the farm or in the forest will teach you otherwise.
On the Blood Moon, may we say a heartfelt prayer for all the animals that are being raised in inhumane conditions. May we give great thanks for the farmers and ranchers who treat their animals with respect and honor and who care deeply for their welfare. May we take the time to seek out sources of animal foods that are raised with respect for the environment, for our health, and for the well-being of the animals themselves. May there come a day when factory farms have been replaced with small-scale, integrated, holistic family farms where all living things are recognized as the gifts that they surely are. May there be a day when Americans have acquired the adult knowledge that all life is dependent upon all other life in an endless circle of giving and receiving, birth and death, growth and decay, rebirth and regeneration. May we find ourselves humble as we contemplate the miracle of life, and of the Life that transcends death. That would make our ancestors proud.
Jessica Prentice's sort of idealism makes me see how an atheist could easily learn to say grace.
But what of my family's new, some would argue fundamentalist, attitude toward food--and the GAPS diet in particular?
After reading “Blood Moon,” I have a simple vision: to keep an eye on traditional ways while continuing to learn to heal my family with nourishing food; to continue obtaining food that is grown and raised and harvested and killed with skill and respect and gratitude; and then again, to express my own gratitude for the food we eat every day, for all the people and plants and animals who bring it to our table, and for even those less-than-perfect foodstuffs (plants mostly, ironically), produced with excessive, unnecessary death--which we inevitably consume, in this imperfect world, and that still provide us with life.
Right now, our diet is “strict” because, medically-speaking, in our small community/culture/household of four, it's a healing imperative. My hope is that the foods we bring into our home will always be those that nourish our family and community and surrounding ecosystems in the truest possible sense. I also hope that someday we in this house will all be well enough so that an occasional lapse in nourishment, especially one offered with love and hospitality, won't bring with it medical/health consequences that are simply not worth the price. Mainly, right now, I am very interested in forging a new and hopeful and connected relationship with the foods we do choose to consume.
Back when I was a vegetarian, my relationship with food was somewhat holier-than-thou--no need to say Thanks, or even think thankful thoughts, when eating so low on the food chain! I paid lip service to “connecting” with my food, but the connection was often implied by me making the “right” choices--no statement was needed. My relationship with food provided me with enough sustenance and fulfillment to get by for many years.
When, suddenly, I gave up Vegetarianism (on or about approximately April 10th, 2010), a moralist landed on my shoulder. Nearly every day for the past eight months, while I've chewed and swallowed animal flesh (as well as fruit and vegetable carcasses, and milk from lactating animals, and eggs from ovulating chickens), the moralist often whispered scathingly: “No awe and inspiration for YOU, you dirty hypocrite!”
I am ready to banish the moralist, right here, today--to begin to acquire the Adult Knowledge of which Prentice speaks. I am bummed that I also--due to my lifelong vegetarianism--need to acquire a taste for something that humans have always traditionally found so crucially nourishing.
But there is no time like the present to learn to enjoy a hamburger. Better late than never, I always say. And what I seek to ground me in my crazy new born-again carnivorous existence is something a whole lot bigger than mere taste preferences, and richer in understanding than my previous belief system ever was. I am committed to getting up close to that which I fear, close enough to notice the ways that beauty and ugliness coexist in this cruel, crazy glorious world. Maybe, even, I'd sometimes like to say grace...
I am grateful to the farmers who raise the animals we now eat, and who try to ensure that these animals “only have one bad day in their lives.” I am grateful to start unraveling the endless paradox wherein death gives way to life. I crave nothing less than to be grounded in my food culture, to share ever more absolutely in obtaining and preparing my food, to discover rituals that can bring a profound and wide-open gratitude into my life, for the food that nourishes and creates me, for the awesomeness of the universe that has somehow landed me here--at this metaphorical kitchen table, where I heal my family and chow down on the marrow from the bone of a cow.
Among many other resources, I'd recommend:
--”Good Calories, Bad Calories,” by Gary Taubes. I found that Taubes' tactic of employing modern, skeptical, very-thoroughly-scientific research had the effect of convincing me that it Just Makes Sense to eat traditionally-prepared foods that are as similar as possible to what our ancestors used to eat. (I'm not sure Taubes was intending for readers to make this conclusion!) Taubes systematically examines the evidence implicating saturated animal fats and chronic disease, and instead concludes that much of what we've been told just doesn't make sense. Additionally, he very compellingly argues that refined carbohydrates and sugars are massively involved in the decline of human health.
--A speech by Joel Salatin, who monitors the “mob-stocking herbivorous solar conversion lignified carbon sequestration fertilization” that occurs on his renowned Virginia farm: http://www.lifeisapalindrome.com/content/carnivorous-consumption-keys-p…
--My own article describing the fragile relationship between our diets, our gut flora, our mental health, and all the rest of us: http://www.lifeisapalindrome.com/articles/miraculous-possibility-hope
--Here's some literature from the cult-I-mean-Very-Busy-People at the Weston Price Foundation, who disseminate a tremendous amount of information to help people consume more nutrient-dense, traditional foods: http://www.westonaprice.org/take-a-guided-tour/vegetarians.html
--Because it always comes up, when I talk about vegetarianism, I recommend this super-thorough refutation of the currently popular book, “The China Study”: http://rawfoodsos.com/2010/07/07/the-china-study-fact-or-fallac/