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Enlightened Carnivory

Wednesday, January 26, 2011
Back in the Sixties, I was, for a time, a vegetarian. Today, we might call it Politically Correct or Globally Responsible--but back then it was just the thing to do. It was cool. It was hip. It was cheap. A craving for meat was regarded as a sign of spiritual underdevelopment. A craving for red meat indicated something approaching depravity. It implied a callous disregard for the sanctity of life.

It was not cool.

However, being old enough to make my own decisions in the Sixties meant that my tastes were formed in the Fifties. I liked red meat. I wouldn't eat it, of course, but there was no way to avoid thinking about eating it.

After some deliberation, it occurred to me that much of my objection to meat was associated with the unnatural banality of plastic-wrapped meat. How could people buy that stuff, having no idea of its source? It was hard to accept the notion that most consumers actually preferred the anonymity of the foods they ate. How could they eat those chemically enhanced, cruelly raised slabs of unrecognizable protein—and do so without a second thought? Being rather self-centered, this perceived aversion to truth was incomprehensible. It did, however, suggest a way out of the carnivore/herbivore conflict that was consuming me.

What I needed was a way to eat meat consciously and responsibly.

First, I would have to be an active participant in the meat-eating cycle. No saran-wrapped Styrofoam trays of half-frozen meat for me! Second, I could not eat some product of the agri-business/chemical industry. Perhaps I could live without organic meat, but there was no way I was going to chew my way through the culinary equivalent of toxic waste. Third, I could not condone the lifelong abuse of some dumb animal so that I could fill my face. I was cool. I was aware. I would do the right thing.

I would learn to hunt.

Really, how hard could it be? I'd spent thousands of hours in the woods as a kid, and even more time reading and rereading the Tarzan books and the Bomba the Jungle Boy series. I had participated in thousands of mock hunting expeditions, sneaking through the woods with great intensity. I'd been a fanatic fisherman since age eight, and after all, wasn't hunting just fishing writ large? This was going to be a snap. There would be nothing to it.

All I had to do was buy a rifle. And learn how to use it. And take the required hunter safety course. And get a license. And find some unposted woods in which to hunt. All very simple steps. Unless the hunter-to-be was a hippie with a holier-than-thou, know-it-all attitude.

Before I could hunt, I had to be willing to eat some metaphorical crow.

In order to pass a hunter safety course, I had to actually take that course. Hippies were not comfortable with guns, generally--but before this hippie could hunt, I had to enter the belly of the beast. I had to spend some time at the local Rod 'n' Gun club.

Now, as you might recall, longhaired freaks didn’t spend a lot of time at Rod 'n' Gun clubs in the Sixties. I was sure that they were filled with right-winged, red-necked old birds who didn't know that the character of Archie Bunker was a parody. My adventure in culture shock included, almost as a rite of passage, a kind of enforced fraternizing with the enemy. The supplicant was obliged to do a certain amount of kissing up to the most unfamiliar of bedfellows.

The hunter safety course was just that: It was about developing habits that would decrease my chances of shooting myself or another hunter. There was an admirable logic to it all, and I was grateful that such lessons could be learned by other than trial-and-error. I could see that those rednecks knew how to handle guns (the fact that they were still alive was proof enough for me).

The course, however, did not contain a single fact about hunting. This gap in the transfer of knowledge was puzzling (after all, these supposedly unenlightened hunters did "get their deer" every year), but I assumed that the actual hunt must be instinctual, natural.

When the time came, when I needed to know, I would just know.

I managed to complete all the preliminary requirements to hunting: rifle, target practice, safety certificate, license, and permission to hunt in a particularly promising piece of forest.

I was ready.

So it was off to the woods. I jumped out of the pick-up, pulled on my day-pack, listened to the satisfying click of brass against steel as I slid cartridges into the .22, inhaled the cool, wet-leaves smell of the October afternoon, and plunged into the wilderness in pursuit of the elusive Eastern Gray Squirrel. I felt a sense of purpose, a rightness, a completely-in-tune-with-nature joie de vivre.

The only catch was that there were no squirrels to be found.

That was because I was a clumsy--but well-armed--jerk in a fluorescent orange vest, crashing through the woods. Every squirrel within a mile knew I was there. Frustration only increased my clumsiness. An objective observer might think I was rehearsing for a low-budget film of the D-Day invasion. Aside from my own frantic thrashing, the woods were strangely silent.

Eventually, with exhaustion and disappointment, I slowed down. I stopped making so much noise. I started looking at the woods as they were, instead of how I imagined them to be.

A squirrel appeared, not forty feet away. I froze, but not before he saw me. He was up the back of a small oak tree in a second. I lifted the rifle, sliding off the safety as quietly as I could. Now was the time--if the squirrel showed itself, I was ready. I thought a bit about what I was about to do. This animal was about to die so that I could feel better about eating meat. The process seemed more silly than noble at that moment.

The frosted tip of a bushy tail flicked nervously on the right side of the tree.

I did nothing.

The squirrel chattered crankily, trying to force me to reveal my location.

I did nothing.

I noticed a bump on the left side of the tree--the squirrel's head--trying to spot my response.

There was none.

The squirrel repeated his angry chattering, trying to force me to make a sudden movement.

There was no movement.

Just the shot.

The squirrel leapt from the tree, frantically kicking in the dry leaves. Oh God, I wounded the poor thing--what a stupid, selfish, thing to do. But no, it stopped. I ran to the spot where the dead squirrel lay, a few brown oak leaves sticky with its blood. I thought about what I'd read about primitive hunters--how they honored and respected the game they killed. I whispered, under my breath,"I'm sorry."

Truly, I was sorry--but guilt was only a small part of what I was feeling. I had known that I would have had to do something like this to be able to accept my carnivorous nature. I'd been confident that I could do it when the time came.

I hadn't known that I would like it.

I lifted the squirrel from the leaves, surprised at its weight. I suddenly recalled that its viscera would have to be removed, or the meat would spoil. I had cleaned many fish, finding the process messy but not difficult--but now I was uncertain. What lay within the white furry abdomen? Were there hidden musk glands that must be removed? If I accidentally punctured something, would the meat be ruined, diminishing the squirrel's death to a selfish and meaningless exercise? Worse--was my indecision wasting the very time I needed to complete the job satisfactorily?

There was nothing to do but to start. Poking the point of my knife through the unexpectedly tough skin of the lower abdomen, I pulled the edge of the blade up and through the thin ribcage. The entrails sagged out, hot and sticky, steaming in the cool air, onto my hand. There was no wave of revulsion. I looked at them, recognizing in an instant all the organs I had memorized in high school. They were essentially the same as my organs, organs I could never see, part of the hidden mysterious inside of us that we know of, but can never know.

This was not a fish.

It was myself reflected.

I started to think about the meals I had eaten in a much different way than I had ever imagined possible. The original decision to hunt had been an ethical choice--now it was something else. Kneeling in the woods with a handful of steaming entrails, I began to see carnivory as a dialog between the eater and the eaten.

Meat eating became extremely personal.


Blogger Chef Gwen said...

I think, if I had to hunt, I'd be a vegetarian. The last few paragraphs really got me.

January 28, 2011 at 10:41 PM  
Anonymous gary said...

I don't know what (having the experience described there) says about the fact that I gave up vegetarianism... and began eating all kinds of different creatures.

My basic rule became: If it's on my plate, I eat it. If it crawls off my plate, I stick it with a fork and put it back on my plate.

January 29, 2011 at 8:21 AM  

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