Tomorrow, the sharp percussion of bullets will wake the woods at dawn’s redness. Hunting season: an annual ritual, no less than sowing seeds in the spring.
I’m the daughter of a hunter and grew up eating venison and quail, seeing birds plucked and bucks gutted in our suburban garage. To quite a few people, this may seem macabre, even obscene. And certainly, hunting season tends to upset quite a few people; deer are beautiful, a part of nature and shouldn’t be slain, goes the sentiment.
But some of these same folks won’t make the argument about a cow or a pig, something which I find striking. Of course, for most people, that slab of beef isn’t the curious black-eyed creature from the farm around the block; there’s no nearby slaughterhouse to drive the reality home. Meat is something preserved in crisp, clean packages in the refrigerator section, not the flesh of a once-living creature.
We even scrub the words free from their earthy taint: meat, not flesh. Beef, not cow. Poultry, not chicken. Pork, not pig. In the paragraph above, I almost wrote “abattoir” but decided against it; the dulcet tones of a foreign language scrub the slaughter from the word.
French aside, the cow or chicken or pig you’re eating is no different from the deer the hunter took — and they’ve probably had worse lives. A deer, after all, gets to live as a deer until it meets the bullet or the arrow — or the coyote’s tooth, the bare ribs of starvation, the scourge of blue tongue and other diseases. Nature doesn’t have a retirement program for deer; before the arrival of mankind, they were taken by wolves and mountain lions, the niche now filled by the coyote.
It’s a system forged in the very beginnings of the animated carbon chain: life feeds upon life. It has its own logic and, yes, its own fierce beauty.
But predation disturbs people. The image of the Kingdom of Heaven in Christian thought is the lion laying down with the lamb — not to eat it, but to eat grass alongside it. In other words, there is no place for lions in heaven. The vision of nature there is “perfected,” scrubbed of its unclean associations of flesh. In New Age thought, humans will eventually become beings who live only on light — in other words, plants.
But plants, too, are fierce. They live on each other: Spanish moss, vines, the holy mistletoe. They compete and drive each other from the light, albeit in slow motion. They strive and struggle, no less than animals. And when you pull a carrot from the ground to feast upon it, it’s no less dead than the quail plucked from the field.
People are aghast at the prospect of eating deer because they’re “beautiful.” But if we cannot see the beauty in a pig — an animal of keen intelligence — is that the fault of the pig? We do not eat cats, dogs or horses in our culture because they’re seen as pets, beautiful or “cute,” and possessing other uses. But cows were trained in the old days to pull carts and plows, to come when they are called, to provide milk, and are no less intelligent than horses for the most part. Cats kill mice, but so do snakes — who were kept for that purpose in places such as Lithuania in ancient times.
I’m not suggesting that we turn our cats into sandwiches, or that we should gnaw on the bones of any creature that takes our fancy. However, we should recognize all creatures’ beauty, value and being, whether or not it’s useful to us. This doesn’t mean we shouldn’t hunt, slaughter and eat them — we are as much a part of the carbon-based predation-chain as they are, as any hungry tiger could tell you — but rather, we should do so in a respectful way.
A deer is not more worthy, spiritual and noble than a pig. A carrot is not less worthy of life than a rabbit, or even the germs that riddle the body. There is no simple good and no simple evil, but a shining net of complexity where life feeds on life, death feeds the soil and the soil creates life anew.