Killers, Meat-Eating, & Rights vs Considerations

It hasn’t been easy being someone active in environmental and social issues often championed by the left wing, while writing about western history and antique firearms for an often right leaning audience.  Not easy to be a free thinking libertarian in a society that largely surrenders its independence for the illusion of safety and a semblance of comfort, or someone with a low income who is bent on making things hotter for the elite 1%.  Or a lover of peace who practices self-defense moves.  Or a guardian of nature who hunts animals, at a time when most nature advocates are against all hunting.  

The following thoughtful email from Jeff, an urban activist, asks questions about the latter, seeming contradiction – and I hope you find my response underneath it to be thought provoking.  Let’s begin with the premise that nothing is ever black and white, all bad or all good.  I suspect this email dialogue could be cause for a heated argument or two, but this could have its beneficial side.  Such passions are known to increase excitement, speed up the pulse, and promote action… each a fair measure, you’ll note, of how alive we are….    -Wolf

Hello Jesse Wolf,

I’ve always had a deep appreciation of wilderness and wildlife. I’ve also read quite a bit on Deep Ecology, Conservation vs. Preservation, Environmental Ethics , American Indian ecology and spiritualism, and animal welfare and animal rights .  But I have been perplexed always by one question, to which you seem the ideal person to ask (I remember seeing a younger you interviewed in the documentary “Redwood Summer”). As one who has shared very much your thoughts and feelings about other life forms and their natural communities, I was flabbergasted in seeing you holding a rifle and other weapons of destruction.  Which leads me to the question I ask to you, and have to many others, but with no satisfactory explanation:

You have great kinship with life and I assume fall under being a biocentric egalitarian, yet you are a KILLER of Life.  Please do not be taken aback by what I have said, for I have said this to myself before writing it to you. Then I said to myself, but the most spiritual people in this hemisphere, American Indians, killed animals daily. Is this your mentality when shooting animals? Or do you shoot them for recreation too, perhaps to close the bond between real man and real nature.  I say this not with ill will to you, only to elicit finally a satisfactory answer which I myself have struggled with for years.

I love the environmental philosophy of Deep Ecology, sacred and whole earth, and the spirit of all beings and things. But, damn, there’s another side to me that tells me compassion.  If I were living in the Pleistocene again, or under similar circumstances now (nuclear winter, meteor strike like 65 million ago, etc.), then I’d have no problem spearing, blasting or trapping an animal for food. But, and I live in New York City, I now have other food choices to avoid killing. Many of my friends are now vegans, and swear by PETA.   So, how can one exhilarate the glory of the earth and its life, while at the same time killing that life.  Would not Thoreau, Schweitzer and Ghandi condemn this hypocrisy. Is not the short and cruel life of the chicken, pig or calf in a factory farm worth as much as any wild animal, be it wolf or grizzly?

To answer no, is to become Lord Man again.  What exactly are the “rights of nature”; is it only the “rights of species”?  That’s the paradox I’ve felt for quite a long time, I’m like a hybrid. Radically for the environment, and radically for the beings who inhabit it. Can’t seem to have a land ethic without a life ethic, and vice versa.   People working all their lives to put circuses, zoos, puppy mills, kill-shelters, fur farms, etc. out of business, and then people working to put lumber and oil companies, ranches and Big Agriculture out of business.  I’m going crazy being a member of Humane Society and PETA, while also the Wilderness Society and WildEarth Guardians.  

Can you maybe help me out on this? I’d appreciate your own thoughts on this, especially the role of animal rights in today’s society living along side a  healthy environmental movement.  Thanks very much for your time, and do answer at your convenience.

Sincerely, Jeff (an activist)

to which I replied:

Greetings To You Jeffrey:

I seldom have time for correspondence, caught up as I still am with the somewhat Quixotic but evermore urgent and time consuming mission of helping awaken and heal people and planet.  I cannot, however, ignore such a well considered letter of inquiry, from such a clearly caring young person.  Relatively young, I surmise, since traits like introspection, the questioning of assumptions, empowerment and even enthusiasm all too often decline with the passing years and the imposition of harsh realities, blinding comforts, or insipid compromise.

An appreciation for wilderness and wildlife such as yours, or dare I say, a physical, emotional and spiritual or “magical” connection to the wild natural world and to one’s one own true wild nature, is not only laudable but essential – crucial to knowing one’s self, their place in the world, and membership in the chain of life and death and purposeful coevolution.  It is thus, that if you are willing to commit to critical thinking as well as deep feeling, I can commit this time to explanation.

Before getting to the “meat” of the matter, let us please dispense with the notion of “animal rights.”  There are no rights in nature, only each being’s claim to existence and survival, and a balancing of individual, community and ecosystem needs.  Rights are liberties or protections assigned by a figure of authority, be it religious (God) or secular (Government).  Animals don’t have any intrinsic or inalienable rights, but then – no matter what the U.S. Constitution says –neither do we.  As we’ve seen since the attacks on the World Trade Center, any government-given rights are temporary and conditional at best, and can be taken away whenever “security” or “order” are deemed threatened.  In a world of no rights, it becomes all the more important that we ourselves do right… and that we actively intercede whenever and wherever we see wrongs and injustices being committed.  In a world of no rights, things require considerations: thoughtful, careful and caring evaluation, relationship and interaction.  We don’t really have the right to unimpeded free speech in this country, as numerous news stories have recently borne out, therefore we consider it essential to speak our minds.  Other species are often at our mercy, their lives and deaths hinging on us, and thus we must consider their needs for territory and sustenance, postured against our perceived needs for ever increasing population, new housing, or a certain flavor of roast.  We should consider and care for animals, not because it is their right, but because it is right to do so.

I certainly understand your discomfort with “killing,” and you would be correct to think no one is more appalled by or driven to action than I by the sight of ancient old growth forests being killed… at times processed by beguiled mill workers whose timber and jobs were all being shipped overseas.  As their advocate, I was assaulted, imprisoned, maced.  I have fought to oppose the killing of large predators, whose deaths do nothing to ensure healthy herds of elk and deer.  I am disgusted by the visiting “horn hunters” who kill elk here in this NM county, remove their coveted antlers and then leave the hundreds of pounds of life-giving meat rotting on the ground.  Commercial meat production facilities are abhorrent in every way.  Killing people for any reason but immediate self defense is what I would call indefensible, whether it is  a murder committed by a thug or a policeman, by a pissed off Jihadi warrior or the Democran/Republicrat president’s horridly impersonal drones.

That said, all of life is responsible for the giving of death.  You cannot rinse with mouthwash without wiping out innumerable bacteria, including those known to be beneficial.  You cannot walk without ever stepping on bug.  In addition, if you eat any plant matter besides fruits, legumes and nuts, you are likely responsible for the killing of plants.  It would be the height of anthropocentric hubris to imagine plants are happy to be whacked for our salads, or to think they experience nothing akin to pain!  We can only escape the “killer consumer” label if we convince ourselves that plants aren’t alive, or that their lives are somehow less precious and individuated than the lives of our cousin animals.  And none of us can be said to have no blood on our hands, who live in cities that were once wildlands full of wandering critters and their native hunters and celebrants.  If you live on tofu, your domestic investment in the soy industry is resulting in the death and displacement of vast numbers of indigenous plant life and native animals.  If you use manmade instead of leather products, you have helped make possible the poisoning of animals through the manufacture, off-gassing and then dissolving of polymers.  And I hate to say it, but if you have ever paid taxes, you have done your part to fund roads being built into wilderness, giant dams that bring about the death of endangered salmon, medical research that sometimes tortures its animal subjects, and missiles that vaporize goats and wildlife and innocent children as well as convoys of targeted “militants.”  

Indeed, no one is blameless when it comes to death and killing, and all of us bear some responsibility for the results of our choices as well as actions, but neither blame nor responsibility fully address your quandary.  What we need is to understand that life subsists on life, in an act of eating and being eaten that is not evil even when it feels lamentable, life animated and propelled through an exchange of nutrients as well as energy and influence.  While made up of a diverse number of interactive life forms from micro to macro, all things of this Earth also exist and function as one mega organism, molecules of soil and microbe and person and bear that are never truly separate from one another.  The vegetables we eat, sprouted from the fertile detritus that is the bodies of “perished” (deconstructed) fauna and flora.  It is through the process of being eaten, that they transform into man and woman, mother, father, soldier, social activist, or healer.  We become a little more like the foods we eat, and those foods re-manifest as us.  When life is consumed, whether grazed or butchered, it changes form.  For that reason, the ethical challenge becomes for us to be at least as real and whole, as enlivened, as sentient – and as much of a gift – as those plants and animals we eat.  The primary ethical question becomes not whether or not to “take,” but rather, how best to give back!

To the extent that Native Americans or any other indigenous people ever seem more “spiritual,” as you say, it is not due to ethnicity but a culture of belonging to this terrifying, inspiring, always changing, natural world… a result of being part of a “gifting cycle,” of direct, practiced, personal relationship to the living earth that we are all an integral part of.  Even there where you are in NYC, vitality and wisdom depends not on good thoughts or ideals so much as the exact point where feet touch the soil, where hands tend gardens or indoor plants, and where ideas are put into visible and effective action.  No amount of pavement and concrete between us and the ground can make us into aliens, but we can and do alienate ourselves through imagined separation from the processes and intentions of the living whole.  Our bodies will inevitably be reunited with the elements of the very real world, but until then, we humans have the option of infinite distractions and debilitating self delusions… scientifically or religiously parsing, without the conscious membership and immersion that make us more native and knowing, more relevant and helpful, more healthful and alive.

Beyond that, yes, I am a “killer” of life as you said, just as surely as I am life’s defender and proponent.  I am an occasional hunter, aware that I have an omnivore’s body that developed over millions of years to thrive on a diet that includes a percentage of animal protein, and this body likewise developed the physical appendages and natural abilities to effectively obtain it.  I respect the quarry I hunt, adore and learn from them, and it feels nothing but right that we should love and mourn and then celebrate that which we bring death to, and that we are able to admire the plants and animals that contribute to the foods we eat.  It hurts my heart to bring them down and still their breaths, or even to make soup of a domestic rooster or pull an edible plant out of the soil by its roots… and this conscious awareness and pain of connection and caring is itself a gift to me, a gift that’s as nourishing to my being and to my humanness as any broth.  Everyone who eats their veggies, should spend time planting a seed, watering and tending the new shoots, breathing into it and allowing it to breath into them, in order to honor the preciousness of their life and the significance of their death.  And I think that any who eat flesh from a package, should at least once raise and love an animal, before painfully taking its life and accepting its life-perpetuating gift.

While I can support actions against puppy mills and fur farms, I do worry about the ways in which well meaning practices like radical veganism and animal rights ideology contribute to our imagined separation from and superiority over the rest of the natural world.  We were neither assigned to be nor evolved to become the all knowing managers of a passive planet, but instead, we are born to be active participants in the natural and purposeful ebb and flux, growth and rest, life and death cycles of a planet in perpetual and magnificent flux.  Can the planet support endless numbers of hunters, or even chicken and beef eaters?  Of course not, but neither can it survive the effects of an ever expanding number of vegetarians… or hysterical PETA orators, or nonviolent Buddhists, or even of socially and environmentally conscious young folks like you.  Until an epidemic, nuclear exchange or bioengineering fiasco brings about a drastic reduction in our numbers, living a conscionable and ecofriendly existence will be an important but difficult quest, and slowing the destruction and denaturing of the world will be our nearly impossible but wholly essential mission.

Should you or anyone else be eating meat?  That is for you to decide, based on your awareness of your body’s requirements, and your relationship with your chosen foods.  Of course you should weigh the environmental effects, of vegetable and grain production as well as meat production.  Measure the indirect and long term consequences.  My best counsel is to not only listen to your heart, but also study and compare actual research.  Know where your foods come from, how they were grown and how they treated, how far they were shipped, what nutrients they contain as well as any noxious chemicals that may have been added.  Consume foods produced as locally as you are able, usually from the same state if not the same county you live in.  Are they truly free range?  From small farms or corporate?  I’d add, never waste anything.  And when you are at the table, set aside those feelings of guilt.  At this point, the best way to honor the deaths of those plants and animals we choose eat is to intensely taste, savor, appreciate, celebrate, and praise them!

I advise that you don’t look for universal answers or one-size-fits-all-solutions, for moral righteousness or ideological purity, and that you increase your awareness as well as compassion to measure all ideas and acts.  Equip yourself with the tools of discernment, not with self assuring dogmas.  It is as vital to dissect and evaluate, each and every moment, even as we choose, commit and do.  Hopefully your questions will never end, with each discovery and realization leading to further chains and channels of inquiry.  Is the warehousing of impounded dogs and unwanted cats always better for them than dying?  Are pets and domestic animals more important issues of concern than the well being and continued existence of wild species?  Are bacteria, which are being found to help orchestrate so much of our bodily design and function, less important or worthy of consideration than poodles?  Are the actions of a woman of man hunting his meal, or even of a person raising sheep for their meat and wool, really more onerous than the burning of forests or banishment of indigenous tribes for palm oil or the extirpation of wild plants and animals for the makings for our tofu?  And most urgently, what are the actual effects and indirect consequences of every single choice you make – of everything you either choose, or fail, to do?

There is, however, really nothing to choose between social activism and environmental action, between care for individuals and whole species, between treating farm animals well and protecting wild ecosystems.  When I coined the word “ReWilding” over three decades ago, I didn’t just mean establishing wildlife migration corridors, I meant the rewilding of our own natural beings as well as of this oppressed world and its life forms.  Liberate the timid human mind.  Free the children.  Free ourselves.  We need to address it all, at once.  The hard thing is focusing on each long enough to make a difference!  In this effort, I send all my encouragement and support.

I hope I’ve been of some help.  In a natural and balanced world, there would be more wild critters than people, and you and I would likely hunt for the opportunity to embody their spirits and extraordinary powers as well as for the strength their flesh can give.  We would be just as sensitive to the pain of the plants we take for healing and food, praise them in song and spread their seeds.  I wouldn’t have a slew of cage-rattling books to sit at a computer and write, and I would therefore have plenty of time to point out some of the medicinal and edible plants we pass as I taught you at least a thing or two about tracking those fellow creatures you had once emailed me about.

Adventure and savor,

Jesse Wolf Hardin

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