On June 27, 2012, I decided to stop eating dairy products. At the time, I figured I would continue to eat eggs from the bantam hens my friend raises because the hens have a nice life and my friend made sure the roosters she got in her latest batch of chicks were spared any undoing. My friend kept two and found happy homes for the others. I decided though, to stop eating any other foods with eggs listed as ingredients or eggs served in restaurants because I couldn’t be assured the chickens were happy.
I’ve been a vegetarian since my nineteenth birthday—so at the time of this writing thirty-four years. For the last few I have said when people ask, “Are you vegetarian or vegan” that if I lived out my values I would be a vegan but I just love dairy too much. But over the last few months I have grown increasingly uncomfortable with that inconsistency. It formed an incoherence in my intention. I’ve been to dairy farms. I love cows. I know cows must be bred annually in order for milk to be produced. I know male calves on a dairy farm end up being slaughtered for meat. I know baby calves are taken from their mothers and most, though not all, cows express distress at this separation. But somehow, I managed to disconnect myself from all that and focus instead on my delight eating yummy Walpole Creamery ice cream, freshly whipped cream dolloped on bittersweet chocolate pudding, fresh milk in my morning mocha, and the occasional wedge of aged Gouda or sprinkle of freshly grated Parmesan.
But I heard myself preaching in a couple of spring sermons about connection—how every day we are faced with myriad choices, large and small, that either connect us or disconnect us from the ground of being—which is to say, Being. Beingness. The whole of Creation. The web of life. The garment of destiny. On March 18, two women from a neighboring congregation led a worship service on Will Tuttle’s book, World Peace Diet at the church where I minister. At the end of the service I commented to a congregant, “This got me thinking…” The guests gave me a copy of the book and it sat unopened until late June when I was ready to read it.
First though, I stopped by my mother’s apartment. She is an inveterate reader. She had checked out a library book. Melanie Joy’s Why We Love Dogs, Eat Pigs, and Wear Cows. I sat reading parts of it, gruesome descriptions of what happens inside a slaughterhouse: how hideous it is for the animals and almost as hideous for the humans who labor there. I got so frustrated, thinking how can so many smart caring people I know ignore the reality behind the meat they eat? It’s as if they plug their ears and ululate to block out the sound of truth.
And then I realized they do it exactly the same way I block out everything but images of happy cows grazing in a pasture to justify consuming milk and ice cream and cheese. So I depart my mother’s and go home, check email and find a trailer for the film Peaceable Kingdom: The Journey Home. I watch the trailer and cruise the Tribe of Heart website, finding my way to a webpage called HumaneMyth.org wherein I read more about the realities of dairy farming and eggs. The wall of denial is showing cracks. Oy. The next day, June 27, I consume no dairy. I post my decision on my Facebook page. Still, I wonder, is it as environmentally detrimental to drink almond milk trucked from California? Should I be supporting the small local dairy farm I eventually visit in mid-July? Milk has one ingredient. Salted butter two. Are lightly pasteurized dairy products from the small local farm actually healthier (for me and the planet) than the more processed non-dairy analogs?
Of course I could ask myself the same question about meat and its analogs, faux meat or veggie protein sculpted to look like meat, which for the first many years of my vegetarianism I rejected. If I did not want to eat meat why would I eat a visual approximation of it? But the truth was, and remains, that I am a vegetarian with a lifelong distaste for beans (it has to do with the texture in my mouth) and there are some Gardein, Amy’s and Tofurkey brand veggie protein products I enjoy (at least I have cut out the brands that use GMO soy, palm oil, artificial flavors and colors and are generally produced by agri-giants).
So for a couple of weeks though I abstained from dairy or eggs other than the ones from my friend’s hens, I agonized over what felt like competing or co-existing ethics. While I felt certain I no longer wanted to participate in unavoidable realities of dairy farming and commercial egg production, I also did not want to wreak havoc environmentally or economically by purchasing processed soy and nut-based products that consume lots of energy to produce or contribute to monocultures that deteriorate ecosystems.
Meanwhile, I went to a restaurant after giving my talk on spiritual engagement (aka connection) at the Monadnock Summer Lyceum and ordered my first vegan meal out. I had fruit cup (hold the yogurt) and a walloping plate of super yummy fries. I went home and scoured my cupboards and like the early days of vegetarianism, realized I would have to read every label. Milk derivatives show up in a lot of products. The can of bread crumbs, the live cultures in soy yogurt, the cow bones in my calcium supplement, the dry milk powder in my cinnamon chips used for baking. I began surfing for vegan products online. Happily I found some minimally processed ones. I write in my journal a series of questions: basically ones I’ve posed here. I am having no problem ignoring the pint of chocolate chocolate-chip ice cream in my freezer. Once I resolve to do something or refrain from doing it, I don’t waver. Still, I just want to feel I have made the best choice for the earth not just me.
dispatch from the fish
On the morning of July 12th, I dream I have two fish in my shirt, against my chest. I am on the set of the Colbert Report, with two fish in my shirt I am trying to keep alive out of water until the show begins. Finally, I approach Stephen Colbert. I don’t know what he is thinking other than it will be funny to have live fish flop out of my shirt.
Upon waking, I write an active imagination with the fish. This is a Jungian dream analysis technique I learned in therapy I begin by asking the fish: What are you about?
The reply: Pisces. Life in its original form.
What is the purpose of being in my shirt in the dream?
The reply: Over your heart. When the show opens and the fish fly out that’s funny to the audience because they have been taught to laugh at disconnection. A fish in your shirt—haha—but for you (me, Leaf) trying to connect with the ground of your being, the ground of being was once water. Life forms emerged from water. Fish eventually developed limbs as amphibians and mammals evolved but the fish represent life in its earliest form. The fish ties us to the ground of our being as life’s waters from which we emerge.
I ask the fish: I was upset thinking you might die. It seemed cruel and stupid to have fish out of water. I kept trying to get Colbert’s attention so I could get the fish out of my shirt—but why didn’t I just yank them out?
The reply: Because you have been taught to play along as have so many others. Who are you to disrupt the gag? The longest running joke that life in its original form is unilaterally out of place in today’s society, unless it is dead on a plate.
You, Leaf, have been thinking about animals as food the last few weeks. Fish live wild only now they are farmed too. So fish as a metaphor for life in its original form is being swallowed into the belly of the human who over-fishes the seas; and as fish get farmed the next generation won’t know wild fish. It will think of Charlie the tuna in a can, not huge powerful animals living a life of integrity in the ocean.
People are utterly divorced from what they eat and how they live. If they saw a wild tuna being caught would they eat it? If they had to watch a ten-minute video or even a two-minute video of a cow/pig/chicken being slaughtered would they eat it? Probably not. That is the disconnect.
Why, I ask the dream fish, do we disconnect ourselves?
Many reasons, the fish reply. Now you humans disconnect from fear: fear of inconvenience; fear of change; fear of losing consolation.
For what do we need to be consoled, I ask.
The loss of connection which masquerades as grief. It is a form of grief—deep grief—but it goes unrecognized as such. If you grow up in a disconnected world meat is a slab of food on your plate. Edible objects magically appear without a visible trace of work or worker. If trash gets picked up in a big truck and hauled away you don’t see where it goes. The smoke plumes of stacks and planes and cars dissipates so you don’t see it and life goes on. Why would you know deep inside the cells of your being is a memory that remembers the fish? the origins of life, the millennia of connection to earth, trees, air. If you wake up in a zoo as a baby and grow up there you assume animals only live in captivity. Even the animals might not know the wild but inside their bodies they are wired to live there. Their senses and limbs, wings and beaks, claws and teeth are designed to move, fly, run, navigate, hunt, escape, engage—not be idle so their grief is inconsolable; but the human who wakes up in a zoo and says , “Yes, this is what life is like” doesn’t know to be sad at the absence of wildness or freedom. For the zoo baby it just is—so grief masquerades as something else: frustration, competition. The fierce desire to get ahead is the ferocity necessary for wilderness. A fierce desire to feed oneself, one’s young, to cross the savannah, to reach water, to cross the ice to get to the sea—our animal co-creatures know this desire and do not tend to contort it.
Humans pervert it by removing ourselves from a wilderness that requires struggle and thus we replace the enormity of struggle with humanly constructed obstacles: injustice, inequity, subjugation, economies of exploitation—and in the process we ravage the planet defiling it in horrific ways. It’s as if we slash and burn our way out of the earth’s womb to prove we were never there and never needed it—connection be damned.
But deep inside the cells of our being is the knowing we were once connected, literally tethered by an umbilical cord. All life connects so the severing is artificial so we grieve and grieve and grieve.
I ask: How did the fish end up in my shirt?
The reply: You chose the fish to feel first-hand how scary it is to hold life and death against your beating heart—to experience what happens when we consciously disconnect. Once we become aware of how the gag works—jokes work because they play against expectation—or they align with it perfectly—so once you see that drinking milk isn’t about happy cows in the pasture so much as the baleful cow in the barn who misses her calf, you feel the fish flapping all the time—and yes, you have to get the fish to water—which is to say reconnect with life in its original form—the intention of life. And yes, you have to eat other beings, animal or plant to survive. When you die your remains can be fodder for a tree—but the larger fabric of creation to which you belong includes humans with an conscience—and not to use that conscience is to become a zoo animal held captive in an environment that may appear benevolent (as the best zoos do) with contrived habitats to mimic the actual organic habitat of the animal but of course that is all it can do: mimic. It cannot BE the habitat because it has artificial boundaries and constraints. For humans to live in ways that shutter or fetter consciousness and conscience—to board them up through disconnection and denial makes humans captives in our own zoos. Over many generations, will we devolve into creatures devoid of conscience of even self-consciousness?
“Wake up” the dream is saying—and recognize you are in the zoo. The fish in your shirt that would flop out in a satirical TV show, dead or near death, are signs of humans so far from the ground of being and the waters of life—that soon we, too, will be dead fish on the fake pundit’s news desk.
That morning I go into my art barn and make this collage. The text reads: The ground of being was once water. Fish connect us to our earliest form. Like fish out of water we long to reconnect with what sustains us—to the waters of life and the sea of one.
On July 14, I watch the documentary, Peaceable Kingdom: The Journey Home with my friend Grace. Several times during the film I avert my eye. I make myself watch the most grisly scenes but the involuntary response kicks in. My wise Buddhist guide once told me when I asked her how can there be so much suffering in the world and yet I manage to escape it, “Leaf it is not your karma in this life to suffer as so many do; it is your karma to bear witness to their suffering.”
Of lines and pencils
At the end of the movie there’s a Q&A session with the producers, Jenny Stein and James LaVeck. He quotes a line from Tom Regan: “If you draw a line, draw it with a pencil.”
My first-grade teacher, Miss Elizabeth, cut the pink erasers off our fat made-for-clumsy-little-hands pencils. In those days (1965) Miss Elizabeth was known as a spinster: a never-married schoolteacher in her sixties who trucked no foolishness, courted no whimsy, offered no joy to her charges. She notoriously hauled mischievous little boys into the bathroom and spanked them bare-bottomed. She circumcised our pencils with religious conviction removing the possibility of erasing our mistakes. They were to be marked with a large X drawn through them. Our pencils were like chickens de-beaked—unable to peck and scratch, find seeds and grubs for self-nourishment. Like the chickens we were utterly dependent on our keeper to feed us the correct information: the proper plumpness of vowels, the lean geometry of consonants.
I had not thought of Miss Elizabeth in decades, until I heard that line even though I teach a college writing and thinking course called “The Downside to Certainty.” It was the line James LaVeck quoted about drawing a line in pencil because lines change that summoned the memory of an indelible downside. For Miss Elizabeth the world might best be rendered with a Sharpie, a permanent marker that commits one without erasure. But the certainties imposed from the outside often betray us.
I have come to recognize the most committed acts: bulldozers pushing “livestock” to their deaths or massacred humans into mass graves, or the Israeli bulldozer rolling over Rachel Corrie, the young American who attempted to stop the destruction of a Palestinian home in Gaza—so forceful in their execution, conjure Shakespeare’s line, “Ye who doth protest too much.” We enlist force when we are certain—or so it seems—yet I suspect force is but an overcompensation. It is precisely when our certainty is plagued with fundamental doubt that we employ the most aggressive means—as if shouting at the oncoming tsunami could stop it.
In Peaceable Kingdom, we meet Howard Lyman, a fourth-generation cattle rancher: king of the feed lot with his seven thousand head of cattle—until his own paralysis caused by a spinal tumor fells him. He ends up in a hospital room face to face with a dying man, the sight of which convinces Lyman to no longer participate in any creature’s death. We also encounter Harold Brown who learned as a farm boy to shut down his feelings for the animals (other than the pets). As an adult, he tearfully recounts a bull named Snickers teaching him how to flip the switch in his heart back on by gently pressing his big bull head against Brown’s chest.
Intuitively we know compassion: the capacity to “suffer with.” As children when we are powerless, we flinch at and question like young Harold Brown, the distinctions between our pet dogs and cats and the animals in zoos and cages, and the ones destined for the plate.
It is the certainty with which humans bulldozer animals—scooping tens of thousands of live birds into Dumpsters, pulling canvas over the top and gassing them—that filled Hitler and his henchmen—gassing Jews, Poles, Gypsies, homosexuals, those deemed mentally incapacitated. The Third Reich possessed certainty it served the Fatherland as it constructed its master race. And the factory feed lots and slaughterhouses, the poultry, pig, and cow concentration camps grind the humanity right out of us as they defile and then destroy tens of billions of animals bred to suffer each year—turning our plates into Auschwitz collectibles.
It’s hard to swallow the part of ourselves that acts with the same certainty and depends on the same henchmen to maintain a regime devoted to greed and unsustainable practices that sever us from our connection—not simply to compassion but the ground of our being. Slavers defiled the enslaved with the certainty of the shackle and lash and equally maiming legislation—consoling themselves with Sunday Bible readings followed by a sumptuous meal. Yet for those centuries of economy built on slavery there were abolitionists whose doubt about the culture’s slave imperative awakened their consciousness and conscience.
As I lie awake at 5:16 a.m. stirred from sleep, I know to use a pencil. My choice to go vegan is an affirmation of abolition, however imperfect or impure. Watching the film I realized Will Tuttle’s comparison to the Nazis is not hyperbolic. I said aloud, “There is no difference between this and the Nazis”— no difference between the images I saw in grainy black and white footage shot by French soldiers who liberated concentration camps and the images of birds being gassed and baby chicks suffocated for being male or the fallen cows swept by bulldozers into heaps. In the almost seventy years since the Nazi Holocaust we have voiced our collective rage even as we have shuttered ourselves from the animal holocaust we continue to perpetuate. I think of the Jews transported on cattle cars: treating people like cattle is only possible in cultures that treat cows like cattle not sister beings.
After the farm visit
Before I went vegan I had planned to visit a local farm whose milk I drank so decided to go anyway, just to see if something in my visit might sway me. My friend Grace and I go to Manning Hill Farm in Winchester, New Hampshire. It’s a small farm run by two young farmers, Sarah and Sam. The visit did not unravel my decision to go vegan but I appreciate the great care the farmers expend. The cows are happy enough except when the calves get taken from most cow mothers. Sarah and Sam keep the males and raise them for a couple of years when they will go to the slaughterhouse and become beef. But while they live on the farm they play in the pasture and live peacefully enough. The females appear to keep making milk far longer than most dairy cows who give out at age four or five. Still, there would be no viable way for any farmer to have a dairy herd without turning the boys into beef. I thought of the one-child policy in China and how that caused an uptick in female infanticide because the boys were valued more highly and with dairy cows it is the opposite. The boys must die. And the calves must be separated.
It is a nice farm with caring farmers. They don’t want to get a herd bigger than 30 or 40. They bottle and sell their own non-homogenized lightly pasteurized milk. They give the calves milk until they are old enough to graze and the cows roam freely (as do the chickens). Even the piglets get cow milk leftover from the store (unsold bottled milk). So until it’s time to go to the slaughterhouse in Groton, MA, the critters have what appear to be pretty gentle lives.
But having watched Peaceable Kingdom; The Journey Home, I can’t move past the sticking point that eating dairy places me in a relationship with animals that requires their domination and death. Even the happy free range chickens come from chicks bred in huge poultry plantations where the identified male chicks get killed. Nice farms like this keep the roosters as free roaming fellas but in the film huge trash cans of tiny fluffy little chicks get suffocated in plastic bags. I cannot longer eat eggs even from happy hens knowing the fate of those unhappily bred and often destroyed chicks.
I keep thinking that we make what feel like fairly arbitrary distinctions. Looking at a photo of a common marmoset caged in a research lab, I think of the children at a nearby residential institution, a home for children too disabled to live with their families. They will live fore-shortened lives, unable to work or create families, or engage in civic undertakings. Many will not speak or utilize communicative devices. Yet each one will have a chance to live into the fullest expression this incarnation allows. It would be unthinkable in our society to use these children as subjects of research: to test drugs or procedures, or infect them with diseases to understand how certain pathogens manifest. Yet why is it we fill the research labs of elite institutions with primates capable of cognition and communication who would otherwise engage in creating families and social networks if not bred or captured to fulfill human needs?
I do not doubt children housed in institutions lack soul. I do not doubt these children thrum to the pulse of Creation and experience its rhythms within themselves. To their parents, they are the manifestation of life’s longing for itself. And so we recognize an inherency of dignity and worth—and expend tremendous financial and energetic resources nurturing these children.
Yet here in the United States, we incarcerate primates and other mammals with the same intensity we incarcerate humans—only we have prohibited forced labor or research in prisons but not labs. We ask nothing of children laden with medical burdens yet we intentionally breed animals into lives of suffering and arbitrary death so that we ourselves can live longer better lives.
But how are our lives made better by disconnecting from the ground and the waters of our being? We seize the lives of other species and for all the contempt we heap on human prisoners we don’t command incarcerated people to give up a kidney (though that day may come). We don’t grab people off the street and take tissue or organs or blood so that our own child or parent or spouse can live a longer or healthier life. But we turn to animals who have no defense against us and we cage them and experiment on them and manipulate them (and poach, ensnare and commodify them). If absolute power corrupts absolutely, we are corrupting ourselves,
According to a report published by World Watch Institute, authored by Robert Goodland, a lead environmental adviser at the World Bank Group and Jeff Anhang, a research officer and environmental specialist at the World Bank Group, “The life cycle and supply chain of domesticated animals raised for food have been vastly underestimated as a source of greenhouse gases, and in fact account for at least half of all human-causes GHGs. If this argument is right, it implies that replacing livestock products with better alternatives would be the best strategy for reversing climate change.” The authors’ angle is business not ethics but it answered my question whether my dairy and meat analogs (replacements) create more environmental damage than consumption of locally produced dairy. They don’t.
After thirty-four years as a vegetarian, now I am vegan. It is a line I draw in pencil but not one I am likely to erase. The indelible stain of slavery and holocaust arise as much out of certainty and what is required to justify it as anything else. Deep in our heart-centers, the part of us where knowing precedes and surpasses cognition, we recognize the connection between factory farming and concentration camps, between pleasure wrought from another’s suffering and the discomfiting disconnection that causes in ourselves.