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 by Helena Norberg-Hodge1
In mid-autumn, 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, this phase of the year marked a time when northern dwellers of many cultures would work to ensure that they had a store of meat to last them through the winter. They did this by hunting wild game or slaughtering farm animals. It was a time of year when blood was shed.
The subject of 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 their diet in response to political or spiritual convictions.
As a teenager, I became convinced that eating meat was wrong on many levels. It 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 felt that 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.
As a vegetarian, I went out of my way to eat what I considered to be nutritious food. I cooked for myself and was careful to combine whole grains with legumes. But despite all my efforts, I was not very healthy. When I got to college, I began to get chronic glandular infections and take multiple courses of antibiotics. Whenever I went home for vacation I would collapse with an illness.
Halfway through my third year of college I decided to take time off and go to Thailand to work in a 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 back to my diet. In Thailand my health improved tremendously–I had more energy and better digestion than I could remember having had in ages. The Thai food I ate everyday 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.
But after my return to the US, my health worsened again. I began to suffer from terrible eczema, 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 it! 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. And so, for the first time in ten years, I ate a steak. And I felt that I had never tasted anything so wonderful. I gave great thanks to the cow that had died that I may live, and experienced the profound 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. In reading about indigenous foodways, I read about cultures that had a profoundly 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 being based on an understanding of life that is much more evolved than the Western industrial paradigm. It is related to the Tzutujil Mayan concept of kas-limaal–mutual indebtedness–beautifully described by shaman and writer Martín 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 in an efficient manner. All of these activities require 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 every day.
A friend of mine who is a student in the program decided after years of vegetarianism to start eating meat again, largely because of what he had read about the work of Weston Price. 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 work, he might as well receive the nourishment they have to offer. 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 the essence of this “adult knowledge” beautifully in her book Prodigal Summer. In one passage rancher Eddie Bondo and ecologist 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 hallelujas 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 life.”2
With this simple phrase “living takes life,” Deanna Wolfe tries to express something in plain English that is difficult for modern Americans to grasp. The concept might be more effectively expressed in the language of a mythologically literate culture. In ancient Greek, for example, there were two different words for “life”: bios and zoë. As Lewis Hyde explains in his book The Gift: “Bios is limited life, characterized life, life that dies. Zoë is the life that endures; it is the thread that runs through bios-life and is not broken when the particular perishes.”3 On one level, the phrase “living takes life” expresses the concept that all living things rely on the death of other living things. On another level, it expresses the truth that zoë 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. Zoë 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 throughout the world. Death extinguishes a particular life, of course, but it doesn’t extinguish Life. Life endures and transcends death.
When you see everything around you–all that is animal, vegetable or mineral–as being imbued with Spirit, as being alive and sentient, as carrying with it a crucial and inseparable part of the Whole; when you view all of life as being inextricably interconnected by a thread, a spark, of something Divine, you cannot help but 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; and, along with that, it has developed hierarchical moralistic categories of life. We hold human life to be the most precious–at the top of the hierarchy. 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 that we feel closer to–such as dogs, cats, horses and monkeys–and we will often have taboos against eating them. Next down in our hierarchy are animals with whom 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 are further down still, and insects are below that–we give them very little moral value.
Once we have descended down 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 doing so 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–zoë–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 a hierarchy based on how great of a gift that 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 a special importance in the culture. Where they depend upon the salmon, salmon will be 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, traditional saltmen take a yearly month-long 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 ritual offerings to her, speak in a sacred, secret language during the journey, and uphold a high moral standard of conduct as they near the lake. 4
Perceiving a part of the natural world to be a great gift does not preclude eating it, but it does ensure that 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 of this 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 in some way totemic for them. To eat that animal becomes a form of cannibalism, but it is never all animals that are thus designated.
Divorced from Nature
Of course, there are myriad reasons why people become vegetarians, but often the impulse grows out of a legitimate objection to how animals raised for food production are treated. It is bad enough that we don’t perceive corn or water to be a gift; how much worse when it is an animal that can look at us and blink, that sleeps, eats and cries out when in pain, just like we do? In American agribusiness, we fail to view our livestock as gifts, and see them rather as units of production without sentience. 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 zoë, 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 zoë, of Life. It echoes with grief–hollow and cold and tragic and full of loss.
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 as a threshold or a transition.
The West African shaman and teacher Malidoma
Patrice Somé 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, Bakhyè, 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.5
When we think of death as a transition, it is less tragic–in fact, it is full of Life, of zoë. 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 Indigenous and traditional foodways reflected the knowledge that animal foods were a great and 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.
Once we accept the premise 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 to 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 so divorced in this culture from all of these steps. This disconnection is a big part of what makes it seem possible to step outside of 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 who 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 for being 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.
- Helena Norberg-Hodge, Ancient Futures, San Francisco: Sierra Club Books, 1991, p. 31.
- Barbara Kingsolver, Prodigal Summer, New York: Harper Collins, 2001, p. 322-323.
- The Gift, p. 32.
- See the documentary film, The Saltmen of Tibet.
- Malidoma Patrice Somé, The Healing Wisdom of Africa, New York: Tarcher/Putnam,
1998, p. 53.
About the Book
This article is excerpted from Full Moon Feast: Food and the Hunger for Connection, Jessica Prentice’s first book.
Full Moon Feast: Food and the Hunger for Connection uses old-fashioned, seasonal moon names to explore our cultural relationship with food–incorporating history, ecology, nutrition, and the wisdom of our ancestors. It contains over 70 nourishing and traditional recipes and is available from Chelsea Green Publishing.
This article appeared in Wise Traditions in Food, Farming and the Healing Arts, the quarterly magazine of the Weston A. Price Foundation, Fall 2005.