One of the most lovely and thoughtful books I've read all year is Tovar Cerulli's Mindful Carnivore: A Vegeterian's Hunt for Sustenance. What makes it so fantastic, besides his artful writing and reflective passages, is how he describes his journey from dyed-in-the-wool vegetarian into a person (who lives in Vermont) who hunts, kills, dresses, and eats his own meat. In the end his argument is convincing and firmly established.
In the beginning, like many of us, Cerulli spent summer outdoors fishing for trout, hunting bullfrogs, and carrying a big knife by his side. But experimentation with vegetarianism led him to become vegan and eschew animal products of all sorts by his second decade. He found a woman whose ethics and lifestyle matched his, they married, and they were all set.
Until... they found a lovely house and started gardening. They had problems with squirrels, then woodchucks eating their crops. He built better fences and tried all logical means of keeping animals out of their garden because their vegetable garden was how they planned to subsist through all seasons (canning, and the whole bit). So murdering insects made him queasy and offended his ethics. He didn't want agriculture to be so brutal.
But once Cerulli immersed himself into Earth's cycle of seasons and learned more about deer and the necessity for keeping the whitetail population down--because there are so few natural predators who take them down and keep their proliferation at bay--he understood that sometimes the death of an animal was necessary. And yet, he didn't want to smoke-bomb woodchucks or call in a specialist to kill the deer stalking his corn and other tender veggies.
Working as a logger for a few years helped soften his mind and heart toward killing of animals as the natural way of things:
Before long, though, I began to se that these deaths were among agriculture's lesser impacts, constituting only a fraction of the story. All it took was a few years working as a logger: work that grounded me in the local landscape and opened my eyes to its history. (41-42)
Then, too, his doctor advised him to add more protein into his diet. Long-term vegetarianism does not do the body any good. I've seen some of those folks, and they look like concentration camp survivors. The vegetarian/vegan diet does not recommend itself, in my humble opinion. But then, I've most always advocated balance and moderation in most everything: Except reading books, and there's never enough time to read; one can never spend too much money on books.
He started small with yogurt, then local dairy and eggs, and moved on to chicken and fish. A visit with an old friend Willie stirred memories of fishing and soon he and Willie hefted rods together. Week by week, month by month Cerulli advanced up the food chain until he decided that it wasn't "so much what we ate that mattered--tofu or trout, chard or chicken--as how that food came to our plates." (67)
Meal by meal, I began to sense how indebted my life was to other lives, how inextricably intertwined. The blood of deer did run through my veins, and the blood of woodchuck and hare, chicken and trout--the blood of land itself. (56)
The how of "how food comes to our plates" is what the other three-quarters of the book is about: how fishing didn't yield much food, so he turned to hunting. But, he had to qualify for a hunting license, so he went through hunter education. He reflects on the purpose and philosophy of hunter's education and what its emphasis is and what it should be. He talks about the mythology and culture of hunting and guns in America; the complicated place of hunters in American history, and the demographics of hunting and hunters.
Another fantastic addition to the book is Cerulli's feminist analysis of hunting. Having studied feminism in college, he readily deconstructs hunting as a predominately male pursuit and mentions a woman deer hunter with whom he was acquainted whose daytime occupation as a wildlife conservationist was at odds with her pastime of hunting for deer. He never understood this seemingly schizophrenic woman until he began hunting and growing more attuned to nature.
The last few chapters chronicle his time int he woods alone and with hunting partners and they are as much about his growing skills as a hunter as they are about his growing relationship with nature and himself. Being outdoors and hunting is not always about killing the deer but about noticing what is around you and breathing deeply and getting away from what troubles you in your work life or home life.
A few weeks ago after my grandfather had a stroke after surgery, my uncle and I were sitting in the ICU waiting room, chatting about all sorts of things. I asked him when he first went hunting with his dad--the man who was in ICU. And he said that he dad started bringing him along when he was seven but that he shot his first squirrel when he was ten. They brought the squirrel home and Papaw skinned it and then fried it up in a skillet. They ate it.
Then I asked, "How'd a boy born in Detroit ever learn to hunt?" He laughed about that and said he didn't know. My grandfather likely started hunting when he was in his 30s or 40s when he and his family moved to Tennessee, where my grandmother was from.
But my uncle doesn't get much time to hunt anymore with his work schedule. He says that hunting is his restorative; time for himself to refresh and unwind and just be.
So if you're vegan or vegetarian and you say no to meat or dairy products, you've completely closed yourself off to the possibility of knowing these animals and learning more about yourself and the symbiotic relationship that we have with one another. While reading Cerulli's book I kept picturing vegetarians and vegans as ostriches with their heads buried in the sand. If they don't play with meat or dairy, it will disappear. If they don't buy it, then the producers won't produce it anymore? Is that the logic? Or should you engage with it? I don't know the answers, but The Mindful Carnivore suggested one route after many years of mindful eating, gardening, and hunting. I loved so much about this book and hated when it ended. Look forward to reading more of Tovar Cerulli's work.
I contacted the publisher about receiving a copy of this book for review and they kindly sent me a copy. Just letting you know, so I'm in accordance with the new FTC regulations, but otherwise, I received no other form of compensation.