Dairy on the Eastern Shore

 

After visiting Jones’ Family Farm on the Eastern Shore with Chesapeake Semester in 2015, I was forced to confront the unethical practices of the dairy industry. I seek to convey the realities of local dairy farming and determine whether Mason and Singer’s commentary aligns with the truth. The authors write, “very few dairy cows in the US get to graze in the grassy meadows typical of dairy-industry advertising” (57). I compare a St. Brigid’s, a small, more “idyllic” dairy farm, with Jones Family Farm, an industrial scale dairy.  At St. Brigid’s, the cows are treated as animals, and at Jones Family Farm, they are treated like machines.  But I argue that regardless of how “happy” or “unhappy,” the cows may be, the overarching utilitarian argument against exploiting animals remains the same. As Singer and Mason explain, a vegan lifestyle is the most ethical course of action.

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Cows are milked three times a day at Jones Family Farm. (Photo by Erika Koontz)

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There are 1200 dairy cows at the Jones’ farm. (Photo by Jones Family Farm)

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Cows at St. Brigid’s are exposed to fresh air and sunlight as they’re milked.(Left photo by Leslie Williams, right photo by Sherrie Hill)

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Another close-up look at milking at Jones Family Farm. After milking, an iron bar moves forces the cows to move. (Photos by Emily Cross-Barnet)

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Veal calves in their “houses” at St. Brigid’s. (Photo by Judy Gifford)

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Veal calves in their “houses” at Jones Family Farm. (Photo by Jones Family Farm)

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Baby heifer at St. Brigid’s on a thick bed of hay with a blanket to keep warm. (Photo by Judy Gifford).

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Baby heifer at Jones Family Farm. All these calves were extremely skittish and fearful of humans.  They cowered in the corner when we approached. (Photo by Emily Cross-Barnet)

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St. Brigid’s Farm: On the left is a live calf. On the right is a dead calf. (Photos by Judy Gifford)

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Growing Justice

As a vegan, reading Singer and Mason really just reaffirmed what I already know: our existing food system is unethical in nearly every way. Animal welfare, labor rights, environmental health, human health—you name it, industrial agriculture violates it. I believe, like Jake, that since I do not need to eat animals, I am morally obligated not to consume them. The New York Times recently published a photo journal about industrial agriculture (otherwise knows as “Big Ag”), which I was reminded of as I read Singer and Mason. The grand scale of the farms depicted is both breathtaking and horrifying. http://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2016/10/09/magazine/big-food-photo-essay.html?_r=0

We know that industrial agriculture is unethical and unsustainable, but what’s a viable alternative? I had the opportunity to explore this question at Growing Power’s conference in Milwaukee this week. Growing Power is a non-profit that works to empower communities through urban agriculture. The conference theme this year was “Let’s Scale It Up! Growing Food and Farmers: Best Practices in Growing, Distribution and Community Building.” Will Allen, founder and CEO, believes that urban ag is the way to revitalize communities, adapt to climate change, and grow food sustainably. Will emphasized that sustainable urban agriculture, which uses permaculture techniques such as aquaponics and hydroponics, is the food industry’s future. The model addresses the issues with Big Ag discussed by Singer and Mason, but definitely challenges Wendell Berry’s call to return to husbandry. Though the movement embraces some of the principles of husbandry such as care and connectedness with the soil and land, Will Allen’s mission is to move forward and scale up through new technology.

On Friday night, I was able to attend a panel with Will Allen, Ron Finley, and Alice Waters, who each discussed their perspectives on food systems, sustainability, and food justice.

“It’s not just what we eat, it’s how we eat,” said Alice. “So we don’t digest the values of fast food culture.”

Her quote brought me back to Berry’s assertion in “The Pleasures of Eating” that “eating is an agricultural act.” He also tells us that food has political significance—we cannot be free as long as consumerist culture and Big Ag control us. But it’s important to note that Berry’s criticism of the industrial eater and unethical food systems never considers that urban communities may be able to “return” to agriculture and become self-sufficient in their own way. Berry is very focused on rural life, which is understandable considering his background. His discussion of farming is problematic, however, in how it ignores American agriculture’s history of racial injustice. This country’s agricultural legacy was quite literally built on the backs of slaves. Many urban African American communities adamantly oppose a return to farming due to what their ancestors were forced to endure. But this resistance can be overcome if community members take ownership over their land and reclaim the agricultural industry.

There is no easy solution to the problems of industrial agriculture and its negative impacts on the environment, health, animal welfare, and human rights. But based on what I learned at the conference, I believe that change must come from the urban communities where the so-called “industrial eaters” are being exploited by a corrupt food system. Sustainable urban farming brings a number of environmental benefits, too, beyond production of local food. I am especially interested in the role urban ag plays in soil remediation. Berry, Burroughs, Leopold, and Whitman all write about soil and soil health. Soil is life. In the presence of unhealthy soils, unhealthy communities will grow. Listening to Will’s story and the stories of many others, it’s remarkable what cleaning the soil does for community health in urban areas.

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Berry’s Land Ethic

I have read Wendell Berry in three classes now, and for some reason, I often find his message a little off-putting. There are a few reasons for this, one being that at my core, I am an urbanite. I value the diversity, culture, and history of cities. Despite the pervasive environmental and social problems, I believe Berry glosses over the great potential of urban communities and spaces. Having grown up in a rural area, Berry sees immense value in the culture and rich history of traditional agriculture. I strongly agree with some of his arguments and believe that he strikes an interesting balance between progressivism and conservatism. However, the judgment he exhibits towards non-farmers, especially those who live in cities, borders on ignorant. In “The Pleasures of Eating,” he argues people are incredibly disconnected from their food—eating is an “agricultural act” but people today view food as an “agricultural product.” In order to get pleasure from eating, people need to reconnect with the life in their food. The point is valid, but the way he goes about it is to call people (city people, specifically) “industrialized eaters.” Of his steps for reconnecting with food, some are relatively accessible for all (like garden boxes), but still ignore the absence of resources and environmental education in many urban neighborhoods.

In his essay “Renewing Husbandry,” Berry advocates for a return to traditional farming practices. He believes that technology and industrialization have disconnected farmers from their land, resulting in environmental and societal degradation. To become reconnected, he argues, we must return to husbandry. “To husband is to use with care, to keep, to save, to make last, to conserve,” he writes. Though “husbandry” is problematic from an eco-feminist perspective, Berry’s call for farmers to respect and care for the land and soil echoes the environmental ethics of many of the writers we’ve read this semester. Leopold’s land ethic, in particular, is called to mind. In a Sand County Almanac, Leopold writes, “Obligations have no meaning without conscience, and the problem we face is the extension of the social conscience from people to land” (282). According to Berry, the way to achieve this is returning to husbandry. In “The Making of a Marginal Farm” Berry discusses the ways in which he was able to employ these principles on his own farm. He focuses on promoting “respect, restraint, and care”—essentially the definition of husbandry used in “Renewing Husbandry” (515).

One thing I will say I truly enjoy about Berry is how he weaves love into every argument he makes. This is the concept behind husbandry—a loving husband cares for his wife, a loving farmer cares for his land. In his essay, “Preserving Wilderness,” Berry advocates for love in an unlikely place: the economy. He writes, “If we do not have an economy capable of valuing in particular terms the durable good of localities and communities, then we are not going to be able to preserve anything” (Berry 522). Money as motive inhibits the preservation of wilderness. Without love, consideration is based solely on profit, and exploitation abounds. Berry’s approach demands a cultural shift towards loving and respecting the world around us. This is the essence of Leopold’s land ethic, too, which “changes the role of Homo sapiens from conqueror of the land-community to plain member and citizen of it” (Leopold 278).

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A Paved Perspective

Thoreau, Dillard, and Purpura demonstrate a spectrum of human experience with nature. Thoreau represents one extreme: he isolates himself from society and lives in the woods. Dillard, on the other hand, lives in a neighborhood with other people, but can immerse herself in nature with a short walk down her peri-urban street to Tinker Creek. Purpura represents the other extreme, finding herself lost and searching for nature in the dystopia of the overdeveloped world. While both Thoreau and Dillard have access to a vibrant nature full of life, Purpura must look for signs of natural life in hotel parking lots, large-scale agricultural fields, and along highways.

Certain aspects of Dillard and Purpura’s writing styles are similar. They both describe the world with vivid detail, focusing on finding the life (and sometimes death) in the world around them. One specific parallel that stood out to me was the mention of “snakes” in both Dillard and Purpura. In Dillard, we see her stalking a copperhead snake:

“Here was this blood-filled alert creature, this nerved rope of matter, really her instead of not here” (Dillard 228).

Purpura’s description is not of an actual snake, but of the liquid coming from a farmer’s pesticide applicator. It seems like Purpura actually stalks the pesticide:

“He’s holding his rope low and firm while it leaks a bright poison as yellow and brief as a corn snake, sunning, then startled, then disappearing back into the ground.”

What stands out to me, beyond the vivid imagery, is the description of nerved rope versus poisoned rope. Even though the copperhead is a venomous snake, Dillard does not emphasize the danger it poses. Purpura, on the other hand, observes a human-made rope that spews something seemingly harmless—a corn snake sunning itself—that in actuality poisons and kills.

Purpura begins to despair about the loss of life and lushness that humans caused. As she looks out on the parking lot of her hotel and describes the loss of “real land,” I was reminded of the Joni Mitchell’s song “Big Yellow Taxi.” In the first verse she says:

“They paved paradise
And put up a parking lot
With a pink hotel, a boutique
And a swinging hot spot”

Especially considering that Purpura is literally in a hotel, writing about its parking lot, this song seemed particularly relevant. The brightness of a pink hotel is similar to the brightness of the yellow pesticide: thinly masked death. I think that Dillard, if placed in the same environment, would see this world similarly. Purpura speaks of the dead trees (“ex-trees”) and the grubs that live inside them. Insects and death are two of Dillard’s favorite topics, especially when paired together. Purpura doesn’t quite get into the detail that Dillard does, and her writing is more like a poem than Dillard’s lyrical prose. But both are textured, moving from smooth to rough and uncomfortable and back again.

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Evolving Vision

In my first writing project, I argued that Thoreau’s support for a plant-based diet represented an ethical development over time—both for him, personally, and for humanity as a whole. “Leaving off eating animals” is a step towards simplicity and moral purity for the individual, and represents the moral evolution of civilization. In Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, Annie Dillard, also experiences an evolution of her thought and morals, as she confronts some of the harsher realities of the world. In the first half of the book, she embraces a world designed intentionally by evolution and a Creator, relishing in its “jaggedness.” But in the chapter “Fecundity,” she begins to see a natural world that brings forth life only to mass-produce death as amoral. And if nature is amoral, then how can she reconcile engaging with it so closely and maintaining her own human morality?

At first, Dillard almost finds beauty (and sometimes even humor) in death. But after the chapter “Flood,” she has a nightmare and wakes with a whole new mindset. She writes, “Any three-year-old can see how unsatisfactory and clumsy is this whole business of reproducing and dying by the billions” (179). Considering the fact that it seems she only just had this realization, she is insulting herself in this moment. Even a young child can see the horror that she turned a blind eye to. Dillard now challenges herself to work through the implications of this knowledge, writing, “Either this world, my mother, is a monster, or I myself am a freak.” This line feels very intentional in its wording. On a surface level, it seems like her concern is that if her “mother” is a monster then perhaps she is, too. But I think it can also speak to the moment when one realizes that their parents are deeply flawed. For Dillard, this realization is difficult, since she has viewed Tinker Creek and nature as a sacred sanctuary, superior to the human world. In terms of her environmental ethic, this seems to be the point in which she really digs into whether or not she should consider herself a part of nature or apart from nature. Is the natural world truly an escape from the troubles of the human world, or is it really just a whole set of even worse horrors?

Ultimately, Dillard determines that while this mass death is far from beautiful, she should not impose her own human morals on the other inhabitants of the world. It is unreasonable to believe that only humans have it right, and “the whole universe is wrong” (179). So she continues to submerge herself in the natural world, feeling that the price for life and freedom is death. She writes, “The world has signed a pact with the devil…if you want to live, you have to die” (183). This demonstrates her attempts to reconcile a creator who builds intricate creatures freely with a world full of darkness and death. Having reached these conclusions, she is unable to return to seeing the world as intentionally beautiful—nature is jagged (sometimes in a beautiful way) because it arises from entropy.

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A Broken Circuit

The authors we read this week explored the resilience of the land, as told through the story of soil. Whitman refers to the cycle in his poem “Compost” as “endless successions of diseas’d corpses.” In “The Grist of the Gods,” Burroughs says “life and youth spring forever from its decay” and Leopold explains, in more scientific terms, “food chains are the living channels which conduct energy upward; death and decay return it to the soil.” Death is not an end in nature, but rather part of an eternal cycle of resilience.

Leopold, however, pushes back against the idea that this natural cycle cannot be irreparably damaged. In his section entitles “The Land Pyramid,” Leopold explains in scientific but simple terms how energy flows through ecological systems. The interconnected web of life is a circuit, which changes slowly overtime but generally is able to adapt. Humans throw a wrench in this system with “changes of unprecedented violence, rapidity, and scope.” Both Whitman and Burroughs express that man is born from soil and will return to it. Leopold agrees that we are inseparably linked to the interconnected web of life, but we have violently altered the pyramid to serve our interests. He poses an important question: “Can the land adjust to the new world order?”

Based on my own experiences, I am at first inclined to say yes. Having lived and worked in Baltimore City, I have witnessed the resilience of nature firsthand. When prompted to write about the sublime in class, I recalled a moment from this summer. In southwest Baltimore, there is a former brown site turned environmental education center. The land has been rehabilitated and now provides habitat to native flora and fauna. Established right on the Patapsco River, we took our campers (students from the local elementary school) out on the boat once a week. During week two, as the students sat on the cabin top, baking in the sun, the captain called for us to look in the water. Gliding through the murk of sediment and sewage was a cownose stingray. The students were awed, as was I. How does it survive? I wondered. How does it move through these toxic waters with such grace and ease?

For me, this instance showed the resilience of nature. It was a sublime moment in which nature demonstrated its refusal to succumb to even the most potent human poisons. The ray symbolized rebirth from the dead waters of the Patapsco. But reading Leopold, I think back on the moment more critically. “The land recovers,” he writes, “but at some reduced level of complexity, and with a reduced carrying capacity for people, plants, and animals.” The cownose ray perhaps was not proof of Burroughs “incorruptible” soil, but simply the ghostly remnants of a once rich energy circuit. Most of the system’s atoms cannot reenter the eternal cycle of life, death, and rebirth, because they find themselves in Baltimore’s inner harbor, “imprisoned in oily sludge.”

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Transformation

Critics slam Thoreau for his constant contradictions, and I agree that at times they can be off-putting. Thoreau’s commitment to the counter-argument makes discerning his true convictions based on a single passage or chapter of Walden a frustrating and impractical endeavor. Following the overall themes of the book and Thoreau’s evolution throughout it, however, can serve as more reliable indicators. One issue Thoreau seems to contradict himself on, especially in his chapter “Higher Laws,” is food ethics. He begins the chapter by condoning hunting, but quickly follows with a lengthy passage addressing the problematic nature of eating animals. Ultimately, he concludes that switching to a plant-based diet is the next evolutionary step for humanity. I argue that in the larger context of Walden, this does not represent contradiction as much as maturation, and the belief that “purity” is what both individuals and society must strive for.

A plant-based diet embodies the innocence, purity, and simplicity that define Thoreau’s experiment at Walden Pond. At the beginning of Walden, Thoreau expresses a passive curiosity in a plant-based diet based solely on its simplicity. But by “Higher Laws,” he has realized that not only is vegetarianism simple—it is pure. To eat meat is “unclean,” inflicts unnecessary harm, and indulges gluttony (simple-eating’s enemy). Buell makes a complementary claim: the deep consideration Thoreau begins to demonstrate towards nonhuman animals in “Higher Laws” reveals his developing environmental ethic and overall shift in focus from “homocentrism” to “ecocentrism” (Buell 532).  Furthermore, the progression of thought throughout the chapter and book symbolically represent maturation from childhood to adulthood.

In childhood, empathy and sympathy have not fully developed, so hunting is just an experience that connects children with nature. As adults, however, we are able to comprehend suffering and understand the wrongness of inflicting harm on animals. This maturation is conveyed first by the structure of the chapter, which places the discussion of hunting’s benefits for children prior to the discussion of eating animal’s harms to man. In the passage I studied, Thoreau makes use of metamorphosis as a metaphor to further this argument. “Voracious caterpillars” and “gluttonous maggots” represent meat-eaters, who consume without conscience or consideration. In a larval (immature) state, they cannot be expected to know or do better. Upon metamorphosing (or maturing), however, the adult butterfly or fly require only “a drop or two of honey” (Thoreau 146). The example of the butterfly is particularly striking, since butterflies are widely considered to be the most beautiful of the insects—even though, as Thoreau acknowledges, the mature butterfly maintains the abdomen of the larvae. Man therefore faces a choice: remain a “gross feeder,” forever stuck in the larval state, or become a butterfly and consciously fight his “insectivorous fate.” By choosing the latter, man achieves simplicity, beauty, and the freedom that only wings can offer. This is Thoreau’s vision for humanity.

But Thoreau did not begin with such a well thought out food ethic. He first makes mention of a plant-based diet toward the beginning of his introductory chapter, “Economy.” He notes the irony in a farmer’s claim that “you cannot live on vegetable food solely, for it furnishes nothing to make bones with” while oxen pull his plough with “vegetable-made bones” (Thoreau 9-10). Later in the chapter, he makes an even more direct statement, saying, “a man may use as simple a diet as the animals, and yet retain health and strength” (45). Here, Thoreau uses the word “simple” to describe the diet of animals, which eat only what is absolutely necessary to survive. It is true that this sentiment is reflected later in “Higher Laws,” when he promotes seasonal eating (“fruits eaten temperately”) and criticizes the superfluous, writing, “…put an extra condiment on your dish and it will poison you” (146).   But in this chapter, unlike in “Economy,” Thoreau seems to connect his quest to live simply with his growing idolization of nature in its purity.

While the beginning of the book takes what Buell calls a “homocentric” (or anthropocentric) approach, in “Higher Laws,” Thoreau starts to argue that humans should abstain from eating animals because it is impure practice. Purity has multiple meanings, both physical and moral. Thoreau addresses both of these in the passage, beginning with the unclean nature of eating fish and other animals, and concluding with examples of the corrupt nature of killing animals. The physical definition of purity is “free from contamination or physical impurity; not mixed with anything that corrupts or impairs; untainted, clean” (“Pure”). Thoreau’s first argument against eating animals emerges from this definition. He writes, “there is something essentially unclean about this diet and all flesh” (Thoreau 146). The smell and sight of flesh taint and dirty his cabin, which is supposed to be a sanctuary from society’s distasteful practices. Having sworn off the frivolous sins of society, he finds it difficult to reconcile simple, pure living with the human practice of cooking animals.

The moral definition of purity is “free from moral corruption; of unblemished character or nature; morally untainted; guiltless, innocent, guileless” (“Pure”). Thoreau provides us with two striking examples that speak to this form of purity: snaring rabbits and slaughtering lambs. Thoreau had already addressed snaring rabbits two pages prior when he wrote, “the hare in its extremity cries like a child” (Thoreau 145). Therefore, it is not a stretch to suppose that the rabbit Thoreau refers to here is the same hare that cries like a child. And while lambs are obviously baby sheep, the word is also used to refer to human beings—namely young children. According to the OED, a lamb applied to humans is “one who is meek, gentle, innocent, or weak” (“Lamb”). In this instance, Thoreau employs metonymy to deliver his message. The examples he provides are not uncommon animals for humans to kill, but in the context these two creatures are intended to bring to mind the innocent.

In case we may doubt Thoreau’s intentions, his next words are, “…he will be regarded a benefactor of his race who shall teach man to confine himself to a more innocent and wholesome diet” (Thoreau 147). An “innocent diet” is not a phrase we come across often. Why does Thoreau advocate for this? I believe that he sees animals as uncorrupted beings—innocent, pure, free, beautiful. He feels no right to take their lives for human consumption. Thoreau’s support for a simpler society and his desire to direct mankind toward a path of purity over corruption makes his argument against killing animals far more compelling then his commendation of hunting.

The transformation in Thoreau’s approach to a plant-based diet, from a mere experiment in living simply to “part of the destiny of the human race” reveals the impact of Walden Pond on his environmental ethics. For children, respect for nature is fostered through experiencing it in the context of hunting. In his passage discussing hunting, he specifically refers to its value for children “ten to fourteen” whose “hunting and fishing grounds…were more boundless than that of a savage” (Thoreau 144). In the nature, he begins to gain a better understanding of what it means to be civilized. If children who hunt are more boundless than “savages,” in adulthood they must join civilized society as ethical plant-eaters. This ecocentric shift that Buell identifies in “Thoreau and the Natural Environment,” places a reverence for nature and the value of nonhuman animals above wanton human desires. The connections with simplicity exemplify the moral self-regulation that, according to Buell, define Thoreau’s project in frugality (Buell 537). A man can allow himself to remain in an immature, larval state forever or choose a simple, pure life by exercising restraint in consumption.

Works Cited

Buell, Lawrence. “Thoreau and the Natural Environment.” The Cambridge Companion to Henry David Thoreau, edited by Joel Myerson, Cambridge University Press, 1995, 171-93.

“lamb, n.1.” OED Online. Oxford University Press, September 2016. Web. 1 October 2016.

“pure, adj., adv., and n.” OED Online. Oxford University Press, September 2016. Web. 1 October 2016.

Thoreau, Henry David, and William Rossi John. Walden, Civil Disobedience, and Other Writings: Authoritative Texts, Journal, Reviews and Posthumous Assessments, Criticism. New York: W.W. Norton, 2008. Print.

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Should We Give Thoreau a Cookie?

Thoreau builds Walden on a series of contradicting lines, paragraphs, chapters, and themes. While off-putting at first, eventually I came to understand that this book arose from a journal. Though seven-times-revised, some of the rough and raw characteristics of thought remain intact. His writing is often nonlinear, contradictory, and sometimes abstract. But what good are linear thoughts, or proclamations that go unchallenged?

I would hardly consider myself a die-hard fan. Thoreau is undeniably pretentious and condescending. His humble wood cabin at times becomes an ivory tower as he contemplates the failures and shortcomings of mankind. His discussions of poverty and slavery reveal a level of ignorance associated with privilege that he does not seem to fully recognize. I certainly found this off-putting. But reading Schulz, I found myself getting a little defensive of Thoreau, and feeling like she wasn’t being entirely fair. Take the example of philanthropy—he does seem to oppose philanthropy and encourage individualism, but if you read more closely, he really just opposes the idea of doing good just for the sake of being able to say you helped. According to Thorough, one can be shriveled, disposable tealeaves, or flower and produce fruit. The flowering man’s goodness “must not be a partial and transitory act, but a constant superfluity, which costs him nothing and of which he is unconscious” (56). Do not live your life solely in service of other people, is essentially what he is saying. I don’t think he’s wrong.

In order to appreciate (or even tolerate) Walden, one has to be willing to roll her eyes and think “yeah, ok, Henry” sometimes. I began to hate Walden as I struggled through “Economy,” much for the same reasons as Shulz. She engages in a legitimate, though arguably shallow, reading of the book. But I stopped reading through that lens, because it made me miserable and resentful. Instead, I chose to focus on the beautiful language and thought-provoking comments/discussions. I recommend against reading Walden as the hypocrisy police. If he wants to discuss food ethics and then go eat cookies with his mom, that’s ok. This is just another unexplained contradiction that can be interpreted as either intentional or ignorant. However, I really engaged with his discussions of freedom, food, killing animals, and living as a minimalist. I reject Shulz’s very narrow view of wilderness, which identifies only areas 100% untouched by humans as true Nature, and I think that Purdy gets it right when he looks at Walden through the lens of a world in the Anthropocene.

Schulz critiques Thoreau for seeking purity in a Nature that does not meet her standards of what wilderness ought to be. However, I agree with Purdy when he says that this was an intentional decision. Thoreau explores how to coexist with nature in a developing and post-pastoral world. At Walden Pond, he observes purity in freedom, not in isolation. The creatures of the forest (as well as the water and earth, as explored in-depth in “Spring”) live for themselves, unconstrained or oppressed by society.

I have not yet discussed my conclusions explicitly, because I feel they are still developing. But I find myself returning to the statement “nothing is inorganic.” As a pseudo-scientist, I hear the word inorganic and immediately jump to “does not contain carbon.” This can be as natural as water or as synthetic as plastic. But, as Thoreau points out, everything comes from the earth. The earth itself is a living organism, and thus there can be nothing inorganic. Returning to town and to society is not truly leaving behind nature, because everything on earth is organic and thus natural. This revelation felt meaningful to me. I may be overly forgiving of Thoreau, but in my opinion, the beautiful writing and thought-provoking statements earn him the occasional homemade cookie.

 

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Eating Animals

In my reading of Walden, I have keenly followed Thoreau’s food ethics, hoping to find a kindred spirit. I mentioned in class, but will mention again, a quote very near the beginning of the book: “One farmer says to me “You cannot live on vegetable food solely for it furnishes nothing to make bones with…” but Thoreau points out the irony of this, as the man is walking behind an oxen which is pulling a plow with “vegetable-made bones” (10). I think of my own vegetable-made bones and feel like Thoreau is on my side, somehow. Within the same chapter, he seems to object to animal exploitation all together, making an interesting case in writing, “Certainly no nation that lived simply in all respects, that is, no nation of philosophers, would commit so great a blunder as to use the labor of animals” (42). Simply. Through these lines and throughout Walden, Thoreau seems to identify a relationship between living simply and living without reliance on animal food or labor. The word philosopher translates to “lover of wisdom”—Thoreau is saying that in a nation where all are wise and thoughtful, reliance on animals for labor is foolish and negates any accomplishments a man achieves through exploiting this labor, as they are not truly his own.

And then, in the chapter “Higher Laws,” Thoreau approaches the question of food ethics much more directly. At first, his statements about hunting frustrated me, and felt inconsistent with things he had said previously (though contradiction is kind of his thing). He begins by telling fathers that they should teach their children (well, sons) how to hunt, since a well-rounded environmental ethic and understanding of nature will be incomplete without the experience. But shortly thereafter, he changes course and ultimately states: “I have no doubt that it is a part of the destiny of the human race, in its gradual improvement, to leave off eating animals…” (147). How can he reconcile these two positions? It seems like the progression of thought throughout the chapter was intentional and maturing. As a child, he explains, one does not possess the sympathy to understand that the act of killing an animal means inflicting pain upon another being. Sympathy develops as one matures. He recounts the development of his own ethic over time, which, to be clear, is not particularly linear or even complete. His love of nature first developed hunting, so who is he to deny that to other young boys? But, in adulthood, he found that his sympathy extended to all creatures, not just people.

Furthermore, I think that his stance goes back to a desire to live simply and free of wanting for more than what brings him vital warmth. If animal food is not necessary to maintaining his life, and he finds the practice of killing distasteful, then it figures that he would advocate for vegetarianism. While he acknowledges his own animalistic instincts and desires, the book centers primarily around an appreciation and love for being alive among so many other living things. He discusses animals as having brains and thoughts, even wars, intentions, and feelings. By presenting animals as near equals in intellect and ability, and not assuming that he is above them simply because he is human, Thoreau is able to approach the human relationship with animals both critically and thoughtfully.

I return to his relationship with birds as a symbol of freedom, which I think is important to explore in this context, too. Originally he shoots birds for the purposes of ornithological study, but in “Higher Laws” says that there is “a higher way of studying” them (144).  Based on his previous discussion of birds, and the interactions he describes in later chapters (such as “Brute Neighbors”), it seems clear that he appreciates studying the habits of live birds more than the appearance of dead ones.  To kill a bird for study (or even for food) is an exploitation of a purer life, and even as he continues to eat animals, Thoreau reveals his struggle with these contradictions.

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Caged to be Free

Stripping away the unnecessary, excessive, and superfluous is at the heart of Thoreau’s experiment. Early on in economy, he identifies food, shelter, clothing, and fuel as the only things “necessary for life” (Thoreau 11). And, he claims, all these things ultimately just serve the simple function of producing (or trapping) heat. So upon divesting himself of all but these bare essentials, and sustaining himself by the labor of his hands only, he feels true freedom can be achieved. This concept of freedom emerges as a strong theme throughout the beginning of Walden, and is juxtaposed against discussions of slavery. In my reading of “Economy” and “Where I Lived, And What I’ve Lived For,” I identified the bird as one of Thoreau’s symbols of freedom.

The simile “free as a bird” quite literally dates back hundreds of years. According to the OED, in 1603 and again in 1631, the writer and lawyer Thomas Powell penned this now-cliché phrase. But Thoreau is less explicit than this, and turns to birds most often when discussing issues related to shelter. For example, in referring to beds in houses, Thoreau writes, “…robbing the nests and breasts of birds to prepare this shelter within a shelter” (Thoreau 12). He speaks of down bedding, but his choice to use the word “robbing” instead of “using” reveals distaste for the practice. Birds represent freedom and their nest building represents honest work. To strip a bird’s feathers simply for the sake of fluffier pillows is to kill and exploit the innocent for superfluous purposes.

In his discussion of home ownership, Thoreau compares the autonomy of birds to that of modern people, writing, “Though birds of the air have their nests…not more than one half of families own their shelter” (24). The statement is intended to underscore Thoreau’s belief that building and owning one’s own shelter is the natural thing to do. He expresses this sentiment again when he writes, “There is some of the same fitness in a man’s building his own house that there is in a bird’s building its own nest” (34). The bird exploits no other animals or tools to build its nest, a feat Thoreau admires and idolizes. I found his discussion of animal labor to be particularly interesting and ironic. By relying on animals to do one’s work, are the animals really slaves to the people, or is it the other way around?

Even more interesting, I found, was when Thoreau used a symbol of slavery to express feelings of freedom: “I found myself suddenly neighbor to the birds; not by having imprisoned one, but having caged myself near them” (61). The line exemplifies Thoreau’s ironic style and can be interpreted in a multitude of ways. He could quite literally just mean that he has become the birds’ neighbor by “caging” himself next to them, but I think it more likely that he feels liberated in his isolation. By removing himself from the environment he grew up in and placing himself in the middle of nature, he felt incredibly connected and free.

While I have mentioned slavery a number of times, I feel as though I’ve barely skimmed the surface of what Thoreau has to say on the matter. I want to continue to examine this theme, looking for where Thoreau makes important points (and problematic ones), and better understand his view on the issue.

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