This blog was written when I first started to go vegan, in 2012. I imagine there will be passages I might update now, but for the moment I’m pasting it verbatim. I don’t apologise for the fact that there’s hard stuff in it.
‘We need another and a wiser and perhaps a more mystical concept of animals. In a world older and more complete than ours they move finished and complete, gifted with extensions of the senses we have lost or never attained, living by voices we shall never hear. They are not brethren, they are not underlings; they are other nations, caught with ourselves in the net of life and time, fellow prisoners of the splendour and travail of the earth.’
Henry Beston (from The Outermost House: a year of life on the great beach of Cape Cod)
From an early age I was lucky enough as to be brought up with animals, both as family companions and as wild species whom I was taught to recognise, respect and learn about, and from. Our house was always filled with animals, whether chosen pets or wild animals in various states of injury and healing (both I and another sister had wounded animals brought to us from when we were quite young).It’s inconceivable to me to live one’s whole life without developing relationship with one or more animals. There’s a dislocation, a dissociation, happens in a society where humans form an isolated stratum in the eco-system, disconnected in any real way from our near-neighbours.
For a child, time spent looking after an animal is a natural and important way of learning compassion and empathy.
More, it seems to me that the measure of an enlightened culture is not just its treatment of other humans, but its treatment too of the animals from whom and with whom we’ve evolved. We have grown up as a species alongside (other) animals; and some, like dogs and horses, have been close companions to humans for thousands of years.
At an ancient and profound level our souls resonate with the animal kingdom, and we can learn much about our own species and this planet by learning from them and their (and our with-them) interrelationships. Spending time with the animal kingdom opens doorways we may have forgotten, and can restore a kind of meaning as we are reminded of our interconnectedness with them, and the whole great web of life. It’s through the animal kingdom too that we can start to reclaim our healthy instinctual nature.In shamanic cultures animals are recognised as spirit-guides, representing not only themselves but archetypal aspects of our human psyches too; they may well perform the role of soul-restoration.
Animals in vision and dream can be teachers. In shamanic practice, ‘meeting’ in the Otherworld of dream or vision a particular animal or type of animal three times is seen as significant, and the dreamer does well to find out all he or she can about the characteristics of that animal in order to see more deeply into his or her own psyche, and its messages and needs.
Animals can be healers: there’s much documented testimony to the power of pets to alleviate symptoms in humans, whether psychological or physical (though of course that’s a false dichotomy; my guess is that being around animals is restorative to the soul which in turn boosts the immune system). For myself, time out walking with the dog, time alongside horses, time watching the birds feeding in the courtyard is profoundly healing and uplifting; sometimes subtly, sometimes more obviously.
Today, with my poetry group here, over and over in my writing and the gaps between I returned to watching the birds, with their different characteristics: the woodpeckers flitting in – the youngster who hangs on the feeder motionless for ten minutes, digesting the nuts and preventing anyone else from arriving; the nuthatch with its insistent upside-down fierce pecking; noting the bluetits queuing up to sip drops of water from the forest of ice-spears on the quarry-face that walls one side of the courtyard, their comic acrobatics, their speed, their little tricolour faces and clockwork head-tilts; the little drab-shy dunnocks, hedge sparrows that are not actually sparrows at all but members of the ‘accentor’ family:
Watching all day
in the courtyard puddles
on their little stick-legs
playing ‘grandmother’s footsteps’
with the rain, with my gaze –
how big the world is,
And how wise it would be
to be in love with
As a child I was, and as an adult, too, I am entranced by those stories of animals who help each other, and help if needed humans, also, to survive: the stories of dolphins who raise drowning dolphins, and humans, to the surface to breathe; that video on YouTube of a small dog dodging traffic to pull its injured dog companion across a three-lane highway to safety; stories of dogs who trek hundreds of miles to find their human companion; those stories of children raised by gazelle, by wolves.
And how do we reward them? With captivity. With torture. With eating them. What we do to others we do, of course, to ourselves.
Our relationship to animals surely needs to change as we move towards meeting the spiritual, and material, demands of our time.
The transport of live food animals from Britain to Europe has started again. Calves just weeks old are shipped to Europe to be raised in the dark and have their throats slit for veal (darkness and bleeding to death makes the meat white). That is, if they’ve survived: far more often than one would like to hope they arrive broken-limbed or with dislocated hips from being dragged, pushed or dangled by one leg in being winched on and off planes or ships.
Geese are force-fed for paté de foie gras. Ducks are intensively-reared, and like hens de-beaked.
Pigs, these most intelligent of animals, are largely confined to tiny cages as breeding sows throughout the ‘developed’ world, where they literally go mad. Smuggled video cameras in abattoirs show pigs being kicked, punched; having cigarettes put out on their snouts.
Many if not most cows in the UK, hard though it is to believe, spend at least half their lives and sometimes all of them away from pastureland, close-confined in barns. (‘Grassfed’ doesn’t automatically mean outdoors; sometimes they are fed cut grass in intensive rearing units.) If the big corporations have their way, much more of this will happen in intensive mega-dairies.
Salmon are farmed, which means that their natural migrations simply don’t happen. In common with all farmed animals, quite apart from the misery, the intensive farming methods used, plus interference with their natural health and welfare means that disease is rife.Shark are de-finned live for the tables of the East, being thrown back into the water to die.Dolphins and whales of course are hunted for food.
Monkeys are, or were until recently if not any longer, served as ‘delicacies’ in Japanese restaurants where, live, they are penned by the necks and their brains eaten.And dancing bears, caged, live a life of utter misery with rings disfiguring the soft tissue of their noses, being beaten and electro-prodded to make them ‘dance’ for tourists.
Of course this raises questions about ‘right relationship’. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if we could restore animals to their rightful place, as respected co-habitees of this amazing planet – third in line from the sun, conditions just right for life as we know it; one degree hotter or one degree cooler and we wouldn’t even be here – alongside us? How would it be to ease back on the pedal, to consider how many lives are given to satisfy our appetites, and whether those appetites and therefore lives lost are truly necessary?
For me, I made the decision at 16 to become vegetarian. It was also consonant with my Buddhist practice, in which I’ve taken the precept of non-harming. (I knew, too, that if push came to shove I couldn’t actually kill an animal; if I could, maybe I’d feel better about eating it.)
For many years, though, I made my living as a shoemaker. This was part of a whole drive on my part to learn the basic skills of smallholding: growing, cooking, animal-husbandry, cheese-making, bread-making, wine-making, pottery, spinning, weaving, knitting, vegetable-dyeing, medicinal herbs, healing, woodcraft. And for many years I was aware of a deep-seated hypocrisy in myself regarding the use of animal products that involved taking an animal’s life (as opposed to, for instance, eating an egg from a sterile hen – yes they produce eggs even without a cockerel in the flock – or wool shorn from a living sheep). From time to time people challenged me on the leather use, and I’d respond, glibly, that I was using up the waste ‘you carnivores leave behind you’. But that was simply a pat answer. It is true that if one is going to take the life of an animal at all, one should perhaps use the whole of it, with gratitude. But I didn’t want to be involved in animal exploitation at all.
So then I was eating cheese and drinking milk (albeit organic, which at least guaranteed minimum welfare standards for the animals involved), both of which practices involve cow pregnancy and the killing of unwanted calves, and in any case almost all the male calves; and although many cheeses use vegetarian rennet to set the curd, many still use an enzyme from calves’ stomachs.
I’d always said that when my daughter left home (I’d brought her up vegetarian) I’d become a vegan. I didn’t. It took me ten years, until very recently, to take this logical next step, ethically speaking.
I couldn’t imagine giving up tea completely (I don’t have many addictions, but that’s a small one), and I couldn’t imagine enjoying tea without milk. To my utter astonishment, I actively liked the taste of the Co-op’s organic soya milk (and nothing’s perfect: there is still the question of both food miles and processed foods); and it only took a week or two before I started to actively dislike the taste of cow’s milk – too fatty, too animaly. (And it is, after all, made for calves – who wants bones like cows?? ‘We are what we eat…’)
Cheese has been much harder. I really miss it. I have found that for me the way forward is not to be utterly rigid. If I cut cheese out completely I crave it badly. My compromise has been that if I go out and there isn’t a vegan option I eat cheese; and on a poetry day where everyone brings food to share, I usually do, too. Allowing myself to do this has had the desired effect: I rarely want to; but when I do, I really enjoy it, without guilt. (UPDATE: there are two amazing vegan ‘cheeses’ now on the market, and both come in non-plastic packaging. One is Tyne Chease, and the other Mouse’s Favourite.)
I confess I do still eat some eggs. They have to be free range and ideally organic, and I prefer to buy them from flocks where I know there isn’t a cockerel.
I’m lucky that The Man is supportive. He’s been a vegetarian for many years, but relies very heavily on cheese, yoghurt and milk. We share the cooking, and he has adapted to cooking a vegan evening meal, topping his dairy levels up (big-time) at lunchtime. There are any number of really tasty vegan meals which many of us eat without thinking about it – veggie shepherd’s pie, many cous cous and rice dishes, paellas and risottos, veggie spag bol, soups and stews, pasta and sauce, salads, ratatouille, nut and veg roasts, corn on the cob – and on and on. We mostly make our own dishes up, based on what’s in the garden (leeks, potatoes, onions, garlic, purple sprouting broccoli, chard and errr quite a lot of cabbage). Yes, there’s an issue with both iron and B12 – dark green leafy veg, nuts and veggie red wine (some is ‘fined’ with bull’s blood) for the iron, Marmite, yeast flakes or another yeast extract for the B12.
And now I’ve run out of steam. I don’t want to proselytize; but if I say to you that we could feed the current population, globally, on a veggie diet that would use ten to fourteen times less land than on a meat one…?
And can I recommend the wise, beautiful and committed blog of fellow Buddhist and virtual friend, David Ashton, for his insightful and passionate responses to the eating (or not) of animals? http://davidmashton.blogspot.com/2011/06/mindful-blindness-rant-against.html
Also interesting is Jungian Jeff Howlin’s blog; this one is on animals and learning from them: