The kind you’re born with, the kind you choose, the kind that teach Catholic school
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Derrick Jensen’s “Of Coyotes and Conversations” [April 2001] reminded me of my first encounter with interspecies communication.
More than twenty-five years ago, my wife and I bought a hundred-year-old farmhouse in southwestern Wisconsin. We were warned by the sellers that a family of groundhogs had taken up residence underneath the house, and that the foundation would be severely damaged were the animals not chased out. Plenty of homespun remedies for the situation were suggested.
First, we were told to flood them out. So we stuck a hose down their burrow and let it run continuously for more than eight hours. The groundhogs were happily scurrying around the next day.
Next it was said the animals didn’t like loud noises. While gone for a week, we left a radio face down on the floor, blaring hard-rock music into their abode. A groundhog was casually sunning itself on a tree stump in front of the house when we returned.
Mothballs were offered as the ultimate answer: groundhogs couldn’t tolerate the odor. So we tossed, one by one, a sizable boxful into the main entrance of the burrow. The next morning, we awoke to find a perfectly constructed pyramid of mothballs stacked neatly in front of the entrance. It was as if the animals were saying: “Thank you for thinking of us, but we really have no use for these.”
We were so struck by the gracious civility of the gesture that we not only gave up any attempts to rid ourselves of the groundhogs, but came to the conclusion that peaceful coexistence with all the wildlife surrounding us was an absolute requirement for living in the country.
For their part, several generations of groundhogs lived another twenty years under the house with absolutely no damage to the foundation.
I’d like to thank Bill Motlong and Billy Ray Boyd for their letters. I loved Motlong’s story. These communications surround us each day, and I often wonder how frustrated the other inhabitants of the planet must become with our unwillingness to join the fun.
And of course I respect Boyd’s stance as a vegan, but I didn’t describe myself as a “meat eater.” I said I eat meat. I don’t derive identity from it. And I don’t pretend eating meat is a biological imperative. It’s a choice. So far as violence, I cannot speak to picking beans or berries, except to point out that these activities do not kill the plant. But I can say I believe a plant’s life is as precious and meaningful to it as an animal’s is to that creature, and mine is to me. And death will find us all no matter where we are.
Because I eat cows, I actively work to give cows better lives. I’m dedicated to eliminating the suffering and degradation of factory cattle farming. The same is true for chickens and, for that matter, turnips. I owe this same debt to the neighbors I don’t eat, but with whom I live in close relationship: I pay my rent to bears, redwood trees, and robins by trying to help their communities to thrive. I spend every moment of every day working toward shutting down a civilization that makes life unlivable for plants, animals, and humans alike.
Derrick Jensen’s essay on communication with nonhuman animals took me from my current vegan world back to my former one as a hunter. While I respect Jensen’s reasons for choosing personal killing over factory farming, I’m surprised that he describes himself as a “meat eater,” as if it were a biological fact rather than an ethical choice. Does he believe that in order to live well he has to kill nonhuman animals, overriding his heart’s impulse to do otherwise? Yes, plants are alive, and there’s no such thing as nonviolent living, but does Jensen feel in his gut that harvesting a hatful of beans is as violent as chopping through a chicken’s neck?