Learning to ride, falling down, getting back on
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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.
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?
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.
I want to offer my sincere thanks to the anonymous prisoner for his letter [Correspondence, March 2001] regarding Derrick Jensen’s interview with Bo Lozoff [“Getting Free,” December 2000]. The letter writer’s personal observations on what it’s like to “do time” stirred a number of intense thoughts and feelings.
I have spent more than twenty-five years in prisons and jails, so I know that profound atrocities and injustices are an integral part of the incarceration experience. But, certainly, the same can be said of the lives of some “free” people: women who’ve been raped and brutalized, or those who have been victimized because of their skin color.
“There is nothing more decidedly real than a cell,” the letter writer says, but would he say that to a quadriplegic? To a terminal cancer patient filled with regrets and uncertainties? To those who are living with the reality of war and starvation? Prison is not paradise, but neither is Pittsburgh nor Paraguay. I have no doubt that people have experienced atrocities and injustices in those places of such magnitude that they would gladly lock themselves in a five-by-nine-foot cell to escape them.
The prisoner says that a cell is not an appropriate place for the discussion of transcendence. But if a cell is a place of suffering, and transcendence is about overcoming suffering, then what better place to explore this concept? Is it more appropriate to look for a way out of hell when one is in heaven? Too many times, I and other prisoners have said, “When I get out, everything is going to be good. All my problems will be left behind” — as if a change in zip code will predicate a change in awareness. If we are not able to understand ourselves in a cell, getting a new address won’t change anything. A cell contains just as much sensory and spiritual experience as the most opulent mansion.
Many “free” people who are searching would be overjoyed to have the kind of time we prisoners do for study, discussion, meditation, prayer, physical exercise, and service. Life in here can have a richness that would be difficult to equal in “normal life.” If we see this life as a wonderous journey of mystery and paradox and opportunity, it will be. The way we make prison more tolerable is by making ourselves more tolerable, understanding, and appreciative.
Regarding the prisoner’s statement about spiritual practice making one a “target” in these places: I have yet to see or hear of someone who is genuine in his faith becoming a victim of anything more damaging than an assault on the ego. This is not to say it doesn’t happen, but I would be surprised to learn that people in prison are victimized more severely because of their spiritual beliefs than those in the “free” world. And if our faith is strong, though we may be victimized because of our convictions, we will not perceive ourselves to be victims.
I applaud Stephanie Mills [“The One Who Steals the Fat,” January 2001 ] for her courage in confronting the issue of overpopulation head on. “One of the most obvious . . . ways to rein in consumerism,” she dares to say, “is to refrain from bringing more consumers into existence.” Too many environmentalists, though knowledgeable and articulate, underemphasize this point, suggesting that overpopulation is one of many environmental problems we face. It is clear to me that overpopulation is the root of all the environmental degradation on earth.
Each person requires a certain minimum amount of food, shelter, clothing, and fuel. The more people we have, the more natural resources we use. Extracting resources damages the environment, and there is a limit to the amount of damage the earth can sustain. We may, in fact, have already exceeded that limit. As Kathleen Dean Moore says [“A Weakened World Cannot Forgive Us,” March 2001 ], “When the earth is whole, it is resilient. But when it is damaged too severely, its power to heal itself seeps away.” Let us hope it is not too late.
All environmental problems — including species extinction, oil spills, urban sprawl, water shortages, air and water pollution, waste disposal, global warming, and even road rage — can eventually be traced back to too many people wanting and needing too many things. It will not do to speak of conservation and fuel efficiency as if these alone will save the planet. They are, at best, only stopgap measures. We must limit the number of children we bring into the world.
I recently renewed my subscription to The Sun after a break of about a year, and the magazine is just as I remember it: a heavy weight on my psyche. How can I live today as I lived yesterday when I know so much more about the destruction of the earth? I can’t. I can’t even stop myself from injecting my concerns into conversations: “Yes, I did have a nice weekend, except for the fact that my drive up to Point Reyes hastened the depletion of the earth’s oil reserves, bringing our car culture one step closer to full-scale collapse. And how was your weekend?”
The Sun undeniably presses down on me. Still, I think it’s better to know than not to know.
I am a fifty-eight-year-old white male physician. I’m also a conservative Republican. So why do I enjoy reading The Sun, a liberal rag written largely by a bunch of losers? Who can say? But I do.