Learning to ride, falling down, getting back on
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I hesitate to take issue with the ponderings of an eloquent, and dead, cultural historian, but I would like to offer another point of view on Thomas Berry’s “profound interaction” with the meadow by his boyhood home [“The Meadow across the Creek,” September 2009].
Let’s imagine Berry is twelve in 2009, and his father moves the family from a “more settled part of a Southern town out to the edge of town,” where he builds a home on a hill next to a lovely, lily-filled meadow in which crickets sing. The father’s contractor topples trees, regrades the hill (plowing up lilies and crickets), and builds a three-thousand-square-foot home with a three-car garage. In the garage are two SUVs — one to get Dad to work in the town they just left; the other so Mom can drive the kids to soccer practice, also in the town they just left. The third stall is crammed with the riding lawn mower that’s needed to cut the half acre of grass that their irrigation system waters daily, and perhaps a couple of ATVs and snowmobiles, both essentials of country living. Flowing outward from this garage is a blacktop driveway the size of a city lot.
The young boy gazes from his home’s deck onto the meadow below, and the meadow becomes sacred to him and affects his feelings about “what is real and worthwhile” in this world.
Within a few years his dad is harping about the bumpy dirt road he must drive to get to the highway, and he lobbies the county to pave it. Then the real nightmare begins. The farmer who sold them the lot is now selling the meadow to a developer! The outraged father storms city hall, crying out in horror that others would allow “his” meadow to be desecrated this way.
Meanwhile those folks who stayed “in a world of concrete and steel, of wheels and wires,” who “no longer read the book of the universe,” often walk, ride the bus, or bike to work, shop at the corner market, live on a sixty-foot-wide lot or in a condo of twelve units per acre, and get to know their neighbors. They live in a manner that I diffidently call “indigenous.”
I’m one faithful reader who thinks The Sun is too inclined toward dread and despair, but Michelle Cacho-Negrete hits the right note with her essay “What You Think About” [September 2009]. She writes about her cancer but doesn’t give us the gory details. She tells us about her fear but also her strength. She describes the love of her family and friends and her appreciation for the world. In the end I felt, as she did, at peace with it all.
Janine Benyus has given me hope for our planet [“The Sincerest Form of Flattery,” interview by David Kupfer, September 2009]. Just knowing there are revolutionaries who think as she does is encouraging beyond belief.
I teach a college class called “The End of Oil,” and my students ooze relief when they encounter Janine Benyus’s idea of biomimicry: that sustainable technology modeled on nature will save us. As Benyus notes, human beings have been mimicking nature for our entire existence. But civilizations are not interested in mimicking nature’s systems or cycles, which always include a period of decline, hibernation, and death that leads to rejuvenation and growth. Civilizations by their very nature are terrified of decline, and all have attempted to halt it, whether it is the Aztecs desperately sacrificing slaves to their gods or Western civilization desperately drilling for fossil fuels as climate change threatens us with extinction.
Benyus’s work is important, because we all must do what we can. We must not be seduced, however, by quick fixes that allow us to continue on the same path.
Janine Benyus says, “Life operates on very small amounts of energy,” then goes on to give examples of efficient energy use by biological organisms. This is but a small part of the natural world, however. What about hurricanes, blizzards, thunderstorms, eruptions, tsunamis, and earthquakes? I knew a well driller who died from hitting natural gas while drilling for water. Nature is not as demure or efficient as Benyus claims. Our world has many wild, devastating bursts of energy. We can learn about function and design from these too.
I was bewildered and disturbed by Annette Hoff Danzer’s response [Correspondence, September 2009] to John Dear’s statements on vegetarianism [“What Jesus Would Do,” interview by John Malkin, June 2009]. She says, “Vegetarianism is a modern concept born from economic prosperity and our separation from agriculture and animal husbandry.” In fact, ancient Indian and Greek philosophers, and the Buddha himself, held that eating animals is wrong. If Danzer would like to go back even farther, she can flip open the Bible and read about Daniel, the vegetarian prophet.
In India 400 million people are currently vegetarians and follow a tradition of nonviolence that’s more than two thousand years old. They practice love and compassion toward all beings, despite their own economic vulnerability.
I have been a vegan for nineteen years and have never experienced “economic prosperity.” As a child I lived in poverty with my bohemian mother before spending nine years in various foster homes. At the age of eighteen, a year after I’d been emancipated from the foster-care system, I watched a documentary on PBS on the torture and cruelty that cows suffer to support humanity’s consumption of their flesh. I had never before thought about the source of the cow or chicken that lay dead and cooked on my plate. When I became a vegetarian, I was broke and starving, sustained only by an apple and popcorn each day. But at that moment my life became richer.
Carly Reitsma’s essay “Taking a Life” [September 2009], about a deer that was hit by a car, prompted me to recall the moments in my life when I was indifferent to the suffering of animals.
In high school I was responsible for the deaths of two mice during a science project that went awry. I sometimes showed an uncaring attitude toward the family cat growing up, and when we sent her to the vet to be euthanized because she was too old and sick to climb the stairs, I didn’t go along to comfort her. I mourn the pet rabbit my brother brought home from a friend’s house; my parents, deciding we couldn’t keep it, abandoned it to the elements.
I know my place on earth is not above that of my fellow creatures but right alongside them. If I find bugs in the house, I carry them outside. I trap mice humanely and turn them loose, and I drive slowly to try to avoid harming any animal.
I did run over a squirrel a few years back, though. Feeling it thump against the car’s underside, I pulled over and got out. It lay motionless in the street. Thinking I could give it a proper burial at my house, I gingerly picked up the squirrel and placed it in the trunk. When I opened the trunk at home, I was startled to find the squirrel alive. It practically flew at me in its eagerness to escape, then raced up a nearby tree, the only visible sign of injury an odd bend in its tail. I haven’t seen it since.
I was moved by Carly Reitsma’s description of how hard it was to kill an injured deer. Her compassion for that animal was beautiful. When I went to the Contributors page to find out what else she had written, I was surprised to learn that Reitsma fishes for brown bullheads.
Why does her deep caring about animals end at the shore? Each fish values its own life as much as any deer does — or any human, for that matter. Watching fish writhe and die when taken out of water was my first experience of compassion for nonhuman animals. I hope Reitsma will extend her circle of caring to include fish.
It is not that I do not feel compassion for fish. It is my deep caring for animals that inspires me to catch fish, raise and slaughter chickens, and grow vegetables using practices that do not harm the environment. This fall, for the first time, I will go deer hunting on my land. I know that it will not be easy for me to kill, if and when the time comes. It is never easy to take a life, even though death is a necessary part of living.
I choose to know that the animals I am feeding my family were not disrespected or forced to live in pain, unlike the majority of animals raised for food in America. Rather than become a vegetarian, I strive to be a part of this wild community, taking from it only what I need. In return I do all I can to protect this land and every creature on it.
Joe Wilkins’s tribute to ten of his father figures [“You, All of You,” September 2009] hit me right in the heart and reminded me again why I look forward to your magazine each month. I’m past my sixtieth birthday and have raised two sons, and I can tell Wilkins that the search for a father doesn’t end. We patch them in, these surrogate fathers. Sometimes it’s a good thing, and other times it makes more trouble for everyone. I haven’t found any wisdom in the search, only noticed how it plays out in my life.
I am an inmate, and a while ago I asked my uncle to get me a magazine subscription to something like Popular Mechanics or Car and Driver. Instead I got The Sun. I looked at my first issue for all of two minutes and decided I wasn’t interested.
A couple of months later I was transferred from San Quentin State Prison to Kern Valley State Prison. Due to overcrowding, I ended up in administrative segregation with nothing to do. So I picked up The Sun and actually started to read it. I have come to love it.
Before he sent me The Sun, my uncle ordered me a book — again not the one I’d asked for. I have since read it and love it, too. Coincidentally you had an excerpt from it in your January 2009 issue: Viktor E. Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning. I have come to the conclusion that my uncle might know better what I like than I do.