There was indeed one very important lesson I learned on that retreat, and it is one that I continue to keep close to my heart. Our first day out, a lone porcupine had the misfortune of being spotted by a fellow student. To make this part of the story short, we hunted, killed, butchered, and ate the porcupine (who we posthumously named Penelope). Now, I didn't kill Penelope myself, and I didn't butcher her myself, but I watched all of that happen, and I ate her. I was an accessory to her murder, and in my opinion, just as guilty of it as the ones who did the deed.
Before that retreat I had long toyed with the idea of becoming a vegetarian, and considered endlessly the ethics of eating animals. I always wondered if I could stand to kill and butcher an animal, and whether or not I was a hypocrite for eating meat while being so far removed from that process. Intellectually, I knew all about the circle of life; there was even a whole song about it in "The Lion King." Animals eat other animals to survive, and in the end, everyone becomes compost. That's just how nature works. I also knew that humans are, essentially, animals, and we've eaten (and been eaten by) them for as long as we've been around. Yet my experience with Penelope tore all of those ideas from the realm of the theoretical. Being an active participant in that cycle made me face it as a reality.
As difficult and uncomfortable as the retreat was physically, the experience with Penelope was by far the hardest part of it to deal with. To this day, it remains one of the most difficult trials I've ever faced. I wondered how I, a self-professed animal lover, could possibly justify participating in such a thing. But it was cold, I was hungry, and I wanted to survive. In the end, Penelope taught me what it means to take a life to sustain my own. Her memory serves as a constant reminder that I am as much a part of that cycle as she was, along with the worms, the wolves, everything.
Vegetarians and vegans often say that our intellect and conscience gives us the ability (or obligation, according to some) to choose not to eat animals or animal products. While I do deeply respect and admire the decision to not eat animals, I personally feel that that decision would remove me from an important natural order. As modern people, many aspects of our lives are so far removed from nature already. Eating food, regardless of whether or not you are a vegetarian, is too often a thoughtless task, taken for granted. In the end, my conclusion was that it's not about not eating animals, but about honoring their lives and their sacrifice. It's about making sure that the lives we take are treated with dignity and respect while they are here. Being mindful of where my food comes from became the more meaningful choice for me.
While I could go on, I hate being long-winded in my posts. Instead, I'll simply recommend that you read two great articles that better express the ethics of food: "My Vegetarian Adventure" and "Beyond Halal."
|In memory of Penelope.|
May the gods grant you a good afterlife, and a swift return to this one.