Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Everything eats and is eaten

So I'm reading this book called The Vegetarian Myth, by Lierre Keith. I picked this up because, although I do not tell people how to live their lives, I do take offense when people tell me they are a vegetarian because they don't want to be responsible for killing something. I am especially annoyed by this when it is a veterinarian who gives this reason, because, as veterinarians we are better accustomed to death than practically any other profession, and should have a foundational understanding of the circle of life. This book is written by a reformed vegetarian, who after nearly 20 years of destroying her body, finally did what most people don't do - research, and she had the courage, not to mention necessity, of changing her diet and basically her identity so that she might continue to live. I saw this book on the shelf and thought, finally, a book written for our side.

I urge everyone to step outside of your comfort zones, and accept that something you thought you believed to be true actually isn't true at all. 

One night a year ago or so, I was out with friends for dinner, and a few people I had just met. As we were ordering (steak), a girl who I had just met that evening said she was a vegetarian. Even though I should have been polite and said nothing, I immediately began questioning her as to why she would deprive her body of essential nutrients and protein. She told me it disgusted her to think of 'eating anything with a face.' She then proceeded to order crab cakes. This enraged me even further as I asked her if she thought crabs didn't have faces, or were they just not cute enough to bother with refraining from eating, or was she just that stupid that she didn't realize fish were in fact animals. At this point my husband was frantically poking me in the leg to shut me up.

I'm not a vegetarian, obviously, nor am I a carnivore. I am strictly omnivorous, as humans were meant to be. I almost stuck in "as I believe" in there, but left it out because its not just what I believe. Its the truth. Anyone who has studied anatomy can see that humans share characteristics with other omnivores, in fact we most closely resemble pigs. Oh, the irony gets me every time. I won't detail it here, if you don't believe me take a comparative anatomy course or, read this book.

The passage that struck me the most said that everything needs to eat to live and is eventually eaten. The earth is alive. The soil is living and contains millions of microbes and tiny species of protozoa, fungi, and God knows what else. These things eat to live. Plants are alive, they eat to live. They eat what is in the soil. What is in the soil? The vitamins, minerals, and proteins that were released from dead and decaying matter. Not just plant matter either, animal matter. Flesh. Bones. Excrement. Animals and humans are alive, they eat to live. We eat plants, animals, and are eaten by plants and animals. When we die, we return to earth. And, everything dies. EVERYTHING DIES!!! You can try your hardest to avoid Death, but it will catch up with you in the end. Humans have this vice, or disillusion, I am not quite sure what it is exactly, for wanting and expecting everything to live forever. Get over it! Death is a part of life. In the movie The Jungle Book, which I have not seen in years, one line sticks out as utter truth and I will remember it forever. A person gets devoured alive by quicksand in the jungle. Cary Elwes (great actor) stares calmly at the place where he disappeared and coldly says: Such is Life.

The world cannot exist without both the hunters and the hunted. Both are essential to the balance of life. Just look at Fraggle Rock. In one episode, Mokey, the hippie mother fraggle, decides that the Fraggles are being mean and evil by constantly eating the Doozer's contructions and forcing them to build more. While the Fraggles refrain from eating the tasty buildings, everyone runs out of space while the Doozers build and build until they can build no more. Then they become sad because they will have to leave their home because they have no space left to do what they were meant to do. Finally, the Fraggles realize this and eat all the Doozer's constructions. Everyone is happy again.

Ok that might be a very simplified explanation based on a children's tv show, but the premise is true. One cannot exist without the other. Remove the carnivores, and the herbivores will produce more herbivores while consuming a very limited supply of food, and eventually they will run out of food and starve to death. Remove the herbivores, and the carnivores will eat each other until the last ones eventually starve to death. And, Lierre Keith says this is exactly what is going to happen to humans. We have far outgrown our planet.

Eating a diet of only plants is not sustainable, nor does it actually fall within the perimeter of vegetarianism. Yup, that's right. Animals are still dying for your cause. Whether its the rabbit that gets caught up in the combine that is collecting your grains, or the multitude of species that were driven out of their natural habitats to make way for your grains, or beans, or whatever, something died for you to live. You are still consuming animal products, albeit transformed by plants. Monocultures of grains rob the earth of essential nutrients and destroy topsoil. We must replace the nutrients lost otherwise our plants will not grow. These come from fertilizers (either animal based or made from fossil fuels).

There is a war going on in this country. It is a war against agriculture. Here is where I needed to step outside of my comfort zone. Lierre Keith asserts that agriculture created wealth and poverty, an idea not just her own. Agriculture created civilization, the ability of people to live in close proximity in cities, with no means of growing their own food. But in trying to provide food for everyone (which is impossible given the current growing world population), the prairies and savannahs were destroyed to make way for crops, and factory farms evolved. Both destroy the land. Keith promotes the use of polyculture, the use of land for a multitude of plants and animals that can support in its entirety everything one needs. She does admit though, that this solution is impractical given the current industrialized age, and without offering any alternatives. She wants us to eat only food that is grown locally. I disagree slightly; I think that we should choose to buy locally grown foods over the SAME foods grown far away and shipped, but I think its completely fine and even good to buy foods and spices that cannot be grown locally or that come from distant cultures.

There are several other bits I wanted to mention but as this is getting really long, I won't. I have neglected to address the rage-ful, feminist, anti-patriarchal, anti-USA, zero population growth agendas of this book because I don't feel they add anything to the argument. This book is by no means a perfect manifesto, there are several places which scream flawed research and theory is presented as fact, not to mention the sneaky animal rights undertone. A valuable lesson I learned through 22 years of being in school is to critically evaluate everything I read. Most recent books that I have read of which the subject is food have been promoting a specific agenda, and rarely present both sides without bias.  I don't suggest anyone read ONE book and change their life because of it; rather read and critically evaluate everything you can find on the subject and then take your stance. Respect life, take only what you need to live. Create as little waste as possible. Everything eats and everything dies. And it's OK.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Crow Planet

Crow Planet: Essential Wisdom from the Urban Wilderness, by Lyanda Lynn Haupt, is a book written about the interconnectedness of life, of humans with nature. A bird lover and author of two other books involving mostly songbirds, Haupt was asked to write a book about crows by her publisher, and she reluctantly agreed. What follows is a book incorporating science, nature, anecdote, philosophy, etymology, ecology, history, and current environmental concerns.

Most people seem to have very strong opinions regarding crows, whether they hate them or love them or just think they're strange. As Haupt says, everyone has a crow story. The first crow I ever saw up close had been brought into the clinic (at this point I can't remember why) where I worked in Pennsylvania. It was young, shiny black, soft as a rabbit, and when I looked it in the eye, it looked right through me. It sat, afraid but calm, while its sharp black eyes were taking in everything in its surroundings. I was taken aback by the clear intelligence of this bird. Everytime I think of a crow, I am reminded of the line from Jurassic Park when Muldoon is describing the velociraptors: "When she looks at you, you can tell she's working things out."  Haupt describes several attributes of crows and relays anecdotes about their playful, intelligent, advanced behavior.  We think of crows as common birds, and probably there isn't anybody who hasn't seen a crow. But the way they interact with their world is uncommon. While we have managed to shut out many native species from our cities, crows are there. Not just surviving either, actually thriving. They adapt, and do it well, probably better than most humans.

I bought this book to read about crows. But what I ended up reading is an exploration of the definition of nature and the place of humans within. We like to draw lines, and say nature begins here. Nature doesn't belong in my house. When insects or wild animals are found in our houses or our developments, we say that doesn't belong there! Crows, however, follow us everywhere. The crow population is the largest it has ever been, and so is the human population. In an ever changing and shrinking world, crows have adapted to live alongside us.  They are a constant reminder that nature isn't out there, its here. Right here.

One of the author's main points is that humans are a part of nature. We are a part of it right in our homes, cars, backyards, cities, and everywhere we are. We affect nature and live in it in our daily every day lives. She says "...the most essential things we can do for the deeply wild earth have to do with how we eat, how we drive, where we walk and how we choose every moment of our quotidian urban lives." And she's right. If we think of Nature as being here, not out there, it changes how we interact with our immediate environment. And how we interact with our immediate environment affects and translates how we interact with our greater environment. We are interconnected with everything. Let the crows remind you.

"We are connected by the ways we choose, consume, and share water, food shelter, and air - just like all the other animals." 

The interconnectedness of life is a theme that is common to the other book I [ironically] happened to buy at the same time as this one, The Vegetarian Myth. I can't wait to tackle this in my next post.

Lyanda Lynn Haupt has a blog, The Tangled Nest, if you would like to follow her work.

Crows are fascinating, and if you want to learn more, go out and watch some crows. But do not let them know that you are watching, for they will likely scold you and fly away.

I would love to hear your crow story. Please share below. :)

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Traveling Woes

Thursday June 9. It was time to travel to Ohio one last time for my Senior send-off party and Oath and Hooding Ceremony (graduation from vet school). We left at 8:30 am for the airport, and were through security and at the gate by 8:45. Yeah, its a ridiculously small airport. Waiting for our flight to leave at 9:44, we were told there would be a delay because of ‘weather.’ Note: This theme will be repeated. I looked outside and checked the weather channel on my phone. Nope, no bad weather noted anywhere from Burbank to San Francisco. I don’t know where  the plane was coming from, but as it was a little puddle jumper of a plane, it can’t have been too far. There was no bad weather in sight.

We managed to get off the ground with not too much trouble and landed in San Francisco without a hitch. SFO is one of the nicer airports in the country. There are lots of good eateries, bookstores, high end clothing stores, museum exhibits to look at, and a spectacular view of the mountains. While waiting for our next flight, we made our way into one of the bookstores. For an airport bookstore it was actually pretty substantial and even had sections for different types of books like a normal size bookstore. As usual, I made my way over to the Nature section. Now, I had been avoiding bookstores for a few months because I already have several books that I haven’t read, and as you may know I have a major book buying compulsive disorder. So now that I was finally in a bookstore, a decent one too, I started obsessively looking at books and making a (mental) pile of books I needed to buy.

Greg walked over to me after about 15 minutes with a book. A book? My husband doesn’t read very much. But when he does, its never easy reading. He had Aldous Huxley’s Island. I said, “Are you sure you’re going to read that?” He goes “Yeah.” He’s a little pretentious when it comes to books. So I said fine, not mentioning that there’s a reason why I only read Brave New World once every 10 years or so. He asked what I was getting. I was holding a book called The Vegetarian Myth and had my eye on a another called Crow Planet. I mention this here because these two books turned out to be fascinating and I will be discussing them in future posts, as the subjects involve and are important for us all.

Anyway, we leave SFO for …. Chicago O’Hare. The Worst Airport In The World. I have good reason for saying this because I don’t think I have gone through O’Hare even one time without having a delay, cancellation, too short of a connection time, or without once having to run under the tarmac at top speed only to get to my gate and find my flight has been delayed. It would be a decent enough airport otherwise… lots of food and things to keep your mind occupied. We got off the plane and looked at the Departure board and found our flight to Columbus had been cancelled. Not just delayed, actually cancelled due to ‘weather.’  I’m not surprised since it is good old ORD and something was bound to go wrong. So we start walking, not in bad spirits, down to customer service. We’re walking, not paying much attention, when I notice that we are passing a massive line of people. Turns out our flight wasn’t the only one cancelled.

Eventually we manage to get booked on a flight the following afternoon at 130 to Cincinnati. There was next to no chance that we’d be able to get into Columbus, so this was the next best thing. We’d be cutting it close, since the flight would land at 300, then it would take two hours to drive to Columbus, and the party was that night at 630. I called my mom to update her on the plans, and she said the weather was fine in Columbus. In fact, it had been perfectly sunny and calm all day. ??????  It was not raining in Chicago either. There were low clouds, which apparently can have giant balls of lightening stuck inside. But, there were other flights leaving. One left for Washington DC from our original departure gate, as we were standing there. At this point I started feeling like United is my abusive ex-lover who I get away from sometimes and things work out ok, but for some reason I always end up going back and having the crap beaten out of me. Sigh, I will never understand.

The next day, having nothing else to do, we went back to the airport after breakfast and got in a shorter customer service line to see if there were any earlier flights to Columbus or Cincinnati. We got to the desk at around 10 am. There was a nice woman who told us a flight was leaving for Cincinnati at 10:20, but it was delayed. She put us on stand-by and said she was pretty sure we were going to get on, and anyway, she said, our other flight was already delayed even though it wasn’t supposed to leave for 3 more hours AND there was no sign of bad weather!  These people kill me. So we run from B terminal to F terminal and rush up to the desk with our stand-by tickets, and the attendant says, “Oh don’t worry you have time, our plane hasn’t even landed yet.” Oh. Well that would have been nice to know before we ran through half the airport. The plane lands, and she calls us up and gives us actual tickets with real seats. Then she walks over to the podium and says, “Ladies and gentlemen traveling to Cincinnati, your chances of getting to your destination have greatly…. improved! We have an aircraft, we have a crew, and we have a departure time.”  Woohoo!!! I checked the weather channel app again, no green rainclouds in sight. We make it onto the plane, defy gravity for the third time on this trip, and...

Get diverted to Indianapolis because a storm materialized over Cincinnati. At this point I began laughing. I called my mom again and she said, “I hear laughter, that must be a good thing.” No, no, it is insane laughter. Greg’s parents were waiting to pick us up in Cincinnati, where they said it was not raining!  Indianapolis is a 3 hour drive to Columbus. But they wouldn’t let anyone off the plane. Other people were beginning to freak out, probably because they were also trying to get to Columbus for graduation weekend. But they wanted to have an immediate departure if the ‘storm’ moved past Cincinnati. Which it did. We took off again and finally landed in the Cincinnati airport, which is actually on the Kentucky side of the river, then had to go around Cincinnati because of construction, and finally made it to the hotel at 530.

Six cities, four states, 30 hours later…..

To Be Continued.