Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Facing the Hunter

To nonvegans, a vegan diet typically sounds like the culinary equivalent of a medieval hair shirt or a masochistic vow of chastity. 

"You can't even drink milk or eat eggs???" (It's always framed as "can't," as if we're doing penance or have joined some fundamentalist religion*). 

No, we can't - I mean won't. But the surprising thing is how bloody great (no pun intended) a vegan diet can be, even for a guy like myself who a) loves to eat, b) loves almost all animal foods and would happilly eat them if they grew on trees, and c) mostly eats his own cooking (I have no training, I don't follow recipes). Thirteen years on, my enjoyment of my vegan diet just keeps getting better as I explore more and more vegetables and other plant-based foods, not to mention the ever-improving variety of faux animal products. 

But I digress.

At least hypothetically, a vegan like myself could at some point in his life be faced with the choice of eating meat or starving, or becoming seriously ill. This is not so hypothetical for me. Were it not for the supplement L-carnitine - a nonessential nutrient mostly found in red meat, but easily produced from other dietary nutrients by most vegetarians, but not me - I'm quite sure I would be a basket case. That is what I start to become - a human rag doll - every time I stop taking the supplement. 

But what would I do if there were no carnitine supplements and no one, not even the best vegan dietitians and doctors in the world, could keep me vegan and healthy? What to do if I crash-landed in the Arctic Circle, in a post-Apocalyptic world, and all I could eat was seal? 

First, there's a possibility that my conscience would stop me from doing it, especially if I continue to have no dependents (beyond a couple of adoptable cats) and to continue not getting any younger. Why am I more important, more worthy of life, than the many** animals who would eventually die to sustain me for the rest of my life? 

But more likely I would bite the bullet and do what I must to survive, at the expense of other lives. After all, I - and all other vegans - do already. Even our food is come by at the expense of many mice, rabbits, lizards and other field animals where the crops that feed us grow (but not nearly as many, it must be emphasized, as are killed to produce an omnivorous diet). The inescapable reality is that we all leave a footprint of animal death and suffering. Rational veganism means avoiding or minimizing as much of that harm as we possibly can. 

So if I couldn't survive or be healthy without eating meat, where would I get it? 

My first go-to choice would be meat from the most humanely treated animals available (in this thought experiment we're imagining that animal byproducts like milk and eggs, as well as fish and seafood, are unavailable or won't suffice). I've been to small humane-oriented farms near where I live where the animals, to all appearances and based on my trust of the farmers (fellow travellers in the war against factory farms), have a really good life - a life worth living, as the expression goes. Most of them are killed young (that's the nature of commercial meat production in today's world) and typically in small slaughterhouses where humane handling may not be a sure thing (the big slaughter plants often are caught in the act of abusing animals, whether deliberately or as a byproduct of their relentless high-speed disassembly practices). Still, this is a distinctly lesser evil for anyone who must eat meat. 

But there's another option I would find comparably acceptable: the meat from hunted animals. Not just any animals hunted by anyone with a rifle. But if someone like Canadian author David Adams Richards does the hunting (or even me, having learned to do it his way), I could accept that too as a distinctly lesser evil. 

A couple years ago I was asked by the Winnipeg Free Press to review a small book - an extended autobiographical essay, really - in which Richards' makes a case for his traditional brand of hunting, the kind, he says, practised by all the respectable hunters in his native rural New Brunswick. Here it is. Judge for yourself. 

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition October 22, 2011 J9
You have to hunt for Richards' message
Reviewed by Syd Baumel

Facing the Hunter

Reflections on a Misunderstood Way of Life

By David Adams Richards

Doubleday Canada, 224 pages, $30

Unless you're an avid reader of the author's Governor General's Award-winning fiction, it's not until the very last sentence that you learn where his title comes from. It's an enigmatic choice.

But then this is an enigmatic piece of non-fiction. In this era of animal activism and embattled Atlantic sealers, one might expect a spirited intellectual defence by the New Brunswick-bred David Adams Richards of his beloved yet "misunderstood way of life."

But there's little of that in this slim volume, and what there is is personal and repetitious.

Rather, this is a defence by storytelling: story after New Brunswick hunting story, as if told to mates around a campfire in a rambling stream of consciousness.

This vivid immersion in Richards' woodland passion does rub off, assuming you're game to wade through thickets of hunter-speak.

Even a vegan if compelled to eat meat to survive might prefer the conscientious way of hunting practised by Richards and the hunters he respects to stalking factory-farmed animal parts at the supermarket.

It's a hunt, Richards insists, that takes no pleasure in taking life; that would rather miss bagging that elusive 20-point buck if it might turn out to be the female of the species with dependent young or if that risky long shot might wound without killing, condemning the prey to a slow and painful death.

It's a hunter's code that commits to "hunting the wounded down" (to quote a title of a Richards novel) even if it takes days, so the animal doesn't suffer and the meat isn't wasted.

Richards' problem -- and he's wounded and dangerous about it -- is that ignorant city-slickers, including fellow literati, look at conscientious hunters like himself and see a stereotype: the redneck taking potshots between swigs of beer, the trophy hunter with a heart of stone. But Richards despises hunters like these and tells a few stories at their expense.

Poor man: it's as if urban cultural warriors are preying on endangered woodland sportsmen.

But Richards doesn't draw that ironic parallel. Indeed, there's little facing of the hunter in the mirror here.

Not even when recalling his earliest boyhood kills does Richards describe his emotions when sighting his prey, pulling the trigger and watching an innocent die by his hand.

There is only a parenthetic aside where he confesses to once killing a doe: "I never felt good about it, and I mention it because I never felt good about it." Instead, it's always fast-forward to "dressing" (cutting and gutting) the prey or tracking it, if wounded.

But this is glossed over, too. Not a word about what it's like to finish off a gasping deer, not a whiff of ripped open belly and steaming entrails or the pathos of a great carcass hauled from its woodland home.

But Richards does face the supermarket hunter -- with relish. Three times he throws down the gauntlet: "those who eat meat should be morally obligated to kill at least once in their lives that which they eat."

He doesn't mean fire a captive bolt into the skull of a cow or pig, hoist its unconscious body, slash its throat, bleed it, saw and chop it.

Nor does he suggest that urban meat-eaters (like Richards himself, a 60-year-old Torontonian now, he thinks his hunting days may be over) be morally obligated to witness how their shrink-wrapped prey are raised (the battery cages, the sow stalls, the feedlots) and shipped to slaughter (the densely crowded truck rides without food, water, heat or AC, sometimes lasting days, sometimes deadly in themselves).

But that kind of reality check might be too disturbing even for a hunter to face.

Winnipeg writer and editor Syd Baumel is the creator of eatkind.net and a vegan hunter of faux meats.

*Okay. You got me. For some people veganism is like a fundamentalist religion.
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