Looking at Death

We spent Thanksgiving with our parents this year.  Weretoad’s mother visited us and we all went down to my parents’.  Weretoad and I brought the tofurky.  I cooked it in a crock pot surrounded by sweet potatoes and carrots.  Oh my Gods, it was delicious!  We don’t eat many processed faux meats.  We tend to stick with straight beans or homemade bean patties.  When I’m feeling a bit lazy, or when Thanksgiving rolls around, Tofurky is relatively guilt free.  While it’s still a processed product, it’s not made from genetically modified or non-organic soy.  I feel pretty good about eating it. 

I’ve been learning more about Buddhism recently.  I don’t know why, but my interest in it has increased.  There are obvious differences between it and modern Druidism, but there are also similarities.  It fascinates me, especially in regards to compassion.  There is a story about The Buddha attending a planting festival.  Instead of watching the dancers, he focused on the bugs and their eggs.  He thought about how the people digging into the soil had to disturb them, possibly kill them, in order to grow their crops.  This event is said to have helped inspire his philosophy on compassion.  This, in turn, inspired many Buddhists to adopt a vegetarian lifestyle.  I’ve been thinking a lot about this recently.  No matter how hard I try to be compassionate towards the natural world, I can only do so much without killing myself.  Even the most dedicated fruititarian will inevitably harm one creature, if only through the cultivation of vegetable matter to consume.  Some may look at this and say, “Well then why give up meat?  You cannot escape the circle of life entirely.  You might as well embrace it.”  The thing is, I’m not trying to escape the cycles of nature – I am still a part of them but in a different why than a meat eater.  I experience the cycles differently now that I try not to consume the flesh of my fellow brother and sister animals.  I do what I can  – I seek a balance. There must be a balance of compassion for the Nature Spirits and ourselves.  That balance will be different for each of us depending on the lessons we need to learn and the diet our bodies need.  We should not punish our bodies.  Even The Buddha recognized that killing our bodies for spiritual goals was not healthy.  Everything must be balanced.

We have entered to season of death.  Our ancestors culled the herds and this tradition continues to this day with hunting season.  Since moving to the North Country, I have seen more deer hanging from trees in front of homes.  Every time I see one, I think of Odin hanging from the World Tree, starring down at the roots, seeking wisdom.  I wonder where the deers’ souls have ventured as the blood drains from their bodies.  I marvel that the corvid family is not there to taste their flesh.  As the nights grow colder and hunters work to stock their freezers, I’ve seen them peel the flesh from the deer.  I’ve seen the gleaming muscles and tendons revealed.  Weretoad looks away.  He has his reasons and I respect them.  I stare.  I find myself fascinated with the process.  I feel for the deer, but there is something fundamentally more sacred about the relationship between the hunter and the hunted than the shopper and the package of meat. I think of that as I stare.   That is not to say that I don’t respect the people buying locally farmed and butchered animals – that is also better than buying factory farmed meat.  But one must admit – when it is you hunting/raising, killing, and then skinning the animal…  you enter an intimate dance with the forces of life and death.  It is more than simply being in touch with the land and the agricultural cycles – you are getting in touch with the real essence of mortality. Some of this may be my romanticized, Paganized, outsider perspective, but have talked to people who hunt or raise their own food – some of whom are very close friends and family – I am not alone in thinking these things.

It seems obvious, but there is a difference between killing a plant and an animal.  The only difference is that we can relate more to the animal because of its similarities to us.  I stop and stare at the gutted, dripping, shimmering corpses.  They are like me.  That could be me.  I am reminded of Ricky Fitts from “American Beauty” and his facination with dead people and animals.  When asked why he films them, he says, “It’s like God’s looking right at you, just for a second, and if you’re careful… you can look right back.”  He admits to seeing beauty in what is otherwise uncomfortable and grotesque.  I still feel uncomfortable, but I look anyway and try to feel what the hunter might have felt (if he was the respectful sort like my soon to be brother-in-law).

I read a blog entry recently about what is arguably the most humane way to kill a turkey.  The author described the event, how the animal’s brain died before its body.  The convulsions made a woman who had never seen this cry and feel for the animal.  Even the author admitted to always feeling something of pity for the creature.  He explained that being there to witness the death of the animal is the price a human should pay for eating it.  To eat the fruit of death, a human must pay the price of being reminded of his or her own mortality.  It was a fascinating perspective, and one perfectly in-line with Druidism’ belief in a gift calls for a gift or sacrifice. 

I think that is why I stare.  I don’t experience that exchange as vividly in my garden.  If I kill anything as I till or dig, I do not see it.  I move anything large enough to see.  I experience the death of flesh distantly, but I still feel I must somehow experience it and whisper soft prayers for the departed.  I must be reminded of my own mortality – not through animal activist videos – but through the vivid dance of the hunter and the deer.

In some ways, I suppose I stare for the same reason I stare in awe at the multitudes of stars at night.  I like to be reminded of how small I really am.  For some reason, that feeling is like a hug. 

Gods bless the deer and other game who have fed the multitudes this season.  May you run wild in the Other World!

( For My LJ Friends: http://adfcatprints.blogspot.com/ )

Published by M. A. Phillips

An author and Druid living in Northern NY.

4 thoughts on “Looking at Death

  1. What a thoughtful, well-written post. It's good to hear a vegetarian's point of view when it comes to the rest of us omnivores ;)I agree that "a gift for a gift" is a rule that must be respected. I always thank the creature(s) that gave of themselves that me and mine might be sustained, knowing that one day my turn to give will come. I grew up in a deer-hunting family, and remember the stink as an uncle accidentally got into the bowels while gutting his deer. I have not yet shot a deer myself, but I've hunted, and been there for the cleaning and butchering and cooking and eating that comes after. also, thank you for not being one of those who totally condemns those of us who do choose to eat meat. If a balanced approach is what you seek, I think you're on the right path.

  2. Thanks Lhinelle. I actually showed this post to two family members before posting because they hunt and I didn't want to sound offensive. They were pleased with my thoughts, but they are also the sort to thank the animals they shoot – and they are Christian! Great people with big hearts. I know that I'm not the average vegetarian. I wasn't always so accepting of hunting. When I was younger, and less aware of the difference between hunting and factory farms, I was very judgmental of my family of hunters. It wasn't until I saw my father handle a deer hide. He was so gentle with it and spoke of the deer respectfully. This understanding grew as I heard hunters lament finding wounded animals, injured by inept hunters, who died slowly. There was a care and mutual respect. I realized hunters weren't all sadistic. Many vegetarians will still feel offended by it and would probably look down their noses at me for my tolerance!

  3. well, they're just lucky they live in a society where it's possible to pick what you eat. Not only that, but they can have a sound diet year-round thanks to modern agriculture, the whole grocery store/importation system, and the rise of 'fake-meat' and veggie-friendly options in some parts of the country. The snooty types should also realize the kind of impacts caused by modern agri-business as well, what with the widespread use of chemical fertilizers, pesticides, heavy water use, fossil fuels used in shipping in the seed and shipping out grain or fruit or veggies… we're all in this together, guys.

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