You never forget your first kill. Mine happened on a desolate stretch of backcountry gravel road several miles outside of a tiny town in Utah that nobody has ever heard of. I remember the day clearly; it is permanently etched into my memory like a hot ember on the back of my eyelids. It was mid-March in the desert, which means stifling hot days and bitter cold nights. The sun was high in the sky and there was a slight haze which tinted the landscape in hues of red and orange, an appropriate palette for the scenario which was to soon unfold. The wind was unusually strong that day, blowing tumbleweeds and clouds of dust across the barren and desolate terrain and kicking up dust-devils, or Chindi. According to the indigenous Diné peoples of this area, Chindi are the spirits of departed peoples, and they carry either positive or malicious messages, based on the direction they are spinning. Some, if sent by a witch, are messengers of death or sickness. Since it is hard to determine the intention or direction of a Chindi, it is best to just avoid them at all costs.
My first sign that something important was going to happen that day came in the form of a Chindi that blew right over my sleeping bag as I woke up that frosty morning in the desert. As I didn’t have time to look at which direction it was spinning or sense its intention, I tried to ignore it and move on with my day, which consisted of a lot of driving around back roads and transporting some supplies for my employer. I had already been driving and doing errands for several hours that day when I thought I saw out of the corner of my eye a large form lying on the side of the road. I didn’t pay much attention to it the first time I drove by, as I was distracted with the wind and the radio. I drove by about an hour later and saw the form again. It looked like a young woman. This time, I pulled the truck over and got out to see what had happened.
She was young, attractive and thin, with striking brown eyes and light brown hair. She was lying on the side of the road quietly, not moving as I walked up to her. I gently asked her, “Hey, are you ok? Can you hear me? Hello? Are… are you alive?” No response or movement. I assumed she was dead. I knelt down and laid my hand on her neck, to try to feel her pulse, and she suddenly jumped and kicked with a ferocity that sent me reeling backwards into the dirt. I was completely startled, as I was not expecting that. “You… you’re still alive! Oh my God!” I said as I shook the fright off of me and went back to her side, asking her, “Are you ok? What happened to you?” She did not respond. From a quick assessment, it was clear that despite her powerful movement a second ago, she was not doing well at all. Her legs were broken and she appeared to have a concussion. But now she was awake, and she was staring around with wild eyes, terrified and angry and not ready to die without a fight. It was immediately clear to me what I had to do. I sprinted back to my truck and grabbed my knife, a hardy five-inch piece of Damascus steel, and sprinted back to her side. I pulled the knife out with my right hand and stared down into her eyes, her ferociously beautiful eyes which spoke louder and clearer than any word in any language could have ever communicated. She stared at me, then at the knife in my hand, then back at me, not yet accepting her fate. My mind briefly played with scenarios of first-aid and a possible recovery, hoping that there was another way, but then just as quickly returned to the reality of the situation. I closed my eyes, swallowed the rising swell of emotion in my throat, and said as clearly and compassionately as I could manage, “I’m sorry you have to die like this,” as I plunged my knife into her throat, quickly sawing back and forth to sever the jugular and the windpipe as quickly and painlessly as possible. Hot, thick blood poured over the blade and the hand holding it, gushing onto the dusty gravel and quickly forming a thick brown puddle around her head. Her young, powerful body reacted violently; kicking, twisting, and refusing to accept the reality that her life was slowly ebbing away from her. Her mouth gasped for air that wasn’t coming, her heart beat frantically for blood that was leaking out onto the gravel road. Her eyes still stared around fiercely, as if trying to take in as much of the world around her as she could before leaving. After a couple of seconds, when it appeared that the most intense convulsions were over, I gently laid my hand across her eyes with my right hand to block the hot sun from her eyes and to help ease her transition into the next world. I laid my left hand on her side, gently stroking her and trying to be as kind and reassuring as one can be after you just slit someone’s throat. I spoke soft, gentle words to her, sometimes praying, sometimes singing, sometimes just talking. I told her that she deserved a better life and a better death. I told her that I would never forget her or how she died. I told her that I would honor her death and make it meaningful, somehow. I sat with her for what seemed like several hours, softly rubbing her side and covering her eyes and talking to her. As the life slowly ebbed out of her, as her gasps for air became more strained and faint, and as her strong body gave way the earth, I continued sitting with her, hoping that I was providing some comfort and meaning to her death. It was how I would want someone to remove me from this world.
By the time she finally died, there were tears streaming down my face. Her death had not been quick, sanitized, or painless, but rather long, dramatic, and terrible. I knew it had to be done, but I wasn’t quite ready for the emotional intensity and involvement of the situation. I sat there quietly crying for a few seconds after I knew she was gone, and said one last prayer for her as I stared into her now lifeless eyes; fixed in an eternal glare of defiance. I then heaved her body into the back of my truck and drove deep into the desert, found a road that led to a secluded area with a stream nearby, and parked by a tall male Juniper tree, probably at least four hundred years old. I picked a tall, sturdy branch at least nine feet high, tied a rope around it, and went back to the truck to pick her dead body up and carry her over to the Juniper tree. I looped the other end of the rope around her neck and hoisted her into the air, until her face was a little higher than my own and her feet dangled slightly off of the ground. Using a piece of chert, a very hard sedimentary rock that was as sharp as glass, I began the long process of taking her skin off, cutting all the muscles from her body, cleaning out her internal organs to use for sausage casings, removing her brain to use during the tanning process, and taking her bones to craft into tools. Over the next five hours I slowly removed each part of her body and carefully washed the various parts in the stream which quietly flowed by. I slowly and intentionally turned her body into various foods and tools, a sort of ghastly alchemy. By the time the Sun was finally setting deep into the western sky, I was putting the finishing touches on my work, wrapping her brain in a section of the gut, pulling the long tendons off of her back and legs to use for making a bow, and finally burying the remains of her, including her beautiful eyes, in a hole under the great Juniper. I hoped that the little bit of her that I was not able to use would nourish him and she would live on in his gnarled bark, massive limbs, and delicate fingers. I hoped that her eyes would continue that intense gaze under the soil, and that they would eventually become part of the soil once they had seen all they wanted to see. I carried the results of my alchemy back to the truck, a pile of bones to be used for tool-making, her skin folded up neatly, several sections of intestines and internal organs wrapped up in a bag, her brain wrapped in her own gut, and several plastic bags of her muscles to be used for food.
Before I left, I said one last prayer and performed a simple ceremony honoring her life and death. I washed my hands and the now dull piece of chert in the stream, and headed home. I spent the next week continuing the alchemy, transmuting her muscles into steaks, sausages, and jerky, reconstructing her skin and brain into a rich, supple piece of leather, and converting her bones into fish-hooks, needles, scrapers, and jewelry. Whenever I ate her flesh over the next several months, I felt a deep connection to her life and death, and remembered her sacrifice and the way her eyes stared deeply into mine. I was intentionally taking a part of her and putting her into my own body, a deeply intimate and vulnerable process. I shared her flesh with some friends of mine around a campfire, and told them the story of her life and death as they too received a part of her into their bodies. Whenever I wear the leather or use the tools I made from her corpse, I tell her story. Even though I never even knew her name, my Deer sister had become a part of me, and I of her.
There are some who would call my actions heartless, disgusting, cruel, and vicious. They would have me believe that my consuming the flesh of a Deer is unethical and is participating in oppressive violence towards non-human animals. In many circles of progressives and radicals, being a vegan or vegetarian is almost a requirement, a rite of passage, in order to prove your commitment to the cause. Eating the flesh of a non-human animal or wearing her skin is considered barbaric and immoral. Yet to hold this belief is to ignore over 200,000 years of human interactions with non-human animals and to not understand the most basic principle of ecology – that matter cycles continually through the web of life. Life cannot exist without death. In order for something to live, something else must die. Whether we are talking about microorganisms, phytoplankton, insects, rodents, cows, pigs, deer, or humans, the principle remains the same. The most strident vegan on the planet is conducting a mass genocide everyday if one considers the amount of plants, insects, and microorganisms which had to die in order to allow him to continue existing on this planet.
Yet the other end of the spectrum is ignorant and ill-informed to a much greater degree, as is illustrated by the average consumer in the Western world who blindly shovels as much life into his mouth as will fit at one time. The average American consumer is responsible for the deaths of over 600 non-human animals every year, from such various industries as meat, dairy, eggs, seafood, leather, fur, feathers, medical research, and cosmetic testing. By now, scenes from factory farms are somewhat common knowledge, as several documentaries have shown the grotesquely violent and profane ways in which millions of non-human animals are kept and slaughtered. Incredibly, whatever images you may have seen are not even close to the actual levels of horror which happen in industrial factory farms every day. The worst footage of animal abuse and their living conditions is so terrible to watch that laws have recently been passed banning the videotaping or recording of conditions inside these factories, due to the incredibly emotional and violent reactions they elicit from viewers; ignoring the fact that many of the actions are technically illegal and the perpetrators should be prosecuted, rather anyone who films the illegal actions taking place in these factories will be prosecuted, so as to not create any more animal rights activists or informed citizens. If you manage to watch one of these non-human animal snuff films, it will be a much more difficult experience than you might think; by the end of them you look upon the grossly disrespectful and painful deaths with relief, knowing that at least the suffering is over, for that one. This wanton destruction of non-human animal life in order to satiate the hyper-inflated lust for flesh which the Western diet has created can no longer be allowed to exist. It is immoral and unsustainable on every level, and has led to the needless deaths of billions of beautiful, intelligent, thoughtful, and compassionate creatures simply because Joe ‘Murica wants his super-sized cheeseburger with a side of Chicken nuggets.
The problem lies not in the fact that humans need to consume other life in order to survive, but the way in which we participate in consuming. Veganism/Vegetarianism is not a practical, sustainable solution for many people in the world, and it is actually an incredibly privileged position to be able to survive solely off of plants. The Standard American Diet (SAD) is also incredibly unsustainable and immoral, and must not continue. Both of these lifestyles are missing something incredibly important, something that humans have known for 98% of our existence and have only just recently forgot.
All life on this planet is connected. What you do to a Chicken is what you do to yourself. How you treat a dying Deer on the side of the road is how you treat yourself. One day, your body will stop breathing and your death will nourish other life. This simple awareness can lead to a fundamentally different way of viewing the act of eating life. If we are not connected to other living creatures, then it doesn’t matter what we put in our mouths, it’s just food. If we are connected to other living creatures, then it matters deeply what we put in our mouths, for it will become a part of us. All living creatures must kill other creatures in order to survive. We are no exception. What matters is how we participate in this cycle of life and death.
We can choose to participate callously and ignorantly, consuming unnecessarily large amounts of life with no awareness or intention put into the process. We can choose to act like we are not participating, by advocating a strict Vegan diet and shaming those who do not do likewise. Or, we can choose to participate intentionally, with respect and awareness of the necessary cycle of life that we must all go through.
Non-human animals must sometimes die in order for humans to eat them and continue our lives. This is an incredibly serious and sacred act which must be treated as such, and must be only done when absolutely necessary. Plants must sometimes die in order for humans to eat them and continue our lives. This is also a serious and sacred act, and should be done with the same amount of intention as with an animal. Grubs, insects, the honey of bees, the milk of animals, and the eggs of birds must sometimes be harvested with respect and an awareness of the cost of the food which we are eating, and must be eaten with gratitude and ceremony. To deny this reality is to ignore the way that humans have interacted with other living beings for hundreds of thousands of years and the ways that many indigenous peoples continue to interact with the Earth today.
Instead of claiming a certain diet as your identity or committing to eating a certain way for the rest of your life, a more appropriate and ultimately effective plan would be to simply start interacting and engaging with the lives that you eat in order to sustain your own life. If you do choose to abstain from the consumption of meat or all animal products, that is definitely a respectable decision, and one that I have followed for the past several years. However, it is important that you recognize that lifestyle choice as a privileged one, which not everyone can make, and that you recognize the important thing is not the abstaining from the taking of lives, which is innately impossible, but to honor the sacredness of all living things. Try to become aware of the great sacrifices which were made in order to place dinner on your table. Become intimately familiar with every death that sustains your life. If possible, try to hunt your own non-human animals and experience the real cost of eating another animal. Try to grow a small garden and experience the joys and trials of nurturing a small plant, killing it, and eating it. As you become more aware of the true cost of life-nourishing food, you will naturally seek to minimize the amount of death which your existence necessitates, and you will begin to understand the many powerful ways that food affects you and becomes you. Once someone has experienced the act of taking a life, you can never treat life the same way again. Once you have experienced your first kill, you will hopefully understand how humans have been killing life for hundreds of thousands of years, why they have participated in the process of death in the way that they do, and why it matters.