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Wolves in Norway

Jack, if you bite your bother in the face one more time, you’re grounded.

For some people, dreams are a bizarre re-hashing of ideas from the previous day; for others, they can be worlds unto themselves. I tend towards the latter camp, and get a great deal of ideas and inspiration from dreams, or insight into a problem I’ve been thinking about. This will be one of the weirder posts I’ve written, but bear with me — it gets to an important point, I promise.

Last night I dreamed I was a mom; I was myself in the future, with two teenage sons. But there was something a little different about my children: they were part wolf! Not werewolves, per se, but certainly wolf people. (Now, where this came from, I couldn’t tell you.) They were attractive people, and kind, albeit with yellow eyes, pointed ears, and sharp teeth. The real kicker, though, was that they needed to eat meat (along with other things) in order to be healthy. And I, their vegan mother, sometimes had to buy and prepare it for them!

Well now. Cue loads of mixed feelings.

In the dream, I felt overwhelming love for my sons, and the thought of them being without something they needed was painful. And so I saw myself buying venison and bison for them, and sitting down and having serious conversations about the ethics of our food.

You need to eat some of this in order to be well, I told them. You deserve to be well and to thrive, so you shouldn’t feel guilty or ashamed. But be mindful. Don’t take more than you need. Never be wasteful or wanton with this. This comes from a fellow being.

And this was the crux of our conversations: you need to take care of yourself, but you also have to take care of what takes care of you. (Incidentally, the dream ended with an image of one of the boys cooking dinner for us: a big pot of seitan and kale, with a little dish of jerky off to the side for the two of them.)

When I woke up, I had bittersweet feelings about this picture of life with my wolf-children. In the real world, my kids wouldn’t need to eat animals…or would they? We have mixed evidence regarding vegan diets: plenty of robustly healthy vegans, but still quite a few unhealthy ones, and we don’t fully know why. We’re still feeling out exactly how to exercise our rights to life and health while doing the least harm. It’s a continual search. Eventually, we’ll find that threshold of necessity where we can thrive with the least suffering for all.

The real juicy issue that this dream brought to light is the idea of unquestionable necessity. Animal flesh was absolutely necessary to my children’s health, and so I had to find the least destructive ways to obtain it for them.

I’ve found myself wondering why it is that hunting for sport is deeply troubling to me, but I feel little conflict about indigenous people hunting for survival. In my view, there’s only one condition under which violence can ever be acceptable, and that is pure survival: a last resort, self-defense, self-preservation. It’s the cases where harm is done in order to avoid even greater harm. It’s still harm, for certain (something can be acceptable without necessarily being good), but there’s an issue of urgency and necessity that places it in a very different camp than the sprawling, gratuitous, hell-on-earth violence that occurs in our slaughterhouses. We run into serious trouble when we use a romanticized notion of our old desperation to justify this torture and killing that is purely for profit.

We don’t hunt and kill with the same urgency and necessity that other animals do, or that indigenous hunters do. There’s a specific relationship to the environment that I call “the paradigm of sacred nature,” that this kind of hunting embodies. I am not an anthropologist, and I don’t mean to romanticize indigenous cultures or conflate them all. But there appears to be a very strong vein of worshipful reverence toward animals and the environment, and a deep compulsion to protect that which sustains you. I detect strong themes of conservation, balance, and recognizing total dependency on the environment: take too much, take more than your share, and the whole system is f*cked. This stands out in absurdly stark contrast to the Western patriarchal view that it all belongs to us, and it’s all ours for the taking; to the winner go the spoils, and f*ck everyone else. No no, man. You belong to it. And this was the point I was trying to make to my wolf-teenagers over dinner. Luckily, they got it. (Aw. They were such good kids. Minus the face-biting thing.)

When I read arguments against veganism and vegetarianism, one theme that often comes up is the idea that vegans don’t understand the role of death; we don’t understand that life comes from death, and we have a myopic, naive worldview for wanting to avoid killing. “Embracing our role as killers” seems to feel gratifying to some people who eat animals, like it harkens back to a simpler, wiser time. Veganism seems too fussy and complicated, too modern, artificial, and too reliant on technology and on global systems. But I think if one takes the approach of wanting to preserve the whole system, and trying to view nature as sacred, the logical result (in 2014, in the developed world) is an overwhelmingly vegan path. It’s not that vegans don’t understand or can’t accept the idea of death. Many of us believe that plants have consciousness, and we know that some insects and animals are killed by accident during farming. There’s a level of death that we can’t avoid, and these are the cold, cruel facts of our having to eat to survive. The difference is that we recognize the death that is avoidable, the violence and suffering that is totally unnecessary. We also realize that we can work to minimize this necessity as much as possible, we don’t have to give up and accept things as they are right now. And this I feel is very much in line with a paradigm of sacred nature: our seeking to sustain ourselves while also preserving our system.

So this is what I leave you with, my dear wolf-children: we have three obligations: to ourselves, to our fellow creatures, and to the system we all depend on. We may be debating these topics until the end of time. But if we can maintain this paradigm of balance and preservation, we may get somewhere. Bon appétit, and sweet dreams.