Book Review: The Mindful Carnivore

Peregrine falcons, well on their way to recovery, had begun nesting in New York City. But living there wasn’t going to suit me for long. In my small apartment, I felt separate from nature. It was all around me—in the trees that lined the streets, in the gray and black squirrels that loped through Washington Square Park, in the grass that sprouted in the cracks and seams of the pavement—but it felt too fragmented. I wasn’t touching soil. I wasn’t hearing the sounds of water, of wind in the trees. Unlike the farmers whose trucks I visited in Union Square, I had no contact with the earth from which our food sprang.

Along the sidewalks of Brooklyn and Manhattan, I picked up pigeon feathers. I read and reread the Wendell Berry poem pinned to the wall of my apartment, “The Peace of Wild Things”:

When despair for the world grows in me
and I wake in the night at the least sound
in fear of what my life and my children’s lives may be,
I go and lie down where the wood drake
rests in his beauty on the water, and the great heron feeds.
I come into the peace of wild things
who do not tax their lives with forethought
of grief. I come into the presence of still water.
And I feel above me the day-blind stars
waiting with their light. For a time
I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.

One evening, leaving class and stepping out onto Eleventh Street near the corner of Sixth Avenue, I noticed an unusually bright streetlamp out of the corner of my eye. Looking up, I saw the full moon and realized I hadn’t seen stars in months.

So says Tovar Cerulli in the first chapter of his new book, The Mindful Carnivore: A Vegetarian’s Hunt for SustenanceI just finished reading this deeply thoughtful, challenging, and beautifully written book, so I wanted to share it with you.

Tovar Cerulli was a vegetarian for many years, and a vegan for over a decade.  His love of nature and genuine desire to find a sustainable and compassionate diet led him first to gardening, then to abandoning veganism, and, ultimately, to hunting.

In many ways, Tovar’s journey mirrored my own; his childhood was spent fishing and gathering berries in a woodland idyll (Vermont and New Hampshire), but as he began considering food ethics and his affinity for animals, he veered into vegetarianism.  He became a stereotypical college vegan, sporting long hair and lecturing friends and family on the evils of meat eating.  But his experience trying to grow food, in which he encountered hungry, determined, and destructive animals (from slugs to woodchucks), brought him face to face with the fundamental reality of food: we must kill to live.

As I also realized after many years trying vegetarian diets and following ethical systems designed to reduce the suffering of all sentient creatures, Tovar determined that even vegan diets are indirectly responsible for animal suffering and death.  His perspective shifted, and he began to explore sustainability as the fundamental marker of compassionate eating.  And this, eventually, led him to hunting deer in the forest surrounding his Vermont home.

He writes with profound understanding of both the ethical imperative that drives the choices of vegetarians and vegans and the wonder and intimacy experienced by the ethical hunter.  These two seemingly opposed groups have more in common than most realize, and The Mindful Carnivore has provided what I hope will be only the first of many attempts at reconciliation and convergence between compassion-minded vegans and sustainability-seeking omnivores.  In this wonderful book, part memoir and part philosophy, Tovar also touches on the role of food in human memory and community; religion and ethics; environmentalism; and the magic of the wild.  As Tovar says on his web site:

At twenty, moved by the compassionate words of Buddhist teacher Thich Nhat Hanh and concerned about the ecological impacts of meat, I became a vegetarian. Soon I went vegan.

Almost a decade later, having moved back to a rural community from New York City, I realized that all food has its costs. From habitat destruction to grain combines that inadvertently mince rabbits to the shooting of deer in soybean and lettuce fields, crop production is far from harmless. Even in our own organic garden, my wife and I were battling ravenous insects and fence-defying woodchucks. I began to see that the question wasn’t what we ate but how that food came to our plates.

A few years later, my wife—who was studying holistic health and nutrition— suggested that we shift our diet. My health improved when we started eating dairy and eggs. It improved still more when we started eating chicken and fish.

Searching for ethical, ecologically responsible ways to come to terms with my food, I began to contemplate the unthinkable: hunting. Two years later, I took up a deer rifle.

Tovar has also written on hunting, forestry, wildlife, and conservation for many magazines.  You can read some of his essays here, and the first chapter of The Mindful Carnivore is available for free on his web site.  In 2011, Tovar completed his M.A. thesis, “Meat and Meanings: Adult-Onset Hunters’ Cultural Discourses of the Hunt.”  He is currently working on his Ph.D. at the University of Massachusetts, focusing his research on food, hunting, and human relationships with the natural world.

I can’t wait to read his next book!  Meanwhile, be sure to check this one out.  If you’re remotely interested in these issues, you will definitely enjoy it.  Tovar has created a work which is equal parts challenging and sublime.

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