Confessions of a Carnivore: Why Eating Meat is OK — Sorta

Cattle feed lot at Harris Ranch, CA. Photo by BF Newhall.

Cattle feed lot at Harris Ranch, Central Valley, California. Photo by BF Newhall

Here’s my essay for the “Why It’s OK to Eat Meat” contest the New York Times Magazine put on a few weeks ago. As I mentioned in an earlier post, I didn’t win and I’m OK with that; some of the other essays were truly superb.

By Barbara Falconer Newhall

When our son was a boy he was tormented by headaches. Tests showed he was allergic to the seven-story cypress tree growing outside his bedroom window. “Cut that tree down,” said the pediatrician.

My husband and I were taken aback. No way were we going to cut down that cypress tree. It was magnificent – roots growing deep into the soil behind our house and thick, graceful branches reaching around our deck.

Meat counter at Whole Foods. Photo by BF Newhall

Chicken breasts and thighs, ready to cook. Photo by BF Newhall

That tree was a presence, a being. It had been there when we bought the house, it would be there when we left. We had no right to end its life. We’d find another way to address the headaches.

Like our cypress tree, a head of butter lettuce has a life, a fact driven home to me whenever I buy one of those fancy organic versions sold alive, roots still attached.

I take the lettuce from its box, ponder the tender leaves and the roots still caked with soil, and think, “This plant isn’t dead yet. I’m about to rip off its roots and eat it alive.”

You can see where I’m going with this.

I don’t see a clear difference between slaughtering a pig and cutting down a seven-story tree. Between netting the wild salmon I eat for dinner and harvesting my breakfast oats. Faced with a choice between killing a pig and killing the tree in our backyard – I’d kill the pig. (Full disclosure: I’d have the pig slaughtered, just as I’d hire someone else to cut down the tree.)

Many people differentiate between plant and animal. A Buddhist might say one is sentient and the other lacks – what? The wind poppies growing in our front yard this spring opened their petals to the sun and radiated what felt like – a will to live, an intention to live.

Some perceive a hierarchy in living things. The more sentient the being (i.e. the more like us humans) the more valuable its life; a mammal is more valuable than a bird.

Green lentils for sale at Whole Foods, Berkeley. Photo by BF Newhall

Green lentils for sale at Whole Foods, Berkeley. Photo by BF Newhall

But not everyone thinks that way. During a trip to Sikkim my husband and I engaged a Buddhist guide who told us, yes, many of the local people were vegetarians. But others occasionally ate meat.

“When they do,” he said, “they might slaughter a single ox instead of many chickens. One ox will feed as many people as a flock of chickens – but only one creature dies.”

We are all destined to die – the cypress tree, the pig, my breakfast oats, the chickens. But meanwhile we live, and in order to live, we eat. Humans and pigs eat other living things. And that has to be okay.

The ethical high road might be to go, not vegetarian, not vegan, but fruitarian – living on fruits alone, consuming only the seed-bearing part of the plant not essential to its survival.

I for one am not willing to live the constricted life of a fruitarian. And I don’t think my body is set up to subsist on fruits alone, which is maybe too bad for all the turkeys and carrots and spinach I’ll be consuming until my own time comes to feed the worms. But that’s the way it is, and it has to be okay, it has to be ethical.

I care deeply about how farm animals are treated. I care about the toll our meat-eating habits take on the planet and our bodies. I don’t need slabs of meat on my plate, but I do like a little chicken broth in my lentil soup. And I try to stay aware of the creatures – the butter lettuce, the pig, the artichoke – whose lives have come to an end so that I can keep mine. For now.

A seven-storey cypress tree next to a house. Photo by BF Newhall.
Our cypress tree . . . part of it anyway!

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  1. You’re nutty. I bet you think stalagmites are alive.

  2. Barbara Falconer Newhall says:

    My friend Lesley sent along this link to a New York Times editorial that suggests that maybe plants — the common pea, for example — can actually communicate and respond to stress.

    Professor Michael Marder asks the ethical question, “Is it morally permissible to submit to total instrumentalization living beings that, though they do not have a central nervous system, are capable of basic learning and communication? Should their swift response to stress leave us coldly indifferent, while animal suffering provokes intense feelings of pity and compassion?”


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