I need to start this one with some context. I grew up vegetarian, spent a while as an omnivore, reverted to vegetarianism nearly 2 years ago. I don’t think I have a problem about other people eating meat, and I most definitely believe that if you are going to kill an animal for food, it’s far more ethical to use the rest of it as well for whatever you can, rather than throw anything away.
I was at an event yesterday. One of the food stalls was selling wild boar, venison and rabbit as sausages and burgers for consumption in situ. I didn’t get very close, but that seemed ok. Lots of stalls had tooled leatherwork. It was gorgeous stuff, a great deal of labour and artistry had clearly gone into it. That I could appreciate, and leather itself is beautiful. It’s such a versatile, useful product and I had always liked it, but yesterday it made me uncomfortable. For the first time I can remember, I felt acutely aware that what I was seeing was someone else’s skin.
Then I found the boar. There were two of them, and the skins were close to complete – head skin and trotters still there. Even flat and without eyes, they very definitely had faces. I love boar. They inspire me. Very dead, very flat, those skins still carried, for me, such an acute sense of their having been a real, vital, living creature. I wanted to touch them, but didn’t, because I knew if I had done, I would very likely have wept.
When you get an anonymous bit of meat in a bun, it’s just food, it’s very easy not to think about it. Usually when you see leather, it’s just a bit – all very impersonal, nothing suggestive of the original creature, just a different kind of fabric. Whole skins are much more obviously individuals. Their former existence as living, breathing, feeling things is harder to ignore. Last week I spent some time with domesticated pigs, looking at them thinking, “I cannot look at you and see food.” I’m not offering this as any kind of judgement about people who can – that’s their business – this is just an observation about what I’m experiencing.
Sometimes I look at wood, and think about the tree it came from. Plants are people too.
To use other living things, we apparently have to view them as separate from us, and lesser. However we do it, we have some justification – need, want, lack of suitable alternatives, our own nature, their nature… What happens if your druidry brings you to a point of seeing all things as equal and all life as sacred? How do you then continue to eat? Is the only answer to become a fruitarian, taking that which does not kill the plant, using only things that are windfalls or have already been used by others? That would be difficult, if not impossible to do. All living causes death to other things, if you’re a mammal.
The answer I’m coming round to looks a lot more like relationship. It’s the anonymity of the animal, and for that matter tree products, that troubles me most. We don’t see them as individuals, they are just products. If your shoes had been made out of Henry, and lunch was Alice, and Bessy’s milk was for tea, and you’d got George on the wall over the fireplace… it would be a very different scenario. They would never be products. They would be individuals who had lived alongside you, died for you, and who would still be with you. And in that sort of scenario, I would still very likely be fighting not to cry over boar skins, but I could ask for their names and stories. I think I would like that way better.