Monday, October 11, 2010

John Barleycorn Must Die

I've been thinking about the interview linked below in which Lierre Keith discusses her growing awareness that plants have a form of sentience, volition, and ability to communicate. She recounts how, as a vegan, she didn't want to accept this awareness because it meant that, in order to survive, she had to kill something sentient.*

We have (and Earth knows, I'm not the first to discuss this) such a shadow relationship with Death in Western culture. To a greater extent than at any other time or place in human history, our way of life is built upon and requires massive amounts of death. We spend billions of dollars on redundant weapons, even when we say that we don't have money for schools, or roads, or the green energy programs that might save the planet. We are, pace Mr. Orwell, always at war with someone. We cause the extinction of species after species. We kill forest after river after ocean and shrug it off as just a cost of doing business. We kill off native peoples whenever and wherever they "get in our way" (by which, we mean, "have been living forever in a place that we now want"). Our movies are full of death (preferably accomplished by huge explosions or major car crashes -- nope, no sexual symbolism there) and our children amuse themselves for hours with video games in which the object is to kill other people.

And, yet, Death is the great unmentionable. We have moved the harvesting of the plants we eat and the slaughter of the animals whose flesh we consume out of sight. We send our old people away to die in hospitals or nursing homes. We won't even use the word "death" -- we say that someone "passed on," or "went to their final rest." And we want, rather desperately, as Keith did, to pretend that somehow we can have the life that we have without ever causing any Death.

What happens, though, when we face up to the fact, as Keith did, that everything is alive, that everything is aware, that we must, truly, cause some death in order to live? The Randian response is to shrug, announce that only the strong survive, and to become even more willing to wreak death and destruction. After all, if even picking an apple off a tree involves taking from a sentient being, then why not take the land away from the forest, why not dump chemicals into the Danube? Why not make money selling games to children that teach them that it's fun to blow up other people? Head to McDonalds and have a triple bacon burger!

Another response, though, is to recognize the gift of the slaughtered animal, the harvested corn. That response might require, as Derrick Jensen suggests, that, when we kill a salmon, we become responsible to Salmon. It suggests that animals be raised and slaughtered humanely (to coin a phrase) and with gratitude for their sacrifice. It suggests that we not grow crops in huge monoculture factory farms and that we not drench them in pesticide and petroleum-based fertilizer. It suggests that we spend time in meditation and religious ritual, coming into right relationship with Death, with our planet, our landbase, our food. And if that interferes with the cost of doing business (aka imposing externalities), then it is business that must adjust and sacrifice.

As we head into Samhein, this area of our relationship with Death is one I'd like to see more Pagan groups incorporate into their observations. Our religion, more than any other Western religion, is at least willing to worship the relationship between life and death, as well as to focus upon the interconnectedness of all beings. We could, I think, begin to help our culture to come into a better relationship with reality, which could, in turn, help us to come into a better relationship with our planet and the other beings who share it with us.

How squeamish does Death make you? Do you still believe that you can live on this planet without causing Death? How does the traditional "Rule of Three" both recognize and obscure the truth about the relationship between our lives and death? What, realistically, can you change in order to live in better relationship with Life, Death, Earth, Food? What rituals would help you to do this?

*I am not making any judgments here about what people eat or don't eat. It's interesting to me how our culture considers eating to be such a moral issue; people feel free to judge other people for what they eat, how they eat, how much they eat or don't eat, etc. It's almost impossible to read a newspaper or magazine without finding articles about how one "should" eat and it's almost impossible to mention, say, veganism without starting a war about how people "should" eat. And yet, the deep moral questions behind our food production system go unmentioned. Good sign that there are some shadow issues involved.

Picture found here.


Green said...

It is a basic theory of Joseph Campbell's that religions began because of guilt and uneasiness due to the awareness that life feeds on death. All - or damn close to all - life necessitates the death of something else in order to survive. The awareness of that fact should be enough to at least give pause to consider where our nourishment and shelter came from and how it got to us.

Aquila ka Hecate said...

Stunning post -thank you.
We need to be reminded every so often. Or at least I do.
Terri in Joburg

Anonymous said...

Here's the moral conundrum: What, in heaven's name, about my life could possibly be so darn important that something completely unrelated to my life must die?

Thalia said...

Anonymous, the fact that you are alive is enough. As it is for the lioness, the wolf, the hawk, the fox, the cat, the mouse that eats the grass seeds, the antelope that eats the leaves. Life is what is so darn important.

Makarios said...

This post, and the link in the one above (to Athenae)touch, in different ways, on the loss of consciousness of the interconnectedness of people with one another and with the rest of nature. There seems to be a disturbing tendency for people to image themselves as living in silos (or bunkers) in which nothing that they do is anyone else's concern, and nothing that anyone else does is theirs; and nature is simply a resource to be turned into something that passes for wealth.

But the interconnectedness of people with one another, and of all of us with the rest of nature, is not something that will go away simply because we choose to ignore it. We are already starting to see the social consequences in the form of polarization of our societies, and natural consequences in the form of climate change and desertification. And, as Jung said (in a different context), "If you ignore these initial messages then Mother Nature will hit you with bigger and nastier ones."

Morgaine said...

There is just a shadow between life and death; one seems always to come around and beget the other, for ill or good. It seems to me they each require the other and the goal for me, then, is to balance the two since they are equal in import (to my way of thinking).

I guess I try to think about what I kill based on it's ability to create the best fuel for life with the least impact it can have in order to achieve the maximum benefit from my own consumption. I think that a good life has the potential to lead to a good death (and I don't think 'good death' is an oxymoron, either).