Note: This article is not meant to convince anyone of anything — believe me, I've heard every argument there is against vegetarianism in 20 years. This is simply the story of why I have chosen the path I have, and is entirely personal. I share it here for perspective's sake, not to prosthelytize. Tomorrow, I'll detail the nuts-and-bolts logistics of being veggie for two decades.
I grew up in a rural area of the Hudson Valley of New York state; my after-school days were filled with woods explorations of the glacial wetland valley that began behind my house and ended at a lake. My grandmother raised me in a house with no curtains, as we couldn’t see another person or house from any of our windows and she and I planted giant terraced gardens from which we harvested three seasons' worth of veggies, berries and greens. Apple, pear and peach trees in a mini-orchard provided pie filling and summer fruit gorges. Our neighbors, over the hill and through the woods (no joke) shared their extra eggs with us, and their chickens sometimes wandered far enough to end up, confused, in the middle of our garden. (Bringing them back was always an adventure!) I learned to stack wood at 7, chop it at 9, and was mowing an acre of lawn by the time I was 8. In other words, I was a rural kid, in that I was expected to work outside, contribute to my household inside and out, and there wasn’t much debate about it. I was my grandmother’s "muscle" and a strong kid, so it worked out.
The reason that I preface an article about my 20 years of vegetarianism with this picture of my childhood is that over the years, I have been accused of "urban elitism" — the common stone thrown by those country folks who tell big-city people that "if only they knew about farm animals and raising food," they would renounce their lofty ideas about what it means to eat ethically. While I didn’t grow up on a farm, the beef we ate came from one about a mile from my house; I saw my grandpa chop off chicken's heads and my grandmother pluck feathers from still-warm bodies. I ran through my house’s dog doors on hands and knees with a collection of big and small pooches, and my schoolbus had to stop on more than a few mornings because the very cows we would later eat were meandering all over the dirt road, oblivious. I rode horses (through woods and jumping over streams and stone walls), and I found dead animals half-eaten by predators, which I would poke at with a stick, exploring their partially frozen inners. I was a country kid, with a love of science and animals, you see. Killing and eating animals for food was normalized for me and I knew exactly where my food came from.
And that’s exactly why I became a vegetarian. I lived closely with the animals around me; my dogs and cats, the songbirds we fed out front and the elusive possums with their embarassed naked tails out back; the sleek-haunched retired polo pony that took the bit in his teeth and ran flat-out over a field with 12-year-old me holding on for my life; the cows with their threatening bulk and left-behind piles that had to be studiously avoided when crossing fields; the baby deer that was born without back legs and was left in the woods to die by its mother (my grandpa had to shoot it). I looked into all these animals’ eyes at one point or another, and again and again I saw all that beauty, life, pain and aliveness that I felt — they had too. If I had such thing as a soul, so did they. I decided that if I didn’t have to, I wasn’t going to eat those creatures that I considered, while not human, at least as alive as I was — just in a different way. Just like I couldn’t relate to my friends who had siblings (and still don’t understand those fraught relationships), these animals were just having a different experience of life than I was. Not better, or worse, not more or less valuable, just different. And their difference didn’t justify my eating them.
It started with those cows from the farm down the road; I would run past them on the dirt roads, and sometimes stop and look at them. The summer I was 15, I would look into their eyes and the next minute, I just knew I couldn't eat them. I would spend the rest of the run trying to convince myself that it was OK to eat one of my grandmother's hamburgers, but whatever I said to myself sounded like an excuse. I stopped eating pigs that summer — despite their being my very favorite meat of all — when I started exploring vegetarianism and read that they were at least as smart as dogs, and in some cases, smarter. I most certainly wouldn’t eat my dogs, so I couldn’t very well justify eating a pig, could I?
Just because I could, didn’t mean I should. I'm reminded of that idea when I want to do many things that I know, deep down, are wrong.
In the autumn before I turned 16, I found a bird in the road, flopping around helplessly. It might have been sick or maybe it flew into something; it didn’t have long to live, but it could have gotten run over where it was, and I couldn't leave it. I covered its little head to calm it as I picked it up (this is the best way to relax a bird) and walked into the woods aways, then put her into a hollow at the base of a tree and covered her with a few leaves. I don’t think she lived more than a few minutes longer, but as I continued my bike ride down the road I thought about how her relatives were the chickens ... so, no more chicken breast sandwiches.
By the time I turned 16 a few months later, I decided that given what I felt and what I was thinking, I had to be vegetarian. We didn’t really eat fish in my house growing up, and being in the mountains it wasn’t part of the culture; years later I had one of the most profound spiritual experiences of my life (and I’m a pretty anti-spiritual person, an atheist since I was 12) swimming for a brief, magical few minutes with a school of yellow-arrow-tailed fish off the Great Barrier Reef. They surrounded me as I swam, and I was mesmerized by their flicking tails as we moved, almost as if a single organism, over the coral seascape below. This has never happened to me before or since, even though I swim in the ocean any chance I get. That day, I stuck my head out of the water, pulled out my snorkel, and breathed out as tears streamed down my cheeks. Now I couldn't eat fish either.
My grandmother was less than thrilled about my decision; we were a meat-loving family and my grandmother was a spectacular cook, roasting lamb embedded with whole garlic cloves, clay-baking Cornish game hens, making hamburgers as thick as they were wide, bloody in the middle. But I just couldn't do it anymore. I couldn't disassociate those cow eyes, belashed as they were, that rapid heartbeat of the bird, the warm nuzzle of my dog — with the meat on my plate.
Of course, beyond personal reasons, there are serious environmental and health arguments for eschewing or eliminating meat from your diet, and many people I know who are veggie or vegan could care less about an animal’s soul, but this is my story. The health and environmental benefits of vegetarianism are a fantastic bonus, but I find I can't eat meat because it seems fundamentally wrong to me.
All in all, the reasons I don’t eat meat are incredibly personal, and form the root of the ethical system that I developed when I was growing up.
Fundamentally, though people are wonderful and we should work to care for and love each other, my ethics tell me that human beings don't have the right to use ecosystems and their inhabitants for their amusement. For survival, sure. (And I’ll be the first one to admit I’d eat anything — cow, fish or human being — if I were starving to death). But strip malls and 99-cent burgers are not about survival, they are about entertainment, amusement and convenience. Those reasons are not good enough for me to kill an animal (let alone torture them as occurs in factory farms) or destroy a habitat. Not when there are so many other foods that are healthy and while not perfect, certainly much lower impact. I will be the rare vegetarian to admit that yes, animals do taste good; but that’s just not a good enough reason for me to take another’s life after living a tortured existence. It’s just not.
This is what I believe; I understand and respect that other people feel differently. I've written what I have here because it is true to me, not to convince anyone to be vegetarian. Many people have asked me over the years why I don't eat meat, and this is why. And I think this perspective, shared by some — but certainly not all, or even a majority — of vegetarians and vegans is often overlooked. What may seem like a "lifestyle choice" to you, might be a spiritual choice for the vegetarian across the table from you. So give them a break. They are not telling you how to eat, but simply expressing what they believe in the best way they know how to.
So that’s my story. Tomorrow I’ll explain how I’ve maintained my vegetarianism for two decades. Let’s just say like anything, it involves being imperfect and flexible.
MNN tease photo of chick: Shutterstock