Cultural critic Jeremy Rifkin has turned his attention recently to the beef industry. He has written a book on the subject and created a full-blown activist campaign. Both go by the same name: Beyond Beef.
The campaign’s goals – to trim US beef consumption by 50% and promote organic and humane cattle-ranching in place of "factory" methods – are laudable. But such campaigns spring from an urban perspective, and often overlook the complexities of translating environmental do-goodism into the realm of real human relationships.
Kirsten Hardenbrook is a visioneer, artist, songwriter, llama-packer, and founder of the Fellowship for Ecology and the Arts (FEA). The Fellowship’s mission is to encourage awareness, respect, and compassion, and "to draw upon the Earth’s many gifts" to enhance creative expression. This essay, which helps reveal more dimensions of Beyond Beef’s task, is excerpted from FEA’s "Awaiting Spring! 1992" newsletter. The full essay includes an inspiring spiritual and philosophical inquiry into our human existence as animals – as eaters and eaten. For a copy of the newsletter, send $3 to FEA, Route 11, Box 70, Silver City, NM 88061.
We began our first year of Fellowship for Ecology and the Arts (FEA) programs with unbridled enthusiasm. Our small staff was dedicated to the environmental/spiritual movement and we were filled with idealism. In our beautiful wilderness setting, it looked as though the year would be smooth and joyous sailing. The last thing I was expecting was deep hurt and disillusionment. But that became a significant part of our experience.
Our education began in early spring, with the appearance of a roaming cowboy. He came riding up the river trail with his pack horses, and stayed to fix fences for a while. Before long, he was a well-loved member of FEA’s family. But his presence soon offered us a vantage point on our own prejudices, and I became painfully aware of the depth of intolerance we unconsciously exhibited. We would see the problem repeated through the year in different contexts and through different catalysts: he represented an American sub-culture that is on the other side of the fence, so to speak, from the views of many of us in FEA. Being an ex-cattle rancher, sawmill operator, and truck driver, his perspectives were very different from those of our staff and guests, especially around the exceedingly volatile issues of cattle ranching and meat eating. But often, when we heard him out, his perspectives made sense.
There, in the formative stages of FEA’s development, we realized we had a choice: to function as an insulated group of like-minded individuals (in which case the cowboy would have to go), or to be open to including the presence, should it occur, of those who might respect our mission but hold some differing ideas and viewpoints. We chose the latter, knowing there would be some conflict, but opting for the choice that seemed to offer the greatest opportunity for growth all around. This decision was in line with our mission statement – respect for all in a non-hierarchical manner.
Still, talking about a group such as ranchers or loggers is very different from talking with a rancher or logger (or environmentalist, for that matter). Through the ensuing months, our choice led us through a labyrinth of related decisions, conflicts and quandaries – long after our cowboy was gone. His archetype resurfaced in the faces of our neighbors and new friends, our wrangler, and of course ourselves – as our roots grew down and we came to bear more and more the color and imprint of the land.
Our choice exposed fallacies and weak points in our own ideology, for – as illustrated in the philosophy of the Native American medicine wheel – a thing (idea or person) looks different when viewed from a different point in the wheel’s circle. Especially now, when conflicts between environmentalists and ranchers are being referred to as "the new range wars," we realize we have a huge chore before us in extending the circle of our conscious respect to include not just animals, environment, and those who share our ideology, but also those whose personal choices and life circumstances create paths different from our own.
Our country-oriented friends and staff played an important role. They helped shake up what would otherwise have been a "nicey-nice" fix-the-planet retreat center, and threw in a dose of world-class reality. Their role was often the role of the coyote – the trickster who teaches simply by being himself and thereby showing others their inconsistencies: "That’s how I am," one said firmly when disapproving vegetarians watched him load up on potatoes and skip the greens at the dinner table. "I was growed up on meat and potatoes." Who are we to make another person’s choices?
And there was the fact that most city dwellers, no matter how environmentally oriented they are, simply do not have many of the skills required to get the necessary work done on the Lodge, the fences, or the vehicles, or even to care for animals when they are sick or hurt. I myself have been frustrated to tears over projects I didn’t know how to deal with.
It is our country neighbors who never end a conversation without saying, "Give us a call if you need any help." And they know how to help. They are not adversaries; they are strong, direct, and polite people who know nature and animals. They understand boundaries, have a sense of honor, and any favor done them is returned.
These people, whom we have often relied on, and who have an appreciation for many of our own ideals, have been targets. Because their livelihood is ranching, because they eat meat, because some are less "educated," even because of their music and dress, they were the objects of derisive prejudice from some staff and guests, sometimes even as they were helping us. The callousness and rudeness I have seen exhibited by "spiritual" environmentalists toward these people – and toward myself and FEA for associating with them – saddens me.
Can we not compromise? Most of us, raised in cities or suburbs, have become children in the wilderness, afraid of darkness and strange sounds, unable to navigate by the stars, unable even to survive without manufactured food and gear. Those who know the Earth as closely as one knows a lover – be they ranchers, small farmers, or even drifters – comprise an overlooked commodity to us all. They still have a fingerhold on our increasingly distant heritage through their direct knowledge of Nature. If they who work and live on the land day by day are driven from it, we may gain a cattle- and logging-free wilderness, but – as with Native Americans, third-world cultures, and even American small farmers – we will lose one more of the narrow threads that can play a role in leading us back into the arms of Nature.
Sharman Apt Russell, in her book Songs of the Fluteplayer, recounts her thoughts after leaving a Forest Service meeting:
I am struck by how much ranchers and environmentalists have in common. Both believe the other side is powerful, wealthy, ignorant and ruthless. Both believe the government is their adversary. Both believe they need to educate the public about range management. Both believe they are concerned with the protection of natural resources.
No group of individuals can be honestly lumped into a stereotype. There are good, bad and marginal ranchers just as there are good, bad and marginal environmentalists. Can’t we hold an ideal of compassion and respect in our hearts and work together? I agree with Russell when she writes, "In the same way that we need Mexican spotted owls, we need ranchers … we need a width and breadth of human experience."
Each person alive is a co-creator of our collective future, helping to imagine the future into being. We can do it in all sorts of ways – through fear, struggle, and pain, bringing to bloom the same; or through hope, joy, courage, honesty, and exuberant action.
In The Solace of Open Spaces, Gretel Ehrlich says that "lovers, farmers, and artists have one thing in common at least – a fear of dry spells." By living all our lives as participants in a grand and inclusive work of art – Creation – we can weather this dry spell and irrigate for all.