Hog Blog Book Review – The Mindful Carnivore
February 15, 2012
Even as the number of hunters across the country continues to wane, a small group of new hunters are taking to the woods. These aren’t the products of generations of family tradition. They’re not youngsters picking up in the footsteps of their fathers and grandfathers. These are adults. They’re thoughtful, conscientious, and by-and-large introspective individuals who are taking to the woods out of a desire to take responsibility for the food they eat.
A little while back, I did a review of my friend, Hank Shaw’s excellent book, Hunt, Gather, Cook. While Hank came from a background of fishing and foraging, he didn’t start hunting until later in life. His book focused on making use of all the food around us and provided recipes for doing so.
Just before Christmas last year, I reviewed a book from Georgia Pelligrini, Girl Hunter. Georgia also comes to hunting later in life with a focus on her work as a chef and food writer. The book follows Pellegrini around the country (and to Great Britain) for a look at different styles of hunting, and a set of recipes to highlight each area.
Hank and Georgia definitely take a closer look at where our food comes from, and how it gets onto our plates. And both are late-in-life hunters, brought to the sport in part because they were looking for better, healthier, and more sustainable sources of animal protein (aka meat). While there’s certainly more depth to it, the food aspect is the most visible motivation for these writers’ foray into the hunting world.
Tovar Cerulli’s new book, The Mindful Carnivore, A Vegetarian’s Hunt for Sustenance takes that deeper dive.
I received my review copy a couple of weeks ago, but only had time to sit down and give it a thorough read this weekend. The fact that I read the entire 280 pages (including comments and acknowledgements) over the course of an eight-hour airplane flight is testimony to the quality of the writing. I sort of expected the book to knock me out after a couple of hours of reading, but I got so wrapped in the storytelling that the time just sort of melted away.
Tovar’s tale, like most great stories, charts the path of a journey. Instead of crossing continents or oceans, though, this journey takes place within his own psyche as he flows from thoughtless omnivore, to conscientious vegetarian, to self-righteous vegan, and then to mindful carnivore (actually a thoughtful omnivore, but I wanted to work in the book title here). It’s not your run of the mill trip.
It’s not your run of the mill storytelling either. Ordinarily, I wouldn’t go out of my way to read this sort of thing. If it weren’t for the fact that I have spent so much time on Tovar’s blog, I never would have paid a second thought to a book about a vegetarian’s decision to hunt for his own meat. And I’d have missed out. There’s a lot to learn from this story, not just about Tovar, but about how many non-hunters see our sport. And, as I’ve mentioned, the writing is just superb.
A good bit of the book is built around his decision to become a vegetarian, and how that shaped his thinking about our relationship with animals… particularly the animals we eat… until his vegetarianism evolved into veganism. I found it interesting that he didn’t preach his philosophy to friends and family (or to the reader). It was a personal decision, and he pretty much kept it that way until, after years without animal products, a doctor told him that this diet was harming his health. His body needed the nutrients that can only be obtained through animal protein.
As he re-examined his relationship to animals and food, he came to the realization that simply eating vegetables did not absolve him from the deaths of many creatures. Farming practices kill huge numbers of animals, whether it’s simply killing the bugs that nibble on leaves, to displacing wildlife from habitat, and even to the depredation killing of larger animals. Eating tofu still meant getting blood on his hands.
Tovar’s decision to hunt evolved slowly, and from the story, it was never certain. In fact, if I didn’t already know the outcome of the decision, I wouldn’t have been surprised to see the story end with a decision not to hunt after all. There’s intensive introspection, and he turns to the literature of hunting in his efforts to understand his own thinking about the act of intentionally killing a fellow animal. He eases into it, beginning with fish (and a wonderful examination of why so many people have no problem with fishing, but have so much trepidation about hunting), and then to protecting his garden from mammalian raiders. When he finally takes to the field for big game (deer), he experiences a couple of set backs that almost derail the entire experiment.
Like many of the late-in-life hunters I’ve known, Tovar displays a fairly intense concern about hunting safety. He is haunted by thoughts of some of the hunting tragedies he’d read or heard about, and terrified that it could happen to him. In the chapter titled, Double Vision, he describes his experience in a “hunter education” class. It’s an enlightening experience for him, although he writes that the class seems to miss the mark in some places, as it is very light on discussions of ethics and there is no real test of proficiency with firearms, wildlife biology, or field craft. After only two days, the students are deemed “ready” to take deadly weapons into the field.
The other recurrent theme among newer, adult hunters is the fear of wounding an animal. Tovar is no different, and after missing his first shot at a deer with a traditional bow, he considers whether the risk of wounding is justifiable and decides to hang up the traditional bow. I could relate to this, as I did the same thing with my own traditional archery tackle for the same reasons. I simply couldn’t guarantee the consistent accuracy to make a clean kill.
In fact, I was a little surprised at how much of Tovar’s philosophical discoveries matched my own. For example, he challenges the way his hunter education text positions safe, ethical hunting as a public relations issue. Safety isn’t about presenting a good public image, it’s about not harming ourselves or other people. Likewise, maintaining high ethical standards isn’t about convincing other people that hunting is OK. It’s about having respect for the game, the habitat, other citizens, and on many levels, for ourselves. A positive public image is simply a by-product of safe and ethical behavior.
I also really appreciated the way he tipped the sacred cow of Jose Ortega y Gassett. Ortega y Gassett is probably one of the most widely quoted philosophers in the hunting community. His statement, “One does not hunt in order to kill. On the contrary, one kills in order to have hunted,” has been passed along like a mantra among hunters striving to explain that hunting is about more than the kill. In itself, it’s a nice little quote with just enough profundity to give it some heft. And in the way it’s usually used, it’s a slick little argument.
Unfortunately, few hunters have actually read the entirety of Ortega y Gassett’s text, Meditations on Hunting. It was originally written as a preface to a wealthy friend’s book on sport hunting. The philosopher himself was not a hunter and drew on his own biases and some of the common perceptions of the sport to craft the piece. In it, while he does make a pretty nice effort to understand and explain blood sport, he also takes the utilitarian meat hunter to task as a “brute”… painting the hunt as an aristocratic pursuit and ennobling the hunter who participates solely for the experience of the hunt.
When I read Ortega y Gassett, I was challenged by the convoluted logic and quite put off by the elitist attitude that came across from the whole work. I was offended by his portrayal of the meat hunter, although I tried to temper this with the thought that Ortega y Gassett was largely ignorant about hunting and hunters. Tovar reacted pretty much the same way, and the way he addresses this in the book was probably one of my favorite sections. Unlike me, he doesn’t let Ortega y Gassett off the hook for his ignorance.
Then again, I found so many “favorite sections” in Tovar’s book that it’s unfair to single out any one of them. Unfortunately, if I tried to address them all here, I’d have to write my own book. There’s so much to say about this book, and about Tovar’s experiences that led to it.
I’ve tried to come up with some criticisms, but truly, I can’t do it. The book was entertaining and educational (without being didactic). I was afraid that Tovar, like some other late-in-life hunters, would come across as somewhat elitist, preaching from a holier-than-thou, ethical podium. Many new hunters eagerly embrace the highest ethical ideals and seem to believe that unless we all adopt those standards, we are lesser hunters. Experience in the field often tempers that zeal with the reality that ethics are, sometimes, situational. In real life, we sometimes take the imperfect shot or act without fully thinking. Tovar gets this, I think, and is honest about his own little errors in judgement. While I believe he does have a strong, personal ethic, he doesn’t promote himself as some sort of paragon. There is never a sense that he is saying, “My way is the only way.” I appreciated that a lot.
Maybe the reader who is not comfortable with a deeply philosophical and introspective look at hunting and hunters will find Tovar’s words off-putting, because the writing is honest and often blunt. He probes and asks the hard questions, and sometimes comes up with tough answers. But every challenge or criticism is carried through a full examination, and I found the arguments pretty sound. He comes to the hunt, to killing and eating meat, from a very different perspective than those of us who grew up hunting. If you recognize that, his take on hunters and hunting makes a whole lot of sense.
So if you haven’t gathered by now… I definitely recommend this book.