“When you tug at a single thing in Nature, you will find that it is attached to the rest of the world.” – John Muir
Last month a family we traveled with in the National Parks posted a picture of the Dad proudly standing beside a bear he shot. He had the rifle on the chest of the bear to give perspective in size – it was over 300 pounds.
The beauty of the bear – black with a white heart etched on the fur of the chest – made me feel simultaneous feelings of deep regard and deep pain.
I don’t dispute the need to hunt to bring food in for the family. When we first met them, we had several discussions about hunting. The Dad told me about hunting for days – he was a bowhunter – just sitting and watching an elk herd. He was a deep thinker and it was interesting to hear of his experience. He and his wife grew up living off the land and none of them attended formal education past kindergarten. They had just escaped from a Christian cult, as a result their families turned their backs on them. The women had to be fully covered and had no voice in governance or in decision making. (And yes, this organization is alive and well throughout the United States.)
When we met them, they were happily wearing shorts, bathing suits, and exploring different foods and types of beverages. Their 2 kids were being homeschooled. Robbie and the kids instantly fell in love with each other and they played so well and for so long, we all agreed to keep that connection going. We all shared the value that connections instantly felt in such a loving way were meant to be nurtured and sustained. We traveled together for a week sharing a campsite and breaking bread together. They wanted to teach me to shoot and we would do long hikes, sometimes with the Dad jumping into ice cold waters. I felt a kindred spirit with the Mom; the two of us talked a lot about natural healing. An amazing and alive family, generous in sharing their space, I learned a lot from them, and hopefully they learned from me too.
At one point, I discovered the rebel flag hidden by the side of their sliders. I remember a feeling of deep pain, anxiety, and panic – “get my son and get the fuck out of there” was my first reaction. The kids were playing and the mom and I were about to do a grocery run to plan our meals for the 2-3 days following.
We sat in the parking lot and I said, “I noticed those rebel flags”. She said, “Where I come from, this represents my family.” I said, “Where I come from, this represents lynching, fear and lives destroyed.” We sat in silence for awhile. Then we talked a bit about our lives. I did not find relief in my horror, nor any relief in the resurgence of memories of my mother’s fear from having the Klu Klux Klan actively harassing her. I did have however empathy and compassion for the heartbreaks that my family and her family endured. We talked and listened to each other keeping it to our personal stories and experiences, without trying to change the other and without their being an escalation of hate – this in itself was noteworthy and we let it be…for that time.
Flash forward the bear. That bear. I had waves of horror and anger. In Nature, there is the process of natural selection among animals. Wolves and bears will kill the injured or older elk, allowing for the stronger ones to survive and strengthen the herd. Hunters very often are shooting for the prize, the weight, and the glory. That, as I write about in my book, “The Unconventional Life: How to Escape the Rat Race and Live your Dream”, is the true rat race: when we don’t live by the intrinsic sacredness of all life, including ourselves, and the intrinsic connectedness of all life, we destine ourselves for suffering. Native tribes of most traditions honor our interconnections by making their actions and the taking of life deliberate and conscious, as well as honoring the sacred kinship shared between life and all beings. After the life is gone, they make use of all parts of the animal, knowing that within the animals’ flesh is the best of the forest, rivers, and streams life has to offer. They offer thanks.
I knew the Dad was feeding his family, and within his trade, work was few and far between in southern Virginia. Unlike most people, they fed their family by what they grew and hunted. But I knew there was also something I needed to say about all this. And I also was aware I had a judgement, and it was strong: the assumption that perhaps they didn’t value all life or thought about exactly what they were doing.
I wrote to my girlfriend the Mom and said, Have you considered rendering the bear fat for healing purposes?” What I got back was a few texts…”no, wow, how do we do that?”
We talked about herbs and poultices, something I am not skilled at. I only had an afternoon class in wild herb medicinals that included bear fat rendering. But I had used the poultice I made with great results and was able to relay that to her. We looked up a few things on the internet.
It was an interesting suspension of my own beliefs as well. I worked through my initial horror to get to a place inside to know that since the life was already taken, that I had followed the wisdom that came to me by reaching out to her. Instead of disconnecting, which was my first reaction, I leaned in and had a conversation. I also knew that they tended to process life slowly, not from stupidity, but from living closer to the land. They took in what I said and would process it over time, just as I did in my response.
We are going to go visit them over New Year’s now. I am hoping to engage in the process of “rendering the fat”. To me, if you are going to eat any meat in your life, or surround yourself with others that do, you can at least do the animals of this world a service by honoring how we care, prepare, and offer gratitude for the life that comes to our tables.
From a self serving stand point, I suppose life is not real to me unless I am meeting some type of internal challenge to connect and break new ground in reducing suffering in the world – including for animals – but I feel glad and hopeful that the life of that bear, as well as the life of all of us, can always have meaning, if we are only willing to get outside the trap of our own rat race of suffering.
You can find my book here: “The Unconventional Life: How to Escape the Rat Race and Live Your Dream, Advice from a Suburban Mom and Part-Time Nomad in the National Parks”
Happy Holidays and Merry Christmas friends…