Thursday, September 16, 2010

Inhabiting Paradise - 10

From "Growing Up Game":

Growing up those first years on Plumas National Forest station high in the Sierra Nevada near Oregon was somewhat like belonging to a white tribe. The men hiked off every day into their forest and women stayed behind in the circle of official cabins, breeding. So far away from a store, we ate venison and squirrel, rattlesnake and duck.

My first rattle, in fact, was from a diamondback rattler my father killed as we watched, by snatching it up with a stick and winding it, whiplike, around a redwood sapling. Rattlesnake tastes just like chicken, but has many fragile bones to slither one's way through. We also ate rainbow trout, rabbit, and geese galore. The game was accompanied by such daily garden dainties as fried okra, mustard greens, corn fritters, wilder lettuce (our favorite because of that raw, blackened bacon), new potatoes and peas, stewed tomatoes, barbecue butter beans.

I was four before I ever had a beef hamburger, and I remember being disappointed by its fatty, nothing taste and they way it fell apart at the seams whenever my teeth sank into it. Smoked pork shoulder came much later, in the South; and I was twenty-one, living in New York City, before I ever tasted leg of lamb. I approached that glazed rack of meat with a certain guilty self-consciousness, as if I unfairly stalked those sweet-tempered white creatures myself. But how would I explain my squeamishness to those urban sophisticates? How explain that I was shy with mutton when I had been bred on wild things?

Part of it, I suspect, had to do with the belief I'd also been bred on: we become the spirit and body of animals we eat. As a child eating venison, I liked to think of myself as lean and lovely just like the deer. I would never be caught dead just grazing while some man who wasn't' even skillful hunter crept up and conked me over the head. If someone wanted to hunt me, he must be wily and outwitting. He must earn me.

My father had also taught us as children that animals were our brothers and sisters under their skin. They died that we might live. And of this sacrifice we must be mindful. "God make us grateful for what we are about to receive," took on new meaning when we imagined the animal's surrender to our own appetites. We also used all the animal, so that an elk became elk steaks, stew, salami, and sausage. His head and horns went on the wall to watch us more earnestly than any baby-sitter, and every Christmas Eve we had a ceremony of making our own moccasins for the new year our of whatever Father had tanned.

"Nothing wasted," my father would always say, or, as we munched on sausage cookies made from moosemeat or venison, "think about who you're eating," We thought of ourselves as intricately linked to the food chain. We knew, for example, that a forest fire meant, at the end of the line, we'd suffer too. We'd have buck stew instead of venison steak, and the meat would be stringy, withered-tasting, because in the animal kingdom,as it seemed with humans, only the meanest and leanest and orneriest survived losing their forests.

Once when I was in my early teens, I went along on a hunting trip as the "main cook and bottle-washer,"thought I don't remember any bottles; none of these hunters drank alcohol. There was something else coursing through their veins as they rose long before dawn and disappeared, returning to my little camp most often dragging a doe or pheasant or rabbit. We are innumerable cornmeal-fried fish, had rabbit stew seasoned only with blood and black pepper.

This hunting trip was the first time I remember eating game as a conscious act. My father and Buddy Earl shot a big doe and she lay with me in he back of the tarp-draped station wagon all the way home. It was not the smell I minded, it was the glazed great, dark eyes and the way that head flopped around crazily on what I knew was once a graceful neck. I found myself petting this doe, murmuring all those graces we;d been taught long ago as children. Thank you for the sacrifice, thank you for letting us be like you so that we can grow up strong as game. But there was an uneasiness in me that night as I bounced along in the back of the car with the deer.

What was uneasy is still uneasy - perhaps it always will be. It's not easy when one really starts thinking about all this: the eating game, the food chain, the sacrifice of one for the other. It's never easy when one begins to thing about one's most basic action, like eating. Like becoming what one eats: lean and lovely and mortal.

Why should it be that the purchase of meat at a butchers shop is somehow more righteous than eating something wild? Perhaps it as to do with our collective unconscious that sees the animal bred for slaughter as doomed. But that old doe or moose might make it without the hunter.

Perhaps on this primitive level of archetype and unconscious knowing we even believe that what's wild lives forever.

My father once told this story around a hunting campfire. His own father, who raised cattle during the Great Depression on a dirt farm in the Ozarks, once fell on such hard times that he had to butcher the pet lamb for supper. My father, bred on game or their own hogs all his life, took one look at the family pet meat platter and pushed his plate away. His siblings followed suit. To hear my grandfather tell it, it was the funniest he'd ever seen. "They just couldn't eat Bo-Peep," Grandfather said. And to hear my father tell it years later around that campfire, it was funny, but I saw for the first time his sadness. And I realized that eating had become a conscious act for him that day at the dinner table when Bo-Peep offered herself up.

Now when someone offers me game, I will eat it with all the qualms and memories and reverance with which I grew up eating it. And I think I will always have this feeling of horror and awe and kinship. And something else - full knowledge of what I do, what I become.

-from "Growing Up Game," by Brenda Peterson

The author or editor of fifteen books—some fiction, some non-fiction—Seattle writer Brenda Peterson has in some of her work touched on her unusual family upbringing. Her childhood included time spent in the deep forest as the daughter of a forest ranger. Her childhood also included time with Southern Baptist relatives whose enthusiasm for what they believe to be the coming rapture gave them very little cause for attention to the beauties of the world around them. The complexities and contradictions are chronicles and contemplated more fully in her newest book, I Want to Be Left Behind: Finding Rapture Here on Earth . "A mesmerizing treat, at turns inspiring and hilarious ... Keen-eyed descriptions of the natural world, and a delicious sense of fun, combine beautifully with [Peterson's] tales of protecting seals, whales, hope, and other wild things." – Diane Ackerman. "A loving, luminous portrait ... the story is told with such truth but such tenderness that you can't help loving the whole family." – Sy Montgomery.


Anonymous said...

More and more I don't want to eat non-plants. I even wonder, too, about eating the plants. Because we can't look deep into their non-wolverine eyes, does that make them any less alive? Plucking off a bean, detaching it from its life source without fully understanding all the physiologic changes the plant endures with this severance and ultimate consumption. Is that any less horrifying to the plants (because we haven't experienced the horror in the way we know horror because we don't yet relate or even know it has internal horror?) Before our awareness was educated out of us, perhaps we knew.

Still, I love to prepare and eat organically. I like being closer to my food source. I am grateful for the bounty and for the enormity of time you take in sharing all of this with us.

Yum Yum

Anonymous said...

As I write I become more and more aware of all I don't know. Not socialized on a farm, I often feel inadequate consuming that which I do not know much about. Then reading Mark Jamison in the Smoky Mountain News about the annexation of Forest Hills, I feel I know even less. I wonder HOW much I want to know. It feels as though I am splitting hairs just trying to keep up and do my part and my brain hurts. A tiny voice reminds me to KEEP IT SIMPLE.

For now, I will forage for Emerson to relieve my pain, maybe take a fall walk and enjoy all that is. I remind myself I don't have to do it all or know it all, just be aware. I am grateful to live in such a beautiful area, smell the morning coffee and the cool crispness of fall. Life is good.