Sunday, February 19, 2012

Book review: 'The Mindful Carnivore: A Vegetarian's Hunt for Sustenance'

I know a lot of what Tovar Cerulli has dubbed "adult-onset hunters." Northern California is full of people who are looking to divest themselves of everything that is wrong with the industrial food complex, and while some go vegetarian and others go local, there's a third group that's turning to hunting.

That said, I don't think any of our stories holds a candle to Tovar's tale, which we've been reading in bits and pieces on his blog for the past two years, and which we now see in its entirety in his new book, "The Mindful Carnivore: A Vegetarian's Hunt for Sustenance."

Taking up hunting when you didn't grow up doing it is a leap for anyone, but Tovar has leaped the furthest of all, going from veganism to hunting, a few small bites at a time.

One important note: If you're a frequent reader of Tovar's blog, don't skip this book thinking you've read it all. "The Mindful Carnivore" is not a retread of blog posts; it is an eloquent and sometimes suspenseful account of his quest to become a mindful eater.

Tovar's tale begins in the purest of places: a childhood in which he feasts without qualms on the world around him, whether it's berries he picks, frogs he catches by hand or trout he catches with hooks. The older he gets, though, the more doubt and conscience creep in. He stops fishing. He stops eating meat. And in the ultimate attempt to feed himself without doing harm to fellow sentient creatures, he goes vegan. Read more...
Even in veganism, though, he finds there is no way to eliminate harm to animals. Soybean farmers shoot deer in droves to save their crops. The local organic farmer from whom he buys produce is constantly smoke-bombing woodchuck burrows. And even Tovar finds himself crushing beetles that prey on his vegetable garden.

When health concerns prompt Tovar and his wife Cath to reintroduce some animal products to their diet, they start slowly: local, organic yogurt; eggs from cage-free hens. He is rewarded with energy, vitality and a diminishment of allergies. He could have stopped there, but he brings fish and chicken back into his life. Finally, he begins contemplating what was heretofore unimaginable: hunting.

Tovar's transformation is not one of those mind-boggling 180s, like going from atheism to Catholicism in a week. He never loses the immense compassion and respect for animals that drove him to veganism in the first place. This means his process of becoming a hunter is filled with fear and uncertainty. Fear that he'll shoot poorly and maim an animal, becoming the kind of hunter he'd always loathed. Uncertainty about whether what he's doing is the right thing.

Reading Tovar's book, I'm pretty sure Tovar and I are very different kinds of hunters.

I do share his fear of merely maiming animals with poor shots, and his belief that hunting is a kinder way to acquire meat than industrial farming. But I find it easier to accept some of hunting's downsides, particularly the wounding rate (as opposed to clean kills and clean misses) with bird hunting.

I'm also quite unabashed about the joy that hunting brings to me. While I take animal deaths seriously - I often apologize to, and thank, the animals I kill - that doesn't stop me from shouting with excitement when I am successful. And I freely admit that hunting tickles my synapses in a way that is utterly addictive.

Tovar's experience, on the other hand, will be unrecognizable to many hunters because there is, for him, no joy in the successful hunt - only the feeling that he is approaching his need for protein in the most honest and responsible way he can.

Reflecting on his first deer kill, Tovar writes, "Hunting ... would not put me on a new high road to moral certainty. If this first experience of killing a deer was any indication, it would bring me face-to-face with ambiguity every time. Perhaps that was how it ought to be."

I believe that's a message that will resonate with both vegetarians and non-hunting omnivores who are uneasy with the ways in which industrial farming has trivialized the lives and deaths of the animals we eat and use. Even if they don't choose to follow the path Tovar has taken, I think they'll be inclined to respect it.

It's also a message that unabashed hunting fiends like myself would do well to remember if we'd like to earn the same kind of respect.

POSTSCRIPT: If you'd like to read other reviews of "The Mindful Carnivore," click here.

© Holly A. Heyser 2012


SimplyOutdoors said...

Tovar's book sounds awesome, and I'm definitely going to have to pick up a copy real soon.

Phillip said...

Very different review, Holly, not that I'd expected anything else. I wondered how this book would resonate with folks like yourself and other "adult onset hunters" I've had the privilege to know.

The "ambiguity" of the kill, by the way, definitely isn't unique to Tovar. For me, I think it's tempered by what I kill. A deer or elk gets a lot more overt compassion than a duck or dove, for example. In a lot of ways, that's not much different than the fact that people can think nothing of fishing (or crushing a bug, for that matter), but find shooting "Bambi" abhorrent.

Lots of awesome food for thought in this book.

Holly Heyser said...

Simply: I'm sure you'll enjoy it - it's a very good read.

Phillip: Ha, I put off reading your review until now because I didn't want this review to be a reaction to anyone else's.

Though I don't say it explicitly here, I know the ambiguity is incredibly common: I feel it, and most people I've talked to about the emotional reaction to killing share my feelings about it (and many of those conversations have taken place on my blog, yours and Tovar's).

I think what's more unusual is the lack of joy, and I'm going to guess that it's about as common as the total lack of regret. You, Phillip, are of course the one who is 100 percent responsible for how readily I admit to the joy. While there are elements of spirituality and elements of food politics to my hunting, I'd be remiss to omit joy as one reason I've taken to it as much as I have.

Interesting that your ambiguity varies from animal to animal. While I think watching a fellow large mammal suffer is probably more immediately disturbing than watching a dove die, I tend to put myself in the shoes of whatever I've killed.

Example: I just finished plucking and gutting two geese I got Saturday on the late-season spring goose hunt opener. I remember one that the guide had to jump two ditches to retrieve. He popped up over the top of the embankment and announced that he'd found the crater where the goose had hit, but the goose wasn't there. He dropped back down to the other side, and shortly after that came up with the still living goose, which he promptly helicoptered.

When I did the autopsy today, I saw that the bird had not taken any hits to his vitals, but had two broken wings. One had done literally two full twists. The other wing appears to have snapped on impact - mud was driven deep into the wound where the bone popped out. And that bird was trying like hell to get away.

That picture - both what I could see and what was hidden behind the bank and left to my imagination - will never leave my brain. I don't like it. But I will continue to hunt birds, knowing full well that this kind of thing happens when you're flinging shot at a fast-traveling bird.

I think we all have our lines, both in what we feel (or allow ourselves to feel) and what level of suffering we're willing to risk causing. I think Tovar's position is probably the easiest to defend to the non-hunting public. I think mine is harder to defend, because all I can say is that I'm 100 percent sure the birds I kill led better lives than most farmed birds.

Food for thought indeed!

Tovar@AMindfulCarnivore said...

Many thanks for the review, Holly.

As I mention in the book, I expected that killing my first deer might be accompanied by the kind of mixed feelings (elation/joy, gratitude, sadness, etc) that many hunters, including my uncle, talk about. I was surprised that I felt mostly shock and grief. Over the years, with subsequent deer, that has changed somewhat. For me, there still isn’t the kind of elation/joy that many hunters describe. There is still a kind of shock and some grief. But there is less uncertainty and more deep gratitude.

I definitely find joy in other parts of the hunt: just being out in the woods, seeing wildlife, noticing animal sign, following tracks, hunting with (and talking about hunting with) folks I enjoy, etc.

Phillip, about levels of ambiguity varying by species: I’ve found that to be very common among both hunters and non-hunters. It showed up a lot in my thesis research.

Holly Heyser said...

I'm guessing fish get the least of all, right? I vividly remember part of Mary Zeiss Stange's "Woman the Hunter" in which she talked about how most hunter-gatherer culturues consider birds and mammals "us" but fish "other."

For compassion purposes, I don't even consider fish to be "other" - I think about what goes through their minds too (which is why I am not a fan of catch and release).

Tovar@AMindfulCarnivore said...

Yeah, fish are pretty low on that totem pole. I agree that they deserve compassion, too.

But there aren't many humans -- in the modern world or in other times and cultures -- who feel the same kind of empathy for fish that they feel for other mammals, especially other large mammals.

Holly Heyser said...

I know - crazy. I think it's a deep-rooted prejudice from the times when our ancestors left the seas. It's probably the original speciesism on earth.

Bushidoka said...


This is my favorite blog/comments ever. It shows how we hunters are not cold hearted killers. I have had 3 "former" veggies in my Hunter Education class who express the same things that Tovar has experienced and for the same reason. I don't feel that these things are exclusive to them. I feel that most hunters, who will admit it, have felt the same things, but because of the sporting factor and machismo of the sport, don't always express it. Like you, I love it all, the preparation, the outdoors, the sport, the accomplishment, the "necropsy," the healthy's a way of life.

I think that there should be no differentiation between killing a fish or a mammal. The right thing to do is take the animal quick and clean. WHY would anyone do less?

Holly Heyser said...

Bushidoka, great comment - thank you.

I think probably one of our biggest challenges as hunters is being willing to discuss these things freely. I think we're often afraid to admit these things for fear that it weakens our case for why we should be allowed to hunt.

That said, I've come across a lot of hunters whose belief systems are built around the premise that animals' lives are less important than ours are - that they don't have souls, aren't sentient, don't feel pain, etc. I believe that somewhere in the past, that's what people concluded as a way to justify killing animals, be it for hunting or agriculture.

Personally, my justification is rooted in the inescapable reality that life eats life, so I don't need to trivialize animal lives to justify taking them.

And I'm glad I'm not the only one who doesn't make the fish distinction :-).

Anonymous said...

Holy, I think you'll be happy to know that Hank was the first person to show me a book by a blogger goes beyound the blog and makes for worthwhile reading. I just finished A Mindful Carnivore and found it to be a great book. I would strongly reccomend it to anyone who hunts as well as anyone else who lives on earth and eats.

Holly Heyser said...

That's precisely why I put that note in this blog - Hank realized a lot of people thought his book would just be a blog rehash, and he had to tell people otherwise.

And I agree that Tovar's book is good reading for anyone who lives on earth and reads. What I'd really love to know now is what vegetarians and vegans think of it.

Tovar@AMindfulCarnivore said...

Holly wrote: "What I'd really love to know now is what vegetarians and vegans think of it."

So far, the vegan/vegetarian responses have been mainly positive. Some critique, of course, but the only serious negativity has come from those who haven't actually read it and just react to the idea of a vegan becoming an omnivore and (worse!) a hunter...

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