In the mid-1970s, while living in a small town in Western Colorado, my wife and I found ourselves in the restaurant business. That was not the original plan but it was an effort to save a little nest egg we had invested in a small development in which I was a partner. We did not fight it. Frankly, as ideas started bubbling up about the healthy food we might serve people in this normally meat and potato community, we got excited. We looked forward to finishing the improvements and decorating in an effort to create a warm and inviting environment in this unique, 100-year old building.
Both my wife and I were strict vegetarians at that time. I had become skilled at preparing tasty meals without red meat, chicken or fish. As one might imagine, our menu was primarily vegetarian with one chicken breast special and one small steak reluctantly added at the last minute. Remember, we were living in Western Colorado, an area that produces much of the popular prime Colorado Beef.
Unfortunately, like the great song in The Music Man, we did not know the territory. We did adjust and within a year we were offering several options of some of the area’s finest beef. We purchased our beef from a local source. We sold so much of it, the man who owned the stockyard and slaughterhouse invited me out to lunch. Since he was part of the old community that had originally rejected us as outsiders, I felt this might be an opportunity build some bridges.
First he insisted, I must take a tour of his facilities. I will not go into details, only to share it was one of the worst experiences of my life. The images of the terrified, wailing cattle as they were knowingly forced toward their death will be seared into my brain forever. I was recommitted to a life without animal meat. Now I knew why.
Six years later my wife and I were broke. Just for the record, the restaurant was not the cause of our financial predicament. Rather it was another foolish investment. At the invitation of a friend, we moved into a small trailer in Montana, deep in the woods with our three-year old daughter. We cut and delivered firewood to pay for our groceries. It was not an easy life but we had a roof of sorts over our heads and managed to keep food on our little table.
We became friends with Howard, a young neighbor, who lived five miles away. He was a frequent visitor and we learned he was working to become a forest ranger. He loved the outdoors and could name every kind of animal and plant we came across on our occasional hikes. He had gone to a local college to prepare himself for the tests he would have to take to become a ranger.
But it turned out his education started far earlier than college. He was a quarter Native American. Even as a child his parents had taken him to local pow-wows for part of his education. He knew all about the history of the Native Americans of the area where we lived. He was steeped in their culture and traditions, especially their spiritual ones. Among other things, he explained, the members of the tribe of his heritage were skilled hunters. However, during the fall and winter they normally ate only nuts, vegetables and fruit when it was available.
One day Howard came to our trailer and asked me if I wanted to go hunting with him. It was not a sport for him. He said his family needed some meat and I suspect he thought we could use some as well. We were barely surviving selling firewood.
Now you must understand. I had only hunted once in my life. When I was 14 or 15 I was invited by some buddies to go to the desert and shoot jack rabbits. One of the dads was going to take us. I was not very excited about it but I did not want my friends to know I was uncomfortable about shooting an animal. I certainly did not want to be seen as a wimp. So off we went with our guns. As I recall, I had a 22, single- shot rifle my father had when he was a boy.
In the first hour, we hit a lot of sand and tin cans and I was having a good time. As the afternoon started to cool, the rabbits started climbing out of their homes. Sure enough, as fate would have it, I was the first one to hit a rabbit. I got it in the back leg and apparently broke it. This rabbit could only spin around in circles, crying and squealing like a child. The other guys were laughing and congratulating me but I was falling apart. I could not stand the sound. They kept yelling, “Go finish it off! Go kill it!” But I was frozen. I could not reload my rifle my hands were shaking so badly. As I walked up to the animal it stared at me and let out the most pitiful sound. At that point I did the one thing no boy wants to do in front of his friends at that age. I started to cry. Someone else had to kill the rabbit and I was teased about it all the way home from the desert.
Now 20 years later Howard wanted me to go with him and kill Bambi. I declined at first, but he and another friend insisted it was something I should experience. There was something about this young man’s nature that I trusted and a little venison with our vegetables might do us some good.
Two days later at three in the morning, we arrived at a blind by a watering hole. We were wearing clothes Howard had sprinkled with some weird smelling powder and left outside overnight. After we got settled, Howard took us through a chant. He explained he was asking the deer to sacrifice himself for the good of his family. He promised his entire body would be used for good. I am not certain what all of the words actually meant, but I was moved by the ritual. This was a Northern Montana fall, so the sun was still coming up pretty early. It was sometime around five a.m. when a young, four-point buck walked slowly into the area and began to drink. At one point he raised his head and looked toward us, standing as still as could be. I felt like he was saying, “OK, take your best shot.”
It was a clean kill. Howard went up to the deer and checked to make certain he was dead. Then he prayed over the deer once again, thanking him for his sacrifice. He explained he was thanking the deer for keeping his family healthy. He promised once more that nothing would be wasted for his sacrifice. We went immediately to work hanging the dear, draining the blood and preparing to remove the hide. I was asked to build a fire.
At one point Howard gathered us around the fire. He had removed the heart and cut off three good size pieces. He gave each of us a piece and told us to eat it as it would bind us with the deer at the heart forever. He ate his piece raw and still warm from the heat of the living deer. I chose to cook my piece on a stick. It was not my favorite meal but it is one I will never forget. I was moved beyond anything I had ever experienced with regard to eating or putting something into my body. I gained another perspective about hunting, killing and eating an animal.
I have come to believe that the way we treat animals while they are alive, including how they die, is far more important than whether we eat them or not. What we do to our livestock in this country is unconscionable. It is not necessary. It is hard on the environment and it is bad for the soul.
I do believe one can make a case from a biblical perspective that we should all eat what grows in the ground, food that can be picked or plucked. More importantly, we know that eating more fresh vegetables, fruit and grains is a healthier way to eat. If we became more aware of what we eat, where it came from and what sacrifices were made to provide it, our eating habits would change. We also might learn to treat Mother Earth as something sacred, rather than something to be used and abused. How different would our lives be if we began to see ourselves as part of the creation, as part of the earth rather than separate beings who can rape and pillage this precious planet? When will we begin to see ourselves are part of an interdependent, sacred and precious creation? Then, I suspect, we will know how to feed ourselves and how to live as one. What a day that would be.