Sunday, March 4, 2012

The Mindful Carnivore, by Tovar Cerulli

The Mindful Carnivore: A Vegetarian's Hunt for Sustenance, by Tovar Cerulli.  Pegasus Books, 2012. 

... in which the author explains his reasoning for becoming a vegetarian, and then the ethics and philosophy behind his gradual move back to eating meat.

This review is of a digital copy provided by the publisher through NetGalley.

Throughout his life, Tovar Cerulli has spent more time outdoors and observing nature than most people do.  His childhood gave him a deep appreciation of how each animal is important to the natural world, and he came away with a deep reverence for all kinds of life.  His experiences with fishing as a child also gave him an understanding of where his food comes from, and how it connects him back to the wider world.  As an adult, this awareness led to Cerulli becoming a vegetarian, and then a vegan, believing that it was unethical to take a life for the purposes of eating, especially when there were so many other options available.  Over time, however, Cerulli's further observations of the natural world led him to an understanding that his veganism was, in a way, separating him more from the natural world and was leaving him hungering for something more.  The Mindful Carnivore is an explanation of the beliefs that brought Cerulli back to eating meat, and back to hunting and fishing, and how his new lifestyle remains compatible with the beliefs that brought him to vegetarianism.

This book was by far and away one of the more thought-provoking, clearly explained, and beautiful books that I've ever read on vegetarianism, eating in general, or humanity's connection to nature.  First of all, the writing is top-notch.  Cerulli's writing never becomes dry or boring, and it never becomes preachy.  When he explains his beliefs, he does it gently and simply, so the reader never feels put on the spot.  His anecdotes about the events in his life that shaped his beliefs are so interesting to read, partially because the language he uses really brings the story alive.

The other thing that makes this book wonderful is the content.  As a vegetarian myself, I frequently find myself challenged to explain why I eat the way I do.  Sometimes it's because people are genuinely curious, but more often than not, I think people like to rationalize to themselves why they think it's okay to eat meat.  Generally I find that most people's reasons for eating meat are a) they really would rather live in ignorance rather than learn the truth about meat production in America and b) they're too lazy to make a change.  If all meat eaters in America were like Tovar Cerulli, though, I would be so happy. 

Mr. Cerulli chose to go back to eating meat for several reasons: he mentioned that his veganism was leaving him feeling a little unhealthy, but more importantly, he often felt like he wasn't connected to the world in the same way that he was when he was still fishing for food.  He views hunting and fishing as an almost spiritual experience.  Fishing is generally a very quiet sport, leaving the fisherman with a lot of time for quiet contemplation of the world around him, and hunting requires that the hunter have a good understanding of how animals move and think, and how they interact with each other and the forest around them.  I would like to believe that all hunters and fishermen approach their sports with this much reverence, but there are too many people out there who treat it as an excuse to drink beer or an excuse to show off their guns or an excuse to shoot a beautiful animal just so they can stick its head on a wall.  If only all hunters were like Tovar Cerulli, I'm pretty sure the world would be a much better place.

Cerulli also made the very, very respectable and admirable decision to only hunt for sustenance, and only eat meat when he knew where it came from, whether it came from his own hunting, or from a source that he knew was ethical, respectful, and trustworthy.  This is probably the part of the book that makes me respect him the most.  Part of what drives me to be a vegetarian is that if I do not have the guts to look an animal in the eye and end its life with my own hands, then I lack the moral authority to ask someone else to do it for me.  Since I obviously don't have the stomach for hunting, that really only leaves store-bought meat, and to me, giving someone money for their product represents an implicit endorsement of the practices used to produce said product.  There is no way that I could ever approve of the vast, vast majority of American meat production practices (most people wouldn't, if they could bring themselves to care enough to educate themselves!!), which pretty much leaves me with vegetarianism as the best option.  Cerulli manages to bring his beliefs about animal welfare and naturalist ethics along with him when he becomes a hunter, and never loses his reverence for the animal's life, or the beauty of the animal's (and his) part in the greater scheme of the world.

While this book didn't lead me to change any of my own personal habits (see above), I am very glad I read it and I feel like I'm a better person for it.  This should be required reading for everyone who eats meat, and everyone who does not (so, basically everyone).  Vegetarians should understand that eating meat isn't inherently evil in and of itself; it's the practices that go along with it that are so abhorrent.  Meat eaters should understand that when they eat that burger or steak, it came from an animal leading a really artificial and pain-filled life, and they should know that there are better alternatives out there.  I'm a big, big proponent of people keeping themselves educated, and there is nothing I hate more than willful ignorance ("Don't tell me those terrible things about factory farms, it'll just make me sad.  Excuse me while I go make my chicken dinner").  So, if I could, I would make everyone read this book!

5/5 stars

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