Photos by JT Thomas

Close to the Bone

Ancient hungers and modern fare

AUTUMN’S FIRST COOL NIGHT seeps through the sky’s scrim like ink on fine paper. Orion’s belt straps the eastern horizon to a winsome San Juan Range. The animals are moving. Across our mesa, through stands of scrub oak and piñon. From timbered, meadowed high country to red, chalked desert below.

It’s archery season in southwestern Colorado, and just beyond our fence line, H has taken a buck with a recurve bow. The animal hangs gutted and upside down in the shed while our three-year-old daughter toddles in circles on the tarp beneath it. The feet of her pink fleece onesie are soaked in fresh blood; the air is cast iron, sharp with the sanguine scent. Ruby’s hungry. But there’s work to do—skin and quarter, scrub bone saws and knives. Dinner’s a long way from being on the table.

I go to the house to get a snack for her, and when I return to the shed, she’s dragged a bar stool onto the tarp and is standing on it, palming the swaying buck for balance, her eyes trained on the trunk, the piece of exposed flesh dangling above her. Before I can protest, she grabs the nearest side of the rib cage and ascends the bones like ladder rungs—climbing until she’s eye level with the bit of meat. She swings out, snaps once at blank air. Swings and snaps again. This time her teeth make contact, tearing away the prize as her slick feet shoot out from under her, as gravity pulls her off the animal, the stool. I lunge to catch her in my arms. Cradled, Ruby looks up at me, her hazel eyes now shining the deepest green.

Her mouth: Gnashes, swallows, grins.

 

FIVE YEARS after this feral moment, my daughter declares herself vegetarian. I respect her choice; it’s based on sentience and suffering. When she’s thirteen, a mealtime turns tense when a neighbor’s lamb simmers in the stew I’ve just made; that I’ve cooked my daughter a veggie version doesn’t assuage. I try to

reason with her. We’re meant to eat meat! The animal was raised locally, sustainably, humanely! She says those reasons pale in the face of droughts, fires, floods. Mass extinctions and forced migrations.

As she stomps off to her room, I wonder, Isn’t this the age where we should be at loggerheads over curfews, boys, and clothes?

 

RUBY IS FOURTEEN when the romance of summer withers. Charred and beetle-infested trees scrape at a dim sky, skeletal and smoking. Deer drag themselves across open valleys, tongues out and lolled. Cows barge through barbed-wire fencing and trail it like a bride’s veil in their quest to find something edible. But they live, at least. They scavenge what wildfires don’t devour.

Here in the American Southwest, the now naked ground reveals hundreds of ancient spear points, arrowheads, and hand tools once buried in bunch grass and pasture. Quartz, jasper, and obsidian wink like SOS mirrors, an alphabet of artifacts spelling out a story of survival. The fine, fluted edges, impossibly sharp ends. The patience it required to knap such thick, rough stones down to near ephemera.

Pierce. Skin. Scrape. Every sharp edge honed for the hides of animals.

 

THREE WEEKS after Ruby’s fifteenth birthday—for which we grilled portobellos and lit candles on a rainbow unicorn cake to commemorate her coming out as queer—I’m riding a scrappy, one-eyed horse that has carried me through the Altai Mountains of western Mongolia. Our group of riders and the two camels who carry our gear descend from the mountains by way of a wide, dry valley full of coarse sand and jumbled stones made smooth by a now gone river. Spread across the flats are half a dozen gers, or felt-wrapped yurts, whose inhabitants own the herds we dodge en route—sheep, goats, camels, yaks, and horses, all of them feasting on the unimaginable—spiny cacti or brittle, leafless bushes. Weaving my way through the animals, I wonder where they watered; our horses haven’t had a lick of moisture since they ate snow the day before. But the horses don’t seem bothered. They trot right through the foraging creatures with soft liquid eyes. Or eye, in the case of my mount.

We halt our horses near the ger of the single ranger who patrols the mountains here. I pat my horse’s neck and stand in the stirrups, swing my right leg over to meet my left for the dismount. Before my boots hit the ground, what sounds like a toddler mid-tantrum blares from behind. I turn to see a goat— small, ruddy, and protesting—gripped at the horns by a young herdsman. He straddles the goat, steering the horns like handles on a tricycle toward our camp, where he hands off the goat to an older man as if handing off a dance partner on the ballroom floor. The older man stoops, cradles the goat’s neck with one arm, and brings it in close. The goat bleats softly in the man’s ear. The man inhales, and his dry, leathered face turns unguent. When he pulls his knife from its sheath and draws it across the animal’s throat, he could be a cellist in an orchestra, drawing his bow across the receptive instrument whose curves he knows like a lover, like his own heart.

A few of the riders in my group turn away, but I’ve crept in close for a better look. The man pulls the half-severed head back from the neck as the creature’s knees go to ground. Blood spills. Papery stalks of grass bend under the deluge—the first moisture they’ve had in months. Visible in the rush of red is the gaping rubbery end of the goat’s windpipe, the clean cross section of a spinal cord encased in small, stacked bones.

 

BEFORE OUR ANCESTORS socked away the extra protein and fat that eating meat provided, their bodies burned through a disproportionate amount of energy to harvest and digest a largely plant-based diet. We likely began to eat meat—at least larger game—by scavenging from carcasses killed and eaten by hyenas and African wild dogs. (We know this from the tapeworms in our intestines, derived from those that once lived inside these two predators.)

The sloppy seconds, along with the parasites that came along with them, turned out to be critical to the perpetuation of our species. The extra calories powered and grew our predecessors’ brains like no other food source could. Like rich cream in a bucket of milk, early humans rose to the top of the food chain. They grew more inventive, more creative. They honed tools from stone, painted art in caves—images of animals so masterful that Picasso declared we’ve since failed to achieve any better.

Our bellies and minds may have filled up on flesh, but we hungered still. For hunting grounds, firewood, a steady supply of water. When we’d secured the basics, we lusted after shells, turquoise, other tribes’ wives. Over time, every luxury came to feel like a necessity—a thing we’d kill for, feast on, even if it were the last of its kind.

That appetite has yet to be sated.

 

I THOUGHT I WAS PREPARED. For long days in the saddle, harsh steppe winds, the hit-and-miss of water. In Colorado we cross high mountain passes, wind through deep river valleys, brave flash floods and bullying storms, just to get haircuts and medicine. I thought I knew what it meant to inhabit and move through such big, bony country, but I could not have prepared for the absence of fence line and roads. There are no gates to open, no cattle guards to tiptoe over. No signs that read no trespass. I’ve never seen land so undivided, so unaccounted for.

The day our plane descends from what the Mongolians call the Eternal Blue Sky, when my friends and I get our first glimpse of the Altai—its sprawl of steppe lands as rugged and remote as a fading dream—we are looking out at all of Europe, the Middle East, Asia. My mind nearly atomizes, trying to take it all in. From the heart of this range, we can meander any one of hundreds of valleys and end up in Russia, China, Kazakhstan. What hunger Genghis Khan must have had, to see the world and want the whole of it.

The landing gear drops and, with it, my heart. The landscape is gargantuan, but it is also gaunt—every square inch bald and barren, its fate far worse than lands at home. I knew better, that thanks to climate chaos, Mongolia is in swifter decline than most countries, but I had romanticized anyway, as white Westerners tend to with far-off places. I arrive at the Altai imagining a land virtually unchanged since the last ice age, teeming with limitless grasslands, countless spools of rivers, and a wondrous, wild bestiary. In my mind, the only thing missing is the mammoth.

But greenhouse gases were already gathering overhead when, in 1991, the Soviet Union dissolved. With it went programs that had buoyed Mongolian nomads whenever their herds were thinned by a lethal dzud—a winter so brutal it kills the hardiest of animals. We’re talking about beasts who forage through several feet of snow in forty below Fahrenheit and enter springtime not looking much worse for the wear. The time between two such winters has shortened. In the most recent dzud of 2018–19, nearly a million herd animals were lost in a country of just three million people. The nomads had a choice: either migrate to the edges of the nation’s only metropolis, where they’d find themselves unemployable and burning rubber tires to stay warm, or stay in the outback and run larger herds to make up for the losses. The latter, for many, appealed—in part because the world’s appetite for cashmere sweaters and scarves has turned voracious. Now, thanks to weather and wool, overgrazing has left Mongolia looking like carrion picked clean.

This, as the blood-red mercury rises. By as much as 4.5 degrees Fahrenheit over the past forty years—more than double the global average.

 

Our bellies and minds may have filled up on flesh, but we hungered still.

 

TWO AND A HALF million years ago, the earth warmed and dried. Withered flowers yielded no fruit, thirst-laden plants and trees bore few nuts and seeds. This is when animal bones are first found in or near human shelters, with marks made by human teeth.

How it must have been. To kneel in the dirt before a day-old hyena kill, with one eye and ear cocked behind you in case the pack came back for more. The hide peeled back to reveal a warm, wet mass of pink flesh, gamy and slightly fetid. Our senses would have burst like fireworks—the fear, revulsion, greed, pleasure—as we buried our faces, probed with mouth and tongue. The whole thing, like the first time a woman opens her legs to you, like a delta in a desert, or a canyon grotto, the damp places where animals go to quench their thirst. Now you are the animal, and you are going down. You are feasting and you are alive and this place where death and hunger merge feels dangerous and taboo.

You’ll see then how we were created to consume. To ingest animals who once possessed a brain, who coursed with blood, who sang passions in the echoing chambers of the heart. It was a symphonic, if not sacred, commingling. A first communion. After that gorging: your face—flushed and looking at other human faces that looked back at you in the same way—predatory and streaked in scarlet.

We would never be the same again.

 

 

THE MAN LAYS the nearly headless goat down on the bloody, dung-dappled ground and slices the belly open. Entrails are pulled, hurled at the tight circle of herd dogs. Another man arrives with a steel pail filled with small rocks straight off the fire, white with heat, which he procures with tongs and stuffs into the goat’s body. Together they thread a large crude needle with a long strand of dried sinew—the same stuff that was tacked on my horse for reins and bridle. A third man delivers a small blowtorch, with which they scorch the fur. Bare, blackened, and stinking, the goat’s carcass cooks from the inside out. Stomachs mewing like pitiful newborn felines, we wait.

It’s not long before the goat is hoisted onto our folding table, the stitches are pulled, rocks removed from the cavity. Our host, the park ranger who’s just installed nearly a hundred trail cameras in hopes of catching Russian and Chinese poachers, invites us and the herdsmen, his sons, to help ourselves. Sleeves are rolled up, and many dirty, sweaty hands plunge into the steaming goat. We come up with hot hunks of meat that go straight from our fingers to our mouths. There’s the dim passing thought of hand sanitizer, but we’re long past hygiene. Our faces glisten with grease and gratitude. We bow to our host; we know that these times are treacherous to his herds, his livelihood. To kill an animal is no small thing.

Indeed, it never was.

 

HERE ARE some things I’ve learned.

Ninety-nine percent of U.S.-farmed animals live in crowded, inhumane conditions on factory farms. Forty-eight percent of Americans admit they rarely or never seek information about where their food is grown or how it is produced. And for all the science we have, all our fluency for describing the physical world, more than a third of the American public believes that food, even when it comes from living matter, does not contain genes.

National surveys in Australia show that 40 percent of their fourth through sixth graders don’t know that hamburger comes from cows. A full third of Australian young adults age sixteen to twenty-three don’t know that bacon comes from pigs.

A hundred-year-old family-owned butcher shop in an English farming community is forced, through hate mail and calls for boycotts, to remove hanging pigs, pheasants, and rabbits from its store window because it looks, as one Brit put it, “like a scene from a horror movie.” Still, annual consumption of meat in England continues to exceed human weight levels.

I have learned that “avoidance coping” is the term for choosing behaviors that allow us to escape distressing thoughts and feelings. These behaviors incite the precise cognitive dissonance that drives eating disorders—the binge, purge, starvation. In other words, if I think about food—having it or not having it, how much weight is gained or lost—I don’t have to think about my other problems. I can forget that only 2 percent of Americans live on family farms now, or that the way we contain animals is paving the way to the next pandemic.

Avoidance coping breeds anxiety like E. coli in a feedlot. The more I avoid thinking about something unpleasant, the more neurotic-compulsive-obsessive-hysterical I become. The more I avoid my complicity in the suffering of animals I eat, the more I absorb the violence done to them.

 

She bends over and sniffs. Grimaces. “It’s too much like meat,” she says.

 

ON OUR WAY to the ranger’s ger for the goat dinner, we stop on a high mountain pass with the smallest patch of snow, and the horses and pack camels sip at the melting edges. It’s their first water since morning, and we’ve covered a lot of ground. The herdsmen accompanying us—one of whom rode with a hand holding out a cell phone playing traditional Mongolian music— are anxious to tell us about Donald Trump, Jr.’s recent killing of an endangered argali sheep here. They volley the details: The camouflage of darkness. The night scope. The lack of permit (although he obtained one later). The refusal to let locals fielddress and quarter the animal for its meat—instead, the son of the sitting American president transports the animal whole on something like a giant metal baking sheet so he can harvest its horns and fur and discard the rest. The Mongolian nomads I meet are not prone to great expressions of emotion, but their voices and faces are tender with the telling.

We move out, the horses’ hard, unshod hooves clocking hard scree as we descend into a narrow, snaking valley. The horses pick up the pace—they know they’re headed home. The steep angle of the slope is irrelevant to such sure-footed beasts, but my horse stumbles in the scariest of places. This is because he moves with his head half-cocked, his one eye doing the job of two. One of the herdsmen explains that, as a foal, he’d gotten stuck in a bog, where ravens pecked his right eyeball clean out of the socket. I decide I’ll call him Bird’s-eye.

When we stop for lunch, Bird’s-eye finally—after days of turning away—lets me near his face. I peer into the wizened depression where his eye once lived. Wriggling through the goop and grit in there is a tiny worm. Feeling queasy and murderous, I pinch the little parasite between my fingers. It’s sometimes unpleasant to be this up close and personal with animals. But it sure as hell beats the alternative, the loathsome creature who feeds indiscriminately, who depletes its host and in doing so endangers the whole species, the whole landscape, the whole system.

 

IN 2017, just before the worst-ever dzud hit Mongolia, American public health and environmental watchdogs demand that the company Impossible Foods remove its meatless burgers from the grills of fast-food chains such as Burger King, and from upscale restaurants like New York’s Momofuku Nishi, and every eatery in between. The concern: the company has not yet proved that an ingredient called soy leghemoglobin (SLH)—which is produced in the company’s laboratories by way of a genetically modified yeast and gives the patty its bloody, fleshy qualities—is safe to eat.

In response, Impossible Foods commissions a study in which rats are fed SLH. According to GMO Science—a consortium of independent physicians, biochemists, and plant geneticists— over the course of the study, the rats experience decreased body weight gain despite increase in food consumption; decreased immature red blood cell count; decreased blood-clotting ability; decreased blood levels of alkaline phosphatase, indicating malnutrition and/or celiac disease; and decreased blood glucose and chloride, indicating kidney problems; as well as increased blood albumin, indicating acute infection or damage to tissues; increased potassium values, indicating kidney disease; and increased blood globulin values (common in inflammatory disease and cancer).

Despite the ominous results, the FDA capitulates, and the burgers keep right on broiling.

 

 

WHEN RUBY IS FIVE, we bring home eighteen chicks, all black Australorps—known for being good layers and good meat birds. They are also cold-hardy and easy to free-range—these birds can really forage. At night we keep them safe in an old camp trailer with the interior cabinets serving as nesting boxes. From day one, I remind my daughter not to get too attached, that when the chickens are big enough, I will butcher a dozen to be frozen for dinners—one a month for a year.

When the chickens are half-grown, a raccoon gets its teeth and claws into one of them before the dogs chase it off. The chicken’s esophagus and spine are visible in her badly torn neck, but her eyes are piercing with resolve for living. I cannot bring myself to put her out of her misery. Instead I Google “chicken first aid” and find that chicken owners everywhere swear by superglue. I squeeze a tube onto the hen’s long, torn flap of feathered neck skin and press it back in place. The chicken survives.

And when it comes time to butcher, Ruby stands by her. “Don’t kill that one, Mom,” she says. “I’m naming her Miracle.”

Miracle escapes two more predators and lives to be ten years old, outlasted only by Cinnamon, another of Ruby’s favorites. Cinnamon once holds her feet still so that Ruby can paint the nails bright red in exchange for some watermelon. She lets Ruby outfit her in a doll dress and wheel her around the property in a child-size grocery cart, her feet dangling through the cart’s gridded bottom. Eventually, I tell Ruby that the hen has likely had enough, that she should remove the dress and return her to the flock. No sooner are we back in the house when Cinnamon runs across the yard, wings out and squawking. She takes a flying leap onto the porch and lands squarely in the parked grocery cart, ready for more.

That was the day I begin to wonder, Do we diminish animals by eating them or by doting on them?

And, Must this be a black-and-white question?

 

 

I STEP BACK from the group feeding off the goat to watch the Mongolian sky pull down the sun. Everything now gauzy in twilight. In all directions, hooved animals darken the nearest ridges, kicking up dust as they descend. Each herd, with its unique ratio of yak to sheep, goats, horses, and camels, is urged down into the valley by dogs under heel, a horse and rider. The animals bleat, bawl, blow. Brown dust swirls as they break into the valley like wave sets. Each one rolls toward a different dwelling, where it gathers itself tightly around the felt of a ger, an extra layer of living, breathing warmth for the family inside. A source of milk, cheese, wool, leather. And the yak dung: the only source of fuel for fires.

The meat is gone. The group breaks into song. So, I think, as cheap vodka comes around again, it’s not about eating meat or not. Mongolians—like so many other poor, Indigenous people living in increasingly harsh conditions around the globe—will never be able to grow tofu or arugula. For them, it’s about living small so the animals can live large. It’s about living so close you see the goop, the grit, the worm. About not looking away when life drains out. Being on your knees in that moment, a supplicant to life ending the way you were on the day the same animal was born.

 

ANOTHER GER, this one in an even hotter, drier part of the Altai. We are welcomed by a Kazakh eagle hunter and his family. We beg him not to slaughter a sheep in our honor, but he won’t be dissuaded. Soon we are seated on the floor of the ger around a long squat table on which meat is piled high. The sheep’s head peeks out of one mound; our host retrieves it and ceremoniously removes the brain, eyes, and cheeks. He offers them to the youngest, prettiest woman in our group. She smiles graciously, but as soon as the man turns to another guest, her face falls and her eyes brim with hunger and tears. The food part of this trip has been hard for her; like my daughter, she does not believe in eating animals.

The man turns to the other end of the table and offers us a platter of horse meat stuffed inside the animal’s own intestines. I have eaten every kind of meat on this trip—have eaten meat almost exclusively—and I have never in my life felt so good, so clean, lean, and clearheaded. But here, I balk. To me, eating a horse would be like eating my dog—like eating my best friend or my kid.

Our host notices and explains that every year, his family culls the weakest, oldest member of their horse herd, the one likely to suffer most in the coming winter. To kill such an animal is an act of compassion, he says. To eat it is to ingest the fierce, passionate, and sacred nature of the horse. For the average Mongolian pastoralist, to not eat the horse is to weaken one’s constitution, one’s very soul.

I take a bite. It’s good. Damn good.

As dinner rolls into more vodka and our host strumming his horsehead fiddle, my heart and tongue remain steadfastly at odds. Not just because of the horse meat, but all the meat I’ve eaten—meat raised on a drought-stricken land where carbon dioxide emissions caused by raising animals for consumption promise only more drought.

As I stumble out of the yurt, past our host’s tethered and hooded eagle, through the warm and blowing herd animals that have gathered for the night, I feel nuances drifting in like clouds before the bright light of a full moon on the black, blank night canvas—truth coming in shades of silver, slate, smoke. Here in Mongolia, as well as at home, I’d rather eat an old horse from nearby than an avocado or mango trucked halfway across the world, or the last wild-caught fish in the sea— frozen, then flown, then frozen again on its way to my landlocked home state of Colorado. This, just as I burn jet fuel to fly across the world before I spend six months working at home in my thrift store pajamas at a computer that runs on sunshine to convey why there is no one-stop shopping for how we humans, in our myriad communities, cultures, and geographies, respond to the climate crisis.

 

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JUST BELOW the west rim of our Colorado mesa is a tiny, ramshackle town that’s seen better days—days dusted yellow by uranium and smattered by trailers and boarded-up buildings for sale. Patagonia-clad travelers in tricked-out camper vans blow through here, en route from their winter range in Colorado ski towns to their spring and autumn range in Utah’s slickrock and back again. Sometimes they stop to eat at a little family diner called Blondie’s, a place owned by Seventh-day Adventists that, every day but Saturday, serves America’s favorite fast food.

Blondie’s also serves the Impossible Burger. On a gray Sunday afternoon in early spring, Ruby and I drive there to meet three friends for lunch. There are hugs all around. Two of the friends are women who traveled through Mongolia with me, one of whom has her husband in tow. We order at the grease-splattered counter: Ruby gets a black bean burger, the rest of us order all-beef ones. Then I add an Impossible Burger to the order.

We cozy up in a red, vinyl booth, and when the food comes, I divide the Impossible Burger five ways. The largest portion I give to Ruby, who, as the sole vegetarian, will no doubt be the easiest sell. She bends over and sniffs. Grimaces. “It’s too much like meat,” she says. Just one bite, I say, bribing her with a milkshake. The rest of us agree to eat our portions at the same time as her.

Judgment is suspended as we bite, chew. My mouthful barely makes it down the gullet. Ruby spits hers out.

“If the zombie apocalypse happened and I had to choose between an Impossible Burger and real meat,” she considers, “I’d choose real meat.” She shoves her plate away. “But only if it came from a small local farm. And was well taken care of.” With typical teen girl melodrama, she tosses her head and adds, “Otherwise, I’d just starve.”

My two travel companions, Paula and Dawn, have taken a second bite.

Paula: “It’s not toothsome. It just doesn’t pass as food.”

Dawn: “Poor fake burger. It never saw the outdoors.”

Sajun, Paula’s husband, pulls back the bun and pokes at the meat. The couple owns and operates Laid Back Ranch, a small, allnatural, grass-fed cattle operation not far from where we are eating. Their animals never eat grain or alfalfa. They roam widely, graze freely. They forage beneath snow all winter long.

I tell them what I know about the Impossible Burger. Everyone shoves their plate away.

Sajun: “I’m all for science and saving the planet, but this thing skirts the whole issue of small-scale, proper farming practices that can give back to the soil. That kind of dirt can hold a lot of carbon, and it’s chock-full of beneficial microbes that are central to the whole ecosystem.” He glances at Ruby, winks. He’s known her since she was a toddler. “Sorry, Rubes. But that’s what the vegetarians and vegans miss in their argument.”

Ruby shrugs. “I’m not a fanatic, you know.”

Minus Ruby, we dive into our beef burgers, which—despite this diner being surrounded by family-owned cattle-ranching operations—come from cows fed on GMO grain in a feedlot before being trucked dozens, if not hundreds, of miles to a mechanized slaughterhouse, and then processed and loaded on refrigerated semi-trucks and delivered to supermarket distribution centers and then again to large-chain grocery stores and then home to someone’s freezer.

Along with the factory-farmed burger, the black bean burger and Impossible Burger are delivered on the same truck.

 

SPRING FLIRTS with the mesa. My daughter will be driving soon, and may perhaps know her first kiss. Mountain bluebirds, the first of the migratory birds to return, twitter on fence lines that parallel the road. The irrigation ditches are suggestive; in a month’s time, tiny green shoots along their banks will mature into crisp stalks of asparagus. Eagles—balds and goldens—spar with ravens above pastures gelatinous with the afterbirth of lambs and calves. In the timber, herds of elk pass through, silent as ghosts as they head to higher ground.

On a bad year fraught with drought and fire, living here  is still a privilege. But right now, in this orgy of arrivals, this interspecies intimacy, it’s an indulgence. One that must not be squandered.

 

THIS SPRING is the first one in which a zoonotic illness— that is, an infectious disease transmitted from animals to humans—has us cleaving close to home indefinitely. The sky is far less cluttered with contrails, the market barely stocked with food. Ruby, who embarks on a campaign to educate her classmates on the plight of the pangolin, the world’s most trafficked animal and one of the potential transmitters of COVID-19 to humans, believes animals are exacting their revenge.

While the novel coronavirus is terrifying, it is also a brilliant example of the payback that happens when we begin to commodify a living thing—when we catch it, pack it, sell it as a product. As though it were never a creature.

 

SOMETIMES animals appear in the liminal, as if emerging from a dream. Everything but night itself is white and swirling, when a dark shape materializes in the middle of an iced road. It’s too late, too slick, to stop—when the animal turns to kiss the headlights of an oncoming car. Everything slow and muted in the storm, the animal levitating now and passing through glass, an apparition. It nestles neatly into the laps of the passengers, whose mouths are open and cavernous. H pulls the truck off the road, and the hazards blink as he runs to the other vehicle, mounts the hood, and reaches through. He pulls the animal off the people who are now the ghostly ones—white-faced and wailing.

I am not in the dream. I am home with Ruby, with the practicalities of feeding goats and closing in roosting chickens. H calls from within the dream, to say he’s bringing home the deer he’s just pulled from the car. I ask if the animal died instantly. That matters—in an animal that has suffered, adrenaline and stress hormones taint the meat. He says I should suit up, sharpen the knives, he’s bringing home perfectly good venison.

We lay out the deer in the mudroom, wounded side up. When I run my hands through her wet fur, my fingers feel the dream shimmer, then ossify. I can feel the imprint of the car’s front grill. Her body now reads like Braille.

The flesh is pulverized. I skip slicing steaks and roasts and instead chop the meat into chunks. For the rest of winter, into the next one, I cook packets of roadkill stew in the Dutch oven, and we partake of an animal born to this rough country, who knew danger and hunger, weather and wildness, in all the ways we’ve forgotten.

Through her body, I remember. O

 

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AMY IRVINE is a sixth-generation Utahn and long-time public lands activist. Her memoir, Trespass: Living at the Edge of the Promised Land, received the Orion Book Award, the Ellen Meloy Desert Writers Award, and the Colorado Book Award. Irvine teaches in the MFA program of Southern New Hampshire University. She lives and writes off the grid in southwest Colorado, just spitting distance from her Utah homeland.

Comments

  1. Beautifully written, Amy. Thank you. But –

    We don’t need to steal the lives of other creatures in the modern world. You know the whole story but you still are happy to ‘dive into’ your mass-produced burger. Good luck to you if you want to keep up your love of meat through road kill. And good luck to Ruby for staying with her authentic revulsion from being a carnivore.

  2. Wow… very interesting and nicely written, but a 5,000 word example of confirmation bias if I ever saw one. Everything from the “we have big brains because we ate meat” trope, to the Impossible Foods SLH study (with a reference to GMO Science that implies they are “agenda-less”, which of course, isn’t the case).
    Other perspectives on that study abound, of course: https://www.reddit.com/r/ScientificNutrition/comments/c6x7t1/rat_feeding_study_suggests_the_impossible_burger/
    Still, as I indicated, a good read.

  3. Despite the well=crafted writing, I was unable to read the entire piece. I’m one of those softies, a vegetarian since passing a semi of cows bound for market. The terrified creatures were mooing loudly, crammed into the truck with no room to even turn, their noses shoved through the slatted sides for a gasp of air, eyes wide. Later I attended a branding, were the adults laughed as a fat, little cowboy of about nine chased a poor frightened calf around with a whip, finally tackling it and dragging it to the branders. I had little taste for flesh as a child, none these days. I understand that people may feel they must have meat, but I prefer to see a live goat gamboling in a field to one on a spit, no matter how lovingly it was raused.

  4. Thanks Amy. And I think JohnKelly missed the deeper truths along the way? Perhaps a longer sit with and hold will reveal some of it to his heart, and mine too.

  5. I’m with Ruby. Yes, there’s an environmental argument to be made for small-scale farms and (greatly, greatly reduced) meat consumption from those farms. Unfortunately, 99% of what most people have access to is factory farmed, which is widely known to be one of the leading and most pernicious causes of climate change. It’s extremely difficult (and expensive) to consume meat outside of that system–and that’s putting aside the moral implications of needlessly killing a sentient animal. We don’t need meat.

  6. If something is wrong, no amount of rationalizing, no matter how eloquently written, will make it right. And just because our ancestors lived on meat (though very little compared with today) does not mean the human animal cannot evolve. Eating animals is wrong and also happens to be horrible for the planet. This is not a fanatic point of view, not anymore.

  7. So, does this mean it’s Okay with you if you know how the animal died, was raised and fed if from a farm? Do you not still struggle with the issue of eating animals? Your ending implies that.

  8. I was definitely drawn into the article – espeically because we, too, spent time in Mongolia. The writing was certainly vivid — although perhaps, at times, a little over-written.

    Food’s a complicated issue, and one that most folks in this culture don’t think that much about.

    I’m afraid I’m no longer convinced that knowledge has a determinant effect on behavior. It seemed (typically) weird that after all the consideration the author gave to the intricacies of food/diet/ethics, she ended the essay with a final supper of big-ag-standard GMO-fed burgers (and a dicey frankenburger) with her friends. A sad communion.

  9. I’ve enjoyed Amy’s writing ever since I plowed through Trespass in a weekend while living in my ramshackle house in Monticello. However, I’m wildly unimpressed by her willingness to chow down on a mass produced GMO burger despite knowing the huge environment toll of that industry. Maybe learn from the ancestors where we call home and stick to the pinto beans for protein. As someone that abstains from meat for climate and water considerations, I am a strong supporter of hunting for your meat, and think she (and any other self proclaimed conservationist who also enjoys animal flesh) would have a much stronger argument for her animal consumption if she left it at the wild variety.

  10. and we partake of an animal born to this rough country, who knew danger and hunger, weather and wildness, in all the ways we’ve forgotten.

    these words will resonate for a very long time…

    thank you amy

    amyo

  11. “Over time, every luxury came to feel like a necessity—a thing we’d kill for, feast on, even if it were the last of its kind.”

    I loved this piece, for all the diverse elements drawn together in it. We are pilloried by our assumptions of rights and entitlements. Not to mention the cultural effrontery of strident, bellicose, privileged, vegetarians. All do not have the luxuries that allow your choices. It’s about your consumption too.

  12. Orion readers are well aware where humanity finds itself: Industrial civilization is collapsing under the weight of its own arrogance. We are- all of us – at the edge of darkness, groping for a way forward. Amy Irvine’s inspired writing thoughtfully offers “A Way” rather than claiming “The Way.” An ethical vegetarian for most of my life, It also made me hungry, and not for the goddamned Impossible Burgers.

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