We live in a rural area. It is not uncommon for a group of people to raise animals to help feed their loved ones. Additionally, many have giant gardens, which they tend throughout the spring and summer months. These people know that they must feed the soil by returning last year’s plants to the ground to make it rich and giving. Some of us collect fruit by the bucketloads from the thorny Himalayan blackberry thickets that line the creeks. Much of the sustenance we receive comes to us in this manner. Though we don’t own a large parcel of land, we manage to raise or collect or trade quite a bit of our food. I’ve been making more of an effort to be observant when I’m outdoors. Recently, I’ve been thinking about parasite/host relationships in the natural world. I’ve been noticing these relationships spinning all around me. Is the Himalayan blackberry parasite or a host? The Pacific Towhee flies her load of blackberry seed for miles in every direction — is she a parasite or a host? Or perhaps she is a messenger? In truth, she fills all of these roles wondrously. The profound significance of these relationships first came to me when I attempted to raise honeybees without administering the recommended chemical medications into my beehives.
I wanted to taste some local honey, but found that much of the domestic honey for sale was very likely contaminated with toxic chemicals like fluvalinate or fenpyroximate. It’s a well-kept secret among bee-keepers, who feel forced by necessity to use these and other pesticides. I learned that virtually every beekeeper in the western world uses a battery of toxic chemicals inside their beehives- just to keep it from succumbing to a onslaught of pests. Chief among their maladies is the Varroa mite, a parasite that has jumped over to honeybees from another insect host. That host has evolved some kind of detente with the mites during the hundreds of generations that they have lived together in Asia. As a host, it provides sustenance to the parasite. The host receives some sort of benefit that science does not yet understand. Developing a mutually beneficial relationship: these things take time to evolve. The honeybee does not yet have a healthy relationship of this kind with the mite. It is a relationship out of balance. The mite population runs unchecked and within a season or two virtually every untreated beehive dwindles and dies. The parasite is not an enemy to the host — in fact often, when the host dies, the parasite also parishes. Both parties actively seek an equilibrium. Arrangements and accommodations must be made between the host and the parasite. Only time can aid in this evolutionary process. Sometimes it takes decades. Sometimes centuries. They generally work things out, given enough time. In the case of the European honeybee, it appears that they can no longer survive without chemical intervention. However, it is the chemical intervention itself that is interfering and thus preventing a healthy relationship from forming. Generations of pesticide resistant mites are born to feed on generations of weakened hives. Only the chemical pesticide companies seem to benefit. Honeybees are doomed because of an abusive relationship. Left alone the thousands of hives might select toward a positive relationship with the parasite.
I’ve been noticing positive relationships of this type all around me. It would appear that such arrangements are ubiquitous in the natural world. Every organism is both a parasite as well as a host; everything consumes the other and is consumed by the other. Rather than the tower-like hierarchy we heard described in our state funded biology classes, it is a hoop. The natural world is something like an oscillating, reciprocating ring of relations. The idea that there is inherent competition and cruelty in these natural relationships is misleading because such an observation is founded on the premise that life itself mirrors human hierarchies and modern human cruelties. The idea here is that the host is solely a victim and the parasite gives no benefit; an invasive species, a freeloader. This is a simplistic misinterpretation and is simply not true. I do not believe that coyotes hate ground squirrels when they cull from their population. I don’t think bacteria and tree roots will hate me when they digest my body when it will, someday be cooling, under the ground. In truth there are no hierarchies in the natural world, not really. No such situation exists; it is a cultural projection. There is no antagonism at all and there exists no competition between species. Every single organism is swirling in relation to and reaction to everything else. It is my observation that the great difference in the constructs of human hierarchical civilization and the natural world is in intention. There is no hate in nature.
I did not hate the two pigs my children and I raised and butchered last fall. On the contrary, we collected probably a thousand pounds of acorns from under the valley oaks nearby to bring to them. Relationships formed between the giant valley oak trees, myself and my children as we collected the fallen fruit. They thanked the trees and requested that we plant some of the nuts into the Earth as a manifestation of that gratitude. I agreed. It is an offering, but it is something more than that. It is a reciprocal relationship. The children intuitively responded to the situation. My children, I, the trees and the pigs are in this together. We sat and watched the pigs artfully hull the meaty nuts with their tongues and lips, neatly spitting out the shells to one side. Why would any modern person take the trouble to collect the nuts? I did it for three reasons. First, and most obviously, I did it to give the creatures the food they desired; so they would get fat. And second because they love to eat acorns; pigs are woodland animals and that is their main staple in the forest and they evolved to eat this food. And third, my children and I crawled around and collected the ten thousand or so acorns because we have had a positive relationship with the pigs. As I kneeled there, in the sharp and spiny fallen leaves filling plastic buckets, I noticed that I was able to spend a great deal of time getting to know my children; their minds are so fine and far-ranging, so excellent. We spent hours in silence or quietly chatting or humming or listening to the birds, as the buckets were filled and loaded into the car. We observed other things about our relationship with these pigs. When I scratched their backs they slumped onto their sides and looked me directly in the eye. These are not unintelligent beasts and they are not pets either. They are something entirely different. Something is passed between us. I decided to begin speaking to them. The smaller of the two of them let out a small slurping grunt whenever she saw me walk into their area and heard my voice. Every evening I sat by them and we watched each other. Growing young pigs seem to be bumptious, gregarious beings. Cautious yet friendly. Physically strong and curiously forceful. They seem so full of life. Writing about them now brings back clear memories from the morning of the kill day.
When the time comes to kill and butcher the pigs, we do not recoil but we are resigned, respectful and quiet. I am avoiding becoming maudlin as I open the door of the barn. I speak to the pigs. I tell them that they are part of us and their flesh will nurture us through the cold months and into the following summer. I thank them. The entire time I have known them, I have been honest and I often have talked about what will happen. In the quiet early morning, I walk up to the 250 pound pig and place the muzzle of the .22 rifle to his forehead just above the right eye. He is contented and curious. I fire the shot and he slumps down and lays on his side, his life is going away now. I must be quick and neat as I cut the carotid artery to drain the blood from him quickly. A few kicks of his feet and now he is dead. I am not sad because this is not the time for such thoughts. I do not glower in misplaced triumph. There is no economy in this and there is no victory here — no glory, not a bit of it — only utility. The being is no longer present — only food and we are. After all, every one of us is food for something. And all of us must eat.
I’ve been thinking about traditional hunters, who I’ve read thank the Mother of the animals. They show her their gratitude because the hunters must bring home food to their loved ones. They say that the animals willingly give their flesh for a family’s sustenance. The hunter says that he thanks the animal because it allowed him a shot. The animal does this out of a sense of sacrifice and generosity. I don’t believe the hunters loathe the animals for whom they purify themselves and whom they wait for. That makes no sense at all and I don’t believe that those practices are mere superstition, either. It is a matter of intention and respectful relationship. Oddly, traditional hunting is often described, by its practitioners as an act of giving rather than a taking. Traditional food collectors talk of success in terms of the great conversations and songs that take place. Relations to others appears to be more important than any other consideration. Even more important than modern notions of efficient food production.
When my friend tells me earnestly that killing is bad, I ask him if dying is equally bad? He says it’s not the same thing — not at all. He is a good friend, so I drop my arms to my sides and I resolve to listen to his ideas. Killing for food is totally repugnant; a relic of our distant, savage past. My friend says that there is better food for humans; that there is no longer any reason to maintain such barbarity. When he finishes telling me his news, I ask him about what food he thinks humans evolved to eat and I ask him about his relationship with the GMO seed companies. He says the concept of evolution is a Victorian construct; a patriarchal mind trick and he says he doesn’t care about those companies and has no such relations. I ask him about his relationships with Monsanto and the soy milk plant pumping out pale liquid protein in faraway Iowa. He says he hates them or that he doesn’t want to think about them. He tells me that someday people like he and I will smash those evils and put the factories to the torch. I agree but I still want to know why he thinks raising two pigs, under the apple trees is barbarous and repugnant. He repeats that killing, for any reason is bad. I want to know if shipping GMO tainted tofu created purely for profit, from across the planet is more humane than food produced by my friends, in intimate, unmediated, autonomous relation. But I like my friend, so I put my hand on his breast and I merely reply, it’s cool.
My partner cooks us a meal. She has the radio on low. Neil Young is singing about Cortez. She is focused and uses the knife deftly as she trims the excess fat off the cuts. She will render all of it down into a pure, clear cooking oil. She is careful not to spill a drop of what she has called, “precious acorn fat”. She tells me over her glass of wine that there’s something of the sacred in this meat. She tells me about her plans to prepare the different cuts of meat for the ones dear to her. She understands the events that led up to this moment; the intensities of nurturing a life and of taking it, the sacrifices of such acts. The meat is for us but not just us, it will also be prepared for people outside our group too. As she and I chat, she cans the clear, scentless oil in giant, half gallon jars that she stores in the cool of the basement. Some of it she will make into a lavender soap to be given to others in the deepest of winter. They receive the gift and breathe in the flower scent. My partner prepares a meal for us for two reasons that I can discern. First she loves the process of working with pure, significant and sacred ingredients and transforming them through hard work and joy into deliciousness. The second is that she loves us. Every aspect of this life is filled with proximity and purpose.