Chapter 4: The Worst Mistake

The young calf catches a brief side-eyed glimpse of daylight through the warped boards of a narrow stall, and somewhere deep within the neural tissue of its visual system an ancestral memory belonging to a regal beast long ago domesticated into oblivion, a memory of boundless fields of tall grass and endless sky, flickers and fades, leaving a feeling of absence and a vague sense of yearning.

The writer catches a brief glimpse of sunshine and dancing tree-shadow through the dusty window above the computer screen, and somewhere deep within the neural tissue of his visual system an ancestral memory belonging to a perceptive and joyful being long ago domesticated into oblivion, a memory of story and song and fire and drum, flickers and fades, leaving a feeling of emptiness and a vague sense of loss.

.  .  .  .  .

I named him Gourd, after the smooth crookneck variety of squash that one of my neighbors used to make into birdhouses. And he bears an uncanny resemblance to his namesake. Gourd is a rabbit, one of nine—at last count—who live with my wife and me. Gourd’s parents and siblings inhabit an absurd collection of cages and makeshift wooden cage supports in our garage. Gourd no longer lives in the garage, however. He lives in the house in a special cage built just for him, where he sits at this very moment a few feet from me as I write this, with his twisted head resting upside down against the mesh floor and his one good eye staring out vulture-like into the room’s approaching evening gloom, an eye that would surely chill the blood of the nameless madman in Poe’s short story The Telltale Heart.

Gourd’s deformity is my fault, at least indirectly. Rabbits frighten easily—they can be quite jumpy, as it were. Gourd was a pup, and still living in the same cage with his mother and two of his siblings. One day I stepped into the garage, returning an empty garbage can from the street, and I forgot to announce myself. Normally, I start talking loudly as I approach the garage: “Rabbits, oh rabbits, rabbits, rabbits, here I come rabbits! Hey, there are rabbits in my garage!” But on this day I popped in unannounced and all of the cages exploded in a furry fury. Gourd’s neck was injured during the mayhem, probably stepped on by his mother who outweighed him by more than fourfold at the time. As a result he is unable to twist his head into an upright position. His head is permanently stuck sideways—actually almost entirely upside down. I’m pretty sure he is blind in his right eye, which is filmed over and forever staring at the ground. Another side effect is that he has an extremely difficult time walking. He starts to take a step, and then flips completely over, rolling two or three times before hitting the far edge of the cage and regaining his bearings. He started to get thin and weak because his siblings were getting all the food before he could maneuver his head into the trough. So I built him a separate cage, slightly narrower than normal, and we brought him into the house to live with us. On weekends, we take him out of his cage and let him literally roll around on the floor. It is hilarious to watch. It is heart-wrenching to watch. I’m sure it would make a viral YouTube video, but I refuse to add to the internet’s already grossly overpopulated menagerie of bizarre animal antics.

Gourd’s parents are a variety of meat rabbit called Champagne d’ Argent. They have a frosty silver-grey coloring that is somewhat reminiscent of a Siamese cat, but with a darker base. The pups start out coal black and turn grey gradually in sections. The face and forehead are among the last parts of the body to turn, and adolescent bunnies often sport unique facial markings. One of Gourd’s sisters had a perfect five-pointed star smack in the middle of her forehead for a time until it eventually greyed over. Mom and dad were purchased from a breeder who lived three hours away. We split the travel distance and I sent my younger daughter to make the transaction in the parking lot of a sleazy-looking truck stop. I can’t imagine what the people driving by thought about the scene as an exchange of cash was followed by the transfer of two fuzzy bodies between vehicles. Our plan was to breed the rabbits for food as a logical addition to our generally DIY lifestyle. We were already raising chickens illegally in a small greenhouse attached to the garage, but it was clear that the chickens were eventually going to have to go. They were simply too loud, and although I made every attempt to make them invisible from the street it was only a matter of time before one of our neighbors turned us in. Raising meat rabbits is also illegal in our town. But rabbits are pleasantly quiet, and as plausible deniability we can always claim them as pets.

I say we were planning to breed them for food. But as the time to butcher the first litter came around, I lost my nerve. I just couldn’t bring myself to do the deed. Now, I’m not exactly the squeamish type. I don’t faint at the sight of blood, and I have killed and cleaned numerous other creatures in the past with no problem. I have no scruples about killing deer or any other game animal for food—I’m going to bag a wild boar someday if it’s the last thing I do. Yet, as I watched a video on a simple killing technique involving snapping the rabbit’s neck while yanking their back legs, I realized I was not going to be able to turn my garage into a killing floor. The rabbits in my garage were not like other creatures. They were somehow different. They were different even than wild rabbits, several of whom I’ve killed in cold blood for the minor crime of eating vegetables out of our garden. And it took me some time before I was able to sort out what the real difference was.

The difference is the very fact that they aren’t wild. The difference has to do with the animals’ relationship to me. Or perhaps it’s more accurate to say it has to do with my relationship to them. The rabbits in my garage are dependent on me. They are largely helpless and would die in short order if my wife and I were not repeatedly attending to their needs—and they have no choice in the matter. They are living in cramped cages and being fed and fattened up so that I can kill and eat them. My garage is nothing less than a confined animal feeding operation, a CAFO, a meat factory. There is a heartless, evil, mechanical intentionality behind my relationship with the rabbits that makes them into something less than living beings. They become tools and objects for my own gratification. They become “livestock.” The word says it all. My relationship with a deer or an elk or a wild boar, by contrast, is ultimately a relationship among equal beings. An animal in the wild, living according to its evolved design, is a full and complete being in the world, alive for no reason other than life itself. Its existence serves no one else’s purposes. When I shoot a wild deer, I am in some sense, at least in a psychologically justifiable sense, participating in the natural order of the universe. The deer’s death is part of the natural cycle of change and transformation. When I kill a rabbit that I have bred and cultivated in a small cage specifically so that it can be killed and eaten when it has grown fat enough, I have turned a potentially free being into a pawn, an instrument for my own purposes; I am participating in something decidedly unnatural, something corrosive of life. And I am endorsing a death-dealing, inhumane way of living, a way of living that, in its free-market industrial corporate-consumer form, is presently dissolving every strand in the web of life on the planet. Raising rabbits in my garage for food, like free-market industrial corporate-consumer society as a whole, violates the philosopher Immanuel Kant’s categorical moral imperative not to treat others merely as means to an end, but as an end in themselves.

Kant no doubt would argue that his imperative doesn’t apply to rabbits. All of his thoughts on morality were molded around Western civilization’s unquestionable assumption that humans were unique creatures created specifically to exercise total dominion over the natural world and all of its other inhabitants. Morality only applies within the human sphere, and even then only as it regards the relationships among free human beings. The problem with this assumption is that humans themselves are a dominate-able part of the natural world. And the rabbits forced to live in my garage as livestock are not that much different from you or me as civilized—domesticated—humans forced to align our lives with the dictates of a corporate free-market system—or any kind of system at all—at least in terms of the degree to which Kant’s imperative is being violated. Even the most cursory examination of the operative design of modern civilization shows it to be a powerfully effective system for converting us all into means for each other’s ends.

Some may want to object that raising animals for food is in point of fact a perfectly natural thing to do. Humans, after all, are a domesticating species. Humans have been domesticating animals for a long time, it’s who we are. But this simply isn’t true. Humans are not domesticators by nature. By nature we are hunter-gatherers. Domestication is a cultural invention, a kind of technological innovation. Humans have been around in their present physical form for a quarter of a million years. With the singular and rule-proving exception of dogs, domestication is only nine or ten thousand years old, and it took several thousand years after its earliest beginnings to become common practice—and this largely a result of colonization and bloody genocidal conquest. Some may want to push the objection further, and include the civilizing impulse itself as a natural feature of human nature. But this is not who we are. Global industrial civilization with its factory farms and glyphosate-laced fields and high fructose corn syrup and phosphate additives is an agricultural side-effect, and neither domestication nor any other facet of a civilized lifestyle qualify as design features of the human species any more than bobbed tails and pointy ears are a birthright of Doberman Pincers.

Geographer and science writer Jared Diamond called agriculture “the worst mistake of the human race.” Of course, to saddle the entire human species with a viral lifestyle experiment conducted by a relative minority of folks is probably a mistake in itself. But Diamond’s point is a valid one in that the transition from mobile hunting-gathering—the only human lifestyle for over 99% of human existence—to sedentary farming led to an immediate decline in physical health, and, with time, a pronounced deterioration in almost every possible indicator of quality of life, physical, psychological, and social.

The laundry list of the deleterious effects of an agricultural lifestyle is long and varied.  First of all, there are numerous easily measured health effects associated with a grain-based diet. A recent set of studies, for example, found that bone density was about 20% higher for humans alive 7000 years ago as compared to today. The researchers suggest that this was due to diet and to the highly physical lifestyle of hunter-gatherers. I am inclined to consider diet to be the most important factor, however, because a farming lifestyle prior to industrialization was extremely labor intensive, and because most hunter-gatherers—at least those still around today—“work” less than four hours a day on average, and spend a good chunk of their time just lounging around. In addition, there is no such thing as the hunter-gatherer diet. Hunter gatherers are opportunists who eat whatever happens to be readily at hand, which ensures a large and changing variety of typically high fat, high protein, and nutritionally dense foods. For agriculturalists, however, most of the calories come from a limited menu of high starch, nutritionally sparse staples.

Then there are the illness-bearing symbiotic pests—both microscopic  and macroscopic—that come with a sedentary lifestyle, including mice, rats, bedbugs, typhus, cholera, and an ever-evolving repertory of diseases that result directly from animal domestication: influenza, small pox, measles, diphtheria, tuberculosis, the bubonic plague, and the common cold, just to name a few.

In addition, the farming lifestyle brings with it a new orientation to the land and a dramatic change in the notion of territory. Nomadic foragers can simply move somewhere else in response to a temporary drought that disrupts hunting, or in response to encroachment by antagonistic neighbors. Farmers are under considerable pressure to stand their ground, both against antagonistic neighbors and bad weather. Also, the land itself is only good for a few seasons before the soil becomes depleted. This, in conjunction with the dramatic increase in population associated with agriculture, placed early farmers under continued pressure to expand their territory, putting them in direct competition with the people already inhabiting the territory being annexed. War, using any meaningful definition of the term, is an agricultural creation.

The central and overriding feature of domestication is the idea of control. Hunter-gatherers are concerned with accommodating the demands and peccadillos of the natural world, with understanding nature on its own terms. Agriculturalists are concerned with changing the natural world in order to accommodate human demands and peccadillos. An agricultural lifestyle involves forcing nature to comply with what are, from nature’s perspective, arbitrary purposes, purposes that emerge from within human-designed social power structures.

When the Europeans and their metastatic colonial spawn swept across the Americas, killing and displacing the people who already lived there, they were operating from within the terraforming world view of agriculturalists. That world view began with the first slash and burn farming and continues to this very day, made qualitatively more efficient—and deadly—through high-energy technology, bureaucratically organized violence, and sophisticated forms of economic coercion. The question of whether the world ought to be organized and transformed to suit the transient interests of any group of people was and is completely unaskable. The thought that the natural world should be left as is and received on its own terms has no purchase whatsoever in the civilized mind.

But this is not who we are.

There is a well-known parable about frogs in boiling water: if you throw a frog into boiling water it jumps out immediately, but, according to the tale, if you put a frog in cold water and then heat the water slowly, you will have frog soup long before the frog figures it out. The slow ascendance of civilization, generation by generation, over the course of millennia is exactly the kind of incremental slippery slope that killed the second frog. By the time it is possible to recognize what is happening, it is far too late. In addition, civilization erases all memory of anything outside itself; we are frogs in hot water who have forgotten what life was like before we were thrown into the kettle. For those born within civilization’s penumbra, civilization appears as the primordial clay out of which life is formed, it is the benevolent source of all personal meaning. All overt traces of what came before, the rich authentic human life-ways that have been destroyed in the civilizing process, have been lost to conscious memory and reside only as wispy shades of latent genetic potential and a pervasive sense of unease that can manifest itself in curious ways—as a paralyzing reticence to snap the neck of a garage-raised rabbit, for example.

.  .  .  .  .

When I was in my very early teens, my family got together with the family of one of my mother’s old friends from her school days for a week long summer visit. They had a girl almost exactly my age, and we had been congenial playmates on numerous visits in the past. Early on the first day of this particular visit, I was rudely introduced to the game of “jinx,” a childish sort of game in which when two people accidently say the same thing at the same time the person who noticed first would say “jinx” and start counting rapidly out loud until the other person said “stop.” The other person was then obliged to remain completely speechless for a number of minutes equal to the number the person who said “jinx” made it to before the other person said “stop.” I had never played the game before, and she made it to 45 before, out of frustration and confusion, I yelled at her to stop. She then explained the rules and informed me that I would have to remain silent for 45 minutes. I was also informed that speaking before the time was up would automatically add 10 minutes to my sentence. From that point on, she and the other kids were committed to doing what they could to get me to speak.

For perhaps 20 minutes I sat on the couch brooding in my forced silence. I became increasingly frustrated and angry that I was not allowed to participate in the ongoing conversation, and I was wracked by a deep sense of injustice. I had not known the rules, after all. It was hardly fair that I had to remain quiet for three quarters of an hour. And then, to make things worse, in a moment of careless inattention I spoke, I started to say something, and was immediately rebuked and re-informed of the additional 10 minute penalty. I remember feeling trapped, helpless, and angry that I let myself get caught in this oppressive web.

But then I had a flash of insight, a potent revelation even. It was, after all, just a game. And a silly one at that. There was nothing preventing me from speaking my mind. No one had removed my vocal cords. There was no gun at my head. It was just a game, and my participation was entirely voluntary. I immediately began speaking entire sentences. I grabbed a children’s book from the shelf next to the couch and began reading aloud in a loud expressive voice. My jailor added 10 minutes, and another 10, and then another until I had amassed several hours before she left the room in a huff. Game over.

How much of our present circumstances are of this form? We continually act in strict accordance with the rules of a game that we never agreed to play in the first place, a game that, should we choose, we could simply stop playing and walk away. Just walk away.

Or maybe not. Maybe it’s not that simple. Many of the games we are forced to play don’t much feel like games at all. It is difficult to stop playing when there appear to be no other alternatives, when playing the role of contestant has become an inextricable part of your self-concept. Also, when it comes to choosing not to play along with the global corporate mass consumption game, it turns out there are actual guns at our heads. And walking away is not an option when there is no place left to go.