On a summer day, a friend and I stood on the cobble beach of Mud Bay, pulling crabs from the floor of my canoe and butchering them on the rocks. I worked silently, focusing on not getting hurt by the crustaceans’ powerful pincers or by their sudden shrug that might smash my fingers against the sharp shoulder spikes.
My friend talked to the crabs as he worked, cursing their attempts to fight him, laughing at and taunting them, describing what he planned to do next, and the cooking process to come.
To my surprise, this shocked me—not only because it struck me as disrespectful, but also because it interrupted something I had been doing without even thinking—silently addressing the crabs myself. I mentally apologized to each crab for treating it so cruelly, and thanked it for the food it would provide my family and guests. I behaved like an Animist, treating the crabs respectfully as sentient beings, even as I killed them.
I didn’t try to explain this to my friend—that would not have gone well. I merely suggested, mildly, that the crabs fought us for their lives, and shouldn’t be blamed for it. And, I silently apologized to our arachnid victims for my friend’s disrespect.
On a winter day, Michelle and I stood in the forest above our cabin, surveying a grove of trees. We needed straight, limbless poles of sound, fresh wood for a building project, and had chosen these trees to fell for lumber after the winter’s cold made them dormant. We had laid our plan long before, in early autumn, and our minds had been made up to harvest the trees. Still, I hesitated. I couldn’t bring myself to cut down these living trees, my companions since first coming to the property, my silent protectors and company as I worked around them in the forest. To cut them down seemed a betrayal of a friendship.
“Praying” to crabs? Friendship with trees? Yes. I also thank the fish I catch and the birds and animals I kill for food. In short, I act like an Animist.
Having been raised Christian, I’m culturally conditioned to find this sort of behavior silly or naïve, perhaps even contemptible, as you likely do as you read this. I “know” that plants are inanimate, and that “lower” life forms are nearly so. But I’ve come to think of it differently than I was taught.
And, significantly, I don’t do this for them so much as I do it for me.
I find that by treating with respect the plants and animals that I use to sustain my family, I remember to use them responsibly. An inner monologue of thankfulness orients me toward treating them as if we truly had a relationship—which, I would argue, we do.
After all, I depend on them for our survival and quality of life. By addressing them as sentient beings I find that I’m more careful to kill as quickly and painlessly as possible when necessary, and to do so only when necessary. I also try to clean and prepare them well, to reduce waste as much as I can, to use every part of them possible. Regarding them as fellow creatures to whom I owe respect changes how I regard the raw materials I derive from them.
The Christian answer to this is, of course, to thank God for the benefits we receive from these plants and animals. That’s fine, but then, perhaps it’s not the whole point. This practice tends to objectify the plants and animals as something given to me by an other, rather than reminding me that they are living things, with instincts or inclinations to continue living that are assumably every bit as compelling to them as mine are to me. Giving the respect and thanks to a creator god inserts a remove from the affected creature; respecting the entity itself reminds me of what I owe to it directly for ending its life. Use implies responsibility. Gratitude engenders respect.
Scoff if you like. I don’t expect this explanation to change anyone’s way of thinking. I benefit directly from the practice by being more careful about how I use these resources. I also feel better for it.
You will find a version of the essay above, as well as writing on similar and related topics in the ebook, Sacred Coffee: A “Homesteader’s” Paradigm by Mark A. Zeiger. The ebook version will likely be expanded, clarified, or updated from what you have just read.