When it comes to humans being mauled, Montanans have a strict policy: The bear is always right. When Missoulian Ani Haas went on NBC's "Today" show after she'd been attacked by a black bear last summer during a trail run, she displayed relentless grace and manners. She never spoke ill of her attacker; she just said "thank you" a lot and talked about how lucky she was that she hadn't been seriously injured. Try as she might, no big-city reporter is going to get a Montanan to talk smack about a mama bear. Everyone agrees: The woods belong to the animals, and if we get swiped, well, it's a small price to pay for living in paradise. Remember this past winter when that bear nested in Judy Wing's cabin on Georgetown Lake? He tore up her designer pillows! According to Wing, "Everybody said, 'You have to leave the bear alone. You don't want to hurt the bear. Well, isn't that cute?'" In the end, the bear got to stay in Wing's crawlspace. When I break into somebody's house and try to live there, it's a misdemeanor, at least.
This reverence extends to families of deer lilting through your neighborhood at night, regal bald eagles, soaring osprey, elk standing in snow so deep and far away on the mountainside that they look like cows—I could go on and on.
Montanans love eating animals as much as they love defending the animals' right to be themselves—and it's not a contradiction. Hunters I've talked to get a glossy, faraway look in their eyes while describing the kill. My friend Carl Corder once told me, "There's something spiritual about catching trout. Something predestined. The moment the fish rises and the tug on the rod letting you know another life exists ... that's Gaia." In his essay "The Heart Beneath the Heart," Rick Bass writes about spending most of his winters in the woods hunting deer, saying the hunter attains "an awareness, an addictive alertness, a super-heightened sensitivity that approaches and then becomes a kind of spirituality."
I think the electric feeling they're describing must have something to do with participating in an ecosystem that many of us are cut off from most of the time. The animals had a chance to live and breathe on their own terms—until Rick or Carl took them out with human, predatory cunning. It feels very much as nature intended. When Montanans talk about their God-given dominion over beasts, when they buy the hilarious "People Eating Tasty Animals" shirts at the Missoula airport for their relatives, I can only assume that this is the sort of story they're invoking.
But what about the ground beef that comes in a Cheesy Gordita Crunch at the Taco Bell drive-through on East Broadway at 2 a.m.? I'm afraid that's a horse of a different color. (I know, I'm so funny. Please, stay with me.) That cow was not standing on any snow-covered mountain. Likely, it was raised on a feedlot, along with millions of other cows. They're not eating grass, as they'd prefer, because corn is highly subsidized and cheaper to grow. It makes the cows sick and it makes the humans who eat the cows sick, but it makes companies like Monsanto ungodly wealthy.
Ask a farmer if he likes growing nothing but corn that's been so manipulated you can't even eat it off the stalk without first processing it down to nothing. Ask the Mexican laborers who come over to perform repetitive, monotonous tasks like searing off the top halves of chicks' beaks all day every day. For that matter, ask a baby chick if she likes having her beak seared off. Nobody likes this stuff; it's just the way it is.
There's just so much invested in you finding that Cheesy Gordita Crunch delicious. Agriculture, food production and food distribution systems are designed to keep the money filtering up to the richest people. There are men in lab coats combining chemicals in beakers that activate your brain in just such a way that you will be forced to say to people like me in casual conversation, "I could never give up cheese." (The food is addicting, is what I'm saying.) There are financial incentives for powerful institutions to keep us sick, but not dying. When we spend billions of dollars to grow and process meat, the environment loses but somebody wins. If you spend all your time with writers, artists and environmental science majors, you might start to think that money is scarce all over, but drop in on a pharmaceutical conference sometime: They've got more money than they know what to do with; they're giving away iPads like they're napkins.
Science is starting to make the connection that our most common diseases—heart disease and diabetes, sure, but also cancer, multiple sclerosis, ADD, Alzheimer's, osteoporosis and arthritis—might not just be an inevitable byproduct of genetic determinism, that, in fact, these diseases have more than a little to do with our diets. My mind always comes back to this chilling image from the AMC show "Breaking Bad." The camera zooms in on a $500 check the hero has just handed over for his chemotherapy—money he earned by making and selling meth. It reminds me of how the world really works, how everything is connected and how we're doomed.
Where I'm calling from
Adopting a plant-based diet has been a long time coming for me. I'd been a pescatariana vegetarian who eats fish—for about 10 years, for a lot of reasons: I love animals, I like being different and I believe it's healthier. When people asked me why it was okay to eat fish but not other animals, I'd be cute and say, "Fish are stupid," or, "Look, I'm doing my part." Eating fish makes you a lot more flexible, and nobody wants to be a fussy eater or a burden.
Abstaining from all meat is actually fairly easy, it turns out—but both meat and dairy products? Watch in horror as your food choices shrink before your eyes. So I always filed going all the way as a nice idea that could never work, like socialism or unconditional love.
But then I got sober, which tends to open up a lot of free time. I got more into yoga and meditation, and the question kept sprouting. A few months ago, I had a dream that I lived on a farm with laying hens and thought, "How nice to eat fresh farmed eggs. This is nice." The eggs hatched inside a crate, but they weren't baby chicks; they were rats. The rats started multiplying and crawling around on top of one another until they filled up the crate and suffocated.
Too much fish, cheese and eggs had me feeling sluggish and blue. One night, while meditating, I felt a contradiction between the mucus lining my intestinal walls from so much dairy and my own divine purpose. I was filled with the idea that there's no distinction between what's bad for the earth and the other animals and what's bad for our bodies, because we're all one beating heart. In that moment, I felt that glazed ham and Pop Tarts weren't just unhealthy but, honestly, evil. Now that some time has passed, I don't know if it's as simple as all that, but that moment in lotus got the ball rolling.
At Christmastime, I ate cakes and cookies and I even had some pork at my Great Aunt Bette's house—dude, she's 92 and she put the plate right in front of me; what would you have done? but I couldn't shake the idea that our food choices are wicked and our earthly realm is full of sin. Then I saw a video clip of Ellen DeGeneres talking about her conversion to veganism. She said that she could no longer reconcile her love of animals with the practice of eating them. She said she watched a film called Earthlings (you can see it on YouTube) that takes you through factory farming practices, the fur industry and other forms of animal exploitation via a barrage of unrelenting images—and that was it for Ellen! Now, I'm not saying that I do everything Ellen tells me to do, but I mean. If I went on her show and she asked me to dance, I'd dance.
I feel like God came down and made me sit through three-quarters of Earthlings, and then I cut a deal: I said, "If you let me stop watching this movie, I promise I'll never eat fish or dairy again." After that, I think a fairy went inside my brain and flipped a switch that made it all incredibly easy. Angels, gremlins, a seizure—whatever you want to call it—burned away the parts of my brain that loved tuna melts and worried about what people would think of me. It was like what happened to me six months ago, when I cast a spell asking to be happy and the cosmos came along and took away my drug and alcohol addictions. But whatever. I cast spells and worship the moon. Let's move on.
When you first get into plant-based eating, it's like joining a new church. I spent hours combing through recipes and studying restaurant ingredients. Burger King fries are animal-product free, but did you know that McDonald's fries aren't even vegetarian? They're covered in meat powder. As a full-grown woman, I used to buy happy meals without meat and make little french fry cheese sandwiches. It was a withered attempt to stay forever young, I guess. To find out that McDonald's fries come with meat powder was like learning about the Holocaust.
It's easy to overlook the number of commercial foods that contain animal products—until you try to do without them. It's as though I woke up one morning and decided to give up buttons or left turns. There will be nothing for me to wait in line for at Big Dipper this summer. The point is that eating a plant-based diet can be socially alienating. Not long ago, I went to an early morning press screening for a dreary foreign film. The PR lady tried to soften the blow by giving me and all the other reviewers an old-fashioned box of buttered popcorn. And I'm the asshole that has to say "no, thanks" every time. She frowned. My new lifestyle makes people frown.
Lately, I've been staying in Waterford, a suburban part of Michigan. When I go through the supermarket checkout buying nothing but swiss chard and watermelon, it's embarrassing. I don't want to seem superior. Sometimes people act weird and defensive, and sometimes I just get anxious anticipating that they might, which makes me counter-mad before I leave the house: Why should I have to hide my principles? Why don't you stop eating my friends?